Monday, December 28, 2009

Review: ACT Advantage, College Readiness Testing

Ever wonder if your child is ready for high school or for the PSAT, SAT, ACT or other tests that come along for college readiness? I think as homeschool moms, we all worry about whether our kids are on track with their public-schooling peers (at least academically). Though we all know that homeschoolers generally out rank their counterparts, we often fret about OUR endeavors being enough to keep our particular students on track.

Thankfully, there are companies out there that have designed programs to test your child’s progress along the way, enabling you to get a feel for where they are excelling and where they may be lacking. The ACT Advantage tests are designed to do just that. 

They sent me a testing packet to review using their EXPLORE or their PLAN tests for my child. These tests were designed for 8th/9th graders or 10th graders respectively. They also carry a test for 11th and 12th graders called ACT. The Explore and PLAN tests that we were given run just $22.95 each.

Maybe my brain is just fuzzed over with the activities of a semester coming to a close whilst Christmas is brimming over on to our schedule, but I found most all of the literature that was given to me confusing. The booklets all look the same, except for the one word on the front, the directions in each are the same (with the two tests I received to review), and I had a hard time making out which test was best for my daughter’s grade level (9th) right off the bat. It was not in the individual test packets nor the letter that was sent with the literature. I did find it on the first page of the “College Readiness Standards” booklet that was in the literature but the title itself made it seemed like an “extra” that came with the packet. Once I found it, I felt a bit silly for the frustration and chalked it up to overlooking the obvious. 

The tests themselves are formatted after standardized tests with strict directions about those persnickety and official testing things like putting the pencil down when time is called and the correct way in which to color an answer bubble with your pencil.  Since this test was designed to show places that may be lacking, I personally only asked that my daughter mark where she was when “time” was called but to continue with her test so that I could still compare her answers to the correct ones and find any gaps she may have. Yeah, I would get fired if I did that proctoring an SAT test. 

The EXPLORE test she took is divided into English, Math, Reading and Science. She only needed extra time on her English and really did well on the tests she took. The directions for the tests themselves are easy to understand and she did not have a problem getting through the material. 

The answers were also easy to check and adding the basic score to each section was simple as well. Interpreting the results was a different story. I found their explanation of the test scores, their differentiating between the raw score vs. the scale score and their directions for deciphering the results confusing.

Have you ever talked to a doctor or perhaps someone in the military and they just casually throw out technical jargon or acronyms and abbreviations that only someone in their line of work understands? Well, that is the impression I had reading the explanation of the test scores and how they should be interpreted. I am sure it made perfect sense to the person who wrote the directions (and the test) but it was all rather mystifying and indistinct to me. The terminology was confusing and I had to keep rereading the paragraphs to follow the train of thought. At this point I am still not completely clear on where my daughter’s scale score in Reading was to be properly placed on the 9th grade Table that compared her score to the national norms. 

From the results of the test, one should go back to the booklet called “College Readiness Standards,” and look at the suggestions for practice and emphasis within each subject based on the child’s score. This is helpful, with suggestions on the types of things to integrate (such as checking verb tense, deleting irrelevant clauses and reading a variety of genres within the English Standards suggestions for my daughter’s grade). The same Readiness Standards chart is used for all levels of tests (as I understand it) and so the suggestions range from simple to much more complex for the older student. However, I have to wonder if a chart similar to this couldn’t be procured over the internet.

It may well be that I am just too right-brained for the ACT Advantage test and therein lies the problem. I am sure many of you would look at the packet and shrug because it is so obvious to you how it all works. For me, however, it was an overall confusing experience. The test itself seemed fine, which is good for the student, but the rest just left me feeling frustrated. 

You can check out ACT Advantage on line by clicking here; see for yourself what they have to offer and if it is a good fit for you and your brain! Ultimately, it isn’t about the parents, but the student, I realize that. However, if the parent can’t make heads or tails of something, that doesn’t leave the student in the best position either.  I think ACT Advantage is tapping into a good and needed niche but feel they could stand to make it much more user friendly.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Maestro Classics: Classical Stories Set to Classical Music...Bravo!

Most of us homeschool parents realize that we need to be very intentional about what we teach our children. Manners, study habits and more are both taught and caught through the course of daily family life. In the same way, cultivating good taste in music will not likely happen without intentionally exposing your child to such music. It is certainly not something they will be encouraged to do to within secular society.

