Category Archives: Homeschool Resources

The Legend of St. Nicholas by Dandi Daley Mackall (Book Review)
I recently was given chance to review The Legend of St. Nicholas: A Story of Christmas Giving by Dandi Daley Mackall, and since our youngest son shares his name, I jumped at the chance to teach my children a little about the Nicholas of many years ago.  I was pleasantly surprised at this sweet, simple story about the man whose legacy has become so entwined with modern celebrations of Christmas.

The book begins with a boy named Nick who is reluctantly taken shopping to find gifts for his brothers (though he’s hoping to have enough money to buy something for himself as well).  While he’s shopping, he overhears the store Santa telling some children the story of St. Nicholas, who found great joy in using his wealth to give gifts to others.  Before Nick goes home, he not only buys presents for his brothers but also uses the remainder of his money to buy toys for poor children.

It’s a sweet story, and there were many things I liked about it.  Most of the details about St. Nicholas are based on traditional stories passed down about him (like his travels, the wealth he inherited from his parents, and his gift of dowries for three sisters who could not afford to get married).  I loved the way Nicholas turned to God for guidance in a way that was very natural and not at all contrived.

That night, Nicholas talked things over with God.  “Father, could this be the work you have for me?”  As if in answer, the church bells rang.  Nicholas remembered what his mother had said about the wise kings bringing gifts to baby Jesus.  He thought of what his father said about Jesus being the greatest gift.  What better time to give gifts than on Jesus’ birthday!

The illustrations by Richard Cowdrey are beautiful, but I was a little puzzled by the choice to make the pictures from St. Nicholas’ life look like they were set in the 1800’s.  The scene with a fancy horse-drawn carriage and his father in a top hat looked like it belonged in a story set in the time of Charles Dickens rather than St. Nicholas, who lived about 300 years after Christ.  Aside from this anachronism, however, I thought the illustrations added to the charm of the book.  I especially liked the pages at the end when the story transitions back the the present, and you flip from a picture of Nicholas to one of Nick with an identical expression, capturing how the vision of giving had been passed on.

Nicholas and Nick

He could imagine how good it must have felt to secretly give his friends what they had wanted most.  Nick had almost forgotten why people gave presents at Christmas.  He wanted to feel that same joy of giving.

I thought this book did a great job of teaching an important lesson without sounding preachy.  My children mostly enjoyed it because it was about two boys who shared a name with their little brother, but I am glad to have it as a part of our Christmas library to remind them of the joy that comes from focusing on giving gifts rather than receiving them.

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Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls DVD (Crew Review)

New Liberty Video ReviewImagine facing execution for teaching your children how to say the Lord’s prayer in the language you speak at home.  As I watched Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls from New Liberty Videos, I learned that back in the Dark Ages, mothers faced this very threat.  Though many Christians today have multiple Bibles on their shelves, we sometimes forget that most people who have followed God over the ages have not been so fortunate.  The Scriptures are a treasure with a fascinating history, and this DVD offers viewers a glimpse at the Bible’s intriguing past.

What is it?

sMysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls ($19.95) contains video footage from 3 lectures.  Contrary to what the title indicates, only the first segment is actually about the Dead Sea Scrolls.  However, all three are about different topics related to the Bible, its history, and how it came to be passed on to us over the past few thousand years.  Each segment is only about 20 minutes long, so while none of them go into great depth about their topics, they do provide enticing introductions that leave the viewer wanting to learn more.  The format is simple, without flashy graphics, but the information is fascinating enough all on its own.

This DVD would be most interesting to teenagers and adults, so I didn’t watch it with my children (though they did sit with me as I watched the final segment and appeared to be paying attention).  I watched each of the three segments separately since they are all on different topics.

1. Dead Sea Scrolls

In the first segment, Joel Lampe teaches all about the scrolls found at Qumran: the contents, the materials used in creating them, the languages used, as well as a bit about the geography and history of the region.  Did you know that only about 25% of the writings found were from Scripture?  The scrolls contained many other writings, but there were pieces found containing writing from every book of the Old Testament except Esther.

When I hear the word “scrolls,” I picture large pieces of parchment rolled up, but in actuality, the Dead Sea Scrolls consist of 19,000 pieces that scholars have had to carefully reassemble into scrolls.  Lampe tells about the work that has been done on the scrolls since their discovery back in the late 1940’s.  As technology has advanced, scholars have been able to learn more.  For example, infrared technology has allowed them to study writing that was previously impossible to make out, and DNA technology has allowed them to match fragments of the same animal skin parchments rather than relying on visual clues alone to piece together this enormous puzzle.

