Friday, 12 August 2016

The Socialisation Deception

The first question that most people ask when they meet a home educator is, "What about socialisation?" I have written on this before, here and here, and there are many excellent articles on the subject of why home education usually equips children with better social skills etc, so I'm not going to go over that here.  However there is one aspect that I really wanted to write about today.

A comment that I have heard often and even used myself is that "socialisation is something you do to dogs, not children" - the idea being that as humans, childrens needs are more sophisticated than dogs.  It's a nice little idea that trips off the tongue, but not something I had really experienced - until now.  You see, we have recently gained a new four-legged member of the family. Puppy is an eleven week old labradoodle and has more than his fair share of cuteness, alongside sporadic bouts of nipping, chasing, and general what-is-he-eating-now insanity. He is gorgeous and we are all totally besotted with him (apart from when he widdles on the carpet).

The thing is, among the many (and I mean MANY) YouTube clips that I have watched on puppy training in the last couple of weeks, there have been plenty on socialisation.  My goodness, I had no idea how complicated it is! When you introduce your puppy to other puppies, you need to take them to a safe, neutral area.  You need to keep them on the leash so you can swiftly remove them if they get overwhelmed, to avoid setting up any associated anxieties that could damage them for life.  You need to do your best to ensure that you are not introducing them to an anti-social dog.  You need to know your puppy and pay close attention to all of their body language during the session: play-bowing, rolling over, sniffing and licking are generally good; barking, turning away, lip-licking etc may show that they are becoming unhappy - and you need to know when to intervene.  And that is only as much as I have gleaned so far as a total newbie.  Basically, it is a massive deal!  It is intense and very hands-on and involved for anyone who wants to be a responsible dog-owner.

This got me to thinking: I am pretty sure that whether they prefer the approach of Cesar Milan, Victoria Stillwell, ZacGeorge or another chosen doggy guru, dog-lovers of the world would agree that the worst way to socialise your puppy would be to find a group of about 30 puppies the same age, leave them all in the same room as each other - sometimes without any supervision at all - and let them figure it out for themselves.

So now I have a question rattling, or rather screaming, around in my brain.  I do not mean to be inflammatory or disrespectful in any way, but I am now asking myself this: if puppy socialisation is this involved, this heavily supervised, this fraught with potential disaster - how much more so for our precious children?

Edit: To be clear (I hope)...
If our puppies need a safe neutral place to be introduced, how much more our children?
If our puppies need to be kept on the leash (ie right next to us so we can intervene if they are overwhelmed), how much more our children?
If we need to be closely watching our puppies body language and other cues, how much more our chidren?
If we need to ensure our puppies are not playing with anti-social dogs, how much more our children?
And if we wouldn't throw our puppies into a large group of other dogs who are not fully and closely supervised and leave them to work it out as a pack, why on earth would we do so with our children?

Of course there are many differences between children and animals, and many reasons why some children can do well in school - but in the context of being "socialised", I firmly believe school is not necessarily the best place for success.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Emotional Literacy

One of the many things that I appreciate about home education is the ability to spot needs and challenges, and address them as they arise.  Lately this has included an increase in one of my less-loved aspects of home education and parenting in general - refereeing sibling squabbles.  It's just a season, I know that, but one that can have me gritting my teeth and trying not to tear my hair out at times when these boys who are usually such good friends have a spate of "Muuuuuuuuuum, he said...", and screaming/ yelling/ blowing disagreements out of all proportion.  Emotions have been running strong and powerful, and they clearly need some help to handle it all.

