Category Archives: project-based learning

Project Shelf

Inspired by Kate at An Everyday Story, I cleaned off an existing shelf in the living room in order to display some project creations.

I already talked about G’s map of Egypt and N’s cartouche and cat statuette, in the claywork post. I’m happy to report N’s cat stayed together just fine; we had to glue one paw back on. I haven’t talked about G’s mummy or the pyramid, which she created after the mummy, because that’s where mummies go. No matter the mummy and pyramid aren’t to scale; not the point. She cut out the base and triangles (using guides), let them dry, and then glued them together. It’s all a bit fragile, but it’s a pyramid. N also has plans to make a pyramid, but I needed to get more clay (which I did, over the weekend), and now I’ve commandeered the art table for a day or two to sew a Halloween costume. (We are challenged by needing to share project work space.)

The mummy was created early on in our project work, beginning in early September, and despite all good intentions I haven’t shared about it yet. When I told the kids my job was to make sure they had the materials necessary for their work, G jumped right on that. One morning she told me she had “a mummy in her head” and she would need paper, drinking straws, and paper towels. I provided these, and she asked for other items as the need arose.

Working on her mummy

She drew a sad face on her mummy. “He’s sad because he’s dead.”

(It’s hard to photograph white against white, and I used my phone for some of these.) When her mummy was complete, which took time as she worked out how she wanted the various pieces (including the straws; they’re in there too) to go together, she used the paper towel to represent linen wrappings.

During a later session, she painted and colored the squares that she then attached to both sides of the paper towel wrapping–you can see that in the first picture. This represents the paintings on the coffins.

Is this an artistically accurate modeling of an Egyptian mummy? Not at all. Does it demonstrate that this three-year-old understands what she’s been studying? Absolutely. I am blown away (again!) by the way in which she has translated her learning into her own project representation.

N’s planned pyramid will be too big to fit on the project shelf. We’ll have to come up with some other way to display it. My kids are used to seeing their creations displayed around our house and on our walls. I have many, many of their artworks (and my own) framed and hanging. They didn’t react in any particular way to seeing their project creations on the shelf, although my son did point out to his brother that I’d cleaned a shelf off just for them. I think they all consider the house their own gallery, as I have a high tolerance for random stuff taped to the walls–they do their own displaying, too. I think that’s a good thing.

There is a lot I’m not doing–dedicated display or bulletin boards for project materials in individual work spaces (which we don’t have) would be great. I’m not so good about scheduling in blocks of project time on multiple days per week. But I’m doing what I can, and as is often the case, it turns out that that is enough until I can do more.

{PBH} Identifying Interests

My daughter was very direct in saying she wanted to learn about mummies (and I do have more to show you on that project), but I’d observed her interest in maps and, in fact, jotted that down as a possible project topic before she informed me she’d be studying mummies. As you saw, her map-making interest found its way into her mummy project (her 3-dimensional map of Egypt in this post). I think–but am not sure–that we may be winding down on Egypt here. Meanwhile, my daughter has been drawing maps.

Map by G, age 3

Her maps are of her pretend park; she has been playing a “park game” with our blue rug as a pond and the play tent as her camp site.

Map by G, age 3

(I can’t help it–I adore the trees.) I think this interest in map-making is quite common at this age; at least, all my children have drawn make-believe maps. Because this interest of hers has been present for a while now, I am doing my own research at the moment, seeking ways to encourage and support it. To start, I borrowed Mapmaking With Children by David Sobel from the local university library. I’ve requested a couple of children’s books relating to maps from our local library, to simply have around and share. I’ve only just begun reading the Sobel book, but it’s fascinating. I’ll keep you posted!

So how and why am I focusing on her interest in maps? After all, she has told me she wants to learn about space, dinosaurs, fish, the sun…really, she has jumped on this “project” idea and wants to take advantage of it! And she has not told me she wants to learn about maps. However, maps is what she does. She draws them, she looks at them, she asks about them. It’s where she is quietly focused–her attention is already there, and that’s why I feel it’s a deeper interest that can support deeper investigation. I am watching what she does, rather than just listening to what she says. When presented with the whole wide world to learn about, she’s listing everything in sight, and no wonder. It’s all so interesting. But I want to brush away the surface and see where she places her focus. That’s the best I can do in explaining how to identify an interest that will support a deeper project.

