Monday, May 21, 2012

Curriculum Review: What Worked and Didn't Work

Thought I'd take a bit of time to reflect on the homeschooling materials we used this year, but for myself and for others who might be wondering what curriculum to use for their families.  This is a list of "what worked" and "what didn't work" for us. I  homeschool my nine year old daughter, who has some learning challenges.  She is working at about second grade level.

Morning Prayer
We start every day with prayer.  Most of the year, we used LTP's Children's Daily Prayer as our main resource.  My daughter really liked this book, especially since the psalms would repeat for several weeks (or more) and the Bible passages are generally written for a children's point of view.  As a result, she requested to read more and more of the morning prayer, which means our prayer time also gave her additional reading practice!  I like Morning Prayer, too, since its readings follow the church lectionary cycle. 

Our plans for next fall:
I think we may use this resource again next year but supplement it with readings from her children's bible, especially since she is eager to read lately.

We followed Kolbe's second grade lesson plan for phonics and used Pearson Phonics Book B.  For half of the year, she really liked it and would whip through the pages, even begging me to do more when I wanted her to stop at two pages.  But by mid-year, the work became harder and she started rebelling and throwing major temper tantrums when I mentioned phonics. I enrolled her in a phonics course offered by a local tutoring company and that seemed to break up the monotony.  Since that time we've gone back to playing phonics games or using Time4Learning.

Time4Learning is a paid website that features games and contests which help a child learn phonics, language arts, math and other subjects. an online She really enjoys the games and activities on Time4Learning, so I recommend it to parents whose children are tired of the workbook/textbook routine.

 Our plans for next fall:
We recently joined a homeschooling co-op, so this fall she will be taking a reading/phonics class there once a week and given homework to do the other days of the week.  I will occasionally supplement with Time4Learning and may try again to sneak in some pages from Pearson Phonics.  (It's the perseverance part of my personality that doesn't like to leave things unfinished!)

We used Kolbe's second grade lesson plan for spelling.  They recommend 12 new words a week.  It was too overwhelming for her.  So I broke each weekly list up into two parts and we covered six words each week, completing the full list over two weeks. That seemed to work better. 

About mid-year, she began vehemently rebelling against spelling, so I decided to step back from it for a couple of months.  I've noticed that she is again starting to show an interest in spelling, so I think we will pick up where we left off over the summer and hopefully finish up the second grade spelling plan by mid-year.  I tend to stress out over uncompleted lesson plans, so I need to keep my own attitude "in check" and constantly remind myself that God is guiding her and she will learn these things when she is ready. 

It's been a tough homeschooling year, but the bright spot has been Seton's second grade  Faith and Freedom readers.  I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE these readers!!   And more importantly, so does my daughter.  Although she often rebelled at doing any schoolwork, I was usually able to convince her to read a story in These Are Our Neighbors. Perhaps these readers might seem a bit old fashioned to some people, but the illustrations and gentle moral messages really resonated with my daughter.  She progressed from hating to read (at the beginning of the year) to loving to read (right now).  I think her change of attitude had a lot to do with these books. The stories are interesting, and told from a child's point of view, which I think she really liked.  

Over the summer, we will finish up the third book recommended in the second grade lesson plan:  A Book of Sanctity.   I'm thrilled that she has begun independently taking that book and reading it to herself and her dolls!

Our plans for fall:
We will definitely be using Seton's third grade readers next year and are really looking forward to it. 

We used Math U See, for part of the year, but she complained so much!  She liked the videos but didn't want to do the accompanying work in the workbook.  Unfortunately, by November, she refused to do any of the work.   So I pulled away from math.  I fretted that she was falling behind, but at at point she was starting to rebel about all school, so I decided that if she would only "do" school for an hour, we should focus on reading.  I hoped that once she overcame some of the hurdles she was experiencing with phonics and reading, she would have the confidence to tackle math.

For a month, she took math tutoring sessions at our local Mathnasium.  But there was just too much activity there, with kids coming in and going all the time.  I don't think she got much out of it.

We were doing some math on Time4Learning, but she complained it was too hard.  When I looked on the parent reports, it appeared that she was guessing or just jumping out of exercises without completing them.

