Please note that we are a secular family. If you are looking for religious-based materials, then this is not the post for you.
Please also note that we homeschool for mainly academic reasons. I have high standards when it comes to my children's education, and I believe children are capable of as much as you expect of them. Hugh and I want our kids educated to international standards; therefore, in my research, I have always looked at what kids their age around the world are learning. When you look at the academic performance of children across the globe, American standards are terribly low. Therefore, the below reflects our desire to give our children a solid, globally-competitive, thorough education in all the core courses. The below does NOT reflect a Tiger Mom mentality -- Alex and Sage have art classes, they get tons of physical exercise, they spend lots of time in academic/social clubs and at playdates, and they have sleepovers on a regular basis. After all, the key to a happy and healthy life is balance. We adjust and move things around as needed to ensure everyone is doing well 1) emotionally and 2) academically.
Right now (December 2016), Alex is, by age, a 8th grader and Sage is, by age, a 6th grader.
EDIT -- SEPTEMBER 2017 -- SEE THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE FOR RECENT UPDATES
Our methods and materials, then and now.
Until last year (2015), I used a layered approach to math. Meaning, the girls did two different curricula simultaneously, plus they did a tiny bit of daily review via workbooks. It sounds like a lot, but the total time involved averaged one and a half hours a day, five days a week. This layered approach introduced difficult concepts multiple times, while keeping the girls grounded in the basics so those basics eventually became second nature. Now, both girls concentrate their efforts on one specific math program each, though both take/will take two math courses at a time (see below).
Miquon Math, Singapore Math (Standards edition and, later, New Elementary Math), Critical Thinking, and Art of Problem Solving
Miquon Math -- Sage used Miquon from the age of 3 until she was 5. Sage has always been a math-y kid, and she loves working with her hands. Miquon can be used with a lot of manipulatives, and it gives nice, hands-on, practical methods of understanding very early concepts. The workbooks are not intuitive, so definitely buy the teacher's manual if you use this program. Sage enjoyed it -- it did not seem like work to her, and she was happy to be "doing school" while her older sister did her own workbooks. I used this with her because she felt left out while her older sister did her own work. It was a wonderful bunch of workbooks and Sage had fun going through them.
Singapore Math, Standards edition -- Singapore was one of the best homeschooling decisions I ever made. It provided both my kids with what I feel is an excellent foundation, and now both girls are ahead in math by two (Alex) and three (Sage) grade levels. Singapore is thorough and it makes everything easy to understand.
Alex started with the Singapore Earlybird Series when she was 5, then continued through their 1A-6B series over the years. During 2014-2015, while she took 6A and 6B, she simultaneously took PreAlgebra with Art of Problem Solving (AoPS, see below). Last year, while she took AoPS Algebra, she worked her way through her last Singapore book, New Elementary Mathematics 2. NEM 2 is a combination of algebra and geometry.
Sage switched to Singapore 2A from Miquon when she was five (Sage has always been advanced for her age with math -- she loves the subject). She finished 6A and 6B last year while simultaneously taking Art of Problem Solving's PreAlgebra course.
Art of Problem Solving - I am in love with this program. Created and run by Ivy and top tech school professors and graduates, I don't think there is a more thorough or more reputable math program out there for kids at and above the PreAlgebra level. Accredited online classes are offered in every math topic up until and including Calculus, plus there are weekend workshops for those preparing to take AMC exams. There are also coding/programming courses in Python. AMC students regularly win prestigious national math exams, and college admissions folks know and respect the AoPS brand.
Alex and Sage both enjoy the challenge of AoPS, and they also enjoy the social aspect. Once you are part of the AoPS family, you can visit forums and chat areas within the system. Both girls are making online, math-minded friends with whom they chat on a regular basis.
