COVID-365 + Hurricane Laura Day 13

I missed again yesterday but we’ve been busy. Today I got out to fill up my tank and hit the grocery store before it got too crowded and they ran out of water and batteries. Wearing my mask the whole time, of course, because we are also in the midst of a pandemic. Have I mentioned before that I am ready to be done with 2020?

Sharp Tutor

I know that schools all over the US are in various states of open vs. online, so I thought I’d throw down some of the Language Arts resources I use on the regular with my students whom I now tutor through Zoom. Some of these resources are free, while others are subscriptions I pay for.

By the way, I usually share my screen with the student so we can view whatever site I am working off of together. I can also give the student control over my mouse, so that he or she can click around the site I’m on rather than having to dictate to me what to click and when. For added fun, sometimes students figure out that when they have control of my mouse they are actually in control of my entire computer and they get a kick out of turning my volume way up or way down, or turning my caps lock key off and on and making the light flicker. Hey, it’s the little things. Oh and also the occasional kid will ‘freeze’ on camera and pretend like our connection has frozen. They do find ways to be frisky, even online. 😉

Quizlet is an online flashcard resource that has been around for quite awhile; accounts are free, with a purchase option for access to specialized sets that aren’t really necessary, IMHO. When creating flashcards, you simply type the term on one side of the digital ‘card’ and the definition or answer on the other side; once all the cards are created you save the set and anyone can view that set and study by clicking each card to flip it over. Two great things about Quizlet: 1) it’s been around long enough that you can search topics for sets that have already been made before starting yours from scratch, and if you find one you like you can save it into your own folder and edit it to fit your needs. Super-useful! 2) Quizlet takes the information on the flashcards and presents it to the student in several different forms: an online quiz, a review sheet that asks the questions in several different forms, a matching game, or an asteroids like game. Lots of different ways to reinforce learning using the different modes of presentation.

readworks.org is currently a free site, although that may change once the pandemic is under control. This is a great site that presents students with small passages categorized by grade level, content, and/or skill level, and includes multiple-choice, short answer, and fill in the blank questions at the end. For my students, I find the reading levels to be 1-2 grades lower than what my kids can do, so if a child is in fifth grade I may bump up the reading level at the site to 6th or 7th grade, but other than that, this is a quick and easy way to reinforce a concept, especially since you can search for material by target skill. Also, the articles and corresponding questions can be printed out as a .pdf, so it’s great for assigning some quick homework without having to do too much work. (I don’t normally assign homework, but some of my parents insist on it.)

educaplay.com has different educational games you can search or create – crossword puzzles, word searches, matching games, word scrambles and so on. I don’t use other people’s games too much on this site as they tend to be shorter and less comprehensive than I like, but I do use this site a lot to make matching games I can play with my students when we end up with some time at the end of a session. I have made a lot of matching games that also involve memory testing – the goal is to match pairs of cards, but if you fail to match during your turn, they flip back over, so we’re testing memory as well as recall, which makes it more fun, IMHO. I also set the number of turns you can take as high as I can go, rather than a lot of other people’s games that only allow, say, two turns before the game ends. I like for my games to be endless so we can play them until everything gets a match. I only have a free version of this site, but there is a paid subscription with more options. With a free option, you do have to sit through the occasional ad, but the kids don’t mind, they’re brief, and unlike somewhere like YouTube, because this is an educational site you’re not going to get hit with an ad out of nowhere that is awkward as hell (I once was trying to watch a YouTube video with a student online and the ad that queued up started with the statement “Sex shouldn’t have to wait until you’re done with your period,” or something like that – which, sure, I would agree with that, but it’s not a discussion I want to have to get into with a seventh grader).

