Archive for ‘Project-based Homeschooling’

September 8, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Birds & Feathers

My six-year-old loves these toy birds, especially the little brown one on top, which he named “Feathers.”

Both of my boys are fascinated by birds, feathers, and they love looking at the iBird app on our iPad. So in a way, this project is for both of them. But, really, it’s my six-year-old’s project. (Note: He just turned six!) He has spent more time looking at that bird app (with me every night before bed), drawing birds, making birds, building nests out of clay, making a feather book, and most of all, playing and coddling his favorite bird toys. It’s been so fun for me to see him develop what is clearly turning out to be a self-driven interest, a “project” of his own, because his older brother, well, he has LOTS of interests. My six-year-old, while he is also interested in most of the things his brother is interested in, and he follows along, and sometimes digs deep into his own work, I am tickled pink to see him develop interests independent of his brother.

The whole family delights in our resident hummingbirds. To read about more adventures we had with real birds this summer, click here.

For a long time, all my six-year-old wanted to do was look at the bird app, and that was okay. But during this past spring and summer, he began making representations of birds and feathers. The other interest of his, which is also an interest his brother doesn’t share, is drawing. So naturally, he began drawing and painting birds and feathers. I admit, I made the suggestion that he draw a bird in his sketchbook, but the six-year-old liked the idea, and over time, he ended up drawing several birds in his sketchbook. He looks at photos of them in the bird app to do this.

He told me he wants this sketchbook to be only drawings of birds. I’m not sure that’ll happen, but it’ll be very neat, if it does.

One day he wanted to make a hummingbird out of paper. As usual, that meant he wanted me to make it, but that’s okay. He directed me as to how to do it, and then he colored it.

I wanted to buy the boys Bird Feathers: A Guide to North American Species for their end-of-the-year present, which I did, and it’s been awesome because we find some interesting feathers in our yard, and this has helped us identify them. But at first, I wasn’t sure my six-year-old would really appreciate the book. I decided to ask him if he would like a bird feather book, but when I asked him, he thought I said, “Do you want to make a bird feather book?” He began jumping up and down and said, “Yes! Yes! Yes! I want to make a feather book!” Ha! Sure enough, a few days later, he sat down to actually do it. He traced a few feathers he found and then colored them. He finished it all in one night. Later, he had me label each page with the name of the bird. This book is such a treasure.

Below are a few other things he’s made regarding feathers and birds. And there’s probably more that I’m missing!

Drawing and painting feathers.

One day he asked me to draw the roadrunner on his library book so that he could paint it.

The next day he wanted me to draw a cardinal so he could paint it.

And then a blue parakeet.

I always encourage him to draw or create things by himself, and since sometimes he does draw and try to create things by himself, I don’t really worry about it when he wants me to do something for him. I think he knows his limits, and when he knows he can’t make something as well as I could, it’s reasonable for him to want help. I think the important thing is that he comes up with the idea by himself, and he directs me. This is what good leaders do, isn’t it? Find the right person for the job and make sure it’s done according to their plan. I feel certain that as he gains better motor skills, he will take over these jobs himself.

But one day my nine-year-old convinced his brother to try to draw something by himself. Of course, little brother has drawn birds by himself in his sketchbook, but on this particular day, he wanted me to draw for him, and I wasn’t available. Big brother inspired little brother to draw some birds in different poses and that made me happy. :)

On the left: My nine-year-old drew his toy cardinal, Red, in different “modes.” He tells me it’s “Red in flight mode. Red in statue mode. Red in relaxed mode. Red in surprise mode.” On the right: My six-year-old was inspired by his brother. These are drawings of his toy bird, named Feathers. “Feathers in squid mode. Feathers in dancing mode. Feathers in stupid mode. Feathers in flying peep mode.” 

He has made two bird posters. One was of his favorite birds, and one was of ducks. (He especially likes ducks.) I printed out photos for him, and he cut them out. I helped him glue the photos on the poster where he wanted them to go, and then he had me write the names of the birds under their pictures. We hung the posters in his room.

His latest work is this wood duck made out of clay. No, he didn’t sculpt it. He insisted that I do the sculpting, but he told me what to do and then he painted it!

That’s the bird project for now. Stay tuned for more.

