Thursday, 31 March 2016

Holiday from Autonomy

Since my wobble-inspired "back-off" revelation back at the beginning of Feb, the boys and I have dutifully been doing Not Very Much by way of structured HE activity other than a small amount of Maths Whizz and Literacy Planet curricula.  As mentioned in the other day's post (here), they have still been growing and learning autonomously, and I have deliberately focused on other things to allow my subconscious mind to get used to the idea of rejecting the exam mindset and being able to take a fresh look at Eldest's learning needs without preconceptions.  I am still deschooling.  It's proving a stubborn mindset to shift, but I am determined.  So I have had little to blog about as the boys have been very much in charge of their own learning and I have forced myself to leave them to it.

However this week things shifted a little.  We suddenly felt ready for a bit of structure, and I looked at our calendar and could see that we had a window of two fairly uneventful weeks before lovely friends come to visit and our life gets more distracting again.  What a lovely opportunity to enjoy a few parent-led fun activities without fully committing to our usual lightly-structured style (there's nothing wrong with that in itself - I am just very wary of slipping back into the old way of thinking still and need to be sure that the exam mindset is well and truly exorcised before re-embracing anyother structure)

So it turns out that whereas we used to roughly run alongside school terms and holidays just because it usually suits us that way, we have now done a complete reversal and have had almost no structure for most of the last term but now that schoolkids are on holiday for a couple of weeks, we are having a sort of holiday from autonomy with two weeks of planned fun.  Following our reverse holiday we will then go back to no structure in time to enjoy the empty parks and attractions!

We enjoyed our nature-walk and creative writing, and I sat with the boys yesterday and we wrote a list of the 'learning-type' things we would like to do over the next fortnight. It was a lovely list and is going to keep us busy, though as with our usual plans it is all subject to change!

Our ideas included but are not limited to...

Poetry Picnic (like Poetry Teatime, but earlier in the day!)
Board game
Creative Writing
STEM challenge (using the Dyson challenge cards or making up our own)
'Arty-farty' project
Trip to Park
Baking/ Cooking
PC/ ipad app challenge
Nature walk
Bible chapter
Book quiz
History story
Documentary-type TV/ Youtube programme

If we try to do each of those once a week, that gives us at least three items per day.  We've managed to get quite a few done this week (details to follow tomorrow hopefully) and are looking forward to having another go next week.  It's been lots of fun, not least because of the novelty factor and because we all had a say in what we wanted to do, so although it probably counts as parent-led (because I suggested making the list) and definitely counts as structured activity, it's still pretty autonomous.

I love the concept of having short structured activity breaks in between longer stretches of child-directed learning - it certainly flies in the face of the current trend of overloading the nation's children with lessons, tests, homework and even extra-curricular activities all crammed in with no space for them to just have unstructured fun.  It reminds me of an article I read earlier this week (here) explaining how simplifying childhood can have significant benefits for their mental health. The Home Ed lifestyle may not be for everyone, but when I think what an increasingly rare gift it is to be able to bless our children with the space and freedom to just be kids - I wouldn't swap it for anything!

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Nature-inspired Writing

This morning after Mathswhizz I really wanted to get us all out of the house, but wanted the boys to do something literacy-ish too, as I've been pondering on the subject for a while.  I have no worries re: their reading abilities as per yesterday's post, but was recently remembering the fun they had writing stories and poems last year, and thought it would be nice to give them a prompt again.  A friend had posted some springtime photos online and it inspired me to take the boys out for a walk through our neighbouring fields, specifically to prompt them with ideas for a bit of creative writing.  So that is what we did.  I shared the idea with them, and asked them to look out for things they could see, hear, smell and feel on the way.

Once we were outside they went into usual 'running-about-like-puppies' mode, so I pointed out some bursts of yellow daffodils dotted about the grassy fields, marshmallow-like clouds puffing across the sky, woodpigeons clattering out of the thickets as we walked past etc.  I didn't labour the point too much though - after all, the outdoors is to be freely enjoyed and I didn't want to turn our jolly jaunt into an onerous task.  The boys certainly enjoyed themselves, particularly Youngest who couldn't resist rolling down a hill and sliding in a patch of mud.  We were intending to visit our latest discovery of a little dingly dell complete with bridges over a stream and bluebells getting ready to flower, but as we entered the wood we discovered the path downhill was covered with a steady stream of water oozing out of the hillside...

(the downhill slope into the woods - highest point where we were standing is confusingly at the bottom of the photo)

As we were only wearing trainers we changed plan and walked to the next patch of woodland a bit further on, inside a sort of pit inside the field. At the bottom of the pit was another little stream, and Middle decided that he wanted to try to build a dam, as inspired by the "50 things to do before you are 11 3/4" booklet that he was given at a National Trust property over Easter.  He and Youngest had a few attempts, with Eldest helping, and found it trickier than they expected, but lots of fun...

trying to use rocks to dam the stream

When we got home Middle and Youngest decided to write a poem each, and Eldest chose to write a descriptive piece of prose.  It was soon lunchtime though, and as Eldest was finding it tricky to get started and Middle had got stuck halfway through, I shared a famous poem with them over lunch: Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud".  It helped that we had visited Acorn Bank in Cumbria a couple of years earlier (one of the places where Wordsworth was said to have been inspired to write the poem), so I found our photos from that holiday and showed them to the boys before reading the poem...

