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10 Easy Steps to Create Your Own Curriculum and CHANGE THE WORLD

on November 14, 2013

10 Easy Steps to Create Your Own Curriculum and CHANGE THE WORLD

I get asked all the time: how do you do homeschool with no curriculum? Aren’t you afraid you’ll leave something out? Aren’t you afraid you won’t do it “right?” These questions are typically asked by other home educators who would like to try ditching boxed curricula, but are terrified they’ll screw it up somehow. In the beginning of this adventure, I shared those anxieties. But it’s not as hard as you might think. My ultimate goal in educating my children is to help them become empowered, self-sufficient individuals who are hungry for knowledge and eager to change their world for the better. With that as my goal, I am always led to expand my approach beyond the subject matter at hand.

1. Identify Your Subject Matter Together

Eva always works with me to decide what subjects we will study. We have a general framework: English, history, science, math, arts, but those are over-arching guidelines. What we’ll study within each topic is up to us, and I find that when Eva has a voice in determining the subject matter, she’s more invested in the process. In this example, I’m going to talk about our history study: the 20th century from a Western perspective.

2. Frame the Topic in Terms of Your Child’s Interests

We’ve been working our way through the Euro-centric history timeline for four+ years now, and this fall we’ve entered the 20th century. Eva was not excited to say the least, dragged down by the idea of all those wars and conflicts. However, I felt that this era was important to cover, so I re-framed it with Eva to create a study of powerful women who happened to live during this century. We’ll study the history around these figures as the settings of their lives, so to speak. By looking at history in this way, we recapture the power of narrative, which is Eva’s particular strength. We shift from names and dates and death tolls, and instead look at women’s lives and accomplishments, families and dreams. And while we’re at it, we’ll gain an impressive collection of new role models.

3. Create the Unit Together

The results of our brainstorming and research session

The results of our brainstorming and research session

Sometimes I extensively research a unit before we plunge in, but other times I find it’s more appropriate for us to research and create it together. For this unit, Eva and I spent a whole day looking up women on the internet and in books (and pulled them out of our heads) and wrote them up on our white board. We created categories for music, science, politics, authorship, and activism (and others), and made sure we had representation in each. We also took careful notice that we had women spread out over the whole of the century, ensuring that we would watch the era develop and go through its painful and beautiful growth processes. By involving Eva in this process, she became eager and invested, while learning research skills to boot! She helped pick these women, so she’s naturally more excited to learn about them.

4. Go to Your Library Together

Getting the “together” theme here? Bring your kid along with you to the library to gather more materials. Yes, this is a time commitment – after my initial library trip to gather biography collections for our brainstorming session, Eva and I spent another entire class day in the stacks finding everything we could on the women we had selected to study. It is an important part of that “change the world” goal I referred to earlier. By doing this together, Eva learns research and library skills, and this time she worked off her own Word chart on which she had carefully organized all her heroine choices by birth date (another valuable lesson). Instead of simply receiving the knowledge from me, she is learning how to find it for herself. Eva in particular wants to be a writer. Learning these research and organizational skills is invaluable.

5. Check Out Everything

Our stack of biography collections, ready for exploration!

Our stack of biography collections, ready for exploration!

At my library, we’re allowed to check out 25 books per card, and each family member is allowed his or her own account. That means for a family of four, we can bring home 100 books! When you’re creating a curriculum without a textbook, you’ll need a lot of resources, so take advantage of your library maximums. We hit up the biography section, selecting 32 titles on individual women and collections of famous women, scientists, etc. We requested a dozen more that were checked out to other patrons. When we’ve studied other periods of history, I’ve also visited the cookbook section, the arts and crafts section, and the religion and folklore sections. I purchase things as well from time to time. But for this unit, we’ll be sticking with our biography focus.

6. Sort Materials in Study Order

Our collection of individual biographies, stacked in order of birth date.

Our collection of individual biographies, stacked by order of birth date.

I’ve stacked up all our biographies to match Eva’s birth date chart. When we’re ready for the next woman, we simply refer to the chart and select the biography on top (or the books of collections, depending on which one holds our next heroine). This also makes it easier for Eva to keep up with her reading assignments. What’s on top is what’s next.

7. Provide Some Instruction

This is the point in our story where I take on more traditional teacher-duties. As we work through the century, we’ll first discuss the political climate of the day. For example, this week I told Eva a bit about World War I, and we talked about the changes in class structure, technological advancement, and political relationships and shifts. She could read about all of this, but I find that sometimes it’s nice to talk about things or read about them out loud together. And yes, this means I had my own preparation homework to do before class.

