Catching Slugs and Studying Language Arts (review)

Disclosure: I received this complimentary product through the Homeschool Review Crew.

Grasshopper has been having so much fun practicing his language arts lessons the past few weeks with Words Rock Online from EdAlive. Let me tell you a little bit about the game.

Words Rock is an online game, and it’s super easy to set up an account and log in. You have to go through the parent account the first time, where you can easily set up child accounts. I only set up an account for Grasshopper, even though the suggested age range is 5-15, and I don’t regret that decision at all. It took a few rounds of going back and forth between the student account and the parent account for me to get the settings *just right* for Grasshopper to be able to actually answer the questions each time, but once I did we only used the student account from then forward.

Playing the Game

When you first log in, you select either Start a New Game or Questions Only. We always played the game! There are  a number of avatars shown on the bottom of the screen to choose from. It seems to assign you a different one each time, but it’s easy to just click a different one that you want to use for that session. Grasshopper always chose the same guy. Then a little pop up appears, where you choose whether you want a Basic Game (smaller board with no “gadgets”) or an Advanced Game (bigger board with “gadgets”). The first few days, we did the basic game, but once we’d figured out the game and were quite comfortable with it, we switched to the advanced game and haven’t looked back since.

The game portion of the app (it’s technically a website, but runs like an app) is kind of a cross between Battleship and Minesweeper. The goal is to catch slugs, and in an advanced game there are 7 slugs taking up a total of 23 squares (the board is 10×10). When you choose a square, you are told whether the square you chose has no slug (50 points), is near a slug (50 points), contains part of a slug (100 points), or completes the capture of a slug (200 points). Each game consists of 4 players: your student and 3 computer opponents.

In the advanced game, you have the option of using helps. Each help costs a certain number of points, so you can’t use any on your first turn (because you don’t have any points yet). The helps are: scatter search, which gives you a cross beam of squares that you can choose instead of a single square (400 points); hint, which gives you a 3×3 area in which to choose, one of which is a guaranteed “part of slug” (50 points); restricted zone, which allows you to block off an area from your opponents’ future turns (125 points); and unlimited move, which opens the entire board to you (in the advanced game, you can only choose from certain unlocked squares which change each turn) (50 points). We found through playing the game that scatter search is more than worth the 400 points it costs to use, because you pretty much always get 800-1500 points back using that option. When we started using scatter search, Grasshopper’s scores went from 1500-1800 to 3000-4000 or more per game. It really made a big difference! And once he got the hang of the game, his goal shifted. Instead of aiming to win, he tried to get a better and better score each time (essentially beating himself). At the time of this writing, he aims to get 4000 points each time he plays.

After each turn, you go to the question portion of the game. Students must answer a language arts question chosen from quite a large range of topics and difficulties. They are given 2 chances. If they get the answer correct on their first try, the next round of slug finding earns them double points. If they get it right on the second try, they get 1.5x the points. Some questions are deemed “brain teasers,” and those earn even more points for the next round if answered correctly (2.4x instead of 2.0). If a question is too difficult, you can click the “too hard” button and get a new question with no penalty. We had to use that a few times, but not too often once I figured out the right settings for him in the parent-teacher portal.

Questions include things like “Click all the verbs in the sentence” and “Determine which words are opposites from the following pairs.” You’ll answer about 5-7 questions per game.

Once all 7 slugs are captured, the game ends immediately – no further questions are asked. You then see the bonus points being awarded. These are for things like “most slugs captured,” “most brain teaser attempts,” and “highest slug hit rate.” The player with the most points wins.

Final Thoughts

I don’t think there was a single day that went by (weekends included) that Grasshopper didn’t ask to play the “Slug Game.” He absolutely loved it, and I liked that he was getting some extra grammar practice in. Some of the questions required a lot of help, but most were just fine for him to understand and answer on his own. I absolutely expect him to continue playing the game each day for the entire year that we have access.

Members of the Homeschool Review Crew have been playing two other games from EdAlive this month, too. Click through to read reviews on Words Rock (language arts), Volcanic Panic (reading), and Baggin’ the Dragon (math).

