Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review of Simplified Pantry

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The majority of the products I get to review are for my children (which I love!), so I was intrigued to review something just for me.  Organization is not, to put it benignly, my strong suit, so when Mystie Winckler's Simplified Pantry products came up for review, I knew I had to jump at the chance.

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Paperless Home Organization is a 75 page ebook which leads disorganized women (or men!), such as myself, through the process of creating a digital homemaking binder.  Like me, Mystie tried more than one homemaking binder system before realizing that she just couldn't make it work.  Unlike me, she fixed that problem by creating a system that does work for her!

Using three online tools and their corresponding apps (Evernote, Remember the Milk, and Google), Mystie teaches her readers how to streamline and organize their lives seamlessly.

As I already use all three of these applications on my phone and computer (although I am not as consistent with Remember the Milk as I could be), I was anxious to see what Mystie had to say.  As it turns out, Paperless Home Organization is *very* good at explaining how to use these tools! Using step-by-step instructions for how to set up all of these apps and sync them, and supplementing with plenty of screenshots, the ebook walks you through the steps that are necessary to use all of the features of the three apps to their best advantage.  Best of all, even though I use all three already, I still learned a few things.  I was not using Remember the Milk to its full advantage, and after I followed each of Mystie's steps, I have noticed that fewer tasks are getting by me, and that those tasks that remain uncompleted are getting rescheduled for a later date.  For me, that's huge.  Being able to work with Google's calendar more effectively has also proven helpful for me.

If you have never used Evernote or Remember the Milk, this ebook is a must, especially if you have a smartphone.  Trust me, your phone can make your life easier in ways you can't imagine, but you really need someone to walk you through which apps to use and how to make them work together seamlessly.  Paperless Home Organization does that in an easy-to-read and cost effective way.  This ebook only costs $3.99 for the Kindle or as a pdf!

Simplified Pantry also offers Simplified Dinners (also Simplified Dinners Gluten Free/Dairy Free),
 photo sp_sidebar_lg_zps684e1145.gifan ebook that promises to simplify your dinner making with a master pantry list and multiple ways/recipes to prepare a single type of meal.  For example, Simplified Dinners will begin with a crock pot roast, give you the method of preparation, and then offer eight different ways to vary this basic preparation.

When I followed this method of dinner preparation, I was hooked.  It is essentially how I already think of dinner, but having the master pantry list, and having the variations already done for me, made the whole process so much easier! The ebook is attractively laid out, the recipes are extremely simple, and the results are good! Even better, once you start cooking this way, your own ideas really start flowing and you begin to add to Mystie's.

I love the no-defrost slow cooker chicken pieces best.  I'll confess that I go ahead and make it more expensive than it has to be because I use chicken breasts, but instead of having to do Internet searches several times per week for crock pot chicken recipes, I just pulled out this page in the cookbook and threw in an average of four or so additional ingredients (which, thanks to the master pantry list, I already had on hand), and I was good to go.  For $12.99, this cookbook is worth its weight in gold.  I love this method of cooking and will continue to cook (and add to!) this book.

From May 20 - June 3, Mystie is offering TOS Review Crew blog readers 30% off the purchase of her ebooks with the coupon code TOS2013.  As the books are already reasonably priced, this adds up to big savings!

Be sure to read all the Crew reviews to see what other Crew members thought of these neat Mom-centric products!


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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Adjective List

Adjectives...they can either make your writing or break it.  Use them wisely and use them well.  Here's an awesome, wonderful, terrific, helpful, inspiring, thought-provoking, spirited list to get you (and the kids!) started: Awesome, etc. Adjectives List!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review of Joyce Herzog's Dice Fun in a Bag

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I had never heard of Joyce Herzog until the opportunity arose to review some of her products, and *boy* does she have a lot of great products! Choosing my potential favorite looked like it might be a challenge...until I saw her very cool Educational Dice Bag.  I have a son who loves dice, so being able to incorporate dice games into his homeschooling looked too good to be true.

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What Comes with Dice Fun in a Bag?

Joyce Herzog's Educational Dice Bag comes with three different dice sets in one bag.  The dice sets include the following:
  • Rolling Math Games
    • 1 Numeral Die
    • 1 Number Word Die
    • 2 Colored Dotted Dice
    • Instructions
  • Deca Dice Math Games
    • 1 Numeral Deca Die
    • 1 Dotted Deca Die
    • 1 Number Word Deca Die
    • 1 Double Deca Die
    • Instructions
  • Alphabet Dice Delight
    • 1 Alphabet Die
    • 1 Vowel Die
    • Instructions
  • Math Operations Die
Believe me when I say...these dice had my son at, "Hello!"

