Tag Archives: project-based learning

90 Second Newbery

90 Second Newbery is a film festival for kids to make very short movies telling the story of Newbery or Newbery honor winning books. The deadline for films is next week and the screenings start soon. You can find a list of them on the website. I already shared ours a few places because I was so excited by it and meant to blog about it earlier, but life interfered, so I’m sharing it here now.

We chose this as one of our big fall projects and it has been really cool to see the result. One of the most rewarding aspects was that after we sent in the link for the film, James Kennedy, who runs the festival, sent back really specific and positive feedback, which was very cool. Even if you don’t have time to participate this year, I would really encourage everyone to think about this as a project for the future. It involved so much good, positive, creative work and so many good discussions of literature.

This is the film Mushroom and BalletBoy made:

I’m still surprised at how much work went into this project. They’ve made little stop motion movies before as well as some little kid live action movies. Both the boys have a facility with iPad movie editing apps. However, they had never seriously attempted a project this ambitious. And everything, from the choice of the book, to the script, to the music and shots had to be agreed upon and it wasn’t always easy with two directors who had different visions.

The script was especially tricky. In the end, we used the script that Mushroom wrote. He had all these great phrases and moments in it, like a vision of Ivan saying, “Mack didn’t call the vet,” followed by silence to indicate how Stella died and the idea of using a news report to explain how Ivan ends up at the zoo.

Building the set for the stop motion of Ivan was even harder. We started with thin plexiglass walls for the stuffed gorilla playing Ivan, but the glare was terrible no matter how we set up the lighting and we finally had to lose it. We also tried using a green screen and even borrowed a real green screen from a friend, but again the lighting was never quite good enough to make the green screen look good and it refused to pan properly. In the end, the kids just printed out the image of the mall circus store they’d chosen to be Ivan’s dismal backdrop. The green screen was also supposed to be used for the news report, but all the takes didn’t work and we had to wrangle our friends from co-op into doing the report instead.

Filming the crayon drawings also was tricky at times. The Stop Motion app cut off the edges of drawings, which was okay for some scenes, but meant we filmed the final credits (no joke) more than half a dozen times trying to make them readable and not cut off.

Not long ago, I posted about how I think parents should help their children with their projects sometimes. This is a great example of that for us. I did almost none of the work for this movie. Probably the biggest thing I did was make a couple of the protest signs when BalletBoy was sick and they needed to be done so Mushroom could film with their friends the next day. But every other bit of work was completely the kids. Every photo, every bit of filming, every drawing, every idea for the movie.

Mostly what I did do was a huge amount of organization for them. I kept them on schedule. I typed up the handwritten script and helped them edit and revise. I encouraged them to pay attention to the details and redo things when they didn’t work or to let things go when they weren’t happy with the best result we could get. I mediated and suggested compromises between their different ideas. I highlighted the parts of the script that had been filmed to help them keep track. I set aside time for them to work. I played cheerleader and said how great the project would be in the end. And it is great.

I think kids need all kinds of projects. They need things where it’s really completely on them from start to finish. They need things where they have to follow someone else’s rules. They need things where someone shows them how much they can do with a little support. This was a project with a little support and I feel really positive about it and so do the kids.

Please Help Your Kids With Their Projects

Mushroom working on our 90-Second Newbery Film. I set up the books so he could do the drawing and take the photos for the animation he's working on.
Mushroom working on our 90-Second Newbery Film. I set up the books so he could do the drawing and take the photos for the animation he’s working on.

A couple of school parent friends shared this Motherlode entry the other day online. In case you don’t want to read it, the gist of it is: parents should stop doing their kids’ projects and teachers should hold the parents accountable for it.

It sounds good on the surface. Part of me agreed with the author. However, the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I felt. In the end, it was a good reminder of why we homeschool. All the assumptions in the article are so radically different from my own about education. But they have to be. School forces everyone into making these choices between helping and hurting, that are, in a homeschool context, a completely false dichotomy.

I won’t get too much into the specifics of the example in the article. Suffice it to say the assignment in question was the kind I can’t imagine giving a third grader without any support.

And that’s sort of the point. School forces kids to have to do things to show they’re competent. It’s not about learning. It’s not about the process. It’s definitely not about doing what’s right or enriching for that kid. It’s solely about proof. In that context, of course helping a child get that proof is cheating.

