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Living Books Curriculum Grade 5 Review by Jennifer Harrision

5497 S. Gilmore Road
Mt. Pleasant MI 48858

Last week, my son said something I've always hoped to hear: "Mom, I finished my book a week early. Can you give me some more?" The book he spoke of was a children's biography of Annie Oakley. Though he was able to narrate back many details of Ms. Oakley's life, he wanted me to find more books about her because he was still thirsty for more. Coming from my reluctant reader, this was music to my ears.

The book came as part of the 5th-grade package from Living Books Curriculum. The package included many other amazing books that we have fallen in love with this past semester. In addition to the great books, my son has fallen in love with poetry, classical music, and fine art. We avoided these subjects like the plague before we discovered Living Books Curriculum. My son only enjoyed reading if the book had a Star Wars character on the cover. His entire attitude toward learning has dramatically changed this year.

Living Books Curriculum is based on the principles of a Charlotte Mason education. Charlotte Mason's philosophies rest on the knowledge that children are people and that their minds feed on ideas. I have watched my son's mind thrive for the first time since we began this new journey. He has become so curious about the world around him, he has started carrying a notebook with him to write down his many questions--questions that didn't begin until the 5th grade!

The school day begins with Christian Studies. This is taught primarily by reading directly from the Bible, several chapters per week from both the Old and New Testament. World History and Christian Studies overlap through biographies of heroes of our faith. Students are encouraged to keep a literature journal of these heroes, which makes a wonderful resource to treasure.

Math and Foreign Languages are the only subjects not provided with the package. This is due to the uniqueness of each family using the material, each needing to cater to their student's particular needs and styles. A section is provided in the Teaching Guide for parents to write in these and any other courses.

Language Arts became a new adventure for us as we explored the world of poetry and storytelling like never before. The spelling book was set aside and was replaced with a greater awareness of the words we used in our dictation and written narrations. Some of the poetry was downright painful for both of us. I have never had much exposure to poetry, and some of it was like a new language to me. Together, we worked our way through unfamiliar portions, coming to appreciate it more for the effort. My son memorized his first poem, "Lord Randal," and shared it with friends and family.

The Grammar portion of Living Books Curriculum was a new experience for us. Heretofore, we have adhered to a Classical Education. Though the two methods are similar in many ways, grammar seems to represent the biggest difference in the two philosophies. Modern Charlotte Mason enthusiasts maintain that grammar and spelling skills will develop through exposure to high-quality literature and the practice of dictation and copywork. It is a gentle approach that works for many. For others, it can be overwhelming to be left wondering where to start. Some of us, particularly families with more than one child in school, need a little more direction with our studies.

To help with this, Living Books Curriculum recommends a 3-book series called Intermediate Language Lessons by Emma Serl. Part Two, which comes with the 5th-grade package, is quite different from the grammar textbooks to which we were accustomed. Students are gently led through the process of examining writings just as the Charlotte Mason method suggests. In this case, the writing is provided for students as well as prompts and assignments. In one lesson, students read a short story by George MacDonald and are then prompted to examine the piece for quotations and punctuations. Students are directed to narrate the same story, use vocabulary words from the story in sentences, and to write lines from the story from dictation. I was pleasantly surprised at how effective these gentle lessons seemed to be. Other lessons didn't have quite the same impact for us. Some brought up a topic or a picture and asked students to answer questions. These topics and pictures ranged from biology to history and were not always easy to answer. The purpose is to help students present their ideas logically and clearly. However, if the student has not studied the human body or the story of the Pilgrims, he or she is to put the grammar lesson on hold and go and research the new topic. There is nothing wrong with learning more than grammar with a grammar lesson, but some of these seemed too unfocused to be effective. Also, the lack of an answer key could be frustrating for parents who do not have a solid grammar background. It must be said, though, that the text is full of rich quotes and excerpts from outstanding authors, which could benefit any education.

In contrast to this method, the Classical Education frequently studies grammar with quality textbooks, treating the subject as one of the "disciplines", as Charlotte Mason called them, which provide exercise to the "intellectual muscles." The textbooks are undoubtedly meatier, but not necessarily as rich as the gentler method provided in Intermediate Language Lessons. Good arguments could be made for both approaches. Regardless of preference, you do not have to use the recommended grammar in order to enjoy the many benefits of the package.

