Monday, 30 December 2013

The Joy of Seasonal Learning

New year, new start - or so they say, and it works for me!

I'm not one for New Year's resolutions - as I said to a friend, there's something about setting a self-imposed rule that makes me almost immediately break it (perhaps it's a continuation of my allergy to 'should's!)  Resolutions aside though, I do love fresh starts - and especially at the beginning of a new year as it always comes hot on the heels of Christmas excess and chaos, just when I am itching to pack the decorations away and see a bit of peaceful order restored (well, as peaceful as this house gets, anyway).  It wasn't just Christmas this year, either - it's been the culmination of the whole of the preceding month's frustration, owing to my being mostly unable to do anything much except lie still.  The month before was pretty limiting too:  talk about itching to move on to a fresh season!

Today I was able to do a bit of sorting out and tidying up.  I can't do too much still, but I can do a lot more than this time last week even, and boy, am I in the mood to pick up the reins again!  I am thoroughly in the mood for a good sort-out, and a bit more structure.  Happily, I think the boys are too.  We enjoyed our season of total autonomy - it was what we needed at the time - and now I am seeing signs of them wanting/ needing a bit more structure (I don't think it's just me wishing it on them).  As always, we won't be too heavy on the structure, as none of them do well in that environment.  I think we will be tweaking the gentle plan from September - alternating days of MathsWhizz and Reading Eggs (or workbooks for Eldest as I think Reading Eggspress has lost its appeal for him) - and then plenty of hands-on activities available: science, art, baking, hopefully some learning invitations.  We may well start some new lapbooks too as the boys really enjoy them every now and then - and our groups of course, once I can start driving again.  I still want to have lots of time available for them to follow their own interests, but I have found that while in some seasons they thrive on being given space to do whatever they like, there are other times when it can get a bit heavy for them having to self-motivate, and they need me to give them a booster: point them in a general direction of learning that I think will stimulate them and require a little effort on their part.  It kind of primes their system and gets their engines running again.

The longer we home educate, the more I love the freedom of continual assessment - not in the school sense of targets and testing, but in the sense of "is this still working?" etc.  It's all utterly seasonal, and I am really happy that we get to change about and mix things up, to keep their learning fresh and enjoyable.  Happily for me, they all seem to thrive on change too, so we all get to experience the joys of new season together.

Hubby goes back to work on the 6th, so I think that will be a natural place to start a new loose routine.  That gives me a week to chat to the boys and find out their ideas for the coming month(s), and to draw up a new plan.  Exciting stuff!

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Cheering on the Cheerleaders

One of the surprise blessings from our decision to home educate has been the abundance of simply lovely people out there who I have been privileged to meet.  I have made some really good friends through connecting on the internet (and then in person) over our shared commitment to educating our children.  We're not all the same: we have different backgrounds and different approaches to home education, but we know how to celebrate the differences and positively delight in the similarities.

I was chatting again to one of my awesome and inspiring friends this morning.  She has been following a mostly autonomous route and has, I think, been slightly surprised to find themselves heading into an area of some structure as her gifted eldest son has taken on a university-level course at home.  It is a subject that he absolutely loves, but is not so much in my friend's area of expertise, and we were chatting about how it's OK for home educators to not know and understand every subject to the highest level.  One of the most common questions fired at home educators is the one asking "how can you teach them everything they need to know, especially at secondary/ GCSE level?".  The simple answer is that we can only take them as far as our ability allows.  Most of the time this means learning alongside them (or just staying one step ahead for a time, until they find their own feet), but at some point it is inevitable that their interests and gifts will overtake us in areas, as they are not - and were never meant to be - mini versions of ourselves.  HOWEVER if we have done our jobs well, we will have instilled in them a love of learning, a confidence in themselves to be able to find out the answers to what they want to know.

