Friday, 23 November 2012

A Home Ed Week

Sometimes people wonder what home education looks like, what do we actually do?

I heard a story recently from a home educating parent who took her small son to the dentist. Knowing that he was home educated, the dentist exclaimed, "Ah - you're the little boy who stays at home!" The child looked at him incredulously, and declared, "I don't stay at home. I go everywhere!"

I don't really like the name "home education" because it implies that we just stay at home, keeping our children in a box, separate and protected from the world outside. Nothing could be further from the reality.

I had another conversation recently in which someone assumed I would be sending my eldest son to secondary school, "Because of course he would benefit from the wider experience." Such comments show a complete misunderstanding of home education, and what we are trying to do.

You see, from our perspective, the classroom is the box, separate and protected from the world outside. And instead of "home education", we would prefer terms like, "world education", "community education", "life education."

This week has been a busy week. So what have we been doing?

On Monday, the boys had their weekly Chinese lesson with their teacher, a native speaker who comes and teaches them Mandarin, with games and songs and great hilarity. Then we had some friends round for lunch, and 5 boys aged between 11 and 3 playing Robinson Crusoe in the front room. Later, my eldest son went for his afternoon with his grandparents, with whom he studies history and reads literature. Sons 2 and 3 and I worked on our Leonardo project, making picture frames from foil pie tins, and gathering pictures for collage life masks.

On Tuesday, we met up with a group of home educating families at a local farm, where we looked at the animals and talked to the farmer about how she makes her living. In the afternoon, we took part in a crafting workshop and made festive wreaths.

When we got home, my husband took the three older boys swimming.

On Wednesday, my second son's friend came with us to a workshop at a small, local museum where we learned about Georgian life through interactive activities with the staff. In the afternoon, it was my third son's turn to go to his grandparents, where he did some artwork, history, literature. His older brothers played Lego with their friends.

On Thursday, the older boys couldn't get to school for their regular flexi day due to flooding, so sons 2 and 3 and I went on the train into our nearest city where we saw James and the Giant Peach, which son no 3 has recently enjoyed reading, at the theatre. It was fantastic, and so clever to see how these wonderful Roald Dahl stories are brought to the stage!

Afterwards we had noodles for lunch in China town at the boys' request. Their eldest brother spent the time at home helping his grandparents take care of the baby, and teaching them Origami!

Today was Friday, and I am tired out! We seem also to have picked up a bug and were all rather under the weather. Son no 2 went off to his grandparents this morning after playing his guitar for us all. He brought home some delicious pies he had made, as well as his usual history and literature readings. His brothers watched a David Attenborough documentary this morning and generally had a bit of a rest. I was out to lunch, and have also been busy this week working on setting up our new Barefoot book-selling business, which the boys have been involved in too. We are excited to have got our new website up and functional! Friday evenings are always busy with the boys out at scouts and karate.

Amidst everything else, I forgot to mention the boys' Kumon maths and English work, which they complete every day. We have decided to give the older two a break from the English programme for the time being as they are reading more independently nowadays, and we do quite a lot of literature work with them in other ways. However, they are continuing with the maths programme, and son no 3 continues to do both subjects. He is becoming a really independent learner and has this week completed his work before I have even surfaced in the morning!

So, another busy week draws to a close ... Maybe you'd agree that "home education" isn't really an adequate description for all that we do.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Capturing the Imagination

Our eldest son recently started reading Robinson Crusoe with his Grandpa. So enthusiastic was he about this story that he started a game with his brothers where they re-enacted it, setting up their pop-up tent on their 'island' and casting the baby as their goat! Lunch was not pasta, but roasted tortoise!

I love to see this imaginative interaction with literature. It is what reading should be all about. I maintain that creative play and oral narration are especially relevant and important for boys, and will lead to great writing later on.

A teacher recently told me her first struggle with children's writing is building their vocabulary, as they are often not exposed to a rich variety of language. Reading great literature with our children, though it might be beyond the child's own reading level, feeds their vocabulary and imagination and expands their world. There is still no substitute for a terrific story!

