Saturday, June 27, 2015

Blueberry Pickin’

Honeeeeeey, I know WHAT has been eating our blueberries!

The sun was shining…the humidity was down (both rare in this wettest June on record)…my son was at camp…and I decided to go blueberry pickin’.  You may think of blueberries as being a crop of Maine or Michigan, but we have several pick-your-own farms here in Missouri too (maybe it’s an “M” state thing?).  I wasn’t the only one with that idea—parking spots were at a premium, yet the field of bushes didn’t feel crowded.  There were times that I couldn’t see anyone, but I could here snippets of conversation: folks who had filled their buckets debated where to eat lunch, some discussed where they’d finished picking cherries and strawberries and where they planned to pick apples and peaches, toddler Oliver insisted “I can still see you, Mama” when she warned him not to wander off.  He was even carrying a little metal pail~~it was a real Blueberries for Sal moment (even more real considering there had been a black bear sighting last week)!  But the only animal encounters today were with the farmer’s dog and rooster—which caused Oliver to squeal with delight. 

I plan to try dehydrating some of my eight quarts of berries and will freeze the rest for breakfast smoothies or perhaps make a batch of Blueberry Spice Jam for Christmas presents.

Blueberry Spice Jam (Yield: 5 half-pints)

  • 2-1/2 pints ripe blueberries
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 5-1/2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 box (1-3/4 oz) powdered pectin

Wash and crush blueberries in a saucepan (it’s easier if you crush one layer at a time). Add lemon juice, cinnamon, and water.  Stir in the pectin and bring to a rolling boil over high heat, stirring frequently.  And the sugar and return to a full boil.  Stir constantly for a full minute with a rolling boil.  Remove from heat and skim off any foam.  Fill sterile jars allowing 1/4” headspace.  Adjust lids and can in a boiling water canner for your altitude:

0-1000 ft. ~~ 5 minutes

1001-6000 ft. ~~ 10 minutes

above 6000 ft. ~~ 15 minutes

Friday, June 19, 2015

Homeschoolers have a reputation—and it’s not good

This past week my son went to basketball camp.  It was about thirty miles away and I thought I knew the area since my father and stepmother had lived there while I was a teen.  About two weeks before camp we happened to be in the area and I drove where I thought the camp should be~~and I was totally wrong.  I never got lost but I never found the complex I was looking for either.  That meant I had some homework to do: I called my stepmother who gave me some landmarks, I went to the complex’s website and took advantage of their directions.   While MapQuest said to allow 40 minutes to arrive, we left an hour before the start of camp in case we got lost and to account for rush hour traffic.  The 40 minutes was accurate and we had time to spare.

Why do I share all this?  Because apparently at some point during that day it came out the my son was homeschooled.  The next morning when I dropped off Schnickelfritz (still slightly early, but not like the previous day) the coach came up to me.  He asked if we really were homeschoolers because he’d never met any that actually arrived on time, let alone early.  “Most of them wander in a good 15 to 20 minutes late.” 

Now there are a lot of stereotypes associated with homeschooling that I’m happy to acknowledge—I think we tend to be more religious, conservative,  and tend to believe in a young Earth vs. millions of years.  But this lack of punctuality really bugs me. Our homeschool 4-H club never could start a meeting on time…homeschool gym starts at 11:00 but most families don’t arrive until 11:15 (granted this is open gym time so you can arrive whenever you want).   I don’t know if it’s because a lot of homeschooling families are larger and toting along babies which tends to slow things down?  I know the largest homeschooling family on TV is so well known for tardiness that they’ve laughingly dubbed it “Duggar Time.” 

It disturbs me that we homeschoolers can get so much right and yet this one area gets a pass.  It not only makes us look unorganized, but the folks waiting for us may feel we don’t appreciate their time and effort.  Be honest….when you’ve been sitting in the doctor’s office for 20 minutes past your appointment time don’t you ask yourself why that so and so thinks his time is more valuable than your own?

