Friday, June 29, 2012


In case you've missed earlier posts, I've been teaching Lars and Anders how to plan and organize a large research project this summer.  Their respective essays have just been posted on their blogs today (Anders researched Irish folklore and Lars wrote about a Japanese historical figure, Toyotomi Hideyoshi).  So far they are right on schedule with this multi-assignment project, and haven't had to spend more than an hour or two working on it on any given day.  If you're looking for any of the earlier lesson plans, you can find them all here.  I also found some clear, child-friendly guidelines for developing thesis statements in Research Papers for Dummies, available on Amazon here, and excerpted here on the publisher's web site. 

Without further ado, here's
WAIT!!  Put down that pen!!!  Without a plan, you can waste a lot of time writing down the wrong information, and that will make it even harder to write a good paper later.  So, pick up your first resource and…

1.      SURVEY YOUR SOURCE:  Before you begin, “survey” your resource by skimming through the material, paying attention to chapter titles, headings, pictures and their captions, etc. to get an overview of what kinds of information you are going to get from this source.

2.     QUESTIONS:  Jot down some questions for yourself that you will be answering on your notecards as you read this source.  Make sure your questions have something to do with your THESIS STATEMENT, because you want to take notes that will help you prove your position in your paper.  Depending on how long the source is and how many notecards you need from each source, you may be turning all of the headings and bold-face words into questions (if it’s a short article), or you may have to be very selective and choose only the main points or those that best relate to your research project (especially true for a long book or a website that is packed with information).  You can either write your list of questions on a sheet of paper, or you can put them at the top of blank notecards so you know what information you’ll be writing on each card.  These questions are just for you, so they do NOT need to be complete sentences.  It can be as simple as “Famine Causes?” or “Shogun Legacy?” 

3.     READ:  Now start reading through your source, keeping an eye out for the information that will answer your research questions. 

What Goes on One Notecard?  Remember the LEGO Rule!  Photo courtesy Instructables
4.   WRITE NOTES: When you come to information that answers your question, jot it down on your note card.  Remember, note cards do not get complete sentences.  Each notecard should have either one “piece” of information, like one LEGO brick that can’t be taken apart, or several related facts that need to stay together to make sense (the way a LEGO figure’s head and arms COULD come apart, but they make more sense attached to the body!).  For example, one notecard might look like this:

Causes of French Revolution?
n  Government went bankrupt b/c couldn’t agree on tax reform
n  1788-1789 food shortages
n  Enlightenment ideas about equality
n  Louis XVI was not a strong ruler

Or like this:
U.S. Education?
n  Literacy: 99% over age 15 can read & write
n  Free K-12 paid for by fed, state & local taxes
n  Compulsory for children, ages vary by state
n  Private schools, colleges & universities optional but $$$

Here’s an example of what NOT to do (listing random, unrelated facts on the same note card):
n  Neutral in both World Wars
n  No team sports at Spanish schools
n  40% of adults are smokers
n  Lunch eaten at 2 PM, dinner at 9 PM

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

UFO Laid to Rest At Last: Anders' Celestial Double Nine Patch Quilt, 2003-2012

Anders' "Celestial Double Nine Patch," 2003-2012
Have you ever come back to a quilt nine years later to finish it up?  That's what I did yesterday and today with this double nine patch quilt.  I "finished" it the month that Anders was born, and it was his baby quilt.  It has probably been through the wash at least 30 times, and all of the metallic accents in the fabric have long since washed away.  This quilt has been folded up in my son's closet for several years now, but I decided to take it out and add some free motion quilting to it for two reasons.  First, I always thought it needed more quilting, but I just didn't feel up to the challenge and was afraid I'd mess up and ruin the quilt back in 2003.  Now that the quilt has served its purpose and lives in a closet full time, those fears didn't seem so insurmountable after all. 

To recap, the diagonal grid quilting and the decorative motifs in the centers of the alternate blocks were both quilted in 2003, using a walking foot for the grid and a digitized quilting motif stitched "in the hoop" with my embroidery module.  This week (nine years later!) I added this squiggly back-and-forth free motion quilting around the decorative motifs, to fill in dead space as well as just to get some more free motion practice under my belt before going back to Lars's "Drunken Dragons" quilt. 

