Tag Archives: Project-based Learning

Handmade Minecraft Creeper Quilt

Last month, I may have boasted  – just a little bit – about my kids’ 4-H non-livestock fair submissions.  I tried to include a wide variety of their projects, but I omitted one project: my older son’s handmade Minecraft creeper quilt.

Minecraft Creeper Quilt

In fill disclosure, I left it out because I didn’t have a good picture. Plus, the quilt was hung sideways at the fair…probably by someone without kids. It didn’t look right.

However, I also wanted to highlight his progress and effort. This was a HUGE project. It took determination and motivation to finish such a large quilt. He’s only twelve, though he made most of it when he was eleven. It took months to complete.

Quilting for Kids

Let me back up just a bit. I’ve always had sewing projects for the kids to try.  It’s part of Montessori’s early childhood curriculum, and it was one of the first “maker” skills I taught myself after college.

So my older son knew how to use the sewing machine and I trusted him with the rotary cutters.  When he said he wanted to make a big quilt…well, I tried to talk him out of it.

I know!

But it’s a lot of work and I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to keep up with him. However, he was determined and we sat down and made some preliminary sketches (after a bit of idea-gathering via the Internet).

Minecraft Blocks = Quilt Blocks

Thank goodness Minecraft is built on blocks. It makes creating a square-based quilt much easier. After a few explanations of the technique required for certain designs, we settled on a five-inch squares. He could easily cut those out and he liked the look of the creeper.

We went shopping at our local fabric store, picked up some supplies and he started cutting that day. I can’t say the entire project went that smoothly, but he did all of the work by himself. I helped occasionally, but this was his project.

Quilting Logistics

Since he was homeschooled last year, it was easy to incorporate this into our learning routine. While this was a self-directed project, he would have given up halfway through without my support and guidance. He wasn’t lacking the skills, just the tenacity to finish such a large project.

As with most of our big projects, we broke it down into smaller steps and added a time requirement. He needed to have the top finished before we left for our big trip last summer. That gave him 2 months to finish. He competed it a week before we left.

Binding the Quilt

We didn’t get around to the quilting and binding until seven months later. (I know…we were busy). We had it professionally quilted at our local quilt shop around Thanksgiving, and he worked on the binding throughout the Christmas break (he was in school at that point). Plus, he chose to sew the binding by hand. He said he wanted it to look the best…since he had put so much hard work into it.

I’m happy to add this to his list of project-based learning successes. He was self-directed, but wasn’t allowed to give up when he felt overwhelmed or bored. I was the facilitator (project manager?), but he learned how it felt to complete a large project. And he has a pretty cool quilt too.

Authentic Learning with 4-H

My boys have been 4-H members for a number of years, but as I tell people: we’re not really animal people. I get strange looks with that statement, especially when I tell them I love the 4-H organization. The county fair, with all those show animals, is the primary event, but we’ve also participated in a marine ecology tournament, a 5K run, and the annual non-livestock fair.

A picture of two hand sewn items with ribbons attached

C, age 8 made a handsewn needlebook and a badge.

4-H Non-Livestock Fair

My boys experience authentic learning with 4-H through the non-livestock fair. They don’t show animals — which is a good thing since we gave away our chickens last year! However, the non-livestock fair provides the perfect opportunity to showcase their homeschool work. According to Lori Pickert, author of Project-Based Homeschooling, students need an audience to show what they’ve learned (in whatever way they choose to present it).

Although Lori advocates for complete self-control, I recommend it only after students have been creating projects for a couple of years. I found that when my kids were younger, they needed guidance. They didn’t have the experiential knowledge of how to create a “final” project.* Initially, I offered some suggestions and had them choose what type of project they wanted to make (after determining what they wanted to learn about). It was less overwhelming for a young child. They had a topic, and they could see what they were working toward. That might be a poster, a written report, an art piece or a computer program. (FYI – we did projects and traditional school work).

A picture of a trifold with the title: My Shell Project

C has really been into shells this year and delved deeper into the topic as a result of this poster.

A Project-Based Learning Venue

The 4-H non-livestock fair provides a great opportunity to share their projects with others. In addition, there are a number of projects to see for inspiration. Kids can submit traditional projects, such as book reports or tri-fold posters. My kids usually do a couple of those projects, but also submit original artwork, sewing pieces and woodworking projects.

