Real Work For Real Kids
Creating Authentic Learning Through Meaningful Projects
People naturally enjoy work. Children, especially, look for opportunities to do more work. Work is what gives us purpose, teaches us who we are, helps us grow, and allows us to mobilize our supremely human yearning to create and be creative.
The reason our children (and ourselves) fight against, dread, or resist work is about sovereignty and ownership. When we choose and are in charge of our own work, the work satisfies and enlivens us. When we are assigned work we have little interest in and are expected to perform to another’s standards and purpose, work becomes drudgery.
Unfortunately, this situation describes most schooling. In traditional schooling, we learn early that work is a chore done to meet someone else’s expectations. There’s nothing wrong with some of the work we do being in this category, but a kind of creative death happens when a child has only extrinsic motivation to do most or all of her work. Work becomes a bore, something to get over with as quickly as possible.
Homeschoolers have the opportunity to avoid creative collapse and work aversion by carefully choosing what school looks like at home. A project-based curriculum is one enjoyable way to bring the meaning back to work.
Project-based learning is authentic and real. If you make a garden, redecorate a room, organize a party, change standard operating procedures, lead a food drive, or start a stamp collection, you’re using project-based learning. You’re being creative for your own purposes and working to your own standard—often on your own time.
Children can do this as well, and it’s academic learning and life skills rolled into one appealing package. Getting them started might be as easy as saying “What do you want to do?” or it might require a good amount of conversation and inspiration. (And time.)
This is slow learning. A worksheet can safely be completed in 10 minutes, demonstrating the acquisition of a skill. But the worksheet means nothing to me before, during, or after. The product is literally garbage.
The goal of project-based learning is to create something that lasts longer, engenders pride in the maker, reflects meaningful learning, and uses a complex set of skills that the child will use her whole life long.
It’s a true education, and it usually involves reading, writing, and arithmetic.
One of my children created a rocks and minerals museum in our spare room. It required a trip to the Smithsonian, meeting a geologist and touring her lab, discovering the Dewey decimal system to find the right books, asking a librarian for help on her own, reading about cool crystals, inspecting my collection, purchasing new specimens from a rock shop, organizing the collection, designing the exhibit space, making posters and signs, writing and sending invitations, and then hosting the event. She even gladly cleaned the house in anticipation of opening night. You can’t beat this kind of education!
Another one of my children was interested in clay. She asked me to find a local clay artist and then wrote a letter to his studio. The artist wrote back inviting her to visit and sculpt together. I took pictures and made notes while they talked. She researched kinds of clay and asked me to purchase some. She got books from the library, watched videos, and looked at the work of other ceramic artists. She spent lots of time making pieces from various kinds of clay and then wrote an invitation for others to make things and submit them to an art show. She collected the pieces, created gallery labels, and designed invitations and posters inviting people to the gallery. During gallery time, she answered questions and graciously accepted compliments.
People often exclaim that it must take so much of my time to homeschool. It does, of course, but it is not more than I’d spend on school if they went to a conventional school. Getting them dressed on time, finding all the things, driving, drop-off, pick-up, helping with homework, dealing with papers that come home, dealing with issues that come home. It takes no more energy to see to their learning here, and here we can do it in an authentic and personalized manner!
The same goes for project-based homeschooling. I can spend time on instruction and overseeing, inspection, and cajoling, or I can spend my time talking with them, and learning with them.
At our house, we have regular project meetings so that each child can get my undivided attention to work through hang-ups, ask for help, and request resources. At the first one in a cycle, I remind them that the goal is to “create something meaningful that you can share with others.”
During our initial project planning meeting, they throw out a list of ideas or just things they’re interested in or interested in learning. I write them in my project book while they ideate. Bunnies, clay, pioneers, big buildings, rocks and minerals, talking to people on the phone.
I make lists as they ruminate, consider. I help them along by asking questions and I try very hard not to suggest things—because I get excited about their ideas, too!
“What do you want to know about this?” “Can you think of a place we could go to learn more?” “Who could we meet or contact that knows a lot about this?” “Have you seen something like this in real life?” “What else? Anything else?”
The quantity and quality of ideas your kids are able to generate is directly related to the quantity and quality of exposures and experiences they’ve had. You may need a few weeks of field trips, library runs, curated video segments, hikes, walks, and crafting projects to generate good momentum.
