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

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Bad Mummy Day

I was supposed to come and write about what we've been up to over the last few weeks, but I've not managed to get my thoughts together on it. It has been, as it always is, a bit of whirl. I spend way too much time driving them all where they need to go. And way too much money on the fuel to do it. How on earth people think home educated children are hidden from view is a mystery to me. We're barely in the house some days. And tied to the kitchen table 9am to 3pm? Managing it from 9am to 3 minutes past is a victory sometimes.

My fault in part, I suppose. Living in a small village stuck in the countryside was a fab idea when they were little. Now they're bigger it's rapidly losing its appeal. Especially since the shop has closed down and the bus service has been cut. Might seriously have to consider moving somewhere they can at least walk down the road and buy a pint of milk. Let alone get a part time job.

In between the driving there have been lots of activities though, either at the place we were driving to or back at home. Or even in the car sometimes. But you'll have to bear with me while I sort them out and find the photos I think I remembered to take. Instead I'll make you all feel better by confessing to being a bad parent today. Today I am letting them do whatever they like. Which means that one is still in bed and two have been playing the Xbox all morning. In their pyjamas. So there.

Well, really, it's exhausting being an inspirational educator all the time. At least, I assume it is. I don't think I manage it very often. When you have more than one child and they all like different things (very inconsiderate) and want to be inspired in different ways (downright rude) it's like spinning plates. It can look really impressive sometimes. Sometimes I can keep plates of many colours spinning for ages! But I can't keep it up forever. I'll lose concentration and they'll come crashing to the ground. Better that I pack them up from time to time and give them a rest.

And in the meantime they can inspire themselves. Even the Xbox can be a part of that. J was proudly showing me the World War I trench he's building on Minecraft.

So today I give myself permission to be a lazy parent!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Well, that was unexpected!

Just as you think you're getting used to the way it is, they go and move the goal posts don't they?

Last week the 'they' in question was A. Being the youngest, by the time she was 5 home education had become just a way of life for our family so sending her to school was not an option. Until she decided differently. Driven by curiosity she asked if she could go to the local village primary. Pros and cons were discussed, I tried not to take the request as a personal rejection of myself as a home educating mum (not easy I can tell you!) and A entered the school in Year 5. To those of you who have no idea what that means it's the penultimate year of primary school - so age 9!

She fitted in immediately and did really well. She's the most motivated, driven, self starter of a child, in fact she was a joy to home educate. She had taught herself to read and write and was highly literate. She is also very easy going, sociable and happy to go along with whatever activities are happening. All those skills and characteristics meant that school was a doddle.

Fast forward two years and after a very happy time at primary she was greatly looking forward to secondary school. We (including A herself) chose from the two that have a bus service from the village. Preparations were made, horrendously expensive school uniform purchased, bus pass applied for.

And all went well to start with. Lessons were fine, friends were being made, there was no trouble getting her up in the morning. A couple of minor hiccups - she got lost around the building a few times, missed the bus home once, but no major disasters.

And then the cracks started to show.

Right from the start the school had communicated its strict behaviour policy in no uncertain terms. No problem there, you think, it's unfortunately as it has to be. If you're going to choose to try and educate in bulk, hundreds of youths milling around the same institution for six hours a day, there has to be some crowd control. The thing was they just kept on and on about it - do this, don't do that, or this will happen. And A was really worried. Terrified that she'd forget her pencil case and get a detention. And detention these days, I have discovered, is immediate - 30 minutes after school on the same day. We were told that if that happened we'd be contacted during the day and - get this - we were not to make any family after school arrangements until after 3.00pm just in case!! Well, sod that!!

We brought this up in an early Parents' Evening. Well, A did in fact, so concerned was she. She asked her tutor what would happen if she genuinely forgot her pen. To give the tutors their due, they were very nice and tried to be reassuring. They said the rules were there so that pupils knew what was expected of them. That of course they understood that mistakes sometimes happen, that if a child who was normally well behaved just omitted to bring the right equipment one day they would loan them one.

It didn't help. The behaviour and punishment message was still being rammed home every day, in almost every lesson.

Then there was the grading. From the word go, the children were assessed and graded in every subject. And told what grade they should be aiming for. 'You're a 4b in English, we expect you to be a 5a by the end of this year'. She was even told what GCSE results she could expect based on her current grades!! Seriously, that's five years away! What did it for me especially was the Art grading. A was furnished with a list of achievements that would help her move up the grades, including such words of wisdom as 'colour within the lines'. I was dumbfounded. One trip around the Tate Modern shows that to be ridiculous. How can the children be creative with that kind of prescriptive attitude? Picasso wouldn't have done very well would he? 'Pablo, you really must try harder'!

