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Renée K. Walker—Foreign Languages—Winter 2010/11

American Sign Language

By Renée K. Walker

Foreign language credit for high schoolers can be a nightmare for many homeschooling parents and students. Many public and private school students feel they are lucky when their state does not require it for high school graduation. Homeschoolers also often try to avoid it, but many find that colleges will not accept students without it. However, foreign language should not be overlooked as an essential part of a child’s curriculum. Like art and music instruction, foreign language study enhances intellectual growth in the student. It can also improve public speaking skills and self-confidence.

Foreign language instruction isn’t complicated if you shop around for the best curriculum to suit your needs. The biggest decision you have to make is the first one, though: Which language do you want your students to learn? While there are many, in the homeschool world most choose French, Spanish, German, or Latin. There is another choice that many overlook, but it has a great potential to do good in the community around you.

Why Study American Sign Language?

As the third most-used language in the United States, accepted as a true language by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989, and acceptable for study in most public and secondary schools for foreign language credit, American Sign Language (ASL) is an excellent choice for study. Some foreign language teachers question the validity of ASL as a true language, but linguistics experts do not question it, because it has its own system of grammar and syntax and is constantly changing as it grows within its culture and community of speakers. ASL is now accepted in most states for foreign language credit for high school graduation, and most colleges recognize it as well. Many colleges are even beginning to offer ASL instruction, with more and more offering interpreting programs in order to help address the certified interpreter shortage across the country.

High schoolers and families learning ASL have the potential of bringing light into a dim world for many Deaf people, especially DeafBlind people. You and your students’ lives can be enriched by the love and support of the Deaf community, which is indeed a culture of its own.

The study of ASL cannot be carried out successfully without a study of the culture and its history. Deaf and DeafBlind people are at a disadvantage in the hearing and sighted world. Communication issues prevent full access to many of life’s activities that most of society need and enjoy. If more people in the hearing world would take the time to learn ASL, a bridge could be built that would allow three cultural groups to meet, and new and exciting relationships could be developed. A Deaf person could easily ask a salesperson for help in the department store or order a meal at the restaurant or merely chat with a hearing person in the long line at the grocery store. A DeafBlind person could more easily find an assistant to help her write out bills or call a repairman to fix a broken window or simply have a visitor to share the afternoon with, dispelling the boredom for a while. Anything you can do in communicating with the Deaf or DeafBlind will be such a joy to a person who is sidelined from the hearing world due to communication issues.

If you find that you truly love American Sign Language and the Deaf culture, consider becoming a certified interpreter. There is a shortage of interpreters across the country. Trained interpreters are needed to help Deaf and DeafBlind people thoroughly understand what is happening in legal and medical situations. Their health or legal status could be in danger if they do not fully understand what is happening in those situations. Mastery of ASL is also a key to careers in Deaf Education and DeafBlind Studies. Learning ASL has the potential to help in so many ways, and no matter how big or small, the help is so very needed and appreciated.


If the question now is, “Okay, I want to teach ASL, but how can I go about teaching a language that is so different?” the help is out there, and finding it is easy. Many colleges and area agencies for the Deaf offer fairly inexpensive community classes, which are excellent choices. There are free options as well. The best free options are found on the Internet. The website, created and operated by Dr. Bill Vicars, a Deaf ASL native and certified ASL teacher, is highly recommended by many Deaf agencies and by the Helen Keller National Center For Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults. You also can register with Lifeprint and submit lesson work and videotapes that are accepted for full credit in many places.

Numerous print resources are available for the study of American Sign Language and Deaf culture. A curriculum that gives a thorough study of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax is a series titled American Sign Language Green Books by Dennis Cokely and Charlotte Baker-Shenk. This series is published by Gallaudet University Press, a division of the first school for the Deaf and Deaf College, Gallaudet University. The Everything Sign Language Book: American Sign Language Made Easy by Irene Duke is a good choice for finding a lot of information in one place. The American Sign Language Phrase Book by Lou Fant, The American Sign Language Handshape Dictionary with optional flash card sets, and The Gallaudet Dictionary of American Sign Language are excellent resources, all of which can be purchased at

"Fingerspelling Chart ABC copyright by"

"Fingerspelling Chart ABC copyright by"

Find and use a chart of the American Manual Alphabet for fingerspelling. Twenty-six handshapes correspond to each letter of the alphabet. The Manual Alphabet is used in only a limited fashion in ASL, but fingerspelling and the handshapes play important roles. The Lifeprint website offers an alphabet chart, and most ASL resources will include one.

Regardless of the particular American Sign Language curriculum you choose, find a mentor—an interpreter, ASL teacher, fluent signer, or native speaker, who can make sure you are learning the signs properly and using them correctly. It is difficult to learn a sign using only a picture or even a video presentation. If possible, find a mentor in the Deaf community. He or she will help you not only to properly apply the skills learned in the curriculum, but also to enrich your vocabulary. You can form lasting bonds that not only will enrich the class but will enrich your lives as well.

A Few Considerations

Before you begin your study of American Sign Language, there are a few things that need to be considered. Many hearing individuals have the misconception that ASL is an easy or a simple language. That is probably derived from a misunderstanding of how the grammar and syntax works or from a direct translation that sounds similar to baby talk, but isn’t. ASL is a rich visual language that actually paints pictures with more detail than any verbal language does. The grammar and syntax is more like Japanese or Navajo than English. Learning any foreign language can be a challenging task, and learning American Sign Language is no exception. Consider this when choosing the language of study for your student.

