Thoreau Quote

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
Henry David Thoreau

Friday, 28 October 2011

Getting there in our own time

So, the new reading test in primary schools is apparently a 'waste of money' and experts are 'deeply concerned' about it, so much so that the UK Literacy Association and others have written an open letter to the Education Secretary to express their fears. (

I can't help but feel concerned also at children as young as six being assessed for their reading abilities before they've had the chance to develop them. 

Because, here's the thing. Why are we quite happy to accept that children will learn to walk or talk at different times, but that once they hit 'school age' they are expected to keep to some kind of predetermined timetable?

I'd like to share with you a photo.

A very ordinary scene, but one which fills me with joy. This is my son reading a book at breakfast, something he has chosen to do every morning for the last few weeks, and something that at one point I wasn't sure would ever happen. Not the time of day, obviously, but the fact that he is choosing to read a book and is enjoying it.

Home educated from the age of 5 his learning to read was entirely down to me. Unfortunately, unlike both his older and younger sisters, books didn't hold much of an appeal. Running at breakneck speed and playing with mud were much more the activities of choice!

But, heh, that was OK. I'd done my research. I knew that typically boys were much more active and would come to reading later. So I waited. And waited. And waited some more. In the meantime he grew up in literate environment (well, it's hard not to, really, isn't it!). There were trips to the library, bedtime stories, shopping lists, signs to read, words on computer games that really needed to be deciphered. I bought a reading scheme. The Peter and Jane Ladybird books, chosen through the highly scientific method of 'Oh, I remember those and now I'm feeling all nostalgic!'. They were used a little, for a few weeks, before they lost their appeal. Apparently it was much more important to get back to Civilization IV on the PC and understand how to discuss trade terms with Mansa Musa :)

As the months and years went by I found that I could see how his reading was progressing, but whereas his younger sister had whizzed through the stages at the speed of light, he was crawling through at the speed of treacle. I tried to remain positive, but it wasn't easy. Not easy to resist comparing him with what his reading ability 'should be' and certainly not easy to resist 'encouraging' him.

But, you see, I was so afraid of putting him off books for life. Of turning reading into a chore, into something with targets and achievement expectations. His older brother was at school until the age of 8 and I could remember the battles over the reading homework. He has never enjoyed books and, although I can't say for sure it was due to those early pressures, it's hard not to assume a link.

Fortunately, in a family of four children there's always something else for me to be concerned with so I didn't have a chance to become fixated on the reading issue and it just trotted along. I kept filling the house with books, magazines, shop catalogues and the like and eventually I noticed evidence of someone other than girls reading. Encyclopedias were turning up in strange places. The sports pages of the paper disappeared. The books in the bathroom (a great idea!) were moved and changed and it wasn't me doing it.

And now, here we are, with a fully fledged book reader! How cool is that!

Given that he's 12 the books he's choosing to read would I'm sure be considered 'too young' for him, but I think I've seen enough evidence over the years to trust the process and I'm not going to start interfering now.

And, apart from throwing opportunities in the way, I've not had a great deal to do with it. Seems his learning to read wasn't ever down to me after all. It was just something that he was going to do in his own time. I am so happy that he's had the freedom to become a reader at his own pace, never having felt pressurised to perform, never having to feel he was slow or behind.

Now, I know that this approach in its entirety isn't going to work in school. I realise that having everyone in a class reading at different levels, and some hardly at all, is not going to make teaching the National Curriculum very easy. I appreciate that a lot of school work is based on everyone being able to read the instructions and churn out written material for OFSTED and Parents' Evenings. But I can't help but feel sad that the tick box culture is alive and kicking and threatening to make it so much harder for our children to develop an enjoyment of books. Is there no way we can perhaps start seriously considering the idea of adjusting the education system to suit children, instead of the other way around?

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Not Pollock, but maybe Picasso??