Enter: Maestro Classics. A simply stupendous way for students to surround themselves with symphony! We were given a copy of The Tortoise and the Hare to enjoy for this review. Thankfully, my kids do appreciate good music and also play in an orchestra. So, although the storyline was a bit on the younger side for my 6th and 9th graders, they still enjoyed listening to the story.

In the tradition of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, husband and wife team Stephen and Bonnie Simon have produced many classic stories set to the beautiful symphonic sounds of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Using different instruments to represent the characters, the stories are engagingly narrarated as the orchestra plays. Mr. Simons was music director at the Washington Chamber Symphony for 25 years and is an expert in the music of Handel. He and his wife Bonnie have raised 6 boys, which in my opinion makes them an expert on music for children! Bonnie Simons wrote the version of The Tortoise and The Hare used in the story and has a plethora of musical accolades herself.

Each CD comes with an informative booklet that explains different aspects of music and instruments as well as giving extra facts about the characters in the story. With our Tortoise and the Hare narrative, we learned the difference between turtles and tortoises as well as rabbits and hares. The contrabassoon was was the instrument that represented the tortoise in the story. We learned that it is able to play notes lower than the lowest note on the piano!

The booklet also includes some relevant word puzzles and lyrics and music to a fun song that is part of the story (ours was, "The Pretzel Vendor of Paris", composed by  conductor Stephen Simons). The CD is set up to further teach and appreciate what is happening as we listen. The story is entirely played (approximately 20 minutes in length), then there is a series of short discussions about various elements in the story and in the music, plus a robust round of the "Pretzel Vendor of Paris" song. After all of this extra input, the story is played in its entirety again, hopefully listened to with a greater appreciation of what is going on while it plays.

These CDs would be excellent gifts and certainly a great investment in your home CD collection. I'm sure that kids would want to listen to the stories many times and, in the long run, a love for classical music will, hopefully, take root!

Visit Maestro Classics by clicking here. There are many exciting titles to choose from, such as Casey at Bat, Swan Lake, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and more. You can also listen to samples of the CD's and see what your missing! Normally the CD's run $16.95 each. Right now there is a special for any three CD's for just $45.

I hope you will check out this award-winning series for yourself, and see what your family is missing. Classical music must live on with the next generation!

Multicultural Math: Way Cool!

Mathletics online math program will not only sharpen math skills but also lower blood pressure and increase lean body mass! OK...not literally! But, your kids will have so much fun participating in live, online math races that they will actually WANT to do math. This in turn could, conceivably, lower your blood pressure while increasing their brain capacity (a.k.a. body mass).

Seriously, Mathletics is definitely onto something with their web based math exercises. And, lot's of people are noticing this innovative site. They have been nominated for the prestigious BETT award in which digital products used in education are recognized. They also recently had a BBC piece aired about their safe online offerings.

My 6th grade daughter was not extremely eager to test yet another math program. However, it didn't take long to see that this wasn't just a bunch of drills; this was competition! She is a competitive child...thus a happy union was made! (Although their are loads of options that have no competition level, other than with themselves).

My daughter started off by getting to design her own cartoon version of herself. Really fun! Then, she had a choice to either practice various math concepts or compete in live competition against other children her age from around the world! Needless to say, this was her favorite. At any one time she could be competing agains kids from New York to Australia and many points in between. You can see where they are from, what school they are a part of, and their little icon person too.

One thing my daughter noticed about the other students is that many of them had some pretty crazy, animated icons that she could not do with her own cartooned self. Well, she found out she must earn credits through playing and practicing and then she can use those credits in the Face Maker store to add visually fun elements to her own character. Cool! She is past the age of being motivated by virtual trophies or instant feedback (i.e. "your doing great!") in order to play more, although the site does offer some of that which is perfect for younger kiddos. But, getting to add to your own self-starring cartoon, well that is just genius for older students.

The home page of Mathletics is enough to make me want to play. When you go to their site you see how many users are online at that moment, how many correct answers have been generated (in the billions!), as well as the names and scores of the top 100 students in the U.S. and the top 100 in the world! That is a screen full of motivation, right there! As a side note, there is NO actual communication between the other kids online. All that the users can actually see of one another is their first name and last initial as well as what school (if they listed it), and what country.

