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?

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 can usually be found hiding behind a camera lens or writing about vibrant and passionate motherhood at Amongst Lovely Things. Hear her speak at any of the upcoming Great Homeschool Conventions.


  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

  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).

  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.

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