Thursday, October 30, 2014

Review of Jim Hodges Productions' In the Heart of the Rockies

Jim Hodges Productions Review

My kids had MP3 players years before any other kids I knew. I'm talking they had them at 5 years old. They didn't (and still don't!) have any songs on them, though! Instead, they had old time radio shows and audio books! My kids absolutely love audio books (wonder where they got that from, said the lady with the almost 1,200 book Audible library...), so when we got the chance to review In the Heart of the Rockies (1860s) MP3 CD from Jim Hodges Productions, we jumped at the chance!

Jim Hodges Productions Review

In the Heart of the Rockies is part of the GA Henty series of audio books available from Jim Hodges Productions. It is 10 hours, 53 minutes long and is contained on one MP3 CD, meaning it won't play on a regular CD player, but it works great on your computer! It is recommended for ages 10+ and costs $25. Alternatively, you can order it as a digital download for $18. 

We also were given the chance to use the available Study Guide in PDF format ($12.00). The study guide is 32 pages long and is in a traditional format with vocabulary, chapter questions, and activities. Given that the Henty books were not written yesterday, it is wonderful to have these study guides available so that it is easy to take advantage of the rich vocabulary and historical accuracy the books provide.

How We Used the CD and Study Guide

Although I knew that we were going to use the study guide, I also knew that asking my children to pause between chapters of the book would be a losing battle. To that end, I let them (the youngest three - 9, 9, and 11) listen to the entire book before even mentioning the study guide! We listened to the book together over the course of a week at different times during the day, and all of the kids loved it. I chose this particular story because the Rockies are my children's favorite place to vacation. I was born in Colorado, and although my kids are native Texans, they have learned to love the Rocky Mountains as much as I do. They especially love learning about the history of the entire area, so this book was exactly the kind of thing we would seek out on our own! I'm kind of surprised we hadn't already read it, but I'm also quite glad! Some things are just perfect for audio.

The narration of this book is spot-on. It's not over-narrated. It's not forced. It's just a great reading of the story. It's the kind of book you listen to over and over. At almost 11 hours it's a good length. It's long enough to be a story you can get lost in, but not so long that you wonder if it will ever end. The 10-11 hour length is, in my very experienced opinion, a perfect one for most audio books. It allows for your attention span never to ebb. That was definitely the case with my children. The book tells the story of Tom Wade, a teenager from England who travels west to the West (the American West!). After he meets up with his uncle, he does all the things you would expect an adventurer in the 1860s to do: he fights Indians and winter blizzards and he searches for gold! While the book is packed with fun history, it definitely doesn't read like history.

When the book was over, I let them know that we were also reviewing the study guide. They weren't thrilled, but when they saw the study guide, they actually didn't mind! I think they layout of the guide was a huge help in this regard. For one thing, there is room to write right on it, and there are lines! Lines make study guides less intimidating. 

It's like they put limits. In any case, I assigned the guide to Nicholas (11), and he had no trouble completing it *without having to go back and re-listen to the book*. That's when you know the narration stuck! The vocabulary in the guide is so much fun - I loved that the kids learned so many great words that I take for granted, being a voracious reader of 18th and 19th century literature myself. It was a good exercise for Nicholas to look up the formal meanings of words that he had learned in context in hearing the book. The recall/comprehension questions were not difficult, which was good as Nicky is easily frustrated. In terms of the activities, there is a nice range that will work for different kinds of learners. If research is called for, there are hyper linked websites within the guide. Again, the fact that the book dealt with historical aspects of the Rocky Mountain region made it so much fun for the kids since we have visited so many of the places mentioned. It made them want both to listen and then to do the study guide's activities (making a chart of notable Mountain Men was a favorite!). Answers to questions are in the back of the guide in case they are needed.

I think it's obvious that we really loved this product. Jim Hodges Productions produces other audio books from companies whose names are easily recognizable in the homeschool world, so be sure to check out all of the offerings. GA Henty is definitely a good place to start, though! To read other Crew reviews of other Henty audio offerings from Jim Hodges Productions, click the banner below!

