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.

Book: Reflections on The Secret of Happy Children

Recently I read the book The Secret of Happy Children by Steve Biddulph, which is an oldie but goodie in the world of parenting books. The title appealed to me because like every mother, I want my kids to be happy.  I also like the fact that it’s not a long book, and Biddulph writes with ease and humor.

He also gained my trust by writing at the beginning of the book, “I still believe experts are a hazard to your family!  If you listen to your own heart it will always tell you what the best way is to raise your children.”

I liked that because up until this last year, I have been loath to read many parenting books.  I know I’m not an expert, but whenever I start reading about parenting, I get anxious because there’s always something in those words of wisdom that I’m not doing.  I let my kids watch more T.V. than the experts say they should, I lose my patience, and I don’t always remain calm.

Yes, I know it’s normal, but when you start to read parenting advice, the logical part of you that says, “Nobody is perfect, and kids don’t need perfect” gets blurred because you want to be a good parent.

But it’s better to be informed.  How can we get better if we never educate ourselves?  So I read the book, and I’m glad I did.  I know I won’t be perfect, but it gave me some things to think about.

In his first chapter, Biddulph talks about the negative programming parents give their children when they are unaware of it.  Most of us adults come equipped with the programming our parents gave us.  Did they tell you that you would never amount to anything?  Compare you to someone else?  Tell you that you were lazy or selfish?

“Children,” Biddulph writes, “with their brilliant, perceptive ways, will usually live up to our expectations!”

He writes that while any of us would recognize the extreme negative statements, most of the programming is subtler.  “Observe children playing in a vacant lot, climbing trees,” he writes, “‘You’ll fall!’ ‘Watch out!’ ‘You’ll slip!’ cries the voice of their anxious mother….”

“Don’t be a pest” is one example he also gives, and I have to admit, I have used that myself.  If used continually, this kind of talk will create “seeds that will grow and shape the child’s self-image, eventually becoming part of his personality.”

I think it’s hard to be conscious of everything we say to our children.  When I’m tired and burned out by being a mother, who knows what kind of messages I’m sending just with my attitude?  But since I read his book, I’ve been making strides at keeping myself more well rested and with a grateful attitude.  I know I’m a more uplifting mom when I can do that.

The rest of the book offers alternatives to this kind of parenting, including chapters on “active listening” and the “assertive parent” (vs. the aggressive or passive parent).  It covers what to do with tantrums, whining, and reminds us to foster a healthy relationship with our partners and also to take care of our own needs.

What stuck with me the most was his chapter on “What Children Really Want.”  Though it should be common sense, every parent can use the reminder that when kids act up, it means that they have unmet needs.  And usually what they want the most is our love and attention.  Not half-the-attention-on-them and half-the-attention-on-our-smart-phones, but our full attention.

I read somewhere else recently that toddlers need at least one hour of sit-our-butts-on-the-floor and play with them per day.  This may not seem like a long time, but if you are a parent, you know one hour is a very long time to sit and give our full attention to playful activities that are thrilling to children yet mind-numbing to adults.

Biddulph says parents should give their children (of all ages) at least half an hour a day of full attention.  Let the rest of the world go, and listen, play, be with your child.  That’s not much time in the big scheme of things.

I am a stay-at-home mom with the luxury of time with my children, but even I can use that advice.  Adults have stress and work that takes our minds away from our kids even when we’re with them.  So I appreciate the parenting advice Biddulph gives, and I highly recommend this book to any parent looking for more insights on how to raise happy kids.

Note: This column originally appeared in the October 7, 2011 edition of the Barrow Journal.

The Homeschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith

This post was written on April 13, 2009.

The Homeschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith is the first book I’ve read about homeschooling, and I highly recommend it for anyone who is thinking about homeschooling.  I don’t think it would suit seasoned homeschoolers, but for us beginners, it gives a broad overview of everything we need to think about as we make the decision whether or not to homeschool.

Hopefully I’m not breaking any copyright laws if I give you the Table of Contents.  I think it best summarizes the topics in this book:

Does Homeschooling Really Work or What Do We Tell the Grandparents?

Legal Issues, or Can We Really Do This?

Structure or Can We Wear Our Pajamas to School?

Assisted Homeschooling, or Do We Really Need Any Help?

Money and Other Practical Matters

The Primary Years: Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic

The Middle Years: Exploring the World

The Teen Years: Finding a Direction

Evaluation and Record Keeping, or How Do We Know They’re Learning?

Finding Learning Resources

The Homeschooling Community

Coping with the Rough Spots

Special Circumstances

Beyond Homeschooling

There are also four appendices in the back of the book that lists Homeschooling Resources, Homeschooling Organizations, Selected Learning Resources and Colleges That Have Accepted Homeschoolers.

I can’t possibly summarize the whole book, but I can tell you what I most appreciated in the book:

  • She emphasizes that every homeschooling family has to find their own way of homeschooling.  You may hear plenty of advice from other homeschoolers, or you may come across companies who swear their curriculum is the only way to go, but there is no right way to do it.  Try out everything until you find what works for you.
  • In the first chapter, she lists and summarizes much of the academic research that has been done on homeschooling.  There is not much evidence that homeschooling is a bad choice.  At one point she explains that this is largely due to the fact that if homeschooling doesn’t work for a family, then they put their children back in school and no harm is done!  I found this to be very reassuring.
  • In the third chapter she briefly goes over the various theories of learning.  (Examples:  Jean Piaget and Cognitive Development, Charlotte Mason, and Holt and Unschooling.)  I found this interesting because I have no background on any of this.  She also goes over the advantages and drawbacks of different homeschooling styles, such as School at Home, Eclectic Homeschooling, and Unschooling.
  • Throughout the book there are letters and advice from many different homeschoolers.  Each of them seemed to tackle the various topics and issues differently, and it gave me great insight to how current homeschooling families work.
  • I loved the part in which she explains that new homeschoolers might be intimidated to visit a seasoned homeschooler’s house and find that it’s clean and in perfect order.  She says that the seasoned homeschooler probably scrambled to get her house clean just before the visitors arrived!  That is, for every homeschooler, it’s difficult to get everything done!  When I read this, I thought to myself:  “Gee, that’s how I deal with my housecleaning already!”
  • She makes suggestions for what to do if your children decide they’d rather go to school, and she also covers “parental panic attacks.”  That is, all homeschoolers have doubts and moments when they’re afraid they are doing it all wrong.  She offers sound advice and consolation for when this happens.
  • Most beneficial of all are the resources she lists.  Whatever you can think of, she put a list in there: websites, magazines, newsletters, books, organizations.  It’s a great place to start if you are looking for more information on homeschooling.

Furthermore, I found this book to be easy to read (I’m not a big fan of non-fiction), and I read it rather quickly.  I thought there was a good, honest balance between the benefits and the challenges of homeshooling.  Because of this book, Mary Griffith’s other book, The Unschooling Handbook, is now on my wishlist!

You can also read the newspaper column I wrote for the Barrow Journal on The Homeschooling Handbook. Click here to access it.

Please tell me what books/articles you have read about homeschooling.  What would you recommend?