Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Birthday Time

Littlest son turned 6 today .... How do you celebrate birthdays? How do you create the rituals of celebration which mark the turning of the years? We have an ancient banner which was created when my eldest son turned one, over 15 years ago. It comes out year after year, birthday after birthday. New colourful paper letters have been created as new brothers have arrived ... It is strung ritually before bed the night before a birthday to greet the coming morn.

Three years ago, my youngest son asked to go to the safari park for his birthday. We had a lovely time. Last year, he wanted to go again, with his best friend, so we did. We had a lovely time. So this year, when we asked what he would like to do for his birthday, he looked at us as if amazed we didn't know. "The safari park, of course!" he declared. So off we went again, with the same friend. It is becoming an annual ritual. It is early spring, still cold and a little windy. There are few people about. But the sun shone, and the animals were active. The young bears were the stars, climbing in the trees for us. And the giraffes were so close we could almost reach out and touch them. We walk amongst the lemurs and the squirrel monkeys and they are utterly unperturbed by our presence. The boys' faces light up. And when we see a red panda - a first for us all - they are overwhelmed. The elephants are walking around the park with their keepers, trunks holding tails, all in a row. They are incredible. We picnic in the car because it is cold. The boys choose penny presses and tiny soft toys as souvenirs, a bear, a wolf, an elephant. Grandma and Grandpa are with us, too. We make some memories. Driving home, the boys are making up silly stories about a giraffe, and illustrating them. They are inspired.

The birthday boy has chosen Chinese take-away for dinner, and of course there is birthday cake. The making of birthday cakes has been something of a creative challenge for me since I was a teenager. I enjoy creating them for the boys. It is kind of an extra special present. My older sons have revelled in the task of setting me challenges in recent years - a radio controlled car, Yoda from Star Wars, a land rover .... It's become a game. Today's Stromtrooper was not too much of a challenge, though I did wonder yesterday as the cake collapsed if I was losing my touch. Fortunately much can be hidden beneath a sheet of fondant icing! I always try to keep the cake as a surprise, and when I carry it out with candles aglow as we all sing Happy Birthday, I love the look of wonder and delight upon their faces. "Wow! Did you MAKE that?"

And now it is late ... A small boy dressed as a ninja is curled up in his chair watching a movie with his brothers and his Dad. Another year has gone by, and he is 6 ...

Now We Are Six
By A.A. Milne
"When I was one, I had just begun,
When I was two, I was nearly new,
When I was three, I was hardly me,
When I was four, I was not much more,
When I was five, I was just alive,
But now I am six, I'm as clever as clever,
And I think I'll be six now forever and ever!"

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Writing Encouragement

When my sons came out of school 8 years ago, one of the big sticking points, particularly for my eldest, was writing. He told me that either he wrote enough for the teacher, but it wasn't neat enough. Or he wrote it neatly, but it wasn't long enough. He would get kept in at playtime to do more writing, and had learned to hate it. So, my first big home ed decision was to back right off on writing. We were not going to have tears and arguments over it. I decided to focus on oral work. We have always enjoyed family read alouds and audio books, and the boys would narrate stories in their own way - often through role play (I remember a week when our living room became Robinson Crusoe's island), or by drawing. My eldest son used to enjoy dictating stories into his MP3 player, and listening to them back. Often I would scribe a narrated story and the 'author' would illustrate it.

Sometimes the boys and I have agreed to do a little writing every day for a time, because their writing has become something they want to improve. I would correct as asked to, but not otherwise, and now computers help with formatting writing, with spelling, punctuation and grammar. These are not things we have taught formally. Honestly, we have done very little over the years.

Now, if you are a home educator, and you worry sometimes about your children's writing, here is the encouraging part of the story .... When they want to write, they write! And their writing isn't at all bad! My oldest son (now 16) was sitting filling out an application form with me last night, perfectly competently. My second oldest (now in school, aged 14) is producing essays for homework, and his writing is OK! And last week, over 3 or 4 days, my third son (almost 12) sat down at the computer and wrote a 3000 word essay on Andy Murray's career - a subject he is passionate about. And his writing style is lovely. So, be encouraged. Follow your heart and your children - and relax!