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday, October 19, 2014

My Headache Future

Let's play a fun game! What do the following pictures signify? I have often said I would have a frontal lobotomy if it meant that I wouldn't have anymore migraines...however, stuff (that's the technical medical term) is happening to this scary looking individual that is not in the front, so that can't be it...

Review of Standard Deviants Accelerate

Standard Deviants Accelerate Review

It's not a great way to start a review, but I just have to say that I *LOVE* this program. I can't say it loud enough and I can't say it enough times. These courses are unbelievably informative and unbelievably entertaining. My kids don't want to stop doing science and my husband always wants to watch with us when he is home and able to do so. What am I talking about? The company name should clue one into how awesome the courses are right off the bat: Standard Deviants Accelerate. Word play? Check. Reference to social science statistics? Check. Implied forward movement in coursework? Check. How could there be any doubt about how awesome these Standard Deviants Accelerate Homeschool Courses were going to be?

Standard Deviants Accelerate Review

Standard Deviants Accelerate currently offers the following courses:

The courses cost $99.00 each for one student if paid annually, or you can pay $24.95 monthly. AP subjects cost $14.95 a month. The courses are recommended for ages 8+, but there is definitely room for age flexibility within each course.

I can only speak directly about English Composition, Earth Science, and Chemistry, but based on the similar structure of these courses, I would be willing to bet that the rest of the courses follow the same model. The classes are presented as a series of lectures (10-20 minutes long) by young adults (age is hard to peg, but I would say early 20-somethings). The scene changes rapidly from person to person as information is presented in small bites. Graphics are used where appropriate but are not overwhelming. The presentation style is definitely informal. This is not one of The Great Courses (for which my children are eternally grateful!). It is astonishing how much material is covered in a session.

Let me use Earth Science as an example, as it is definitely my children's favorite. My three youngest (11, and nearly 10 year-old twins) are doing this course. It says Grade 6+ and that estimate is probably a good one. My son is in 6th grade and the material is perfect for him. My twins are in 5th and have had Earth Science before and can follow the material just fine. Having said that, they are all learning many new things in this class.

When you log onto your course, you see the Table of Contents, so you know exactly what will be covered.

Each chapter begins with a series of questions designed to elicit from the student that which he already knows about the information about to be presented. Then, the chapter videos are watched. Finally, the chapter review offers a series of activities including group activities, a post-test, and critical thinking exercises. Overall, the chapters are very thoroughly done! (N.B., because I know it will be of concern to some readers, Standard Deviants presents a secular worldview that assumes an old Earth, which is definitely relevant in this course. This was one of its biggest benefits to my family, but could be a stumbling block to others considering this course. Worldview was not an issue in, for example, the Chemistry course I discuss next.).

The material in Earth Science was not especially challenging, but the same could not be said for the Chemistry course that all the kids watched, but that I chose especially for Nicholas (11). Nicky has had a fascination with Chemistry for a few months now, and I was trying to cobble together resources for him on my own. When I saw this course, and the sample used the vulgar word for passing gas that I don't allow in our house but that little boys find hilarious, I knew that the course and Nicky were a match made in Heaven. I was right. What I didn't know was how very much solid (and *hard*) chemistry Standard Deviants (I.Love.That.Name.) could pack into its course. Some of it is definitely going over Nicky's head. Some of it is threatening to go over my head. These people have found a way to present very tricky material in a way that is so easy to understand and remember, though!

For a start, the idea of visualizing electron shells as an apartment complex is one that helps me in a way that high school chemistry never could. In fact, I told Henry (the husband) that I never learned about s, p, and d orbitals in chemistry, but I now realize that I did - I had just forgotten. I don't think I'll forget now after (re)learning with Standard Deviants. Please understand, I hate intensely dislike science. However, I love Standard Deviants Chemistry. That's the opinion of a non-science person. I asked Henry (who works in the chemical industry) for his opinion, and he commented on the program's ability to take complex subject matter and render it comprehensible and memorable via the use of graphics and concepts that act almost as mnemonic devices (along with actual mnemonic devices). He is really impressed with this program.