At present there is very little that my boys want to know that I cannot easily find out, digest and pass on to them.  Their interest has not yet reached much further than mine.  But one day it will.  For Eldest, I can tell that day is only just around the corner in some areas, and I am learning to not be bothered about whether I can find out enough to be able to carry on teaching him.  I am more bothered with the concern of whether I have instilled in him enough confidence that he can find out his own answers - that if he hits a complicated patch he will have the strength within to hold on to his desire to learn and find his own motivation to work through the parts he doesn't understand until he has conquered and understood whatever it is that he wants to understand.  I will do my best to learn alongside him for as long as I can, but when he reaches a level that is beyond my ability and/ or interest, I'm not going to just leave him to it, or try to steer him towards an area that I am better acquainted with, I am just going to do my best to encourage him, support him and boost his morale.  I do not have to have all the answers, and I would be essentially limiting him if I led him to believe otherwise.

It is only in school where the focus is on increasing information: where it is the teacher's job to inform and the student's job to listen and memorise.  In home education the focus is on building the whole individual.  It is our role to stand alongside and encourage each individual to fulfil their potential, in whatever form that takes.  We are not teachers; we are cheerleaders.  My boys have their own lives to lead, their own destinies to fulfil, their own races to run - and those races are almost guaranteed to look very different to mine, their Dad's or each other's, but each of them still is not running a solitary race.   Hubby and I are there every step of the way, chief cheerleaders for all our boys.  We are the ones bursting with pride to see their abilities outstrip our own, the ones yelling at the top of our voices every step of the way, "you can do this!". 

Why did team GB do so well in the 2012 Olympics?  Training of course (we are our children's personal trainers, helping them to reach further in their chosen area than we ever could), plus they all acknowledged the enormous benefit of being on home ground where they experienced the tangible support of all the crowds cheering them on, boosting their energy when they needed it most.  I love that we can be personal trainer and cheerleader for our kids. 

And so today I want to acknowledge all you other cheerleaders out there.  I want to tell you that "you can do this too", especially those of you who are just starting out, or those of you who may have hit a hurdle.  You are doing an awesome job, cheering on a new generation of children who will grow up to believe in themselves, who will not be limited by what you don't know, but rather empowered to go further than you or they could have imagined.   And even more than that, by acknowledging and supporting each other in our common role as home educator regardless of individual style, we are all cheering each other on, and each others' children too - it's like a great Home Ed stadium, filled with an enormous roar of overwhelming support.

Good job, cheerleaders!

Monday, 16 December 2013

Training in Housework

If you've been following, you'll know I have back issues at the moment (a bulging disc pinching the sciatic nerve).  I'm not going to go on about it, because to be quite honest I am thoroughly fed up with the subject - but it has meant that for the last two or three weeks in particular I have been unable to do anything much except alternately laying flat and gently mooching about the house.  This has meant that my doing the housework has been all but impossible, so I have had to enlist the boys  help far more than usual.

Eldest has been an utter star.  He loves his rewards and incentives, and we had some Star Wars collecting cards  left over from when he asked for them to be used as rewards for completing his Maths Whizz & Reading Eggspress exercises.  I really dislike using incentives for learning: I think it is counter-productive when trying to foster an enthusiasm for learning, so we ditched them as reward a while ago.  Eldest found them the other day and asked if he could earn them any other way - i.e. by doing jobs over and above his usual job of unloading the dishwasher and keeping his bedroom tidy.  Talk about perfect timing!  Since then he has enthusiastically been folding up the freshly-laundered clothes, loading the dishwasher, making breakfast/ lunch for his brothers, feeding the wildlife, and other jobs.  He is totally thrilled with his cards, and I am relieved to have an ally in the housework.  He has also been utterly brilliant and reliable at helping with the hedgehogs every day since they first arrived, so please forgive this moment of Mummy bragging - I'm very proud of him!

