Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Homeschooling Lessons I Learned the Hard Way: 3 Ways to Create a Customized Curriculum

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Once you've determine the "best for you" style of curriculum, and  made your budget, it's time to go back to acquire your winners.  But what happens if you don't have any clear winners?  Maybe it's because the price tag on your "perfect" program isn't, "We'll have pasta twice a week for a couple of months and skip the Oreos, and that'll free up the difference," but more like "We won't eat for two months if I buy this."  When you have a child who tests two years behind in language skills -- or an early and avid reader who is skipping ahead, what do you do?  How do you balance the "have to do" with "but I'd rather be doing..." things?

Make your own curriculum!

Now, I'm not going to tell you it's as easy as just ordering things as packages and kits.  It's a lot of work.  However, sometimes you need to look at programs by subject, or at each subject from a different perspective. Here is how we create our own curricula that is customized to each need.

Unit Study

A Unit Study is a fairly self-contained program that combines literature, grammar/writing, art, and often history and/or science with a focus on a a single core subject. Sometimes you can include math with your work,  but often unit studies will need a separate math and/or phonics instruction program.  I think that unit studies is one of the most economical curriculum style available.  It lends itself to lots of library use, which helps keeps costs down.  We also get a lot of use from our Amazon Prime membership -- what we need to purchase, we get from Amazon with quick shipping, and then take advantage of Prime Music and Prime Video, too.  Pre-prepared unit studies are probably one of the most flexible curriculum options.  Many offer a "here's six activities, do two" approach, allowing you to pick what suits your child's needs most.

However, you can create your own unit studies relatively easily You will want to create an outline of resources that suit your child's learning style and academic needs, combining different media and topics that capture your child's interests. Here's our template for unit studies!

Unit studies can be for all grades and ages!  Luke has been working his way through high school US History and Literature using a Unit Study approach!  Here's an example of one of his history units (keeping in mind this is an Honors caliber course, so there is a lot of reading and writing.):

Colonial/Revolutionary America
Timeline Text: Notgrass America The Beautiful
Literature: Five 4ths of July, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Historical Reading: YWAM William Penn, Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts, YWAM George Washington, YWAM John Adams
Video:  America: The Story of Us, Crash Course US History,  1776 (film of Broadway Musical)
Field Trips: Fort Necessity National Battlefield, Valley Forge National Historic Park, George Washington's Mount Vernon,
In Depth Research Study - George Washington:  Happy Birthday, Mr. President?, A Biography of George Washington (Part I, Part II, Part III)

Links are to reviews and/or entries in Luke's blog series, Luke's American Adventures.  He's done a lot of writing, but found he didn't want to write a paper for the sake of writing a paper.  He found his niche as a guest blogger here, working to show a lesser known side of history.   What he loved about unit study was being able to see literature and history in context of an era.  Now, obviously, because we live in New Jersey we have access to a number of early American-themed field trip sites. Many places offer virtual field trips, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation offers a Virtual Field Trip series.

Jude did a unit study on Dinosaurs, one of his favorite subjects.

We took a lapbook as our tether, and then wandered off each day in a different direction.  Jude especially liked this study, because it allowed for a new activity every day.  Unit studies are also great for when you're starting to homeschool, because you can try a huge variety of activities and get a feel for what your child really enjoys and what he'd rather not do.

Reading Level (Not Grade Level) Literature Programs

We have really struggled with finding a "grade level" reading/literature program for the little boys.  The biggest problem is there does not seem to be a consensus of what belongs in a specific grade.  I have looked at some books and said, "This is WHAT GRADE??" I've found that often literature programs seem to include books a grade level or two above the chronological grade.  I firmly believe that children rise to the level we challenge them with, but there is a fine line between "challenge" and "overwhelm."  You know your child, and what that threshold is. What I've done is taken books in quality literature programs - mainly just to have a book list - and charted them according to Scholastic Grade Level and/or Lexile Score, and created a cheat sheet of books according to reading level.  Here's a sampling from some "Grade 2" level programs.