Another aspect to consider is that some students who may have been overlooked for foreign language study due to learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, or auditory /visual processing disorders may be capable of learning and actually benefiting from acquisition of a visual language rather than a verbal one. Also, many hearing people think that any form of communication done with signs is sign language or ASL. However, many modes of communication use the hands to facilitate interaction and teaching of English to the Deaf. Signed Exact English (SEE) is one in which every English word is signed. It uses ASL signs and SEE signs, i.e., signs made to cover signs not found in ASL, because ASL doesn’t use the same syntax as English.

Pidgin Signed English, also known as Contact Language, is another tool that is used to bridge the gap between the hearing and the Deaf. It uses mostly American Sign Language signs, but in English word order. It is similar to ASL in that you don’t sign the forms of “be” or every single word.

All of these approaches are ways to communicate with the Deaf and may be beneficial if communication is the motivation or if used as a bridge to teach English skills to the Deaf. However, these approaches are not foreign languages, because they do not have a syntax or grammatical system of their own. They merely represent English words formed with the hands in a visual manner. For this reason, study of these approaches does not qualify for foreign language credit at the high school or college level.

When you choose a curriculum, ASL must be listed as the language of study. A listing of “sign language” is not enough to identify the subject as American Sign Language. Finally, ASL study must include a study of its history and culture of the Deaf community. In no other language have the creation and evolution of a language been so obviously impacted by the history and culture of its speakers as with ASL. Your study will enhance your understanding not only of the language but of the lives of members of the Deaf community as well. Their struggles and progress have united them uniquely as a community.

With all this good information from reputable sources, there are no excuses to not learn American Sign Language, a tremendous skill that can be acquired and enjoyed by you and your students. Do yourself a favor and after checking with your colleges of interest and/or your state requirements regarding foreign language credit, seriously consider American Sign Language for your students’ foreign language credit. The choice can bring joy to your family and the life of many Deaf and DeafBlind people.


First published by The Old SchoolHouse Magazine, Winter 2010/11.


*Due to the nature of this product, the fact that it is a full curriculum, and the detailed description of the product, its procedures, and useful modifications for the blind and DeafBlind members of my audience, this is a long post. However, the information is important and aspects of what you do not need can be easily skipped during reading. Please do not let the length deter you.*

"All About Reading Basic and Interactive Kit"

"All About Reading Basic and Interactive Kit"

Everyone seems to have an idea how to teach your child to read no matter what issues your child may have. Some are nothing more than snake oil or copied methods, good or bad, from days gone by. In formal education settings, one might say that the teaching of reading never changed for a century or more. It was a “one size fits all” kind of thing. I have taught many students to read, and usually without a “proper curriculum”. At that time, I really hadn’t found a suitable curriculum, and often, my students didn’t quite fit the “one size fits all” method. I struggled on my own creating my own materials by hand and discovering the strengths and weaknesses of each student teaching to the strengths and working to improve the weaknesses through trial and error. A loving parent or truly caring teacher longing to teach their struggling child to read is a perfect recipe for innovative teaching systems. I have reviewed a few here for you to check out before. One that I bring to you now, I have reviewed in parts before as the author has developed products beginning with spelling, and as she learned more, her system grew into a full reading program. You can read my other reviews on All About Spelling and All About Homophones  and Beehive Readers along with the reader, What am I from the archives. Now let’s see how this program by Marie Rippel which has become All About Reading has grown.

I was sent All About Reading: Level 1, a full curriculum teaching all key reading skills in a multisensory method which is mastery-based and customizable utilizing step-by-step lesson plans. The program comes with a full teacher’s manual including the step-by-step lesson plans and instructions for using all of the course materials, three volumes of short stories developed specifically for learning to read the vocabulary presented in the program at each phase, student packet with thick paper phonogram and word cards, and a student workbook with activities designed to teach and practice the key reading skills. The Deluxe Reading Interactive Kit, sold separately, contains letter tiles, magnets for the letter tiles, Basic Phonograms CD-ROM (playable in a computer only), reading divider cards, reading review box, tote bag, and smiling star stickers. The materials and container are all well-made and sturdy enough to last through many students. You could laminate the phonogram and word cards which are 4.25 inches by 2.75 inches of sturdy card stock to make them more durable, if you wish. The letter tiles and tabbed reading card dividers have already been given a glossy laminated coating. The teacher’s guide and consumable workbook have sturdy bindings with glossy coatings. The workbook has pre-perforated pages to ease removal, and the activities are separated individually and clearly marked by lesson number. The student texts are made with high quality paper and a sturdy binding reminiscent of fine textbooks of days gone by with a glossy coating. These are products designed to be in use for many years.

After your initial preparation of the materials included in the highly recommended and affordable Deluxe Interactive kit which takes about 45 minutes to an hour to separate the cards and tiles and place them in the reading box provided and a zip type bags, you will then have very little preparation to do to successfully carry out the program. Your preparation only needs a couple of minutes to use the provided CD-ROM of the phonograms for the lesson to ensure that you can pronounce them clearly for student understanding, and another five minutes to preview the lesson layout, and a final five minutes to preview the activity and gather the needed materials. Of course, having the basic needs like tape, scissors, stapler, crayons or markers always handy for the student will help cut down on your prep time even more. The final preparation time is very important and should not be left out. It involves deciding and gathering your read-aloud time books. I like the fact that read-aloud time is such an important aspect of this program. Ms. Rippel gives you plenty of help in learning how to prepare and implement read-aloud time successfully from deciding the best time of day to read-aloud to gathering an appropriate variety and types, and how to minimize distractions. She also makes it clear why this time is so valuable by gaining important background knowledge on various subjects, developing a larger vocabulary, and hearing a variety of language patterns while all of this helps give your child a higher reading comprehension when the child begins to read independently. Even the busiest of teachers can fit lesson preparation for this program into their day.

