Monday, 28 March 2016

Making our own personal hygiene products

In our attempt to cut down our dependence upon plastic-packaged products, and to be kinder to our bodies and our environment, our Mustard Seeds group decided to try making our own personal hygiene and household cleaning products from scratch. We met twice - once to make the hygiene products, and again to make the household cleaners- and each family came to each session with one recipe and the ingredients to make that one product, as well as a selection of glass jars to take home what we had made.

If you look on the Internet, you will find many recipes for making these kind of products, and it is fun to experiment and see whether we can easily replace the products advertising and supermarkets convince us we can't live without. We did have a few issues sourcing some of the ingredients, but together we managed to find what we required fairly easily and cheaply. It seems to me that with a supply cupboard stocked with a few basic ingredients, these products can be easily made up as and when needed, and with a supply of empty containers to fill with these natural alternatives, it is possible to do away with many of the expensive chemical-laden, plastic packaged products with which most of us are surrounded. So, here are the recipes for personal hygiene products we tried (in case you would like to make them yourselves) ....

We tried making our own toothpaste:
Mix a little salt into 100g of baking soda (bicarbonate of soda).
Then, for every quarter cupful, add 15g glycerine. (Glycerine acts as a sweetener).
Then slowly, a drop at a time, add water to the mix, until you have a smooth, paste-like consistency.
Stir in a drop or so of peppermint oil to add a fresh and rejuvenating flavour. (If you don't like peppermint, alternative flavourings include almond, ginger, cinnamon or fennel.)
Store in a container.

Initially, we all found this mixture a little salty, but you do get used to it, and it leaves your mouth fresh and your teeth feeling really clean. After using it consistently for over a week, though, I found my gums got a bit sore and I wonder whether the baking soda is too abrasive. I have stopped using it for the time being for this reason. There are other recipes on the Internet which I intend to try, particularly those including benzonite clay, which are supposed to be very effective. Please comment if you have tried any other good toothpaste recipes.

The next recipe we made was for deodorant. My husband and I had long been looking for an alternative to regular deodorant; him because of sensitive skin which reacts to deodorant, and me because I had heard of the risks of aluminium in deodorant and links to breast cancer and Alzheimers. We had experimented with a few recipes. I have to say the deodorant bar from Lush works pretty well for me, but the recipe we made in our Mustard Seeds session has been the best one yet - and I haven't looked back. It's the Coconut Oil Home Made Deodorant from Wellness Mama.

The ingredients are:
6 tablespoons coconut oil,
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) baking soda (bicarbonate of soda),
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) of arrowroot,
and essential oils.
Mix the baking soda and arrowroot together in a medium sized bowl. Mash in the coconut oil with a fork until well mixed. Add essential oils if desired. Store in a small glass jar and rub on to underarms as required.

You can read more about natural deodorant over on Wellness Mama's blog, but in my experience of using this recipe, I can agree with her that I seem to sweat less having made the switch-over to this natural recipe, and it is certainly working well for me. My husband says the baking soda made him itch, so he is less keen. But I recommend it.

Finally, we made a lovely, rich, natural body butter:
1 cup organic raw shea butter (solid),
1/2 cup coconut oil (solid),
1/2 cup olive oil or almond oil (liquid)
Melt shea butter and coconut oil on top of a double boiler, remove from heat and add olive oil. Allow to cool for at least 30 minutes in a freezer or until oil starts to solidify and then whip up in a free standing mixer. Add essential oil if required and store in a jar at room temperature.

Looks good enough to eat!

Replacing the SUPs in my life ....

Easter weekend, the end of my Lenten challenge to cut single-use plastics from my life. The end of the 40 days, but just the beginning of the journey. Funny, isn't it, how once something is brought to your attention, you notice things - like the abundance of single-use plastics all around us - that you just took for granted before? So I am glad of the challenge, but it has only been a beginning, an eye-opener if you like, to the changes that have to be made. As with all lifestyle changes, this requires some thought and some research, so rather than beating ourselves up about all that we are unable to do, or being overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, it is best just to begin, and to take small steps towards the changes we need to make. Small step by small step, we will get to where we want to be and, hopefully, take others with us. Changing away from plastics also requires some financial investment. Although I am sure this lifestyle change saves money in the longer-term, initially, there are different products which need to be sourced and ingredients which have to be purchased. Here are some of the simple changes I have made over the last few weeks ....

