Thursday, September 29, 2011

Turtle Dissection!

If you are easily grossed out by upclose photos of reptile entrails, go to the next post.  If you have kids that are enthralled by biology and the inner workings of God's amazing creatures, or if you have some future doctors in your house, you may want to check out our experience with a turtle dissection this week!

We ordered three different specimens from Home Science Tools to get us through the first semester of our school year:  some clams, some starfish, and one turtle to share.  I have to give kudos to HST for the quality of their specimens.  They are shipped well, sealed with care and are carefully prepared for you.  What I mean is this:  I searched frantically online for instructions on how to dissect a turtle.  I could have ordered their guide at the same time I ordered the little critters, but I thought for sure I'd be able to find some simple instructions for free on the internet.  There is actually very little out there on the web.  There is this website that is quite good with full-color photographs of the process, but nothing that actually says, "Cut here, now remove this."  I started to panic when I saw some comments like, "you'll need a good saw to remove the shell". 

Well, I was delighted to open the sealed package and find that 1.) it didn't smell weird and 2.) the shell was already seperated on three sides so it was really just attached like a hinge.  Almost like opening a book.  And finding guts inside.

We were able to locate the pectoral muscles, which needed to be cut away to reveal the organs underneath.  We marvelled at how important the pectoral muscles were to allow a turtle to pull its entire body weight around.  Then we located the heart, lungs, gall bladder, liver and pancreas.  We were able to dissect a shark a few weeks ago, so we compared the size of a shark's huge liver to that of a small turtle. 

Poor little guy had us poking around his mouth to see his arrow shaped tongue.  Since turtles have no teeth, its pointed "beak" and sharp tongue help it eat.  We noticed the nostrils on top of the beak.  These help it breathe above the water without sticking its entire head out.

Did you know that a turtle's intestines are around 24 inches long?  There was also alot of grass and chewed up vegetation still in his stomach.  Again, pretty gross on my end, but fascinating to the boys.

Home Science Tools not only prepares their specimens well, but preserves them so that their blood vessels are visible (something they inject prior to shipping) and their organs retain more of their natural color, rather than being all white and faded from traditional preservation techniques.  They are very reasonably priced.  Clams are $2.50, Starfish are $2.40 and Turtles are just over $11.00.  The package says they can be stored at room temperature indefinately, but should really be used within a year.  The only space I had available in the house was on the floor in the shipping box in our classroom.  Because they didn't really smell like anything interesting, my two black labs didn't tear into it.  And thank the Lord.  I would not have wanted to come home to that scene on my floor.

I was also really impressed with the Dissection Tool kit.  A scalpel with 3 interchangeable blades (it's easier to just use a new blade for each dissection than to try to clean the old ones.  They are very sharp!), surgical scissors, a few prodding tools, T-pins, a medicine dropper, etc., all housed in a tool box.  The reusable tray and silicone mat give you something to lay your specimen on without touching the table. 

As I mentioned, the scalpel blades are real.  They are not toys.  My boys are fine with them, even when sharing a specimen and cutting together.  They use surgical gloves and take precautions and have gotten hurt much worse jumping out of trees.  However, if you have kids that tend to flail around and forget that they're  holding a razor blade--just be careful!

We are studying Marine Biology right now, so that's why we chose these specimens.  We'll soon be sailing into Human Anatomy, which the kids can't wait for because this means EYES and BRAINS!  Woo-hoo! 

Friday, September 23, 2011

TOS Product Review: Games for Competitors—Tri-Cross

It's been a long time since I was so impressed with the quality of a board game. With today's mass-reproduced versions of classics that come in a flimsy box and sell for $4.99, it was refreshing to see something different come our way. Tri-Cross is a clever hybrid of checkers and chess, a strategy game using numbered tiles. There is also a Tri-Cross tile. Each tile has its own set of “rules” (similar to chess). You will quickly learn that a 5 can jump a 4, 3, 2, and 1 and a Tri-Cross tile can only jump a 6. It only takes a few rounds of play, and you'll memorize which pieces can perform what moves pretty quickly. The game board is small. You can't hide from your enemies for long, which keeps you on your toes and keeps you thinking ahead to what your opponent is about to do to sabotage you!