Middle and Youngest have been less desirous to help - they have been very sweet about helping when asked, but they are not motivated by incentives, and understandably just want to play if left to their own devices.  Today though it was time to tackle their shared bedroom - it was a total nightmare and just had to be done.  I knew they wouldn't be able to cope without supervision, but I was unable to do much by way of practical help, so I lay on one of the beds and came up with games to try to make it more fun for them and help them to stay focused on the task.  First we had the bulldozer game, pushing all the mess into piles.  Then we saw how many pieces of any particular toy (lego/ knex/ marble run etc) they could fit in their hands at a time, to carry to the box.  The last game that they loved, and saw them through to completion, was me calling out a couple items that I could see amidst the mess, and they had to find them and put them away before I called out the next couple of items.

Usually I don't have the patience for games like that - normally I help them sort things into more manageable piles for them to tidy away, and that takes much less time.  Today it took a good couple of hours to finish their room without me helping practically, but necessity being the mother of invention meant that we managed to find a way for the boys to do the whole mess themselves, and without much complaining too - hooray!

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Dear Teacher

OK this post was written with some trepidation at how well it would be received, but a recent post in an online discussion prompted me to write this.  The vast majority of the comments were full of dismay at the school system but praise for their children's previous teachers, and echoed many of my own thoughts, so I felt the need to write this:

Dear Teacher,

Although we have made the decision to deregister our children from your school and educate them ourselves at home, we want you to know that it is not because of anything you have - or have not - done.  We know that you truly care about the children in your class and that your motivation is to equip them for a better future.  We see that you work ceaselessly and without a fraction of the thanks and recognition that you deserve.  We know that the little ones in your care are often the only factor keeping you going. 

We also see that your vision for educating these children is seriously hampered by a system that insists on endless planning and assessing, testing, targets, league tables - and that keeps moving the goalposts, with the decision-makers being hopelessly removed from the realities of educating.  We know that you are often overburdened with utterly unrealistic workloads, which do a lot to hinder you in the actual hands-on teaching that you love.  We have seen that the children who obviously (to us all) need extra help sometimes have to wait for years before being approved for extra help, placing a burden on you and the class, let alone the children who need it.

We removed our children because of the system, not you. Many children flourish at school, and that is thanks in no small way to you and everything you do for them.  But many other children just do not fit in the system, and need more individualised attention.  Very simply, that is why they are now being educated at home. 
This business of educating is not for the faint-hearted, and we just want to say: Teacher, you rock!

with love from a Home Educator

When writing letters like this I am always immediately concerned that those reading it will say "well, she's got that wrong" - but from my teaching experience and that of the many other teachers-turned-home-educators that I know, I don't think it's far off.  I guess it's just my way of trying to say that the vast majority of teachers are awesome - that it is the system that we have rejected, and not the wonderful people who work in it.


Thursday, 5 December 2013

Maths Invitation

Yesterday was a good day.  In terms of me not feeling quite so guilty for not being able to do much with the boys because of a pinched nerve in my back/ leg, anyway.
I was going to see my chiropractor in the afternoon, and he always enjoys asking me about our home education, so I probably paid more attention than I have lately to what the boys were doing, so I could tell him.  They did some writing (in Christmas cards), watched a programme on the Barrier Reef, and then played with Maths.

The Maths was down to an "invitation" that I set up in the kitchen.  Like the previous time though, Youngest came to see what I was doing before I finished, and I had to ask him to wait so I could take a picture before he got stuck in.  *Note to self: set up invitations when they are in bed, for them to find the next morning!*  I had seen this invitation online a couple of weeks ago, which prompted our previous invitation.  I didn't have all the same equipment as the original Maths invitation, but we had plenty of other bits; we just needed to buy some scales (I didn't want the boys playing with my digital ones and I knew they would appreciate the style illustrated as it was similar to one in the Post Office that they are always fascinated by).  So this was our version...

