Independent Study Projects: Learning Science While Exploring Interests

Science is about learning and solving problems. Ask a question, research, collect data, analyze the data, and communicate the results. As students engage in independent study projects, they are doing exactly that.

There is no limit to what types of projects students can explore. Students can choose to write original music, design a hybrid car, create lessons to teach others computer programing or coding, knit a sweater, research how other cultures define beauty, and more.

independentstudyEven my daughter, who in the past has chosen fly tying as her independent project. Along the way, she found instructional books or videos, followed instructions, made mistakes, diagnosed the problem, and tried again. These strategies are the cornerstone of science.

By giving students time to learn what they want to learn, you give them a chance to experience what adults are expected to do every day at the workplace or at home. They discover that learning for the sake of learning is a wonderful experience that should be enjoyed as they head out into the real world.

These real-life learning experiences give students (and teachers) the time they need to be innovative, and it makes learning as enjoyable as it should be.

Where Do We Start?

Ask students what they would like to learn about. Some students may be overwhelmed with possibilities and take a few weeks to decide. Others will change their minds after a little research. But with guidance and encouragement, students can identify a topic that interests them.

Once they’ve chosen their topic, students then set a goal, make a plan, and choose a method of documenting their plan, research, and progress. Some will blog or keep a notebook, while others prefer to track their progress with a Pages or Word document.

How Do We Stay Focused?

To assure students stay focused, a few simple rules can help:

  • Your project must involve new learning
  • Your project must be safe
  • You should be able work on your project at least once each week
  • You should document learning while working on your project
  • You should plan to spend the whole year working on your project
  • You will give two presentations on your project – one at the end of each semester

passionprojectIn our homeschool, we set aside time each Friday for independent study projects. However, they often work on their projects throughout the week. At times, it is even difficult to pull my son away from his projects to get other tasks completed. I can’t blame him. Who wants to take out the trash when you are focused on weaving a 12-plaited paracord bullwhip ?! {click the link to watch a video}

We also provide the kids with an opportunity to share with us the progress they are making during our monthly Family Five Share. They are expected to share examples in at least five areas: reading, writing, handcraft, music, and memory work.

Build Life Long Skills

Independent study projects also provide students with opportunities to connect with others – to learn from their peers and from adult mentors. Through my daughter’s interest in fly tying, she developed relationships with other fly tiers who took her under their wing (pun intended).

In some circles, independent study projects are referred to as The Passion Project or Genius Hour. Google allows it’s engineers to spend 20% of their time to work on any pet project that they want and thus they use the term 20-Time Projects. Whatever you choose to call them .. get started today. You will love the autonomy that students develop through discovering their passions.

 Our goal as educators should be to create lifelong learners.  Independent study projects are a huge step towards that goal.

4 Steps to Intentional Planning

I wrote a post recently in which I inquired whether we too busy to connect with others and to make a commitment to community and family?  I haven’t found the answers but I have discovered that I am not alone.  I know balance is something we all struggle with … whether we choose to homeschool or not. Homeschool families, however, have the added burden or joy (depending upon your outlook) of also planning extracurricular activities around the needs to complete curriculum.  As Angie commented,

“People say – you guys are always busy. I say we are always engaged, intentionally. When I ask these same families to join us, I don’t have to ask you to guess their response – we can’t, we’re too busy. We have stacked our days on purpose to have large amounts of free time.”

Like Angie and other homeschool families, we are engaged in intentional activities and varied learning opportunities.  I take advantage of every available resource and seek out opportunities for learning, particularly areas that I can not teach myself.  When we attend community lectures, get involved in fraternal activities or volunteer work, we do so with purpose.  Even so, I constantly strive for balance and to achieve it, rely on the flexibility of our schedule.  Today I would like to share with you our step-by-step guide for intentional planning.

intentional planning

Step 1 :: Create Your Master Schedule

Each trimester, sit down with a master schedule and note the days and times the kids have lessons – extracurricular activities, lessons with tutors, co-ops, etc.  These will undoubtedly vary from family to family but essentially it is any activity you coordinate with another – whether it is attending church service, a private lesson, a sport, or regular volunteer obligation.

In our home, the kids have Mandarin lessons twice a week for an hour each, music lessons once a week for 30-45 minutes, bible study and science co-op are both once a week, and swim team is available five evenings a week (though we generally attend only three times).  On a monthly basis, we have Roots & Shoots outings, Barnesklubb, and lodge business meetings.   I also like to color code activities which also correspond to our family calendar. 

Step 2 :: Plan Lessons & Outings in Blocks

With your master schedule in place, you can now begin to fill in the open time with formal lessons and chores.  I like to do this in chunks and utilize a modified cleaning schedule from the Fly Lady.  Though we do math and language arts daily, we focus on history on Monday and science on Wednesday.  This creates uninterrupted time during which the kids can explore topics of personal interest – crochet, aerodynamics, reading, and of course Minecraft.