FMQ Squiggles Added around Embroidered Center Motif

I think I will be able to use this back-and-forth squiggle quilting in the corners of the drunkard's path blocks, so stay tuned to see how that turns out in the next day or two.

Meanwhile, I'm linking up to Amy Lou Who's Sew and Tell Friday.  It feels good to have finished something this week!

Back Under the Needle: My 2003 Double 9-Patch Quilt

My "Celestial Double Nine Patch" Quilt from 2003, Back Under the Needle for More Quilting!
In August 2003, soon after Anders was born, I finished my second-ever quilt, this "crib sized" double nine patch that I spread out on the floor for him as a play mat before he was even rolling over.  It's 51" x 51" and I got the pattern and beginner-friendly instructions from the book Quilts! Quilts! Quilts! by Diana McClun and Laura Nownes.  This is the quilt that was folded up underneath the stroller for trips to the mall, and this is the quilt that was used as a "beach blanket" when the preschool held its annual end-of-year party with inflatable kiddy pools on the lawn outside the church.  Let's just say it's been through the wash a few times!

Bernie with Anders, June 2006
I was very proud of my piecing skills on this quilt, especially on the narrow sawtooth border, but I was intimidated by the quilting part.  I quilted a diagonal grid over the nine patch blocks with my walking foot, but that left those big, blank 9" alternate blocks that cried out for something fancy.  I used my embroidery module to quilt the decorative motifs "in the hoop," but even after enlarging the design to the maximum stitchable area of my machine's largest hoop, it was still way too small to fill the blocks properly.  I vaguely remember lowering the feed dogs of my sewing machine, experimenting briefly with free motion quilting on scraps of fabric and batting, and flinging the ugly results across the room in horror.  Apart from aesthetic concerns about the unbalanced quilting, I wanted to be sure to meet the batting manufacturer's guidelines about how far apart to space quilting lines.  So I put my walking foot back on, and added awkward-looking straight lines radiating from the horizontal and vertical centers and corners of each motif.  I didn't love the way that looked, but it was the best I could do at that time, and I was terrified to try any free motion quilting that might "mess up" my beautiful quilt top.

Now that this quilt has been folded away in the closet for several years, I finally decided to pull it out and add some free motion quilting around those motifs.  My confidence was bolstered when I found one of those early FMQ practice samples in my sewing room and saw how much I had improved already, so I threaded up my machine with the same variegated 40 weight cotton quilting thread I'd used originally and chose the quilting design I feel most comfortable with at the moment -- back and forth squiggle lines.  Why oh why did I put this off for so long?  Free motion quilting is FUN!

Upper Left Block Finished, Lower Right Block Awaiting FMQ Squiggles
My squiggles aren't perfect by a long shot, and the brightly colored thread shows every "oops" up close, but nothing jumps out at me horribly when I step back and look at the quilt as a whole.  For my next quilt, I'm going to choose a thread color that blends in better.  Anyway, I worked on this for about an hour yesterday and was able to squiggle-quilt half of the twelve alternate blocks.  Once I got into the groove of it, the quilting went much faster than expected.  I plan to finishe the remaining blocks today, and then tomorrow I think I will be ready to add some diagonal FMQ squiggling to the outer block corners of Lars's "Drunken Dragons" (drunkard's path) quilt-in-progress.  By the time I finish this nine patch quilt my squiggles should be much smoother and more even, right? 

Meanwhile, I've got a piano lesson in 20 minutes so I'd better scoot.  Have a wonderful day!

Monday, June 25, 2012


So Lars and Anders finished the first part of their Summer Social Studies Projects, their research papers, right on schedule.  Both papers are posted on their blogs, and I'm sure they would appreciate comments and congratulations from friends and family, so please stop by their blogs to check out the fruits of their labors when you get a chance.  They worked on their research papers for two and a half weeks, compiling note cards, creating outlines, rough drafts, and finally their finished research papers complete with end note citations.  I'm very proud of both of them, and they are very much looking forward to playing their new LEGO Harry Potter Playstation game when they get home from camp this afternoon!  Then tomorrow they'll begin the next component of their projects, which for Lars is an essay about an important Japanese historical figure, and for Anders is an essay about Irish folklore. 

