Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Our Top Curriculum Picks

This is the fourth post in a homeschooling series I'm writing.  To read from the beginning, start here with A Journey.

If you want to know what a curriculum is like, it is easy to find reviews.  Lots of bloggers have written reviews of curricula they have tried.  A simple internet search will turn up many blogs and forums (message boards) with reviews.  Also websites like Homeschool Reviews and Cathy Duffy's Reviews provide reviews.  I like Homeschool Reviews because reviews are posted voluntarily by parents who have (usually) actually purchased and used the curriculum.  I like Cathy Duffy's Reviews because she is one person who has homeschooling experience and has seen all these different curricula first-hand and can offer comparisons.  While I feel it is important to take into account what other people experience, I also try to remember that some people really like the curriculum I am researching, otherwise it would never have been published.  It does meet  someone's needs.  I also remember that not everything will work for everyone.  Just because someone wrote a negative review, does not mean that the curriculum won't work for our family.  Finally, I also remember that my own heart issues play a factor--the kind of teacher I am matters more than the curriculum.

With my mission statement, and some ideas about how I would like to teach this next school year (balanced more towards a Charlotte Mason approach), as well as a general idea of how each of my unique children learn best (that's coming in the next post), I began my curriculum search.  Cathy Duffy's 100 Top Picks for Homeschoolers has a great chart that categorizes 100 of her top curriculum picks.   Though my choices may not be in her top 100, the chart did help me learn the ropes so to speak.  The chart rates each curriculum based on what type of learner it appeals to, how much teacher instruction/prep work is involved, how much writing it requires, grade levels, ease of use, how it fits with certain philosophies of education, and if it has religious content.

Enough is enough.  Let's dig in!


Math is my favorite, so let's start here.  Last year we used Teaching Textbooks Pre-Algebra, 7th Grade, and 5th Grade for Micah, Eden, and Caleb.  They liked it for the most part.  I thought it was pretty easy.  It had a lot of review, and it didn't seem to kill them with practice problems.  I loved that they got immediate feedback after answering a problem, and if they couldn't get the correct answer, they had the option to view the step-by-step solution immediately.  This is a great option for parents who just can't teach the math, or find it too time-consuming.  What we didn't like:  It was maybe too easy, and maybe did not have enough practice problems.  When we lost Caleb's discs, he was able to do the lessons from the workbook (they are well written) and still ace each assignment.  Eden preferred doing lessons from the workbook.  Micah preferred any lesson where I was at his side.  Basically:  They all prefer a real teacher to a computer.

Zeke and Josh used Math-U-See Beta and Alpha.  They enjoyed this.  They would watch the lesson dvd with me (it is for the teacher, not the student) and then do the lessons.  I loved that it was customizable--we moved on when I felt they were ready to move on.  There was a thorough amount of practice and review.  This approach to math is different than I was taught--it's much more mastery based than I'm used to--but I like it, it makes sense.  What we didn't like:  I was too lazy and didn't provide enough direct instruction.  I often gave them their math worksheets and walked away, expecting them to get done.  (I was often disappointed with how long it took them to complete their work using this approach). What I learned: It's ok for the boys to answer the worksheets orally, while I call out the problems and record their answers.  Their handwriting is slow and atrocious, but this is math not handwriting class.  If I had been drilling with flash cards, we could have moved even faster.  Summary:  They need my attention, supervision, encouragement, and support to excel in math.

What will will use this year:  Micah and Eden will progress to Saxon Algebra 1.  Eden will be skipping Pre-Algebra, so she may need a little more practice and reinforcement, but I believe she will do well with direct instruction.  I am skipping Pre-Algebra partly because I feel the pressure to have her do Algebra 1 in 8th grade, a practice now common in Minnesota Public Schools that I thoroughly disagree with.  (Maybe I'll explain why at a later time.)  Should I conform?  Well, I have Saxon Algebra 1/2, so I could have her do that, but my final decision was based upon my assessment of her ability level and my need to combine classes anywhere I can.  If she is discouraged by the difficulty of the course material, we can switch.  But for now it would be practical to have them both in Algebra 1.

Caleb is going to skip Math 6 and use Teaching Textbooks Math 7 that Eden did last year.  He is more than ready for that level.  And it saves me money, since I already own it.

