by Erin Chianese
Years ago, when my now-teen girls were 8 and 10, I went to a homeschool conference and was befuddled by one speaker’s adamant statement that all homeschooled kids will find their main interest. My girls hadn’t found theirs and I didn’t believe the statement. My surprise at the speaker’s words was personal too: I did not have a main interest as a teenager and am still searching for it. I thought to myself, “What a dream come true if my girls could find theirs.” Well, now I do believe the speaker’s words, as my girls have each found theirs, and I have seen many of their homeschooled friends find theirs too.
The importance of a main interest cannot be emphasized enough. A main focus will drive the curriculum. It will give meaning to any subjects attempted. More importantly, it can give meaning and confidence to a person’s life. If a person can tackle and excel at one thing, then he can tackle and excel at anything. It doesn’t matter if the interest is one that will lead to a career and “success” in this context of excelling is defined by the individual. The experience of excelling demonstrates to one’s self-depth, persistence, labor, and accomplishment. Such success has taught the person the process of how to strive and achieve. It can be seen as “practice” for other endeavors. For example, my husband went to a music college. Twenty years later, most of his fellow students work their 40 hours per week doing something totally different, but they also do music on the side. They still measure their paths in music as successful ones even though they do not have it as their main source of income. They have taken pleasure from their music all their lives. And they are successful in their attempts in the fields they are earning their incomes in.
If you have recently pulled your teen from the school system, I have heard from numerous sources to give them one year off from schoolwork: A detox if you will, freedom to dabble and delve. This gift of a year allows the student to find his focus if he hasn’t already. (Gosh, is one year enough?) Time will give your teen freedom to choose to do what may lead him in a direction. The hard part is a parent’s worries and fears from a year spent without planned academics. Perhaps a parent can justify the year off by adding a year to their teen’s high school years. Then the student would graduate at age 19 rather than 18. This is not a setback. A year of freedom is definitely worth another year at home with the family together. In fact, I know many homeschoolers who are taking an extra year to either perfect their chosen focus skills or to complete required classes for college entrance.
If a homeschooling teen has not found a focus, then try the same approach as a student recently out of school would: Ease up on the academics. The focus interest may take more time to appear – say, by age 16 rather than 13. If you do not see a focus appearing, look deeper. Is your teen seemingly only interested in watching movies? You can introduce him to filmmaking, documentaries, international films and cultures, film history, or script writing. Is your teen only interested in socializing? You can introduce her to theatre, biographies and diaries, cultural anthropology, sociology, community service, social activism, psychology, or teaching. We know several teens interested in watching anime. At first thought this seems only a fun hobby. But this hobby has led them to drawing and creating their own characters, reading manga books, researching Japanese culture, and learning the Japanese language.
So, with focus in hand, we can look at teen curriculum. First and foremost, the student will want to achieve a higher mastery in his focus. Can he do this on his own or does he need to go out into the world to do this, maybe with a mentor or apprenticeship or special classes? What are the goals centered around the focus? Where can his focus take him? Does your teen know how far he is in his mastery and at what level he realistically wants to be by age 18? One of my daughters is a dancer and she has been visiting different dance studios to assess where she is at and see what they can offer her.
It may or may not be necessary to receive recognition for levels of mastery. There are many ways to receive recognition. A computer wiz can work or volunteer his skill, a gymnast can compete, and an artist can join local art associations. My younger daughter is a writer. She could be lucky enough to get published or she could enter a contest. I am wary of competition because it does not always bring out the best in people. It can instill fear. Overcoming fear will strengthen character, but competition can also be inhibiting. It can cause damage if the student doesn’t succeed according to someone else’s criteria and perspective. It can create blocks to creativity and stifle entrepreneurship. Historically, new art and music are not embraced at their debut. A teen entering a competition for recognition might want to take all this into consideration and research all his options for gaining recognition if he feels it is important to him. My writer daughter may be able to create an online magazine rather than submit stories to a contest.
Alongside the main interest, what else should a high school teen study to reach his goal? My writer daughter needs business and speaking skills if she is to sell and promote her books. An opera singer needs to study languages, body movement and acting. An environmental activist needs to learn about biology and ecology, politics, fundraising, and environmental law. Looking at these lists, they become long and arduous and admirable. These studies are not necessarily the ones required by high schools to complete or by colleges for entrance. (I will address this below.) But they are important to the specialist that your teen is becoming. Looking at these lists it seems that the student can probably surpass the college step in his career track. A college may not have much to offer our students. When my husband arrived at his music college, he changed his major because that particular department could not offer him enough new techniques.
Worrying about the future can be counterproductive to nurturing a teen’s focus and accomplishments now. A school system produces students of a mold. A homeschool produces independent students of character and substance, sure of their gifts and potential. Spending time on what is important to your student now will pay off for him in the future. Remember that there is time. Our kids are just starting out on their journey in life. Also remember that their main interest can change and become a different one. They will succeed if they are sure in their self-confidence, through their experience with already succeeding at something important to them and knowing they have your support.
