Saturday, October 31, 2009

Levi’s Will by W. Dale Cramer

image Levi’s Will tells the life story of a young Amish man who leaves his  community in disgrace and changes his identity to fit into the outside world. The saga follows Will from his stint as a migrant farm worker to his enlistment as a soldier in World War II through his marriage to the present day. The overriding theme of the book is Will’s struggle to make peace with his Amish past and more importantly, to find favor in his father’s eyes. Ultimately, the story points to God and forgiveness as the only true means to peace.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the way it explored Amish traditions, Levi’s struggle to be honest with his loved ones, and his difficulty relating to his own children because of the way he was himself raised.    The writing was compelling throughout, although the painful emotions that were exposed led to a somewhat depressing feel throughout much of the book.

Levi’s Will is actually based on a true story. It was first published in 2005 and is now being republished with an afterward describing the effects the publishing of the first edition had on his relations with his Amish relatives.

I received this book free from Bethany House Publishers for review purposes.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Pumpkin Carving!



The Tallest of smalls, by Max Lucado


The Tallest of Smalls, by Max Lucado is a delightful children’s picture book. The story tells about Ollie, a small ragged boy who lives in the city of Stiltsville, where the tall and important folks are awarded stilts to tower over those who are deemed small and unworthy. Ollie desperately wants to earn a pair of stilts so that he too can feel important and look down upon the “smalls.” Eventually, Ollie’s wish does come true, but he quickly discovers that there is only one person whose opinion really matters.

This is not my favorite of Max Lucado’s children’s books, but it is a sweet story with an important message. The illustrations are bright and fun and the text is in rhyme. I think any child would enjoy the book and that it might be especially helpful to a child who is feeling “small” and left-out.

You can watch a short video by Max Lucado telling about his new book here.

I received this book free in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Junior Miss Competition


Katie recently surprised us by stating that she wanted to compete in our county’s Junior Miss competition. This was entDSC07551irely new territory for us, but she launched into the process with enthusiasm and had a good time. Ultimately, she ended up winning the talent competition and being named Second Runner up (with a $1300 scholarship prize—Yay!) Her talent was quite creative—she played a musical piece she had composed herself on the violin and accompanied herself (recorded) on the piano!

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Thriving Despite a Difficult Marriage by Michael Misja, PhD and Chuck Misja, PhD

image Most of the marriage books that I have read address both partners, assuming that both husband and wife are willing to read the book and make behavioral changes to improve their marriage. That is ideal, but the reality is that it is often only one person who is willing to expend the effort. I have read (and loved) a few books that are written to the individual rather than the couple. I like to read and think about what I can do, because, truthfully, the only person I can change is myself. Focusing on what one’s partner is doing wrong helps no one.

Thriving Despite a Difficult Marriage takes a somewhat different approach from any other book I have read. The authors acknowledge that some marriages are not “fixable.” They may never be entirely happy. But….Misja and Misja don’t advocate giving up and divorcing as our secular culture so readily encourages.  They say,

“Unless there is a pattern of abuse or unchanging immorality, the answer is, ‘No, it’s not better to give up on your marriage.’ Instead, never quit, never give up, don’t stop praying and searching for a way to turn your marriage around. Miracles happen, people change, and, besides, you don’t know what God has planned for your marriage. In addition, you can’t give up on your marriage without betraying your heart.”

The book discusses many types of difficult marriages while teaching the reader to acknowledge and own the feelings of pain and loss, while still holding on to hope in God and actually thriving despite the current situation. I found the book hopeful, yet realistic, and above all, I appreciated the author’s dedication to faithfulness in marriage rather than encouraging the common philosophy that “the purpose of marriage is to make ME happy, and if I’m not happy, then I am free to leave.”

