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Home Education Magazine

September-October 1997 - Columns

Good Stuff - Rebecca Rupp

Designing Your Own Curriculum

It's that time of year when my husband and I and the boys begin to discuss, in haphazard manner, our plans for the up-coming non-school year. We've done this every summer since the boys were very small, attempting to set priorities for September: old homeschool journals include lists of plans to learn about papermaking, rabbits, knights and castles, spaceships, lasers, whales, and life in ancient Egypt. Caleb, our youngest son, the summer he was four, had only two educational ambitions: he wanted to tame a squirrel and ride the bumper cars at the county fair. This summer, at twelve, he wants to study astronomy, Latin, and glassblowing, to go on an archaeological dig, and to learn to play the oboe. Ethan wants to study computer programming and nanotechnology - "Nanotechnology?" I squeaked nervously - and to learn to play the bassoon; Josh wants to write a novel, read, study entomology, work at the local Humane Society, and continue piano lessons.

In all our years of homeschooling, we've never used a packaged curriculum, which is probably just as well. Knowing our kids' unpredictable patterns of interests and opinionated personalities, I suspect it would have been substantial money down the tubes. Instead, we've found it easier - and more rewarding - to invent curricula of our own. The main advantage here, of course, is that a home-designed curriculum suits its users to a T: programs and subjects can be tailored precisely to individual interests and learning styles. A disadvantage is that homemade curricula can be overwhelmingly time-consuming for the lesson-planning parent. Our kids, for example, move so much faster than I do and in so many different directions that it's often hard (impossible) to keep up - they leap from entomology to ancient China to architecture without pausing for breath, eager to dissect grasshoppers, experiment with Chinese brush painting, raise silkworms, build a model of the Eiffel Tower.

This multiplicity of interests is mind-broadening, intellectually exciting, and just plain fun: giving the boys freedom to pursue these is one of the reasons we originally decided to homeschool. On the other hand, this wide array of interests can also make for a fragmented and disoriented learning experience. Kid-led learning, in our hands, seems to work best when balanced by continuity, by an ordered central core to which new knowledge can be logically connected. Our curriculum therefore - like the universe - continually teeters creatively between structure and chaos.

So what's an ordered core? How to come up with an organizing principle around which to build an effective curriculum? One possibility is to base your home curriculum on that of the public schools, which supposedly roughly parallels the intellectual development of the average child. World Book Educational Products, along these lines, distributes a free booklet titled Typical Course of Study: Kindergarten Through Grade 12, an abbreviated year-by-year list of the concepts kids are expected to master in the fields of language arts, math, science, social studies, and health and safety. (To obtain a copy, contact World Book Educational Products, P.O. Box 980, Orland Park, IL 60462; (708) 873-1533.) A much more detailed coverage of the same material is found in The Core Knowledge Series, edited by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., of Cultural Literacy fame, and published by Doubleday.The series includes one book for each of the first seven grades (K-6), each describing the required fundamentals for each age group in the fields of math, science, history, geography, language arts, technology, and the arts, with illustrations, photographs, maps, and recommended stories and book excerpts. Titles in the series are What Your Kindergartener (First-Grader, Second-Grader, etc.) Needs to Know: Preparing Your Child for a Lifetime of Learning (E.D. Hirsch, Jr., ed.; Doubleday). These can be useful references, especially if your children are required to take annual standardized tests: it's nice to know what the school expects them to know when. We never found such "Typical Course" lists particularly helpful for home curriculum design, however, since our kids never seemed to be in synch with the public school.

Our kids' learning styles seem to mesh better with what are popularly called "unit studies:" assorted projects, activities, and readings centered around a topic of kid-chosen interest. Here again, we've always invented our own, accumulating craft and science kits, and turning out piles of homemade activity books on such subjects as the Civil War, whales, stars, frogs, the heart, the eye, trees, bees, and map-making. Many of our past unit study topics were generated from the calendar, centering around the birthdays of famous persons, historical anniversaries, and unusual holidays. In past years, for example, we've celebrated - in detail - the birthdays of George Washington Carver, Benjamin Franklin, Louis Braille, Amelia Earhart, Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Boone, P.T. Barnum, Frank Lloyd Wright, Hans Christian Anderson, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Susan B. Anthony, and Helen Keller; commemorated the launching the Sputnik, the Wright Brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk, the opening of the Erie Canal, the completion of the transcontinental railroad, Boys' Day in Japan, the opening of Tutankhamen's tomb, the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill, and - month by month - the entry of all fifty states into the Union.