But that’s not what education is about in our homeschool. It’s not about creating proof. Education for us is about the process. It’s about learning by doing. Sometimes that’s messy. It doesn’t look very good in a portfolio, much less at a science fair or a school assembly. But it’s meaningful and worth doing. It’s enriching and positive.

And as we do that work, I’m not only the teacher, I’m the parent, I’m the coach, I’m the cheerleader and sometimes, I’m the partner. This is why I still read aloud. We can read harder books and more challenging works. It’s why I sit with my kids and help them edit their writing, talking through it as I go. It’s why we use “buddy math” to learn how to do problems better, trading the textbook back and forth. It’s why I still let them narrate their revisions to me for their writing or still type up their papers sometimes. It’s why I work alongside them when they’re making big, complex art projects. It’s why I outlined the steps and kept making checklists for our current film project or why I’m taking the same MOOC as my kids this semester. I’m their teacher, but I’m also their learning partner.

This is not to say that I don’t value independence too, just that it’s not the only model for positive learning. It’s okay to swing between insisting that a child read one book independently and another can be read back and forth. It’s okay to insist that one page of the math book be done alone and checked together while another is worked jointly. I have been enjoying shepherding my kids through two projects with radically different rules: the 90-Second Newbery Film, where I can (and have) helped however I saw fit and the Destination Imagination challenge their team has chosen, where I have to sign an interference contract that forbids me from ever laying a finger to help with their work. Both models have great merits.

I do value having a product to show off sometimes. Having tangible work they can be proud of is something that can be important to kids (and to us as their teachers) to help them feel like they’re learning and doing meaningful work. But random assignments for school aren’t usually very meaningful. Kids don’t choose them. And because they’re chosen for the show value, kids rarely get much out of them whether they do them or their parents do them. My kids don’t choose all their work either, but much of it is for process. When we do a project, I give plenty of time and support so they can produce something that feels good and represents real learning.

So I say that independence is not better learning. Kids need partners. Help your kids with their work sometimes so they can feel supported in their learning, so they can learn more, so they can focus on the process.

Anatomy of a Project: Houses

In the fall, I committed to trying out doing projects more with the kids and we tried a few things had one real success. With all out outside commitments, we have had to dial back and simplify and drop all the “extras” projects (we’re still doing some math and writing projects), but I wanted to back up and blog about our resources and the way this tiny germ spread down rabbit trails.

We started with a board of project ideas and “houses and architecture” was one of them. After some discussion, we picked it as one of the things we wanted to try out so I started gathering resources to try with the kids.

The first thing I pulled out, which I had been hoping to try, was the book A Blueprint for Geometry about designing your own house and learning about geometry at the same time. I was excited by that, though the kids were less so. However, as I started trying to organize it, I also got less excited. The book, frankly, was terrible. We loved the ideas about math and playground design in Designing Playgrounds from the same series, but this one, by a different author, was just not enough information or structure. With the kids not at all keen to do it, we dumped it. I asked if they wanted to build model houses or design a house and they weren’t interested. It turned into a dead end.

Next up, I brought home a pile of library books and the first one we studied was Housebuilding for Children. This delightful book from the 70’s (and I mean, so from the 70’s) is like a free range parent’s dream with several plans for tiny play houses for kids to build themselves. We got the materials to make the balloon frame house and dove in. It was really hard. I think the type of wood we got splintered too easily. Some of the materials in the book weren’t available. But in the end, the kids, mostly on their own, build the frame of the house! For real. Then cold weather hit and we didn’t finish it. It’s so small that I’m not sure if they will finish it or not (we may try to donate it to a friend). But it was really a rewarding part of the project. It took a lot of perseverance to do all that hammering and building.


I took out a bunch of books about buildings and architecture. I started with David Macauley’s Unbuilding, in which he imagines the Empire State Building being taken apart. This turned out to be really disturbing as a concept so we didn’t finish the book. Not only that, but the kids both agreed that they weren’t as interested in big famous buildings like the Pyramids and the Empire State Building. Instead, they wanted to focus on houses. We talked about the House and Home exhibit at the National Building Museum, which we have visited several times, and began to think together about some elements of that, such as different styles of homes and different needs people have for their homes.