Malachi will use Math-U-See Primer, Josh will progress to Beta, and Zeke will progress to Gamma.  Since this is a different style of learning than Teaching Textbooks or Saxon, I anticipate these guys will stick with Math-U-See all the way through high school.  I hope I'm a better teacher this year than last year!


What we used last year:  Switched-On Schoolhouse grades 8, 7, and 5 for Micah, Eden, and Caleb.  Zeke and Josh did some reading in their A Beka Science books, but usually this was only random.  We did no experiments from any of the books, so their learning was disconnected.  Book learning vs. hands-on learning?  Fail.

What we will use this year:  Apologia Science.  This science curriculum is very popular among Christian homeschoolers and has been around for many years.  It is tested and proven.  It is a curriculum that appeals to the Charlotte Mason approach of learning.  It is very easy to use, and since people have been using it for years, there is lots of support (check out Donna Young) and extra materials (check out A Journey Through Learning Lapbooks for elementary students, we have been enjoying this and they are a bargain!).

Micah and Eden will study Exploring Creation with Physical Science.  I gave Micah the option to choose a different course, but I'm thankful he chose to do Physical Science--easier for me to have them both in the same class!  We WILL be doing the labs, as well as special projects each quarter.  We focus heavily on learning to annotate a book, how to take notes, prepare a study guide, write detailed lab reports, and research beyond course materials.  I got lots of help from the IEW Families support group on yahoo.

Caleb, Zeke, Josh, Malachi, and even Tirzah! are studying Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day (Zoology 1).  We made the decision to start this curriculum during the summer for 2 reasons:  1) I wanted to get practice teaching using the methods I am studying, especially narration, and 2) the second half of this book studies insects, and it's much more interesting to study insects when there are actually insects to study!  Caleb has not been happy with 1) the curriculum change (he doesn't usually like change, and he was just fine with SOS) and 2) summer is NOT the time to do school.  He is slowly coming around, though, and I have been impressed with his work in spite of the fact that he insists he hates insects.  So far, so good.  The younger boys are learning to write about what they learn.  This is not grammar class, so sometimes I write it for them.  I'm not assessing them to see what they didn't learn.  We are simply learning and enjoying it.  When lab experiments come up, we learn the process of creating a lab report, including studying the scientific method.  I love the flexibility of this curriculum.

Language Arts

What we did last year:  Switched-On Schoolhouse grades 8, 7, and 5.  Zeke and Josh did A Beka.  Last year I teamed up with my friend Devona and our kids studied the Institute for Excellence in Writing's Student Writing Intensive B.  What we liked:  I loved IEW.  I felt that Micah, Eden, and Caleb were learning valuable writing tips.  It seemed incredibly easy, yet soooo practical.  Easy is not always bad!  It was like a "Oh! I get it now! Why didn't I learn this sooner?" moment.  For the younger boys, I liked A Beka because I had been through it before, I knew what to expect.  What I didn't like:  I didn't like the fact that I had no idea what Micah, Eden, and Caleb were learning in SOS.  I was completely cut out of the loop, even though I had occasional assignments to grade.  It seemed so shallow. The literature is weak.  Busy work is all.  Zeke and Josh excelled in reading, but hated their A Beka workbooks.  It was also just busy work.  The writing assignments were near impossible for them.  They were disconnected from anything the boys had any interest in whatsoever.  The curriculum didn't match up--how was Josh supposed to write about George Washington without learning anything about George Washington besides fill-in-the-blank exercises?  It was too much.  (As I was doing some cleaning at the end of the year, I came across Caleb's work from when he was in First Grade.  I suspect he is a natural writer--he had completed every single writing assignment.  He wrote to great lengths.  Something to ponder.)

What will will do this year:  Well, Language Arts is easier when broken down into three parts:  Literature, Composition, and Grammar.  We'll start with Composition.  Micah, Eden, and Caleb will do the SWI Continuation Course B.  IEW's core product is Teaching Writing Structure & Style.  The idea is that if the teacher knows how to teach writing, writing will be taught across all subjects.  It will be integrated into Science, History, etc.  So TWSS is a course to teach the teacher.  Right now I'm trying to borrow a copy of the DVD's so that I don't have to spend more money this year.  If I can't get a copy soon (like by the beginning of August), then I will need to buy them.  I plan to teach Zeke and Josh to write using this method.  If it comes to a pinch, there is an adaptation that can be made to the discs we used last year (SWI level B) to be used with younger students, and that is what we'll do. 

