Monthly Archives: September 2011

Still plugging away

Was up very late last night reinstalling software (after our hard disk failed last week, and we got a new one). It might have been better just to buy a new computer, except for the fact that this one runs Vista and people keep telling me we can’t just transfer all our stuff over to Windows 7, because it won’t work under Windows 7.

What ever happened to backwards-compatability?

Time to get off the computer now and start dinner.

One thing I’ve got to say about being without a computer, I sure had a chance of getting a lot more done. At least, a lot more different stuff. I’m way behind on writing, but we’ve managed to get a fair amount of yardwork in on the sunny days this week.

TOS Crew: Alethia Magazine

Our teens are constantly writing, whether it’s elaborate notes in a make-believe world (complete with calligraphy and sealing wax), stories, poems, hymns of praise, even ongoing posts to an online role-playing game (Warrior Cats, if you wanted to know).

Even so, they don’t get much chance to read what other teens have written, outside of essays for their King’s Meadow (formerly Gileskirk) moral philosophy class, or blog posts, or the occasional Buzz. (Is that how you spell it? I don’t have a Buzz account, but many of the young people in our circle do, and seem to be constantly posting some thing or another.)Enter Alethia, a literary magazine by teens, for teens (though I must admit I enjoyed reading it as well). This 40-page, glossy, full-color magazine features stories, artwork, photography, poetry, and more. The writing in the issues we’ve seen is of high quality, and better yet, the platform strives to hold to Biblical values of truth and beauty. (“Alethia” means “truth” in Greek, as a matter of fact, something we just learned this week in our Biblical Greek class.)

The magazine is geared toward Christian youth, ages 13 to 19, so you see differing styles of expression, a spectrum of maturity of expression and interest, and a variety of topics which include reflections on a passage of Scripture (see the latest Writer’s Challenge, deadline October 15 if you’re interested in entering), nature, relationships, adventure, fantasy, the search for meaning (from a Christian perspective), and more.

Writing varies from relatively simple to sophisticated, as I’d expect with the authors’ range of ages. The artwork is beautifully rendered, the photography is breathtaking.

Regular features plus spotlight on youthful Christian writers

In addition to the contributors’ works of art and literature, the magazine offers regular features: book reviews, excerpts from classic Christian writing, the aforementioned Writer’s Challenge, a featured contributor, nature photo, and interview.

Our impressions

Of course, I imagine you want to hear our teens’ impressions of Alethia. Eldest was impressed. Youngest, not much of a reader, gave it a little more than a glance but really didn’t do much more than look at the artwork and photography.

Middlest, our most serious writer, was impressed with the production values most of all, especially the artwork. Since she is an avid reader, read at a college level early on, and enjoys such authors as George Grant, Dorothy Sayers and G.K. Chesterton, she has very high standards. It was interesting to hear her critique of the stories she read. (That one is a born editor.) Overall impression: acceptable. (Coming from her, that’s high praise.) Would she submit her writing to Alethia? Maybe.

Pricing info

A one-year subscription to Alethia Magazine is available for $26, and includes four full-color issues as well as shipping and handling.

To read more TOS Crew reviews of Alethia, please click here.

Disclaimer: Our family was provided a free print copy of Alethia’s Fall 2011 issue, as well as a digital copy of the Summer 2011 edition for review purposes (I think I lost the digital copy in our computer crash. At least, I haven’t been able to find it since getting our computer back just a few hours ago, thus I’m unable to go back and refresh my memory about it. Still, the quality of the print issue, and this free preview available online, is high). No additional compensation was involved.

TOS Crew: Tri-Cross, from Games for Competitors

One of the fun things about being on the Crew is getting new games to play. We’ve had a lot of fun over the last four years, having been acquainted with a number of family-friendly, innovative, imaginative games.

Tri-Cross, from Games for Competitors, is our latest and most challenging. At first glance, this award-winning strategy game looks a little like a variation of Chinese checkers crossed with a war strategy game I grew up playing with my brothers. (Our girls have carried on the tradition with friends, since they have no brothers to play war strategy games with them.) It incorporates aspects of chess and checkers into a game that encourages logical, abstract thinking and planning ahead.

The game is made of sturdy materials, built to last. There aren’t very many of the heavy-duty, scratch proof plastic pieces to keep track of, and the game board is also made to stand up to wear and tear. We received both the boxed version (Standard Edition) and the travel version of the game, which was specifically made to be eco-friendly, with the board and container (a drawstring bag) made of organic cotton. It certainly is travel-friendly, easy to pack in a purse or backpack.

