Monthly Archives: January 2011

Virtual Nerd — homeschool-friendly new prices

Just a reminder that Virtual Nerd, the math tutoring video website, has instituted special pricing that makes the site more accessible for home educators.

There’s a 2-hour free trial so you can see how the website works. Check out the videos — for a test drive, look up that elusive math concept that you’ve been trying to explain to your student!

I love the way you can “drill down” through the lectures. You watch an explanation, but stumble on a step with an underlying concept. You click on the step, and get an explanation of that foundational material that you didn’t quite get before… and suddenly it all falls into place.

Anyhow, if your student is stuck and you can’t get past a math concept, why not check out the free trial, or even the one-day $5 deal, which gives you access to all the videos on the website for a 24-hour period?

Click here for more info.

Disclaimer: I’m an ambassador for the Virtual Nerd site, which means I’ll be periodically telling you about our experience with Virtual Nerd, as well as updates and special deals.


TOS Crew: TenMarks Math Practice and Learning

TenMarks is an online math program for grades 3-10 that combines worksheets, instructional videos, recordkeeping, and a presentation tailored to your child’s math progress. It’s a math supplement that provides problems and additional instruction in math topic areas.

We started by having each of our students take an assessment to aid in customizing their math program. (Click on the Homeschool tab at the TenMarks website and scroll down to see the assessment option.) The test consisted of about 25 questions. Concepts were drawn from various math topics appropriate to the grade level you select before beginning the assessment.

I had a little trouble with this, as it can be difficult to assign a homeschooled student to a specific math level. I mean, I know what level the girls have been working at in a particular curriculum, but in Middlest’s case, it didn’t translate well to TenMarks. She froze on the first worksheet generated after her assessment, pronounced the math “too hard,” and might have ditched the program altogether.

I contacted TenMarks’ customer service, explaining the problem, and they adjusted her program, placing simpler, more foundational material at the front of the lineup of worksheets. They also assured me that it would be no problem to adjust her program again if needed. I could even do it myself, though it took a bit of figuring out. (While the parental controls allow you to add, delete, and move topics around, I couldn’t find any instructions, FAQ or a tutorial for how to do this.)


One of the TenMarks features is “learn at your own pace.” The student has a portfolio of topics to choose from. You can do the next worksheet that comes up automatically, or you can choose a different topic. Each worksheet consists of ten multiple-choice problems.

This is what one of my students sees when she signs in (name has been changed, of course):

Multiple choice is not my favorite format, but it does help to steer the student in the right direction. If you come up with an answer that doesn’t match one of the four given answers, you know you have a problem. (No pun intended.)

Here’s what a typical problem looks like. This was taken from the Practice mode, but the same format appears in all the modes I’ve seen. (The student can practice any kind of problem in their program, as well as choose to take tests, review material already learned, or work on new topics.)

Hints and helps

As you can see from the above graphic, every problem offers the option of asking for hints, as well as a link to an instructional video. Helpful tips also appear. Also, from every page you can access a Feedback link which allows you to send an email directly to the customer support staff.

Rewards and motivation

Rewards are built into the program. Games are available, some educational, some just plain fun, and a new game is unlocked when the student completes a specified number of worksheets. Here’s an idea of the rewards screen a student sees:

In addition, the parent can assign a more tangible reward. For one of my students, the reward was to be allowed to sleep in for one hour on a school day, without the penalty of losing a privilege. For another, the reward was a one-month subscription to an online game.  Cost to me: $5, after 20 worksheets were completed. At a rate of 4 worksheets per week, that was a month’s worth of math for a month’s subscription. All of a sudden, this unmotivated student (I hate to tell you how few worksheets she completed during the review period) was cranking out math work with a will and a good attitude. *sigh*

Our experience

I like the record keeping function. I can look at what each of my students has accomplished, the problems they missed, what’s coming up on their program, and more.

I also like the vacation feature. You can put the program “on hold” when you have to.

As mentioned above, I’ve found TenMarks’ customer service to be responsive and helpful.

And the girls?

