Why We Chose Trail Guide to Learning for Our Charlotte Mason Homeschool
Several years ago, I was struggling to keep up with homeschooling my two oldest children. We were using a traditional textbook curriculum because that is what I was familiar with and I was very pleased with the academics.
The problem, though, was that I had a very hard time motivating my children to sit and do pages and pages of worksheets.
It was very time consuming, and since I was simultaneously dealing with a chronic illness, I just couldn’t keep up.
I knew something needed to change, and I began to observe what was going on so that I could determine exactly WHAT needed to change.
I knew my children loved to read (every spare moment!) and they loved to put into practice what they had read.
They were constantly telling me what person from history was born on this day or how they had read about how to make a sundial or showing me constellations in the night sky. This was nothing they had learned in school. These were all things they were reading!
I decided that I needed to harness that love for learning, but in a more organized fashion.
I began the hunt for a curriculum that was based on good books, and preferably one where I could teach all of my children at once in order to save precious time.
That is when I discovered the Charlotte Mason philosophy of learning. I really fell in love with the concepts and I knew that this philosophy of homeschooling was just what our family needed.
At first I pieced together my own curriculum, using living books we already had in our library. We all enjoyed homeschooling so much more!
But there was a still a problem.
I still couldn’t keep up.
Planning lessons every single day was just taking up too much of my time and energy.
So I searched (and searched and searched and searched). I had an entire spiral notebook filled up with notes about various curricula.
I found lots of options for curricula that were based on living books, but there was always something that was just a tiny bit off.
And then I found Trail Guide to Learning.
Based on living books? Check.
Can teach multiple ages and grade levels at once? Check.
No extra planning or prep for me? Check.
It had everything I was looking for – and then some!
If you’d like to take a look inside, you can watch this video:
Trail Guide to Learning weaves together the educational philosophies of both Charlotte Mason and Dr. Ruth Beechick. Although I was not familiar with Dr. Beechick’s philosophy of education before using this curriculum, I can see why the marriage of the two philosophies works so well for my family. I love Charlotte Mason’s ideas about short lessons, about habit training, and about living books. And I love Dr. Beechick’s philosophy of placing a strong emphasis on learning to read in order to learn more about the world around you.
Here are 10 reasons I chose Trail Guide to Learning for our Charlotte Mason homeschool:
1. It is based on historical, living books
We used the Paths of Exploration curriculum this year, which was divided into 6 individual units:
- Daniel Boone
- Lewis and Clark
- Trails West
Each day there is a read-aloud as well as independent reading from a book that goes along with the unit theme.
There is copywork and dictation based on the day’s reading. Once copywork and reading are done, the day’s studies move into additional subjects such as spelling and vocabulary, geography, science, and art.
Each subject is built around the historical topic currently being studied. For example, when learning about Christopher Columbus, science lessons would teach about astronomy and how Christopher Columbus used the stars to navigate his ships.
Weekly spelling lists are created from the reading.
Geography lessons are based upon the places where the historical events took place.
And so on.
When my children read living books, learning comes alive for them. They begin to put themselves in the shoes of the person being studied, and everything they learn is like being on a historical adventure!
If I tried to make my children do an isolated lesson about constellations, they may find it boring, but if I put it into a larger context it’s much more interesting. They think about how Christopher Columbus needed to know where the north star was and they eagerly point it out to me when we’re outside at night.
Collecting and identifying some of the plants the Jamestown colonists would have encountered
2. I can teach all my children at one time.
This is HUGE for me!
Since my children are all two years apart, we had been doing a sort of one room schoolhouse approach already. I would focus our lessons on the oldest child to make sure he stayed where he needed to be. His younger sister would pick up a good bit of what he was learning, which pretty much kept her about where she needed to be too.
This year we added a kindergartner into the mix, which meant that I would have fourth grade, second grade, and kindergarten all going at the same time.
There was NO WAY I could teach all of those grades separately. Kindergarten is especially labor intensive.
