Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Joys of Spring

I saw a Facebook meme the other day, that went, "Our homeschool year goes like this: in the fall, classical education.  In the winter, Charlotte Mason.  In the spring, unschooling!"
It made me smile because it was so familiar.  Not that we necessarily engage fully with any particular style at any given time, but because I do notice a definite shift in our (or my!) approach each season.

In the summer - at least this was true last year - the sunny days lent themselves to a LOT of outdoor fun and no desire to be cooped up indoors following planned learning activities.  Freedom to play and run about is key.

In the autumn as nights draw in and temperatures start to drop, we definitely and naturally tend to focus more on structure, as our brains have had a lovely rest and chance to grow naturally and become ready to tackle new ideas.  Maybe it's all those "back-to-school" promotions with their shiny pencil cases and brand new notebooks with pristine pages waiting to be filled in.

By the winter, having got to grips with new subjects, and having eked out as much time as we can outdoors, kicking through leaves, collecting berries and filling our lungs with rich fresh air, we are usually persuaded indoors more frequently by the onset of rain, or ice (not snow - snow is a glorious excuse to get outdoors and have fun-with-a-capital-F... sadly the winter just gone involved no proper snow - just LOTS of rain, but at least we got to jump in big puddles!).  Happily, this "indoors" time coincides with Christmas, which is a HUGE deal in this house.  Who needs to go outdoors when we can be inside, cosying up over festive stories, baking gifts for friends and liberally sprinkling glitter over all copious amounts of joyful craft?!  The rest of winter after Christmas can be a challenge.  We make ourselves get out (with waterproofs if necessary) so that we don't go stir crazy - but otherwise, more time indoors with lots of books, kits, and general strewing is the name of the game.  Structured activities do not go down very well during late winter.  I find this is the season when I am most likely to hear the B-word (bored).

So by Spring we are ready for new challenges - ready to get outside with a vengeance.  The new life springing forth everywhere both reflects and inspires our own renewed energy.  Yes, we are ready to tackle new subjects again - but tempered with plenty of outside activities.  Home educators everywhere come out of hibernation!  This Spring has been a particular joy for us on two fronts: firstly my health/ physical ability has improved to the point where I can start to tackle the mess that is everywhere.  Our kitchen and front room are now generally tidy - and easy to keep that way (I'm not looking at the hallway or study yet).  I've said it before, it makes such a HUGE difference to me to live in a fairly tidy environment.  Don't get me wrong - I have three boys and this house is fully lived in.  It is by no means a show-home. But it is tidy enough now to feel nice to be in - and that in turn makes me feel ,more able to focus on the boys.  When it's a mess I feel trapped by the overwhelming responsibilities of housework and educating the boys, and that renders me fairly incapable of doing either effectively.  When I take the time (usually not that long) to get back on top if the housework, home ed flows so much more easily, whether parent-led, child-led or anything else.  Weird, but true.

Secondly, my lovely new neighbours.  This spring has been especially joyful because the boys now have home educated friends on hand to enjoy outside with.  My driving is still very limited, so we are restricted to places where we can walk.  Happily there are my beloved glorious leafy lanes nearby, and is a small playpark just up the road, with a large grassy area next to it - perfect for playing catch, flying kites, riding bikes etc with our friends... it's almost like having playtime at school (albeit a very, very small school with lots of outside time).  We have been up there every day this week, and planning to continue :)

Here are some photos from our walk last week...
Visiting the hens up the road who provide our eggs

"thanks, girls!"
*breathe in all that fresh air*

bluebell woods on the way home... just so beautiful!

So Spring is now my favourite season.  Admittedly I will probably change that when the next season comes around - I generally love each season when I'm in it.  For now though, I have renewed energy, tidiness in the main living zones, I am able to concentrate on the boys' "education", and we are getting lots of time outside enjoying fresh air and physical activity... it feels good!

Monday, 28 April 2014

Why I Can't Answer the "Structure" Question...

I was thinking this morning that it was about time I blogged about our day's activities, as this is called "Diary of a Home Ed Family", and lately I seem to have written more about general issues than our specific day-to-day activities.

