How to Build the Ultimate Homeschool Method

If you are like me, sifting through homeschool methods is so mind-boggling! Each one sounds so promising, and the testimonies are so convincing. Yet, using them in “real life” can be so overwhelming.

In fact, I just about went crazy trying to find one that fit. Finally, I stopped mimicking what everyone else was doing and created my own.

In all honesty, I did not try and build a method from scratch and I don’t suggest you do, either. Fortunately, the online world is bursting with information just waiting to be ingested. I actually spent many years studying each of the major approaches, trying them out on our own laboratory of guinea pigs (our children) and then deciding which parts to throw away and which ones to keep.

Below are just a few of the main approaches I have researched and some of my honest impressions:

School-in-a-box

This is the method most of us are comfortable with when we start out (I know I was). It is simply ordering a number of texts and workbooks from a publisher (or publishers) and following the suggested scope-and-sequence.

Pros:

You know what to expect and have no worries about being out of sync with public schooling. This one can give you structure and direction, especially if you are new to homeschooling. This also helps if you are feeling shaky about academics in general and need a little help teaching things such as grammar and long division.

Cons:

The materials are aimed at children right in the middle of development and ability. If you have a child who is above, he will feel bored. If you have a child who is below, she will feel behind. The writing is rarely interesting enough to stand on its own and some children begin to dislike the texts and associate them with “learning,” which they are then conditioned to dislike as well. Most are filled with busywork that take up time and space but have very little lasting value. This one is very labor-intensive for Mom. Oh, and if you have two or more children, it can be pretty pricey.

Consider this quote from Benandme.com:

Many traditional curriculum choices, especially those “curriculum-in-a-box” options, do a great job of modeling the public school system. Remember that? Textbooks that gave you small snippets of information to memorize for the test. Things like dates and names, but little more to really get your creative juices flowing. Or workbooks. Multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, true or false. Can I just say one thing? The only reward for completing a workbook is another workbook. It’s drudgery, and it’s boring. There are many reasons we don’t send our kids to school and this is one of them. This type of learning creates a scenario where kids end up with knowledge that is a mile wide, but only an inch deep. They learn facts that are easily regurgitated for a time, and then quickly forgotten.

Advantages of Using Boxed Curriculum

Unit studies

This is the definition by Amanda Bennett (prolific creator of unit studies):

A good unit study involves learning about one topic in an interesting and engaging way that will captivate the student and make them want to learn more and continue to think about the things that they are learning. From cell phones to Ethiopia to catapults and elephants, unit studies can open up the world to your child, one topic at a time.

Pros:

Everyone learns a lot, even mom, especially if she is the type who loves to research. This tends to keep children more interested and enthused, since the subjects chosen can be in areas which are fascinating and captivating. Most of what is presented is actually retained, especially if the subject is delightful and there are hands-on activities involved.

Cons:

This can be quite labor-intensive for mom in gathering materials and researching. Sometimes it is a bit of a stretch to find a way to add in all disciplines, so you might find that you will not have the time needed to concentrate on the three r’s. This keeps you from exploring as freely as you would like. If you have lots of children you might find it difficult to choose a subject that everyone is enthused about at the same time. If you over plan and drag out a unit study too long, you will all burn out and leave it unfinished (ahem, I know this from experience). Some of the activities suggested are silly paper crafts that will be in the trash the next day.

Unit Studies Made Easy Valerie Bendt

4 Reasons Why Homeschooling With Unit Studies Works

Unschooling

Here is a good definition from Pat Farenga:

Unschooling, for lack of a better term (until people start to accept living as part and parcel of learning), is the natural way to learn. However, this does not mean unschoolers do not take traditional classes or use curricular materials when the student, or parents and children together, decide that this is how they want to do it. Learning to read or do quadratic equations are not “natural” processes, but unschoolers nonetheless learn them when it makes sense to them to do so, not because they have reached a certain age or are compelled to do so by arbitrary authority. Therefore it isn’t unusual to find unschoolers who are barely eight-years-old studying astronomy or who are ten-years-old and just learning to read.