2. Hebrew Word Pictures

The second segment on the DVD is lecture by Dr. Frank Seekins that provides a fascinating introduction to ancient Hebrew. He’ll have you reading several Hebrew words in minutes.  Hebrew characters represent both sounds (like our alphabet) and pictures (like Chinese characters), so not only do they tell you how to pronounce the word, they also tell you about its meaning.

As he gets deeper into the meanings of the characters, he shows how truths of the gospel were foretold even in the creation of the Hebrew language long before Christ, as well as focusing on words that talk about the relationship between man and woman.  Dr. Seekins is obviously passionate about what he studies, and anyone with an interest in learning about the Scriptures in the original language will finish this portion of the DVD hungry to learn more.

3. The Forbidden Book

The final lecture on Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls is about the history of the English Bible, taught by Dr. Craig Lampe.  Starting back in the time of Constantine, Dr. Lampe traces the history of the Bible from the original Greek text.  He tells of how the Bible was first translated into Latin, which eventually became the only legal language for the Bible, even when it was no longer spoken by most people.  Through the work of men like Wycliffe, Erasmus, Luther, and Tyndale eventually the Scriptures were translated into other languages, allowing thousands to be blessed by the Word of God.

My Thoughts on Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The material in this DVD was too advanced for any of my children, but I was eager to review it because I love learning more about the Bible myself.  The only thing that left me disappointed after watching it was that each segment was so short.  I truly appreciated the passion each lecturer showed for his subject, and I felt that 20 minutes from each really only scratched the surface.  I look forward to seeking out further resources to explore the topics further.

New Liberty Videos has many interesting titles available, and other members of the Crew got a chance to review different DVDs, so be sure to visit the Schoolhouse Review Crew blog to find out about those!

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Middlebury Interactive Languages (Crew Review)

Middlebury collageAs someone who’s never managed to master a second language, I am always eager to try out new tools to help my children achieve what I have not.  I think all children are fascinated by the idea of being able to communicate in a new language, and so mine were as excited as I was by the chance to review the first semester of Elementary Spanish 1: Grades K-2 from Middlebury Interactive Languages.

What is it?

Middlebury Interactive Languages offers online courses for students in Kindergarten all the way through high school in Spanish, French, German, and Chinese.  Here are the courses they offer at each level:

Middlebury Interactive Languages Review

The courses are semester-based, with the amount of lessons in each depending on the grade level.  You can work at your own pace (as we did), or there is also an option to have the student work with a teacher state-certified teacher fluent in the language, which gives a set schedule.  The teacher option is necessary if the student wants to receive credit for the course.  (Middlebury Interactive is accredited as a virtual course provider.)  The cost of each course is $119/semester without a teacher (add an additional $175 for a teacher, making the course $294 total) per student.

Ian has been working in the first semester of Spanish for grades K-2, which has 35 lessons grouped into 6 units:

  • Greetings
  • Numbers
  • Family
  • Colors
  • School
  • Review

Every unit (besides the review) consists of 6 lessons that contain multiple activities.  Although directions are given in English, the rest of the lessons are almost entirely in Spanish.  They use traditional stories and songs from Spanish-speaking countries to provide context for the vocabulary used in that unit, with various activities to allow students to practice what they are learning.  Each lesson includes at least one opportunity for the student to practice speaking, so a microphone is necessary in order to complete these activities.  (The built-in microphone in my laptop worked perfectly without me having to do anything to set it up.)


How We Used It

I used this primarily with Ian (6), but because we have my computer hooked up to our television, my little ones were able to enjoy the program as well.  They mostly just watched Ian work through the different activities in each lesson, saying the phrases along with him.  Occasionally Elijah (4) wanted to do a lesson too, so I would just show him how to go back through the activities Ian had already completed (which were now gray on the sidebar), but each student really needs their own account.


Ian was able to complete an entire lesson within 5-10 minutes.  If we’d missed a lesson I occasionally had him do more than one in a day, but I found that it to be much more helpful to just have a little bit of exposure each day.

For the most part he was able to work independently.  Each unit has a story to go with it, and the video is only in Spanish, so after Ian had watched it a few times I would pull up the translation and read through it with him to make sure he understood as much as possible, but that was really the only time I got involved.


What We Liked

The independence was one of my favorite things about the course.  After a bit of initial instruction (which the program did a great job taking us through), Ian found it very easy to work through the lessons on his own.  Since my own Spanish is limited, I need a program like Middlebury to expose my children to more of the language than I can share with them.

