Maybe the title of this post alone is enough to scare away some readers. But to me, this is the fun stuff. I love coming up with ideas, making up an outline, researching sources and having an excuse to spend extra time in the library while working on making my ideas into learning plans. I say “learning plans” because I am not particularly skilled at making “lesson plans” yet. My method is to gather enough books on a particular topic, to “strew” them around the living areas of the home, and then try to think up ways to make the lesson-time engaging, and maybe even fun. So I have a sort of learning “sequence” by the end, if not a plan!
Let me back up for a second, though: When my husband and I were trying to decide about spending some time in Saipan, I agreed on condition that I could homeschool. I also insisted on a 1-year work contract for him. There are plenty of other reasons for that, but one was that planning a curriculum for our three kids sounded a lot less daunting if there was only a single year to map out. I wanted a custom curriculum, suited to each of their individual interests, that would be challenging and fun for a whole year.
I knew what I did NOT want.
See, my elementary years were spent in a French educational system, leftover from a colonial era (that was still alive in well in a lot of respects). Pedagogy followed a very traditional, seat-work heavy, learn-your-cursive-and-do-your-rote-memorization-drills kind of pattern. I didn’t hate it, because I didn’t know any different at the time. But I was awfully bored.
Overall, my own children have had a very different experience of school in their various public school settings. There have been seasons–a full year for one daughter–when they have landed in the classroom of a teacher for whom worksheets and rigid methods of classroom management have been the rule. I have tried to guide them away from those experiences into environments where their individual interests and talents are welcomed and celebrated. We have known some truly excellent, inspiring teachers as a result, and I am happy that we did not settle for less-than-satisfactory situations. It is entirely because of the engaging lessons and topics and the creativity and hard work of these teachers that I had the guts to go ahead and try this out, on my own, on a tiny island in the tropics.
Here is how that happened: over the last couple of years, all three of my kids have been enrolled in a public charter that follows the “Expeditionary Learning” model wherein teachers create short, or long, learning expeditions that include and/or emphasize case studies, fieldwork, projects, consultations with experts and connections to the local community. Students are encouraged to take charge of their own learning, to become experts on their topic, and to share what they are learning in high-quality, relevant final products (and beyond). The EL model stresses the importance of personal creativity and the individual interests of students, independent as well as collaborative work. There is also a strong focus on issues of morality and justice. Here are some examples of expedition titles: “Inventions that Changed People’s Lives,” “Biodiversity in Rainforests of the Western Hemisphere,” “Kindergarten Tools: A Kindergarten Expedition Into Tools and their Uses,” “Stories of Human Rights, a Fifth Grade Expedition.”
Now, don’t those sounds like subjects you might want to spend a few weeks (up to an entire year) studying? I sure would.
Ideally, the three R’s, along with social studies, science, art (along with anything else you care to throw in) should and can be incorporated into a single Expedition.* That said, this is easier to do with certain topics and some expeditions will necessarily be slanted more one way than another. The “Inventions” one above is really brilliant because I imagine that it could include history, science, biography, literature, cultural studies and more…
So, since EL was a model with which the kids and I felt familiar, it was an easy decision to use it for inspiration for our year in Saipan. All I needed was to brainstorm ideas for expeditions that would be relevant (and possible!) on a tropical island territory of the U.S.
It was not at all hard to come up with ideas (I have several that I will not use and I am happy to share those with anyone looking for some suggestions) but it was more difficult to find ones that would be portable during travel. In the end, I have decided on four for this year: two short ones and two longer ones. Our first one was only a week long and was intended to be a “Kickoff” to the rest of the year. The guiding questions were straightforward:
– How do we (the three of us students) know things?
– How do we learn what we do not know?
– How do we make choices about where to go for answers to our questions?
It was a very short week’s focus on learning and research, with two case studies, divvied up as follows:
The eldest (the 5th grader) was to research an answer to these questions: What is the “Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands”? (What is a U.S. Commonwealth? Are there others in the U.S.? In the world? What are the U.S. Possessions? Name them. Find out when they became Possessions. Was Hawaii always a state? Was Alaska? What is a Territory? How is it different from a state?) The final project for this was a video speech about the CNMI.
The 2nd and 3rd graders collaborated on their topic: Why is Saipan part of the United States? (Who were the first settlers on Saipan and the CNMI? Who came next? What other countries have administered Saipan? When did the U.S. incorporate Saipan as a U.S. Territory and why?) The cumulative project was a timeline about the settlement of Saipan.
Readings during that week included as many picture books about libraries and museums as we could find, some books for children on how to conduct Internet research, as well as encyclopedias and dictionaries. (psst: there is absolutely nothing about Saipan in any children’s encyclopedia that we found.) We ended up relying on books about Puerto Rico for facts about what a U.S. Commonwealth is.
It was a success and just enough for one week. We all learned a little, and I understand the Dewey Decimal system a whole lot better now, ha ha!
Later on, we will have a travel-themed expedition. I am not yet sure of the guiding questions or title, but it will have to do with how children around the world live, and how they eat, with a particular focus on whatever countries we end up visiting (Thailand, China and…?). Our library has quite an extensive collection (for a library of its size) of fiction and non-fiction on diversity in lifestyle among the World’s children. It also has a rich Asian collection of fables and folktales.
I can’t tell you about our other last expedition (due to begin in late January) because I promised to keep that a secret for now. But I will tell you that at the moment, we are about six weeks into the first of our two long expeditions. We are studying the ocean: what lives in it and from it. How life is possible in the water, and how humans make their living from the sea and its resources. Part I is all about the physical ocean and how it is a habitat for marine animals and plants, Part II is about the many ocean products that people extract and use in order to survive or to sell, and about ocean-related careers. Part III is about conservation challenges for today’s oceans.
We have already studied waves, tides, salinity, gyres and other physical features of the world’s oceans. We studied the biological classification system and tidal pool habitats; we conducted a case study on hermit crabs. We have gone snorkeling (though not enough, as I said already), we’ve discovered new and beautiful picture books about the ocean and ocean creatures. We have watched some excellent documentaries and a few mediocre ones (I highly recommend “Turtle: the Incredible Journey” which is currently on Netflix streaming), and dived into some classic literature about the sea or about surviving off the bounty of the sea and her coasts (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Swiss Family Robinson). We will learn about some famous navigators and maritime explorers and then we’ll take a look at myths about the sea and mythical creatures (the Great Kraken!). I expect people will want to don costumes for those units and I am trying to brainstorm how to do that…
This post is long enough already, so I will just say: this is SO much fun. I wish I could have lived on an island fringed by coral reef and studied all about it when I was a kid!
Sure can’t complain about getting to do it in my mid-thirties, though.
*note: This is an example of an excellent Expedition. I especially love that this particular teacher even incorporated Math exercises into the Expedition–or, rather that the Expedition was designed in a way that would incorporate Math. This is not easy to do, folks!