Monday, 13 December 2010

Harry Potter - & the Power of Play

The influence of what children are exposed to upon their play is still in question. I have started to read the first Harry Potter book with my 2 elder boys, and this week games in the house have so clearly reflected what we have been reading: magic wands have been whittled from sticks and a shopping list for Diagon Alley carefully prepared. There is no question that their play is directly affected by what they are seeing and hearing ....

Also we should not underestimate the importance of children's play as they strive to make sense of the world. This is true not just in small, preschool children, but older children too. Whilst the early years provision in schools seems to take account of children's need for play, this does not continue beyond Year 1 when learning generally becomes much more formal. Watching my 9 year old play, I am convinced of its vitality as a learning process yet how much are children given the space and freedom to play creatively in our busy culture?

Chinese, codes and cross-curricular application

With children now starting a foreign language in KS2 (aged 7), I have been wondering how to encourage language learning at home. We had tried the Muzzy programme, which the boys were quite taken with for a while, but the clarity of the DVD was disappointing. As I run a group for international women, we know native speakers of many languages. I am convinced that one of the essential prerequisites to learning a foreign language is the realisation that worlds exist beyond one's own in which people use other languages. Of course, our boys know this from living in Turkey but I am also glad that, in a less multicultural region of the UK, they are in regular contact with people for whom English is not their first language.

A French friend brought her little boy round to play with the boys a while ago. She speaks French to her son so, as he and my eldest boy played with the Lego, she asked him in French to find a block of 4. I noticed my son then said 'or cinq' completely unprompted. There is also a German lady at the group whose little boy my second son likes. I encouraged him to speak a few words of German (which he had picked up from Muzzy) to the little German boy's delight.

When considering which new language to introduce, I thought about the world economy, also the boys' ability (being young and having already learnt Turkish (a non-European language) - though they don't really remember it now - and I decided we would try Chinese. One of the Chinese ladies in my group teaches Chinese Mandarin in one of the local secondary schools part-time so I asked her if she would be prepared to come and spend some time each week teaching our boys. She was very happy to do this, and is wonderful at engaging them and getting alongside them. I was quite surprised how open the boys were to this new opportunity. The two eldest literally lap it up. And the skills they applied whilst learning Turkish as very young children (aged 3 and 2) have clearly stood them in good stead. I notice they are very good at reading context. When the Chinese teacher was teaching them to count in Chinese, they picked it up very quickly. To her surprise, my eldest son figured out the pattern and counted very swiftly all the way to 100! Chinese numbers are quite logical, and his knowledge of Turkish numbers helped him to figure out how they worked. He also wanted to learn to write the Chinese characters 1-10, and mastered this very swiftly. We have also learnt a Chinese song which has helped us to learn some basic phrases. All three boys sing this song over and over on car journeys (It is very catchy!)

After last week's Chinese lesson, we went to a home education group where one of the parents was leading a session on codes. She talked about many different codes - the Highway code, morse code, pictograms, sign language .... My eldest son said he knew a code he could show everyone, and proceeded to write down the Chinese numbers 1-12, then counting aloud to teach everyone else. His ability to apply knowledge gained in one area to another area of learning is impressive, and something which the segregated modern curriculum in schools is less likely to encourage.

Monday, 29 November 2010

How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise

An interesting article:

In search of knowledge ....

As lifelong learners, we should be motivated by a desire to learn, a motivation which will prompt us to seek out knowledge from appropriate sources. Such sources might include books (libraries), the Internet, the television, galleries / museums, or other people. One of my aims with home educating is to teach the boys to become lifelong learners. To this end, we need to seek out the knowledge they desire from the sources available to us. One of my roles is to facilitate this, but it is also important to encourage them to do this for themselves.

Recently our middle son (aged 7) decided he wanted to learn to play the guitar. He had saved up some money and he went to the music shop, asked the advice of the shop owner and tried out a few guitars before purchasing one for himself. He then asked my brother (who plays the guitar and lives nearby) to help him and he is picking it up with surprising ease and confidence, displaying a good ear for music. I do not have to nag him to practice. He picks his guitar up regularly and plays it with clear improvement. He then realised he cannot read music, so he asked me to help him with that, and we sit together at the keyboard working through a simple book of introduction to music theory and piano.

His elder brother (recently turned 9) then decided he wanted to learn the drums, so all on his own initiative, he rang up a friend of ours who plays the drums and asked for help. This friend, very kindly, offered to spend half of his lunch hour once a week introducing him to the drums. He picks him up on his way home and my son makes his own way back. Again, the friend lives nearby. And this was all arranged independently.

Our eldest son's latest interest is in whittling wood, and my mother mentioned a man she had met at her art group who whittles and carves wood. She told him about our boy's interest, and he passed on his phone number, so I rang him up. Of course, as an older man, he was thrilled that a youngster was showing interest in his unusual hobby, and we have arranged to go and visit so that he can show my son how he whittles. Apparently he has a workbench in his kitchen and is eager to share some of his tips and woodcarving stories .... So we are looking forward to that.

One of the things I found frustrating in school was the increasing distance from and suspicion of the community. Even as a parent it was difficult to gain access to school, but if we remove our children from their local community, I believe rich learning opportunities are lost - both for the children and for those with wisdom and knowledge to share. Of course, there are risks, but with discernment, we should not allow risks to blind us to opportunities.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Using symbols

This morning, my 4-year-old came to me and showed me a piece of paper on which he had written
He read it to me as "equal 5 and equal 5 equal 10"
He had written his 'equals' sign on its side so it looked like 11.
I asked him if he would like me to show him how to write 5 and 5 equals 10, and he said yes so I wrote it out and he looked at it. Then I wrote 1+1= and he said 2, so we wrote 2.
He then took the piece of paper and began writing out his own sums in the same format:
4+5=9 etc....etc.
I was fascinated by his curiosity and diligence to this task, intrinsically motivated. It is so interesting how he pushes himself onwards in his learning, and is so naturally interested in all he learns.

NB: Some of his numbers were written back-to-front, but this is not a concern to me at this time. He is left-handed and sometimes will write in 'mirror writing'.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Ready, steady, read .....

This week, my youngest son (who is 4), took a pack of word cards from the shelf. He began to look through them spelling out each word and reading them. Some were easier than others - at and had, for example, he managed without any problem. Other words are a bit more tricky - come and was, for example. So I sat with him and we looked at the words together. He worked his way through most of the pack. I then remembered some Oxford Reading Tree books I have upstairs, so I pulled them out and showed him one. I reminded him of 'got' and 'was' - words he had just encountered on the cards. I then encouraged him to read the beginning of the book, which he managed. He was very pleased with himself but, after a few pages, he had had enough and put the book and cards away.

Native Americans

Reading a story about the discovery of 'The New World' and the European pioneers travelling west, we learned a little about the Native Americans. The boys were interested, so we have decided to learn more about them, and went to the library today to get hold of some books. We have been reading some Native American myths, and learnt a few signs members of different tribes used to communicate with one another. We have bought some tall canes to make a tipi, and will cover it with plastic or canvas which the boys can decorate with patterns based on pictures we have been studying. Today was wet, so my eldest son began whittling a totem pole out of a block of wood. His brother decided to sculpt a totem pole out of clay, whilst my youngest just had fun playing with the clay and making a lot of mess.

This is an example of how topics grow and flow from each other and evolve rather than being planned.

Just 20 minutes

People always ask me how I get my children to sit down and do the work they need to do. What this question fails to understand is that home education need not be 'school at home'. There is liberation from endless worksheets, and berating one's children to get them to read aloud or to learn that list of spellings becomes a fading memory. Rather, learning flows naturally and a routine and a little encouragement seem to help us get done what needs to be done. Everyone is more relaxed.

My eldest son chose to learn about the Second World War this term. We have used the BBC Kids website as a starting point for looking at different topics relating to the War, and I find that just 20 minutes sitting side by side and discussing what we find there achieves a great deal. Children do not receive a lot of one-on-one attention in a busy classroom, so it is amazing how much you can cover in just a short, focused amount of time.

He was working through a page of subtraction the other day, and learning the written method of carrying numbers. Although his mental maths is very good, he found this puzzling but persevered. The final exercise asked him to fill in numbers which were missing from various subtraction sums, and it was hard! He and I puzzled over it for about 25 minutes or so and got there in the end. I was so impressed at his perseverance and at the satisfaction we got from figuring it out together.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Solving problems

We have started to give the boys mathematical challenges to solve and it is great to see them persevere and puzzle them out. Today, our eldest son completed about 3. One was solved using chess kings and queens and a coaster:

"2 men and 2 women want to sail to an island. The boat will only hold 2 women or 1 man. How can all 4 of them get to the island?"

