How much does Kolbe cost?

I keep forgetting to answer question in the title, which someone asked me via e-mail.  My answer:

I do not know how much it will cost you if you decide to enroll with Kolbe.  It depends on:

  • How many children you are enrolling.
  • What parts of the program you choose to use.  (Even if you order full-menu, there are choices).
  • How you acquire your books.

Proven accountant trick: Get out your spreadsheet and add it up.


Some Tips for Lowering Your Total Cost

1. Get yourself onto CathSwap, so you can buy used books from people.

2. Beg and borrow books from people you know.  Many Kolbe books are also used by the other major Catholic homeschooling programs.

3. Do every-other-year on subjects that you really don’t need to do the full shebang for.  We do that with the National Catholic Reader — I only own years 2, 4, & 6. I’d take the others if someone gave them to me, but we get plenty of benefit from just the half-set.

4. If you own a computer of some kind (such as the one you are reading this blog on?), look on Kindle or Project Gutenberg for free e-books for out-of-copyright works.

5. If you don’t own a computer, or you just like paper, go to the thrift store or garage sale to find your classic works of English literature.  That is where the ones that don’t get composted end up.  (I know!) You won’t necessarily find the best edition, but it will do.  At $0.25 – $0.50 a piece, most people can afford to speculate that their kindergartener will in fact read Tom Sawyer one day.  You can even afford to accidentallly buy duplicates now and again.

6. Don’t buy services you don’t need.

7. Don’t buy services you can’t afford.  That’s more important than #6.  If you haven’t got the cash, do something else. Learn to avoid debt, and your child will have a very strong foothold on the world.

2013 Homeschooling / Kolbe Review Update

I’ve gotten a few requests for updates, so it’s about time. One mega-post to cover four kids, all subjects.  Here’s what we’ve got going for 2013-2014, and how we like it so far.  Quick version: Two bigs are in 8th and 6th, enrolled with Kolbe but doing varying amounts of the program.  Littles (4th & 2nd) are freelancing with a variety  of stuff, increasingly workbook-y, because that’s my life.

Long Version

Grammar: Mr. Boy is doing 8th grade per Kolbe, Voyages in English (now called “Lepanto English” I believe.)  Grammar nerd that I am, I still like it.

6th Grader is sitting through a year of Classical Conversation’s “Essentials” course, which is an exacting (some would say: exasperating) tour of grammar and heavy-handed editing.  It suits her fine, in an anything-that-doesn’t-kill-you way, but we’ll be back to Voyages next year.  NB: Classical Conversations has a strongly, strongly protestant world view.  Just sayin’.  FYI, I’m happy we are doing the class, it serves our purposes.

4th and 2nd Grader are doing the Language of God workbooks from Catholic Heritage Curriculum.  They don’t like them, because they don’t like anything in the genre, but I do.  Heavy on the Catholic-ness, makes Voyages/Lepanto look like secular city.  I’m good with that.

Vocabulary / Spelling: 8th & 6th grader continue with Kolbe’s recommended vocabulary book.  I remain very happy with it, and they seem to do pretty well and not mind it.  Littles are using CHC’s Speller, same comment as per above.  The CHC 4th grade program is a much lighter program than the Sadlier-Oxford Vocabulary.

For phonics / word study, all three girls are going with the Kolbe-default, MCP plaid.  I continue to like it very much.  We skip some of the exercises that aren’t my favorite though, usually the “write a letter to your friend . . . ” ones. We’re in it for the phonics.

Geography: Kolbe changed their geography book, and I haven’t seen the new one.  I like the old one so much I bought the levels I didn’t have on clearance from the friendly Kolbe bookstore lady.  But we’re in an off-year for geography, too much going on elsewhere.  We’ll be back at it next year.

History: I’m sticking with my program of keeping all kids on the same general history topic.  They are anchored to Mr. Boy, who is in 8th grade and finishing out with American this year, and then he’ll be back to Greek next year.  Doing the four year cycle of Greek-Roman-Middle-Modern works pretty well for us.  We aren’t the kind of people who would fail to study Africa and Asia just because no one made us.  So, what it looks like textbook-wise:

8th Grader is doing Christ in the Americas, per the Kolbe plans.  He complains it’s all pro-Catholic agitiprop, but I like that.  (It is a survey of American History, but with a strongly Catholic orientation.)  He did Christ the King Lord of History last year, same complaints / parental approval.  Tip: Kolbe publishes two sets of course plans for these — one for middle school, one for high school.  If you aren’t sure what to choose, you can request both (if you’re enrolled), then take a look and see which is a better fit.

6th Grader is doing CHC’s From Sea to Shining Sea. Alert: There are other US History books with the same general title.  Make sure you pick the correct one.  We like it very much — colorful, informative, readable, happily Catholic. She likes this better than last year’s Founders of Freedom, which was a little too vintage black-n-white for her tastes.  Since she has a lot of work in other subjects, I’m just having her read the text (we did not purchase the workbook, teacher’s manual, etc.) and do one project a quarter for tangible work for the portfolio.