The first time we played, trying the easiest version, the game was over in very few moves. Youngest looked puzzled, as if to say, Is that all there is to this? I, on the other hand, had been a little slow to digest the instructions, but had an inkling that there was definitely more to this game, and so we set up the board and started again, this time thinking seriously about our moves.

Youngest won the second game, and she had to do some thinking in the process. (And so did I!) We set up the board again, tried some different strategies, and I managed to win by the skin of my teeth. Our blood was up!

…in other words, the game is addictive…

We kept playing until we’d each won several games. Every game was different. Each time we played, the game was more drawn out, lasted longer. We were learning.

This was all the open-face version of the game, where all the pieces are laid out face-up, their values are known from the start, and you can plan ahead, based on where your pieces are, and where you see your opponent’s pieces. (Or opponents’ pieces, as the game can be played by two, three, or four people, or even teams of people.)

For more challenge, there are other versions of the game where you lay out the pieces face-down, move your pieces into position, and challenge your opponent. Based on the variation, you might know where each of your pieces are at the start of the game, or you might know where each of your opponent’s pieces are, or you may not know where any pieces are until they’re revealed upon challenge.

A challenge happens when two pieces come abreast, and then the higher piece is able to jump the lower piece. (Or maybe I should say it has to jump the lower piece, because sometimes jumping can put you further from your objective. Huh. What a concept.)

You win either by removing all your opponent’s pieces from the board, or by occupying the center square for four consecutive turns.

Sounds simple, but we’re finding it more challenging by the day.

Tri-Cross is intended for ages 10 and up, though players as young as 8 can learn to play the game. This game is available at the Games for Competitors website or at local game stores (a list of stores is available at the website listed above). Pricing info:

$24.95 – Standard Edition
$35.95 – Wood Edition
$19.95 – Eco-Edition

To read more TOS Crew reviews of Tri-Cross, please click here. (This review is published belatedly because of our computer crash. Sorry about that!)

Disclaimer: Our family was provided free copies of the Standard Edition and Eco-Edition of Tri-Cross for review purposes. No additional compensation was involved.


The computer crashed suddenly last week, after something of a slow, drawn-out dying process.

The EasyTech people at Staples were simply amazing. They bent over backwards to get back as much as possible. It was the hard drive. We had to install a new hard drive. Somehow they managed to save most of the data. Now we just have to reinstall all the programs, if I can remember what they all are.

The thing that amazed me, was that somehow they managed to save our favorites! The last time we had a hard drive crash (different computer), we lost everything.

I’m so glad to have at least part of our data to go on with. Whew.

Late nights make slow mornings

I’m tired. (What a way to start a blog post…)

I’ve got a list of errands and chores half as long as my arm. The girls are moving very slowly, too (except for Eldest, who is out for coffee with a friend). If at all.

We had a late night last night, didn’t get home until after 10, and what with one thing and another I think bedtime was achieved somewhere around 11. This, on top of a busy day, full of activities.

I’m so glad we didn’t go to FreeGeek yesterday. While I love the idea of the girls working on a community service project to earn computers of their own for schoolwork, chopping another 3 hours out of the day and going on still another errand on top of everything else we did yesterday… well, let’s just say I might be even more tempted to call today a down day.

I’ve already started cutting back the schedule.

Do you do that? Set up the “perfect” schedule (well, as good as you can make it before swinging into the actual flow of autumn events and classes), and then find you were too enthusiastic, or too optimistic perhaps, and then need to start pruning? Or else?

(“Or else,” for me, is my health. That bone-deep tiredness upon wakening from a night’s sleep is a warning of worse to come if I don’t mend my ways.)

Some weeks are busier than others, and those are the weeks where I’m cutting voluntary activities (like FreeGeek), things that aren’t set in stone. The girls will earn their computers a little slower, if they volunteer there only once or twice a month instead of every week, but our schedule will be saner.

Have called the younger girls twice. Um, maybe three times. Is it time for the bucket of cold water? Or mercy?

TOS Crew: AIMS Educational Foundation

I was sad and happy at the same time when our homeschool science teacher retired at the end of last year. We’d been in her class for nine years! As a homeschool mom herself (her children had all graduated by the time we joined her class), she put together a series of multi-level unit studies, designed for whole families, complete with labs, field trips, homework, accountability, Bible and character studies, and a wealth of information about God’s marvelous Creation.

