Making space for their ideas

Published by Lori Pickert on March 3, 2009 at 02:00 PM

Researching raccoons


I observed and documented to find an intense interest. I was sure that I had chosen something that [my child] was really interested in. I asked if he wanted to study [this topic] and he was very excited about it. We brought home several library books, and I thought we were on our way. But then every time I suggested something that he could do, he wasn’t interested. And then he seemed to stop being interested in [this topic] and moved on to [something else]. What happened? — K.

First, I want to say that project learning isn’t easy. It is a learned skill. And the only way that you can learn it is to practice. Along the way, you are going to take some wrong steps — it’s unavoidable! — but then you know what not to do to the next time.

A negotiated curriculum is a delicate balance.

You want to have as many as possible of those perfect moments when you see your child really immersed in learning, working at their challenge level, excited by what they are accomplishing, being joyful and engaged.

You have a lot of power in this learning relationship with your child. As the adult, you start out with all the assumed power. Until your child is confident that it is okay, he won’t confidently take the controls and start driving the ship. And all along the way, if he senses that you are taking over, he will most likely just give up. And when he does that, his interest drains away.

Interest, motivation, ownership — these things are bound together. His deep interest is what motivates him to investigate and explore and work. His accomplishments give him ownership over the work.

When is a project not a project?

Your child has revealed or chosen an intense interest that you have decided is worthy of project study. You are ready to begin!

Your mind immediately begins to fill with all the cool, fun, interesting activities he could do — the neat places you can visit — the ways he could tie this topic to other interests.

Well, of course it does — because you are the adult. You are his learning mentor. You have tons of great ideas right off the bat!

But the goal is to make space for the child to have his own ideas.

Because that is the real point of project-based homeschooling — not to learn specific facts about his topic, not to create an impressive model to show Aunt Betty, not to fill his bulletin board with awesome sketches and photos. The real point is to help your child negotiate the ropes of

• exploring his own interests

• having ideas

• making plans

• overcoming mistakes

• connecting ideas

• communicating with others

and etc.

You can immediately see so much possibility in his project topic because you already know how to be a successful learner.

If you carefully observe and document to discover an intense interest, then start providing activities and plans, you aren’t doing a project, you are doing a unit study — an interest-led unit study, but a unit study just the same.

And while you can accomplish a lot of learning in a unit study, it doesn’t allow children the opportunity to learn to direct and manage their own learning. It doesn’t allow them to experience the entire arc of learning, from the initial recognition of an interest all the way to becoming an expert who can teach someone else what they know.

Even suggesting activities and experiences takes something away from your child — the opportunity to have his own ideas.

Does this mean you never make a suggestion? You clam up and stay completely out of it? No. It means you very intentionally stay quiet and use the lightest touch possible. You try to be patient and allow your child to come along at his own pace. You see your child as capable of constructing his own knowledge, and you see your role as his mentor, helping him do the work he wants to do.

Remember that in this learning relationship, you want to allow your child to drive — while you sit beside him, supporting, encouraging, and being his first, best audience.

When he starts off boldly down a path that you are sure isn’t going to work, you are patient and go along, allowing him to try his own solutions, because making mistakes is a valuable learning process, too.

When he is frustrated, you gently encourage him to try something else.

When he loses track of where he was going, you gently direct him back to his own forgotten questions and plans.

Your role is crucially important, but it is a supporting role. He is at the center, and the work he is doing is extremely challenging and sometimes overwhelming. Not the work of, say, building a model — the work of owning his own ideas, making his own plans, coming up with possible solutions to his own problems, etc.

If his light is going to shine, yours can’t be so bright that his is indiscernible.

You model what it means to be a successful learner. You learn alongside him and demonstrate what it means to be really interested, to ask good questions, to be resilient and try again when you make a mistake, to be excited, to communicate your opinions clearly, to ask for help when you need it … the list of learning skills you have to share goes on and on.

You do these things because you have a clear goal in mind — helping him learn how to learn, not by doing assigned tasks, but by negotiating the process himself, with your support.

The more experience he gets in having ideas, making decisions, negotiating problems, bouncing back from disappointment, the more confidently he will approach his next project. Project learning is a learned skill — for children and for the adults who support them.

So, keep track of your ideas in your journal — all the cool things he could do, the great places you could visit — but remember that your primary goal is for him to have his own ideas and to help him carry them out.


