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.

creativity, homeschool, learning styles, mess, project based homeschooling, project space

When creativity makes me grumpy

Sometimes, I find myself wishing that once, just once, he would use something the way it was intended.

That tangle of plastic pieces up there? It’s a marble run.  A quiet, self-occupying marble run. Only it isn’t a marble run to him- it is a marching band. It is the polar opposite of quiet. The pieces are all over the house, turned into instruments worthy of inclusion in a Dr. Seuss book. He outfits his sisters with their own euphoniums and off they go, doot-dee-dooting the Superman theme at full volume until it rings off the hallway walls.

Or this? It only looks like a drum. It’s really a helmet. It used to be a space helmet, but now it’s a knight’s helm. Last week, when Nora wanted to play the drum (you know, with a drumstick, to make music), we couldn’t find the drum head. Eventually, someone discovered it in the box of costumes and dress up stuff.


Because it’s not a drum head anymore. It’s a shield, of course…covered in foil and made wearable by criss-crossed rubber bands. The drumstick is a “pixie sword,” an overturned pink plastic teapot lashed to its top with the tiebacks from his bedroom curtains.

There’s never any toilet paper in the bathroom any more. It has been turned into bandages for wounded armies of interplanetary soldiers engaged in a battle between good and evil. When the fate of the entire universe is at stake, how can I begrudge someone a roll or two of toilet paper?

In my heart, I know that Exceptionally Large Quantities of Wasted Tape and Entire Rolls of Aluminum Foil are a small price to pay for a mind that sees the world in such a wide-open way.

To SuperSam, life is only endless possibilities. Every object in this house is a potential idea waiting to be realized.

To me, sometimes those possibilities just look like a big mess.

It’s a struggle for me. I like things to be neat. I’m not nearly as neurotic about it as I used to be, but messes make me grouchy. Clutter makes me feel like the walls are pressing in on me. When every inch of every surface in the kitchen is covered with works in progress and piles of paper, I feel like I can’t breathe deeply.

My son is so different from me.

This is SuperSam’s workspace (photographed to share with his permission).

On his worktable, currently: seashell collection, assortment of bouncy balls, microscope and scattered slides, cardboard box that was briefly an airport and is awaiting its next role, dinosaur fossil excavation in progress, copy of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” highlighted alternately in blue and green crayon. Nearby, but outside the margin of the picture: styrofoam painted yellow to be a yellow submarine, characters and props for toilet paper tube staging of Orpheus and Eurydice (complete with boat made from an egg carton for crossing the River Styx), plethora of recycled materials (tubes, boxes, styrofoam, egg cartons, plastic containers- some of which contain dead bugs that are being “preserved” for later study).

The main reason he has his own workspace (in a room that’s not his sleeping space) is because he needs to be able to leave projects unfinished and come back to them later. His timetable isn’t like mine- he’s not ready to clean things up just because it’s time to make dinner in the kitchen. I realized that to make this project-based homeschooling arrangement work for us, he was going to need a space that could house his ongoing work. There are usually at least three projects going at once. Sometimes he works on them simultaneously. Other times, he takes breaks from one to pick up something else for a while and then returns to the original idea when he’s ready.

We gave up our mudroom so he could have this space. It has to be in a separate room with a closeable door precisely because of how he keeps it. Mess and clutter don’t bother him. He thrives on having everything out in the open where he can seize it in a moment. He needs to be able to instantly react when a bolt of creativity shoots through him.

I just need him to be able to find his own shoes…and I need to be able to close that door and pretend that the visual evidence of his brain-in-perpetual-motion isn’t there.

All the beautifully organized, Pinterest-worthy toy storage and art table ideas in the world can’t save us, I fear. We are two different kinds of minds. I take joy in organization and planning and using little galvanized steel buckets with labels as storage containers. He takes joy in living and thinking and working full-throttle…and for him, that means putting things away is a low priority. 