For those of you parents who are struggling to help your own children manage large projects like this one, I'm posting my lesson plans from our summer research adventure.  You can find all of the lesson plans at once by clicking here.  Without further ado, I bring you


1.    What’s your thesis?  Remember, your SUBJECT + your OPINION = your THESIS.  If your main topic is something you know little about, you may need to do some BRIEF background reading before you can come up with a working thesis.  Encyclopedia articles can be helpful for this preliminary reading.  Remember that the goal of all of your research and note-taking will be to find information that helps you “prove” your thesis!
2.   With a big project, you need to identify subtopics so you know what kinds of information you are looking for.  Make a list of possible subtopics, or categories of information that you will use to support your thesis.  Think of each subtopic as one paragraph of your paper, and each notecard as a supporting detail that belongs in that paragraph.  You may think of other subtopics once you begin your research, but you should have a few to start out with.  Make sure that most of your subtopics relate to the subject (Science, Language Arts, Spanish, Social Studies, Math, etc.)  area of your project! 
3.   Next to each subtopic on your list, write which type(s) of sources would have the best information for each.  Make sure you have some books, articles, and web sites.  Often your teacher will stipulate how many of each type she wants you to have, so check your assignment packet.
4.     Now you can start finding your sources!  Find your books first, then your articles, and your web sites LAST. 
5.     Be choosy about your sources!  Do NOT check out every single book on your topic or print out articles/web sites without reading through them first.  Choose the best sources, making sure that you don’t get two books or articles that have the exact same information.  Are your internet sources reliable?  Are your facts and figures up-to-date?  How long ago were your books/articles published?
6.   Taking Notes: Check to see how your teacher wants you to cite your sources before you begin research.  Note cards do not get complete sentences; just facts and the title and page number of where you got the information.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

My Free Motion Quilting Journey

My Free Motion Quilting from Class Last Week!
Well, I finally was able to take that machine quilting class in Concord last week.  I ended up being the only one signed up yet again, but this time the instructor graciously agreed to teach the class just for me.  So I got three hours of one-on-one private quilting instruction!  This class was supposed to be a beginner's introduction to machine quilting with a domestic sewing machine, going over basics about batting, thread, and needles, basting, and using a walking foot, among other things.  Since I was the only student and I've done a fair amount of quilting with my walking foot already, we skimmed over that information pretty quickly and moved right into free motion quilting. 

One major frustration I had was that the instructor told me just about everything I had learned elsewhere was wrong.  Harriet Hargrave, a machine quilting pioneer whose book on this subject has been continually in print for 22 years, and Diane Gaudynski, another legend in machine quilting who has taught and inspired so many other quilters over the years through her books and classes, both recommend fine quilting threads and suggest monofilament nylon thread to help beginning machine quilters get past the fear of "ruining" their quilts with ugly beginner stitches.  My teacher last week started off by criticizing me for using the monofilament nylon thread in Lars's quilt, telling me that it "won't hold up" and that "you don't see any prize-winning quilts that are quilted with nylon thread."  She also told me that my 60 weight, 2-ply cotton thread, again recommended by Hargrave, Gaudynski, and other quilters whom I admire, was "too fine; it won't show up" and she had me quilting with 40 weight thread in the needle and 50 weight thread in the bobbin.  She said "the right way" to begin a new line of machine quilting is by stitching in place for several stitches rather than by starting out with a few tiny stitches and then gradually increasing stitch length, as others have advised.  "Won't that create little knots on the back of the quilt?" I asked.  "Judges don't take off for that, and no one needs to be looking that closely at the back side of my quilts," she replied.  Um, okay then! 
Here's the thing -- my teacher quilts beautifully using these heavier weight threads.  However, her quilting motifs are larger, more open, with lines of stitching spaced much farther apart than the other quilters who recommend the lightweight threads.  I think it's a style and personal preference thing, and the thread that works best for one quilter's style might not be the best for another's.  I would have preferred that an introductory machine quilting class would present more options to beginning quilters rather than "my way or the highway."  But I was there to learn, not to argue, so I threaded up with YLI 40 weight variegated machine quilting thread in the needle and Mettler 50 weight 3-ply cotton thread in my bobbin and did as I was told.

