Have you ever heard the story of the landscape architect who purposely left out paths and walkways in his outdoor designs? He decided to see where most people walked and plan around the paths that appeared.
Unfortunately, deciding on a planner/organizer to use in your homeschool isn't that easy. You can choose to "walk in someone else's path" or you can strike out on your own, but either way involves some work on your part. Just as there is no perfect curriculum, there is no planning system that you won't need to revise somehow.
Depending on the legal requirements in your state, the number of children you are teaching, and your personal level of flexibility versus structure, here are several things to keep in mind when shopping.
The Space Race
Your first decision: "To bind or not to bind?" Three-ring binders are great for adding your own materials (support group newsletters and mailing lists, for example) and customizing the number of pages. You are usually given permission to reproduce the forms within your family as well. Unfortunately they can also be bulky, and pages tend to rip out. Spiral-bound volumes, on the other hand, often aren't as durable (get out the "jelly-proof" contact paper) but they are more portable. If you go the spiral-bound route, you'll also need to re-invest every year in a new planner.
If you live in a state where it's necessary to keep track of days and hours, I wouldn't even consider a system that doesn't allow space for these records. Conversely, if your state is "loosey-goosey" you might be happy with a simple journal that you fill in as you go along.
Although it might not seem important now, especially for you novices, keep track of all books and materials used - even for the little ones. If the Lord should add to your quiver, you won't want to be racking your brain years down the road, trying to remember the name of that great kindergarten math game.
It is also important for you to consider the number of students you can accommodate in one planner. The planner needs to be big if you're tracking two or more. As they get older, consider getting an assignment book for each child. You fill it in, and they check off lessons as they are completed.
What about progress reports and evaluations you ask? Space to record letter grades? Sometimes they are included, sometimes they aren't. You decide how important this is.
Medical forms can be helpful as well. It makes sense to have them in a handy place.
Making Your Own
If you really want the ultimate in customized planners, don't overlook the option of making your own. It's not as hard as you might think. You can find prepared forms in the back of Ted Wade's The Home School Manual (fifth edition) and Gayle Graham's How to Home School. With the help of a computer and simple graphics program, you can become a creative genius. With a typewriter, felt-tip pen, and some clip art you can do a very nice job as well. Make the desired number of copies and you're in business. Once you've decided on the forms that best suit your family, you can decide whether you want to go the loose-leaf notebook approach or spiral bound.
Just a suggestion: If you're buying a notebook, splurge and make it one you really like! This is going to be your friend and constant companion day in and day out, so save the office rejects for the kids to play with.
While we may not be creating miniature classrooms in our dining rooms, there is no reason not to have the best tools available at our disposable. Nothing is more frustrating than having to search in umpteen different drawers and cabinets to find your teaching materials (or your HSLDA membership number, or the name of the person who's going to test your kids, or the address of that catalog you've been meaning to send away for . . . ). The costs you pay for being organized in the present can pay off many times over in the future!
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