Thursday, October 28, 2010

Schoolhouse Planners Student edition Review

Schoolhouse Planners Student Editions

From The Schoolhouse Store

Available in several editions:
  • Primary Planner—grades K–3 $9.95 E Book download
  • Secondary School Planner—grades 4–6 $9.95 E Book Download
  • Middle School Planner—grades 7–8 $19.00 E Book Download
  • High School Planner—grades 9–12 $29.00 E Book Download

The Parent Schoolhouse Planner is also available $39.00 E Book Download

The Planners are also available on CD and Bundle Combinations of various planner editions for differing prices.

Over the last few months I have been thinking about how I can help my 9 year old daughter become more independent in school related matters. She is a very eager reader and has varied interests, but often needs a lot of encouragement and prodding to complete assignments and activities. The Schoolhouse Planner maybe something that will help both of us in that area.

To that end, the creative people at the Old Schoolhouse have done it again. They have taken many of the wonderful elements of the Schoolhouse Planner designed for adults and put them into special editions of the planner just for students.

I was given an electronic copy of both the Primary and Secondary Planners to look at and use so that I could write this review. Many of the elements are the same in both planners.

In the students planners you will find many helpful things including:
  • Weekly and Monthly calenders
  • Charts of Latin and Greek word roots
  • Newberry and Caldecott Award winning book lists
  • Reference lists of American History and Biblical History
  • A Place for Goals
  • Alphabet Handwriting Practice Pages

Also in the student planners are daily evaluation forms, daily activities chart, chore charts, and writing ideas. In the Primary level planner, the activities and chore charts have thumbnail pictures for each activity. This is a great idea for children who are not secure readers yet.

There are also a couple short articles in each planner to coach them in writing skills as well as offer general encouragement.

Each planner also comes with a short parent file with several articles addressed to both the student and parent. These are centered on balancing school and home life and being responsible. A very good idea uses a pizza to help children look at the time they have each day, what they have to do and the free time they will have. I LOVE this concrete manner of breaking down time and helping the student plan their day. It takes a very boring task and makes it more fun. It also has the ability to help students (and parents) become more accountable for how they spend their day.

I think responsibility is a skill to be learned, not caught and many components of the Schoolhouse Planner can assist. I found the Daily Evaluation forms and library tracking forms to be especially helpful in this instance. The daily form helps students to examine in a concrete manner what they accomplished. From this analysis, they may be able to see where they can worker harder or more efficiently. I used it for more of a weekly evaluation than daily, as I am trying to encourage looking at everything accomplished in one week rather than just a day. I find that generally looking at the whole week gives more of a balanced perspective than just one day.


A wide variety of reference material all in one location
All the forms can be typed in on the computer and then printed out or they can be printed plain
Forms to guide in writing both friendly and business letters


The spaces are pretty small for young writers to write assignments in
Much of the material is similar in both levels of the planners
Both levels have just a multiplication chart, I would think an addition chart would be more useful for younger students

How I Used The Planners

While I think the Primary planner is very well designed and useful, I probably would not purchase that edition. My 1st grade son loves to cross things off when he is done, but I think he would finds the details on many of the planner pages overwhelming. He does better with a simple daily checklist. Yet, he also loves to do research and look things up so some of the lists would are useful for him. I probably would not have used this last year as I don't feel that a Kindergartener really needs a personal planner.

More of the features of the Secondary Planner are useful for my daughter, so I would make copies for him of the things that he could benefit from. After printing copies, I 3 hole punched and put in a binder.

I liked the flexibility of these planners as I can print the style of pages that work best for my children and give them what they want or need without overwhelming them with a lot of extra pages. By printing my own pages I can take out of the binder the weeks we have finished and place them in a file, thus eliminating the need to go flipping through a number of pages to find the proper week.

After using these planners I have become a big fan of customizable planners! Just as homeschooling allows me to tailor my childrens' education to each of them I can now tailor their planner to them.