While I was glad for Mrs. S., I wasn’t happy for us! It meant that after having science planned out for me (basically, my job was to be there at class, to go through the assigned work at home with the girls, attend the field trips), now I had to go through the choices available and find another science class, or curriculum we could do at home.

Timing is everything! When the TOS Crew was offered the opportunity to choose among AIMS Educational Foundation materials, I checked out the website. There’s a wealth of resources here for both math and science, and not just books, but materials, manipulatives, and equipment.

Our family reviewed the Earth Book, which suited our needs with its multi-level, hands-on approach. This 446-page book is aimed at students in grades 6-9 and covers topics in earth science in a systematic way, dealing with the atmosphere, geosphere, and hydrosphere. With 48 activities, this book could provide enough science lessons for an entire year of learning, or (with 2 activities a week) you could turn it into a semester course.

As a matter of fact, we’d covered the topics in this book in earlier science units, so much of the material was review for us. Still, the presentation was interesting, and the hands-on projects are doable without a lot of extra equipment.

Earth Science is written from a secular standpoint, with an emphasis on processes that reflect an evolutionary approach. (Reminds me of a line from the Creationist song, “The Answer’s in Genesis” — “a little bit of water and a long, long time…”) We’re not afraid to explore evolutionary theory, though of course the girls know it’s only a theory. They encounter it out in the world all the time, and familiarity with the theory helps them to discuss their studies with intelligence.

When you read the teacher’s instructions, you’ll note this is obviously a book intended for a classroom. (This makes it a great resource for a co-op class, by the way.) It’s not too hard to adapt the activities for individual family use.

There are discussion questions, research prompts, little books for each student to put together (“rubber band books”), graphic organizers, and experiments. Each lesson is well-organized for the teacher’s convenience. For each lesson, there’s a “teacher’s help page” with a stated topic, key question answered in the unit, materials list, learning processes and national standards addressed, and background information. Lessons are laid out step-by-step, with reproducible pages for students to record their findings. Discussion questions are designed to help the students process their observations and draw conclusions based on the evidence resulting from their experiments.

The Earth Book is available from the publisher’s website as a downloadable e-book, or a physical softcover book with CD for $49.95. You can see a PDF preview of the book here, including the Table of Contents, lists of national educational standards in science and math, an explanation of the AIMS teaching methodology, a page on how to put the included “rubber band books” together, and a couple of sample units.

To read more TOS Crew reviews of AIMS products, click here.

Disclaimer: Our family received a free physical copy of Earth Science for review purposes. No other compensation was involved.


King’s Meadow Christendom vocabulary notes

Our family has been doing history using George Grant’s Gileskirk curriculum, which now goes under the name King’s Meadow (but old habits are hard to break, and we still call it Gileskirk more often than not). “Moral philosophy” is how Dr. Grant describes the course, something more than mere dates and names and events. It’s more of an application of lessons we can take from history, from a Biblical perspective.

Teacher preparation time today

I spent some time this afternoon copying the vocabulary from this year’s history lectures into a form, so that I have them, lecture by lecture. I have the whole year’s vocabulary on two pages now, sorted by lecture, rather than having to hunt through the 600-something page Instructor’s Guide with each lecture. I’d love to have them in alphabetical order as well as lesson order; it would make it easier for our vocabulary study, building a course glossary. (Come to think of it, there might even be an alphabetical listing in the teacher’s materials; I need to hunt through it and see.)

Notebooking Nook has some free vocabulary study sheets available for download. I’m sure you can find others on the web as well.

Let me know if you’d like a copy of the vocabulary list, and I’ll send it off to you.

While we’re on the topic of vocabulary, check out, a website dedicated to building your vocabulary. I just finished playing my first round in The Challenge, and worked up a nice little mental sweat in the process. If you register, the site will track your progress.

TOS Crew: Big IQ Kids

Educational websites can be a fun break from workbook exercises. You can use them to supplement your learning, either to learn new material, apply learning, or drill facts being learned. I prefer to use such sites for computer “play” time, a reward for getting work done, rather than an integral part of our day.

Members of the TOS Crew were given two premium subscriptions to Big IQ Kids, a website with award-winning programs for students in grades K-12 (though the premium math and geography programs are aimed more at K-8) in spelling and vocabulary, math facts mastery, and U.S. geography.

