Thursday, November 27, 2014


Happy Thanksgiving! We had a wonderful day with a huge group of family—my parents, 3 sisters and husbands, 3 of my 4 children, 12 nieces and nephews and a few extras! I’m so thankful that we had this opportunity to fellowship together (and that I have a family that all get along wonderfully).  I’m also thankful for my sister, who is brave enough to host a group this big!

Hoping that you all had a wonderful day!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Biology Lab: Learning about DNA

DNA extraction

Last week’s biology lesson was about DNA and the role it plays in the manufacture of proteins in cells. First, we did an experiment to extract DNA from dried peas. The students

  1. Blended 1/2 c. dried peas with 1 c. water and 1/4 t. salt in a blender.
  2. Strained the pea residue and mixed 2 T. clear hand soap with the pureed peas and let the mixture sit for 10 minutes. (The soap dissolves the phospholipids in the plasma membranes of the cells, allowing the DNA and other cell contents to escape.)
  3. Stirred in 1/4 t. of meat tenderizer. (Meat tenderizer dissolves the proteins that coat the DNA, exposing the strands of DNA. 
  4. Poured rubbing alcohol on top.
  5. Watched and waited as stringy strands of DNA formed and moved into the alcohol layer.


This was fun to do. It’s pretty amazing knowing that we could cause DNA to clump together in large enough strands to see. The results weren’t as impressive as I’d hoped, though. A few years ago, we extracted DNA from a tomato and the results were more formed and stringier. The students hypothesized about why the DNA clumps didn’t form as well as expected—possibly because the dish soap was under-measured.


Then we did an activity to help the students learn the very complex process of protein synthesis. The students acted out the process using paper models of DNA, messenger RNA, transfer RNA and amino acids. I think they all ended up with a better understanding of the process in which the DNA in the nucleus conveys the instructions for the RNA in the ribosomes to manufacture different types of proteins.  Hands-on activities can be so helpful in understanding difficult concepts!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Homeschool Product Reviews: Blue Ribbon Awards

2014 Blue Ribbon Awards

I blogged about my favorite Schoolhouse reviews last year. Wondering what the other 200 reviewers judged the best products of the year? We all voted for our favorites in a variety of categories and the results are posted on the Crew blog. (Just click the banner!)  You’re sure to find some great ideas for curricula to use in your home school!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Wrapping Up Another Crew Year

The Schoolhouse Review Crew is wrapping up another year. As I’m looking forward to a six-week break from my review responsibilities, I’ve been looking back at the last wonderful year and all the great products that Emily and I got to try out in our homeschool.

It’s hard to choose a favorite, but some of our top choices for favorite are:

Mango Languages:  With over 60 languages to choose from, we are a bit boring to focus on Spanish, but this online program has been a fun way to learn (for both of us)!

Middlebury Languages: Yes, another language program. This is the first subject Emily chooses to do each day. She loves this program and is learning a lot.

Moving Beyond the Page:  This high-quality hands-on, literature-based program encourages critical thinking skills.

Homeschool Piano: Another program that Emily and I are BOTH using. I love the way improvisational skills are taught along with basic music theory. It’s just fun!

Artistic Pursuits’ new sculpture programs are such fun!

If you like hands-on learning, Supercharged Science can’t be beat!

I was surprised by how much Emily enjoyed Veritas Press’s Omnibus 1. This very meaty program covers ancient literature and history.

Standard Deviants Accelerate has been a fun way to learn and review high school level subjects.

There are so many more products that we loved—too many to list. I feel very blessed to be able to use all these different curricula in our homeschool.


If you are a blogger and would like the opportunity to review for the Schoolhouse Review Crew, there is an opportunity right now to apply for next year’s review team.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Edible Cell Project

This week, I got to witness the creativity of my biology students as they brought in their “edible cell” projects. They were instructed to design a cell model from any type of edible materials. We had pizza cells, jello cells and cookie and cake cells. Every one was different, and most of them were delicious! 

The students were instructed to label every part of their cell—some had tags right in the cell, and some had keys to identify the organelles.

