Camp Creek Blog


Published by Lori Pickert on October 23, 2007 at 12:10 AM


Jack said today that he wanted to work on his bird project — this is a project that has lasted for months, and every time I think it is over, he says emphatically he's not done yet. This reminds me of the preschool students who would work almost an entire year on a single topic (which, of course, they would explore to an amazing depth and breadth) then return in the fall for a new school year, cheerfully asking to resume study of the exact same topic.

These kids and their short attention spans.

Jack is so project-oriented, I think he will forever think of this continuing interest in birds as a "project" rather than, say, a hobby. On summer vacation he brought along his bird books, his bird list, and his binoculars, and asked to buy new bird books (Western states, you know) and bird identification sheets "for homeschooling". He offhandedly informs us of random bird facts and identifies birds on the wing, looking off skyward and shrugging modestly. And whenever he spots a flash of color in the yard, he dashes off for the binoculars again. It continues.

Today he said he was going to make a model of a bird, a goldfinch he believes, although he'll be making it larger than life-size, "so you can see all the details."

After some interesting discussion of possible materials he could use, he decided to try paper maché. He wanted to dive right in, but I helped him pull out a bunch of things and then suggested he make something else first. "Something else?!" But he was amenable, and proceeded to spend a good part of the morning making a "muscle man", with a lot of extra taping and giggling.

Children need some time to just mess about and play with materials before they use them purposefully. By exploring what he could do with the paper, tape, and wire I gave him, he gained a lot of knowledge about the materials and their properties, their limitations. I'll encourage him to do more free exploration tomorrow. When he feels confident manipulating the materials, then he will be able to confidently approach solving his problem of how to model the goldfinch.

Play for young children is not recreation activity... It is not leisure-time activity nor escape activity.... Play is thinking time for young children. It is language time. Problem-solving time. It is memory time, planning time, investigating time. It is organization-of-ideas time, when the young child uses his mind and body and his social skills and all his powers in response to the stimuli he has met. — James L. Hymes, Jr.

Comics project: Questions

Published by Lori Pickert on October 21, 2007 at 03:03 PM


J wants to talk with a real cartoonist. He is making a list of questions to ask him or her.

He is very interested in the work of being a cartoonist.

Another new development: because of Snoopy's novel writing ("It was a dark and stormy night..."), J has requested a typewriter to write stories.


A little more Eric Carle

Published by Lori Pickert on October 20, 2007 at 01:29 PM

carle-catepillar.jpgThe Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art uses a Reggio-inspired approach in their art studio programs.

Based on the ateliers of Reggio Emilia, programs in the Art Studio feature a variety of materials and techniques in order to promote the process of “thinking” with our hands, eyes, and sensibilities, as well as our brains. By using one’s visual language as a means of inquiry and investigation of the world, the cognitive and expressive processes are joined in the development of knowledge. Whether through the drop-in Public Art Program available to all visitors whenever the Museum is open, the group programs which include a gallery and studio component, or the many workshops and classes offered by teaching artists, we are guided by the belief that encounters with materials teach us about ourselves, heighten our awareness of the world around us, and promote a deeper understanding and appreciation of the visual arts.

Eric Carle also has a separate website, which includes an FAQ that might be interesting to children who enjoy his work. At the bottom of the same page are links to download Eric's "occasional newsletter", the Caterpillar Express.

Book review: Artist to artist

Published by Lori Pickert on October 19, 2007 at 09:40 PM



artisttoartist-wells.jpgI ordered this beautiful and inspiring book because it fit so nicely with J's project on cartooning and comics. He has loved reading books that contained interviews with his favorite cartoonists, and this seemed like a lovely continuation of artists talking about their work.


This book is published by and benefits the Eric Carle Museum, which has a few lovely activities for kids at their website. I would love to visit the museum in person someday.

Each illustrator (some of whom are author/illustrators) tells a little about how they came to be an artist and give some encouragement or advice to the young artists reading the book. There are pictures of their studios and showing the process of how their work progresses from sketches to finished products. Finally, they have self-portraits done in their signature style.

artisttoartist-carle.jpgForget about the kids, *I* loved and was very inspired by this book! It makes a lovely read. Look for it at your library, or think about giving it as a special gift (maybe with a pad of nice paper and some colored pencils) to your favorite young artist.

Comics project: Inquiry-based learning

Published by Lori Pickert on October 19, 2007 at 02:37 AM


In our projects, we use an inquiry-based approach.

We keep track of our questions. In the classroom, we would keep a whole chalkboard full of them, or giant posters of questions divided by subtopic. At home, we keep a list in our journal.