I had hoped that this class would be some kind of epiphany, a turning point that would catapult my machine quilting to the next level like the hand quilting class I took with Dierdra McElroy several years ago, but it wasn't like that at all.  The teacher demonstrated a machine quilting design on her machine, then sent me over to my machine to try to replicate it.  She made it look so easy, but I felt like I was doing terribly the whole time.  I never felt good about one design by the time we were moving on to the next one.  I felt like everything I was doing looked horrible and wasn't getting any better at all.  My spirals were wonky, my curves came out jagged, and my stippling was disastrous.  But then, when I got home and was unpacking everything in my sewing room, I happened to find a little sample sandwich of fabric and batting from one of my earliest free motion quilting practice sessions:
Progress!  Current Free Motion Quilting on Pink Fabric, Earliest Efforts Above

See that?  Look how much better I was able to quilt my name than when I first started!  All I've done is maybe 4 hours of practice (total, over the last few years) and I free motion quilted some curliques and wobbly echo quilting in the background of the Very Hungry Caterpillar quilt, but that's it.  I didn't think I'd done enough FMQ to see any improvement in my skill level, so it was a happy surprise to stumble upon this evidence to the contrary.

By the way, I did NOT use my BSR (Bernina Stitch Regulator) foot in class at all.  When I got home, I put the BSR on to see if it improved the quality of my quilting any, and I decided that I really don't like it.  I'm used to controlling the speed of my sewing machine with my foot pedal, and I don't know why, but the BSR makes me feel like I'm not in control so I tense up and my stitches come out jerkier.  I also dislike the bulk of the shank on the BSR foot, which makes it impossible to see where you're going when you have to quilt away from yourself in certain directions.  I know that many quilters love the BSR and use it to create beautiful quilting, so I won't write the BSR off completely, but for now I feel more comfortable without it.  I'll put it away for now, and try it again in a couple of months to see if it grows on me.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Cheater's Ultimate Guide to Quilting With Your Embroidery Module

Decorative Quilting the Easy Way: Quilting "In the Hoop" with an Embroidery Module

They say that it takes, on average, 80 hours of practice to learn free motion machine quilting.  That's what "they" say.  I say that it's like learning to draw all over again -- with your feet.  Still, it's a skill worth learning, because free motion quilting allows home sewers to quilt just about any design with almost any domestic sewing machine, in a fraction of the time that hand quilting would require.  The method I'm going to describe today is totally cheating -- like reading the Cliff Notes instead of reading the book -- but for me, it's a good way to get complex decorative quilting designs on my quilts NOW while I'm still working through the FMQ learning curve.  I have about 79 more hours of practice to go...  ;-)

Disclaimer:  I do not claim to be an expert on quilting, embroidery, or Bernina machines.  I'm going to share what has worked the best for me, but as they say, "your mileage may vary."  If you know of any tips or tricks that I haven't mentioned, or if you have a better method, please share in the comments!  I'm always willing to learn more. 

Speaking of learning more (from quilters who actually know what they're talking about!): Check out Wendy Sheppard's "Pretty Pillow, Quilted Heirloom" article in Bernina's Through the Needle magazine, Issue 28 from November 2008; I highly recommend it.  Wendy's pillow project is small and manageable, and it combines decorative embroidery module-stitched designs with begginer-friendly free motion quilting for stunning results.  Another resource I consulted was Jennifer Gigas' and Marlis Bennett's "Quilting In the Hoop" article for Bernina, and you can get a full PDF of that article right here.  Again, I consulted that article, but I did not follow their recommended method (they say to hoop just the quilt top with the batting, before adding the backing fabric, so the decorative quilting motifs are not stitched through all three layers of the quilt sandwich) because it wouldn't have given me the finished look that I wanted for my quilts, and because quilting with exposed batting underneath would create a lint nightmare for my sewing machine.

