Tuesday, August 16, 2011

To Buy or Not to Buy: That is the Homeschooling Curriculum Question

We're less than two weeks from the beginning of our school year and I am in major planning mode. I'm printing forms for our binders, getting books set on the shelves, planning lessons, and just generally getting excited about the continuation of our learning journey. Not that the journey really stopped in the summer, but we did take a good, long break from routine. The sweet girl enjoyed six weeks of arts camp, a week-long VBS, and some days in New England during our unexpected family time there. We've still got our family's end of summer mini-vacation ahead, but to all intents and purposes, summer is winding down.

This is usually the time of year when I'm either patting myself on the back because of wise and prudent homeschooling purchases/planning, or groaning because I either goofed something up, neglected to purchase something we still really need, or spent too much on something I ended up wishing I hadn't bought. This year it's actually a combination of all those things, which led me to think a blog post on homeschool curriculum buying (or not buying) might be a good thing.

I am generally the queen of frugal when it comes to homeschool purchases. I have to be, because we're broke (not a joke or exaggeration...it's been true for a while, but it's grown especially true with the recent loss of one job whose significant income has yet to be replaced). Even if I didn't have to be this frugal, however, I suspect I would be anyway, and not just because I'm Scottish! There are so many wonderful learning resources our there, but not every single one is a necessary purchase. And while sometimes the only way you can figure that out is to buy it and hope, other times you can find ways to figure out in advance if a book, curriculum or other resource is right for you and your family.

As we head into our 5th year of homeschooling on the thinnest of shoestrings, I thought I'd pass along a few tips I've picked up along the way.

First off, repeat after me.

Public libraries are your friends.

I know this sounds obvious, but it bears repeating. It's not just that you can find wonderful books, audio and video resources at the library -- and you can. A good library catalog can be a huge aid in homeschool planning. Here are a few ways I like to put our excellent library catalog to use:

~Researching keywords and topics. If I know in advance some of the areas the sweet girl will be studying in history, science, and art (and I do) then keyword searches often turn up excellent resources, including many I've never heard of. If your library catalog system is sophisticated enough, you can search not just "all libraries" within a system but "all juvenile" collections. Refining that way can be very helpful on certain topics, though in the realm of art and music (when you just want to look at great pictures and listen to great composers) searching the whole system is a plus.

~Searching by author. If you fall in love with a given author on a topic, cross-search and see what else they've done. We've found some wonderful things this way!

~Use that hold shelf! Most libraries will allow you to request things from other libraries within the county's system and have them delivered to the hold shelf at your particular library.

~Use ILL. If the system doesn't have a resource, you can go outside the system via inter-library loan and get books sent to you from libraries around the country. This service sometimes requires a nominal fee, though not usually. (And you can usually mark on the ILL form whether or not you're willing to pay for a resource.)

~Borrow first, buy later (if at all). Say you've fallen in love with an online curriculum package but you know you can't afford to buy it. You jot down with pen and paper (or via delicious bookmarks) the books you think would be especially good for your homeschool year. Next step, see if the library has them. Not planning to use them until October? No matter. Borrow them now and discover if they're resources you really want to use. If they are, evaluate them to see if they're something you actually need to own. If the book is chock full of good stuff and you could see yourself needing to continually consult it, refer your child to it, or otherwise use it for a significant portion of the year, you may want to go on and buy it. If it's simply a book you think you could get a good one or two time use out of, and the library has it, then be prepared to request it and have it sent to your hold shelf in time for that portion of your studies. Holds can sometimes come in quickly, but once in a while they don't, so if it's an important enough resource that you know you really want to use it for a given project or unit, put the request through at least two weeks in advance.

Sometimes I discover that a book itself is not something we absolutely need to own, but the book may lead me to other books I didn't know about. Or (in the case of internet-linked books, like those in the Usborne series) I may check the book out of the library for a few weeks, bookmark the websites they refer to, and then return the book. I've begun using the delicious website to bookmark learning sites and tag them for different subjects/units/years, which helps me keep track of what we want to do when.

Besides utilizing the library like crazy, I do have a few other tips.

Don't buy anything on a whim.

Again, sounds obvious, but it's helpful. I probably overthink my buying choices, but I usually find the results are better when I do. I actually bought two things "on a whim" this year, highly unusual for me, and I now definitely regret one purchase and may yet regret the other (though am still hoping to eke something good from it).

It's particularly important that you don't buy on a whim if you don't have very good technology (and folks on a budget often don't) and are looking to purchase downloadable curriculum. PDF files, videos, zip files, MP3s, podcasts -- they're all the rage right now. But these visual and audio resources are only convenient and helpful for you if you can actually take advantage of them. If your computer is old and slow, as mine is, small curriculum resources (manageable sized PDFs, etc.) might be fine to purchase, but larger things are going to give you a big headache. Believe me!

