Project-based Homeschooling: It’s All for the Birds (in a good way)

A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song. ~ Chinese proverb

seven-year-old's bed
Guess whose bed this is?

In past years, I wrote a lot of posts with examples of project-based homeschooling in our home, mostly because my eldest son was always making things. This year I have written only two! This is because both boys have been pretty singular in their interests lately. My seven-year-old, while he still loves dinosaurs, and he loves playing digital games more than anything in the world (and I know I should write a post about that), has had one on-going interest since he was what? Four? Five maybe? I’m not sure, but it’s been a long time. I wrote about his interest in birds and several projects he did a year ago in Project-based Homeschooling: Birds & Feathers

But this year, I have less tangible projects to write about, and that’s okay. Sometimes PBH isn’t about making things. Sometimes, it’s about playing make-believe or talking about an interest. Sometimes the doing may not seem educational in the traditional sense. Sometimes it’s a small observation here, or a short burst of activity there. Sometimes it’s simply loving something and enjoying its presence. But there does seem to be a slow progression toward a deeper understanding of the subject.

This is what my son’s love of birds looks like this year:

My seven-year-old's bird collection and then some. The one he is holding is
My seven-year-old’s bird collection and then some. The one he is holding is “Chick.”

His constant companion is Chick, an Audubon black-capped chickadee made by Wild Republic. Chick is carried around the house, slept with, and travels with us in the car. The only time he’s not within reach of the seven-year-old is when he’s lost (3~4 times so far), but eventually he’s found and restored to his owner. This bird is so well-loved that the sound it made died a few months ago, and it’s been washed and sewed up twice. We tried buying another chickadee, but Wild Republic has changed their products, so the new chickadee looks different, and the sound died almost immediately! (Not an experience we usually have with these quality toys.)

While no new bird has been able to usurp “Chick” in my son’s heart, this doesn’t stop him from wanting more birds. He’s always asking for one, and since we can find these birds in most museum gift shops, he has amassed quite a collection of these birds. He even wrote Wild Republic to tell them they should make a golden-crowned kingletand they wrote back, sending him two, complimentary birds!  The boys recently put all of them together on our sofa for a group photo (above), but believe it or not, a few of them are missing! lol

We’ve been lucky to see some new birds in the wild this year, and it’s always exciting to come across them in our travels, on our hikes, or in our yards. Both my boys are very adept at using the iBird app on the iPad to look up information about the birds, and my seven-year-old will sometimes sit down and look at this app for a long time by himself.

Loons are one of my favorite birds.
Loons are one of my favorite birds.

But as the facilitator of my boys’ educations, I do keep an eye and ear open for opportunities to support them, if they have an idea to do something. Or, if a special opportunity comes up, I pounce on that too. This happened twice lately.

When we visited Chicago in September, we went to the Field Museum. (We never not go to the Field Museum when we are in Chicago.) I remembered their fabulous Hall of Birds, so I told my husband we had to make a point of going there again because the seven-year-old was too little on prior trips to remember it. So we went there first thing, and we all had such a wonderful time looking at the birds.

Standing in front of the chickadees.
Standing in front of the chickadees in the Field Museum’s Hall of Birds.

When you have a little person in your family who loves birds, everyone suddenly loves birds. Then again, who doesn’t love birds?

Later during the trip, we encountered some fabulous birds on our walk through the Chicago Botanic Garden. Most of these we had seen before, but we never had such long looks at them before. We saw Mallard ducks, Canadian geese, goldfinches eating the seeds from large sunflowers, and most exciting of all…the black-capped chickadee!

Chicago Botanic Garden
Chicago Botanic Garden

Note: The black-capped chickadee does not live in Georgia. The Carolina chickadee lives here. However, when I looked up the difference, I found out that they look exactly the same. The difference is in their songs and the ranges they live in.

While we were walking around the botanical garden, the seven-year-old said to me, “We should read more about birds.” This excited me very much because so far, he hasn’t wanted to read much about them. I promptly reminded him that the storybooks I bought him for his birthday all featured birds, and in the back of those books, they had bird facts we could read about…..