About a month ago, I discovered Dreambox Learning on Homeschool Buyer's Co-op. Like Time4Learning, it is an online website with games that teach math concepts.  But unlike Time4Learning, the program actually continually evaluates a child's progress and difficulties (based on answers to games).  Using that information, it will adapt the problems to help the child get better in certain skills.  If a child is proficient in an area, it will skip ahead to give her more challenge.  Kids are motivated by earning "tokens" to use with online carnival games.  They also win a variety of virtual prizes and certificates which can be printed out and saved. 

I decided to try the free 14-day trial.  I'm thrilled that this method seems to be working for my daughter!  I can already tell that her understanding of basic math concepts is much better.  She loves using the online "manipulatives" like the abacus.  I also like that Dream Box sends an email note to parent each time their child has been online, telling what the child did and how she is progressing.  Their parent dashboard has a chart showing the concepts to be covered, percentage that the child has completed, etc.  It's been very helpful to me. 

Our plans for this summer and fall:
Our trial expires in a couple of days but I think I will switch to the paid version by subscribing through Homeschool Buyer's Co-op.  (Right now, they offer a great deal on the annual subscription!)  I plan to use it throughout the summer.

We used Seton's English 2, which covers using the dictionary, ABC order, writing different types of sentences (like commanding and asking sentences), punctuation and more.  Neither of us cared for it too much, unfortunately.  I think alot of the vocabulary in it was too hard for my daughter, which frustrated her.  (I would help her read it, but she would have a temper tantrum that she couldn't do it herself!) 
Primary Language Lessons - Click Image to Close

Our plans for fall: I printed out a couple of sample lessons of Emma Serl's Primary Language Lessons (PLL) and we tried them out.  We looked at the book published by Hillside Education and one published by homeschooling mom Cynthia Albright. 

I liked Cynthia's version because it has "fill in the blank" sections would not require my daughter to re-copy sentences (something she greatly dislikes right now).  However, she preferred the large, full color illustrations in the Hillside version and said she wouldn't mind re-copying sentences in her journal.  (We'll see--maybe I'll just have her do one or two sentences rather than the 8-10 in some of the lessons.)  

For those who aren't familiar with Primary Language Lessons:  it is a language arts  drill book written in the early 20th century which combines picture study, writing and composition exercises, memorization, poetry and more.  It is suggested in several homeschooling curricula including  Mother of Divine Grace, and Mater Amabilis Charlotte Mason.  You can read reviews about it here and here.

Because my daughter has nice printing penmanship (when she wants to!)  I skipped right to the cursive portion of Seton's Handwriting 2 course.  I have mixed feelings about this book.  I think it provides great practice, but my daughter quickly grew bored of it. We started to skip it when she began tantruming about school this winter. 

Our plans for the fall:
She is again expressing interest in learning to write cursive again, but I think I will combine this book with spelling, and emphasize learning to write words that she is interested in. (For instance, she is really interested in American Girl Dolls right now, so we're learning to write the dolls' names in cursive.)  I'm still looking for ways to motivate her so that she wants to learn cursive.

Map Skills and Geography
We used Continental Press' Map Skills C from Kolbe's second grade lesson plan.   The workbook includes lessons on understanding map keys, compass directions, distinguishing between different types of maps (e.g., political and physical maps) and more.  My daughter liked the workbook at the beginning of the year, but by February she was fighting me about using it.  We did manage to finish it, but barely!

Our plans for the fall:
I love teaching geography, but using a workbook like this also made it a bit boring for me!  I am pulling together a U.S. geography study for this summer, which we will continue through next year.  I plan to use Cantering the Country  and supplement it with living books.  Inspired by Jessica's "State by State Baking" study (see her Shower of Roses website), we'll also be doing some cooking for each state, using Eat Your Way Through the U.S.A. and The United States Cookbook:  Fabulous Foods and Fascinating Facts From All 50 States.

I'll encourage her to make notebook pages for each state.  I'm hoping to compile them into two or three 3-ring binders so she can add additional facts, photos, drawings, etc. whenever she finds out something interesting about each state.

I planned to use Apologia's Exploring Creation with Astronomy but for various reasons we did not progress far into the book.  I think I'll reintroduce it in a couple of years.   My daughter has become very interested in learning about birds, so this spring I switched to Apologia's Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day: Exploring Creation with Zoology 1.   She's really enjoyed the nature hikes, adding a couple of bird feeders to our yard, and determining which bird seed is most popular with the birds in our neighborhood.  

We have also been "bird watching" online regularly.  Our favorite spots are the Ustream live feeds from an eagle's nest in Decorah, Iowa   and Cornell University's live feeds of a Red-Tailed Hawk nest  and a Great Blue Heron nest.   It's been fascinating to watch the eggs hatch and see how birds nurture and care for their young! 