Middle was clearly inspired by Wordsworth's poem and rewrote the first half of his own poem accordingly. Eldest was still struggling so I suggested that he just start by describing the journey as we left our house, and take it from there - once he got started he came up with a very descriptive piece. Youngest wrote his own poem on the PC.  It really made me smile, but then I asked if he could have a go at one that was a bit longer too - he dictated that one to me after a couple of prompts asking him what we saw or did.

We all love being outdoors and after a false start or two, the boys enjoyed writing their pieces too - that was one lovely morning!

Spring (#1) by Youngest
Aaah I love it owt dors evry thing abot it
The end

Spring (#2) by Youngest
Daffodils dancing in the breeze
Building a dam in the forest stream
Birds shooting like a torpedo above the trees
And buds growing on twigs
Dog poo in a big dark pit near a field near a road - and rabbit poo too.

The end 

Spring by Middle
I went for a walk in Spring
I was lonely with droopy flowers near me
Also quite chilly and I could feel my heart frozen
with loneliness
And I could feel a strange feeling
A sort of feeling that you have when you're really happy
And the flowers around me were now yellow, yes I'm happy now
and I could feel the gusts of wind in my face
and a sea of grass moving like waves
I wished it never ended.

The Walk near our House by Eldest
Next to our house there is a path, and if you follow that path you wil find yourself in the lushest of green fields.  The sweet song of birds fills the air.  The glare of the forest next door seems to draw you in with its hypnotic ways.  The twists and turns of this wooded labyrinth tries to keep you in to enjoy its beauty even more.  At the end of such a maze it opens out, almost in relief, to the fields of which you came, with rabbits looking as if to say "welcome back" before darting off in some sort of hurry.  So do not forget of this mystical site beyond the path next to our house.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Four Years Later: what Home Ed means to us

We've been home educating for four years!  It's odd how sometimes it feels like our years in school were another lifetime away, but yet I still feel like we're only just beginning and finding out our options etc.  Obviously we are still learning and adapting, which is exactly as it should be given that we are all growing, and change is an essential part of healthy development.  There are very few negatives to Home Ed, but I think the only one that affects us here at all is how overwhelming it can feel when you are 'on duty' 24/7.   We learn ways to manage though, and it's a tiny price to pay for my child(ren)'s wellbeing, not least because for the vast majority of the time we have a whole lot of fun together.

The responsibility definitely feels heaviest when you don't know what the future holds, but that is not so different to parents of school kids: my friends with children in school still worry about their offspring's happiness and success, plus they have all the other concerns about increasing school hours, forced academisation (if that is a word), excessive and meaningless testing, the negative social issues of bullying and peer pressure, and children with special needs having those needs painfully unmet.  My odd little wobble certainly pales into insignificance faced with the weight of those burdens.

So this year I have been forcing myself to ease off the pressure particularly for Eldest as he is at the age when his peers in school are choosing their GCSE options.  I was struggling under the subconscious pressure that it was putting on us until the issue rose to the surface of my consciousness and I realised I had a whole new level of deschooling to go through.  Several weeks later and I'm still not deschooled enough, but happily, through the advice and wisdom of HE veterans such as Ross Mountney I have been able to give myself a stern talking-to, and I am still successfully camping in "back-off" zone.

As all good unschoolers will know, that does not mean the boys have not been learning.  The things they talk to me about out-of-the-blue regularly amaze me with the range of their knowledge and interests.  Structure-wise they are still continuing with MathsWhizz because they enjoy it, and Literacy Planet for the same reason - other than that, it is all led by their own interest.  Incidentally I am not totally happy with Literacy Planet as structured learning because I find it hard to monitor what they are doing, but until such times as I find a new literacy program that we all enjoy and I feel the need to bring some structure back in, I'm happy for them to keep at it.

The other day I stumbled across an app that claims to measure reading age.  Although I'm not a fan of comparison based testing, it seemed innocuous enough, and was presented as a game of levels (the lochness monster collecting her eggs, one at each level), so I let the boys have a go.  Eldest (almost 14) showed a reading age of 15 1/2 (as high as the test goes), Youngest (age 7) took the test in two stages as he got bored half way through - his reading age came out as 8 1/2.  Middle  (aged 10) came out as having a reading age of 15!  This from my boy who left school in Year 1!  He wanted to keep going until he collected the last egg (and so finally scored 15 1/2) which was fine, but his first and most accurate result of 15 was still very encouraging to him.

