As the high school years arrive, our fervor—and often our anxiety—as homeschooling parents ramps up a bit. In our zeal to cover those important core courses and to focus on college prep planning, it’s easy to get bogged down and neglect the pursuit of special interests. In short, electives are often shortchanged. But deliberately devoting creative attention to electives represents homeschooling at its finest. Here are some tips for making the most of elective homeschool courses.
Tips for Elective Homeschool Courses
Tip 1: Let’s start with a definition
The beauty of electives truly starts with the purest and simplest definition of the word. An elective is something you choose or elect. So we can think of elective courses in terms of two types of choices.
Additional Core Subject Courses
First, your student can choose to study additional years of a core subject. Beyond your graduation requirements or potential college admission requirements in the big areas of “M/E/SS/FL/LS” (math, English, social studies, foreign language, lab science), you can plan additional years in some of these areas.
This is often advisable in order to increase the odds of admission to selective universities, to prepare for a potential college major, or simply to feed your student’s interests. Thus, two years of required lab science courses may become three or four for your future scientist; two or three foreign language courses may stretch to four for your student who dreams of a career in the humanities.
Special Interest Courses
Second, the realm of “choice” figures in when your student chooses to study subjects of special interest. Art, music, computer science, psychology, sociology, philosophy, theology, speech and debate, life skills, woodworking—the list of possibilities goes on and on.
Some of these are clearly “college prep” electives, as they have an academic or fine arts focus. Others, like life skills or woodworking, would be considered vocational or non-academic electives but are equally valuable for building practical skills—as well as for your student’s curiosity and sense of accomplishment.
If your student is aiming for a four-year college, he or she can demonstrate an interest in a particular subject and increase college admission chances through careful selection of electives.
Tip 2: How can I brainstorm creative or customized electives for my high schooler or middle schooler?
Rule number one is to heavily involve your student in the brainstorming and planning. Set aside a dedicated time to toss around ideas of what he or she would love to study in the remaining years of school. Listen for that excitement in the voice; watch for that sparkle in the eye when certain subjects come up. If a subject already fascinates your student, this interest will fuel motivation to complete assignments and projects. Motivation leads to greater learning and more retention of the concepts. And this greater learning leads to more learning because we naturally love learning more about what we already know. The whole process may even give birth to a passion—perhaps a lifelong passion. But then, as a homeschooling parent, you probably already know this.
Many times, these creative, customized, out-of-the-ordinary areas of interest are what help your student “shine” at college application time, whether through a non-boring transcript, a college application essay that displays a beautiful spark of passion, or a definite enthusiasm demonstrated in an interview.
Tip 3: How about some examples?
The key piece of advice is to branch out into those “side topics” that may have received only a mention in a typical textbook, leaving your student hungry for exploration. Other sources can come from ideas you come across in news, current events, or even popular culture.
So if your student is interested in science, don’t stop with basic biology and chemistry. How about some creative variations? You can study Plagues and Epidemics (perhaps delving into the similarities and differences between the 1918 influenza pandemic and COVID-19). Or how about animal science? If you’re fortunate, arrange lab activities at a veterinarian’s office or farm. Other possibilities are microbiology, biotechnology, forensic science, environmental science, botany, or geology.
For students passionate about technology, consider app design and coding, video game design, or robotics.
Take your student’s favorite subject and venture down rabbit trails galore. English-related electives could focus on 19th-century female fiction writers, utopia and dystopia in literature, broadcast journalism, storytelling, Russian literature, film studies, or poetry. Or how about modern media or creative writing?
For math or business-centered students, consider seeking out or constructing a course on mathematical theory, advanced problem solving, accounting, statistics, or entrepreneurship (including marketing, taxation, insurance, raising capital, creating a business plan, and other necessary aspects).
Social studies courses can go as deep as you want, perhaps focusing on the Cold War, Latin American culture, Japanese History and Culture, anthropology, geography and missions, ethnic studies, or child development.
Arts-based electives might include photojournalism, graphic arts, or History of Theater. Faith studies can take on special life in courses such as Hebrew Scriptures, Christian Scriptures, Development of the Canon, Bible as Literature, World Religions, Harmony of the Gospels, or Ethics.
For even more stimulation, fuse and integrate two subject areas such as science and history to create a class such as The History of Medicine. Or merge math and science with The Mathematics of Biology. History and English can be integrated with courses such as Historical Trends in the Novel or Civil War Era Historical Fiction.
Also consider taking a highly practical path by designing courses in life skills, personal finance, nutrition and health, first aid, or career preparation.
Tip 4: How to design a creative elective course
Here’s where the fun begins.
Again, be sure to brainstorm with your teen to double the pleasure and double the fun (not to mention doubling the bright ideas).
