Saturday, 16 August 2014

Where does learning happen?

Well, just so you don't spend too much time thinking up clever answers, I'll give you a spoiler. In the learner's head.

This wasn't a geography question, because actually geographically, learning happens wherever the learner is when they absorb something new or make a new connection or see something that makes the curious. Connections and little sparks are always happening in a child's head, whether we know it or not. Whether we can measure it or not.

So learning might happen in a classroom. It might happen in bed reading a book. It might happen during a conversation with a bus driver. It might even happen while watching something on the telly, or while playing a video game. And it might be something that benefits the learner, and might not be.

But basically learning happens in the learner's head. Which is why ultimately, very little we do as educators can determine what is learned. The learner will retain the information that is valuable to them. We can offer opportunities for learning, and try to have fun along the way.

So I guess you know what my views on compulsory curricula are? Or on any curricula? Any curriculum is formed by somebody who decides what is worth knowing. One must know about the Romans and the Victorians. One must know about nouns and verbs. One must know about the angles of triangle. WTF? What if you want to know all about Pokemon, or Phil and Dan, or Dr Who, or how much chocolate you can eat in one day? (And many other things I have to live with!)

Actually, I want to know about knitting cables, and growing brassicas, and mortgage interest rates, and anything that takes my fancy. As an adult, I get to choose. So why can't kids choose? Why do so many intelligent adults deny that kids have curiosity, that they have an innate interest in the world around them and that they are capable of  learning without being instructed all the damn time. (Sorry, but I do get angry at the way some adults treat children!)

Of course, this is easily said. But the reason I have been thinking about this has to do with me having a brilliant idea to teach something, and it being completely rejected by the learner. In this case, the 4 year old one.

So we had a cardboard box. And instead of putting it in the blue bin, I though we could make a diorama. We have done dioramas before. They are fun. They can also be educational. And this one certainly was.

For me.

I offered up my brilliant idea to The Babe! "Yay!" She was very excited about the idea of a diorama. I suggested, an underwater theme, or a forest, or a desert. (Can you see where I am going?) She really wanted to do a camel. So deserts it was.

I plonked her on my knee in front of the computer to research deserts and look at Google Images.

"I want a camel!" Of course, dear little one. But look - there are bactrian camels and dromedaries.

"I want to colour in one with two humps!" Of course, dear little one to whom I am imparting great knowledge. That is a bactrian camel. They are found in the Gobi desert.

"I want a cactus!" Oh no dear little one, that image of cactus that you wish to colour in is a Saguaro cactus. They are found in the southwest deserts of America, whereas if you want a Bactrian camel, we shall concentrate on the Gobi desert.

(See my great idea coming into focus! Habitats! Flora and Fauna of different deserts! Using Art! We could do all sorts of dioramas!)

"I want it to have a pink flower!" (Slight detour to sing a Kimya Dawson song!)

I tried for a little bit longer. And then I remembered that the reason I started was to do something fun with The Babe. That she is a child and I am her mother and the best thing that I can teach her is that the world is lovely and so is she and that we should laugh whenever we can. Kimya Dawson helped. :-) And we should definitely add a bit of colour to the world too.

This is her diorama. :-)

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Putting childhood into context..

I am not really sure what the title of this post means, but they are the only words that I can think of to describe what I want to say. Having been a home educator for so long means that I have seen a lot of changes in what some of us laughingly call "the home ed community." (I say "laughingly" because the whole point of home ed is to foster and appreciate individuality and a range of learning styles and goals, so basing a community on difference is a bit of a joke.) But the context that I am talking about is mostly time, or Time!

There has been a wonderful growth in the numbers of people rejecting school. They do not all reject the school model of learning, as I do, but it has been nice to see more and more kids not having to live their lives according to school timetables and government agenda. it comes...

Why do all of these new people think they have to do it ALL!? And RIGHT NOW!? Phew! I find some of them quite exhausting, and others just hard to get to know or to hook up with because they are all so damn busy. 