I received this book free for review purposes from the Navpress Blogger Review Program.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Christian Kids Explore Biology

Christian Kids Explore Biology ($34.95), by Stephanie L. Redmond, is part of Bright Ideas Press’s Christian Kids Explore Science Series.
From the Bright Ideas Press website: This user-friendly, unabashedly Christian, one-year science curriculum for elementary students includes teaching lessons, gorgeous coloring pages, hands-on time, memorization lists, review sheets, creative writing assignments, and an awesome supplemental book list! Written for 3rd through 6th graders, it can easily be scaled down for younger students, making this an excellent choice for teaching all your elementary-aged kids together. The schedule of 35 weekly lessons calls for teaching twice weekly, allowing a family time for projects, exploration of resource books, field trips, etc. The conversational style gives students the basic information they need, making this an ideal first course in life science; especially useful for those following a classical approach!
Our experiences: As stated above, each lesson contains two parts, a day for reading and a day for hands-on activities.  Many of the lessons also contain a short quiz or review questions that can be written or discussed aloud. Some of the hands-on activities we have enjoyed thus far have been making flashcards for the phyla of the Animal Kingdom, making a cell model using jello,  making a clay model of the earth, and researching biomes. The activities we have done so far have been easy to do, with not too much preparation required. At the same time, they are cementing the topic in Emily’s mind and are not “fluff.” When used as written, two lessons could be easily completed in a week since the lessons are short. Many of the lessons, however, lend themselves well to further research or activities. For example, the cell is studied for only one week. We added some additional books and worksheets on this topic.
We have found Christian Kids Explore Biology to be easy to use, interesting (and fun!) Just the right balance for us of information and hands-on activities.  The material is thorough enough for use for third to sixth graders. We liked this enough that we will be continuing to use it all year!

I received this book free for review purposes.


As part of the TOS Crew, I received an online membership to AVKO. This quote from their website gives a summary of what they provide:

AVKO …focuses on the development and production of materials and especially techniques to teach reading and spelling, handwriting (manuscript and cursive), and keyboarding. AVKO is dedicated to teaching everyone how to read and spell, regardless of their mild to moderate learning disabilities, dyslexia, poverty, or opportunity.

AVKO is both a non-profit organization dedicated to making changes in the current educational system and the publisher of Sequential Spelling. At first glance, it appeared that many of the membership resources were items that supplement this curriculum. Since I don’t own Sequential Spelling, I set out to explore of what benefit the online membership would be to me. What I discovered was that the author, Don McCabe, who is himself both a dyslexic and a teacher, became very frustrated with the ways in which reading and spelling are taught in schools and in every major curriculum. For example, spelling words are usually taught as a weekly list of words that have little similarity in their patterns of spelling. While normal children may be able to handle this method (or maybe their spelling would be improving on its own with any curriculum at all), children with difficulty in reading or spelling fail miserable under this haphazard style of spelling memorization.

McCabe advocates teaching spelling using patterns of spelling at the ends of words instead of word beginnings. For example, a student might learn the “art” family by spelling art, part, start, carter, parting, started, and so on. Furthermore, no studying of the words is ever required. The student learns to spell the pattern by writing many many words. Each misspelling is corrected immediately. As a good speller who always felt that spelling instruction in school was a waste of time, this makes a lot of sense to me. Find out what the child needs to know and teach it in a way that encourages generalization to other words that are not even on the “list.”

Interestingly, while McCabe publishes a spelling curriculum, Sequential Spelling, he actually advocates using the extensive materials on the members section of the website to develop a customized spelling program which is more efficient and less expensive than the purchased program. These resources include The Patterns of English Spelling, which is a huge (over 1000 page) volume containing all of the English language word families and most of the English words in each family, complete with indexes. This enables the teacher to look up any misspelled word and immediately turn to the page that contains similar words that should be taught at the same time. Another resource is The Teaching of Reading and Spelling, (364 pages) which explains how to tutor using the AVKO method, including teaching reading, handwriting, and spelling. Several more resources, including a volume on Dylexia, are included and pictured below.

