Curriculum Choices and Shoe Shopping, an Analogy

New homeschoolers often ask which curriculum or which homeschooling method they should use. The answer can be nearly as varied as the answer to which shampoo to use or what toppings taste best on ice cream. However, I might be able to help you narrow the field just enough to make your decision easier. Join me at the mall — we are going shoe shopping.

Look at all these selections that are available! Now should just I point to the prettiest ones in the first window and say, “I’ll take those — size doesn’t matter”? No, of course not. At the very least, I need to get shoes in the correct size for my own feet, but let’s discuss this a little more as we browse.

First, I want my shoes to be comfortable: my size, not too tight nor too loose, not pinching toes or flopping at the heels. Beyond those basics, my feet need a good arch support, so I must remember to check for my personal requirement as well as general size and fit. Homeschooling materials should fit your students’ “sizes” or levels of learning. I am not using age as a factor, since many homeschooled students work at levels that may not exactly match their chronological ages or relative grade levels in school. Some students work at multiple levels, a different level for each subject — some may work at a level higher than their peers in certain subjects and at a level lower that their peers in other subjects. (That flexibility is precisely why many families choose homeschooling.) The homeschooling materials that you choose should fit each of your students — not too simple in reading level for this one, not too far advanced in math for that one.

I ordered a fifth-grade math textbook for my fifth-grade daughter, which turned out to be a repeat of material she had already learned. I exchanged it for the next higher level and found that book to be a much better fit. If we had kept the first book, she would have been flopping around in boredom, not challenged to learn new concepts. The correct book was the one that fit her skill level.

Second, I want shoes that make me feel relaxed. If your life is anything like mine, you have many things to tend to each day and cannot afford to waste time worrying about your footwear. I need to know that my shoes will solidly support my every step. I need to trust my shoes to do their job, so that I can do my job without giving them a second thought. Someone who normally lives in athletic shoes will be struggling at every step in stiletto heels. A woman who normally wears slinky pumps may be very self-conscious in chunky oxfords. If you do not feel “relaxed” in your shoes, you will not be able to do your job to the best of your ability. You will be losing valuable time focusing on the wrong issues. At the same time, you must have confidence in your homeschooling materials in order to relax and do your job as Teacher. If you have no confidence in the materials, you are “wearing the wrong shoes.”

I found myself questioning a program that used a unique approach to an old subject. The language arts material did not present grammar rules in an ordered sequence, but used dictation and copywork to acquaint students with passages from well-known authors. I became uncomfortable with what I saw as a lack of organization and structure. I wanted work boots that were ready to get down to some serious business, and I viewed this material’s approach as lighthearted casual sneakers that only wanted to play around. I lost my confidence in the material’s ability to handle the subject, and therefore, I could not relax while using it. Obviously, whoever designed that particular material was comfortable and relaxed with that approach, but it did not suit my individual taste. They were more of an easy-going slip-on shoe, while I was definitely the laced-up-and-tied-securely type.

Third, the shoes must fit my needs. Will I be on my feet all day? Do I need proper foot attire for stomping around in the barn? Will I be going hiking in these shoes? Will these shoes be taking me to special, dressy occasions? What exactly do I need these shoes to do, and can they live up to my expectations? Snow boots and bedroom slippers can both be comfortable, but they are not both appropriate in the same circumstances. Beginner packets and advanced instruction both have their places, but not at the same time for the same student. I once put both of my feet (one on top of the other) into a single clog to illustrate to a friend that clogs simply would not work for my thin feet and fallen arches. Shoes are not “one size fits all” and neither are homeschooling materials. What works well for me may be too restricting for you, and what fulfills your every desire may leave too many gaps around my needs.

We knew a family who loved a phonics program that used songs to teach certain concepts. They had used the same program for each of their children with great success. However, they had all girls and began using the program at a preschool level, but I began homeschooling my son when he was seven. The cutesy preschooler songs had no appeal to him whatsoever — he felt himself to be much too grown up for that. And he was a boy who viewed those particular songs as girly stuff. What fit the other family quite well was not at all a good fit for my child.

After size, style, and use have been established, minor details like color (or particular storybooks, for example) will have little effect on the more important aspects. Individual tastes and learning styles can be accommodated through supplemental activities. Price is another area that does not always indicate the value of the item. An expensive pair of shoes that fit like a dream and make you feel great every time you wear them will cost much less in the long run than a low-priced, uncomfortable pair that sit forever unworn in your closet. The same philosophy applies to homeschooling materials: if the Big Box Curriculum turns your students into educational sponges who soak up every bit of knowledge placed before them, then it may be well worth its high price. Similarly, a bargain book is only a bargain if someone actually reads it and learns from it — it is not a bargain at all if it sits forgotten and lonely on the bookshelf, collecting dust.

Once in a while, you may try on a good-looking shoe, and it feels right in the store, but upon wearing the pair several times, you become dissatisfied. The shoes just never “break in” and feel like a part of you. Maybe your little toe gets pinched or a strap irritates the top of your foot. Maybe the lack of an arch support begins to hurt after several hours of standing or walking. Short periods of wear are tolerable, but they just do not work for the long haul. Maybe brief, special appearances are fine, but the shoes are worthless for extended, everyday wear. Homeschooling materials can sometimes suffer the same fate: it looked great in the catalog or at the curriculum fair, and it started out working well with your students, but in the long run, the material just did not prove to be the best choice for your needs. Maybe the lessons were not as complete as you had hoped, or maybe the material advanced too quickly and left your students struggling and confused. There are times when we cannot judge every possibility without actual, regular use, no matter how comprehensive our research may have been. Sometimes it takes using a product every day to prove whether or not it can do what we need it to do. In those cases, we all have to swallow hard, admit our defeat, and let our next step be toward success as we apply the lessons learned through our own experience.

