Friday, August 31, 2007

A bit of a change of plan

Back in January, I blogged something about Tom, Ali and Zara's plans for the future. The boys seemed then to have both decided against any kind of structured, accredited study and were set on simply continuing and expanding the paid, self-employed work they'd already started. But now Tom at least is having a major re-think.

He's spent the past few months surviving on very little money and focusing intensely on graphic art. He's going away soon on retreat, at his own instigation, to finally work out what he needs to do with the first stage of his adult life, but he's very interested in our own local University of Huddersfield and has started to prepare a portfolio of his work to that end.

It's funny, but far from actively guiding, developing and taking charge of their education, I'm just increasingly awed and amazed as I watch them taking charge of their own with strong, quiet dignity and gentle elegance. All that worrying we parents do! There's no need for any of it. We just need to be there, be constant, listen and provide what they need. In the end they do work out where they need to be and take steps to get themselves there.

If Tom hadn't gone through the deschooling process - which seemed to take so long I often thought he'd never come out of it - he wouldn't have been so totally free to find his niche: that whatever-it-is thing that he's so passionate to develop. He went through his frantic work-all-hours to earn loadsamoney stage a few years ago, and if I'd have listened to my fears he would have never been allowed to get that out of his system.

His trip away seems to be an initiatory rite of passage - something he instinctively feels he needs to do. Just him, a tent, some camping gear and the Scottish mountains. No guidance, no company, no phone. No computer, no cosy warm duvet, no mother to make regular wellbeing checks and keep the freezer stocked. No freezer!

Of course I'm worried! But he's 18 now, so I couldn't stop him doing this even if I wanted to, and of course I don't want to. I can recognise, through my paranoia, that this is a vital and natural process for him, to test his mettle. He'll go away a boy and come back a man.

Luckily, there's plenty here to distract me from panicking about him - I get to clean out his room while he's away! Yes, I'm finally allowed in there with my bin bags, cleaning gear, new Ikea shelves and my plastic sorting boxes. I'm doing my bit: he'll leave behind his teenage boy's bedroom and come back to a much more adult space. I'm going to thoroughly enjoy doing that! It's been such a long time coming.

Ali is quite shocked and he actually seems a little unnerved by his brother's plans. He's been 'out there' doing voluntary work, making contacts and generally having fun, feeling safe in the knowledge that his sibling rival was safely ensconced at home in the basement, but not realising that it was actually a chrysalis stage, let alone that the time for emergence was imminent! The look of complete shock on his face was priceless when he heard about Tom's plans. "University???!"

But I think Ali has still got a lot of surprises in store for us, even if he doesn't realise it himself yet.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Spontaneous writing, home ed meetings and a going-to-sleep game

I'm puzzled and concerned about the recently reported fall in primary writing standards, because Lyddie's really keen on developing her writing and it's hard, living with her, to imagine a child not being.

This morning she's been writing a shopping list:

and a 'thank you' letter to the postman for doing his job!

She posted it back through the letter box, for him to see and collect in the morning:

She sometimes tries to work out how to spell words by the sound of them, which is a problem if her pronunciation is at odds with the accepted spelling, but hearing the spelling makes her realise that her punctuation was 'wrong', so that's a learning process too. Sometimes she asks me to sound out the letters for her, and then it varies as to whether she's happy to just hear the letter sounds, or whether she prefers the Letterland characters. She often jumps up and goes to look at either her Letterland machine:

or her computer keyboard to remind herself of how a letter looks, and then there are issues regarding the way she holds her pen and the way she forms the letters, with which I'm itching to intervene but resisting the temptation. I've offered tuition on both, but it's been declined so hopefully these will work themselves out, or she'll change her mind on the tuition. She's also copying capital letters from the keyboard and cursive from the Letterland machine, so the results are a mixture of the two! But she's only four, so there's time to sort all that out.

So why does she want to write by hand, when her PC is always on and available and she can express herself on screen instead, if she so chooses? It seems reasonable to assume that she'd invariably opt for the 'easy' way instead of the one that requires more effort.

But she loves using pen and paper. Perhaps it's something to do with neural pathways and genetics, because I get more pleasure and satisfaction from using pen and paper than I do from using a keyboard.

It's possible that she's emulating me, in my unthinking routine habits which she obviously constantly observes. I hand-write shopping lists, reminder notes, and my diary. Lyddie also loves the whole idea of snail mail post. She was very enthusiastic about email a few months ago, and still loves to create pictures on MS paint then copy and paste her efforts into emails to send to friends and family. But her latest hobby regarding that is to draw, colour or paint a picture on paper, scan it and then email the results.

