The Parents Yap About School Projects: Whose Project is it, Anyway?

Love 'em or hate 'em, school projects are a reality. How much should parents be involved? How much do you spend on supplies? Do school projects cause shivers of excitement or feelings of dread... for you AND for your children?

This week, the Parents yap about how they handle school projects in their own homes. 


Melissa Schools

You know, I may sound like a teacher-kiss-up, but I think there is a lot of value to assigning school projects. It’s a good test of whether a student is processing and integrating the lessons taught at school.

I’ll tell you why I hate school projects: it shines a harsh light on my own flaws as a person, not to mention as a parent. Blaaaarrrrgh! When you get along with your child like oil and water, no school project will be a peaceful, satisfying experience.

I am a frustrated crafter. I used to do all sorts of creative, crafty things before I had kids and even when I only had a couple. I have steadily lost ground as time has gone on and have not been able to prioritize sufficiently to keep it up. I have an impressive array of fabric, yarn, felt, sparkle, pipe cleaners and other fancy stuff. I have an even more impressive array of forsaken, unfinished projects clogging up the nooks and crannies of my house.

As a kid, I loved projects, but I managed time poorly. This made for a stressful combination that still yielded pretty good results. I never took the time to do it differently. As a result, I find that I remember much less about my projects because of the cramming nature of the work I did. Naturally, being a good mother, I want to spare my son the same pitfalls, so I am insistent that he start projects early rather than waiting for the last minute. This basically results in a protracted time of head-to-head arguments over several days, rather than one big fight the day before the due date. Plus, he doesn’t like doing the projects in the first place.

Despite trying my very best to frame questions and explanations in a positive, non-critical light, my son only hears negative  criticism because, as he tells me, I don’t know anything and he has it all under control. Unfortunately, my son expresses hearty dislike for school on a regular basis, even though his academic ability and grades are excellent. He does not relish being turned loose creatively because any project still must be within a framework of structures or rules, and rules cramp his style, man. Maybe that’s why he hates school: because it must take an enormous amount of energy to stay within the orbit of rules and structures all freakin’ day long!

Admittedly, I have what I like to call a “tone problem.” This means that, even though I think I sound like Mary Poppins getting Jane and Michael Banks to tidy the nursery, I probably sound closer to, um, well… let’s just say a much-less-cheerful version of Mary Poppins. “Judgmental Know-It-All Harpy,” is probably closer.

But, seriously, how is one to guide a child through school projects when he is kicking and screaming against them in the first place? This leads to him what I perceive as slap-dash efforts just to get it done and pass it in. I get frustrated enough to throw my hands up and just let him get the grade he gets, but it kills me to think that he’d get a bad grade for misunderstanding the assignment and doggedly insisting that it’s, “Just fine, Mom! It’s FINE!”

I do have one trick that has relieved some of the pressure and saved more than a few hours of arguing with my son. Last year, when his project efforts and direction did not match what the teacher requested in rubrics, I tried to suggest that maybe he missed the point. Much ugliness ensued until finally I said, “Well, fine, then. How about you take it in to ask your teacher if she thinks you are on the right track?” He agreed, sure she would back him up, and I was off the hook. The teacher was able to correct his understanding of the assignment and everyone lived happily ever after…Until it came time for the next project!


Tasha Schlake Festel

As my kids have gotten older, their school projects have gotten significantly worse. And I couldn’t be more proud!

School projects for little kids are really homework assignments for parents. I don’t care what teachers say. Kids can’t do them without substantial assistance from their parents. The “100 Day” project in Kindergarten where the kids are to collect 100 somethings is just about as complicated as they can handle on their own. Yet, they are also to pull together photos and drawings and descriptions of themselves for the “All About Me” board in their classrooms. Hey! Thanks for that homework assignment. I didn’t have enough to do already!

First grade brought us the “Robot Project” where the kids were to build their own (non-functional) robots and describe what their robot would do if it worked. How the heck is a 7-year old supposed to do that? Awesome! I’d love to spend our Spring Break perfecting my papier-mâché skills!

Second grade came and with it was the “Ancestry Project,” requiring students to design a tri-fold presentation board describing the country from which their ancestors originated. It was to include basic demographic information as well as a myriad of “interesting facts” and photographs, all available from a few quick Internet searches. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t let my 8-year-old do unassisted Google searches. Pair that with the reading skills of even an advanced second-grader, and you’ve got a project made for mom and dad. I thoroughly enjoy spending my evenings pre-searching websites on Germany to screen them for my child to review and cry about in frustration the next day!