C’s Scratch project. The topic was a chapter from Story of the World concerning Louis XIV: The Sun God.

A picture of two wooden slat boxes stained dark brown.

Each boy made one of these wooden boxes with the help from a fellow homeschool parent. He cut the wood, but the boys put it together and stained it (with his guidance).

Reflecting on the Learning Process

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably tell you that I have been a non-livestock fair judge for the last two years. Although the day usually falls on, or near, my birthday, I love the experience. All day, I get to speak with kids about their projects. They have a receptive audience in me, but they also get my teaching experience. This year, I was the art and craft judge. I spoke with some very, very talented students. I also encountered some very reserved and hesitant students. I dealt with them differently, but asked every single one: what is your favorite part of this project (and/or what did you think you did well)? I also asked them: what do you think you could do better (if anything)?

Not only do my own children benefit from reflecting on their learning, but they get to see a bunch of other kids doing the same. Like I said, it’s a fabulous organization.

A picture of a printout from the Scratch web site. Printout has blue and purple ribbons attached.

R, age 12, made a Harry Potter computer program in Scratch. (Yes – 4H judges computer programs)!

**The way I conduct project-based learning at home is slightly different than Lori Pickert recommends. I think students should have a choice. They should be able to define and redefine how they want to showcase their learning. However, I don’t think just reading about something constitutes a project (at least not past 2nd grade). I need them to have some reflection on their learning — whether that’s by writing, doing a poster or creating a Scratch computer program. The research on learning (and growing a growth mindset) means you have to help them push through the frustrating parts of not knowing.

Current Projects

Keeping Track of Projects

My husband and I tend to forget all of the really cool things we do – and work on – each year. We get caught up in the day-to-day activities of working, teaching children, worrying, making lunch (and dinner), cleaning the house (again) and shuttling kids to various activities. Like most people, we are often busy, so we need a little help remembering all of the unique things in our life. We are fortunate to experience new places  – and make a lot of cool stuff. Here’s what we’ve been working on lately:

Joe created a desktop (for me) from piece of plywood and trim. He' sitting it on a top of a re-purposed bookshelf (which he made years ago).

Joe created a desktop (for me) from piece of plywood and trim. It will sit on top of a re-purposed bookshelf. Oh yeah – he made the bookshelf years ago.

C (age 7) was so interested in the artist, Vincent Van Gogh that he created a 4-H project.

C (age 7) was so interested in the artist, Vincent Van Gogh, he created a 4-H project. Two weeks ago, he presented his project to a 4H judge. My shy, reserved son beamed when the judge praised his work.

R (age 11) wanted to submit another project for the 4-H non-livestock fair. This one is on his favorite architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

R (age 11) wanted to submit another project for the 4-H non-livestock fair. (He won a grand prize last year). This one is on his favorite architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Liz has been developing her colored pencil skills. This drawing is based on an old penguin calendar we had years ago.

I have been developing my colored pencil skills. This drawing is based on an old penguin calendar we had; I used Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils.

Joe took our distressed, chipping dining table and stripped it. He then proceeded to sand, stain and lacquer it – repeatedly. It looks amazing.

Diary of a First Year FLL Coach

First Year FLL Coach – Me?

August 22, 2016
Today, I asked the 4-H robotics leaders if our club was going to participate in First Lego League this year. “Sure,” they said, “and would you mind being one of our first year FLL coaches?”

August 30, 2016
The FLL challenge comes out today. It’s called Animal Allies. I can’t wait to find out more about it.

September 5, 2016
Today, I gave a brief presentation to our club about First Lego League. I think I scared some parents, but gained the interests of the more experienced student members. We now have a team of seven students.

The coaches and mentors navigated the FLL computer system and got our team registered and the kit ordered. I had an easier time since I had gone through a Jr. FLL season with my older son two years ago.

September 18, 2016
One of our mentors (and 4-H robotics leader) built the game board. The kit and game mat arrived and the kids spent the meeting building pieces.

A picture of two 4x8 robot game boards

This was from our practice competition.

September 25, 2016
The game board is fascinating and the students finally finished putting together all of the pieces. We did a team building exercise and ran out of time.

October 2, 2016
We now have nine team members. The team has decided to split up into three groups and begin building a base robot. The team will then vote for the best design.

