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Before You Switch Curriculum

Have you ever been in a situation where your student seems to be stuck in a subject and you’re wondering whether you should switch curriculum? But then, you know that jumping around to lots of different curriculum has its own set of problems. So how do you know when to stick with it and when to switch? That’s what we want to talk about today. And joining me in this discussion is my friend, Amber O’Neal Johnston.

Sonya: Amber, have you ever had that situation?

Amber: Definitely. There have been so many times where I’m second guessing myself, wondering if it’s me, my kids, or the curriculum. Slowing down and being thoughtful about it before making rash decisions has always been best for me.

Sonya: It seems like the discussion has a couple of different components. One is the actual curriculum. Is that what is on trial here? Or as we were talking earlier, you mentioned some great things about, it might just be lifestyle, season of life, how you’re using things, what’s going on in your family at the time. So where should we start?

Amber: Well, let’s start with the lifestyle aspect of it. Before we start digging into the curriculum, I like to look at it and say, “Is it the actual curriculum that I need to question or evaluate, or is it what’s happening in my family or in my home?” Things that have happened for me where I’ve been like, “What’s going on? I don’t know. We need to change something”—those are the times where we’ve been very busy, out of the house all of the time, very scattered. I’m rushing through lessons and feeling angst and frustration and stress, which is pouring over into what the children are feeling. They’re not getting an opportunity to even assimilate the information that they’re getting or the reading that they’re doing, and we’re just rush, rush, rushing. During those times, I feel like things start to feel like they’re falling apart. And historically it hasn’t been the curriculum necessarily in those times. It’s more our schedule that needs to be reigned in and rearranged so that we can actually experience the fullness of the curriculum that we’re trying to use.

Sonya: That’s a good point, because Charlotte puts such an emphasis on digestion—that the ideas that children take in need to be assimilated, digested, and you have to have time for that.

Amber: There’s no way around it. You can’t cut through it. I know for me, things sneak up; a whole bunch of saying yes to one thing here and one thing there, and the next thing I know, we’re in a frenzy.

Sonya: Overloaded. Yes, good point. What are some other lifestyle situations that you’ve seen that might affect how the curriculum is effective in the children’s lives?

Amber: Whatever season of life that you happen to be in is very different. Say, when I’m pregnant, or when I’ve been pregnant and not feeling well, feeling very groggy or not sleeping well with a newborn, the multiple stages of my children and toddlers underfoot versus having people who are all independent readers, who needs a diaper change—it changes things. During each one of these seasons, I’ve felt that we need different things from the curriculum, and we’re able to use them in different ways. A lot of it hinges on my availability to be present in the room physically, that I’m not off chasing someone or changing a diaper or doing something, all important things that have to be done. It’s also whether I’m in the room physically and also how alert and engaged I am mentally, based on the amount of rest I’ve had or what I have going on with maybe babies or little ones at the time.

Sonya: So what I’m hearing is that it’s very important when you’re in a situation where things just aren’t jelling, just aren’t working right, you’re struggling, what’s important is to try and pinpoint why you’re struggling. Is it the lifestyle or is it the curriculum? And moving to the curriculum side of things, I think we need to dig even deeper into that why. Yes, maybe we say, “Well, the lifestyle hasn’t changed any. We’re doing the time, we’re there with the children, we’re doing things as we should.” But if you say, “It must be the curriculum that’s bad,” before you throw it out, I think it helps to pinpoint, “Okay, what about the curriculum is not working?” In my mind, it’s kind of like going to the doctor and saying, “I’m sick. Heal me.”

Amber: With no discussion of symptoms or how you’re feeling. Yes, this is true.

Sonya: So we need to figure out what symptoms we’re seeing in the curriculum and coming at it from that angle. Really you need to decide, Is it the content of the curriculum that is not working or is it the methodology in the curriculum?

