Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Beloved Books (review)


Did you listen to audio books growing up?  I think I had a few children's books with accompanying records that made a funny, magical sound each time I was to turn the page.  Then, I believe, the times they changed.  My younger sister had books and tape cassettes that did the same.  Enter 2012...  surely with all the high tech goodies on the market my three littles wouldn't be interested in "listening to a story" on CD without even a book mind you.  WRONG!!!

Beloved Books was created to share wholesome, life-affirming books and audio resources with Christian families.  Their collections include missionary stories, classic allegories, historical fiction, and beloved series.  My kiddos were totally enthralled and enamored with the Sugar Creek Gang Volume 1 CDs we had the opportunity to review.

PhotobucketThe past month has found our family crammed in the van for many back and forth trips from TN to KY.  Depending on where we go, we log 3-3.5 hours one way.  That just so happened to be the perfect amount of time to listen to one complete story.  After the first story, the kids were hooked.  They were the ones that emphatically reminded me to grab the CDs when loading the van.  Oh we forgot necessities like pajamas and toothbrushes on occasion and the ever important DSi charger, but never the Sugar Creek Gang Volume 1 CDs.

Produced by Moody Press, Volume 1 of the Sugar Creek Gang CDs includes 12 CDs with the following stories:
  • The Swamp Robber
  • The Killer Bear
  • The Winter Rescue
  • The Lost Campers
  • Chicago Adventure
  • The Secret Hideouts
In each of these stories, written by Paul Hutchins beginning in 1939 and later dramatized by Paul Ramseyer, the kids were entertained by a gang of boys:  Bill Jenkins, Poetry, Dragonfly, Big Jim, Little Jim, and Circus.  These boys have great adventures including:  fishing, swimming, a robber, a bear, bullies, befriending an eccentric Old Man, great rescues, etc.  Amid all the action, the characters faith grows by leaps and bounds.  They openly share the love of Christ, pray for one another, pray for their enemies, lead others to Christ, and truly learn to follow Christ in their day to day lives.  These are definitely characters I want my children to be drawn to and emulate. 

One caution... even though the CDs are very overtly Christian, have wonderful messages, inspiring characters, and important life lessons, I do encourage parents to listen along with their children.  Because we did our listening in the van, I was a captive audience as well.  Thankfully so, because my 6 and 7 year olds needed some things explained to them.  For example, they had no idea what an alcoholic was and couldn't understand the behaviors of Circus's or Tom Tilne's Dad.  We had several conversations following the introduction of those characters.  Also, being from the Independent Christian Church background, our theology doesn't align completely with the Sinner's Prayer, so we were able to discuss the plan of salvation on as well.

I do recommend the Sugar Creek Gang series.  My children were great fans and they were definitely a God-send to us during our times of travel.  I appreciate their wholesome Christian stories, and I do foresee more listening in our future. 

If you want to try out the first full story without buying a whole volume, you may purchase the complete "Swamp Robber" for only $4.95.  The Sugar Creek Gang Volume 1 CDs (12 CDs) are available for $54.95 with free media rate shipping. Volumes 2-6 also retail for $54.95.  Also, you may purchase the entire Sugar Creek Gang Collection (72 CDs) at a $50 savings for $279.70
Don't just take my word... visit other Schoolhouse Review Crew Members by clicking the button below and read about their experiences. 

Disclaimer:  I received Sugar Creek Gang Volume 1 CDs in exchange for my honest review. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Samson's Classroom (review)

PhotobucketSamson's Classroom is an online educational program for K-5 students.  It uses games to teach students the three core building blocks of reading.  Your student will have access to Sight Words with Samson, Spelling with Samson, and Reading with Samson.  I would encourage you to watch the 3 minute demo video to best understand and get a feel for how the online program operates. 

Important to note from the very beginning,  like so many other products in the cyber realm, you will not find your subscription out of date immediately upon purchase and installation.  Samson's Classroom is ever-expanding, improving, and growing. As new new product releases and upgrades are made, they are added to your package at no additional cost.  I appreciate this aspect of customer service!

