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


Advice for active journaling

Published by Lori Pickert on August 13, 2010 at 02:18 PM

Stacey left this comment on Curating Their Experience:

Okay I have the next stage of the question. I’ve been keeping a “learning” journal for my son for about two months now. But I have found that it is more reflective than active. Pretty much I sit down every week or so and write about what we've been doing and what we want to do, need to change, and some new ideas. But it hasn’t really become part of the daily life I know it should be. I’ve read the project/learning journal post but I wonder what people have done internally to make the practice more consistent.

My (lengthy, sorry!) answer is below. Would anyone else like to add their experiences/thoughts?

And feel free to start new discussions or make any other comments/ask questions/etc. — this is open thread!

There are several reasons why you want to use your journal on more of a daily schedule than a weekly one.

1 - You want to be jotting notes about things as they happen and getting down exact words that are said during conversations, questions as they pop, etc., rather than your remembrance of what happened at the end of the week.

2 - When you write about the whole week’s events, there is a tendency to frame or edit what happened — writing it down like a story, choosing the most important parts to write about. You are imposing your thoughts and ideas to give what happened a structure.

Instead, you should be getting down as much raw data as possible with as few preconceived ideas as possible. If you wait and reflect on the raw data, you may be able to see questions, patterns, connections, repeated ideas, etc., that you missed the first time around.

You cannot always anticipate or even recognize what is happening; collecting raw daily data and then reflecting on it thoughtfully can help you see things that you weren’t expecting or weren’t yet ready to see.

3 - It is incredibly easy to forget things if you don’t write them down as they occur. If you practice making daily notes — even about things that do not seem very important — you will begin to collect this data without needing to plan to do it first. It will simply become a habit.

I use post-it notes for this; they are easy to transcribe later (writing in my journal or typing on the computer) or, if I don’t have time, I can just keep them in post-it form and perhaps move them around my journal as I think about them. (Date everything!)

4 - Never underestimate your ability to forget!

5 - If you write at the end of a week (or more), then you are writing about the past. When you make daily notes, you are writing about the present, as it is happening. Your goal is to stay on top of what is happening right now while connecting it to the past and making hypotheses about where things might be headed. To keep the project moving, stay current.

5 - Your goal is to extend your child’s work and help him dig as deeply as possible into his ideas, projects, research, questions, constructions, etc.

To do this, you need to keep on top of your job of supplying him with materials he needs/asks for, helping him remember his own questions and plans (frequently, perhaps daily!), and creating an environment that supports what he’s doing and also helps him remember.

This requires constant, ongoing attention; thus, daily note-taking rather than weekly/bi-weekly/etc.

6 - You want to send a powerful message to your child that you think his work is important. Let him see you documenting his work; let him see you journaling - again, almost daily. When you pick up the camera to photograph his construction, when you watch him play or make, when you talk with him and make notes, when you leaf through your journal and remind him of his question or his plan, you are sending a very strong unspoken message that his work is important to you .. and he will believe it is important.

Now, as for making it a daily practice, I think it helps to start by simply cataloging how he spends his days, then observing him at play (e.g., building with blocks) and making notes, noticing what he asks about and talks about during meals and making notes, etc.  Simply begin to build the habit of paying attention and then documenting what you see/hear/notice.

The goal of project learning is to support your child to become a self-directed, self-managed learner .. and for you to discover how your child learns and how you can best support that learning. This is how you start.

Goals and plans

Published by Lori Pickert on January 7, 2010 at 10:01 PM

From our values we devise our priorities and goals, and to make those priorities and goals a reality, we invent and implement our best plans.

Rather than specific plans for immediate goals, try to think about general plans that will stand you in good stead for the entire year — plans that will get you from here to a place months from now where you can feel good about what you did on a weekly basis to live your values.

When you stand over your child and micromanage, trying to push through a short-term agenda, you are getting in the way of him doing his work.

Think, instead, about how you can lay in plans for weekly behaviors and attitudes that will support your larger goals all year long.

Plan to observe and document.

Plan to use your journal as an important tool for documenting and reflecting.

