Sunday, January 22, 2012

Common Questions, part 1: Curriculum

Throughout the years we've been unschoolers, I've been asked certain questions over and over. I plan to post about them every now and then.

Today's question: What curriculum do you use?

I started out saying "We don't use one."
Unfortunately, that answer always led to a lot more questions, with answers that were as little understood. Depending on who I was talking to at the time, and how much time I had, sometimes I was willing to answer long strings of questions. Other times, not so much. I also tried "We don't really use one." but that almost invariably led to people thinking that we HAVE one, we just don't follow it exactly, which was not the situation.

Next, I tended to answer "Life. We use life as our curriculum."
People hated that answer. Usually, they thought I was being a smart ass, and perhaps I was, at least a little. Even though it was true, I knew they wouldn't understand what I meant. Good communication means being understood, as much as it means to say what you mean. So saying something that I knew they would not understand was pointless.

Then there was a period of time when I used to tell people that we followed the "American Cinema Curriculum" because at that time, an argument could have been made that we really did.

We used to watch a LOT of movies.
Old movies. New movies. Classic movies. Sci-Fi movies, especially old B-movies about killer spiders and such. Disney movies. 
We watched documentaries, movies "based on a true story" and movies that were not at all realistic. Some great movies, and some terrible movies. Mostly, somewhere in between.

One of the things we especially liked to do was find different versions of the same story and have a movie marathon.
Or read a book and watch the movie.
Or watch a series of movies with the same actor or actors, or the same director.
Or movies on a central theme.

You can learn a lot from movies.

Obvious stuff, like whatever a documentary is about.
Not as obvious stuff, like things about costuming and language and writing screenplays.
You can learn as much or more about the time in which a movie was made, than the time in which the story takes place.
Movies are full of cultural assumptions and biases.

Remember when all the bad guys in the Bond movies were Russians? They aren't, anymore.

We listened to movie music (and know several people who write soundtrack music for a living).
We memorized dialogue.
We fell in love with lavish costumes, especially in movies taking place during the Renaissance.
We moaned and groaned and covered our eyes when a particular swordfight scene stretched our willing suspension of disbelief past the snapping point.

And we talked about the movies, a lot.
What was real in it? What was not? What actually happened? What might that event really be like? What else was going on in the world then? Why did the director make that particular choice? If I was the director, would I make the same choice, or a different choice? Why?
What did we think of the ending? Would we have ended the story the same way? How did we feel during or after watching the movie? Why?
How is it that in order to have dialogue in movies sound "real," the actors have to talk in ways that real people never do?
How is it that the audience can be convinced to identify with and root for a character they would not like or be sympathetic to in real life? 
What, if anything, is the "message" of the movie?
What makes a movie "good"?

Times change, though.
We don't watch nearly as many movies now.
We don't have Netflix.
We tend to watch entire series of TV shows together now.  They lead to many of the same types of questions, and hours more character development to discuss.

Sometimes I miss watching movies together. More often than not, I'll watch movies alone now. My most recent theme has been rewatching old horror films that scared the crap out of me as a kid, to find that they aren't nearly so scary now.  Once in a while, we'll still watch together, and recently, my oldest has been wanting to watch classic movies that his girlfriend hasn't seen, so we've been doing that. Brings back a lot of memories!


  1. "You can learn as much or more about the time in which a movie was made"

    So, so true. I subbed for a class where they had just watched "Birth of a Nation." They, of course, found it highly racist and wondered how the thing got made. So we talked about the purpose of the film (propaganda for white supremacists) and the state of race relations in 1920s America. It helped them learn about history: real history, how people lived day to day, which I've found students are much more interested in than dates and places and the big important dudes.

  2. We were definitely movie people! Lately, Alyssa has been interested in movies an
    about real women in the past...we watched Grey Gardens with my mom and that was interesting to have her share what she remembered from the times. Alyssa has a fascination with Jackie O it seems.