It didn't take him long.

Our middle son, to whom numbers don't come quite so easily, pondered over the following puzzle for some time:

"The toy shop stocks tricycles and go-carts. The tricycles have 3 wheels. The go-carts have 5 wheels. Suna counted the wheels. He counted 37 altogether. How many tricycles are there? How many go-carts? Find two ways to do it."

Initially, he became a bit upset saying, "I can't do it" but with some encouragement, he kept going and refused offers of help and 'clues' I was ready to give. He listed his 5 times and 3 times tables (refusing to look them up) and then looked at pairs of numbers trying to make 37. He was absolutely delighted when he solved it, and talked about it all day, telling my husband about his accomplishment proudly at the dinner table.

When we took our middle son out of school, he was saying "I'm not very good at maths". Now he likes maths and realises he CAN do it. He can delight in his own achievements, and is growing in confidence, without measuring himself against others.

Number Bonds

When our elder 2 boys get on with their maths work in the morning, our youngest son expressed his desire to have a similar workbook of his own. Today his page was presenting number bonds to 10 and I was surprised how quickly he grasped the idea. We started with those he knew .... 5+5, 0+10. He then went and got 10 Duplo blocks and we grouped them - 2+8, 3+7, 4+6, 1+9. He then made a up a little game giving me half the bricks and himself half. He then gave 1 more to me and said, "Now you have 6 and I have 4" and he went on like that, practising all the number bonds completely self-initiated.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Cursive Writing

My eldest son started in Year 2 without being able to read or write. We had been living abroad and, in Turkey as in many European countries, formal learning didn't start until a child was 7. With Year 2 being a SATs year, our son had a lot of catching up to do. And with the support of a great teacher, catch up he did! However, less than a term into Year 3 he was struggling and said, "I don't know what to do. Either I write enough but it isn't neat enough. Or I write neatly but I can't write enough." Apparently, this sometimes led to him missing his playtime, and it was a source of stress to him.

At parents' evening, we asked his teacher why there was such an emphasis on cursive writing. Our son's printed writing was really quite neat, and we never had to write in cursive script when we were at school. The teacher's response was short and telling: "It's 2 marks on the SATs test."

I am not arguing that it is not important for children to learn to write, but when do you or I now sit and write by hand? Maybe a list or a note .... However most writing now is done at the computer, and by the time our children leave school, voice recognition technology will mean they need only talk to a computer and the text will appear. This technology is already in existence. Why then the insistence on cursive writing, the endless hours spent by active inquisitive youngsters labouring over their handwriting? For 2 marks on a SATs paper? That's not a good enough reason for me.

I have just heard that the schools' line on cursive writing has now been extended to reception - with young children being taught cursive script right from the beginning, rather than learning to print and then having to switch over to cursive later on. I wonder if anyone has actually observed a young child writing before making these changes to the way in which children are taught. My 4 year old is learning to form his letters very well at his own pace. Today he wrote his first and surname (which he copied from a label he found) in beautiful print. How on earth he would react to my pointing out and picking over his 'errors' or to my continually insisting 'We don't write it like that, we write it like this' I cannot imagine. But surely it would crush his pleasure and sense of achievement in these early efforts. Worse, over time, I am sure it would destroy any inclination he had to write purely for pleasure.

I wonder why the solution in current educational practice always seems to be to start things younger .... Maybe we would be better to take a lesson from other countries and formalise learning later instead?

The Nonsense of SATs

Yesterday, I received an email from MyChild trying to persuade me to purchase a pack which would help me to help my child prepare for the SATs tests. I quote:

"The SATs - the Standard Assessment Tests - are commonly misunderstood. They are not just for compiling school league tables! SATs sum up four key factors:

* The knowledge your child has gained
* How far your child has come
* How your child compares to the national average
* What your child needs to reach his or her full potential

The idea of the SATs is to show what pupils have learned and retained over the course of the year. The tests help teachers and parents learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of what your child understands about a subject, and where to focus attention.

How SATs measures your child
The SATs will measure - for the first time - your child’s ability in English, Maths and Science against hundreds of thousands of other children, in their school and across the UK. SATs are one of the great milestones since your baby was assessed for weight, height, hearing and speech!

The educational level your child has reached will become an official record of progress, with the results showing whether or not your child has reached the expected National Curriculum level for that year group.

The pressure is on. If the children measure up, so does the school.

It is essential that you understand why you should help your child prepare for their SATs.

The fact is that you cannot leave it all up to your child's teacher. There are obvious time limitations in the school day, and it’s difficult for a teacher to single out an individual child for extra aid.

Many parents will say: “But what if the tests make my child anxious?”

This is where MyChild comes in, and is exactly why we commissioned a special collection of SATs practice papers, plus hints, tips and expert advice.

The school year will pass quickly, so by giving your child a helping hand NOW they’ll be able to breeze through SATs week and get top marks!"

I am so disappointed by the general acceptance of Government measures for 'improving' education.
One of the reasons we decided to take our children out of school was to remove the pressure of a system which feels the need to constantly measure them and assess them in relation to others, and according to the national averages. The temptation for schools, teachers and now (this email implies) parents as well, to teach our children to test rather than nurturing a true love of learning and intrinsic motivation to develop and grow as a human being in a broad and balanced way is a real concern to me.

The email says:
"The SATs will measure - for the first time - your child’s ability in English, Maths and Science against hundreds of thousands of other children, in their school and across the UK."

As a concerned parent, I am well aware of how my children are developing in their mathematical, language and scientific skills without the government imposing any tests on them. I also believe that English, Maths and Science are only a part of the broad and balanced curriculum needed to help children develop into whole and healthy adults. I do not need to know how my child measures up against hundreds of thousands of other children across the country as long as I know he is developing happily and healthily and is comfortable and confident in his own skin.

Observing my unschooled 4-year old, I notice that many of the things he is intrinsically motivated to learn at present are on the curriculum for the reception year. He is figuring out consonant-vowel-consonant words, for example, and is interested in simple addition. But these are not learning objectives I have imposed on him, they are just learning opportunities which he is choosing to take. It reminds me that the curriculum probably started with the child. Sadly we forget that, and now assume the child needs school / teachers / tests / pressure to learn these things.

The email says:
SATs are one of the great milestones since your baby was assessed for weight, height, hearing and speech!

We seem to forget that in contrast to SATs, our child's growth, hearing, speech developed naturally in the home context without the need for Government pressures and league tables and without any child anxiety.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Whose responsibility?

A very interesting comment was made by a woman in the audience of Question Time last week. In a summary of the basic services she expected the government to provide, she included the responsibility to educate our children, and to educate them well. I am sure that many, many people in our country now agree with her and we all pay the price with our taxes.

How quickly public opinion changes.
Schooling only became compulsory in this country through the education acts at the end of the 19th century - so our state system is only 140 years old at most. It was opposed at the time. It's necessity was wrapped up with issues of poverty, class discrimination and with the social effects of the industrial revolution. It was aimed primarily at children who were not receiving adequate education.

Whilst the government might be required in some cases to act 'in loco parentis', with whom ought the responsibility for a child's education ultimately to rest?
With their government or with their parents?

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Behaviour Management ... Drip, drip, drip!

Wow - I feel like I am dealing with some behaviour this week ... One of the benefits of home education is having the time to spend talking through and dealing with issues of behaviour and attitude properly. I am amazed at the range and depth of discussion we have throughout the day about so many subjects .... just by going about our daily lives, and talking about what we encounter.

There is a tendency in our culture to use a 'stick and carrot' approach to discipline .... This is the approach advocated by many parenting books, and by programmes like 'Super Nanny'. I read Alfie Kohn's book, 'Unconditional Parenting' with initial dismay as he spends the first half of the book tearing down this approach to discipline. This left me feeling so upset as these are the methods we are all encouraged to use, and I wondered if he was going to come up with an alternative approach ... and, if so, what that could possibly be.

Well, the great thing about the 'stick and carrot' approach - manipulating behaviour by offering a reward or threatening a punishment - is that it brings results FAST ... and in a world in which we need children to comply NOW, in which parents are stressed and do not have enough time, it does seem to provide a solution. However, Alfie Kohn points out how this method encourages extrinsically motivated behaviour ... when what we really want is people who are intrinsically motivated, who behave because they understand why they ought to. This type of behaviour management is really about mentoring a child, continually discussing and evaluating their behaviour, attitudes and choices whilst walking life's path together. This is a costly process, but it is one of the things I like about home education - having more time to invest in the things which really matter.

