Just what exactly makes a good curriculum, good?

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People have asked me “What curriculum should I use for X.”  I will step out of my role as a curriculum writer to take on the hat of a homeschooling parent.   Here are a few principles that make for good curriculum resources.

  1. One of the first principles is that the curriculum is complete, as determined by your family values.  From my reading on learning, I believe that a broad set of knowledge, with an introduced framework, is of great service to young students.  In the elementary grades, students are sponges and are able to retain understand facts with great speed.  Why not take advantage of this gift and give them information to latch onto?  For more information on a knowledge based education, see my post on Why Knowledge Matters by E.D. Hirsch.  In the upper grades, the idea of a comprehensive curricula is more fixed, as course descriptions are more standardized as students take courses that will allow for college entrance.
  2. Another quality that cannot be understated is review.  Particularly for year long curricula such as math, history, and writing, it is highly important to weave back in themes from the beginning to allow students to remember the whole story.  One of the tools I employed when homeschooling was creating matching games.  Some curricula already had review cards, like Story of the World and my botany curriculum.  Once every 4 weeks or so we would play a review matching game.  Another technique, appropriate for history, is to have your student tell you the story of whatever you are learning, using their timeline.  An effective technique that Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW) uses is to teach dress-ups (unique sentence formation), and then ask students to choose to use these varieties in future writing.  They are taught, and then practiced.
  3. A third feature to look for is assessment.  When you hear that word, don’t think tests!  Assessments can be tests, but they can also be drawings, essays, stories, bookmaking, projects, or one I like — culmination mobiles.  Some examples of types of assessments: Story of the World has a book of chapter tests which can be purchased, IEW has rubrics for grading which are helpful for making concrete goals for students and graders (parents!), and “Tell Me 5 Things;” have student tell you 5 facts or things they’ve learned, and then have them journal them.
  4. Another curriculum consideration is the learning style of your student.  In the classroom setting, much care has been taken to include multiple learning styles.  On the one hand this is good – but on the other hand, with a large classroom, covering each of these styles for will slow things down for your student that has 1-2 of these.  There are differing numbers of styles, but for the purposes of simplicity, let’s call them visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic.  Which of these is your student?  Which curricula major on those styles?  Some curricula will cover each of these styles, but more often than not, curricula will specialize in one of these areas.
  5. Finally, a hallmark of a curriculum that is worth the money is — it makes it easy!  Are there answers provided?  Are there worksheets for students?  Is it broken down intuitively?  Are there suggestions should you need to trim the units?  One curriculum I used had 42 lessons, but the school year is 36 weeks usually.  I had to do work to figure out those changes.  And, I always felt winded because there was so much to do (and that we had to trim!).

Curricula that is complete, contains review, has assessments, plays to your students learning style, and that makes it easy – are good goals to aim for!  I would love to know which curricula you like.  Please email me, and I will report the results.  Users are the best reviewers of content!

Here are some groups that review curricula: Rainbow Resource, Cathy Duffy, and various homeschool  charter organizations.  I also recommend downloading sample pages to get a good idea of the flow and formatting of various curriculum.  One of the best resources I consult: Homeschool moms.  One friend in particular — whenever I got together with her — I had a sheet of paper and I took notes on what she used.  Even if the subject matter was a few years out, I kept my notes in one place and would use them later.

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