Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Project-Based Homeschooling Q&A: Documenting & Forward Motion

Last week, in the second part of this getting started with project-based homeschooling series, I talked about our project space and supplies.  Remember, this is not a how-to series.  I'm writing these posts not to show you the right way to do things, but to show you our way and hopefully inspire you to find your own way.

Today, I'm talking about forward motion and documentation.  In other words, how we keep projects moving along in the face of boredom/frustration/fear and how we know we're actually doing stuff.  When we hear the word "project," we're sort of programmed from our own childhoods and educations to think about pretty final products or pin-worthy items.  Sometimes we have those.  More often than not, however, we have stuff that looks a lot like our craft room exploded.  Or just kids playing with Legos.

But if you pay close attention and build the habit of writing down all of those little things they're doing that don't look like the typical definition of learning activities, you'll start to see patterns or deeper skills and connections forming.  You'll see the face of authentic learning.  Subjects they research begin to show up in their play, drawings, stories, and conversations.  You'll see them learning at a much deeper level than if they had just read a few pages in a textbook and answered some questions or wrote an awkward, forced essay.  It's real. It's powerful.  And it sticks.

But . . . it doesn't look like "education" to the casual observer.  This is why I have to pay close attention, otherwise it will slip by and I'll panic that we aren't doing enough or the right things.  This is also why I have to document.  I have to write down all those bits of play and conversation and take photos of those drawings, because it's too easy for me to miss the connections.

I'll admit, this is an area where I'm weak.  Years of teacher training forced my brain into overplanning mode, and I just now feeling capable of letting go of that need to plan everything ahead of time and instead recording activities as/after we do them.  It's been such a freeing experience, and, in many ways, I find that we do more now than before.  Still, I forget to write things down.  I kick myself at the end of a day for not taking a picture of them doing something that was clearly project related but that I just didn't recognize at the time.  It's a process.  I'm getting there.  And I let go of the idea of perfection a looooong time ago, so that helps.

Following are Deb's questions about documenting and keeping things moving along.  As always, we can continue the discussion in the comments, so feel free to ask your own questions.

1.  How Do You Document Everything?

I already mentioned above that I don't, but I should.  Ok, for the record, I hate the word "should."  It's pre-loaded with guilt.  I don't like using it.  But in this case, I know I should document more.  The best I can do is keep a notebook & camera out where I can see them, as a reminder, and build the habit of writing notes and taking photos.  Like everything else we've discussed in this series, it's a work in progress for me.

There are lots of ways to organize your project journal.  Lori has a couple of great posts on this (project journal - parent's & inside my project journal), and you can visit the forum on her site to see how other people set up their journals.  Again, there's no one right way to do this.  You have to find something that works for you, something you'll stick with, organized in a way that makes sense to you.

I haven't found a great system for myself yet.  I could have just set up mine like Lori's.  But no, I didn't.  I pulled out a notebook, labeled it "projects," and ran with it. (*ahem* aries/choleric/firstborn . . . I RUN.  A lot.)  I have a page for each child where I make notes of random interests as they appear.  I have pages for each child's projects, where I jot down what they're doing related to that.  As a new project emerges, I skip a few pages and start a new section.  I also have pages where I journal more freely.  It's all kind of a mess right now.  Sticky note bookmarks are my friend.

I know some of you are probably thinking, "What kind of notebook? What about a binder? Should I use pen or pencil? How many sticky note dividers should I make?"  These are all questions you have to ask yourself.  And remember, nothing is static.  You can change your mind.  And you will.  No matter what you do right now with your journal, you will decide at some point that you want to do something differently.  That's ok.  Just like we talked about not waiting for the perfect project space or supplies, don't wait for the perfect journal set-up to get started.  Just write something down somewhere.

I do also keep a more traditional-type weekly lesson planner.  I note some of the project work in that as they do it, but it's redundant and overkill and I'm trying to break that habit.  It's my security blanket.  If you need your own security blanket until you feel more confident, keep it.

2.  What do you do when the thing that interests them also frustrates them?

I hope someone can answer this one for us.  I really haven't had a lot of experience with this yet, because my oldest is sneaky about only showing interest in things that come relatively easy to her.  I have to guess if she isn't doing something because it's hard or because she really doesn't like it.  The answer isn't always clear with her.