I returned the buildings books and got a second pile of books about houses. See Through History: Houses and Homes was the first resource along with some other books about the history of different houses and simple picture books with images of houses around the world. I read some aloud and the kids read others on their own and wrote narrations about the different kinds of houses through time. Next, I found what is probably one of the greatest books I’ve found for a topic, Old House, New House by Michael Gaughenbaugh. This was an incredibly detailed picture book published by the National Historic Trust. I mentioned it in our book round up a few months ago. It covered American architecture styles from colonial to the present and everything in between with great drawings and a really well-done frame of a story about a boy whose family is restoring an old Victorian. The kids were really riveted by the book.

That led us in a few directions. I looked for other books about homes and architecture. We got I Know That Building, which turned out to be a really cute book with some cool activities, but aimed toward slightly younger kids. I also bought the Dover Coloring Book called The American House on a whim. That was much more useful. The kids and I all enjoyed coloring several pages in it and talking about the colors and designs of the homes. Finally, one more book in our library pile, The House I Live In: At Home in America, had a cool set of narratives of kids talking about their homes all over the country. The kids read the book and wrote their own pieces about our house.

That led us to think about our neighborhood and home. We investigated our own century-old house and did some activities to think about the details. We drew the house and did some art activities. Then we played around with old online maps of the city. We found our block going back as far as we could until we couldn’t find our block anymore on the oldest set of maps. It didn’t exist! Then we went to the special local research library and found the “birth certificate” for our house and had it printed up, as well as the name of the original owner. Back home, the kids learned to use the online newspaper archives to look up our address and the original owner. We didn’t find too much, but we did learn that the original owner had been German and later became a middle school principal. It was really exciting for the kids to make their own discoveries as they searched and zoomed in on the old newspaper pages from nearly a century ago.

Meanwhile, I took out a pile of books about various architects. Most of them ended up unread, but BalletBoy read one about Frank Gehry and loved it (and asked to go to Spain… hm…). We also watched a documentary about Frank Lloyd Wright and I promised the kids a trip to Falling Water that still needs to be delivered. I took out a number of books with activities about Frank Lloyd Wright as well as other architects, such as a book about Greene and Greene. However, none of the activities really resonated with the kids, so we didn’t do much of them.

When winter arrived, the project sort of naturally petered out. However, it was really neat to have this focus on a “big” topic for a solid couple of months. The project brought in some math, a lot of research skills, some hands on skills, a lot of teamwork, some reading, some writing, a surprising amount of history, and some art. The kids had to bear with me as I took us on some detours and assigned things like writing and reading to go with this project and I had to follow them and shut down some of my visions for what the project could be and follow the things they were interested in.

Overall, it was a good experience. While we’re taking a hiatus from doing another big, all-encompassing project like this, I’m excited to try another one in the future.

Projects, Part Two… A Tale of Two Kids

So I wrote about how we’re moving to be more project based, but one of the major hitches in this plan has been two kids with radically different approaches to projects.  This is coming about especially for the projects they create for themselves.  Right now, we have a nice long chunk of time in the evening for them to work on projects that they’ve created.

BalletBoy immediately rolls down the hill.  Mushroom hangs back.
BalletBoy immediately rolls down the hill. Mushroom hangs back.

First, I’ve got BalletBoy.  Ever since BalletBoy became my little night owl (if he ever abandons the ballet, I may have redub him Night Owlet on the blog), he has been staying up late to do things.  He has written little books on his iPad, borrowing my keyboard and making illustrations for them on the Scribble Press app.  He has read books and drawn pictures and even sewn things on the sewing machines.  However, mostly he has programmed.  He has become a complete Scratch addict.  So much so that we all had to celebrate Scratch Day like a real holiday with a party.

Here’s a Scratch program he’s especially proud of.  The other night, the Husband came to tell me that BalletBoy fell asleep programming, his hands resting lightly on the keyboard and his head leaned back on the sofa.  The Husband had to remove the computer and carry him to bed.

Basically, when I set BalletBoy loose, he’ll come up with something to do and carry out most of his projects to completion.  He wants to share them with us and wants validation and support, but he doesn’t want us to do anything but play his games, read his stories, and generally praise his effort.  He might be the perfect project kid at the moment.  He wants to do projects, he’s open to some feedback, but he’s very set on doing his own vision.  He works diligently.  He turns out interesting things and doesn’t let himself get stuck in a rut.

