Friday, September 25, 2015

Review: USAopoly Games

Every time the UPS man drops off a review product I feel like it’s Christmas morning.  That’s not always the case for my son, but this time he agreed with me because our box from USAopoly contained two games. Tapple: Fast Word Fun for Everyone is a battery-operated game for 2-8 players. I’m not sure what gets more of a workout—my memory or my creative thinking.  Wonky: The Crazy Cubes Card Game, for 2 or more players. proves you can’t take something as simple as stacking blocks for granted.

This review couldn’t have come at a better time…in an effort to help my Schnickelfritz fall asleep in a timely manner, we have turned off the television/computer/Kindle an hour before his bedtime.  To fill the void we’ve been playing games together and these two have quickly become favorites.  They also work well with larger groups, like when we get together with another homeschooling family and there are seven of us sitting around the table.

 The Tapple device has 20 tabs labeled with the most commonly used letters of the alphabet (no q,u,v,x,y,or z).   In each round players think of of words that begin with each letter and fit into the category listed on a randomly selected card.  I counted 36 cards with my game, each containing four color-coded categories- the white and blue ones are deemed easier and may be suited for younger players, the

yellow and red ones are tougher.  The cards store on the underside of the Tapple wheel. Two AA batteries run the timer—each player is allowed ten seconds to give an answer, tap the appropriate starting letter, and tap the red center to reset the timer for the next player.  If you can’t come up with a word using one of the remaining letters in your time limit you are knocked out for that round.  If you sweep the board and are still playing the yellow knob resets the letters and you go again—this time naming two words.

Scnickelfritz has issues with timers and since we were playing near bedtime when the goal is to calm down, not raise anxieties, we often played without it.  Our best category was fictional characters. We managed to make it through 4 rounds jumping from movies to books.  We hit all the dwarves from The Hobbit, Marvel superheroes, etc.  I was particularly pleased when Fritz came up with Ichabod Crane and Ishmael (as in “Call me…” from Moby Dick) for his I words.  This might make it sound like a game for intellectuals, but there are plenty of pop culture categories too like Sports team mascots.

Now first and foremost this is a game, a really fun game, that can be enjoyed by anyone—but since this is mostly a homeschooling blog I want to share how this can also be used as a review/drill tool.  Some of the categories naturally lend themselves to school subject.  I found: nouns, verbs, adjectives, bugs & insects, U.S. Cities, birds, body parts, etc.  That’s grammar, science, and geography right there.  You could also tweak it and decide the nouns and verbs had to be in the foreign language you are studying or make your own category.  

I’ll be honest and say I wasn’t sure how my son would take to WonkyHe’s been playing and building with blocks his whole life—(it’s his self-comfort thing), but these blocks are built with curved edges and less than perfect right angles. Would my perfectionist son be able to appreciate these slightly askew blocks?  Turns out he could. 

Each player starts with a number of cards that direct which block to place on the stack next based on the block’s attributes: size and color. For every block successfully stacked they get to discard the card.  If the stack topples they must pick up three cards.  First one out of cards wins (this takes several rounds since there are only nine blocks).

It seems like a game of dexterity and being able to sense center of gravity, but there can be a deal of logical thinking going on in a player’s head.  If you don’t have a playable card, you must draw until you get one.  I saw my son begin to intuit the value of

the cards—that it’s better to play the specific ones (e.g. stack the medium blue block) first when the chances of those blocks being available is highest and save the “wild cards” (e.g. stack any blue block, or better any size/any color) for later in the game.  I even noticed the boys judging when it was best to try and sabotage the stack for the next player in hopes of it toppling (so that someone down to 1 card would be forced to pick up more).

The Wonky game comes with a bag to hold the blocks and cards and fits easily in my purse.  I was able to take it to co-op and had several people play while they waited for friends and siblings to finish up tests.  All you need is a smooth flat surface.   If a table wasn’t available we’d use a book.  The picture to the right was the first time my son succeeded in using all nine blocks in a stack. I was so nervous that my getting up and crossing the floor to get the camera would send his hard work tumbling down.