The thing is, I also take joy in seeing how he works. He amazes me almost every day. Even when I find him maddening, I’m in awe of his brain and of the ideas that come out of it. It’s an amazing brain, and watching him use it with such delight and freedom is a privilege.

I doubt I’ll ever see the mess as a privilege…but I’m working on being less irritable about it.

catapult, homeschool, Olympics, project based homeschooling, projects

Olympic Catapult

We are seriously inspired by the Olympics around here.

Since SuperSam is also going through a fascination with all things Viking and Middle Ages, he has been wanting to build a catapult. I saw this great post last week with a number of different designs. After looking through them, we decided together that this one would be the simplest for our first attempt.

SuperSam gathered the materials, read the instructions, and put the pieces together with some help. I did the rubber banding- it seemed a little beyond his fine motor capability that day, and he was impatient to get to the “shooting.”

He loaded up the catapult with a variety of plastic barnyard animals, dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. He shot them across the kitchen for several minutes before deciding to go Olympic with it.

“We need trials!” he proclaimed. “We need to measure who goes the furthest and give the winner a medal. They get two attempts, but we throw out the low score and keep the furthest one.” Walking in frenetic circles around the kitchen, he stopped suddenly and said, “I need the tape measure.”

We duct-taped the tape measure from my sewing box to the floor and lined up the catapult. SuperSam wanted to make a chart to track the results, so I helped by writing the names of the four competitors in his notebook. After the first few trials, he took over writing down the results in the appropriate column.

Once everyone had two turns, we examined the results. SuperSam circled the highest score for each participant. He struggled slightly with figuring out which numbers were bigger- he was fine as long as he only compared two numbers to each other, but trying to decide how to work in all four numbers was confusing him. I had to strongly resist the urge to tell him how to figure it out.

Finally, he decided to just place each animal on the measuring tape at the point of its furthest distance traveled. “That way, I can just see who went the furthest,” he said.

He laid the animals out on the tape measure and was able to easily tell who had flown the furthest.

What a great idea that was! I’m not sure my “help” would have given him any greater understanding of the distances he was trying to compare. I’m glad I kept my mouth shut.

In true Olympic fashion, he made “medals” out of colored twist ties (one of those things I always save without any real idea of what we’ll do with them). Once the animals were wearing their medals, he arranged them on a podium and asked me to sing the national anthem. (All three medalists happened to be from the United States.)

Finally, he made a pair of glasses out of some twist ties, put them on my cactus plant and had “Bob Cactus” interview the winner. I wish I had video of this part, but sometimes being present in the moment is more important than recording it. The iguana had a really squeaky voice and kept saying, “Well, I really just decided to try my best.”

All in all, this was a really simple activity with lots of really practical, hands-on math built right in. Having plans to follow for the catapult design made it possible to do the whole thing in one morning. Although it might be a better engineering experience for SuperSam to design his own catapult, I think having the plans this time helped him understand the mechanics behind the catapult better than pure experimentation would have. I think he’s actually more likely to experiment with making his own design now that he’s built one using someone else’s plan.

My favorite part was definitely the Bob Cactus interview…but I’m guessing everyone’s catapult experience has a different kind of ending.

Let us know if you try making one!

homeschool, making, preschool science, project based homeschooling, projects

The Balloon Car Failure

In project-based learning, as in life, sometimes things don’t go as expected.

