Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008, a year in blog posts

There are some moments in time that are complete one-offs. What am I talking about? They're all complete one-offs. But some are especially labelled as such, like the Last Day of a Year.

This is it. No more 2008. Our very last chance to say, type, read, write, do, see, be.. anything in 2008.

This kind of thinking used to blow me away when I was younger. (Yes, I was born in the 60s, so what do you expect? Hippy DNA..) But I find, quite surprisingly, that they matter less to me as I get older and the time passes more quickly so that each year blends into the others in my memory and anyway, it's only a random chance date on a calender, isn't it? Could be any day. I've been feeling like it's already next year since the Solstice.

A few special *moment in time* flashes of memory from my life still remain with me:

  • Being a child of about 9 years, walking on my own through an arch of trees in neighbouring woodland (now houses), catching the sunlight glinting on the leaves and thinking: "I'll remember this moment for the rest of my life."

  • New Year's Eve at the Colony Club in the Falkland Islands, 1986. I was in tears, because it didn't feel right. Eighteen years old and on the cusp of something, but I didn't know what.

  • Getting married, 1988, and thinking: "I shouldn't be doing this.."

Ah, there are lots more. Too many to mention. Births of children, meeting certain people.. deaths, new houses, changes.. And this is the end of a year, not a lifetime. So I'll leave it right there and get onto the main reason for this blog post: looking back at 2008. I've got the blog hub now, and this post might be more suitably placed elsewhere, but I've come back 'home' with it instead, to the blog I made first and have kept all along, with a few glitches, since November 2004.

The start of a new year is for looking forwards, in my opinion. The end of an old year is for looking back. So, here goes:


January 2008

Ohh, the boys caught me out in conversation, yet again! That pronunciation problem has sorted itself out now. She's realised with reading and writing where she was getting her sounds mixed up. Yeah, we loved The Night Garden.. still do, and home ed meetings, although those have been on hold since June due to some very sloooow work being done on the room. We're getting it back next week though! Baby hormones! Blimey, I'm still ploughed under with those. Might be just emerging, sort of...


February 2008

The endless car and bathroom situation! The car is in the garage now, funnily enough, being fixed again. It's limped along for most of the year, usually working, sometimes not. It has done quite well for us, on the whole. The bathroom took months, but has been sort-of-finished since about September, though I don't think they'll ever finish the sealing, or the edges of the floor tiles. And we launched our off-grid plans, and the new blog about those. Let's see what kind of silly timescale we had in mind for that, in February.. Oh, only "..hopefully sometime this year..". Well, we didn't manage that. But at least the project is still underway, albeit changed beyond all recognition now.

MARCH 2008

March 2008

We were doing duplo sums then, or MegaBlocks, as someone kindly corrected me. And singing the praises of the brilliant AHEd. I wrote a piece on Dyslexia and the boys were battling with the central heating system.

APRIL 2008

April 2008

I set up the blog hub, and not before time! I'd already got enough other blogs for things to get really confusing, even for me. The hub has worked really well, I think. I've been pleased with it, though I never did get the header to contain clickable links. Ah well, something to do for 2009. Educationally, it seems we had a month of determinedly not learning (and again) which nevertheless managed to involve an incredible amount of, well - learning! (Sorry Lyddie..) The economy started to get interesting round about then, and we were doing some good game-playing. (Lyddie's grown out of a lot of that sort of stuff now. She refused to play I Spy with me yesterday!)

MAY 2008

May 2008

A quiet month, blogwise, apart from Zara's 16th birthday, a letter to my MP and a ramble about educational theory. Oh and I planted up the old bathtub! It did very well, though is looking very sorry for itself now, of course. Except for the sage.

JUNE 2008

June 2008

This was when we started land clearing, with a vengeance. We also made dandelion coffee, cleared a bit more land, made a pudding from the Cosmic Supply Company, and cleared a bit more land. (We ended up actually clearing far too much land, in that most of the greenery grew right back, before we'd got around to digging out the roots and replanting with grass seeds. Lessons learned.. ) I also enjoyed responding to a lone parent consultation, thinking about (and discussing) the redefinition of language, liberating trees (wait, that's land-clearing, isn't it?) and generally writing about trees. And trying to identify them. Lyddie was doing loads of reading, we thought about rain, I did some solstice blog-sorting and Ali had a birthday. Oh yes, and we cleared enough land to finally get into the sheds! A very busy month.