The students voted to decide which of the cells were most attractive, most accurate, and most disgusting. They were all great, though!

Most Attractive Cell


Most Accurate Cell


Most Disgusting Cell!


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Snake Oil Game (Schoolhouse Review)

Out of the Box Games Review

Our family loves games, so we were happy to have the opportunity to try out Snake Oil ($19.99), by Out of the Box Games. Snake Oil is for 3 to 10 players, ages 10 and up.

The premise of Snake Oil is that you are a salesman, trying to create convincing sales pitches for unusual products. One player is the “customer,” and draws a customer card. Each card actually has a customer type on each side of the card and the player can choose which type of customer he would like to be for that round. The options are varied and fun, including a babysitter, a hunter, a super hero, a witch, caveman, and hostage.


The other players are all salesmen and choose 2 cards from their hands to create a unique product that might appeal to the target customer. Can you convince a teenager that she needs some “fashion glue—perfect for repairing those fashion emergencies such as torn hems or slipping straps?” Or a babysitter that she needs a “child cage” for those especially difficult children, or maybe for any lazy sitter? 


The customer chooses the product (and presentation) that he likes the best and that salesman is awarded the customer card. We’ve really enjoyed playing this lively and imaginative game. We pulled it out when Katie, our resident “drama queen” was home for the weekend and had lots of laughs and for-fun arguments about our “valuable and unique” products. Emily even had a real-life lesson about how putting down another product or interrupting another salesman’s presentation did NOT help her sell her own item. 

The game is supposed to end after each player has a turn to be customer, but that was much too short for our group of three players. We played until we’d each had three or four turns as customer. I do really like that the game time is open ended—you could play for a certain time period, until one player earns a specified number or cards, or just until you are tired of playing. It’s really nice to have a game that can be played in 15 minutes or stretched out to an hour, depending on the situation. It’s also great for spurring imaginative thinking and improving communication skills.

There are four decks of product cards. We haven’t even opened two of them and have used fewer than half of the cards in the opened decks in several game plays. Furthermore, the cards can be combined in thousands of ways, so this is not a game (like a few we have owned) where you will run through the cards in a few games and need to buy replacement decks, retire the game, or wait for a year until you’ve forgot what’s one the cards. There are fewer customer cards, but that’s no problem—there are LOTS of items that a particular customer might love to “buy.”

We’ve played the game several times with just three players, but I think it would be even more fun with 5 or 6 players. The competitions would be even livelier and we will be sure to pull the game out next time we have a bigger crowd here. I also plan to send it with Emily to youth group sometime.   


I do wish the game had come in a standard game box with a top lid. Instead, it has a side-opening box with a pull-out plastic tray, which is awkward to use and just seems like the manufacturers sacrificed quality to save a few cents.

Other than this slight nuisance, we do love the game!




Click to read Crew Reviews
I received this product free in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Purposeful Design (Schoolhouse Review)


We tend to take our amazing world for granted, yet when we stop and really notice how incredible creation is, it is so obvious that it all comes from God’s Purposeful Design.

Purposeful Design: Understanding the Creation ($18.95), by Jay Schabacker, is a beautiful book that describes and explains the science behind the wonders of creation, directing the reader’s attention to the Creator and His amazing creation. This book appeals to all ages, although the reading level and scientific concepts addressed are probably best suited for upper elementary  and middle school aged children.


The seven chapters in the book each focus on one day of creation.

  • Chapter 1: The First Day, Creation of the Heavens and the Earth tells the reader what the Bible says, then discusses the solar system, the application of the second law of thermodynamics to the movement of the planets, and explains that the universe is orderly, that the rules of nature do not change.
  • Chapter 2: The Second Day, Creation of the Atmosphere and Water explains the rain cycle and discusses how the fact that 71% of the earth’s surface is covered with water creates an atmosphere perfect for life.
  • Chapter 3: The Third Day, Creation of the Dry Land and Vegetation tells about the various uses of vegetation.P1040982
  • Chapter 4: The Fourth Day, Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Stars explains the seasons and how they are created, the orderly daily changes in sunrise and sunset times, the phases of the moon, tilt of the earth, and ocean tides.P1040983
  • Chapter 5: The Fifth Day, Creation of the Birds and Fish and The Sixth Day, Creation of Land Creatures and Humans discusses the amazing design of these living creatures, how each is perfectly made for its own environment, and how they live in symbiotic relationships with each other. Many pages are devoted to the amazing design of the human body.
  • Chapter 7: The Seventh Day reminds the reader for the need for rest and for giving honor to our creator.