Designed with early readers in mind, Sight Words with Samson leads students in mastering 224 of the most commonly used words in our English language. This ensures a solid basis for the emerging reader.  For each set of sight words, a 5 step process is employed to assist children in learning the frequently used words.  First, the words are introduced and pronounced correctly; then, the child uses the words in a sentence.  Next, the words are spelled.  They are correctly identified, and finally the students are quizzed on the words. 

Caleb actually spent the majority of his time working in the sight word area of Samson's Classroom.  His proficiency and fluency with these words greatly improved.  He thrived on the repeat and routine he found moving from lesson to lesson.  He was able to interact with each of the words repeatedly and truly committed them to memory.  I was pleased with his progression through this portion of the program.  To track his progress, the program uses a scoreboard.  Additionally, in the resource center parents can print out achievement certificates to recognize students when they complete each level or additional worksheets and flashcards if remediation or extra practice is warranted. 



Many kids balk at spelling words... mine included!  Spelling with Samson is much more appealing than traditional drill and practice activities because it is games, games, games.  The short games draws from a vault of 7,000 + words.  However, the lists can be customized so that you have control over what words your child is focusing on and can coordinate with your current spelling curriculum.  You may also select from pre-designed lists. 


Often online programs focus simply on the skills needed to learn to read but fail to give any attention to being able to recall, retain, and understand what is read.  I appreciate the Reading with Samson portion of Samson's Classroom because it stresses reading comprehension and logical analysis of passages.  Children are learning to infer and draw conclusions based on the text they have read. 

A unique feature in this program takes place when a student answers a question incorrectly.  The relative and important information is highlighted within the passage so that the student may return to the text with a focal point.  The student is then given the opportunity to answer the question a second time.  In doing this a few times, the student should better grasp how to find information accurately within the passage and increase his success rate in responding to questions.  As with the other programs support is available to students through the available worksheets and lesson plans that parents are able to print from the resource center. 



Samson's Classroom offers various pricing options.   A subscription for one user is $30 per year.  A family subscription for up to four users costs $50 per year.  Classroom and school subscriptions are also available. 

Prior to purchase, I'd encourage you to have your children play the demo games.  There are examples for each of the three sections of the online program.  Even better, you don't have to set up an account to give them a try.  It's quick and easy!  I also recommend that you click the button below to read what other Schoolhouse Review Crew Members are saying about Samson's Classroom

Disclaimer:  I was provided Samson's Classroom accounts for my children in exchange for my honest review. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Crossbow Education (review)

Crossbow Education is not only family owned and operated, but it is unashamedly Christian.  When asked "Why Crossbow?" they state, "We believe that the symbols of the Cross and the Rainbow stand for the most powerful, life-changing truths on this earth: broadly, "Jesus died in my place, (for my sins)", and "God keeps His promises."  I know I will gladly back a company with my money and support when I trust their beliefs, ethics, and worldview.
In 1992, founder, Bob Hext, found that the games and tools he was developing for his dyslexic students were more beneficial and helpful in comparison to most anything else on the market.  He actually pioneered many of the things we now find common in children's games today.  In 2005, with the patent of The Eye Level Reading Ruler, the company became a leader in the area of support for those with visual stress.

While The Eye Level Reading Ruler is designed specifically to benefit those with visual stress and dyslexia, I found that if was a helpful tool for my early readers as well.  My boys were able to track the text much more consistently and better keep their place when using this product.  Thus, their fluency improved.     
The Eye Level Reading Ruler is made from a combination of opaque and transparent plastic.  It underlines the text and highlights it in a colored tint.  Broad strips are utilized when reading paragraphs and narrow strips for single lines. 
So as not to call attention to the reader, The Eye Level Reading Ruler is small and discreet.  Being the size of a six-inch ruler, it is easy to transport and carry all the time.  This is wonderful for all readers whether emergent, struggling, dyslexic, or dealing with visual stress.
The Eye Level Reading Ruler 10 - pack retails for $16.95.  Each ruler has one side that is matt coated and the other has a glossy finish allowing for the reader's individual preference.  A neat feature is that you are able to choose your own colors. One option is to select a multi-pack of the most popular colors or you can select from the following: yellow, celery, grass, jade, aqua, sky, purple, magenta, pink, and orange.  As far as my boys, Caleb preferred the grass and Jeremiah the aqua.   

