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.