Book Review: Project-based Homeschooling by Lori Pickert

PBH book coverNote: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on February 27, 2013.

How many children realize that education is for them, so they can do whatever they want to do in life…?  ~ Lori Pickert, author of Project-based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-directed Learners.

Friends of mine know that I’m a fan of Lori Pickert’s book Project-based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners.  I had begun following her blog before her book came out, and it peaked my interest in this style of homeschooling that is based on the Emilia Reggio Approach, an educational philosophy for early-childhood that began in Italy shortly after World War II.  Now there are Reggio-inspired schools around the world.

I don’t like that Pickert titled her book with the word “homeschooling.” To me, it’s a manual for every parent who wants to become a better mentor for his or her child.  Though homeschoolers have the luxury of time, any parent can use the strategies in this book, especially since the work you would do with your child would have no time restraints.

If you want to understand how you can support your child’s interests and foster independent thinking and entrepreneurship, then you need to read this book.

Broadening our perspective about how our children should learn is a good idea anyway. According to Cathy Davidson, author and professor at Duke University, “65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.”

I got that quote from an interview with Davidson on Mindshift, an excellent education blog, and one of her suggestions to parents is to have students embark on meaningful community projects. “Dreaming big, taking risks, and scaling back if and when you have to are fantastic skills. These skills are hardly ever taught in the school room….” she writes.

This sounds very much like the kind of learning Pickert writes about, though projects could be big or small. They could be shared within your family or outside of it. Whatever the size, they are going to give students a chance to direct their own education.

Adults and children learn best when they are studying subjects of their choosing, and with a good mentor, they’ll take their learning to a higher level and find ways of sharing it with other people. After all, teaching what you know to others is the final stage of learning.

What Pickert has done with her book is explain in an easy-to-read and practical manner what parents can do at home to ensure that children will take charge of their own education and gain essential skills. If that sounds far-fetched, I suggest you read the book.

Project-based learning (PBL) is for any parent who wants to be involved in their children’s education. What I found inspiring in the book is the way she insists parents must live the lives that they want their children to aspire to. After all, to be a mentor, you must be doing the work yourself.

One way to teach your children how to fulfill their goals is to show them how you work toward your goals. Your children will learn from your example. Your goals don’t have to be lofty – Everyone has work, hobbies or other interests that they can share with their children, and sharing your disappointments are just as important as sharing your victories.

In PBL, children chose their projects and make long-term deep inquiries into their chosen subjects.  Unlike traditional school where students have time restraints, PBL students can take the time they need to dig deep.  They could take months or years to complete a project. It may branch off into other projects.  Letting them make mistakes and learn from them is a key component in PBL.

As mentors, parents will be writing down their questions, reminding them of what they wanted to know, documenting their work, and most importantly, scheduling dedicated project time. You will ask them what materials they need to do their work, and you’ll make suggestions when they get stuck.

What you don’t do is take over the project or push your agenda on the child. That’s not easy, but Pickert gives practical advice on how to do it. I love how she includes lists of “things you might do” which includes materials you might have on hand. (Environment is considered the “third teacher” in the Reggio Approach.) She even suggests things to say to your children when you’re trying to get out of the rut of doing things for them.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten from Pickert is that parents need to pay attention (vs. giving empty praise) to what they want their children to do more of. By writing down their questions, recording their progress, photographing their work, hanging their artwork on the wall, you are sending them a message that this is meaningful work. If you do this (and don’t give attention to the less desirable acts), kids are going to want to do more of the good stuff.

After reading the book, I had many questions about how PBL would look for young children like mine, so I asked Lori if I could interview her on this topic. She said yes! Please come back next week for my three-part interview with Lori Pickert on Project-based Homeschooling for Young Children. (Yes, she’s so thorough I had to break it up into three posts!) Lori will also be available to answer your questions at the end of the interview, so I hope you won’t miss that.

Homeschooling Kindergarten: Teaching About the Weather

Like the solar system, the weather was one other subject I decided to introduce to my son to last year.  All others (besides reading and math) were child-initiated.  For this, I mostly relied on books from the library and our own book collection (see below for list of books).  For our initial lesson, I stuck to an easy topic: the water cycle.

  • I don’t do this often, but I printed out some coloring pages for the boys about the water cycle at Kid Zone Science (scroll to bottom of page for links to worksheets).  If I use worksheets and coloring pages sparingly, the boys seem to like it.  (In general, they have not liked coloring books or drawing with crayons very much, but it does happen occasionally.)
  • After explaining the water cycle to my then five-year-old, we boiled some water on the stove and watched the steam rise: water vapor!  Then I took a glass of ice water and held it over the steam until it started to condense: rain!
  • We also made a weather chart, and we kept track of the weather for one week.  My son wanted to make another chart and keep going.