Designed for daily drill

The idea is that your student works 10-15 minutes daily on the site, practicing facts.  The math portion drills math facts already learned, while the geography portion of the site actually teaches the state locations, capitals, state name spelling and abbreviations through interactive exercises.

The spelling and vocabulary programs allow you to add your own word lists, or to use pre-loaded word lists.

Once you’ve finished a lesson, you are given access to a reward: games. I haven’t seen all the games on the site, as we tend to play our favorites, but some are definitely challenging and exercise logic and critical thinking skills.

Before we got our subscriptions, I checked out the website and found quite a bit of free material, including SAT vocabulary preparation.

With a premium subscription, parents get regular progress reports whenever a student completes a level. You can tailor their math lessons, selecting how many and what kind of problems to include each day. Problems can go from very simple (one-digit addition) to fairly challenging (triple-digit addition and subtraction, double-digit multiplication, and division with remainders).


The website is big, bright, and colorful. There’s a lot to explore. For example, just today, after a month of using the site, we discovered a spelling contest, a sort of virtual spelling bee.

Your child gets to create a customized Big IQ Buddy. This buddy appears on the screen during exercises and games to cheer your student on. The girls really don’t pay much attention at all to this feature, but for the cost of a coin (you earn coins by doing lessons) you can re-design your buddy (hair, face, clothes, accessories) to your heart’s content.

Computerized male and female voices provide much of the direction on the site. These took a little getting used to on our family’s part. The voices are flat, lacking emotion, seemingly without enthusiasm. The girls tend to turn off the sound when they don’t need it (obviously when someone’s telling you which word to spell, you need sound).

Input can be done using the keyboard or the mouse (point and click). We found keyboard input to be faster and often more responsive. When entering letters to spell a word, the on-screen keyboard is in alphabet order, not like a QWERTY keyboard.

In the math program, there’s a scratch pad (a little awkward to use), where you can use the mouse to jot down problems if you need to. In truth, we hardly used this feature at all. I think we’d be more likely to use pencil and paper than to draw with the mouse, but it’s kind of a neat feature, with its different colored inks and quick erase.

Here’s a screenshot of the math drill portion of the program:

In the math portion, I like the way the problems are presented, complete with boxes where you can enter “carries” and “borrows” and the intermediate steps in long division. On the other hand, the program does not require you to put in the carries and borrows if you can do the math in your head; you can just put in the answer if you want to, and it will give you immediate feedback whether the answer is correct or not.

Here’s a screenshot of the geography program menu:

We haven’t used the spelling and vocabulary portion of the program as much as I’d like. I need to type in some customized lists so that the girls can practice on vocabulary from their academic studies. Here’s a look at the menu spelling portion of the program:

Our impressions

Eldest found the site “pretty interesting” but wishes the math were a little more challenging. (That’s my fault — I could have set her up with more difficult problems.) She likes the games that you get to play after completing a lesson.

Youngest took a long time to warm up to the site. I think the monotone computerized voices and oversized “feel” of the website was off-putting at first. Getting her to use the site was difficult, and she sat down under protest, though once she won through to the reward games she started doing lesson after lesson, just to earn more coins for games.

Since she already knew a fair amount of geography, she found the states drill a bit dull. (However, she still learned things she didn’t know about each state as the program presented state facts as a part of the lesson.)

We found a few typos here and there, though none of them seemed critical to using the program. (“Your ready to move to the next level” is one that I recall.) Sometimes the site was hard to navigate. I remember one screen where an arrow was pointing to a button that would take you back to the main menu. The only problem was, the button was off the screen, and there didn’t seem any way to scroll to it in the pop-up window. The site wasn’t always intuitive. The girls had to prompt me a few times to scroll down in order to find information or functions.


The site features a lot of free material, as I’ve mentioned. Click here to start exploring.

You can find out more about the premium math program, see a comparison of the free and premium math features, and sign up here. The premium math is $9.99 a month or $49.99 for a year (which works out to $4.17 a month). A seven-day free trial is available so you can try before you buy.

The interactive U.S. geography program is $39.99 per year, which works out to $3.33 a month. Click here to see a comparison of free and premium programs, to sign up, or to get a 7-day free trial.

To read more TOS Crew opinions of this product, please click here.

Disclaimer: Big IQ Kids provided our family with two free one-year premium accounts to the website. No additional monetary compensation was involved.

TOS Crew: Griddly Games (Civilize This!)