And it was the special circus skills class for 4-6 year olds which finally prompted me to write this blog post. Not that I have anything against circus skills. :-) In our home ed life, we have made stilts and learned to juggle. But for 4-6 year olds?

There are dozens of activities going on...which is a good thing for all of those individuals to follow their interests. But it does seem to me that it isn't the kids making the choices. It is the parents filling their time, worried that their child is GOING TO MISS SOMETHING! There is skateboarding, and ballet, and French and Spanish, and Montessori group, and Steiner group, and rock climbing, and gymnastics, and roller skating, and drumming, and art, and drama, and horse riding, and chess, and of course, circus skills. (There is more, but you get the idea.)

One of the observations I made of friends with kids while I just had the one, and was yet to make the decision to home educate had to do with the prevalence of the schedule. I knew so many kids who went to school and NEVER had down time. After school clubs included gymnastics, and horse riding, and art, and swimming lessons, and music, and French, and...and...and...

Does the list begin to sound familiar?

I thought it really sad that these children had no time of their own. No time to learn how to live with the thoughts in their head; to learn how to be bored; to learn how not to be bored; to reflect on all of the learning they had or had not done; to think about the books they might be reading; or to make up recipes in the kitchen; or to paint things just to see what paint does; or to tie knots in strings; and use fuschia flowers as money in play shops in bushes; or to just look at the shapes of clouds, and watch a snail climb a tree, and to experience the joy of just being. Just Being.

Kids need to play. They need to play A LOT! They need to get things wrong, and fall over, have fights with their peers, and to have free time. It doesn't matter that all of the things are fun. Who wouldn't want to do skateboarding and drumming? But really?! 4 year olds? 5 year olds? 6 year olds? Doing ALL of those things? They have got years. I know that the time passes quickly. But we do get to enjoy more of it if we are not keeping to a damn time table of activities.  They have got years.

Back when I used to work for EO, one of the themes that kept coming up was this idea of a broad and balanced curriculum. To the schooled mind, broad and balanced means having to do a little bit of everything, every week. So a weekly timetable includes English and Maths and Science and Geography and History and Language and PE and RE and Citizenship and Nutrition and all sorts of compulsory things. Nothing is done to any depth and so remains largely worthless. Broad and balanced is looking at the whole of the horizon at once, and only seeing what is on the surface, and from only one viewpoint.

To the unschooled mind, broad and balanced covers decades. It means you take turns submersing yourself in a variety of different things over the years. You find your natural talents. You find the things that interest you. You might go through a phase of reading everything you can get your hands on, or a phase of having family spelling bees, or a phase of really being interested in classical mythology, or wanting to memorize the capitals of the countries of differing continents, or want to learn German, or French, or Japanese, or watch a lot of Shakespeare, or a lot of musicals, or make messy science experiments in the kitchen, or look for things in the night sky, or make up line dances, or go to theatre summer schools, or fund-raise for Scouts, or bake lots of cakes, or climb lots of trees, or perfect your handstand, or try to jump really high, or do somersaults on the trampoline, or do calligraphy, or learn the piano, or the guitar, or the ukelele, or different kids of drum, or sing, or pick up litter in the street, or plant trees, or go sailing, or get really good at doing face paints, or take photographs, or write stories, or do workbooks, or make bhajis, or bake bread, or grow flowers, or grow potatoes, or re-enact history, or re-enact Jackie Chan films, or do your nails, or dye your hair, or knit, or sculpt, or hammer nails into wood, or watch DVDs, or play Magic, or Pokemon, or Minecraft.

All of these are things that my kids have actually done over the years. Notice again the word "years".  If you are just starting out on the home ed journey (which, like children, will not go the way you plan) you will undoubtedly be really excited and do lots and lots of things and just want to submerse yourself and your children in this wonderful and freeing new way of life.

