Saturday, 28 May 2011

A School Free Family

My husband has now left the teaching profession, with great relief and celebration. We are now a school free family, and will be taking immediate advantage of the fact we no longer have to take our holidays at peak times!

It's interesting how the home education philosophy infiltrates all areas of family life. From the beginning of July, we will be taking on a Kumon franchise, which is more in line with our educational philosophy. A system which originated in Japan, and was designed by a father for his son, Kumon is now a global maths and English programme. It is a long-term programme which aims to foster good study habits and encourages students to progress at their own pace. Crucially, it is an independent learning programme, where children learn without the direction of a teacher, progressing one small step at a time.

We also have a house move on the cards, so there is a lot going on in our family life at the moment. It is easy to feel as though the home education has to go a little onto the back burner, but by it's very nature, that is not true. The boys just have to get involved in all that is going on ... So they joined the party last night for Dad's exit from school, the eldest setting up a Nerf gun shooting range for the entertainment of our guests. And they will have to help too with packing up to move. But that's what life is like!

You can do it!

As a home educating parent, there is a constant tension between getting the children to do what one feels must be done, and wanting to make the most of the flexibility, freedom and 'unschoolishness' which home education allows. It is so hard not to threaten them into getting on with things and end up ruling with fear. For me, this tension is most often experienced in relation to my eldest son (9). He is very able. He can also be lazy. He likes to stay within his comfort zone, so will always (if given the choice) choose activities he knows he can do relatively easily. I struggle to know how far to push him, yet I know if I don't, no-one else will.

Knowing he enjoys painting, especially on big canvases, and as it has been some time since his last canvas painting project, I decided it was time to have another go. This is quite an undertaking. He was enthusiastic so I bought a canvas, and gave him his subject matter. To stretch him, and to bring together several strands of our learning, I proposed he paint the picture seen by the character 'Christian' in Bunyan's 'A Pilgrim's Progress'. I also suggested he look again at the work of Michelangelo, whose life we have been studying, and draw inspiration from that Renaissance master.

Now that might seem rather a tall order, but I know that he is perfectly capable of this task. However, a battle ensued. He declared, "I can't do it." I replied, "I know you can, which is why I have suggested it, so why not get started?" There were some tears, and he told me, "I feel like an idiot. I can't do it." I told him that is not at all the point of home education and, if that is how he feels, he may as well go back to school. I know he isn't an idiot and that is why I have given him this task. "I know you can do it," I pressed.

Well, it turned out that, although we had re-read the description of the picture from the book, he was struggling to envisage the pose, so he needed a model. I therefore sat for him holding my hands in the required position, whilst he sketched. His youngest brother watched, fascinated. "That is really good," he said, which was a boost to confidence.

And it was good. Now I am waiting to see how the finished painting looks. The artist is also a dreadful perfectionist (like his mother) so I was encouraged that he was able to rub out his sketch and rework it until he was happy with the result. "What would Michelangelo have done," I asked, "if he had made a mistake on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?"
"Painted over it," was his guess.
"Well then so can you," I told him.

Ancient Egyptians

A day out at The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry's exhibition, "Secret Egypt" stirred the boys' interest in The Ancient Egyptians. I am always intrigued by how knowledge is integrated, and by how able the boys are to apply knowledge acquired in one area to something else. This is something the subject divisions, now evident even in primary schools, do not encourage.

As part of this topic work, we looked at hieroglyphics, and the boys created their own cartouches, and coded messages. We read about the gods and goddesses of the period, and one son drew his favourite, the other created his own. We learned about the archaeological history and geography of Egypt, the flood plain of the Nile and the Aswan dam. When our eldest son was a bbay, we visited Egypt and have pictures of him on a felucca sailing down the Nile. This fitted in well with a book we have from Barefoot, "We're Sailing Down the Nile". Barefoot Books always contain readable reference material which is useful. Conveniently, there is a television programme on Egypt's Lost Cities which will tie in nicely as well.

Most fascinating to my eldest son was the idea of mummification. Having persuaded him that mummifying one of his brother's guinea pigs was not a suitable project, we decided to make death masks based on the famous image of Tutankhamen, the boy king, using plaster bandage. We made a cast of their faces and then they sculpted the rest of the mask using newspaper and bandage. It is great to use different media and explore their potential. My eldest son is particularly interested in sculpture and design.

