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If you are looking for a one stop, all around help for homeschooling, you can most likely find what you need with Debra Bell’s The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling published by Apologia Press. This update and revised version is probably one of the best homeschool resources available. Debra Bell’s warm and witty style of writing makes it one of the most enjoyable reads available.

If you are looking for help deciding if homeschooling is for you, you have it here. If you are looking for helping finding the right curriculum, you have it here. Debra Bell is an experienced homeschooler and former schoolteacher. She has numerous tips and stories to guide you on your homeschooling journey. With over 500 pages divided into 10 parts and 34 chapters and resource sections, the book is well-organized covering other topics like organizing and planning your homeschool, using computers and choosing computers, homeschooling teens, and evaluating your homeschool and student’s progress. What really makes this book so good in addition to the useful information is the fact that Debra Bell makes it all entertaining. Her humor and her glimpses into her own homeschooling experiences keeps you interested as you learn and gain confidence from her tips and tales.

You can find The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling by Debra Bell for $20.00 and find even more tips at http://www.apologia.com.

I received a free copy of this product in order to write this review, but the opinion expressed here is entirely my own.

Finding good reader series and reading programs can be difficult. Often times, the series vocabulary doesn’t match the students’ learning set. Many times, a student will be learning a set of vocabulary for reading and a totally different set in spelling even if the curriculum is designed with reading and spelling combined. For some students, this can be frustrating if not a fatal blow to their learning process. Last year for The Old SchoolHouse Crew, I reviewed a program called All About Spelling which I found to be a good method to use for many students. You are welcome to check out my All About Spelling review from last year. The authors are creating a series of readers, The Beehive Readers published by Takeaway Press, which follows the levels of their spelling levels which gives excellent support for both reading a spelling in this coordinated style.

For review, I was given level one of the new series. My first impression was more aesthetic, since I am DeafBlind. I approach new things from the angle of touch and smell. The sturdy binding and glossy cover got my attention reminding me of those expensive, but much desired reading books teachers wanted when I was teaching in public school. The durabinding as it was often called lasted much longer and was well worth the cost in the minds of teachers. The Beehive Readers seem to be constructed basically the same way which is a definite plus in my mind. Opening the book, the thick, textured pages were reminiscent of old textbooks from the 1950’s and earlier which had such excellent quality that many are in good condition today. That textured feeling along with the aroma like that of many a good book from that era had me pleasantly remembering stories I read as a child. Many an hour I sat reading books and living adventures much like this one loving that feel and smell all of which kept me longing to be in the pages of a good book. Beehive Reader is made just that way. I can see more students developing that love of books with this quality in their hands. The illustrations are fabulous with the contrast of line drawings similar to a pencil sketching with just the right amount of detail that is focused on the specifics of the words on the page. This format supports the reading process without distracting the student from the reading of the words. Many think color is always necessary to motivate, but that isn’t necessarily true. Autistic Spectrum Disorder students actually do better with simpler line drawing art to help them stay focused.  Other readers also find the line drawings and pencil type sketching fascinating and inviting. Beehive Readers have the quality to entice your student to reading.

Along with quality in the book’s making and illustrations, you need a story that is fun and readable for your student at that level. The authors of Beehive Readers specifically build their stories around the vocabulary in their spelling series by level. They build the stories with as little additional words as possible including avoiding sight words that must be memorized and trip young readers who are still learning the concepts of phonetics and sounding out words. The student can easily learn to read at each level based on what I saw with level one and the description from the web site on how the rest of the series will work because almost every word can be sounded out using the principles of phonetics. The student does not have to be using the All About Spelling program to learn and enjoy this series. The stories can be easily decoded, and the stories are simple to follow and interesting to the students at that level. My students asked to read the book again after we tried it with each the first time. An older student smiled when he was able to read the book’s first chapter on his own by sounding out the words. He said, “There weren’t any words that break the rules.The Beehive Reader level one helps many students learn to read. With or without using their All About Spelling program, students will find the ability to read and enjoy the stories while improving their phonetic skills as an accomplishment they can achieve. At $19.95, parents will find the book excellent quality at an affordable price. Go to http://www.beehivereaders.com/ to find out more.

