Our step-by-step guide to creating the customized curriculum of your dreams from scratch.
Once you’ve been homeschooling a while, you realize something. However excitingly irresistible a curriculum seems when you’re researching it, by the second week of using it, you’re itching to tweak it. Maybe it’s little tweaks, like subbing one science experiment for another one or adding books to the recommended reading. Often, though, it’s big changes you’re making: Slowing down and adding more information to focus more closely on one topic, skipping a subject that you’ve already covered in depth, cutting this and adding that until your curriculum feels like the right fit.
One of the biggest complaints about public school education standards is the notion that any packaged curriculum can be one-size-fits-all, but it’s easy to feel intimidated by the notion of eschewing professionally produced curriculum for a DIY version. Don’t you have to be an expert or a great writer or a professional educator to write a curriculum? Of course you don’t.
It’s time that we stop thinking of the perfect curriculum as some Holy Grail that we’ll eternally seek and never find. Shift gears: Stop being Indiana Jones, and channel your inner Frank Lloyd Wright instead. Think of making your own curriculum as making a master plan. You’re not an expert in your subject? That’s a perfect starting point to learn more about it. You’re not a great writer? Well, fine — you’re not writing a script. You’re making a tool, one that will combine different resources and ideas into a personalized study program.
THE BIG PICTURE
Your first job is to hone in on what you really want your homeschool — not just your curriculum — to accomplish.
If you’ve never made a homeschool mission statement, here’s your chance. (If you have a homeschool mission statement, revisit it to make sure it still reflects your homeschool’s spirit and goals.) Get creative: You can jot down words and ideas, but you can also make a Pinterest board, a collage, or even a series of drawings. Don’t worry about being super-realistic: Dreaming is allowed. (If you’re stuck, think about that future day when your homeschooler is graduated. What do you want him to look back and think about his homeschooling experience? What will he have accomplished through his years of home education?) You need a clear vision of where you want to go before you start drawing a map.
At the same time, work on a one- or two-sentence description of your student’s learning style. What work does your student enjoy? Is she a reader or a doer? An experiencer or an analyzer?
You’ll use these two things — a vision for your homeschool and an understanding of your student’s learning style — to craft your curriculum. Constantly ask yourself: Does this mesh with our homeschool goals? Will my student be inspired by this? When the answer is yes on both counts, you know you’ve got a keeper.
While you’re at it, start a list of “Absolutely Nots.” Here’s where you can make note of the things that just plain don’t work in your homeschool, whether that means workbooks or narrations. As you dive into planning, it’s easy to get excited about ideas or resources that just don’t work with your real life homeschooling style. This list will help you avoid those things.
NAME YOUR TOPIC
Now you’ll direct your focus at the topic you want your curriculum to tackle. Maybe you’re determined to cook up an animal studies curriculum or you’re yearning for a good U.S. history program. Take a little while to consider what you want your curriculum to achieve. Are you interested in a broad introduction? Is mastery your goal? Do you want to work with big themes or specific chronologies? Use your homeschool goals and student’s learning style to guide you as you narrow your focus: Your student who loves knowing about the people behind historic events may be inspired by an art history curriculum that focuses on the lives and works of great artists, while a hands-on, creative kid may respond better to a curriculum that focuses on techniques and allows them to experiment with the styles of great artists. Both approaches will teach art history, but the The People Who Shaped Art History and Art History Lab are very different classes. Naming your class will help you zoom in on its focus, which will make weeding through all the available information a lot more efficient.
BIG PICTURE SCHEDULE
Along the same lines, breaking down how much time you want to devote to your curriculum on a weekly basis will help you get organized. If you want to spend five hours a week on the History of the American West, you can dig a lot deeper and include more rabbit trails than you can if you want to limit your study to an hour a week. Be honest as you consider how much time you want to spend on a given topic: If you’re dedicating an hour of poetry time a week, you can’t feasibly choose twenty different poetic styles and fifty different poets to talk about. You’re going to have to tighten up your focus and aim to simplify your list to include the very best examples. Be as pragmatic as possible: If you know you have a busy schedule of activities, don’t just tell yourself you’ll make time somehow. Work with the time that you really have, and you’ll be a lot more successful.
