Tuesday, September 18, 2018

All Saints: a Bethany House review

I have no idea why I went for it when I had the opportunity to review All Saints, by Michael Spurlock and Jeanette Windle.  I knew nothing of the story, didn’t realize it was being made into a movie except that something in the blurb said so, and the title doesn’t exactly scream out that this is going to be a story that will really move me.

The subtitle might have helped.  All Saints: The Surprising True Story of How Refugees from Burma Brought Life to a Dying Church.

Of course, the publisher's description is great too, and I had to have read it:
The True Story Behind the Powerful Film ALL SAINTS
Newly ordained, Michael Spurlock's first assignment is to pastor All Saints, a struggling church with twenty-five devoted members and a mortgage well beyond its means. The best option may be to close the church rather than watch it wither any further. But when All Saints hesitantly risks welcoming a community of Karen refugees from Burma--former farmers scrambling for a fresh start in America--Michael feels they may be called to an improbable new mission.

Michael must choose between closing the church and selling the property--or listening to a still, small voice challenging the people of All Saints to risk it all and provide much-needed hope to their new community. Together, they risk everything to plant seeds for a future that might just save them all.

Discover the true story that inspired the film while also diving deeper into the background of the Karen people, the church, and how a community of believers rally to reach out to those in need, yet receive far more than they dared imagine.

The Reverend Michael Spurlock served All Saints Episcopal Church in Smyrna, Tennessee, for three years. He is currently on the clergy staff at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York City. Michael, his wife, Aimee, and their two children live in New York City.

Award-winning author and investigative journalist Jeanette Windle has lived in six countries, authored nineteen books, and mentors writers on five continents. To learn more, visit her at www.jeanettewindle.com.

But I don’t remember actually thinking about that.  I just determined this was something I should read.  It arrived and I set it aside, and completely forgot about it.

I ran across it a month ago, and felt guilt that I had not read and reviewed it.  So one afternoon, I opened the book and started to read.  I was so completely pulled into the story that I didn’t stop for much of anything.  I might have made dinner, but not much else happened.

What a fabulous story!

Michael Spurlock is writing his own story here, or a piece of it.  There’s a missionary story I’m reading with my kids for school right now, written by the missionary himself.  The description of the book in our curriculum guide says something about how while the missionary is describing events that happened in his life, and describing that part of it from his point of view, they don’t believe the missionary is the protagonist in the story.  He is, in fact, a fairly minor character.  They argue that God is the protagonist.  Waiting with anticipation and excitement to see the drama play out, to see His kingdom advance.  To see light brought in to the darkness. 

I think that description completely applies here.  Reverend Spurlock is a character in this story.  An important character, surely.  But God himself is the protagonist. 

Aren’t those the best kind of stories?

In a nutshell, this story follows the life of Michael, and the life of Ye Win on the other side of the globe.  Their stories intersect in a dying church in Smyrna, TN.  All Saints Episcopal Church.  This story also has light being brought into the darkness, or at least light coming into the dimness.  Church politics, a church split – a gorgeous church building that is a shell of a church.  War refugees from Burma are the ones bringing the light back. 

This is a truly phenomenal story, and it is a very quick read.  

Disclosure:  Bethany House provided me with a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes.  No other compensation was received, and all opinions are my own.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Promise of Dawn: a Bethany House review

I’ve read quite a few books by Lauraine Snelling before, primarily her stories that take place in the fictional town of Blessing, North Dakota, which is set somewhere just north of where my father’s family immigrated to from Sweden.  Her characters emigrated from Norway and formed a community there, and I enjoyed reading about them in the Song of Blessing series.  You can read my review of From This Day Forward, the fourth book in that series.

The Promise of Dawn, the first in the Under Northern Skies series, follows another part of that family as they move to northern Minnesota and begin a new life in this new world.  I don’t have the same personal ties to logging in that state, but my German and Polish families came to central Minnesota around this same time period.

Let me start with the publisher's description:
In a Compelling New Saga, One Family Strives to Make Their Own Future
Opportunities are scarce in Norway, so when Rune and Signe Carlson receive a letter from Rune's uncle, Einar Strand, offering to loan them money for passage to America, Rune accepts. Signe is reluctant to leave her home, especially as she is pregnant with her fourth child, but Einar promises to give them land of their own, something they could never afford in Norway.

