Now is the time of year that parents start thinking about next year. . . and forefront on a homeschooler's mind is 'what curriculum should I buy?'
I get plenty of questions about where to find curriculum and how to choose it. It's a daunting task because the wealth of material available to us now is endless! How can we choose between all the GREAT resources at our fingertips? And many of them really are great; but you can't use them all. Actually, most parents go about this backwards. They want to hurry up and get 'curriculum' that covers the 4 core subjects, and then they want it to 'work' with their family. But it really saves time in the long run to turn that around. How can you tell what will work for you and your family? Rather than rush into a purchase, first sit down and write up or discuss together a few key facts about your family's homeschooling:
Are you considering something because your neighbor, best friend, sister-in-law, (fill in the blank), uses it and recommends it?
Are your children young and just starting, school-age, or are they already in high school?
Are you homeschooling for the short term to get over a hump, like waiting for more funds or a prospective move?
Are you homeschooling for the long term, hoping to go K-8 or maybe even high school?
Are you homeschooling because of academic issues in brick and mortar schools? Did your student already have trouble or problems in that environment?
Are you homeschooling for philosophical or religious reasons?
Do you want a specific worldview presented in your curriculum?
Let's start with the last one first and work up. ALL education is religious. Even atheism is still a 'religion' because it has presuppositions as starting points and a belief system that forms its particular worldview. The world would have you believe that teaching your children using your own worldview is 'bad', while insisting that using theirs is 'good.' But parents are supposed to pass on all that they hold dear and important! Narrow down curriculum quite easily by discarding anything that is obviously in conflict with your own worldview. Don't feel guilty. You can inform your children later (in appropriate ways) about how the world operates. Christian curriculum does vary, so if you are looking for Christian curriculum you will still have to check for anything that might conflict on important areas for you.
If you are homeschooling out of a philosophical, pedagogical or religious motivation (and I hope if you didn't start out that way, you soon convert), it is even more imperative that your curriculum match your motives. While the religious reason is more obvious, the other 2 are next in importance, because they also have to do with your unique worldview. This is where we tackle the 'school at home' vs 'home learning is a lifestyle' type differences. If you are desiring results fundamentally different from group schooling produced, then definitely don't replicate it in your home! This category further breaks down into things like Classical, Charolette Mason, Unit Studies, relaxed homeschooling, principle approach, and on and on. All of these categories have popular curriculums. This will require some research time from the parents.
If you are homeschooling out of a desire for better academics, the above research is still the place to start. You can hardly 'mess up' your kids unless you really try, so don't be locked into only the traditional approaches unless they are appropriate. If you know your student has issues, either not challenged or too challenged, there are resources that target your student. You will want to use that in your search window. Many curriculums tout that they are excellent for certain challenges students face, and while I think that can be true, just remember, the one-on-one coaching by a loving parent is the biggest advantage by far over any of those miracle claims.
If you are homeschooling for the long haul, then don't sweat it. Play, get messy, have fun. . . and while they are making their own forts, you can research, research, research and network, network, network. Kindergarten is an extension of what you've been doing since birth. Talk to your children, read to them often and DO things with them, including your daily chores. Many of the activities in group school at this age are just meant to artificially replicate the learning that flows naturally out of ordinary life. You'll get plenty of ideas online. Even if you buy curriculum at this age, don't sweat it if you don't use it. I call that 'research and development.' You have time to test a variety of options and develop your own personal or family style of homeschooling. You might want to borrow resources until you know you'll use them. By the time your oldest reaches high school, you'll be the expert. From personal experience I went from one philosophy to a completely opposite philosophy over the course of my oldest child's elementary years; expect some change in yourself as well. This is a learning process just like anything else. Do you remember learning to ride a bike? Didn't you fall a few times? Didn't you need someone to hold you up until it clicked? Once you learned how, wasn't it easy? Did it take a lot of effort or concentration once you could just do it? Homeschooling is a learning process too. Give yourself permission to be a student. And remember that no permanent damage was done from those learning-to-ride falls. Your kids will be fine despite a few false starts on your part.
If you are homeschooling for a short term goal, then curriculum choices are much easier. You'll want to use the same or something as close to what you expect your students will go into once they return to school. At least, find out what the group school will expect your student to have as a knowledge base when he or she re-enters the school, and make sure you've gotten to that point, even if you got there by another route. The exception may be Phonics and Math tutoring; if you are homeschooling because the school's method wasn't working, you'll obviously be using something different. Either way, you'll be using more of a textbook/traditional approach in expectation of returning to that environment.
Are your students young? Been in school? Already in high school? If young, you have the time to follow the above suggestions; if already in middle or high school you may not have time to research methods or do a lot of leg work, since your student needs to be thinking about credits and graduation. This is where your motivations will help you, though. Do your high schoolers want a completely independent study program? Are they looking to move on quickly or take their time? By this age, I am a firm believer in 'identity directed' learning. That means they are searching for their identities, and their course load is reflective of that. College-bound students may choose a typical schedule of courses, but most students would benefit from a load that more reflects their interests and talents. Dancers should be doing a LOT of dance. Carpenters, carpentry. Programers, programming, artists, art. Those who are not so sure, a variety of opportunities so they can discover what they enjoy or excel at.
Using a program picked by others is not necessarily a bad thing as long as it meets the requirements of the other questions to ask yourself. Since there are so many choices, it makes sense to narrow the field by taking a poll from those you trust. I would consider the favorites of others as simply narrowing the field of research, but still compare their choices to the needs and philosophy of your own family. Sometimes finding one resource will lead you down a path to many more that fit right into your needs.
The one thing I didn't have you ask was price. That is also a consideration, but I feel that all the other options are available in all price categories, so while you may need to limit [unless the sky's the limit] spending, you can still concentrate on the type, style and worldview of the curriculum you choose, even if it's free. Some of the best educational resources are also the most affordable. So now, with a little reading and online searching, you too can become a curriculum junkie expert like the rest of us homeschool veterans.
Some places to start:
Cathy Duffy: http://cathyduffyreviews.com
The Well Trained Mind: http://www.welltrainedmind.com
The Bludedorns: http://www.triviumpursuit.com
Spell To Write and Read: http://www.swrtraining.com/id27.html
Of course, I'm listing my recommendations, mostly ones I agree with in content and style, but that's not to say I agree exactly 100% with all of it. Another site that seems good for general homeschooling on everything, but too large for me to endorse, is http://a2zhomeschooling.com