Homeschool – A Day in the Life, Part II: Curriculum

In Part I, I gave an overview of our homeschooling lives. In this post, I provide information about the materials we use and how we chose them. Not every homeschooling family uses materials of this type, this is just what we use (for now).

When it comes to curriculum and how child-led I want my children’s education to be, I’m influenced by both The Well-Trained Mind (which I’ll abbreviate as TWTM) and Thomas Jefferson Education (see A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-First Century by Oliver DeMille), both of which encourage families to use different approaches to suit their child’s age, development, interests, and temperament.

What seems to be working for us at this point is for me to set up a list of subjects that it’s important to me that my daughter cover, and then let my daughter help me in deciding what to study when and—albeit to a lesser extent—which materials to use. I try to let her be part of my decision-making process so that as she gets older, she’s prepared to take on more responsibility for designing her own education.

My daughter’s big on structure and loves to work through things in order from start to finish, so our materials are fairly traditional (texts, workbooks, etc) and we tend to follow a fairly set routine. We try to allow plenty of time for open-ended exploration in addition to the more structured instruction, and following a routine helps facilitate this.

What follows is a list of the subjects we study, the materials we use, and a few notes about how we chose them. Many of the materials that have worked for us are those recommended in TWTM, but we’ve made several modifications in response to my daughter’s needs and interests.

For the nearly 8-year-old:

Math:

Saxon Math homeschool curriculum, supplemented with Life of Fred by Stanley F. Schmidt. I used Saxon Math in my eighth-grade algebra class, and I remembered how effective it was in helping me to retain concepts, so I went with Saxon first. It turned out to be a good fit for our daughter, so we’ve stuck with it. The only trouble we’ve had is that it seems to assume that children are taking off for a three-month summer break during which they’re doing no math at all. As a result, there’s a lot of review at the beginning of each level. We customize the program to some extent to prevent my daughter from becoming bored with excessive review. We do Saxon four days a week and Life of Fred on the fifth. Life of Fred is math concepts taught through the story of Fred Gauss, a five-year-old math professor at KITTENS University in Kansas. The books are silly and fun and do a great job of linking concepts from math and other disciplines (history, economics, biology, etc). My daughter loves doing Life of Fred; she considers it a treat, and we do it on our instruction-light weekly Library Day.

Science:

Experimenting with yeast.

Experimenting with yeast.

Adventures with Atoms and Molecules, Books 1 and 2, by Robert Mebane and Thomas Rybolt, and The Usborne Science Encyclopedia (which includes links to fun, relevant activities online). This year we’re doing 30 weeks of chemistry. My daughter’s only seven, so we’re not breaking out my spouse’s organic chemistry books yet or anything, but we’re doing some fun basic chemistry experiments. We do two experiments from Adventures with Atoms and Molecules each week, including completing an experiment page for each and adding to our definitions page. This follows the recommendations from TWTM pretty closely. The experiments are easy to follow and mostly don’t involve any wacky items. The toughest ones for us were those that called for 16-ounce bottles of cola. We never buy soda, and we had to make a special trip to Target to get a couple of bottles.

Writing:

Writing with Ease by Susan Wise Bauer (leveled instruction books including student pages). There are four lessons each week. For the level my daughter’s in now, there are readings from classics of children’s literature and dictation assignments based on those selections (earlier levels had copywork rather than dictation). We love the readings that are included. They have introduced us to so many fantastic children’s books that we might not have found otherwise. Many of our read-alouds and the books my daughter reads to herself come from the reading excerpts in this curriculum. My son enjoys listening in on these stories, too.

Grammar:

First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind by Jessie Wise. The level my daughter is in this year has both a workbook and an instructor’s guide; up to now it’s just been one book. In this level, my daughter has started diagramming sentences. She loves diagramming sentences (in case there was any doubt that she’s my offspring).

History:

The Story of the World by Susan Wise Bauer (text and workbook) and The Usborne Encyclopedia of World History (internet-linked like the science encyclopedia).  We’re in volume 2, which covers the Middle Ages. It’s a pretty rough overview, but I’ve been very impressed at just how much of world history this curriculum covers. We do a new history lesson/chapter each week and read books and do activities from that lesson throughout the week (the student workbook includes history and literature suggestions, and we pick up some of those from the library, and read from them at breakfast and after lunch most days throughout the week). Some families use the audio recordings of the books read by Jim Weiss. I thought about getting those because my kids love Jim Weiss, but so far, they seem perfectly happy to have me read to them and to read to themselves. My daughter reads the texts for fun in her free time. (She also reads books on child development, and she’s been telling me all of these things she’s supposed to be doing starting at age eight when she’s officially (according to this book) a “pre-teen.” I fear sometimes she sees these child development books as prescriptive rather than descriptive.)