September 1, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Robotics

Over this past year, my eight-year-old (now nine-year-old!) became increasingly interested in robotics. The first robot he learned about was Jibo because my husband was watching videos about this little gadget that might someday be a standard household item. My husband learned about it through all the tech sites and podcasts he listens to, and he showed it to us because he thought it was cool.

Well, my son had never seen a robot before and suddenly he wanted to know more.

We began to watch YouTube videos about all kinds of robots that have been invented and also those that are still being developed. I found it fascinating too. (Did you know there is a hotel in Japan being run entirely by robots?)

My son was already an avid Lego fan. He has sat for six hours at a stretch putting together what looks like to me a complicated and tedious Lego kit. He has been building toys and other cardboard creations for a very long time, and he does indeed seem to have an “engineer’s mind.” (So unlike his mom and dad!) We wanted to support our son’s interest in robotics, so my husband did some research about robotics kits, and we learned about the Mindstorm EV3 kit and some others. But it was expensive, and we weren’t sure just how interested our son was in robotics yet.

Technically, this was my son’s first robot.

To help gauge our son’s interest, we took him to the 2014 Maker Faire in Decatur, GA last October. We knew he’d get to see some robots up close and maybe play with them too. Indeed, there were lots of robots at the fair, and my son was able to try some out. He had a blast.

While we were at the fair, my husband and I took the opportunity to ask some Georgia Tech students what they recommended for young kids interested in robotics. They mentioned the Lego robotics kits and one other one. Since our son was already familiar with Legos, the Mindstorm kit became a good choice for us. Indeed, many of the robots at the fair were made with Legos!

We also learned about hacker spaces and maker groups while we were at the fair and that there are a couple of these places located near us. This is not something we have tried out yet, but it may be another possibility to try someday.

It was around this time that we discovered the series Making Stuff by Nova and hosted by David Pogue. There are four episodes, and we all enjoyed them, but they enamored my eight-year-old, and he has watched them all multiple times. The episode Making Stuff Wilder is his favorite because it’s about bioengineering. I can see where my son’s love of nature and animals crosses with his love of robotics in this field. The first time we watched it, while they were explaining some robot inspired by nature, my son leaned forward in his seat, pointed at the T.V. and said loudly, “I WANT TO DO THAT!”

Ever since, he has said he wants to be an engineer. He also said once that he doesn’t think he wants to be just an engineer. We have let him know that many bio-engineers spend most of their day inside a building with no windows. It’s something to consider. But engineering is a huge field with many possibilities, and as he develops this and other skills, such as pottery and piano, you never know where his interests will intersect or compliment each other. So we feel it’s our duty to support this interest in whatever way we can for however long it lasts.

We wanted to get him the Mindstorm EV3 for Christmas, but since it was an expensive gift, we asked my in-laws and mother, if they might want to contribute instead of giving him a toy. They did. (Thank you!!!) I think it was certainly a gift that will have a longer shelf life than anything else we could have given him. He has been extremely responsible with the robot, taking care to keep the pieces separate from his other Lego kits, and he was also okay with receiving very little else that holiday.

Though I was worried he might lose interest in it over time, he hasn’t. Over the course of the year, he has built every robot whose instructions came with the software, and he has built a few others developed by Lego fans. He has watched YouTube videos to learn about the programming, and he has experimented with making his own programming for the robots. It’s not something he works on everyday or even every week, but he always goes back to it, and we’ve amassed quite a nice collection of photographs of his work.

My son’s latest robot plays a “Which tire is the ball under?” game with you.

It got to a point when I felt he needed more instruction, and we weren’t finding easy tutorials online anymore. I wanted to get him into a robotics class. Well, I searched in vain for weeks, and I couldn’t find anything closer than Atlanta, which is a bit too far for us to travel for a class. Finally one day my husband sat with me one afternoon and we did all kinds of Google searches. That’s when we found Engineering for Kids of Northeast Georgia. At that time, they didn’t have a robotics class, but we decided their STEM Club would be a good a match for our son, and later I was happy to find out they were doing a robotics summer camp (close to us!). So my son recently attended that, and he was happy to have one of his friends in the camp with him too.

So this is where we are so far with his love of robotics. He just turned nine-years-old, and his interest is still strong and doesn’t seem to be going away. We’ll continue to support it any way we can, and I’ll be sure to let you know how it’s going too.

