reader mail

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.

Should I homeschool?

Published by Lori Pickert on November 26, 2008 at 01:10 PM


Get used to a constant background noise of people telling you what a mistake you’re making. If you concentrate, you can make it sound like the ocean.

Here is a question I received in the open thread last weekend from a mother considering homeschooling. As you might imagine, I get asked this question a lot!

Hi Lori,

I meant to come last week but didn't get around to it until Sunday when you were sweeping up the confetti :)

My question feels very broad and jumbled, but I'm hoping that you can help me make sense of my thoughts.

So here goes. My daughter started Kindergarten this past August at a carefully selected Catholic school: my husband is Catholic and went to Catholic school, and we hoped that Catholic school would have more consciously parented kids. That hasn’t really happened (did you know that there are Kindergarteners who are into High School Musical 3?). I just don't like the child she’s becoming, I don’t feel that she’s being challenged enough (she’s reading very well already and we're very hands-on, which the school just doesn’t seem to be), and well, I just don't like taking her to school and being away from her every day. I want her to be taught by someone who really appreciates and understands who she is, is really invested in helping her meet her potential, and I want her to have the time to really explore the things she's interested in rather than having to ‘finish up so we can go to recess.’ I feel like my husband and I could be great homeschoolers--we are very hands-on, love learning ourselves, are very DIY, and it feels like the way we interact with our kids is already very much about supporting their interests, teaching them about things, and allowing them the space to explore. The more I read about homeschooling and talk with people about it the more I feel that we can’t afford NOT to do it (equally, I don’t think we can really afford to send three kids to Catholic school, but that’s a secondary matter!). I want them to be the people they were meant to be and I don’t see that happening otherwise.

Sounds rosy, eh? I’m just terrified. My almost-six year old has a three year old brother and one year old sister, and we’ve talked about adding one more child. How can I do this? I don’t see how I can give Josie the attention that she’ll need and deserve while keeping Adelaide’s tiny hands out of her projects and not excluding Jasper. I’m already driven a bit crazy by them, as much as I adore each of them … how will I get through spending every day together? We have no family around here, and are prone to taking on too much already.

So, I guess that my question is … honestly, how can I do this? Am I nuts?

Thanks for reading this far, and I'm sorry if this is a bit out of the scope of your thread :)

xo, Amanda

Hi Amanda :^)

Open thread has no scope! That is the beauty of open thread.

Unfortunately I *do* know that there are kindergarten students who are into HSM3.

Here’s your own description of the teacher you want for your children: “I want her to be taught by someone who really appreciates and understands who she is, is really invested in helping her meet her potential, and I want her to have the time to really explore the things she's interested in rather than having to ‘finish up so we can go to recess.’”

There are teachers out there in public and private schools who meet those qualifications. There are teachers who are striving to be that, not just for one child or four children, but for twenty-four children (or more) every day, every year.

But when you roll the dice every year from kindergarten through high school, odds are, those teachers will not be the majority of the people who are working with your child.

The question is, could you be that person for your child.

Homeschooling is about more than education. It requires more of you than managing your child’s learning. It requires you to make your life what you need it to be. Not enough friends? You’ll have to find more friends. Need more time out of the house, more time for your children with other caring adults? You’ll have to find that, too. Or make it.

On the plus side, it’s very doable. It’s just a question of whether it’s something you want to choose to do.

What’s the worst thing that can happen? The negatives outweigh the positives, you decide it’s not a good fit for you and/or your child(ren). You tried it; it wasn’t for you. What did it cost? A year of your life? Any parent with a child in public school can tell you about a “wasted” year with a teacher who was either a bad fit for their child or just bad in general. Don’t be afraid of making a bold choice because it might not succeed. Don’t worry about what other people will think.

Life is a daring adventure, or nothing. Helen keller. What lesson do you impart to your child when you take this on? What lesson do you impart to yourself? That you aren’t afraid to jump in feet first? That you are willing to change what needs to be changed?

