- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 29, 2007

One of the ways we can help students make a learning breakthrough is to set up an interesting project with a specific deadline. Having a set time by which the activity must be completed adds momentum to the work. Just as important is having an audience that will be touched by the student’s efforts, whether it is a reading, listening or viewing audience. The idea that “others will see this” adds incentive to the process.

Even young learners can respond to a project idea: “Let’s make a scrapbook for Grandpa’s birthday.” It’s clear the project must be done by a certain date, and that it will be seen by various members of the family. This provides a framework of purpose, a definite endpoint and a desired result. For most people, having a specific “bite” of time and clear goal helps create focus.

One project might be a family newsletter, which could involve writing, drawing, photography, desktop or paper publishing, and as many other skills as you feel inspired to include. You can discuss the topics for stories and the various illustration elements. Each person can have an assignment, whether it be writing the story, preparing the drawing or photo, setting up the pages or sending out the finished newsletter.

In this way, writing, spelling, grammar, punctuation and other skills become important, because they have a focus: reaching the readers with your news. It might take months to learn something through the textbook, but only a few days when it becomes necessary for a certain project.

Many studies rely heavily on deadline events, such as a music or dance recital, or a play. Knowing that one’s accomplishments will be observed by a larger audience spurs one to practice and master many new skills. Once mastered, those skills can be accessed again and again, and become a platform for other skills to be added.

As home-schooling parents, we can teach our children how to create their own deadline projects. After experiencing the process a few times, they know the steps involved: have an idea, figure out the tasks involved, assemble the people or materials needed, solve problems as they go and complete everything by the time of the event.

Once they realize they can do anything they put their mind to, you may find your position changes from taskmaster to task receiver: “Mom, I need to get to the music store; I need a new part for my instrument.” “The library closes at 9, and I have to get that book I need.” “I’m out of thread, and this has to be sewn today. Can you buy me some?”

You also may become the collaborator. “Dad, I want to get a picture of the street from the roof. What’s the best way to get up there?”

I love when this happens, because then the child is learning he or she can be the initiating person, and we can be supporters. For a young person to realize he or she can enlist others in a personal vision is extremely important. They transcend the old structure of passive learning and become lifelong active learners.

The best projects are ones that are natural, extending from the environment or social structure or interests of that family. We have relatives with a farm, so it’s natural to set up a day where we go and help them out with a project like setting up a greenhouse. One family created a community directory of their neighborhood, which involved meeting neighbors, gathering the data, inputting it, designing the directory, printing and distributing it.

As the educating parent, it’s good to create a little report recording all the skills involved or mastered through the project. This is good for record keeping, of course, but more importantly, it lets the young person realize how much he or she gained in knowledge as they carried out their vision. Your record can be written, photographic, filmed or in any medium that seems useful and becomes a learning landmark referred to in later years, a reminder of what was accomplished.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

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