I was also very grateful for the scripts and translations available for each story.  Although usually the pictures were enough to follow along, on the first story there was one part we just didn’t understand until I pulled up the English translation.  Capture2

Ian didn’t dislike any of the activities, but the recording feature was probably his favorite part because he just loved hearing his voice as he played it back.  I also really liked this feature it because I felt like it addressed the biggest difficulty I have had myself in learning new languages: moving beyond reading the words in my head and actually training my mouth to say them.

What Could Have Been Better for Our Family

We really enjoyed Middlebury Interactive Languages and I really don’t have any major complaints.  There were a few minor things that I would have changed for our family:

  • I would have preferred to have the next activity load automatically once one was completed (though neither of my boys had any trouble just clicking their way through).
  • I understand that each lesson is focusing on key phrases, but I found it frustrating when it said, “Click on the ocelot to see what he said,” and then it only gave us a translation for the key phrase.  I would have liked a complete translation with a way of focusing on the specific vocabulary being learned.
  • The calendar has the lessons scheduled one per day 5 days a week (even though Middlebury recommends only using it twice a week in K-2).  Although we were still able to work on lessons whenever we wanted, I would have appreciated a way to schedule them for Ian according to the pace I had set for him (following their recommendation) rather then just having to tell him to ignore the calendar.

My Overall Impression

I really liked the way Middlebury Interactive Languages lessons were taught.  While some of the material was review for Ian, it was presented differently than he has done it before, and there was still plenty for him to learn.  I would recommend the program to anyone looking for a way to immerse their children in a foreign language.

That said, as the mom of a large family, I am more inclined to select resources that I can use with multiple students.  Without some sort of family subscription I am unlikely to use the program beyond this semester, even though we all really enjoyed the lessons.  If such an option were offered, we would enthusiastically return for more semesters with Middlebury Interactive Languages.

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iWitness Books from Apologia (Crew Review)

Apologia Review
I’m always on the lookout for kid-friendly resources to help my children learn about the Bible, so I jumped at the chance to review three books by Doug Powell from Apologia Educational Ministries: Old Testament iWitness, New Testament iWitness, and iWitness Biblical Archeology.  These books are unlike any others I’ve come across, and it was a delight to get the chance to explore them.

About the books

What makes these 9″x6″ softcover books so unique is the way the information is presented on each page.  Rather than separating the text and illustrations, Powell (an award-winning graphic designer with a Master’s degree in Christian Apologetics) has created beautiful full-color pages that integrate the text, making it appear as handwritten notes on separate scraps of paper, parchment, or the pages of books that are part of the pictures.

This creative presentation makes these books easily accessible for older children (reading level is about age 11 and up) while still being “meaty” enough for adults wanting to learn more about how the Bible as we know it came to exist.  I have always had a fascination with the canon of Scripture and the history of the Bible, but in spite of all I’ve previously read on the subject, there was still plenty of information in these books that was new to me.

Each book sells for $14.00.  Here’s a quick look at what they cover:

Old Testament iWitness

Apologia ReviewOld Testament iWitness tells the story of the Hebrew Scriptures:

  • the history of each book
  • the meticulous process the Jewish scribes used when making copies, ensuring that the original text was passed down over the centuries without change
  • comparison of the “Hebrew Bible” with the Old Testament used by Christians
  • what makes these books “inspired” and why are they included in the canon
  • the Old Testament in the Dead Sea Scrolls

Powell also discusses the writings of the inter-testamental period (between the last books to be written within the Old Testament canon and the books of the New Testament).

New Testament iWitness

Apologia ReviewNew Testament iWitness is just as thorough in its coverage of the New Testament books.  Much has been written in recent years about “other gospels” and early writings that are not included in the canon of Scripture.  Powell goes back to when the individual books of the New Testament were written and discusses how they were used by the church in the first few centuries after Christ.

  • lists drawn up by historical church councils
  • criteria used by early Christians to determine canonicity
  • use in the writings of early church fathers
  • rejected books not included in the canon
  • how the New Testament books were copied over the ages
  • information about various manuscript types and how scholars study them

The book provides a fascinating look at how we have been given the New Testament as we know it today.

iWitness Biblical Archaeology

Apologia Review iWitness Biblical Archeology goes through the chronology of biblical history, discussing archeological evidence that relates to biblical figures, places, and events.

