How to create a course of study and count high school credits, Part 1

Most homeschooling parents, in my experience, feel fairly confident about educating their elementary and even middle-school-aged students. But when it comes to high school, nagging questions beat down that confidence:

  • What counts as a high school credit?
  • How many credits do they need to graduate?
  • What do colleges want to see on transcripts?
  • How do I create a transcript?
  • Can I award a 'legal' high school diploma?

As my firstborn approached 9th grade, I pondered the same questions. There are many books on the subject that are helpful, such as:

Setting the Records Straight: How to Craft Homeschool Transcripts and Course Descriptions for College Admission and Scholarships by Lee Binz

Homeschooling High School:Planning Ahead for College Admission by Jeanne Gowen Dennis

Senior High: A Home-Designed Form+U+La by Barbara Edtl Shelton

The Guidance Manual for the Christian Home School: A Parent's Guide for Preparing Home School Students for College or Career by David and Laurie Callihan

What I am offering in this 2-part series is a crash course to help you calm those fears and doubts, and consider continuing home educating your children through graduation.

Creating a course of study to fulfill graduation requirements is not as difficult as it sounds. Most states post graduation requirements on their state Department of Education websites. Although as homeschoolers, we are not bound by or required to fulfill state graduation requirements, they provide a quick and easy outline to follow, and they usually look something like this:

  • English/Language Arts - 4 credits/units
  • Mathematics - 4 credits/units (with one credit in Algebra 1)
  • Science - 3 credits/units (unless the student plans to go into a science-related vocation, then four, with at least one in an advanced science class) 
  • Social studies - 3 credits/units (American History, American Government, World History are typical choices) 
  • Physical education - 1/2 credit/unit (you can use an exercise program, an organized sport, or some other regular physical activity, such as marching band, gymnastics, karate, skating lessons... for this credit)
  • Health - 1/2 credit/unit
  • Electives - 5 credits/units (Electives are courses not otherwise required that fall somewhere into these categories, but one credit in Foreign Language and one in Fine Arts is typical): 
    • Foreign Language
    • Fine Arts
    • Business
    • Career-technical education
    • Family and consumer sciences
    • Technology and computers
    • Agriculture
    • Advanced English or Literature Studies
    • Advanced Mathematics
    • Advanced Science
    • Advanced Social Studies
    • Economics and/or Financial Literacy

A useful form for planning is this free printable high school checklist at donnayoung.org, the 4 Year Checklist.

From donnayoung.org
From donnayoung.org

Now that I've got my handy-dandy Course of Study Checklist, I grab one of my kiddos, and we sit down and decide on how we can best fulfill these requirements, writing a description of each course that includes the resources we will use, the skills each student intends to master, and the topics that will be covered. 

Because we are relaxed, delight-directed homeschoolers, we combine many subjects together, and we use real books instead of textbooks for a few subject areas. We also count course completion as a credit instead of counting hours.

English, or Language Arts, includes Grammar, Spelling/Vocabulary, Literature, and Composition.

Grammar is the kind of subject where a textbook or structured course comes in handy, and I highly recommend resources likeJensen's Grammar or Fix-It Grammar. However, we do not spend an entire year on Grammar. We start the year by quickly reviewing some basics over a period of 6-8 weeks: parts of speech, capitalization, and punctuation rules. After all, they've been learning language and grammar rules little by little over the years, and in their reading they've developed an ear for proper language mechanics. We homeschool all year, but each May we do a 4-week review of parts of speech and other grammar concepts.

For Composition, we start out with the basic guidance of Jensen's Format Writing - a short but comprehensive course. The completion of Jensen's will have the student ready for college-level course writing. No need to purchase new curriculum every year; non-consummable resources are just the way we roll. If I want a few bells and whistles, I make my own with fun and interesting assignments intersecting with other subjects, exercising the principles learned in Jensen's with essays and research papers for History and Science.

We also incorporate the use of software like Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Publisher to fulfill the requirements of their assigned topics. This approach means that while earning a credit in Composition, they are also working toward credits in History, Science, Speech, and Office software. With homeschooling, you aren't limited to completing one subject at a time to earn one credit; you can kill lots of academic birds with one stone by integrating subjects. But enough violence - regardless of your preferred teaching/learning methods, remember to keep copies of essays, reports, stories, and presentations as supportive documentation for their transcript.

We are always studying Spelling and Vocabulary - everything we do in school means learning new words and definitions. While composing and correcting composition papers and grammar exercises for History, Science, Literature, Math, etc. . . we research roots words, tenses, various spellings, and definitions. These papers are also kept as records of what they learned and how they learned it.