August 6, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: My five-year-old’s Grocery Store

INK Museum’s pretend grocery store

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to take my five-year-old to the Interactive Neighborhood for Kids, or INK Museum, in Gainesville a few times. It was fun going there with him without his brother (who was attending a class next door). We also had the opportunity to meet a friend of his there a few times too, so that was extra fun.

It’s important for my youngest child to get to do some things without his brother because big brother can certainly influence him. Sometimes this good, but sometimes, it isn’t. For example, when my oldest was this age, he did not care a flip about playing make-believe in INK’s exhibits. Instead, he was more interested in the trains, airplane, musical instruments and building supplies. However, his younger brother liked all that and the opportunity play pretend, although he was very specific about where he wanted to play pretend. Mostly, it was in the grocery store.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. He is a great help to me and his dad at the real grocery store! He wanted to shop twice, and I think he would have been content to stay in the store, if I had not reminded him we had a short time to see the whole museum.

After going to INK a few times and seeing how much he enjoyed the grocery store, I asked him if he’d like to make a grocery store in his room, and he was thrilled about that! So we worked on this for awhile, saving some recyclables and adding to the store whenever we could. He got a little carried away, and eventually I had to tell him he had enough groceries!

We also have a toy cash register, which isn’t in the photos. I had some baskets that I gave to my son in lieu of shopping carts. He also wanted to make some shopping carts, and we worked hard on that one day. We never finished because after trying out different supplies, we couldn’t figure out how to make the wheels work. But we may try again, if my son wants to.

We added more groceries (recyclables) over time. Now those shelves are full!

Big brother mans the pizza parlor in the grocery store. Later we wrote all the pizza specials on that big easel.

We played grocery store a few times, and our friends enjoy playing in it when they came over. Now it’s a little messy and neglected. But I’m sure we’ll clean it up and play again. :)

July 21, 2015

Piano Lessons

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on July 15, 2015.

My friends were all surprised when I told them that my eight-year-old wanted to take piano lessons. I had never talked about music with them before, and my son had never mentioned it when we were on a play date. That’s because music is my husband’s domain. He’s not a musician, and he has never played an instrument, but listening to music – all kinds of music – is one of his favorite pastimes. It’s how he relaxes.

My husband’s playlists on his iPod are well organized while I don’t feel like I have time to fiddle with a MP3 player. Rides in the car with me are mostly music-less. I love music, but listening to my boy’s chatter all day makes me savor any silence I can get. Riding with my husband is fun, though, because he’s got music for every mood.

But my son’s interest in music started much earlier. We have a funny story about how Beethoven’s 9th symphony, or at least, Ode to Joy, became his favorite piece of music. There was about a year or more when my son was four and five when he wanted to listen to this symphony constantly, and we obliged him by listening to it in the car. He had heard it on an episode of Little Einsteins, and despite hearing many pieces of music on that show, he had latched on to that one.

I will always wonder if it had something to do with the fact that when I was pregnant with him, my husband and I attended a free concert at the University of Georgia to hear Beethoven’s 9th. It’s during that concert that I felt the unmistakable movements of my baby inside my womb for the very first time. I’ll never know for sure, but we always tell our son that that’s why he loves Beethoven’s 9th symphony so much.

Also when he was five and six, we attended a church that had a fantastic piano player. My son wanted to sit right up in the first pew in front of the piano and watch that guy play. He played lots of classical music. Our son was so fascinated with the piano that we asked him if he wanted to take piano lessons. At that time, he gave an unequivocal no, so we forgot about it.

Fast forward to a few months ago, and one night, my husband found my son pretending to play piano on our cheap, digital keyboard. My husband, expecting to hear “no” again, asked my son if he’d like to take piano lessons. We were both taken aback when our son said yes.

At first, we said no. We were wondering how we could afford the lessons and buy the proper equipment, but after two or three months more, my husband started to feel guilty about that and said he wanted our son to have the lessons, if he really wanted them. And he did.

So now he’s been taking lessons for a few weeks. Through a local homeschooling group, I found a great teacher whose rates we can afford, and better yet, she lives in nearby Statham. Through some research, my husband discovered that you actually could buy a full digital piano with weighted keys at a reasonable price. They are good for beginners, at least.