Pros:

Unschooling is a worthwhile approach to study, if for nothing more than to jog your own brain free from your public school brainwashing. John Holt is the originator of this method, and he is also considered the father of modern homeschooling. His ideas have helped many homeschooling moms feel much less stressed about the whole endeavor. If a mom can relax and learn to enjoy learning for its own sake, she will begin to have much more fun and so will her children. It’s amazing what some children can do with a little free time (my own children have often surprised me with their learning prowess).

Cons:

If you have a lot of children, this method taken to its extreme can lead to chaos and stress. You can’t have 10 different science or crafting or cooking experiments going on at the same time if you want to keep a budget and a fairly clean house. You also will most likely not have the time, money, or energy to haul your children off in 20 different directions exploring the world so that you can cater specifically to the needs of each individual. Addtionally, there are just some kids who will not naturally want to learn to read and do arithmetic, so they will need some coercing, which is a no-no in this method (to be honest, there are also children who crave order and direction and this approach would drive them crazy–I have a few of those).

Growing Without Schooling Website

Christianunschooling.com

Classical Homeschooling

Here is the definition from Classical Homeschooling.org:

The core of Classical Education is the trivium, which simply put is a teaching model that seeks to tailor the curriculum subject matter to a child’s cognitive development. The trivium emphasizes concrete thinking and memorization of the facts of the subjects in grade school; analytical thinking and understanding of the subjects in middle school; and abstract thinking and articulation of the subjects in high school. Subjects unique to Classical Education which help accomplish the goals of the trivium are Grammar, the science of language usage; Logic, the science of right thinking; and Rhetoric, the science of verbal and written expression. Classical Christian Education is further characterized by a rich exposure to the history, art, and culture of Western Civilization, including its languages (Latin and Greek), its philosophy and literature (the Great Books of Western Civilization and the Christian tradition), and the development of a Biblical worldview with Theology in its proper place as the Queen of the Sciences.

Pros:

There is a lot to be gleaned here. The trivium itself is a great way to study a certain view of what true learning can look like. At the very least, it helps move parents away from the failed public school mentality and towards a better view of education. I really appreciate the emphasis on classic literature and whole books. There is even a plan that can be followed for those of us who have trouble knowing where to start or become easily distracted. Schole Sisters is a side movement that is amazingly encouraging and helpful.

Classical Homeschooling site

Cons:

I have read The Well Trained Mind and agree with much of this approach. However, I am not convinced the Greeks were the best models for true learning. Their ideas began with the mind of man, so their knowledge was limited and their logic circular. While the children and I do take time to learn Latin and Greek roots and study language in general, I do not believe every child must learn the classical languages or that we must be chained to the trivium. Trying to figure out how to keep all of my children corralled within the three parameters made my head swim, as I think most women’s heads swim if they ever try to follow this approach in detail.

Charlotte Mason

Here is an attempt to define this approach in a nutshell from The Homeschool Mom:

Charlotte Mason was a 19th century educator who believed “the souls of all children are waiting for the call of knowledge to awaken them to delightful living.” Some of the characteristics of a Charlotte Mason education are using living books, keeping a nature journal, and introducing music, art, poetry, and great literature among other resources.

Pros:

Miss Mason had a way of putting the practical with the intuitive and natural. Like John Holt, she believed children were innate learners who didn’t need much prodding. She was also against dumbing down information so that it is too bland to be enjoyed (via textbooks).  She also encouraged the study of the finer things, such as art and music. Beauty was to be a part of every subject, something that is missing in most education environments (some “teach to test” schools don’t even allow pictures of any kind on the walls of their classrooms). In this method nature has a very prominent place. Her ideas surrounding narration and dictation for language arts studies are far superior to the use of workbooks and book reports (boring, boring, boring and useless). She advocated teaching children to form good habits and to be compliant out of a sense of worth to be true to themselves and as contributors to the common good.

Here it is in her motto:

I am . . . a child of God, a gift to my parents and my country. I’m a person of great value because God made me.

I can . . . do all things through Christ who strengthens me. God has made me able to do everything required of me.

I ought . . . to do my duty to obey God, to submit to my parents and everyone in authority over me, to be of service to others, and to keep myself healthy with proper food and rest so my body is ready to serve.

