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    Home Education

    How to Avoid Death by Curriculum and Co-ops

    May 11, 2016 by Brandy Vencel

    A ccepting your limitations takes a very practical form when it comes to making decisions about curriculum and co-ops.  I say this a lot, but I’ll say it again: homeschooling is a marathon. This has a lot of implications, and one is that we have to take a long view — of the day, of the week, of the month, of all the many years.

    I don’t run on purpose pretty much ever, but I hear that if you start off a marathon with a sprint, things tend to go badly. In sprinting, there is so much energy output in such a short amount of time that the pace simply cannot be maintained.

    The same is true in homeschooling. A day can wreck a week when you’re a low-energy mom. We need to pace ourselves properly and make sure there are reserves left. This is going to look different for each of us. So let’s discuss some guiding principles that will help.

    Today, we get practical and discuss some basic principles that will really help when it comes to making decisions about curriculum and co-ops.

    Have a philosophy.

    Remember when we talked about decision fatigue? Well, the first way curriculum and co-ops can kill you is through the slow and painful death of decision fatigue. Once upon a time there were 3.5 homeschool curricula to choose from, but no longer. We now have more choices than energy, and that puts us at a definite disadvantage.

    I talk a lot about educational philosophy around here, and you can check out the talks in my shop if you want to think more deeply about that, but for now I just want to say that having a philosophy — a basic framework of what you think about education — can be your friend. (Whether you agree with my philosophy is beside the point.)

    But also, when you are sick, you cannot make all of your decisions based upon your philosophical ideals alone — respecting your own limits might mean respecting the fact that you cannot embody the ideal. Still, a philosophy can help narrow your possible choices down to a more manageable number.

    For example, my philosophy tells me that a living book is to be preferred over a textbook. Awesome. I no longer have to dig through a pile of history or science textbooks that I would never use anyhow. This is a huge time and energy saver.

    My advice on educational philosophy is: have one.

    Consider a prepared curriculum.

    When my oldest was five, I discovered AmblesideOnline, a curriculum that closely fits my philosophy. When he was six, we began with Year One. He is now finishing up Year Eight.

    You know what I have never done? Agonized over books and curriculum.

    I don’t design my own curriculum, you see, and I also rarely switch curricula.

    There is a distinct advantage to choosing a curriculum, especially when you are low-energy. Yes, some people really enjoy putting together each year of school for each individual child. If that is you, you have my blessing, especially if you find that type of activity energizing! But if you’re experiencing an energy drain just thinking about school planning, it might be time to consider a prepared curriculum.

    Be Wary of Changing Curricula.

    I’m not saying never change curricula because I once changed math programs and totally agree that sometimes changes need to be made. I’m simply saying be wary.


    Because each curriculum has its own learning curve, and learning curves drain energy.

    It’s easy to ride a bike. It’s hard to learn to ride one.

    Even if the new curriculum is similar to the old one, you’ll still have a learning curve. When we changed math curricula, for example, it took me about a year to finally feel like I understood and could easily execute the new curriculum. It took a year for the lessons to become habitual, meaning they required lower levels of energy.

    And that is the point.

    Do you really need to change your math curriculum/Latin curriculum/writing curriculum/etc.? You might. But then again you might not. Count the cost before you make the switch; try to determine if it’ll really be worth it.

    Well-Chosen Video Curricula Might Be Your Friend

    I say might because I’m a firm believer that, for most subjects, there is no way around the fact that knowledge comes from books (see above: philosophy). But, with that said, we have used a couple video curricula, we have friends who have used others, and they are useful.

    I would have liked to, for example, learn Latin and then teach my child, but he can learn a language faster than I can — his brain is more plastic and he also isn’t homeschooling four children while trying to run a household and business. That is reality.

    The two video curricula I have used in the past (and will be using again in the future with my younger children when they reach the appropriate ages) are Visual Latin and Grammar of Poetry. I haven’t tried Teaching Textbooks for math, but I have a number of friends who have and love it.

    I’m going to do a separate post on getting help and delegating, but this can really be thought of as a low level of delegation. You can even sit in on the lessons (like I have done a lot of the time), if that makes you feel better.

    Choose Co-ops Wisely

    I cannot tell you whether or not to join a co-op. I have had seasons where I’ve done co-ops, and seasons where I didn’t, and both seasons had their good and bad points — everything is a trade off, after all.

    If you are so sick or low-energy that getting out of the house is an impossibility, then doing a co-op is not for you, unless you have someone who is going to take your place in the sense of getting the children there, bringing them home, and whatever else is expected. I have done this for a friend before, so don’t rule that out, but just consider the point.

    Co-ops might be draining for you. You might be expected to teach and be on your feet. You might be drained by the social aspect. You might be called upon to bring supplies and, sister, believe me, I know when you say that even gathering the simplest of supplies feels like an insurmountable task.

