The “One Thing” Drum Beat

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.

Brave Writer online class: Writing a Greek Myth

8 Responses to “The “One Thing” Drum Beat”

  1. Tara Melton says:

    Julie –

    I continue to read, contemplate, and absorb your insights. However…I still struggle at times with how to make it play out in real life. How did you handle the “one thing” with multiple children? Was everyone digging into their own “one thing” simultaneously? And if so…were they old enough to do their own digging, or were you assisting each child in a different area?

    We have four children, and while they do have different levels of grammar and math that they study independently, or with my help, we have other areas (i.e. history, science, music, and art) that we all cover together.

    If you have a child that is not at all interested in history, do you just let that lag until they do? I have one who is very mathematically inclined. I think he would just ignore science and history completely if given the option. He would love to do his math and make up Sudoku puzzles of his own all day long. He does that….but I am still somewhat inclined to ask him to join us for the other stuff. Again….just trying to figure out how to make this real in everyday life. Would love any insights that you have!


  2. Dona says:

    Dear Julie,

    This hits the nail right on the head! It’s taken me 5 years to get comfortable enough to plunge ahead with this philosophy. I had to distance myself from the public school ideas enough to be able to embrace interest-led education. I also had to learn enough myself to be able to guide my children through phonics, learning to read, and history. Since I was not much of a reader, I am now having to learn to enjoy books, (which by the way I am doing) looking for interesting ways to teach concepts that I have relied on workbooks to teach in the past. Our homeschool is an evolution and I like how we are evolving. BW has led us in the direction I had always envisioned, but had no clue how to get there.

    Thanks for traveling along with us on our journey. We wouldn’t be this far without you!


  3. Rachel says:


    Wow! A math whiz. Got one of those here. Pick a war and there is usually some great info on code and codebreaking.
    WWI “the Zimmermann Telegram”
    WWI “The Choctaw Code Talkers”
    WWII “The Navajo Code Talkers”
    WWII the “Enigma”
    The Civil War had loads of ciphers
    Even a study of the great depression has Hobo symbols.
    Math is everywhere!
    If you can find an inroad with codes, then why did they need them is a natural question with a great history lesson for an answer!
    Rachel in NH

  4. Julie Bogart says:

    Tara, I don’t blame you for feeling like it’s hard to “get.” It’s taken me years to relax enough to not worry about “getting it.” In the meantime, I did what I could as I had inspiration or clarity. There’s no way to make your kids find a history topic to study over a length of devoted time. All you can do is continue to read to them, to share the world with them, to be enthusiastic and open to new information and experiences. As you do and as they show interest, you yield to it (which means allowing it to crowd out of other well-meaning plans and ideas). You let the “thing” have its head for a bit.

    Yes, sometimes that means one child is really into something while the other four kids are sort of piddling along doing small bits of various things. But while a child (any or all) show enthusiasm, you make space for that thing to be fully devoured. So.

    If you have a child who becomes all about knitting, that’s the time to buy the needles, shop for yarn and light the fire. Start knitting. You (as a mom with more resources and insight) might look up knitting rhymes on the Internet, you might schedule a trip to the local petting zoo to see sheep, you might spin a globe and identify all the places in the world that herd sheep, you might buy some wool that is not yet yarn to observe.

    In other words, you help the interest become more than it was when it first became of interest. You don’t need to overdo it (as though every interest must go the full length of depth – you might worry your kids and you don’t want them overwhelmed). Still, when my daughter got interested in India, we made food, drew maps, tried on a sari, learned a little Hindu, threw an India party complete with games, and wrote a report. I don’t remember what the other kids were into then, but they still benefited from Johannah’s interest in India. But somehow, over time, we cycle through a variety of interests that give us a chance to experience one thing at a time in depth.

    Hope that helps.


  5. Julie Bogart says:

    Tara, just wanted to add that you might want to look at for a great list of living books about the history of math! Imagine how much your son might love that (and how it would enhance his appreciation of history at the same time).


  6. Diane says:

    It is hard to let go when you ask your child (my boys) if they would like to study something that interests them. I get a shrug of the shoulder and a whatever. With my daughter it was much easier. I am reading Marilyn Howshall’s “Wisdom’s Way of Learning” and she took time off from “school” to give her children time to shake off mom’s control vs. delight learning from them. (Like when kids are home from school in the summer and by Sept 1 they are no longer bored, as they know how to fill their own time with learning) That is a scary thing to do.

    I look forward to your next entry.

  7. Julie Bogart says:

    Diane, I remember reading Marilyn Howshall years ago! I loved her philosophy of keeping your children with you and paying attention to their natural interests, allowing them to have time to think for themselves, staying home and not running around every day of the week. I was on her emailing list for a couple of years too.

    It does feel scary to “let go.” If you ask your kids what they want to “learn” or “study,” they often will shrug their shoulders if studying has felt unconnected to their interests. They don’t realize that they might be able to say: “I really want to learn how to play Halo 3 so I get to X level.”

    That’s why I like to recommend the “one thing” approach. You can only let go as much as YOU can handle. Take it baby steps. Perhaps one day each week, you’ll let go of a day’s plan and allow for the kids to “squander” the morning playing games and watching TV. Maybe.

    Or perhaps you’ll substitute one workbook for spelling with a word game like Quiddler (card game) that you play instead. Allow yourself to think about the risks you are willing to take and only do them one at a time.

    One of the difficulties I’ve had with the unschooling movement on the whole is that they often suggest moms jump in with deschooling and total delight directed learning all at once…. while the mom and dad are both terrified and not ready to believe in it. It’s just as important that moms give themselves permission to let go of the side of the pool one hand at a time, too.

    So today, just think about one thing you can do differently. Don’t ask your kids what they want to do (necessarily). Think about what you might let go of. Perhaps (in keeping with today’s freewrite, in fact) you can freewrite about all the ways you determine how your kids spend time (the rules they perceive) and let go of one. See how that goes. Do that for awhile.

    One thing at a time. That’s the best we can do when we’re learning a new way to be.


  8. Diane says:

    …they often will shrug their shoulders if studying has felt unconnected to their interests.They don’t realize that they might be able to say: “I really want to learn how to play Halo 3 so I get to X level.”

    Oh Julie! You are getting too close to the deep end for my comfort zone! I think I’ll start with Quiddler. : )