One site I do pay for is IXL.com, and it is fantastic. There are many different subscription levels; I only pay for access to the language arts materials since that is all I tutor. You can access some of the lessons for free, but with a paid subscription the lessons can go as long as up to 50 activities/questions per concept, whereas without paying you get maybe 10 per lesson. The activities are mostly some form of multiple-choice ‘quizzing’ of different concepts, which sounds like it might get boring, but they present material in many different formats within each lesson, and the software is intuitive and increases and decreases in difficulty in response to the student’s answer choices. It also covers a much higher range of grades than most sites – everything from Pre-K up to 12th grade, which is great because I tutor a wide range of grades. And all the material can be searched by grade level, particular skill, or particular content, as well as being presented in collections that guide you through a progression of concepts that all work together and build on each other. This is such a useful resource, because I can ask a student what they are working on in class and go to this site to find several different activities that address those skills. However, it can get a little boring, so I use the next site to help out with that.

gamesxl.com is a site of free, REALLY simple online games that are pretty basic and simple to play. I like to use these with students, especially younger ones, when we are doing something rather bland like going through a long series of ixl.com multiple choice activities. Then, I tell the students that for every question they get right, they get to go bowl a round (there is one particular bowling game I really like because it’s quite easy to use) and if they get it wrong, I get to bowl a round. Believe it or not, I can easily get a student through two or more ixl.com lessons easily when I offer them this little fun incentive, and it makes tutoring more fun for me, too when we get to add a little silly competition into the mix. When I was a classroom teacher, I used to bring my Wii to school on review days, and would do the same thing in person, and it always transformed a boring old review day into some fun competition that kids were excited about (and I taught high school at the time). Keep in mind these games are nothing fancy, and you occasionally have to sit through an ad because they’re all free, but even the simplest little game will break the monotony and keep kids engaged while they’re doing all their schoolwork online. And I find that when tutoring through something like Zoom, simpler games are better, because there’s less chance of it getting “hung up” between your computer and the student’s.

I have a ton of other resources I use, but most of them are very content specific and not free; these are the ones I find the most useful and ones that could also be useful to parents trying to supplement online learning or make it a little more tolerable.

COVID-365 Day 9

Back in December 2019 I bought this Instax printer that pairs to my phone so I can print any image stored on it onto mini Instax film. At the time I thought it would be great fun at family and social gatherings, as well as with my students. Needless to say it hasn’t seen any use since March. Hopefully someday soon I’ll be able to put to use again, but for now it’s gathering dust.

The Paper Chase

Yes, I am literally going to write a blog post about paper, which is very Dunder-Mifflin of me, I suppose. But in my determination to make a simple hobby like coloring far more expensive and time-consuming than it needs to be, I’ve tried a few things out, so I might as well share.

Right when I started coloring, I knew I wanted to work with alcohol markers, and the paper used for coloring books is a no-go for those. Alcohol markers are very watery, and the paper disintegrates right away. So, I hopped online and did some research about good papers for alcohol markers, and after some trial and error I finally landed on this card stock as my favorite option. The main things I consider are the smoothness and the weight of the paper; for alcohol markers it is best to choose a smooth paper that won’t tear up the marker nibs (unlike using watercolors, which work better on rough or highly textured papers), and it should be heavy enough to prevent bleed-through or feathering. This paper is 100 pounds, but I have read of people going as low as 65 lbs and still being satisfied. I also had to be sure that the cardstock would run through our printer, and this does the trick. It’s probably my most-used paper so far, and I often use it when working with gel pens also as I like the durability of it, and since I frame a lot of my pages I feel like it frames up nicely. But, because I bought several different papers before landing on this one, I do have others I try to use when I can.

This was another paper that was recommended for alcohol markers, and while it is very smooth and colors really pop when using it, I found it couldn’t tolerate the amount of shading and layering I do without it starting to break down. I will say this paper really is bleed-proof, even when I get the paper pretty wet, but it’s not one I use often. It’s fine for gel pens, though, so I try to remember to use it for that purpose (even though I generally prefer the cardstock for my gel pens as well as my Copics).

Neenah papers come highly recommended for all sorts of coloring and crafting, but as you can see if you click the link in the image, it’s expensive – plus, I didn’t buy a heavy weight so it isn’t very useful for me. This is unfortunate, because I bought an entire ream and I haven’t used much of it at all. I try to remember to use it for my gel pen coloring, but it can still break down and bleed a bit even with gel pens. This was my first paper purchase, so it was a learning experience for me, albeit an expensive one.

I’ve mentioned before how convenient it is to copy coloring pages before using them, because you don’t ruin an image you wanted to work with (make a mistake, just re-copy) and you can choose better papers than what the original was printed on. Obviously, you need a copier to be able to do this, but since Doug and I have both worked from home for years we have a decent one that can handle copying on heavy paper. So, every image I’ve colored still has an original that I keep in a folder (I do tear the pages out before copying them as that makes it easier for me to make a straight, non-wonky copy) so I can re-color it whenever I want. It definitely makes paying for coloring books more cost-effective, and even if I was just using regular paper I would copy the images to save the originals.

