It might be my love affair with all things autumn, but I am SO EXCITED for school to start this year!! (I know, I’m a nerd.) We actually start things up a bit earlier than the local public schools, and with good reason. At this point in the summer, we’ve rounded off any work we needed to catch up on or polish up over the summer, and my kids have all started to go a bit stir-crazy. We’re all ready for a change, for a more regular schedule, for some new creative challenges, some new knowledge to flex our thinking muscles.
This year, I’ve got a 5th grader, a 3rd grader, and a Kindergarten–in addition to the busy three-year-old and curious one-year-old who’ll be coming along for the ride. It’s the first year I’ll be schooling three kids at once, and I am honestly so grateful for the years leading up to this, during which I was able to trial-and-error my way to figuring out what works for me as a teacher, what works for our family, and what curriculum choices best fit those needs.
By no means is this a flawless curriculum. As the saying goes, “Every yes is a no to something else.” I’ve had to learn to say “No” to some things over the years (like co-ops) so I can say “Yes” to something else (like simplicity and the resultant peaceful atmosphere in our home). Even with all these yeses and nos, I’m sure there will be stops and starts, bumps and bruises, and changes of course this year. Nevertheless, I offer it up as an example of what this homeschooling family has chosen to dive into this year.
My Kindergarten curriculum pretty much solidified with Huckleberry (he benefited from some of the
failures learning opportunities I experienced with Sugar two years earlier), and Spice is going to use very much the same curriculum with one or two very small tweaks.
This is something I’ve been doing since Sugar was small. I include all the children who want to participate, which in our family, usually incorporates everyone from age 2 on up. (Yes, even the big kids want to join in!) It’s simple enough: we begin with a little song to gather everyone, then a fingerplay to get our brains and bodies in sync and to put our listening ears on. After that, we might play a game like “Duck, Duck, Goose”, sing a song with lots of movement involved. I tell a story, usually a folktale, which I act out in the Waldorf style with wooden figures and other props. Then it’s time for another song, a tongue twister, or a rhyme, possibly another little game, and then we say our closing verse, and we’re done!
It doesn’t take more than 15 minutes, but it’s something my kids look forward to every Friday afternoon. This is the first year I’m opening my Circle Time circle to children outside our family. I’m not sure how many local families will be interested in joining us, but I hope to be able to share some of the joy our family has experienced through Circle Time with others.
With my last two Kindergartners, I started out using the ubiquitous How to Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. However, I noticed that both of them started to get very bored and frustrated by around Lesson 70, and I had to drop 100 Easy Lessons and move on to something else. For Sugar, that just meant reading easy readers together. For Huckleberry, it means switching to All About Reading, because the phonics in 100 Easy Lessons just wasn’t clear-cut enough for him.
I’ve since dropped 100 Easy Lessons all together. Instead, Spice and I will begin the year by reading through The Wise Enchanter: A Journey Through the Alphabet. This is the coolest book, y’all! Every chapter is written heavily with alliteration and assonance for whatever letter it is meant to be emphasizing, but it does it in such a seamless way that it really sinks into your child’s subconscious. Such a fun way to learn the alphabet!
Our whole family will also be using these ABC Scripture Cards from Lil Light O Mine, and we will use the beautiful illustrations to help Spice with recall and recognition of her letters.
Once Spice and I have worked our way through the alphabet together, we’ll begin using All About Reading, Level 1 and just continue with that to the end of the year. If she’s feeling confident enough to start diving into easy readers on her own, I’ll let well enough alone. Otherwise, we’ll probably continue with reading and phonics into the summer.
I can’t say enough good things about the Handwriting for Young Catholics series at Seton Press! Engaging and interesting copywork, beautiful illustrations, and I’ve really seen an improvement in my kids’ penmanship since we switched from Handwriting Without Tears. (Mostly, I think, because they have enjoyed how beautiful the workbooks are.) I love that they’re not just copying random words but actually absorbing elements of the faith in their copywork. Sugar loves learning new factoids and coming to share them with me! “Mom, did you know there’s a Marian Shrine in Wisconsin?” Well, I do now–and in fact, we’re hoping to visit a couple of them next summer!
If you get me talking about curricula, one of the first things you’ll realize is that I am a huge fan of Math-U-See. It has worked equally well with both of my older children (who have very different learning styles when it comes to mathematics), and each of the levels has been fantastic. We’re up to Epsilon, which equates with 5th grade math. (More on that when I get to Sugar’s school stuff).
