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Just Across My Fence: A Little Britches Companion Study Review by Debra BrinkmanLeanne Conner
Just Across My Fence
Just Across My Fence: A Little Britches Companion Study is exactly what it sounds like. A large spiral-bound guide has just over 150 pages of teaching for each chapter of the book, Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers by Ralph Moody. After the lesson section, the companion study includes over 150 pages of appendices, plus a vocabulary list and a recipe index. There is also a Teacher’s Guide & Lesson Plans book, which is a small, spiral-bound book with a single page outlining what to do for each of 32 weeks. The Teacher’s Guide also includes a two-page overview of each quarter, making it easy to look ahead to plan trips, recipes, books, and projects. In addition to that, there is also a companion DVD.
The books are printed on sturdy, glossy paper, and they are attractive, with beautiful illustrations and pleasing colors and boxes to break up the sections. The covers are laminated cardstock, and they have held up to our usual, rough use.
Because this is a study based on a book, it is important to know a little bit about the story. Ralph Moody tells about his life in a series of books. Little Britches is the first, where the Moody family moves from New Hampshire to Colorado in 1906 when Ralph is eight. Ralph’s father is not in good health, as working in the wool mills of New England has given him Wool Sorter’s Disease. Colorado’s climate was thought to be good for a variety of lung diseases, so the Moody family heads west to help Charles recuperate. Approximately fifty years later, Ralph wrote a series of books telling the story of their adventures starting a ranch and adjusting to life in Colorado.
A major spoiler, which I do think is important for parents to know, is that Charlie does not survive, passing away in the last chapter of the book. Ralph, as the oldest son, becomes the man of the family, which is the title of the second book in the series.
This study covers a variety of subjects, and I do believe that this could be the basis for most of an elementary student’s schooling. While there is some math included, a separate math program would be needed. Other possibilities, depending on the student, would be spelling, grammar, phonics, and a foreign language.
My students are older, in seventh and ninth grades when we began, and we have used it more as a source for Colorado history. It has not replaced much of our regular coursework. We are not doing all the activities. For instance, in Week 1, we did complete activities about the legal description of the land (sections, townships, and ranges) and compared those labels to the land around us. We even got the eleventh grader involved in this part. However, we did not design and color our own saddle, cowboy boots, or horse.
I hesitate to try to describe a typical week with this curriculum as they do vary quite a bit. In the weeks past the introduction, Monday is devoted to vocabulary and reading the next chapter in the book. There is often some reading in the guide as well, and sometimes a brief activity. The rest of the week involves reading the guide, checking out an appendix or two, and completing activities. Most weeks include at least one cooking activity, as there are one hundred recipes listed in the recipe index. There are also book suggestions and trip suggestions. On Fridays, there is a vocabulary review.
A recent week had us reading Chapter 11, Haying.
- Monday, we looked up vocabulary, including words such as windrows, hoosegow, and groggy. In addition to reading the chapter, we also made Haytime Switchel, “a 1900s version of ‘Gatorade.’”
- Tuesday involved reading in the guide about soap, which was fascinating. Instead of making the simple hard soap in the book, we made soap with a melt and pour base.
- Wednesday had us making a soft soap, reading about a lunch meal, and making oven-roasted beef, beef gravy, and biscuits for dinner.
- Thursday was an embroidery day. We did read about flour sacks in Appendix Q, but we have not done the embroidery project. We may still add that in.
- Friday included reviewing vocabulary and cooking another meal. This time, it was fried chicken and gravy, mashed potatoes, and vegetables. We chose corn on the cob and made it on Sunday night instead of Friday.
Looking ahead to the third quarter, which we should be starting soon, shows that we will be doing things like comparing the prices the Moodys paid for supplies to what those supplies would cost today. We will research Ringneck pheasant. The guide suggests interviewing a prison chaplain, but we will be talking to someone we know who engages in prison ministry. There are literature assignments such as reading Hamlet and reading poetry by Whittier. So, you can see that there is math, economics, literature, science, home ec, practical skills, and more.
There are a few things I really like about Just Across My Fence. One big one is that Ralph is a very real kid. He disobeys, he acts selfishly, he makes mistakes, and he makes bad choices. We often see the consequences in the story, and the curriculum always points out character issues, often bringing us back to the Bible and a Bible Concordance.
The cooking projects are wonderful. We are trying to get back to some basic foods, and to using far less processed junk. The shopping list I mentioned in the third quarter included the supplies they would need for the winter, and was primarily staples such as flour, corn meal, sugar, salt, and rice. It also included raisins and Baker’s chocolate. They are growing, raising, or hunting some of their food too, obviously. This means that those hundred recipes are primarily using very standard ingredients. We are learning to make biscuits, flapjacks, rolls, and dumplings. We are feasting on roast turkey, stew, or baked beans. We treat ourselves with various pies, fudge, or popcorn.
The guide does sometimes indicate that a certain project is better for older students. My one quibble with these materials is that I am never quite sure what age they are targeting. Personally, I think this is ideal for around fourth to seventh grades, though it is easy to adapt for other ages. This is a great study for multi-age households as it is easy to adjust and to work together as a family.
When we finish this study, I do plan to continue with the Little Britches series as a family read-aloud. With the inspiration from this study, we will continue to cook our way through the books, continuing to rely on Just Across My Fence when possible, and having the kids research new foods.
I would recommend this for families in Colorado especially, but I also recommend this to anyone who would like an introduction to life in the western United States in the early 20th century. Little Britches is a fantastic book to “just” read aloud, made even better with these well-organized study materials.
-Product review by Debra Brinkman, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, August 2019