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Learning to be a Learning Mentor

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about what it means to learn and how we learn best. This is a natural part of the whole “back to school” season, but I’m really digging into it this year. It’s been good, and kind of intense.

Learning to Mentor in Project-Based Homeschooling

When I discovered Lori Pickert’s Camp Creek Blog and read her book, Project-Based Homeschooling, I knew I’d found a homeschooling style that really clicked with me. Project-Based Homeschooling is Reggio-inspired, interest-led learning in which the parent acts as an active mentor, helping the child find the materials and other resources they need in order to take on projects of their own. It’s different from unschooling in that it doesn’t philosophically exclude parent-directed learning, but it separates student-led projects from parent-directed curriculum. This is fine by me. I like allowing two different things to exist side-by-side, like hot glue and hand-dyed, hand-spun yarn.

fairy house diorama

I’m currently participating in the PBH Master Class, and the really interesting part, so far, has been working to be mindfully aware of my own process when it comes to being part of my kids’ projects. At what point do I have the urge to step in or take over? (Spelling mistakes, it turns out.) When do I need to let go and truly let them take ownership of their projects, even when they’re not turning out the way I envisioned. (Almost all the time, apparently!) How does their work change when I’m fully present and paying attention to them, instead of trying to get the laundry done, wash the dishes and read twitter at the same time? It shouldn’t be surprising that they are more engaged when I’m there engaging with them, but I am surprised at how quickly they pull me into their projects as soon as I sit down.

Learning to Mentor in Suzuki Violin

This September, Claire started violin lessons. Truthfully, I was a little hesitant to sign her up for them, since she’s just 4 and I could see how much easier it would be for her if she waited until she had better coordination and fine motor strength at age 6 or 7. But she insisted: it had to be violin. She wanted nothing else. And so, we are doing violin.

peeking through the window of a cardboard box house

Even though violin lessons are more structured than almost anything else we have ever done, many of the learning mentor skills I’ve been practising all along with Project-Based Homeschooling are coming into play here too. I am closely involved in Claire’s practices and lessons, yet it’s not about me. I need to be present and supportive without taking over. It’s my job to put in place the conditions that are most conducive to success. It’s her job to choose goals and do the work of learning.

In this case, those conditions include (yet another) sticker chart and frequent listening to the song she’s currently learning (the four Suzuki variations of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) and the one Claire really wants to learn, Swallowtail Jig. She tells me she wants to play it around the campfire at her 5 year old birthday party. She’s dreaming big here, and maybe she won’t be able to learn that song until much later, but I’m not going to pop her bubble just yet. I just remind her that every sticker helps her get one step closer to her dream.

Mentoring and Emotional Growth

I keep learning over and over again that facilitating growth and learning for my kids, whether through gentle discipline, homeschooling or violin, is almost entirely about staying connected and managing my own emotions.

A big part of doing that is learning to recognize fear when it pops up in its many guises: the need to control outcomes, the need to dictate certain areas of study, the need to dissociate and tune out into my own busywork. Fear isn’t always bad. Sometimes it alerts us to a real and valid danger. But recognizing it and investigating it is always the first step to dealing with it. The other key to managing my own emotional process is learning to tune into joy: by really being present, really listening, modeling useful skills and celebrating our successes.

We’re all working hard this fall and everybody’s learning. Even me.