Again, this is a game first but it could be a learning opportunity for very young ones who need to learn the small, medium, large, concept.  Because the cards show which block to play in addition to the text, it could be played by non-readers. 

If you’re looking for some Christmas gift ideas, I can recommend these two USAopoly games.

 USAopoly Review

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Cast Iron Pans

I’ve taken up ironing!  Not the kind that fights wrinkles but cooking in cast iron.  In another one of my maybe steps to improve our family’s health, I’ve ditched the non-stick pan (which let’s be honest had lost most of its non-stickiness). 

At an auction last month we picked up a 6 inch and a 10 inch pan.  These had both seen better days and were rusty so my husband had to go at them with a wire attachment on his drill and then reseason them.  That could be a post on its own and if I ever get the pictures he took off his phone maybe I’ll do one.  I will share that at one point he thought he’d overcooked the pans as the first layer of oil seemed to be bubbling and flaking.  It turns out there was a second layer of rust that had been seasoned over before and he had to get the wire attachment out again.

When he was sure he’d gotten down to good clean iron, we applied a thin layer of oil, baked it in the gas grilled, let it cool till he could handle it again and repeated the whole procedure two more times.  The final appearance of both pans were a glossy  black.  I was still a little skeptical—would they really be nonstick?

The best test I could come up with was scrambled eggs.  I didn’t put any oil in the pan and I hadn’t cooked sausage or bacon in it before the eggs—this was straight out the the drawer and onto the stovetop.  I did let it heat up for felt like quite a while (after all, you’re not supposed to have an empty non-stick pan over heat for long).  Well, a picture is worth a thousand words—take a look at my results….

And here’s another great thing—I can use this pan in my oven and over our firepit (in fact we originally bid on it for that reason).  I found a great recipe for a deep dish pizza in a cast iron pan that I can’t wait to try.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Rescued Book: The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt

I like to try and tie my son’s reading assignments with the period of history we’re studying.  This year we’ve gone back to the ancient world—Greece, Rome and Egypt.  How fortunate for me that in the box with a personal collection of Landmark books I snagged at a library book sale for $1 each was W59 – The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt.


The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt.

Payne, Elizabeth Ann.  New York: Random House, 1964. 192 pp.

This book isn’t a single narrative story, but a collection of stories of the events and people.  Sometimes the chapter will be about a Pharaoh, like Cheops, Hatshepsut, or Ramses.  Other times the focus will be on an archeologist, like Jean Francois Champollion who translated the Rosetta Stone or Howard Carter when he discovered the still sealed tomb of Tutankhamen.  There’s even a chapter on “The Smiter of the Asiatics—Thutmose III,” the pharaoh from Henty’s The Cat of Bubastes that we will also read this year.

Did you know the cycle of the Nile flooding not only allowed the Egyptian civilization to develop along the fertile soil along the sides of the river, but also allowed for the building of the pyramids.  It was during those four months of flooding, when farmers couldn’t work in the fields, that the Pharaoh would “generously” offer to feed, house, and pay them to build the great pyramid.  The book cites historian James Baikie referring to this as the first unemployment program recorded.  I’d like to point out that these ancient men were being paid to actually work, not paid for not working as we do today.

This is one of the few Landmark books we have with black & white photographs rather than illustrations.   I also have a couple of DK books that we refer to because you really need to see Tut’s solid gold death mask in full color. 

You can see all my rescued books by clicking here

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Canning with Tattler Lids

A neighbor sent out a Facebook message that his apple trees were ready for picking.  This fellow does most of his business in Christmas trees, but he’s got a few dozen apple trees near the road and he let’s people pick them on the honor system.  The aren’t sprayed so they aren’t the prettiest things in the world, but I don’t care.  I got a bushel of practically organic Gala apples for $22. 

tattlerLast year I did a little experiment when it came to canning applesauce.  When I stopped to buy lids, I saw a box touting reusable plastic lids.  I bought a set of 12 and tried them—and they worked!  I got seals with all 10 jars I canned.  I even managed a seal when I accidentally used two of the rubber rings on the same jar.

