Subject Integration

Subject integration is something that home educators strive for more and more these days.  Topics are not so easily categorized in real life and have a natural overlap. This is why textbooks become dull. They force divisions of topics or disciplines that rob the student of the bigger picture.

Unit studies try to overcome this problem by creating links to other individual disciplines and show what they have in common, but this is also often forced and the child ends up with more worksheets and uninspiring “twaddle.” So, how do we show the integration of subject matter in a natural way that keeps our young learners curious and engaged?

One key way to keep children interested is to NOT give them the answers. In fact, wonder out loud why things were or are a certain way and create an opportunity for detective work to discover the reason! Become detectives and keep a notebook and sketchbook of your findings. Look for possible links of causality or other influences that may have brought about the status quo. What if something happened differently along the way? How may the outcome have changed?  There is no telling which direction your adventure may take you, but you may become a scientist, a researcher, a writer, a historian, a philosopher, an artist, a logician and in some cases, a mathematician (depending on what you’re finding out) in the process.  Go ahead and use the web to find answers, but also investigate by doing, where you can. Let them try things, and draw their own conclusions.

One topic our home school dealt with this year was the issue of creating a passageway from South America to Mexico for cougars – where they could be free to roam without being harmed or hunted. Concern for the animals well being also brought up other questions. What of the cattle they attacked along this corridor? These cattle were owned by ranchers who suffered loss because of it. At times, cougars also attacked people and harmed or killed them. Whose need should take priority, and what could be done to preserve an ecosystem without harming the population nearby? This issue touched on geography, animal science, philosophy, property rights and economy.

Another similar topic was the re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park and their effect on it. The rivers stabilized in their course because erosion was less of a problem, meadows and woodlands became healthier because the deer population was kept in check and much wildlife, including beavers and rabbits returned to the park. In one case the introduction of wild animals to an area created a problem, and in the latter it solved several!  Again we covered animal science but also learned about ecology and the web of life with its interdependencies. We looked at paintings of landscapes and created artwork with our animal of choice. We also talked about whether it was “bad” or “good” for animals to attack and eat each other, and saw by this example that God’s design worked perfectly when nature as He planned it was kept in balance.

We also learned about how man’s attempt at “fixing problems” could backfire by bringing in a predator bug to destroy another. This was especially true when the predator was introduced from a foreign land. This was also true of plants. Learning about plants and their natural enemies led to a study of gardening and what would attract or repel certain visitors. In our study we looked at kinds of leaves to identify plants, how roots functioned and what nutrition they needed, and what conditions were optimal for creating food.

We learned about the migration habits of birds and butterflies and also the animals of the oceans. As we learned about the ocean currents we also learned about how sailors used these to navigate more quickly between America and Europe. We measured and baked food that the explorers would have eaten during the 17th century and visited an outdoor cultural museum. We watched a movie about early explorers and learned some songs that told about their exploits.

We studied weather and listened to Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” while creating a storyboard of a changing  maple tree.

While reading The Trumpet of the Swan, we learned about trumpets and jazz, drew birds (including swans) and learned about flight. We created kites and flew them on a sunny and breezy day, as well.

No, it isn’t easy to buy curriculum for such a method. If you have some good resources – use them as launching points instead of assigned books to be completed because of some arbitrary rule. In fact, you don’t need to purchase much. Instead, you need access to the world around  you, the library, and the Internet. Perhaps even people close to the topic that you can interview!

As they become more advanced they evaluate information based on their research and determine a conclusion. Taking a position they may develop an argument, write up the thesis beginning with the hypothesis, show the process of experimentation or reasoning, give evidence and their conclusion. In doing so, they have followed the scientific method and written a persuasive or expositional paper. All that remains is to publish it (in a family newsletter or website) or a YouTube video, or present it in person to an audience!  Publishing the finished work brings its own reward. Try to do this in a variety of ways.

It doesn’t really matter what topic you choose to begin. It can be what interests your child. As they grow in the process (and you do too), they can be given topics to research. Once they have the tools and are used to it, these assignments will not be so daunting.

I’ve only touched on a few things we covered this year, but you can see by God’s design, all of life is integrated in some way. Seek and learn along with your children. Through your example, inspire them to become life-long learners. Along the way you’ll awaken your own curiosity again. Your imagination and conversations around the dinner table will be richer for it.

How to Help Your Kids Love Learning Again

Are your kids tired of “school?” Does learning seem like a chore to them? It’s probably not their fault. We’ve been trained to rely on textbooks as authorities of what our children must know, and persevere through them faithfully.

Oh, the tyranny of the textbook! Each subject is presented as separate and distinct, stripped of its vitality and laden with seemingly irrelevant facts. Why do we do this to ourselves? Or, to them? How can we teach the love of learning when it isn’t exciting to us?

Textbooks are useful as a resource. But if you want to teach without quenching curiosity, I think it’s best to keep it as one of several resources.  How about bringing subject matter into a real-life application? Instead of merely stuffing your memory with isolated facts,  you can refocus and create a living lesson!

It is true that advancement in understanding needs a foundation of basic information. Children enjoy memorizing lists and basic fact families from a very early age. This can be done through songs, games and challenges. The grammar stage is when they are hungry to know and identify items in categories. But if these facts do not become connected to a deeper meaning, by the time they hit 9 or 10 years old, their interest will evaporate. There is no reason to wait until they are on the verge of losing interest, either. Knowledge should be applied to bring understanding. They need to move from “the what” to “the how” and “the why.”

Several curricula make use of the library, experiments, and field trips. Even an occasional interview with an expert (or a video clip of one) may be included to add interest. These are a great help! But we still lose something when we strive to separate subjects from each other. Real life isn’t like that. It doesn’t seem natural. Meaning and significance are lost.

