Sunday, February 26, 2012

Review: Reading Eggs

I shudder to think how many years ago this was, but I can still remember reading comprehension lessons in school.  The teacher had sets of color coded pamphlets that she would hand out to the class.  We would read the pamphlet then line up at her desk to answer questions about what we had read.  If we knew or guessed the correct answers she would exchange our pamphlet for another one and we'd start the cycle again.  After so many pamphlets we'd graduate to a new level and the color of the pamphlets would change.  It became a competition to see who could complete a level fastest and reach a new color level.  We got so caught up in the "game" we forgot we were learning.  That's sort of the premise behind Reading Eggs:  engage the students with games, competitions, and virtual prizes so they don't even notice they're picking up the skills to evaluate and comprehend reading materials.  We used the  Reading Eggspress side of the program geared toward kids ages 7-13.

When the student first logs in, he's welcomed to the Floating Island.  The four sections of the island are: Stadium, Library, Gym, and Apartment/Mall.

Start with the Gym.  This is where the student will take an assessment test.  There are twenty questions based on several brief paragraphs to be read.  The test will stop after three incorrect answers.  There is no time limit to the test.
The student can see his progress by seeing the eggs light up (wrong answers have dark eggs).  I found that some of these questions didn't so much test reading comprehension as it did general knowledge.  One sentence mentioned the "twentieth century" and the question asked what years that referred to.  There was nothing in the reading to give the answer--the student either knew the answer or not.  After the test the student will be given the results and be assigned a level for the lesson activities.  Fritz had one incorrect answer (because he wanted to know what sound would be made) and ended up with a 5.1 level.

While still at the Gym you can play the "game of the day" or take a "cycling" lesson.   THe game during our visit was a memory test.
The game began by showing three pictures for ten seconds.  Then the pictures were replaced with eight words.  You needed to click on the words that corresponded to the pictures within the time limit.  Wrong answers cost you a life (think of Minute to Win It).  Higher levels had more pictures.

The gym is also where lessons are given.   There were multiple stages to the lesson:
  • Cover Story-Look at the cover a book and make logical assumptions about the book's content
  • Dictionary--look up three vocabulary words from the book. Answer questions about what type of word (noun, adverb, etc.) and pick the sentence that uses the word correctly.
  • Compare & Contrast--read a paragraph from the story and answer questions comparing and contrasting two characters.
  • Words in Context--Read a sentence and click on the correct definition for a highlighted word based on its context.
  • Draw Conclusions--Read a passage and decide what the text is trying to convey.
  • What's your motivation--Read a passage and deduce why a character does what he does.
  • Read--finally read the short book for the lesson.
  • Quiz--a reading comprehension test based on the book.
Next  we'll visit the Library.
The various shelves of the library can be clicked to bring up a sample of different book genres.  In addition to the "Book of the Day," featured in front of the librarian's desk, you can choose from: Sci-Fi, Earth Science, Animals, Science, Space, Plants, Fantasy, Comedy, Ocean, Art, Myths, and Adventure.  When you select a book from the virtual shelf you have the opportunity to see the number of pages, the reader rating, and the number of gold eggs you'll earn for completing the book.  You can then read the book or return it to the shelf.  After reading the book, you'll have to answer several questions correctly to earn your eggs.  The eggs are the monetary system of this Floating Island and you can spend them at the next stop---the Mall.

The Mall and the Apartment share a quarter of the island.   In the Mall, you can spend your egg earnings to buy a virtual pet, items for your apartment or clothes for your avatar.  Normally this kind of frivolity wouldn't interest my Schnickelfritz, but these tasks are necessary to complete a level.  The red and white target in the screens upper right corner keeps track of how many tasks you've accomplished.  Clicking on the target will bring up a list of what you've finished and what still needs to be done.

In the Apartment building you can take the elevator up to your room where you can customize your avatar's appearance (hair, skin, eyes) or change it's clothes. There is a room to review the Trading cards you've earned by playing games and reading books  (there are nearly 1000 cards to choose from).  And there is a trophy case: earn 1000 in a week for a bronze prize, five bronzes can be traded in for a silver, and three silvers earns a gold award.

The final quarter of the island is the Stadium.  Here competitive games can be played against another human being or against the computer.  We're fairly cautious about online interaction with other people so we always chose to play the computer.  Sorry there are no screen shots--it's hard to be competitive and worry about control + prtsrn.  The game is timed and you are also trying to move your avatar across the screen before the computers racer by answering questions as quickly as possible. Each game has five levels of difficulty.  The four games are:

  • Spelling Sprint--In the first half of the race you are shown to versions of a word and must click the one spelled correctly.  In the second half of the game you are shown three words.  You must click on the word spelled incorrectly and type in the correct spelling.   I actually played this game (at level two)  and lost to the computer and I've been spelling and typing for decades.
  • Grammar Skating--In part one you click on the word that's a verb.  In part two you click on the word that is not a verb and then click on the correct word type (adverb, noun, composite noun, etc.)
  • Vocabulary Pursuit--Part one lists a word and you must choose the antonym.  In part two you must read four words and select the one that is not a synonym.
  • Freestyle (something, I forgot to write it down)--  Part one shows two sentences--one has an error in spelling, verb tense or punctuation.  You must click the correct sentence.  Part two has a sentence with a blank.  You must choose what will fill the blank, again looking for verb tense or matching the singularity or plurality of the subject, etc.
Incidently, when you get the correct answer the crowd cheers.  When you're wrong you hear boos and catcalls.

