Building the Titanic: Project-based Homeschooling

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, January 9, 2013. 

One night my family was watching a documentary about a sunken ship when my son asked me about another “big, fancy ship that sunk.” I had mentioned the Titanic to him a few months ago because 2012 was the 100th anniversary of that tragedy.  He wasn’t interested in it then, but he seemed interested in it now.

“Do you want to learn about the Titanic?” I asked. He nodded vigorously. “Okay,” I said, “We’ll make it a project.”

What that was going to look like, I wasn’t sure, but at the time I was reading Lori Pickert’s new book Project-based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners, and I wanted to follow the advice she gave in that book.

We found a documentary on Netflix, looked at photos online, and we took a trip to the library.  We both learned a lot about the Titanic.

On another day shortly after this my son was working with modeling clay, and when he wasn’t sure what to make, I suggested that he sculpt a Titanic.  He loved the idea, so he looked at some pictures of the ship and went right to work.  He needed minimal help from me, and it looked great until….

He decided he wanted to try to add the wires that drape over the top of the Titanic to his clay ship.  I knew that would be hard to do with clay, but I took Pickert’s advice and didn’t discourage him.  Instead (only when he was stumped as to how to do it), I suggested he try to make some poles out of clay, and then we could try to pierce the tops of the poles with a needle. After the clay dried, we could try to thread some black string through those holes.

Unfortunately, the dried clay crumbled when we were trying to thread the string the next day, and my son had a complete meltdown.  Oh great, I thought, this is going swell.  No matter what I said or did, he was inconsolable.  I had no idea what to do.

I tried to tell him that whenever someone is making or creating something, they might have problems and have to figure out another way to do it.  He didn’t buy it, but he finally calmed down.

That night, by shear coincidence, we watched another documentary in which some researchers were trying to figure out if the ancient Egyptians had traveled by sea.  Could the boats in their drawings handle the rough seas?  They attempted to build a replica and try it out.  Fortunately for me, the first time they put it in the water, it sank.

“See?!” I said to my son. After some problem solving and trying new things, the researchers got their boat to work.  A light bulb turned on in my son’s head.  Then my husband suggested that my son try to make a Titanic out of cardboard.  My son lit up.  He thought that paper towel tubes would be perfect for the smoke stacks.

The next day, we spent five hours making a Titanic with empty frozen pizza boxes, popsicle sticks, paper towel tubes and a hot glue gun.

Yes, I had to do a lot of the work.  But because of Pickert’s book, I never made a suggestion until my son was at a total loss and looked to me for an answer.  He had his own ideas, and I listened to each one.  When possible, I asked him questions instead of telling him flatly that his idea wouldn’t work.

Frankly, without him voicing his thoughts first, I doubt I would have been able to come up with the basic construction anyway.  I am not an engineer!  By listening to him and taking my time, I figured out what to do when he got stumped. And surprisingly, he did do quite a bit of the design and construction.

This was his work, and I was his servant for the day. When he finally glued the paper towel tubes on the top for the smoke stacks, he had a boat he could be proud of, and I was proud of him.

He did a lot of thinking that day, problem solving, and he began to understand that setbacks are inevitable. I’m also proud of myself.

Let’s face it: it’s not easy letting children take the lead.  It wasn’t easy trying to understand this process when my son was crying and inconsolable.  But I understand now that he has to learn these lessons, and there’s no better way than letting him learn with a project that’s his own. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have cared about doing it well, and he may have given up completely.

the final product


Thank you for reading my blog! If you liked this post, I hope you’ll come back because in the next few weeks I’ll be posting (it’s posted!) an interview with Lori Pickert about project-based homeschooling specifically for younger children. Also see my page Project-based Homeschooling to find more posts about our adventures using this technique to homeschool.

30 thoughts on “Building the Titanic: Project-based Homeschooling

  1. what a fantastic story — thank you so much for sharing your project! 🙂

    there’s so much good stuff here — the major setback, your using the documentary to drive home that *all* makers run into problems and have to try again. the revisiting the idea with a different material. not just learning about the titanic, but learning about the different materials and then practicing resilience and fortitude. 🙂


  2. I’m looking forward to reading that book… it’s been in my basket on Amazon for a while now. I thought it interesting that this was potsed near this on my facebook feed. If kids get used to failure early on, I think, they can deal with it so much easier as adults and brush themselves off and move on. Such an amazing life skill that many of the learn-it-for-the test-and-then-forget-it-after kids won’t have.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Peggy, you will love the book. And thank you for the link. I’ll check it out. I agree with you about learning how to fail. I read somewhere that the most successful people have actually failed more times than they have succeeded! They just keep going, and that’s what makes the difference!


  3. THANK YOU SO MUCH for sharing this! I can relate… BIG TIME!! Things rarely go smoothly around here and the fact that the space in the pictures isn’t so neat is so helpful for me.Our house is rarely neat and tidy, and the more busy we are the less tidy it is. I have changed around our house to accommodate projects because of this book. It was inspiring and so was this post! Thanks again… 🙂


    1. Thank you for your comment, Sheri! LOL Yes, I’m not shy to show how messy my house usually is. I really don’t know how neat freaks keep up their habits once they have kids! And having the space I’ve created for these activities is a HUGE help. I’m glad I did it, and I’m very appreciative that my husband was on board with it. (He did most of the work!) Good luck to you on your future projects!


  4. This was a great read. It is so hard to step back and let a failure, let alone a meltdown, happen. It helps to be reminded about how it is a learning experience for children/


    1. Thank you for your comment, Catherine. Yes, it’s VERY HARD while a meltdown is happening to think that you’re actually on the right path. I’m sure I won’t feel any different if it happens again, but I can only hope that with more experience, my son will learn that meltdowns aren’t necessary.


  5. That last photo is so good–his proud smile. And I’d bet he was far more proud of the success after the initial failure than he would have been if everything was smooth sailing. What a great story about how you supported his work.


    1. Thank you so much, Lise. I had thought about making a better picture of the boat, but then I thought I’d never get that same expression, which was right after we finished! I think I AM more proud of this work because of all the difficulty we first had too! 😉 Thanks!


  6. What amazing timing! My son spent some time today making a clay model of the Titanic (after it sunk), and he was thrilled when he saw me checking out your blog. He recognized what it was right away.


Part of the reason I keep a blog is because being a stay-at-home mom can be lonely! So please reach out with a message, if you have a question or would like to chat. I usually write back within 24 hours, but please be patient.

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