The basic lesson model for most lessons begins with Review. Review the phonogram and word cards from the previous lessons. If the student knows the sound or word well, you can move the card from the review section of the box to the mastered section. You will find the words for the beginning lesson and new words as they are added in the future lessons section which helps to best organize your box and keep only a few in the section you are working with daily. You will then teach new letter sounds by showing the phonogram cards and saying each sound and having the student repeat the sound. Review them and then place the cards in the review section of the reading box for the next lesson. Using a magnetic board or table, you review the same sounds with the letter tiles practicing until they can say the sound accurately. The lesson also builds in exercises with the letter tiles to practice commonly confused letters such as “b” and “d”.  You will also use the letter tiles to build words and show the student how to sound out words by touching the letter and saying the sound followed by sliding your finger underneath each tile as you sound out the word. Other aspects of the lesson such as changing initial letter sounds to make new words, and color-coded letter tiles to help identify vowels and consonants, and board labels to organize consonant teams and different spellings of different sounds followed by activities from the student book teach and develop the key components of reading which are phonological awareness, phonics and decoding, fluency (which is often overlooked especially at this stage), vocabulary, and comprehension. Using sight, sound, and touch, your student is actively engaged as the student learns and applies new learning immediately.

With my own students, I followed the program step by step and modified the materials when it was necessary for my learning disabled, low-vision, blind, deaf, and DeafBlind students. The program being based on the Orton-Gillingham approach and the latest research is very beneficial as is for most learning disabled, dyslexic students. Ms. Rippel begins her instructional method based on this approach at the beginning of the reading process (there is a Pre-1 level for preschoolers and Kindergarteners, too) which is seldom done in regular school programs. Many begin using a program suitable for these children after they begin to struggle with the regular program. Starting from the beginning using the researched approaches sounds like the better idea. Now being DeafBlind myself, I scanned the text and teacher’s guides into software such as OpenReader which then translated the OCR’ed text into braille. This let me independently prepare for the lessons and even prepare the readers with braille. With my other students, I modified or created my own tiles using braille for the letter, sound, and key word clues for my blind and DeafBlind students and myself, since I need that to teach the students. The sound cards provided are yellow with black typed .5 inch to .75 inch thick, clear letter fonts without serifs or “tails” which should be readable for most students including low-vision students. Legally blind students may need larger font cards made on white background or other individually-suited backgrounds with print color that provides good contrast. As I have done with another set of readers received from this author, I brailled adhesive plastic for the text of the books in the same reading pattern as used by the author on the pages. The pages of the books are delightfully textured like linen paper and have a smell both of which tickle the senses like books of old. This is great for those students who love sensory stimuli and blind and DeafBlind who rely on the other senses for pleasure and information. Visually, the illustrations are simple, but pleasing using an interesting snapshot and card label layout like it is a picture of a scrapbook page. The illustrations depict scenes that aid comprehension, but they do not go so far as let you read the text just from pictures like some children who can look at the pictures and almost perfectly word the text as if they are truly reading, but aren’t. With these modifications, the program can be beneficial for many types of students and used as independently as possible by most teachers regardless of abilities or disabilities.

The final aspect you may be wondering is whether, even if the materials can be modified for use, the method is actually beneficial for most types of students especially Deaf, blind, and DeafBlind. For those students, the sensory aspect seems to be missing some elements at first glance, but if you understand the way these students learn and think, you will see that multi-sensory is still in operation. The Deaf may not hear and many may not speak, but they speak with their hands; and therefore, it is there you find their voice, and it is naturally kinesthetic. Their eyes allow them to read print, but also in many cases their natural language is often “read” on the hands. Reading print and reading signs stimulates different parts of the brain. The blind and DeafBlind do not see directly, but they do visualize print or braille and the pictures that reading brings in their minds, so with individual words and letters they see that printed or braille letter in their mind, and then in reading the words come alive like movies. Their fingers do the reading rather than the eyes, but it is also naturally kinesthetic as the brain receives the movement of the hands and the texture of the braille dots. Like the Deaf, the reading of braille stimulates another part of the brain for the blind. The hearing blind will also hear the teacher’s voice and the sound of their own as they say the words out loud. The Deaf and DeafBlind do not hear the sound even if they can talk, but the multi-sensory presence is still there, and many will mouth the words or at least some of the sounds as they read in braille or tactually read the sign. Yes, these students can benefit, too, as my students showed, but the teacher does need to understand the differences and make sure that as many communication methods as possible are used along with the tactile uses of the cards and tiles as prescribed by the author. Although there is no study on the use of non-braille specific curriculums for teaching the blind and DeafBlind, my work with my own students seems to indicate that using good quality programs such as All About Reading modified for their needs, can be just as beneficial if not more, since the researched methods of dealing with learning difficulties is built-in to some of these products, especially All About Reading. I certainly cannot guarantee that what I have seen work with my students will work with yours, and the author, of course, didn’t develop her methods with these types of students in my mind, but you might want to check it out for yourself based on your students’ abilities, since braille curriculums are expensive for the parent who has chosen to teach their student at home or even a small Special Needs school.

