homeschool, learning styles, project based homeschooling

Vikings before Sunrise: Differences in tempo and project-based homeschooling

“I want to learn about Erik the Red. And build a life-size Viking ship out of cardboard boxes and put a dragon head on the front. And craft weapons out of cardboard and cover the shiny parts with foil so they look real. And be Viking invaders with my sisters and make a movie of ourselves doing that. Let’s do THAT.”

This conversation began SuperSam’s second semester of kindergarten in our homeschool.

I thought it would be helpful to ask him about his goals for the rest of this year.
It was a good idea.
Otherwise, I would not have had any idea that he wanted to study Vikings.

I think it all started with a book about the Middle Ages we gave him for Christmas. He loves reading it during quiet rest time, curled up under his loft bed as if in a little cave. He loves for George to read him sections of it before bed, making silly sound effects for the sword battles and jousting matches.

The book has some information about Vikings…just enough to make him really curious about them.

Sam checked out some books from our local library and read through them, renewing them several times, but then his interests shifted to other things. He read fiction for a while and dabbled in the Olympics.

Then, he saw a book about Vikings on our trip to the Green Valley Book Fair yesterday. He read it all the way home. This morning, before the sun was all the way up, he was in my room with plans to build a Viking longship for his Playmobil guys.

When he is ready to start something, he is already halfway done.

I like to plan, to make lists, to sketch, to write drafts.
He likes to try things NOW and see what happens. He didn’t even want to wait for breakfast.
I know I’m no good to him before breakfast, especially not before coffee, so I asked him to gather materials. He waved the perfect piece of cardboard in my face, already clutched in his hand…a long, flexible strip from a dish box that I had saved in case he needed it.

He was beyond ready to build.

I cut some lengths of duct tape to his specifications and went to get dressed.

He interrupted me three times with new ideas, design changes, and requests for more tape. He decided to use a toilet paper tube as the “throat” for his dragon head on the ship’s bow “so the people can be eaten by the dragon and go in through his mouth and fall into the ship.”

Playmobil Guy disappears into the dragon’s throat.

I was amazed by how far his skills had come since he built the Roman aqueducts from similar materials last year. Having gained experience with construction and tape and cardboard, he already knew how things would fit together best, and he really needed very little help to construct the ship to match his vision. I just cut tape for him. Once, he asked me to brace the bow with my hand while he taped it into place. The ship was coming together beautifully, and I was so impressed.

This is the beauty of project-based learning. By working with things and manipulating them himself, by making and learning from his own mistakes, Sam has figured out what works for him. How much better is that than if I had told him, “That’s not going to work; do it this way instead”? If the goal of education is to help people learn to think and to make them independent (and hopefully passionate about what they are learning), this method seems like a no-brainer to me. Sometimes, it’s hard to keep my mouth shut when I can see that something isn’t going to work the way he wants it to…but because I kept my mouth shut all those other times, today he didn’t even need me to say anything. He hardly needed me at all!

He ran off to the bathroom to do some flotation tests with scrap cardboard, having decided he wanted to sail the boat in the bathtub by pointing a fan at it. A couple of minutes passed. He came running out and asked to listen to “Viking music.”

The only thing I could think of was Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. He is already familiar with this music and excitedly declared it would be the perfect soundtrack for his Viking movie. And just like that, he abandoned the ship.

The dead Viking hero, waiting to be picked up by the Valkyrie on a baby’s rocking horse. (Sometimes you have to work with what you have on hand.)

He corralled his sisters, insisted I find a video of an orchestra performing the piece, and began explaining the girls’ roles as Valkyries. He built horses out of kitchen chairs and stools, brought out blankets and costumes, and started acting out the Valkyries’ descent to bring the “dead heroes” back to Odin’s castle and the halls of Valhalla.

A cute little girl snuggling a hippo? No, a Valkyrie fetching the dead Norse heroes from the battlefield.

Apparently, it is all in the book he got yesterday.

At some point, discontent with the Berlin Philharmonic, he asked me how to spell Valkyries so he could google it himself. Pulling up a video of Wagner’s full Ring Cycle, he parked himself in front of it for the next hour and read the English subtitles aloud, directing the girls at how to play the parts. (The link is to the beginning of Act 3 of the Metropolitan Opera performance with James Levine- it’s worth watching the first few minutes to see the Valkyries slide down onto the stage and sing together – all 8 of them!)

Sam was distressed that we didn’t have enough actors for all the parts, so he pressed some large stuffed animals into service.

A Valkyrie wraps up the bones of a dead Viking warrior sock monkey.

The speed of it all almost made me dizzy.

By lunch time, he was planning a movie shoot and storyboarding the scenes on an easel. He didn’t want to stop to eat or take a nap, but I was exhausted just from watching him.

What I’m striving to remember is that our differences in pace are just that- differences. He has a plan for his work and a preferred working speed at which he’d like to execute that plan. My need for coffee and my hesitations and questions about drafts and sketches aren’t helpful to him when his idea is already burning a hole in his brain. He needs to try it. NOW. Really, ten minutes ago would have probably suited him better.

One of the big advantages of doing school at home is that he can work at his own pace. He doesn’t have to sit and wait until “it’s time” for everything. His internal clock has him up before the sun, and he does some of his best work in that time before everyone else is up and moving around.

I think eventually (as he continues to need less help with tasks and has a better understanding of the adults’ need for sleep in the predawn hours), this won’t be an obstacle for us as a homeschooling family. Right now, I sometimes feel like throwing something at him when I hear him rattling the doorknob first thing in the morning. It means he’s about to burst into the room with a fully formed idea and start asking me to cut tape and get out dowel rods and plug in the hot glue gun.

It’s amazing to watch him work, even if I can’t quite understand the need for such a frantic pace. I can completely understand the frustration of not being allowed to work when you’re ready just because someone else isn’t ready.

I don’t want to be the one in the way of his process, so I’m doing what I can to facilitate it (starting by giving him access to as many materials as possible in his own space).

As I finished eating lunch and prepared to clean up and get the kids ready for nap, Sam (long finished with his food) was back in his workspace, tinkering with the ship again and humming Ride of the Valkyries. Nora was asking to get down and had stacked her dishes neatly on the side of her tray. And Lucy was still eating, very slowly working her way through her rice cake, deliberately dipping each bite into her applesauce. She grinned at me, her face completely smeared with peanut butter, and said, “I’m not nearly done yet.”

It was a good reminder that as our family and our homeschool grows, we will have more people with different learning styles and different tempos to accommodate.

Good thing I’m up for a challenge.


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