Curriculum Choices

Most often, when you select a method of homeschooling, you are simultaneously narrowing down your curricular choices. About the only time you can get around this is when you choose a literature based curriculum–and that’s mostly due to the nature of literature.  When you combine methods, you can often widen your options.  As if that isn’t confusing enough, sometimes a particular curricular choice can be used profitably by more than one methodology.  Let’s try to sort things out a bit so that you can make a great decision for your family.

Let’s start with that–your family!  Every family is unique, filled with equally unique individuals.  It follows then that the curricular choices you make for your family will not perfectly fit another family.  In fact, very often, the curricular choices you make for one child in a family won’t be a great match for another child in that same family.  Sometimes, you can work around that; other times, it’s better to scrap that particular thing and try something else. The trick is figuring out which way to go!

Several years ago there was a 6-month long e-course called Homeschooling A, B, C’s that led the new homeschooler through a series of weekly lessons sent via email to help someone really investigate all the aspects of what homeschooling might mean to you.  I haven’t been able to find it to link it here.  Any website I found that references it has broken links and the original domain is for sale.  The author was Terri Johnson and she went on to create Knowledge Quest, so maybe she repackaged it.  Even if she no longer produces that course, she DOES have some amazing maps and timelines available for history and geography!

You don’t NEED to take a course to figure out what curriculum you want to use.  You could just buy whatever your friend or sister uses and hope it works for you.  (Not the best way to do it, btw.)  Or, you could obsess about the decision so much that you never make any decision.  (Again, not an ideal answer.)  You could try one thing this year, another the next, and so on , hopping from one thing to another until something clicks. (Once again, not the best way to do this!)  Instead of any of those, try this.  Don’t buy anything right now.  Yes, that’s right.  Don’t buy anything.  Just let yourself BE for a bit.  Give yourself time to think–at least for a short time. You may discover that you want to design something yourself, at least for a few subject areas.  You may also decide that you want more direction.  Whatever you decide is fine, so long as you make the decision after having given it some consideration.  Hopefully, these pages will help!

You can go about considering curriculum from the perspective of what’s best for the children, what’s best for the teacher, what’s best for the budget, or what’s best for all of that combined.  Do you remember that old story about how you can have any two things but not all three out of the following choices: good, fast, inexpensive?  A good choice that is fast won’t come inexpensively.  A fast choice that is cheap probably won’t be good. An inexpensive choice that is also good won’t be fast.  Basically, you get what you pay for and you will pay one way or another, whether with your money, your time, or your sanity.  Taking the original question a little further, do we REALLY want to do what the children want ALL the time?  Of course not, just like we wouldn’t want anyone to eat ding-dongs every meal of the day for days on end.  Then again, is it wise to JUST use what appeals to our own personal likes and interests? Most people would say that the reasonable thing would be to consider each facet as we make a decision regarding curriculum.

One way to think about this decision is to think about it in terms of what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen if we were to go with X?  Now start listing all the possible things that could go wrong.  After you do this, look them over with an objective eye and ask yourself what the possible ramifications of those things would be.  For most things relating to curriculum, there is not going to much of a life-altering downside.  Even if, say, your son were to graduate from your homeschool and head off to college only to discover that he needs to take a remedial math class or two, the worst part of that is that he has to pay for two more classes than he originally thought he would have otherwise. I say this to help you realize that you will make mistakes!  You will buy things that sit on the shelf and get dusty.  You will yell at your kids and someone is bound to cry at some point of time. On the flip side of what seems to be a whole lot of angst, you will also do a lot of things right. You will buy things that are great and get used so much that they get worn out eventually. You will forge some strong bonds with your kids and you will have lots of great moments that turn into wonderful memories.

It’s going to be hard to choose things that work for your particular variety of people in your home, but for the most part, you can look to general preferences as a guide.  Whether you believe that learning styles are a “thing” or not, everyone has ways that they prefer to learn new things. Some people like to watch someone do it first then try it themselves. Other people like to listen to someone and write down what they hear as they are listening. Some people can read about something and then do it.  We all fall somewhere on these intersecting lines. What’s more, various curriculum choices also fall into similar categories.

Years ago, back in the dark ages when I first started homeschooling, there were few options.  There were only a handful of providers and a few catalogs to choose from.  Nowadays, with the Internet, your choices abound to an extent that I sometimes wonder how anyone can make a reasonable decision and thoughtful choice!  There are just so many options available that it can be mind boggling. If you can, and if you have the time and funds available, attend a local or state-sponsored homeschool fair so you can look at things.  If you are unable to go, connect with a local support group and ask folks if you can take a look at what they use.  They may make you come to their house to look things over, and they may not let you borrow things, especially if they just met you, but sometimes just getting a good look at something is what you really need. If that doesn’t work for you, you can certainly download samples of just about everything under the sun.  Worst case scenario: buy something, have it delivered, look it over, and return it if it just doesn’t work. (Just be sure to read the return policy for each company before purchasing!)  Chalk up the mistakes to on-the-job training.