Another trend I'm beginning to see is purchasing access to resources on a site. Sometimes this is an excellent idea, but I still urge caution. Use a website thoroughly before you purchase access rights. Make sure it has a lot of resources you need and that they're organized in a way that's easy to navigate. I purchased access on a website earlier this year which looked great on the surface, but I'm finding less of use than I expected, and it's not in very good order. Nine times out of ten, I find myself going to a similar site that has tons of FREE resources -- a site I already knew and loved. I should have stuck with it and figured out ways to create my own resources for the stuff I couldn't find.

Don't be afraid to take time or to get creative. Or to ask for what you need!

I know lots of homeschool curricula that tell you they've taken all the work out of things for you so you'll have more time. And that can be wonderful. I don't blame them for trying to sell time and convenience, especially since most of us need it. On the other hand, sometimes it's OK if you decide to forgo the pretty package and look into buying that handful of books used from online vendors. It's true -- it might take you two hours and you might only save twelve dollars, but sometimes saving twelve dollars is necessary. And sometimes you may find yourself learning a few things in the process of searching. (On the other hand, don't torture yourself with false guilt if you're having the kind of week...month...year...where time feels so precious that you really need those two hours more than the twelve dollars and decide to buy the pretty package.)

And guess what? That science curriculum you thought looked so cool, the one you couldn't afford to buy? They just might have free sample pages of their workbook. Download them. Study them. Figure out what you can utilize in your own learning environment. I did that last year and ended up creating some nice experiment notebooking pages that worked so much better for our needs than anything pre-packaged could have. I felt so grateful to that company for making some of their materials free, because those materials gave me great ideas. So if you like a certain company's products and ideas, spend time on their website. Order their catalog. Pick their brains. Literally. Many homeschool vendors are families who have been right where you are now. Send them an email. Ask questions. Sometimes they are willing to go above and beyond...they'll answer your questions, suggest resources, point you to their blog (that you may not have known about) or do all other manner of things to help you encourage learning for your kids. The homeschool world, in all its diversity, can be a pretty charitable and encouraging place.

And oh, that's another great part of homeschooling planning.

Swap and share.

You've probably got resources you're not using anymore, either because your kids have outgrown them or they weren't a good fit for your family. Find another family and bless them with those things, either by loaning or giving. Or look for buying/selling boards in a local homeschool group or an online forum. And don't be afraid to ask other homeschooling families if you can borrow. I have friends who have kept me going, in very lean years, by the judicious loan of books and CDs right when I needed them. Sometimes I've up and asked friends if I can borrow something. One year when I simply could not purchase our math curriculum teacher's guides, and couldn't imagine pushing through the year without them (I can be a chicken when it comes to math teaching) I asked a friend if I could borrow her guides. She had children older and younger than mine, and it turned out she didn't need that particular year right then. She was happy to do it. (Just make sure you set aside a "borrowed" shelf, or keep a catalog list of what you've borrowed, so you can return things when done.)

Keeping an eye out for sales and giveaways (through blogs or FB) is always helpful. Sometimes you might also be able to barter or work for resources. I'm a review writer and that has helped me a lot. Maybe there's a company that has a new product. Would you be willing to review it for them? Ask. They might give it to you free or at low cost in exchange for an honest review. Or they might have customer review rewards already in place.

I've ventured far afield! But I hope at least a few of these ideas might spark something for you if you're homeschooling on a budget. If you are, and if you have thoughts, ideas, or questions, I hope you'll leave me a comment.


E Louise Bates said...

This is a great post! (Speaking of bookmarking things to browse later ... this one is going into my "school" bookmark folder.) I grew up homeschooled, in an era where there were hardly any homeschooling resources or curriculum, and those that did exist were far beyond my family's meager expenses. The library and our local homeschool group were our best friends! In our group, one mother taught French; another art; one, a silversmith, gave lessons in working with metals (and ended up apprenticing my older sister, who went on to form her own business making and selling silver jewelry!); one formed a drama group among the children. While it is WONDERFUL that we homeschooling parents have so many ready-to-hand resources available to us now, I still find myself drawn first to the library, and then to other homeschooling parents, when I start thinking about starting "official" homeschooling (as opposed to the unofficial preschool-type stuff we're doing now) in a couple of years. Vive creativity!

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Beth said...

E. Louise, glad you enjoyed the post! I didn't realize you'd grown up homeschooled -- how wonderful that you have that experience to draw on as you work with your own little ones. And it's true, there's such a wealth of resources at our fingertips now, but that doesn't take the place of the good, old-fashioned resources like libraries and co-op communities. Sounds like you had a wonderful one!