There is a lot to Reading Eggspress as you can see. Your student can always see their progress online.  Here's what that screen looks like--

 Unfortunately, I cannot reccommend it to anyone with dial up internet service.  We were only able to successfully load the program at home one time.  Every other time the Internet Explorer would lock up when the loading of the floating island reached around 54%.  I had to go to my mother's and use her high speed service to try some of the features and get the screen shots for this review.

If you do have high speed service, you can sample Reading Eggspress and Reading Eggs yourself. A  free trial is available on their website.   *Check around the internet for some coupon codes to extend this trial).  If you sign up a month subscription is $9.95, six months is $49.95 and one year is $75.00.  (A second child can be added for 50% off on the six and 12 month plans).  You can also read what others on the Homeschool Crew think of Reading Eggs by clicking here (many used the program for beginning readers).

Disclaimer: I received a free 3-month subscription to Reading Eggs for the purpose of completing this review.  I receiving no other compensation for my opinion. 

A is for Astronomy

I'm starting a new blog challenge this week --and it will be a long one.  A Homeschool Crew friend is hosting a blog through the alphabet, one letter per week.  That's a half a year's worth of posts!   My mind is already thinking ahead to tough letters like "Q" and "X."  Of course you have to start at the very beginning and I've picked A for Astronomy.

So far it's been Fritz's favorite science subject-- I think that's because it's Daddy's favorite too.  The Toolman has a 10 inch Dobsonian telescope and  a pair of astronomical binoculars. Until the nearby town builds its new sports park with its big lights we have a fairly dark sky--you can just make out the Milky Way if there's no moon.   We used Apologia's Exploring Creation with Astronomy two years ago and now we're revisiting the subject so Fritz can earn his Astronomy Merit badge in Royal Rangers.

The great thing about astronomy is it's available to anyone--just step outside your door after sunset.  Even in the big city you'll be able to observe the moon and watch it go through it's phases.  If you have a good pair of binoculars you can study its various craters and other features.  A word of caution though, you won't believe how bright the moon is when you look at it for long.  It can make your eyes water.
Move further away from the bright city lights and now you can see constellations.  Orion and the Big Dipper (which is technically an asterism not a constellation) our my favorites.  Schnickelfritz can also identify Cassiopeia and the Great Square of Pegasus.  And did you know that some of the brightest objects you see aren't stars at all--they're planets!    Last night when we stepped out our door we saw a fingernail moon with Venus and Jupiter above it.  We kept checking  on it till it disappeared below the horizon. 

Want to learn more but aren't able to afford your own telescope?  Check around for an amateur astronomy club in your area.  The Toolman belonged to one on the outskirts of Indianapolis.  He hardly needed to haul his own scope because everyone was more than willing to let him look through theirs.  They take a lot of pride in being able to focus in on specific items of interest (usually referred to as Messier object) and love to share what they've found.

Photo by John Green 2/23/2012
Astronomy is unfortunately one of those sciences that has been dominated by folks that do not hold to the Christian worldview of creation.  We prefer to think of it as a missionary field, but you need to be prepared to back up your beliefs.  The Exploring Creation with Astronomy text is a great place to start with elementary school kids.   An even simpler (and shorter) book is The Astronomy Book, part of the Wonders of Creation series.

If you or your older students would like a more demanding study of astronomy, try the materials by Answers in Genesis' Dr. Jason Lisle.  The Toolman actually traveled down to the Creation Museum for an astronomy night hosted by Dr. Lisle.  When the lines to view the two telescopes got too long, my husband set up his astro-binoculars for people to look through (remember I said astronomy buffs like to share).  After the event Dr. Lisle said thanks with a donation of his Taking Back Astronomy book and several DVDs.   The book is filled with gorgeous photographs from the Hubble telescope.  The text (and the DVD's) are challenging even for me and I got A's in my two semesters of college physics--topics like the distant starlight problem  and the recession of the moon (did you know the moon was moving away from the earth about 3.8 cm/year?)  

If this is all too much, then don't neglect the simple things.  Our favorite summer pastime is to start a campfire and watch the stars pop out at dusk.  We're the family laying on the driveway looking up at the night sky (sometimes we go out early to watch for bats too).  Like I said to start,  astronomy is there to be enjoyed at whatever level you can manage.