Sometimes I despair and think that all the effort is in vain .... and I have one son in particular who will test the boundaries, and push and test me, who seems to have little empathy, who is very single-minded and seems not to consider the effect of his behaviour on others .... but then I get a small glimpse of an attitude change or the realisation that he has unwittingly hurt someone, and I realise it is going in ... like fluid through a drip: drip, drip, drip .....

Monday, 27 September 2010

A New Routine

After asking me whether we have to follow a set curriculum (No, we don't), and whether we have to do the SATs tests (No, we don't), the next question people ask me when they hear that we home educate is how we structure our day. Well, it has taken a few weeks but I finally feel we have slipped into a new routine for the new term ....

Every day we start by sitting together and reading and reflecting on a story from the life of an inspiring character from history. For us, this is also a time to prepare spiritually for the day by praying together.

The boys then get on with some number work. They are using workbooks - such as those readily available in stationary shops - at the appropriate level. For my eldest son, this means a book slightly ahead of his age-group, for my middle son - a book aimed slightly younger. When at school, my middle son had begun to say that he was no good at maths. So I am working on consolidation and building up his confidence. He now says he enjoys maths, which to me is a great sign of success. Sometimes their half hour of number work might also include playing a game on the computer, or playing a game (such as multiplication bingo) together.

I have decided to have a morning a week then spent on our literature project, a morning a week on science and a morning a week working on our topic. I am waiting to see what topic of interest will emerge this term. For science, we are working through a book of practical experiments. And for literature we are continuing our Narnia series having just finished reading 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'. As the boys are not keen on writing, and as we have no need to produce written work for assessment, most of our work is done practically and orally. Today, we painted a scene from the book, modelled some of the characters from Plasticene and photographed them, and role played an interview with one of the characters.

All this work can be finished by about 11.30, so the boys are then free to explore their own interests, get on with their own games and projects, or to go out somewhere.

On the other 2 mornings of the week, we are busy - once running a local group for International Women, and once travelling 30 minutes to join with our local Home Education Support Group, which has a range of activities going on. Once a week we also go swimming, and the boys each have an afternoon of the week when they go for time on their own with Grandma and Grandpa.

We also have to be flexible to allow for events which might come up .... Tomorrow we are expecting a television crew from Childrens' BBC to come and film the boys for 'Blue Peter'. It's amazing what opportunities seem to have come our way since we started Home Education!

Monday, 20 September 2010

Reading Readiness

Babies learn to crawl, walk, talk & manage the toilet in their own time. Though we may have a rough idea as to when this 'should' happen, it varies from child to child. Though pressure from others might cause us to be concerned if these things happen more slowly than we think they 'should', we have a confidence that our child will get there and we delight in watching their development and growing independence.

I wonder why at age 3, we are led to believe this natural learning process will cease to happen without nursery? Why do we hand our children over to the care of strangers believing they will be better able to meet the needs of our child than we will? And why does it then become the task of professional teachers to hand out the required learning? Who decides what this required learning will be? Can we not have the same attitude towards reading, writing, mathematical skills, science as we have towards an infant's developmental milestones?

People say to me 'You are taking a huge risk with your children'. I am. But it was also a risk to leave them in school when I could see their natural curiosity and creativity ebbing away before my eyes. Reading had become a struggle. The school reading book had to be read aloud to me, and a comment written for the school. Getting the boys to read became something else to nag them about. They weren't always keen. The books were simple and repetitive, they weren't changed often enough, and how often are you made to read aloud to anyone? Reading is usually a silent, personal activity.

I have tried to read to my children every day since they were tiny. I still do. But when we began home educating, I decided to back off on forcing them to read, and just to let them come to it in their own time, with the confidence that they will. They enjoy listening to stories and discussing them every day. They engage with the adventures, comment intelligently, have a wide vocabulary, can express themselves confidently, and can't wait to hear what will happen next!

Sometimes I catch them reading ....
Reading 'The Beano' in bed before they go to sleep, reading a book that has caught their fancy, reading a recipe to see what ingredients are required, reading for information they need, reading some instructions to help with some task, reading whilst they are on the computer or playing on the Wii. Who is to say all this is any less valuable than progressing through a reading scheme? More importantly there is real value in being able to read because the text is in context, it gives access to real and useful information. And sometimes the words they are reading are quite difficult. This poses no hindrance; they just figure them out.

In the last couple of weeks, my eldest son (who will be 9 in a couple of months) has begun reading every road sign as we drive along. We went to the safari park and he read out every sign and insisted we did exactly as instructed as we drove around. To me this shows an increased awareness of text in his environment. I would say this is evidence of reading readiness. For my middle son, who is younger, this happened earlier. For some children, it happens much earlier. The point is, all are different. The question is, will pushing children to read before they are ready make them into better readers? Will it encourage a lifelong love of literature or a desire to read for pleasure? Or will the opposite occur? For some children, is the struggle to read an obstacle to enjoying a fantastic story? Isn't it better to get children enjoying fantastic stories and to trust that the desire to read will then come? This is the risk I am taking.

I was disappointed when I went to a parents' evening at my son's school and asked how his reading was coming along. I meant his love of books and literature, his desire to engage with a story .... The teacher's answer was that comprehension was important because comprehension was what he would to be tested on. And this was Year 3, as far from a SATs test in the primary system as he could be! It was the same for handwriting. We asked if he had to write in cursive script as this was proving difficult for him and causing him frustration. The response? 2 marks on the SATs test for cursive! Has our system really become so results driven that these are the things that matter? Or might there just be a better way?

Well, let's take a risk and find out.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Chemistry Lab

The boys were given a 'Bath Bomb' kit my Mum picked up in a charity shop - brand new! It provided a great morning's chemistry work with concoctions of citric acid and bicarb producing fizzing bath bombs to add to my eldest son's soap making initiatives. We also managed to get a pipette of water inside a balloon with the same blend ready to be activated by pressing the balloon, thus inflating it without any air. I asked the boys what the balloon was filled with. 'Carbon dioxide gas,' they replied without hesitation. The cold feel of the gas inside the balloon and the fizzing sound effects made this a multi-sensory experience. Great!

Media attention

When we returned to the UK from Turkey, I was looking forward to being anonymous. There were not many foreigners in our part of Ankara so I felt people were always watching us & commenting on what was different or distinctive about our family. This was not done in an unfriendly way, but still, as an introvert, I often wished I could just blend in and disappear.

This week I felt I have failed at being inconspicuous! Returning to our home country from overseas, we had stepped out of the box of normality, and could now see our own culture from a different angle. Perhaps this is a privilege, but it certainly makes it hard to blend in and disappear. Instead I find myself asking too many questions, and embarking on new adventures I would never have considered possible. Being different attracts attention.

This week we had a visit from a South Korean television crew who were making a documentary about home education in England. The family they had lined up backed out at the last minute, so through a fellow-home educating family, we were kind of 'roped in' ... with 2 days notice! I do not mind being an advocate for home education, but I am not really comfortable in front of the camera, so it was quite difficult for me to have the film crew in our home for 5 hours! The boys, however, loved it! They had so much to show the crew and to talk about, they didn't need any direction. I just let them get on with it. I wonder how much of the footage will end up in the actual programme! What was great for me was to see how confident the children were, and how eager to show off their work. Our eldest son was back to being the confident little person he used to be ... before school.

In keeping with the media theme, I have also been contacted by CBBCs 'Blue Peter' about some bags my middle son designed out of recycled jeans. Home education gives us more time to work on things like this. He had sent in some pictures hoping to get a badge like his brother, but following an email reply, he carefully prepared hand-written instructions for one of the programme's producers, who is having a go at making the bags himself before confirming the filming date we have pencilled in for October. I was really quite excited about this as I loved 'Blue Peter' as a child .... but the boys seem to take it in their stride, as though such excitement is just a part of the routine!

Guess I can forget being inconspicuous, anonymous, blending in and disappearing!
Being different attracts attention.

Summer Holidays?

People ask me if we have a 'summer holiday' with the schools, or if we just carry on. Really, the nature of autonomous learning means that it is continual, so we do not really take a break. We continue to follow our interests as they arise. However, my husband is a teacher so he is around during the school holidays and the dynamics change within the house, I relax a bit as another adult is around, our routine changes. And, this is still the time we have to take a holiday. We look forward to the day when all our family are liberated from the school system, so we can benefit from family holidays at cheaper (& sunnier!) times of the year.