If your children are very young, they may like to spend a few weeks exploring creative stations before they can identify something that calls to them. If you build it, they will come! Try a well-organized and inviting writing station (paper of all kids, little blank books, envelopes and stamps), an art center (paints, markers, tracing paper, recycling, glue, tape, and scissors), a building center (blocks, Legos, cardboard and tape), or drama center (puppets, dress-up clothes, props). Pay attention to what they gravitate toward, what they talk about, and what they’re comfortable spending longest on.
Consider keeping a questions poster for the child in his workspace. You can label it with “I wonder…” or “I want to know…” at the top. You may need to remind him to add things to his list as you hear him talk.
You can keep your own list to model the thinking and organizing process—and recognize your own creative yearnings! Talk about the work you do on your own projects to help your children see this in action. “I was planning to make lasagna tonight but we’re out of cheese so I made fried rice instead. I’ll have to go to the store tomorrow…. I was thinking of writing my essay tonight but I need an uninterrupted hour. Would that work for all of you?… I want to play this song for Grammy’s birthday. Can you listen to me play it so I can practice performing?”
When we first started projects, my kids liked having a list of product ideas. The list helps them narrow down what is most exciting or comfortable. Do they want to build, write, publish, sell, design, teach, change? Will they share personally, or create something that speaks for them? The idea is to open up the mind to possibility and curiosity.
Doing the Work
Once your child chooses her topic or product (sometimes one comes long before the other, and that’s okay!), it’s time to start the research part.
At our project meeting, I ask: “What do you need to know?” or “What do you want to be able to do?” or “To make this, what do you need?”
The child then brainstorms and I, scribe again, keep a running list of notes in my project notebook. When we’ve identified the first steps, I ask “What do you need me to do? and “What are you going to do next?” Then we each make a list of tasks to accomplish before the next meeting.
At each meeting, I ask “What did you do since last time?” “What do you need from me?” and “What’s next?” With older kids, we can meet once a week. Younger kids, or those with a more scattered sense of purpose, may need daily meetings.
Research-stage tasks might include field trips, the acquisition of books and supplies, contacting people, and looking into what’s available in your community and online. It always includes a lot of reading.
Sometimes the space between meetings (1-7 days) is filled with self-directed project work. Sometimes our family (or one child) does better with scheduled daily project time. In this model, I set aside 1–2 hours a day that we focus on project work. The kids know I am available to them during this time and I won’t “just a minute” them if they come to me needing help. Sometimes I sit with them for the duration of project hour. I take pictures of their progress, make notes in my project notebook, ask questions, or assist as I am asked.
A project’s duration may be an entire year for teenagers, or a smaller project broken into even smaller bits lasting only a week or two for the very young. What’s important is forward progress, not how long it takes. Like natural childbirth, let’s not focus on how long it takes, but rather slow and steady progress, much of which is invisible.
Remember that important work is happening in the mind while it appears that nothing is getting done. Revisiting a field trip location may seem redundant to you, but a different child leaves that place each time. Doodling, staring into space, and making things that won’t ultimately work is part of the creation process. All I need to do is ask the right questions and wait. Oh, and sometimes I have to help them clean their workspace.
The Project’s Product
Look. If you want people to think you’re cool and your kids are amazing, do project-based homeschooling. If you want to convince your mother-in-law that homeschooling will not make her grandchildren into anti-social weirdos who can’t do long division, do project-based homeschooling.
When your kid shows up with a newspaper he wrote, hosts a neighborhood Olympics complete with country flags and gold medals he made from cardboard, or shares a series of instructional videos he made on campfire starting methods, it’s nothing but glory, laud, and honor. This naturally feeds the creative work loop. When a child feels validated in her interests and her creation is deemed good, it spurs more work, more creativity.
As we near the end of a project, our meetings turn a bit more toward completion and time-table topics. The questions I ask are: “Have you learned what you wanted to about this?” “Are you satisfied with this part?” “Is this something you feel done with?” “Is it ready to show people?” “Is there anything else you need to get, make, find, do?” “What could make this even cooler?”
Slow learning like this requires trust. We have to trust our children and recognize their sovereignty over their own learning. The way they work may be different than ours. It may seem to us wildly non-linear, repetitive, boring. It is work, nonetheless. And the product is a joyful creator who relishes the opportunity to work and make a meaningful contribution to her community. What else are we going to do with our lives?