Friday, April 27, 2012

Balancing Math Learning With Fun

Let me tell you a story...

A long time ago, in a land far away (Florida) I had a student (Bubba) who did NOT like Algebra. I don't know if it was a remnant leftover from his first few years spent in public school when he felt as if he wasn't "good enough" at math. Or maybe it was too early for him...sometimes kids just aren't ready. Kids' brains develop at different rates, and while some may "get it" early, others may need a few more months or years.

Whatever the reason, we must have tried every available option to get him through Algebra, from a computer program to a tutor and a co-op class, from two different written curricula and a series video lessons to sitting with him for hours as he worked through his "homework" every day. Nothing worked. At least, nothing worked until he was ready.

After a  year and a half of beating our heads against the wall, we finally wised up and took a break from math for a while. We moved, and co-operatively decided that he would finish up the last few chapters of the book he'd had the most success with, and with my dad's help (we were temporarily living with my folks while we looked for a house shortly after I'd had Firefly) he completed Algebra STILL hating math. But at least we could check off that box, and fill in the grade report, right?

To be honest, filling in a grade report, with good grades or bad ones, is not really our personal goal for the homeschooling of our children. I am much more concerned with whether they A) have the good character and know-how to begin a project and stick with it until completing it, always giving it their best and B) whether they love to learn and will be lifelong learners, seeking out new things to know, more books to read, and interesting paths, under the guidance of the Lord.

In my book, our Algebra experience with Bubba failed miserably on most of those fronts. He definitely did NOT love to learn any type of math at that point (especially Algebra), we had tried so many venues to achieve the completion of a (meaning ANY) algebra program that I felt we hadn't stuck to much of anything, and his character did not make any gains during the study of algebra, as we had many horrible conflicts over the work or why it was necessary (certain publishers are not very concerned with you knowing why the particulars of the math they teach are important to your "real" life).

In any case, the next year we had a God-inspired moment when we discovered Bob Jones' Consumer Math course. Bubba took to that one like a duck to water. It made sense. At long last, here was a math course that actually seemed to have a real-life use that he saw as valuable to himself (he already had his own lawn care and gardening business at that point). Many of the problems were word problems or used pictorals of some sort to make the abstract ideas concrete. In hindsight, he was probably a good candidate for one of those math programs that used many manipulatives to make the concepts mroe real, but I didn't really know about them at the time.

You may be wondering why I am telling you all of this. My story really does have a point.(smile)

What I want you to get out of this is two-fold. First, I really, really want you to consider that if you have a student who is struggling with math, especially in one of those pivotal areas such as Algebra, PLEASE consider giving them a break and allowing their brain to catch up to your expectations. Taking time off doing something else for a while is not a crazy does not mean you are neglecting your child's education, and it does not put your child at a disadvantage later. Actually, they will gain many things from taking time off, such as time for their brain to mature, less frustration (and fewer conflicts in your home), and also a trust in you that you put them above some academic expectation that is not as important as they are.

The second thing I want to leave you with is that while trying a different Algebra curriculum or a tutor really wasn't a bad idea (in our case, there were definite problems with why the computer curriculum was a bad fit, so quitting it was the right thing to do), I am going to suggest that you consider trying something a bit different from the traditional second-options (like tutors and a new math book), but that makes complete sense. Something I just didn't even ever think of at the time, but that I am sure would have worked well with Bubba. What I suggest is that you find some other math-type activities that your child will be able to work with...math manipulatives, logic puzzles, mind-benders, a math book based on carpentry or business that uses real-life word problems...basically, anything with visual aids that will help him or her SEE the concepts that they need to understand.

You just can't minimize the importance of attaching a visualization to an abstract concept. The process of showing (vs telling) someone how math works is invaluable. Have you ever seen episodes of the show NUMB3RS? They used math to solve crimes, and the mathematician character, Charlie, was so incredible because he could take these incredibly complex and abstract ideas and turn them into practical examples that even the "average" TV FBI agent (and I) could understand. I admire people who can make math simple, even when a concept is a tough one. I just miss out on being able to do that. I can break math down into steps, I can tell you the rules and the most efficient way to solve the problem, but I can't make it REAL to you, nor can I make you SEE what is really happening in the "mathosphere." It's a gift I apparently do not have.

Well, in case I am not alone in being deficient in this sort of math genius, I am going to happily tell you that there is someone out there who does have that genius, and they are smart enough to hire lots of those math geniuses to write some pretty useful books to help our students visual the reality and practicality of math...The Critical Thinking Company.

I honestly should have known that they could explain math in such a useful way because I have successfully used their products in our homeschool before...just not the math ones. We have used their Editor-in-Chief and their Mind Benders products before with much enjoyment. The Editor-in-Chief series offers students practical ways to apply the learning of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and mechanics rules by having them edit a variety of stories, knowing only how many errors are in the selection...kind of like a treasure hunt...and my son, Tex, loves doing them. Why? Because they are more practical and interesting than completing endless exercises in a grammar or spelling book, and because they challenge him to be attentive and to "beat" the puzzle (and he likes puzzles).

I am so glad we were chosen to review Balance Math, a line of math exercises from Critical Thinking Company created to develop students' understanding of algebraic equations using the visual representation of equations. Tex has been working his way through Khan Academy's free math program this year, focusing on developing his Algebra skills, and he loved both of these books the moment we opened up their packages...he found them to be a welcome change from his online work, and felt they were more fun than work. Now that's a big plus!!

We recieved Balance Math & More Level 2 due to a shipping glitch, but the company was kind enough to let us keep the copy and work through it while they mailed us the Algebra book. Tex jumped right into the problems in Math & More right away and would often walk into the room where I was working with a smiling face to show me the interesting problem he had just completed. The problems in Math &More are geared towards grades 4-12, with the problems starting out simple and becoming more complex as the book progresses.

The problems vary from balancing equations using that scale visual to sudoku-type problems, and all work is meant to strengthen the student's ability to see the conceptual understanding and algebraic reasoning. It did not take long for him to work his way thorough the book, which costs $9.99 for 48 pages of exercises and their answers, which might seem a bit much for a "puzzle book" BUT the reward was great---enthusiasm for the subject. Priceless. The only criticism I have ever heard of about Critical Thinking Company is that their prices are a bit steep for certain products, but since they are providing such a valuable and quality service---helping kids learn to think critically and logically---the extra cost is worth it.