If you'd like to see what others chose for their "A" topic, check out the post at Ben & Me.  I gave it a quick perusal and saw adoption, advice, Amazon, and apple.  And be sure to check back next week to see what I chose for "B."  Will it be basketball, butter, or biology?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Review: Beeyoutiful

This is our second time to review Beeyoutiful products.  Two years ago we tried Berry Well and to be honest I could have used some this past month because I had a doozy of a winter cold.  I'll definitely put that on my shopping list because that's one product when you need it, you need it NOW.  The two products we received this year will probably make the list as well as I've been pleased with both.

The Peppermint Lip Balm was the secondary product sent to me, but I got the most use out of it.  In addition to the regular dry winter air from the furnace I had a nasty head cold--lots of breathing through the mouth.  My lips were beyond chapped.  The balm was very soothing and the mint was refreshing.  I even put some on my finger and applied it to the sides of my nose which were raw from tissues.  It really calmed the irritation--probably because two of the ingredients,  grapeseed oil and beeswax, are natural anti-inflammatory.  A tube of Peppermint or Orange Lip Balm sells for $3 or you can buy three tubes for $2.70 a piece.

A few words before I talk about Hair Shine.  We live on well water with a fair mineral content and I have to admit to having dry, middle-aged hair that is starting to turn gray.  I'm also the only female in the house so it was up to me to try the Hair Shine.   I would spray it on my wet hair after showering and on dry hair when I styled it between washings.  I'll be frank and say I didn't notice or receive any compliments on how nice and shiny my hair looks.  It may have had to many hurdles to overcome for that.  I did, however, notice that it was much easier to comb through my wet hair and detangle it other mornings.  I have naturally curly/frizzy hair so this is a blessing.

Hair Shine is made with several essential oils: lavender, rosemary, citrus,  so it does have an aroma.  A pleasant one to be sure, but I was a little concerned because my husband is allergic to most perfumes.  The Hair Shine didn't seem to bother him.  Beeyoutiful's website also suggests using the product on sunburns and insect bites.  It's a little too early in the year for me to test out those ideas. 

A 4 oz spray bottle of Hair Shine is normally $15.00 but it's on sale this month for $12.75.  You can also get a discounted price of $12 per bottle if you buy a case of 12.

Be sure to check out all the natural products carried by Beeyoutiful for both health and beauty (and sign up for their catalog which also contains some great articles).  You'll want to be sure and check out the other reviews by Homeschool Crew members as everyone received a different variety of products.  Just click here.

Disclaimer: I received a free Lip Balm and

Friday, February 17, 2012

Apologia: Who Am I

This is my third year on the Homeschool Crew.  It should cease to amaze me how often God provides just the right review product at just the right time to bless us in some way.  If I had to sum up Apologia's Who Am I set in one word it would be just that---a blessing.

Of course I'm not just going to sum it up.  There's too much I want to share.  Let's start at the beginning:  Schnickelfritz and his Royal Ranger patrol are earning their Leadership merit badge.  As part of their homework assignments they have been asked to make a craft on the theme "How does God see me?"  and pray about what their talents are and how they can use them for God's glory.  Driving home on the night of the craft assignment a little voice from the back of the car said "I think God just sees me as just another kid."  The tone of voice suggested that if we delved into the topic we would find no talent and nothing special.

I've never bought into the current trend in education of boosting self esteem, sometimes at the cost of actually learning.  (Our students rank nowhere near the top of worldwide standards, but they sure feel good about themselves).  Still, I drove home wanting a biblically sound way to help my son see his value...and that same week we received a package from Apologia.  Inside were all the tools I was looking for: 

The Who Am I? (and What am I Doing Here?) textbook ($39.00).  The text is designed for kids age 6-14.  Younger kids will probably need to listen to someone read aloud, but let them looks at the eye-catching pictures and colorful graphics too.   The eight lessons follow the same format.  "The Big Idea" and the "What You Will Do" gives a brief review of what's been covered and captures the child's interest to this lesson's topic.  Next comes a Short Story with characters working on their own answer to the Who Am I question.  The first four chapters deal with a young Russian boy named Sasha, born with a malformed foot.  The last four chapters are about a medieval squire named Brandon.  Kids are invited to reflect and dig deeper into the story by answering the Think About It questions.   The Words You Need to Know and Hide it in Your Heart prepare the child for the Main Lesson.  The What Should I Do section helps the student see how to apply the lesson to his life and the lesson itself ends with Prayer.   The final portion of the chapter, Worldviews in Focus,  gives a detailed "day in the life" of a child being raised in a different culture with a different worldview.   The What's the Difference? questions allow the child to compare and contrast their own worldview with the one to which they've just been introduced.  Some of the lessons end with the House of Truth--a visual aid to help you remember what God says in the Bible about Himself, who you are, and how God expects you to live.   Throughout the chapter are gray boxes with brief articles or exercises that tie into the main topic or give insight into the short story.