{Unfortunately, that never happened, and as we were studying clouds, I began to take pictures of cloud formations and had the idea to make a chart about that. Again, this didn’t happen.  Maybe it will someday, or maybe it won’t. That’s okay. Now I’ll leave it up to my son to continue his study of the weather.}

  • Again, at the time, my son began to get interested in the weather, specifically about hurricanes and tornadoes.  He checked out several books on these topics at the library and wanted me to read them to him.  I also let him watch some footage about hurricanes on YouTube, and now he definitely doesn’t want to be in one!  (You’ll have to decide what is age-appropriate viewing for your child. My son seems to look at natural phenomena with a scientific mind, and they don’t scare him as much as it would have scared me as a child.)
  • We also watched a cool YouTube video about weather balloons (“High Altitude Weather Balloon Launch”), and my son wanted to make a pretend one.
  • After his pre-K graduation last spring, my mother-in-law wanted to get him a gift for a congratulatory present.  He asked for a weather station!  It was on our back deck rail for quite a while until our new dog chewed it to bits. 😦  My son liked checking the temperature and rain level everyday, so I may get him a better thermometer and rain gauge at some point.
  • We also had a bonus when we visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago this past summer.  My son picked “Tornado Alley” to watch in their Omnimax theatre.
  • And, of course, we’ve had our lessons reinforced in classes at the Sandy Creek Nature Center in Athens, Georgia.

As you can see, all of my lessons are pretty easy.  I don’t rely on a curriculum.  I pick topics I think I should cover (that he would like) from a typical course of study for his age range.  I use library books, YouTube, worksheets if they seem to help, and then I let serendipity take its course. 

Having a brief lesson at home has helped my son understand and process these topics when we’ve found other ways to learn about them: in his classes, at the museum, on T.V. or new books that might otherwise not have gained his attention.

Teaching this way has not been a stress on me, and so far, I haven’t lost my child’s interest in learning, which is most important to me!

Here’s a list of books my son has enjoyed listening to me read:

  • Hurricanes, Simon, Seymour
  • Hurricanes! Gibbons, Gail
  • Tornadoes, Simon, Seymour
  • Scholastic’s The magic school bus wet all over : a book about the water cycle, Relf, Patricia
  • Weather words and what they mean,  Gibbons, Gail
  • I Can Read About: Weather, Supraner, Robyn
  • How does the sun make weather? Williams, Judith (Judith A.)
  • Thunderstorms, Sipiera, Paul P.
  • Lightning, Herriges, Ann
  • Down comes the rain, Branley, Franklyn Mansfield
  • The Magic School Bus: At the Waterworks, Cole, Joanna
  •  Clouds, Rockwell, Anne
  •  All the colors of the rainbow,  Fowler, Allan

What have you used to teach your children about the weather?

Homeschooling Kindergarten: Teaching the Solar System

 

There are a couple of subjects that I’ve been meaning to write about for over a year: how I taught my son about the solar system and the weather (which I’ll post soon).

Though I do child-led learning, I see nothing wrong in introducing some subjects to him.  When I consulted a list of what kids typically learn in Kindergarten, I saw the solar system was one of them.  I think it’s a fun subject for little kids. (My son was 4 ~ 5 years old when we did this.)

My philosophy is to introduce the topic to them and then let it go where it may.  They may not take it any farther.  They may want more information.  Or maybe they won’t seem interested, but a few months later, they’ll see something that makes them remember what you taught them, and they’ll have more questions about it.

I was also prompted to teach my son about the solar system because my step-mother told me she got him A Moon In My Room for a birthday gift.  I didn’t think he would completely understand what it was unless I gave him some reference for it. I think he was about four-years-old when we did this.

Prior to my lesson, the only introduction he had to outer space were the few episodes on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse in which Mickey and his friends take a trip into space.  I think that helped him.

For my initial lesson, all I did was print some graphics off the Internet and laminate them, and I also used a box of space cards I had picked up for $1 at Target.  (Found a bunch of those in their dollar section once, and they have proved useful!)

It’s been a long time, so I’m afraid I cannot remember the exact words I used to tell my son about the solar system.  We refer to our globe frequently, and since he had seen Micky fly into the outer space, it wasn’t hard for him to grasp.

I laid the cards on the ground with the sun in the middle, and then I put the planet cards around it in order.  Then we walked around the sun card just like the planets orbit the sun, and we may have read a bit about the planets and space on the backs of the cards.

Little did I know, this would spark an interest in the solar system for my son.  He asked questions, wanted to check out many library books, and (much later) came up with his own project!  See below.