I will . . . resolve to keep a watch over my thoughts and choose what’s right even if it’s not what I want.

Cons:

Even though Miss Mason advocated mothers teaching their own children, her lack of personal experience in this area makes some of her ideas hard to follow. Her achievement goals for the different ages are also quite rigorous–read this goals list for a six-year-old in a Charlotte Mason school of the 1890’s:

1. To recite, beautifully, 6 easy poems and hymns
2. to recite, perfectly and beautifully, a parable and a psalm
3. to add and subtract numbers up to 10, with dominoes or counters
4. to read–what and how much, will depend on what we are told of the child
5. to copy in print-hand from a book
6. to know the points of the compass with relation to their own home, where the sun rises and sets, and the way the wind blows
7. to describe the boundaries of their own home
8. to describe any lake, river, pond, island etc. within easy reach
9. to tell quite accurately (however shortly) 3 stories from Bible history, 3 from early English, and 3 from early Roman history (my note here, we may want to substitute early American for early English!)
10. to be able to describe 3 walks and 3 views
11. to mount in a scrap book a dozen common wildflowers, with leaves (one every week); to name these, describe them in their own words, and say where they found them.
12. to do the same with leaves and flowers of 6 forest trees
13. to know 6 birds by song, colour and shape
14. to send in certain Kindergarten or other handiwork, as directed
15. to tell three stories about their own “pets”–rabbit, dog or cat.
16. to name 20 common objects in French, and say a dozen little sentences
17. to sing one hymn, one French song, and one English song
18. to keep a caterpillar and tell the life-story of a butterfly from his own observations.

Her ideas definitely lean towards the liberal arts, which seems to put them at odds with the STEM emphasis of today.

Charlotte Mason Companion

Ambleside Online

A Charlotte Mason Home

For the Children’s Sake

The Moore Formula

I mention this because the Moore’s have been such prominent figures in the modern homeschooling movement. In fact, a lot of the wisdom you will see being passed about in blogs and social media has its origin with Dr. Raymond Moore and his wife, Dorothy. Here are a few examples:

  • 1) Study from a few minutes to several hours a day, depending on the child’s maturity.
    2) Manual work at least as much as study.
    3) Home and/or community service an hour or so a day. Focus on kids’ interests and needs; be an example in consistency, curiosity, and patience. Live with them!
  • Don’t subject your children to formal, scheduled study before age 8 to 10 or 12
  • Late readers are no more likely to have learning disabilities than early ones. They often become the best readers of all-with undamaged vision and acute hearing, more adult-like reasoning (cognition) levels, mature brain structure and less blocking of creative interests.
  • Constructive, skill-building, entrepreneurial work builds children’s self-confidence, creativity, and self-control, and does it more quickly.

Pros:

This approach is the bedrock of home education. Even though very few know about it specifically, almost every successful veteran I know eventually comes to these same conclusions. It is simple common sense applied to learning, and that’s why it is universal.

Cons:

There are exceptions to the self-motivated, entrepreneur type child (I have a few myself), a problem that is not addressed in the Moore ideas.

The Successful Homeschool Family Handbook

The Robinson Curriculum

I include this one here because it has a different emphasis than the others mentioned. It was formulated by a scientist who needed to have a way to continue homeschooling his children after his wife passed away. His idea was for his children to teach themselves. Since he is a scientist, his emphasis is on math and science. The other subjects are covered via classical and modern literature, with vocabulary lists and the assignment of a paper due daily.

Pros:

This is a great idea for parents who want to homeschool but are otherwise occupied, such as single moms, widowers, and the like. The CD’s are a treasure trove of gems from the past as well some excellent modern sources (you can find the list here–most titles are in the public domain). This method produces children who develop the ability to be independent problem-solvers, since Robinson rarely helped his children, even with their math.

Cons:

If you and your children struggle with math, you will find the overemphasis on arithmetic and science a bit frustrating. A large family may find it challenging to keep the whole house quiet for hours of intensive study as is suggested. Also, if you enjoy learning along with your children, you might find yourself feeling a little lonely 🙁

Robinson Curriculum

Why We Chose Robinson Curriculum

Notebooking

This from NotebookingPages.com:

From copywork to nature study, notebooking is a fun tool that captures all that we have learned about a particular topic and turns it into a concise, artful piece of work.  The kids are always excited to share their notebooks with others & they love to look back over what they’ve created (& learned)… Whether starting with a well-planned, formatted notebooking page or a single piece of blank paper and a few supplies, each notebooking page becomes a dearly treasured & unique creation.

