Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review of Star Toaster

Orphs of the Woodlands at Tanglegate Review
One of Michael's (11) favorite review products ever was Orphs of the Woodlands (reviewed here) by Star Toaster, so he was beyond excited when Star Toaster came out with a sequel of sorts called Orphs of the Woodlands at Tangletree

Orphs of the Woodlands at Tanglegate Review

Described as an interactive chapter book and educational game, Orphs of the Woodlands is definitely both of these things. The player first reads a chapter of the book and then gets a task to complete. If they complete enough of the task correctly, stars are earned. When enough stars are earned, the player collects the item for which they are striving (items include things like wheat, water, blankets and other things for their hideouts). Tasks include things like math problems, memory skills, facts on woodland creatures, and many others. Throughout the book, difficult words can be pronounced by the app, sounds in the book can be played, and animations appear throughout (hence the idea of the interactive aspect of the book!). The end goal is to collect all of the items for your treetop fort (your hideout) and to restore your village that was washed away in a flood.
Orphs of the Woodlands at Tanglegate Review
Orphs of the Woodlands at Tanglegate Review
Orphs of the Woodlands at Tanglegate Review
Here are Michael's thoughts after completing both the original Orphs of the Woodlands and its new sequel: "This new app is definitely aimed at younger kids - I would say 6-8 year-olds. It's a good story with a good level of problems for a younger age group. It was great to return to the world of the Orphs, but I was disappointed that many of the parts of the original game that I loved were missing. For one thing, you couldn't name your character. Also, there were no recipes. You couldn't decode secret messages. But I think that not having those things is what makes it great for younger kids. If I had a younger sibling, I am sure that he or she would love this app. It would be really fun to read it to a younger kid and do the activities with them. I'm really glad I got to have the chance to play with it and I really hope that Star Toaster (N.B., I told him the name of the vendor) comes out with another version of Orphs of the Woodlands for older kids more like the first one!"

My Take

I think that this app is as cute as they come, and I am once again amazed by everything that Star Toaster has managed to fit into it. There is a serious amount of learning that you can get out of this one little app...and you absolutely don't feel at all like you're learning. The book is adorable and the story is so much fun!

To find out more about Orphs of the Woodlands at Tangletree, visit Star Toaster's social media sites:

Also, be sure to click the banner below to read more than 50 other Crew reviews of Star Toaster users! 

Orphs of the Woodlands at Tanglegate Review
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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Update on Therese

It's been awhile since I updated Therese's health. Her latest round of blood work was really helpful. Her doctor was really pleased. It is highly likely that she has Crohn's Disease, which can be remedied with a round of antibiotics (10 days this time, not seven months!). Before he draws that conclusion, though, Dr. P. has her on a yeast elimination diet to make sure that her problem is not a yeast allergy/intolerance. After not eating yeast for five days, Therese is praying it's Crohn's! More importantly, following the lead of the young man we know who has been our, um, inspiration/muse/mine canary in all of this, I asked Dr. P. to test Therese to see if she had an MTHFR gene mutation, which, sure enough, she does. I'm hoping this mutation could be the thing that finally explains her joint pain, but (when addressed) it definitely should explain her brain fog (which we really thought would clear up when she stopped using antibiotics and switched to probiotics, but so far no such luck).

As far as school, we have figured out that Therese should be all caught up by December (done with Geometry and with the rest of Freshman and most of Sophomore years, excluding Biology (her Bio course is actually designated for 10th graders anyway). By the end of next summer she should be completely brought up to speed where I want her to be. When all is said and done, she should be graduating in three years (on time) with enough time her senior year to do whatever independent study she might want to take on. Her end goal is the Honors Program at the University of St. Thomas (like her Mama and someone else we know). Her curriculum is perfectly crafted to take her where she wants to go, given that we are using this curriculum from St. Thomas Aquinas Academy. I don't enroll her in the Academy or have them do the grading, but I do use their syllabi and books for Therese. It's the perfect curriculum for her and she's been really happy with it.

