~ Underwhelmed vs Overwhelmed ~

July 15, 2009

From time to time I post portions of my own articles here that have been published in hard-copy magazines. This is the July-August article I wrote for Home School Enrichment magazine in my column entitled “The Underwhelmed Homeschooler.”  If you want to read the entire article, get you a copy of Home School Enrichment. The second part will be excerpted here once it prints in the Sept-Oct issue, or if you want to read it more quickly, you can subscribe to HSE for yourself. (www.Homeschoolenrichment.com)


Ah, summer! A time when many homeschool families kick back and enjoy some down time together. Whether your family takes an extended break, a short break, or continues schooling throughout the summer, we all have a time of year when we take stock of what educational materials we will be using for the upcoming new school year.

How does an underwhelmed homeschool mom avoid becoming overwhelmed when it comes to deciding what curriculum materials to use with her children? If you are new to the wonderful world of homeschooling, may I just offer a word of advice? Relax. I know, I know—there is a huge world of book publishers, and a plethora of methodologies from which to choose when considering homeschooling for the very first year! And I want you to relax?  Just how should you go about choosing anyway?

If you are a first-time homeschooler, I recommend asking for suggestions from friends who have children who are excelling in home education. Take a look at what your friends are using, and see if you like what you see. Recommendations are extremely valuable, but keep in mind that what works well may vary from family to family as we all have different likes and dislikes.

Visiting a curriculum fair may or may not be helpful as the curriculum choices out there are staggering, and at this point, you don’t need added terror, especially if this will be your first time at the helm. Curriculum simply needs to be user-friendly as well as present information in a logical and memorable fashion.

You definitely will meet a lot of curriculum at a fair, and seeing what is out there will be helpful, but be prepared to feel as though you are drowning. This is normal. I chose a lot of our curriculum sight unseen from a catalogue years and years ago thinking I could return it if I did not like it. I kept it.

workbook stackStart somewhere without worrying about whether or not you have found the perfect thing for your children. The perfect curriculum does not exist on planet Earth. Every brand of math program or every brand of spelling or science or health or phonics has its limitations, and our children should learn to learn within those limitations. Choose a program that looks as though it will be interesting and will meet the needs of your students and run with it. You may need to make some small adjustments here and there, but make your choices and trust your instincts.

If you are a seasoned homeschooler, and you have found curriculum that is presenting well the information you would like your children to master, and you are very confident that you are using the “right” materials, congratulations. You are in the minority. Why is that? Why aren’t more parents confident in their curriculum choices? Why do many homeschooling parents do what I call curriculum-hopping, which is randomly changing curriculum because they feel there must be something better out there?

There seems to be a thirst for the latest and greatest spelling curriculum, or the latest edition math curriculum, or the latest—you name it. Curriculum-hopping can be extremely confusing for students who need to be confident that mom and dad have chosen what they think is best for them. If mom and dad aren’t sure and are constantly changing their minds, how are the children going to be sure? Children definitely pick up on our attitudes as parents. My advice to those who already have chosen curriculum and have been using it for a while: don’t set it aside merely for the sake of change. Have a very good reason for that change.

More than anything, parents need to understand that home education is not all about the curriculum. I love that with homeschooling we have the marvelous opportunity to choose what type of worldview we present to our children through the curriculum. There can be no downplaying of the validity of using high-quality materials which we hand-pick. But this wonderful curriculum will be useless unless we train our children how to use these tools. They need to have the want-to and the desire to learn.

spiral booksAs a former elementary school teacher in a classroom environment, I can tell you that curriculum alone does not an educated child make. I never had the opportunity to choose the curriculum for my students when I taught in a private Christian school; I used what was available to me to the best of my ability.  Some children did well with the material, and some children did not, despite my efforts. Any teacher will tell you that the students who excel are the ones with the want-to and the desire to succeed. The students who excel are the ones who possess the positive attitude and who care. If our children do not cheerfully work to master the materials that we give them, chances are it is not the fault of the curriculum.

The real heart of homeschooling is molding, shaping, and training our children in how to use the tools (curriculum) which are given them. Our expectations should not be of the curriculum but of our students’ attitudes surrounding the actual doing of their work.

Too many parents fuss and worry over whether or not their young child will “like” their spelling book or their handwriting book, and they will go off looking for a different program if little Susie states a dislike, or worse yet, will not do the work. There are innumerable programs and systems out there, and any one of them have validity.

If you have been homeschooling for a while,  one reason for changing curriculum may be because you have chosen a different methodology, a different type of approach. For example, there are some materials which are not suitable for a self-learning approach. If I had been doing unit studies, which is a very parent-intensive approach, and then I decided I wanted to train my children to become independent learners, I would need to change my curriculum. (Almost any curriculum can be adapted to self-learning with the exception of unit studies.)