As I thought about our day so far, I reflected that (as usual) we really don't fit neatly into any camp when it comes to HE style.  Of course, there is no need to do so, other than maybe for those who have a strong conviction towards structured curriculum (parent-led), radical unschooling (child-led) etc, and who want to find others of like mind to chat to about it.  From my perspective, most of us are just committed to doing whatever suits our families best, aka 'making-it-up-as-we-go-along' - and in my case, that is a bit of everything.

This morning we started off tidying up.  Yes, this was parent-led.  The boys rarely volunteer to do this, but to my thinking, it's just part of being a family.  I expect them to help and I am prepared to remind them to do so. We all live in the house together, so we all share the responsibility to keep it nice.

Once the dishwasher was loaded, the laundry underway, and the front room cleared, it was time for MathsWhizz.  Again, parent-led... although, strictly-speaking there is an element of child-led about it, as this was the curriculum chosen by the boys when we started HE.  We were restricted to one computer this morning, so while the boys waited for their turn, they read books of their choosing (Middle read some Horrible Geography books, Youngest some Usborne Early Readers, and Eldest some Minecraft manuals).

And then to the part when it all went typically non-typical.  As we have a usable kitchen table now, I had been thinking how nice it would be to do a bit of art.  The boys were now on a mooch - the sort of mooch that usually ends up creating endless and pointless mess - so I asked if they'd like to do some art (trying to help them focus their energy - as you do)
"What sort?"  they asked.
"Painting foxes?"  I said.
"Why do we have to do foxes?"
"We don't - I just found this outline and thought it might be fun.  We could choose a different animal if you like - or maybe we could do a big background picture together, and then do lots of little different animals to stick on"
"What sort of background?"
"Well, how about ocean?  or jungle?"
*brief pause while I assimilated the art project being taken completely out of my hands*
"sure - minecraft!  What sort of background would that look like?"
And they were off: discussing, plotting, explaining details oh-so-gently to Mummy the minecraft novice.
I fetched a large piece of paper for them to draw their background on - it quickly became apparent that in fact it would not work at all for Youngest to be part of the collaboration, so he got his own piece of paper and started drawing while the other two were planning.  Eventually they decided quite amicably that it would be better if they did their own backgrounds - so they did.
Youngest drew a lovely picture of an iron golem, then painted it so enthusiastically that you can't really see the golem underneath.  After that he drew a night-time minecraft picture of a zombie, iron golem, slime and a bed, and coloured it in with crayon...

Eldest drew a very detailed picture - it started off as a background, put he got carried away adding biomes, details etc, so it turned into a complete picture...

Middle drew a lovely background involving lots of biomes.  He balked somewhat at the thought of painting in around all the little "squarey" edges, especially the tiny ones in the background, but I said I was happy to help if he wanted - so we had a lovely time painting away together.

Middle is still planning on adding further characters later, but I think his brothers have finished.  they all spent lots of time doing just what they wanted, and it was lovely!

Now they're all playing outside on their bikes (totally child-led) while I type.  That reminds me: Hubby took Youngest's stabilisers off at the weekend, and was told in no uncertain terms that he needn't interfere: Youngest could do it "all by himself".  It took Youngest a couple of seconds before he was off and pedalling!  I love child-led learning.  I love being involved too - having ideas, making suggestions, even requiring specific activities - or just that feeling when they are doing something and welcome me to be part of it.

So that's why I can't properly answer the question, "what kind of HE are you: structured or autonomous?"  The answer is just "yes".  A bit of structure, a bit of autonomy - we're a bit of everything.  'Heinz 57' home educators, that's us... and loving it!

Friday, 25 April 2014

Bullying: Lessons in Resilience or Unallowable Torture?

So.  Bullying.  Allowing your child to risk being victimised at school so they learn "resilience" (current school buzzword).

When I was at school (early secondary) I wasn't so much bullied as ignored, laughed at and generally being the class outcast.  People (acquaintances - not friends) would moan abut me behind my back and agree on how awful I was - without ever talking to me about the things that bothered them or finding out what I was really like.  I was not spoken to by class consensus for a couple of years.  I had zero confidence, zero clue as to how to handle it.  How was I supposed to learn "resilience" all by myself, especially amidst the onslaught of opinion that said I was worthless?