Every question is valuable, even if we're not going to try and answer it right away. While the boys write their own questions in their journals, I also keep a list of questions in mine, perhaps things they wondered about but didn't think worthy of writing down. I might bring them up again later, if the project seems to have stalled, or if something related is being talked about. “Remember when you wondered…?”

In the classroom, disagreements are also fertile ground for inquiry-based learning. They might not be obvious questions, but they show that more information is needed. Even if the children decide they agree and move on, we'll write down a note about the lack of consensus, which again we can bring up later.

Making sure we keep track of ongoing questions is part of how we “facilitate” rather than teach. The point is to have the child(ren) drive the project. Their questions are what is important. Helping them figure out how to find the answers to their questions is the goal. Not giving them the answers. Not telling them the facts and saying “I’ll test you on these later.” And not providing them with a set of questions we devised. Helping them articulate what they wonder about, then showing them how to own the process of learning about something they want to learn about.

Some online resources on inquiry-based learning:

Online workshop: Inquiry-Based Learning

The Inquiry Page

Inquiry Page: Definition of Inquiry

Exploratorium: A Description of Inquiry

Reuse, then recycle

Published by Lori Pickert on October 17, 2007 at 01:56 AM


Well, I managed to miss Blog Action Day (topic: environment) due to a sick child. And I've missed a couple nights of sleep as well, so I'll try not to nod off while I write this.

f-constr-guitar.JPGThe pile of trash up above isn't destined for the recycle center or even the garbage — yet. First it's going to the art studio. Actually, this pile is destined to be part of an action-figure-scale Jedi temple.

After years of building with recyclables, I can no longer throw anything away without hesitating and thinking, Would this make a good steering wheel? bird beak? rocket fin? robot brain?

All of our clean, no-sharp-edges trash gets set aside for making models during projects, sculptures, toys, artwork, etc. Actually, once you have adopted this mindset, it's hard to ever look at a plastic cookie tray or mesh fruit bag the same way again.


Not only does this save things from the garbage and the landfill, but it saves money because you buy fewer art materials, so you saved the energy to make, distribute, and sell those items as well.

Of course, there's the added benefit that your children stop clamoring for sequins and googly eyes and instead start asking for more bottle tops and spaghetti sauce lids.

And eventually, when you are all done with the model/sculpture/toy/art you made, then it can be recycled. Or better yet, go to grandma's house.



Comics project: Supporting investigation

Published by Lori Pickert on October 15, 2007 at 06:40 PM


When I realized J had taken his interest in Calvin & Hobbes to a whole new level, and I thought it might translate into an interesting project, the first thing I did was support what he was already doing.

He asked me for a sketchbook that would be only for drawing comics. So we got that. (My job is so hard.) Then I went an extra step and I bought him a couple of expensive (a couple of dollars each) drawing pens and gave them to him, telling him “These are the kind of markers artists and cartoonists use.” He was suitably impressed, and very pleased. Offering him high-quality tools was my way of showing that I respected the work he was doing.

comic6.jpgNext he asked for a special desk just for drawing comics. We already have a table set aside for drawing in our art studio (though that’s way out in the barn) and he already has a regular desk. I suggested maybe we could just outfit his desk for drawing. He was perfectly amenable to this plan, and together we cleaned it off and found the materials he said he needed — pens, markers, pencils, etc., a stack of paper, his comics sketchbook, and his C&H books. (Note: Later on, when this project was showing some staying power, we did create a new drawing space in his room.)

He wanted new Calvin & Hobbes books, so I suggested we go to the library and see what they had. I also went online and did a little research. (We have a lot of C&H books already.) We found the Calvin & Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, which has essays and stories about the comics written by Bill Watterson.

comic7.jpgI remembered reading somewhere that Bill Watterson loved Peanuts. I remember Charles Schulz saying that Bill Watterson drew shoes that looked like little dinner rolls. So I found a copy of the Peanuts Treasury for the boys to check out. They loved it. (Oh, the hours I spent as a kid reading Peanuts!)

The trip to the library yielded two Peanuts books (found by Jack) that included interviews and essays by Charles Schulz: Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Me (out of print) and Happy Birthday, Charlie Brown: Celebrating 30 Years (also out of print). Both books include Charles Schulz’s stories about the comic strip and its characters.

So now we have a pile of comics anthologies, a stack of autobiographical works by famous cartoonists, tools for making comics, and a space to make them.

Let the fun begin.

Comics project: Recognizing a strong interest

Published by Lori Pickert on October 15, 2007 at 05:25 PM


When I look for a project topic, my main criteria is interest. I am looking for something that my child has a strong, lasting interest in.

