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Homeschool Curriculum 101: What You Need to Know: An Interview with Stacey Wolking

May 15–19, 2017   |   Vol. 130, Week 12

With thousands of homeschool curriculum options out there, how can you possibly decide which one is right for your family?

This week on Homeschool Heartbeat, Stacey Wolking walks you through the process of choosing effective curriculum for your homeschool program—without going crazy.

The podcast will cover:

  • What to ask yourself before looking for curriculum
  • How to find a curriculum that meets your child’s needs
  • Tips for trying out curriculum options
  • Saving money on curriculum
  • Why you should stop looking for the perfect curriculum

“Be careful not to jump into a certain curriculum because it’s popular or all your friends are using it. Your family is unique, so you need to find what is best for you.”—Stacey Wolking

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With thousands of homeschool curriculum options out there, how can you decide which one is right for your family? Tune in now to Homeschool Heartbeat as Stacey Wolking walks you through the process of choosing a curriculum for your homeschool.

Mike Smith: Our guest today is Stacey Wolking. She’s a former homeschooling mom of four. She’s a Toddlers to Tweens and High School educational consultant for HSLDA. Stacey, welcome to the program!

Stacey Wolking: Thanks, Mike! It’s great to be here.

Curriculum 101 [0:29]

Mike: Stacey, what are some important questions that parents need to ask themselves before looking for curriculum?

Stacey: “What curriculum should I use?” is probably one of the most overwhelming questions that parents have to deal with.

We can lighten the load by using the analogy of going on a trip. The first thing you want to do is figure out where your child is academically and in maturity and where you want to go from here. If you aren’t sure where your child is academically, we have lots of great resources on our website for testing, evaluations, assessments, and checklists for evaluating progress. Placement tests are generally curriculum-specific, but they can also be a helpful tool for determining where to start.

Speaking of placement tests, do keep in mind that just because a workbook says 3rd grade doesn’t necessarily make it the right level for your 3rd grade child. Curriculum can vary a lot. What one says is right for a 2nd grader another will say is for 4th grade. There are general standards, but they are certainly not absolute.

Next, you are going to want to think about what to pack for your trip. This is the critical question: What works best for you and your child? Textbooks? Workbooks? Real living books? Project-based learning? Unit-based learning? Are you catching up or are you leisurely learning?

Of course, you also want to be sure to check the academic requirements for your state. And you can do that on our website at hslda.org/laws.

Meeting your child’s needs [1:50]

Mike: Stacey, what practical steps can parents take to figure out what types of curriculum will work best for your family?

Stacey: Well Mike, there are several things. It helps to take teaching and learning styles into consideration, and [to] know you and your child’s limitations. If you’re not a natural teacher or researcher type, you might want to avoid programs that require lots of teacher preparation. If your child likes lots of projects and hands-on activities, then a textbook probably wouldn’t be a good fit. If you love to read, then you might want to check out one of the many literature-based programs. Do you have young ones? Especially boys under 8 can have a hard time sitting, so some activity based learning would be good for him. Visual learners tend to do well with workbooks, while auditory learners do well with spoken instruction and fun learning songs. Look for something that meets your child’s needs!

And lastly, do lots of research. Online reviews can be really helpful. There are lots of great review websites: Homeschool Reviews, Cathy Duffy Reviews, Curriculum Choice, just to name a few.

Mike: Well, let’s say a parent buys a curriculum but realizes half-way through the semester that it just isn’t working for their child. What should they do?

Stacey: Don’t be too quick to assume that the curriculum is the problem; it could be the presentation or the application. Often with some tweaks, you will find that you don’t need to ditch it after all. If it’s too much, you can skip assignments or problems. Or you could add in activities, games, projects, or read-alouds. If they aren’t getting a concept, present it to them in a different way—possibly with hands-on experiments, videos, or documentaries. Or use a free online supplement like Khan Academy.

And if you still determine it’s the wrong curriculum, there is no shame in ditching it and moving on to something else.

Curriculum tryouts [3:34]

Mike: Stacey, homeschooling parents have a lot of freedom to choose the curriculum that works best for their children. But that freedom results in many, many options—and sometimes they can feel overwhelmed. How can parents keep themselves from going crazy when faced with this vast array of possibilities?

Stacey: I always suggest that parents attend a conference or curriculum fair so that they can look at the curriculum and ask questions. But I will warn you, curriculum fairs can be overwhelming. It’s important to do some research to establish what you are looking for and make a list of specific curriculum you want to check out. Otherwise you might end up with that deer-in-the-headlights, “I have no idea where to start” experience.