October 16, 2016
It took another meeting to finish and decide on the robot design. Now, the other teams are copying the robot design so that each team can work on the robot game. There has been little discussion about the animal project; everyone is more interested in the robot game.


The Robot Game, The Robot Presentation & The Project

October 23, 2016
Teams are finally working on programs to complete the robot game challenge. There have been some problems with such a big team. Everyone wants to work on the robot. Our initial talks about animal projects are centered on reducing ocean pollution. We are also registered for a practice tournament November 12. I have spoken to my sister-in-law twice in the last few weeks to clarify FLL rules. (She’s a FLL veteran coach and is immensely helpful).

October 30, 2016
More work on the robot game. My co-coach is amazing at finding team building challenges so the kids can develop their “core values.”

November 2, 2016
Our animal project is looking too much like a pollution/trash problem (which was last year’s FLL challenge). We have a mid-week meeting to focus on one animal and to flush out a general presentation idea for the practice tournament. The kids chose to study manatees.

November 6, 2016
I am out of town. More robot game. More team building.


November 12, 2016
Practice Tournament. Everyone did very well and it gave the students (and coaches) a better idea of what FLL is all about. Our team did better than we thought they would.

November 19, 2016
The robot design has been modified so that there is now only one robot to compete in the robot game. That means two to three kids work on the programming while the coaches help the other kids flush out the robot and manatee presentations. Team building happens at the end of every meeting.

December 4, 11, 18
The holiday season is in full swing and we are only getting three to four kids at each Sunday meeting. This has made it difficult to move forward with our presentation since no one wants to make a group decision with only part of the team present.

December 25 & January 1
Since we meet on Sunday, we have cancelled these meetings to enjoy the holiday season (and because a lot of people are out of town).


Getting Ready for the Qualifying Tournament

January 5, 2017
We have an afternoon meeting at the library/park to refine the manatee and robot presentations. The students decide what they want to talk about and we (the coaches) help them by writing down main points on an index card. They are to take them home, write down what they want to say and try to memorize it for Saturday’s qualifying tournament.

January 7, 2017
The tournament is an hour away and the day is very cold and very wet. It’s a bit of a shock for our central Florida area. Thankfully, the gym is warm and the 24-team double tournament is buzzing with activity. I sent our schedule out yesterday and made a couple of copies to leave on our table. Everyone arrived on time and we were busy all day long. Our team table was close to the robot game area and the students took advantage of the location. They watched how the other team’s competed and enjoyed hanging out with one another.

This was one long day. We had to be there by 8:15 and the award ceremony finished at 4:00. Our team won the mechanical design/programming award and received an alternate bid to the regional tournament. My co-coach and I were thrilled. This is such a fabulous run for a first year team – and 7 out of 9 members can return next year! They will have a better idea of what to expect. I definitely see some areas for improvement. For example, we left more than 30-seconds on the clock for the robot game and they could do a better job at learning to share speaking roles during the presentations. But more importantly, everyone was well-supported, courteous and focused on building a good team (and good people).

January 2017
My co-coach contacted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission in our area and our team will visit their office to learn more about manatee rescue and how to write a regulation. Although our FLL season is over, we are still helping our team to go out into the community and hopefully, make a difference.


Reflections on Being a First Year FLL Coach

My co-coach and I were often coaching “from behind,” as he likes to say. We were trying to guide and ask questions (and sometimes direct) so that the students owned most of the decisions. That was really hard – especially as we tried to figure out the FLL rules. It took a lot of time to give everyone an equal voice, but I think it made for a stronger team. I also returned to being an adjunct instructor this past August and was trying to balance teaching on top of coaching. I felt like I didn’t prepare as much as I could (or should) have, but the students led the way and asked questions when they needed information.

I can’t say enough about First Lego League. This tournament is amazing and the purpose is not to win, or to get better at robotics. It’s to work as a team and to become familiar with the design thinking process. The purpose is to solve the world’s problems and to help kids (and their coaches) to know they have a voice and some power. They have power to work cooperatively. They have power to talk to government officials and business owners. This is project-based learning in action – with a little bit of legos and robotics thrown in for fun.