While I was incensed at the box ticking mentality, I wasn't that surprised that it existed. What I was surprised at was the way it was so transparent to the children. So not only are they being taught to the test, they know it's happening. They are not encouraged to experiment or to express themselves, they are encouraged to comply with a set of conditions in order to receive praise and the reward of a nice healthy GCSE pass. And this environment is supposed to breed artists? And scientists? And entrepreneurs?

Of course that wasn't what A was thinking, but she was feeling the pressure. So she made a 'pros and cons' list (wonder where she got that from!). There were a couple of pros - one or two teachers were interesting, one or two lessons were enjoyable, one or two friends had been made. Tellingly, her cons list was longer. Many more of the teachers were grumpy or shouty, many more of the lessons were boring. Science in particular apparently, although she was interested in the kind of science we were doing at home.

I did persuade her to try school for a bit longer. With all my reservations about the system, it was such a quick change of heart for her I wanted her to be sure she was making the right decision. It might have been that she just needed to spend a bit longer getting used to the new environment. She only stayed another week, though, by which time she was adamant. We deregistered her last Monday.

And so my goal posts have moved. I am faced with a new challenge. Because A is going to be very different to educate. Her motivation is still there, she is still that driven self-starter she always was. In fact she educates herself really. But she requires, almost demands to be inspired and challenged. I'm going to need to be on my toes. So far, though, so good. Last week she raided the bookshelves for the (pretty small) collection of text books we have acquired over the years. They're in almost perfect condition really, since they have largely been rejected by all three older children. And finally I am justified in keeping them! My hoarding mentality has a use!! She's working through the English exercises, asking for algebra and talking about Latin. And Polish. Hmmmm..........I can envisage a request for 13 GCSEs including Ancient Greek!

Yesterday afternoon we had a go at some monoprinting - a first for both of use. A said it was 'the best art lesson ever'. Not sure that 'lesson' was quite the word, since the afternoon consisted of watching a quick tutorial followed by an hour or so of experimenting, but I was happy nonetheless!

And it feels so right. It feels like the natural order has been restored. I don't know if it's because we've been home educating for so long, but the concept of school just seems so alien to me now. In fact, the last four and a bit weeks have given me a newfound respect for all you parents supporting your children at school. How you put up with that daily grind, and keep your sanity, is beyond me. And for the schooled students. How you manage to get an education with all those obstacles deserves a round of applause at the very least. 

Next time someone discovers that we home educate and asks me 'I don't know how you do it!' I shall be asking the question right back!

Friday, 5 October 2012

Letting sleeping teens lie

It's the usual morning dilemma. Shall I, or shall I not, go and wake the teens?!

Yesterday was an especially busy one. Thursdays always are. We have recently joined a home ed multi-sports group which B and J are really enjoying. The opportunity for some regular team sport couldn't be ignored, but it's an hour's drive from us. So that's a two hour round trip for me for two hours of sport for them. It's well worth it though, for me also as I get to chat with some home educating parents AND the chance to play with the SatNav facility on my new mobile phone in order to find the place! Just as well it's only every fortnight though as I wince to see the petrol gauge head downwards so quickly!

Thursday mornings start as normal - I'm up with A before she heads off to catch the school bus. I then get B and J up so there's time for them to fit something in before we leave for the sport session - yesterday I managed to persuade them to write up an experiment on yeast they'd done a few days ago, while I finished off some work for a client, started the online Tesco order, paid the mobile phone bill and so on. We head off at around 11.00.

SatNav cool, sports enjoyed, chats agreeable!

Since I usually shop on a Friday, by Thursday we've normally run out of basics so it's a quick dash to pick up milk on the way home,which means we roll in at about 4.00. Chat with A who's just in from school, listen to her news, check if she has homework, try not to get annoyed with tales of the narrow minded educational demands she is subjected to on a daily basis ;)

Then it really gets busy!

Thursdays is the night that T, B and J all have various activities. In different towns. So the evening is pretty much a whirl of drop offs and pick ups for me, at the same time trying to work in things like dinner for everyone at different times to suit their schedule! Fortunately A is now old enough to be left at home so she enjoys a lovely evening in complete control of the TV remote and sitting in the comfy chair, chilling out while the rest of us whirl in and out of the house at speed! 