The most astounding part of this game, to us, was the quality of the product. Even my children noticed that these were well-produced pieces. The tiles remind me of my grandmother's old Bakelite tile bracelets from the 1960's. They are very durable and smooth. The board was even thicker than most boards. The pieces are housed in a velvet, draw-string bag.

We also got a chance to review the Eco-Friendly travel version of this game. The board is made from organic cotton, which is folded up and kept in a drawstring organic cotton bag with the same quality pieces. It's nice to see companies like Games For Competitors putting forth an effort to be more environmentally aware.

The first few times we played, the game was over quickly, because one of us (that would be me) wasn't paying attention to all the rules. My 9 year old smoked me. Then, we got a little more competitive and the game went on a little longer. Some games out there can last forever. It's nice when you've got some spaghetti boiling and your kid asks you to play a game. This is the first one I would grab. It's quality time playing a quality game and you aren't going to be cycling around the board 50 times and counting money while the dinner burns!

The only issue that came up for us while playing is that if you aren't paying attention and get your Tri-Cross tile AND your 6 tile taken by your opponent early on in the game, you have very little chance of redeeming yourself.  Since the only way to win is to keep a piece in the center Tri-Cross square for 4 turns, or to take all of your opponent's pieces, you need to keep your high value tiles and your Tri-Cross tile unharmed. It's kind of like keeping your Queen in chess. You need her abilities to help you win in the end.

Tri-Cross comes with rules for 2 players and rules for 3 and 4 players. When 2 are playing, only red and black are used. There is also a variation in which the values of the tiles are not revealed until a challenge is presented between two opposing tiles. This makes for an entirely new kind of game, which my children and I both enjoyed!

You may purchase Tri-Cross here and also see tutorials on how to play. The company sells three variations of their game. The eco-friendly travel set sells for $19.95, the standards set sells for $24.95 and the wooden set sells for $35.95. I think these prices are very fair in the current board game market. This is truly a game that can be passed down to the next generation and is worth doing so.

**Disclaimer:  Games for Competitors provided my family with the standard game and the travel game in exchange for an honest review, which I have provided here.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

TOS Product Review: AIMS Education Foundation

For the past month or so, we have been using Electrical Connections, an activity guide by AIMS Education Foundation.  AIMS stands for "Activities Integrating Math and Science", and in my opinion they have accomplished that task nicely with this book.  As excited as my two sons were to rip open the Fed Ex box and see what sort of things they were going to be able to charge, light up or (if they had it their way) explode, I for one, was a little hesitant in my ability to guide them through the activities.  I am a literature nerd, an artsy type, a sit under the tree and read Shakespeare kinda girl.  I spent most of my middle school science class dreaming about Kirk Cameron (LOL), and what I know today is only from watching alot of Jeopardy.

However, these lessons aren't written for those who are already mad scientists.  They are written for grades 4-6.  They make it easy for you to prepare and execute some pretty neat experiments with your students.  The book is divided  into a few sections:  Static Electricity, Circuits, Electromagnetism, and the History of Electricity, which includes some biographies and time lines.  Most sections have between 6 and 10 activities to perform.  But before you begin getting out your wires and paper clips, have the student read the short foldable book in the beginning of each section to familiarize themselves with the new topic.  The books are printed in quadrants, designed so that you can fold them into booklets.  Just attach them at the "spine" with a rubber band and they are ready to read!  They are very kid-friendly with cartoons that illustrate the point but don't seem too babyish.  The teacher section is well laid out, explaining the objectives, background information, listing the materials needed, step-by-step instructions and thought-provoking wrap-up questions that guide the students from beginning to end.  As long as you gather the materials in advance, there is not alot of preparation on the part of the teacher. 

The first third of the book requires only household items like Saran wrap, paper clips, string, foil, etc.  Once you get to the section on circuits, you will have to purchase a few items such as batteries, wires, bulbs and alligator clips.  These are all available through the AIMS website.  However, I just took my book to the local hardware store and they were able to help me out.  Stores like Home Depot or Lowe's would also have most of these items, but I found that Ace Hardward sells alot of the wires I needed by the foot, so I only paid for what I needed. 

