A few years ago, I started making a packet of paper for the kids that included things for the year. I bind them at Staples and have them ready to start the year on Box Day. They include things like a plan for what they’re studying, lists of required reading books, literature guides for novels, assignments I’ve created for projects, and a copy of each of the short stories that we’ll read. We read one per month and discuss it at a poetry tea. I put a pretty cover on them to make them personalized and exciting.
The eighth grade packets may have exploded slightly.
I put in more paper than ever. I’m hoping to have the kids do an “eighth grade internship” before the end of the year, so I made an assignment page for that. In fact, I made assignment sheets for more things than normal overall. The short stories seem to have been a bit longer, as were some of the lit guides I decided to use.
One child’s packet went a little crazy. It’s more than twice as long as the other’s. I think this may be a reflection of how much I’m trying to get him to do some polished work. If only I throw more paper at him, surely something will emerge from that? Right?
So while Mushroom’s packet has these general outlines of all the various subjects he wanted to tackle, with little notes that he should choose three projects or write a paper that we’d later agree upon, BalletBoy’s packet is filled with specific reading questions and long checklists. Mushroom is a finisher and he dreams big. He does a good job on anything he really sets out to do so giving him room to just do his thing makes sense. BalletBoy goes in fits and starts lately. He has lots of first drafts that never quite get finished or polished. He dashes off three word answers to what should be essay questions. He meanders through research on his own rabbit trails and never quite arrives at a finished product.
There are upsides and downsides to each of these approaches, of course. Mushroom can get anxious about his projects because he has a streak of perfectionism. BalletBoy can get lots of experience as he goes and he really appreciates the journey. I especially see this with ballet, where his studio focuses on technique above flashy end performance. Still, my goal for the year is to get him finishing more things and showing off more products worth showing off. Thus, the larger paper trail.
Here’s hoping that this isn’t a completely failing strategy.
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.
Mushroom is rapidly nearing the end of Miquon. I predict he’ll be finished with Purple within the month and that’s if we draw it out. BalletBoy has recently finished Math Mammoth 3. In the meantime, we’ve been trying out Beast Academy. BalletBoy likes the graphic novel textbook, but the workbook isn’t right for him. Everything in it is either too easy or too hard. I haven’t felt like he’s gotten a lot out of it, so I don’t think he’ll be continuing other than to read the textbook for fun. If you’re not familiar with Beast Academy, Tinderbox has an excellent review of it here. Essentially, through a graphic novel about monsters, it introduces math in a very conceptual way and the more difficult practice problems often practically invite frustration. They want you to try and fail and try again and have an epiphany. Shockingly, it has been working for Mushroom, which is re-emphasizing the realization I’ve been having lately that he is actually pretty good at conceptual math thinking, even if his calculation skills lag behind.
The other day, we were covering the triangle inequality in Beast Academy and Mushroom wasn’t getting it, so I pulled out our constant friends the Cuisenaire rods. See how the triangle on the left works because the sum of the two shorter sides are longer than the long side? But the triangle on the right can never work.
For a split second, when I didn’t see this activity on Education Unboxed to link it, I thought I had made up a new use for the rods, but nah, I found it somewhere else. Sometimes I think the rods are pure magic. They really can be used to teach nearly any math.
What’s next for math at the Rowhouse? I don’t totally know. Mushroom will continue Beast Academy, but he needs the ability to switch away when he gets frustrated. The spiral, jumpy, non-threatening nature of Miquon worked so well for him that we have to find a way to recreate some part of it. We have several books like this one which should help us use the rods, but we need something else. I know that Singapore, Math Mammoth and MEP aren’t right for him and it seems silly to begin Right Start only to have it run out on us soon thereafter. What we do is still a bit up in the air. For BalletBoy, after a lot of discussion between him and myself, we’ve decided he needs more practice with third grade concepts so he’s going to do MEP 3b, which will be a lot of review and a few new things, alongside the Singapore Challenging Word Problems 3, which we’ve done a little in, but not much.
I feel very unsure about math right now and am worried we’re playing hopscotch with programs a little too much. I’m trying to be mindful of the need to stick with a sequence to help us keep gaps at bay. On the other hand, I feel like when we do stick too closely with a single program, both boys have trouble honing their math thinking, not to mention that they get bored and frustrated. It’s definitely a time of some self-doubt here.