Trail Guide to Learning is created specifically for teaching multiple ages at once. Each day’s lesson has the main lesson that you teach, and then separate assignments that are a little bit easier or harder depending on the age of the student.
The notebooking pages come with varying levels of difficulty so you can print whichever is most suitable for each child.
These worksheets were both done on the same day by 2 children on different levels.
And this year they added a Junior Extension, which meant my 5 year old could do the same lessons as my 2nd and 4th grader too! He LOVES the lessons!
Sometimes he has different books to read and different activities to do for a particular lesson, but I have been able to work on those with him while his older siblings are doing their notebooking pages or their independent reading.
You do need a separate reading curriculum for the Juniors. Trail Guide to Learning recommends Learning Language Arts Through Literature. I am not personally using a reading curriculum for my kinder. Since I’ve already taught two children to read, I am comfortable teaching him on my own without a curriculum.
Multiple children doing school at once (along with a few visitors!)
3. I don’t have to prepare any lessons.
The teacher’s guides are laid out in such an easy way to follow! I don’t really have to do any prep work at all, although I do like to look over the lessons ahead of time just to get an idea of what we’ll be doing.
One book is for the main levels and one book is the Junior extension. The sections in each book are divided up the same way so that I can easily compare the two.
I also print the notebooking pages as we go rather than printing them all at the beginning of the year. Sometimes I feel that my kids have a great handle on something already and don’t need to spend extra time on a certain notebooking page. In that case I don’t use up the ink and paper to print it.
4. I can purchase everything I need at once.
Some of the literature based curricula I looked at required a lot of individual books (as does Trail Guide to Learning.) The difference with some of them, though, was that I would be expected to acquire each of the books from the library as we needed them. As terrible as this sounds, I do not take my children to the library, though I do have good reasons for not doing so. The main one is that with 5 small children and a chronic illness, I simply cannot manage to do so without causing too much stress on my body. Instead, I scour thrift shops for living books and have created a rather large library of our own, which I believe has partly contributed to my children’s love of reading.
Part of our home library, divided up by subject so that we can easily locate any supplementary books for the topic we’re currently studying.
One time I tried purchasing all the books I would need for a certain curriculum since the library was not an option, but the time I was spending to track down each book was simply too much.
When I found Trail Guide to Learning, it was a huge relief to see that I could purchase everything I needed all at once and be done with it.
Paths of Exploration books
Junior Extension books
5. Once I have purchased the set, I can re-use it over and over.
Since the curriculum is based around actual books rather than workbooks, I don’t have to worry about the materials being consumed.
I got the notebooking pages as a digital download that I store on my computer. I can print as many pages as I need to. When my babies get older and start school themselves, I will be able to print more pages for them without having to worry about paying for anything else.
One thing to note is that if you ever re-sell your curriculum, you cannot sell the digital resources. The copyright is issued specifically to you and is for use only with your own family.
6. We can do as little or as much hands-on learning as we like.
If you have hands-on learners, there are plenty of suggestions for additional activities to complement your book learning.
However, the hands-on activities are not really imperative, which is a relief on days when I’m feeling overwhelmed and don’t feel that I could possibly add anything else to our day. I’ll be honest and say that we often skip the hands-on activities, although many times I find the kids creating their own version of hands-on learning anyway. Re-enactments of the early colonists, lego models of historical structures, and works of art depicting something they’ve learned frequently show up around our house.
You can also purchase lapbooks as an add-on to the curriculum. We opted not to do this (because they are just too stressful for me!) but if your children have different learning styles, they may benefit more from some of the lapbooking activities than they would from the notebooking pages. Having options to suit your children’s learning styles is a big benefit of the curriculum.
7. There is a day built into each week specifically for catching up.
This is one area that shows this curriculum was designed by homeschooling parents! Clearly they understand the struggle to keep up with school work amid housekeeping that must be done, errands to run, and fussy babies to calm.
If something has to go undone one day, there is no reason to stress! Do as much work as you can the first four days of the week, and the fifth day is designed to complete assignments that didn’t get done. If you have everything finished already, you’ll have the day free to choose from a number of suggestions for supplementing the unit in a fun way.
