Sunday, March 25, 2012

Choosing Homeschool Curriculum

With the unseasonably warm weather we've had here in Wisconsin (melting the two feet of snow we had dumped on us before that), I'm in the mood for curriculum planning.  That may sound a little odd, since September is months away, but when the spring thaw begins to draw my kids' attention outside after a long northwoods winter, we get anxious to wrap up the planned part of our schooling for the year.  Usually when this happens we only have a few weeks left and we hurry to finish up and take advantage of our short but beautiful summers.  Spring is early this year so we still have ten weeks of lessons to finish, but nevertheless, the smell of spring in the air and the arrival of colorful curriculum catalogs in the mail always gets my gears turning.

Actually, I've found that spring is the perfect time to plan for fall because it's the time when I'm the most realistic about what's really necessary and what's not.  The curriculum I was completely jazzed about in early fall, no matter how awesome, can become dullsville by March.  Planning at the time of year when my children and I are the least interested in school helps me to be more objective and stick to a reasonable budget.  It's also a great time to take advantage of sales offered by curriculum providers or to start watching e-bay for deals.

I thought I'd share a little bit about my priorities for curriculum planning in hopes that it will be helpful to those who are homeschooling or considering the idea.  I've been at this for nearly twelve years now, so I can offer lots of advice, but I don't believe anyone qualifies as a curriculum planning "expert".  Each homeschooling family is unique and what works for me may not be a good fit for your family.  I'll try to list what I consider to be the most important things to consider in choosing.  I'll also share more specifically what we use for curriculum, but I'll probably save that for another post.

Things to Consider Before Choosing:

Since I'm a serious bibliophile (or "book hoarder" as my loving family has labeled me), I'd like to start with a warning, especially for the new homeschooler.  I highly recommend considering the following before you open the pretty catalog or peruse the wonderful website.  Gone are the old days when homeschoolers had to search to find curriculum appropriate for home use.  There is so much stuff out there you will quickly be overwhelmed if you don't know what you're after, and you can easily overspend your budget without getting what you really need.

1.  Determine your purpose
It's important to consider the big picture before you choose.  For our family, we consider knowing God and forming a biblical worldview to be the purpose of our homeschooling.  While quality curriculum may be helpful, I always remind myself each year that if all I had no curriculum at all other than the Bible we would still be able to fulfill our purpose.  That means that all the curriculum choices out there are really "wants" rather than "needs".  Keeping this in mind helps me to keep it all in perspective and think about which resources best help us to fulfill our purpose.

An example of a curriculum option that does not fit our purpose for homeschooling is the current movement toward government-funded charter schools.  While public schools used to oppose homeschoolers, they seem to have adopted an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach.  This means if you are a homeschooler, you will be presented with multiple options for receiving "free" (meaning taxpayer-funded) curriculum and computers if you enroll.  This is lucrative for the schools because they receive additional funding for increasing enrollment.  They can then pass some of the funds on to the homeschooling family with the parent providing free labor as the teacher, and the district can keep the rest for other purposes.  Because enrolling in a public charter school involves the redistribution of wealth and because it requires turning the supervision of our children's education over to a government authority, this type of curriculum option does not fit our family's values.  This applies even if the charter school allows Christian materials, since the overarching purpose of government schooling does not align with ours.

2.  Consider your teaching style and your child's learning style
If you are a new homeschooler you may be unfamiliar with this, but my experience is that I am constantly working to strike a balance between the way I like to teach and the way my children learn best.  With five school-age children, we have a lot of styles represented!  Of course, the children I find easiest to teach are the ones whose learning styles best match mine, and the most challenging are those who are my opposite.  It can be frustrating (and expensive) when a curriculum that you love just isn't working for one of your children, so doing your homework before purchasing can help you to find something that's a good fit for teacher and student.  I would highly recommend reading The Way They Learn by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias.  This book has been invaluable to me in understanding myself, my children, and even my husband!