Two of our three have worked at TenMarks without a lot of nagging on my part. The third complained a lot, but settled down to work (and stopped complaining, amazingly enough) after the right carrot was added to the mix. The girls have been able to work fairly independently, though once in a while one of them gets called on to help another, or I get called over to the computer to give a little more assistance or sometimes just moral support.

Youngest hates the video lectures. I’m not sure just why. Something about them grates on her nerves. Thankfully the hints that are available are enough for her, most of the time. The other two girls are fine with the lectures.

Subscriptions to TenMarks are $10 a month (per student), or discounted $49 for six months, or $89 for a year. Sign up at the TenMarks website. You can also try the program for free, to get an idea of how it works. (Go to the Homeschoolers link and click the Try Free button.)

To read more TOS Crew opinions of TenMarks Math Practice and Learning, click here.

Disclaimer: Members of the TOS Crew were given six-month subscriptions for up to two students. I went ahead and purchased a subscription for our third student because she liked what she saw her sisters doing. No additional compensation was involved.

Worry, or, Doing what you can

Worry can be so debilitating. Take our family, for example.

The Beauty Queen has been diagnosed with toe cancer.  (Granted, in the picture she’s relaxing, not primping for a pageant, but believe me, she’s a Beauty Queen through and through.)

Toe cancer doesn’t seem to be all that unusual for Giant Schnauzers, especially if they come from puppy mills (which we suspect might be the origin of our sweetie-pie-rescue-dog).

Still, the news hit us with all the numbing, crushing impact of a cement truck, especially when we got the vet’s estimate for what it would cost to take off the toe.

We’re exploring options, but it’s not pretty. Gut the budget, put her down, surrender her to the Humane Society (with no option of re-adopting her ourselves, but at least the surgery happens). We’re still waiting on word from another vet as to how much it would cost at their clinic.

As a rescue dog, she’s already been abandoned by one family. I’m not sure we could bear to do that to her, ourselves.

The girls (self included, on and off) have been moping and weepy for three days now, and the dog has had lots of extra hugs and cuddles and treats and grooming. Sleep has been elusive.

This morning I’m in a fog, and feel like I’m slogging through molasses. I’m letting the girls sleep in a bit, as they haven’t been sleeping well either.

It’s time to pour a cup of coffee and settle down with the Schnoz and my Bible and remind myself of a few Truths.

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

— Philippians 4:6-7

TOS Crew: LifeWay Christian Stores

The Christian bookstores I used to frequent have closed, in the past few years. I was glad when the Crew was introduced to LifeWay Christian Stores, a company with stores all over the US as well as an Internet presence.

Members of the Crew received the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary for Kids to review.

While this book is aimed at children ages 5-10, we found that even our middle- and high-schoolers (and Mom!) learned some things, perusing the pages. The book is packed with color photographs, charts, maps, illustrations, and diagrams. Information is arranged alphabetically (after all, it is a dictionary), with more than 750 entries, and over 500 of these have illustrations as well as text.

You can download a PDF sample of the book at the publisher’s website.

Middlest is a bit sensitive to patterns, and did not like the bright primary-color filler (blocks of color separating entries or taking up unused space on the page). However, she pored over the diagram of seasons in the Holy Land (including the modern and Jewish calendars, climate, and agricultural activity), as well as some of the other diagrams, finding them fascinating and informative.

The rest of us have had fun looking up various topics. There are a lot, such as people and places, plants and animals, character qualities, the teachings of Jesus, and much more.

The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary for Kids is available for $14.99 at the LifeWay website.

For more TOS Crew reviews, click here.

Disclaimer: Members of the TOS Crew were given a free copy of the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary for Kids for review purposes. No additional compensation was involved.

TOS Crew: Speekee (Spanish for young children)

One of the neat things about being on the TOS Homeschool Crew is that we are introduced to new products, things we haven’t heard of before. Or at least, things I haven’t heard of before!