I’ll go even further~~sometimes homeschoolers don’t show up at all!  There are several museums in the are that are reluctant to work with our homeschool co-op because they’ve been burned before.  We even do it to our own.  I can still remember a homeschooling mother of 10 who had organized a day for us to make apple butter in big copper kettles over and open fire.  She needed to can dozens and dozens of jars to sell at a German heritage festival so over 20 families had signed up to peel apples, tend fires, and fill jars.  During the down times she’d organized apple themed games and crafts.  My son and I were the only people to show up!  Now granted she had 10 of her own kids, most  in their teens, to get the work done but her disappointment in the group that should have had her back was immense.  To my knowledge she has never volunteered to organize another event in the six years since.

So while your busy thinking about next year’s math and science courses and how to teach your kids to keep their b’s and d’s straight, maybe think about including a lesson on organizing and scheduling and keeping commitments.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Review: CTC Math

For better or worse, math is one of those subjects you can never get away from.  It’s not like the lifecycle of a butterfly, which you can cover once and never study again (or maybe skip entirely). You start with counting blocks and continue throughout a student’s education. And for some mothers, this can be intimidating because it wasn’t their best subject.  When you can’t teach what you never learned yourself, what are you to do?  You may need to turn to outside help like CTC Math.   We’ve been reviewing their 12 Month Family Plan this summer.  While they have courses to cover everything from kindergarten math up to Calculus, Fritz has been trying to prevent the summer brain drain by going through their Algebra lessons. 

When you log on to CTC Math you may notice that you’re redirected to a website with an .au extension~~that stands for Australia!  Yes, when my son was watching his online lessons it sounded like he was being taught by the Man From Snowy River.  Who knows, he might have been more engaged just by listening to that accent.  I also noticed on login, that we were receiving the United States curriculum.  Although it didn’t affect anything we covered, I’m assuming that means some lessons would include American currency or units of measure, but also that there would be other curricula available if you lived in another part of the world.

The start-up screen gives the student access to all the levels on the left hand side of the screen.  You can narrow in on your course of study by choosing a stream and then topic (the gold bar in the topic shows the progress you’ve made in that section).

When you select a topic, you move to a new screen with the individual lessons.  If you’re not sure where to begin, there is a diagnostic test (gray bar at the top of the list).  You can get immediate feedback on what your student already knows and what should be reviewed (or learned for the first time).  I didn’t notice this test at first and had Fritz start at the beginning~~he really could have jumped ahead because he’s already mastered the order of operations. 

I find it interesting that the test had you type in the numbers (with fractions they give you two spaces to fill for numerator and denominator) because when it came time for the worksheets they use an entirely different format for submitting answers/grading.  I would print out a page for Fritz with problems to solve and at the bottom of the page was a list of possible answers with a letter assigned to each.  After completing the paper he’d return to the website where he’d click on Enter Results.  If he’d missed any, he could click on view solutions where he’d see the correct answers, but nothing on how that answer has reached.


I’m still on the fence about this “answer key” method.  Yes, it’s better than multiple choice where a student may have a one out of four or five chance to guess at the right answer.  As far as I can tell each of the answers is used only once so a kid could leave questions he was unsure of until the end to improve his odds of guessing correctly.  Of course since algebra involves letters and the worksheets don’t always use the same letter for the unknown, you could also eliminate some answers that way.  I did see some answers that were designed red herrings, that is, answers a student would get if they made a common mistake like switching positive to negative.  Still, if CTC has the capability to let students just type in answers I think that would be the best way to see what they know or don’t know.
To that end, I received a weekly report via email that showed Fritz’s progress.  It let me know how long he’d worked on math and his grades.  You may notice the small red dot on the report or the red line on the screenshot of the lesson topics.  On that particular day I’d called Fritz during math time to come see a mama fox and her kit running through our back yard. He missed seeing the pair and blamed it on math.  He had been entering his answers and when he returned to the computer he hit submit in a fit of anger.  When he’d calmed down he tried to return to the exercise and finish submitting his answers, but the damage was done. He’s initial score was 22 percent.  I’ve found no way for a parent to “reset” the system.  He could repeat the activity over and over and raise his score, but it’s weighted to the first submission and he’ll never get to 100.  So that day Fritz learned a life lesson (repercussions of acting in anger) as well as algebra~~Lesson learned.   I do think a parent reset might be a good feature to add, especially given that this program is delivered via the internet.  I don’t know what would happen to a students records if a storm or something else interrupted the connection during a lesson.
Still, I think we’ll keep using CTC through the summer.  The lessons are relatively short (around 5 minutes) and the teacher is pleasant to listen to.
CTCmath Review