FETC 2017

Code to Learn: Using Scratch to Demonstrate Learning

I’ll be at FETC this week – and will be talking about my hopes and dreams for how to use Scratch. I’ve done a lot of research on coding and creativity and I’m bringing my ideas to FETC (thankfully, my poster was accepted)! I will be discussing the in-depth learning projects I have done with some of my students. I also have a passion for integrating coding into the curriculum and would love to see if other teachers are doing the same (check out my Wright Brothers course).

Creativity in Coding

For the last few years, I have been teaching Scratch during the summer months. Most of the time we do projects related to video games or general learning projects (animations, mazes, etc.). My one-week camps do not leave enough time for in-depth research projects. However, for those returning campers, I am able to challenge them with more advanced Scratch projects. I’ve had students create interactive country projects and create fractured fairy tales. Even though I am not in a K-12 school, I hope teachers will find these ideas (and lesson plans) useful.

After reading articles by Mitch Resnik, Karen Brennan, and Samuel Papert (most well-known for his book, Mindstorms), I felt like they had created Scratch for this very purpose. After a bit, I realized they had. Check out their Scratch foundation.

Regardless, I think our mission is the same – to keep the creativity in coding. To use Scratch (and computers) to create and not just to consume. For the record, I am not affiliated with MIT or Scratch, nor do they endorse this poster session (though, I hope they would if they knew about it)!

If you will be attending FETC this week, I will be talking about my poster session on Wednesday, January 25 from 4:00 – 5:00 PM  – Booth #2500.

UPDATE: To find the Scratch lessons, check out the Scratch Lessons, Challenges & Prompts page.

PBL Greece & Egypt Projects

A picture of kid-made mini-pyramids.

C’s handmade pyramids and clay mummy. Pyramids are painted with homemade, mustard-dyed milk paint.

It’s been awhile since I’ve chatted about the project-based learning that’s been happening around here. I guess you could say that we’re taking a self-directed learning break. Instead, we’re focusing on skill-building. The boys have chosen to target some other interests, namely basketball and art for my oldest, and learning Scratch for my youngest. These are their interests, but I am guiding them along with formal lessons and practice (which is sometimes unwelcome, but necessary).

My boys have also been helping me get ready for my summer classes by testing out sewing projects. I’ve been sewing for a long time and often my completed sample projects will look “too fancy,” especially to a new, young sewer. Nothing is more disheartening than comparing your project to your teacher’s example. Therefore, I try to make sure I have some kid-tested samples to show my students. Thankfully, I have two ready-made helpers!

A picture of a cloth bookmark.

C’s choice for his bookmark – C3PO fabric. From the kid that has never seen Star Wars. 🙂

PBL Egypt

Although we have temporarily moved on to other types of learning, I did want to mention the final presentations for my children’s self-directed country studies. If you remember, my oldest son chose to study Greece and my youngest chose to research Egypt (with a strong focus on ancient Egypt). A month ago, my youngest son presented his poster and was thrilled with the reception he received from his fellow co-op learners.

A picture of a poster on Egypt.

C, age 6, did the research on Egypt. I guided and kept him on task. And did some note-taking.

He put together the poster on his own and even though I wanted to help him with image placement, I bit my tongue. I tried really hard to let him make his own choices and discover where things would fit. I did ask him to lay out his poster BEFORE gluing so we wouldn’t have any major meltdowns. I realize that there’s value in letting them make that mistake, but it was the night before he wanted to present to the class. I’m not sure my nerves could have taken it.

PBL Greece

A picture of a white hardcover book.

R chose to present his information in a book (from Bare Books).  All drawings are done by him.

My ten-year-old son had to wait a few extra weeks before he could present his final project. He decided that he wanted to submit his project (and two others) to our local 4-H non-livestock fair. This was his first time entering any projects, but once he saw all of the categories, he became very excited and was thinking about other work that he could submit. He even happily filled out all of the paperwork and I taught him to sign his name. Thankfully, he had chosen to learn cursive this year, so he was ready to put it to good use.

A picture of a purple ribbon.

Best in category for his age group. Oh, yes, he was excited.

Yes, that is a best in category ribbon on his Greece project. I can’t help but be really proud of all his hard work and determination. That’s not to say that he was always willing to work on his project, but once he got started, he would find more and more items he wanted to include in his book. In order to help him organize it, I showed him how to make a storyboard. Then, he cut out the pieces to arrange the final order.

A picture of slips of paper.

He wasn’t sure where to start, so I showed him how to storyboard.