Following my short and sweet lesson, my son’s knowledge about the solar system has been increasing in a long and meandering way. (See Learning is like a Chain Link Fence.). We’ve done the following:

  • Checked books out from the library.  There was a time all my son wanted to do what look at books about the planets.
  • Looked up question(s) on the Internet. I think once my son wanted to know what was inside Jupiter.
  • Checked out the discovery box at the Sandy Creek Nature Center.
  • We happened to get bonus lessons about the solar system in my son’s knee-high naturalist class, and we got to go into their star dome. (And now we can’t wait to visit their new planetarium!  We have visited it, and it’s awesome!)
  • We’ve taken nighttime walks and gazed at the stars. We also bought a telescope for him at his request for Christmas, but *ahem* we don’t really know how to use it yet.
  • Now the subject doesn’t come up much, but occasionally I’ll send him an e-mail about space exploration, if I think he’ll like it. (The Curiosity Rover on Mars is providing some interesting photographs!)
  • I’ve saved the best for last.  Last year out of the blue, my son thought it would be a good idea to make the planets out of paper and hang them along a doorway of our activity room.  They are still hanging there.  This summer when my mother-in-law came to visit, my son could point to each paper planet and name them from memory.

Learning about something as vast as the solar system is most certainly a subject one could spend a lifetime on.  I don’t know if my son will continue to explore astronomy, but he has certainly made that first link in his chain of learning.

Here are a list of books we’ve enjoyed reading:

  • The Planets in Our Solar System, Branley, Franklyn M.
  • Solar System, A Golden Book
  • The Moon Book, Gibbons, Gail
  • The Sun, Spangenburg, Ray
  •  What Makes Day and Night, Branley, Franklyn M.
  • Mercury, Adamson, Thomas K.
  • Mars, Chrismer, Melanie.
  • The Big Dipper, Branley, Franklyn M. & Coxe, Molly
  • Zoo in the Sky: A Book of Animal Constellations, Mitton, Jacqueline

Please stay tuned. In my following posts I’ll talk about the discovery boxes the Sandy Creek Nature Center, how we’ve learned about the weather, some places we’ve been, how to make a terrarium and more…!

What have you used to teach the solar system to your children?

{Update January 2013: My son has continued to learn about the solar system and space exploration in a variety of ways, and recently he has had an interest in rockets!  First, he asked for a rocket for Christmas, and he got a small set of all the U.S. rockets. Then, we started a rocket project, but I’m not sure where it’s going to go.  We’ve read more books (just go to your library!), and right now we’re watching The Planets, a series about space on Netflix.  There’s also a series on the space missions, which we’re planning to watch. He also enjoyed watching this video of a tour of the international space station.}

Back to Homeschool Update

{Homeschool Schedule}  {A Day in the Life of Our Homeschool}  {Homeschooling Kindergarten / 1st grade with a three-year-old in the house}

playdates are a regular part of our homeschool schedule

At the beginning of September I wrote a column for the newspaper titled “Back to Homeschool” because we started our new school year and homeschool routine.  More notable, however, is that this is the first year that we are “official” homeschoolers. That is, we have filed our intent to homeschool with the Georgia Department of Education.

When I wrote that column I had a “plan of action” of how I’d proceed with our daily routine, but I wasn’t sure how it would look in reality. I’ve been a mom long enough to realize that things rarely go according to MY agenda, so having a flexible schedule is a must.

Now that we are a month into our new routine I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s going so well, though I have tweaked it as necessary.  This was my original plan:

  • We’re late sleepers, and though I don’t mind that, I also knew we’d make more use of our day if we got up a little earlier.  So I planned to wake up early and also wake the six-year-old by 8:30 so we could start our lesson by 9:00a.m.
  • I would e-mail my son a loose agenda for the morning the night before, and first thing in the morning we would check his e-mail and go over this agenda. (There’s more than one reason I’ve given him an e-mail address, and I wrote about this in Using E-mail in Homeschool.)  Telling him ahead of time what our plans are has always been essential to getting him to cooperate.
  • After checking e-mail and going over our agenda, I would start off with our main lesson. I planned to alternate a math and reading lesson Monday – Thursday.
  • On Fridays we would have a more relaxed day with just a project, and I also planned to move my cleaning day to Fridays and perhaps partly on Saturdays too.
  • After the lesson, we would do some kind of project either initiated by him or me, but it would be based on his interests or a lesson I want to teach him.
  • I thought by this time, it may be lunch time, so I planned to have lunch and then do “book time” after lunch.
  • After book time, he would be free for the rest of the day, although, of course, we still have other parts of our daily routine too.

As for the three-year-old, I was hoping I could keep him occupied at least during the math/reading lesson with a learning box I made for him.  I filled it with paper, crayons, and coloring pages, which he likes to do sometimes.

So how did that plan pan out?

