I have been getting some questions lately from local people and online about how we pick our themes and how we learn about them together with multiple ages. I received this e-mail a bit back, which has better wording than I have right now in my brain, so I'm going to just quote it—
" . . .I was wondering if you could share a little about how you and your daughters choose topics to study. I'm homeschooling a 9 year old and an almost-4 year old and I think it would be a lot easier if we did some multi-age unit studies together; rather than two separate "grade levels" at once. For instance... Do you just ask your kids what they're most interested in or do you choose? Where/how do you go about picking resources? How do you move on to the next topic? . . .you seem to be able to engage your children of different ages at the same time under whatever topic you're studying . . ."
This is such a huge subject that I sat with this e-mail unanswered for over a month. I mean, I can just tell you what we do— we lay around on the couch, bounce ideas off each other, pick themes. Some seem to be good, others not as exciting. I usually have a few suggestions based on books I have already found about a theme. Then we pick one and just go for it. They never argue about it. I don't know why. I think it's because they know we don't know what we will find; it's a treasure hunt and they are curious to find out what it's all about. Plus, they trust that if it's not super engaging, we will move on. They aren't worried about getting bored. The process usually takes about 4 minutes. My research is ongoing. I often have squirreled away books and lists for theme ideas that I know have really good material. Sometimes I have no clue what we will find and that is fun, too. We tend to focus on people to start the themes, not abstract theories or events. Issac Newton and Florence Nightingale lead us to the theory of gravitation and the Crimean War. We also like mash-up themes, like Picasso and cheese. I write a bit about this process in various posts in the learning section of this blog, but it's kind of buried in the posts and the comments.
We all work on these themes together, but the ages and personalities take them in different directions. When learning about Emily Dickinson, Sadie (11) loved reading her poems over and over, and I think even acted them out in her room, but I'm not sure. The door was closed. Delia (9) was really into the bookbinding that Emily did and started down that road and Lydia (7) loved Emily's botanical research and explored flower and plant pressing and identification. We started all these topics together, but then each girl went off down their own path, which I helped them with individually for several weeks. The paths would wind and change and I would just change with them. This whole time I was reading aloud her poems and a historical fiction book with a young Emily Dickinson narrator.
I was telling someone the other day (my mom, or husband?) the specific theme we decide on isn't terribly important for us. Choosing themes is fun, but it's the surprises when we start researching that is so exciting. Many of our favorite themes that we stayed on for months were unexpected—like Dickens, or Mythology. And who knew about Mozart's wildly talented sister?
I have no idea what will grab them at first, and neither do they, but they know it when we discover it and it just takes off. I just have to be ready, recognize when it happens and respond with resources, supplies, and most of all, energy. I feel a little like a juggler, but not in a bad way. I don't worry about having them remember all the details of a theme. Teaching them to learn, that's my goal, and that seems to be what works best for all of us. Having said that, they all love to be "tested" on dates and hard details, which cracks me up and is so NOT what I thought they would want to do. But I'm so glad they told me. They are proud of what they learn and like to have a sense of mastery before we move on to a new theme. We usually just do this verbally, sometimes written, and there is much fanfare. There might be a time when the girls will want to run with a theme just by themselves, completely separate, and that will be fine, too.
Right now we are learning about the Russian Revolution and Anastasia. I found a ton of books from the library and looked online a bit. We were just finishing up watching Fiddler on the Roof, which gave me the idea for this theme. Yesterday, after printing out images for our wall where we put our theme photos, they got obsessed with the history around Fabergé eggs, so we are learning about that this week and making eggs and I am trying to gather materials for that. When I suggested Anastasia, I didn't have a Fabergé egg component in mind, but here we are and it's awesome.
They are all different in the way they learn. Sadie is all about data and lists, so she is making her own Fabergé book with all the images she can find and classifying them with the dates, titles, descriptions, etc. Delia and Lydia want to make their own eggs, and are interested in jewelry making. There are books on making Fabergé-style eggs, and I think it might even be covered in an old Martha magazine? I'm pretty sure it is. I need to look this up.
During all this I am reading to them both non-fiction and fiction about the Russian Revolution, in bits and pieces and threading it all together. I keep touching base with the theme we are studying and also reminding them of what we have already learned historically and how it's related to WWI, and I connect how Downton Abby season 1 and 2 was around this time, and what was happening here in the US in 1917. They are well versed in all the historical American Girls, and this is Rebecca's time, whose family came from Russia.
When we are done with a theme (sometimes a month, usually 2-3 months) we keep all our images and projects in a big blank sketch book, so they can flip through it and talk about what they remember from each theme, which is pretty great. We have been homeschooling always and doing more formal themes like this for over 5 years now, so there there's a lot in these books to look at.
One thing that really helps them connect with this material is starting with a story rather than just facts. Historical fiction plays a big role here. For instance when we talk about Thailand now, they all remember the book we read about the little girl in a refuge camp, which made a huge impression on them, even if some of the details of Thailand are forgotten.
This is only a slice of what we do during the day. They have a lot of free time dancing and reading on their own and playing music, working on their own projects, often from our theme ideas. I realize the question was about picking themes, not about what our day is like, but, of course it's all related so it's hard to extract one part. This process was a little different for us when they all were younger, but I have always used books as a starting point—various fiction, all the American Girl historical books, and when they were really little, The Magic Treehouse series and the corresponding research guides. I still read those with Lydia and she loves the research guides especially.
Okay, I know this is long. I'm going back in the tent now, which has been up in our backyard for a few days. There's something pretty great about 3 kids and a pug in a tent.