Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: Journey to Christmas

The publisher's description referred to Journey to Christmas as "a fascinating new reality DVD series."  I have to say that in the context of television/DVD, I personally don't think the words "fascinating" and "reality" belong together.

We've watched a couple of "reality shows" in the past.  We have been wholly unimpressed.  Lots of completely unrealistic stuff, lots of people griping at the camera about every little thing.  It's a genre we avoid now.

But reading beyond that first phrase of the description left me intrigued.  Enough that I called up my husband and read the description to him.  He was cautiously optimistic as well, so we agreed to review this.  That description:
Journey to Christmas is a fascinating new reality DVD series that invites you to explore Jesus’ birth through five modern-day explorers. Shot on ultra-high-definition film and packaged as a four-part DVD church curriculum, this unique study series chronicles the experiences of five very different people—a messianic Jew, a First Nations woman, a poet, a Christian radio personality, and an agnostic lawyer—as they journey through the Holy Land to discover the true meaning of Christmas. Guided by a local historian (Nizar Shaheen) with on-camera commentary from a team of Bible experts (astronomer Dr. Hugh Ross, ancient history expert Dr. Paul Maier, archeologist and New Testament scholar Dr. Craig Evans, Biblical times culture expert Claire Pfann, and others), viewers will see the Christmas story unfold though the eyes of each member on this unique pilgrimage. Journey to Christmas lets you immerse yourself in the culture, places, and people surrounding the Nativity. Stunning photography, a reality show format, exotic locations, and fascinating commentary from a team of Bible experts make this an unforgettable Bible learning experience!
So it arrived, and we started to watch it.  The set consists of two DVDs, each containing two "shows" and we all really enjoyed it (well, the 5 year old pretty much tuned it out).  The basic idea is that you are watching these five "ordinary" people travel to the Holy Land for the first time, and they are specifically setting out to experience the story of the birth of Jesus.

One particularly welcome aspect of this was that the five participants got along with each other, and you could see them getting closer as the series progressed.  Dale commented to me, "It is really refreshing to watch one of these 'reality shows' where people aren't just hacking on each other or complaining about how irritating this is or how frustrating that was."

Here's a promo clip where you get a glimpse of pretty much all of the people involved, both the five on this journey, and the experts involved along the way:

Our bottom line:  this is something definitely worth seeing.  The scenery was impressive, the archaeological stuff was fascinating, the experts were interesting.  And the five on the journey?  Getting a glimpse of stuff through the eyes of "ordinary" people was nice too.  I think the fact that the five travelers didn't come from traditional Christian backgrounds helps to make these shows more accessible to a wider audience...

I loved some of the stuff they did... learning to bake the traditional bread, or how to ride a camel or donkey, learning to clean, spin and weave wool... there were a lot of great moments there.  Seeing some of the big places.... Masada, Qumran, the Via Dolorosa, Bethlehem...  that was inspiring as well.

But... I don't know.  I guess some of it is the "reality show" feel and all the repetition of what happened last time.  Some of the interaction between the two males on the trip got a little old.  The one was looking for some big, miraculous "meeting God" moment which doesn't happen.  The other seemed to take pride in being an 'agnostic' (though statements he made aren't consistent with agnosticism, but I guess that's another issue altogether) and viewing this as a cool trip that gave him more insight into what some of his friends believe.

I don't know... while I appreciate the "reality" aspect that not everyone who goes on a trip like this has their life transformed, it was still sad somehow.

All that being said, this is something I look forward to viewing on at least an annual basis as part of our Christmas traditions.  There is a lot of great stuff in here, and just getting a flavor of what life would have been like for the real people involved in the Christmas Story is worth some of the less pleasant parts.

Disclaimer:   I received this book for free from Tyndale House Publishers.  No other compensation was received.  The fact that I received a complimentary product does not guarantee a favorable review.   

Gratitude Challenge: He's a teen!

Today, I am grateful for my second son, William.  On this day, thirteen years ago...

I told a quickie version of his birth story last year as my Gratitude Challenge.  So I'll spare you that.

Here's some photos from the last year.  I'm telling you, if it wasn't for review products, I'd never take any pictures...

William is such a joy, and always the first one to volunteer to help... to wash dishes, to cook dinner, to wait until the next round when we make food that comes in 4's...

He is going to be such a fabulous teen...

Click the gratitude challenge button above to see what other people are saying today... and Brenda is starting a Thursday gratitude meme... I'll be trying to participate in that.  Hopefully more faithfully than I've done with this one this month...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Review: Wreaths of Maine

A week ago, we received a box via FedEx.

Upon opening it, I was bowled over by the amazing smell of Christmas... specifically, the aroma of Balsam fir.  Getting further into the incredibly well-packaged box, I was able to pull out a beautiful Christmas wreath.  I just stood there and breathed it in.

I had no idea what to expect from a mail-order wreath.  I feared that it would arrive looking pretty dead and lifeless.  Nope.  Not my Wreaths of Maine wreath.  There were quite a few loose needles, but the included care instructions told me that is to be expected and it is just part of shipping it... it is not an indication that the wreath is dried out.  And they were right... picking it up, this wreath certainly was fresh.

And FULL --- this wreath is well-made and hand-made (I found it really interesting to read about HOW they make the wreaths), full -- absolutely beautiful.  I know from looking around while out and about this past weekend that I would spend nearly as much for a skimpy wreath, and one that doesn't smell so Christmasy. 

We live in the middle of nowhere, and we rarely have visitors (except for people delivering review packages!)  We also do not have doors that are really meant for hanging anything on them.  And... selfishly, I wanted this wreath to hang where people -- okay, where I -- would actually see it.  And smell it.