Ahem. That was an example of me taking over my son’s project. This is not recommended in project-based homeschooling. And what did it do?

My son shut down. He said, “No! Never MIND.” And he wouldn’t talk about it again.

***Insert me shuffling away with my tail between my legs.***

What should I have said? I should have said, “Okay. What do you want to read?” And left it at that.

But I did redeem myself. Later at home, when we were getting back into our routine of doing lessons every morning, I said to my son, “You mentioned that you would like to read more about birds. Would you like to do that during lesson time?” I received an emphatic “Yes!” Then I asked, “What do you want to read?” At that, my son went and got a little, old bird guide that my dad had given to him. He was very clear that we would read the entries for one or two birds each day….birds he would pick out randomly. Then we’d move on to another, similar book.

This makes sense to me. At seven-years-old, my son isn’t ready to understand lengthy science texts about birds, but these short little descriptive paragraphs are perfect. He picked out what he’s ready for. So that’s what we’re doing, and even though it takes only five minutes, it’s a very exciting step in this long-term interest.

Please tell me what interests your kids today.

Update On My Bread Baking Project

I’m long overdue to tell you how my bread baking project is going. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that after watching the documentary Cooked, I decided to try capturing my own wild yeast and learning how to bake bread with it. (See my column Capturing Wild Yeast.) Actually, I had been wanting to learn how to bake bread for a long time before that, but this was the motivation I needed to get me started.

How did it go?! Well, I captured the yeast, and I did learn how to bake bread with it. Over a matter of months, I made a lot of mistakes, but I got better at it. I finally figured out how I often and how much I needed to feed the yeast to make it really active and capable of making bread rise.

Opps. There’s a lot of trial and error when it comes to baking bread, especially with a sourdough culture.

Some of it was quite tasty too. My husband enjoyed every loaf I made, but unfortunately, my boys didn’t care for the bread that was made with the sourdough culture (i.e., the wild yeast). And to be honest, I didn’t always love the bread either. After awhile, I started to wonder if it was the sourdough flavor that I didn’t enjoy.

My first really good loaf with the sourdough culture: Rosemary Olive Oil Bread. It was delicious!

I experimented quite a bit. When I had a hard time getting the bread to rise, I tried using part sourdough culture and part store-bought yeast (dry active yeast). That worked well. I also tried just using store-bought yeast so that I could compare the results.

Oh boy. The bread with the store-bought yeast was sooooooo delicious. And it was sooooooo easy to make. AND, my boys loved it!

Even though it might not have as many health benefits, it was a no brainer for me to ditch the sourdough culture and keep using the store-bought yeast for now. Using the wild yeast was a lot of fun, but it’s very time consuming, and it was very hard to plan when I was going to bake bread. We get very busy, and I don’t always know what we’re going to be doing on any given day, so having to prepare the culture two days in advance is not practical for me right now. It’s much nicer to wake up and think, “I feel like baking bread today” and have the whole process done in half a day.

One of my experiments. Using store-bought yeast, I made two loaves. One of them had a single rise (left), and the other a second rise (right). Conclusion: It’s worth it to do a second rise.

I may attempt using a sourdough culture in the future because it was fun. I’d be curious to see if a new culture (one that I’d know exactly how to care for from the get-go) would taste different, and/or I wouldn’t mind buying a kit with the San Francisco sourdough culture, which is so famous for its taste. But that will be far in the future when I’m not so busy homeschooling.

Ultimately, I feel my project was a huge success! The bottom line is that I wanted to learn how to bake homemade bread, and I have learned how to do that. Now I’m teaching my boys how to bake bread, and that makes me very happy too.

And even better, we have wonderful bread to eat!

Rosemary Olive Oil Bread (at the nine-year-old’s request) and a regular loaf. Yum Yum.