Comment by Amy on March 3, 2009 at 03:07 PM

Ok. I get that, and I like it. But here's my question, or quandary, or something like that--one of the first things my son mentioned when we talked about a project is that he wanted to make a Jupiter Dictionary. So we talked about that, looked at dictionaries and encyclopedias at the library, figured out he was thinking more like an encyclopedia, but with a glossary at the back, etc etc. I really think he'll be disappointed if he doesn't accomplish his goal of making a book, but it's taking a lot to get him there, and I worry that I'm taking over. We talked about what he wanted to include, he made a list, I suggested he write down what he wanted to include on each topic, and I'm typing it in for him, stressing that he can add or change as necessary at any point. I worry that actually making the book has become a boring task, and yet I want to help him reach his goal. I can see him loving the fact-finding process, writing stuff down in his notebook, and I understand that. I love research too. I also know I can do research all the livelong day. But it was his stated goal, to do more than just research. So my quandary I guess is How do I help him reach that goal without making it seem like an imposed task?

Comment by Jill on March 3, 2009 at 03:28 PM

I am not a homeschooler, but a former art teacher in the public schools. I'm new to this blog and love it. I hope my answer may fit into the realm of homeschooling thought. If his interest is in the research and not making the physical book, why not buy a blank hard bound book? My mother used to buy these for my brother and I to keep journals. He could decorate the front if the desire is there - but the importance for him is flling the pages with research. You left out how old he is - instead of typing it for him - he could use a fancy pen to write the research into the book.

I'm interested in what others have to say, I may be off in my advice...

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 3, 2009 at 03:46 PM

hi amy :^)

okay, first, i think it’s important to right away just throw away your idea of what this jupiter dictionary is going to look like.

“it’s taking a lot to get him there” — so, he’s working. if he is spending time poring over dictionaries and encyclopedias, that is learning time. if he is thinking about his jupiter dictionary, that is learning time.

did he bite off more than he could chew? that’s okay. you want him to have big, ambitious ideas. is it taking him forever? that’s okay, too; there is no timeline for project work. it’s possible he may grind to a halt; can you be okay with that?

when you say “i really think he’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t accomplish his goal” — yes. he probably will be disappointed. he didn’t do what he set out to do. rather than trying to shield him from that disappointment, or finding a way to soften his landing, can you let him experience that? and talk about it with him in a nonjudgmental way?

there was a lot of good talk about assessment in this past weekend’s open thread. at the end of this project, you could ask how he feels about what he did, what he thinks worked, what didn’t work, what he would change for next time. in the end, what is more educational for him — bombing out on his goal and figuring out why? or having it turn into a mom-managed task so it can get finished?

you can look at it this way — if the lesson you want to teach is perseverance, is that taught better by allowing him to fail or doing whatever necessary to get it done?

i would suggest that maybe having it not work out might be very educational.

i would also suggest that there’s a chance he wouldn’t fail, or quit. there’s a chance he would come to a grinding halt. think on it. decide to change his plan so he could complete it. or decide to do what it took to finish. *all of these choices are legitimate.* he learns from all of them.

if the whole point is letting them control and direct their own learning, then we have to allow them to fail. because failure is an unavoidable part of life. and failure teaches some really great lessons. personally, i would rather learn those lessons at 6 rather than 36! ;^)

i think some parents fear that if they allow their child to quit, then their child will always be a quitter. but *within the realm of the project*, your child is supposed to be making the decisions. if he figures out that you won’t let him quit, you won’t let him fail, you won’t allow his work to fall below a certain level, then that teaches him something. he knows he’s not really in control.

doing this sort of work with children is very challenging for *teachers*, let alone parents — parents are much more emotionally invested in their children’s success!

think of it like a lake. you can stand at the edge and just get your feet wet — figuring out what really interests your child, then building a unit study around that interest. you can wade out hip-deep — embracing much of the philosophy and allowing your child more freedom, but still doing a lot of guiding and shaping. and finally, you can go in over your head — surrendering to letting your child really negotiate the process for himself.

*children want to be successful.* and they want to please you. they want the attention and praise of other people. they want to accomplish what they set out to do. you have to trust that if you let go, their motivation will fill that empty space where yours used to be.

and i’m not saying it will happen immediately! in fact, i’m saying that just as your child learns to walk by first learning to balance, then cruise the furniture, then finally take a few toddling steps and sit down hard on their bum, it is a methodical process. the point is, you can hold their hand to make sure they don’t fall, or you can let go and watch them go through the somewhat painful process of figuring out how to do it on their own. but you’re going to have to let go eventually. so why not now? let them figure this out now, and they’ll be so much better prepared later to be in charge of their own learning, their own decision-making, their own lives.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 3, 2009 at 03:59 PM

hi jill, and thank you!

my suggestion would be — let him figure out how he wants to make this dictionary. if he asks for a blank book, fine. if he asks you to staple together three sheets of notebook paper, fine! let him own it.

the great thing about doing projects with groups of children — in classrooms, but you could easily create homeschool project groups — is that they really motivate each other to complete and extend work. one child who finishes motivates them all to finish. one child who takes another child’s idea and then extends it — adds something interesting — brings the original child back in to improve their own work. it’s a great collaborative process that raises the level of everyone’s work.

