Over the years we've tried quite a few methods, programs, and curricula in our homeschool.
At time the changes were few and far between, and other seasons saw us make several alterations to our resources choices and schedule in just a few weeks.
It probably sounds like we've been fickle and couldn't settle on anything, but the fact is - kids grow and change, and our family dynamic moves along with them. Their preferred learning styles changed, their interests changed, new technologies were developed, opportunities and activities came along, and more affordable ways of homeschooling allowed us to reshape our homeschool without spending lots of cash, if any.
The result is that we've honed in on some tried and true tools for our homeschool - the Things We Can't Do Without. These are the tools we've depended on for many years that have enabled us to homeschool our children on a very tight budget, and we've used these resources to continuously fulfill our family's individual needs.
I don't know how we would homeschool without a computer. We use it for educational programs online or on DVD/CD, to stream videos, organize our schedules, share calendars and documents, do price comparisons and order supplies. . .
Sure - we bought a desktop computer, the kids have their own laptops, and we pay for internet access - these things are not usually considered a necessity, and even when shopping carefully for technology we could afford, computers are big ticket items. But for a homeschooling family, computers are an essential component of a child's education, and we get more than our money's worth from them.
We personally consider technology to be an important part of preparing our kids for the future. Think of all the jobs in existence now that we couldn't even imagine when we were in school - coding, graphic design, social media strategist. There are still some families who like it old school and stick with printed books and pencil-and-paper, and I'm not going to say that's wrong. One of the reasons many families homeschool is because they want to live a life consistent with their deeply held beliefs, and avoiding technology might be one of those beliefs. However, understanding how to use a computer is now a basic skill required for most career paths. That's why we do not view purchasing computers as a luxury.
We've kept the desktop near the hub of our home. It's currently in the kitchen, so I can quickly access everything from our family calendar to the grocery list to financial information. We can stream videos or watch DVDs while we cook meals and wash dishes, which makes these tasks much more enjoyable whether we are together or I'm working alone.
The kids have their own laptops and/or Chromebooks so they can work whenever they want in other parts of the house, but sharing information is easy with programs like Office 365. Microsoft Office costs a bomb for four people, but they now offer a subscription good for up to five computers. Not only can the kids use tutorials to learn all the program in the Office Suite, it's a great way for us to quickly and easily share school assignments, and I can review their papers without having to print them.
We also share documents and calendars through our Gmail accounts.
The internet gives access to online programs like ALEKS, Khan Academy, YouTube, The Futures Channel, and SchoolhouseTeachers.com, just to name a few. With webcams on UStream.tv, we might be watching the world go by on the ISS Space Station one day, and eagle parents feeding their young the next.
Unlike age-graded and consummable educational materials, these tools grow with our kids, and are always up-to-date with the latest information.
The internet is also my source for homeschool information and encouragement, with blogs and forums and Facebook groups. I can tap in any time I need to ask a question or get a little morale booster.
We squeeze every dime out of our computers and the internet, and these tools allow us to quickly and conveniently organize, communicate, and learn.
The first time I bought a printer, I got the cheapest one I could find. It was not a bargain. The ink was expensive, and I wasted a lot of paper trying to print on both sides, so I had to settle for wasting paper by only printing on one side.
When that printer went kablooey, which didn't take long, I knew how we would be using a printer and exactly what features we needed. We chose a wireless multi-function inkjet. Two words - Automatic Duplexing. Whether I print from the computer or copy with the feeder, the printer automatically flips the paper for me for double sided printing. Hallelujah!
I can also print from a memory card, save documents to a memory card, and scan photos to the network.
It's wireless, which means everyone can connect to it and print from wherever they are in the house. I can even print from my phone.
Because of my experiences with our first printer, one of the things I knew to look for was a printer with separate color and black cartridges. I narrowed my choice of printer down by finding inexpensive but dependable sources for ink.
My favorites sources for ink cartridges have always been LD Printer and Office Supplies and Inksell. I've used both companies for at least 10 years and only one time did a cartridge not work. They immediately mailed me a replacement.
Our printer allows us to take advantage of many different kinds of resources on the internet for our schooling, from printing lesson planning pages and schedules to coloring pages and images for reports and projects. We save even more by being selective about the pages we print. Sometimes ebooks have detailed covers which would use a lot of ink, and we don't need things like introductory pages or author biographies. I seldom print copies of answer keys either.
When I print from the web I use a web extension called Print Friendly to save ink and paper. It allows me to choose what part of the webpage I want to print (with a few exceptions here and there because of the way a page is formatted).
The accessories that also make our printer more useful are the 3-hole punch and paper cutter. I've had both for about 20 years, and I think I may actually be developing a sentimental attachment to them. Obviously I need a 3-hole punch to be able to put the papers we print into our notebooks, but a nice paper cutter allows us to make things like our own flashcards and games.
Heavy Duty 3-Ring Binders:
For us, a heavy duty 3-ring binder is a one-time buy that can be adapted over and over. We use numbered section dividers and create a table of contents for each year. We prefer reinforced notebook paper so pages don't tear when they are turned repeatedly with daily use. A 3-ring binder can accommodate all sorts of inserts such as printable maps and timelines, as well as the kids' artwork.
At the end of each year I can remove entire sections to place in each child's school file. Long gone are the days of buying new notebooks each year, fussing over torn pages and tangled spiral bindings, not being able to find assignments quickly, and not having a place to keep handouts. We are still using notebooks I bought 12 years ago, so I call that a bargain.
The local library is a great resource for books, textbooks, DVDs, and reference materials. It is also a nice place to do research in a quiet, study-friendly atmosphere. Our librarians are incredibly helpful, and there are lots of books about teaching, learning, and homeschooling for parents. Our library has digital resources like checking out ebooks and audiobooks, kid-safe search engines, and online courses.
Although we understand that libraries aren't truly free - in the sense that they are supported by taxpayer funds - the only direct cost to us is our overdue fees.
Half Price Books:
We are regulars at Half Price Books. It is exactly what it sounds like - a bookstore full of new and gently used books at very deep discounts, usually half the cover price, and most of the time much less. There is also a clearance section in the back with shelves of books, both fiction and nonfiction, for less than $2, and because I have a teacher's discount card and we get coupons in our email, we often are able to take advantage of even more savings, anywhere from 10%-50%. We can walk out of HPB with twenty books for $15. I can build my history, science, and biography library for very little money. The kids can browse and find books that satisfy their curiosity or spark their interest.
Maybe you are reading this post looking for a specific recommendation, such as a math curriculum or writing program. I don't feel comfortable with specific recommendations because there are so many wonderful and effective resources available that I couldn't possibly choose "the best", and what's more, the program that works for my kids might be kryptonite for yours.
I personally recommend trying out what is available for no-cost or low-cost online or at your local library, and spend a little time figuring out what might be a good fit before you spend a significant amount of money on a curriculum or program. Once you invest some cash, you will feel obligated to keep using that resource even if it turns out to be a dud. Try-before-you-buy as often as possible.
The tools I've listed have become my favorites over 20 years of homeschooling because they allow us to adjust to all the changes we've been through - moving to another city, different jobs and a roller coaster budget, health issues, the new interests our kids developed over time and new skills they wanted to acquire. I'd feel boxed in if I tried to settle on one particular curriculum. With computers, the internet, the library, and just plain old notebooks, we've had the ultimate flexible homeschool experience and we have felt free to go in whatever direction our curiosity takes us.