Also, don’t overbuy. Even with the best of intentions, you won’t be able to do all the extra subjects all in the same year (like foreign language, music lessons, art history, nature journals, lapbooks, science experiments).

And be careful not to jump into a certain curriculum because it’s popular or all your friends are using it. Your family is unique, so you need to find what is best for you. But do be sure to ask your friends what they have used, including what they have tried and disliked, and most importantly, why. Since every family is different, it could be that the very thing your friend hated will be the thing that you love.

Also, ask your friends and acquaintances if you can come over and look at their curriculum or possibly even borrow it and try it out for a couple weeks, which is often all it takes to see if it’s the right fit for your family.

And lastly, ask your spouse. Even if they’re not super involved, they will often have some good insights because they do know you.

Saving money on curriculum [5:09]

Mike: Stacey, what is the number 1 curriculum question you get from parents, and how do you answer it?

Stacey: Well Mike, lots of parents want to know how to homeschool on a tight budget.

I tell them to utilize the library, especially the inter-library loans, which allow you to request items from other participating libraries. You might be surprised at what you have access to. They have loads of educational resources for teachers and parents like phonics programs, educational packages with manipulatives, lesson plans, audiobooks, educational videos, and so much more. And up to high school, you can pretty much cover all of science and history, and sometimes even foreign language, just with a library card.

And there’s an even larger free library right at our fingertips. Of course I’m talking about the internet. You will find instructional and scientific videos, educational games, printable worksheets, and more to supplement your teaching.

Multi-level teaching is another great way to save money. Teaching several kids together will not only save you money but countless hours of planning and teaching as well! Science and history are especially good for this.

There are many great websites for buying used curriculum without any fees like Homeschool Classifieds and Homeschool Trader. The website HomeschoolFree.org offers used curriculum for just the cost of shipping.

You also save money when you buy non-consumables. If your children don’t write in the books, you will be able to reuse them or sell them.

There are also free complete curriculums online, like Easy Peasy and Old-Fashioned Education. And for you classical or Charlotte Mason lovers, there is Ambleside Online, and from a Catholic perspective, Mater Amabilis.

Perfect curriculum? Doesn’t exist [6:46]

Mike: Stacey, what are the most important things that parents should remember when they’re choosing a curriculum?

Stacey: More than anything, I would say, relax!

As the parent, you know your child better than anyone and therefore you have the ability to find the curriculum that is the best fit for you and your child. Obviously curriculum is an important part of your child’s education, but it’s not the end-all. Don’t agonize over these choices, because even if it ends up not being the best fit, your kids will still learn. The wrong curriculum will not ruin your children, so stop looking for that perfect curriculum; it doesn’t exist. You can, however, try to find the best fit for you and your family.

Interestingly, according to the many surveys of homeschooling families, curriculum choice is never given as a reason for homeschool failure, because homeschooling is about so much more than the curriculum. Even if all you have is a dry textbook, you can make your homeschool experience come alive by adding in supplements, hands-on projects, read-alouds, music, nature study, field trips, videos, family hobbies, community service, and so much more.  

We’ve all heard the saying, “If momma ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.” The truth is, when you love your curriculum, you will be more motivated to do it, so try to find something that works for you. But remember, no matter the curriculum, your kids will love to learn if you are excited about it too.

And lastly, I’d like to remind our listeners that HSLDA members can call me or any of our other educational consultants if you have questions about curriculum or anything else. So if you’re not a member, please join today!

Mike: Stacey, thank you so much for joining us this week and sharing your insights in choosing curriculum. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the options, but I believe your advice will help parents to make informed, effective decisions in the best interests of their children. And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Stacey WolkingPhoto of Stacey

Stacey’s childhood dream of becoming a teacher was fulfilled by homeschooling her two sons and two daughters. She and her husband, Daryl, graduated their youngest child in 2013 after more than 20 years of homeschooling using a variety of teaching styles and curriculums. All of their children went on to college, have successful careers, are married, and (bonus!) plan to homeschool. Stacey is enjoying her growing family, especially her four grandbabies—the first of many, Lord willing!

In addition to serving on the HSLDA Toddlers To Tweens and High School Consultant teams, Stacey fills her “homeschool retirement years” with tutoring students in her favorite subjects (English, reading, and writing), offering professional home and office organizing services, serving as co-coordinator of a local homeschool support group, and pursuing her passion for natural health and nutrition.

Stacey has focused much of her research and writing on the needs of little ones and is greatly concerned about the ever-increasing cultural pressure to push young children into formal education too soon.

It is Stacey’s greatest joy to encourage moms in homeschooling, homemaking, and loving their husbands and children well. She loves to share her heart and enthusiasm with homeschool and MOPS organizations.

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