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Oops, I did it again! Changing curriculum again… and again

1 Nov

By Renée Gotcher

My tango with homeschooling curriculum has been pretty well documented on this blog. If you haven’t followed my journey, here are the highlights of our curriculum exploration over the past two years…

First Year: My Father’s World and why it didn’t work for us

Second Year: Why I chose to try Heart of Wisdom & Charlotte Mason method

Ask a NextGen Homeschooler: What textbooks or curriculum do you use and why?

What I haven’t divulged this school year is that in the beginning, we were trying yet another new multi-age Christian homeschooling curriculum. We started our “official” year with the highly regarded Heart of Dakota — in hopes of finding something more flexible, more “laid out” (read: ready to go) and more easily customizable to my three daughters’ ability levels, while also being faith-based and unit-study driven like Heart of Wisdom.

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We gave HOD an honest go for about a month, and it quickly became clear to me that my eldest daughter — 11 1/2 years old and the avid reader in the family — would quickly speed way ahead of my 10-year-old daughter (with a short attention span), and that if I tried to keep them both working on the same unit according to the lesson plan, one would be bored and the other would be frustrated with too many items on her daily “to do” list. I also tried to find cross-over with my 5-year-old daughter’s HOD curriculum for our daily enrichment activities, but her suggested track with HOD for her age was actually quite different in subject matter from what I was doing with the older two, so there was very little we could do together (such as art projects, read-aloud living books, etc.).

When it came to math, we had discovered early on in our homeschooling journey that Math-U-See worked fabulously for all three girls. That was a real blessing, so no issues there! Shurley English, which is new for us this year, has worked really well for both my sisters in law Rosanna and Elizabeth and working with their multi-age daughters together. So far, it has been working smoothly for us as a grammar and writing curriculum for both of my older girls together, while my youngest is still learning to read with Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, combined with BOB Books.

I was really hoping that HOD would provide the “laid-out” lesson plan that I was looking for to handle the rest of our subjects in a unit study, multi-age, Charlotte Mason kind of way, with a strong biblical foundation. And don’t get me wrong — it’s a fabulous curriculum if you like the unit study format with a biblical worldview. There was a lot we enjoyed about it, but unfortunately I was spending way too much time trying to re-customize the given assignments for each child to fit our daily plan together and challenge my older daughter while breaking things down better for my younger daughter.

On days when I thought I had it all figured out, school lasted hours longer than I had planned. My eldest was always ahead and asking “what’s next?” while my younger two were overwhelmed and quickly began to lose interest. This is after I negotiated great deals on securing our new curriculum online via used homeschooling sales on Facebook and other group Web sites.

Seriously? Are we here again?

If there’s one thing I have learned on my previous two curriculum expeditions, it’s that there’s no reason to waste any time trying to reconfigure something that isn’t working for you. You’re the teacher, so you can switch gears whenever you feel that it’s necessary — no need to wait for a semester break or new school year. It’s more important to do what works for you than worry about being “inconsistent” or having a few extra books on your shelf.

So just as quickly as I purchased this year’s HOD books online, I was able to resell them to other eager moms waiting to score a used curriculum deal too. The buyers were happy — and I was happy. No harm done to the pocketbook.

Now what?

Earlier this summer when I was investigating Heart of Dakota, I had also come across a curriculum called Trail Guide to Learning by Geography Matters. I had originally been attracted to this curriculum because it was not only multi-age and unit-study driven, but it actually provided grade/ability-specific “notebooks” for each child that followed the main curriculum. The student notebooks provided different assignments (already predesigned in PDF form!) that were matched to their skill level for the main unit the entire family was studying. It was so close to what I was looking for, I was initially sold from the Web site alone. However, when I asked around on Facebook and other social media outlets, I didn’t hear back from many moms who’d been using it and could provide their experienced opinion. So I moved on.

Now that I was basically back to the drawing board, Trail Guide to Learning was my first stop, and their first series, Paths of Exploration, seemed like an ideal place to start with the ages and skill level of my girls. One thing that had always appealed to me about POE was the fact that you can download one unit at a time online, rather than purchasing a whole year’s curriculum at once for a higher price. The PDF file of each unit comes with both a teacher’s guide and student notebook pages, as well as related appendix pages. Perfect for tentative buyers like me who want to see if something is going to work before making a full-fledged investment!