So maybe there is light at the end of this tunnel for Therese. All we can do is wait and pray, which seems to have been our pattern for the longest time now.

ETA: I just realized that I didn't say anything about Therese's Mycoplasma level! Probably because it hasn't changed much at only decreasing by a couple of tenths. We'll see what the next round of blood work says, though, after she's been on probiotics only.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Review of Heirloom Audio Productions

Beric The Briton Heirloom Audio Productions  Review
I have reviewed (and loved) Heirloom Audio Productions before, so it was with great interest that I received Beric the Briton for review! My family absolutely loves audio dramas of any kind, and no one does audio dramas like Heirloom Audio Productions! Beric the Briton is the full-cast audio presentation of the novel by G.A. Henty. It is presented by a cast of professional actors and it immerses you in the time period. In fact, Heirloom audio transcends audio drama all together. It bills itself as "active listening audio adventure," using sound effects designed to draw the listener even deeper into the story.
Beric The Briton Heirloom Audio Productions  Review
Beric the Briton tells the story of Beric and Boduoc during the Roman invasion of Britannia. This is one of our favorite times of history to study, so my kids were so happy to be able to get this story to listen to! Beric and Boduoc experience enough adventure for several lifetimes in this story as they become gladiators for the Emperor Nero (whoever thought that giving a 16 year-old boy control of the most powerful empire in the world was a good idea?)!
Heirloom Audio Productions also gave us all of the bonuses available to those who purchase the premium edition of Beric the Briton. The most appreciated of these features for us was the MP3 version of the CD. Because my computer doesn't have a CD drive, I love being able to download the story to my computer so we can listen everywhere - we can use the CDs in the car, but we can listen to the MP3s at home! Here, my 11 year-old twins listen to the story while Mary-Catherine is knitting:

As I said, though, Heirloom Audio included many other bonuses, including the amazing study guide that supports the novel. Heirloom Audio's study guides are works of art. At 50 pages long, it includes the following elements:
  • Biographies of the 3 principal historical figures
  • Listening Well
  • Thinking Further
  • Defining Words (each of these preceding three for each section)
  • Historical Background
  • 3 Bible Studies
  • ...even more!
And it's all done so beautifully. Here's just a tiny sample:

In addition to the MP3 and the study guide, the bonuses include the following:
  • The GA Henty eBook of Beric the Briton
  • The Official MP3 Soundtrack
  • Printable Cast and Inspirational Verse Posters
  • Behind the Scenes Cast Video
  • Behind the Adventure Letter Website and E-Newsletter
Visit the website to see more about each of these great bonuses and to see the different purchase configurations available.

Why Heirloom Audio Productions?
There are many "audio options" out there today - podcasts, audiobooks, pubic domain readings of things, etc. What sets Heirloom Audio Productions apart? Well, if you've ever gone to the movie theater and relaxed into the comfortable seats and closed your eyes and just listened -- that's what Heirloom Audio Productions' Beric the Briton is like. A great audio book is just like hearing someone read you the story. A podcast is, at best, someone telling you about something. Beric the Briton (and all of Heirloom Audio Productions' amazing stories that I have heard) is like listening to a movie in the best theater. You are there. You are part of the story. Fortunately, when you go to Beric the Briton, you'll be able to hear a small sample of what I'm talking about. You can also click the banner below to read other Crew reviews!

Beric The Briton Heirloom Audio Productions  Review
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Review of Writing with Sharon Watson

Writing with Sharon Watson Review
Teaching writing to our own children is a tricky business. You can be a great writer, but it can still be difficult to translate that skill to a teachable one. Fortunately, Writing with Sharon Watson renders the whole problem moot with her program The Power in Your Hands: Writing Nonfiction in High School, 2nd Edition. For this review I received the eBook version of this complete writing program. From the beginning, I planned to use it with two of my children in two different ways. Therese (15 in two weeks and a rising sophomore) is already a great formal writer, but I never turn down another writing program, so I had her complete some assignments to see how the program compared with how I have taught her to write (long N.B., my dad taught me to write when I was a kid and he did an amazing job. I taught Therese to write the same way he taught me. My other kids have presented more of a challenge, though, hence my love affair with homeschool writing programs. I do, however, always end up comparing the finished result, if not the exact method, with how I was taught.). The real reason I was interested in this program, though, was that it looked excellent for Nicholas (13 and a rising 8th grader). He has great writing instincts, but needs some good formal instruction (and he isn't going to take it from me). Spoilers - this is an *excellent* program. But first, the details:
Writing with Sharon Watson Review
The student textbook (eBook version) is 424 pages long. It covers the following:

