When I looked over my first stacks of teaching materials I panicked.
“You mean I have to teach this stuff?”
Curriculum, those stacks of learning materials we rely upon to teach their kids, can freak out the best of us.
Over the last two decades, I have learned to approach curriculum very differently. I no longer feel chained to this page or that lesson. Instead, I rely on what I call
The Covered Wagon
You can also call this style of teaching/learning: thematic learning, or unit study.
We choose a focus for the current period of study.
I call this choosing the ” Golden Thread”. An example of a Golden Thread: Study Native American History for North America.
I need you to look at the picture of the covered wagon. Use your imagination with me.
This wagon is on a journey to some destination.
There are 4 wheels solidly on the ground to help the wagon make it to its destination.
The wagon is steered and controlled by the grown-ups or older children.
There are extra horses to facilitate quick side trips.
Lastly, notice that the wagon itself is full of supplies and activities to occupy the travelers.
The Covered Wagon Approach to learning is just like riding in that covered wagon.
How you Teach/learn a Subject Using this method
We first choose a destination (In this example: studying Native American History). This is where we decide what our final project will be to present what we have learned. Need Ideas for Projects? I have a Unit Study Idea Sheet for you at the end of this article.
Second, we look down and see our 4 foundational Wheels: History, Science, Math, and English (Language and literature). We will look for ways to incorporate each of these subjects while teaching about Native American History.
History: learn about the main native American groups. Focus: for each group of Native Americans learn: where they lived, what was the climate, what kinds of clothing did they wear, what they ate, did they worship a god?
Science: Focus: examples: study weather. create graphs of your local weather, compare that with weather in the areas that the native tribe you are currently studying lived. Study Native American weapons.
English: Focus spelling and vocabulary around the tribe you are studying. Choose 5-20 words a week to learn. Choose books to read together and independently about Native Americans. Complete daily copy work about Native Americans, weekly narration about Native Americans, and weekly dictation.
Math: Estimate the distance from one tribe to another. research whether each tribe had a way to record numbers and record data. Complete word problems focus on Native Americans.
The 4 Wheels of History, Science, English, and Math are your foundation. Just like the wheels of a real wagon would be on the ground every day, these subjects would make up your core learning.
Third: Remind yourself that the wagon is “controlled” by older children and adults. A 5-year-old will not necessarily determine that they want to study Native Americans, but an older student might. Remind yourself that you are ultimately responsible for your destinations, but there are almost no wrong places to study! You choose!
Fourth: In the picture above there is a lone rider on a fresh horse. With the Covered Wagon Approach, you need to be ready to break free from the wagon when a spontaneous learning opportunity presents itself. For example, maybe your student becomes fascinated with the Appaloosa horse of the plains nation. Take a side trail to study the Appaloosa and other breeds of horses. Look for ways to incorporate Math, Science, English and History while you are on this side trail. Once the burst of Inspired Learning fades, go back to the wagon.
Fifth: The covered wagon. Just like the picture shows a wagon full of supplies and activities, you carry into your teaching an endless supply of activities and field trips to supplement your child’s learning.
This is where art, music, dance, technology and things like theater fit in.
Where can you go, what can you do, how can you see, taste, smell what you are learning about? In our Native American Study you could research and explore Native American Art and learn how to reproduce things like beaded bracelet’s, you could download Native music, attend a POW WOW in your area, visit the museum, watch History Channel Movies (or even Disney Movies), research YouTube videos, interview a local Native American and more.
The Covered Wagon Approach means you jump into a golden thread and focus all your learning in that direction.
You choose an historical focus and design, plan or purchase programs that incorporate all of those 4 foundational disciplines into that particular area of learning (You really do not need a specific curriculum to learn/teach this way: With the exception of math where you will learn from a math program of some sort. This can be as free or expensive as you desire!)