Since I have time and space here to do so, I’ll go ahead and mention some other tools I’ve discovered and have found really useful.

I would be NOTHING without this thing. My husband mentioned such a contraption to me shortly after I got started coloring, and I scurried over to Amazon to buy a magnifying lamp right away to assist my 51-year-old eyes. I love it, and use it for other purposes besides coloring – it makes a great ring light when I am using my camera on Zoom, and it helps me when I do my nails to see what I am doing without having to push my nose right up against my hands. I don’t have anything else to say about it because, I mean, there it is – but I have really appreciated having this thing on my desk and use it every time I color or use Zoom. It’s a seriously bright light too – in fact I can’t aim it right at my face unless it’s really far away for webcam use, so I just turn the light around and bounce the light off the wall instead, which is much softer.

OK, I just bought one of these a few days ago so I haven’t tried it out yet, but it seems straighforward enough that I can go ahead and recommend it. I can’t tell you how many times I would smudge a coloring page by laying my hand down on the paper where the ink was still wet, so I finally got the idea to hop online again and research what people do to circumvent that issue. It’s called an artist’s bridge, and you place it over your workspace so you can place your hand on it while you color without touching the paper. Hopefully this thing will be as useful in reality as it seems to be conceptually!

I picked up this idea when searching YouTube for tips on blending alcohol markers. I don’t like using colored pencils as a primary medium; I enjoy the flow of working with wet materials like gels or alcohol pens. However, colored pencils can be used with alcohol markers to add more drama to blended areas of a page – after using the markers, you can go back to areas where you want the shading or blending to be more pronounced and dramatic, choose a colored pencil that matches the darker shade, and color over the marker blending with the pencil. It will look very scratchy if you leave it there, though, so using a solvent like Gamsol (which is odorless and as non-toxic as any solvent can be) to break down the colored pencil and make it blendable will create the desired effect. The paper stumps are what I use to distribute the Gamsol; I dip the stump in the gamsol and then apply it to the penciled area of the page, then blend out the pencil marks and scratches to create a softer appearance. This photo is an example of where I used a lot of this colored pencil technique to make my blending more dramatic and pronounced:

I may not have explained this technique well, but you can search YouTube for demonstrations on how to use Gamsol and colored pencil and tons of videos will be available to you. I have found this doesn’t work at all with gel pens, though, and even though I can shade and blend with my gel pens when I want to, it’s pretty inconsistent as far as the results go, so I don’t do it very often.

Chameleon pens

OK, I feel like these pens merit a dedicated blog post, but I feel like discussing them here so we’ll see if I ever go more in-depth on them later. These come across as pretty gimmicky, and they get mixed reviews from artists, but the concept is a cool one and with a LOT of practice I’ve found the best ways to use these for my own purposes. The first thing to understand is that the whole reason I love using alcohol pens is because of their blending abilities. On the right paper, you can blend the living shit out of the colors once you get them onto your paper, and create beautiful blending and shading. But even with my regular Copics, this takes practice and patience, unless you’re just a natural drawer and shader, which I most certainly am NOT.

Pretty sure this one was done with my first really cheap set of alcohol markers; even with a $30 set of pens you can still create lovely shading and blending!

So. The gimmick of the Chameleon pens is that they have the ability to be fastened to a solvent “cap” to make the blending process easier and more effective. With regular alcohol pens, you need to choose 2-3 colors very close in shade and tone to blend – you lay down the darkest color, then blend with the medium one, and then use the lightest one at the edges of the ink to create the faded appearance. As I said before it takes practice, and thank g-d once again for YouTube for helping me figure this out; it took me a solid week or two of shading circle after circle before I got it right. With a Chameleon pen, however, what you do is take the color you want, pop the blender off the back of the pen, attach it to the tip of the colored nib, and wait a bit for the blending agent to seep into the nib. This waters down the color so that when you start to shade, the ink comes out very light, and as you sketch that solvent fades off the nib until you return to the original shade, creating that ombre effect.