Artista 730E with Embroidery Module Attached, photo from Bernina USA
In order to quilt "in the hoop," you need to have a computerized sewing machine with an embroidery module.  Mine is a Bernina Artista 200E, upgraded to the equivalent of the current model Artista 730E.  However, any embroidery machine can do this technique.  With the embroidery module attached and a digital design file loaded into your sewing machine, exquisite and flawless decorative quilting designs are as easy as snapping a hoop onto your quilt, threading the machine, and pushing the start button.  The embroidery module, guided by the sewing machine's internal computer, moves the quilt around beneath the needle to ensure perfect placement of every stitch, every time.  It's so easy that I almost feel guilty!

Actually, it's easy NOW because I have finally worked the kinks out of my method. 
  • First of all, ideally, you should plan your quilting at the very beginning, before you cut the first piece of fabric for your quilt top.  Why?  Because you will not be able to stitch out an embroidery-assisted quilting design that is larger than the maximum stitchable area of your machine's largest hoop.  Most quilt blocks are squares, which means that the maximum WIDTH of your largest hoop is going to determine how big your quilt blocks should be.  For my machine, the biggest round or square design I can stitch in one hooping is about 5 1/2" x 5 1/2".  So, next time I'm planning to quilt by embroidery module, I'll keep my block sizes 6" or smaller so I won't have to fill in and improvise to fill the rest of the space.
Planning Pays Off: This design fits the block properly in "Anders' Froggy Quilt of Many Colors," 2006

  •  This method only works for small to medium quilts -- do not attempt this on a King or Queen bed quilt!  My Drunken Dragons quilt is 70" x 105," and thankfully, the quilting design I chose was non-directional so that I never had more than 35" of quilt crammed to the right of my needle under the sewing machine at once.  I feel like that was the outer limit.  Why?  Because the embroidery hoop moves when the design is stitching out, and when the left-most portion of the design is stitching, the right side of the hoop is almost touching the inside part of the sewing machine, leaving nowhere for all that 35" of quilt to go.  I had it sort of rolled up and bunched above the hoop during stitchout of the motifs in the center of my quilt, and had to be very careful to keep the excess out of the way of the needle and the moving hoop.  Quilting "in the hoop" will work well for throw or crib sized quilts, table runners, and other small or narrow items.
  • Choose your quilting design carefully.  Sources for professionally digitized quilting designs include your machine dealer, where you can purchase design collections such as OESD Crafter's Collection #007, Quilting Whimsy by Diane Gaudynski, as well as online sources such as Amazing Designs or Oklahoma Embroidery Supply & Design (although OESD doesn't have a category for quilting designs, so you'll have to scroll through lots of not-what-I-wanteds before you find what you're looking for).  Anita Goodesign has some beautiful quilting designs as well.  If you own embroidery design software, you can easily digitize any design your heart desires -- it's just an outline stitch, after all.  Personally, I've had the best results with continuous designs that don't have any backtracking (sewing over a previously-stitched line to get to the next place in the design).  In the picture below from my 2003 "Celestial Double Nine Patch" quilt, the first time I quilted "in the hoop," you can see how the backtracking didn't always land exactly on the previously stitched line.  Could I have corrected this with better hooping and/or stabilizing?  Perhaps -- but for less headaches, just choose a different design!
Even if the second line of stitching had landed right on top of the other stitches where they belonged, the variegated thread I was using would have drawn attention to the backtracking because it always ends up being two different colors of thread.  This quilt is also a great example of What Not To Do because my quilt blocks were much bigger than my maximum embroidery hoop could stitch the designs, and I ended up with too much empty space around the designs. 
The nine patch blocks and borders of this quilt were grid quilted (crookedly) with a walking foot, and I was terrified of free motion quilting so I added some lame looking straight lines radiating from the corners and center points of the design, to meet the batting manufacturer's guidelines for how far apart the quilting lines should be spaced.  Yuck!  One of these days I'm going to go back and add more quilting to make that look better.  It will count towards those 80 hours of practice, and I couldn't possibly make it look any worse!
My "Celestial Double Nine Patch" quilt for Anders, completed in November 2003
[UPDATED March 4th, 2014: After writing this post and looking at that quilt again, I DID finally go back and fill in the blank space around the embroidered motifs with some free motion squiggle quilting.  It's wobbly and imperfect, but it looks a lot better than it did before.]

