Thoreau Quote

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
Henry David Thoreau

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Not planning a curriculum…..

This week, B has been looking at George Orwell’s Animal Farm. She’s currently studying English Language, English Literature and History, all of which she will be taking as IGCSEs next summer, and so I put together a cross-disciplinary unit early in our programme which uses this book to neatly tie together our study of character, themes and WWII politics.

Did I convince you? Hmmm, maybe not………, but it was worth a try! Unfortunately I’m nowhere near that organised and I certainly don’t often have that kind of joined up thinking!

OK, what really happened was this. She is in fact studying for those three exams, that bit’s true! We started about three weeks ago. Up to now, I’ve not had to worry too much about English, particularly with the girls. They are naturally drawn to words and language. All I’ve needed to do is throw opportunities in their way and they’ve taught themselves. But formal English, such as you need to acquire for the purposes of passing a GCSE, is a different matter entirely. Composition, comprehension, themes, allegory, story, scene setting, writing to argue and persuade……… it’s all kind of interlinked, there’s no easy place to start, and you’re learning skills rather than facts. It’s just so goddam qualitative! This is definitely a ‘buy a book’ subject, but I have to wait until payday. So, in the meantime we randomly picked out ‘character development’ and I’m bumbling through trying to find free online resources for B to practice on.Turns out there’s quite a lot based around Animal Farm. It’s a short book, we have a copy on the shelf and the language is quite straight forward, so a good basis for an introduction, I thought.

It was about the time that we discovered that Mr Frederick, the owner of the neighbouring farm, represents Adolf Hitler, that the penny dropped that we were crossing into one of her History units, the Development of Nazi Germany. I know, I know, I was a bit slow on the uptake there. I’ve been busy, OK?!! But it did result in a digression into the political situation at the time and an attempt from me to explain communism, socialism, dictatorships and democracies (laughable, really! If anyone takes a sudden interest in politics I’m gonna be in big trouble and will DEFINITELY need to go out and buy a book. Or seven. Or find a tutor :( ) 

It all worked out quite well in the end and, if I phrase it like I did in the first paragraph, sounds almost impressive!

It got me thinking to how often this has happened over the years. It’s not that I don’t ever plan anything, or initiate projects; I do. While I would love to say that we have followed an autonomous path for a decade, my children directing their own learning all the way, this hasn’t been the best way for us. So, we’ve straddled the path between autonomy and structure, veering one way and then the other, trying to respond to the different needs of the child, the subject and the demands of daily life.

But I do believe that a lot of our best learning, all that cross-disciplinary stuff, has happened by chance rather than by design.  I’d notice it often when I wrote a report for the Local Authority (note: there is no obligation for home educators to write a report, it’s just something I’ve done a couple of times when I didn’t fancy a home visit. There’s no obligation to have one of those either, but I’ll talk about that another time!)

Where was I? Ah yes, reports. As usual, I’d have left my homework to the last minute, so I’d spend a couple of days turning out folders and boxes, scrabbling under beds and rifling through diaries trying to work out what we’d been doing for the past 12 months. And as I pulled it all together and started to sort all the activities and events, noticeable themes emerged.

The Tudors is a good example. We’d watched something on TV, I forget what, it was a few years ago. We’d also visited Burghley House, seen portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, created our own portraits, visited the tomb of Catherine of Aragon in Peterborough Cathedral, read about Henry VIII and his wives (it’s all that beheading that makes it so fascinating!), cut out some pictures and made a Tudor Dynasty family tree…..

When put together it sounded like a well-planned project, but it was far from it.  In reality, it was a genuine interest that led to us finding out more. Then, add to that some co-incidences (the trip to Burghley House just happened to be organised by a local home educators’ group, and we live near Peterborough and shop there and often used to take a walk through the cathedral), during which the Tudor connections were noticed because of the current interest. It didn’t all take place over any specific period; it was more like drip feeding over many months. In fact, the Tudors seems a recurrent theme and it’s still going on some years later.

This happens often in our house, and it works well, particularly it seems with historical themes. Everyone learns and remembers much more, because the whole thing arises out of a spontaneous interest rather than being scheduled into Term 2 of Year 4, whether you like it or not. And, I hope, we all retain the interest rather than having it taught out of us (as long as I can resist the temptation to jump in with two great feet and turn everything into an ‘educational experience’!)

And if it there’s one of us who isn’t quite as interested, then that’s not a problem. It’s amazing how much you pick up passively, just because it’s happening around you (I can vouch for that - my knowledge of football has increased exponentially over the last twelve years, largely by osmosis!) and, because we’re not sticking to a timetable, we can revisit it all whenever we like.

History is one of our most autonomous subjects, Geography too. This is largely because I am appalling at both (just ask my long-suffering friend Debbie, who has had the misfortune to be paired up with me for Articulate and Pictionary on many occasions!), but also because I am painfully aware how very easy it is to make them boring. ‘Right, children, today we are going to study the Magna Carta, followed by rainfall across the continents’. I can’t see that working, can you? So apart from the occasional project I’ve planned when I’ve noticed a gap in our learning – I don’t think it would have been very impressive if we’d got this far without the children finding out about the two World Wars for example – I’ve pretty much left it to chance.

And as it turns out, chance can be a fine thing. By leading an inquisitive sort of life and following whatever paths develop, a rich curriculum can plan itself!

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