Once we recieved Balance Math Teaches Algebra, Tex started going through it with his dad. Hubby, who is a science and math geek, felt that the book was very effective in how it used pictures to demonstrate the algebraic equations, rules, and concepts. The first section of the exercise book graphically demonstrate the basic rules of balancing equations (through step by step problems), then the subsequent pages move in a logical sequence from the simple to more complex problems. He felt this book would be best used on a 1-2 exercises per week basis for a few months, but acknowledges that it would also be a good substitution for a regular curriculum if you have a student who is stuck in a rut and needs help out (or a creative learner, such as an unschooler or a younger student who wants to learn ahead of "schedule"), or as a gradual and intriguing introduction before jumping into the meatier concepts in most Algebra curricula. The book is a total of 62 pages (answers included) and costs $14.99.

The only drawback to these books is that if you, the teacher, do not understand the concepts yourself, you will need to get your own copy and work through it before offering it to your student (or you will have to hope that someone else in your family "gets" Algebra, so they can help if your student gets stuck.) There is no teachers manual, and the answers are just answers, not explanations.

I think that Tex's simple words of the other day, "Mom, I really love this book. Can we get more?" say it all. If you can find that something that incites your student to pursue knowlede and love learning, to be challenged and eager, then why would you say, "No?"

If you have students who need a bit of something to get them back on track with math, check out some of these other math products from Critical Thinking Company.

Check out what others on the Crew said about the Critical Thinking Company products they tried at the TOS Homeschool Review Crew blog.


Disclaimer: I received copies of Balance Math Teaches Algebra! and Balance Math & More Level 2 for the purposes of reviewing the product. I recieved no other compensation, and the opinions you see in my review are my own, based upon our families' experiences with this product.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

That's Amaaaaazing!


If anyone ever tells you that teaching science is not necessary in the early years, don't believe it. While it may be true that the vital early skills include character development, reading/writing, and math, there is still that "WOW!" factor and the curiosity and understanding about the way our world works that we want and NEED to develop, so that our children will become lifelong learners, and in my book, science is a big part of that. Personally, I feel that developing that spirit of inquiry is much easier in the younger years because most youngsters are both naturally curious and enthusiastic...especially when it comes to the "flash" and "amazing" parts of subjects like science. In my opinion, I'd rather they learn to love science early on, than be a bit intimidated by it later...even if it takes a bit of extra time and effort on my part.

However, science does NOT have to be either intimidating or ultra-time-consuming, for either Mom or the kids. You don't have to have been a Chemistry major to understand all of the experiments on the set of Amazing Science DVDs available from All you need is a DVD player, a few easy to find materials, and a sense of adventure.


Why don't you check out their DVD trailer below? You will get a taste for what the two DVD set, which costs only $19.95 (now that's amazing!), has to offer. To see a detailed listing of the contents of the two DVDs, check out the Amazing Science Page at their website. To watch five of the twenty-three experiments contained on the two DVDs, you can click here.

My homeschooled children are ages 2, 4, 6, 8, and 14. They all sat riveted to the screen, watching, laughing, and talking about the fascinating experiments conducted by Jason Gibson on the Amazing Science DVDs. Cowboy, age 6, was especially intrigued by the process of making an hypothesis and conducting appropriate experimentation. After watching "Amazing Magnetic Force" he had to walk around the house, conducting his own experiment by using a powerful magnet we have and testing different things in our house to see if they were magnetic, too. It only took minutes to type up a chart he could fill out to demonstrate his findings, then we added that to his nature notebook (not exactly what we had in mind for our nature notebooks, but magnetic fields are a part of nature, too!) Once we obtain some copper pipe, we will have to re-create the experiment with him at home.

Ladybug and Firefly LOVED the "Color-Changing Milk" experiment so much they talked Tex into reproducing it in our own kitchen. We had all that was needed for the project (each experiment is preceded by a list of necessary items), and the kids had watched the procedure several times, so they knew just what to do and to expect (very simply, you get a shallow pan of milk, put four different colored drops of food coloring---not touching---in it, then you put a drop or two of dish soap in the middle of the drops and watch the colors "run way" from the soap and mix together, making new colors and interesting patterns). I asked the kids to draw pictures of what they saw afterwards and each one wrote (or I wrote for them) what they learned from the experiment.

Mr. Gibson explains the hows and whys of every experiment very clearly, which was a relief for me, because as much as I am truly interested in science, my forte is in the life sciences, not the physical ones. He makes the process and the expected outcome very understandable and I found the experiments easy enough (and clear enough) for me to do with the kids, or to let Tex (age 14) do with them. I also felt that they were so well-demonstrated, that if a teacher was not particularly scientifically inclined, she could forego doing most of the experiments herself and the kids would still understand the basic principles of what was being taught by just watching the videos.

You could also complete lab sheets based solely on the video demonstrations. Here are a few FREE! printables I found to use with the experiments demonstrated on this DVD set: basic page with space for a drawing and blank lines , higher level page listing materials and hypothesis, higher level page showing results and conclusion. Here's a link to Notebooking Nook where you can download a FREE! 16 page science notebooking pages set.

My kids regularly request this DVD to watch their favorite experiments performed again and again. I don't like to have the TV on a lot during the homeschool week, but if there is a stretch of time that it seems appropriate (like if Tex is babysitting, it has been raining relentlessly for a long time, or someone is ill), then I find it hard to find fault with using this DVD as "educational entertainment." I am hoping that since this DVD is called Amazing Science: Volume 1, there must be a second video in the works. We can't wait!

I have had a playlist on YouTube for several years of "science experiment videos" that the kids have enjoyed watching from time to time (because that is the FREE! option), but it is so nice to be able to conveniently pop in a DVD (at home, in the car, at the homeschool co-op) and see high quality demonstrations. For the small investment of $19.95, I don't see how you can lose with this product. It would certainly compliment almost any K-8 science curriculum.