I am not saying any of this for pity or even cyber-hugs, lovely though they are.  I am saying this because after two years of home ed, I am still asking myself HOW ON EARTH does leaving a child in a hostile environment make sense as a positive argument for sending a child to school?  It comes up again and again: "but if you don't send your child to school, how will they learn to deal with bullying?"  My eloquent response to this usually being "WHAAAAA?", accompanied by blank stare (especially when the question is asked by the same parents who demand an outstanding and effective anti-bullying policy from their child's school).

Thirty years after my own unpleasant experiences, I loathe labels - detest the act of assuming you know someone just because of a certain aspect of their character.  I can't abide judging people, and I have serious issues about so-called friends who complain about me to others but won't discuss things with me.  It is very rare for me to discuss others in their absence, even kindly.  Yes, my experiences have made me who I am - in some ways for the good (I hope), and in some ways I still bear the scars.  I still struggle with paranoia and trusting people.  But the scars from the battles that I have fought as an adult (eg the trauma of losing two babies) have been much easier to deal with.  Yes - excruciatingly painful - but as an adult, I am more resilient.  I don't think I learned that at school though - the mental/ emotional scars I bear from my school years seem so much harder to heal.   In a recent report we learned that bullied children are still affected at age 50... how come they didn't learn resilience then?  Could it be that the argument is flawed?

Why would I want to knowingly expose my cherished little ones to nastiness when I know they are not equipped to handle it?  But then, I'm not an advocate of teaching a child to swim by "throwing them in at the deep end" either.  I do not advocate wrapping your child in cotton wool, tempting though it is to a ferociously protective mama bear... they need to learn, they need to engage with the world - and yes, that can be uncomfortable or painful at times - but I refuse to send them off to that environment and leave them to it.

The other day Eldest and a couple of his friends were playing in a wooded area near the playpark where I was with his brothers.  I couldn't see him, but I trust him.  After we got home Eldest told me that some girls (about his age) had gone up to him and his friends, swearing at them, calling them names and taunting them. Eldest and his friends handled it fine, but I could tell he was puzzled by why anyone would do that.  He was most shocked by the fact that the girls used "the F-word" in front of the 7yo sister of one of Eldest's friends, which I think speaks volumes about his character.  I couldn't say much in answer to him really - I still don't understand why people act like that - so we decided that they must be fairly unhappy sort of people, and that his walking away from a senseless fight is a wise thing to do.

Is Eldest learning resilience from being exposed to that sort of hostility?  No - he's learning it from growing up in a house where he is accepted for who he is.  Am I glad he was exposed to it?  Of course not, but unfortunately he will meet others like that in life, and needs to learn how to handle it - just not by being surrounded by it day in, day out.  I am proud of how he did handle it, and so grateful that it was a minor blip in his life, rather than something that he has to face all the time.

And of course, the hostility experienced by Eldest on this one occasion, or by myself at school - all pales into insignificance when we look at the horrifying reports on childhood stress levels (the UK score particularly badly here), children who take weapons to school - even at primary level, and most of all, bullying-related child suicide.

Apologies if you were expecting a well-crafted argument.  I feel like I have waffled: I have resolved nothing. Next time I am asked the same question, I dare say my response will still be a blank-faced "WHAAAAAAA?".  I have no answer, because I still don't understand the question.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Victory over the Kitchen Table!

It is done!  The mountain has been removed!  Look...!

And no, I didn't just move the junk somewhere else - I sorted through it all and dealt with it!  It feels so good...

Actually I really wasn't in the mood to take this on yesterday, but I was mummy-guilted into it.  I asked the boys first thing what they would like to do and Middle said he reeeeeeeally wanted to make bread.  We did have all the ingredients, but really didn't have space to do the kneading etc, so we agreed I would spend yesterday clearing space on the table so we could make bread today... and we did!

It also had the benefit that the boys were able to play with Playdoh as Youngest had been asking for a couple of days... 

Oh, and we planted some seeds too, from a kit that the boys were given for Easter...

Oops for forgetting to put newspaper down first - I guess we all just got too excited to have the table back in use!  Kitchen tables are just so handy, aren't they?!  Here's hoping it doesn't get that bad again for a l-o-n-g time!