Think about the kind of work you want your student to do: Weekly readings and narrations? Book reports? Journaling? A weekly art project? Labs? There’s no right or wrong answer, as long as you’re meshing your goals with your child’s learning style, but you may want to scan one of the “What Your X-Grader Needs to Know” lists to see if there’s any kind of academic milestone — like writing a research paper or doing a science project — that might be a good fit for your curriculum.
BREAK IT DOWN
Here’s where the work most people think of as curriculum planning begins. Look at as many existing curricula in your topic area as you can: Check online for freebies, search your bookshelves, borrow copies from friends, scour textbook tables of contents. Keep a notebook, a Pinterest board, or a master document on your computer where you can make lists of things like topics covered, reading lists, organization, projects and activities, special tools or equipment, and anything else that feels relevant to your project.
Your task here is to break the course you described in Step Two down into its component parts. Say you’re putting together a curriculum about Big Issues in Philosophy. You may decide that truth, beauty, love, and goodness are the big issues you want to tackle. If you’re working on a grammar curriculum for your elementary student, you may break it down into nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, sentences, and punctuation. If your smaller subjects are still pretty big, you’ll want to break them down into smaller sections, too. So, for instance, you might break your punctuation section down into periods, exclamation points, question marks, and commas. As you work, you may go back to the drawing board to start over a few times, but eventually, you’ll start to see an outline for your subject emerge.
THE FUN STUFF
Before you jump into scheduling reading and projects, take a few minutes to consider the fun in your curriculum. Look around for field trip opportunities. Consider putting together a soundtrack to go with your class— songs inspired by poetry for a poetry curriculum, or a chronological journey through American musical history for American history. Rustle up movies and documentaries to support your studies. These extras are often the things that make the biggest impression on your students, so make room for them from the beginning instead of trying to squeeze them in as you go along.
COMPILE YOUR RESOURCES
Now, you’ll make a list of all the materials you want to include in your class—the books, websites, and other things your student will use to explore this subject. Go ahead and make a ridiculously big list to start—you know you want to! Include any book, workbook, or activity that you think you might possibly want to use. Though it seems counter- intuitive, knowing that you’ve really done a thorough job of listing all your resource options will make it easier to narrow down to the dozen or so resources you can actually use.
Once you’ve made your list, start trimming. You don’t need ten books on cells for a life science class, so you’ll want to weigh titles against each other to choose the one that’s really the best. As you do this, something kind of cool will start to happen: You’ll become an expert — you’ll feel good about the choices you’re making, the resources you’re choosing and the ones you’re leaving out, because you’ll have a real sense of your subject and the available materials. You may make copies of chapters from different books, taking a section from this title and a timeline from that one, and clip them together into a book for your class. Or you may just want to make notes to yourself about what you’re reading and why.
PUT IT TOGETHER
Here’s where the outline you made back in Step Four achieves its destiny. Fill in your topic breakdown outline with your resources. Jot the fun activities and resources you’ll be using to cover each topic beside the topic name. (Include relevant page numbers, or you’ll end up doing a lot of frustrated page-flipping.) You may find you’ve left a topic without a good resource. If that happens, head back to your resource list to fill in the blank. Or you may find that despite your best resource trimming, your plan is heavy on a particular topic and you have to winnow down your materials a little more. When you’ve finished, check your plan against your resource list and your fun stuff list — did you leave out anything really fabulous that you really wanted to include? Are you excited about each topic? Go back and fiddle with each section until it feels just right.
ASSESS AND ADAPT
Remember: Your curriculum isn’t set in stone. If it feels like you need to change something, add something, or drop something, do it. You’re the expert now.