but even without that, *nonjudgmental*, respectful discussion about the work — ongoing self-assessment — can continually refocus a child’s efforts. when you ask the questions i listed in my comment up above, it really matters *how* you ask them! you need to not be filling your tone of voice with implied judgment — you can’t ask “how do you think this project went?” and broadcast your scorn and criticism. you need to be genuinely interested in what your *child* thinks, and allow them to have their own opinion.

as a project progresses, you can regularly sit down and ask your child — how is it going? what are you thinking? is there more you want to do with this? is there anything you need? what do you think of it? what satisfies you? what would you like to improve?

your *attention* is, as always, a gift. the fact that you *care* about his work — *and his opinion of it!* — becomes yet another motivating force.

Comment by jen on March 3, 2009 at 08:18 PM

Here's a question: In journaling your own son's progress/questions, are you also able to work on projects of your own or things that need to be done around your house...or are you singly focused on what he is doing while he is working on a project?

Also, I'm thinking that I need to order about a case of duct tape (for my mouth) before I start this type of project-learning with my daughter!

Comment by Sally on March 3, 2009 at 08:35 PM

Lori. I am without words on this post. You have taken the conbobulated words and ideas in my head, the feelings in my heart and laid them out in the most articulate manner, as is your response to a commenter. I have nothing to add, only to say that ..... amen, sister.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 3, 2009 at 08:37 PM

jen, there are times when i observe them working, document them (take photographs and notes), talk with them about their work (again, taking notes), but the majority of time they are working on their own. sometimes right next to me, while i work on a project of my own, sometimes off in the studio or elsewhere in the house.

at my school, a single teacher worked with fifteen students who were all doing project work alone or in small groups. she would move among them in the classroom, sometimes observing, sometimes documenting, sometimes working directly with a student or students. then they would share their work and talk about it at a meeting that concluded each class.

this was possible in our school because we had a strong focus on supporting students to work independently — we made sure they had all the materials and tools they needed, they could get what they needed/clean up/put things away on their own, etc.

creating an environment at home that supports working independently is very helpful, for obvious reasons.

we have been doing this sort of work for many years, so my sons know they can come to me if they need me, if they need a material we don’t have or a tool they can’t find, or if they just want to show me something. we work in a very relaxed way; there isn’t really any anxiety, if you know what i mean. i am available to them, but we are each working on our own thing, occasionally stopping to share and discuss or ask for help.

lol re: the duct tape. ;^)

sally, thank you so much! :^)

Comment by melissa s. on March 3, 2009 at 10:01 PM

ditto on the duct tape!

I'm finding that project-based learning (at least how we practice it) involves more hindsight than forethought. I'm never quite sure where my kids' interests will lead us until I look back on the hour/day/week/month and realize that our crisscrossy curvy path actually includes many related themes and connections. Without a journal, this would be impossible for me to see. Thank you (yet again) for your valuable wisdom, Lori!

Comment by Aimee on March 3, 2009 at 10:08 PM

Ok, so hope this is ok to post all this, if not just let me know!

So after reading this new post and comments and going back and reading older posts (again!), and being near the end of Annabelle's first project, I think I am starting to understand more, though I have a long way to go.

I think overall her first project was a huge learning experience for me (ha! and her!), esp. with regards to my role and how to give her space to do this kind of work. There were times in the project where it truly was her work and her project and then there were times where I overstepped and took over, even with the ending. I approached her with putting her work in a book and she was really excited, but then nothing else ever happened, so today I asked (non-judgemetally, of course ;) ) what she wanted to do with her work. And she told me (she wants to hang it up in her room) and I asked her to tell me when she knows how she wants to hang it up and what she needs from me.

Then we had a great evaluating conversation about the project and there are things she still wants to do, so I will help her get the things she needs to make that happen.

Also it makes me want to work harder in getting our studio space set up, so it is easier for her to do clay when ever she wants. I think also I need to spend less time setting up things and more time writing about what she is saying and doing. The studio would help with that.

I am still not sure what is next for her, but the snow we had yesterday seemed promising, with drawing, painting, snowflake catching, colored water on snow, digging and stirring, magnifying glasses and lots of excitement and energy. Though not sure how this project will continue when we hit 70 degrees this weekend and it is March and we live in North Carolina. There are two bowls of snow in our freezer.

Another idea, which just came to me is John Denver. She is obessed. She pretends John Denver, giving concerts, while strumming a guitar and singing his songs, she loves to watch him on you tube and today she said she wants to make a book about him and all the instruments he played.

So I am still working on how to help her, when to set stuff up, when to suggest, when to just give her space. She is 4 and we are both still learning how to do this!

