TOS Review: Classical Conversations

Okay, first of all, I want to say that I am an eclectic homeschooler who uses bits and pieces of many methods to make things work. When I first started homeschooling I read everything I could get my hands on, including books about the classical approach. While the overall method was not something I wanted to use completely, I did find parts of it appealing. A friend of mine from my homeschool group also belongs to a Classical Conversations group in our area. She had invited me to join, but after looking into it, I just felt it was a little too rigid for our taste. When a chance came up to review a product from Classical Conversations, I almost passed it up. Now, however I am glad I didn’t.

Handwriting is one of the more touchy subjects for my almost 7th grade son. I have to admit, his handwriting is still pretty juvenile. We have been working on printing for years, and have not even started cursive yet! It is a painful process to practice this skill in my home. The funny thing is, as much as my kid hates to “write” things, he loves to draw!! It’s so weird how holding a pencil to write a paragraph can be so brutal, but drawing a picture is not. So, when we got a chance to check out PreScripts Cursive Sentences and Art Lessons, I took it!

PreScripts is the third book in the handwriting program at Classical Conversations that begins with cursive letters and drawing, and moves up to passages and illuminations. I think it is a really cool idea to tie art lessons in with writing. Both require the use of fine motor skills and hand eye coordination, but for kids who look at handwriting as a major chore, the art lessons can be a welcome relief. This particular book is designed for ages 7-12. My son is age 12, but he struggles with handwriting, so this program was a challenge for him.

The book begins with a short review of how to form each cursive letter. If your child is totally unfamiliar with cursive (as mine is) you may need to spend a little extra time on this. The focus of the writing lessons is Medieval to Modern World history, so your child will be copying lessons related to these topics. These portions of the lessons aren’t terribly long, about 3-4 lines each, which was good for my son. We did not fight about getting the writing part done, which was a relief for me. Basically, he would first trace the words, then write them himself on the lines underneath.

The drawing lessons come after the writing portions and begin with simple elements like using a grid to draw, and progressing to more difficult skills like technical drawing. The lessons themselves were very well explained, and my son took off with this portion of the program. Like I said, he likes drawing, and I think practicing these techniques is good practice for handwriting as well. Of course, completing the drawing lessons after the writing was a nice reward for him as well. It includes 24 lessons and additional reviews, which is easily enough to fill one school year if you practice a few days each week.

The PreScripts book costs only $12.99, which is a very reasonable price. I would definitely recommend it if you are looking for a handwriting program.

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TOS Review: Institute for Excecellence in Writing

As a former English teacher, I love writing! My youngest son, not so much. In my old school, we used the Institute for Excellence in Writing for our classes, and I loved it. It was a program I missed when we started homeschooling. Therefore, I was very excited to get a chance to review the program as part of the crew!  We got to check out both the teacher and student program.

The Teaching Writing Structure and Style set is for parents. Basically, this section of the program is a seminar for parents about how to teach writing. Led by Andrew Pudewa, the founder of IEW and a fellow homeschooler, his unique brand of humor makes the videos easy to watch. The nine DVD’s include lessons about each portion of the program. You also get a binder with handouts for each section. I had watched the first few DVDs when I was teaching, but watching the whole set was so much more in depth than I imagined. IEW is a very detailed program, which can seem intimidating at first, but having the DVDs really makes it much easier than you would think.

There is an outline and suggested schedule for watching the DVDs included with the program. This was helpful because it allowed me to decide good stopping points for each section. Each session is about 1 to 2 hours, so you do need to allocate some time for this portion of the program, but if you do, you will find it is well worth it. Once you have an understanding of how IEW works, you can easily use it with all of your students. Practice exercises are available in the handouts, and three student workshops are also included, so you can see how the program actually works with kids. Of course, this is a lot of information to take in at once, so if you do find yourself feeling overwhelmed, consider watching one DVD at a time and implementing the program in stages until you get comfortable.

The second part of the program that we got to use is the Student Writing Intensive program. We used level B, for grades 6-8, but they also have programs for lower elementary and high school students. Student Writing Intensive is another series of DVDs, but these are aimed mainly at the students. They get to watch Mr. Pudewa teach a class using the techniques from the teacher program. If you do not feel comfortable in fully implementing the program, you may want to watch these with your child and do the activities together. The Overview DVD is for parents, although if you have watched the DVDs from the teacher program, it may not be necessary. This course also comes with a binder with handouts.

The included syllabus outlines how to use the program, including instructions on when to stop the DVD and work. Each DVD contains about 2 1/2 hours of material, so you will definitely want to break it up. The suggested schedule plans the program out over a course of 30 weeks, completing about one lesson each week. Of course, you can adjust the pace to suit yourself and your child. In my classes with advanced writers, we easily progressed through this program at the suggested pace. At home, with my son who is a reluctant writer, I find I am having to slow the pace down a bit to keep him from being overwhelmed. Make no mistake, at this level IEW is an intense and thorough program, but the level of writing skills it will produce in your child is amazing.