I will comment that McCabe comes across as having the attitude that his way is the best way. That always raises red flags with me.

One claim he makes that I have trouble with is:

“AVKO claims the underlying cause of illiteracy or dyslexia is a failure of our educational system to teach.”

As a speech-language-pathologist, I know that many preschoolers have delays in receptive and/or expressive language which then often lead to a diagnosis of dyslexia when they are school-aged. Language disabilities and reading disabilities are often closely linked. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to claim that the educational system is causing the problem when many of these children had problems, diagnosed or not, long before they attended school. I will concede, however, that the methods used in the educational system often do not seem to be correcting the problems very well. McCabe challenges any school to try his system and to compare the results with the results of their current programs.

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I gave Emily a survey test and picked out several of her misspelled words to give me a starting point. Then, I found the appropriate word families in The Patterns of English Spelling and each day we discussed a spelling pattern, then I dictated spelling words until she seemed to have mastered the pattern. The next day, I reviewed words from the previous day and added a new word family. We spent no more than 10 minutes a day practicing.

I do think that the website could have used some revision, though. The amount of material is overwhelming and it is hard for the reader to even know where to begin. If I didn’t “have” to spend time there to do this review, this would have been a site that I quickly passed on by. I believe that possibly the best place to start is by listening to one or more of Don McCabe’s audio seminars. He is an entertaining speaker and his talks give an excellent overview of his philosophies and methods. From there, download one of the resources for further study. I do have a caution, however. There is a humor section (Readings for Comprehension) on the site that has a few off-color jokes mixed in. I would not just print out a page for my student to read without checking it carefully first myself.

I think that AVKO’s methods are sound and that this could be a good way to teach spelling and reading. It is a bit more work than a pre-published curriculum, though. AVCO does sell a book called, "Individualized Spelling". This book lets the tutor and student find out his strengths and weakness in spelling and helps him learn just what he doesn't know. This particular item is not included in the membership. I believe that the $25 membership fee for this vast amount of resources is a bargain.

I received free membership access to the AVKO site in return for my honest review.

Watch Over Me by Christa Parrish

image Watch Over Me is a riveting novel about a military veteran and his pacifist wife, each struggling with their faith and marriage when they suddenly find themselves caretakers for an abandoned newborn baby. The other major character is a deaf teenager with serious health issues who is living in a dysfunctional family. As the lives of these characters intertwine and each person attempts to wrestle with his problems on his own, their love for the baby draws them toward God and each other.

I found myself drawn into this story from the very first page. The story itself was compelling and unique and the characters were very real. I found myself relating equally to each of the major characters as the viewpoint of the novel changed from chapter to chapter. This is Christa Parrish’s second novel and was definitely a “hard to put down” read.  I will definitely be looking for her first book and for any future releases!

I received this book free in exchange for my honest review from Bethany House Publishers.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Little Lizard

Here is a photo of Emily’s playmate this weekend. I’m not sure if the little guy will survive the abuse!DSC07545

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Virginia Soaps and Scents

As a TOS Crew member, I received a sampling of soaps from Virginia Soaps and Scents.  Emily brought in the mail the day it arrived, exclaiming, “Mommy, you got a package and it smells really good!” I knew immediately that this was going to be a fun review!


Virginia Soaps and Scents is a family owned business.  The  soapmaking venture began as a homeschool project and soon evolved into a full business. The Spargur family handles all aspects of the operation, from recipe design to production to website management to printing of the product packaging.

One of the first things that I learned from reading VSS literature is that most of what we call soap is actually detergent. VSS produces true soap, made with olive, coconut and other oils.

The products I received included three bars of Signature Scents Soap, a Shampoo Bar, and a Laundry soap kit.