Saturday, June 13, 2015

A giggle to start the day

Everything your mother has every said to you (and probably some things you've said to you own kids" summed up in under four minutes. Please don't drink anything while watching---it may end up on your screen.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Review: TWSS and SWI-B

The past April I had the opportunity to attend my local Homeschool Expo and meet Andrew Pudewa from the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW).  I wanted to thank him personally because I’m not sure I’d still be homeschooling if it weren’t for the products his organization has created.  For this particular review we received Teaching Writing: Structure and Style and Student Writing Intensive Level B.

I don’t make that claim about not homeschooling lightly.  Writing is my son’s most difficult subject from the actual act of putting pen to paper and his handwriting issues to organizing thoughts to coming up with creative ideas.  I on the other hand am one of those girls that could fill a small notebook on a writing assignment.  Because it came so easily to me I struggled with how to teach my son~~obviously saying “You just do it” wasn’t helping matters.  We’d save writing for the last subject, because I wanted to get as much accomplished as possible before the whining or complete meltdowns ruined our day.

We’re both winners with IEW.  My son’s writing assignments are broken into manageable baby steps. He’s spared from the idea that he needs to come up with a story that has never been thought up in the history of the world.   I can let Mr. Pudewa do the teaching on the DVDs or I can follow the teaching guidelines in the manual. 

I first reviewed Teaching Writing: Structure and Style my third year on the TOS Crew, but the  program has been entirely updated. I received twelve DVD’s stored in a book/folder with individual pockets for each disk (there are extra pockets on the back sides of each page so you could also store other IEW product disks in is as well). The first nine disks contain over 14 hours of workshops to teach you how to teach your kids. The remaining three discs have 5.5 hours showing how Mr. Andrew Pudewa teaches kids at four different learning levels. The second component of the course is a three ring binder with 234 pages of teaching tips, answers to frequently asked questions, student writing samples and more.  Currently offered with the premium package is 1 year of access to streaming versions of the lecture recordings, audio recordings, and PDF files of classroom posters and source material for all nine units of the writing program.  I found that I’d already received a lot of the material through IEW’s  annual Twelve Days of Christmas giveaways, but new material will be added/updated every June. 

We also received the Level B of the Student Writing Intensive curriculum.  There are four discs with lessons and one with an overview of the entire program.   A manila envelope is included in the set holding with both teacher  material (course syllabus, DVD scene listings, Teacher’s Notes for each lesson) and student material ( that will be given to the student when called for throughout the course). The three ring binder for this set is meant to help the student organize his work with sections for Structural models, outlines, style charts and banned words list.

It’s these last sections that is really pulling the writing out of my son.  While Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo seem to squeeze in as many words as possible (Dickens at least was paid by the word), my son is the exact opposite.  Because he will eventually have to write it himself (I act as his scribe during rough drafts), it’s an understatement to say he keeps his words to a minimum.  When he begins to manipulate the sentences to make sure he’s included the “dress ups,” and now making sure that sentences start with something other than the subject, that he’s forced to expand his writing. 

This is not our first go round with IEW (We’ve been through SWI-A and this year we did the first half of the Student Intensive Continuation Course (SICC-A).  We jumped into Unit 6 Summarizing Multiple References, since we’d just wrapped up Unit 5 Writing From Pictures.  Fritz watched the process on the DVD’s and we used the provided source material. By “virtually” participating in the class, he was able to take advantage of the brainstorming with other students. In the next lesson we did not use the source material provided.  He needed to write an essay on the history of Dutch Ovens for a merit badge.  I gathered a Lodge cast iron booklet, a cookbook on outdoor cooking and several internet article for him  and we went through all the steps on our own.  I don’t think his Royal Ranger Commander expected such craftsmanship in the essay, but as a homeschooling teacher I was thrilled.

