Between having a baby, starting college, celebrating the fall festivals, and a plethora of little mishaps like a clogged kitchen sink, a leaking water heater, and an emergency trip to the dentist after Noah had a close call with the deck and lost three front teeth, the past several weeks have been a flurry of activity around our household. In the midst of it, Yeshua has held me fast and shown me some ways I need to yield even more to His guiding in our school and family life.

For those who have asked for information about Sonlight, this blog is going to be a review about the curriculum we have used as the educational spine of our entire homeschool journey and how the changes it has undergone in the recent years will affect us directly. More to the point, what mileage is God going to get out of the things I wish I could change but can’t?

Since we school year-round, the times that we finish up books and start new ones usually coincide nicely together except for when I make our biggest purchase of the year: Sonlight curriculum. We love Sonlight’s program, from the literature selections to the missions focus to the balanced approach on American history (no ethnocentrism here – yay!) It represents quite an investment but since almost every book is non-consumable, I get to use everything for all of the children and that actually saves quite a bit of money in the long run. Sonlight’s printed schedule is 36 weeks long, so schooling year-round with every Sabbath week off and about six additional weeks for the fall festivals gives us a 40 week school year. Everything else we use is an average of 25-30 weeks in length, which means we can finish a whole level of Apologia, Math-U-See, and IEW writing courses and be about a third of the way through the next level by the time I have to start new Sonlight material. This staggering works very well and it keeps the overwhelm much lower.

I originally thought I would fill up those four extra weeks by taking bunny trails for unit studies and slowing down on some of the books to savor them more. But we are actually a bit ahead of schedule because we have not been able to put books down this year! We even took the biography of Adoniram Judson and shared it as a family for story time in the evenings, giving us “two-a-day” readings for several weeks. It has been incredible. I was left with the wonderful problem of a rapidly dwindling pile of unread literature. It was time to order Core E. I am glad that we will be able to ease a bit into the new year’s books. We’re covering American history and I want to be able to help the girls glean all they can from the rich stories.

Sonlight has made some key changes in the recent years to their Instructor’s Guides. The guides are an invaluable resource filled with scheduling, discussion questions, vocabulary, maps, timeline figures, and many important author’s notes throughout the year. Each week provides 5 days’ worth of material filed behind a weekly schedule-at-a-glance.

There used to be the option to purchase Language Arts (in the same Instructor Guide format) separately from the Core curriculum (history, Bible, geography, literature – namely, what I came to Sonlight for). Then that option was done away with and it became a requirement to purchase the Language Arts curriculum packaged with the Core. This meant you would have to purchase the Language Arts whether or not you would be using them, so there is more expense each year. I could file away the Language Arts pages for Cores A through C easily though because the readers do not correspond directly to the Cores but are based on skill level. However, with Core D and above, all of the Language Arts items are fitted right into the schedule along with the other material because the readers correspond with the history and most children are fluent readers by the time they get to Core D. This has added a LOT of text to filter through each day when searching for history and literature discussion questions and information.

There used to be an option to have each book’s discussion questions, notes, history, mapping, etc. separated into a book study guide that was separate from the weekly schedule. While the schedule still provided a basic suggestion for how to flow through the books each year, having a separate book study guide would enable a homeschooling parent to pull those sheets out and work through the book at his/her own pace. Falling behind or reading ahead would not be a problem because the material for each book was extremely easy to find. Since there are no book study guides offered now, I am forced to go through each week searching for information on the books through all of the Language Arts that I don’t use to find the correct day and chapter information. It is extremely frustrating. We end up missing information because I cannot find it. We are unable to read that far ahead or fall too far behind because it will make it even more difficult flipping back and forth between weeks in search of book information. This makes Sonlight much less flexible and user-friendly. Basically, I have to do their schedule as it’s written, taking away a lot of the freedom I felt initially to schedule the books and read them the way that worked for our family. Even if I do the schedule exactly the way it is written, the amount of information I must ignore (Language Arts) to find the book notes I am looking for each time I open the schedule takes away much of my joy in teaching, especially since I am usually nursing a baby with one hand and trying to go through the schedule with my other hand.

