Paradigm shift: Curriculum is not something you buy


The following is a guest post written by Sarah Mackenzie of Amongst Lovely Things.

What if we’ve got it all wrong?

What if it doesn’t matter which books we use, which history projects we take on, how many lessons of math we accomplish in a year?

Homeschoolers spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about “curriculum,” but what if, when we compare spelling programs and choose math books, we aren’t really talking about curriculum at all?

Curriculum isn’t something we buy. It’s something we teach. Something we embody. Something we love.  It is the form and content of our children’s learning experiences.

Saxon Math isn’t the curriculum. It’s just the book that we use to teach the actual curriculum, which is: math.

If we started thinking about our children’s learning in terms of what we hope they will come to encounter in any given year rather than thinking of getting through a particular book or “covering” material, we free ourselves to learn far more than we could by binding ourselves to a set published resource. Of course we will use such resources to reach our goals — but the resource will be our servant, not our master.


Authors of curriculum resources are often wise and helpful in setting general standards and goals, but no one knows our particular children better than we do. No curriculum publisher could possibly understand our hopes and dreams for them — their strengths,  their weaknesses, the longings of their hearts.

We, however, do.

Why trade that out for 36 weeks of someone else’s?

We are an anxious bunch, we homeschoolers. We fret and worry over how much of the curriculum we can cover in a year.

But curriculum cannot be covered anymore than we could hope to go over all the mysteries of the universe in 12 academic years.


Curriculum is life, and life cannot be contained within the pages of a book.  Let’s not shrink this down from the splendor that it actually is. We have the opportunity here for wide expansive learning.

When our children look back on their childhood, what are they most likely to remember with pleasure? The history paper on the Hundred Years War? Or the family trip to the local museum taken on a rainy afternoon? The chapter in the science book about waterfowl, or the trumpeter swans seen on a weekend hike?

Intellectual learning is of tremendous value, of course, but in our seeking after it, let us not forget the importance of poetic knowledge. Poetic knowledge is that which we can only acquire through real experience — the rich deep knowing that happens down in our bones.


Those afternoons we forego the usual schedule to volunteer at a soup kitchen or shovel snow for the sick neighbor are of no less value than academic work. We know this at our core, but we forget when we get right down to the daily grind.

We give lip service, saying that we value service projects or family leisure but then leaving no room in our schedules for doing puzzles, taking long afternoon strolls, or making meals for the  mom with a new baby down the street.

Instead: live life. Fill it to the brim with love. Take your time, and talk about everything. Doing this in front of our kids, doing this with our kids —  this is the essence of poetic knowledge.

I’m not suggesting that we tack this on to our already crammed schedules. I’m suggesting that we clear the way and MAKE room. Forget about getting through every single lesson in the book between September and May. Do the next lesson, do it well, and give it our all.

But then do something else.

Don’t let published resources be the master of the curriculum.  When we realize that our family camping trip is ripe with learning opportunities, we come to value that week in August as much as we value a productive academic week in January.


Once we understand that the curriculum is actually far, far bigger than any published resource could ever be, the opportunities to let all of life become teacher explode before us. The doors of learning fling wide.

Our children are indeed learning all the time — sometimes it’s academic, sometimes it’s poetic. Our children need both. Let’s not slide into thinking that nothing is happening if we aren’t hitting the books.

The real curriculum, after all, is the curriculum of life.

How do you embrace the curriculum of life in your family?

Originally published on February 7, 2014.

About Sarah Mackenzie

Sarah is a smitten wife, mama of six (including twins!) and the author of Teaching from Rest: A Homeschooler’s Guide to Unshakable Peace.
She hosts the Read-Aloud Revival Podcast and spends her time running the vibrant, active membership community there.


  1. Yes, yes, yes! Agreed. Thanks for sharing.
    Kari Patterson’s latest post: The secret to freedom from the toxic comparison game…

  2. I just wrote about this the other day…my children’s curriculum is life- living life to the fullest. I’ve learned to step back and immerse themselves in projects of their own interests. I also have been doing a little strewing. Sometimes they’ll use what I put out- like a foam puzzle, science and literature books, and craft items- other things will go untouched. And that’s okay. I just want to open doors for them, but entering is all up to them. Sometimes they’ll enthusiastically do science experiments with me; other times they just want to do their own thing. Life IS learning, so whatever they choose to do is fine by me.
    Shelly’s latest post: Weekend Review: Breakthrough

    • Sorry…I meant step back AND WATCH THEM…it’s hard to write with children afoot!
      Shelly’s latest post: Weekend Review: Breakthrough

    • Melanie Rice says:

      Can you guys offer specifics on what kinds of projects you work on instead of curriculum?

