Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Our New Adventure: Choosing a Homeschool Curriculum

When I first started reading about homeschooling on blogs, there was one curriculum that seemed to be incredibly popular. Over the years as I’ve continued reading about homeschooling, that same curriculum keeps coming up. In Cambodia, I even met two moms who use the curriculum and love it. So of course it was one of the first ones that I looked at when we decided to homeschool Alexa for preschool. Despite all the positive things I’d heard about it, however, I had some reservations, so I decided to see what else was out there as well. Within the space of about 15 minutes, I had tabs open on my internet browser for seven curricula, ranging in price from free (assuming access to a public library) to $549. One was completely online. Two were literature-based. One was classical. One was kind of eclectic but had strong Montessori elements. Most were Christian, but not all. I quickly realized that I needed to talk to Jeff and clarify what type of curriculum we were interested in—every one of the seven had something going for it that would make it perfect if we were interested in that educational style or philosophy.

We first agreed that we don’t want something that is entirely online, despite the convenience. We don't want Alexa glued to electronics any more than she already is. Goodbye,, at a cost of $79 per year.

Then we agreed that although we both love reading and want Alexa to love it as well, we don’t want a curriculum that is primarily literature-based. We actually like the idea of textbooks and workbooks—maybe not so much textbooks at this age, but workbooks now and both textbooks and workbooks when she’s older. This elimination was difficult for me, because one of the literature-based curricula, Sonlight,  is that curriculum to which I referred in the first paragraph—the one about which I’ve heard such glowing reviews, the one that’s having such great results for people I’ve met in person and through blogs, the one provided by a company that consists of such amazingly caring people. I want to want to use a Sonlight curriculum (despite the fact that I can’t seem to type its name without first typing “Songlight” and then fixing the typo). But it just isn’t a good fit for us. Their preschool curriculum ($285) consists almost exclusively of storybooks and compilations of fairy tales or other literature, along with a parents’ guide that reviews say mostly is a list of the books in the order in which children are developmentally most able to appreciate them. There doesn’t seem to be the pre-math, pre-reading, or tactile skills that we want the curriculum to help us develop in Alexa. So, unfortunately, despite my predisposition to like the curriculum, and despite my true desire to expose Alexa to that literature, Sonlight had to go.

It also was at this point that we eliminated another popular homeschool option, A Beka. I believed it was primarily literature-based as well, as that was how a review described it, and I wasn’t looking carefully for reasons to keep curricula in our options list at that point; I was looking for reasons to close the tab. In reviewing the website again for this post, however, it looks like maybe A Beka shouldn’t have been eliminated at this phase for this reason. Looking at it more closely, they seem to have a preschool Bible-only curriculum kit ($233) or a purchase-each-item-separately complete preschool curriculum with supporting materials ($293). Rightly or wrongly, however, A Beka was eliminated at this point, and looking at it again now, we may re-evaluate it at a later time, but I think that, for now, we still prefer the one we chose.

Then we looked at the free options—free meaning that the curriculum itself is available online at no charge. Those are great resources … if you have access to a library. One of the free ones listed almost 200 books that were recommended to be read along with the curriculum—and although you could choose just one book with each unit instead (for a total of 26 books), that’s still a lot of books to look through and decide which ones to purchase online and have shipped here. If we had access to a library, it would be no problem. I’d just check out as many of them for each week as the library had, and I could decide on a weekly basis which one or ones to read to Alexa. That doesn’t work so well, though, when you have to buy them in order to read them. For this initial foray into homeschooling, we really just want to buy a package that includes all the necessary materials and that does not require me to spend a lot of time reviewing lesson plans or collecting materials. So, reluctantly, goodbye, Letter of the Week and ABC Jesus Loves Me.

That round of eliminations left us with four options from three publishers … and other than the two from the same publisher, they couldn’t have been more different.