How We Used the Dice

These dice are recommended for ages *not* under 3...other than that, I think that all ages would have a blast with them.  They are truly the most portable fun we have had in our house in a long time.  Moreover, while they are definitely educational, there is nothing about them that remotely feels like school.  To that end, we didn't use them as any part of our formal curriculum, but I did tell the kids to play with them and tell me what they thought.  While the dice come with tons of suggestions for learning and play, I was curious to see what my kids would come up with on their own.

Here are my observations:

1.  Nicky (nearly 10) carried these dice around with him like talismans.  Carried? No - carries - he still does after six weeks.  That means that I can count on him having them when we find ourselves stuck somewhere doing errands.  Score one for OCD fixations! How wonderful that something so small can pack such a great learning punch.  To wit --

2.  My kids made up games of Scattergories with the alphabet die.  They didn't know they were doing it.  They haven't played Scattergories.  In the car, at the doctor's office, at their grandparents' house - they would take out that awesome die, decide on a category (things in the Iliad related to the letter "A" - okay, that's my fantasy talking.  Their categories usually had much more to do with breeds of dogs, kinds of natural disasters, and names beginning with the rolled letter.  Theirs were okay - mine would have been awesome.), roll the die, and then take turns naming things beginning with that letter.  It was kind of ridiculous how long they could keep it going in some cases!

3.  Letter combinations - using the alphabet die and the vowel die, my kids would roll both and then have to come up with a word that began with the letter rolled on the alphabet die, followed by the letter on the vowel die.  The longest, most esoteric, or most interesting word was the winner.  So, if a "p" and an "e" were rolled, some obvious words like "pet" were eschewed, as they were easy and boring.  If, however, a "v" and a "u" were rolled, the kids really had to think.  There aren't too many words that easily spring to mind (in fact, vulture is the only one the kids came up with - as I write, I can't actually think of another one! Oh, yes, vulgar. And Vulgate. Does Vulcan count? I can't even describe how these dice and the games that naturally evolve get your creativity going!).

4.  The math dice - oh, the math dice! The math dice are awesome.  First of all, they are beautiful. Second, their school applications are really cool.  I have to be honest, though, my kids are wordsmiths, first and foremost (I don't know where they got that).  While I didn't have to prod them to play with the letter dice, I did have to remind them that we received other dice as well! There are lots of great ideas that come enclosed with the math dice, but so far, I have used them in very utilitarian ways.  My kids just finished taking the Iowa test, and I used the dice to help my 8 year-old twins brush up on their facts.  I had them roll the number word die, the numeral die and the operations die to solve facts.  It was a nice change of pace for them and it engaged their brains differently from a basic fact practice worksheet or computer game.  It took the pain out of fact practice (mostly) and they really loved the unknown of seeing which operation they would be performing based on the roll of the die!

The Verdict

This is one of the coolest products I have ever seen.  So many kids have a fascination with dice, especially multi-sided dice.  Some kids are allowed to play RPGs, and multi-sided dice abound.  Some kids aren't, but woe to the parent whose kid gets a look at a 100 sided die! There are fewer things more fascinating! Joyce Herzog has found a way to capitalize on something that kids naturally love.  The shaking of dice in your hand, the spilling them out, the seeing what comes up -- all of these things combine to make dice games winners with kids.  With this product, kids won't think about the fact that they're learning - I promise they won't.  

All three dice bags, plus the math operations dice, cost only $23 and can be purchased from Joyce's website.  She has tons of other really different learning products, too, which she was generous enough to share with the Crew, so be sure to read all of the reviews by clicking the banner below.

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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review of College Prep Genius' High School Prep Genius

 I have reviewed and loved products from College Prep Genius before, so I was very excited to find out that the creator of that line of products had written something even closer to home for us - High School Prep Genius.
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High School Prep Genius is an oversized paperback book retailing for $29.95.  Reading it is like having a high school guidance counselor sitting in your living room telling you everything you need to know to prepare your child for the college search and application process.

Homeschooling has so many advantages over public schooling, but lack of access to information is definitely one of the detriments.  At my public high school, each grade level had a counselor whose sole job it was was to make sure that students were on track to graduate where they needed to be to do what they wanted to do after graduation.  For some students, that simply meant graduating at all.  For others, though, that meant weekly meetings to discuss new scholarship opportunities that had come up, colleges that should be visited, checks to make sure that deadlines hadn't been missed, and discussions about tenths of grade points and the differences they could end up making in various ways.  As homeschoolers, we could only dream about such sources of information -- until now.