As I said before, fitting in hands-on learning is overwhelming to me, but if I have an entire day free without other school work to accomplish, I can give my children those opportunities more often than I would otherwise.
8. The curriculum has a major emphasis on developing thinking skills.
Throughout the curriculum, questions are constantly being asked.
“Why do you think the character did this? What did he learn from his experience?” and so on.
Although I was not familiar with the philosophy of Dr. Ruth Beechick before using this curriculum, I’ve learned that thinking skills were one of her main emphases.
I am in complete agreement that children need to learn to think!
Sketching an interesting bug they found so they can research more about it
9. The lessons are short and do-able.
When I was learning about the Charlotte Mason philosophy, one of the first things I learned was about the idea of short lessons. Although I won’t go into the whole philosophy right now, I will say that this idea completely transformed our homeschool!
I bucked it at first, thinking that I was only catering to my children’s laziness by not making them focus for a longer period of time. But as I learned more about habit training and how short lessons actually help develop the positive habit of attentiveness, I found that short lessons were the way to go! School lessons turned from pulling teeth to having children who willingly did their work – even the work they didn’t like. Although it seemed counter-intuitive at first, my children learned exactly what I wanted them to learn – to discipline their minds to work diligently!
The lessons in the Trail Guide to Learning curriculum are all short lessons, but packed full of juicy learning. My children’s attention is held long enough to engage with the lesson but not so long that their minds become fatigued.
Each subject flows smoothly into the next.
My toddler listens to the lessons as long as she can sit still, and then she may choose a book or activity from her special bookshelf.
10. Trail Guide to Learning is extremely affordable, especially compared to other literature based curricula that I have seen.
Some of the curricula I compared was completely out of my price range, although it didn’t seem to include anything more than the Trail Guide to Learning does.
Others were closer in price, but I would have had to track down and purchase so many supplementary books that the additional cost added up significantly.
There are several purchasing options for Trail Guide to Learning, all of which are cost effective.
You can purchase the complete set, or purchase just the teacher guides and locate the other resources yourself, or perhaps you can find the teacher guides used and purchase just the additional resources.
Which Trail Guide to Learning curriculum should you choose?
We used Paths of Exploration, which is specifically designed for 3rd through 5th grades. However, it is easily adaptable to work for 2nd through 6th grades. Combine it with the Junior extension and you can include kindergarten and 1st grade in its scope. The Middle School Extension will further expand the curriculum to work for students through the 7th grade. Even if you have a wide range of ages, you can educate children from kindergarten through 7th grade all at one time!
After Paths of Exploration comes the Paths of Settlement course, which is designed for grades 4-6, but adaptable for use with grades 3 – 7. An extension pack is also available for more advanced students.
Next in the Trail Guide to Learning series comes Paths of Progress, designed for grades 5 -7 and adaptable for use with grades 4-8. A high school extension is available for students in grades 8 and 9.
The first three levels are all based around American history. The next level, Journeys through the Ancient World, begins a new series. It delves into ancient history and is appropriate for grades 6 -8.
If you are new to Trail Guide to Learning, you should start with Paths of Exploration if you have students within the grade levels that are covered in it.
Since Paths of Exploration is what we used this year, I will base the remainder of my information on it.
What subjects does Paths of Exploration cover?
- Paths of Exploration covers every subject except for math. You will need to choose and purchase your own math curriculum.
- You will need to purchase the Bible supplement from Trail Guide to Learning separately. We opted not to use the Bible supplement and used a different Bible curriculum instead, but I am wishing I had just used their Bible supplement because it integrates with the rest of the curriculum.
How long does the school year last with Paths of Exploration?
- Trail Guide to Learning is a 36 week curriculum. It is divided into six, 6-week units, including: Columbus, Jamestown, Pilgrims, Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark, and Trails West.
How long does a typical school day last?
- We try to start school by 9 and stop for lunch at 12. By that point we have finished all of our Paths of Exploration work as well as our math and Bible. The kids may have a couple more notebooking pages or independent reading to finish up after lunch, but otherwise they are free to explore the outdoors, help me cook supper, or find something else productive to do.
