Project-based Homeschooling: Sketching at the Botanical Garden

When my eight-year-old went to pottery class, I drove my five-year-old ten minutes down the road from the studio to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, which is probably my favorite place on this earth (and I’ve been a lot of places). I used to go there 2-3 times a week when I first moved to Georgia. I didn’t know many people, and for me, walking on the beautiful, wooded trails or sitting by a stream was like visiting with a friend.

Now that I have children, I don’t get to go there as much as I would like to, but I am happy that we have taken my boys hiking there several times, and my eight-year-old has even taken summer camps there. Sometimes my five-year-old and I took advantage of these times by walking on the trails while waiting for older brother.

I consider Fridays “art days,” and we usually don’t do our other lessons on these days. Luckily, pottery class happened to be on Fridays last fall, so while older brother took that class, I took my five-year-old to the botanical garden for our “art.” I didn’t do formal art lessons though. I decided to just take our sketchbooks and see what would happen.

I am not an artist and until now, I have never put any effort into drawing or painting because it hasn’t been a huge interest of mine. The main reason I’m giving it a go now is because my five-year-old LOVES to draw. He is always coloring or drawing a picture, and I have stacks and stacks of his work. I hang some of it up on the wall above my desk, and other artwork is filling our stairway. As another way of trying to support his work, I got all of us a sketchbook, and occasionally I try to use it. I’m not very good except, maybe, at drawing plants. So that’s what I usually draw. I find it’s a very relaxing exercise too, which is beneficial to me. My goal is to try to make it a weekly practice, although I don’t always get to it that often. (You can read more about how and why I started a sketchbook habit in this post.)

My five-year-old is not very confident at trying to draw new things by himself. He likes to draw “storms” or trees, and loves to use stencils. Usually he colors pictures from a coloring book or he has me draw something for him that he can color. But he has also created some really interesting artwork. Some of it is highly detailed too. Maybe you could call it “doodle art” or abstract art. You can see a slideshow of that on this post. I let him create art however he wants to do it, but I hope as we continue to explore art and drawing together, he will try new things.

Sometimes my five-year-old wasn’t into drawing at the botanical garden, but he almost always wanted to get a snack at the small cafe, and that was okay. (I didn’t mind getting a coffee.) After that, I would pull out our sketchbooks or whatever I brought. He rarely wanted to walk around the botanical gardens at this time, which was okay since it was cold outside, and I had never really sat and lingered in their visitor’s center before. This was definitely a huge treat for myself as well, and I already miss going! (Yes, I know we could go any day just for fun, but that is easier said than done.)

One day was particularly special. It was the day that he wanted to bring his camera, so on that day, we not only enjoyed a leisurely snack and drawing in our sketchbooks, he used his camera to document our workspace and everything around us. He even took his very first video, which turned out to be hilarious (imagine a five-year-old swinging the camera around and talking to his mother at the same time).  It is a video that I will always treasure, and I think he’ll enjoy watching it when he grows up.

Many of his photographs were blurry, but a few were great, I thought, especially since we were sitting in some wonderful light. Below are his photographs. I asked him if he wanted to walk around to take photos, but he didn’t want to do that. He took all of these from his chair. Above are a few snapshots I got with my phone so that you can see how serious he was about his drawing and picture-taking. He didn’t want me to take photos of him, so I had to be quite sly about it! That was necessary because I never want to forget this day. I wish every homeschooling day could be like this one.

Our 2nd Grade Homeschool Schedule and Curriculum (with Pre-K too!)

 

I love new school years! It’s an accomplishment to close out the previous year and plan a new one, and in the beginning of the year, everything feels so tidy and structured. I like structure, but I try to remain flexible about our schedule as the year goes on. It’s inevitable that new priorities will pop up, and some of what we do will fall to the wayside. But I think that is what is awesome about homeschooling – you get to be flexible. You get to follow your instincts about what is best for your kids on any given day. Just do that, and you’ll do great.

The five-year-old joins us.

My boys just turned eight and five! I am considering them in 2nd grade and Pre-K. This is the first time I’ve attempted to do any formal work with my five-year-old, and that’s because I can tell he’s ready for it. Earlier last year he would play while my older son did his lessons, but later in the year I noticed he would hang out at the table and watch/listen as his brother would practice reading. So earlier this summer I offered him a little ABC workbook, and he gleefully cheered “yes! yes!” After that he demanded what he termed his “reading lesson” everyday, even when I wasn’t planning to do it. Now he’s happy to take a day off, but he still likes doing his reading lessons alongside his brother.

