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Putting Together An Eclectic Curriculum
From the Older Kids column, by Cafi Cohen, originally published in the September-October 1996 issue of Home Education Magazine.
A friend of mine says, "Failure to plan is planning to fail." I agree with her. Yet I have always been uncomfortable completely structuring our kids' learning activities. They often did excellent work just by following their noses.
Check out my son Jeff's progress during his teenage years towards earning his private pilot's license. At age 13, shortly after he started homeschooling, Jeff began studying for an amateur radio license, like his dad and I have. He listened to other amateur stations on the air, reviewed Federal Communications Commission rules and regulations, practiced receiving Morse code, and plunged into a self-instructional, radio-oriented electricity and electronics course.
Jeff soon realized that he needed more advanced math skills to handle the electricity and electronics for the technical portions of the FCC exam. He increased his pace through his Saxon Algebra book. After several months, he successfully completed the FCC General Class Amateur Radio Examination (and a year later, with more math under his belt, the Advanced Class exam). He was on the air.
As a licensed radio operator, Jeff spent hours each day talking to other "hams" all over the globe. One morning, he told me excitedly that he had met another teenage homeschooler on the radio. This contact, in another state, happened to be a member of the Civil Air Patrol Cadet Program. During scheduled conversations over the next few months, the cadet described to Jeff his CAP flight training. He also explained other objectives and activities of the organization and told Jeff how to find a local CAP cadet squadron.
Jeff followed up immediately. He began attending CAP meetings and taking written and physical tests to work his way up ranks, similar to those in the Air Force. After several years of participation, he eventually qualified not only for CAP private pilot training, but also for a scholarship to pay for same. What a deal. I couldn't have planned it. Jeff certainly did not have this course neatly mapped out from the beginning. With Jeff pursuing his interests, one thing just led to another. Serendipity -- almost.
One thing led to another, yet none of it would have happened if we had not been both well-organized and flexible. Teenagers need to learn to set goals and follow through. "Failure to plan is planning to fail."Serendipitous events may occur (as when my son began talking to the other CAP cadet on the radio); but it is primarily those with a goal-oriented, planning outlook who will benefit from those lucky occurrences.
Parents' homeschooling roles change with older kids. Younger children ask questions, and the parent answers or helps find answers. With older kids, a homeschooling parent probably functions most effectively not as a teacher, but as a facilitator -- someone who provides physical support, acts as a sounding board, and helps with planning and networking.
Through years of trial and error, with both Jeff and his younger sister Tamara, we developed a facilitating approach to planning homeschooling activities with our teenagers: Putting Together An Eclectic Curriculum. Our eclectic homeschooling program incorporated traditional materials, unit studies, unschooling time, volunteer work, community activities -- and anything else that encouraged autonomy and enthusiasm for learning.
The process we developed involves both teenager and parents in making decisions. At first, some teenagers, especially new homeschoolers who are used to having no say in their education, may be apathetic. Ours initially were. Persistence pays off, though. Our kids improved markedly with repeated exposure to the process.
To begin the planning an eclectic curriculum, we would first sit down and list the kid's current activities, academic and non-academic. Our kids were very active homeschoolers (possibly because, with household chores, I could make the alternative pretty unpleasant!), and this list could easily contain 15-20 items at any given time -- things like piano lessons, 4-H projects, self-selected reading, journalizing, volunteer work, cross-country skiing, gardening, and daily math problem sets.
Next, we brainstormed the kid's current interests, goals, and priorities. I learned not to ask, "What are you interested in?" That question was usually met with a blank stare. Instead, I would try to be more concrete. "What do you see yourself doing in 2 years? In 5 years? What have you always wanted to do that you haven't had the opportunity to do yet? If nobody were telling you what to do, how would you spend next week and next month?" With teenagers, interests change every few months, so we reassessed every three to six months. Once a year did not provide enough flexibility.
With our two updated lists -- (1) current activities and (2) interests, goals, and priorities -- we planned the next 3-9 months. Based on the interests, goals, and priorities, we reviewed the activities list and eliminated those activities which no longer fit. For example, when Jeff's CAP activities commandeered most of his time, he dropped 4-H.
Next, to address current interests and goals, we brainstormed new activities. When Tamara displayed an interest in medicine, we helped her find a hospital volunteer job. At one point Tamara wanted to drop piano lessons and take voice lessons. As a compromise (I wanted her to think about dropping the piano lesson for several months), we found a teacher who taught both voice and piano simultaneously.