But life in Minnesota is more difficult than Signe imagined. Uncle Einar and Aunt Gerd are hard, demanding people, and Signe and her family soon find themselves worked nearly to the bone to pay off their debt. Afraid they will never have the life they dreamed of, she begins to lose her trust in God. When the dangers of the North Woods strike close to home, will she find the strength she needs to lead her family into the promise of a new dawn?

I enthusiastically started reading this story, and for whatever reason, I totally bogged down.  I absolutely could not get enthused enough about the characters or the story to read more than a few chapters.  And then the book sat for months, taunting me, as I did promise to review it.

I picked it up again, read an additional chapter, and set it back down.

A few months went by, and I told myself I simply had to read this book.  This time, however, I started over.  And this time, I was completely sucked in starting in about the third chapter.  I did not set the book down until I had read the very last word.  I immediately checked to see if the second book in the series was out, and was thrilled that it was.  I read that cover to cover as soon as it arrived.  Two books into the series, and I can absolutely say that I love this series more than the books about Blessing.

I have no idea why there was such a roadblock the first time I tried to read this.  I have to assume there was something going on in my life that just made it impossible for me to continue.

This book follows Signe, her husband Rune, and their three sons, the oldest of whom is fifteen.  Signe has recently discovered she is pregnant, and having lost a few children since the birth of her youngest son, that does make this journey to America that much more traumatic.

They arrive, unprepared for much of anything they will face.  Things are far more difficult than they imagined, and while some of the conflicts of the story resolve by the end of the book, not all do.

Another thing is that this isn’t a romance.  While there is a wedding in the story, it happens the very first chapter, before Rune and Signe leave Norway.

One of the things I really loved about the Blessing series was that you felt a bit like you were dropping in for a part of the lives of the folks of this town.  As you finished a book, there were things that hadn’t been all wrapped up, and you knew that there were more stories that could be told, and maybe the next book would answer some of those questions.

That feeling is even stronger in this series, and that is speaking for both this title and book 2, A Breath of Hope.  I think what I truly love, though, is that the primary conflict – the one resolved by the final pages – isn’t romance.  There’s a hint that Book 3 (coming in November) might be a bit more romance-driven, which would be fine.  It isn’t the central story of the first two books though.  I find that refreshing.

Disclosure:  Bethany House provided me with a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes.  No other compensation was received, and all opinions are my own.

Friday, September 7, 2018

GrammarPlanet: A Homeschool Review Crew review

As part of the Homeschool Review Crew, I end up seeing a lot of products every year.  Sometimes I tend to be a bit (okay, more than a bit!) jaded about them.

Then something like GrammarPlanet, put out by the amazing folks at Analytical Grammar, comes along, and I have the perfect answer to a "what should I use?" question that I hadn't even asked yet.  The best thing about GrammarPlanet is the price, as it is absolutely free.  This online grammar program is supported by ads.  If you don't like the ads, you will be able to get rid of them by purchasing a paid version.  The ad-free version is what we reviewed.

We've struggled with grammar here.  Mostly, I spent so much time teaching reading with my various dyslexic kiddos that really dealing with grammar was not all that high up on my priority list.  I've attempted to do grammar with them off and on, but it has ended up being far more off than on.

I know I've tried using some very good programs.  You know, like Analytical Grammar.  But those have all failed, for one simple reason.  I am that reason.  Everything we've tried has taken too much of my time, and I am spread too thin as it is.  I haven't made grammar instruction enough of a priority.
This is part of my head-over-heels response to GrammarPlanet.  I don't have to truly be involved.  I created accounts for all of my at-home children, even the recent graduate.  He saw me working on it before the reviews started, and he asked me if he could use it.  "Mom, I need that."  Yes, dear.  Yes, you do.

I sat them down, we watched the introductory video together, and I explained a few things.  The conversation sounded something like this.
This is part of your English class this year.  You will use it.  Three days a week, for at least ten minutes, but absolutely no longer than fifteen.  Don't skip steps.  Don't think you know it already.  Print the page or two of notes, and keep them in a binder.  Watch the video.  Pay special attention to the Process Steps.  If you don't follow her instructions, you will struggle.  And I will say, "I told you so."
Erin Karl, who appears in the videos, suggests these short sessions, so I'm not just letting my kids off easy here.

After that, though, I only have to say things like, "Hey!  Did you do GrammarPlanet today?  And what about the dishes?  Since you're in the kitchen, can you get me a cup of coffee?"

