Trail Guide to Learning

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Trail Guide to Learning

When several very talented authors create a curriculum that combines the educational philosophies of Ruth Beechick and Charlotte Mason, you know it’s worth taking a look. Designed to incorporate Dr. Beechick’s educational principles in their entirety, this curriculum attempts to guide students in building their thinking skills through the knowledge they gain, not as a separate process. The Trail Guide to Learning program is a very comprehensive unit study curriculum that incorporates reading, writing, grammar, spelling, vocabulary, science, art and more into a study of history and geography. Math is the only core subject not covered. Currently, three complete levels are available: Paths of Exploration (for grades 3-5), Paths of Settlement (for grades 4-6) and Paths of Progress (for grades 5-7). These first three levels focus on American history and are designed for the elementary grades (although they are adaptable for students at the top or bottom of each intended grade range so you could use Paths of Exploration with a 2nd grader or 6th grader). These make up the first segment of a planned complete curriculum series that will cover U.S. History (elementary), World History (jr. high), and Modern U.S./World History/Government/Economics (high school). While this review will undoubtedly be modified as this ambitious curriculum continues to be published, most of this review will focus on Paths of Exploration (POE) and Paths of Settlement (POS).

The teaching component of this program is straightforward. Two hardcover volumes house the teaching information, lessons, answers, forms, and games, while the accompanying CD includes printable student pages in PDF format. As students progress through the course, they will collect their student pages, artwork, and other projects into their Student Notebook, a permanent record of the year. Reading material and additional activities are found in the required resources. Each volume contains six units. In POE, these are: Columbus, Jamestown, Pilgrims, Daniel Boone, Lewis & Clark, and Trails West. The units are fairly discrete, and do not “blend” into each other. Each topic is covered exhaustively, however, with very relevant cross-curricular content. Units are made up of six lessons, which are further divided into five parts, or 180 daily lessons in all. The authors make a point that although the lessons are broken down into daily “chunks,” there is enough review built in (particularly on Fridays) so you can be somewhat flexible with scheduling. Specific teaching instructions are provided for students in Grades 3-5, with a different animal track symbol designating each grade level suggestion. These assignments can be easily found in each lesson, or you can view the “Lessons At A Glance” in one of the Appendices to see a whole lesson broken down by skill area and assignments, with handy checklists for completion. Additional activity ideas are also included for students at the upper or lower end of the program’s intended grade range.

Lessons are written for ease of use for both teacher and student. Although the directions are written to the student, notes in the margins are intended for the teacher. No answers are given in the lesson content, which makes it easier to share the book. Each lesson begins not with specific knowledge-based objectives, but with several “Steps for Thinking” which are the larger ideas behind the topics students will learn in the lesson. In Lesson 1 in the Columbus unit, these include: “1. Journeys are made for a reason. 2. Knowing the reason for a journey helps you understand the decisions people make along the way. 3. Planning ahead and making preparations are essential for a successful journey.” These are the ideas that should come up in discussing lesson content later on.

As you might expect from a curriculum co-authored by Debbie Strayer (author of Learning Language Arts Through Literature), language arts is heavily emphasized in every lesson. Each daily lesson segment begins with copywork and dictation, with assignments given at the three grade levels. Reading follows, with the student reading selected sections or pages aloud to the teacher. Then the teacher reads several pages from a more advanced book used in that lesson and reads the discussion questions, or the student narrates a provided assignment. Word Study, which encompasses vocabulary and spelling, is next, and typically is tied into the reading or the copywork. Again, several different grade-level specific assignments are provided. For example, in Unit 2 (Jamestown), Lesson 1, students look at words with apostrophes that they find in their reading book, A Lion to Guard Us. They’ll examine words with apostrophes, and learn the difference between an apostrophe that signals a contraction and an apostrophe that shows belonging. They also make a word list of names of people and places in their notebook and look at words that make the ‘j’ sound with the ‘dge’ combination. Throughout their reading, students will also make vocabulary cards for words that they might not have come across before. The guide stresses that these are not flash cards for memorization, but making the cards will help children remember the word and its meaning. That may sound like a lot, but remember that lessons are weekly, not daily.

Geography, history and science are well-integrated integrated into each lesson. History is naturally absorbed from the books the students read (and listen to). A related geography lesson is provided just about every day, which ties in beautifully with the unit’s topic. For example, in the Columbus unit, students learn about compasses, directional terms, globes, maps, culture and worldview, the oceans, the continents, navigation, ships, map skills, using a map key, and more. Students will also locate the places they are reading about on maps, and become aware of where they are and why this is important to the events studied. In POS, students will also study the states as they work through the curriculum.

