The Quest for the Perfect Curriculum
Kathryn L. Stout, B.S.Ed., M.Ed.
Published: May/June 2003
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The hunt for that perfect curriculum is once again in progress. Surely there is one company with a package that will do it all. The student will be content and Mom will have minimal work. Right? Even though last year’s purchase didn’t turn out to be “the one,” hope remains and the search continues. Well…if this is your quest, let me save you time and disappointment—every curriculum, even those complete grade-level packages, will need adjustments to suit your child. The perfect curriculum is the one you put together with your child in mind.
No, you don’t have to write a curriculum. You just have to judge resources for each subject based on your child’s age, personality, learning style, strengths and weaknesses. Granted, initial planning will take more time and effort than ordering a grade level package from one company. But the day to day experience will actually be easier. After all, it’s exhausting to try to make a child do what he doesn’t want to do. In fact, it takes time—time to think up rewards or punishments in order to get the student to “just get it done.” And just getting it done—completing the year’s school work—should never be the goal, not if we want our children to develop the habit of doing a job well.
So, if you’re willing to make the effort (you will reap the rewards later) and pull together something especially suited to your child, here are a few suggestions to make it a bit easier.
- Begin with a search for small group activities available in your area. Kids enjoy being with other kids, and you will have one less subject to plan.
- List the subjects to be covered, then note whether the child is strong or weak in each. Chose challenging materials in areas of interest and ability. For weak areas, choose materials with a slower pace or add supplements to slow it down. You will need to work one-on-one in weak areas, but can supplement with resources that the student can use on his own—self-correcting materials, software, video tutors, etc.
- If your child has difficulty reading, avoid the text book/workbook approach. Choose a multi-sensory reading program—one with all the bells and whistles—so he has plenty of variety while learning to read well. But teach the other subjects with resources that enable him to learn according to his ability. This will contribute to his self-confidence and add to his desire to learn. A unit study approach, hands-on projects, field trips, videos, games, and software can all be used effectively.
- Remember that English is more than grammar. Focus on the final objective: teens able to comprehend and analyze what they read, and able to define a position and support it in writing. That means plenty of discussion about what is read, help in forming and supporting opinions, and plenty of practice with composition from the time they are young.
- Subjects relying on rote memory should be practiced daily: phonics, spelling, typing, math facts. Short, frequent practices will bring success more quickly than occasional, longer practices. Since the number of responsibilities Mom juggles while homeschooling makes it especially difficult to do anything consistently everyday, it’s a good idea to look for resources the kids will find appealing and will be able to handle fairly independently, requiring only the occasional input from Mom.
- Math involves learning both concepts and computation. However, the amount of time spent on each varies greatly from program to program. No matter which you choose, it is likely that either math fact drills, word problems, or both will need to be added to supply extra practice.
- Add regular practice with deductive reasoning. (Critical Thinking Press & Software has plenty to choose from). As kids develop more ability to reason you will notice more skill in reading comprehension and math problem solving.
Low pressure classes can be selected in order to give kids a wider range of experiences. Challenging classes can be used to develop greater skill in areas where they have talent and ability. Since it is important for kids to have a chance to shine, avoid classes where their weaknesses would make the work too difficult. Save those subjects for one-on-one help unless a small group is available to serve only those with similar difficulties.
Local homeschooling support group newsletters and magazines frequently advertise activities. Also phone local museums, the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the YMCA for lists of classes. Since homeschoolers can make use of all 12 months, why not check out programs available for the summer?
Spelling, punctuation, capitalization, word choice, etc. are all important to the final draft of anything written—even a short note to a friend. But, all those correct workbook exercises in grammar rarely show up in kids’ compositions. So, work with them through the revision process—first suggesting changes in content and organization. Finally, when looking at grammar, point out errors, give the rules, and make the corrections with them. Then give them extra editing practice. (Critical Thinking Press & Software carries “Editor in Chief” for this purpose.) It’s also helpful to have kids write from dictation (writing out the entire sentence when given a spelling test works well) and copy something written (which can be part of handwriting practice). Both help build skill with the mechanical aspects of grammar.
One note: When teaching typing, emphasize beginning with proper finger placement and then NOT looking at their fingers during practice. Kids often want to pass the speed tests and will glance at the letters or words on the screen and then look at their fingers, hunting and pecking instead of practicing properly. To be sure this isn’t the case, pop in during a practice session, hold a piece of paper over their hands to prevent them from seeing their fingers, and see how they react. If they panic and have to stop typing, or make lots of mistakes, you might have to sit in on a few practice sessions until proper habits are established.
Typically, memorization is easy for the young—allowing them to learn a computation procedure. They are likely to have more difficulty understanding “why” (the concept), and will need manipulatives and pictures as well as direction and discussion from the teacher to help them through the reasoning process. Gaps left in understanding will show up later. Many of the middle school and high school kids I tutor are quick and accurate with computation skills, but don’t know how to proceed when given a two or three-step word problem. Remember, the goal of math is to prepare your child for its practical application. Life is full of word problems: Which is the better buy? How much will I ultimately pay when I add the interest? What is the price with sales tax? Calculators can help with computation, but they won’t tell us whether to add, subtract, multiply, or divide.
When I started homeschooling, choices were limited. It really didn’t matter, though, since my funds were limited, too. I used Design-A-Study books, the library, and a local resource center, and enrolled my kids in all sorts of classes for art, music, and physical education. Now that there is such an abundance of choices available, many families feel too overwhelmed to sift through it all—another excuse for turning to anything advertised as “complete.” But choosing materials subject by subject according to your kids needs really does pay off. By using materials that give our children their best chance at success and enough time to work toward mastery, we are providing a foundation that rewards a desire to learn. And that’s worth our effort.