What has changed since last year.

I have a popular post from last year about our first grade schedule and curriculum, and I always worry when a post becomes popular because we remain in flux, and while I try to write the truth of any given moment, the next month we might change what we’re doing! But I’m relieved that as I look back over last year’s schedule, not too much changed. But a little did:

  • I nixed the stretching fairly quickly. My boys just hated it. It felt useless to keep trying even though I still think they could use it.
  • When I wrote that post, we had a Friday morning bi-weekly class, and I thought we might have the occasional play date then too. Well, the class didn’t go, and neither did the play date, but later we enrolled my son in his pottery class, which was on Friday mornings for eight weeks, so the schedule didn’t really change after all.
  • Other than this, we kept that schedule fairly well, although we definitely had days when we didn’t do our lessons because other things took priority. I used it as a compass to get back into a routine when I felt we needed it. (Mostly I need it to stay sane. The boys would be fine with just playing everyday.)

So below is our weekly plan this year. It’s not too different from last year.

2nd grade MOL Weekly HS Schedule copy

What this doesn’t reflect: It doesn’t reflect all the little things that pop up like play dates that I don’t have a regular date for on my calendar and all the outings we do as a family, which could be considered field trips. We like to go hiking and to museums and other places of interest whenever we get the chance. Some days we may just go shopping. It also does not reflect my son’s project time.

Project Time

Last year our lessons were shorter, so we had an hour or more for projects in the mornings before lunch. This year, our lessons are taking us right up until lunch, so here is what I’m going to experiment with this year:

Since I want my son’s projects to have priority, every Monday morning I get our project notebook and go over what he’s told me he wants to do. He gets a lot of ideas that he doesn’t follow through with, and that’s okay. He’s in charge of his education. He knows that if he wants to build something or learn about something, we will make time for it. I’ve told him I’m willing to skip our lessons completely, if needed. So far this year, however, he hasn’t been doing anything that he needs me for, or either he seems to make small inquires at other times of the day. He does have one thing he wants to make that we don’t have the materials for yet, so when we get everything, we’ll do that. I’m also wondering how I can spur him on to dig deeper into his latest interest – Star Wars. I’ll write about how all this goes in the future.

Curriculum

Our curriculum is very eclectic. I choose our curriculum based on 1) what I think my kids will actually like and 2) what we have on hand or can find conveniently and/or cheap. I get a lot of resources from teacher-friends, though I don’t use a lot of that stuff. I have bought little workbooks and things on sale over the years and saved them. I have bought some things full price because I thought they were perfect for my boys. Buying a full curriculum that would cover everything has never seemed prudent when each subject requires its own strategy for my boys’ particular needs.

The weekly plan.

I have told my eight-year-old that he has to learn reading, writing, math, etc. The law requires them, and he understands that. But I also tell him we’ll go slow, at his pace, and we’ll try to use books and resources that he likes. This is not always easy, and I’m always wondering when I should nudge or pull back. This is just an ongoing part of homeschooling, I think, and I try to use my good instincts, though they fail me at times.

I am still not completely comfortable with unschooling my eight-year-old or using project-based homeschooling as our sole means of education, though a big part of me wants to do just that. I have opted instead to require him to do just one page in a workbook (to help build his handwriting and reading skills) and read just one or two pages in a book. If it gets hard for him, I usually make him finish at least part of what we’re working on, and then I take a break from it the next day or use a different resource. As I said before, I am willing to take long breaks from our lessons and work on his projects too. But I feel a slow progression in the fundamentals is important, and he is progressing, and I’m happy with that.

This is my order of things that happens between breakfast and lunch unless we have an appointment outside the house or a project to work on. Sometimes we don’t finish before lunch, but we usually do.

Read aloud – This is new. I have sorely missed book time, which is what I did when my son was little. Now we don’t have time in the a.m. for everyone to pick one or more books of their choice, so I’ve decided this is the time I get to pick one book of my choice. I can cover a lot of different subjects this way. (In the evenings before bed, my husband and I read to the boys, and they get to pick the books they want.)

1 Page Workbook – I have purchased simple workbooks (the kind you can get at Walmart or Target or teacher’s stores), and this year I’m having them each do one page each in a workbook. My eight-year-old hates the physical act of writing, so this is kind of an experiment, but also a slow way to build up his muscles and just get him used to writing a little bit. Below are listed the workbooks my boys have completed or are working on. (We started this during the summer, btw!)