      • Bridget Wilson Hall says:

        I think that’s the whole point – the projects she does would possibly (even probably!) not be suitable for your children. You need to look at your children, their ages, their strengths and weaknesses and MOST importantly of all imho their interests… then what might interest them, follow up what they’ve been doing, build on a strength or help with a weakness…
        I think this is typically more hard work that just folksong a book but more fulfilling in the end both for you AND your children…

  3. Beautiful article!! So true.
    Rebecca Reid’s latest post: Teaching with Technology Site of the Week:

  4. So beautiful, so true. What a gift to show our children their wild wonderful world, with the freedom to explore it in their own particular way.
    Rachel @ 6512 and growing’s latest post: The need to know

  5. Tamara Michel says:

    Very well stated, I loved it! I needed to hear this, thank you for sharing your thoughts. You are right, “curriculum is life”, this is why I decided to homeschool in the first place! I often have feelings of inadequacy, and teaching certain subjects becomes intimidating and overwhelming so I allow the workbooks to set my yearly schedule. Many times my children ask me when are we going to go on a walk, and I tell them, “After you get your school work done.”

  6. Beautiful article, Sarah! This is exactly the reason I like to keep our motto “living life together.” That’s where the action really is. It also means that working through bad attitudes about doing hard school and work is also part of the curriculum. 🙂 And, those bad attitudes aren’t only on the kids’ end!
    Mystie’s latest post: Education is a Life: Fortiter fideliter forsan feliciter, or Repentance

  7. When I was a teacher, we called them teachable moments.
    As a homeschooling mom, I call them life. 🙂
    Sallie’s latest post: How to Choose a Homeschool Convention

  8. That is actually the best kind of education which I learned about in graduate school. Using experiences to learn from. It just amazes me how so many homeschool moms are able to tap into this without any kind of advanced schooling.

  9. This is a great homeschooling mantra! Thanks for this post. ‘Peels the onion’ for me today!

  10. This is a beautiful post. The idea of “poetic” knowledge resonates with me. The funny thing is that my upbringing involved lots of wonderful experiences (the sort of things that built imagination and creativity) but slightly less academic organization than might have been best. In reaction, I think I’ve tended to over-emphasize my desire to “cover” “everything,” and I appreciate your reminder not to forget the whole picture.

  11. I just love this post Sarah. I agree completely that our children need all kinds of learning, and when we come to see the world as a classroom, there are so many amazing opportunities. 🙂
    Kara’s latest post: Feeling judged?

  12. May just be my new favorite thing you have ever written — which is saying a lot, you know. I want to think more about these goals and how to use resources and poetic knowledge to reach them.
    Pam @ Everyday Snapshots’s latest post: How to Make Fun Birthday Cakes without Food Coloring

  13. I love this post! Resonates so well with what we do in our homeschool.

    Loveena’s latest post:

  14. Thank-you for giving me a name for what you mean by “poetic knowledge”. This deep, soulful knowledge is so hard to pinpoint and so hard to appreciate from the outside. Only the new know-er can truly measure an experience of poetic knowledge. But it is those moments and experiences which most readily become who we are.
    Rachel at Stitched in Color’s latest post: Welcome, Southern Fabric!

    • Isn’t it true that if something isn’t measurable, we tend to devalue it? I think this is particularly true when it comes to our kids, and it’s a love-of-wisdom killer for sure, I think…

  15. Thank you for this reminder!
    Fran’s latest post: Reloved Table, CeCe Caldwell’s Paint

  16. Just yesterday I was fussing at the kids because they didn’t want to follow the “curriculum” I had laid out. I tried reminding myself, and them, that I was homeschooling (this is my first year) because God lead me to. I told myself, and the kids, that since He lead me to it, He would show me how I was to teach them. My children stopped, dropped, and prayed right then. Since that moment I have read 3 posts that encouraged me to keep going and not give up, and pointed me to a less stringent “style,” dare I say “unschooling.” I guess I know what I need to do, now to just be able to follow His instructions and let go of my own selfish control issues. Thank you for being a part of His plan in my family’s life, may He bless you abundantly.