Blessings,

Book Club: A Time for Mercy

A few months ago, Will bought me a copy of John Grisham’s (then) most recent book, A Time for Mercy. I had skipped the past few Grisham novels (nothing wrong with them, I’m sure, but he had been venturing away from legal thrillers, which are my favorites from him). I was excited to read this one, though, because it was to be a sequel to his first novel, A Time to Kill. I had read that book years ago, but had recently rewatched the movie version starring Samuel L. Jackson and Matthew McConaughey.

This post contains spoilers of the book A Time For Mercy.

Plot

Even though I was in the middle of another book when Will presented me with this one, I dove in right away anyway. The story starts quite dramatically, with a young family (mom Josie and two young teens, Keira and Drew) terrified in their home. They live with the mother’s boyfriend, Stuart, and they can hear him coming in, drunk from his night out. This isn’t a new thing for Stu, and he often beats the family when he comes home like this. If they had anywhere else to go, they would. This night, he takes things much farther than he ever has before. Drew and Keira hear him beating Josie, but they lock themselves in Keira’s room out of sheer terror. When the noise from downstairs ceases, and the kids are fairly sure Stu has gone somewhere else for a while, they sneak down to the kitchen. The sight before them is nothing any child should ever have to see: their mother’s boyfriend has literally beaten her to death. Drew, age 16, makes his way to Stuart’s room and finds his gun, then shoots the man who killed his mother.

Keira calls 911 and the police and ambulance arrive at the residence. It turns out Josie isn’t dead after all, but Stuart certainly is. This, combined with the fact that Stu had already fallen into bed asleep, makes Drew’s assumption of self-defense a lot stickier. To make matters worse, Stuart Kofer was a well-respected sheriff’s deputy in town. Drew was unknown. So the dead man has a lot more friends than his killer, and in small town Mississippi, something like that can make or break a case.

No lawyer in the entirety of Ford County will touch the case with a 10-foot-pole. The judge finally forcibly assigns it to none other than Jake Brigance, the hero lawyer of A Time to Kill. After having been promised over and over again by the judge that the assignment is only temporary – just until he can get another lawyer to take the case – Jake reluctantly agrees. But of course, being the type of case it is (automatic death-penalty due to the fact that the victim was a cop), no one ever steps forward and Jake is stuck with it all the way through trial. After many twists and turns, including definitive proof that Stuart wasn’t the upstanding citizen he was assumed to have been, the case ends in a mistrial. This means that in some future, unwritten novel, young Drew will be forced to stand trial for this murder again.

My Thoughts

I was enthralled by this book from the very first page. I was so excited to have a fresh legal thriller from John Grisham that I had trouble putting the book down at night, no matter how tired I got. I was excited to see how that “definitive proof” I mentioned before (Stuart had been raping Keira and she was pregnant with his child) landed with the jury. As I read the book, I tried to see things from both sides, to be a juror on that case myself, and figure out how I’d vote. It was impossible.

And then I got to the end. The jurors in the novel agreed with me: it was impossible to decide whether to convict young Drew or not. On the one hand, he absolutely killed Stuart, a cop – mandatory death penalty. There was no question about that. On the other hand, it wasn’t like Stuart was innocent himself. But, as the prosecutors pointed out, Stuart wasn’t the one on trial. Drew was. But that didn’t persuade all of the jurors. They simply couldn’t agree, and the hung jury meant a mistrial. While I’m confident that was probably an accurate representation of what would have/could have happened if this was based on reality, I found it immensely unsatisfying in a novel. I wanted a more solid conclusion than that.

Despite that, I think Grisham stayed very true to his fictional Ford County, and it was good to see so many familiar characters seamlessly woven in with the new ones. If you don’t mind reading a book now that you know all the twists, I highly recommend A Time for Mercy.

Blessings,

Tiny Books and a Tiny Musician

Reading is important to me, and it’s important that my kids learn to read too. I understand the mentality of a lot of homeschool parents is “don’t force them; they’ll read when they’re ready.” I don’t necessarily agree with that mentality, but I know that it exists. Kids, by their very nature, are lazy (at least mentally). They’d rather play outside or watch TV than go to school. I think it just takes the proper motivation to get them to read. (For example, Grasshopper fought me tooth and nail on reading until it was no longer an option. Then he complained every day when it was time to read his book. Then we got him his trophy, and he suddenly starting reading everything in sight, including getting much faster at the pages in his novel. With that prize just waiting for him, he wanted it, and he wanted it bad.)

