Curriculum Recommendation for Real Life

June 2, 2015

mom and son“Hi, my name is Melissa and my son just completed 4th grade. I’m really concerned because he is really struggling with Reading Comprehension & Writing. I know the VLA program starts with 9th graders, but what program/programs would you recommend for 5th graders and middle schoolers? I appreciate your feedback, thank you!”

This is an actual email I received a couple days ago, and it is a sampling of what fills my Facebook messages and personal email inbox.

I most certainly understand and applaud parents who are searching for the very best stuff out there for their children in terms of curriculum. What I want to highlight is the fact that it AIN’T about curriculum!

Curriculum is just a tool in the hands of a student. A good student can use any curriculum and learn. It is the MINDSET of the STUDENT that will yield his results.

Self-Propelled students have a “yes, I can!” mindset from doing their own problem solving day in and day out, regardless of curriculum. Students who are dependent on their teachers do not necessarily possess this positive approach to learning. (I write extensively about this positive mindset in my book The Self-Propelled Advantage.)

Students who have a “no, I probably cant” mindset are going to struggle with any curriculum. It is all about getting to the bottom of this attitude and understanding what causes it which will be of most benefit to the student, not trial and error with this curriculum or that curriculum, although that is what happens most often. Home-educating parents tend to doubt the worth of a curriculum before they look at what is REALLY going on in the heart of their student.


It is easiest to blame curriculum. It is pretty darn simple to curriculum-hop, but isn’t it painfully expensive and time consuming? In 23 years of schooling eight kiddos, I’ve never changed a curriculum. What I purchased 23 years ago for my first child, my last child is using today.

What did I say to the sweet mom who wrote me? I’ll cut and paste my answer in case anyone is interested. Hopefully it will highlight what parents can do right now, this summer, to grow children who are on the road to becoming truly educated.

Hi Melissa,

Thank you kindly for your email! If you don’t mind, may I just say one word?


Writing skills develop over time, and that is why I don’t offer any courses for kids below high school.

I have five high school graduates. All totaled, they’ve written me ZERO papers in their 13 years of schooling other than for the composition class and research paper classes they took in high school for a total of two semesters. When they did VirtualLanguageAlive, they didn’t write essays for ME, they wrote them for themselves to utilize their vocabulary, to learn their vocabulary words.

What I did require and what I recommend you do is to go to the library and let him check out books. Set a minimum time of one hour of reading per day even (and ESPECIALLY) through the summer. Allow your kiddos to get ALONE with their reading material. Take away distractions of the technological kind, and make reading the only option, but give children choice in selecting their own reading materials.

Have technology-free days or technology-free times of day, at least. Take away those distractions and temptations FOR your children.

Encourage your child to read by giving your child ruminating time: time to think with no distractions. Charlotte Mason said, “Children must be left alone to ruminate,” and as a child, I was given that time as well. We didn’t have close neighbors or a public swimming pool, or etc. My mom took me to the library every two weeks or so, and my brothers and I would leave there with at least a dozen books. Happiness meant reading away in the coolness of an air-conditioned house. Or in the car. Or on the porch swing.

If I had had all of the distractions that today’s kids have, I would never have developed an appreciation for being ALONE with a book. I would not have honed my reading skills when there was no pressure to do so because I was reading for pleasure, not for school.

Today’s kids need to be left alone with their thoughts to ruminate. We are not being “mean” by just saying NO to screen time of all varieties!

This is the biggest challenge parents face in the 21st century: fostering reading in an age of electronics.

Just my two cents. Bahahahaha! I really got going there, Melissa. I apologize for being lengthy. I didn’t intend to be. READING is the key to lifelong learning. Comprehension will come and it grows over time, so simply allow a child to have his own relationship with any book he reads this summer. Eventually, from whatever curriculum he is given, he will be able to grow and learn.

joanne calderwood


reading girlOne last tip for today:

Head out to your local bookstore, and let your kids look around for the latest and greatest stuff. Don’t purchase the books from the bookstore! Go to or to your favorite online book seller and order them at a discounted price. Waiting for the books to come in the mail adds EXCITEMENT! Don’t you love getting stuff in the mail? So do your kids! Set them up for additional excitement this way.

