Saturday, June 9, 2012

Homeschool Conventions, Vendor Halls, and Choosing Curriculum

A friend of mine asked about how we knew what to look at when we went into the Vendor Hall of the Homeschool Conventions we have attended the last few years.  After our conversation, I compiled a list of thoughts on the subject and sent her an email.  I decided that I would post the contents of that email here because I know of a few people who will be heading to the convention in our area next week.  I thought it might help someone else.  So, here are my thoughts on choosing curriculum and going to Vendor Halls.

Education Method:
One of the first things I have learned about choosing curriculum is to know what your preferred “education method(s)” are.  There are “Traditional,” “Charlotte Mason,” “Unit Studies,” etc. I don’t think I adhere to any one method, more a hybrid of a few. But if you have an idea of how you want to teach, it might help you when you visit the vendors.

Know Your Goal:
I remember at one convention, we did a seminar and the woman speaking had worked for “My Father’s World” as a representative for years. She said that people would ask her why they should buy that curriculum and she would ask them what their goals were. Most people did not know their goals, so she had a difficult time knowing whether the curriculum would work for them or not. When she went to conventions, she would go to the Vendor Hall with a written list of her goals and hand it to the representative and ask them if their curriculum could meet her goals. I have never gone that far, I don’t think we even have our goals written down.  However, when I thought about it, I realized that even in the first year we had some pretty strong feelings about what direction we needed to go in. 
Here are a few examples of some overall goals I had. My goals were for a history curriculum that would expose my kids to other cultures/world views from a Christian Perspective and have a lot of Historical fiction included so that History would be more than just dates and memorization. My goals for a math curriculum were that it would engage them visually and have a cyclical review of concepts learned. My overall goal? I want my kids to love learning…that is the most important thing to me. If I can see that a curriculum is going to motivate them because it makes learning more engaging, I will choose that. As I looked at curriculum with these goals in mind, I also started to be a little more specific. I realized that Little Man would not do well with Horizons Math, it had way too much repetition for someone who HATES to sit still. I realized that some curriculum had a Christian perspective, but it seemed to shy away from some of the difficult subjects. (We have books that show some nudity in illustrations of tribes from early history.  I know some users of Sonlight are offended by that. But I don’t have a problem with my kids seeing how people really lived. It gives me an opportunity to point out the differences in the definition of the word “modesty” in different cultures.  Some things that are acceptable to us are considered unacceptable to other cultures, too.)
Learning Styles will probably figure in the equation, as well.  If you get a chance to look at the book “The Way They Learn” by Cynthia Tobias, I strongly recommend it. The book covers Learning Styles and was very helpful in realizing how MY learning style can affect how I teach.  While I had thought about the need to know how to present information the way they would receive it best, I didn’t think about how my learning style affects how I teach.  I am actually going to read it again this summer as a review of the learning styles in our family and how I can best help my kids to succeed. 
There is also an article on “Lesson Plans” on the Early Years section of The Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) website that I think could be helpful in thinking through your goals.  It also may be helpful in planning how you are going to use your curriculum in your weekly plan.
The Vendor Hall:
Even for my first year, I had researched all the curriculum I was thinking of using before I left home. Then, I had already narrowed it down and only needed to look at a few things when I went. I really think that the online research I did first really prepared me. The Vendor hall was not really intimidating because I had an idea of what was out there already, and I could tell quickly whether something was going to work or not. Having an idea of my goals also helped me to pass up curriculum that may have been great, but did not fit in with what we wanted to accomplish for the year.  God was making it really clear to me what was going to work way before we stepped in the building. The act of walking around and seeing things in person was more a confirmation that the curriculum I was leaning toward was really the right choice. When we chose the math this year, it was a little different. I had looked at Teaching Textbooks and Math-U-See, and I knew about Switched on Schoolhouse. After talking to a friend who homeschools, I thought for sure I was going to go with Math-U-See – Ryan and I had even talked about it the first time we saw it at a convention. When we got there and looked through the three options, though, both of us were in agreement pretty quickly that Teaching Textbooks was a better fit. In both cases, though, we were relaxed about it and came home to think before we bought.  HSLDA has a page specifically on how to prepare for a Homeschool Convention that might be helpful.  A blogger I read, Amy at Raising Arrows, has a blog post on “Surviving…the Vendor Hall” that may be helpful, too.  While I found this blog post helpful, one thing we have never done is buy curriculum at the Convention.  We always get catalogs and come home and take a breather first.  We sometimes buy things we see that we think might be helpful (like a clock face with moving arms I got a few years ago), but I think it is worth waiting until I get home and decide what we want and can afford for curriculum that year.
Online Research - Some Curriculum Options:
If you want to get an idea of some of the tables you will see at the Convention, here are some examples of the tables we have seen the last few years:
Some of the curriculum companies that offer full packages that I am aware of are: My Father’s World, A beka, Sonlight, Rod and Staff, and Alpha Omega.
The Math curriculum we are using next year is called “Teaching Textbooks.”  The other two we looked at were Math-U-See and Switched On Schoolhouse (by Alpha Omega).  We have also used Horizons and Singapore Math.  We have never used Saxon Math, but I know some people like it.  For any of these curriculum, it is a good idea to take the placement tests.  We bought Singapore math for Princess her second year, but after looking at it we knew it would be too easy for her.  We knew it would be good for Little Man, so we kept it for his K year.  This year, both children will be in Math curriculum that is one year ahead of their grade level.  For math, I think it is a good idea to be sure that the level you buy really fits.  You don’t want a frustrated or bored student.  :)
Some of the Handwriting curriculum we compared were: Handwriting without Tears, A Reason for Handwriting (we went with this one), and A beka (they believe in teaching cursive from the very beginning, so even the K curriculum is “recommended” in cursive. They do offer K in Printing, though).
I would look at the sites first to make sure that you are even interested, you might be able to rule something out just by seeing the website.  Then, if you still want to look closer you can visit the tables at the convention.  If you go to Sonlight’s website, they use a variety of curriculum options for subjects like Math, Handwriting, Spelling, Grammar, etc.  It is a good place to compare some of the different curricula from one site.
Online Homeschool Convention:
I read on a blog called “Meet Penny” about an online “Homeschool Convention” where there is a virtual vendor hall that you can visit to check out curriculum.  I haven’t visited it myself, yet.  But it may be helpful in getting an idea of what the Vendor Hall will be like in person. 
I hope these links help.  If you pray about it and let God lead you, He will give you peace about the right curriculum for you.  I loved this quote from the HSLDA article on Lesson Plans I linked to above,
“Your curriculum is a tool, not a master.” 
It is really helpful for me to remember that.  NO curriculum is going to be perfect.  You are going to have to adjust it to fit your family.  So, don’t feel pressured about making your family fit the curriculum.  Keep what works, and throw out what doesn’t.  You will find a groove that works for you.