Another plus: Downloadable, predesigned lapbooks that accompany each volume of the year’s curriculum. This is about as “well laid out” as I could have imagined! Last year we had experimented with lapbooks, and although the girls loved the creative aspects of them, they really wanted more direction as to what to include and how to present the information in an easy-to-discover format. The templates and cutouts provided by the POE lapbook PDF were exactly what we needed to bring lapbooks back into the picture without creating additional work for me and additional research for them.

I also appreciated that the books on the recommended reading list were not only “living books” (a Charlotte Mason recommendation), but easy to purchase used online or download to a Kindle. I had no trouble securing the books for Unit One the same night I downloaded the unit’s curriculum from the company Web site. Within two days (Amazon Prime delivery time), we were ready to dive into our fourth curriculum expedition.

It’s been two weeks, and…

I’m happy to report that we love our Paths of Exploration curriculum! I love it because I have that well “laid out” lesson plan that saves me time and keeps us on track for the year. Along with that, my daughters have their own tracks to journey along with the family in our unit study in a way that meets their skills and ability level — and I didn’t have to come up with those customizations on my own. They are also enjoying the week-long lapbook project that goes along with our daily lessons and notebook work. It’s a great way to switch gears for my short-attention-span learner and provide extra work for my speedy learner. Even my five-year-old has gotten into her own sping on the lapbooks, because why not? It’s all ready to print out and go — and she loves anything that involves coloring and cut-outs!

The recommended reading for “enrichment” (read: speedy learners) is just as compelling as the required reading for the unit. My eldest has already read two books off the recommended reading for enrichment, and she is learning more than I ever learned in school about these subjects. There is plenty to keep her challenged and engaged, while my 10-year-old gets the same content covered in smaller bites she can swallow.

Dare I say that we might have discovered the ideal curriculum for our family?

I’m too pragmatic to call this particular stop “the end” of our curriculum journey. However, I’m extremely optimistic that Trail Guide to Learning could really work for us. Right now, it’s working: The girls love it, I love it. It truly fits my family in this particular moment in time.

And this moment in time is all that matters.

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” — Matthew 6:34

Renée Gotcher is an entrepreneur, writer, wife & home-educating mother of three daughters: Audrey, Claire and Elise. Renée was homeschooled during her last two years of high school and started homeschooling in 2010. She and her family currently reside in Castle Rock, Colorado.

Starting a Homeschool Co-Op: Getting into the groove

22 Oct

By Renée Gotcher

Last month I wrote a post about starting my own homeschool co-op for the first time — a tween-age Girls Book Club — after my sisters and I addressed the question of co-op schooling in our “Ask a NextGen Homeschooler” column. Since that time, our book club co-op has had two more meetings in October and are planning a fictional character costume party at my house on October 31 (rather than a “halloween” party).

Here’s an update on the progress of our new co-op and what I’m learning as the co-op coordinator…

Content

The girls have now finished reading two of the four books in the Secret Keeper Girl fictional series. So far, the girls are really enjoying the books and are very engaged during discussion time. Because we had such a large group of girls (13), we have split them into two groups — one for 9/10-year-olds and another for 11/12-year-olds — and thankfully, another mom in our group volunteered to lead most of the discussions for the “younger” tweens. I am leading discussion for the “older” tweens, and I am writing the discussion questions for both groups.

One of the reasons I chose this series to kick off the book club co-op was because the books already include great discussion questions at the end in a section called “Girl Gab” — making my job as discussion leader much easier! In “Girl Gab,” readers are encouraged to “gab” with their moms about these questions and share what they’ve learned through the story and its characters. I use these provided questions as a starting point and develop more questions on my own, drawing from the input I get from my two tween girls during our own “gab” time before each book club meeting.

In our co-op, moms are reading the books along with their daughters, and the girls are bringing notebooks with the “Girl Gab” discussion questions answered to be prepared for discussion time. Some moms are having their daughters read aloud to them, others are reading the books aloud to their girls, and some moms (myself included) and daughters are reading independently. Because we decided that our mission was primarily social and character development, and the reading was secondary, the variety in reading approaches is perfectly acceptable.

It turned out that within the participating families we had another set of younger girls — four girls ages 6 to 8 — that would be coming with their siblings to the book club, so we decided to have a reading program just for them. This “younger readers” group is reading “In Grandma’s Attic, Book 1” a few chapters at a time, and during their discussion time, the mom leading this group reads aloud before discussion time. This is working out well for their ages and varying reading abilities. So far, they love the book, and they’re getting a chance to warm up to the book club concept.