Some good references for calendar-watchers include:

Birthday A Day (Stephen Currie; GoodYear Books, 1996)

This is a collection of very short cartoon-illustrated biographies, one for each day of the year. Among the persons included (each with a birth, but not death, date) are Louis Braille, Rosa Parks, Elizabeth Blackwell, Alexander Hamilton, Langston Hughes, Gerardus Mercator, Mollie Pitcher, Alexander Fleming, and Neil Armstrong. For each subject, there's a suggestion for a project or activity: on Beatrix Potter's birthday, for example, kids invent a secret code and write a message (just like Potter's private diary); on Frida Kahlo's birthday, they draw a self-portrait; on Jacques Cousteau's birthday, they make an "underwater" collage. The book is recommended for kids in grade 3 and up. The biographies are very abbreviated; Birthday a Day is a good jumping-off point but you'll need to supplement the text with information from other sources.

Celebrations Around the World: A Multicultural Handbook (Carole S. Angell; Fulcrum Publishing, 1996)

This is a month-by-month list of holidays and festivals from countries all over the world. For each, the author includes descriptive background information and lists of related activities and projects. For the Chinese Moon Festival, for example, kids bake fortune cookies, study the phases of the moon, and experiment with fractions using moon-shaped cookies or "moon pies."

The New Teacher's Almanack: A Complete Guide to Every Day of the School Year (Dara Newmarr; The Center for Applied Research in Education, Inc., Nyack, NY, 1980)

The book lists events, holidays, famous birthdays, resources, and related language arts, science, math, and arts and crafts activities for every day of the school year, from September 1st to June 30th. In the September chapter, for example, the author includes background information and suggestions for celebrating Better Breakfast Month, the patenting of the first roll-film camera, California's entry into the Union, National Hispanic Week, Constitution Week, the first showing of Mickey Mouse cartoons, the launching of Magellan's expedition to circumnavigate the globe, and the autumnal equinox.

Writing Down the Days: 365 Creative Journaling Ideas for Young People (Lorraine M. Dahlstrom; Free Spirit Publishing, 1990)

Creative writing ideas for every day of the year, each based on an interesting event on that day in history. Journaling suggestions, for example, revolve around the invention of Bingo, the Japanese Star Festival, National Mustard Day, and the return of the swallows to Capistrano.

By the same author, for younger children: Doing the Days: A Year's Worth of Creative Journaling, Drawing, Listening, Reading, Thinking, Arts & Crafts for Children Ages 8-12 (Free Spirit Press, 1994).

A curriculum composed solely of unit studies, however, especially as our children have grown older, hasn't seemed to provide enough educational coherence. It's fun to flit from academic flower to flower, but we also want our kids to assimilate all they've learned, to integrate their many enthusiasms into a greater picture. The mind, after all, is said to thrive on connections. In our case, the tie that best binds our curriculum together - the prime connector - seems to be history. Almost everything fits - somehow - into a greater historical framework. Some years ago, in a moment of organizational inspiration, I convinced each of our boys to make a personal "Timeline Book" - each in a looseleaf notebook, with a span of years printed at the tops of alternate pages. The books run from 10,000 B.C. to the present, first in 1000-year jumps (10,000 to 2000 B.C.), then in 100-year jumps (to 1400 A.D.), and finally in 50-year jumps (to 2000 A.D.). A folded strip of paper, about 50 inches long and 4 inches wide, is taped by one end inside the back cover of each book; this is marked off in labeled one-inch increments, each representing one century, from 3000 B.C. to 2000 A.D. A second strip, of greater scope, shows relative lengths of geologic eras, in multi-million-year chunks, from the Precambrian to the present. The boys maintain their Timeline Books almost daily, entering persons and events not only from ongoing history studies, but from all other academic subjects as well. Famous mathematicians, scientists, authors, poets, artists, and musicians all have their places in the books, as do landmark scientific discoveries and inventions and important political occurrences. The books, while having some common ground, reflect the boys' individual spheres of interest. Caleb's book, for example, is filled with archaeological events: the building of the Great Pyramid, the burial of Pompeii, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon's soldiers, the excavation of Troy by Heinrich Schliemann. Josh's is stuffed with philosophers and literary figures; Ethan's with physicists and their discoveries, and with classical musicians. The timeline strip at the back of the books provides a more visual grasp of chronological history, but is too small for details, especially as one edges up past 1600. Generally the boys use it to record only major events and eras: Marco Polo's trip to China, the signing of the Magna Carta, the Renaissance, Columbus's arrival in the New World, the Civil War, World Wars I and II.