The weather this summer wasn't great in England. This is the third year running that July and August have been pretty wet and dull. I was glad the boys and I had been able to spend a lot of time outside enjoying the sunshine during May and June, but for children confined to their classrooms earlier in the year, this opportunity was missed. We were glad to be offered a 'house sit' in Devon in August which enabled us to spend a week exploring a new part of the country, whilst another family 'house sat' for us. Although the weather wasn't very good, we enjoyed time on the beach, exploring some National Trust properties including Francis Drake's house 'Buckland Abbey' and driving across Dartmoor in the mist.

Also, during the summer, there are many holiday clubs on offer to children, and the boys took part in a tennis camp, the eldest in a swimming course and our second son in a trampolining week. All of these they enjoyed. The holiday clubs are great for trying out new sports and the costs were reasonable. I have been taking the boys swimming every week to build up their confidence in the water. Living in Ankara, we only really got to swim on holiday as there are not the cheap public pools we are fortunate to have access to in this country. Therefore, the boys had not had as much opportunity to swim as they might have had here. Our eldest son has been reluctant to join a swimming class or club - and going swimming with the school (which he would have done this last school year) was something he was worried about. So it was great that he wanted to do a swimming course this summer, and he had reached a level where he was just ready to be given some strokes and teaching to help him to progress. To my surprise there were only one or two children in his group so he had almost 1:1 tuition, did really well, and proudly brought home his 10m badge at the end of the week.

All 3 boys completed the library summer reading challenge through the summer holidays - and I noticed how their reading has come on without any real pushing from me. The elder two both read 6 proper books independently and enjoyed collecting the stickers and rewards to complete their posters. Though they were motivated, I still wonder how we can achieve these objectives without the need for extrinsic rewards. I would love to see them reading more for sheer intrinsic pleasure. (See Alfie Kohn's 'Unconditional Parenting' for more on this noble objective).

Nouns or Verbs? Simple Living and Un-Jobbing

"We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun." Stephen Fry in a recent interview with the Radio Times

"Your Life = Your Job.
Do you ever get the feeling that the above is what contemporary life boils down to? The statement is somewhat of an exaggeration, but if you're a member of a modern, western industrial society, there's also a great deal of truth to it.
While children, we are sent to school whose primary purpose is to prepare us for the "adult world" - read: having a job and, at first, being able to get a job. Then, we become adults; and we spend the bulk of our waking hours in our jobs. What we 'do for a living' is our major handle or self-identity in life. One is a plumber, or an attorney, or a car dealer. And then, we retire from our jobs. Now one becomes a retired plumber, or a retired attorney, or a retired car dealer. And that's about it. That's a thumbnail sketch of life as we know it here in late twentieth century western civilisation.
In a large sense, life = job.
Are we serious? Do we really want to equate that precious commodity known as one's life with an all-consuming vocational activity which may be only mildly interesting and whose most important feature is that it is attached to a paycheck? How have we gotten to the point where 'making a living' so saturates our lives that we have somehow forgotten about simply living?
These are the questions with which we urgently need to deal at the close of the twentieth century. 'Life' in our culture has become almost equivalent to 'job'. The unfortunate thing is that 'job' is too often lacking in personal fulfilment and too often over-taxing on the environment. Now that we've tried the 'jobbing' world as we know it for the best part of a couple of centuries, and we see the results it has produced, I propose we try 'un-jobbing'."
So opens Michael Fogler's book "Un-Jobbing: The Adult Liberation Handbook"
For more on un-jobbing and how to live a simpler life, I recommend his book.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Whatever an education is .....

"Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing; wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important: how to live and how to die."
John Taylor Gatto in "Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling"

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Engaging with County

I know that it is not everyone's experience across our country, but since I first considered embarking on our home education adventure, I have received nothing but encouragement from our County Education Department. The relationship is based on my understanding that they have their job to do as far as ensuring child welfare is concerned and, since I have nothing to hide, I am quite happy to fill in the minimal paperwork and co-operate with their wish to visit us to learn more about our educational provision. In fact, my belief in what we are doing motivates me to share that enthusiasm with other educationalists.

Not long after de-registering my children from school, I received an unannounced visit from the Education Welfare Officer, whom I invited into our home, though she was with us for only 10 or 15 minutes. I later received a letter from County with a brief form to complete for each child showing how we intended to cover various areas of the curriculum. As it was such a new venture, and I wasn't really sure at that point exactly how we would do things, I filled it out fairly briefly, but wrote a little about my primary objectives - namely to take the pressure off all the children and to see them relax - along with a little about my philosophy of education. I was informed that we would receive a visit from a Home Education Officer in due course and that they would be in touch. In the meantime, I signed up to the County Home Education e-mailing list which I have found to be helpful in that it informs me of special events and useful information relevant to our local area. For example, through the listing, I heard about a space exploration day especially for Home Educated children at a local RAF museum, for minimal cost, which I promptly booked and which the boys attended and enjoyed. There is actually a lot going on in our local area if we are able to tap into it.

The months passed with no other contact from County .... until last week when, with schools breaking up, I was called by a friendly Home Education Officer who arranged to visit us a few days ago. He stayed about an hour and a half. The boys were quite excited to have the chance to show off all the work they have been doing and enjoyed telling him about all their projects enthusiastically. They took such pride in their work and discoveries. Of course, I was nervous as this was our first visit. Had we been doing enough? Would he find our provision satisfactory? Although I was eager to make a good impression, I confess I wasn't really worried because, as I said above, I believe very much in what we are doing and I am quietly confident.

Our visitor spoke to us with each child in turn, and wrote notes about the kind of things they were learning. He was very interested in all the boys told him, and commented on their confidence. We were really pleased when he came to his summary sheet and told us we could not be classed 'satisfactory' - We exceeded expectations. My husband gets fed up in school - as pupils probably do too - with being judged by Ofsted as 'satisfactory'. Sometimes we all like to exceed expectations! So, unless we seek help, we are now left alone by County to continue our journey unhindered for another 12 months.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Self-motivated maths

This morning I came downstairs to find our 4-year-old son cutting squares out of paper, writing numbers on them and placing them in order to form a number line. He had got to 10, and asked me how to write number 11. I explained 11 is one 10 plus 1 so we write it 11. He added a square for 11, then asked what came next. I tried to encourage him to see the pattern as I showed him how to write 12. He then figured out 13, 14, 15 and placed them in his line. He went to get his Thomas VTech laptop, and played a number recognition game for a while. When he had had enough, he got an envelope and put his paper number squares carefully away "so I can learn my numbers another day!" As I write, he is busily engaged in building geometric shapes with Geomag. Do not believe that if children are not pushed, they will learn nothing!

Friday, 16 July 2010

Small miracles

The other day, I had a plan of sorts, but we hadn't got much further than breakfast before it all went off course and in another, but no less valuable, direction ....

One son asked me for a game of chess, then another wanted me to finish reading the book about Leonardo Da Vinci we had started the previous day. This led on to looking for some of Leonardo's paintings and sketches on the web, the discovery of a story slideshow about his life, and a quiz to follow which the boys read and answered with avid interest. Then we found a game where the boys had to type in words which were transformed into Leonardo's mirror writing. My eldest son immediately began to enter words backwords for the fun of seeing them turned right way round.

Having talked and read some more about Leonardo's life and work, and having looked at the Mona Lisa and other portraits, my elder two sons spent yesterday morning painting, working solidly for 2 hours and producing a portrait each of their grandparents. There are details to finish off, but the work was seen through to completion by my eldest son. After a term at school in which I saw his attitude to work change for the worse, it has taken 6 months to see his old self returning, and his level of interest and commitment to his work return to normal.

We had read a lot of books where home educating parents speak about seeing their children begin to read, often later than children in school but self-motivated. And although I have trusted this instinctively, it has felt like a risk .....

Well, this week we walked into our local library to change our books, and were confronted by the summer reading challenge, which the boys completed last summer., so were familiar with. Children are encouraged to borrow and read six books through the summer holidays, and there is a chart with stickers to mark their progress, and a medal for completion. Well, all three boys were keen to take part and immediately set about registering and each choosing their first three books. My eldest son, who was becoming a reluctant reader at school, has read 4 chapter books right through from cover to cover in the last two days! He has been sitting on the sofa absorbed by a book, he has been trailing around behind me in the supermarket with his nose in his book, round the Sea Life Centre today - at any opportune moment, out came his book .... even during our family movie this evening, he was reading his book on the sofa. Reading for pleasure. Hallelujah!