Speekee is a Spanish-immersion subscription, a series of ten videos available online, geared toward young children (preschool and early elementary) and completely in Spanish. The videos are completely in Spanish, that is. The instructions “for grown-up helpers” are, thankfully, in English. These, plus the videos and related downloadable PDF worksheets, are available on a subscription basis.

The subscription is $7.50 a month. The first two weeks are free, so you can try out the program and see how it works with your young learner.

The videos are based in places familiar to young children: the park, the cafe, home, the zoo, a classroom, market, birthday party, and more. Applicable vocabulary is introduced in a natural way, endlessly repeated (okay, not endless, seeming endless to an adult, perhaps, but just right for a small child), encouraging the viewer to pick up questions and answers and phrases. Thus you learn in the first episode about playing on the playground, as well as how to ask someone’s name and offer your own. At the zoo, you learn animal names, at the market you learn different food items; you get the idea.

The videos remind me of children’s educational programming on the public broadcast station: colorful, cheerful, upbeat background music, with your host “Jim” — a grown-up — accompanied by several puppets and a horde of children in bright orange shirts.

Each video (between 16 and 20 minutes long) consists of a series of short vignettes punctuated by music. Every once in awhile Speekee, a puppet (mouse?) pops in to present new words, or invite the viewer to repeat a phrase, with a cheery word of praise. New material is mingled with familiar bits repeated from previous videos. The dialect spoken is Castillian, but sounds pretty similar to the Western Hemisphere Spanish I learned in high school.

A Scheme of Work is available with lesson plans and ideas for teachers. While these are aimed at classroom teachers, the ideas are adaptable for homeschool.

Each video has PDF worksheets you can download, with vocabulary words from the episode. Your young student might draw illustrations, color, count, even copy words. There are also suggested educational games and activities to do with your child.

Our family did not do many of the videos and activities, mainly because Youngest is twelve and thought the videos a little too young for her. (A year ago, she would have been charmed.)

Speekee is an attractive method for introducing Spanish vocabulary and phrases to a young child. I like that the videos are not flashy, but have a steady pace suited to young children (more “Mr. Rogers” or the big purple dinosaur than “Sesame Street,” if you catch my drift). Add to that the fact that the younger the child, the easier it is to pick up language, and you’ve got a winning combination.

Click here to subscribe (remember the first two weeks are free).

To read more TOS Crew reviews of Speekee, click here.

Disclaimer: Members of the TOS Crew were given free access to the Speekee online lessons for review purposes. No additional compensation was involved.

Chore planning resource

Since January’s a great time to work on getting organized, I’m going to be focusing on some of the websites and tools available, at least for the next week or two.

Motivated Moms has a planner available in several formats. They’ve taken all the typical home chores and spread them out through the calendar year, and included a few extra personal-care things, like taking your vitamins. You can get it with or without a Bible reading plan built in.

I’ve used this planner for a few years. Sometimes I’m good about it, and sometimes it goes by the wayside for a week or month or more. I admit it, I’m scattered. If I were more methodical, I might not need a chore planning calendar. On the other hand, there’s something about checking off items on a checklist, that even my born-organized friends seem to appreciate.

I was going to try to go without their planner this year, but I’m already finding that without their prompts I’ve forgotten to water my plants. I’d sigh, but the tool is available, after all, and it’s not too spendy ($8 for a year), so I should count my blessings, bite the bullet (to mix a few metaphors), and use it.

Yes, I just now bought and downloaded the PDF file, and I’m printing out the page for this week. Here’s a sample of what I bought. They have samples of their other products, too (just scroll to the bottom of the page at the link). There’s even an app in the App Store (I have no idea what that means, being still in the dark ages so far as cell phones is concerned). They used to offer the out-of-date planner for free, but I don’t see that on their website now. (Could be there and I’m missing it, or could be they left it off.)

Anyhow, I heard somewhere that when you check things off a checklist, something in your brain releases feel-good chemicals, serotonin or something like that. If you need a checklist to help you keep your plants from dying of thirst, to remind you of myriad homekeeping details (albeit in bite-sized pieces, a few things a day, to keep the whole thing from being overwhelming), or just to get the serotonin flowing, it’s a good tool.