  1. Before You Write
  2. Persuasion
  3. Proofreading
  4. Exposition
  5. Description
  6. Narration
  7. Reference

There are 117 suggested daily lessons and instructions for 21 different writing assignments. Throughout the course, the student learns everything about writing from the ground up, from "first sentence anxiety," to main idea, to the structure of different essays. Different essay types are explored through assignments, which students are taught to edit and proofread. One of the best features of this program is the built-in grammar. By the time students are in high school, they should have covered most of their basic grammar (both Therese and Nicholas are still doing grammar weekly, but both have also done grammar at the high school level for years), but when you write, there are certain grammar issues that arise over and over. Mrs. Watson, being aware of this fact, incorporates salient grammar lessons and includes practice worksheets throughout the program. That really does make this an all-in-one program.
Writing with Sharon Watson Review
The accompany Teacher's Guide (also an eBook) has 229 pages and covers the following topics:

  1. Grading Toolbox for Teachers
  2. What's in the Student's Toolbox
  3. Teacher Key to The Power in Your Hands (corresponds with the student book)

How We Used It

As I indicated above, I used this program with two of my children. Because dual-level instruction is provided, it is completely possible to use this with children who are at different levels in their writing careers. Therese, as an advanced writer, has been able to get something out of this course, while Nicholas, as more of an intermediate writer, will get much more out of it over the course of the next year. In fact, it is exactly what I have been looking for for him!

Regarding this program, Therese had this to say, "It has a lot of useful information. It tells you a lot, but keeps it very easy to understand. The section on persuasive writing was particularly compelling. The selection of writing assignments was diverse and drew you in easily. Nothing felt forced. This is a great program for those just learning to write or for those who need to sharpen their skills."

Nicholas, too, has been, if not *enjoying* this program, at least not protesting it! (Hey, for a 13 year-old boy, that's practically an endorsement!). For Nicholas, we started this program at the very beginning. Mrs. Watson obviously knows kids and writing, as she starts the student book with having kids fill out a checklist describing their attitudes toward writing. One option states, "I would rather walk across a burning desert at high noon with buzzards circling overhead while I drag a bone-dry water bottle than write anything whatsoever." Fortunately, this does not describe Nicky's attitude! It does show that Mrs. Watson understands that writing is not a favorite for all kids, though. She doesn't expect it to be. She does expect that she can make it palatable, though, and she does!

Because the lessons are short, Nicky did not balk at doing them. On no day do you do a *ton* of writing. For a beginning-ish writer, that can be really important. Of course, you can do as much as you want. If Therese had been using this program years ago, she would have been doing weeks of work in one day. Different kids and different attitudes = different approaches to the program. For Nicky, though, it's important to get in, get out, and get done. This program allows him to do that while still getting really solid writing instruction.

An excellent feature of this program that is so helpful for a kid like Nicky (read - very literal, very stubborn, doesn't like to listen to his primary teacher very much (in case you didn't know, he has ADHD/OCD/Tourette's)) is the constant presentation of what is and is not appropriate or good writing for this age level. Nicky is a very bright kid who will get away with doing as little as he can the majority of the time. Mrs. Watson presents a sentence (which would be the kind of sentence that Nicky, on a bad day, would write). She then says, "This is appropriate for elementary school." She will then give an example of a high school level sentence. That sentence is one that Nicky is perfectly capable of crafting. The kid has had high school grammar for years. He is the master of appositives and uses all kinds of clauses beautifully, so when he's not being lazy he can write some truly impressive sentences. Mrs. Watson pushes him to do so. She doesn't accept the bare minimum. And because it is someone else telling him that the bare minimum is not acceptable, it is easier for him to swallow. 