Here’s what we have been doing:

  • I have been getting up a little earlier and waking the kiddo up a littler earlier too.  He can be very hard to wake up, though, so I’m not using an iron fist with this rule.  It’s my opinion that being able to sleep as much as we need to is one of the many benefits of homeschooling.  But after waking earlier for a few days, he’s starting to wake up on his own around 8:30 anyway.  It’s been good for me to have a few minutes to myself in the morning too.
  • Using the e-mail has been great, and my son enjoys checking it every morning.  An occasional message from a friend or relative is a treat too.  (See Using Technology in Home Education or Using E-mail in Homeschool.)
  • We’ve been alternating a math and reading lesson Monday – Thursday, and that’s been going great. My son has been showing his maturity by being able to complete the lessons, and mama has finally figured out how to stay at his level so that it’s not frustrating for either of us.  Keeping this lesson under 30 minutes and doing it first has also been a key to its success.
  • Having a relaxed day on Friday has been helpful too.  I’m struggling with keeping my house clean, but I think that has more to do with an illness I’ve had, and I’ll get back into a routine at some point.
  • Having a project planned has been working too, and so far, my son has liked everything we’ve done.  Though not completely “child-led,” the projects are inspired by what I know he’ll like.  In an upcoming post, I’ll list what we’ve been doing in more detail.
  • And as I suspected, it’s usually lunch time after we’ve completed our project, so I stop there.  The difficult part is fitting in “book time.”  Unless the project is short or I include a book within the project, we don’t have time for book time.  After lunch, the boys clearly need to be “let loose” to play, imagine and sometimes create, if they ask for the art supplies.  I’ve decided this is okay because unstructured play, movement and make-believe is still my highest priority for them right now.  We have found time to read books at other times, although not everyday.  Since my son seems to enjoy the spontaneous reading moments more than when I insist on reading to him, I think I’ll just leave it at that. (I should note that every night before bed, I still tell him a story that I make up, and I read a book to my three-year-old at that time too.)

As for the three-year-old, he’s not interested in the learning box, and this is what I’ve figured out:  whenever he wakes up, he needs a good dose of mama.  If I can give him my undivided attention for 20-30 minutes, he usually goes off to play by himself while I work with the six-year-old.  Sometimes he wants to be with us, and he might be content playing with puzzles on the table next to us.  Many times, I’ve been able to include him in our projects, especially those we do outside.  If he is in a particularly needy or difficult mood, I let go of my agenda and direct my six-year-old to work on starfall.com while I stay with the three-year-old.

Staying flexible and light-hearted about the whole process has served me well, and it’s made me realize that while we all operate better with a little bit of structure, I can also feel free to stay relaxed and yield to our whims on occasion too!

You may also be interested in:

  • In addition, I’m still keeping track of our homeschool with the method I described in this post.
  • To read about our homeschooling schedule last year when the boys were 5 and 2, click here. (We did everything after lunch!)
  • And, I’ve updated this post in Our Mid-year Homeschool Update….I have tweaked a few things since writing this!

How is your homeschool year going?

Back To Homeschool

a rare photo with me in it

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, September 5, 2012.

As you read this, I’ll be in the middle of my first official week of homeschooling my son.  We have been homeschooling for the past few years, but now that he has turned six, we’re required by law to declare our intent to homeschool.  I’ll also have to submit attendance forms once a year starting at the end of this year.

The law recently changed, so all homeschoolers in Georgia will be reporting directly to the Department of Education (GaDOE) instead of their local school district. The GaDOE has some simple online forms on their website, and the other night it took me less than five minutes to submit my declaration of intent online.  It could not have been easier.

Some homeschoolers are not happy with the online form because it requires us to give our child’s birthdate while the law states that we only have to report our child’s age.  I’ve heard through the grapevine that the GaDOE should be updating their form to reflect this, but that remains to be seen.

Currently the attendance form is a monthly form instead of a yearly form.  I e-mailed the GaDOE to ask about that, and I was told they would be changing it to a yearly form shortly.  (UPDATE 9/6/2012: I checked the GaDOE website, and a yearly form has been posted.)  I’m not surprised that since this is all new there are some kinks to smooth out.  In recent years there have been over 107,000 homeschooled students in Georgia, so the GaDOE will probably hear from some unhappy families, if not.

For me, now that my form is turned in, it’s an exciting week.   I’ve been telling my son that “school starts next week,” but after clarifying that I meant “home school” and not real school, he didn’t seem too impressed.  Perhaps it’s anticlimactic because as a homeschooler, he’s always in school.  We do a lot of educational activities that he thinks is just plain fun.

Starting anew is more for me as I once again begin to keep track of exactly what he’s doing and plan a more structured routine.  We had a nice routine last year, and I had planned to keep it going through the summer, but as a friend said to me, the summer has it’s own “time sucking vortex,” and I decided we needed a break from all things planned.  More than that, I needed a break from keeping track of how my son’s natural curiosity moves us through most topics in a typical course of study for his age.

The most important subjects we’ll tackle are reading and math.  We’ll start the morning off with either a reading or math lesson.  At six years old, my son is still pretty squirmy and more interested in playing, but I think he’s old enough to understand that we have to get things done.