I was stymied on where to find suitable US History texts for the littles until I got to look through Seton’s table at the IHM Conference this summer.  My 4th grader is reading through both books 4 & 5 this year (Seton divides US history over two years), and the 2nd grader is reading book 1.  They are doing personal-choice reading to go with, heavy on American Girls novels and the like.

Religion.  I love Faith and Life.  Very happy with what Kolbe does there.  All four kids are on the program.  And I don’t care what anyone says, the Baltimore Catechism is one handy book.  I approve.  We fill out those two with lives of saints in literature or normal life.

Bible History. Kolbe makes this a  separate junior high class from either religion or history, it does a survey of the Bible spanning two years.  I’m happy with it, as far as it goes. There are workbooks for both this and Anne Carroll’s American history books mentioned above, and they are good for drilling memorization of key facts.  The boy is also reading through the Bible with the SuperHusband: I wouldn’t do *only* a survey book at this age, anyone reading on grade level should at least be doing the Mass readings, if not going through the Bible directly.

For the girls, 6th grader has split the The Catholic Bible Story Workbook from Fireside over two years, and she really enjoys it.  There’s no reason you’d need to stretch it that much, it could be easily completed in one year.  She gets to stretch it because I’m doing that coordinated-topics thing.  Littles are getting a read-aloud from a children’s Bible.

Latin. The outcome of my Latin Drama is reported here and here, and elsewhere as well, I’m sure.  Short version: We don’t attend Latin Mass.  So although I admire Kolbe’s go-to textbook, it wasn’t working for us.  What does work:

  • Visual Latin (8th grader)
  • Latin’s Not so Tough (6th grader’s in book 3 this year)
  • Song School Latin (all girls like it – the Monkey!)
  • Mr. Dunphy.  Everyone likes that one.

Mr. Boy is also rounding out his work with an assortment of reading from Familia Romana and the odd exercise from the Oxford Latin Course, which I still think is cool.

Head’s up on foreign languages: Next year we resume French.  We won’t be dropping Latin altogether, but I’m not going to push the boy through three consecutive years of More Rigorous Latin for high school credit purposes.  He’ll do a modest amount of Latin for an elective, and French for his official college-admission-worthy language study.  I have no idea what books I’ll use.  Something inexpensive, I think.  Normal people should not get ideas from me.

Math.  Still happy with Math-U-See.  We’re like that.

Science. Mr. Boy is doing Physical Science per Kolbe, and it seems to be going pretty well.  Not a lot to report.  It’s a science book.  You read it, you do the work.  We haven’t had our giant Festival of Laboratory Activities yet.  It’s coming.  Probably over Christmas break.  NB: Some of the labs are definitely of the type you might want a scientist around to help you with.

Meanwhile, the girls are doing Classically Catholic Memory, because that’s what happened to us, happy accident.  My friend is teaching a 30-minute science activities class once a week at our new co-op, and it follows that program.  So for the girls’ science, I dug through my textbook collection (a combination of Kolbe’s go-to and ancient freebie copies of Abeka books, mostly), and picked out reading assignments that correspond with their work each week.

–> CCM is also providing quite a bit of supplemental work in everything — Literature, history, math, religion, Latin, geography etc etc.

Composition.  The boy is excused from the Kolbe composition book (Sadlier-Oxford – no complaints) because he has to endure my homegrown editing class once a week.  We’ll go back to stock plans on that next year.  6th grader is excused since she’s doing IEW with Classical Conversations.  We’ll go back to default for her as well.  Littles are just writing stuff.  They’re still little.

About IEW, what you need to know:

1. The instruction videos are so painfully mind-numbingly boring that strong language is probably appropriate.  All the CC moms have to watch them.  I write other things (rough drafts for columns, usually) during all the minutes that the video guy is belaboring his points.  There *is* useful stuff, but it’s a ratio of 5 minutes of useful for 30 minutes of pre-purgatory.  I jot down the useful bits and then go back to thinking about something other than elephant essays.  Yes.  Elephants.  I never, ever, want to see another elephant essay again in my life.  NB: If you were not a professional writer, you might find the hand-holding helpful.

1A.  Why yes, I realize the internet it littered with poorly-edited work of mine.  Knowing what to do is different from doing it.  I seem to recall a line in The Merchant of Venice to that end, pronounced just before splashdown.

2. The course calls for certain writing techniques that would make many an editor cry.  Mandatory use of “ly” words, changing out “said” for assorted exclamations and whispers and murmurs and so forth .  . . let us say: stylistically heavy-handed.  If you treat IEW as the last course you ever take before you submit your manuscript, people will laugh at you.  BUT it is fantabulous for teaching you to control your words and ideas.  If you don’t learn to develop the word control that IEW teaches, editors won’t just laugh at you, they’ll stick your stuff in the garbage while they do it.

3. So it’s basically like barre exercises, or push-ups, or C-warm-ups.  You train certain skills into mastery, so that you can call on them easily when you need them.  I like IEW for that.  That’s why were doing it.  Also, if you never ever plan to become a professional writer, you can learn IEW and you work will be organized, coherent, and suitably edited for everyday use.

4. The people who make the student book we’re using don’t know much about the Catholic faith.  Sometimes we laugh at them.  And then I have to go to confession for uncharitable thoughts.  So I won’t name that book here.

