Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Knowing When to Hit Pause

So this morning I kind of crashed.  Eldest and I were supposed to be looking at a Geography past paper, Middle and Youngest were supposed to be practicing some handwriting, and the house was a mess. The puppy was going crazy and my stress levels were rocketing.  All I could think was 'I need a day off', followed by 'But I can't - Eldest needs to keep up'.  I know that when we get that driven it is really bad for our mental, emotional and physical health, so I forced myself to stop despite the persistent mini-dictator in my head.

First I gave Middle and Youngest the day off, and asked them to just tidy their rooms before they watched TV or played games.  Then Eldest appeared.  He had been doing a lesson on MathsWhizz in his room and came to say his brothers were distracting him.  I hugged him and asked if he'd like a day off - his shoulders relaxed and he looked so relieved: a rest was definitely in order.  I played with the puppy until he was worn out (thankfully it doesn't take long), and then got to work on my own agenda.

My lovely friends on Facebook all agreed that I should have a day off (I can always rely on them to be supportive!) but although they all suggested various forms of relaxation (tea, alcohol, TV, book etc), I decided I needed to catch up on some housework first.  NOT my favourite pastime at all, but if my house is a mess it can really affect my mood.  I can cope with a fair amount of mess - I have kids after all - but I was getting to the point of feeling overwhelmed by all the jobs that I'd been meaning to tackle for ages but never getting time.  So first I hit the front room and cleared all the junk-attracting surfaces, then the hall and some boxes that had been staring at me since we moved in - then the utility room which has just been gathering homeless junk.  It wasn't exactly a rest, but man, did it feel good!  I did make sure I got a couple of rests in between rooms as well, but as my fatigue was more mental than physical, that wasn't really the issue!

The thing I realised is that the GCSE studies are a long-term commitment that we are just beginning, and yesterday we were reminded that the end is a pretty long way off!  It can feel a bit discouraging to hit a bump like yesterday's, even though I am confident we will get there over time.  It just felt so positive to tackle the niggling practical jobs that had been lurking for ages but were lower priority than Eldest's studies. Being able to complete a few short-term achievements, however menial, just helped me mentally to feel more 'can do' about other long-term commitments, such as Geography exams etc. So now I feel utterly ready to get back to some GCSE studies etc tomorrow - with my house looking more ordered, my head feels less cluttered too, and ready to focus again. And with Eldest having had a surprise rest-day I'm hoping tomorrow will be smoother sailing all round...

Monday, 26 September 2016

Learning to be Tested

We hit a bit of a stumbling block on our IGCSE journey this morning.  So far Eldest and I have been reading through the the course text book together and making sure we understand the content.  We started off making notes as we read, but Eldest wasn't keen (it interrupted the flow too much), and when we realised there were re-cap type questions at the end of each chapter, we ditched the note-taking in favour of whizzing through the chapters and then taking time over the questions.

The problem we have hit now is that on Friday I was out with Middle and Youngest at Forest School, leaving Eldest to answer the questions by himself. When we went through his written answers this morning I saw that the biggest issue (as I previously suspected) is not whether he has the knowledge and understanding, but whether he knows how to convey that understanding in an answer to a question. Learning for the love of learning has always been our HE mantra, and as such it has been utterly fulfilling, but learning for the sake of being tested is a very different skill, and that is the hurdle before us now.

As I read his answers and explained that two-word answers etc would not get him the necessary points in an exam, he became very discouraged and said GCSEs are boring and he doesn't want to do it.  My heart totally went out to him - it's such a massive learning curve going from a mostly autonomous rich style of education to a prescriptive and narrow learning-to-pass-a-test style. He's right: it is boring, and I'm struggling to make it less so for him.  I posted a question online to those who have gone before, asking them how they managed this, and was reassured that it is all par for the course.  Eldest isn't the only learner here: I am having to grow and develop in confidence too; we are both IGCSE novices together, so I'm not fazed by the journey being a bit bumpy - it's just a bit tougher on him, bless him.

Anyway, we will get there - any journey worth taking has obstacles to overcome, and Eldest is not on his own in this.  He does see the need for taking GCSEs, so we just needed to reboot.  I suggested we press pause on the studying for the next few days, and print off a past paper to have a go at. Once he has done it we will look at the answer guide so we can get a better idea of what the examiners are after. We will get there, and meanwhile he is learning a valuable lesson in overcoming discouragement...

