Monday, November 21, 2011

Time Timer

This week, I am reviewing Time Timer, an invention that I consider to be quite genius.   Have you ever thought about how clocks measure time?  It is a very abstract concept.  Time Timer doesn't just count down the minutes, but shows how the progression of time moves along in a very visual way.  Most children today (including my own for the longest time) refer to the microwave to get their answer to "what time is it?".  Digital gives you the instant gratification, but really numbers mean nothing if you don't have a grasp on minutes as parts of an hour and hours as parts of a day.

Time Timer uses a red "wedge" that increases or decreases in the center of the timer so you can set it to whatever time you like and the wedge will slowly disappear as your target time gets near.  And no more ticking!  Time Timer makes absolutely no noise until time is up, and then it lightly dings.  No more stressed out kids!

There are so many ways to use Time Timer.  Need to have kids work on their assignments for 20 more minutes so you can leave for an appointment?  Want to give a timed multiplication drill?  Would you like to show IN VERY VISUAL TERMS what 10 minutes looks like during your math lesson on elapsed time?  What about limiting TV or video game time?  Time Timer is a great solution.

There are plenty of other uses for this product.  What about brainstorming sessions for employee meetings?  What about reminding an elderly parent to take their medication in 2 hours (yes, you can set it for more than an hour), or monitoring time during therapies, counseling sessions, etc.  It really is a simple product with infinite uses.

The TimeTimer Wristwatch is waterproof!

It comes in three sizes, 3 inch, 8 inch and 12 inch, ranging from $30-$40.  There is also an Time Timer app for iPhone and iPad, a software program to use Time Timer on your computer, wristwatch versions of Time Timer and other merchandise sold on their website here

TimeTimer App for iPad

I was able to use Time Timer plenty during the month that our family used it for review.  My sons used it to monitor their independent reading time (20 minutes).  Instead of looking up at the digital clock and then trying to do the math in their head every few minutes (taking away significantly from the "flow" of the story they were reading), they just saw the red wedge getting smaller and could see how much time was left.  We also used it for frozen pizzas and cookies in the oven!  I love when product reviews force us to cook sweets--LOL.

I would highly recommend Time Timer for anyone.  As I've mentioned above, you don't have to be a teacher to use this.  Its great for home, classroom, the boardroom or anywhere!

**Disclaimer:  I was provided with a 3-inch Time Timer in exchange for an honest review.

See other reviews of Time Timer here.

Plans for our "Light December"

I promised the kids this year that since we started school in early August and have yet to take a "holiday", "teacher work day" (um, that's every day), or have any early release days like their public school friends, that we would take off for December.

Now, that thought scares me a bit.  So, I've backtracked and renamed it a "light December".  Which means, they'll be maintaining their independent reading schedule, we'll be doing some math activity a few times a week, they'll be building lots of models (like the Pitsco Siege Machine kits we are going to be using a reveiwing in a few weeks), and oh yes, musn't forget the starfish and clam dissections!

So, I was taking stock of all my resources that I keep shoving to the side because we always seem to need to move along with the curriculum plan.  I'm excited to be implementing several lessons from Artistic Pursuits.  We did a nice artist study last year of over 12 artists.  This year, we've only gotten to DaVinci and Bruegel.  I think the boys would enjoy some real art instruction on a consistent basis.  So far, we've done perspective drawing and we've duplicated some of DaVinci's sketchbook ideas with drawing the outer and inner parts of an object (a grapefruit and a wristwatch).  They really liked that so I know they'll enjoy the projects in Artistic Pursuits.  I've hear great things about this company.

Also, have you heard about Instructables?  It's a "Share What You Make" site where people post pictures and videos and things they build, create, etc.  Some of them are amazing machines, science models, and really geeky stuff.  Around here, we love ALL of that!  So, I may let the kids build some cannons or other stuff that could potentially make my house explode.  All in the name of learning...