Homeschooling: Summer Planning

Even after these last few years of homeschooling, I’m still not sure whether it’s better to take the summer off from doing lessons or homeschool all the way through. There was that summer that had a mind of its own, and we didn’t do any homeschooling. However, we took a trip to Chicago where we went to all the awesome museums and places we could go there, and the boys were in two or three summer camps…I would count that in my attendance sheet of homeschool days!

Last year, we took some time off and also did some lessons, and that’s kind of what I have in mind for this summer. There is a balance to strike between having free time and too much free time. I have noticed that having some structure to our days helps me, and it prevents the boys from getting too aimless and bored. But unlike last year, which (I think) I filled with math, this year I’m (mostly) letting the boys pick the lessons they want to do. This is great fun because I don’t get a lot of complaints, and they still learn a lot!

So I came up with a big list of what we could do, and I showed it to them, and they made their picks:

Nine-year-old’s picks:

Science — He loves science, and I would wager that he’s way ahead of his peers in his subject, but we’ve never used a curriculum in science. My husband and I thought it would be a good time to start, and we picked out Elemental Science Biology for the Logic Stage. This is a middle school secular science curriculum for homeschoolers, and we’ve just started it, but so far, my son likes it. And it’s actually going to give him some reading and writing practice (Shhh! Don’t tell him!), although I’m not making him do as much writing as the curriculum requires. (After all, he’s only in the 3rd grade.)

Music history — We’re going to keep reading about famous composers. We’re finishing up Meet the Great Composers Book 1 and about to move into Book 2. After we finish this, I’d like to find some more in-depth biographies of his favorite composers.

News/current affairs — We both love reading the news from the News-O-Matic app, which you can download onto an Apple or Android device. It’s definitely for kids, so I wouldn’t read it on my own, but I enjoy the stories too.

Piano — My nine-year-old will also be practicing piano everyday and having a lesson at least once a week.

**On top of this, both my boys will be attending a week-long day camp at the Botanical Garden this summer. **🙂

Six-year-old picks:

Star Wars 1st grade Workbooks — Math, Reading and Writing Skills Can you believe it?! He wants to do workbooks! He might change his mind after he realizes that they are harder than the kindergarten workbooks he finished earlier this year, but I’m still super impressed that he picked these.

(What he didn’t pick was the Singapore Math, Handwriting Without Tears workbook, and reading lessons on and in the Starfall workbook. I guess since I picked those, they aren’t as fun as these workbooks which cover almost the same stuff. ;))

The six-year-old is also working on a project right now: a model of a barn owl. If it gets finished, I’ll blog about it.

Mama’s picks:

There are a few things I feel it’s important to continue with the boys throughout the summer, and that’s…

Readalouds — I’ll be picking some good literature and maybe history books to read to the boys this summer.😉

Memorizing the multiplication tables — We didn’t get very far yet, and I’m afraid after our short break, the boys have already forgotten the 3s and 4s! So we’ll continue to work on this a few minutes each day.

Art — I plan to continue Art Fridays this summer, and I’m hoping since we’re going light on lessons, I’ll have more time to plan art projects and art history lessons!

General Practice for the nine-year-old — We signed the nine-year-old up for Time4Learning so that he can review and get general practice in math and language arts. UPDATE: We ditched this because we just weren’t using it, and I found an app on the iPad I love and the boys like, so we’re using it instead. It’s the 24×7 Digital TeachMe Apps.

What are your homeschooling plans for the summer?

Project-based Homeschooling: Piano

If you told me a year ago that my son would be taking piano lessons now, and not only that, but he would be showing talent, dedication and a deep interest in classical music, you could have knocked me over with a feather. This has been the most surprising development in our homeschool for me, and I am not sure when I’ll ever get used to it. As I wrote on the home/school/life blog, I thought music would be one of those gaps in our boys’ education.

(Note: After writing this post, I remembered this post: Music Appreciation with Beethoven. How could I have forgotten the year and a half he was obsessed with Beethoven’s 9th symphony?! I suppose music has always been with him, but it remained quiet for a while.)