Top purchase, actually my Christmas present, a cup to take out and about to save using disposable coffee cups, which are not recyclable. Need some motivation? How about this picture?

Starbucks even offer you a slight financial incentive for bringing your own mug - 25p off your beverage. Unfortunately, the plastic lining inside disposable coffee mugs mean that they are not easily recyclable, and then there are those nasty SUP lids. "Conventional paper cups are made from paper laminated with plastic, making them difficult to recycle. Under EU health and safety regulations, coffee cups cannot be made from 100% paper or cardboard alone. A thin layer of plastic is bonded on to the cup to keep the drink warm and stop the paper from getting soggy. But it is attached so tightly that those cups need special facilities to separate the linings, with almost all recycling plants rejecting the cups and sending them straight to landfill." (The Guardian, 27/6/14)

The mooncup has been a revelation to me, and I wish I had discovered it a long time ago. Perhaps you've not heard of this alternative to sanitary towels or tampons either. A one-off purchase of around £20, washable and reusable - and made in the UK. Just think of all the money you save over the years, never mind all the sanitary waste prevented from polluting the world. I confess I was a little apprehensive, and it did take a little getting used to - but I am talking about a day, a couple of uses - and I won't look back. Just check out the reviews and ratings online for this clever little life-changing invention. And you don't feel it when you are wearing it; it can be worn whilst swimming, camping ... no leaks. At least worth considering, perhaps? More information here. Available in your local Boots, or online. Really not your thing? Then do consider reusable or washable sanitary towels? Gross? Well, no worse than washable nappies, hey?

Beyond replacing the plastic bottles of liquid soap in our bathroom with bars of soap, I was looking at how to get rid of the plastic shampoo bottles. I have a friend who washes her hair with baking soda, and an apple cider vinegar rinse. She uses just water on her kids' hair, and it looks so healthy and shiny. The theory is, if you use shampoo, you need more shampoo .... I haven't been quite brave enough to go for the baking soda option. However, I did discover these shampoo bars, available online, or at Lush, and decided I would give them a go. I am still trying to sources the cheapest apple cider vinegar as you need to use it as a conditioning rinse with natural shampoos, so once I've got that sorted, I will give this a go.

Still in the bathroom, a friend and I have found bamboo toothbrushes at reasonable cost online, and plan to place an order together to reduce the cost of delivery. We also had a go at making our own toothpaste. More on that to follow.

A friend gave me a jar of soap nuts to try as an alternative to laundry detergent, and we have been impressed by their cleaning power, and the softness of the laundry. The scent of the washing is neutral; I haven't had any complaints in our family. We managed to source the pictured bag on Amazon for under a tenner and, as you only add 3-4 soap nut halves to each wash in a small canvas bag (supplied), this purchase should last us for some months. My friend also shared a recipe for laundry soap, which made a great alternative, and also smelled really nice. More to follow on that, too.

It has been interesting to experiment with making our own personal hygiene and home cleaning products from simple ingredients, which are readily available at reasonable prices. Some of the things we have made include a general purpose cleaner for the house, dishwasher detergent, deodorant and body butter. I will post separately about how we did that, but another purchase has been a steam mop, which cost us about £40 and is perfect for cleaning our laminate and tiled floors without the need for harsh detergents. The steam can even be used for freshening carpets and rugs.

And, finally, how's this for an innovative idea? Edible cutlery ..... Would you use it?

A question of qualifications

What to do about GCSE? This is a question we have been considering with our eldest son, who is now 14. It is an issue for home educated young people, and there are different approaches to gaining qualifications. It is certainly true that there are many roads to the same end point, and home educating families discover some different routes. Some bypass GCSE completely and skip on to higher level qualifications, even talking their way into University through the back door - with a great portfolio and the gift of the gab! Others begin GCSE studies early, spreading the exams over a number of years, relieving some of the pressure. Many look at where a child wants to go, and then work backwards. So, to get on to that college course, I need x number of GCSEs. Or, to do A-Levels there, I need to do x. This seems to me quite sensible, especially as home educators have to foot the cost of exams themselves. It is perfectly possible to study for exams independently and then arrange to sit them as an external candidate at a co-operative school or exam centre. Another route would be to go to college part-time, or to join an evening course.

