Project-based homeschooling: Choosing a topic

Published by Lori Pickert on October 11, 2007 at 07:51 PM

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I was wondering if maybe I should talk about a different project ... because as much as I lecture other people (literally lecturing! behind a lectern!) that projects work no matter where the starting point, the whole comics thing seemed to be pushing it.

I always get asked if I would allow a project on anything, like … guns? video games? And my answer is no, I wouldn’t start projects on just anything. (It’s not so much “allowing” as it is “deciding to actively support.”)

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Possible project topics are not one in a million — your child will have more than one authentic interest. True, if you reject their deepest interests, you are less likely to spark a really complex and layered investigation. But if you can’t or won’t support a particular interest, you can simply look for another one.

I advise teachers not to choose project topics that they don’t find interesting themselves. How can you facilitate a group of students for months on end if you think the topic is boring? A group of children will offer up a well of interests; be sure to pick one you also find interesting.

Don’t choose something that you already know everything about because you think it will be easier. It’s actually more difficult because you are already out in front, trying to tamp down your own knowledge about the subject. You may feel more confident, but confidence is boring. Better to pick something you always wished you had time to learn about, because guess what, now you do.

(A big part of mentoring rather than “teaching” is that you are helping children find the answers to their own questions — not answering their questions for them or making them answer yours. So, really, your knowledge is beside the point and can actually work against you. It’s easier not to blunder in with the answer if you don’t have it in the first place.)

Now that I’m homeschooling and have only two students instead of 20 to think about, I don’t worry about whether I’m particularly interested. My kids are old enough (8 and 11) to do their projects with minimal input from me. It’s very different from working with a multi-age class of 20 kids (age 5 through 9) or a large preschool class.

(Finding a topic I don’t already know everything about is easy, as long as we stay away from Star Wars and the works of Jane Austen.)

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In a classroom situation, you only do one project at a time, because all your work (your facilitating, your support, your mentoring) is focused on this topic and the myriad directions it will shoot off to — you’re only able to handle one project at a time because it will quickly become multi-branched and complex. A single large project is made up of dozens of smaller projects. The children explode in different directions like a handful of marbles dropped on a linoleum floor, and soon you have umpteen different mini-projects to support. Luckily, they are all connected, and the kids learn from each other as fast as they learn on their own. It’s magical.

At home, each son is usually doing one or two projects. Two projects on very different subjects tend to cover a lot of subject areas, and I’m not overtaxed in helping them find materials and get what they need because, after all, there are only two of them and they can only work at a certain pace. In a classroom of 20, working alone or in small groups, with diverse interests and focusing on different things and needing different things constantly, you can quickly be overwhelmed. With two children and a few projects, you can maintain enough focus to dig deeply.

That said, if you are just beginning, a single project is best — for you, that is. Remember, your project is to learn how to best support your child to direct and manage his or her own learning. Start slow and start small, then complicate things later when you feel like you have a handle on things.

What is a project anyway, and how is it different from regular learning? A project is an in-depth study. You are going to help your child stick with an idea, an authentic interest, for a good long time. You are going to marinate yourself in it. Anyone who thinks small children don’t have a decent attention span should see a group of 3- and 4-year-olds dig into a project topic. They will happily study the same topic for a full year, then come back to school the following fall with big grins asking to resume the same topic.

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It’s we, the grown-ups, who have lost our ability to stick with a subject longer than five minutes. Kids have short attention spans? Hello, haven’t you met a two-year-old who wants the same exact book read (in the same exact way) every night for a year? A four-year-old who knows absolutely everything about dinosaurs or space or trains? Kids don’t have short attention spans. Actually, it’s just the opposite. They have the ability to immerse themselves in something until you think your ears will bleed listening to the exhaustive differences between types of dinosaurs, or Thomas the Tank Engine characters, or Dora the Explorer stories. We’re the ones who are ready to move on, not them.

Learning through projects means stopping the constant forward movement and taking out your shovel to dig deep instead. No more shallow glazing over things, we’re going to stop right here for awhile and see where we get.

I was thinking maybe I should talk about a different project … but I was wrong. Again. Why do I doubt the process? Already, the project has … well, I’ll save it for the next post.

12 comments

Comment by molly on October 12, 2007 at 01:31 AM

My daughter has been returning to mummies over and over for the past year. It is amazing what kids will pursue if given the freedom. I'm so happy to have found your blog as I am always seeking inspiration as a homeschooling mom of two.

Comment by Stefani on October 12, 2007 at 03:19 AM

You biggo tease! I'm waiting with baited breath for more!