(Or did I already mention that this wreath smells amazing?)

"It's simply enormous!" said Richard, age 7
So the kids helped me to arrange it, as it comes with the bow packed in the middle (to avoid being crushed).  It now hangs in our living room, above the computer desk.  Everyone sees it every day.  For indoor use, Wreaths of Maine recommends a light daily misting of water... as that "will help bring out the balsam aroma and will help keep it fresh for weeks."  They were right.  Well, I can't speak to the "fresh for weeks" part yet, but after one week, it still feels, looks and smells like it was just made.

For people who actually have neighbors who could actually SEE these things, hanging it outdoors, even in freezing temperatures, is actually preferred.  This wreath would look lovely on the door, which is what I had intended.  Until my first sniff, when I knew it had to be inside.  In many parts of the country, this wreath would last all winter.  NOT in my area, I am sure.  Here the temperatures vary so much all winter, and it would take a beating from the sun.

The incredibly neat thing about Wreaths of Maine, though, is that it is something that can be done as a homeschool fundraiser.  You start earning commissions with the first wreath sold, and there are some fun bonuses when you sell 15 wreaths, and more if you hit 35.

As part of the TOS Homeschool Crew, we received the sales kit, which is normally available for $10 (that cost is refunded in the commission check if you sell 10 wreaths).  I was impressed with how straight-forward everything is... really easy to understand and written to the homeschool student (like instructions for if a door to door customer pays you in cash... you are to give the cash to your parents and have them write a check to Wreaths of Maine).

As you can see, the sales kit includes color brochures, four different sheets with instructions on various aspects of how to do this, a sample gift card, order forms, labels and even the envelopes you need to mail the orders in.

I could easily hand this to my older boys (ages 11, 12 and 14) and they would be able to go through it and know what the process is, when and how to actually place orders, and when to expect a commission check.

They also send out emails with updated information about promotions, reminders about deadlines and other pertinent information.  That's how I learned about the deal I'll mention next!

Sales can happen in person or orders can be placed online.  (And, ummm, if you want to order one, Footprints in the Butter is seller number 5059!)  Wreaths start at $31, and there are a few different styles.  And if you enter the code TOS, you receive a 12 month subscription to The Old Schoolhouse!

You can read what other crew members had to say about Wreaths of Maine here:

Disclaimer:  As part of the TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I did receive a sales kit and a wreath in exchange for my review.  All opinions are my own.  For more about my take on reviews, visit my blog post here.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Just stuff

There is so much going on, and I just have not had time to blog about it at all.

First off, we did have a lovely Thanksgiving.  I woke up with a migraine, though, which made everything later than I wanted.  Fortunately, medication and some more sleep made it tolerable.  It was amazing how everything came together, though, for a fabulous meal.  With lots of leftovers.  And I made the weirdest looking gravy I think I have ever had.  Certainly the weirdest I've ever made.  But it was delicious!

We didn't go anywhere yesterday.  Not even down to the mailbox.  How pathetic is that? 

Today, I'll be out and about though.  Thomas & I get to go hiking in the cold.  Hopefully that will be fun.  He's also purchasing a birthday gift for his near-teen brother, so we'll see the inside of at least one store.

I was hoping to take a box of clothing to Once Upon a Child... but with feeling pretty shaky the last few days, I just have not done anything about that.  Maybe next weekend.

We've been hitting Crossfire Ministries a bunch lately, and we've been so totally blessed to find three pairs of pants in great shape that fit one or the other of the two big guys. Along with a few nice shirts, and a scuffed (but solid) pair of boots for William.  I think we're back to everyone having at least one pair of pants they can wear in public... and most of them have two. 

Even when I'm shopping in real stores, I have a hard time.  Connor needs something like a 26x32.  Never, ever have I seen those.  I snap up 28x32s and even 29x32s.  His belt gets a lot of use! Anyway, given his size, finding two pairs of pants for him at a thrift store... that is simply amazing.

I could chat some more, but I think I need to get some kids moving sometime today.  

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gratitude Challenge: November 23

Today, today... today I am thankful for having food to cook for a sumptuous dinner tomorrow.  I am thankful for leftovers... as I think for a change we might actually have some.

I have a HUGE turkey.  Huge.  I have bags of potatoes, so we will have mashed potatoes a-plenty.  I have the makings for piles of stuffing.  We have corn, corn and more corn.  We have cranberries, fresh ones even.  We have sweet potatoes in abundance.  I may make squash, haven't decided yet.  If I get myself moving, we can have plenty of dinner rolls...

And a fresh apple pie.  The one thing that won't be left-over. 

In short, while I thought we would be having a lean Thanksgiving, we actually have MORE than plenty.  And we are going to prepare it, and feast. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Review: The Reading Game

The amazing and wonderful reading products just keep coming this Crew Year.

Today I get the chance to tell you about a brand-new product from the author of Wordly Wise...  This one is called The Reading Game, and it has been a hit in my household.

I certainly am a proponent of using phonics to teach kids to read.  But just phonics hasn't been enough for two of my children.  And yes, that is with using good, comprehensive programs that truly do a great job.

One thing missing for my two older struggling readers (and even my non-struggling reader) is work with all those little words.  The helper words.  The words that tend to be taught as exceptions, mostly because they either do totally break the regular rules, or because they follow "advanced" phonics rules that haven't been taught by the time the child is likely to be seeing the word.  I'm thinking of words like: of, the, a, to, is, what, where and so on.

