Torchlight is a literature-based, secular curriculum for pre-kindergarten through second grade. The approach is very eclectic with hands-on and experiential learning, integrated topics, real books, and some traditional academics. It has elements from classical, Charlotte Mason, and unit study approaches, although it is too eclectic to fit neatly into one of these styles.
Torchlight has philosophic underpinnings that are not dependent upon traditional religious beliefs. As they say on their website:
Torchlight takes a distinctively secular Socratic-inspired approach with Humanist underpinnings. Torchlight supports the Golden Rule, kindness, exploration, questioning, and scientific thinking. A worldly approach full of logic, equality, and empathy. Equality is one of the tenants we venture to exhibit throughout this curriculum.
Literature is used extensively, and books are chosen to promote the attitudes that Torchlight hopes to foster in children. The curriculum is determinedly secular. As they state on their website: “We work hard to look for the finest quality books without any religious influence.”
So Torchlight can be considered a secular program since it does not promote any recognized religion. However, it addresses worldview topics from a humanist perspective─questions having to do with ethics, morality, truth, values, the existence or non-existence of gods, and other foundational issues. So, I can’t say that it is religiously neutral since it fosters a secular humanist worldview by addressing many of the same questions that lie at the heart of traditional religions.
The four levels of Torchlight available thus far are:
- Level Pre-K: Curiosity and Character
- Level K: Worldly Wisdom
- Level 1: Myth and Magic
- Level 2: Logic and Legend
Torchlight teaches literature, science, art, social studies, and other topics such as emotional intelligence. Aside from the Torchlight Level Pre-K course, which includes pre-reading and early math skills, the other courses all recommend that you add math, reading, and writing programs from other publishers to use alongside Torchlight. For language arts, they recommend the Logic of English Foundations program for Torchlight's Levels K through 2 along with the Logic of English companion program Rhythm of Handwriting. RightStart Math is recommended for Torchlight's Levels K through 2, and Beast Academy is an additional option recommended for Level 2. These programs are not scheduled into the Torchlight lesson plans.
While each course is labeled with a grade level and should take one school year to complete, most of these courses can be used across more than one grade. Their suggested age range is listed for each one below. Torchlight’s focus on the humanities and science makes this practical since those subject areas do not need to be studied in a particular sequence. Once past Level Pre-K, you can choose math and language arts programs that suit each student no matter which level of Torchlight is being used.
You will need the Torchlight teacher’s manual for whichever course you choose. (These are available only in PDF format.) Supplementary files come with some of the teacher’s manuals, and some levels have optional, add-on files. Each teacher’s manual has a list of books and other learning resources such as CDs or MP3 files as well as a list of supplies needed for the year. Books and resources that will be used throughout the year are identified so you can decide which to buy and which to borrow. These are lengthy lists! Alternative books are suggested if you don’t want to use a scheduled book for any reason. Also, additional books are suggested for further exploration of particular topics. Many books have an audiobook option that you might want to use for variety’s sake or to better meet the needs of audio learners. A separate book list file is included for each level to make it easier to keep track of books you plan to use.
The bulk of each teacher’s manual consists of weekly lesson plans. Each week begins with a chart showing activities for the week, brief notes for the parent or teacher (called the learning partner), and a list of supplies. Following these are pages for each day with specific notes indicating pages to be read in a book, activities to be completed, and optional activities. Most of the time, these notes are minimal, but they occasionally add discussion questions, a heads-up on important topics, or activity instructions. Extension options are shown on the pages for each day’s lesson. Most of the book-based lessons can be used with little preparation in advance—just quick reference to any notes that might be in the lesson plans. For Level 1 and above, you might also pre-read a brief Literature Primer near the end of the teacher’s manual (described under Level 1 below). Of course, artwork and hands-on science will take more prep time than the reading and discussion activities will.
Occasional weblinks are included within the lesson plans. Even if you print out the teacher’s manual from the PDF file, you will probably want to still use a digital version so you can easily use the weblinks.
The teacher’s manuals encourage Socratic discussion and other interactions with children that help them think, make logical connections, predict, and ask their own questions. Torchlight encourages in-depth exploration more than most programs for pre-kindergarten through the early elementary grades.
The appendices in each teacher’s manual are critical. They vary from course to course, and they might include discussion questions for books to be read, poems, alternate schedules, or printable resources. The appendix resources are described for each level below.
