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.

Homemaking schedule help

Here’s a handy homemaking calendar to help you with your resolution to keep up with the house in this new year. (Yeah, I make that resolution every year. Or would, if I made New Year’s resolutions. I don’t need to make resolutions anymore, I just consider the areas I need to improve as things in need of my attention and effort, any day of the year.)

Suggested Chore Schedule

The JustMommies Home Organization Plan offers suggestions for establishing daily tasks, plus weekly and monthly tasks that are updated daily. It’s a way to spread out the things you need to do to keep your house running smoothly, so that it’s not overwhelming.

Decluttering lists

The website offers a new focus area for decluttering every month. For example, on the list for January, with a focus on the Master Bedroom:

Clean out dressers and closets. Get rid of outgrown and unused clothing.
Clean baseboards.
Wash window treatments.
Clean windows.
Flip mattresses.
Clean doors including door knobs, molding, and trim.
Spot clean walls of any marks, scuffs, or handprints.
Sweep ceilings for any dust or cobwebs.
Clean air vents.

I look at that list and think, “It’s doable!” (How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.) Keep on keeping on, and by the end of the year you’ll have gone through your entire house, all the while keeping up with daily, weekly, and monthly chores.

Of course, I’ve had to add some things to the list. This cleaning and decluttering list doesn’t deal with the stacks of books and papers cluttering up our Master Bedroom, for example. (Do you have that problem? I am a paper packrat. *sigh*) And it really ought to include cleaning out under the bed. We have a couple of containers of out-of-season clothes under the bed that are supposed to be there, but where did all that other stuff come from? (Shoes, books, more paper… Got to sweep it all out and then I can deal with the dust bunnies.)

Can’t flip the mattress — there are springs sticking out on the side that’s facing down. Sharp springs. One of these years we’ll get a new mattress set…

The site has links to monthly calendars you can print out. The calendars include the daily, weekly, and monthly tasks (sounds overwhelming, busy, and cluttered, but really it’s designed not to be). This gives you an at-a-glance page to suggested chores for each day of the month.

Catch up days and free days are built into the calendar, but if you take a specific day of rest each week you’ll need to tweak the calendar a bit.

You can also assign specific chores — just write someone’s name on the calendar next to their daily or weekly chore and post where everyone can see it. (And remember, you might need to do some chore training, and you’ll definitely need to follow-up. You know the rule: You get what you expect when you inspect.)

If you were born without a homemaking gene (or didn’t learn along the way, before being put in charge of a home of your own), following this type of calendar could give you a jumpstart to more organized living. If you have more than a smidgen of organization in your bones, you can use the JustMommies calendar as inspiration for making your own calendar and tailoring it to your family’s schedule.

Either way, it’s a good tool for digging out from under a messy, cluttered house.

TOS Crew: Virtual Nerd

I don’t know about you, but math is not my strong suit. I’m okay with elementary math, more or less. More, since we switched to a manipulative-based math program some years ago, complete with DVDs where a math teacher explained, in concrete terms, the whys of math in addition to the hows. “More or less,” I said. Less, since even that paragon of a program did not work for Youngest and we had to switch math programs yet again, after I was sure we’d finally found the one.

Anyhow, I learned math by faith rather than understanding, having memorized formulas without really understanding what they did. This makes it tough to explain math to a frustrated student who doesn’t understand the canned explanation in the math text. The manipulative-based math program went a long way toward helping me understand and be able to teach elementary math concepts.

That was my main frustration with a very popular math curriculum, as a matter of fact. It offered one explanation, and fairly standard explanation, as it usually presented things in a way that I understood — the way I’d been taught, in other words. The problem was, if the explanation didn’t make sense to my child, I couldn’t explain the concept another way. I’d have to wait until my husband came home. He understands how math works. He can offer alternative ways of looking at math concepts, and usually after a short time with him, a light breaks out on the face of the frustrated student and I hear those wonderful words, “Oh, so that’s how it works!” But he’s not always available to tutor in math. What do we do if he’s out of town?

A virtual math tutor, at your service!