{PBL} Claywork in the Egypt Project

I hope I can do this morning’s project time justice in this post. Way back when at the start of this project, my eight-year-old, who internalized a different meaning of “project” from school, decided he’d make a pyramid. I worried he’d jumped to this, that he was approaching this backwards, and we talked about it some, but I also figured I’d let this ride. We picked out some air dry clay and he worked with it a bit to get a feel for it. We talked about how he might want to make a model of a pyramid to make sure the different pieces fit together. (Ok, I talked. A little.) We continued to read about Egypt and the other topics he’d mentioned besides pyramids–King Tut, gods and goddesses–and we visited the MFA, which sparked more interests.

Earlier this week, I hung up the hieroglyphs poster I purchased in the museum gift shop and left out the hieroglyph stencil on the art table. My son was excited to come across this and immediately drew his name in his project notebook and surrounded it with an oval to make a cartouche. This morning he decided to use the air-dry clay to do the same thing.

Using the stencil in clay.

Using the stencil in clay.

Here is his full name, before he cut out the oval:

hieroglyphics in clay

Knowing his interest in the gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt, I made sure to point out the statuettes when we came across them in the museum. I wondered if he’d want to try to make one out of clay? I hadn’t taken pictures of any of the statuettes, but we do have several books on Egyptian mythology out from the library, and he looked through those for pictures. He decided he wanted to try to make a cat statuette.

Cat statuette in clay, drying.

Cat statuette in clay, drying.

Although he has played around with this clay before–just exploring, to see what it does–this is the first time he’s tried to make something like this, with different parts. He began by trying to carve out from a chunk of it, then switched to making pieces separately and joining them. I showed him how to scratch the surface of the clay at the join and moisten it, but I’m not sure how well this will hold together. I probably would have worked more of it in a piece, but we’ll see how it goes as it dries. I made sure to tell him: we have plenty of clay. If this first attempt doesn’t end up the way you’d hoped, you can try again, using different methods. That’s how you’ll learn how to get the clay to do what you want.

While all this was going on, my daughter was working with Model Magic, which is what she’d picked out when we went shopping for clay-type stuff. She’s been cutting out pyramid pieces for her mummy (which I haven’t even posted about yet!), but they weren’t dry yet–not that I think Model Magic gets really dry, not like the clay, but it was definitely still not-dry. So she began, rather without much notice from me, to work on…something. I figured she was just, you know, playing with the Model Magic. Occasionally she’d ask my help in cutting a chunk off or she’d ask for a certain tool. I was playing with a water-soluble graphite stick in my notebook and puttering around the studio area, not really paying attention. And this is what she ended up with:

G's map of Lower Egypt in Model Magic.

G’s map of Lower Egypt in Model Magic.

She made a map of Lower Egypt out of Model Magic. Now, you probably can’t see it, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is she sees it. She pointed out the Nile River, and a boat on a hill, ready to sail. She made a couple of small mummies and put them near a statue of a dead person who is not a mummy, probably influenced by a statue we sketched at the MFA. She worked on this for at least an hour. I’ve already noted her interest in maps and mapping and had considered it as a possible project area before she informed me she’d be studying mummies. Lately she’s been asking me to point out Egypt on our wall map of the world, and she’s seen the map of Ancient Egypt plenty of times in books. Now I am thinking I need to find a larger map of Ancient Egypt that I can hang up for her.

In some ways, when these convergences happen, when the kids are following their own interests and clearly doing such deep work, I’m tempted to think that project-based homeschooling is almost cheating on my part. It seems so easy! Then I remind myself that I am doing quite a bit of work documenting, paying attention, providing materials, connecting dots, reminding the kids what they wanted to work on (more so with my son, who is still deschooling; my daughter tells me all the time what she wants to learn next and what she needs from me, step on it, Mama!). I write myself lists so I don’t forget what I need to do. And I still feel like I’m not keeping up.

But a morning like this? So, so sweet.

Field Trip: MFA Boston

This post is not really about what we did at the MFA Boston. It’s more about how we ended up there. You see, in project-based learning, the child is leading the way. The adult is mentoring. My job is to help the kids get where they want to go, not by drawing the map and marking the trail but by helping them draw their own map. I’m not picking a theme and setting up activities. They’re picking the theme, and they are figuring out what they want to do to support their learning. Right now my kids’ projects are overlapping. My eight-year-old hasn’t quite settled on one topic right now; he is researching various topics with Ancient Egypt that interest him. I’m keeping track of what he mentions and reminding him of what he’s said he wants to do or learn. My daughter has been diving into mummies, mummification, and Ancient Egypt’s ideas of the afterlife and the importance of mummification to these ideas. So in this regard, field trips are simpler because they’re bound, at this point, to apply to both projects.