Logistics

Coordinating such a large group of moms and girls can be challenging at times. However, the plans we made to split up the co-op responsibilities for the entire semester on a simple chart has been working seamlessly! Each meeting we have four moms splitting up the snack duty, one mom watching the littlest siblings, one mom coordinating clean-up at the end, and the host mom is providing coffee, tea and water. So far, this division of labor has made it possible to feed and entertain all 32 mothers and daughters (and some extra siblings on occasion) without putting too much of a burden on any one co-op member.

Our two October meetings have been hosted by a family who lives in this beautiful log-style home in a scenic, rural part of Castle Rock, and we’ve been blessed with perfect fall weather on our meeting days. The girls have been able to play and snack outside during our social hour, while the moms are getting a break to enjoy our coffee chats relatively kid-free inside the kitchen.

The only logistical problem we’ve had is breaking up the fun at the end of the afternoon. We had planned for an hour of social time and concluding the meetings at 4pm, but so far we have been going until about 4:30pm or later. The girls don’t mind, of course, and in all honesty, I don’t think we moms really mind either. But I am keeping an eye on this to make sure we aren’t inconveniencing any families by going over time, and maybe we’ll just decide to end at 4:30pm in the future when we evaluate our co-op.

Communication

I quickly discovered that keeping 13 different families in the loop at all times regarding the logistics and issues of our co-op isn’t as easy as continually sending e-mail updates. Not everyone reads their email every day or downloads attachments right away, and I found myself doing a lot of resending, reminding, and answering the same questions over and over via email. Only a few moms in our co-op are on Facebook, so a Facebook group was not an alternative, and one mom and daughter are not members of my local homeschool support group, so we couldn’t use a private forum on our group’s Web site to communicate in a central place.

One day while I was contemplating what I could do to centralize our co-op communication, I received an e-mail from Shutterfly inviting me to set up a “Share” site. I clicked on the link and in about an hour, I had set up a private share site that includes a shared photo album, our events calendar, links to maps for all the host homes (we have had a few moms get lost already), our responsibilities sign-up chart, all the documents we’ve created to use for our co-op, a discussion board, and more! I love that the site automatically emails a weekly update to all our members as well as reminders for every event I’ve posted on our calendar. I can also easily send an email whenever something on the calendar has been updated or I need feedback (like a special snack signup reminder for the upcoming costume party), and all the email messages provide direct links back to those items on our site.

Problem solved, right? Well, almost. Most of the moms have used the new site and are interacting with it for snack info, dates, directions, etc., but a few moms have yet to log in to the site. And even though the auto-generated email reminder went out about this past week’s meeting a few days in advance, one mom missed that reminder and completely forgot about the meeting. We all had a good laugh about it after the fact, recalling how many times we’ve completely botched our own family scheduling.

But it made me realize I couldn’t rely completely on the share site to make sure we’re all on the same page. In our world of smart phones, Facebook, email, cool Web collaboration tools, and information overload, there’s no guarantee that your message is being received by everyone, every time. Since I don’t have time to call and check in with every mom before every meeting, I’m hoping this is just a blip and that for the most part, we’ll keep running smoothly with the help of this share site.

Or maybe I will try texting reminders next time?

Renée Gotcher is an entrepreneur, writer, wife & home-educating mother of three daughters: Audrey, Claire and Elise. Renée was homeschooled during her last two years of high school and started homeschooling in 2010. She and her family currently reside in Castle Rock, Colorado.

Starting a Homeschool Co-Op: Girls Book Club, Day One

26 Sep

By Renée Gotcher

A couple of weeks ago, my sisters and I addressed the question of cooperative schooling — aka “co-ops” — in our “Ask a NextGen Homeschooler” column. Since that time, the co-op I talked about starting this year (a tween girls’ book club) has had a social mixer and our first official meeting. So far, so good! If the first meeting is any indication of what’s to come this semester, then I think we’ve got a really great thing going. I thought I would share a little more about what I did to get the ball rolling, as well as a play-by-play of our first official meeting day…

The Idea

As I mentioned in our recent co-op schooling post, I had been feeling a nudge from the Lord to do a tween girls book club, both to give my girls a good social opportunity and turn them on to books with Godly character focus. If there’s one thing I have learned after two years of homeschooling ups and downs, curriculum change after curriculum change, and being involved in too much/too little in the co-op arena, it’s that giving God the reins of your homeschooling plans is the most important thing you can do. Good ideas are always just that — good. A God idea, however, is always a great idea — because you have His strength to back you up and He is glorified!