Signature Scents Soap

The three varieties that I received were Fresh Orange,  Oatmeal, Milk and Honey, and Coconut Lemongrass. Honestly, I cannot pick a favorite. I love them all! They smell scrumptious and are pretty as well! The bars lather up nicely, but are harder than typical commercial bars, so they don’t get gooey and dissolve quickly if they are kept in a good soap dish. I love how soft my skin feels when I use it, too! VSS makes over twenty varieties of soap, including some Christmas scents (peppermint, wild bayberry, and pumpkin spice) and gourmet varieties, which are beautiful and would make great gifts! 4.5 ounce soap bars sell for $4.50 (or slightly less if three or more bars are purchased). 1.75 oz bars are also available.

Shampoo Bar

I had never heard of a shampoo bar until this arrived and tried it with some trepidation. I tested the Ginger Lime scent. I rubbed it over my head several times and it lathered up well. My hair felt a little bit sticky after I rinsed. I wasn’t sure if it was a “squeaky clean” feel or a coated feel. After it was dry on the first day, I didn’t notice any difference between it and my usual shampoo. The next few times I used it, my hair looked nice, but had a “coated” feel—kind of oily, but not dirty.  Katie (17) tried the shampoo bar and didn’t like it at all, saying it made her wet hair feel “rubbery and unworkable.” After it was dry, she said her hair felt as if she had used conditioner and hadn’t rinsed it out. I do like it fairly well for Emily (9), who has very thick hair and tends to have a constant “sweaty-head” smell. It cleaned her hair very well.

The 5.5 ounce shampoo bar sells for $5.50.

Laundry Soap Kit

Virginia Soaps and Scents also produces a laundry soap kit, which consists of grated soap, borax, and washing soda, complete with instructions in how to mix up your own gel. It was quick and easy to prepare and would cost less than 7 cents a load to use.  We have been using it this week and are happy with the results—it seems to work  just as well as commercial detergent. The kit, which makes a 2 gallon recipe, sells for 4.95.

VSS also sells shaving bars, all-in-one bars (Wouldn’t these be great for traveling?), and various lotions and scrubs in all kinds of “yummy” scents.

I highly recommend  Virginia Soaps and Scents and can’t wait to try some more varieties. They would make great Christmas gifts as well!

I received these products free for review purposes.


Sarah Books

image We just finished reading Sarah’s Wish, the first of three books by Jim Baumgardner.  Sarah is a nineteenth century girl who experiences many adventures and heartaches, from losing her motheimager in an accident to assisting slaves in the underground railroad. The book is action-packed enough to appeal to both boys and girls in the 8-12 year old range. I was interested to learn that the author, Jim Baumgardner volunteers at a living history museum in Kansas and has done extensive reading of slave narratives and research on riverboats in order to make his stories as authentic as possible. That definitely comes through in his writing. The dialect and terminology used effectively draws the reader into the time period. (Baumgardner even very helpfully includes a glossary of terms to help the reader understand some words that are no longer in use.)

As Emily read the book, she remarked several times how about exciting  the story was. There was a description of a slave beating that worked well to bring her into the cruelty of the time period, feeling the sadness of the title character.

One very nice feature of the Sarah books is that they include  free audio downloads of the story—great for listening to on car trips, or for struggling readers to listen to as they read the actual book. The recording was engaging and well done.

At times, I found the writing just a little bit stilted—evidence that this is the author’s first book, but it was still worth reading. I recommend this series for either recreational reading or as a supplement to a history study of the mid-eighteenth century and the Underground Railroad.

I received this book free for review purposes.



Monday, October 5, 2009

Bible Charts and Maps


We usually study history and the Bible as two separate subjects, making it difficult for children (and adults) to visualize how the two intersect. We have our children memorize dates in world history, but we seldom have access to even approximate dates in Biblical history. What was happening in the rest of the world when Solomon was king? Or during the time of Jonah?

A few years ago, when I used Diana Waring’s materials to study world history with my older children, we started to mesh some of the World history events with Biblical history events and found it fascinating! Both made more sense and our understanding of the Bible was deepened by knowing what else was happening in the world.

