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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Help Me to Teach


The very first product the TOS Crew was asked to review is a website called Help Me to Teach, a subscription based Internet directory. Elaine, the woman who envisioned and created this site, has over 40 years of teaching experience. In developing Help Me to Teach, she sought to create an Internet directory that contains pre-screened sites that are useful, safe for children, and not cost prohibitive. Currently the site has links to over 2500 other educational sites across the web, all of which have been screened for content, and carefully indexed. The index system has codes to indicate whom the site is most appropriate for:

P: Primary Student (Pre-K through Grade 2)

E: Elementary Student (Grades 2-5)

S: Secondary Student (Grades 6-12)

T: Teacher or Supervising Student

The site is updated regularly. Really regularly! And should you find it lacking in any area, Elaine is more than willing to review sites you recommend or add topics, as she wants her product to be the best it can be.

Initially, I was very excited about this site. It reminded me of another resource I had seen at convention that was a similar idea, (an index of educational topics and good educational websites that apply to each one) but it was in a binder form and needed constant updating. This website seemed to me to be the perfect solution to that problem by being on the web and therefore instantly update-able.

My initial enthusiasm has been tempered though by a few "glitches" from my point of view. First, and this is probably just a personal preference thing, I don't find the website to be particularly inviting or intuitive to use. The BEST use, in my opinion, of the site is to go to the index and find your topic from there. The problem is that to do that, you need to click on a button that says "TOC". Now I admit, I can be daft, but nothing about the letters "TOC" screamed "click here" to me. In fact, I only clicked on it because I only had three options; "TOC", "My Account", and "Logout". I didn't want to logout...I'd just logged in. I tried "My Account", but that only told me my payment information. That left "TOC". Yes, by now you have probably figured out what "TOC" stands for, but it was only after clicking on it that I realized it must be the "Table of Contents" and that therefore it was what I was looking for. I contacted Elaine with my observation, and I noticed now when you log in there is a smallish, plain button that says "Enter here" after you initially log in, so I think that is perhaps in response to my comment. (Of course, knowing that me sitting at the computer is the universal signal to all four of my children to "COME BUG MOMMY", I think the button should be neon green and flash repeated so it has a chance at competing for my attention :-) ).

A few other detractions would be that although there are 2500 sites, when you spread that across the curricula, you can end up with "holes" that aren't covered, or aren't covered well. (For example, I was looking for sites on Africa, and there was really only one that was appropriate for younger ages.) Also, although there is an indexing system, the "key" to that code appears only in the main TOC page, and not on each page of your search results, so until you learn what the symbols stand for, you will either have to write them down or keep clicking back. The site also has a nasty habit of locking users out if they have "multiple IP addresses", which my husband the computer guru informs me is something most home users have. I must say though that Elaine can override that, and her response time is very prompt, but it could be very frustrating to be trying to access the site during your daily lessons and find yourself locked out. And finally, it should be mentioned that really, you could find all these sites for free through a google or yahoo search. It just might take you longer and you may chase an awful lot of "rabbits" in the process.

So what are the pluses? The biggest one to me is that if you have children whom you allow to search the Internet on their own, a subscription to this site should be a MUST. This site removes the concern that your child will end up on WhiteHouse.com instead of WhiteHouse.gov, and that alone is worth every penny. It only takes one wrong click for your child to view images you can never erase from their memory. It can also save you a lot of hassle and time by limiting your search to sites she knows have appropriate content as opposed to having to weed through 10,000 google results on "Butterflies" (for example). It's well organized, and once you learn the quirky set-up, it's easy enough to use that most upper elementary and above could navigate it with ease. Another biggie to me is that you really could use this site, and especially its index, to create your own curriculum, or at least give you a really good springboard to start from. Almost every imaginable topic is covered, and if it's not, it probably will be added soon. In addition, if you subscribe for at least a year, Elaine offers free research and a quarterly newsletter.

Help Me to Teach offers several different subscription levels:

3 days: $4.95 1 month: $9.95 3 months: $15.95 1 year: $29.95 (includes the quarterly newsletter and free research as mentioned above)

As an added bonus through December 31st, she is offering "Buy one year, get the second FREE". Just mention the code TOS when you sign up. Oh, and check out her site (http://www.helpme2teach.com/index.php) for a unique fundraising opportunity for groups-she offers a 50% return on each yearly membership sold, which is very generous.

SO what's the bottom line? I think the site has great potential, and will continue getting better and better. I think Elaine is passionate about children, education, and her product. I think if your kids search the Internet as part of their schoolwork, the site is a necessity. And I think the Buy One-Get One makes it even more appealing. But in the end, when push comes to shove for your limited homeschooling dollars, you need to decide how much you really use the Internet for your schooling and how much your time is worth (because you really could find all this information for free if you don't mind spending the time and weeding through a lot of twaddle) to know if this site is right for you. My kids don't search the Internet, so I'm not sure it's the right thing for us right now, but I have the feeling in the not-too-distant future it could be indispensable.

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