I almost forgot to list this one because it is something we use constantly. Is it really a “method”? I think it kinda-sorta is. I mean, this is definitely a different tack on learning than workbooks.

Notebooking Fairy

Notebooking with composition books

Actually, the above list is incomplete. There are others which you can look into yourself via the links below:

Waldorf

Montessori

Multiple Intelligences

Thomas Jefferson

Wisdom’s Way of Learning

John Taylor Gatto’s research into what learning doesn’t look like also helped cement some ideas in my mind. In particular, I took about 20 hours (while up in the wee hours of the night with one of my pregnancies) and studied his book The Underground History of American Education. 

In addition, there is one obscure educator who also influenced my homeschooling method, namely, William McGuffey. He did not write much directly concerning teaching and learning, but his marvelous ideas have been preserved in the books he wrote for children.

Oh, and last, but not in any way least, is the Lord Jesus Christ, Who is the Master Teacher.

After you have taken a bit of time (hopefully I have made it a little easier for you), you should go through each method and pull out the things that make you feel interested and excited about teaching your children. You should also have a list of all the things you definitely do not like or don’t see as a good fit for you and your children. 

Next, you need to create a master list of the best of the best and use this as a guide to planning, purchasing, and scheduling your homeschooling. 

What have I finally decided after all of my researching and learning?

Here are some of the basics in a bulleted list:

