The “One Thing” Drum Beat
For two years, my kids got stuck in Ancient Greece. Try as I might to drag them into Rome, they dug in their heels and kept reading myths. We read them in every version we could find them. Correction: my kids read them. I read the first myth book aloud to them and then they took off finding alternate versions of the stories.
They not only read myths, they wrote them. They drew the gods and goddesses. They discovered myths from other cultures and compared them to the Ancient Greeks. They found references to gods and mythology in Shakespeare. They were overjoyed when they realized that painters love Greek mythology and became expert in identifying the stories in paintings and sculptures when we went to the art museum.
In short, they saturated themselves in mythology. I fretted a bit at the time. Shouldn’t we be reading Plato? Wouldn’t it be better for them to understand the role of the city-state and democracy as conceived by the Greeks? What about moving ahead to Egypt and Rome and into the Middle Ages? They wouldn’t budge.
I gave in. (I’m like that.) So over the course of two years, mythology dominated our homeschool experience. We certainly continued to do the things we usually did (math, language arts, reading aloud, poetry tea times, trips to museums, parks and the zoo, science-y projects, co-op). We watched the history channel occasionally. But for the most part, if you ask our older kids about those years, they will tell you: we studied mythology.
One day, they were done. We moved onto Ancient Egypt, Rome finally fell and we trundled into the dark ages. A highlight of that period: listening to Seamus Heaney recite “Beowulf.” A deeply satisfying period.
Sometimes when we look at our homeschools, we want to be able to check off the chronological list of historical moments. We imagine that if we read the historical fiction, tie it to a timeline and discuss the major events in history, our children will be educated. We move them along, making sure we “cover” the whole Middle Ages in one year, or whatever.
Yet education has to do with investment and retention, the ability to generate meaning from what is being studied.
Many kids can’t make heads nor tails of time. Last week feels like a month ago. Christmas is ten years away. But history is all about time and imagination, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s place and know it as it was. If we move too quickly through history, we risk information overload and a deliberate disconnect from the material in favor of “getting through it.”
We have a running joke in our family. I majored in history, but Jon recalls historical dates and events better than I do. I can tell you a lot about trends, the philosophical conditions of each period of history, how people lived and what they wanted or knew. He can tell you what year the government was overthrown in Guatemala. (And a lot more than that too.)
Even as a history major, though, knowing the facts of history has not been key to my success as a student, as an adult, as an educated person.
What’s been useful to me is knowing how to learn, how to analyze, what to do with the information once I have it, how to make connections. By allowing my kids to wallow in mythology for two years, they discovered a way into history that helped them imagine other times and places, that prepared them for other literature and religions from historical periods of the past. It created an anchor point from which to examine other cultures.
In applying the “one thing” theory to other aspects of homeschool, pay attention to what “hooks the jaw.” If one of your kids becomes utterly fascinated with weapons, use that fascination as the access point to look at history. I remember when Noah spent six months watching World War 2 movies with his dad. He also drew tanks and guns into a sketch book. We read some historical fiction from that time period as well.
“One thing” implies trusting that the immersion in one topic that really interests will lead to all the learning necessary. There’s that spill over of developed vocabulary (genocide, Aryans, socialism), calculations about numbers of people (Holocaust, Normandy) or years (when the war started for whom and when it ended) and months (military campaigns) or distances (how far is it to fly from Japan to Pearl Harbor and on how much gas?), geography (which countries existed where and when and for how long), alliances, philosophy, and economics….
Knowing how these fit together in one period is enough for a long time. It provides the right frame of reference for future historical studies. When absorbed, the next war or period examined will automatically be internally compared to this first one. Momentum is gained when you yield to interest. Real learning takes place and created connections point to the next phase of study.