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


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!


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.


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).


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?

New Year

As I write, it is the start of the Jewish festival of Rosh haShanah, Jewish new year, and so I thought that now would be a good time to write an update on the new education year.

In the end, we took 8 weeks off over the summer, the longest we have ever taken, I think. This is one of the issues with home educating and dealing with chronic illness: the best laid plans can only ever be provisional and may be subject to change or cancelation or postponement. On the other hand, we have that freedom and flexibility to be able to react appropriately to circumstances without necessarily needing to ‘miss school’. We are always located where the resources are available, for example.

We finished our holiday at the Home Service Christian home educators’ holiday at Cefn Lea in Wales. We missed the conference this year for the first time. I love the conferences but they double the price of the holiday, and it does always seem to be the same old people saying the same old things, so we gave it a miss.

Starting up again has been a big challenge. We are 3 weeks in now, and still not into a good routine. I had planned to break the day up into 3 sections: Morning Time, Table Lessons and Afternoon Meeting. So far this hasn’t worked very well. I don’t want to give up on the idea just yet though, so we will keep trying for a little while at least.

We are also planning to do a 3-4 weeks on, 1 week off program through the year, so we are due for a week off to coincide with the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot.

Later, I will post a list of the subjects we are doing and the main resources we’re using.


All Good Things

We have decided to finish up our school year and take July off from academics, partly to avoid the schools holiday rush. Even when we lived in the city I used to do this – we would take our holidays when everything was nice and quiet, and we’re back to work when the schools are off and the crowds are out. Now we’re near the sea, it works out even better.

But we’re coming up for another big milestone this September, and I feel as though now is the time to re-think my methods, books and curriculum.

Were he at school, my youngest (Baba Zonee, aka Bunny amongst other names) would go up to secondary level this year. That’s quite a shocker really, and makes me feel really, horribly old!

So now I officially have no primary age children, and it looks as though (saving for the ever possible miracle of new children) that we are beginning the final, home stretch of home education.

I have been thinking for a long time that I want to get back to my original ‘roots’ in Charlotte Mason education.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Charlotte Mason and her method of education, she was a British teacher and teacher of teachers who wrote with a revolutionary and forward-thinking concern for children as people to be nurtured and respected in a time when education, and the cultural view of humanity and children especially was strict and punitive.

Mason was influenced in part by classical ideas, but also such educational thinkers as Pellegrini. She emphasised a liberal arts education, offering children the best our culture has to offer, including art, music, literature and nature study.

She spoke about engaging children with ideas direct from the author’s mind, as opposed to dry, regurgitated text, and she railed against what she called ‘twaddle’ – often seen in textbooks.

In her day, she was influential, far out of proportion to the size of the small school for teachers that she ran from Ambleside in the Lake District, and she can be thanked for improving early years and primary education in the UK, but alas she is nearly forgotten over here. (‘A prophet in his home town’…)

Thankfully, she was rediscovered by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay and later Karen Andreola and others, who helped to propel her theories into one of the major homeschooling methods.

Most people assume though that the Charlotte Mason method only covers the primary years, but I have learned that Charlotte’s own book series also cover secondary age, and her sixth and final book, ‘Towards a Philosophy of Education’, addresses secondary education in particular.

But before I launch into reading Charlotte Mason’s own writings, which are admittedly dense and couched in difficult Victorian language, I thought I would start by re-reading one of my all-time favourites, Karen Andreola’s ‘A Charlotte Mason Companion’.

I have created a new UK-based yahoo discussion group for the purpose:

We are planning to go through approximately one chapter per week, and perhaps if that works well, we can look at other Charlotte Mason classics.

Join us!

Culture Clash

I came across this BBC article via twitter this morning, which refers to the ‘Trojan Horse’ investigation into radical Islamicist principles being perpetuated in State schools in Birmingham, and looks at independent Christian schools with the implicit suggestion of the latter being equally damaging.

‘Life in a Christian Fundamentalist School’

Firstly, I have looked at the ACE curriculum – we went to an ACE conference in around 1999 right at the beginning of our home education adventure. We decided it wasn’t for us for several reasons. It doesn’t allow for different learning styles or special needs, and the criticism that every subject is saturated with religion in an inappropriate way is justified in my opinion.

ACE also works on the basis of a philosophy of education which they refer to as ‘mastery’, believing that a subject can be put in a tight, neat box that can be ticked off and mastered. This is the antithesis of our philosophy, based on Charlotte Mason, which recognises the links between subjects and continual, life-long learning.

I think that the ‘office’ system where children have a screen around their desk *can* be helpful for some children but it would certainly not have been right for my children, and I would imagine that this aspect alone could be very negative for children who learn differently. On the whole, I am not a fan.

I also have some experience with American fundamentalist Christianity (which I will elaborate on at my personal blog). My personal experience of it was ‘broadly positive’ but I am very aware that others were damaged by it, and that inflexibility and a lack of ‘grace’, kindness, gentleness or empathy in conjunction with fundamentalist beliefs of any kind (whether religious or otherwise) can be very damaging indeed.

It is interesting to note however that Ofsted rated the teaching as good or excellent, and since the schools are not State funded, they are free to choose their own curriculum.

Ultimately, I suspect that one of the issues here is that the ACE curriculum is just too American culturally for the British palate. I doubt that even British fundamentalists (if there are any?!) would saturate their teaching materials in such a way. Looking at some other secular American materials, I have noticed there is a similar feel (scripted teachers’ notes, for example), even when the religion aspect is removed. There is simply a different way of thinking between the American and British cultures.