Science for 5th grade includes health and biology as well as physics. Lessons overlap beautifully throughout the year, and Leonardo da Vinci is prominent in several subjects through Art, History, and Science. Each week, my son can't wait to dig into his book, Amazing Leonard da Vinci Inventions You Can Make Yourself. His older brother, who has his own science lessons in another book, hurries through his lessons so that he can join his brother in recreating Leonardo's inventions. The lessons come to life for them with experiments that are easily made with regular household items and minimal input from mom.

History is presented in two tracks, with World History and American History each presented at the same time. This multi-stream approach to history does not seem to confuse students at all, particularly when accompanied with a timeline journal. World History, in the 5th-grade package, focuses on the Renaissance and Reformation. It overlaps with Christian Studies through biographies of heroes such as Erasmus, Martin Luther, and William Tyndale. World History also has a core book, called The Awakening of Europe by M.B. Synge. Though there was nary a Star Wars character in the book, I caught my son reading ahead in it several times. American History focuses on the late 1800s and early 1900s, with excellent books that cover such topics as Frontier Life, Immigrants, and the Panama Canal. Reading materials for these topics are primarily non-fiction, something my son used to find boring. The book selections with this package draw readers in and allow them to become intimately acquainted with figures from history.

Music Study, Nature Study and Picture Study are the lovely extras that I always intended to incorporate, but never seemed to get around to actually doing. Living Books Curriculum makes it so simple to sit down and spend some time appreciating these worthwhile subjects. For Music studies, students read about great composers and listen to great pieces of music. Picture Studies are even easier to complete by simply looking at specific portraits as different artists are discussed. None of these lessons takes very much time, but they foster a love and appreciation of the Arts that would otherwise be missed. The truth is that they are not "extras", but are in fact integral to an education that is alive and inspired, that relates to the world around us.

Geography is taught with an excellent book entitled Mapping a Changing World as well as a practical incorporation of other lessons being taught. Students trace the journeys of characters in their books, use maps to locate where prominent people lived or events occurred, and create their own maps of real and imaginary places.

The Teaching Guide organizes all of these lessons by weekly, rather than daily, assignments. For some, this is an ideal arrangement. For others, a daily approach can still be achieved using the printable resources on the accompanying Resource CD. After adjusting to the weekly assignments, I still had some struggles. The Teaching Guide is sometimes vague with reading schedules. One subject might tell me to read a specific chapter or pages, while another simply says to "Continue reading" the assigned book. Reading is done in small sessions, and books can span for several weeks. This open-ended approach left me unsure whether or not we were on target with our reading. What if he read too fast and we had weeks before another book was added? What if he read too slowly and had another book assigned before he had finished the first? A chart to guide me through these reading selections would have been helpful. As it turned out, my son finished reading Handel's biography a full month before the next book was assigned. He had been reading it daily; we realized that once a week would probably have sufficed. However, this issue is not meant to be such a dilemma. The student should read at the pace that suits him. The idea is to savor the books, not just read for the sake of finishing. Ultimately, we opted to allow our son to read another book during this scheduled reading time if he happened to finish a book before the Teaching Guide presented another.

The Teaching Guide provides a Flex Week after each 8-week quarter. This Flex Week acts as an assessment opportunity through narration questions. I was amazed at how much my son had learned and retained in those eight weeks. He had exclaimed throughout the quarter that school seemed so much easier than it had before we began Living Books Curriculum. I was beginning to worry that it might be too easy and that he wasn't really learning enough. Instead, this assessment week confirmed to me that learning is easy and natural when it is alive and relevant. Let me assure you, gentle does not mean weak.

The price for the entire kit is $525.00. The Teacher's Guide makes up $75.00 of that price. Several of the books in the kit will be used again in continuing grades. The prices for individual books in the kit match or beat the most inexpensive prices I can find elsewhere. The high price tag stems from the sheer quantity of books. If this price is too high, and you do not mind not owning your books, you could obtain many of them through the library system instead. For me, $525.00 is a lot of money to invest in curriculum, but I can honestly say that I think it is a fair price for the quality of the materials. Living Books Curriculum stands behind its materials so well that it offers a 12-month, 100% refund policy on all books and materials, less shipping costs. Living Books Curriculum also has a reputation for excellent customer service. Their staff is happy to advise on best-suited grade levels and choices for teaching multiple children. Their website also provides a forum which is very active and can be a great source of encouragement and wisdom for parents using this method.

If you are curious about the Charlotte Mason method and Living Books Curriculum, be sure to sign up for the free Get-Acquainted Sample Pack at Also, Charlotte Mason's original writings are available to read online at

Product review by Jennifer Harrison, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, March 2010