We’re Secular but Are Grateful for Christian Curricula

My husband and I both come from families with one religious parent and one not-so-religious parent. Our families also come from two, very different, fundamental religions. We are both fairly spiritual people, but we do not follow the specific doctrines of any particular religion, and, as such, we have chosen to provide a secular education to our two boys. We believe in teaching Aristotle and Archimedes about the histories, beliefs, and practices of as many of the world’s religions as possible while demonstrating the way to be kind and honorable people who are compassionate, giving, and accepting of all others regardless of their religion, race, or lifestyle.

For anyone just entering the homeschooling world, you will find your search for secular materials and curriculum to be a little daunting. Christian families were among the first to homeschool their children in modern times and have subsequently developed a significant proportion of the homeschool curricula currently available on the market. While it is relatively easy to purchase the student textbooks used in many public schools, it is sometimes extremely difficult to acquire the accompanying teacher’s manual. In addition, these books are targeted for large groups of students and are structured in a manner that frequently wasn’t working well for our children in the first place. The Christian curricula, on the other hand, are often written with a single child as student and a single parent as teacher in mind. Student texts, teacher manuals, and appropriate supplies are consistently packaged together for ease of use in the homeschool environment.

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I have found over the years that there are many really wonderful Christian programs that can easily be adapted to a secular curriculum or which provide excellent opportunities for discussion about religion and its influence on one’s interpretation of data and world events. These curricula are well-written and are easy to implement as they are intended to be used in a home setting with a limited number of students and with supplies that are readily available outside of brick and mortar classrooms.

One of the curricula that stands out for me is Apologia Educational Ministries’ Exploring Creation with Biology course that I used for Aristotle’s study of high school biology. The text is written by Dr. Jay L. Wile who has a very engaging writing style and a definite ability to explain complex concepts in a very down-to-earth way. He expressly states his firm belief in creation and frequently references God in his writing, but he does also work to present the evolutionist’s point of view throughout his text (arguably for the purpose of refuting it, but at least it is actually recognized). Aristotle responded well to the conversational style of the book, the pacing of the course work, and the clear explanations of topics that had previously been difficult for him to grasp. I responded well to the course’s ease of implementation, the convenient availability of all the materials, and my complete happiness in Aristotle’s success. This curriculum also benefits from the presence of many supplemental products such as videos and laboratory supplies which are widely available on the internet in both new and used condition and can serve to really enrich the student’s experience with the course.

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For some secular educators, the religious perspective of this program may be counter to their educational goals. However, I found that the creationist versus evolutionist commentary was a terrific platform for us to explore the creation beliefs of various religions and cultures. It also afforded us a concrete example of how two different ideologies can examine the same set of data (the fossil record, for example) and come to completely different conclusions. I felt this was an invaluable lesson for Aristotle as there will be many times in his life where he will have to carefully evaluate information before drawing any conclusions, all while being acutely aware of his own and others’ unique biases.

Another group of wonderfully composed Christian programs are the history curricula developed by Beautiful Feet Books. These programs utilize a detailed study guide, complete with discussion and essay questions, combined with a great variety of related works of literature. Students read age-appropriate biographies, historical fiction, personal accounts of daily life, reviews of art and architecture, and detailed descriptions and analysis of world events for whatever time period the study guide is addressing. Aristotle and Archimedes particularly liked the various biographies and found the general history texts by Genevieve Foster to be so much more interesting than standard textbooks.

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The creators of this curriculum, Russell and Rea Berg, are Christian and do incorporate religion into their study guides both through the use of authors with biblical worldviews and the use of essay questions that specifically refer to scripture. However, almost all of the literature used in this program (at least for the study guides we used) is not overtly Christian and includes descriptions and discussions of cultures and religions that are not based on Christianity. In addition, the list of discussion and essay questions provided with each lesson is extensive with only a couple of questions specifically related to biblical teachings or scripture, and these can easily be excluded from the secular student’s course work without compromising their complete understanding of the historical topic being studied.

These are not the only programs that have worked well within our secular academic plan, but they serve to demonstrate that religiously based curricula can often be adapted to non-religious studies and provide enormous benefits to homeschooling families. The time and frustration saved in modifying an already well-researched and well-written product as opposed to creating your own curriculum cannot be overlooked. To be sure, there are an equal number of Christian or other religiously-based programs that really don’t lend themselves to use in secular situations, but before you eliminate a particular curriculum from your syllabus, give it a thorough examination. You may find that you can easily modify it to fit your secular needs. Yes, we’re secular, but we are grateful for the many Christian curricula that have been a successful part of our homeschool.

An Introduction to Our Non-Classical Classical Homeschool

There is nothing like the sight of a cheerful, brightly-decorated, primary classroom to fill me with an incredible sense of both anticipation and nostalgia. The beautiful, themed bulletin boards with their fanciful colors and shapes recall the excitement I felt for each new school year and the sheer delight I experienced with each new season. The crisp black and white alphabet strips snaking their way around the room, the neat rows of paints, crayons, and pencils, and the pint-sized desks and chairs artfully arranged around the room flood my mind with blissful memories of crafty projects, picture-filled books, and the tingling excitement of learning something that was genuinely new to me each day.

