Monday, January 11, 2010

Review: Illuminations - an Overview

Somewhere near the top of my Top Ten List of Review Crew items so far this year, is Illuminations 1 from Bright Ideas Press.  (Yes, I'm keeping track as I go, and yes, you will get to see it at the end of the year!)  However, this isn't a review I want to write.  It is just so BIG, and there are so many different aspects to it, and most people don't really know about it, and did I mention it is BIG?????

So, I'll be writing multiple posts.  I'm starting with an overview, and I'll try to keep my opinions fairly brief.  Then, I'll write specifics about the lower level.  Finally, I'll write specifics about the high school level.

What is it?  Illuminations is a fairly all-encompassing homeschooling program that uses Mystery of History as its spine (and future levels will use All American History too).  In addition to history, numerous other things are scheduled:  Bible, family read-alouds, books for various age groups to read, grammar, writing, spelling, vocabulary, copywork, science, geography, humanities, Life 101 (high school), and maybe I'm forgetting something else.  You don't have to use everything.  Edited to add:  in fact, it is really, really easy to skip what you want and substitute what you already love.  You can even edit the schedule grid, so it is all in one place. 

The "heart" of the program is the history, with literature mostly being based on the history.  The rest doesn't necessarily tie in to what you are studying in history and reading in literature, but sometimes it does.

There are two different products.  One is for 3rd to 8th grades, with an Early Learners schedule attached as well.  The other is for high school.  I have children using all three levels.  Connor (7th grade) is using much of the high school content.  William and Thomas (3rd, 5th) are using the 3rd-8th grade materials (with most everyone listening in), and Richard (K) and Trina (preschool) are using the Early Learner materials.

During our trial of this program, we got through roughly 1/3 of Illuminations 1.  We tried MOST of the materials, though not all.  Subject by subject:
  • Bible -- we followed the Bible schedule for 3rd-8th, and high school (they work well together), but did not use the Early Learner's schedule.  This had us reading beginning in Genesis (Mon-Wed), and in Proverbs (Thursday).  Connor had additional assignments on Friday.
  • History -- we followed this schedule, which consists of using Mystery of History 1
  • Literature -- we used the Read-Aloud schedule for everyone (though high school schedules only some of them).  I read aloud the 3rd-8th grade Read Alone titles, with everyone sitting in on most of those.  I read aloud the 3rd-8th grade optional titles if I could find them (mostly I could).  Connor did the high school literature.  And I read the Early Learners literature to whoever wanted to listen (which was usually, well, everyone)
  • Grammar -- we chose Winston Grammar, at the standard speed.  For all three big guys.  The high school guide has them work through Winston at a faster pace.  I just could not be in two different places in the program, and honestly grammar is something Connor has done a lot of already, so a slower pace didn't bother me
  • Spelling -- we tried using Natural Speller, but it didn't really click, and we had so many spelling options for Crew reviews that we dropped it
  • English from the Roots Up -- we tried using this too, but ended up going back to our weird combination of Vocabulary Vine and Roots and Fruits
  • Copywork -- this is scheduled for 3rd-8th grades, so William and Thomas used it
  • Geography -- this uses The Ultimate Geography and Timeline Guide, and we are using it for the three older guys.  My early learners listen to some of it, and we play a bit with maps.
  • Hands-On Humanities -- using the included Young Scholar's Guide to the Humanities.  Oh, we LOVE this and are all using it
  • Supplemental Resources -- we are using some of the video suggestions, particularly the Drive-Thru History recommendations.  
What we aren't using:
  • Writing -- they have a couple of options, but we are not using them.  There are writing assignments in the literature and history sections, and we do some of those.
  • Science -- they schedule Christian Kids Explore Biology for 3rd-8th, which we do not own.  Early Learners has activities that relate to what the 3rd-8th graders are doing.  
  • Life 101 -- this is scheduled for high school, and we don't own any of the materials.  I decided that since Connor isn't actually high school age, I was not going to worry about it.  Resources include Precepts: Covenant, Boy Meets Girl, Discovering God's Way of Handling Money, and Homeschool, Highschool and Beyond.
  • Supplemental Resources -- a lot of Diana Waring's materials are included.  I'd love to be adding them, but we don't own 'em
A few comments.  Illuminations is billed on their website as being practical, fun and affordable.  For practical, they list things like it being built on a 4 day a week schedule, which really is not generally true.  Fridays are generally much lighter, but certainly not without any assignments.  For high school, Fridays are nearly as full as the rest of the week.

Let's look at the week I am doing now -- week 11.  For 3rd-8th grade, on Friday they are scheduled to do three chapters, plus activities, in the current Read Aloud (Adara).  They are to do a summary project in the read-alone (Chinese Wonder Book).  They are to do an activity relating to the optional literature (Why Snails Have Shells).  There is a copywork assignment.  And there are some video suggestions on King David.  Most weeks, there are actual reading assignments in the read-alone and optional literature books, this week it is "just" activities.