One caveat: both science programs make use of a sock monkey who is torn in half and lying in the road. He is made to look like he is bleeding and when he speaks he gasps for air. It is, for lack of a better word, twisted. It bothers us not at all, however, it might really bother some families. Just something to watch for/consider. For me, when the company is named Standard Deviants, I rather expect little goodies like that...

A brief word about English Composition. At first, I got resistance from Therese (13) about taking the course. She saw the sample of Chemistry in which the vulgar word was used and turned her nose up at the company. She was drawn in, though, by Earth Science. She would walk through the room when I had it on the TV and would stop to watch (it's that good!). I showed her the first English Comp lesson in which a ton of information is thrown at you (all about literary genres). She was hooked. She is now well on her way with the course. She has also been informed that she will be doing the Chemistry course toward high school credit (yes, I know it's not enough in itself...I have it covered.). It just explains things too well for her not to take it. 

I guess it's obvious that we love Standard Deviants Accelerate. Because of the company's generosity, I have access to every course (*blessed*), and I plan to put the kids through as many of them as I possibly can. Do I think a course is worth the $99 price tag? Absolutely. If you're curious to see what other Crew members thought (especially if you're not quite as, um, offbeat as I am), definitely click the banner below to read all the reviews!

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review of Apologia's iWitness Books

Apologia Review
If there are rock stars in the world of homeschool curriculum, Apologia Educational Ministries, would sell out any stadium, and I would be one of their biggest fans. In fact, when I scan my bookshelves, I have almost one whole shelf that is nothing but Apologia. One of the neatest things about Apologia is the fact that the company continually comes out with new products - not just new science textbooks, but entirely new and different curricula. They never rest on their laurels. This time around, the books are so completely up my alley that I couldn't believe how right it felt that I got to review them.

iWitness Biblical Archaeology, New Testament iWitness, and Old Testament iWitness are three nifty little (about 6" x 9") books! At only $14.00 each, they are a must for your homeschool library. They are aimed at ages 11+, but you can definitely read them to younger children (and I think that younger kids would be fascinated by the graphics-heavy presentation).

So what are these iWitness books all about?

All of the books were written by Doug Powell who has a Master's Degree in Christian apologetics. You can read an interview with him in which he explains why he wrote these books here. Essentially, he wrote the books he wanted to read himself. In my world, there is no higher recommendation! Basically, he turns his subjects into a treasure hunt or detective story so the reader can follow the clues and put the answers together themselves. My kids love this kind of format, so I knew that they would love these books. Here's an idea of what the pages of all three of these books look like:

I have a couple of kids that really enjoy straight-up reading, but all four of my kids love looking at graphically-intense books like this. Nothing about them says "school" or "learn me." Everything about them says, "fun."

iWitness Biblical Archaeology 

Apologia Review

In this book, Mr. Powell reveals archaeological evidence that demonstrates that the events in the Bible actually happened. He is careful not to fall into the trap of saying, "See! This proves the Bible is true," because, as he states in the interview I linked above, there are many things in the Bible that simply can't be proven archaeologically or otherwise. There are, however, many events in the Bible that can be correlated with other history books and with archaeological evidence (the best example of this being the existence of flood narratives in so many cultures, along with plenty of geological evidence for a massive flood). This book puts the student in the driver's seat and lets them make these discoveries.

