June 27, 2016

America the Beautiful: A One Year History Curriculum from Notgrass History {Curriculum Review}

I have seen the name Notgrass History pop up continually on my Facebook newsfeed. I assumed it was just another in a string of curriculum companies, and I didn't pay it much attention. When I went to the GHC in Cincinnati, OH earlier this year, a friend asked me if I could swing by the Notgrass History booth to check out the curriculum for her. I did and this led to nearly 40 minutes of my time as I examined the product AND chatted with Charleen Notgrass--the owner and writer for the company! Once I left the booth, I was convinced that I needed to get my hands on this product to try, but wasn't sure how to go about it. Timberdoodle Company to the rescue! I was so excited when they asked if I would like to do a review on America the Beautiful Curriculum Package, an American History curriculum from Notgrass History for ages 5-8, one of the components of Timberdoodle's 2016 5th Grade Curriculum. I hoped that it would be just what I imagined it would be from my time exploring it at the convention.
America the Beautiful Curriculum from Notgrass History ~ Curriculum Review

Product Summary

America The Beautiful Curriculum Package is a one year history, geography, and literature course designed for grades 5-8 (Ages 10-14) from Notgrass History. With a heavy leaning towards a unit study, the textbooks included in the curriculum, aren't your normal textbooks. Opening them, you will discover page after page of historical photographs, full color photographs, maps, illustrations, large font and white space. This curriculum follows American History, not only from 1000 AD to the present, but also natural, Godmade attractions, and natural wonders, biographies, and glimpses into what life was like throughout the birth and growth of America. There is no teacher manual included, because this program was designed to provide independent learning for your student through teaching it in narrative form.
The America The Beautiful Curriculum Package ($99.95) contains the following six items:
*America the Beautiful, Part 1 and Part 2
These are the hardcover texts which provide the spine for the course. Each contains 75 lessons, providing a semester of work per book. 
*We the People
A collection of 150 original journal entries, newspaper articles, advertisements, poems, songs, letters, short stories, speeches, and other historic documents from American history. Hardcover.
*Maps of America the Beautiful
A collection of 30 maps drawn to coordinate with this curriculum. softcover.
*Timeline of America the Beautiful
This is an illustrated timeline of American history from AD 1000 to the present designed specifically to include facts learned in the lessons. Some facts are already printed on the timeline. softcover.
*America the Beautiful Answer Key
Includes answers for the Timeline, Student Workbook, Lesson Review, and the vocabulary assignments included in the main text. softcover.
There are two additional products that while optional, go with the curriculum and can be used if your child needs more work, or if you would prefer having lesson reviews and exams as part of the curriuclum. You can add on the America the Beautiful Lesson Review and the America the Beautiful Student Workbook.
We were given the America the Beautiful Curriculum Package to review with Little Britches, ages 10.

How Did We Use the Product?

I was sooooo excited to get this product. I cannot convey to you enough how thrilled I was to finally have a chance to use this curriculum after all the time I spent at the convention learning about the company and the programs. When the box arrived, I ripped into it and oohed and ahhhed over the vibrant textbook covers and eagerly flipped through the pages to peek at the contents. I couldn't wait to get started with Little Britches on this program. 
Because I was familiar with how it worked, I knew we could literally, just open and go! No teachers manual needed. I did however take a moment to read the Introduction and How to Use This Product portions to familiarize myself more clearly with the product. 
From the first paragraph, I knew that this was most likely going to be a hit--when a book starts with "When God created the land we call America...", you know the writers of the book have placed their own priorities in the correct spot. The introduction continued though to explain how it was first a book of history, but also geography, as geography played such a vital role in the shaping of America's history. The introduction continues with explaining how the history will be taught...thirty units in chronological order, and with five types of lessons:
1. Our American Story: lessons about major events in the time period of the unit
2. God's Wonders: lessons describing an amazing creation God placed in America
3. An American Landmark: lessons about important sites in American history
4. An American Biography: lessons focusing on a person who lived at the time being studied
5. Daily Life: lessons telling how certain people lived and worked during the period
The introduction concludes talking about how while a lot of America's story is beautiful, some of it is not and how the authors will be honest about some of the America's biggest shortcomings throughout history.
In the How to Use the Product, the authors share how all the parts of the curriculum package work together. They also share ideas on how they designed the program to work. The suggested schedule is as follows:
Two volumes of lessons divided into fifteen units for a total of thirty units. Thus your child can study part 1 during one half of the year, and part 2 during the other half. Each unit has 5 lessons. If a student reads one lesson a day, they can cover 5 lessons in 1 week--thus completing a unit per week providing 30 weeks of lessons. 