(Although having said that, the curriculum we did use, Sonlight, although American and Christian-based, is very different indeed, and could be said to be at the other end of the spectrum to ACE in that it encourages questioning and discussion from your own perspective and does not seek to teach children what to think.)

It does seem very sad that Mr Scaramanga has obviously felt that he was damaged by his experience.

I must leave advocates of the ACE curriculum to defend it and its teaching.

Although I can’t comment on the specific school in question, however, I would strongly deny the equivalence between Islamic fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism. This may need further exploration, but without necessarily seeking to justify the latter, I would suggest that the two are ultimately rather different ‘beasts’.

I would also strongly question the idea that the teaching of creationism as ‘Truth’ rather than evolutionism as ‘Truth’ can be construed as intellectual abuse. It is not the inherent ‘Truth’ claims themselves but rather the way in which they are taught that makes a difference.

Christianity can stand questioning, it can stand criticism and discussion, and ultimately it stands. It doesn’t require indoctrination or suppression of views nor oppression of its people.

I hope that Mr Scaramanga is able to find some peace and regain some measure of faith, but I also hope that Christian educators and Christian education generally will not be tarred with the same brush.

Book Review: Dyslexia-friendly Teacher’s Toolkit

I had picked up the “The Dyslexia-Friendly Teacher’s Toolkit: Strategies for Teaching Students 3-18” once or twice and skimmed through it in the bookshop and had concluded from that brief look that there wouldn’t be much relevent for home educators and that most of the strategies are classroom-based.

That is true, but I was pleasantly surprised. Not only are some of the strategies adaptable to a home-based setting, but home educators are addressed specifically (I think it may have been on the chapter on maths).

The book spends a lot of time at the beginning talking about what constitutes dyslexia and identifying the different strains of difficulties (not just reading and phonics and spelling, but also memory, audio processing, and other language difficulties).

It’s not a book I would want to buy myself necessarily, but it did have a lot of useful links and recommendations for other books (my interest is relating to helping older children, so a lot of the early identification tips and strategies are not relevant for me).

Another slight disppointment was that it was billed as containing photocopiable dyslexia-friendly worksheets, but there were about 2 in the whole book – it wouldn’t have taken a lot of thought or effort to include some more useful sheets.

All in all, definitely worth a read if you can find it in the library, but I’ll keep on looking for better recommendations.

Worksheet Fest!

We’ve had something of a revelation this week!

For all my enthusiasm about “unschooling” and autonomous education, I do actually use a curriculum: Sonlight, which is an indpendent US company which supplies a literature-based curriculum. It suits me because, suffering from CFS (chronic fatigue) as I do, it is a thoroughly relaxed curriculum that can be followed sitting down huddled together on the sofa, or even lying down in bed when I have needed to. (Really!)

But this week, dd10 announced that she wanted to do some “proper school-work”, so I dug out and dusted down my books of photocopiable worksheets, and I am amazed to find that she *loves* them! What’s more, the worksheet “bug” has spread to the little boys too, which is slightly gob-smacking as neither of them is really reading confidently much yet, but then I remembered that with my daughter, writing came *before* reading – which is slightly counter-intuitive – but that obviously works for some children!

I’m keen to point out that this move towards a kind of “school-at-home” style is not at all of my leading, and it may after all be just a phase that wears off, but we’ll carry on this way for as long as it suits them. This seems to be a new season for us.

Some children suit more structure than others, but my 14yob is not at all moved – this kind of learning holds no interest for him currently, and so for now at least he will carry on teaching himself in his own way, in his own time, the things that interest him to learn.

I do confess to some anxiety about my eldest’s reluctance to learn the traditional way, but I am confident that his knowledge now at 14 is far advanced of my own when I left school. I’m also aware that children rarely learn in an atmosphere of pressure of coercion, so if / when he wants to learn differently, he’ll let me know.

Easy Like Sunday Morning

I just wanted to give you a snapshot of a perfect Sunday morning: DS#1, “Dragon-Tamer” is researching a maths problem on the internet beside me, DD, “Pony-rider” is sitting on my knee on the sofa, looking through books. DS#2 “Motor-biker” and DS#3 “Baba Zonee” are playing a pretend game on the floor with their wooden castle. We are listening to a CD compilation of mellow folk, jazz, reggae and more from Israel. The back door is open to the early summer and we can hear birds singing. It’s unadulterated loveliness! Daddy just came in and the two little boys have rushed to him to explain their game. This is as much a part of our home education as Monday through Friday. 🙂

Unschooling by Default

When I first started home educating and read that most UK home educators start off with a formal ‘school-at-home’ style and gradually become less and less formal, eventually becoming unschoolers, I scoffed. That won’t happen to us, I thought – after all, I was planning to qualify as a teacher…

Needless to say, all my plans, ideas and curriculum have fallen by the wayside, and we have become unschoolers! After more than 10 years, I find I am still having to deschool my own thinking to realise that real learning rarely occurs within any kind of coercive environment but rather where the students have a real say over how, what and where they learn. It helps to be able to watch my own children happily exercising their own autonomy over their learning, and being the natural autodidacts that it has taken me decades to become.

Summer on its way?

Perhaps I’m being over-optimistic, with having to scrape thick ice off the windscreen yesterday morning, but that’s the Brits for you: the slightest suggestion of sunshine and we’re off out there, threatening to remove layers of clothing! One of the beauties of home education is that although it’s often home-based, we’re not tied to one place. Even if your style of education consists mainly of textbooks & workbooks, there’s no reason you can’t take them along to the park, or the forest, or even the beach! We might settle for the garden though, til the sun makes an extended appearance!