Alex -- Alex took PreAlgebra 1 and 2 in 2014 while she worked through her Singapore 6A and 6B books. Holy cow. This was, in the beginning, the most challenging course she had yet undertaken. AoPS does not simply teach you tricks and give you math problems. It delves deep into the hows and whys of everything, and it gives the students problems completely expecting the students not to get them right the first few times. It's about learning how to struggle through difficult problems while applying what you know. Grades are based on how well you do the homework. You don't have to get the homework right the first time -- AoPS expects you to struggle and persevere before you eventually get it right. I remember Hugh and I sitting with Alex one afternoon while she worked through a particularly tough question. She asked for help, so Hugh and I sat there and tried to help her...and failed. Neither the MIT Biomechanics Professor (Hugh) nor the Harvard bio anthro/evolutionary biology graduate (me) could figure it out. Alex finally did, after she realized the logic behind the problem. She came at the problem in a different way than Hugh and I had, using AoPS reasoning...and she got it right while Hugh and I were still scratching our heads.
Alex then took Intro to Algebra A, which is similar to a high school advanced algebra 1 course, and Intro to Counting and Probability. She did very well, but, for reasons having to do with scheduling, decided to do VLACS for Algebra 2 and Geometry this year (she is taking both concurrently). She finds the Common Core- inspired public charter school curriculum extremely easy after AoPS. She may decide to jump back into AoPS for PreCalculus next year, or she may stick with VLACS since she will be taking two AP courses next year and therefore might appreciate a less rigorous math curriculum.
Sage -- Sage is currently taking Intro to Algebra A with AoPS. So far, she does not find AoPS to be as challenging as Alex used to, but Sage has always been particularly adept at math and I think this program will prove to be right up her alley. She will likely take Intro to Algebra B (Algebra 2) and Intro to Counting and Probability concurrently beginning in January (when she finishes Algebra A). Next year, she'll likely take AoPS's Intro to Geometry course as a 7th grader and then PreCalculus as an 8th grader. This sequence will have her in AP Calculus as a freshman, and then she will be free to explore whatever specific math courses beyond calculus she feels she'd like to study. At that point, we will probably look into Harvard Extension School for Sage's math courses.
Critical Thinking -- this company offers workbooks in a variety of subjects. The girls did a few of the Mathematical Reasoning books over the past few years. These workbooks served to remind the girls of the fundamentals while they made their way through their other, more advanced courses/workbooks.
Finding secular materials for science is difficult for the non-religious homeschooler. For Pre-K through 2nd grade, I patched together my own curriculum using a variety of sources. Let's Read and Find Out Science books, Magic School Bus books/DVDs. Janice VanCleave's labs/books, frequent trips to science museums, and lots of outside play and nature observation did the trick. For third grade (Sage) and 5th grade (Alex), we went through the Real Science 4 Kids series and What's Biology/Chemistry/Physics All About books.
Sage -- Once Sage was in 4th grade (2014-2015), I signed her up with a local lab science course for homeschoolers near Boston (at the wonderful Innovation Institute in Newton). Sage took Chemistry for Human Body Systems with kids in 4th-6th grade and loved it. She also took a 6th grade online course through New Hampshire's virtual public school, VLACS (Virtual Learning Academy Charter School). Sage is enthusiastic about math and science, so she enjoyed both the online course and the in-person lab course. Last year, she took another lab course at the center near Boston (Molecular Biology for middle school kids), and she skipped up to the 8th grade science course with VLACS. This year, she's taking high school biology honors and high school astronomy through VLACS, along with a BioChem course at Innovation Institute. She is in heaven, since math and science are her strong suits.
Alex -- In 2014, when Alex was in 6th grade, she took the in-person Molecular Biology course that Sage took last year. She also took the 7th grade online science course through VLACS. Last year, Alex took (in-person) physics for middle school kids at the Innovation Institute, and she skipped 8th grade science to take high school Biology Honors through VLACS. She got an A and is now taking high school Chemistry Honors through VLACS while taking BioChem with her sister at Innovation Institute.
For the future -- We are fortunate to have an excellent state public charter school (VLACS). We will therefore continue to use the science courses in VLACS and the in-person lab classes near Boston until the girls are ready for AP classes. VLACS offers AP classes, and we will likely use at least one, but I would also like the girls to use the AP classes offered by PA Homeschoolers. PA Homeschoolers AP online classes have a stellar reputation, and their students receive mostly 5s on the AP exams. VLACS also has a great reputation for AP classes, therefore, will will likely use a combination of the two providers. College courses are also a possibility.
