Sunday, March 9, 2008

Customizing curriculum

When I pulled Jacob out of public school several weeks ago in the middle of tenth grade, my intent was to continue teaching the courses he was already taking. Thus, for Global History, which in our school system is a two-year course that ends in tenth grade, I went right into World War I where he had left off. After finishing that, his textbook introduced Lenin and Communism in what was to become the Soviet Union. But it covered it so superficially. Jacob needed to know so much more about the regime that my parents escaped and that my husband lived under until he came to the States in 1990. A few pages in a textbook weren’t enough.

Since I had come across the idea of teaching history through literature – that is, biographies and books about history rather than a textbook – what better way to read about the history of Communism in the Soviet Union than through Albert Marrin’s biography of Stalin, Stalin: Russia's Man of Steel? But before I assigned the book to my son, I quickly read the book myself so I’d be familiar with its contents. I was intrigued.

Meanwhile, I had just finished reading Cry, the Beloved Country, set in South Africa in the 1940s, the book I had planned to assign my son for English this week. But as I read about Stalin, the father of the gulags in Siberia, it occurred to me that there was no better time to assign Jacob the book A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by renown Russian writer and survivor of the gulags, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It was on the reading list, but I had planned to assign it much later. Assigning it now makes more sense. Jacob can read about South Africa later, perhaps even when we study apartheid in history! For now, the Stalin biography and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich would go together so much better.

But wait! Wait! Tolstoy is mentioned in Stalin: Russia's Man of Steel, and since Tolstoy predates Solzhenitsyn, who is also mentioned in Stalin, I’ll pull out my collection of The Best Stories and Tales of Leo Tolstoy and pick out a few short stories first! Then after Jacob reads, say, three short stories, I’ll give him A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. That will expand his horizons even more!

Just like that, I’m changing Jacob’s curriculum, tailoring it, weaving together Global History and English so they support one another, complement each other to create a broader experience for my son. Homeschooling allows me to do this, especially when I’m the master of the curriculum and I’m not following a rigid program. And it helps to have read all these books myself.

Outside my 40-hour work week as a tech writer, my time spent scanning Health and Biology texts, my writing of schedules and exams, my cooking and household chores and family time, it seems that all I do is read. I don’t know about my son, but I’m sure getting an education!

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What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
— Albert Pike, Scottish Rite Freemason (1809-1891)