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School was a mostly happy place for me. Sure, I had all the normal problems any growing child has at some point or another. Learning to make friends, grappling with sharing, enduring hurtful teasing, feeling left-out and misunderstood, or struggling with sports or schoolwork that others seemed to find so easy were all issues to be confronted, but, overall, I was quite good at school. I was always one of the top students in my class, and though I was never one of the popular girls, I had a nice circle of good friends and the respect and friendship of most of my teachers and peers. I had to work hard to do well, but it was never overwhelmingly difficult.

My strengths lay with the liberal arts, and I reveled in the study of history, art, and language, but with perseverance I came to appreciate the sciences as well and grew to love a myriad of topics in biology, chemistry, and physics. My parents and teachers forged a wonderful support system for me and helped me to understand that knowledge of a wide variety of subjects whether they pertain to your chosen profession or not provides one with the tools to accurately assess and successfully navigate all of life’s challenges no matter how big or small. Mine was the classical education derived from the great philosophers and thinkers of antiquity like Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Archimedes.

In my family, everyone went to college, and it was an unspoken expectation that we would attend respected universities and graduate with honors. My husband’s family carried those same expectations for him and his siblings to an even more extreme level than what I had experienced in mine. No other course of action was ever considered for us and so that was what we did and what I found myself naively and unfairly expecting with my own children.

Like any parent, I wanted the absolute best for my children and would stop at nothing to ensure that every opportunity be provided to them. I wanted them to have the ability to choose any career or lifestyle that they could dream of, and in my world, that required an outstanding education from elementary school through college and beyond. A classical education had worked out well for my husband and I and so a traditional, classical, well-rounded education in a traditional, classical, well-rounded brick and mortar school was what I was sure was best for my children, too. Yup, I was sure about that.

Enter reality. My husband and I have two loving, gentle, intelligent, and just plain amazing sons who are in our totally unbiased (okay, I guess seriously biased) opinions the most wonderful children anyone could ever ask for. They bring us so much happiness and joy, and every day we are so proud and honored to have them in our lives. Like all people, our children possess an incredibly complex combination of intellectual and physical abilities as well as challenges which weave together to produce beautifully unique and wondrous individuals. Individuals who may not necessarily thrive in a traditional educational setting in the same way their parents did. Our boys are very intelligent, gifted by the public school’s test standards, thoughtful, and hard-working, but they also deal with some significant disabilities including Asperger’s syndrome, dyslexia, and sensory integration disorder. And so, that happy, memory-filled classroom of my youth which I had so mistakenly known (yup, known) would be an enjoyable and beneficial place for my children is in actuality an incredibly scary, confusing, and frustrating spot for them.

Our oldest son is very philosophical yet has difficulty with abstract thinking. He assimilates languages easily yet struggles with the subtleties of human expression. He is curious about the sciences but dislikes physical experimentation. He notices everything but cannot find the way to emulate the behavior of others or control the anxiety that surges in him with every sight, smell, and touch he experiences.

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Our youngest son is a mechanical genius but has difficulty coordinating his movements. He visualizes intricate contraptions and complex mathematical equations but cannot remember a single multiplication fact. He adores hands-on scientific investigations but struggles to write the simplest of sentences. He is often oblivious to his surroundings and cannot comprehend the sounds he hears when he does in fact tune into his environment.

For my boys, our local schools, though filled with dedicated teachers, nurturing staff, and many kind-hearted children, were places of overwhelming stress, constant frustration, and often deep sadness. They were also places where federal and state mandates had created educational systems that rarely allowed talented and creative teachers to foster a love of learning in their students and drove desperate administrators to simply teach students to pass the required tests to ensure adequate school funding.

After several years of watching our children struggle and losing a continuing fight for resources to help them with their disabilities, we made what was for us the difficult but necessary decision to homeschool our children.

This blog is an effort to share all of the things I have learned about education and the art of teaching in the nine years I’ve been homeschooling my boys since accepting that traditional schooling simply wasn’t an effective or even tolerable educational option for them. What I knew would be a very challenging endeavor turned out to be an infinitely more difficult and far more rewarding venture than I had ever imagined. I am not a trained educator and lack the wisdom and expertise of experienced teachers, and I quickly discovered that true learning involves so much more than a comprehensive curriculum and a willing parent. There is so much to know about learning styles, curriculum development, special needs adaptations, and a host of other pertinent topics that it can be overwhelming for even experienced homeschoolers to effectively help their children achieve their infinite potential. I have benefited tremendously from the recommendations and insights of other homeschool parents, life-long educators, medical professionals, and many others who have bravely and entertainingly documented their personal experiences addressing all of these issues and many more. While I haven’t the wit and prowess of many other writers, it is my sincere hope that this account of my experiences and discoveries will serve to help, comfort, and inspire others who wish to provide a classical education to their very special, non-classical learners as well and maybe share a chuckle or two along the way. I am honored you have stopped by and want to sincerely welcome you to my blog!

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