The Who Am I? Notebooking Journal ($24.00).  Like those offered in the Apologia science courses, this notebook provides a place for students to write their own thoughts and really take ownership of the lessons (in fact there's a place on the cover for the child to add there name to the"Written By" box.  Some pages tie directly to the text: there are pages to write definitions for the Words You Need to Know, copywork pages for the Hide it in Your Heart verses,  and places to write answers to the Think About It and What's the Difference questions.  There are also full color background pages for the child to write prayers, praise reports, and evidences of God working in and through their life.  For younger students (or those who dislike writing) there are word search puzzles and mini-books to use in lapbook.

The Who Am I? Audio CD ($19.00).  This CD is in MP3 format so it might not work in every one's stereo, but it will work in the computer.  My car's radio also takes MP3 Cd's so we were able to listen in the car.  The entire text is included.  I'll confess the the female narrator doesn't speak with the enthusiasm I use to keep my son's interest so we didn't use the CD often.  Her voice is fine for reading a textbook, but it seemed lacking during the short story. She did not change her voice for the different characters or make the tone of her voice change to reflect the character's feelings.

The Who Am I? Coloring Book ($8.00) give the child the opportunity to color pictures from the short story and others to help them remember concepts from the lesson.  It is 64 pages long.  My son has never been very interested in coloring, but it might be a quiet activity for younger kids while Mom reads the lessons to the older ones.

The lesson plan in the text covers a chapter in three weeks--two days a week.  This made each day's reading a little longer than my Schnickelfritz's attention span.  Because I really wanted him to absorb the material rather than wonder how long the lesson would be, we broke it into smaller chunks.  This worked well for everything but the Short Story, and Fritz found that engaging enough that he didn't mind.  He actually gasped when the school bully asked Sasha to teach him how to carve wood.  We managed to print out several of the Bible verses and find clip art to correspond to make his How God Sees Me craft project.  The book uses "word pictures" that my son could really relate to--the first one was the history of Superman and the lesson was "If You Are Made in God's Image, Why Can't You Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound?"  Another God-incidence (that's when you recognized God allows something in his perfect timing rather than just luck): we had travelled to Tennessee at Christmas and stopped at Metropolis, IL  where the Superman picture in the book had been taken.

I've been especially pleased by the introduction to other worldviews in the text.  Who Am I? is a project between Apologia and an organization called Summit Ministries.  We have SM's worldview text, Understanding the Times, but it is not written for kids.  I've drooled over their school-age worldview curriculum at homeschool fairs, but it was beyond our price-point.  This curriculum is designed for homeschoolers, with a homeschooler's budget in mind.  The Worldviews in Focus cover: Islam, Secular Humanism, Buddhism, Mormonism,  Hinduism, New Age, Atheism, and Christianity.   The format of using a child and following them through a day in their life is done in a very non-judgemental way.  Sometimes we Christians get so focused on the "their way is wrong" or "that religion is full of terrorists" that we forget these people are still made in the image of God and he still desires that they come to know him.

Who Am I? is the second of four texts.  The other three in order are:  Who is God? ;  Who is My Neighbor? ;  and What on Earth Can I Do?  Although each book is listed with no prerequisites, Apologia suggests doing the books in order to gain the most from the program.  After all, how can you know what it means to be made in God's image (book #2) if you don't have an understanding of who God is?  I plan on purchasing all the books for use in our studies but not the Audio CD or Coloring books.  I'm still debating on the Notebook--I see it's value but Fritz hates to write.

You can read what other members of the Homeschool Crew think about Apologia's Who Am I? by clicking here.

Disclaimer: I received free copies of the items described for the purposes of completing this review.  I received no other compensation for my opinions.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I Confess....I Love my Kindle!

That statement may not mean much to you, a lot of people enjoy their Kindle.  But up until a few months ago, my rallying cry was "Save the books",  books with real paper and ink and hardboard that is.  I'm definitely a bibliophile.  My husband (and the moving men) can testify to the number of bookshelves and nooks and crannies where I store the treasures I've picked up at used book sales.  I honestly didn't think that curling up with an electronic device could give me the same satisfaction as grabbing a tome, opening it at the bookmark, and carefully turning the pages.  

Then I started to discover just how many books are available in e format--books I've never seen on the library shelf (they don't have room to save all the old ones) or at a used book sale.  Or perhaps I have seen one but so many other homeschooling parents recognized its value too and thus it was priced out of my budget.

I asked for a Kindle for Christmas and I've been loading it up with books that have passed out of copyright.  As I read, I discovered a few advantages to the Kindle.  It can automatically keep track of the last page I read in every book.  Since I often have more than one going at a time, it's very easy to switch from one to another without having to tear off scraps of paper to mark my place in each.  Another great feature is the build in dictionary.  I consider myself to have a fairly large vocabulary, but I often run across older terms in my choice of books.  Now I can just move the cursor next to the word and up pops a definition.  I can keep my reading flow rather than put the book down, get the Webster's, look up the word, and return to my text (or more likely just guess at the meaning and end up missing some of the subtleties of the author's word choice).