Taken from a video, sorry for the little play arrow

This is a cool idea, but as a lot of the criticism about them points out, it’s not really necessary. Copic markers are excellent for blending, and while this idea might speed up the process a little, it isn’t exactly laborious to start with, and there is actually a lot less control over the amount of blending you get with these pens. The biggest problem I had with them was that I blend from dark to light (which is just a preference, a lot of people work from light to dark, or start with a middle color, etc) and the only way to use these pens was to shade from light to dark. I just never could get a handle on how to work with these – I would have to estimate where I wanted the darker ink to “end up” on the page and then start coloring somewhere above that to get the fade, and it was just non-intuitive and annoying. So, I had chalked these up to a specialty pen I’d probably only use every once in awhile until I came across these little Chameleon pen accessories:

Color tops!

So, these little pen tops replace the “cap” on the original pen that just had blending solvent in it. They pop onto the ink nib just like the solvent cap does, BUT they seep another COLOR onto the nib, instead of just soaking some solvent into it that lightens the original shade.

Upper image using “normal” chameleon pen; bottom image blending using a color top instead of plain solvent top

Now THIS is useful! Using regular alcohol pens to blend and shade is fairly easy; you just choose 2-3 pens that are close in color from light to dark and blend them together. It takes practice, but once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. However, using regular markers to blend two colors together that are NOT close in shade or color is a real bitch, but these color tops make it a snap! Once I discovered Color Tops, my Chameleon pens went from my least-used to my most-used alcohol marker. You have to buy the color tops in separate packages of four each, so that can get pricey, but you can pick and choose which colors you want to use and add to your collection over time. As some have pointed out, you could just as easily take one colored pen and smoosh the nib up against another one and get the same effect, but the distribution method with the color tops works much better, and to me that is worth the money.

Lots of color tops in use here – sorry for the reflection, but this pic is framed

I will say though, that at first I had a habit of pushing the color top really HARD onto the nib of the other pen, and I’ve damaged a few nibs that way. So, I’ve learned to use a lighter touch. Also, the Chameleon pens come with a few replacement nibs for just this purpose, and like Copics you can buy more nibs online if you need them. Chameleons are also refillable like Copics are, which really help justify the cost. Also speaking of cost – while a set of 52 Chameleon pens costs about $180, that is child’s play compared to what a 52-set of Copics would cost. So when you think of it that way, you could consider these a cheaper option that has a lot of flexibilty and ways to add to the value of them over time. I don’t think the nibs on the Chameleons is as good as those on the Copics, but since there are replacements that doesn’t bug me too much.

Whoo! I think that’s enough for now. But I am still uploading a COVID-365 pic a day here, so that will be coming soon. Stay safe everyone!

COVID-365 Day 8

With school starting up this week, my schedule has gotten busy again and I totally forgot about yesterday. I hope that doesn’t mean I have to start over!

Anyway, this picture represents the only place I have been since March aside from one doctor visit and the occasional grocery store. No, it’s not Domino’s or acupuncture, it’s the local post office where I rent a mailbox. I end up stopping in here about once a week for one reason or another. I’ve rented a mailbox here for over a decade but it has taken on more significance now as one of the only places I go to interact with other living, human people aside from Doug.

I just got through tutoring a student who, like me, is staying indoors as much as possible even though a lot of our area is opened up and has been for some time. She lives with extended family and they are high risk for the virus, so they are all staying home 24-7. She mentioned hearing from a friend who went to the beach over the weekend and feeling so envious of her, and it made me think of my own conflicted feelings when I hear or see others I know going out and doing things, some masked and distanced, some not. At times I wonder if Doug and I are being “fanatics,” or being too cautious,, but my instincts tell me we are doing the right thing and should continue to eschew any and all activities outside the home. But it is harder when you feel like you are in the minority and the rest of the world is going about their lives as if there’s no pandemic. In the beginning of this, there was about a month where the country was unified about flattening the curve, but in our current state America was only able to stay unified for about four weeks. It’s a shame, but at this point there’s no way to reconcile those who feel staying home and being cautious is proper and those who feel everyday activities are fairly safe and life should return to normal. I only know one other person, a nephew, who stays home and avoids social activities with the vigilance we do, so at times it feels kinda lonely. But we have been so good up to now, so if one of us slacked off and got sick it would have all been a waste of time – so we persevere.