Spelling:

Spelling Workout from Modern Curriculum Press (I buy only the student books). This was recommended in TWTM and is basically a workbook. It’s the first we’ve tried, and my daughter loves it. We do spelling twice a week. When she gets a little older, I’m going to add (or perhaps replace this with) a vocabulary lesson. I’m eyeballing the Vocabulary from Classical Roots series since my daughter loves ancient languages so much (and since it’s gotten good reviews online). Wordly Wise is another that’s rated highly, but that looks like it might overlap a bit with the writing and grammar we’re already doing. I’ll preview and make a decision by next fall, I expect.

Handwriting:

CIMG7816Zaner-Bloser handwriting workbooks because I like that script best (I do not buy the teacher’s editions, just the student books and a ream of handwriting paper for the grade level she’s in). My daughter does a page or two from the workbook twice a week, and writes letters and cards to family and friends for extra practice. This is another subject she loves.

Flute:

Flute fingers.

Flute fingers.

This is our most time-consuming subject. Each day we practice for 45-60 minutes. My daughter has a private lesson each week and a group class each week or two. This coming fall, we plan to add another ensemble to that mix. What that will be, we’re not quite sure yet, I just hope it doesn’t involve another 45-minute commute like her lessons and group classes do. We follow the Suzuki Method, which has been wonderful for my daughter and for me. We find that it fosters joy, cooperation, and a love of music while helping children become confident in their ability to set and meet challenges. We also have a phenomenal teacher (one whom we spend a lot of time in the car to see each week).

Latin:

CIMG9943This is new this year. We started out with a Latin curriculum recommended in TWTM (Prima Latina), but when that one wasn’t working, we switched to Lingua Latina per se Illustrata by Hans H. Ørberg. I chose this one because it’s the text used in the Latin classes I decided we’d sign up for if it turned out I couldn’t learn Latin alongside my daughter. So far, we’re both loving it. It teaches Latin through the story of a family in ancient Rome. There are no vocabulary lists to memorize and direct translation is discouraged. The meaning of words is picked up through context. My daughter is very proud of all that she’s learning and uses Latin when she can throughout the day. It’s interesting to watch my daughter get frustrated almost to the point of tears only to switch over to elation and celebration in the next instant when the lightbulb goes off. We do a lesson a week, and we do Latin four or five days a week. We got the companion CD-ROM for Mac, which includes tests and exercises (which are a little buggy and sometimes frustrating to use), and Ørberg reading the text in Latin, which is what we really love about it. The reading bit is a bit buggy, too (for example, you can’t pause the reading. If you stop it, you have to listen back through the whole chapter to get to where you were), but Ørberg is such a pleasure to listen to, it doesn’t bother us much.

For the 3.5-year-old:

My son does little in the way of formal instruction. As I did with his sister, I try to follow his lead when he indicates an interest in something. He enjoys practicing writing his letters and sounding out words, so most of what we do is language-related. He listens in to his sister’s lessons, and often surprises me with what he retains (I’m tickled that my 3.5-year-old has memorized the list of helping verbs after listening to his sister practice them over and over again).
Below is the list of materials that we’re using with him. I don’t “play school” (as he calls it) with him regularly, just when he requests it. This ends up being probably three or four days out of five most weeks, and our “lessons” take maybe 15 minutes a pop because that’s about as long as he’s able sit still and focus at the moment.

Writing/Letter Shapes:

Zaner-Bloser Kindergarten level handwriting workbook. He requested a handwriting workbook after watching his sister practice her handwriting twice a week. Before we got the workbook, he’d actually taught himself to write most of the uppercase alphabet while his sister and I were busy. He forms the letters a little funny, but he is incredibly motivated to practice his letters, and I’m sure his letter-forming will improve as he wants to write more and faster. He’ll do a page or two in this book, then practice on dry-erase boards and occasionally with a Sharpee pen on various toys and other surfaces that I’d rather not have not have decorated with a permanent marker. I’ve concluded that there is no safe place in our house to store Sharpee pens. Or scissors.