I suppose reading in a tree is considered productive!
What does a typical school day look like with Paths of Exploration?
We usually do our Bible curriculum and our math lesson first, and then we jump into Paths of Exploration. The kids start out doing a copywork page. The older kids do theirs on their own while I help the little ones learn to write their letters.
After that we move to our read-aloud. The kids all listen while I read the day’s passage and then we discuss it afterward. My kindergartner also has a separate read aloud just for him that is included in the Junior extension.
After we read we move to the word study portion of the day. This might be learning a new spelling rule and finding words throughout our reading that follow that rule or it might be discussing the meanings of the words or some of both.
Next, we study grammar. This is honestly the only part of the curriculum I dislike. I learned grammar in a certain “order” and that is how it makes sense to me to teach it. But because the curriculum is based on the books we are reading, we have to extract whatever principles of grammar were in our reading portion for the day. This means that there is not as logical of an order to what we’re learning as I’d like. For instance, maybe my kids have learned all about how to write a friendly letter but they haven’t yet covered the proper uses of there, they’re and their. I’m sure that for the kids it’s actually better this way since it correlates with what they’re reading and what they’re doing on their copywork, but it is still difficult for me to make myself teach things all in the wrong “order.”
Usually there will be some sort of writing assignment. This is to help them both with their thinking skills as well as their writing abilities. This is probably my children’s least favorite part of the day, but thankfully the assignments are not too long. As they improve in their abilities, I will give them the more advanced writing assignments.
At some point in the day we will have a geography lesson. This lesson will correspond to what we have read for the day. We will locate places on the map and the children might have a notebooking page to complete or a map to draw or label.
A couple times a week there is a science lesson. The science portion is where a lot of the hands on activities come into play. We have built a trebuchet while learning about Leonardo da Vinci. We have built a sundial outside. We have explored our backyard and identified various types of plants and animals. I love that my children can learn something while being able to run around and have fun at the same time.
We also do art once or twice a week. I love that the art lessons are also integrated with the rest of the curriculum. I am not artistic at all and therefore have never really enjoyed art and have been fearful of trying to teach it. However, learning art with a bigger purpose has made it much more enjoyable.
One of Christopher Columbus’ ships
Throughout the day, my kindergartner does all of the activities that correspond with the older children’s activities. He learns the larger portion of the day’s lessons right along side his older siblings, with age appropriate notebooking pages and activities included for him in the Junior extension. The grammar, spelling, and independent reading need to be done separately since he is still just learning to read. Usually he will sit quietly with a coloring page during the older kids’ lesson, and then I will teach him his reading lesson while the older children work on their notebooking pages.
On days when I’m feeling too poorly to sit and do school with my children, I take about 10 minutes to write all of their assignments on the board. They are more than capable of completing an entire day’s worth of schoolwork on their own, as well as helping their little brother with his learning too. Although this situation isn’t ideal and would most likely create learning gaps if you made this a regular practice, it has been absolutely wonderful to know that my children can complete a full day’s worth of school without any help from me. It is a lifesaver some days!
As I mentioned earlier, once a week we have a catch-up day where the kids finish any outstanding projects from the week and where we do some fun extra’s that correspond with that week’s topic.
Studying an eastern box turtle
I have honestly fallen in love with Trail Guide to Learning, and I don’t plan to switch from it for a very long time, if ever. I really want to get the word out about it because it is such an amazing curriculum for overwhelmed homeschool moms who need to consolidate things a little bit.
I guarantee that your children will love it as well – most children would choose running around outside or reading the exciting adventures of explorers over completing tedious worksheets any day!
The folks at Trail Guide to Learning are offering my readers a coupon for $15 off the complete Paths of Exploration package.
Go this page to view the complete package and use the coupon CHFEXPLORATION when you check out to get $15 off.
Disclosure: I was provided with the Paths of Exploration curriculum free of charge to facilitate this review. However, I purposely requested to review it because I think it is such an awesome resource for homeschool families.