So from time to time I plan on sharing some of my finds with you.  Will start off with the author James Otis Kaler(1848-1912) who wrote under the name James Otis.  Mr. Otis was only sixteen years old when he was sent out by a local newspaper to report on the Civil War.  His experiences helped him develop a spirit of patriotism and adventure. He  Quoting from Jan Bloom's Who Should We Then Read?     "Kaler's interest was war stories and he cranked them out feverishly.  His boys were honest, simple, hard-working boys who get caught up in the events around them.  Unlike [Horatio] Alger stories, Kaler's boys do not long for respectability, fame or fortune. They just want to go home after they've done their duty. " 

If you're trying to use living books for history, here are a few of the free titles you may want to download:

Defending the Island: A Story of Bar Harbor in 1758

Neal, the Miller, a Son of Liberty

Under the Liberty Tree: A Story of the Boston Massacre

Corporal 'Lige's Recruit: A Story of Crown Point and Ticonderoga

On the Kentucky Frontier

Minute Boys of Boston

Minute Boys of the Mohawk Valley

Minute Boys of York Town

Richard of Jamestown

Commodore Barney's Young Spies: A Boy's Story of the Burning of the City of Washington

Monday, February 13, 2012

Review: ALEKS Math

Our review this week is an online subscription service called ALEKS--an acronym.  According to the company's website:

Assessment and LEarning in Knowledge Spaces is an online mathematics program that provides personalized learning and assessment tailored to a student's individual needs. Using artificial intelligence and adaptive, open-response questioning, ALEKS quickly and accurately determines what a student knows and is most ready to learn within a course.  Learn more by watching a quick 2-minute video.
With a comprehensive  course library ranging from elementary school math to complex subjects such as PreCalculus, ALEKS acts much like a human tutor to help take the stress off of homeschooling parents.
ALEKS offers highly-targeted, individualized instruction from virtually any computer with Internet access, making it a comprehensive and mobile education solution for students in grades 3-12. A subscription to ALEKS offers access to all courses and students may take as many courses as needed during their subscription period.

The subscription rate is $19.95/month for one student.  The monthly cost can be lowered by selecting a six or twelve month subscription.  Families with more than one child can also receive a discount for additional students on the 6 or 12 month plans.

The student begins by taking an assessment test.   My Schnickelfritz took the third grade test and for a hoot I set myself up as a beginning algebra student.  There is no time limit to these tests and no real advantage to guessing.  When Fritz had several geometry based questions he had never been exposed to before, he simply clicked "I don't know."  After his 28 questions (and my 30) we were shown our individual pie charts, similar to the one shown below.

The darker colors reflect mastery of math concepts and the lighter areas show where subjects need to be introduced or more work is necessary.  For myself, I found the chart to be fairly accurate--I was actually laughing at how much I've forgotten about exponents (but I still aced factoring).  Fritz's pie chart was less of a reflection of what he actually knew.  As you can see in the sample there are 271 topics to be learned and the assessment test only had 28 questions.  The first two lessons suggestions for Fritz was to estimate the answer before solving addition and the subtraction problems--something he has been doing with our regular math curriculum for years.  It wasn't really an issue.  Fritz just answered two math problems for each topic and the darkened section of the pie grew accordingly.

Clicking on a pie section will open a box with a suggestion of topics to try next. When you click on the topic it appears that you're taking a quiz again, that is it begins with a math problem for you to solve.  If you can't solve the problem you can click on the "Explain" button underneath the problem.  This puts you in learning mode.  The topic will be explained in general terms and then the specific problem you were given will be solved.   The explanation can be very brief.  It worked for me as I usually just needed a refresher but when Fritz was encountering new topics for the first time he occasionally got frustrated by what he considered "not enough teaching."  My concern on the other hand was that it only took two correct answers after the brief explanation to earn the mastered status.  Had he really mastered the material or was he just able to hold the idea in short term memory and it would be lost the next day?  ALEKS deals with this issue by requiring the student to complete reassessments from time to time to see what has actually been retained.

There were a few types of math problems that seemed awkward to solve via the computer, especially in the algebra level.  Writing answers with multiple sets of parentheses with both a numerator and denominator involved typing in a specific sequence and clicking buttons on the side to create fractions or add exponents.  It was almost like solving the problem twice--once on paper and once figuring how to put in in computer format, but it was do-able with a little practice.  Fritz struggled with using the ruler feature to draw lines. There was a tutorial for this during the assessment test.

As the teacher, every other week I received an email with a progress report.  I would be told what percentage of each category had been mastered and how much time Fritz had used the ALEKS program.  A more detailed report was available by clicking a link included in the email.

Because Fritz has already mastered his adding and subtracting facts and times tables, he did not use the QuickTables feature or the games available there.

At this time, ALEKS is not a good fit for our family.  I see it as more of an assessment tool than a teaching tool.  Since I am teaching him in a one-on-one basis, I already know what topics he's mastered and what we still need to work on.  ALEKS may be more useful to the mom of multiples that can't oversee every one's math lessons as thoroughly as she'd like.  On the other hand, ALEKS has a pretty high monthly cost and using it with large families could be a financial burden.