After you’ve chosen the topic of your course, come up with an appropriate title. Be descriptive yet succinct so that it fits into that limited space on the transcript.
Next, Apply the Formula: 5W + H
No, it’s not an algebra problem, but simply the process of asking yourselves 5 W’s (Who, What, When, Where, Why?) and an H (How?).
Then, consider WHO.
WHO might teach? Will you do it all yourself, or do you need a tutor or advisor for all or part of the course? Do you need an “expert” English teacher to grade a few essays or a career scientist to judge and evaluate a project? Or will you seek out a course that’s available already, whether in-person or online?
WHO else will be involved? Do you want to include other homeschooled students? Younger siblings?
WHAT does your student want to learn or experience? Make a big list and, if necessary, pare it down later to focus on the best bits. I’m a fan of big lists because a great deal of synergy happens when you start to combine and correlate items on your wish list.
What materials are needed? In addition to basic books or curriculum, will you need science supplies, art supplies, other odds, and ends? Nothing is more frustrating than being forced to stop in the middle of an exciting learning activity because a couple of necessities are missing—so make another list!
Time to consider WHEN.
WHEN will you schedule various activities, field trips, outings, and checkpoints for larger projects?
The grand assumption is that this will not all be textbook, pencil-and-paper learning—a chunk of it will likely be experience-based or hands-on. Again, start with a wish list and then match it up with real life. Are there better days of the week for being out of the house or devoting several hours to a complex project? Are certain classes, activities, or museums open only on certain days, or certain seasons of the year? Will family travel facilitate some of the “wish list” items, such as historical site visits?
Also, consider course length: do you want a full-year course, a semester, or a mini-unit? Even quick 4 or 6-week units can be a boost in the middle of a school year—just the thing for keeping learning fresh and interesting.
Let’s think about WHERE.
WHERE will you go to find information? Where can you go for hands-on experiences?
Think about your community resources: museums, music or theatre performances, lectures, author visits at bookstores, field trips to the public health department, university science labs, hospitals, police departments. Consider identifying professors or other professionals that your student could meet with and interview (whether live or virtually). Local community classes or businesses may also play a part in your exploration.
WHY is this topic important? This might actually be one of the first questions you ask. Why is your student personally interested? Why is each type of assignment you’re contemplating appropriate (or not)? Try to identify personal interest, and therefore, aspects of the topic that are especially intriguing.
HOW will you divide up the books, resources, activities, and assignments? How will you conduct most of the learning? Does this subject lend itself to traditional textbooks or other books to read? Will an eclectic approach be better? In other words, consider creating a beautiful mishmash course plan consisting of several books, some hands-on projects or experiments, a few articles, a couple of interviews, some live performances, and some carefully chosen museums.
Will the course be almost entirely hands-on, such as for robotics or first aid courses? Will you make use of free courses or materials online as all or part of your plan? For instance, look into MOOCs (massive open online courses) or other free online courseware. Can you search or create games and quizzes on the topic?
Another “How?” question involves how you will evaluate your student’s learning: tests, quizzes, essays, projects, speeches, presentations? Or will it be something more subjective? Look at similar courses online, where you will often find full syllabi and can gather ideas for how to conduct your learning. I guarantee you that you will find much more than you can use. But then again, as homeschooling families, you already knew that too.
As you answer “How?” also list all your possible resources for teaching materials: live mentors, YouTube videos, helpful websites, excellent books, etc. You’ll want to go back to this list later on, without having to do the search all over again.
One last tip for “How?” is to interweave your elective subject, where possible, with your student’s extracurriculars, volunteer work, or ministries. The learning will truly go deep if it involves multiple aspects of your student’s life.
As I look back on my 16 years of homeschooling, I wish I had taken the time to create more of these one-of-a-kind elective courses. We did a bit of it, but more would have been great fun and oh-so-useful in stretching the learning process.
To use a cliché, the sky’s the limit as you design electives for your high schooler. Go for it!
And, try out some of these high school electives by clicking below.
Denise Boiko is the mom of two grown homeschool (and college!) graduates. Her 440-page book, Homeschooled & Headed for College: Your Road Map for a Successful Journey, walks parents and students through the often-perplexing path to college admissions and answers those endless questions that all start with “And what about college?” Denise has taught writing, biology, and literature classes at homeschool academies for the past 15 years and loves to partner with homeschooling parents to lend a hand as they construct customized curricula, create credible transcripts, and craft compelling counselor letters. In her pockets of spare time, Denise enjoys making friends with neighborhood cats (especially black ones), baking lemon bars, watching old Monk crime drama episodes, and meeting former students for coffee.
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