This year, my oldest child is in third grade. So far, she’s had two projects. The first one, the musical instrument with at least three tones, was surprisingly painless. After a consultation with her parents on what kind of instrument she wanted to make, she had a plan and a shopping list. A trip down the “Craft Wood” aisle at Michael’s provided everything she needed to make a Kalimba. Unable to work with a saw, however, her father stepped in for materials prep and assisted in assembly. The decorating, however, was all her. Not bad, not bad at all. And it even kinda looked like she did it!

Third grade also gave us the opportunity to do a Wetu, a Native American dwelling. I’d heard horror stories about the dreaded Wetu, so I wasn’t all that jazzed when the assignment came home.  Hiding my disdain and determined to not be overly involved, I suggested that my daughter do a Google image search and start to think about how she might want to build hers. She came across some actual Wetus and some model Wetus. Awesome! This combination of images allowed her to see what they looked like… and how she might build her own! We came up with a method of construction and I had her write up a supplies list. Luckily, the shopping list was minimal – just some foam core, pipe cleaners, and felt.

Armed with her supplies, she got to work and built herself one hell of a little Wetu. She went nuts and made some squash, corn, a fire, and even a Native American man out of the extra pipe cleaners. I was only called in for the final step: hot gluing it all to the board. Hooray! A project that was age-appropriate!

I won’t lie to you. The projects on which I was more heavily involved, like the robot, are pretty kick-ass. The Wetu is totally weak in comparison. But you know what? That robot isn’t fooling anyone. Clearly, it was the work of an adult. While I was proud of it at the time, I’m now embarrassed that I did the work, not my child. The Wetu looks like a child made it. It’s a little sloppy and awkward. It isn’t polished. It’s fairly juvenile.

Just as it should be. It’s a project made by a little kid, after all.


Regina Martine

I love school projects. I am a pretty creative person by nature, and I have a ton of craft supplies in my house, so projects are usually a fun diversion from regular homework. It also gives the kids a chance to demonstrate what they have learned in a fun interactive way. My kids are also pretty creative, and the two older ones are freakishly organized about schoolwork so projects are really never a problem around here. My middle daughter occasionally gets a little nervous that she is “not doing it right” but she follows directions meticulously, and she always does a great job. I might offer a little design advice, or help them here or there, but for the most part, they do all the work themselves.

My son is in second grade and he knows that before the end of the year he will be creating a huge tri-fold picture and info display for the annual Ancestry Fair. In the past, he has been more concerned with getting projects done quickly than with doing a decent job, but his attitude towards school has taken a turn for the better this year, so I am optimistic. My only real complaint about all these projects is that my kids never want to throw the finished project out and I end up with a house full of Wampanoag Wetus, homemade musical instruments, and dioramas of Holiday Traditions.

I suppose if my kids were the type to wait until the last minute, or if I didn’t have an enormous heap of fabric, felt, beads, buttons, yarn, craft paper, and several different kinds of glue in my basement, then these types of projects might be a huge pain in the butt. In my house, they are always a lot of fun. Last year, my daughter had to build a Wetu. This is a model of a Native American dwelling, for those readers who have yet to experience this project. Don’t worry – you’ll get your chance. She got the assignment and the grading rubric and immediately began sketching out possible designs to be sure she got the highest possible grade. Then she wrote up a timetable of when she would build each piece of the project—including time allowances for design changes and time for glue to dry. I have no idea where this kid got her organization and time management skills. It sure as heck wasn’t from me.  Her Wetu came out beautifully with a day to spare before it was due. She has followed this same procedure to make a paper representation of Emily Dickenson, a map of a fictional country (the Kingdom of Awesome) and now she is hard at work on a poster detailing the tourist sites of New Hampshire.

Even if the planning, design and execution of these projects can sometimes be a little stressful, I am glad the teachers assign them. Hands-on projects are a welcome break from math facts and MCAS prep, and they teach the kids how to work with unfamiliar materials, follow directions, be creative, and meet a deadline — all skills they will need in the real world. Now I just have to find a place to put all these creations.


Paul Simpson

I loved school projects as a kid, and the sentiment has continued into adulthood.  My kids mostly like them, and they’d probably look forward to projects more if I didn’t have a tendency to completely hijack them.  I’ve “helped” on a number of cool projects so far.  I was the general contractor on a clay scale model of Stonehenge, complete with toothpick rebar planted in the pizza box foundation for support. As the creative supervisor on a diorama for Roald Dahl’s Esiotrot, I suggested mounting a plastic fork with lettuce on the tines to the shoebox ceiling.  When the flu struck Sam one year I got to finish his werewolf-themed diorama (at one point his request for a glass of water had to wait while I ventured into our yard for suitable foliage to mimic shrubbery).