The eight-year-old

–I started him out in an easy kindergarten workbook in which he only had to trace and write letters. This is because, as I said, he hates the physical act of writing, and I just wanted him to get used to having to write a little.

–I was not in the market to buy more workbooks, but we were in Barnes and Noble one day, and I happened to find Brainquest’s Star Wars workbooks. I picked them up because both my sons love Star Wars. I’m not so dumb as to think my eight-year-old will also love the workbooks, but if I can make doing what he dislikes a little more fun, I’ll try it. And the reading workbook happened to cover just the things I want him to work on. So we’re just now starting Star Wars 2nd Grade Reading. This is already proving to be difficult, and he’s in tears over it. It’s not that he’s not smart enough to complete the work, he just hates doing it. I may have him do only 1/2 a page at a time or pick and choose the pages. Part of me would like to nix it. Not sure what to do yet.

The five-year-old is my easy kid! He likes doing these workbooks! (I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that he loves drawing too.)

–Stick Kids Workbooks: Amazing Mazes

–A+ Alphabet Workbook

–A+ Numbers 1-12 (He’s almost finished with this.)

After this, I’m going to have him start:

Brainquest’s Star Wars Workbooks: Kindergarten Writing & ABCS

Brainquest’s Star Wars Workbooks: Preschool Number Fun

Reading Lesson – This is for the eight-year-old, but the five-year-old usually listens. I have him read 1-2 pages in a book. We have worked through most of the follow-up books recommended at the end of Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. We have two more to go on that list, and I’m hoping he’ll be willing to finish those books, but I’m not going to push him. I’ve had great success at letting him read books about the things he loves most, which are Legos’ characters and Superheros. We just finished Scholastic’s Super Heroes Save the Day! It makes a huge difference when he can read something like this versus any other book. I will probably alternate this will the workbook because doing both in one day proves to be too difficult.

Starfall – This is for both boys, although I didn’t tell my eight-year-old that. I asked him if he would sit with his younger brother and go over all the phonic reading lessons, games, books, and videos on Starfall.com.  They do about two rows every time they sit down to do this. I knew my five-year-old could benefit from it, but I wanted my eight-year-old to get the review as well as gain confidence in his reading ability. It’s working well, and my eight-year-old is shining as “teacher.” They don’t do this everyday, but they are almost finished with all fifteen rows on the website. I’m not sure if we’ll continue this, or go to other sections on that site.

Math – This is for the eight-year-old, but the five-year-old usually listens. We started right in on the next Life of Fred book this year! We are working on Life of Fred: Dogs, which is the fourth book in the series. I have considered changing our math curriculum in the past, but now I feel confident that the quirky story format of Life of Fred is perfect for my eight-year-old. (We are story lovers around here, after all.) I think Life of Fred does a great job teaching him what he needs to know, and when I feel it’s getting a little above his level, we just stop and practice math in other ways until I feel he’s ready to move on. Doing math twice a week still feels just right. If this book starts to get too hard, we’ll pause it awhile and practice math with other resources for awhile.

Science – This is new, although science has always been a huge part of our homeschool. I’ve never made time for it during our lesson time because my son’s projects, the homeschool science classes, the books he picks to read, and all the documentaries we watch daily have skyrocketed him well beyond 2nd grade science! Despite all this, I have a goal to study science in a more systematic way, especially when he gets older. And, this year, his pottery class conflicts with homeschool science, so we’ll have to miss out on those for the first time. (I’m really sad about that, although a little relieved to have a lighter class schedule.) Each year, I seem to be able to weave one more thing into our homeschool. Last year, it was art. This year, it’s science. (I hope by next year, I’ll find a way to take our Spanish lessons to a higher level.) We’re starting with something simple. I happened to have DK’s 101 Great Science Experiments, so we are working through this book and doing 1~2 science experiments a week. By the way, the first time I asked my son if he had a project he wanted to work on, he said, “Can’t we just do the experiments?” So, in a way, this is still his project.

Spanish – I wanted to find a better program to work on, but in some ways, I think watching Salsa is still the best bet for my boys so that they don’t lose interest in Spanish. I still write down the vocabulary, and I watch every episode with them – because I want to learn Spanish too!