I have to hand it to my husband when it comes to fostering my son’s love of music and encouraging him to continue. While my husband doesn’t play an instrument, he loves listening to all kinds of music and has much more knowledge about it than I do.

A while back, I wrote a post titled The Power of Time and Materials, which is my plea to parents that in order to mentor your children and find their deep interests, you must first provide them with the time and the proper tools. I referred to a good space to work in that’s located in the heart of your home, good materials such as quality art supplies, a good stash of recyclables, and time spent creating with these items. I would, of course, extend this to other areas of learning, if it were in the family’s budget.

Little did I know that my husband would naturally go with this line of thinking when it came to my son’s piano practice. When my son expressed interest in taking piano lessons, my husband spent time researching what kind of keyboard my son would need to practice on. (Granted, “research” is my historian-husband’s middle name!) At that point, we bought a digital keyboard with weighted keys, and we found a piano teacher nearby to begin lessons. We told each other that we’d be happy if our son kept taking lessons for a full year because we both agreed that music education is a part of a well-rounded education.

But our son loved taking lessons, and he loved practicing. He also seemed to have a natural talent for knowing where to place his fingers….I mean, I would have to spend a year memorizing the notes, the letters, and where to put each finger! I have never been musically inclined. But my son seemed to get the piano easily, much like my mother did, though she didn’t play piano seriously. I guess the talent skipped a generation!

Meanwhile, my husband continued reading about the piano industry, proper piano playing technique, and what you need to do, if you’re a serious piano student. One of the best resources he has found are the videos created by Robert Estrin on YouTube.

(I should note that in project-based homeschooling, it’s more proper to let the child do the research, if they want to. If they are motivated, then they will continue to learn about what interests them, and they’ll do it at a pace and level appropriate to them. We don’t always go along with this line of thinking. To be a classical pianist, you have to start early and do it the right way, and there is no way that at nine-years-old, our son would even think about these things. In his other projects, it didn’t matter so much, but in this case, we need to be pro-active and guide him. We still, however, give him the option to stop playing piano, if he changes his mind about it. I would never push my child to do something unless he seemed pretty motivated to do it. There is a big difference, in my opinion, about pushing a child through a temporary lag and pushing a child who isn’t interested at all!)

As time went on, my son showed us that he could advance quickly through the material. His teacher told me that in her 20+ years of teaching piano, she never had a student move as quickly as my son.

I’m not saying he’s a genius at piano. Far from it. It doesn’t all come easy to him (of course). There are times when he’s tired and would rather not practice. As with anything a person pursues, there are ups and downs. But he continues to say he wants to play piano, and he’s striving to play the hard stuff. We realize he has the potential to take this very far, if he wants to, so we feel we need to give him the right tools and opportunities.

I think what also motivates him is our support. My husband or I (and many times both) sit with him while he practices twice a day. Each practice has been anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 hour (and now getting longer), so it’s a huge commitment on our part. We love doing it, but it takes a huge chunk of our day. We also help him find music to listen to online, listen with him, read about composers, etc. (Again, I credit my husband with doing most of this.) Basically, we’re as excited about music as he is. 

And not only that, but because he progressed much quicker than expected, we advanced to an upright piano, and it wasn’t long after that that we traded it in for a grand piano. When we were shopping for the grand piano, we also met a teacher whose knowledge and focus were in line with the goals my son has, and when this teacher offered to teach our son, we felt we couldn’t pass up the offer. I’m sure plenty of people think we’re crazy, but they don’t know our son like we do.

I told my son that DISCIPLINE is when you have a goal and you work to get that goal even when you don’t feel like it. I told him he has discipline, and I’m very proud of him for that!

Through my husband’s research, we’ve learned that if our son ever decides to pursue a career in music, it’s essential that he starts very young and does it right. He’ll be competing against the best pianists that started playing at much earlier ages. Some of them are already well ahead of him. So, we encourage him to keep going because we see a talent and potential, and because of that, we know he might pick this as his career when he gets older and more mature. We don’t want to think that we didn’t do everything we could to help him, if he does.

