by Rebecca Kocsis
We changed curriculum three times the first year we started to homeschool. Three times.
The year we started homeschooling my kids were four, six, and seven. I had mostly borrowed material from a friend that was designed for traditional classroom use. I found myself wading through teachers’ manuals that were three-ring binders and four inches thick! If you homeschooled in the 80’s you probably know what material I am talking about.
I spent too much time reading page after page, looking for some simple instruction like “First do this” or “Next do that.” Instead it was chock full of activity after activity intended to keep a classroom full of thirty kids busy all of the time. We weren’t far into our first week when I realized that the majority of those pages simply did not apply to us.
I also had a bit of a learning curve. It had been years since I had read much non-fiction. It required a mental adjustment to skip from picture books and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, to be able to wade through the teachers’ manuals. And it had been years since I was in school. Simple primary grade school terms were long forgotten. More than once I had to wrack my brain about even the most basic parts of speech. “Noun. That sounds familiar, but what is that again? I know I should know this.” Gradually, elementary grammar started coming back to me. Math did, too. Having a good dictionary helped.
After struggling through that material the first couple of months, I returned all of the language arts materials to my friend with many thanks. I had discovered that my child who was “reading”, wasn’t really reading. She simply recognized words from her sight words and spelling lists. She could not sound out anything new on her own. My first grader was equally in the dark. So I purchased a then-popular basic phonics program.
It was perfect for in-home use. The kids were learning to read and thought it was great fun. And it didn’t require a college degree to implement. The teacher’s manual was a mere fraction of an inch thick. I knew I could use it for all three of my children so, though it was a little pricey (compared to free), it was a worthwhile investment. The Lord added two more children to our family before our homeschool days were done. We used that program to teach all five of our kids to read, with a few tweaks here and there to accommodate their different learning styles.
Finding Unit Studies
Shortly after that purchase, I heard about something called Unit Studies. After being bored and frustrated with traditional materials, this sounded like a breath of fresh air. To a large extent, it was. I returned the rest of the books I had borrowed from my friend. The children were definitely engaged and learning—all three of them. The guide that I chose focused on developing character qualities and had discussion and learning activities that revolved around these.
Using our phonics program, math games, and this, one was supposed to be able to give their children a solid education. “Supposed to” is the key term here. I found myself spending more time than I could afford deciding which great activities to do and tracking down library books and supplies to execute them. We’d head into our week and the books I ordered from the library hadn’t arrived yet, or I couldn’t find a key ingredient to teach “the big idea.” So our lessons were not quite as developed as they should have been. Honestly, I became stressed out making decisions and gathering everything we needed. Our lessons fizzled. My friends raved about this material. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I get it together? Clearly, this was not my teaching style. Our unit studies period came to an end.
Discovering Charlotte Mason
Somewhere in February, which was about halfway through our school year, a friend invited me to a girls’ night away to hear Susan Schaeffer Macauley speak. She had just written a book, For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School, that was beginning to make waves in the homeschool world. As the daughter of Edith and Francis Schaeffer, founders of L’Abri Fellowship and well-known theologians, she did not have to work hard to earn an eager following. The substance of what she talked about that night was what I needed for our family’s homeschool. I bought her book and read it cover to cover. And then bought other copies over the years to give to friends.
Through Mrs. Macauley we were introduced to a long ago educator named Charlotte Mason. Her books had long been out of print, but her method of “gentle education” had lived on. Mason’s methods were based on her belief that children are individual persons due to her Christian worldview. She espoused the use of living books—real literature, and narration,over readers and endless unrelated grammar lessons. She encouraged nature study instead of science text books. She espoused the study of “the great masters”of art and music, coupled with much time for individual expression and exploration.
As Macauley laid out Mason’s educational method, I knew this would work for us. Putting it into practice was simple. It was easy to tailor to my children’s ages. It didn’t take long for homeschool materials designed along these lines to be published. Charlotte Mason’s books were soon re-published. That was the dawn of the Charlotte Mason Method. I never looked back. Over the years, we’d veer into different styles of education based on my children’s needs, but this remained the foundation for most of the 22 years we homeschooled.
Don’t Stay Stuck
I tell you all this with the hope that those of you who feel stuck with the wrong curriculum or those who feel guilty about switching things up in the middle of the year will be encouraged. The time we spent using “the wrong curriculum” was not wasted time. I learned what my children knew and didn’t know. I discovered their learning styles and, almost as important, my teaching style. We were “wasting away” with overly structured classroom material, but I needed more structure than what unit studies offered at the time. Overall, it was a journey that we had to make—course corrections included—to find what was right for us.
Your children aren’t stuck in a classroom with a one-size-fits-all curriculum. As private homeschoolers, you don’t have to meet anyone else’s timeline. You choose the one that is realistic for your family. You don’t need to seek anyone’s approval before making a change. These are your children. God gave them to you and has uniquely equipped you to raise them. He trusts you. You can trust yourself to make the right decisions.
At roughly halfway through the school year, no doubt you have learned so much about what works for you and what doesn’t. You are doing your children and yourself a disservice if you don’t make the necessary changes to have a thriving homeschool. Your money spent was an investment in this journey of discovery; not a waste. If you don’t feel like you’ve found it yet—that right homeschool schedule and method for your family—that’s okay, too. It can take a good year and a half to discover what really works and hit your stride.
Comparison is the Thief of Joy
I also want to say, don’t worry if your homeschool journey looks different than others you know. Don’t apologize if your children are thriving with traditional materials. Believe me, the traditional publishers have adapted their materials for use in the home. They are not the same as they once were. If it’s working for you, don’t change a thing. Unit study materials, likewise, have changed since I first used them, too. Now you can pick made-to-order packages instead of having to gather all of your supplies piecemeal. Much of what had been a barrier for me has been removed.
The important thing is to find what works for your family and do that. Embrace the freedom of private home education. Don’t compare your homeschool to your friends’. Each of our families is unique. God made us that way. He delights in our differences. Don’t fret. Make course corrections when you must. You’re allowed to because you are in charge.
It’s important to say I didn’t stop researching and exploring halfway through our first year. Over the years, homeschool curriculum and homeschool resources grew. We made many other wonderful discoveries along the way. Our homeschool morphed and changed a bit every year as our family grew and the children got older. It was a necessary part of raising a family. Yours will too. Enjoy the journey.