5. But hey, one of our parish co-op moms is an IEW instructor, and she’s going to maybe I hope offer the class next year, Catholic version. So then we can have our writing drills without the weird historical errors.  I like that.  I think for most kids, IEW is a class you could take once, or take once every few years.  Or you could do something else that’s just as good.

Literature.  So.  Literature.  Lots of stuff going on there.  8th and 6th grader are doing one book a quarter off the Kolbe course plans for their respective grades.  To fill that out:

-Both are reading selections from assorted historical works, as found in Classical Conversations’ handy Prescripts book, American History edition.

-Mr. Boy is reading a selection from CC’s Documents book as well.  It’s a high school book, for sure.  Most kids would not be reading this at his age, he is not normal.  He also has a mom-assigned book each quarter.  Q1 was The Fallacy Detective, Q2 is Frank Sheed’s A Map of Life.  He just reads those, no extra writing work.

-6th grader is reading mom-chosen selections from Book Six of the National Catholic Reader for her extra history-related literature reading.

They both read this and that for their own enjoyment as well.  Not necessarily high art, but I can work with it. Underhanded Mom Trick: If you read a book your kids would like if only they didn’t fear it was educational, don’t let them read it.  Lend it to their friends.  Then when it comes back, they’ll be curious.

2nd & 4th graders have mandatory self-selected reading from either National Catholic Reader or McGuffy, per their grade levels, one day a week.  They do other student’s-choice reading the other days, and CCM includes some poetry in its memory work.

Art: I’m not unschooling art this year!  My friend is teaching an art class at the co-op, using Catholic Schoolhouse’s art book (year 2).  We like it.  Very amateur-friendly.  Underhanded Mom Trick: I picked up some beautiful beautiful beautiful art-appreciation books from Seton this summer.  Then I lent them to the art teacher.  Because it’s much more interesting if it’s a book that Mrs. A uses, and not one that nutso mom-person says is so good.

Handwriting: I am not a successful handwriting teacher. If you have ever seen my handwriting, you understand why.  Pay no attention to me.  But my naturally-talented, crafty and feminine handwriting girl learned cursive using Cheerful Cursive and she liked it fine.

Whew.  That’s enough for now. Did I miss any subjects? See the whole series here.

Something Funny: WordPress has started putting ads in the free blogs (like this one).  Which appear to this blogger as ads for WordPress’s paid services.  Sometimes I wonder what you see.  If you see something objectionable, do tell me.  I don’t pick the ads.  I am good at complaining on your behalf (and mine) as needed.

Quick Kolbe note: Online Classes for High School

For those who missed it, Kolbe Academy is offering a slate of online classes for high school this fall.  Looks promising.

Other items of note:

I have no direct experience with any of these, but I’d wager they’re all good.  Credible sources.  Worth a look if you need some other adult to keep your student moving forward.  Or if you need to make the switch to homeschooling, but really you can’t homeschool, it’s just that there isn’t something else.


Have another good tip? This is your explicit invitation to share worthwhile homeschooling links in the combox. For your own program or anyone else’s.  Have at it.

Kolbe Reviews: Thoughts on Math

Kolbe calls for Saxon Math as its default math program for upper elementary school.  That’s the one in the course plans, and it’s one I’ve looked at but never used.   The  Kolbe plans primarily serve to divide out the work day-by-day; there is not math instruction in the plans.  (In contrast to say the religion course plans, which include teaching suggestions in the daily notes of the course plans.)  There are quarterly exams in the course plans, so you can do an exam at the end of each quarter that will line up with what was covered in the plans.  The exam answer keys show not just the answer, but the “show your work” way that the problem was solved.

Saxon’s reputation: A lot of people love it.  It’s the A+, teacher’s pet of math curricula.  If you successfully complete Saxon, you’ve got a well-trained math student.  People who don’t like Saxon tend to not like the homework:  For each lesson, the homework includes a relatively small number of practice problems for the new concept (so complain those who want more practice), and many problems that review previously-taught concepts (so complain those who can’t bear repetition).  The latter problem is easy to fix — just don’t do all the homework problems.  If you have a student who tends to need more practice to “get” a concept, preview the curriculum and see if it looks like it will provide enough help for your child.

Kolbe’s second-choice recommendation is Singapore Math.  Give it serious consideration, because it’s the top choice of some well-regarded homeschool moms.  Look here for Rebbecca Frech’s comments on Miquon & Singapore Math, and here for her general approach to teaching mathematics.

Another homeschooling friend and math-professor-on-homeschool-leave recommends the Life of Fred, which her kids love.  I ordered a book, and my 5th grader is excited about using these to review and master the topics she’s been learning.  She likes the story-format better than a regular math book, perhaps in part because she has spent many years with a regular math book.  I’m not persuaded every family would use Fred as their sole math book, though.  But it’s a good resource to know about.

I am pretty happy with Math-U-See, which is what we’ve used all along, but don’t think it’s a good fit for everyone.  I like it because I like the way it explains the math concepts — that whole thing of understanding how math works, rather than just memorizing processes.  I am also 100% comfortable with the MUS guidelines on teaching math, which direct you to slow down and speed up per the student’s readiness.  Which in our family consistently translates into long periods where we make “no progress”, then quick speed through a bunch of chapters at once when the brain catches up with the new topic.  A lot of people would not be comfortable with this.  (Even if you despise MUS, check out their various free E-sources, land of the free printable worksheet generator.)