  17. Sarah…I love this post so much. This is something I’ve been working on and learning quite a bit the past year. Beautiful message.
    Jill Foley’s latest post: Random 5 Friday ~ Snow

  18. Sarah, you sure do a tremendous job capturing what is truly important. I love how your thoughts open channels of grace. Thanks for sharing your wonderful concept of poetic knowledge!

  19. Beautiful & so true!

  20. Yes! Love this!
    I recently bought my first curriculum after a bout of anxiousness and the first thing it said was, look, you don’t need a curriculum. LOL 🙂 Still made me feel better 🙂

  21. This is so much win!
    I often compare curriculum to vitamin supplements. It’s in addition to the real life experiences. Experience and relationship are the healthy, wholesome foods of learning and books are supplements. You can’t live off a diet of vitamins and supplements alone. And it is far better to get your nutrition (aka learning) from real stuff when you can.

  22. This is the “vision” I have as I embark on this homeschooling journey. I love the term “poetic knowledge”, and I want this for my children!

  23. Departing from traditional curriculum is so freeing! The contributors at TheHomeSchoolMom have been posting in a series called “Instead of Curriculum” and there are some great ideas listed (check out our latest – “Bring Me Bad Writing” – it’s one of my favorites).

    • Maria Mirolyubova says:

      Dear Mary Ann,
      I wanted to say thank you for sharing the link to TheHomeSchoolMom site!!!! It is such a treasure chest!!! Our family has moved to the US from Ukraine a year and 8 months ago and all this time–I am very embarrassed to admit!–I have been procrastinating to figure out how to properly organize MYSELF first of all about homeschooling my now 6-year-old daughter and a 2.5-year-old son. I’m Russian and my husband is American and so far my homeschooling was Russian based. I need to switch now to the legal requirements of the state of Texas and put all my ducks in a row!!! Aaaaahhhh!!! I’m running out of time which is entirely my fault, of course… Again, I would like to say THANK YOU to all those precious people who worked on putting this glorious site together to help new people like me get started on this very exciting journey of homeschooling!!!! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  24. Sharon McKinney says:

    Thanks Sarah for a timely and encouraging post! Exactly what I needed to hear! I know these things but get caught up & forget! Many blessings to you & your family!

  25. I really love this. I’m so guilty of getting caught up in following the curriculum or trying to do what it seems like other home schoolers are doing. I needed this reminder, for sure! 🙂
    Jessica@ramblingsofamommy’s latest post: Treating Our Kids with Respect

  26. Oh well said!! Completely, completely agree with you!!! When I look back at my schooling with my college grads the moments we remember are our nature adventures (rambles) those winter afternoons reading and reading, the time we built the Redwall Abbey etc, all part of the puzzle, we do remember some of the more academic moments too but still all pieces of a fabric

  27. This is beautiful! It was just the thing I needed to read today…..
    I’ll be sharing this for sure!!

  28. exactly what I’ve been saying for years. only you just said it much more eloquently and succinctly. Thanks. 🙂

  29. Great points. We believe formal learning can bring happy memories too though 🙂

  30. In my experience you have to balance both the curricula and life. Focusing on life does no good if the children reach adulthood not ready for advanced education or pursuing their tangible dreams. On the other hand, when we focus on education and curricula to the extend of postponing or avoiding life, we lose opportunities to grow and dream. Finding a good balance took years and we’re still shifting from one side to the other as needed.

    Thank you for the thought provoking post.

  31. Really enjoyed this post. Right on! I never planned on homeschooling one of my kids, but deep down this, which you described as poetic knowledge, is what I wanted it to feel like.
    Thank you for the reminder.
    Basi’s latest post: January Updates

  32. I really needed this reminder. You are an angel!

  33. I really appreciate this post, and have been trying to do this throughout the year. Every so often I find myself wondering why we haven’t finished a book yet. I have to reframe: learning is happening no matter what page we are on.
    Cait Fitz @ My Little Poppies’s latest post: Homeschooling Under Construction REALLY Starts Tomorrow

  34. Yes. Absolutely agree! My dad always said (even when I was in college!), “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.”
    Johanna’s latest post: February 2015 read-alouds

