Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Selecting Homeschool Curriculum

Recently I've been receiving questions about homeschooling and a lot of them revolve around how did I select Amber's curriculum.

I had to really think about the curriculum question.  Now that we've been homeschooling for a while it seems almost second nature to search out curriculum, but it can be a daunting prospect early on or when you are looking to entirely shift gears.

After analyzing my process, I've realized I choose curriculum differently now that Amber is considered special needs due to her chronic illness.  However much of the process applies to any student.

Unexpected Homeschool: Selecting Homeschool Curriculum

This is our process for searching out and selecting homeschool curriculum, as best I can document.

1.  I start with the subjects we want to study and decide how much preparation and involvement I want for each subject.  When we first started homeschooling it didn't bother me a bit to have prep work and involvement in each and every subject. I was excited to teach and learn with my child.  Now that I have so many other responsibilities to keep Amber functioning, I look to lessen my load in some subjects.

2.  Decide if I want all-in-one-box type of curriculum, or if I mind it being piece meal.  I've never really been an all-in-one type of person, yet for many people that fits.  I knew early on it wouldn't fit us.  That doesn't mean we haven't used one publisher for several subjects; it just means I don't select a publisher and buy their entire year curriculum.

In my opinion the strengths of using one publisher for the majority, if not all, subjects are: similar teaching style across subjects, ease of ordering, often there is cross referencing between subjects, similar expectations in each subject for the student, and of course you don't have to hunt high and low for curriculum for every subject.

However, for me I'd rather hunt to find the curriculum that absolutely best suits us for each subject.  It's just my preference at this point in our lives.

Unexpected Homeschool: Selecting Homeschool Curriculum

3. Determine the primary learning style (or styles) of the child (ren) and teaching style of the teacher.

For example, Amber is a visual learner, except when she's not.  Meaning, when she's having a rough time with her dysautonomia, she will also have some pretty intense brain fog.  On those days she can't always concentrate enough to read for any length of time and thus learning through her preferred method is unrealistic. We are then given the choice of losing those as school days, and it can be a frequent occurrence during a flare, or find a better way for her to learn at that time.  Videos and passive learning work for her during the brain fog, usually.  We can flesh out the topics covered during the brain fog when she is thinking better, but on her less than perfect days we use related movies, documentaries, projects, or audio books.

This means I'm often looking for curriculum with more than one learning style.  Once upon a time, I didn't need to do this and curriculum that catered to visual learners was perfect.  However, now those types of curriculum do not make the cut since I need something to save my sanity and time by providing options other than visual learning.

4. Select curriculum that is at the student's level. This might seem like a no brainer, but sometimes it's not.  There has been some very lovely and oh-so-tempting curriculum that was just a hair above Amber's level.  I've even ordered some of that curriculum thinking that we might be able to fudge it.  Of course, every time I've been disappointed and it sat on the shelves waiting for Amber to mature.  Many times the waiting curriculum no longer suited Amber when she was actually ready.

However, at the student's level doesn't just mean not too difficult as to frustrate or discourage the child, it also means not so easy as to bore or fail to meet the educational goals.  Many curriculum publishers provide placement exams, skills prerequisites, and even scope and sequence information which can all help place your student in the correct level.

5. Check for adaptability.  That is the name of the game here lately.  If it's not adaptable to various learning methods, if I can't alter the weekly schedule, if it can't be used over multiple years instead of one, then it's not for us.  Everyone will have their own needs and if a curriculum is too rigid that it will run your life, then it might not be for you.  Unless of course, you actually need the accountability of a highly scheduled curriculum. Then, go for it. 

Unexpected Homeschool: Selecting Homeschool Curriculum

6. Samples, samples and more samples. I buy nothing without being able to view online samples of the teacher's guide and student books.  We learned that one the hard way.  Preferably, I like to see whole lessons from the middle of the book as well as a complete table of contents.  I know it's not in a publisher's interest to make the majority of a curriculum available as a sample or preview.  However, showing me the first 5 pages of lesson one, where the product is being introduced with no actual learning content, doesn't help.  It actually makes me afraid.   Now that Amber is older, I show her the samples and even letter her try them occasionally.  Her approval is absolutely necessary for a curriculum to make the final cut these days.

7. Look for product reviews.  I love reviews by parents who have already used products.  I don't really care if the family was given the product for free to review it.  Most people are honest enough to tell you if something didn't work for them, but also highlight why it might work for your family.  The reviews also usually have more pictures and give a better feel for how a product might look in your homeschool.  

But the question remains, how does one find curriculum to even consider? It can be daunting to even locate possible choices.  My go-to methods of coming up with curriculum titles are:

1. Perusing the websites of known homeschool publishers.  They often offer much more than what you might expect. 

2. Reading homeschool blogs. I read blogs for months before we started homeschooling and it got me familiar with the titles used by new and seasoned homeschoolers alike.  I still keep tabs of what curriculum my favorite bloggers use because I never know when I'll need a new idea. 

3. Join homeschooling boards. We gravitated towards a Classical education style. I found the user forum at The Well Trained Mind to be of immense value when planning for middle school. 

4. Google. I am not kidding. When all else fails I just enter key words and go for a search around Google.

Unexpected Homeschool: Selecting Homeschool Curriculum
Shelf of the unused (mostly). A few things just needed a home.

That is the process we use around here to select curriculum. It's not perfect and we make mistakes, but it works for us.  Sometimes we don't actually find exactly what we want. It can happen, and in that case I've been known to use pieces of various, and sometimes disparate, curriculum to create a custom set of lessons. This is not my favorite choice, still it is a viable option in my mind. 

If you have any ideas on how to improve on the process, let me know. 

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