Homeschooling in Hard Times: Doing More With Less

Homeschooling on a shoestring budget
The economic downturn has had an impact on virtually every segment of society, and the homeschool community is no exception. In fact, because many homeschooling families rely on a single income, they may even be more susceptible to the effects of unemployment or reduced earnings than the average household. And while we’re generally a pretty frugal crowd anyway, perhaps if we pool our knowledge we can come up with additional ways to trim costs, expand options, and remain faithful to our calling in spite of hardships. With that thought in mind, here are a few of my own random ideas on the matter.

Product Options

Apologia Biology Does textbook edition matter? Sometimes quite a lot, other times, not so much. For instance, the differences between the 1st edition and 2nd edition of Apologia’s Exploring Creation with Biology are largely related to cosmetics and convenience. Our family has used both, and we feel confident that either one would provide comprehensive, up-to-date instruction in the subject.

Conversely, the difference between the 2nd and 3rd editions of Saxon Math 8/7 are drastic. The former basically provided a holding pattern/continuation of the arithmetic found in Math 7/6 for students who were not intellectually prepared to move on to Algebra. The updated 3rd edition has been completely revamped to include significant pre-algebra instruction and greater challenge overall. Either one may fit well with your family’s goals, but it’s important to know the difference.

If a used older edition will work just as well at a fraction of the cost, the money you save can be spent in areas where there’s less flexibility with options. Homeschool message boards are a good place to get the scoop on edition differences. Homeschoolers are notoriously generous with their expertise, so asking for opinions on an active board will likely yield valuable information. Publishers and retailers are also usually willing to share insights. At Finders-Keepers, we often chat with customers who are just trying to get a feel for their options before they make a purchase.

One word of caution about old editions: Try to purchase the essential elements all at once. Otherwise, you may end up with a fabulous textbook for which answer keys or student workbooks are impossible to find.

Vintage materials– Nobody loves a vintage textbook more than me. But let’s face it–if you use an antiquated curriculum for certain subjects, there will be problems later on. Some “heritage” resources provide high quality content that is truly timeless. Others are decidedly obsolete, no matter how charming. Such resources are better reserved for a supplementary glimpse into the past rather than a source of primary instruction. For example, we used and enjoyed A Child’s History of the World by V.M. Hillyer, but our copy of A Child’s Geography of the World by the same author was relegated to novelty status.

Sourcing Options – Purchasing

Buying Used – For most of us, the first line of cost cutting measures is buying used curricula. Online swap boards at sites such as VegSource, The Well Trained Mind, Homeschool Classifieds, HSLDA, and Homeschool Christian, can be a gold mine for bargain hunters. Ebay is still a good option, but is somewhat less lucrative since they outlawed teacher’s manuals. (This policy was recently reversed.) Some regional homeschool groups sponsor used book sales in conjunction with their homeschool conventions, and local associations may provide an avenue for impromptu transactions or newsletter classifieds.

Discount suppliers are the usually the next line of homeschool fiscal defense. Many are quite good, but watch out for shopping surprises like jacked up shipping costs, undisclosed sales tax expenses, shipping delays/inconsistent availability, or non-existent customer service. We’ve been on the buying end of all these issues at one time or another, and we know they can quickly turn a bargain buy into a regrettable fiasco. A special word of caution is in order for Rosetta Stone language software: The marketplace is absolutely flooded with pirated copies. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is! If you’re in doubt about a potential purchase, take a quick look at this Rosetta Stone Safe & Smart Buying Guide.

If buying new is your only option, you can sometimes squeeze out a bit of extra savings by utilizing or even stacking consumer incentives. Rewards credit cards can sometimes be coupled with benefits such as Bing Cashback, Ebates, Big Crumbs, etc. to shave off a few more dollars. Of course, it’s always important to focus on the final delivered price when comparison shopping.

