Monday, December 19, 2011

The Old Schoolhouse: Free digital issue

The Old Schoolhouse Magazine is offering the Fall 2011 digital issue for free, online, for a limited time.

See this link for more details.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Thursday, December 8, 2011

TOS Crew: Pitsco Education

Everything came together so beautifully. That's one of the things I love about being on the Crew: serendipity. (You might call it Providence.)

We're studying Christendom this year in history, starting roughly in AD 33, through the spread of the Gospel, the Middle Ages, and Renaissance. Enter Pitsco Education, and the opportunity to review their Medieval Machines Pack.

...have I ever mentioned how much of a hands-on learner Youngest is? This is a kid who has a really hard time sitting still, who doesn't seem to need half as much sleep as her mom does, who is bored by books but fascinated by things she can take apart (and put together). This is the one who took apart my sewing machine at age three. (Never did get that back together.) This is the one who is learning to take old computers apart and assemble various parts into a new whole, and enjoying it no end.

Real Hands-on Learning

A kit, that would enable her to put together cool miniature war machines that would throw things? Sounds like a winner.

This has been a tough review to write, because the way I like to go about things is to open the box, go through the contents, read the directions and associated paperwork, and then start fitting Tab A into Slot B.

The way this one turned out, I almost didn't get to see the kit, or at least, I got into the game pretty late. The kit arrived at our house while I was out, and when I got home I was greeted with a fully-constructed Trebuchet. Frantic, I grabbed the instructions and began to read them. (Sort of like closing the barn door after the horses have made their exit...)

As you can see, you get pretty much everything you need, including the book Siege Machines which gives a brief, chatty history of the trebuchet and catapult, along with a number of educational activities starring your newly put together siege machines. The book is written to engage the interest, and the activities are fun, along with educational. (Things like varying the weights on the trebuchet, or the load of clay, to see how it affects performance, measuring results in inches, converting to metric, etc.)

I'd been told that we'd need a certain kind of glue to put the kit together, but our resourceful Youngest used craft glue and it has worked well. (I don't know how well it'll stand up against a lot of wear and tear. We'll see.) Another drawback to the lack of parental involvement was that the machine would not fire the way Youngest was expecting it to. She tried different weights, different string configurations, but couldn't get the ball made from (included in the kit) clay to go more than a few inches, perhaps as much as a foot.

Customer Service

It might have had something to do with the many knots in the string that came with the kit. I got a garbled explanation from Youngest on that one: I'm still not sure if it broke, or if she kept cutting it to try different configurations to get the thing to work the way she thought it should. I do know that when I compared the Trebuchet to the directions for building it, the string wasn't right.

We unwound the string, but there were an awful lot of knots and I wasn't sure it would work correctly. We tried to re-thread it with some quilting thread, but it still wasn't working right. In desperation I emailed the good people at Pitsco to inquire if the Trebuchet needed a special kind of thread, and where we could buy such, or if we could buy some replacement from Pitsco. I received an email back that said they were looking into my query -- and a day or two later, a packet of Trebuchet thread arrived in the mail. Talk about customer service!

Parental Involvement

While Youngest was able to put together the Trebuchet without any help (or hindrance) from me, she needed help to read the directions for setting up the machine to throw (she wound the string in a way that seemed logical to her, without much reference to the directions). She also would not have done the educational activities in any methodical manner -- though her natural inclination would be to vary the weights on the Pitsco Trebuchet, for example, or the size of the clay projectile, or the type or number of rubber bands on the Catapult. She probably wouldn't have worn safety glasses, or cleared the field of fire, without a mom present, either. Just a word to the wise... (Ah, another opportunity for me to trot out the old cliche, "It's a tool, not a toy.")

Pricing and Availability

The Medieval Machines Pack is available from Pitsco for $21.95 and includes almost everything you need (just add a hobby knife, needle-nose pliers, white hobby glue, ruler, sandpaper, and scissors -- all of which, surprisingly enough, we had lying around the house when the package arrived for review).

In Short

This kit makes a great project if you're studying Medieval warfare, or simple machines, and lends itself well to cross-curricular studies.

Read more TOS Crew reviews of Pitsco Education's Medieval Machines Pack at this link.

Disclaimer: Our family received a Medieval Machines Pack for review purposes. No additional compensation was involved.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Love what you do

"Love what you do." The phrase jumped out at me during this week's discussion at the high school history co-op. (Well, it's "moral philosophy" and not just history, but that's a topic for another day.)

The phrase had made me stop short while listening to Dr. George Grant's lecture on guilds in the Middle Ages, but I'd been busy with something-or-other and didn't really process the thought. I'm often folding laundry or picking up while we're listening to lectures, and the girls are scribbling (or typing) notes, and we don't always pause the lecture to discuss a point.

But here we were in class, and the students were engaged in a lively discussion, along with a couple of the dads who'd come to class to facilitate and guide the discussion time. Love what you do.

All of a sudden, it hit me. The state of our home is a testimony to how much I love (or don't love) what I do.

Don't get me wrong. I say I love what I do. I do love it; I'm privileged to be able to stay at home, to raise my own children rather than turning them over to professional strangers (or strange professionals? ...tongue in cheek; please, hold the rotten tomatoes), to homeschool, with all its many advantages. (And that's a topic for another whole post, or series of posts...)

But I don't do like I love it.

My mom was "stuck" at home. She hated being a homemaker. She was meant for better things. Higher things. She raised her daughters to be professionals. We'd have careers, and we'd make enough money to be able to afford someone else to take care of our homes and our children.

Even though I've chosen home, I'm still following her example, in attitude at least. (Let me just say in her defense that the house I grew up in was well-kept. Not spotless, but the kitchen floor was washed every day, just for one example, and there were never piles of clutter and stuff in the main living areas of the house, and she was always after me to clean my room.)

Love what you do. That's a thought worth pondering, a motto worth adopting. If I were a mantra-chanting type, I think it would make a good one. I have been saying it over to myself periodically through the day, to remind myself where I've chosen my priorities to lie. It's tough to dig out from a lifetime of bad habits. But I think I've found a handle to grab onto.

Friday, December 2, 2011


I was shopping at Target in the girls' clothing. Though we do a lot of thrift store shopping, we still buy a few things new, now and then. It's been my Christmas tradition to buy each of the girls new footie PJs, a present they can open on Christmas Eve. I was so glad to see a goodly supply, and not all of them splattered with peace signs (something that makes the girls cringe -- a peace sign is a reversed cross with broken arms, did you know? Somewhere in the dim recesses of my memory is the knowledge that it's an occult symbol. Maybe from Walter Martin's writings? I used to listen to The Bible Answer Man on the radio every day, though I got out of the habit some years ago and don't know if the program still exists. In any event, regarding peace symbols: We try to avoid them. Peace itself is a good thing, if you're talking fruit of the Spirit.).

Anyhow, one of the girls and I were walking down the aisle, exclaiming over cute things. (imagine girlish squeals. well, not quite, but we were having fun enthusing.) I started to remark on something that looked pink and pretty, at first glance... until I realized that the pretty pink decorations on the pale background were in the shape of... have you already anticipated me? am I behind the times? I never would have imagined "girly" decoration to be ... skulls.

I recoiled in horror.

Skulls. Pink, sparkly skulls. On a little girl's shirt. Maybe a dress or jacket? It doesn't matter. It was repellant.

I'm resigned to skulls at Halloween. But for everyday, or maybe even holiday fashion?

*sigh* Even the girls' department is now a minefield where I must tread carefully, simple pleasure set aside, for I must be wary lest I purchase skulls or other symbols of death and hatred all dressed up in pink and sparkles. I'm not exaggerating. That cute little shirt, there, shocked me partly because I was reaching for it to pick it up, take a closer look, maybe even put it in my basket before I realized that those shapes weren't some sort of stylized horses or puppies or kittens. It shocked me because I wasn't on my guard when it came to "pink and pretty" and fairly modest (as opposed to Madonna-clone or Lady Gaga "style" -- and I use that term loosely) clothing.

