Curriculum Review - 4th + 5th Grade

homeschooling Jun 22, 2016

My intention this year was to find the sweet spot of challenging but still encouraging content.  I wasn't planning for the year to be as scattered as it ended up feeling.  But part of my goal was to go with the flow and nurture passions as we had time and energy.  I've realized that is a requirement when homeschooling gifted kids and trying to use the same curriculum for multiple grades.  We ended the year inspired and happy and that is the best I could hope for.

This was our first year homeschooling full-time, where we had autonomy over our schedule and the curriculum.  While technically part of the Quilcene School District, it felt like we were independent homeschoolers.  I loved participating in the PEARL program for a few reasons:

  1. I get to work with a retired school teacher as a mentor and encourager to strategize and troubleshoot issues as they come up.

  2. I receive $1700/year for each student to spend on curriculum of my choosing (as long as it meets district requirements).

  3. The weekly reporting requirements created a log of activities that ended up being a scrapbook of our year and helped me to stay on track with our goals.

Now let's get to the nitty-gritty...

Curriculum picks by subject:


While not a curriculum, I used the Wayfarers: Ancient History, Term 1 recommendations to figure out age-appropriate curriculum and to calibrate how much I could expect to squeeze into a typical day.  At first this was really helpful, but eventually I had to let it go and just keep the bits that were working for us.  If you want someone to do the thinking and tell you exactly what to do for a classical education, this book is for you.  Since this was my first year on my own (and being a type-A personality), the book made me feel confident that I had all of my bases covered.

Verdict: 👍  I don't plan on buying this guide again, but I may use the samples on the website to think through social studies and science supplements in the future.

Language Arts

We loved the Writing With Skill, Level 1 curriculum from Susan Wise Bauer.  I used it for both my 4th and 5th grader, and we found it appropriately challenging.  We loved that it taught how to write so many different types of essays in a way that made sense to my logical son (who likes to be pointed in a direction and given freedom to do it his way), while breaking it down into steps that feel achievable to my daughter who doesn't need the big picture and just wants to get the assignment done.

Last year we tried Writing with Ease, Level 4 and hated it.  I didn't force the kids to do the copywork or dictation exercises because previous school experience had enough of that.  The kids dreaded doing it each day, and we ended up ditching it for Junior Great Books.  I can see how they would have benefitted from that work, however, because this year they had a hard time holding an idea in their head before writing it down.  Writing still feels a little inefficient, but they worked (mostly) independently, felt empowered and accomplished, and learned a lot.  I can't ask for much more!

Verdict: 👍 👍  I plan to use Writing With Skill, Level 2 next year and would strongly recommend this curriculum for middle schoolers.  It is very easy to implement, has great teacher support, and gets results.  Supplement with spelling and grammar, as needed.

Halfway through the year I realized we needed some grammar support, because the Writing with Skill exercises were confusing to me and the kids.  While we were on a long vacation in January, my husband read Michael Clay Thompson's Grammar Town to the kids.  I liked that it is organized around the eight parts of speech and gave a big picture understanding of how they all fit together.  However, when it came to doing the exercises, I'm not sure I could have done them without the answer key!  Lesson learned: Grammar is a weakness of this teacher. In the spring, I started using a program from our school library called Easy Grammar, Grade 4.   The kids enjoyed the worksheets, which were fairly quick to do.  I just had to remember to make copies.  We made it through prepositions, and that seemed to really help with the rest of the exercises in Writing with Skill.  We will continue to focus on this next year.

I intended to teach Latin as a vocabulary boost this year, but we never got around to it.  I'm hoping to get started on it this summer as boredom kicks in.  We are going to use the Minimus series by Barbara Bell

We also read aloud books each week and the kids had an hour of reading time and tons of trips to the library.  I have a curated list of middle-school classics that the kids are working through, but they also have the freedom to choose whatever they want.  I enjoy listening to the Read Aloud Revival podcast for ideas on this when we are stuck.


We've fallen in love with the Life of Fred curriculum.  This year my 5th grade son worked through Decimals and Percents, Pre-Algebra 0 with Physics, and Pre-Algebra 1 with Biology.  My 4th grade daughter worked through Honey, Ice Cream, Jelly Beans, Kidneys, LIver, Mineshaft, and Fractions.

Life of Fred seemed silly and a bit random to me, so I was a little skeptical at first.  But the kids look forward to doing math and reading the next part of Fred's story each day.  The lessons take less than 30 minutes and build upon each other.  The kids work independently and find the lessons easy to understand and fun to read.  Also, because there isn't a ton of drilling, they work through a lot of skills and seem to understand how they fit in real situations because Fred is using math to get out of pickles.  Also, you can email the author if you run into a problem and he will respond.  There are tests every few lessons that allow kids to practice their math (without calculators) and give them extra chances to master the content, while reviewing what they've already learned.  I was especially impressed with the Physics book.  My son loved learning Algebra in the context of physics laws.  Biology feels slower and is not as engaging for him.