JULY 2008

July 2008

- evidently didn't involve much blogging, possibly because the weather would have been good(?) but we were taking care of the soil and learning more about the I Ching and electricity. (I don't think I'll ever know enough about those two things.) I also blogged about the grid in our heads and the the abolition of Income Support, which is perhaps another grid. Arguably.


August 2008

- saw the discovery of some steps when we started properly digging, though we dug out a lot of junk too - about five big carloads full, to date. This was the month in which South Ossetia was being bombed, and I still don't fully understand what was going on there (does anyone?) and our own government bizarrely suggested that some home educated children might, convolutedly, be even more at risk of not receiving a suitable education than schooled ones were, whilst simultaneously sending sending letters home to 4 year-old children telling them their schools were failing. Also, Tom announced his imminent career plans, and we did some piano lessons and some more number work.


September 2008

- was the month in which we demolished one of the big field sheds, made electricity, enjoyed the journey and started beningly playing schools (though the folders have mostly stayed on their shelf since about October to be honest). It was in September that the government announced Children starting secondary schools in England this week will be the first to be legally required to stay in education until they are 17, I discovered Dr. Míceál Ledwith (and didn't read half as much of his stuff as I intended to..) we learned a bit more about water, bank accounts, anatomy and Roman numerals, and the Halifax went bust! (Although I strangely seem to be still repaying my mortgage to them.)


October 2008

- brought late summer sunshine, and a lot more fieldwork. Autumn came slowly this year, as I remember. I was asked some awkward questions, and we harvested our spuds. (2009 resolution, as ever: plant more food!) The government, looking increasingly despotic, used anti-terror laws to freeze assets belonging to Icelandic countries in a bid to protect our own gullible investors and I was asked yet more questions. The calendar blog was born (I'm really enjoying that one) and I went on about trees again. (In another life, I could have been a tree surgeon. Except that I don't like cutting them. Ok then, a woodland elf!) Credit got crunchier, I ranted at the government again... oh. And again. And I dug out our second deep bed and started researching composting loos, about which Zara has banned me from discussing in any other than the weirdest sort of company.


November 2008

- was the month of indoor picnics, pumpkin pie and brisk, chilly outdoor walks. I wrote to Kitty Ussher, Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Department of Work and Pensions. (She later said in Parliament: "I have my own opinion about home education." Hmm: a young son and a hectic career. Anyone want to guess what they might be? ;-) We talked some more about home educating on a tight budget, and complained to BRE about the Welfare reform consultations. (This complaint was not upheld, unsurprisingly, but it apparently did generate some duscussion within DWP, so perhaps better efforts will be made by them to consult properly on future occasions?) I talked about toilets some more, and posted a shot of my square-eyed children (the baby now has her own computer, her sister having long tired of sharing). The nights drew in and I made a cloak, posted something to Home Education Stories UK and we shifted a lot of stone. I wrote some more about education and Al was a hero.


December 2008

- included a lovely Christmas Day, which followed a meaningful Solstice. (All one long celebration, to me.) We also did some kung fu, wrote about dementors (Bill Gates and his mates), caught some jelly fungus and photographed the frost. There was even more field junk to recycle, and I went on about the breaking of spirits, affordable Christmases and weekends. And education, again. (Are you sensing a theme at all..?) We did battle with the brambles again, sized up some old trees for a necessary pruning job in the new year, and I finished my blogging year with three posts on my money blog.

And that's it! A whole blogging year. It's taken me all day to compile, not just a *moment in time* but I've really enjoyed doing it. It's made me review the past year properly with pleasure, some exasperation at broken resolutions, but satisfaction about the progress we've all made. I've had to keep breaking off to attend to children, visitors and the demands of my own stomach and at one point I thought I might never get it finished in time. But I did, and so here's to the last of 2008. I'm off now to tidy up and cook rounds of food for the starving hoards children.

Happy new year, everyone!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Santa woz 'ere

We left him a glass of milk, a mince pie and some carrots for the reindeer:

Then 5.30am saw the poor baby being gently but determinedly woken by her sisters, to see if he had been:

And he had! I'm always amazed that the reindeer leave the carrot tops behind. Fussy creatures, they must be.

Well, some people opened their gifts very slowly and wonderingly savoured each one:

Whilst others rushed through theirs frantically, shaking with excitement:

Then there were new toys to play with...

Potions to make...

Disks to install...

and battleships to bomb:

I was hoping for a new camera, but is seems that Santa thinks my old one will have to do, for now. Very wise of him, no doubt. Ah well, there's always next year. Ho ho ho!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

This weekend..