One "hey, look, that's cool" is not enough. I am browsing for something that has captured his interest for more than a few days.

The boys have been obsessed with Calvin & Hobbes for some time, but Jack (seven years old) took it to a new level when he started filling a sketchbook with drawings of the characters, which then became his own C&H comics.

The intensity of his engagement caught my attention.

One of the things that holds teachers (and homeschooling parents) back from trying new approaches, I think, is simply fear. Fear that you will do it wrong. Fear that you will lose control. Fear the children won’t learn anything. Fear that you will reveal you don’t know what you’re doing.

Fear you won’t know the answer to every question. (Project-based learning doesn’t have a teacher’s edition. There are no answers written in red at the back of the book.)

I have no such fears. I do things wrong all the time. I lose control of the project. It stalls. It races ahead without me. I accidentally step right on a fantastic moment and kill it. Oops. My children are well aware I don’t have all the answers.

I always told my teachers, “Feel for the edge. Cross over it and don’t be afraid to make a mistake. You won’t know where the line is if you don’t cross it once in awhile.” Ideally, we want to let the children direct and manage their own learning. We want to help them find the answers to their questions, not give them questions and then tell them the answers. We want them to figure out how powerful they are as learners, not tell them what to learn and how to prove to us that they learned it.

Life is seldom ideal, however. When I was struggling to learn to drive a stick-shift (a 5-speed), I told my boyfriend (now my husband), “I just need you to tell me that I can’t do something that will cause the engine to fall out onto the road.” He stared. “You can’t do anything that will cause the engine to fall out. You can’t break the car.” “Okay, then.”

There is nothing you can do while exploring this method of learning that will irrevocably destroy your children’s respect for you as a parent or mentor. There is nothing you can do that will cause them to never learn again, or completely lose interest in learning (or even this project) forever, or will stunt them creatively forever, or will keep them from getting into a good college.

So, what’s to fear? I saw that J’s interest in Calvin & Hobbes had gone on to a new level without any word or help from me. On his own, he was pursuing something that he really cared out and making it his own.

Making a successful project is like making a campfire. The child’s interest is the spark. Your job is to run around a collect little twigs and sticks and offer them up. Also to say, “Can I get you anything?”

Turning this little metaphor around, you can see that without the child’s interest, a thriving project is difficult if not impossible. You can gather interesting resources, you can plan an exciting field trip, you can gather a pile of library books and a cool science kit — but if you don’t have a child’s intense interest, it can be an uphill battle. However, if you start from a child’s intense interest, and add those other things … well, it can be an exhilarating downhill ride.


Artwork (top) by J Pickert, age seven, and (bottom) by Bill Watterson.

Project-based homeschooling: Choosing a topic

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


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.”)


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.)


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.


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.

Project-based homeschooling, part 2

Published by Lori Pickert on October 8, 2007 at 10:02 PM


I wanted to write about J’s comic project, but I've been feeling like I needed to first go through some sort of introduction of terms and what I mean when I say “project,” vis-a-vis project-based learning.

Of course, I’m breaking my own rule (cough, guideline) by calling it the “comic project” (I want to call it the “comical project”) but I’m wide open to what direction it may take … and the fact that later we may be calling it something entirely different.


Doing projects in the classroom means educating parents (and grandparents … and neighors … and well-meaning postmen). Parents are often doubtful that you can begin anywhere (absolutely anywhere) and get somewhere meaningful (and fast). Teachers who are trying to learn the Project Approach or the Reggio Approach are often dubious as well. After all, in school we separate out the subjects and follow strict learning standards and benchmarks to make sure everything gets covered. Project-based learning, seems, by comparison (to some) a little haphazard.

The fact is, with every project I’ve ever been involved with, the kids started at a particular point, sometimes quite obscure, and always — always — managed to end up with a very wide-ranging, dense web of knowledge. Like a spider spinning, it didn’t matter where they started — from the top of the mailbox, from the corner of the front gate — they always ended up with a big, showy web of knowledge, skills, and experiences.

yarn.jpgAnd when they learn this way — when everything is related meaningfully to everything else, and they are following a path of knowledge that makes sense to them — they have a much deeper, more complex understanding at the end.

Some educators believe that project topics should be chosen very carefully, and I believe that is more or less true for someone who is beginning their first project. After several years, however, I feel comfortable doing projects on virtually anything. It is an “approach,” after all, and I facilitate projects in my very own particular way, not following a set recipe devised by someone else. I’m informed by other educators’ methods, but I’ve arrived at my own way of working with children and projects.

Next, I’ll talk about how we choose project topics.

All pictures taken by J, age 7.