With my older kids, I have tended to drill Dolch lists, or find other ways of reinforcing these words.  You know, every time we run into the word "of" I don't need the kids to be sounding out "/ah/ /f/ off, no, ummm /oa/ /f/ oaf.  no.  ummm /oo/ /f/  oof, ahhhh... /uh/ /f/  uff... oh, wait, this is a word where the f says something weird, oh, I know... /ov/"

By that time, the kid has no idea what is going on in the text and has to start over.  Ugh.  And maybe good readers get to that point quickly... but my kids have all needed explicit drill to get to the point of just sight-reading those words with any sort of automaticity.

So... I was incredibly excited to try The Reading Game. 

The basic idea is to learn words in bite-sized chunks by playing Memory with five words at a time.  After playing six sets of the game, the student has learned 30 words, and is ready to read a book.  The process is repeated six times... for a total of 180 words.  Many of these words are from the Dolch sight word list, and many (63%) of the words from the 100 most commonly used English words.

You can see the six sets of cards are color and animal-coded to match the books.  The game also includes an instruction book that lists all of the words and gives test sentences that you can use to be sure the child is mastering the words.

You go at the child's pace... and because this is a game (shhh! don't tell my big boys) you can assign a struggling older sibling to play with their younger sister and thus reinforce these basic words in their lives too.

Trina loves playing the game.  This is a perfect level for her.  And here are a couple shots of her playing with William:

This is right as they started.  Trina turned over two cards that don't match.

And a couple of turns later.  Still nobody has a match.

Another turn or two, a match is made...

But then....

William turned over a card they had seen before, and "just happened" to not be able to remember where he had seen the match before.  Trina gets pretty excited when this happens.

Trina capitalizes on William's "mistake" and gets to read the word "day."  You don't get the cards unless you can read them.  The first couple of times we play a given level, she gets a lot of coaching on any words she struggles with... here, she needed a reminder that a and y together make one sound and then she remembered and easily read the word.

Trina told me one day that she likes playing against William the best, because "he pretends he doesn't remember stuff and he pretends he's mad when I do remember.  And I let him think he's fooling me into thinking I won fair and square."  And she giggled.  Fortunately, William doesn't read my blog, so her secret is still safe.

She also gets the chance to play with Richard -- but he is so competitive and those games don't tend to go so well.  One of them gets mad.  Connor gets in on it sometimes, but "he's always too busy doing chemistry and algebra and 'litature' and stuff" so that doesn't happen as often as Trina would like.  I love when Connor does play, because he does the best job of coaching on how to say the words.

Thomas does a great job too, as you can clearly see in this photo of his knees...  He tolerates her setting out the cards in strange patterns better than anyone else.

Overall opinion:  Trina loves this.  I love the emphasis on really learning so many basic words that do NOT get enough focus in most reading programs.  I love the game format, and the animal labels (instead of graded labels) for the levels.

The books are really nice too.  Simple paper-covered books, they have fun illustrations (with a lot of action) and at least a basic plot.  Skunk, the first book, includes sentences such as "what kind of cat is she" or "skunks with stripes will not play".  One thing to note... other than the word "I" there are no capital letters included, nor is there punctuation.

I understand the all lower-case part, but it is disconcerting for ME.  Trina doesn't care.  And there is a suggestion to have the child figure out what punctuation the book needs and to add it... which is fine for us, as Trina is the youngest, but it would make it a bit more challenging to use with multiple kids.

Anyway, I thought I should mention it as I know some people who would not be able to get past the all lower-case and no punctuation bit.  For us, she gets the upper-case and punctuation in her regular reading program, and not having it in this supplement is not a big deal either way.

Okay, so by the end of the games, when you get to the purple zebra book ("my favorite!!!" shouts Trina), the child is reading fairly normal sounding sentences... and the story is pretty funny.  The zebra (who belongs at the back of the alphabet book) gets loose and wants to hang out in the front instead.  One two page spread says, "it should not be at the front of the books" (page break) "zebra should be at the back"

We love this.

And you can check out all kinds of great information at The Reading Game website, including how and why this was written and some videos of it in action.  For $24.95, this is a fantastic and fun supplement to almost any reading program.

You can read what other crew members had to say about The Reading Game here:

Disclaimer:  As part of the TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I did receive The Reading Game in exchange for my review.  All opinions are my own.  For more about my take on reviews, visit my blog post here.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Gratitude Challenge: November 20

Today... as I had one giveaway just end, and another one start...

Today I am thankful for Rafflecopter.  That has made it so much easier for me to function! 

I used to really hate setting up giveaways.  Now it is fairly painless.

What are you grateful for today?  You can click the button above to go see what others are posting...

Review and Giveaway: FFH "One Silent Night"

I don't often review music, as I just don't think I'm good at it, and I don't enjoy doing it.

I love music though, adore Christmas music, and on a whim I decided to say "yes" to the opportunity to review the recently released album from FFH -- One Silent Night.

Good decision.  Though I still don't think I do a very good job of reviewing music.

You've probably heard of FFH -- they've sold more than two million albums, have had seven #1 singles, and have toured extensively.

I went to iTunes and listened to samples, and my kids were immediately interested in getting this album.  Some pop-type songs I immediately recognized -- Baby, It's Cold Outside, I'll Be Home for Christmas, and Winter Wonderland to name three.  And some more traditional songs were easily recognized too -- O Come O Come Emmanuel and O Little Town of Bethlehem.

And some I didn't recognize, for a good reason.  One Silent Night, The Birthday of the King, Glorious Impossible, and Heaven and Nature Sing.  I'd have a hard time deciding which of these is my favorite... probably the title track.