Of course, we’re fine if he doesn’t pick music as a career. After all, music is a difficult career path, and most musicians make little money. But there are many ways to use music in one’s life, and there are other careers that a musical training can lead to. If nothing else, it will enrich his life and connect him to other people. This makes me happy.

A big part of project-based homeschooling is observing your child to see where he puts his energy. This is because sometimes actions speak louder than words. So with this in mind, here are some other ways we know music has become a deep interest to our son:

  • He loves watching classical music on television. He’s watched countless classical music videos on YouTube. With his father, he is slowly watching the entire 2015 Tchaikovsky piano competition This is at his request.
  • He doesn’t seem to mind hearing about the tidbits his father learns in his research on music and piano playing. (Which is quite remarkable, if you ask me!)
  • Most of all, in the last few months, my husband and I have started taking turns taking him to the free classical concerts at two nearby universities. He’s been to 10 this year! Faculty and student recitals are always free and open to the public, and some of the other concerts put on by the university are very inexpensive. Watching my son’s eyes sparkle with excitement whenever we go to a concert is such a joy, and a great testament to his love of this music. I mean, how many kids would be patient enough to sit through classical concerts?!
A selfie we took at a concert.

This has been a long post, so thank you if you’ve taken the time to read the whole thing! I am always so happy to hear your thoughts and learn about the activities your children are doing. Please leave a comment, if you have a moment.

Thank you, Wild Republic

Something really neat happened to the six-year-old this week.

As I’ve mentioned before, he loves birds, and he has a huge collection of Audubon birds — those stuffed birds that make the real bird sound when you squeeze them. He was saying he wished he could get a golden-crowned kinglet because that’s his favorite bird, and they didn’t seem to make one.

My husband suggested that he write to the company and ask them if they could make a golden-crowned kinglet. Well, six-year-old liked that idea, so one day, he and I sat down, and I wrote out a letter for him. He told me what I should say, and then I had him sign the letter. We also included a photo of him with his bird collection and a picture of a golden-crowned kinglet.

About two weeks later, he received a package in the mail. I thought the company might write back, but we weren’t expecting two new complimentary birds — a great blue heron and downy woodpecker! They also wrote and said they would keep his suggestion in mind as they are always expanding their collection.

It really made our day! The six-year-old was so thrilled to have two new, beautiful birds to add to his collection, and I greatly appreciate Wild Republic for their generosity.

Here’s the letter we sent:

Waiting for Brother

An evening I’ll fondly remember when the boys are grown.

This little guy will sigh and ask, “How much more does he have to play?” Older brother used to have more time to play, and quite honestly, he still has lots of time to play, but that doesn’t make it any easier for a six-year-old to wait patiently through an hour (sometimes hour+!) of piano playing twice a day. And he needs to remain somewhat quiet.

But he’s so good. And really, he is patient. He steals my heart.

He used to sit on the floor playing with his dinosaurs, and while a little noise doesn’t hurt, the banging and roaring of dinosaurs was a little too much. So then he began to draw on the art app on our iPad while his brother played piano. After months of that, he grew tired of it, so he moved on to other things. When the weather warmed up, he decided he’d  go outside to swing and play with our dog, and he still does that often. Sometimes he sits in the kitchen and looks over our Calvin and Hobbes books. Sometimes he just curls up with me on the sofa and waits.

Sigh. “When’s he gonna be done?” (After the first piano practice, the boys get to play games on their digital devices, so it’s especially difficult to wait for that.) But he does.

I was kind of sad when he stopped drawing because for the last few years, he loved drawing and coloring, and he often occupied himself doing this. But then he stopped, and I wondered if that interest was fading.

But the other day I suggested we color together in his bird coloring book. (I had suggested it in the past, but he always said no.) This day, he said yes, and ever since, he’s been coloring in that book on his own every time big brother plays piano. I snapped this photo the other night because I wanted to remember the moment, and I love his expression as he colors. He takes his work very seriously, as you can see.🙂

I love this photo also because it nicely wraps up the boys main interests right now: for the nine-year-old, piano, and for the six-year-old, drawing/coloring and birds.