Many years ago I went through a kind of group counselling course in a church that I was part of, and it was helpful both then and ever since in giving me a better understanding of my own emotions and those of others, and learning healthy ways to deal with them.  I've seen this in friends of mine who have also at some point been through some sort of counselling - they all seem to share an emotional strength and ability to process their feelings that I really want to be able to pass on to my kids where at all possible.
"Emotional literacy is made up of 'the ability to understand your emotions, the ability to listen to others and empathise with their emotions, and the ability to express emotions productively" (Wikipedia).  When I use the term 'emotional literacy', it is this that I am referring to, not the entire pedagogical approach instigated by Steiner, interesting though that is.
So anyway, at the same time as the kids were hitting an increase in out-of-control emotions, I noticed an advert popping up on my Facebook page for a new book, Emotionary.  You can click the link to find out more, but basically it's like a dictionary of emotions with a page to each feeling, illustrated and defined for children or adults.  I don't actually agree with all of the definitions.  For example, it says that anger is not useful in a civilised society.  I disagree: I think "righteous anger" at social injustice can be really helpful if channelled productively into bringing about positive change.  However that in itself turned into a really helpful discussion with the boys, and nit-picking aside, it is a really helpful book given the season we are in of pursuing emotional literacy.  It was published in order to help kids (and adults) identify and express their feelings - the first step in emotional literacy. I have it strewn (ie lying about) in the lounge at all times and today we did our second exercise specific to using the book.

Firstly, last week I had asked the boys to imagine they were creating a page to go in the book - to draw/ paint a picture and write a short definition of their chosen emotion.  We all tried to guess from the pictures which emotion was represented before the definition was read out... some were easier than others!

"Sleepiness" by Eldest, who added,

"Not to be confused with tiredness, 'cause that's more droopy-like, sleepiness makes everything/ everyone else seem dull except the odd thing that pops up to grab your attention.  Usually it arrives just before bed but can go away if you get a story or watch an exciting progrmme on TV.  It helps you to get to sleep."

"Excitement" by Middle...
"usually appears when something really happy is about to happen soon.  Excitement is the opposite of boredom but should not be confused with joy which is just really happy straight away"

"Joy" by Youngest

"Joy is like happiness, just the short way of saying it.  Joy is the opposite of anger"

Then today I asked the boys to do a spot of creative writing: could they write a poem or a piece of prose describing how a certain emotion feels or how they might visualise it - without using the actual word. Similar to their definitions of last week, but giving them a bit more space to be expressive and explore the feeling some more.  We had a brief chat about similies and metaphors (eg I told them instead of saying "Anger is like a fire-breathing dragon" they could say "It's like a fire-breathing dragon" or even "It's a fire-breathing dragon"), and then they were off!  Eldest had a flick through the Emotionary for inspiration, and then rattled off his poem almost instantly.  Middle struggled to focus at first but after referring to the Emotionary he got there too.  Youngest needed help getting to grips with the idea, so I sat with him and gave some prompts asking what made him feel his chosen emotion or what could he see that made him feel it.  He got it quite quickly then...

It's like a bright yellow ice lolly
Or like breathing in fresh air
Like baby squirrels chasing each other for fun
And me jumping up and down, shouting "hooray"
(Joy - by Youngest)

It is like a raging ball of fire
It is like killing your heart and love for life
It is like an evil wolf tearing at your insides
It is like completing a game then it crashes
(Anger - by Middle)

It is the uncontrollable buzz from the centre of your mind
It is the grey that turns to red at the strangest of things
It is the feeling inside shouting at the world to 'shush' or 'stop that'
It is the swarm ganging up on you
It is the slightly wrong path on the road to anger
(Irritation - by Eldest)

I found their chosen emotions interesting and was really pleased with how well they expressed themselves.  Eldest's and Middle's poems in particular I found really quite powerful and will hopefully provide a springboard for further conversation.

Incidentally, the book is helping, but another helpful resource that we have enjoyed is the film "Inside Out" which we watched at the start of this year, well before we got the book - I can't recommend that film highly enough as a lovely natural way into exploring feelings in a non-threatening way!

All of which makes it sound a little heavy and over-structured.  Actually it has all arisen quite naturally, and even the suggested activities have been quite spontaneous and fun.  I have no real idea where we are going next with this but am just hoping that we keep learning.  Emotional literacy is every bit as important and helpful as the type of literacy (comprehension, SpaG etc) taught in school. In fact, thinking of the current Yr2 and Yr 6 SATs, I would venture that lessons in emotional literacy are far more valuable - but that's another issue ;)

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Day of Fun Learning

I am a bit conflicted about today's school strike.