Our son seems to enjoy the lessons, and he’s practicing everyday, though we don’t force him. This is his thing, and we’ll be happy for as long as it lasts. He knows, however, that we won’t continue paying for lessons, if he isn’t going to practice.

I am thrilled because music is one subject I knew I couldn’t teach, and I was afraid we would have a gap in the boys’ education because of that. Though if nothing else, my husband gives the boys lessons in music appreciation. He shows them YouTube videos of everything from classical music to hard rock. Now that the eight-year-old is taking piano lessons, they are spending time exploring different kinds of composers and watching symphonies online. Of course, they started off with Beethoven’s 9th.

As I’ve said before, my son is not me, and I’m so glad about that. When I was young, I wanted to play the flute, but did I ever practice? No. Somehow this kid inherited the genes of discipline, and I can’t wait to see where this takes him.

July 13, 2015

The Summer Rundown

An Update On Our Homeschool, Projects, and Life

Okay, so I know that life speeds up the older we get, but gah, homeschooling can really make it move! We spend everyday exploring, doing chores, learning, doing chores, working toward our goals, doing chores…you get the picture. I might add that I’m the one doing most of the chores around here. For the boys, you can switch “doing chores” to “playing.” ;)

But life is good. I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t look at my family and my home and think how lucky I am. Sure, we’re always striving for more, but I’m pretty happy with what we’ve got.

Summer fun: We always enjoy going to Snake Day at the nature center in early June.

One of things I don’t have, unfortunately, is time to blog as much as I’d like. I would love to make a separate post for each of my boy’s endeavors and homeschooling lessons, going in depth about what we do. If you read my blog regularly, you’ll know I try to do that when I can. But this summer, it’s just not happening. At least not yet. So I’m going to give you a little rundown about what we’ve been up to, and if I can get to a more detailed post later, I will. I’m writing this list as a way to help me do my record-keeping and know what to focus my writing on these next few weeks, but you definitely don’t have to wait until I find time to write about these things, if you want to know more. Just write me a comment or send me an e-mail. I love corresponding with fellow homeschoolers and offering support and encouragement.

We went blueberry and strawberry picking this summer too!


Our summer schedule – I decided to keep homeschooling during the summer, but we’re not working on all the subjects. Our priority has been math. I am planning to write a post about summer homeschooling, so I’ll go into more detail then.

Summer camps – I love summer camps, and I think they offer homeschooling kids a great way to socialize and focus on some of their main interests. I’ll try to write about the summer camps my kids attended this year at the end of the summer.

Art – I’ve kept up with Art Fridays (most weeks), including a fun field trip to the Georgia Museum of Art. I’m going to try to write about these when I can. Since my focus this summer has been math, Amy Hood’s Art Together issue focusing on art and math was perfect for us, and one day the eight-year-old and I learned about Fibonacci’s sequence, and I helped him build a structure using the sequence as inspiration. That was fun!

Civil War Badge – Both my boys earned a Civil War badge through the Georgia State Parks and Historic Places this summer! It was a lot of fun to learn a little bit about the war before we actually delve into formal history lessons.

Our history timeline – At the end of spring, I finally checked off a long-time goal and that was to make a big history timeline that now hangs in our upstairs hallway. Actually, I made two timelines. This will be something we add to over many years as we discover new facts about history.

Our end of the year review and celebration – I’m planning to do this again at the end of July, and I’m working on our annual slideshow of everything we did during the year. If you want to read about how I handle the end of the year, you can see ­­­­Homeschooling: End of the Year Review and Progress Report.

There’s always more time to go with my kid’s ideas in the summer.


As you know, I make my boys’ projects a priority. Some new interests have been creeping up, and it’s been fun to see them develop. As I get the time, I’ll write more about these:

Birds – I have been seeing the theme of birds pop up in my boys’ interests lately, especially for my five-year-old. He is carrying around some beloved bird toys, and he loves collecting feathers, and every night, instead of reading a book, we’re looking at birds in our bird app, looking at their photos, where they live, and listening to the sounds they make. I definitely want to write about this more when I can, but I have already written about how the real birds gave us a show this summer, and wow, how special is that?! And you can see the photographs I took of a cardinal family rearing their young on my photography blog.

Piano – My eight-year-old started piano lessons this summer! We are so excited about this, and I already wrote a column about that and will be posting it soon.

