Wednesday, April 30, 2008

a curriculum follows a question

We were in LA for a week or so earlier this spring, and the kids and I spent a few days exploring. We went to the library (right across from our hotel), we walked around the neighborhood (no grocery stores or laundromats), and we took the Metro. A lot. One of the places we took the Metro to was Chinatown. Here's me in my two dollar hat, purchased to shield my eyes from the Southern California sun. Funny, but I'm not using it around here nearly as much.
This was a trip we'd been planning since we first started homeschooling back in October. When I explained to the boys that we'd be able to do more field trips, and that we'd have more time for family trips that would be our field trips, the first place they wanted to go was China. I explained that we couldn't actually afford to go to China, but maybe we could go to Chinatown. I was thinking NYC at the time, but there we were in LA with a Chinatown visible from the train, so off we went.

But I digress. Back to the Metro. We were going everywhere by Metro, because we didn't have a car, and there was nothing useful (like food) in our neighborhood. So the kids learned to read a subway map, and learned to recognize our stop, and so on. They also learned how to use the automated ticket machines. Or rather, they learned to watch me try to get the automated ticket machines take our debit card, and then give up and give it our precious cash.

When the machines gave change, they gave it in dollar coins. These coins engendered a lot of interest, not being the usual increment of money that is metal and round. One of the dollar coins was a Sacagawea dollar.

"Hey Mama, who's Sacagawea?" I don't even remember who asked.

"Oh, she's this Indian lady who traveled around with Lewis and Clark when they were making those maps," I said. We'd already learned a little bit about Lewis and Clark when Big started making maps of the neighborhood, so they had some context. "When we get back home, we'll get some books out of the library and find out more about her."

The miracle is that I actually remembered to do just that. We found lots of great picture books about Sacagawea, about York, and about the expedition in general. We also poked around in the adult section, and came home with a copy of the journal kept by Lewis and Clark, and a DK book of recent photos taken along the route.

The picture books are ostensibly for Little, but I've noticed that Big has a sort of magical radar that goes off when someone is reading out loud, and he often shows up to listen. Some of the picture books are very closely based on the diaries kept by Lewis and Clark, and follow them even down to the dates. This gives us a great opportunity to think about the modern-day interpretation of historical fact. For example, there's the apocryphal story about Sacagawea saving the entire expedition by fishing many essential items out of the water after the boat swamped. We looked in the diary, and found that, at least from the perspective of Merriweather Lewis, this was not such a big deal. The event was recorded, but he doesn't seem to think her efforts that day were essential to the overall success of the journey. Interesting. So I can ask questions like, "Why do you think the modern-day writers of Sacagawea's story might want to exaggerate this event?"

The books about York are similarly enlightening. As Lewis's personal slave, York was the only member of the expedition who wasn't paid for his work. Some of the books have great historical information about slavery in general. For instance, one book describes the marriage customs among slaves. They didn't include any vows about 'til death do us part' because everyone knew couples and families could be parted at any time by their masters who could sell them.

So we get a chance to talk about some of the not-so-pretty aspects of Western Expansion, just by reading stories. Over and over, Lewis and Clark write of their sense that they are the first civilized people to set foot in these lands, even as they encounter people who are settled and civilized, with laws and customs and art work and complex cuisines: all the markers of civilization.

This is good stuff, and it's all on my agenda as an educator. I want them to question the motives of people who write books for children. I want them to consult primary sources for history, and to look deeply at the intellectual and cultural context of those sources. I want them to understand that slavery was an abomination, that it was perpetrated on people as fully human as we are, and that its effects echo through our lives even now. Of course, it answers some of what New York State wants me to be doing with my kids too. I needed some kind of American History topic this year, and we are finding this one to be particularly rich, both in terms of available materials and issues raised.

Much of this was a surprise to me, however. I am not an historian of any stripe, and I know very little about the Lewis and Clark expedition. When the original question was asked, I answered it not from a wealth of knowledge, but by accessing a factoid I'd memorized, probably in a Social Studies classroom, some year long in the past. I wasn't even completely confident that I was answering it correctly.

The point is that I don't have to know all this stuff; I just have to be ready to jump on it when the question comes along. It's impossible to predict which questions will become curriculum, but over time I think I've developed a sense of which questions to just answer, and which ones should send us running off the library.


Anonymous said...