Amber: That’s a big one. In terms of content, of course, if the content is harmful, or I find that a lot of things we’re reading simply aren’t true, things like that, it’s very easy to see that maybe we want to move on. But I find that, generally, it’s not that clear cut. Many times, for me, it’s the methodology: how the lessons are being presented. There, the first thing to consider is, “Do I understand the methodology and am I faithfully implementing it?” Obviously a curriculum is designed by someone else, and we might be like-minded, but have I taken the time to really dig in and understand what the scope and sequence is and the ideas behind the way the lessons are presented. Am I able to bring that to the table, to my family?

Sonya: So it’s, Are you using it the way it was intended to be used, the way it was written? It’d be like using a table fork to dig in the garden. It’s not intended for that. So we’ve got to figure out how it was intended to be used. Along with that, then, with my special needs daughter, I’m often looking at how fast or how slow the curriculum goes, and is it fitting her? So if the curriculum seems to be going too fast, you don’t have to switch curriculum. You can just say, “Okay, we’re going to take this little bit. Now we’re going to stop here, because she needs more practice, and we’re going to supplement.” So we’re going to slow down and supplement as we go. Then if the curriculum seems to be going too slow (that’s not usually my problem with my daughter, but with my other kids sometimes it was), many times you can omit the repetition that’s built in. And some curriculum, hopefully no Charlotte Mason curriculum, but some curriculum might just have busy work thrown in there.

Amber: Yes, and recognizing that and being able to eliminate it—take what’s good about the lessons and set aside what’s not—is a really important point. Because as we talked about understanding how it was intended to be used, part of that is so that you can use it that way, but I think part of that understanding is so that you understand what you can and can’t change without losing the integrity of the lessons as well.

Sonya: Good point, yes.

Amber: So yes, being able to speed up. You talked about supplementing. I’m the queen of supplementing. It’s not always because there’s something wrong with it, but I want to build in the things that delight my family, maybe special interests that we have, things that are important to us. So I would look at that and I wouldn’t necessarily say there’s something wrong with the curriculum, but I would say that there is something missing that probably only I could supply. And that’s okay too.

Sonya: Yes, adding in, as you said, the delight that will make the curriculum go to the next level.

Amber: That’s right.

Sonya: I think this brings up an interesting point. To many of us, we’re looking for the magic curriculum that is the perfect thing to fit all of us or to fit my family. And really, I don’t know that there is such a thing out there.

Amber: No. Just trying to get as close as you can to aligning with what you want for your family is really the goal, at least that is for me. And I know from the very beginning, I wanted to add other things in, not necessarily on top of. Sometimes I’m replacing things a little bit. But I want to add a little spice here, a little sugar there, and no other person, no other mom can say for sure exactly what will spark that delight and curiosity in your home. So looking for any curriculum to be the end-all-be-all for everything that you want is going to be a little bit disappointing at times. Expectations go a long way when we’re making these decisions.

No other person, no other mom can say for sure exactly what will spark that delight and curiosity in your home. So looking for any curriculum to be the end-all-be-all for everything that you want is going to be a little bit disappointing at times. Expectations go a long way when we’re making these decisions.

Sonya: Yes, and along with, as you said, supplementing in, sometimes the way things are worded seems too advanced for our kids. I know this is a big question I get: “This book was difficult for my kids to comprehend. Do we just keep pushing through and hope that they will adjust and they will tweak their brain and pretty soon it will start making sense?” For example, Shakespeare.

Amber: Yes. That’s a good example.

Sonya: That can be a leap sometimes, but when you get into it, I was just watching Julius Caesar last night, and as you get into it, the lines make more sense the longer you are immersed in them. So how do we know whether that’s going to happen for our kids or if we’ve pushed it as far as we should and we need to bail and use another book?

