This post is for the newbie homeschoolers – the ones just getting started, or the ones still finding their homeschooling feet. If you’re an old hand at this homeschool thing you’ve probably already worked out a system that fits your needs, am I right? Feel free to read along even in case I impart some pearls of wisdom (ha!)
Everyone says “just piece your own curriculum together” to new homeschoolers who find that an all-in-one curriculum doesn’t work for their kid. Let’s be honest – a one-grade-fit doesn’t work for most kids, really. Unless your kid is spot on the specific grade requirements, they’re probably going to need a little of this and a little of that to fit their educational level. Which is why “what grade are you this year?” can be a really confusing question for a homeschool kid!
The problem with this advice is that people rarely spell out HOW they piece their own curriculum together. Or worse, make their own curriculum. Which is super intimidating for new homeschoolers, because they already feel out of balance with this homeschool dynamic and may potentially feel inadequate as a teacher. Homeschoolers don’t need a teaching degree to successfully homeschool, but we often feel like we do.
So here are a few tips on how to take that mess of workbooks and curriculums and spread it out to meet your goals over the year. This is what works for me – your methods may need tweaking and adjusting to fit your needs, of course.
Set long-term goals
Give yourself a general idea of what kiddo should know at specific grade levels. Some people use a cycle method, where they learn an overview one year and come back to it a few grades later to delve deeper. If your kid is like mine, delving deeper might mean going from elementary to middle school level, or from high school to college level. You know your kid, so set realistic goals that fit your kid’s needs and desires. Involved them in all of the goals and see what their focus is.
For example, if your kid is highly interested in marine biology, use that to study science. Expand marine biology to chemistry (how does an octopus produce ink and what are the chemical components?) and geography (where does that octopus live in the world?) and language arts (tell me about that octopus, where he lives, what he eats, what biome he lives in and how they reproduce.) Don’t make your goals rigid and unmovable – let your kid take some of the control there too. It’s a goal, not a race.
Set short-term goals
Before you break the year into little pieces, you need something to work towards. Do you have a curriculum for math? For Language Arts? Are you using a book list for writing assignments? Decide what you’re using, and then decide how much is reasonable for your kid to accomplish for the entire year. Be flexible, but put some goals in place.
What if you’re creating your own curriculum? Set goals for that too. Chose topics, then build around those topics to flesh it out into an interesting, vibrant curriculum.
What does that look like for me this year for the Engineer?
- 35 weeks of art lessons
- 35 weeks of Ancient history, covering Mesopotamia all the way up to Ancient Rome
- 18 weeks of science co-op using Pandia Press’ Astronomy 1 curriculum
- 35 weeks of child-picked science topics
- 35 weeks of specific math topics
- 35 weeks of specific reading, writing, and grammar topics
You’re probably asking why 35 weeks? Because that’s what I worked out for my art and history class, and it’s just easier to build a framework around those weeks and add other things in for the extras. I’ve also built-in time for review, because kids forget. They’re human.
How did I get to those goals?
It sounds intimidating, but it’s really not. I sat down with the Standards of Learning for our state and crossed off everything the Engineering has mastered. Then I made a list of things we haven’t covered or that he’s still working on for things like math. I assigned different topics to each week, and then I expanded with topics from our math spine. We’ll work through each topic until we hit mastery. If he finishes a week early, we’ll move on. If he needs more help, we’ll linger and practice more. Flexibility is key when planning out the entire year like this.
You might also be thinking “but what if it’s not enough? What if you’re not doing enough?” Given that most of the standards we’re working on are 3-4 grades ahead of the Engineer’s level at minimum, I’m not too worried about that. If you’re worried about doing enough for your kid, flip through the topics for their grade level at Scholastic’s grade breakdown like this one for grade 2 to get a practical idea of what the standards look like in action.
Break it down
How many weeks of school are you trying to accomplish? Does your state have specific requirements for attendance and hours? Use that to break up your curriculum into manageable pieces. Don’t feel like you HAVE to finish the entire curriculum or drag it out to fit the entire year. If you know your kid will blow through 5 lessons in a week, then plan accordingly. If you know your kid needs a little more time to absorb the topic, slow it down. Spread it out.