I'll also add in books that look like fun, and that others have suggested as interesting for the age range.  Our plan is to choose books according to ability. If we hang out at a specific level for a while, that's fine.  When they're ready to move on, we'll slide up the scale.  This works two ways - for Jude, it allows him to not get overwhelmed with books that are too hard, but also gives me a list for Damien, who is slightly advanced for his age with reading skills. I will admit that it probably isn't a perfect way to categorize books for two reasons:

  • You can see from the second column of titles that sometimes a higher "grade level" is "easier" from a Lexile scoring, but I find using those gives me a good starting point to decide if the book is worth a quick skim to see if it will work.  
  • If I know Jude is doing well with a grade 2/early 3rd book, and struggling with a 4th, I know to hang out in around there, and not move up to something in the 5-point-somethings too soon just because a program says "This is what we do for kids in 3rd grade."  Our motto is confidence first, challenge next. I'd rather him read six simpler books and be a confident reader than struggle through a hard one too soon and hate to read.

This also really dovetails nicely with the Unit Study method.  Finding books that are in the appropriate reading level range will help open up topics, especially for Jude.  If it's a new concept he's that not certain he will enjoy, being able to find something at or even slightly below grade level will allow the information to be more easily absorbed.  This way, the focus isn't on trying to push forward in reading level, but is on gaining knowledge and broadening horizons.  If it's a subject that is really loved, then we'd try a harder book, because the reading may be harder but the topic is already familiar.


While Jude and Damien do have "serious" schoolwork to do, they also spend a fair amount of time playing.  Damien loves to play superheroes, and one day he spent the entire day drawing pictures of his favorites.  That day's program evolved into telling me about each character, having a mock battle with the papers, keeping track of how many DC Super Heroes and how many Marvel Super Heroes he's drawn (individually and combined) and writing their names on their pictures and a master list, and debating each character's powers.  Damien has "played" all day but practiced language organizattion/storytelling, penmanship, and math.  I would say that we are definitely "eclectic" homeschoolers, but I find a personal affinity to some of the tenets of Waldorf-style education.  Sometimes, especially with younger students, you don't actually need a "curriculum" for everything, but instead you need to just provide opportunity.

I would also argue that while educational approach also needs to mature as a child grows, we never outgrow our desire to learn from activities we consider fun.  One of my new favorite resources for the older boys is the Great Courses.  They're college-caliber audit-style classes in any number of topics.  While there are a number of courses that have fulfilled core requirements (Luke is combining a couple courses in Shakespeare to create a senior lit course, and used their Anatomy and Physiology for senior science), they also bring a huge variety of electives to the party.  Matthew has studied ancient architecture and engineering.  He has found this field fascinating, and that excitement translates to a desire to learn more, motivating him to read texts, have organized discussions, and write gradable essays. Luke has studied cooking techniques with the program.  Combining the video program with a practicum in the kitchen has sparked an interest in being an amateur chef -- and I can't complain about having the night off from dinner duty!

Today is Day 3 of the Schoolhouse Crew Review spring Blog Hop.  There are over 50 bloggers participating in this season's theme, 5 Days of Tips for Homeschool Parents.  I'll be featuring a different group of bloggers each day, and encourage you to check their blogs out and see what advice they have for you!

Adventures with Jude
Day 1: Choosing Curriculum
Day 2: Homeschooling Isn't Cheap
Day 3: Creating a Customized Curriculum (this post)
Day 4: Don't Lose the Big Picture
Day 5: 8 Truths about Homeschooling (live 4/1 @ 8 am)

Annette @ A Net In Time
Brandy @ Kingdom Academy Homeschool
Brenda @ Counting Pinecones
Carol @ Home Sweet Life
Cassandra @ A Glimpse of Normal
Chareen @ Every Bed of Roses
Cristi @ Through the Calm and Through the Storm
Crystal @ Crystal Starr
DaLynn @ Biblical Womanhood
Danielle @ Sensible Whimsy

©2012- 2016 Adventures with Jude. All rights reserved. All text, photographs, artwork, and other content may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the written consent of the author.

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