Does spelling elicit moans, groans and complaints? Is spelling becoming a drag? Spellarama may be what you need. In its simplest form, Spellarama is a set of playing cards with alphabet letters on them. But, it’s so much more.

Developed by its creator to help overcome problems learning to spell because of dyslexia, Spellarama was first used in the Ontario, Canada public schools. It was used throughout Canada, and in Australia and the USA.

The deck contains 56 cards, including multiple copies of some letters, and * (star) cards that serve as wild cards. For added complexity, a set of sound cards with various pronunciation symbols can be used in various games. Built around the deck of cards are games for students just learning their letters or alphabet, beginning spellers or older children who could benefit from something new and different. Spellarama cards are a free download that you print yourself on cardstock, or on thinner paper and then laminate.

Play Go Fish. Build the alphabet. Win a spelling version of Gin Rummy. Spell long or short words for points. Play with a group or solitaire. Spellarama is as flexible as it is educational.

Making the cards can be a bit labor intensive, especially if you choose to laminate them. Cutting the cards after lamination is a good test of hand muscles, and perseverance. Even so, to me the small investment of time and effort were well worth it.

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JellyTelly – Update: It’s now FREE!

A new beta of JellyTelly is now on-line and, yes, it’s now free. A comment by Phil Vischer on the site indicates that they’re still trying to find a revenue model that works. For now, the site takes donations (see the bottom of the site’s pages).

The new JellyTelly is a major website rework. It combines most of the previous content of JellyTelly with other Focus on the Family offerings of Adventures in Odyssey and Last Chance Detectives.  The new website organization is different with content split into Videos, Shows, Characters and Games. To me, the distinction between Videos and Shows is a bit muddled.

Such favorites as The Fabulous Bentley Brothers, Pirate Pete, Dr. Schniffenhousen, Sunday School Bucks [sic] Mailbag, Clive & Ian’s Wonderblimp of Knowledge, FANTASTIC WORLD, and One Minute Sports Clinic are still part of JellyTelly . The only notable character/shows lost seems to be God Rocks.

I miss the daily show, and the anticipation of what’s next. The kids don’t seem to mind. It may just be one of those age differences between my generation who grew up with TV being selected by some executive, and the newer generations who select their own with Netflix and DVDs. In either case, JellyTelly is still a favorite in our house.

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Alice 2.2

Alice - - FREE educational software that teaches computer programming in a 3D environment

Students’ initial difficulty when learning to program inspired the development of Alice, which is intended to make the learning process more engaging. Whereas typical introductory assignments are fairly tedious, the Alice approach to teaching and learning programming uses the context of creating animations and storytelling to make the work highly motivating.

The kind folks at Carnegie Mellon University have not only created Alice, software that teaching the beginnings of computer programming, they’ve also made it available for free. No strings. No advertisements. No spyware. It’s not a reduced functionality version. There’s no trial period to run out. Downloading Alice is completely free (alice.org).

Not surprisingly, as a product of Carnegie Mellon, Alice is an amazing tool. Alice includes a tutorial that teaches the basics in object-oriented programming in a 3D environment, and all the tools a kid needs to explore and learn about how to write a simple (and later, a not so simple) graphical computer program.

Alice’s graphical interface is very kid-friendly and yet powerful at the same time. Students drag and drop command tiles in a graphical environment to build a program.  Students learn about variables, classes, objects, methods, functions, properties, boolean expressions, and event-driven programming. And, because Alice is graphics-based, students can see their programs “do something.” It gives immediate recognition of their accomplishment, and provides encouragement to try something different. Did I mention it’s fun?

Alice includes a wide range of graphical figures, appropriate for children from 10 on up, and with themes that both boys and girls will find interesting. From ice skaters, to rabbits, to space ships, to an amusement park, to medieval knights and trolls, Alice has something to entice nearly every child to give it a try.

Alice 2.2, the latest non-beta version (Alice 3 is soon to be released), is targeted at middle school to college instruction, HOWEVER I’ve found 4th graders can grasp the beginning concepts and build fairly sophisticated programs. The tutorial themes are certainly very appropriate for middle to upper elementary-school students.

Both eBay and amazon.com list a variety of books/texts for those who like hard copy documentation, or for advanced topics. Prices ranged from $6 for a well-used copy to $70 for a brand-new latest edition.

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Have you ever wanted an educational source that kids find interesting, covers a wide variety of topics, and that kids actually ask to use? If so, BrainPOP deserves a good look.

BrainPOP offers on-line animated videos (“movies”) that cover science, art, history, math, technology, health, music, and English. Hosted by a young male character named Tim and his robot sidekick Moby, the movies are both fun and educational. And, yes, my kids ask to watch BrainPOP just for the fun of it. In fact, they have favorites that they’ve watched over and over. One favorite is the movie on Alternating Current/Current Electricity.

Each movie starts with a question contained in a note to Tim and Moby. Our hosts then go on to explore and explain the topic. The information is presented in a conversational, matter-of-fact tone, with a few gags interspersed for the fun of it. Each movie topic offers a quiz which can be printed out, e-mailed, or simply used as a review. Many topics have worksheet activities and/or experiments connected with them. We’ve tried quite a few of them, and I’ve been pleased with their quality and applicability. Some topics have additional information available to read on-line. Also included with each movie are links to related BrainPOP movies, making it easy for kids to continue their exploration.

