Saturday, March 1, 2014

Curriculum Review - Exploring America by Notgrass Publishing

Last year at a curriculum review I was exposed to America the Beautiful from Notgrass Publishing.  I was very impressed with this curriculum.  I debated about whether I should start my 8th grader on it or move on to Exploring America.  I decided to go with Exploring America because it was so rich in literature and Bible.  I fell in love with American Voices.  My 8th grader loves to read, so I thought that would be a good way to approach history. I also didn't see the point in starting a US history course for 8th grade only to start another US history course for 9th grade. My thought was, how much difference could there be between the two levels? This was a mistake.

Our Co-op Experience

I also decided to use this curriculum at co-op.  We had a group of families who were also going to be using the curriculum so it made sense to work together.  We split the course up into 2 classes, history and literature/comp.  On reflection we should have made it a two hour course. I made the lesson plans for the year for both classes; I taught literature/comp and another teacher taught history.  We left it to the parents to teach the Bible lessons at home. 

Notgrass suggests that a high school student can make it through this course in one year and if complete can earn 3 credits (history, English, and Bible).  Halfway into the first semester we realized that there was no way we could do a Unit a week as they suggest.  consistently, we had students not turning in homework or being unprepared for tests.  We spoke to the parents about their struggles and they simply said there was too much work.  We were following the suggested assignments for each Unit. We decided to adjusted our plan to only do one book (up through the Civil War) in one year. We didn't want to sacrifice all the richness of the course so that we could squeeze it into one year.  We decided we could offer the course again next year to cover Reconstruction to current history  This helped tremendously in the history class, but in our lit/comp class I still was having students not turn in work on time and not prepared for class reviews of the novels. It is unclear to me that this was just the lack of dedication on the students part or if it was just too much work.  After our own personal experiences, I am more inclined to believe that these students, like mine own were just not ready to take such a difficult course.

Our Personal Experience

I decided to pull my daughter out all together from the co-op classes. Over Christmas break I pondered just dropping the curriculum because she seemed to really be struggling with the adjusted plan too.  I decided to stick with it though, but I had to do some major adjustments for her. After the following adjustments she is making regular progress, which is a relief.

1.       I decided to let her just work through the course at her own pace and not try to squeeze it into a time frame at all. I didn’t want to sacrifice many of the assignments that I think bring depth to this curriculum in favor of squishing it into one year.  I do give her a weekly lesson plan, but if I see that she is making an honest effort and not getting the work done for the week, I will adjust the lesson plan.

2.       I dropped the novels, but kept the American Voices readings.  We might use the book list for a summer reading list.  It is a fantastic list of literature.  The AV readings were something I wouldn't compromise.  If not for the AV readings, this would just be an average Christian based history curriculum. The fact that they use so many origin sources makes this course outstanding.

3.       I added Bible.  I had originally attempted the Bible credit with her, but after the first couple of weeks I saw that there was too much work.  It was one of the selling points on the curriculum for me and something so many courses lack.   And to my point about original sources, how more original can you get?

4.       I narrate the history text.  I found out the hard way this year, although she loves to read fiction for fun, she struggles reading history and science texts. I found that her vocabulary just wasn't where it needed to be to ease through this course.  She can read and pronounce most words, but she doesn't always know what they mean in context.  I think this course was just above her reading level in a lot of ways.  That is actually ok with me generally speaking.  I think the only way to expand ones reading level is to start reading above it, but it would have been nice to understand that that was the case.  That isn't Notgrass's fault by any means, but I think they could do a better job at honing in on what grade level this course should actually be fore.  More on that in a minute.

       I purchased a MP3 recording and multimedia CD for her science text, which helped a lot! I hoped to find that for this course as well, but Notgrass doesn’t offer those options. It was up to me to provide that to her.  I actually really enjoy it. Every couple of weeks or so I record myself reading all the history text in a Unit on my phone. It helps me to prepare so that I can then instruct her better.   She can then read and listen to the text on her own and at her own pace.  She claims this has made all the difference in the world to her.  Her grades have improved and the pace has sped up.  I also provide her with links for the American Voice s reading assignments.  I can usually find someone reading them on Youtube. I would also like to be able to direct her to other websites that discuss the topics she is studying, but at this time I don't have time for that extra layer of work.  This is why it would be so helpful if Notgrass would provide it; it would save me huge amounts of time.