8. Assign Homework

Though Eva will be allowed to read a lot during history “class,” we’ll never get through all this if that’s the only time she cracks open a book. She’ll have 2-3 women on her assignment list each week. These biographies are short for the most part, and easily digestible. If we find a heftier book that we want to take that on or a particular woman that captures Eva’s interest, we’ll allow more time for deeper exploration. We’re flexible.

9. Have the Student Teach the Teacher

Eva’s the one reading these bios, so for many classes, she will lead the “class” and talk about what she’s learned. After we’ve talked, we’ll probably look up other things about the women of the week online, checking out documentaries and the like. The History Channel is a favorite choice for that kind of research.

10. Create a Hands-On Assignment Together

My magic formula for all our studies is comprised of great books, stimulating conversation, interesting videos, and engaging hands-on projects. Eva and I have been talking about what she should do for her hands-on portion. We’ve discussed 1) a straightforward essay (suggested by me, snubbed by Eva), 2) a blog post about one or more women, or the whole century in review, to be shared here, and 3) a series of fun videos in which she and her stuffed koala Kinzy discuss the merits of one historical figure at a time in a comedic manner. In our experience, Eva is a zillion% more likely to remember a topic if she’s created something inspired by it.

In a typical school set-up, the student begins her study when she receives the materials and/or instruction from her teacher. By these traditional standards, Eva doesn’t actually begin her subject study until step 7. It’s the first six steps combined with shared leadership duties, however, that make all the difference. By creating the plan, doing the research, and collecting the materials, and even helping teach the subject matter, Eva is gaining the skills to become an empowered lifelong learner. Her education truly belongs to her.

What works well in your teaching method? If you are hesitant to approach education in a non-traditional manner, what’s holding you back?

22 responses to “10 Easy Steps to Create Your Own Curriculum and CHANGE THE WORLD

  1. Lauryan Ritzlmayr says:

    This is exactly what we do too. And although my boys are all younger, I am already eagerly anticipating the time when they can do more and more independently. With all the resources currently available online and around each community, there is absolutely no reason to NOT build your own ecclectic mix of resources as a curriculum that fit’s each child’s interests, abilities, strengths and weaknesses.

    I love that you are doing Biographical studies – I have a bit of a weakness for biographies, especially of interesting women. You seem to have a lot of women covered already, but perhaps a few that might be of interest too would be Maria Callas (Opera singer in several different languages AND the woman Onasis dated before he married Jackie – fascinating story really). Norma Jean (Marilyn Monroe – tragic story!) Jean Harlow (Hollywood’s early Golden Girl before Marilyn Monroe (eerily similar threads run through all these Star’s lives actually – it shook me to realise the common threads). What about Maria Montessori? Margaret Thatcher and Virginia Woolf?

    Ah there are so many to choose from! Over at Time . com there is a lovely article about their votes for the 25 most influential women of the past century. (some of which I spotted in your tower of knowledge picture )

    LOL Can you tell I love your idea here? I really like the idea of the video series BTW.

    In terms of what works for us, I let my boys choose their interests and try pull their curiosity into it more and more as they grow. Loads of hands on experiments and activities with a bit of dvd’s, online videos and of course books too. I try get them meeting people in various fields so that they can learn to draw knowledge and answers from more than just me and Google too.:) So far it’s working for us and its loads of fun.

    • Oh my, Lauryan! So many great women to study! These are fabulous suggestions. And I wish I had thought of “Tower of Knowledge.” Too fun.

      It sounds like you guys have a super fun time at your house. And I agree; especially while they are younger, you often have to put more of your direct guidance in the mix. Still, like you say, you’re letting their interests be a part of the decision making process now, and that’s so awesome.

      And yes to the meeting people in various fields! I should have listed that alongside the rest, because I agree – you can’t learn in a vacuum. We drove 6 hours after Eva finished her first NaNoWriMo manuscript so that she and her brother (who had also participated) could meet Neil Gaiman and present him with a copy. We also work hard to keep Ian in touch with professional musicians all over the nation. Tapping into that wealth of expertise.

      Kudos and greetings to you and your boys!

  2. The depth and breadth that this offers in its simplicity is absolutely brilliant, my dear. It makes me say, how do we make this work in public education? With little tweaks can’t a classroom teacher personalize to a large degree each student’s path? This could and should be HUGE!

    • Thank you Jennifer. Yes, I do believe strongly that methods like these could be implemented in the public schools, and that teachers should be entrusted to approach education as creatively as I’ve been able to.

      I am a vocal advocate for personalized education for all students; I believe that each child deserves his or her own Individualized Education Plan that is a working document, prepared, altered, and periodically reviewed by the student and a guidance counselor or “coach” or whatever you want to call it. And these methods aren’t even all that crazy – charter schools across the nation are already establishing successful models that look like this.