These courses use many books, so there is a great deal of reading. However, the teacher’s manuals encourage parents to adapt the curriculum to suit the needs of their children. They suggest using audiobooks to take advantage of time spent in the car and reduce the read-aloud time. Torchlight also has many hands-on activities and multi-sensory learning opportunities such as art projects, craft projects, and science experiments. In addition, each course includes a project that is compiled throughout the year, a piece at a time.
Torchlight incorporates one additional component that is a little unusual: Pantomime Poetry. Children come up with their own body motions to associate with a poem, then they learn the poem simultaneously with the body motions. The idea is that "cross-body" motions enhance learning and memory retention. As is explained in the teacher’s manuals, Pantomime Poetry can be introduced to pre-kindergartners, but some children will not able to do much of it for a few years.
Torchlight offers an interesting alternative for those who do not want a program based on traditional religions. There is a lot to like in the design of the curriculum. While there are many books and resources to gather, the lesson plans make it very easy to coordinate their use. And for those who don’t like to stick to the lesson plans, Torchlight suggests alternatives and encourages flexibility. I noted occasional grammatical errors in the teacher’s manuals that were sometimes glaring enough to require me to re-read sentences a few times, but that’s not surprising given the ambitious nature of this program and the short time it’s been in existence.
Level Pre-K: Curiosity and Character (for ages 4-5)
Level Pre-K: Curiosity and Character helps children develop academic readiness skills such as recognizing numbers and letters, learning to count, and learning the sounds of the letters. A game near the end of the teacher’s manual should be used to reinforce letter and sound recognition. If you have children ready to go further with reading, you can begin working with Logic of English Foundations.
Level Pre-K also has a primary goal of helping children develop emotional intelligence—e.g., becoming aware of feelings, understanding the nature of friendship, and developing empathy. To that end, you will read aloud books such as A Whole Bunch of Feelings and Breathe Like a Bear: 30 Mindful Moments for Kids to Feel Calm and Focused Anytime, Anywhere. You will also use the I Heard Your Feelings set of flashcards with their questions.
Another unusual feature in a pre-kindergarten program is that it helps children develop the habit of inquiry as they learn to ask questions, make connections, and discover answers for themselves. Science lessons also reinforce the habit of inquiry as children learn about nature and a broad range of science topics through hands-on activities, observations, books, and discussion. Activities involving both fine and gross motor skills, art, music, and poetry round out the curriculum.
There are two inexpensive add-on files you will probably want to get for Level Pre-K: the Torchlight Mindful Moments Badge Pack and Torchlight Math Inquiry Tables. The Badge Pack is used for emotional intelligence lessons. The Torchlight Math Inquiry Tables is a 49-page book that provides the bulk of math instruction. It teaches math concepts with hands-on activities, read-aloud books, visual aids, and activity pages. This book requires quite a bit of preparation─gathering children's books, gathering materials for hands-on activities, and printing out and preparing items from the book. While I really like this approach, it might be too much work combined with the rest of the course. If so, you might use lessons selectively; just do as much as you are able. Remember that this is pre-kindergarten, and children still have plenty of time to develop math skills.
Level K: Worldly Wisdom (for ages 5-7)
Level K: Worldly Wisdom focuses on world cultures, stories of great men and women throughout history, character building, and science. Poetry, art, music, and cooking are also included, but you will need to add math, reading, and handwriting resources from other publishers.
Using the Torchlight Student Book, Level K: Worldly Wisdom that comes with the teacher’s manual, students will work on a year-long project, called Global Connections. This 116-page book has activity pages, map work, and cutouts. After children learn about the people, places, landmarks, food, festivals, geography, and animals in the different regions of the world, they will write a travel article. Of course, parents might help students with the actual writing as needed.
Level K and above include Geography Inquiry lessons. Three pages in the teacher’s manual present geography questions to use throughout the year as prompts to help children begin to understand geographical locations, climate, oceans, rivers, landforms, modes of transportation used, diet, and the clothing worn by the people. For example, using a globe, the learning partner helps the child answer this series of questions: “Where is ____ compared to our home? Is it north or south on the globe compared to where we live? Is it closer from the east or west of our home?”
Level K and above also add a two-page Question Reference Guide that you will probably want to print out and keep handy. This guide helps the learning partner implement inquiry-based learning by presenting questions that help children think beyond the simple comprehension level. For example, one possible question that might be asked in regard to a character in a story is, “If you were ____, would you have done anything differently?”