Also, we wanted to do a unit study on Austrailia, more experiments from AIMS Educational Company's "Electrical Connections" as well as their "Chemistry Matters" book, a unit study on Simple Machines from Evan Moor's Daily Science, and we must finish The Hobbit from last year (only 2 chapters to go and we never seem to find the time).  Add these things to our normal holiday routine of ice skating, baking cookies, making gingerbread houses, attending our hometown Christmas Parade and ringing the Salvation Army bell, and I think we have our "light December".

Do you try to do school during the busy holiday season or do you take off?  Please share your thoughts!

Friday, November 18, 2011

War Horse

Just a quickie post to say that we are Lov-Ing the book War Horse by Michael Morpurgo.  We are using it as a read-aloud after lunch each day and hope to finish it this week.  It is very engaging, moves along at a nice pace and of course, is coming out in movie-form Christmas Day!  Steven Speilberg has his golden touch on this film, so I'm pretty excited to take my boys to see it.  We always go to the movies on Christmas evening after all of the holiday hoopla dies down.  This will probably be our movie!

War Horse is a wonderful story about Joey, a horse once cared for by the son of an alcoholic farmer, then sold to the English Army.  I won't give away any more, but I will just say that having the horse as the narrator really makes you think about all the cavalry horses and their lives that were sacrificed alongside their fallen riders in so many wars throughout history.  I have had to gain my composure many times while reading.  Very, very moving so far. 

It is available in your local bookstore in paperback.  There is a movie adaptation cover, but I like this one:

So....whatcha' reading this week with your kiddos?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Math Mammoth!

Up for review today we have Math Mammoth, sets of math worksheets designed to enrich your child's current math program.  These are not your ordinary math worksheets, though.  They are really something special.  They are designed for students in 1st-8th grade and available in book form or as digital downloads.  We have been using the 4A and 4B sets from the "Gold" series and sets 5A and 5B from the "Blue" series.  You can shop by concept or by grade.  The answer key is included in your purchase. 

Math Mammoth is designed to speak right to the student, requiring very little preparation from the teacher.  These worksheets lean strongly toward mental math concepts.  I like the way so many of them deal with "real world" concepts such as making change and other skills that students will really need.  The ones we used also dealt with noticing patterns in math.  My sons used a different level of thinking in these worksheets than I have ever run across in my search for math sheets.

This product has actually been a lifesaver this year.  We started using Teaching Textbooks, which I love for its 100% online capabilities and animated style.  However, it's difficult to tote the computer around in the car when we are headed to field trips.  These are perfect times to bring out Mammoth Math sheets!  At one point this month, my gifted 4th grader was complaining about math.  He only does this when he is bored.  I took a look at some of the lessons that he was working on, and realized they were reviewing concepts he had mastered.  I pulled out a Mammoth Math sheet on Fibonnaci's Sequence (really, have you ever seen THAT in a math worksheet?!) and he instantly loved it.  I have since let him skip through some of his Teaching Textbooks lectures to get to the point he needs to be, but he still begs for Mammoth Math whenever he wants a challenge.  This is a kid who excels at math and enjoys doing it as "extra credit".

I like seeing the Table of Contents on each set of worksheets.  This way, if my 6th grader has just started learning about geometry, I can scan down to the section on angles, rays and area and reinforce what he learned with one of these sheets. 

Another great point to these products is their affordablility.  They can run you just over $30 for the downloadable version of one entire grade's worth of worksheets.  Or you can bundle them together by grade or topic.  Some of the worksheets are "problems only" and are great for tutors or teachers to give as reinforcement..  Some of the sets include instruction, which are better for teaching new concepts to students. 

Although I love this aspect of creative ordering options, I find the website a tad bit overwhelming when it comes to breaking down the buying options.  But the website even says, "Confused by all the options?  Check out this tutorial..."  So, I guess I'm not the first one to be confused! 

Still, Maria Miller, the author of this series is passionate about math and passionate about matching each of her customer's with the right product.  I like that.  In today's society of impersonal service, it is refreshing to see this.  Check out to get the perfect set of enrichment sheets for your child.  You can also request over 300 samples of FREE worksheets to fall in love with.  I'm sure you will become a fan just like we have!