Next, we'll look at literature.  Besides just reading, and lots of it, I want my children to learn the basics of literary analysis.  For this, I considered many different curricula.  I looked endlessly for good deals on used copies of the Progeny Press guides.  I considered at length Dr. James Stobaugh's Junior High and High School Language Arts Curriculum.  Finally, when I had decided to just choose books to read together, I found Teaching the Classics.  Someone wrote that TTC does for literature what IEW's TWSS does for writing.  TTC is a teacher course--it teaches the teacher how to teach literary analysis, and it's adaptable for any grade level.  So you, the teacher, learn the method then apply it to whatever literature you choose.  For example, later this year when we are reading Homer's The Iliad for history, we can cover the literary analysis at the same time.  We will be fulfilling two purposes:  studying Ancient Greece AND literature style.  Now connections are being made!  (I've only watched 1 hour of the DVD so far, and I need to watch more, but already I'm trying to decide if I should buy the new Reading Roadmaps supplement that is available.)  

That leaves grammar, which typically includes spelling and vocabulary.  I chose Fix-It! Grammar for Micah, Eden, and Caleb and this was an easy choice for me because it uses the same "language" that the IEW writing classes use.  When I notice things that need to be practiced during other times of writing, this will be the time to bring up certain rules, etc.  I purchased a used copy of the Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation for reference.  Zeke and Josh will use a simpler grammar curriculum that someone gave me a couple years ago from a school that no longer wanted it.  It is a pretty basic curriculum.  

All five of these children will use Spelling Power, at least at the beginning.  This is a completely different approach to spelling.  While I don't think that Micah and Eden need so much spelling practice now, I think it will help to see where they test in at.  I think this program will be perfect for Zeke and Josh.  Josh is a little young, but his spelling ability (linked to his phonics and reading) is high. 

Whew!  Language Arts covers a lot!!  But we're not quite done.  While Fix-It! Grammar incorporates vocabulary,  I also purchased Vocabulary from Classical Roots.  We might not have time for this resource.  I got a good deal, so it wasn't an expensive purchase.  The idea of studying Latin roots is highly appealing to both me and Mitch.  Studying Latin itself would also be appealing, but we're not ready for that.  So this is me dipping my toes in the water, so to speak.

But aren't you forgetting someone?  Oh yes, Malachi is starting Kindergarten.  I love A Beka Phonics.  I had five children learn to read using A Beka, two of them I taught myself.  I am very familiar with the program, and I believe it is a strong one.  However, it is not so strong in teaching kids to write (ie: creative writing, composition).  I took a long, hard look at IEW's newest program, Primary Arts of Language.  I finally decided I would like to integrate this program and also draw from the strengths of A Beka's phonics program.  We are starting a little bit this summer.  I plan to spread out the work over Kindergarten and First Grade, based on Malachi's learning ability and motivation.  Basically I'm watching carefully for signs when he is ready to move on and when we need to slow down.  Right now he's highly motivated to get started with school, so we are starting with learning letters and sounds from A Beka (ie: I says 'i' as in Indian, I says 'i, i, i').  We're making lapbooks for each sound.  We're not writing, we're just learning to identify sounds.  Consider it a warming up.  I really look forward to digging into PAL.  I love how writing is introduced and taught. We are also practicing pre-writing exercises:  cutting, coloring, drawing, and eventually I will crack out some watercolors.  Yes, I will let the kid paint.  Pray for me.  ::grin::

History and Geography

I saved the best for last.  I normally do not prefer History or Geography, but I am excited about our curriculum choice for this year.   What we did last year:  SOS History grades 8, 7, and 5.  Zeke and Josh read from their A Beka History books randomly.  What we liked:  Zeke really likes stories, and the A Beka readers were fun for him.  What we didn't like:  SOS is weak, weak, weak on geography.  It covers too many topics of history only shallowly then requires memorization of dry facts.