After a formal lesson, we’ll spend most of the morning on a project that will be multi-disciplinary.  As he gets older he’ll be able to pick his projects, but for now, I’m directing most of them.  I think he’ll like my choices, though, especially a project we’ll be doing on ants, and I’ll be sure to write about it when we’re all finished.

There will also be days that we go to science classes or spend an afternoon with friends.  Field trips with daddy are sure to happen, and both my boys will learn the basics of housekeeping and shopping.  That’s a side effect of homeschooling, but a good one.

We’ll also get back to doing book time, library visits, and I’ll try to throw in a short and easy preschool lesson for the three-year-old.  It’ll be a challenge to get anything done with my littlest boy present, and I really don’t know how any of this will pan out.

The three-year-old loves to draw, so I’m hoping he might be satisfied with a little box of art projects he can do while I’m working with my older son.  I’m also hoping to teach him how to use a gentle touch with our iPod Touch, which was a handy, educational tool that my eldest mastered at two years old.  For some reason, my younger son is all thumbs with it, but I’ve noticed he’s gotten better lately.

I’m sure there will be bumps on the road, but hopefully we’ll settle into a routine like we did last year.  Now that we’re official homeschoolers, it will definitely be a test for mama to see if this lifestyle will be worth the effort.

Please come back and I promise to tell you how this homeschooling journey turns out!  Meanwhile, please share your “back to homeschool” stories in the comments section.

A Child-Led Project: The Celery Lettuce Cake

Note: This column was printed in the May 2, 2012 edition of the Barrow Journal.

I am all for giving children as much freedom as possible.  They need time to play, create and build.  This make-believe and the trial and error of creating teaches them more lessons than they could ever learn from the well-meaning words of adults. This is at the heart of project-based homeschooling.

But in real life, it’s awfully hard to let my five-year-old pursue every project he thinks up.  Sometimes I’m rushing around the house trying to get us ready to go out when he says something like, “Mommy, I think we could make a giant eel out of paper.”  Please, I think, don’t talk to me now, but I don’t say it.  He’ll go on and on about his idea while I’m only half listening.

Other times his ideas are just impossible.  “Mommy, maybe sometime we can go to Greenland.”  Uh huh.  (Though requests like that are good ways to start explaining concepts like money, time and distance.)

For these reasons, I was happy the other day that we had the opportunity to let him run with one of his crazy ideas.  I was cleaning up the lunch dishes, and I had planned to take the boys outside after that.  It was a beautiful day, but my son had another idea.

“Mommy, I have an idea for a recipe.  It would need celery and lettuce, and I would mash them together with that masher you use for making mashed potatoes.  Then I would need that thing you use to mix stuff…”

I’ll interject here to explain that celery and lettuce are the only two vegetables my five-year-old will eat.  He likes celery dipped in Catalina dressing, and he’ll eat a little bit of plain lettuce that he grew himself in the garden.  And after more discussion, I figured out that the second utensil he was referring to was a whisk.

Now he continues, “…and then after it’s all mashed, we’ll make a cake out of it, and then we can put it in the oven and cook it for ten minutes!”

Oh yes…you can imagine how much he was whetting my appetite!  But I stifled my laugh.  Just as I was going to come up with a gentle explanation as to why that wouldn’t taste good, I thought to myself, “What would it hurt to let him find out for himself?”

All the stars seemed to be aligned for this special project.  We weren’t going anywhere, and I had the two ingredients.  The celery we had needed to be used up anyway.  In addition to this, the two-year-old was in a rare, independent mood and went upstairs to play by himself for a while.

I laid out a cutting board, a big bowl, the masher and whisk.  Then I cleaned a few sticks of celery and leaves of lettuce.  I also gave my son a little knife to cut the celery with.  My five-year-old is a cautious fellow, so if he knows something can hurt him, he’s very careful with it.

He stood on our step stool and went to work on his own recipe.  He was very serious about it.  I heard him counting the small pieces of celery he chopped and added to the bowl.  At first he said he’d use nine pieces, but as he continued to work, he decided he needed more celery, and I cleaned a couple more stalks.  He ripped up the lettuce into small pieces too.

He discovered that it’s very hard to mash celery.  At this point I suggested that he chop the pieces smaller.  He tried that, but I think it was too much work.  He went back to the masher.

To my surprise, celery can be mashed if you keep at it a very long time. My son worked diligently for almost an hour.  It gave me time to fold the laundry.

Finally the concoction was ready, but he said it needed water.  We decided half a cup would do, and then I gave him a small casserole dish.  He poured it in there, patted it down, and then I baked it at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.