But then, at some point, please stop, and take a deep breath, and notice how wonderful your kids already are. Let them be that way for a while. Let them take joy in learning to tie their laces, or count to 100, or make purple from red and blue, without trying to turn it into a worthy experience, or post on Facebook or Instagram about it, or decide that they are going to be a mathematician or a painter, and then take them to a class. If they want to drum, get out the pots and pans. They don't need a Djembe. :-) They are just little people, and can do without us turning them into blank slates upon which we have to pile lots and lots of experiences. Their brains need a lot of time to figure out the world and their place in it. Allow them that time. And take some for yourself!

Save your money. Save your petrol. Save your sanity. Spend the day in the park more often. Go swimming for fun and not for lessons. Make some new friends. Don't be afraid to be bored. Bored is good. It is the first step to being creative.

And if you get to the end of the week, and you say you accomplished one thing? Well done you! Because when you get to the end of your kid's childhood, the list will be a lot longer, and you will have had a lot of time together, just being. :-)

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Exploration and Discovery part 1

I have been trying to remind myself about all of the thinking I used to do about the nature of education. When I was home educating my older children, it was all new, and I enjoyed discovering other philosophers and educational writers and thinking about their ideas and how they applied to my experiences. I was learning, and I was enjoying learning.

Which meant that I really enjoyed watching my children learn. Watching them discover things, and problem solve, and reject my advice, and prove me wrong (only occasionally), was part of my learning processes.

These days I find I am inhibited by my desire to go on and do other things, think about things I haven't been able to think about for a while, and again, just have new experiences. So I am pleasantly surprised when I get to watch the Babe figure something out, or want to explore new things. (The main problem there is that she is just too energetic for me but that would be yet another moaning post, and this one is supposed to be about the nature of discovery.)

Discovery and exploration are natural processes of education. Learning happens when you find something that you didn't know about, and  you find out about it. It happens with babies, when they learn about gravity while sitting in their high chairs dropping everything they can reach on the floor while you hand things back to them again and again...until you get fed up. Because you know how gravity works already.

Children have an innate sense of curiosity about the world in which we live. School education does all in its power to squash that learning. Actually, quite a few parents to as well. We worry about how others will view our parenting, or judge us by our kids, and we try to make the kids fit the expectations.

We shouldn't have expectations.

Not even the "All I want is for my child to be happy!" kind. Wow, what a lot of pressure that is for a young person. They have to pretend to be happy, just so you can feel like a good parent. Phew.

But back to curiosity and discovery. I was thinking about this a bit when we went on a trip to the Bolton Transport Museum a couple of weeks ago. We walked up to the building,  talking about the stones it was made of, and the cobbles under our feet, and as we walked inside in group formation I was trying to engage the Babe so she didn't run off into the fabulous space and stayed with the group. So I talked quietly to her about the huge wheels and we were measuring ourselves against the wheels and looking at what they were made of.

And then the leader started the lesson or activity. And the first quarter of an  hour was noticing the stones and the cobbles and the wheels and finding wheels that were smaller and bigger than ourselves and observing what they were made of. :-) Please note that I am not complaining, as we had a really good day. I am just observing. :-)

But it was a reminder that all we do is educational. Every  little thing we notice when we are on the bus, or watching the pigeons, or baking cakes, or hanging out the washing, or making shadow hands, or reading stories, or having a conversation, or all constitutes education. It is not separate from living.

All of the things that parents do (when they have the time and resources) with their children constitutes education. And yet, we as a society make parents believe that our children can only learn from "qualified" teachers and professional educators. In the example above, in visiting the museum, my daughter and I had a couple of minutes of conversation about the environment we were in. She was observing and noticing things just like I was. But the professional who was leading the group dragged it out to be a morning's activity.