However, it’s not my job to plan the field trips. No!! I simply make sure the kids know that I am able and willing to take them places to support their research. My son got onto the computer a couple of weeks ago to research real-life Ancient Egypt resources.

(All photos in the post are small cell phone photos, because that’s how I take project documentation photos, so I can upload them into Evernote. Right now, this is my method because it is convenient and easy and thus more liable to get done.)

After quite a bit of research, he had a list (which I wrote down for him) of places he’d like to go to support his study. This list isn’t constrained by distance or budget; everything is allowed.

It might be hard to read; it says: King Tut’s treasure, Egypt, Oriental Institute-Chicago, Yale Museum-New Haven, Met Museum of Art-New York (Sphinx of Hatsheput), RISD Museum, MFA Boston. I told him that three of these destinations were reasonable day trips for us: New Haven, Boston, and RISD (which is in Providence). He’s been to RISD many times before, actually; it’s the closest. We brought the Egyptian collections at all three museums on the computer, and he compared them to decide where he wanted to visit first.

He originally thought he’d want to go to New Haven, because he’s never been to that city, but after viewing collections online, he decided to visit the MFA in Boston first. (Link to their Egyptian collection page.) The next decision was how to get there–we could drive or take the commuter train, which is newly present near to us. It only runs all the way down here on weekdays, though, so that factored in.

He definitely wanted to take the train (as did his sister), so the next step was to figure out how to read a train schedule, which I showed him. Which stop did we need to get off at in Boston? I suggested that the MFA’s site might have that information for us. Together, we navigated the site to find out all he needed to know; he needed less and less of my guidance, and eventually he knew where we had to go, what time the trains came, whether we could sketch in the museum (yes), with what materials (just pencils), if we could bring in a backpack (no), a stroller (yes, but we didn’t), and if there was a place to leave our lunch bag while we toured the museum (yep). Together, we talked about which days of the week were possibilities given our other commitments, and he decided upon a day. Finally, he emailed his dad at work to see whether he could take the day off and come with us and/or be available to meet his brother’s school bus if his brother decided he’d rather go to school than come with us.

Eventually, it was decided the whole family would go. My daughter was elated about the train ride.

The MFA has an entire room of mummies–my daughter was quite pleased. My son, who has a strong interest in rocks (so much so that geology was a possible project topic, too) was thrilled to see alabaster in person. I suspect this will open up a further area of study and his interests might converge to provide that focus that’s been missing. He’s also interested in the gods and goddesses, though, and brought a list of names with him to the museum. We saw many statuettes of gods and goddesses, and we’ve talked about using our air-dry clay to try to make some.

Because he’s mentioned hieroglyphs, I purchased a poster of hieroglyphs and a hieroglyph stencil in the gift shop (along with all the postcards of Egyptian pieces they had–only four, alas). Tonight he mentioned making a cartouche with the clay. And we came across something in the museum that we hadn’t in our books–false doors, which allowed the ka to pass through. This will surely lead to further research.

In other words, our trip to view the Egyptian galleries at the MFA Boston was not the culminating event. It is part of the process of the kids’ research, and we came home with more interests to pursue, more leads to follow. And most importantly, this field trip wasn’t something presented to them, already planned, already decided. They both had a hand in planning it (my son more than my daughter, but she was involved as well). They have ownership of this learning.

I have so much more to share about their projects, but I’m not always able to blog by the end of the day. But I’ll do my best, because how else to get across how amazing this type of learning is to witness?

{PBL} This is Serious Play

Last week, I received a strong signal that we are on the right track with project-based learning. My kids transformed the living room into an Egyptian tomb, using their imaginations and materials at hand, and then spent a goodly amount of time using it as a set and spark for dramatic play. I’m used to finding elaborate set-ups in the common areas of the house (such as this). And this isn’t the first time the kids have incorporated what they’re learning into such a set-up.

For a long time, my middle child was fascinated with Mt. Everest, and to some extent, he still is. (I don’t think a strong interest like that will ever really go away.) The Top of the World became his guidebook as he planned his own trip to climb Mt. Everest. He would gather his tools, making them (with preschool-sized Legos; he was that young) if necessary. He’d pack the tools in a bag, explaining to me each tool and its purpose, and he’d set up base camp in the middle of the living room, making sure to visit the monkey temple first. In thinking about this post, I realized that this interest in Mt. Everest could be considered a project, and I could have done more to extend and deepen it. But instead of beating myself up over that, I’m choosing to acknowledge the things I instinctively did right: I didn’t take it over. I didn’t seize upon this interest to impose an adult-led “teaching moment.” I didn’t search the Internets over to find a child-size play set of mountain climbing tools–which would have taken away all of his joy in searching the house for equivalents and building them when necessary out of what was at hand. It’s important, as we try to embrace a new way of thinking and learning, to acknowledge what we are doing and have done right.