The All About Reading program can be purchased on-line at the All About Learning web site, The basic program with the teacher’s guide, student readers, and student workbook can be purchased for $99.95. The Basic Interactive Kit which has the tiles, cards, Phonograms CD-ROM, and magnets can be purchased for $28.95. A Deluxe kit with the basic kit contents plus a tote bag, star stickers for student progress chart, and Reading Review box can be purchased for $48.95. Individual components of both kits can be purchased separately, as needed. Other levels and supplemental resources can be found on their site, as well. All of this high quality and researched materials make All About Reading an excellent program that will be useful for many types of students and last for years. A great reader learns to love learning.

For me, I don’t always recommend a product. I just will give you very specific details about a product and how it might be beneficial with different groups. All About Reading is a program that I can recommend.

To read other reviews about this product and others from The Old SchoolHouse Crew, go to the TOS Crew blog.

Though I was provided a product to review for this blog, I have not been compensated in any other way, and the opinion expressed here is entirely my own.

I have often been asked for products that teach the concepts of fractions besides the old and possibly tired fraction pie resource. TOS Crew has reviewed a few good and different ones in that you can check out in the Blog Cruise archives. Recently, though, a couple of fun game products were sent to us to review that I think are quite unique. If your student really doesn’t feel motivated to learn fractions, the one I was sent is definitely worth a try. Fractazmic is a fun game that teaches fractions and numbers and measurement. And did I mention that it is a game! What better way to learn!

The basics of the game are to create a hand and have the most hands before any player runs out of cards. A hand is created by adding together the fraction cards of the same suit to equal one. There are three suits in three different colors. The sixteenths suit is red, the twelfths suit is blue, and the tenths suit is green. Within a suit, the cards show fractions that can be added together. When you have cards that total together to equal 1 in that suit, you have a hand. For example, in the twelfths suit or blue cards, you might have ¼ and 1/3 and 5/12. Those fractions when changed to equivalent fractions with the same denominator can be added to equal 1 such as 3/12 plus 4/12 plus 5/12 equals 12/12 or 1. Using graphical depictions on the colorful cards, the student can quickly make the mental calculations required while learning and reinforcing the concepts of equivalent fractions and adding of fractions. Each suit uses a different application for representation of the fraction amount such as eggs in a cartoon for the twelfths suit, water in a water bottle for the tenths suit, and a close up view of a ruler for the sixteenths suit thus teaching the concepts of numbers, fractions, and measurement. To aid even further the quick mental calculation, the ruler graphic used in the sixteenths suit also depicted cute little brown ants and green grasshoppers to visually and quickly see one sixteenth unit and 4 sixteenths units. This visually helps the student to remember that 1 grasshopper is 2/8 or 4/16 allowing for quick denominator change and adding along with the addition of the number of ants to better see and calculate the ones. This is an excellent use of visuals for mental calculation and concept reinforcement.

Along with the colorful concept depictions, the game play is simple and fast moving to motivate and encourage even the most reluctant of math learners. The play really does make it fun while teaching the complex concepts and the “why it works” behind the math.

Many special needs populations should benefit from the colorful representations of the fractions in comparison of equivalency especially learning disabled students. I will give suggestions for modifying the cards or adding to the cards that can work, especially if you wish to include your special needs students in play with your other students. These are merely suggestions. You may feel that they are more complex or work intensive than the benefit brings. You can decide that for yourself. If you have students who really need more tactile and kinesthetic representations, start with tutor-aided demonstration games where the student has a tutor to help him manipulate real objects of an egg carton with wooden or plastic eggs, a liter water bottle with the same graduated increments (if the student needs more than just counting the line markings to visually see the amount, use a clear water bottle and pre-measured colored plastic page strips that can be slipped inside the bottle to represent water to the desired level), and an oversized ruler or card-drawn ruler (if needed or to add more textured manipulation for the student who needs multisensory input to attach meaning to objects and words, and allow for the same visual effect for quick mental calculation, use appropriately sized models of an ant and a grasshopper). For blind and DeafBlind students, I would use the real objects first to help the student grasp the representation of the fraction and addition of fractions. The cards are easily brailled with the fractions each card represents and the word name or fraction name with the word suit to distinguish suit differences. After the student fully grasps the object representations, tactile markings can be placed on the cards to remind the student of the components for calculation. Or the cards can be brailled with the additional cell for the suit fraction such as the ¼ card of the twelfths suit can be brailled with “3 eggs” or the 3/12 fraction cells. Thus, the card would have the ¼ braille cells (with or without the number braille sign), the word twelfths or the number 12 and ths cells for 12ths representing the suit, and the braille cells for 3/12 or “3 eggs to cover all of the needed information to play the game successfully depending on the memory aids needed for the student. It must be noted that tactile markings and braille cells will make it necessary to be gentler when shuffling and during game play. Tactile markings may have to be reapplied occasionally, too. Again, these modifications are just ways to try to make the cards more useful to more student populations.

Fractazmic can be found at for just $6.95. The website also describes other ways to play and listings of other great card games to learn other math concepts.


To read other reviews about this product and others from The Old SchoolHouse Crew, go to the TOS Crew blog.

Though I was provided a product to review for this blog, I have not been compensated in any other way, and the opinion expressed here is entirely my own.


As in a recent post, I mentioned that I have taught many subjects in public, private, and homeschools over the years. Technology is one of them. My students always seemed to love robotics. Recently, I was sent a neat little robot kit called “Bug” from TeacherGeek. Most robot kits are that I have used over the years are similar even if the theme was different. This one’s theme was a bug. There were a couple of differences though to this that I like.