Plan to listen more.

Plan to hang back and let your child take the lead more.

Plan to be more patient, not just with your child today but also with the pace of the overall project.

Plan to set examples of good thinking and coping habits.

Plan time to reflect, so you aren’t always plunging mindlessly forward. Reflecting means connecting — connecting yesterday, last week, last month with the work you are doing today and the work that will happen tomorrow, next week, next month. Reflecting and connecting is what creates a meaningful whole.

Rather than becoming overwhelmed by all the changes you might like to make, choose one to focus on today or this week and write it in your journal, underline it, and reference it daily. Try to change just one thing. A little change can be a powerful thing.

Wreck this journal

Published by Lori Pickert on April 22, 2009 at 08:15 PM

Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal is full of prompts to help perfectionists and nervous nellies get over the fear of making a mistake and ruining a blank journal or sketchbook.

You could also just write a whole lot of journal prompts on little slips of paper and put them in a jar. Pull one out each day or just when you can’t think of anything to do or draw. We used to do this at school; in fact, I think I have a big jar of prompts somewhere around here.

Sketchbooks/journals are valuable tools for project learning — it’s good to build your skills by exploring everything you can do with them! The more comfortable you get with facing that blank page and filling it up, the better.


Inside my project journal

Published by Lori Pickert on November 3, 2008 at 02:04 PM

Recently I wrote about keeping track of what’s happening in your children’s project work by keeping a project journal.

You can do this many ways; I’ve even experimented with doing it on the computer, but then I needed a way to take notes away from home and so I needed a physical notebook anyway.

As long as you are keeping track of things that happen — so you can read back, reflect, keep track of unanswered questions and not-yet-used suggestions — any kind of record should do.

Here is how I do it.

During the day (or week), I keep track of things I want to remember on Post-It notes. I try to remember to date them, so I know approximately when things happened and in what order.

At some point, I transfer my notes into my journal. (If it’s a particularly relaxing day, I transcribe them straight into my journal.)

For me, when I transcribe my notes is when I reflect on what’s happening with the project, what has already transpired and directions it may be taking, etc.

Jack is writing a blog about his project, so I print out his entries and glue them in with any notes I have.

I take photographs of him working (at home and abroad) and put those in my journal as well.

Anything that is unfinished — plans, questions, confusions, ideas — I draw a square around, so I can find them easily flipping back later. When a project begins to lose momentum, I can flip back and remind Jack of something he wanted to do but hadn’t gotten around to yet. In this way, I keep track of all the project’s possibilities. Usually, simply being reminded of his idea is enough to get him going again.

My project journal has a main purpose — keeping track of things I would otherwise forget.

I do that not just by keeping notes, but by reviewing them. If you write and write but never reflect on what you’ve written, your journal is simply dead text. It’s the process of reflection and discussion that turns the journal into a living resource.

I can help Jack remember his best ideas (they sometimes fly fast and furious), and I can help myself keep track of everything he accomplished over weeks and months of investigation.

I also use it as a tool for my own ongoing project, which is researching how he learns and how I can better support his self-direction. I read back and reflect on what I could have done better, what I might do next time, and how my behavior affected his.

As a bonus, the act of documenting your child’s learning sends a very powerful message that you think his work is important. Taking notes, taking photographs, reviewing your journal — you are creating a family (or classroom) culture that respects and rewards doing important work. Children recognize where you put your time and attention; they know that what they are doing is important enough to warrant it.

The simple act of keeping a journal is a powerful way to focus on what is significant — and maybe naming what is important to us is the first step in creating more of it.

Art history journal

Published by Lori Pickert on October 17, 2008 at 07:47 PM

While looking through old journals for things to photograph, I found this journal made by my son when he was 7 and 8, during a year-long art history project. The pages were compiled separately and bound together at the end of the year. There was also a set of handmade note cards (cut card stock) on a ring filled with his notes on various books he’d read and works of art he’d seen during the year.

This project was done at our private school under the auspices of the world’s greatest studio teacher; our Reggio-inspired program had mixed-age classes, a project-based curriculum, and each class had its own full art studio. There are schools that do this kind of learning! I find that heartening...