So when I received The Amazing Bible History Timeline to review, I immediately realized what a cool item this was. This complete world and Bible timeline is compressed into a 37” by 45” wall chart. Definitely a large-sized poster, but much smaller than a traditional wall timeline with this much information would be.

The timeline is laid out in a unique circular fashion and color coded by the people groups stemming from the sons of Noah (Shem, Ham, and Japheth). The history of the Catholic Church and the Reformation are also color coded. Did you know that Abraham lived at the same time that the great pyramid of Cheops was probably built and the same time that the silkworm industry began in China? Fascinating!

The writing is quite small on the timeline, however, requiring the viewer to get very close to read it. Also, don't expect to find every major event in world history here. The timeline just isn't big enough for that.

The Amazing Bible History Timeline is printed on durable card stock with a “scuff coat varnish” and sells for $29.97. I think that this will be a valuable resource for both Bible study and when we study world history in a year or two. As a bonus, each purchase comes with a free download of “Interactive Maps of the Holy Land” and a digital version of the Amazing Bible History Timeline for viewing on the computer. The Interactive Maps work like transparencies, allowing the viewer to see the boundaries of the Holy Land at different points in time, or even to superimpose one time frame onto another—a very useful tool!

Many Crew members had issues with the accuracy and religious slant of this item. Please visit the TOS Crew to read more.

I received this item free for review purposes.

ABC Teach


Abcteach, “Your Online Resource for Children’s Education,”  is a website for teachers and parents that contains thousands of educational worksheets and activities.

  • Thousands of pages are available free!
  • Over 35,000 pages of printable worksheets are available to members, with more materials added each week.
  • A broad range of subjects and levels is covered, from pre-K through high school levels.
  • Materials include worksheets, coloring pages, science experiments, reading comprehension activities, games, and more.
  • Abcteach also features an educational clip art collection that will add color to your classroom.


I have spent literally hours in the past two weeks looking through the available materials and downloading or printing pages to use in the upcoming months. The resources are well organized by category and there is a search feature as well. I found numerous worksheets and even a few printable games to reinforce the biology and American history topics we are studying this year. These will be great additions to Emily’s workboxes. We have gotten lax on our Spanish studies this year, but I found some Spanish Bingo games and flashcards to print out. There are a lot of Spanish language materials that are too advanced for our needs right now, but would be great for even a high school course.

One of my very favorite features of the site is the  image  custom worksheet generator. I quickly designed and printed out cursive writing practice sheets to correspond with the weekly Bible memory verse in Emily’s Grapevine Bible Study. Then I generated crossword puzzles to reinforce information Emily need to learn for her Alabama history class. The custom worksheet generator also designs word searches, bingo games, math worksheets, abc order activities, and more! This is really cool!

I highly recommend that you hop over to abcteach to print off some free resources and to decide whether the additional resources available to members would be an asset to your home school!

An individual membership is priced at $40 per year.

Sue Patrick’s Workbox System


If you are a follower of homeschool blogs or message boards, then you have surely heard about the latest big trend in homeschooling—workboxes! While there are many descriptions and variations of  the Workbox System, Sue Patrick is the originator of this concept. As a member of the TOS Crew, I was able to read her book and implement her system in our homeschool as it was originally designed.

Sue Patrick’s Workbox System is described as:

An effective teaching system to reduce your organizational time and increase your child's self-control, independence and learning. Specialized for:  Autism, ADD ADHD, and Large Home School Families. This system will compliment your existing curriculum!


The Workbox System basically consists of 12 “workboxes” on a shelf. The student’s daily work is sorted into these boxes and the student methodically works through the boxes. Number cards are velcroed onto the scheduling card as each box is completed. This gives the child a concrete visual of how much work he  or she has to do and how much he has finished, improving  motivation and focus. The organization reduces the distraction provided by looking for pencils or books or waiting for direction on what to do next.  In addition, fun activities are spread throughout the boxes, keeping the child eager to keep working.