My two sons, 4th and 6th grade, LOVED the "Static Strokes" experiment.  They had to charge a piece of plastic wrap with a paper towel and see which items would be attracted to it.  It was pretty amazing to see the salt dancing all over the table to fly up and stick to the plastic wrap.  Several of their predicted outcomes were proven false, which I liked because it kept them engaged. 

Experimenting with salt and static electricity.  This was very cool.

Every activity has a record sheet prepared for your student to keep track of their outcomes.

The other experiment that we've done so far is "Conductor or Insulator?"  This was another big hit, discovering which items conduct electricity.  They got to graduate from household items, to bulbs, D-cell batteries and wires for this one!  Again, another simple scientific concept broken into manageable bits of information and hands-on experiences for children.  Some other opportunities for exploration are:  Fiddling with Filaments, Making a Dimmer Switch, The Click Heard Around the World (Samuel Morse), Make a Galvanometer, How to Make an Electric Motor and many, many more!

I really appreciated the CD in the pocket at the back of the book.  The CD contains all the book's pages for easy printing, so you don't have to stand at the copier and print them one at a time.  I also liked that the writers suggest substitutes for things you may not have at home, like paper clips instead of alligator clips, or modeling clay to hold something in place.  Frugal moms like it when we can "make do" with things we already own. 

This title sells for $24.95 through the AIMS website here.  In the past, I have paid more money for products with much less "meat" than Electrical Connections.  I think it is definately a  fair value and has enough projects to keep the average homeschooling family busy for at least half of the school year.  If you take the suggestions of the guide and incorporate more in-depth reading about Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla, you could expand upon this topic to your heart's content. 

I would definately purchase other titles from AIMS to help bring Math and Science alive in our homeschool.   We were extremely happy with this product.

**Disclaimer:  I was provided with a copy of Electrical Connections in exchange for an honest review, which I have provided here.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Letting Off Some Steam

I have been stewing about this for four days, so forgive me if I just let it all out.  We have a teacher store in my town.  I'll just say it.  It's called the Teacher's Exchange.  They sell new products as well as consigned used items.  I have been shopping there for over a decade, since my original intention was to homeschool my kids way back when I was pregnant with my now-11 year old.  I have been gathering materials for years, and through the process have easily spent several thousand dollars at this establishment. 

I am pretty non-confrontational.  I rant and rave behind the scenes about crying babies in theatres, ghetto conversations at high volumes at the public library, people who throw cigarettes out their car window, etc.  But I rarely get in someone's face and tell them to kiss my grits.  It was all I could do to hold my tongue on Monday afternoon.  My son, Denver and I had just finished up his golf lesson and headed to this teacher store to buy one of those presentation pointers for him to use in his public speaking class.  We went right to the counter and started to pay.  Well, picture the scene.  A long counter filled with little see-through barrels of dice, trinkets, stickers and other sparkly things.  My son, recognizing some of the foam dice we own at home for math games, picked up one out of the barrel to look at.  The owner of the shop picked up a box and put it down on top of his hand to basically say, "Get your hand out of there".  Then he left the box on top of the barrel so that it was blocked off from future "fondling".  My kid is a mature, almost 12-year old young man.  He goes spear fishing with his dad.  He jumps out of 20 foot trees into rivers.  He has his own business.  He is not a baby.  He was, however, humiliated. 

Over the past decade, my kids have been scolded by this man while they are standing right next to me, for doing absolutely NOTHING.  He has come down the aisle where we are standing, and said to us, "I just want to remind you that we look with our eyes, not our hands".  Are you kidding me?!?!  Once he took a product out of their hands and stuck it back on the shelf and walked away.  I was (was being the key word) going to buy said product.  We left that day without buying anything.  Everytime this happens, I want to stand outside and picket: "Beware of Scrooge".  But I fume for an hour or so, and then run into an emergency weeks later for flashcards or fraction manipulatives and (you guessed it), I cave.

Why do I keep returning for more torture, you ask?  Because he has the market cornered in our area.  No other store compares in selection.  But I have decided to take a stand.  I will order everything I need online from now on.  I will borrow from the library or share with friends.  I will not walk in that store again, unless it is to deliver a strongly-worded message of my boycott.