I definitely proofread his work and pointed out things he needed to correct, but the research, drawings and the topics were all done by him. And, if you don’t mind a little extra bragging, he also received a runner-up ribbon for his book report on The Lightning Thief. Awards for reading and writing? Oh, my little engineer, how far you’ve come!

A picture of an open book

A hand-drawn map of the major cities in Greece.

I think the ribbons meant a lot to him, but we have been careful to let him know that we are proud of him regardless of the awards he’s won. We are happy that he loves learning and makes the effort to try new things – even when it gets hard.

A picture of a red folder and book with ribbons

His 2016 4-H non-livestock submissions.

Making – K’nex Bridges

The Brick Chronicles feature unique creations made with Lego® bricks. Hopefully you, and the children in your life, will find them as inspiring as I do!

A picture of a mini bridge made from K'nex pieces

Made by C, age 6.

K’nex Bridges

It’s not made from Lego bricks, but it is building and constructing nonetheless. This particular type of building is a reflection on his continual interest in bridges. One evening while my youngest had me all to himself, he brought out the K’nex box and suggested we have a bridge building contest. He was especially proud of his homemade double bascule bridge.

A picture of a double bascule bridge made from K'nex pieces

He was testing and changing his design.

A picture of a 2-panel K'nex bridge

My attempt at making a stable, elevated bridge.

A picture of a stabilized double-bascule bridge made from K'nex pieces

He stabilized the bridge and now can easily lift up the roadway.

PBL – Geography


Student Choice

Most of my favorite “teaching methods” put students’ choices at the forefront of their learning.

I know!!! You must be completely shocked that a Montessori-trained educator would value choice and self-direction! All kidding aside, a lot of research is saying the same thing. It’s easier to learn something if there’s an interest and often, that learning starts with a question. For older students, there’s problem-based learning,  where students collaborate to find a solution to a problem (or answer a question).

At our homeschool co-op meetings, we’ve been doing project-based learning. Our students range in age from five-years-old through twelve. Each of them are going to approach a topic differently. We need to honor that. Last semester, the parents choice physics as the topic of inquiry. Then, we supported our children through various explorations into windmills, bridges and catapults.

This spring, we’re focusing on geography, specifically an in-depth country study.  It’s self-directed because students choose the country they would like to study. They also decide how they want to present the information that they’ve learned. In this way, it somewhat mimics project-based homeschooling. It’s not quite as open-ended as project-based homeschooling, but it can be a good way to stay on track with project-based learning.

As an educator (not just a homeschool parent), I think it’s important to allow students the freedom to decide how long they want to study their country – and require that they present their information to someone else. In this case, my children will present what they’ve learned to their fellow learners at co-op.

Although it is more structured than unschooling, there is a lot of self-direction and choice. Maybe we should invent a new word – Monteschooling? Lots of choice, but with some guided direction (constraints) and adult facilitators around to help continue the learning when they get stuck (or want to give up).

Part of the "city" project - the boys were laying out and creating their own city.

Part of the “city” project – the boys were laying out and creating their own city with clay.

Project-based Learning – Geography

On our first day of “class,” I stood in front of our students and let them know they needed to choose a country to research, and that by next week I wanted two books on their topic. Since almost all of these kids are younger than age twelve, I wanted them to stick with books. Web research is great, but it requires some higher-order thinking to be able to determine a safe, reliable and accurate web site. For now, books are key. The obvious exception is the CIA World FactBook, since it takes the guess work out of determining whether or not it is an authoritative site.

Picture of kids' books on egypt and ancient Egypt.

Most of C’s books are centered around Ancient Egypt…not necessarily present day Egypt.

Then, I started asking questions. I suggested that they might want to pretend they are going to visit their country. “What would you like to go see first? What language would you need to understand? What type of food do they eat in your country?”

None of these are required questions to answer, and there is no standard form on how to give their presentation. Instead, we left it as open as possible, allowing for the fact that some students will go into more depth, while others might just draw a picture and point out one or two facts.

Since we have a large age range of students, each family was free to put more constraints on their children’s projects. One of our parents is requiring her two children (ages 10.5 and 12) to complete a presentation every 3 weeks. I asked my children to choose one of the countries that still exist from our study of ancient times, but didn’t put a time requirement on their learning. If they want to study one country for the next 3 months, I’m perfectly fine with that.