High School Prep Genius is your high school counselor.  In this book, Jean Burk tells you what you need to begin doing now - even if your child is only in 6th grade - to prepare for college.  There are sections about building a college notebook (with very detailed instructions on how this should be done), essay writing tips, ideas for finding a mentor, scholarship ideas, study tips, transcript helps, and very important 9-12 grade timelines.  For homeschoolers, these years seem to go by so quickly that without those timelines, it is too easy to find oneself on the cusp of 12th grade without having prepared for anything college related.  After reading this book, that won't happen to  you! For those of us in the great free state of Texas, where we have no homeschool regulations AT ALL, Jean's book is absolutely essential.  It might be the only thing that keeps us on track.

How I Used This Book

So what does the parent of a (by age) 6th grader need with this book? The section on 7th grade talent searches!! I was fortunate enough to take the PSAT in 7th grade as part of the Duke University Talent Identification Program once upon a time.  Doing so was hugely advantageous for me.  First, I was able to get a look at the SAT 3-4 years before most of my peers, completely demystifying it.  Second, scoring well on it opened up opportunities for me to participate in Gifted and Talented summer camps and programs around the country.  Now, understand, I *didn't* participate in them - way too expensive - but being invited was an honor and was something that I could always include on any application or transcript.  Being a Duke TIP scholar is no small potatoes.

Hence, I want this same opportunity for Therese.  As a homeschooler, though, it is a little more difficult to figure out how to go about "getting her in." High School Prep Genius to the rescue! Not only does Burk cover the Duke TIP in her book, but she discusses other 7th grade talent searches I have never heard of.  For junior high kids, these talent searches are the best thing they can do as a precursor to high school scholarships.  They matter.

So, Therese and I know exactly what we have to do to have our ducks in a row for next year, starting with taking the Iowa Test of Basic Skills starting tomorrow (Monday).  Her score on that will qualify her for these talent searches.  As for me, I have noted in my long term planner those things that I need to make sure I have done for 9-12 grade.  For those of us, especially, who don't school according to year/grade level, timelines like this are even more important.  It is too easy for us to forget that the world operates according to deadlines.  For me, with a child like Therese who is chronologically finishing 6th grade, but who is academically in the middle of 8/9 grade work, I really need timelines like these to make sure that I can check off when things actually need to and then *do* get done.  I am not even quite sure how old she will be when she graduates!

In Summation

High School Prep Genius fills a huge need in the homeschool community.  With the exception of a few pages dealing exclusively with homeschooling issues, though, everything in this book is equally applicable to public-schoolers.  In fact, I have already loaned my copy to a public school friend (and gotten it back, I should mention.  This book has a permanent place on my book shelf.).  The best kind of reference book is one that answers questions that you didn't even know you had, and this book does that in spades.  For a nominal price, you can buy peace of mind that you are doing everything necessary to prepare your high-schooler for life after homeschool.

Parents with children of a wide variety of ages read this book, so be sure to read the other Crew reviews to see some college notebooks and other great insights!

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

10 Confessions

1.  I don't sort my laundry. I wash everything in cold.

2.  I don't make my children's breakfast - they do.

3.  When given the choice between cleaning the house and doing, well, anything else, I will (9 times out of 10) choose the anything else.

4.  There are days when we only get one or two subjects done in school...and I'm fine with that.

5.  I am intensely curious about my children's IQs - and I'm not proud of that.

6.  I have a ridiculously overdeveloped sense of justice, not that it does me any good!

7.  I proofread my emails.

8.  I text in full words and full sentences.

9.  I am very afraid of being a young widow.

10. I create materials for public school teachers' use, the irony of which never ceases to amuse me.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Review of Spanish for You! Fiestas

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I always love reviewing Spanish programs since Henry is a native speaker. It drives me crazy that I never made the effort to become fluent enough to speak to our children from birth.  I feel like I cheated them of having the advantage of being bilingual (in Southeast Texas, no less!).  Now they have to learn Spanish in school like everyone else.  Fortunately, there are great programs like Spanish for You! This program really does live up to its tagline. It is simple, effective, and affordable.  In fact, after using it for a little over a month, I am still surprised at how easy it is for my eldest daughter to sit down and do Spanish. For me to work with my younger children hardly takes any time at all, either.