Towards Minimalism

I haven't been well this winter. For about the past six months, I have been suffering from pain in my upper body, an aching right through my back and chest. It has been really quite debilitating. At its worst, coupled with low energy, I was finding it difficult to hold myself upright by the end of the day, and simple tasks like picking up a few things at the shops would completely exhaust me. It has been rather concerning. Several trips to the doctors eventually resulted in blood tests being run, and the results showed a vitamin D deficiency. So commenced an 8 week course of mega vitamin boosters. But, in a multi-pronged approach, I have also consulted an osteopath and a chiropractor, who have told me my body is very crooked, and misaligned in a number of places.

It is six years ago this week that our youngest son arrived. He was delivered in a crash emergency section, which meant I was given a general anaesthetic as I was rushed dramatically into theatre. I remember waking up, and lying in hospital feeling as if I had been hit by a juggernaut. My iron levels were so low, it was touch and go whether I would have a blood transfusion. I didn't. So I left the hospital a few days later severely anaemic with a newborn and three other children awaiting my care at home. There were days in the weeks following when I lay on my bed and felt I simply could not move. Yet, somehow, I had to wrench myself up and get on with life. That is what we do, isn't it? We just get on with it. Yet I look back now, and wonder why there is never any time anymore for convalescence. Could it be that our lack of adequate convalescence gives rise to further problems in the future? I wonder if that experience six years ago took rather a toll on me, and that only now, as smallest son has stepped further into independence, has my body allowed itself to say, "Give me a break!"

"Could vitamin D deficiency and the misalignment you see be adequate explanation for this debilitating pain?" I ask the chiropractor. She assures me that, yes, this is sufficient to explain such thoracic pain, and assures me that she can help. I am three sessions in to eight weeks of treatment, and seven weeks into eight weeks of vitamin D supplements. My energy levels are much improved, and this week, the pain has had days of easing, too. It is such a relief. But I am still not right.

In the midst of all this, our house has not been as clean and tidy as it usually is. I am not very good at living in clutter and disorder, and it is a constant source of stress to me. Sitting taking it easy, as I have had to, it occurs to me that so many of us are enslaved to our clutter, our 'stuff', our possessions. We spend so much time having to organise and tidy up so much stuff, a lot of which we do not even need, or want. And so a new radical idea begins to form in my mind, what if we just get rid of it all? Pretty much everything! What if we just held on to the things that we actually need, and use ... Or perhaps just a few that are beautiful, or sentimental. But I am talking about being really disciplined, and taking control of the clutter rather than letting it control us.

A week away in a holiday cottage where we - and the kids - manage on just a minimal amount of 'stuff' and where we live with the glorious absence of clutter convinces my husband and I that drastic action is required. We have set ourselves a target of the end of the Easter holidays to clear most of our stuff, and just the thought of it is liberating. We have already begun to pare down books, toys, DVDs .... We are a culture addicted to consumerism. What happens if we say, "No more!"?

I think it is possible I have some sort of sensory processing disorder .... I have realised this by talking to my husband about his ability to shut out peripheral noise and to tune in to the television, for example. My sons do this, too. I have often thought it is selective hearing. Often, they do not hear me, because they are focused on something else. I understand this now. But I can't do this. If there is noise, even the hum of the fridge in the background, I can hear it. Is it a female thing, or is it just me? It has never occurred to me that other people don't hear everything going on around them. I realise I cannot filter sound. It's the same with my sight ... If there is text to be read somewhere around me, I will read it, without even thinking about it. It is read, absorbed, noticed. So it is perhaps no surprise that clutter is overwhelming, too, as a sensory experience. It is as if all the stuff is screaming at me, and it is disturbing and not at all restful. Home should be a restful place, right? So, it seems to us it is a good idea to take control.

We begin to think about how we will prevent more 'stuff' coming into our home, how we will have to politely decline the barrage of potential clutter that comes our way. We begin to think about how we can give and receive gifts without the accumulation of material stuff. We like to give gifts in our culture .... We like to give 'stuff'. It is a demonstration of love and generosity. But perhaps it is the only way we know, and it is time to rethink it, to reinvent it? This past Christmas I finally managed to break with the tradition of stockings for all but my youngest son, and his was lean and devoid of plastic tat. Our older three sons all just had money for Christmas, and they were happy with that. Part of our challenge is to think about how we can give treats, time, experiences, perhaps .... How can we redefine our giving?