The Great Outdoors

The National Trust asks, "Are we losing touch with the outdoors?" and, "Does this matter?" Read more and see their report on reconnecting children with nature here.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

A Solar Eclipse

Great footage of the Australian solar eclipse here.

A Lego Party

Inspired by our recent visit to Legoland, my eldest son asked for a Lego party to celebrate his 11th birthday. In a moment of madness, I agreed to having 12 boys in total, which was rather chaotic. It was nice to see my son invite boys of ranging ages. Not being in school, he plays quite happily with children much younger than himself and, if he knew they liked Lego, they were in! In reality this proved challenging, as the ages ranged from 5 up to 12, and not all the boys were as into Lego as my three, so concentration and creativity were sometimes lacking. However, my boys assure me they had a good time, and I hope their guests did too.

We had fun the week before the party, painting team banners and baking cupcakes which we decorated with Lego bricks made of coloured icing. I always enjoy making the boys' birthday cakes, and the requested Lego minifigure cake was duly constructed and iced.

When the boys arrived, we split them into four teams, for whom they collected points throughout the afternoon. Each team had their own zone and banner with a box of assorted Lego bricks.

For the first game, they sat in a circle with Lego in the centre. Each boy chose 4 bricks which they had to piece together, they then passed their models round to the left and the next person had to add two bricks. After half a minute or so, they passed to the left again and so on. When the models had gone once around the circle, we looked at the creations and the boys had to tell us what they thought 'their model' could be. This game was a great hit.

I had a box into which we had put folded up scraps of paper on which were written things to try and build ... a spaceship, a fast car, something scary, an insect ... At various points in the party, I would ask a boy to choose a piece of paper and we would give each team five minutes to come up with the best model they could, which would then be judged with 4 points for the best model, 3 for the second, 2, 1. This was quite good for moments when we needed to calm things down or provide a focus.

Another game involved each team trying to build the tallest free-standing tower they could in five minutes. We then measured each tower and awarded points to the teams in order of success as explained above.

Kim's Game is another one I like for calming things down. I put 12 pieces of Lego or Lego related items on a tray and gave the boys a minute or so to study the tray really carefully. They then had to go into their teams and try to write down as many items as they could remember. All teams did really well, recalling all twelve items, but the youngest team (with help scribing) were the fastest.

We had a Spinjitsu battle, with each team customising their spinner and choosing their Ninja. This was very popular and we pitted each team against each of the others in turn to find the champion. The boys in each team took turns to spin. Another good game involved setting up Lego minifigures like skittles (10 pins). The boys had to try and knock down as many as possible using a marble which they rolled down a piece of car racetrack. Each team member got to bowl once for their team, and they scored a point for each minifigure knocked over.

We had a jar which I had filled with Lego pieces and we asked each team to guess how many were insider, with points (4,3,2,1) awarded according to whose guess was the closest.

We also attempted to play Lego Creationary (the board game) but there were too many boys, some of whom were not really engaged, so we cut that one short. It is a good family game for Lego fans!

We added up all the scores, and awarded a Lego cup, made by my 6 year old to the winning team. Then it was time for burgers and chips, cupcakes, hot chocolate and fireworks. And the piece de resistance - the birthday cake. The boys went home with a piece of cake, a small chocolate treat and a Lego minifigure and builder's kit / certificate, which I got as a job lot (here). A Lego fan's dream!

Learning through conversation

One of the key ways home educated children learn is through the numerous conversations which arise throughout each day as a result of situations encountered. The other day, we had two such conversations, which deserve mention here.

The first followed the sad death of one of our guinea pigs. Having watched his decline over a couple of days, my second son, to whom the guinea pigs belong, and I decided we needed to visit the vet. There, as I suspected, we faced the decision as to whether to put the little creature to sleep. As we sat together with the guinea pig, we both felt a sense of peace that it was the right thing to do, to stop his suffering. It was a moment of growing up for my little son, and though he wept, he felt he had done the best for his pet.

The next day, one of the boys asked whether people are ever "put to sleep" and so commenced a discussion of euthanasia, during which we looked at arguments for and against and the older boys gave their opinions. All this is done very informally, just through conversing. It is learning which is not really measurable.