A word of advice -- start foreign language exposure/instruction as early as possible. I strongly feel this makes life easier for the child in the long run.
Foreigners make fun of Americans because we don't grow up speaking multiple languages. To them, I say this -- our country is huge...it's not a small nation with other, different-language-speaking nations clustered all around it. Unless we happen to live close to the border with Mexico or Quebec, we have to travel great lengths to be immersed in a language other than English; attaining fluency in a foreign language takes much greater effort for us than it does for, say, the European (who can usually drive two hours to cross a border and be immersed in a foreign tongue).
Since we can't easily immerse ourselves on a continual basis in a foreign language, we must turn to computer programs, DVDs, and CDs (unless you have a member of the family who speaks another language fluently...then you can have that person be around your child as often as possible).
In the early years (Pre-K and K), I borrowed every DVD and CD I could get my hands on from the library, and I bought gently used foreign language programs. Really, anything, in any language I could find. I played a half hour's worth of CDs or DVDs of various languages (Spanish, Italian, French, German, and Mandarin), one language at a time, for each girl while they were ages two through four. By the age of five, it was clear which language Alex gravitated toward -- Spanish. She liked listening to that particular language the best, she would hum tunes and try to repeat more words of that language, etc. For Sage, it was Mandarin. Note that this throw-everything-at-them-and-see-what-sticks method was casual. I just played the CD/s DVDs for them and paid attention to what they seemed to prefer.
Once Alex seemed centered on Spanish, I bought a used Muzzy video and an instruction guide. Muzzy is an ancient foreign language program, but Alex liked it. I would play fifteen minutes a day, and gently go over some of the instruction suggestions. It was a casual thing, and we did this until she was seven years old. After she turned seven, I purchased Visual Link Spanish for our computer. She casually did Visual Link until she was 9, and then I started her on Pimsleur. She did, and still does, Pimsleur for half an hour a day, two or three days a week. In 2014, she took high school Spanish 1 through VLACS -- almost all of it was review for her at that point. She is now doing high school Spanish 3 through VLACS, as well as a Spanish 3 course through PA Homeschoolers (with 4Ray Leven). Alex will take high school Spanish 3 next year with Ray Leven, and then, as a 10th grader, she will take AP Spanish through PA Homeschoolers. After AP Spanish, she'll take college Spanish courses. Spanish is Alex's favorite subject by far -- she loves speaking it, and so everything she's done with Spanish has never felt like work to her.
Sage focused on Mandarin, which is cool...but she didn't like the Mandarin version of Muzzy, so I had to find other methods for her. She watched and enjoyed the Jade and Mei Mei DVDs for a couple of years, and then I bought Rosetta Stone for Mandarin. She felt so-so about Rosetta Stone...last year, she said she didn't want to do it anymore. She likes learning Mandarin, but she doesn't like the Rosetta Stone method. Last year, she did a Middlebury Interactive middle school course for Mandarin -- she liked this program much better than Rosetta Stone. This year, she is using CTY Online (one must test to get into CTY programs -- see the website for details). CTY Online's Mandarin is EXCELLENT. Lots of private teacher time (through Skype) and online class time. However, it is expensive!
Many of the programs mentioned above are expensive. Before you purchase directly from the vendor, check your library, local swap shop, Craig's list, etc. to see if you can get a gently used version for free/almost free. CTY Online is going to be expensive, period, as one can't get any version of that for free. They do have scholarships, though -- again, check out CTY's website for details.
Again, I highly recommend starting foreign language as early as possible, even if it's very casual. I can't imagine entering my high school years and being thrown into a foreign language for the first time. By starting everything early (and playfully!) while the child is very young, you minimize the amount of stress and difficulty in the high school years.
I say all this because I sincerely believe it -- but of course, I am one person and I am describing what has worked for my kids. Others have their own opinions. I am not pretending to be an expert, I'm just stating my strong beliefs. Your mileage may vary.
I have to admit -- history is not my strong suit. I was bored by history in K-12, and I took zero history classes in college/grad school. My goal for Alex and Sage is for them to find history interesting and relevant to today's society. I also want them ready for the high school history courses they must take; I want those classes to feel like a review for them and not something brand-new and overwhelming.