Disclaimer: I was given downloadable versions of the Primary Schoolhouse Planner and Secondary Schoolhouse Planner to use and write about for the purpose of this review. I have not been compensated in any other way for this review. All opinions expressed are solely my own.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

PG Key SafeKey TOS Review

PG Key Safe Key

Cost $49.99 plus shipping if purchasing directly from PG Key
This is a one time cost. There are no subscription fees or per user charges.

On the website there is a special limited time Free Trial Offer.

Available at: Office Max, MicroCenter, Fry's Electronics and

Package includes a brief Installation guide

This is a tool that can be used for computer users of all ages.

Installation Medium

PG Key SafeKey is an auto-mounting USB drive that contains filtering and monitoring software designed to run on the Windows family of operating systems by Microsoft. A strong selling point of the product is that it brings a physical USB-based security key into the mix as an extra layer of protection. It is designed for people with little or no technical expertise to insert, install, and deliver an immediate basic level of protection.

Installation Platform

Due to the concerns of accessiblity and data safety, (my children and I share a computer and my husband has a separate computer)the PG Key was tested on Windows XP running within Oracle's Virtualbox, a virtual operating environment that allows a “guest” operating system to run natively within a “host” operating system. In this case, the host was Ubuntu Linux 10.04. Installation was very easy. It was a matter of inserting the key and, when the user was set to share the USB permissions with Virtualbox, the Windows guest operating system recognized the media and launched the auto-install. In a few short minutes, the procedure was complete. (The installation and trial was done on my husbands' separate computer).

Administrator Access

The web site, suggests that the administrator set up user accounts that do not have admin privileges when allowing children to use the computer. This cannot be overstated. Running a computer with the administrator account is actually quite insecure and exposes the machine to the bad effects of viruses. Nevertheless, unlike standard practice with Macintosh OS X, Linux, and other more secure operating systems, many Windows users do not have the understanding of how to secure a computer. That, plus the security holes in so much that is Windows, is a recipe for data loss.

The web site does not spell out in detail that one has to install the key software using the admin account and then switch the child to the limited user account. Note that such an account may mean that all the bleeps and bloops in the web browser may not automatically deliver and play content. From a security standpoint, this is not a bad thing. But be prepared to hear some complaining.


The makers of PG Key stress that " the key does not replace parenting; it enables it". This is true. There are far more restrictive programs out there that filter out certain Internet addresses and even whole domains. This is called “blacklisting.” China alone produces phenomenal numbers of viruses and Trojans, which then worm into computers and set up peer-to-peer servers for kiddie porn or sniff out email and social networking contacts as a pool of new scam victims. The Internet is today's wild west.

In the administrator account, with the filtering software running, it is advisable to activate the key on the company web site, Doing so will provide a more up-to-date, secure protection. Failing to do so will mean that the number of blacklisted domains will soon be dwarfed by newer ones ready to deal out nasty stuff, whether pornography or viruses.

The makers of PG Key tried to strike a middle ground between protection and usability. By default, however, this means that a number of sites with pornography are not filtered. Just by searching for sites with suggestive names, one can pull up some images within minutes after installation.

Searching for medical names of body parts yielded a broad number of sites, from YouTube to Wikipedia to other sources, that will show normal reproductive anatomy, morbidity (various diseases of the genitalia) that can be quite shocking for children, male and female anatomy (as a medical example) and so on. If someone has the intent, that person can quickly find a sort of salacious lewdness that is not the “run of the mill” trash site (whose language probably contributed to its being found, tagged, and blacklisted).

Here is where the viewing software comes into play. I felt that the text log reader was superior to the picture log because the snapshot rate allows a “surgical” targeting of a site with questionable content without pulling up more than a frame or two. If you increase the snapshot rate, however, you could theoretically fill up your disk, unless controls in the program prevent that. The text log, however, tells all. Reading logs may be an acquired skill, but it is a handy one.

Security Hole

I did, however, find a security exploit in the default key installation (without activation) when using the default user account with admin privileges. When you turn on the log viewer, the Internet filtering stops. One would think that viewing a log file would not require the logging file to release the access lock on the file. Nevertheless, if the parent does not have the child use a user account with less privileges to install and run software, that child can quickly work around the key.