Robotics – My eight-year-old has been interested in robotics for a while, and he’s learned about them in a few different ways. But this isn’t something he works on everyday. I’m sure I’ll be writing more about the steps he’s taken with this in an upcoming post.

More building projects – I have noticed my son’s general desire to create things with cardboard and craft materials has slowed down, but he did finish another Star Wars ship recently, and he’s got a list of ideas he keeps saying he’ll work on. We’ll see…

The project calendar – In order to help me make sure that I’m giving my boys the time they need to work on their own projects, I developed a project calendar. I’ll explain how I’m doing that at some point.

After learning about food webs on the show Wild Kratts, my boys decided to make one of their own. All I did was print off the photos they wanted from the web.

My five-year-old decided he wanted to make one all by himself without his brother’s help.


You may have already read that home/school/life has a new website, and we’re giving away the summer issue for free to celebrate. If you want to take advantage of that, read this. I’m happy to see the magazine growing, and it’s getting a lot of good feedback, but we still need more subscribers. It’s a lot of work, and the brunt of that work is on editor-in-chief, Amy Sharony, but I feel hopeful the magazine will get to a place where it can afford to hire more writers and bloggers and general help!

I, too, am working on some other projects that I hope will eventually get me to my goal of earning a decent part-time salary working from home. I’m going to be pursuing more freelance opportunities, but gosh, it’s so hard to get everything done while taking care of my boys, homeschooling them, and taking care of the house too. (Obviously, if anyone has any leads for me, I would welcome them.)

Good thing I love what I do! I have worked out a system to get things done, and though everything gets done slowly, it gets done. Hmmm…that might be a good topic for a column or blog post someday too.

Funny thing, even though it’s only mid-July, public school starts here on August 4th, and since my boys are involved in some activities that correspond with the traditional school year, I’m starting to feel like summer is going to be winding down soon. And I feel like it’s barely just begun! Well, August is birthday month for us, though. That’ll slow down the homeschooling at least, and it’ll give me more to write about. Like I said, time is going fast, and my boys are growing fast too!

I hope that whatever you are up to these summer months, you are healthy, safe and having fun. If you have some time, I’d love to hear about what you’re doing in the comments section.

May 9, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Carnivorous Plants Update

Those of you who have been reading my blog for awhile may remember when my son was interested in carnivorous plants. It was a long project. We read about them, found them at botanical gardens (we have yet to see one in the wild), talked to experts about them, and my son wanted to grow them. During this time, we found him a venus flytrap and pitcher plant that he could grow himself, but he always wanted a sundew too, which he says is his favorite. These are not so easy to come by locally. Finally last fall, at the suggestion of a local carnivorous plant enthusiast, I ordered my son a sundew from The man who suggested said this was a reputable vendor, and he also wrote down the scientific name for a couple of sundew that should grow well here in Georgia’s climate.

When I ordered it, however, it was late fall, and the plants go dormant for winter. So what we received didn’t look like much. We put it in the pot outside with the other carnivorous plants, covered it with mesh (to keep the squirrels out of the pot), and I kept my fingers crossed that the sundew would survive the winter. It did! And as you can see, it’s growing very well.

This is either a drosera filiformis or drosera tracyii. I’m afraid I didn’t note exactly which I ordered…these were the two species the local carnivorous plant enthusiast recommended to us.

There are over 500 species of sundew in the world. Many of them are tiny like this one, but some are quite large. They have sticky secretions on their long, thin leaves, and when a bug lands on them, they stick to the sundew. Then the sundew’s leaves curl up and around the insect in order to digest its meal.

My son already had this venus flytrap, and we’re happy to see it’s coming back after the long winter too.

I love the pitcher plants. These will get much bigger and wider as the summer wears on.

Finally, my son said, my collection is complete!

April 20, 2015

Find me elsewhere

I have written two installments in a new series on the home / school / life magazine. This series, At Home with the Editors, is a look into Amy’s and my homeschool. Though we feel strongly that every family has to figure out what works best for them, we also thought it might be a good idea to let our readers know how we do it too.

So, check out Shelli’s Homeschool for a snapshot of how I educate my boys and all the curriculum resources we have used thus far, and then read Shelli’s Project-Based Homeschool for a good summary of how project-based homeschooling has worked in our home and the valuable lessons I have learned from it so far. To read all the posts in this series (because Amy is writing some pretty helpful stuff too), click here.