Tuesday, 6 September 2016


It feels like we've been gearing up to IGCSEs for ages.  And in one sense, you could say that we have been doing so since we started our Home Ed journey 4 1/2 years ago.  But I've definitely been growing more aware of the issues in the last year or so.  When I first blogged about it specifically, I admitted how intimidating it all was.  Not just because the state system makes them feel like the be-all and end-all of our kids' initial education, but it's true that these are significant exams, and for a home educator they can be pretty costly.  And more than that, it can feel like a minefield to get your head around the 'how to' of it all.  So as I am at the entry point of actually embarking on our studies I thought I would blog about what I have learned so far, before it all becomes familiar and I forget that I used to not know it.  So for a beginner, this is what the process has looked like for us so far.

A/ Getting an idea of future direction (and therefore potential exam requirements).
I didn't want to push Eldest into sitting exams for the sake of it as there are many exam-free paths to various occupations, so we needed an idea of what he wants to do.  The only HEors I know personally whose children have sat exams so far have been those who knew exactly what career path they wanted to follow so exam choices were easy for them.  It hasn't been that easy for us. Eldest has always been drawn to a broad area but within that area he does not know what precise job, so we did not know which specific exams to sit.  In the end we decided that as he has an interest in conservation - more specifically marine biology - it seemed to make sense that he may get a better paid job in the field with qualifications under his belt.  So in the hope that he will find his path becoming more clearer in time, we chose to pursue the related GCSE subjects of Geography and Biology - along with Maths and English which are required for most fields.

B/ Finding a local exam centre that will accept external candidates.
This felt like a huge task to me.  I am not a fan of talking on the phone anyway, and the thought of calling places to discuss something I don't really understand was quite daunting.  Thankfully, as with most places in the UK, there is a thriving Home Ed community in my locality, and when I asked on Facebook if anyone knew of any likely centres nearby, I was given a few recommendations.  I called those centres and I now have two to choose from, one of which is about a 20 minute drive away (Norton College), and one which is further but highly recommended by all who use it (Tutors & Exams, Coventry).  I don't need to book Eldest in yet (see point F) but it's good to know both centres are available.

C/ Finding which board of exams to use.
Some Home Educators recommend taking this as step B, and then choosing the exam centre according to whether they offer exams from your preferred exam board.  However, although I had a slight preference towards CIE, I did not see enough difference between them and Edexcel to really care, whereas proximity of exam centre is a bigger deal for us as health issues limit the distance I can comfortably drive.  Both Norton and Coventry use Edexcel, so that is the one we are using.

D/ Finding the right study materials to buy.
This was more complicated than I expected.  There are so many online that it's hard to know what you're looking for.  Again though, veteran home educators are so generous with their hard-earned knowledge, and Facebook makes it so easy to ask questions of them.  I discovered that the materials would change depending on whether we wanted to sit the exams in 2017 or 2018 as the coursework is changing in between.  We have decided to attempt Geography and Biology in one year (Eldest's favourite subjects), and Maths and English in two years - Maths because he still has a fair amount of ground to cover, and English because we expect that to be the hardest for him.  We are hoping he will learn essential exam skills to help in the harder subjects while studying the easier ones.  With the advice from those online and local friends, I tracked down the right coursebooks for Geography and Biology so he could get started asap.  I will be buying the Maths and English ones soon but want to get into the groove with the others first.
*UPDATE: there has been some confusion over the dates of the new Edexcel exam syllabuses.  I turned to my FB posse and yet again a wonderful lady posted a link to a page with all the details here.  Home Ed'ors past and present totally rock!

E/ Dividing the material into time available.
This is where basic arithmetic skills and a cool head help.  My mind was a little frazzled and I was not fully confident that I was doing it all right, so I was really thankful for an experienced friend who was happy for me to send her my workings out to check.  She had previously advised me to divide the year into months available before the exams, and then take two of them off to leave for revision at the end. There are 9 months until May (the first Geog exam), so we have 7 months of study available - basically, until the Easter holidays.  That makes two full terms.  I allowed six weeks per half term, which makes for 24 weeks of study (I know there are more weeks than that but am allowing a good margin for contingencies).  Twenty-four weeks of five days is 120 days.
Now, there are 265 pages in the Geography study book.  Divided into 120 days is 2.2 pages per day - or divided into 24 weeks makes about 11 pages per week.
There are 255 pages in the Biology book.  So again, we will be studying 2-3 pages per day or 11 pages per week.