For some time now, slowly and deliberately, one small step at a time, we have been looking at how we can reduce our household waste, and in particular, our dependence upon throwaway plastic, especially single-use plastic. So one of our new rules is not to bring new plastic into the house, but to choose items made of other materials. Of course, clearing out cannot mean throw away. I am trying to be mindful of the fact that there isn't such a place as 'away'. Everything we discard has to go somewhere. This makes the clearout process more time-consuming and challenging ... Each item has to be considered. Would someone I know like this / find it useful? Could we sell it on ebay? Can we give it to a charity shop? Offer it on Freecycle? Would it be useful to our local refugee ministry? I am kind of excited and curious to see how we will get on. I will let you know .....

Some pictures of our starting point .... This is this weekend, downstairs, as we began to clear things out. I think we are a pretty average British family in terms of 'stuff' ... We are six people in a 3-bed semi ... Maybe we have slightly less than some folks based on the fact that we have moved a lot, and are pretty good at getting rid of stuff. We still have a LOT, far too much ... I dream of clear surfaces that stay clear, and of calm ....

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Schools Largely to Blame for Rising Mental Health Issues

"While progress has been made, a few schools appear to care more about academic results than the well-being of pupils," writes former head, Peter Tait.

"The causes of the growing mental health problems lie largely with the schools and it is the causes, not the symptoms, that need addressing. For that to happen, whole school cultures will need to change, and sometimes, radically so."

Read the full article here: Schools Largely to Blame for Rising Mental Health Issues

Thursday, 8 February 2018

A Social Justice Issue

I have been thinking about social justice a lot recently. Most of the issues I feel passionately about are issues of social justice ..... poverty, the environmental crisis, the dumping of our waste (& resulting toxins) in other parts of the world, gender equality .... Such issues (& I know there are many others!) stir our hearts because we care about our neighbours in the global village. We are none of us disconnected in our interconnected world. Today it was brought home to me again that unschooling is a social justice issue. But it is not seen as such, and remains shrouded in misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

One of the criticisms most often directed at unschooling is that it is a luxury choice for the middle classes, for those who can afford it. It is assumed, though often unspoken, that some parents would not be able to unschool, perhaps because they are not seen as being “educated” enough by the system they are seeking to escape. Or perhaps because it is too costly, and some folks will simply not have the means. I have long known that this is not true. Unschooling is a choice, a life path, like so many other choices. And there are parents who choose this path even though they are single, families who choose this way and live far more simply, parents who live on benefits yet long for something better for their children, a different way, who enjoy a whole new education alongside their offspring and are empowered by it. Unschoolers are a mighty diverse bunch. Seems to me that in fact, those deemed to have been failed by our current system of schooling, have the most to gain from unschooling, the whole process of deconstructing the self as defined by the powers-that-be. Freedom is actually a scary concept, isn't it? We talk as if we want people to be free, but free thinking can be frightening, threatening to the status quo; threatening to those who are pretty well served by the existing hierarchies, who find the world as it operates works pretty well for them. Do we really want people to be free?

Another question I am often asked is about aid initiatives in the so-called “developing world” .... Is it not a good thing to be providing schooling (education) to children in the name of aid and development? Of course, questions like this are multi-layered, and do not always have easy answers, but I think we have to be prepared to examine our motives, to begin with the people we are seeking to serve and to ask what their priorities for development would be, rather than imposing our own. And I think we have to be prepared to be wrong, to be challenged about solutions we may simply take for granted, to be open to rethinking the entire system of global development and the role of schooling in that.

To these questions speaks Manish Jain in Udaipur, India, reminding me that yes, unschooling is indeed a social justice issue. In my heart of hearts, I despise schooling and the way it shapes people into conformity and enslaves them to the way things are, to knowing their place in the scheme of things. As Manish says, "Using IQ tests and labelling millions of innocent children as ‘failures’ is one of the greatest crimes against humanity." Maybe you disagree with us both, and that’s OK, but I am thankful for voices like Manish Jain’s and for the reminder that all around the world, green shoots of alternative thinking are shooting up amongst the ruins of our failing systems of institutionalised schooling, kindred spirits whose words speak out for a different way, a better way, of raising human beings.