March 19, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Timeline of My Son’s Star Wars Project

I wrote about Star Wars and some of my son’s projects for my column, but here I will explain how his interest in Star Wars has evolved. It’s a good example of project-based homeschooling, and if you have a child who has an interest but doesn’t seem to do much with it, this may be of interest to you. Because Star Wars has been a long-term interest for my eight-year-old, but it didn’t produce anything that might look like a real project until recently. In fact, I doubt my son considers that he has a “Star Wars project” going on right now — I am the one who has noticed his interest and tied all these “dabblings” into a neat bundle.

It was well over a year ago that my husband decided it was time that we watch the original Star Wars trilogy together. I was a little hesitant because my boys were young, and the movies are violent (though no bloodshed). Anyway, I was no match for my husband’s enthusiasm, so we went ahead and watched them. My boys enjoyed them. The eight-year-old especially liked them (he was seven at the time) because he could understand them better.

It was great fun watching them again, talking about the storyline, and showing my son yet another example of how stories have to have conflict in order to make them interesting. I think Star Wars has great life lessons, and the black and white good vs. evil in this sci-fi adventure is probably easier for young children to understand because there are no shades of gray! Teaching storytelling, the elements of a story, and what makes something an “action-adventure” gives this an educational twist that Mama likes. But I digress…

Since we own the DVD set, it also comes with the documentary of how the movies were made. My eight-year-old (then seven) enjoyed watching that too, especially the parts about how they did the special effects. He loved seeing the small models of the ships! He said he thought he could make something like that.

(Read my column about how watching the difficulties George Lucas had with making the film has influenced my son and helped his perfectionist tendencies!)

It was shortly after watching the movies and documentary that my son made a cardboard model of Darth Vadar’s ship. Although he told me the center part would be a cube shape because making a sphere out of cardboard was too hard.

Then, nothing else happened with his interest in Star Wars for at least a year. (Well, except studying the Star Wars website, which I’ll explain below.) Star Wars is part of our culture, so it would come up sometimes, and my son was glad he understood the allusions to the story. We may have checked out one or two Star Wars books from the library. I’m not sure. But he remained interested in Star Wars. He even got some Lego kits and small Star Wars toys for gifts, which he enjoyed.

Sometime this past year my husband started watching Clone Wars with the boys on Netflix. At first it was a once-in-awhile thing, but now we are all watching it regularly. It’s been pretty fun too, and it continues to fuel my son’s interest in the whole Star Wars saga.

At some point before we started watching Clone Wars, though, my son wanted to look up something about Star Wars online. This is when we discovered the official Star Wars website. It’s a great site with lots of pictures, and with my son’s growing reading skills, he has been able to navigate it pretty easily. He has perused it so much that he noticed when they made big changes to the website’s structure too.

Over the course of months, my son studied this site. He would always ask me if he could look something up on it, and then he might spend time perusing it. He never spent an excessive amount of time on it at one time, so I let him spend as much time as he wanted on it. No, I didn’t consider this part of his screen time. I considered it time well spent as he was learning how to do research on his own, and he was immersing himself in his topic of choice — something that is essential to learning and that shouldn’t be rushed.

I kept wondering if he would ever build a model of something, draw something or do anything else that would look more like a project, but I never said anything. I knew he would have to do this on his own, if he wanted to. I knew if Stars Wars was a deep interest of his, he would keep going with it. If not, then nothing else would happen. Either of those was okay with me. But I know this kid is a builder, so I kept expecting a building project to emerge.

Later, I realized that all last fall he was in a pottery class, and I bet that fulfilled his need to build. After the class ended, and during the holidays, he became interested in constructing paper dinosaurs, and at the end of that project, his Star Wars interest manifested. He constructed his own paper Jabba the Hut. (Read more about that in Project-based Homeschooling: Paper Dinosaurs + 1.) When he showed that to me, I secretly jumped for joy.

Over the holidays, at my son’s request, we watched the Star Wars trilogy again. It had been a good year since we had last watched it, and he had been asking to watch them again for a while. He specifically wanted to watch the documentary about the making of Stars Wars again. This time, my son paid the most attention to the part in the documentary about how they constructed the puppet for Jabba the Hut, and how puppeteers maneuvered the huge puppet.