Disclaimer:  I was provided with my choice of 2 sets of Math Mammoth worksheets to use with my children in exchange for an honest review.  No other compensation has been provided to me.

**Click here to read other reviews of Math Mammoth from The Old Schoolhouse Magazine.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Vocab Cafe Book Series

This week, I was offered the Vocab Cafe book series to review.  This set of 4 books (also sold individually) offers high schoolers and older middle school students that chance to increase their vocabulary while reading high-interest fiction stories.  The titles include:  Planet Exile, The Summer of St. Nick, I.M for Murder and Operation High School.  In each title, students will find at least 300 new vocabulary words used in context, in bold print and footnooted with the definition at the bottom of the page. 

I pride myself on a pretty decent vocabulary knowledge, but I think there are words in here that even parents could learn.  I think the author has a great idea here and I believe putting the words in story form will be much more effective than using flashcards to prepare for the SAT.  Reading difficult classics can increase your vocabulary, sure.  But having to look up each unfamiliar word in the dictionary will try the patience of even the most dilligent student.  I like this approach.

An example from some of the stories....

"Not having a car required quotidian walks, which was both a blessing and a curse..." (Quotidian: adj. occurring every day)

"Matilda was a kind-faced woman, beautiful with a corpulent figure.  (Corpulent:  n. fatness; portliness)

"Terrified by the thought of being put into a moribund situation, Emma remained still (Moribund:  adj. near death)

Here's what the Vocab Cafe company promises: "We are a family-based company, our goal is to make a quality product that can be enjoyed by everyone. Thus, these stories contain no magic, sorcery, swear words, illicit situations, nor do they encourage negative behaviors. However, we recommend that parents should read every book that they give their children (not just ours) to make sure the messages coincide with their beliefs and standards. The VocabCafé Book Series does contain boy-girl relationships (non-sexual), mild violence, and mature thematic elements."

In I.M. for Murder, there is mention of a family pet being beheaded, which may be a problem for some families.  This seemed very tame, though, compared to what is in most murder mystery series these days, even those categorized as teen fiction.  I work part-time in a bookstore and I will tell you that what's out there for teens is VERY adult.  This series will be a welcome change of pace to offer your teenager, while helping them increase their chances of doing well on the SATs.  If this scene bothers you, then don't discount the whole series.  Just don't purchase this title.

Summer of St. Nick was the other title that I had a chance to thoroughly read and I thought the overwhelming theme of charity was nice.  The characters seem real and the modern setting and language will appeal to today's teenagers.  I know what teens are drawn to, and it is definately not preachy stories.  They want some adventure and escapism, just like most adults. 

When the books go into their next printing, I would suggest an editor look over some typographical errors that appear here and there.  Other than that, I applaud a very good effort on behalf of Vocab Cafe.

You can purchase the books as a set or individually at

**Disclaimer:  I have received the full set of Vocab Cafe books to review in exchange for an honest review.  No other compensation was received.

Click here to read other reviews of Vocab Cafe.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Humility of Working For Minimum Wage

Lately, we have been following a Dave Ramsey-esque plan.  Eliminate needless spending, build up savings, cut debt.  Simple plan.  Difficult Execution.

When we got married, we agreed that I would stay at home with the kids when they were little.  So, there went 8 years of me not working.  Then I went back to work briefly in the school system a few years ago before we started homeschooling.  That salary barely paid my dry-cleaning bill.  During this time, we lived slightly above our means, I have to admit.  We didn't want to miss out on opportunities that we'd never have again, memories that we'd never be able to make again.  So we did the Disney Cruise.  Twice. We bought organic everything when the kids were little.  We purchased a ridiculously expensive antique china cabinet.  And we probably shouldn't have bought that Suburban new off the lot (kicking ourselves bigtime over that one).  Fast forward many years later and we've got credit card debt. 

