To some extent, a curriculum's worth can be judged by how easy it is to describe—for home school moms trying to cram every subject and the housework into a single day, easiest is often best. While unit studies often claim to make things easier on harried mothers by teaching multiple subjects across a potentially broad age-spectrum, those who've tried to implement them know they usually aren't as simple as their authors suggest.
America the Beautiful by Charlene Notgrass is an exception. While not technically a unit study, this U.S. history course for grades 5-8 puts the best elements of interdisciplinary study in a textbook context. There's no need to hunt down all kinds of supplementary books (most likely out of print or really hard to find) because everything you need comes in the curriculum package, but at the same time you're free to tailor content to each student.
As of September 2021, the first edition of America the Beautiful has been replaced by a thoroughly revised second edition (the new edition textbooks are much longer). The basic structure remains the same, but it has been expanded, rearranged, and updated. The new edition is not compatible with the first edition, but you can purchase digital downloads of the older version consumable books direct from the Notgrass website; we will offer the first edition textbooks and We the People in limited quantities (as available) for the foreseeable future.
How Does This Work?
America the Beautiful is a one-year course for middle school students built around a two-volume core textbook with accompanying teacher's guide / reference manual. Each volume includes 15 units of five lessons each, for a total of 75 lessons per semester (150 altogether). Lessons are usually 2-5 pages, and include text to read, assignments linking the other books in the program, and hands-on activities. The text covers 1000 AD all the way to President Joe Biden. Students can either read the lessons on their own or have them read aloud by parents, depending on your child's primary learning mode (auditory or visual). The textbooks are profusely and beautifully illustrated in full color with photographs and drawings.
Units are arranged by time period and include one of each of the following lessons: "Our American Story" lessons are devoted to American history; a "Daily Life" sketch describes ordinary people and their culture and normal experiences; a lesson on a man-made American landmark; an American biography; and, a "God's Wonder" lesson on an aspect of creation related to the time period. There are also individual biographies of each U.S. president interspersed chronologically.
At the end of each lesson is a list of activities for students to complete, including a "Thinking Biblically" worldview exercise, creative writing and vocabulary assignments, literature reading (ten works of fiction are assigned; alternate titles are suggested if you'd prefer not to read the books on the main list), timeline and map exercises, and assignments in one of the two student workbooks available; a single family activity is assigned per week at the end of the unit (recipes, crafts, etc.).
The two-volume textbook is the centerpiece, but there are six supplemental books. Timeline of America the Beautiful is a full-color year-by-year consumable timeline book covering AD 1000 to AD 2029, with lots of photographs, key events already printed, and plenty of space for students to record their own notes. Maps of America the Beautiful is also consumable, with maps for students to color according to the accompanying instructions.
We the People contains source documents from America's history including speeches, songs and poems, excerpts from longer works, and even copy from old-time ads. The second edition of this book is reorganized (enough so that using the old one with the new textbooks is virtually impossible), and has been updated with many beautiful full-color photographs and illustrations. Selections range from the obvious (the Gettysburg Address) to the eccentric but fun (H.C. Ostermann's recommendations for motor car travel).
A Student Workbook intended for grades 5-6 includes crossword puzzles, word searches, etc., while a full-color consumable Lesson Review book for grades 7-8 reinforces lesson content with quizzes, short answer questions, and more. You can have students work through both texts (assignments in both are short, generally less than half a page), the authors encourage you to use one or the other for each student as the nature and difficulty of the assignments is age-specific. The Answer Key and Literature Guide includes answers for all written assignments in the workbooks and main texts, as well as notes for teaching the supplemental literature.
In keeping with the unit study theme, ten novels are assigned in addition to the textbook reading. All of them are classics of young adult literature (All-of-a-Kind Family, Little Town on the Prairie, Across Five Aprils, etc.), except the novel Katy's Box, by one of the Notgrass' daughters, about a Christian home school family. While these add a "fun" element, they also provide some relatable context to the information contained in the textbooks.
The student is given 1-2 weeks to read each book, with 1-3 chapters assigned each day. The list is as follows:
Our Honest Opinion:
Sometimes a curriculum bites off way more than it can chew. On first glance (if for no other reason than the profusion of workbooks and the long lists of activities) it would seem the same could be said of America the Beautiful. Yet it really does offer what it claims—it's a unit study-ish approach to history from a Christian perspective that is genuinely easy to implement. Teachers won't have to spend tons of time preparing lessons, and kids will enjoy learning U.S. history and geography.
The evangelical Protestant Christian perspective is clear throughout. There is a fairly clear bias at times, and there is a noticeable tendency to focus on any reference to God, the Bible, Christianity, and prayer, regardless of who made the statement. Parents will also want to know that the author's own views are presented as fact rather than opinion, and there seems to be a preference for the South in terms of the Civil War.
Kids will get a good sense of the flow of the American narrative from the Viking explorers to the present without getting bogged down in names and dates. Much of what is covered here is covered in the Notgrass Exploring America curriculum for high school students, though America the Beautiful focuses on individuals while Exploring America covers events more in-depth and offers more Christian evaluation. There are more gaps in America the Beautiful, but that is to be expected from a middle school course.
Overall, this is a fairly broad overview of American history for students just starting to study the subject more deeply. One of the better aspects of the program is its continued focus on daily life and cultural history. This also reflects one of its major failings, however, and that is the tendency to focus on Christian figures rather than key figures (sometimes they happen to be both), presumably because students will identify more with such individuals. Excellent as a melding of textbook and unit study approach, this is a decent introduction to American history, but eschews the "warts and all" approach in favor of a child-friendly approach.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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