  •  inscriptions about flood stories from various ancient civilizations
  • claims about finding Noah’s Ark
  • descriptions of Old Testament battles
  • copies of biblical manuscripts
  • artifacts from Jesus’ time
  • discussion about the Shroud of Turin

Powell covers all sorts of finds that would be of interest to anyone curious about archeology and how it relates to the Bible.

How We Used It

Ian and I started with Old Testament iWitness (although there’s no need to read them in any particular order).  I read aloud to him during our morning Bible time and we worked through several pages each day (as long as his attention span allowed).  Some of it was beyond his understanding, but at the same time I think it was a good introduction to learning about the canon of the Old Testament.  He may not remember the terms “Septuagint” or “Apocrypha” next week, but now that he’s been exposed, I think he’ll notice them more the next time he hears the words.  He already knew the books of the Old Testament, so he was able to understand the comparisons with the Hebrew Bible pretty well.  We haven’t covered the inter-testamental period in history yet (though we discussed it a bit in our Bible lessons when we moved from the OT to the NT), so that part was new to him.

For this review I was expected to read through these books with Ian, and while that was my original intent, I wasn’t able to get through all of them with him.  There was just too much information packed into these three books for me to get through with a 1st grader in 6 weeks.  Once I realized we weren’t going to get through all three books together I decided to skip New Testament iWitness with Ian and just cover what we could out of iWitness Biblical Archeology.

I found iWitness Biblical Archeology to be a wonderful complement to our study of ancient history.  He found the information about the epic of Gilgamesh interesting because we covered it in history earlier this year, and we’ve learned a lot about Egyptian chronology as a family so he was able to understand that as well.  I will definitely be pulling this book out the next time our history cycle covers the biblical period.  It is full of evidence for the truth of scripture and helps show children tangible evidence for what they read in the Bible.

Because I didn’t have time to read New Testament iWitness with Ian during our review period, I read through it on my own.  I found it to be a faith-building study on the history of the New Testament.  Powell does an excellent job of explaining why certain books are included and others are not.  I especially appreciate his explanation of manuscript families and textual criticism, topics of great importance to me in considering which translation(s) to use with our family.  I look forward to using it with Ian (and my other children) in the future.

My Overall Impression

Overall, I’d say at least half of the material was over Ian’s head as a 6-year old.  The visual format kept his interest fairly well as I read out loud, but I know there was a lot he didn’t understand.  However, that in no way detracts from my enthusiasm for these books.  They may not be a great fit for first grade, but I know we will turn to them over and over again in the years to come.

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Planning with Purpose

Educating the WholeHearted Child: Chapter 16

WholeHeartedI love structure.  You might not be able to tell from looking at my house, but I get great satisfaction from bringing order and organization to most part of my life, including homeschooling.  So this chapter (“Structure:Keeping the Homeschooling Together”) was right up my alley.

One thing that stood out for me was the section on “Know Your Priorities” (p.287).  For the past few years I’ve pretty much eliminated our outside commitments, but now that the children are getting a little older, I’ve started stepping back into the world.

There’s an opportunity coming up in a couple weeks that I’m praying about for Ian.  My initial reaction was “Now way–we’re too busy).  But then I actually looked at my calendar and realized some of our other activities would be ending and that really didn’t need to be a hindrance.  So said I’d pray about it.

This section on priorities gave me a lot to think about.  In fact, I had to get out a notepad and start jotting down all that thoughts that started flying through my head with regards to this decision.  Am I just thinking about what’s convenient for me or am I considering how God would use this opportunity to develop the unique gifts He’s given Ian?  Would this really be a God-honoring activity for Ian or would it be a distraction?

I’m not ready to make a decision yet, but the Lord was definitely speaking to me through this chapter, helping me to consider the matter from multiple angles, and I trust the He will guide my husband and I to the right decision and give us peace.  I know as all our children get older, many more opportunities will arise.  This is only the first of many times we’ll need to consider our priorities and pray before letting them jump into something just because it sounds fun.

Each Mentoring Monday I share my reflections on what I’ve been learning from my “paper mentors.”  I am currently joining in a book discussion of Educating the WholeHearted Child by Clay Clarkson (with Sally Clarkson), so my Monday posts are all being sparked by things I’m reading in this fabulous book!

Preschoolers and Peace e-book (Crew Review)

I first stumbled upon Kendra Fletcher’s blog, Preschoolers and Peace, back when my oldest was just entering the preschool years.  As our family has grown, I have found myself returning to the blog over and over to find advice on how to homeschool with lots of little ones in the house.  So when I was given a chance to review Preschoolers and Peace: Homeschooling older kids with success while loving the little ones at your feet, I knew that I would find wisdom to benefit our family.