Once we received the download for the album, I listened through it, and was struck by how well it flows... fun, lighthearted and familiar mixing with powerful original pieces and familiar hymns.

Jingle Bell Rock brought me back to junior high though... something about the way this is sung, I don't know.  I was part of a special school choir... oh, what was it called?  Anyway, we performed Jingle Bell Rock at the Christmas concert... and I was partnered with David Hovde, and at one point the actions we did in this one ("Giddyup jingle-horse, pick up your feet") had the girls all pretending to whip their "horse" (the boys went down on one knee in front of us) -- oh, that sounds horrid... it was cute and funny and we all had a hard time doing this without just cracking up.  And yeah, this song brought back a lot of the movements we performed in that song.  This performance is not something I've thought about in a lot of years...  something about this version of the song brings it back though.

Okay, so now that story convinced you either to avoid this album, or that I'm just crazy.  Well, the latter is true, I am.

But... this may just be my favorite Christmas album... well, I have a Bing Crosby one that still holds the #1 spot... so this could just be #2.  I'll have to let you know after I dig them all out this next weekend.  Regardless, this is the best Christmas recording I've gotten in a very long time...

And you can win an album to download too!  This giveaway will end Monday, November 28 at 10:01 p.m. MST.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Gratitude Challenge: November 18

How did I miss yesterday?  And I had two fabulous ideas for what to post!

Well, today...

Today I am grateful for being in a situation where I don't often have to agonize about whether or not my kids are well enough to go wherever.  I can let them lay on the floor, with a blanket, and listen to me read.

Or I can let them go back to bed and sleep another hour or two.

Or I can tell them to suck it up and just get their algebra done.

Today... today I did all three at some point.

I'm grateful that I didn't have to make a decision before dawn about which kids ought to stay home and which could go to school.  Very grateful.

What are you grateful for today?  You can click the button above to go see what others are posting...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Book Review: Remembering You

I recently read the book Remembering You by Tricia Goyer as part of a LitFuse Blog Tour.

What a great book.

Basically, Ava Andrews is 30something and her life is falling apart.  Her fiance left her days before the wedding, and she has not been able to focus at work.   So she now finds herself in danger of losing her dream job -- producing a television morning show.

Then, her mother breaks her leg... and asks Ava to accompany Grandpa Jack on a battle site tour in Europe specifically for members of the Eleventh Armored Division.  Ava's mind starts turning... and she decides she wants to turn this into a working vacation by videotaping the sites and the interactions with the vets -- and especially her grandfather -- and send those back as segments for the show.

But arriving in Europe, things go wrong... first, they are met at the airport by her Grandfather's best friend and his grandson Dennis.  Dennis, her first love, who she hasn't been able to forget.  And then they discover the tour has been canceled.  The four of them take off to do the tour themselves... and Ava has the chance to videotape these two men, and later a lot of other soldiers from their Division, and to get a glimpse into what World War II was like from the perspective of these then-young boys marching across Europe, seeing horrific things, and eventually liberating a concentration camp.

The story is fiction... but it is based on real-life stories.  Tricia had the amazing opportunity to talk to veterans of the Eleventh Armored Division and to hear their stories... stories of battles, and stories of liberating Mauthausen. 

Working these stories into this fictional romance was brilliant, and watching Ava interact with her grandfather and get the chance to really get to know the young man he was... well, wow.

My grandfathers did not fight in World War II.  Reading this makes me really wish I had had one more chance with both of them, a chance to hear their stories.  Reading this makes me realize that even if my kids are too young to truly appreciate hearing their grandpa's stories, it is NOT to late for me to talk to my father...

You can read an excerpt and lots, lots more at the author's site.

Tricia Goyer is celebrating the release of her novel, Remembering You, with a KINDLE Touch Giveaway for you ... and for the friend of your choice. Then on 11/29 she'll be wrapping up the release of Remembering You with a Book Chat Party!

During the first half of the party Tricia will be chatting, sharing a sneak peek of her next book, and giving away a ton of great stuff. Then she'll head over to her website for a Live Chat! Readers will be able to chat with Tricia via video or text.

Don't miss your chance to win a Kindle Touch for yourself ... and to "remember" a friend this holiday with a Kindle Touch for them!

Read what the reviewers are saying here.

One grand prize winner will receive:
  • A Brand New Kindle Touch and a Kindle Touch for a Friend (winner's choice!) 
  • A copy of Remembering You by Tricia Goyer for each
Enter today by clicking one of the icons below. But hurry, the giveaway ends at noon on November 29th. Winner will be announced at Remembering You Facebook Party on 11/29. Tricia will be hosting an author chat (on Facebook and Live from her website) and giving away copies of her other WWII books and gift certificates to Starbucks and So grab your copy of Remembering You and join Tricia on the evening of the 29th for an author chat, a trivia contest (How much do you know about WWII?) and lots of giveaways.

Enter via E-mail Enter via FacebookEnter via Twitter

Don't miss a moment of the fun. RSVP today and tell your friends via FACEBOOK or TWITTER and increase your chances of winning. Hope to see you on the 29th!

Disclaimer:  I received this book through LitFuse.  No other compensation was received.  All opinions expressed in this review are my own.

Reading Aloud Challenge: November 17

It's time for another Reading Aloud Challenge... and I don't feel horribly awful about our reading this past week.  But it wasn't great either.

Connor & I read a bit more of Peace Child.  Not a lot more to say, except that we are enjoying it now.

I really thought we'd finish Hittite Warrior, but we just aren't quite there.  If I waited to post this for a couple of hours, we'd have it finished.  But I want to have this up.   

