Monday, 27 February 2017

New Topic

With perfect timing for a new half term, and the changing season, my smallest son was full of questions about seeds today ....

"What are seeds?" "Where do they come from?" "What are seeds made of?" "How are they made?" "Who made them?"

He was not satisfied with simple answers ... We went on to youtube and found videos about germination, plant reproduction, photosynthesis, time lapse seed growth ... some of which he watched several times. We got out a book we have about a seed growing ... I shall have to look for more.

This is the way a new topic emerges. As we looked at the plant embryo within the seed, our conversation moved on to human embryos, and we compared some images ... Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow. It was such a rich discussion, and now we shall be able to focus our enquiries, activities, reading and excursions around this new area of fascination, building the web of understanding, starting with the child's questions.

Emergent Writing 3

My littlest son's best friend is 8, and when he came to play recently, the two of them had a games contest. They played various board games and his friend made a score sheet to record who won each game - first to 5. Inspired, my little son, who is almost 5, wanted to play games with me the other day, and he made a score sheet in the same way as he had seen his friend doing. When children have friends of different ages, they learn so much from one another. And it was interesting to see my son using written code to record meaningful information. You probably can't make sense of what he has written, but he wrote the initial letters of his name and mine, and then numbers 1-5 beside our names as we won games respectively. His squiggles made complete sense to him, and because I offered no comment, criticism or correction, he was perfectly satisfied with what he had written. I have every confidence that, in time, with exposure to letters and numbers, he will perfect his ability to write accurately. But I love to see his developing understanding of writing to convey meaning, and his active participation in this process of communication.

(It's upside down!)

Free Range to Battery Farmed

First day back after the half term break, and my eldest boy looked thoroughly miserable. It was hard work cajoling him into school this morning. He has begun to refer to it as 'the prison' in spite of the Principal's suggested steps to help accommodate his desire for more independent learning. I think our son knows as well as anyone that these concessions do not really amount to much because, at the end of the day, the Academy has to be 'teaching' him in order to be seen to be fulfilling their professional duties. In spite of the fact that just two generations ago, young people of fourteen were out at work, making their independent way in the world, we now insist on keeping our young people 'protected' in the confines of school until age 18. Whilst this may keep the government's unemployment figures down, I do not believe it helps our young people to develop into creative, resilient, self-motivated, hopeful individuals. My son's academy has no outdoor space, and we have come to realise this is a problem for him. He needs to be outside at some times during the day, just for a bit of space and fresh air. You wouldn't think that is too much to ask. However, his request to be allowed to leave the premises during break or lunchtime (with parental permission) can only be granted if a parent can collect him and take responsibility for him. He knows this is unlikely to be workable, the breaks are so short. And so he feels confined and imprisoned. I know he feels he is wasting his time, that he can work so much more productively outside of school. And although he is communicating his needs clearly, no-one is really listening. Except that I am. And because of my own beliefs, I am becoming less convinced that the positive reasons to be in there are enough to keep him there. As I listen to him, this picture from one of Jamie Oliver's cookbooks comes to my mind .... I mean, if you are a chicken who only knows the battery cage, you don't know any different; you wouldn't ask any questions, the cage is just the way life is. But if you are used to being free range, what on earth would you make of the cage and the overcrowding, the smell and the suffocating monotony? Wouldn't you long for the great outdoors, too, and those happy days you spent scuffling around in the earth in the fresh air? Lovely fresh eggs were then just a natural product of your lifestyle. Now, you are assessed by the number and size of your eggs; it seems a nonsense ... How can you produce eggs of quality in the confined environment of the cage? Everyone knows free range eggs taste better!

What if they spend their whole childhood playing?

What if they spend their whole childhood playing?
So what if they did?


I know it is hard for people to imagine how an unschooling morning looks, so here is how our day looks so far ....

My foodie boy has already cooked himself a delicious apple pancake for breakfast. He saw the apples, decided what he wanted, looked up the recipe, cooked and cleaned up independently. I did get a taste, and it was yummy!....

Now he has gone outside to work on a guitar he is sanding down to recondition ... In the fresh air ... This is his own project work ...

His brother has chosen to spend some time reading his latest book about Wimbledon ... He is mad keen on all things tennis related ...

And my youngest son is working on Maths Seeds on the iPad, learning about subtraction with the help of a cookie-eating gremlin!

This is how we roll .... A quiet few minutes, time for a nice cup of tea methinks.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Beyond Limits

My 4-year-old writing his book ....
I love the fact he sees no limits to the possibilities of his own abilities ....