Menu Plan Monday

This is not what you think it is.

Or maybe I should say, it’s not what it looks like.

First off, it’s Tuesday. A “Menu Plan Monday” post probably ought to go up on… yes, you guessed it… Monday.

You see, I hit the wall on menu planning about three months ago. Yes, just before the holidays.

No, it wasn’t the holidays that derailed the plan. It was going gluten-free.

Here’s the scenario:

I had a nice little deal worked out where the four of us female-types were working a rotating schedule, so far as meals went. (There are actually five female-types living in our household, but one of them is canine and doesn’t have much to say about the menu, except perhaps that she lusts after everything. And I mean everything. That dog even eats lettuce, when she can get it.)

I assigned “days” to the calendar (one “meat” day, one “poultry” day, one rice/pasta day (could include meat or fish), one crockpot day, and two meatless days. That adds up to six, with the seventh day being a shared meal at church, thus no big meal at home. We’d have leftovers that day, and the meal-maker would plan something special for Sunday afternoon tea.

To start out the system, we brainstormed main dishes in all the main categories, giving us lists to choose from.

It meant I only had to cook one day out of four. At the beginning of the month, we four would sit down with the calendar and pick the meals we wanted to make; no repeats allowed to encourage maximum creativity and variety.

Then a friend suggested that we go gluten free, in an attempt to help Eldest’s ever-worsening migraines and food sensitivities. All the medical doctors were doing was throwing more and more powerful drugs at her problems, and she was getting worse, not better. Frankly, she wasn’t getting any relief at all, and I was worried about the drugs being prescribed, especially after hearing on the news about people dying from those same prescriptions.

This friend said her migraines disappeared after she went gluten-free for other reasons, a nice side-effect, wouldn’t you say? I figured, what harm would it do?

The  migraines dropped off, then disappeared altogether.

But… it meant that I took over all the cooking at the time, to make sure that things really were gluten free. It meant adapting some recipes and learning new ones, and using ingredients I’d never used before, in some cases. The younger two girls were resistant to the idea of going gluten free, and that was also a reason I took over their cooking days.

Two months into the new regime, the Head of the household was diagnosed with gluten problems. Good thing I’d been practicing, eh? I’d worked out a lot of kinks by then and was just about that time tackling the challenge of homemade gluten-free bread.

But man, I’m tired of doing all the cooking. I’m sort of cooking by the seat of my pants, planning the menus a day at a time. The plan has to be in place before 10 a.m. just in case I have to take meat out of the freezer. Learned that from Emilie Barnes or Bonnie McCullough or Deniece Schofield, don’t remember which. Maybe all three.

Got to get back on that horse, even if it means taking the extra time to teach the girls the ins and outs of gluten free cooking. Actually, that’s not such a bad idea. It’s just hard to get over the threshold. You know, that horribly deceptive trap that it’s faster and easier to do it yourself. You fall into that trap, your children don’t learn life skills and you end up as maid-of-all-work while they sit around or contribute to the mess (but not the cleanup).

What I need to do is brainstorm lists of GF main dishes (just as we started out before, with the girls’ input about their favorite meals over the last three months) and then get out the calendar and sit down with the girls, the same as we used to do.

Meanwhile, I looked up a few GF menu planning links and will share them with you, in case you’re in a similar quandary.

Amy’s is a commercial brand — I’ve seen their TV dinners (are they still called TV dinners?) in the freezer section at the local whole foods store. This link is to a two-week menu plan with breakfast, lunch, snack(s), and dinner for each day. The menus include, of course, Amy’s products.

The Gluten Free Diva (link is to her new website) published weekly menu plans in her old blog. Here’s one. Here’s another.

Gluten Free Mommy hosted a GF menu swap, encouraging other bloggers to share their menu plans. This page seems to be old (2007 and 2008 dates) and some of the links are dead, but there are also some links with good info.

If I can get my menu planning back in gear, I’ll post a real “Menu Plan Monday” post next Monday.