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Documenting Interest-Driven Learning as a High School Course

Smoking the Bees

Although we use standard textbooks in many courses, there are times when our teens follow their own rabbit trails and just learn things they want to learn.  This interest-driven exploration is one of the most effective ways to learn, but it leaves me scrambling at high school record keeping time.

It is easy to document the learning in a formal course with a textbook, defined assignments, and purchased tests and exams:  You just note down the text, make a course description based on it, list its contents, record the marks, and calculate the final grade.

But what about a course that starts as a hobby and expands into academics?

One of our teens loved historical fashion coloring books, so we got her more and more of them.  At first I thought it was just an interesting hobby but then realized that this was becoming a serious academic interest.  I was able to retroactively design a course which we called “History of Fashion” based on ten Dover coloring books by fashion historian Tom Tierney and a handful of library books.

Of course, it is impossible to give percentage grades for such a project and constant evaluation is not conducive to deep learning.  However, I read somewhere that if a teen focuses on something out of pure interest and puts in the time, they almost always deserve at least an A.  I have found that to be true.

How about a course that starts off formally and then dissolves into a pile of library books and a deep distaste for the textbook?

One of our teens started Apologia’s Biology but became less and less motivated.  Such situations are always a quandary.  If it had been math, for example, there would have been no option but to be tough and move on, for so much depends on math and each math course builds on the previous one.  Biology, however, being more content-based than skill-based, could be treated as optional if it wasn’t a prerequisite for any of her areas of future interest.  (And if that ever changed, a solid few months of study could easily take care of it.)

As I was looking through her reading and movie list, however, I noticed that she had listed five significant adult books about topics such as disease, food flavorings, dietary fat, and inflammation, as well as five BBC nature documentary series.  A lot of serious learning had happened on her own time, and I realized that, together with the completed work in the textbook, this could easily be a course.  I decided to call it “Topics in Biology.”  For the textbook chapters she completed, I listed test marks and for the books and documentaries I gave an A, for the reasons discussed above.

If she reads a few more relevant books in her remaining high school time, they will be added to the list.  If she reads twenty more, however, I may need to rearrange this course and perhaps assign all the books to a new course like “Readings in Biology” or “Introduction to Disease” or whatever seems most relevant, and keep the formal textbook part of the course by itself, giving her a half credit for that work.

How about a part time job or volunteer position that involves an enormous amount of learning?

It could be treated as a co-op course, at least here in Ontario, and I am contemplating a horsey credit for one teen.

Or it could be treated as an academic course with the job itself being treated like lab work.  For example, one of our teens worked with farmers and veterinarians. She assisted with veterinary procedures and post-mortems and provided much routine animal care.  She also read a university level animal science text, Anatomy and Physiology of Farm Animals, and I put that all together into a science course, using the title of the text to name the course.

General Tips for Documenting Interest-Driven Learning

  1. In the course description note that it is a self-directed or student-initiated course.  Often such courses cover several years, in which case I also note that it is a multi-year course.
  2. Always keep a reading (and film) list.  Besides recording memories, which is always fun, it can add significantly to a high school record, and some of it can applied to courses after the fact.
  3. Be flexible in how you think about courses.  If you look at the course calendars of a few nearby high schools, public as well as Christian, you will discover all sorts of course options.  Your teen’s interests, too, can be noted in their high school records as a course.
  4. Be traditional in naming your courses as you apply to universities.  If there is a similar public school course available, use that title for your course.  If your teen is very focused on something and has done advanced learning, you may want to look at university course lists for titles as well.  And if no similar course is offered anywhere, then be bold and make up your own title, as we did for “Western Literature and Thought,” which was a crazy-intensive course based on Veritas Press’s Omnibus series and included works from Gilgamesh, Virgil, the Bible and Augustine to Machiavelli, Calvin, Marx, and Tolkien. (It was actually worth two or even more credits, but we already had enough other credits so we gave it only one.)
  5. Non-standard courses need good documentation in a university application.  For one of our teens, three faculties at a university combed through the course descriptions I had provided before awarding a large scholarship conditional upon successful completion of the non-standard course, “Western Literature and Thought,” mentioned above.
  6. If there are outside validations of your teen’s effort, such as competition prizes, be sure to record them. Such things are also learning experiences in themselves.
  7. If teens focus on something out of pure interest and put in the time, they almost always deserve at least an A for their work.
  8. Not all interests need to be recorded as courses, although if they related to a potential field of future study they could affect scholarship chances.  It is perfectly fine to keep some as hobbies, as we did with beekeeping, especially if there are already enough high school courses listed on the transcript.
  9. All nonstandard courses based on a teen’s interests will likely far surpass the normal number of hours required for a high school credit, which range from about 100-180, depending on whom you listen to.   That is fine.  Let your teens continue to enjoy themselves and keep on learning while you keep on documenting, just in case.
  10. Upon request, I once posted some examples of high school records for several multi-year, literature-based history courses.   Our teens chose what to read with very little input from me and they learned an enormous amount.

Above all, let your teens continue to explore the world around them, following their own interests.  That possibility is one of the great benefits of homeschooling during the high school years.  With time, opportunity, and exposure to different possibilities, the sky is the limit.  Then, with a bit of effort, you can document their learning in a way that university and college admissions officers can appreciate.

Meanwhile, your teens are having the time of their life learning–engaged, excited, and enthusiastic, which is good in many different ways–and discovering how they can best serve God in this world.

Acknowledgements:  I read most of the available books on homeschooling high school when we started high school many years ago and they have undoubtedly influenced my thinking on this topic.   Especially helpful were Barbara Shelton’s  A Home-Designed Form+U+La and Lee Binz’s record keeping advice

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This article may be linked to Inspire Me Monday, Raising Homemakers, Friendship Friday, Make My Saturday Sweet.

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