The Notgrass history courses might better be labeled unit studies rather than history since each course actually covers history, English (literature and composition), and Bible/Religion equivalent to a full credit for each subject area. Courses also incorporate fiction and non-fiction books as we find in most unit studies. These are challenging high school courses, written for homeschooling families. They will likely appeal to those who prefer to integrate subjects and wish to teach a biblical Christian (Protestant) worldview and a conservative, limited-government philosophy.
Three core textbooks are essential for each course. (The three core textbooks are sold as a curriculum package.) These core books are full-color, hardcover books.There is also an optional Student Review Pack for each course.
Two of the core books, Part 1 and Part 2, contain the textbook material presented in daily lessons while the third book contains primary source readings to accompany the lessons. In each course, Part 1 has 75 lessons for the first semester while Part 2 has 75 lessons for the second semester.
Each course (the set of three books) also includes an eight-page booklet titled Guide for Parents Using Exploring America (or Guide for Parents Using Exploring World History), which has a course description and important tips for using the course. The Part 1 volume for each course also has a "How to Use This Curriculum" section at the beginning of the book. The latter is written directly to the student, assuming that the courses are being used for independent study for the most part.
Lessons are divided into weekly units with five lessons per unit. Some lessons might require more time, so you might spend more than five days on a unit. There are only 30 units per course, so students should have plenty of time to complete each course even if they take extra time for some lessons.
All course books are illustrated with full-color photos and graphics. Indexes are included at the end of Part 2 of each course and also in both books of course reading material. The writing style is more interesting than in most histories since it is colored by commentary and opinion.
There are no questions within the textbooks, but there are activities and projects for students to complete. Units begin with a brief introduction, titles of the five lessons for the week, a Bible passage to be memorized, book or books required, and project choices for the unit. Students choose an assignment from the project suggestions that they will work on over the week. At the end of each day's lesson in the textbooks is a box with assignments that might include Bible reading, a reminder about scripture memorization, reading assignments in either a required book or the third course volume, project reminders, and optional work in the Student Review book.
Unit projects vary from art work and cooking through research and writing. Writing projects are generally suggested to be between 300 and 500 words, and they include a wide range of writing styles since the courses are intended to develop broad composition skills. Students should choose a minimum of six writing assignments from among the projects, but it seems to me that most students could complete a writing project each week, while occasionally completing other projects as well.
The writing projects are thought-provoking and often require further research. For example the two choices for Unit 10 in Exploring America are:
- "Summarize the historical arguments in support of slavery and the arguments opposing slavery. Give your opinion on the issue and on how the issue should have been settled."
- "Write about how being an immigrant in this time period might have affected your fears, beliefs, connections with family, and dreams."
Both courses include an option for the student to complete a 2,000- to 2,500-word research paper following a four-week plan.
There is a section near the beginning of the Part 1 volume of each course titled "Advice on Writing" with both general and specific tips, but this is very limited help for actually teaching students how to write if they need structured guidance. However, it does have some specific guidelines for the research paper. The "Guide for Parents" suggests some composition programs you might use if students need more direct instruction in composition and essay writing.
The situation is similar for literary analysis. Student Review books each have nine pages of instruction on literary analysis (the same material in both courses), and they include Notgrass's literary analysis on the required books, but this isn't the same as an extensive course on literary analysis that walks students through the various aspects with specific assignments. Nevertheless, the models and general instruction might be sufficient for many students.
Students should spend an average of 2.5 to 3 hours per day for all three subject areas, although reading the assigned literature might require more time than this. The actual time per day in each subject area will vary.
Some parents might find the assignments within the textbooks sufficient for "feedback," but others will want to use the optional Student Review Pack for each course. The Student Review Packs each have three components: Student Review, Quiz and Exam Book, and Answer Key.
The Student Review books have questions for each lesson that range from simple recall to short essay. There are also questions on the readings from the third core volume for each course. Literary analysis notes are included on the separate fiction and non-fiction works. The Student Review book for Exploring World History also has Scripture commentary. There are normally ten questions for each day, and they might require quite a bit of writing, especially if a number of them require short-essay type answers. All of these questions serve the purpose of helping parents assess whether or not students are actually reading and learning the material, so they are useful! However, you might assign some of these for compositions and use others for discussion if you think the writing load is too heavy.
The Quiz and Exam Books have weekly quizzes plus exams every five units for history, English, and Bible—a separate exam for each subject area. There are no cumulative exams that cover the entire course.
