Mapping their journey

Published by Lori Pickert on January 25, 2011 at 08:02 PM

We’ve talked a few times about using a journal as a tool — and about how a “journal” can mean many things in this context. In essence, it is a written record of your children’s learning, which you consult regularly.

I receive regular emails from readers that range from pleas (“please PLEASE” pleas — they really don’t want to journal) to gauntlet throwing (“it’s not really necessary!”). They really don’t want to journal.

I think about this in a few different ways. Some people just really hate to write. (You can jot, you can scrawl, you can draw, you can cartoon, you can photograph, you can cut and paste kidnapper-style if you like.) Some people just really hate being told what to do. (I only ask that you give it a sincere try and make up your own mind.) Some people feel it’s an onerous burden, their paper and pencil a ball and chain weighing them down physically and psychically. (I ask them to try 12 sheets of the smallest post-its and the teensiest pencil stub they can find.) Some people, I suspect, were frightened by a journal as a small child.

Why do we journal? We’ll come back to this again and again, in the hopes that some people who are still holding out will come ’round to a willingness to at least give it a try.

Why do we journal?

Imagine a small group of children crossing a meadow. They choose their own path. They stop where they are drawn to examining something closely, then they move on. They double back. They split up into two groups, then three, as some children are attracted to exploring one area in particular while a single child crouches for a long time over a single flower.

There may exist some person with a photographic memory and a laser-like focus who could track her children’s journey day by day and forget nothing, always able to reach back and pick up the threads of earlier questions and weave them with today’s discoveries. I bow to her. Myself, while digesting lunch I find it difficult to remember what happened in the morning. One son makes a connection that stuns me with its complexity and two days later I can’t remember what it was. A field trip is so memorable I can’t believe I would ever forget all that happened, but I do, almost immediately. But maybe that’s just me.

Back to our meadow. Why do we journal? Because we are mapping our children’s path .. mapping it as they forge it.

A teacher or a particular kind of homeschooling parent sees the most efficient way across the meadow is to plot out a path and tell the children where to walk. This person doesn’t need to journal; they already drew their own map and called it a lesson plan.

If you are just trailing along after your children letting them go wherever they will and you don’t plan on sharing in the journey, then you also have no reason to journal. The only reason to pay attention is if you want to understand them better, if you want to help them take their exploring to a deeper level .. if you want to be a worthy companion.

Nothing kills a child’s natural love of learning like someone who stands at the ready to use educational alchemy to turn their interest into a chore. You aren’t mapping their path so you can be prepared around the corner with a coloring sheet, a workbook, and a “fun activity”. You aren’t going to reach out and take it out of their hands and put it into a manila folder. If you are going to take over and route the rest of their journey, don’t bother to let them break the first part of the trail. They won’t fall for that trick again; next time they’ll just refuse to go anywhere until you tell them where to walk.

Why do we map the path? So we can be a worthy companion, a meaningful collaborator. So we can add to their experience, not change it, not take it away, and not turn it into something else. So we can contribute.

I guarantee you that if this approach is working .. if your child is directing and managing their own learning, working hard on something that interests them, making and talking and explaining and asking and building, for weeks on end, you will not be able to hold it all in your head. Unless you are the aforementioned person with the photographic memory and laser-like focus, in which case again I bow to you. But you are a singular person.

We map the journey so we can learn from it and so we can contribute to it. It’s part of paying attention. It acknowledges that we are a small part of something that will be large and sprawling and glorious. It allows us to keep track of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going, together. It’s always changing, but it records something important. The edge may have only blue water and dragons, but that’s okay, because we don’t know where we’re going .. only that we’re going on an adventure.

Oldies but goodies:

Project journal — parent’s

Inside my project journal

Curating their experience



Comment by Amy on January 25, 2011 at 09:26 PM

So timely!~
I've recently recommitted to journaling for this end and have found that spreadsheets work the best for me. This cracks me up because I am such a touchy-feely person in most regards, it is a litle embarrassing to admit I spreadsheet anything. But I love how accessible a spreadsheet is and how easily I can refer back; definitely not very "organized" about it but organized it in such a way that helps me follow him through the day and think critically about what occurred.

Almost right away I was struck again by the power that evolves from just bringing my attention and intention to his interests in some kind of coherent fashion.