Visit ALEKS for a 2-Month TrialThe best way to see if ALEKS is a good fit for your family is to try it yourself!  ALEKS has a two-month free trial available by clicking the box to the left.

You can read what others on the Homeschool Crew thought of their ALEKS trial by clicking here.   

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Chance to Go Underground

I have to say that this week's Blog Cruise about favorite field trips came at the perfect time.  A recent computer catastrophe wiped out our last three years worth of pictures, so seeing the photos and what I've written about on the blog has been extra special.  This is one of the first field trips we took when we moved to Missouri.  Here's what I wrote then:

One of Missouri's nicknames is The Cave State, with over 3000 caves on the registers.  There are several  "show caves" like the one Mark Twain made famous in Tom Sawyer or Meramec Caverns with its ads painted on barn roofs as far away as Indiana.  Schnickelfritz and I were going to a cave "open house" sponsored by the Dept. of Conservation,  so no electric lights or paved walkways,  In fact, here is the way the conservation newsletter describes it:

This hands-on exploration requires crawling on your stomach for several feet. Wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and bring a flashlight. Helmets will be provided.

I had reservations as I was making reservations...lately Fritz has been afraid of dark hallways and the dark waterslide tunnel; what would he do when he experienced total darkness?  Would we see bats  and would they scare him?  I read him the description and asked if he wanted to try this and he answered yes.

There were 14 of us fitting helmets and checking flashlight batteries at the conservation center.  We followed a paved path for several hundred yards and then diverted across a dry creek bed and up a hill till we came to a rock wall with what appeared to be a cage sitting in front...but where was the opening?

 As our guide fiddled with the padlock, he explained that this was a "bathtub entrance," so named because you had to sit down as if you were in a tub and then slide feet first "down the drain."  He went on to say that no one had ever gotten physically stuck in the cave but getting an arm wedged or a helmet hitting the top of the opening can lead to people getting mentally stuck.  I looked down at my son to see if there was any apprehension...  Nope, as soon as our guide had disappeared Fritz hopped into the cage to pursue.

Having just seen my son swallowed up by a hole in the ground I realized that I was the one feeling apprehensive and projecting it on him.  I approached the opening and here's what I saw:

The arrow marks the "bathtub drain"

 At the bottom was just enough room to lean forward and switch from moving feet first to crawling on your belly at least ten feet and going around a corner.  Fritz, at 57 pounds and 48 inches didn't even realize this was an obstacle.  I felt a sudden thankfulness that I'd lost 20 pounds from walking the dog this year and wondered if 20 was enough.  But eventually I was sitting beside Fritz in the "twilight zone" of the cave as we waited for the others.

The twilight zone, yes there really is such a place, describes the area of a cave where there is still some light from the entrance.  You may be able to see the silhouette of your hand in front of your face.  Here we got our lecture on the three types of animals we might find in the cave. 1) Trogloxenes (cave guests) are creatures that usually live outside caves but may take shelter in one.  2) Troglophiles (cave lovers) live part of their lives in the cave and part outside.  Bats fall into this category.  The troglophiles we saw today were a millipede and several salamanders.

A salamander wishing the trogloxene with the camera would move on

The third category is troglobites (cave dwellers).  These are the creatures with no eyes and no pigment.  The guide said he'd even seen some that were transparent and you could see their internal organs, but there weren't any in this cave.

We went through another passage, this one not as tight a squeeze but it was at a 45 degree angle.  At times it was easier for me to roll across the rock formations, although Fritz was able to walk through bent over.

Now we were in the dark zone.  As expected, the guide invited everyone to turn off their lights and experience total darkness.  At the same time he had everyone move their hands forward and backward in front of their faces while making a "shh" sound.  Although we couldn't see anything we could detect a change in sound as our hands moved.  This was as close as we could come to experiencing the echolocation used by bats.  Here's where we learned two things that Fritz remembered when retelling his experience to Daddy (why do boys always hone in on the "gross" stuff?)

First, in the outside world the bottom of the food chain starts with plants converting the sun's energy.  But in caves there is no sun and no plants.   The troglophiles, particularly bats, who go outside the caves to eat return to the caves and deposit guano (children ask your parents).  This starts the cave food chain.  Algae can form on the guano and insects may eat one or the other or both.

Second, bats are beneficial creatures that can eat up to 2000 mosquitoes in an hour.  Some bats have better hunting nights than others. The ones that haven't done so well may actually have burned more energy in hunting than they were able to consume.  This presents a problem when returning to a cool cave to wait until feeding time comes around again.  So bats practice "Reciprocal Altruism."  If a bat has had a good night and notices a neighbor's tummy rumbling, it will regurgitate some of its meal for the neighbor.  The neighbor, having a good memory, will return the favor when the tables are turned.

