This is the second month of the year-long Sonlight 25th anniversary blog party, and this month’s topic is one that I love to discuss, especially with newbie homeschoolers. How did you decide to homeschool? And how in the world did you decide what curriculum to choose way back in the beginning?
If you read last month’s Meet Us post, you know that our oldest biological daughter, Mary Hannah, was our homeschool guinea pig. A precocious, curious child, we enrolled her in a fabulous Christian preschool right as she turned three because, well … that’s what you do, right? She was smart, by golly. We didn’t want to mess that up! Her first foray into formal schooling was in a precious little class full of other adorable 3 year-olds, and included lots of songs, a class motto (Fully Rely on God!), playground time, and more crafts than our fridge could hold. It was a lovely, happy year that found me home alone three mornings a week with toddling Mathaus, and pregnant with the unexpected blessing that would prove to be baby Jack.
And we were all perfectly satisfied, because we didn’t know any better.
Which is not to say that there weren’t some issues, but that was normal, right? There was the small detail of having to insert our take and values into the Bible stories our preschooler shared around the dinner table. There was the slight disconnect between our previously inseparable little ones. There was a new word or five which had to be firmly stamped out of rotation before it took root. And there was the niggling detail that despite the lovely atmosphere, despite the charming class presentations, despite the gym class other preschools couldn’t offer … she didn’t learn a darn thing that year.
Wait– I take that back. She learned to stand in line at the water fountain. She excelled at that. (To this day, that girl can wait her turn like nobody’s business. I credit the hard work of her teachers and the example of a little girl name Sydnee Mae.)
So the 3 year-old, 3 mornings per week class ended, and it was time to pony up for the Big Kid class. PreK. Four mornings a week, and no joke: this time they were going for phonics.
Except … Mary Hannah could already read.
Yes, somehow, without any training at all, I had managed to work teaching letter sounds into the course of our days together. Without any real effort on my part she had begun blending, then decoding, and finally, reading. I remember being mildly embarrassed as I expressed my concerns to the PreK teacher and director: what, I wondered, could they offer my Special Snowflake who had already passed the finish line on the upcoming year’s goal of reading readiness?
No worries, I was assured. Mary Hannah would benefit from the socialization of her peers. The problem there was that my husband and I had already begun to be suspicious of that idea; “socialization” seemed to be a double-edged sword that yielded just as many negative interactions as positives. Ok, then. She would be an example in her class; she would help her fellow learners as they entered the on-ramp of literacy. That wasn’t exactly a sell for us; we weren’t really sure it was worth paying money we could barely afford to teach other people’s children. Plus, wouldn’t that get boring for her? But there were songs! Crafts! Finger paints!
We had all that at home.
Despite our misgivings, we enrolled her. Mary Hannah paraded into PreK and spent the next four months practicing her already-excellent line standing skills and pencil grip. She glued bits of tissue paper together to make w-w-windows and sampled crockpot a-a-applesauce. At home, she read Magic Treehouse books aloud and multiplied forks, spoons, and napkins by five for every meal. The day in January when she handed me an assignment sheet asking for her to bring in three things that started with the letter “I,” was probably our Waterloo.
“I asked if they wanted the short ‘i’ sound, or the long one, or just something that sounds like ‘i’ but is really ‘igh’ and the teacher said it didn’t matter,” she informed me conspiratorially.
Shortly after that, a few other things fell into place in our lives as God positioned our family for His next steps. Like that, our Big Hairy Decision was made; Mary Hannah became a homeschooler, and we moved on.
That makes it sound far less scary than it was, truth be known. Plenty of concern came down from the extended family, and yes, even we had moments of wondering exactly how this whole thing worked. But we never doubted that we made the right choice. We saved that particular concern for curriculum.
See, in the very early days of our homeschooling, we were both tied to the idea of recreating school at home. Christopher, especially, worried about maintaining even pace with institutional school. Neither of us had a background in anything approaching a radical education concept, so we felt tied to what we knew. And what we knew was School with a capital S.
Now, I had gotten my hands on a Sonlight catalog sometime in 2001, and was in love with the idea of what I was already doing with my kids actually being a form of purposeful learning. Christopher was a harder sell. Yes, we read to our kids all the time. We talked about the stories, the idea, the characters, the events. But that wasn’t enough. There was no measurable rubric to tie to that kind of knowledge.
Instead, he was drawn to Calvert, which advertised itself as something of the Harvard of Homeschool. Go ahead and laugh, but there was a good bit of comfort in the idea of a huge box arriving at your front door complete with a ruler, pencils, and the exact number of paper clips you’ll need for the year. (Note: Sonlight now offers its own version of this service, but at the time, the focus was solely on Instructor’s Guides and excellent books.) I worried that we’d feel too locked-in to this pricey, precise curriculum, but agreed that if this was his happy place, we were along for the ride. So we ordered the complete kindergarten curriculum and in late August of 2002, dove headfirst into learning.
It was a mixed success and failure. Like the preschool, which left no room for a child already beyond the scope of the year’s lessons, Calvert lacked flexibility. Even worse, it lacked imagination. And that, I have learned, is perhaps the worst crime a homeschooling parent can commit in early education.
At the end of that year, we waved the white flag and began making plans to ferret away enough cash to invest in our first year of Sonlight. Since then, we have used every core from the preschool (4/5) to 200– several more than once. Of course, there have been loads of other resources that have found their way into our hands and hearts as well.
I’d love to hear about your family’s journey as well. How did you start homeschooling? What makes you keep going– or what led you to put your kids in school? And what are some of your favorite curriculum choices?