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Eenie, Meenie... Choosing the Right Curriculum

When Liz Smith began homeschooling her oldest son three and a half years ago, she had a vision. Smith wanted a kinder, gentler form of education. Learning should embrace her whole child, she thought, integrating all the basic subject areas into a seamless fabric of life.

After researching her options, Smith purchased the complete Oak Meadow Kindergarten curriculum. She was ready. She had her teacher guides. She had her art supplies. She was enthusiastic to begin.

What Smith didn't know, yet, was that she also had a child who didn't necessarily like the touchy-feely style of learning that comes with Oak Meadow.

"We were singing a song about weather one day," recalls Smith. "Josh finally said, 'I can't stand it anymore. Can't I look at a meteorological chart instead.' That's when I realized I had to let go of my dream of homeschooling and accept the reality of homeschooling. The process is guided by the child."

Smith admits to muddling through her first year of homeschooling. Having spent over $200 on the curriculum package, Smith felt compelled to use it for Kindergarten.

Nowadays Smith designs her own curriculum instead, keeping her son's likes and dislikes in mind. A professional chef by trade, Smith sees parallels between her two jobs.

"I have to be fast and efficient to be a chef and a homeschooler. When a learning opportunity arises, you have to be ready to dive right in. Being in charge, like a chef, doesn't work as a homeschool parent, though." Smith explains.

Parents like Smith are considered parent constructed curriculum users. These parents take the time to develop their own lesson plans. In some cases, they seek out textbooks from various different companies that match their child's level and interest. In other cases, parents forgo all textbooks and simply immerse their families in books, museums and community activities.

Parent constructed curriculum can be a loosely connected set of learning goals guided by a child's interest. Or, it can be a structured approach, closely following state set standards. The choice is up to the parent. Either way, this option generally means the parent will be doing a lot of homework just so their kids can homeschool.

Many homeschool parents, however, prefer using a curriculum that has already been put together. Less preparation time and having a schedule to follow are two of the biggest benefits of purchasing a complete curriculum.

Choosing a homeschool curriculum can be an education in and of itself. Many factors will play a role in what kind of learning material a family will use at home.

Understanding how your child likes to learn is one element to consider in choosing a curriculum. For example, picking a writing intensive curriculum, such as Calvert, for a child who won't pick up a pencil will only spell disaster.

What Do I Teach?

Maryland regulations state that a homeschool parent must "provide regular, thorough instruction during the school year in the studies usually taught in the public schools to children of the same age."

Those subjects "include instruction in English, mathematics, science, social studies, art, music, health, and physical education."

Maryland law does not require homeschoolers to teach specific topics in certain grades. Specific content choice is left up to the family.

Oak Meadow may not have worked for Smith but Kate Heck of Waverly has used it successfully for the last six years with her fifth grade son, Devin.

"I like the idea of child-led learning but I can't let Devin spend all day, every day doing whatever he wants. I'd have nothing to put in my portfolio." Heck explains, referring to the state required review she must submit to twice a year to show that she homeschools her son.

Acknowledging style differences between her son and the curriculum, Heck admits to skipping some of the Oak Meadow hands-on projects and supplementing with extra reading. Yet, she relies on the teacher guides to keep them on track with learning.

"Oak Meadow works for us because it balances out all the book work Devin likes to do but it also leaves us time to do extra things like scouts and fencing." Heck says.

Hearing feedback from other parents about their experience with a particular curriculum is another useful tool in choosing a curriculum. Sonlight curriculum takes such helpful hints one step further. They provide parents with a list of 31 reasons why you should not buy their products.

To read their advertisements, you would know Sonlight is a Christian based curriculum grounded in literature and reading. Yet, Sonlight wants you to know more. Hoping to make cornbread with the kids when you learn about the Pilgrims? Don't even bother looking for such projects in Sonlight. According to the company, arts and crafts do not meaningfully contribute to the learning process.

Dorothy Nuckols of Owings Mills sees many good reasons to use Sonlight. She now happily uses it with her 4th grade daughter, Ginny, after transitioning from a more relaxed style of homeschooling.

"I don't think a first grader needs to sit in front of workbooks all day long," explains Nuckols about their first two years of learning at home. "We read a lot of books, lots of biographies. We learned about a lot of things just by reading."