Reading:

The Ordinary Parents Guide to Teaching Reading by Jessie Wise and Sara Buffington, the “BOB Books” series of early readers by Bobby Lynn Maslen, and lots and lots of library picture books. He enjoys reading the BOB books more than he does the lessons in The Ordinary Parents Guide, but we work on both in tiny servings.

Other:

Slow and Steady Get Me Ready by June Oberlander. This is a book of weekly activities for children from birth to age five. Many of the activities are more involved or require more parental assistance than I generally have time (or energy) for, but I’ve gotten some really great ideas from this book.
The blog Hands On: As We Grow, which has tons of ideas for activities for preschool-aged kids. Like with Slow and Steady, many of these are too involved for me to do every day, but they give me great ideas for occasional projects.

For both children:

Child-Size Masterpieces by Aline D. Wolf (from Parent Child Press). They’re postcard-sized reproductions of artwork that hangs in galleries and museums around the world with accompanying instructions for helping children find similarities between pieces and eventually identify styles, periods, and artists. We’ve taken a little break from them recently, but now that I think of it, I should probably get them back out. Both kids love them.
-One cartload of library books each week. (I bought myself a special rolling toter when I kept busting reusable grocery bags.)
-Puzzles. Lots of puzzles.
Other Posts in This Series:

Homeschool – A Day in the Life, Part I: Overview

This is homeschooling.

This is homeschooling.

Periodically, people ask me what homeschooling looks like. This is a tough question to answer because homeschooling can look vastly different in different households. Some families embrace experiential learning and avoid workbooks, some use an out-of-the-box curriculum, some use structured parent-designed curricula, and some use online K12 programs. Some families have no involvement with the local schools, others attend some classes or participate in sports or instrumental music programs at their public school and do the rest of their instruction at home. Some take community college classes, some attend homeschool co-ops of various designs, some hire tutors, and some use a charter school program that allows them to learn at home but participate in field trips and outings with other homeschoolers within the charter school. Some families have a primary parent who “does school” with the children, while other families tag-team the instruction with mom, dad, and even grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends getting in on the action. Some families have two income-earning parents who arrange their schedules so they can homeschool their children, others are single-parent households, and others have one stay-at-home parent and one who works outside the home. And this isn’t nearly all of the arrangements possible (I’m thinking about my friends who are boat-schooling their two children).

There are so many ways to homeschool. I couldn’t begin to catalog what a day in the life looks like for every homeschooling family, but I can tell you what it looks like (for the moment) in my family.

In this post, I’ll give an overview, and then in subsequent weekly posts I’ll break it down so you can get a sense of all of the moving parts that make up our homeschooling lives. I speak only for how we do things in our family, and only about what is working for us right now. By the time I publish the last post, some or all of this will almost certainly have changed.

In my family, I am the stay-at-home parent, and I do the majority of the homeschooling. My spouse sometimes does a math or science lesson or spearheads flute practice on the weekend, he’s in charge of taking our daughter to her flute group class and our son to his sports class, and he reads to both children in the evenings before bed. Everything else, however, is within my purview. I send our annual report and our intent-to-homeschool letter to the school district; I research, select, and purchase our curriculum materials; and I do the instruction during the day.

Our schedule and the materials we use are highly influenced by The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise. We don’t follow their plan precisely, but then, apparently neither did they. I was not there for the keynote address Susan Wise Bauer delivered to the Utah Home Educators Association Convention several years ago, but I’m told that she assured Utah homeschoolers that she knows that the schedules in the book are unrealistic to follow to the letter, and that they were included because the publisher requested them, not because they reflect the plan that she followed with her own children. She encouraged parents to use the schedules as a jumping-off point rather than a prescription for exactly how one should homeschool.

This is also homeschooling.

This is also homeschooling.

We school year-round because I want to feel comfortable taking a day here and a day there for illness or just for field trips or taking a break every now and then, and I wouldn’t feel confident doing so if we took a traditional three-month Summer Break. In addition, both of my children do much better when we keep to a routine. I fear that if we took three months off, getting them back into homeschooling would be painful for all involved. Summers are a little more relaxed, though. We don’t stop schooling entirely, but we go at a slower pace, and we take more days off.

Autumn through spring, we do lessons in the mornings and do outings in the afternoons; in summer that’s reversed so that we can have outside time before the heat of the day. Each morning (or if I’m particularly organized, each night before I go to bed), I post a list of subjects on our dry-erase schedule pages. Then I let my daughter decide the order in which to do things. I’ve begun listing the amount of time I expect each subject to take to help my daughter with her planning.

