Spotlight on Online Homeschool Supply Websites: Homeschool Buyer’s Co-op

Christmas is just around the corner, and while most people don’t really think of homeschooling supplies as Santa’s first choice of a gift, there are many wonderful books, science kits, art supplies, and unique online programs that would delight most children and provide welcome relief to a parent’s strained homeschool budget.

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Throughout the years, I have discovered many incredibly useful, online, homeschool suppliers, and I thought this holiday season would be a good time to introduce everyone to a few of my absolute favorites. I have relied on these sites not only for the purchase of outstanding materials but also for research and inspiration in the development of Aristotle and Archimedes’ various lesson plans. I will be featuring one site per week for the next four weeks.

This week’s featured favorite “go-to” resource for finding great curricula and loads of inspiration in absolutely every subject is the Homeschool Buyer’s Co-op. This incredible service was started by Brett Walker, a homeschooling father, who recognized that homeschooling individuals could receive similar purchasing discounts to those enjoyed by many school districts by working together as a large buying group. The co-op is completely free to join though their website can be viewed in its entirety without joining the group giving potential members an opportunity to see what types of products and savings are offered before deciding to register. Joining the co-op requires no commitment from you; it simply offers you the ability to make purchases through the co-op’s very user-friendly website.

The Homeschool Buyer’s Co-op offers a myriad of products in virtually every subject homeschoolers study from world languages, math and science, art and music, and history and social studies. They even offer deals on special needs products and driver’s training programs. The various offerings include access to online programs such as Plato Science, Adaptive Learning, or Youth Digital, access to discounted purchases and delivery of physical textbooks, math manipulatives, or science equipment, and access to discounted purchases and immediate download of educational pdf files. While many of the programs are available only for a limited period of time or require a minimum number of buyers, I have found that most products become available multiple times a year at the maximum discounted rate due to the popularity of this service. They also feature many free products and a “SmartPoints” program for additional savings.

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Each product has a detailed description of the item with links to the developer’s website for additional information. The website will alert you to opportunities to try a product prior to purchase if such a trial is available through the product’s developer. The co-op’s listing clearly indicates whether the item is a physical product to be mailed to you, an access code, or a downloadable file and details the time frame for delivery of the product as well as the price of the item. The co-op covers its expenses by charging a small fee (usually in the one to five dollar range) on top of the product’s listed price. This additional fee is clearly disclosed in the product’s listing so the buyer knows exactly what his or her costs will be when assessing whether or not to purchase a specific item.

I have purchased many products through the Homeschool Buyer’s Co-op and have always had a smooth and easy transaction. The one time an access code did not immediately appear in my mailbox was a situation which their customer service representative corrected in a matter of minutes. The savings I have gained from this site has allowed me to purchase additional materials for our school that have significantly enriched our overall homeschool experience.

One of the best aspects of this wonderful service is the ability to thoroughly evaluate a product before purchasing it and to assess a large number of similar products in one sitting. For example, when searching for a science curriculum, I prefer a secular program. At the Homeschool Buyer’s Co-op, I can easily review a product, and if I find that the curriculum in question is religiously based, I can simply move to the next product on the page. It really is a wonderful resource for finding a large variety of materials within a given subject, and it has frequently been a valuable reference for finding a number of different types of products to complete an area of study.

Some of the products we have purchased through the co-op have been subscriptions to Thinkwell math programs, Wordly Wise, Intellego Unit Studies, and Driver’s Education. Many of these programs were purchased at a significant discount and all were immediately available and problem-free transactions.

I hope you will stop by the Homeschool Buyer’s Co-op and spend some time browsing its many offerings. You just might find a gift or two for the special people in your life!

Next week we’ll look at my favorite science supply site: Home Science Tools

Spelling with Dyslexia and CAPD

Archimedes was a brave man. After all, he dunked the king’s crown in his bathtub, designed weapons to keep the vast roman army at bay, and reputedly ordered said army to pause prior to executing him so he could complete his final set of calculations. My Archimedes is also brave in his own small way. Each day he must face numerous tasks that most would consider easy but which are, in fact, extremely difficult given his numerous disabilities. He generally approaches each of these obstacles with a smile and quiet determination. There is, however, one thing that will strike terror into his heart like no other and crush any sense of achievement and fortitude he has managed to muster that day. No, not monsters under the bed, not broccoli, not politics, not even a trip to the dentist (though that is a close second). No, that unspeakable thing is – spelling.