Monday, 12 July 2010

Jolly Phonics

My youngest son has become very interested in writing words and letters, so I looked out some old phonics workbooks I have had in the cupboard for a few years. He loves them! He makes his own little desk out of a box with a chess board on top, gets out his books and his pens to do 'his work'. There is a video which these books accompany, so he has been watching that and learning to form his letters. He has started to tell me what letters words begin with - at odd moments, when he is bruching his teeth, for example, he'll say 'T. T for teeth. T for toothbrush." He will ask me how to write certain words, and then copy them very accurately onto his pictures, and he does a lot of his own 'writing' with a hotch potch of letters which he then proudly asks me to read. I do not have set times for him to do this work, he just does it when he wants to do it. His understanding of number is evolving in the same way. We'll sit down to dinner and he will announce "We are 6 today with Grandma". OK, so he isn't writing 5+1=6 but I know he is understanding.

In addition to dressing each morning as a Roman Ninja, he is also interested in designing, drawing, sticking and labelling his own maps. This may have been inspired by our project on South Africa, stemming from the World Cup, as part of which we drew flags and a huge map, talked a lot about apartheid and Nelson Mandela, the older boys even composing an a cappella piece in the style of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. A lot of learning at home is done through conversation. So much is imparted to children through watching and talking with significant adults. A lot of our talk is about values, the reasons behind behaviour, the important things which I never felt I had enough time to impart when busy with the urgent demands which came home from school. It is impossible for a teacher in a class of thirty to give such focussed attention to a child, and it is an important, if informal and undocumented part of learning at home. It is good to be able to follow a child's 'why' questions in the pursuit of knowledge about the world, rather than seeing those 'whys' and that natural curiosity suppressed, which is too often (sadly) a necessary part of classroom management in pursuit of the curriculum.

FUSE Festival

This is the weekend of the FUSE arts festival in our city, a huge community event in the park. There is always loads going on with lots of free activities for all the family. My husband and middle son were part of the community arts group performing in the dance extravaganza. I watched with admiration as they performed in front of a huge crowd enjoying the summer sunshine. My son's confidence amazed me! This was the culmination of 8 evenings rehearsals, which he would have been too tired to participate in had he been at school.

The boys also enjoyed making sock monkeys, a great way of recycling old socks and a lovely product resulting from an hour or so's concentrated effort with a needle and thread. My eldest son was so inspired, he has made a smaller companion for his monkey since out of a pair of his old school socks.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Days Out

Maybe it is the beautiful summer weather which has made this week a good week .... More time spent outdoors, a more relaxed approach to life and the whole home schooling business. Maybe it is the fact we have had three fantastic days out - all at minimal cost and with minimal crowds. Certainly I have rediscovered our nearest city - where I lived some years ago before I had children - and so have been reminded how great it is to live in a small town with fantastic countryside in one direction, and a fantastic city with all the cultural richness that offers us, in the other!

On Wednesday we visited Plantasia near Atherstone using Tesco Clubcard vouchers, which can be exchanged for free days out! There we found Maze World - a series of mazes with various country themes. The boys each had a card and had to collect a stamp from the centre of each one, which kept motivation and persistence high. We had the play area completely to ourselves and had a picnic lunch before discovering the Wild Walk, again armed with cards and in search of stamps, which meant few corners of the woodland remained unexplored. There was a treetop walk, deer, alpacas and other small animals to look at, lakes and a den-making area. All in all, a good day in the open air.

On Friday, our Home Ed Group had a booking for the Symphony Hall in Birmingham to hear the orchestra play Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade - The Tales of the Arabian Nights. One of the other mums, a music teacher, had given the children a brilliant introduction to this music in preparation for the concert, and with great seats, we had a wonderful view of the orchestra whose performance, with occasional commentary, kept the children spellbound for the hour it lasted. 'Was it good?' my eldest son was asked afterwards. 'No ..... it was FANTASTIC!' he replied. And it was!

We went to Birmingham cheaply on the train, and spent the morning in the Museum and Art Gallery where we discovered the Natural History Museum's robotic dinosaurs on tour in an exhibition entitled 'T-Rex - the Killer Question'. We think of this huge dinosaur as a predator, but as the children went round the exhibition, they were encouraged to consider the evidence and decide whether they thought T-Rex was actually a predatory hunter or a scavenger. Again, this held the boys' attention, and they were wide-eyed at the sight of these awesome dinosaur reconstructions. So all-in-all, another great day out!

Keeping with the theme of The Arabian Nights, we returned to Birmingham the following morning to see the Theatre of Widdershins' magical production of the tales using puppetry and storytelling. Followed by a picnic and play in the adjacent park, then an afternoon visit to family in the city, it was another successful day out in the sunshine.

There's nothing worse than planning a day out, and then having it all go wrong! But 3 good days out have left me thinking maybe this home educating lark ain't so crazy after all!

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Chocolate Making

My eldest son has been buying chocolate, melting it down, adding cereal, putting into ice cube trays to set, prising it out, packaging and selling it, reinvesting the profit in more chocolate as well as paying his 'workforce' - his brother and I, who have been assisting in this process. The first lot were rather misshapen chocolate blobs wrapped in bits of plastic. So we talked about marketing a product, and how important packaging can be for pricing and sales. He soon upped his game, purchasing white chocolate and decorating this lot with a red cross, complete with 'England' packaging, just right for marketing this week as we lead up to the World Cup. He was obviously inspired by the displays of goods in our local Tesco!


One of the reasons I decided to de-register my eldest son from school was that this creative, innovative boy who was always so full of ideas, always drawing out his inventions and machines, had stopped finishing anything. In fact, he had stopped even starting anything because, he said, it wouldn't be good enough. This was leading to quite stressful interactions - especially over homework. I had become aware that there was quite a strong emphasis in his class on presentation and handwriting and that this was causing him some anxiety.

We have been home educating now for almost 6 months, and I have laid off reading and writing completely to remove the pressure and to try and get the boys to relax. I have a confidence that, in time, they will come to these skills themselves and that their enthusiasm will be greater because it will come from their own interest and need. I read with the boys every day. We have just started the Narnia series, and we plan to make a folder each in which they can respond artistically with drawings, character studies, maps etc. I also plan to set up their MP3 players or computers so that they can record their story ideas orally without the pressure to write.

I have observed my older two boys reading spontaneously, silently and independently things which are of interest to them - far more difficult texts that they were being given at school - but their own choices. I have observed this quietly and without comment, and it remains my belief that such reading will continue and increase.

I have also been really thrilled this week to see my eldest son finishing things! He has begun to set himself targets and to complete his projects, something I was afraid he would never do again. He has his own motivations .... He has recently started to watch 'Blue Peter' and swiftly caught on to the fact that there were badges to be earned! He set about earning a blue one and, having done that, is now determined to earn himself a silver one!

Mathematical Breakthrough

I got to spend a solid 20 minutes with my middle son working on a maths concept he was struggling to understand. He was trying to read a graph, & it took a while for him to grasp that the scale went up in increments of 5. We ended up with the LEGO bricks out and he grappled with the problem for a while before the penny seemed to drop. I explained that the increments of scales differ so you have to work out in each case what you are being shown. My son then went to the kitchen and took out a measuring jug he has used in his cooking. "It's like on here," he said, "this goes up in 50 ml, so if I pour milk up to here, that will be 250ml." (He indicated between the 200 and 300 ml marks.)

This showed me, not only that he had grasped what I was saying, but that he was able then to apply that knowledge to another context. It was a good moment! Without that 1:1 input at school, he might have failed to grasp this concept and, because of the pressure on teachers to get through the curriculum, would probably have been moved on with a gap in the foundation of his knowledge.

Learning from the Great Outdoors

With a good weather forecast for the weekend, we spontaneously packed up boys and camping gear and headed for the Peaks - the great outdoors. Our boys love camping, and somehow the sky and the open air seems to absorb the noise and energy which can drive me mad when we are all cooped up in the house! Our campsite was near the river, and many happy hours were spent paddling / fishing / damming all on a shoestring budget.

Another parent recently told me about the outdoor pursuits day her son's school had planned & were funding towards the end of the summer term. The children would get to build dens, she told me with enthusiasm. There is such a lot to be learned from spending time in the great outdoors, observing and engaging with nature. What a shame it has to wait until a day at the end of the summer term - with no guarantee that won't be wet!

Piagetian Theories

Jean Piaget proposed that children were not just small grown-ups, but that they learned in a qualitatively different way from adults. He described children as active participants in their own learning, constructing their own understanding and furthering their own knowledge.

