Friday, April 24, 2009

Homeschool Curriculum Choices: A Stream-of-Consciousness Analysis

So in the last week, I've gotten a message asking me to share how I chose curriculum, a message asking me what I think of the Classical education approach, and a message asking about how we investigated the various curriculum options. So, in this one post, without a ton of editing, bullet-points, or linkage, and while not-so-subtly showing off some recent pics of my family, let me just lay out what we did to get to where we are today-- happy & comfortable with the curriculum we use and the results so far.

Initially, I read a lot and asked a ton of questions... anything I could get my hands on and anyone I could talk to. I went to Mardel and scoured the curriculum selections they had. I sat in Barnes & Noble and scanned basic principles from a variety of homeschool, parenting, & education books. Considered the homeschool families I had known and asked questions, of both the parents and the children... what curriculum(s) they had used? How did they like it? What was it like? What are the benefits of the books they used? What did they do for science? Did they add in electives? Etc.

In doing that, for example, I learned that Saxon math is heavy on drillwork & review, and learned that Math-U-See is a very hands-on popular math program. I heard, from the kids, what they thought their particular curricula was strong in, and what they didn't like. From formerly homeschooled young adults, what prepared them for college and real life, and what didn't. I realized that some curricula are workbook-based and get consumed by each child, so you have to keep re-purchasing them (perhaps less expensive on the front end, but more expensive the more kids you have), and that others use books to educate (perhaps more expensive on the front end, but less expensive as you spread those costs out to multiple children).

[*** I should say that later (after we made our curriculum selection), I was fortunate to join an online forum that Sonlight hosts with thousands of other homeschool moms where I can ask questions, glean from those who are further down the road, and learn from the mistakes & successes of others. It is a real blessing and has contributed greatly to my sense of ease and confidence in the choices we make.]

Then I thought back to my own growing up years in public school. Engaging teachers in the elementary years. A fairly good enrichment program. No real science (except for observing tarantulas my 5th grade year) until 7th grade. Once we reached junior high, we got boring, hodge-podge history without any real chronological/geographical "flow". And where there was flow, it was presented in a way that could bore even a history buff to tears.

Good math, but the value of each year, and what was learned & retained, was often entirely dependent upon the teacher. Good elective options. A lot of phonics. Grammar. Worksheets. Sentences memorized (and soon forgotten) for T/F tests. Mostly US history, some Texas history, virtually no world history.

Personally, also, I had the tendency to be overlooked by teachers because I wasn't a problem child behaviorally and could fake it through tests and essays, even without Cliffs Notes. Sad to say, I often did minimal work-- except in areas of interest (which for me, was drumline, vocal performance, and government... and the occasional paper on Jane Austen). So I got good grades, but rarely felt challenged. Needless to say, from this experience & background, I determined that one of my aims is to provide a more tailored and engaging curriculum that will draw in the hearts and minds of our children.

So I investigated homeschooling as our oldest son reached ages 3/4-ish. Somewhere along the way, after hearing about classical education, Charlotte Mason, unschooling, workbook-based, computer-based, DVD-based, and other options... I came across Sonlight. For us, this was it! A curriculum that has a Christian whole-world perspective. Excellent books. They even tell you a list of valid reasons why NOT to buy their curriculum, so that you go into the experience educated and with your eyes open as to what you're getting. No monotonous drill work or a stack of worksheets for subject matter that ought to be fun and interactive... history, literature, bible, social studies... these things are all studied by reading excellent books together with your child. Particularly when children are young, learning ought to be a delightful experience.

Here's an example of learning history through good books, from our Kindergarten year-- Instead of memorizing the dates, places, and people of WWII, or doing a word find, or coloring a page with pictures of parachute men, we read an engaging, award-winning historical fiction novel written at a level he could understand about orphans living in an orphanage on the French countryside. Together, we experienced and discussed WWII through their eyes... learning about ration cards, Nazi soldiers, the scarcity of things like oranges and chocolates, where the Alps are, the role that clergy and people of faith played in assisting the Jewish people. These are all concepts that we discussed together and were not only grasped, but retained, by my then-5-year-old because we looked at the war in an emotionally-engaging way rather than through a coloring sheet or a list to memorize.

Now, I should say that this curriculum is not for everyone. We all have different backgrounds, we all come with different values and aims... but I will say this: Sonlight consistently brings educational materials to my child that are worth using. The books they choose, and the way they present them (in the context of the historical chronology) -- it just makes learning fun. And that is one of my top aims with my younger, elementary-aged children. When my children are young, I want a few simple things for them-- to sense and see a real dependence on and dependability of God, their Creator... and to delight in learning about the world He made. I would consider it a huge failure and a real tragedy if I took the precious little curious minds God gives to young children and squelched that natural desire to learn and grow and explore and engage with the world.