Their Dad comes over and takes care of J's football training transportation, which is a lifesaver really. I take B to her drama class, shoot back to sort out dinner for A and me. Keep an eye on the clock as I then have to leave to take T to football, straight to collect B and drop her back home. It's about 8.30 now so quick check that An is OK and back to collect T. Home at last by 9.30, another quick chat with A before I chivvy her off to bed as it's school tomorrow.

Sit down while T and B sort their own food out. They're plenty big enough for that! J is staying with Dad tonight so he's taken care of. Remember to finish off Tesco order otherwise I'd be looking forward to a delivery of four pints of milk tomorrow - not for the first time I'm ashamed to say!

Relax in front of telly with a glass of wine :) 

While finishing the Tesco order on my mobile (boy I do love that piece of technology!) I find a link to an article about Seth MacFarlane's forthcoming hosting of the Oscars and, more specifically, about the objections to this choice by a group in America called the PTC (Parents Televsion Council). MacFarlane, if you're not aware, is the creator of such shows as Family Guy and American Dad, renowned for being graphic and choosing controversial topics of humour! Knowing that they'll take an interest in this, I wave the article at Tom and Beth for a brief opportunity to raise the subjects of censorship, freedom of speech, personal and parental responsibility and so on. I decide not to start a 'conversation' though - this time it's enough just to leave it with them. Plus I'm tired and I'm not sure my brain would work very well!

B and I catch up with something on the Sky planner and when it's finished I'm about to suggest bedtime when we notice that the next programme - 'The Boy Who Can't Forget'. Intrigued we keep the telly on and it is indeed a very interesting look at a young man who has the ability to recall a vast amount of his life, being able to tell you what he was doing on whatever day in the past you care to choose. This is right up our street, especially since I did my degree in Psychology and B took the same subject for GCSE last year. But it turned out to be educational for us in other ways too. I comment on the boy's unusual name, Aurelien, and B reminds me that it was the name of one of the sons in the French family she stayed with on an exchange trip with her drama group last year. The mother then appears on the screen and appears to have a French accent - that probably explains the choice of name then! A little later on B comments 'I think he's gay', at which point, right on cue, the programme introduces a new person as 'his boyfriend' and continues with the investigation. We were very impressed by the way his sexuality was not swept under the carpet with vague allusions to 'his friend', but neither was it  given any disproportionate attention. It was just a fact, in the same way his having a sister, or a cat might have been. We applauded the production team!

The next programme which managed to catch our attention before we could get to the off switch was 'Embarrassing Bodies' which seemed to be largely about penises which bend. Well OK then! T appeared just at the right time (wrong time?!) to watch aswell. I'd not seen the programme before but it treated all the subjects in a professional, medical fashion so was pretty educational really. Although we couldn't quite work out what motivates people to actually be featured on the show!

When we finally fell into bed sometime past midnight our minds were well and truly full thanks to the impromptu learning opportunities that had been thrown our way by means of the box in the corner. There are many times that I feel like throwing it out of the window, such is the addictive nature of some of the tat that appears, but every now and then it does something to redeem itself. On reflection, last night turned into hours of learning which, in a school curriculum, might be planned and delivered as part of PHSE, but which I find just happens naturally in the course of our lives, unplanned and unforeseen and probably taken in a lot better as a result. We'd just stuffed a lot of it into a short space of time!

So yesterday turned out to be pretty full on as far as education is concerned. I'm not surprised the teens are tired! In which case I think a lie in is appropriate this morning. There's nothing magical about the hours between 9 and 3 which make them most appropriate for learning as I think yesterday demonstrates. It was also as good an example as I can think of recently of education being 'full time' and 'efficient'!

Letting them sleep also benefits me. Getting sufficient 'me time' can be one of the biggest challenges of home education and a couple of hours peace and quiet is not to be sniffed  at.

Having said that, B could sleep for England if left alone so I'll go and shake her in a bit. As flexible as home education is, you do actually have to be awake for some of it to happen!

But, maybe, just one more cup of tea first??

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Home ed in the holidays........It really is a full time education!

So the end of term arrived and the summer holidays began. We've always followed term times a bit, even during the years that all four children were home educated. You can't get away from it completely - on the whole their drama classes and Scouts followed term times, plus their friends in the village all stopped school, of course. Even the home educators group we went to ran only during term time. So we followed suit.