Since I am trying to focus myself as well (those infants can really disrupt!!!) I keep a column of ideas, suggestions, prompts - and another column of what he chose to do, or did without me saying anything (more likely). The contrast is very instructive to me and keeps me focused on observation versus trying to drive the situation, but also I feel partnered in the endeavor of learning since I am using some creativity in my own ideas about what might interest us. It is also amazing to see where he takes things, and this is a simple way to see that.

Comment by amy on January 25, 2011 at 09:34 PM

"You aren’t going to reach out and take it out of their hands and put it into a manila folder."

that's such a great line...!

oh how I'm getting the itch to homeschool again. Our charter school does project-based learning, although I think it depends upon the teacher how much control is really handed over to the children. I think it's a process for all of us, getting comfortable with letting go.

Comment by Luisa on January 25, 2011 at 09:44 PM

Thanks for doing another post about journaling. A while back you had done one on journaling because some of the comments were about trying to figure out how to journal and document and to be honest I'm still figuring it out today. I have a more personal journal about my kids and life where I write daily or weekly. Since that post I added another journal to jot down more the "homeschool stuff" it's a little less personal it's more about what activities they go to and what they are working on and what they are have completed. This is more for me to document what is going on. I would like to add more pictures and artwork as part of documenting.
As for my kids they have journals which are composition books but I don't make them sit down and write in them daily or weekly. I sometimes suggest a topic they can write about and it's a place for log things in. I don't push the journal writing because I have seen more child led learning, intersests emerge and interesting conversations. With that I feel it's worth documenting on my part.
It's easier to follow their map and guide them instead of me carving out their path enforcing my map.
I just wanted to say that I really enjoy your blog and love to comeback and read the comments. It's your blog and another one that have inspired me to come out and write a blog about our homeschooling experience. My first post was today over at and yes I did mention your blog. I'll be back laterto read the comments. Thanks :)

Comment by estea on January 26, 2011 at 06:04 AM

this is SO GOOD. sorry, had to yell.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 26, 2011 at 02:45 PM

amy, beautiful -- what a great example of a nontraditional journal. :)

separating your ideas from his -- *yes*. it *is* instructive -- and you can only learn from it when you look over the data you've collected. some people journal but don't reflect. you've found a way to keep track that lets you easily see what's happening.

"keeps me focused on observation versus trying to drive the situation, but also I feel partnered" this is an important point .. just writing it down in some way can make you feel like you are "doing" something .. so you can, as you say, focus on observation instead of trying to drive the situation. many people struggle with letting go .. journaling can be a way of shifting focus away from control to observation and reflection. also there's a clear record of everything the children are doing without interruption, which is an even further encouragement to not take over.

"Almost right away I was struck again by the power that evolves from just bringing my attention and intention to his interests in some kind of coherent fashion." This.

thank you so much!

luisa, congratulations on your new blog! :)

"It's easier to follow their map and guide them instead of me carving out their path enforcing my map." agreed, i often say it's the difference between rolling a boulder downhill or uphill. ;)

it sounds like you've done some different things and experimented with different types of journaling. i would encourage you to try the photos and art that you're considering .. maybe change to unlined journals for the children, as well, and encourage them to use them for note-taking or image collection as well as writing. open it up and see where it takes you. ;)

let me know how it's going.

e, lol, i'm GLAD. ;) xo

Comment by cordelia on January 26, 2011 at 05:27 PM

(in a whisper to go w/ all the yelling)thanks. love this.

Comment by David on January 26, 2011 at 10:15 PM

This is great Lori! I've been talking to my colleagues at school about the notion of 'teachers as researchers' ... how our core business as teachers and co-learners should be involved with researching how do the children think, approach something, develop a particular skill, engage with a particular material..etc rather than always targeting what we want the children to find out. (The process and the journey rather than the content and the outcomes) Journaling is so valuable for this and allows for some wonderful discussions and possible directions.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 26, 2011 at 10:39 PM

(whisper) thank you, cordelia. ;) xo

thank you, david. journaling is essential for classroom work, i think -- and, as you say, so valuable for collaborating with the other teachers and administrators. all that raw data!

Comment by Cassie on January 27, 2011 at 12:32 PM

"be a worthy companion"

Oh, this. This is what I want for *all* my interactions with my son.

Thank you, Lori!

Comment by Deirdre on January 27, 2011 at 03:05 PM

"Nothing kills a child’s natural love of learning like someone who stands at the ready to use educational alchemy to turn their interest into a chore."

