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.