Simply put, go to the log viewer and turn it on. Then use IE to go to any site you want. Sites that were blocked before I started the log viewer were not blocked anymore.

True, some of this behavior might also be the result of testing in a virtual environment. Nevertheless, one can create a far more secure environment on a Mac or Linux computer using various tech-heavy tools. If one must use Windows, as many Internet sites are written for it, then PG Key does add an extra layer of security. It also does a fairly decent job at the KISS principle.


PG Key does what it says and it is a tool, not complete protection. For someone who is just not tech savvy, PG Key brings some level of protection and monitoring. Nevertheless, for anyone with a fairly modest set of tech skills and your administrator password, PG Key can be circumvented in some cases and in others it just does not protect kids from some fairly graphic content. PG Key Safe Key has a fairly broad set of domain names that it prohibits, yet there are surprising gaps in that coverage.

PG Key does, however, have the potential to be quite effective. Part of its marketing has almost the feeling of “set it and forget it.” That does not best capture the reality of using PG Key . The reality is that, if your child uses the computer every day, you need to view the logs and update the lists every day. This is about work.

When PGKey is activated on an account if it's just removed then all computer access will be denied. So in reality it boils down to this, use the computer with the PGKey monitoring or don't use the computer at all.

It would be better to market PG Key as an easy way to begin good security practices with one's computers. The fact remains that computers and even smart phones, not to mention cars and other devices, are targets for malicious people and programs. Welcome to the brave new world. You either have to start knowing the environment or you will be left behind. The technology, when used right and when one follows all the small print on the web site, has some beneficial potential. But if someone tries to “set it and forget it,” their security attempts may soon be thwarted.

Nevertheless, PG Key is very well suited for providing children a safer environment on the Internet, but it does require some tech skills on the part of the parent to maximize the benefits.

I have chosen to not run PG Key currently due to sharing a computer with my children and the age and speed of the computer running without it. I personally monitor their activity right now, but will likely install it as they get older if I have a faster machine on which to use it.

Read what other crew members had to say about PG Key here.

Disclaimer: I received a free PG Key to use in order to write this review. I have not received any other form of compensation for this review. All opinions expressed here are solely my own.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Oh, What a poor Blog writer I am. I just realized earlier today that I haven't written for several days. I am still around, just occupied with other things. I haven't had any reviews to post, so I just hadn't given my blog much thought.

Well, part of my delay was also waiting for progress in what I was going to share with you. But, nothing has happened. At least 3 weeks ago my children found a butterfly chrysalis hanging on our shed. They were so excited to see it , as we were just finishing up a unit on Insects and Butterflies. I just said "Oh, that's nice". Not really believing them as I was busy with something else at the moment they told me. In the back of my mind I also figured they were mistaking it for something else. Well, when the dragged me out to look several days later, I was astonished to see that it actually was a chrysalis, what looks to be a Monarch butterfly. So I excitedly got out my camera and took several pictures hoping that over the next days we could watch the butterfly come out.

My 6 year old would excitedly get dressed each morning so he could run out side and check on "My Chrysalis". Sadly, nothing has happened. It is still hanging on the shed the same as it was when I first saw it on the 11th. Even though we have not had a frost I fear that the low temperatures over night have gotten to it. From our research we have learned it is long past time for butterflies to have left our area in the Midwest. We can't even figure out why a monarch chrysalis would be here to begin with.

So we are hugely disappointed. What we can see through the chrysalis is beautiful. A vibrant orange set against dark black with silver along the edge. Oh, how we would have loved to see those wings unfurled and ready to take flight.

I still have the pictures, but unfortunately I was not able to get the sharp detail that is visible in person. My idea was to take a series of pictures and post them to share what happened, but sadly, nothing has happened.

Even though we didn't get to see what happens at the end of this stage, it was still wonderful to see all that we have. Now, I wonder how long it will be hanging around on the shed!

Friday, October 15, 2010


I don't write here as often as I should, some of it is not really being sure what to what and some of it is just plain laziness! But since I learned about the Million Minute Challenge for counting minutes playing games, I have been writing about games we have played. Two of the newest ones we have tried are Food Fight and Math Mart.