All these options have been considered and discussed with independent son no 1. His idea was that he doesn't need GCSEs and, whilst I can see his point (GCSEs are actually not the be-all and end-all, and there are plenty of vocational routes into employment), I cannot get away from the fact that I would feel I was failing and handicapping him by not enabling him to get these magical bits of paper which are seen to open doors in the wider world out there. I cannot get away from the feeling that such qualifications give you options. However much I resist the idea of education being all about tests and grades, this is the language that the world speaks. And son no 1 is bright and very able. I cannot sit on my own pile of GCSE, A-Level and degree certificates and tell him they are not worth having. I do not want to limit his opportunity in the world out there. So in response to his, "I don't need any GCSEs", I'm afraid my response is that they are a rather inconvenient necessity. I feel a hypocrite insisting on it. It seems to go against everything our educational philosophy has become to say, yes, in the end, it comes down to this set of tests. Having kept him outside the educational box, it seems unfair for me to insist on pushing him back into it.

We discussed the best way for him to tackle the gaining of qualifications. He has friends in school, and friends who are studying for qualifications outside of school. After some consideration, he told me he would be better to go in to school to do GCSEs. "That is what schools do," he said. "That is what they are good at." He feels he will be more motivated in school. "Home ed is not about that," he said. "if I am at home, I just want to be free to do all my own projects. If I have to do qualifications, I am better off doing them in school." For all my reservations, I kind of like the fact that he sees school as a means to an end; he can access school as an autonomous individual, knowing that he is there for a purpose with an end-goal in mind. He is choosing to be there.

Accordingly, in the autumn we went to look at a local engineering technical college, which intakes at ages 14 and 16, and has strong links both with our local University and with industry, and applied for a place. As his main interest is still cars and engineering, this seems a fitting choice, and it is practically on our doorstep. By entering now, he is in no way behind or disadvantaged in his application as there are no entry qualifications prior to GCSE. This week, pending an interview, we received the letter informing us he has been offered a place.

He seems positive about it. He has a few friends who are already there or who will join the same cohort. I am hopeful that the freedoms he has enjoyed will have set him in good stead to go on and shine, but I am worried, too, that his quirky eccentricity will make it too difficult for him to fit in. In his favour is a competitive streak that I hope will drive him to want to do well.  I do believe at 14, boys are ready to have mentors other than Mum & Dad, and whilst he does have many great relationships with people at his clubs and at church, I think it will be good for him to be able to learn from others who share his interests. And it will be good for me to be able to focus on the other boys without having to get my head around tackling GCSEs just yet. So as another foray into school looms large, we shall see, hey? We shall see ....

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The Teaching Crisis

"I am part of the Teaching Crisis: These are the reasons why I feel I have no choice but to walk away from the classroom"

"I am part of the Teaching Crisis. In that sentence, I wrote “the Teaching Crisis” with capital letters and a definite article as though it were a well-known, named thing like the Banking Crisis in 2008 or the Abdication Crisis in 1936. It isn’t, but it should be."

One primary teacher's extraordinary resignation letter to the profession he loves: 'Teachers are monitored, examined, scrutinised and graded as though working a 55-hour-week for 32 hours’ pay is a special privilege.' Read more HERE.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Evernote for Project Journalling

One of the keys to supporting project based learning is the ability to slow down and listen and observe. Observe your children at their work and play. Listen to their conversations. Keep note of the things they are looking at and talking about. To what do they keep returning? It seems simple, but as you observe and listen, their interests will emerge. You will begin to see patterns in their activity and talk, and here lies the basis of their project work, the foundations upon which you can support further building and deeper learning. I love the idea that by giving our attention to our children's interests, we can encourage those interests to blossom.

As we sit alongside our children, and involve ourselves in what they are doing, we give value to their work. Our attention says, "You are capable. Your work is important." One of the ways in which we can demonstrate our attention is by journalling. Noting down what we observe helps us to remember and to reflect. It helps us to see the patterns emerging in our children's play and in their conversations. I have tried journalling in the past, with varied levels of success. I used to have a notebook, and I would divide each page into four quarters, one quarter for each of my children. I would have a page for each day and jot down there things each child did, games they played, notable achievements and milestones, funny or interesting things they had said. I have also always taken lots of photos which get filed away in the computer grouped into folders, one for each school term. Photos can be a great way to document learning and, when I worry about how little we have done, I am always pleasantly surprised - looking back at my photos - at how many learning moments I have recorded and by how much, in fact, we have achieved.

