Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Review of USAopoly

 USAopoly Review

You may think that you have not heard of USAopoly, but if you have ever seen, owned or played one of those awesome themed Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, or Clue Games (I'm looking at you, fellow Whovians!), you've experienced one. What you may not know is that USAopoly also makes a ton of *other* great games whose names you may not know quite as well. We were lucky enough to get for review the super-fun games Tapple: Fast Word Fun for Everyone and Wonky: The Crazy Cubes Card Game. My kids absolutely loved both of them.

 USAopoly Review

Tapple is a great game for word nerds, but it is also a game that all members of the family can play, as all members of the family know and remember different things. Let me explain. In Tapple, there is a deck of cards with two sides. One side has easier categories. The other side has more challenging categories. An example of an easier category is ice cream flavors. A more challenging category is cartoons. When the category is announced, play proceeds and each player in turn has to name something in that category that begins with a letter of the alphabet (one that hasn't yet been used). He pushes down the letter he uses and play passes to his left. The catch is (because of course there's a catch!) that he only has ten seconds in which to think of something! (That's what the red button in the middle is for.) The round is over when all of the letters have been pushed down or everyone's brains are exhausted. 
USAopoly Review

Wonky, while completely different from Tapple, is just as awesome. In Wonky, there are unevenly shaped blocks. The blocks have three curved sides and three even sides. Players play action cards that tell them how to stack the blocks. The person who knocks down the tower is out, and so on. Despite what you may think, you have never played a game like this before!

What My Kids Thought

Right off the bat, my kids were ecstatic when they got these games. With all of the hundreds of games we have, we don't have any like these. While they reached for Wonky first, they reach for Tapple most often, so I'll talk about it first. Tapple is just awesome. The combined components of the idea of categories, plus being able to hit the timer and push down the letter make for a super-fun game. While it's tempting to think that older kids/grownups might have the advantage here, they in no way do. It is pretty much a completely level playing field. There are also ways to make it easier if it is still too hard or if you have littles who want to play. The easiest thing to do is simply to eliminate the timed aspect of the game. Also, you will literally never run out of replay potential on this game. When you have played through all the cards, play through them again. Better yet, make up your own cards! You can make them specific to your own family's experiences if you like. For our Catholic family, making a card for "Saints" is a no-brainer. Tapple is one of those games that you have to play to see how fun it is. I can't recommend it highly enough!

Wonky is not exactly my cup of tea because I get stressed about games like this, but my younger kids really like it a lot. If you like steady-hands games and enjoy recreating patterns, you'll love this one. My favorite thing about this game is its incredibly high quality. The box is made from such thick and wonderful cardboard that you won't believe it. Unless you're a mom whose kids have split the corners of all of your games' boxes, that will sound crazy, but if you know what I'm talking about, you'll get it. Wonky is super well-made. The blocks are smooth wood and so pretty. They beg you to play with them...and my kids obliged!

I warn you that when you go to the USAopoly website, you will get lost on it (lost in time, that is). They have so many truly wonderful games. I own several already - and I didn't even know that they were USAopoly until this review! There are several more that I plan to get for Christmas this year. I am betting you'll find a couple, too. Maybe Tapple or Wonky will make it on to your list. To see if other Crew members loved these games as much as we did (and how could they not?) click the banner below.

 USAopoly Review

Crew Disclaimer

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review of Fascinating Education's Fascinating Biology

Fascinating Education Review

We have been blessed to review Fascinating Education before. Last year, Nicholas did Fascinating Chemistry and really enjoyed it. This year, Nicky (12) and the twins (10) are working their way through Fascinating Biology

Fascinating Education Review

Fascinating Biology is entirely online with lessons presented in a slide-like format. The courses are created by Sheldon Margulies, a neurologist, and a graduate of both medical and law school! Each lesson averages about 45 minutes in length. You can view the scope and sequence here. Each lesson is broken up into "sections," making it easy to see where you are, where you have been, and where you are going. 