..there have been acrobatics:

clay modelling:

painting (all in black for some reason):


playing outside in the rain:

and playing inside.. on our own computer:

... and many more things I didn't get to photograph. There has also been me, struggling to hold a fascinating debate about the economy with a teenaged child whilst the younger ones interrupted with various needs, asks and wants, and struggling to get the solstice dinner to the table in the face of the baby's irrecusable urge to "help" - such help, in this case, consisting of her grabbing handsful of random cutlery from the drawer and abandoning it in various stages between there and the table. Several times. And then promising an afternoon nap but determinedly failing to follow through.

This is a warts and all blog, I think, from now on.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

How we do things

Blogging is very difficult for me now, as since my big splurge of postings last week our baby has been introduced to BBC iplayer, specifically this programme, which she wants to watch over and over again on my computer. It's on right now - we're sharing the same screen. She's got the top left hand corner and I've got the bottom right for this blog post - about 6"x4" - with frequent interruptions to agree that Sarah-Jane has indeed got a hula hoop, etc.

I think, nice though it is to have her sitting on my knee so much, this baby might be nearly ready for her own computer. There are just a few issues like the lack of available desk space (but if we tidied up some junk books here, I suspect we'd find some); lack of network cabling (but we could just buy some more); I think lack of a spare working monitor, but I'll have to check through all the old ones in the basement and see if any can be persuaded to work with my old PC. We might manage to rig something up.

Oh, and she can't drive a mouse yet, though I get the feeling she's on the brink of 'getting it'. She had her hand on it yesterday, and I think she realised that she was moving the arrow around the screen. And she did some clicking, but it was very random. But she watches us very closely and copies what we do, so I don't think it will take her very long to learn. Perhaps she needs to sit on my knee with the screen divided into little boxes for a few more weeks, although there would always be someone sitting next to her to do the necessary mouse-driving..

Anyway, scrolling through various home education list daily digests this morning, I came across the comment that home educators using the autonomous method don't often chat about how they do things. Well, I think we're about as autonomous as you can get (I notice there are varying degrees of it, which doesn't really fit with my tendency towards black and white thinking, but never mind) and talking about what we do and how we do things is supposed to be what this blog is about, but it does often get sidetracked, so I thought I'd write a post today specifically about how we do things.

It wasn't the plan, but the first three paragraphs above actually explain really well how we do things. Everything springs from someone - invariably the child - finding an interest and wanting to explore it. We make sure we have the free time (that's possibly the most difficult aspect for some families) for this to happen. And then we just go with their interests, and this leads to endless active learning, quite definitely full-time and always exactly suitable to the child's age, aptitude, ability and any special education needs they may have. It's far more suitable than a preset curriculum can ever be, because children are all unique in their interests and their learning requirements, even day-to-day, minute by minute. You can't possibly plan for what they might exactly need, educationally, because you can't know exactly what that will be.

Perhaps home educators using the autonomous method don't often chat about how they do things because they tend to veer off towards the theory whenever they're trying to discuss the method, as I just did. This could be because the actual practice is so varied from one moment to the next that it's quite difficult to provide an overview and much easier to give examples.

Take Lyddie's reading: she's been going back over her old books, which we're now reading to the baby, and carefully, quietly, reading the words to herself. I noticed her doing it with a nursery rhyme book the other day, so she knew the words and was systematically checking what she knew of the rhymes against what she could actually read. It would never have occurred to me to suggest this, and if I'd tried to adopt it as a teaching method she might have been insulted, but as a self-directed learning process, it's perfect for her just now - obviously, or she wouldn't be doing it.

I didn't get involved, or even show that I'd noticed what she was doing because it would have interrupted her flow. My job as her educational facilitator is to (try to!) know when to interject and when to just let things happen. Again, that's learner-directed: when she wants my help with something - which is often - she comes to ask me, then I go to help straight away. But in a way I did facilitate her nursery rhyme book learning, by leaving the books around and allowing her the freedom, peace and privacy to pick them up and start looking at them.

I didn't leave the books around on purpose in the hope that she would make use of them in this way. I don't really do strewing because even that feels too controlling and contrived to me. Also I did try it for a while, but it seemed to put the children off learning rather than turn them onto it. They can't really explore on their own terms if their path is deliberately littered with obvious signposts making it quite clear that someone has been there already and marked it out for them, can they?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Self-directed independence; successes, mistakes and the breaking of spirits

As a parent, when you respect your baby's preferences by feeding on demand, this naturally evolves into a respect for the preferences of that person at every stage of their development. So you get used to taking them seriously and developing a kind of synergy in decision-making. In this way, I've learned a valuable lesson: the natural organisation of groups is egalitarian, not hierarchical. And I wonder if people who work to impose and/or maintain hierarchical, power-pyramid structures on society might be people who didn't have their preferences respected as children or babies. In the UK I think it's tragically rare - even viewed as bizarre - for parents to organise their lives around their children's preferences. Surely that produces spoilt brats? Little Hitlers? Surely you've got to break their spirit early? Show them who's boss?