With those two bits of information our cave tour was over.  Our guide informed us that there were two paths back to the entrance.  The first, the chute,  was short and straight but the catch was it was designed for very skinny people.  "Think Gwyneth Paltrow," he said.  The second was the path we had taken to get in--slightly bigger but involving a lot of crawling and flexibility.  "Think pilates," he said.  "Make your choice and I'll be the last one out." The words were still echoing in the cavern when Fritz announced he was heading down the chute.

Another salamander and "The Chute"

I shouted to his disappearing ankles "I can't follow you that way," thinking this would make him turn back.  Nope, he yelled back "I'll see you at the top, Mama," and kept right on going.  Two other boys were not going to be shown up by a six year old so they headed out the chute next.  I sat there for a second waiting for a surprise option three--the one for middle-aged women who wished they had a better exercise regimen.  When no other option was presented I headed towards the "pilates" path with all the other women who knew they were no Gwyneth Paltrow.  At least we had the comfort of knowing we had all made it in this way and since we hadn't eaten in the cave, we should all fit on the way out. 

It did seem harder--was that just the power of suggestion playing with our heads?  I was stuck in a traffic jam as we each tried to contort themselves back up the bathtub drain.  I could hear Fritz outside sharing all his discoveries with a grandmother who stayed at the entrance. 

Sadly, this field trip experience is no longer open to the public.  In an effort to stop the spread of White-Nose disease among bats, the Department of Conservation has closed this and many other caves around the state.  I hope that this crisis passes and Fritz and I can go underground again.

You can read about other great field trips at the Homeschool Crew's Blog Cruise.

Monday, February 6, 2012

So what am I hoping for when homeschool is done?

Last November our cruise topic was about why we started homeschooling.  You can read my response here.   This week we're looking at the other end of the spectrum.  The definition of "success" according to Webster's 1828 Dictionary is "The favorable or prosperous termination of any thing attempted; a termination which answers the purpose intended."  So at the end of a day or a year or when my Schnickelfritz has graduated, what will I base my success upon?

1.  Is my son a disciple of Christ?  I can give my son all the tools and knowledge to get ahead in this world but what will that all matter if he spends eternity apart from God?  The epidemic of children abandoning their Christian upbringing when the go to college is alarming.  If Christianity is just what he does on Sunday mornings or if the Bible is just a collection of stories he's been told then I haven't provided the good soil his young Christian plant needs to grow strong.   He's liable to be knocked over by the first adversity or plucked from the ground in some philosophy class. 

We've begun working through Kay Arthur's inductive Bible study for kids this year.  Fritz wanted to start with Daniel (he'd just done a puppet show about the lion's den for Spanish class).  The first half of the book involved familiar stories, but the second half is filled with prophecy that can make your head swim.  Yet here was my nine year old son studying precept upon precept.  He was able to make the connections between the four-headed leopard in Daniel 7 with the goat that grew four horns in Daniel 8.  He could see that the small horn that grew from the 4 horns was not the same a the little horn that grew out of ten horns in the final beast.  

In addition to studying the Bible, we've also begun learning about other worldviews.  Watch for my review of Apologia's Who am I?

2.  Does my son have a desire to learn?  I have a firm belief that you can learn anything as long as you're motivated to do so.  Here I am, waaayyy past my school years, learning about html code and other things to build a blog.   What is the good of cramming his little head full of knowledge if I do so in a way that makes him abhor the process?   I want him to continue to ask why and how outside of school settings and then be motivated to seek the answers to those questions.  I want him to experiment and research, enjoy the process as well as the end result.  I've said before that I don't believe it's my job to entertain Schnickelfritz all the way through school but I do want him to believe learning can be fun.

3.  Can my son think for himself?   In some ways this question ties into the last, but I don't want my son to be satisfied with just accepting another person's account on any subject--be it science and creation of the world, the idea of global warming, or the President's recent claim that Jesus would want us to all pay our fair share of taxes.  In a work situation, I want him to be motivated to seek out new and better processes not just buy in to the "We've always done it this way" frame of mind. 

These are my top three questions to help me guage the success of our homeschool.  Fritz and I still have many years ahead of us so the list will probably grow.  You can read others' takes on how to measure success by clicking here.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Review: Celestial Almanack

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
                                                                                            Ps. 8:3-4

One of the first things we noticed when we moved from the suburbs of Indianapolis to rural Missouri was how much darker the skies were.  That orange-ish haze that hung over our Indy home hid so many of the stars.  Now one of our favorite activities is to set up a campfire and watch the stars pop out one by one.   My husband, the Toolman, has had an interest in astronomy for years.  He's been a member of an amateur club and I got him a 10 inch Dobsonian telescope for his birthday one year.  Schnickelfritz has an interest in the stars (because Daddy does) and can hold his own at finding Venus, Mars, and Jupiter in the skies; locate the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, Orion, the great square of Pegasus, and Cassiopeia (which he calls the big "W").   I appreciate looking at the stars as a whole, especially nights when we can make out the Milky Way.  I can probably recognize the same constellations as Fritz and I can tell a star from a planet although I may not know which planet it is.  So this review of the February edition of the Celestial Almanack should be right up our alley. 