Because Sonlight’s Language Arts are not rigorous enough, I have painted myself into a corner by piecing together LA material each year on my own. After years of scouring and experimenting, I have found so many language arts programs that I love that I simply can’t use Sonlight’s LA without seeing how much is missing. We have found what works, so essentially I have to buy TWO language arts programs each year: one that we will delve into with enthusiasm, and one that is just a waste of paper and money. I liked a lot of the Sonlight LA writing prompts and suggestions for teaching vocabulary, etc. but it jumps around so much that my children had a hard time retaining information when we were experimenting with it. Sonlight does not teach Latin and at least in the younger grades does not develop writing skills with enough direction. I have to admit that it was with a little disappointment that I ordered Core E for the oldest girls.

Disappointment or not, Box Day is still quite the event around here. The first book Jaelah picked up was the encyclopedia on the World Wars, which is a serious interest for her right now. I cried when I saw all of the amazing discussion questions and historical information added neatly into each day with nice little checkboxes next to them. I don’t want to miss even one! I have always written my own schedules when homeschooling because it enables me to work around whatever is going on in our family and to make space for any extracurricular activities my children are doing. With lower Sonlight cores (Pre-K through C) it was quite a bit easier to re-arrange items as needed. All I had to do was take a few extra weeks before the start of the school year to get my own schedule set up. I use Homeschool Tracker software to keep records of all my books and lesson plans. It is amazing and has served me well despite the parts of Sonlight’s schedule that don’t work for us. Now that we are approaching middle school, however, we are covering vast amounts of material. I thought I had found a way to overcome this hurdle this past year when we did Core D. Sonlight does not offer electronic Instructor Guides that can be copied and pasted into my own software, so I purchased a pen scanner and scanned the entire 500 plus pages of material for each book and separated that out into Word documents, essentially creating my own study guides. Yes, that is how much I wanted study guides organized by book instead of day and week. Don’t ask me how long this took. When I opened the Core E box and saw the Instructor Guide lying there in its pristine plastic wrap, I looked over at my much-used pen scanner and wondered if it would actually make it through scanning another 500 pages this year. My heart sunk at the very notion of how much time I would have to invest to make my own little study guides.

It was right then that the Holy Spirit dropped a thought into my heart.

“What if you just, you know, didn’t scan 500 pages of instructor guides?”

What if you take your idea of scheduling, flexibility, re-typing and re-organizing everything until it is just so and throw it out the window?

What if for the first time in your homeschool journey YOU become flexible instead of trying to bend everything else to your version of a schedule?

And just like that, He poked at my sense of control yet again. Lord, haven’t I given up enough control yet? Apparently, He wants to take me to the as yet undiscovered heights of trust falls this year. Again, He wants me to yield another portion that I’m holding in a death grip.

After talking to Pete and praying about my options, I came to a conclusion. When we finish up Core D books in the next couple of weeks, I am going to start Core E and use it exactly as it’s written. Gulp. No, this does not deal with any of my frustrations about the Language Arts being shoved right in there with all the nuggets of information I really want, but that is an obstacle much easier to overcome than scanning everything into my own book notes. I will actually check off the boxes of someone else’s schedule this year for the first time in my homeschool journey. Not because I don’t have a gift for creating lesson plans and guides of my own, but because there are times when having all the control actually limits me more instead of giving me the freedom I need. I have to honestly ask myself if I would rather get all of the amazing insights offered in the schedule in a different order than I would choose, or risk missing some wonderful discussion tangent just so I can have my own checkboxes. The thought of using Sonlight as an open-and-go curriculum this year instead of pinching and pulling it to my own specifications is beginning to feel like a huge relief. I will still be using all of my own Language Arts materials, but those are far easier to organize and mold into our days.

Yes, I still eagerly look forward to the day when Sonlight offers electronic guides, and I’m still going to be pushing for the book study guides to be separated for maximum flexibility for homeschoolers. It is good business sense for Sonlight to offer the two different styles of Instructor Guides – one with everything laid out precisely so all you have to do is open the notebook and start reading, and one with separate book study guides that you can use at your own family’s pace and create your own lesson plans. It would be really nice if language arts went back to being an option instead of a requirement as well, but I don’t think I’ll hold my breath for that one.

I am going to take my massive blue Sonlight notebooks and go through them page by page this year. It will be an adventure for us, and it will keep me on track as I take my own college classes. I am thrilled about all the awesome books we will read together. Oh, the talks we’ll have!

There will be no flipping back and forth between pages and pages of material, so nurse on, Tirzah!