And affordable?  Well, that will depend on your family.  What I received (the download version of both levels) is $240.  That does not include the actual books you will be reading.  I already owned quite a few, and I have an incredible library (and some truly incredible friends), so I did not have to make additional purchases.  Quite a few of the titles are very difficult to find at the library -- I was fortunate with those friends.  But -- this is for my entire family.  And I should be able to use it over, with kids doing a different level.  I can totally see using this again when my kids are roughly in 11th and 9th grades (they'd do high school level instead of 3rd-8th), and in 6th and 4th (they'd do the 3rd-8th instead of Early Learners).

What is included:
  • the schedule, in a nice grid, that you can edit.
  • Study guides for all of the Read-alouds, Read-alones, and high school literature selections.  There are study guides for one or two of the optional titles too.  (I discuss these more later.)
  • a study guide for using the geography book that is really great.  I've owned the geography book for YEARS and we have NEVER succeeded in using it.  This year is different.  We are using it.
  • The Young Scholar's Guide to Humanities.  At least parts of it.  This is a work-in-progress, and it currently goes through week 18.  If you are getting Illuminations now, I'd feel fairly confident that you would have the humanties portion as you need it.  I'm not positive I will.
  • There are also individual guides for many of the other books, including copywork selections, guides for various grades for Natural Speller, and more.
There are a couple of real draws to this program for me.  The biggest is that I am using it with all of my children this year, and it works out pretty well.  The history reading is the same for everyone, it is just the activities that differ.  Having everyone on roughly the same page is amazing, and it is what we have been doing since we started homeschooling.  This was the year that became difficult.  Illuminations has again made it possible.

The family read-alouds are totally appropriate for everyone too, even though the high school level only schedules some of them.  We are a reading family.  My goal is a couple hours of read-alouds per day.  Illuminations does not provide quite enough for that (and we're reading all of the 3rd-8th and Early Learners literature aloud), but it is a good start.

I love that I am able to have everyone doing geography and humanities together.

I love that most of the time, Connor is doing literature that relates really well to what everyone else is doing too.  Our family discussions are fantastic.

Last week, we:
  • Finishing Exodus and reading parts of Leviticus and Numbers
  • Read about Samson, the Zhou Dynasty and Samuel in history
  • Read the book of Ruth as our family read aloud, with great study guide questions and notes
  • Read Chinese Wonder Book, which is basically Chinese folk tales (and the ebook is included in Illuminations)
  • Read Why Snails Have Shells, which gives us more folk tales, plus some history of some of the minority groups in China today
  • Learned about modification (adjectives and adverbs) and prepositions
  • Learned about South America in Geography
  • Humanities was a lesson on symbols and symbolism, with activities to include designing a shield, researching symbolism use in a particular ethnic or religious group, and learning about the symbols used in Catholic and/or Orthodox churches
  • For early learners, we read D is for Dancing Dragon, a story from Stories from Around the World, and a chapter of Winnie the Pooh
  • Started The Iliad for high school literature (using Spark Notes, and an online version of the story, both links included), with a terrific Study Guide
  • Copywork included a Bible passage, an excerpt from Why Snails Have Shells, and an excerpt from a book about the Zhou dynasty

My overall opinion?  I am thrilled to have this, thrilled to be using it.  I will likely continue on to Illuminations 2 for everyone.  It is so easy to pull together, and have everyone together still.  We have enjoyed, if not loved, the literature choices.  It is incredibly flexible, and I love being able to customize the schedule pages.

I think they have integrated the history and literature very well.  If Mystery of History appeals to you, only you wanted some reading to go with it, this could be your solution.

The downsides?  The program is very new.  Right now, you can only purchase Illuminations 1 and the first semester of Illuminations 2 (the second semester was supposed to be available this past week, but isn't yet.  I'm sure it will be soon.  Update:  As of 1/12/10, the full year of Illuminations is available for purchase.)  And some of the things are still being worked out, especially in the high school level, or with the humanities program.  I don't tend to like being in the guinea pig stage.   I also don't like not knowing if what I'm using is going to continue to be available as I need it.  I think I'll be okay, but I don't like not knowing.

You are also getting virtually all of the history from roughly one perspective (some of the literature does get into other perspectives, but much is still from an American Protestant point of view).  If you are starting now, you shouldn't have to wait for new levels.  If you are starting in the fall, you should be using materials that are fairly debugged.  I have some qualms about the high school level, but I'll discuss those in a couple of days, so if you are looking at that, stay tuned

And you can check out what my fellow crewmates have to say about various Bright Ideas Press products at:

Any questions? I'd love to know what you would want to know in deciding whether or not this is something you want to purchase.

Disclaimer:  As part of the TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I did receive Illuminations for Grades 3-8 and for High School for free from Bright Ideas Press.  The fact that I received a complimentary product does not guarantee a favorable review.  It does guarantee a review. A fair review. But I am not going to praise something unless I think it deserves the praise.  If I don't like it, you'll hear that.  And hopefully with enough detail as to why so you can decide for yourself if what I hate about it makes it perfect for your family.  For more about my take on reviews, visit my blog post here.
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Heather said...

Great review! It is really interesting to see how you are using the program.

Debra said...

Thanks Heather! We are enjoying using it. I just wish I could talk about it in under 50,000 words...

Dixie said...

"English from the Roots Up -- we tried using this too, but ended up going back to our weird combination of Vocabulary Vine and Roots and Fruits"

I am interested in knowing how you use Vocabulary Vine and Roots and Fruits together.

Thank you,