There may come a day when your favorite pair of shoes will not be suited to the events of the day. Personally, I would prefer do everything in sneakers, but there are occasions when my everyday, casual shoes just do not make the grade. Weddings or similar dressy affairs simply require something more formal. The day may also come when your stand-by favorite homeschool materials are no longer suitable for the needs of the day. Once in a while, occasions arise that require something a little different. When that happens, you can adapt to the new, special needs and keep on going. It does not mean that your old favorite was a poor choice — on the contrary, you got a lot of miles out of that material! However, now you have found yourself temporarily detoured onto a different road that merely requires a different approach. When your needs change, do not be afraid to change with them. Daring to switch may bring the very success that you and your student have been hungering for. At the very least, you may realize that what you were using before really was good, and you return to it with renewed confidence and vigor.

So which homeschooling method or curriculum should you choose? Not necessarily the first pretty one you see. As with shoes, ask for your size, try it on, and walk around a bit to see how it fits. Make sure it has the features which will meet your needs. If, by chance, you find later that what you have chosen is not the best option for you, realize that you have purchased experience, something which rarely comes out of a box or in a book. You now know, like Thomas Edison in his quest for the perfect light bulb filament, one more thing that does not work, and while you add this to your base of knowledge, you will also be wise enough not to make that same mistake again. Ahh, here is the Food Court! Let’s sit down with a refreshing beverage and rest these tired feet while we continue our chat.

If you are just starting out with homeschooling, it is normal to have no idea of where to begin. My advice is to start with only one subject during your first week and add a few subjects at a time (1 or 2 each week) until you reach your full schedule, using books from the public library or borrowing books from friends until you can confidently purchase your own. I was able to spend an entire summer planning to begin homeschooling that fall. However, by dedicating that much time to anticipation, I basically over-prepared myself: once we began, I found homeschooling to be much easier than I had imagined it would be.

How did I pick which books to use? I visited with other homeschooling families that I knew and looked at their materials. I asked what they liked, why they liked it, and whether they had any advice for me on things to avoid. I let my children look at the materials to see what they liked: what appealed to me as a teacher sometimes was in complete opposition to my children’s learning styles and preferences, and therefore doomed to failure. Ultimately, any purchases I made without getting my children’s input were wasted; even discussing catalog descriptions of books with my children proved to be valuable, giving them a sense of ownership in their own education. Some Christian bookstores now stock a selection of homeschooling materials, and internet shopping frequently offers the ability to see example pages online — neither of which was available to me when I began this process.

I tried to give thoughtful consideration to any new program before trying it with my students. Trust me — a fad that fails can actually set your progress back several steps by breaking your familiar routine, not to mention the hard-earned money you risk on expensive curriculum. I purchased a popular Bible course that was reviewed as being suitable for all ages and included discussion questions, memory verses, everything I should ever want all in one package. We hated it. I later resold it. Before changing materials, seriously ask yourself: how is this going to benefit my students? What might the consequences be if we do not like it? Could a change in curriculum actually make an important difference, or do we just need to add a few supplemental activities to what we are already doing?

There are times when you may have nothing to lose by changing methods — when the only way to go is up. In our case, I only changed materials when I felt we had no other options left — that any change would be better for us than no change. We tried out three different grammar programs in our first year before hitting on one that “clicked.” Each change brought relief from previous frustrations, so we felt like we were at least making some progress, but our final choice was devoured by my student as she eagerly raced through lessons. Any materials that did not work for us were later resold to other families who were happy to get them, enabling us to recoup at least a portion of our initial investment.

A friend of mine began homeschooling her oldest son a couple of years after we started homeschooling. She came to me a few months later with frustrations over his math book — it was much too simple for him, so he was frustrated with boredom. It was the second book that they had tried, and both books were correct for his grade level. I loaned her a book we had finished for him to try out, but she lamented that since it was already January, he would be starting over at Page One yet again and becoming further and further behind. I suggested that she have him take the weekly tests instead of starting with the lessons: as long as he passed the tests with no trouble, he should keep doing them one after another. Once he finally hit a snag and did not know the information being tested, they should back up to the lessons covered by that particular test and begin the book with those lessons. It worked perfectly! He had also been bored in his previous public school classroom and enjoyed the challenge of taking multiple math tests in a row to show how much he actually knew. When he finally hit new material, he was excited to be learning something for a change.

What about curriculum fairs? Oh, when I’m looking at homeschool materials, I need to lock my checkbook, cash, and all credit cards in the glove box or trunk of my car! The walk out to the car in the fresh air can do wonders to clear my head of the impulses to buy things. An exhibit hall full of colorful booths and a crowd of frenzied shoppers can take on a carnival atmosphere, enticing the most frugal budgeter to snatch up the last remaining item of a popular series that everyone is buzzing about. Simply walking away for a few moments will bring me back to reality with marvelous perspective. Most popular items are available from multiple vendors, so even though one booth sells out of a desired item, it may still be available elsewhere. If I find some materials that I do intend to purchase, I can always ask the dealer to hold them for me (or have a friend stand at the booth holding onto my choices for me) while I retrieve my money. I have consoled myself that paying a little extra for shipping a book mail-ordered after a conference is still cheaper than the full purchase price of the wrong book I really did not want, but bought on impulse.