Apologia Review

Old Testament iWitness does two things, primarily: it differentiates between what we call the Old Testament and what Jews call their Bible and it explains how the books that we call the OT came to be included in the canon. This book examines who wrote the Old Testament books of the Bible and reveals so many little tidbits that I have to admit I didn't know. Given that I had so many theology classes in college (including an entire semester on the Old Testament), I really thought my kids would be the only ones to learn from these books. I had forgotten about many of the traditions surrounding the Hebrew scriptures, though, such as the need to bury a damaged copy when it was being replaced with a new one. These are the kinds of things I reveled in learning about in college - I am so happy that my kids don't have to wait that long!
Apologia Review

New Testament iWitness is a neat book. When one studies the process of the canonization of the Bible, one typically starts at the beginning (at least, that is how I learned it in college). Mr. Powell starts at the end, though, and works his way backwards. I found this technique refreshing and quite interesting! I always get happy when I see old friends like Athanasius and Eusebius mentioned in Protestant-published books (if you want to read the best explication of the Holy Trinity ever conceived and surely inspired by the Holy Spirit, check out the Athanasian Creed). They need to get more play. In any case NT iWitness explains, through its document presentation process, how and why a particular book was considered canonical. Of *course* there were tons of books and epistles that were floating around at the time of apostles that were not granted canonical status. Learning about the criteria the Church used for compiling the canon was one of my most rewarding experiences in college and, again, I am thrilled that my kids get to experience that now, for themselves. Which brings me to...

How We Used the Books

At first I thought I might read these books to the kids (13, 11, 9, and 9), but the format was such that it just made sense to give them to them each individually. I made them available and let them know that they had a few weeks during which time the books would need to be read. When I knew that everyone had read the books, we got together to talk about them. The kids' reactions were universally favorable. They loved all three books. The format was a huge hit, as was the content. The kids were happy that they had some background in the subject (I'll admit, I drone on about the canon with some frequency), but they were also excited to tell me things that they had learned). Like me, they were excited to see Athanasius (I'm telling you, seeing a favorite saint pop up is like meeting an old friend unexpectedly). I know they will continue to go back to these books again and again.

Overall, these books are huge winners from Apologia. The scrapbook-style is so much fun, but there is still a ton of great information packed into them. My kids loved them, and we are all excited that there are still two more to come in the series. To see what other Crew members thought, be sure to click the banner below.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Making the Crock Pot Even Easier

We are gone almost every night at dinnertime. The girls dance, the boys have TKD, and we all have debate. That schedule wreaks havoc with dinner. I honestly can't remember the last time I used my oven. I don't like it to be on when I'm not home (we really need a new one), and I don't find that I have time to make dinner once the afternoon rush is on. Thus - it's Taco Bell the crock pot for us. There are three ways that I make the crock pot even easier than it already is. First, I don't defrost, brown, or in any other way pre-prepare anything that goes in it. Frozen chicken, pink roasts, everything goes in in its original state. Second, I always use crock pot liners. Eating at 8:30 or 9:30 at night means that cleaning up is the last thing I want to do. Yes, I know it's not good for the environment. I don't care. Third, I take every single shortcut there is. I'm not a homesteader, a frugal blogger, or any of those other things I really admire. I use canned and cartoned anything I can. I still manage to make some darn tasty dinners (N.B., I absolutely can cook from scratch, and when I have time, I do).

Image Credit:

For example, early yesterday afternoon I threw two cartons of Mexican Tortilla flavored chicken broth, black beans, corn, fire roasted tomatoes, green chilis, frozen chicken breasts, and tomato paste into the crock pot. About 5 hours later, I served bowls of delicious tortilla soup. I added cheese and crumbled tortilla chips to the top and everyone inhaled it. Usually I would, of course, have added spices, but with the flavored chicken broth, I didn't need any. It took me about 3 minutes to "make" dinner. It took 30 seconds to clean it up. The recipe is one that I have made before, but I have used regular chicken broth and my own spices in the past. By taking this additional shortcut, I saved the time of finding the spices and loosely measuring them (*very* loosely!). Plus, the broth was really good!