Okay, buy them one book at the bookstore. And grab yourself one while you are at it. If your kids see you enjoying a book in your spare time, they will get the message that reading is a worthwhile pursuit.



Struggling with Curriculum Choices?

May 31, 2012

Ah, the end of a school year! For home educators, the end of one school year leads to a season of mass confusion as the search for next year’s curriculum begins.

And talk about CHOICES!

As most of my faithful 8 readers already know, I am reluctant to discuss curriculum. Why? I feel curriculum choice is a persona decision. However, my stance on curriculum is pretty simple, and I”ll share it with you shortly.

As a former classroom teacher, I did not have a choice in what curriculum I used with my students. The principal would hand me the books and the teacher’s manuals, and off I would go to use what I was given. (STUDENTS did not have a choice either.) Was that a bad thing? I don’t think so! And I’ll tell you why.

In just a minute.

Here’s what I’ve been hearing from a LOT of home-educating moms lately: “Would someone please just tell me what curriculum to get so I can just get it?” Now, not everyone phrases it in that exact manner; however, the feeling of frustration and overwhelm is the same. There is so much out there to choose from! How does one even begin to choose? Interestingly, the sentiment seems to be similar no matter how long a parent has been home educating.

True, you want to choose something with a worldview similar to yours. One of the greatest aspects of home education to me is the luxury of choosing a curriculum with a particular worldview for my children. On the other hand, they are going to catch my worldview by being part of our family much more than they will from a stack of books they are handed. It is important that there is a similarity between the two!

Would you be surprised to learn that I have used the same basic bunch of books and workbooks for learning sessions in our home for over 20 years now? Yep, I chose them via catalog–sight unseen–before I began home educating my first little guy 20 years ago. Of course I added to that first bunch of books each year as my oldest progressed, but I have STAYED with the same stuff and used it for all of my kids. The texts that Lilienne–my youngest–is working out of right now are ones that Nick used when he was in fourth grade…along with six other kids who also used those same materials as they grew into them.

Why change?

I can tell you that I’ve been tempted to change over the years, but not out of any need to change. There are flashier things available today with more bells and whistles than existed in 1992, that’s for sure. But I decided if there was not a need to change, why spend the money and jump around from one thing to another? I stuck with what we had, and it has worked marvelously. Ah, but there is a caveat here: the curriculum doesn’t magically work by itself.

When you think about it, curriculum is NOT the most important thing in a child’s edusphere. Now what could be more important than curriculum, you may wonder.

I have discovered that ATTITUDE is much more important than curriculum when it comes to educating a child.

Here’s the rejoinder to my query above: Why is it not a bad thing that teachers are required to teach from whatever they’ve been given? Really good teachers are incredibly creative and caring, and they can take whatever is set before them and present the information to their students, laying it out in a manner that is logical and makes sense. After all, there are only so many ways to spin mathematics.

The problem comes when teachers are given students who have attitudes that preclude learning. Parents dictate the attitudes of their children either knowingly or unknowingly. Give a teacher a child who wants to learn and is eager to learn, and that teacher can take whatever curriculum he or she has available and present lessons from it. Take the same curriculum, the same teacher, but add in a student who doesn’t want to learn and in fact refuses to do his work, and learning is obstructed. Why? Because of the curriculum? Of course not. Attitude truly is everything!

In home education, parents have the time and ability to set the standards for attitude and behavior in their offspring. If a child has a crummy attitude about schooling–or anything else–it is up to the parent to deal with that attitude. If attitudes about learning are not set by the parent and cultivated in the student by the parent–especially at a very young age–curriculum will essentially become a non-issue. Learning is hampered by crummy attitudes. It doesn’t matter what the parent sets before the student, the student is going to fuss and argue and chafe.

Show me a child who is happy, cheerful, obedient, and thankful and I’ll bet money that any curriculum will be suitable. Show me a child who is unhappy, disobedient, unkind, and irritable, and I’ll bet money that no curriculum is going to work well. Education is 99% attitude and 1% curriculum.

When seeking out the best curriculum for your children, my advice is to find what is:

1. well-presented (orderly, colorful, illustrated, etc.)

2. challenging

That’s it. Find the most challenging material for your students, making sure it is not “boring looking” (because what child likes staring at boring-looking stuff?) Yes, that’s my final answer.

