Friday, December 17, 2010

Tiny Planets

When Dragonette was a young young'un, she was obsessed with cats.  So much so, I toyed with the idea of writing my own math curriculum with cats on every page and as characters in every word problem, just to get Dragonete to pay any attention to what I was saying about things she had no use for.  But I then came to my right mind, as I did not have that much time or that much printer ink.

Over the years she has had many "obsessions" with characters she came across and was always infinitely more interested in what they had to say than what I did.  And so, as the adaptable mother I am, I learned to use these "obsessions" to my advantage. That, I think, is where Tiny Planets, a web-based world with a science backdrop comes in.  Tiny Planets is really a series of websites all linked with the common theme of space.  There are 6 places you can visit, each with different activities.
  • My Tiny Planets is an online community and virtual world that combines social elements and gaming to create an engaging fictional outer-space exploration experience. Children adopt and care for their own planet, solve galactic missions with Bing and Bong, sharpen their wits with fast-paced mini-games, navigate their spaceships and avoid wormholes, nurture exotic plants in a biodome, recycle and collect water during rainstorms, help keep neighboring planets clean, all the while racking up achievements and special badges for their accomplishments.
  • On Tiny Planets Fun your child can take a few moments to enjoy brainy puzzle games (like fractions, sound and seek, and symmetry), as well as coloring books and comics.
  • On Tiny Planets Books you'll find interactive story books for younger children featuring Bing and Bong, their endearing friends the locals and the flockers, and all the planets in the Universe of Tiny Planets.
  • Tiny Planets Learning is the site for parents. Here you'll find lesson plans that include educational activities and science experiments to do at home. Also, you'll see how every episode in the Tiny Planets television series maps to early learning educational goals.
  • Tiny Planets Labs is the playground for things to come! When new games are created, they are put on the labs site to test them out.
  • On Tiny Planets TV you can watch any of the Tiny Planets television episodes. This series was co-created with Sesame Workshop and emphasizes science education and early learning goals, such as social and emotional development, language and literacy, problem-solving and reasoning, knowledge and understanding of our world, and creative development.
Now I admit, my kids are getting more computer savvy than I am.  So after it took me 10 minutes to figure out how to log in and create cadet accounts, (and they recognized the format immediately from other sites they have been on), I turned this review pretty much over to them and then made them explain everything to me!  (Think impromptu oral report/interrogation!)

There are free things on the site, things that can be bought with stars that you earn as you play the games, and things that are bought with KEYs, which a parent must purchase with real money. You can upgrade your ship, play a variety of different games, read books, watch videos, and decorate your own planet that you can fly your ship to.

My kids, ages 10 and 13, find this site okay.  They are really a little old for it and I think it really tops out at about 10.  I think it does have educational value, but not the traditional things you look for.  It teaches logic, stick-with-it-ness, computer savvy-ness, and hand-eye coordination. It encourages reading and math skills (earning stars and buying things).  It is a safe interactive world for kids, with faces and scripts to express what you are thinking and the ability to visit the planets of your invited friends.

Bing and Bong
I think this site has potential, but at the time of this review, the site was undergoing some upgrades so it could be buggy.  Some things that were supposed to be available were not, such as Bing and Bong, the main characters, at home for you to visit.  There is currently a parents' blog, but I think a FAQ for parents of younger, less computer-savvy kids would be helpful, to walk them step by step though the world of games and activities for kids.  My kids cut their teeth on educational cd's and were miles ahead of me in understanding the in and outs of this site.

I think, however, the real benefit to this site is what you, as the parent, can make out of it.  If my kids were buggy about space and loved the Bing and Bong characters, I would be all over this to use for what I wanted to teach them.  If they loved shoot'em up games, I could use it to segue into the other parts of the site where other game skills are used.  If they were early readers, I could use the books to encourage them to read new words.  If math was a bore, I could use the stars for addition and subtraction.  Basically, I would get as creative as I could to tie Tiny Planets in to whatever trouble spot we had, just as I did with cats all those years ago.

Monday, December 13, 2010


Look for special offer below!
Math is one of those things that elicits a strong reaction.  Most people either love it or hate it.  At our house, it can go either way.  My husband loves it, I am not fond of it, Flower is good at it but doesn't revel in this, and Dragonette loves it or hates it, depending on the curriculum being used.  How's that for a mixed bag?

My latest assignment was to check out the interactive math program ALEKS - Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces.  While the name ALEKS is catchy, the words it comes from do not explain to me what it is. I had heard of ALEKS, but had never tried it out.

Click here for a 2 minute tour
After downloading the plugin, I had to choose which level to assign to each kid.  Even though it is marketed as K-12, it starts with 3rd grade level math and ranges up to Pre-calculus, and then includes a lot of upper level maths like Statistics, test preps, Accounting, and Chemistry.  See list here.  I put Flower in MS LV 6 (I assume this is Middle School Level 6 or 6th grade math).  With Dragonette, I know she is in Algebra 1, but there were three Algebra 1 classes to choose from.  I chose Algebra 1 (not CA or Core).  If I guessed horribly, I could change the level at any time.  I also set up an account for me so I could see their progress.