Enter Virtual Nerd, an online math and science tutorial service. The site offers interactive videos that explain concepts in pre-Algebra, Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Intro Physics, with more subjects in the works.

“Interactive videos?” you ask. Before exploring Virtual Nerd, I wasn’t quite sure myself what that meant.

I’m sure you’ve seen math tutorial video presentations. You have a teacher standing before a whiteboard, talking and writing. You can pause and continue the video, run it back, jump forward, but that’s about it for being interactive.

Interactive, with more help just a click away

Virtual Nerd starts with a whiteboard presentation, and goes on from there. The presentation is on the left side of the screen, a cheerful, confident teacher who inspires confidence simply with their tone and matter-of-fact approach. The presentation is taking place within the website’s patented Dynamic White Board. (Click the link to take a tour and get an idea of how it works.) Meanwhile, on the right side of the screen the diagrams drawn during the lecture are summarized in the Diagram Window, while the Step-by-Step Window follows the explanation, broken down into smaller pieces.

Here’s where the real genius of the program shines forth.

Say you’re watching a pre-Algebra lecture on (I’m going to use our own family’s personal nightmare) dividing fractions. You watch, and partway through the lecture you realize that something’s been taken for granted. Some concept has been glossed over. It’s something you should know, to be able to follow the lecture with growing understanding, but you don’t.

However, Virtual Nerd is right there with you. As a matter of fact, it’s a step ahead of you. The points being covered are scrolling in the Step by Step window, almost as if you’re taking detailed notes as you go along, except the window is doing it for you.

Hover over a particular note and get a list of math concepts involved in that step. Click on a link and a new window opens with an explanation of the sub-topic. In our case, with dividing fractions, the concept was the reciprocal rule of division. I kind of knew how it worked, but not well enough to explain it myself. (Maybe I was out sick the day that was presented in school.) After clicking on the link within the “dividing fractions” lecture and watching explanations of reciprocals and the reciprocal rule, we went back to the “dividing fractions” lecture, all the way to the end.

Rebuilding the foundation

Actually, I’m glossing over the fact that we drilled down several levels within that one lecture, because every time we hit a half-understood concept we went to the links in the Step by Step window and went deeper. In a sense we were rebuilding a poorly built foundation. We can go on from there, adding math concepts, with understanding, not just memorizing formulas.

Endless patience

At the end of a lecture, by the way, Virtual Nerd offers a list of related topics for further study, or you can replay the lecture if you need to see the explanation again. The video tutor never gets tired of repetition, or frustrated with the student, either. That’s a real boon!

Feedback welcome

No matter where you are on the Virtual Nerd website, you’ll find a Help or Feedback link. Your questions, comments, and suggestions are welcome, and you’ll find the folks behind Virtual Nerd helpful and responsive.


Virtual Nerd offers several options for pricing. You can sign up for a month of access for $49 (this is a recurring charge, unless you cancel), or three months for a one-time charge of $129. This gives you unlimited access during the subscription period. (Consider that two hours with a math tutor can cost as much as a month of Virtual Nerd access.)

There are also short-term options. One day (24 hours of access) is available for $5, or an entire week for $19. These are great alternatives to hitting your head against a wall, trying to help your student through a tricky bit of math learning, or for a student preparing for a test.

A free educator’s subscription is available to classroom math teachers or math tutors. (Home educators are not eligible for this subscription, though you can apply for Virtual Nerd’s Ambassador program, which provides a free subscription in return for blogging.)

Want to know more, but not sure if it would fit your student’s needs? Try out the two-hour free trial!

See more TOS Crew reviews of Virtual Nerd here.

Disclaimer: Members of the TOS Crew were given six weeks unlimited access to the Virtual Nerd website for the purpose of review. No other compensation was involved.

Speaking of blizzards…

The big winter storm the forecasters had been predicting since last week, seems to be fizzling out.

The grown-up part of me looks at our busy schedule and breathes a sigh of relief.

The little kid part of me is feeling kinda wistful…

There’s a problem with this snowflake graphic. Can you spot it?