They do know that they can come to me if they really aren't getting something, but so far, I've really only needed to work with Trina, the 12-year-old.  Her big brothers are able to be totally independent.

How this works

First off, you print out the notes, which are pretty short and colorful, though sometimes they are longer than the "page or two" I told my children to expect.  Then you watch the video, which covers everything in the notes plus more.  A great feature is that the video will play for a section, and then a little quiz pops up.  You'll be asked a fairly simple question or two, which certainly helps keep my mind -- or my mouse -- from wandering.  The program does not track how you do on these mini-quizzes, but if you miss questions, you can go back to re-watch that segment.

Once you get through the video, you have the chance to work with Practice Sentences.  Here's a whole bunch of screenshots from Unit 4.

The first step is to read the sentence and make sure you understand it.  Next is to mark all of the nouns and proper nouns.  Multi-word proper nouns are marked with little wings.  Here, "email" and "pictures" are marked as nouns, and "Baldwin Street Gutbuster" is marked as a proper noun.


Then you go look at each noun and ask "which (noun)" and label the answers as either articles or adjectives.  For example, "which email?"  "A long" email.  There are "several" pictures.  It is "the" Baldwin Street Gutbuster.

The final step in unit four is to go through the words left and mark the pronouns.

There weren't many words left to choose, but those would be "He" and "us."

I would recommend re-reading the sentence at that point, paying attention to the unhighlighted words.  In this case, those are either prepositions or verbs, and GrammarPlanet hasn't taught either of those yet.  Those are coming in units 6 and 7.

Once you think you have everything labeled appropriately, you hit submit.  Ideally, you get a screen that looks like this one.  "Perfect!" is a label that is always nice to see!

The program will give you another sentence, or move you on to take the test.  This is another fabulous aspect of the online program.  If you are seeing those "Perfect!" labels, it will move you to the test sooner. 

If you are getting messages like this one, "Oh, so close!" or other messages pointing out your errors, you will get more practice sentences.

I like that so much.

If I grasp the concept and pay attention, I don't have to do as much work.  If I am missing something, I keep doing more practice.

But remember, the student isn't supposed to work more than fifteen minutes.  If it is an area that they grasp easily, they can get through a unit in a couple of days.  If they struggle, they can work a few sentences and be done for the day.  The concepts will percolate a bit, and hopefully in a couple days, the practice will go better.  Or maybe re-watching the video will help.  This isn't a race. 

In the practice, you get immediate feedback, so you can study your error and then do the next sentence.  In the test, however, you have to answer all of the sentences before you see how you did.  

The results look like this.

You can see the green checkmarks for the ones you got entirely correct.  Question 4 has a red x, and indicates the student got 9 of 10 correct.  Clicking to that screen shows that the student missed the noun "time" entirely.

With an overall score of 98%, the program suggests moving on to Unit 5.

After a test is taken, an email is sent to the parent account, which means that as the kids finish off a unit, I get a brief email telling me who scored what on which unit, and linking me to the parent dashboard where I can go for more details.

Bottom line

I love this.  My kids aren't quite to that point yet, but they do love that it doesn't eat up too much of their time.  My aspiring filmmaker has not even griped to me about the video quality, which does surprise me.  The videos are not catchy by any stretch, nor are they of amazing quality.  They absolutely do get the job done, though, and that is absolutely enough for me.  Also, they are captioned.  You can turn the captioning on or off.

Right now, there are 13 units on the site.  Most people should not be moving faster than about a week per unit, though the first few could go faster.  There will be 60 units in total, and these units will thoroughly cover grammar, as you can tell from the outline on the left.

Seriously, Correlating Conjunctions? Appositive Phrases?   Nonessential Modifier Comma?  I don't think I know what those mean.  I probably will recognize them when I get there, but the names mean nothing to me.  Yes, I am a student too.  I'm staying ahead of my kids so far, having completed unit 6.  Hopefully that will continue.

The key for one of the first diagramming assignments
Unit six is where sentence diagramming begins, and I suspect I'll need to be a bit more involved when they get there.   They ease into it, as you are only diagramming the prepositional phrases initially.  The idea is to diagram on paper, and compare your diagram to the key provided.

I think this is a fantastic resource that everyone should consider for their students who are in middle school or older.  They say ages ten and up.  Personally, I think I'd wait a bit longer than that.


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