So the use of actual paper is obviously important for her in the process of expressing herself and communicating with the world.

Also, we played a great game last night, going to sleep: guess the story character. E.g. "He's got a blue coat, big ears and is very naughty." "Peter Rabbit!"

I was surprised how many characters we both knew - dozens! The game lasted for about half an hour and we both enjoyed it.

Yesterday's home ed meeting ended up with a few families back at our house for the afternoon and we parents-of-teens got to chatting about handwriting skills, and how they're naturally picked up and put down in phases throughout the course of growing up. Our older children are all preparing for college and uni now and are all extremely adept at communicating and expressing their thoughts eloquently and very rapidly by computer, but not so hot at handwriting.

As parents we were wondering how relevant and necessary handwriting is, in the modern world, and how worried we should be about it on behalf of our offspring. We're all still offering tuition and help to our teens, of course, but it's not often taken up. But we reached the consensus anyway, that if a person wanted or needed to write on paper a lot, the style would quickly develop anyway and they wouldn't struggle for long.

Yesterday's get-together was very beneficial for us parents as well as for the children. These are real-life friends I made years ago at the very early home ed meetings we attended after deregistering. The children have all grown up together and as parents we've been there for the highs and lows, the celebrations, commiserations and above all, the worries about our children's home ed. We've had some very minor problems with one or two families over the years, but on the whole it's been a very good to have been in real life contact with other home ed families. It's something else we were saying yesterday: how glad we are to still be friends and to have known one another throughout.

I'm glad we set up our local home ed meetings all those years ago and have kept them going week in and week out. It's been well worth the bother.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

How much input is too much?

Some of us have been chatting about the difficulty of getting the balance right between too little input into our children's learning, and too much. Too little might convey the message we're not really interested in what they're doing and also might miss opportunities to help them develop a skill or an interest further; but too much can have the effect of putting them right off doing whatever they wanted to do.

It's something I still struggle with a lot, even after home-educating several children. Getting the balance right is very difficult. I've made some big mistakes in this respect in the past, and also the educational needs of schooled, deschooled and totally unschooled children are all very different, as are the educational needs of each individual child at each individual time, of course. So it's a matter of being flexible and responsive and trying not to get stuck in a certain rigid way of doing things.

It took me a long time, but I finally learned that the most effective method is to wait until the child shows interest in doing or learning something, then to be very careful about the amount of enthusiasm I respond with. If I get too keen on the idea, the child usually starts thinking I want to take over ownership of the process and backs off. But maybe that's just me - I can get quite passionate about things!

Sometimes it's just enough to provide the tools or information required and leave them somewhere easily accessible. I've learned not to go mad spending a huge amount of money on a certain kind of learning resource I thought might interest a certain child, because too much is too much, and it turns off their curiosity.

I think most conscientious home educators are at more risk of providing too much input rather than too little, even if they're not worried about issues like whether the child is learning 'enough', at the 'right' level. I can understand that kind of angst , but I have to say that I don't believe there's a universal 'right' age to learn anything, any more than I believe there's a universal 'right' way to learn it. Every learner is unique, and the facilitator's skill is in recognising and responding to that.

Signs I've learned to look for that a child has lost interest in something are pretty obvious ones to any parent: it's mostly in the eyes and the body language. If they're starting to look elsewhere and move like they want to be elsewhere, they probably do and the chances of them learning any more in that particular instance have passed. I try to stop providing input before that point is reached, but it's very difficult to gauge the timing. Being hyper-aware and observant helps, but we all have off-days.

I've been increasingly thinking about co-learning and 'teaching' in terms of power-struggles. Intrinsic motivation seems to depend on the child being in control and 'owning' the learning territory. Too much input is when we impinge on that territory and the child feels to lose control of the learning process.

Thanks to Lucy for inspiring this post (in *140-character* admirable chunks!)

Friday, August 17, 2007

It *must* be the 'summer hols'

They're actually doing workbooks now.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

And reading

We printed out the CBeebies schedule, at Lyddie's request. She found it for herself online and wanted me to help her to read it. She's done this for 2 days running now. Schedules and times are very important to this child, and this is at the root of much of her motivation. Also, she feels the need to be independent, so she picks up the sheet when she wants to check the times of her favourite programme and works out the letter sounds until she knows the answer.

Rainy day schooliness

I'm afraid we're looking like quite a schooly home ed family here on this rainy day:

Zara's been making dot-to-dot pictures for Lyddie, and the Magnetix got an airing too:

I think we're even about to make biscuits, but only because we bought some and there are never enough, once people have got the taste for them.