Piano instruction can be very beneficial to any child. It can also be fun and rewarding for all. One of the best times to begin instruction is the Pre-school years. Students are naturally curious and love to move their bodies to music. Capture those moments to begin teaching skills that are fun, but transferrable to many other things in life. One of the best of the few programs available at this age is Kinderbach. I received a free three month subscription both last year and this year to review this product. You can find my post from January 6, 2009 here at https://wynfield.wordpress.com/2009/01/06/piano-instruction-for-preschoolers/  to get a full review of what I thought then. As I was requested to take another look at the program, I decided to do two things: first, check with my parents who had chosen to use the product after reading my blog last year to get their first hand experiences, and secondly, try to program with another DeafBlind student who loves the feel of music. You may be wondering why I would want to bother working with music with a child who can’t see and hear. Well, this child can see a little, and with special systems can hear a little, but regardless of the degree of vision and hearing loss, this child is able to feel music. With fun activities, I wanted to see if he could get any benefit with the program.

 First, I checked with the several families that I know who are using Kinderbach with their families. The students range from two to eight with various ability levels. One has an older child of nine who is autistic. The mother found that her daughter enjoyed joining in with the preschooler in the family. The mother was delighted because it was the only time the autistic child would interact with other members of the family except mother and occasionally, father. Another parent noted that an older child of twelve who took formal piano lessons outside of the home who was often nearby when she worked with the six year old in the family with Kinderbach would be tapping his foot or pencil in time with the beat bugs. The mother asked if he like the Kinderbach DVD to which he responded, “Nah, that’s baby stuff.” However, the piano teacher asked a few weeks later about the beat bugs and what did it mean because the son’s understanding of notes and rhythm seemed to have improved and was showing in his performances of music he had previously struggled with. The mother chuckled, and said, “Why, Kinderbach!” All of the parents seemed to enjoy the program. A few were pleasantly surprised that their young children were actually playing music on their own. One parent stated that it was the easiest part of her day. “We began with doing music just one day a week, but it is now done every day. We have so much fun.”

With all the glowing reports from the other parents, you wonder just what would happen with a DeafBlind child. You can’t help, but be realistically pessimistic. There are obvious problems with the program in regards to a deaf or deafblind child. The child has to be able to access the program in some way to get any benefit, of course. In this case, we plug the child’s FM system (a device that sends the sound source directly to the child’s hearing aids through radio transmission) which allows him to get some amount of speech, music, and/or noise from the monitor. The parent also sits the child very close to the monitor allowing the child to see better with his telescope glasses. The parent also has to sign in the child’s hands the dialogue for the program and the songs. I provided a stuffed donkey to represent Dodi who is the primary character for representing the keyboard in the program. We make the Dodi’s house cutout for him too and sign “Dodi’s House” to the child. It is important for us to introduce the props and basic idea of “we are going to find out where Dodi, the donkey, lives today.” As we present the program, we allow the child to indicate if and when we continue. Of course, it is the actual music that gets this child interested. He bounces whenever music is played, and often touches the speakers to see if he can feel even more of the vibrations. In time with lots of patient signing, we were able to get the child to understand that he could play the white key outside of Dodi’s home and make music that sounded like the DVD. We played the DVD initial lessons just a few times over a few days. After a weekend, the child continued his daily routine without coming to see me. We weren’t sure if there had been any impact until the child the next week began signing “Dodi Music” over and over. The parent had to come borrow my DVD and small keyboard. He asks for “Dodi Music” every day now. The two haven’t gotten very far in the lessons, but the child is fascinated with making his own music. Fortunately, we can plug the keyboard into his FM system, too, but he still likes to touch the keyboard to feel even more vibrations from the keyboard itself. Kinderbach is not designed for the deaf or deafblind, nor should they be expected to be. It was just nice to have this type of program available that we could work with, since neither I nor the parent are necessarily music inclined. Using Kinderbach, we have been able to expose this child to something not necessarily within his realm of possibilities. For a deafblind child, the mere exposure is the ability to mark a milestone for understanding of the world around him.