I love these three-dimensional, complex, layered pages. I find them inspirational; I hope you do, too. 


Project journal — parent’s

Published by Lori Pickert on October 14, 2008 at 02:15 PM

I use my project journal to keep track of

  • what the boys are doing each day
  • books they’ve read
  • movies they’ve seen
  • sites they’ve visited online
  • their conversations
  • letters and e-mails they’ve sent
  • photos of them working
  • photos they’ve taken
  • their sketches, models, and constructions
  • their questions
  • their plans
  • their requests — for materials, field work, etc.
  • and so on...

I use a digital camera and print out my photos on regular copy paper to glue in my journal. I also display these on bulletin boards dedicated to their ongoing projects, and I print copies of anything they want to put in their own journals.

I highlight their questions in my journal, so I can remind them later of things they wanted to investigate.

I also highlight things I want to remember to do — get them materials they asked for, make copies of some sketches for their project board, etc.

(I am not this well organized in, well, any other aspect of my life. But I know from experience that if I don’t write things down as they happen, I will quickly lose track of their plans and questions and wonderings. They speed along so steadfastly that if I’m not coming along behind with a basket to collect all of their future plans — the things they have thought of, but haven’t done yet — many of them will be lost forever.)

My journal is an important tool for me. My part in our learning relationship is to support them in their investigation, and that requires a lot of me — I have to pay attention to what’s happening every day. I have to be quiet and see what they are saying, doing, and planning, without my interference. I have to respond faithfully when they ask for things — whether it’s wire, tape, help looking up something online, or a trip to the natural history museum. I need to keep track of all those lines of inquiry they mark as a path they want to follow later, when they have more time, so they can focus on what they are doing right now.

Your journal can also be a powerful assessment tool, if that is something you need or want to do. And it is a powerful reminder of what your children can accomplish simply following their own trail of questions.

A project journal should not be simply a diary of what happened, however — focusing on the past. To be a useful tool, you must constantly review and reflect. Your role isn’t a passive one, trailing along behind your children, dutifully taking notes. Their project journals will be primarily about their topic — say, bees — but your project journal is primarily about your topic — your children and how they learn. Therefore, it isn’t a dead record of the past, but a living documentation that stretches from the past into the future.

Also see: Inside my project journal

Watercolor prints

Published by Lori Pickert on October 8, 2008 at 03:34 PM

Here’s a great project for your nature journal.

You can use your watercolor paints to make monoprints in your journal.

Select some leaves and flowers. If you are in a park or public place, be sure it’s okay to pick fresh leaves; otherwise, look for fallen leaves that are still flexible.

Paint onto the leaves. Be careful not to leave too much paint on the leaf. The first few you try will be experimental. You’ll learn as you go.

Sometimes a leaf is so shiny it won’t hold paint. Try painting the underside. Does it have a different texture? The underside usually has more prominent veins and might make a better print.

This is what happens when you use too much paint! The print is still beautiful, though.

Carefully lay your leaf on the page. You can just rub the back of your leaf, or you can use a scrap piece of paper to press it flat and rub gently over it.

How many different colors of leaves can you find?

Try mixing your paints to match your leaf exactly.

Is your leaf just one color? You can paint on a mix of colors.

Remember it will take a minute for your prints to dry. You may want to bring along some extra sheets of paper for practicing and for printing on while your journal pages dry.

Don’t forget to write in your journal where you were when you made your prints.

You can bring along guide books to identify plants, trees, and leaves; if you want to, you can label the ones you know.

Nature journaling: supplies

Published by Lori Pickert on April 10, 2008 at 07:25 PM


The best part of any new project is gathering the supplies, right?

naturesketching.jpgFor kids:

  1. Sketchbook. This is a great one. It has heavy paper so you can watercolor in it and the pages won't fall apart. But any sketchbook will do — you can even make your own.

    I like a journal about 5 x 7", because you only need a small bag to carry it and your supplies, but the page is big enough to draw a whole scene as well as details.