And sometimes, things just fall apart.
This is the story of one of those times.
SuperSam recently received a set of children’s encyclopedia-type books with answers to all kinds of interesting questions. One of the books had an activity outline for making a balloon car, and he really wanted to try it. He asked for several days in a row if we could do it. Finally, one morning when The Sisters took an extra nap, he got his wish.
In the book, the instructions seemed simple. Make a rectangle from construction paper. Tape sections of a plastic drinking straw under the card. Cut circle wheels from cardboard. Put a toothpick through the center of each wheel. Put the toothpick “axles” into the open ends of the drinking straw to attach wheels to the car. Tape a balloon on the back of the car. Inflate the balloon, let it go, and watch the car roll away on its wheels.
It didn’t quite go like that.
We modified the materials up front. Even SuperSam knew that construction paper wasn’t stiff enough to support two drinking straws, four toothpicks and four circles of cardboard. (Maybe that should have been our first clue that something was awry with these instructions.)
We substituted an index card.  
The wheels all fell off. There was too much space inside the straw to hold the toothpicks straight. 
Car, nicely decorated, on wheels that fell off. Repeatedly.
SuperSam covered the ends of the straws with masking tape and tried again. His fix held until we attached the balloon.
Wheels fell off again when the balloon was inflated.
Persistent boy with car that was constantly falling apart.
We made a series of videos to record our process for posterity. Watched one after the other, they give an idea of the kind of persistence my son has…and they remind me of the utter frustration of trying a project that just seemed doomed.
By my usual definition of success, this was a total bust. We never even got it to do anything but spin in a circle! I was annoyed both at our lack of success and at the stupid book, which led me to believe this would be an easy activity with predictable results. Did the book people ever even try it? Did they just take carefully arranged photos that made it look like it worked? Or did they have special drinking straws and construction paper and balloons that we in the non-book world cannot access? 
To me, this was a complete balloon car fail.
SuperSam didn’t see it that way. He wanted to try it over and over and over again. “Don’t give up, Mama!” was his refrain. He got to mess around with the design of the car quite a bit. He got to spend time one-on-one with me. He got to be on video, which he loves. And he got to crack up laughing every time the wheels fell off or the car spun out.
That’s better than getting frustrated.
I should probably keep hanging out with him and hope he rubs off on me.
If we believe that learning happens in the process of making/doing/watching/trying things, then we have to acknowledge these sorts of projects-gone-wrong as times when great learning could be taking place. What could be better for learning than having to repeat something, trial after trial, continually reevaluating and making changes as we go? This is science, engineering, and Real Life all rolled into one terribly-thought-out activity. As frustrating as it was, I know SuperSam learned some things from tinkering with the car. At the very least, he learned to keep on trying in the face of adversity.
I just wish (still) that we had gotten one successful result from all our work. I like things to work out in the end.
Ever had a project go totally wrong with your kids? How did you handle it? 
homeschool, project based homeschooling

Project-based homeschooling: My conversion moment

If project-based homeschooling were salvation, this would be the story of the moment I “got saved.”

I went to school to be a teacher. I’ve spent my career working with other people’s children and supporting and mentoring teachers and educators who work with children. I never intended to homeschool my own children. I know all the arguments against it. I’ve made many of them myself.

Then came SuperSam, whose unique blend of traits makes him a totally amazing person, an extremely challenging person, and a person who is just not made for Kindergarten at our local public school this fall.

His fifth birthday falls just a few days before the cutoff date for Kindergarten, anyway. A typical little boy in many ways, he is wiggly, squirmy, loud, and impulsive. He would have a hard time sitting still, walking quietly in line, and raising his hand. He’s also shorter than a lot of his peers, and he still struggles to pronounce his “L,” “R” and “W” sounds (making him seem younger than he is). He still needs a nap every afternoon, partly because his epilepsy medicine makes him drowsy. If he were someone else’s kid, I would definitely advise them to wait a year before starting him in school. For a little boy with a late birthday, it’s almost a no-brainer…not many kids in his position are ever hurt by having an extra year at home to mature a little bit.

The complication is that his brain, like a little sponge, is ravenously curious and is consuming information at an incredible rate. He asks endless spirals of questions that keep him up at night. He wakes up in the morning (at 5:30, usually!) already brainstorming what he’s going to research. He is reading on a fifth grade level. He gets personally offended if he thinks he is being asked (even indirectly) to review or repeat content that he feels he has mastered…yet he can spend hours poring over the same book from the library, memorizing facts about the Horsehead Nebula or Corythosaurus. He hates to be interrupted when he’s in the middle of a project that excites him, but trying to get him to focus long enough to put on his shoes sometimes takes twenty minutes of nagging (especially if he’s reading or thinking about something else). He does weird, wild, and occasionally unsafe things that I can’t always anticipate because he wants “to see what would happen.”