    I. have. been. there.

    On the other hand, co-ops can give you a life beyond the daily grind. Beyond the depression of feeling badly all the time. They can get your mind off you and your problems and that is a very good thing. They can give you a chance to see friends or make friends during the week. They build community. You may find that while you teach only once, a number of things are taken off your plate by the other moms. And so on and so forth.

    Co-ops can be wonderful.

    So, again, count the cost. They might be for you, and they might not be. I once talked to a gal who had a chance to join a co-op at the end of the year, and I actually thought that was perfect. It was a chance to commit for a very short period of time, and after that she’d be able to make a much more informed decision about continuing the next year.

    Energy Balancing

    All of this is a balancing act. You want what is best for you children, of course. But what is “best” for them isn’t literally best for them if it causing them to have a non-functioning mother. Therefore we have to make choices. We can use our philosophy to help limit our choices, but ultimately we must also be wise as we try to navigate our commitments to curricula and co-ops. There are pros and cons to every single one, so pray for wisdom. And then make a decision. Remember that decisions deplete you, so don’t let that stage take forever — make a call. You’ll be glad you did.

    Return to the The Low-Energy Mom’s Guide to Homeschooling series index.

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  • Reply Meg May 24, 2016 at 2:24 pm

    Thank you for sharing! I have some health issues that leave me fatigued/foggy brained much of the time. I feel tremendous pressure regarding all aspects of homeschooling, and can relate to what you’re sharing. I feel relief after reading this! I struggle with letting myself “off the hook”, agonizing over whether or not I really could be doing more, and am I spending my life in service to others if I need so much rest all the time (and similar guilt inducing conversations with myself). I’m currently in the middle of agonizing over our philosophy (really mine-my otherwise wonderful husband doesn’t feel responsibility in this department and leaves everything up to me, which for me = more anxiety/pressure). I definitely love the Charlotte Mason approach, and a friend has offered to share Carole Joy Seid’s DVD series with me. I just wonder if I can pull off a CM education? We’ll be moving next May, and I actually have been considering Abeka online academy of all things (sounded easy)! I belong to a PSP, and my daughter participated in American Heritage Girls this year. That was a bit of a strain for me. My son wants to join a group as well next year. I feel guilty that they don’t get as much social interaction as they seem to desire. It’s very discouraging and depressing to want to do, but you just can’t 🙁 Sorry for the long comment! It’s nice to hear from someone who understands my struggles and to know we’re not alone in them.

  • Reply Olivia Hamilton May 14, 2016 at 9:37 pm

    I LOVE your blog! I could spend hours on it if I had extra hours to spare! This was great as I have been waffling on switching math curriculums from something expensive to something free but more time-consuming for me. And also considering a switch to Ambleside but worried I won’t have the energy to handle it properly. I also realize that I need to develop more of a philosophy than I already have! Thanks so much for your blog, it is a great inspiration and wonderful resource for me.

  • Reply Amber Vanderpol May 14, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    I am loving this series! I’ve found that my kids and I enjoy a good co-op (meaning, one that meshes with my educational philosophy!) if we don’t have to do them all. year. long. This year I did two Shakespeare studies, one in the fall and one in the spring, meeting every other month for two months. It was a nice opportunity to get together with other families and just the right amount of time not to burn me out. I’m hoping to do it again next school year too.

  • Reply Julie May 12, 2016 at 9:15 am

    Thanks so much Brandy for this wonderful post. It gave me a lot to chew on as far as coops and switching curriculum. As far as Ambleside online, I am wondering if you have any posts specifically about how many readings a child is doing a week in order to get through most of the titles in the year. My daughter is in 5th grade and we tried to do Ambleside year 3 this year. Some of the reading was really successful and others not so much!! I like the idea of sticking with Ambleside but wanted to know how you approach switching books when the chosen book that has been started doesn’t seem to be one they are really enjoying/ or is a little too difficult??!

  • Reply Catie May 11, 2016 at 7:31 pm

    I love what you said about sticking with a curriculum choice. I’ve *already* been tempted to switch our math book once or twice (we use MEP), but it makes such sense to stick with one thing and just keep plugging away. 🙂

    I really loved your podcast with Cindy, btw!

  • Reply Ann-Marie May 11, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    Thanks, Brandy! I needed this today 🙂
    We have done co-ops, but, for me, it is totally exhausting and not worth the effort. I know that probably sounds bad, but, it’s the truth. The payoff was just not worth it. We do not do co-op any more.
    I can totally identify with decision fatigue and it is exhausting, especially to us types who tend to second guess things and wind up changing curricula at times :/
    I do have to say that we too are truly enjoying video curricula. We have been using CAP LFC for a while and Dr. Perrin is an excellent magister for all of us 🙂 We’ve all loved latin and have learned quite a bit.
    I think each year I learn a little bit more about what work best for us.