I have just one caveat on the whole idea of something not working: You really do have to give something a try before you can decide it doesn’t work for you.  If you don’t give something a go, using it as intended, you really can’t say that there is something wrong with the curriculum. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between the teacher and the student that a particular curriculum choice exacerbates. Sometimes trouble with a curriculum means that a particular thing won’t work for you right now.  Other times the thing can indeed be a bad fit for your family for one reason or another. That doesn’t mean that this particular curricular item won’t be perfect for someone else. We homeschool moms can be insecure enough, please don’t feed into that by tearing down another person’s choice!  (I know I’ve been guilty of this on occasion, so be kind to yourself as well!)

You may be wondering what I mean by the word “disconnect” in the above paragraph.  A disconnect between the teacher and student usually stems from a clash between two people’s individual preferred learning modes. Someone who is highly distractible may not be able to handle a page with lots of colors and informational text boxes; whereas, someone who is easily bored might find that to be just the thing to stimulate their inquisitiveness.  The reverse can be just as true!  To check to see whether this is an issue for you or not, take a look at a few different Usborne books. Some of them are wonderful, while others are too much–for me anyway.  One of my kids thought they were perfect.  Another thought these books were OK but only if I sat there and pointed to each text box one at a time, then turned his attention away to some discussion before once again looking at the book. Our last boy didn’t have an opinion on the amount of “stuff” going on, but instead preferred the books that had photographs of “real” things rather than drawn illustrations.  I could accept those preferences with all three of my sons, but I still think they are a little too busy for my personal taste.  We have tons of these books though, and for good reason–they are useful reference books that my kids enjoyed.  When considering the way to get information into your students, don’t overlook media.  A well-placed movie (or video) about something is definitely worth its place in your children’s education. The same can be said for a great TED talk or other type of lecture. In fact, the more avenues you use to get information into your children’s minds, the better, because this will definitely help diminish any disconnect.

To take this idea a little further, the psychiatrist William Glasser is credited with stating that:

“We Learn . . .
10% of what we read
20% of what we hear
30% of what we see
50% of what we see and hear
70% of what we discuss
80% of what we experience
95% of what we teach others.”

What this means is that the best way to learn anything is to learn something for the purpose of teaching it to someone else, but more than that, we really should learn the thing using as many sensory gateways as we can.  While Glasser is most well-known for choice theory and reality therapy, neither of which I know anything about, he wrote a lot about education and advanced several ideas about the science of learning. What’s interesting to note is that he did most of his work in these areas before the advent of the MRI, which has been vital in advancing research about how the brain works and how learning happens.

When you consider Glasser’s quote, you can easily see how multisensory education is the way to go!  Unfortunately, not all curriculum is set up to be multisensory.  However, this doesn’t mean that something can’t be utilized in a more multisensory manner.  Often it is the savvy teacher who can take any particular curricular product and turn it into a multisensory lesson!  This is good news for those of us who homeschool using a limited budget–and who doesn’t these days?!  So, before you freak out that you wasted money on something, think though how you might be able to make it work.  Go back to your three options above (good, fast, inexpensive) and see what you could do to add whatever element is missing so that it clicks with your child.

Another integral part of Glasser’s idea is that your kids really ought to take some ownership of their education.  When they investigate things and learn about something with the intent of teaching it to someone else, they REALLY learn the lesson.  How many times have homeschool moms slaved over creating just the perfect unit study only to have her sweet children run through the stuff in 20 seconds flat and declare it boring?  Mom doesn’t think so, but that’s because she was the one invested in learning the material in order to share it with her kids.  If, on the other hand, the kids were responsible for all or even part of the lesson, the outcome would be quite different.

