Our Curriculum (Part Two)

Last week I wrote about four components of our school curriculum, namely math, Latin, geography, and art. If you didn’t get to see that article, you can view it here. Now I’m back to expound on our other subjects: history, writing, and botany. Let’s get started.

Our history curriculum is one that Mom has pieced together herself. We started by reading a couple pages of Herodotus together each day, with one person reading a section aloud. Now, however, Gordon and I read assigned passages ourselves, underlining anything we find interesting or important (I use a multitude of colored pencils to keep my notes organized), and filling out the answers to questions Mom writes out for us. We read related sections of the Bible, as well; for example, we accompanied our reading about Cyrus in Herodotus with the prophecies concerning him in Isaiah.


For writing we work through the Susan Wise Bower’s Writing With Skill book. Each lesson has a reading assignment and then either review or something new. Say you’re doing some review on outlining: you would write a simple outline of whatever it was that you read. It’s a good program which, though it starts very easily, gets gradually more challenging over time.


Finally, botany. Our method of study in this branch of science has changed throughout time, so I’ll start with how we started.

Twice a week we would draw a new plant family and list its characteristics, practicing until we knew the traits of the eight most common families by heart. We would go out somewhere and draw what we saw, learning how to tell what it was and listing its properties. We read passages on the subject and submitted to quizzes.


Eventually, though, we arrived in Orlando, Florida; the number one spot for full-time RVers over the winter. In fact, we currently have nine or ten families of our friends staying in the area. So naturally, Mom organized a class to teach botany to any interested teenagers while we’re here. It occurs once a week, on Thursdays specifically, and on the most crowded day there were over twenty kids attending.


We draw a plant in botany – perhaps corn or a carrot – and while we work on our art we learn more about the plant that we’re drawing. We write down scientific phrases and their meanings, and answer questions.

Everybody has fun. In one lesson we made a dichotomous key – a tool used by botanists to identify plants. Except for ours helped us to identify some friends of ours with a very large family; it was great, because everybody in the class was familiar with these friends, and helped to come up with criteria to decipher one from the others. Afterwards, we settled down to create our own dichotomous keys. Mom had intended to have us make a chart for roses, but upon our begging she proved lenient and allowed us to come up with our own themes. I focused my key around the Weasley family from Harry Potter, as I’m a total nerd.

It turned out to be quite entertaining, and when I got home I began work on a giant dichotomous key concerning all fifty states. I finished the next day, after some confusion and deliberation, and lots of learning.


I do hope you enjoyed discovering our curriculum, and if you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask. It has been my ambition to be helpful in your search for just the right course of study, and hopefully I have achieved my goal.

Our Curriculum (Part One)

A while back I wrote a post on what (and how) we study, but we’ve since updated our curriculum in many ways, so I thought I’d write up an update on our studies for those of you who don’t know. I’d like to talk in depth about each lesson we do, so I’m splitting this post up into two so it doesn’t get too long.

We don’t use any one program, though there are lots of those to choose from. Instead, Mom has pieced together a careful curriculum that fits our needs best. We study math, geography, art, Latin, writing, history, and botany, and use a different format for each subject, allowing us to get what we need out of the lessons. So let’s start going over those subjects.


Math. For math we use an internet program called Khan Academy. It’s a fairly simple site, but quite well-organized and useful. Not only does Khan Academy offer math for grades K-8, algebra, calculus, trigonometry, geometry, and statistics, you can also study science, computer programming, history, grammar, music, economics, and test prep. But let’s get back to math.

The format is arranged in such a way that you work on one skill until you have gotten five problems correct in a row. Then you move on to the next skill, and so on. Every so often you receive a “Mastery Challenge,” testing you on the skills you’ve worked on. Your prowess at a skill is rated by level, so one type of problem could be on any one of five levels. They are: “not practiced” (meaning you haven’t begun to work on it), “practiced” (you’ve gotten five in a row right), “level one” (you’ve gotten that sort of problem right in a Mastery Challenge twice), “level two” (you’ve gotten that sort of problem right in a Mastery Challenge four times), and “mastered” (you can complete that skill correctly every time). Even when a skill is mastered, it’s sometimes brought back in a Mastery Challenge to make sure you remember how to do it.


The only trouble with Khan is a sometimes-exasperating teaching method. If you can’t get a problem right, you can either watch a video explaining the general formula, or get hints that tell you step-by-step how to complete the particular problem you’re stuck on. But the exasperation comes with the videos: they’re always teaching you how to do the simpler version of the problem you’re doing, and really aren’t any help at all. I was ready to quit Khan Academy and use something else (maybe Teaching Textbooks), but then I discovered that what I thought was an aggravating mistake was actually a popular teaching method used by the most elite schools. The general idea is that you have to figure it out yourself. You have to try your absolute best at working out the problem, and if you still can’t get it then you open up the hints and go through them slowly and carefully, understanding where you messed up and learning the techniques. The knowledge that the aim of this method is to develop a problem-solving ability gives me the patience to work through what seemed at first like useless difficulties.


Geography & Art. American geography is a subject that would be hard to avoid, given our lifestyle, but world geography is where a curriculum comes in handy. We use Ellen Johnston McHenry’s Mapping the World with Art, a fun program that teaches you how to draw different countries (Greece, Italy, Spain), as well as famous bodies of water (the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Sea of Galilee), with an end goal of drawing the whole world from memory. The program is designed to allow even the worst artists (er, me) to draw things that look how they’re supposed to. The instructions are mostly quite simple, though I’ll admit drawing Greece made me rather want to stab somebody (preferably Ms. Ellen McHenry, but anyone would do).


When we do this lesson, Mom usually draws up each step on our dry-erase board, so that we can see it well. Gordon and I use Palomino Blackwing art pencils, and incredibly nice Micron pens designed not to smear, to trace over our work once we’ve finished.


Latin. We’ve studied Latin for six years, I believe, and the whole time we’ve used Memoria Press. This curriculum has lesson plans for some other subjects as well, but we’ve never used those.
Our Latin studies are fairly straightforward. We learn new vocabulary words, recite conjugations and declensions, groan over ever-growing lists of bazaar grammar rules, learn about exceptions to rules we thought were constant, study word order, translate sentences, scour the textbooks for pronunciations, and call the Memoria Press people to ask what on earth they mean; in short, Latin’s the hardest subject we study.

But that doesn’t stop us from pressing on, and by now I have a pretty good understanding of the language; I know hundreds of Latin words, and I can decline the nouns and conjugate the verbs, and put all the parts of a sentence into their proper orders, with personal pronouns and tenses and adjectives that match the noun which they modify in “person, number, and case, but not declension.” And yet, I still couldn’t talk to you only in Latin. So I’ll keep studying.

Don’t forget to come back next Monday to learn how we learn writing, history, and botany!