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.)

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