Balancing Curriculum with Interests

unschool bus

In our more than 15 years of home education, we have moved through various seasons of more and less formal learning. We never quite qualified as bona fide unschoolers (although I was quite attracted to radical unschooling as a philosophy) but nor did we fully qualify as traditional homeschoolers, since we often had very relaxed periods and largely went with the flow depending on the children’s interests, but with formal book-learning available as a foundation.

This post, originally posted on the Svengelska Hemskolan blog, details the ebb and flow of projects-based learning in this flexible framework.

“If anyone asks, we use Sonlight curriculum, which is an American, literature-based curriculum. Originally designed for American ex-pats and missionaries, with a ‘big world’ focus. In practice, we often go off at tangents to study areas of interest which capture the children’s imagination, or to cover UK history, or (more often than not) because I’ve been snared by other literature selections (Ambleside Online, Tanglewood, Winter Promise, to name but a few) and can’t resist adding to our library.

Sonlight grade 5 which I’m using with Dragon-tamer is entitled “Eastern Hemisphere” or “Non-Western Cultures”, and as part of our Sonlight studies, we’ve looked at the Pacific Islands, Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, North and South Korea and China.

The way I deal with this cross-curricular study which,, being aimed at grade 5 and designed to be suitable primarily for ages 11 or so+, is to break it up into areas of study (easy with Sonlight 5 as it is already neatly divided into countries, but I’ve done it with the lower grades too) and do projects, themes or ‘unit studies’ so that all the children can get involved to whatever degree they’re interested. In addition to reading Sonlight’s literature selections, we take out additional books from the library, we make maps, sometimes 3D models, dress up in national costumes, cook and eat traditional foods, sometimes write little books or make lapbooks and other incidental activities.

Some of these projects have been really popular, especially with the younger children; notably, Australia and New Zealand. Dragon-Tamer was particularly interested in Japan (and scared me for a while talking about wanting to learn Japanese!) Others I have really struggled to get any interest going. Hence, I realise, Sonlight 5 (designed as a one-year curriculum) has now taken us 2 years, and we are only on week 18 (out of 36 – a US school year)! I have been talking for months about finishing up on our China project and moving on to the next projects, but for some reason we’ve all really dragged our feet. We still haven’t finished all the Sonlight books on China (though at the beginning we took extra books out from the library). Right now we’re reading a biography of Eric Liddell – Olympic champion and missionary to China. All the books have been fine and good and we’ve enjoyed them, but somehow I don’t think I can face another book about China! Should we skip the rest, save them for later, or take a(nother) break from Sonlight?

When a friend suggested doing a project on Rivers (which, actually I had wanted to do for years but for some reason had never got round to) I jumped at the chance! I have spent most of my free moments over the last weekend brainstorming and planning how we might cover a Rivers Project. We have one of England’s longest rivers running close by, my maps are prepared, and I’m keen for any plan of study that will take us on a trip to the sea! Ah, but now Pony-rider has announced that she actually wants to do a project on South America, please, so it looks as though the river we’ll be looking at is the Amazon. Okay, back to the drawing board…”

And so we proceeded to develop a new project of our own on South America that created memories that still resonate with us all even today.

It is possible to purchase a pre-packaged, prepared unit study that has joined all the dots and made all the connections between the subjects for you. But we found that this kind of fluid way of learning suited us well, and when you see the ‘dots’ and make the ‘connections’ for yourself, the information is that much more deeply learned and remembered.

john holt quote

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John Holt quote

“I don’t see homeschooling as some kind of answer to badness of schools. I think that the home is the proper base for the exploration of the world which we call learning or education. Home would be the best base no matter how good the schools were.”
~ John Holt

Stuff we’re using

1teddyrow

October isn’t over but since I never know when I will have enough energy to get on the laptop, I thought I would write an update now.

There are lots of things we’re struggling with at the moment, lots of things we would like to do but haven’t been able. So instead of dwelling on the negative, I’ll let you know what we have done, and what we are currently enjoying.