At the conclusion of each lesson, there is a short multiple choice quiz.

The topics covered by Fasctinating Education Biology are:

1. What is Life
2. Chemistry Review
3. The Cell Membrane
4. Take in Nutrients
5. Take in Energy
6. The Metallic Bond
7. Take in Energy
8. Grow
9. Reproduce
10. Homeostasis
11. Adapt
12. Protists, Animals, and Fungi
13. Plants

Each lesson is also accompanied by a script. Also, for those wondering about whether or  not this course counts as a credit for high school biology, it is the opinion of Fascinating Education that it does. In the final analysis, though, that decision, of course, rests with you as a parent!

How We Used it and What we Thought

Although the courses are designed with high schoolers in mind, the folks at Fascinating Education have said that middle schoolers have used their courses with great success. It was with no trepidation that I sat Nicholas, Michael, and Mary-Catherine down to watch Biology (as I said, Nicholas really enjoyed Fascinating Chemistry). The first few Biology lessons are probably some of the most difficult. They are heavily Chemistry dependent. My best advice for these lessons (if you have younger kids) is to just to watch them and glean from them what you can. The kids will retain more than you realize. The material actually begins to resemble more of what you probably think of as Biology by Lesson 3. 

I sat with my kids while we watched the lessons. We would typically watch half a lesson per day. I didn't want to overwhelm them with this material. The first thing that was apparent from Fascinating Biology was the stellar quality of the video. The colors and the video in general are sharp and beautiful. There is nothing low-quality about this material! After watching the video, the kids and I would discuss what we had seen. If they didn't understand something, I would seek out ways to explain it to them more on their level. Again, though, it makes sense just to let them absorb what they can on their level. Had Therese (14) been doing this course, it would have been exactly right for her. The further on in the course we go, the more the kids are able to understand. It is the chemistry in the beginning that is challenging for the younger kids.

As to whether the kids especially *love* Fascinating Biology? Well, as I indicated, the material is challenging. There also aren't a whole lot of bells and whistles (but, it is high-quality, well-done video, as I said). I think they are just a hair too young to really get the most of out of it. Ironically, Nicky liked Chemistry a lot more - that has everything to do with his interest in the material.

If you are looking for a rigorous, really solid Biology program that requires nothing of you, though, this is definitely one that you will want to check out!

Crew members also reviewed Fascinating Chemistry and Fascinating Physics. To see what they had to say, be sure to click the banner below!

Fascinating Education Review

Crew Disclaimer

Monday, September 14, 2015

Review of Stinky Kid Math

Stinky Kid Math Review
Sometimes you hear about a product and you just have to hear more based on the name alone. I give you...Stinky Kid Math! For the past month or so, Nicky has been doing Geometry with a six-month subscription to Stinky Kid Math (yep, it's still fun to write, no matter how many times you do it!). He finished Algebra in May, and I have been debating about whether to start in him in Geometry or Algebra II. For the first part of the summer, I had him doing various Algebra reviews, but when the opportunity to check out Stinky Kid Math came along, I couldn't resist. 

Stinky Kid Math offers video lessons and worksheets in Foundational Algebra (Pre-Algebra and Algebra 1), Complex Algebra (Algebra 1 and 2), and Geometry. It is not intended as a full curriculum, but it can be used as one. For the time that Nicky (12) has been using it, he has not been using another curriculum, and I am comfortable with that decision. The Geometry has been challenging, but not overwhelming. Because we have not done all of Geometry, though, I don't know if I can say that I would consider it a full curriculum. There is also a section of the website that has five math games.

For Stinky Kid Geometry, you can either work on 3-D:

or 2-D:

When you select a set of videos (so, if you start with lines), you get a menu like this:

The length of each video varies considerably, but most are under 15 minutes. Definitional videos are between 2-4 minutes long, while others that illustrate real world problems can be on the longer side. Most videos are definitely on the shorter side, though.