Those beginning stages of teaching children to read are often the hardest. That’s where programs like Reading Eggs or Reading Unlocked come in handy. Dragonfly (5) was able to read basic words (cat, hat, mat) since he was 4 thanks to those programs. A year later and he is very competent with his letters and sounds. But he lacks confidence in reading anything else. I don’t want him to fall into the trap of knowing all the phonics and still not being able to read. So when Will and I were out on an afternoon a few weeks ago, we found ourselves in Barnes & Noble. The “early reader” section caught my eye, and I started poking around there, looking at the options. Bob books are always a popular choice, and one we’ve used several times from the library with other kids. But then, on the next shelf down, I found a set of PAW Patrol books. Our kids don’t know much about PAW Patrol (they’re more into PJ Masks), but they know enough to recognize the characters even if they can’t name them. So I picked bought the box and brought it home to him. He was so excited! And that same day, he read the first book. He should have been able to read it on his own based on his skills, but as I mentioned, he lacks the confidence. I had him read the same book again the next day, and he did better. We’ve been slowly adding the books into his repertoire, and before long he’ll have read them all. From there, I am confident he will be able to move on to slightly longer books (Frog and Toad, maybe), and I fully expect that he will follow Scorpion’s footsteps and read his first novel and earn a trophy when he’s 6.

Bumblebee, on the other hand, is a bit too small to read yet. He does watch Dragonfly do Reading Eggs most days, though, and can recognize many of the letter sounds, so I bet he will be an early reader too (he’s 2 1/2 now). He does, however, play the ukulele!

Just kidding. Ballet Boy plays the ukulele and set up this picture. He tells me that the instrument was too heavy for Bumblebee, who kept tipping over every time he was left to hold it on his own. Ballet Boy had to snap the picture while supporting the neck of the ukulele and keeping his own hand out of frame.

Blessings,

Another Strange Brew sweater

When I made the “A-Maze-ing” sweater for Grasshopper last spring, he absolutely adored it. I really loved the way it looked on him, too. But a couple of months later, disaster struck. The sweater, which I’d made from non-superwash wool yarn, got tossed in the laundry, unbeknownst to me. I was horrified when I picked it up out of the basket of clothes from the dryer as I was folding them. It was much too small for him to wear any longer.

Silver lining is that the stitch definition is still pretty good, and the sweater now fits Dragonfly. It’s the tiniest bit stiffer than it used to be, but at least it still gets to be worn.

A close up of the motifs he chose. It started with arrows at the bottom, followed by waves, then the letter E (for his name). We topped the Es with a crown, and finished the sweater off with bold red triangles, or “Godzilla spikes” as he calls them.

But that left Dragonfly (5) with 3 sweaters and Grasshopper (8) with just one. Now that I’m out of my blanket and toy rut, it was time to make him a new sweater for this coming year! I decided to let him design his own design, since that’s the whole point of the Strange Brew recipe pattern. We looked at different motifs together, and he picked out the ones he liked best (that would fit into the number of rows for a sweater his size). I took him to Hobby Lobby to choose the yarn, too. I knew after making the Mickey Mouse sweater for Bumblebee that I didn’t want to use Big Twist yarn for another sweater, and that meant shopping somewhere besides JoAnn. While we were at the store, we looked at quite a few different yarns. Grasshopper knew that he wanted his sweater to be blue with red designs. He was willing to compromise a bit on that so as not to have it turn out too garish, but not too much. We examined at least 3-4 different blues before we found one he liked. Then we looked at the reds. Then we found a better blue (I Love This Yarn! in the color Chambray), which led us to other reds. He landed on a nice dark, supple red (I Love This Yarn! in Red Tweed), which compliments the blue marbled yarn very nicely – it’s not hard on the eyes at all.

And this one’s made from acrylic yarn, so we won’t have any shrinkage problems this time.