As my son and I left the store on Monday, I finally asked, "If you don't want children to touch your products, why do you have them on the counter like a candy store?  Why don't you put up a sign if you don't want anyone to touch them?"  He pulled out a foam die from under the counter (I suppose he keeps it there year after year to illustrate the following ridiculous point....)  He says, "This is what children do when they touch these things."  and he showed me bite marks on one of the foam pieces.  I asked him if my pre-teen looked like he was going to bite a stupid die.  I told him that replacing a few small trinkets was the cost of doing business in a child-focused industry!!!  Duh! 

So, to compensate,  Bossypants handed my kid a lousy pencil promoting his business.  I took my son to the car and asked him to give me the pencil.  I snapped it in two and threw it on the ground in the parking lot.  I know--I'm so mature.  DO NOT MESS WITH MY KIDS.  Period.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

TOS Product Review: Big IQ Kids

Big IQ Kids is an online learning website that is designed to be customized for your K-8th grade student.  The free version focuses primarily on Spelling and Vocabulary.  With Premium Member status, though, Math and US Geography are covered as well and student progress is saved and tracked. Initially, I thought the website was very colorful, cheerful and kid-friendly.  For the first week, I had my sons (ages 9 and 11) start with the US Geography activities.  They could choose from a variety of tasks related to the States, such as locating it on a map, spelling it, giving the abbreviation or identifying the capitals.  I have actually looked online in the past for a program that does just this sort of thing with US Geography, so I was really pleased to have the opportunity to review Big IQ Kids, even if it was just for the states program.  But there is much more to see on the webiste.

Your child can practice his own spelling words based on a list that you type into the database, or practice one of the pre-loaded word lists.  They give you unlimited space to type long word lists if needed.  Big IQ Kids can also be used to load your vocabulary list for the week and do a variety of games and lessons with these words.  I was impressed to find that nearly all the words I typed in the system were accepted and the program had the correct definition and sample sentences to go with them.  Even words like "runes" (an ancient alphabet system) and "fjord" were there.  Can you tell we're studying the Vikings? 

Math is also a part of Big IQ Kids Premium and has progressive activities (don't forget to set the grade level up or down, depending on the math abilities of your child).  I like the way that the problem the child is working on is highlighted, but the rest of the problems are still visible.  I have a child that likes to go quickly if he's confident in the material.  This way, he can see the next problem and can get ready to type it while the computer transitions to that problem.

While I was impressed with the intention behind the program, I did find it rather hard to navigate through the Spelling/Vocabulary screens.  There are arrows and buttons everywhere.  I had to stop and really think about what I should do next to load word lists, select certain activities and then proceed.  I found myself going round and round three or four times just to get started with a new word list.  Also, when the activity is presented, it comes up in a new window, which doesn't have a side bar to move up and down.  Sometimes the top portion of the activity seems cut off from view.  I found myself test-driving some of the lessons to find out why my kids were so frustrated with the Spelling and Vocabulary lessons and I can see where some technical tweaking would help in these areas.

My sons did, however, have a ton of fun with the States activities.  Jake and Alexis are the hosts of this portion and provide a lot of comedy for us around our house.  At first, their voices were like fingernails down a chalkboard.  Then we started talking like them, pausing in strange places in our sentence and emphasizing the wrong syllable.  What started out as a "con" became a "pro", because my sons wanted to play Big IQ Kids every day for some portion of their school day, even if it was just to get a laugh from the robot-people.  I like the games for the States program a great deal, but there are a few issues.  When the student is working on "spell the state", one robot voice starts giving fun facts about that state, while an overlapping robot voice is saying the letters aloud that the student is typing.  This needs to be fixed.

I think the main draw for the program for kids will be the opportunity to earn game coins to play "fun games" after their lessons.  I'll have to admit the games ARE really fun and there's a variety to choose from, including the chance to make a Buddy that stays on your screen and becomes your avatar.  You can design him/her and dress them any way you want.  My children really liked the way the Buddy made it personal for them.

I have to confess that one evening (okay, several evenings), I logged on and tested out the SAT Prep portion and also the Spelling.  I set the level to "Adult" and tried my hand at the Spelling Bee feature.  It was fun and challenging, but it is over when you miss the first word.  Also, the screen tends to do the same thing as with the student Spelling lessons.  It cuts off the top portion, which is the important part--it tells you the correct spelling of the word you missed.