You can only squeeze so much out of a family's budget.  We gave up television.  I gave up my Blackberry.  We started mega-couponing.  But still, we were not seeing a huge difference.  We knew we'd not only have to decrease spending, but increase what was coming in.  My awesome husband supports us fabulously and works his tail off in a demanding job.  But a downturned economy, decreased property values, and just the increased cost of living with a growing family made it necessary to bring in a little extra.  I didn't want my husband to miss out on "guy time" with the kids after working all day.  And one of the perks of homeschooling is that I already get to see my kids all week long.  It made sense for me to work a few nights a week and see if it would make a dent in the debt.

Wow.  Have you ever tried to find work between the hours of 4pm-midnight?  All that's out there, ladies and gentlemen, is retail and restaurant (and other seedy professions that may or may not be legal).  I proved many years ago that I can't waitress to save my life.  So began my adventures working at my local mega-bookstore for $7.31 an hour.  So far, I've been working 4 nights a week until closing, which can be midnight-1am, depending on how much the ill-mannered teenagers trash the store each night.  I'm surrounded by various colorful characters, some of whom I'm delighted to work alongside.  Others, whose drama I just have to chalk up to immaturity and naivete.  But sometimes, I just have to walk behind the shelves and mouth the words "Jesus. Help. Me."  The only good thing about this situation is that I'm surrounded by books and that I can help people find what they are looking for.  Sometimes I lead them to Shakespeare's "Hamlet" with a spring in my step.  Other times, I show them where the witchcraft books are with a roll of the eyes and a silent prayer.  It's a very messed up world out there and I've been sheltered from it for a long time.

I don't quite look this cute cleaning the store.
You know, the best thing about vacuuming twenty-million square feet of carpet or cleaning a toilet that a man has peed in, is that it reminds me how good I've had it for so long.  It reminds me that some people have to make ends meet on this paycheck.  And it reminds me not to take for granted the little things.  The physical exhaustion is great (1am is not my favorite bedtime).  The rewards are mediocre.  But the money, as long as it's stockpiled in savings, will go toward our greater good in the long-run.

Funny thing is, out of the 8 people that we've hired for the holidays, almost all of us are thirty-somethings working a second job to pay off debt.  I feel like I'm in sympathetic company.  Here's hoping my piggy bank gets filled quickly.  My 38 year old body can't take much more.

Keyboard Town Pals

When I first saw this typing program for kids, my first impression was, "This is just like H.R. Puffenstuff from the 70's!".  My second impression was "Today's kids will NEVER go for this."  Within a few minutes of exploring the program, though, I really began to see the genius in this product.  Keyboard Town Pals can teach even the youngest child to type in no time, provided they can distinguish between different letters.  That's really all they need to get started.

Here's how it works.  The program presents a simple story.  Each key on the keyboard represents a door to someone's house.  Characters like Amy and Sam live in letter "A" and "S".  They live on Home Key Street.  Amy lives in letter A.  But sometimes she goes "downtown" to visit the Zebra that lives below her in the Z.  When she goes "uptown" to see what a magician named Q-wert is doing, she finds that he is asking Questions in the letter Q.  Q-wert shows up in all "uptown" houses and provides the comic relief in Keyboard Town.  He is always doing something silly.  However, each of the characters has a distinct personality that keeps children interested in the storyline, which I think will help them remember the location of the keys alot better than boring drills that I've seen in other programs.  Check out a demo video here.......

In other keyboard programs that I've tried with my children, including one that was provided by our state's virtual school earlier this year (we have since withdrawn from this class due to it's extreme boring-ness), the drills have you typing nonsense words and "dinging" you whenever you make a mistake.  It's deflating.  There seems to be no purpose and it becomes drudgery.  With Keyboard Town Pals, the delete and backspace keys are not used.  In fact, they have been deprogrammed and will not work.  This is to keep the student focused on moving ahead and not worrying endlessly about mistakes.  The children learn 30 keys (all the letters and some symbols) within an hour.  You can break the lessons up into smaller increments such as 5 minutes per day.  After each new letter is taught, there are opportunities to watch the model hand type the keys and copy the hand.  There are also excercises that the narrator will call out to the child. 

