Blackbird & Company Literature Guides should quickly become popular as homeschoolers become familiar with them. Guides are written for well-known children’s literature, with guides and their corresponding books divided into five levels: early bird for grades 1-2, level 1 for grades 2-3, level 2 for grades 3-5, level 3 for grades 5-8, level 4 for high school. Notice the overlap for most levels that reflects the reality that children read at very different levels whatever their official grade level. You might even use some level 3 guides for students in high school!
There are from 13 to 19 guides for each of the first four levels and seven guides for high school. Early bird guides are for children who might not yet read well independently. Books selected are briefer than for the other levels, so each guide covers four or five picture books that are either by the same author or revolve around a single theme. For levels 1 through 4, each guide covers one book. Early bird guides should take about 6 weeks each to complete while guides for all other levels should take about 5 weeks each. This means that you would select a number of guides to complete each year.
These guides are premised on the idea that “the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual components of a story are inseparable.” While they teach comprehension and basic skills, they also teach children to think deeply about ideas, principles, and beliefs that motivate both the characters in stories and students themselves.
Early bird guides deal with one story at a time while guides for levels 1 through 3 break books down into four groups of chapters so that each group of chapters represents a week’s worth of work. The fifth week is dedicated to a final project selected from a list of suggestions; final projects primarily involve reading, research, and writing at upper levels and offer more arts-and-crafts options for lower levels.
Each week’s work follows a similar format in levels one through three but at increasingly challenging levels. Students begin by reading the assigned chapters. While reading or after, they complete worksheets on character development for a few key characters, the setting, and plot (what is happening in this part of the story). This is followed by a vocabulary worksheet then a page with comprehension questions. Students are then to write a paragraph (with topic sentence, supporting evidence, and conclusion) in response to a writing prompt. Pages are provided for students to compose each part of the paragraph in a rough draft. Students rewrite the paragraph into a polished piece after conferencing with their teacher. Lessons conclude with a substantial set of eight or nine discussion questions. While these might be discussed between only a student and a parent/teacher, they really lend themselves to group discussion. It might be worth gathering a group that meets once a week for only the discussion.
High school level guides are similar in many respects, but students will do significantly more writing. For example, they might be directed to write a 300-word reflection on the week's assigned reading. They will also write a literary essay at the end of the study. Instructions and models for the essay are included along with a Student Self-Evaluation form and Teacher's Feedback form. In addition, rather than provide discussion questions, the guide directs students to craft their own discussion questions "for your discussion group" each week. While this assumes a group class meeting, a student could come of with questions to discuss with a parent instead.
Each guide has a reproducible assignment checklist. A copy should be given to students so they can check themselves to ensure they have covered all elements of their assignments. Rubrics for evaluation are included.
Early bird guides ask students to draw and write. You might take dictation for some assignments if the amount of writing is too much for a young student.
No answer keys are included in the guides. Answers should be easy for Early Bird level. For levels 1 through 3, you can find “answer keys” on the publisher’s website with page numbers in the novels where answers can be found for the comprehension questions. (Level 4 has no answer keys since the guides for that level do not have comprehension questions.) No suggested responses are given for discussion questions. The expectation is that the parent/teacher will also read each book and be prepared for discussion and evaluation of written work. With five weeks per book, this should be manageable for most parents.
One of the goals of these guides is to cultivate curiosity and imagination and to encourage students to dig for deeper meaning. This can really only be accomplished well through discussion, so if you purchase these guides, do so with a plan to read the novels and fully participate in the learning process with your child(ren).
In the guides I reviewed, questions related to faith and belief in God are raised but without any denominational prejudices. Underlying assumptions that those using the guides believe in God and pray might make them difficult for non-believers to use.
Literature selections are a mix of classic and current selections such as The Courage of Sarah Noble, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Ben and Me, Because of Winn Dixie, The Magician's Nephew, Across Five Aprils, I Am David, The Mozart Season, The Book Thief, and Of Courage Undaunted. Early Bird literature includes books by Virginia Lee Burton, Paul Galdone, Robert McCloskey, and others.
These guides are, in a sense, more comprehensive than many others since they combine basic skills in vocabulary, comprehension, and literary analysis with deeper and more meaningful thinking through compositions and discussion.
Packages with the books and study guides are also available.