If you have learners at higher levels, you can also purchase video lessons about Chemistry, Physics, Algebra, and Geometry, to name a few. There is even a video tutorial for K-7th Grade Math I'd like to have a look at sometime. Check out the Science and Math website for more video tutorial DVD titles.

The bottom line is that after watching a few of the segments on the Amazing Science DVD, my kids had a renewed interest in pursuing scientific studies and a determination to search for answers to questions they had in a scientific way on their own, and I had an improved sense of confidence that "YES, we can do science experiments (and live to tell about it)." Look at that any way you like, but in my book that's amaaaaazing!

To see what others on the Old Schoolhouse Review Crew had to say about Amazing Science!, check out the Crew Blog.


Disclaimer: I received the Amazing Science! dvd set in order to complete this honest review. The opinions you read here reflect the personal experiences and thoughts of me and my children about this product. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Turn up the Music, Bring on the Art!

If you read my post A Day in the Life of our Homeschool, you will know that we have a fairly easygoing pattern...especially for the little kids. However, there is a benefit to some sort of planning and structure, both for mom and for the kids, so I came up with the idea of scheduling a "Special Activity of the Day." 

By doing this, we can add in those valuable "extra-curricular" activities, such as music and art, that often get forgotten by choosing one from our predetermined list, one at a time, depending on what day it is. In this way I also avoid the problem of feeling pressured to do art/music/writing/dancing/manipulatives/games every day, because there just isn't that kind of time in a least not if we want our school days to end before Daddy gets home from work!

In any case, we came up with the idea of scheduling one "focus" activity a day, along with the usual required Bible, math, spelling, and reading/English. This allows us some variety, as well as a bit of structure, so we don't always default to our favorite activities when there is extra time (such as art for Ladybug, games for Cowboy, or reading for Tex).

Here's the sign I made for our fridge:

Our "Special Activity of the Day" sign

As you can see, we have listed one specialized area of study for each day. I will be honest here and tell you that we do NOT do every of these each week. Some weeks are good if we manage to do two or three of them, and on others we have actually done all five. My attitude about not getting to the "fun" and "special stuff" every day is that while everyone needs goals for which to aim, we should also be content in doing our best...and since we are trying pretty hard, I think our best (for the time being) is actually quite good...though there is always room for improvement.

Our "Writing Suitcase" of the kids' favorite extra activities, and something made using the contents of the suitcase (the lion is drawn on other paper and glued on).

Some activities, such as piano practice, do get done nearly every day. Tex is currently using a Suzuki book we purchased off the Internet (with accompanying cd) to learn piano, combined with some low-level tutoring from me, and some more detailed instruction from my mother once a week. He also found out that there are piano lessons on You Tube and has decided that he is going to learn one measure of The Moonlight Sonata every day or two (using those lessons) until he knows the whole thing. So far, he has managed to learn a full page (we printed the music), and sounds quite accomplished! 

My philosophy about music lessons is fairly relaxed, as you can probably tell. If my children show an interest in a particular instrument, I will offer them the opportunity to learn it at home for a while. For example, we have the Worship Guitar Lessons on dvd if they want to learn guitar. I highly recommend those. Jean Welles has a very patient manner and the format is excellent for wannabe guitarists young or old (here is another video lesson site I found for free, if you have a child who already knows the basics---check out The Guitarmann.) Once they demonstrate that they are committed to the prospect of daily practices and learning, I will support paying for private lessons, if they are desired. This is the first time Tex has shown consistent long-term interest in something musical, and should he continue along this vein with the resources we have available, I will see about getting him some formal lessons.

Another way we work in music study to our curriculum is that we like to learn classic hymns to sing together. I have enough skill at the piano to play simple versions of hymns we like (out of one of those simple arrangements hymn books), and then we sing just for fun. The kids are learning to sing Be Thou My Vision (this links to a very cool site that offers audio of the four-part harmony parts separately and together for FREE!), and once they know all of the verses by heart, we are going to look for someone at church who knows how to sing in harmony who can teach us to do that as a family (here is a link to a host of other acapella hymns for free to get your family interested in the idea). Eventually, we'd love to have the children be able to sing during offering time at our church since they like to let children and their families sing for the congregation at this time.

Incorporating art has never been difficult for us, as all of my kids love to draw, play with clay, make art projects, and paint. We don't do a lot of formal teaching, though we do have online access to Mark Kistler's Imagination Station Mini-Marshmallow lessons (through the Homeschool Buyer's Co-op), and also to Meet the Masters, if we want to do a more formal study of an artist or style. Ladybug received the dvds of Mike's Inspiration Station from her great-grandmother for Christmas, and she got a few of the See the Light dvds for her birthday from her Nanny and Poppy (you can try a lesson for free online). There is also plenty to find at Activity TV, though your kids may need help wading through the silly and not-so-preferred stuff there.

They also do Nature Studies regularly, which in my book counts as art, if you are encouraging them to be observant, practicing drawing what they see, and can give them a few tips now and then to help them improve their drawings. Two fun ways to hold yourself accountable for what you draw (and they may also motivate your kids) are to participate in Harmony Art Mom's Sketch Tuesday or her Outdoor Hour Challenge.  For Sketch Tuesday, you get an assignment every week and send Harmony Art Mom an email with pictures of the photos attached by the deadline, then she posts them in a slideshow on her blog every week. For the Outdoor Hour Challenge you link up blog posts about your nature studies to Barb's blog carnival. It's a great way to keep yourself accountable for getting it done, and to see what others are doing with their nature studies (and art).

We incorporate artist and musician studies into our day as the topic interests us. We will sometimes listen to a tape, cd, or video about a composer while driving long distances, and we have an extensive collection of (bargain priced) cds of many classical composers. I try to look up a bit about whoever I am putting into the cd player to share with them before I start the "concert." 

We are building a library of books about artists and musicians, and read one of them from time to time. I also keep an art book with a new picture chosen every month on display in our dining room (on an easel), so they become familiar with a variety of artists. I download pictures of favorite artists, then set one of them as my wallpaper for a while. It reminds me to talk to the kids about that work of art and the artist. Here's a link to a site where you can look up your favorite artists and their paintings . You can look up information about the artists just by using Google.