I'm on my guard now. And shopping is not as fun. (Not that I've ever been that much of a shopper, but I'm even less now. Perhaps my pocketbook will thank me.)

Talk about living in a culture of death.

Update: Saturday night. Just got back from Target once more, getting another footie PJ to complete the set. I was less than thrilled to see that one of the designs on the girls' rack was a blue or blue/green with white skulls. Evidently popular, too, as there was only one of those left on the rack, and quite a few panda bear or monkey or peace symbol designs.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Nasty bug

It's a good thing I had my Gluten-free Tuesday post scheduled to publish itself automatically on Tuesday. You see, on Tuesday I wasn't in any shape even to think about food.

There's a nasty stomach bug going around, and Middlest and I came down with it this week. You're miserable and feverish for a day or two, with tummy-bug symptoms, and then after the fever breaks your stomach remains unavailable to all appearances. (As in, not hungry, knowing you need to eat something but nothing sounds good, nothing tastes good, and nothing feels quite comfortable staying down once you eat it.)

I wonder how long it lasts? It's inconvenient to be less-than-100% during the holiday season. We're not really on holiday yet, either. Midterms are coming up next week and promising to be challenging even for healthy minds in healthy bodies.

At least I don't have to worry about gaining weight from Christmas goodies at present. They don't appeal to me at all.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Gluten-free banana bread

Made banana bread last Sunday morning, adapted from this recipe I found at the Taste of Home website. I wish I had a picture of it! The recipe made two loaves, and they went quickly. Lovely, moist, and you couldn't tell it was GF.

Had just a little left over that I had tucked away after Sunday breakfast -- meant to put it in dh's lunch but overlooked it -- and the other GF member of the family found it in the fridge Monday morning, ate some and pronounced it almost as good as warm-out-of-the-oven. Still moist, holding together well, still yummy.

My adaptation: used my own GF mix (which I probably got from Living Without magazine) and added a teaspoon of guar gum. Also left off the nuts.

My current GF flour mix, residing in my refrigerator:

2 parts brown rice flour
2 parts white rice flour
1 part tapioca starch
1 part potato starch

Monday, November 28, 2011

Nook versus Kindle

It's been a frustrating week.

I was seriously thinking about buying the new Nook Simple Touch on Friday (it was marked down to $79 for a special Friday price). Maybe even two. I took my Nook to Barnes and Noble on Friday afternoon -- I'd promised Middlest that we'd spend a couple hours there, we try to do that once a month or so, to check out the new books. Anyhow, they had this promotion that you could get some free gourmet chocolate if you showed your Nook at the B&N Starbucks on the weekend after Thanksgiving. So Middlest could read for a couple of hours, I could check out children's holiday books for review purposes, I could pick up a Nook (or two) @ $20 off for each one, and I'd get free chocolate.

Kill two birds with one stone, as they say. Maybe a flock of birds. Not that I want to kill birds, mind. I rather like seeing them out the window.

Anyhow (pardon my Monday-morning scatteredness), I came very close to buying at least one more Nook for school purposes. The girls are all over my Nook, constantly begging to read on it. (They love old-fashioned books that come as free downloads, Horatio Alger for instance.) I also bought an ESV Bible back when I first got my Nook, and over the weekend I also bought and downloaded a Strong's Greek and Hebrew dictionary for the Nook. I also discovered how to transfer library books to the Nook. The portable library is growing! Except...

I've been terribly frustrated, though, in looking for a decent Koine New Testament for my Nook. I have a great version on my desktop Kindle reader that I bought from Amazon. For $1.99, it does everything I want it to do. Most importantly, it has all the little markings and doohickeys that we're learning in our Biblical Greek class (accents, mostly).

We're supposed to be reading Greek out of the Bible a little every day as part of our homework, so it really helps to have a Koine Bible. I'd love to have it on the Nook, part of my portable library.

I have spent several hours over the past weeks searching for a Koine Bible that I could use on the Nook. You wouldn't believe all I've tried. I looked for free versions first, of course. They're old texts, evidently digitized using OCR software, and the text shows up on the Nook as gobbledy-gook. I bought a Koine Bible from the B&N Nook store, and yes, all the letters are there, but no accents. I need the accents! I even tried converting the Kindle etext to an EPUB format -- looks fine on the desktop but the Nook doesn't like the looks of it and puts question marks all through the text.

I spent some time at Target on the weekend talking to someone who worked in the electronics section, finding out what she could tell me about Nooks and Kindles (Target sells both). She owns a Kindle, and sang its praises. She also mentioned that for the Kindle (now this is hearsay -- I haven't checked the facts) there are thousands of e-books available, she might even have said tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, it was a large number and I'm somewhat number-challenged. The important thing she said was that Nook readers have only a fraction of that number of titles available.

After my Koine NT search, I'm inclined to believe her.

One reason I was thinking about getting another Nook or two was that I'm told we can share our Nook books between up to six devices all keyed off the same email account.

However, if I can't get the books I need, there's no point.

I noticed that the simplest Kindle is $79, same as that highly touted special Nook sale price at B&N.

If I do manage to scrape together the price of a new e-reader for our homeschool and pleasure reading, it's looking more and more like a Kindle...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rainy, blustery Tuesday, good day to read

Found some new blogs here.

It's not like I need more blogs to read, mind you. But I was happy to hear The Old Schoolhouse Homeschool Crew had taken top honors in the 7th Annual Homeschool Blog awards, and so I went to check out the awards list.

Just in case you were looking for blogs to read, there are some good ones here. I added a couple to my sidebar, as a matter of fact, and spent the last half hour reading blog entries aloud to the girls. Lunch break over, time to get back to work.

How's your Tuesday going?

I don't have anything to post for "If it's Tuesday it must be gluten-free" as I'm lacking inspiration today, but for lunch we're having twice-baked potatoes. Y'know, bake them until soft, scoop the middles out, mash with milk and grated cheese (and bacon, if you have some already cooked, and anything else you'd like to include) and scoop back into the potato shells, and bake some more until GBD (as Rachel Ray is so fond of saying -- golden brown and delicious -- though this is definitely not a 30-minute meal).

Anyhow, it's time to get back in the saddle and herd those butterflies. See ya.

Monday, November 21, 2011

TOS Crew: Time Timer

I can't tell you how long I've been using a timer myself to keep me from being sidetracked, or in our homeschool for any number of purposes. FlyLady got me started using a timer years ago, along with putting on shoes first thing in the morning -- but that's another story.

A timer can tell you when to check the dryer to keep the permanent press clothes from wrinkling. (You aren't supposed to have to iron permanent press... but if you leave it in the dryer too long, either you have to iron it, or you have to do something else -- but that's another post, too.) A timer can help you accomplish a lot in 15-minute chunks of time, especially things you've been procrastinating on because you "don't have the time right now."

A timer can help a child, too. It can count down music practice, math drills, chores, media time, and more. It can facilitate sharing, keeping fights from breaking out (while keeping Mom sane). I don't have to keep track of whose turn it is (the girls do that just fine) and I don't have to be the mediator ("It's my turn!" "I have five more minutes!" -- No, the timer is a silent -- or not so silent -- witness.)

Timers have improved over the years. I started out with a loud ticking mechanical timer, and progressed to a number of battery-operated models. A number, I say, because the magnetic ones tend to get knocked off the refrigerator and eventually break, and the non-magnetic ones sometimes go missing. I love the timer on a cord that Eldest bought for herself -- she can hang it around her neck when she's keeping track of some task. I want one for myself.