 

Blessings,

Prom

Ballet Boy knew that there were a few things he was sacrificing by being homeschooled, one of which was every having the opportunity to attend Prom. He was okay with this (we’ve talked about it quite a few times); he knew that the trade off was so great that he was okay with the things he’d miss out by not attending a regular school.

Then COVID hit, and suddenly he wasn’t the only one who was going to be missing things. (In our state, which has been one of the hardest locked down states in the country, schools were closed for over 400 days except for Zoom. When they did open, it was only 1-2 days per week for 1-2 hours per day. Public school parents, as you can imagine, have been livid.) This meant that he was suddenly not “special” in his plight of not getting a prom. None of the kids his age would get one (he’s a junior this year).

A year on, and the virus has slowed considerably, thanks in large part to previous infections and vaccines (we were fortunate to never have gotten the disease and have now all been vaccinated except those in our family too young to qualify). Because the virus doesn’t feel like much of a threat anymore, our church decided to hold a Prom for the kids. Even though we found out about it pretty last minute (just 6 days before the event), we made a point to send Ballet Boy. He invited one of his dance friends, and they had a lovely time. They looked so good all dressed up!

I am thrilled that he got the opportunity to attend a high school prom after all, and I know he is too.

Blessings,

Fathers

The Homeschool Review Crew challenge this week is Fathers – rather appropriate since Father’s Day is coming right up here in the US. I’d like to take a small moment to honor the fathers in my life.

Dad

My mom and dad divorced when I was small, so I grew up seeing my dad the standard “every other weekend.” Because of this, his love language for us became gifts and experiences – the stereotypical Disneyland Dad. When my brothers (I have two – one is 2 1/2 years younger than me and the other 8 1/2 years younger) and I were small, this meant tons of camping trips, going to the amusement park, bowling and pizza, and movie rentals.

We grew apart during my teenage years, but I realized the folly of my ways a couple years on and clung to him later. When I was old enough to get married, he walked me down the aisle with tears (of joy) in his eyes. When I started having babies, he was always there (maybe not in person, but mentally and emotionally). He was a really great grandfather. I could always count on him to babysit in a pinch, even if he wasn’t the “best” at it.

I remember when Dragonfly was a tiny baby, we asked him to babysit so we could take the other boys to see Willy Wonka in the theater (one of the local cinemas ran it when Gene Wilder died). He had to call us before we’d made it all the home because the baby just wouldn’t stop crying. Dad was pretty stressed out, but he pulled through. (We were on our way home when he called, so it was just another 10 or 15 minutes of cranky baby for him.)

When Bumblebee was born, Dad couldn’t make it to the hospital (he’d moved a couple of hours away by that point), but I called him from the hospital to share the news. Telling him that we’d given the new baby Dad’s name as baby’s middle was one of the most touching things I’ve ever experienced. He and his fiancee both cried tears of joy on hearing that news. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that phone call (I hope I don’t anyway).

Last year, I lost my dad to undiagnosed cancer. He was a stubborn man who would never go to a doctor. My mom told me once that when they were still married and Dad was sick, that he made her go to the doctor and give his symptoms as her own in order to get the medicine, and then he’d take it instead of her. Crazy. He knew he had cancer (obviously not officially), but he was tough as nails to the end. I still miss him a lot, but things are easier now than they were a year and a half ago.

John

When my parents split up, I was just 5. By the time I was 6, my mom had remarried, and she and my stepdad are still married to this day. John was always a good provider for us. He worked really hard to support the family, and was never one that I had to fight with (“you’re not my dad”). He taught me to drive when I was 15, and a lot of the cooking I did in my earlier years came from his recipes too. He has been as much a father figure to me as Dad was. I asked him to join in the “walking down the aisle” duties, but he declined, not wanting to step on my dad’s toes on that special day. My kids call him “Grandpa John,” and I think he has definitely earned that title.

Will

My husband… He is an amazing man, and I don’t think I praise him enough. We got married very young, but have stuck together through thick and thin. You know in your wedding vows when you say “for richer or poorer”? We’ve been both! Fortunately now, we’re in a “richer” time in our lives, both financially and in family. He humors me through all of my hobbies, never being stingy on getting me supplies. He has always been supportive in our quest to keep our kids out of daycare. This means that we’ve been a single-income family for over 17 years. I know that’s been stressful for him before, but he never complained. It was important to him too.