We then reviewed the new activities list together and tried to assign academic classifications to the items on the list. The broad classifications were Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies, Fine Arts, PE, and Foreign Language. The 4-H Public Speaking project became Language Arts; Diving Team practice was PE; rocketry projects were classified as Science; music lessons were Fine Arts; reading the morning newspaper and watching historical films comprised Social Studies; and so on.
Why these classifications? Both kids planned to attend college. I knew that eventually I would prefer to document their experiences in educationalese, the language of the educational establishment. I also knew we needed to assess ahead of time areas where the kids might need formal academic preparation -- which leads to the next part of the process.
Following completion of the new activities list, we would discuss those academic areas not covered by the kids' activities. As they approached high school age, we became particularly concerned with foreign language and eventually decided to try correspondence course instruction. Once we had shopped around, we added a Spanish course to the activities list. Another example? When Jeff's math abilities exceeded those of the most advanced Saxon text then available, we suggested that he add a college math course to his homeschooling program.
Many might say our approach was backwards, that we should have planned academics and then filled in activities around the academics. Instead we concentrated on those things the kids liked to do, things they would do without our urging -- and, a la John Holt -- found ways to call those things "school". Our teenagers spent a majority of their time doing things they chose, things they liked, things they planned. Usually they devoted less than an hour each day to formal academic essentials, those subjects not included in their self-selected activities. Even these more formal materials were usually pretty well received, probably because the kids helped select them.
Benefits were tremendous. Both kids -- anticipating the process -- came up with creative additions to their educational menus. Tamara suggested corresponding with two Russian pen pals as part of her foreign language and social studies training. Jeff wrote articles for the CAP newsletter, and we called it Language Arts.
In addition, both kids became self-directed learners. They not only became self-directed learners, they learned how to learn. As they experimented with different learning situations, their expertise in selecting resources improved. They developed networking skills. And they motivated themselves. From my perspective as a homeschooling parent, what freedom! Our process, in my view, was largely responsible. Our "programs" evolved along the lines of the kids' interests. We planned and we maintained flexibility.
Writing down the goals and posting them kept all of us on track. I did not schedule the kids' days and weeks. Instead, each morning for about five minutes, I reviewed with each teenager what he or she had planned for the day. (I also used that time to assign household and yard chores.) Sometimes I made suggestions or reminded them about something that appeared to be neglected. Occasionally, we reviewed the goals. I left scheduling specifics up to them. Implementation of their eclectic "curricula," with practice, became relatively painless and straightforward.
With our process, we took into account the ideas and preferences of both the kids and the parents. No parent can ever guess which activities and subjects will be attractive to their kids. The process provided a mechanism wherein, at least once every three to six months, we parents gave serious attention to what our teens had to say about their education.
Listening to teenagers is probably the most important thing that homeschooling parents can do. Listening to our teenagers saved us money and time. If one of them said that a certain text looked terrible, we learned not to press the issue, no matter how wonderful the material looked to us. Listening to our teenagers helped us find those activities and resources best suited to them.
At the same time, parents should not discount their own ideas about what is important educationally. As an example, our daughter Tamara disliked math and science throughout her teenage years. She plodded through her math texts. At my insistence, she also took some science, moaning and groaning through some of it, but dutifully completing survey courses in physics and biology. (She did well enough with the physics to pass the Advanced Placement examination.)
At college, Tamara initially majored in English. Now, after a year, that subject and related subjects bore her. Recently she has decided to change her major to physics and engineering (she has enrolled in a 3+2 program, where she will earn degrees in both subjects). I am so glad we vetoed her desire to avoid math and science as a high school homeschooler. Tamara concurs. She recently sent me the following Mark Twain quote: "When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years." Such a gift.
After homeschooling two teenagers this way, I have learned that there is something of value in all of the different homeschooling approaches. At the same time, I confess to sometimes feeling lost listening to other homeschooling parents rave about program X or unschooling or unit studies, especially when they exclude all other approaches and resources. For us, trial and error worked better than copying anybody else or adopting a full-service curriculum or a specific educational philosophy. We made many mistakes; in baseball parlance, we had more strikes than hits. Fortunately, homeschooling gave us and the kids time to learn from those mistakes in a forgiving atmosphere. If something was not working, we simply dispensed with it and moved on.
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