Enter the Time Timer, a nifty gadget that works like a timer, but is useful as a teaching tool and really useful as an anti-sidetracking device a la FlyLady.

The Time Timer has improved on the standard kitchen timer I've been using, with a visual display that shows the passage of time.

Our family received the 3-inch model for review. It runs on a single AA battery. It's pretty simple to operate. You just move the raised dot (see it in the illustration, over the number "40") with your fingertip around the dial to the desired number of minutes.

As the timer counts down, the amount of red decreases accordingly. You can actually see the passage of time. See how it works in this video at the Time Timer website.

I wish I'd had this timer when the girls were little, but they are still learning from using the timer. Whether it's piano practice or computer use, they can see the passage of time, and they find the timer very helpful. (Comment from my most time-challenged daughter, the first time we used the timer to help her manage her computer time: Mom! I love this timer! I can really keep track with it!)

Whether working on a task or taking a break, seeing the red field get smaller and smaller helps us to focus (never an easy thing among all of us distractible people). Instead of watching the timer tick down, or forgetting about it altogether until startled by a sudden beep or ring, we find ourselves glancing at it now and then; it's a tool to keep us on track, and doesn't seem to need the constant monitoring, maybe because it's so easy to see how much time is left.

We had a little trouble getting it to work at one point, but consulted the troubleshooting tips on the website and soon were up and running. 

You can choose silent mode or have it beep at the end of the time. The beep is soft and easy to overlook, so we find the Time Timer works best for us when we're doing quiet tasks or have it right in the field of vision. There's a plastic fold-down shield on the 3" version, making it portable, but I've heavily discouraged carrying the timer around. I don't want this one to be misplaced! It's too valuable a tool.

Pricing and availability

You can order the Time Timer at this link. It's available in a number of forms: 3" ($30), 8" ($35), and 12" ($40) timers, wrist timers (like a wristwatch, only it's a Time Timer), and software apps for iPod and computer. At first glance the price seemed a little steep to me, but after using the Time Timer I'd say it's been well worth it, in terms of helping our teens (yes, teens) get a better grasp of the passage of time, not to mention helping them better apply time management concepts.

Read more TOS Crew reviews of The Time Timer at this link.

Disclaimer: Our family received a 3" Time Timer for review purposes. No additional compensation was involved.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

TOS Crew: Math Mammoth

I had mixed feelings when I heard that members of this year's Crew would have the opportunity to review Math Mammoth products. You see, I was on last year's Crew, and when notified that we'd be reviewing this math program, I went to the website to look and got completely overwhelmed.

This year I screwed up my courage (yes, I was still bewildered by the number and variety of math products offered... that hadn't changed) and contacted the author, Maria Miller. I gave her specifics about the girls and their progress (or lack thereof) in the math department, and asked for her advice.

She was very helpful! She's obviously familiar with math anxiety (yes, it's not just the girls, it's me, definitely me) and in our email exchange, she gently and thoughtfully discussed the various options (full curriculum vs. individual topics vs. worksheets) in terms of my children and their math needs. She left the final decision up to me. The choice ended up being between a full curriculum that said "6th grade" (which might be something of a slap in the face, considering Youngest is in 8th grade and her sisters are higher), or specific topics that are not labeled with a grade level, yet contain the same material as found in the grade-level curriculum.

Placement help

By the way, if you're as confused as I was about teaching math to math-resistant students, Math Mammoth  has a great offer. From the Math Mammoth website:

Confused about the different options?

Take a 7-day virtual email tour around Math Mammoth! You'll receive:
  • A package of 300 free worksheets and sample pages;
  • 7 individual emails on 7 subsequent days that answer the most commonly asked questions, including "What is the difference between all these different-colored series?"
  • You'll also get my popular Maria's Math Newsletter once or twice a month.
Touring the different series in emails, you'll have time to digest the info over one week, plus an opportunity to ask me personally about which book would be right for your child or students.

We received three books: Fractions and Decimals 3 (this one does say "elementary worktext" on the front, but it's the highest level fractions/decimals workbook in the series), Percent, and Integers. I was interested to note that the latter two titles were marked as "self-teaching," a phrase to warm the heart of any homeschool mom who wants her children to work independently.

Here's a rundown on each book:

Fractions & Decimals 3 is identified as a sixth-grade book, but if you have a math-phobic child, you know that grade level doesn't really matter. Your children need a basic understanding, a foundation, an underpinning -- they need to know fundamentals before they can go on to advanced, abstract thinking. Just because my girls' friends are all doing Algebra 1, doesn't mean the girls can tackle it!

They can want to all they want (for one, it's because her friends all got through algebra -- now there's peer pressure for you -- for another, it's because she wants to be finished with schoolwork, and algebra presents an obstacle. Two of the girls understand fractions and decimals fairly well; for the third it's a stumbling block.

Fractions & Decimals 3 contains an introductory chapter aimed at the parent, discussing the material in the book and offering suggestions for teaching. For example, if this is mostly review for your student, you're encouraged to let them do half the problems, or even a third of the problems, enough to demonstrate understanding without becoming busywork. Some sections of the book are identified as material for advanced students or for those who are interested and want to do more.

One of the girls took one look at the book and announced she was beyond all that. Fine. This is the kid who seems to have an intuitive grasp of how math works, even though it was very difficult for her to memorize math facts. Drill didn't work. For the longest time, I let her use math tables as a reference when doing her math problems, and eventually the facts began to stick as she used them in problems. (It made the information relevant, I suppose.)

For another of the girls, it was all review and so she didn't need to do every problem. For the third, who always hits the wall when she studies fractions (I can't tell you how many different math programs we've tried), it's a matter of plugging along, page by page.

We're not there yet, but we're working at it.

Some of the things I like

- introductory chapter -- more hand-holding for this nervous-towards-math mom, but good advice for tackling the program with three very different learners. Also an extensive list of online math resources and games to reinforce fraction/decimal learning!

- logical layout, minimum clutter, no filler -- some math books have distracting pictures and illustrations that don't have much to do with the math being presented. Fractions & Decimals 3 is a no-nonsense text. There are charts and boxes filled with explanations and examples, of course, and a judicious use of color. I started out printing lessons in black and white, but after looking more carefully at the pages I chose, instead, to print pages in color as the color enhances the explanations. On this sample page, you can see how red arrows draw the eye in an explanation to the important information.

- straightforward explanations -- the author doesn't take it for granted that you can keep all these math terms straight as well as she can. An example of this is this phrase from the sample page mentioned above: "Our goal is always to make the divisor on the bottom into a whole number." Note that she doesn't just say divisor, something that leads to a surge of panic in the brain, causing the student to freeze momentarily, thinking, "What is the divisor? I can't remember what a divisor is/does. Now I have to go back and look it up again. Aargh." No, she says, divisor on the bottom. It might seem like a minor thing to you, but to people (like me and mine) with math anxiety, it's big. It's a sign of innate courtesy on the author's part, it's something that she didn't have to include, but did, and it's part of what makes this program work for us.

- periodic review

- answer key included

- copy permission -- I can buy one book and use it with all three girls, printing out just the pages each one needs.

- bargain price -- This 128-page book is available as a PDF download for $7, or printed in black and white for $12.70. Click on the link to go to the order page, to read more about the book, and to get access to free sample pages. Frankly, I'm glad we got the PDF download. While color ink is expensive, I'm finding the colors very helpful for one of the girls. For the others, where the color doesn't seem to make as much difference, I can print in black and white.

Percent is a "self-learning worktext" for grades 6-8. At this link you can read more about topics covered, see Youtube videos based on lessons in the book, download sample pages, and order this 65-page book. A PDF download is $3.50 (full-color), while a printed copy (black and white) is $10.60.