Haven't done nearly enough with the little two.  Read some titles from the library... most are the fault of other Reading Aloud Challenge participants!  Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey.  How come I had never heard of this one before?  And Song of Creation by Paul Goble.

And of course, the usual stuff.  Reading poetry and history aloud, and some science. 

Plans for this coming week? Finish Peace Child with Connor.  Finish Hittite Warrior and get going on God King. Read Mountain Born to the younger two.  Exactly what I said last week.  <sigh>

How did your week go?  Sign the linky to link up your reading aloud post and I'll come visit your post and I will figure out how to comment.

To see my first post when this turned into a linky thing, check here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Review: Read Live

Today, I have the incredible privilege of reviewing Read Live from Read Naturally.  And to give you a preview of this review... I am combining this with my Gratitude Challenge post for today.  Because, well, I never ever would have spent the money to try this program as I have been disappointed by too many programs for struggling readers in the past.  And this program is perfect, absolutely perfect, for William for sure, and probably Thomas as well.  If you don't want to read this entire LENGTHY review, but are here for the Gratitude part... read the next paragraph and skip to the bottom and look for the Gratitude Challenge Button.

If you have read my blog at all, you know I have two struggling readers.  William, 12, did great with early reading.  But as soon as he got to about a mid second grade reading level (in 2nd grade), his reading progress screeched to a halt.  I have tried a million different things for this child, and he has made progress.  But it has been painstakingly slow, and he (and I) worked for every single solitary inch of that progress.  Starting 7th grade this year, he had achieved maybe a late third grade reading level... in other words, over the past five years of hard work, he made about "one year" of progress.  That's probably about as bluntly as I've ever stated it.

There are things out there that I know would help him.  I know it.  But the problem we run into is that either it is something so teacher-intensive that I cannot possibly keep it up (much less do anything else with anyone), and/or we'd have to give up groceries and electricity to pay for it.  Obviously, neither of those options is possible.

So when I found out the TOS Homeschool Crew would be reviewing Read Naturally (a program I had looked at in the past), I perused the website, and I bawled.  I don't think I went so far as to threaten to quit my job if William didn't get to review this product, but it was probably close... 

Why was I so excited?  Well... Read Naturally claims to do a lot of things that most of my research and experimentation with my kids has told me are important.  This little graphic explains a lot:

The idea is that the struggling reader needs:
  • Teacher Modeling - hearing a passage read correctly, with proper pronunciation, appropriate phrasing, proper pauses.  Read Live does this through a phenomenal "read along" segment, which has the computer (with a real voice) going very slowly, so the student can read along and keep up (after maybe the first time).  Stopping at periods.  Pausing at commas.  
  • Repeated Reading - the child reads the same passage a LOT of times.  This is so critically important.  Struggling readers need to encounter a word so many more times than "normal" readers in order to make it their own.  By reading the same passage a dozen or so times, they are getting enough practice to actually be reading it correctly
  • Progress Monitoring - keeping track of what the child has done, how they are improving, and what still needs work.  
The problem for me is that this program costs $149 for a one year subscription for a single student.  I know, doing the math, that is less than $12.50 per month, which if it works as promised would be a bargain.  But I've used other online programs before, programs directed at kids like my two boys, and between the microphone issues and them being PC only, it has been a struggle and they haven't delivered.  I cannot give up two weeks of groceries for another disappointment, you know?  Honestly, *I* don't need the stress... the stress of yet another bad money decision, and yet another struggling reader program that I'm too inept, incapable or whatever to make work for my kids.

So being able to try Read Live with my kids for about 10 weeks?  Oh, yeah, that is a blessing.

And I absolutely love it.  This program is perfect.  Okay, maybe not perfect.  Setting it up was cumbersome, as it is definitely geared to the classroom.  Set up an administrator (me), set up a teacher under that admin (also me), set up classrooms, set up students, assign students to the Read Live program.... that was a huge pain, and I probably just messed up some of the steps of the process in my description.  But that took maybe an hour, and there are tutorial videos available which do make that process easier. 

And since we started actually USING the program?  It is simply wonderful.  The first couple days were a learning curve for the kids and for me.  But now?

William logs on.  He gets to choose from a dozen stories, with the ones he's already done starred.  The "stories" are non-fiction... about a third are biographical ones, with the rest being information type ones.  We got a kick out of reading about George Washington Carver shortly after reviewing a video about him, but other people we've seen have included Magic Johnson, Susan B. Anthony, and Amelia Earheart.  Topics have included leap year, astronauts, or Polar Bears. Plus all those shown above.

He is first given three or four key words, which are then pronounced, defined, and used in a sentence or two.  These words are used in the reading passage, and by going over them before seeing the story it makes it more likely he'll be successful with them in context.

Then he is told the title (again), shown a photo, the key words are listed, and he is asked to make a prediction about the story.  He hates this.  I love it.  I grade this (later), so he isn't being judged on spelling.  The idea is to make him think a bit about what he is likely to be reading... before he reads it.  Having at least a rough idea as to what to expect is a skill most good readers possess, and this helps to develop that.  This step is timed, but the teacher can adjust the amount of time available.

The next step is the cold timing.  Initially, this is set up so the teacher has to be present.  Once the child is comfortable with the process, you can change it so the student does the cold timing on his own.  This step involves a one-minute timing, where the child can click on any words he does not know, and when the timer goes off, he clicks the last word read (in the screen shot above, that was "mating" which you can see is blue).  The student can arrow (or mouse) down to highlight the line he is on (when the timer went off, William was just starting the row starting with "these two bees") which is a feature the teacher can shut off.