Difficulties and Encouragements

We had some difficulties at the beginning of this week with my eldest son not wanting to go in to school. On Tuesday morning, this prompted me to phone in and ask for an appointment as soon as possible with the Principal. I was so pleased I did. My husband and I saw him yesterday, and I couldn't have asked for a better meeting.

It was interesting to hear his perspective and there was a mutual respect to our conversation. He expressed his frustration at how he has to compromise on vision to accommodate such a variety of learners, and of course to 'tick the boxes' required by the system. But he expressed such great knowledge of our son, and an appreciation for the type of learner that he is. I was rather bold and handed him our son's ideal timetable, which involves a lot of independent study time. And rather than dismissing it, he seemed fascinated and said he would enjoy the challenge of trying to provide more opportunities for our son to work in the ways he prefers. It was such a relief and encouragement to me. Of course, that doesn't mean all is well ... But I did feel heard, and we have a conversation now upon which we can build. It is a relief to feel we are not alone in trying to meet our son's needs. There are so many good opportunities the Academy is giving him, F1 in Schools being one, I would be very reluctant for him to come out again. But, at the same time, we were able to say to the Principal, if the price for good GCSE grades is our son's mental health or the quashing of the quirky, curious, independent learner that he is, then we believe that is a price too high to pay.

It was interesting having him out again on Tuesday. I noticed he enjoyed being with his brothers. He must miss them. He even wanted to spend some time with his smallest brother. He is so busy nowadays that he doesn't get as much opportunity to interact with him. I also noticed that he wanted to be outside. All our boys love to be outside, and it reminds me that we tend to require our children to spend most of their time cooped up indoors. As I said to the Principal, our eldest must feel no less cooped up than a free range chicken put into a battery farm! I honestly believe we all need far more time in the fresh air and outdoors interacting with nature for our mental health and wellbeing.

The Principal asked our son to write a profile for all his teachers describing his background, his projects, what motivates him and what doesn't. He is rising to the challenge and is planning a short, accompanying vlog. He was working on it quite late into yesterday evening, and it is interesting to see what he writes. Perhaps, with his permission, I might share it here once it is complete.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Carol Black: Alternatives to Schooling

Carol Black is an education analyst, television producer, and director of the film Schooling the World. This is her plenary talk at the Economics of Happiness conference, held in Portland, Oregon, in February 2015. The conference was organized by Local Futures, a non-profit organization that has been promoting a shift from global to local for nearly 40 years. For more information about the conference or Local Futures' work, go to

Friday, 3 February 2017

Busy, busy ....

One of the lovely things about home educating is that we can enjoy a much slower pace of life. I certainly do not miss the manic mornings from the boys' short schooling experience, the mad rush to get everyone out of the door on time with everything needed for the day. Those days were characterised by a constant feeling of being in a hurry, of never having enough time to get everything done that needed to be done. Life with four children can still feel a bit like that, but it is not the same. Busy weeks like this one feel rushed, and I have to admit, I am no longer used to it. I don't like it.

Monday was my third son's birthday, so the night before, I was busy getting organised for that. He had a sleepover at the weekend with his oldest and most treasured friend as well as a family meal out with his grandparents,too. On Monday, my parents visited again, and, later in the day, he had a friend over for dinner and a movie. Thankfully, I was relieved of cake duty this year as he opted for his Dad's speciality tiramisu instead!

Tuesday was a quieter day, but we had to catch up on all we hadn't done on Monday - as well as preparing for Wednesday! Monday is usually our chores afternoon, so we had to get the house tidied and cleaned on Tuesday this week. And there was shopping to be done and organisation for a manic Wednesday. My eldest son had also managed to hurt his ankle scooting which became an excuse for not wanting to go to school. This led to conversations with the school about his learning which added pressure to an already busy week.

Wednesday morning began with a phone call to the doctor as the ankle, bruised and swollen, was a cause for concern. Appointment to see the doctor squeezed in during the afternoon. Meanwhile, my usual Wednesday morning international women's group saw the house fill with women and preschoolers for a lively games morning - and much laughter.

After a rushed lunch, and a flying visit from my Dad to collect youngest grandson for an overnight stay, the other two boys and I were off to our weekly home ed sports meet-up, which I think is still the highlight of their week. They played ultimate frisbee with a whole bunch of home schooled kids of all ages in the mild February air whilst a friend and I took a walk. Dropped our friends home, and rushed back with two extra kids on board to meet another friend for our human anatomy co-op. It was my turn to lead our workshop on the muscular system, including our attempts to construct a model arm illustrating antagonistic muscle action. Meanwhile youngest son is having a lovely time at his grandparents' learning about colossal squids and producing some lovely paintings of underwater creatures. My husband took our oldest son to the doctor and, by evening, I was too tired to make my monthly crafting session with friends.