There is much, much more to this site but it would be a lot to go into for the sake of reviewing. Math games galore, math instruction and unit tests for practicing a prolific amount of concepts. The graphics are great and the site is very kid friendly while also being kid safe. The math concepts used are for K-8th grade and my 9th grader just asked if she could play the 8th grade level because it looked so intriguing.

Furthermore, the parent gets a detailed report emailed to them weekly, detailing what their child has been learning, as well as getting 24 hour support for their website. They are great fit for home schooling and there is a special brochure for homeschoolers that you can view by choosing the "About Mathletics" Tab on their home page.

Mathletics offers a bundle of math motivation for less than $2 a week. That's a bargain for every budget. This is a subcription based service and so each child is considered an individual subscription. A year membership cost $59.00, normally. However, if you know the anwer to their question that asks, "What is the Human Calculator's Favorite Number?" you can get a year for just $49.95. Good news, I can give you the's 9! (There are a lot of really cool things you can do with that number, if you haven't noticed). More good news: you have 10 days to try their product and get a full refund if you decide it isn't for you.

I would encourage you to click on this link and just check out the Mathletics site. See for yourself why it is gaining accalades and motivating students to do more math. What a painless way for kids to practice!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Review: Video Game Designing from Tektoma

If I were a twelve year old boy about to review the website Tektoma, I am certain it would be a really enthusiastic review about the way I learned to program my own video games. It would be replete with words like, “awesome” and “totally cool”, and it would get proof read by my mom who would tell me not to use an exclamation point at the end of every sentence.

If I were one of the engineers from my church that work at Lockheed, the review would likely be similar to the twelve year olds but with better grammar and broader adjectives. They would certainly give Tektoma “two thumbs up.”

Alas, I am neither of the above and am nary inclined to ever be thus. My choice of adjectives is much more archaic and my vein of interest runs no where near computer video gaming or learning to design my own. The truth is, I found the process close to the thrill level of ironing; something I try to avoid at all costs. This was just like, totally not, you know, for me…dude. If I had to do this sort of project all of the time, I would need a bumper sticker stuck to my office chair that reads, “I’d rather be ironing.”

All of the above clarified; obviously the right type of person/personality would find what Tektoma teaches to be a stellar niche. Their website claims that kids as young as seven can design and program their own video games, using their tutorials. (Which as you'll see, doesn't say much for me!). I would add an asterisk by that statement to say a child that knows his way around the computer and has an interest along these lines may be able to do so at age seven. Otherwise, a computer novice would need to be a bit older, in my opinion.

Some of you are likely wondering why my children didn’t get to test out this product. This time of year is full of rehearsals, performances and tests worked around regular school as well as a house full of company and Thanksgiving break. Just wasn’t feasible to tack on something as time consuming as this program is, at this point in our school year. So, by default, I am the guinea pig.

After signing up for my free trial period, I was instructed to click on a link to download some software called “Gamemaker.” In order to run this software, your computer must use Windows XP, or Vista. They are working on a Mac version that is “coming soon.” When taken away from Tektoma’s site (in which appropriate content suitable for young children is a top priority), I was taken to where I was to download the software. That site obviously does not monitor their site for appropriate content because there was a large banner advertising a game with a scantily dressed Asian girl which was pretty unavoidable. Therefore, parents, I recommend that you be the ones to download the software, not your child! Once that software is downloaded, you will have no further exposure to such things on the Tektoma website.

After the software was installed, I went straight to the icon that said “create” to start doing just that. Unfortunately, I somehow missed the instruction to watch the video on how to watch the videos and started to watch the video without watching the video on how to watch the videos. Hee-hee. Sounds like I am giving you the runaround, doesn’t it? More clearly stated: you need to watch a video on the proper way to view the tutorials.

Because I missed that bit of information, I went straight to picking the game tutorial I wanted to watch. By way of lack of interest, I chose the shortest one that was an hour and five minutes long. I would be making a memory game in which an object would appear on a black background and then disappear. Each time it reappeared there would be another object added that the player would click on to show that it was the “new” object. Simple at first yet becoming more difficult as the many scattered objects begin to increase in number.

