Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Review: Illuminations for 3rd-8th grades

I posted an overview of Iluminations yesterday, and today I'm going to focus on how the 3rd-8th grade level is working for my family.

Illuminations 1 from Bright Ideas Press, is one of the newer programs on the homeschool market.  It includes history, related literature, and a host of other subjects.  We used (or at least tried) quite a bit of the program.

This post is my second installment of the review.  Tomorrow, I'll be posting about the high school level.

The 3rd-8th grade program really feels like the heart of the program.  I know Mystery of History was originally designed to be used with roughly 4th-8th grade students, with options for younger and older learners.  Illuminations seems to follow that pattern, with the bulk of the program going for that 3rd-8th grade level... with options for younger students, and additional things for older students.  As a result, the program is working great with my family.  Technically, I have three students in the 3rd-8th grade ages, and two younger.  However, my 7th grader is working at a high school level in many/most areas (including using the high school literature in Illuminations).

What I am finding for my 3rd and 5th graders is that the history assignments are just about perfect.  It is nice to have fairly short readings in history, and to flesh them out with the literature.

The literature choices have been excellent for both of these boys too.  I read aloud all of the titles (those intended as read-alouds, and the read-alones and optional titles).  Most of these books are coming from a Christian perspective, though there are a few exceptions.

The geography portion has been excellent too.  Most weeks include having us read a bit from the book, and then the kids mapping things out.  Instead of the maps included in the book, we've been using a Mark-It Map we purchased from Sonlight.  The kids are loving it.

The humanities section is terrific.  For instance, one week we read about storytelling, and the storytelling traditions from a number of different parts of the world.  There was a discussion about various versions of the Cinderella Story, so we checked out 6-8 different books, read them, and made up our own chart as we went.  The guide also encouraged us to look at the various 'flood myths' and compare and contrast them too.

The copywork section includes three selections per week.  Each selection has suggestions for younger students.

The Early Learners have a schedule page of their own.  Much is identical to the 3rd-8th grade material (history, geography, humanities).  Some is an easier version of the same type of thing (science).  And some is completely different (literature, Bible).  We chose not to do separate Bible.  We are using the literature.

The literature is a nice mix of easy material that goes along with what the older guys are doing, and just good stuff (like the 20th Century Treasury of Children's Literature or Winnie the Pooh).  There are a couple suggested books dealing with Jewish holidays, and I make everyone listen to that.

I love that the Early Learners schedule helps me to put into perspective what I ought to be expecting of my younger two, and they are getting a lot out of what we are doing.

I'm not going to go through all of the rest of the portions, as the above is more the heart of the program.

But let's talk about the study guides.  Each of the read-aloud, read-alone, and a couple of the optional literature titles includes a study guide.  Some are little more than schedules (mostly the read-alones).  Some have far too much content for a family to possibly use without extending school to every waking hour.  For an example of that, let's look at The Golden Goblet.

This guide has five pages of introductory material, which is for the teacher to read, and to decide whether or not to share with the student.  This includes an overview of things you will need and the assignments, a cast of characters with brief descriptions, lists of plants, animals and foods that may be unfamiliar, and a chart of Egyptian gods.

Then you get into the detail.  The first day, you read chapter 1.  The study guide includes 56 vocabulary words (with notes about how there are a ridiculous amount of vocabulary words in this book, and suggestions to keep the vocabulary review to 3-5 minutes).  There are 10 different places to look up on a map (broken down by student age, so your younger students are not looking up as many).  There are some discussion starters, including a discussion on foreshadowing.  High school students are encouraged to do research on the Coptic calendar, with six questions to be answering.  There are "clever sayings" that my kids really enjoyed.  All of the above is to do before you read... and you watch for the various things as you read the chapter.  Having specific things to listen for really made a difference for Thomas, but after a couple chapters, he was hooked regardless.

After you finish the chapter, there are more suggestions, including creating your own clever saying, eight questions about the reading (which vary nicely -- some comprehension, some analysis, some getting into literary terms), and some hands-on activity suggestions, including a Lego model of the setting, using cheesecloth and dirty rocks to mimic washing the gold sweepings, and drawing a scene or character from the first chapter.

Clearly, you cannot do all of that.  Especially with as long as the chapters of this book are!  But it is nice to have so many options available.  I do have to say this was the most overwhelming guide.  Most of the study guides are more manageable, with a few vocabulary words, a few discussion questions, and a few options for hands-on activities.

Which I guess brings up one issue I've had.  The pacing is a bit uneven.  It's kind of nice in a way, but some weeks are very heavy (like week 3, when we were read 9 LONG chapters of Golden Goblet, the 119 page Mummies and Pyramids, and 79 pages of Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt) and some weeks are really, really light (like when the read-aloud is two chapters of Ruth, the read-alone is the 47 page book The Trojan Horse, and there is no optional title).  I know that some of this is to give you a chance to catch up, but that is a different mindset for me.  I find myself taking an extra week to catch up, only to start the next week with a really light schedule, and being upset with myself because I could have caught up without taking a break.  I need to learn to look ahead more.

Overall -- this is fantastic for my middle group.  It is easy to pick up and go, with minimal prep needed from me.  The level is appropriate.  We just need to add more reading to most of the weeks (but we have had to do that with everything we have done in the past).

Downsides:  all of the provided materials are on the computer.  I like that, but if you need hard copies, you will be doing a fair amount of printing.  As mentioned before, you are getting mostly one point of view on history, which may be an upside for you.  As I mentioned yesterday, the humanities materials are not complete yet, though hopefully they will be available as I need them.  Bright Ideas Press has done quite a bit of work in this level, and at this point, the bugs seem to have been worked out.

I am very happy with this program.  It is painless to use... the materials work together well, and we are enjoying it, and learning.

I hope to use Illuminations 2 next year, as we own Mystery of History 2, and many of the other resources used.  I'm not sure though if we will continue past that, when I'd have to be purchasing the history text in addition to the Illuminations plans and schedules and some of the books.

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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DDO said...

I was a beta tester for Illuminations 1 and am currently using Illuminations 2 (Early Learners and 3rd - 8th). It is a fabulous program! The Golden Goblet is by far the hardest section of year 1. However, it is the exception, not the rule. There are two additional things I'd like to point out. One is the ability to drop or change a subject. This program is very flexible. Two, the schedule can be customized to fit your family.

Debra said...

Thanks for visiting! You are right, and I probably didn't make that clear... from everything I've looked at, the Golden Goblet weeks are by far the most intense. And that book is well worth it, I think. It's one I would have added in if Illuminations didn't use it.

I love the flexibility -- the ability to adjust, move, drop, whatever..