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!


  1. Been meaning to reply.

    Totally agree with your list. Wish we had it when we had started almost 10 years ago.

    Going to have to pick up the Way They Learn. Our 3 girls seem to do very well with homeschooling. Our eldest son is just not that interested. We've tried changing curriculums, publishers, and mode. We're having some success with Bob Jones Online courses, but it's still a struggle for him.

    I keep telling my wife that it's just because he's a boy and wired differently than our girls, but now our second boy has started school. He doesn't seem to have the same issues.

  2. They're all so different, aren't they? Both of my school-age boys are complete opposites too. I've found that how they do with academic work has more to do with learning style than gender differences. My 14yo daughter and 7yo son are very hands-on and they really don't enjoy traditional schoolwork at all. I try to play to their strengths, but it's a challenge because hands-on projects are NOT my gift!

    If you get a chance to read that book, I'm sure it will be helpful. I'm going to have to buy a new copy. I recommend it to everyone, but I loaned it out and never got it back!