Today there are so many choices available to homeschoolers that it almost becomes a harder task to select your materials than it is to teach your students. Some quick investigation into the learning styles of your students and consideration for their preferences will narrow the field to more manageable choices. Browse through online sites or mail-order curriculum catalogs, interview other homeschoolers about their choices and the reasons behind them, and look through the actual books whenever possible. Your first choice in materials does not restrict you to remaining with something that both students and teacher absolutely abhor. Some homeschoolers choose one program and stick with it for the duration; others pick and choose from a variety of sources, altering their plans to suit their developing interests. By choosing to educate your children at home, you are already surpassing the one-size-fits-all category of the public education system.

Guilt-Free Homeschooling is based in the homeschooling method which is comfortable for you. It is just the right size for your family, not overly complicated nor overly simplified. It is not too restricting, nor too undefined and vague.

Guilt-Free Homeschooling keeps you relaxed, using materials that you know you can trust to do their job, so that you can do your job without worry, fear, or guilt.

Guilt-Free Homeschooling fits your family’s lifestyle, whether you like to be up to your elbows in bread flour or up to the minute on current events. Maybe your children learn most of their lessons from textbooks — you can do it Guilt-Free. Maybe your students learn most of their lessons in the garden or in the barn or in the machine shed — you can do it Guilt-Free. Whether your family travels together or waits patiently at home for Dad to return from his current business trip, whether you make simple art projects from tissue paper or make grand trips to the latest museum exhibitions — you can do it Guilt-Free.

Choose materials that feel comfortable, methods that keep you relaxed, and studies that fit your family’s needs and desires. Get the correct sizes for your students’ abilities, and then try them on. Walk around. Jump, skip, and dance. If the materials will take you where you want to go, then relax and enjoy the journey, Guilt-Free.

And you are going to love those new shoes — I just know it!

(For further information on matching curriculum to your students’ individual needs, please see Topical Index: Learning Styles and read the articles on Auditory, Kinesthetic, Tactile, and Visual Learners.)

When Is Reading NOT Reading?

The high school senior was asked to read a portion from the Bible during his Sunday School class. He struggled painfully over nearly every word. His efforts were so halting and disjointed that no one could follow the context of the passage easily. A girl seated next to him followed along in her own Bible, helping him with most of the words. The truly appalling part of this story is not that the twelfth grade student could not read fluently, but that no one in the room seemed to think it was at all unusual to have such difficulty in reading aloud. This young man, who was well known at school and considered a popular classmate and a “good” student, was probably reading at around a 2nd grade level. And none of his classmates in the room was alarmed by his performance.

The techniques that were used to teach reading when my daughter was in public school included identifying words by their unique shapes. “Does the word start with a letter that is taller than the others? Does the word end with a letter that dangles down below the others? Does the word have a roundish letter in the middle? That word is boy.” (Unless the word happens to be dog. Or toy. Hmmm. It could even be log.) Pictorial clues were also used to help identify words: “Let’s look at the picture in the storybook and guess which word fits best in the sentence. Yes, it must be boy. See that little guy sitting on a fallen tree trunk, holding a stuffed cloth puppy? This story is about him, so the word is definitely boy.” (Or not. If you missed the irony in my example, go back and read it again.) My daughter can still testify to the indoctrination of “identifying” words by only a few letters: she recently glanced at a price tag, bearing the code R8052CY, and mistook it for the word “Regency.”

When confusion over the correct word sets in, the popular instruction in today’s classrooms encourages students to think of words that start with the sound of the first letter or two in the word, again guessing a word they are familiar with that will fit with the rest of the sentence or story. I cannot judge your reading ability or your vocabulary, but I know that I occasionally find unfamiliar words in things that I read — now — today. How can a beginning reader be expected to know what all words will look like even before he can read them?

As you may suspect, children who have been taught to “read” using this shape-guessing technique do not become fluent readers. They do not enjoy reading. They cannot read quickly. They do not like to read aloud and, when forced to read aloud, do so slowly and without confidence. They are never quite sure if the letter is a b or a d or if it is a q or a p or a g. Ch- can make several sounds — how will they know which one to use? And do not even bring up a word containing -ough! These students are quickly labeled “dyslexic” and told that they have confusion over letter placements within words, but they are seldom given any instruction for how to overcome this difficulty. These students have little comprehension of what they read: they cannot understand what they read, so they also cannot remember what they read. Is it any wonder that they do poorly in school? Some who act out their frustrations at the inconsistency in their abilities are further labeled ADD, ADHD, and other multi-letter classifications which entitle the school to receive additional funding. And yet the funding does not translate into more efficient teaching methods.

So when is reading not reading? Obviously, the examples given above are not reading — they are guessing. To read, a person must recognize each letter, the sound it makes, and how it acts in combinations with other letters. Letters must be read as their sounds and not as their names, and the sounds of the letters must be read in the order that they appear within the word. Certain combinations of letters appear over and over again in various words, forming patterns. Phonics is the study of the sounds made by those letter combinations and patterns. Guessing at the visual shapes of words has nothing whatsoever to do with the sounds of letters. My daughter had been terribly confused by the difference between letter names and letter sounds: she thought they were interchangeable, since her school readily accepted her spelling of words such as “invite” as n-v-i-t. Incidentally, the “sight reading” method was invented as a way to teach deaf children to read — children who had no ability to sound out words. One would think that “professional” educators could recognize it as a “last resort” method for children who can hear, being far inferior to reading by sounds.