As a homeschooling parent of teenagers, I now understand why folks one hundred years ago only went to school until the sixth or eighth grade. They knew the basics of the three R’s, and they could go on to their individual paths from there. Today’s homeschoolers are in the same position. In their early teen years, our kids are ready for the next step in their homeschooling. A curriculum centered around a main interest provides the next step. Is there a purpose to an academic curriculum at this point?
When I was growing up, it was a given that my brother and I were going to college. There was always this underlying push for us to get good grades and take the right classes to go. That big push is ironic to me now, because my dad and his friends never went to college. My dad became a civil engineer through his job with the State of California and his close friend became a film editor, trained while working at Disney Studios. I have heard that that was then (the 1950’s) and that college is required for everything now.
College is the pot of gold at the end of the happy schooling rainbow. Is this true or is it a wee bit o’ blarney? How do Homeschoolers — the schooling revolutionaries — see this? Is it necessary for your teenager to go to college? What is the purpose of college at this point? Is it mainly to ensure job success? Has college completion become another blank filled in on a resume in order to “look good”, like keypad skills or proficiency in Microsoft’s latest Super-Program?
In the teen years, college looms close on the horizon. Its pending arrival panics many into trudging through prescribed curriculum. Many teenagers tackle required academics to obtain a high school diploma. As parents, we do want our kids to have all options open to them. Homeschooling can offer practical ways to accomplish a teen’s goals, be it college or not, while still maintaining individuality, a focus on the main interest, and educational integrity.
When I think of “curriculum”, I think of two meanings that have become opposing ones by the nature of the school system. One is that of taking the required classes to complete high school and enter college. The other is more idealistic — that of learning subjects to blossom into a well-rounded person equipped to enter adulthood. Both of these definitions need to be taken into consideration as you make your curriculum choices.
Who gets to decide the curriculum? What is important to learn? Where should curriculum take your teen? All the answers depend on the student’s goals.
Motivation is a huge factor in completing any curriculum. If the curriculum can tie in with the teen’s main interest, the student has much more incentive to study. Absolutely, the most important thing for your student to focus on is his main interest. The main interest will drive the curriculum and will probably consume it. If college is not a goal, then the main interest will provide a broad educational background because the pursuit of it will take the student to many related subjects, experiences, and places out in the world. In fact, if college is a goal, then the main interest will still provide most of the required curriculum. Keeping in mind your teen’s main focus, what subjects does he need to reach his goal? If you, as the homeschool administration, require certain subjects be taken, work out with your teen how to accomplish these. Math, writing, and reading are often already a part of a main-interest study. If the student’s goal is attending a trade school or college, find out what the requirements for entrance are.
Many teens enroll in charter high schools that require textbook work and tests to determine completion and grades. Enrolling in such a charter can alleviate the fear of not getting a high school diploma and the fear of not completing the required classes for college admission. However, there are many drawbacks to these schools, namely that they are schools: They follow rigid rules of timing, testing, and grading. Some questions to ask your teen before enrolling in a charter high school or similarly heavy-curriculum program are: “Will you actually learn?” Is this the best use of your time?” “Is this the most efficient way of reaching your goals?”
If a teen has homeschooled all his life or even for a few years, the charter school will not likely be the first choice. Many families are very creative in learning subjects. An unschooled or eclectically homeschooled teen who has a lot of independence and thinks critically, may gain nothing from a textbook. Many homeschoolers are accustomed to learning by questioning, researching, and hands-on methods rather than the rote method of a textbook. Teens are mature enough to browse and choose their own books and materials that they would like to use for their particular studies. (This is a learning process for them also.) The student will only study if she is willing to. How much easier if the studies are relevant to her and she has chosen the resources?
Taking the conventional road to academics may seem easy at first glance. But is it in the long run? There is so much pressure on completing a “good education”. Education’s purpose is to provide learning. I want my kids to approach any subject or task or to enter college with an attitude of willingness, interest, openness, and awareness. I believe that textbook work and tests promote a jaded attitude, where the student is stupefied into memorizing facts for the short term. The attitude then carries over to the next subject or educational setting. I wish for my kids to spend their free time now on meaningful pursuits chosen by them. If they go to college, they can jump through the mass schooling hoops at that time, mature enough to keep their goal in sight. Bachelor programs of colleges are not only geared for a career, they can offer education. I remember one of my favorite classes, Physics for Non-Majors. The instructor lay on a bed of nails, unscratched, to demonstrate force per square inch. I was fascinated. I had never known that physics was a way of looking at the world.
Unschooling offers an easy answer to the academic curriculum dilemma. When my kids were just starting to homeschool I would write down everything they did, to make myself realize they were learning. I tallied “baking” under Math and “making up stories” under English. For the high school years this method translates still. An artist may be much more interested in art history than in world history. Art history is fueled by world history. Studying Faberge eggs inevitably leads to Faberge’s famous patron, Czar Nicholas II, and his demise through the Russian Revolution. Why not use this in your records as a customized World History class? The introduction to the subject is idealistically what a high school education attempts to do. Customizing studies of interest for required studies is justified because the student is actually learning and it is meaningful to him.