The best way to investigate curriculum options is to head to a convention. You can also ask veteran homeschoolers to share catalogs with you.  Another way to find out who is who is to look at the ads in homeschool magazines or on other people’s websites.  Still, one of the easiest ways to see what’s “out there” is to go to a convention.  However, before you go, because they can be overwhelming, here are a few guidelines:

  1. When you go to a curriculum fair, spend the first walk-though–the whole first morning even–with your wallet firmly closed.  Give it to someone else to hold if you must!  Gather ideas on your first pass around the exhibit hall.  BUY NOTHING!
  2. Meet some veteran homeschool friends for lunch and talk about your ideas.  Include those with kids the same ages as yours as well as ones who have gone through those ages already.  Talk about what you saw and what you need.  What did you see that you really want?  What did you see that looked great but too intimidating?  Did you see anything that you wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole?  What turned you off to it?  What made you like the things you were attracted to?
  3. Think about what you really NEED. I can guarantee that you don’t need everything.  (BTW, my husband looked over my shoulder as I typed this particular sentence and smirked, wondering out loud how I can possibly state this when we are surrounded by books and educational “stuff”!  I concede that we collected these great finds over more than two decades, so no fair pointing to all the bookshelves!)
  4. You did set a budget for what you want to spend, right? You really need to do this.  Only you can decide what is comfortable to spend on education in your family’s budget.  Don’t be surprised when this number fluctuates year to year.  This is quite normal, especially for people who do not go the “big box” route and buy different things from different vendors.
  5. Don’t pressure yourself to buy everything on your list or something for every single subject area while you are at the curriculum fair. You can order things online.  You may or may not spend money on shipping, but that should be considered to be part of the cost of doing this thing called homeschooling.  You may not even NEED to buy anything at all for a particular subject area.
  6. Think like Alton Brown does about kitchen gadgets: It is multipurpose?  You want to know that you get lots of bang for your buck when you spend your hard earned dollars. (HINT: Workbooks will rarely provide this–but they have their place. The key is to use them judiciously, which means not using them for everything!)
  7. If you can, meaning your kids are old enough to come along and meaningfully contribute to the discussion, ask your kids what they think of a particular thing.  If you have an open and honest relationship built on love and trust, they probably have an idea of what they need to work on as far as their education goes.
  8. Wear comfortable shoes!  Convention halls are not known for their cushiony flooring.
  9. Stick to your budget.  If you don’t, you’ll very likely experience buyer’s remorse and won’t use the thing you bought that you probably shouldn’t have purchased in the first place.
  10. Whenever possible, buy from people/vendors who spend their time with you because they often provide priceless pearls of wisdom while talking to you.

OK, those are great things to consider if you are headed to a curriculum fair.  What about when you don’t/can’t go to a fair for whatever reason, what do you do then?  Well, many of the above ideas still apply.  OK, you won’t walk the exhibit hall, you won’t need someone to hold your wallet, you won’t need to chat out your thoughts over lunch.  Ok, you still could do that last one!  You definitely won’t have to worry about comfortable shoes, although that too is worth considering because nobody makes good decisions when they are in pain.  The most important points will still be the middle ones, #3, 4, 5,  and 6; although, #7 still applies.  Ideally, you will have spent time thinking about what you need (#3).  Don’t think in terms of academic subject areas alone, though.  Of course, you have to DO things for core and some non-core subject areas, but you don’t have to BUY things to make all of those things happen.

Remember that the family is the ideal environment for education.  I can state that unequivocally because every other environment seeks to replace the family.  Schools seek to provide a family-like environment within the classroom, where the kids get along with each other and look to the teacher for leadership.  Businesses seek to provide a family-like atmosphere amongst their employees, where the various workers bond and work together for the good of the company.  Why seek the artificial when the real is right there?!  You do not have to recreate the school in your home.  Rather, allow the home to naturally provide opportunities for learning.

For all that I’ve been talking about purchases in this section and the previous ones, you really can homeschool with just lots of paper, pencils, pens, art materials, and a library card (or a few great subscription services to online content). Now, some folks have much better public libraries than others do.  For this reason, I can tell you with absolute certainly that you will want to buy some things!  You will even need to buy things. However, what one family NEEDS to buy and what another family NEEDS are not going to be the same. You have different children, with different strengths and different weaknesses, who are at different places in their journey.  If you are going to homeschool, you may as well embrace the lifestyle and really homeschool rather than school at home!  There is a big difference. With the one, you are trying to recreate the artificial environment of the schoolroom in your home, forcing each child into a factory-issued, one-size-fits-all box; whereas, with the other, you consider each child and craft a custom-made garment that fits all the quirks and nuances of that individual.  This a big!

Personally, I find the best way to build a personal homeschool library is to begin with a few general reference books and then add favorite reads over the years. As far as reference works go, I follow the “rule of three.”  What this means is that in an effort to combat bias–and we all have bias regarding the presuppositions that we hold near and dear–I go with three books for my own reference, then one or two references for each general level of child.  On other pages I explained that I’m a Principle Approach person, which is a subset of classical education, so there are three, maybe four, “grade levels” that I teach to my children: Primary (the kids who are learning to read and are at the lower elementary school age), Grammar (upper elementary age), Logic (middle school age), and Rhetoric (upper high school age).  This ends up being a lot of books over time!