What this meant for us was a relaxing of the 'full on' nature of home ed. If any structured activities had been going on, we stopped them completely. No workbooks, no projects. We didn't ever do huge amounts of structured stuff anyway so I'm not sure they noticed a great deal of difference in that respect, but I certainly did. I felt free of the pressure to provide any activities or experiences for them, like I had given myself permission to just let them be, going through their day from one thing to another completely aimlessly if they liked! Everything just got a bit more relaxed. Even the TV/Xbox/PC rules, although I still had to keep an eye on that or it could be screen based activities 24/7.

Now they're older it works roughly the same. No GCSE studies over the summer, no daily Conquer Maths topics. Everyone just gets on with their own things. It's a little different in that I now have to be even more aware of the amount of time spent in front of screens - as a rule teenagers are known to be somewhat addicted in that respect and mine are no exception. It's also a little different now A is at school. Whereas B, J and I need a little space from each other, A is now around during the day and wants things to join in with so a bit of balancing is required!

On the whole it's been pretty laid back though. But don't think that means that no learning has been going on. It's obvious that it's happening all the time.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

There was the Olympics of course. I LOVE the Olympics, always have, which is a bit ironic seeing as I never do any sport myself, but there you go! I declared that just for this once the TV was mine. For 16 days I was going to have the Olympics showing as I got on with work and other commitments and the rest of the family were welcome to drift in or out of it as they wished. It's only once every four years so I decided I was allowed to be selfish! As different children watched different bits we all learned about countries we'd not heard of, sports we didn't know, the diversity of nations, the rewards of hard work and commitment. We saw the first female competitor from Saudi Arabia and the first Paralympian to take part in the Olympics. We talked about cheating and drug taking, the disappointment faced by some competitors. We learned about the history of the games and recalled talking about Jesse Owens' success in the Berlin Olympics during the History GCSE studies. We watched the medal table change and talked about alternative ways of measuring a country's success, such as how many medals won per head of population. And all that just through chatting, no plan or structure required.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Recently we took a trip to Thorpe Park. We were fortunate enough to have received free tickets through a friend (wouldn't have paid the entrance fees even if we could afford it!). First lesson - handling disappointment, when the very ride that was most looked forward to wasn't working. With teenagers this is slightly easier than similar disappointments with toddlers, but it was touch and go for a bit! On the way around we all remarked how easy it is to spend an awful lot more money on top of the entrance fee, despite the fact that we'd brought a picnic so didn't need to buy food. A pound for this, a pound for that, £3.00 for a Fast Track ticket if you want to avoid the horrendous queues.

We also learned that the walk-in driers provided at the exit of the water rides (another £2.00 each) are rubbish and that it would have been a good idea to pack spare clothes!!

As T remarked, 'It's full of ways to take your money!' Too right - another lesson learned?

There were in fact two or three rides not working so all visitors were being given a free ticket to come back another day. 'Hmmm...', we thought, 'If they're so quick to forego the entrance fee, doesn't that tell you something about how much money they make on all the extras inside?'

Having said all that, they really enjoyed the rides they went on and we'll probably make use of the free return tickets, and budget ahead to buy several Fast Track tickets for the most wanted rides, ignoring all the other money grabbing optional extras. After all, it's not about never spending your money, it's about being aware of the power of marketing, making informed choices and sticking to a budget. 

Blimey, and I thought we were just going to a Theme Park!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

When the children were younger, there were often days that went like this:

Child: 'I'm bored!'

Me: 'How about we (insert activity here)?'

Child: 'Nah...'

Me: 'OK'

Child: 'But I'm bored!'

Me: 'What about (insert alternative activity)?'

Child: 'Nah...'

And so on. You get the picture. It's much the same now they're older, when I issue the 'Screens off' order! But years ago I learned a trick. Rather than try and suggest activities ad infinitum, I would just pick one and do it myself. I wouldn't invite them, but nine times out of ten they'd end up joining me anyway :)

Last week, unusually for me, I had an urge to paint. I'd seen instructions for a brightly coloured abstract that I thought even I could handle so I started to get the materials out. Hmm, I thought, I wonder if that trick still works now they're older...

A was with me like a shot. That's not much of a test though since she is always motivated to do pretty much anything and she had some unopened acrylics she was keen to use. More surprisingly was that J joined us and we spent three hours painting while listening to Frank Sinatra (who the older ones had heard of through Family Guy, lol!)