The second example arose when my eldest son and I were looking at some simplified economics animations on the Open University website (Watch them here). As we talked about different economic systems, we moved into a discussion of communism, the pros and cons and, ultimately, why it doesn't work and the problem of human nature. We talked about George Orwell's Animal Farm, and he even expressed some interest in reading that book together, which I shall have to act upon.

A great strength of home education, which is often difficult to explain to people, is the room for adult / child discussion and conversation in context and at a level appropriate to the individual child.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Not so much broken as completely outdated

This article discusses the education system in the US, but the argument could equally be applied to the system in Britain.

Friday, 2 November 2012

GCSE Fiasco

GCSE Fiasco: Report Blames Teachers' Marking

This is an example of a system driven by top-down pressure to achieve, rather than a compassionate and professional system which starts with the pupils in front of us.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Secondary Dilemmas

A letter met us on our return from London informing us that our eldest son had done well on the 11+ exam, achieving a mark which could mean an application to grammar school would be successful. (See my earlier post "11+") Of course, we will not know if we are offered a place until March, but based on his result, I put in an application. What to do with my eldest son through his secondary years, that is the question, and I confess I am in two minds.

If he was my only child, without a doubt, I would continue home educating him. But I worry that his eager mind requires more stimulation than I can provide - especially with the arrival of our youngest son, who takes so much of my time and attention. However, the role of the home educator is one of facilitator. With my husband and parents' input, and by bringing in others, as we do with the Chinese lessons, to discuss things with him, could we not meet his needs?

When I began home educating, it was with my eldest son foremost in my mind. By removing him from the educational box, I imagined he would fly. In my mind, I imagined him reading avidly and thereby becoming increasingly independent in his learning. What I failed to see then, and have now realised, is that he doesn't learn from books, but by asking questions and talking to people, seeing, doing and discussing. He will pepper visitors with questions, and remember what he learns, making wonderful natural connections between pieces of knowledge acquired from different sources over broad periods of time. Though I might feel my attempts to meet his needs are inadequate, how will these needs be met in a class of thirty, where a questioning child can so easily be seen as an annoyance and give up asking?

I have an idea that he would thrive in the academic environment of a grammar school - where it's alright to be bright. I imagine him being free to ask lots of questions and ideas being batted round the classroom by other eager learners and inspirational teachers. I imagine the mental stimulation of such an environment, along with a good dose of competition, suiting him. He is a sociable boy and, as he grows, I imagine the journey to and from school and the friendships he might form, being good for him. I imagine many things, but how will the reality match up? How easy is it to climb back into a box from which you have been set free?

I looked round our local secondary schools and I realise the appeal of the grammar school is partly because it is in our nearest city, is more ethnically mixed and takes him into a bigger world than this small corner. Since we lived in a large city in Turkey for some years, where he functioned in a second language, I realise this is more important to me than I had realised.

All these thoughts are positive and yet ....
I have ideas that maybe things could be different, that there must be better ways of raising people than our current system allows. I want to throw off my concerns about exam results and academia to consider the whole person, his character, his values, his self-esteem. I would like him to spend his formative adolescent years doing things so much more exciting than sitting in a classroom. I want him to plan and face challenges, to travel, to know himself, his gifts and passions. I want him to find work he loves, to be confident and not to be swayed by the crowd. I imagine him going off to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, or spending some months in another culture, learning another language. I imagine him growing and developing without the negative peer pressure which can be so pervasive in the secondary school environment. I imagine him growing with strong male mentors, always in conversation, doing life together. I imagine him outdoors a lot. I imagine a different way of raising men.

Why am I torn? As ever, it is myself I doubt. With home education, the buck stops with us and the question is, can we deliver? Maybe what I should be asking is, do we dare to try?


London has been so much on our television screens this year - with the Jubilee celebrations and the Olympics happening. We decided to take the boys down for a week. We are fortunate to have family down there, so it was good to see them. We took the boys to The Natural History Museum, and to see the central sights.

We also visited Windsor and surprised them with a trip to Legoland! Since they are Lego mad, we pushed the boat out and had a night at the fabulous Resort Hotel which was a huge treat. I hope the whole experience will give them fresh inspiration in their creative Lego play.