Moving three times with three children under the age of six during their first year homeschooling also contributed to Nuckols' relaxed attitude about homeschooling.

"Most of our time was unplanned. I wanted us to develop more as a family unit," says Nuckols. Not a surprising goal given the fact that Nuckols' husband had just completed many long hours of medical school and residency.

Yet, by the middle of second grade, Nuckols began looking for a more systematic approach so they wouldn't miss learning anything.

"Ginny loves to read and Sonlight is very strong in first person accounts; biographies, historical fiction. If you enjoy reading often you are able to experience time through the eyes of the author," Nuckols says.

While Sonlight publishes a teacher's guide for their curriculum, Nuckols doesn't find that she uses it too much.

"It's not real detailed and I don't like using a script. But, it does have a weekly planner and vocabulary lists," Nuckols explains.

Another step towards deciding on a curriculum involves actually seeing the books. This is your chance to see, for example, that the highly regarded Saxon math books sport neither color nor illustrations throughout their entire textbook.

Curriculum fairs hosted by homeschool support groups invite dealers to show samples and take orders. Cindy Sellers of Anneslie attended a couple of fairs before she started homeschooling. However, she discovered that even well researched plans can go awry.

Before Sellers pulled her son, Daniel, out of third grade, she read The Well Trained Mind. The authors set out a blueprint for learning that cycles children through four years of studies, rotating between three developmental levels. For example, first graders begin exploring ancient history. Over the next three years they travel forward in time to learn about medieval, renaissance and, finally, modern history. In fifth grade they begin the cycle again from a logical standpoint. In ninth grade the cycle commences one last time with students expressing their historical knowledge through rhetoric.

This classical approach to education appealed to Sellers. The Well Trained Mind offered myriad suggestions for resources. Knowing that she wanted to focus more on history and science, Seller thought she found the perfect plan.

"I liked compiling our lessons. Finding this book. Looking at that cool project to do. It was fun," recalls Sellers.

Yet, after the first few months, Sellers began to have second thoughts about constructing her own curriculum.

"I began to think, 'Am I covering all the bases?' I wasn't confident I was covering everything. " Seller explains of her self doubts. "I was feeling panicked. Are we doing enough? Are we doing the right thing? It was a lot of work being prepared for the next day, the next week, the next month. I began to think that maybe I should start looking for a curriculum."

Sellers dug out a business card she picked up at a homeschool curriculum fair months beforehand. Calling the local K12 curriculum consultant, Sellers decided to give a cutting edge curriculum a try.

K12 is one of the newest comprehensive curriculums to hit the homeschool markets. It combines traditional book learning with online, multi-media learning. According to their promotional material, children spend about 25 percent of their learning time on the computer.

Some subjects, like composition, are completed without a computer. Other subjects, like history are all online and don't have a textbook. Subjects such as math have an online assessment component but instruction takes place between parent, child and textbook.

Carrying a price tag of $1200 for the complete curriculum, K12 rings up as one of the most expensive choices on the market. Yet, Sellers believes she's getting her money's worth.

"I liked being able to pick and choose levels for each subject," says Sellers. "We probably work about three to four hours on a normal day and K12 keeps track of everything for me."

"Each day I get an online schedule of lessons we need to cover. If an activity, like violin, is scheduled, we get less work. Yet, everything is self-paced. If Daniel wants to do extra math one day, we do it and the schedule just adjusts. If we don't get to something, it just gets pushed backed and it's no big deal." Sellers explains.

While cost may ultimately be the deciding factor in which curriculum you choose, Oak Meadow user Heck reminds families that lots of used curriculum can be found inexpensively at Ebay and homeschool fairs also feature used material for sale.

Looking back on her experience of searching for the right curriculum, Nuckols knows that she definitely overbought but wonders if it's inevitable.

"It's a bit of a trail and error between what I can do and what the kids can do. I had to find a fit between my abilities and the kid's abilities. Then I had to trust that I was doing the right thing for my family," Nuckols explains.

Knowing that many companies offer a thirty day, money back trial period, it's good to keep in mind Nuckols' parting advice.


April 07, 2020


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