View from the Classroom

Busman's Holiday

Busman's Holiday? What does an ex-columnist do in his free time, but write another column!

A Macintosh Summer Vacation

- May 24, 1999

Near the end of the school year, many parents ask, "What about summer school?" It's true that summer is a real opportunity for kids to lose or make up ground academically. There unfortunately is a two-edged sword at work here as well.

A child that is just worn out with school, typically the case of the child who is lagging academically, isn't the best candidate to make up much ground in summer school. On the other hand (I feel like Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof here), that same child probably won't read or compute much during the summer without some strong encouragement.

I can't evaluate your summer school programs from afar, nor will I try to resolve the issue of "whither summer school." Some schools, mine included a few years back, don't offer any summer programs at all, even remedial summer school. Many states now have competency exams at various grades that mandate summer school for those who don't pass the tests.

I've been fortunate enough to work in summer school programs off and on through the years that are high interest and had relatively low pupil-teacher ratios. A good, high interest program can cure a lot of summer school blues. One program years ago was billed as a "nonacademic" program for hard cases from the district. Summer school consisted of many field trips, activities such as rocket and telescope building (Yes, they can follow written directions with enough faculty support!), and a lot of high movement, high interest classroom activities. One of our best "cons" in recent years is a summer school program that features two hours of high interest learning followed by an hour or so of swimming at the local state park. The catch to it is, you may only swim if you worked hard!

If you're considering formal summer school, find a time when that harried, overworked teacher has a few moments and ask them about summer school opportunities in your school district. (Don't just pop in sometime during the school day and expect them to be delighted to see you and ignore their class!) Heck, offer to buy them a beer and a sandwich after work and maybe they'll give you the lowdown on it!

If formal summer school is a no-go in your district or for your child, learning doesn't have to end with the last day of school. A great answer in many areas is the summer reading programs often offered by local libraries. The trick to this one is finding something of interest for the child to read at their level. For some kids, that's almost anything with ink on a page. For others, it takes a bit of doing. The local librarian is likely to be enthusiastic about helping your kid find something to read! Really!

The old "rule of thumb" on selection of books is a pretty good predictor as to a child's ability to read a particular book. Have the child turn to a random page and read. For each word they miss or don't know on the page, raise a finger, starting with the little finger. If you get to the thumb, the book is probably too difficult for the child to read independently.

Some of my parents in our special education program do a wonderful job of reading support during the summer by reading with their children regularly. Some of their children cannot read any book independently. The parent often reads simultaneously with their child, which helps with phrasing and unknown words. Those folks probably deserve a chunk of my paycheck, but...:-). The key to their efforts is that they invest some of themselves into the learning project. It's really easy to hand a kid a book and say, "read this," as you head to the kitchen to fix lunch. It will also turn off a reluctant reader unless the material is absolutely fabulous.

Getting further away from the school building type of summer school and closer to the subject at hand, a parent with adequate bucks can install a computer (Spelled M-a-c-i-n-t-o-s-h. Is there any other way?) and equip it with a variety of educational software. With all of the multimedia offerings out there today, a little judicious software shopping can provide children with hours of entertaining learning. Don't be disappointed if you select a dud. I recently purchased the favorably reviewed "My Amazing Human Body" and my class went nuts over it. When I took it home over the weekend for my sixth grader, she thought it was dumb!

Before you think I'm shilling for my ed sharewares, let me add that they are definitely not what I'm talking about. My stuff is intended to be teacher directed (home school parent directed). It's really good for what it's supposed to do, but it's certainly not high interest, 3-D, action-adventure learning.

There's now so much software out there that it is nearly impossible to rate and review it all, but I'm going to give a short list of what works well with the elementary students I teach. Remember that I do teach a special education class (learning disabilities, emotionally handicapped, physically handicapped, and so on), but these materials also work very well with regular ed kids that I see in summer school. Also remember that we work on a mix of aging Macs from a 250 MHz 7500/G3 to 8 MHz SE's! Most of the listings have been mentioned on my site or in previous columns for MacTimes or MacInSchool. Many require a CD-ROM.

Hard Drive Stuff: These are programs you can install and tuck the disks or CD away until you need to reinstall it sometime.

PhrazeCrazePhrazeCrazeIf you're a regular reader of my columns, you've already heard me rave about PhrazeCrazePlus (117K) by Brad Petit. Some time ago Brad asked me not to call it a "blank-of-blank" game, so I'll just say that you spin a big wheel and fill in consonant letters (or buy vowels) leading to guessing the phrase. PhrazeCraze comes with a stock set of puzzles, or you can build your own from text files, but only if you have a Mac running something earlier than System 7.5! Also, the sound doesn't work with newer systems, but the program still runs well. Peter Carbonetto maintains the PhrazeCraze Unofficial Home Page.

Time TeacherTime Teacher ClockfaceTime Teacher (32K) by Harry Wolfson is a program for reading the time from analog clocks. It presents an analog clock face with four choices of digital times. It increases in difficulty as students get more and more responses correct. While it works great on our Mac SE's, 7200, and 7500/G3, this 1993 revision of a 1990 program crashes on all of our 68030 machines (SE/30, LC III, IIfx)! I've not been able to contact the author, but the ReadMe file lists a shareware fee of just $5!