One difference from the kits I have had in the past was the fact that once you built the robot using the instructions and then programming it once in some way either by a device on the robot itself that let you do minimal directional changes or the robot merely would go until it hit something and then change directions via a sensor or you used a very simple computer software program to give limited directions. Now as a teacher, I had access to other ways and programming languages to do more advanced programming, but the kits never gave you that kind of thing. So, you would build the kit and play with it a little bit doing the simple things you could do with it, but mostly you just watched it move and twirl some. Neat at first, but it was quickly boring. This kit includes a manual called “Electronics Lab” (teacher’s key provided as a download with a code with purchase) that uses inexpensive alligator clips found at hardware and electronics stores or the TeacherGeek web site that you use at first for connecting to switches, creating different circuits, and exploring different elements of electronics as you change the bug in different ways. You can’t do that with most of the other kits I have found.

Another difference is that the Bug is a simple build with student-friendly parts making it easy for students as young as third grade to create and enjoy a fun project. It is also capable of being used to go further as mentioned previously with the lab manual and a few inexpensive parts. Most kits I have found were just too simple or way too complicated and involved. I like the fact that I can use the same kits with all my students and let them go as far as their interest and ability allows them to go.

I also must mention what might be a third difference and is the final wiring manual. After building and exploring, the last manual does an excellent job as a last challenge to permanently wire the bug including soldering. It checks understanding of schematics by letting them figure out the final schematic, followed by placing the wires according to the schematic, and then prepare the wire for wiring, and finally soldering. The teacher check’s off at each step to make sure the final results in a robot bug that goes forward, can be reversed by pushing a switch, and most importantly, doesn’t short circuit. The soldering instructions are included and are easy to follow and clear making first time soldering as easy as can be made. Some kits require you to look up soldering somewhere else, or their instructions are very lacking in detail and unclear. My students enjoyed the build and are still exploring much to all our delights.


Accessibility isn’t really advisable here for every group, but with supervision, this could be used by many tactile learners, learning disabled students, and some ASD students, especially Asperger’s. I brailled the steps for me by scanning the documents in, but I needed sighted help, of course, checking things some. I could feel the wire placement and even soldering once cooled, but I still will use a sighted aid. Blind and DeafBlind students who are older and more skilled can learn to do these projects, too, if you braille the instructions, give them a sighted helper, and teach them to know what they are feeling. I only let the oldest and most capable blind students solder, but feeling where they would solder first and then lightly and carefully, they can be taught with patience and practice. Try on practice parts first, of course.

Check out this project, accessories, and other products from TeacherGeek at The best thing about this project is the price. The single bug kit is $29.98, but multiple packs of 10 and 50 allow you to get enough for the whole family or co-op classes for as low as $6.29 for each bug. For the next three months, my readers can also get 10% off any of the TeachGeek products by using the code:hschool. Now there is no excuse not to try. In fact, this comes just in time for Christmas, so why not get Bugged!


To read other reviews about this product and others from The Old SchoolHouse Crew, go to the TOS Crew blog.

Though I was provided a product to review for this blog, I have not been compensated in any other way, and the opinion expressed here is entirely my own.

For several years, I taught technology and computers in the public schools for upper elementary, middle school, and high school. Prior to that, I taught all subjects in middle school and high school including many special needs students. Of course, I had more vision during those years as I have Retinitis Pigmentosa. In the years that my boys were in scouting and I was Scoutmaster, the activities I did with them were often similar. Of all the things we did like building bridges out of paper and wood, making egg packages for safe drops, robots and other stuff, I have to admit building a life-size catapult with the scouts was my most memorable. Recently, I was sent a product from Pitsco, Inc. that brought back a lot of fun memories from those days. You see they sent members of the TOS Crew some projects to review. I received the trebechet and catapult kit or siege machines from one of my favorite periods in history, medieval times.

For grades 5-12 with some extensions below if providing lots of help or group effort, the siege engine is sure to provide many hours of educational fun, if not chaos. The kit provides the parts for two projects: a trebuchet and a catapult with each being suitable to lay siege to any number of miniaturized castles or villages. The spiral-bound guide provides history, numerous historical trivia facts, safety guidelines, and activities teaching concepts from science, technology, engineering, and math. You will also find additional resources to supplement and enhance your study, as well as, all the national teaching standards covered by the activities. You are given just what you are needed to begin your exploration of the fun and learning of siege machines and even going beyond.

The projects were easy to assemble. From the easy-to-remove, pre-punched parts to gluing (specific type of glue is required and doesn’t come with the kit, but it is sold by Pitsco, Inc. and is easy to find at other online sites, inexpensively) to final construction, the steps were fairly easy to follow. The pictures were a bit dark, but they were ok. You will need a few tools, but they are inexpensive and found in most homes already or can be purchased at hardware stores.