Despite a near disaster of me dripping blue paint all over my laptop keyboard (aarrgghh!) it all went pretty well. Here's J's geometric abstract:

And here's A's painting, inspired by one she saw for sale earlier in the week:

Both created from their own imaginations. I, however, have very little imagination and had to follow a set of instructions to produce this:

I was pretty pleased with it though :)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Last night it was just the girls and I. I'd bought a couple of steaks so we took advantage of the weather and had a mini barbecue, complete with a treat of wine for me and fizzy drinks for them. Oh, and a bit of ice cream! We ended up sitting outside until midnight. No-one wanted the TV, we just turned off the lights and watched the stars come out. We spotted a few constellations we recognised and the Milky Way and were pleased we lived in a rural area with very little light pollution. We saw the International Space Station pass overhead (we've been out space-station-watching a few times so we recognise it when we see it now!) and did a quick bit of research to find out who is in it right now and how long they are up there for.  We realised that it's not that long ago that the idea of Americans and Russians working together up there would have been unheard of!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

So there you have it. A selection of just a few of the ways in which our learning has continued this summer. No lesson plans, exercises or 'writing it up'. If you're home educating younger children and have been wondering how autonomous education works when they're older, I think it's kind of like that!! We're not a 100% autonomous family, at least two of my children struggle to motivate themselves all the time and need some guiding (and indeed appreciate it - so maybe that is kind of autonomous after all!) but a great deal of education happens just by us doing things and being together. And that's education for all of us, myself included.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

And back to normality.....sort of

It has been so long since my last post. We've had a few months of rather dramatic change in the family which have been distracting and taken most of my attention; in addition there were the dreaded IGCSEs which B sat during May! But things have calmed down a bit now and I hope to be able to drop in more often!

When I started this blog I intended to give some idea of what it's like to home educate. To go someway to answering the questions 'What do you do all day?' or 'How on earth do you get teenagers to do anything?' So I'll try and post more regularly about our everyday activities and hopefully you'll be able to build up a picture.

Since the IGCSEs exams were in May, they were the primary focus of our day for a good couple of months before that. B sat two - History and English Literature. This might not seem much, especially when you consider that in school children often sit many more than that, but it's a different ball game when you're going it alone. For a start, we began these in September, so only 8 months to cover the whole course instead of two years. It's perfectly do-able, but it does mean the workload for each subject is double that of a schooled child. Also, we found these two subjects to be particularly heavy in terms of the material that had to be covered. To top it all, we did these completely alone - no distance learning course, no tutors. So as well as learning the material we had to trawl through books, websites and past papers to work out how to answer the questions in the exam!

And that was the only bit we didn't like really. B did enjoy studying the material, largely because as a home educated student you get to pick the topics you actually want to do, instead of being restricted to the ones the teacher has chosen. So for English she chose Romeo & Juliet and Pride & Prejudice, partly because she was already familiar with both and had acted in a version of Romeo & Juliet a couple of years ago. There was also an Anthology of poems. It's been a while since I had to consider iambic pentameter, personification and dramatic irony and I have to admit it took a while to get the old cogs going!

For History she chose The First World War; Development of a Dictatorship: Germany Between the Wars; Civil Rights in the USA; and Changes in Medicine. Again, being able to choose your topics was a big bonus.

So, interesting stuff. Not so interesting, though, was having to learn how to regurgitate it in just the right way to pass the exam and it was very hard to get B motivated and working in that way. So much so that she took a lot longer than she should have done covering the material and we were left with very little time to revise and do practice papers. So, for the weeks up to May our days were pretty much like this:

Poor old J was left to his devices a lot of the time! He quite enjoyed this period of autonomy though. We recently invested in a subscription to Conquer Maths, an online course, and both B and J are enjoying taking themselves through it. So each day J would do a couple of topics of his Maths, followed by a page or two of his English workbook (amazing how happy he is to continue getting to grips with spelling and grammar now - and how pleased I am that leaving it until he was ready, no matter how late that seemed, was the right approach). Then he'd get on with whatever took his fancy - reading his book (currently 'I Am Number Four' by Pittacus Lore - a huge change from last Autumn when I blogged about his learning to read); working on his project (a book about the guns that appear in an Xbox game! Ah well, it was his project, not mine, and did after all involve research, history and writing!); baking (such as testing several different recipes for brownies to see how they differed and why - and which were the nicest!); or whatever else he felt like.

At the same time I found myself without a car for three months, living as we do in a village with a pitiful bus service. We did use the buses though and they brought lots of new experiences, such as listening to the chatter of the regulars going to town on market day; catching the connecting train to Peterborough on a Saturday; trawling through timetables finding out where we could actually get to without a car. Hardly anywhere it turns out, or at least not if we wanted to get back home the same day! Cue discussion about the pros and cons of cars versus public transport and whether the government should perhaps do more to provide a viable alternative for those of us in the countryside!