Mr. FixitupMr. Fixitup (2609K) by Richard MacLemale is a grammar drill program that features text-to-speech enhanced sentences that students correct. Various levels deal with capitalization, punctuation, and spelling. My fifth and sixth graders really seemed to like this one. You can add your own exercises to the program, or use the ones provided. This is a recent shareware with a $20 fee.

Math Flash BashFlash Bash ScreenMath Flash Bash (78K) is one of my all time favorite fact drill applications. It drills any combination of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts in a quick, enjoyable way. Flash Bash offers a choice of operations and has various controls for what facts are presented and how many facts in a set. Samuel Davidoff is listed as the author of this "$5" shareware, but my check was returned by the post office as addressee unknown. It has also dropped off all of the usual software download sites. If you're out there, Sam, drop me a line!

Phonic Factory (1120K) is an excellent LittleFingers Software freeware release that is no longer on their web site, but is still posted on AMUG. It's an excellent alphabet letter drill that includes consonant sound drills. LittleFingers has also expanded their offering of sharewares for younger and older kids from their two excellent geography tools, GeoGenius USA (686K) and GeoGenius World (720K), to a host of other newer offerings (that I really haven't tried, as yet . . . maybe a good project for my Macintosh summer vacation:-). You might want to browse their site.

When you move into the realm of CD-ROM software, there are now thousands of titles from which to choose. I'm just going to list the ones that my kids seem to return to time after time.

Three is a Magic NumberAdverbsProbably the most used (and most in need of replacement due to wear) CD-ROM software by my class are Math Rock and Grammar Rock from the old ABC-TV Schoolhouse Rock series. Many educational games have been added to the excellent "videos" of the TV series, which included such favorites as "Conjunction Junction" and "Three is a Magic Number." There is also an America Rock, but the kids don't seem to gravitate to it like the others. The Learning Company has rolled several of these titles together in what appears to be a better bargain than the original release. Also, much of the content still remains available free online (and legally, too!!!) on a private site.

When we had a major influx of primary students a few years ago, I invested in the Jump Start series, by Knowledge Adventure. The kindergarten through third grade levels all appear pretty solid. They present a wide variety of learning activities across several subjects, including math and reading. We also have Jump Start Fourth Grade, but set it aside because of what could be viewed as objectionable content. A new release, Jump Start Preschool is also receiving high ratings by reviewers.

Money TownMoney Town has consistently been a favorite of the kids in my classes. It teaches basic money math, coin recognition, making change, how to save and spend wisely, simple money management in an engaging environment. It runs acceptably on our PowerMacs, but really does better on the old LC III! Here's a more complete review of Money Town.

Scholastic's The Magic School Bus series is a big favorite in several classrooms at my school. We have the Mac version of The Magic School Bus Explores the Ocean and find the kids really enjoy it. (Review) The series is distributed on the Microsoft label and many titles are Windows only.

Muppets ReadingA real bargain if you can still find them are the Muppets Reading Software CD's. I got mine, 2 for $10, at the local Walmart! Volume 1 includes separate applications for Sound Patterns, Sorting & Ordering, and Thinking Skills. Volume 2 also has three titles: Beginning Sounds, Letters, and Same and Different. All of the applications appear to be HyperCard or SuperCard-like activities and are quite stable, even with the random extra mouse clicks younger learners tend to supply to test software. The printed directions at the top of each frame are read to the user, making the activities usable with nonreaders. If you can't find this title locally, it is available for online ordering from Parson's Technology ($19.95+$5 S&H) or by phone from the Software Clearance Outlet for just $10.

What's the Secret?PBS's Newton's AppleWhat's the Secret? has been a consistent classroom favorite for several years. It is based on the PBS series, Newton's Apple, and features interesting science activities. The glue activity on Volume 2 has students try various glues with various materials to build a bridge. Elephants then cross the bridge to test its strength! Another activity is a flight simulator. The kids love it, but the drone of the engine drives me nuts--definite earphone country. The volume 2 title runs on '30 chip Macs (LC III, IIfx, etc.) and better. (Better Review)

An old favorite with our younger kids is Kid Phonics, by Davidson. It has some great songs with bouncing ball lyrics and excellent word and sentence building activities. We've had various stability problems with it at times, as with most of the Davidson titles we've tried, but found it worth the hassle to use it! There's also a Kid Phonics 2 that we haven't tried but plan to do so next fall.

Kid Phonics
Word Building
Sentence Building

While writing this piece, I found a nice compendium site for educational software that lists multiple sources for online purchase. SuperKids Educational Software Review reviews some of the CD-ROM titles above with multiple purchase sources, and, of course, various prices!

Kid's DomainFinally, probably the best all-around kids' site I've found also contains the most extensive, best updated educational software listings. The Kid's Domain includes many online games and download links.

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