About ten minutes into the video, I found myself stressing that I am supposed to watch and remember so many steps. Shortly after that, the instructor talked about the other window that I should have had open so I can do the programming as I follow the directions. Duh. Even I should have realized the sense in that! He also mentioned the video I should have already seen. Oops! Pause button pushed, I headed over to the proper video and gave it a go. It showed how to have the Gamemaker software open on one window and then how to go back and forth between the tutorial and your own work in progress.

Returning to the tutorial, I quickly caught up to where I had been in the instructions. I will say that the information presented was straightforward, clear and easy to follow. I was surprised that I was doing as well as I was. However, I started noticing that sometimes there was a difference in some of the buttons I had on my screen and some that he was using on his (they were supposed to be exactly the same). I don’t know if, along the way, I selected something I shouldn’t have or what. It may have been a problem with the settings from my end but I had no way of knowing that for certain. I speaka no computer-o. The only thing I could guess was that there was a pop-up window at one point telling me I was using the “Lite” version of Gamemaker and for $20 more I could upgrade to the “Pro” version. However, it was stated on the Tektoma site that I had full access to everything needed in my trial version to create these games so that may not have actually been the issue.

Anyway, as I was plodding through designing my game, there were times that the instructor would click on a button titled “center” that I didn’t have, then another couple of icons titled “persistent” and “mask” were also missing. Then there came a “depth” icon that I was supposed to click on and assign a value to. Nada. So, although I could do what was being shown to some extent, I imagine the end result would have been not quite right.

You see, I must “imagine” the end result because I never actually made it to the end. Two and a half hours into my 1 hour and 5 minute tutorial, I was still only half way through the information, due to stopping and working on my own screen as I went along. (The tutorial is divided into sections so that you can click on the area you want to work on without having to scroll through the entire video to get there. I could see I was only at the half way mark!).

Frustration was beginning to set in as I noticed more missing elements on my screen. There were some other quirks happening that I don’t even know how to coherently explain. It was apparent that this just wasn’t going to be a successful endeavor and I had already put much valuable time toward the project. If I was only half way through at two and a half hours, I could not justify spending that much longer in self-inflicted torture. Especially if the differences here and there from the instructor’s screen and my own would most likely effect the end result and cause it to become a failure on all counts!

I am certain that if I were to call tech support, someone would have walked me through the process of straightening things out from my end. That would assume, first of all, that I could clearly communicate the problems I was having with my screen and I don’t know if I could have done so intelligently (since I speaka no computer-o). Secondly, that would also mean I had to start over with programming my game…which wasn’t going to happen because I had a lot of ironing to do!!!

So, I felt I had seen enough, tried enough and succeeded enough (yes, I counted it as success to do what I did to that point!) to write a semi-intelligent review. We are all wired differently and apparently I am NOT wired like a computer or video game. However, I have utmost confidence that a student that has a love for all things Bytes and Megs would be thrilled to learn how to design their own games!

The Tektoma experience will be a huge hit with the right kid or even the right adult who has a bent in the techno direction. Benefits of learning to design your own game include exercises in logic, creative problem solving, algebra and geometry. The level of game programming increases with difficulty so the child can naturally progress from the simple to the complex. They can even share their games with others and try out games that others have designed. There is an online discussion forum and a place for file sharing. The folks at Tektoma also add new tutorials each month.

If you would like to get your child videogame savvy, then Tektoma really is a great resource. If you click on this link, you can sign up for a free 14 day trial and give your kids a leg up in the realm of relevant job opportunities. For a taste of what your child (or yourself) can learn to design, there are samples of the actual games on the home page that you can play and try out. Go ahead and sign up for a free trial and see what you think. After the 14 days, you can buy a one year membership for $14.95 per month or $140 per year. There’s also a way to earn portions of free membership when you refer a friend and they join. All the info is there on the site.

As for me, I am going back to my right-brained world where I can color outside the lines and use hot glue to fix my problems, rather than a series of commands. For those of you left-brainers out there, I do thank you for making my life easier and this blog possible. Do you do windows and ironing too? (Thats "windows" not "Windows," by the way).