A large part of me wants to jump up and cheer for the parents who are protesting the inane Year 2 SATS by taking their children out of school for a day of "fun learning".  If my boys were in school I would totally be doing the same thing.  Standardised testing for six-and-seven-year-olds is unhelpful, unnecessary and unkind - and some of the tests (SPaG, anyone?) are quite simply nonsensical.  I totally support all the parents and teachers who are behind this strike and wish them every success in their endavours to have the SATS dropped.

However, I am also feeling a bit sad for them.  Because this day of "fun learning" is just one day out of the school-lesson-and-extra-curricular-programme-packed lives of these young children.  It will be a lovely day I have no doubt - they will be relaxed, have fun, be inspired, be happy... and then they will go back to school tomorrow.  I am trying so hard to find a way not to sound smug or judgemental, but the truth is that my kids will have another day of fun learning tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after, and the day after that - and so on.  Home educated children all over the nation will do the same.

Many people do not have the option of home educating their children, I get that.  And many parents believe that school is the best place for their child(ren) to receive a good education.  That is their prerogative and it is true that many children do flourish in the school environment, including members of my own extended family.  BUT - how many parents are there in this country who have no idea it is even an option for their child(ren) to spend their entire childhood enjoying endless days of "fun learning"?  That's what makes me really sad: not the children who enjoy school and thrive there, but that some of these children would do so much better in a more natural learning environment but they and their parents have no idea it is even possible.

Anyway, the "Let Our Kids be Kids" campaign is one that I fully support.  Our nation's children are overworked and overtested, with nowhere near enough importance placed on their welfare, happiness or enthusiasm for learning.  They are not little machines to be force-fed information until they somehow regurgitate enough of it to tick the right boxes.  They are beautiful, creative, thoughtful, imaginative, intelligent bundles of sheer potential.  Childhood is an essential part of their development and we need to protect their freedom in that, not work them like automatons, test them far too often, and continue to work them harder and harder until the potential to do anything other than fit into a system has been squeezed out of them.

So hooray for everyone taking their children out of school today.  May your campaign be fruitful, may you have beautiful days of fun learning with your children, and may those of you who have never heard of home education find your way to the beautiful happy childhood that it offers.

PS to any teachers reading: I hope that didn't sound unsupportive to you.  I may not be a fan of the school system but I am a BIG fan of any teacher who chooses to work with such a soul-destroying system, for the sake of inspiring and developing our children.  You all rock, and I hope for your sakes as much as the children that the Government wake up and bring in the much-needed improvements to let you do your job as you know to do it.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Return to GCSEs

We've had a good few months since my enormous GCSE-induced wobble that caused me to back right off until I had deschooled some more (you can read about it here).  This last week I seem to have de-toxed enough to be able to think about it a bit more clearly again, as well as talking it through with Eldest and hearing his thoughts.

We have come to the agreement that as he is not very clear on what he would like to do career-wise, the best way forward would be to keep his options open.  He knows he would like to do something in conservation, but he is also aware that there are very few conservation jobs that pay well, so he has a conflict that I don't think is likely to be resolved any time soon.  It is a learning curve for me as I knew what I wanted to do from a very early age and simply pursued that throughout my school life.  I am now realising how blessed I was and how rare it is to be so certain so young and not waver (well, not until later life anyway).  However, taking into consideration Eldest's uncertainty about future career paths, he and I have agreed that there are currently many jobs and courses that do require GCSEs, and that although he may well end up not needing them, the risk of spending time achieving qualifications that he may not need is preferable to risking not having the qualifications that he may need when the time comes.  So we are back onto the track of pursuing GCSEs, but now with a better understanding of why we are doing them (ie because Eldest may well need them, rather than because I always assumed he would take them).  Maybe we didn't need those months off to figure that out, but who cares?  We now have a much clearer understanding of why he is taking the course, so he is far more likely to be committed to his studies, and that is invaluable.  Anyway, that's where we are now, and we have a way forward so it's all good (and - it probably goes without saying - it's all subject to change anyway!)