We’ve moved on to Unit 7 Inventive Writing for another merit badge writing assignment.  This time Fritz needed to write a devotion for his Bible merit so rather than use the SWI materials, I’m teaching him from what I had learned by watching the Structure and Style DVDs.  Normally this kind of assignment would have caused a complete meltdown with crying and screaming.  However, we are following Mr. Pudewa’s example of asking yourself questions to draw information out of your head and we created an outline before starting to write.  Fritz jumped on the idea that there’s nothing we can do to work our way into heaven.  For an analogy, he compared heaven to the top of the Gateway Arch.  His first paragraph provides information about the Arch, the second covers various world records (high jump, pole vault) and other stunts people have tried to get to the top.  The final paragraph compares the ticket you must buy to the free gift of salvation.  With his permission I may share when it’s finished.

One of the reasons I was chosen for this review is that IEW has a heart to help special needs children.  My son is an Aspie, and while most people associate Asperger's Syndrome with social awkwardness, they also have problems with writing.  I already mentioned the actual act of putting pen to paper.  According to the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Autism Asperger’s Digest  “The writing process involves skills in language, organization, motor control and planning, and sensory processing: four areas that are problematic for many individuals with ASD.”  IEW provides the tools to help with the first two.  We’re building vocabulary by banning simple words (good/bad, said, went) and creating lists of verbs and adjectives that create a stronger image or feeling.  Organization is built into the program~~every unit begins with creating an outline of some form before writing the first sentence.

When we started it was definitely slow baby steps.  According to Mr. Pudewa, there’s no such thing as giving too much help.  When my son couldn’t identify key words, I would reread the source paragraph sentences and verbally emphasize the best choices. I usually write his key word outlines based on the words he underlines.  He dictates his first draft to me.  While he’s demonstrated mastery of the dress ups, when it comes to sentence openers he’ll often say “I’m open to suggestions”~~ my cue to offer help.  Because it requires so much of his energy to physically write, he really needs a mental break—using source samples so he doesn’t have to come up with original ideas provides that.  He is slowly learning to come up with his own material (the Unit on developing a story based on a series of three pictures for example). 

I’ll be the first to admit that opening a box with all this material in it is intimidating.  Understand that you don’t have to learn it all yourself before you begin teaching your children. If I were a newbie, I would begin by watching the Overview Disc that comes with the SWI set.  Then I’d let Mr. Pudewa do the teaching—at least to start, with the Student Writing Intensive materials.  At the same time,  I’d watch the same unit on the Teaching Writing: Structure and Style discs on my own~~and do the practicum work so that you really understand what your child is being asked to do.  Be patient.  Remember the motto “Mastery and then one more thing.”  Then as both teacher and student grew more comfortable with the process, you could expand the source material to other subjects you were teaching, history or science perhaps.  If you or your child are struggling in any area be sure and sign up for the forum kept on the IEW website.  I’ve received quick responses to my questions and found some tips from other IEW users.

I would also highly recommend the Fix It! Grammar series.  The two programs work together to reinforce concepts.  For example in Fix It! Grammar one of my son's weekly tasks was to choose the best strong verb (one of the dress ups) of the week.  Some weeks in Fix It! there are two sentences with the instruction to combine them with a who/which. We also learned some sentence openers in grammar before they came up in the writing program.

The Institute for Excellence in Writing has earned a special spot in our homeschool.  I’m keeping all my materials in hopes that someday my grandchildren with use them!  When a new homeschooler comes to me not knowing where to turn, IEW is one of the first vendors I recommend they check out.  Their products, indeed the company itself, are truly among the best of the best.

In case you’re interested in some of my other IEW reviews, try the links below.


IEW Review

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Friday, June 5, 2015

Spring Harvesting

Harvest is usually associated with the fall, but I've been busy in the garden and around our property. The snow peas are going crazy. I've been able to fix one of our favorite dishes~~Szechwan Chicken Pasta at least twice a week. And the black raspberries need collecting every morning (before the birds get to them). Blackberries are growing in the same area and they won't be long. In addition, I've been collecting several herbs and drying them in the dehydrator: red clover, dandelion, plantain, and cleavers. I know they all sound like weeds, and if you lived in the suburbs you'd probably be spraying your lawn to get rid of them.

But I've been studying about herbs lately.  Did you know plantain is great for disinfecting cuts and scrapes, treating acne,  and is high in vitamin C and calcium?   All parts of the dandelion can be used--the roots may help balance blood sugar, the greens can lower blood pressure.