Premium Memberships are between $7.99 and $9.99 per month, depending on the subjects that you choose for your subscription.

Overall, I think Big IQ Kids is, without a doubt, on the right track.  They get an A for effort.  When some of the technicalities are worked out, I think they will get an A+ from me.

**Disclaimer:  Big IQ Kids provided me with two Premium Memberships to use with my children.  I received this in exchange for an honest review, which I have provided here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ode to a Guinea Pig

I'm not going to lie.  It is emotional wreckage over here in the Smith household.  Yesterday, at about 5pm, Denver and I took some Romaine lettuce to our two guinea pigs, Pippin and Frodo.  They always make their little chirps when they hear the sounds of rustling plastic in the produce drawer.  When Pippin didn't come to the door of his little guinea pig cottage, I knew something was wrong.  He looked like he was sleeping.  When he didn't respond to my touch, I knew he was gone.  Let me just say, we have been fortunate enough to have never lost a pet (besides a hermit crab--and that was traumatic in its own way). My children still have all their grandparents, aunts and uncles and even some great-grandparents.  So losing this cuddly little guy was a gut-wrenching experience. 

These were no ordinary guinea pigs.  They were held constantly by family and visiting friends, put on leashes and walked around the yard, taken to the drive-in movies in laundry baskets and set up in the back of the Suburban to watch the film.  They were given the best produce--raddichio, Swiss chard, cilantro, basil, carrots with the tops still on.  They had their own Facebook page.  My husband worked for two straight weeks to build them a Guinea Pig Mansion so that they'd have space to scamper around.  But now, when we open the door, there is only one.  And I'm sad for Frodo, who has never known life without his brother-friend.

So today, we had the funeral.  He was buried in a box, hand built by my son Denver and his dad.  Each of the boys had ownership of one pig and Pippin belonged to my 11 year old son.  Denver placed his favorite tie-dyed shirt that we made this summer in the box for soft bedding.  All of us put something special in the box.  It was nailed shut.  Denver wrote on the outside "We love you, Pippin.  We'll see you in heaven"  A deep hole was dug in the pepper patch of our vegetable garden.  Ecclesiastes was read by Dad, our surviving guinea pig was in attendance and held by my 9 year old Solomon, and roses, zinnias and Angel Trumpets were cut by me and placed on the mound.  It was a reminder of how much I love my family.  We are tightly-knit.  We share in sorrows together and bear each other's burdens.

I am also so proud of my children.  They pray with vigor.  They weep without abandon.  They do what needs to be done, down to hammering in the nails and digging the dirt.  It hurts deeply to see your children suffer, arms around each other sitting on the edge of the swimming pool, looking out at the garden, tears flowing.  I am grateful that despite their normal sibling rivalry, they are a "band of brothers" when they are hurt.

So, although his "Earth Suit" is no longer here and we ache for the absense, his spirit has been frolicking in heavenly meadows for over a day now.  I will believe until my own dying breath that we are reunited with our pets in heaven.  If I am wrong, I choose to live in ignorance because never seeing them again is too much to bear.

We'll never forget you, Pips.  You were a "pig among pigs, a friend to all".