  1. The Word is King. In Proverbs we read that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The word “wisdom” in the Bible is also often used instead of our word “knowledge.” King Solomon enjoyed wisdom beyond anyone before or since, which not only included the know-how to run a kingdom, but knowledge of birds and plant life. We should endeavor to walk with God like Enoch and Noah and allow the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us as we work through grammar and algebra. There should never be a place we travel as learners where God has not already been. His Word is our outline, our first source, our guide for all other subjects.
  2. Don’t push too early. This was the conventional wisdom for eons of human existence. No lasting benefit is gained by forcing small children to do concentrated academics and book work. My own grandmother remembered entering school (during a time of 98% literacy in America) at the age of 7 and feeling a bit too young!
  3. Let delight lead the way. Children are not empty machines we can turn on and turn off at will. They are human beings who are full of hopes and desires. When we allow them to pursue what gives them delight we become partners with the God Who created them.
  4. Focus on real books, especially classics for literature and history. This is a theme that is repeated over and over in all the best approaches. Textbooks are by-and-large collections of lifeless, bland information and kill natural learning. For history, read biographies and other solid historical fiction. For literature, read the classics such as Shakespeare and Dickens and Austen. As concerning non-fiction, there are real books written by passionate people for just about every field of study imaginable, from botany to book-making.
  5. Nature and outdoors should have a place. God speaks to our hearts and engages our minds via His creation. Children who spend time taking walks through forests and prairies on a regular basis are blessed with greater ability to study the more exacting subjects such as math and grammar.
  6. Include beauty and warmth. This means studying and creating art and music in an environment which is warm and inviting. Walls should be full of excellent paintings, decorations should be well-chosen and lovely. Classical music playing in the background and a snack of freshly baked cookies or a warm cup of tea on a cold morning (in a non-spillable cup) can create an atmosphere where learning flourishes.
  7. Regularly use narration, copywork, dictation, and memorization. These are the practices of educators since the dawn of time because they are so effective.
  8. Give them tools for life-long learning. If children cannot read, write, or understand math well, they will be hampered in their efforts to accomplish God’s will for their lives. While I do dearly love delving deeply into many different subjects, our emphasis is on the basics.
  9. Notebooking can be used for EVERYTHING. This is the main element that binds everything together and gives us plenty of material for portfolios and assessments.
  10. Teach them to make connections across all disciplines. Isolating science from the Bible, history, art, and music is actually a silly thing to do. Isolating music from the Bible, math, and science is equally silly. Cooking has to do with science, math, and art. We try and pull all the disciplines into what we are studying whenever we can.
  11. Children learn better and more if they are connected to real life. Classrooms are poor replacements for the wide world where true, lasting learning takes place. Fractions on a page are one thing, but when put to use in the baking of a batch of cookies, that’s when math sticks!
  12. Grades and grade levels are not important. They are actually ludicrous to real learning. A child who is actively interested in furthering himself by learning is only interested in two things: advancing and doing his best. He doesn’t need an “A,” “B,” or “C” to tell him he is doing his best to reach his own goals. In the one-room schoolhouse model, children moved to the next level as soon as the previous one was mastered, not because they turned the right age for promotion.
  13. A little rote learning is OK. I put this in because not everyone agrees, but I have seen its value with certain of my children. Of course, I don’t want all of learning to be rote, but as far as the tools are concerned, this can be very helpful.
  14. Balance mom-lead learning with independent learning. There are times when we sit and enjoy things together, and times when they are expected to sit and learn on their own. This is especially important the older they get.
  15. Playing and goofing around are important learning activities. Some of the greatest discoveries have been made by people who looked like they weren’t accomplishing anything of importance. Little children, especially, need time to play. While they are zooming around the room with trucks and planes or flitting around in princess costumes the are actually ordering and forming patterns in heart and mind that will translate to better concentration and comprehension later on.
  16. Discipline and hard work are good things. They might complain a bit to you about their chores, but their families, co-workers and employers will bless you the rest of their lives.
  17. Tell lots of stories and invite honest conversation. This one is very dear to my heart. Through this I have been able to enjoy my children in a way most parents have never experienced. They have shared their hearts with me on so many occasions as we sat around the dining table or in the family room together. We have worked through some of the greatest conundrums of life over a passage of Proverbs or a bit of a Dickens novel.
  18. McGuffey’s make learning easier for Mom and child. There is a reason these readers have been used for over a hundred years (with 120 million copies sold between 1836 and 1960 and a continued sales rate of 30,000 copies a year): they WORK! You can read more on this here, and here, and here. There is also a video here.
  19. Use unit studies, unschooling (which I call “autodidacting”) in seasons. This strategy keeps us from feeling burnt out. One season we will be doing a unit on a particular subject. The next season we might have a short time of concentrated academics (such as a little math and a gentle grammar lesson) and the rest of the time the children are left to explore and create.
  20. A little text-to-worksheet-to-testing is OK for some things. For instance, when we all studied King Alfred’s English together (we consider this a foundational book). Even though we treated it as a unit study and totally immersed ourselves into the subject matter via movies and other suggestions from The Shorter Word site, we also filled out the worksheets and took the tests together (yes, that includes Yours Truly).

And there you have it, a collection of the best ideas I could find all mashed together into something that resembles cohesion.

Of course, this is not a good picture of what it looks like in practice. For that I will put up another post, sort of a “life in the day.”

Until then, look for a nice printable of all these ideas in your mailbox. Be sure and sign up so you won’t miss out!

6 thoughts on “How to Build the Ultimate Homeschool Method

  1. This is such a comprehensive list, thanks Sherry. I am a fastidious researcher and your experience with these methods and your opinions have saved me so much time. I can see that notebooking is a good fit for our family, as well as unit studies and Waldorf elements. Also the ‘permission’ to do different things at different seasons.

    • I know, we really do need to give ourselves “permission” to do what fits us, don’t we? I know I was a little girl who wanted to do everything “correctly,” and now as an adult I often have to step back and realize that God does not require me to follow everything to the letter, but He Himself gives me permission to draw outside the lines when necessary to reach the higher goal.

  2. Yes, I have totally over planned unit studies and we all burnt out! Myself and the children. Then I felt guilty to kill the topic of interest (which totally has no interest to me anymore whatsoever!). I struggle with unit studies now and very rarely use them just for the sheer amount of work it takes for planning multiple ages-much too time consuming!

    • I totally understand, Amy! I sometimes do mini ones that seem to develop naturally rather than trying to plan everything up-front. This means more joy for everyone, including mom!

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