Every classical education publisher has their own ideas about exactly where to divide the three main splits of the discipline.  Many like to divide into three intervals of four years each.   Some like two longer intervals of six years each.  These divisions are really more useful in theory than in practicality though because kids don’t follow these splits with a whole lot of consistency.  Ever notice how one baby crawls really early but another is still scooting on his butt long after some others have started to run?  Kids are unique and while there are ranges of normal, it’s important to remember that these are RANGES, not absolutes.  This is why I go by physiology rather than age or grade level.  So for me, Primary stage–which I like to use instead of the term Lower Grammar, which means essentially the same thing–would be the years when the child is learning to read and learning basic math facts.  My dyslexic kids stayed in a hybrid of Primary/Grammar stage for a long time because it takes a lot longer for a dyslexic child to learn these basic things well enough that they stick.  Logic stage begins when puberty is well under way, not before.  Between Primary and Logic, do Grammar stage things by filling their hearts and heads with all kinds of information.  Some of this info will “snowbank” until later, while other things will be useful right now.  Some publishers insist on using chronological order here, but others go with more of an inside to outside organization, and there are good reasons for both sides of this argument.  (More on this on the History Helps page.)  Once the “learning to read” stage is well underway, I begin to facilitate the “reading to learn” stage by using a content subject to help that skill set along.  By doing this, the struggling learner rapidly catches up to “grade level” without undue stress.  Logic stage works well with kids in puberty because they ask tons of questions about why this or that happens this way and not that way.  It’s the ideal time to teach them how to take hold of a subject or task and really wrestle it out.  Once the hormones calm down, we can turn our attention to refining all of this great learning through the Rhetoric stage.

There are reference books that are ideal for each of these stages. The kids really only need one reference book for each major subject area since they could use one of the others in the house.  Generally speaking, Usborne is best for Grammar stage, Kingfisher is great for the Logic stage, and DK is wonderful for the Rhetoric stage.  I also like to have a couple of overarching textbooks on hand for the upper level subject areas so we can read a quick synthesis of information on a history or science topic. I did not buy all of these all at once!  We collected them over time.  Frankly, in today’s day and age, you probably could avoid the overview reference books and use a few great websites.  We use these references and overview sources to get an idea of what we want to investigate.  They also provide any necessary background information we might need to understand the topic before we dig deeper.

Lest you think this is far too overwhelming to even consider, let me reassure you that it doesn’t have to be.  Consider the following comparison between two families with four children each, all two years apart, from 6 through 12 years old.  One family chooses a boxed curriculum with workbooks for every school subject, while the other chooses a more relaxed yet no less rigorous road. For the sake of ease, let’s just say that the Family A has 5 core subjects going on in their household, and the youngest child is learning to read. The mother in this family will quickly be turned into an administrator rather than a teacher because there are so many things going on, all on different topics.  She will have 5 subjects per day x 4 students x 5 days per week of work to oversee, explain, assign, and then grade.  That’s a lot of workbooks–and a lot of drudgery!

I’d like to encourage you to avoid that and peek in on what’s happening with Family B.  They may have two sets of workbooks going (handwriting and math only–maybe, maybe not).  All the children are studying the same thing in history, geography, and science.  They are all listening to the same read aloud story their mom is reading each day.  They are all participating in the lab experiments. They are all engaged in researching the event or the person they happen to be studying that week, except they are all doing that research on their own level.  The oldest found a wiki-type article that led to a great TED talk.  He took notes on that talk and is currently turning that into a report. The 10 year old found an encyclopedia article in the children’s encyclopedia that had a web link attached.  She followed it and found a bunch of related links that further explained the topic. She is filling in a graphic organizer with her information.  The 8 year old is talking to mom about how the people could have survived. They are in the kitchen making a meal that was typical of the time and place in question. The youngest child is playing with his action figures, setting up the guys in mock formation from what he remembered happening during the story mom read.  When the meal is simmering, mom will come back to this guy and help him read about what he’s learning.  During dinner, the children will have lots of things to talk about with their dad.

If this sounds overly simplistic, let me assure you that this is what happens on a regular basis within many homeschool families.  It also works with older students and with fewer students as well as many more.  The idea is to have everyone on the same overarching topic at the same topic but all at their own “level.” This is great for mom and dad because they only have to be thinking about ONE topic at a time, not many!  (This becomes more important the older we get.  I no longer have the capacity to multitask like I could when I was a young mother!)