Have you ever noticed (and how could you not) the long list of possible side effects in the commercials for medicines on TV?  Herbs tend not to have those issues.  If you're interested in learning more I highly recommend the book Be Your Own Doctor by Rachel Weaver. 

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Thursday, June 4, 2015

Review: Latina Christiana I

Salvete, amici Latinae!  That’s how my son and I have been starting every Monday morning for the past several weeks.  We’ve been students together, using the Latina Christiana I Complete SetThis Introduction to Christian Latin is a product of Memoria Press, a family-run publisher of classical style education materials for over twenty years. The term Christian refers to the pronunciation coming from the Catholic church usage of Latin.  We received:

A Student Book, softback with 88 pages. Each lesson had the Latin saying, new vocabulary and grammar summarized and a page of exercises. The back of the book had maps, the songs and prayers to be memorized, a list of verb forms and nouns forms, and an extensive vocabulary index.

A Teacher Manual, spiral bound with 158 pages. Each lesson has small reproductions of the student book pages (with answers filled in) surrounded by helpful information and tips for the teacher.  The back had reproducible quizzes,  the songs and prayers to be memorized, charts with noun and verb forms, and a vocabulary index (this time with Eglish to Latin as well as Latin to English).

A Pronunciation CD with a speaker saying all the vocabulary and Latin Sayings. It also included three beautifully harmonized songs: Adeste Fideles, Dona Nobis Pacem, and Christus Vincit.

A five disc Instructional DVD set, each disk contains five lessons.  The teacher would appear in a portion of the screen along with slides of the materials being taught. There are no captions for the hearing impaired.

A set of Flashcards.  The pages of slick cardstock were perforated for easy separation.

I have always thought of myself as an eclectic homeschool with leanings toward Charlotte Mason if anything so studying Latin was never on my radar screen.  I always thought the goal of studying a foreign language was to be able to ask directions/hold a conversation while visiting another country.  When I was in high school I took French so I could be an exchange student and see the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower.  Since there’s no where in the world I could go to speak Latin, I assumed the only reason to study it was to be “high-falutin’.”  Then I attended a workshop at Homeschool Expo on A Classical Approach in a Modern World.  It turns out the reason to study Latin is to understand English grammar!  The advantages are no one speaks it so you can’t offend someone by butchering their native tongue.  Also, since it’s a dead language the meanings of individual words aren’t evolving.  I was intrigued enough that I decided to learn right alongside my son when we received this review.

I could do that because this program comes with its own teacher via the DVD lessons which tend to be at least half an hour each. We begin with recitation~~a song, a prayer, and review of the basics: vowels, diphthongs, conjugations, parts of speech, and the latest: declensions.  I thought the first lesson would be the longest as she explained the program, but with each lesson the review portion get a little bit longer.  Next we learned a Latin phrase for the week.  You probably know some of them yourself~~”Veni, Vidi, Vici” and “E Pluribus Unum.”  New vocabulary came next, usually a combination of nouns and verbs but once we learned numbers one through ten, hundred, and thousand.  After we learned the new Latin words we studied some English derivatives.  And finally we’d hit some grammar.  I was familiar with the concept of conjugating verbs from French, but declining nouns was entirely new.  So far we’ve only been responsible to learn the endings for the first declension and that one column represents singular nouns and the other plural.

In the Teacher Manual is a reproducible worksheet for vocabulary drill.  Three times a week we would write our new vocabulary words and their English translations—usually on Mondays after the video, Tuesdays, and Thursdays.  The back side of the page had tables to write and practice conjugations and declensions. On Wednesday we worked in the Student Book (my son in the book and I used notebook paper) and Friday was quiz day (quizzes and tests can be found in the Teacher Manual).  Every fifth lesson is a cumulative review, after which comes a test. We’ve only had one so far and I was surprised to see Roman history included.  There is a page or two of history and some maps in the Teacher Manual, but it seems most of the questions assume you are also using Memoria Press’s Famous Men of Rome curriculum.

Another great drilling tool is the set of flash cards.  One side has the vocabulary word, the lesson number and usually some English derivatives, the opposite side has the English translation and part of speech. There are also flash cards for the Latin phrases and cue words for conjugating and declining.  I punched holes in our set and kept them on a ring.  Throughout the week we’d flip to a word and see if we knew the definition or the translation for the English side.  I realized just how useful these cards were after I lost the set for lesson three.  I ended up making my own version~~they were that helpful, at least for this old brain.