This is a wonderful book—part theology, part science—all on an interest and comprehension level for children, but still containing a great deal of scientific information that is fascinating for all ages. The colorful photos and drawings make it ideal for a coffee table book to pick up and glance through for a few minutes, or to use as more serious study.

To make this beautiful book even better, there is a “Young Explorer’s Club” free  PDF curriculum available from Purposeful Design with questions reviewing the scientific concepts for each chapter, scripture verses for reflection, and faith application questions for each chapter. I had Emily work through this workbook and thought it was an excellent way to review and encourage her to further apply the lessons in the book. This definitely would be a great science/Bible program for an elementary or middle school student.

Page 1 from the Student Workbook

As soon as this book arrived, Emily disappeared with it. She told me that it was very interesting, and taught her many facts that she hadn’t known. She also commented that she enjoyed the study guide because it asked for her opinions instead of being a multiple choice format. I didn’t even have a chance to look through it myself until she was finished with it! I gave her 2 weeks of Bible study credit for reading the book and doing the study guide, but she would have been happy to read and study it just for fun. I think this will be a book that is read over and over many times.

Click to read Crew Reviews
I received this product free in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, November 7, 2014

IXL (Schoolhouse Review)


We have been using the math portion of  IXL for a few years. We’ve tried out quite a few online math programs, but I keep coming back to IXL Math as my favorite math practice program, so I was thrilled to be able to review it again in exchange for another year’s subscription.

Until now, we hadn’t tried out IXL Language Arts. It’s a newer aspect of the IXL site and until very recently, there weren’t practice activities for older students. However, language arts activities are now available for second through eighth grades, so Emily (ninth grade) was able to give language arts a try as well.

IXL Math includes practice problems for Pre-K level all the way through pre-calculus. The scope and sequence is extremely thorough, including as many as 309 different skills per grade level. Emily has been working in the Algebra level, which is more thorough than her textbook! That said, it is still a practice program. Students are able to see explanations and worked-out solutions for problems that they miss, but no initial teaching is provided prior to beginning a section.

A subscription offers access to all levels of the program, so a student is able to skip from one level to another at any time. Emily is studying geometry this year, but I have her working in algebra in IXL for review. At any point, she can choose to practice a geometry skill, or even a basic math skill from a lower level. That’s an advantage over some programs that keep the student locked into a particular level.

Upon sign in, you pick your grade level….


Then you choose a topic to practice. Topics that have been attempted or mastered have a score and/or medal beside them.



As you answer questions correctly your “smart score” goes up. If you make a mistake, your smart score goes down. A score of 100 earns a medal. Virtual prizes are earned for mastering skill areas and for practice time. Emily didn’t care about this, but enjoyed this feature when she was younger.


If a mistake is made, the student can see an explanation.


IXL Language Arts works the same way. The eighth grade level covers a wide variety of topics—punctuation, parts of speech, clauses, Greek and Latin roots, reference skills, figurative language, and much more. By spending just 10-15 minutes a day on IXL language arts, Emily is able to review or practice her grammar and vocabulary skills. The nature of the program doesn’t allow it to teach the aspects of  language arts that I consider most important—literature and writing, but it is a great tool for covering the mechanics of language.



The reports section of IXL is amazing, allowing the parent to see how much time the child spends practicing in a day, week, or month, which areas were practiced, improvement over time, and smart scores for every topic.




I think that IXL is engaging, enjoyable, and comprehensive. It is an important part of our curriculum and is a great homeschool or after-school supplement.