I read a quote in the book I was reading today, by Clare Walker Leslie. She was talking about art, but it applies to life as well: “Stop every now and then to evaluate whether you are really learning or enjoying as much as you would like. If not, have the courage to find out why and then change your path of study.”

A lot of people get on your case when you decide to homeschool. When you decide to do A and your friends (or relatives) do B, the less secure ones will think that your choice is saying something about them and their choices.

People who homeschool are no better or worse than people who don’t homeschool — plenty of homeschooled five-year-olds are into High School Musical 3 as well. *That* isn’t going to change. People are the same everywhere. Now, you may find more like-minded souls, but you will have to seek them out.

A lot of people like to say “You can’t control your child’s life — they have to be around bullies, know about video games/HSM3/YouTube, deal with this, learn to handle that.” They will continue to bray this at you while you take up the reins and decide to have more control over your life and your family’s life. And you can have more control. You can make it over to suit yourself more. That’s why most of us do it. Get used to a constant background noise of people telling you what a mistake you’re making. If you concentrate, you can make it sound like the ocean.

Re: giving your oldest adequate attention while dealing with your younger children, I suspect you already have an inkling of how this works. Once you decide to have more than one child, you know you can never give everything to everyone ever again. But then you find out that they start giving to each other, and there’s no deficit. In fact, you’re fine. You’re all taking care of each other. It doesn’t *hurt* your child to learn to accommodate others; it helps them. Will they get everything they want or need as soon as they want or need it? No, and that’s fine.

Now, I always feel like I’m backed into a corner and forced to cheerlead homeschooling, and I don’t particularly want to do that. For one thing, if more people do it, the library and the museum won’t be as quiet during the day. For another, it makes people mad at me, and I would rather quietly browse the buffet table than get into a heated argument with someone’s cousin about whether my children will be prepared to take their place in society 15 years hence. (I’m pretty sure they will.)

Also, almost all my friends don’t homeschool, and I think they’re just swell, and their kids are just swell. And almost all my friends are teachers, and my friends who are teachers are the kind of teachers who are amazing and inspiring and the kind of teacher your kid would be lucky to have. Or, they’re lapsed teachers who are now homeschooling their kids, which is cool, too.

So I don’t care whether you decide to homeschool or decide that your school isn’t that bad after all, and when you think about it, Zac Efron is really cute and the musical numbers are quite snappy, even if the whole picture has zero familiarity with actual high school. But I am completely sure that you are capable of homeschooling if that’s what you want to do — not that it will be completely easy from the get-go, but that you will be able to handle whatever comes along. Whatever you decide to do, it doesn’t make you one whit less smart or loving or involved. But do I think you’re nuts? No. Any time someone is really working hard at getting their best authentic life, I most decidedly do not think they are nuts.

Drawing with your children

Published by Lori Pickert on March 10, 2008 at 04:01 PM


A question from Michelle at Mama Chronicles:

Have you ever had trouble with [your children] feeling inferior to you when you draw alongside them?

I have had a difficult time writing a succinct response to your excellent question.

This is my third attempt to answer without producing a novella.


Draw with your children, and share both your skill and your enthusiasm. Just as it's perfectly fine to learn alongside your children, it's also perfectly fine to share your talents with them. It's no different than reading, cooking, woodworking, gardening — do the things you love to do with your kids. What better gift could you give them?

You may not be more skilled than your children (I'm not!) — that's okay, too! Learn alongside them, and let them share your enthusiasm and your interest. You are modeling having a great attitude about tackling something challenging. You are modeling that not everything worth doing comes easily.

We do lots of things better than our children — drive, for instance. ;^) We read better than they do, but we don't worry that they'll feel bad about that — we're confident their skills will improve, so they are, too. They respect our skills and they want to be like us. With that power comes great responsibility. (Quoting Spiderman!)

Now, tomorrow I'll post about some things you can say to your child if they start comparing their work to others or disparaging their own abilities. And this post isn't a mile long, so — whew!