I attempted to follow Sue Patrick’s system as closely as possible. She is emphatic that her exact method is the “best way.” As a free-thinking homeschooler who is used to customizing and tweaking anything to fit my kids’ needs, I balked at this! But I decided to follow the “system” as written first and to make adjustments later. My one initial variation to the system was to purchase and use a rolling drawer cart from Costco as pictured above. Mrs. Patrick advocates using 12 plastic shoeboxes on a wire rack. I prefer the cart that I found because it takes up less space and the individual drawers are larger, so books will fit inside neatly. It is also a less cluttered look.


Emily’s first response at seeing the new setup was, “Wow! This is awesome!” Every day, she eagerly peeks to see what is in each box, then settles down to work. I have been very impressed at the improvement in her work habits since we began “workboxing” a few weeks ago.  She is actually accomplishing more in less time and with fewer distractions. One of the major advantages for me is that, as I look for items to fill the boxes, I am using the fun activities that we often didn’t have time for, or that I would forget about—educational games, quick exercise activities, magazines, etc.

We are enjoying the Workbox system and plan to use it indefinitely. I’m sure I will  be making modifications as time goes on in order to meet our needs. It has taken a bit more planning and preparation on my part, but the results have been worth it!

Sue Patrick’s Workbox System User Guide also includes several chapters of tips, homeschool philosophy, and information that might be helpful to new homeschoolers. I personally didn’t agree with all of her views, finding that her homeschooling philosophy is a bit more regimented and formal than mine.

She also describes the use of file folder activities and “centers” as part of the school day.  We haven’t implemented these yet. While they might be fun and productive, for the most part they would be a lot of work for ME and overkill for homeschooling one child. My idea of a perfect homeschooling day is an hour or two of seatwork, a hands on activity, and LOTs of time cuddled up on the couch reading together!

 Sue Patrick’s Workbox System User’s Guide sells for $19.95 ($19 for e-book). The purchase of the book includes access to printable pages for schedule strips, workbox numbers, “work with Mom” cards as well as some activities and worksheets that can be used in the workboxes.  The printable activities are nice, but there wasn’t much there. If I had purchased the book, expecting there to be LOTS of resources in the “member’s only area,” I would have been disappointed. The site also offers pre-printed and laminated schedule strips, cards, etc. for the busy mom who would like to jump right in with minimal preparation.  I would suggest to Sue Patrick that, perhaps, selling her e-book at a much lower price to spread the information about the system, then producing and marketing more pre-made accessories and workbox activities would be a lucrative business move.

Overall, I love “workboxes.”  Sue Patrick’s book and website were helpful, but not as clearly written or descriptive as they could have been.  Still, she deserves credit for designing the system and I am glad that I had the opportunity to learn the hows and whys of the Workbox System from the creator.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The One Year Book of Inspiration for Girlfriends by Ellen Miller


List Price: 14.99

ISBN: 978-1-4143-1938-4

Trim Size: 6 x 9

Binding: Softcover Release: September 2009

The One Year Book of Inspiration for Girlfriends…juggling Not-So-Perfect, OFTEN-CRAZY, but Gloriously REAL LIVES is a devotional book by Ellen Miller. Mrs. Miller is the long time author of “Truth Nuggets,” a bi-weekly e-mail devotional. Her devotionals and blog posts ( have now been compiled into book form in this 365 day devotional book. I, however, enjoyed reading the book straight through, instead of limiting myself to one page a day. The list of topics covered in this book is expansive—there is sure to be something here for everyone. From finding joy in daily life to marriage to loss to friendship to fears to perfectionism, I found nuggets that I could use on nearly every page—either changes for me to make or principles to ponder.

I love the title of this book because it is, indeed, written for women with “real lives,” not those who “have it all together”—if that kind of women actually exists! The author is transparent about the issues in her own life, but her joy in life and in the Lord shines through it all.

This book was reviewed through the Tyndale Blog Network Reviewers program.