Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Review of Star Toaster "Orphs of the Woodlands"

Star Toaster Review
Hey everyone! I am so super happy to bring you this review of Star Toaster "Orphs of the Woodlands."  "Orphs of the Woodlands" is an online, interactive book geared for the upper elementary to middle grade students where they immerse themselves into a story about Night Creatures and spies! The basic premise is that your child applies for a position with the WAK Underground, and becomes a spy squirrel who must put an end to the Night Creatures who are taking over the Woodlands and save the Orphs. By reading chapters, and doing jobs, your child will earn "Gold Stars" that he or she will use to rescue Orphs, build a village, and maintain the village to support the Orphs. Star Toaster "Orphs of the Woodlands" is more than just an online streaming book. In addition to a fun, fantasy'ish chapter book, Star Toaster brings to you a virtual world of sorts with "jobs" that teach your child a variety of subjects and topics from math and language arts, to life and thinking skills. It is colorful, fun, and offers the reward of the "game" aspect. Honestly, there is so much to Star Toaster and "Orphs of the Woodlands" that I can't possibly do it justice in a short summary! It is more than an online reading program. It is more than an educational computer game. It is an interactive adventure that puts reading and education at the forefront. There are a number of tabs on your account, so I'll go over those one by one. For this review, we received access to an online account. 
Skills Report: 


Skills report is where you find the Jobs listings. I'm not a fan of the title of this option being called "Skills Report," and the reason why is kind of funny. We are a bit behind of where I had planned to be because of a couple of things: 1.) A series of storms wreaked havoc on our internet! We are STILL experiencing some bouncing. 2.) (this is the reason I'm not a fan of the title of this tab...) I was lost! For the first couple of chapters, as he would finish reading a chapter, his job list popped up automatically. After the 3rd chapter, this did not happen. I'm only revealing my total flub in case this happens to anyone else HAHA! It took me a good 10 days to figure out it wasn't a program glitch, but a mom glitch! I saw "Skills Report" and thought it was a report of what he had completed, and the "grade" he got for each job/task completed.  I wish this was labeled "Jobs Listings" or "Help Wanted" or something along those lines. But for anyone lost, like me, the jobs are under this tab! **I'm happy to say that now, after each chapter, the jobs pop up as they are supposed to HAHA!** I do wish there was a way for your child to go back and have a second chance at earning stars for missed jobs. Currently, that is not possible. Also, I wish there was more flexibility in choosing when to do the jobs. My son wanted to continue reading on into chapter 7, but he was stopped after chapter 6. He's stuck on the jobs tab, and even when we click "Continue Reading," he is still routed to the jobs list. for ease of use by the younger kids, having the "continue reading" link take them straight back to the book would create a more user friendly experience.  When your child begins a job, they have a training session. The professor of this training session is just right down funny! With EVERY lesson he says, "I never repeat myself, so Pay Attention!" He tells little jokes through out that had my son rolling with laughter! "Why is 7 a dangerous number? Because 7 8 9!" Yeah, my kid loves this part! 
Spy Application:

"Orphs of the Woodlands" is a fantasy based book. Actually, I liken it to Dungeons and Dragons in a way (for those of you who have partaken in table top gaming...) You begin with an "application" that informs you of the conflict: Night Creatures are taking over the Woodlands!! The WAK Underground is seeking applicants of trustworthy and brave individuals to help battle the Night Creatures, and save the Woodlands-Survival is not guaranteed. (See? Very D&D like HAHA!)
The Spy application sets the tone of the adventure. It is also the area where your child chooses their nickname (my son chose Picklehead,) their favorite color, and their personal attributes that qualify them for the WAK Underground (Loyal, Trustworthy, etc...) Their Spy name and favorite color are used in the reading adventure.

Account Settings:

Self explanatory. Nothing special here, just your log in and account information. 



Journal:
 
Your journal is basically a summary of what you have accomplished thus far. This screen snip shows an earlier version of my son's journal. This is what I thought the Skills Report should be. 

Continue Reading:
 This is where you want to go when you wish to go back to the book to read more. While reading you'll find highlighted words. These words are clickable, and they will either play a sound, show a recipe, define the word, etc. The book is interactive in this way. 