Note also, that MUS’s scope and sequence is not the same as in most public schools.  It would not be the best choice for someone planning to put the kids in and out of school during the elementary years.  On the other hand, if you have a struggling math student and want to spend a summer on review, the videos and a workbook used strategically might be a way to help a student master a topic that had never quite clicked.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the controversial Teaching Textbooks.  People hate these for all sorts of reasons, some of them (reportedly) valid.  But people love them because they let you sit your kid in front of the machine, do the work, done.   They seem to be most popular with non-math kids who just need to get the basics down by moving at their own pace, and with families that are extremely overloaded and need a method that is not parent-intensive.

Based on all that, here are my criteria for a good math curriculum:

  • You the teaching parent like the general approach.  If you don’t believe in the method, you’ll never last 10 minutes when your kid digs in the heels and tries to talk you out of it.
  • It fits your family’s needs and abilities.  People vary in how well they read, how easily they learn math, how much hands-on time the parents have, and so forth.  Shed the fantasy life and be the math person that you are.

The big problem with math instruction: Not enough of us love math.  And those who do love it are divided into those who have fun with it, and those who take perverse pleasure in accomplishing nasty chores.  It is very hard to teach a subject that you don’t personally enjoy.

What to do?  My advice if you are math-phobic is to relax, sit down with your kids, and learn with them.  Your brain is more mature than it was a decade or two ago, and it is not too late for you to finally understand the topics that confused you way back when.  (FYI – Math-U-See is popular with moms who are going this route.  I can’t speak for other series, but I’d say for any math book: Take a look and see if the explanations make sense to you.  If they do, you’ll be able to turn around and explain them to your kids.)

My advice if you are competent at math but just don’t love it* — and this is me, and so I constantly nag myself with this advice — is to keep searching until you find a way to love it.  Be it via games, or making a sport of comparison shopping for groceries, or rewarding yourself with chocolate for every twenty minutes spent faking it for your kids’ sakes, try something, anything, to get you past the I-hate-math hump.  Don’t give up on yourself — keep trying different things until something clicks.

Okay readers: What’s your favorite math curriculum?  Supplements?  Games?  Websites?  Recommend away.

*People think accountants are math whizzes.  Some are.  But accounting actually only requires about an 8th grade math education, and a teeny tiny bit of algebra, sometimes maybe. In any case, I am not the kind of accountant who just loves adding columns of numbers.  I am the kind of accountant who loves creating spreadsheets that add numbers for me.  Also I like to figure out what went wrong with your computer and make it work for you again.  I like figuring out why the government just sent you a nasty letter, and then digging through your confused box of documents and showing you how to properly fill out your form the second time around.  That kind of accounting.  I am not the person you want keeping your books.  I am the person you want to call when you suspect your bookkeeper is up to no good.  That’s what I like.  Accountant detective work.

7 Takes: From My Feed Reader to Yours

7 Takes at


This week, after you pray for Allie & congratulate our hostess, I send you elsewhere.  I scrolled through all my recent +1’s in Google, and picked a few:

1.  People come here when they search on “Kolbe Academy”, and presumably when they do that, they also find Kolbe’s blog, Servant of Truth.  But in case you had a google-failure, here’s an answer to a question that gets asked a lot:  How to Change Pace in a Structured Curriculum.

2.  Brad Warthen is aggravated, here, about a homeschooling bumper sticker that he sees as a flagrant rejection of a whole community.  (He’s a Mr. Community kind of guy.  A Rotarian, no less.)  I concede in the combox that he is correct, it is indeed impossible to know what part of “the village” the hostile-homeschooler wants no part of.  But I’m going to guess it’s something like this.

3. FTR, I homeschool for the library books.  The village never even entered into it.  I just want to read.  A lot.  There aren’t many jobs let you do that.  (Also I like teaching my kids, like being with them, like playing outside, like traveling during the school year, and it’s the only Catholic school I’ll ever talk my husband into paying for . . . but it’s mostly for the books.)

4. NFP Apps.  I like a pen and a free-in-the-mail calendar myself.  (Helps if you don’t particularly need a graph or white baby stickers.  About once a year I break out the graph paper to make sure I’m seeing what I think I’m seeing.  But most of the time, 4/10 of degree shows up real nice just looking at the numbers.)  But all you smart-device people can do NFP the Smart Way.

5. Can’t have too many religious education curricula.  Read about Healing the Culture’s new high school curriculum, and, completely separately, Loyola Press’s new adaptive sacramental prep program for students with special needs.

Also a Bleg: Anyone have an RCIA text you really love?  I’m dumb enough to try to make up an answer to that question, but someone who knows the field would be better suited to give the real scoop.

6. At Public Discourse: the obituary of an honest historian.  Beautiful story.  Especially if you’re the kind of person who reads a history book, and then rants towards your children about all the dumb ideas the book promotes without presenting any evidence whatsoever.

