Curriculum planning for the upcoming school year

I have a love/hate relationship with curriculum and lesson planning.  On the one hand, I love paging through new curriculum.  I love looking at samples online.  I peruse the various homeschooling forums to read people’s opinions.  I read reviews on Amazon.  I sometimes borrow materials from other moms so that I can give it a really good look over.

On the other hand though, curriculum planning makes me absolutely crazy as there are so many choices; I often have difficulty making up my mind about what to choose.  And even when I find one I really, really like, we sometimes just can’t afford it.  Or, I find something that would really work well for me as mom/teacher but may not necessarily work out so well for my son’s learning style. 

Last year was one of our toughest homeschooling years so far (7+ years now and counting).  The year was fraught with health issues, family issues, a huge, midyear change in my work schedule, a teen with a super busy schedule, etc.  Some days I look back and feel disappointed that we didn’t get more done.  Other days I look back at the past year and realize that we really managed to get a lot done despite all of the ups and downs the last year brought, and that I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.  

Regardless, because of the challenges of this past school year, I am particularly trying to find something for this year that will be a little easier on me this time around, just in case life should intrude.   🙂  Usually I pull together my own materials from all different kinds of resources, but it does take quite a bit of planning ahead which I didn’t always have time for this year.  This year I am looking to see if I can find something that is planned out already that might work for us.  

Earlier this summer, I took a good hard look at Sonlight.  It is a very popular out-of-the-box type curriculum that I have heard a lot of good things about. I find the history readers very appealing.  I read a few from the list for American history this summer and thought they would appeal to my fourth grader.  The instructor’s guides look like they would help keep me on task, even when things on the home front are stressful or busy.  The science seems to include lots of experiments and activities which my son would definitely enjoy.  Unfortunately, Sonlight is pretty expensive.  I have heard that the resale value is good, but it would still be quite a bit to put down for one child for one year of homeschooling.  Perhaps I would feel a little differently if I had two kids close in age who could benefit from doing some if it together or if Tobin wasn’t our last child to homeschool.  

After I moved on from looking at Sonlight, I went back to look again at Moving Beyond the Page.  We tried one unit of Moving Beyond the Page last year.  I had purchased the unit for the novel Tornado by Betsy Byars.  Tobin did enjoy the novel, and he did enjoy some of the activities that came in the unit.  He also felt there was too much writing involved, but then he feels that way about just about everything we try.  We have not tried any of Moving Beyond the Page’s social studies or science units, so I can’t say for certain how those ones would go over.  We may still give one of them a try.  One advantage I can see for using Moving Beyond the Page is that you can purchase each unit separately, so I could spread the cost of the curriculum across the whole school year.  

More recently I have been looking at Time4Learning.  My older son, Stephen, used Time4Learning early on in our homeschooling career, but he quickly moved on from it as he thought it was too easy.  I had not really given it a close look in quite a while.  On Monday I bit the bullet and subscribed to a month of it for Tobin so that we could try it out.  So far he seems to like it all right.  He really enjoys the math and language arts portions, but he gets a little distracted when he works on the science and social studies sections as there are pages to click through for reading, and although he can read higher than grade level, he seems to have trouble focusing when reading longer passages.  I am a little concerned that the science and social studies won’t go as in depth as I would like it, but I plan to continue a little longer to see if I am correct or not.  

There are several things I do like about Time4Learning so far though.  I like that it is $19.99 per month, and that I can cancel at any time.  The parent forums seem to be a great place for finding quick answers when you are having issues.  I also like that their website seems pretty easy for a child to navigate.  We did our second day’s worth of lessons yesterday, and Tobin had no problem logging on and finding where he left off in his lessons.  He is pretty computer savvy anyway, so I don’t foresee him having any problems doing schoolwork on the computer.  

I will update when we have some more experience with Time4Learning under our belts.  

Random Musings: Homeschooling more than one child

It seems like Tobin always decides he wants to “do schoolwork” when I am right in the middle of doing something reasonably important and/or time-consuming: cleaning poop out of the hedgehog’s litterbox, cooking something more complicated than a box of macaroni and cheese, going over a new math concept with Steve, showering. He never wants to work on workbooks, or read a book, or get out the art supplies the other 500 times a day that I ask if he wants to. Instead, he waits until I least expect it and then springs it on me. I swear it is on purpose; it has to be. He’s either trying to make me insane just for the fun of it or making me crazy is the starting point of his intricate plot to take over the world. It could go either way.

Last night Tobin decided he absolutely “needed” to work on one of his workbooks while I was trying to sort through Steve’s Spanish lesson. Steve’s Spanish curriculum comes with all of these ancillary DVDs, CDs, and books, and I really just needed a quiet moment to sort through it all and find the right disc for Steve to use to complete his lessons. It would be great if I could just give Tobin the workbook and tell him to have at it while I waded through the Spanish stuff, but he doesn’t like to work on it unless I’m sitting right there with him going over the worksheet with him. He could do much of it on his own, but he chooses not to.

