Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Project-Based Homeschooling Q&A: Getting Started

Last week, when I posted about what we do between projects, I got a few questions from Deb in the comments about how we got started with project-based homeschooling and how we handle certain things.  Then I remembered all the questions I had when we first started, and I thought maybe some of you might have questions as well.  So I'll write a bit in a few posts about how this shift came about and how we do things around here.

If you know anything about me, it should be that I am not a details person.  I sort of flail around and dabble until things feel right, then I settle in and enjoy.  So this will NOT be a how-to series.  For that, I will direct you along the way to folks who are much more skilled at this.

One thing I have learned is that all roads eventually lead to Oz.  I'm going to share what my path looked like.  Yours may (and probably will) look entirely different.  Some paths are short and direct.  Others (*ahem* mine) meander and even double back and confuse the crap out of you along the way.  But it doesn't matter which path you're on.  If you trust your instincts and keep on keepin' on, you'll get to where you need to be.

If you have no clue what project-based learning is, you can read this lovely overview Shelli wrote recently: What is project-based homeschooling?

If you want a how-to for getting started (more direct, less flailing route), Lori has a new quick-start guide on her site: 10 Steps to Getting Started with Project-Based Homeschooling
And don't forget her book.  It's a must-have, I think: Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners

Now.  On to the questions.

In this post, I'll address a few of Deb's questions about how we got started with PBH.  Later, in another post or two, I'll talk about supplies, documenting, environment, and keeping it all moving along.  Again, I'm answering her questions based on how we handle things.  This is by no means the right way or the only way.  I'm hoping a few people more seasoned with this will chime in and offer some helpful comments.

1.  How did you bring up the whole concept to your kids?
I had to think about this for a while, because I don't remember exactly how we first started.  I think project-based learning is a natural way of learning, so in some ways we've always done this.  When my oldest was two and was obsessed with dinosaurs and we came home with stacks of dinosaur books each week that she picked out . . . that was PBL (project-based learning).  When we wanted to adopt a new dog and researched his breed and bought a book on teaching dogs tricks . . . that was PBL, too.  It's all about finding an interest, feeding it, finding ways to dig deeper, and sharing what you learn.  It's the kind of learning that attracted us (and many of you, I'm sure) to homeschooling in the first place.  It's something we were already doing in small doses.  We just shifted to doing more of it.   
So, the simple answer is that I didn't bring up the concept to the kids.  I set aside some time each week and told them it was their project time.  What did they want to learn about?  What did they want to do?  What supplies did they need me to get ahead of time?  I encourage them both to pursue their own interests during that time, and I'm available to assist.  I try to keep it as natural and laid-back as possible.  

2.  How do you encourage them to find projects, especially at first? 
My oldest was happy to pull out rolls of duct tape and library books and embroidery floss and get to work.  She has always been very clear about her passions, and she's most comfortable as an independent learner.  This style of learning fits her perfectly.
My youngest . . . eh, she's coming around.  Her path is different, and that's ok.  She's 5 and she's also the child who will run off and say she doesn't want to do or learn about anything.  She wants her sister's constant attention, so separating them is a challenge; however, left alone long enough, she'll create an elaborate playscape on her own.  And sometimes she doesn't know what she wants to learn about, but if I start noticing patterns in the things she's drawn to, I can spot the interest for her.  Recently I noticed she started pulling out books about wolves from the library, she loves huskies, and she wants me to tape episodes of Dogs 101 on Animal Planet.  So, we start there.  I also find that the best time to ask about what she's interested in is NOT at project time.  The best times to ask her sneaky sideways questions tends to be when she's in the bath or when we're in the car. 

