Ellen McHenry Materials: A Sort of Review

If you’re not familiar with Ellen McHenry’s Basement Workshop, it’s a really different curriculum provider mostly for homeschoolers. Most of the topics are science related, though not all. We’ve now used three of her programs and I actually own a couple more. I thought, since I mentioned that Mushroom used her program Protozoa last spring, that I’d give the materials a bit of a review. We previously did all of The Brain and part of Mapping the World with Art. I also own but ended up not using Botany and Excavating English.

Part of Mushroom’s Protozoa mural. A typical Ellen McHenry style assignment.

What they are: You can buy a physical copy or a copy on CD, but I’ve only ever bought the PDF versions. Each program comes with a central text that is written to the student. They’re illustrated with cute fingerprint characters, well done hand drawings, and some copyright free images. The graphic design is pretty decent and while scrolling through the PDF for the right page isn’t super easy, it’s not too bad. Each chapter has “activities” that follow it. Sometimes these are actually activities, but more often they’re fill in the blank worksheets and videos to watch (there are Youtube playlists). However, these were developed by the author to be used in a co-op and all include many actual activities at the end of the program listed as optional. These are mostly art and craft related activities as well as games and demonstrations. The materials are generally pretty simple. There is a wealth of printables included in each program, such as maps, cards, worksheets, and cut and paste crafts.

In a nutshell: I have very mixed feelings about these programs. Secular users should think hard about the science programs in particular.

Pro: They’re very creative and interesting. She covers interesting topics. She doesn’t talk down to kids at all. The text is at a high level, but is flexible and can be used with many different ages. I think most of the programs are best for middle school, but most of them could be used for about 4th grade up through high school, at least as a high school supplement or elective. The games and activities are interesting. We did The Brain with a group and some of them, like games to illustrate through metaphors how signals pass through the brain, were easy to implement and enjoyable.

Con: The text is at a high level, but sometimes it’s just too detailed. For example, in the Protozoa text, the big picture began to get lost in the details. And by details, I really mean details. Several dozen protists were described in incredible detail, but the big picture of what these tiny creatures do and the role they play in the overall ecosystem just wasn’t the emphasis. And the worksheets sometimes emphasize some aspect of memory that really isn’t all that connected to the topic. In the case of the Protozoa, it was Greek prefixes and roots. That’s interesting, but some of it went a little far for a science program. Also of concern for the biology programs is that she avoids discussing evolution altogether to try and please all audiences. That means that not only was the emphasis not on how protists fit into the ecosystem, but there was absolutely no discussion of adaptations in a book about animals.  The website makes it clear that this will likely be an even bigger with the new Rocks and Minerals text. It’s a geology text that never mentions the age of the earth and argues against plate tectonics.

Also, while they are riddled with activities, the cut and paste nature of the activities is too crafty for a science program for my taste. It’s fine for the humanities programs and while the map drawing methods didn’t work for us in Mapping the World with Art, I could see how it could be perfect for some families. However, she has two programs about cells that don’t require kids to pull out a microscope. In the case of the Protozoa curriculum, having a simple suggestion to do a hay infusion of some local pond water would be so unbelievably easy. The Brain does include the suggestion to order and dissect a sheep’s brain (which we did), but in general that’s the only suggestion of actual science included. The Elements, about chemistry, focuses a great deal on memorization and card games and very little on doing any actual chemistry. A science program that is all vocabulary cards and coloring projects just isn’t a full science program to me, even aside from the issue of whether or not it’s “neutral” on science like the age of the earth. Those things can be good for some kids, yes. And they can be tools for memorization, which is good. But I think they make kids miss the point. Getting messy and doing at least a couple of actual experiments is an essential component of science.

The Takeaway: They’re not bad programs. I have recommended them to people and some families adore them and it’s easy to see why. But I think the fact that they lack a big picture focus, don’t include actual experiments in the science, and aren’t secular are all things people should think about before diving in or while using. I think they work best when used with other resources. Unless I decide to use Excavating English, I doubt we’ll be using her programs again here. The issues I had with Protozoa and seeing the “neutral” stance on the age of the earth presented in her new book tipped me over the edge against them.

4 thoughts on “Ellen McHenry Materials: A Sort of Review

  1. You know, I’ve always looked at her stuff with a bit of fascination like maybe I might want to do “something different.” I never looked very closely at it and didn’t realize it was “neutral.” Why is is that “neutral” science always ends up as anything but?

    I appreciate the review. You’ve definitely burst any aspirational ideas I had about using her stuff.

  2. Doh. I’ve only used the Elements, and I had hoped more of her courses were as fun as that one. Thanks for the heads-up.

    IS there a solid, homeschool-friendly science program out there? It seems everything I’ve found is either young-earth or “neutral.” Just when I’m about to pull the trigger on something touted as rigorous, I read something about it avoiding mentioning evolution in biology material or giving “soundly reasoned arguments to use when talking with children about worldly theories” and the like. You’d think that being a Christian would make me happy with all the science options available…

  3. My children are currently 11 and 8 and we have just worked through the Protozoa package. For the money paid, we found it wonderful learning. There are reading, visual, creative elements and it is marvellously haptic – (thinking hands!) We have a microscope and a pond, so coupled it with our own observations. We added a bit more on cocolithophores (sea water algae) and more detail to the seaweeds section, so we could learn a little more about sea-based protists too and explore them at the beach and in rock pools. That felt really easy to do after getting into Ellen’s approach from her package. My children wanted even more details about the protists she mentioned and did not get lost in them. There are lots of prompts you can use to add in evolution, earth’s big cycles, food webs and ecology – Ellen talks about prokaryotic cells and eukaryotic, that took us on a whole extra journey of adding in evolution theory, from the words! We also added in endosymbiosis theory prompted by her mention of photosynthetic algae being eaten and then live inside Stentors. We loved the Greek and latin links – the children are now using that knowledge to understand words they come across in other science books and non-science reading. Great learning is cross curricular and merges into other learning so you start making connections and links for yourself. I don’t expect to be spoon-fed the big picture, but value discovering it. We found her package definitely did this for us. How inspiring is that for an inexpensive, short course?

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