Piagetian theory has been such a strong influence on early years practice in the UK that it is easy to overlook how radical his ideas were at the time. Piaget's image of the child as little scientist was in stark contrast to other perspectives in Europe and the USA over the same period. The prevailing educational belief about children was that they were essentially empty vessels who needed to be filled up with adult-given knowledge.

Sound familiar?

Piaget proposed that between 5 and 7 years of age children make the shift into a whole new level of thinking, that of operations - mental activities such as categorising, use of number and early scientific concepts. This new level of understanding took children into the concrete operational stage which Piaget believed lasted up to about 12 years of age. By the brink of adolescence, children have gained such a broad and thorough understanding of ideas in action, concrete operations, that they were able to deal with increasingly complex ideas in their head and move to the stage of formal operations.

If we agree with this, why do we formalise our children's education so early?

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Alternative SATs week

It was SATs week this week, so my middle son's former classmates (aged 6-7) were completing the assessment tests they have been preparing for. The scores will tell them / their parents / teacher / school / the Government at what level they are performing in Speaking & Listening, Reading, Writing, Mathematics and Science. Are they above or below average? Is their teacher / school succeeding? Will they continue to make progress? To make sure, they will be tested again before they leave primary school, when they are 10 or 11. But is this really the most effective way of assessing children? Or is the pressure to achieve good SATs results narrowing the curriculum in our primary schools, and reducing children to facts and figures for school & Government measures of success or failure?
Sometimes people ask me how I structure our home educating day / week. One of the things I am having to get used to is being able to go with the flow, and not being too bound by a schedule as each day / each week is different. This week was a particularly busy one, but I thought running through it would give some idea, as well as providing a contrast to the week most 6-7 year olds in our country enjoyed this week in their classrooms.
On Monday, after our Table Top time, and a focussed Mathletics session, we went to the supermarket to stock up on supplies for our science project this week. We also bought cake ingredients and then I took the boys swimming at the public pool, which was very quiet. They are all increasing in confidence in the water, and enjoy swimming very much. We did some baking when we got home. This week Junior Masterchef is on CBBC, & the boys have been waiting to watch that. In the evening, my eldest son went to his regular cycling club.
On Tuesday, we started our science projects on growing. We planted beans and mung seeds in various conditions, made bean mazes and put some white flowers into different coloured water to see if they will change colour. My middle son planned a picnic lunch and we popped to the shop to buy what we needed. We then took the picnic out with some friends to some local woods which are carpeted with bluebells at this time of year.

The boys watched Junior Masterchef again, and decided they will hold their own competition so began planning their menus. My eldest son had a friend to play after dinner, as my husband teaches his Dad English. They played on the Wii a bit - but only after we had all had our regular Tuesday night language session with Muzzy!
On Wednesday we went to our local Home Educators' Support Group in Stafford, which is a 30-40 minute drive from home. But the boys were excited, because this week there was a man who had come to tell the children all about newts. He had brought various types of newts with him, and a frog, all of which he had caught that morning, and he had lots to tell the children about the lives of these creatures. They were then all able to handle a newt - if they wanted to! After lunch, he had a couple of competitions - a quiz and then a drawing / writing challenge - and several children won signed copies of his book about newts, including my middle son, who tried really hard to win one, and was so delighted to do so.

On Thursday, a beautiful May morning, we went to our local park where a Bug Hunt had been organised for Home Educating families. There was a good turnout - I think this was a surprise to everyone, as you can feel like a bit of a lone ranger .... A number of activities had been planned for the children - who ranged in age from babies up to perhaps 15 - which involved walking around the park and looking for bugs in various habitats. We found a few interesting things - including an orange tip butterfly. My youngest son was so happy wandering around with a magnifying glass! We finished up with some pond dipping, and here the elder boys came into their own, leading younger ones in fishing adventures.

Quite a few minnows and tadpoles were caught and examined ... and quite a few of the lads went home with wet feet! But how refreshing not to have to worry excessively about health and safety, and to see these boys getting on together, working as a team and enjoying themselves in the great outdoors. In the evening, all three boys went to their regular karate class, which they love.
On Friday, I run an International Women's Group in a local Children's Centre. I have started taking my youngest son to spend the morning with my parents, where he enjoys playing, creating art and crafty projects &, best of all, relishing some exclusive attention from his grandparents! The elder two come with me to the Children's Centre where they generally help out in the creche with the younger children. They are also our official group photographers! This week, the session was led by one of the Polish ladies who had prepared some Polish food, and my middle son, who is a real foodie, enjoyed tasting that. I like the fact that the boys can mix with different people and hear about different countries and cultures. I had jobs to do in town in the afternoon, so my eldest son stayed with my parents whilst I took the younger two with me, then my middle son to his regular gym class. My youngest son and I ran a few more errands before dinner. Friday night is always movie night in our house - complete with popcorn!
Of course, with home education, the weekend is just another day - except with Dad at home! Learning opportunities do not stop! My husband and middle son went off to play tennis at a club this Saturday morning, then they joined my Mum and eldest son to help out at a bring-and-buy sale at our church to raise funds for charity. This had been organised by a few of the children. I took my youngest son to a birthday party at a soft play centre with a number of friends he made during his brief time in the local nursery class. He had a fantastic time. After lunch at home, it was time to give the house a good tidy up and then I put the hoover round while the boys chilled out a bit. Saturday night is Games Night - so we played a few card games together before bed.
Hopefully that gives you an idea of what a Home Educating week looks like. Basically, it is just Life - shared! You will see the boys have quite a number of opportunities to mix with other children. One concern people express about home educated children is the lack of opportunities for socialisation. It might take a bit more planning and effort, but maybe being in a classroom with 29 children of the same age is not the only way to socialise?

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Another curriculum

I was in a meeting at a local children's centre this week, and the woman I was talking to commented on the boys' behaviour - my two eldest were playing in the same room - saying, "You can always tell home educated children - They play so differently from schooled children." This was an interesting comment. She went on to say how, although the toys in the room were not age-appropriate, the boys had invented their own game with what was on offer rather than sitting and waiting to be entertained or told what to do. As at this point the boys were leaping from a distance into a baby nest, she observed that this was valuable practise in risk-taking. Her acknowledgement of another curriculum was an encouragement to me that spelling, handwriting and maths are not all that matters.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Building confidence

I am trying to take the boys swimming once a week. My eldest son was due to start swimming weekly with his school this term, and was extremely anxious about that. Having lived in Turkey for three and a half years, we did not have access to cheap, public pools in which the boys could build up confidence in the water. Swimming was reserved for holiday times. So, now I am able to borrow a car during the day, it is something I am determined to do regularly. Today was our second time, and I was amazed how much they have all come on already. With a super learner pool keeping them all comfortably in their depth, I found myself redundant as my middle son, who has always been extremely nervous in the water, launched out on his own with arm bands, and his younger brother was all over the pool - even jumping in! It was fabulous.

We also had a great maths session today with both boys using Mathletics, and my middle son setting himself some appropriate tasks independently. This, from a boy who tends to look for direction, was a real encouragement. I have a sticker chart on the wall for Maths now - & we are aiming for 3 x 20 minute sessions a week. They seem to like the visible reminder - and I must admit I find it reassuring too. It is great to see the boys motivated by the instant rewards the site offers. Our eldest aims for a whole page of PERFECT results, and will repeat a set of tasks if he is not on course for 100%! By contrast, and in contrast to the way he felt at school, maybe my middle boy is beginning to feel he is actually OK at maths. He seemed to enjoy his tasks today, and certainly seemed to be growing in confidence.

With Junior Masterchef set to begin on CBBC next week, our middle son has decided he has two years to get ready to enter. A keen cook, he is currently working on his pasta and cooked lunch for the family today. Home educating gives a really good opportunity to get the boys involved in the ordinary tasks of daily life. I had a run-in with my eldest son this morning, which is not unusual, and his brother made me a lovely cup of tea to cheer me up. Helps me to remember there's more to life than maths!