After it cooled down, we had the big taste test.  My son took a bite, and though his expression was subtle, I wish I had videotaped it.  After some contemplation, he admitted it wasn’t so good.  But I knew it was a good day, and I’ll always remember the look of joy and determination on my son’s face while he was making his “celery and lettuce cake.”

Kelly O. Sullivan (@KellyOSullivan), a friend of mine on Twitter said, “That attitude of ‘try again but tweak’ is at the heart of science and experimentation.”  So it is, but when my son said, “Maybe it will taste better if we put something else on top of it,” I finally snickered.  Sometimes you gotta teach them when to cut loose.

Homeschooling Kindergarten Math

 

Note:  Below is my column as it appeared in the March 28, 2012 edition of the Barrow Journal.  Scroll down to find some other helpful links and ways that I’ve tried to teach math.

When I was a young girl, I was gently reprimanded for using my fingers to do math.  I had to do it in my head.  Throughout school, I never liked math, and I never did well in it.  I sat in the back of the room during high school geometry, and I barely listened to the teacher.  For algebra, the teacher was my high school’s football coach, and I remember him bellowing out instructions like he was on the football field.

In college I majored in English, and one of my professors said, “English majors are notorious for hating math.”  I was only required to take one math class in college, and I waited until my senior year to take it.  The teacher was excellent, and my study skills had improved remarkably by that year. I got an A in the class.

Even now, math is not my forte.  If I have to figure out how much to tip someone, it will take me much longer than most people.

But just because it takes me longer to figure out simple math, doesn’t mean that I can’t do it.  While reading Discover Your Child’s Learning Style, I discovered that I’m a very strong visual learner.  Though I knew I was visual, it surprised me at how much this learning style was dominant for me.

I started thinking about how I add, and although I don’t count on my fingers anymore, I actually visualize them in my head when I’m adding simple numbers.  So, I guess I showed those teachers!

I’m not sure how math is taught in school now, but I’m aware that several math curriculums available to homeschoolers use manipulatives for learning addition and subtraction.  Using beads or small blocks, a student is allowed to move the pieces around and actually see that two beads plus two beads equal four beads.  I don’t ever remember getting to use something like that as a child.

I don’t know if you can make someone like math if they aren’t good at it, but as I think about how I want to teach my boys math at home, I know I’m going to do everything I can so that it’s engaging.  I want to show them how we use math everyday, and if they want to use their fingers, you can bet I’ll let them.

My five-year-old is very creative and loves stories, so I purchased the first two books in a series called Life of Fred.  They aren’t too expensive, and the books are comprehensive through college-level math.

Life of Fred teaches math through a story about a character named Fred.  It’s funny and quirky, and my five-year-old loves it, and he even asks to do more.  It’s easy to do one chapter in less than an hour, and I like that there are only a few problems to work out at the end of each chapter.

The second book has proven to be a little beyond my son’s ability at this time, so I’ve decided to wait awhile before we work through it.  In the meantime, I’m doing a few other things to teach him math.

At the library, we found the shelf with all the preschool and kindergarten level math books, and I’ve been checking them out and reading them at a leisurely pace. Some of the books are easier for him than others, but he seems to like learning about numbers through story.  I try to get him to work out some of the equations, but I help him when needed.

He is an auditory and visual learner, so I downloaded some math songs to play on my iPod in the car, and we’ve watched several YouTube videos about math.  I also try to teach him math while we’re cooking or baking together.

Before I started doing these things, I thought I was losing him because one bad day he told me that math wasn’t fun.  After stopping the formal lessons and instead trying the story books and music, he delighted me one day by writing several equations on a piece of paper.  He drew smiley faces:  two smiley faces + three smiley faces = five smiley faces.

My husband and I were pleasantly surprised and it confirmed my opinion that children learn best when they aren’t forced to learn.  Introduce them to ideas, books, educational television, and most importantly, show them how this stuff is used in everyday life.  They will catch on and learn it at their own pace.

Note:  So that was my column as it appeared in the March 28, 2012 edition of the Barrow Journal.  Below are some helpful links and other ways I’ve tried to teach math.