      Last year, I hosted a series of “listening sessions” with several group of students, 25 elementary teachers and all the elementary principals in the district and asked them questions about their ideal vision for education. Across the board, their responses were in favor of personalized education that puts the student first instead of the curriculum, trusts teachers, and empowers students to take a more active role in their learning plans. I am left scratching my head as to why we can’t seem to move forward. I do know it’s not easy – anytime you take on a system on a large scale, there are a million difficulties that arise. But I do believe it’s possible. If you want to read more about the listening sessions, I wrote a blog post about each one and posted it here. This the intro post: https://gwynridenhour.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/what-should-school-be-the-listening-sessions/. There are six additional posts (one for each session.)

      You might also want to click on my “education reform” category (you’ll find it on the right side of the page). There’s a lot there, but if you go back a bit, I do a lot of specific writing about how we can implement some of the methods that I have the luxury of using in the public school classroom.

      And you see you’ve found my soapbox button! This is something I can quite worked up over. I am passionate about improving education for all our children.:)

  3. Erika says:

    you are so awesome and inspiring!:-)

  4. farfydoodle says:

    Thank you for sharing your process with the world! My oldest is being homeschooled this year and I want to put some sort of interest-based curriculum together for her, but I haven’t quite gotten the hang of it all yet. This helps me out A LOT! Do you tackle other subjects (math, science, etc) while you are doing this or do you focus on your history curriculum?

    • So glad this is helpful! And good for you for diving into this process yourself. As for the other topics, really it varies each semester. Though we’re doing history a bit differently this year, in the past, I have often used it as a framework for studying science and math.

      For example, when studying the Renaissance, astronomy and physics were perfect counterpoints, as there was a lot of work and discovery in these areas during that time. And in the Victorian era, you have Darwin – perfect for matching this time up with a biology study in science! Marie Curie and chemistry (turn of the 20th century), and so forth.

      There’s a great series called The Story of Math, which provides the history of math and mathematicians. I love this series, 1) because it’s interesting, and 2) because we can link it up with history we’ve studied or are currently studying.

      That said, we do keep up with the general math timeline of the school system. Though we expand it and take time off to pursue things like origami and fractals, I make sure that Eva’s covered whatever content that her school peers would have as well. And sometimes science doesn’t always match up, but you know, now that I say that, I find that usually does. Even last month’s TARDIS study could be tied in with Edison and Tesla and their crazy electricity antics, as we learned circuit building and currents, etc.

      The takeaway is every year is different. Usually I alternate between science and history (a quarter at a time), but I like to make sure that I tie in historical context whenever I can, so that it doesn’t feel like we’ve “left” history to pursue another topic.

      Take a look at my block party posts for more ideas. Here’s the first of the 3-part series: https://gwynridenhour.wordpress.com/2013/08/27/block-party-three-hours-of-math/

      • I kind of rambled. I hope I answered your question! To be more clear: last month we just did science, taking a break from everything else. This month we’re doing history on Mondays, English on Tuesdays, and math on Wednesdays. On Thursdays we revisit one of those topics, making that decision based on the biggest need or interest. Eva writes every day, and on Fridays we do cooking and usually more writing or some other creative pursuit.

  5. Gabriela says:

    This is such an awesome post!

    My son had the same reaction to history when we reached the Dark Ages, even though he loved the ancients. I’ve still been pushing it in the same format with little success. I’m going to try some of your ideas to see if we can spice it up again. Thanks for sharing!

    • Ahhh…. the Dark Ages. We watched some documentaries on that era. History Channel maybe? It’s been a while – I can’t quite remember. For that unit, the kids also wrote a puppet show depicting the life and fall of Rome, making funny paper faces and gluing them on popsicle sticks to represent Rome and the various invading hordes. They made a video and everything. It was hilarious. Perhaps you can try something like that. I find that anytime a history era gets dull, having the kids write and perform a play or puppet show spices it right up. Good luck!

  6. Cecelia says:

    I’ve enrolled my rising 2nd grade daughter in the online virtual academy K12 for this fall– out of sheer desperation. Also, I’d heard of it. Daughter having hard time behaviorally in public school (gets over stimulated; school sees it as defiance when 90% of it is related to her sensory issues). Haven’t been able to connect with any people in my area yet who use this online public school but in case I don’t like it, decided to search online for ‘design your own curriculum’. Buying one is out of the question. We’re 1 income family of four; hubby is public servant– not large salary to buy a curriculum if I decide it’s needed. This article was great starting point. Anyone have suggestions for other resources? Thanks.