Tadpole Tank

A friend of mine offered us some tadpoles from her pond, so we took a field trip to her garden where the boys enjoyed equipping a tank & catching the tadpoles to take home. Quite a number died in the first few days, but we have around 6 left which are now grosing legs and looking more frog-like each day. I have left the boys' nature notebooks, pencils and a magnifying glass next to the tank so they can observe and draw the developing taddies. My youngest son produced a nice drawing of the life cycle of the frog, too.

Monday, 9 May 2011

A nest to watch

Having noticed several pigeons gathering sticks in our garden, we began to keep an eye out for a nest. I wondered whether the pair were building in our chimney, but whilst the boys were outside this morning, they spotted the nest high in a tree. Now we know where it is, there is a fine view direct from our kitchen window, so we can keep an eye on the birds' activity.

When the rain poured down this afternoon and turned to hail, the boys wanted to see how sheltered the birds were. The pigeon pair were both sat in their nest, close together, looking reasonably dry.

We read about pigeons and discovered they are loyal mates, sharing the incubation of the eggs. There are normally two 'squabs' (young) in a brood. We shall be watching the nest for developments. Nature on our doorstep!

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Parachuting Parcels

This week we attended a workshop at Enginuity in Ironbridge. There were 10 home educated children there - aged between 5 and 11. The task was to bring an egg safely down from a height without damage, as slowly & gently and as close to a target as possible, whilst also creating an eye-catching parcel design.

The children looked at packaging, especially the importance of air cushioning and shock absorbers. They then worked alone or in a pair to package their egg and to create its landing gear.

Back together again, we looked at different sizes and designs of parachutes. The children then chose which type of parachute they wanted to use for their design, and worked to make & decorate it.

Each group was now given an egg to insert into their parcel ready for the final test.

The parachutes and parcels were hung onto a girder and hoisted about 8 metres up in the air. One by one they were launched by their creators, and their descent timed. Distance from target was measured and then the egg was checked for damage. All the children managed to bring their eggs safely down. My middle son achieved the slowest descent of just over 4 seconds. Two girls achieved closest to target - little more than 60cms away. And my eldest son proudly took best design for his quirky lollipop stick contraption - The Road to Crunchington!

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I have just read a book by Amy Chua entitled "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" which looks at the difference between Chinese and Western parenting styles. Fascinating read. : Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: Amy Chua: Books

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother


In Maytime, we visit the bluebell woods. The boys aren't keen, but I tell them, "We are going" ... No choice. Once they are there, it is beautiful and they enjoy running in the fresh air. Even my eldest son, the most reluctant, manages to smile.

A lesson in anatomy

Our home education group plans a session on anatomy. Each family chooses an area to research. My eldest son is very definite in his choice for us: "Joints and Muscles", he declares.

It can be difficult to get the boys to write, but I am beginning to insist. "I want it to be the best that you can do," I say. The eldest begins, but it is sloppy work. He starts again. He and his brother draw beautiful diagrams of the knee and hip joints, muscle cells. They write facts and information. The younger works very slowly and precisely, the elder rather more haphazardly. Their work is so different, yet both do well. We then construct 'arms' out of toilet rolls with tennis ball elbows and rubber band muscles. The models move and show how muscles - here the biceps and triceps - work in pairs.

My youngest son, listening in to all this learning, studies his Lego Bionicles (robots). He notices and point out to me all the ball-and-socket joints. We talk about how these joints move and where the ball and socket joints are on our bodies.

At our group meet-up, each family presents their work. My sons are eager to go first. Despite all their research, they have not planned the presentation at all. It is rather waffly and the audience cannot really see their carefully drawn illustrations. Eldest brother is very dominant, though the younger two chip in. There is no shyness, no embarrassment. They are keen and stand up and speak confidently to the group.

Other presentations follow. Some involve Mum, some read a lot of information, some use question and answer format. There are X-rays of bones to look at. One girl gives all the children a card with the name of a part of the ear on it. She lines them up from pinna to brain and shows us how sound travels through the system. Another group show us how to measure lung capacity using a lemonade bottle and a straw. There is a length of string which represents the length of the intestine. There are some wonderful visual aids and pictures used. There is so much information. And not nearly enough time.

We drive home, and I ask the boys how they thought their work had gone. They are pleased, but we begin to discuss the presentation, what we liked about what others had done, how we might plan it better next time.

The next day, as an evaluative process, I have the boys plan the presentation and I video it. It is much better. They make larger visual aids, and plan what they are going to say. When they watch it back, they critique it themselves. Middle son realises he is blocking the pictures with his body, and talking with his back to the audience. They can't see or hear him. It is a valuable exercise, and next time we will do a better presentation!