At the end of this timing, you have a words per minute score (56 on this one) as to how the student did the first time they saw the material, before they had any practice with it at all.  One thing to note is that when we started this program, a bit less than a month ago, William's cold timing scores were consistently in the 30s.  Actually the first couple were in the mid-20s, but I don't count those.  This 56 score is fairly average for him now, and he has moved up a level besides.  Clearly he is reading material "cold" far better than a month ago.  I can attest to that in listening to him read his Imagination Station book to me.  His reading of new material is FAR better now than it was a month ago.

He then gets to look at a cute little graph that shows his cold timing score, and a line for his goal.  Currently, his goal is 90.  When we started, the program suggested a goal of 80 for him, so that's another sign of improvement in the past month.

The next step is the read-along one.  Above, you can see that he has completed 2 of the 3 required read-alongs.  I described that process earlier.  This step involves him reading through the entire story, not just however far he gets in a minute.  I made a huge issue to both of my kids that they need to be reading WITH THE TEACHER.  This part is not about them reading fast, it is about them reading right.  If they race ahead of the recorded voice, they miss the fact that they are reading "produces" instead of "produced" for instance.  The kids find this step frustrating too... but they are starting to realize it makes a difference.

The teacher can set this up to require anywhere from 0 to 5 read-alongs.  I left it at the default of three.  The kids do not have to move on when they finish all three either... they have the choice to do more read-alongs or to move on.  My kids are often doing five, and I can tell when they do as they get through the next step a lot faster if they've done more read-alongs.

This step -- this is the one that really makes me cry.  I have tried to do this with my kids.  And I fail.  I either read too fast, so they can't keep up.  Or I get too bored, so we only read a passage aloud together once or twice.  Or I end up stopping while they figure out the weird word messing them up.  The computer goes at a steady pace and has no idea if they are doing anything.  Since I sat with them for the first 3-4 lessons, my kids know that this step is really important, and they actually do it.  And the computer doesn't care if they do the read-along over and over.  The tone of voice is exactly the same the first time as it would be the tenth.

After the read-along is the practice timings.  This is a lot like the cold timing... the student gets a minute to read, can use the highlighter if you haven't disabled it, and he is required to keep practicing until he reaches or exceeds the goal.  At that point, he can choose to practice more, or to move on.  The kids are very motivated by watching those numbers go up... and are very competitive about who gets to goal in the fewest number of practices. 

When he decides to move on, he takes a five question quiz about the story.  Four questions are multiple choice, but the fifth requires the student to type in an answer.  The above is an example of one of a question that asks him to form a conclusion based on the facts of the story... others ask him to choose the main idea, choose the meaning of a given word as used in the story.  Just this week, I reviewed an SAT Prep program, and one of the statements I commented on in the review was how the SAT vocabulary questions will usually have the most common definition of a word as an answer choice, and that choice will usually be wrong.  That is the case here too...

The final question is the short answer one, in this case "Why is the killer bee so dangerous?"  The student has a set amount of time to answer this one, and again, this is graded by me, not the computer, so I can set my own standards of spelling or grammar in choosing to pass him.

After that, he is asked to retell the story in his own words.  Because my kids are all very good at oral narration, I am not at all worried about their comprehension.  I usually only get a sentence, maybe two, and it is a very succinct summary.  I'm okay with that.  If I had kids who struggled with narration, this is something I would work on more.  They stress about written narration, and maybe I should push harder.  But not now.

At this point, he gets the opportunity to either practice the story again or do some vocabulary exercises while he waits for his teacher to show up for the hot timing.
This is the first point where I have had to be involved.  That, right there, is one of the secrets to why this program works for my family where others have failed.  He can do the bulk of it independently.

The hot timing is very similar to the others... he has one minute, can use the highlighter, and he clicks the last word read when the timer goes off.  However, I am sitting there, listening, and at the end, I fill in the number of errors he made (he read "hard-worker" instead of "hard-working") and I give him a score for his expression.  He tends to get a 3 on this... meaning he has 'usually correct' phrasing, inflection and that he pays attention to punctuation in some of the story.  In reality, I'd give him a 3.5... he is paying attention to punctuation throughout (which was not the case a month ago) and has 'usually correct' phrasing and inflection.

He is pretty consistent now with his final score being in the 100s.  A month ago, his usual final score was just barely over 80.

At this point, he gets another cute little graphic showing his progress, and then his manual questions come up for me to grade as acceptable or not.  That part is pretty boring, so I'm not giving you graphics.

Then I get a summary report of how he did... which I can print.  This gives a ton of info, including the answers he gave to the prediction, open-ended question, and narration.  It gives detail about how many read-alongs he did, how many practices he completed, how many practices it took to get to the goal rate, which quiz questions he got right, and an overall summary.

If there is something he didn't pass, I have the opportunity to determine which parts he needs to repeat.

In this case, though, it took him to the final awards page.

He earns the gold medallion for every aspect he passed.  Stuff he did perfectly, or better than ever before also get the little blue ribbons.