Percent builds on the student's previous knowledge of fractions and decimals, so if you're just jumping in, you might want to cover Fractions & Decimals 3 first as a review. Percent is just a specialized fraction, after all, a measurement in terms of hundredths. As with Fractions & Decimals 3, an introductory chapter discusses the progression of topics covered in the book and includes a list of online resources and math games.

It seemed as if there was a lot more use of color in this book, which I thought might be distracting to my oh-so-distractible learners, so I chose to save the colored ink and have printed out most of the pages we've used so far in black and white. The color images add interest, but we have a real problem with visual clutter and being easily distracted.

The text is laid out so that a student may work independently, reading through the explanations and working the problems. (I still need to sit with one of the girls, who really struggles, so I can set her straight when I see she's not understanding something quite right.) The answer key is included in the back of the book, so if you have a truly independent student, self-correction is possible, or you can keep these pages yourself and keep your hand in (and an idea of how your student is doing) by correcting your student's work yourself. (I suppose you could also have your students correct each others' work, but I haven't gone that route.)

Integers is another self-teaching worktext, aimed at students in Grades 5-8. As with Percents, the text is addressed to the student, allowing for independent work.

This 77-page worktext is available as a PDF download for $3.75, or printed in black and white for $8.75 at this link. Also at the link, you'll find a brief explanation of topics covered and links to sample pages.

Once again, I found myself printing a number of pages (not all) from this book in color, as color is used in a way that enhances the explanations, so I'm glad to have the PDF file in color (which lets me choose which pages to print in color, and which to print in black and white), rather than the black-and-white printed copy. Presentation is straightforward, review is built in, and puzzles and practical examples are included.

The Math Mammoth website includes a lot of helpful material, including free sample worksheets, placement advice, and a full listing of the curriculum. Pricing is very reasonable, and now that I've figured out where the girls need additional learning, I'm very glad for the wide assortment of products available! Instead of plowing through an entire math book, speeding through some topics and wishing there were more material in other topics, we can pick and choose and focus in our endeavor to nail down the foundational material the girls need before they can go on to advanced topics.

Read more TOS Crew reviews of product at this link.

Disclaimer: Our family received PDF copies of Fractions & Decimals 3, Integers, and Percents for review purposes. No additional compensation was involved.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lessons learned

I don't remember his name, but I think of him at this time every year, when the leaves are falling.

He came by with a rake; a boy somewhere around twelve or thirteen, I think. While we almost always rake our own leaves (our small front yard takes about 20 minutes to clear), we were impressed with his entrepreneurial spirit. He was raking lawns at $5 each, he said.

Though money was a little tight (when is it ever not?) we wanted to encourage him, so we agreed, he raked, he got paid.

After that, he came back every week and raked the lawn (our big old trees shed a lot in the fall), collected his $5, and promised to be back. He was faithful, and we were impressed with his efficiency -- he took less than my usual 20 minutes, yet he was thorough.

One day we were heading out the door when he came, so my husband gave him the $5 in advance. He'd been reliable and dependable, after all, and there would be several more weeks of raking that season.

When we came home, the yard was not raked. We never saw the boy again.

For a "free" $5, he gave up at least six times that much in future business (at least from us -- don't know if he worked for neighbors down the block, or not), not to mention the possibility of lawn mowing the next summer, and more raking money the next fall. We knew a man who built a landscaping business starting in much the same way, ending up with a decent full-time income. It's not that the work was all that arduous. He could probably make $15 or $20 an hour, which is more than I made as a temp secretary, if he had a number of lawns lined up going down the block.

But he took his fee in advance and took off.

I wonder if he learned some kind of lesson.

I know we sure did.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

TOS Crew: College Prep Genius and VocabCafe books

Last year our family reviewed Master the SAT Class from College Prep Genius (click link to read the review). Members of this year's Crew were given the opportunity to review the newly revised SAT course, or the new vocabulary-building fiction series VocabCafe. Our family received a set of VocabCafe books to review.

College Prep Genius was put together by a family whose children got a "free ride" to college (i.e. scholarships) through high test scores. Click on the TOS Crew link below to read this year's Crew impressions of the SAT preparation course.

Anyhow, as I mentioned, our family reviewed the new vocabulary-building VocabCafe series of teen-focused fiction.

Great idea...

I love the idea of adding interest to the task of building vocabulary. Introducing new words, used in context, makes them better able to stick, somehow. Learning new words while reading a story, well, that seems like the best of all worlds! ...Much more interesting than plain ol' flash card drill.

Each of the four books in the series, Planet Exile, Operation High School, I.M. for Murder, and The Summer of St. Nick, contain 300 SAT words. The words are used in the story, set off by bold print, and defined in footnotes at the bottom of the page where the word first appears. At the end of each chapter is a list of SAT words used in that chapter. A glossary of all 300 SAT words wraps up each book.

...uneven execution

While I think the idea is good, I was a little disappointed with the actual books. They could use some editing, for one thing. There are typos here and there, and the dialog in Operation High School is in a weird, distracting format that both Middlest and I found annoying. In addition, while the SAT words are used in context, fitting the definitions given, I kept getting the feeling that they weren't being used quite right in a number of instances. If you are a person who delights in words, in nuances, in shades of meaning, in selecting just exactly the right word, you probably know what I'm getting at. A word might fit a specific definition, without fitting right in a sentence (it might work better in a different sentence, or a different word might be more appropriate).

It's sort of like the difference between teaching to a test, where you memorize answers, and learning for understanding. I suppose these books will suit their purpose if they help readers memorize SAT words and canned definitions. They will not, however (in my opinion) lead to a more elegant use of language.

In addition, typos, misspellings, and just plain wrong words are really out of place in a book used for teaching an area of language arts. (One character shuttered in at least two scenes in the book, for example, when the context led me to believe that the author meant shuddered.)

Relatively clean content

One of the publisher's selling points is that the content of these vocabulary-building novels is clean, even though the stories have been written to interest teens. They're probably pretty tame if you measure by the standards of worldly teens, while possibly not suited to Christian homeschoolers.

All the characters attend institutional school. They're interested in the opposite sex (the boys dwell a lot on specific members of the opposite sex, though there's nothing steamy or even seamy). A lot of evasion, even downright deceit, goes on in the interest of furthering the story. A couple of the stories are somewhat unrealistic (not counting Planet Exile, which is science fiction) -- I have a hard time believing that adults would stand around with their hands in their pockets while a boy manipulates the legal system to gain possession of a house, for example, and I'm fairly certain that the CIA doesn't employ students fresh out of high school, as Operation High School implies.

Middlest read three of the books and pronounced them "okay, for the most part." She was annoyed with typos and the peculiar formatting found in Operation High School, as mentioned above. She liked Planet Exile the best of the bunch. Since she reads on a college level, she only learned one new word in the reading of the three books, and commented that some of the SAT words were used out of context.

I am very glad that I pre-read the books before giving them to Middlest. I.M. for Murder made me physically ill in the reading -- I almost lost my lunch. Not only does it have the torture and murder of a family pet (thankfully at least this is only implied by the main character finding the headless body of his mother's cat, and no more detail than that), but there are also scenes where the hero and his friends are held and tormented by the serial killer they played an Internet trick on. It's mild stuff by today's standards -- someone who watched any of the CSI television shows on a regular basis would hardly bat an eyelid. But it was too much for me, and I didn't want Middlest filling her brain with such images, so I told her not to read I.M for Murder, and when I told her my reasons, she was glad to comply.

Vocabulary building, anyone?

I guess I'd say in conclusion that I would not recommend this series of books to homeschooling friends with similar values to ours. They might be suited to teens in Christian schools who watch more television than we do (let's face it, we used to watch CSI but haven't for a couple of years now -- our viewing is pretty tame, things like Food Network, Discovery Channel, and the occasional episode of Monk). If they are already reading such authors as G.K. Chesterton or Dorothy Sayers, they're probably beyond the level of this series.