Sourcing Options – Borrowing

Public Library – Yes, this is obvious. But if you’re like me, you may have had previous experience with an under-funded, inconvenient, and poorly stocked library that was more trouble than it was worth. I recently became reacquainted with our county library and was pleasantly surprised at how far it had come. The entire catalog is available online, books can be perused, reserved, or renewed online, and the interlibrary and intralibrary loan procedures have been streamlined. Furthermore, the shelves have been stocked up, so quality materials are always readily available.

Homeschool Lending Library – Many homeschool groups have lending libraries that offer curricula to members free of charge. Though our own association is of modest size, our lending library is impressive, and a family could definitely make do with its resources in a pinch.

Alternating Grade Swaps – Seek out likeminded local homeschooling families who have kids a year older and/or a year younger than yours, and work out an arrangement to swap out materials from one year to the next. Some of our loyal Shurley, Saxon, and Apologia customers do this, and it works out quite well. One family buys the odd grade level kits, the other picks up the evens, and they switch out non-consumable components every year.

Put Out the Word – If you are plugged in to your local homeschool community, let people know that your budget is stretched to its limit and you’d be grateful for the opportunity to borrow materials. You may even be able to work out a bartering arrangement with services such as babysitting or tutoring to help earn used books.

Public School Materials – This would not be a first choice for most of us, and administration hostility toward homeschoolers makes it an impossibility for many, but if you’re in a school district that’s homeschool friendly you may be able to borrow textbooks from the system. Obviously great care is warranted when considering such materials, but some extra effort spent editing and enhancing a public school text may be just the investment that enables you to continue homeschooling when times are lean.

Sourcing Options – Do It Yourself

Unit Study – I’ll never forget the day I figured out that teaching young children isn’t rocket science, and that putting together a unit study could actually be fun. That was many years ago. I’m working on a unit study for my grandkids right now, and though it does require a good bit of time and energy, it allows me to custom-fit a lesson plan that is precisely suited to their needs. And did I mention? It’s cheap!

Borrowing From a Table of Contents – The prospect of striking out on your own may be intimidating because of an over-abundance of material rather than a lack thereof. Borrowing guidelines from a Scope and Sequence or Table of Contents for a quality course can offer a template for appropriate instruction using free online materials. Honing in on what to study and in what order can simplify the planning process and prevent excessive, unfocused rabbit chasing.

4-H as a Spine – 4-H is an outstanding resource, and I don’t know why homeschoolers don’t talk about it more. The cost is absolutely minimal. If you want to join a 4-H club, you’ll have access to guided instruction from the leader as well as group learning opportunities. But I’m more excited about their printed resources than club activities. 4-H Curriculum Publications span a wide variety of subjects and age groups, can be ordered online, and they’re dirt cheap. They don’t include all the direct instruction you’ll need, but they do provide a structured lesson path, some direct instruction, worksheets, and activity/project suggestions. By adding a quality text or two from the library you can have everything you need to study anything from entomology to wind energy.

Exciting Enrichments

Apprenticeships – At a time when labor costs are crushing businesses and education expenses are straining families, the apprenticeship arrangement is more practical than ever. An expert in a particular field can exchange his time spent training for the free labor of a trustworthy student. It can be an informal, short term situation, or something more substantial. Put away your preconceived notions about which trades might be well suited for an apprentice and imagine the possibilities.

Contests –It’s amazing how many student contests are going on at any given time, in virtually every subject area. You could really beef up a school year just by having your students prepare and submit entries. And who knows? They might even win some cash and prizes! Some contests provide lesson plans and teaching scripts for student projects. For instance, last year’s “Invention Dimension” contest offered a complete Educator’s Guide and Workbook, both of which were available to download free online. I was so impressed with these particular resources that I saved copies to adapt for use in future school projects. And of course, the Finders-Keepers Facebook Page has drawings for free homeschool curriculum materials on a regular basis.

BotballBotball is an outstanding opportunity for students who are interested in technology:

“The Botball Educational Robotics Program gives students skills, experience, and opportunities to succeed as they work in teams to design, build and program a pair of autonomous robots for regional and international competitions.”