Each child was then assessed with about 25 questions. They got a pie chart broken into major math topics showing what was learned and what was still to be learned and a bar graph with percentages showing their overall progress.

Pie Chart for Algebra 1

After this, they could pick from any topic available (20-30) and if they got the first 2 questions right, it was marked as done.  If they missed any, they then had to get 3 in a row right to move on.  After completing 20 topics they were assessed again.

If a problem is not understood, the program will show you how to work it and give you another of that type.  Vocabulary definitions are available at a click.  If you have problems using any of the tools they provide to answer the question, a help box is readily available.  Most things were written so my kids understood.  Dragonette did have some trouble with circle equations, so she went back to her old math books to get an alternate explanation.  Flower struggled with the tools for geometry questions and needed Dragonette to help her.

Notice in this description I said nothing about me.  I can check on their progress.   But otherwise, I have no role except occasional advisor.  The program explains everything.  It decides when a topic is mastered and when to give a test.  I could trip it to give a test when I wanted, but otherwise this was very hands off for me.

Flower hated the initial assessment. It was long and asked a large range of questions.  She didn't like being asked things she had never been taught to do.  But she did well and tested in at 57% done with this level.  Since our usual math books are not aligned with US standards, it was cool to see where she stood.  I was pleased!

Dragonette had no problems with the initial assessment and instead saw it as all the cool stuff she still needed to learn.  She loves this program.  Adores it.  Works on it an hour every day she has free.  She can pick and choose the order to work the problems instead of following the sequence of a textbook.  She has a visual cue of what she has done and what is left.  The explanations make a lot of sense to her, and she loves the immediate feedback of whether a problem is right or wrong, instead of doing a set of problems and then looking at the answers.  She initially tested in at 38% done, and in 2 weeks has progressed to 68% and triggered 2 more assessments or tests.  Based on how many topics she is completing per hour used, the program computes she will need 16 more hours complete the program. 
I can see us adding one more month to our subscription so she can finish Algebra 1.  I think it would hard to work on Geometry with this program, just because the tools used for answering Geometry questions are clunky, but I can see us coming back for Algebra II.

ALEKS has flexibility in its pricing program for individual families. You receive a student account and a parent account to monitor their progress.

For one student:
  • $19.95 per month
  • only $99.95 for 6 months!   Six months for the cost of five
  • only $179.95 for 12 months!   Best Deal: You save $59.45
For more than one student:

6-Month Term

12-Month Term
Number of Students Price Total Discount Off Monthly Rate
1 $99.95 16.50%
2 $169.90 29.03%
3 $239.88 33.20%
4 $299.84 37.38%
5 $374.80 37.38%
6 $449.76 37.38%

Number of Students Price Total Discount Off Monthly Rate
1 $179.95 24.83%
2 $305.90 36.11%
3 $431.88 39.87%
4 $539.84 43.63%
5 $674.80 43.63%
6 $809.76 43.63%

ALEKS usually offers a free 1-week trial to try ALEKS out.  But as a special offer, ALEKS will give you one month free instead, if you follow the link in this blog,
ALEKS for 1-Month Trial

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Master Angle

Angles are very important in our house.  Angles pay our bills, provide us with health insurance and allow me to home school.  But people that do not rely on angles for their livelihood may wonder what the big deal is.  Sure, angles come up in geometry class, but otherwise, who cares?
Surveying isn't surveying without angles

Master Innovations is teaching kids grades 1-4 what the big deal is really about with their Master Angle curriculum, which includes a 76 page workbook and a cleverly made full-circle 360 degree protractor.

At first, I thought no matter how important angles are, how can you fill 76 pages of them for 1-4th graders?  But this book covers a lot of sophisticated geometry vocabulary.  It goes beyond anything my kids have encountered in their math studies, with my oldest half way through algebra, by starting with a point, progressing through nine types of angles, and ending up with chords of a circle.  A handful of vocabulary words are introduced and are followed by various activities to cement the vocabulary and apply the concepts.  The full circle protractor is used to measure and draw angles.   Throughout the book, angles are applied to everyday life in pool tables, clocks, houses, baseball diamonds, and maps.

For video on how to use full protractor, click here

Flower (10) enjoyed this book, but thought at times there were too many practice pages for a concept. It was easy to cut some pages out when she understood a topic, and the extra practice was there when she needed it.  But her favorite part was the protractor. With numbers in blue and red, holes for easily drawing angles and a pivoting arm to measure angles, she was fascinated by the number patterns on the protractor. I often caught her playing with those number patterns instead of working in the book.  That alone made the protractor valuable as she was thinking in new directions.

While the book ($15.95) and the protractor ($5.95) can be bought and used alone, I don't think you would get anywhere near the value you get with them used together. 

This is by no means a complete curriculum of any kind, but is a great diversion; something fun and different while still learning math.  Master Innovations also makes curriculum for rulers, clocks, and fractions, and a measurement poster.