Can you tell I like this program?

I should also mention that Sharon Watson is the creator of Illuminating Literature: When Worlds Collide, our literature program, which I reviewed last year. I also can't say enough good things about this literature program. I just love and it and am hoping and praying for some kind of sequel! I mean, I really liked it when I reviewed it, but I have loved it more and more as we have neared the end of it. I have the feeling I am going to feel that way about The Power in Your Hands!

Sharon Watson also has another really neat product that the Crew got to review called 21 Grading Grids, so be sure to click the banner below to read all about those and to see how other reviewers used and enjoyed her high school writing program.

Writing with Sharon Watson Review
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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Podcasts Again!

I have blogged about podcasts several times before, but since I am always on the lookout for new ones (like, obsessively on the lookout - it's really not a good thing), I have to assume that other people like finding those hidden (and not so hidden) gems too. To that end, here are the podcasts (of the 251 to which I subscribe) that I have on automatic download/add to playlist on my phone.

My #1 favorite right now is True Crime Historian. If I were to podcast, this is what I would do. Yes, my PhD is in political science, but if you know me at all, you know that my heart is in history (my other BA). Digging in newspaper archives is my dream (I mean, my dissertation covered the years 1901-1959! To do that for a PoliSci dissertation at a school like Rice? That took some moxie and a great adviser.). I would be Richard O Jones's research assistant if he would have me (especially if it meant an extra podcast per week!). There are too many reasons to list why I love this podcast so much and I am already sounding like a giddy schoolgirl. His voice is so perfect for what he does - narrate the past. His selection of stories is diverse and captivating. He writes chapbooks. If you don't know what those are, you don't read the right kind of books. The fact that he calls them chapbooks just makes me love him more. I almost bought some on Kindle, but it is not a real chapbook if you don't have the physical copy, so I'll hold out for a real one. I'm done now. If you don't fall in love with his website at first glance, there might just be something wrong with you. There is a whole lot of True Crime podcast chaff out there. Richard O Jones is all wheat.

Another podcast I never miss is Stories - A History of Appalachia...One Story at a Time. The name of this podcast says everything. In less than ten minutes, twice a week, two nice sounding guys tell stories of that part of the country known as Appalachia. It reminds me of listening to public radio when I was a kid and couldn't fall asleep. It's so good. Completely professional (meaning no banal, self-indulgent banter between the hosts that no one cares about) and utterly delightful.

Documentary on One is an Irish podcast that is absolutely stellar. I can't even think of how to describe it except to say that it is documentaries. The back catalog is over 1,600 episodes. The lastest episode on the Irish Hangman is *riveting*.

Irish History Podcast is not so much Irish History as it is Irish stories or episodes in Irish history that most of us would have no way of knowing. The narrator's accent is to die for. The stories are fascinating.

History in Five Minutes Podcast is another great short history podcast. A wide variety of topics, short and sweet.

If you only subscribe to one, though, make it True Crime Historian.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Best Spotify Playlists

Do you listen to Spotify? I have had a premium account pretty much since Spotify's inception. I listen to it while I work (and I'm always working. Side note, I've mentioned this before, but not for awhile, I have time to do two out of three things every day: teach the kids, work, and clean the house. I can do any two. I am always AMAZED at how much I can do in a day if we don't do school. There are so many more hours in the day! The house gets so much attention! Moms who send their kids to school have so much free time. Just an observation.). I have made a gazillion of my own playlists, but there are also a gazillion great playlists already out there. Some were made by people I know (a friend of mine from, gosh, like, Kindergarten knows the best music - he was the music coordinator on MTV's Awkward) and some were made by people I don't. Some are from Spotify itself (themselves?). One of Spotify's most interesting features is it's Discover Weekly playlist. Based on your listening habits, it creates a personalized playlist for you every Monday. I have discovered some new and *very* beloved songs through this playlist ("Your Makeup is Terrible" and "Sometime Around Midnight" among them). There are always some huge misses, too. It's always interesting to see what Spotify comes up with, though.