Regarding Math-U-See Primer, which is what Spice will be using this year, here’s what I love most:
(1) The sequence is very well thought out. Each chapter builds on the one before it, and you also review topics regularly throughout the year in an organic way that incorporates past knowledge with new skills.
(2) They use the term “units” rather than “ones”. I cannot tell you what a difference this made in Sugar’s ability to use elementary operations! By saying units, rather than ones, she was able to understand that “10” has a 1 ten and 0 units–otherwise she got confused between the numeral “1” and the “ones place.”
(3) “Decimal Street” is the coolest explanation of place values, and it has made immediate sense to each of my kids.
(4) The manipulatives MAKE SENSE. Some of the math curricula out there seem to have really gimmicky manipulatives. The Math-U-See math blocks aren’t gimmicky at all; they help to concertize concepts for those who are less theoretical in their understanding and learning style. (These were a life saver for Sugar and gave her confidence when she felt like she just “couldn’t get it.”) And, you only need one set! I’ve used the same set of math blocks for each of my school-age kids (and counting). Bonus: they’re really fun to play with! On a “hard day,” I’d let my frustrated little math student build a house out of math blocks, and it never failed to brighten their mood and realign their attitude toward math.
(5) When you move on to the Alpha curriculum the following year, you will get solid review of most of the lessons in Primer, but without it feeling repetitive because it really does go just that little bit deeper and makes the child work that little bit harder. They feel confident because of the foundation from Primer, but they aren’t bored by the new Alpha material.
In addition the above, Spice will be working on some character formation with Catholic Heritage Curriculum’s Building Good Character. All my kids have really enjoyed this, and I like that it can be used in conjunction with the Devotional Stories for Little Folks series, which my kids also love.
HUCKLEBERRY (3RD GRADE)
A lot of the groundwork for Huckleberry’s curriculum was laid by Sugar. By the time she got to 3rd grade, I had a pretty good handle on how I like to teach, so there won’t be many changes between her 3rd grade curriculum and what I’ll be using this year with Huckleberry, mostly just the choice of literature, which I base off of whatever cycle we’re on in Story of the World. (This year, we’re focusing on late-17th to early-20th century American History. More on that later.)
I love leading my kids through the Baltimore Catechism. It’s solid, it’s simple, and the price is right! Each Catechism builds on the previous one, going deeper into the same topics, all built off the Creed (just like the “big” Catechism of the Catholic Church). This year, Huckleberry will be continuing with Baltimore Catechism No. 1. We do recitation during our “Morning Time” (some people call it Morning Basket), right after prayers, and I try to do review in the weeks before Christmas break and during the final weeks of the school year to make sure we’ve retained all those important theological truths. And yes, I mean “we”–it’s good practice for me, too!
The bulk of Huckleberry’s math curriculum will be Math-U-See Gamma. This level of Math-U-See focuses on mastering multiplication. Now, when Sugar went through this curriculum, I did notice that I had to slow things down for her. She found the mental gymnastics of times tables very fatiguing. In order to keep her heart (as well as her head) in the game, I supplemented Gamma with some Waldorf techniques, including storytelling with math gnomes and gems, times table tosses (throwing a bean bag), and a 10-point circle board. And of course, we drilled, drilled, drilled.
I’ll see how Huckleberry does with Gamma before I decide whether to add supplements in for him. If we need them, they’ll be there–and they’ll be lots of fun!
Language Arts are my jam, so I may go a little overboard for some people’s taste. But I figure, whatever your future field, learning to communicate effectively is paramount, and that means having a solid grasp of the English language. Also, a little quality literature never hurt anyone.
This year, Huckleberry will be using Beginning Reasoning and Reading, Grammar and Punctuation Grade 3, and because he was a “late” reader (though still tested above grade level), I went with an easier Spelling curriculum than what I used for Sugar at this age: Building Spelling Skills, Grade 2.
Aside: I love being able to teach at my kids’ natural pace. It really builds confidence and nurtures their love for a wide array of subjects, rather than just the ones for which they have a natural affinity or develop skills in early.
As I said above, I like to tie our literature choices in to the historical time period we’re studying in a given year. Huckleberry’s required reading list will include Pocahontas and the Strangers; Walk the World’s Rim; Sarah, Plain and Tall; Shades of Gray; and Where the Red Fern Grows. Of course, I expect he’ll read more than this, but these are the books we’ll be discussing and on which he will be expected to write his book reports.