Preschoolers Collage

What is it?

Preschoolers and Peace: Homeschooling older kids with success while loving the little ones at your feet is an e-book that gleans from some of the most popular posts on the Preschoolers and Peace blog.  The book sells for $2.99 and contains a wealth of information in thirteen short, easy-to-read chapters.  In it you’ll find wisdom about how to run a household and homeschool when you have young children.  If you want to go a little deeper, the “Resources” section at the end of the book contains links to articles related to each chapter for further reading.

Here’s a peek at the Table of Contents:

  • Introduction
  • Ch. 1 What a Homeschooling Mom Needs
  • Ch. 2 Preparing Yourself to Homeschool Older Kids With Little Ones Underfoot
  • Ch. 3 Planning Around Preschoolers
  • Ch. 4 How Do I Keep Them Busy?
  • Ch. 5 What Does a 2-Year-Old’s Day Look Like?
  • Ch. 6 How Do I Get Any Preschooling Done?
  • Ch. 7 How Not to Just Kill Time
  • Ch. 8 Circle Time, Or How We Pull the Little Ones In
  • Ch. 9 Preschool Boys
  • Ch. 10 When All of Your Kiddos Are Preschoolers
  • Ch. 11 Preschool Chores
  • Ch. 12 Planning for Preschool
  • Ch. 13 When Mama is Worn Out (or Pregnant)
  • Meal Planning 101
  • A Final Word of Encouragement
  • Resources

Many of the chapters are about establishing a routine with little ones and offer lots of ideas for ways to get the most out of their early years, making it helpful for any mom of young children, regardless of whether or not she has older ones as well.

My Thoughts on Preschoolers and Peace

Preschoolers and Peace ReviewI wish I had had this book a few years ago!  As I said before, I’ve found a lot of helpful advice from the Preschoolers and Peace blog, but having all of this in one place is fabulous.  I initially printed out a copy so I could highlight and make notes, but that meant I missed out on all the links, which add so much to the value of this little book, so I think reading it on my computer would be my preferred way to go through it, even though I usually try to avoid that with e-books.  (I was given a pdf copy for this review, but the book actually comes formatted for Kindle.)

The main thing I wish I had read back when Ian was Chapter 7: “How Not to Just Kill Time.”  Kendra gives suggestions for moms about filling their days when they only have little ones, things like “organize my recipes into a system that works long term” (because as they get older that would be SO helpful!) or “read the classics I haven’t read” (since it’s hard to find ANY time to read once you have a few more little ones running around).

I also loved the ideas she gives in Chapter 4: “How Do I Keep Them Busy?”  Whether you’re trying to find something for little ones to do while you homeschool older siblings or just want some ways to entertain your preschoolers, you’ll definitely find something new to try in this chapter.

We’ve already started moving toward including the little ones in our morning school routine, so I was really encouraged by what Kendra wrote in Chapter 8: “Circle Time, Or How We Pull the Little Ones In.”  I was freshly inspired to keep up my efforts in this area and excited to put into practice some of Kendra’s suggestions to help our family’s “Couch Time” (as we call it) go a little more smoothly.  (I’m thinking I may need to get her Circle Time e-book next!)

Through it all, I appreciate Kendra’s godly encouragement for other moms and the reminder to keep Christ first in all we do.  For example, when she talks about “Preparing Yourself to Homeschool Older Kids With Little Ones Underfoot” (Chapter 2), her focus is on prayer.

I realized at some point that I needed to get into a habit of praying, because all too often my first thought was, ‘What do I need to do to fix this situation?’ rather than running to prayer.  I needed to remind myself that God has the answers for me and that He wants me to put all my hope in Him, even with the seemingly minor details, such as how I was going to manage nursing the baby while trying to keep the toddler from getting into the trash can and helping that third grader with her math.  Even that” (page 6).

Reading this brought me such a sense of relief.  I’m not alone.  Other moms have the same struggles.  Even better, here’s a mom who has been there and can remind me to look to God when I’m in the throes of parenting lots of little people.

I found this book to be incredibly encouraging, and I highly recommend it to any mother staying home with young children.

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My #1 Job: Love

Educating the WholeHearted Child: Chapter 15

WholeHeartedChildren are an expression of the heart of God.  He loves them and created mothers so they would love them too… As you understand that perfect design and accept it as God’s blessing for you and your children, you strengthen your heart for them and reflect the heart of God to them” (page 280).