(As an aside, we had a lovely day and I am not getting at the leader. I am just pointing out that things happen differently when you have a large group because all of the kids are noticing different things naturally and are interested in different things, and the leader has to bring all of those active curious minds to a single task. So that is another reason that institutional learning inhibits individual learning and exploration. Too much energy is used to keep kids on task. All of their potential learning energy is wasted.)

And now I have to stop because my lovely little 4 year old is using her energy to get me off of the computer. So much for the trip to the allotment with her dad,  where she used her energy to explore the alley where she wasn't supposed to go, after exploring the biscuit tin in the shed, and not staying on task, getting the manure spread.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Being Authentic

I realize that this blog has turned into a couple of things that I did not intend. When I started blogging, I had intended for my posts to be more like debates on the nature of education. I have a lot of those conversations with people (well, I used to) and I think about it a lot. I reject state education as a form or social control, I hate the conveyer belt actions of  tests and targets, and I despise the fact that governments and politicians make policies that will benefit them electorally, and not benefit our children and our families.

But really, I find that primarily, I am a mother. I have to find the time to think, and I have to get through each day, and regardless of my thoughts on education, I have just as much to do and distract me as the home schooling evangelical American mother and the working British  mother who sends her kids to school and still doesn't have enough time to get things done.

I end up using this space to remind myself that we have had some good times, which helps me when I am questioning what I am doing. And I use it to express my nostalgia, and my desire to do 'other things' and sometimes I just ramble. Which is a shame really, because I have some really interesting thoughts. They are just stuck in a head with inconsistent organizational ability.

Or maybe, I just never get to the computer because the kids are on it. :-)

But I have been thinking about why I am so adamant to home educate the Babe, even though I have not been very happy for the past couple of years. Of course, I should point out that the only reason I can rally look at this objectively is because things are on the up.

I have felt a bit cheated. I did think that I was eventually going to go back to do more post grad study, and get a job, and some kudos, and some money. Mothers don't get those last two just for being mothers. And while I have struggled with the searching for a part time job, or how to get funding to do more study, and how to home educate another child when my network of parents are all moving on to other things because their kids have grown up, quite a few people have said to me, "Why don't you just send her to school?."

It never seemed an option. Not really. My belief that the school system we have is terribly damaging to children is so much a part of me now, that I had to really force myself to consider this option. And in the end, (although the end isn't here yet) I find that the problem solving I want to do is all about how to make home education continue to work for us.

I am old and tired and a bit burnt out and things are not as I had imagined, and yet I am still me, and I have to be true to that being, and it does not include sending the Babe to other people to be educated, and let's face it, RAISED, by people who have their own agenda for what my child learns, and what her goals and ambitions SHOULD be.

The only way I could think to explain it to my dear friend, was to say that I felt like I was in purgatory.  I wasn't happy, but I was only in purgatory. Sending the Babe to school, would be more like being in Hell. I cannot imagine standing at the school gates waiting to be told when my child could come out to me. Having somebody else tell me about her as if they knew her better than me. Watching her interactions become more pathological and institutional. That would be Hell.

And now I find that I had maybe made a mistake about how to go about home education this time around. I have lost a lot of my network, mostly because of ages of kids and time and geography. They are still there, but not in great numbers, or maybe only for a week or so of camping. But on a day to day basis, I do not have a social network the fits with having a 4 year old.

Every time I tried to 'do home education' I picked something really worthy; taking the Babe to the museum, or going looking for leaves, or going swimming. I was sad that we didn't have any friends to share these things with. And we often came home cross because expectations had not been met. We did used to have a nice small group of friends who were all local, and we used to just spend our days out at parks and gardens with lots of tree climbing, snail collecting, mud fort building, and picnic sharing. We talked and played and pitied those poor souls locked up in their cars or behind the school gates.

But without the friends, it wouldn't have worked.

I wrote in my last post about us being more social. And the being social grows. We are getting out, and I am talking to new people, and watching the Babe explore, and make friends herself, and while that is happening, my old self is coming back.