That "break their spirit" idea makes me feel like weeping, because - as any parent of any toddling child knows full well - it's no exaggeration. Breaking their spirit is exactly what you have to do if you want to impose your will on your child. This little new person, who is still essentially a baby in many ways, just beginning to learn about the world and has such an unquenchable thirst, such a raw passion for learning about it, must be forcibly put back in the box: tied down, strapped in and otherwise restrained, For It's Own Good.

I am speaking through experience. That kind of parenting happened to me, and I passed it onto my first children to some extent. A young mother, barely into my twenties, nobody had taught me any other way of parenting. Nearly 20 years ago, there wasn't the raft of books or magazines about alternative ways of doing it then. There was no internet! No message boards, blogs, websites..

But I can't blame external factors nor be too hard on myself. I was doing what most parents strive to do: the best they can for their children given the experience, circumstances, time and patience available. In 1991 there were three boys in my full-time care: a stepson aged 7, my oldest son aged nearly 3 and my younger son aged about 1½. I was 23, and trying my best to do my best for them all, but not really knowing how to go about it.

I did a lot by instinct, but I shouted too, and I didn't listen enough, and I used threats and rewards to try to stay in control of events and behaviours. It felt wrong, but I didn't know any other way. The children and I - specifically my own children (it was harder with my stepson, for whatever reason, and I still feel I made a complete mess of his upbringing) sort of worked it out between ourselves, but I think it was Ali's (the 1½ year-old) unbreakable spirit that taught me the most. Tom was yielding: Ali was not and met my immutable stance with his own equally unmoving one. But when I yielded, he would soften and co-operate too. Eventually I realised that we actually could all be on the same side, and we haven't really looked back since then.

The three girls coming afterwards have benefited from this realisation and had their preferences almost completely respected - whenever I possibly could - throughout. So what are people with unbroken spirits like? What's the difference? Primarily, I'd say it's in their natural integrity. They can't be made to behave in a certain way or to comply with arbitrary set rules. Threats and rewards don't work on them. So are they wild, wilful? Out of control? Absolutely not. They're logical and self-contained, with their own internal, strong system of ethics. Considerate and thoughtful, they weigh up their own decisions carefully. They are in charge of their own thinking and less the victims of external environments. I doubt they could be bullied, and I equally doubt they could become bullies.

They're not angels with halos or anything, but they're certainly different. And I'm still not a perfect parent: I'm still subject to exasperation, exhaustion and the snappiness that goes with it. But remembering that we're all on the same side usually resolves the situation. (If I'm not on their side, who can be? If the children and I are at loggerheads, what of their relationship with the rest of the world? What of mine?)

That long rambling précis leads me onto describing some recent and current incidents in some of my children's lives: landmarks of their development: examples of another phenomena that I suspect unbroken spirits share in common: self-directed independence. It's true: when they're free to make all their own choices, children really do carefully regulate the stages of their own separate interactions with the world. I find it an amazing thing to observe and I feel deeply privileged to be able to do so.

When my six-year old says (as she did last week): "Today is the day I'm going shopping on my own," I feel both awed and scared of the process. I had to respect her position, but I couldn't help voicing some misgivings. Was she really old enough? What if something unexpected happened? How would she deal with it? I hovered outside the shop, 'helpfully' pointing out the stack of baskets, unable to resist the silent providing of parently input even through a soundproof pane of glass.

If I hadn't done this, would she have gone without a basket and decided to carry her items in her hands instead? Would she then have avoided knocking a bottle of vinegar off a shelf with it, panicking, dropping said basket and running out of the shop in tears of horror? Did I, by going on about "dealing with the unexpected" generate a self-fulfilling prophecy? Or would it have happened anyway, and was this one of those inevitable mistakes she needed to learn from? I suspect it was a mistake we both needed to learn from. Learning doesn't stop with the onset of adulthood, does it? Parental and childhood development goes hand-in-hand: a mutually beneficial (or otherwise) process.