The style of the videos is very much that of of a teacher teaching a class (I know - revolutionary!). By that I mean that it has a very "standard math class" feel. I like that in a math class. I think that there are some things that you shouldn't get too creative with, and teaching math is one of them.

Sometimes you just need a teacher to show you what to do!

Nicky and Stinky Kid Math

At first, Nicky strongly resisted Stinky Kid Math, but Nicky often resists new things at first. Now, I'm happy to say, he doesn't even ask to do it. He just does it. He very much appreciates a program that gets in, teaches, and gets out, and that's just what this program does. There are no frills, no system of rewards for a job well done (something that has frustrated him in the past with other programs - the need to prove yourself to a certain point to get to a reward; he just wants to learn the concept, do the problems, and move on), and no fuss. He just learns what he has to learn from a math teacher who teaches him the subject. Like I said, it's basic, but it gets the job done. 

For my benefit, Stinky Kid Math provides an Activity Log telling me exactly what was done on the site, and when. 

Stinky Kid Math is available for only $9.99/month for unlimited access, and you can try it for a whole month free. To see how other Crew families have been using this wonderfully named program, be sure to click the banner below (and take a moment to appreciate how beautifully it matches this program's color scheme!).

Stinky Kid Math Review
Crew Disclaimer

Beating the Blues

...yeah, I got nothin' on that. I do know this, though. They always pass. Sometimes they last for hours, sometimes for years (I know, major suckage), but they do pass. In my (vast) experience, I have found three major things that help.

First, a devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows. Whatever you're going through is nothing compared to what she went through.

Second, I remember what my Dad always told me growing up (it's a 12-step thing, I think): I can do for today what it would kill me to think I had to do for a lifetime. It's a dressed-up version of taking it one day at a time. I actually find it deeper and more meaningful than that, because one day at a time implies that your life may be an unending series of the same days. That thought is enough to make anyone want to bury their head under the covers.

Finally, find the small things in which to take pleasure. For me, it's makeup. It's probably something different for you, especially if you're a guy.

I'll leave you with this pithy observation from Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar: "Whoever has lived long enough to find out what life is, knows how deep a debt of gratitude we owe to Adam, the first great benefactor of our race. He brought death into the world."

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Reflections on Prayer

My dad is the smartest - the wisest - man I know. I am so blessed that he periodically sends me (and my brothers and sisters) his reflections via email. The other day I was reading something he had sent to me out loud to my husband when one of my twins (I forget which) asked if I was reading Apologetics. Now, my dad is a former Catholic seminarian (I guess God thought he had a different vocation!), and he was my first apologetics teacher. That comment actually made me think, though, that sometimes my Dad's words should be shared. To that end, here is a snippet of the email that he sent my my siblings and me a little while ago.

"Hope all is well with you and your families.  Naturally, each of you, and what I perceive to be your needs, are daily in my prayers, even multiple times each day.  There is a wonderful bible quote on this subject, if you want to look it up - Lk: 11, 5-8.  Any bible will do.  Which reminds me of something that I wanted to share several times over the past 6-8 weeks.  Each of you have significant problems in your lives and I am constantly talking about praying for you.  Some of you may wonder what I must be thinking when I tell you that.  I do not expect your problems to go away, although the human side of me wishes that I could make that happen.  Clearly, none of the problems that our family encountered over the years went away, but I wasn't fired, although my job was threatened twice, and we survived, although imperfectly, and each of you have your own families.  F. Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled) says that life is problems and that we grow through problem solving.  He doesn't say that problems go away.  A Cal Tech physics prof says that we control much less in our lives than we think, that 90% of life is chance.  Prayer in that context makes so much more sense than the problems one would encounter, if prayer is a matter of asking God to change what is, to cause a miracle.  Prayer in my context is about asking God's help (grace) to be imparted to you to galvanize your own personal resources, be they rational, emotional, spiritual, etc. to deal with the problem in the best way possible.  I like to think of grace (God's help) as always being present, within your grasp, and prayer as the vehicle to access the grace.  In other words most of the time we have the resources to address issues, even if it is simply accepting what you cannot change.  Grace energizes those resources and it is because we are all part of the Communion of Saints (we are all in this boat together) that one person can have an impact through prayer on another.  It is not a perfect explanation, but at least now you know what I mean when I say I am praying for you.  In reality life is all about how we cho[o]se to respond to what life offers.  We don't always understand it and we don't always act in our own best interest, but as the British say "We muddle through."  Or as Christ did on the way to crucifixion, we fall and we pick ourselves up again and again as we march towards our journey's end."

