Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Are you a curriculum snob?

Listening to homeschool families express their opinions about various curricula can be interesting. Parents usually put a lot of research and thought into selecting curriculum, and sometimes their choices are strongly defended.

The A Beka curriculum was developed for private Christian schools and was one of the first programs to welcome homeschoolers. Opinions about this curriculum tend toward one of two extremes. One side can make you feel that you aren't a "real homeschooler" if you don't use A Beka. The opposite side thinks you're lacking in imagination if you rely on the old standby.

Saxon math? There are those who consider it the Cadillac of math programs. Others turn up their noses at this obvious choice, preferring more creative options. Another math program, Math-U-See, generates similar strong feelings. Because it doesn't follow the traditional sequence, it's either applauded for its imaginative presentation, or derided because it's too different to be taken seriously.

Many families enjoy the convenience of all-in-one programs like ACE or Alpha Omega. More eclectic homeschoolers rebel against the idea that a succession of identical workbooks can provide an adequate education.

Homeschoolers must choose from no fewer than six basic penmanship styles. Comparing the loopy, decorative Spencerian penmanship with Handwriting Without Tears' basic, slant-free style is almost like comparing apples to oranges, but you'll find homeschooling moms eager to discuss why they chose their favorite.

Those of us who prefer an online homeschool curriculum for our core program sometimes come under fire from traditionalists. We, in turn, are amazed that someone living in 2009 would fail to take advantage of technology's educational advantages.

Textbook or workbook? Classical education? Unschooling? The truth is that there is no one-size-fits all curriculum, which is part of the advantage of homeschooling. Parents are free to choose the program that works best for their family, often choosing something different for each child in the same family. We are fortunate to have many more choices than the "pioneer" homeschoolers. There is much to be learned from debating the pros and cons of various curricula, and most parents have carefully selected what they feel works best for their individual child. I admit to sometimes raising my eyebrows at my friends' choices, but I'm trying to learn not to be such a curriculum snob!

Friday, July 24, 2009

How Long is a Homeschool Day?

A homeschool day typically doesn't last as long as a day in public school. This is worrisome for many new homeschooling parents, who are puzzled when their students finish a stack of school work in two or three hours. Some rush out to buy more curriculum, assuming they need to keep their children busy "doing school" all day. Other parents resist the impulse to add additional academics, realizing their child has already completed massive amounts of work. This decision is often accompanied by guilt feelings, because the child seems to have so much more free time than his public schooled peers.

Experienced homeschoolers realize that homeschooling is simply a more efficient way to learn. There is no need to wait until a bell rings before beginning on another class subject. Students can proceed at their own pace instead of having to wait until others in a class are ready to move on. There is no time spent on role call, announcements, or other group management activities. Waiting in line is nonexistent, and the teacher is usually readily available.

Parents tend to do one of two things when they accept that their homeschool curriculum is not going to fill the hours between eight and three PM. Those who thrive on structure attempt to schedule enough educational videos, computer games, worksheets, and required reading to keep their children busy. This almost guarantees educational burnout for both parent and child. It takes a huge amount of time and energy for a parent to seek out new learning resources each day, and children can only assimilate so much information at one time.

More relaxed moms and dads allow their kids to fill their free time any way they choose. This frequently results in a mad dash to get the school work out of the way as quickly as possible, followed by watching television or playing video games for the balance of the day.

We have chosen what we hope is a middle-of-the-road approach. Our family is almost always finished with our formal studies by noon. My children are then allowed "free time" . . . to a point. The television is off-limits during the hours of eight to four. Video games and non-school computer use are also prohibited. The kids can read for pleasure, play board games, do arts and crafts, practice an instrument, work on Scout badges, or engage in creative play such as Legos, Playdough, sand box, playing "house" or "cars". This gives them a wide variety of worthwhile activities to choose from, while eliminating my need to schedule every minute of their day.