My kids say I complain a lot.  I reply that easily 10-if-not-15% of the time, it’s because there’s something worth complaining about.  The rest of the time, yeah, I’m just grumpy.  Probably the nicest grumpy person you know.

7. The reason bloggers blog is because we have something to say.  Abby Johnson doesn’t play around: If you want to be pro-life, get your act together and show up for work.

Have a great weekend!

(PS: The tiny tiger has persuaded SuperHusband not to haul her to the pet shelter just yet.  Cuteness is a powerful survival strategy.)

The Kolbe Reviews: Religion

Freedom’s just another word for “knowing what to do.” And then doing it.

I’ve been using the Faith and Life textbook series for homeschool religion since the boy was in first grade.  I loved it then, and still love it now.


What you get: Each book in the series has approximately 30 chapters, designed to be read one a week throughout the school year.  (Some years there are more chapters, some years less).  The reading is on grade-level, but the first grade book is designed to be a read-aloud, and the second grade book will be a read-aloud for some students.  Each chapter might be ten minutes worth of reading?  One day’s assignment. At the end of the chapter there are usually some vocabulary words, a scripture or prayer, and some catechism questions and answers.

All except the 2nd grade book feature gorgeous traditional artwork for the illustrations.  The second grade book uses contemporary-school-book genre stuff, but you’ll get over that insult when you get back to 3rd grade and the serious art resumes for the remainder of the series.

Each book has a theme — first grade covers Salvation 101, 2nd grade prepares students for the sacraments of reconciliation and communion, fourth grade is a survey of the Bible, sixth grade is heavy on the moral life.  Along the way you spiral through the essentials of the faith at an age-appropriate level, so it’s possible to jump right in at grade-level even if you haven’t used the texts before, or even ever studied the faith before.

The accompanying Activity Book is a consumable workbook with a combination of study questions and fun activities like coloring pages and crossword puzzles.  Together the two make a complete package for home use — the student does the reading, completes the study questions, and does any of the extra workbook pages as desired.  I let my kids write in the book, but if you did only the study questions on a separate paper, and no fun-and-games, you could pass the book down.

I have looked through the expansive (and expensive) teacher’s manuals, and they do contain a lot of helpful information for the catechist.  But for home use, I think these are not needed.  My advice for a parent who is not very knowledgeable of the faith would be to do the student reading along with the child, and then to learn more about the faith in general by picking out other good Catholic books on topics of interest.

UPDATED: Tara in the combox observes, and I would take her advice over mine:

I find them really really useful because I am not a catechist and I cannot make this stuff up. They have the answers for the activity book pages and have a test / quiz for each chapter and each section (again, answers supplied too). Unless you’re very confident and very experienced, I think they’re well worth the money.

FYI the teachers manuals are huge.  So priced comparably (even favorably) to other works offering similar amounts of info.

I’ve never used Faith and Life in the classroom.  My parish has always used some-other-brand.  I have talked to several catechists from other parishes who didn’t care for F&L, because of the strongly academic focus (a selling point for me — I love it), and because the style of the lessons didn’t call for crafts and activities and so forth.  We did do one test section of F&L for 8th grade last year, and the feedback I received at mid-year from the catechist teaching that class was very good.  Feedback from a 2nd-grade catechist at another parish was that course material was good, but the lessons worked best if the teacher had free reign to present the topics the way she thought the students would learn them best.   I think a lot depends on whether the parish in fact wants students to learn the faith with the rigor expected in other academic subjects, and whether the teacher has the experience and confidence to teach the material effectively.

What you don’t get in F&L:  There’s very little in the way of multicultural imagery, church geography, or even much for lives of saints.  This is a theology course, and you need to plan to fill out your students’ religious education with all the other stuff that makes up our faith and heritage.  If you are going to Mass, observing the feast days, living out in the wider world, praying as a family, and reading lives of saints as part of your literature curriculum, you’re in good shape.  Otherwise, plan to pick up some supplemental materials that will fill in your gaps.

About the Three Editions:  There’s original, revised, and 3rd edition to match the new mass translation.  Don’t worry about it.  If someone gives you an older edition, it’ll work fine. Every now and then one of the assignments won’t line up, but it’s not a big deal.  On the other hand, the books are fairly affordable new.  My personal approach is if I’m going to buy, I buy new, but I’m not upgrading my older stock.

Kolbe also uses the St. Jospeh Baltimore Catechism series.  These are retro-style catechisms, complete with an English translation of the mass that sounds almost like our new mass translation, because, get this: it’s translated straight from the Latin.  Because the books are that old.  The language is frank, the drawings are 1950’s-chic, and yes, I love this one too.  Great discovery.  If you want to justify mowing the lawn on Sundays, don’t let your kids read this book.  No toe left un-stomped.

The course plans.  For me as a catechist who happens to be a parent, the course plans primarily save me the work of writing up my own.  But I think they’d be one of the sets of plans worth purchasing if you aren’t registered with Kolbe, because each day’s and week’s assignments include a summary of the lesson topic, and points to clarify as you teach your student.  Lots of material in the plans.

The planned assignments do call for a lot of memorization and recitation.  Recall that as the teaching parent, you’re free to decide just how much of that memory work your student needs to do.

