In my last post, It's Not About the Books, I talked about group class situations, and how the books do not reveal the real nature of the class. Here, I'll give solid examples from our own program (Challenge) of how the books do not equal the sum total of what we actually get from these classes. I'll also include important things to look for in a class, rather than judging it by its books.
The Challenge program uses the Saxon Math series to teach Math. Challenge A uses Saxon 8/7, Challenge B uses Algebra 1/2, Challenge 1 uses Algebra 1, and so on. This is where anyone that might entertain Challenge stops. "Nope. Not gonna work. We hate Saxon. We use XYX Math. My child is 2 levels above Saxon 8/7. My child is 2 levels below Saxon 8/7." You might be surprised to know that all of the Challenge students come to class having used whatever math program and level is right for them. For instance, while the class used Saxon 8/7, my daughter used Math U See Algebra. In fact, all of the students were in different levels, different programs, or both! The tutor's aim, however, is to use the Saxon 8/7 lessons as a launching board for class discussion. This would involve math laws, different ways of tackling a math problem, speed drills, games, and sometimes the students even brought their own problems in and taught it to the class. Was reviewing fractions, decimals, pre-algebra topics, and math laws a detriment to my daughter? Not at all!
If you are researching a similar class and the math does not quite match up with your student's needs, make sure you ask the teacher more about the dynamics of the class. Will this particular text and level be used, or is it open to each student using their own math? Most people recognize that each student is unique in their own math skills and text preference. Make sure you find out, first, before writing a class off as not a good fit.
Lost Tools of Writing
Challenge A, B and 1 use Lost Tools of Writing, published by Circe Institute. It can be hard to understand the basic tenants of a writing program just by perusing the book, especially if there is a "method" behind its madness. In some ways, I have a preference for IEW; however, the in-class implementation of Lost Tools, and the 5 Common Topics are amazing! (I believe the 5 Common Topics could be used to solve all of mankind's problems...) This is definitely a case for "don't judge a class by its books". If you have concerns about a class's writing program, don't bother too much looking at the books used. Instead, ask the potential teacher to demonstrate the method to you, or ask if she'll let you borrow videos, or in some way give you a crash-coarse in its implementation. Find out skills your student will develop through participation in class and writing assignments at home. Also find out what your expected role is in the given writing assignments (do you need to learn the method, too? will you be editing your child's papers and giving a final approval? will you be holding their hand and practically writing their paper at first - modeling - until they catch on? will you be responsible for reading, marking, and grading the paper, or will the teacher provide this? If you give the grades, will the teacher provide a rubric to help you grade fairly?)
Physical Science (or whatever science)
This was one of the biggest areas of disappointment for people when I presented the whole "hey, are you interested in joining Challenge 1?" idea; and it could apply to any science at any level or class. Why? In this case, in particular, Physical Science is often completed by 8th grade students, but used as a 9th grade credit. Following the credits system, and the current trend in modern education, students begin counting some high school credits in 8th grade, with the hope of early graduation, or dual enrollment (high school and college courses working toward an associates degree). If a student has already completed Physical Science satisfactorily and earned that credit for their transcripts, why on earth would they repeat it for your XYZ program? The answer: because the skills learned through the class may be more valuable than the transcript credit. I know, I know. On paper, credits are everything and we race to get those credits done so that our student can move on with life. However, consider the skills that might be gained from repeating Physical Science: really delving into the textbook, and learning new, different, or better study methods and textbook skills; having comrades to study and share ideas with; and researching deeper subjects while reviewing previously learned lessons (Challenge 1 has a giant research paper). However, if you truly do not want to repeat the same textbook at home the following year, ask the teacher if your student could use their own level of science, and then review enough of the class text in order to participate in classroom discussion. I've heard of Challenge students doing this. If your student needs to go into Biology while everyone else is in Physical Science, perhaps your student could research a biology topic for their project. If credits are important, ask the teacher how you might tweak the science to meet your high school credit requirements.
In conclusion, ask the teacher first before you disregard a class's values based on its books. Consider the deeper values gained using the less-loved, or already-studied, or different publisher/level books in a classroom setting. Ask the teacher for the value that extends outside of the books themselves, or ask ways that the books could be interchanged or tweaked for your particular student. Chances are, the teacher will believe in the class he/she teaches, and will have good ideas to make the overall experience worth the price tag and time investment for your child. Or, a teacher will tell you that it isn't a good fit, when considering all of the pieces. Last, when you sit with the teacher to find out more - LISTEN! Rather than explaining all the things that are better than her program, find out more about the value of her program. Put away any preconceived notions. Yes, it may be a bit of a sales pitch and an infomercial. Listen, and then look past that - ask questions, explain your unique situation, and give her time to respond (she may need to mull it over and get back to you with ideas). And, ask for a list of skills that your student will gain from the class. Consider that the skills gained may far outweigh the books used.