Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The IGCSE Rollercoaster

I don't feel like the best ambassador for taking exams as HEors - I think my open acknowledgement of how hard we are finding it is putting people off, but it seemed so much easier when it was other people doing them! ;)  However, I want to remain honest about it, in the hope that writing down the lessons I am learning the hard way will help me next year, and maybe others who come to take exams as HEors too...

So we are now two months away from exam season, and I have finally concluded that I have gone about it entirely the wrong way.  Poor old Eldest has coped amazingly well with it all. He went from a largely unstructured style of ultra-flexible Home Ed led by interests and enjoyment, to a very structured style of HE where the study program is dictated by what someone else thinks you should know, and then expressing it in an way acceptable to someone else. He has had to do this under the supervision of a Mum who may have 100% dedication but has 0% experience of teaching GCSE material.  And bless him for his good attitude, I have made some awful rookie mistakes. Thanks to those, I now know what I would do differently next time...

1/ I didnt really understand what a big shift it would be, so failed to prepare him (or myself) for that.  With the next child I will take time to enjoy our last season of 'fun HE', and I will explain the difference of what is coming.  It is vital to discuss up front and have an end-goal to refer to - ie why are we putting ourselves through this? (Because the qualifications are needed for the next step in achieving their life goals...)

2/ I had no idea how to study the required elements.  We took two terms to read the entire Geography book, making notes as we went and referring to all the revision aids.  Only after we had done all of this did I realise that we only need to answer questions on five out of nine topics.  Talk about facepalm!  That was a silly mistake that wasted a lot of time and effort.  Next time I will read as much as I can on the exam specifications up front (I thought I had, but clearly it didn't all go in) - we may still read through the whole book to establish which bits to choose, but we'll allow one term only, then another term to re-read, making notes and revision aids once we have chosen our topics. The final term will still be for revision, past papers etc.

3/ We changed to a new subject - Maths - with only two terms to go, which isn't a mistake in itself, but it has been a pressure to make sure all the topics are covered in time.  Next time I will just start with Maths as it really is the easiest in terms of monitoring progress and understanding what the questions are asking.

4/  I took it all on myself thinking that hard work and a positive attitude were all that was needed. In a way that was right, but with that hindsight gained, next time I will have some names of tutors or knowledgeable friends up my sleeve and a plan to work with them, even if just for an hour a week.  It would have helped a lot to have someone with experience who could visit/ talk to us regularly just to keep us on track and answer questions as I feel I have wasted a lot of time simply by having to work things out for myself.  That said, I have a lot more experience myself now, so may not need that help next time.

It does all feel like a big (expensive) experiment.  The learning curve has been more of a roller coaster than a curve, with definite ups and downs, twists and turns, and moments of sheer panic. But as Hubby and I have said to Eldest: there is no pressure.  I don't want him to feel that he is carrying any expectation to perform to any level.  Of course he needs to try his best, and I am confident that he does and will, but whatever the results in August he and I have both learned LOTS - and pass or fail, it is all part of life.  I think he will do very well, but if he doesn't it won't be for lack of effort from him; it will be because it's all been so unknown, so we'll just try again with our new-found understanding. I am enormously proud of how well he has approached it all and how much he has achieved.  I feel sad that my inexperience has probably made it harder than necessary for him, but then I remind myself that it could be worse; he could be in school (which he would hate), having to get up far earlier than he does (likewise), surrounded by peer pressure, loaded with homework and having to study for ten exams instead of two - which is a ridiculous and unnecessary burden that we place on our teens and then wonder why the mental health of our youth is so fragile.

So I am going to stop beating myself up, take a deep breath and learn from the experience.  After all, isn't that what Home Ed is about?

PS We have found a lovely resource that is helping with learning vocabulary - it's an app that allows you to make your own set of virtual flash cards (or use someone else's) and has different methods of testing you on them.  It's called Quizlet - and if you are revising for exams or just wanting to learn vocabulary at any level, my lover-of-all-things-techy and I really rate it!

Thursday, 9 February 2017

IGCSE update

I had every intention of doing an update at the start of this term with specific regard to how Eldest and I are doing with his exam studies.  But it's almost half-term and we are being kept very busy with said studies, leaving little time for blogging! Oops!