Today I want to share with you a brilliant new tool I have discovered which has transformed my journalling. Perhaps you've already made your own similar discovery, but mine is EVERNOTE.

Evernote is brilliant, and has transformed the way I am documenting our learning. I know that it will help me to be a better mentor because journalling is such a key foundation stone to that process. So, let me explain how it is making a difference in our home education ....

1) Evernote is such a convenient tool. It is right there on my phone, and my phone is usually with me, whether we are at home or out and about.
2) With the same login, my husband can access the same pages, so he can add to the notes and his observations & photos of what is going on can be documented alongside my own.
3) Evernote brings together our notes and photos, which can be taken and uploaded straight away on our phones, saving a lot of time filing and sorting images.
4) Our posts are automatically dated by month.
RESULT: A comprehensive family learning journal right at our fingertips. I am loving it.

If this is something new to you, it is really easy to get started. Simply install Evernote on your phone, and once you are set up, you can create various notebooks .... So I have one for each child, one for myself, one for ideas, one for days out, one for nature study, one for books read, one for our Mustard Seeds group, one for our community allotment .... I am sure I will adapt these and add more as time goes on. You could add whichever are most suitable for your family. When I want to note something down, I simply click open Evernote, tap on the green + symbol at the bottom right (See above) to create a new note, and then click on Text Note (See below).

Then, where it says FIRST NOTEBOOK, I click to bring up my list of notebooks and select the notebook I want to file this note in:

I then title the note according to the subject, and jot down my observation.

I can then add a photo very simply by clicking on the paperclip symbol, then on photo and selecting the picture I want to insert from my album.

It really is the simplest thing to use, and I am sure there are loads more features I will learn to make use of as time goes on, but I just wanted to share how useful this tool can be for unschooling parents and for project based learners to keep a track of all the fantastic learning our lives are filled with each day. Maybe you can make use of it too? Or do share in the comments tools which you have found useful for journalling. I would love to hear about them.

"Young children have extremely long attention spans for things that truly interest them. If they are skating around and bouncing from idea to idea, it is often because we have trained them to be that way with frequent transitions and a constant influx of new activities. Adults often aren’t comfortable with children who stay with one thing for a long time. Grown-ups tend to value variety, and often they lack patience for a young child who “dawdles” over a fascination with dinosaurs, trains, or a rain puddle. We hurry them along, we bombard them with activities, we constantly give them something new when they were still perfectly happy with the old, then we complain about their short attention spans. Project-based homeschooling is about learning how to help children stay with one idea longer. They have their own interests, their own questions, their own fascinations. We just have to pay attention to those interests and help them find answers to their questions and make their ideas happen. Children can keep having a lot of different interests — we don’t try to keep them from getting excited about new ideas. We simply focus on supporting one strong interest so they can dig a little deeper and stay with it a little longer. We create a learning life that allows them to return to that interest again and again, over weeks and even months, until they are satisfied." (Lori Pickert)

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

A Master Class in Project Based Learning

Followers of this blog will know that when we started home educating, our desire was to move towards a more autonomous learning experience for our boys. My eldest son in particular has always been a project-based learner, and we were keen to facilitate this type of self-directed learning, journeying alongside our children and helping to facilitate projects which they initiated, learning opportunities which arose from their own discoveries and from just living life together. Of course, this is a journey, hence my blog strapline - A Journey Into Autonomous Learning. There are times when I panic, and long to reach for a schedule which will somehow transform our seemingly chaotic learning into something more tidy and structured, over which I feel more control. But, again and again, I realise that the most successful times of learning, those when the boys are the most motivated and engaged are those when they are enabled to pursue their own interests and project work. Take this morning, for example ....