Comment by mary on March 3, 2009 at 10:28 PM

Amy, my first thoughts when you talked about him loving the research and filling in his notebook was that maybe he's not ready to move on to the encyclopedia part of the project yet. I know that when I am working on a project I like to get all my research, information done before I can start to move onto the next aspect of the project. Maybe he hasn't yet worked out how he would like it formatted and which items he would like to include.
Maybe the research for him is like the squishing and rolling of a ball of clay, you gotta do a whole lot of it before you can make a pot.

Such a great post today. I have been thinking about suggesting we work on a loose summer project but really confused about getting started. Great food for thought Lori.

Comment by Christina on March 3, 2009 at 11:30 PM

Thank you Lori! What a fantastic post. I definitely have the "fear of allowing my child to quit" that you mentioned. It *is* difficult to sit back and let my daughter choose her own route to learning, leaving off things in which she's lost interest, starting new things that seem daunting, or even worse, too easy or simplistic. But I have definitely seen the importance of (and struggle for) ownership. At the beginning of this, her first project, when my daughter seemed stumped, I threw out a couple of suggestions, and my gentle little 5-year old responded, very pointedly, "I thought *I* got to choose. I can do whatever I want to do, right? This is *my* project, right?" It was a good reminder.

Comment by Amy Chionis on March 4, 2009 at 12:38 AM

Why does this post make me smile so broadly? All I have to say is OKEY-DOKEY!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 4, 2009 at 12:54 AM

thank you, melissa. :^)

aimee, it sounds to me like you have made an excellent start. there is no way to avoid sometimes overstepping; the only way you really *find* the line is by, oops, crossing it. and each one of those experiences really teaches you so much about the next time. as projects and years add up, you get a really good feel for how to work with your child — and each child is different. they need different things from you. but all those accumulated experiences do add up to feeling confident about doing this kind of work with children — even confident that when you do make a mistake, step over the line, accidentally flub things up .. it will be okay.

and that (neatly!) is exactly what project work is for children — a chance to become confident, successful learners, who don’t expect everything to go perfectly every time, but feel sure they have what they need to get the job done in the end.

re: future project ideas .. her fascination with john denver and putting on concerts has a lot of possibilities in terms of examining, drawing, painting, and making models of musical instruments, maybe visiting a concert hall .. it sounds like you have plenty of promising material to work with!

thank you, mary, and i like your point about the need for lots of messing about at the beginning of any project (something i am always going on about ;^) — another nice thing to remember is that even if they don’t complete some particular piece of work in one project, they still learn a *lot*, and they carry that forward to their next project. their skills, their capabilities, and their enthusiasm for working tend to grow as they do.

christina, thank you so much! lol, love your story about her asserting ownership over her project. and i should interject here, for any newcomers who might be reading, that project-based homeschooling is a *negotiated* curriculum, and parents can set their expectations and requirements. but children are supposed to be making decisions within those parameters. it sounds like she enjoys it, too. :^)

re: fear of letting them quit, i was thinking about this more since writing that last comment. we are very comfortable with the process of how a baby learns to walk. when they toddle over and sit down hard, we don’t lose all hope and start imagining they’ll have to be pulled around for life in some sort of wheeled cart. that’s because we’re very familiar with the process of how babies learn to walk; we’ve seen it a million times. contrast that to watching our children learn. *this* is all new, so a little scary. it takes faith and trust — in your child .. and in yourself.

Comment by Kat on March 4, 2009 at 01:16 AM

Oh, this post and the discussions go right to the heart of what I've been wondering: how does project based learning relate to unschooling? I read a lot of unschooling blogs and their philosophies about the child being in control are very like what is described here.

Comment by Mary Beth on March 4, 2009 at 01:31 AM

Hi, Lori. This inspires me to ask a few questions, too.

-You (the parent) observe and document the children's interests. Then , do you choose a project and tell them what it will be, do they choose, do you work it out together? And does this change over time?

-I understand the idea of stepping back and giving them the opportunity to do this their own way, but how do they know, at least at first, what resources are available to them? How do they know what media are possible to use? How do they know how to choose high quality resources? (I'm realizing that I can maybe be a little controlling about this).

-I have often wondered about striking the balance between allowing their interests and passions dictate their work habits, and somehow instilling a sense of discipline. I'm actually thinking here more about things like playing an instrument than project work, but I struggle with this in many arenas. I mean, for most people, there are times when interest is not enough, when you need some kind of habit or structure to keep you going (I think -- but maybe not?)

-I also wondered something about your project journal. Of course this would be an individual thing, but do you use one journal per project? One per kid? Or do you just use one to write down everything until it is full and then move on to the next?

Thank you!

