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:


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.


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 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.


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).


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 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.


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 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).


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.


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.


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:

Lessons for Life: A Thomas Jefferson Education Home Companion

A Thomas Jefferson Education Home Companion
A Thomas Jefferson Education Home Companion by Oliver Van DeMille
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Do you know that thing where, when you’re pondering what direction to take, everything around you seems to be centered around a particular direction or message?

I love when that happens.

We’re in the middle of this several-months-long period of job transition and cross-country move that’s fixing to shift again as we move into our new home (at long last) next week. My thoughts have been circling for months this idea of what I want to take with me, emotionally and materially, and what I want to leave behind.

This book is full of this idea. In a series of essays, Oliver and Rachel DeMille and Diann Jeppson write about the importance of applying the principles of Leadership Education and practical ways of doing so. At some points, the book is a little slow-going, and some of Diann Jeppson’s essays, rather than helping me see TJEd as more doable made me wonder if I was up to the task (Jeppson offered practical advice, but reading it felt overwhelming at times).

The most powerful essays for me were those that dealt with the leaders of the past and what we can learn from them as we try to improve our own education so that we may give our children the opportunity to be leaders. Rachel DeMille’s “‘Steel to Gold’: Motherhood & Feminism” lit a fire under me and helped me see the importance of my role as a parent (when often the gifts I have to offer as a stay-at-home mother are undervalued in our culture). She helped me begin to place myself in history, which helps ease some of that feeling of loneliness as I take less-traveled paths.

And the last five essays were just incredible. They dealt with the fallacies of education, like that education should be fun (“No nation focused on unearned fun will pay the price to fight a revolutionary war for their freedoms, or cross the plains and build a new nation, or sacrifice to free the slaves or rescue Europe from Hitler, or put a man on the moon. We got where we are because we did a lot of things that weren’t fun.”). They addressed the principles of “liber” and “Public Virtue” and how they were embodied by the Founders. And they pointed out how those we consider great leaders (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Churchill, etc) spent years reading and studying and discussing before they acted upon what they’d learned and changed the course of history.

Then there’s the Epilogue, which most directly relates to the quest I’ve been on these past months. A mother struggling to apply the principles of Leadership Education while raising six children (with a seventh on the way) uses the metaphor of the handcart, used by many Mormon pioneers as they crossed the plains to Utah, to illustrate the idea that those who follow this path are educational pioneers (debates about mismanagement of the handcart parties aside). She talks about the difficult choice of what to put in your metaphorical handcart and what to leave behind, knowing that everything you carry with you, you’ll be pushing with your own power for thousands of miles, and everything you leave behind might be something you needed to take along to ease your journey, or even to make it to your destination.

This is the choice I’m trying to make as we settle into this new phase of our life. What’s important to me? What will I need for this journey? What things no longer serve me that I’d like to leave behind?

This book not only helped me to see more clearly the path I’d like to take my children’s education (and my own), it helped me see that the path I choose for our family’s education is the path I choose for our development as human beings and as citizens of the world.

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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.

I Told Me So

I wrote that post last night about embracing entropy and accepting disequilibrium. And wouldn’t you know, this morning the kids got up early and my daughter begged me to do a math lesson and my son cooperated during the lesson by only making a small mess feeding the pattern blocks to the cats and trying to sharpen pencils. I’m not ready to call “equilibrium” just yet. We did start out the morning with a monumental tantrum from the little guy because I wouldn’t let him get a wet diaper out of the garbage and put it back on. But I’m feeling much more confident that things will work out okay.

I think about the day so far and can flag a number of things that have irritated me but that now seem to have solutions without me forcing solutions. Some examples:

“My daughter hasn’t done math in nearly a month! Will she ever want to do math again? How can I get her back into a routine?”

I’ve been reading all of this stuff about Thomas Jefferson Education, which is all about “inspire, not require.” The idea is that we never force our children to learn anything. We introduce them to a variety of subjects, ready to assist them in learning when they express an interest. This is how my daughter learned to read and how she’s already doing basic multiplication and how she’s halfway through Suzuki Flute Book Two. But now that she’s six and we need to “officially” start homeschooling according to the state, I’m getting really nervous about just letting her learn as she wants to, in spite of the fact that I really do believe it’s the best way for kids (and anyone) to learn. When she asked without me suggesting it to do a lesson in her Saxon Math book, I felt hopeful that inspiring, not requiring might actually work.

“My kids are getting up so late every day. It’s out of control! How will I be able to have any routine at all if they’re sleeping until 9 every morning?”

It’s kind of silly for me to complain about my kids sleeping in. They’ve both always been early risers and I’ve always complained about that fact. Who wouldn’t complain about a child who, from age two to age three, thought a proper wake-up time was 4:30am? At the time we lived in an 850-square-foot apartment near San Francisco, but I found myself wishing we had cows so at least it would make more sense for me to be up two hours before the sun. But I got used to early mornings, and this “sleep until 9” thing has me irritated. This morning, however, both children were up before 7. Problem solved, I suppose, as long as earlier bedtime goes along with it.

“If I had access to my cloth diapers, the little guy wouldn’t be trying to dig dirty dipes out of the trash. I have all of these cloth diapers in storage, and here I am using disposables, polluting the environment, hindering our EC progress, and spending more money than I want to.”

Well, this one isn’t solved. I still find it irritating, but there’s not really a practical solution at this point. Three more weeks of disposables and we can go back to our preferred bottom coverings. And the little guy is doing pretty well with the pottying, even with the ultra-absorbent core. He even told us when he had to go poo (and used the public restroom for this purpose) when we were out at Old Sturbridge Village Saturday.

So, today I’m telling myself a big, old, “I told you so.” Nothing like gloating to myself about myself.