Anyway the delay is probably just as well as in the last couple of weeks we have decided on a change.  Instead of taking Geography and Biology this summer, Eldest is going to go for Geography and Maths instead.  We had ruled out Maths before as I had the idea he was too far behind. However, when we were visiting friends toward the end of last term, I spotted a Maths GCSE book  of theirs and flicked through it.  It was the lower grade course which only goes up to a C, but even so I was surprised to find that most of the contents were well within Eldest's grasp.  I called him to have a look and he agreed.  We have been considering since then, and when balanced with the suspicion that Eldest is not going to be ready to take Biology just yet, it seems to make sense to switch courses, with a view to taking Biology in the winter.

Many home educators agree that Maths is a better one to start with anyway as it is so straightforward to revise for: you either know the material or you don't.  I called the exam centre this week to register and am waiting to hear back, but all being well he will be booked on to the exams asap... and then the countdown will really begin - eek!

Meanwhile he has almost finished reading through the Geography coursebook, so we will be starting revision in earnest once that is done.  We have been referring to the videos & tests on BBC Bitesize as we go, which are helpful for revising knowledge, and will be using as many past papers as we can get our hands on to work on exam skills.

For Maths we have found a new site called Absolute Maths started by Home Educators and aimed at helping GCSE revision.  We had a bit of a clunky start understanding the registration, log in etc, but the lessons and tests are proving to be very helpful.  We're aiming at the higher Maths paper as it's supposed to be easier to get a C on that than the one that only goes up to a C, and Eldest seems to find it fairly easy to grasp new maths concepts.  He's not a fan of algebra (to quote him: "they decided English and Maths weren't annoying enough as they were, so they stuck them together!"), but I am impressed by how quickly he has got to grips with it.

So basically, I think we're doing OK.  There is still a large part of me that wobbles a bit when I think about the responsibility, and the fact that it's our first time doing exams as HEors so is all pretty unknown, and is sort of an expensive experiment.  But on the whole I have peace that we are on the right track, and we keep plodding forward.  Summer - and the exams - will be here soon, so forgive me if my updates are few and far between! ;)

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Juggling Different Levels of Education

Until the beginning of this school year we were so blessed to be able to learn generally the same things all together.  All three boys worked at their own levels on Maths Whizz and in whatever literacy program they may or may not have been using, and sometimes individual lapbooks at their own levels too, then for most of the rest of the time we watched programmes and read stories and played games all together, with all three boys taking in what they could easily digest.  Looking back now from our current, different state, that seems to have been such an idyllic phase of our lives for which I will always be grateful.  I am a little sad that those times are mostly over for Eldest - and me to a degree as I miss his presence in the fun stuff - but life is a journey, and progress is natural.

I have to admit, I have found IGCSE level Home Ed really tough.  Learning in order to pass tests has never been our style, and Eldest and I have not found it an easy transition to make.  By the end of last term I felt that I was neglecting Middle and Youngest too much.  They were still doing MathsWhizz and English workbooks on alternate days, but none of the lovely fun activities we used to get up to together, as all my time was now spent trying to help Eldest with his studies. Happily, by the end of last term we seemed to find our groove, and the time Eldest now needs me to spend with him is much less than it was - about an hour to two a day at present, which has allowed me to pick up some of the more fun stuff with Middle and Youngest.

So I juggled our plans yet again (the primary characteristic needed in HEors surely has to be adaptability!), and now we are growing into a routine that means all three boys get the time they need with me.  Once a week we all go to forest school for a much needed day of outdoor fun. The other four days we get up, have breakfast, walk the puppy and get on with the morning's activities: Eldest does Mathswhizz still (I was concerned that he was 'behind' in maths but when we looked at a GCSE curriculum recently we found that he understands the vast majority of it already, so hooray for that!), and then he reads several pages in his GCSE text books for Geography and Biology with me - and answers the questions by himself - checking with me if he gets stuck.  All together this takes 2-3 hours on average.

Middle and Youngest also do their Mathswhizz - usually by themselves, but sometimes needing my presence to help them focus, annd then we do a planned fun activity every day.  So far this week we have had made penguin collages for Art, from the Deep Space Sparkle website...

Mummy's penguin

Middle's penguin

Youngest wanted to make a daytime penguin and a night-time baby penguin 

we made underwater volcanoes (to learn about convection currents) for STEM, using the Dyson STEM challenge cards...

and today we listened to Winter from Vivaldi's Four Seasons for Music (PDF here)...

Tomorrow they will do their project books - Middle is learning about the Human Body, and Youngest, Habitats. This only takes them about 1-2 hours, and then the rest of their time is for more autonomous learning - their own choice.  This week has seen them choosing a combination of GridClub (LOADS of educational games), Brainpop (educational video clips and quizzes), lego, role play, Madlibs, reading books, writing to Blue Peter, and designing and building long domino tracks.

