Getting Creative with Curriculum — Can You Do that with AO?


Ambleside Online (AO)

I have mentioned before that our family uses Ambleside Online‘s free homeschool curriculum. AO is a tool we use to implement Charlotte Mason’s principles in our home, but it’s not the only way to do a Charlotte Mason education. In fact, a thorough study of her writings is just about the only way to replicate the success she found as an educator. I’m always working on that, but I didn’t have years to study. We had to jump in, so I chose AO as my life preserver.

I was really drawn to the way AO lays out 1st through 12th grade, letting me see the big picture — especially since we’re first generation homeschoolers. Any time I feel uninspired or bristle at some of AO’s instructions, I take a look ahead at Year 12, for example, and know that my kiddos will be reading modern classics like Wendel Berry’s Jayber Crow for literature and Quo Vadis by Henry Sienkiewicz as a free read (as in, for fun). In short, I know that the AO plan slowly and steadily will help me shape my boys (who are currently watching the Minions Movie) into readers of quality literature.

So, Where’s the Creativity?

AO is a modern (and in some ways Americanized) approximation of the course of study that Mason’s students had in the 19th century. AO’s book lists are constantly updated and modernized according to book availability and modern ideas, capturing the rigorousness and focus of Mason’s school without idolizing Victorian language or outdated ideas. For example, Year 12 students are currently reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, a book I read a couple years ago that discusses bioethics, race relations, and chemistry all in one narrative-driven book.

There’s a lot of freedom in knowing that someone else has already thought this education thing through to completion, but what AO outsiders may not realize is that there is a lot of room for personalization and creativity within the plan. Yes, you get a book list and a reading schedule (i.e. read these two chapters this week), and I’ve heard from other AO users that they sometimes substitute books for various reasons. But, the real freedom comes as parents helps their students interact with the book.

Ways we have Personalized

A8 is just finishing AO’s Year 2 (aka second grade). We have been reading a chapter of the Burgess Animal Book each week (per AO’s schedule), but I realized that just reading the book was not making an impression (we sort of limped through the Burgess Bird Book in Year 1). So, in addition to reading the chapter aloud, I have also printed pictures and descriptions of each animal so that A8 (and L5 who couldn’t resist) could draw them in their nature journals. Now we have pages of voles, foxes, bobcats, etc. all hand drawn by my kiddos (see the above picture for an example). As often as possible, I’ve referenced the animals of the week in our local Department of Conservation’s online field guide, which provides short video and audio clips of the animal in the wild. And, when the animal wasn’t found locally for us, we’ve turned to YouTube (and on one particular rabbit trail, Looney Tunes) to broaden our discussion of animals not found in North America. The boys were so taken with foxes that we even rented a feature length nature video called The Fox and the Child that we really enjoyed.

Most of our personalization has happened organically like the example above. But occasionally I’ve felt the need to purchase some outside curriculum to help reach our goal. I started A8 with Getty-Dubay handwriting to help correct his atrocious penmanship. AO only calls for copy work (which we also do on alternating days), but A8 needed instruction as well as practice writing his letters properly. I’m not sure if he picked up some bad habits during his accelerated kindergarten year — doing too much too young — or if we were going to have this struggle regardless, but it was plain to me that he needed a handwriting workbook.

Another type of curriculum we have purchased that’s not expressly on the AO plan is Beautiful Feet’s Geography Through Literature Study Guide. AO assigns four Holling C. Holling books to teach geography and assigns a chapter or so a week. But, I felt I needed a little extra help teaching the information contained in the books. BFB’s study guide assigns a few chapters at a time as well as provides some discussion questions and outside reading ideas. This actually really came in handy for me lately. A8 and I are reading Seabird, and the study pack had him write out some definitions of seafaring jargon (words like aft, gunnel, sounding, etc.). Coincidentally, I was reading Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea for the high school class I teach at our co op, and many of those words were in my book. I felt like I understood more of Hemingway’s descriptions than I would have otherwise (because I likely would have glossed over some of the fisherman’s jargon). BFB’s study guide also contains enormous world maps (which I had laminated so they would survive all three students). It’s been a great supplement to our AO geography.

Another way I personalize our experience is by reading books that mirror what my student is learning. For example, A8 is reading Diane Stanley’s Joan of Arc book for his AO reading, so I’m reading Mark Twain’s Personal Reflections of Joan of Arc so I can fully understand what I’m teaching. A8 and I also just finished reading The Little Duke, so I picked up The Normans: The History of a Dynasty by David Crouch for further reading of my own. This, of course, is not necessary and may be difficult to keep up through the years, but I feel like I’m learning here, too.

You Might Personalize in Other Ways

These are methods we’ve used to personalize the AO experience at our house. Your own experience might be different. I’m not a crafty person, and I have recently come to the conclusion that I hate dislike lap books, so you aren’t going to find me making a paper mache waling ship or a Robin Hood lap book. But, I bet I will even surprise myself in the coming years as far as what is going to “speak” to my students and me.

Until we meet again next Friday, be well.

I finished reading:

I’m still reading:

I just started:



One thought on “Getting Creative with Curriculum — Can You Do that with AO?

  1. Interesting post, we love many of the things you mentioned, including Charlotte Mason, Beautiful Feet, AO (modified), Quo Vadis, Minions (much to my chagrin ;-), Burgess books, and Brandy’s Start Here study, which I completed with a CM study group last April and highly recommend. I love the way you’re connecting the dots by reading “mirror” books. Looks like a great education 🙂


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