For a more tradition approach to Spelling, you can use graded courses, such as Wordly Wise workbooks, to show your students have met their educational goals. 

Another two-for-one component of Composition is Speech, and a great speech guide is - no kidding - Stand and Deliver by none other than Dale Carnegie. So what if the examples are a Who's Who of Who's Pushing Up Daisies (Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Knute Rockne, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, Vince Lombardi, J. Pierpont Morgan, Carl Sagan, Woodrow Wilson,  Lou Gehrig. . .). This is really good stuff. The student learns solid public speaking practices by practicing, beginning with reading their compositions out loud. Doing this in front of a webcam gives the student the ability to critique their own performance. If your child feels gifted in this area, they can pursue public speaking opportunities at church, with a homeschool support group or co-op, at a family event, or even at a local cafe that offers a microphone to local residents on occasion.

Moby Dick (Annotated)
By Herman Melville

Of course, no English/Language Arts Course would be complete without a credit in Literature. You may be more comfortable with a 'boxed' literature curriculum, or study guides from Hewitt Lightning Literature or Sharon Watson's Illuminating Literature.

For our homeschool, we compile a list of books, both fiction and nonfiction, classics and modern, that fit each student's tastes and interests. I include a brief study of Shakespeare, because although I think everyone should get a taste of The Bard, I'm not convinced of the value of stuffing classics down a child's throat. Movie adaptations have helped in this area, but some books and plays require maturity and experience to understand and appreciate.

Including a few as audiobooks in the mix may helps some students engage with books they might not normally be interested in reading. Sissey Spacek's narration of To Kill a Mockingbird is endearing and authentic. Kids can listen to audiobooks while they do chores, travel, or at bedtime, and experience literature they might have a difficulty enjoying in print. It is often less intimidating to listen to a book than read it, especially if it's stylistic like Dickens or an epic door stopper

Have your children keep a reading log of books for each year. They could write book reports, but they might be more tempted to document their reading with reviews of how much they enjoyed the story and why. As with other compositions, books reviews can be written as papers, blog posts, oral presentations, slideshows, or videos.

English studies can be further tailored to fit the student based on their career track. If they are heading toward a vocation that involves advanced communication and writing skills, your choices for electives will reflect that with more demanding courses in Composition, Speech and Debate, or get even more specific with European Poetry and Literature, for example.

However, just because they want to be a car mechanic or go into the military doesn't mean you should skimp on the Composition and Literature courses. Language and communication skills are the #1 factor in many careers, as evidenced by the interview process itself.

The next question is "What IS a credit?" Is it hours, it is amount of work completed, is it proficiency? These questions are being asked by public school officials as well. In The Carnegie Unit May Yield to Better Course-Credit Measure By Caralee Adams, we see that the Carnegie Unit was

"Developed in 1906, the unit is a gauge of the amount of time a student has studied a subject. For example, a total of 120 hours in one subject, meeting four or five times a week for 40 to 60 minutes, for 36 to 40 weeks each year earns the student one "unit" of high school credit."

But in today's education climate, new technologies have altered the traditional classroom. Parents, colleges, and employers desire students to show mastery instead of just being able to prove they punched the school time clock. We need to reconsider what a 'credit' entails.

The method you use to count credits will directly affect your child's course of study and how you provide evidence for their transcripts, so take some time to think about your definition of a course credit before planning high school. 

In our homeschool, we don't count time. We can't count time. We do not live by a bell. If someone knocks on the door or the dog pukes or Grandma needs to go to the doctor, we stop and take care of business. We have a basic schedule that ensures that we spend an adequate amount of time in each subject, but I count a completed course with a minimum of a 3.5 GPA as a credit.

You could say my kids are all straight-A students because they do the work until they get it right. We don't go to the next chapter or the next concept until they show understanding and a reasonable amount of proficiency. Some lessons and courses don't take very long, others can require much more than the time they would spend in a traditional classroom. I won't penalize my kids for completing a course quickly and competently, I won't rush them through material in order to conform to the traditional classroom model, nor do they earn extra credit by taking 2 years to do Algebra 1.

Homeschooling high school is possible, even rewarding, simply by gathering the facts and planning ahead.

Part 2 will answer some of the other frequently asked questions about homeschooling high school. If you have any questions about the above post, or ones you'd like to see addressed in future posts, please leave them in the comments section below.