Making clay models of the pyramids in Giza

Looking at a library book to make the pyramids at Giza.

My kiddos decided to study Greece and Egypt, although the six-year-old is pretty fascinated with ancient Egypt, and I’m not sure how much present day Egypt will feature in his final presentation. I don’t care because he is reading all sorts of books and creating items to reflect his learning. For my oldest, I have asked him to include a works cited page in his presentation, but otherwise, he is only limited by his imagination. I think a large part of his project might be devoted to Greek Mythology, since we have recently read Rick Riordan’s fabulous series on the Greek myths.

I try not to put my judgement on their ideas or choices, though I know it happens. I try to offer multiple suggestions and leave resources (books, videos, etc.) around the house for them to discover on their own (if they didn’t find them at the library). Since they don’t know everything that is out there (nor do I), I think it’s a bit unfair to step back and assume they will know where to look. That’s part of their training in teaching themselves – exposing them to resources (the library, the Internet, local businesses and government offices). It’s not completely self-directed, but I do try to (mostly) respect their choices.

Picture of a kid's desk - pencil, paper, and opened book

R has decided to make a book about Greece. I sketched out a storyboard so he could plan out his book.

As such, I was asking my six-year-old how he wanted to show off some of his knowledge about Egypt and threw out a number of suggestions – a drawing of the pyramids, a written poster, clay models of the artifacts he found. He immediately jumped on the idea of making clay models of the pyramids and I made sure to follow through when we were at home that week.

picture of homemade clay pyramids

We have a big slab of clay on hand, so it’s an easy way to extend the learning.

I even managed to make a connection between the pyramid from our Montessori geometric solids and the pyramids he was making. Nothing formal, just an observation about the pyramids and how many sides they have, etc. He made sure to point out the four sides on his pyramids and I quickly agreed. It’s a slight connection, a teaching moment in the midst of an innocent art project. But, it helps to solidify small connections of learning, while reinforcing the  the value of a teacher-facilitator.

We’re continuing with projects. My youngest is feeling that his might be coming to an end, and my oldest is trying to meet a 4-H deadline. This week promises to be a flurry of making, writing and organizing. I can’t wait.


PBL :: City Presentation Finale

We are a small group of five families who are helping our children to direct their own learning (at least some of it) through a project-based approach. We set the topic – physics – but they are leading the way and mapping their own projects. Check out the previous posts – Lessons Learned for Co-op and Bridges.

Their personally planned city - complete with a street grid and zoning.

Their personally planned city – complete with a street grid and zoning. Buildings and cars are made from air-dry clay.

This past week the boys presented their city project. I was definitely ready for them to be done as all of their projects seem to require more cheerleading toward the end. And, by November, I need a break from “school”, cheerleading and structured learning. Bring on the field trips and the holiday celebrations!

This was an interesting project because they started out with an end product in mind and while they did complete their project – it was not in the detailed way that I imagined. I wonder if that was due to the end of a lengthy project? Or, they never intended to go further with it? Or, maybe they wanted to go off and play…

Just some of the books they checked out from the library. These were the ones they used the most.

Just some of the books they checked out from the library. These were the ones they used the most.

Either way, they did a lot of exploring and research. That meant a lot of writing and rewriting. It meant a lot of reading and comprehending information. It also meant going out into the community. And, of course, it meant a lot of drawing.

A's hand-drawn maps of local cities.

A’s hand-drawn maps of local cities. Project-based homeschooling is a perfect way to celebrate your artist’s way of learning.

There was a lot of map reading and discussions about directions and grids. There was also a lot of thinking about how different cities are organized and how they get their power. There was curiosity about other cities and their design. And almost of all of this learning was self-directed.

R's hand-drawn maps. He made these while researching city design.

R’s hand-drawn maps. He made these while researching city design.

Of course, there was also cooperation and negotiation. There was learning to listen to your friend and there was learning to speak up. There was learning how to work together and take turns “winning” the argument. Overall, I would call the project a success. They were both happy with their progress, their learning and they enjoyed themselves.

Homemade skyscraper - a great project from the Cities book about the value of steel-framed skyscrapers.

Homemade skyscraper – a great project from the Cities book about the value of steel-framed skyscrapers.