So, as you may have noticed, no Jackson Pollock-type images have appeared, despite my best laid plans. It seems the interest waned pretty quickly and I was back to a familiar dilemma; whether to lead the activity onwards or let it be. The upside of the former is that, as long as I don't become too dictatorial over the whole thing (and there are no guarantees of that!) there is a chance we'd spend a couple of hours quite productively, J and B may well enjoy something they didn't expect to enjoy and we'd have a piece of artwork to show for it. Plus a pretty good blog topic! On the other hand, I was really hoping that at least one child would have been keen enough to have a go themselves. I get tired of feeling I have to initiate everything and one of the benefits of home education is that children have much more opportunity to develop the skills of self-reliance and self-motivation, rather than being spoon-fed an inflexible one-size-doesn't-fit-all national curriculum for hours.

It would be unfair of me to suggest that my lot are sitting around waiting for me to come and bestow my ladle of knowledge though. They do plenty of their own activities; photography and cooking are two current favourites. But these take up only a small portion of their non-academic time and in filling the rest of the day we seem to differ in our opinions of how much Xbox time can be considered reasonable!

So, I'm still on a quest to find soul-filling and enjoyable art and craft activities for teenagers. Not easy. Granted, I have only had a quick Google, but there seems to be an awful lot of bookmark, friendship bracelet and decorate-your-flip-flop type projects which elicit looks that seem to say 'Mum, we're not living in an Enid Blyton book. We're a lot more sophisticated these days and it's going to take more than that.' Sigh.

I did have a minor brainwave yesterday though which made use of about six months worth of Weekend Guardian magazines which have taken up residence in the living room. See, it wasn't clutter and I shouldn't have tidied them away, so there! We went through them and cut out random facial features then selected the most interesting combination of eyes, mouths and noses to create collages. They have a bit of the Picasso about them, don't you think??

And the Jackson Pollock? I think I'm going to let that one go. I might drop the occasional hint though and see what happens :)

Saturday, 15 October 2011

If I Could Turn Back Time…… Ten Things I Would Tell My Past Self!

Don’t we all have these feelings? There are certainly things I wish I’d have done differently in life, times when I wish I could have another shot.

In terms of home educating, if I could go back in time and talk to my newly home educating self, I would tell me:

  1. You’ve made the decision to home educate so stop wavering and worrying about it. Have the courage of your convictions.
  2. Read more books. Read John Holt and Alan Thomas and John Taylor Gatto and more. They will inspire you and help you achieve Number 1 sooner.
  3. Stop trying a different approach every fortnight. Just stop, watch, listen to your children and hear the beat of their drums*. Then tune into them.
  4. Stop spending money on so many ‘educational resources’. You’re only doing it to make yourself feel better. Wait. Do Number 3. Then you’ll know what’s worth buying. In the meantime, spend the money on something else. Like chocolate.
  5. Don’t worry about J learning to read. He will. And he’ll do it despite, not because of, that reading scheme you just bought.
  6. Don’t buy that reading scheme. It will largely remain on the shelf for a few years, after which you’ll sell it on Ebay for a fraction of what you paid for it. Way to go with the waste of money!
  7. Don’t worry about the housework. Instead, learn to get used to the mess. It will be like this for years.
  8. Play.
  9. Get outside more. Find ways around the practicalities of small children and go camping. Stop putting it off ‘until it’s easier’ or you’ll miss out.
  10. Relax.

It hasn’t escaped my notice that they’re mostly about relaxing and not worrying. Oh, and buying stuff that I think will help stop me worrying. I suppose I must have been a bit of a worrier! I got there in the end and I’m a lot more chilled now, but I still have those moments of concern, particularly when we entered the realms of ‘to GCSE or not to GCSE’! Only now I take these moments as an opportunity to review what I’m doing, a sort of ‘quality control’. And I think to the future – what would my future self tell me now? I suspect the list wouldn’t be that different from that above, so I try to listen!

What would you tell your past self? Or, what do you think your future self would tell you?

* Hence the title of this blog. Did you get that? You did? Oh. Of course you did. Sorry :P

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Thinking about art under Fenland's big skies

Last year A decided she’d like to go to school for the first time. Having never been before, she was curious and so at the age of 9 we found her a place in the small village primary and she went straight into Year 5.