Once when we were eating out at IHOP, we saw a bunch of pictures that looked like a familiar artist, but I couldn't remember his name, so I had to find a patron who remembered his name, which led us to meeting a very nice older couple. Once we got home, we looked up Andy Warhol's works online and later the kids made their own Warhol-esque pictures. Another time, walking through the hospital to visit someone, we noticed all of the pretty landscapes on the wall, and the kids recognized some of the tunes coming from the piano in the lobby. It's always rewarding to hear your child say (when walking through Busch Gardens), "Mom...that's Beethoven!" Art and music just tend to come up in real life, you know? 

One of these days I'd like to get a bit more formal about our art and music studies, but for now the kids enjoy what we do and it is working for us.

If you'd like to see more ideas on incorporating music and art into your homeschool, check out the other entries at the TOS Homeschool Crew Blog Cruise (starting Tuesday).


Disclaimer: I received copies of the student and teacher texts, as well as the downloadable audio files, to enable me to complete this review. The opinion you read here is my own honest opinion, based on our experiences with the product. 

God's Great Covenant

God's Great Covenant NT1 is another fine product from Classical Academic Press, publishers of The Art of Argument and Latin Alive!. This in-depth Bible study of the New Testament is intended for grades 4 and higher, and is divided into 36 chapters each of which take about one week to complete.  If you choose to purchase the complete set, which is what we received to review, you will get a student manual, a teacher's edition, and a set of downloadable MP3 files of 32 New Testament audio stories. This set costs $56.95 and reflects a savings of almost ten dollars.

My students are currently ages 2 (almost 3), 4, 6, 8, and 14. Our 14 year old completes his Bible study class on his own (he is studying Revelation---his choice), while the little ones do Bible time with me, but for this study we all sat together around the dining room table. I found the study to be just a little bit too hard for the little ones (ages 2-8), though Tex (my 14) found it to be easy/just right. The little ones did, however, LOVE listening to the audio files, and we will continue to listen to them periodically as I felt we learned a lot from the reader's insightful comments and extra interesting information about the Gospels. 

One thing I really appreciated about this curriculum is the way it was set up. Each chapter contains: Theme, Scripture Memory Passage, Key Facts, Story Time, Review worksheets, quizzes, and Think About It sections. Many sections include references to how Jesus fulfilled scriptural prophecy, exercises on discerning the important truths of the lesson, and maps to show where the action is taking place. The lessons also include a variety of exercises from word scrambles to crossword puzzles to drawing assignments to keep your child interested in their work. Our favorite section of all was Simon's World, a fictional account of a boy living in Jesus' time which revealed to the children all sorts of interesting facts about life in the time of Christ. I think that even though the workbook is a bit above my Amigos' abilities at this point, we might go through the book and read all of the stories about Simon before putting this away for a few years (my oldest Amigo is 2nd Grade and I'd rather wait for Tex to do it with us as a family).

I really liked how this study kept bringing up several key concepts. It repeatedly went back to the importance of the Gospels, and clearly discussed how each one is unique (written for different audiences) and how they are all pointing to Christ as the Messiah. The study also emphasizes how clearly Christ fulfills prophecy in the Old Testament, and points out specific scriptures throughout that support this assertion. Lastly, I really liked how the book took different questions Christians commonly have or encounter from others, such as the differences in the genealogies and what is the difference between the pharisees and the sadducees, and answers them for you. I find that this comprehensive and thorough treatment of this topic is very appealing to me, and it is exciting to think that once my children have completed this study, they will really have an excellent grasp of Jesus' mission and ministry.

The cost of the student book is $26.95 and the Teacher's Manual can be purchased for $29.95. If I was planning to do the study along with my younger children (which I will do when they are ready), I would not feel I needed the manual to correct their answers (you'd figure them out as you go along), however, there are additional footnotes and more detailed historical and geographic information to enhance your studies in the margins of the teacher's manual (along with a full copy of the student text with the answer key), as well as space to write your own reflections, so some teachers will feel more comfortable with buying it, too. You can check out samples of the Student Text and the Teacher's Edition at the Classical Academic website.

Either way, I'd definitely spend the extra $9.95 to buy the downloadable audio files of Christopher Perrin telling 32 stories from the four Gospels. They are engaging and full of insightful comments that definitely add to the study. You can burn a disk of these files, so you can listen to them somewhere other than the computer you download them onto. My kids were very interested in listening to these stories, and I very much appreciated the extra information and thoughtful comments the reader offered. I imagine we will be listening to these, just for "fun" for years to come. You can listen to a sample from Chapter One of God's Great Covenant.

You can read other reviews about God's Great Covenant at the Old Schoolhouse Review Crew blog.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Comparison Trap

I'll admit it. I've done it. I've looked at other homeschoolers, other families, and other mothers and wondered, "Am I doing as well as they are? Are they happier than me? More successful than me? Smarter? More interesting? More on fire for Jesus??"

It isn't something that just recently happened, this comparison thing. I remember dealing with it back in high school, when I looked at the "popular" kids and told myself that I didn't like them much anyway since they were stuck up, and I looked at the "sporty" kids and told myself that they didn't have time to do anything but sports...certainly they did not have time to be in as many activities or get the good grades I got because sports were so silly. I avoided the "stoner kids" because I was told they had a bad reputation (probably true), though I looked wistfully at their laughter and camaraderie and wished I was part of something like that. I even looked at my friends, "the geeks," and told myself sometimes that even though Jim or Sam got a perfect score on the SATs, he had no common sense, so what good was it anyway? My scores weren't that high. They were good, but not perfect. Was something wrong with me?? Essentially, I was comparing myself to all of those people and finding myself falling short of some man-made standard, so I hid my feelings by pretending to not care.

But I did care. Oh, how I wish I'd heard this message back then. If my younger self could hear that God gave us all special abilities...abilities unique to ourselves, intended to fulfill a special purpose bestowed upon us by our Heavenly Father, what difference might that have made in my choices?

Is your problem with comparing yourself to the standard others have set instead of God's holy standard and his goals for YOUR life still a major influence in how you make your daily, monthly, and yearly choices? Who sets your standard? You, your peers, or God?

If you ever struggled with comparing yourself to others (come on, admit it, we've all done it), then this sermon series from Pastor Andy Stanley is for you.

