Textbooks for Unschoolers

"So you don't use books?"

Like fingernails on a chalkboard (something my children might never experience) that question breaks into a calm day from time to time. By "books" many people mean school-style "text books" designed for one subject area, one "school year," one level. They mean school books.

Even when I know they mean school books I say, "Yes, we use LOTS of books." By then, my nervous system has relaxed from the unexpected screech of the realization that some people think that unchoolers somehow have houses devoid of books.

School-trained adults (like me) have developed an internal school year, and in the fall we might pine for school supplies and new books. I have a suggestion for new unschoolers who feel the book-buying imperative coming upon them, or for experienced unschoolers who have been given money for "supplies" or whose relatives want ideas about what to buy. The good news is there are hundreds of these books. The better news is you can find them used, almost anywhere.

I'm talking about collections of trivia. These are gold and diamond mines for unschooling. I'll name some books we've played with to good advantage, but there are many out there at used book stores and garage sales, or on the shelves of your friends and relatives, and probably some right under your nose.

I have a few personal favorites the kids haven't yet discovered: The Voice of the Middle Ages in Letters, Royal Anecdotes and Eyewitness to History. Some people might be "tsking" at this moment that those are not trivia books, but they ARE! They are snippets of the best parts of some obscure situations about which a whole book or chapter might never be written. They're books about real things and people and places, but they don't have to be read from beginning to end. In fact, there's no reason to read the whole book. It makes more sense to flip through, open randomly, play with the index. Mine are all filled with sticky notes, marginal marks, and folded corners.

Then there are things to read to children at odd moments, when they' re eating, when we're sitting in waiting rooms, driving in the van, or reading someone to sleep. How to Do Just About Anything, published by Reader's Digest, has been a guessing game on van trips. I start reading the instructions for making or doing, and the kids and my husband shout out guesses, getting progressively closer until they know, and I start another one. Sometimes they want me to finish what I was reading even though they've guessed. Shish kebabs, short circuits and shower curtains are all on one page! Now that's educational.

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable has snippets from songs, stories, riddles, mythology, and literary references which came into public use with a vengeance. Their entry for Nine Man's Morris has the game board illustrated, with instructions for play. The "Whitsun Morris Dance" mentioned in Henry V can be illuminated for your whole family with this book, as can a few thousand other common linguistic details of everyday life.

So what IS trivia, then? For school kids, trivia is (by definition) a waste of time. It's something that will not be on the test. It's "extra" stuff. For unschoolers, though, in the wide new world in which EVERYTHING counts, there can be no trivia in that sense. If news of the existence of sachets ties in with what one learned of medieval plagues in Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody, there are two pointers which tie microbiology to European cities in the Middle Ages, and lead to paradise-guaranteed pilgrimages to Rome. Nowadays sanitation and antibiotics keep the plague from "spreading like the plague." [Note: Extraordinary Endings... and Extraordinary Beginnings... might not be suitable for young children who read well. Read-aloud can avoid some topics that might not be ideal for pre-teens.]

Looking around my office for another book to name, I see Fowler's Modern English Usage. Trivia!? Well if there isn't going to be a test, the history of the word "paraphernalia" is as interesting as the death of Billy the Kid. There are minotaurs and griffons in there too, just for flipping through!

The edition of The New York Public Library Desk Reference we have might be a little outdated, but the rules of ice hockey haven't changed, nor the way in which one addresses a letter to the Pope, nor the date of the discovery of Krypton. (Some of you thought it was just a Superman thing, didn't you? Nope--1898, the year before aspirin.)

We have a quiz book on New Mexico. You might find one for your state too. We challenge our adults friends in front of the kids and the kids can't wait to know enough to play. I won us dessert at a restaurant once knowing how many counties there were and the kids were in awe.

Stephen Biesty's cross-sections books, David MacCaulay's The Way Things Work, any "What to Do With the Kids..." kinds of books, question/answer books like The Star Wars Question and Answer Book about Space, all will fill your kids with more questions than they had before they opened the books. This is good. This is not school-good, but it's unschooling-good. The parents don't have to know the answers, they just need to be willing to help be on the lookout for a source to come along within the next few months or years.

Doing the Days might be a good intro book for those afraid to embark upon the sea of trivia. (Have you looked up the history of the word "embark"? Any word history book will enthrall your whole family.) It's a set of activities divided out by days of the year, designed to encourage thinking and doing in children. I never pay attention to the dates, much, just mine it for trivia!

2201 Fascinating Facts is well worth the dollar I paid for it, and The Book of Fascinating Facts by Encyclopaedia Britannica is worth the whole $13 I paid for it on sale at Toys 'R Us because it has over 350 pages of COLORED PICTURES. Life-size photo of a human stomach, a 1930's typewriter with the paper half typed and legible in it, and singing cowboys. Every one of those leads us to pull out another book, or a record, or to go dig in the garage.

Visual dictionaries, books of birds, mammals, local flora, the dictionary, encyclopedia, atlas, almanac--these books can be used by the hour or by the half minute. There is no time wasted when children are thinking, asking questions, fitting new information with what they already have, and all the while smiling and laughing. Have fun!

Sandra Dodd

This article originally appeared in Home Education Magazine, November/December 1998.

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