Mind you, there are some things that can't be done on the kitchen table.  This afternoon we went to play with friends who recently moved into our road (a lovely family with three more boys - yay!)  We are all extremely happy about having some lovely fellow home educators so near.  Today's fun involved several rolls of tape, scissors and multiple large boxes from the move.  I mean BIG boxes - they certainly wouldn't fit on our little kitchen table.  Anyway, the boys had a fabulous time, creating giant minecraft villagers, cannons, pigs, tunnels, shops, cars... a properly creative time. Then  the paint came out... it was a good job we were in the garden!  Baths all round this evening.  Youngest in particular was covered head to toe in almost the same amount of paint as he used on his creation.  It was utterly lovely but VERY messy - and I was grateful that this was one activity that we hadn't attempted on our newly cleared kitchen table!

Monday, 21 April 2014

The Good Thing about Wobbles...

It doesn't take very long once you join the ranks of Home Educators before you hear the term "wobbling". In the case of HE it refers to the feeling of sudden insecurity about what you are doing now that you have sole responsibility for your child's education.  Are you going about it the right way?  What if they never get any exams?  What if they never learn any social skills?  Would they be better off in school?  Should you be more structured/ less structured/ not structured at all?  Oh look, there's a "should": they're never far away when talking about the wobbles!

I had a little wobble last night, but actually found it a positive experience - bear with me.  A few weeks ago on BBC1 there was a programme that I wanted to watch but couldn't at the time, so watched it on catch-up last night instead.  It was "When Joanna (Lumley) met Will I Am".  Fascinating.  I love stories where troubled kids (he had a rock solid family but his struggles with ADHD are fairly well known I think) go on to show the world the positives of their supposed educational/ behavioural handicap (eg in his case unstoppable energy and highly creative mind).  What intrigued me was the money he now pours into educating the impoverished children nearby, based on his conviction that it was his "good education" that saved him (along with his endlessly supportive family) from going the crime-laden route of many from his neighbourhood.  *wobble: "should my kids be in school getting a good education?"*  I went to bed feeling slightly unsettled, but not much - I really am convinced they are best off where they are - it's just sometimes these thoughts creep in, and if you don't resolve them they can turn into full-blown ugly doubts.

This morning I woke up and lay in bed listening to the happy sounds of the boys playing, and I let my mind explore the thoughts from last night's TV...

*Should my kids be in school getting a "good" education?  (the 'should' is already a give-away that I am about to answer a perceived opinion that is not my own)
No.  I only have to look at the difference between my children when they were in school, and my children now with two years of home educating under our belts... it is a no-brainer.  It would take a serious overhaul of the education system in this country, not to mention our own circumstances, for me to ever consider school as a viable option.

*But Will I Am got a "good" education at school and look at him now...!?
OK, this is my opinion as obviously I wasn't there at the time, but... from what I saw on the programme last night there appeared to be two obvious elements that made his school experience so positive.
1/  He had to travel an hour by bus each way to get to a "good" school that was outside of his neighbourhood.  I wonder how important it was to escape the "never achieve anything" mentality of the local ghetto-ised schools - so that he could go somewhere where the over-riding message was "you CAN achieve; you CAN make a change..."
2/  His favourite teacher's MO was to encourage Will (and all of the students apparently) to never stop asking questions - to each be their own educator.  Obviously in Will's case this reaped huge rewards.

*Can I really provide what my boys need for a "good" education? 
Yes.  Not in an arrogant way, but I have to be able to believe in myself, in my boys, in my Father God who provides all we need.
What do they really need for a good education?  Not so much a timetabled plan of lessons every day to give them a broad base of subjects studied (studying does not equal learning).  They need to hear "you CAN achieve; you CAN make a change".  They don't need me giving them endless information that they "should" know - they need the encouragement to keep asking questions; to be their own educator.  I can do that.