Pricing and availability

The four books in the VocabCafe series are available individually for $12.95 at the College Prep Genius website, or as a bundle for $38.85

Read more TOS Crew reviews of College Prep Genius products at this link.

Disclaimer: Our family received a set of four VocabCafe books for review purposes. No additional compensation was involved.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

TOS Crew: Bower Books

I hadn't heard of Bower Books before, but I'm glad to have made their acquaintance. "Picture books for children and their grown-ups" is a great summation, as these beautifully done books are a pleasure to read with your little (and not-so-little) ones. Our family was given the opportunity to review an e-book format of The Person I Marry: Things I'll Think About Long Before Saying "I Do".

As you can see from the cover, the book has an old-fashioned flavor in its illustrations, harking back to a simpler time. As a matter of fact, the pictures remind me of some of the lovely, realistic illustrations in some of the Little Golden Books I treasured from my childhood.

In pictures and gentle rhyme, the authors spell out a list of qualities to look for in a future spouse. They draw on the Bible for positive character qualities, as well as giving a nod to their twelve children and their lists of qualities that they looked for, or are looking for, in a lifelong partner.

Youngest and I sat together to read this book (I wish it had been the physical book, much more cozy to sit on the sofa together with the book spread over our laps, than sitting in front of the computer to read an e-book). It had been difficult to pull her away from the project she was working on, but soon her smile matched mine as she paged her way through. When she was only about halfway through this 32-page book, she was already commenting that this would be a great book to read as a bedtime story with a little child, to keep on the bookshelf, to pull out and read periodically, to read with her husband-to-be, before they get married, to buy a copy for each of her children when they come along.

When we finished reading, she told both her sisters that there was a book on the computer that they just had to read as soon as they could take a break from their studies. (And make that soon.)

While the book describes a paragon, the authors add balance on the final page, a blank page for the reader to make a personal list of qualities for a future spouse: "Things I'll look for in 'The Person I Marry' (I'll work on these areas in my own life, too.)" It's just what I wanted to say to Youngest as we were going through the book, what I was going to say as we discussed the book after reading it, but the authors beat me to it.

The list of fine qualities in the book is not unrealistic and out of reach, but something to aim for in deliberate living: kindness, gentleness, honesty, regard for life, reverence for God, and much, much more. (Just start with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22 and go from there...)

The Person I Marry would be a great book to ponder in the growing-up years. It presents a fine target to shoot for, character qualities that make up a well-rounded individual, a complete and mature adult, someone who will be a blessing to all around.

The authors have a video on their website to give you a taste for the book. If I could figure out the "embed code" I'd put it here, but since I can't, here's a link.

The Person I Marry from Bower Books on Vimeo.

Pricing and availability

The Person I Marry: Things I'll Think About Long Before Saying "I Do" is available in hardcover, with 32 full-color pages, from Bower Books for $11.99.

Read more TOS Crew reviews of The Person I Marry at this link.

Disclaimer: Our family received The Person I Marry in e-book format for review purposes. No additional compensation was involved.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Monday, Monday

...does that phrase start a tape playing in the back of your head, the Mamas and the Papas, singing in harmony? (showing my age... our girls know what cassette tapes are, though we've pretty much transitioned to CDs now -- I think there's only one working cassette player remaining in our house)

We're still fighting this laryngitis bug. Bought some thyme oil-based wipes last weekend, and Youngest has been wiping doorknobs and computer keyboards and other surfaces to try to kill bugs. We also need to soak our toothbrush heads in hydrogen peroxide, to try to kill any germs so we don't reinfect ourselves. It's on my list for today.

In other news, Monday is laundry catch-up day, King's Meadow lecture day (listen to a George Grant lecture, outline the material together, and have the girls write summaries from the outline), bathroom-cleaning day, and more. Can't overdo, though, or I might relapse.

Still, the prognosis is better than it was last week. Last week, we were disinfecting with Lysol spray, something my mom used to do, and so I've followed in her footsteps. To me, it's the smell of "clean". (Do you have a product that makes you think "clean" when you smell it? For dh, it's Murphy's Oil Soap. Come to think of it, I'm low on that and need to add it to the shopping list. But I digress.) We were getting low on Lysol, so while shopping I picked up a new can and read the ingredients.

...there's ammonia, or something like ammonia, in Lysol. Did you know that?

No wonder I kept getting sicker. Shades of deja vu. Much like my 6-month stint of bronchitis a few years back, I'd start to feel better, do some cleaning, and wake up sicker the next day. A few years back, I discovered it was glass cleaner (many of these have ammonia) that was making me sick. Some time before that I'd had to give up products containing bleach -- they gave me chemical-based pneumonia.

I never would have guessed that there was ammonia in disinfectant sprays...

...anyhow, I researched natural disinfectants and discovered thyme oil. You can buy thyme oil-based sprays and wipes at the store, nestled amongst the more conventional cleaners. The brand we're using right now is Method Antibac for the spray, and Scotch-Brite™ Botanical Disinfecting Wipes.

The smell is kind of strong, but the stuff is supposedly food-grade, meaning you don't have to rinse food preparation surfaces after spraying. We don't mind the smell, actually -- it's less choking than the conventional sanitizing sprays we've used.

So what does "Monday, Monday" mean for you?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

TOS Crew: Memoria Press and First Form Latin

Members of this year's Crew were given the opportunity to review one of three products from Memoria Press: Classical Phonics, First Start Reading, and First Form Latin.
We're well past learning to read (pause to sigh over the days of snuggling together on the couch, reading aloud together...), and Youngest is interested in learning Latin, so First Form Latin sounded like just the thing.

I was impressed when the box arrived, but not surprised, as we've always found Memoria Press to be incredibly generous and helpful when we've done past reviews. This wasn't just a teacher's guide and student workbook; no, we'd received a box full of supplies. It seemed almost like a magic box as we unpacked it, one thing after another, never seeming to end.

This is what we got:

It looks like a lot (and it is) but think of some of this as helps and the rest as tools for someone who aims to study Latin, not just dabble in it.

Indeed, finishing First Form Latin is equivalent to one year of high school foreign language. (See the Table of Contents for an idea of what's covered in the course.) You can continue with Second Form Latin, and a Third Form Latin course is in the works.


First Form Latin is recommended for students in Grade 5 and up. Older students can start with First Form Latin, but younger students would do better if they'd already finished Latina Christiana or some other early Latin course. Youngest is going through Latina Christiana this year with a group of friends, as a matter of fact. Though she falls in the mid-range for First Form Latin (according to the state she's at an 8th grade level), we decided that this program moves just a little faster than she's comfortable with. Keep in mind that this is our hands-on kid. She struggles with reading and writing, but give her a math problem to solve or a craft to put together and she soars.

Teacher stuff: involvement, preparation, ease of use

This is not a self-teaching package. Even with the DVD set, you're not just going to hand this off to your student and go your merry way (except, perhaps, at high school level). The teacher's guide urges you to do the worksheets together with your student for the most part, and when your student does independent work (one of the later worksheets in a lesson set, perhaps, or a quiz or test) to correct immediately to give timely feedback. I agree completely. This means that you're committed (if you're serious about learning Latin) to about 30 minutes a day, four or five days a week, or 45 minutes a day if you do Latin three days a week.

The lessons are laid out in a formal, systematic format. They include drill (repetition is vital in learning a language, as I'm sure you know, whether it's a jingle, a song, or a paradigm -- see this link for a sample recitation), grammar learning, oral and written work including worksheets, and games, culminating in a quiz. The quiz at the end of the lesson is optional if the student has already exhibited a grasp of the material.