It was a fairly short test and pretty one-dimensional, but it was a positive experience for all, and reminded me of the sheer value in surrounding the boys with books and letting them just choose what they want to read.  My nice tidy bookshelves that I once arranged by subject now exist only in my imagination: in real life our books seem to have a life of their own and are always moving, disordered and scattered throughout the house.  I choose to rejoice in this as it shows my boys are reading, even if I don't always notice them doing so (I am actually not keen for the time when my books stay where I put them).  The Reading Age test results only really confirmed what I already knew: my boys enjoy reading, on a whole range of subjects, both fiction and factual - and by doing so they are learning and growing beyond measure.  The test app was simple and encouraging, but the love of reading and learning as evidenced by the books left all over the house... that's our Home Ed success right there!

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Easiest Ever Hidden-Veg Pasta Sauce

OK so I know this is a Home Education blog, but I just made this and it went down really well - it couldn't have been easier either!  It may not have anything obvious to do with education, but as one of my kids is neo-phobic when it comes to food, especially vegetables which he will not eat in any recognisable form, anything that helps them to eat decent food has to be a winner!  So I'm posting it here for my own reference & for anyone else who could use an insultingly easy recipe

Apologies for the lack of drool-inducing professional pics, but this isn't a food blog & I wasn't expecting to do a post on it until after it was eaten (not a single complaint heard!)  I figure any other mums desperate to get veg into their kids won't care about the uninspiring single photo!

NB These particular frozen veg bags are Sainsburys’ own brand.  I get nothing for recommending their product, it's just where I personally shop out of preference, so those are the ingredients I had in stock when I was looking for a really easy meal this evening.  Other supermarkets may stock similar products

 (Cook in bulk, use some and freeze the rest for future use)

Put a good slosh (about 4 tbps) of olive oil into a very large pan,
Add 2 x 500g bags of  frozen chargrilled mediterranean vegetables

Gently heat, stirring often, until soft & heated through.

Add 3 x 390g cartons of chopped tomatoes, 
half a 200g tube of tomato puree, 
1 tsp garlic salt* and 
1 tbsp herbes de provence*.
(*I didn't measure, just added to taste - measurements given are my best guess at how much I used)

Stir together and bring to boil.  Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
If it starts to stick you can add a little boiling water  When cooked, blend into a smooth sauce & use as much as you need (we use about a quarter of it at a time), then freeze the rest as a blessing to your future busy self.

We use this as pasta sauce on its own, or with minced beef for lasagne/ spag bol, or even pizza sauce.
Freeze in tubs, sauce bags, or even little cubes - it can be microwaved to defrost, if you forget to get it out the night before (Mums everywhere will surely understand).

the left over servings, ready to freeze... 
(I did say it was an uninspiring pic!)

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Shared Journalling

Amidst all the chaos of our current season: house-hunting, book-writing, infection-fighting, visitor-planning, job-searching (hubby), teen-education-considering and general home-educating, life has become very random and busy.  In such times it is easy to become stressed and lacking in patience, and overlook the children who are looking to us for reassurance while they try to deal with the chaos too.

I've been reminding myself to slow down and make sure I am getting decent time with them too, in between logging on to estate agents' websites and rewriting troublesome chapters - and on the whole this consciousness has been helping, thankfully.  Then the other day I noticed a post online about shared journals.  I have seen these before, usually aimed at mothers of tween girls (example here), and thought in passing how lovely it would be to have a daughter to do that sort of exercise with, then thought no more of it.  Well this time the post I saw was of a plain book with a very simple introduction (not at all gender-specific), and this time I thought, "I could do that with the boys"  I wasn't sure if they would be interested, but thought it was worth a shot, so I found three blank notebooks that we had bought once for a different project that never got started.  On the first page inside each book I wrote the date and name of one of the boys, and the following,

"Dear son, This is our journal.  You can write in it whenever you want, about whatever you want.  When you have written something that you want me to read, just leave it under my pillow, and I will write back. With lots of love from Mummy :) xxx  PS Tell me two things that you like about yourself"

Then I left the journal on top of each boy's pillow for them to find.  Their responses were beautiful. Each child (even my big teen) was really excited, and by bedtime each of them had written a message for me - with more messages to and from me in each journal since the first entry.  These journals are private and so obviously I respect their privacy and am not going to share what they wrote.  Suffice to say their replies have melted my heart and although each is very different in style and content, all of them are proving already to be strengthening our relationship and I am so very glad that I've done it.   We all have good relationships already, so I wasn't sure if this would be valuable, but there is something about writing that is so intimate, it really helps them to open up about the issues that aren't always spoken out loud, as well as sharing beautiful little moments and private jokes too.

Incidentally, I don't think it needs to be said, but just in case... although this could be considered to be an exercise in handwriting/ composition, for me it is all about the relationship-building.  I do not correct spelling or grammar or anything else - merely enjoy them communicating with me, and reply in kind.  I don't know how long the shared journalling will continue, but for now it is a huge blessing that I can't recommend enough, so I had to share here!

PS Just as I finished this post and headed over to Facebook to share, I spotted an article on the therapeutic benefits of letter-writing in suicidal people.  Now my kids are not suicidal, and I am no trained psych. expert, but there are obviously massive benefits to mental health when written communication is shared.  I just liked the timing of the article, so sharing it here too!