Remember that the Student Review Packs are optional, so you need not use them at all. Author Ray Notgrass says that his goal is to encourage students to enjoy history and great literature, while also becoming good writers. He believes that the projects and assignments within each lesson and each unit are sufficient to encourage this. Nevertheless, I suspect most parents will want the Student Review Pack to keep students accountable.
I mentioned previously that fiction and non-fiction books are used with each course. These are listed below under the course descriptions. The books might be borrowed from the library, purchased as a literature package from Notgrass Company, or purchased elsewhere.
Students can work through each course independently for the most part, although parents will need to evaluate written assignments and might prefer to discuss some topics or readings with students. Parents also need to check answers for students using the Student Review book.
The publisher's website has some valuable extras and information on each course under their "Editions, Updates, and Corrections" page. Be sure to check this out for whichever course you are using. You will find a very helpful Assignment Checklist, a Grading Chart, a comprehensive list of all project ideas for a course so that you can plan ahead for the year with an appropriate balance of activities, the biblical commentary and literary analysis that are included within the Student Review books, and errata.
Note that these 2014 editions are updates of earlier editions, but they are vastly improved in appearance and usability, and content has been updated and expanded.
Here are some particulars on each course.
As I mentioned before, there are two volumes with the daily lessons. Part 1 covers Columbus through Reconstruction, while Part 2 continues with the late 1800s through the present. American Voices is the title of the third core book. This is a compilation of documents, speeches, essays, hymns, poems, and short stories that are to be read in conjunction with the lessons.
The 12 additional books required for this course are The Scarlet Letter, Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Co. Aytch, Humorous Stories and Sketches, In His Steps, Up From Slavery, Mama's Bank Account, Miracle in the Hills, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Giver. Some alternatives for literary works are suggested on the last page of the "Guide for Parents."
In the main textbooks, each day's lesson includes presentation of the historical information as you find in other history books. However, it also presents more information on religious events and issues than do most texts. In addition, it clearly has a limited-government, conservative viewpoint. What might be controversial political opinions (e.g., problems resulting from the New Deal's expansion of "social planning" and government intervention) are explained at length, with recognition often granted to the positive effects. Topics such as the Scopes Trial receive more attention than usual with a broader explanation of their importance. Bible lessons (fifth lesson in each unit) often touch on historical and cultural topics beyond U.S. History.
Exploring World History
Part 1 of Exploring World History covers Creation through the Middle Ages. Part 2 covers the Renaissance to the present. Even though Exploring World History is a two-volume study, coverage is necessarily limited. The choice to present the course from a biblical Christian worldview, dictates heavier emphasis upon biblical history. The text also discusses topics such as a Christian perspective on history, the role of religious motivations in history, Creation (no cave men and no evolution), the Fall, arguments for the existence of God, stories of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Cyrus, and other key figures from biblical history, as well as a brief study of Israel, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, and some of the other ancient civilizations in relation to the Bible. Egypt and Sumer receive a bit more attention than the other ancient civilizations that interacted with the Israelites.
With that much attention given to biblical foundations and early civilizations, it limits the amount of time available for other topics. Thus, topics such as the Greek civilization, the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Age of Exploration are allotted only one week each. Because understanding worldviews is an important goal of this course, Unit 23, titled "A Revolution in Thought," covers Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, John Dewey, and Higher Criticism (in biblical studies). These men and their ideas caused significant changes in both thought and belief that remain with us today. While students might not cover as much factual historical information, they will learn to think more deeply about what they learn.
The third course book, titled In Their Words, includes original documents, poems, short stories, excerpts from novels, hymns, and speeches that relate to historical topics in the lessons.
The 12 books required for this course are The Cat of Bubastes; The Art of War; Julius Caesar; The Imitation of Christ; Here I Stand; A Tale of Two Cities; North and South; The Hiding Place; Animal Farm; Bridge to the Sun; Cry, the Beloved Country; and The Abolition of Man. Alternatives for some of these works are suggested on the last page of the "Guide for Parents."
The Notgrass Company sells three packages for each course: a set of the three core volumes, the Student Review Pack, and the literature package. Only the first is package is a required purchase, but I highly recommend using all course components.
I mentioned earlier that these are challenging courses. While the textbook reading is not overly challenging, the amount of reading in the other books coupled with the numerous writing assignments requires a significant amount of personal diligence and effort. Self-motivated students who enjoy reading and writing will do best in these courses and are likely to very much appreciate the format.
Students who struggle with the reading or writing might use the courses in an abbreviated manner rather than trying to accomplish three full subject credits. The easiest way to lighten the load is cut back on the required reading and the writing assignments, using more traditional resources to work toward part of the English credit. However, keep in mind that the integrated learning that happens by using the recommended resources is likely to provide a much better and more interesting education.