    Pay attention to how the journal is bound — spiral obviously allows you to work flat. If the binding is sewn it may also lay flat — you don't want a journal with a spine that won't open all the way and allow you to use the whole page.

  2. Pencils + self-enclosed pencil sharpener + white eraser. Ideally you will have a few pencils of different hardness. These are sold grouped together inexpensively at the art supply store. But again, ordinary pencils are fine, too.
  3. Pencil case — hard or soft, as long as it protects everything in your bag from being covered with pencil marks and your pencil leads from breaking.
  4. Watercolors + brush. Any old watercolor set will do! They usually come with a brush. I personally like Prang because they are very good quality, last a long time, and the colors are bright and clear. You can buy Prang watercolors at any department store; you don't need to go to the art supply store.

    You can get a little fancier by buying a few extra watercolor brushes of different sizes. It's nice to have at least one extra brush in case you lose yours. Again, you can buy a few brushes bundled together at the art supply store for a few dollars. (You can always find a more expensive version of every art supply, but don't worry about that for this project!) You can also investigate water brushes; they are wonderful for painting on the go: like this or like this. Check your local art or hobby store to see what they have. These unscrew and you fill them with water, then you simply squeeze them to clean the brush. (Bring a piece of old t-shirt or similar to dab against — you can wash and reuse these.)

  5. Water bottle. Again, any old empty water bottle or soda bottle will do. Fill it up about three-fourths of the way. Fancy: I like these water-bottle clips that fit over the neck of the bottle and allow you to clip them to your bag or belt loop. But you can also carry it inside your field bag.
  6. Ziploc bag or small plastic case for holding treasures. Pinecones, leaves, and seed pods will take a beating if they're just thrown loose in your bag or stuffed in your pocket. Keep one ziploc bag (freezer type is best — they are heavy duty) and reuse for each trip.
  7. Field bag to carry your supplies. If you want to do some extended walking or exploring before you draw and paint, it's nice to have your hands free. We'll be sharing our instructions for making easy field bags out of recycled clothing!

Extras: A folded paper towel (for drying your brush or taking up paint), a white crayon (for resist work), a black or other color crayon (for rubbings; a soft pencil also works), and that's about it! Camping cups — the ones that telescope or lie flat — are nice for pouring water into (as bottles are generally tippy). I have a little canvas bucket that I use.

For grown-ups:

  1. Your own kit (everything on the previous list). If you are working with a large group, it doesn't hurt to bring an extra of everything.

    You can carry an extra small bottle of water for the kid who inevitably dumps theirs, but don't be tempted into carrying more water! It's heavy and it will make you cranky and weigh you down.

  2. Sunscreen, bug spray, wipes, bandaids, ziploc bag. (Wipes are great for the unexpected bird bomb or "ugh, what did I sit in?!" One ziploc bag can hold all your garbage. Reuse it if you love the Earth.)
  3. Field guides for looking up interesting finds on the spot.
  4. A roll of masking tape for when kids want to tape something in their journal.
  5. A field bag or backpack to carry your supplies and keep your hands free.

With this kit, you'll be all set.

Art lesson: Nature journal

Published by Lori Pickert on March 29, 2008 at 02:33 PM


Nature Journal Posts

Nature journaling: supplies

Make a field bag from recycled clothing

Watercolor techniques

Drawing outdoors

Get closer to wildlife at the nature center

Watercolor prints

• • • • •

Spring has arrived and our homeschool art class is moving outdoors.

We'll be working on a long warm-months natural journaling project.

If you're following along at home, you will need a sketchbook, pencil, colored pencils, watercolors (I like Prang), and an old water bottle.

First step will be to make a field bag to carry our supplies!

While you're going through the winter clothes and deciding what to discard or donate, keep an eye out for an old pair of jeans or khakis — they make awesome bags. Check in next week for instructions!

• • • • •

If you send me a link, I will make a blogroll of people who are in our virtual class. And don't forget to join the Camp Creek Art Flickr group! All you need to participate in Flickr is a Yahoo e-mail. Any questions? E-mail me!