FYI: The Kolbe plans run on a four-day schedule, and are built around a tutoring-type environment, so they can’t be peeled off the page and inserted into a parish religious education program as-written.   That said, if I were Queen of Religious Ed (I’m not) and had the budget to match my imperial fantasy life, I’d want something like this to give to new and struggling catechists, because the plans to do a good job distilling the faith into the essentials.


Questions?  Comments?

What to Consider in Choosing a Homeschooling Curriculum

I’ve gotten a reader request to write up my thoughts on choosing a curriculum, so I’m jumping ahead to the end of the series, and then I’ll come back and revisit Math and Religion.

Can you afford it?  With a very few exceptions, I don’t ever recommend pursuing education you can’t afford.  End of story.  Kolbe and the like are not cheap (though Kolbe is less expensive than some of the other alternatives), and as with many good or convenient things, when you are short on cash, you have to find another way.  Sometimes the other way is in fact a better way, so don’t panic.

–> Don’t spend your whole book budget at the beginning of the year. Save some money for mid-year changes, because you aren’t omniscient, so there’s a decent chance you’ll pick one or two flops.  It’s okay.  Set aside the cash so you have it when you need it.

Does is fit with your real life?  That’s how we ended up with Kolbe, FYI.  I’m perfectly capable of writing and teaching from my own curriculum, and enjoyed doing it. But I’m not at all above outsourcing cleaning help, buying prepared foods, paying some other mom to drive the carpool to dance class . . . whatever it takes to make real life work. [I once started to ask my daughter to pray my rosary for me, then remembered, “No, that’s not something you’re supposed to delegate.”]  When I was at a point where something (else) had to give, on the long list of things I do, writing up weekly course plans was one I learned I could outsource.  So we did.  It’s been good.

–> My point here is to encourage parents to look closely at the time and energy and involvement different curricula require.  Don’t pick Math Made Easy By 60 Minutes of Absolute Silence if you just gave birth to quadruplets. It’s okay to pick the cheesy, low-intensity, lowest-common-denominator program, if that’s the one you’ll actually do.  Doing all (or most) of the work from a cushy program is better than doing little or none of the work from that majestic High Standards Because We Are Achievers program.

Do you like it?  You.  The parent.  When you read about the curriculum, or thumb through the book, does it make you smile?  If it makes you groan, or you think, “I guess I have to do this because these smart people say you have to, but how on earth . . .” that’s your warning.  Back away.  If you hate it, it’s not going to work.

Do you believe it matters?  If the student finds it fun, the student will do it.  Unfortunately, there’s a 95% chance you are going to try to teach your child something the child doesn’t think is fun.  Which means your willpower is the only thing that will make the learning happen.  Don’t spend a lot of money and space and guilt on a product you don’t actually think matters.

–> I am increasingly convinced that the reason Living Books or Nature Study or Memorization Of Everything or Latin First English Second or Name That Approach, Written About With Fervor And You’re Ruining Your Child If You Neglect This One Thing . . . I’m convinced they work, and work well, because of the teacher’s enthusiasm.  There are bad teaching methods, don’t mistake me.  And I have methods I love and firmly believe in, and that I think make for sound teaching and real education.  But ultimately some part of my success as a teacher isn’t about having found The One True Way, it’s about having found a way that I can run with, that matches who I am and how I teach and the way my brain works and helps me connect to my students.*

As you learn about curricula, look for choices that just seem so right.  They just seem to fit.  They make you smile and go, “Yes!”.  That’s your ideal.

Do you scruple?  Kolbe is very intent on subsidiarity, and I love that.  As the parent-teacher, I blackline some assignments, I add to others, some things I trade out wholesale.  I have a friend who nearly died of heart failure using Seton, not because Seton is a money-maker for cardiologists, but because she wasn’t comfortable with paring down the curriculum as she needed to do (and as her advisers at Seton said she should).  She does everything 100%.   Seton proposes a tremendous curriculum, and she didn’t know how to say No to the parts that were too much.  She needed a lighter program that she could plow through from start to finish, and rest knowing she had Done The Whole Thing.


Those are my main thoughts.  I know we have a number of other homeschoolers reading here. What else would you add?



*This, I believe, is why Math books are like a religion unto themselves.




The Kolbe Reviews: Geography

For Geography, Kolbe uses the Map Skills series from Continental Press.  It’s rare that a teacher with a passion for a topic is wholeheartedly enthused about a particular textbook, but I am in love.  Love.  LOVE.

This is the best thing going.  It’s an 8×11 glossy full-color paperback.  The fourth grade book has about 42 lessons, the sixth grade book has sixty. So throughout the course of the year, students do one or two lessons per week, depending on how you divide it out.  Each page is its own self-contained lesson.  The student reads the explanation and then answers the questions using the map on the page.

What I love:

Self-contained and self-teaching.  Once or twice there has been an assignment that required using a separate map (ie, “a map of your state”), and we’ve pulled out the globe as well.  My sixth grader considers this to be the fun page — like doing one of those puzzle games on the children’s menu at the family restaurant.  My fourth grader can read the lesson and do the work by herself 90% of the time.