This year I invested in two more boxes of Tattler lids—one wide mouth and one standard.  Last weekend I canned 23 jars of applesauce and all but one sealed on the first try.  The one remaining, I stuck in with another batch and it sealed on the second go.

The Tattler seals are a little more expensive than metal—mine were $9.99 for a set of 12 lids and rubber rings.  But by the third time I use them they will have paid for themselves.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Books to Read this School Year

I’ve always like to tie my son’s reading books to the period of history we’re studying.  This year we’re headed all the way back to the beginning and going through the crucifixion.  Here are the books that’s I’ve pulled from our shelves—most of these are old books that I’ve rescued from sales.

Dinosaurs of Eden by Hen Ham—This is the one book I bought new, when Mr. Ham was speaking at our church  It covers the creation (not evolution) of dinosaurs on Day Six, explains how dinosaurs could fit on the ark, and how dinosaurs and man lived at the same time.  Clearly a biblical worldview.

Men and Gods by Rex Warner—I just picked this up last weekend at a YMCA sale.  It’s Roman mythology as the gods have names like Jupiter and Venus.  I see Jason and the Golden Fleece, the Labors of Hercules, Midas, Echo & Narcissus, and more.  I’m interested in one chapter called the Great Flood—to see how it correlates to the Biblical account.  We probably won’t read all the stories, just get a good sampling.

The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer retold by Alfred Church.  I know one Mystery of History lesson covers Homer and another covers the legend of the Trojan War.  Church has taken the epic poems and rewritten them as prose for boys and girls. 

Archimedes and the Door of Science by Jeanne Bendick---The book is part history and part science.  It covers Archimedes’ famous buoyancy discover (remember he ran outside naked and yelling “Eureka!”) buy also his work with math and measuring a circle ( pi ).

Pyramid by David Macauley—We have a whole slew of Macauley’s books: Castle, Cathedral, Mosque, etc. We’ve got some that have been reissued and redrawn in color, but I really love the original black and white line drawings. This year we’ll use Pyramid.

The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt by Elizabeth Payne—You didn’t think I was going to get through this list without a Landmark Book title, did you?   This is one of the few books in the series with photographs of many ancient sites.  The book covers Cheops, Hatshepsut, Thutmose, Akhnaton, and Ramses, but it also covers the archeologists that uncovered the treasures starting with Napoleon’s army and the Rosetta stone and of course Howard Carter and King Tut’s tomb.

Alexander the Great by John Gunther—my second Landmark book.  We obviously won’t be watching the Hollywood film so I’m glad to have my copy of this book.  If you enjoy used book sales NEVER PASS UP A LANDMARK BOOK!

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George—This Newberry Medal winner will round out our year since it takes place at the end of our time period. 



Friday, August 7, 2015

Mystery of History Memory Cards

After spending two years on American history, we’re cycling back to the beginning with Mystery of History Volume 1.  Since we did this originally when Schnickelfritz was in first grade I’m fairly certain my son will get more from each lesson and need to fill out new memory cards for each lesson.  Normally, I use Photoshop Elements or Graphic Toolbox to make our printables, but I was able to do these with just Microsoft Word.


First I put in the CD for Home School in the Woods’ History Through the Ages timeline figures.  Next I opened up Word and set up the page for 3 X 5 index cards (under the Page Layout tab choose Size and look for the 3 X 5 Index card option.  You’ll need to resize your margins as well—I uses .2 inches for all edges.


Then I found appropriate image for each lesson in Mystery of History.  It’s helpful to print out the list of images in chronological order as this will match the closest to MOH.  Then for each page I’d choose Insert>Picture> browse for the disc drive and then type the name of the image. The name will match the MOH list so if the title in the list starts with “The”, you’ll need to start with that.