When our oldest son was eligible for Kindergarten, sending him to public school was never even something we talked about. Even though sending him off to school would have made things easier (I could have gone back to work), it was as big a priority for Will as it was for me (maybe more so) to keep the boys home for school. He was always willing to help me try to figure out what homeschooling should look like for our family. We spent many hours together in Lakeshore Learning Stores, going over different curricula and workbooks when the teens were small. Now that we’ve got a younger crop of sons in the early years of their homeschool careers, things are different. But Will is always excited to hear from the boys what they “learned about in school today.”

Without him, I can’t imagine what my life would be like. I know it would be different, but there’s no way it would be better. I am thankful every single day for my husband – the father of my children.

Head over to the Homeschool Review Crew website for other people’s takes on the theme “Fathers” today.

Blessings,

Crochet Amigurumi: A Lesson in Gauge

Because I knit garments, I know the importance of gauge. I don’t worry too much about it when I crochet because I use crochet almost exclusively for things where gauge doesn’t matter (toys and blankets). When I made a pink elephant a couple of months ago, using the same pattern designer as all the toys I made last year (Jess Huff), it felt a bit small to me. I’d given away all of the toys I made last year (it was really nice having gifts for my kids’ friends’ birthdays all year long!), so I couldn’t compare it to any of those. But just in case I was right and it was too small (maybe my gauge had gotten tighter over the past year), I made a dog with a larger hook size. For the dog, because Jess Huff doesn’t have a dog pattern, I used her “Benedict the Bear” pattern, but swapped the ears out for those from Sarah Zimmerman’s “Dash the Dog” from the book Crochet Cute Critters.

The dog felt pretty good as I was making it. The size was really nice – more what I thought I was expecting when I had been making the elephant. But when I finished him and then got the elephant out to compare the two, I was really surprised at just how big the difference was. I wasn’t so clueless as to expect them to be the same size, but the difference between an E hook (3.5mm) and an H hook (5.0mm) was drastic! And it really goes to show just how important gauge can be when you’re making something where it matters a whole lot, like a sweater.

A few things to keep in mind as you’re crocheting amigurumi toys, though. While a bigger hook will give you a bigger toy, which can definitely be preferable sometimes, it does that because it makes bigger stitches. This means that if you go too big (without sizing up your yarn too), you could end up with holes in your project where the stuffing can poke out. This is definitely not ideal, especially if you’re going to give the toy to a child. It’s best to follow the recommended hook size that the designer has listed in the pattern. Because gauge doesn’t matter for toys (as I mentioned before), it’s likely that the designer has chosen that hook size on purpose to work with the stitch count and make a nice-sized toy. I learned this by “overriding” a recommended H hook in a few patterns last year in favor of an E hook to make sure I had tight enough stitches. Those toys, while *fine*, were a whole lot smaller than I expected or liked. An H hook with size 4 yarn is fine for toys. The stitches won’t be too big (unless you crochet really loosely). I wouldn’t recommend going any bigger than that, though.

If you plan to give the toy to a young child (under 3), you should crochet or embroider small eyes instead of using safety eyes. While I don’t normally have trouble with my safety eyes, they’re not not foolproof. If your safety eyes do fall out, I’ve found that a dab of hot glue works wonders with reinstalling them. (Obviously they can’t go back in to a finished project.) Just put a little bit of hot glue onto the post of the eye and poke it back in. The glue will adhere to the poly-fil fibers and stay put quite nicely.

Have you ever been surprised by your knitting or crochet gauge?

Blessings,

Book Reading Trophy

When our teenagers were younger, we made the decision to reward them after they’d read their first “big book.” This was defined as either a biography or a novel, age-appropriate. Ballet Boy, who was 8 at the time, read a really old copy of Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans that we’d gotten at an antique store (I believe it’s a first edition from the late-1800s; you can get an updated copy from Amazon in paperback for $7.95 or on Kindle for free). Scorpion (then 6) read Charlotte’s Web. When they’d finished, we got them each a trophy that reflected their interests, which at the time were Ancient Egypt (Ballet Boy) and knights in shining armor (Scorpion). They still have both of them.