I am finding myself again. It is only tentative, and perhaps I am still just aglow from the great day we had yesterday at the organized trip to the Bolton Transport Museum. It had everything. Sunshine, running around, a little bit of worthy learning, making new friends, nice conversation, and people to travel with on the tram. :-) The only thing missing was a bit of the picnic I had left behind!

So I am getting used to new people. And beginning to realize that I can still be me with some different friends.  The social side of home education is so important. You need to feel supported when you do this. You need to feel you are not the only one and that you are not fighting battles all the time.

I have talked about the importance of fun and being social before, but I guess I had forgotten. And now little steps are helping me to get two places at once; back to who I am at heart, and forward with some new experiences with the Babe. Although I realize that the past couple of years of posts on here have been illustrating my struggle with my good days, I am yet again feeling positive. I can think about other things, and the bigger picture, and have some fun as well.  :-)

Let's see what happens next!

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Contemplations after a lovely couple of weeks

We have been rather social lately and I find that I like it. It is interesting, in a sad kind of way, how being social is a habit that you can sort of lose. I wrote in my last post about how I was feeling a bit nostalgic about how we home educated when the big kids were small and I was hoping to start building a network for the Babe. And me!

We have had visitors for the weekend and gone to a new home ed group where the Babe had a good time. We also managed the adventure playground meetup and again, she had fun, even if I didn't manage to get to speak to anybody for more than 5 minutes. Last night we went to a friend's house for family food and games and it was really nice. We used to do that sort of thing more often. I guess that means that we should again!

Well, we have given up on the childminder option as she really didn't want to go. Even one day a week was too much for her. I found this hard to come to terms with because I kept looking at it from my point of view - it is only one day - is that too much to ask?- and she is a really nice childminder - and it is free! Oh well, I finally realized that wanting it and not getting it was making me angry so I decided to stop wanting it. I will find me time elsewhere. The Babe's dad can take her out to exciting places or let me get out, and I can still attempt to maintain my sanity.

The one thing that is suffering already is the English group. I haven't written much about this group, but for the past two academic years, it has been my favourite thing to do with home educators and/or kids. We have done whatever I felt like doing, and I have had some good feedback from the participants. Some stuff is academic, some is games, some is grammar, some is literary themes. We are working on writing at the moment, having discussed a few short stories and looked at character, setting and plot over the past few months.

It is funny how I notice the differences in age, ability and aptitude with only these 8 kids, and often know that I am doing things that some of them like and others don't, and some of them get it, and others don't, and some of them are really fed up with others going off on tangents as they make all sorts of connections in their heads. But they all seem to get something out of it. How in the world can teachers do it with big classes of 25-35 kids? Well, they can't. I imagine they connect on some level with the same 5 kids over and over.  I am lucky that I don't have to follow a curriculum, so that when they like something, we can change what we are doing. Last year, I had planned out a term of covering things like simile and metaphor, symbolism, personification, and imagery using poetry. But they really liked the simile and metaphor bits and the poetry we were reading, so we ended up doing that three times longer than originally planned. :-) It meant that reading Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah got postponed by a year or so, but that has turned out lucky because the play of the book is on soon and some of us are going to see it, having read and discussed the book over Xmas and January.

But I am not sure what we are going to do next. With the Babe not going to the childminder, I lose my afternoon of planning and thinking. I think I am also losing a bit of motivation because of the Meister's plans to start school in September. I feel sort of like our time is coming to an end. Even as I say that, I find it ridiculous, as she is only 14, but I do wish that we had more opportunities to do all the things I would like to do, if time and money allowed. Like go to Stratford, or London, or even just have a car to go to some National Trust properties, and visit friends in far away towns.

As you can see, (or I can at least) everything is in a jumble, and the way it is all connected is what makes up LIFE. Talking about one kid, means talking about another. Talking about being social, means thinking about other opportunities. It is how all of these themes are related. And when I sit down to think and write today, it is all jumbled in my head.