She did run into a block with her last story when she got stuck and had to make some difficult plot decisions.  I helped by working along side her for moral support, showing her how I work around plot troubles, offering to brainstorm with her, and leaving our borrowed copy of Spilling Ink in convenient places so she could get help from other writers.  We held that project time, but I didn't force her to work on her story for all of it.  I would ask if she wanted to try to write one page, one paragraph, or even just one sentence.  That's how I work on tough days.  One foot in front of the other, one page at a time writes a book.  On frustrating days, I don't want to write a chapter, so I won't force her to.  But how about a sentence?  A lesson in baby steps can be incredibly valuable in the long run.

I'm sure there are other ways to work around this, so hopefully others can chime in with their own experiences.

3.  How much instruction or encouragement is too much?  

I think this is something you just have to get a feel for.  Trust your gut.  Do you feel like you're doing most of the work?  Probably too much.  Do you feel like you're constantly pushing instead of being pulled? Probably too much.  In the beginning, however, I feel like there is naturally more parental involvement during the transition to more project work than what is probably the ideal.  You and the kids will get more comfortable with the process as time goes on, and you won't have to poke and prod as much forever.

The big shift, with regard to instruction, will be from giving a lesson first with them following your lead to letting them take the lead and you asking questions as they go along.  You're giving less instruction, and instead guiding them to discover their options and make choices along the way.  How can we learn about this subject?  What supplies will you need?  Do you think we could find a video to show us how to do this?  Let them do the leg work!

Encouragement is good.  We all need encouragement.  I encourage my kids by asking questions about their projects, by asking if they want to take photos of things, or if they'd like to display their projects or share them with family members.  There's also a natural form of encouragement that comes along once they realize the pride of doing all of the work themselves and feeling that sense of accomplishment.

We can also talk about encouraging children to do more with their projects, to dig deeper.  There is an entire section in Lori's book on this subject.  I struggle with this, because it isn't a clear line of when I should let them move on to something else and when I need to give a few more nudges in the right direction.  Gently, I always try to push my oldest just a wee bit further than she is inclined to go with a project.  By "push" I mean leaving books out where she can see them, discussing field trip options, asking more questions, or leaving an interesting article open in my browser.

This is where everything ties together.  Rearranging your project space or adding new supplies encourages more project work.  Displaying their work encourages them.  Asking if they want to document their own projects by taking photos or starting a blog is also encouragement.

And yes, sometimes when I ask, "Would you like to work on your project," the answer is a slightly rude, "No."  I try not to let that bother me, and instead ask if there's something else she would like to work on.  If the answer is once again a snotty, "No," I try a different tactic.  Or we try again the next day.  I try my best to focus on the long term goals and give myself lots of encouragement.  :)

Thanks for reading along with this series, and thanks to Deb for all the great questions.  Here are the links to the first two posts: 

Part 1 - Project-Based Homeschooling Q&A: Getting Started
Part 3 - Project-Based Homeschooling Q&A: Documenting & Forward Motion


  1. love love your sharing your process and experiences. <3

    1. Thanks, Lori. It's been really good for me to share all of it, too. It reminds ME that we're doing ok. :)

  2. Thank you, Michelle! I bought two SmashBooks at the craft store and I am going to get my husband to set up my little photo printer and I AM GOING TO DO IT AND NOT WORRY ABOUT MY HORRENDOUS HANDWRITING. *deep breath*

    I am. I am going to document. If I can make a habit of it, like you said, it will alleviate that panicky are-they-learning thing that sometimes sneaks up on me.

    thanks so much! really! loved the series, so helpful and encouraging.

    1. Thanks for the questions! I'm pretty sure my crazy serial killer inconsistent handwriting is way worse than yours. But my documenting book is MY book. As we go along, I might do something nicer, and maybe worry about how it looks then, but for now just write down all the things! And breathe. :)

      I had to look up smash books. So like a journal/scrapbook? Now I'm thinking about showing them to my 9yo. I could see her getting into that. Maybe one each year as her own project documenting book. Hmmmm. . .

  3. This is a great series Michelle.
    After lots of different methods I have finally settled on a sketchbook journal for each kiddo. I make lists, write down interests and questions but still I need to do better. My oldest looks at it often to remind herself of things she was interested in or questions she had. In that way it has been a great resource for her as well.
    I struggle with the "when is the project over" question. And we tend to come round and round again to the same topic adding layers of knowledge as we go. Sometimes it seems they never end!
    Thanks for taking the time to share your process...

  4. Thanks, Dawn. I use a cheapo dollar notebook, but I wonder if I'd use it more often or do more with it if I used a nice sketchbook or molekine notebook. I love that your oldest refers to your journal for ideas and reminders!

    Hmm... personally, I actually like it better when they don't end for a long time. Or when they keep morphing into new manifestations and approaches to the same interest. Then I know we've hit a deep, rich vein.


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