Included in each lesson is a series of four to six activities--of which students are not obligated to complete all of. You can choose which you want your student to complete. Subjects of the activities vary from day to day, but they include:
*Thinking Biblically assignments
*Creative writing assignments
*Vocabulary assignments
*Family activities (1 per week)
*Literature assignments from We the People and the 10 books in the literature packages (more on that later)
*Assignments in Timeline of America the Beautiful
*Assignments in Maps of America the Beautiful
*Assignments in America the Beautiful Student Workbook or the America the Beautiful Lesson Review (both of these optional books)

Additional supplies needed for the curriculum include: three-ring binder, colored pencils, notebook paper, and writing utensils.
At this point, it was time to begin. 
I am going to state right off the bat that we did not use this as it was suggested. We have kicked into summer school, so we aren't even doing school 5 days a week. Thus, after evaluating the program and material, I decided that for this review, we would use it 2-3 days a week--working on just one lesson per week to spread out the reading and activities. NOW--let me also mention that I have EVERY intention of using it closer to the suggested way once we get back into our full school routine this fall--but for the review period, we took it slower to go with our summer routine. 

It was very easy to split each lesson in to 2-3 days a week. Day #1 was all about reading. Little Britches read the lesson from the text--usually 4-5 pages. Now because this text is ripe with photographs and illustrations, this was not a difficult chore to do. LOL. Once he was done with the reading, we usually did the Thinking Biblically assignment and/or the Vocabulary assignment if there was one included. Day #2, we worked on the rest of the activities from the lesson which usually included reading from We the People, creative writing, as well as the map/timeline work. We spent Day #3 finishing up that work, or reviewing the lesson for the week. 
Here are some photos from our time using the product:
A gorgeous first lesson full of visually stunning photographs!

The activities for Lesson 1--each clearly marked
Love all the historical photographs!
Working on the reading from We the People

Some map work
We maintained this schedule throughout the first 5 lessons which took us to the family activity which was very fun to complete as it was to make a Algonquian Longhouse out of gumdrops and toothpicks. It took us two weeks to work on the gumdrops activity since we weren't doing it daily, but BOTH of my boys thoroughly enjoyed it. 
As of right now, we have completed the first unit and family activity over the course of 6 weeks on a summer schedule. We will be picking up with Unit 2 when we get back into our school routine this fall, at which point we will shift to a 4-5 day a week schedule for the lessons.

What Are Our Thoughts on the Product?

Little Britches: 
"I really really like this. I think the pictures in the book are really cool. And it helps to have pictures to go with the words and information. The activities aren't hard. I'm really glad there isn't a lot of writing. But the writing that is there isn't hard. It's actually kind of fun to do. I liked having to write about how I get a hotdog on my plate from the cow it came from. My favorite thing was the gumdrop building! It was harder than I thought it would be to put it all together. And it was yummy!"