Adding both styles of HE together fills all my mornings up to lunch, when we can sit together and watch some TV with a learning focus before the afternoon is left for HE groups or the boys' free play while I try to get on with housework, checking Eldest's work, and my own writing (prioritising on that is my next challenge).

I will always look back fondly on our happy years of just enjoying learning whatever we wanted all together, and will always be proud of how the boys thrived in that environment.  It does make me a little sad to not be able to show you how brilliantly Eldest is doing on this blog - GCSE answers being less cute than penguin pics - BUT he is growing so well and we have entered a new phase. Time for Mummy to learn some advanced juggling skills, and to develop a new pride in them all as they mature and conquer new challenges.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Knowing When to Hit Pause

So this morning I kind of crashed.  Eldest and I were supposed to be looking at a Geography past paper, Middle and Youngest were supposed to be practicing some handwriting, and the house was a mess. The puppy was going crazy and my stress levels were rocketing.  All I could think was 'I need a day off', followed by 'But I can't - Eldest needs to keep up'.  I know that when we get that driven it is really bad for our mental, emotional and physical health, so I forced myself to stop despite the persistent mini-dictator in my head.

First I gave Middle and Youngest the day off, and asked them to just tidy their rooms before they watched TV or played games.  Then Eldest appeared.  He had been doing a lesson on MathsWhizz in his room and came to say his brothers were distracting him.  I hugged him and asked if he'd like a day off - his shoulders relaxed and he looked so relieved: a rest was definitely in order.  I played with the puppy until he was worn out (thankfully it doesn't take long), and then got to work on my own agenda.

My lovely friends on Facebook all agreed that I should have a day off (I can always rely on them to be supportive!) but although they all suggested various forms of relaxation (tea, alcohol, TV, book etc), I decided I needed to catch up on some housework first.  NOT my favourite pastime at all, but if my house is a mess it can really affect my mood.  I can cope with a fair amount of mess - I have kids after all - but I was getting to the point of feeling overwhelmed by all the jobs that I'd been meaning to tackle for ages but never getting time.  So first I hit the front room and cleared all the junk-attracting surfaces, then the hall and some boxes that had been staring at me since we moved in - then the utility room which has just been gathering homeless junk.  It wasn't exactly a rest, but man, did it feel good!  I did make sure I got a couple of rests in between rooms as well, but as my fatigue was more mental than physical, that wasn't really the issue!

The thing I realised is that the GCSE studies are a long-term commitment that we are just beginning, and yesterday we were reminded that the end is a pretty long way off!  It can feel a bit discouraging to hit a bump like yesterday's, even though I am confident we will get there over time.  It just felt so positive to tackle the niggling practical jobs that had been lurking for ages but were lower priority than Eldest's studies. Being able to complete a few short-term achievements, however menial, just helped me mentally to feel more 'can do' about other long-term commitments, such as Geography exams etc. So now I feel utterly ready to get back to some GCSE studies etc tomorrow - with my house looking more ordered, my head feels less cluttered too, and ready to focus again. And with Eldest having had a surprise rest-day I'm hoping tomorrow will be smoother sailing all round...

Monday, 26 September 2016

Learning to be Tested

We hit a bit of a stumbling block on our IGCSE journey this morning.  So far Eldest and I have been reading through the the course text book together and making sure we understand the content.  We started off making notes as we read, but Eldest wasn't keen (it interrupted the flow too much), and when we realised there were re-cap type questions at the end of each chapter, we ditched the note-taking in favour of whizzing through the chapters and then taking time over the questions.

The problem we have hit now is that on Friday I was out with Middle and Youngest at Forest School, leaving Eldest to answer the questions by himself. When we went through his written answers this morning I saw that the biggest issue (as I previously suspected) is not whether he has the knowledge and understanding, but whether he knows how to convey that understanding in an answer to a question. Learning for the love of learning has always been our HE mantra, and as such it has been utterly fulfilling, but learning for the sake of being tested is a very different skill, and that is the hurdle before us now.

As I read his answers and explained that two-word answers etc would not get him the necessary points in an exam, he became very discouraged and said GCSEs are boring and he doesn't want to do it.  My heart totally went out to him - it's such a massive learning curve going from a mostly autonomous rich style of education to a prescriptive and narrow learning-to-pass-a-test style. He's right: it is boring, and I'm struggling to make it less so for him.  I posted a question online to those who have gone before, asking them how they managed this, and was reassured that it is all par for the course.  Eldest isn't the only learner here: I am having to grow and develop in confidence too; we are both IGCSE novices together, so I'm not fazed by the journey being a bit bumpy - it's just a bit tougher on him, bless him.