A few neat features:  Kids can choose the colors of their background and font.  Color is very important in learning to some children.  Here, they can choose the appearance of their screen.  Also, they can practice their new skills by securely emailing the characters that they have just met.  Yes, folks, each of the characters has its own email address and children are guaranteed a response!  You can email a joke, poem, letter or whatever you'd like to Amy, Sam, Frank, George and all the friends at Keyboard Town and show them how well you can type!

This product is really different and I would recommend it for preschool-3rd grade.  Older children might find it a bit corny, but the lessons are still very sound.  I believe this product would also be perfect for special needs students of all ages. My 6th grader called the puppets "creepy", but middle school boys are hard to please.  Start your child young on Keyboard Pals and by the time they are in 6th grade, they won't need a typing program.  Problem solved.

Keyboard Town Pals comes in a web-based format or CD-Rom for $39.95.  It is offered in English, Spanish or French. There are also bundles that you can buy with coloring books and reward stickers.  Click here for your buying options. 

*Disclaimer:  I received a web-based version of this program for a limited time trial offer in exchange for an honest review.

See what the other reviewers at the Old Homeschool Magazine had to say about Keyboard Town Pals here.

Monday, November 7, 2011

"The Person I Marry" by Bower Family Books

This week, I am reviewing "The Person I Marry" by Gary and Jan Bower, an award-winning inspirational book for families to read together.  The book is from their "Bright Futures" series, exploring biblical truths as they relate to marriage.  It is in poetry form and poses the question to children, "What will you look for in a spouse one day?  What qualities do you think are important?"  The rhyming lines are accompanied by oil color paintings showing little boys and girls in different scenes like fishing or playing in rain puddles.  The models for the children in the paintings were the grandchildren of the author/illustrator and the words come from their personal conversations with their own children, some of who are married now.

This book was presented to me to review in e-book form, so it was a bit difficult to present it to my children.  We don't cuddle up around the laptop for reading time very much.  However, it is available to customers as a hardback book for $11.99.  As I went through each page, I thought it was a valid effort at conveying an idea that most people wait far too long to discuss with their children.  By the time your kids are teenagers, they have already formed lots of opinions about the opposite sex.  Addressing the internal qualities of a potential mate is important in a world so focused on external and material features.  This book builds up the importance of a person's spiritual "bling".

Click here for a two-minute video preview of the book:

I was a bit conflicted over trying to pinpoint an appropriate age group for this product.  Although the illustrations are very cute, appealing to a younger crowd, I thought the vocabulary and figures of speech were a little too old for younger children to grasp.  Also, I think the book could be condensed in length.  It seems to elaborate on one thought a bit too long, for the sake of a few more rhymes. 

So, although I appreciate a solid effort in subject matter, I think today's children, who have exposed to edgier media messages, even edgier Christian media, will have a hard time getting a message that is hidden among a "cutesy" facade.  Having said that,  I do think that there are many families who would find this book a good fit.  I think I just exposed my kids to Roald Dahl and Shel Silverstein early on and now anything without underwear, swordfights or sea monsters, is unsuccessful in catching their attention.

I appreciate the opportunity to review this product.  I hope that many of you find it a good fit for your homes!  You may go here to purchase this book or any of the other related products at Bower Family Books.

*Disclaimer:  I was provided a link to view this book in electronic form for review purposes in exchange for an honest review, which I have provided here.  Click here to see what others had to say about "The Person I Marry." 

Friday, November 4, 2011


We wrapped up our Middle Ages study a few weeks ago. I was so looking forward to this study over the summer and I'm kind of sad to see it go.  We've done a ton of wonderful readings, map studies and art projects over the last 10 weeks.  Here is a sample of what we learned and accomplished together in our homeschool.....


