One of My Favorites


by Alison Manzer

I had an inspirational phone conversation with my friend, Siobhan from Philadelphia, a few weeks ago.  Initially, we had set up our phone call in order for me to share a few ideas she might use in planning a Waldorf inspired main lesson block on Ancient Greece.  But we had not chatted long, before the focus of the conversation shifted entirely.

     Siobhan and her 5th and 3rd grade daughters began homeschooling just this fall.  After a gentle period of “de-schooling,” they recently transitioned into a survival story main lesson block.  She and the girls had inhaled several books in the Little House series and were now engrossed in the classic survival story, The Island of the Blue Dolphins.

     After I hung up the phone that Saturday afternoon and reflected on our visit, I was bowled over by Siobhan’s intuitive understanding of how to homeschool her daughters.  These were lessons that had taken me many years of homeschooling my own boys to even begin to comprehend let alone act upon.

     In a later email, Siobhan shared with me that these “inspiring stories of courage, spirit and determination are much more where she is at right now.  This direction seems to speak more deeply to both daughters (and to me!) at this point…The local Waldorf school’s 5th grade is currently doing a block on Ancient Greece.  But I realized, that rather than falling “behind” with their curriculum, I’m actually FREE to take a close look at my daughter, have some reflective thought and tailor what we are doing to where she is right now.  We’ll get to the Greek gods when the timing is right.”

      Amen Sister! When I unpack this gem of a quote, several things stand out.  Siobhan created a main lesson path (not block-it is not set and finite, but continues to unfold) that speaks to both of her girls AND herself.  Rather than fighting a sea of apathy and a tidal wave of despair in the fear of “falling behind,” she was able to find a place where all three of them can not only survive but thrive.

     Siobhan recognized that she was free, as we all are in our homeschools, to not just survive but thrive.  We are free to use our intuition to discover that perfect main lesson path for the moment.   We are free to discover that sweet spot in homeschooling where meaningful learning and family life become almost seamless and almost effortless. Indeed, the Greek gods have been around for ages, I am sure they can wait for our children to be good and ready when they scale the heights of Mount Olympus and discover them sitting on their golden thrones.

    It was around the time of my conversation with Siobhan, that Andrea and I began tossing around the idea of my writing a main lesson block post for her blog.  So once this survival theme surfaced, I grabbed a hold of Siobhan’s figurative “main lesson” baton and ran off with it like a crazy woman.  When I am inspired, I can move from zero to obsessed, in a flash.  Soon I was falling asleep at night dreaming of a main lesson jam packed with fires to be lit, shelters to be built, and food to be foraged. 

      But that is not exactly how things have turned out.  I immediately came up with a short list of books that I felt would work really well for this block: Julie of the Wolves, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, and My Side of the Mountain. But as I plunged into actually reading or rereading the books themselves, I was brought up short by how deeply the larger themes in these stories resonate with my heart.  I was brought up short by the discovery that, just like with Siobhan and her daughters, these stories meet me where I am right now.

     For me, insight into the transformative power of solitude has become the most important gift that reading these stories has given me.  The main characters –Julie, Karana, and Sam – struggle not only to physically survive but to survive emotionally.  At first their solitude is oppressive and their loneliness palpable, but after a time they embrace the stillness and become intensely observant of the landscape.

      The challenging, confidence building tasks of survival foster in the main characters a profound spiritual attachment to the land.  Sam, Julie and Karana acquire intimate and expansive knowledge of the flora and fauna, the terrain, the sky, and the water that surrounds them.   They each form a strong, intense bond with a special animal.  Julie’s bond is with Amaroq, the wolf.  Karana’s is with the wild dog, Rontu.  Sam’s is with his peregrine falcon, Frightful.  All of the authors portray this bond as central to the characters’ survival.  The need for this bond, this companionship, is as basic to their survival as food, shelter and water.