First I have to say that I am very amused that you used the LA Metro so much. I grew up there and have never once used it! (Of course, it came about after I had moved away, I think, but LA and public transport of any kind don't go together in my mind.)

I'm starting to get an idea that part of home/unschooling is simply being brave enough to start answering the kids' questions, and the being resourceful enough to follow up. I'm pretty brave; my husband always lobs questions to me and I just answer them simply, often with a picture image that the kids can relate to.

This morning we spied a little sparrow on a tree branch right outside our front door. I asked my son to tell me all the colors and shapes of the parts of the bird, and then we got out our Birds of New York book and played a little game of "what do you think that bird eats and why?" based on their beaks and claw shapes, and how you can identify a shorebird by its long legs and beak, etc. Totally spontaneous and fun, and lots of learning.

The challenge for me would be working with something for which I only have the barest factoids at hand, like Sacagawea. I might have to lob that one back to Papa, since he lived in Great Falls, Montana for a while!

I can also see how interesting and challenging it might be to think about what you are doing spontaneously in terms of state requirements or curriculum goals. Like the birdwatching we did could be biology or ecology or art if we drew some birds, or even music if we found a piece that was inspired by birdsong!

So, I'd like to hear more about what the state requires from you, and how you work with the state as far as reporting (if any), etc.

Ipo said...

i was just coming here to ask that question, what does NY require of you to homeschool... or are you flying under the radar like many homeschoolers do at this point?

elsie deluxe said...

I think I'll just answer this one in the comments, if you don't mind. There is no creativity or philosophy in the way that I respond to NYS requirements.

Yes, we are registered as homeschoolers in NY. It would be pretty difficult to somehow fly under the radar, since the district was already aware of our family from our registration at TSS. I wouldn't bother anyway: I don't know what I would get out of it, because even though the requirements are fairly specific, they are not onerous.

The requirements are that we file a letter of intent to homeschool, along with an annual plan that says how we plan to address each of the subject areas, as defined by State Ed. Then we file a quarterly report that includes days of attendance and what Big has done in each of the subject areas.

I can address subject areas in any way I see fit. I can buy a curriculum, use materials in my home, or other resources, like the library. I don't have to say exactly what we'll be studying ahead of time, just that we will respond to our children's questions as they arise, and that we'll use the library as a resource.

Then I file quarterly reports, which just say, quickly, how we're addressing each of the goals in the annual plan. I also have to maintain and report on attendance (which makes no sense to me; he's always present.)

There is one more requirement: starting in 4th grade, kids have to take a standardized test every other year. They have to score at the 33rd percentile or above, and they have to show improvement from year to year.

That's it. I take care of it all minimally. The real juice goes to the kids, not the state.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, Elsie. I tried to find the NY State homeschool guidelines online, but the NYSED pages are not exactly user friendly. Just give me a PDF of some forms, darn it!

I thought it was interesting that they get specific about teaching AIDS and substance abuse throughout the grades. I guess it's a public health issue.

Anonymous said...

That sounds like a great little rabbit trail. And your approach to state mandated reporting sounds about right. For your other commenters, I know other blogging homeschoolers who use a day planner to record what they did so that they have some record to provide for the state or even just for their own review. You can look back and see how much you really do or where there are gaps that you want to fill.

And I think even if you didn't know who it was on the coin, you could have said something like "I'm not sure who that is. Why don't we find out when we get back." And then you go to the library and do a bit of research.

I think the US dollar coin thing is funny. I've lived in the UK and now in Canada. both places have gone over to coins and phased out small denomination bills (for 1s and 2s). When I go to NY, I often fly into Newark and end up with dollar coins from the NJ Transit ticket machine. But New Yorkers think they are strange.

Sandy said...

My problem is getting caught up in product and assessment. Should we write a report about Lewis and Clark, or make a play or draw a picture... I have to let go of that and see process as important. But how to balance that - how much am I going For her, how much should she be doing for Herself. See, I'm a unit planning kind of person - it makes me feel safe and like I know what is going on. I guess that's why people like systems, so they don't feel like they're just doing a bunch of random unconnected stuff that doesn't get synthesized at the end (into a research paper!) That final synthesis of learning seems like an important step. And I'm also caught up in the steps, I want to stop my daughter and say, "no, you're jumping ahead. We are in the research phase right now, and we'll get to analysis in good time." Which is silly for many reasons, I know.
(You know I don't think you're doing a bunch of random unconnected stuff... )