Yes yes yes! My thoughts are that this program is everything I hoped it would be and more. Not only is the textbook written in a narrative form making it easy to read, it is so full of photographs and visual things to go with the words. Little Britches pours over the photos in each lesson, he enjoys them so much. I am so glad that this is written from a Christian Worldview, because the authors constantly give praise and glory to God, and there is scripture woven throughout the lessons that tie in perfectly. In regards to the reading level, I would say it is easily geared towards 5th grade+, but an advanced 3rd or 4th grader would probably be able to read it too.
The activities are a nice balance, and none of them was complicated or hard to do. Even the writing assignments were short and sweet--with the option to be expanded depending on the child. I loved having the We the People book for the extended reading from real sources. Little Britches enjoyed learning about Indian life from the diary entries assigned during the first lessons.
Having the scripture/copywork as part of the lessons themselves is a great bonus, as well as examining history through the Christian lens. So many scriptures to bring to mind for the students as they work through each lesson.
I appreciated the vocabulary assignments that were part of each lesson and how it encouraged the student to see if they could determine the words based on the context they were used in. This helps them dive deeper into their reading. 
You can see the novels are added right in to the activities
This course is definitely focused on history and geography, but it would be possible to make it a literature course--or have a language arts focus. Even though it wasn't included in my review package, there IS a literature package with novels that work with the lessons. There are ten books in this that are actually scheduled into the activities. The first book begins with unit 4, and then they continue throughout the rest of the course. If you added this to the course, I DEFINITELY would consider this a history/geography/literature course. It would be easy to throw in spelling and grammar using the vocabulary words or copywork from each lesson as well. I think that there is enough here that you could truly only need to add on math and science. Remember, the idea of this IS to be like a unit study anyway.
Now this curriculum is geared towards 5th-8th grade. In my opinion, I would want to add on a bit MORE for the 7th-8th grade students to what is already here--and that is where having those optional Lesson Review and Student Workbooks would come into play. Or simply have them take the activities farther. Instead of an assigned paragraphy, maybe have them write an essay. Or throw in a research paper or notebooking. This course easily can be adapted based on the level of your students. 
suggested activities based on grade level

giving some ideas for using it at a multi-age level
Now some may want to know if they would do this with YOUNGER students. I think you could adapt it--IF you had someone reading ALOUD the text. Perhaps an older sibling or the parent. The assignments are easily adapted--and you would just need to get a few extra of the consumable books. I would limit the material to 3rd grade. I really don't know that I would use this with a grade lower than 3rd. 
And don't forget--this curriculum comes with answer keys to everything, so you don't have to worry about the grading. 

Now are there cons? 

Well, I really don't know that these are truly cons, but here you go:
1. it's a rigorous course at 5 days a week-one unit per week to finish it in one year. 
BUT--it is so adaptable, I truly think you could stretch it and make it work however you desire. Year round homeschoolers would probably LOVE this program because they can just go through it at their own desired pace. I have considered turning it into a two year course--focusing on one text per year...but I think that really will depend on how quickly we can work through all of the lessons once we get started again. 
2. Reading. Lots of reading.
This course is definitely literature centered with the text reading, the extra sources book, and the optional literature package. If you have a reluctant reader, this might not be the best go for you--unless you are okay with reading aloud. Fortunately, I have a reader and he LOVES all the reading.
I think the greatest PROS are these:
It's a laid back narrative approach to history presenting many many sources and activities ripe with historical photographs, color photographs, and more. It is taught chronologically making it easy to keep track of what is going on. It is from a Christian worldview, which means there is much focus on God's hand in the course of history. It is HIGHLY adaptable to fit YOUR needs. And honestly the biggest draw? The PRICE! For $99.95 I can get a CORE curriculum and build everything else around it! 
Will we continue to use this program?
Absolutely! I have put it on hold right now until we start back up this fall, but we will be doing this as a core curriculum I think, since I'm changing things up this year. 

Would I Recommend This Product?

Yes yes yes! It was exactly what I thought it would be and we have fallen in love with the style and presentation. As I said in my pros above, the whole program just FITS the style of those who like Unit Study and heavy literature--which is the way our family is leaning towards. I also recommend it for those desiring a Christian worldview to American History. It is DEFINITELY able to be done nearly independently because of the style. 
Who wouldn't like it? Those who don't want Christianity to be a part of the curriculum. Also, if you are desiring a more "traditional" history approach with memorization and worksheets and exams. 
If you want to know more, I encourage you to check out the America the Beautiful Curriculum Package that is part of the Timberdoodle 2016 5th Grade Curriculum kit to see if it will be right for you! You will be able to download all kinds of samples to give you a peek at what the first lesson is like!
I am definitely going to be checking out more products from Notgrass History thanks to the experience we're having with this review.
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