My Thoughts

We are enjoying Star Toaster. The book plot is interesting, and well written. I really appreciate the interactive aspect of the reading. I like that he can click on the various highlighted words and it gives him the definition, or some other tidbit. There are recipes, music, sound effects, etc. that accompany the reading that make it interesting. The chapters are a little long for my ASD son. He gets frustrated with chapters that are 25 pages or more long, as he needs to take breaks between reading-especially complicated reading such as this. He does not like to wait to do his jobs to earn his stars until after his reading is complete. This sometimes means he has to wait 2 or 3 days since he sometimes has to re-read things more than once. I have been reading some of it to him, just so he can move on and complete what he wants to complete. For example: chapter 6 is more than 30 pages. He just got to the end of chapter 6, so he can start his jobs now. But now he's stuck again, because he doesn't wish to do the jobs right now, he wanted to move on to chapter 7 and he can't. When he finishes a chapter, if he wants to keep going, he is forced to stop and do the jobs. It takes him to a jobs list, but when he clicks on "Continue Reading," the program is currently keeping him on the jobs list until he completes them. By the time he's completed some, he no longer wishes to finish reading. Most kids will want to do the jobs in between reading (as the program is designed,) but mine wants more flexibility. Having this sort of flexibility would be a great aide to those of us with special needs kids who may need a few more breaks, or who may wish to just read as they wish before completing the jobs. 
The story line is perfectly age appropriate for him (9, almost 10) and his reading level is well developed, so he's easily able to read and understand the story. I'm not so sure it would be easily read by younger kids, or kids with a younger reading level-though with a little parental assistance, the jobs and overall program/game experience would still be ok. We were only hindered by the length of the chapters. Others with older kids (tween to early teens) have not experienced this as much of an issue, so it could very well be either an age thing or an ASD thing. Either way, it is a VERY fun program that covers MUCH more than reading. He has actively used vocabulary he's picked up from the book. he has used the story line in pretend play; rescuing Orphs in his own make believe "Woodlands" that he builds with toys. I'd show a photo of this, but he uses my entire family room floor and it looks like a bomb went off to me. To him, it's the Woodlands!

There is so much to learn! I'm still in shock. There's science, and not just your run of the mill science either. Simple Machines, life science, physical science, etc. Language arts and vocabulary that cover latin, grammar, and more. There are writing skills that develop keyboarding skills and cover great quotes. Life skills, reading comprehension, the arts, and so much more! The jobs are on a variety of levels so younger students have "easier" material, while older students will find challenges. The jobs are fairly quick to complete. Each job has as little as 1 question to earn the star payout. 

Does Star Toaster's "Orphs in the Woods" pass my 4 main ingredients test?


1.) Customization: Is it easily adaptable? Can we customize it to fit “us?” Can we modify or set our own schedule? Can we take breaks, jump ahead, or flat out skip?
You can set your own schedule and take breaks as needed, but you only have 2 months on your subscription. You can add 30 days at a time, but you are sort of under a time limit in this case. You can't really jump ahead. You have to read the chapters, then jobs unlock as you progress through the chapters. It's not a product that you can customize other than choosing when do your given jobs. I wish there was more flexibility. I wish we could choose to continue reading as much as we wanted, then choose to do the jobs later. I also wish it was possible to go back and have another chance to earn a payout on missed jobs. Currently, if your child gets an incorrect answer on a job, he/she is unable to go back to that job and earn a payout for getting the correct answer on a second chance. 

2.) Value: Is it long lasting? Will it cover multiple grade ranges? Are you locked in to one specific grade level? Are there hidden fees?


It is appropriate for a wide range of grades (The website says 4th-7th, but I could see older or younger still enjoying this. I enjoy myself!) My son is 4th-5th and 9, I have a friend whose teen son has been using this, and loves it. There are no grade levels, as it is one book. There are no hidden fees, but this is only the one book. Your $19.99 subscription lasts 2 months, but you can also purchase a 30 day extension to your subscription for $6.99 (as of the posting of this review.) I would personally like to see longer subscriptions because some kids, especially those with special needs, may need longer than two months to finish. You can try it before you buy it! They now offer a Free trail period! You can read the first 100 pages, and do the jobs for FREE!!!!!!



3.) Attention span: Is it boring? Is it engaging? Is it varied enough for ADHD? Does it last too long?


It is most definitely NOT boring! It is fun, entertaining, and varied with an abundance of educational "Jobs" that your student(s) must complete in order to earn stars. It is through these stars that the student can rescue Orphs and build a village, so they WANT to do the jobs. They have to read to do the jobs. For ADHD and ASD, the length of the chapters and the reading level may be a hindrance. The interactive nature of the book is also engaging. There are highlighted words, and words with icons next to them. These are sounds, vocabulary words, recipes etc. I do wish there were more photos of animals and such that are discussed in the book.


4.) Does it tie into other things we already have.


The jobs are so varied that it would be impossible for it to not tie into topics you have already discussed, or plan to discuss!



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