It wasn’t long after this that my son came up with his idea to make a Jabba the Hut puppet. He worked on this slowly at different times, which is a little different from his usual spend-all-day-until-it’s-done obsessive manner. He still hasn’t finished it. He’s stuck wondering how to complete the back of it. He says he wants to finish it, and I have offered my help and also to forgo our morning lessons to give him more time, but he always turns me down. I think he’s frustrated by it, but I think he’ll figure it out eventually. Or maybe it won’t. That’s okay too because this is his work and not required work.

Jabba the Hut puppet. He attached the arms, eyes, and tongue to sticks so that they would be moveable parts. He still wants to put a back on it and add green dots.

He also made a clay Jabba the Hut. He told me it was so much easier than the puppet, and I was like, “Well, yeah!”

Clay Jabba.

His latest creation is the Republic Attack Gunship. He’s not finished with it either. Again, he’s having a bit of trouble figuring out how to make some parts out of cardboard, and he’s resisting my input. That’s okay. It’s just my job to remind him of his work and ask if he’d like to work on it again.

Republic Attack Gunship –  unfinished.

I added a little to his interest in Star Wars by buying my boys the Brainquest workbooks for their formal homeschool lessons. I liked what these covered, and I thought if it makes learning a little more fun for my boys, great. I hoped, however, that I wouldn’t ruin my son’s interest in Star Wars by turning it into work. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened. My eight-year-old actually seems to enjoy his reading practice in these books because it tells information about the characters and the plot lines in episodes I, II and III (which he hasn’t seen yet). Whenever a character appears in the Kindergarten level books that my five-year-old is using, and they don’t know the name of the character, my eight-year-old offers to look it up for his brother. So the books have actually seemed to encourage more interest instead of taking away, and I’m glad.

In addition, we are currently reading a fun spin-off series by Jeffrey Brown. The first one is titled Jedi Academy. These books are geared toward middle schoolers, but my eight-year-old loves them. He got the first one as a gift, and we’re buying the others as they come out.

I have been very hands-off this project, and I think it’s so cool that my son has had these ideas and implemented them all on his own. I help only when he asks. It definitely shows that my son is growing up because I remember a time I was “silently feeding” his interests, or giving more suggestions. I have a feeling his interest in Star Wars will continue, though it may be a kind of project where he dabbles in it here and there. I will continue to be a good PBH Mama by recording his work and finding all the connections!

March 17, 2015

Star Wars

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal in February 2015.

Science fiction fans have been all abuzz about the new Star Wars movies, the first of which will be released this coming December. Now that my eight-year-old has been well informed about Star Wars, he’s pretty excited too. We all are. My husband and I have always loved Star Wars, and my five-year-old likes it too, although he’s not quite as crazy about it as his older brother.

Long before we had children, I gave my husband the DVD set of the original Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV, V and VI). He couldn’t wait to watch them with our boys, and though I was reluctant to have them watch so young, I couldn’t hold back the force (pun intended) of an excited science-fiction geek like my husband.

We haven’t watched the first three episodes with the boys – not real excited about that since they weren’t very good, but we have been watching some of Clone Wars, which is supposed to fill us in on the story before episode three. These animated, made-for-television shows are entertaining, and the animation is beautiful. Adults and kids can enjoy it, but they can be violent, so I’d used discretion for young children.

The first time we watched the original trilogy, my boys loved it, and my eldest boy even enjoyed watching the documentary (included in the DVD set) about the making of the movie. He didn’t care so much about the history of George Lucas and how he got into the movie-making business, but his eyes lit up when it got to the part about how they did the special effects. When he saw the small models of the ships that they filmed against a blue screen for the space battle scenes, he said, “Maybe I could make something like that.” Not long after, he made a simple model of Darth Vader’s ship out of recycled cereal boxes.

I, however, loved the story of George Lucas and all the difficulties he had filming Star Wars. Watching the documentary, he struck me as a kind of perfectionist, but obviously that paid off. I didn’t know that Lucas suffered from exhaustion and had to be hospitalized at one point. I didn’t know that all the actors in the movie wondered what in the heck they were filming. Or the problems they had with the robots not working, terrible weather conditions, going over budget and running out of time to film. Everyone was prepared for the movie to be a bust.