One of the great things about being on the Old Schoolhouse Homeschool Crew is that we get introduced to new games. I especially like it when we learn something from a game, though it’s also good just to have fun together as a family.

Thus, I was glad to be among those who received Civilize This! from Griddly Games, a history trivia game that’s challenging enough to keep adults on their toes, while offering accommodations to make the game playable by a range of ages. (We added a few accommodations of our own. More about that, later.)

First impressions

Civlize This!The game comes in a sturdy storage box. It consists of four decks of cards and a colorful die. You roll the die, and, according to the color, you might answer a history trivia question set in ancient times, the medieval era, or modern times, or if you get the “purple option” you pick up a Wise Alec card. The purple option quickly became the most popular choice among our younger players: Even though they didn’t know a whole lot about ancient China or the Mayans or the Maori or modern-day Germany (some of the topics we encountered), they could do their best to hum a mariachi tune, or make up their own rain dances, or just pick up points (or lose them!) by reading the card aloud.

The cards themselves are fairly sturdy, though one card didn’t stand up well to nervous bending on the part of an eager player. The questions range from commonly known trivia to guessable answers to things that we didn’t know at all and thus learned by playing the game. Each card has two questions, one worth three points and the other worth seven, and you get to choose which one you want to try for. We assumed the seven point questions would be harder, but they weren’t always.

Sitting down to play

Game set-up is easy — just open the box! (The first time you play, you have to take the cards out of their plastic wrapping, of course.) The rules are right there on the box, a nice feature, as I can’t tell you the number of games we’ve had over the years where we’ve lost a separate rule sheet. The rules are not complicated, quick to read through, and we were quickly immersed.

Technically speaking, Civilize This! is a travel set. The box is compact, and the materials pack away securely. The game is easy to play whether riding in the car (though you have to be a little careful, rolling the die) or sitting around on the floor of the family room, or around the kitchen table, or even on a picnic blanket in the park.

Good for a mix of ages to play together

We immediately adopted one suggestion in the rules list designed to “level the playing field” — assigning different winning point totals based on age and grade level. This worked pretty well — at the end of the game, all the players were within one question of winning, making it an incredibly close game. Of course, that popular purple deck helped a lot, for those who didn’t know a lot about history (yet).

We added a spin of our own, too, allowing our struggling players to attempt the seven point question without penalty, and being allowed to tackle the three point question if they couldn’t answer the seven pointer. (You’re only supposed to get one chance per turn.) We also played a kind of 20-question game if we thought someone could guess their way to the answer, and this helped to even things out and prevent frustration on the younger players’ parts.

Games to get you going

Griddly Games‘ motto is “the games to get you going” and Civilize This! certainly lives up to the promise. We enjoy this historical trivia game, and as a byproduct, every time we play, we learn something about different cultures through the ages. A variety of cultures and their customs is represented in the game, and the information is interesting. (Do you know what color represents happiness in China? What bird is on the flag of Germany? How the Maori cooked special feasts? What connected Mayan cities?)

Other games available from Griddly include Nature Nuts (check out the link at the end of this review to see TOS Crew reviews of this game), a nature trivia game, as well as other trivia, strategy, story-telling, and brain-teaser games.

Civilize This! is designed for 2-4 players, ages 8 and up, and is available where toys and games are sold for $14.99.

To read other TOS Crew opinions of Civilize This! click here.

Disclaimer: Griddly Games provided our family with a free copy of Civilize This! for review purposes. No other compensation was provided.

Razor blades and the cost of living

This is not about cutting costs. I wish…

Was in the warehouse store earlier this week, picking up school supplies (some great prices on binders! …we’ll see how sturdy they are…) and we walked past the Health and Beauty section. I was floored to see a display of razors — no, not even razors, but razor cartridges — they looked like something from outer space, with half a dozen blades per head (wow, I remember when a double-bladed razor was something else). It wasn’t the form that floored me, though. It was the price.

Nearly $50 for razor cartridges?

I try to leave razor shopping to dh, except for the pretty pink razors that we girls use for girlish reasons, so I had no idea that men’s razors had joined the space program. In cost, as well as appearance.

I knew that the cost of living is going up. But who’d ‘a’ thought that razor cartridges would be so great a contributor to the cost index? (Or have I been living in a vacuum all these years, and razors have been expensive all along?)

Speaking of living in a vacuum, I’m going to go and snuggle with the dog, sip a civilized cup of tea, and contemplate Greater Things for a bit.

So, what’s having an impact on your budget?