Now Grasshopper is (finally) starting to read more. He’s about 3/4 of the way through his first big book: Holes by Louis Sachar. He’s always been a huge fan of audio books, and has listened to all of the Wayside School books (except one… keep reading). He really enjoys Mr. Sachar’s writing, and when my husband asked me who Grasshopper’s favorite author was it was an easy question to answer. Will then proceeded to get onto the Barnes and Noble website and order a signed copy of the newest Wayside School book, Wayside School Beneath the Cloud of Doom. Grasshopper is so excited to get to read the book that he’s really pushing himself to finish Holes. And in the process, he’s gotten to the point where he’s reading everything he sees from street signs to billboards to cereal boxes. It’s really rewarding to see him finally care about his own literacy!

Blessings,

One More Story (review)

Disclosure: I received this complimentary product through the Homeschool Review Crew.

Reading aloud is a magical time for many families, but there are times when it’s just not possible. Those times are the basis for One More Story. They’re here to help get your kids some literature time when you just can’t for one reason or another.

One More Story is available as a website or an iOS (Apple) app. For ease of use, I downloaded the app to my iPhone and our iPad. This way there was no issue with trying to remember log in credentials every time it was time to use the program.

When you first open the app (after the very first time, when you have to log in), the bookshelf is the main screen. You can easily choose a book to read, or have read to you, and off you go. It’s really that simple.

There are currently 87 books available, and each one has original music composed by Robby Merken, who used to work for Sesame Street. There are 30 different narrators, so this keeps the books fresh. You’ll find many different types of books here, but they are all high quality stories. Some are well-known (The Snowy Day, Stellaluna, and Pete’s a Pizza, for example), and others are not (Kiss the Cow and Sidney Won’t Swim). All are good.

There are two options for using the app: Read Aloud or I Can Read. In Read Aloud, the app does all the reading to your child, along with the original music I mentioned before. You can choose to have the pages turn automatically, or do so manually. In I Can Read mode, there is no music or narration. Children do the reading all on their own. If they don’t know a word, they can tap on it and the app will read it aloud to them, which helps to build confidence in reading.

We had a lot of fun with this app. My little kids really enjoyed the audiobook aspect of it (they love audiobooks!), and having the original illustrations to go with the music and narration was a nice bonus from the typical audiobook they’re used to.

You can connect with One More Story on Facebook or Twitter.

Make sure to head over to the Review Crew website for more information and links to other reviews as well.

Blessings,

Mickey Mouse sweater

I’m finding myself following a similar knit/crochet schedule as I did last year! I spent the winter making blankets, then did a few toys in the spring (I have a post planned for showing off some of those in a few days), and now I’m working on kid sweaters.

Using the Strange Brew sweater “recipe,” just like I did last year, I made a sweater for Bumblebee, who is 2 1/2 now. I didn’t end up liking this one as well as other things I’ve made recently, but my son really likes it, so that matters a lot more than me liking it.

To create the design on the sweater, I first printed the Strange Brew planning worksheet from Tin Can Knits. I drew out the words first, because I knew I wanted those to wrap around the bottom and I prefer to knit sweaters bottom up whenever possible. When I finished knitting the words and the body, and attached the sleeves to begin the yoke, I took a pause to create the yoke design on my worksheet. In the tiny size of 1-2 years, there are only a few rows of yoke design allotted, divided into 3 sections. The shorts and the Mickey Mouse head were easy enough to sketch out, but the middle portion was a bit trickier. I wanted to do the gloves, but I just didn’t have the stitches available. Instead, I went with a paper-cutout-doll style design. What I mean is that I did a sort of “body” with the arms all connected the entire way around the sweater.

For this sweater, I used JoAnn Big Twist yarn in the colors Medium Gray and Varsity Navy. I really love this yarn for crocheting, but I didn’t love it for a knitted sweater. I’m not sure what it was about it, but it just felt… “cheap,” if that makes sense. But again, Baby loves the sweater, so I’m okay with it.

Blessings,