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Curriculum To Unschooling

Transitioning From Curriculum To Child Led Learning

By Ann Zeise

Purchasing an off-the-shelf curriculum or accepting one from a school district’s Independent Study Program often seems like the easiest way to homeschool. I’m going to tell you a story how we came to not using curriculum.

So what’s wrong with curriculum? It can be an expensive mistake. Usually it is sold in sets of grade-level materials, one size fits all. Would you go into a shoe store and ask for “Fifth grade shoes, please.”? The clerk would start to quiz you: boy or girl? Is this for active wear or formal? What color do they prefer? Do you mind black soles that may scuff floors? Does your child prefer high tops or low? Do they need a specialty shoe for sports or dancing?

First, let me tell you, I relied on it our first year, primarily for economic reasons. I homeschooled through our school district office, which gave me all the texts the fourth graders were using, supposedly, and a box full of supplies, like paper and pencils. Gradually I gained the confidence to select material according to our son’s interests and capabilities, and he’s gained the confidence to pursue his own interests no matter how paranoid I get.

My son spirited away the reader and two weeks later announced he had finished it. It was full of interesting stories that his teacher before hadn’t let him read at his preferred pace: fast! Oh dear! Wasn’t he supposed to answer questions at the end of each chapter and write out related grammar lessons? Could we get the fifth grade reader? Nope. Not allowed. So we started reading reviews, then going to the library and bookstores regularly and getting ‘real’ books to read. Scott gobbled up books from pop kid novels through classics at a rate of about 3-4 books a week. If he got bored with one, he’d put it down. If he loved one or felt he didn’t ‘get’ something, he’d reread it. Instead of book reports or ‘exercises’ in reading comprehension, we’d all, Dad included, just give each other reviews, like adults do when they’ve found a book they’ve liked. Before long, Mom and Dad were reading “Animorphs” and Scott was reading Anne McCafferty’s books.

Scott Doing Kitchen Science

I talked to a local public school science teacher and found out the schools were only using the science books for ideas for experiments. So, that’s what we did, too. Only we found out that many were disappointing. The experiments didn’t work or we couldn’t figure out what we were supposed to be proving. I don’t think anyone really tests to see if kids can do them.

We wound up going to book stores and museum stores and getting far better books with experiments for children to try. In my browsing, I came across a book called “Making and Using Scientific Equipment” by David E. Newton. First thing we built was anastrolabe, a device for finding latitude or locating celestial objects. Took it out in the park, located the North Star and Scott determined our latitude fairly accurately. Had a chance to go out on the San Francisco Bay on a old sailing vessel that could have been a Nina replicate. Took along the astrolabe and used it for doing some navigating. Scott read a book about the explorer, Drake. “Hey, Mom! Drake had an astrolabe, too, just like mine!” An exhibit of Spanish galleon treasure came to town. What do you know? They had found a golden astrolabe, and had it on display.Since history and science seemed to be getting all mixed up anyway, we decided that we’d keep looking for more examples of inventions throughout history, rather than emphasizing the history of wars. Though I attempted to jam the California history book down poor Scott’s throat, I think he learned more history from visiting local historical sites, museums, Sierra gold mines, and living history days. He declared just the other day that he really liked to read history books. I now buy the kind that do not resemble school text books. Also, I buy good autobiographies and first hand accounts or books that focus on a major event. At the bargain table, Scott found a book about Guadalcanal and became a minor expert on that battle. This was an event that I knew little about. How do you teach your child something you know nothing about? You don’t. You let them teach themselves.

The district gave us a math book and let me make copies of the workbook pages. They weren’t too bad. Gave us something to turn in, since we weren’t about to donate our astrolabe. Dad’s a fanatic about math. I did point out to him that did he notice that the only texts we bought and the only subject we didn’t “unschool” was math, and it was the only topic Scott didn’t just adore. We use the Key to Algebra workbooks at this point. Cost is about $2 a workbook, so I get four at a time and the answer book. Scott can about teach himself from these. Dad works on his “mental” understanding of true mathematics.

And you know what, it’s gotten easier and easier. I even have time to do this web site.

If you feel you need or must use a curriculum, do borrow before you buy. Check intoplaces that sell used curriculum, if only to learn which ones people are reselling “never used” so you can avoid them! I’ve got links to all sorts of sites that will help you develop your own materials or purchase a curriculum off the shelf. There are also sources of “scope and sequence” lists for those of you who must file such documents. Such lists will give you the “educationalese” you need to convince a public educator you have a masters in education.


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