  7. Chaide says:

    Why waste all that time teaching your child all those boring facts when she’ll just forget them? Why not just teach her the morals of the story, something useful she can use in her every day life to make herself a better person? Empowering her to be a strong independent woman etc is for example a good thing to emulate but all those boring facts?? Your better off teaching her something she’s actually interested in & gets excited about, otherwise its just a waste of both of your time. If she’s not enjoying it what’s the point?

    • Hi Chaide,

      I actually think facts are pretty important to understanding our world. There are many huge decisions made and opinions formed in our population at large that aren’t based on fact at all, but simply as a result of inflammatory media presentation. I want my kids to know the facts themselves, and if they don’t know them, I want them to be empowered to find them. It’s hard to form solid opinions if you don’t know what foundations you’re forming them on. And facts don’t have to be boring; they are our story. It’s up to us to engage in it in a creative and relevant way.

      By the way, this blog is no longer maintained on a regular basis. If you want to follow us now, head on over to http://www.STEAMPoweredClassroom.com. I hope you will!

  8. Betty S. says:

    Thank you so much for sharing! This is my first year of homeschooling and I am trying to incorporate the Charlotte Mason approach, although not All of Charlotte’s ideas, as well as utilizing free lesson plans from around the web and the resources on Pinterest, at the same time using workboxes for individual work for the areas that my children are naturally moving at different spots. I am, however, having trouble with the “PLANNING” I have an over all view and have the materials, just not sure how to break it down and actually build our lessons!! I find myself spending literal hours on this process and dont fell I got much accomplished…I also feel unprepared for our days and scatter brained because I didnt COMPLETE the planning before we started….hence I struggle to get a wk ahead at a time and I know we are not getting the quality that I am doing this process for…..Any advice??

    • Hi Betty. I have some questions, and yes, advice too! First of all, how many kids do you have, and what are their ages?

      My first bit of advice is to relax. The first year of homeschooling is the trickiest. You’ll spend a lot of it just figuring out your groove, and that’s perfectly normal. Year two will most likely be easier for you. So don’t beat yourself up for not knowing exactly how you should drive this boat. It’s ok. Nobody does in the first year.

      Second, though I do favor a cross-curricular approach, perhaps you should start by breaking things down. Begin with one subject, and just work on that. What area of history are you covering this year? I could help you find resources that would help you plan it. Or, if it’s science you’re struggling with, what science are you exploring?

      In history, I usually begin by refreshing my own memory of the era. For the kids, I started by telling them what I knew- a general overview of sorts. Then I gave them a bunch of books in various reading levels for them to explore. They were looking for important events to add to our history timeline. We discussed those and added them to the timeline wall. Then I let the era do the planning. What are the interesting events? If science was hopping during that time, I would spend maybe a whole week on it. Or art, or whatever. Grab your calendar and block it out generally: week 1, overview. Week 2: the science of the era, Week 3: some interesting people of the time, week 4: art history, etc. Let’s keep talking, and hopefully I can help you find your path.:)

    • Also, this is an old blog. Why don’t you join us on over at the new site, http://www.STEAMPoweredClassroom.com. All of these posts are over there too. You can find this exact one here: http://steampoweredclassroom.com/10-easy-steps-to-create-your-own-curriculum-and-change-the-world/

  9. wally says:

    I really like this step by step guide. Can I mention it on my blog?
    I just started a blog and I want to be able to share what we learn and how we home school. It is great finding resources like this.
    I have also been tackling creating my own curriculum. Its been wonderful at times and also very hard at times.
    This is my website. I would love to have some feedback on my blog. I am just starting out and I really want to be a successful home school blogger.
    Thank you so much for sharing I really appreciate it and I will be using some of your advice.

  10. Jennifer says:

    If you don’t use textbooks how do you do Biology an Chemistry Labs? I’m wanting to homeschool my high school daughter but I am clueless on what she needs. She is interested in nursing and I would like to create her curriculum based off that interest.

    • Hi Jennifer – I don’t monitor this site anymore, but you can join me over at http://www.STEAMPoweredClassroom.com. All the posts on Dirt Under My Fingernails have been brought over there.

      However, I will answer your question here for now. And the biggest secret is this: sometimes I use textbooks! It’s true: for the most part I do not, especially in the humanities. And even in the sciences, I try to bring in tons of fun secondary resources to complement the drier texts. There are so many visually-stunning science books to choose from, all depending on the tastes of your child. Use the textbook like a roadmap – the foundation of your study. Like the trunk of your tree. And then add on all the other fun stuff as its leaves – graphic novels, science fiction, fun documentaries, experiments and hands-on activities, etc. There’s a great set of manga books on molecular biology, physics, and more. Good stuff.

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