Thursday, May 29, 2008

Happy birthday, sweet 16

Well, 16 years ago today, I gave birth to my first beautiful baby daughter.

How did she get from that to this?

Let me show you how.

First, she developed her exquisite taste in clothes..

Oops, sorry - wrong one! Not that exquisite taste in clothes! This one ;-)

She always was a tiara girl. When she'd grown out of the frilly hats :-) (I'm smiling, but I'll be in trouble when she sees some of these..)

Although she had to experiment a little bit first, until she got it right:

Then she acquired her ladylike table manners:

Her elegant deportment:

And her sweet, dulcet tones:

Not to mention some luxurious bathing habits she picked up along the way:

Until eventually, someone was kind enough to name their shop after her:

And that's it. The world has now survived 16 whole years full of crazy, classy, weird and wonderful Zaraness and I think it's a better place for it.

Here she is. Happy birthday Zara!

(No, I'm not taking out the one with the hat. It was a beautiful hat! Well, you liked it at the time. Well, I didn't hear you complaining. The frills were very pretty! In fact, I've seen one like it recently that I thought I might buy for you.. Oh! There seems to be a strange, murderous look in your eye! I wonder why..)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Living and learning

"You live and learn." It's a trite statement, mentioned often in conversation (certainly here in Yorkshire), but it often strikes me as being much more than that. Because what we do here isn't really deliberate learning in artificially contrived situations - it's just living. And the educating I do is just normal, attentive parenting.

We're people who like to learn - who doesn't? - so the house has many books, computers, radios, TVs, educational toys and so forth, but even if it didn't we do live on planet Earth which itself presents a full-time learning resource. We ask questions all the time, and we look for answers. And in so doing, we live and we learn - each in the method that best suits them, at their own pace. The very best "efficient full-time education suitable to their age, ability and aptitude, and to any special educational needs they may have," to quote the 1996 Education Act (as I just did in a letter to my MP.)

It's only comparatively recently that we humans have been trying to formally separate living from learning - an experiment which has yielded some disastrous results. Somehow, when you impose on a person's natural (and invariably educational) activities the requirement to stop doing that and start learning instead, the spark of their innate curiosity is extinguished. Like many things, when you draw attention to an automatic process and give it a name, a timeslot and compulsion in all its usual stick-and-carrot forms, you can't help but to damage the process. The more you force, the more you damage.

Meng, the 4th hexagram of the I Ching, includes the words: "It is not I who seek the young fool. The young fool seeks me," and this explains the need for students to seek their own teachers when the time is right for them to do so, rather than the other way around - or, worse, for both to be compelled to seek one another according to external diktats.

In our house we all live and learn, all the time. The baby perhaps learns the fastest - and who sits down to teach babies what they need to know? Nobody. She explores, watches, mimics, experiments and draws her own conclusions by trial and error. She can't ask questions yet and the world - as much as she can access of it - is her classroom. The other five of us learn all the time too, at varying paces according to what we're doing. It's no faster or slower or more or less intense for the two of us who are of compulsory education age than it is for the rest of us.

It's a natural parental urge to want to "prepare the children for life in modern civilised society, and to enable them to achieve their full potential." (Harrison & Harrison v Stevenson) and to ensure that they "equip a child for life within the community of which he is a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole, as long as it does not foreclose the child’s options in later years to adopt some other form of life if he wishes to do so". (Mr Justice Woolf, R v Secretary of State for Education and Science, ex parte Talmud Torah Machzikei Hadass School Trust). If we need to be legally compelled to do this, this is an indication that something's gone seriously wrong in society.

When my child asks a question or brings a book to read, how could I not stop what I was doing and attend to their needs? I could no more do that than I could refuse to feed them when they're hungry or comfort them when they're distressed. These are natural instincts, as inevitable as giving birth is after the pregnancy and I struggle to understand what could thwart them enough to necessitate laws to make them compulsory.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

What *do* we do?

Some new home educating friends of ours who use much more 'schooly' methods of educating were recently asking what we actually did in our home education. I don't think they meant the question as a criticism - I think they were genuinely curious to find out how it happens when you don't impose a learning regime or stick rigidly to prescribed curricula in sets of workbooks.

Sensing that a wiffly: "Oh, I just follow their interests.." wasn't going to suffice for a reply on this occasion, I tried to answer in a way that would make sense to someone for whom academic learning (the three Rs) was the most important sort.

Here's roughly what I said: "Someone gave her an old Letterland machine and some books last year and she loved them. She learned the alphabet that way, by bringing me the book to read to her hundreds of times, and playing with the machine almost non-stop for weeks.

"Then she dropped Letterland, but remembered the letter sounds. Now she wants to 'learn to read' when I'm reading to myself - newspapers, books, anything. She comes and asks to practice trying to read it and we choose a headline, a chapter title or something else that stands out from the rest of the text and she reads it. Every time she asks, she needs less input from me, depending on the complexity of the word."