Should it be classical? Literature-based? Or any other classification that’s out there today? That is your personal decision. I can’t answer that for you. I could tell you what we’ve done, but that may not be what you want to do. Trust your instincts and roll with it, baby.  🙂

In the meantime, watch and listen to your children to determine types of attitudes that are on display and see if they need adjusting. I can honestly tell you that I care more about my students’ attitudes and behaviors than I care about their curriculum. Curriculum is simply a tool that is used to train the mind.

Training a child’s heart is the fundamental process of education. Then comes the training of the mind.

Once the heart is well trained, education can then become student-led.

Do I hear the Hallelujah Chorus?

~ Curriculum Hopping ~

April 16, 2009

curriculumhopping-graphicThose of you who are members of my yahoo list, I apologize for the rerun. I received such positive feedback after posting on this subject that I thought I would share it here as well. If you are not on the list, I’d love for you to join us at Raising Self-Learners for Life. We’re all about–you guessed it-self-teaching and mastery stuff.

One of the things that reeeeally bothers me is how many parents are swayed to change curriculum because little Jimmy “doesn’t like it.” Kids should not be determining the curriculum, folks. I don’t ask my younger kids which spelling book they want to do, or which history series they want to use, etc. I look at it, I decide if I think it is in the best interest of my educational philosophy to use it or not, and then the children DO IT. Period.

Granted, for me I am dealing with crowd control. If I catered to each child’s whim on curriculum and tolerated one of them saying how they “didn’t like their spelling book” and wanted to try another kind, then before I knew it, I would be hearing complaints about every piece of material in the house from every child.

You all know that I am a huge proponent of students taking more and more control of their educational processes. However, there is a fine line here that many parents cross thinking that they should let their children decide if they “like” curriculum or not, or if mom should go searching for yet another history text that perhaps Junior will like better.

Hogwash! I don’t know what I would do if one of my kids said, “Mom, I don’t really like this handwriting book. Can you look for something else that I might like better?”

If I DID hear that from one of my kids, I would ask what it is the student didn’t like about the handwriting book, and I would listen to their complaints. Then I would gently but firmly let the student know that I think this series is the best one out there, and while I am sorry they don’t like _________ about it, it is my choice for their handwriting instruction. End of subject. I would not allow any future comments or whining about the handwriting book.

I am the mom. I trust my judgment. My kids trust my judgment. One way to make them NOT trust my judgment is to give in to them and go looking for “something better.” Have I looked at every single handwriting program out there? Uh, no. I have found one I like and that I want to use, and that is what we do. In fact, I have used the same program for every single child thus far.

If Lilie, child number 8, complains about the book, do you think I am going to substantiate her whining by assuring her that her 100% enjoyment of homeschooling is my ultimate goal?

If she had been my first child and she had complained, I may have been swayed to look around for something else because I would have had no past experience that said, “This curriculum works,” and I may have waffled. Don’t do that!

If you have one child who randomly and regularly complains about curriculum, don’t give in! Sure, you need to listen and address the child’s concerns, but do not give your young children control over what you use in your homeschool. And especially do not change from one series to another just because your child complains.

What happens in college? What if a college student doesn’t like the curriculum the professor chooses? Exactly! So why do parents doubt themselves when their kids kick up a fuss about curriculum? Why do homeschool parents not RELAX and use what they have instead of feeling a compulsion to scour the aisles of curriculum fair after curriculum fair in search of a curriculum that will make the child happy.

Can you tell this is my pet peeve?

I would also say not to change your math curriculum either. Lauren, when she was in high school, did not like or enjoy Saxon math.  We pushed on through it. I wish for her sake that she had liked it, but she had to work through her dislike of the curriculum, and she had to have a good attitude about it. She did. She pulled an A in every level. She also earned an A in her college algebra class her freshman year while tutoring other students in her class who requested her help.

The ability to tailor learning to the individual student is wonderful; however, do not feel that you have to find a curriculum that your student is delighted with all of the time. Find what WORKS and stick with it. As an experienced mom of many, I can assure you that forcing your child to work through what you have chosen, to work with excellence, and to master the material is NOT UNREASONABLE. It is the expectation!

