April 5, 2012

Is the Perfect Curriculum Out There?

In a word: no.

There really is no "perfect curriculum" - meaning that no one program or resource is guaranteed to meet every educational need for every homeschooled child. There is not even one curriculum that anyone can truly, objectively, say is "better for everyone" than another. If someone says that about a resource, it probably means they're being paid by the publisher!

But don't let that discourage you. In fact, there is actually an abundance of material out there from which to choose - the fat Rainbow Resource catalogue is over 1,300 pages thick and The Homeschool Resource Roadmap lists over 2,000 options! - such that it's exceedingly possible to find a very good fit for every child in any circumstance. But, given the vast amount of choice with which we are blessed, the trick for each of us becomes winnowing down the choices to find those best fits for our particular children and our family situations. And that's what I'd like to help you begin to think about.

It's imperative that you first understand your state homeschool law so you'll know what you are legally required to cover. Some homeschool laws are wonderful, leaving most decisions up to parents (where they belong), and others are ridiculously onerous and ought to be changed. If you live in a high-regulation state, I urge you to join with other homeschoolers to get the law changed – there's no reason for homeschoolers to be subject to anyone but God in terms of their home education choices – but in the meantime, know what the law says so you can be above reproach.

Once you understand the law where you live, you'll need a starting point for narrowing down the options. Cathy Duffy's 101 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum is a very helpful resource in that regard. In fact, much of what I outline below to give you an idea of the decision-making process you should pursue comes from the first portion of Ms. Duffy's book. And I hope my summary will give you hope about your ability to conquer the “Curriculum Monster.” However, you really should get a copy of the book in order to gain solid direction; in fact, though your public library may carry it, I'm sure you'll want to invest in your own copy.

We should start by asking some questions in order to consider all the possibilities and make wise choices.

What questions?

1. Do I want FAITH-BASED or SECULAR materials?
Next to following the homeschool law where you reside, I believe this is the most important decision because it speaks to the type of worldview you want to communicate to your children. And deciding whether you want secular or faith-based materials will go a long way toward eliminating a lot of curriculum you would not find suitable. For example, my husband and I knew from the start that our homeschool would be faith-based, from a Protestant and evangelical perspective. As a result, I've been able to eliminate from consideration secular science and history materials - many of which might be very good for some people but simply don't suit our needs. And that tightens the focus of our curriculum search.

2. Do I want to choose materials for each INDIVIDUAL SUBJECT or go with a COMPLETE PACKAGE?
It's up to you, but, as a new homeschooler, Isuggest that it's probably easier to start with a complete package - a curriculum that offers plans for all or at least most of the required areas. And there are many such options in that regard. As you gain experience, you may find yourself moving away from packages toward choosing materials from different companies for different subjects, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking the security of a complete package as you begin. In fact, a lot of people go that route for their entire homeschooling "career," and that's fine, too, if it works for your family. In my case, I went with complete packages as my base for the first four years of our "official" journey. Starting in our third and fourth years, I began tweaking, and after that I went completely "eclectic," choosing resources for each subject area from wholly different companies.

3. Should I aim for FAMILY-INTEGRATED studies or teach EACH CHILD SEPARATELY?
Some people choose to keep each child in a family at a separate "grade level" for every subject - meaning that they need to find separate material (whether via a package or picking from different companies) for each child. In those cases, the family operates rather like a one-room schoolhouse of old, where a teacher juggled multiple "grade levels" at one time. That can work if you're very organized, and there are many different types of curricula that offer this type of learning, including ABeka and Alpha-Omega.
However, a lot of homeschoolers prefer family-integrated studies. Generally, that means all (or most) of the children in a family study the same history/geography and science concepts together each year - but the difficulty level of assigned tasks varies to suit each child's abilities. Math, reading, and language arts are still all done at each child's separate ability level, but the integration of history/geography and science lends itself to family unity and an easier time for the homeschooling parent (because he or she need only think about one science topic a day, for example - not three or four). Many curricula - both packages such as Bright Ideas Press and Heart of Dakota and publishers of individual subjects (Apologia Science, The Mystery of History, Honour of Kings) - cater to family-integrated studies. And, of course, as with the other questions, if you decide which track you want to follow, you'll eliminate the programs that run counter to your preference.

I've put these ideas together because they do kind of go hand in hand. That is, some educational philosophies or teaching styles work well with particular learning styles and others just do not (i.e., a highly kinesthetic child just won't do well with a textbook-based program like ABeka or a reading-heavy program like Sonlight). And, as Cathy Duffy says, it's important to consider our personal preferences as the teacher, but, when there is a difference between a child's learning style and a parent's teaching preference, we have to lean toward the child's needs. After all, homeschooling is about educating him, not making life easiest for us.
So, I generally suggest taking some time to determine each child's preferred learning style – Ms. Duffy does a great job of categorizing kids into four general groups (Wiggly Willies, Sociable Sues, Competent Carls, and Perfect Paulas) and then showing how kids in each group learn best. Once you figure that out, you can look at the different philosophies of homeschool education (also described in the book) to see which one(s) will be the best overall match for you and your kids. From there, you can find curricula that will support your children's learning styles and your philosophy of education. And the really beautiful thing is that Ms. Duffy's book explains all of this quite well, and also shows how all the curricula she reviews matches with each learning style. So, if you read the book, you'll feel more at ease about this whole idea.

5. What do I want in terms of the COMMON CORE STANDARDS?
Almost as important as your worldview perspective is your philosophical position on the common core standards (CCS). Though homeschoolers are not mandated to comply with common core in any state, the initiative does impact us because roughly 40% of homeschool-related material has some connection to it. Thus, you should not ignore it. And you should neither choose nor reject the CCS in a vacuum; rather, educate yourself on the subject (I recommend Truth in American Education, starting with the video series by Jane Robbins) in order to stake out a definite position. And then use The Homeschool Resource Roadmap Common Core Project to weed out the resources that don't match your convictions.

In some ways, I could have put this one right after worldview...because the reality is that we all live within a budget. However, if you're totally new to curriculum shopping, it might be hard to set a budget without first exploring the options. So you can instead use finances to help you decide between the few programs you'll end up with after going through everything else. For example, when I first started homeschooling, I was drawn to Sonlight and finances became my deciding factor. As good as it sounded, I just couldn't afford it. So I went with something similar instead because it was a better fit for our pocketbook.

If you take the time to think through these questions, read the information in Cathy Duffy's book, and study Truth in American Education and The Homeschool Resource Roadmap, I'm confident you'll choose a curriculum that will be a really good fit for you and your children. But I also want to let you know that choosing homeschool curriculum - even when you do so systematically - is kind of like learning to drive.

In other words, going through this process and making a choice so you can start homeschooling is like the in-class portion of driver's ed. But you don't really learn to drive until you're actually behind the wheel! So, too, once you get going - with your very good fit - you'll see things over time that you'll want to change. And that is totally okay! More than that, it's one of the biggest blessings of home learning - i.e., you're not stuck (as the institutional schools are) using a curriculum when it ceases to serve its intended purpose. In fact, when you do make changes, it won't be because you've failed in your first choice; it's just that you'll have matured as a homeschool parent and you'll have learned even more about your kids and how you and they function together as a team. You will not hurt them by changing as you see needs to do so; in fact, it's just the opposite. You'll actually help them maximize their learning by making changes as their needs change. And that is, truly, one of the "secrets" of homeschooling's success.


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