In an ongoing effort to document our project-based learning, I wanted to talk about how my family first got started with self-directed projects.
When I first read the book, Project-Based Homeschooling, my oldest son was kindergarten-age and I just couldn’t see how he would be able to learn to read, write or do math solely with a project-based curriculum. At that point, he was a struggling reader and while we had always read books that he had chosen, he was showing no inclination to replicate anything based on this research. Therefore, I dismissed it and went on with our “Montessori at home” curriculum. And, thank goodness for that because my eldest child turned out to be a visual-spatial learner and without a Montessori way of learning, he would have struggled even more so. Today, at almost ten-years-old, he is a fabulous reader, but more importantly, he loves to read. But, I digress.
After we pulled him back out of public school (nice place, but way too much homework for 2nd grade), I abandoned all formal learning for the Spring and told him we would just work on projects. His choice of topic, his choice of final project. My strong-willed child loved the idea.
He initially chose to learn more about how we get our water from the faucet. He was quite fascinated by this Magic School Bus book. Since I was being as open-ended as possible, I tried not to direct him in any way. But, as we both learned, my newly-minted eight-year-old needed direction.
So, after an initial library search where he got to choose the books, I asked a few questions. I asked if there was anything in particular that he wanted to know about our city’s water. He did. He wanted to know how the water got into our house. So, we talked about where we could find that information. Since it wasn’t available online, we had to figure out who to speak with at our city.
Thankfully, we live in nice-sized rural city and the office staff are quite friendly. We went a few times to visit city hall and spoke with the workers to find out more information. He did a lot of the speaking, but I made sure to follow up on his ideas. I made the calls and the appointments and prompted him with the next step.
Eventually, he expanded his city water project to include the water cycle and concluded with a visit to our local wastewater treatment plant. All because he was curious. My child, who hated to write, was writing and taking notes.
That’s not to say that his final project – a poster – was completely self-chosen or that he would wake up every morning begging to get started. Nor does it mean that presently my kids only learn with projects – they don’t. I assign some work too. However, as we completed the project together, I learned that for a young child (under age 13?) they are going to need a lot more help with a formal project, which was not so clear in the book. While I made sure to follow his lead, I also did some “behind the scenes” research and ensured that a book on water would be one of the selected bedtime reading books. Or, we made a point to drive by the water tower on our way home. I needed to show him how to find out information. I had to be the example, but in a back-door sort of way so as to not co-opt his project. It wasn’t always easy.
I did offer lots of examples for final projects – a drawing, a sculpture, a book, a poster. Since this was our first project, I needed him to understand that he was working toward a goal of creating something. He really wanted to do a poster and I made sure to follow his progress and encourage him when it became too overwhelming – or boring.
I also made sure that he finished it. There’s a lot of debate about whether a self-chosen project should be abandoned by the child, but I think that if you get halfway into a project, you need to help them to complete it – at least in some “final” way. The end product can change, but there needs to be some way to show what they’ve learned. I see that as my job as a teacher-facilitator. Nudge them – not too hard – and help them to stay on track. Quite frankly, I have a number of half-finished projects that I would love to have someone help me finish.