My siblings never forgot my affinity for school projects, either.  I’m often called in for a consultation. My work has appeared in Stoneham and Hingham public schools, as well as the Northeast Regional Vocational High School.  I’m the favorite uncle when the shadowy specter of a school project descends.

I’m trying not to be a project hog, but it isn’t easy.  Glue…pipe cleaners…Model Magic…  I just can’t help myself.  It took my now sixth-grader’s one-man intervention to get me to loosen the reins on projects. Last year, I made my approach to the dining room table as he sketched something in a notebook.  “Whatcha got there?” I asked, knowing full well project instructions sat before him.  I didn’t even make it to the table. “Leave me alone!  This is MY project!” he yelled, shielding his plans from my eager eyes with his arm.  “You always take it over and want to do it your way!  I’m supposed to do the work, not you!”  I stopped in my tracks, thunderstruck and dumbfounded.  This couldn’t be happening. 

I’d heard about this project from parents with older kids years ago: the fifth grade leprechaun trap.  Pulleys, levers, springs!  Ramps, wee folk, pots o’ gold! Trap friggin’ doors! I’d designed it in my mind many times.  The leprechaun trap was to be my school project Mona Lisa, and I wasn’t invited to the party at the rainbow’s end.  I had no choice but to back off, take Sam to the craft store, and let him pick out his supplies.  Sam is creative, artistic, and imaginative (a chip off the old block!), and he did a fantastic job without my interfer—er, help.

I think projects are a great way to reinforce the good, old-fashioned book-learning kids experience every day.  Sometimes projects help them answer the age-old, homework-doing-kid gripe, “Why do I have to learn this stuff anyway?!”  I also believe kids will remember lessons with a project more than those without.  A tag board doll dressed in clothing from an ancestor’s country resonates more than writing a paragraph on a sheet of paper.  Parents can set the tone for their kid’s attitude toward projects early on with an active, positive approach, even if they haven’t picked up a glue stick since they were in elementary school.  If you see it as a chore, so will your kid—and that will result in a gold-rich leprechaun escaping a subpar trap ten times out of ten.

I’ve gotten the school project monkey off my back for now.  I didn’t even participate in my second-grader’s tag board ancestor doll this time around.  I’ll let my kids do their own projects as much as I can, but I’m not making any promises.  I understand there’s a science project involving a self-feeding tennis ball launcher in the near future…

Diane Lee January 10, 2013 at 11:50 AM
didn't you guys write about this last year?
Tasha Schlake Festel January 10, 2013 at 12:21 PM
Hey Diane. Thanks for following us! Yes, we did address this in Feb 2012 but we are a different group with new members since then. We had a request to talk about it again, so we took the opportunity for our new members to do so. It's hard to find new topics every week while retaining a little bit of personal privacy. But if you have any suggestions for new material - for all of us on the panel - we'd love to hear them. Thanks again for reading!
Diane Lee January 10, 2013 at 02:25 PM
Tasha I have been following the mom talk/parent yap since you guys started. I don't read every column as some of the topics didn't pertain to me and my family. Anyways i did send in a list of topics back in July when the new group was forming. Here are some of the topics I thought I would be interested in or see what other people thought. I understand that some topics are hard to discuss, because Wakefield is a small town and you don't want all your "dirty" laundry aired. Death of a family member and i'm not talking about a pet. Funerals/Wakes Over giving children things or even parents buying things for themselves to keep up with their neighbors/friends/family (2nd graders wearing UGG boots really) Is there a such thing as too much Technology Gardasil Shot Yes/No what age Drinks Coffee/Soda/Tea/Engery Drinks should Kids have these Age Milestones: Dating, left alone, allowed to babysit others or their siblings, twitter account, Facebook page Allowance yes/no how much what type of chores taking kids out of school for vacations or keep them home when not sick
Tasha Schlake Festel January 10, 2013 at 02:55 PM
Those are great! We're meeting again in the next 2-3 weeks and will add these suggestions to our discussion. We have a few more "on the list" for the remainder of January. Thanks for your input! :)
Melissa Schools January 11, 2013 at 05:10 PM
Update: stayed up til 9:45 with finally-cooperative son the night before project due. He somehow forgot to check with his teacher about the direction of the project. Just goes to show that I can write whatever I want here, but the Murphy's Law of parenting will make me look like jackass within a few days of writing it. :)


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