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Spanish for You! currently offers two themed Spanish curricula (with a third debuting in June).  We reviewed Fiestas which is, unsurprisingly, party themed! Designed for grades 3-8, we received the following components for review (all files were completely accessible and easily downloadable):

  • a pdf download of the lesson guide for grades 3-4, 5-6, and 7-8
  • a pdf download of self-checking worksheets
  • a downloadable mp3 audio file of the entire book
    • you can choose to listen to the author or a native speaker
  • a pdf download of flashcards and activity pictures
The package that I received is available for $64.95, but Debbie Annett, the creator of Spanish for You!, recognizes that not all families have children in all of these age groups; thus, you can purchase the levels separately.  Each level, as delineated above, can be purchased for $39.95.  

How Does it Work?

This Spanish curriculum is as easy as it comes.  Its focus is on teaching students how the language works so they can put sentences together in order to be able to communicate.  They learn this in the context of different themes.  Parents are provided with lesson plans that tell them exactly what they need to do on any given day.  While optional activities are provided, they are not required, and the program simply doesn't take that long to use. For example, on the very first day for the 3-4 grade, students are to read Leccion 1, p. 1 with audio and do Learning Your New Vocabulary, p.1. All told, we spent 20 minutes on this lesson, but we could have spent less time. Every day you are also supposed to practice 2-4 common words and phrases which, if you have ever had any exposure to Spanish, are probably at least somewhat already familiar to you.  In essence, each day contains some oral work, some listening work, and some (minimal) written work.

Grades 7-8 are only slightly different.  The oral work, with words and phrases, is the same, meaning that families can do the practicing together, but the worksheets are harder.  The program is ideally suited for families to work together.  

How we Used Spanish for You!

We started the day with Spanish for You! We reviewed our words and phrases, did the reading and audio for the day, and then added any written work to our individual work for later in the day.  I found this program so easy to use and so easy for my kids.  I loved that the emphasis is on being able to speak sentences quickly.  In that regard, my opinion of Spanish programs has changed over the last couple of years.  Always before, I have wanted hard grammar and conjugating taught first, but the older my kids (and their grandparents) get, the more I just want them to be able to speak Spanish. They are getting the grammar in Latin (and it's really not all that different). They want to be able to understand their abuelos (who are fluent in English, but speak Spanish frequently to each other and to my husband).  My son knows that his abeulos call him lindo, which he knows is meant affectionately, so he calls his abuelo lindo and his abuelo linda.  They love that! I know it is something that they think is funny, adorable, and sweet.  I would so love for my kids to be able to actually converse with them, rather than just bestow nicknames on them! I think Spanish for You! is the first step to that.

Spanish for You! has samples on its website and is priced very affordably.  If you are looking for a painless and non-time consuming approach to teaching your children Spanish, this just might be the program for you.


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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review of Papa's Pearls

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Just about every homeschooler has heard of Diane Flynn Keith of ClickSchooling, but when you read her new book, Papa's Pearls, you will get to know a whole new side of Diane.  You will especially begin to wish that you had known her father, Papa.

Papa's name was Carol Joseph Flynn (named for the King of Romania) and, fortunately, he had the scrappy personality necessary to carry off the name! While Papa's early life was certainly colorful, it was not easy.  Thanks to a series of fortuitous events, though, he was able to turn his life around and become a successful business and family man.  Along the way, he somehow perfected the amazingly difficult trait of combining Type-A overachievement with a laid back personality.  He was able to extract the best from his business and, even more importantly, his children while allowing them to be their own people (his children, that is).

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Papa's Pearls is a short book comprised of chapters that exemplify Papa's pearls of wisdom, some of which are "Tell yourself you like it," "You gotta roll with the punches," and "What's the worst thing that could happen?" Through the course of these chapters and maxims, Diane tells her father's life story.

I loved this book, primarily because it felt like my grandmother and my father were talking directly to me.  Papa's no-nonsense refusal to feel sorry for himself attitude is probably characteristic of many of his peers, which is why it is so reminiscent of my grandmother.  Nothing irritated her more than finding me wallowing in self-pity.  She just couldn't see wasting the time.  Life is too short.  If you have to do something unpleasant - fake it 'til you make it, or "tell yourself you like it." Best marriage advice I ever got? "Act like you're in love even if you don't feel like it." All of this advice is part and parcel of the same attitude which, I think, boils down to the following: life is more about action than about feeling.

