Tag Archives: doing more projects

Year in Review: What the Kids Learned

We’re actually still “doing fifth grade” so perhaps it’s early for a year in review, but early summer always feels like a reflective time for how school is going. As I wrote this, I realized that there were really two elements to my reflection: what they learned and what I learned about growing kids. Obviously, they’re intertwined, but I put the “school” elements here and I’ll save the tween attitudes for my next post.

Mushroom cutting up and rearranging sentences in his first formal essay.
Mushroom cutting up and rearranging sentences in his first formal essay.

This year has been different from the others. We’ve been more engaged with projects and questions. I’ve been more responsive to the kids’ schoolwork requests. I’ve written a good bit here about why we made this shift, but I continue to be glad we focused on exploring lots of content in the early grades and are switching to being more project focused for the middle grades. Some of the projects we did this year included learning about houses, reading steampunk literature and making art, studying world religions, exploring probability, learning about ancient Egypt, doing chemistry experiments, and writing poetry. Not every project we did went perfectly, but overall I feel good about continuing to wing content by letting it arise naturally. I suggest things, they suggest things, questions the kids ask lead to some projects, books or documentaries lead to others. Over the summer, we decided to tackle graphic design and I look forward to seeing what emerges next.

Skill subjects have been a decidedly mixed bag. Math has involved perhaps an insane amount of curriculum hopping. Mushroom is doing well right now alternating daily between Jousting Armadillos and Process Skills in Problem Solving. They’re such radically different resources. He loves Jousting Armadillos and its talkative, do just a few problems then try this very tricky puzzle approach and hates the complex problems in Process Skills. However, I like the interplay between then. BalletBoy started the year using Math in Focus but we ditched it after finishing 5a and switched to MEP, where he is starting on MEP5b. I have been frustrated finding the right level for BalletBoy’s math. He found some elements of Math in Focus far too easy and others far too difficult. MEP has been good for us because it has forced me to really sit and teach him using the lesson plans. Still, I’m not sure what we’re going to do long term. He still makes an egregious amount of careless errors in his math. One problem will be wrong because he accidentally added incorrectly, another because he skipped a step, another because he couldn’t read his own messy writing, another because he misunderstood the question, and finally another because he was off in BalletBoyland and forgot what he was even doing. Getting this kid to focus on math is like pulling teeth sometimes.

On the flip side, BalletBoy does have focus for writing. Brave Writer has continued to serve us well. The boys wrote short stories, poems, reflections, and their first short formal essays, though with lots and lots of help. Both the boys keep slowly improving their dictation mechanics, even if getting them to improve it in their own writing is difficult. Spelling has been a huge trial for Mushroom again this year. He improved so much with All About Spelling for the first two years of using the program, but this year in level 5, his improvement ground to a halt. BalletBoy wrapped up level 6 without too many issues, but I gave up on using it with Mushroom and tried How to Teach Spelling, which has a similar approach but a lot more dictation sentences. I thought it would be good for him to practice. He would improve for a little while then go back to not remembering if a word used “ee” or “ea.” And somehow, in those cases, he always seems to make the wrong choice. Finally, I cried “uncle” on this whole spelling thing. I give up, at least for now. He deserved a break and so did I. His spelling is now extremely easy to decipher 95% of the time and I’ve decided that’s okay for now. We’re committing to doing more dictation to try and work on spelling and mechanics in context.

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As always, one of our biggest difficulties was balancing homeschooling with extracurriculars. In particular, our year was taken over with performances. BalletBoy did his first Nutcracker and later got to be an extra in a Kennedy Center ballet, plus he performed with his marimba ensemble. Mushroom did a musical and had a small role in a local community production then went right into a main role in The Importance of Being Earnest. Both boys were in Much Ado About Nothing. When you tossed in soccer and regular co-op and so forth, it was just a lot to do. Finding the balance didn’t always work. Theater hours are really hard on ten year olds. I’m not sure how we can change that next year. We compensate by relaxing school but then working on weekends and over the summer as needed. Like everyone else, I want a more relaxed life, but I also don’t want my kids to have to pass up opportunities they greatly want. It’s a very tricky line to walk.

