How to Homeschool History Painlessly!

Ancient GreeceI don’t teach our homeschool history co-op class. Instead, I facilitate independent and autonomous self-studies initiated by the students. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, and it’s a fun, easy co-op method that works well for any type of homeschooling, even unschooling!

Our history class comprises about twelve kids age 10 to 16, all in the same chronological world history study. At the beginning of the year, each student chose a discrete history topic area of interest to study further: art, architecture, theater and dance, literature, mythology, inventions, famous people, and so forth.

We meet once a week in my home for a two-week study on each time period. Week One is group study: we watch a video on a specific period of history, say Ancient Greece, and we discuss it afterward. Week Two is independent study: each student pursues his or her own study into in the same time period, in the area selected at the beginning of the year, and brings an oral report to give in the next class period. The students benefit not only from the general history discussion on ancient Greece, but from each other’s personalized reports on its art, architecture, games, mythology, etc.

We are fortunate to have a large television with a computer hooked up to it in our living room where the kids give their reports, so many of them have started using Powerpoint to do their presentations. It started with just a couple (my own kids) doing Powerpoint, and each week a couple more kids would bring in their jump drives to plug in for their presentation. Having the computer there is handy also if they want to show a little video clip from YouTube to enhance their presentation.

The benefits I see from this are manifold. First, no single parent has to do a ton of prep work to teach, nor read papers, administer tests, or assign grades. The kids each choose a topic that is personally of high interest to each of them, rather than having a topic assigned. I believe this is very important to have it work for a whole year. Few kids would enjoy having the topic of economics forced on them as their study to do for the year. Since it is a topic of personal interest, they will enjoy doing the research on their own, and will be eager to share with the class what they learned, and they will retain at least their own research without studying and testing. We take a moment after each presentation for a brief discussion to encourage the speaker with attentive listening: ask a couple of audience members to tell something they learned from the report, or ask any questions that occured to them as they were listening.

In addition, the presentations give the students public speaking opportunity in a very safe environment. While I yield to none in my belief in the supremacy of homeschooling for most situations, I admit that public speaking experience is difficult to gain in homeschool situations. (Talking to your siblings doesn’t count.) Fortunately, several of the students in our class took a Toastmasters class together last year, so we have been able to incorporate and encourage some of the principles they learned there, including positive feedback and constructive criticism, something we ask for after the brief disucussion following each report.

Customize it for your own group. The discussion after watching the video can be as brief or in-depth as is appropriate for your group. You can build in review weeks and even tests, though I don’t recommend that; the kids are researching topics of personal interest and preparing reports to give to their friends, so they will be retaining MUCH more information than they would if they were sitting in a lecture on the same material. In my experience with this class, they even retain a great deal of the information that their classmates are presenting to them! Hearing it in short bits (their reports are generally under five minutes) from a peer rather than a teacher seems to enhance their interest. The facilitator (that’s me) standing up after each presentation to ask what someone learned that was new, or helping the presentor take questions, and even giving constructive criticism on the speech itself all enhance their interest and retention.

Our schedule has us covering one time period in two weeks. You could speed this up by watching the video and giving reports on the same day. We chose not to do this at the beginning, as we weren’t sure how well the kids would handle oral reports every week, but we might consider it now that the kids have settled into the routine.

There are a couple of options for finding a video to watch for the Week One study. You can use a world history DVD series (see below) or you can also cobble together appropriate videos for each time period you want to cover by finding them individually on YouTube and at the History Channel.

Alternatively, you could all read the same history book and discuss that, or even find interesting websites on specific historical periods to read and discuss. While I think this is a perfectly acceptable option, I would stay away from textbooks! This history co-op was designed to be of high interest to the students. Textbooks generally are written in such a way as to avoid most of the interesting things in history and reduce the study to a series of dry dates. History is stories! Stories are fun! Keep the story in history and keep it interesting.

Video Resources:
~ Great Courses World History DVD series. You can find this used at Amazon or new from their website. You should know that new they are very expensive, but EVERY Great Courses series goes on a 60-75% sale at least once a year, usually more often, so if you get on their mailing list and wait, you’ll be able to get it new for a reasonable price.
~ Drive-Thru History DVD series (Christian worldview)
~ The History Channel has a lot of short and full-length videos on their site.
~ YouTube, of course, is a great resource for finding historical videos to view.
~ Of course, check with Netflix or your local library to find videos.

Book Resources:
These suggestions all have a fun light-hearted twist, but still cover real history.
~ The Mental Floss History of the World: An Irreverent Romp through Civilization’s Best Bits
~ Horrible History of the World (especially good for preteen boys)
~ World History for Dummies
~ Complete Idiot’s Guide to World History

Timeline Resources:
If you get a premade DVD or book series, you’ll have the order of events set for you. If you go with cobbling together your own series of videos, you’ll need a chronology to follow.
~ History Central has a chronological events in nice grouped sections to help you map out which time periods to cover.
~ HyperHistory Online has a nice chronological chart showing what is happening in the major civilizations at the same time period.
~ Chronology of World History is just a LONG list of world events in chronological order, starting back in 2023 million BCE.

Other ideas:
~ Find an appropriate period movie to supplement the history video. For instance, watch Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments after the section on ancient Hebrews, or Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra after the section on ancient Rome. If you are doing each time period in two weeks as we are, you could watch the first half of the movie after the history video and the second half after the presentations.
~ Let younger children join in, without the requirements of the older group. In our group, we have three 7- and 8-year-olds (younger siblings of the kids in class) who spent the first few weeks playing together. After that, one by one, they started asking if they could do presentations as well. They still don’t sit in on the history video, but each now has her own topic area and gives a VERY brief presentation, usually at the beginning of our presentation time so they can get up and play if they want, rather than sit through all the other presentations.
~ If you are interested in working on speech-making abilities, incorporate some techniques from Toastmasters. For instance we employ an “Aahhh” Counter: when anyone pauses to say “uummmm” or “aahhhh,” the “Aahhh” Counter dings a bell and makes a mark for that person. At the end of presentations, whoever hemmed and hawed the most gets the Wizard of Aahhhs award (a tongue depressor with the date and “Wizard of Aahhhs” written on it). Other points to discuss beforehand: eye contact, not just reading the report straight from a paper, knowing the subject, humor. In the audience participation after each presentation, a brief period of constructive criticism can be helpful.

I hope you find these suggestions for a fun homeschool history co-op interesting and helpful! For a list of potential history topics and a few more tips on running the co-op, check the next post. If you try any of them, I’d love to hear how it works out for you down in the comment section. Oh, and the suggested topic list is in the next post!

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