F/ Make a note of the deadline for exam application.
For Eldest to sit the two exams in Summer next year, I don't need to book him in to the exam centre until the beginning of 2017 (by February).  I considered booking him in now, but I value having a whole term to get an idea of how well he is coping with the studies.  So the date is on the calendar.  Applying is definitely part of the process, but as long as I know the date, I don't need to do anything else about that practical bit for now.

HOW we actually study is going to take time to work out as we do it and gain the hands-on experience, but my wonderful friend advised reading through the material together and answering questions, plus discussing and thinking of real life examples to put it into context, and that is what we have started. Eldest has also started with writing a few sparse notes on the key points as we go. I am sure there will be follow-up posts on the subject as we work it out, but for now I am feeling much less daunted by the task ahead, and having leafed through the course books I am reassured that it's nothing we can't handle together.  You could almost say it's exciting!  Or if that's overstating it, at least it's not as terrifying as I thought when I had no clue what was involved. Either way, I'm kind of looking forward to the process now!

Monday, 5 September 2016

New Season

A group that I belong to were sharing our Home Ed styles recently, and I stated that my family's style is very seasonal: swinging between unschooling and semi-structure.  This last school year the boys were largely unschooled: moving house twice within seven months was pretty disruptive, and our brief spurts of structured activities were overtaken by the mundane business of house-hunting, box-packing, form-signing etc.  Over the summer holidays we all began talking about and planning what was coming next, and we have moved naturally into a season of semi-structure, for however long it lasts.

Well, I don't know how long it will last with Middle and Youngest, but I am pretty confident that Eldest's season of structure will last up to 2 years now, as we have embarked on his GCSE studies - I will blog about that separately soon, but today we sat down together with his Biology and Geography textbooks, and I have to say, studying it together was just so straightforward and easy.  I think I made it a much bigger deal than it really is: we are used to enjoying learning new things together, and this doesnt have to be any different, other than the few hours of exams at the end of it all!

So that was a lovely time with Eldest, feeling so proud of him as he breezed through it and made it fun.  My biggest challenge of the morning was splitting my time between him and the younger two, as they both got stuck on MathsWhizz.  Previously they have tended to get on with their own thing, needing no input, and they very rarely got stuck at the same time, but today just seemed to be that day.  Timing could have been better, but hey ho!

After they finished Maths, and Eldest was occupied with copying out diagrams, we did a little art project (courtesy of Deep Space Sparkle) inspired by a book they like, called 'Are You Blue Dog's Friend', based on the art of George Rodrigue.  It felt really lovely to get back to 'arty farty' as they call it.  I get such a thrill out of them wanting to do art projects, with nobody telling them they are doing it 'wrong'.  It was fun, and I loved having a go alongside them too.

by Youngest

by Middle

by Mummy

After that it was almost time for lunch but the boys had asked if we could do cocktails first.  It's something we did over a year ago, when I gave the boys a selection of fruit juices and they played at mixing them together to see which tasted the best.  I bought some straws with cocktail umbrellas attached (the most essential element of the whole game - it wouldn't be half the fun without them) and several cartons of juice.  This morning before the boys got mixing I set them up a challenge: poured juice into several glasses/cups for them to take a sip from each and see if they could work out what fruits were in the juice.  Even Daddy joined in.  They all guessed some but nobody guessed them all.  I was most pleased that the power of the cocktail umbrella helped Youngest (who will not eat any recognisable fruit and veg) to try a sip from every cup and was very positive (unlike Eldest and Daddy who pulled 'yuck' faces and declared one or two to be disgusting!).  

Was that a structured activity?  Maybe - it did require some planning and preparation, but the boys asked to do it, so it was autonomous too.  It's not important - I have made peace with the fact that we will never fit into any labelled style of HE (other than my own self-declared label of 'seasonal'), and we are just enjoying the enthusiasm and fresh feeling that comes with a new season of learning - until the next one, that is!