Monday, 26 March 2018

World Changers

100 years since some women in this country were permitted to vote, my youngest son and I have been enjoying Kate Pankhurst's colourful picture book, "Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World". So, it was great to see a workshop with the author as part of this year's Bournville Bookfest, Birmingham's children's book festival and annual celebration of storytelling fun.

Kate's book - and the new sequel, "Fantastically Great Women who Changed History" - introduces a cast of inspiring and adventurous female world changers, who have been too long overlooked by history. I recommend them. As we listened to Kate talking about her inspiration for the books and the way she learned about the characters she chose to include, it occurred to me how important it is that boys and girls are given both male and female role models. Seeing men and women visibly engaged in varied work and roles inspires our children to believe they can do anything.

Another favourite with my six-year old shark-obsessed little boy is, "Shark Lady" by Jess Keating, "The True Story of how Eugenie Clark became the Ocean's most Fearless Scientist" beautifully illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguens. We love the story of how Eugenie's childhood fascination with sharks grows with her until she is exploring the oceans and making new discoveries as a leading ichthyologist. The way the world is right now, how important it is that children are presented with stories of courage and boldness, that they may find their own passion, their own voice and raise it fearlessly.

Listening to Kate Pankhurst, I am thinking of brave little Naomi Wadler and others, who spoke out in Washington this weekend against gun violence. I think of the legacy of Michelle Obama, a role model girls like Naomi have grown up watching. I am sure this has helped them believe they, too, can and should raise their voices and stand up for what they believe in. We need to see women speaking and leading with courage and conviction.

In Kate's books we read of Boudicca and of the Suffragettes, of Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace and many other courageous women in times gone by, but the battles are still there to be fought, and the voices of courage are still so needed. Naomi gives me hope for the future. She reminds us to keep showing our children that our values and our voices matter.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Rootless Urbanite

"The whole time I was at school, I wanted to be at home on the farm. I was convinced then, and I still am, that home was a more interesting and productive place to be for me. Making someone do something they don't want to do with thirty other bored kids seemed to me absolutely pointless. I'd look out of the windows and watch the swifts rising above the town, their scythed wings glistening in the sunshine."

My husband often works in challenging classrooms in our own city here in the Midlands where there seems to be disconnect between the teacher / culture of school and the young people who frequent these classrooms. That is why I said in my TEDx talk we need to profoundly change the way in which we engage these young people. We need to recognise the value of their own stories and the worlds that they inhabit. We need to help them to write their own journeys, discover the dreams and talents within, enabling and facilitating, rather than always thinking that we know better ....

When I was 15, I went to my GCSE Geography teacher with an idea for my coursework, a geographical enquiry. I went to him, a young Sussex girl with my love for the Downs and the Weald, and fascination for the geographical features I encountered walking the local hills with my friends. I wanted to investigate the strata of the hillsides; I certainly wanted a project rooted in the local countryside I loved. But the teacher didn't encourage my interest .... "You should do urbanisation," he said. Urbanisation? What did I know about urbanisation? But, ever the compliant student, I spent the weeks that followed studying global urbanisation, and drawing seemingly endless pie-charts, all beautifully coloured and nicely presented. I got an A in GCSE Geography, but a line of self-initiated enquiry was closed to me and, a few years later, life and education moved me away from those Downs I so love. I miss them still ....

"Students learn to pass, not to know. They do pass, and they don’t know."(Thomas Huxley)

"The question is not - How much does the youth know when he has finished his education - but how much does he care?" (Charlotte Mason)

Though I no longer dwell in the South Downs, the South Downs will always dwell in me.

Now as fracking companies threaten those hills of mine, who will stand before the destructive machinery and say, "No" if we do not care? Who will stand with the native American communities at Standing Rock and say, "Save our Water" unless we care? The Grade A is not so important, really, is it? Not for a rootless urbanite who really just wants to go home ....

"I sometimes think we are so independently minded because we have seen just enough of the wider world to know we like our own old ways and independence best. My grandfather went as far as Paris for a trip to an agricultural fair once. He knew what cities had to offer, but also had a sense that they would leave you uprooted, anonymous and pushed about by the world you lived in, rather than having some freedom and control. The potential wealth on offer counted for little or nothing set against the sense of belonging and purpose that existed at home." (James Rebanks in "The Shepherd's Life)

True Unschooler

He is cross with me because I tried to show him something ... "No, don't show me. I want to discover the world myself!" True unschooler!

Mirrors, Maths and Magic!

"Certainly Anna had a gift ... at once as mysterious as it was simple. She had an immediate grasp of pattern, of structure, of the way that bits and pieces were organised into a whole. Unexplainable as this gift might be, it was always well and truly earthed in the nature of things. As simple and as mysterious as a spider's web, as ordinary as a spiral seashell. Anna could see pattern where others just saw muddles, and this was Anna's gift."

I studied Education and Psychology at University, many years ago. Beside me, livening up many a dull lecture, was my dear friend, Pauline, full of life and joy and laughter. Some of our favourite classes were in Developmental Psychology. I remember watching and discussing many entertaining films of very small children being observed in psychological experiments. Very little conclusion could actually be drawn from these experiments, the samples were usually too small to be significant, and children are so individual. But how Pauline laughed at the beautiful children, their cheeky faces and funny, funny comments.