So, just a piece of what my Dad imparts to his children. I love having him to advise and comfort me. There are parallels in my life and his, so the fact that 30 years ago, he was where I am now is immensely helpful to me.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Infidelity and Making Good Choices in Friends

I know there is no good way to say this, but I think about cheating a fair bit. No, I don't consider engaging in the act. I think about why it happens and the frequency with which it does. I think about the, "It just happened" rationale. That's crap, by the way. That's one thing that doesn't just happen. As with all other things sexual, you place yourself in situations where things may or may not happen. You conduct yourself in certain ways. And if you're married, then you sure as heck have to jump through a few hoops for an affair (or a fling, or one night (who are we kidding - a one afternoon) stand) to happen.

I read a short piece yesterday by a Christian blogger about the need for married women to guard their marriages. This guarding was operationalized (sorry - I talk like a social scientist) as not riding alone in a car with a man, not having a man as a best friend, not going out to eat alone with a man, etc. I couldn't help thinking how utterly simplistic that piece was! By that standard, the women serving in the military don't have a prayer. Guarding your marriage is about so much more than those things. Do they matter? Yes. If you carpool with the same man every day, you risk developing an intimacy that might be inappropriate. Of course, you might not. Much depends on whether or not you're open to it! If you're open to it, you have bigger problems!

As for going out to eat with a member of the opposite sex? How often are you going? Are you deliberately exclusionary? Would your spouse be welcome if he wanted to go? Is the friendship based on a shared interest? Is it a friendship that predates your marriage? Is your marriage on solid ground? The answers to those questions matter. More than anything, your spouse's opinion matters. Some people are more comfortable with other-gender friendships than are others. When my husband and I first started dating, I was 18 and he was 24. A male friend of mine invited me to see a high school play and I thought nothing of accepting. We were friends, nothing else. My husband's response was, "So you're going out on a date with him?" It didn't matter that it wasn't. My husband (then boyfriend) wasn't comfortable with the idea, so I didn't go. Those respect boundaries were set early on.

My husband has a strict policy of an ex is an ex is an ex. There is no such things as being friends with an ex. As his wife, I really appreciate that. It makes my life so much easier. In my own life, it's really a non-issue. I dated the same guy pretty much all through high school and only broke up with him when I met my husband. He died when I was 22. There were plenty of guys who had crushes on me, etc., though, so I don't use my maiden name on Facebook. (Wow - that sounds like I think fabulously highly of myself, but it's so not like that. It's just that everyone knows about the stories of the people who find each other on FB - I'm not about that drama.)

Now the topic I have assiduously avoided - the best friend of the opposite sex. I had the most amazing best friend anyone ever could have had. I didn't like girls very much and they pretty much had no use for me. J got me. I got him. We were friends for around a quarter of a century. He didn't cut me loose when I was the worst kind of friend one could be. He introduced me to some of my favorite bands and some of my favorite books ever. After we both got married, our friendship consisted of pretty sporadic emails, apart from the occasional spate of email frenzy. We have not had each other's phone numbers since high school. My husband was very aware of how much he meant to me.