Kids learn a lot from unstructured play. (How many times have you seen a playhouse or set of blocks in a classroom?) Sibling relationships blossom when brothers and sisters are playing together, instead of zoned out in front of a screen. Reading is encouraged when other options are limited.

Our family has settled into a comfortable pattern of school days, knowing when formal study is required and confident that less-structured time is being put to good use. Our kids used to dash for the television the second 4:00 rolled around but, these days, they're just as likely to continue reading the book they started earlier.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Homeschool or School at Home?

Thirteen years ago, when I began teaching my children at home, I was determined to do it right. A room in our home was set aside as a classroom. I put alphabet strips above the blackboard and furnished it with school-style desks. We started our school day with the Pledge of Allegiance and the children sat stiffly in their desks as I read to them. A timer reminded us when it was time for recess.

At the end of two weeks, I was exhausted and seriously reconsidering the decision to homeschool. Everything took twice as long as I had planned. Because this was a home, lessons were constantly being interrupted by the telephone or the doorbell, the baby crying or the dog needing let out. I was saddened by the way my children dashed out the door at recess time and frustrated with the amount of time required to get them back on task when recess was over.

Public school was very tempting. I could avoid criticism, save money, and have a lot more time to myself, simply by sending my children to school. Thinking along these lines led me to consider why I chose to homeschool my children in the first place. Reluctantly, I admitted to myself that all of my reasons boiled down to one basic belief. I thought I could do a better job than the public schools! It might sound arrogant when put in those words, but the belief that "I can do better" is what's behind most families' decision to homeschool, whether they are concerned about academics, spiritual training, health aspects, or social influences.

Understanding my motivation freed me to change the way I thought about school. If I really thought I could do better, then why was I trying to copy the public schools? I decided to trust my instincts and make some drastic changes. To be honest, our home classroom was designed as a showpiece for others, to fend off criticism from anti-homeschooling friends and relatives. It wasn't practical for teaching three childen at three different grade levels, while balancing a baby on my hip. I realized that homeschool didn't have to look like school at home.

One of my teacher's manuals included a picture of a mother, reading to her children, who were crowded around her on the sofa. I liked that picture, because my children often crowded around me in the same way when I read their bedtime stories. I wished they showed such interest in the school books we read together! THAT'S what I wanted our homeschool to be like!

It took a while to deprogram my public school attitude. I was encouraged, because each change I made seemed to result in less stress and more learning taking place. These days, the classroom has been repurposed as yet another child's bedroom. We start our day in our pajamas, drinking hot cocoa in the living room and enjoying a good book together. I'm convinced that the hour I spend reading to my children each morning has been the source of most of their retained knowledge. Kids just seem to absorb material that's presented in story form, especially when it's NOT accompanied by a test.

We are not unschoolers. We've merely incorporated school into the rest of our lives, instead of setting aside certain times and places when learning is required. We practice spelling words while loading the dishwasher. We recite our times tables while traveling. One child does his computer lessons while a younger sister looks on, oblivious to the fact that she's learning, too! The kids do their school work in the kitchen, in their rooms, or outside under a tree. Education thrives in a relaxed, nonthreatening environment, and I have a lot more free time!

Monday, July 20, 2009

What does "Vocabulary" mean?

My state requires home schooled children to be tested periodically. Looking at the results of my third grader's standardized test, I commented, “You did very well in everything except Vocabulary. I guess we’d better do a little extra vocabulary work this year.” His response? “Okay, Mom. But . . . what does “vocabulary” mean?”

That son will graduate from our homeschool high school this year with an impressive vocabulary, but it took some work. I almost feel I should apologize for some of the boring vocabulary workbooks I made him wade through. I wish I'd had access to the vocabulary game site my younger children are using. I noticed early on that my kids are more likely to remember what they've learned if they have a little fun doing it.

Try The Slang Game! For as frequently as it's used, slang isn't given enough attention in most language arts programs. Hangmouse is a hit at our house, too.

free vocabulary games

Friday, July 17, 2009

Songs for Homeschooling

Learning Games for Kids is a site brimming with . . . learning games, for kids!