Then there were all the 'normal' activities, such as caring for the animals, chores, television, football matches for J and drama classes (and a production) for B, all of which enrich us in many ways.

All in all this period of relative inactivity hasn't been as sparse in the educational department as I thought it would be. J has benefited from the downtime and is ready to forge ahead with some new projects. After a couple of weeks to recover from exams, Beth is also much more receptive to the idea of some forward thinking and planning. And I feel I've recharged my batteries and am ready to go :)

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Why a home educator is not a teacher

It's Parents' Evening time. Needless to say, I'm not looking forward to it. Not having Parents' Evenings is one of the major bonuses of home educating your children as far as I'm concerned but since A decided to go to school I've not been able to avoid them.

There's no reason I should fear them really. A's school is a friendly, small village primary, A herself is doing just fine there and her teacher is nice, so it's not as if a 15 minute chat is difficult. 

It's just that, well, I can't bring myself to care very much! That sounds dreadful, so I feel some further explanation is required! It's not that I don't care about A's education or happiness, of course. It's just that I really have no interest in how many boxes she ticks or what her predicted SATs levels are. I've been responsible for her education all her life. In law I still am, as are all parents responsible for their children's education, even though I am currently delegating the 9-3 weekday learning experience to the local educational establishment. Legalities aside though, I still interact with her, I'm still aware of how she's progressing within said establishment and indeed how much she is learning outside of it! Home education doesn't stop just because a child goes to school ;) I know she's doing great and don't need to be told which of a certain set of relatively arbitrary criteria she is or is not meeting.

I do appreciate the work that goes into these evenings. I appreciate the extra hours put in by the teachers and I also appreciate that it's not just about how well she's done at Maths this term. These evenings are an opportunity to hear how your child is perceived outside of the home (always fascinating - are they talking about the same child?!) and for teachers and parents to share any concerns, not just academic but personal. But even that seems as if she's being measured. 'Joins In Class Discussions?' - TICK! 'Willing To Answer Questions In Class?' - TICK! 'Polite And Helpful?' - TICK!

Sitting there, I feel like a stranger in an unfamiliar country. I understand the language but it feels odd. The customs and attitudes don't sit well with me. As a home educator, I may be totally immersed in my children's education but never am I more certain that I am NOT a teacher than when I am in a Parents' Evening.

This was brought suddenly into focus at the last one. I remember the discussion was about Maths. It's probably A's weakest subject but there are no real problems. She's just not progressing as fast as she is in, say, English. Translation ....... there are a few boxes she hasn't ticked yet! When explaining her 'level' in the subject the teacher was talking about her abilities when she came into school in Year 5, where she is now and where they expect her to be by the end of Year 6. I'm paraphrasing, but the phrase used was something like 'We'll try to get her to Level 4'.

It was a throw-away comment, unimportant really in the context of what was an excellent report overall. But on the way home the phrase was echoing in my mind uncomfortably until it dawned on me. The assumption behind it seems to be that the teacher is the main factor in improving a child's performance. The child's own thought processes are secondary, resulting from the hard work the teacher puts in. 

I don't mean to suggest that any individual teacher has an inflated sense of his or her own importance, but that within the system the accepted model is 'teacher imparts knowledge to child'.

In home education the emphasis is different. I think I am typical of home educating parents in feeling that it is primarily the child who drives their own learning. We may bring experiences to them, put things in their way, but it is their own engagement that is crucial. Some days I feel that I have very little to do with their education at all, I might as well be a clanging bell! It sounds like some kind of politically correct cliched job description, but the phrase 'Learning Facilitator' better describes how I see my role. And that's not all the time - sometimes I would do better to just leave them alone!

As home educators we're existing in a different paradigm of the whole learning process. One which writers like John Holt have recognised, studied and described so well. He summed it up so well in an article from Growing Without Schooling magazine from 1984 when he said "Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners."

No wonder I feel so out of touch in a classroom!

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Film censorship - getting it wrong

I've always thought of myself as quite conscientious when it comes to deciding whether or not to let my children watch a particular film or TV show or play a particular game. I'm not sure if I would say I'm strict (although the kids might disagree!) it's just that I've tried to make sure that they're not exposed to too much, too soon, before they have the maturity to handle it.

I think I may have taken the decision making process to extremes sometimes, insisting on watching films myself first. Oh, those lost hours! Still, '8 Mile' (a 15 film which required viewing to see if my 13 year old could watch it) was surprisingly good.