Phonics instruction includes the rules for breaking words into their syllables. (Lesson #1 being that a syllable must have at least one vowel; a word with only one vowel can therefore be only one syllable. I recently had to pull out my trusty dictionary to prove to a skeptic that the word rhythm has only one syllable, since it contains only the single vowel y.) Recognizing individual syllables enables the student to read even long, complicated chemical names as a series of smaller word-parts making up the big word. Learning about prefixes and suffixes and root words as a part of phonics enables the student to separate syllables easily and to understand the meanings of the various parts of a multi-syllable word, bringing understanding along with the reading process. Phonics will successfully teach a student to read, and a student who understands phonics will be able to read any word placed before him. Any word. He may need to consult a dictionary for its exact meaning, but the phonetic reader can come close to the correct pronunciation.

An independent organization that evaluates the performance of various industries recently looked into the performance of the public schools in my state. What it found most surprising was that the “proficiency” standards for each grade level have been redefined. A student who is considered “proficient” for fourth grade only has to measure up to third grade standards. And the gap widens considerably with advancing grade levels, to the point that a graduating senior’s “proficiency” level is several years below what should be expected from a twelfth grade education. That could be compared to going to a store and attempting to purchase your items with a $20 bill and being told that your cash is really only worth $15 in spending power, inflation arguments aside. Regardless of the denomination printed on the currency (or the report card), reality lies far below the appearance. Most of us would be upset to learn that the “proficiency” standards of a new home were skewed to the point that when the builder says the house contains five bedrooms, he really means that it has only enough room for three people to sleep comfortably. I would not want to purchase a 12-pack of sodas and find that the box actually contained only eight cans. And yet, that is the same false advertising that is being accepted from the public schools. Proficient does not mean proficient, and reading does not mean reading.

The real tragedy here is that students are passing through school, not knowing how to read properly. (A young acquaintance recently commented that she “flunked tenth grade, but was still going on into eleventh.” How does that even happen?) These students are being led to believe that they are adequately prepared for college, where they will be expected to consume massive amounts of reading materials and retain that knowledge for future reference. A student who has mild to moderate difficulty reading a child’s storybook will have incredible difficulty digesting college-level texts at the commonly expected rate of one hundred pages per night. Is it any wonder that the average 4-year bachelor’s degree now takes at least five years to attain?

Parents, if you have chosen to homeschool your children, do not neglect a thorough study of phonics in your lesson plans. The time you devote to studying spelling patterns, syllable divisions, prefixes, suffixes, roots, and word origins will set your students apart from their peers and give them a tremendous boost toward independent learning for the rest of their lives. As my husband recently quipped, “Once you’re over 50, if you don’t know phonics, you can’t remember how to spell anything!”

How Did You Learn to Write?

The college professor handed out an in-class assignment to all of the students and then bent down near the two homeschooled students seated in the front row. Pushing their assignments aside, the professor huddled very close to them and spoke in a low voice of the type usually reserved for sharing state secrets. “How did you two learn to write?” she asked.

The two friends exchanged glances and tried to decide how to answer the unusual question. “We read a lot,” they both ventured.

“But how did you learn to write?” the professor continued, “No one else in this class can write — at least not like you two can. I know you were both homeschooled. What program did you use to learn how to write?”

The sixteen-year-old part-time college freshmen were also both still high school students at home, one a Junior and the other a Senior, and they knew that they had not actually used any specific writing curriculum. “We read a lot of books,” one repeated, “so we know what good writing should look like.” “And we learned grammar,” offered the other.

“But who evaluated your writing?” the professor kept probing.

Another glance was exchanged. “You mean… our… Moms?”

“That’s it? You read books, and that’s how you two learned to write like this? I rarely have a first-year student who can write a coherent sentence, and you two are telling me that your mothers taught you how to write this well by teaching you grammar? I am impressed!”

These two students revealed that they had learned by example: reading was their primary source for instruction in composition. Reading a variety of literature and learning the basics of grammar had set them apart from the rest of their English Composition I class and from the bulk of the students that this professor had encountered. The writing experiences of these homeschooled students prior to the college class had included writing a newspaper article and a short novel in group classes, but they had no previous exposure to analogy, comparison and contrast, or the other forms of composition introduced in this college class. Observation and imitation were their keys to success in writing: see an essay — write an essay. The quality of writing that had been observed through reading was easily reproduced in writing assignments.

My recommendation is to start your children out with phonics to teach them reading and basic spelling rules. Add in handwriting and let them practice copying anything and everything that interests them so that they can become confident in their own abilities to reproduce written material. Begin adding basic grammar rules once the students have mastered reading and add more complex rules as the students’ abilities increase. Regard vocabulary as an ever-expanding knowledge base, and use the dictionary daily to confirm suspected meanings, solidify pronunciations, and discover various word forms. Promote their consumption of all manner of reading materials, and discuss passages read to ensure comprehension of concepts and ideas, beyond mere words and sentences. Observation will lead to imitation, and the more they read, the better they will be able to imitate what they have read. Once the student has a broad background in reading a variety of materials, after he possesses a fairly substantial vocabulary, and when he has a solid foundation in grammar, then he can be expected to complete a writing assignment with proficiency.

I did not force writing assignments, such as book reports, journaling, or essays. In our past experiences, the public schools seemed to think that children should be composing stories even before they could spell simple words or form a sentence. The teachers there encouraged “creative” spelling, resulting in some rather curious inventions. If my students wanted to write something, I let them. However, with my students, that did not happen often. If ever. I did have them write thank-you notes when necessary, but that was about the extent of my imposed writing assignments. Grammar study was another story. I did insist on grammar lessons, along with lessons in fundamental spelling rules and proper use of punctuation. If you want to use a skill, you need the proper tools, and those rules are the tools needed for the skill of writing.