Our son (who is now a computer programmer) was very active in Botball, and it would be hard to overstate the impact this experience had on him. Under the leadership of a local computer science professor, he learned about project management, time management, proper documentation, the importance of teamwork and good sportsmanship, and, oh yeah…programming.

Website Resources – There seems to be no limit to the number of websites offering quality instruction for students—both in terms of printable resources and online instruction & activities.

Commercial, government, and non-profit organizations all seem to be scrambling to reach this internet-oriented generation, and many of the pages are quite good. Of course, this vast realm of information can be overwhelming, so I prefer to think first about what I need to teach, and then consider what agency or company might be a trustworthy authority on the matter and go from there. For instance, for family preparedness, you could visit the FEMA website and utilize their FEMA for Kids activities. The USDA Youth Resources are helpful for nutrition instruction, as is some of the information in the Kraft Foods Kids’ section. The National Digital Science Library is a clearinghouse of information, featuring links to all sorts of science-related websites. (Just watch out for worldview bias.)

Thinking outside the box – Sometimes all you really need is some time to think about how to teach a particular concept creatively. I was recently trying to come up with a good way for my grandson to learn about the different types of rooster combs. After a great deal of fruitless searching online, I decided to step away from my computer and just think about it for a few minutes. Within moments the idea of “Mr. Egg Head” came to mind, in which he could mold the various comb shapes using an egg as his model chicken head. It was a minor thing, but it reminded me how important a bit of intentional contemplation can be to the creative process.

Concurrent Enrollment – This is only an option if you are located near a homeschool-friendly college or university, and it can be very expensive. However, some institutions—including the one nearest our family—offer partial scholarships for concurrent enrollment students. The cost isn’t exactly peanuts, but for a mature student it’s a more economical option for studying subjects that would otherwise require a major investment in specialized equipment and instructional materials.

Cooperative Extension Service – These ”county agent” offices provide instructional publications on subjects related to health & nutrition, home & garden, natural resources, agriculture, and more. While the content is geared toward adults, it would be appropriate for use with upper level students, and would be practical preparation for running their own households someday.

Master Gardener Course – This is actually part of the Cooperative Extension Service, but it’s such a great opportunity that it deserves a mention of its own. In exchange for a reasonable notebook fee and 40 hours of volunteer gardening labor (still more training!) over the course of the subsequent year, you can gain access to intensive horticultural instruction that’s taught by experts and specifically geared toward your climate. My youngest daughter and I completed Master Gardener training when she was in 11th grade, and I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of the program.

This is just a handful of ideas to consider. Hopefully as families discover new ways to achieve their goals without breaking their banks, the homeschool community will be marked by insightful exchanges, heartfelt encouragement, and a victorious view of the future.

www.finders-keepers.net

Into gardening? Check out our FREE activity sheets on garden beneficials to help kids identify and appreciate the good guys.

I’m writing a gardening module for my grandkids (as part of a study on self-sufficient living), and I’ve put together a little activity to introduce them to garden beneficials. Since many fellow homeschoolers are also interested in gardening—specifically using sensible, sustainable practices—I thought I’d share it with our online friends.

The Beneficials’ Bios page gives a brief description of some common garden helpers and how they work for us. You can refer to the pictures on the Beneficials Bingo sheet as you read about each one. When you’re finished, you’re ready to head outside for a scavenger hunt and a game of Beneficials Bingo. We’ve rearranged the pictures on the Bingo pages to create different versions for those who’ll have more than one student participating. Here are the different pages: Beneficials Bingo Card 1 Beneficials Bingo Card 2 Beneficials Bingo Card 3

This FREE Lilly the Ladybug Coloring/Activity Book from Earthbound Farms also makes a great introduction to the basics of organic farming.

And finally, if the height of summer has you fighting a losing battle with weeds and water loss, you might want to check out our previous post on recycling cardboard as garden mulch.

www.finders-keepers.net

Homemade Soothing Oatmeal Bath

 I know I’m a little late coming to this party, but I just figured out I could make my own oatmeal “soothing bath treatment” for pennies on the dollar. 