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 12, 2007 at 01:42 PM

stef, i'm sorry, i'm sorry! i lack the ability to move forward without background! lol

molly, thank you so much. i agree with you, it is amazing what kids can do when we manage to dispense with our preconceived ideas and just let them be.

Comment by estea on October 12, 2007 at 02:30 PM

love you so much! now all this has given me so much on which to chew...

projects = terrific. you were a fantabulous teacher, weren't you? yes, now don't be modest ;)

testea (hee!)

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 12, 2007 at 06:23 PM

i really wasn't a teacher at all (okay, a substitute teacher!) but ran the school. since we were a tiny private school, though, we worked together as a team, and i have logged a lot of classroom time. i also led my teachers in their study of the Reggio approach and project-based learning. ;^)

Comment by malka on October 14, 2007 at 12:47 PM

Hi,
I found your blog through a convoluted process that involved marking one of your photos as a favorite on flickr. I too am a homeschooling parent. You are absolutely right on about children's attention spans. I've watched my youngest spend hours in her room drawing comics. Oftentimes, she's working on something incredibly specific like depicting a hand in just the right way. I'll review these drawings and I can see the thought process that went into them. It's amazing.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 15, 2007 at 07:20 PM

hello malka. :^)

that idea -- "children have short attention spans" -- people are so convinced it's true, it's hard to make them see otherwise, even when the evidence is right in front of their face.

the most "difficult" child in school, who absolutely can't/won't concentrate on his schoolwork, is a different child at home, on the ball field, with his pets .. yet we blame them for not paying enough attention to something that doesn't interest them in the first place.

Comment by Tiecy on January 24, 2009 at 05:55 AM

Just wanted to say hi to everyone

new to the forums, and i'm glad to meet everyone!

Comment by Andrea on March 14, 2009 at 04:08 AM

I know this is an old post but this helps! a lot. I have a lot of learning to do. So right now my daughter has started a ton of mini projects. none are related. my son hasn't started any projects yet. In my other post I mentioned the struggles I am having with him. My daughter is 11 and my son is 8.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 14, 2009 at 04:21 AM

ah, the post is old but the information is still good. ;^)

i’ve answered in your other thread — i look forward to talking with you more. hang in there!

Comment by Andrea on April 27, 2009 at 01:31 PM

Ok, so we watched 8 below and there was lots of great dialogue going on between my son and I and lots of great questions.
What are the differences between huskies and wolves?
how did the whale die and get on top of the ice?
what are the northern lights?
how cold is it there?
what is the difference between a seal and a sea lion?
where is Antartica?

This will be our first major project because I see that it has great potential. But I am stuck as to where to go from here. I know I could go to the library and get some books, but last time we did that the knowledge was found and then we were done. I would like to carry this out for a while if I can.
one idea I have is that we can track the temperatures there and here and compare them through out the year.
So now what?

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 27, 2009 at 02:31 PM

hi andrea :^)

try to move as slowly as possible.

remember that there is a period at the beginning of the project where you can explore your ideas and what you *think* you know. draw pictures, look through old national geographics for photos (nat’l geographics are often available free through craigslist, local penny traders, or from the library, where they are donated frequently), etc.

then focus on one question at a time rather than trying to run down a list. look through books, flag pages (with small post-its or bookmarks) that have interesting information, and *keep making representations*. blank mini-books (folded and stapled paper with covers made from construction paper are the basic version — these can get as fancy as you want) and/or a blank journal/sketchbook for drawing. watercolors. clay. markers. large paper. (an array of paper sizes will lead to more varied representations.) easel. etc. keep *making* while you are thinking, wondering, beginning to dig in.

talk about how you might see some related things in your community. ask around. (possibilities here are endless.) remember that you are looking for *connections* — so a local story about a coyote is connected, a captive wolf at a zoo is connected, etc. you are introducing the idea of how vast a topic can be, once you make those connections.

at each stage of discovering some knowledge (e.g., what are the northern lights?), take time to represent it (drawing, painting, modeling, sculpting, collage, etc.) and share it (tell a family member or friend, write a book explaining it, make a poster, start a blog, make a display for the local library, etc.). make sure that as you answer one question, you pay attention to other questions that may arise. usually questions beget more questions. (but be careful not to overwhelm your child or yourself by piling up too many at one time or turning it into an endless chore — you are following an interesting path; give up when it’s no longer interesting!)

look for free items you can order online — we have received packets of information from different states, maps, brochures, etc., by writing or e-mailing and asking for information. mail is very exciting! and it gives them more things to compare to their books, more things to hang on their walls and use for inspiration and to help them make connections.

i hope this helps! let me know how it goes!

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