  • As I mentioned in the column, we love Life of Fred.  We have worked through Life of Fred: Apples, and we’re going to save Life of Fred: Butterflies for next year.  (For those of you who are secular homeschoolers, you may want to know that a Christian company publishes these.  I have not seen many references to Christianity in the books, and so far what I have seen has not bothered me.  If you order the books, you will receive some advertisements for other, Christian publications they offer.)
  • Last year I purchased an inexpensive poster (less than $3) of the numbers 1-100 at a local teacher’s store. My son really enjoyed looking at it when we first purchased it, and it’s been helpful along the way too.  Counting by 5s is a challenge for him at this point, but I’m glad I have the chart to refer to when trying to explain these concepts.
  • I’ve had some success with the math books we’ve found at the library.  Some of the titles we found were:
      • Patterns by Hammersmith, Craig.
      • Patterns by Pistoia, Sara.
      • My two book by Moncure, Jane Belk. – There’s a series of these books, and while they are preschoolish, there was enough simple math in them to make it worthwhile for my five-year-old, I thought.
      • My five book by Moncure , Jane Belk.
      • Give me half! by Murphy, Stuart J. – Excellent book.  My five-year-old loved it.
      • The Hershey’s Kisses subtraction book by  Pallotta, Jerry.
      • Springtime addition by Fuller, Jill
      • Making change at the fair by Dalton, Julie
      • Measurement by Pistoia, Sara. – After this book, my five-year-old wanted to use the measuring tape to measure things around the house.
      • Math for all seasons : mind-stretching math riddles by Tang, Greg. – Challenging and worthwhile for my five-year-old.
      • There are many other math books, and I hope to make use of many of them!  You can find several on Amazon.
  • Audio Memory Math Songs (I purchased only the songs on Amazon.)
  • Some YouTube videos the boys enjoy:
  • We received Inchimals for a Christmas gift, and my five-year-old loves them!  Unfortunately we haven’t made using them a habit.
  • I have purchased Eat Your Math Homeworkbut we haven’t used it yet.  However, whenever I cook with my five-year-old, I try to emphasize how we measure and count the ingredients.
  • As you can see in the photo, we have a bucket of little vehicles that have been invaluable to me as I teach my son math skills.  We have used them while working through the Life of Fred math books, and I even used them the other day when I incorporated math into one of our puppet shows.  (More about that in a future post!)  These were a gift and also purchased at a local teacher’s supply store.
  • When my son was younger, we used some preschool workbooks, and I’ve also used some inexpensive flash cards, but not very often.
  • We also have several computer programs and apps that teach math, but since there are so many out there, I’m sure you’re already aware of this.  I pretty much let my son play with these on his own, though I think they would be more helpful if I sat with him while he was working through the problems.
  • Other than this, I try to catch the teachable moments and make him figure out simple, everyday math in his head.

Similar to how I have taught beginning reading, I have used resources that were available to me or inexpensive.  I consider it all a work in progress, and as he gets older, I’ll try to find other resources to fill in the gaps.

What recommendations do you have for teaching early math skills?

My Definition of Child-led Learning

I feel it’s important for me to define “child-led learning” as it works for my family because I’m sure there are different variations of child-led learning in each family who choose this way of homeschooling.  (I think that’s great because every parent has to determine what works best for his or her child.)  Unfortunately, people hear the term “child-led learning” and often come up with their own judgment about it based on an arbitrary news report, article or a homeschool family they have met.  I think it’s wiser to hold off on our judgments until we know more about that family and the needs of the children.

For me, doing “child-led learning” means introducing my boys to a variety of ideas, subjects, books, places, classes, stories, and people.  I am a facilitator and mentor.  As we explore the world together, I’m going to observe what they love the most.  When they gain interest in a particular subject, I’m going to let them delve into it further, and I’m going to do everything I can to help them learn more about it until they are satisfied.  I expect some interests may peter out and others may be life-long passions.

I am going to make sure my children learn the basics: reading, language arts, math, science and social studies.  In fact, according to the law in Georgia (U.S.A.), I have to, but I do believe that each child may learn at a different pace.  I will nudge, but I will not push.  If I nudge I can tell whether or not my child is ready for a specific subject by his reaction to it.   I’m not going to force anything, and I’m not going to test (except when the state requires it).  If I can find ways of helping them learn difficult subjects, I’ll do that, but I think it’s useless to make a child learn something he or she isn’t ready for or doesn’t want to learn. 

I will also concentrate more on helping my children how to find answers to their questions, fostering their imaginations, and helping them learn how to manage daily life.  I’ll write more about this in future posts.

As an example of encouraging my son’s passions, I am currently working on a snake project with my five-year-old.  I am not interested in snakes, but he is, so I suggested we make a book about snakes.  He loved the idea.  Through this project, we are working on his research, writing and reading skills.  It’s also part of his science requirement.  If I can think of other ways to teach him basic skills through his love of snakes, I’ll do it.  For example, we might use a measuring tape to see what the length of a snake is.  In addition, (at my son’s request) snakes are always characters in our nightly stories.

As he gets older, I’m hoping he’ll be more in charge of deciding what his projects are and how we’ll complete them.

I should also mention that occasionally I will make my children do somethingThis goes back to my statement above when I said that I would introduce “my boys to a variety of books, places, classes, stories, and people.”  For example, the nature center we go to frequently is offering an after-Christmas mini-camp.  I know he will love this!  But when I asked him if wanted to go, he said “No.”  I know that he just doesn’t understand what a mini-camp is, so I decided that if we could get in, I’d make him try it.  Fortunately, after I took the time to explain what it was about more thoroughly, he wanted to go. If he tries it and hates it, we’ll reassess, but trying is a must.