Art – Last year at this time, I felt like we didn’t have enough art in our homeschool (despite all the craft and building projects that my son initiated on his own). I wanted to be able to teach a little bit about different artists and techniques. It’s also a part of project-based homeschooling to introduce children to new tools and techniques so that they’ll have a variety of mediums they can choose from when working on their own projects. I’m proud of myself for working in several art lessons last year and establishing a sketchbook habit with my younger son, who loves to draw. This year, we’re going to make Fridays our art days, and I’m using Amy Hood’s fun Art Together e-zines as my guide. Right now we’re learning about printmaking techniques and the artist Hokusai. When my son begins his pottery class, I’m planning to use that time for sketch booking with my five-year-old.

This is probably the longest post I’ve ever written, and it may seem like a lot on the page, but it only encompasses about 1~2 hours of our day. If you have been following my blog, you know that we do a lot of other things, and we have certain priorities for our boys that haven’t change. In brief:

  • We want them to have time to move, play and explore the things they love. In the afternoons and early evenings, they have lots of time to do the things they love the best, including playing with Legos and a variety of other toys, playing games on their tablets, and watching T.V. Sometimes we go to play dates, sometimes we cook together, and sometimes we play games together. But this is also the time I have to work and get my chores done. I feel grateful for homeschooling because I feel it is creating a strong bond between my boys, and they are learning to be independent doers!
  • We want them to love nature, and they do. But we make a point of getting out into nature a lot by visiting parks and going hiking. My son will slowly be working toward earning the third junior ranger badge this year too.
  • We also keep a garden, and in the evenings after dinner, you might find the boys and me outside watering it and picking ripe tomatoes. I find that by late August and September, the boys are less interested in this though. But I don’t mind having a few minutes alone outside!

New School Year

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on September 10, 2014.

September always feels like the real new year to me. It’s a time to regroup, plan a new schedule, and there’s that refreshing feeling that comes with the anticipation of cooler weather. Now that I have kids, and by coincidence both their birthdays are in late August, this time of year definitely feels like a walk around a new corner.

My boys just turned five and eight, and I know I say this every year, but I can hardly believe how fast they are growing. They are at fantastic ages. They are interested in the world and learning new things. My older boy is slowly catching on to the fact that not all of life is a bowl of cherries, and we have to contend with his bad attitude about certain things, especially when he’s helping to clean the house, but none of that surprises me. I will not take for granted these easier days of rearing young children because I know it’ll only get more challenging the older they get.

One of the things I love about homeschooling is that we can start school whenever we want, and I choose to start after Labor Day. Since my eight-year-old is starting 2nd grade and my five-year-old pre-K, we have a lot more to do this year, but none of it is a drastic change. I had been doing reading lessons throughout the summer and a little math, and we already started working through a book of science experiments, which is a huge interest of my older son. Add to that a little more math, handwriting, a readaloud, art projects, and my son’s own projects, and you’ve 2nd grade.

So far my five-year-old has made school easy for me. He demands his “reading lessons,” which is only two pages in some workbooks while his brother works on the older version workbooks. I am sure his eagerness has a lot to do with sitting and watching his older brother do his lessons these past few years. I am glad I haven’t pushed him to start earlier, but instead I watched for clues that he was ready.

I also asked my eight-year-old to sit with his younger brother and take him through all the lessons on starfall.com. If you aren’t familiar with this website, it’s a wonderful tool for teaching younger kids to read, and a lot of it is free. The learn to read section has 15 rows of phonic lessons, and it uses little games, interactive books and videos to teach the letter sounds and decoding techniques.

I went through all these starfall lessons with my eight-year-old when he was four, and now I think his younger brother could learn from them, but my main purpose in asking him to teach his younger brother was to give him a little review. And it’s working. He even told me the other day that it’s been helping him. (Sneaky Mama.) And it’s been fun to watch him in the role of teacher. He’s a natural at it, and so patient!

My eight-year-old will be starting a new pottery class soon, and more play dates will be added to the calendar when the weather cools off. I want my five-year-old to take a class too, but I haven’t quite decided what yet. I am somewhat mourning the end of the more laid back days of summer while at the same time looking forward to seeing people and doing more intentional learning with the kids.

I always think to myself that we will have to take homeschooling year by year. We will have to assess what seems good for the kids each year. I’m glad that so far they seem to be thriving in this atmosphere. I’m grateful for the friends we’ve made, and I’m grateful for the chance to tailor my kid’s educations to their abilities and needs. As I watch their imaginations flourish, and they get a chance to do things we wouldn’t have time for if they were in school, I’m grateful we can do this another year. If we’re lucky, we can continue for many more years to come.