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Character Sketches at Starbucks: Dec. 8th, 2009

As I sit here, in my beloved Starbucks (not any one in particular, I hold them all dear to my Pacific Northwest heart), I like to look around at the other coffee aficionados and make assumptions about their personality and jobs and the like. Yes, they are only mere assumptions and rather superficial at that, but people studying is kind of a natural tendency. Besides, I have a splitting headache and can’t seem to concentrate on my novel, so I am left with glancing around, through the finger pressure on my temples, and drawing inaccurate conclusions of the coffee crowd.

Today, I am tucked into a nice oversized chair near the corner. I usually prefer the one in the corner but there’s an elderly man lounging there, he just finished perusing the newspaper and has started on a library book. I saw the library stamp when he picked it up. He is a pretty tall guy, married. Likely retired. Doesn’t really look the type to hang at Starbucks, “home of the overpriced cup-o-Joe”. Most men of his age, which I have been acquainted with, like their coffee nearly free with complimentary refills. So, can’t quite peg him. Maybe he lives nearby and has a routine of walking here in the morning. He has good, sturdy shoes on and they are rather sandy and dirty, much like he would have walked rather than drove.

Across from me stands a tall, older guy that I have seen in here before. He is singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” with Barbara Streisand on the stereo. The guy sitting in the third over-sized chair recognized his voice and said hi (I have seen him in here before as well). They both look like interesting, artsy-types. Maybe authors; ones that are actually published. Apparently Tall Guy is a baritone, who’s voice is not what it used to be when he was younger, so he says. I am not eavesdropping. He is standing four feet from me discussing it in his deep baritone voice. Hard to miss. He is usually in the company of an avant-garde looking African American artist that carries around a sketchbook and looks like he would be one of the cool neighborhood guys on Sesame Street. Wonder where he is today?

The fourth chair is occupied by a New Yorker. Well, she just looks like a New Yorker to me: Italian background, sophisticatedly casual, gorgeous naturally curly ebony hair. Perfect skin. I am guessing she is working on a proposal on her laptop over there. Or, maybe she is describing the tired looking blonde lady sitting across from her typing on her laptop over here. Anyway, she is a true natural beauty and I really want her hair.

It seems New Yorker has finished her proposal and is gathering her things to leave. Tall Guy has started singing “White Christmas” and is trying to sit on the coffee table right in front of me to talk to Artsy Friend. Oh, he realizes New Yorker is leaving and sits there instead. He needs a pipe.

Behind his new perch sits a young couple that are pregnant with their first. Again, that is my assumption. They aren’t young, young. Just seem to be having a nice leisurely breakfast before she pops, which looks to be any moment. This particular Starbucks is in front of the hospital district so there may be some strategy involved with their choice of location. Anyway, they look really together, he in a jaunty hat that seems a bit funky for his age (maybe 30?), she in a black sweater that has the absence of spit up or other tell-tale signs of small children. It’s their first bambino; I would bet on it.

The rest of the dining area is sprinkled with business men on computers, or in deep and important conversations. Then there’s one couple sitting so far from me I can’t see much about their style or body language to make anything out. Except they have a Mac. That sort of makes them artsy by default, doesn’t it?

That concludes my summary and wraps up the crowd, for the moment. Oh wait, here comes the dude from Sesame Street! I knew he would show up sooner or later. He’s here every time I come by. He’s headed this way to talk to Artsy Friend and Tall Guy. They all have facial hair.

This is fun. I feel like both an intruder and a journalist, typing about what I am seeing and hearing while it happens. Maybe these characters will end up in a book I write some day. Especially that baritone. I’ll make sure he has a pipe.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Book Review: Put "The Silent Gift" on your gift-giving list!

For a holiday read that enriches your precious free time, rather than wastes it, treat yourself to a copy of The Silent Gift by Michael Landon Jr. and Cindy Kelley. The two have combined their talents into a gripping, emotionally charged tale of a single mother’s fight to make life more bearable for her son with special needs.

Well, “single mother” is not exactly accurate. Mary Godwin, who is technically Mrs. Mary Sinclair, flees her hot-headed, abusive husband to allow for a fresh start in a big city where she and her son Jack, who is deaf and mute, can blend with the masses and enjoy each other’s love without fear of his father. Things seem to fall into place in a miraculous way, offering the two of them hope for a better life.