In English, we’re currently going through Galore Park’s “So You Want to Learn Junior English” Book 2. We don’t bother with writing as it slows the boys down, we just go through it orally. Sometimes, when there’s a point of grammar that they need to see, I’ll write it up on the whiteboard. We’re also using Jolly Grammar books 1 and 2 for spelling (the grammar worksheets are variable. I like that they’re photocopiable, but we only bother copying the good ones.)

For literature, we’ve been listening to The Railway Children by E. Nesbit and read by Virginia Leishman, which we downloaded from Audible. I decided to join as a member and pay monthly as it works out quite a good deal. This particular book would have cost quite a bit more as an individual purchase.

For History, we have been enjoying the Librivox reading of Our Island Story. I have already read this book twice to the children over the years, and it is a family favourite. Having somebody else read it aloud is obviously really helpful in our situation. We finished the Middle Ages with another film, just for fun: “Les Visiteurs” which is a French comedy about a noble and his servant who are mistakenly thrown forwards in time by a wizard. Very silly but lots of fun. At the moment we’re going through the reign of Elizabeth I.

For Geography, all we are managing at the moment is a daily page from “You Too Can Change the World”  by Spragget and Johnstone which is a children’s version of Operation World (there is also another version for older children, Window on the World). Each page gives a basic introduction to a country or ethnic group and lists points for prayer. One country that has captured the children’s imagination is North Korea, so we may look more deeply at some point. I do also have an old KS3 Geography series by Collins educational consisting of 3 books (United Kingdom, Europe and The World) but haven’t started that yet. When we do, I’ll let you know if it’s any good.

We went out once with the new HE Teens group to the cinema to see the Martian. I’m not sure to what extent that can be counted as educational! (Again, when I’m more well we might follow it up with some real science!) But everyone enjoyed it and I’m hoping that eventually the group will become a bit more active. Being so isolated makes it difficult to connect with other teens.

We have dabbled a bit with Shakespeare over the last year – usually I read the story in one of the story books for younger children, then again in something more complex like Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and then rather than struggling through the text, we find a good film version before going any more deeply, and then only if it’s enjoyable – the last thing I want to do is put them off. So this term we are looking at Henry V and we watched Kenneth Brannagh’s version with a star-studded cast including a very young Christian Bale!

For Science, we’re still going through Apologia’s Botany, minus most of the experiments. We may go through the experiments another time when I’m more well, as a fun way of revision.

That’s pretty much it. Field trips at the moment are reduced to one trip to the library every week plus their evening activities which, at the moment, consist of Drama, Scouts, Bellringing and Local Radio.

Over to You:

What are you doing this month? How do you manage illness and disability with home education?

Plans for September

After going to and fro in my mind over what to do – follow the national curriculum more closely with a view to doing GCSEs? Concede defeat over the severe dyslexia and put them all in school (it was a serious consideration, but none of us want to go that route), or go back to our Sonlight-style, literature-based lifestyle.

I wondered seriously about starting GCSEs at home, but again, nobody really wants that. We have found two possible options for maths and English post-16, both of which are free, so I think there’s no rush for that. Heck, I’m doing GCSE maths myself next year, and I’m 44! 🙂

I decided to go back to the literature-based lifestyle. I call it a lifestyle, because when we were doing Sonlight, we weren’t cooped up at home or in the classroom the way we have been recently, trying to squeeze ourselves into the National Curriculum boxes (although now I look back, I wonder why?! It has been miserable for all of us, and really, worse than unproductive, it turned them off learning).

On the contrary, the books we found were always portable, it meant that we could be out and about everyday – at the woods, at the beach, visiting with other home educators, whatever really, and we could still get the ‘work’ done, and it didn’t really feel like work (except on my throat which was known to need a constant supply of hot tea!)

Despite eldest’s difficulties with the system (possible Asperger’s without a firm diagnosis or Statement), his knowledge base was much larger than my own when I left school, so I’m confident that Sonlight gave him a good all-round education. The skills will come, but they have come frustratingly slowly.

My kids are just bright, late starters 🙂

The next question was, do we go on with Sonlight itself or another literature-based curriculum I have used in between, Heart of Dakota.