As far as accessibility, hands-on projects are usually very good for a variety of special needs students including tactile learners, learning disabled, ASD students, and even blind and DeafBlind students. For those with reading issues and learning disabilities who have trouble following complex steps, I actually made a list of step by step instructions for each of the projects simplifying the steps into easier language and more manageable steps. For blind users and myself, I scanned in the instructions making sure that the document was scanned using the Optical Scanner Recognition (OCR) software and saved it as a .txt file easily used by a brailled display. Adobe .pdf files cannot be read by a braille display. On an Apple machine, a .pdf file can be read if it is a text file and not a picture or.jpg file. There is a template page for using to bend the metal clips into specific shapes for holding certain pieces together in specific ways. I used thin lines of puffy paint or plain white paint can be used, too. This allowed me to feel how the wire needed to be bent and let me do that part myself. Even as old as I am, I still like to do as much of a project myself as I can. I am sure most students are the same way. It isn’t very fun just watching someone else do everything. Even if a child can only hold a piece as it is glued or wire is inserted and clasped, the child really feels a part of the project and remembers more if allowed to do even the smallest of things to help. The details were not hard to follow and didn’t take that long to complete, but the sense of accomplishment even for me was empowering.

Hands-on and simple designs are truly a great way to explore the complex concepts of math, physics, engineering, problem solving, and history. Even these small versions are great ways to learn, but don’t be surprised if your students ask to build a life-size one. Well, I won’t tell you not to, since I loved throwing water balloons from the one we built, but I would say consult a Boy Scout first! Smile…

To check out the Siege Machines kit or any of the other Pitsco, Inc. projects, head to You find this kit in the Homeschool area for $21.95 . Price-wise. the kits are  good. I paid more money in the past for less quality materials or simply had to scrounge around for my own which was often difficult. The convenience and affordability will be pluses for your homeschool. Remember it is always best to learn by doing.

To read other reviews about this product and others from The Old SchoolHouse Crew, go to the TOS Crew blog.

Though I was provided a product to review for this blog, I have not been compensated in any other way, and the opinion expressed here is entirely my own.

Helping students improve their vocabulary for college entrances exams can be difficult when the means is tedious. College Prep Genius, which publishes a fantastic college entrance test preparation program that I love and have reviewed here before, has developed a series of books to really help students read more and learn more advanced vocabulary while they read. The CaféVocab series contains some very interesting stories that intertwine 300 words captivating students while demonstrating the proper use of difficult vocabulary.

The stories are all about the lives and activities of normal teens. There are stories in several different genres to help most teens find one that will grab their attention. The advanced vocabulary is properly used and sprinkled throughout the story. At the bottom of the page, the words used on that page are listed with a pronunciation guide, part of speech used, and a clear definition. A listing of the chapter’s used words is at the end of each chapter to aid in review. There is a glossary at the end with all the words, definitions, part of speech, and pronunciation guide, too.

The vocabulary used is in total for all four books in the series well over three hundred. Each book uses about three hundred, but there is some overlap. The books also use some of the words in different parts of speech and with slightly different content meaning to help the student really see how the words can function and make them a part of their own vocabulary to some extent. The use of the vocabulary in these stories, though, can really help them be better prepared for the advanced vocabulary found on the college entrance exams.

One of the students I gave these books to for reading assignments, Ryan S., was impressed enough with just the first few chapters that he is writing his own review on The $ummer of $aint Nick (dollar signs are intentional and part of the title). I will put an excerpt here, but if Ryan grants permission, I will post his full review when he has finished the book and review:

“I have read 9 chapters so far in my book. I love the book.  The vocabulary words I have not ever heard before like the word  Besmirch that means discolor. The book does show how to say word and meaning. but I will not be using these words in my writing. The book was interesting.  I liked the book because the boy who found $300,000 gave to those who needed money and was not selfish with the money he found. He gave money to people in community who needed help. He gave anonymously because he did not want the attention and praise.”

Even with his honesty of not wishing to actually use the words in his own writing due to their complexities and awkwardness, Ryan admits that he is learning to recognize and understand these new words. Along with his interest in the story leading him to read more, this new knowledge really shows the CaféVocab series is successfully completing its mission.

As far as accessibility, the pronunciation guide and definition are good for all students including those with slight reading delays. It would be more beneficial if audio and electronic text versions could be found on-line to help more who are print disabled, blind, or deafblind. Hopefully, this could be something added to the series in the future if the publishers really want to help more students while expanding their market.

There are currently four books in the series: Operation High School, The $ummer of $aint Nick, Planet Exile, and I. M. for Murder. Each book costs $12.95 and can be purchased Maven of Memory Publishing at

To read other reviews about this product and others from The Old SchoolHouse Crew, go to the TOS Crew blog.

Though I was provided a product to review for this blog, I have not been compensated in any other way, and the opinion expressed here is entirely my own.

When I was active in Boy Scouting, we had a saying we went by when planning activities for our young men that went activities should be fun, but fun with a purpose. The latest product review kept reminding me of that little mantra. I was sent Tri-cross from Games for Competitors which is actually a USA company based out of my home state not far from where I live. In fact, as I read the developers history on their web site, it became obvious that my husband and I may very well know them from days gone by, since our favorite hang-out as older teens and young adults was the very same Sword of the Phoenix game store they had been a part of in Atlanta, Ga. Ah, the memories played. I knew these were like-minded people. Games are a very important part of our home culture. My husband and I have been avid game players most of our lives and have played almost everything out there at least once. We didn’t stay long as children on the usual children’s games of simple play. We quickly graduated to what was called book shelf games. The games came in cases that were more suited to sitting on a book shelf like a book. The games were always very involved and needed lots of imagination from active minds and challenged those minds.