I have found that as kids get familiar, and comfortable with, the program, things do get easier. I really think the major obstacle is you getting comfortable. If you are not used to a lot of structure, this method may seem very uncomfortable at first. However, if you stick with it, especially at the upper levels, I believe you will be very pleased with what your kids learn. For my son, I have seen a big improvement in parts of his writing since we started. First, the note-taking method he has learned is really really effective for ALL subjects, and he does use it for science and history. Second, his expressive writing has grown a lot. I’m talking his word choice and sentence structure specifically. I think that as we continue to progress through the Student Intensive seminars, he will only get better.

Teaching Writing and the Student Intensive programs are not cheap. The teacher portion costs $169.00 while the student portion is $109.00. Do I recommend this if you have the money?? Yes! If you can afford it and you want a top notch writing program, get this one. However, for most of us (me included) spending that much money on just the writing portion of your schooling just isn’t realistic. Are there other options? Sure. What about using this program as part of a co-op or homeschool group? I can vouch for the fact that this program from IEW works really well in a group setting. If you split the cost up between a group of parents, it won’t be so bad, and once you know how to use the program, you can do it again and again.

To see what other members of the Crew had to say about IEW, click here:
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TOS Review: Writing With Sharon Watson

For this review, we got to try a product from Writing With Sharon Watson. The company offers writing curriculum for students in grades 5 and up. We used The Power in Your Hands: Writing Nonfiction in High School curriculum set. This program was written as a follow up to the popular Jump In writing curriculum for middle schoolers.

This curriculum is intended for high school students, and I used it with my 9th grade son. The student text contains lessons on all the major types of writing students will encounter in high school and college. Each chapter is broken into daily lessons, with some chapters taking a few days, and others taking about two weeks. We began with the first section of the book, opinion and persuasive essays.

I liked the fact that the lessons were written to the student in a clear, conversational tone. My son was able to read and follow the lessons on his own. For the most part, lessons took him an average of 30 minutes to complete. Each day contained a short lesson that allowed him to practice what he was learning about. The lessons build on each other, and I can see how, when they are completed in order, your child will have very strong writing skills at the end of the program. The lessons we worked on included topics like how to organize your thoughts when you brainstorm, which gave my son a repertoire of methods to choose from. He liked the writing assignments because they were not difficult, but I could tell he was really understanding the information!

Some of the lessons also included evaluating writing samples based on what was learned in the lesson. I think this is a very valuable way to teach writing. Having students analyze others writing to look for errors will help them edit their own. At the end of the chapter, there was an assignment to write an essay using the skills used in the lesson. Each essay had a word count and clear directions. I would assign a due date for the essay (usually 1-3 days depending on the length of the essay) and my son would turn it in. The teacher’s guide included a checklist for editing and a list of popular editing symbols, which I let my son use when he did his own editing. He could also refer back to it after I edited his paper.

The teacher’s guide portion of The Power in Your Hands is awesome! First, it has a section on “14 minute power surges”, which are short, daily writing assignments to give your kids more practice. There is a prompt for every day, and the work is not graded. The author simply wants to get kids in the habit of writing every day! As an English teacher, I feel this is very important. Writing is a skill that grows with use. While writing daily may be a struggle at first, it DOES get easier with practice. And the fact that the writing surges are not graded takes the pressure off. I did these short prompts with my son as part of his journal three days a week, and I can tell you, as time went on, the ideas came to him faster and faster.

There is also an extensive section on how to grade papers. Each style of writing has its own rubric (students have copies of the rubrics in their workbook, so the expectations for their papers are very clear), and there are even examples of what an “A” paper and “B” paper and so on look like! This makes it so easy to score your child’s writing! It also makes it easy to explain to them what you are looking for in their papers.

I feel that The Power in Your Hands is one of the most solid high school writing programs I have seen. I truly believe that if you use this program in your homeschool, you will develop a student with strong writing skills they will be able to use in college and beyond. This book would be excellent prep for the writing portion of the SAT.

With 23 chapters and over 100 daily lessons, this book is a very full writing curriculum. If your child is a reluctant writer, you may want to go slower, and spread the curriculum over two years. I plan to use this program again when my younger son gets into high school (at this point, I am seriously considering Jump In for him next year, he needs help with writing and if it is similar to this program, I think it will work!). The student text costs $39.98, and the teacher’s guide is $14.98. I would strongly suggest you purchase the guide to go along with the book, and I think that the price is absolutely worth it!