Note that, in this subject as in most of the others, I rely heavily on online courses or curricula put together by others. Thank goodness for that. One of the silly misconceptions about homeschooling is that you have to know everything your child is going to learn. Not at all! You do need to be resourceful, however. Weed through everything that's out there -- Kahn Academy, Connections Academy, VLACS, FLVS, CTY Online, Thinkwell, Study.com, etc. etc. etc. -- and find what works best for you, your child, and your family's educational goals.
World History -- I used/use Story of the World (SOTW). This is a simplified version of world history, and yes, it does have a Christian tinge to it here and there. I found it easy to modify or skip the blatantly religious bits, though (of which there are not many). One can buy activity books for SOTW, but we didn't/don't use them. All I did -- and continue to do -- is read a chapter a day and show the girls where on the map all the events are taking place. When we finish the series, we start all over again. Yes, the reading is geared toward elementary/lower middle school, but I think it's enough material to give the girls a decent introduction. To supplement SOTW, we watch documentaries on whatever aspects of world history to which the girls take a particular fancy. We've also greatly enjoyed John Green's Crash Course World History. Again, all of this is meant to be a happy and interesting introduction to what they will eventually cover through VLACS (our state's public virtual charter school) and/or AP classes (through PA Online Homeschoolers). For folks who don't have access/don't want to use VLACS or PA Homeschoolers, there is: Kahn Academy, MIT OpenCourseWare, Clonlara, Time4Learning, Oak Meadow, etc. etc. etc.
American History -- I took the same approach to American history as I did to world history -- read a chapter of something to the girls every day, and watch documentaries/online lessons (and sometimes listen to podcasts) about the bits the girls found particularly interesting. Our books have included: Jennifer Armstrong's The American Story and Joy Hakim's The History of Us (excellent, excellent series -- I highly recommend!), plus a smattering of children's books on various historical figures. Our podcast listening was mostly tagging on to a Texas university's site that correlated with American History 101 in that particular college. I found it by accident; it was available to the public online for free, so we listened for a few months, just fifteen minutes at a time (it was a podcast for a college class, after all). I can't find it out there now, unfortunately. There are, however, other history podcasts online -- do a search and see if anything seems interesting and appropriate for your child. The documentaries we've watched have been many..we've watched whatever titles happened to interest my kids. Once my kids reach high school (for Alex, that's next year), they'll take an honors American History course through VLACS or, depending on how ambitious they feel and what else they have on their plates, APUSH through AP Homeschoolers.
Again, as with world history, our American history overview was/is to prepare them for the accredited courses they will take at the high school level.
Civics -- Again, not my strong suit. Have to say I have done almost nothing in the way of civics instruction until last year. Alex took Civics last year through VLACS. She learned a ton and found it all quite interesting. I am grateful to our online charter for covering this topic so thoroughly. Sage will take the same course next year.
Geography is covered through world history. Also, I have puzzles of each continent; I have the girls put them together from time to time. We also talk -- a lot -- about what's going on in the world, and we have world maps on the walls of our home.
Psychology/Anthropology/etc. -- Since these aren't seen as core topics, we don't officially study these, or any other, social sciences. We do naturally talk a lot about whatever comes up that happens to fall into those categories, though. Part of the beauty of homeschooling is that you are around your child a good deal of the time. Talk to your kids, honestly, about whatever. They retain a ton, without even trying. The girls take standardized tests each year (I administer the ITBS), and they do not study ahead of time. Every time they have taken the social studies portion, there have been questions we have never officially touched upon but that they already understood and to which they already knew the answer, simply due to us talking about life and whatnot on an ongoing and regular basis.
In my opinion, the best thing one can do to for this overall category is read. Read, read, read. Read to your kids, and have them read on their own. There's a caveat, however. The books must be well-written. As in, no Disney versions of Winnie-the-Pooh -- have them read the original A.A. Milne. Want the story of the Jungle Book? Go straight to Rudyard Kipling's writing. I have always been strict about this. The girls are allowed to read anything they want on their own time. On "schooltime," however, it's real, unabridged, classic books only. We also do not see any movie until we've first read the book.