When Ian was a baby, I was giddy with the excitement of being a mother at last.  As I prayed about how to be the best mother I could be, I very clearly heard the Lord tell me I only had one job with Ian: to LOVE him.

So simple, but that little word encompasses SO much.  Security.  Acceptance.  Affection.  Grace.

Not only is loving those around us the second greatest commandment after loving God, it is the essential element of our mission as mothers.  Our children learn about the love of God through us.

It seemed like an easy job when he was a baby, but as the years have passed, I’ve realized it is deceptively simple.  The older my children get, the less I feel like I am loving them the way God called me.

I find myself losing sight of my number one job and getting caught up in other tasks, like training and teaching them.  Child-training important, but it’s not supposed to be my focus.  P1040017xI am especially prone to getting distracted by the academic side of homeschooling, simply because I love learning and I delight in sharing the journey with my children.  But educating them is not my number one job.  I am called to LOVE them.

I want to remind myself to set everything else aside when it seems that I’m losing my focus.  I put on this temporary “love tattoo” to help me to keep this in the forefront of my mind this week.  We are taking a break from all schoolwork, and I hope that I can use the time to be intentional about pouring love into my children’s hearts, that when we go back to our routine, their “love tanks” will be filled, and they will have tasted the sweetness of the Father’s love for them.

Each Mentoring Monday I share my reflections on what I’ve been learning from my “paper mentors.”  When I got sick a couple weeks ago, these posts were one of the first things to get pushed aside.  I actually did keep up with my reading, however, and I wanted to try to get back into the habit of writing reflections even though I didn’t write about the last few weeks’ worth of reading, just because it helps me stay focused and accountable.

Discovery Studies: Foreign Language

Educating the WholeHearted Child: Chapter 13 (part 2)

WholeHeartedI think most of us have heard about the benefits of learning a foreign language when you’re young, and the Clarksons addressed that a bit in this chapter on “Discovery Studies.”

“Scientists believe that the first ten years of a child’s life are the peak time for learning language.  A child’s brain in those years is wired by the sounds of language–neural pathways are constructed from what is heard and used, and other factors contribute to make learning a foreign language easier and more natural than at any other time in life” (page 253).

I was fascinated by the German language as a child.  One of the teachers at my elementary school spoke German, and even though I was in the other fifth grade class, I was allowed to go over to his room when he did German lessons because he knew of my interest.  He also gave me a set of audio cassettes with a lesson book and dictionary.  I used to listen to them over and over again, repeating the phrases after the speaker.

I ended up taking four years of German in high school as well, but you know what?  The sound of those simple phrases on the cassettes stand out more in my memory.  There really is something about hearing and learning to speak a language when you are young that sticks in the brain differently than when you are older.

I’ve never fully learned a second language.  In spite of those four years of German class, my abilities were always more in reading the language than being able to participate in a conversation.  I lived in Kenya for a while and learned quite a bit of Swahili and a little Maasai, but while I could understand fairly well, I would never have considered myself fluent.  I also have a fair amount of Spanish floating around in my head, mostly just as a result of living in Southern California.  One time I even had a dream in Spanish, but I’ve never really spent time learning it intentionally.

Until this last year, that is.  I am determined to help my children have more success when it comes to learning languages.  I’ve read controversial articles among homeschoolers about why Spanish isn’t the best language to study, but I think where we live it is an essential skill.  By the time my children grow up, it may be a real hindrance in getting a job if they don’t know Spanish.  I’ve driven through neighborhoods where there are more signs in Spanish than English, and there have been multiple occasions when I’ve been unable to help someone because I don’t speak the language.

“If you want your children to learn a foreign language, you should create a reason for them to want to learn it” (page 253).

While I do hope to inspire my children with mission trips to Spanish-speaking countries, I think just living in Southern California might be reason enough for them to want to learn it.  Our neighbors speak Spanish (though the children are bi-lingual) and while Ian is shy about using what he’s learned with them, he’s also quite proud to tell them, “My mom is teaching me Spanish.”  (If only they knew how incompetent I am!)

I may not know enough to help them become fluent, but I try to make it as fun and appealing as I can, and I hope than by exposing them to the language they will naturally be drawn to learning more on their own.  Actually, I hope that I am just lighting a spark that will ignite a love for foreign language in general, and that all my children will choose to go beyond learning Spanish and dive into German, French and/or other languages as well.  And I think that’s what Discovery Studies are all about!