  • Reply Joy May 11, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    So true. We’ve gone through seasons of being able to do co-ops and seasons when we just can’t. It’s pretty obvious to me now when which is which- it usually starts with my internal attitude towards it. This year, with all of my children’s hospitalizations, it was simply logistically impossible, even though I think we might have enjoyed it.

    Also, along the lines of video curriculum, I am very, very grateful for the ladies at Ambleside who went and found (and linked!) the many Librivox titles for each year. We wouldn’t have survived the last two years without the audiobook option!

  • Reply Chelsey May 11, 2016 at 11:25 am

    Great advice! We are just started our homeschool journey. I was having so much fun planning out the year. Then once we got into it, I realised how much stuff I had planned for one day. (My oldest is in kindergarten). It was a crazy amount of stuff for my fun loving, playful five-year-old. I scratched everything a couple months in and bought My Father’s World. It has been such a fun gentle approach to our homeschooling. Plus I just have to check stuff off and not worry about if I planned enough. I’ll go ahead and post this comment so I can go back and read the rest of your posts in this series!

    • Reply Dawn June 6, 2016 at 3:22 pm

      We are doing My Father’s World as well. This will be our 4th year with it. Love it.

  • Reply Meghan May 11, 2016 at 11:12 am

    “A day can wreck a week when you’re a low-energy mom.”

    Yes–and this was my problem this whole past year. I committed to tutoring in a homeschool community, really ended up hating it, and just the three hours one day a week was enough to knock me out for the rest of the week. When I was initially thinking about this coming year, I had very fatalistic thoughts, like “This is just gonna be horrible again. I’m gonna do another terrible job, so I should just quit.” Then I realized, wait a second, I’m not tutoring anymore, wahooooooo! I think it will make a tremendous difference. I’m still hoping to get together with another like-minded homeschooling family on a regular basis, but it won’t require nearly as much from me.

  • Reply Angelique May 11, 2016 at 8:59 am

    The title gave me a good laugh. :). I am a big nerd who enjoys planning, tweaking, etc. but co-ops are awful for me. I actually started one (fun to plan! Lol) but had to quit after a few months because the classroom management and coordinating with the other moms was killing me. Luckily it was pretty small scale so it didn’t screw things up too bad for everyone else when I quit.
    I second the video classes. We love Song School Latin.
    On a related note, make sure it’s your philo that you’re adhering to, not someone else’s and don’t forget to factor in your real self, your real life, your real kids. In the beginning I stressed myself out way too much worrying about if I was being a “real” CMer or unschooler or classical educator…I made an idol of it.

    • Reply Ann-Marie May 11, 2016 at 12:42 pm

      Angelique, by idol, if you mean spent way too much time and energy worrying about what to do and how to do it, I totally am right there with you!

  • Reply Monica Fearnside May 11, 2016 at 8:32 am

    Words cannot adequately express how grateful I am for this series! Lots of health issues, pregnancies, and stress over the course of many years have left me so depleted. Often I have blamed myself for being lazy, not diligent enough, not organized enough, etc. Reading these blog posts has been a breath of fresh air. There are other mothers who struggle with low energy! It’s been a wonderful reminder to me that God will be faithful to equip me for this great task of homeschooling and mothering, to which he has clearly called me.

    So, thank you Brandy! I look forward, with eager anticipation, to the rest of this series.

  • Reply Charlotte mom May 11, 2016 at 7:26 am

    Thank you so much for this!! Really really found this useful!
    I’m having a little decision fatigue about choosing a math curriculum.
    We are about to start year 0 in the fall. One friend gave me the first two years of steck Vaughn for free. . . I have another friend who had already given me Math their way with all the manipulatives, but a veteran homeschooling mom who I really admire strongly recommended Right Start. Many of my blogging mentors use math U See. For a low energy mom, this decision has been really draining.

    • Reply Diana May 12, 2016 at 4:58 am

      Thank you for this post! Very good advice. What ages have worked for you to start your children in Visual Latin? I have a rising 4th grader and I’m trying to discern if 4-5-6th grade would be the best fit.

      • Reply Brandy Vencel May 12, 2016 at 2:31 pm

        I *tried* starting VL in fourth grade with my oldest, but found that because I had done no grammar before that, it didn’t work very well. SO we took a term or two off, worked on getting a basic grasp of grammar (I mean very basic: like what nouns and verbs are) and then started again at the end of fourth grade. With my girls, we are starting VL next year; they will be in 4th and 6th grade, and we will go slowly. I did a bit of grammar with them this year, so I’m hoping that was sufficient for starting the program. 🙂

        • Reply Diana May 12, 2016 at 2:33 pm

          Thank you – this is helpful!

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