To find out more about The Power in Your Hands, and the other programs available from Writing With Sharon Watson, check out their website here:
http://writingwithsharonwatson.com/

To see what other members of the crew had to say about this program, and the others we got to check out, click here:
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Essentials in Writing

Essentials in Writing is a writing program created by Matthew Stephens, a former middle school English teacher. The DVD curriculum covers grades 1-12. For this review, I got to use the 9th grade curriculum, Essay Writing/Research Paper, with my oldest son.

While the elementary programs of EIW do include grammar, the 9th grade program does not. However, there are grammar lessons woven into the other lessons (for example, comma placement is taught when studying clauses). The focus of the 9th grade program is sentences, paragraphs, essays, and the research paper. Each of these areas is further broken down into smaller areas, like clauses and complex sentences, organizing and drafting paragraphs, planning and drafting essays, types of essays (i.e. expository, persuasive etc.) and the steps of writing a research paper.

For each section, there is a video lesson and corresponding worksheets the parent can print out ( a PDF is included on the final DVD). Video lessons vary in length, with shorter lessons at the beginning of the program (when studying sentences) that gradually get longer as you move into paragraphs and essays. For this review, I had my son work through the sections on clauses and compound/complex sentences (areas he still needed some work on) and then move into the first section on sentences, and finally, do the lessons on the personal essay.

Each day, my son would watch the video with Mr. Stephens, and then we would go over the worksheets together and he would complete the assignments. To start, I would say that Mr. Stephens is very clear and methodical in his teaching. I (and my son) liked the fact that he clearly modeled on the white board exactly what he was talking about. This made the concepts very clear for my son. The videos are high quality and easy to watch, and the length seemed suitable for my 9th grade boy (i.e., he didn’t complain about having to watch them!).

The follow up assignments were effective. The worksheets usually included the examples from the lesson, and then some type of practice assignment for the student (i.e., write 10 compound sentences). Assignments grew in length and involvement as you moved on through the topics so, while you could easily watch a video and complete the assignments for the Sentences section all in one day, as you get into the paragraphs, essays and research paper, you will likely need to spend one day watching the video and discussing the assignments, and then a few days working on the assignments. I think you could complete one section of the later topics per week, depending on your student.

One of my favorite parts of this program is that it gives you samples of “good examples” of the different types of writing along the way. Like, there are samples of “good” paragraphs, as well as “good” essays and even a research paper. I think this is very helpful for students, as they can get a good idea of what they should be aiming for. Of course, editing your papers is also covered, and I think the examples are useful for that as well.

The current cost of the 9th grade Essentials In Writing DVD is $40.00. For that, you get 3 DVD’s with all of the video lessons as well as the printables. I think this is an excellent value and I highly recommend it. In the future, the company is converting to PDF downloads of their materials, so that cost may come down even more. You can learn more about the DVD I got to check out here:

http://www.essentialsinwriting.com/ninth-grade.php

Essentials in Writing does have programs for grades 1 and up, to see what other Crew members thought of 9th grade, and the other grades we got to sample, click here:

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**Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this product through the Schoolhouse Review Crew in exchange for my honest review. I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated in any other way. All opinions expressed are my own or those of my family. I am disclosing this in accordance with FTC regulations.

Vocabulary Spelling City

Spelling and vocabulary are very important parts of both writing and reading. I am constantly looking for products that will help my youngest son grow in this area! Vocabulary Spelling City is a web-based program that is a great resource for instruction in these areas. I have previously used the Spelling City website, but it has been updated and the newer version has even more to offer!!

As the teacher, you add your students and set up your account. You can add your own spelling and vocabulary lists for your kids to use, but they also have suggested word lists set up by grade and subject area. Once you have added your words for the week, you kids can log in and get learning!!

Once your students have accessed their list, they can select from a number of options. “Teach me” allows them to hear the word read to them, spelled to them and then listen to a definition. The test option allows them to take a test on the words, and “play a game” gives them an opportunity to practice their words using fun games!

As the teacher, you can log in and track your students progress and grades. The reports tell you what your child has done, when they were working, and the gradebook does all the scoring for you!! How easy is that?? Honestly, this is a great website for a busy homeschool mom, especially if your child likes computer games. I also like the fact that the words are read out loud, and, as they are spelled, each letter appears on the screen. This helps both audio and visual learners.

But, that is not all that Vocabulary Spelling City has to offer. They also have Language Arts lessons, on topics like analogies, antonyms, synonyms and much more! The lessons include a video that teaches the concept, and then your child can play games to practice. There are also two writing activities (sentence and paragraph writing) that allow students to practice writing and use the words from their lists!!

The website also has plenty of support for teachers. There are several videos available that explain how to use the features on the website and answer frequently asked questions.