The least used part of the set was the pronunciation CD.  During the recitation we’d be prompted to stop the video and use the CD to sing one of three songs.  Instead, we just listened to the songs as they played on the various menu screens of the DVD. Since Latin is a dead language, I wasn’t concerned about getting the pronunciation exactly right so I didn’t feel it necessary to listen to the CD over and over~~not to mention the speaker had a rather thick southern accent. We simply applied the pronunciation rules we’d learned in our first lesson (and the teachers themselves didn’t always follow the rules~~sometimes they pronounced “e” as “eh” rather than “ay.”

After six weeks, we still can’t form a single Latin sentence (other than the phrases we’d memorized), but I will concur with that workshop speaker that we were learning a lot about grammar—both Latin and English.  Our English vocabulary was also increasing as we studied derivatives of our Latin words.  So I guess study Latin is worth while, even if I’ll never need it to ask directions while vacationing.


Memoria Press Review

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Monday, June 1, 2015

Review: PianoWithWillie

Last year my son started taking online piano lesson and it quickly became his favorite school subject.  As I watched him, I once again felt the remorse of giving up piano lessons as a kid.  Now thanks to JazzEdge I have a second chance with another of their online courses—PianoWithWillie.  You may notice from time to time I compare this course with the one my son took (Homeschool Piano).

I received a year long Studio membership to the site which allows me unlimited access to all the lessons currently available.  You may also choose a monthly or quarterly membership plan or purchase individual lessons for download. 

While Homeschool Piano addresses the complete novice, PianoWithWillie assumes you have some basic piano knowledge.  I began by going through the 30 Day Piano Success Playbook—this is a whirlwind refresher course on reading music, rhythm, scales and chords (if you’re truly a beginner, you might not master the names of the lines and spaces of the bass and treble staffs in a five minute lesson).  I also learned to play two original songs and one classic (My Romance by Richard Rodgers).  No need to keep track of which day you’re on~~the dashboard will show you which lessons are completed.

Then comes the advantage of the Studio membership.  I was able to browse through hundreds of lessons and choose what to study next.  The lesson library has a great filter to narrow down lessons by skill level, musical genre, key signature, time signature, etc. (see the picture below).  I’m humble enough to stick with beginner level, next I liked the jazz compositions I’d heard my son learning so I kept that genre (although most of the songs I’ve browsed through were NOT composed by instructor Willie Myette as had been the case in Homeschool Piano).  I ended up choosing to courses: Piano Hand Coordination(55 minutes divided into 7 lessons), Let It Snow~Playing From a Lead Sheet (54 minutes divided into 6 lessons), and Fur Elise for my classical piano roots (Note: the classical lessons are taught by a different teacher). If you were purchasing individual lessons, you’d have to by Part 1 (52 minutes/5 lessons) and Part 2 (29 minutes/4 lessons) to learn the complete composition.

For each lesson I downloaded the zip files that contain the sheet music and audios of the lessons.  Unlike Homeschool Piano, the lesson videos are not downloadable.  I’d watch the streaming of the lesson once and then use the audios to practice on the keyboard until I felt comfortable to move on.  I wasn’t the fastest learner on the block, but that’s my own fault.  With the keyboard downstairs in the basement, out of sight is out of mind.  I really needed to make practice a priority (unfortunately now that I’m the mom in the house, no one else is going to remind me that I need to practice).

The view for each lesson includes a small window with a side shot of the teacher, an overhead shot of his fingers on the keys and a virtual keyboard with highlighted keys and the key names above them.  He plays very slowly and repeats each section of the music over and over so there’s no feeling of being rushed through the lesson (for that matter you can just play the video over and over if you need it).

Playing with lead sheets was totally foreign to me. My lessons growing up involved learning to read music for both hands~~usually learning each hand by itself and then trying to meld them together (no wonder I also need the lessons on hand coordination). Of course once I understood the concept, I could play and lead music~~it may be with just the the root of the chord with my left hand, but I’m learning.

I already have several other Foundation and Fun’dational coursed saved in my lesson dashboard.  Having a piano teacher that’s available according to my schedule is really a wonderful thing.

JazzEdge Review

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