Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge. http://bie.org/about/what_pbl

        This year we used Project Based Learning, PBL, for one of the most dynamic and exciting years of all the 10 years we have been homeschooling. Several times this year, my son told me he had never been so proud of himself. Our journey through homeschooling has had highs and lows. What happened this year to make it such a high?

Sean at a rally.

Project Based Learning: Sean at a rally.

        What happened was we embarked on an academic project that was big, powerful, and meaningful. I keep saying we, because even though we didn’t always work together, this project required a lot of hard work, brainstorming, and collaboration from both my son and me. While it was one of the more independent things my son has done academically, there were components directed completely by me. The most surprising part to all of this is how easy the academic planning was. There have been many instances this year when the line, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way,” from Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken came to mind.

 Way led on to way, led on to way, until the project looked radically different from what I envisioned two years ago, when I started planning the project.

        Sean’s project focused on politics and activism in the United States. This was an exciting area to focus on this year, but it doesn’t matter what area the project focuses on if you follow some key steps. I know of many people who use PBL that focuses on science, engineering, robotics, computer programming, and the arts including writing.

Step 1: Think of a project. This important first step depends on the student and the family. The project works best if it is a collaboration. I came up with the overall focus for the project and the plan for the academic subjects we incorporated into it. Sean chose the candidates, issues, marches, and causes he focused on. 

  • Make it meaningful: Our family cares about politics. It’s only natural our son shares this value. This shared value helped make this project meaningful. My son’s feeling of pride in himself most likely stemmed from him working in an area that our family feels is important in a larger context outside of “just school”.

During the summer I asked Sean to choose the issue he thought was the most important, and then to choose a candidate to focus on who best represents his views on that issue. The issue Sean chose was income inequality.

Project Based Learning: During the summer I asked Sean to choose the issue he thought was the most important, and then to choose a candidate to volunteer for who best represented his views on that issue. The issue Sean chose was income inequality.

  • Think big: As a part of this project, Sean was expected to volunteer. I wasn’t sure how welcoming people would be about Sean volunteering. We learned age isn’t as important to being welcomed as the level of engagement; this is another reason to make it meaningful.

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Project Based Learning: Sean takes a picture with Bernie’s cutout, before learning how to register newly naturalized citizens to vote. Everyone was really welcoming and excited to have a teen work with them.

  • Figure out a way to roll other academics disciplines into the project: Language arts, history, computer programming, documentary film making, and speech were incorporated into the project. Sean completed a focused course of study, for example, on writing an expository essay during the first 8 weeks of 10th grade. To have the amount of time necessary to devote to the project it is essential that many core academic disciplines are incorporated into it. One of the most profound benefits of using PBL comes from the application of skills that are often learned in an abstract setting. In the case of a project like Sean’s it became clear to him why nonfiction writing is an important endeavor to work on.

Sean designed a website called California Teens for Bernie and started a Facebook group with the same name. In addition to writing the code to build it, He wrote articles and made short videos for his website.

Project Based Learning: Sean designed a website called California Teens for Bernie and started a Facebook group with the same name. In addition to writing the code to build it, he wrote articles and made short videos for his website.

 Step 2: Getting Started

  • With PBL there are benefits to focusing in the beginning on the core academic skills that will be incorporated into the project. This maximizes the amount of time spent working on these skills. Once the project gets started, it can be hard to find a cohesive stretch of time.
  • Blend independent work with collaboration: Sean was 15 when this project started. He didn’t always see the big picture. I often had better insight about the direction the project should head and why. In order for him to stay engaged and committed, I had to find a balance where his ownership over the project was coupled with thoughtful and low-key direction from me.

This is Sean and me with Tulsi Gabbard and a family friend. Sean and I worked canvassing together.

Project Based Learning: This is Sean and me with Tulsi Gabbard and a family friend. Sean and I worked canvassing together.

 Step 3: The Middle

  • Allow the project to take over your life. An academic project your child becomes immersed in is a special chapter in his or her journey through learning. It is rare for a young person to experience the joy of taking academic skills they have spent a large amount of their life learning and applying them to a real-world situation in a meaningful way.

Sean is discussing helping film and edit a music video about Bernie Sanders.

Project Based Learning: Sean is discussing filming and editing a music video about Bernie Sanders.

  • Do not be afraid to drop everything for an opportunity. These opportunities are another reason to front-load academic skills.

Project Based Learning:

Project Based Learning: Lay in

“Mom, can we go to a Black Lives Matter march tomorrow?”

Project Based Learning:
  • Document everything and collect contacts: A documented portfolio from the project is important for your child to have when applying to college, a job, or an internship. Collecting the names, addresses, and emails of people your child works with is an important part of the documentation process.

Project Based Learning: The staffers Sean volunteered with. We let them take over our house for a couple of weeks.

Project Based Learning: The staffers Sean volunteered with. We let them take over Jim’s office for a couple of weeks.

  • Tweak constantly: The more organic and free-flowing the project is, while still working on the application of skills, the bigger the project can become.

 

  • Seemingly ancillary endeavors can be incorporated into the project as long as your reasoning is well documented. For example, we started the year with a volunteer trip to the Lakota reservation at Pine Ridge. I consider this a part of Sean’s project. I think there are many important lessons to be learned for today and in the past looking at how US government policies have impacted Native Americans. With this explanation it becomes clear how this volunteer trip adds an important element to the entire project.

Project Based Learning: Learning American history

Project Based Learning: Learning American history at the Lakota Reservation.

  • Some parts of the project are more fun than others. There are a lot of important lessons to having your child work on both the super fun part and the less than exciting part.

Walking in marches is fun. Phone banking is not.

Project Based Learning: Walking in marches is fun. Phone banking is not. Sean did both anyway.

 Step 4: There really is no end

  • Do not put an artificial timeline on the project. If this project is important enough to devote significant time to, it is important to see it through to the end.

The primary season is over, but situations that need us to show up and be present are still with us!

Project Based Learning: The primary season is over, but situations that call for us to show up and be present are still with us!

Next stop Philadelphia!

Project Based Learning: Next stop Philadelphia!

  • This project opened your child’s world and mind, continue to make connections. Your child, and you, devoted a considerable amount of time becoming an “expert’ in the area surrounding their project, refresh those skills and make connections going forward.

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” John Wooden

Blair Lee loves to read, cook, laugh, hang out with friends, and homeschool. In 2015, she co-founded Secular, Eclectic, Academic Homeschoolers SEA Homeschoolers on Facebook. Blair writes for the Real Science Odyssey Series, RSO, as well as blogs and magazines. Blair speaks about eclectic, academic homeschooling, science, and travel at homeschool conventions. You can follow her at blairleeblog, Twitter, and Facebook.

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