Keep it simple. Stick to your guns. Work through what you have. You will never find the perfect curriculum, so why torture yourself and think that it is out there? I even recommend that parents NOT go to curriculum fairs if all they are going to do is shop around for different curriculum.

It is like looking in a candy store window. You WILL like what you see, and you WILL be tempted to buy, but you don’t need it! Why go looking? You know you will become unsatisfied with what you have, and you will doubt yourself. You will think, “I like this and this about Math-U-See (or whatever), so maybe we’ll try this to see if little Jimmy likes this better?”


One concession that I will make is for a video tutorial. Sometimes students, especially with math, need to SEE and HEAR a teacher go through the steps to understand more complex operations such as algebra. Algebra is MUCH more complex than spelling, right? Spelling is memorization, whereas algebra requires complex operations. Get a video tutorial if your child struggles with Saxon algebra (or whatever)IF and ONLY IF you are unable to explain it to him or her.

If you are able to do it, then take the time and spend it generously with your student to help them along in this area. If you totally don’t “get” algebra, and your student is unable to read the book and get it, then bring in some visual aids if necessary, but only if you feel they have hit a wall.

I will be talking about this topic in my next HSE column. One way to be an underwhelmed homeschool mom is definitely to trust your instincts and not allow your young children to do anything other than happily do what you place before them, as you have chosen that material for a reason which is not open for discussion with the student, as a rule. I am talking about younger children here, meaning the elementary and even middle school years.

Should a high schooler have an input on what “brand” of material they do? YES, but I would be asking for input and letting the student know that I am interested in their thoughts; I will be making the decision, however. Do not send the message that the student’s likes and dislikes are the ONLY factor and not the educational content being a huge factor in the brand-choosing. You should definitely consider whether or not you think the material will be a good fit for your student(s), but be objective about it.

Wrong thought: Will Susie like this history text and not complain about it and say it is too boring?

Correct thought: Will the material in this program present the given information in a learner-friendly manner? Is it presented in such a way that Susie will comprehend it and be able to remember it?

One of the reasons I like Abeka materials is that they are colorful and the material is presented in an interesting way. One reason I do not like Rod and Staff is that I find it hard to read through the books myself, and I find them interesting: few pictures and black and white text only. (They may have changed things since I last looked.) If I am not interested in it, I can safely assume my students won’t be, either.

However, the content is more important than presentation. I am happy to have found BOTH in the Abeka series–to me, that is. You’ll find what YOU like for your students. But once you choose, stick with what you have chosen. Make your life easier by remembering that if what you have works, don’t turn it in for the next new thing that comes down the pike. The next new thing WILL BE COMING to a curriculum fair near you–I can guarantee you that.

You know, curriculum choices are like meal choices in a lot of ways. Our goal in meal-planning is good health for our children, right? If I leave it to my children to choose their own food, they would most likely not choose what I would choose for them.

Sure, I try to make things that they do like, but I will require them to eat something they don’t particularly like because that is what we are having for supper. In our household, you don’t complain about dinner; you eat it thankfully.

Same thing with curriculum. You don’t pick it apart; you just do it.

Curriculum fairs, however, are good places to go to in order to find your curriculum. Once you find it, don’t negotiate with your children to get them to cheerfully use it. Expect them to cheerfully use it. If they don’t love it, don’t think you made a mistake and go looking for something bigger, better, nicer.

I don’t know that I have ever met a curriculum that I thought wouldn’t work. Sure, children will have preferences, and get what you think is right for your children. Then stay there.

As I have said before, other than a brief dabbling into the Robinson Curriculum, I have used the same materials for all of my students for the past 16 years, and I see no reason to go hunting for something better. I am not compelled to do so NOW, but I used to feel the pressure. For some reason, I thought I had to be up on the latest thing in home education.

I remember feeling enormous relief when I realized that what we had been using all along was yielding great results! And I really don’t credit the curriculum. I credit the mindset of mastery learning and self-teaching.

Will I ever change anything? Perhaps, but it will not be because one of my students is whining and carrying on. My positive attitude about what we use spills over to my children. If I am confident, then they are as well. Funny how that works.

~ The Start of Something New ~

August 4, 2008

Tomorrow we start our new school year, and I am more excited about it than I have been in recent memory.

