Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Project-based homeschooling: My conversion moment

If project-based homeschooling were salvation, this would be the story of the moment I "got saved."

I went to school to be a teacher. I've spent my career working with other people's children and supporting and mentoring teachers and educators who work with children. I never intended to homeschool my own children. I know all the arguments against it. I've made many of them myself.

Then came SuperSam, whose unique blend of traits makes him a totally amazing person, an extremely challenging person, and a person who is just not made for Kindergarten at our local public school this fall.



His fifth birthday falls just a few days before the cutoff date for Kindergarten, anyway. A typical little boy in many ways, he is wiggly, squirmy, loud, and impulsive. He would have a hard time sitting still, walking quietly in line, and raising his hand. He's also shorter than a lot of his peers, and he still struggles to pronounce his "L," "R" and "W" sounds (making him seem younger than he is). He still needs a nap every afternoon, partly because his epilepsy medicine makes him drowsy. If he were someone else's kid, I would definitely advise them to wait a year before starting him in school. For a little boy with a late birthday, it's almost a no-brainer...not many kids in his position are ever hurt by having an extra year at home to mature a little bit.

The complication is that his brain, like a little sponge, is ravenously curious and is consuming information at an incredible rate. He asks endless spirals of questions that keep him up at night. He wakes up in the morning (at 5:30, usually!) already brainstorming what he's going to research. He is reading on a fifth grade level. He gets personally offended if he thinks he is being asked (even indirectly) to review or repeat content that he feels he has mastered...yet he can spend hours poring over the same book from the library, memorizing facts about the Horsehead Nebula or Corythosaurus. He hates to be interrupted when he's in the middle of a project that excites him, but trying to get him to focus long enough to put on his shoes sometimes takes twenty minutes of nagging (especially if he's reading or thinking about something else). He does weird, wild, and occasionally unsafe things that I can't always anticipate because he wants "to see what would happen."

He's an incredible kid...and yet he might be a Kindergarten teacher's worst nightmare in a classroom full of other kids his age.

After considering our options, we decided to take advantage of this "free" year and try homeschooling. I looked over the Virginia Standards of Learning for Kindergarten and found that SuperSam already knows most of what he would learn in Kindergarten (academically, anyway). I've always loved the idea of emergent curriculum learning and following children's interests, so when I found Lori Pickert's book, Project Based Homeschooling, I was intrigued.

(Here's a handy Amazon affiliate link, in case you need that book!)
                

I'm not buying any curriculum for this year. Mentally, I have committed to this path- homeschool Sam for Kindergarten, follow his questions and interests (and work in other things if we need to), and reevaluate next year. It was the best decision in our situation. It was what we needed to do.

Tonight, though, I had a conversion experience. Tonight, I went beyond "mentally committed because this seems like the best choice." Tonight, I became totally heart-committed and gut-committed to this idea of letting his interests spark and catch fire and burn through acres of material...because tonight, I saw the pure joy in his face at being able to soak up as much information as he could hold with the promise that he would be able to keep coming back for more the next day, the one after that, the one after that, as long as he wanted.

Based on this one day, here's what project-based homeschooling could look like at our house (from SuperSam's perspective):

Go to the doctor for a checkup. Upon leaving, tell the receptionist that you'd really prefer a dinosaur sticker to the cartoon character she is offering you. Receive a handful of dinosaur stickers from her (because she is charmed by your assertive request and thinks it is cute that you said you'd "pwee-fuh a dinosaw stickuw, especiawwy a pawwasawallofuss if you have one"). Immediately flip through the stack of stickers and discover one that you don't know (called Herrerasaurus). Clap your hands in delight and drop all the stickers on the floor. Put Herrerasaurus on your shirt and struggle with the pronunciation by reading it upside down all the way home. (There are just so many "R's" in that word.)

Upon arriving home, demand to use the iPad to look up Herrerasaurus. Work through naptime and into dinnertime reading about this creature. Pull out the globe to find out where South America (specifically Argentina) is so you can draw a map of it. Draw a map of Argentina in your notebook and put a picture of Herrerasaurus next to it...then add two other dinosaur species that you know came from Argentina. Move all your stuff from the living room floor to the laundry room because your little sisters are "distracting" you. Jot down as many facts about the species as you can find in the margins of the picture. Pull your dad away from his dinner to show him your maps and facts. Begin making plans to make a big map of Argentina with all its dinosaurs on it, "way bigger" than your notebook...then decide you will make a similar map of China, then Africa, then the WHOLE WORLD with dinosaurs all over it occupying the modern-day countries where their fossils have been found. Reluctantly agree to go to bed (late), then stay up way past bedtime reading a dinosaur reference book by the glow of a tiny nightlight at the head of your bed. Come running out of your room screaming and waving the book when you find an entry on Herrerasaurus hidden in the middle of its pages. As you are being tucked back in, tell your awestruck mother that your brain "is going to explode with happiness about Herrerasaurus because it is just...so...exciting."

It was passionate. It was instinctive. It was his idea, his momentum, his knowledge, his research. And yet now, without adult prompting or coaching, he has learned where Argentina is, how big Herrerasaurus was, in what period it lived, what it ate, what its bones looked like, and that it had a small role in the movie Jurassic Park. (A little pop culture knowledge is almost always useful, right?)

I know it might not be like this all the time, but it can be like this at least some of the time. I can do this...I can make this possible for him by creating an environment in which he has what he needs to do this for himself. For the first time, I feel certain that this is the right decision for him and for our family right now. He's more than capable- I've always known that.

Now I can picture what it looks like.