I knew from past experience that if I told him to wait until I was free to sit down with him that the moment would be gone, and he wouldn’t want to do his schoolwork anymore. That’s just the way Tobin works. Most likely, he’d just wander off and find something else he wanted to do instead.

He gets so much more work done if he’s “in the mood” than otherwise. I can’t really begrudge him for feeling that way. I know I operate the same way to some degree, and I don’t have the excuse of being five years old. I often have to be in the mood to get anything truly productive done: cleaning the house, writing, crocheting, baking, etc. Actually, come to think of it, I work that way for just about everything but sleeping. I am always in the right mood for sleep.

I also didn’t want to make Steve wait any longer. I knew he was already tired, and I had already promised him that we would sit down and watch a few episodes of Soap after Tobin went to bed, so we really needed to get things done so we could have our time to relax. So, I tried my best to juggle both things at the same time, knowing in the back of my mind that I still needed to fold laundry, do the dishes, pack snacks for their zoo trip the next day, post to my blog, and a zillion other little things, and I really didn’t have time to waste if I wanted to get to bed at a decent hour. I’d like to say that everything worked out beautifully, alas, no. Everyone just ended up cranky, especially me.

I honestly don’t know how people who have 4 or 5 or 6 (or more) children manage to homeschool them all. Perhaps it is easier if you have kids much closer in age than mine are. Because they are 7 years apart, it is difficult to find “school stuff” that they can truly do together and both get something out of. Perhaps the other parents slowly learn to better multitask as they add on to their brood one at a time. Maybe other parents were equipped with some coping gene that I am sorely lacking? Maybe their kids aren’t crazy?

I just know that I have trouble enough with just two, one of whom is incredibly low-maintenance. I’ll leave you to figure out which one that is…

The Colorado Plan

Tomorrow marks the beginning of our fourth year of homeschooling, and Steve will be starting the ninth grade. In a few ways it will be a little like high school. He will be taking some of the same classes other ninth graders take: Biology, Algebra, Spanish, etc. Steve will still need to set his alarm to get up early in the morning if he wants to get his assignments done in a timely manner. Then he can spend his afternoons and evenings loafing around on the computer, playing videogames, and doing other things that interest boys his age regardless of where they go to school. He will have to try to write neatly so his teacher can read his handwriting. He probably won’t like every subject he studies. He’ll groan sometimes when he opens his math book.

But in a lot of ways, things won’t be like a typical public high school experience for Steve. He won’t have to walk five miles to school in the snow, uphill both ways. The only person around to steal his lunch money or give him a wedgie will be his dad. Complaining to his mom about his Spanish teacher is going to be a slightly awkward conversation. And the class clown is his own 5-year-old brother.

I jest of course, but on a more serious note, one of the many really wonderful ways that Steve’s homeschooled high school experience is going to differ from that of his public schooled peers is the way that we can mold his classes around his preferred learning style. We’ve learned over the past three years of homeschooling that Steve prefers to focus on one subject at a time when he can. He’d rather spend several weeks intensely studying just history or just science, than trying to tackle six or several different subjects for short time periods every day.

I eventually discovered that this particular style of learning material is called a“block plan” or is sometimes known as the “Colorado Plan,” after the college that originally developed its use around 1970. In the plan as used by Colorado College, each academic year is arranged into eight total 3.5 week blocks. During each block of time, students focus on just one course subject at a time. If the subject is particularly intensive, students may sometimes spend two or three consecutive block periods on the subject until the material is learned.

I think this particular style makes a lot of sense, at least for some subjects. I think it can work quite well for history, science, and Literature. We tried it to some degree or another with all of those subjects over the past few years. However, I was never comfortable with trying to schedule our Spanish, math, or Latin sessions in weeks-long blocks. Those particular subjects rely so much on building one concept upon another or constantly accumulating new vocabulary that I feared that every time math or Spanish came up again in our rotation, that I would spend most of that block of time re-teaching previous concepts or vocabulary.

Despite the possible weakness of a block plan for some subjects, I still wanted to implement this method for at least some of my son’s classes this school year, most importantly because Steve likes learning this way. We discussed the pros and cons of a block plan for various subjects and developed a plan for how we wished to go about it. After a while, we decided that Steve would continue to work daily on his Spanish, Latin, and Algebra, but that we would divide his World History, Biology, and Literature work into 12-week-long blocks during which he would complete a year’s worth of course work for one of the three subjects each 12-week period. Our school year is will be approximately 40 weeks long, so I figured we would have an extra four weeks as a buffer if our lessons start to run behind.

Steve had a hard time deciding which of the three subjects he wanted to work on during his first block period because they are his three favorite subjects, and he frequently changed his mind. In fact, he tried to change his mind yet again this evening, the day before we resume school. He finally settled on beginning with World History and says that he will likely tackle Literature during his second 12-week block.