Anyhow, we went as a family to the cinema a couple of days ago. Family activities aren't especially easy to arrange now, the age gaps seem huge and it's more difficult to find things that everyone wants to do. Cinema is normally a pretty safe bet (after the extensive discussions and disagreements over which film, of course), apart from the fact that although the three eldest are now teenagers (help me!!), the youngest is still only 10 so any movie rated 12A requires a decision as to whether it's suitable.

I'm sure many of you with more than one child won't be surprised to hear that my level of conscientiousness, just like my parenting as a whole, has become, umm, shall we say become somewhat more relaxed over the years. That's not to say that I don't care now. It's more that I'm not so obsessive about it. I'm also aware that the family my current ten year old lives in, as the youngest of four, bears little resemblance to the family my eldest lived in when he was ten, despite the family members being the same. It's just birth order. Whilst T at that age was a member of a primary-school-and-younger aged family, A is being raised in a family of 'grown ups' and even with my attempts to extend her childhood as long as possible, it is bound to have an effect.

So because of this, and also I think partly because it's who she is, A is quite mature in what she can handle in terms of films. As she is approaching 11, I usually feel that a 12 rated film will be fine, so this time, it being a snap decision to go to the cinema, I didn't really pause to question it. I'd seen a trailer for the film we were seeing so it can't have jumped out at me as including anything to be wary of.

Unfortunately, it appears that this time I'd got it wrong and, although not distraught, A was a bit upset by parts of it. I was kicking myself for not researching more thoroughly in advance, but decided the best course of action was to acknowledge her feelings and open it all up by having us all talk about what we thought of the film. Getting it out helped and it even turned into a bit of a learning opportunity, as we discussed the responsibilities of the ratings committee. B and J were of the opinion that it should have been a 15, which ironically would have meant that J wouldn't have been able to see it either! I said I'd dock myself five Parent Points which the cheeky blighters agreed with and explained that these kind of decisions aren't always easy. They appeared to nod with understanding, so you never know, they might even take a 'No' decision without arguing in the future. I live in hope!

How do you choose which films your children can see? Is it easier or harder as they get older? Do you ever get it wrong?

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Weaning Teens from Screens - Progress (I think!!)

I had a bit of a panic last week. I finally got around to contacting the school we've used previously for sitting GCSEs, only to find out that they are full this year and can't accommodate any external candidates. Given that I'd left it to the last minute, as usual, and the deadline for entering was fast approaching, this threw me somewhat! I was only aware of one other centre in Cambridgeshire, but that one is a bit of a drive for us and charges a bit more than I can afford, so I hastily began emailing around for some suggestions.

After a few hours I had a handful of places to try (gotta love the internet!!) including a state school just a few miles down the road. I wasn't hugely confident, given that on the whole state schools don't consider external candidates, but I gave it a shot and bingo! For some reason (I'm not sure why)they will only accept over 16s, but since B was 16 just a few days earlier we scraped in. How lucky! I can't think why they have this ruling but I'm not complaining! The charges are also very reasonable.

So, panic over and I turned my mind to reviewing the situation I was talking about a few weeks ago. Have I managed to wean my teens from their seeming dependence on screen-based activities?

Well, our weekdays certainly have a more constructive feel to them. I've got them making a list each morning of things they want to achieve in the day (an idea I pinched from my friend Ross, thanks Ross!! See her blog here: I've had them thinking about whether they need to prioritise anything (like GCSE studies, now we're committed to the exams!), but also to make sure that they have a mixture of activities in there. So, maybe start with The First World War followed by Pride and Prejudice and some Maths, but also throw in some baking, or photography, or walking the dog. I don't want them to think I expect them to list just academic activities. Neither do I expect them to follow their list in order, or complete everything by the end of the day. Things often take longer than we expect and life can throw a curve ball from time to time and our plans don't quite work out. But I am trying to get them to think about their days instead of just meander through them aimlessly.

How has this helped with the screen dependency? Well, the Xbox, Wii, computer games etc are not activities to appear in their planning! These are things they can do once they've been through their list (or had a fair stab at it anyway!). And it seems to be working. Prior to this, given the chance, they would just fritter the hours away on Minecraft. And if I banned screens until, say, 4.00pm, they would spend most of the day clock-watching and still achieving very little.