It usually takes us 3 to 4 hours to finish all that we have on our list. This is just direct instruction and doesn’t include the reading and other activities my daughter does on her own. Most of the time we’re finished with homeschool by lunchtime, but some days we have to do some catching up in the afternoon or just after dinner. It’s remarkable how much you can accomplish when the teacher:student ratio is 1:1.

I always underestimate how long Latin will take.

I always underestimate how long Latin will take.

After lunch, we either head out for an afternoon of homeschool activities or errands, or we go for a neighborhood walk and then come home and read books together. Then my daughter goes off to do her own thing, which usually involves six or seven books open across her bed so she can go from one to another gathering information for the “stories” she likes to make up and act out. My son and I play together or make dinner together or sometimes, if the stars align, we each do our own thing, too.

Most days, my daughter is at least resigned to our homeschool plan, if not actively enthusiastic about lessons. And she’s often outright enthusiastic, which I love. But if my daughter just isn’t feeling it one day, I try to honor that. Some days, it’s just not going to work out, and I feel comfortable calling an impromptu “snow day” from time to time, regardless of the weather. But I always try to find a way to work out a reasonable solution before we call off for the day. I might arrange a short dance party for the kids and myself or fix a special snack or read a book and then try to sit back down to lessons. Other times, we agree to play a game, like dominoes or Pengoloo, alternating moves in the game with homeschool lessons.

If a particular subject or curriculum is giving us problems on a regular basis, I take it as a sign that we need to reevaluate and perhaps change course a bit. We might need to modify the curriculum we’re using, or we might need a whole new curriculum or a different approach entirely (classes, tutors, group activities) to help learn the same material. One of the things I love about homeschooling is the flexibility it affords us. If I tried to follow a particular plan too rigidly, I would be sacrificing one of the major benefits of educating our children the way I do, so I try to bend like a reed when possible.

So, that’s the overview for us. In Part II, I’ll provide details about the curricula we use and how we chose the materials we use.

They’re Called Kids, but They Shouldn’t Be Scapegoats


Kids (photo taken by my father-in-law)

The ideas have been percolating away in my brainpan. I have a desire to be happy, and part of the way I think I could be happier is by allowing myself to become a more well-rounded person. I’ve been doing that over the course of this past year, but I’ve mostly kept within my comfort zone and focused on internal development. Reading about Thomas Jefferson Education, I’m thinking more and more about ways in which I can develop my public self.

As a stay-at-home mom, it’s very easy for me to use my kids as an excuse not to build my public persona and not to make meaningful connections outside the family. And I have a point. My kids do ask for a lot of my attention and time. In order to blog some nights (like tonight), I have to pry their little fingers off of me and shut myself in a room. And because we’ve chosen to homeschool, I’m responsible for my children’s education in a more direct way than if we outsourced their schooling, and that takes time. In addition, there’s no built-in break when they’re away at school in which I could focus on non-kid tasks. Then there’s housework and food prep and taking care of the yard. Really, there’s no time left for a public life.

I mentioned this to a friend who volunteers with the same organization I do. I was lamenting that between the homeschooling and the attachment parenting, I didn’t know if I had time to take the phone calls and lead the meetings that are part of the tasks of our volunteer work.

She gently but firmly called me on that.

She suggested that there was something about the volunteer work that wasn’t working for me, and that I was using my kids as an excuse not to address the true issue. There’s plenty of time, she asserted, if I make the time. If I don’t want to do it, if it’s not a priority right now, that’s fine, but it’s not fair to blame my kids. In fact, she went on, she’s always found it important to show her children that Mom might not make money, but she does very valuable work that doesn’t directly relate to her role as a mother.

I started out feeling a little offended, but in the end, I had to admit that she was right. I still haven’t decided if the volunteer work I was doing before still speaks to me in the same way, but I definitely want my kids to see me active in our community and doing things that matter to me.

The reason I’m not doing these things isn’t because of my kids. It’s because I’m afraid.

I’m uncomfortable talking to people. I fear rejection. I fear being called to account for my actions and words even as I seek recognition for them. I fear devoting my time and emotional and physical energy to a project and then failing. I fear succeeding and then feeling a need to continue succeeding.