  With their houses in order and their animal companions by their sides, Sam, Julie and Karana begin to branch out.  It is almost as if the next step in their survival journey is to tap into the soul nourishing pastimes of their ancestors – our ancestors.  They sing and dance, make and play musical instruments, carve bone and whittle wood, sew clothes and string beads.  They remember traditional stories and myths.  These traditional pastimes uplift and sustain them during the days, months and even years spent alone.  Like the bond with their animals, these traditional arts and crafts are necessary to Julie’s, Sam’s, and Karana’s well being.

   In these “inspiring stories of courage, spirit and determination” the main characters not only manage to survive; they thrive.  They have been transformed and enriched by the solitude they experience in the wilderness.  I now know why these stories “meet me where I am, right now.”  They have helped me to comprehend a distinction between loneliness and solitude.  Loneliness – the negative feeling of being utterly alone (with your children) in the world – is a feeling I have experienced repeatedly during my homeschooling years.  This loneliness has always been oppressive to me, though, over the years, I have found many good remedies for curing it.  Solitude is a different state altogether.  It is something not to be cured but cultivated. Solitude is a quiet space set aside for nurturing and reflection – a space to discover those fundamental relationships and age old pastimes that help us not only to survive but to thrive.

     My Side of the Mountain, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Julie of the Wolves are excellent guide books on ways to tap into the transformative power of solitude.  After savoring the lessons in these stories, I am inspired to connect with the Texas hill country landscape I call home, to become quiet and observe its subtle beauty.  I am inspired to deepen my bond with dogs, birds, and yes, even the fish that inhabit my household.  I am inspired to share family traditions and stories.  I am inspired to make and cook things and work with my hands because this work is like a vitamin for the soul. 

   If like me, you find that you connect deeply with these stories, I encourage you to bring them to your children as a main lesson.  If the teacher is passionate and inspired, how can the learners help but be?  As you read and savor the stories together, do not be anxious. Your main lesson path will unfold as you go.  Depending on the ages and interests of your children, there are many possible topics and experiences suggested by the stories.  I have noted how these lessons might fit into the traditional Waldorf curriculum, but they can be adapted to any age.

Camping, Shelter Building, Outdoor Cooking (Grade 3 )

Fishing, Trapping and Hunting, Archery – making bows and arrows

Fire building techniques – chemistry of fire (Grade 6,7)

Astronomy, Tides and Navigation (grade 6)

Wolves, dogs, otters, falcons, fish, shellfish, dolphins, lemmings, deer ….. birdsongs, animal tracking, falconry….(Grade 4 Man and Animal, Grade 5 Zoology)

Landforms, bodies of water and local terrain: Pacific Islands, Arctic Circle, Catskill Mountains, local hikes…(Grade 4 Local Geography, Grade 5 US Geography)

Edible and medicinal wild plants (Botany Grade 5)

Useful knots

Music – singing, willow whistles, wooden flutes

Beading, whittling, carving, sewing

Story telling, American folktales, Native American myths (Grade 2)

Many beautiful drawings, painting and maps could be done of the scenes, animals and plants depicted in the stories.

Creative writing – Siobhan’s daughters are going to write their own survival stories. 

Survival Journals – document what you learn from the stories and what you learn on your own survival adventures in a personal journal.

Posters about a given topic.  Presentations on a given topic.

Older students could use photography or film to capture and document their learning.

Other survival books:

 Zia (the sequel to Island of the Blue Dolphins) Siobhan did not find it nearly as good.

The Boxcar Children

Hatchet (older kids)

Siobhan might try – Naya Nuki, Daughter of the Mountains

Swiss Family Robinson

Robinson Crusoe (older student)

Sign of the Beaver



3 thoughts on “One of My Favorites

  1. I LOVE this post. I chose Hatchet as a starting book for my 9th grader for these exact reasons. Amazing how much is packed in there! Resilience, geography, orienteering, science, etc. I totally understand taking a theme and running with it!!!
    This is an inspired post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Thanks Emmie – and thanks Andrea for bringing it around again:) Working on this post and reflecting on the survival stories was so good for me. I found it to be both an inspirational and therapeutic process. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share Andrea!

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