Completing high school and college entrance requirements can be done creatively and without compromising your student’s time and direction. The idea of customizing is not new. Even charter schools do some substituting, especially for subjects like Physical Education, Art, and Computer Science.
Let me use my dancer daughter as an example of how this works. She is 15 and has just settled on dance as her main focus. She is not sure if she would like to dance professionally, choreograph, or teach dance. She would like to go to college. She is perfecting her dance techniques as she is thoroughly enjoying it. She wants to learn French because French terms are used in ballet. She reads books on dance and teaches dance in a community arts project. She had to compose an essay and make a short film as an entrance application into a summer dance program. She is in a Classics Book Club because she enjoys it. I feel I can, with no qualms, record that she has completed English, Physical Education, Art, and Community Service this past year. We study world history together as a family because we are interested in it. We have done this for a few years now, and I feel she has more than completed World History, U.S. History and U.S. Government classes. I can tally some of her choreography and all of her banking skills under “Math.” She also has been reading about dancer nutrition and kinesiology, which I would tally under “Health” or “Biology.”
Filling in transcripts for your high school student sounds intimidating, but I have read that colleges look twice at a homeschooled applicant. A transcript will only be glanced at to see that the required courses were completed and to see what the grades and GPA are. The colleges look closely at the essay and the extracurricular activities. Here, the homeschooler stands out with his/her high achievements in the interest-focus area along with determination and writing skills shown in the essay. Remember that colleges have a narrow viewpoint in translating required subjects as an education and a way to compare applicants. Customizing or justifying homeschool pursuits and learning styles into academic categories is a way to speak the colleges’ language. There is much pressure to do this and I think it is the only way to get a homeschooler into the college system, if he did not take the conventional path. We are revolutionary to the college system. They acknowledge this a bit since they look twice at the applications. (They do this because many homeschoolers who become college students, do well.) Colleges may start to interpret our pathways and perhaps we can help them on their way to comprehending our “language” into their system. For now, we have to stay somewhat inside their “box.”
At times, I feel indignant about inflicted curriculum and the anxiety it causes. I am bothered that I have to categorize learning into required standards. The system is controlling and it is an unethical practice to require kids to learn only specific subjects. I know school systems use it as a way to compare and measure students by. The same goes for the SAT test. It is unethical to force people to compete via a grueling and boring SAT test. This seems so mechanical and inhumane to me. Is it even ethical to assess human beings? Can’t people be measured more by their individual actions, merits, character, gifts, industry, and potential? Competition and stress over college acceptance causes much fear, and fear squelches freedom. Fear brings self-doubt and almost every homeschooler does doubt his own level of knowledge at some time or other against the unrealistically elevated status quo of school or college.
Crucial to teenage curriculum decisions, time must be factored into the equation. Teens have many options. They can work, volunteer, go to community college, read books, or study at home. All this takes time and they must weigh the importance of each activity to fit it into their tight schedules. Organizing one’s own time is another valuable lesson for entering adulthood and entering college. A teen must make these choices and with the parent’s help they will be well-informed choices. Research all options. We have guided our kids to this point in their homeschooling journey by unconventional means and they can reach their next goals by similar unconventional pathways. There is not just one road to success.
Whatever path your homeschooling teen takes, he is paving the way for future generations to succeed as he succeeds. The Colfaxes* are heroes in our circle because their kids went to Harvard. At that point we knew that our kids could get into the top universities. Whether your child goes to college or not, his journey is his gift to future homeschoolers. All of our stumbling will benefit future pathways and accessibilities. Speaking college administrative language is just a tweak in the process to allow our kids to nourish their gifts and get through the college system, if that is part of their goal. As homeschooling parents we have been able to loosen our grip on control of our children’s learning. Perhaps the system will eventually also loosen its control over its current assessments of learning and students. Or our teens could prove colleges obsolete when they successfully bypass them altogether.
College might be totally unnecessary for our kids. Once on the unconventional path it may be hard to get on the conventional path. One of the beauties of being human is that we can be very creative and diverse in our endeavors. When I was studying biology in college, I volunteered at the NOAA research facility in San Diego. There was a researcher employed there, doing his own research on anchovies, who had never been to college. He had started out working there because he was an expert on boating and the ocean’s behavior. He was eventually given an honorary Master’s Degree from UCSD without attending a single class!
One last thought on curriculum: What if we lived in a society that required no set curriculum? I can envision that such a society would be full of diverse individuals content in themselves. Each person would have a passion that he could offer others. There would be a great continuous flow of ideas and exchange of knowledge and skills with respect and acceptance of one another. Homeschoolers actually have this as their model in their home or in their support groups. We teach each other skills we are good at and we discuss books, current events, social problems, and education. Who knows how far the homeschooling lifestyle and pathways can lead?
As to the pot of gold at the end of the happy homeschooling rainbow, ‘tis truly a happy adulthood for your child.
Erin’s daughters have both graduated from college and are successfully pursuing their life goals.