Saturday, September 10, 2011

TOS Product Review: Time 4 Learning

Recently, we had an opportunity to use and review Time 4 Learning. This is an online learning system that can either serve as your core curriculum, a supplement to what you're already using or a summer enrichment program. It covers the topics of Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies for preschoolers-8th grade. Although lessons do not have to be completed in order, they do build on one another. As each lesson is completed, the student will receive a big check mark on that activity. They can go on to the next lesson or quiz at that point. Some lessons have printable resources available as well.
Students click on the backpack icon to view their progress and scores
The lessons are short and sweet, between 1 to 3 minutes long. The corresponding activities can take longer, depending on the child. The lessons are presented in a modern, wacky style, with “creature-people” (as my kids call them). The parent can set the parameters to reward the child with a set amount of time on The Playground (many, many interactive games to choose from), depending on how much time they spend on their lessons.
My children were already familiar with Time 4 Learning. They knew it under the name “Odyssey Lab”. The public school that they previously attended used this program in the computer lab. They were required to work on this program for the duration of their 30 minute class when they were enrolled in school. So, on the positive side, there was very little explanation necessary. They logged on and went to work. On the negative side, this program reminded them of their experience in public school, which wasn't great. This is not the fault of Time 4 Learning, obviously, but it was something I thought I would mention. I had to “re-build” their enthusiasm for the program.
Personally, I incorporated Time 4 Learning 2-3 times per week as an extension of what we already had planned out for the year. I appreciated the fact that the students did not need to work in any certain order because I like to pick out topics that were relevant to what we were learning as a part of our core.  For example, if we had just finished a lesson on prefixes and suffixes, I liked to browse the topics under “Grammar” and find a corresponding lesson that would reinforce these concepts.
An example of a 3rd grade Language Arts lesson
If you prefer to preview your child's lessons before they do them, you may log in as them, watch the lesson and then click the home button. It will not record the progress of that student while you are previewing. I'm a parent who likes to see what they are going to be exposed to beforehand. This was a feature that I really liked.
I must mention that I have a 4th grade child who often works above grade level and a 6th grade child who struggles with many subjects. Since I just have the two, I often teach down the middle at a 5th grade level. However, if you have a handful of children, all at different grade levels and abilities, you can customize not only each child's level, but their ability level in each subject! Time 4 Learning realizes that students don't excel or struggle “across the board”. They often have areas of great strength and great deficiency. This was one of the things I like most about the product.
So, for our family, the pros were: 
  • The ability to set each child at a different level for EACH subject
  • Short lessons
  • An expansive list of lessons to choose from in a wide variety of topics
  • The Writing generator, which allowed my son to type up a report, edit it and print it, despite not having a program like MS Word installed on his computer. It proved to be a lifesaver on two different days when I was busy and couldn't let him type it up on my laptop. I just told him, “Use your Time 4 Learning account!”
  The cons were: 
  • My children's unfortunate lack of enthusiasm in using the program.
  • The “textbook style” approach to teaching some of the lessons. They literally look like scanned textbook pages that they have to read before taking a quiz.
  • What it would cost us for two children each year: (roughly $420).
  Overall, I would say that this program would be ideal for parents who like to have a "plug and play" system that allows their children to work independently on most lessons. If the children are good “textbook” learners, this program may be a good fit. For children who enjoy a more relaxed learning style, this may feel too rigid. Also, budget would be a major concern for most homeschooling families, in my opinion.

If you need printouts of reports for homeschool portfolios, that is available with your subscription.
 The current cost of the program is $19.95 per month for the first student and $14.95 per month for each additional student. The program includes detailed lesson plans that allow you to use Time4Learning as a core curriculum, record keeping, activities that correlate with lessons, access to a Parent Forum and over 1,000 lessons that are paced by the student's abilities.
Disclaimer:  I received a trial subscription to Time4Learning in exchange for an honest review.  No other compensation was provided.

"Bringing the Classroom Outdoors"

That is the motto of Nature's Academy, based out of Fort Desoto Park, FL.  My boys and I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in their Island Adventure program this week, an adventure they will not soon forget.  We go on ALOT of field trips and they both agreed that this ranks up there in the top 2 that they've experienced so far.  That's a pretty good testament to Nature's Academy!  The morning started out at 9am at Fort Desoto's East Beach in the Tierra Verde area of Tampa Bay.  Fort Desoto Beach was voted the #1 beach in America in 2005!  After exploring it all day, I can see why. 

We began by taking a nature walk throughout the different native Florida habitats:  Oak Hammock, Dunes, and Mangroves.  When I say "nature walk", I don't mean, "Oh look kids, it's a pinecone!"  I'm talking serious, hard-core learning presented in an interactive fun way.  All along the paths, our guide (and President of Nature's Academy), Dana Pounds, provided us with binoculars and shared her wealth of knowledge on everything from gopher tortoises, to "toothache plants" of the Native Americans, to orb weaver spiders!  The spiders were out in droves that day.  The kids asked questions about controlled forest burns, invasive exotic plants amongst other things.  You could really see their minds working.  It's amazing the learning that takes place when you get out of the classroom.