Huckleberry will be using the Take it to Your Seat Geography curriculum that Sugar used a few years ago, working his way through Handwriting 2 for Young Catholics, and learning basic keyboarding skills. And because standardized tests matter a lot to my husband (hey, his SAT scores got him a full-ride to university, so I’m not judging), Huckleberry will also be working through Scoring High Iowa, Grade 3. He also takes swim lessons and will be playing CYO soccer this year.
SUGAR (5th Grade)
Ah, my sweet guinea pig. The trouble with being the oldest kid in a homeschooling family is that your curricula have rarely been tried and tested. But it’s also fun because you get all the new stuff! I hope someday Sugar will realize and appreciate the good intention that went into all the false steps of her education. That said, I’m excited about what she’ll be working on this year!
Sugar has completed the first Baltimore Catechism at this point, so she’s moving on to Baltimore Catechism, No. 2.
Having nailed division in her Delta course last year, Sugar is moving onward and upward to Math-U-See Epsilon, which will have her tackling fractions like a boss! She’s actually really excited about it–and to hear that from your child who two years before thought they were “too dumb” to do math is really something to celebrate. And one more reason I love homeschooling.
So, one really cool thing about Math-U-See in the older grades? For the past year, Sugar has been able to learn math almost completely independently. I purchase the DVDs for each level starting at Gamma so my kids can watch the lesson taught be a really awesome math teacher who walks them through every step. We don’t get much screen time in our house, so it’s actually a big novelty to get to use the iPad to watch the math lesson! After that first worksheet is done on a new lesson, I can tell pretty quickly if they’ve grasped the concept. If they haven’t, that’s when I do one-on-one tutoring, otherwise, I leave them to it and just keep checking up on their work daily to make sure something hasn’t slipped through the cracks.
I love having a math curriculum that is so straightforward that even my elementary kids can be independent learners. It gives them a ton of confidence in their math work, and leaves me available to troubleshoot rather than devoting so much of my time just to explaining new concepts.
Sugar is a really solid reader and writer. She writes new stories (or at least a new chapter) nearly every day and has not started writing nonfiction on her own (books of animal facts, journalism, etc.), so it’s not so much that she “needs” a language arts curriculum as that she craves one.
This year, she’ll be using Building Spelling Skills, Grade 5 to keep her spelling skills sharp, strengthening her grasp of grammar with Writing Skills 1, and developing her creative writing craft with The Creative Writer Level One: Five Finger Exercises.
Her literature selections will include A Horse’s Tale; Walk the World’s Rim; Caddie Woodlawn; Shades of Gray; Amos Fortune, Free Man; and Where the Red Fern Grows. She’ll also be doing two American Girls’ Unit Studies (Josefina and Kirsten), as well as researching and writing a state report on Washington State.
I know lots of people start Latin in the early grades, but personally, I like my kids to be solid readers and writers and to have a sturdy grasp of English grammar before delving into Latin (which admittedly is much more straightforward than English). I can see the benefits of doing it the other way around, but this is what works for us. In our family 5th or 6th grade is a good time to start, so Sugar will be using Prima Latina this year to give her a grounding in Latin.
Just a note: I do not use the CDs, and I will be teaching her the differences in classical and ecclesiastical pronunciation. Having learned classical myself, I favor it, but really ecclesiastical Latin is the only frequently spoken Latin these days, so I think both are important.
HEALTH (PART II)
No, you didn’t miss Part I. That’s below. But since I have (ack!) a tween–how did that happen?–it’s also high time to do some health lessons that are best, ahem, done one-on-one, without little ears around. Puberty, drugs and alcohol–you know, those comfortable topics.
We’ve actually already done the “birds and the bees” talk with our oldest children. We usually do this around age 6-7, when they show a real curiosity about pregnancy that the basic answers don’t satisfy any more. Personally, I like for my kids to know about sex before puberty hits–before it is, in their minds “sexualized.” Sex at its essence is about so much more than hormones and attraction, and there’s only a small window of years when they are both ready to learn what sex is but haven’t yet had their hormones kick in and make things wonky. So, that’s the sweet spot we try to hit to give them a more complete understanding of sex and its purpose and function in God’s design for their lives.