I actually decided to do both: I will be doing two levels anyway – we’re going to finally go back and finish the Sonlight read-alouds from core C over the summer, and then go on to start core D. We never did cores D and E first time round because they’re based on American history, but we always felt we had missed out on all those fantastic books!

coreD

So, as always, we will do a hotch potch – we’ll intersperse the American history with some British history and geography. But we’ll be moving away from the textbooks and back to the literature. They recall it so much more fully that way.

heart-of-dakota-world-geography

For my daughter, I decided to do Heart of Dakota’s World Geography year. The titles look really interesting, and I’ve been wanting to do it for a while.

I rather enjoyed HoD’s early grades, which I used (mainly for language arts) for my two youngest alongside Sonlight’s early grades, although we didn’t do all the books (HoD are much more Amero-centric than Sonlight, and more religious! But I like it because it has a much more Charlotte Mason style) but I skipped the first three higher levels in the ‘Hearts for Him Through High School’ series (although I have the guides if I want to go back to them).

300

And, because I am a book addict, I also ordered Sonlight’s core 300 (20th Century World History for high school) instructor’s guide, but not the books. I thought I would get the books gradually as we need them. And I’ll read these myself even if my daughter’s not interested. (I had been toying with doing their Church History core for myself but we hadn’t done the 20th Century in any great depth so I thought we should do this first) I rather think she will be interested anyway, and I know my eldest will love them.

So there will be a whole lot of reading going on in this house, and out of this house next year, all being well!

But as ever, the strict following of guides and manuals, ticking off every box, and doing every assignment, probably won’t happen.

We’ve tried that, and it sucks the joy out of it all, and it kind of defeats the whole purpose of home educating in the first place, which is freedom to enjoy learning.

For science, we’ll carry on with Apologia but I think we may set aside some more time for hands-on experiments. That’s one think I may go back to the National Curriculum for, but as I said many years ago, I will use it (as I’ll use the HoD manuals and the Sonlight instructor’s guides) more as a curriculum bank of ideas, a tool rather than a master. We won’t allow ourselves to be straight-jacketed by curriculum.

When things start to arrive, I’ll post again with details about the individual books and resources.

So I’m excited right now! We haven’t had a ‘Box Day’ for a few years now! How about you? What are you planning? What resources will you be using? What would you like to learn this year?

Starting the Summer Term

A little update on the beginning of our ‘summer term’ – things haven’t quite gone according to plan yet, and we haven’t quite managed to get back into a good routine that everybody’s happy with again yet.

That’s normal, it takes a while.

One of the things we’ve been struggling to get our heads around is the different layout of our new house.

In the old house, we had a separate dining room which we used for a schoolroom for a long time, but then decided to move the table into the living room, so we could move seemlessly from table work to the more relaxed reading time for literature and so on. That wasn’t ideal either because it meant bringing dinner into the living room through the dining room!

Our new house has a kitchen-diner instead, so all our meals are there, but the living room is upstairs! (It’s a ‘town house’ over three floors) we have tried doing everything upstairs in the living room, but it just doesn’t work, we need table and upright chairs for work that requires writing or drawing.

Next week we’re going to move our ‘table-work’ back down to the kitchen table, and then we’ll retire upstairs when the table work is done.

I also need to revise our timetable, as my daughter is doing a sports coaching course now which takes up two whole days a week, a situation that I’m not entirely overjoyed about, but it seems to be something that she is enjoying and it will give her another ‘string’ to her potential career ‘bow’ for later on.

She is of an age now where we need to be thinking seriously about which subjects to continue and which to drop.

When I was at school, in addition to Maths and English, we were required to choose 5 options, 1 of which to be a science, 1 a humanity, and we were encouraged to choose a language as well but the rest were free choices.

So far these are daughter’s choices:

– Biology
– History
– Geography
– Art

And as for language, she is very keen to start learning Japanese seriously, so that is something I will need to investigate. (At the same age, eldest son chose to try Icelandic, as he loved the sound of it, but he dropped it quite quickly when he discovered how like Latin the grammar is!)

So I will need to think about how to re-arrange our days to fit everything in.

I’ll let you know when I’ve sussed it! 🙂