Mushroom on the other hand…  Mushroom dreams big with great ideas for projects and ambitious plans.  He imagines elaborate Scratch games, writing screenplays, creating board games, drawing long series of comics, and more.  However, when it comes time to actually carry out his ideas past the initial exploration, it’s a flop.  He can spend hours imagining and planning, but when it’s time to do something, he always pulls back.  Even worse, the more he sees BalletBoy finish, the more he beats himself up and the less he does.  It had gotten to the point that he was wandering around every evening, complaining about being bored, refusing to work on anything, even refusing to dream big anymore.

The root of this is really his anxiety.  I’m not generally an anxious person, but I certainly recognize how anxiety keeps you from finishing things.  I don’t think I finished a single math assignment throughout high school.  If I just left the last problem or two unfinished, I knew it wasn’t really done, and therefore not really a reflection on my math abilities.  That was a pretty silly justification, but I know that’s how I felt.  For Mushroom, he is afraid to fail, which makes him afraid to commit to really doing anything.

If he was content to not finish things for awhile, that would be okay, but he’s clearly suffering and unfulfilled by this state of affairs.  He has always wanted time to himself to do things, but then struggled to figure out what to do with that time.  I worry that if I simply leave him to it and let him be that he will build up a bigger and bigger block about finishing things.  I see this when he doesn’t have an experience for awhile that’s in his anxiety provoking category.  If he doesn’t run across a dog for a couple of months or doesn’t get a chance to be outside on his own for a few weeks thanks to weather, those things become more and more difficult for him.  On the other hand, the more he does them, the easier and more routine they are, usually with minimal anxiety and fuss.

Mushroom and I have been in talks about all this.  He is, after all, an incredibly self-reflective kid.  He agrees that he’d like me to help him carry things out and finish things.  A couple of weeks ago, with him alone in the house for the afternoon, I suggested we finish a project together.  His enthusiasm for the completion of it was ecstatic.  Close your eyes and remember how good it feels to finish things, I told him.  Below is the little movie we made that afternoon (he did most of the camerawork and all the editing and had the vision, I helped with some of the art).

We’re trying out making a list of projects he’d like to do.  It’s a short list.  When he finishes one, he has to take it off the list and also take at least one other project off the list, a project that will never be finished.  The idea is that there’s this list of options, but he knows that some of them will never be completed and some of them will.  So far, this is working and he’s been more productive than before when we’ve tried to list things he’d like to do and it seemed too open ended or too intimidating.  Right now, he’s working mostly on inventing his own candy and trying to finish an online Code Academy course on Javascript.

Coming up next…  Projects for “School”


Projects, Part One


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…

Movie Making

There has been stop motion movie mania here recently.  First, BalletBoy made a stop motion movie for his Christmas Eve performance.  He did it completely on his own, or he would have except I had to figure out how to transfer all the pictures to the iPad for him in a reasonably quick way.  In case the plot is unclear, Mary (who the Husband bought a replacement of off eBay for $3!) and her friend Big Frog attend a Christmas pageant.  The baby Jesus is portrayed by a baby frog in the pageant and the angel is portrayed by Duck.  It’s probably the sort of thing that only a mother could think was excellent, but I’m just enamored so much with the sustained effort he put into it.  We put it on Youtube so it could be viewed on the big TV for performances, so you can see it here.

Anyway, since Christmas, the kids have been movie-making mad around the Rowhouse.  BalletBoy introduced himself as, “ballet dancer and filmmaker,” the other day.  Most creations have been about thirty seconds or less.  They’re none so detail-oriented with dialogue and music the way that BalletBoy’s odd Christmas pageant movie was.  However, it’s just fun to see a new passion take hold suddenly.