The publication is available for download ($3.00) through  The February edition is 19 full color pages (with an additional two pages of sponsor ads).  This issue had an introductions which thoroughly explained the Leap Year Day and our calendar system, a chart of February with important events and phases of the moon  It is FILLED with large sky charts so make sure your ink cartridges are full before printing.

Toolman: Appreciated the graphics, especially those that gave a perspective as if you weren't standing on the Earth but viewing the solar system from above or at least beyond Earth.  He could read through and understand the articles but he admitted it wasn't remedial text.  He also thought it important that the author explained in both picture and word that the view of a nebula through binoculars or even an amateur telescope would not allow you to see the vivid and colorful pictures we've been priviledged to get through the Hubble telescope. 
Schnickelfritz:  The text was over his head but he could look at the sky charts and locate Orion and then find other constellations based on their proximity to Orion.  He interest was piqued about the Orion Challenge (learn 35 constellations in a year) in upcoming editions.

Myself:  I tried to read through and digest information so I could share it with Schnickelfritz.  There is a lot of Astronomy lingo here: declination, right ascension, analemma, etc.  I could find explanations for some terms (I had to highlight them so I could refer back quickly when the term came up again). Often the text mentioned that the subject was covered in the January issue or in the Curriculum text or would be covered in future issues--which sort of  left me in the lurch for now. 

If you really have a passion for Astronomy, you will appreciate the depth of information in the Celestial Almanack.  If you just have a passing fancy to know the names of some constellations, this material may overwhelm you.  You can view a sample on Currclick.  You may also be interested in the Signs & Seasons homeschool curriculum for $39.

You can read what others on the Homeschool Crew think of the Celestial Almanack by clicking here.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the February Celestial Almanack for the purpose of completing this review.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Camp Dubois--The Launching Point

I just couldn't let this unusually warm and sunny weather slip by without taking in a field trip so Schnickelfritz and I headed east to Illinois.  Our two destinations were the Great Rivers Museum (in Alton, IL) and the Lewis & Clark Historic Site, Camp Dubois.  Although we saw both in one day, I'm going to divide the trip into two posts because there is so much to share.  Will's grandparents came with us and we all agreed that these two museums held plenty of interest for young and old.

Camp Dubois was established in December of 1803 on the east bank of the Mississippi across from the confluence with the Missouri.  They remained until May of 1804.   The site now boasts a reconstructed fort and a 14,000 visitor's center.  Visitors are greeted by a statue of Lewis, Clark and the dog Seaman.  At their feet is a blue ribbon of carpeting.  Just like Dorothy's yellow brick road, you follow the blue line throughout the three galleries and theater.

The  largest gallery contains a life size replica of the keelboat.  You can't tell from this picture but the best part is the other side.  The keelboat has been cut away so that you can see the living conditions on board and the amazing packing job to hold supplies for the journey.

Here is the one cabin on board.  Of course they went to shore at night so there didn't have to be beds for everyone.  The box to the right holds a display of  the instruments they used--compass and watch, etc.  There's a sextant on the case on the floor and the desk has a chain device that must have been used to measure distance.  You can get some idea of the packing beneath the floor but here's a better photo.

Even some of the barrels and boxes are cut away to reveal their contents.  The colorful bundle by the near barrel contain gifts and trading trinkets for the Indians: beads, cloth, hatchets, etc.  Beyond the canvas are barrels of salt pork.  Beyond them are lead containers with gun powder inside.  Not one to waste space, when they used up the powder, they could melt down the container into bullets.

This is a great hands on museum for kids.  Other than one canoe containing animal fur, I did not see a single "Do Not Touch" sign.  In fact, touching and exploring were encouraged.  Throughout the gallery were bags and barrels and sacks with questions written on the outside.  You had to lift lids and open sacks to find the answer.  On the walls were wooden replicas of letters between Lewis and Clark in the course of their preparation for the expedition.  You had to lift the seal of the letter to reveal the contents of the documents.

This exhibit had to be pulled from the wall.  It explains the process necessary for a conversation between a member of the Corp and a member of the Flathead Indians.  The English had to be interpreted to French, then Hidatsa, the Shoshone, and finally Salish.  Talk about your game of telephone.  I wonder how often the real message got lost in translation.

There was one disappointment in the museum.  Apparently at one point children were give a journal of some sort and when they found hidden objects or completed a task they could add a stamp to their journal.  Unfortunately some children (dare I say, but I bet they weren't homeschoolers) abused the system by stamping on each other and the exhibits and so they had to be removed. 

This wonderful little museum is FREE to visit (there is a donation box in the lobby).  There's also a gift shop with some great books, shirts, old fashioned toys, patches and post cards.  At the same exit is a tower to climb to get an aerial view of the confluence of the rivers ($4).  In the summer I believe there are outdoor activities at the Fort.  So we may be headed back to Camp Dubois as the weather warms again.
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