One thing we ran into this year, is that my 4th grade daughter struggled learning her math facts.  We needed to do a fair amount of practice through the year in addition to Life of Fred.  My son seemed to pick this up more intuitively and had the benefit of daily drilling at the private school we attended in 3rd grade. My daughter is a more visual learner who takes a bit longer for things to stick as she learns new things.  We did flash cards, timed tests, multiplication tables, and played math games like Sequence Numbers or iPad games like Quick Math, MathRacing, Math Bingo, Wings, DragonBox Algebra, Elements Geometry Proofs, Wuzzit Trouble, and Fractions!. She definitely made progress, but we will continue to practice throughout the summer.

Despite this, she was able to learn long division (with a little help from this trick) and work through the Fractions book.  She found that book to be a faster pace than the previous ones and struggled through some of the tests.  Luckily you are given up to five chances to take each test if you have trouble.

Verdict: 👍 👍 We love Fred and can't imagine doing math any other way now.  I like that there is a clear path to Calculus, because it is super motivating for the kids to keep pace or even work ahead.

Other math things we tried:

  • Stanford's Mathematical Mindsets class. This class helped my daughter with her negative self-talk when she felt especially discouraged. It is hard not to compare yourself to big brother sometimes. Both of my kids are perfectionists who tend to get frustrated with themselves when they struggle. This class helped us reframe the situation using a growth mindset and talk about what was going on. I think all kids (and adults) should work through this short class.

  • Last year we completed the Hands on Equations program. This set us up for intuitive algebraic thinking and has come in handy! I highly recommend this simple program as a summer activity because it was fun to work through (like a game), and can be done with young kids.

  • We didn't use the Beast Academy workbooks this year as much as last because the kids preferred working through Fred. I used them to brush up on topics before we took standardized tests this year, but may use them on Friday's next year to break up our work a little bit. I love these books, but didn't find time to use them. Definitely a must for math competition preparation.


My son is an aspiring materials scientist, but I haven't found a great curriculum for younger kids.  I'm focused on a solid chemistry/biology/physics foundation so he can use those as a starting place to explore.  This is where I was hoping Wayfarers would provide the most help.  At the beginning of the year, our curriculum consisted of three main books:

  1. Botany in 8 Lessons, by Ellen Johnston McHenry is a fantastic book. But the Level 1 lessons weren't enough for my 5th grade son and the Level 2 lessons went over the head of my 4th grade daughter. I liked that it required minimal preparation to teach and had extra activities for each lesson. We supplemented with Crash Course videos to help reinforce new ideas. I plan to use this curriculum to review Botany at a later date. 👍 👍

  2. Quark Chronicles, Botany by Ernest DeVore was a fun book to read aloud together. There was not a whole lot of new learning going on for us, but it reinforced concepts and provided good snuggle time. We plan to finish the series this summer. 👍

  3. Great Science Adventures activity books (The World of Plants). The activities in this book were intentional, but required a LOT of upfront preparation and ended up feeling like busywork to the kids. I had to figure out which activities to do each week (because there are a ton with each concept), and the kids didn't really enjoy the work after the first few weeks. This is good for creative or hands-on learners or to supplement or drive home specific concepts. I'll skip it next time. It felt like a big waste of energy on my part and was repetitive with the other stuff we were learning. Buy the digital copy so you can just print the pages you need for the workbooks. 👎

However, we ended up abandoning this coursework by Thanksgiving, because it was too much work and the kids were not interested.  On the recommendation of our advisor, we tried REAL Science Odyssey, Biology 2 in December and really enjoyed it.  This curriculum is slick, and is exactly what I was looking for.  It combines the content from McHenry's Botany and Cells curriculum.  I like that it teaches how to use a microscope and has hands-on activities and mini-research projects to build critical thinking skills and let them explore on their own.  It builds on concepts at a good pace and in a logical way.  No preparation is required (apart from making sure we have supplies for the labs), and it includes a test with each chapter and unit.  I will continue to work through this content next year.

Verdict: 👍  👍 Great Biology curriculum for middle-schoolers.  A bit pricey, but totally worth it.  Note: you will need to own a microscope and get supplies as you go.  

Other science we explored this year:

  • In January on vacation, we did a marine biology unit using PBS's Ocean Adventures series and lesson plans. This was a great compliment to snorkeling daily and led to some really important conversations about our place in the world. The series showed what real scientists do and explored the big questions they wrestle with in their work. It fostered a curiosity about animals and ecosystems, and made us all want to work in jobs investigating these amazing places on the planet. 👍

  • We got to go stargazing on Mauna Kea and chat with the astronomers at the observatory. This is the clearest place to see stars on the planet and it was awe inspiring - definitely something everyone should have on their bucket list. We watched the First Light documentary and waited for sunset to watch the stars at elevation. We can't wait to go back. 👍 👍

  • We also got a personal tour of the W.M. Keck Observatory from a current technician at the visitor's center. It was very education and an amazing view into what it is really like to work on one of these amazing telescopes. We didn't go to the summit to see the scope because of the elevation, but we did walk away inspired and full of ideas. This tour is probably better suited to an aspiring astronomer, but my artist held her own during the visit. 👍