Here’s some of the resources we’ve been using for these endeavors.  We already had the iMovie app on the iPad.  It’s good for adding music and cutting together a little film, but less good at stop motion, so I added a few things.  iMotion is a nice free app, though you have to buy add ons if you want to export your movie to any other format.  Also, you have to be sure to take the pictures with the app.  There’s no way to import them.  So I moved on to Smoovie, which we’ve been very pleased with.  It’s easy to use for kids, not too expensive with no more in-app purchases and allows you to import photos so you can take photos with your own camera then add them if you wish by pasting them directly.  Since BalletBoy was so fired up, I got him the last minute Christmas gift of The Klutz Book of Animation.  He has been excitedly getting ideas from it.  If you don’t want to buy the book, you can see the little movies they made to illustrate the ideas in the book for free online here.  And if you don’t have an iPad, you can download free software from there to make stop motion movies on your computer.  Finally, in looking for the right app, we downloaded a couple of lite versions of two drawn animation apps, and , both of which we’re just starting to play with, but which look fun as well.  Maybe we’ll start animating our art as well.

Projects and Revolutions

A couple of months ago, I read Lori Pickart of the Camp Creek Blog‘s book Project-Based Homeschooling.  While I didn’t absolutely love it, I would say it’s definitely worth a read.  The ideas from it are still swimming around in my head, along with bits and pieces about project-based learning.

I liked the book because it straddles the space in homeschooling that I aspire to straddle: the space between structure and freedom and actually had practical ideas about how to bring that space about in your homeschool.  It was a book that made you want to do art with your kids, especially if they’re at all arty.  And the ideas about organizing art spaces were excellent and inspiring.  However, for a short book, the text got repetitive for me pretty fast.  And I was disappointed that the projects remained focused on art or letting kids use art in service of subjects that interest them.  To me, engineering, science and writing are all just as ripe for project-based learning as art.  These topics do get some coverage, but it’s pretty clear to me that the author has a lot less experience with them than with art, which was clearly her passion.  I would have loved to see just as much space about organizing science supplies as art, for example.

I’m not sure if this really heralds any changes in our homeschool though.  As much as I love projects and try to support them when they arise, I can’t see them as the center of our homeschool.  If they were, then I know myself.  I would swoop in and ruin them or take them over.  It’s so much better when the kids have full charge of them and my roll is as tape supplier and general appreciator.

I will say though that eight seems to be a big project age in our house.  BalletBoy has been busy making things for the stuffed Perry the Platypus he got at Disneyworld, like a special carrying case from a tissue box and a special “room” from an Amazon box.  He also, of his own accord, made a Christmas stop animation video for his Christmas Eve performance, featuring a bunch of his toys going to admire the baby Jesus from the Playmobil nativity set.  A couple of years ago, I helped the kids make a stop motion Lego movie for Christmas, and while they took the photos and made the creative decisions, the whole thing required a lot of executive action on my part.  This go around, he did the whole thing alone and I was surprised by how good it looked.  He only had me step in at the end and show him how to load and edit it on the iPad.  (By the way, let me recommend Smoovie for that purpose.)

Mushroom has also been busy with projects.  He decided that he should have a “job” at co-op, which he refers to as the “revolution.”  It has led to a number of enterprises on his part, including a “fifteen minute writing class” that he has been teaching to some of the adults and which is both precious and surprisingly well-planned for a writing class taught by a kid who can’t spell.  He also initiated a co-op newspaper, which he drew a masthead for and wrote two articles for.  At which point, I stepped in and offered to help him put it on the iPad so he could play around with formatting and put in other stories.  He published one issue and was so excited to hand it out.  When I wrote my self-assessment, I said that I needed to plan more writing projects ahead of time instead of waiting for them to organically arise.  So, of course, as a result, one organically arose from the kids.

Mushroom shows off his newspaper.
Mushroom shows off his newspaper.

With all this great project learning going on at the Rowhouse, I can’t really deny the power of project-based learning.  I say it’s not central, but upon more reflection really I mean it’s not central to my thinking and planning.  It may be central to the kids’ learning and processing.  As I said before, it doesn’t take much planning for the adults to have tape, junk, electronics, and other project materials on hand.  Nor does it take anything but simple time to listen and encourage for us to support kid-driven projects or a little flexibility to work something important into our schedules.  The things that take planning for me are teaching the various core subjects we learn about.  It takes planning and buying curricula and books to teach math, reading, history and so forth.  That’s my job: to teach the actual stuff.  The wonderful thing is that the stuff I teach informs these projects.  They get into the history topics we study.  They make art about the books we read.  They act out games that play off the science we learn.  This is like a learning conversation.  So while I plan school, they plan projects and each can inform the other.