Comment by SJ on March 4, 2009 at 01:56 AM

Lori - just wanted to say that I LOVE it that you support us to (in the process of trying new things and stretching everyone) fail sometimes : ) That has been a hugely liberating idea in my parenting generally. Thank you!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 4, 2009 at 02:31 AM

amy, :^D) hee

kat, that depends on .. how someone unschools! grab a hundred unschooling families and you’ll find a lot of variation in how they do things. project-based homeschooling (a term i coined to describe the Reggio-inspired, project-based learning that i champion) is a very intentional, deliberate, purposeful way of working with children to mentor them as they master the process of learning, constructing knowledge, and creating deep understanding. it could easily be an approach to *how* one would unschool. it could also be *part* of a different kind of curriculum. it’s an approach; not a method.

mary beth, whew, lots of questions. ;^)

for your first couple of questions, i’m going to point you to a couple of posts here on the blog that should help, and then please come back if you have more specific questions —

How to Start:

Choosing a Topic:

also, can you tell me how old your children are? because that would help me tailor my advice for you.

re: instilling a sense of disciplne, the need for structure, etc. — remember this approach doesn’t have to be your entire curriculum (though, as we were just saying about unschooling, it could be). you are making a space for them to learn to manage themselves, a space for them to fail and then figure things out.

re: “times when interest isn’t enough”, this is something that is *all* about interest. the child provides the interest, which then provides self-motivation. it’s not imposed from the outside. again, giving a child the opportunity to experience doing his own meaningful work.

i do use a separate journal for each project. each project has a beginning, a middle, and an end — it has its own story, its own arc. usually there is so much material for each, i can’t imagine how confusing it would be to mix projects! :^)

sarah, thank you! and it’s true — i am a big champion of failure. :^) get out there! mix it up! get your hands dirty! :^)

Comment by Sarah Jackson on March 4, 2009 at 03:06 AM

Goodness! So much good stuff here. Annika is still in the toying around with project ideas phase and it looks like the farm is the one that is sticking (which is a good thing since it involves the live poultry living in my spare bedroom). Gunnar will be on break next week, so we're all going to work together on our tiny home farm and brainstorm about what supplies/resources are needed to take it to the next level. She's much more motivated when Gunnar is also involved or when we're working with our neighbors who are doing the same thing. I'm having a bit of trouble being patient while her wheels slowly turn at the beginning, but I'm working on myself. And just when I think she isn't engaged, she totally surprises me. So I'm stepping back and letting it happen. And journaling. And deep breathing through the days like today when she wasn't in the mood to do anything at all.

So, again - you posted just the right thoughts at just the right time. You're magic that way.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 4, 2009 at 03:22 AM

see, i have these little cameras at your house...

but seriously — that “i think she isn’t engaged, [then] she totally surprises me” — that’s something you have to wait for.

have you thought about putting together a little urban farm homeschooling group to give annika someone other than gunnar to ping ideas off of?

you are going to be busy next week with farm planning and gunnar’s new business!

Comment by Sarah Jackson on March 4, 2009 at 03:38 AM

With Annika especially, I have to sit back and wait. She is not going to do things in anyone's time but her own. :)

We do have another family that we're urban farm homeschooling with, which is fantastic. So much more happens when we all do it together for a while, and then she retreats with her notebook and comes back with ideas.

And yes - we are going to be very busy next week. Big plans! You know that I'm hoping Gunnar's new business will be just the thing he needs for that "aha!" moment on homeschooling if the charter school thing doesn't work out.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 4, 2009 at 04:03 AM

yay! exciting!

Comment by Amy on March 4, 2009 at 02:39 PM

I feel rather...caught. Rock and hard place, perhaps? I've talked about Vaughan's book idea with him lots, and he does have a very specific idea of what he wants to accomplish, so I feel like I ought to support him in whatever way he needs with that. But I don't want to be the one saying, Have you worked on this yet today? or whatever, because I do want him to own his own learning. ON THE OTHER HAND (and that's in caps because it's a BIG THING, not because I'm yelling!) I live in a district that says it expects to see "proof of progress," or however they phrase it. Now, this goes beyond our state law. All the state law requires is "attendance records," which is patently ridiculous given we live where we learn, but pushing that aside, the point is, it doesn't require any sort of portfolio. If the district does, in fact, make good on its threat to see work, I may point out that they're overstepping. I haven't decided that yet. But even if I do, I may lose that battle and be forced to show them proof anyway. So I go back and forth on letting Vaughan dictate his day. I really want to, for many reasons. I don't like being the harpy saying it's time for this, it's time for that. Also, I want him to develop that responsibility and ownership. I've tried simply listing what needs to be accomplished every day and letting him consult the list and do tasks as he wants to, but that can be problematic, too. I have limited times when I can do certain activities with him (because of the baby), for example. Now, if he were in a school setting and he failed to do the work that needed to be done, nobody would blame the teacher. He'd get the consequences, whatever they might be. But, since we're homeschooling, if he fails to do what we've set out to do, they're going to blame me, and that's it for homeschooling.