If you aren't familiar with Andy Stanley, the son of well-known pastor, Charles Stanley, and excellent preacher in his own right, you can read more about him at the NorthPoint Community Church website.

Then head on over to the NorthPoint Community Church website and listen to Andy's sermon series The Comparison Trap. I think you will be glad you did. I was.


PS. You are going to love the sixty second long vignette at the beginning of each session. I love Andy Stanley's humor.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Little Help From My "Friends"

This week's blog cruise topic is, "Who inspires you?"

As a Christian, I feel I ought to say, "Well, God, of course." Right? After all, it is He who ultimately convinced me I needed to homeschool. He can be very persuasive...and inspiring.

As a parent, I feel I ought to say, "Oh, definitely my kids...I have to keep one step ahead of them, so I have to stay on my toes!" It is true...they are the reason we do what we do. They are our heritage. Our blessing. Our inspiration.

As a wife, I feel I ought to say,"My husband. He inspires me to be the best I can be."  Hopefully our husbands make the homeschooling journey more pleasant by helping us meet all of its many challenges and inspiring us to hang in there when the going gets tough.

As a daughter, I feel I should say, "My mom and dad. They are my best friends in the world." They do provide me with so much support that helps me keep going when times are tough, and their kind words and actions often inspire me.

As a friend, I feel I should say my sister-in-law and other homeschooling friends, since gaining insight from those who are traveling the same road and also by helping those who are just starting on their voyage can be very inspiring.

Well, all of these things are true. I do gain inspiration to keep homeschooling from all of these places. What a blessing it is to not be traveling this sometimes difficult and often challenging (but ultimately rewarding) road alone. However, the truth is that sometimes I hit a wall and just can't see what to do. I've exhausted all my resources and still haven't figured out what my next move needs to be. Other times, it seems I've lost the motivation I need to motivate my students. Sometimes I've been praying and can't seem to hear what it is that the Lord wants to tell me. Other times it's because there is an issue that my hubby can't seem to make heads or tail of any more than I can. Perhaps my friends and family have told me what they would do, but none of their answers have worked for me or don't seem to fit my exact situation. Or perhaps I can't find someone I feel I can talk to about a certain topic. What do I do for inspiration then?

Well, here's what I do. I'll admit it to you right now. I am a seminar junkie. A sermon addict. A homeschool or Christian conference groupie. I LOVE to learn. I adore listening to other people's ideas and methods. I find that picking a topic I am feeling uninspired or sluggish in and listening to sermons or seminars about that topic really gets me geared up and raring to go.

Do you attend your local homeschooling convention every year? Are you like me and by the end of the convention, even though you just finished your previous school year, or haven't even completed all of the last year's work, you are ready to get started implementing all the fun and interesting stuff you just heard about?? I don't think I am alone in this, am I?

Well, one way to keep that feeling going all year is to buy the conference cds/mp3s during the convention. It's a bit pricey, but if you save up during the year for them, they can be an inspiration to you all year long, and that is worth the price. You usually get fifty to one hundred talks to choose from (at least you do from our huge convention), and knowing that you will have the collection to listen to later leaves you free to focus on catching your favorite speakers during the convention without feeling that you are missing something important in another room. It also makes it possible for you and your spouse to take time throughout the year to listen to certain sessions together, then to discuss how to implement them in your own homeschool. One of my favorite lectures, from quite a few years back, is GASP! Are you leaving Gaps??? by Tami Duby of Tobin's Lab. Her lecture convinced me to stop worrying about what the state and my neighbors/relatives thought about my homeschooling choices and to focus instead upon what God wanted me to teach my individual students to acheive His purposes and plans. You can purchase it online here...if you are questioning your homeschooling decisions at all, it's definitely worth it.

Another way of gaining inspiration, especially if your local convention isn't that large or inspiring, is to attend one of the new-ish online homeschool conventions. There are a few I know of, though I have not participated in most of them. There are the Heart of the Matter Conference, The Schoolhouse Expo, and The Ultimate Homeschool Expo. I also found the Homeschool How-to Conference, which looks promising, and is free on May 1-3. You might want to check it out.

A few years ago when I was feeling particularly lonely and uninspired (during the months I was pregnant with Boo and not feeling very well), I discovered Cindy Rushton, who has a TON of online seminars available for your listening enjoyment. I was inspired to try notebooking by listening to her lectures on the topic, and she has plenty of printed downloads to supplement her talks, full of ideas and examples to spur you along, as well. You might want to check out her Ultimate Sets, available for immediate download, if you need inspiration in a hurry!

I also have certain speakers whose cd and tape collections I like to bring out an listen to whenever I need inspiration. One of my favorites is Gregg Harris. He has an older collection of how to homeschool talks that I have particularly enjoyed throughout the years.

I also love listening to sermons, as they challenge you in your spiritual journey, which is more important than your educational one. I have quite a large collection of sermons on tape or cd from many sources, but I will just tell you about a few of my favorites.

First, there is SM Davis. He is a conservative Baptist preacher who gives excellent talks about the family, anger, relationships, character, and more. If you are experiencing any troubles at all with the raising of your young ones, you might check out his site, Solve Family Problems. You can preview some of his best sermons online (scroll about halfway down the page to find his sermons), and you can download the fill-in-the-blank sheets to accompany each of the sermons, if taking notes helps you remember information (it also makes the sermons an excellent source of Bible lessons). One of my favorites is What to Expect from a Twelve-Year Old. This is one you should listen to with your kids of all ages. It will inspire some and humble others.

Another preacher favorite is Andy Stanley, son of Charles Stanley, whom you may already know. Andy is an excellent speaker/preacher and my son, Tex, in particular, loves to listen to his sermons. A few times a week he chooses to listen to one of his sermons for his Bible lesson instead of working in his chosen Bible study text. I have absolutely no problem with that! Of course, we love Charles Stanley's sermons, too.

I also like Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill. I think his studies on Proverbs will really make you think, and I hear from my brother that his marriage series is very inspiring, in terms of making your marriage better, though I have not yet listened to it myself. Jeff Pollard, a very conservative preacher (also reformed), has a series on family that will inspire you and make you think.