Lori, I want you to come open a new school in my town called "Here There Be Dragons" :)


Comment by Lori Pickert on January 27, 2011 at 04:43 PM

thank you, cassie!

deirdre, ah, that's the best school name ever. :)

Comment by Sally on January 27, 2011 at 05:26 PM

Here is my "journal."

My kids have their own private blog, detailing their interests. They write about what they like, take pictures and I leave comments (to remind me later what they like). I look back at it often to see how my son's interest in photography has grown and my daughter's interest in theater and cooking.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 27, 2011 at 06:30 PM

hello sally. ;)

i've used blogs (specifically tumblr) to good effect as well. i especially like them for children sharing their work with each other.

Comment by Barbara in NC on January 28, 2011 at 03:17 AM

So, Lori, after I read this post (a couple of times), I went and uncovered my "homeschooling notebook," which was buried under a pile of books. I have been using it to take notes when I have sit-downs/planning meetings with my kids, but not for any kind of journaling. I spent a few minutes at the end of the day writing down things about what the kids had been doing, and was amazed at how much the process of writing jogged my memory.

Later, I was out in the car with Anna (6), and we had this crazy conversation that included talking about "miasma" and "plasma" (we were listening to "Here Comes Science" by They Might be Giants) and then the structure of atoms and all sorts of other stuff. It was nearly 9 p.m. and she was overflowing with questions. Although it was late when we came in, I grabbed my notebook and jotted it all down. And then followed up on some of it this morning. The process of writing it down both helped me remember and bring my attention to the themes in what sometimes feels like an endless stream of questions.

The same child just came in while I was writing this with an urgent need to discuss lip gloss. : )

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 29, 2011 at 03:00 PM

"amazed at how much the process of writing jogged my memory" -- yes! and i find that the process of writing things down (in some fashion -- doesn't have to be paragraphs) makes connections pop out at me that i missed in the heat of the moment. i flip back and see that they have touched on something three times .. but if i hadn't made notes, i would have missed it. this way, i can bring it to their attention simply by reminding them of their own words or observations .. then they focus on it and dig in.

so it not only jogs *our* memory, but then it can jog theirs as well!

"bring my attention to the themes in what sometimes feels like an endless stream of questions" .. yes yes yes .. people usually say there's *nothing* happening with their kids or there's *too much* happening .. and journaling (in some fashion) can reveal that actually there *is* something happening .. or as you say, it can reveal a recurring focus that wasn't noticeable at first.

lol lip gloss ;)

thank you for this!

Comment by Sandy on February 1, 2011 at 04:25 PM

I truly do understand that keeping a journal is a highly individual process; I just need to figure it out for myself. Yet I keep getting bogged down almost before I start, because, well, HOW MANY journals are you keeping at once? One for each child? One for each project? What about one to take notes and write down quotes from your reading, and general ideas about homeschooling and education? Lists of books the kids are reading, games they play, movies they watch not related to any particular project? This all probably sounds silly, but I have trouble getting past the idea of walking around with five or six journals, struggling to find the right one at the right time. And if it's all in one, how do you go back and find the information you need? Help. Thank you.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 1, 2011 at 07:04 PM

well, let's just focus on project journals for now. that lets us table the issues of non-projected related reading, activities, and etc.

what's the purpose of the project journal? to keep track of what's happening, so you can help your child keep track of their plans and questions. and to learn about how your child learns inside the project.

do you need one for each child? a teacher with 30 children doesn't try to support 30 different projects, and a parent with 6 children would have a hard time supporting 6 different projects .. unless her older children were practiced at working independently and mostly using her as a resource.

start small, with one child and one project idea. concentrate on collecting data (observations, photos, notes) for that one child -- and of course let the other children participate if they get interested.

when you are more practiced at this type of work -- and when your children are more practiced -- you may find that it's within your capabilities to juggle multiple projects .. and they don't need you as much as they get older and work more independently.

in the meantime, if your other children have the same environment with the same materials and the same opportunities to learn and play freely, you can feel able to concentrate on walking your way through a project with one child, knowing the others are fine .. and later you can apply your attention to them.

as a parent (or a teacher), you want to feel you're giving to your children equally, but if you don't give yourself time to learn and concentrate and focus as you try this approach, you won't be able to share it with anyone else anyway. :)

the thing is to start .. start small, cut yourself a lot of slack, and see where it gets you.

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