Real maps from around the world.  There’s never an assignment using a fictional map to illustrate a point.  The Kolbe course plans periodically call for map-memorization (state capitals, etc.), but just doing the work in the book is an education in world geography all on its own.

Spiral curriculum.  You can start the series on grade-level, even if your student has never done geography before.  The fourth and sixth grade books cover all the same essential concepts — the difference is that the sixth grade lessons delve into each topic with a little more detail and little more difficulty. I believe Kolbe stops using the books after 6th grade, though there is a final book for grades 7 or 8.  If your older student has never studied geography and needs to be brought up to speed, just pick up the last book and it’s all there.

To study geography, or not?

Kolbe advises parents to skip geography if the overall course load is too overwhelming.  I partially disagree:

  • I think it’s fine to do geography some years but not all, or to spread one book over two years.
  • But geography matters, and is a skill of its own separate from the subjects it supports.  History and earth science make no sense if you don’t also know geography.  And trip planning?  Let’s just say it’s no fun traveling with people who can’t or won’t read maps.
  • In my experience, struggling students are sometimes helped by easing off the overwhelming subject, and exercising the brain elsewhere.  The geography in this series requires math, reading comprehension, writing, and visual processing skills.

So in our family, my inclination is to reduce the number of assignments from the National Catholic Reader (but still do some of the better selections) and hold onto geography, at least most years.

The Kolbe Course Plans

The course plans call for students to do two assignments per week.  There are no quarterly exams.  Other than a few “memorize this” or “practice that” assignments, the plans simply divide the book so students know how many pages to do each week.  So if you are not enrolling with Kolbe, I’d skip these plans and write your own chart of how many pages to do.  Or just open the book and circle pages.

Write in the book, or not?

This is not a reproducible, so photocopying assignments violates the copyright.  There are some assignments that require students to label the map in the book. We chose to have the kids write their answers on separate paper (works 85% of the time), if there was a map to label, we’d just do that assignment orally, and the student could point to the answer on the page.  The glossy pages are fairly durable, so the book should hand down as well as any other text.  Given the option of buying the book themselves or writing on a separate sheet of paper, both kids decided to save their cash for better purposes.

What else do you want to know?  I’ve got the fourth and sixth grade books on hand, and the course plans, so ask away.



Kolbe Reviews: National Catholic Reader

The Kolbe Reviews - National Catholic Reader
Click the picture to see the whole series.

The National Catholic Reader is a series of graded readers originally published in the late 1800’s.   They are similar to the McGuffey readers which were popular in the same era; both series are used among homeschoolers today.  Like a modern reading book, the goal is to create a collection of texts which challenge the reader academically, and which impart the values of their time.  Like a modern reading book, the collected reading texts vary in quality from trite to sublime.

I was using McGuffy prior to enrolling with Kolbe, and was happy to switch over to an explicitly-Catholic series.  But the fact that I unschooled with historical readers tells you a bit about my tastes.

First let it be said: I’m not it in for the saccharine chicken-soup-for-farmhand’s-soul poems and morality tales.  They are the bane of any reading book, and inescapable, for the obvious reason that some people love the stuff.  But for all these might induce a coughing fit in the born-curmudgeon, there are three reasons I like using historical text books:

1.  Students learn to read an older style of language.  The classics are less intimidating if you are already familiar with the usage of previous eras.

2. They shed light on their period.  As historical documents, they are an invaluable insight into late 19th century American life.

3. They call into question the values of our present time.  Very specifically, I like that my kids are presented with a whole world whose priorities and values are utterly opposite much of what we accept as commonplace today.  Not because I think the 19th century was the pinnacle of human achievement, but because it is important not to think that 2012 is Only Way It’s Ever Been.  Here’s an example:

In the second-grade reader, there’s a just-so story about kindness and Providence.  It opens by telling us about two girls, ages five and seven, who have just been orphaned.  They have no relations, except an uncle in a distant village whom no one has heard from in years — he may or may not be alive.   A kindly farmer has an errand in the general direction of the village.  He drives the girls until their ways part, and then drops them off to walk the rest of the way alone.

Think about that.  Last year my 5th grade son was brought home to me by the police because he was out wandering our neighborhood.  (Taking down Lost Cat signs, as it happens).  The officer was polite, and clear that we had done nothing wrong.  All the same, he felt obliged to drive the child home.

This is why I like to use these books.


Kolbe sells a study booklet (separate from the course plans) which has reading comprehension questions for the student about each lesson.  The corresponding teacher’s manual has the answers.  The Course Plans assign sixth-graders one or two selections to be read each day, Monday through Thursday.  In 4th Grade, students do lessons from the NCR two days a week, and do outside reading (student’s choice) the other two days.   In 4th Grade the vocabulary course plans include additional words from the NCR, though not necessarily from that week’s lesson.   For those not enrolled with Kolbe, I’d save the money and just type up your own set of assignments.

The course plans often call for memorizing poems.  I know it’s good for the growing brain, and all that.  But I can only bring myself to make my kids memorize things I’d want stuck in my own head.  (See “chicken soup”, above.)  So we frequently skip the memorization thing.

The quarterly exams in the course plans consist of a reading selection from McGuffey’s Reader, with comprehension questions similar to the ones the student has been answering throughout the quarter.  If you are enrolled with Kolbe but your student is using McGuffey for a reading book instead of the NCR, Kolbe recommends you contact them for an alternate set of exams.