Don’t be afraid to jiggle and wiggle that curriculum around to fit your family’s needs. Especially don’t be afraid to chop it up, move it around, and change it. It’s a helpful guide, not a manual!
Designing your own curriculum
If you’re designing it, you have the option to expand and go deeper. You can adjust the resources you use, the activities you do, and the reading assignments. It’s flexible! Focus on the key points of the subject – what do you want your kid to take away from this lesson and remember for the next cycle? Keep it short and sound-bite worthy.
Practically speaking, that means I plan out the key points and highlights I think we need to cover. For example, we’re learning about the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt. We’re focusing on:
- The upper and lower kingdoms
- Who united the kingdoms
- The age of pyramids (what they meant, how they were built)
- Important kings and key figures
(Stuff like where is Egypt, what is the Nile, and agriculture facts are just rolled into the rest through readings and videos.)
For this particular lesson, we’re going to watch 2 videos from National Geographic, map out the Old Kingdom, create a paper pyramid board project showing the placement of the major pyramids, put together a King Narmer articulated puppet (for the littles) and read the spines and reference books.
You’ll get your key points from a spine that you chose – a reference book or textbook with the information you’ll need to refer to. We’re using 2 spines for our Ancient History course and an assortment of various reference books, online videos, activities, and printables that revolve around the topic. I use the spine to help plan out the topics and goals from the very start.
Flesh it out
You have a goal. You have a plan. You even have topics and some sort of schedule that works for you. What’s next? Resources! The fun part!
I love finding resources. Amazing, interesting, fun resources that will catch my kids’ attention. It’s fun! It’s also pretty simple: I sit down in front of the computer and do a basic web search on the topic like Old Kingdom of Egypt and see what comes up. I’ll vary it with specifics – Old Kingdom of Egypt videos, or Old Kingdom of Egypt printables, and I’ll avoid Pinterest like the plague. I’ll search Teachers Pay Teachers to find resources that are free or interesting like interactive notebooks or activities. I’ll click around looking for new and cool ideas until I find an assortment of good stuff.
Then the most important thing: I put it all in a file. A BIG file with links. Because I’ll never remember where all this stuff is, and I hate scrambling around looking for “that really cool video about pyramids” at the last minute. No, I want it all together in one spot where I can just jump and go.
Once we get closer to that lesson, I’ll open the file up and print anything out that we need. I’ll check the videos to see if they still work. I’ll make sure the interactive 360° websites function and are ready for our lesson.
I like to do things in chunks, so I’m doing about a month of lessons at a time. I like not having to worry about it.
What if my kid hates schedules?
That’s fine! You can do the same thing without putting it into a schedule. Make a road map of things you both want to cover, and go build up a lesson for each topic. You can do that lesson whenever works for you, no pressure. The point is to have the resources ready and available with some sort of goals.
Life happens. At some point you’re going to look at your schedule and have a slight panic attack. Nothing is going as planned! That’s fine! That’s normal! Adjust the plan.
I usually go over our plan about every quarter and re-evaluate if we’re on track, ahead, or behind. Then I’ll adjust. We’re supposed to be flexible – we’re homeschoolers! If your kid really wants to focus in on the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt and learn everything there is to learn, go for it! You’ll catch up later, or next year, or the one after that. I guarantee they’ll learn more if they’re motivated, inspired, and interested. Kick that plan right up to next year if needed. Don’t worry about it!
Don’t view re-evaluation as failure. It’s not. It’s a critical component to meeting goals – because sometimes those goals need to be changed. Sometimes you planned too much, over-reached and made it tough. Sometimes you didn’t plan enough – it happens. Re-evaluating is essential to keeping things running smoothly. It’s normal.
So there you have it. It’s really pretty simple if you take it in steps.
- Chose spine
- Set long-term goals
- Set short-term goals
- Break it apart into manageable chunks
- Flesh the chunks out
- Rinse and repeat
If you feel like you don’t have the time (ahhhhhhh this is too hard! ::runs screaming:: response) that’s where boxed curriculums come in. In homeschooling, you pay money to save time. Just don’t feel like you’re stuck following the curriculum. It’s ok to mess with it.
Note: yes, I’m probably going to put this history course up as a resource or unit study. Later. When I’m done. Right now I’m surfing for resources and having fun.