John De Gree has created a very interesting United States history course that can be used for students in grades six through nine. The Story of Liberty is subtitled America’s Heritage through the Civil War, and a second course will eventually cover up through modern times. The Story of Liberty centers around a textbook of that title authored by De Gree, and it also has two student workbooks (labeled Part 1 and Part 2) with corresponding teacher’s editions for each workbook.
The textbook serves more as a reader than a traditional text. Content is presented in relatively short chapters without illustrations. Other elements often found in textbooks, such as vocabulary words and questions, are in the student workbooks.
The first 11 chapters (of 66) lay the groundwork by reviewing key historical influences, spending more time on these topics than do most other textbooks. As De Gree says on page 55, “For us to understand the United States of America, we must understand the history of individual liberty as it developed in Great Britain.” But De Gree also traces further back through the influences that shaped Great Britain, beginning with Mesopotamian civilizations, the Greeks and Romans, the age of barbarians, the growth of medieval kingdoms, the Crusades, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment.
Loosely basing content on A Patriot's History of the United States by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, De Gree writes objectively about historical events while managing to convey ideas supportive of conservative values and Judeo-Christian beliefs. I realize this might sound like a contradiction, but here's an example that demonstrates what I mean. DeGree covers religious influences that have played a major role in the founding and development of the United States such as the development of monotheism under the Hebrews, the influence of Protestant ideas such as the basis of the Protestant work ethic, and the concern for education held by early settlers because they thought it so important that people be familiar with the Bible as a source of both the message of salvation and moral norms. These topics are often not discussed in U.S. history texts since the authors do not believe them to be important influences.
His beliefs in limited government and the importance of the Constitution also come across clearly. For example, he succinctly lists eight basic principles found in that document: 1. men are not angels, 2. limited government, 3. federalism, 4. republicanism, 5. separation of powers, 6. checks and balances, 7. individual rights, and 8.sovereignty of the people (p. 129). He then expands upon all of these topics and revisits them as they are supported or violated in our country’s history. For example, commenting on Andrew Jackson’s presidency on page 191 he says, “Jackson expanded the power of the president and the federal government more than any other president before him. He used the spoils system to create a large-scale bureaucracy that weakened states’ rights.”
De Gree includes interesting details not commonly found in textbooks, details likely to engage student interest. For example, when he discusses gangs in New York City in the 1800s, he describes the situation: “The Bowery Boys would dress elegantly, but would beat up and terrorize those who voted against their favored politicians. The Dead Rabbits gang excelled at robbery, picking pockets, and fighting….One female Dead Rabbit, nicknamed ‘Hell-Cat Maggie,’ reportedly filed her teeth tot points and wore brass fingernails into battle” (p. 234).
The workbooks also offer unique approaches to learning, arranging activities under the headings of classical education: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar level activities are based upon lists of key events, concepts, or people with which students should be familiar. De Gree has suggestions for games that might be used to motivate students to master this information. The logic section has reading comprehension and inference questions designed to mimic the style of questions often used on standardized tests. Multiple-choice questions ask students to identify the sentence or sentences in the text that best support their answers. The rhetoric questions can be answered in writing (three to five sentences each) or can be discussed. At least one of these questions will be good for Socratic discussion. (If you want to learn more about leading a Socratic discussion, check out De Gree’s American History DVD Discussion.) Map activities included for each chapter require labeling and answering questions related to each map.
At least a few times in the teacher’s editions, De Gree says that students should not complete every activity in the workbook. Younger students should complete fewer activities, and older students should do more. Ninth graders should read more of the primary source documents (for which De Gree provides links) to ensure that the work is demanding enough to qualify for high school credit. Whatever the situation, parents and teachers should choose the activities most appropriate for their students.
The workbooks group the sections of the book into a total of five units with a multiple-choice test at the end of each unit. However, at the end of each unit there is another valuable feature which is taken from De Gree’s Take a Stand! series. Students will write an essay taking a position on a statement posed in the book. One example from Unit 2 is “In a well-developed one-paragraph essay, defend or reject this statement: The United States of America is correct to have the Christopher Columbus federal holiday.” (Essays at first are only one paragraph, but students gradually expand to five-paragraph essays.) Activities help student think through aspects of the statement and develop their thoughts. In a classroom situation, students share and discuss their ideas, taking notes and evaluating classmates’ arguments. With a single student, a parent will need to work with the student as he or she presents and defends a position.
These sections include instruction on the writing process. Students learn how to write essays, how to develop a thesis statement, the use of quotations, how to paraphrase, and other skills. The teacher’s edition has plenty of help for parents and teachers regarding the essays, including rubrics and sample essays.
The essay writing process requires students to think critically about what they have learned and come to their own conclusions. The book assumes that students will rely on the course text for information, so it is carefully designed so that the work is manageable for students as young as sixth grade without external research and documentation. However, older students completing the course should be required to complete more of the activities using linked sources as I mentioned previously. Capable students might stretch even further, locating sources of their own for information to use for some of their essays.
The teacher’s editions duplicate student workbook pages but add overprinted answers. Reproducible tests are included in the teacher’s editions but not student workbooks. Instructional information is only at the front of the Teacher’s Edition Part 1.
I’ve been a fan of De Gree’s Take A Stand! approach for years, and The Story of Liberty now makes it much simpler to implement while ensuring that students are covering all of the required course content. The course challenges students to work through grammar, logic, and rhetoric activities, and it does so using an interesting combination of games, traditional workbook responses, map work, Socratic discussions, and essay writing. I can’t wait to see the next course in this series!