All that said, there’s some nitty gritty about bodies that we definitely save for when our kids are older and it becomes relevant. Things like proper hygiene, deodorant, periods, pubic hair, body love, and the dangers of pornography. We intend to make these lessons gender-specific. (Because it’s homeschool and we can!) I don’t need my ten-year-old daughter to know about wet dreams, and my ten-year-old son won’t need to be apprised of how breasts develop. We can save instruction on the opposite gender for the high school years. For now, the basics. What you need to know about your own body, keeping it healthy, and honoring it the way God intended.
Sugar is nearly done with her penmanship classes; this year she’ll be working to perfect her cursive with Better Handwriting for Young Catholics. Like her brother, Sugar will be working her way through a Scoring High curriculum, in her case 5th grade. Geography will include Take It to Your Seat Capitals and States, and she’ll continue improving her keyboarding skills. She will also be playing CYO soccer this year.
I know, I know what you’re thinking. Don’t worry, I haven’t totally forgotten about history and science! (And music and art and, and, and…) What you see above is the curricula my kids will work on either independently or one-on-one with me. The rest gets lumped together in what I call “family work.” It means we’re all learning the same thing, with the youngest kids participating (or not) as they will, and the older kids required to participate with varying degrees of skill and effort.
We have used Story of the World as the backbone of our history curriculum since we started homeschooling. I love the CDs, and in the youngest grades, all my children are required to do is listen. Often they ask questions of their own, but that’s all they need to do. Once my kids are in about 2nd grade, narration becomes a piece of the puzzle, and we do family projects. By middle school, I will be requiring my students to take tests on the material and to do independent projects, of a higher skill level and caliber than what we do together as a family with the younger kids.
I don’t teach Volume 4 (Modern History) until middle school. I think concepts such as the World Wars and Communism are simply beyond an elementary school student, and so I have chosen to leave these until a later time. Other than that, we do a 3-year rotation of the volumes, emphasizing one particular area as our main focus of study. For example, if we’re studying ancient history, we might focus primarily on Greco-Roman History or on Egyptian and Jewish History. This year, our focus will be on late 18th- to early 20th- century American History. Let all things Little House on the Prairie commence!
We’ll also be incorporating Seton Press’s The Catholic Faith Comes to the Americas and learning about all the incredible American-born saints, missionaries to America, and American apparitions that have graced the history of our nation.
I love R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey. So simple, easy but really educational labs, and a great way of breaking down larger scientific concepts in language kids can understand. Last year we did Geology, and this year we’ll be using the same book, Earth and Space, to study Astronomy. We’re also planning some fun field trips. This month, we’re headed to Oregon with friends to witness the total eclipse of the sun, and there are some glorious meteor showers we’re hoping to catch in the winter months!
This could probably fall under science, as well, but in my head it’s separate, so that’s how I’m going to write about it. As opposed to the above Health curriculum for Sugar, this is going to be your more basic elementary health curriculum: nutrition, exercise, safety, grooming and basic hygiene. We’re using Seton Press’s Health 3 for Young Catholics.
As I mentioned above, I like to hold off on Latin until 5th grade. However, we’ve enjoyed dabbling a bit in Spanish, just basic vocabulary and phrases. We’ll be continuing this with Learn Spanish with Grace this year. In our area, there are many Spanish speakers (some public schools are taught bilingually in Spanish and English), and it’s incredibly useful to have at least a minimal understanding of the language.
Huckleberry and Sugar will both be continuing to play the pentatonic flute with me. They also take private piano lessons, and Sugar plays the viola. We are super blessed that their music teachers are able to come teach in our home during the school day! This year, I’ll be incorporating voice work into our curriculum, teaching the children proper posture, breathing, learning about resonance and tone, singing in round, and hopefully tackling harmony, as well.
We love doing Poetry Tea Time on Tuesdays, a la Brave Writer. On other days of the week, we call it “Tea + Tutoring” and it’s when I work one-on-one to zero in on any trouble spots in my older students’ work. During Poetry Tea Time, we browse books of poetry and share favorites at the table. We also do more formal memorization and recitation, and that’s usually during Morning Time, right after Catechism.
Huckleberry will be learning about 1 poem a month, and Sugar will be learning two. We’ll be focusing primarily on 19th century American poets this year–Frost, Dickinson, Longfellow–to correlate with our history lessons. In my humble opinion, nothing so immerses you in a historical period than the food, clothing, architecture, and literature of the time!