And that is why I vacillate so much. I believe in unschooling, I believe in project work, I believe in autonomy, but yes, I have, unfortunately, a very vested interest in making sure my son does certain things. I can kick and scream in my head all I want about how it's not the state's or district's business what approach we take to learning (especially as their approaches are so abysmal, in my opinion) and how it's not fair that they can decide that we can't homeschool anymore, but that doesn't change the reality that I do have to meet certain standards.

So. How do you reconcile these things? Do you live in a state where this isn't an issue?

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 4, 2009 at 03:11 PM

hi amy :^)

re: proof of progress, if they don’t require a portfolio, then you just need to make up a record of work to show — so you can break down vaughn’s work into school-recognizable bytes in a binder and not even involve vaughn.

which state are you in?

in illinois the state learning standards are available online, and it’s a pretty easy thing to break project work down into which standards you’ve met. here’s the important point -- school doesn’t care about a completed jupiter dictionary or that vaughn planned to make a jupiter dictionary. you can just give them a sheet of paper that says things like

STATE GOAL 1: Read with understanding and fluency.
Learning Standard A: Apply word analysis and vocabulary skills to comprehend selections.
Library research locating information on Jupiter from several different books including World Encyclopedia, Kingfisher Space Encylopedia, ...

if you handed them a completed jupiter dictionary, they would have no idea how much work went into it anyway. they would need it broken down into standards and benchmarks so they would know how to check off the appropriate boxes. it’s just up to you to translate backward from a whole, complex, interdisciplinary project into fragmented tasks. ;^)

remember that anything that hasn’t been covered naturally in the project can be taught separately. they don’t care how it’s taught, only that everything has been covered. not that your district has the right to demand any proof — it sounds like they don’t!

Comment by Amy on March 4, 2009 at 03:23 PM

I'm in RI. Our approval letter reminds us to "maintain attendance records, grade book, and evidence of your son's work for the annual review." (They tried to get us to meet with them in person prior to approval, too, but since that's also beyond the scope of the law, I politely declined their invitation for a meeting.) "Evidence of work" sounds pretty ambiguous, but definitely sounds like they want to see some sort of actual work. Oh, and don't get me started on the grade book thing. Really? In first grade?

I think the whole thing is stupid. *I* know my kid is learning, and the last thing I want to do is impose residual jump-hooping on HIM because it's been imposed (or maybe will be imposed) on me.

Although I still would like him to take responsibility for the tasks that need to be done! I aspire to a household like the one you describe, Lori, where we are all working on our own projects, interacting, yet more or less independent. We are not anywhere near there, and I am exhausted!!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 4, 2009 at 03:43 PM

amy, “evidence of work” *does* sound pretty darn ambiguous. i would read it to mean evidence that work was done. you could always keep a sheaf of random work samples as well to go along with it.

as for grades, since homeschoolers work to mastery, they get all A’s, right? :^)

re: wanting him to take responsibility for tasks that need to be done, i have a few thoughts.

again, a project that grows from a child’s intense interest and is made up of his own goals teaches responsibility *automatically*. as in, if you don’t do X, then you don’t get Y. and yes, maybe the lessons at the beginning are mostly about not getting Y ;^) but still, it is a life lesson.

the responsibility isn’t being imposed from the outside, as it is with, say, public school. i get at least three e-mails a day from parents distraught about their child’s homework situation — so distraught they are thinking about homeschooling. the child is responsible for doing their homework .. no, wait .. the *parent* is responsible for *forcing* their child to do their homework against their will. does that teach the child responsibility?

for me, teaching responsibility comes easiest as children get a little older and it is hooked directly to things that they want. with privileges come responsibilities. if you want a goldfish, then you have to take care of it. and if you’re not responsible, then you won’t be upgrading to a hamster or eventually a dog.

in terms of hs’ing, our boys have a lot of freedom, but they’re expected to deserve it. if they weren’t responsible about cleaning up and putting materials away when they were done, then they wouldn’t be able to use the studio without supervision. if they leave the bookshelves a big mess, they have to go a week with only having one book at a time. (which about killed them, so they never made that mistake again!) natural consequences.

*why* do we want them to learn to be responsible, after all? because if you aren’t responsible, you won’t be able to maintain anything of worth. i think that’s a lesson children can learn in their own lives.

Comment by Molly on March 4, 2009 at 04:16 PM

This is one to print out to tack to the fridge. I swear I need to be reminded of this several times a day.

I did try something recently that worked beautifully. Rather than giving Helen a book I thought would be appropriate, I just placed it on my own nightstand. It took her a few weeks, but eventually she asked about it. I told her that I was reading it, but she could have a turn when I'm done. She kept asking if I was finished, so finally I gave it to her.

Guess who doing the learning in our home?