Story of the World, Volume 2, (audio, narrated by the amazing Jim Weiss)--this is great for car trips!
Life in a Castle by Kay Eastwood
Arts and Literature in the Middle Ages by Marc Cels
Famous People of the Middle Ages by Donna Trembinski
Medieval Society by Kay Eastwood
King Arthur by Felicity Brooks
Neil Phillip's book Myths and Legends, including the stories of Thor, Beowulf, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves
Robin Hood (Classic Starts series)
Leif the Lucky by Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire
Francis, the Poor Man of Assisi by Tomie DePaola
A is for Asia by Cynthia Chin Lee
Who Was Marco Polo?  from the "Who Was?" biography series for kids
Joan of Arc by Diane Stanley
The Door in the Wall by Marguerite Angeli
Illuminations by Jonathan Hunt (a medieval alphabet book with illuminated letters--explains something in medieval times from A-Z)
Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists:  Pieter Bruegel (who didn't paint during the Middle Ages, but painted almost exclusively the world of the Middle Age peasants--tied in nicely) by Mike Venezia


Early Monks and Monastaries of Europe
Justinian & Theodora
Erik the Red
Leif Erikkson
Japanese Samurais
Marco Polo
Genghis Khan
Kublai Khan
St. Francis of Assissi
Richard the Lionhearted
King John & the Magna Carta
Joan of Arc
King Charles VII of France
Johann Gutenberg

We are doing Archery in 4-H this year--perfect timing!

We made blackberry ink and wrote with turkey feather quills!

Trying their hands at "stained glass art" with tinted black glue outlines, filled in with watercolor paints.

And this is what Solomon remembered about King John.  LOL.

Nine-Man Morris can be played easily with scrap cardboard, cheerios and Craisins!

Making Peasant Pies for a long journey.....

Movies We Watched:

(Disclaimer:  I am a bit more liberal when it comes to film than some of my good Christian homeschool moms--LOL.  I don't like violence, but will tolerate it in a historical setting.  I don't approve of gratuitous lovey-dovey scenes for my guys, but will fast-forward through it if the rest of the movie is of merit.  Use your own discretion)

"A Knight's Tale"
 (one of the characters is Geoffrey Chauer--love it.  And the soundtrack rocks. Did a little fast-forwarding in the kissy-kissy scenes)
"First Knight"
 (Richard Gere/Sean Connery/Julia Ormond:  I remember loving this so much in the theatres.  It still is very impressive--love to watch Lancelot maneuver through the medieval gauntlet thing)
"Sinbad the Sailor"
(animated with Brad Pitt)
(Viking and Norse Mythology study) ---the new Marvel version
"How To Train Your Dragon"
 (Viking study)
"Nova:  The Vikings"
(from Netflix:  really rather good)
"Robin Hood"
 (the Kevin Costner version, because the Russel Crowe version stinks)
 "Season of the Witch"
(Funny, when I saw this trailer in the theatre, I literally said, "Yeah, we will NOT be watching that.  Turns out it is a perfect fit for our study of the Crusades and witch trials of the Middle Ages and even mentioned over half of our vocabulary words for the week--it is PG-13 for some violence and gross scenes of people that have the bubonic plague--use discretion--my kids handled it fine)

Lots of good ideas in here!  I found this book used at the library for 50 cents.

Another great "used book store" find!  Packed with good lessons for older elementary students.

Perspective Drawing Excercise.

Love these Noteooking Pages from

Great People of the Middle Ages worksheet from the Middle Ages unit study shown above.

Study on Weaponry and Parts of a Knight's Armor.

Knowledge Box makes Lapbooks that align perfectly with Tapestry of Grace!  This one is the Middle Ages lapbook.

Here I printed some "cover and spine" clipart from Notebooking for the kids to decorate their lapbook cover.

A little chess tournament--competition is good.

Now we are a few weeks into our new study of the Renaissance.  That means lots of art history--woo hoo!  But also lots of good geography studies on Early Explorers, Science experiments related to Renaissance inventions and I'm sure we'll fit in some food somewhere!  Hope you enjoyed our tour of the Middle Ages over here at Mrs. Smith's Homeschool for Wayward Boys!