How can the four core subjects of math, reading, history/geography, and science come together in one lesson? What about Bible, spelling, handwriting, and literature? If you are following a distinct sequence for each subject, it wouldn’t be easy. But not all subjects need to be taught in a particular order. So, question the table of contents!

This week in history, we have been studying the Pilgrims meeting with Squanto. Here are a few associated topics that could be melded together fairly easily: in science –  germs and infectious disease, hygiene and food preparation, weather, horticulture, and physics (buildings and ships).

Science crosses into math when discussing navigation tools and means from the age of discovery, compared to today. Geography also plays a part both in routes taken and cultural differences. Bible lessons flow from the desire of the pilgrims to worship freely, their treatment of the natives they encountered, and their determination and work ethic in persevering.

Besides matters of faith, the Mayflower Compact touches on sociology, economics, and law. Vocabulary can be taken from this document and sections can be copied. Discussions of the moral rightness or wrongness of settling there against the king’s wishes can be discussed and even debated, with evidence brought for each position.

Math, Science and Reading can also be implemented as your children use original recipes and prepare Johnny Cakes (corn bread) or meat pies from early colonial days. If you double or triple the recipe you not only practice liquid and dry measurement but also add and multiply fractions. The nutritional value of the food available to the Pilgrims is another interesting topic.

Unit Studies make an effort to bring all the disciplines together and many of them do a good job. But again, a curriculum that someone else wrote can be limiting.

I encourage you to be spontaneous from time to time and talk with your children as you help them develop life skills. Let the questions that rise from real work inspire some research and reflection.

One other benefit of this type of learning is that your children see wonder in the world around them. Knowledge does not seem so difficult to attain. Ideas in isolation are soon forgotten. When the creative mind and the senses become engaged, they gain understanding of subject matter and transition into wisdom as knowledge is applied to their lives. There are plenty of mysteries to be discovered. Be free of the tyranny of the textbook. Let learning be a joyful adventure for you and your children!


Is there a “right way” to homeschool?

We chose home education to provide what was needed and not available through traditional means.  For our family, the choice was also a conviction that this was God’s will for us. But finding the key to being what our children needed was daunting. Like my husband and I, most homeschooling parents are untrained in the field of education.

The choices of method and curricula lay before us – each crying that their brand had the method that would save our children from failure and hopefully, vindicate us as good parents in our choice. But which to use? Especially for a mom who struggled through school, herself?

From having desks and chalkboard in the basement to sitting around the dining room table, to each person in their own room (in whatever position made them comfortable) and a mix of these, we tried it all.  We threw out or gave away whatever wasn’t working (not including the kids)!

Teaching one child is very different from teaching a group. I’ve done both. But over the years, the curriculum choices, the media used, the time spent in advance preparation seemed less important than keeping wonder alive and finding a way to learn with my kids. Even letting them teach me things as they discovered them was helpful!

Here are some things I’ve discovered over the years that make homeschooling less daunting and more of a joy.

1. Learning how to learn trumps stocking up on facts. If you need a fact quickly, you can easily “Google” it.  There are exceptions to this. Basic reading, writing, and calculating skills as well as life skills used daily, are examples of those that must become ingrained. What you decide to focus your study on will depend on your and your children’s goals and interests.

2. Habits will affect their whole life. So will attitudes about learning. Cultivate the wonder and love of finding out new things together. Build good study and note-taking habits and model this for them.

3. Not all things need to be done as a group or with the parent’s oversight. Kids who are old enough to read and write will need to have some time to work through problems alone. Let them wrestle down the answers! What they can achieve without our help gives them pride in their own work and motivation for the next.

4.  Let them show you their completed work and take the time to show them their own progress with positive comments as well as helpful suggestions for next time.

5. Work on one new skill while checking on those you have already covered. Try not to have too many new concepts at once. Let the good habits take root.

6. Review things they must really know, regularly. May I add, if you decide to take the summer of “school”, do include some kind of learning. They really do lose what they don’t use. But it’s good to take breaks from one kind of work to try something new for a season.

7. Don’t be afraid to step outside the box or outside the house for your methods. Your family is unique. Celebrate that.

8. Don’t move ahead in subjects that build on each other (like math or reading) until they understand the pieces of the puzzle. 

9. Teach them the technology, but also let them learn from a book. Both are good and needed.

10. “Teach the child, not the curriculum.” If something isn’t working, let it go. It doesn’t mean you have failed, it means the text is not a good fit. Let the subject matter (other than the “three R’s” and passing on life skills and faith) be according to your child’s talents and interests along with “tastes” of new things that they may wish to explore.

11. Try the free stuff before investing in a curriculum.  How many hundreds or thousands of dollars we have spent and thrown away, I can’t begin to calculate. There is so much instruction available that is free or inexpensive (for a subscription) now! Unless you are doing a correspondence course, you can save quite a bit on subjects of your choice.

12. Read together often, for the love of a good story!

13. Encourage your kids to journal for themselves, not for a grade. 

14.  Love your children, love to learn. Participate with them until they get the hang of it. It is very likely that they will want to take the initiative themselves and ask to work alone. As they get familiar with the process over-guidance may actually slow them down! When they reach this stage, encourage them to teach you what they find out. You can discuss it over dinner.

Dinner times are a great opportunity for the family to share what has been discovered through the day and model lifelong learning. It’s a place for debate about issues that come up in the news, sharing difficulties and praying together about those.  Learning is a life-long task and a lifelong pleasure. Keep the spark and the wonder. Never lose it!