Having been raised in the public school system and a teacher in that same system, as well as in private schools, I seem to be trained to feel that by the time May rolls around we should be seeing the back inside cover of our textbooks. As a homeschooler, I fight that feeling; sometimes winning and sometimes giving in to guilt. Slowly, though, I am training myself to think and feel the way I believe: that the goal is to learn, not to accomplish the book. What good is reaching the end of the book if you don't know the material?
My curriculum is a mixture of textbooks that I buy and those that friends give me. Along with this mix I throw in related books and materials that I either have on hand or pick up as we go along. The textbooks become a basic outline for us, rather than a time restraint. (I chucked the curriculum guides that listed the days you were supposed to get things done.)
So, how does it work? Let's take our history for example. A few years back, the 4th grade history textbook that we used took the student from Leif Erickson to Bill Clinton in one year. My eldest daughter had done really well on her 3rd grade studies in this same publisher's text, so when she hit the 4th grade I assumed that she would whiz through it also. The first test was a shock. She failed it! (Not a good self esteem start for the school year.) Rather than plowing on, as I would have had to do in the public school, I put on the brakes big time! I told her that if she failed while trying as hard as she had, that the problem lay in the way I was teaching her (which had consisted of letting her read it to herself and do the workbook according to the curriculum guide).
The first chapter covered many explorers from many countries and their many destinations of discovery. No wonder that she couldn't keep them straight. I had her draw a poster size map of the world. (I had to be patient because she took so long to get every inlet and harbor in the right proportions--important to her, but a bit too precise for me. This was her project so I let her do it her way.) Then she color-coded all the explorers with their routes of travel. With the color-coded map key she could see at a glance where Magellan went compared to John Cabot. She could see which Old World country went to which New World area. It was a great way to see why they speak French in Canada, English in America, and Spanish in Mexico. Next we made a card game based on "Go Fish" and we spent class time and some evenings playing. Did we finish the chapter on "schedule"? It depends on whose schedule. Our daughters both learned the lesson.
That's how the rest of the year continued. I developed the philosophy of "if the car is stopped, you might as well get out and walk around." I didn't see any sense to spending a year skimming a lot of topics. As we hit each new era of American history we would read the textbook and then dive into the topic. Videos, historical fiction, cookbooks, games, puzzles . . . whatever we could come up with we used. We were up to Lewis and Clark by June and continued through the summer on that topic. As we got to more recent history we took longer and longer as our resources became abundant. The Civil War study took several months. I set up a table of related books with jelly bean rewards for learning the items indicated by bookmarks in them. They earned prizes for reading the biographies I designated. We made meals from a civil war period cookbook. When I perceived that the girls were maxing out on a topic we moved on.
We took two years to complete the textbook and then had the opportunity to see how much knowledge had stuck when we flew down to Florida and brought my in-law's camper back home to Vermont. It was a great wrap up to our two year study as we went from the Spanish conquistadors in St. Augustine and on through our history up to the Vietnam memorial in D.C.
This year we started the Old World History and Geography. I have no idea how long it will take us to cover that. When compared to America's 200 years, the Old World has a few extra centuries on us! We were five months into the year when we got to the nine-week exam in the text. Did the girls remember what they had learned so far ago? They did . . . more than I remembered!
This brings up the question of whether we are doing "unit studies." Not really, since we don't strictly bring every subject under one topic consistently. We let the other subjects flow through their courses at their own speed. When we need to do research for history we hold up the English, handwriting, and typing texts to use that time to do a report for history. (I don't see any point to making them do busy work when they could be using the time to accomplish a larger goal. I want them to learn to prioritize what needs to be done and not get bogged down going in too many directions.) Presently, Charlotte is doing a documentary for her videography class. Her "English" time is spent researching for that.
We also take time to drop all textbook work and do projects like sewing. The girls wanted to make pajamas so we got patterns and cloth and took two days to only sew. This kept the projects from taking so long that they got discouraged. After two days of exclusively sewing they were both wearing their finished projects to bed. This was an improvement on my home ec. days where we took a semester to make a skirt! I did have to fight the old thought process that the girls should be doing math, too, but my new beliefs told me that this was definitely learning at its best.
If you ask us what Saxon math lesson we are on you may be shocked to hear that we are not "on target." We do field trips, sew, get together every Friday with a homeschool co-op for classes, and take days where we do different math lessons and games. We may even take several days to go over a concept that is giving a student trouble. The goal is to learn, not accomplish! If we don't finish the book by May we continue on until it is done. It might even take two years to finish, but most next year texts are the same stuff again at a different level.
You ask if this method works. So far, it seems to. My girls are happy, well adjusted individuals with an insatiable appetite for reading. They are always doing crafts, writing stories without my assigning them, baking, playing outside, and have a good level of being able to self-teach. When we do the standardized achievement tests they score well. They can do laundry and house chores. They are growing spiritually and emotionally. They are not trained "rats" for the rat race.
As I write this, the girls are out in the sunshine on our back deck. They have done all their schoolwork out there except for history and science, which we do together. I need to go see how they are doing on their silk embroidery for our Chinese studies. We'll have Chinese food for supper again tonight and I'll see how they are doing on their drawings of the Great Wall of China (it is a wonderful way to teach perspective in drawing). We are saving up to go to Chinatown in Montreal when we finish our unit. Don't ask me when that will be. We have all the time we need to cover the topic!
Lynn Calderwood is a homeschool mother of two daughters, whom she has taught at home since birth. Before her children were born, she was a teacher in one public school, and two private schools, including a Christian home for troubled teens.