Mark Hamby of Lamplighter Ministries offers his seminars online for free. He is a wonderful homeschooling father who is not perfect...he made mistakes, which he transparently shares with you, as he discusses the importance of family, fathers, and choosing the best literature to influence your children and future generations.

There are also a few companies whose audio products often inspire me, and the one that pops into mind first is Vision Forum. I have several of their cd sets (or have listened to them from the library), and have found almost every lecture to be the sort that really makes me think, and to want to talk to someone about it to figure out how it should be applied to my life. I won't say that I am fully in agreement with every statement every speaker from that organization makes (for one, I am not in agreement with all of their reformed doctrine), but overall, I truly appreciate their goal of building up the family as a center of discipleship, being mission minded, and focusing on Christ and the Bible when making decisions, from choosing what books to read to what we encourage our children to do as their vocation. We have learned from many of the ideas presented on their Family Strategies set (though a few of the topics weren't really applicable to us), been motivated by the Entrepeneurial Bootcamp set (which I got for only ten dollars at the Antique Mall, of all places!), and been enouraged by the Babies, Adoption, and Family Logistics set.

Two of my favorite speakers who are connected with that organization are Doug Phillips and Voddie Baucham (and here's another page with sermons, but not all of the links work, so you will just have to try a few out, if you are interested). Another favorite is Ken Ham. Here's a link to Divided, The Movie, with both Ken Ham and Doug Phillips in it talking about how worldy youth culture has permeated our churches and seeks to figure out why so many of our youth are leaving the church. I was certainly inspired by this film.

Recently, I discovered the Embassy Institute, a resource of the Institute of Basic Life Principles. I know there are some who will find fault with some of what Bill Gothard says, but there is a lot of good to be found as well. I signed up for the online Institute, which is only $9 a month for unlimited access to every talk they have available, plus all of the outlines. I have been inspired by quite a few of the messages so far, in particular the one by Gil Bates about How to Support a Family of 19 with No Salary (though he was working during this time period, he talks about trusting God to supply your needs). You can check out some of the topics and you will see that many of the 49 character qualities are covered. Each topic is linked to talks that support learning about that topic. It's been a great investment so far.

The point of this long post is that if you are ever flagging in your determination to homeschool, questioning your Christian walk, or concerned that you may not have what it takes to stick to the long road ahead...DO NOT GIVE UP! Go online or to the bookstore or to the library and find yourself some audio inspiration from those who have gone before you...your "friends" and comrades on this sometimes difficult, always worth it, journey. You will be feeling inspired before you know it and excited once again, and before long you will find that you have become an inspiration to someone else.

The blog cruise link goes live on Tuesday and you can check out what others do for "a little inspiration" then.

Until next time...



Sunday, April 15, 2012

Math Made FUN?


AIMS is a non-profit foundationdedicated to helping teachers give students a solid conceptual understanding of math and science.” 

We were asked to review Looking at Lines from the Algebraic Thinking Series. It has 232 pages covering 32 distinct hands-on activities, mostly using readily available household items. We received a hard copy of the book with a cd-rom containing all of the printables for the activities. Users have permission to print up to 200 copies of the activity sheets for educational purposes.

Each activity includes:

  • A section for the teacher: standards, objectives, applications, materials, background information, procedures, solutions, and management strategies.
  • A Key Question with Learning Goals: Can be used as a handout sheet or made into a transparency or slideshow.
  • Pages necessary to complete the activity:  This includes instructions, graphs, charts, and other printables necessary for construction of the exercises.
  • Connecting Learning: These are the questions that help student connect the activity to the concept and encourage higher level thinking skills as opposed to simple observation.


Hubby and Tex helped me with this review, and here is what Hubby had to say about Looking at Lines:

  •      I found Looking at Lines to be an excellent supplement to an Algebra class or an introduction to related linear concepts.  The book is very detailed and can seem overwhelming at first, especially to someone who is not fully comfortable with advanced math concepts.  I took a quick glance on the web and I found a college course that uses this AIMS publication as its basis. That shows you the scope of its potential applications.
  •       After I waded through the detailed introductory information (which is geared towards educators), I found all of the practical exercises very interesting.  My wife and I struggled with our oldest son in demonstrating the practicality of higher math.  I think the problem might have been eliminated (or at least lessened) had we slowly introduced linear thinking using the exercises in Looking at Lines.  With my background in math and science, I thought I could use words to communicate abstract algebraic concepts.  For my concrete-minded son, this approach bore little fruit.  He embraced the value of algebra later when he started working with consumer and business applications, and he now appreciates the skills he learned as he uses them in his small business.
  •      You may wonder why I believe that Looking at Lines works better than other approaches to introducing algebra.  First, God blessed us with five other children and I have no desire to face the same struggles with them that I faced with my oldest.  While my fourteen-year-old son (Tex) is more willing to embrace algebra, he also likes to see clear examples of what he is learning.  Looking at Lines provides those examples in spades. 
  • One of the first activities uses a simple equal arm balance (a plastic straw, stick pin, and some paperclips) and begins to show the student a simple linear equation by moving the paperclips and observing the results.  How cool is that! 
  •  Build, move stuff around, and evaluate what you see...boys, especially, like that sort of thing. In the first lesson, he learned all the basics and could apply them in a very hands-on, practical way.   
  • The book provides many more methods integrating science, business, gardening, and simple construction. We still needed practice problems and significant parental involvement, but I appreciated each part and how the instruction progressed from simple equations to graphs and tables to equalities and inequalities.  
  • At times the course may require more effort in preparation and execution on the part of the educator than a traditional textbook method, but the results will be a clearer understanding of complex abstracts through concrete observations.  
  • I recommend starting the course early (6th-7th grade) and breaking the work into small, manageable chunks, though it definitely applies to older students as well. The one thing I do not really recommend is giving the book to your student and asking them to do the exercises alone. 
  • Teacher involvement is one of the strengths of this program and except for special cases, should not be forsaken.