Click the button below to read other Crew members experiences with the eye level rulers.  However, please note that the eye level rulers are only one of the products available from Crossbow Education.  Visit the website to see their other offerings including:  sand timers, junior learning product, and games for phonics and spelling.

Disclaimer:  I received a pack of eye level rulers in exchange for my honest review. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Sellars Farm Nature Hike

Moving mid-semester is hard... yes, even for homeschoolers!!!  Classes and co-ops have already formed and had meetings, and everyone is in a groove.  Therefore, in an attempt to "break-in" to the homeschooling community in our area, I've joined several yahoo groups.  I even posted an introduction of our family and asked for ways we could get connected.  Thankfully, several people responded, and thus, begins our quest to make some new homeschooling friends.

Our first venture led us to join the An Atmosphere of Learning group for their October outing.  This group meets together once a month for nature study and a hike.  The usual meeting spot is the Sellars Farm State Archaeological Area.  It is home to a preserved and protected Native American mound.  There is a walking trail that leads through an open field, wooded areas, and along a creek. 

Ranger Tyler began our time together sharing some of his recent finds...  a walking stick insect, a chipping sparrow nest, and the feet and wings of a great blue heron.  Afterwards, we set out on our trek.  Thankfully for this Momma, the hike was quite leisurely due to our very frequent stops to discover and discuss the flora and fauna.  Ranger Tyler was very knowledgeable and absolutely wonderful with the kids.  My three took an immediate liking to him.  Inquisitive Caleb bombarded him with questions... most on topic, but a few Star Wars tidbits slid in there :-)  All three gave him hugs when he left and look forward to seeing him again.


Following our hike, we enjoyed a picnic and got to know some of the group a little better.  The kids interacted with the other kids and started making friends.  It really was great to be out and about with others and to enjoy some educational/social time. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

KinderBach (review)


KinderBach uses a group of charming characters, The Piano Pals, to introduce young children to the piano keyboard.  In the process, kids ages 3-7 gain a basic knowledge of note reading, rhythm, singing, technique, and composition.  Even better, it all takes place in the non-threatening environment and comfort of your own home!

Karri Gregory, author and founder of KinderBach, and the endearing Piano Pals teach piano pedagogy through online videos.  Currently, in the online program there are 6 levels each offering 10 weeks of lessons.  Each week is broken into 4 sessions for a total of 240 lesson segments. 


The 6 levels total almost 22 hours of video.  On average the lessons are approximately 5 minutes in length.  This is perfect for the limited attention spans of young children.  It is also manageable to repeat the video a second or third time to reinforce the information, or view more than one video in a sitting if the lessons are easily completed by your child.  Being able to move at your own pace is one of the positives of this online video program. 

As expected, the lessons begin with very basic information.  Kids are familiarized with the piano keyboard, taught to distinguish between high and low pitches, and experience steady beat.  Lesson continually progress to the point that children are reading simple scores and understand basic music theory. 


To compliment the videos, each level has a printable PDF activity book.  You could download the entire book or choose to print out individual pages as needed.  Appealing to the young audience, it is not necessary for the children to be able to read in order to complete the worksheet.  Karri explains the activities during the sessions. 