I am always looking for shortcuts like this one. When Henry and I were first married, I would sometimes spend 3-4 hours cooking dinner...but I was 21, in college, and had nothing better to do. Those days seem like a million years ago.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Review of Preschoolers and Peace

Preschoolers and Peace Review

I guess I have to start this review by asserting that I never thought that I would see the words Preschoolers and Peace juxtaposed! There's something not quite right about that! Given that I had three of them at once (I know, I know, writing in this crowd there's not really much that's impressive about that statement!), I can honestly say that I didn't experience much peace with my preschoolers - and it had nothing to do with homeschooling! However, Kendra Fletcher of Preschoolers and Peace has had different experiences, as she so aptly chronicles in her $2.99 book Preschoolers and Peace: Homeschooling older kids with success while loving the little ones at your feet (ebook). 

Preschoolers and Peace Review

Consisting of 59 pages, this book explores the conundrum of managing the bigs with the littles in the following chapters:
  1. What a Homeschooling Mom Needs
  2. Preparing Yourself to Homeschool Older Kids With Little Ones Underfoot
  3. Planning Around Preschoolers
  4. How Do I Keep Them Busy?
  5. What Does a 2-Year-Old's Day Look Like?
  6. How Do I Get Any Preschooling Done?
  7. How Not to Just Kill Time
  8. Circle Time: Or How We Pull the Little Ones In
  9. Preschool Boys
  10. When All of Your Kiddos Are Preschoolers
  11. Preschool Chores
  12. Planning for Preschool
  13. When Mama is Worn Out (or Pregnant)
  14. Meal Planning 101
My Impressions

Once upon a time I had 4 under 4. Now my kids are 13, 11, 9, and 9. Clearly, not a preschooler in the bunch! Thus, I had to cast my mind back to a time when I did have preschoolers. When I began officially homeschooling Therese (13), it was halfway through her 1st grade year. She was brilliant and school took about 2.5 hours. I can truthfully say that I did not have trouble dealing with the littles. Why? Because when Therese was 6, my other kids were 3, 3, and 4. They were all the same age! They played with each other for those 2.5 hours! (I always wondered why I couldn't remember having trouble dealing with younger kids while homeschooling the older ones - like all things in my life, the answer comes back to the fact that I had all my kids at one time). I digress, but I do have a point! Kendra actually has a chapter on (almost) this exact situation! Chapter 10 is called "When All of Your Kiddos Are Preschoolers."

What was really exciting to me about this chapter is the fact that I could have written it. It has very helpful tips like scheduling babies (which I was so happy to see in a book - the "s" word is a dirty word in so many circles) and instituting rest time. We *still* have schedules and mandatory rest time in my house, and they are a key part of our day. My kids crave the predictability. For moms who may not have arrived at these solutions to the chaos of preschoolers, though, these tips are sure to be lifesavers!

Chapter 8 - Circle Time - is another chapter that really resonates. Kendra explains how to incorporate all ages into the school day. If learning more about the concept of Circle Time (something we so cleverly call "group subjects" in our homeschool) intrigues you, you'll want to check out Kendra's book dedicated entirely to that subject! 

There are some things in this book that didn't really speak to me (essentially the first part), such as the idea of not finding one's identity in homeschooling momming, but rather only as a child of Christ. I don't think there's anything wrong with seeing yourself as both. I don't agree that "nothing else should define me" other than being a Christian (or a Catholic). Being a Catholic is what I am and who I am to my core. It defines me in every way. However, I don't feel that it is in any way idolatrous to say that I am a homeschooling mother or a freelance writer. To say that I am an extemp coach. To admit that I do define myself by those roles. Now, I live those roles in the context of my life as a Catholic, but I do define myself as those things. 

Perhaps the above is a minor quibble, but because it is how Kendra chooses to begin her book, I thought it was well worth mentioning. There are plenty of people who will want to read the book precisely because of her position on this matter! A few may be put off. Regardless, there is lots of great stuff in this short but meaty book - all moms will be able to take away something from it!

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