If you use the DVDs, the lesson material is presented for you by a Latin teacher, and all you have to worry about is the written and oral work that makes up the bulk of the lesson. (See a sample lesson at the link above.)

The lectures follow the book. The instructor, Glen Moore, does a good job of keeping the material moving along. He uses vocal variety to hold the listener's interest, inserts pauses for student responses, and gives you the feeling that you're sitting in a classroom.

As a matter of fact, this curriculum is well suited for classroom use, especially the game suggestions. If you're teaching one or two students at home, you'll need to participate right along with your student(s) to get the full benefit of the exercises. (It might be a good idea to get together with some friends and form a class, working together at least once or twice a week, just to keep the momentum going. Accountability is a great tool! More about that in a bit.)

As mentioned above, the lessons are laid out in a logical, step-by-step order, with all the information the  teacher needs. There's not a whole lot of teacher preparation outside of looking over the lesson material before teaching it. I'm told you can use First Form Latin even if you haven't studied Latin yourself. (Just don't watch the first two introductory videos on the DVD set... a lot of terms got thrown around, quickly, and if I hadn't known some of what was being mentioned as "coming up" I think I would have been overwhelmed. I had this problem only with the introduction to the course, and the introduction to Unit 1. The lessons themselves have been clear sailing.)

Each lesson includes a two-page spread in the Student Text (click on the link to see sample pages) and four or five worksheets in the Student Workbook (more sample pages). The accompanying Teacher Manual takes you step-by-step through the lesson presented in the Student Text, complete with scripted instruction, background information, and answers not provided in the Student Text. Another help for the teacher is the answer key for workbook pages, quizzes and tests, with a layout that makes corrections easy and quick. The included pronunciation CD is a big help if you've never taken Latin yourself!

The author recommends enriching this program with Latina Angelica (a reading and translation supplement, giving practice in actually using Latin), which is why you see it mentioned in the sample pages.

That "more about that in a bit" I mentioned earlier...

As I said above, accountability is a great thing, especially when you're a home educator. Life is so busy, and complications arise (take our family, this past month, and the nasty bugs we've been fighting. Just when I think we're clear, someone else comes down with a fever). It's so easy to let something like Latin fall by the wayside. History, for example, we've got to get done, because we're in a co-op, which means regular quizzes and having to be prepared for class. Same thing with Biblical Greek, a tough subject that demands a couple hours a day of regular study to keep up.

Some of the families in our Greek class have younger children who were basically just cooling their heels (playing, etc.) while the high school students were in class every week. One of the moms offered to teach Latin using Latina Christiana (also from Memoria Press), and Youngest was excited to join the class, even though she already knew some of the material from our earlier Latin studies. She's been working in that class while we've been exploring First Form Latin, and I was able to see how she breezed through the Latina Christiana material with enthusiasm and confidence, while First Form Latin moved a lot more quickly and is more of a stretch. Frankly, she's more motivated by studying with her peers than with just me. So I've decided to lay First Form Latin aside for now.

That little class made up of younger siblings is planning to continue next year (while our first-year Greek students move into a second year of study), and guess what they're going to use?

First Form Latin.

We're all set! Youngest will be another year older, another year more practiced in reading and doing written work, firmly grounded after finishing Latina Christiana (need I mention, with her friends?). I think she'll be ready to succeed with First Form Latin next year, and will have more fun doing it together with her friends, especially when it comes to playing Latin games to add fun to the learning.

Pricing and availability

First Form Latin is available at the Memoria Press website. You can buy individual pieces, but there are also a couple of package deals. I really recommend adding the DVDs, especially if you're not a Latin teacher yourself.

$55.00: First Form Latin basic set (Teacher Manual, Student Text, Student Workbook, Quizzes and Tests, Pronunciation CD)

$115.00: First Form Latin plus DVDs & Flashcards (Teacher Manual, Student Text, Student Workbook, Quizzes and Tests, Pronunciation CD, plus Flashcards and DVDs)

Read more TOS Crew reviews of First Form Latin, as well as reviews of Classical Phonics and First Start Reading, at this link.

Disclaimer: Our family received a complete First Form Latin package for review purposes. No additional compensation was involved.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

TOS Crew: Excellence in Literature

I was so excited to hear the Crew would have the opportunity to review Excellence in Literature from Everyday Education!

You see, we're already familiar with excellence in writing, specifically, the Institute for Excellence in Writing. IEW's Andrew Pudewa co-published the American and British Literature levels, and his involvement was enough of a recommendation for us to want to jump into this program.

There are five levels in this college-preparatory course:

- English I: Introduction to Literature
- English II: Literature and Composition
- English III: American Literature
- English IV: British Literature
- English V: World Literature

Each level follows the same format, and levels do not have to be completed in order, but can be matched, for example, to your history studies. The author chose the literature covered in the curriculum  "because they reveal truth through the power of story." The material is directed at students in Grades 8-12.

Our family received English I: Introduction to Literature.

What I like:

The book is written directly to the student, not talking down, but as the meeting of two minds, in a workmanlike yet conversational tone, with the occasional flash of humor. (Yes, the author is a human being, and not a textbook committee!)

Literature studied in context, not in isolated snippets or excerpts.

Emphasis on discerning worldview in literature. That fits right in with the moral philosphy we're learning through our King's Meadow studies (formerly Gileskirk).

Lots of links to Internet resources. These make the studies more interesting, for one thing, with material that relates to the literary works ("virtual field trips"!) in particular and literature, analysis, and writing in more general terms.

"Something to think about" and "Be sure to notice" notes to the student, setting the stage for deeper study, not just surface reading.

Suggested schedule to follow; well-organized lessons that follow a standardized format for each of the nine units

Built-in writing projects (more about that in a bit), and included rubrics to help the parent/teacher evaluate student writing

Reading list for English I (from the website)  
(plus a few comments from our perspective):

Unit 1: Short Stories by-
• Sarah Orne Jewett: A White Heron
• Edgar Allen Poe: The Purloined Letter (This one is not scary, if you're concerned about that.) (a classic that I've seen mentioned in a lot of literature, but I'd never read it before now)
• Guy de Maupassant: The Diamond Necklace
• O. Henry: The Ransom of Red Chief (hilarious! I remember reading this in my grandfather's library and laughing out loud)
• Eudora Welty: A Worn Path
• James Thurber: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (I've often quoted from this story to the girls, and now they know why.)

Unit 2: Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (As a teen, I enjoyed Jules Verne, and am glad to introduce the girls to his writing)
Honors: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Unit 3: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (fun, but wry and thought-provoking, too)
Honors: The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain

Unit 4: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Honors: Shirley or Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Unit 5: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
Honors: Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot

Unit 6: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Honors: Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

Unit 7: Animal Farm by George Orwell (I hated both of these in high school. We might read Animal Farm, which I hated just a little bit less than 1984, or we might skip this unit until Youngest is a bit older.)
Honors: 1984 by George Orwell

Unit 8: The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Honors: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

Unit 9: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (I already know we're going to have to go with Pilgrim's Progress when we get to Unit 9. The girls detest Gulliver's Travels from a previous exposure, and it's not worth the battle to try to get them to read it again so soon. Maybe they'll enjoy analyzing it at a later date.)
Honors: The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

An introductory section tells you (or more specifically, the student; though it's all stuff the parent should know, too) how the course is set up, what materials you need, and some basic underpinnings, like how to read a book in an analytical way. Each unit is divided into four weeks of work, and includes reading the main text and additional reading for context, as well as writing assignments. Background information might include websites, biographies, videos, and encyclopedia articles. Extensive resource lists are provided, with suggestions for finding more material.

And now, the "more in a bit" about the writing portion of the course you were waiting for...