Online memberships are available to purchase and include:
* Access to all web lessons by computer, iPad, Android Tablet, Kindle Fire or Nook.
* Accompanying downloaded PDF activity pages
Purchase options include:
$7.99 a month - Billed in a one time annual payment of $95.88
(Great Value! Save 60%)
monthly subscription - Billed monthly for a year
(12 separate payments)
However, before buying, you may want to check out a few sample lessons.  You are also able to access the first 2 weeks of the program free AND there is a 30 day money back guarantee!  A new option is the KinderBack appThe first 2 lessons and 1 game are offered free. Lessons can be purchased individually through the app afterwards, or you can purchase the "Classroom KinderBach: School Version" for just $26.99.  Kinderbach is also sold in DVD form. Finally, Songbooks, Activity Packages and Value Packages are available for purchase.     Photobucket
Having reviewed this product before, my 7 year old boys had little interest in participating.  So my newly 6 year old daughter was the one to use KinderBach.  Because I'm a firm believer in having children only work with true-to-size keyboards or pianos, we set up the laptop on our digital piano to view the lessons.  When completing the worksheets, she either used a clipboard or moved to the kitchen table.   I appreciate that KinderBach does not color, sticker, or number the piano keys.  Instead, one of the very first things a child learns is the groupings of either 2 or 3 black keys.  Then, they are taught to identify where the individual notes live on the keyboard through cute, clever stories featuring The Piano Pals.  Rachel found this memory aid extremely helpful as well as the available placement cards. 
Having a degree in Music Education and having taught private piano students, my personal belief in regards to the optimal time to begin piano lessons occurs simultaneously with beginning reading.  For most children, this usually occurs at or near 6-7 years of age.  I also believe there is no substitute for a one-on-one, in-person lesson taught by an enthusiastic, knowledgeable teacher.  That being said... prior to individualized private study, I'm definitely in favor of exploratory, foundational group music classes.  I also would endorse the KinderBach online program as a solid introduction to the piano keyboard for young students.  While not a substitute for lessons, in my opinion, it would make a wonderful precursor to formal piano lessons.  It's perfect for preschoolers and kindergartners!

Need more information?  Click the button below to read other Schoolhouse Review Crew members experiences with both the online program and the app.  The crew always shares such valuable and pertinent information in their reviews to help you make the best choices for your family.

 Disclaimer:  I received a free 6-month subscription to KinderBach in exhcange for an honest review.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A ZOO-per Birthday

Having celebrated his 7th birthday early with two family parties, I still wanted Caleb to have something "special" for his big day.  Not a shock at all that when given a choice, he chose a zoo trip.  We packed a picnic lunch, grabbed the leftover Star Wars plates and napkins, and headed out for the day.

The morning was a little chilly and overcast, but it didn't seem to bother the kiddos or the animals. We took a leisurely stroll through the zoo seeing some of our favorites. Then, bigger belly, prego Momma needed a break. A long break :-) The sun came out, the kids shed their jackets, and they enjoyed 45 minutes of playtime in the Jungle Gym. Thus, the birthday boy said, "I'm the coolest Mom ever!"  He's a cutie!  Blessed to be his Momma :-)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Zoo Whiz (review)

Did somebody say ZOO?  That's all it takes with my kiddos!  Nothing motivates them more than something animal related...  a sticker, a book, a farm, trip to the zoo, etc.  Learning that there was an online educational website that uses the acquisition of animals as an incentive, this Momma knew without a shadow of a doubt that it would receive my children's highest praise.

ZooWhiz is an online learning website for children ages 5-15.  The students practice reading, math, grammar, vocabulary, and word skills while earning coins.  The coins can be used to collect animals thus allowing the child to truly become a ZooWhiz.  


In setting up a Keeper account, a child is able to choose an avatar.  I appreciate that they come in all shapes and sizes with varied hair and skin colors.  A child may choose an avatar that represents himself or one he just finds fun.  Even better, the avatar is never locked in.  The ability to change always exists.  Simply click on the avatar head located on the bar at the bottom of the screen to select a new character.  

The LEARN & EARN section begins by choosing the educational content to work on in math, words, and reading.  Parents are able to customize and set the courses so that the students can work only at their age level or above.  This keeps kids interested because they are not wasting time on material that is too easy.  I've posted some screenshots of some of Caleb's questions below, but you can also browse sample activities for each age group/content.

After learning and earning, children can choose to spend their coins in the ARCADE playing games or in the BIODOME purchasing animals for their zoos.  There are currently 7 timed games from which to choose.  My kids tried the arcade once, but after their first animals shopping frenzy in the biodome, they were hooked.  It's been BIODOME ever since.   

Animals range in price from 100 to 5000 coins.  I found it interesting the strategies my kids used in building their zoos.  Rachel went for the animals she was familiar with and thought were cute.  Caleb sought out the most unique and exotic animals.  Jeremiah wanted a large number of animals in his zoo, so he spent all his coins buying the animals in the 100-300 range.  Isn't it funny how different they can be?!    