Just the other day, Mushroom discovered that there was such a thing as a “fifth grade graduation” and demanded that we have one. I asked if a special meal would suffice and he agreed. We have some summer camps and will return in late July for more school, to be finished up by September in time for the fall break.

Projects, Part One

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So I’ve started to write about the role of projects of various sorts in our homeschool a number of times and keep junking the posts because I have so much to say that keeps coming out as a jumbled mess.  However, “projects” and their role in our learning process have been very much on my mind lately so I’m coming back to try again. First, some background. When people say “project based” they may mean so many different things…

  • a Reggio Emilia like approach where teachers support and create projects based on student interest and inspiration
  • an almost business like approach where students (usually in groups) solve real world style problems (the curriculum Engineering is Elementary is a cool example of this approach)
  • a unit studies style approach to learning
  • an almost unschooling approach, taking special care to encourage and support children’s natural interests to create their own projects (this is the approach in the Camp Creek Blog and Lori Pickart’s Project Based Homeschooling, which I talked about awhile ago in this post)

Basically, “projects” in educational thinking can be very adult led or very child led.  They can be very free form or very specific.  They can be very process oriented or very product oriented, though most projects involve some product.  In other words, who knows what anyone means when they say “project based.”

Previously, projects haven’t been huge for our homeschool.  When we started out learning, one of the things that made Mushroom and BalletBoy great to teach was their ability to be interested in nearly anything.  Sure, some things were more fun than others, but when I said, hey, let’s learn about the Mongols or Roman roads or plant life or how forces work or nearly anything else, they were always up for it.  If I said, let’s do it by trying this experiment, or making this piece of art, or reading this book, again, they were fine with that.

I called them my little Renaissance men.  Let other kids have one track minds for their passions.  My boys were amenable to nearly anything.  So we crammed it all in.  A full cycle of history from the dawn of mankind up to the present (almost, we’re to the Cold War technically).  Piles of historical fiction to support it.  A look at pretty much every science topic you can imagine in biology, physical science, earth science, astronomy, and so forth.  Plenty of art history.  Lots of geography.  And I’m happy with all that.  We used the grammar stage, in classical education thinking, just as it was meant to be used.  We went all through time and space and introduced everything we could.

Well, they’re still pretty amenable, but I can see how they’re changing gears.  I’ve written about how they want ownership and new challenges recently.  As such, I’m changing my thinking about projects and I’m now envisioning projects as one potential solution to our needs.  I’m thinking of these as all of the above.  Child led projects, teacher led projects, projects for contests, projects for the joy of learning, projects for content and for fun.

I’m feeling like this may be a good way to come at the logic stage for us.  I come from teaching middle school for many years and have a vision of it as a time of great growth, but also a need for flexibility and new kinds of learning.  One of the things I want my kids to discover the most is the ability to pursue their own interests and a love of learning.  I think they’ve been too young to fully find their way to those things yet, but they won’t be for long.  I want to turn the reins over a little bit for a little while and loosen up our content structure.

I still see us returning to a more classical approach in a few years when the kids are really ready for high school level science and a primary source based history.  And I don’t want to drop the ball on skills in the next few years either.  I’m hoping to get both kids through algebra within the next three years (or so) and to keep honing their growing writing voices.  However, I’m also excited to let them play with 3D design or robotics for school time.  I’m excited to let them choose things to study about for history and do their own research.  I’m excited to see them design a real science project and carry it out themselves.  I’m hoping to do more things that get us thinking like Destination Imagination does and to enter essay contests and take better advantage of things like traveling exhibits and shows that we see.

So we’re slowly moving toward projects as one of the bases of what we do.  We’re always tweaking and realigning our homeschool, but this feels like a big one even for us.

Up next…  What projects?  Anxiety and projects…