Who will benefit from AIMS Looking at Lines?
  • Unschoolers who have curious students who want to pursue some hands-on math activities on this subject.
  • Parents of homeschoolers ready grade-wise for a higher level math course, but not quite ready for a full algebra course developmentally (and there is nothing wrong with that!). This would be a way to build some solid foundational ideas and continue doing math, while at the same time, not rushing into a math course the student is not ready for yet.
  • Younger students who need a challenge, but might not be ready to jump into a full algebra course. You could work on one of these activities a week as a supplement while completing their regular math course.
  • Parents with hands-on learners who need some guidance in how to add hands-on learning to their math lessons.
  • Parents of several mulit-age children who want to do some math activities together. While the stated grade level of Looking at Lines is grades 6-9, I really felt some of the basic experiments and concepts could be appreciated by lower level students. Older students could complete the actual graphs and problems, while younger students could help with carrying out the experiments and discussing them.
  • Folks who like the unit study concept will find that the AIMS books fit well into that sort of teaching style. Have a blast picking out your next unit study from their extensive list of choices! They sell the manipulatives to support their books, too.
  • Older students would benefit from this as a means to review key ideas by being in charge of completing the activities with their younger siblings. We all learn best by doing and teaching, don't we?
  • Anyone teaching in a co-op setting would find this entire series of books ideal for that purpose. You can photocopy up to 200 copies of each experiment, not to mention the fact that the presentation method lines up perfectly with co-op settings.
  • Private and public schools would find this product useful for the same reason.
  • Tutors might find that this series would be an interesting addition to their repertoire and a welcome change from the straightforward practice of simply going over the student's regular classwork.

When would I say "maybe not..."?
  • If you don't like having to do class prep, then this would not be an ideal curriculum for you. I felt that a thorough reading of each experiment was needed to familiarize myself with the information, not to mention preparing the materials and handouts necessary for each experiement. It's not that it was really, really hard, but it did require some bucking down on the old algebraic thinking skills.
  • If you have only one student, the prep time might be a limiting factor for you. For several students or a particularly needy student (someone who needs real life math as an encouragement), it would be all right, but it might be more work than the parent of one traditionally taught student wants to tackle on a regular basis...but how much fun it would be for a unit study!!
  • Anyone who prefers a regular textbook method is not going to prefer this curriculum, though it wouldn't be a bad thing to throw in activities like this now and then in any curriculum!
  • Anyone who feels their students need a lot of "drill and repeat" is not going to find that here. Most of these topics connect and develop each other in subtle ways, but you will not be re-covering the same territory repeatedly.

The price for Looking at Lines is $24.95 for the PDF version from the AIMS Store.

There are many more products available, and prices vary, so go check it out for yourself!

Watch some videos and download samples of activities to see how AIMS is "the right fit" for homeschoolers.

You can also check out other reviews of this product and others at the TOS Review Crew Blog.



Disclaimer: We recieved a paperback copy (plus disk) of Looking at Lines for the purposes of trying and reviewing this product. No other compensation was recieved.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Enlarge Your World With Writing

Can I let you in on a little secret? You can't tell anyone...okay? Remember, I used to be an eighth-grade English teacher, and now I teach all grades in my homeschool, so this tiny secret could ruin my reputation. Okay. So here it is. I-don't-like-grammar.

Whew! That was difficult, but I feel much better now. Do you think less of me for disliking grammar? I hope not. I think it goes back to the fact that somehow I made it through twelfth-grade Honors English (a year early) without ever really "getting" grammar the way my brilliant peers did. I don't know...maybe my nose was buried in a fiction book hiding behind my (boring!) grammar book when they were going over dangling participles, but somehow, I really don't remember doing much grammar in school. Even so, I managed to get "As" in English, gain a reputation as a fairly good writer, and go on to major in English in college without being able to diagram a sentence. GASP!

I eventually did make it through an incredibly intense grammar course in college, learned all the whys and wherefores of the writing I had been doing by instinct (built upon hundreds and hundreds of good books read over the years), and even learned a respect for diagramming a sentence, yet once I started teaching, I still dreaded that time of the year when we had to focus on grammar. BOOOORING. The students were thinking it, I was thinking it, and I was wondering, "Why can't we just write and practice using grammar correctly instead of having to plod through this book of repetitive exercises?" Sigh.

You will not be surprised to find out that over the last thirteen years of homeschooling, I have done very little "formal" grammar instruction with my least, not in the traditional sense. Oh sure, I will go over comma usage when I see a problem in someone's writing, or discuss possessives when I see someone misusing apostrophes, but I am not known for my eagerness to jump into a particular grammar program every year.

This state of grammar-phobia has left me with a bit of guilt from time to time. Did I try hard enough to help my students be good writers (because there really isn't a market for good grammar-ers, is there?)? Did I miss something? Are my kids being cheated or being left behind????

Obviously, I must think they are doing fine, or I'd change something, right? Actually, I was worried when Bubba started his college courses and had to write his first term paper. I was biting my nails mentally as I waited for the rough draft of that paper to make it into my e-mail box...and then I was blown away. His writing style was smooth, his knowledge base was immense, and his word choices were eloquent. Was all that from me? No, I don't think so. It was more likely from the many good books he read (and continues to read). I might have helped point out that he (still) needs to work on his comma usage, but you can't make a good writer like he turned out to be by doing numbered exercises in a book.

I truly do believe that they key to good writing is bound up in the quality and quantity of reading and writing you do, not the number of grammar exercises you complete. I will stand by that and take it to the bank. However, I will admit that there is a need for specifically directed teaching concerning common grammatical errors and standards of usage from time to time...don't you agree? And, I will also admit that not everybody who home educates their kids has a degree in English or taught grammar and actually got paid for it once upon a decade (or more) ago...and not everybody feels comfortable as a writer, or grammar-er (I made that word up, you know), or editor, or anything else that has to do with writing, let alone writing well.

This is where Write With World comes in. We are long time subscribers of God's World News and World Magazine. My kids of all ages have loved getting these publications in our mailbox since the early years when Bubba and I were just beginning down our home education path. Now Tex loves reading the articles, and will fill all of us in on whatever story he's recently perused, often amusing us with uplifting blurbs or amazing us with the depth of his understanding. When I heard that World Magazine was publishing a writing program I jumped at the chance for us to give it a run through, and I have not been disappointed.

This is all you need to get started with Write With World:

A student text (a teacher text is also available), a writing utensil (it should be a pencil, in my opinion...this is a pen...oops!), and a Composition notebook (cost: one dollar).

