Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
What is the best curriculum for a well-brought-up person? Whatever the specifics of the curriculum used in your home, be sure that your children each day have: something or someone to love; something to do; something to think about.Karen Andreola, Charlotte Mason Companion: Personal Reflections on the Gentle Art of Learning
Tempus fugit. We are beginning our fifth year of homeschooling our daughter, Elise. (She turned nine years old in January.) I cannot believe it. I have learned a great deal about what works and what does not work for our family over the years, both in terms of providing our daughter with a quality education and balancing it with the myriad demands of running a business.
It is a tremendous blessing to be able to assemble your own curriculum without unnecessary constraints, which we are happily allowed to do in the free state of Florida. You create the intellectual space for a child to build upon their unique talents and to work through their unique challenges. You have the opportunity to include a lot of material that speaks to their own specific passions and interests, and to get them physically out in the world where they can be exposed to people who work in their favorite fields. I am grateful to all of the school choice advocates who have worked tirelessly across generations to make this a reality for millions of families.
One thing I keep coming back to, however, when I talk to folks about the value of homeschooling (and private education in general) is childhood is a special time during which a person develops an aesthetic that will guide them for the rest of their lives. It matters what kind of experiences and what kind of environment you give a child. It matters that you set a good example of being a lifelong learner for them. Your culture matters.
So, when someone asks me how I approach building a curriculum, the answer is I try to cram as much beautiful and truly thoughtful content into the academic year as possible. For each item I include in our curriculum, I ask myself, “Is this representative of beauty and excellence? Will it actually be engaging? Will it leave a lasting impression?” If the answer is no, then it is not worth the effort.
You do not need a battery of drill books to beat grammar and spelling into a child. If you give them fine things to consider, they will develop those skills on their own over time. Conversely, if you do not give a child fine things to consider, all of the skills those drills aim to develop will be for nothing.
In fact, you can have a far more relaxed homeschool by not trying to imitate the busywork of government schools. I am not saying that education does not involve practice, but that it should not be practice for practice’s sake.
This year, I am experimenting with a new schedule that divides subjects into verbal and analytical material. Verbal material will be covered on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Analytical material will be covered on Tuesdays and Thursdays. My reasoning here is it might make the school day easier to have subjects with natural transitions lumped together. The analytical subjects require more time to make real progress in one sitting, so I can draw them out longer on fewer days. This schedule is also useful from a college preparatory perspective, as college days have similar structures.
Monday, Wednesday, Friday Subjects
We read classic children’s literature in sequence using Memoria Press’s student workbooks. This year, we are going to try to make it through Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain; Oliver Hunkin’s Dangerous Journey: The Story of Pilgrim’s Progress; Olivia Coolidge’s The Trojan War; C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew; Margarite de Angeli’s The Door in the Wall; Elizabeth George Speare’s The Bronze Bow; Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island; and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Whatever we do not get through, I will reserve for next year.
You will note that most of these books involve a child/adult developing a sense of independence, self-reliance, resilience, and taking the initiative themselves to perfect their own character. Through homeschooling you can withdraw your child from the cult of victimhood that pervades our institutions right now and give them examples of how to flourish.
As I have written in the past, Elise and I love to read novels out loud in the evenings while floating in the pool. We have a stack of high-quality children’s literature for that purpose too, but this is for fun not written analysis. Needless to say, we make it through a lot of books in a year. We just really love to read around here.
We are working our way through Memoria Press’s Christian Studies I, II, III, and IV series. The series divides the Bible (using the Golden Children’s Bible, which has wonderful language and illustrations that feed children’s moral imaginations) into three sections to cover in detail. I love this series because it includes historical context and mapwork for each story.
Christian Studies I covers all major Bible stories up to the entry into Canaan.
Christian Studies II covers the Rise and Fall of Israel and the Period of the Prophets.
Christian Studies III covers all major New Testament stories.
Christian Studies IV is an optional review course to reinforce what has already been covered.
Memoria Press also sells wall maps to assist with giving kids a mental picture of what was happening where, and how those locations relate to important historical empires.
Our daughter is on her third year of Latin. For the first two years, I tried to introduce her to the language gently using Classical Academic Press’s Song School Latin Book One and Book Two. She absolutely loved the songs and has built an immense vocabulary from having fun.