Because the exams do not depend on having completed any particular set of readings, it is very easy to skip or substitute selected readings in order to lighten the course load or concentrate on some other interest.


The reading level in the later grades is fairly elevated.   One of the sixth grade assignments (and a fun one!) was to act out Shakespeare’s farewell from Wolsey to Cromwell.  In earlier years the texts are more garden-variety stories for children, but by Book Six the selections move firmly into history and spiritual memoir, including meditations on great moments in the history of civilization from ancient times forward.  Great moments you the product of our nation’s public schools may never have known happened.

Because the later books are very mature, there’d be nothing wrong with spreading out Book Six to be used through seventh and eighth grade.  (You could use them into high school, but by then the literature course is itself quite demanding.  The National Catholic Reader is an excellent preparation for the type of reading that will be required throughout high school with Kolbe,  Mother of Divine Grace, or the like.)

One caution:  There is ample room for cultural misunderstandings.   Make sure your sixth grader knows the meaning of the word “niggardly”   lest he mistakenly believe the book is written by bigots.


That’s all I know to say.  What questions do you have?

Kolbe Reviews: Vocabulary and Composition

In Part 1: I tell you about the Vocabulary Book.

In Part 2: I speculate about Composition.

Kolbe uses the Sadlier-Oxford Vocabulary Workshop series.  If you used a vocabulary book in middle or high school, it’s just like that.

Each chapter introduces a set of unrelated vocabulary words with definitions.  There are exercises to help the student learn to use the word.  At the end of the chapter, Kolbe directs you to give a spelling test and then have the student use the words in original sentences.  A teacher’s manual is available, but it never occurred to me to look for one.

My kids work through their books independently 95% of the time.  My 6th grader finds it easy, even relaxing.  The 4th grader sometimes has questions, and needed some coaching through the first set of exercises on analogies.  You can use the book as a consumable or not — it is easier on both student and teacher if you let the kid write in the book, but not impractical to write answers on a separate sheet of paper.  I relented and let my fourth grader write in hers, because she found the back-and-forth overwhelming.

Useful Tip: See if you can get hold of a used copy of Spelling Power.

We lucked into an older edition a few years ago.  It has massively detailed, well-researched instructions for how to help students learn to spell.  Having used the method for a couple years, the kids now know how to study a word.  It makes a difference.  I do know a mom who found that although SP worked great for her first three kids, her youngest child needed to study words grouped by spelling rule.  Having memorized the method by then, she sold her copy of SP and got out a rhyming dictionary for creating word lists.

There may be other good resources for teaching the methods of learning to spell.  If you know of one, please share a link.  But this one I’ve used and found it informative and helpful.

The Course Plans

The fourth grade course plans for vocabulary include a list of words from the National Catholic Reader to be copied, defined, and studied for the vocabulary test.  My fourth grader was getting bogged down and frustrated, and so we took the advice at the introduction to the course plans and now do only the words in the vocabulary book itself.

The fourth grade course plans assign work for each day according a set method for studying (pre-test, exercises, study, graded test).  If you are not enrolled in Kolbe,  I would skip these plans and just devise your own.   (If you want the convenience of everything all written up for you, enroll.)

The sixth grade course plans assign work from the vocabulary book three days a week, and on the fourth day, an assignment from the Sadlier Writing Workshop Level A.  You could comfortably skip the plans and assign pages yourself without difficulty.

When I bought books, I failed to realize we needed the writing book.  So I took out the boy’s copy of Voyages in English and used the composition portion of that text to write a set of assignments for each Thursday of the year.  Thus I have no idea what’s in the regular book.

More Composition Programs I Know Nothing About

This fall Kolbe rolled out a new Classical Composition program.  You can only read about the fourth grade program on the Kolbe site, because no matter what grade you begin, the instruction is to start with Year1 of the program.  Here is the publisher’s info at Memoria Press, which provides some more details, though it looks like even there, information is limited.

Now let me start by saying that I don’t go in for this hyped-up We’re So Historic Look At Us Being Classical thing.  I’m utterly unmoved by someone using words like “Fable Stage” and “Narrative Stage”.  You could as soon call it “Minty Fresh” and “Tastes Great Less Filling”, and I’d be just as convinced.

–> But when I see the course descriptions in the Kolbe catalog, this looks exactly like what I find new writers need to learn.  I say this based on my experience with editing, critiquing, and bringing grown-ups to the point where they can write clearly and well.*

I just took a look at the pdf preview of the student guide, and it looks kind of painful.  But thorough.  Seriously thorough.  This is what editors do to people.  If you want to write well, this is the process.

Done with too much intensity, however, I find children can quickly learn to hate writing.  On the other hand, the methodical approach to working with words may appeal to some students who freeze up at Creativity On Demand.

Looking at the rigor of the program, I have mixed feelings about who would really benefit most from this course, and how parents ought to teach from it.  If anyone has any experience you’d like to share, please do.

*This is the point where I congratulate myself for not using swear words and “five paragraph essay” in the same sentence.  It’s an insult to the swear words.