I get asked all the time: how do you do homeschool with no curriculum? Aren’t you afraid you’ll leave something out? Aren’t you afraid you won’t do it “right?” These questions are typically asked by other home educators who would like to try ditching boxed curricula, but are terrified they’ll screw it up somehow. In the beginning of this adventure, I shared those anxieties. But it’s not as hard as you might think. My ultimate goal in educating my children is to help them become empowered, self-sufficient individuals who are hungry for knowledge and eager to change their world for the better. With that as my goal, I am always led to expand my approach beyond the subject matter at hand.
1. Identify Your Subject Matter Together
Eva always works with me to decide what subjects we will study. We have a general framework: English, history, science, math, arts, but those are over-arching guidelines. What we’ll study within each topic is up to us, and I find that when Eva has a voice in determining the subject matter, she’s more invested in the process. In this example, I’m going to talk about our history study: the 20th century from a Western perspective.
2. Frame the Topic in Terms of Your Child’s Interests
We’ve been working our way through the Euro-centric history timeline for four+ years now, and this fall we’ve entered the 20th century. Eva was not excited to say the least, dragged down by the idea of all those wars and conflicts. However, I felt that this era was important to cover, so I re-framed it with Eva to create a study of powerful women who happened to live during this century. We’ll study the history around these figures as the settings of their lives, so to speak. By looking at history in this way, we recapture the power of narrative, which is Eva’s particular strength. We shift from names and dates and death tolls, and instead look at women’s lives and accomplishments, families and dreams. And while we’re at it, we’ll gain an impressive collection of new role models.
3. Create the Unit Together
Sometimes I extensively research a unit before we plunge in, but other times I find it’s more appropriate for us to research and create it together. For this unit, Eva and I spent a whole day looking up women on the internet and in books (and pulled them out of our heads) and wrote them up on our white board. We created categories for music, science, politics, authorship, and activism (and others), and made sure we had representation in each. We also took careful notice that we had women spread out over the whole of the century, ensuring that we would watch the era develop and go through its painful and beautiful growth processes. By involving Eva in this process, she became eager and invested, while learning research skills to boot! She helped pick these women, so she’s naturally more excited to learn about them.
4. Go to Your Library Together
Getting the “together” theme here? Bring your kid along with you to the library to gather more materials. Yes, this is a time commitment – after my initial library trip to gather biography collections for our brainstorming session, Eva and I spent another entire class day in the stacks finding everything we could on the women we had selected to study. It is an important part of that “change the world” goal I referred to earlier. By doing this together, Eva learns research and library skills, and this time she worked off her own Word chart on which she had carefully organized all her heroine choices by birth date (another valuable lesson). Instead of simply receiving the knowledge from me, she is learning how to find it for herself. Eva in particular wants to be a writer. Learning these research and organizational skills is invaluable.
5. Check Out Everything
At my library, we’re allowed to check out 25 books per card, and each family member is allowed his or her own account. That means for a family of four, we can bring home 100 books! When you’re creating a curriculum without a textbook, you’ll need a lot of resources, so take advantage of your library maximums. We hit up the biography section, selecting 32 titles on individual women and collections of famous women, scientists, etc. We requested a dozen more that were checked out to other patrons. When we’ve studied other periods of history, I’ve also visited the cookbook section, the arts and crafts section, and the religion and folklore sections. I purchase things as well from time to time. But for this unit, we’ll be sticking with our biography focus.
6. Sort Materials in Study Order
I’ve stacked up all our biographies to match Eva’s birth date chart. When we’re ready for the next woman, we simply refer to the chart and select the biography on top (or the books of collections, depending on which one holds our next heroine). This also makes it easier for Eva to keep up with her reading assignments. What’s on top is what’s next.
7. Provide Some Instruction
This is the point in our story where I take on more traditional teacher-duties. As we work through the century, we’ll first discuss the political climate of the day. For example, this week I told Eva a bit about World War I, and we talked about the changes in class structure, technological advancement, and political relationships and shifts. She could read about all of this, but I find that sometimes it’s nice to talk about things or read about them out loud together. And yes, this means I had my own preparation homework to do before class.
8. Assign Homework
Though Eva will be allowed to read a lot during history “class,” we’ll never get through all this if that’s the only time she cracks open a book. She’ll have 2-3 women on her assignment list each week. These biographies are short for the most part, and easily digestible. If we find a heftier book that we want to take that on or a particular woman that captures Eva’s interest, we’ll allow more time for deeper exploration. We’re flexible.
9. Have the Student Teach the Teacher
Eva’s the one reading these bios, so for many classes, she will lead the “class” and talk about what she’s learned. After we’ve talked, we’ll probably look up other things about the women of the week online, checking out documentaries and the like. The History Channel is a favorite choice for that kind of research.
10. Create a Hands-On Assignment Together
My magic formula for all our studies is comprised of great books, stimulating conversation, interesting videos, and engaging hands-on projects. Eva and I have been talking about what she should do for her hands-on portion. We’ve discussed 1) a straightforward essay (suggested by me, snubbed by Eva), 2) a blog post about one or more women, or the whole century in review, to be shared here, and 3) a series of fun videos in which she and her stuffed koala Kinzy discuss the merits of one historical figure at a time in a comedic manner. In our experience, Eva is a zillion% more likely to remember a topic if she’s created something inspired by it. October 2015 postscript: Eva chose the Kinzy videos, and they’re Hilarious. You can see them here.
In a typical school set-up, the student begins her study when she receives the materials and/or instruction from her teacher. By these traditional standards, Eva doesn’t actually begin her subject study until step 7. It’s the first six steps combined with shared leadership duties, however, that make all the difference. By creating the plan, doing the research, and collecting the materials, and even helping teach the subject matter, Eva is gaining the skills to become an empowered lifelong learner. Her education truly belongs to her.
What works well in your teaching method? If you are hesitant to approach education in a non-traditional manner, what’s holding you back?
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