The movies are targeted for 3rd grade through high school, depending on the topic. Parents of younger children will want to closely monitor the movies for several that deal with more advanced topics like human reproduction. The movies do a good job of providing both sides of topics that involve controversy, with the exception of global warming.

A selection of free movies are offered each week/month, including themed movies corresponding to holidays. A one year subscription, as of this writing starting at $99/year, allows unlimited movies for a single user. Subscriptions are available for multiple concurrent computers.

But, the best part about BrainPOP is that it gives children a vessel to explore the things that interest them.

Posted in Arts, History, Language Arts, Mathematics, Science | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Bare Books

My kids really like to make things. Even more, they like to look at things they’ve previously made. They still like to get out the letter books we made when they were preschoolers and look through the pictures and their first attempts at letters. That’s what makes Bare Books one of my very favorite finds.

Bare Books offers a variety of high quality blank books and amazing accessories used with those books at an exceptionally reasonable cost. From Chunky Bare Books, blank board books for the younger crown, to Bare Books Plus, with up to 96 pages (46 sheets), there really is a Bare Book for nearly every need. Lined, partially lined, and completely blank pages are offered in  portrait or landscape formats using a traditional or spiral binding. Also offered are a variety of front covers to the books. Beyond the standard blank white cover, there are themes appropriate for boys and girls of all ages (adults, too!).  There are even Bare Comic Books, ready to host the latest cartooning adventures!

Other high quality Bare book products include blank jigsaw puzzles of varying sizes, blank bookmarks, and blank calendars. For the budding game makers, the bare game board and accessories are absolutely wonderful.

A high quality blank book is a great find in itself, but even better are the high quality accessories available, including:

  • Bare Crayons, erasable crayons made of plastic, last longer than wax crayons and don’t crumble — these are The Best Crayons I’ve ever seen, bar none.
  • Line guides for neater writing on unlined pages
  • Slip-on and Adhesive dust covers for the Bare Books
  • A truly useful Writers Directory for beginning writers
  • Cartoon template with a variety of bubbles for dialogue, and shapes for those noises so necessary in adventurous comics
  • Book plates

There are so many possibilities with Bare Books products that it can’t help but get the creative juices flowing. Bare Book bundles, combining some of the more popular accessories with a book, are not only a bargain, but make great gifts. Like colored pencils, scissors and glue, I try to keep a stock of Bare Books on hand so they’re available whenever one of the kids’ creativity strikes.

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Financial Peace, Jr.

Anyone familiar with Dave Ramsey’s television or radio program have heard of his Financial Peace University. I’ve listened to Dave on and off for a decade, and I’ve heard his explain how to structure dividing a child’s commissions (not allowance!), but I never knew he had a practical hands-on version for kids.

Financial Peace, Jr. is a way to introduce kids aged 3-12 to the importance of work and how to manage their money. Not surprisingly, saving and giving are part of Financial Peace, Jr.’s structure. However, it also does a GREAT job of teaching a child to SPEND their money, with a way for a child to select something special they want to save for, post a picture of it and make a plan for how to save for it.

The package comes with colorful envelopes for Saving, Giving, and Spending, as well as a chore chart for tracking commissions (and fines), and a good child-oriented explanation of how and why to use Financial Peace, Jr.

Dave suggests displaying the charts on the ‘fridge, but we chose to mount a magnetic white board in a prominent location to hold the charts, and serve as a family message board. Because our kids switch between two sets of chores every other week, I made a Child A and Child B chart and along with changing the date each week after the kids are paid their commission, we also note which child owns which chart for that week. I outlined the days the chores are to be done in black sharpie. For the chores that are day specific, like taking out the trash, I outlined the days on which the chores are to be done in black sharpie. For chores that need to be done each day, I outlined each day of the week in sharpie.

We’ve used Financial Peace, Jr. for six months now and it’s worked quite well.

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TOPS Learning Systems

Finding homeschooling curriculum that involves good, hands-on science experiments that don’t require lots of expensive gear is tricky. Many claim to use common household items, but their definition of common and mine don’t mesh. This year, we tried a new curriculum from TOPS Learning Systems, that truly does use common household items. Combine that with the inexpensive cost of cost titles — between $9 and $16 — and you’ve got a curriculum tailor made for homeschool.

The TOPS website includes numerous free samples to try. After completing several of them and having not only success but fun, too, I knew we’d found our new science material for the year.

TOPS titles use a format where the student is given a sheet with a set of instructions and they follow at their own pace. For many of the experiments, the items are things the children can get for themselves with little need for an adult to track down something. This makes them ideal for “extras”  when kids can chose something of interest to pursue.

TOPS Learning Systems is a non-profit organization founded by Ronald Jay Marson, a former math and science teacher whose experience in traditional classrooms and in West Africa in the Peace Corps taught him how to use simple materials to teach science. His wife, Peg Nazari Marson, is an artist. She illustrates the curricula with unique “peoplets” that demonstrate and add interest to the material. The balance of the organization includes a work-from-home mom customer service manager, and a family of organized neighbors who assemble the inexpensive kits that TOPS offers at a minimal cost for the few less common items that some of the titles use (think chemistry).

We’re nearly finished with the Animal Survival (#37) title. It’s been fun and has led to lots of discussion and interest-led research. Next, we’re on to Machines (#22), and Analysis (#10).

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