The Fourth Way: DIY Curricula

Be willing to venture out on the rockier path. The Husband and the boys on Billy Goat Trail.
Be willing to venture out on the rockier path. The Husband and the boys on Billy Goat Trail.

These days, I feel like I see people embarking with homeschooling in a few different ways. First of all, some people want to learn without formal materials at all and to see where the unschooling life leads them. A second sort wants everything planned out for them and end up with a box program or enrolling in an online school. A third group treats curricula like a checklist, beginning with a list of subjects and filling in the blanks with various programs.

However, we’re increasingly choosing the fourth way, which is to make the curriculum ourselves.

I don’t see a ton of people doing it this way, but I wanted to tout the benefits of stepping away from the prefabricated options while still “doing school.” It’s my understanding that in the early days of homeschooling, before there were legions of companies eager for homeschool dollars and it was difficult to find a packaged curriculum of any sort, this was much more common.

I’ve written a couple of posts about what this looks like in practice at the rowhouse. (See Anatomy of a Project: Houses and Anatomy of a Project: Dinosaurs as well as Science Without a Net) I tend to begin by compiling a stack of books and other resources and making a loose list of writing assignments, art projects, field trips, experiments, and other things that might take up our time. Other people plan it out with specific readings and timetables. Either way, I think it’s a way of doing school that can work for more people than are doing it at the moment.

For one thing, when you’re the one who did the research and came up with the plan, you’re inevitably more invested in what you’re doing. You know more than when the plan is laid out for you by someone else and are more prepared to respond to rabbit trails and a child’s questions. You also know why each resource was chosen and what its merits are. You believe in the things you’ve chosen and want to use them, unlike when you have a preset list of books and readings, some of which you may actively dislike.

It also allows you to respond to your child’s needs directly. There’s no rereading things the student has already done. All the resources are right for the child’s level. The assignments are made to engage or challenge or remediate your child’s specific needs. You can make a subject that’s dull to your child more interesting by tweaking the focus such as by making history about the history of science or art or making it focused on reading fiction or on not reading at all. You can take a subject that your child is passionate about and make other subjects get covered that way. If a child is passionate about bugs, you read fiction books about bugs, write stories and reports about bugs, draw bugs, eat bugs (the UN says we should try it?), and watch documentaries about bugs. If a child is passionate about Pokemon, you read and write fanfiction and make fan art, you come up with a project like researching which real animals are like which Pokemon or studying biology vocabulary like anatomy terms by looking at Pokemon or studying geography by learning geography terms by looking at Pokemon maps.

Finally, it lets you stay flexible and responsive. Even if planning everything out helps you, when it’s your plan, you know where things can be added or dropped if need be. Not only that, but you’re more likely to stick to it when you can and more likely not to beat yourself up about it when you can’t. After all, you were the one who made it, not some outside entity.

Being willing to take on planning for yourself is intimidating for some people. There’s definitely a learning curve involved. I find the most important thing is figuring out how much can realistically get done. We’re doing a philosophy unit now using several resources and I’m already feeling unsure about whether my original expectations and goals for the unit can be met. Figuring out if you have too many or too few books, the right number of projects or assignments, and the right number of resources for your time can be tricky. It can be tricky both ways. For everyone who ends up with too high expectations and a pile of untouched books, I’m sure there’s someone who thought the project or unit would take much longer or hoped to follow some rabbit trails that never quite emerged or didn’t turn out to have enough appropriate resources to follow.

When you’re planning for yourself, you have to be willing to roll with the punches and make changes. I think the most important thing is to be willing to make mistakes. You have to be willing to ditch a book that isn’t working to look for a better resource. You even have to be willing to ditch an entire topic or plan sometimes. You have to trust that all the reasons you chose to plan for yourself were worth it. You have to trust the process.

On the other side, you also have to be willing to hold yourself accountable. For many people, the appeal of a boxed curriculum is in the preset schedule that tells you, if you haven’t done this, you’re behind and you’d better catch up. Different people have different needs in terms of what makes them accountable. I admit that I find this easier than most people. But if you don’t it doesn’t have to be onerous to make yourself a plan or a checklist. For many people, making a strong routine is good enough. If you need a schedule, make a schedule. It doesn’t even have to list specific resources. It can have a checklist that says, simply, watch a documentary this week. Did you do it? If not, you can’t check it off. Of course, maybe you’ve decided it’s not the right week for one, which is fine, but remember that there was a reason you originally planned it that way. You have to be willing to change your plans, but you also have to be willing to ask yourself if you’re doing it because it’s what’s best for the kids and the unit you’re doing together or if you’re doing it because it’s just easier for you to let go. And if you are letting it go, are you happy with that? It can be a tricky balance. I find I often need to let go of things, but I also often need to push on and make us continue so we can feel satisfied with the work we did.

Just like homeschooling isn’t for everyone, DIYing your curricula isn’t for everyone either. However, I think more people should give it a try these days. Be willing to go without a preset program and see where it takes you.

6 thoughts on “The Fourth Way: DIY Curricula

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Farrar. I’m a failure (ha!) at using actual curriculum well (except a few very scripted things we use, like math and Latin). I sort of do what you’ve described here, only I am NOT a good planner, and inspiration usually strikes me in the middle of what we’re doing. Thank you for boosting my confidence in my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants way of doing things. šŸ™‚

  2. We started homeschooling because our son is autistic, so we’ve been doing a combo of DIY and stringing bits of other curriculum, as it fits. For example, BrainPop has a great ESL program. Turns out approaching English as a second language is a great way to teach grammar to my son. We’re creating our own comprehension curriculum, since that’s an area where my son doesn’t meet up with anyone’s “curricular” guideposts. We visit a local homeschool co-op and then I’ll riff off of whatever science lesson they started there, morphing it to fit my son’s interests and abilities. This is a great, and very freeing, way to go!

  3. Farrar, this post and a few comments from friends have me wondering what you think of the Acton Academy? They are entirely about student-led learning. I have some reservations. I also admire the idea of self-direction. Any thoughts? I’ve never asked you a question before but I am a tremendous fan of this blog. I homeschooled my older son (9) while on a sabbatical in Spain last year. Both my sons are back in our local school this year. It has many wonderful points – but I am yearning to homeschool again.

    1. At first I thought I hadn’t heard of Acton, but when I googled it, I realized I totally had – they had a sort of local blog publicity boom about a year ago and I was really intrigued by them – I thought they might be a neat place to look for a job if they continue to exist in a few years. In general, I think small schools with big visions are all individual – some are incredible, others are a hot mess and I’ve seen both ends of it in my teaching career. I have no idea which one Acton is though. A vision that big in a school that new means they’re likely relying really heavily on the people to carry it out – there can’t be any institutional memory or systems to make it work really yet. I guess I hope they do make it work – I generally like the idea of creating small schools that can be genuinely child-led yet substantive the way many homeschools are – a place that’s more of a partnership. Acton seems like they’re trying to do that – and in a way that goes beyond the Summerhill/Sudbury/Fairhaven model, which is a model that I admire but would have real reservations about sending a kid into based on things I’ve heard over the years out of Fairhaven.

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