3.  Consider your budget
This may be a no-brainer, but if you've fallen in love with an expensive online curriculum that will require going into debt to enroll, it's not the choice for you.  Homeschooling doesn't have to be expensive, and with creativity it can even be done nearly for free.  I don't skimp on the stuff I consider important, but I find new ways to save all the time.  Amazon is a great source for quality used books, and many homeschoolers sell like-new curriculum on e-bay.

4.  Determine if you're looking for a complete curriculum or if you'd rather pick and choose
New homeschoolers typically start off with a "canned" curriculum until they gain some experience.  This can be a big help, provided you choose carefully.  Ready-to-use curriculum packages come in many different "flavors" and prices.  If you want something traditional that's used by Christian schools, then A Beka or BJU Press might work best for you.  Accelerated Christian Education and Lifepac are examples of a workbook-based approach.  If you prefer "living books" to traditional textbooks, there are still many options for complete curriculum.  Sonlight, My Father's World, and Tapestry of Grace are examples of this approach.  There are also a lot of computer-based programs available, both online and cd-rom based.  Alpha Omega offers both, and there are many others.

If you'd rather cherry-pick individual subjects, it can still be helpful to look at what's included in the ready-to-use curriculum packages to get ideas.  If I know the approach of a certain curriculum provider fits my style of homeschooling, I may find individual books that meet my needs without buying everything they offer, and I might even be able to find used copies on Amazon.  (A caution:  used workbooks may have some writing and still be labeled "good" condition.)

My approach is a hybrid one.  I like to use a Sonlight core to teach Bible, history, read-aloud books, and sometimes science to as many of my children as possible in one group with the younger ones listening in.  Then I pick and choose math, reading, language arts, handwriting, and spelling for each individual child as needed.

5.  Be realistic about your lifestyle and time constraints
The best curriculum in the world won't do much good if it doesn't fit your lifestyle.  I have purchased beautiful books that no one learned anything from because we didn't have time to read them.  Try to look realistically at how much time is available for "school" each day, how much help you'll have, and how much time is needed for all the other stuff in your life.  The first year I used Sonlight Core D I had two school-age children, a new baby, and a very busy husband. I was determined to read every one of the excellent books in the program.  As a result, we didn't have much time for math and English, and I ended up so far behind we took two years to finish the core.  I now have many more children to teach, plus additional preschoolers, and I still have a very busy husband.  I have to be ruthless about prioritizing so that we have time to complete what I've planned.  I also schedule everything for just four days a week.  After all, we have to buy groceries and clean the house sometime (quite often in our household)!

6.  Consider your state's homeschooling laws
I know many will consider state law as a starting point for homeschool planning.  I place it at the bottom of the priority list for several reasons. First, I believe parents are the authority in a child's education, not the state.  Second, for this reason I believe in starting with determining your own goals and priorities before considering state requirements.  Thirdly, I live in Wisconsin, which has a homeschooling law that is very easy to comply with.  I fill out a form each year with my school-age children's gender and ages stating that I am complying with state law and that is my only contact with school authorities.  If your state has tougher requirements you will have to do your homework to make sure you're complying with the law, but even if that is the case, remember that pleasing the state is not your ultimate purpose.  I comply with state law merely to be left alone, and nothing more.  Homeschool Legal Defense Association is a resource for finding out what's required by law for homeschooling in your state.

I'd like to share what we use for curriculum so you can see an example of how this might work for a larger family, but I think I'll save that for my next post.

Happy planning!

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Annoying Peasant

I wanted to share this video, "The Annoying Peasant", because it makes me laugh and because it was mentioned last night at our liberty discussion group.  Our good friend Tom is starting a Blog Talk Radio show by the same name, so I'll be looking forward to sharing that soon.  We had a great time last night discussing the topics of self-ownership and private property, meeting some new people, and just laughing a lot.  I can't think of a better way to spend a Thursday evening out!  