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Support Groups

A local home educators' support group is a great discovery. I found ours by subscribing to Education Otherwise and their regular newsletters, which contain not only useful debate, offers and information but also contact details for home educator groups in your local area. We have to travel to nearby Stafford, but there is a good, varied programme of activities to plug into. Today we had a choice between pond dipping and making miniature boats and coracles to sail on the lakes and streams of a nearby wildlife centre, or taking part in a topical lesson in democracy and politics. As the boys (or maybe it was me) seemed in need of fresh air and exercise this morning (too much bickering in the house!), we decided to do both. We had a good run round the woods of the nature centre and a peaceful picnic before driving a little further to join others for a short lesson in British politics and a mock election. It was good to see perhaps fifteen home educated kids - of varying ages from 3 to 14 or so - all accessing this activity at their own level. One of my boys produced a beautiful diagram of our democracy, the other rather a scribble, but understanding was certainly acquired by all, even our youngest confidently answered a question at dinnertime. Our two elder boys, after some initial reluctance, threw themselves with enthusiasm into the mock election, thinking up a party and policies to stand for and an unashamedly corrupt means of encouraging votes - "We'll give you £10,000 ... but we should tell you, it is fake!" I was encouraged to see the confidence with which they both stood and shared their ideas - complete with jingle and dance from our middle son - confidence I haven't seen them exhibit for a while. So ought I to worry about our eldest son's reluctance to go along with prescribed writing activities, or can I just trust that as long as we are feeding his imagination and not 'forcing' his participation, he will come to these things himself given time? I confess it is my own limited imagination which tends to favour the beautiful diagram which is, at the end of the day, just a copy of a model given. Just how much freedom should the boys be given, and how much 'work' ought I to be forcing? How often and how easily our answers are shaped mostly by our own learning styles and educational background, rather than by our child's learning style and by a true quest for knowledge and understanding. Does the neat presentable diagram for the scrapbook really matter that much? Such are the daily dilemmas of a home educating parent.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A National Scandal

I wonder how many parents are aware just how many lessons in our schools are now being taught / covered by unqualified people due to a lack of teachers and funding? Is it because schools are unable to afford supply teachers that they resort to employing Cover Supervisors, who do not need to be qualified or even to have a very high level of education themselves? I am shocked to hear from my husband, who works in schools, how much this is happening. I suppose the equivalent in primary schools is the rise of the Teaching Assistant.

It seems to me that what we have in many schools is simply a childminding service which keeps our children off the street and enables parents to work. Must we wrap this in a noble blanket which we call 'education'? How would you define 'education'? How would you define a teacher's role? Is a teacher just a well-paid babysitter, or a governmental robot who should be able to control our children's behaviour and program them to pass tests? Or should a teacher not be an inspirational facilitator with a passion to impart a joy of learning and nurture creativity?

The freedom to explore

This week we have enjoyed two days out - one to the West Midlands Safari Park, paid for with Tesco Clubcard vouchers, and the other to the Space Centre in Leicester, where the ticket purchased lasts for a whole year. It is great to be able to get up and go and enjoy these places without the crowds inevitably encountered at weekends and during school holidays. The boys' recent interest in reptiles was brought alive by some close encounters with large snakes and lizards, and our space project, which has been nurtured by Professor Brian Cox's 'Wonders of the Solar System' and the children's spin-off ' Space Hoppers' on CBBC, was developed in the Planetarium show at the Space Centre, "We are all Astronomers".

I haven't written on the Blog for a while as we have had the Easter holidays during which my parents moved to a new house just around the corner from us. This is a new thing as we have never lived close to them before. Being a part of their moving process has led to lots of large cardboard boxes lying around our house - out of which our youngest son has made a car, our middle son a space rocket - with separate compartments and trapdoors - and a kitchen / shop (with a bit of help from Grandma) which has provided more delight and entertainment than many expensive toys we have bought.

Our eldest son, inspired by the Just William and Secret Seven stories has decided a Boys' Club should be formed and has designated my parents' new garden shed as Headquarters. He has been busy organising the place and the boys, writing invitations, making badges out of bottle tops, and deciding on how this club should run. He has also been busy with a game on Disney's Club Penguin website which involves typing the words as they are revealed to tell an animated story. He has then copied out this entire story, which has involved reading and spelling out some quite tricky words. What has surprised me about this - from a boy who is not keen on reading or writing - was the way it has held his attention and the perseverence with which he completed the task. In fact, I read in a home schooling book about a boy who learned to read using this game. But it was not something I suggested to my son, it just grabbed his interest. It seemed to me quite a dull exercise, but who is to say that is any less valuable a way to learn to read than using Biff, Chip, Kipper and the Oxford Reading Tree?

My eldest son has also been busy this week with a Meccano kit he received for Christmas, and is building a radio controlled car. There are whole mornings when he has been utterly absorbed in this project.

Our youngest son's Thomas the Tank Engine obsession seems now to have passed, and he is now interested in the Zingzillas (music making monkeys from CBeebies) and all into Super Heroes, often dressing up in cape, belt and goggles. This 'extension of his personality' can be understood as part of a wider 'extensions schema' which also includes playing with swords, drawing and painting. He is drawing constantly with increasing detail in his pictures.

I have long been fascinated by schemas in young children's learning. The term 'schema' was derived by Piaget and means a pattern of behaviour from which understanding and growth are derived. A schema is evidenced by a child's clear interest or focus over a period of time, for example by a fascination with 'posting' or 'spinning' in a younger child. My eldest son always had these clearly defined schemas - one of which was 'webbing'. He would use balls of wool to construct huge spiders' webs all around a room. He attended a nursery as a toddler where they followed the child-centred Reggio Emilia philosophy. The staff would allow him to construct these webs of tape and wool around large spaces and all the children would be scooting underneath his creations. It was wonderful! If you can provide learning opportunities which fit into and develop a child's schema, you will be stimulating the child's natural interest rather than frustrating him / her.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

A Good Morning

On Friday mornings, I run an International Women's Group for women living outside of their home cultures. I started this following my own experience of being the foreigner in Turkey, and the group has grown by word of mouth with new women still joining weekly. Originally we met in my house fortnightly, but we were too crowded so we moved to a local Children's Centre. Now that we are home educating, the three boys have to accompany me to these meetings, but I am glad they get to meet people from different cultures, and I have tried to encourage them to get involved by helping with a display board where we have pinned a large map of the world. The boys have taken photographs of all the women and their children, and we have then put stickers showing where everyone comes from.

There are a good number of preschool children at the group, and we have a fortnightly creche. Yesterday, I noticed how well my elder two boys were playing with the younger children and looking after them in the other room. Later on, my eldest boy got out a book telling the Easter story, and gathered the children together so that he could read it to them. He got his brother involved in dramatising the story, and they soon had all the younger ones being Roman soldiers and disciples, and came to get some biscuits to be the Last Supper. I was so delighted to see their initiative and creativity, as well as the natural context which induced my eldest son to read. Several parents and the creche workers commented on how well they had done. It was a good morning.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Child protection?

What is going on when systems we put in place to enable us to do good (i.e. protect children) actually become barriers which hinder good being done? When people hear about home education, some wonder how good it can be to keep children at home with their family and away from the 'community' by which they mean 'school'. But if we turn that thought around, we could ask why it is considered good to keep children confined to the classroom and away from the world, the wider community and the many, many good adults from which / whom they can learn so much? Increasingly health and safety regulations and issues of child protection and insurance are restricting education for reasons which sound very noble and in the interest of our children. In fact, one could argue, they are also limiting education and opportunity and slowly killing community spirit. Some schools have become increasingly difficult places to get into and, whilst some may think that is a good thing, are we happy to send our children into institutions where we are not permitted to follow? Are we not slowly giving up parental responsibility to the dictates of a nanny state?

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Number Fascination

Yesterday my youngest son, aged 4, took some magnetic numbers from the fridge door to the table, and began arranging them 1,2,3,4 ... when he got to 6, he was unsure and asked his brother for help in getting the series right. Together they lined up numbers to 10. He then muddled them up and repeated the exercise, so learning to recognise and read numbers. After practising a few times, he got paper and pencil and began writing the sequence and working on number formation. A few were back-to-front as is normal for children at this age, but the sequence was clear and correct. At this point, I suggested making a book like his alphabet book (see earlier post) and he was enthusiastic, so I stapled some coloured paper together and he carefully wrote the numbers 1 - 10, one number on each page. As he also enjoys cutting pictures out of magazines at the moment, I suggested cutting out a picture to go on each page. Using the ELC catalogue, we were able to find pictures of various numbers of blocks, children, paint pots, skittles, pens and trucks and he stuck them to the page with the corresponding number. With his ongoing love of Thomas the Tank Engine, he then wanted to print out the engine for each number from the Thomas website and stick those on the right page too. So we put Thomas the Number 1 engine on the Number 1 page, Edward on page 2 etc. All day he continued to practise ordering the magnets and writing our the digits. In the evening, we were watching our Muzzy language learning DVD in French and he watched with avid attention the section when the numbers came up, reading the figures in English, whilst listening to the French. This is an example of a child's 'readiness' for a particular piece of learning and the self-motivation of a child, facilitated by an observant adult. It illustrates how easily something can be learnt when a child is ready to learn it. One of the great things about home education is the freedom and flexibility to be able to follow those interests as they arise.