[I never expected her to learn to read like that. All the other autonomously educated children we know learned to read almost by osmosis as older children and I thought Lyddie would be the same. But she's a child who likes order and structure, and she wanted to learn phonetically, so I couldn't exactly have stopped her, even though it seems preposterous to many unschoolers.]

"She writes a lot. She can write her own name, and the names of everyone who lives here. She will have a go at writing lots of other words and if they sound like they are spelled, she gets them right, otherwise she spells them as they sound, so I can read what she's writing. She'll write whole sentences sometimes, in notes to people for example. She just forgets to put spaces between the words sometimes.

"In number work, she goes in phases. Three months ago, she was crazy for 'adds', and now it's 'takeaways'. She wants to do them on the blackboard, on whiteboards, on paper and in books. And she plays with the abacus too, making number patterns."

It's not like she just plays on her computer all the time, though when she does she's reading the screen, typing and working out money too. It's enough, isn't it? She really does seem to be learning all the time, as the saying goes.

The older end of our home ed is less easy to quantify, these days. Everyone invariably wants to know about qualifications. Everyone except the young people in question, that is, who aren't remotely interested in taking any exams. And I will not, after years of facilitating their interests, suddenly start laying the law down about GCSEs, A levels or degree courses. Apart from the fact that it's obviously their decision, not mine, I wouldn't want to channel them into the kinds of careers that might result from those qualifications, in case it wasn't right for them.

They knew when they were children what they wanted to do, and they know now they're young adults and nearly-adults.

Of course they're still learning. It never stops, does it? Tom's teaching himself how to wire circuit boards and he and I are trying to work out why the earth's gravity varies, depending on where you happen to be on it, amongst a lot of other things. I know less about what the other two are learning, but I know from what they say in conversation that they are doing.

There's a thing, in the teenage years, about being intrinsically ok, that's very important. Far more important than schoolwork, exams and qualifications. When I was a teenager I didn't fit that category of being intrinsically ok and nor did most of my peers. We were lost souls - drifting, harrassed, hounded through our days by 'must do this's and 'got to do that's. The pressure was immense, and none of the adults seemed to be interested in us as people.

But one or two of my acquaintances stood out from the crowd as being ok. Mentally healthy. Happy in their skin. I made it my business, planning my future family as I was even then, to find out why. What was different about them? So I got myself invited to their houses for tea and was amazed at what I witnessed. Their parents liked them! And trusted them! They seemed pleased to see them when they walked in the door and didn't ignore them, or sneer or snarl or present them with a list of jobs to do or pressures to pile on. This was most unusual - I'd been to everyone's houses for tea and most did not get a happy parental greeting like this.

The 'ok' people in our crowd were popular, didn't get addicted to things and didn't need to do anything extreme - or anything at all - to get noticed. They didn't even have to cultivate a certain image: they were just themselves. I quickly worked out that this was what I wanted for my children more than anything else and have worked towards it since the day they were born. It means accepting them for who they are, being happy with their decisions and trusting them to make good ones, or at least to learn from their own mistakes.

As a plan, it seems to have worked and I'm pretty sure my teenaged children are all 'ok' people. One of them went to look at university and decided against it in the end. He says he doesn't want the debt and he certainly doesn't want to spend four years with staff and students as unenthusiastic as the ones he met there. Another went to look at college, which experience put him off institutionalised learning even if his early years at school hadn't already.

So no, they're not working towards exams at the moment. And no, I'm not worried about that. They'll do whatever they need to do, whenever they need to do it.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Language - and Bo Den

Lyddie has just started being aware of the existence of other countries and languages. This is something else I love about home educating - the pleasure and privilege of actually being there to witness my children's minds developing and opening up to encompass new ideas. Two months ago she had no conception of a place that wasn't like this place, where people might do things differently. But right now, she wants to know all about such places.

"How do they talk? Show me - you do it." LOL, this is not easy. Have you ever tried demonstrating a language you don't speak? I try to remember snatches of the sound of them, to give her some kind of flavour, but ideally we need a website that will play an excerpt of each one. (Suggestions welcome!)

Meanwhile, the baby is learning about colours. She knows they're all different and points to each one in turn, saying her own version of its name. The only thing is (language again) that she seems to think they're all called "Bo Den". Sounds are "Bo Day", possibly springing from bird song, described to her by an older sister as "Birdy", but colours are all "Bo Den".

There might have been a logical process involved in this, I realise, but while she has no more language to explain I can only take it at face value and accept that as far as she's concerned, Bo Den and Bo Day are perfectly adequate descriptions of all colours and all sounds respectively. And by this time next week, they might well be called something completely different anyway.