When shopping for animals, the child can view them all or by the individual habitats including:  grassland, ocean, tundra/polar, desert mountain, river/lake, domestic, dinosaur, rainforest, mythical, forest/woodland, marsh/swap, forest and extinct animals.  Once an animal has been purchased, the child can view a profile of the animal.  There are 5 tabs to read:  basic info, habitat, details, diet, and threat.  This Momma spent quite a bit of time reading these profiles aloud to the kids... mainly Caleb.


Finally, the MILESTONES section is somewhat self-explanatory.  This is where you are able to measure progress.  The premium account includes:
  • Basic bar graphs giving feedback on overall progress
  • Smiley face reports giving instant feedback on all aspects of work
  • Use the Smiley face reports to see where your child needs help or if the work is too easy
  • Review results by cell, category and step
  • Review actual activities answered and the number of times they have been answered correctly or incorrectly

    The kids really enjoyed ZooWhiz.  I would not consider it a stand alone curriculum by any means, but it was definitely full of fun educational games.  It not only benefitted the kids but kept them entertained, and I appreciate the use of science as a motivator and reward. 

    There were a few things that I would change if given the opportunity.  1) The reading portion is the only section that includes auditory directions.  Therefore, the kids were unable to play the math and word sections independently.  2)  For Caleb especially, the British accent made spelling words difficult at times.  The vowel sounds would throw him off.  3) There are ads that pop up after so many questions.  These ads are from EdAlive which offers FREE educational games.  However, I'm just not comfortable with advertising in a premium account and having the kids leave the approved site.  (They may then think it acceptable to open all pop-ups... oh no!!!! Not a habit I intend for them to instill!)  Therefore, my kids were taught to hit continue everytime as opposed to opening the new window.  Overall, I suppose my issues aren't really problems but are moreso irritants, and the value of the program far outweighs them. 

    From the ZooWhiz website:  ZooWhiz is developing rapidly and can now be used in both FREE and PREMIUM modes. We've recently implemented many PREMIUM features with more to be released in the coming months. You can start using ZooWhiz for FREE today. If you'd like to take advantage of introductory Half Price offer you can upgrade your child's FREE Keeper Account to a PREMIUM Zoologist Subscription.

    As always, I encourage you to start out with the free option.  Allow your children ample time to explore and play before deciding if a financial investment is best for your family.  If you find ZooWhiz to be beneficial and enjoyable for your kiddos, then I recommend you upgrade your FREE Keeper Accounts to PREMIUM Zoologist Subscriptions for:
    • More fun (learning motivation)
    • More detailed info on their progress
    • More options for targeting their learning
    • Rare and endangered animals
    • More cool Arcade games
    • Full access 24 hours-a-day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year
    The one year membership is currently $14.95.  Wow - in the grand scheme of things, this is very inexpensive for an online subscription.  As the site develops, I assume the introductory offer will disappear, so I'd suggest taking advantage of it now.  Still unsure?  Click the button below to read reviews by other Schoolhouse Crew Members.

    Disclaimer:  I was provided a year of Premium Zoologist subscriptions for all of my children in exchange for my honest review. 

    Creatures of the Night

    We're still newbies in town.  However, with Jon gone and having been couped up inside unpacking boxes, we were ready to venture out.  Yes, it was mid-morning, but the kiddos and I headed to the local library to fraternize with some "Creatures of the Night."

    The nocturnal animals program was put on by NHECM.  The presenter walked throughout the audience and allowed the kiddos a very close view of the critters.  We saw a 3-toed amphiuma, straw-colored fruit bat, raccoon, bobcat, armadillo, and opossum.  As expected, the program left quite an impression on my crew and Daddy got the play-by-play recount on the phone that night. 

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    It was a gorgeous day, so we continued exploring our new town and found the park.  After sitting for awhile, the kids were all too happy to rip and roar.  Since the playground had a castle appearance, they each claimed a portion as their personal fortress and ran back and forth visiting one another.  All in all, the activities helped to pass one of the days while Daddy is away.