A couple of days later, she had a totally different and more positive experience in a different shop. It was during 'normal school hours' and the assistant met us with a barrage of questions: "Why aren't you in school? Are you ill? Having a day off for some reason? Going to the doctor's? Am I being nosy? Sorry."

Lyddie calmly waited for her to finish and then clearly stated that she was home-educated. "Oh, that's good," said this talkative lady. "I like the sound of home education. It sounds much better than school.."

Outside, I said: "You don't have to answer people's nosy questions if you don't want to, you know," feeling that she might be getting weary of forever being asked.

"I know, but I wanted to," said Lyddie. "I want to tell people, to make sure they know about home education then maybe they won't ask the same questions the next time they see a child out of school."

Well, it shut me up..

The baby wants to do as much as possible by herself on her own terms and she desperately needs to be a productive member of the family unit. She was delighted yesterday when I remembered that instead of being irked at her dragging her little chair to the work surface to 'help' me make her sandwich, we could make it together. I'll never forget my great grandmother doing this with me when I was about the same age, or perhaps a little older. You can put your hands over theirs and spread butter together, can't you? And get filling and do the same, and fold and cut the bread in the same way. Our baby was delighted to be thus involved in the process of preparing her own food. Soon, she'll be making her own sandwiches.

Already she helps with the laundry, passing items of wet clothing one at a time from a basket for me to hang on our creels. I never asked her to do it, but it's been happening for about six months or more now. She likes to "set the table" too, counting knives and forks out of the drawer. "One, two, three, two, three, one..." It was only last week that she was counting everything in ones: "One, one, one one.." (As Tom said: well, it worked for the Romans..) Every day, it seems another number is added to the repertoire of her understanding. I think she reached four yesterday.

The process doesn't stop when the child is 16, 18, 19 years old. I could blog forever about the teenagers' self-directed independence and my corresponding lessons in respect and restraint. Tom's about to start his own business and I'm fretting, like when Lyddie went into the shop: is he really old enough? What if something unexpected happens? How will he deal with it?

Of course he's old enough: they all are. He even takes advice in a way I'm sure I never did at 19. He even takes it from his younger brother, who is fretting along with me and coming up with a fresh list of "things Tom needs to ascertain" before the venture begins. Parameters to be set. Principles to be established. Methods to be adopted. Of course, this won't be just Tom's business - he's starting with three willing, cheap (free) helpmates. I'm mostly concerned with getting the figures in order: having run businesses in the past, I understand the importance of setting up a designated box/account for tax and NI. 30% of everything earned has to go in there, the detail of payments and receipts to be worked out later. Tom knows (I've told him often enough) that the taxman can bankrupt him overnight and still demand - and extract - payment.

Is this self-directed independence on Tom's part, with the rest of us clucking round him like worried mother hens? Hmmm. Probably not..

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Kung fu kid

Sometime between babies, I managed to fit in a few years of training in the Taoist arts, including kung fu, t'ai chi, yoga, massage and other aspects. All useful skills in every part of life, but most useful of all when one's children are begging one to "Teach us some kung fu!"

I did train as a teacher, but that was to teach classes of adults, using a lesson plan (which didn't really fit with the subject matter, but could be adapted a little bit to fit circumstances) and a set curriculum.

You can't really teach an autonomously educated six year-old anything with a lesson plan and a set curriculum ;-)

So we just played with it and had some fun yesterday, as we have in the past on occasion. Most of the stances are named after animals and she likes learning those and using them to test their strengths and weaknesses. We've also done some chi kung demo stuff like 'the unbending arm', which is always a good party trick. (The arms bends quite easily when it's held straight with muscle power, but is unbendable when relaxed and held straight using chi, breathing and mental focus.)

Her favourite thing is just to spar, though.

Straight away, she got the idea that we must be gentle with one another - the idea is to learn, not to win or to damage the opponent. In fact, kung fu is never about winning or damaging people. But she's an absolute natural: most children are I think. here are some examples of the way she instinctively employed kung fu principles yesterday:

I gently took her down to the floor by her head, and she went with the movement instead of fighting against it. She squatted down faster than I was taking her, and ducked out of my hold;

I said: "Let's slow it down a bit more and see if you can do anything to deflect my approach to your head this time," and straight away she took my arm in a big circular movement over the top of her head;

The next time I took her down, she crawled away between my legs!

We'd have played like this for half an hour or more, but the baby didn't like it so we had to stop. We couldn't decide whether she thought we were really fighting, or was jealous of the physical attention Lyddie was getting. Either way, it had to stop.