The actors were not privy to any of the special effects that would be added later in post-production. For example, Lucas did not find the person who would do the voice for Darth Vadar until late in the movie-making process, so the actors did not hear the voice of James Earl Jones or the sinister breath of Darth Vadar. Instead, they heard the voice of the actor who was in the costume – he had a Scottish accent.

On the first days of filming The Empire Strikes Back, horrible storms and avalanches made filming on location in Norway almost impossible. The director, Irvin Kershner, did not want to get behind schedule, so he improvised. Mark Hammill had the pleasure of going out into the snow right outside the hotel, and they filmed from a doorway in the hotel.

I like it when we come across stories like this because it’s a good lesson for my son to learn. He can get frustrated when he’s trying to make something, and it’s not turning out the way he envisioned it. Sometimes he wants to give up, but I encourage him to take a break and come back to it later or think of something else he might try.

When I’m lucky enough to be watching a documentary with my son about George Lucas and all the problems he had making Star Wars, I say, “See? He really had a hard time, didn’t he? But he had to keep working on it because a lot of people were counting on him. He didn’t give up.” I can see that the difficulty of making Stars Wars and similar stories like this have influenced my son, and now he says things like “you just have to keep trying” and “you have to be patient.”

My son spent so much time last fall studying the Star Wars online encyclopedia that I wondered if that would lead to any other Star Wars type project. Finally this winter, he decided to make some models of Jabba the Hut. He’s created paper Jabbas, a clay Jabba, and he’s been slowly working on a moveable Jabba puppet, made out of several materials: part of a plastic bottle, wire, pipe cleaner, popsicle sticks, fabric and more. It’s almost finished, and I can’t wait to see the final version.

I’m not sure how much longer my son is going to be crazy about Star Wars, but I have a feeling this will last a long time, especially considering how my husband and I continue to enjoy Star Wars well into adulthood. And when the new movies come out, we are going to keep our fingers crossed that they are going to be awesome.

Stay tuned…In my next post I’m going to break down exactly how my son’s interest in Star Wars has played out as an example of project-based homeschooling.

February 26, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Paper Dinosaurs + 1

If you read my mid-year update, you might remember how I wondered why my eight-year-old didn’t build as much as he usually does last fall. Now I think that is because he was in a pottery class and otherwise occupied with things that satisfied his need to build. Once that class ended, and the holidays came, his building instinct came back. And it started with paper dinosaurs.

I am notorious for buying lots of cheap books at library book sales. One of my boys saw this book and wanted me to buy it, but it stayed un-opened on our shelf for a long time. This doesn’t make me want to “declutter.” I am a hoarder of books and educational materials because I know that any day, my boys might find something interesting that they didn’t find interesting the day before. I will only get rid of this kind of “clutter” once they are way too old for the items. Doing this has yielded some good surprises, such as these paper dinosaurs.

Over the holidays, my eight-year-old found the book, and he thought he might make one of the paper dinosaurs. I showed him how to do the first one, which was the easiest one in the book. The dinosaurs near the back of the book were NOT easy to make, and I didn’t have the patience for those. But my little builder did. For days, he obsessed about making these paper dinosaurs, and now we have a whole box full of them sitting on our floor with no place to put them. (This is clutter I would love dispense with, but since it still means a lot to my son, I don’t make him throw his creations away. A small price to pay for fostering creativity.)

I am always amazed to see how patient my son is when he’s trying to figure out how to make something. (He’s the same way with intricate Lego kits.) He will spend all day, and when I say all day, I mean all his free time during the day trying to finish whatever it is he puts his mind to. For days, he worked on these dinosaurs, and when he finally figured out how to make them without much trouble, and he amassed a good supply of them, he stopped making them.

+1 Project Element

But before he did that, he came up with one non-dinosaur paper creature of his own design. He simply tweaked one of the dinosaur designs to make a paper Jabba the Hut. If you read my mid-year report, you might also remember how I said his greatest interest last fall was Star Wars, though it didn’t lead to building any models. I had hoped it would, and this paper Jabba was his first representation of his interest in Star Wars since the fall. (And he made several paper Jabbas in all.) I was really excited to see it since I had wondered if his interest in Star Wars would go deeper.

I didn’t do a very good job of getting the paper Jabbas’ tails in the photos, but they each have one.

Since then, he’s done more Star Wars projects, and I’ll fill you in on that in my next column, which is all about his Star Wars project.


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