Our plans for the fall:  We will continue working through Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day throughout the summer and fall.  I'm hoping we get through the insect unit before the cool days of fall! 

We attempted Connecting with History, Volume I, but didn't get very far.  I think it is a good program but perhaps better done with older kids.  I really needed the lesson plans laid out, but it really just makes suggestions using a broad outline. I hope to bring it back off the shelf in a year. 

Our plans for the fall: In the fall, my daughter will be attending a homeschool co-op class based on Addy, the American Girl doll who lived during the time of the Civil war.  They will be reading the various Addy stories, making crafts and doing a variety of activities. I've decided to springboard off this and take the summer to learn more about the Civil War with both kids.  We will be reading living books and picture books and doing a variety of activities that will help them see what it was like to live during the time of the Civil War.  Since it's the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, there are quite a few learning opportunities at various museums and battlefields around the United States.  The Civil War Traveler website lists some of them.   I'm hoping that we can visit a Civil War re-enactment sometime this summer.
Faith and Religion
Besides twice weekly Mass and an hour in the adoration chapel, my daughter attended the catechism class I taught for our parish. The parish used the RCL Benziger's Blest Are We program.   However, I deviated quite a bit from the book, instead using my Catechesis of the Good Shepherd materials and presentations.  

Our plans for the fall: I purchased   The Great Adventure: Kids  from Ascension Press, and we will be using that to learn more about salvation history and better understand the books of the Bible.   I'll also be using my "Books of the Bible" CGS materials and perhaps memorize a song about the books of the Bible. 

Wow!  It looks like I'm being overly ambitious again!  I just love exploring the world with all the wonderful resources that are available to homeschoolers today.  Now I just need to pray that I keep it in perspective and let the learning evolve as my daughter is ready for it.  Slow and steady...! 


  1. It looks like a great year! I always love to read posts like this.

  2. Thanks for the review. I always like to see what others use and liked or didn’t like. The prayer book looks good. I have wanted to change up our routine for my 7 year old. I love our younger kid-friendly prayer daily devotional, but he’s ready to move on.

    And I wanted to say what a lucky girl to have a mom like you, willing to teach her at home, adjusting the curriculum as needed for her needs. Kudos.  By the way, I will go out on a limb and say that I bet a lot of moms hate unfinished lessons/books/workbooks (me too!!!).

    We really enjoy the Apologia science books here too. You’ll have fun with the states. I love hands-on activities, though we go through phases where we do the basics because I am tired. But I find my kids really enjoy and get more out of the subject if I can do that.

    I’m going to bookmark this post for future math ideas. Math has been such a struggle this year – very slow progress and my son is not at grade level. So frustrating, but he does enjoy games so those resources may prove valuable, thank you!

    Oh, one last thing (this comment is much too long)… I ordered the RC history to do Ancient History this coming year, and I must say it is definite overkill in some ways for the younger grades. HOWEVER, it did help me grasp what I wanted to do, and they have a nice book list. In the end, though, I took her lessons and reworked them, along with Internet ideas I found through others (many of whom use Story of the World) to create a living history and hands-on history plan. But we have to live it ourselves to see if it works for us.

    Good luck with next year’s plans! And, we are all overly ambitious. Plus, it looks like a lot more when you put it down on paper. At least, I think so. :)

  3. Nicole,

    I really appreciate your insights on RC History! I agree it is a bit overkill for the younger grades. For a while, I thought it was just me, not being diligent enough in presenting the material!

    Your son might like Dream Box Learning. My daughter is below grade level too, but I've really noticed big improvements since we started using it. For the longest time, I tried to get her to just recognize smaller numbers (without counting them out) but it wasn't clicking with her at all. Thanks to Dreambox Learning, she now does it even with larger numbers. (For example, if they show a picture of an abacus with beads indicating 56, she used to insist that she needed to count them out, one by one. Now she just looks at it and says "56!" This wasn't accomplished overnight, but through alot of repetitive games. She didn't even realize she was doing it over and over!)

    You can take a 14-day trial to see if it works for your child. If it does, you can get a good buy on Dreambox through Homeschool Buyers Co-op right now. (Just a personal endorsement; I'm not a paid sponsor or anything for the company!)


  4. If you are interesting in connecting with other Apologia users, I host an Apologia link up on my blog!