Project-Based :: City Project

We are a small group of five families who are helping our children to direct their own learning (at least some of it) through a project-based approach. We set the topic – physics – but they are leading the way and mapping their own projects. Check out the previous posts – Lessons Learned and Bridges.

The inspiration for the city project - Hand-drawn maps for an Ozobot robot.

The inspiration for the city project – hand-drawn maps for an Ozobot robot.

For the last few weeks I’ve been showcasing my younger son’s project on bridges. I haven’t exactly ignored the project my older child has been working on, rather it took a long time to develop into a coherent project and there wasn’t much to share. Initially, my son and his friend were inspired by drawing Ozobot maps and it took some time for the project to develop into one about city planning and structure. Much of the first few weeks were reading, researching and working through some of the projects in this book (which the boys found at the library and chose for themselves).

R's Ozobot city map - at least one of the many variations he made.

R’s Ozobot city map – at least one of the many variations he made.

A's hand-drawn map...for an Ozobot.

A’s hand-drawn map…for an Ozobot.

My son and his friend began with a final project in mind. They wanted to make a model city – out of clay. No problem, I said, however I want you to do the research first. I know they know how to make a model city, but I wanted to make sure they learned about cities in the process. Tricky stuff – being a facilitator. It’s half knowing when to guide, knowing when to keep your mouth shut, and lastly, knowing when to put some limits on the project to lead it in a particular way.

I fully recognize that putting limits on a project doesn’t seem to be “true” project-based learning, but I was a bit disappointed in the catapult project. They built the catapult, but didn’t really go much further than that. Don’t misunderstand me – there was a lot of value in reading plans, executing them, going to the hardware store and interacting with adults. All of this is really important stuff, but I knew they could take it further and I think the “completion” of the project signaled the “end” for that group of boys. So, I wanted to eliminate that. And, I think (oh, dare I say it), I think that it did.

Using the book, Cities: Discover How They Work, the boys learned about different parts of city life (including the concept of planning for the future) and the differences between rural, suburban and urban dwellings.

Using the book, Cities: Discover How They Work, the boys learned about different parts of city life (including the concept of planning for the future).

Rather than strictly make a list, I encouraged these "visual" boys to draw a picture of a concept that represented past, present and future.

Rather than strictly make a list, I encouraged these “visual” boys to draw a picture of a concept that represented past, present and future.

Their project is too lengthy to list the entire process here, but I will touch on a few points. First, they started out by doing research – library research. I think for an elementary-aged student, they need be very, very comfortable inside a library. They need books. I rarely guide them to Internet research – not at this age.

With a large pile of books in hand, one child took notes, while the other read through the rest of the books. They each have their strengths and reading and writing fall between the two of them.

Second, I picked up the Cities book and started to read it aloud to my two 9-year-olds. Yes, aloud. This is such a great book, but it’s in black and white and my two visual-spatial learners are not instantly drawn to it. Then, I asked if they wanted to do one of the projects. I got a “yes” and a “maybe” and so we forged ahead. I think they needed help getting past the research stage – they weren’t quite sure what step they should take next.

I made the large grid and the boys measured the buildings, green spaces, and building - using a ruler and being as precise as possible.

A city grid project from the book, Cities. I made the large grid and the boys measured the buildings, green spaces, and water features – using a ruler and being as precise as possible. Then, they laid out their city.

Third, I asked them who we might visit and speak to about cities. There were suggestions of city hall or the city welcome center. I think I mentioned a city planner and they both thought that was a great idea. So, I called a local city planner and set up a meeting with him…and it was fabulous. The city planner also had two co-workers come and talk to the two boys about what it takes to plan a city and keep it running. They learned that city planning was a complicated process that involved a lot of different people and departments. I think that this was more powerful than any of the other research they did. It certainly stuck with A, my son’s friend, as he has added “city planner” to his list of possible job prospects.

City grid

City grid

And since the city planner and his co-workers were so generous with their time and expertise, it was only right that I ask the boys to write thank you notes. They did a first draft and then made corrections and re-wrote their final draft. We discussed writing concepts without having to make a big deal out of it – and it demonstrates that good manners are important.

This week, they will be presenting their final project to the group as this is our last meeting for the Fall. I’m excited for them and I know that they are anxious to share what they have made.

Another project suggestions from the Cities book, make an aqueduct.

Another project suggestion from the Cities book, learn about ancient Roman city planning and make an aqueduct.