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Relearning American History

I've been working on a project lately, which is most of the reason I haven't written anything in a while.  I'm really more of a researcher than a writer, but I've been trying to get to the point where I can share some of what I've been learning.

This project started with a conversation I had with a fellow Christian homeschooler.  We are pretty like-minded on our view of government, and she asked me for advice on how to teach American history.  She was particularly wondering what the truth is about the Founding Fathers and what to teach our kids about them.  I had to confess that I had some of the same questions, and since I'm planning on teaching the American History program from Sonlight Curriculum to my younger children next year, I decided it was high time I reeducated myself on the topic.  It's been quite a few years since I've used this history curriculum and my views on government have changed a lot since then.

I first went to to get the "outside the box" view of American history.  I listened to Tom Woods' lecture series, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, which is based on his book by the same name.  (I couldn't read the book for free on Mises, but I found it available on interlibrary loan--just a note for the cheapskates like me!).  I had also recently listened to the audiobook of Our Enemy, the State by Albert J. Nock (also an e-book).  Both of these gave me the alternative view of  U.S.history and the Founding Fathers and I felt like I had a good start on my preparation for teaching.

Then my research took an odd turn.  A friend in my homeschool group recommended I attend a Bible study where they would be going through David Barton's Wallbuilders materials on American history.  I thought that sounded pretty interesting since I had always heard good things about Wallbuilders, until a few days later when I heard something I found quite disturbing.

I hadn't really set out to investigate David Barton, but a few days later I happened to be listening to Brannon Howse's Worldview Weekend Radio.  The show was about Kirk Cameron's new documentary, Monumental:  In Search of America's National Treasure.  The movie is apparently about promoting America's Christian heritage and a return to the nation's founding principles.  The radio show was critical of the fact that the National Monument to the Forefathers was a big focus of the film.  The monument was financed by Freemasons and contains many pagan symbols, and therefore could hardly be used to promote any kind of Christian ideal.  I found that pretty disturbing in itself, but I was shocked at something else I heard on the show.  David Barton is featured in the Monumental movie, and Howse played a clip of a radio interview where Barton says that conservative radio personality Glenn Beck (a Mormon) is a born-again Christian.

Okay, so now I was really questioning this idea of "returning America to her godly heritage", as if I wasn't questioning it enough already.  Mormonism is not biblical Christianity, and if we're so desperate to return to our "founding principles" we're willing to compromise the truth to do it, well, I've got a big problem with that.  Now, don't misunderstand me.  I have Mormon friends and I love them, and if Barton wants to partner with Glenn Beck to promote some kind of political agenda, that's his choice, but if his agenda is to return the nation to its "Christian" heritage, then redefining Christianity to include Mormonism is not the way to do it.  Barton is either deceived or engaging in deception.  Now, Barton's Wallbuilders materials promote the idea that the Founding Fathers were Christians and that they intended to create a Christian form of government.  Well, if Barton doesn't know the definition of a Christian, then he can't be the person to trust to determine what the faith of the Founding Fathers was, if any.  Investigating Barton further, I found that there are a lot of people out there claiming he doesn't have his facts straight about the founders.

Now this idea of a "Christian heritage" was really bugging me.  Many of my Christian friends tell me that the founders were godly men and they villify those who claim that they were anything other than devout Christians.  They also criticize public schools for engaging in "revisionist history" and erasing any reference to the Christian faith from classrooms.  Well, folks, it looks like it's possible we're promoting some revisionist history of our own.  I just want the truth, and I definitely don't want to teach my children anything that's false!  So, just exactly what is the truth?

I had heard Chris Pinto of Noise of Thunder Radio and knew that he had a video, The Hidden Faith of the Founding Fathers, so I dug around and found the entire 3-hour video on Youtube.  This was some eye-opening stuff!  Pinto challenges the idea that the founders were Christians and gives information about the beliefs of Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Paine from their own writings and the testimony of others.  Now, you may not agree with everything in this film, but this is a great resource for getting the other side of the story.

