Karen’s Homeschooling with an “Ignorant Schoolmaster” Approach (ie, with Books, but no “Curriculum”) (4th, 2nd, K, & 2 more)

A “Day in the Life” wouldn’t quite capture why or how I homeschool (and would sound way too chaotic!). So first I’m going to share how we got into this “Intellectual Adventure” and then I’ll get to the practical “hows” for each of our kids. (So if you’re just looking for that part, skip half way down to where you see pictures. 🙂 )

It all began with a book called The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation by a philosopher named Jacque Ranciere. Like many other writers out there, he is identifying some of the problems with a teaching system that communicates, intentionally or not, that students are helpless without a teacher, that what matters is how quick you can learn, or that you are rewarded for how “smart” you are in comparison with other people. What he does that goes beyond that though is what fascinates me. He talks about how someone, a “master” but not in the traditional sense, can “emancipate” another person. Let me see if I can make a long book clear in a few sentences. He argues that we should start with the assumption that every single person on earth is of equal intelligence: that is, every person on earth is a thinking, interesting person. People just don’t always realize they have that capacity. And when they don’t think they have that capacity, or not as much as another person, they don’t put in as much effort to learn. It’s a reason to excuse oneself to be lazy (I do this all the time myself!). As Ranciere puts it:

“There aren’t two sorts of mind. There is inequality in the manifestations of intelligence, according to the greater or lesser energy communicated to the intelligence by the will for discovering and combining new relations; but there is no hierarchy of intellectual capacity. Emancipation is becoming conscious of this equality of nature. This is what opens the way to all adventure in the land of knowledge. It is a matter of daring to be adventurous, and not whether one learns more or less well or more or less quickly.”

Part of his argument is that once we realize that we are all of equal intelligence, or that we aren’t incapable of thinking hard and learning, then we begin to see we have a choice: what do I want to learn? What am I going to think about? What can I contribute to a conversation that no one else could, because I am unique? (Note: unique, but not smarter or dumber.) This is what, as he says, “opens the way to all adventure in the land of knowledge.” And second, the most important part of learning is not how fast we learn but how “daring” we are — how willing we are to work.

So with that vision in mind, I began homeschooling. I began with my oldest when she would have been going to kindergarten. We did reading, a butterfly journal, math, and probably a few things I’m forgetting now. But whatever her subject, I tried to communicate to her that there was always something she could do, all on her own. For example, we found a website with an index of butterflies. Every page had a picture and some information. That page was bookmarked on my computer so all she had to do was click on it, scroll through the pictures until she picked one, and then draw the butterfly and write a few facts. Her job was to simply pay attention to what was in front of her, with the freedom to pick which butterfly and how to draw it.

The other crucial part of Ranciere’s vision of teaching is that there needs to be something outside of both student and teacher that is, in essence, the temporary “authority” that both teacher and student look to. Usually, this will be a book. The teacher points the student to the book, and asks questions that test not if the student knows the knowledge in the teacher’s head, but to see if the student has been paying attention to the book. So with my daughter’s butterfly journal, I could test to see if she properly wrote down the name, if she colored it correctly, etc. But all of this was knowledge that I didn’t personally have; it came from the temporary authority that was outside of both of us.

That is how Ranicere separates intelligence and hierarchy, or intelligence and will. My role as a teacher is not to set myself up as smarter than my child; my job is to set myself up as having more willpower to push them along to keep paying attention. This is where he gets the title of his book: this is how one is an “Ignorant” “Schoolmaster.”

So on went went in our own adventure. (Let me highly, highly recommend the whole book while I’m at it here.) We taught her to read, to do some basic math, and so on. As she began to be a better reader, we found simple kids-oriented learning books for her to learn from, such as the DK Eyewitness or Eyewonder series. Her assignments were often, “Read the two-page spread, draw one picture and write two sentences.” The goal was to point her to the book and get her to use what she was reading by finding the information for her assignment from those pages. And then as she became an even better reader, we emphasized that she had resources to look up words, places, or people she didn’t know. Sometimes her assignments included writing down 2 questions she had about what she read and then we helped her know where to find the answers.

Two other examples: 1) For art history, I can give my son two paintings by different artists and we just talk about what he sees that’s different. Anyone can do that, and it gets your brain thinking. 2) For piano, I gave my daughter a paper showing the notes on the staff, and showed her the notes on the piano keyboard. We printed off a simple version of “Happy Birthday” from a free site online, and she got to work. She had the resources, she just needed to keep thinking. And she did it! Now she is in formal piano lessons and doing great.

I hope this shows what I mean about being both “Ignorant” and a “Schoolmaster.” I sometimes have to assume an “ignorant” position in order to help my kids see they have the ability to figure something out on their own, or, that they have the ability to gain more knowledge in order to figure something out on their own. I am going for confident, but humble kids — confident because they, like every other person, can always find something to think or learn about with whatever is in front of them, but humble because they know it’s not about accumulating more knowledge than another person.

My goal is to get my kids thinking, and also, to realize they have no excuse for not pursuing learning.

So, with all of that background, here is what a “Day in the Life” looks like for us right now.


This semester, I don’t have set times or even a set order for their subjects and assignments. They each have a list of things that need to be done before they can play. This has been much easier on me. I can play, clean, or help as needed and the older kids just work around my needs. And I feel like it’s giving them a chance to be responsible and decide how they want to order their day.