Anyway, we will get there - any journey worth taking has obstacles to overcome, and Eldest is not on his own in this.  He does see the need for taking GCSEs, so we just needed to reboot.  I suggested we press pause on the studying for the next few days, and print off a past paper to have a go at. Once he has done it we will look at the answer guide so we can get a better idea of what the examiners are after. We will get there, and meanwhile he is learning a valuable lesson in overcoming discouragement...

Tuesday, 6 September 2016


It feels like we've been gearing up to IGCSEs for ages.  And in one sense, you could say that we have been doing so since we started our Home Ed journey 4 1/2 years ago.  But I've definitely been growing more aware of the issues in the last year or so.  When I first blogged about it specifically, I admitted how intimidating it all was.  Not just because the state system makes them feel like the be-all and end-all of our kids' initial education, but it's true that these are significant exams, and for a home educator they can be pretty costly.  And more than that, it can feel like a minefield to get your head around the 'how to' of it all.  So as I am at the entry point of actually embarking on our studies I thought I would blog about what I have learned so far, before it all becomes familiar and I forget that I used to not know it.  So for a beginner, this is what the process has looked like for us so far.

A/ Getting an idea of future direction (and therefore potential exam requirements).
I didn't want to push Eldest into sitting exams for the sake of it as there are many exam-free paths to various occupations, so we needed an idea of what he wants to do.  The only HEors I know personally whose children have sat exams so far have been those who knew exactly what career path they wanted to follow so exam choices were easy for them.  It hasn't been that easy for us. Eldest has always been drawn to a broad area but within that area he does not know what precise job, so we did not know which specific exams to sit.  In the end we decided that as he has an interest in conservation - more specifically marine biology - it seemed to make sense that he may get a better paid job in the field with qualifications under his belt.  So in the hope that he will find his path becoming more clearer in time, we chose to pursue the related GCSE subjects of Geography and Biology - along with Maths and English which are required for most fields.

B/ Finding a local exam centre that will accept external candidates.
This felt like a huge task to me.  I am not a fan of talking on the phone anyway, and the thought of calling places to discuss something I don't really understand was quite daunting.  Thankfully, as with most places in the UK, there is a thriving Home Ed community in my locality, and when I asked on Facebook if anyone knew of any likely centres nearby, I was given a few recommendations.  I called those centres and I now have two to choose from, one of which is about a 20 minute drive away (Norton College), and one which is further but highly recommended by all who use it (Tutors & Exams, Coventry).  I don't need to book Eldest in yet (see point F) but it's good to know both centres are available.

C/ Finding which board of exams to use.
Some Home Educators recommend taking this as step B, and then choosing the exam centre according to whether they offer exams from your preferred exam board.  However, although I had a slight preference towards CIE, I did not see enough difference between them and Edexcel to really care, whereas proximity of exam centre is a bigger deal for us as health issues limit the distance I can comfortably drive.  Both Norton and Coventry use Edexcel, so that is the one we are using.

D/ Finding the right study materials to buy.
This was more complicated than I expected.  There are so many online that it's hard to know what you're looking for.  Again though, veteran home educators are so generous with their hard-earned knowledge, and Facebook makes it so easy to ask questions of them.  I discovered that the materials would change depending on whether we wanted to sit the exams in 2017 or 2018 as the coursework is changing in between.  We have decided to attempt Geography and Biology in one year (Eldest's favourite subjects), and Maths and English in two years - Maths because he still has a fair amount of ground to cover, and English because we expect that to be the hardest for him.  We are hoping he will learn essential exam skills to help in the harder subjects while studying the easier ones.  With the advice from those online and local friends, I tracked down the right coursebooks for Geography and Biology so he could get started asap.  I will be buying the Maths and English ones soon but want to get into the groove with the others first.
*UPDATE: there has been some confusion over the dates of the new Edexcel exam syllabuses.  I turned to my FB posse and yet again a wonderful lady posted a link to a page with all the details here.  Home Ed'ors past and present totally rock!