  35. This is something of which I need to be reminded over and over. And over. It’s just so easy to get stuck in the weeds of finishing books and lists–especially, I find, as my kids become teenagers. After nine years of homeschooling, this remembering to live wide and deep is sometimes less automatic than it was in the beginning! Thanks for the nudge to stay aware and alive with my kids.
    Hannah’s latest post: The Power of Poetry

  36. I really, really love this! After many years of trial and error, reading and research, I have come to the realization that curriculum as we have come to call the packaged, preset lessons are not the answer to peace in our homeschool. Tuning into the child in front of us, embracing their strengths and honoring their challenges, and viewing life, with all its complexities, as the curriculum is the only way to have a true education. We are often attracted to the lesson plans that are all written out for us because they give us the notion that if we follow them our children will be well-educated. While these resources certainly have their place, we must look beyond them and see them as guide and inspiration and instead keep at the forefront the relationship, ours with our child and our child’s with knowledge. Do they seek it? Hunger for it? Notice what is truthful and beautiful? That, in my eyes is the curriculum, and all other things are resources to help us in that mission. Thanks so much for sharing this post. It is such a good reminder!
    Angela Awald’s latest post: The Big Book Pile-Up Printables

  37. Wow does this resonate with me right now. Thank you! It is so easy to become chained to the materials and feel like you need to complete a certain amount of things to feel like you’re “doing enough” or feel guilty when you spend time not doing curriculum-based things. I’ve had many a day when I’ve felt like it’s been a failure because we didn’t check off x number of tasks or finish all the lessons in a book. Partly because it feels like quitting and partly because it feels like a waste of $ not to use them even though it’s trying to fit the kid to the materials rather than just going with what works. Whenever we’ve veered away from the purchased materials and I’ve stopped watching the clock it’s been more fun and more memorable and they’ve been excited about what they’ve learned. Yet I always feel like we need to come back to the grind or we’re not doing enough/keeping up with where they need to be. I realize it is crazy because we homeschool to get away from the standard school format and I keep falling into that trap over & over. I’ve been planning to take a week off from our normal routine and get to the things that always get pushed off as not as critical like trips out, creative projects, games, etc. and this post reaffirms that’s the right decision. It’s my hope that I may finally be able to let the hold packaged curriculum has had on us go and maybe being “off the curriculum” will be our new normal.
    Cheryl @ Sew Can Do’s latest post: March’s First Craftastic Monday Link Party!

  38. Preach it, Sarah! As a former classroom teacher, I feel just as strongly about this as you do.
    Caroline Starr Rose’s latest post: Navigating a Debut Year: Public Life

  39. wow, man. i just had a major melt-down today about all the worry…am i doing enough, too much? do the kids have enough “lesson” time? too much? and i really needed this perspective today. so badly. THANK YOU!

  40. This is one of the best homeschooling posts I’ve read in a long time! Wow. Amen and Amen! Thank you for sharing your heart and so, so much truth!

  41. I love this post. People look at me like I am crazy when I say that we don’t use any specific curriculum, but that we learn what is interesting to us. I think that they think this means we don’t do anything. But in actuality we do so much more. We get to go as deep or as shallow into any topic that we want and my children keep the knowledge and build off of it instead of forgetting unimportant details that might be on quiz. We still have history, science, math, etc. but it isn’t on a worksheet or in a book. It is our life.

    • Us exactly! Sometimes I worry we’re not doing enough. Then when she takes the CAT test at the end of the “school year” (required by our state), she scores at least 3 or 4 yrs above grade level!

  42. This is so true- I teach college ESL part-time and I am forever developing my classes- you can never just choose a book and be done with it…That is one reason teaching/helping students learn an exciting thing!
    priest’s wife (@byzcathwife)’s latest post: 7 quick takes: good films & television shows for teen girls

  43. Beautiful! I totally agree. Thanks for conveying this idea so eloquently. We embrace life learning by volunteering at the animal shelter during the “school day”. My aspergers child has a heart of gold, a deep passion for animals, and social awkwardness. When he helps with those shelter animals, he blossoms. He helps people pick out cats to adopt, he educates strangers on animal care while making eye contact (difficult for him) and he learns what real sacrificial love is. There is always time in our curriculum for that.

  44. Today my daughter asked me to teach her to sew. We were supposed to be doing math and a million other things. Because of this and other things that have been working on my heart we put the books down. Instead we created, we bonded, I practiced patience at her imperfect attempts. It was both stressful and freeing.

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