If you change the method of instruction, you may need to change a brand of curriculum. What I refer to as curriculum-hopping is entirely unrelated to this type of change in approach. Changing my science curriculum because my son whines and complains about not liking the current one would be an example of nefarious curriculum-hopping. And the whining and complaining is indicative of a totally different problem that has nothing at all to do with the materials. We’ll get to that.

The underwhelmed mom finds what curriculum works for her children, and then she sticks with it, confident that her children can and will adapt themselves to it and work to the best of their ability. Notice I said that the children will adapt to the curriculum and not the other way around.

I firmly believe that the “learning styles” concept is overrated; I believe this with all my heart. I have eight children, and all eight of my children have for the most part used the exact same curriculum. Once our students reach college level, what kind of input do they have on the curriculum their professors choose? Exactly none. They may choose their classes, but the professors will not give a hoot about learning styles in the college classroom.

Why then do we spend so much time and energy trying to discern exactly how our students learn best? In the realm of adulthood, it is a moot point.

I look for my children’s ability to adapt and work through their weaker areas.

Is there more than one way to learn something? Absolutely!  Thankfully! Results speak more loudly than anything in my book, and we have had and continue to have excellent results by utilizing mastery learning, having great expectations for each child, and tailoring my time as a coach to help each child reach his or her potential.

learning word montage

When I examine our homeschool, I see that my husband and I have the same great expectations for all of our children. We expect all of our children to be kind and loving, to respect us and each other, to do what is asked of them cheerfully, and to work to the best of their ability. That is how we operate as a family. We expect each student to maintain and A average in every subject.

Now each child’s ability to do this is the same: they all possess the ability. Some are more motivated at earlier stages than others, but they are all capable of mastery learning.

This is how we operate as a home school. It is my job as the homeschool coach to help them set goals and work towards those goals each day, not by standing over them and cajoling and begging them to do their work, but by challenging and rewarding their efforts.

One of my favorite quotes is by Albert Einstein. “I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Our parental responsibility is to provide the tools for learning as well as an environment conducive to learning. The attitude training is often the biggest challenge. Once your children are cheerfully doing what you would like them to do with the tools you have chosen, the actual learning part is easy!

An attitude that says, “I can do this, I will do this, and I will do it well,” is priceless, and a child who grows up with that kind of thinking will have an advantage that reaches into every facet of his life. Curriculum merely is the tool to education, but attitude is the heart of homeschooling.

Curriculum plays but a small role in the overall education of students. While curriculum-choosing is an essential step in the homeschooling process, it is not a do or die decision. Quality instructional materials are necessary, but often we waste so much time and effort worrying about and looking for the perfect thing in every subject which will thoroughly delight our student when delighting the student is not the point.

tools pic

Take whatever curriculum you have that has been working well, and walk into the new school year, confident that you are working with the necessary tools for learning. Moreover, make sure you are teaching, enforcing, and modeling the attitudes necessary for your student to be a motivated learner. Have great expectations for your children while keeping in mind that no curriculum can accomplish true learning without the user bringing it to life through commitment and determination.


~ Quick Curriculum Tip ~

July 8, 2009

I have come to a single conclusion on curriculum that you can take to the bank.

When it comes to choosing curriculum for your student/child, the MOST IMPORTANT THING is that the material is challenging enough for him.

Yes, some brands of math are easier than others. Some brands of science will be more challenging than others. Some reading programs move more quickly than others. Choose the most challenging materials for your student that you can find and stick with them.

Keep in mind that some students will be challenged more easily than others.  There is a balance between easy, medium, and hard. Some subjects will be easy for your child, and those that come easily are the ones that need to be the biggest challenge, as that is where your child’s strengths lie. The subjects that your child sees as being more difficult for him are often not his strengths and already are challenging.

I am a huge proponent of challenging strengths in a student.

For example, if I have a student who is very good in math and science and is interested in a career in engineering, I am not going to be super concerned because learning a foreign language isn’t his favorite thing. I am not going to force that student to spend endless hours honing his foreign language skills. A simpler language curriculum most likely will be challenging enough for him. I will want this student to put a whole lot of time and energy into the more in-depth science and math courses using the most challenging materials I can find.

Perhaps my other son is interested in foreign missions and Chinese language study. I am not going to push or be as concerned with development of his science and math skills if that is not his strength. He will need to pour his energies into the realm of language, sociology, psychology, etcetera.

See what I am saying? We tend to think that our high school kids must excel at EVERYTHING when in reality they should master the material we give them in everything, for sure, but their areas of interest should be honed more sharply than those that do not interest them as much.