This review has already gone on forever... but I do want to sum up WHY this works so incredibly well for us.
  • The kids can do almost everything independently, after the first week or two.
  • The program does all the objective evaluation so I don't have to.
  • The program is infinitely patient.
  • *I* do the subjective evaluation, and that is all I am required to do.  I frequently choose to do more, but I don't have to.  That means I still have time for other teaching.
  • My kids are making significant and obvious progress and I am not spending my entire day teaching reading.
  • There is nothing on the student end that screams out what "reading level" the kids are doing, so my kids are not beating themselves up for being so far behind.
  • I flipped through a lot of the reading passages, and even the 1st and 2nd grade reading level choices are interesting for my middle school students.  In fact, my high school student stopped and listened in on more than one passage, and remarked on at least one, "I didn't know that!"
  • It doesn't take terribly long to finish a section -- a dozen books, so one a day means that they are finishing every 2.5 weeks.
  • My kids are willing to do this more than once in a day, which means they move even faster.
  • In a pinch, I can assign my high school student or my husband to do the final evaluation.  
  • Both kids using the program are more than a one year "below grade level" in reading.  I do not think this program would work for Richard (he's reading maybe a half-year below grade level) at this time.  For one thing, some of the stories in the 2nd grade list are a bit much for him (for the same reasons they are interesting to his 5th and 7th grade brothers).
And then... Oh.  I'll start crying again.  As I was getting ready to write this review a couple days ago, William and I were talking about Read Live and what he thinks of it.  At some point in the conversation he asked how long we have it.  I told him we have it through December 31, and he said/asked, "So I really need to focus on it while we have it?"

I told him that would be a good idea, and added that we can talk about whether or not we should renew it in another 3-4 weeks, when it is getting close to expiration.  I don't remember how he phrased it, but basically he asked if we could afford to renew.

I responded with another question.  "Should we renew?"  And he stared at me for awhile.

Then he said, "Well, it's hard and I don't like that.  But yes, we should renew it because it forces me to practice the same material over and over until I really get it.  And with the timings I can see my progress right away, which is motivating.  And when I am reading other stuff -- not Read Live -- I can tell I'm doing better too, because it makes more sense and doesn't take so long.  So yes.  We should renew it"

So after hearing that, my only question is "Can we afford not to?"  NOT that I've figured out how we'll pull it off, but clearly we will have to find a way.

Read Naturally does have other products available, and you can read what other crew members had to say about Read Live and/or One Minute Reader here:

Disclaimer:  As part of the TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I did receive a couple month subscription to Read Live in exchange for my review.  All opinions are my own.  For more about my take on reviews, visit my blog post here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book Review: House of Hope

Earlier today, I posted in my Gratitude Challenge how grateful I am for coffee.

The reason I am so grateful for it, today anyway, is that I stayed up way, way too late last night finishing The House of Hope by Elisabeth Gifford.  I had read about half of the book by Sunday, and just never had time yesterday to read.  Until sometime after midnight.  I started, intending to read only a couple more chapters... but I just couldn't stop.  Here's what the publisher has to say:
About The House of Hope: One couple’s powerful ministry to some of China’s most vulnerable children

Robin and Joyce Hill lived in a gated community in Beijing. Their family’s life was marked by luxury and the security of Robin's job as an engineer. Then one day, as members of their church, they had a chance to tour a state-run orphanage. Haunted by the needs of the children they saw there, for the next four years they tried to help the institute in meaningful ways.

In 1998 the Hills planned to leave China, but instead felt a sudden call from God on their lives. They left their gated community--reserved for only non-Chinese residents--moved their family into a small apartment miles outside of Beijing and immediately began to take in foster children.

They took in any child, but especially those that needed extra care—terminally ill children that couldn't receive care elsewhere, and those that needed complicated and expensive surgeries that the Hills soon began to coordinate and sometimes pay for out of their own savings.

What began as Hope Foster Home is now New Hope Foundation. As they continue their work, the Hills enjoy support from major corporations and high-profile philanthropists as well as the trust of the Chinese authorities. The Hills' story is an inspiring example of God's care and provision for those whom society does not value. Learn more about Hope Foster Homes here.
My take:  Wow.  Everyone should read this book.

But to back up a bit, because of the nature of the book, there are a lot of people (and babies) to keep track of, and that got a little confusing.  I think that was a bit harder at the beginning of the book, but even towards the end, I'd start a chapter and have to try to figure out who this person was...  like at some point, a new section started off by telling me that Nico had taken a turn for the worse, or something.  I flipped back through the book thinking, "Nico... Nico... I remember a Nico.  What was the deal with Nico?"

So if I could change one thing about the book, I would have them include a glossary giving a one-sentence description of recurring people.

Aside from that, the book was fantastic.  Really fascinating to see the difference one ordinary person can make, and this book is full of all kinds of ordinary people.  It is also filled with people who didn't blink when asked to underwrite a $50,000 surgery.  I was inspired by both groups.

The other amazing thing with the story of the Hope Foster Home is how the Hills, the Chapmans, and other key figures would face some pretty devastating situations, and none of that resulted in them giving up or feeling their work was being sabotaged.  I know so many people in real life who feel that every broken fingernail is a sign that they are under attack from Satan.  It was refreshing to read how real people approach real hardships.

The publisher is sponsoring a $50 "GET / GIVE" GIVEAWAY:
One winner will receive a $50 gift certificate for themselves AND $50 will be given in the winner's name to Hope Foster Home.

To enter all you have to do is send a tweet (using #HFH) about The House of Hope or share about it on Facebook!

If you tweet we'll capture your entry when you use #HFH. If you share it on Facebook or your blog, just email us and let us know ( Easy. 

Disclaimer:  I received this book through LitFuse.  No other compensation was received.  All opinions expressed in this review are my own.  This post also gets me an entry in the above-mentioned contest.   

Gratitude Challenge: November 15

Today I am thankful for coffee.

I am also thankful for flavored creamers.  Particularly CoffeeMate's Chocolate Raspberry, and International Delight's Chocolate Caramel.  But also some of the amazing peppermint mochas and other such stuff...