You know, that was such a productive wobble!  As the fabulous Ross Mountney often encourages: wobbles are not a bad thing, they just mean that you are conscious and reflective about what you are doing.  If you spot a wobble, take the time to reflect and ask yourself what exactly your concerns are - you may find the real issue is either someone else's opinion ('yah boo sucks' to that!), or just that you are reassessing your family's needs, which is healthy. And as my lovely friend and experienced home educator, Sally says, if you find yourself wobbling, just go back to your goals for Home Ed.  That's what I did - my little wobble took me full circle to our main aims in home educating the boys: to instil in them an enthusiasm for learning, and to give them the confidence to tackle whatever they wanted to do.  Yes we will study Maths & English etc - should they want to take exams I want them to be equipped to do so - but education is far, far more than that, and with all that in mind I totally believe that Home Education gives them the best start to life that they can have.

There's a famous quote by George Herbert:
"Storms make oaks take deeper root"
Now that we've been on our HE journey for a couple of years, we've weathered a few storms, and yes, I can say that each storm - each wobble - really does seem to have caused us to put down deeper roots.  We now have a stronger foundation to be able to weather further storms.

So how about that?  Next time you have a wobble, face it head-on - if you feel overwhelmed, by all means ask for input from the home educators near you or online - young trees do need propping up in storms before they have had chance to put down strong roots!  But don't be afraid of them: wobbles make for strong home-educators!

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Trying to Get a Grip

Another long gap between posts!  I would be sorry, except that this time it was for a lovely reason: we have been on a much needed holiday.  It was such a gift, such a soul-restoring blessing.  We spent a week in the beautiful Lake District, followed by a week with very good friends in a secluded spot on the west coast of stunning Scotland.  And now we're back, and I have to say, I feel so much better for it!

You may remember, from November last year onwards everything had been overshadowed by the debilitating and ongoing pain in my back, hip and leg.  From Christmas onwards it did improve, but sooo slowly, there were days when I questioned if I was deluding myself.  We couldn't go out much - I just had to pace myself and focus on the crucial parts of keeping the boys fed and looked after.  It wasn't much fun at all, but what can you do in scenarios like that?  You just have to try to stay positive, develop a bit of patience (not my strong point), and look to the future - but I won't lie, by the time we got to our holiday I was feeling pretty low, cooped indoors for too long at a time with frayed tempers and a neglected home - piles of mess everywhere... and still having to deal with pain, albeit much less so than before.  I saw the GP (again), and she finally referred me to physio (I am currently waiting for an appointment), and then we went away.

Oh it did me so much good.  All of us together in an uncluttered home (holiday cottages are always so easy to tidy, without a backlog of mess), and with hubby around there were no real limits on going out because he was more than happy to drive (still an issue for me, pain-wise).  We gazed in awe at majestic waterfalls, delighted in the new spring lambs 'boinging' through the fields, clambered over castle ruins (well, the boys clambered at least), enjoyed boat trips across panoramic lakes and to islands with snoozing seals, wandered through woodlands crammed with wild daffodils, rushing streams and tranquil pools, revelled in the wonderful mix of animals at wildlife parks and sea life centres, skimmed pebbles across the glassy surface of our local loch... and took lots and lots of photos!

And now we are home, not only do I have the joy of sorting my lovely photos into a book, helping to keep the memories alive, but I am generally feeling more positive again.  The house still has mess everywhere (it is clean, thanks to my lovely friend who cleans for me once a week, but she can't sort through our piles of 'stuff'), but I feel more able to get a grip - to get on top of things instead of feeling under it all.  In fact, I have a plan...

In our 'usual' Home Ed week, our only real structure is that the boys do MathsWhizz and English workbooks/ Reading Eggs on alternating days .  I like structure, it works for me - so in my head, if they do both subjects twice a week, that leaves a day free of structure - usually, but not always Friday.  So I am going to nominate one day a week to tackle one room.  This week it is the kitchen, as the clutter on the kitchen table gets in the way of doing art projects or science experiments.  I'm trying to not expect too much - I still have limitations, and I don't want to set my recovery back - but I can make a start.  If I think about the whole house it overwhelms me, but if I just think in terms of a room at a time it feels so much more approachable. One day a week also feels do-able, rather than feeling all the time like I have to choose between my main focus being on the boys or on the house (for some reason I can't do both - I try, but it never works).

So off I go, to tackle the kitchen (Hubby's home tomorrow, so I'm not doing it then).  I'll let you know how it goes!  Meanwhile, a few photos from my lovely, soul-restoring holiday...