That’s really my final word on choosing curriculum.

For today.

~ Calm in the midst of the college-selection storm ~

July 5, 2009

college propertyIf you have a high school student, it is never too early to start thinking about the college selection process. There is no need to feel pressured and anxious come September of your teen’s senior year if you take a few simple steps at key time periods along the way.

Here is my best advice on how to remain underwhelmed when planning out the steps that need to be taken for your student to be on track in the college selection game.

It really is easy! The hardest part is choosing the actual school from all the options, (and there really is no shortcut for making the final decision), but here are suggestions to help you plan out your timetable.

1. Take the SAT or ACT for the *first* time before the sophomore year is over. Also, have your sophomore take the PSAT for fun/practice. It “counts” in the junior year, and it is a great first exam to take for the 10th grader to take for practice. Get those baseline scores in!

I have had a couple of my kids take the SAT after 8th grade literally for fun just to see where they fit in. There is absolutely NO PRESSURE on an 8th grader, and if he/she has had Algebra 1, he or she should do just fine on the math section. If they are good readers and do a lot of independent reading, they should do surprisingly well on the reading section.

The point is to take the tests early in order to remove the fear factor and to give the student a good bit of confidence. Anything over 1000 after 8th grade is an excellent start! And if for some reason the student scores below a 1000, you always can say, “What do you expect? You are in 8th grade!!” That is why I say there is no pressure on an 8th grader when taking this test.

If your student really doesn’t *want* to take the test after describing the advantages of taking it early, then I wouldn’t push it. There will be time down the road, but I really, really like my students to take it if I feel they are ready to dip their toe into the pool to test the waters


If you are coming up on your student’s senior year and the ACT or SAT has not yet been taken, schedule him/her for it early in the fall which will allow another try before the deadlines for scholarship applications roll around.

2. Have your students take the most difficult and challenging classes every year of high school. Actually, every year…period. I will qualify this statement by saying that studying a diversified list of subjects is not better than putting the spotlight on fewer subjects but with greater intensity. In other words, allow students to fully concentrate on the basic areas, and don’t throw a bunch of junk in there that will divert their attention.

3. Start making a list of potential colleges to visit. It is rare for a sophomore in high school to know exactly what he wants to study in college, but have him make a list of areas he *may* be interested in, and look for schools that have strong departments that correlate to the student’s best guesses.

Make the college visitation list by the beginning of the junior year, and start visiting those colleges in the junior year. In-state colleges and universities offer the best choice of aid packages, but many colleges out of state will match the funds that the student would get if he attended in-state in order to attend the out-of-state school. (Did that make sense?)

4. By the end of the junior year, the student should have a good idea of where he would like to attend. You should have a clear picture of the requirements each school has for acceptance by now.  You have physically visited several schools of interest, and I recommend having at least three schools on the short list if your student’s grades are definitely good enough to meet those three schools’ entry guidelines.

If your student does not have a GPA that reflects an overall A average, you should have a longer list of potential schools from which to choose in order to have two of three “fall back” schools on the list in the event that he is not accepted into any of his top three choices.

5. Know preferred colleges’ deadlines for scholarship applications/enrollment applications. Generally early December is the cut-off for scholarship apps, and you definitely don’t want to miss these deadlines! I highly recommend putting these dates on the calendar at the beginning of the student’s senior year. Submit apps as soon as possible!

What I do is block out the fall of a student’s senior year on my calendar, filling it with test dates, enrollment application deadlines, and scholarship application deadlines. I try to get the student to complete everything that is necessary for college decision-making by Christmas.

If kids have a short list of schools going into the student year, most of your work is done. No scrambling is necessary as you will be mapping out the important dates on the calendar, and making sure your student has them on his calendar as well. This is a rare case when I recommend looking over a high school student’s shoulder and making sure that these deadlines are met.

Hopefully the student will have a sense of responsibility and will be self-motivated to get everything in on time; however, a second set of eyes is always helpful when there is so much riding on the process, playing the game, so to speak.

Now if your student won’t be applying for merit scholarships, you have a bit more time to work with since there are not these particular deadlines to consider, but I highly recommend getting applications for admission in as early as you possibly can.

6. File the FAFSA as soon as possible in January/February of the senior year. College and Universities use this info for scholarship purposes and basic financial aid packages.

7. Once the FAFSA has been filed, look for what other scholarships are available through sources not related to the schools themselves.

check mark

Once the applications have been sent in and any scholarships have been applied for, you can relax and wait for notification that your student has been accepted! Wrap up as much as you can by December, and the spring is yours to enjoy without last-minute stress.

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