Tips On Tracking Unschooling Activities With Evernote

For the last 11 months, we’ve been pretty diligent about recording educational activities in Evernote. When I say “we”, I mostly mean The Missus. She has a lot more access to the kids on a day-to-day basis to capture photos and write quick descriptions of what they’re doing.

Even with our efforts to stay on top of it, it’s next to impossible to capture everything they are learning.

That’s a good thing.

When you change your perspective and realize that learning is something that is always happening (not just between the hours of 8 am to 3 pm during the months of August-May), you realize you can’t even begin to truly document it.

We just had our annual teacher evaluation for our first grader 6 year old learner. It was the first time we’ve gone through the official evaluation for the state of Florida, and we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Mostly, we wanted to make sure that we had not only enough hard samples, but also lots of information stored digitally to demonstrate the wide range of subjects and interests she’s explored during the “school year”.

The Missus is an organization freak, and I’m an information hoarder, so we should have known we’d done enough. Still, we were relieved to find we had plenty of hard samples of work, and what we’ve been doing in Evernote made it super easy to demonstrate the fact that our kids are learning a ton.

Our approach to using Evernote to track the kids’ education is constantly evolving and being tweaked, but I thought I’d document a few of the tips and tricks we’ve developed along the way.

Buy the Premium version of Evernote

Homeschoolers are notorious for seeking out good deals and using as many free resources as possible. Not criticizing that at all…I’m all about it! But this is one place I’d recommend spending the extra money. You won’t be sorry. At $45/year, Evernote is an insanely good deal. Some of the benefits of Premium are:

  • 100 Mb notes, and 1 Gb/month of storage. You’ll need it for the photos you take on field trips with your mobile device
  • Search within photos. Again, this works great for field trips. You won’t have to annotate nearly as much, because you can just take photos of all the informational signs you see, and search will help you easily navigate to these signs later.
Searching for "Greek" in Evernote finds the word in the photo of an informational plaque at The Parthenon in Nashville.
Searching for “Greek” in Evernote finds the word in the photo of an informational plaque at The Parthenon in Nashville.
  • Sharing notes. More about this in the next section, but our strategy depends heavily on both parents having access to the Notebooks we use.

If you aren’t sure about this purchase, the free version is still extremely useful and highly recommended!

Get Both Parents Involved

My favorite thing about using Evernote is that I get to see what the kids are doing and learning without being there. I only get to go to a few of their out-of-the-house activities because of the pesky work thing, but they are constantly out doing stuff. I have Evernote open all day for my own notes, and since Evernote allows The Missus to record notes on her mobile device and they are shared with my account, I can see what’s going on semi-real time. If they’re out for a program at a nature center, I can check in at lunch and see what they’ve been up to. When we sit down to dinner, I have a bunch of specific questions about their trip.

“Did you get to see any critters on your field trip?” is a much better conversation starter than “So…what did you learn today?”

evernote_scavenger

I also use Evernote to add notes for things I do with them, and it gives us a central location to track everything. For example, I taught them a game they love a few weeks ago.  To tell me which coloring pages they want me to print from Google Images, they give me the column number and row number of the picture. To them, that’s just a cool “code” to tell me what they want, but it gets recorded in Evernote as a math activity–the Cartesian coordinate system.

coloring_pages_peregrine_falcon

I do the majority of bedtime reading around here, and as the kids are getting older the subject matter is getting a little deeper. So we are now able to have history discussions based on what we read in the “Little House” series and science discussions prompted by books about snakes and sea creatures.

evernote_little_house

Minimize Notebooks

Your first inclination may be to create separate Notebooks for every subject, but when you think about it, that will soon put you in a position of having to choose between at least two Notebooks, maybe more. For example, let’s say you’re reading the “Magic Tree House” series of books and your child starts asking questions about mummies–what they are, how people were mummified, how long ago this happened (all based on a real conversation we had by the way).

This is exactly how self-directed education works! It’s working! You definitely want to make a note about this! But does it go into the “Reading” Notebook, the “History” Notebook, or the “Science” Notebook? After all, you’ve hit on all these things.

The answer is to forget about trying to drop stuff into Notebooks (basically folders) based on subjects and use tags instead. You can only put a note into a single Notebook, but you can tag it with as many things as you’d like.

(more on our tagging system in the next section)

That doesn’t mean Notebooks aren’t useful though. We use a pretty simple system of Notebooks to keep up with the new notes we create–a “To Be Processed” Notebook, a “Current Academic Year” Notebook, and (as of next month) a Notebook for each archived academic year.

evernote_notebooks

The default Notebook is “To Be Processed”. Every note we create goes here automatically. It stays there until we have both had a chance to tag it, review it, and annotate it if necessary. Once that’s finished (processed), we move it over to the “Current School Year”. And once the academic year has ended and we’re ready to start a new “year”, we’ll move all the notes in that Notebook to the archive Notebook for the past year.

