This is the question I have been asked the most: What did you do when you first started homeschooling? Did you buy a curriculum? (No, I find them unnecessary and too limiting for my family although others may find them useful) How did you teach them to read? (We mostly just read together although I taught my son short vowel sounds to help him learn) Did you print worksheets off of the Internet? (I think I printed off some dot-to-dot puzzles and mazes a few times)
So what DID I do? I would like to spend some time trying to give a fairly complete answer, and I apologize in advance if this post seems a bit long. I don’t know how to say all of this quickly. First I want to share with you that I was heavily influenced by The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer. And while overall I implemented very little of what the authors suggest (their suggestions are purchased-curriculum and seat-work heavy to say the least), I took away one key idea which guided our homeschool through the elementary years: I loved their perspective on history.
The way I learned history in school was piecemeal and disorganized, taught in no particular order. None of it interested me or stuck with me. In schools they assume that young kids won’t be interested in things that are remote from them. So they start with units about ‘my community’ and Wisconsin/state history and American history, and move about from there with bits and pieces presented as unrelated fragments and facts to memorize. Good grief, does this make sense? And why would anyone assume that children would be bored by or disinterested in ancient Egypt or Greece? These cultures are fascinating, you just need to approach them without boring textbooks, worksheets and multiple choice tests.
History CAN be learned in a way that makes sense. History is not a subject, it’s a story. It’s OUR story. With a beginning and an end. History is far from just a separate subject and certainly is not dull unless you make it dull. In my homeschool, while learning about history itself, we also used history as the ‘spine’ of our other learning in the elementary years.
My kids and I spent 5 years (several hours each week) working our way chronologically through the timeline of history. We did not have or use textbooks for this study but instead relied primarily on our library card. We do own some good reference books (world atlas / geography encyclopedia), and I did purchase Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World books and activity books, which I found to be immensely useful, but you could learn without them, too. The Story of the World books are nice to read aloud to kids and the activity books are full of additional activity suggestions and lists of relevant and interesting corresponding books to look for at your library.
We checked out a bazillion books and read and read; the kids read independently or I read aloud to them. Picture books, historical fiction, factual books, books of myths and fables (our absolute favorites). And when I say that I used history as the spine of my homeschooling, what I mean is that as we went through the timeline of history, we learned about other things from that era. What were the scientific and technological discoveries of the time? What progress was being made in mathematics? (We would work out some of these math problems ourselves – what a great way to show kids that math is interesting, useful, and very much part of our story!) What literature was being written? (I would read some of this ‘primary source’ literature aloud to the kids at the appropriate time. ) Who were the composers of the time? What did the art look like? When we were learning about ancient Greece, we visited a planetarium and learned the Greek alphabet and some Greek words. This lead to my family’s continuing love of learning word origins. When we reached the late 1500’s, we read picture book versions of Shakespeare and then went to a Shakespeare play. My kids were 8 and 10 and sadly they were the only kids in the audience. If you start simple, Shakespeare is not intimidating. We spent extra time on the things we liked best. We immersed ourselves in history and literature, mostly in our own living room and mostly for free.
Even though my kids are two years apart, we did this together. My son loved it, often asking me to verbally quiz him on our reading, happily writing summaries of what we’d read (spelling, penmanship, composition), and spending time coloring maps from the activity book (geography). To this day, my son loves maps and will spend hours poring over them and drawing his own. But I also want to tell you that when I tried to incorporate those activities into my daughter’s learning as she got to be old enough, she was very resistant. “I don’t care about all those wars and kings, Mom.” I tried several times over the years before finally seeing that her interests and her way of learning are different from her brother’s. While she loves it when I read history aloud to her, and will read just about anything on her own, she also needs to feel more connected to her learning. So I let go of the summary writing and quizzes and focused more on activities that she found meaningful, like visiting living museums such as Old World Wisconsin, dipping candles and making pioneer-era toys, and always finding historical houses to tour when we travel.
Learning history in this chronological fashion has allowed my kids to see and make connections. It is not the dates and names that I learned in school that count. Instead, what is important is to gain an understanding of what came before and after, to learn how people with their cultures moved and influenced one another, to have a grasp of the relationships between historical events. As kids get older, this kind of learning can lead all kinds of directions and may spur an interest in anything from cartography to language study to reading and studying the classics. But I want to emphasize that we did this because it was enjoyable, because it worked for us. This isn’t a prescription; it’s not a method or endorsement of some curriculum. I am answering a question by showing what worked for our family and how. The way we approached history made it accessible and memorable. It gave us a starting place, helped us organize our thoughts, and brought us closer as we learned together as a family.