My husband battles dry winter skin every year, and we recently discovered that Aveeno’s Soothing Bath Treatment provides tremendous relief from the itch.  But ouch!  Are those little packets ever expensive! (87 cents each) He checked the ingredients:  100% Colloidal Oatmeal.  We Googled “colloidal” and found out that this just means  the oatmeal has been ground into a fine powder, so as to stay dispersed in the water.  I immediately thought of my trusty kitchen appliances and figured we could surely make our own.

After reading a blog post on the subject, I was ready to give it a try.  I added 3 cups of store brand oats to my food processor and whirled them into a powder.  Next, I sifted the powder since I was hoping for extra-fine results, but I understand this step is optional.  That’s all there was to it.  The recommended test for fineness was to stir one tablespoon of powder into a glass of water and see whether it turns the liquid milky (good) or just sinks to the bottom (bad).  Hooray!  We passed the test!

But the real test came when my husband tried it for the first time.  He used the same amount that was in each Aveeno packet:  ½ cup.  It worked great, and he was really glad that he could use the treatment as often as he wanted without concern for the cost.

Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 7:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Adventures in Repurposing: Cardboard Mulch

For more and more families, online shopping is becoming the norm rather than the exception. But when the delivery truck leaves and the packages are emptied, shoppers are left with an inconvenient remnant: a pile of cardboard boxes. The good news is that if there are any areas in your yard where you grow things on purpose—or where you want to make sure nothing grows at all—you can turn those boxes from burden to blessing by using them as mulch.

Whether you have a large vegetable garden or a small bed of flowers, some form of mulch is probably advisable to help retain moisture, prevent weed growth, and keep topsoil in its place. Mid to late winter is the perfect time for a preemptive strike against the weeds and seeds that are now lying dormant. Since I’m kind of obsessed with using free materials to solve problems, I’ve tried a lot of different mulching experiments. (I’ll spare you the details of the sweet gum ball fiasco of ‘05.) So I was relieved to come across a method that worked so well, was so easy, cost so little, and solved a disposal problem.

The concept of cardboard sheet mulching is simple: Lay down flattened boxes in any area in need of mulch. Overlap the edges so tenacious weeds can’t find their way through a crack. Small boxes fit well between individual plants, and larger boxes are great for pathways between garden rows or for large areas, such as landscape islands. We were thrilled to discover that our seemingly endless supply of Apologia Science shipping boxes fit perfectly between our garden rows.

A quality box will last most of the growing season, but it will decompose over the course of several months. This is a great bonus if you need to add organic matter to your soil. If you plan to leave the cardboard in place, you’ll want to remove any plastic tape or shiny labels, as these won’t break down well. Otherwise, you can simply put the boxes in place, tape and all, and remove them when you’re ready to revamp the area. I like to wet the cardboard before placement, as this makes it conform more readily to the contours of the ground, and it prevents any existing soil moisture from being wicked away by the cardboard.
Once you get your layer of cardboard in place, you’ll notice that things look really, really ugly. Unless aesthetics mean absolutely nothing to you, you’ll probably want to add a superficial layer of secondary mulch. In our garden, we add a 2” cover layer—about ¼ of what would be required as a primary mulch. We’ll use just about any natural material that’s available free or cheap–maple leaves, pine straw, pine bark, hay, or as shown in the photo, compost. Then everything can be tilled into the soil together when the time comes.

If you have an area that’s already sufficiently mulched, you can extend the life and efficacy of the mulch by adding a cardboard underlayer. Simply scrape aside the existing mulch, lay down the cardboard, and replace the mulch, one small section at a time.

Cardboard sheet mulching has provided us with better weed control and moisture retention than any other method we’ve tried, and our earthworm population seems to thrive beneath it as well. It also reduces the soil compaction caused by foot traffic. Perhaps most importantly, we feel good about the fact that we’re taking one tiny step toward responsible care of the world with which we have been entrusted. Reusing the “trash” that we already have rather than purchasing a new product (such as weed control fabric) saves an additional manufacturing process, commercial transport, and dollars that could be put to better use elsewhere.