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Teach the Child
You can make adjustments to your homeschool curriculum. You have permission.
When it comes to cooking, it seems that there are two kinds of people: those who follow the recipe exactly and those who tweak it.
Those who tend to stick to the recipe probably like the security of doing what they’re told to do. The idea that Someone has already figured this out so I don’t have to can be a comforting thought. (Ask me how I know.)
But sometimes the recipe just doesn’t fit your situation. Maybe the person who created the recipe has a passion for hot and spicy, while your family prefers mildly spicy. Maybe the recipe says to bake at 450° for 15 minutes, but you know that your oven struggles to keep a constant heat at that high of a temperature.
So most cooks learn to make adjustments. They might reduce the amount of cayenne pepper or leave out the tabasco sauce. They might add more minutes onto the baking time. Whatever adjustments they make, they tweak the recipe to better fit their families and their situations.
Curriculum is a lot like a recipe. Whoever writes the curriculum is setting forth what he prefers; what worked in his situation. But just because the author presents it a certain way doesn’t mean you have to use it exactly as it is.
Maybe a certain curriculum moves a little too quickly for your child; you can adjust it to a slower pace. Maybe you like everything about the curriculum except one little part; leave it out. Maybe a particular recommended “ingredient” isn’t available in your location; substitute something similar.
You see, people who create recipes are dealing with ingredients, not with your family’s taste preferences or your finicky oven. In the same way, people who write curriculum are dealing with the material, not with your unique child. It’s impossible to write a curriculum that will address the specific needs of every single child. That’s where you come in.
Think of it like this. Imagine you were making a cake for a special occasion and the recipe said to bake it at 350° for 30 minutes. What if, at the end of the 30 minutes, you inserted a toothpick in the middle and it came out messy? If you were focused on the recipe, you would yank that cake out anyway because the time was up. But if you were focused on the end product—a delectable cake—you would leave it in the oven and monitor it closely until it was a beautiful golden brown and baked through just right.
It’s the same with curriculum and your child. If you are focused on the curriculum, you will continue plodding along, checking off the lessons, but possibly not accomplishing your goal of educating your unique child.
As the parent-teacher, your focus needs to be on educating your child as a person. In fact, that premise is the foundation on which Charlotte Mason built her whole philosophy.
The central thought, or rather body of thought, upon which I found, is the somewhat obvious fact that the child is a person with all the possibilities and powers included in personality.Preface to the Home Education series
So don’t expect a one-size-fits-all curriculum to fit each unique personality perfectly; it won’t. But that’s the beauty of homeschooling; you can make adjustments. Any time.
You have permission.
How might those adjustments look? Well, let’s look at three examples, three totally different situations.
Example #1: Adjusting Direction
First, maybe you’re in the middle of a lesson and you realize that something’s off—perhaps your child is completely lost. Or maybe you’re lost. It’s okay to stop the lesson and say, “Mom needs to figure some things out with this history book” or “this handicraft” or whatever it is. Set that book or craft aside and move on to a different lesson. Then take some time after schoolwork to regroup and figure out how you want to adjust. Maybe just spending a little time on the book or project yourself will bring clarity. But maybe it will work better to tweak how you’re using that book; perhaps you need to read shorter portions or maybe you need to tackle the project in shorter segments. Or it could be that you need to find a different project or substitute a different book. It’s okay to pause, regroup, and start over. That’s a much better option than muddling along with nobody learning anything and both of you feeling discouraged.
Example #2: Evaluating Goals
Here’s another situation. A mom asked me, “How do I get my first grader to sit still long enough” in order to determine whether she’s learning—to check whether the cake is done, if you will? In other words, “How do I know whether my curriculum is working or I need to tweak it?”
Sometimes it can be hard to evaluate the effectiveness of your curriculum. I think it all boils down to two questions: What are your goals? and Are you making progress toward those goals? In a Charlotte Mason education, the goal is to feed your child’s mind with ideas so your child will grow. And that growth will be seen in many different areas, not just academics. You’re looking for growth in habits like self-control, kindness, respect, and attention; you’re looking for growth in that child’s knowledge of God, of the universe, of other people, and of herself. Yes, you can look for growth in skills like reading, writing, and math, but don’t limit your view to just that narrow portion of who your child is as a person. So ask yourself, What are my goals for this child as a whole person? and Am I seeing growth toward those goals? Maybe that growth isn’t happening as quickly as you want it to, but it’s still growth. As long as you are making progress and your child is growing, I’d be inclined to say that “the cake is baking” as it should.
Example #3: Playing with Timing
Here’s a third situation as another example. Perhaps you have a child who loves to stay focused on a project or a story for hours. That can make it challenging to do short lessons. One mom described her son like this: “Some skills like copywork or math he still likes the shorter lessons, but on other subjects where his imagination really grabs ahold of an idea, he likes to remain there longer, for hours sometimes. When I implement the short lessons he is truncated in his thinking and very frustrated. Am I right to adjust my lessons for this uniqueness, or is there a higher reason I should stick with the shorter lessons?”
