Wednesday, February 27, 2013

project-based homeschooling

Once the idea of homeschooling got into our minds, we did a lot of reflecting our own learning experiences. I have a three-year Bachelor of Arts in English that took me five years. My husband studied at university for three years before dropping out and eventually, many years later, getting a college diploma. But for both of us, the vast majority of our learning in our professional fields came after our formal education. I really believe I've learned more and had it stick better, in the 12 years since I finished school than I did in the 18 years of school I did.

I have also mostly taught myself photography, and I include seeking mentors as a very important part of the idea of self-teaching. When I think about what, when and how I've learned, I realize that learning only really happens when the subject is meaningful and relevant to me in that moment.

Formal education is often centred around learning information and skills in a particular sequence, like you can't run until you can walk. But I'm not convinced that is the case very often. There were times when I felt like I should learn flash, and I made a few attempts here and there. But nothing stuck until I was unhappy with the available light. That's when I was motivated enough to get past that awful, destabilizing feeling of total suckage and cluelessness that I think is normal when you're doing something you're doing something for the first time.

It just makes sense to us that it could be the same for children, that being allowed to pursue their own interests makes for better learning than a whole bunch of mandatory studies.

I can't remember when I first encountered Project-Based Homeschooling, but I quickly became a big fan. The idea behind project-based homeschooling is that an attentive caregiver helps the kid follow his own interests deeper than he might on his own. But it's a delicate walk, because as soon as you make suggestions, the kid loses that opportunity to figure out on their own the next steps they want to take. So the trick is to mostly observe, document and ask questions. Do I need to point out that this kind of thing is really not my forte? But if you can sit back, the kid will, in the process of following their own interests, develop their skills and learn how to learn much more effectively than they ever could with mandatory, assigned work from someone else.

Truth be told, I haven't actually finished reading the book yet. Nor have I really implemented many of her ideas. But I'm working on it. We developed a Fun Zone, as Eldest quickly named it, which has a small kids' table and chairs, some art supplies and toys and books. It also has a loveseat for cuddles while reading. But it's still not quite what I want it to be. I want more art materials visible and more inspiration. Eldest needs a workspace that Youngest can't reach and destroy his stuff (or choke on wee lego bits), so he tends to build his lego and other stuff behind a closed door.

(While I'm on the topic, does anyone have any tips for dealing with a toddler who keeps climbing onto the dining table? It doesn't seem to matter how many times we tell him no and remove him, he gets right back up with the most devilish grin ever. The kid is persistent.)

Anyways, even with the Fun Zone, we've been struggling a bit. Eldest has been crabby and seemed restless. I was frustrated with how little progress we've made working towards project-based homeschooling. We needed to do something.

Eldest has been nursing an obsession with horses for the last couple of months. He's started taking riding lessons in exchange for me mucking out stalls on Sundays (yay for bartering! My first real barter), so he gets the double learning bonus of helping out as well on Sundays. Every time we go to the library he only wants books on horses and if I get books on other topics, we never get around to reading them. So the topic to support Eldest developing into project work was clear. But how? My own mind was stuck on writing and drawing activities, perhaps categorizing the breeds he's been learning about or something. I knew if I suggested that it would go over like a lead balloon, in addition to not really being in the spirit of project-based homeschooling.

So I decided to ask Eldest. Yesterday morning, I told him that when I'm learning new stuff, I like to make notes in my notebook to help cement my learning. And is there anything he might like to do to develop his learning about horses? He immediately mentioned that he needs a barn for his toy horses. He has a Playmobil vet clinic and truck and horse trailer he got for his birthday, but he really needs a barn. I asked if maybe he could make one, because I know he loves constructing things with cardboard. So we went to the liquor store to get more boxes and he started to work as soon as we got home. He's been working on it off and on ever since. It has a hay loft, stalls and an indoor riding arena. I think for the moment he's finished, and of course it doesn't match up with my own vision of what a cardboard horse barn could be, but I'm pretty happy with the way that all went down.

The author of Project-Based Homeschooling, Lori Pickert, also hosts a blog and a forum to support parents in their efforts towards project-based homeschooling. She also recently started a series of blog posts to help grown-ups pursue their own projects. I recommend it all. And despite the title, it's not just for homeschoolers. I think every parent could benefit from her ideas and insight.

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