Level 1: Myth and Magic (ages 6-8)
Stories from mythology are used with Level 1 to teach about history, cultures, and social norms in both historical and modern settings. The idea is that as children grow in their understanding of other cultures, beliefs, and customs, they will learn empathy and tolerance. Critical thinking is taught as children learn to distinguish between fact and fiction as well as through other avenues. Science for this year focuses on the human body, ecosystems, and climate change, but children at the upper end of the age range can be given more-challenging material from R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey or units from Be Naturally Curious.
Along with the teacher’s manual for Level 1, you get PDF files for Our Book of Myths and My Vocabulary Spell Book. A year-long project using Our Book of Myths is jointly created by the student and the learning partner. This project involves reading, creative writing, and art as the child comes up with his or her own myth and develops different aspects of it in progressive writing assignments. The project has an interesting twist: the student writes the beginning of each creative writing assignment, and the learning partner finishes it. The student illustrates aspects of the myth with a drawing or other form of artwork such as sculpting with clay. Leading questions in Our Book of Myths help students flesh out the details. All of this is based on the patterns of pagan mythology. For example, “You will create a god or goddess that represents each of the two landforms and/or [a] waterway you chose” (Our Book of Myths, p. 6). This level also teaches children to differentiate between fiction and non-fiction, in effect, teaching children that myths are not true stories.
Level 1 and above include what the publisher calls Literature Primers at the back of each teacher’s manual. Every scheduled literature book has its own Literature Primer; these are generally a page or two long. Each Literature Primer includes one or two sentences explaining Torchlight’s intent as to why the book is included in the curriculum and possible concerns about the content of the book. They also list vocabulary words and a collection of questions and comments that will help the learning partner discuss the content and ideas in the book. For example, for the book The Hundred Dresses, there are notes that will help the learning partner lead a discussion about bullying and teasing based on events in the story.
My Vocabulary Spell Book is intended to be used three days a week for vocabulary and spelling. On each of the three days, students complete a worksheet for a word they choose from a vocabulary list in the scheduled story's Literature Primer. (They use the identical worksheet each time.) Students will fill in blanks with the vocabulary word, prefix, root, and suffix as is applicable. They will write what they think the word means, then look it up and write the actual definition. Next, they will draw something that reminds them of the word’s meaning. Lines are provided for the student to use the word in a sentence and write synonyms and antonyms if applicable. Finally, at the bottom of the page, they will choose one of six activities that address different learning styles. For two of these activities—Vocabulary Bingo and Letter Scramble Spelling—you will need to print and prepare pages at the back of My Vocabulary Spell Book to make bingo boards and letter tiles.
Level 2: Logic and Legend (for ages 7-9)
In Level 2: Logic and Legend, Medieval history, legends, and stories of actual great men and women are all used to teach history as well as cultural understanding and social norms. As with previous levels, lessons focus on character building, empathy, and values. Some of the scheduled books are used to explore topics such as friendship, love, loss, grief, and homelessness.
Science topics revolve primarily around earth science, the environment, and energy, but they sometimes branch into other areas. For example, students learn about the biology of disease when they study about the plagues of the Middle Ages, integrating science with history.
Geography is linked to the books students will be reading (or listening to). Students will work with a globe and maps, and they will be introduced to Google Maps and Google Earth.
Level 2 includes brief quotations near the end of the teacher’s manual that are from the scheduled children's books. At this level, children will learn to identify nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in these quotations, highlighting them with different colors. The quotations can also be used for copywork or dictation. The Know Nonsense Guide to Grammar is used to expand coverage of grammar.
Along with the teacher’s manual for Level 2: Logic and Legend, you receive PDF files for Becoming a Bard, Vocabulary Spell Book, and 11 files labeled Appendix A through Appendix K.
Becoming a Bard, a year-long project, helps children become storytellers and develop writing skills. My Vocabulary Spell Book has children identify roots, prefixes, and suffixes; write definitions, antonyms, and synonyms; and learn how to use a thesaurus.
The appendices are a collection of graphic organizers, focused lessons for writing, a teaching page for “Elements of the Fairy Tale,” and other items that are each just a few pages long. However, Appendix G: Level 2 Maps is a 34-page collection of reference and blank maps, and Appendix I: Hypatia Evans - A Medieval Mystery is a 42-page story that is used beginning in the twenty-fourth week.