Contents (clockwise from bottom left): Tub of coloured giant lolly sticks; 3 pots of playdoh (sadly cropped out of photo); scales; bowl of coloured matchsticks; abacus; tub of glass pebbles; tray of Cuisenaire rods; egg cartons containing polystyrene eggs; box of tangram shapes; magnetic board with numbers; pipecleaners and bowl of pony beads, for threading; tub of 'sorting' animals; muffin tray.  I also wanted to add a tray with some glitter to draw in with their fingers but I realised I wouldn't be able to bend down to sweep up the mess.

I am always fascinated to see what the boys choose to play with first.  Youngest made a beeline for the scales, piling as much as he could in the dish.  Middle was drawn to the pipecleaners, threading beads on to make a pattern, and then turning it into a bracelet for Mummy.  Eldest (who I wasn't sure would be interested, being that bit older) grabbed the matchsticks and carried them to the floor - well there was no real space left on the table - and started making symmetrical designs, also inventing games involving glass nuggets.  I left them to it to just explore as they wanted.  Invitations in my mind are not the time to be alongside them giving instructions, placing limits or asking them questions about what they are doing - in my mind I want them just to enjoy experiencing whatever they are drawn to... just to have fun, without me ever mentioning the word "maths" - to activate their natural creativity.  It must have worked too, because after I went to the chiropractor (during which they played on the Wii with Daddy),  when we decided enough time had been spent on the Wii, they disappeared off and started designing intricate platform games - a lovely blend of their console experience and creativity from earlier.

Invitation are great.  When I came across them I thought they might be a bit too 'preschool' for my boys, but it turns out they all benefit from them - so we'll be doing more in future.  I just need to pick another theme now *heads off to browse for inspiration*...

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Advent Jesse Tree

Apologies for the lack of recent posts.  Problems with my lower back have left me unable to do much for a while, let alone concentrate on writing a coherent blog post. I do have a good chiropractor though, so things are improving!

I just wanted to share something that Home Education has allowed us the time to do this month.  When the boys (and I) were in school, we rarely had the time to instigate many traditions as life was just too full already.  Since then our pace of life is so much less frantic that we really do have time to stop and smell the roses, so to speak.  We also have time to stop and consider what is important.  And at this time of year, what is important to us as a Christian family is that the true meaning of Christmas is not lost amidst all the commercialism and fables.  Don't get me wrong: we love the gift-sharing, feasting and sparkly lights as much as anyone, but without "the Reason for the Season" it can all seem a bit flat and futile. So I was looking for ways to help the boys look a bit deeper.  Enter the Jesse Tree.  I had not heard of it before, but in a Christian Home Ed group online, many people were talking about doing them by way of keeping their focus right.  Some friends kindly filled me in and sent me some links - and we have adopted it into our family's celebrations.

For those who don't know, the Jesse Tree is based on a prophecy in the book of Isaiah (from the  Bible) that says "A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit." Jesse was the father of David, King of Israel, and Jesus (the branch of new life) came from this family tree. 
We chose our 'branch', or small tree (some use actual branches, some draw pictures of trees on paper and use those), and every day in Advent we read a bit of the story of Jesus' ancestors - starting with Creation we remember how through the entire Old Testament the world was waiting for Jesus to be born, just as through Advent we are waiting to celebrate his birthday (and yes, I know it probably wasn't his actual birthday - it's just the day we choose to celebrate it).
So we read a bit from the Bible every day with a prayer, and hang an ornament on our tree/ branch that represents each part of the story.  This year our ornaments and readings came from this link that a lovely friend shared.  Next year I'm hoping that we might get to make some ornaments out of felt/ Fimo maybe.  Anyway, this is our tree, as photographed yesterday...

I'm particularly enjoying how the boys are coming up with their own thoughts on the stories, and am really encouraged that they each have their own faith - it is just lovely to share a family activity like this.  Maybe if we weren't home educating we would have found our way to this tradition anyway, but as it is, I'm just so grateful that we have the time to stop and think about what we are actually celebrating.  It just makes our lives so rich!  Bring on the gifts, feasting and sparkly lights :)