I also work with the kids one-on-one regularly.  When Sweetie is working with her Mandarin tutor, I work with her brother in math and writing; when Buddy brother is engaged in his piano lesson, his sister is expected to write a letter (and vice versa).   I thereby carry along a school bag wherever we go that contains the kids’ math books, writing paper, notecards and stamps, and a read aloud (a novel or poetry).

I also chunk together our errands around town. Once a month (lodge days), for example, we are away from home for the majority of the day.  I thereby plan our visits to the library (and sometimes the bank or post office) on this day.  Though it makes for a very long day (we depart at 8:30 a.m. and don’t return home until after 9 p.m.); it is easier than making several trips back to the house for only 30-60 minute windows.  On the flip side, our hectic Thursday is always followed by a relaxing Friday with no obligation outside the home whatsoever.

Step 3 :: Allow For Change

When opportunities for play dates or field trips present themselves, forgo your formal lessons.  There is no harm in taking a day off, especially when it is for an educational experience or activity rich in learning.

Peruse your local newspaper, community websites, and bulletin boards – you’ll be surprised at the variety of opportunities that surround you.  Many of which are free!  This week alone, in our local community there is a walking tour offered by the historical society, a hook and needlers club gathering, a vermicomposting class, two fun runs to kickstart the new year, a Roots & Shoots outing, a Mandarin story time at the library, and many more.

Highlight those of interest to you and discuss the possibilities with the kids.  What captures their interest?  Put them on the calendar and go!  These opportunities are not only rich in themselves but provide for experiences the kids can write about and share with others later.

Step 4 :: Let Them Lead

Now that the kids are older and exploring personal interests, conflicts arise more often.  When they do, we weigh the benefits and occasionally make adjustments.  Generally, the conflicts are in the evening when we have swim team.  Fortunately, we have the ability to go to swim practice five times a week (six if we go on Saturday morning), our goal is to swim at least three times a week and we generally able to do so regardless.

My daughter has always had an interest in fly fishing. When I learned of a fly tying class offered in the fall and spring each year (one night a week for six consecutive weeks), my daughter was ecstatic.  It meant giving up swimming on that night but it was her decision. Fly tying has become a passion, however.  She attended Fish Camp this past summer and received a fly rod and reel for Christmas.  She is already learning to balance her own interests.

Next week, I will share a series of video posts describing How I Teach.  Each day will focus upon a different curriculum area – Monday: Language Arts, Tuesday: Math, Wednesday: Science, Thursday: History, and Friday: Fine Arts.  I am really excited for this series.  See you then! 🙂

Unschooling Wisdoms: How I Know Unschooling Works for Us

As I consider us to be classically minded, unschoolers, I don’t always know exactly how much my kids know in relation to all subject areas. Formal assessments are no fun and though we have taken part in some standarized testing in the past, the true measure of their growth comes from little snippets of conversations.  Little moments when I realize the wisdom of unschooling and I know unschooling works for us.


Snippets in Math

Whenever my little man watches a movie or listens to an audio book – he gets really into the characters and his playtime incorporates scenes and acts from the storyline.  His imagination and creativity know no bounds.  More often than not, his characters revolve around Harrison Ford’s most well known characters as he has morphed into Hans Solo and Indiana Jones.  He carries a 8-foot, 10-plait Raiders of the Lost Ark bull whip everywhere we go and on his personalized swim cap, he chose “Indy” rather than his given name.

For the past couple of weeks, in addition to his usual fascination with the quest for the ark of the covenant, my little man has been intrigued with tree houses.  It started when we were staying with Grandma and Papa and he watched a few episodes of Treehouse Masters on Animal Planet. Upon our return home, he eagerly began working on his own treehouse – despite the fact that we rent and the two trees in our yard aren’t suitable for a treehouse.

I  have suggested that he sketch out his plans before he begins and to consider writing a letter to the host of the show asking for advice and words of wisdom.  He got started on his blue prints, as he calls them, immediately and eagerly showed them to me. As he described his plan he explained, “These are two 4x8s.  You cut a little out in the middle of each board to go around the tree.  Together they make an 8×8 square. That will be the floor of my treehouse.”

While this wasn’t highly technical – I loved the practical application of his math skills, elicited entirely by his own interests.  I have actually covered the concepts of area and perimeter with him. In fact, one of the reasons this snippet of conversation resonated so strongly with me was because of a situation some time ago that resulted in our decision to pull out of the umbrella charter school we had aligned with for a short time when we first moved to California.  You can read about that decision in my earlier post, Our Letter of Withdrawal.

unschoolingSnippets in Science

While undertaking a simple science activity recently, I had the opportunity to see just how well Sweetie understood the basics of chemistry.  I had planned to take part in a Google+ hangout and the topic was air.  I had thereby set up a couple of activities to demonstrate that air has mass.