It's not a foolproof system. They're still a bit too keen to get to the screens and a bit too distraught if I declare them off limits for today. And we still have grey areas. "Can I go on Youtube, mum?" Well, that depends. Are you just looking at various films of cats falling off TVs or are you researching something? Are you just watching Minecraft videos to get around the fact that you can't play it right now, or have you actually started a project to film and commentate one of your own? But rather than simply laying down the law, I'm trying to get them to see the difference and monitor their own time. And that's not going to happen overnight is it, that's lifelong learning!

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Weaning teenagers from screens!

Well, hello again, and a (somewhat belated) Happy New Year to you all. Over a month since my last post, tut tut. I can partly explain this by the weeks of work put in just before Christmas to produce issue 5 of the home ed magazine I publish with my friend and colleage Lorena. Here it is:

I'm sure I'm allowed a quick plug on my own blog so here's the website Go and take a look - Issue 1 is free :)

Anyway, this time of resolutions has had me thinking about what could stand a little change around here. We've got into a bit of a rut over the last couple of years really. The pressures of everyday life piled up and my mojo upped and left, taking with it much of my spark and motivation for home education!

Don't get me wrong, it's not that we've done nothing. Good old life learning has been put to the test and come up trumps. We've cooked, decorated, walked the dog and cared for the chickens. We've learned from TV (thanks Horrible Histories!), laughed (thanks again, Horrible Histories!) and shopped on a budget. We've had trips out, near and far. There have been all kinds of achievements, from football success to drama accomplishments, GCSEs passed, books read. The two eldest spent a week and half sailing on the Tall Ships Cruise.

But I have become a bit concerned about the over reliance on screen based interests. All that above doesn't take up huge amounts of time and, all too often, the Xbox, computer, Wii or TV appear to be the default activities. The things everyone chooses to do when they first get up, or come in from wherever we've been, without much thought.

Now, I have nothing against gaming. Over the years I've seen proof of the learning that comes from them, often in the most unexpected ways. For example, T has an excellent knowledge of world flags from playing football games. And some months ago I was most surprised to learn that one of the Xbox games that I thought involved pretty much nothing more than as many hours of shooting as you could cope with actually followed battles and weapons of the Second World War with a great deal of accuracy and which we could then put into context.

More recently they've taken to Minecraft which fascinates me because of its incredibly rough and simple graphics. I would have thought that these days nothing short of HD quality would impress, but it appears that the attraction of this game is in its substance, which it appears to have in spades, over style, and that impressed me.

And I'm a fan of gaming myself. My particular favourites are Civilization IV, The Sims and Emperor and I have in the past spent a great deal of time on them. And that's the point really. No matter how educational, they can be very addictive. Very. It's easy to find that hours have gone past while you're trying to build the perfect house and there is no time left for anything else. And then the lure of going back to it the next day can be almost irresistible.

And so I find that, if left to their own devices, probably three out of my four children will do little else. I've tested out the advice much touted that they will tire eventually and move on, but it just doesn't seem to happen. Maybe it's my fault, maybe I'm just not that good a motivator, but totally autonomous education in our house does seem to lack some variety!

Fortunately, as the New Year starts I find that my mojo has returned. I've managed to wade through a lot of the heavy stuff that was holding me down and I've gained some brain space to focus on the gaps in our home ed. And the first thing I'm tackling is the screen time! 

New Year, New Rules. No more Mister Nice Guy! Screen time now has to be earned. I've been getting my teens to think of other things they would like to do, interests they could be persuaded to pursue. I'm getting them to sit down with me each morning and set some goals for the day. These could involve some GCSE work or a bit of Maths on the BBC Bitesize website. Their list could include cleaning out the guinea pigs, trying out a new recipe or practicing a photography technique. We'll put some trips into the plan, with groups or as a family. And we'll make sure there's a lot of variety. But the gaming and undemanding TV will come last, to be used as a wind down instead of a reason to get out of bed!

But I'm going to need to be strong. It's all too easy, when the going gets tough, to give in to the pleas and bargains and let my guard down. There will be days when I'm feeling so overwhelmed having to juggle my own work and the household chores that I'll struggle to find the brain space to keep the education going too and it will be tempting to allow the Xbox 'just this once' to get a few hours of uninterrupted time!

So, I'm making my pledge here, in the hope that I'll then be more likely to stick to it! During term times and week days (we like the structure of taking weekends and school holidays off) gaming and 'TV surfing' is strictly limited, to be enjoyed only after periods of involvement in other activities of choice!

I'll be back to report how we're doing. I'd love to hear your views too - do you have self regulating children, or do you have to play the role of screen police too?!!