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Spelling has been his archnemesis since early childhood, but there are several good reasons for this. My Archimedes has central auditory processing disorder and dyslexia. He also possesses a very, very strong visual-spatial learning style. Most people are reasonably familiar with dyslexia, a disorder in which the orientation of letters and numbers in words and equations appears inverted and transposed. Central auditory processing disorder or CAPD is a less well-known but equally frustrating condition. In CAPD the ears are fully capable of detecting all the volumes and pitches of normal hearing, but the brain routinely and inconsistently misinterprets the information it receives. My Archimedes cannot reliably hear all the sounds in the words we speak and is often confused as to what people are saying. You may declare, “The cat is soft and furry,” but he hears, “Ton cap is often hurry.”

Needless to say, sounding out words, recognizing common diagraphs, and spelling phonetically are incredibly difficult for anyone with this combination of disorders, and, unfortunately, most spelling curricula rely heavily on the aforementioned techniques. While there are a number of curriculums that focus on helping students with either dyslexia or CAPD, there are virtually none that address both issues simultaneously and effectively. Thus, we do what homeschoolers do and adapt existing programs to better fit our needs or even resort to creating entirely new ones. This method of customizing study materials has been incredibly successful in many of the subjects we have investigated, but I must admit, we are still struggling a lot with this spelling monster. I found great comfort in the list of famous authors (Agatha Christie), world leaders (Winston Churchill), businessmen (Charles Schwab), and entertainers (Walt Disney), just to name a few, that site director Carolyn K. identified in her article “Twice Exceptional = Exceptional Squared!” at Hoagie’s Gifted Education Page. There is hope for the spelling-challenged!

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One of the programs we tried early on was All About Spelling, a very comprehensive program designed to address spelling visually, auditorily, and kinesthetically. It is a beautifully composed, very thorough, and user-friendly program in my humble opinion. It’s use of color-coded spelling tiles was especially appealing to my hands-on, visual Archimedes, but because he has disabilities in two of the three pathways this curriculum utilizes, we weren’t as successful as we had hoped. Remember, it is extremely difficult to associate a letter or letter combination with a sound if the sound you hear is different each time and the letters change orientation in an inconsistent way – no fault of the program, just a reality of Archimedes’ learning style.

A couple of years ago during a late-night, stress-inducing search for help in this area, I stumbled upon a video presented by Dianne Craft, a veteran special education teacher, who seemed to really understand CAPD, dyslexia, and many other learning challenges. In the video, Ms. Craft demonstrates a technique of drawing a picture which represents the meaning of the word but also reflects the physical shape of the word. It also attaches a simple story to the picture to help give the student a way to remember the details of the drawing and thus the letters of the word. I thought the idea was brilliant, and dutifully began using the process with Archimedes. He liked the technique and initially responded quite well to it, but drawing and coloring are extremely difficult with his neuromuscular difficulties, dysgraphia, and OCD, and the frustration of completing each picture quickly overshadowed any progress he gained in remembering the spelling of the word. I soon learned that having Archimedes do the mental work of determining what image he would choose for the word and then having me do the actual work of drawing it for him to later color worked the best. The only real drawback to this system was that eventually he tired of the process and certain words (in fact, many words) were pretty difficult to depict easily. I recently saw that Ms. Craft has launched a very informative website we and online store, and I am seriously considering purchasing her Brain Integration Therapy book to see if some of her additional techniques might serve to deal with Archimedes’ multiple learning disabilities more effectively. Both Archimedes and Aristotle benefited tremendously from the many integrative therapies employed by their amazing occupational therapists, and I have high hopes that Ms. Craft’s recommendations will have a similar positive impact for us.

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There are times when homeschooling parents have to come up with completely new curriculum on their own. Each parent knows his or her own child’s skills and weaknesses and also knows how that child has responded to each program he or she has tried. I have often had to create my own programs using combinations of techniques and pieces of multiple curricula that I know my children respond to. Sometimes these things work spectacularly. Other times they fail equally spectacularly, but each time I learn a little bit more about how my children process information. And so, I am in the process of creating a spelling program for Archimedes that will play to his strengths and incorporate strategies that seem to work for him. I will be using the Dragon speech recognition software, keyboarding, patterning, and color-coding. When the details are done, and Archimedes and I have tested it out, I will share the method and let you know if it worked or not.

There are many great spelling resources on the market and on the internet, and though most do not exactly fit my Archimedes’ needs, they all have certain qualities that work very well for many students. The key is to identify those effective qualities and then modify the program to fit your individual child’s learning style. Sometimes you’ll have to take those qualities and use them to design something of your own making. This can be a difficult process, and it can be very frustrating to abandon a curriculum you’ve invested in financially and emotionally, but the rewards when your child finally conquers a difficult subject are indescribable. Please, feel free to share your successes and frustrations with the specialized materials you have had to develop for your own children in the comments! I would love to hear about them!