English is still far from his favourite subject (and if I were in school nowadays I think it highly unlikely that I would have retained my love of the subject either), and he is not yet up to GCSE level in Maths, so we are looking at Geography or Biology (or similar subjects) which he enjoys the most, to start with.  I am hoping to find a tutor group or one-to-one tutor to help him as he will not only be learning about the subjects concerned, but also learning the necessary exam skills that he has been blessed to not need thus far.

We will probably start the studies in earnest in September, as it looks like we may have another house move happening in the near future and I know from experience that moving house interrupts all concetrated studying - although you would think we were 'pro's at it by now!  I am just relieved that we have a path to start following again, even if we are going at a very gentle pace.  I do enjoy unschooling, or as close to it as we ever get, but I am much happier when I can make plans, even if they are utterly flexible.  So off I go to do some more research and planning, back on the iGCSE journey.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Riddles and Models

Trying to be quick today because it's late and I still have stuff to do (such is motherhood)

So we had a lovely week last week celebrating Eldest's 14th birthday with a visit from his best friend and family, involving a fabulous welly walk through our local woodland stream, plus lots of gaming to keep the teens happy.  Then we had another visit, this time from my lovely 'besties' (and an assortment of their family members) both of whom live in very different parts of the country, so it was utter bliss for me to have them both visit at the same time and get some long overdue quality time together, including a lovely walk through the woods and rock houses at Kinver Edge.  So not much was done by way of structured work last week: it was just wall-to-wall socialisation with some of our favourite people

This week I was unsure whether to attempt any structured work as I have still not officially moved on from my "back-off" status, but we have decided to continue with our fun standalone activities for now, unless I feel it starts taking over.

So today we started with MathsWhizz, then quickly moved on to some creative writing.  I found an exercise online describing 'five senses' poetry, but unfortunately I can't find the link now - will add later if I find it.  Anyway, I thought it would be fun to have a go at writing riddles using the five senses so I made our own adaptation (PDF here).  I wrote a couple of examples so the boys could get the idea, and then asked them to come up with one.  Middle struggled for a while but after hearing his brothers' creations, he found his inspiration.  They all made me smile.  I'll post them here, followed by all three answers so anyone interested can try to guess what the 'answer' to each is.  If anyone guesses Eldest's quirky one, I'll be mightily impressed!

By Youngest...
I see lots of trees
I hear hooting
I smell apples
I taste grass
I feel a breeze

By Middle...
I see fire
I hear swords clanging
I smell smoke
I taste raw bacon
I feel angry

By Eldest...
I see mostly black but sometimes white
I hear crunches and thuds most of the time
I smell something awful
I taste fabric
I feel slightly wet

Youngest - a forest
Middle - a pig battle
Eldest - feet (!)

After our riddles we decided to do some modelling.  We got out our 'jumping clay' which is coloured air-drying clay that is soft and blendable like playdough - and we simply had a lovely time creating until we started to run out of clay! Models shown below...

Youngest's camouflaged snails, rainbow, whale fin, tree, tadpole, worm, and wreath in the middle

Middle's fire flower, 'cheeky blob who stole Mario's hat', lochness monster + baby, and gnome

Eldest's sheep, Turtwig (pokemon), duck & ducklings on pond, and racecar

Mummy's monster, pig, gnome toes, and orca

After that it was time to go to our first session at some local Home Ed trampolining sessions with Sis and Niece.  All the kids really enjoyed it, although Eldest started to get painful sinuses towards the end so had to sit out the last ten minutes - something to keep an eye on, but otherwise, that was another lovely day!

Friday, 8 April 2016

Poetry Picnic

Friday seemed like a great day for a poetry picnic (our version of Brave Writer's poetry teatime)... end of the week chilling and all that.  Of course, I did forget that I needed to allow enough time and energy for three lots of baking (four if you count my little one at the end), so our picnic lunch was a bit late by the time all the cakes were finished.  I may need to plan it better next time!

Anyway, the baking was all successful - the boys had chosen their recipes a couple of days ago so I made sure to have the ingredients in.  Middle wanted to bake a chocolate fudge cake, Youngest made some sticky toffee squares and Eldest made some strawberry cheesecake muffins.