As I prayed for direction this year, this idea kept coming back to me. Just when I was trying to give up extra responsibilities and remove things from my “to do” list permanently due to health issues, God was giving me an idea that I knew would require my leadership, extra time and effort. I was worried about taking on an entirely new enterprise — even if it would meet my homeschooling goals for my tween daughters. But as God continued to nudge me, I remembered that God equips those whom He calls to do His work.

“Now may the God of peace … make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” — Hebrews 13:20-21

The Preparation

Over the summer, I did some research on Christian books for tween girls. This included some Web browsing and asking fellow moms of tweens what they’ve seen and heard of. After identifying a few potential book series and authors, I checked out as many as I could from the library (I am all about free) and started reading them. I also had my eldest daughter Audrey read a few of my top picks to get her opinion. She is a voracious reader, and I knew she would not mind reading them again for book club.

I also thought about the mission for this co-op: It would be slightly educational (reading is learning), but more importantly, it would be a social opportunity for moms and their tween daughters to get together on a regular basis and share in our homeschooling journey — and support one another. Yes, I hope we’ll learn a lot from these fictional Christian characters and their true-to-life situations. But mostly, I hope we create tighter bonds between the moms and their daughters, and supportive connections between the moms who are coming together, as well as the girls.

To achieve this, I came up with a suggested format and started pitching the idea to moms that I thought would be a perfect fit for this group. We also had a co-op workshop near the end of the summer with our local homeschool support group, and I shared the idea there as well. Before I knew it, we were going to be full with more than 14 families wanting to participate! The fact that many of the moms shared with me the same desire to accomplish this mission was confirmation that God wasn’t just moving me, He was moving us. Praise Him for the wonderful and mysterious way that He works with us when we are listening to Him!

The Structure

We had a “planning” meeting at the neighborhood pool to discuss the structure for our Girls Book Club soon after identifying the moms who wanted to be part of the co-op. Thanks to the wonderful guidelines provided by the veteran homeschooling moms who hosted the co-op workshop, we made decisions about frequency, group size, responsibilities to share, and a “code of conduct” we would communicate to the girls about what was expected from them to be part of the “GBC” discussion time. We also agreed to use the Secret Keeper Girl fictional series by Dannah Gresh to read for the first four book club discussion times.

It’s not always easy to be on the same page about some of the logistical things, especially when siblings of varying ages are involved as they most often are with homeschooling families. For example, several moms had sons or other children that wouldn’t be part of the book club. What will they be doing while mom and daughter are in the book club? Many girls already had other extra curricular activities (like riding their horse everyday for training purposes) that are hard to get around. Also, not all moms could stay for every book club meeting due to activities for other siblings or prior commitments. And so on and so forth… you know what I mean if you’ve been homeschooling for a year or so.

Praise God that we were able to accommodate the needs of almost every mom and daughter who wanted to be a part of this semester’s book club! Another confirmation that we were on the right track.

What we came up with was a twice-a-month meeting, made up of a 45-minute discussion time and an hour of social time plus snacks. Moms are sharing the responsibility of providing snacks, watching the younger siblings during discussion time, and supervising cleanup. Three moms have divided up the “hosting” responsibility of having the book club at their house (I am one of those three moms).

I had planned to lead the tween girls discussion time since it was my idea and I was happy to do it. However, we had such a large group of tweens (14 girls to be exact) that we decided to break them up into two groups, and another mom had to step up and lead that second group along with me. Praise God that happened too — a mom who had lots of experience leading youth groups and women’s groups volunteered almost immediately. Finally, we found that we had a small group of “younger readers” (girls from 6-8 years old), and one mom stepped up to lead a book reading and discussion time for them while their older sisters were doing their book discussion. How awesome is that?

What I’ve learned so far is that the key ingredients to structuring a new co-op are a common mission, agreement on the logistics and expectations from the students and participating parents, and divine intervention. I believe that when God is calling families to come together for His purposes, He truly makes provision for all the details.

The Launch

One week before our first official meeting, I hosted a social “mixer” at my house so we could just spend some time getting to know each other. (Unfortunately I forgot to take pictures at that gathering!) That first gathering of 33 moms and daughters was a lot of fun, but also a bit hectic — revealing a few little holes in our structural plans that we were able to patch up before our first meeting. I’m really glad I decided to do the social time first, because the girls and moms were able to make connections before we would have to do anything “organized” together.