My Review

Notgrass says Exploring America will fulfill 1 high school credit for history, English and Bible. I felt a great amount of pressure to meet those standards.  I transferred that pressure to my daughter.  That is not why we homeschool; to meet some standardized notion of what a student should learn in a given time period.  We homeschool so that each of our children can receive a customized education based in Biblical truth.  So once I grounded myself again in that truth, the curriculum became much more useful to us. 

Because of the experience we've had in co-op, not just based on our personal experience with the course, I think that Notgrass has been too general in their identification of the curriculum as "high school".  There are too many varied notions among homeschoolers to label a curriculum as general as "high school".  I'm calking that up to a rooky mistake on my part, bu I just would have appreciated not wasting nearly a semester struggling through this course at home or at co-op to figure that out.  I look to the publisher to help me with that.   

The English work is heavy. The credit is supposed to cover composition and literature. There is a novel about every 2-3 weeks which has a set of questions to answer at the end of each novel, a writing assignment for each Unit (each week), and another English assignment for each lesson. In the quiz and exam book there are also questions for each literature assignment, and a test at the end of every 5 units. Often the English assignments for the lessons are nearly as big as the weekly writing assignment.  My students found it hard to get through all the writing in one week, especially considering that one of the days was spent in class.  They really only have 4 days to get the work done unless they were to cut into their weekend.  Even now that my daughter is not taking this course at co-op, 5 days wasn't enough, hence why we don't try to squeeze it into a week now. 

This curriculum is reading intensive which makes sense.  You have to transfer the knowledge in some way or another, and reading is there method.  The main issue is that because it uses so many original documents, if your student doesn't have a vast vocabulary, they are going to be slowed down by that. If you are trying to meet the 1 unit a week standard, then this will be a problem.  

There is a daily history reading assignment, most days there is an additional American Voices reading assignment, and over the course of 2 or 3 Units there is a novel assigned.  The history reading takes about 20 minutes for me to narrate. Slower readers will likely take double that time.  Those who don't have an adequate vocabulary will also need extra time to expand their vocabulary by asking questions or looking up words.  Make sure your student understands that it is important to stop and ask questions about words or concepts they don't understand.  Otherwise when they get to the questions they will be very frustrated.

The AV reading can be a lot or a little.  It's not evenly spread out.  It seems like the first couple of Units were reading intensive. Again, vocabulary will be a stumbling block.  If your student has read out of the King James Bible their whole lives, this will probably be easy hat, but if not, you will find when they are reading letters and speeches, they will struggle with the style of writing and vocabulary.  I wouldn't let that deter you in using it.  Just like learning to read and write in cursive, we need to understand that as a civilization that our history doesn't start with us.  We must learn where we came from and to learn that we need to be able to speak their langue, so to speak.  It's a skill that needs to be learned so that our heritage isn't lost. 

The novel reading doesn't have any specific time table to meet except by the end of a certain unit when they would take a test, but I found that I had to break it up into regular chunks for my class so they wouldn't end up having to read the whole book in one week.  That was just poor study habits. Make sure your student has a plan for completing the book, not just a general deadline.  Discuss what they have read with them at least once a week. If you need supplemental questions, the quiz and test books doesn't really have very many, you can easily find questions by doing an Internet search. 

I think Notgrass could appeal to a much larger audience if they would do these things:
  1. Offer a 1 and a 2 year plan.  Certainly  offer the option of earning those 3 credits in a year, but for those of us who aren't trying to meet those standards, offer suggestions for a longer plan.   
  2. Be more focused in suggestions for grade levels. Instead of saying "high school", help me the parent to understand how I can best use this curriculum for a student who isn't going to fall perfectly into your ideal student.
  3.  Offer some multimedia additions like MP3 narration for auditory learners, and links to websites or suggestions for videos for visual learners.  I think this could add another layer of depth to an already rich course.
I’m not sure what I will do next year, if I will let my daughter finish the course or switch to something else.  She really isn’t officially in high school yet, so I could start her on something completely different and not loose any ground.  I think she would do better with a DVD based curriculum or at least a DVD supplement, but there are very few out there that cover all of American history.  I really want her to love history, and right now she is just being obedient.  I will probably keep using American Voices though as a supplement regardless of what we use.


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