I did use a program during high school that taught how to read and analyze, a much-preferred alternative for us to the common creative writing programs for high school students. It was a 3-workbook set called The Elements of Clear Thinking and focused on effective communication and analyzing and revealing fallacies in reasoning. My students were not interested in writing fiction or poetry; they were much more focused on non-fiction, informational content, but not the dry reports or book reviews that usually require no critical thinking skills. The excerpts used in the Clear Thinking books came from authors, politicians, and world leaders, from magazines, newspapers, and biographies. What my students learned in those books prepared them for reading a wide variety of sources as required by their college classes and enabled them to organize their thoughts for writing logical arguments. (If you are interested in purchasing the Clear Thinking series for your high schooler, I highly recommend buying the answer keys as well.)

A student who can read fluently will be able to read a wide variety of literary forms and understand what he is reading. The more that student reads, the more that student will understand and retain about the proper structure of language. Grammar instruction will give the student opportunities to practice proper sentence construction without having to invent his own subject matter (creative writing uses entirely different skills from mere grammar practice). What the student has learned about the mechanics of written language and witnessed through first-hand observation of written language will be reproduced with proficiency. But I cannot promise that the college professors will not be baffled.



The Elements of Clear Thinking series has become a little tricky to find, so these links will show you what to look for:

The Elements of Clear Thinking: Accurate Communication

The Elements of Clear Thinking: Critical Reading

The Elements of Clear Thinking: Sound Reasoning

Note: My kids described some of the excerpts in these books as boring, confusing, or too intellectual, and I agreed. As a substitute for the more complicated passages, we went to the library and found long magazine articles covering topics that were more interesting (one article had to be at least 6 pages long for an amount of text comparable to the longest excerpt). The details are more fully explained in Kids Will Be Kids.

The Value of Supplemental Activities

A friend recently posed an intriguing question to a group of homeschooling moms: “If money were no object, what would you purchase first for your homeschool?” The usual wish-list items came out: specific curriculum choices, books, more books, shelves for all the books, rooms just for school stuff, and books. However, I was the most surprised by reading a spontaneous part of my own answer: “For us, it wasn’t the curriculum itself that ‘made’ homeschooling — it was the extra-curricular activities and supplemental things we did that we remember most and learned the most from.” It was an aspect of homeschooling that I had never truly pondered before, at least not in so many words. I have often suggested various activities to help struggling students bridge the learning styles gap with assorted curricula, but suddenly I was seeing activities as The Most Important Part of any homeschooling experience.

It is not the curriculum itself that matters most; it is what you do with the program and what you do besides the program that will make all the difference in your homeschooling endeavor. Supplemental activities can turn a mediocre program into an educational experience far better than the most renowned program on the market. The activities you choose can be tailored to your child’s individual needs and interests, whereas a boxed program must be universally applicable.

Some programs are better than others, but that still goes only so far. My regular readers already know how much I loved Miquon Math for grades 1-3, but the suggested activities were what really drove the concepts home. Practice away from the workbooks and playing and experimenting with Cuisenaire rods are what solidified the knowledge that was presented in the books. Saxon Math effectively used real-life examples through word problems to teach the students how to set up a formula. (Once they have the formula, any math student can solve the formula.) Our supplemental activities for Saxon math included applying the formulas to more areas of real life: relating fractions to pies and candy bars, doubling recipes for practice using fractions, calculating the areas, perimeters, and angles for home improvement projects, and applying the mathematics of probabilities to everyday situations in my students’ lives. When my daughter had trouble understanding probability from the textbook example of red marbles and blue marbles, I changed the problem to fit her teddy bear collection. Suddenly, her favorite white polar bear stood out in marked contrast to the other bears, and the chances of selecting him at random from a pile of stuffed bears was more easily understood.

We played a great deal with construction toys, but we always built something, even if our projects were not elaborate architectural models. We never stacked the bricks just for the sake of stacking bricks. Instructions for Erector Set models or K’nex figures were a launching pad for our imaginations as we challenged ourselves to combine patterns or build bigger or better designs. Real life usually requires you to have some type of plan, so our activities always had a basic plan as well. We dared to dream, and we learned through the trying, whether we succeeded or not.

We are all familiar with the jokes about students who put a book underneath their pillows, hoping to absorb information by osmosis while they slept. We smile and laugh, knowing that there is no possible way for that to happen, but many times we urge a child to “read the book,” expecting him to absorb all the information in that manner. If the child is adept at visual learning, it may happen, but so much more knowledge and understanding can be gained through the addition of a few supplemental activities. Activities break down the barriers of learning styles, making it possible to teach your child in the way he learns best, no matter what curriculum you are using.

When I took a college chemistry course, I worked industriously at memorizing vast quantities of information. They were only meaningless words to me, but I forced myself to memorize them so that I could reproduce them on test papers. However, through working in the chemistry lab, experimenting with the acids, bases, minerals, and gases, I began to understand the concepts behind those words. I had read the book, and I had learned the facts, but I did not gain understanding until I got into a supplemental activity. Watching bubbles form in a beaker of water as electrodes forced the hydrogen and oxygen molecules to separate made the atomic bonding process straightforward and uncomplicated. It was right there in front of me. I could watch it happen. I collected bubbles of the two gases in separate test tubes and proved their identities with another test. A similar experiment electroplated a nickel coin with the copper from a penny. The diagrams my professor scribbled on the chalkboard became stop-motion animations of the molecular breakdown process. He showed me through symbols and arrows the explanation for what I saw forming in the beaker. It was not sleight-of-hand illusion; it was science taking place at my fingertips. It was not something I could learn sufficiently from merely reading a book. I had read about the process, but actually doing it made the reading portions of my lesson obsolete.