This isn't a formal review, just a couple new games we found and have tried.

Food Fight is a game for learning about equivalent fractions, percentages, and decimals. We tried it today, but found it pretty challenging as my 9 year old has a fairly decent grasp of those subjects, but my 6 year old just gets something things with fractions. I think I will have to come up with some other way to use the cards and play a game or we will just have to wait a bit to use it.

Now, Math Mart is something they can both do. It is a collection of approximately 200 cards with math story problems in all 4 major operations as well as fractions, graphs, and time and money. Each card is labeled with an amount of money (.25, .50 and $1). These money amounts are used to decide who wins the game. When someone answers the math problem correctly they get to keep the card. At the end of play the value of the cards each player has is totaled up and the highest total wins. This was something that they both could play together and were fairly well matched. If fact, my 6 year old won by .75 ! This game was enjoyed much more than food fight.

Both Food Fight and Math Mart are produced by Edupress and I purchased them at the local teacher store.

Hopefully, I can post again in a couple days. I have something really neat to share with all of you, but I need to get the pics onto my computer first. Just let me say, it was a big surprise to us and very interesting to keep watching.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Read Write Type New TOS review

Read Write Type

The Home Edition $79
Includes 2 Cd ROM's: Read Write Type and Spaceship challenge

Online Edition Begins at $35 for one user. Various costs for additional users

Story books and a paper practice keyboard can be downloaded from the site.

Read Write Type is for grades K-3. Also for ESL students. Could be used by older children, but they might find the cartoon like characters too juvenile.

Also available from Talking Fingers: WORDY QWERTY

Also a computer product that continues where RWT leaves off. It helps students to improve their spelling skills, especially with confusing or "don't follow the rules" words. This has an age level of 7-9 years or 2 -4 grades. There are 20 lessons and songs.
CD $35 Online beginning at $25
READ WRITE TYPE and WORDY QWERTY are available in a bundle for $99

Check the Talking Fingers website to make sure the products will work with your Operating System before purchasing.

I remember the first time I ever had the opportunity to use a computer as a child . I was in 5th grade. It sat on a table height rolling cart and rotated among classrooms so each room had it for one week. What a treat to use the computer. I have memories of playing Oregon Trail in the old DOS format.

Fast forward a few years (I am not telling how many :) )

Now, who can think about life without a computer. It is the rare home that doesn't have at least one and they are all over in schools. From what I am told computer class is a weekly fixture on the schedule for children of all grades. Computers have become such a presence in our lives it is important to teach our children how to use them well and appropriately. The educational uses of computers and the internet are virtually (no pun intended) unlimited. With computers being an overwhelming presence in our lives it has become important to teach our children to use them, even at an early age, and help them develop the skills they will need to use them productively. The need to know how to type fluently is certainly important. But how can we ever fit something else into our already full to over flowing schedule?

What if typing could be learned at the same time as other skills or subjects? Can typing instruction and practice be incorporated in Language Arts as it all deals with words?

Let me introduce Read Write and Type - an interactive program from Talking Fingers.

As the Talking Fingers website says the idea behind Read Write and Type is "Text is speech made Visible". We talk with our mouths, use our fingers to represent those words on paper. When children realize that they can write the sounds they are speaking they can use the alphabet to write any word they can say. Now their fingers can talk.

Thus a whole new world of communication is opened up to the student.

Read Write and Type has put phonics, spelling, reading, and typing together in a program called Talking Fingers. Children play an engaging game where they must help Lefty and Rightway, talking cartoon hands, to outwit Vexor, the villain and let the Storytellers tell their stories. Each letter has its own character, with their own special story and many words that begin with that letter. Lefty and Rightway teach the child proper finger placement on the keyboard throughout the program. Each hand is given a color and the keyboard on the screen is divided to show which hand is on each half of the keyboard. As each character, letter on the keyboard is introduced, the hands show the student which finger is supposed to stretch or reach to type that particular letter. Hopefully, this will help children learn proper typing position and save them from a life of hunt and peck. Read Write and Type smoothly blends fun and learning into one irresistible activity.