Since school learning never stops for us, we’re continuing to add notes to the “Current School Year”, even though it’s summer. In August, we’ll empty out the “Current School Year” Notebook, moving all of these notes over to the “2013-2014 Academic Year Archive”, just so we can stay in sync with the timing of regular school.

Tags, Tags, Tags

This is the real payoff in my opionion. The ability to tag your notes is huge for unschoolers. Since we don’t have “subjects” in the traditional sense as part of our every day learning, it would be really difficult (as mentioned above) to categorize notes into separate Notebooks the way traditional education systems break down classes and subject matter. Still, we need a way to make the evaluation process run smoothly and to show that we’re making progress in specific subjects.

And, let’s be honest, some unschoolers get a little anxious now and then they aren’t “doing” enough, especially when it comes to math. By tagging notes, it’s easy to go back and review what’s been going on and quickly see progress. More often than not, you’re able to put your mind at ease when you find there’s actually a lot of math going on, just not in the sense of filling out worksheets at a desk.

Forty six notes as shown below may not seem like much, but when you consider that these are just the moments you were able to capture and document, you realize they are doing a ton of math all the time!

evernote_math

So how do we organize tags? This is the part of our system we’ve developed by trial and error. What we’ve tried to do is determine what we’d like to know about each note, and develop a way to organize the tagging:

  • What subject?
  • Who? Which kid(s)?
  • What area of interest (specifically)?
  • Where did this happen?
  • When (automatically taken care of in Evernote…cool!!!)

Here’s where we got fancy out of necessity. When you go to tag a note, Evernote tries to assist you with an auto-complete feature.  Great feature! The problem is that you’ll probably end up with a ton of tags in the four different areas mentioned above, and that makes the auto-complete not as handy.

For instance, if your kid’s name starts with an ‘S’ and you want to tag them in a note, as soon as you type ‘S’ you’re going to get a long list of possible tags and (from experience) you’ll end up hitting “enter” prematurely and tagging them with an incorrect spelling that you can’t find later.

To make it easier to tag notes quickly, we came up with a prefixing system to make things super-easy to see at a glance.

For traditional subject categories, which are useful when it’s time to do evaluations, we use the ‘$’ (it looks like an ‘S’, get it?) as a prefix. So if we’re doing something related to history, we tag it as “$History”. There are very few of these tags, but again, most of our notes have more than one “subject” tag.

When we go to tag the subject(s) of a note, all we have to do is type the ‘$’ symbol, and Evernote automatically filters our tags down to those few subjects.

evernote_subjects

For the “who” type tags, we just use our kids’ names, but with a ‘+’ at the beginning. So you may tag a note with “+Johnny”, “+Sally”, and “+OtherKid”. This allows you to go back later and look at a what a single child has been up to, or even see what activities they’ve been doing with their brothers and sisters by searching on multiple tags.

When we want to tag the kids in a note, we enter the ‘+’ symbol, and all of our tags are immediately filtered to the only the kids’ names–just three tags.

IMPORTANT–Since our kids are “free-range learners”, a large number of the notes we take are things we just happen to catch them doing during “play”. We’re constantly stumbling upon them doing things like observing bees and counting/sorting rocks. Lots of these activities are things they’re doing together!

For “where” we preface all of the tags with “loc”. Again, not a ton of these, but they look like locHome, locClasses, locMuseum, etc. Admittedly, we don’t use the location tags for a lot of our notes because the photos make the location obvious and Evernote can actually keep up with the precise location for you. Still, it’s nice to quickly be able to use “locBeach” to quickly see all the notes about things they’ve learned there.

By far, the most varied tag type we use is our set of “interests”. We preface these with a ‘!’ (like an ‘i’). Tons and tons of these: !Tessalations, !WaterCycle, !Sewing, !RevolutionaryWar….the list goes on and on. Unlike the others, this set of tags is constantly growing, depending on what the kids are interested in at the time.

We also use the !interest tags to get more specific information about a $subject. For example, if the two year old is sorting game chips by color and counting them, we’ll tag it as $Math, !Sorting, and !Counting.

Here’s a really great example of how we tagged a note for an activity that came about after reading a book on Pompeii. The 6 year old became interested in volcanoes, and read some other books before making one of her own.

I’ll save my remarks about how amazing it is that this was all self-directed for another day, but you get the idea here. Lots of subjects were involved, and specific interests give us more detail about the activity.

evernote_volcanoes

I feel like the real benefit to using Evernote for unschooling is going to come at a later date. Maybe in a few years, after they’ve learned to use a tool like Evernote for themselves, they’ll come across some information about Pompeii and wonder, “that sounds familiar–have I ever learned anything about Pompeii?” They’ll be able to easily filter through these notes and see what they’ve already learned.

Maybe it will trigger something for them and it will all come rushing back. Maybe it won’t. But they have the foundation for a personal knowledge base they can continue to build on their own in whatever format they like.

At the very least, Evernote makes it easy for us to keep up with all the amazing things they are doing!

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