Tri-cross fits that bill easily, but also in a way that will entice even younger players in the family as it helps to teach them fair game play, social skills, and important game skills like strategy. The game is a cross between checkers, chess, and even Stratego in its varying game versions. As a certified teacher and curriculum developer, the game jumped out at me with its usefulness in any educational setting as well as home setting to further reinforce skills. A few of the skills besides social skills that can be taught with this game are logical thinking, cause and effect, predicting, outcome interpreting, abstract thinking, memory, and visualization (I will add that this can even help the blind visualize in various ways, too.) Despite my love of games, I am not very good with strategy due to learning disabilities that I have. I avoid games like chess and only play checkers with non-challenging players to avoid frustration. Tri-cross, though, didn’t intimidate me. I actually won the first game against my husband who loves and excels at chess. No, he didn’t let me win. He would forget while planning his strategies about the additional rules that certain pieces couldn’t jump certain other pieces. I seemed to be good at remembering that (even though I can’t remember any of the moves for chess pieces) and would catch him. That made me a fan of Tri-cross right away, of course. My husband loved the game, too, because it gave him new ways to think about game play. There are five ways you can play this game which will keep the fun going and be helpful in teaching skills, too. You can play the game with pieces face-up, so that you always see where the pieces that can jump other pieces are and develop strategy skills, or you can play the game with all the pieces face down until opponents meet in a possible jump situation. Players then turn the pieces over to see if a jump can be made. After play, the pieces are then turned back over. You would then do well to try and improve your memory skills to know where those pieces are and move them in useful ways. Other versions add excitement and challenge to the game to keep Tri-cross exciting for years to come.

Tri-cross is very durable and well-made in any of the formats from eco-friendly travel game to the more decorative wooden table-top format. This is extremely pleasing to our family as we have seen the American game industry drop its standards for game quality over the last few decades. One would be proud to own any of the formats and be assured that it will last to pass down over the years.

Of course, my readers know that I have other needs that make gaming more difficult now than when I was younger. Being totally deaf and blind, I can’t play games the way I used to play. Of course, you can’t stop an avid game player from seeking and playing however possible. Tri-cross, I am glad to say, was easy to make accessible to me. I would imagine that certain formats would be easier to make tactile, but I was able to make the two formats I was given tactile for my needs without any real difficulty. I received the travel version and the boxed, hard tag board game format. The wooden table-top would probably be the easiest to work with, but certainly not necessary. I made clear, adhesive braille labels for the game pieces and the board itself. I brailled the dots (I didn’t bother with the number sign, since there is no need for letters in the game. The Tri-cross piece can be labeled with a “T” cell which isn’t used for numbers in braille or left plain because the six intersecting lines are quite tactilely distinct from the other pieces. I can remember the dots are for numbers and save space) for the numbers of each piece and for placement of beginning pieces for one of the game play versions off to the side of the starting positions. The grid of the board which is designed like a large, thick cross or plus sign might seem a difficulty, but I placed thin, low-profile textured markers used by the blind and DeafBlind on each of the squares used for game play. I used a different texture marker for the center’s Tri-cross square which is the objective for one of the winning options. This way I knew exactly when I had my piece moved appropriately into each square, but the marker didn’t affect the movement of pieces on the board at all. I can’t say from pictures if the wooden version provides a tactile grid or not, but that would make it much more accessible if it did. Regardless, the game formats are very durable and easy to make accessible which is a big plus for me and my readers which is why this review will be found on both my homeschool/educational blog and my DeafBlind Hope blog.

Find out more about this game at Though challenging, don’t let that scare you off. The developers provide great game instructions and play tips in print and on a CD that is provided with each game format. The prices start at $19.99 for the eco-friendly travel version and range upwards to $35.95 for the wooden table-top format which are a really good prices for this well-made game. If you want a game that is fun, but fun with a purpose, Tri-cross is for you.

To read other reviews about this product and others from The Old SchoolHouse Crew, go to the TOS Crew blog

Though I was provided a product to review for this blog, I have not been compensated in any other way, and the opinion expressed here is entirely my own.

Do you ever feel like running away? Do you feel like you just aren’t cutting it as your child’s teacher? Do you worry that your best isn’t going to give your children the future they should have? Well, you aren’t alone. Most homeschool teachers feel the same way all too often. It comes from loving our children so much that we want to do what is needed, but stress, lack of knowledge about one subject or another and the responsibilities of other aspects of our life as housewife, mother, maid, church member pressures us to worry. Resources, good curriculums, and teaching tips are great, but what many a homeschool mom needs is encouragement, the encouragement that comes from no other than the Word of God. Trying to find the time to study the Word is difficult, but a certain devotional Bible study might help get you started. Encouragement for Homeschool Moms from Deeper Roots Publications was written just for you by a homeschool mom who understands the daily struggles.

This little booklet is packed with encouraging and inspirational words that will lift your heart each day and help God’s words flow into your heart giving you the strength, courage, and peace that you need. There are thirty-one devotionals that can be used in many ways to refresh your mind and spirit as you carry out your homeschooling duties during the year. Each is centered on a theme with scripture as its foundation. The author, Bonnie Lisech, gives each theme and scripture a new perspective as she applies them to our homeschool duties and struggles. Then asking such thought-provoking questions to help us focus on God’s meaning for our own hearts and lives. There is also plenty of space and encouragement to journal our thoughts and insights.

When the doubts press in, push them away with refreshing time spent with your Father in Heaven each day. As you give so much of yourself to others, don’t forget to allow God to give to you, to refill your spirit with His love, strength, and guidance. With Deeper Roots publication, Encouragement for Home School Moms, that time of renewing can be easy to plug in to your busy schedule.

To find out more about Encouragement for Home School Moms or the many other products from Deeper Roots, go to

Though I was provided a product to review for this blog, I have not been compensated in any other way, and the opinion expressed here is entirely my own.