She fitted in immediately, and I mean within minutes! It was like she’d always been there. It does help that we live in a little village and have remained a part of the community even after taking the older ones out of school ten years ago (although I think everyone thought we were a bit strange - we were certainly the only home educators in the village!)

She had no consideration at all for me though. No sympathy that I now had to join the thousands of other parents across the country, getting myself up, dressed and organised of a morning. No understanding of how difficult this was!

However, I’m in the swing of it now (well, most days) and I have discovered that there is an upside to these structured weekdays. Not only am I getting myself a bit more organised, but walking to school every day is an ideal opportunity to fit in some daily exercise.

Now, when it comes to physical activity you could say I am somewhat challenged. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy sport. Sport and I have had a happy relationship for many years......... as long as there has been a TV screen between the activity and me. I see no reason to ruin that relationship by actually taking part. But I know I should actually get some exercise from time to time and I've often heard that the best way to do this is to find something you can fit into your daily routine, so you can keep it up on a regular basis. And, hey, whaddya know, now I actually have a daily routine, maybe I can fit something into it! So, the dog and I walk A to school and instead of coming straight home we take our morning constitutional along the river bank, where he can run and sniff and swim to his heart’s content and I can pound the grass and think.

Because another upside of these early mornings is that I get an hour to myself in the Cambridgeshire Fens, with all the space my mind needs. I mean, there’s a reason why the Fens are said to have big skies – just look:

On Thursday morning I spent the time thinking about art. More specifically, how I can get some art appreciation into our lives.

I decided to talk about it upfront. “With these GCSEs and other formal stuff we’re doing”, I said, “We’re in danger of getting really bogged down. I think it would be nice if we made time for some creative activities, especially since we don’t seem to have done much of that in recent months”. Nods of agreement, so I asked them if they’d like to look at some of the great works of art. We could see which we like, take a trip to London to the National Gallery and Tate Modern, maybe even try our hand at creating some works of art. They seemed to think this wouldn't be a bad idea (a trip to London is always popular!) and said they’d like to start by looking at Banksy.

So, yesterday morning we ditched the English and, armed with a few books found in the library plus the good ol’ internet, we started with Banksy. Here is one of his we liked lots:

Then we moved backwards into more general 20th Century art. We talked a bit about different art movements, found some paintings we liked:

Salvador Dali 'Persistance of Time'
And some we didn’t really get!

Kasimir Malevich 'Black Square'

I think what made the morning a success is that I hadn't planned it much. Apart from doing a bit of prior research so I could go quite quickly to some websites and images without faffing around, I tried to let the morning flow.

J (very nearly 13 years old) has decided he wants to have a go at a Jackson Pollock type creation, which sounds fab. Next week we plan to try out a few of his techniques. We’re going to rig up a makeshift thingy (that's a technical term, I think you'll find) in the car port from which to hang some of the old cans of paint we have in the garage and swing them over some wallpaper fixed to the ground. I reckon that with a few splashes and blobs he’ll be well on his way – I’ll be back next week to report!

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Not planning a curriculum…..

This week, B has been looking at George Orwell’s Animal Farm. She’s currently studying English Language, English Literature and History, all of which she will be taking as IGCSEs next summer, and so I put together a cross-disciplinary unit early in our programme which uses this book to neatly tie together our study of character, themes and WWII politics.

Did I convince you? Hmmm, maybe not………, but it was worth a try! Unfortunately I’m nowhere near that organised and I certainly don’t often have that kind of joined up thinking!

OK, what really happened was this. She is in fact studying for those three exams, that bit’s true! We started about three weeks ago. Up to now, I’ve not had to worry too much about English, particularly with the girls. They are naturally drawn to words and language. All I’ve needed to do is throw opportunities in their way and they’ve taught themselves. But formal English, such as you need to acquire for the purposes of passing a GCSE, is a different matter entirely. Composition, comprehension, themes, allegory, story, scene setting, writing to argue and persuade……… it’s all kind of interlinked, there’s no easy place to start, and you’re learning skills rather than facts. It’s just so goddam qualitative! This is definitely a ‘buy a book’ subject, but I have to wait until payday. So, in the meantime we randomly picked out ‘character development’ and I’m bumbling through trying to find free online resources for B to practice on.Turns out there’s quite a lot based around Animal Farm. It’s a short book, we have a copy on the shelf and the language is quite straight forward, so a good basis for an introduction, I thought.