Our first Girls Book Club meeting was the following Wednesday, September 19, at my home again. My eldest daughter Audrey (a pastry chef in the making) decided to bake Red Velvet cake pops for the girls to dip into dark chocolate and decorate as they arrived. I love the fact that I can leave my little hostess in charge of things like beautiful snacks and decor: She is so fabulous at it, and I am free to take care of things like making sure our husky’s fur isn’t all over the house and that we have a pot of hot coffee made for the mamas who will need it when the 3 o’clock slump hits.

This turned out to be an especially helpful idea because it took at least 15 minutes for all of the moms and daughters to show up, and Audrey was able to take them back to the kitchen in small groups as they arrived to dip their cake pops and decorate them. Then we set them back on the stand to “dry” while we did the group activities.

Because we had just received the books a week ago, we didn’t have a reading assignment for this first meeting. Instead, the girls played a get-to-know scavenger hunt game, followed by table time in which we reviewed the GBC discussion tips sheet we’d prepared and played “Pass the Teddy Bear & Share.” Passing the teddy is the method we had agreed upon to make sure the girls all get time to talk during discussion time. Since we didn’t yet have a book to discuss, we practiced with some basic questions about their favorite books and fictional characters.

The “rules” for Pass the Teddy Bear & Share are that the girls will pass a teddy bear around the table, and only the girl who is holding the teddy gets to answer the question until it is passed to another girl. If you’re not holding the teddy, your lips are sealed — and you also can’t hold up your hand to be “next” while anyone is still talking. If someone wants to add to what the girl speaking has said, she can request the teddy by raising her hand after the speaker is done and passes her the teddy.

After a few questions, the girls got the hang of it and our little discussion was in full swing. The girls were much chattier and forthcoming with answers than I had anticipated, with only a couple of girls being hesitant to take the teddy and talk. I am really glad we came up with the discussion guidelines in advance, because it was a lot easier to point the girls in the right direction when they were talking too long or not giving each other their full attention. Overall, I think we’re going to pass that teddy a lot — and have some great discussions this semester!

The all-important snack and social time is my favorite time of the meeting — because I can finally relax! The girls came through the kitchen like a swarm of locusts and consumed their decorated cake pops and everything else in sight, then went to play outside in the backyard.

The moms congregated inside and outside for coffee, iced tea and what was left of the snacks. I was so glad the weather was warm again and everyone could enjoy our backyard. It was also nice to be able to have plenty of space for the girls to run around and work out their energy without disrupting the moms from having great conversations. Even the little sisters got a chance to hang out with the big girls and play!

Although I am really pleased about the relative success of our first meeting, we hit a few bumps too. For starters, we have already lost one mom and daughter pair due to their already packed schedule and finding it hard to fit our book club time slot into the agenda. It was bound to happen. We had a few moms that couldn’t stay for various last-minute reasons, so they were missed during our highly anticipated mama social hour. Life happens. We also had one girl who had to leave early for a sports team practice, so she missed the snack and social hour entirely. Thankfully her season will wrap up in October and it won’t always be the case, but guess what — it happens. And it will probably happen again.

I can’t speak for all the moms participating in our Girls Book Club co-op, but I can honestly say I’m not worried about how this semester will unfold. I knew before I started that I couldn’t attempt to do this if I wasn’t going to hand it over to the Lord completely and let Him be in charge. I prayed for the right families to be involved, and I believe that has already happened. I prayed for my girls and that my original mission for this co-op would be accomplished for them, so I am trusting God to work in their hearts in a way that only He can. I prayed for the moms and daughters who would join us and that their own journeys with Jesus and each other would be strengthened, so I am releasing that to the Lord because I am just the vessel being poured out — and He is filling me and will fill them.

Upcoming meeting days may be hectic. It might snow two feet on a day that we plan to meet at one of the more remote homes on our hosting schedule! Someone who’s signed up for snacks may not be able to come at the last minute. Kids get sick. Family logistics change. Another family may have to drop out. I don’t know… but thankfully, God does!

I am up for the journey because I know He’s leading us. And I trust my Good Shepherd.

“For I, the Lord your God, will hold your right hand, saying to you, ‘Fear not, I will help you.'” — Isaiah 41:13

— Renée Gotcher is an entrepreneur, writer, wife & home-educating mother of three daughters: Audrey, Claire and Elise. Renée was homeschooled during her last two years of high school and started homeschooling in 2010. She and her family currently reside in Castle Rock, Colorado.

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