It's too wet to do much outside. We're going to really appreciate the sun when it finally gets here.

We also listened to this debate on education, which made some excellent points. 'Listen again' available after 3pm today.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Home ed in the summer holidays

I've already had several people ask me if we're 'taking a break' from home education this summer. I'm still always stuck for how to even begin to reply, so I think I'll try again here today.

No, we're not taking a break from normal life, following our interests and gently meandering or frantically galloping along the paths of our curiosity, as the mood takes us.

We will not stop wondering as to the meaning of things, reading books or Googling answers to queries that come up in thought or in conversation. When Lyddie gets paper and pen and comes to copy the words on my screen again, as she did this morning, to practice forming the letters and to work out what they are, I won't be saying: "You mustn't do that! It's the summer break!"

When an unusual insect crawls on the ground, or bird lands in our garden, we won't stop watching to see what it does or wondering why. And when someone says: "I'll go and find a book to see what it is," I won't hold my hand up and say: "STOP! You can't! It's the summer holiday! Wait until September to do that!"

As for the teens developing their chosen vocational skills with single-minded obsession, I won't be marching into their rooms or their lives with a compulsory beach towel and insisting they immediately cease their activities and go and sit on it, just because it's August. (Though we are planning a day trip to the coast this summer, and no doubt some learning will inevitably take place on it - not least the sums to work out whether and when we can afford the petrol. And we're waiting until September to avoid the crowds and to get the best of the weather.)

I will not be covering anyone's mouth when they ask about anything interesting, or locking away the chess set in case anyone fancies a game. And running across our field will not be banned because 'it was Sports Day last month, not this!'

We learn all the time, just as we breathe all the time. We like learning. It's what makes us feel alive. Why would we stop doing it, for the month of August?

But when I try to explain this to some people, I can see their thoughts written all over their face. "You cruel woman. Can't you even give them a break in the summer?"

Yes, the aliens have already landed on our planet and are speaking a language that's unintelligible to human beings. I just can't work out whether that's them, or us.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

"We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to ensure that all parents are informed of their legal right to home educate their children."

Another Downing Street petition I've gladly signed.

"At the moment it is a closely guarded secret that all parents have the right to Home educate their children. We would like to see the government informing all parents of that right. We would also like to see the government ensuring that the LEA inspectors of Home Educators are pro Home education and have a knowledge of the different ways in which Home education can be delivered by parents. We also want it recognised that children vary in their abilities and that there is no way to gauge when a child will be proficient in any one area of learning." - Jacqueline Wood

Apart from its tacit approval/acknowledgment of 'LEA inspectors of Home Educators' I do agree with the above statement. I've lost count of the number of emails and phone calls I've received from local people whose children were pushed to the point of making suicide threats and/or becoming physically ill before the family was informed of their right to home educate.

Leo's proposed revision to the wording of Section 7 (" home or otherwise.") would neatly solve the problem in one move and would be fantastic to see - though sadly unlikely I think. Meanwhile, this petition might help to raise awareness of the situation if it receives enough signatures.

I love The Tailor of Gloucester

"When gentlemen wore ruffles and gold-lace waistcoats"

Many of Beatrix Potter’s stories begin ‘Once upon a time…’. The Tailor of Gloucester is unusual in that the story takes place at a specific period – ‘the time of swords and periwigs’ – between about 1735 and 1785. Beatrix went to extraordinary lengths to create an authentic setting. Passing a tailor’s shop in Chelsea one day, she deliberately tore a button off her coat and took it in to be mended so she could observe at first hand the tailor’s posture, tools and workbench. - Victoria & Albert Museums

The illustrations are even inspiring to me, who has no expert appreciation of tailoring.

But it wasn't until last night, when Lyddie and I were reading it together, that I realised how much information about social history young children absorb from stories and illustrations like this.

It sets the 18th century's economic scene right at the start: the wealthy people (like the Mayor of Gloucester) wore sumptuous, beautiful clothes which were - quite literally - painstakingly crafted to the highest standard down to the tiniest detail by people who often lived in abject poverty.

The Tailor of Gloucester couldn't afford candles:

"All day long while the light lasted he sewed and snippeted, piecing out his satin and pompadour, and lute-string;"

And by way of accommodation:

"The tailor was so poor he only rented the kitchen."

Lyddie's eyes widened at this. I could see her trying to think how it must be to live only in a kitchen. (I must remember to tell her our family story of the man who rented sleeping space in my great great grandparents' kitchen: they made a bed for him 'under the sink'! so I was told, though I've been puzzling ever since how it was possible.)