There are other things that will be required of my boys like contributing to the care of the house and each other, but I hope to approach this in a manner so that they understand the value of it and want to do it.  I will write more about this in future posts as well.

What is your perceived definition of child-led learning?  Do you think it’s good or bad? 

Please stay tuned.  After the New Year I’ll be starting a series of posts about our homeschool mission, priorities, and how we do it on a daily basis.

Learning Is Like a Chain Link Fence

A bit of homeschooling philosophy: Learning is like a chain link fence.  

Not a crummy, dusty fence in a barren lot, but a fence with bends and dips and muscadine grape vines interlacing it.  Every time we learn some small fact, we add a link.  We build a fence of knowledge and wrap it around our minds.  As we add more links, the fence gets bigger and so does our mind.  It’s not a fence that blocks out anything….no no…It doesn’t block anything out unless we stop adding links to it.  It’s more of a container with wild grasses, ideas, questions, fruit and nectar growing inside and overflowing…

***

I don’t purport to say that this is an original concept.  Not at all.  I’m only reporting on what I’ve been witnessing with my child, and in addition, I am a writer, so I like to think in metaphors.

I’ve been thinking about this as my child asks me questions…

  • What did the Native Americans do?
  • What is inside Jupiter?
  • What is inside our body?
  • Can we plant pumpkin seeds?
  • Did he die?
  • What is God?

…and I endeavor to answer.

For the Native American question, I was prepared.  Last year I bought a really cool book titled The Very First Americans.  It introduces many of the Native American tribes.  It’s general but full of good information for that first question.  It’s the first link in my son’s understanding of Native Americans.

The question, “What is inside Jupiter?” came as a result of our study of the solar system.  My son has told me that Jupiter is his favorite planet.  To answer that question, we looked online, and once I said “gas,” that was enough for my son.  But…but…but… I was tempted to add on to that, read more of the website or at least explain what “gas” is.  But he didn’t want to know all that.  He just wanted to know what was inside Jupiter.  It’s another link in his knowledge of the “The Solar System.”

“What is inside our body?”  He has asked this question in many ways over a long period of time, so I know that it’s something that truly interests him.  When we went to the toy store to pick out his birthday presents, he picked (all by himself) a human anatomy model.  He loves it, and we’ve dissected it several times. He also requested a book on the human body, which I got for him, and he’s even watched a long National Geographic documentary on the human body.  So I haven’t had to answer that question.  He’s been finding out for himself.  He’s got a lot of links on his knowledge of the human body.

My son loves plants and planting.  This summer I was going to keep gardening at a minimum since I’m so busy with the kids, but my son delighted me by becoming the gardener.  He helped me plant some tomatoes, and then at his request we’ve planted pumpkins, beans and lettuce.  I’ll talk more about his study of plants and seeds in another post, but suffice it to say, he has many links on plant knowledge too.

“Did he die?”  It might be a strange question for a five-year-old to ask, but I don’t think so.  As we begin to tell him about history and time, it’s inevitable that he must learn about death.  So this question pops up a lot when we’re reading books or watching T.V. with people he’s never seen before.  It must be his way of figuring out many things all at once, including time and life and what those mean.

“What is God?”  I have talked about God before, but the first time my son asked me about it, I got very excited.  There’s so much I want to teach him and share with him. My beliefs.  The beliefs of others.  I want to hear what he thinks too.  But I remembered the Jupiter question, so I treaded softly.  I told him in as simple of terms as I could muster, and then I read the book I’ve been saving, In God’s Name by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso.  I think by the end of the book, he was bored with the subject.

I pondered that for a few days.  I wasn’t satisfied with how I answered him, and I thought of other ways I might approach the subject.  How can I be more prepared next time?  But that is when I realized that learning is like a chain-link fence.  At first I thought “learning is like a chain with links,” but no, that wasn’t good enough.  We take our knowledge in many directions.  We make decisions.  One by one, we add a little knowledge.  We build on it.  The more we study, the longer it gets.

I thought, that was his first link in the God question.

Remember: It’s not a fence that blocks out anything unless we stop adding links to it.

I don’t expect my son to remember all the details he’s learning.  I certainly had to brush up on my knowledge of the solar system before I taught it to him.  But I do know that learning something over time, repeatedly, especially if it’s something we’re interested in, will help us in mastering that subject.  Students are told by their professors to start studying right away and not wait until the last minute! A cram session the night before an exam does little for long-term retention.

I’m writing this as a reminder to myself more than anything.  If I fear I haven’t answered a question well, I shouldn’t worry too much.  My son is building a fence of knowledge that he’ll piece together over time.  By mostly following his lead, I hope that if we don’t master long-term retention, we’ll at least foster a love of learning, and we’ll find some surprises along the way…


What is your metaphor for learning?