But I want a presence outside my family circle. I want my children to see me risking failure, facing my fears, and giving my time to projects that I believe in. These are things I want them to learn to do, and this is a lesson I can only teach them by example.

Rather than using my children as scapegoats for why I’m not doing these things (whatever “these things” turn out to be), they should be one of my reasons to do them. My kids shouldn’t carry the burden of all of my social interaction. I’m their mom, not their friend. As they get older, they’re gradually going to separate from me. I want them to feel confident doing so. I don’t want to cling to them because I’ve neglected to build up any life outside of my role as mother. I don’t want to make them feel guilty for pursuing their own interests that don’t include me. I want them to feel free to grow up without worrying about leaving Mom behind (or feeling angry at Mom for not letting them go).

But the biggest and best reason for me to develop my public life is for myself. If I have a thriving social life (which for an introvert is not a tall order) and activities that speak to me and that inspire me to learn more and take on challenges, I think I’ll be a happier person.

For now, I’m still gathering information. I’m finding inspiration, as I mentioned before, from the Thomas Jefferson Education materials I’m reading, as well as Susan Cain’s blog, “QUIET: The Power of Introverts,” Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind, and even Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel (as odd as it might seem for a middle-class white SAHM in the suburbs of Boston to use the story of a Somali refugee as inspiration to develop her public life).

I’m not sure yet what exactly I’ll do, but everything seems to be pointing outward right now. This, I think, will be the direction of my blog for the next year: following my journey towards developing my public self.

Leadership Learning: A Thomas Jefferson Education by Oliver DeMille

A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-first CenturyA Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-first Century by Oliver Van DeMille
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I find it somewhat funny that I lived in Utah for three years and didn’t finally read this book until I’d moved to Massachusetts.

The book takes a fairly strong stance about public education, and it’s clear that DeMille holds the political view I think of as Utah Libertarian, but looking past those strong convictions, his assertions sound solid, and I plan to implement some of his ideas into my own homeschool curriculum.

This is basically a variation on a Classical Education as outlined by Jesse Wise and Susan Wise Bauer in their The Well-Trained Mind. Since I’m already a big fan of Classical Education, TJEd isn’t that huge a change. The big difference is that DeMille has distilled it significantly. Everything, according to DeMille, should be learned by reading the classics, including math, science, and foreign language.

The idea is that the Founders of the United States were all better educated than anyone taught during the second half of the 20th century on (during which time the US education system has increasingly relied on a conveyor-belt method of educating youth, according to DeMille and others), and that by going back to the way the Founders were taught, we can groom more effective, more eloquent, and more moral leaders.

I think I can agree with his basic premises, particularly that a teacher’s job is to inspire a student to do her/his own learning. A teacher can’t force a child to acquire knowledge, and she certainly can’t force a child to learn to think critically and logically address issues. The best a teacher can do is to encourage a student to want to learn things on her/his own.

I like his suggestion that time should be structured, but that what the child does during that time should not. We need, says DeMille, to enforce daily study times and routines, but that within those times, there should be a fair amount of freedom for children to study where their interests lead. In this model, the teacher’s role is to help a child see the connections between different academic disciplines within her/his particular area of interest.

So, if the child wants to learn about castles, the teacher can help him find information about the medieval period (politics, religion, scientific advances), principles of math and physics that go into castle building, the music popular during the time, the lifestyle of those living within the castle walls compared to that of the people outside the castle walls, etc. This helps children learn that facts in the real world aren’t actually compartmentalized into disciplines and that the separations we’ve made are a fairly recent innovation.

This last part isn’t a new idea, but the idea of the structured time during which the child leads the activities is a new one for me, and one that I think will work very well with the way my daughter learns.

In addition, I definitely want to read more classics on my own. I’d already determined that this is a sizable gap in my own education. Because I want to include classics in my children’s education, I need to read them myself so I can properly mentor my children and help them to determine where to start and then where to go next as they begin to tackle the classics.

I don’t plan on scrapping all other curricula and relying solely on classics. I still plan to use a math curriculum and I don’t plan on strictly adhering to DeMille’s Phases of Learning. But I think it makes perfect sense, along with other ways of exploring a subject, to go to the source and experience the way the great thinkers think and read the way great writers write. This is similar to the Suzuki Method in music: you expose children to great music early and often, and this helps them emulate the best musicians. I think the same would go for great thinkers and great writers.

If I want my children to be well-educated and great thinkers, it makes sense for them to learn from the best.

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