Celestial Double Nine Patch with FMQ Filler Around Embroidered Design added in 2012

  • A Word About Tension: As soon as you snap that embroidery module onto your sewing machine, your machine tension is automatically altered to deliberately pull the loose needle thread underneath to the tighter bobbin thread.  If you were doing a regular embroidery design with satin stitches, this is exactly what you would want to ensure that none of your ugly black or white bobbin thread showed on the top of your embroidery, especially along the edges of narrow satin stitched columns.  This is why Gigas and Bennett recommend adding the backing afterwards, to hide the ugly unbalanced tension on the back of the quilt, which can look like this:
Unbalanced Tension, Backing Side
Who wants to see that ugliness on the back of a quilt they've worked hard to create?  Fortunately, the solution to this problem is simple.  Just manually change the needle tension back to normal before you stitch your design.  On my machine, with the threads I've been using on the Drunken Dragons quilt, I get perfectly balanced stitches with tension set at 4.0, but the tension drops down to 2.0 when I engage the embroidery function.  I just have to remember to change the tension back to 4.0 in the Edit screen before I stitch the design, and then the back side of my quilt comes out just as pretty as the front.  I put a Post-It note on the front of my sewing machine to remind myself to check the tension every time.  If you don't know how to adjust the tension for your machine, check your owner's manual or pester your sewing machine dealer until they show you how.  That's what they're there for!
  • Speaking of thread, the first couple of times I quilted "in the hoop," I used heavy 40-weight YLI variegated machine quilting thread in the needle as well as in the bobbin.  For the Drunken Dragons quilt, I experimented with a much thinner 60-weight Mettler 2-ply cotton embroidery thread in the needle and bobbin, and found that the quality of stitching on both sides of my quilt look much better with the finer thread.  I can use a #60 Sharp or #75 Quilting needle with this fine thread, which makes for a very tiny hole in the quilt.  Moreover, there are some pretty short stitch lengths in the tight curves of these intricate designs, and the heavier thread just looks too thick and clumsy for my taste.  The bulk of any backtracking and tie-offs in your designs will be much less obvious on the back of the quilt when you're using a finer thread, too.  Quilting thread is a subject of murderous contention, though, and every quilter will savagely defend her favorite brand to the death, so I suggest you try different threads in secret, see what works best for you, and then quietly use your favorite one no matter what other people tell you!
  • In my meager experience, using embroidery stabilizer was not necessary as long as I hooped the quilt (rather than hooping tearaway stabilizer, basting the quilt to the stabilizer, and then tearing the stabilizer off afterwards).  I used stabilizer for that first quilt, and it didn't stop the design from shifting slightly -- but it used up a LOT of stabilizer, and that stuff isn't cheap!  It also took longer to fuss with the extra steps of basting and removing the stabilizer, and as I'm thinking about it now, it's also possible that when I pulled the stabilizer off the back of the quilt, it exaggerated the tension problems by pulling the threads even more out of whack.  Now I'm just hooping the quilt "naked," (naked quilt, not naked me!) and I'm getting much better results.
  • Hooping gets easier, I promise!  The hardest part of quilting "in the hoop" is getting the quilt hooped nice and straight, with everything lined up properly so the design will stitch out exactly where you want it to on your quilt.  My sewing machine can stitch out one of these quilting motifs in under 2 minutes, but at first it was taking me 15 minutes to get the hoop in place prior to each stitch out.  The good news is that I got faster and more accurate with my hooping as I worked my way through the quilt, until I was finally able to get the hoop in place almost as quickly as my machine was stitching the designs.  Use the plastic gridded template that came with your hoop and line it up with seamlines in your quilt top, if possible.  Draw horizontal and vertical center lines on your block prior to hooping (with chalk pencil or something else you know you can remove easily) if you have to.  Once you have the hoop attached to your machine, check the center point of the design (my machine has a button that will move the needle to the center point of the design).  Use the on-screen editing features of your machine to shift your design slightly if needed so that it is perfectly centered on every block.  Note that, if your hoop has hit anything that impeded its movement while stitching, it could have been knocked out of alignment like mine was when I started embroidering quilting motifs on my "Drunken Dragons" quilt.  I was able to go into my Embroidery Settings screen and recalibrate that on my own after a quick, panicked phone call to my Bernina dealer.  If you are sure you have centered your block perfectly but your design is still stitching off-center, look in your owner's manual and try recalibrating your hoop.
Hoop in Position, Quilt Block Perfectly Centered Using Seamlines and Gridded Template