Each Mentoring Monday I share my reflections on what I’ve been learning from my “paper mentors.”  I am currently joining in a book discussion of Educating the WholeHearted Child by Clay Clarkson (with Sally Clarkson), so my Monday posts are all being sparked by things I’m reading in this fabulous book!

Discovery Studies: The Arts in Homeschooling

Educating the WholeHearted Child: Chapter 13

WholeHeartedThere are many different parts to what the Clarksons call “Discovery Studies,” and I enjoy helping expose my children to all of them, but my favorite is probably the arts, just because music, dance, visual arts, and theater have all been important parts of my own life.

Ian took a couple years of Yamaha music lessons, but for the last year I’ve been teaching both boys piano on my own, which is rather isolating.  I want them to know the joy of making music with others, however, so I’m so thankful that this week my boys have a chance to spend their mornings at music camp.  Both camp and their Friday music classes this fall that will give them a chance to sing in a choir and play hand chimes as well.  I hope they will love being a part of creating something beautiful with their friends.

In the last year, Ian has also starting enjoying artistic expression.  He loves to draw, and we’ve gotten several books that show him step by step how to draw specific things.  This afternoon he created a game board, and all three older kids had a great time rolling a die and moving their game pieces around the board, landing on monsters that sent them back to the beginning.  Then he told me he want to make his own book, “Because lots of other people have made their own books.”  I cut some paper and stapled them into a book, which he then spent the next hour or so filling in with pictures on every page.


I want to make sure I make it a priority to allow him the time for things like this.  He may never be a professional artist of musician, but I hope the arts will always be a part of his life.

Each Mentoring Monday I share my reflections on what I’ve been learning from my “paper mentors.”  I am currently joining in a book discussion of Educating the WholeHearted Child by Clay Clarkson (with Sally Clarkson), so my Monday posts are all being sparked by things I’m reading in this fabulous book!

UberSmart Math Facts (Crew Review)

UberSmart Collage
There are few things that can hinder a child from moving forward in math more than not knowing their basic facts.  It’s the one area I’ve felt like Ian really needs some extra practice, so I was thrilled to be given the chance to review UberSmart Math Facts (from UberSmart Software).

What is it?

UberSmart Math Facts is a Windows based software program that helps students learn their math facts (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) through what is essentially a virtual flash card system.  Because it is software and not Internet-based, there is no need to be online once the user has downloaded and installed the program.

Main Menu

The menu bar offers several different activities to help students work toward mastering their math facts:



This mode allows the user to work through a set of facts using dot cards (more on this in a minute) and/or numerals without being scored.  The student just tries to figure it out and then clicks “Show” to reveal the correct answer.


This mode is similar to the “Learn” mode except that now users select an answer and the program keeps track of how many they get correct.

There is also an option for practicing Keyboard Entry, excellent for students who may not type as quickly as their minds come up with the answers.  Since the tests are timed, it is a helpful skill to develop.


There are two options on the Test menu:

  • The assessment test is for students who are new to UberSmart Math Facts or want to check their progress.  It tests more than just math facts.  The first section is not timed and covers counting, number sequencing, greater than/less than, and odd/even numbers. Then the timed section covers keyboard entry and math facts.  If the student starts to struggle, the test ends without moving on to the next section.
  • The mastery test shows how well students have learned a set of facts.

Students can compete against others from across the globe in a race to see who can answer fastest.  (An Internet connection is required to use this feature.)


Parents (and students) can view and print progress reports showing what facts students have mastered.


This is where parents can add students, adjust settings, change the Administrative password (required for any student adjustments), and check for program updates.

For Beginners

There are several options that allow you to customize what is shown.  For beginners you can use “dot cards” rather than numerals, which provide a visual representation to help develop number sense.  These problems are in a multiple choice format.

UberSmart Math Facts Review
Students who are already comfortable with the concept of addition can use traditional flashcards.


How We Used It

I only used UberSmart Math Facts with my oldest son Ian, who is 6, so we didn’t really plunge into the depths of what the program has to offer.  Elijah (4) asked to do it once, so I added an account for him, but then he never asked again.  Ian used it several times a week to supplement his regular math curriculum.  He didn’t ever request to do it on his own, but neither did he complain when I asked him to use it.

We had a little trouble getting started.  The first thing I had him do was take the Assessment Test.  He missed a few question about odd/even numbers and didn’t type in the answers very quickly, so the program recommended having him just start with Keyboard Entry.