The entire site is worth some serious exploration, but the educational song page has been a big hit with my family, despite their initial reluctance. The songs must be forty or fifty years old, and they sound like it! My children stared at me in astonishment the first time I played The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas. The second time I played it, they rolled their eyes. The third time, they were singing along.

Our whole family memorized The Sun Song, along with its accompanying facts. We didn't TRY to memorize it. I just played it a few times to tease my children! The song is so catchy that it leaves an indelible imprint on the most reluctant learner's mind. The site mentions that one adult who learned this song says it's the ONLY thing he remembers from science class.

If you like The Sun Song, try The Hurricane Song, too . . . and then sample some of the educational games. You won't be able to resist bookmarking this one!

Monday, July 13, 2009

What is a complete curriculum?

New homeschoolers, concerned about perceived gaps in their child's education, often find reassurance in the words “complete curriculum”. It doesn’t take long to discover that the term “complete curriculum” means something different to everyone.

“Is this EVERYTHING I will need?” asks an anxious mom, unpacking a huge box of homeschool text books. Well, the answer is yes . . . and no.

There’s room for personalization and enrichment in any program. It’s acceptable and desirable to consider your student’s interests and your own skills and talents when choosing how to implement your chosen curriculum.

Classroom teachers in the same school, using identical curriculum, will each provide a different experience for their students. I had one teacher who used her vacation slides as a visual aid during social studies. Another added drawing instruction to her penmanship lessons. Students in other classrooms didn’t have the benefit of these teachers’ additions to the standard curriculum. Was their education any less “complete”?

Most curriculum vendors consider their program complete if it aligns with state standards for math, language, social studies and science. This does not mean their materials are all you will ever need to teach your child. Homeschool parents often supplement with videos, library books, department store workbooks, Internet content, field trips, music lessons, and participation in team sports.

Your student may need more drill than your math program provides. Most students can benefit from reading practice beyond what can be provided in a language arts curriculum, and there’s no such thing as “too much” writing.

Still, it’s comforting when you know you’ve chosen a curriculum that is sufficient on the days you’re too busy or not inspired to add anything extra. Our family’s core program, Time4Learning, provides the structure necessary to keep us on track, along with the flexibility to add or subtract as desired. Unique among online programs, Time4Learning allows users to work lessons in any order, skip activities, or take time off to pursue an enrichment opportunity.

In an effort to be “complete”, most online programs require keeping to a rigid schedule that discourages individuality. I don’t want to be a slave to any curriculum, but I don’t want to be left without any guidance, either. Time4Learning is aligned to state standards and fits anyone’s definition of “complete”, but I consider it complete because it accommodates both the need for structure and the desire for flexibility.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

My Child Isn't at Grade Level

Is your home educated child not working at grade level? You're in good company!

Homeschoolers often feel they are in competition with the public schools. There is an assumption that all fifth graders in public school are working at a fifth grade level in all subjects. This is not the reality, and it has nothing to do with the public schools' failure. It has to do with individual differences. Aren't our differences something we've learned to celebrate?

In public schools, good teachers sometimes compensate for learning variations by dividing their classes into the "Red Group" and the "Blue Group" or "Team One" and "Team Two". This is often a sensitive way of grouping students according to learning ability. (When I was a child, our classes were labeled, "Slow Learners", "Average Students", and "Advanced Class"!)

No two children ever learn to walk, talk, run, or ride a bike at exactly the same age. We usually accept these variations without difficulty. When it comes to academics, though, expectations change. If the next page in the second grade math book introduces multiplication, we consider our second grader "behind" if he can't do it . . . even if all he needs is a little more practice with addition and subtraction first.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that grade level is somewhat subjective. State regulations attempt to standardize education, but every state has a different set of standards and every school within that state has their own way of applying them. Even within the same school, teachers will not use the same curriculum in the same way.