 The vendor may be surprised with this review using such a unique tactic, but I feel it shows that Kinderbach is a good quality program for delivering music foundations in a delightful way to the young child at a time when learning those skills can also be beneficial in other aspects of the child’s developmental growth. There are now six levels to the program at a maximum cost of $40.95 per DVD level with combination packages of DVD and CD of activity pages increasing savings, and an online version for as low as $7.99 per month with annual prepaid subscription of $95.88 or $19.99 per month. You can try the online version for $5.95 for one day to see if it is a good fit for your family. Check out http://www.kinderbach.com to bring a little music into your family’s life.

 The vendor did provide a free product subscription for a specified time in return for a review, but the opinion expressed in this view is entirely my own.

Recently, I received from The Old SchoolHouse Magazine as part of the Crew a request to do a review for MathScore. As with other products, I received the chance to use it for free, but I will review it based on my own opinion. MathScore is an online math assessment and practice program. It provides thousands of randomly chosen problems to assess your student’s math level and practice their weak concepts. Math levels covered include first through Algebra I. This site could provide a much needed assessment tool for schools and homeschoolers.

 The program, developed by graduates of MIT, is designed to accurately assess and prescribe practice regardless of math curriculum or method taught to the student. Students have access to a basic Core assessment test which then lists the results and any necessary topics that need to be further taught. The system has worksheets and mini lessons for each topic covered. The student can access as many worksheets as needed to practice the skills taught in the mini lessons. The student can then be reassessed for the topic after practice. Student gets detailed results of their assessments and practice answers. Parents have a separate log in that allows them to get detailed results and teaching suggestions including details of their students’ use of the program. Each time the student logs in, the program keeps detailed records of total log in time, time spent actually working, number of problems done, percentage correct, and percentage of attention span. I had several students at different levels try out the program. I even tested each student with the television on nearby, too. Of course, I never allow TV watching in school, but I wanted to test this attention span percentage. The program very simply, but accurately gave me a report to let me know just how distracted my students were while doing the lesson and worksheets. I also received emails letting me know when my students worked and how much was accomplished. This could be a useful tool for a busy parent to monitor their children’s working time without having to actually sit by them the entire time. If they don’t work you know it. When they do work, you can tell just how much effort was put into the work and how successful they were doing it. I particularly liked the Copy sections of the program which helps the student learn to type their answers more accurately and more quickly. This is a much needed skill for most students. The program wasn’t designed originally to be a teaching program in the sense of a full curriculum, but the site information states that many homeschoolers do use it that way because of the presence of the mini-lessons. I personally don’t recommend that blindly, but it could be used as a tool to decide when the student needs additional and more teacher-focused instruction.

In regards to special needs and/or accessibility, most parents and students will find the program easy enough to use. Children with reading difficulties will find there isn’t a lot of difficult text to read, but if there is a problem reading a text to speech reader such as Text Aloud or any free program should help there. Hearing blind using a screen reader will find it useless as will braille readers because the site uses frames, and the main text frame isn’t provided for the sc reenreader to use. This is a major reason why accessibility rules of the ADA and FCC require web sites to maintain a text only or accessible version for alternate use. Flash, Java, JavaScript, frames, etc. are not seen by screenreaders and braille displays; thus, it makes these types of pages inaccessible to the hearing blind and deafblind user. On MathScore, some of the links are available and can be followed, but the main part of the program or details on the page sent to by a link is in the main frame inaccessible to the reader because it is not actually on that webpage, but accessed from a separate file. Therefore, I can’t recommend this program to many of my readers at all. Although useful to some, a web site needs to be accessible by all, or it is discriminatory. A reorganization of the interface could easily eliminate these issues and broaden the market of the program.

The MathScore program, though not a good solution for all students, is affordable. The cost for one student is $14.95 per month, but can be as low as $9.95 per month with a time commitment. Additional students can be added for increasing discounts to as low as $3.95. Check it out for yourself at http://www.mathscore.com.

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