One choice, the one that came to mind immediately after Sonlight, was Calvert School. Calvert School was the only completely secular option we considered. We first heard about Calvert because it’s a homeschool curriculum that often is used among Foreign Service families who decide to homeschool for a time because the educational options at a given post don’t work well for their family; I've seen reviews from Foreign Service parents who happily state that "it's like school, but at home." Calvert is a well-known, highly-respected, private school in Maryland that provides a classical education for children up to the eighth grade; its homeschool curriculum is used by people all over the world, and even is provided as a free public education option in several American states. The Pre-K curriculum, including all supporting materials, costs $380, though the price goes up dramatically for kindergarten.

The budget-friendly choice was published by Heart of Dakota, whose Little Hands to Heaven curriculum is appropriate for ages 2-5 years and costs $45 just for the curriculum. If you purchase it that way, you must own or acquire a few books and CDs separately, or alternatively, you can order a set that includes the curriculum, one of two recommended children’s Bibles, one of two recommended children’s devotionals, and a set of 4 music CDs, all for right around $80, not including shipping (the price varies slightly based on which Bible and devotional book you choose). This curriculum has the benefit of being the most Bible-centered of the four we were still considering. It’s also pretty simple, taking only 30 minutes a day to teach all the basic topics you’d expect in a preschool curriculum, plus Bible stories. It’s ready to use straight from the box, though the art projects do require supplies that people are likely to have on hand or be able to find easily, at least in the States.

The third and fourth options, both from multiple publishers and put together as complete curricula with a “scheduling helps” book by Timberdoodle, were a bolt from the blue for us. The sets are very similar to each other, except that one is a preschool curriculum appropriate for ages 2-3 and the other is a Pre-K curriculum appropriate for ages 3-4. As Alexa will be in the overlap age, we looked at both sets. Each set had three options—Basic, Complete, and Elite—with prices ranging from $219 to $549, making this potentially the most expensive option we considered. Timberdoodle is a Christian-run company, and the curriculum packages for older grades include explicitly Christian material. That advantage was minimized, however, by the lack of Bible resources in the preschool and Pre-K curricula. I’m not certain what educational philosophy is best exemplified by these curricula, but for right now, I’ll go with eclectic with a bit of Montessori  mixed in, as much of the learning occurs in hands-on ways. However, there are several workbooks, too, with titles such as Language Lessons for Little Ones, Mathematical Reasoning, and Building Thinking Skills. The curriculum descriptions state that they “stress critical thinking skills and, even at this early grade, work towards independent learning.” This approach definitely is not classical, as the classical approach to education emphasizes mostly the acquisition of facts in the early years; this approach assumes that the child can do more. When looking at these curricula, I quickly eliminated the Pre-K one, because many of its titles are meant to be used after the ones in the preschool curriculum—Language Lessons for Little Ones 2 is in the PreK set, for example, whereas Language Lessons for Little Ones 1 is in the preschool set. But I was intrigued by the preschool curriculum.

Jeff and I fairly quickly made one decision. We very much wanted the Bible stories and lessons that are included as part of the Little Hands curriculum. However, we also very much wanted more in-depth academics than we would get in this 30-minute-a-day curriculum (this judgment was verified when we looked at the sample lesson plans available on the website). Luckily, Little Hands is relatively inexpensive. So we ordered it. Our original intent was to use it as a supplement in order to add Bible stories and songs to the more academic curriculum yet to be chosen, though I predicted that I’d use the whole curriculum, since even the letter-learning activities revolve around the Bible stories.

The next decision felt monumental, though I comfort myself by saying that this is only preschool, and she’ll only be three years old; if I do this wrong, there’s plenty of time to fix it later. Our next decision was the choice of our primary curriculum.

Calvert felt like the safe choice. It’s endorsed by several state governments, because if the educational authorities in those states didn’t think it was good, it wouldn’t be offered as a state-provided option. The Department of State refuses to recommend any specific curriculum, but it’s pretty clear that Calvert is blessed by those in authority in the office that deals with the educational benefits for Foreign Service children. It’s a classical curriculum, and classical education is blessed by history and makes a lot of sense to me. And despite what my parents would say, my natural tendency is to submit to authority and to respect the judgment of authority figures, unless I have very good reason to do otherwise. It would have been so easy to choose Calvert. But we didn’t.