Among homeschool programs, the scope and sequence will vary greatly. A Beka expects third graders to do complicated long division. ACE doesn't even introduce division until fourth grade. Miquon math introduces division in first grade, along with the other three operations. Your student may be behind, ahead, or right at grade level, depending on what math curriculum you choose!

Our family's core curriculum, Time4Learning, allows for a student's individuality. Students can be placed at a different level for each subject, and they may change grade levels as needed. They can even skip around among grade levels in the same subject.

For example, when my own daughter was working at the third grade level in math, she began to have difficulty when division was introduced. I realized this was because she hadn't yet mastered multiplication, and the ability to divide relies heavily on knowing the multiplication facts. I changed her to the second grade level for a couple of months, to allow more multiplication practice. When we once again attempted third grade division, she was more than ready!

The reason many of us begin homeschooling in the first place is to provide a quality education, and yet we often feel restrained by the way we assume things are done in the public schools. It's never been my goal for my child to simply "get through the workbook" or to be able to check off that a certain concept was introduced. The check marks are meaningless unless real learning has taken place.

Too much grade level awareness can also serve to hold a child back. The daughter I mentioned who was working at the third grade level in math was, at the same time, doing well in a seventh grade language program. She was technically a fifth grader, but she definitely didn't fit neatly into any typical fifth grade curriculum.

In a group of young children, there can be huge variations in learning ability, much of it developmentally related. The gaps usually narrow as students age. By the time they were teens, there was very little difference between my children who learned to read at age three and the one who couldn't read until she was eight.

Having graduated two of my six children from our home school, I think flexible programs like Time4Learning, which allow a student to progress at their own pace, are one of the keys to our family's homeschooling success. My children progress at vastly different paces, but each has concluded his homeschooling career with similar academic abilities. With a third child due to graduate next year, we've become relaxed enough to use grade levels as a general guide instead of a mandated course of study.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Homeschooling While Traveling

How do you homeschool when you're not at home? For families who would rather leave their toothbrushes behind than hit the road without a laptop, an online curriculum is the obvious choice. Others may not be so sure.

Whether you school year round or just want to provide a little summer review, there are several methods of home education that could be compatible with the restrictions inherent with travel and limited storage.

Textbooks and workbooks could be the least expensive option, but not necessarily. Books are heavy to pack and take up a lot of space. They also take a beating while traveling, guaranteed not to arrive home in the condition in which they left. Parents also need to take time out from vacation activities to grade the work regularly.

Those who travel in an RV probably take along a DVD player. There are homeschool programs available on DVD, but two top sellers also require textbooks . . . LOTS of textbooks. Travelers choosing this option still must contend with the drawbacks associated with using a book-based curriculum, as well as the possibility of damaged or lost DVDs.

If you have a laptop or netbook, you might consider a homeschool program on CD. Remember that you won't be able to use CDs on most netbooks (mini laptops) unless you purchase a separate optical drive. Attaching a separate CD drive to a netbook effectively eliminates the advantage a netbook has over a laptop, which is its size. Your laptop can play CDS . . . the ones the ones the kids haven't lost.

Our family has found that an online homeschool curriculum best fits our summer school needs. There are no books or other supplies to store and no discs to lose. The program even grades the student's work, leaving Mom and Dad free to enjoy more vacation time.

You may have considered an online school in the past, but realized it would be difficult to adhere to the school's requirements during the summer. Time4Learning is not an online school, imposing a strict schedule and not allowing parents to skip or modify activities. Time4Learning is an online curriculum, to be used in the way that best suits your individual child.

Although there is a suggested, typical course of study for each grade level, students are free to work the lessons in any order. Activities can be done as many times as necessary or desired. Students may work at different grade levels in each subject, even alternating between grade levels in the same subject. Tests may be given or eliminated, and lessons can be skipped altogether. Payment is made once a month, with no obligation to continue for a specified number of months.

Summer seems to cry out for fun! Even if you use another program during the school year, Time4Learning's lighthearted, animated lessons could provide a much-needed break from your family's usual school routine. Don't be surprised if, like our family, you find yourselves becoming regular users throughout the year.