IXL is $9.95 a month/$79 a year for one subject or $15.95 a month/ $129 a year for both math and language arts. Additional students in a family are an additional $2/month or $20/year.


Click to read Crew Reviews
I received this product free in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Module 6 has a LOT of vocabulary to learn, so we assembled a felt cell to help the students begin to learn the parts of a cell. I put each part in a labeled zipper bag with its name, had the students take 2 or 3 bags and gave them  5-10 minutes to research the function of “their” parts. Then, as each student placed an organelle on the cell cytoplasm, he or she explained the function of the organelle. When it was assembled, I quizzed them on the name and function of each part and was pleased to see that they did pretty well giving back the information. (Directions for the felt cell can be found at Applie’s Place.

Felt Cell Model Apologia biology


Then we did some more microscope work, looking for and drawing cells from slides of cork and onion (that the students made) and premade slides for hydra, Ranunculus root, and Zea mays root.They weren’t able to see anything on the cork and Ranunculus slides, but made some good drawing for the others.


Monday, November 3, 2014

Fascinating Education (Schoolhouse Review)


Fascinating Education is an online science education site that teaches high school level science concepts using spoken narration accompanied by slides. These unique courses were designed by Dr. Sheldon Margulies, a scientist and neurologist who has great interest in how the brain works and how learning takes place. Margulies presents each piece of information in a clear manner, while the visual input helps to increase understanding and retention through the use of both auditory and visual inputs. The courses currently offered are Chemistry, Biology, and Physics. Emily tried out the Fascinating Biology course.


Each of the 19 lessons in the Fascinating Biology course is divided into about 8-30 “bite sized” segments that teach each concept. A full script is included for those students who learn better through reading or who want to review the topics after watching the initial presentation. A test is also included for each lesson in online or printable format. Although it appears that the lessons are intended to be used sequentially, a student is able to skip around among them. This makes Fascinating Biology useful as a supplement to another course that may not have the same lesson sequence.

When a student clicks on a topic, the lesson immediately begins to play and proceeds from slide to slide automatically. Most of the lessons could be completed in a sitting (about 30 minutes), but we found that it may be better to break up the session before information overload happens! The program remembers the student’s progress, making it easy to pick up at the same point, but the student is easily able to begin at any point, if she wants to review previous material, for example. Each lesson is accompanied by a PDF of the script and a short test. Emily found that the tests only covered the easiest points in the lesson and was happy to make good grades even on the difficult lessons!

The program does not keep a record of test scores, so it is important for the student or parent to keep their own record if that is a concern. This does make the program  very useable for more than one student to use simultaneously, though.


The photos, drawings, and diagrams that illustrate the course are colorful and interest-capturing. You will see far more illustrations here than you will in any textbook. I felt that they were very helpful for teaching the concepts as well as keeping the student’s attention. The narration taught each concept very thoroughly, but I, as a visual learner, had a hard time following everything without seeing the text. The speaker wasn’t particularly dull, but it wasn’t a lively presentation either.

Other than the online tests, the program is not at all interactive. It is basically a slide show that allows the watcher to engage as much or as little as desired. In this high-tech world, it may not capture the attention of many students. Most would not consider it “fun,” but it does provide a  great deal of learning content and the illustrations are good for illustrating each concept.


Although the first lesson explains that the course does not address the question of origins, and Margulies says that his role is to “describe the forces in the universe and how they play out in our everyday lives without addressing how those forces came into being or whether forces are being manipulated by God in some way,”  the concept of evolution is definitely woven throughout every concept.

After using Fascinating Biology for a month, I would describe it as a thorough supplement. Although the content is quite comprehensive, labs are not included (for biology), and there isn’t enough interaction or testing for me to be sure that my student has mastered the material and I would use in alongside another program. We plan to continue using it throughout the year as a supplement to a more traditional biology course.

One-year access is $79 per course or $175 for access to all three courses. The content is high school level, but some middle school students may be ready to use the chemistry or biology courses.

Click to read Crew Reviews

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