What we are doing this year:  TruthQuest History.  TruthQuest History is a series of commentaries (or guides) through periods of history.  Each guide leads you towards a goal--understanding how all of history is really HIS story (God's).  The guide is divided into sections with a short commentary for the student to read, followed by book lists.  You choose as many or as few books as you desire to read.  This is truly a Charlotte Mason approach to learning history because you use real, living books.  Micah and Eden (and Caleb?) will alternate studying "Beginnings" (Creation-Ancient Egypt) with Ancient Greece the first semester and Ancient Rome the second semester.  We are sort of in a hurry, so we need to work through the guides quickly.  Caleb has a little more time before he graduates, so we may go slower.  Zeke, Josh, and Malachi are going to work through American History, beginning with the guide American History for Young Students I.  Because the guides are written for you to plot your own unique course in studying history, there are no written tests/assessments provided for students.  There are Think/Write exercises that provoke thought and require response.  This program is really genius.  It will adapt to our unique situation perfectly--where we have learners on several different levels.  The response that I require will be based on my expectations given the current grade/ability level of each student.  It can easily be individualized in the way that a multiple-choice true/false test cannot.  More important than that, is how closely it meets our vision and fits with my Top 5 Priorities.  I wrestled for weeks with trying to decide if this curriculum was right for us.  One day I looked at the list in one hand and TruthQuest History in the other, and it was like a bell went "ding!" in my head.  It clicked.  This makes it perfect to double as a Bible curriculum as well, especially while we're studying Beginnings.  Two other programs I considered were Dr. Stobaugh's High School History curriculum (and I actually plan to review this, as it looks very good!) and Notgrass America the Beautiful (also a choice that looks very good, though it doesn't look easy enough for my younger kids nor challenging enough for my high schooler, so I felt I would end up with three different history levels to teach at one time).

For now, we will study geography integrated into the history we are studying.  At some point I may pull back and do a dedicated geography course in high school.  A great resource I got for free is Global Mania.   I also purchased a used copy of the Ultimate Geography and Timeline Guide 2nd Edition (ok, actually I bought the 1st edition, which was about 1/3 of the cost).  I can't wait to cover the wall of our living room with a timeline!!


We are about done.  Those are the major subjects.  Here are some "extras":

Rosetta Stone German.  Micah wants to go to Germany for at least a summer a couple years from now.  I took a vote and nearly everyone said they'd rather learn German than Spanish.  So I hope to invest in this  great (but expensive!) program soon.

Photography.  Eden indicated an interest in photography recently.  Well, I jumped all over that one.  In fact, she asked if she could sell her iPod Touch and buy a nice camera.  She sold her iPod to her younger brothers (who split the cost 3 ways), but it wasn't quite enough money for a "good" camera.  I was willing to let her pull from her savings in order to make up the difference.  She won a great deal on a used Nikon Coolpix P500 on eBay.  It's not an SLR, but she can control aperture, shutter, ISO, white balance, you know--the basics of good photography.  I'm going to let this interest take whatever direction she wants it to go--artistic? mechanics/how-to of photography? editing?  We'll study whatever she wants to learn, using resources we can get low-cost or borrow.  Devona wisely suggested checking with 4-H and the Boy Scouts (they have a merit badge for photography). I'm documenting in order to credit her studies in this fine art.

Phy-Ed by Family Time Fitness.  I admit that I really don't like exercise programs.  But I see that some of my kids are as wimpy as noodles.  Time to whip it in shape, kids! We tried getting started doing this this summer, but failed after I got sore from doing the squats the first day (note to self:  do not do 20 squats first time out.  Especially not 40!!).  I'm not giving up.  We're going to get back into this as soon as the weather cools off.  What I hope to do is build motivation through competition among the boys.  I think it's going to work...if I can just stay motivated myself.  I have been making many good lifestyle changes, so something tells me that I'm going to be able to do it! 

That is, as they say, a wrap!  Now I'm definitely ready for a potty break.  Stay tuned for more, including a discussion about high school.


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  2. My daughter Ainsley is using Teaching Textbooks this year and loves it. She's in 5th grade and tested into the 7th grade level, straight from Singapore 4A. So far, so good. She hated math before and now it's her favorite to do because she's not feeling overwhelmed.
    We had ordered a whole Sonlight grade package and just sent most of it back yesterday. It was not the rigerous curriculum that I thought it would be, so that was disappointing. We kept the math, spelling, vocab., and singing cd, but I didn't feel the need to pay the $850 for a bunch of books I could get at the library and very weak history and science. They also don't teach any grammar at all hardly :o( Now we threw together something similar to last year, as that worked well. Glad you've found what works for you too :O)

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    2. That's great, Jenn! I considered Sonlight also. I am amazed how many of the books we can get at the public library (which ROCKS!! We are blessed!). I know some families here who use that curriculum, so I at least looked into it. In the end, I too felt it was weak in history and science and I just couldn't justify the high cost. What did you end up choosing for the other subjects?