Measurement is a necessary skill that we use in our daily lives. Many children struggle to learn the concepts length, weight, distance, etc. The ruler is one of the first tools we teach when beginning to develop measurement skills. A student might grasp the idea of a foot and 12 inches as the same because it is something they can see and touch with our standard ruler. Try to break that down to smaller increments, and you quickly lose many of the students. Master Innovations has designed a system of rulers to help better teach that task with their Master Ruler.
The Master Ruler is designed as one rule with several parts that lay over each other, but transparent to see the addition of smaller increments within the large increment at the base. The ruler comes in Standard English and Metric increments available separately. The idea is to show that the smaller increments are still measuring the exact same amount of space, but breaking the space up into different size parts or increments. We have all seen similar techniques used with fractions and fraction pies. The white base ruler simply has 12 red lines dividing the space into 12 equal parts each 1 inch. A second, but transparent ruler is laid over the base ruler that has 24 blue lines dividing it into ½ inch increments. Each line that matches an inch marker below is a little heavier. The red line of the base ruler marking each inch is a little longer than the blue lines to help reinforce the concept that the space is equal regardless of the number of increments. There are three additional transparent rulers that can be place on top of the rulers below to correspond with ¼ inch, 1/8 inch, and 1/16 inch increments each with a different color-coding. The lines of each of the rulers are sized so that all of the increments can be seen clearly even through the last layer of 1/16 inch increments. The white base ruler also has a conversion chart on the back for many of the mostly commonly used facts that every student needs to know as second nature. Having them handy will help them to memorize these facts easily. The metrics ruler is essentially the same, but uses metric increments. With practice using The Master Ruler, the student can begin to visualize the concepts of basic measurements and use them successfully.
Many special needs students will find the system great for helping them understand the concepts. The color-coding is great for may learning disabled and ADD/ADHD students as well as the overlay system to emphasize the fact that the unit space or distance is the same, but the number of sections it is broken down into is what changes. Of course, it fits very well for students are more kinesthetic or hands-on learners. The system of color-coding and overlay also works with low vision students, too, without too much difficulty. There are some tactile paint and bumps that can help some, too, but as is, the totally blind might have too much difficulty. A workbook available separately has activities that will help you introduce the use of the rulers, too. However, though many of the pictures used for measuring are fine, there are some that are blurry and would definitely be difficult for a low vision student to use. The company will probably address this issue in future versions. Overall, though, the system is very beneficial for most special needs issues.
The products are also very durable as well as affordable at $9.95 each. The workbook, full of activities, is $15.95, and a teacher’s ruler that is suitable for demonstrations and overhead use, too. You can also purchase a Starter Set for $41.25 for a $4.55 savings. Master Innovations also has other affordable systems available great for learning other math concepts with their Master Clocks, Master, Angles, and Master Fractions. Go to for more information.

Though I received a free product to write this review, I was not compensated in any other way. The opinion expressed is entirely my own.

You may have heard of the Advanced Placement tests offered on different subjects by the College Board. If not, the AP tests allow a student who has studied advanced material on a subject through college level to take a test to receive both high school and college credit for the material. It is a good program for students who excel in one or more areas. Learning the material isn’t necessarily enough. Additional preparation on completion of essay writings required, topics covered, test-taking strategies, etc. could mean the difference between credit and no credit. The Cerebellum Corporation now presents their Light Speed Advanced Placement video program to clear the way for success.
This new program uses a format similar to their popular Standard Deviants series sold on DVD and seen on PBS. Through young actors and on-screen graphics, the program covers extensive research on essential test topics of Chemistry, U. S. History, U. S. Government and Politics, and English Composition and Language. The producers say it is a rapid and thorough approach to the topics. I received U. S. History to review. As the date for my students’ testing was only about two weeks away when I received the tape, I could give the students’ limited time to review the material before the test date. I showed the video on one school day, and let them use pages from the digital workbook provided with the program. The workbook pages are very concise and detailed to reinforce the material presented on the video. After viewing the video, I asked the two students to write comments about the experience. Both stated that they enjoyed the time spent viewing the video and thought it was helpful to them. It seemed to allay some concerns about the test and strengthen confidence at the very least. The essay section seemed to be the most helpful to the students. They felt the material was presented very clearly and concisely. One felt the actors were a bit corny and felt that was a little distracting. I definitely wouldn’t normally present the material in one session and only a couple of weeks to use the digital workbook. The program was designed to be used in small sessions and repeatedly throughout the year of preparing for an AP test. You can’t judge the program for its effectiveness in improving scores, of course, but both students felt more confident about taking the AP test after viewing the material. That is a plus in itself.
I have a little complaint with the DVD because I was not able to view this program myself. For deaf students, the DVD is not closed-captioned. Blind students would have some difficulty with the digital workbook because of the .pdf format limitations for speech readers and braille output. You can copy to another program for accessibility, but some of the pages consisted of pictures with information that can’t be view with a braille display or spoken with a speech reader. I certainly hope the producers will at least consider using closed captions in the future.
Although we can’t say how the program affected my students’ scores, their increased confidence even with the short time they had the program should count for something. At the cost of $14.98 for each title, Cerebellum’s Light Speed AP U. S. History should not be considered a waste of money. For the rest of the year, you can receive a 20% discount off any product using the code OSH20 at checkout. Check out their full listing at
I received a free U. S. History program to write this review. I didn’t receive any other compensation, and the opinion expressed here is entirely my own.

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