So, what's next for Lars's "Drunken Dragons" quilt, now that all of the "in the hoop" designs have been stitched out?  Since I did not follow my own advice to plan the quilting designs at the beginning, I ended up yet again with skimpy little designs that do not adequately fill my blocks. 
See all that "dead" space around the fancy quilting design in the center of the circle?

That's okay, because I'm going to add some REAL free motion quilting around the designs I stitched with my embroidery module this time.  It won't be perfect, and I'm going to have to experiment to find something that looks good with the existing design AND isn't so difficult that I can't execute it successfully.  Wish me luck!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Image Courtesy of Frugal Village
As I shared in my last post, I'm attempting to teach my sons organization, research, and time management skills this summer so they don't crash and burn (again!  and again and again!!) when they are assigned long-term projects at school.  This momma can't take anymore panic-filled nights of it's-not-started-yet-but-it's-due-tomorrow!  I know most of you sane folks out there would rather read about sea stars and sandy beaches in June, but feel free to bookmark this and come back to it in September when that first big project packet shows up in your child's book bag.  I know a lot of other kids struggle to manage long-term school projects, so I'll be posting my lesson plans throughout our summer research adventure and you can find them all by clicking here

My sons are both especially challenged with time management and organization, so I have devised a binder system to help them plan these monster projects, keep track of all of the parts, and have everything all in one place, easy to find.  I now bring you

Image Courtesy of Cannon Beach Gazette

1.      As soon as you receive the project assignment, WRITE THE DUE DATE IN YOUR PLANNER IMMEDIATELY!

2.     Next, read through all of the instructions in the packet carefully.  As you go through, underline, circle, or highlight each subtask (each “thing” that you are expected to turn in).  How many “things” do you need to complete?

3.     With help from Mom, set up a binder for your project with one section for each subtask.

4.     List these subtask items on a separate piece of paper.  Are all the subtasks worth the same?  Sometimes your teacher will give you a rubric that shows what percentage of your grade each item represents, but if not, use common sense.  Would the teacher count a poem or a comic strip as much as a research paper?  Not unless it is a creative writing project for your Language Arts teacher or a drawing project for your Art teacher!  Put stars next to the most important subtasks.

5.     Which tasks are you dreading, and which sound like the most fun?  Put smiley faces next to the subtasks that you think will be fun.

6.     With help from Mom or from your teacher, set interim due dates for each subtask of your project.  Make sure the biggest/most important subtasks (like research!) get done early.  Alternate hard subtasks with fun assignments to reward yourself!  Write these due dates in your planner and in your assignment packet.

7.   Look at your planner to see which days you will have the most time available, and block out time to work on your project.  Keep in mind that you will have other assignments from other teachers to work on that you don’t know about yet.  With Mom’s help, block out enough time for working on your project.

8.       Now you can start working on the first subtask! 

So, as you know, Lars's summer research project is on Japan, and Anders is researching Ireland.  How's it going so far?  Well, unsurprisingly, although both boys were able to identify the most important subtasks from the 9-page instruction packet, they needed more help when it came to setting those interim due dates and budgeting their time.  For instance, Lars's initial plan relied on an unlikely scenario in which he would get home at 6 PM after a full day of theatre performance camp, and then in the half hour before dinner he would somehow miraculously practice piano AND complete 20 note cards' worth of research.  I let him write this ill-fated plan in his calendar, but then after a couple of days I said, "Let's touch base to see if you're still on track with your project."  We moved some things around at that point, recognizing that some days he would have more time to work on the project than others, and on really busy days with other activities he might not get to work on it at all.  I'm glad that I have different day camps, Chinese tutoring and music lessons going on for the kids while they're working on their summer research projects, because that's what it's like when it's a real school project. 