Amber: That’s really difficult. Charlotte Mason talks about a mother’s intuition at times. And sometimes we can think that’s not scientific enough, but at times I really do rely on that. I’m looking and saying, “Have we been faithful to the lessons, giving it time?” Because like you, Shakespeare is a perfect example. The first time I sat down to read that with my kids, they were like, “What are you talking about? I don’t know anything.” They were laughing and giggling. Even I was laughing because it was funny. The lack of understanding was funny, but we just kept at it. That’s an example where we took smaller chunks than what the lessons we were following had laid out to be read each time. We took it in really small, little baby steps. And I said, “You know, we may not get through as many plays, but we’re going to enjoy the ones we do.” And now they talk about them all the time. And I think that my kids would tell you that they think it’s funny that they didn’t understand it all in the beginning. So yes, you are sometimes relying on your intuition and what you know about your children and the environment, and trying to seek to understand whether continuing on could be helpful or harmful.

Sonya: And I think with that mother’s intuition, where would you say the line would be in challenging our children versus frustrating our children?

Amber: That’s so good. I spend a lot of time considering that question.

Sonya: Maybe it’s different for each child.

Amber: I think so. It’s different for each child. I try to evaluate the behaviors. If I see someone crying and getting very upset, I want to stop and talk to them. “What are you upset about?” One of my children will get very upset if something doesn’t come to her right away. And it’s because she is used to things coming to her right away. In that case I’ll slow down. We’ll talk about it. But I do continue on, because right on the other side of those tears is a breakthrough. And I just know that as her mother. That’s what I’ve seen. If I don’t continue on, she’ll always stop any time she has a sense of frustration that something didn’t come to her right away. Now I have another child, her tears mean overwhelm. She is crying because she cannot keep up, and now she feels bad about herself. She’s not meeting my expectation. She feels bad about herself. There is not a breakthrough on the other side of that wall. So I think that trying to figure out, and it takes discussion: “Let’s talk about this. Let’s stop for today,” sometimes, “and let’s talk about what it is that you’re feeling. I see you have some big emotions. Let’s talk about that.” And I think that sometimes they do need to be uncomfortable, but not always. So is it discomfort or is it pain? For me, I want to avoid pain. I don’t think there’s a place for that in our home. But a little discomfort, because I know what’s on the other side of that for you, I’m giving myself a little high-five there.

Sonya: That’s so wise and so important about knowing each child. And that’s one of the blessings of homeschooling. If they were in a classroom with all these other kids, they could be pushed to that pain point and no one would even know it. Or they could not be pushed enough and they would always expect things to come easily. So, so important.

One more thing I think is important about the whole curriculum choice aspect here in discussion is if you do decide you want to change curriculum, it is not wise to just say, “Oh, let’s see, that one.” It would be smart to sit down and say, “Okay, these are the things that I have identified that are not working about the curriculum I’m currently using or the book I’m currently using. What would the ideal one look like?” And write down the characteristics or the qualities or the features that you’re looking for, so that when we get frustrated, when we have the emotional surges happening, we don’t just potentially jump out of the frying pan into the fire.

Amber: Yes, that’s such a good point. Creating an outline of what your expectations are, what it is that you feel would be—not the perfect curriculum, because we talked about that probably doesn’t exist,—but the best thing for your family. I think of it like when we’re buying a house. You know you want a certain type of pantry or you know you want to be able to park inside the garage or whatever is important to your family, having that in mind, and then going and looking and evaluating curriculum according to what you know your needs are. And being careful not to look over at your neighbor, because I know I’ve had danger in that too. I’m thinking, “Well, that looks better than what I’m doing.” That might be true, but it looks better for her, but it might not be better for me. So I think having that outline of things to look for, things you’re desiring, will help you stay true in your decision making, if you do decide to change.

Sonya: And just like looking for a house, you might not find everything on your list in one place. So you need to be able to identify what are the non-negotiables and what are the, “Well, that would be nice to add in.”

Amber: Definitely. I think that’s great advice. I think that when you are careful and thoughtful in that way, it’ll keep you from skipping around and kind of having a haphazard approach to curriculum or lesson planning, curriculum planning. But it’ll also ensure that you are using something that works for your family.

Sonya: Thanks.

Amber: You’re welcome.

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