So, long story short, here's where I'm at with all of this.  I don't believe the framers of our Constitution were Christians, or that they intended to create a biblical form of government.  They were enlightenment thinkers and rationalists who held the god of reason above any other deity.  While they approved of biblical morality and were publicly religious (just like most politicians of today), they privately denied any belief in biblical Christianity.  I'm also seriously questioning the validity of trying to return our country to some kind of Christian ideal of the past, and what would be the purpose of it if we did.  As I'm observing what's happening with the American church, it seems that educating people about our Christian heritage has become more important than preaching the gospel.  But knowing our heritage, godly or not, can't save anyone; a constitution can't save anyone;  electing Christians to office can't save anyone; and being good, moral citizens can't save anyone.  Only turning to God and believing in His Son can bring salvation.

As I look at this patriotic Christianity, I wonder about the theology behind it all.  There seems to be this idea that believers should be working to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth by our own power in preparation for Christ's return.  I'm not sure if I really understand it, but I've seen enough to know I don't share that theology.

I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
1 Cor. 15:50

Jesus said,  "My kingdom is not of this world.  If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews.  But now my kingdom is from another place."
John 18:36

So, I've answered some questions, but now I have some new ones.  Maybe that will be a topic for another post.  Hopefully I'm ready to tackle teaching American history again.  One thing's for sure, I learn as much or more than my kids do when I know I'm responsible to teach them.  It should be an interesting adventure continuing to relearn history with my family.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Dishwater University: Something Fun

No, the fun thing is not having bourbon for breakfast.  I personally wouldn't know, but I have been having some fun listening to this audio book from the Mises Institute.  It's also available as an e-book.  I had a busy day today with lots of cooking, baking, and household chores to do, and this book has been entertaining me while I've been working.  I've been listening to and reading some heavy (for me, anyway) stuff lately, and I was just looking for something lighter for a break.  This fit the bill perfectly.  (I also really love donuts and I thought the cover was cool.)  It's a series of thirty-one essays on a variety of topics related to living in a world where statism is everywhere you turn.  

I started off listening to this in the bathroom as I got ready for my day, and I was cracking up as Tucker explains how to defeat government regulations by hacking your showerhead, and other ways that the  government has made their way into your bathroom.  I was giggling while cleaning out my kitchen sink as I listened to the chapter called "The Great Drain Debacle", where he describes a monumental battle with his garbage disposal.  Some of the essays are more serious, but all are thought-provoking.  You'll laugh and hopefully learn something at the same time.


Monday, March 5, 2012

Northwoods Recipe: Venison Stew

This is what we're having for dinner tonight.  It's a family favorite, and I like it because it's easy, it's cheap (if you're a hunter, anyway), and it makes a lot!  It's the perfect northwoodsy winter meal for those of us who are buried in snow.  I'll give the amounts I use just for fun, but you can cut it in half if you need less.

1/4c. (4 tbs.) olive oil
4 lbs. venison or other stew meat
4 onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4c. (4 tbs.) worchestershire sauce
2 bay leaves
1 tsp. oregano
2 tbs. salt
pepper to taste
6c. water
10 c. potatoes (peeled and cubed)
2 lbs. carrots
1/2c. flour (plus approx. equal amount of water)

Deeply brown meat in oil.  Add onions, garlic, worchestershire sauce, bay leaves, oregano, salt, pepper, and water.  Simmer, covered for 1 1/2-2 hours or until meat is tender.  Add potatoes and carrots;  cook until tender.  Combine flour with a little water;  stir in to thicken.  Remove bay leaves and serve.

While I was preparing this, I threw some bones from the venison into a big pot on the back of the stove, added some onions, garlic, and salt, and left it to simmer overnight.  I'll keep this on for about 24 hrs. or so until it makes a rich broth that will be the base for a big pot of soup later this week.  I'll try to post that recipe later!