Monday, August 11, 2014

How to Pick Homeschool Curriculum!

I'm laughing as I write this post, because I myself (a veteran of only three years) have so much yet to learn in the arena of home education curriculum. It is a vast field that encompasses an enormous number of choices, and when combined with both your child's temperament and your family's personality, is one of the most complicated areas of home education. It is only the super-veterans (also known as IPGs, or Institutional Pillars of Greatness) who can speak with true authority on this subject.

However, in three or four years, I have learned quite a bit! Each year has added greatly to my knowledge, and while I'm far from curriculum fluency, I am starting to find my feet. Thus, from one newbie to another, here are a few "do and don't" statements about homeschool curriculum.

(1) DO expect to be confused and overwhelmed.

If you get to listen to a homeschooling mother describe her curriculum choices, you'll hear something like this:
"Well, for child one-of-ten, I'm using Tapestry of Grace for history. But we're adding some of the activities from My Father's World, as well as some of Story of the World and Mystery of History. Then we're going to add in the read-alouds from Sonlight, the recipes from Galloping the Globe, and substitute writing assignments with Institute for Excellence in Writing, all while utilizing a Charlotte Mason notebooking-journaling approach."
That's for one subject for one child. And yes, they really do sound like that. And that, my friends, was one of the main reasons why we quit homeschooling very shortly after we started - because I was completely confused and overwhelmed by curriculum choices and the complexity of what other more established mothers were doing. Not only did I not know which way to turn, I couldn't even understand the vocabulary of the conversation! It looked and felt completely hopeless.

It still feels that way sometimes.

But the truth is that one does learn. One really spends the first year or two of home education just learning the lingo and learning more about all the curriculum choices out there. Now I can discuss history choices with some fluency (ditto with other subjects), even though I have a long way to go. It's not nearly as intimidating as it was four years ago.

Additionally, I find myself to be a homeschool minimalist. My history plan will never look like the above, because I cannot deal with that level of complexity. When asked about history, I can say, "We use Galloping the Globe." I tend to keep things as simple as possible, so I've stopped trying to reach for levels of curriculum awesomeness like that achieved by others.

(2) DO expect to spend lots of money on a curriculum you don't end up using.

A friend told me about this phenomenon, so I was prepared - and determined not to fall into the same trap. I researched extensively, spent quite a bit of time talking to other mothers, and made sure before ordering. And guess what? We didn't end up using it. (Goodbye, $400!)

Just accept the fact that you are, indeed, going to buy curriculum that you don't end up using. Why? Because buying curriculum is like buying a piece of clothing that you haven't tried on. Sometimes it's a great fit, and sometimes... well, sometimes it looked better on the hanger.

Oftentimes our ideals of what we think will work for our families (or what we want to work for our families) are quite different from the harsh reality of what actually will work for our families. And you can only learn those realities through trial and error.

And that's okay. It's part of the process. Additionally....

(3) DON'T worry when a curriculum doesn't work out for you.

Having a curriculum not work out is not a tragedy. It can actually be a huge blessing. Why? Simply because you will learn so much about yourself and your family by experiencing what doesn't work for you - as much or more than you will learn from a curriculum that does work.

When our first curriculum didn't work out, I learned a ton about our family. I learned that our son is not an advanced reader. I learned that girl-type books do not work for him. I learned that we needed to do history and science as a family, not on individual levels. I learned that I have a passionate loathing for all comprehension-type questions. I learned that I want to wait to introduce adult themes until our children are older. And on, and on, and on. Going through that curriculum was a huge benefit to our family, and it helped to guide future decisions and build my knowledge base of curriculum types. I wouldn't change a thing (except for the $400 bit).

Don't worry when "the perfect curriculum" turns out to be a bust for your family. It happens to everyone, and you'll learn a lot in the process.

This is the picture to cheer you up after you blow that $400 on a dud curriculum. 

(4) DON'T expect a curriculum to fit your family just because it works for your best friend.

When people begin to homeschool, the most natural place to turn for curriculum advice is to homeschooling friends. And that's a great place to go. I do it all the time. But do not assume that just because a curriculum works for your best friend (or any friend!) that it will work for you. Families are different, and a perfect fit for her family may be a terrible fit for yours.

This has happened several times to us! On one occasion, a certain curriculum was recommended strongly to us by several close friends. For them, it was brilliance incarnate. For us, it was a complete and total disaster that brought me to the point of despair at the thought of having to endure it for another year.

Not everything works for every family. And that's okay.

(5) DON'T choose a curriculum out of guilt.

At this past year's homeschool convention, I came very close to making a curriculum purchase. I can't say that it was something I really wanted, but I was extremely tempted... because it was a curriculum choice made by a blogger whom I really admire. And that was enough to push me toward buying it.

Thankfully I came to my senses before shelling out the cash, because I think it would have been a fairly poor fit for my family - it would have come under the subtitle of "yet another workbook with which to torture our son." But I was really, really tempted - again, out of sheer admiration and/or guilt.

Just don't do it. Look to your family, look to your husband, look to the Lord to find out which curricula you should choose - but don't choose something simply because you feel guilty that so-and-so is using it and you are feeling the burden of "she-is-so-I-should-too."

(6) DO look at a curriculum (preferably physically, or at least online) before choosing. You can tell a lot by your reactions.

Reading reviews will tell you a lot... but it won't tell you everything. One of the best ways to tell if a curriculum is a good fit for your family (besides spending hundreds of dollars on purchasing it and then using it for a few months!) is to take the time to look at the curriculum - either online (most websites have samples online) or, preferably, in person at a convention or exhibition.