I know someday they may move onto other things, but I hope not. I hope whatever they choose to do with their lives, they’ll always love classical music, and they’ll always love birds. And maybe the six-year-old will continue drawing too, even just for fun.

Today, the six-year-old brought me his coloring book to show me which birds he had colored, and he told me that for now on, he would color in it while his brother plays piano. Then he hugged the book to his chest and said, “I love this.”  He steals my heart.

(And then I went and ordered two more bird coloring books.)

On Becoming a Birder

20160115_114140My six-year-old’s painting of a yellow-bellied sapsucker. My six-year-old loves birds, and because of that, it’s become an interest for the whole family. We watch them, identify them, draw them and paint them. It’s a great project!

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on February 3, 2016.

I’ve always liked birds, but it wasn’t until my youngest son became enamored with them that I started to pay more attention to them. Children have a way of making the world new and exciting for you, and what’s more, they teach you how to relax, if you let them. Birding is not only infectious, it takes you away from all your troubles.

Now everyone in my house is a “birder,” and for me, I think this hobby will outlast my son’s interest in it. But you never know – he may never lose interest in the birds either. Birds are some of the most beautiful and interesting creatures to watch, and I’ve learned that we get quite a variety of birds in our wooded subdivision.

Some of the most familiar birds I already knew the names of – cardinals, bluebirds, blue jays, tufted titmice, and Carolina wrens. Carolina wrens are small brown birds, but they aren’t like the sparrows you might find in the grocery store parking lot. They are a reddish brown, and whenever I hear birdsong in the morning, it’s usually a wren signaling to the other birds right outside my window.

When I hear the wren, I know it’s time to get the binoculars. On more than one occasion, if a wren is outside, other birds soon follow. Cardinals might appear in the tree, and as the male watches, the female will fly to the ground to forage on seeds in my flower garden. The tufted titmice might arrive to forage on the ground too.

These are birds that we see here year-round, but lately I’ve seen some winter visitors too. My whole family was thrilled to find a pair of golden-crowned kinglets in the yard one day because that’s one of my six-year-old’s favorite birds. He thinks it’s so cute that when we came across its picture in our bird app, he wanted to have a picture of it on his bedroom wall.

The male golden-crowned kinglet has a bright yellow and orange stripe on the top of its head. The female looks exactly the same except her stripe is yellow minus the orange. It’s a very small bird, almost as small as a chickadee, and it never stops moving, so it’s hard to spot without binoculars.

We also spotted what we think is a pine warbler. It doesn’t come through our yard often, but when it does, it gives us a welcome splash of color because its feathers are a beautiful greenish-yellow. The phoebe is much more plain with its brown and pale white feathers, but it’s still an elegant bird. It gets its name from the sound it makes: “FEE-bee!”

Very occasionally, we get to spy woodpeckers. We’ve seen downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, and once, long ago, a pileated woodpecker, which is very big and gorgeous. Most recently we’ve discovered that a yellow-bellied sapsucker has claimed one of the trees in our backyard as a regular feeding station.

Larger birds do travel through our area, but we rarely see them in our yard. Once when I woke up my eldest son in the morning, we looked out his window to see a red-tailed hawk sitting in a nearby tree! My husband has taken our dogs outside during the night and heard owls, and once he heard something large take off from the ground in our backyard, but it was too dark to see much.

There was one night my husband heard a pair of owls, and he quickly woke up my eldest son. They stood on the back deck for several minutes and listened as two great horned owls spoke to each other from either side of the woods.

We so easily forget that the wilderness is right in our backyard. We’re lucky to glimpse the flash of a wing or hear their elusive calls, but as my sons have taught me, if I take just a few minutes each day to pay attention, I am always delighted by what I find.

If you like watching birds, you might enjoy participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count, a citizen science project which asks you to count the birds you see for just 15 minutes over the weekend of February 12-15th. (It starts today!)