So, back to the Egyptian tomb. My daughter is a mummy here.

representation of Egyptian tomb

They’ve created a tomb wall, and the play silks and blankets represent the different wrappings and coffins. All this was explained to me. The box in the back with a handle, which is the kids’ treasure chest, is representing (obviously!) treasure. Later they added toys and books to use in the afterlife, just as the ancient Egyptians buried themselves with items to use in their afterlife.

books + toys for afterlife

The stuffed cat to the left in the photo is representing a cat mummy. (Cat Mummies is one of our library finds, and we’d just read it.) They told me they tried to cover our real cat with a play silk to represent a mummy, but he didn’t cooperate. (Which is strange, because all he does is sleep anyway.) Eventually, my daughter reported that her ka had found her again–her ka, she told me, recognized her by the clothes she was wearing–and she was able to play with her afterlife books and toys.

I can’t think of a more powerful expression of deep understanding–as well as the desire to deeply understand–than incorporating learning into play such as this. Creating a world and then acting within it, distilling what has been learned and processing it through play–it is amazing to witness, and powerful for me, too, to recognize it for what it was: serious play, child-led, and an authentic demonstration of deep interest and learning.

Beginnings: Project-Based Learning

In her book, Lori says that preschool age is the ideal time to introduce project-based learning. This might seem counterintuitive–aren’t older kids more capable of more extensive work?–but so far, the experience in my house is falling right in line with this advice. My daughter, who is almost four (!), has taken right to the idea of learning and expressing. My son, at eight, is struggling a bit more, but I chalk this up as much to the way in which his school used these same terms to mean very different things as I do to his age.

I have to admit right up front that my grasp of project-based learning is still–not shaky, but not firm, either. Our environment could be better organized. My documentation could be better. But we’re beginning where we are, and even with small steps, big things are happening. You just need to know where to look.

We started with a trip to the library.

We’re beginning history at the beginning, and my son mentioned several aspects of Egyptian history he’d like to learn about. (We’ve since added to this stack through interlibrary loan.) He also, though, has a strong interest in geology and thought that might be a possible project topic, too. I wrote down everything he mentioned so I could remind him about them later.

My daughter wants to learn about mummies. Now that she understands the general plan, she has a huge list of things she wants to learn about, but the mummies seems to be a deep interest, tied in with an overall interest in death and dying and what happens to people when they die. Not too long ago, she made the connection between “dead” and “never coming back” and melted down completely about not wanting to die, ever. It was heartwrenching and one of those unexpected epiphanies that occurred as we drove past a cemetery–nothing planned, with no precipitating event. I suspect the interest in mummies may be tied into this mulling over about death that has been going on in her mind.

Once we had the books, we read. My son read to himself, and I read out loud to both of them. He decided to focus in on pyramids, although I reminded him of his other initial interests. He does not see “project” as the entire process–learning, documenting, and sharing. He connects the term “project” with a thing, something tangible that has been constructed: a model, a poster, a diorama. I’d recognized this over the summer and had intended to call our projects “investigations,” but the word project slipped through anyway, and he is, at the moment, a bit hung up on the doing. His former school purportedly has a project-based curriculum, but we are using many of the same words in completely different ways. I explained to him: “I am not going to tell you your topic, what you have to learn about it, and how you have to share that information (which is how “projects” seemed to be handled in his classroom last year). You get to choose the topic, you get to learn what you want, and you share it how you want. My job is to make sure you have the resources you need, help you figure out how to find out what you want to know, and get any materials for you.”

So it comes back around to what Lori was saying–to my daughter, who has spent her entire life soaking things up like a sponge (that is what babies and toddlers and preschoolers do), it’s entirely natural to explore a new subject in exactly the same way. My son needs to relearn to trust his natural curiosity. I could tell we were making progress when I told him that he wasn’t going to have a set amount of time, like in school, to finish a project. He could take as long as he needed to learn what he wanted to know.

“So if it takes me five months, that’s okay? Five months on the same thing?”

“If that’s what you need, that’s what we’ll do,” I told him.

In an upcoming post–because I realized this post would be super long if I included it all here!–I’ll share more photos of how our reading transformed our living room and how my daughter distilled some of what she’s learning into her first representation.