Monday, 8 March 2010

A music day

One day this week, my middle son, who is 6, decided he wanted to learn to play the recorder. Since this was what he wanted to do, he was really focussed and learned half a scale and a little tune. He then wanted to know how to write down the music he had learnt, so I scored it for him and told him about time signatures, crochets, quavers and minims. He has been practising daily ever since and making up his own little tunes and discovering further notes. It is liberating to be able to go with the flow and follow a particular interest without time constraint.

With warmer, sunnier spring weather, the boys have been enjoying increasing time in the garden with particular interest in mud pies and digging. Many stone 'fossils' have been 'discovered' and uncovered. Our lawn is a shadow of its former glory, but then as a wise man once said, 'We are raising boys not grass!' It is nice to wake up to a sunny morning and to be able just to seize the opportunity and go outside. My eldest son had wanted to do a sponsored cycle ride to raise money for the earthquake crisis in Haiti. He had prepared a sponsorship form on the computer, and collected some sponsors, so had been anxious to get out and complete his challenge. Last Monday was the first really springlike day we had had, so we all headed down to Stowe Pool where he proceeded to push himself to 12 laps of the lake, whilst his brother did 5 and my youngest managed 2 with plenty of duckfeeding and spring picnicking opportunities. It was a good morning's work!

We have signed the boys up to a maths website - Mathletics - to which they can log on and complete challenges at thier level, progressing at their own speed. I am sent a weekly report by email telling me how they are getting on and I was surprised that they had each logged on for 2-3 hours voluntarily last week with good results. They like the instant rewards for correct answers, and I can see how important their concrete knowledge is in understanding the questions. For example, there were questions on rate of fill depending on the shape of a container, and it is clearly a child's concrete experience of pouring water into containers in play which enable him / her to conceptualise the problem. If we push for the abstract knowledge when a child is too young and may not have had sufficient concrete experience, we should not be surprised when s/he cannot understand. Or perhaps something which might be learnt very quickly and easily at a later point becomes a point of difficulty and struggle because the child is not ready. At worst, the child may then feel a sense of failure, and conclude, 'I'm no good at ______' which could do real damage to future learning in that area.

Today, my middle son had a rip in a pair of favourite jeans. In a recycling book, he found a design for a bag to be made from an old pair of jeans, so we made that together. It just needs a handle and can be personalised with badges and patches as he wishes. His brother decided to make pompoms today - a tedious task, but one he pursued with patience and persistence.

My youngest boy's interest in phonics continues. Today he completed an alphabet puzzle with his brothers helping and teaching him, and he enjoyed playing with some simple words using the alphabet magnets we have on our fridge. He is a real storyteller, and loves to draw pictures and then make up long tales to tell us about what is going on. I read stories with the boys every afternoon and evening, and at the moment he likes to tell stories of his own at these times.

I have noticed an improved atmosphere in our home. The boys seem to have rediscovered their friendship and are getting along better together and taking care of one another. This is really a good thing to see. This weekend we spent a lot of time trying to reorganise the space and flow in our home (which is quite small) to better accommodate our new lifestyle. This included a great new set of shelves in our kitchen to help organise all the books, toys, puzzles, art and craft bits and bobs in such a way as we can all find things and know where to put them away. Good organisation definitely helps to create a less stressful home, especially when we are there together for much of the day.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Thomas the Tank Engine Phonics

My youngest son is 4, and has recently shown an interest in letter and number formation. He has been obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine since he was about 18 months old, and likes to draw the engines. In recent months, his pictures have progressed from simple round faces with stick funnels to more complex drawings with more detail and dimension to them. He tries to copy the numbers on to the engines' sides and knows what number each engine is. Since this is his interest, I decided to make an alphabet book with him today. I did this with the other boys in Turkey when they were younger: They wrote the upper and lower case letter onto each page - a page for each letter - and then cut out and stuck in pictures of people and things beginning with each letter from magazines and photographs. So for this little boy, I decided to adapt the idea and make a Thomas Alphabet book. He was so interested and enjoyed copying and forming each letter and then drawing an appropriate character. Today we did Annie, Bulstrode the Barge, Cranky the Crane, Diesel 10, Edward, Gordon and Henry. Just need to slot in the Fat Controller! This is just an example of how learning can be personalised in the informal setting of home, where you as facilitator know the child's individual interests. I am sure my son will learn the letters more quickly this way. He and his brothers have also shown interest in the Alphablocks on the CBeebies website which bring phonics to life.

My elder two boys have been watching David Dimbleby's "The 7 Ages of Britain" with considerable interest. Today they watched the episode on 'The Tudors - The Age of Power', and we are making the most of the BBC iPlayer to access informative documentaries. They enjoy this and seem to remember a lot of what they see. I think their interest in history has come alive. Today they were making super but simple card helmets (using a template we came across) and marching round the house as soldiers.

Yesterday, Table Top Time was given over to science experiments which the boys found in a book. So we investigated liquids and density. Today, sweet pizza was the order of the day, and the boys made large biscuits which they later topped with melted chocolate and decorated with sweets. No two days are the same, and it is difficult to know exactly in which direction the day will go. Today the Gas Board were digging up our street and needed to come in and remove our meter to renew our gas pipe. At the same time, a handyman was drilling a large hole with a super size drill through our wall to vent our tumble dryer .... and then the Tesco shopping arrived. It was a bit chaotic. But I am also glad that the boys get to see different people doing different jobs and to get a wider view of the world of work. We also have times when they have to help me get through the housework that needs to be done. Yesterday, one of the boys actually offered to clean the toilets! Not sure how long that novelty will last, but he was thrilled that he was able to do this!

I have introduced a new 'time' into our daily plan which is Personalised Learning. This is a chance for the boys to do their own work with the objective of giving us all a bit of space. I have been investigating useful websites which they could access independently and at the appropriate level, for example, Mathletics. Some of the sites which require a subscription fee offer discounts to members of Education Otherwise.

I have made contact with our local Home Educator's Group and was sent a programme for the coming months which looks great, so I am really hoping to tap into that. It will be good for us to meet some other families who are on this journey. It seems there are a few in our locality. A second car has risen up our priority list, though as the weather warms up I am sure we will be more tempted out of doors - at least as far as the garden! I read somewhere that whatever they are learning, boys learn it better out of doors. Whether or not that is true, the sky certainly seems to absorb their noise and energy. In my experience, small boys (like dogs) should be exercised outdoors daily!!

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Biscuits .... The possibilities!

Yesterday at Table Top Time, we made some playdough, which is dead easy. The boys mixed it, and decided to add red and blue food colouring to make purple dough. My eldest son, especially, always enjoys playing with the warm dough, enjoying the texture and feel of it in his hands. As the three of them played with the dough and the shapes and cutters at the table, plans unfolded for a biscuit shop, so they began cutting animals and shapes to be the biscuits and arranging them on a large tray - similar to those the 'simit' sellers in Turkey use to carry their wares on in the street. (One of the things I am enjoying about home schooling is being able to bring the boys prior experience of living in another culture into their everyday life here - something their school was unable to do - thus bridging their life experiences.)

When the 'biscuits' were ready, they went upstairs and put together their wooden and cloth puppet theatre we to make the shop front alongside my middle son's toy kitchen set-up. They got their toy till and proceeded to sell their biscuits to me and to each other using play money. My middle son very much enjoyed typing the cost and money given into the till and seeing the change displayed.

I suggested they might like to make some real biscuits to sell and actually enjoy eating! So they found a recipe and read it, measured and mixed the ingredients to make a real dough, then later in the day, rolled and cut out the biscuits. This morning we have decorated them with writing icing, and the shop 'role play' has continued with my middle son writing out a few signs for the shop front as well.

This is an example of the way learning through play can develop naturally, and you can see how mathematics and writing skills are experienced within a natural context.

Do not be fooled into thinking our home is a haven of calm and productivity all the time. I should also add that there was a major argument as to whose turn it was to run the shop and sell some biscuits to Grandma and Grandpa when they popped in yesterday. However, I noticed a great improvement in my eldest son's response following this incident, which suggested some at least of what we have been working on in recent weeks is getting through!