It was about the time that we discovered that Mr Frederick, the owner of the neighbouring farm, represents Adolf Hitler, that the penny dropped that we were crossing into one of her History units, the Development of Nazi Germany. I know, I know, I was a bit slow on the uptake there. I’ve been busy, OK?!! But it did result in a digression into the political situation at the time and an attempt from me to explain communism, socialism, dictatorships and democracies (laughable, really! If anyone takes a sudden interest in politics I’m gonna be in big trouble and will DEFINITELY need to go out and buy a book. Or seven. Or find a tutor :( ) 

It all worked out quite well in the end and, if I phrase it like I did in the first paragraph, sounds almost impressive!

It got me thinking to how often this has happened over the years. It’s not that I don’t ever plan anything, or initiate projects; I do. While I would love to say that we have followed an autonomous path for a decade, my children directing their own learning all the way, this hasn’t been the best way for us. So, we’ve straddled the path between autonomy and structure, veering one way and then the other, trying to respond to the different needs of the child, the subject and the demands of daily life.

But I do believe that a lot of our best learning, all that cross-disciplinary stuff, has happened by chance rather than by design.  I’d notice it often when I wrote a report for the Local Authority (note: there is no obligation for home educators to write a report, it’s just something I’ve done a couple of times when I didn’t fancy a home visit. There’s no obligation to have one of those either, but I’ll talk about that another time!)

Where was I? Ah yes, reports. As usual, I’d have left my homework to the last minute, so I’d spend a couple of days turning out folders and boxes, scrabbling under beds and rifling through diaries trying to work out what we’d been doing for the past 12 months. And as I pulled it all together and started to sort all the activities and events, noticeable themes emerged.

The Tudors is a good example. We’d watched something on TV, I forget what, it was a few years ago. We’d also visited Burghley House, seen portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, created our own portraits, visited the tomb of Catherine of Aragon in Peterborough Cathedral, read about Henry VIII and his wives (it’s all that beheading that makes it so fascinating!), cut out some pictures and made a Tudor Dynasty family tree…..

When put together it sounded like a well-planned project, but it was far from it.  In reality, it was a genuine interest that led to us finding out more. Then, add to that some co-incidences (the trip to Burghley House just happened to be organised by a local home educators’ group, and we live near Peterborough and shop there and often used to take a walk through the cathedral), during which the Tudor connections were noticed because of the current interest. It didn’t all take place over any specific period; it was more like drip feeding over many months. In fact, the Tudors seems a recurrent theme and it’s still going on some years later.

This happens often in our house, and it works well, particularly it seems with historical themes. Everyone learns and remembers much more, because the whole thing arises out of a spontaneous interest rather than being scheduled into Term 2 of Year 4, whether you like it or not. And, I hope, we all retain the interest rather than having it taught out of us (as long as I can resist the temptation to jump in with two great feet and turn everything into an ‘educational experience’!)

And if it there’s one of us who isn’t quite as interested, then that’s not a problem. It’s amazing how much you pick up passively, just because it’s happening around you (I can vouch for that - my knowledge of football has increased exponentially over the last twelve years, largely by osmosis!) and, because we’re not sticking to a timetable, we can revisit it all whenever we like.

History is one of our most autonomous subjects, Geography too. This is largely because I am appalling at both (just ask my long-suffering friend Debbie, who has had the misfortune to be paired up with me for Articulate and Pictionary on many occasions!), but also because I am painfully aware how very easy it is to make them boring. ‘Right, children, today we are going to study the Magna Carta, followed by rainfall across the continents’. I can’t see that working, can you? So apart from the occasional project I’ve planned when I’ve noticed a gap in our learning – I don’t think it would have been very impressive if we’d got this far without the children finding out about the two World Wars for example – I’ve pretty much left it to chance.

And as it turns out, chance can be a fine thing. By leading an inquisitive sort of life and following whatever paths develop, a rich curriculum can plan itself!