Pauline gave me a gift. It was the gift of faith. And the idea that faith should be simple yet profound, safe yet daring, serious yet tremendously good fun. Her God was always smiling, and she delighted in His company. Pauline died almost 12 years ago. She was too young, too joyous, too full of life ... I still can't believe she is gone. Of all the people in my life, she is the one person with whom I would dearly love to discuss unschooling. I wish we could walk this path together, and continue laughing at the beautiful curiosity of small human beings. She would 'get it' ... I know she would.

A long time ago, Pauline gave me this book, "Mister God, This is Anna". I found it on my shelf and read it again recently. It amazed me how full of unschooling it is, and how full of deep spirituality expressed in the person of a very small girl as remembered by her friend, Fynn, as they wander the streets and encounter the characters of London's pre-war East End. "Anna's attendance at school was reluctant and not too frequent." Her learning and discoveries take place primarily with Fynn, in conversation as they go about life together. Her learning is not compartmentalised .... She philosophises about God as she discovers the wonders of seeds, or dismantles a radio or looks into her mirror book. It was re-reading Anna that gave me the idea for my youngest son's birthday this year - Mirror tiles, and a prism. Today, the wonder began ....

"We'd both been told that 'five' meant 'five' and nothing else, but the figure 5 reflected in the water or a mirror was the figure 2. And this fact of reflection could produce some pretty curious arithmetics, and this is what fascinated us so much. Perhaps they were not of any practical use, but it didn't matter. 'Five' meant what is usually meant by 'five' only by usage and convention. There was nothing at all special about the figure 5; you could allow it to mean anything you liked as long as you stuck to the rules once you had made them, and you could go on inventing rules forever - well almost. So you see we were wasting our time, but we didn't see it that way; we saw it as an adventure, something that had to be explored.
Anna and I had both seen that maths was more than just working out problems. It was a doorway to magic, mysterious, brain-cracking worlds, worlds where you had to tread carefully, worlds where you made up your own rules, worlds where you had to accept complete responsibility for your actions. But it was exciting and vast beyond understanding."

"'If,' said Miss Haynes to Anna, 'you had twelve flowers in a row and you had twelve rows, how many flowers would you have?' Poor Miss Haynes! If only she had asked Anna what twelve times twelve was she would have got her answer, but no, she had to start messing around with flowers and rows and things. Miss Haynes got an answer, not the one she expected, but an answer.
Anna had sniffed. This particular kind of sniff indicated the utmost disapproval.
'If,' replied Anna, 'you grewed flowers like that you shouldn't have no bloody flowers.'
Miss Haynes was made of stern stuff and the impact of this answer left her unmoved. So she tried again.
'You have seven sweeties in one hand and nine sweeties in your other hand. How many sweeties have you got altogether?'
'None,' said Anna. 'I ain't got none in this hand and I ain't got none in this hand, so I ain't got none, and it's wrong to say I have if I ain't.'
'Brave, brave Miss Haynes tried again.
'I mean pretend, dear, pretend that you have.'
Being so instructed, Anna pretended and came out with the triumphant answer, 'Fourteen.'
'Oh no, dear,' said brave Miss Haynes, 'you've got sixteen. You see, seven and nine make sixteen.'
'I know that,' said Anna, 'but you said pretend, so I pretended to eat one and I pretended to give one away, so I've got fourteen.'
I've always thought that Anna's next remark was made to ease the look of pain and anguish on Miss Haynes's face.
'I didn't like it, it wasn't nice,' she said, as a sort of self-inflicted punishment."

Sunday, 18 March 2018


This is the longest my husband and I have lived in the same house. We have been here 4 years! In the first 17 years of our marriage, we moved no less than 17 times. And each move required a thorough clearout. So I do not think we are hoarders! How quickly and easily, though, the piles of 'stuff' we acquire begin to take over .... Maybe it is because we would normally have moved by now, that I feel the oppression of the clutter, and the need to purge our house of stuff.

One week in to our mission to clear the clutter, and I have been steadily removing items from the house - Several bags have gone to the charity shop, I have been offering items to friends or to folk I know might appreciate that particular thing, listing things on Freecycle and Facebook, and selling things on ebay.

I have sold a few things on ebay in the past, but normally I just tend to save myself the hassle, and give things away. However, I decided our huge Duplo Lego box might be worth splitting into lots and selling on ebay. I mean, Lego is worth a lot, and we have too much of it in our house. To my surprise, I have made £177.50 on ebay this week, which is a nice bonus to the wonderful feeling of decluttering my house and my life. It feels very good to watch stuff go .... I am lighter somehow. Yesterday, I finally began to feel we were making real progress when the hearthstone emerged from beneath my youngest son's Playmobil collection! So far, my focus has been on toys, books and DVDs. We will persevere.

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!"?

Why does clutter bother me so? 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 one thing - the television, for example. My sons do this, too. Often, they do not hear me, because they are focused on something else. I can't do this closing out peripheral noise. If there is sound, 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 all the time. 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 ....