I read this book to my children and was so happy to be able to do so.  My kids are 11, 9, 8, and 8. I didn't find anything remotely inappropriate about it; we read it in two days.  They didn't want me to stop.  If I had to compare it to other books I've read to my kids, I would say that it is something like Cheaper by the Dozen or The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio.

I don't typically like memoirs, but Papa's Pearls is very different.  Not only does it make me think of my grandmother, but it makes me long to be a better parent.  I am way too hot-headed to be like Papa, but his ideal gives me something to which to aspire.  I can only hope that my children will remember me with half the love that Diane remembers her father.  Her book is a amazing tribute to an entirely unique man.

You can purchase an autographed copy of Papa's Pearls from Diane's website for $21.97 (includes s/h). You can also get the book through Amazon.

Not all parents are as liberal with their children's reading as I, so be sure to read the Crew reviews to see what others thought of this wonderful book.


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Tuesday, May 7, 2013


Pintrest is a fun site and I, like so many others, can get lost in it.  If you like Pintrest, may I recommend Pearltrees? You can use it on the iPad (it's a great app), but it also works perfectly on the computer.

Pearltrees creates a bunch of little webs of interconnected interests of yours.  I can't even begin to describe what happens next.  You just have to try it.  No, I don't get anything if you do, but I'm pretty sure you'll love it :-)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Review of Homeschool in the Woods' The 20th Century in America

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Homeschool in the Woods just can't make a bad product.  I'm convinced of it.  Everything I have ever bought from them is simply gorgeous.  In fact, I recently bought their complete map sets simply *because* they are gorgeous.  I definitely didn't need more maps.  I needed these maps, though.  So early in the review and already I digress.  This time I was fortunate enough to receive for review one of Homeschool in the Woods' newest products: Hands-On History Lap-Pak: The 20th Century in America.

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What is Included?

Obviously, by looking at the above picture, there is a lot to this project! In fact, it covers the whole 20th century! In your Lap-Pak project, appropriate for 3-8 grade ($21.95 download or $22.95 CD), there are a total of 22 lapbooking projects and 32 pages of text.  You can complete the project as a lapbook (as shown above) or as notebooking project, as my daughter is doing.  The Lap-Pak contains the pdf masters and instructions, along with the 32 page text.  Additional resources are suggested if further study is desired.  You can make this project as in-depth as you desire.  It can take a couple of weeks or it can take a couple of months.  It all depends on how long you spend on each minibook (the word does not justify the art of these projects) topic.

What Therese Is Doing

I use the present progressive tense here because Therese (11) is still working on her Lap-Pak.  She has chosen to immerse herself in this study of the 20th century.  The organization of the Lap-Pak takes all of the burden off of me in terms of creating a 20th century study.  There is so much material to work with here, but it is presented in such a way that Therese doesn't have to get bogged down in any one particular area, which is my failing when teaching history (one of the hazards of having a degree in the subject).  She hasn't even taken the projects in chronological order.  For example, the first place she chose to start was "Dining Through the Decades," a menu describing dishes throughout the 20th century.  She had a blast finding pictures of the various dishes and creating the menu with those pictures.  She also made a great (and, in my opinion, timeless) meatloaf dinner taken from the menu!

While Therese has used some of the suggested resources provided in the Lap-Pak, she has also just used some of the materials she has found on our schoolroom bookshelf.  When she was completing the section on Medical Advancements, for example, she read parts of The Great Influenza by John Barry, a wonderful and comprehensive study of the flu epidemic.  When studying natural disasters, she read A Crack at the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester about the San Francisco earthquake.  Again, as with all things homeschooling, you can put as much into this Lap-Pak as you wish. The thing with Homeschool in the Woods, though is what I said earlier: your end record will be simply gorgeous.

The Final Word

Homeschool in the Woods is one of those companies whose products I buy even if I'm not sure I will use them.  I know that's not always a good habit, but the products are such great quality.  Amy Pak, the genius behind the brand is a graphic artist, and her talent just shines in her work for her homeschool company.  She is a true professional who pours herself into her product.  Her care and precision are evident in everything she does.  I only have one minor complaint and it has nothing to do with the quality of the product, which is unassailable.  Printing the material is a bit onerous, as each project is in its own individual file.  Hence, it seems as if one is forever opening pdf after pdf.  It would be so helpful if the project could be compiled into one, comprehensive, pdf.  That would make everything so much easier to print and keep track of.

Homeschool in the Woods provided Crew members with several products to review (and I know that I will be buying Composers next), so please do read the other reviews to see some more amazing products.


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