Thursday, it was quiet in the morning with my smallest son away. The other two boys and I did some readalouds and they then got on with their work whilst I had a cuppa and chat with a friend of mine who is considering educational options for her daughter and wanted to pick my brains. Hurried lunch again, then off we rushed to see Stomp! - the West End production at our local Arts Centre. I had organised a group booking for home ed families at schools' rate. This is a show I have long wanted to see, so I leapt at the opportunity to get reasonable tickets. It was a fantastic performance - so full of energy, and real boy appeal. My third son, in particular, loved it. My 13-year-old is at the age where everything seems to be "Meh" (shrug)!

From the theatre, we rushed to a meeting at eldest son's school about his learning style (!) Thursday evening, the two middle boys were on a night hike with their scout group, and eldest went off to his church home group. My Dad and brother arrived with littlest son returned and popped straight into bed.

This morning, we were off again to a home ed group we attend once every two months about half an hour's drive away. Several things caused us to arrive slightly late - including a petrol stop and a traffic jam! - but it was a great session on animation. Even my 4-year-old was able to create under-sea characters with plasticene and playdough and animate a short film on the iPad with his older brother's help. He also made a zoetrope.

After the session finished and we had had our lunch, we drove straight over to the boys' friends, dropping one and picking up another. Back at home, another friend joined us, so all the boys had 'friend time' this afternoon.

Then it was off to church youth where all the parents congregate and children are returned. Second son is on a sleepover tonight .... Three are home now, one in bed already .... Phew! These home ed families. All they do is sit at home all day. And, goodness, how on earth do they socialise?? I am ready for a quieter weekend ....

Different Values

Writing about my eldest son's recent struggles at school, I mentioned the clash of cultures, perhaps inevitable, between the unschooling he has enjoyed until now, and the culture of the system. I have realised this week that the clash is actually a clash of values, values being the vehicle by which a culture is conveyed ....

We had another meeting with the school this week, in which a couple of afternoon periods have been offered to my son as independent study time. He would like a lot more such time, but he seemed pleased with this first step ... "It's a start, Mum, it's a start," he said. And there is a renewed interest in studying again in the evenings, for his own sake, not because he has been told to. This is good, because I was afraid we were heading for school refusal had there been no compromise reached.

The values that are repeatedly heard from school, though, are not values our family accepts. They are values such as, "It is all about qualifications" ... "What you want to be achieving is those A stars across the board" ... "Qualifications are what will open the doors of opportunity". Schools are, by the language they speak, exam factories. And I accept that, in a way, we are using them - accepting that to be what they are. They are a means to an end, a means of gaining the precious bits of paper our society deems so important.

But, actually, the values imparted in our schooling system are not true. Life is not all about qualifications. What you want to be achieving might not be A stars across the board ... In fact, for many, this is not even possible or realistic ... leaving too many young people feeling like failures. Qualifications are not what will open the doors of opportunity. Not necessarily. It is a house of cards built on a foundation of untruths.

When the light went out in my son's eyes seven years ago, and we made the radical decision to remove our boys from the school system, it was because the values of the system did not sit right with us. In our home educating, I wanted to promote different values and to build on a different foundation. First of all, these values come from my Christian faith, which says that we are each created in the image of God. Therein lies our worth and value. It is not something to be earned or worked for. It is a grace-given truth, not dependent upon our achievements, grades or qualifications. So my vision for education is founded on the unique personhood of each child, and education needs to be respectful of that unique individual. My vision at home would be to nurture my children to be the unique individuals that God has created them to be. This is worlds apart from the values our school system currently purports. Worlds apart. No wonder I struggle to communicate the difficulties.

You see, whilst the school wants the A stars, we want our son to continue to be the unique, independent, quirky, experimentative, inventive, creative individual I have raised him to be, someone who doesn't just accept what he is told, but who questions, explores, pushes boundaries. I have spent seven years encouraging and nurturing such creative, intrinsically-motivated innovation in my boy. And if the price to pay for those A stars is all that we have worked for, then that will be too high a price to pay. Because, in my understanding, the qualities I see in him are more valuable than a bunch of A-grades, which were never our end goal anyway.

How about you? You might have a different belief system from me .... but what are your values? What is your vision for your children's education? Is it compatible with what is happening in our schools? Such questions are important, for they form the foundations of our educational choices ... if we take the time to stop, and consider and to ask.

"The starting point for all our thinking was the apparently revolutionary idea that a child is a person, worthy of full respect as a human being. “ (Daniel Greenberg, Co-founder of Sudbury Valley School)