Using a ‘Spine’ for Lessons

Pamela Ueckerman

A spine, as it’s referred to by home educators, is a book that acts as the backbone for a particular area of learning. A spine usually isn’t a full curriculum to be followed to the letter; some are read aloud to children while others provide education and examples to the parent but they are used as a central resource and supplemented from other sources. You could also choose any fiction or non-fiction book as a spine and design your own curriculum around it – design projects to build, excursions, other research reading, and so on.

Using a spine allows you the freedom to branch off when the mood takes, to follow trails and dive into rabbit holes, or to gloss over areas that have already been covered or are less interesting at the time. Spines can help maintain the energy of home learning through their variety and flexibility in a way that workbooks and online curriculums don’t.

My first experience with a spine was A Child’s History of the World by H M Hillyer. This is a read-aloud spine containing short chapters which gradually step through history from early humans to World War II. Most weeks I sourced additional material to supplement the period of history we were covering – worksheets, colouring-in sheets to complete as I read, documentaries and other books. My children, who already loved learning about history, thrived with this approach. It took us 18 months to finish the book but finish it we did and with a great sense of satisfaction and wonderful memories to look back on. 

In other learning areas, however, there was less enthusiasm. I found that books or programs that expected the children to follow along and complete the same type of work week after week became stale very quickly. Any program that used multiple sources, that wasn’t too rigid or sequential in its approach, and had a visual element – seemed to work better. 

When we had finished most of the videos and activities on the (quite brilliant) website MysteryScience and needed something new to cover science, I found The Elements by Elena McHenry – a spine focused on the topic of chemistry in an engaging way. There is text to be read aloud, activities, experiments and links to YouTube videos. This was essentially our second spine and has taught me as much as it has my boys (chemistry was a bit of a mystery to me when I did it in school!). It was The Elements that made me realise that I needed to find something similar for other learning areas.

Then when I came across Michael Clay Thompson’s grammar series, I knew we were on to a winner. We use the electronic versions of the books and my boys suddenly loved learning grammar, poetry and Latin roots in a way that seemed impossible before.

How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig is less directive than other spines but it is a good central resource for learning Shakespeare. It steps you through some of Shakespeare’s most child-friendly plays and provides quotations to memorise with your children. I have used this alongside reading Short, Sharp Shakespeare versions of the plays aloud.

The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades by Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler is a great resource which you can apply across all areas of learning to help your child learn how to write. I also found additional resources on the website Teachers Pay Teachers which provided me with exercises I could give the boys rather than write them myself.

We have just begun using Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World for another sweep through history and already we love it. 

I try to use this style of learning wherever I can now and I have vowed never to buy a full curriculum or workbooks again (although, Beast Academy has proved a winner for maths so we’ll run with it while it’s working). It does take more time to plan lessons, especially if the spine doesn’t provide additional resource recommendations, but it is cheaper and more flexible than a boxed curriculum. Most importantly, it allows you to tailor your lessons precisely to your child(ren)’s needs and tastes without doggedly working through prescribed lessons or workbooks.

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