He’s an incredible kid…and yet he might be a Kindergarten teacher’s worst nightmare in a classroom full of other kids his age.

After considering our options, we decided to take advantage of this “free” year and try homeschooling. I looked over the Virginia Standards of Learning for Kindergarten and found that SuperSam already knows most of what he would learn in Kindergarten (academically, anyway). I’ve always loved the idea of emergent curriculum learning and following children’s interests, so when I found Lori Pickert’s book, Project Based Homeschooling, I was intrigued.

(Here’s a handy Amazon affiliate link, in case you need that book!)

I’m not buying any curriculum for this year. Mentally, I have committed to this path- homeschool Sam for Kindergarten, follow his questions and interests (and work in other things if we need to), and reevaluate next year. It was the best decision in our situation. It was what we needed to do.

Tonight, though, I had a conversion experience. Tonight, I went beyond “mentally committed because this seems like the best choice.” Tonight, I became totally heart-committed and gut-committed to this idea of letting his interests spark and catch fire and burn through acres of material…because tonight, I saw the pure joy in his face at being able to soak up as much information as he could hold with the promise that he would be able to keep coming back for more the next day, the one after that, the one after that, as long as he wanted.

Based on this one day, here’s what project-based homeschooling could look like at our house (from SuperSam’s perspective):

Go to the doctor for a checkup. Upon leaving, tell the receptionist that you’d really prefer a dinosaur sticker to the cartoon character she is offering you. Receive a handful of dinosaur stickers from her (because she is charmed by your assertive request and thinks it is cute that you said you’d “pwee-fuh a dinosaw stickuw, especiawwy a pawwasawallofuss if you have one”). Immediately flip through the stack of stickers and discover one that you don’t know (called Herrerasaurus). Clap your hands in delight and drop all the stickers on the floor. Put Herrerasaurus on your shirt and struggle with the pronunciation by reading it upside down all the way home. (There are just so many “R’s” in that word.)

Upon arriving home, demand to use the iPad to look up Herrerasaurus. Work through naptime and into dinnertime reading about this creature. Pull out the globe to find out where South America (specifically Argentina) is so you can draw a map of it. Draw a map of Argentina in your notebook and put a picture of Herrerasaurus next to it…then add two other dinosaur species that you know came from Argentina. Move all your stuff from the living room floor to the laundry room because your little sisters are “distracting” you. Jot down as many facts about the species as you can find in the margins of the picture. Pull your dad away from his dinner to show him your maps and facts. Begin making plans to make a big map of Argentina with all its dinosaurs on it, “way bigger” than your notebook…then decide you will make a similar map of China, then Africa, then the WHOLE WORLD with dinosaurs all over it occupying the modern-day countries where their fossils have been found. Reluctantly agree to go to bed (late), then stay up way past bedtime reading a dinosaur reference book by the glow of a tiny nightlight at the head of your bed. Come running out of your room screaming and waving the book when you find an entry on Herrerasaurus hidden in the middle of its pages. As you are being tucked back in, tell your awestruck mother that your brain “is going to explode with happiness about Herrerasaurus because it is just…so…exciting.”

It was passionate. It was instinctive. It was his idea, his momentum, his knowledge, his research. And yet now, without adult prompting or coaching, he has learned where Argentina is, how big Herrerasaurus was, in what period it lived, what it ate, what its bones looked like, and that it had a small role in the movie Jurassic Park. (A little pop culture knowledge is almost always useful, right?)

I know it might not be like this all the time, but it can be like this at least some of the time. I can do this…I can make this possible for him by creating an environment in which he has what he needs to do this for himself. For the first time, I feel certain that this is the right decision for him and for our family right now. He’s more than capable- I’ve always known that.

Now I can picture what it looks like.