What you need to know when choosing a homeschooling curriculum is, 1) Who are you buying the curriculum for, 2) What kinds of curriculum are available and, 3)How that curriculum was developed. Drawing upon eighteen years of home curricula shopping research, here’s what the purveyors of fine home education materials may not tell you in their sales literature.
TAILORED TO FIT
Curriculum sellers want you to believe by simply exposing your child to their educational materials, that child will learn the intended subject. A dress may be beautiful on the rack but if it doesn’t come in your size, it’s a waste of money. You must know the learning style of each child for whom you are purchasing curriculum. Here are two sound books on determining your child’s learning style: The Way They Learn: How to Discover and Teach to Your Child’s Strengths by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias and Discover Your Child’s Learning Style by Mariaemma Willis and Victoria Hodson. You’ve watched your child all his life so you know if he’s the kind of child who sits for hours with great concentration putting Legos together or if he’s happiest running toy cars over the walls. If you purchase a curriculum that requires long periods of fine motor concentration for your Speed Racer you are going to be frustrated.
Equally important in the selection process of curricula is determining what kind of teacher you are. You might match a curriculum to your child but if you find it confusing, boring, frustrating or more labor-intensive than you can manage, that purchase will be a waste of money. Ask yourself these questions:
Do I learn best reading, listening, or doing? This may help you determine if the teacher’s guide for a curriculum would do you any good at all.
How much do I already know about this subject? The less you know, the more complete your curriculum will have to be so you can learn alongside your child.
How much time do I have to spend with this child on this subject? When your children are young they need you to read, explain, and demonstrate almost everything. Older children you can leave to their own studies with a good textbook and answer book.
Admittedly, it is a complicated process to find a foreign language program for your Middle Schooler, a reading comprehension curriculum for your Grade Schooler and introductory math activities for your darling in kindergarten that you can live with comfortably. Find solace in this: YOU WILL MAKE MISTAKES. Every home educator on the planet has bought curriculum that was a mistake. The dress looked so good in the store but when you got it home, you never found an occasion to wear it. In the same way you eventually get rid of unwanted clothes, you will learn from your mistakes and sell your unsuccessful curriculum at the next used curriculum sale. What did not work for your family might just be what the next homeschooling family needs.
VARIATIONS UPON A THEME
There are technical terms used in pedagogy for curriculum styles. Going through curriculum fairs I’ve developed my own “lingo” which may make it easier for you to recognize what your thumbing through.
* Breathe In, Breathe Out: These curricula tell you step-by-step what materials to gather, what books to have on hand, and what to say to your child and what the child should repeat back to you. Having your lessons scripted to the smallest detail may seem reassuring but quite often real, live, thinking children will not respond the way they are supposed to.
* Recipes for Learning: These materials are designed for the home educator using a “unit studies” approach, where you try to link all the subjects (math, reading, science, history, etc.) to particular topics. If your daughter loves horses then you read books (fiction and non-fiction) about horses, study horse anatomy, study the history of horse breeding, do math calculations on how much fencing necessary for 15 horses . . . And these curricula give you ideas you can implement, books you could find, games you could play involving horses. These can be great fun, like leafing through a cookbook at the grocery check out and getting inspired to try mustard chicken for a change. The danger is that you may buy a book on what books to get and not be able to find those books in the library or stores. Likewise, it might sound wonderful to teach your children about the human ear by making a model of it they can crawl through – but how practical will that actually be?
* Year in a Box: Many companies – some excellent, some dreadful- will sell you an entire 4th grade curriculum. Textbooks, workbooks, audio-visuals for a year of your child’s life. I have known some wonderful children who methodically filled in the blanks of their workbooks and who graduated as well-educated human beings. I’ve also known some families who nearly bankrupted themselves on complete curriculums only to find their children were not learning even though they were filling in the blanks. My advice is to find someone who is using the curriculum you have in mind and have your child test it out before you make the year’s investment.
* Computer Tutors: Very similar to the previous type, only you can have everything your child needs to learn presented by their personal computer. Children love video games, right? They spend hours on the Internet anyway, trolling for U-tubes and reading their Manga. Why not put that love of their computer to good use and plug them in for something educational several hours a day? Sure, it’s expensive, but think of the time YOU’LL save! I personally found having computer games or single subject computer curricula that supplemented teacher-student time was fine. But children I know who have been entirely educated by computer tutors can be very knowledgeable but have horrendous social skills. A mother board is no replacement for a mother.
* Teacher Trainers: This is less a curriculum and more a reference book that teaches the parent all about a subject (say Ancient Egyptians) that then allows that parent to teach their child. These are books you will keep forever and use with each successive child, modifying it to that child’s interests and abilities. Do I need a copy of Strunk & White? Absolutely. Is the Kingfisher Science Encyclopedia worth the expense? You’ll refer to it every year for every science subject. You will refuse to let your children take with them when they move out on their own your copy of the Rose Book of Bible Charts, Maps & Timelines. These types of books are worth your precious dollars in any dealer’s room or book fair.
* Makeovers: The most dangerous kind of curriculum is one that was marketed for public school that has been made-over to have appeal to a homeschooling market. Sure, all the information on the subject is included in the book. There are assignments and “group activities” and test banks. But consider very carefully, is it appealing because it has the glossy, full-color, hard-bound textbook feel that reminds you of your schoolbook days or is it appealing because you can actually use it with your homeschooling style with just a handful of children?
Parents on the prairie educated their children with a tiny slate, a squeaky chunk of chalk, and a McGuffey Reader. They read aloud to them the two books they owned: Pilgrim’s Progress and the Bible. Children learned biology at calving season and history from Grandpa’s stories by the fire. My point: the education of a child is not dependent on the curriculum you buy.
When homeschooling “came back” into vogue in the late seventies, early eighties, those brave pioneers who were nervously refusing to send their children to public school really had to scramble to come up with school materials. They practically melted their library cards checking out the maximum limit as often as they could. Many of them decided to write and publish their own curricula and started the homeschooling book fair market. It worked for them, they figured it might work for other home educating parents.
When the movement became noticeable in the nineties because homeschooled students began to score exceptionally on standardized tests and gain national attention for winning scholarly competitions, everybody in scholastic publishing became interested in reaching the homeschooling market. So now you have to be a choosy mother. The decision to homeschool usually means a choice to do without a second income so where you place your valuable dollar matters. Scholastic publishers know that a homeschooling parent is nervous about their personal abilities to take on the daunting task of their child’s education – and they prey upon those fears with textbook advertisements that make you feel if you DON’T buy this curriculum, your child will be a failure and it will be all your fault.
But in amongst the costume jewelry are genuine treasures. You will need to research, poll other home educators you respect, and just plain make some bad purchases with the good before you will find the curriculum that fits your child, at this grade level, with the parent/teacher that God has given them to. And remember, if you love your children for the people they are, you’ll be able to teach them with a slate, a piece of chalk, and your favorite book.