We’re Secular but Are Grateful for Christian Curricula

My husband and I both come from families with one religious parent and one not-so-religious parent. Our families also come from two, very different, fundamental religions. We are both fairly spiritual people, but we do not follow the specific doctrines of any particular religion, and, as such, we have chosen to provide a secular education to our two boys. We believe in teaching Aristotle and Archimedes about the histories, beliefs, and practices of as many of the world’s religions as possible while demonstrating the way to be kind and honorable people who are compassionate, giving, and accepting of all others regardless of their religion, race, or lifestyle.

For anyone just entering the homeschooling world, you will find your search for secular materials and curriculum to be a little daunting. Christian families were among the first to homeschool their children in modern times and have subsequently developed a significant proportion of the homeschool curricula currently available on the market. While it is relatively easy to purchase the student textbooks used in many public schools, it is sometimes extremely difficult to acquire the accompanying teacher’s manual. In addition, these books are targeted for large groups of students and are structured in a manner that frequently wasn’t working well for our children in the first place. The Christian curricula, on the other hand, are often written with a single child as student and a single parent as teacher in mind. Student texts, teacher manuals, and appropriate supplies are consistently packaged together for ease of use in the homeschool environment.

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I have found over the years that there are many really wonderful Christian programs that can easily be adapted to a secular curriculum or which provide excellent opportunities for discussion about religion and its influence on one’s interpretation of data and world events. These curricula are well-written and are easy to implement as they are intended to be used in a home setting with a limited number of students and with supplies that are readily available outside of brick and mortar classrooms.

One of the curricula that stands out for me is Apologia Educational Ministries’ Exploring Creation with Biology course that I used for Aristotle’s study of high school biology. The text is written by Dr. Jay L. Wile who has a very engaging writing style and a definite ability to explain complex concepts in a very down-to-earth way. He expressly states his firm belief in creation and frequently references God in his writing, but he does also work to present the evolutionist’s point of view throughout his text (arguably for the purpose of refuting it, but at least it is actually recognized). Aristotle responded well to the conversational style of the book, the pacing of the course work, and the clear explanations of topics that had previously been difficult for him to grasp. I responded well to the course’s ease of implementation, the convenient availability of all the materials, and my complete happiness in Aristotle’s success. This curriculum also benefits from the presence of many supplemental products such as videos and laboratory supplies which are widely available on the internet in both new and used condition and can serve to really enrich the student’s experience with the course.

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For some secular educators, the religious perspective of this program may be counter to their educational goals. However, I found that the creationist versus evolutionist commentary was a terrific platform for us to explore the creation beliefs of various religions and cultures. It also afforded us a concrete example of how two different ideologies can examine the same set of data (the fossil record, for example) and come to completely different conclusions. I felt this was an invaluable lesson for Aristotle as there will be many times in his life where he will have to carefully evaluate information before drawing any conclusions, all while being acutely aware of his own and others’ unique biases.

Another group of wonderfully composed Christian programs are the history curricula developed by Beautiful Feet Books. These programs utilize a detailed study guide, complete with discussion and essay questions, combined with a great variety of related works of literature. Students read age-appropriate biographies, historical fiction, personal accounts of daily life, reviews of art and architecture, and detailed descriptions and analysis of world events for whatever time period the study guide is addressing. Aristotle and Archimedes particularly liked the various biographies and found the general history texts by Genevieve Foster to be so much more interesting than standard textbooks.

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The creators of this curriculum, Russell and Rea Berg, are Christian and do incorporate religion into their study guides both through the use of authors with biblical worldviews and the use of essay questions that specifically refer to scripture. However, almost all of the literature used in this program (at least for the study guides we used) is not overtly Christian and includes descriptions and discussions of cultures and religions that are not based on Christianity. In addition, the list of discussion and essay questions provided with each lesson is extensive with only a couple of questions specifically related to biblical teachings or scripture, and these can easily be excluded from the secular student’s course work without compromising their complete understanding of the historical topic being studied.

These are not the only programs that have worked well within our secular academic plan, but they serve to demonstrate that religiously based curricula can often be adapted to non-religious studies and provide enormous benefits to homeschooling families. The time and frustration saved in modifying an already well-researched and well-written product as opposed to creating your own curriculum cannot be overlooked. To be sure, there are an equal number of Christian or other religiously-based programs that really don’t lend themselves to use in secular situations, but before you eliminate a particular curriculum from your syllabus, give it a thorough examination. You may find that you can easily modify it to fit your secular needs. Yes, we’re secular, but we are grateful for the many Christian curricula that have been a successful part of our homeschool.