I am interested in seeing if this whole plan will work out well. On the one hand, it has worked out well on a smaller scale over the past few years, so I don’t see why it couldn’t work on a larger scale if we want it to. However, knowing how much Steve loves Biology and Literature, I wonder if he’ll be able to go a whole 12 weeks without cracking open his Literature textbook or planning out his Biology lab projects…

Random Musings: Starting back to school and my love of crayons

In just a couple days, the boys will be starting “back to school.”  Not that we don’t homeschool pretty much all year round.  In fact, we do.  But in the summer, we go at a much more relaxed pace, sometimes doing nothing terribly organized for days at a time.  Our school days are shorter when we do have them.  We follow the children’s particular interests more often than not.  Subjects that Steve dislikes tend to get pushed aside for several months in favor of his favorites such as science, history, and literature.  We try to spend more time outdoors.  We pick lots of berries in July.  Melt in August.  Visit the local zoos.

Tobin picking berries.

But despite the fact that we do school all year round, I still like to think of the end of August as back-to-school time, much like I think of sometime in May as “the end of the school year.”  I like things that have a definite beginning and end.  I look forward to May so we can slow down the pace of things and just chill a little.  I always feel a little burnt out by the beginning of May, and I know Steve does too.  I’m sure I get tired of making little red x’s on math worksheets nearly as much as Steve gets tired of solving for y.

After the long, lazy days of summer though, I look forward to the beginning of the school year again, to dive back in and learn new things.  I like setting goals for the new school year.  I enjoy making plans with my son regarding what he wants to study in the coming year.  I especially love cracking open new (or new to us because I like buying used when I can) textbooks and buying school supplies.

Buying school supplies was always a favorite thing of mine when I was a child.  (I still remember what my very first bookbag from Kindergarten looked like!)  Even now I still get a little thrill from opening up a brand new box of crayons and seeing all their perfect little colored points sticking up out of the box.  I love sharpening brand new pencils. I love opening up a brand new notebook and seeing that very first blank page waiting to be written upon.  But I’ve found that the longer we homeschool, the less supplies we end up purchasing at the beginning of the school year.  Part of it is that we tend to just buy things as we need them throughout the school year, but somehow it isn’t as fun that way. Part of it is that the boys don’t really need much.  Steve is past the point where he wants anything to do with art supplies.  He really doesn’t require much other than paper, pencils, and pens.  Tobin of course is five.  You would think he’d be going through art supplies and such like crazy, but he really has very little interest in much other than paint and clay, and even that stuff he uses sporadically.  I am guessing that his paints might dry up before he actually gets through an entire bottle!

Even though the boys didn’t need much, I did buy myself something for the back-to-school season; I bought myself a planner.  I spent 20 minutes in the bookstore of the student center flipping through the various planners and waffling between planners that included the weekends and ones that didn’t.  Blue or black?  Spiral bound?  Notebook- sized or smaller?  Decisions, decisions…

I told myself I was going to try to be more organized this year.  (It’s one of those goal-thingies I was talking about earlier.)  I am going to write things down and not have to hunt back through emails every time I want to remember when something is supposed to happen.  It amuses me though; I’m curious to see how long this will actually last.  I’m predicting that by late November, my planner will have found a permanent home in the deep, dark recesses of the backpack I take to work everyday, never to see the light of day again.

Of course, there is always next August.  With August will come again the time to set up new goals and another opportunity to head out and buy new pencils, pens, and their ilk while everything is on sale and every other parent in the city is out shopping the same three aisles of the store at the very exact same time I am.  Maybe I’ll just save myself some trouble and buy myself a box of crayons, but I won’t use them for coloring.  Instead, every time the kids get on my nerves during the school year, I’ll open up my shiny new box of crayons and be transported to my happy place.

Happy crayons

Classic novels for my tween

We are fast approaching my favorite part of our homeschooling year — planning for next year’s curriculum.  My son turns 12 this summer and will be starting high school this summer as well. (Yes, that’s a few years early.) Part of the plan for the coming school year will be for my son to read 12 classic novels and write a 2-3 page paper on each one.

We run our homeschool year on a twelve month calendar instead of the traditional 9 month school calendar.   We homeschool from June to June, taking off a week here and there for sanity’s sake.  So, since we have about twelve months to work with, that works out to one novel per month.

I’ve been brainstorming the last few days and trying to come up with a list of novels that my son can choose from.  Ideally, I’d like to be able to hand him a list of 25-30 book titles from which he can choose his twelve novels.  I’m aiming for fairly short novels so no War and Peace this year!  I want to make sure that he still has plenty of time for pleasure reading.  Currently, he’s been working his way through Brian Jacques’ Redwall series although he did take a break to read some Tolkien recently.  I know he plans to read a few Neil Gaiman books soon as well.  Fantasy and science fiction are his favorite genres, but he’ll read from other genres as well.

Here’s the beginning of our list:

Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

A Separate Peace – John Knowles

The Good Earth – Pearl Buck

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

Animal Farm – George Orwell

I’d love to hear suggestions from other people, homeschoolers or otherwise!