While a "Formats and Models" chapter explains the basic format for writing assignments, the material assumes your student is already familiar with writing basics: how to construct a paragraph, how to write a five-paragraph essay. The author recommends writing lessons and handbooks to be used in conjunction wtih Excellence in Literature.  Samples of student work are included to give you an idea of how your writing assignments should look.

I have to admit that this course is a bit of a stretch for our eighth-grader. I really appreciate the multitude of resources, including videos and Internet audio links, and the author's suggestion to use audio books for a student who struggles with reading. It makes a real difference! Writing is still a struggle, but with techniques and resources from the Institute for Excellence in Writing we're keeping our heads above water. Mostly.

Excellence in Literature promotes just that: thoughtful reading and interacting with classic texts, on a high school level. It's been a bit of a stretch for me, not just Youngest (high school was such a long time ago, and I'm not sure how much I actually learned, much less retained...), but it's been a good stretch. I'm learning right along with my students.

Purchase information

See a free sample unit here.

English I: Introduction to Literature is available both in print form for $29 plus shipping, or as an e-book for $27. Click here for the order page. You can order any of the five levels individually, or a set of all five together, either printed and bound, or in downloadable e-book format.

Read more TOS Crew reviews of Excellence in Literature at this link.

Disclaimer: Our family received a free PDF copy of English I: Introduction to Literature for review purposes. No other compensation was involved.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Free printables!

How Does She...? is a fun and informational website put together by a bunch of creative moms. Browsing there briefly, I found articles with how-tos for crafts and organizing ideas that range from simple to complex, a sort of something-for-everyone. No, I'm not going to be picking up a drill this week to make the cute children's chore chart, but I can see ways to adapt the craft in a way that my uncrafty fingers can manage.

Anyhow, in addition to projects you can also find free printables at the site to help you in your quest for sanity in a busy household.

They're pretty and colorful and will add a cheerful note to your organizing.

What fun!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

GF Fruit Cobbler

Well, it's really Wednesday, so this probably shouldn't be tagged "If it's Tuesday, it must be gluten-free!" I'm a day behind myself this week. We're passing a cold around, and this morning I woke up to discover I'm it.

Something comforting is in order, I think.

The basic idea for this cobbler comes from More-with-Less by Doris Janzen Longacre. I'm on my second copy, and it's getting pretty tattered, so I handle it gingerly. It's not a gluten-free cookbook, but I've been able to adapt some of the recipes so far. The recipes are pretty simple and basic, and this is the cookbook (along with Laurel's Kitchen, during a mostly vegetarian phase) that taught me most of what I know about cooking from scratch. This is the cookbook that taught me to make chocolate pudding without the pudding package from the store. This is also the cookbook that fueled our love affair with cobbler -- especially made with fresh-picked wild blackberries, but also great with blueberries or peaches or any combination of berries and peaches.

My quick-and-sloppy GF flour mix works well in this recipe. (See below.)

Fresh, canned or frozen fruit, it doesn't matter. This cobbler always comes out right. You make the batter first and pour it into the baking dish, sprinkle fruit over the top, and bake. The fruit sinks to the bottom, the batter rises to the top, light and fluffy, and bakes to a lovely golden brown while filling the house with an enticing fragrance. I doubled the recipe to serve the five of us (people around here are greedy when it comes to cobbler), and it disappears quickly. I cut it up into six portions and put one away for Dad's lunchbox.

Easy GF Fruit Cobbler
based on Quick Fruit Cobbler from More-with-Less

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 10" x 13" baking pan. Mix the following ingredients, beat until smooth, and pour into pan, spreading to the edges. It'll make a thin layer.

1 cup sugar (I can cut this by almost half and still get a fairly decent result)
1 cup GF flour mix
1 cup milk (I've tried regular milk, raw milk, coconut milk, almond milk, and rice milk by turns. They all work.)
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 to 1/2 tsp. salt

Now it's time for the fruit! You can make an all-one-kind cobbler (we often do, especially when we've just come back from berry-picking), or you can mix different fruits. This recipe is very forgiving -- it takes fresh, canned, or frozen fruit. I'd drain canned fruit first, if I were you. If you use frozen fruit, your baking time is going to be somewhat longer. How long? I can't tell you. We pretty much tell when it's done by peeking in the oven when we can't stand the wonderful smell any longer. When it's golden-brown-and-delicious (is that Rachel Ray?), it's ready to eat.

We haven't tried this with apples, yet, as we usually make Apple Crisp or baked apples or apple pie with those.

You want your fruit in somewhat even pieces, although I've been known to slice peaches (or use canned sliced peaches) and lay them in a pretty pattern, before sprinkling with blueberries or blackberries.

Scatter about 4 cups of fruit across the surface of the cobbler. Bake about 40 minutes. It's really good served warm with cream, whipped cream, or ice cream. In the unlikely event you have any left over, it makes a great breakfast, cold.

Quick GF Flour Mix

My quickly cobbled-together flour mix, that works well for simple scratch recipes, contains approximately:

1/2 cup rice flour (white or brown seem to work about the same)
1/4 cup tapioca or corn starch
1/4 cup sorghum flour or millet flour

Mix these together before you add them to the rest of the ingredients.

What's quick about it is that it seems to work well even if I don't measure carefully. GF flours can be unforgiving. You don't want to pack them down in the measuring cup. You don't usually want to scoop them from the flour container with a measuring cup; you want to scoop them gently into the cup and level off, not pack down. However, with this mix I just stick the 1/2 or 1/4 cup measure into the flour/starch I'm grabbing and lightly scoop it up, scrape the excess off the top of the cup with the blade of a knife, and dump it into the mix.

I linked up this post to the Domestic Arts Link Up 1st Edition. Check it out here! Lots of good information.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

TOS Crew: Say Anything! from Northstar Games

Some reviews practically write themselves (especially when we're enthused about a project!) and some are difficult to write -- either we're really excited about something and I'm afraid the written word won't do it justice, or it didn't work for our family... but let's not go there, because that certainly isn't the case today!

When the TOS Crew learned that Northstar Games would be participating in this year's cruise, you should have heard the cheers!

You see, last year our family reviewed Wits and Wagers, and had a blast doing it. What fun!

 (Don't just take our word for it. You can find this year's Crew impressions of Wits and Wagers at this link, by the way.)

It was a different kind of game, in that it evened out the playing field. Youngest had just as good a chance of winning as anyone, and sometimes better! (She knew, not guessed, the number of Disney princesses... and other unique trivia questions, and when she guessed, her guesses were as good as anyone else's, and she soon figured out a strategy that worked very well for racking up the points.)

One fun thing about NorthStar Games is the Meeples. We've fallen in like with these cute little "people" who populate the games, serving as game tokens, or decorating the boards (more about the boards in a minute). They make fun mascots!

Say Anything! -- a new family pastime -- is another game where you don't have to have a storehouse of trivia at your fingertips, and if (like Youngest) you struggle with spelling, it's okay because creativity trumps spelling in this game. In other words, even if your handwriting is hard to read, or your words are oddly spelled, just so long as other players can read your writing, you can play. Younger players may want to team up with older players to get around the "8 and up" (which helps assure the player can write) suggestion.

Here's how the game works. You each have a dry erase writing board and pen. The person who's "It" (the "Judge") draws a question from the stack of cards and reads a question aloud. ("What's the best way to spend a rainy day?" is an example I just thought up out of my head, but with the stack of questions included with the game, it may well be in there. There are six questions on each card. Having a choice of more than one question gives the reader a little latitude. For example, if you'd be uncomfortable with the topic "What would be the weirdest secret to hear about my mother?" or you don't know what an A-list celebrity is ("Which A-list celebrity is most likely to be forgotten in 10 years?"), you can fall back on "What's the best thing about living in the country?" -- a sampling of one card.)