3.  How do you encourage them to work on their projects?
I really hope someone has a good answer for this one, because I sure don't.  Other than this: if it's a true interest-led project, you won't have to.  They ideally should want to work on it on their own.  If it's a really good one, you'll find them working on it at different points throughout the day, not just at project time.   
But not everything is ideal, right?  Well, maybe they just haven't found the right interest yet.  Maybe they just need time to play around with materials and explore ideas/methods and all of those things you do between projects.  I think it's ok to remind (especially in the beginning) of a project they're working on.  I think it's fine to suggest something or ask them questions, as long as you aren't pushing or nagging.   Simply holding that project time (weekly, daily, or however often you set it at first) leaves the door open for them.
New materials can work wonders to spark creativity and encourage project work.  My oldest has fallen into a lull with her interest in rocks.  That's fine.  Nothing wrong with moving on to a new interest, but I wanted to know if she was really bored with it or if she just forgot about it.  So I pulled the out the rock field guide (which had been hidden under a stack of new books) and dropped it on an end table near where I know she likes to sit.  Guess who was reading the rock field guide yesterday?  And guess who was then explaining to her little sister about how ice is a mineral?  I even said something about ice crystals forming somewhere and I swear she said, "*Boom*  Mineral."   
Projects fall off.  They come back again.  For me, the key is not to worry.  About any of it. I pay attention, I poke and prod a wee bit, but I try not to worry.  They're allowed to get lost and meander.  Their paths lead to Oz, too.

Next time I'll talk about supplies and setting up our environment.  If you have any questions about how we do things here, please ask.  I'll try to answer in the comments or add your question to a future post.

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


  1. I agree with your answer to #3, but I did have to be firm in getting my 8yo to *complete* his monster book. Without my constant reminding (and I really did try not to nag, but I DID make it non-negotiable--he was finishing) I'm not sure he would have. But I also figure that's part of what I'm mentoring them on--the ability to get through the part of a project that's maybe feeling repetitive or never-ending, in order to reach the goal you set for yourself. Stick-to-it-ness isn't natural to everybody, and we need to learn that, too. (Are you the one who set up chocolate rewards for yourself during NaNo??) I think there's a difference in putting aside something that isn't working and giving up on something because you think you can't do it, and part of our job is to help kids see the difference AND to learn that they CAN do it. That taste of achieving a self-chosen goal...I'm pretty sure that builds upon itself.

    1. Yes, that was me with the chocolate!!! ;)

      Finishing is definitely a skill some kids need help with (and grown-ups, *ahem* me), but I guess I'm more lenient on this in the beginning, getting started phase, because I like letting them get the feel of what holds their interest and what doesn't. Also, being the kid who was never allowed to quit anything ever...It's a tricky one for me.

      -----"I think there's a difference in putting aside something that isn't working and giving up on something because you think you can't do it, and part of our job is to help kids see the difference AND to learn that they CAN do it."

      Absolutely! If they're just frustrated or afraid, I would definitely help them get through that. I think I was thinking along the lines of just losing interest. My kids and I have a bad case of ... SQUIRREL!

      -----"That taste of achieving a self-chosen goal...I'm pretty sure that builds upon itself."

      Yes, this.

  2. love this so much. :)

    “How do you encourage them to work on their projects? … I really hope someone has a good answer for this one, because I sure don't. Other than this: if it's a true interest-led project, you won't have to.”

    authentic projects *are* self-motivated — but there are also ways that you can tweak your environment and routines to help your child remember what *she* wants to do: keeping ongoing work where she can see it, honoring her work space by putting it close to the heart of the home, having a dedicated project time when you’re available, making a habit of sharing work with each other, keeping track of her questions/plans and reminding her when things lag, and so on.

    awesome information here, michelle — i will share it in the PBH forum!

    1. Thanks, Lori. And I knew you'd have better advice. :)

      I was mostly trying to contrast how things around here are rarely ideal. I didn't communicate that well, I think.

      ----- "[...]making a habit of sharing work with each other,[...]"

      This was huge here. We became each other's cheering squad for a while, and that carried us both a long way.

  3. This is so interesting!!! I'm really glad you covered this topic. I've wanted to do something like this with my kids for awhile but wasn't sure how to implement it or what to even call it. I like the term project based homeschooling!!!

    1. It's really changed how I think of a lot of what we do. It's been wonderful for us. And the great thing is that you can slip it in with what you're already doing without feeling like you have to change everything around. Let me know how it goes if you give it a try!