In fact, I am so excited about it that my girls are mega-excited about it. Perhaps the boys are as well, but they don’t show it. I think “willing and focused” are better, more descriptive terms for the high school guys than “excited,” and I’ll take that.

I am ready *early* this year which is a big motivating factor in my life. Because I “just said no” to any speaking engagements the past two months, I have had time to think and to prepare. Now, I haven’t done a whole lot of thinking and preparing; I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. 🙂 What would the wrong impression be? It would be you thinking that I am ultra-organized on paper with the entire year planned out by day one. Um, no. I am organized enough to know that we are good to go for the first nine weeks.

You see, I actually have all of the kids’ Homeschool Student Planners ready for them, along with a surprise tucked inside. Usually they get their planners a few weeks after school has started because we are always backordered on them due to this being our busy season. Remember the Shoemaker whose kids had no shoes? This time I made it a priority to set theirs aside for them.

In the front of the planners, there is a space to put a photo of the student at the beginning of the year, and a space to put one at the end of the year. Kind of a track progress visually kind of thing. I actually put photos in all of their planners! It was fun, and tomorrow when I hand them out, I know there will be smiles all around. Silly little thing perhaps, but I am glad I made the effort to spice it up a little this time. Sometimes it’s the little things, you know?

What is it about a fresh start that can be so motivating? I am personally excited because I know where I want to go this year. I have a goal in mind that is very attainable, and I look forward to watching the children grow day by day as they inch closer and closer to their own goals that they will be setting for themselves for the next nine weeks.

What is my goal? Getting back to the basics. Simplifying. Being home more. Engaging more with my younger students. Spending more time talking with my older kids just because I want to know them better.

The oldest two leave for college within the next two to three weeks, and while I will most certainly miss them painfully, there will be a certain quiet in the house that will be conducive to learning. The busy schedules of high school seniors gets old after a while. If you have been there, you know what I am talking about: you see the backs of their heads as they are sleeping in bed or the backs of their heads as they are going out the door for their next activity.  Yes, peace will come back soon.

There is something intriguing and alluring about new notebooks, new pencils and pens, new crayons, and new subjects to study, isn’t there? 

Yeah, my house is still kind of messy, I didn’t get the closets cleaned out this summer that I was hoping to organize, and laundry is still overflowing the clothes baskets, but we are starting a new school year tomorrow! If I waited for everything to be perfect, well no need even finishing that sentence.

Tomorrow I plan to spend the day taking time with each child individually, seeing what we are doing this year, and looking ahead just to the next nine weeks. What do we want to accomplish by then? The older kids will make this decision pretty much independently since they’ve been at this for a while, although they seem to appreciate me being there physically beside them while they are setting goals. I like it, too.

The younger kids will get some suggestions from me, but I am sure they will nod their heads in agreement as we decide where we are going together. Together. That is what the first day of school is all about around here. I love it!

Don’t worry if you are fixin’ to begin a new school year but you don’t have all of your materials and supplies stacked up and ready to go. You don’t have to have it all together to homeschool. Decide as you go what is needed; sometimes you will change gears in the first week for one reason or another. Be flexible. Be adventurous. Be goofy. Be yourself.

I do recommend that you spend time with each of your children imparting vision for the next small portion of the journey upon beginning your homeschool year. They need to SEE where they are headed. I will shamelessly plug our Homeschool Student Planners here because I feel they are simply the best thing out there for homeschooling aside from your actual curriculum. 

You don’t absolutely have to have our specific type of planner! What you do need is a place where your older kids can plan ahead as well as record what they have done each day of the school year. Younger children need to see what is coming up, and what they are expected to do. Crossing “done work” off the day’s work schedule is exhilarating for them! A notebook will work, but each child needs his/her own.

Don’t get rolling without at least a brief outline of where you are rolling to.

If you have already begun, take a day and let your kids see where they are headed for just the next few weeks. This is so crucial to motivating your students.

If kids see school as one long, unending road, they are likely to feel helpless and on a treadmill. However, show them the next plateau they are reaching for one day at a time – have them challenge themselves – and their whole attitude will change. I promise!

Here’s to a great 2008 – 2009 for you and your family!

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