But back to the coffee.  I love opening up a package of coffee and just smelling it.  I love the smell as it brews.  I love holding a hot mug of coffee in my hands in the morning and breathing in the steam.  I love how it makes me feel warmer.

And I love the taste.  Today it is Chocolate Caramel.  Mmmmm...

My coffee is my one splurge, the one thing I make sure I can continue to indulge in when everything else is falling apart.  It keeps me from feeling deprived.

And, of course, coffee makes it so I can get through days like today.  When I was up far too late chatting with a friend, and then I made the mistake of reading "one more chapter" of an amazing book I'll be reviewing later today.  Yes, that turned into finishing the book around 3:30.

So that review will get written.  After I have a couple mugs of coffee...

What are you grateful for today?  You can click the button above to go see what others are posting...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: SAT Prep Course

The SAT.  <shudder>

I remember testing in high school.  I took the PSAT my junior year and did fairly well on it.  Absolutely no test preparation, and I had no idea what to expect.  I found out I was eligible to be a National Merit winner, but wasn't really told much about the process.

I took the ACT sometime later in my junior year, because that was the test preferred by most of the colleges in my area.  Did fairly well on that too, but that one I did actually try to prepare for, using some sort of practice materials the guidance counselor had.

Then I found out that I had to take the SAT to continue in the National Merit process.  Again, I bugged my guidance counselor, and was eventually given some little booklet with some explanation and a practice test.  And yes, I scored well enough on that to actually be a National Merit Scholar, which helped pay for my college degree.

With that background, I do understand the importance of the SAT, for college-bound kids especially.  And since my kids do not get much in the way of standardized testing experience, it is really important that they do something to prepare.

Enter College Prep Genius, and their SAT Prep Course.  I actually reviewed this program two years ago, which was tough as Connor was only in 7th grade at the time.  Reviewing it with him now was so much better!  They have redone parts of the program, so since we are actually now close to him taking the exam, it is very nice to have the latest version.

One of the best things about the new version is that all the typos seem to have been fixed.  That was one of the most frustrating aspects of the version I reviewed before.

So what is it?  Four DVDs, plus a HUGE textbook, and a much skinnier workbook, all for $99.  A student can work through the text, workbook and DVDs for a couple of hours a week, and end up quite prepared for the SAT.

The first section (60 pages!) explains why this test matters.  It talks a lot about scholarships and opportunities that are available when you do well on this test, and Connor found this fairly motivational.  Honestly, just that pep talk and the information on the entire SAT process is probably worth the cost of the program.

But of course, there is far more.  There is a DVD for each section of the exam: critical reading, math and writing, with corresponding sections in the text and workbooks.  Split into 12 DVD lessons, each section is a manageable chunk of information, with the text and workbook available to practice.

The basic premise is that you need to learn the logic behind the test, not just learn a bunch of facts.  This is a reasoning test, not a knowledge test, and College Prep Genius approaches their prep work mostly from the angle of teaching the child to think critically about the questions.

When we reviewed this program two years ago, we found the acronyms to be a little difficult.  I'm not sure what all changed between then and now (well, Connor is about a foot taller and has a deeper voice... so, umm, a lot of maturity, I guess!) but they seemed more helpful now.  An example... for the vocabulary questions, the acronym USE applies:   
  • Unquestionably  
  • Substitute  
  • Each answer choice in the sentence.  
I like that.

There are some fabulous tips given too.  Again, in the vocabulary section, they tell you that the most common definition of a word will usually be an answer choice, and that it will usually be wrong.  They tell you that if two answers have similar meanings then both of them are wrong. 

Connor's opinion:  he thinks this course is great.  His plan is to work through the textbook, which is far more thorough with many more examples, and then watch the DVD section.  The DVD he feels is great for "getting the information into my brain through a different channel" (hearing and seeing it, rather than reading it) but he thinks watching it first is confusing as they go through the materials at a pretty rapid pace.

Connor commented to me that he thinks the textbook is the most valuable part of the program, and he also mentioned that this book is "so much better" than the earlier edition.

He also thinks the DVD will be fabulous to watch again in the couple of weeks leading up to his actual test date.

As for the acronyms, he did tell me that he still struggles with them.  BUT, he hasn't really spent the time to truly study and learn them either, and he conceded that if he truly *knew* them (by, oh, say actually writing them out on index cards and studying them, like the book suggests) he probably would discover that they help.

We talked a lot about some of the suggestions for the writing portion.  Honestly, the SAT Essay is the scariest thing about this test for both of us.  My kids struggle with writing.  All of them.  But both Connor & I think that the suggestions in this book are going to help.  A lot.  There are some very specific recommendations given, and while Connor hasn't truly studied this section yet (I made him skim over materials from throughout the book though in preparation for this review) he thinks those suggestions are going to make it so he can write a passable essay.  Well, that and the practice recommended by the program.

Connor thinks this set would be terrific for anyone who still has time available to truly prepare for the SAT.  If someone is just about to take the test, just the DVD might be a better choice.  I would tend to agree with that.

My overall opinion?  This course is a fantastic deal, and any student looking towards college should at least consider it.  I would have done far better on the SAT had this material been available to me.  At the very least, I would have felt more confident and comfortable with the process.  That alone would have been worth something.

You can read what other crew members had to say about College Prep Genius and either the SAT course I reviewed, or the VocabCafe books here:

Disclaimer:  As part of the TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I did receive the product referenced in this post in exchange for my review.  All opinions are my own.  For more about my take on reviews, visit my blog post here.