  • In the spring we were ready to put biology on hold and study chemistry using Ellen McHenry's The Elements: Ingredients of the Universe. We found this to be a little basic, but a good intro to atoms and the periodic table. The Big History Project gave us a great starting point for this last year, so it is hard to compare. My son quickly moved onto McHenry's Carbon Chemistry, and wanted to work more independently at night before bed. He really enjoys it. We also used Theodore Gray's books The Elements, and Molecules, and read through Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik (which are all amazing). 👍 👍

  • The Experience Music Project has amazing homeschool classes, if you can get into them. We went to a computer programming class and a video game design class. Both were fantastic and include museum admission in the cost of the class. 👍 👍

While a complete hodgepodge, we learned a ton of science this year and had fun.  We even planted a vegetable garden at a community garden.  I'm convinced the kids will retain what they are doing much better when they have a choice and are motivated and inspired by the subject.  Because we move so quickly, and the work we do can feel intense, it was nice to give myself permission to jump around.  This summer I plan to finish up the last few lessons.

Social Studies

To me, this was the most disappointing part of our planned curriculum.  I ended up supplementing and improvising a lot this year.  Finding a secular history curriculum that is insightful and engaging feels nearly impossible.  I'm planning to try something different next year and haven't completely given up hope.

Our main history curriculum "spine" was Story of the World, Vol 1: Ancient Times. I liked the audio version because we could listen in the car on our way to or from piano each week. It is fairly basic, but it got the job done.  The activity book was too young for middle school.  We finished this content very quickly.  We started a Book of Centuries, but it ended up feeling like boring copywork.  Not sure what I did wrong here, but the kids were NOT interested in that project.   Maybe next year... 👎

We did go deep on Ancient Greece with resources like Spend the Day in Ancient Greece, The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus,  Tales from the Odysseyand the Percy Jackson series.   We used the MENSA lesson plan on Ancient Greece, and loved it  This was definitely a highlight of our studies this year. 👍 👍 

For Geography, we worked through A Child's Introduction to the World, which we enjoyed.  It was light and well illustrated, but had enough meat to keep it interesting.  With each continent, I printed a map to color and fill in.  This was a good intro to continents, landforms, and cultures.  👍 👍   We also:

Presidential politics took over in April.  We watched all of the debates and created a table in google docs to track initial impressions and candidate positions.  We watched the CNN series Race for the White Houseand attended a local caucus.  We worked through units in Nancy Gil's Electing our Presidentand are filling in the election journal from Candidates, Campaigns, and Elections.  The kids loved studying presidents in our FANDEX and a magazine I found, All About HIstory: Book of US Presidents. We also used the BrainPop games (like Win the White House or Do I Have a Right?) to think about campaigns and rights in our country.  They were quickly more fluent in presidential politics than most adults we talked to!   👍 👍 

Other random things we studied for social studies:

  • We studied personal growth and change by reading Better Than Before and Switch. We learned a lot about our personalities in these books and thought a lot about how to make positive change in ourselves and the world around us. 👍

  • For health read a few books, including Boys, Girls and Body Science, which was a good book to resurface topics of reproduction and puberty. We worked through some of the exercises on and did guided yoga and meditation practices. 👍

  • We watched the Jackie Robinson documentary on PBS when Little League started as a tool to talk about the civil rights movement.

  • We listened to several Philosophize This! podcast while gardening. 👍 👍

  • We practiced typing on

  • We studied US geography using the Scrambled States of America game, and the The 50 States, and Our 50 States books. 👍 👍

Creativity and Fine Arts

  • While we wanted to participate in a Destination Imagination group this year, our schedule was too packed and we elected to save it for another time.

  • Instead, we took weekly art lessons with our favorite art teacher, Jamie Brouwer. This was an ARTlab style exploration, where the kids learned to see the world differently and experiment with mediums. I highly recommend finding someone who can not only help your kids make pretty things, but to question what they see. 👍 👍

  • We also took weekly piano lessons with Talman Welle, who is a dream coach for my kids. They studied music theory and participated in recitals, as well as the Seattle Guild competition.

  • Throughout the year we took up sewing, photography, coloring, LEGO, or cooking projects as we had time, and listened to classical music with lunches.

  • I subscribed to the Wild + Free monthly digital club all year, but I never once ended up using the resources. I was inspired to see other moms doing things similar to me, but felt like the content was best suited to larger families with multi-aged kiddos or people who are unschooling. I used the content to help calibrate my intentions and remind me to relax a little.

Phew!  This year was packed!  I'm so proud of what we accomplished and hope that this might help other families as they think about training up our next leaders.  Do you have any ideas for next year?  Feel free to comment below with what worked for you.

Want to see what we did last year? Click here.

Note: Affiliate links are provided for convenience.


50% Complete

Thank you for your interest!

I'm excited to share what I'm up to every week or two. I promise not share your email with others or send you spam.