E/ Dividing the material into time available.
This is where basic arithmetic skills and a cool head help.  My mind was a little frazzled and I was not fully confident that I was doing it all right, so I was really thankful for an experienced friend who was happy for me to send her my workings out to check.  She had previously advised me to divide the year into months available before the exams, and then take two of them off to leave for revision at the end. There are 9 months until May (the first Geog exam), so we have 7 months of study available - basically, until the Easter holidays.  That makes two full terms.  I allowed six weeks per half term, which makes for 24 weeks of study (I know there are more weeks than that but am allowing a good margin for contingencies).  Twenty-four weeks of five days is 120 days.
Now, there are 265 pages in the Geography study book.  Divided into 120 days is 2.2 pages per day - or divided into 24 weeks makes about 11 pages per week.
There are 255 pages in the Biology book.  So again, we will be studying 2-3 pages per day or 11 pages per week.

F/ Make a note of the deadline for exam application.
For Eldest to sit the two exams in Summer next year, I don't need to book him in to the exam centre until the beginning of 2017 (by February).  I considered booking him in now, but I value having a whole term to get an idea of how well he is coping with the studies.  So the date is on the calendar.  Applying is definitely part of the process, but as long as I know the date, I don't need to do anything else about that practical bit for now.

HOW we actually study is going to take time to work out as we do it and gain the hands-on experience, but my wonderful friend advised reading through the material together and answering questions, plus discussing and thinking of real life examples to put it into context, and that is what we have started. Eldest has also started with writing a few sparse notes on the key points as we go. I am sure there will be follow-up posts on the subject as we work it out, but for now I am feeling much less daunted by the task ahead, and having leafed through the course books I am reassured that it's nothing we can't handle together.  You could almost say it's exciting!  Or if that's overstating it, at least it's not as terrifying as I thought when I had no clue what was involved. Either way, I'm kind of looking forward to the process now!

Monday, 5 September 2016

New Season

A group that I belong to were sharing our Home Ed styles recently, and I stated that my family's style is very seasonal: swinging between unschooling and semi-structure.  This last school year the boys were largely unschooled: moving house twice within seven months was pretty disruptive, and our brief spurts of structured activities were overtaken by the mundane business of house-hunting, box-packing, form-signing etc.  Over the summer holidays we all began talking about and planning what was coming next, and we have moved naturally into a season of semi-structure, for however long it lasts.

Well, I don't know how long it will last with Middle and Youngest, but I am pretty confident that Eldest's season of structure will last up to 2 years now, as we have embarked on his GCSE studies - I will blog about that separately soon, but today we sat down together with his Biology and Geography textbooks, and I have to say, studying it together was just so straightforward and easy.  I think I made it a much bigger deal than it really is: we are used to enjoying learning new things together, and this doesnt have to be any different, other than the few hours of exams at the end of it all!

So that was a lovely time with Eldest, feeling so proud of him as he breezed through it and made it fun.  My biggest challenge of the morning was splitting my time between him and the younger two, as they both got stuck on MathsWhizz.  Previously they have tended to get on with their own thing, needing no input, and they very rarely got stuck at the same time, but today just seemed to be that day.  Timing could have been better, but hey ho!

After they finished Maths, and Eldest was occupied with copying out diagrams, we did a little art project (courtesy of Deep Space Sparkle) inspired by a book they like, called 'Are You Blue Dog's Friend', based on the art of George Rodrigue.  It felt really lovely to get back to 'arty farty' as they call it.  I get such a thrill out of them wanting to do art projects, with nobody telling them they are doing it 'wrong'.  It was fun, and I loved having a go alongside them too.

by Youngest

by Middle

by Mummy

After that it was almost time for lunch but the boys had asked if we could do cocktails first.  It's something we did over a year ago, when I gave the boys a selection of fruit juices and they played at mixing them together to see which tasted the best.  I bought some straws with cocktail umbrellas attached (the most essential element of the whole game - it wouldn't be half the fun without them) and several cartons of juice.  This morning before the boys got mixing I set them up a challenge: poured juice into several glasses/cups for them to take a sip from each and see if they could work out what fruits were in the juice.  Even Daddy joined in.  They all guessed some but nobody guessed them all.  I was most pleased that the power of the cocktail umbrella helped Youngest (who will not eat any recognisable fruit and veg) to try a sip from every cup and was very positive (unlike Eldest and Daddy who pulled 'yuck' faces and declared one or two to be disgusting!).  

Was that a structured activity?  Maybe - it did require some planning and preparation, but the boys asked to do it, so it was autonomous too.  It's not important - I have made peace with the fact that we will never fit into any labelled style of HE (other than my own self-declared label of 'seasonal'), and we are just enjoying the enthusiasm and fresh feeling that comes with a new season of learning - until the next one, that is!