It’s a great question, and I’m glad this mama is raising her eyes to look at the big picture and make sure that an adjustment in one area doesn’t negatively affect other areas of the child’s growth. In other words, “If I adjust this, does that adjustment have a downside?”
It’s good that this child likes to “live” in an idea for a while; that’s one way that we know he has formed a relation with it. So is it a helpful adjustment to encourage that relation-building and processing time by throwing out short lessons?
I think this mama is wise to be cautious about throwing out short lessons. Here’s why. Think about what purpose that aspect of the curriculum serves. Short lessons increase the habit of attention; they decrease the tendency to dawdle; they allow time to include a wide variety of subjects during the day and during the week. So as you’re pondering adjusting lesson lengths, you need to keep that bigger picture in mind.
With those ideas in view, let me give a couple of helpful reminders and then a suggestion for this mama as she thinks through how to teach her child best.
Reminder #1: Make sure you are stopping the lesson before your son loses attention. The longer the lesson goes, the harder the task of paying attention can become. The mind can reach saturation point pretty quickly as time stretches out. In other words, don’t let him get in a habit of expanding a lesson until he loses attention. That will set up the bad habit of “the lesson is over when I lose attention.” Do you see how that practice could sabotage the foundational principle of giving focused attention for the whole lesson? So try to end lessons before he hits the saturation point.
Reminder #2: Make sure the extra time he is spending on certain subjects is not elbowing out other subjects. That variety of subjects is what provides a wide curriculum, a variety of knowledge, and it provides a much needed change of pace for the brain. Your child will be less fatigued if you use different parts of the brain, rather than getting bogged down using just one part of it.
So here’s a suggestion to consider: Maybe it would work well to put the subjects that he likes to spend extra time on last in your daily plans. That way you can keep the lesson time short, but then after the lesson, he would have plenty of free time to imagine, to ruminate, and to play with the idea at hand.
All that to say, keep the big picture in mind as you consider different adjustments to your curriculum recipe. You know what your end goal is. With a recipe, it might be a pot of chili or it might be a cake. With a Charlotte Mason education, it’s growth as a person in all areas of personhood. As long as you keep your goal in mind and make adjustments that will help you move toward that goal, you’ll be just fine.
It’s your family. It’s your child. You know him or her better than any curriculum writer ever could.
So don’t just teach the curriculum; teach the child.
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Thank you Sonya! Exactly what I needed to hear today.
Thank you for your honesty and encouragement.
Yesterday I stopped in the middle of school, put the books down, and, walked away. I told my eight year old, “Mommy needs to figure some things out with this history.” In my mind, thinking I am lost. I don’t even understand this book, much my eight year old. So, needless to say back to the drawing board.
Thank you for the words to say,” it is okay to start over.”
You are a blessing.
But how do I get my first grader to sit still long enough to stick a toothpick in her?!
I assume you’re speaking figuratively (and not actually sticking a child with a toothpick 😉 ). You’re right, sometimes it’s hard to evaluate the effectiveness of your curriculum. I guess it all boils down to two questions: What are my goals? and Are we making progress toward those goals? As long as you are making progress and your child is growing, I’d be inclined to say it’s “cooking” like it should.
I agree! Your article made me think of this decision I am pondering just now in our home school regarding the CM method and adjusting for uniqueness. My question is about the short lessons that CM always emphasizes and I have been implementing. I have a child who loves to stay focused on a project or a story for hours. Some skills like copywork or math he still likes the shorter lessons, but on other subjects where his imagination really grabs a hold of an idea he likes to remain there longer..for hours some times. When I implement the short lessons he is truncated in his thinking and very frustrated. Am I right to adjust my lessons for this uniqueness or is there a higher reason I should stick with the shorter lessons?
Great question, Sarah. Short lessons serve many purposes: increase the habit of attention, decrease the tendency to dawdle, allow time to include a wide variety of subjects during the day/week. It’s good that your son likes to “live” in the idea for a while; that’s one way that we know that the child has formed a relation with it.
I guess I would have two cautions and one suggestion as you think through how to teach your child best.
Caution #1: Make sure you are stopping the lesson before he loses attention. The longer the lesson goes, the harder that task can become. The mind can reach saturation point pretty quickly as time increases.
Caution #2: Make sure the extra time he is spending on certain subjects is not elbowing out other subjects that would provide a wide curriculum and change of pace for the brain.
Suggestion: Maybe it would work well to put the subjects that he likes to spend extra time with last on your daily plan. That way you can keep your “lesson” short but allow him plenty of free time following to imagine, ruminate, and remain with the idea at hand.
All that to say, short lessons are a means to an end. Keep your focus on the end goals and adjust as needed to get there.
Thank you! I concur with your reasons and will see what happens when we allow those interesting subjects at the end of the day.
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