Supplemental activities do not have to be expensive or use fancy materials. Many wonderful, educational activities can be obtained from the simple things you already have around the house.
* Read aloud and discuss plot lines, characters, and what-do-you-think-will-happen-next.
* Play with art and craft materials, even if you have no natural artistic ability whatsoever. If you have difficulty drawing, get off the paper and try “sculpting” with Play-Doh — maybe you are more of a three-dimensional thinker.
* Draw diagrams, even if you have no natural artistic ability whatsoever. The simple chalkboard illustrations that have helped me gain understanding were not artistic or even dimensionally accurate, but I still learned and understood.
* Use manipulatives: hands-on learning aids, whether they are homemade flash cards, things for counting and sorting, or a clock-face made from a paper plate and cardboard “hands.” If it helps your student understand a concept, it is worth your time, trouble, and expense.
* Build models. Who cares if popsicles sticks do not resemble quality building materials? I bought my students a small package of pre-notched “popsicle” sticks (think miniature, flat Lincoln Logs) in the craft department of Wal-Mart. They never looked like much when we built things with them, but the knowledge gained from the process of fitting them together was irreplaceable.
* Do experiments. A vinegar and baking soda reaction is fascinating to someone who has never watched it before. Woodburning with nothing more than a magnifying glass and the sun is another unforgettable experience (especially when you stop paying attention to where you have the light focused and your leg suddenly gets hot).
* Play games. Children sometimes balk at spending more time studying their lessons, but have you ever had a child turn down the chance to play a game? Any game using money is math; many games require forethought and strategy, and all games teach sportsmanship. Get together with other homeschooling families and share your favorite games with each other.
* Invent a new game: take a concept that your students need work on and invent a new game for practicing that concept. Make the pieces yourself or borrow them from other games and write all the necessary rules for some real-life problem-solving experience. I dare you to try it.
* Take on hosting a group project (even if it is nothing more than a Monopoly marathon) and enlist your students to help you plan and execute it. We learned much more from preparing large-scale events than we ever could have learned from merely participating in them. My daughter first ventured into administrative duties when we tackled an event that combined several homeschool support groups. The skills she developed then still serve her today in retail management.
* GO see things and DO stuff: zoos, museums, libraries, etc. A “family pass” will often be usable at more than one location. We purchased a season-long family pass to a small local zoo, only to find that it also entitled us to free admission to a much larger zoo in another city an easy day-trip away. Our pass also included other zoos, history museums, art museums, and science museums for a full year. For a little more than the standard admission for one family visit, we were able to take in multiple wonderful experiences. Another amazing surprise for me was how fascinating unfamiliar libraries were to my children. We dropped by the public library in another city and ended up spending hours exploring it and seeing how its features differed from our local library. Whether you take an extended, educational, family vacation or just walk around your neighborhood noticing the architectural differences, it can be a memorable learning experience.

Anything that takes place outside of the textbooks or outside of the house is always memorable. If I were to ask my children to name their “Top 10 Favorite Things” from our homeschooling days, none of their responses would include the textbooks we used. Their “Top 1,000” list would barely touch on textbooks. Let me say this again: it is not the curriculum itself that matters the most. It is what you do with the program and what you do besides the program that will make all the difference in your homeschooling experience.

Homeschooling Is a Choice

Our lives are filled with choices:
— glasses or contacts
— milk chocolate or dark chocolate
— cash or credit
— white or wheat
— automatic or manual
— butter or margarine
— straight leg or boot cut
— soup or salad
— analog or digital
— chocolate or vanilla
— mittens or gloves
— rare, medium, or well done
— public school, private school, or homeschool

When we first began questioning acquaintances about their choice to homeschool, they all were very reluctant to divulge anything. We persisted with a few and finally succeeded in getting some friends to open up and share their perspectives. We were not assuming that our situation would be identical to theirs — in fact, quite the opposite was true: we knew our exact situation was uniquely ours, but we wanted some information for comparison. However, the homeschooling families we spoke with seemed fearful of influencing our decision by explaining the reasons behind their choices. No matter if the question was whether to leave public school or how to select a phonics program, whenever we asked, “Why did you choose this?” they seemed to hear, “What do you think we should do?”

If I ask if your opinion of a certain movie, I will also ask you for your reasons: was it funny, was it violent, was it vulgar, was it cliched, did it “work”? I prefer romantic comedies; if you prefer historical dramas, personal recommendations may be of little value. If you ask me about a specific type of homeschooling material, I will give you my reasons for liking or not liking it. Materials can have excellent qualities, but not meet my students’ needs, or materials can be less than ideal, but still be good enough to suit a short-term purpose or a limited budget. Knowing information about the material itself will be much more helpful to you than simply knowing whether or not I liked it. In selecting homeschooling materials, your family’s needs should be more influential than another’s personal opinion.

Choices are also subject to change, depending on present situations. Once upon a time, I could not drive a manual transmission automobile, evidenced by my brother’s frustration as he tried to teach me. His job would have been easier if I had known how to drive anything at that time, but years later, a friend taught me to drive a stick shift, almost as quickly as my brother had given up. I had changed, and my motivation had changed. When I had a good reason for wanting to drive a manual transmission car (my husband and I had just purchased one as our only vehicle), I was suddenly very motivated to conquer this gap in my education. Once upon another time, I had no personal interest in homeschooling, but my opinion changed as quickly as my children’s needs changed. Our original choice for public school was replaced by a choice to homeschool as the standardized education proved inadequate for my children’s individual needs.