Alas, it is now time to get a bit more serious, so we are starting Memoria Press’s First Form Latin. I took Latin through college, so I do not have much trouble teaching the language to a young child. This particular program comes with some fantastic support, however, including instructional DVDs, CDs on classical and ecclesiastical pronunciations, wall charts, and so on. (See First and Second Form Latin desk charts, Latin Grammar for the Grammar Stage.)
For a gentle introduction to the art of translation, I am supplementing First Form Latin with Lingua Angelica. This is a songbook of ancient hymns that are sung in Latin. It comes with a CD where you can hear the hymns being performed by a small choir (sublime). So you translate the hymn, understanding the lyrics on a granular level, and then listen to the music (which, by then, will mean so much more to you).
I am also getting penmanship out of the way by working through their Latin Cursive Copybook (also a great way to memorize the words to the Traditional Latin Mass if you are a conservative Catholic).
(There are a lot of good reasons to introduce children to Latin this young, by the way. Thanks to the Battle of Hastings, Latin is the foundation for about half of English vocabulary. It is physically impossible to study Latin and not become an articulate person overall. Beyond that, once you have a solid background in Latin, it is possible to pick up many modern languages in rapid succession. We plan to do exactly this by including French and Spanish in our curriculum in later years. It is also a great foundation for learning proper grammar without working through dull grammar books.)
This year, we are studying the history of the Roman Empire in depth using Memoria Press’s Famous Men of Rome set. I also bought the ancient civilization wall maps, which are wonderful. (In case you have not noticed, I love decorating our homeschool room with maps and timelines.)
We are also planning to read through Horatius at the Bridge a bit earlier than they recommend. I think our daughter will love it.
We plan to continue on with the series next year with Greece and then the Middle Ages and Modern Times (the Enlightenment).
We are covering world history through the middle ages this year using a Glencoe World History textbook as a spine. (Before you scoff at the price, remember you can buy textbooks politely used for very little investment!)
Yep, I am using a high school-level textbook for a nine-year-old child. Why? Because she reads at an advanced level already and is mature enough to handle the discussion. One big advantage of homeschooling is being able to teach children at the level they are actually functioning rather than using books that are condescending to young people simply because you buy into the idea of arbitrary grade levels. Getting this sort of history education out of the way early on in her education also opens us up to spending more time with primary sources when our daughter is a teenager (or allowing her to dual-enroll in college courses if she wants to go down that path).
This book also fits my beauty and excellence criteria, as the publisher partnered with National Geographic in putting the book together. The pictures are gorgeous and add to the timeline a sense of what the rest of the world looks like.
What do I mean by a “spine”? The spine is the structure that holds an exploration of a subject upright. We also read a lot of high-quality children’s books that apply to certain periods we are learning about at any given moment. That list is way too long to include here, but I will probably write it up at some point if there is interest.
Tuesday and Thursday Subjects
Broadly speaking, there are two ways of teaching math to children: (1) “spiral” techniques, which rely primarily on rote memorization with periodic reviews to prevent learning loss; and (2) “number sense” approaches, which aim to teach the “why” of problem solving. Saxon and Abeka are examples of (1). Beast Academy and Singapore Math are examples of (2). I have tried both Saxon and Abeka in the past, and revisiting content our daughter had already mastered bored her to literal tears. Many families love them, however.
I have seen some homeschool curriculum review sites that mistakenly portray Beast Academy as “Common Core math.” It is not. For one thing, it is way more demanding than anything Common Core ever aspired to. But Common Core is one attempt – an objectively bad one – at providing a number-sense education to kids. If you disqualify everything that is executed poorly in public schools, you are not going to have much left. (Just my two cents.)
In this curriculum, there is an emphasis on breaking concepts apart and reassembling them from different directions. Children are becoming proficient in algebra without even realizing it. Students are asked to solve problems with limited information, which encourages them to think of new ways of looking at the information they have been given and what they can extrapolate from it. As someone who has worked in analytic professions all my adult life, this seems like the best preparation for a STEM career available for young children. It is the math education I wish I had received growing up, which is why I am giving it to my child.
That said, this program is not worth attempting if you hate math and cannot be “all in” on the subject yourself, however. It demands a lot from the teacher as well as the student.
Philosophy and Logic
We have been exploring the philosophy of religion with the book Finding Faith by Sharon Kaye. I had planned to do this last year, but we did not get to it. Then our daughter started asking some probing questions about the Problem of Evil, so I decided to go for it. The book is published by Royal Fireworks Press, a publishing house that specializes in material for gifted and talented children.