They will both be finishing up their research tomorrow afternoon, and they are on track to have their research papers written by the interim due date we set for June 25th.

One more thing: Motivation is a powerful thing.  The LEGO Harry Potter Years 5-7 game for Play Station is on its way from Amazon and little boys will be blissfully blasting away at Death Eaters as soon as their papers have been written and revised to my satisfaction.  Hey -- a mom's gotta do what a mom's gotta do!

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Great Summer Social Studies Research Project

Yeah, I wish I was kidding. 

It turned out that Son the Elder had been given five weeks to work on an in-depth country study project for Social Studies, due the second to last day of school at a 5th grade Social Studies Fair.  There was a research paper, with a minimum of 60 notecards and full citations, several essays and creative activities, and a tri-fold display.  They were supposed to rehearse their presentations and prepare to defend their research and their conlcusions.  My son, bless his heart, was assigned the Republic of Iceland.  When the teacher read through the NINE-PAGE INSTRUCTION PACKET for the assignment, my child heard something like "Blah blah blah, sources, blah blah notes, blah blah FOLKLORE!!  blah VIKINGS!!  Blah blah blah DRAW A CARTOON blah blah..."  After five weeks of class time to work on the project, my son realized the due date was approaching in just two days.  What had he accomplished?  A total of two notecards, several pages of Viking folklore printed off the Internet, two vague, rambling paragraphs that were completely devoid of factual information, and several pages of cartoon drawings of little fighting people with horns on their heads.  My blood pressure spiked so severely that it's amazing my veins didn't explode.

(Sigh).  Because, what else can you do?  I raced around during the day, collecting resources for my child and created a desperate two-day plan that would enable Lars to have SOMETHING to turn in and to present in front of his class mates.  Apparently this project was worth almost his entire fourth quarter Social Studies grade.  It was like a giant bank that was just too big to fail.  Ahem.  The emphasis was on speed and quantity over quality, and even with keeping him up past eleven both nights, he still had only two notecards to turn in, all of his papers were first draft quality or worse -- some were more stream-of-consciousness -- and the entire experience was a nightmare. 

Moreover, it's been a recurring nightmare.  It was the Science Fair project, and it was the Language Arts Project, and the Math Research Project, and the World War One project for Social Studies earlier in the year...  Get the picture?  The alarming thing about this is that these types of projects are only going to get more complex as he progresses through school, and he doesn't seem to be getting any better at figuring out how to manage them on his own.

Once the project had been turned in, the school year had ended, and my blood pressure returned to normal, I asked Lars if he would like to do the project over again on another country, and do it the RIGHT way this time.  I was bracing for a fight, but Lars surprised me by agreeing to this enthusiastically, as in "Cool!  Can I do Japan?"  What's more, Anders chimed in, "Can I do it, too?  I want to do Ireland!"

So here I am, in the middle of June, basically conducting summer home schooling in the alternate universe in which I apparently live.  So much for taking it easy.  I'm using the same assignment packet that Lars's teacher created for the Study of a Country project, but I'm teaching them lessons on organization, planning, and research skills as we go along that they will be able to apply to any multifaceted school project -- and there will be many more of them in the years ahead.  My objective is for them to learn strategies for planning, pacing, and executing a big project so that the work is spread out over the entire time allotted by the teacher.  They also need to learn how to organize all of their notes, papers, books, and other materials so that they can find everything when it's time to turn it in.  My goals are all about executive functioning and task management -- whatever they learn about their countries or about the writing process is just gravy.

In case other parents out there are trying to figure out to help a disorganized child manage large projects, I'll post my lesson plans as I come up with them.  Their projects are due on July 13th, so they probably won't have a chance to write on their blogs between now and then.  Wish us luck!