By the time they were all made and looking temptingly delicious I realised that I needed to make something gluten-and-dairy-free so I could enjoy baked goods too.  I tried this recipe for cinamon roll in a mug and although it looked a little uninspiring (microwaved cake always does), it tasted fab!  And Mummy was happily saved from sulking because everyone else was eating yummy cakes.

My sis and niece came to join us for (late) picnic lunch, and we ate cakes and read poetry.  Middle and Youngest found their poems on the internet and printed them off to read, while Eldest and I read poems from books that we have.  I lost my original choice of poem so had to find another last minute. Fortunately the book I used had lots of good ones to choose from.  It really is a very civilised way to have lunch!

After lunch my friend and fellow hedgehog-rescuer came over to collect Pickle, our overnight hedgehog guest.  Pickle had some nasty diarrhoea overnight and was very shaky this morning so I gave her a couple of doses of sub-cutaneous fluids and by the time my friend arrived to collect her she had perked back up again.  Still very much in need of treatment for internal parasites, but I was glad to have been able to help as if I hadn't been able to give the fluids today it is very possible that it would have been too late by the time my friend arrived. Basically it was a nice little 'feel good' moment to have been able to make a real difference.  The boys always love to have hedgehogs around and I'm glad of the chance for them to learn compassion for others, including creatures of any size.

Somehow from being a day of planned low-key activity it ended up being quite a long day, and I am now writing this at bedtime!  It was a good day though, I think poetry picnics may well become a regular experience for a while to come!

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Boardgame Bonanza (with bonus hedgehog)

This morning the boys had all done some exercises on Literacy Planet before I was even ready to get going myself and we decided that today as a fairly quiet day would be a good opportunity for a board game tournament.  We chose a game each and played them one at a time.

First of all Youngest chose Labyrinth which we all enjoy.  It's great for strategy and problem solving, understanding sequencing and cause & effect etc ...

It was won by Middle.

The Middle chose Alpha Animals for us to play.  It's a lovely simple concept which builds literacy skills as well as exploring animal classification...

Youngest was the winner this time.

It was Eldest's choice next, and he had selected Angry Birds Space Race, which is a fairly modern take on the old-fashioned game of Ludo - again good for basica counting and strategy (and forgiveness/ learning to deal with frustration when a sibling sends your piece back to the start!)  I won this time, probably because I avoided sending anyone back where possible, so none of the boys were trying to get revenge! There's probably a life lesson in there too, on reaping what you sow, 'doing unto others' etc!

Finally it was my game.  I chose Wing It simply because Middle had already selected it but then changed his mind.  We removed the 'impede' cards which have the specific purpose of being played tactically to scupper your opponents.  I thought we'd had enough of that!  It's a lovely game from the RSPB, and you don't have to have any bird knowledge to play.  It is good for geography, being based arund the UK, and negotiation skills as there is a degree of card-trading at the beginning, as well as encuraging identification of native birds...

It could have been the deciding game that crowned Youngest, Middle or me the clear winner, but happily Eldest won the final game, making it an unusually (but very thankfully) even tournament, with each of us winning one round each.  We love board games, even if things sometimes get a little heated and some players need to take an occasional break!

We finished playing quite late after lunch as there had been an unexpected turn of events this morning when a fellow hedgehog-rehabilitator called to see if I could take in a local hedgehog overnight.  I haven't been caring for wild hedgehogs since we moved as there didn't seem much point finding a local vet etc if we were just going to move again, but I still have all my equipment (just not any meds), so I was happy to help out overnight until my friend can fetch him tomorrow to give him the treatment he needs.  So Middle, Youngest and I drove to get some cat food and newspaper (the phone call came two minutes after the rcycling lorry had taken all our papers away!), and collect the hedgehog.  It's a juvenile hog, named Pickle by the finder, and is significantly underweight, but hopefully not beyond the point of help.  Anyway, it took about an hour out of our morning to sort out but we were glad to help, and the hedgehog is seriously cute as always...