Because history and geography often go hand-in-hand, and because the curriculum is published by Geography Matters, I had expected the geography lessons to be top-notch. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how well the science topics are related to the unit topics. Science can occasionally seem like an afterthought in unit studies, with vague assignments for the student to simply “research a topic.” Here the topics are relevant and the content is good. Looking again at the Columbus unit in POE, students will learn about science topics that directly affected Columbus’ expedition, including oceans, air and ocean currents, the sun, stars, constellations, the solar system, weather and how it relates to climate, the moon, the early history of astronomy, spices, and the senses. There are several outside resources that you will use again and again for science material, including The Handbook of Nature Study and the North American Wildlife Guide. Although much of the science work is researching and reading, hands-on experiments from The Handbook of Nature Study are also used. It is worth noting that science is not covered every day like geography, but makes an appearance about 2-3 times per week.

The later sections of each daily lesson may be devoted to writing, art, drawing or another project. Writing activities are the most frequent of the three, and include a lot of variety in the assignments. Students may write fiction based on a place or event they have learned about, use a graphic organizer to identify the parts of a story, make lists, write about something learned that day in their own words, create poetry, make a book review card, write a friendly letter, and much more. Many of the art activities combine drawing with one of the topics covered in the lesson. Art or drawing is included about twice a week, with some activities contributed by homeschool art pros Sharon Jeffus and Barry Stebbing. The Lewis & Clark unit in particular uses Sharon’s book Lewis & Clark Hands On heavily and often combines art and writing activities. Although art is covered consistently, don’t worry too much about investing in a pile of art materials – from what I can tell, you’ll primarily be using the basics (drawing paper, construction paper, colored pencils or crayons, glue, modeling clay and possibly some paint).

The final portion of each day’s lesson is devoted to independent reading. Student and teacher will work together to find a book that interests them, and the student will read for 20-30 minutes (depending on their age) and record their reading time in their Reading Log. The reading material is completely left up to you and your student(s), which offers them the chance to read other books outside of the historically-based ones they’ll primarily be exposed to.

Part 5 of each lesson is less structured, and is designed for completing any work that has not been finished, or for exploring some additional activities. Instead of assignments in each subject area, a bulleted list of activities is included, followed by several enrichment activities. In the unit on Daniel Boone, Part 5 of Lesson 4 suggests that you: review the Steps for Thinking, trace the Appalachian trail on an outline map, review the spelling words from the lesson, complete a week-long observation of your neighborhood, walk a hiking trail in a nearby park, and do a Daniel Boone crossword puzzle. Enrichment activities include researching General George Rogers Clark and making a list of facts about him, and finding a story or video about Daniel Boone and comparing it with the facts learned during the Daniel Boone unit.

There are a few things to note about this curriculum. First of all, it is written from a religiously neutral viewpoint, so it is an option for those of you ordering through charter schools. There is however a strong emphasis on good character, and many units spend some time studying the best qualities of historical figures. If you want to incorporate Bible study into the curriculum, you can either supplement your own program, or purchase Geography Matters’ optional Bible study supplement, Light for the Trail. Also, as noted above, math is not included, so you will need a separate math program. Testing is not built into the program (the student notebook takes the place of assessments), but Geography Matters does offer an optional Assessment CD if this is important to you. Lastly, there are a number of resources that are required for use with the curriculum. These are listed below. Many titles have been chosen to accompany specific units of the program, while others are used all year long. - Jess

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Ambush in the Wilderness Item #: 037915
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Boy Scouts Handbook: 1911 Item #: 032185
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Clara Barton (Childhood of Famous Americans) Item #: 006576
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Daniel Boone (Childhood of Famous Americans) Item #: 006577
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Daniel Boone, Frontiersman (Heroes of History Item #: 030558
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Drive Thru History: Discovering America’s Founders Item #: 031417
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Going West! Item #: 016194
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Good Ol’ Cowboy Stories Item #: 000620
Grades: 9-Adult
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Guns for General Washington Item #: 000677
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Handbook of Nature Study / Anna Comstock Item #: 014298
Grades: PreK-8
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Justin Morgan Had a Horse Item #: 004183
Grades: 5-8
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Laura Ingalls Wilder (COFA) Item #: 012746
Grades: 3-8
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Lewis & Clark Hands On Item #: 026968
Grades: 3-8
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Lion to Guard Us Item #: 029103
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Matchlock Gun / Walter D. Edmonds (softcover) Item #: 007136
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Meet Christopher Columbus Item #: 003163
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Munford Meets Lewis & Clark Item #: 026976
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