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Curriculum Hacking 101: Bending schedules to your will


This post is the first in an ongoing series about “hacking” your homeschooling materials and resources to fit your own situation. Think of hacking in the Macgyver sense of the word, where you take available materials and deftly modify them into something that will work for whatever need your family has at the moment. Often hacking can help you turn something otherwise unusable into a great asset for your family!

Since the Carnival of Homeschooling’s theme this week is schedules, I decided to make the first Curriculum Hacking post about Schedule Hacking.

Many homeschoolers have found themselves to be the proud owners of a curriculum that they love, but that doesn’t fit well with their families’ schedule. Or, maybe you planned out the year yourself, but find that your schedule just isn’t doing the trick. You may have even downloaded my free Ancient History curriculum guide that I posted last week. Now that I’ve posted those plans (complete with daily schedules!) I feel it is only fair to give you some ideas for how you can modify them – or almost any curriculum or schedule, including your own – to fit the real world needs of your family.

Here are a few possibilites for you to consider:

Weekly approach:

If your curriculum is scheduled on a daily basis (like the Myths, Maps, and Marvels one that I wrote), feel free to switch things up by taking a more “weekly” approach. That is, you may want to do all the history encyclopedia readings one day, literature readings, another day, poetry another day, and websites or hands-on activities the last day. Any similar way of rearranging can work. In this approach, you are still working through lessons in the same basic order, week by week, but you are grouping or rearranging certain assignments within that week.

This approach works well if you or your child have a hard time switching back and forth from lots of different kinds of activities in a day. Many children benefit from short, frequently changing lessons, but others prefer to get “in the zone” with a particular type of project, and don’t like to abruptly switch gears many times in one day.

Short Lessons:

Some children really benefit from short, to the point lessons. Long lessons in a single subject (as mentioned above) may bore them to tears. They may benefit from being able to switch gears frequently during their “school day”. You can try it out both ways, to see whether long or short lessons works best for your family. Don’t be surprise if it varies from subject to subject, or for different types of activities.

In any case, busy work is usually best left out entirely, and care should be taken to present as much information and practice as is needed, but not to needlessly belabor a lesson. Sometimes you can shorten the lessons and still cover the same amount of material, just by ruthlessly cutting out any activities or assignments that don’t serve a significant role in meeting your learning goals and objectives.

Group lessons into Units:

Another path you can take would be to carve your lessons up into related units. You can group similar topics together, and then delve into an extended study of a particular part of the curriculum.

For instance, if your history curriculum is written chronologically, you could split it up into units for each major civilization. I wrote Myths, Maps, and Marvels to be like a set of connected unit studies, because my children (and I’m sure many other young children) could understand each culture better by studying one at a time, instead of hopping back and forth. For history, you can use a timeline to help you keep up with the chronology. If you have a curriculum that moves very chronologically, and it seems that moving frequently from one culture to another to another and back again might be losing your children (especially if they are fairly young), you might consider doing the history as units.
For a widely varied science curriculum, you might want to group the life science lessons together, and then do a unit with the lessons on physics.

For math, if your child is stuck on memorizing addition facts, you might want to switch the schedule up a bit and jump to telling time for a while. Or if your older child is stuck in some other computation crisis, it might be a good time to move to some lessons on geometry.

When you group lessons into units, you still can (and should!) make connections with other parts of the curriculum as well. Telling time still lets you reinforce counting by fives, for example.

Main Lessons:

If you are having a hard time going from subject to subject in the course of a week, you can take a page from the Waldorf playbook, and use Main Lessons.

A Main Lesson is a primary subject that is studied each day for (usually) several weeks at a time. That means you might study mostly history for a few weeks, then spend several weeks learning science, then a few weeks on intensive math studies.

Advantages are that you can get really in depth with a particular subject. You can focus on one thing at a time, without feeling pulled in so many directions at once. You can attempt involved and ambitious projects that will further your child’s understanding. You can really take advantage of a particular learning urge, “striking while the iron is hot”. Or, you can successfully put aside a subject where there is developmental unreadiness, and come back to it in a few weeks when things just may “click” a little better.

Potential disadvantages could be that your child may dislike studying only one main topic. They may get bored, or burned out before you can cover a whole morning of math. Your child could also lose momentum in some skills based subjects like math or reading without regular practice.

A great way around some of these problems is to continue regularly practicing and learning math and/or reading, but to use Main Lessons as a way to get to some of those subject areas that often fall by the wayside in the normal course of a busy day. Science, History, Grammar, Art, and Music appreciation are good candidates. Rotating your focus on these topics can often be more productive than trying to fit everything in every week.

Summer Focus:

I’ve heard of many families who plan to leave science until the summer, and then easily complete a year’s worth of science reading and activities/experiments in 2 or 3 months. If you find that you just can’t make room for something that you really do want to include in your schedule, summer just may be the ideal time to get it in.

Doing something different in summer (especially if it is fun or hands-on) can give your family a break from the routine of the school year, while still having a very productive learning experience.

If you get to the “end” of a year, and feel that there’s something you really didn’t get to as much as you would have liked, you can consider making a special effort over the summer. (You will notice that this is just a less formal way of using the Main Lesson idea.)


Finally, you can consider throwing the schedule out the window entirely, and just use the curriculum as a guide to resources and ideas for learning topics in which your children are interested. If there is a booklist included, let your children pick the ones that interest them. If there are activities, buy lots of supplies and encourage your children to select any that they find appealing. If your children are fascinated with a particular topic, use the curriculum for ideas on how to learn more about it.

Even if you don’t think you would be comfortable with unschooling full time, you can consider having “unschooling breaks” periodically, so that everyone in the family gets a chance to pursue their favorite topics. Alternating periods of structure and routine with periods of freedom and exploration can be a great way to get some of the benefits of unschooling without freaking out your spouse or committing to an approach that makes you uncomfortable when done full time.

Any suggestions?

What other ways have you seen or heard or just thought of for scheduling your learning?

Photo credit: Hilde Vanstraelen

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3 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. This is so true, especially in the early grades. I have a feeling high school would be a different story, but my HS children are still very young. We did an entire unit on pumpkins because one of the seeds we did in our science unit actually survived. We actually got a PUMPKIN to grow! And I kill everything… so this was a unique opportunity.

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