Like many homeschooling parents, I sometimes wonder if I am “doing enough.” Our family has (mostly) bought into the idea that learning just happens and that children are learning all of the time, which is a good philosophy for my fiercely independent, creative, and authority-adverse son. So, while we use learning tools (like these fabulous Star Wars workbooks), we eschew any curriculum that would wield too heavy an influence or plot our months or days, mainly because we know it would become a struggle and get abandoned. While my son has sustained interests, I cannot see him liking anything like a unit study where he felt compelled to focus on a topic, even something he liked. Instead we check out stacks (and laundry baskets full) of all kinds of books from the library—whatever he wants—and read them at will. We do subscriptions (like Science Expeditions) instead of formal studies, watch cartoons in foreign languages that we don’t yet speak instead of watching “educational” language videos (which, yes, I also bought), play games with lots of text instead of doing formal reading lessons, and organize Nerf battles instead of participating in organized gym classes or sports. I know he’s learning. Still, I occasionally find myself wanting to “add up” the learning, to fathom (if not exactly measure) its width and depth.
At times like this, I turn to a practice introduced by the ever-wise Julie Bogart of Brave Writer called “organizing from behind.” The idea is that instead of planning what a child will learn and then helping them learn it, you “live in the joy of the presence of your child” while your child learns things, with or without help, and then you record them as narratives that acknowledge and celebrate that learning.
One benefit of this reverse cycle of learning and then organizing/celebrating is that multiple threads of topics can slowly gather together (better than if they were planned), repeating themselves and getting woven into the tapestry of learning over a longer period of time than is usually spent on a “unit,” or even spent in one school grade. Another is that it is just plain fun.
A recent example of “organizing from behind” in our family has been accounting my son’s deep engagement with classic English children’s books this year. We just returned from a trip to England (where I was doing research for my job as a university professor), which of course provided endless and somewhat overwhelming opportunities for learning. We planned a few things, like going to the British Museum and the Imperial War Museum to learn geography and history, but in hindsight, I think the most interesting learning my son did came from his repeated contact with stories that have been a part of our life for the past several years, including Alice in Wonderland, Wind in the Willows, King Arthur, Harry Potter, Treasure Island, and The Hobbit. Going to the land where these stories were written gave him a chance to perceive the many influences that go into the making of a story, the choices that authors and adapters can make, and the many different ripples and echoes a story can have over time.
Using Alice in Wonderland as an example: My son first heard this story from his overzealous parents as a toddler, and then encountered it again (and the sequel) last year as an audiobook, long before we had made travel plans. He interpreted the Jabberwocky with my husband and memorized much of it without trying. Soon they were battling with “vorpal blades.” Family jokes about “outgrabing” and other nonsense words began to punctuate our dinner conversations. We watched the Disney version of Alice and compared it to the original. In England, we happened to have a chance to travel to Oxford, where the book was written. My son saw Lewis Carroll’s photography equipment at the Museum of the History of Science, toured Christ Church college where Carroll studied and taught, saw stained glass windows filled with characters and a portrait of the “real” Alice, and played Mad Hatter’s Tea Party at the wonderful Oxford Story Museum.
We saw a theatrical version of the story that remixed the characters and ended with Alice battling the Jabberwocky to conquer what these adapters interpreted as her fear of growing up, which was a great chance to learn about literary interpretation.
The Wind in the Willows also got a deep dive. I also read this to my son when he was a toddler, but this year we read two versions of the story at home, side by side—a graphic novel version and Inga Moore’s beautiful illustrated version—because we couldn’t choose between them. Of course, we then jumped on the chance to see the new musical written by Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame) with a London homeschooling group and loved it. We have been listening to the soundtrack constantly since we returned, debating which characters are our favorites (my son’s is definitely Mr. Toad) and which sing the best (and what it means that there are so many female characters and singers in the musical version vs. the book being mostly male characters). We played in an amazing exhibit version of Badger’s house, again at the Oxford story museum, complete with a picture of Neil Gaiman dressed as Badger and a blurb saying why he idolizes the character. (We also went through the train station at Oxford near where Kenneth Grahame’s son killed himself, though I didn’t tell my son that. And I happened to read about the debates over Grahame’s fitness as a parent and to see some of the original letters that Grahame wrote to his young son telling the story of Mr. Toad on display at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.)
And this is all without even talking about our side trip to Glastonbury to see mythological King Arthur sites!
I don’t think I could have planned this better. Each repeated exposure to the different stories reinforced and deepened my son’s thinking and learning. “Organizing from behind” is a chance for me to savor this depth, to know that it is more than enough and to understand, even better, that it will continue to expand.