Hear me: I am not saying that ALL other methods do this. I am simply saying that for me, and for our children, I believe Sonlight is the tool that allows me to best fan the flames of curiousity and inquisitiveness that are necessary for a lifelong inclination towards learning.

So, maybe you are a young mom looking at homeschooling. Contemplating. Wondering if you can. Wondering how you'd even do it, and what it would look like if you did. Here's what I suggest: talk to as many people as you can. Glean wisdom in what to do as well as what not to do. Talk to moms who have kids like yours-- maybe you've got a late-talking girl or a boy who can't sit still... talk to moms who have homeschooled kids like these. See what they did... if they waited to get started, if they did school in between backyard playtimes, how they handled the practical things.

Then start to look at curriculum options. Some moms are really keen on making sure they cover every single topic of a scope and sequence and don't want to even unintentionally miss anything that they "should"... so they might enjoy the predictability and confidence that can come from using a workbook-based curriculum. Or a DVD instructor. Or computer, internet-based courses (generally for older children)

Some moms want to dive deep into ancient languages, teach according to "classical" education methods, or study topics in a pre-arranged, methodical order. There are websites and books devoted to those kinds of homeschools.

Some subscribe to a philosophy of child-led learning, where the mom maybe insures a constant continuum of progression in math and grammer, say, but lets the child's interests determine what kinds of things they'll study and then design a curriculum around that for each stage. (For example, if your daughter is really into birds, doing a study on the sciences involved in birds-- the physics of flight, the biology of their structure/etc, reading books like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"-- ok that's a joke, but reading bird-themed books, writing papers/journal assignments about birds, drawing birds, feathers, nests for art work, etc.)

And then I've already told you about book-based studies like Sonlight. There are other companies that do this same sort of approach also.

And then each homeschool family adds their own flair. Some people do unit studies and go bonkers over Egypt for 6-20 weeks. Some use the "extra time" gained in homeschooling to pursue advanced studies in fields of interest (horse lessons, piano performance, internships, community college/college level courses while still in high school years, etc.). The possibilities for a personal configuration of your homeschool are endless.

All that to say, it can seem overwhelming. But something that helps me with homeschool curriculum is something that helps me with life in general... once I find something that "works", something that fits, something that I feel that God has led me to, I don't go looking for something different unless prompted by Him or unless significant problems arise. I'm not the gal scouring catalogs to see if some other company can "trump" what I've currently got going. I focus in on the children God has given to me, and I try to see what will help them at the level they're at to continue to love learning, grow in their understanding of the world, and develop godly character. Once we make a decision, we stick with it and I tailor it to our needs if necessary (although one of the benefits with Sonlight is that it's all pre-planned, so I can take it at whatever pace we like).

If we need to drop something, I'm not freaking out about it (I don't think we ever completely finished a textbook in all my years of schooling). If we need to slow down a bit, we can. If we need to take a break (particularly in these young years) for a week to focus in on character issues, we do. God gave these kiddos to us and I want to be good stewards of not only their minds, but their hearts and personalities as well. We want to try and help develop every part of them-- not just turn out a gaggle of little Einsteins (not to be confused with "Little Einsteins", which we love but still don't really want our kids to be like once they're adults, you understand). While we are very interested in their intellectual development and providing stimulation for their minds and skills, our aims are more focused on launching them towards their eternal joy and God-given purpose than their ultimate financial "success" or the number of degrees they may one day obtain.

Well, I've said more than a mouthful. But that's what we do and have done. I love homeschooling. Our children love schooltime with mommy. And really, more importantly to us, they love to learn-- about God, about the world, about stories, about people, about history, about life. We are enjoying the journey so far, just three years into it.

Whatever curriculum you use or choose, look at the pros & cons... talk to people who have used it. Talk to the kids who grew up with it. See how it matches up with your family dynamics and your children's learning styles. Don't just take my word for it, or anyone else's. No one method is "the right" way to homeschool. Try to do your research on the front end so you don't end up 4 weeks into a year and already hating it. There is such a plethora of resources available that really, there is something to suit almost any and every possible situation, parental philosophy, or learning need.

Be engaged with your kids' education. Be aware of your children's needs. Model a genuine delight in reading and learning. These are all significant and will contribute greatly to your child's education, regardless of your "method" or curriculum. Blessings to you... I hope this helps someone. :)


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