During our first years of homeschooling, I was anxious to “fit in” with other homeschoolers and do things “right.” I wanted to see and hear how other families did things, if for no other purpose than to glean ideas that we could apply. As time went by, I began to free myself from the more manipulative members of our homeschooling community, those who tended to insist that every family should be studying the exact same topics that they were studying and to the same extremes. We participated in once-a-month activity days, but we did not extend our participation much beyond that. Occasionally, an activity that did not appeal to us would conveniently conflict with our schedule, freeing us to stay home, Guilt-Free. Later on, when I had fully developed my own style of homeschooling, I knew I was free to reject the other methods of homeschooling that were pushed at me.

We are an eclectic family. We are spontaneous, rather than scheduled. We have antique furnishings sitting right beside contemporary pieces. We enjoy what we enjoy, because we enjoy it. Other families thrive on structure, live by their tightly scheduled calendars, and absolutely adore having someone else select everything they need for homeschooling and deliver it all in one package. Still others like to spend months on one topic, delving into all possible aspects, before moving on to the next thing. The differences between us are rooted in our families’ preferences and reflected in the choices we make.

My choice is my choice. Your choice is your choice. The choices others make may have little bearing on what choice I ultimately make. I will probably check into several options before making my final selection, and what I do pick will be the best for my family as a unit and as individuals. If I make a choice too quickly, I may regret it and need to try again, or I may be satisfied with my first choice and find no need to change.

I chose to educate my children at home, parting company with the public school system. Some of my friends also chose to homeschool, many more chose public school, and a few chose private school. Of my homeschooling friends, some leaned toward a classical education, some opted for unit studies, and others chose the school-in-a-box, prepackaged curricula. I took a little of this and a little of that for an eclectic approach. Neither a more structured plan nor a total avoidance of textbooks is better or worse than the mixture that I used; it is simply different.

Pressures to conform to others’ choices come from all sorts of outside sources, and maintaining your focus takes diligence. Even now, I am often invited to branch out from this writing to become involved in other facets of writing for homeschooling. When that happens, I remind myself of my purpose and my goals, making it easier for me to discern distractions from opportunities. If you choose to teach your children at home, know why you chose that, and remind yourself of your own purposes and goals as often as necessary to maintain your focus. Do not consider the mere presence of an option to mean that you must accept that offer. Choosing means saying either yes or no.

When acquaintances ask about homeschooling, there is no harm in sharing your choices and the reasons behind them on an informational basis. Encourage those who are going through the choice process to choose what seems best for their situation, because circumstances can change, and our choices may someday be changed also. Remember that the final choice is theirs, and what they choose may be different from your choice or my choice, but it may still be the right choice for them.

Our lives are filled with choices:
— glasses or contacts
— white or wheat
— analog or digital
— chocolate or vanilla
— public school, private school, or homeschool
— textbooks, unit studies, or video lessons
— book reports or narration
— repetition or exploration

What are your choices?

Homeschooling Is Hard Work

As a young man, my father-in-law built houses. I doubt if he would have called it easy, and I think I could go so far as to say that building a house is hard work. But I am also quite sure he would have called it satisfying work, enjoyable work, and well worth the required effort. I watched him one day as he walked into my neighbor’s home, looked around a bit at the structural lines, and said, “Yep, I built this one.” The frame was many decades older, remodeling projects had changed a wall here and there, and the latest occupants had never seen it in its prime, but the master craftsman could still recognize his work.

Many things we do each day can be considered enjoyable and satisfying, even though they also fall into the category of hard work. Stripping the bed linens and stuffing them into the washing machine can be a chore, especially when bedrooms and laundry room are several floors apart. Carrying a basket of wet sheets outdoors and hanging them on the clothesline is also not an effortless task, but the sun-dried scent of clean cotton defies description. The delight of lying down upon cool, crisp bedding after a wearying day somehow trivializes the amount of work it took to accomplish the task.

Homeschooling your children is hard work. In the midst of this grueling task, we often have to remind ourselves of what our goal is and how much we will appreciate the reward when that job has been well done. Homeschooling can be either complicated or simplified in many ways, based on the tools we choose to use and the extravagance of the details we decide to add. If we have chosen the proper equipment to fit our task, we can progress smoothly — some days barely working up a sweat. At other times, we may compare our progress to hanging pictures with a sledgehammer and railroad spikes — it will get the job done, but the results may be less than desirable.

From time to time I found our homeschool “product” becoming less than satisfactory: the children were not learning the material as easily as I had anticipated, some or all of us were frustrated with the presentation of material, or some or all of us became bored with the materials, the lesson format, or schooling in general. Those were the times when teaching and/or learning were becoming hard work, with few rewards to maintain our focus or enjoyment of the task.

The first time this happened, we were brand new to homeschooling. I had purchased an all-in-one language arts program that was becoming very popular with the other homeschoolers I knew. My daughter looked at the material with some apprehension, but faithfully gave it a try. Day after day, we worked together on the lessons, and day after day she became more frustrated. One part of the lessons required me to dictate a story excerpt to her while she transcribed it into a notebook. As simple as that seemed in theory, it was tremendously difficult in practice. As we pressed on through increasingly trying days, I began to analyze the process, hoping to determine what was making this so hard. After all, the homeschool families I had talked with told me how their children progressed from one lesson to the next without difficulty — what were we doing wrong? Our first two months of homeschooling made us question our motives along with our sanity: how could we possibly continue on this path for an entire year, let alone multiple years?