While they are saving the letters, children learn the sounds the letters make, pick out pictures that have the target sound at the beginning, middle, or end and practice typing the letter. In more advanced levels, children also type simple stories after hearing them, practice spelling words, and even write their own original emails. (Email stays with in the Read Write Type system).

The format of the lessons is very similar from level to level, but complexity of spelling and sentences increases as the student progresses. In more difficult levels the children also learn how the letters form diagraphs. The sentences and paragraphs they are asked to type increase in length.

The Talking Fingers website has a resource section with many downloadable pdfs to make the RWT experience even better. (Just click on the downloads oval). Some of the resources available are a scope and sequence so off line activities can be coordinated with Read Write Type, story books featuring the characters, as well a paper keyboard for practice off the computer. There are many more resources available.

How I Used Talking Fingers

My 6 year old First Grader has learned with Talking Fingers online over the last few weeks. He can't wait until he is allowed to play each day. He has loved every minute of the time he has spent learning with Read Write and Type. He has enjoyed it so much that he is almost finished with the program. We did not use the printable story books as he is quite a strong reader and he was not interested in them. They are very cute, however. I sat with him while he did the first 3 levels, but left him to use the remaining program more independently. I would occasionally look over his shoulder and remind him to keep his fingers in the proper position as needed.

He says "I like everything about it, it is very fun. It is very educational. I can't resist playing it every day". He also loved the certificates at the end of each level.

There is the option to change the passing level from the default of 70%, which I changed shortly after he started playing. He does very well with reading, so I wanted to make it challenging for him with spelling and phonics. However, it appears that 100% (which I had set the pass level to) only needs to be achieved in one of the 3 criteria before moving on to the next level. I am still investigating how this works. I would find this feature more productive if it could be set for each criteria or if the passing level applied to the average of all the criteria at each level.

I really like how Read Write and Type seamlessly merges phonics,spelling, reading and typing in one engaging program that keeps the users interest. After such a positive experience with Read Write and Type I am going to consider Wordy Qwerty to continue keyboarding practice for my children.

Read what other Crew Members have to say here.

Disclaimer: I was given free access to the online version of this program to use and assist me in writing this review. All opinions and thoughts expressed here are solely my own. I have not received any other compensation for this review.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Games, Games, Games

A while back I decided I was going to write about some of the board games my family enjoys playing. I wrote about a couple, but then had other more pressing things to take care of and didn't get back to writing. During the break I heard about the Million Minute Challenge, which is a promotion to encourage playing board games with family and friends. I signed up for it and we continued to play. You can read about the Million Minute Challenge here.

Yesterday I logged my minutes for the first time and was pleasantly surprised to figure out my family had played games for over 600 minutes! I was shocked, I didn't realize it was that much time. How time flies when you are having fun. The Challenge runs through December, so we'll see how many we get by the close of the promotion.

So back to our favorite games, I asked my 6 year old for his favorite games, these are some he mentioned:

Mouse Trap

Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader ?
Busy Busy Builder

Professor Noggin Trivia Games
Don't Break the Ice
Sorry and Sorry Sliders
Pyramath See review for this game here on my blog

He also likes Money Bags and Made for Trade which I wrote about before.

Other favorites are:

Postcards across America
You travel Cross Country collecting pictures of landmarks from all 50 states and try to visit more places before your opponents. The catches being you can only travel so far in each turn and you can get sent back.

Spelling Bee
Spell simple words by collecting tiles. However, it can take a long time to get anywhere.

Cooking up Sentences
Take your inner Chef to English class. Each player chooses a recipe card for a baked good, but insted of listing food ingredients it gives you parts of speech. Words are placed on tiles color- coded for each part of speech and each type is placed in a different pile. While traveling around the board you have to determine if a word you choose matches the part of speech you landed on in order to keep the tile. The challenge is to amass all the different "ingredients" you need without an opponent taking any of your tiles and then somehow putting them into a sentence making sure you use all the parts of speech in your recipe. It doesn't have to make sense, but just be grammatically correct. Sounds easy enough, but it is challenging at times.

Well, this is probably enough for now. I will have to write again with some of my daughter's favorite games.