After our nature walk, we drove across the street to Nature Academy's facility, what looks like a former parks/rec building that has been transformed into a classroom with jarred specimens, brightly colored posters and a very vivacious yellow lab, Ginger.  She was so happy to see the children come by and visit!   Outside the classroom, there were tables set up for groups to do their shark dissections.  It is so cool to explore the inner-workings of God's swimming creatures, to see how they are designed for survival, for camoflague, to adapt to their changing environments.  Sharks have an unbelievably large liver and a very "marble-y" eyeball.  They hardly smell weird at all!

After lunch, the group got to participate in a diversity study down by the shore.  In 45 minutes, the kids collected over 2 dozen different marine species, including Solomon's giant blue crab!  Of course, Dana knew all the names and particulars of every species that they caught, including the latin names ( off--LOL).  My son, Denver told me that the most amazing part of the day (and I thought he was going to say the dissection) was actually how many diverse species were in that small section of the Gulf of Mexico.  It sure makes you want to work harder to keep the oceans clean and safe so that all the little cowfish and pipefish and sea slugs can continue to thrive.

The finale of the day was a coastal cleanup (we collected 5 pounds of trash in 5 minutes--we weighed it on a scale), followed by some fresh-cut watermelon from Dana's husband, Jim.  Very appreciated as the day got a little warmer!  Jim was fantastic--he provided coolers of ice-cold bottled water for us everywhere we went, set up supplies for every activity, and attended to my son Solomon's bloody nose during the day!  He and Dana make a perfect team.

And for all you Type-A teachers (that would be me), Nature's Academy provides a full sheet of Sunshine State Standards, Student Objectives and Projected Outcomes for every stage of the course AND a well-written Post Test to survey how well the student absorbed the information from the day.  This is an optional test that you can print and give your children for the ride home or the following day.  They are written at about a 5th grade level, in my opinion.  If your children are younger, you can do it as a group activity.

So you may be wondering if our leader, Dana, had her leg bitten off by a ferocious Great White during the course of her Marine Biology career.  That would make a cool story. But it's not true.  She will tell you herself that she contracted a rare form of cancer and had to have her right leg amputated a number of years ago.  Starting Nature's Academy has allowed her to continue to live her dream--studying nature and teaching children so that they might develop the same sense of wonder about the ecology in their own backyards and beaches.  But her story gets even more interesting....The same "gel sock" that she uses to attach her prosthetic leg, is used by Winter the dolphin, star of the upcoming movie, "Dolphin Tale".  In fact, Winter and Dana share the same doctor (played fabulously by Morgan Freeman in the film), who developed the technology to create a comfortable way of attaching a prosthesis to skin.  Dana never knew the path that her life was going to take.  Isn't it amazing that someone with a passion for undersea animals has crossed paths in such a way with a very spirited and determined dolphin?  God works in some pretty mysterious ways.

If you are in the central Florida area, check out  The price of their programs for homeschool and school groups varies depending on location and activities, but the one that we attended was $35 per child, $10 for accompanying adults, with a 10% discount for siblings.  Believe me, you will gladly write the check with no hesitation.  The value of the program is unbelievable.  I hope you'll join me in supporting Nature's Academy!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


We are into Week 5 of our school year, using Tapestry of Grace , Story of the World and about a bazillion other bits and pieces of curriculum that I couldn't resist buying at convention.  Tapestry is our core, though.  It provides our vocabulary, our literature and history readings, and gives us great ideas for hands-on projects.

Last week we learned about Charlemagne.  We have serious genealogists in my family and one of our family lines has been traced back to Charlemagne.  So, my children got pretty puffed up and pompous about that little tidbit and started talking with a fancy European accent. 

This week, we studied about life for the common people in the Middle Ages, especially the tradesmen.  Today we made store-front banners for particular trades.  Without using words (most people were illiterate before Gutenberg's press came along), how would you symbolize your business?  The first step was to determine what they would have done for a living back then.  "What?  Work?  We are Charlemagne's descendents!  We would have sat in the castle all day playing video games."  I cleared my throat and gave a glare.....they decided promptly that they would be something manly.  So, Denver made this flag.  He is a butcher.

