What 'textbook avoidant' means to me

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by Kim Jaworski, Homeschool Resource Specialist

I often tell those who attend my talks at homeschool co-ops that my homeschooling philosophy is “textbook avoidant”. After fielding questions and comments about this recently, I realized that I’m not being clear about how avoidant to be. People are reluctant to set them aside for fear of missing some important component as they educate their child or based on an assumption that an expert in the field surely compiled this text to include what we need to know.

I’d like to clarify. I did actively avoid using textbooks as the cornerstone of our learning, but they were present in a restricted way. Until about 6th grade, my children didn’t use textbooks. I sometimes had them in the house, and when it came to math I even had several at the same time. But they were for my guidance to make sure I was hitting all of the topics in the continuum of skills we needed to build math proficiency. I would look through the table of contents and nod to myself saying “yep, we’ve done that. Done that, too. Done that. Ah, here’s one we can jump on tomorrow.” When it came to presenting the new topic, I might peek at the chapter for a refresher, but mostly I would try to introduce it in a very personalized way to fully engage my kids in the new concept. You can read my articles on our approach to math for more info on that.

When I didn’t have an inspired idea for how to introduce a particular new topic, I would set it aside and keep my eyes peeled for something that would click into place. During our next library visit, I might browse that section of the library looking for just the right thing to kick it off, or I would peruse the internet for something to spark our minds. You can do the same thing, or you can browse the resource page of my website, or scroll down my homeschooler facebook page. Whatever pool of ideas you choose to draw from, I promise it will be more tantalizing to you and the kids than that black and white textbook.

Keep in mind that a textbook is simply the result of someone else’s adventure into learning about a topic. They did all the digging and researching and condensed it down into the dry reading material of a textbook. It’s like reading a travel book instead of taking the trip yourself. There’s a lot more to the Wright Brother than just 3 paragraphs and a black and white picture in some book. Did you know they had a sister? And there were other brothers?

When it comes to Science, Social Studies and the Arts, you can use a topic by topic approach. See my article called “Topic Tuesday” for some guidance on executing this, regardless of your child’s age or current abilities. Homeschooling can be so much more than just ‘school at home’. It can be an adventure. It can lead to discoveries and explorations of your own! And the more your children are invested in this learning, the more it’s personalized and feels relevant, the more your children will remember and assimilate that knowledge or new skill into their thought process. And that’s learning at its very best.

And don’t be afraid to tackle new territory. Maybe you hated History or struggled with advanced Math. This is your chance to make it your own! Do the research together. Talk about how you find reliable sources of information and how you compare and contrast information to get the whole picture. Talk about the different points of view that you find when you read a book that is autobiographical about Christopher Columbus vs the great explorer written about by Historians eons later vs books by people who knew him personally and shared in that time and place in History. Take your topic and find documentaries, youtube videos, interesting books or magazines or a trip to a historic site- then dive in!

For older students (7th thru 12th grade), you can introduce textbooks, but PLEASE supplement with more interesting sources. Or try a Dummies book instead (Geometry for Dummies, American History for Dummies, Literature for Dummies) as they are written by experts in their fields and have a less dull pace to the prose. Dummies books are like a backstage tour of a textbook, an insider’s special take on the topic. And Dummies books are inexpensive at second hand stores or through half.com or Amazon for a used copy.

If this approach tempts you at all, please try it. You can always go back to the textbooks if it doesn’t pan out for you. For me, the beauty of homeschooling, the siren call that led me to this grand adventure, was the alluring though of kicking the textbooks to the curb and learning through discovery and exploration and some trial and error. I didn’t come to this easily. I spent months pondering what I felt ‘worked’ and ‘didn’t work’ in my own educational experience. Which teachers inspired me and brought the learning alive? What did I still remember about 2nd grade or 6th grade or 9th grade even now? Then I dug through the entire set of E.D. Hirsch books (‘What your Kindergartner needs to know’ all the way to ‘What your 6th grader needs to know’) and realized that none of it was rocket science. Then I thought, hey, we might really like rocket science.

So much was left out of the typical course of study that guides most curriculum. Maybe that course of study should just be a general outline and I could fill in the details with richer sources of information and experience. I’ve never regretted taking this path. Not for one second. It’s the proverbial path less traveled and I never liked crowds anyway. Give yourself permission to pull off of the Textbook interstate and travel the byways of education. You’ll still get to your destination but with a richer trip under your belt.