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 4, 2009 at 04:24 PM

thank you, molly! lol. i think you know it’s working when you’re *all* learning. :^)

Comment by Barbara on March 5, 2009 at 01:49 AM

Thanks for this thoughtful, inspring post.
It helps reinforce all the things I know to be true, but sometimes forget.
Like Patricia, I think I need to print it out and read it often!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 5, 2009 at 03:11 AM

thank you, barbara :^)

Comment by jen on March 5, 2009 at 04:19 AM

Coming back to the discussion late - again.

Just had to say that I loved your earlier analogy to learning to walk and how we don't despair after one misstep. It is such a great visual for me. Thank you! I needed to hear that!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 5, 2009 at 05:36 AM

thank you, jen. :^)

Comment by JudyJz on March 5, 2009 at 06:46 PM

Your blog is just so full of information that I'm still wrapping my brain around it all :) This was the perfect post for me - thanks! You helped me with advice a while ago and I have been slowly trying to adjust our whole train of thought regarding schooling around here. I had agreed so much with the project-based learning approach that I got a bit idealistic about it just smoothly happening over here :) I have realized that my son (age 8) needs time to figure this all out.

We do a bit of required schoolwork each day (math etc...) and then he has what we are calling "open learning time". I have backed off of us saying "work on a project" and the like because I think he just needs more time adjusting to the fact that he can make decisions on his own about what to do. He still wishes playing with Legos could always count as schoolwork, but he is slowly willing to admit that not all school work is boring and that he can have fun learning. I am so relieved that I haven't heard, "I hate school" in a week or so.

It's all very odd, because all along I was trying so hard to not be too text-bookish and to not make him do busy work in phonics if he already knew it, etc... but somewhere along the way he still learned to dislike learning :( And my whole goal/reason for homeschooling was to teach him to love to learn!!!! My emotions have gone up and down over the last 2 months trying to figure out how to adjust our schooling. I still think we have a long way to go before I see him diving into a project, but I am pleased that yesterday he grabbed the magnet kit from the shelf, played around with what sticks and what doesn't, and said, "Mommy, that was fun." One step at a time! Thanks for your inspiration.

Comment by Sam on March 6, 2009 at 12:28 AM

Thank you Lori, for the perfectly timed post. :-)

So much food for thought!
Allowing space to fail, to make decisions, ownership of the project.

"you already know how to be a successful learner". That was a real lightbulb moment.

So what I need to do is follow, encourage, help when needed/asked, so that my children can also become successful learners.

It's funny - when Buzz was a pre-schooler, the advice that resonated most with me (to do with art) was that the *process* was more important than the outcome.
In the sense that the child could experiment, play and see how things worked, rather than trying to create something in particular, and so limiting the possiblities.
(eg. your post on free exploration / working purposefully)

The beginning of our project-based, reggio-style learning feels the same - for now, it's all about learning *how* to do this.

I'm going to have to keep re-reading this post and all the comments. There's so much to take in. Thanks :-)

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 6, 2009 at 02:10 AM

i’m going to add to what you’re saying, sam...

in addition to following, encouraging, helping when asked/needed, you also give shape to the project -- by observing and documenting, keeping track of questions, reminding the children of the things they wanted to do, creating opportunities.

what i’m trying to get at is .. the parent does not play a passive role. if the idea of a traditional teaching situation is a lecturer who is delivering information to a passive student, then we don’t want the opposite -- where the child is wandering around doing things and the parent is in the background just watching and waiting.

instead, it’s a learning relationship in which you are the mentor, *actively* learning alongside and with your child, *actively* participating in the project, but allowing your child to have the experiences s/he needs to do to become a successful learner.

re: process vs. product .. yes! .. for example, whatever is produced at the end of a project vs. all the learning that is done *during* the project. this is why, even if something falls apart at the end or isn’t completed, you can’t discount all the learning that has happened up to that point, and in itself that failure becomes another learning experience.

and .. for us, the grown-ups, we have to give ourselves the same opportunities we’re striving to give our children -- the chance to learn at our own pace, the chance to make mistakes and learn from our failures, the chance to build a deep understanding of how our children learn and how we can support them to do that learning. just like them, we need time to explore, permission to experiment, time to reflect.

thank *you*! ;^)

Comment by Elise on March 6, 2009 at 06:33 AM

Like others, I need to print out this post and post it! I have been loving the process of observing and documenting Sam's learning.