I suggested a day out somewhere, and I had a list of suitably interesting places ... Or perhaps some focused learning at home, by which I meant some bookwork directed by me, perhaps a chapter of the history or science books we are slowly working our way through? Neither of these suggestions was met with particular enthusiasm. My eldest son had his own agenda for the day, totally focused on his own self-initiated projects - in particular his vlog, which is his current obsession. My second son, who would happily go along with whatever I suggested, said, "Oh Mum, I want to work on the story I am illustrating. I need to get the next page done." And my third son, with an equally big sigh, said, "Mum, I'm halfway through my Lego model and I really want to work on that this morning." What to do? Well, all these projects are valuable and valued by the boys, so I decided just to let them get on with their own work. There followed a calm morning of relative quiet, everyone busily engaged in what they were doing. Later, my second and youngest sons decided the tadpoles we have acquired needed cleaning out, and spent a happy hour in the garden managing that operation. Then my second son wanted to bake a Victoria sponge cake, so he found the recipe and got on with that. He is the boy I feel is the least naturally inclined to initiating his own projects, so it is interesting to me to see the way he is developing the ability to steer his own learning.

When my eldest son was very small, he went to a nursery which followed the Reggio Emilia approach to learning. This program is "based on the principles of respect, responsibility, and community through exploration and discovery in a supportive and enriching environment based on the interests of the children through a self-guided curriculum." (Wikipedia) His experience there sparked my ongoing interest in this methodology. When he was fascinated by webbing, and would use wool and tape fastened to various points, pieces of furniture or fixtures around a room to make a web, the nursery facilitated rather than suppressing that interest, in fact valuing this learning experience as an early childhood schema to do with making connections. As his playmates scooted around and beneath his 'structures', the staff observed him, and every other child, and built the activities and materials on offer around the children's interests. It was an inspiring place, where every child seemed truly known and valued, and my boy was very happy there.

The Reggio Emilia philosophy underpins project-based learning, and my interest in this approach to children's learning and development, prompted me to sign up for Lori Pickert's PBH (Project Based Homeschooling) Master Class, which runs regularly at a cost. You can find more about it on her blog HERE. Although I have tried to implement this approach in our home for many years, I wanted some help to do it better, to feel I am truly understanding how I can be a better facilitator for my children's learning. I have also been thinking that, beyond home educating my own children, maybe this is something I can develop and offer to other children for whom the traditional school model is simply not working. I am now encouraging my husband to work through the course with me, as I think we both need to understand it to be able to create a family culture which values this kind of learning. I hope to share some insights from this learning journey with you in future posts.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3 .....

This week, I have found myself in numerous conversations with parents whose kids are being put under the pressure of new, rigorous government testing - whether in Reception - yes, reception (!) - or in Year 6. What is going on? It seems the government can come up with no better overhaul of the failing system than to introduce more rigorous tests of ridiculously abstract grammatical concepts, for which the children who are to sit them have not been adequately prepared - leading to pressure on schools, teachers, and children. Children in Year 6, who have felt they are doing OK at school now feel that perhaps they are not doing well enough at all. And what about the children who didn't really think they were doing so well in the first place? It makes me ANGRY. Why do we allow the government to do this to our children? The tests are full of ridiculously abstract grammatical concepts, of which most of us have never heard - though we use them all the time, because we have mastered our language and use it perfectly adequately without ever having undergone said tests. It's funny, people are surprised that home educators do not have to follow a set curriculum. This is sometimes seen as a cause for concern, but who is it that sets our children's curriculum? Who decides which arbitrary facts will constitute this year's tests, and therefore form the important input for this year six cohort? Do you trust these people in government more than you trust your own kids, your own heart, your own values? Do not be afraid, people, to take your children out of school if you feel the stress, the pressure, the system has gone too far. Do not be afraid. Rather, be brave .... Who knows? You might just discover something wonderful. And if Nicky Morgan carries on, I can see the numbers of home educated children swelling. Would this be a cause for concern? You would think the government would welcome parents wading in and taking responsibility for their own children's education as, by 2020, it is predicted 300, 000 children will be without a secondary school place. (And that is not necessarily in their preferred school, but in any school.) I was wobbling a bit over whether I ought to have applied for a place in reception for my youngest son in September. My thinking went along the lines of: "Well, if I apply now, I have a chance of getting him in to a "good" school. If I leave it, our choices diminish." But what on earth is a "good" school? How do we define "good"? All schools subjected to the insane governmental obsession with testing as a means of raising standards are labelling children and messing with their self-esteem right from the beginning. And I do not agree with that. So my boy will stay home. And he will play. And he will learn. And I will see again that education is far, far broader than schooling. Michael Rosen HERE and HERE with fab video from Nicky Morgan at her most engaging, talking to teachers about the reasoning behind the new primary assessments. Both worth a view and a laugh! ;)