Reading this story gave Lyddie some more basic, deep understanding about real poverty and inequality which is an important thing to understand these days, in which relative poverty is being so widely discussed as such an apparent huge problem.

The Tailor of Gloucester worked until he was ill, then developed a fever and took to his bed for three days. There was no doctor, antibiotics or even any nursing care for him. As soon as he was able to stand, he went straight to his shop on Christmas day to try desperately to finish the Mayor's wedding clothes in time for the ceremony.

We're just reading stories, but we're learning about aspects of different lives from different times. I love Beatrix Potter's books for the way they illustrate the day-to-day mundane activities, like Mrs Tiggywinkle's goffering of Lucy's apron. Who even knows what goffering means, nowadays? Blogger's spellchecker didn't recognise it. (I just looked it up: it means "to make wavy, flute or crimp a lace edge, trimming, etc., with heated irons".)

No longer relevant, but good for building a complex mental imagery of a time gone by, when things were so different that even some of the words are no longer in use.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Let's talk about home ed...

... (since this is a home ed blog!) and the day-to-day difference between my currently 4 year-old daughter who has never been to school or nursery and my previously 4-year old sons and daughter who all did.

The older three, at Lyddie's age, attended a village school of 70ish children. It had only three classes and at the age of four they'd have been in the nursery class, which was like being at home but with about 15 other children. Even we mothers were encouraged to stay with them, and I usually did.

So, lots of things to do and play with, absolutely loads of socialisation, a great environment, an excellent teacher with lots of experience. I did know about home education but I still thought I was doing the very best thing for my children by taking them to this school. I even still thought so until quite recently, when Lyddie became the same age they'd have been when they started attending. (The school we later deregistered from was much bigger, with a completely different ethos.)

BUT I've been amazed, this year, at the differences between my (then) four year-old schooled children and my (now) four year-old unschooled one.

The schooled ones were up and down throughout the day, energy and mood-wise. They'd be very sleepy in the mornings and for the first hour at school. Then, for the most part quiet at school. There were noisy children in the class, but these were the four or five who were exhibiting challenging behaviour. My three tended to just get on with their day. They picked at lunch and, if old enough to stay for the afternoon this went much as the morning had.

All the children in the nursery class were one-to-one attention starved. How do I know this? Because I would sit and read stories with them all day and they all constantly asked me to do this. They were hungry and thirsty for it. In those days you were allowed to sit a schoolchild on your knee for a story and I could tell that for some children, this was the only time in their lives that they got this kind of attention. I really wanted to just read with my own children, if I'm honest, but some of the others needed it so much more. And this was by no means a down-at-heel residential area.

My own three accepted that they had to share their mother (and their teacher, the NTA and whichever other mothers happened to be there) with the other children in the class. They were just glad to have me there, I think. But we'd get home and they'd slump like zombies in front of the TV, more or less until suppertime, bath time and bedtime. I thought I was doing well for them, I really did. I thought their passivity was just normal for children of that age: I'd never known any other kind of children.

Fast forward over a decade. I now have a four year-old whose natural sleep patterns are not disturbed, and whose autonomy is rarely infringed upon. She is still peaceful - sometimes! But she's so much more engaged with everything she does. I read a story to her and she's free to go and bounce on a mattress or a trampoline while she listens. Then come back and she asks about the pictures and the words. We exchange looks of trepidation when we get to certain bits and sometimes stop for a conversation halfway through. She makes stories with her drawings and conveys messages and information to us by them too. She can go outside whenever she wants to: paint, construct things, set up fantasy doll/castle/car worlds, make music, sing. She sings! And skips everywhere a lot. I didn't know it was possible to have such a happy child.

Didn't the older children do those things? They did a pale imitation of those things. The shadow of them. There were books, toys, craft and music facilities of course, at home and at school. But I'd say my older children made about 10% the use of them that Lyddie does. We read some books together, but there just wasn't the time to read as many as they, or I, would have liked. And they were too tired and inhibited to be really creative or to use their initiative in exciting ways, even though they enjoyed as much autonomy as the schedule and system allowed, both at home and at school.

I'm not beating myself up with guilt over this, because although I did know about home education being legal and I was in a position to provide it, I honestly didn't know what a phenomenal amount of difference it would have made to them to not go to school. OK, a very deep instinctive part of me did know, but I ignored it because I believed the thing about socialisation and conforming. I weighed it all up and I made the best decision I could at the time, given all considerations, which is all any of us can ever do.