I will admit, my kids’ fine arts education has been pretty spotty. It is just not my strength. I have other strengths–like picking out amazing historical fiction! and doing super-fun read alouds!–so I give myself grace. But this year, I’m going to let somebody else do the teaching.
I’ve never done a DVD program with my kids (unless you count our Math), but I’ve heard really good things about this one, so we’re going to give it a whirl! I’ll let you know how it goes.
CATECHESIS OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD
Last, but absolutely not least. Our parish is incredibly blessed to have a vibrant CGS program, and this year, 4 of my 5 children will be in the Atrium! For the uninitiated: CGS, or Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, is a beautiful Montessori curriculum designed to immerse children in the mysteries and realities of our Catholic faith through hands-on experience. It’s amazing! If your parish doesn’t have a CGS program, I cannot recommend enough that you find a way to get some catechists trained and start one!!
As I said, everyone but the baby will be in CGS this year (hopefully all on the same day and at the same time!) Sugar will be in Level III, Huckleberry in Level II, and Spice and Pumpkin will both be in Level I. I cannot say thank you enough to all our dedicated catechists for making this possible and for blessing my kids so much! (And having one whole afternoon to dote on my baby is going to be pretty sweet, too.)
SOME NOTES ON HOW WE HOMESCHOOL
Seeing it all listed out like that, it looks like a lot. But when we’re in the day-to-day swing of things, everything has it’s place, and it really doesn’t feel overwhelming. Well, at least most days it doesn’t.
Some final notes on how we “do school.” In case you were curious.
We school five days a week, Monday through Friday, with the bulk of our instructional time taking place in the morning. Huckleberry and Sugar, who are checklist-lovers, get right to it as soon as they roll out of bed. I write their independent assignments down the day before in a composition notebook. (We used to use spiral notebooks, but Huckleberry shredded his early in the year, and I said, “Never again!” So composition books it is. Sturdier spines.) As soon as they’re finished with their chores (which I also keep in the notebook on a laminated card that I paperclip to the current page), they get started, leaving me free to make breakfast, take care of the littles, and take a shower!
I am very much a morning person, but it also takes me time (like 2-3 hours) to really sift through my thoughts and get my head in the game. So, I wake up early, go for a jog. This is when I pray my rosary, and it is an incredibly centering way to begin my day. When I get home, I do my strengthening exercises, shower and dress, make breakfast and get the little kids ready. Then I make a cup of coffee and take a peek at my daily schedule to make sure I don’t need to get something going early in the kitchen. Once that’s all done, I finally feel settled, and I’m ready to start teaching.
I ring my bell (I totally have a bell!) and then the older kids find a stopping spot in their independent work and we start our Morning Time. I teach through our subjects for the day, and then it’s time for lunch. While the kids are cleaning up from lunch and playing outside before quiet time, I do the day’s grading, write down tomorrow’s assignments, and hold onto any work I need to reinforce or go over with one of the kids. We can do this individual tutoring in the afternoon. Afternoon is also when most of our extracurriculars, like CGS and sports, will happen.
Last year we did something called “Sabbath Schooling,” where you have school for 6 weeks, and then take the 7th week off. It was pretty amazing in the sense that it helped me to see the year in chunks, and it allowed me a chance to breathe and reevaluate along the way, so that by year’s end we felt really accomplished and confident in our schooling choices. That said, every 7th week was just too frequent of a break, and by the end of the year, I could see that while the concept was golden, I didn’t need to follow it so religiously.
This year, we’ll be having naturally occurring breaks every 6-9 weeks, depending on what’s going on. I take off just a couple of days in November, but we take a full 3 weeks off at Christmas. We have a little mid-winter break in February, and we’ll take Easter Week off. I know a lot of people like taking off for Holy Week, but I actually love incorporating the Triduum into our school day, and since our parish has services at night, it’s easy to school in the day and still make it to those.
Our state requires 180 instructional days, and although there’s really no enforcement of this policy, it’s one I like to follow, and I keep a record of attendance through the year, in case the law ever changes. The above schedule will allow us to meet these requirements and finish up by the June 8th, right when the pull of the sunshine in Seattle is getting too strong to ignore. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it works for us!
Well, that’s it for this year’s curriculum planning. Now to get all my worksheets printed, materials organized, and first-day traditions prepped!
Happy homeschooling, friends!