UberSmart Math Facts ReviewI took the suggestion, but within a matter of minutes he was complaining about how boring it was, and I agreed.  It would show a number and he was supposed to type that as quickly as he could.  It might be a useful skill, but it wasn’t what we were there to learn, so I decided to let him move on.

We tried to use the “learn” feature first, but we both found it frustrating that he couldn’t select the right answer.  I suppose the purpose is to allow the students to guess the answer and see if they’re right without having wrong answers marked against them, but Ian was already reluctant to spend time on the program so I just moved on to “Practice.”

This was definitely the right place for Ian, but it took some adjustments to make it work well for him.  He’s a “beginner,” so I started him with dot cards, but then he was spending so much time counting the dots, I felt like it was defeating the purpose of trying to learn facts automatically. Since he already understands the concept of addition well, I decided to switch to using the numbers.  He did okay on that for a few days, while he was mastering the 0’s and 1’s. (My laptop’s touch pad must be really sensitive because occasionally answers would be selected without Ian intending to click anything, and it took a while to get through an entire set with no mistakes.)

Capture5As the numbers started getting bigger, however, it seemed like he needed something more visual, so I went back to the dot cards.  Of course then he went back to counting, which was why we had stopped using those originally.  Finally I checked “show numbers” so he had both the dots and the numerals, and that was when things really seemed to click for him and he was able to work consistently without the frustration he had been experiencing.

Once he settled in, Ian did pretty well with the program.  He tends to be a bit of a perfectionist, so once he missed one problem he would want to start over (or quit).  With encouragement he pushed through, and he did find it very satisfying when he was successful.  He was so proud the day he could come to me and tell me he had learned his 2’s.

Ian is very competitive, but he gets discouraged very easily when he’s not doing as well as he’d like, so I decided he wasn’t ready for the competition part of the program.

What We Liked

There were many ways to customize the program to work for Ian.  In addition to the options for using the dots and/or the numbers, I was able to increase the amount of time he was given for each problem.  In addition to being slower at typing than the program wanted, his mind tends to process things more slowly than many kids, and he would have been frustrated to the point of giving up had he been expected to get everything quickly.  Once he’s feeling more confident I’ll go back to the shorter settings, but for now I’m thankful that I have the option to give him a little extra time so we could just work on the facts.

The window for the game doesn’t take up the entire screen.  At first I worried that Ian would be distracted by everything else he could see on my desktop.  Then I discovered the “full screen” option, which blocks out everything but UberSmart Math Facts.  That was very helpful for keeping him on task.

This program is a great value for larger families like ours.  Everyone’s going to need to learn their math facts at some point, and I appreciate being able to just add new students as needed.

What Could Have Been Better for Our Family

UberSmart Math Facts is designed to be a flexible tool.  With so many ways to customize it, you can really tailor the program to fit your students’ needs.  However, I could have used a little more guidance as to the best way to use it with Ian.  As I said before, the assessment test said he should work on keyboard entry before starting on math facts, but since the whole reason we were using it was to learn facts, that was rather discouraging.  So then I just felt like it was up to me to figure out what to do next.

Another frustration I had was that the program only drilled one set of facts at a time.  I was hoping once it marked that Ian had “learned” a specific set that it would occasionally quiz him on those as he continued working toward the next level.  That way he would not only keep those facts in the forefront of his mind but would also be able to feel successful in the midst of the frustration of learning new facts.  Unfortunately I was never able to figure out how to do more than just the current set.

Although I didn’t have Ian do any mastery tests, I did one myself just to see how that feature worked.  I found it really distracting to have three problems at a time on the screen.  It took a lot of mental discipline to keep my focus only on the problem in the middle when my peripheral vision was seeing the previous and upcoming problems as well.  I wish there was an option to show only the problem being tested, because I know Ian wouldn’t be able to block all the extra numbers out given how intentional I had to be about it.


My Overall Impression

If you’re looking for a no-frills way of practicing math facts then I think UberSmart Math Facts is very helpful.  I know some kids do best without distracting graphics, but Ian is not one of those kids.  Without a “fun” element, he had a hard time staying on task and finding the motivation to spend time on the program.  I did see definite progress over the period we were using this program, but as he continues to work on learning addition facts, I think we’ll try to find something that incorporates more games and entertainment.

Just the Facts

  • Requires Windows 7, 8, XP or Vista
  • For grades K-6, but any age that needs math facts reinforcement can utilize this.
  • 30-Day Free Trial available
  • Download for home use – $24.95
  • Use discount code “v4 Early Bird” for a 30% discount until September 30th.

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