When my son found out we were using Vocabulary Spelling City again, he was really excited!! He genuinely enjoys the games and activities, and that makes teaching spelling and vocabulary so much easier for me!! I like being able to track his progress daily, and he really does well on his spelling and vocabulary quizzes.

You can register on the website and save lists for free. But in order to have access to all of the features, a premium membership will cost you $29.99 per year (for up to 5 students). I think this is a great price for what you get!! We will be keeping our membership up to date for a long time!

To learn more about Vocabulary Spelling City, check out their website here:

http://www.spellingcity.com/

To see what other members of the crew had to say about this product, click here:

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**Disclaimer: I was given free access to this product for the purpose of writing this review. All opinions expressed are my own.

Vocab Videos

Vocab Videos is a web-based program designed to teach SAT vocabulary to students. The concept is simple: students watch short, funny videos (many of them based on popular television programs) that use the vocabulary words in context and the presentation helps them to remember the meanings of the words. The website also has extras like quizzes, worksheets, and a multi-media flashcard maker. You can also purchase an additional workbook to use with the program.
The videos begin with a shot of the word and the definition followed by a brief skit illustrating the definition. Typically, each video is under a minute long, but the videos are done in a series, with the storyline of the skit being followed to completion, illustrating many vocabulary words along the way. The videos are well done and do a very good job of painting a concrete picture of the word. I can see how these would be very useful for teaching vocabulary.
As the teacher, you have the ability to add students to the program, and then monitor them and the work they do. The additional crosswords and worksheets were helpful, and the interactive quizzes gave immediate feedback to the student when they were done. Quizzes are also available to be downloaded and printed out. You can even create your own flashcards to use when studying.
Now, while I love the concept behind Vocab Videos, I did have a problem with some parts of the program. Keep in mind that these videos were created for teachers to use in school, and are meant to appeal to current teen culture. While they are funny, their humor was not something I considered appropriate for my boys. The Lord’s name is used in vain (a lot) and some of the scenarios seemed better suited to adults instead of kids. (One of the skits is based on the movie Scream, something I won’t even allow my boys to watch!) I would strongly suggest previewing the videos yourself before you show them to your child.
A small (meaning less than 20 students) subscription to Vocab Videos will cost you $74.99. While I think this program has a lot of value in the method it uses to teach vocabulary, I don’t think I would be able to use it because the language and situations simply don’t mesh with our family’s lifestyle. However, I would suggest you make your own decision by checking out the 1-month free trial they have available. For more information on pricing, click here:
You can get more information about this program from their website here:
To see what other members of the crew had to say about this product, click here:
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**Disclaimer: I was given free access to this product for the purpose of writing this review. All opinions expressed are my own.

King Alfred’s English

King Alfred’s English written by Laurie J. White, is a combination history and english book all about the English language. A homeschool mom, and English major, Laurie started by writing an article on the history of English, and ended up with a whole book!! Chosen by CBD as one of the top 10 picks for homeschoolers in January 2010, this book will give your child (and probably you too) a whole new perspective on the English language. And the website includes links for supplemental materials including worksheets, tests and movies you can use to make this a curriculum for your child.

The book begins with Julius Ceaser’s invasion of “Brittania” and moves into sections about Old English, Middle English, the making of the English Bible, and Modern English. Along the way, you will learn interesting facts about grammar, vocabulary, and people that influenced the language we speak today. The book also includes a lot of information about how Christianity spread to England (and then on to other countries).

I will be honest with you, when this book came in the mail, I read it first! Laurie White’s style of writing is very engaging, and I found the book easy to read, and humorous in many parts. I learned a LOT of things I didn’t know (and I am a former English teacher!). For example, did you know there was an Old English letter called “thorn” that stands for the “th” sound? Or that Old English used the letter combination “hw” instead of “wh” like we do now? The word “while” was spelled “hwil”, and even though we no longer spell it that way, we still pronounce the beginning sound as “hw”. Personally, I found this fascinating (but I’m kind of a book nerd 🙂 )

Laurie has also put together some great extras on her website for you to use along with the book when you are using it, and they are all free!! The links include movies you can use, websites with additional information, literature, and even primary sources you can access on the internet. The teacher page inlcudes printable worksheets for each chapter, and section tests as well (complete with answers!!) Altogether, the supplemental material gives you enough to flesh out a full semester.

You can purchase King Alfred’s English online at Amazon.com ($16.95) and other online bookstores. Prices vary, and it is available at CBD for $14.89.

To find out more about King Alfred’s English and all that Laurie White has to offer, check out the website here:

http://www.theshorterword.com/

To see what other TOS Crew members have to say about this product, click here:

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**Disclaimer: I received this product for free in exchange for writing this review. All opinions expressed are my own.