Solomon proudly displayed the flag for his blacksmith shop.  I love his interpretation of an anvil.....

And, since I love to do the project right along with them, I made this one for a tailor shop.  I wanted to do a baker and make a nice rustic loaf of bread, but it ended up looking like a prostethic limb.  I'll spare you the photo.

We finally took down the "Welcome Back" banner that's been hanging here for a month!

What sort of neat projects have you done with a Middle Ages/Medieval study? 

We plan to do stained glass pieces (either at the local pottery/art glass studio or with tissue paper).  I'd also love to try a mini-version of a tapestry if I can find something that's not too involved. 

Thanks for letting me share our projects with you!


Saturday, September 3, 2011

Death of a Bookstore: A Tragedy in Two Acts

I'll have to admit--I've contributed to the very problem that I'm getting ready to complain about.  I've gone in the bookstores, I've perused their cherry wood shelves.  I've enjoyed the classical music.  I've sipped the cafe au lait.  I've even fondled the leatherbound classics until chills rushed up my spine.  But I've rarely spent a dime on new books.  So, I've got blood on my hands.  I've helped kill the American bookstore.

I don't own a Kindle or a Nook.  Maybe someday, but for right now, I simply enjoy "the novel" as a fashion accessory.  Protocol:  Shower, find something to wear off of my bedroom floor, grab my sandals and my purse, pick out a book whose cover kinda goes with what I'm wearing and I'm good to go!  I don't feel fully outifitted without a good read to carry with me.  I also just enjoy seeing them physically sitting on the shelf, all propped up there in alphabetical order by author, their spines like a glorious patchwork quilt of different colors, title fonts, and paper textures.  I own three copies of "Jane Eyre" just because I like the different covers. 

I love looking at my books while I'm drifting off to sleep.  They are my babies.

Great read during a flight to Utah.  The "lace" chapter will have you rolling.

One day, one day....

I read this on a thirty-minute lunch break years ago, cover to cover.  Somerset Maugham is a smooth writer.

Ha..Can you tell I sort of like John Irving?

I adore these creative Penguin covers. 

What's that you say?  This is the exact same book, printed in the UK under a different name?  Doesn't matter--I want both!  Remember her other book, Chocolat?

Here's my dilemma:  I'd love to support Barnes and Noble, Borders and the other chains that make it so enjoyable to browse.  I appreciate the atmosphere that they've created to entice us to buy their wares.  But when Amazon emerged, their low prices only made it more appalling to pay $26.95 for a hardback in the stores.  I like Amazon when I need something specific and I need it now.  But my favorite way to build my collection is my wonderful public library.   My two favorite locations in my county, Lakeland and Winter Haven, have amazing used book sections where everything is priced at 50 cents, $1, $2 at most!  One of our locations even has a full-blown coffee shop.  I love to see my tax dollars doing something beautiful.....

This is what I bought today for $11.75 total:

"The Bonesetter's Daughter" by Amy Tan, hardcover
"Chang and Eng" by Darin Strauss, hardcover
"One True Thing" by Anna Quindlen, trade paperback (the large ones)
"Girl, Interrupted" by Susana Kaysen, trade paperback
"Hotel New Hampshire" by John Irving, hardcover
"Shopgirl" by Steve Martin, trade paperback
"Same Kind of Different as Me" by Ron Hall, trade paperback
"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, trade paperback
"This Boy's Life" by Tobias Wolfe, hardback
"Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet", trade paperback
"Never Let Me Go" by by Kazue Ishiguro, trade paperback
"Still Alice" by Lisa Genova, trade paperback
"Sarah's Key" by Tatiana De Rosnay, trade paperback (for 25 cents, I had to get a spare copy for a

So, while I rejoice in my savings, I can't have my gourmet scone and eat it too.  Lack of support means that more book chains are closing their doors and becoming something disgusting, like a Big Lots or worse, a seasonal Halloween store.  I used to drive by my Barnes and Noble and couldn't resist turning into the parking lot every time.  Today, a fluorescent sign that said "Halloween City" was plastered over the letters that once served as my beacon.

William Faulkner turned over in his grave today.  I'm so sorry, Will.