Now that we’ve talked about education philosophy, how can you apply these ideas to your particular child/ren? Of course this answer will vary millions of ways depending on your child and her interests and abilities. But in this post, I’m going to provide some examples to get you thinking. As always, if you want to talk about your child specifically, let me know in the comments, and we’ll brainstorm together.
There are a couple of variables to consider right up front. Some of you have kids with clear interests and passions, and some of you have kids who like lots of different things, but nothing that stands out above the rest. First I’ll talk about kids who know what they love.
Meet Sarah, the Kid with Passion
For this exercise, I’m going to create a child named Sarah. Sarah loves sports. She’s into volleyball and horseback riding. She also enjoys baking, though she hasn’t done very much of it. She has troubles sitting still long enough to engage in “traditional” school subjects, and wrinkles her nose at the idea of reading anything.
Step 1: Identify Student Interests and Create a Contract
For all children, my first step is to invite them to help create their education. Talk with Sarah about her interests, and list these on paper or on a white board. Discuss the subjects she doesn’t enjoy, and ask why. Pick things apart slowly. In this process, Sarah and the teacher/parent are entering into a contract; this contract’s mission is to create an engaging, creative education that is relevant to Sarah. The obligation between student and teacher is to be constantly engaged in the education’s execution. If (when) at any point something isn’t working, both parties agree to assess the problem and fix it. But the responsibility to do so is as much on Sarah as it is the teacher. This contract, by the way, should be reviewed together on a regular basis – at least twice a year, plus time when things are stagnating.
Step 2: Pursue the Passion-First Approach
Next, commit to investigating Sarah’s passions, which are volleyball, horseback riding, and cooking. Devote considerable time in helping her explore these as deeply as she wishes. I’m going to take two approaches: the passion-first approach and the subject-first approach. In the passion-first approach, Sarah and the teacher brainstorm all the possible things one can learn about Sarah’s interests. Make a list of things like the science of athletics, the business of sports management, horse-care, equipment, kitchen science, entrepreneurship, and nutrition. Then head to the library and take every book and documentary you can find, and add more things to the list, such as sports’ history, uniform choices, or the way a volleyball is made. The goal is to help Sarah become an expert in the field.
Step 3: Pursue the Subject-First Approach
In the subject-first approach, assess the subject at hand and consider ways to include the Sarah’s interests. Since Sarah says she doesn’t love reading, make sure her English choices cross over with the subjects she loves. Let her choose sports fiction and non-fiction; watch narrative-based documentaries on cooking; ask her to write essays and short-stories about the topics that she finds relevant. If they’re her best work, look for publication opportunities in horse-related magazines or online journals.
In every subject, keep thinking in this way. In physical science, take a look at the physics of both sports. In biology, look at horse anatomy, and where it fits on the evolutionary map. In history, cover the history of sports and horses. In math and chemistry, spend some time in the kitchen with hands-on activities. Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that every single part of school be about volleyball, horses, and cooking. Simply make sure that they are included in the larger study.
Step 4. Individualize Methods
This step happens simultaneously with the others. Since Sarah has a hard time sitting down to “traditional” school, address that issue. She’s a physical child, so note that as an asset. Have her pace when reading, and/or read out loud while she’s pacing. Use audio books, or do family read-alouds (I’m a big fan of read-alouds). Push the paper and pencil aside and let her write her math problems on a white board that she can stand in front of. Provide plenty of physical breaks throughout the day. In my own experiences with my son, I once purchased a tiny 3 foot floor trampoline at a thrift shop for $5. He used it constantly, even during “class” to spend his excess energy.
Meet John, the Kid without a Discernible Passion
For our second example, we’ll consider student figment John. John likes “hanging out,” playing video games and trading card games. His parents thinks he’s a bit lazy, but he enjoys spending time with his friends. He’s neither a musician nor an athlete. He makes average grades, but doesn’t have a particular interest in school.
A kid like John may not see the point in school, and this provides an opportunity for discussion and understanding. If he can’t equate education with life advantage, he may not ever excel academically. Simply starting this dialog and validating his feelings is a wonderful first step. Let him say what he thinks about school, and then ask him how he would change his education to make it relevant to him. In this point of the conversation, start talking about John’s interests, even if they’re not deemed acceptable in the traditional education model. John likes gaming and friends, but may have been told that these aren’t “worthy” hobbies. However, if we look at those interests and validate them (thereby validating him), it may help John become more engaged in his education.
Animal Attack: Trading Card Gaming as School
When we first started homeschooling five years ago, my son was (and still is) obsessed with trading card games. He loved all the stats and strategies behind them. At school, these cards were banned, because they were interruptive to the flow of the school day. But at home, we turned it into a science curriculum, and I allowed Ian to create “Animal Attack,” a trading card game based on the zoology of our state. For the next three years, he worked on the game, researching the food chain, the traits of individual species, game design, graphic design, business strategy, budgeting, and collaboration. At age 9 he interviewed scientists, zoo-keepers, printers, entrepreneurs, and gamers and contracted with an artist to help design the cards. He facilitated focus groups, and we held photo shoots with his friends to create exciting marketing materials. I’ll talk more about his game, in a later post. The point is, when we embraced his love of gaming, Ian felt validated and invested in his own education.
All children need support from their teachers and parents. Even though Ian can be a motivated kid, he would never have produced Animal Attack had I not constantly provided opportunity, interest, support, guidance, and expectation. And you don’t need a three-year commitment for every kid-whim. Eva had a thing for duct-tape art for a year or two. Even from the beginning, I could see that it would be temporary thing, but that didn’t change my level of support. I made sure she had all the varieties of duct-tape she wanted, and we watched how-to videos and checked out library books. One summer she had a booth in our front yard with her friends, selling her wares. That was the extent of that “love,” but that’s ok. She picked up some fine motor skills, and learned a bit of entrepreneurship to boot. I never pushed her beyond her natural interest.
The Bottom Line
Kids want respect. In my experience, kids resent being told what to do with no choice and no power in the matter. And most will flourish only to the level that their mentors believe that they can. By opening our adult minds up to a more youthful mentality and giving them a voice, we will both learn more about our kids’ worlds, and help them reach their full, natural potential. What do you think? Do you have a student interest challenge I can help you with?
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