All the other players write down an answer to the question, wacky or serious as you wish. The Judge secretly selects one of the answers and then everyone else tries to guess which answer the Judge likes best. You place your tokens on one or two of the answers and when all bets are placed, the Judge reveals the winning choice.

You get points for choosing the winning answer and also for writing the winning answer. There can be a lot of jockeying for position and strategy involved. Knowing the Judge well (and everyone gets to take a turn at judging) is a definite help!

Materials are sturdy (well, fairly sturdy -- we almost wrecked the Judge's secret choice recording device until we realized it wasn't supposed to be used as a spinner -- memo to self: read the directions before trying to play the game for the first time and don't count on a kid who says she read the directions already...), colorful, and convenient. All play is done on dry erase boards, even scorekeeping! Pens are provided with the game, but when they run out (and ours haven't yet), you can probably use dry erase crayons or any dry erase markers. However, if you've had the game for less than a year, they have a fantastic replacement policy.

From the Northstar Games website:

Free Parts Replacement - Don’t let a lost or broken component stop you from playing. If any of our game component(s) should fail (or even be lost) within the first year of ownership, we will deliver an identical or comparable replacement to your door free of charge! Requesting replacement parts is a breeze... simply e-mail us the requested part(s) along with your mailing address. We’ll send the parts out within two weeks.

Suited for 3-6 players (and you can have more if you play in teams), ages 8 and up (but again, younger players can team up with older players) Say Anything is available where games are sold and retails for $19.99.

Be warned. This game is addictive. (And fun!)

Check out more TOS Crew reviews of Say Anything here.

Disclaimer: Our family received a free copy of Say Anything for review purposes. No additional compensation was involved.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Free printables!

While perusing this week's Subscriber Exclusive from Homeschool Freebie of the Day, I followed a link that led to a link that led to free printables from Life Your Way.

They have more than 150 free printables available for download here, including a room organizer chart (I don't know about you, but with the change of seasons we're moving our furniture around into new configurations) and a Home Management Notebook.

So if you feel the need to scratch that "get organized" itch, check out Life Your Way, and if you haven't heard of Homeschool Freebie of the Day, take a look at that site, too, where every day there's a new free download of PDF e-books or mp3 files or links to free resources.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Visual Latin -- great discount!

Visual Latin is offering a great discount on their products!

From their FaceBook page:

Here's a little October gift: use the code OCT$10 and get $10 off any Visual Latin product. Use it quickly - it's only good through this Friday, Oct 21!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

TOS Crew: E-Mealz

Back in January, I confessed my meal-planning woes. You see, we went partially gluten-free (GF) about a year ago -- this meant I was cooking regular meals for the family and modifying things to make Eldest's meals completely GF. We had a menu-planning and cooking system in place that had been working pretty well. At the end of each month, we "girls" would plan the next month's meals. We cooked on a rotation basis, meaning each of us (mom and daughters, that is) ended up responsible for cooking, washing dishes, and kitchen clean-up about twice a week.

With Eldest's gluten sensitivity, I sort of took over all the cooking once again. Oh, if a meal was naturally gluten-free, one of the girls could manage. But I was paranoid about cross-contamination, and so if a meal contained gluten ingredients, I took it upon myself to do the cooking.

Two months later, DH was diagnosed with a severe gluten sensitivity, and I made the decision to go completely GF, at least at home. (The younger girls and I still get glutenous food on occasion, when we're out and about.) Now, GF cooking is not as difficult as I thought it would be, but it was different enough that I -- still learning -- took on all the cooking. (I know. I should have included the girls in the learning and exploring. My only explanation is that I felt like I was in over my head.) I had kind of a mental block against menu planning. It all seemed overwhelming. We got into a rut of rotating the same few meals, and I was doing all the cooking once more.

I made a couple of feeble stabs at GF menu planning, but it was pitiful. Just pitiful.

Enter The Old Schoolhouse Review Crew, and the opportunity to review an online menu-planning service. When I heard they had a gluten-free option, I jumped up and down (virtually, anyhow) with my hand up in the air, yelling, "Pick me! Pick me!" Anything had to be better than what I was doing.

Choosing a plan

When I found out our family was on the e-Mealz list, I went to the e-Mealz website and read everything I could find about their menu plans. They have so many plans to choose from, including store-specific and special diets (low-carb, low-fat, low-cal, vegetarian, and yes, gluten-free). There are even small-family plans if you're cooking for just one or two people. The store-specific plans take into account the stores' weekly sales. We're talking Wal-Mart, Aldi's, Kroger, and Publix for specific stores. We don't have Aldi's and Publix for sure, so it was easy to eliminate those choices. But for the rest... it was tough! I went through all of their sample menus.

I finally settled on the Wal-Mart gluten-free plan. It appears to be identical to the "any store" GF plan, except that it includes prices on the shopping list. Oh, but I'm getting ahead of myself...

How it works

You select a meal plan from the options available and sign up. A three-month subscription is $15 (which works out to $5 a month, as you probably already noticed), billed to your credit card or debit card. Your subscription is automatically renewed, or you may cancel at any time.
By the way, I've found from personal experience that when I plan my meals and stick to my plan, I save money on groceries (for one thing, it cuts way down on impulse buying, and since what I buy is on the plan, it gets used and doesn't end up forgotten, in the fridge), as well as time. No more last minute trips to the store for forgotten ingredients! No more last minute trips to the store, period, just because the fridge and cabinets are reasonably full of ingredients but "there's nothing to eat."

Every week a new menu is available for download. (You can actually download two weeks' worth of menus, "this week" and "last week," so our first week, I got two weeks' menus to work from.)

My gluten-free e-Mealz menus have each been three pages: two pages of menus spanning seven days, plus a shopping list which includes what I need to buy in a weekly shopping trip, prices, space to write additional items, and a list of pantry staples that I need to have on hand (or buy, if they're not in my pantry) to fix all the meals for the week.

Our meal plans usually included at least one of each of the following:
- fish
- Mexican
- chicken
- pork
- beef
- meatless

For each day, there's an entree and a side in the menu plan, with a list of ingredients and preparation instructions. We've made some substitutions; for example, when a recipe calls for quick-cooking brown rice, I substitute regular; we don't do fish on a weekly basis as one of the girls won't eat any fish except canned tuna, and we only eat pork about once a month, not once a week.

The recipes are pretty easy to make, and the results have been, for the most part, delicious. (Remember, I haven't made all the recipes because of food preferences.) The GF menus average on paper about $90 a week. Some weeks we spend less because we have a supply of meat already in our freezer. Some weeks we spend more because when we do buy meat, it's the hormone- and antibiotic-free kind, which costs more.

But what about other allergies?

Because gluten is our main concern, these menus have worked fairly well for us. (I say "fairly" because of our fussy eater, who prefers her food pretty plain.) If your family has other food allergies (for example, corn or dairy) you might not fare as well (pun not intended but it certainly works well, doesn't it).

In summary

Click on any of the meal plans at the e-Mealz website to see a summary of that plan, and to find a link to a sample menu/shopping list for that plan. Check out a variety of plans -- you'll get an idea of how it works. You can sign up and choose a plan, and if it doesn't work you can switch plans once every three months.

I think I'll stick with the Wal-Mart gluten-free meal plan. I don't always get to Wal-Mart, as sometimes I have to consider the cost in gas compared to the grocery savings, but I like having the prices and the option. I like having menus planned out for me, and with the easy-to-follow recipes, the girls are finally able to learn to cook gluten-free. This one's a winner for our family.

Read more TOS Crew reviews of e-Mealz here.

Disclaimer: TOS Crew members were provided a free 3-month subscription to e-Mealz for review purposes. We receive no monetary compensation for offering our opinion. Opinions offered here are our own.