Sometimes you will open a curriculum notebook and know immediately that it is not your style. There is simply an inexplicably negative reaction that is an extremely reliable predictor of curriculum non-success. You will know.

Other times, you'll open a notebook and find that - regardless of whether or not you like the ideas - just looking at the curriculum makes you want to explode with panic and/or stress. Yet another good sign that this curriculum is not for you. I have this reaction every time I try to crack open a book from KONOS or Tapestry of Grace. Both are among la creme de la creme of homeschool history curricula, but neither works for us. And looking at materials is a great way to rule out non-possibilities before you spend the money based on good reviews.

(7) DON'T choose a time-consuming curriculum.

This came straight from an experienced homeschooling mama-friend: "Don't choose a time-consuming curriculum. It will destroy your family."

There may be some who disagree here, but I have found this to be true. One of the beauties of home education is that it does not take eight hours a day. Rather, home education leaves time for play, for unstructured free time, for personal projects, for life - without strapping a child to a desk with endless busy work. However, there are curricula out there that are filled to the brim with busy work and will attempt to make your home into a school-at-home. Especially with active boys, this is asking for misery.

To put the above prohibition into a positive form, I would say that if you do choose a time-consuming curriculum, make sure that it is because you and your family thrive on it and it brings you joy. Don't do it out of guilt or because you have believe you need to.

(8) DON'T think that kindergartners need a full curriculum package.

When I started our little guy into kindergarten, I believed that we had to have a full curriculum package that included reading, writing, math, language arts, history, science, Bible, and whatever else could be crammed in. Most beginning homeschoolers share this (mis)conception, and nothing could be farther from the truth.

If you want to do a full package, and your student enjoys it, fine! Have fun! But for those of us who have little people who are not yet ready for seat work and concentrated academics, take heart. Kindergarten can be as easy and simple as you want to make it. Remember that the original kindergarten was basically play time to let children adjust to being in school - not the accelerated programs of today (which have no statistical support to back them up - quite the contrary).

Try some of these simplified programs on for size:

Kindergarten = Phonics + Handwriting + Math

This is what we started with, and next time I'd probably do:

Kindergarten = Phonics + Math

If you truly want to keep it simple, try:

Kindergarten = Phonics

Or even:

Kindergarten = LEGO's + play time + read-alouds + playing in dirt and being a child!

Don't feel pressured to take kindergarten further or faster than you or your child can handle. It really does come more easily at a later age.

Ditto for preschool.

(Some kids love seat work and are begging for it even before kindergarten age. If so, go for it! The moral of the story is to go at a guilt-free pace that gives joy to you and your child.)

(9) DO realize that it takes a minimum of three years to feel comfortable in home education - and that includes curriculum choices. 

This article really helped me to feel more relaxed in those stressful first few years when I felt that I knew nothing, could do nothing, and would never learn. "I can hang on for three years." 

And guess what? The author was right! Now that I've completed our third year of home education, I feel much more at home in my chosen vocation. I can speak the language (at least a little bit!). I know the key words. I can dive into discussions comparing math curricula and approaches to teaching history. I've learned a ton about what works and doesn't work for me, my family, and my student(s).

I am still learning, and will be for many more years. But there really is an initial learning curve that peaks at about the three year mark when one can say, "Ah... I feel better now. It's not hopeless after all."

If you feel at sea with regard to curriculum choices, hang on. Keep reading, keep learning, keep absorbing information. Eventually it starts to make sense.

(10) DO pray over your choices. 

Every family is unique, and the Lord has a unique plan for your family's home education program. We can learn a lot from our friends (mine are probably tired of the constant barrage of questions), but only God can reveal to us His plan for our family and our curriculum choices.

Sometimes a curriculum choice is easy and clear-cut. In our family, Handwriting Without Tears has been an easy call that required little to no discussion or mental angst.

But in many curriculum-choice situations, I find that I am simply torn several different ways, and am unable to make a decision despite hours of research and talking with friends. In those situations, the answer is prayer - and in each situation, the Lord has been faithful to reveal His will and lead me in situations in which my own tired brain simply cannot make headway. I am so thankful for this. When you need guidance in curriculum choices, remember to pray - preferably before you spend $400 on a curriculum that you end up giving away on Freecycle.

Seasoned veterans in the crowd, what would you add to the above tips? I'd love to hear your wisdom!


  1. Diana, this is a fantastic list! There really is not much to add. I suppose I would add
    1. Look for curriculum that allows you to combine multiple children if you have them. Don't set out to teach every subject with a separate level of individual curriculum for each child. You'll burn out. They'll burn out.
    2. You don't have to follow the suggested schedule in a curriculum. So what if it says you should do science 3 days per week for 25 minutes? Maybe once a week for an hour works better for you, or five days a week for 10-15 minutes. Curriculum is a tool, you are the boss.
    3. Choose your own way to cover each subject. I once had the thought that I needed to cover every subject every week for the entire school year. That's silly! While some things do need consistent weekly effort (math!) other subjects could be done for just 6 weeks or a semester. One year we did science only half the year, while the other half of the year we focused more on history. It worked. Another year we switched focus every month rotating between history, science, and literature unit studies. It worked. We had years where we did 4 day weeks and years where we've done 5 day weeks. Health one year was totally focused on the upcoming birth and health issues coming with that new little one. As such, it was rarely a scheduled lesson, we just learned as we went along. Ask yourself for each subject or child, "Does _____ need done every day, week, month, or even at all this year?" I have a few children who do art every single day. It is something they love. I have one who does some art once every few weeks, it's not his passion. He needs exposure, but not depth, and that's ok.

  2. Tristan, wonderful points! I agree completely!!! :) Thanks for chiming in!


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