  4. I love this. Although I'm technically new to the idea of Project-Based Homeschooling, I was homeschooled myself and I can see how my parents used a lot of these principles. If we were interested in something (at least something on their list of approved topics to be interested in *smile*), they made sure we had the resources to pursue it, and they supported the time it took to master.

    With my own kids I have floundered a bit. I think we are finally coming into our own. It helps to see what other families do. Our approaches sound similar. I meander too, and I mull over things for a long time before I'm ready to take action.

    1. It was great to hear that you had similar experiences. It's all about feeding those interests!

      We need t-shirts.
      I meander.
      But I don't mull. I pounce. Lots of pouncing, so it just looks like hopping. :)

  5. Thank you so much, Michelle! Thanks for taking the time to write all this out. That is very helpful.

    My problem is that I like to do things in a linear manner, and my kids are like "Projects? Yes! Let's do it now! NOW NOW NOW!" and I'm all, "we're just talking, I don't have a table for you, or a notebook to document your stuff in, and I haven't done enough research yet..." and they insist that we dive in all disorganized.

    So if being disorganized and meander-y and confused okay, then I'm right on schedule!

    1. Sounds like they want to teach YOU something. ;)
      You definitely don't have to have everything in place before you start. I'd never get anything done that way. Never. We're always in a state of flux.

      But . . . you can insist that you are available to help them with their projects at certain times. They can work on their stuff whenever they want, but mom can't drop everything to do projects with them at random times.

      Meander-y and confused. Oh, yeah. T-shirts.

  6. Michelle, your post was the first one I happened to open this morning on Flipboard, and I was honored to see a link to my page here - thank you! But this morning I got interrupted before I could finish it, so I am back now. That's really nice of you to link to me. Thanks again.

    I think you give great advice. I like how you say, "Projects fall off. They come back again." Yes, I see that happening a lot. My son is just so interested in many things, and then he is mostly interested in just playing, which I know is normal for his age. Then we have chores, shopping, outings, etc., and I feel like I can't get around to "dedicated project time." But I do try to show up whenever he wants to do something productive, and he does usually want to follow through on many short-term projects. The long-term is what comes and goes. For example, we did our "titanic project," and we read a bunch of books, and we made the models, and then that was it. I asked him if he wanted to do more, but there didn't seem to be anything left to do (at least w/out me searching for more titanic stuff, and he wouldn't have cared for that.) Then we were at the library a couple of weeks ago, and he found another book on the Titanic that we hadn't read it, and he wanted to check it out. So we've read a little of it, but he also wants to read the bone book he checked out (They are both high school level books!), and he has all these other things he wants to do.....it's truly hard to feel like we're accomplishing much on one, single project sometimes...unless you look at it as very long term and over-lapping other projects. But he's definitely leading in many ways, and I'm being pulled along! And when I get my ducks in a row I'll ask him again if he wants more Titanic, rockets or whatever else it might be!

    1. Aw, thanks Shelli! Glad you enjoyed it.

      You bring up a great point. So much depends on the ages of our kids and their temperaments. I think (and this is just me personally) that younger kids do need more time to bounce around. That's their time to discover what interests them and how they like to do things.

      -----"The long-term is what comes and goes."
      I think even as an adult I work like this sometimes. I work on a new story for a while, then I take a break. I check out a book on knitting, then I figure out how to sew a monster stuffie . . . we all pop in and out of different projects, and there's not always a finish line.

      I think you're definitely on the right path if you feel like you're being pulled along. :)

  7. I'm so glad I came across your post via Dawn. I've been trying to figure out this whole project based learning since Lori came out with the book. At the time my girls were too young yet. Now they are reaching the perfect age. I like to see how it works with others. Because I feel like I am walking around in deep mud. My oldest who is 4, is expressly interested in things but doesn't want in anyway to work on anything thing in a set time frame. My two year old loves doing projects but is too little to decided for herself yet. And then of course there is me and my public school up bringing. I must get passed that!

    1. My youngest was a very similar 4 year old! She still is that way. I try to roll with it and encourage her whenever she wants to do her project work, otherwise it's a constant battle over routines! Always a work in progress here. :)

      Thanks for visiting and commenting!


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