This week I wasn't able to get together with Hannah for co-schooling, so I gave the kids Tuesday and Thursday off and dedicated a day and a half for school planning: mainly, to throw together a week-by-week curriculum for next year's science.
This coming year I want to try out something new: teaching the same subject to my three school-age children as a group. I figured we'll read some picture books and have some discussions and activities together, and then my sixth-grader can be sent off for some extra independent work. I thought I'd try it with the subject block we call "science." I typically hate -hate-hate prepackaged elementary school science programs anyway, so as long as I'm going to be winging it I might as well save time and teach the same subject to all three kids.
(Why do I hate prepackaged science curricula? Let's be blunt: I have had enough training in physical science that I tend to get morally outraged by all holes, errors, oversimplifications, and gaps. This causes me intense irritation that I don't experience when trying to teach other subjects, such as art appreciation or history. I recognize that every curriculum contains holes, errors, oversimplifications, and gaps, but even when they are obvious to me, they don't bother me as much as they do in science curricula. I would be interested to find out if other homeschooling parents get exceptionally irritated about the shortcomings in curricula covered by their particular fields of expertise).
Since it's the first time I'll have tried teaching science to three levels at once, I want to pick a topic that would be easily accessible to all of them. That is, I want to choose a field with the potential for hands-on demonstrations and experiences that can involve the kindergartener and second-grader; at the same time, I want the sixth-grader to keep a laboratory notebook, make precise measurements, run calculations, and self-evaluate.
I briefly considered botany, but decided to save it for another year on the grounds that I would have to do a lot of preparatory review myself (I've only had one year of high school biology, from a ridiculously incompetent teacher). Earth science would be good, except my sixth-grader already had that as a second-grader; I'll repeat that curriculum (which I designed, natch) for the younger kids some year when he's doing something else. The sixth-grader has also already done electric circuits, anatomy, and a chemistry-in-your-kitchen sequence. Hannah has been teaching ornithology to the younger kids for months now; come to think of it, she has done such a great job at it that I ought to ask her to write a guest post about it!
In the end I settled on human nutrition:
- There are a seemingly endless supply of relevant picture books in the library system.
- The subject is obviously and practically related to daily life, which fits my philosophy for primary-grade nature study.
- The "labs" are mostly cooking, but the sixth-grader will be able to find some test-tube-and-beaker work.
- I can use the subject to teach some useful practical-life skills, like snack-making and food budgeting.
- The topic is interdisciplinary in an interesting way. By that I mean I can use some good children's literature about food (food preservation unit study = Blueberries for Sal!) and I can let it creep into social studies at the edges (what children around the world eat for breakfast; economics) as well as getting into several different branches of science and technology (chemistry, anatomy, ecology, agriculture) and, as a bonus, some rhetoric (why do we have a "food pyramid" and not some other shape?).
Once I got that figured out, I picked a sixth-grade nutrition textbook with decent scope and some ideas for experiments -- yes, it's full of holes, errors, oversimplifications, and gaps -- and used that as a sort of skeleton to hang my own ideas on.
Just when I had made up my mind to teach human nutrition, along came Jamie's suggestion via email that I should review Ellyn Satter's Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family (I'm giving it a mixed review: I criticize some aspects here and here, and I begin to point out some good stuff here). One of the appendices is entitled "Nutrition Education in the Schools," and it gave me some good ideas for organizing my approach toward the differently-aged children. Because of its influence, I think I will save all the "nutrient" discussions for the sixth-grader, and spend my time with the younger children exploring the world of human food: classifying, growing, harvesting, buying, cooking, preserving, displaying, tasting, and digesting.
So far I've assigned a topic to each of the thirty-six weeks of the school year, based on the kind of work I think my sixth-grader ought to be doing. Now I'm going down through the topics and searching through the library catalog for good picture books that match up with each topic. (I am doing subject searches like: "Vegetables -- Juvenile fiction" and "Refrigeration and refrigeration machinery -- Juvenile literature.") This is the fun part. It'll give me an excuse to check out a whole lot of kids' cookbooks, if nothing else.
Once I get all the topics in order with a list of good picture books appended to each one, it'll just be a matter of requesting the books a week or two in advance so I can plan some activities. I'm pretty used to doing this by now with history, so I have a lot of confidence that I can "wing it" on a week-to-week basis as long as I have a topic plan in place. If I have time before the year starts, though, I can plan more details in advance and so cut down on the winging it.