Usually I centered the image on the page, but in some cases the lesson referred to more than one person.  In that case I made one image right justified and the other left justified.  You can see a few examples below.


I loaded my printer with multi-colored index cards.  I resorted the pack so I had three cards of each color together so the entire week would match.  Then down the road when I ask Fritz to review cards I may say he only needs to go through the green ones.  If I’m really clever I’ll come up with a game to go with the colors, but nothing comes to mind yet.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Book Review: The Conversation

We’ve now reached the halfway point in our homeschool journey (actually past half way if you consider kindergarten).  I hesitate to use the term “over the hump” because that implies an easy downhill slide to the end and with middle school and high school still ahead I think we’d all agree we’re not going to be coasting to graduation.  In fact several of my friends are too intimidated to continue teaching their kids at home.  That’s why I was thrilled with the opportunity to read The ConversationAuthor Leigh A. Bortins, founder of Classical Conversations, has packed this book full of tips and encouragement for teaching you own high schooler.  The book went with me on vacation and while I waited for my son at scout meetings and baseball camp.

The opening chapter covers becoming Confident Parents.  This is for those people considering homeschool for the first time or homeschooling parents wondering if they will be able to teach high school.  A key issue is the role of parental authority and how it looks when dealing with teenagers.  Then the author answers a series of questions: How can I teach my kids when I didn’t do well in school? Can my kids get into college?  What if my child is gifted or has special needs?  I didn’t need convincing that I want to homeschool all through high school, still found some hidden gems buried in this chapter.

If you picked up on the “Classical” part of the vendor name, Bortins does use a classical approach to home education.   I was very thankful for Chapter Two--Rhetoric Defined chapter to help me understand the lingo of classical education.

You may be familiar (as I was) with the three stages: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric.  While it’s true that students naturally progress through these stages as they age (young children spend their time learning the vocabulary of their language and naming things they see in their world , as they get older they begin asking questions to further their knowledge), any time they begin a new course of study they will begin back at the Grammar stage. 

New to me was a second list of classical terms having to do with the Five Canons of Rhetoric:

  1. Invention—Discover ideas, research, and plan.
  2. Arrangement—Arrange ideas in a logical and organized manner.
  3. Elocution—Express ideas in the style that is most persuasive in appealing to the audience.
  4. Memory—Add memorable features to your essay or speech. Commit ideas to memory.
  5. Delivery—Deliver ideas in oral or written form.

 The next nine chapters help you to understand what high school subjects look like in the classical approach. 

  • Reading
  • Speech & Debate
  • Writing
  • Science
  • Math
  • Government & Economics
  • History
  • Latin & Foreign Languages
  • Fine Arts

Each chapter has a similar format: there are articles (some republished from Classical Conversations Writer Circle), a chart on how the five canons apply to the particular subject, and examples of conversations (remember the title of the book?) that might take place between teacher and student. It was the sample conversations that intrigued me most. They are written like a script with ME being the author/teacher and a student name.  The teacher is asking open ended questions, guiding the students yet still forcing them to think for themselves—in other words, the Socratic Method in action.  It’s a meaningful dialogue.  This is what I dreamed of when I started homeschooling seven years ago.  How different from traditional schools where the teacher does all the talking.  How different from where everything is compartmentalized and separated by the ringing of bells on the hour.

Finally the book ends with a Graduation Conversation where the author shares the secret to college admissions and life after college.  Another hidden gem was the “Am I Too Late” section.  We haven’t been following a classic approach to school.  With all our review materials, we’re eclectic at best.  As I read though I want to take the path that will lead to the types of conversations I read in the previous chapters, but could I redirect our course at the half-way point?  That’s when I read the following….



While researching for this review I learned that Leigh A. Bortins  has a degree in Aerospace Engineering—she’s literally a rocket scientist!.   The Conversation helps you understand that you don’t have to be one to teach your high schoolers at home.

Classical Conversations Review

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