Just now, our 1997-8 curriculum, nicely outlined on paper, is an exercise in educational organization. Chemistry, world history, and algebra are all featured, along with Latin and Japanese, music lessons and orchestra participation, reading lists, computers, astronomy, and pottery. I am an inveterate listmaker; every year I like to line all our academic ducks up in a row. The truth of the matter is, though, that none of this - ever - works out as pre-planned. We'll manage to maintain some structure, in the matter of history, foreign languages, and math. We'll keep the Timeline Books active: "When did Poe write 'The Telltale Heart' anyway, Caleb? Did he die before the Civil War?" We'll celebrate Jules Verne's birthday, Shakespeare's birthday, the Ides of March, and the anniversary of Ethan Allen's victory at Fort Ticonderoga. The boys will read, write, argue over current events, practice their music, play chess, skate, ski, and tackle brand-new projects of their own. We'll invent the year's curriculum in large part as we go along, eliminating, substituting, adding, modifying on demand. And next summer at this time, with any luck, our sons will be increasingly prepared for pursuing their own versions of living happily ever after.

Make Your Own Dinosaur Out of Chicken Bones Make Your Own Dinosaur Out of Chicken Bones by Chris McGowan (HarperPerennial, 1997) is a project and a half for young paleontologists: the book, just as the title implies, is a 144-page instruction manual for building an impressively realistic Apatosaurus skeleton out of chicken bones. To do this, you'll need three whole chickens (McGowan thriftily includes a couple of recipes for leftover chicken meat), plus a list of easy-come-by supplies, among them paper plates and cups, nail scissors, a wire hanger, glue, cotton swabs, toothpicks, and an X-Acto knife. The instructions are crystal-clear and very detailed, with lots of helpful diagrams, but there's a lot to it: don't expect to knock off your Apatosaurus in one rainy afternoon. McGowan's own first model ("Basil") took seventeen hours to assemble. Paleontology requires patience.

Once you've all worked through this, however, you'll not only have a stunning (thought somewhat small) dinosaur skeleton, but a thorough understanding of dinosaur (and chicken) anatomy. In fact, by page 50, all participants will be happily flinging around words like "ischium," "coracoid," and "hypapophysis." The book also includes interesting general information on dinosaurs, a glossary, and an appendix of "Fifty Fabulous Discussion Topics."

Rocky Bingo

Bingo for geologists. The game includes 35 labeled cards, each with a color photograph of a rock or mineral, plus additional information about typical color, hardness, and descriptive facts. The Bingo playing boards each include 24 color photographs. To play, a designated caller draws a card and reads the name of the specimen: players mark any matches on their boards with a purple plastic chip. Pictures are gorgeous, including samples of rough and tumbled rose quartz, red jasper, agate, zebra marble, an obsidian arrowhead, tiger eye, and an amethyst cluster.

About $13.00 from game stores, or can be ordered from the Carolina Biological Supply Company, 2700 York Road, Burlington, NC 27215; (800) 334-5551; FAX (800) 222-7112; e-mail:

All Over the Map: An Extraordinary Atlas of the United States

All Over the Map by David Jouris (Ten Speed Press, 1994) is an entrancingly unusual approach to geography. The book includes 33 "thematic maps," each pinpointing the locations of (real) American towns named - for example - after animals (try Caribou, ME, Squirrel, ID, Flamingo, FL, and Bumble Bee, AZ), plants (Lilac, TX, Tulip, AR), men (Zachary, LA, Alfred, NY), women (Emily, MN, Geraldine, MT), and foods (Pancake, TX, Grape, MI, Cookietown, OK). There's a "Mineral Map," featuring such towns as Chalk, Agate, Opal, and Blue Diamond; a "Literary Map," complete with Bronte, Tennyson, Whitman, Coleridge, and Dickens; an "Artistic Map," with Pink, Orange, Royal Blue, Peagreen, and Inspiration; and a "Christmas Map," with Bethlehem, Holly, Rudolph, North Pole, Santa Claus, and Star. A brief supplementary text provides interesting historical facts: readers learn that Lead, SD, is famous for its gold mine (it's really named for "leads" or "leading veins," ore veins which indicate the presence of a mineral deposit); that Two Dot, MT, is named after a cattle brand; and that Ebony, VA, is named after a racehorse.