However, getting by in the 1930’s isn’t easy for anyone at this point in history, let alone a single mother looking for a job in which she can bring along her child. Unable to communicate with sign language or in any other way, Jack must be brought to work or put into an institution, (the latter of which is not an option for Mary). She knows he is special; she wants to give him every opportunity to be accepted by a world that is all too quick to shun the peculiar and the disadvantaged. Yet it seems the pair continually take one step ahead only to fall two steps back.

Mary is a tenacious mother that knows how to fight and to love with passion. Having come from a broken home herself, with scars both emotionally and physically, she inevitably blames God for the hardships and is determined she can do better without his help. Every time she allows herself to trust him or another person, even just a little, she is let down in a very big way. Life is difficult for Jack and Mary on all accounts.

In the midst of the pain and struggles, Mary discovers that her silent son has an extraordinary gift. This gift brings hope to others and the prospect of a better life for Jack. But with the gift comes notoriety and the looming reality that Jack’s father may find them and take advantage of Jack, tearing their world apart. When things seem as if they can’t get any worse, they inevitably do…

From the first chapter to the last, Landon and Kelley weave a rollercoaster ride of emotions and circumstances that seize your heart and pull you into the middle of tragedy and triumph, hope and despair. Beautifully descriptive and emotionally engaging, The Silent Gift from Bethany House Publishers is sure to deliver for its readers this Christmas season and any time there’s need of a good read. Definitely a book worth giving to yourself or a friend!

At the Intersection of Creation and Evolution: A Dream

The alliterating story below is based on a dream I had several years ago. Please contact me for permission to reproduce.

Darkness devours me.

I am enveloped in emptiness.

Are my eyes open or are they closed? I strain against this shroud of night and still see nothing.

What is this place?

An image illuminates in front of me. A large, leafy tree streaks past and vanishes.

It deserts me to the darkness again.

In a moment, more images appear. A rapid succession of snapshots and thoughts clamor before my eyes and mingle in my mind.

I see seedlings. Several supple shoots have emerged before me and then swiftly stream away.

“The first trees on earth were not seedlings”, my mind observes. “They were not created as small insignificant saplings.”

That thought is rapidly replaced with a vision of a man.

He’s maybe 30; he is muscular and needs to shave.

He fades away.

In his place I see an infant.

A tiny bundle of pink skin upon a soft blanket flickers briefly in my brain.

“Man was created with age,” is the next statement I hear. “Adam did not begin his life as a baby, he began as a grown man.”

The voice seems like my own.

The thoughts do not.

Reeling before me now is a blur of rivers, forests, mountains and even layers of the earth. It is like a movie rushing rapidly before my retina.

The soundtrack of this epic is proclaiming a peculiarly plain concept:

“The earth was created with age. Creation and evolution are not in total opposition. There is a reason that science finds the earth to be quite old: it was made that way.”

Thoughts continue to tumble through my mind; pictures parade before me. I listen in amazement to what seems to be puzzlingly profound and yet rather apparent all at once.

“Adam was created as an adult. Trees and plants were made fully grown.”

I suddenly feel quite certain that, if I were to chop down some of the trees that had been spoken into existence, I would find a range of rings running through their trunks.

“The earth was brought to life with age built into it… just like Adam. He did not begin life as an infant. The earth came into being with what it would need to sustain the life that was created. It was old when it was young. The world was
made with maturity; it was also produced with purpose.”

These thoughts are thrilling. Why had I not seen this before? It seems so simple. Obtusely obvious. Had others not observed this correlation? If they had, why wasn’t it being candidly conveyed?

In the span of thirty seconds I have been ravaged by a radical revelation. I feel the weight of its worth resting on me; it is tantamount to tangible.

I am neither a theologian nor am I a scientist. I don’t claim that the ethics of evolution are completely compatible with the Bible’s account of creation. But certainly Science can come concurrent to creation and affirm our faith with facts.

Of course, the Omnipotent Originator of the Universe is exceedingly elusive to what our mind could ever envision. Above what science could ever extensively elucidate.

Accordingly, creation is confounding too. Each diverse discovery deems it more marvelous to grasp. Many scientists have reluctantly relented to the theory of Intelligent Design.

That’s why, alongside those facts, we also need faith.

Lying inexplicably at the intersection of those two essential elements is an exceptional endowment: the intermittent insight of our dreams.