Write with WORLD exposes students to:
  • reading and critical thinking that develop discernment
  • contemporary subjects and professional guidance to pique interest
  • flexible exercises to build confidence and skill for using today's new media
  • a thoughtful and meaningful Christian worldview

Each level has four units. The units are divided into four chapters. Each chapter has five "capsules," or lessons, which can be easily completed during one week. Throughout the course, students will be introduced to (and hopefully cured of) the Top Twenty Grammar Errors (as shown by Andrea Lunsford's research), plus a few more frequent problems found in college writing. Yes, this WRITING curriculum incorporates GRAMMAR study into it. Do you think they read my mind?? I think that is just marvelous, don't you? So, using interesting, relevant, real-life writing (writing about news, life, advertising, and your own student's opinions), your student will learn to be a better writer AND a better grammar-er! ;-)

Seriously, here are some of the topics covered within just the first chapter: use your Thesaurus often (that's my favorite, so I listed it first), know your subject, using strong verbs, appropriate use of adjectives and adverbs, creating word pictures (show, don't tell), editing your own work for sentence fragments, and improving your vocabulary (by introducing new words in every lesson). That's a LOT of ground covered, and I have to tell you that it did not hurt a bit. Not one yawn was yawned, nobody cried, and everyone learned something new and useful. It's a win/win for teacher and student. Hooray!! Read more about the Write With World approach on their website.

Why don't you check out some sample pages of Chapter One of Write With World and see what you think?

Here is the Table of Contents, so you can see what else is taught, in case your interest is piqued.

I asked Tex what he thought of the program:
(since he is the one that used it...)
  • This is one of my favorite writing programs so far. It is my favorite book-based program.
  • I like how the book is so easy to read. It is like the teacher is talking to me. Mom says," It is very conversational."
  • The assignments are interesting and make me think. Mom says, "I like how they asked students to find things to write about that they connect with instead of just requiring them to respond to someone else's prompt."
  • It is written from a Christian worldview and I appreciate that. In fact, I prefer it. Mom says, "I do, too."
  • The lessons have to do with many things I experience in real life, and with things that are current. I understand why I have to be able to analyze a book for college, but it was nice to be able to write about the real world and my opinions.
  • I think the lessons are challenging, but not too hard. Mom was able to help me when I needed it. Mom says, "There is a Teacher's Manual, if you feel you need extra guidance. I did not use it, really."
  • I like how they teach you things you need to know in the middle of the writing assignment. For example, they teach you new vocabulary in each lesson and about common writing problems, like sentence fragments. I think that grammar is not so bad when done this way. Mom says, "I completely agree. Grammar is so much more pertinent when taught within the context of real writing that YOU did."
  • I am learning that I have a few things I need to work on to be a better writer, but with this program, it will be fun. Mom says, "If he likes it, how can I complain? I am grateful that he is 'turned on' about learning with this program."
  • Each lesson (capsule) was pretty short. I could finish it in about 30 minutes a day. Mom says, "The assignments weren't the longest and most taxing exercises in writing that I've ever seen...think more like newsy blurbs that get you to really consider your point of view and how you say it...But then, I am thinking this is more about teaching style and critical thinking (with some grammar and mechanics thrown in), and not necessarily about practicing the usual five paragraph essay sort of thing. I would assume a family would easily be able to still fit in their more arduous writing assignments for history and/or literature around this curriculum at the higher grades without having to stop working on this program. Younger students could go more slowly, if necessary."
This is an example of one day's assignment. 
It took a bit longer than the usual, but he did type it and
he probably surfed the 'Net a bit looking for his favorite ad.
It was a toss up between Mayhem and that Star Wars kid car ad...

  • What I did not like: The student text was not very eye-catching. There weren't many pictures, which surprised me since World is such a colorful magazine. I am thinking that maybe the full edition will be more flashy. The information was good, though. I agree.
  • There was also no table of contents, which I wanted to use to check off which lessons I completed. I figure that will be in the final format of the book since this was a trial copy. I'd suggest putting check boxes next to each capsule's title so students like me can check lessons off as they go. I agree that this would be useful. Perhaps a suggested weekly schedule in the student book for kids to refer to might be nice, too.
  • I would have preferred to try the online portion of the program. I like online activities and I think I would have been motivated by the site. I hope I get a chance to see it sometime. I am going to keep working through this text as my writing program for the rest of this school year (this is my choice). I agree wholeheartedly. The site sounds exciting, especially if you can share student writing on it. I was also disappointed that we could not try this part of the program.

Here is a close up of that one assignment:

This is the assignment...

Here is his response.
(Tex prefers to type some of his responses since he is a lefty and when his writing is slow it stifles the creative process...typing is much faster...not to mention the auto-edit function in Word. LOL. We will simply tape this in his writing journal).

Tex says that the assignment really made him think about the motivations of advertisers, especially in relation to how they influenced him. This goes right along with his Logic class (The Art of Argument) and the different fallacies...I love it when a curriculum comes together!

If your middle school student (I would actually say this could be appropriate for grades 5-9, depending on ability and prior knowledge) is languishing in their current very structured and formulaic writing/grammar program and you want to try something new OR if you are TIRED of doing those boring old grammar workbooks, but will feel guilty if you don't do something that practices grammar OR you are looking for something to really get your student to focus on their Christian worldview and how they can develop their writing to be an influence in their world, then THIS is the curriculum for which you have been waiting. Everyone else, well, you might really like Write With World, too, but those folks are going to be doing the happy dance. 

Write With World is on sale now,  and will be available for shipping during the summer of 2012, just in time for a new school year. One full year of Write With World will cost $95 (for a teacher text with online access and a non-consumable student text). You can save by purchasing both years one and two together for $165.

If you'd like to see what other TOS Homeschool Crew members thought about Write With World, please stop by the Crew Blog.


Disclaimer: I received a Pilot edition of the Writing With World Year One Curriculum, not including access to the online portion, in exchange for my honest review of the product here on my blog. All opinions are our own, based upon our individual experiences with the product. If you have questions concerning our use of this product or this review, please feel free to contact me or leave a comment.
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