But maybe I don't care. Because we have been visiting with friends, and playing games, and smiling.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Getting on with it, I guess.

The Babe has been going to a childminder on a Monday for a few months now so that I can have some time to myself. I was thinking that this would be time to get a job, or do some volunteer work or spend some time with the Meister. Well, it turned into getting shit done day. Mostly medical stuff for a few of us.

The Meister was having blackouts. It was very scary. She went missing a few times, and woke up in places she had never been. Police and ambulances were often involved, along with many 7 hour trips to A and E. She was referred to a neurologist, had many, many tests, and has now been signed off. She doesn't have epilepsy or any neurological problem, or diabetes, or thyroid function problems, or hormone imbalances, or whatever else they tested her for. Apparently, they are vaso-vagal episodes. Or in layman's terms. She appears to faint when she gets stressed.

So fine. That is all good news. But it does mean that home education has been very different. Because she has not been able to go out on her own, and because I was this year diagnosed with arthritis and spent several months unable to go out, and we don't have a car,  we have been having a very stay-at-home life. My Monday's without the Babe, turned into hospital appointment days.

Tuesdays is often the only day we see people because I offer an English group for 13-16 year olds (well, 17 if you include the Boy who likes to join in even though he already has his A in English!) Then we spend the afternoon knitting and crocheting and chatting, while kids do Minecraft, or talk cult TV and Manga, and go to the Pound Bakery and do Parkour at the park. Tuesdays are exhausting and energizing, and then we do very little for the rest of the week again. I spend a lot of time doing physio and pilates and trying to get the ole hips in shape. (It's working!)

It has been stressful. It has been boring. It has meant that I have been concentrating on bookwork with the Meister in a way that I never have with the others. We must also consider that I am at home with a 4 year old and a 14 year old, and catering to these very different age groups is not easy. If I am playing with Playdough, I may set the Meister some workbooks to do. I rarely get around to checking the work, but I set it so I can say I set it. So home ed has been difficult this past year in a way that it hasn't in the past.

Things, however, are looking up. I put it all down the extra energy I seem to have from my Vitamin D3 supplements. (No, really!)

The Babe is not keen to go to the childminders anymore. That is hard for me. I don't feel it is too much to ask for a day a week. But it is too much to ask a 4 year old to make sacrifices for my benefit. After all, I am the Mummy. :-)

Today we tried out the little people's home ed drama group. She didn't take part, but at least she stayed until the end. That is new. She doesn't like big noisy groups. Or being told what to do. (So school is definitely NOT and option.) I am hoping to go back, and to maybe try to build a new network, but some things occurred to me today about how things are different than they were when my big ones were wee.

Firstly, we spent a lot of time just hanging out at each other's houses. We did coffee mornings and playdates and trips to the park for years. My older 4 kids spent the first 12 years of their lives, just playing and hanging out with friends. It is harder to do that now because there are more home educators. It is hard to just meet somebody, and say, come on over to my house. Everybody seems to be too busy anyway. There are activities every minute of every day. (How do they all afford it!?)

And yet, home ed was much more and integral part of the way we lived. Camps and trips to museums and hill forts, and walks around reservoirs, and climbing rocks and trees, and visiting aboretums, and reading books ALL the time, and watching telly, all happened with friends. And it all led to learning on the hoof while playing.

I miss that. I'll have to think about it a bit more. But things are different for our family now. And I guess home ed will be different with the Babe. The Meister has decided she wants to try school again. We have a studio school opening in Manchester in September, and she wants to give it a go. Small classes, and project based learning, and long days and terms. It is all a bit different from regular school, and different from home ed. If she could do it 3 or 4 days a week, it would be perfect for her. But it is full time. She is giving it a go, and hopefully, I can stop worrying about trying to find places for her to do all the GCSEs she wanted to do.

More on that in another post I guess. This is just me trying to get caught up with myself. Hello Me. Are you a home educator?