For a gentle introduction to logic, we will be working through Nathaniel and Hans Bluedorn’s books The Thinking Toolbox and The Fallacy Detective. As the latter includes a thoughtful discussion on what propaganda is and how it can be effective, I am planning to supplement that book with reading Breaking Stalin’s Nose, a novel about a boy who grows up immersed in and believing propaganda in the Soviet Union, but becomes gradually disillusioned and self-aware. (Our current “pool book” is A Night Divided, about a family that is separated when the Berlin Wall goes up overnight, so we are kind of already getting into the issue of propaganda.) Wherever I can spot opportunities to apply what we are learning, I go for it.
Classical Music, Opera, and Ballet
(Yes, music counts as an “analytical” subject. You cannot understand music without math. But also, this is a subject that takes a lot of time, as we will be watching musical productions.)
So this is an impromptu subject for us to pursue. I started playing classical music and opera for our daughter this past year as she was working through math problems or practicing her Latin, just so she would not have to endure silence. To my surprise, she fell in love with opera. I’m telling you, do not underestimate what your kid might appreciate even when they are very young.
Part of her fascination with opera seemed to be the storyline behind the music. She was constantly asking, “What is going on now? What are they singing about? Is he sad?” I proposed to her that this year we would study the stories behind the major operas and ballets, and she agreed. I am also working in some classical music so we can learn some important concepts about how music is arranged and performed first.
For classical music, I am using Memoria Press’s Music Appreciation program. Each lesson is a representative piece from various genres. The book is accompanied by a CD so a child can hear the pieces performed. The idea here is to be able to commit important works to memory.
After that, we are reading Sing Me a Story: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera and Stories for Children and Dance Me a Story: Twelve Tales from Classic Ballets, both by Jane Rosenberg. These books artfully summarize the storylines behind famous operas and ballets. After reading them, we plan to watch a performance of each one. Incidentally, the Met has an app for doing that, Met On Demand. There is also Prime Video.
Earth Science and Lab Experiments
We did human biology and genetics last year. This year, we are moving on to earth science. For a spine, we are using Glencoe’s Earth Science textbook and laboratory manual.
For Christmas last year, Elise wanted us to build her a laboratory. We went all-out building one, complete with college-level chemistry kits, professional equipment, more prepared microscope slides, rock and fossil collections for structured study, you name it. (Hopefully she will not blow up the homeschool room, otherwise this blog post will be useful information for the FBI.) This is one of the things she is particularly passionate about, a blurring of her home education and hobbies. She is very proud of her laboratory and shows it off to all of her friends. (Yep, we have that kid.) As I have said before, if your kid asks for a laboratory when they are nine years old, that’s probably the sort of destiny-driving detail that you should indulge to the maximum of your ability. Finally, we get to use it.
After years of using books with writing prompts, I have given up. We are practicing writing mostly by doing now. We are going to do regular creative writing exercises that build off of what she wants to write. We are also going to practice writing essays from topics we invent from whatever we are studying that week. I have read through enough writing books at this point to have an on-going mental list of the kinds of things she needs to be told how to include in her writing.
We are also trying to get into some scientific writing by cataloging our experiments and results, incorporated with pictures.
Some Final Thoughts
I know this sounds like a lot of material to cover, but it is amazing how much content you can make it through in a school day when you have zero time wasted on transportation to and from school, administrative stuff, busywork, or passing from one room to the next. Kids in traditional schools spend about 50% of their school day simply waiting around. Homeschoolers have none of that. Also, if your child is accustomed to challenging content, over time, they get adjusted to having their head in the game. It’s not all that different than having a healthy diet or exercising. It gets easier to use your mind when you actually use your mind.
I have received some critical reactions from folks who are not connected to homeschooling in the past along the lines of “Wow, your child does not have much time to play!” She plays all the time. Our daughter is done with school work by early afternoon and then has nothing but free time. She has a neighborhood full of friends her age that love outdoorsy stuff, does extracurricular activities, plays multiplayer video games online, etc. In fact, I would say she’s probably more social than many kids in traditional schools who quickly develop lives on “social” media, even in elementary school. This is so much better for a kid’s mental health.
What we have done through homeschooling is eliminate wasted hours and fill them with high-quality activities. It makes a huge difference in a day and in a life.