Here's a look at my Discover Weekly this week:

Anyway, here are a few of my favorite playlists:

Playlists by Spotify -

  • Throwback Thursday (SpotifyUK)
  • dancePOP
  • Gossip Girl (say what you want - the music was AWESOME)
Playlists by Topsify
  • 100 Greatest Pop Songs Ever
  • Dark Pop
Playlists by thesoundsofspotify
  • The Sound of Chillwave
  • The Sound of Metropolis
  • The Sound of Glam Metal 
  • a TON more
These are just a few. The best thing about meta playlists like these is that they can introduce you to bands you didn't know and you can branch out from there. Obviously if our music tastes diverge significantly, this post was of not interest to you at all (for instance, no country will soil my Spotify), but hopefully you find at least something to check out there. Use that Discover feature. It can be really helpful.

Review of Laurelwood Books

Latin and Penmanship {Laurelwood Books  Review}

Handwriting, or penmanship, is not one of those things that our students should stop with elementary school. In fact, my high school aged daughter still does handwriting many days. The problem is finding penmanship resources for the older grades, though. If that has been a problem for you the way it has been for me, look no further! Laurelwood Books has you covered with its Patriotic Penmanship - Grade 7&8 Jr. High (cursive). Best of all, when you fall in love with this title, you'll be covered for penmanship all the way through high school, since this series goes K-12 with review and transition titles!

Latin and Penmanship {Laurelwood Books  Review}

We received the Jr. High (7th and 8th grades) level of Patriotic Penmanship to use with Nicholas (my rising 8th grader). The book has 30 lessons and is 68 pages long. The lessons are excerpts from, you guessed it, patriotic Bible verses, patriotic speeches, the Constitution, and even poetry (Robert Frost - yay!). There is a great mix of material here making it appropriate for boys or girls equally. No child is likely to get bored (sometimes a risk if all you are doing is Bible or poetry or, really, *any* single subject handwriting or copywork). 

The format of each week (or Lesson - how you divide up the penmanship book is up to you!) of handwriting is the same. The week's selection is in the box. Tracing practice is first (after the first couple of lines, I let Nicholas skip this. At 13, he really doesn't need the tracing practice, and he has never liked it.). In many cases, with an especially long quote you don't copy the whole thing. The entire quote is given for context, but the key part is the only thing that is used for handwriting practice. In this case, it is the famous verse regarding the love of money being the root of all evil. After tracing practice is writing practice. The dotted words are on one line with a blank line underneath. The dotted words can be traced again if so desired and then the verse written again underneath freehand. Finally the student writes the quote/verse himself with only the first word of each line provided in dotted form. It is easy to break up penmanship into weekly lessons when the format is done this way.

On Day 1, you do the tracing practice. On Day 2, you do the Writing Practice, and on Day 3, you do the Full Quote, so penmanship becomes a M-W-F type of subject at these upper grades. Of course, Nicholas (13) does not ever do things the traditional way! He tends to dive into subjects he likes headfirst, so at the close of this review, he is on Lesson 11 (of course, remember that he is not doing the tracing and that cuts down substantially on how long it takes to do a "week's" worth of penmanship).

N.B. Nicholas' handwriting posture is not that recommended by the books's author or by me.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, it is hard to find penmanship books for the higher levels, so I am really happy to have this one. I only have one issue with Patriotic Penmanship, and that is the amount of tracing included at the Jr. High level. I could see including tracing at the beginning of the book, but the amount of tracing I detailed above continues throughout the entire book. If you have a child who doesn't like or need all that tracing, a substantial part of the book will end up going to "waste." Of course it's not a deal breaker, and this is still an excellent resource, but I would love this book a lot more if it contained more handwriting and less tracing. 

Laurelwood Books has a tremendous amount of really neat homeschool resources, and the Crew got to review many of them, so be sure to click the banner below for Latin, Scripture, and other Penmanship resources!

Latin and Penmanship {Laurelwood Books  Review}

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