Here are their lists:

EMMA (4th grade):


  • She keeps a journal daily, and occasionally replaces that time by writing letters to friends. I circle mistakes and she fixes them before she is done.
  • She has decided to teach herself cursive – we bought a $1.50 manuscript tablet that had the cursive alphabet on the inside cover. She does one letter a day. When she needs help, I show her examples of cursive handwriting (my own, a cereal box, whatever!)
  • She studies a new country each week, with the assignment of 1) drawing the country in its surroundings, 2) just by itself with major cities and landforms labeled, 3) 2 historical facts, and 4) 2 way-of-life facts
  • She practices piano for a half hour and has lessons once a week.
  • She studies her scriptures for a half hour and talks to her dad once a week about what she’s learned.
  • I have been getting her math ready for her, and checking on what the scholastic website tells parents their kids will be learning in school to make sure we’re not behind! This year I did some research and realized she could handle a Pre-Algebra text book! I ordered a used one off of Amazon and it came yesterday. I am mostly focusing her on understanding the ideas, so she rarely has more than a half dozen to a dozen problems each day.
  • She does something for “P.E.” – usually it’s just jogging to the apartment mailboxes to get our mail. Sometimes she takes her baby brother in the stroller!
  • She is illustrating a journal by a pioneer ancestor for her “history” this year! She has spent time looking up words like “ferry boat” on wikipedia and history sites, or various geological terms, so that she can draw the pictures correctly.
  • My husband is a Philosophy PhD so right now they are reading dialogues by Plato and then talking about them on Saturday!
  • She also picks one chore to do — usually it’s unloading the dishwasher.

JACOB (2nd grade):


  • He is learning to play the guitar this year. He practices guitar for about 20 minutes each day, and has a lesson (from dad!) once a week.
  • He is working on his drawing skills by picking a “learning book” from our shelves and drawing from it for about 20 – 30 minutes a day.
  • He picks any chapter book he wants and whatever day he is done, he fills out a book report form I made up for him.
  • He and his brother (Kindergarten) both like dinosaurs. So, each week they pick a dinosaur from one of our books. Their project has three parts: 1) write the name and draw pictures of it, 2) draw/write something unique or interesting about it, 3) draw what the dinosaur ate and write the time period it lived it. We have a poster they put it on each week.
  • I get some math ready for Jacob each day. Usually around 20 math problesm. We’re working on times tables right now.
  • We bought a DK book on “Impressionism” for Christmas. I read the two-page spread out loud, and he writes down two things he found interesting. (I was a Humanities BA so I love sharing this with him! And I’m learning too!)
  • He studies scripture, one or two chapters a day.
  • He picks a chore – usually cleaning out my husband’s study of all the kids’ toys, clothes, and little papers that end up there every single day! 🙂

JONAH (Kindergarten):


  • Every day he has a simple “Weather” lesson. He writes his name, traces the letters for the day of the week (I get it ready on a piece of notebook paper), writes the temperature, and then draws a picture of what the weather is (sunny, cloudy, snowy, etc.) His sister (age 3) draws a picture and practices her name and a letter.
  • We spend some time on reading (I have a workbook he can use, or I read to him and stop to have him read parts, or we pick a Little Critter or other simple book for him to read to me)
  • Dinosaur poster project (with Jacob)
  • We try to read some “learning books” often, but not daily.
  • I read a chapter (or a half) of scripture to him each day and try to make sure he follows the basic ideas.
  • He does some basic math. He really likes number lines right now!

Quick note: notice that we do all of the above with zero curriculum packets! I’ve never purchased a single one! We do use lots of books, however. And we now have piano lesson books and a math/reading workbook picked up at a bookstore now and then. That’s not to say that curriculum is bad, but I think it’s important to note that homeschooling can be done without them. (And so with a library nearby, you can really homeschool for next to nothing monetarily.)

A day-in-the-life play-by-play would sound pretty chaotic I think, so I’ve just explained the how’s and why’s instead. Any of this is surrounded by little baby Micah running around. Sometimes they take breaks to play with each other or the baby. Sometimes a younger kid will do school with an older kid for fun. Sometimes they set up the room like a school or a store and incorporate their assignment into the pretend world. As long as it gets done and they are thinking hard, it’s ok by me! It’s a lot of checking up on kids, squeezing in reading to them between other kids’ questions, getting dishes done while everyone’s settled and the baby’s eating banana, etc. But as I look back on a week’s work, I always feel very accomplished and proud of the kids. I think they are enjoying learning, and enjoying their family, and that is a great success for me!

For those not homeschooling reading this: I think all of my above goals can be accomplished in public, private, or charter school situations, because every parent can channel whatever is going on into good goals. Every parent can help a kid think about their homework or lessons at school. In a sense, formal school can be the “temporary authority,” and you can build a kid’s confidence in being able to understand what their teacher is asking them to do, or in accomplishing their homework assignment. Homeschooling is not necessary to create “emancipated learners” (and Ranciere wasn’t even talking about homeschool in his book). It’s the way I have chosen to push my kids, but I honestly don’t think it is the only way to do it! 🙂 But we love, love, love it and I personally am grateful every day for the chance to do this. What a great adventure!


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