(As a side note, now that I've reviewed A Beka more thoroughly, I realize that it should have been the curriculum to which we were comparing Timberdoodle; it would be a better option for us than Calvert. It seems more academically challenging, and although the website never says that they use a classical model of education, their materials do seem to lean that way. They also are explicitly Christian, which we prefer. After reviewing their website again, Jeff and I have decided not to revise the choice we made for this year, but if we decide after a year or two to switch to a more traditional model of education, A Beka will get a very close look.)

Despite going into this decision believing that I wanted a classical education for Alexa, I was drawn to the Timberdoodle curriculum. I don’t want to teach Alexa just facts. I want to help her learn to think critically. That’s really what it came down to. And it helped that Calvert boasted that at the end of the year, students would be able to “recognize and write the numbers 1 through 10,” expectations that just seem too low to me, especially in a program designed for children a year older than Alexa. So we chose Timberdoodle. We aren’t sure yet which package we’ll order—I know I want almost all the items included in the Basic package, and several of the ones in the Complete package. I’m not sure if I want those Complete items enough to pay the extra cost, though, since I think we’d do just fine with the Basic kit. As for the Elite package, well, as much as Alexa would enjoy it, I’m not paying that much money to add several more toys—educational or not—to our collection, even if one of them is a super-cute, looks like super-fun, sit-n-bounce Wahoo Puppy (that has no weight limit—so even adults can play!).

We did make one additional choice, however. We’ve ordered the Little Hands to Heaven curriculum. We are not going to order the Timberdoodle one just yet. Little Hands should be here, waiting for us, when we return from home leave. We intend to start using it immediately upon our return. We’ll use it both to teach Bible stories to Alexa and also as a test to see how she does with a short, structured, daily school time. If she does well, as we expect, then we’ll order the Timberdoodle curriculum soon thereafter, adding it to her daily school time when it arrives. If its delayed arrival means that we don’t start our primary curriculum at the same time when the traditional academic school year begins, then so be it—that’s one of the benefits of homeschooling; we have as much flexibility as we want, and there is no requirement to begin or finish the year when traditional schools do. If, however, Alexa struggles with 30 minutes a day of school, then we may choose to wait longer before we order a more expensive curriculum.

Our new adventure is in the works. Late this summer, we’ll start a structured preschool curriculum consisting mostly of Bible education: Little Hands to Heaven, published by Heart of Dakota. If that goes well, then early this fall, we’ll add the preschool curriculum compiled by Timberdoodle. Alexa will add the role of “student” to her life, and I’ll add the role of “homeschool teacher” to mine. Look for updates sometime in the next several months …

Lest anyone misread this post and believe that decisions at any point were made unilaterally by the First Officer, please be aware that the Captain was involved in and approved of every step of this decision-making process.


  1. great post! thanks for doing all that research and sharing it! glad to hear things are going well.

    1. Thanks, Lois, I hope things are going well with you also! Are you considering some type of homeschool, or supplementing preschool?

  2. Hi, not sure what you're using next, but I would also like to recommend My Father's World. It is a bible based program similar to Hearts of Dakota. I did the Adventure's program with my son and he loved it so much we are ordering the next year's Exploring Countries and Cultures and ordering the Kindergarten program with my youngest.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Kathleen. I've looked at MFW a couple of times, and for reasons that elude me, I'm just not drawn to it. I truly do not understand why. On paper, it seems to be everything I'm looking for, but every time I look at it, I come away saying, "Nah, not for us." It makes no sense to me why I feel that way.

      On the other hand, I am drawn now to Tapestry of Grace and am considering their new Primer program for kindergarten in fall 2015 ... but I'm also in the process of reading The Well-Trained Mind, and that book totally makes me believe I could put together my own curriculum and provide Alexa with the education of my dreams ... which may or may not be the education of her dreams! In any case, we ended up switching from Timberdoodle to Sonlight P3/4 with a couple of the Timberdoodle-recommended workbooks for preschool (explained in a later post), and we've started Sonlight P4/5 for preK. And I don't think I've ever stopped researching and looking into potential kindergarten curricula ...


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