"After visiting and working in many villages in Africa and India, I noticed that schooling was a vehicle for spreading industrial monoculture. It was like an AIDs virus which destroyed the immune systems of local culture, and local commons and local common sense. ‘Educated’ students became ashamed of their traditions and their elders, they became emotionally and spiritually disconnected from their fields and forests, they became useless members of their local economy. The entire backbone of community life was disrupted. My own father was a victim of this. Today it has become very clear to me that the call for ‘educating the tribals’ is very much linked to an agenda of displacing tribal communities from their land (which are full of valuable natural resources).”

Read the whole interview with Manish Jain HERE.

Shikshanter: The People's Institute for Re-Thinking Education and Development

"The modern factory-schooling education system is one of the greatest crimes against humanity. One hundred years from now, we will look back at the violence of the culture of schooling and ask how could we have done this to innocent children."

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Give childhood back to children

If we want our offspring to have happy, productive and moral lives, we must allow more time for play, not less.
Because students spend nearly all of their time studying, they have little opportunity to be creative or discover their own passions.

"Play is the natural means by which children and other young mammals educate themselves. In hunter-gatherer bands, children are allowed to play and explore in their chosen ways all day long, every day, because the adults understand that this is how they practise the skills that they must acquire to become effective adults."

"We can't teach creativity, but we can drive it out of people through schooling that centres not on children's own questions but on questions dictated by an imposed curriculum that operates as if all questions have one right answer and everyone must learn the same things."

Wonderful piece by Dr Peter Gray. Read the full article HERE.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

On Rainforests, Palm Oil & Caring ......

To envisage the devastation of the world's rainforests, the extent of palm oil production and the effect of both on native people, Chris Packham's documentary is worth a watch .....

Chris' connection with this photograph resonated with me. I wrote the following on this blog in November (See A Road Trip) following a visit to the Eden Project .....

"The stories of the peoples of the rainforest, depicted in wonderful photographs around the Biome were particularly moving. Some of these tribes have had no contact with the outside world, and are endangered by the destruction of their native forests. I was particularly touched by this one extraordinary photograph of a young girl, taken the year I was born. She was described as being as at home in the forest as any child in a modern playground, and already knowledgeable about the flora and fauna around her. I look at this picture, and wonder if the girl is still alive; she would be older than me. And I think about the arrogance with which we condescend to native peoples, thinking we have so much to teach them, about civilisation. And as I gaze around me at this immersive rainforest experience, and think about all the riches of our planets' forests, all the resources they hold, many of which we have yet to discover, I wonder who really has more to teach. Do we not have so much to learn from native peoples in these majestic places?"

I always wanted to walk in a rainforest, sleep out in a rainforest ... And I did once, in my youth, when I was travelling around Australia. I slept one night in a hammock slung between two majestic trees - and it was noisy, and alive, and lonely - and wonderfully wild and remote and vast ... It felt so far from anywhere. Untouchable. Yet we are destroying it. The lungs of our planet. Beautiful wilderness, treasure trove of medicines and flora and fauna we haven't even discovered ....

Another post on this blog is relevant here: The Cultural Imperialism of Schooling. We should not educate our young people out of touch with the wild places, out of touch with the earth and the wilderness. "The question is not - How much does the youth know when he has finished his education - but how much does he care?" (Charlotte Mason)

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Ofsted's Bold Beginnings

If Ofsted's Bold Beginnings report is driven by concern that transition to Year 1 is difficult because the Early Learning goals are not aligned with the year 1 national curriculum, then why not make Year 1 more play-based rather than narrowing the curriculum in reception? If research and the experience of Nordic countries (and others) teach us that children are better equipped for learning if they start at age 7 after several years of learning negotiation, communication and risk-taking through play, particularly outdoors, why not extend learning-through-play further up our infant schools rather than pushing formal learning ever younger? Why do the powers-that-be continually fail to understand that children learn through play, it is their learning media? We could argue that all of us need more playtime in our lives to awaken and facilitate our creativity and problem-solving faculties. How vital this is for the youngest in our society.

Read more about Ofsted's Bold Beginnings report HERE.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

IF ...

If I can
ask my own questions,
try out my ideas,
experience what's around me,
share what I find;

If I have
plenty of time for
my special pace,
a nourishing space,
things to transform;

If you'll be
my patient friend,
my trusted guide,
fellow investigator,
partner in learning;

Then I will
explore the world,
discover my voice
and tell you what I know
in a hundred languages.

This poem was written by Pamela Houk with valuabel suggestions from Lella Gandini and the late Loris Malaguzzi.