Switchbacks to the Top

Over the years, I have been asked the same basic questions over and over again. On this page I will try to answer some of the more general queries regarding educational methods and curriculum.

Just as there is more than one way to get to the top of a mountain, so too is there more than one way to educate a child. As homeschoolers, we take full advantage of that. When I began our journey, I bought Susan Wise Bauer's homeschool classic, The Well-Trained Mind and followed it religiously. And just about squelched all love of learning right out of our eldest. Poor kid. Don't get me wrong, this book is a classic for a reason, and I highly recommend reading it for the many, many excellent sources it suggests and for the guidance it gives. Just please, for the love of your kiddos, don't try to do it all. Really. Over the years, I have learned that no single method works in every year, for every group of kids, and for every parent-teacher.

Homeschoolers always ask each other, "What method do you favor?" and "What curriculum do you use?" I just want to sigh every time I get asked those questions. Gosh, it would be great to peer through the clouds, up to the peak that is graduation, and see a clearly delineated trail from the base straight to the summit. What almost a decade and personalizing the education of five children has taught me is that that trail is not a direct route. There are switchbacks all the way up. You start off, feeling great, your backpack is comfortable. Then you hit a slide, an obstacle that teaches you that your chosen path is not working. So you switchback, head back the way you came but angling up the mountain enough that you are still making some progress towards the pinnacle that is your goal.

"But, Care," you ask, "why not just press forward, scramble over that scree, teach the kids the value of perseverance?" The answer is simple. The switchback is more enjoyable, less frustrating, and leaves both your child and you with the energy and desire to press onward. Let them learn perseverance in sports. Teach them that learning is meant to be loved. As homeschoolers, we are so blessed to be able to tailor every child's education to that individual child. Just because one method for long division makes sense for one child does not mean every one of their siblings will respond the same. Grab a different book, website, etc., and find another way.  Just because all of my boys loved Call of the Wild does not mean all the girls will. Lucky girls, we are not locked into a set curriculum--maybe I can finally teach some "girly" classics. Yeah, I'm all over that idea. Why narrow your teaching to the commonly taught select few when there are hundreds to choose from?

So, I know. Those two questions are still in your mind. The answers are complex, like the young minds I teach. In answer to the method question, I have taken elements of a number of methods, because I have tried just about everything, hung on to what works, and discarded the rest. Susan Wise Bauer's Classical Method taught me the beauty of the four year history cycle, and that has become the bedrock of our mountain. Everything else grows on that granite foundation. Literature is based on what we are studying in history, as is our art, music, and writing. History of science and geography are also planted in along the way. Applied science is done more along an Un-school Method line. Over the years, we have accumulated a complete lab's worth of science paraphernalia, which enables us to go along with what moves the kids at any given time. Often it does tie in with history because they are curious about what and who they are studying.

Whether the topic is science or any other subject, the root system of our mountain's forest is, as Charlotte Mason's Method calls them, "living books"--real books--not dry text books. You cannot possibly homeschool using a living book method without a library card. We check out so many books that all of my children have to have their own cards because we max them out. We only use textbooks for one subject, math, so you can imagine how many books we check out. Literature books jump off from history and are then tailored to match the kids' interests and reading levels. We always have a read aloud going, usually historical fiction. Let's not even get started on the stacks and stacks of non-fiction books that cover history, science, art, etc.

People often ask me how we survive without texts. Let me first say, we do use texts, but usually they are a resource for me for work that we complete on a white board, via discussion and modeling. Grammar, writing, and literary elements are good examples of things I teach using this method. Math is the one subject that I feel, definitely after kids pass the manipulative stage, must be taught with a very solid textbook curriculum. When math is not taught in a sequential, organized fashion, kids suffer. For our family, the answer is Saxon. We have tried many other programs, but every child has chosen for themselves to return to Saxon. However, we do not use the program verbatim. A blog post will address how we do it.

Worksheets, often disguised in the term "notebooking pages" in classical education jargon, are another thing I try to avoid. Ugh. On this blog, you will see many ways to circumvent the worksheet mentality that traditional education makes us think all children need. My biggest exception is Wordly Wise. This outstanding vocabulary system is simply unparalleled, and luckily, every one of my kids has enjoyed it.  Yes, we learn lots of great vocabulary from our extensive reading, but Wordly Wise helps me ensure that the kids are progressively learning new and more complex vocabulary that they might not encounter otherwise. I have on occasion had the kids work on exercises in Jane Irving Reading Comprehension workbooks. These books require kids to exercise critical analysis and are useful in helping my kids become comfortable with the types of questions (multiple choice, true/false, etc.) that they encounter on their yearly standardized exams. The other workbook series that both the kids and I enjoy is called Maps, Charts, and Graphs. While we learn most geographic elements though our history study and some chart and graph work through math, I have found that this series fills in a lot of holes rather nicely, and the kids enjoy these engaging books. An added benefit: the answers are right in the back, so the kids do these on their own, freeing me to work with another kiddo. (I know, that is exactly why so many homeschool moms--and public school teachers--depend on workbooks.) Fifteen minutes a week and they are done.

If I had to nail one method, aside from the classical four year history cycle, that is standard in everything I do, it would be the Socratic Method. The Socratic Method is an inquiry based approach to learning. Everything is discovered through questioning and research. I do not give my kids an answer. I ask them questions until they arrive at the answer themselves or tell me where they can go to find an answer. My job is not to transfer knowledge from my brain to theirs; it is to teach them to think critically and to know how to use available sources to seek out anything in life they need to know. I am only going to be available for a limited time. Having confidence in their own ability to acquire knowledge is perhaps the greatest lifeskill I can give them.

In the above paragraphs, method blended into curriculum a bit, but I will address the common "boxed curriculum." If you are new to homeschooling, get a box curriculum. Yes, you read correctly. Everything I wrote above is based on almost a decade of working with my kids' brains; the process of finding what to pack in our backpacks and which trail to take has been and will continue to be an ever-changing thing. Homeschooling is hard in the beginning, and the teacher needs all the support you can get. A good boxed curriculum will give you that. Better yet, you will find elements that you like and hang onto. Maybe you will get really lucky and find that with a little tweaking the program works great for both you and your kiddos. For really young ones, Calvert is a solid choice. Over the years we have done Sonlight (Bookshark for secular folks), Memoria Press, and Veritas Press. In each I found things to love and things to let go. If you want a lighter schedule, many people love Moving Beyond the Page.

If it all feels scary and confusing, relax and remember the most important thing is that homeschooling is a precious opportunity to provide our children with an individualized education taught by one of the two people in the world who are most vested in their success and who love and understand them the most. Don't expect to scale the mountain the first day; be enthused and keep an open mind about when it's time for a switchback. Remember that there is more than one way to the top, and you need to find the trail most comfortably traveled by you and your children. 

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