It finally became evident that we were following the instructions accurately as laid out by the curriculum’s publisher, but their plan of action for this particular subject just did not fit our needs at this time. Heart-to-heart discussions with my daughter revealed what she was hoping to receive from homeschooling. Her public school classrooms had too few books to go around, and the students were required to copy their lessons into notebooks instead of writing directly in the workbooks. My daughter’s vision of homeschooling included being allowed to write in her very own workbook! I grabbed my stack of curriculum catalogs, and together we read through the descriptions, looking for a program that would meet her expectations besides providing the basic grade level instruction. As soon as the parcel-delivery service brought the desired package, our homeschool days underwent an amazing transformation. My student had her first personal work-text to write in, without any reprimands for doodling in the margins or plastering each completed page with “job well-done” stickers, gold stars, and smiley faces. The stigma of her public school experience was suddenly vanquished, and she became an overnight homeschooling enthusiast. We were no longer bashing the walls with sledgehammer and oversized spikes: we had the proper tools for our job.

Houses do not get built in a day (except through the “magic” of television), and children do not obtain an education overnight. Homeschooling takes dedication, hard work, and a little sweat, but hopefully not too many tears. While still in the midst of your mission, you can look around to see what has been accomplished so far, and from that obtain the encouragement needed to see this project through to completion. The reward will come when one day you look at the finished product and recognize a job well done.

Homeschool Gadgets: An Investment in Your Future or a Waste of Money?

You are at the educational supplies store or homeschool curriculum fair and see a fancy teaching gadget on display. Yes, it is cute. It may even be on sale, but will it pay for itself in lessons learned or in time saved, or is it destined to become a liability in storage space?

Not every gadget or tool needs to be purchased to teach the subjects you desire your students to learn. Some items can be replicated inexpensively at home from “found” materials — and then discarded Guilt-Free after they have fulfilled their purpose. We made a few with enough care to be able to use them over and over and have kept them for many years. Others can be done without entirely. I once purchased a plastic board covered with tiny pegs that was supposed to illustrate geometric figures when you stretched rubber bands around the pegs. However, only certain shapes could be accurately portrayed, making even my small investment disappointing.

It is also wise to consider storage when purchasing extras for your homeschool. I opted for the world globe printed on a beach ball — perfect roundness was not necessary for us to understand geography, but the deflating capability made storage very easy.

Mail-order catalogs were a great source of ideas for make-it-yourself learning aids. We “borrowed” ideas for items that we would probably not have used more than once. Sometimes just examining the catalog photo and description were enough to illustrate the principle and give my students a basic understanding of the concept. Other times we purchased an item (such as the wooden set of Cuisenaire rods), knowing that it would pay for itself many times over in multiple uses.

I purchased a gadget that held 5 pieces of chalk in evenly spaced wire brackets for drawing parallel lines on a chalkboard. I drew lines for penmanship, musical staffs, and graphing grids for math. I turned my chalkboard into “graph paper” to tame the wayward numbers in long division or multiplication problems: one digit per box clarifies even the poorest handwriting. (My chalk-holder has been passed on to another homeschool family so I cannot prove this, but I think it may also be possible to insert thin white board markers into the wires for use on today’s ubiquitous white boards.)

I made my own geometric shapes (squares, triangles, pentagons, hexagons) out of old file folders for constructing 3-D figures. I made all the shapes to the same dimensions (2″ sides), and the various shapes could be fitted together for very interesting structures. I included an extra 1/4″ tab-strip on each edge, and we used tiny orthodontic rubber bands to link the pieces together, but the pieces could also be glued or taped together for permanence. I saw this idea in a curriculum catalog at a time when we could not spare the money for many extras. My husband had removed a stack of slightly worn file folders from a wastebasket at work, thinking I may be able to use them for something. My oldest student was barely into geometry and angles but got a sneak-peak at how to use compass, protractor, and straight edge to construct our wonderful new learning aids. Both students had great fun assembling 3-D models of geometric solids, which gave them a boost in understanding volume and geometry as those lessons came around.

I purchased inexpensive math manipulatives by buying sugar cubes to use in illustrating volume. We kept them on a jellyroll pan to contain the inevitable crumbs and stacked the cubes to count how many units/rows/layers it took to make a larger block. We also effectively illustrated multiplication and division by grouping the sugar cubes into rows to show 3 rows of 5 sugar cubes was equal to 5 rows of 3 sugar cubes, and both totaled 15 sugar cubes. A few hundred sugar cubes were purchased for a very small price, enabling the children to build perfect mathematical squares and cubes and study the multiplication facts with their hands as well as with their eyes. Numbers on a times-table chart were much more meaningful after they had proved the facts themselves. We worked with the sugar cubes carefully to avoid unnecessary breakage and crumbling, and were able to reuse them many times.

Educational games are a spending temptation for nearly every Mom I know. However, since many of them tend to be rather expensive, exert your self-control and go for the ones that will teach more than one concept. A game that does not have a “fun” element to it will probably not be played with very often, sliding it into the liability category. Try not to allow your game collection to sit idly on the shelf once the age limit or skill level has been passed by your students. Challenge them to create new rules for the game or find new ways to use the game’s equipment to match their new skill levels. Pre-reading games such as Candy Land can be adapted for math skills (see Alternate Methods for Teaching Math for more ideas).

The biggest consideration for buying educational gadgets, reference books, and homeschool materials is: Does this have more than one function? If it is usable for only one thing (especially if that is a very insignificant function), perhaps your hard-earned money would be better spent elsewhere. If the item will be used for multiple tasks over a long period of time, it is probably a wise investment.