He is 2 1/2 and when I first started thinking about project-based learning with a toddler/pre-preschooler I'll confess that I thought some very concrete topic would emerge, i.e. farms, transportation, volcanoes, etc. But as I've slowed down and observed and listened more, the topics/concepts (?) that emerge are both more general and more...conceptual than I anticipated. For example, he is particularly interested in length right now. When he builds a train track, it's not so much about the trains, he wants to try to use as many track pieces as he can to build a longer track. The same is true of experimenting with other materials - drawing longer lines with chalk, drawing longer lines with sticks in the sand, unraveling thread and yarn to create longer pieces, making a longer line of pennies. So for now, I just keep helping him find new materials and I ask questions about what he's observing. He enjoys using measuring tapes as well, but they are more limiting - the tapes are 'long', but not 'longer' :)
My husband was somewhat dismayed that we unrolled an entire roll of paper towels as we explored the 'longer' concept (he read about it on my blog, after the fact :) ).
I'd love to hear about what other parents with younger children are doing in this area too...

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 6, 2009 at 02:55 PM

elise, this makes me think of the reggio project on the concept of a crowd .. i think some of the proj-based learning materials that emphasize projects on things like balls, shoes, etc., really miss the complex, fascinating intellectual work that children are capable of. it’s much more interesting to discover what really interests them than try to steer them toward something more recognizable/label-able -- for the adults and the children!

when jack was 4, he did a project at our preschool on the ocean; he and another boy wanted to measure how big a whale (i forget which kind of whale -- i would have to look it up!) was .. to see exactly how long, compared to what they knew. they ended up unrolling a ball of yarn and measuring it in five-foot increments again and again (with a teacher’s help) until they had counted off the right number of feet. then they had to take it outside to stretch it out. they were so excited, pleased, amazed .. and satisfied! they had seen exactly what they wanted to see. :^)

Comment by JudyJz on March 6, 2009 at 06:53 PM

I find myself feeling confused... when I read at first I think, "Oh yes! That's great!" But then I try to put it into practice and run into a brick wall. I cannot find the balance between teaching a unit study (ie directing what he does too much) and being too passive (as you described above in responding to Sam)

How do I actively participate if he has no idea what he wants to do? (without giving him suggestions of what he might do.) I'm so grateful for all the time you've put forth to help me and others like me! I try to figure out what he's interested in - but it seems he's just interested in READING about whatever it is. I am fine with him reading - he reads for hours a day - but still want to broaden things into projects. I have no idea how to get him started on a project past the reading books from the library.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 6, 2009 at 07:53 PM

hi judy :^)

-- make a dedicated space. copy a few pages out of his books and stick them on his bulletin board. keep his books at his desk, along with pencils, paper, blank notebooks, scissors, markers, stapler, tape.

-- set out provocations. pull things together in an interesting way that can spark him working in a new way. e.g., if he is interested in trucks, set out his books about trucks, some of his toy trucks, and some three-dimensional construction materials together on a table -- maybe some boxes, lids, bottles, foil, etc., with tape and wire. if he’s interested in fish, set his library books on the table along with watercolors, paper, a magnifying glass, colored pencils.

read more about provocations here:

-- start a discussion. what is he reading about? ask him to tell you. let him show you pictures. discuss it. ask questions. wonder aloud. if you have a book in the house with something related, go get it and show it to him. ask him what he wonders about, what he would like to know.

-- create opportunities. go to places that have the things he’s reading about — a construction site, a farm, the zoo. pull out your digital camera and let him take photographs. ask him what he knows about the things you see.

if you want to tell me how old your son is and the kinds of things he’s been reading about, maybe we can brainstorm more specifically, but i hope this helps!

Comment by JudyJz on March 7, 2009 at 12:47 AM

Lori, that does help. My son is 8 years old... so that is why I think this is all a bit harder for us to jump start as it might have been if I had started this when he was 4 or 5 :)

For example, the last possible project that I thought might get started was when he was expressing interest in knowing how airplanes fly (and given his enthusiasm over paper airplanes and such I thought we might finally have the right thing to start with.) I asked him how we could find out more. He said to get books from the library. We went and he talked with the librarian. We brought home the books. But that's as far as it went. At the time I was trying to back way off since I was still trying to get him to quit announcing that he hated school and trying to let him see that I really was going to let him do what he wanted. Unfortunately, he didn't want to do anything. In hindsight, I can see how I could have prodded a bit more and used your suggestions.

Another interest has been rocks and crystals and such. He has played around with one of those little dig out the crystals from the chunk of plaster kits but didn't complete it and I'm not sure whether that's the one to pursue further or not. (Though he did ask for and received a Rock Tumbler for Christmas... so I know he still has some interest.)

Thanks so much!

Comment by rachealb on March 16, 2009 at 10:40 AM

Love this post! I am really good at being a successful learner! now....if only i could turn all this into some invisible tatoo! (ah...the joys of trial and error! and learning how to step back and enjoy the ride!!!)

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 16, 2009 at 02:12 PM

thank you, rachael. :^)

Comment by Charmaine on August 26, 2011 at 04:00 PM

Great post! I think you should add this to your project-based learning sidebar!

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