8.5 months ago (but who's counting?), J told me that he thought that it would be better if we were no longer friends. I have never written about this. I have rarely talked about it. I likely never will again. I read his email once. I will never read it again. It's funny. I had never been broken up with until that point. Thank God I had my husband. When I came out from reading that email, I was crying so hard that my husband thought someone had died. In a way, someone had. Something certainly had. Again, thank God for Henry. Without a jealous bone in his body, he understood my grief. He still understands.

I know why J did what he did. I hate that he did it, but I understand. I still write to him in my head. I have been writing to him since I was 11 years old. I can't stop now. When I hear a spectacular pun, it's all I can do not to email it to him ("Look, I know we're not friends anymore, but you *have* to hear this one!"). I told Therese for years that I wished she had a J because mine was such a comfort to me when I was her age. I have stopped wishing that for her. I spent more than half my life touting the benefits of a male best friend. I have stopped doing that, too. I have actually come to the conclusion that a married woman can't (and shouldn't) have a male best friend (I've never thought a man should have a female best friend - I know, right? My consistency is shocking.). No matter how innocent and no matter how old the friendship, you will inevitably be diverting something from your marriage. It's almost ineffable, but you'll know it when you feel it.

I always thought it was just a case of not succumbing to the mistake of dating your male best friend, but that's not it. Not dating your male best friend will just allow you to maintain the friendship longer; it probably won't allow you to maintain it forever.

I know there are plenty of people out there who can tell me their stories of how their friendships have worked for them. I'm happy for you. I would still encourage any girl to form friendships with girls. I know it's hard (it's *still* hard for me), but you will still have those friends decades from now, if you're lucky. I came out of high school with one really good friend (whom, as I have shown, I no longer have). I came out of college with one good friend (who is...a guy! What good does that do me? And no, we don't have lunch.).

This has to be the world's most meandering post. A couple of disclaimers: yesterday I wrote that I was mulling a couple of posts but was hesitant to write them because of the people I knew would be reading them. This post is not one of them. J does not read my blog. He's not on FB (in case anyone was going to go check my friends - if you know me well, you know exactly who he is, even if you didn't know we broke up). He is a social media hermit. It's one of his finest qualities. The person to whom I was mostly referring yesterday is Therese's boyfriend (hey, Andrew!).

Second, do you ever wonder what prompts people to write what they do? For me, this post was prompted by three things: the blog post I read yesterday about guarding your marriage, the open wound that is J that is going to take more time to heal (which came to the surface because of thinking about the blog post on guarding your marriage), and, most immediately, I was listening to The The's 1989 album "Mind Bomb." Why that album made me write this post, I'm not sure, but, hey Armageddon Days (Are Here Again).

Monday, September 7, 2015

Brief Reflections on the First Day of School

1. I didn't have all of my materials because I didn't pre-plan before vacation, so we couldn't do everything today. That offends my sense of completeness.

2. Nicky, who is the king of "I forgot" was cranking out Catechism answers like crazy. I was actually wondering if he had been replaced by aliens. Okay, I'm prevaricating. I totally wasn't wondering that. I was absolutely gobsmacked, though.

3. I had occasion several times today to marvel anew at my great good fortune at being on the Homeschool Crew. I can't BELIEVE the stuff I get for free. I can't believe the amazing curriculum that I now pay for that I never would have heard of were it not for the Crew. The Crew is the biggest blessing in my homeschool life. Heh - apart from my kids.

4. I miss having Therese at my homeschool table more than I can begin to say. She does school in her room now, and I don't really see that much of her. Today she was in the throes of a headache and didn't do all that much anyway, but one of the only problems with my kids being so close in age is that I don't get all of the one-on-one time with Therese that I want to have (the others are all about the same with where they are, but she is so far ahead maturity and intelligence-wise that she's in a class by herself (did you catch the pun?)).

BONUS!! Non-school related reflection: There are a couple of blog posts that I really want to write, but I keep putting it off because I would feel strange knowing that relevant people would be reading them. It's not that they would be unflattering or anything, just that I would feel funny talking about people. Does anyone else ever face that problem?