You might think a kid doesn't have the attention span for classic children's literature. If they're used to watching television and reading nothing but watered-down Disney books, then you'd be right. If you start while they're young, however, and if you read to them with enthusiasm and interest, then they will grow up used to hearing beautifully written sentences and interpreting difficult vocabulary words.
One thing, though -- classic literature is deep, and, sometimes, violent. Ever read the original Pinnochio? Good Lord, that would make an excellent Tarantino film. Want to cry your heart out? Read The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Want a book that will have you and your children talking about who is moral and who isn't, and about what exactly is fair and natural and what exactly is perverse and obscene? Read Frankenstein. I could go on and on. I have loved discussing the books the girls have read, and that I've read to them (for I still do, at the breakfast table...it's a tradition now).
The above being said, I'll describe more specifically what has worked for us, what works for us now, and what I think the girls will likely need in the near future.
Reading/Literature (in addition to the above)
Alex started to read on her own right before she turned three. I never had to actively teach her anything. I just handed her books that were progressively more difficult as she got older. She chooses what she likes now. She is currently on an Agatha Christie kick, and she is reading Shakepeare's Julius Caesar.
Sage was a late talker and, I thought at the time, a late reader. Actually, she was completely age-appropriate, but since all I had to compare her with was Alex, I thought she was delayed. When she was three, we gently did Letter of the Week to help her with letter recognition, and I bought a CD and the refrigerator magnets of the Letter People. I also bought some non-hardening clay and had Sage form the letters of the alphabet each week (she loved that, and she now takes clay classes at a local studio).
As Sage got older, we progressed to early readers in whatever topic she found most interesting. Once she got to the point where she was reading the words off the trail signs at intersections while we hiked (she was about six at this point), I began reading A.A. Milne and Beatrix Potter with her (we'd take turns reading sentences). She became a fluent reader around the age of 7, and then her reading took off. It was like a switch went off inside her head -- she went through the Harry Potter series when she was 8, and at 9 went through the Inkheart trilogy and the Hunger Games trilogy (on her own time, those weren't "schoolwork" books -- though I do think both series are well-written). She read The Diary of Anne Frank a couple months ago -- she just finished The Wizard of Oz and I am not sure what she will choose next. She'll pick something for school after Christmas break -- she is currently reading a teen novel for fun.
Both girls -- Handwriting Without Tears. Excellent set of workbooks. This series not only teaches handwriting (print and cursive), it also delves into grammar and spelling. I still have both girls do a bit of cursive writing every day, so they don't lose the skill.
Both girls - Sequential Spelling. Easy, relatively painless, effective. This series teaches common patterns, and there is very little stress. You read a word, the child writes it down, you correct it if it's wrong, and you move on to the next word. No studying, no worries. The child learns the correct way of spelling words through repetition and by picking up on the patterns. Also, of course, reading well-written books every day greatly helps a child's spelling. The more a kid sees a word written correctly, the more that kid will remember how to spell it.
Both girls -- First Language Lessons. We did this series for first and second grade, and then we abandoned it. In my opinion, it made the learning of grammar boring and overwhelming. In the meantime, the Handwriting Without Tears books had sections on grammar, which the girls enjoyed. For third through fifth grade, I bought some Critical Thinking workbooks which focused on grammar. Today, we refer to Warriner's English Grammar and Composition books to work on problem areas that pop up in the girls' writing. Also, as with spelling, the more a kid reads well-written books, the more proper grammar comes naturally.
Both girls - Both girls took VLACS courses in (middle school) Language Arts. These courses showed me where their areas of weaknesses were when it comes to writing essays, paragraphs, etc. I therefore supplemented the VLACS lessons with exercises from Warriner's books. Alex now takes a high school expository writing class through Northwestern's Gifted Learning Links. Sage will likely take that same course next year -- it is very thorough, with multiple essay assignments each week and a strict yet fair teacher.
Art, Physical Education, Electives
Alex loves to draw, so she takes lessons from a local professional artist. Sage loves to work with clay, so she takes lessons at our local clay studio. There are also programs at local museums, plus numerous online art appreciation/instruction sites. In the beginning years, of course, free exploration with whatever is around your house is all that's needed. In any event, it's easy to find what you need, either locally or online, for your particular child.
