After finishing our first term with Ambleside Online and deciding to stick to it as our guide for the foreseeable future, I felt inspired to write down the reasons I am so pleased with it. Here they are, in no particular order.
Someone pointed out once that the parent of a child who’s a late reader and the parent of a child who’s an early reader have the exact same problem: most K-2nd curriculum is going to be completely inappropriate, because it’s all built around Learning To Read. Ambleside Online isn’t. If your child can read to themselves, great, but it’s really meant to be read aloud for the first few years. Not every 6 year old is ready to learn to read yet, and some have been reading for years. But I have yet to meet a healthy six or seven-year-old who wasn’t ready to have their mind awakened by great ideas in wonderful stories. Year 1 has proven equally appropriate for Duchess (7.5), who fills pages with exquisite handwriting in her free time, and Deux (6), who can read well but still struggles to remember how to form lower case letters, and I know kids who aren’t reading independently yet but love it, too. Reading and writing are dealt with separately, but the high literary quality of the stories means that whenever the child does learn to read (which takes so much less time if done when ready), they’ll have the rich vocabulary and understanding to handle higher level materials, instead of being held at basal reader material for years. There’s no reason why a six-year-old’s active mind should be limited by their inexperienced eyes.
2. It’s free.
Now, we did spend a bit of money buying a few books that we just couldn’t do without, but between electronic files and using our great library, even the cost of buying books has been very low–special effort has been made so that most of the books are fairly easy to find and/or public domain. (Many of the out-of-print ones are still quite common at libraries, so before you gasp at the second-hand price, check your library.) The curriculum plans themselves are free, and that includes a weekly schedule for the core subjects, resources for art, music, folksong, and hymn study, and lots of stuff people design and volunteer to supplement (like printer-ready files of all the art works to be studied each term, or Grooveshark playlists of the composer selections). And the money we are spending is mostly on books I want to own forever anyway.
3. It includes a lot of English History.
I know, this is the one that people love to hate. Why all this ancient and English history? I’m not going to offer an apologetic for it (though I do think it makes sense for anywhere in the Anglo-speaking world). I’m just going to say: my kids think English history is awesome. This is all the fault of Robin Hood.
4. It takes things slowly.
This is a big difference between Ambleside and almost every curriculum out there: you read the books really, really slowly. A chapter a week in the books you move through quickly. Some it’s once a month. This gives time for the stories to sink in, for the children to take the ideas and live with them. Good books, like love, should be taken easy.
5. The books are the master.
Most curricula the Plan is the master: Children need to study X, Y, and Z, and if we can find a good book on it great, if not, soldier on with something mediocre. Ambleside doesn’t settle for less than well-written, engaging literature in every subject and at every level. That means some topics might be skipped for now, if there’s just not a good book on the topic for that age. But you know what? You can’t study everything all the time. Better to concentrate on the best books. (Which is not to say that everyone will find every book delightful. But so far we’ve been very happy with them.)
6. It’s Christian without being preachy or prudish.
Both my husband and I were homeschooled in a curriculum that specialized in being both. Although we appreciated being homeschooled, we decided that was not the route we wanted to take. (Just this morning DOB was reminiscing about the lengthy chapter trying to establish that the Magi were astronomers not astrologers. Sorry, no.) Ambleside recommends regular, thorough Bible reading, and includes some books from a religious perspective, but it also includes secular science books and plenty of fairy tales, mythology, and other nurturing food for the imagination that is too often discounted by a certain brand of Christian homeschooler. Our folk song for this month is Carrickfergus, which includes the line, “For I’m drunk today, and I’m seldom sober . . . ” Let’s just say that would never have made it into the list when we were kids. (OK, nothing but hymns did. But the great thing with Ambleside is, we’re still learning the hymns, too.)
There are users of Ambleside from other faiths, too–you would probably want to modify slightly (obviously drop or replace the hymn and Bible study), but most of the books have a very broad
7. There’s a variety of voices.
This ties into the previous two points, but deserves its own. Textbooks pretty much all read the same. Many unit-study type curricula have a lot of writing from the author that introduces or holds together the main points. It’s monotonous and mind-deadening to always be reading the same voice. In Ambleside, there are only the books, and they are all different. Kipling doesn’t sound anything like Burgess, nor Holling like D’Aulaire. We learn how different authors play with language; we see things from new perspectives. (Yes, there’s a prejudice towards Western Civilization. What can I say? It’s in English. Obviously if you were teaching in Chinese you’d have a different set of resources. I also think there’s something far more honest about teaching a child about his own heritage first rather than this shallow pretense of multi-culturalism. You can better understand other people’s love for their own ways if you have something deeper in your heart than the current TV shows.)
8. It’s only as complicated as you want it to be.
Some people seem to LOVE doing complicated projects with their children. To you I say: have fun. Some people prefer to get school done and send the kids off to play (where they may or may not design their own fancy projects). I am firmly in the latter camp. Following the core curriculum of Ambleside is incredibly simple: Read, narrate. Lather, rinse, repeat. You can do as many or few fancy projects after that as you please. In our house, I like to see our readings turn up in their independent play. Interestingly, I find it is often several days or even weeks after the thing we read about that it finally comes out. I think ideas take a longer percolation time than the standard school setup of “read about it, do a project.” (I also concede to print out paper dolls or paper soldiers when I can find some that go along with the history lesson.)
9. It’s gentle for the littles, challenging for the big kids.
My Year 1 students spend only an hour and a half at school on a long day. (And yes, Deux still believes he has no time to play, poor child. Only eight hours a day! I think his trouble is that he has no time when compared to the number of ideas he has. A problem with which I identify.) But the time that is devoted is well spent on the best books with the best language (which the children devour because they’re fairy tales and stories of adventure). Looking ahead, by Year 9 they’re reading Winston Churchill, Thomas Paine, Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen, etc. This is why people entering in later years usually have to start in an earlier year–but the preparation is all there if you start at the beginning. I think most of the time we expect too much in the way of sitting still and grinding out papers from 6 year olds, and far too little in the way of actual thinking from teenagers.
10. Did I mention the books?
Then let me mention them again. The books I used to hide out in the attic and read when I was supposed to be doing school are now our school books. I know I learned more from them than I did from the workbooks. (My only fear is that having them endorsed will make the children love them a little less. Some risks we must take, however. They still seem to be enjoying them, although I admit they have not yet learned to love narrating them.)
And then, after I came up with ten, I remembered others I had wanted to put in, so here’s some extras:
11. It hits a nice sweet spot between structure and freedom.
There’s enough structure to keep moving, but not enough to get you overwhelmed if you’re not a very linear person. There are people who plan it out day by day, and people who just pick up the list for the week and do it when the spirit moves. The weekly organization helps keep you from getting too far ahead or behind in any one area. You don’t have to wade through pages of assignments to pick out which ones really matter, nor are you left to puzzle everything out on your own.
12. Despite what you may have heard, Ambleside and Charlotte Mason are perfectly appropriate for modern boys.
There’s a bit of a girls-in-long-skirts image to it which is quite arbitrary and I think an accident of illustration choices of some early Charlotte Mason proponents. Deux likes Lego Hero Factory, Nintendo DS (in moderation), and Monsters, Inc. And he likes to hear about famous battles and laugh at A. A. Milne’s poetry and go play in the woods. Usually pretending to be Robin Hood. There is nothing particularly girly about history or nature study or poetry or handcrafts, all of which have been practiced by manly men for centuries.