A sequel, All Over the Map Again (David Jouris; Ten Speed Press, 1996), includes 34 more thematic maps, among them an "American History" map, starring Hiawatha, UT, William Penn, TX, Kit Carson, Colorado, and Bunker Hill, MS, a "Mathematical Map," featuring Tangent, OR, Diagonal, IA, and Angle, UT, and a "Tree-Covered Map," locating Apple, OK, Oak, NB, White Pine, TN, and Joshua Tree, CA.

Funny, fascinating, and enriching. P.S. There's a Rebecca, GA.

Language Now!

The Language Now! series, on CD-ROM or diskettes from Transparent Language, provides an immersion approach to learning a foreign language, in which users plunge directly into a series of stories, articles, and conversations (some with accompanying video clips) in their chosen foreign language: Spanish, French, Italian, German, Russian, Latin, English, or (available in late 1997) Arabic. The intent is to teach language in a natural context through reading, listening, and speaking, rather than through a series of drill-and-test grammar and vocabulary lessons. This does mean that your first experience with a Language Now! program involves a screen intimidatingly full of unfamiliar foreign words - but ("Don't panic," urge the instructions), after a surprisingly brief practice period, the text rapidly becomes understandable. As beginners read through each text selection, a translator function gives the meanings of individual words or phrases, and shows how groups of words interact. As they proceed, users can make personalized lists of new vocabulary words by clicking on selected items in the text. Using the "Listen and Speak" function, they can then hear words, phrases, or the entire text selection read aloud - adjusting the word pace as necessary - and can practice their own pronounciation, recording their voices and comparing the waveforms generated to those of native speakers. (Just try to get the same general pattern, the instruction manual counsels; some variation is normal.) "Games" includes four foreign language word games, intended to build vocabulary, comprehension, and grammar skills: these variously involve word meanings, fill-in-the-blanks, scrambled word puzzles, and crosswords. "References" includes foreign language alphabet and grammar basics sections.

Once you've mastered all the text titles available on the basic Language Now! program, several "Add-On Titles" are available for each language.

Each Language Now! program costs about $129. Available on CD-ROM or diskettes (with audiocassettes) for Mac or Windows, from Transparent Language, 22 Proctor Hill Road, P.O. Box 575, Hollis, NH 03049-0575; (800) 752-1767; web site:


A microscope on CD-ROM. This looked, at first glance, like a marvelous idea: the program consists of a virtual light microscope, with ten accompanying virtual slide sets. Slide sets include two "Survey Sets," with samples of such popular micro-curiosities as a bee's leg, rust, a water flea, cheek cells, wool, and bacteria; "Pond Life," "Physiology I and II," which includes views of blood, bone, muscle, nerve, and epithelial cells, the stages of plant and animal cell mitosis, and three plant sets, "Leaf Parts," "Roots," and "Stems." An on-screen guide book instructs students in the workings of the microscope, which does indeed operate like a real live microscope: users jockey the slides into place on the virtual stage, adjust the sub-stage diaphragm to provide adequate light, and focus, using coarse and fine control knobs, which, if done properly, results in a close-up view of a selected virtual specimen. (If done improperly, it results in smashing the virtual slide to smithereens.) Once you've got the specimen in your sights, a click on the "Camera" button provides a full-screen view; and users can access an associated "Help" book, which gives definitions, brief explanations, and labels, to figure out just what they're looking at. There's also a "Test" mode, for the taking of virtual lab exams.

Our group, unfortunately, found the virtual scope agonizingly tedious to use. It's extremely slow compared to the real thing, and the specimen resolution - once you finally get it - isn't all that great. If you want your kids to have a rewarding microscope experience, get them a microscope.

On CD-ROM for Mac or Windows. Regular price about $69 from Neuronware Entertainment Inc., 1300 Bay St., Suite "0," Toronto, Ontario M5R 3K8, Canada; (888) 371-4425; FAX (416) 966-9457; web site:

The Math Chef: Over 60 Math Activities and Recipes for Kids

The Math Chef, by Joan D'Amico and Karen Eich Drummond (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), teaches math with such goodies as applesauce, waffles, homemade animal crackers, and banana muffins. The book is divided into four main sections, each devoted to a different mathematical concept: "Measuring," "Arithmetic," "Fractions and Percents," and "Geometry." Users not only whip up a lot of great stuff to eat, but learn how to calculate the number of grams in a pound of potatoes, how to triple a sandwich recipe, and how to determine the area of a brownie, the diameter of a cupcake, and the circumference of a pie.

1997 Rebecca Rupp

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