I mixed a little baking soda and vinegar in a cup to produce carbon dioxide gas and then I used the invisible gas to put out a flame on a candle.  We hadn’t done this activity in the past so prior to doing so, I asked the kids to make a prediction.  To my surprise, Sweetie stated that she thought the candle would go out because CO2 is heavier than air.  I was actually taken aback. “How do you know this?” I inquired, half expecting them to say, “I saw it on Myth Busters.”

“It’s simple, Mom.”  She began. “It shows on the periodic table. We breathe air which is hydrogen. Carbon dioxide is both carbon and oxygen. The table is organized by weight and hydrogen is first.  It is the lightest. Carbon and oxygen are here (she pointed them out to me). This little number here tells how much each atom weighs so carbon dioxide is heavier. If you pour it out of the cup it will land on the flame and put out the candle.”

Whoa .. she blew my mind.  I have honestly NOT taught this to her directly.  We’ve done other chemistry activities and I’ve talked with them about the periodic table but she made these connections on her own.

These little snippets of conversations are proof that unschooling works for us. While I will continue to sprinkle formal lessons – both classical and Charlotte Mason – throughout our daily endeavors, I can trust in my children and be comforted that we will have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life.

We Are Unschoolers

If you told me nine years ago when we first started our homeschooling journey that I would be an “Unschooler” I would not have believed you. As a matter of fact, I probably would have laughed. But here I am, a former public school teacher with my type-A personality doing just that – homeschooling my two munchkins using a very relaxed, eclectic approach.

To clarify what I mean by a relaxed, eclectic approach {the definition may vary depending on who you ask} … for our family this means that we do not stick to a rigid schedule where the same thing occurs at the same time every day. Rather we allow for flexibility and changes within our day to best suit that days learning. The only consistencies in our schedule are predominately our electives (Mandarin, violin/piano, & swim team); because these are scheduled events that are taught by others, they seldom get pushed aside.

When we first started on our homeschool journey,  I spent hours planning a schedule and writing out lesson plans in a planner but we never seemed to adhere to them.  Since then, I have come to learn that a tentative and flexible plan at the beginning of each school year (essentially an outline of what we want to accomplish each school year – unique to each child) is what suits us best. Therefore, I no longer write our lessons in a plan book ahead of time – they were changed so frequently, my pencil erasers were all worn down to the metal ring – instead, I record what we have accomplished and when after the fact.

I have also come to realize – very recently in fact – that my kiddos dislike busy work and while I love them, they also abhor lapbooks. I used to spend hours researching clever activities and projects to integrate into our lessons – but the kids were always reluctant and many of these projects remain incomplete to this day. When I inquired about what they could remember about past topics – some recent, others rather distant – I was surprised to hear how much they could recall. Additionally, they often times interject facts and tidbits they have picked up from BrainPop, Oregon Field Guide, and other educational resources into our daily living. These conversations proved to me that they are both remarkable auditory learners.

I strongly believe learning occurs best in a relaxed environment. This does NOT mean there is no structure, rather it means that our lives are not ruled by a strict schedule. Additionally, I try very hard not to over schedule extra- activities. There are kiddos on our swim team that are constantly rushed from one activity to another (swimming, soccer, tennis, music lessons, etc.). We wonder when they actually have time to “play”.

Our relaxed atmosphere has given our children a love for learning that never tires.  While we ‘school year-round’ we take frequent breaks and our levels of intensity ebb and flow as often as the tides.  The important thing though is that my kiddos love learning .. they love watching documentaries and programs like How It’s Made. We still teach our children how to stay within certain time constraints – deadlines are, after all, a part of life. Our relaxed approach, however, enables us to spend more time on a concept or subject if we choose. This gives us the ability to focus on something a little longer than originally planned.

“It is as true now as it was then that no matter what tests show, 
very little of what is taught in school in learned, very little of what is learned is remembered,
and very little of what is remembered is used.  The things we learn, remember, 
and use are the things we seek out or meet in the daily, serious, non-school parts of our lives.”
~ John Holt

By its very definition – there is no typical unschooling day! Unschooling is a philosophy that assumes learning is naturally part of life. It takes into account the innate curiosity of the child, the dynamic of the family living together under one roof, and the experiences we encounter each day and says, “This is education”.  This is not to say that there are not moments where I want to throw in the towel … even seemingly endless arguments and frustrations.  My little guy, for example, is a tough one.  I seldom seem to catch him in the frame of mind suitable to learning.  He is so very active and when we do sit down, he complains of being uncomfortable and wiggles about constantly.  He tests my patience on a daily basis.  Yet I can see evidence of growth and maturity.  One day at a time has become my mantra.

As they grow older, however, it is becoming clearer that they are capable of taking on the responsibility of their own education.  Making choices that best suit them.  It is my job to help guide them along their own journey, after all.