Obviously, both the girls hike. They also take karate and soccer, and they just plain run around having fun. I personally don't believe any specific physical education program is necessary -- just find something active your child likes to do and make sure they have all the opportunity in the world to do it. Just plain walking for an hour every day is perfect (and it's free!). Running amok on the playground for an hour or two a day works well too.
All of the above seems overwhelming when you look at it all at once. We don't do all of the above every single day, though! Everything is spaced throughout the week in a way that makes sense to us and doesn't feel overwhelming. There is time for multiple extracurriculars, clubs, playdates, sleepovers, and exploring electives. Electives, for us, are anything from cooking to computer programming to photography to whatever. Note (2016), Alex has really gotten into computer programming. She's now taking AoPS courses for Python, and various sources on the web for beginning Java.
Academic Summer Programs
Summer is for many things -- hiking (!), fun, (!), summer jobs (eventually), etc. Academics can play a role too -- if you and your child want to supplement the academic year with a great academic summer program, then I recommend, at this point (since this is the only program with which we have direct experience) John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY).
Both girls tested for CTY and both girls qualified, though Sage has to retest during this year in order to qualify for 7th grade+ summer programs. John Hopkins' CTY is wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. Alex took a writing course last summer; this year, I believe she is going to pick a computer science or math course. If your kid is academically advanced and they want to have three of the best weeks of their lives, and if they are currently in 7th grade, then check out CTY Summer Programs. A kid has to take the SAT in 7th grade to qualify (or the SCAT in 6th grade). Younger kids can take the SCAT to qualify for the online programs. Instead of going into detail about CTY here, you can read more about it on the official site and on the unofficial Wiki site.
There are many other academic summer programs besides CTY. I cannot possibly list all of them here. My girls may explore other programs as they get older and specialize more and more into their individual interests. Or, when they're older, they may decide to not do any programs but, instead, to work on their own projects all summer. We'll see what time and their interests bring.
What I have written works for us. It may or may not work for you. I know this is very much a school-at-home approach, and many homeschoolers actively avoid methods like ours. That's fine. Different strokes for different folks. We homeschool not to avoid the traditional subjects or even the traditional methods, but to embrace all the core subjects in a way that suits each of my daughter's capabilities. Sometimes, that looks like school-at-home. Other times, it looks more experimental or passive. That's the beauty of homeschooling. Flexibility and freedom to do what works best for your family.
UPDATE -- SEPTEMBER 2017 --
Wow, Alex is in her official years of high school already! She is enrolled as an Off-Campus Student through Clonlara. This means she is still homeschooling, but Clonlara provides an official (and accredited) stamp of approval to the specific homeschooling plans and, when Alex graduates, a diploma from an accredited institution.
Alex's classes this year (9th grade by age but taking classes to her ability level) -- AP Chemistry and AP Computer Science A through PA Homeschoolers (both fantastic courses with excellent teachers -- so far, Alex is doing well), World History Honors and PreCalculus Honors through VLACS, Honors Spanish 4 with Ray Leven (PA Homeschoolers), and World Literature Honors through Clonlara (Clonlara has its own online classes that a student can use if the student wishes). In addition, I have devised a physical education class for her (different from all the karate and hiking she does as extracurriculars) and a speech class. She also takes art through her private teachers and also through a coop in a nearby city. She also takes musical theater at the coop for fun.
Sage's classes (7th grade by age but taking classes at her ability) -- Intro to Geometry and Intermediate Algebra (two separate classes) through AoPS, high school Physics Honors and 8th grade Language Arts through VLACS, high school Mandarin through CTY Online, and high school Neurobiology Honors through Northwestern University's GLL. She'll take Civics (middle school class), which I'd like her to have, next year as an 8th grader. Sage also takes art classes at a secular coop in a nearby city.
Both have all their usual extracurriculars (Scouts, math club, soccer, karate, hiking, and Alex will hopefully have a job again at a ski resort like she did last winter). Both hang out with friends on a regular basis.