To make this sort of learning happen, you need to think in terms of the overarching themes or topics you want to cover. Think of a time period and the people, the places, or the things that went on over that given period of time.  This topic will guide not only your content subjects but can also guide your language arts as well–if you want it to, that is.  If you do what this, you will end up creating at least some of your lessons.  Basically, you want your children to practice reading and writing across the curriculum using the topic at hand. Doing this means that YOU become the guiding force of the curriculum.  Remember the three things at the top of the page: inexpensive, good, fast?  Well, you will spend more time up front homeschooling this way, but far less time on the back end because you will be so actively involved with the learning your children are doing that you will know exactly what they know without having to spend hours grading.  What’s great about this way of homeschooling is that you are honing your skills as a teacher and learner while your children are doing the same.

Of course, you may be wondering how you will know what they really need to know and when those things are appropriate for them to learn them.  This can be taken two ways–there are the “early is best” folks and the “better late than early” people. I’m one of the latter.  Here’s why: When allowed to “read” their own body clock, the child will hit the developmental milestones without the parent’s interference or coaxing. Of course, this means a child without any medical conditions.  If your child is healthy, if allowed to learn to respond to his own body’s cues, your nursling will not go off to college wearing diapers, will not need a binky, will sleep on his own the whole night through, and will wean–eventually, and in his own time.  In the same way, your child will show signs of readiness for all sorts of learning endeavors if you look for them.  While many parents today don’t really know what the range of normal is for many of these educational things, fortunately there are standards in place that explain them.  I am not talking about Common Core State Standards here!  What I mean is a general framework of what sorts of educational things a normal, healthy child should be able to do around when.  My favorites are: What Your Child Needs to Know When by Robin Sampson and the two volumes from AOP that are usually used with the Weaver Curriculum (Skills Evaluation for grades K-6 and On Eagle’s Wings for grades 7-12). Another option is the scope and sequence (along with the accompanying books and other materials) from the Core Knowledge people.  These timetables, though, will have to be adjusted for any child who has any sort of difficulty, whether that be a learning disability or a more profound medical issue.  I believe that all children can learn–just not all the same things and not on the same exact timetable. This hearkens back to my presupposition that God makes no mistakes.  He knits each of us together in our mother’s wombs, places each one of us in a particular family, at a particular place and time, for a particular purpose.  We don’t always get to know why. I take comfort in that underlying design and it is my hope that you will as well.  How do you reconcile all this particular uniqueness and whether your child is where they should be?  This brings up the next paragraph: Grading.

I really didn’t want to talk about this, but I guess I have to address it.  Grades and grade levels really don’t mean much outside of a traditional school.  Seriously.  The only reason grading and grade levels are even a “thing” is because they are a way of comparing one child to another, of sorting them. Personally, I’d much rather compare a person against what he or she has already done or is capable of doing instead of against another person.  Before high school there is no real reason to award grades at all.  Even then, during high school the only reason to do so is for the transcript, which will be used to compare the student to others if he goes to college. This is a radical idea, I know, but think about it.  What reason is there for grades?  We can expand grades to mean the grade levels too, because these are also just a way of comparing one student to another or grouping like students together. When you get right down to it, these things have very little place in the homeschool.  Sure, they are useful when you want to talk to someone outside the homeschool movement, or maybe for ease of purchasing something by knowing its intended audience, but aside from those areas, we homeschoolers really don’t need to concern ourselves with them.  This is a paper I compiled many years ago when I was sorting out the issue of grading in my own mind: GRADES AND GRADING.

While I’m tearing down the grades, grading, and grade level stronghold, I may as well attack another one–homework.  Everything in the homeschool is homework!  You are better off sitting next to your child, watching where he makes mistakes, stopping him, and reteaching the lesson (especially a skills-based lesson) right then and there than you are grading a page of incorrectly done math problems another day then having to redo the entire lesson.  Time is our most precious commodity.  Don’t waste it.  There’s another great reason to correct a child immediately–it doesn’t allow the mistake a chance to root into his brain!  There are numerous other “strongholds” in the educational world that you should take a look at eventually, if only to help you really figure out where you stand as far as your philosophy of education.  If you want to look into some of them, I recommend listening to Inge Cannon’s talk about High Places.  It’s free right now and the MP3 comes with a detailed PDF that can help you sort these issues out in your mind.  Warning: The material is not only Christian, but distinctly and deeply so.  If this bothers you, don’t download it.  I feel like I’m beginning to rant now, so I’ll stop.  I may very well come back here and change this last paragraph after I think about it more!  It is not my intention to offend anyone; merely to help you understand another way of doing this thing called homeschooling, which is more about the journey than it is about the destination.

Until later–