Tuesday, 12 September 2017

IGCSEs: What's the Point Anyway?

So we've only just started the new term, and already it's all about adjusting.  Before Eldest's summer exams he was working flat out, getting up early and working long hours, and I promised him that after the exams were over he could sleep as late as he liked for the rest of the summer.  He certainly took me up on that promise, in typical teen style - and has grown at least a couple of inches meanwhile so I guess it's been helpful.  It's not easy for him having to get used to studying to a timetable again though, or for me dealing with it, and I have already had to check my attitude.  It's so tempting to wish he could just carry on doing the fun stuff that I'm doing with Middle and Youngest.

I mean, what IS the point of IGCSEs anyway?  It's a much more boring way of studying than we used to enjoy and it's not actually proper learning in my opinion: I'm sure Eldest has already forgotten plenty of the Maths & Geography information that he crammed in temporarily for the June exams.  It's just pointlessly hard slog, isn't it?  Eldest and I can both can get pretty fed up with the whole ordeal, even this early on in term.

The obvious answer is that these seemingly pointless tests do actually have value - albeit in a limited way.  They are a gateway to doing what he wants to do.  At present Eldest wants to study A levels and then go to university.  There are cases of Home Educators who have gone to Uni without GCSEs or A levels, but I don't know if that included Science degrees, and Eldest and I felt that this was the best route for us.  So if cramming temporary knowledge for exams is what is needed, then that is what we will have to do.

And then I remind myself that even if he may not be learning much of permanence that is subject-based, he IS learning some really important skills for a lifetime.  Last month when we were expecting him to fail because of our joint rookie mistakes I reminded Eldest (and myself) of all that he had achieved regardless of the results of the days' testing.  As blogged previously, studying for exams rather than for pleasure caused him to grow in resilience, perseverence and maturity.  Unpleasant challenges can cause us to grow in character (if we let them) and to be honest that is far more valuable than whether or not we remember how to calculate using the irrational root of an integer.  So we are already reviewing some of these lessons, with more opportunities to develop character and approach tasks that we don't enjoy. Not the most fun to be had, but probably the most value.

So practically speaking that has taken us to some false-starts already this term. Firstly in English, where Eldest does NOT enjoy the subject - despite being an avid reader and creative-thinker, he finds it very hard to apply those skills in the way needed to master it as an academic subject and so has a significant barrier to overcome for every task required.  Life Lesson no. 1 right there: a negative attitude can make progress impossible but persistence and a good attitude reap huge results. Secondly in Biology the tasks are less of an issue than the sheer volume of work - there are a LOT of facts and concepts to learn, and we need to learn from the mistakes we made last year, and take better notes etc from the beginning. Note-taking is a skill in itself - and not one that comes naturally to him, so this is where we have hit life lesson no. 2: the work you invest up front makes your life so much easier when the pressure is on further down the line.

Life-lessons are the hardest to learn and I can't think of any that are instant.  And this is what I keep reminding myself whenever Eldest (or I) want to quit.  It's been difficult for him to transition from lazy summer-holiday mode back into hard-work mode, and if it gets too much I allow him a break to calm down and then we come back to it an hour or so later.  We have had to adapt and re-adapt our initial planned timetable, and are not at all on-track with the first one we drew up, but it's all good.  I am trusting that we will find our stride much earlier this time round than last year (when we never really found it, tbh).  So we have already faced opportunity for discouragement but are not going to give up - just adapt and keep moving on. Hopefully by the next blog post we'll be making steady progress. Meanwhile we are about to draw up Plan C (or is it D?) and are getting closer to the solution with every adjustment.

So basically the mantra I am rapidly adopting is that the point of IGCSEs is not so much about learning the subjects themselves - although they do have temporary value - but more about learning the life-lessons that studying for testing provides.  It seems to be mostly about growing up - learning to go through not-so-nice stuff in order to get to the goal you are aiming for... taking on some difficult challenges and allowing that process of growing through trials to work its magic.  So I will correct my attitude for the umpteenth time, as my wodnerful teen is also having to do, and we will press on and ultimately conquer.  Bring on the IGCSEs (again)!

Monday, 4 September 2017

Not Back To School

There are many home educators who do not follow term-times, because they say that children are naturally learning all the time and you can't switch that on or off.  They are absolutely right.  But for home educators who follow any kind of structure, be it full or partial, term times can be helpful, especially for those of us who have something to plan.

This school year I have a LOT to plan.  Last year I mainly focused on Eldest and getting both of our heads round how to sit IGCSEs as home educators.  I felt that Middle and Youngest were a bit neglected oftentimes throughout the year. This wasn't a massive problem because, as mentioned previously, children carry on learning regardless - and they absolutely did, even with less input from me than I would have liked.  But this year Eldest and I have more experience: even with different subjects to study we feel more like we know what we are doing.  And so I have been looking forward to being able to divide my time more fairly between the three of them (up until revision season at least, and then I suspect the younger two will be more autonomous again!

Educating at different levels, especially when one of those levels is highly structured learning-for-exams, is not for the faint-hearted.  It has felt intimidating but I really want to give it a go, so my way of preparing for that has been to plan, plan and plan some more.  I have drawn up a detailed timetable of what the boys will be studying:

Eldest has 2 subjects (for now at least): English and Biology. We are using online tutorial courses (Catherine Mooney and Echo Education respectively) and have divided all of the work he needs to cover between available days, aiming to finish by February half term so he has plenty of revision time.  I think we have paced it much better this year.

Middle and Youngest will be doing the same as ever with just a couple of parent-led activities a day and lots of space to follow whatever else interests them at the time.  They will be alternating MathsWhizz and English workbooks, and then we have some art 'lessons', stories of the British Empire for history, Science workbooks, STEM challenges, and a cooking curriculum to work through as Middle really fancies becoming a chef.  All of those alongside Forest School and our other HE groups.

There's nothing too strenuous for any of the boys (especially because Eldest has no re-takes - hooray!), but I will be relying on my plans to keep myself on track, juggling them all.  All I can do is try and see how it goes.  I do love a good plan, it's true - but I also love to be able to change up whatever is working.  An efficient plan allows plenty of room for adaptation.  After all, flexibility is the key to happy Home Ed! :)


Thursday, 24 August 2017

Results Day

I don't really like that title because it makes the little bit of paper we received this morning sound so all-important.  And ultimately the results of Eldest's hard work this year and throughout his education cannot be summed up by just a couple of letters of the alphabet.  He has learned resilience, perseverence, maturity, to pace himself, maintain a good attitude... and that's just off the top of my head.  But as far as the results of his exams go - well I suppose that is the focus of today at least, and it will make a difference to his more immediate future - but I have to say this is not the blog post that I was expecting to write.

He passed!  C in Geography and B in Maths!

We are both slightly in shock but very happy!  We totally expected to 'fail' and were prepared to learn from our mistakes (we still will) and work towards resits next year.  Really we did so much wrong, being total IGCSE novices.  We left far too much until the last minute - nowhere near enough time for revision.  He hadn't even started on the two-year Maths syllabus by January this year, but was slightly behind according to school standards. And yet here we are, rather stunned at the very lovely piece of paper that has graded his work on the exam days.  He did work extremely hard over the revision period: for that alone he deserves every recognition - and without the tutor support we had, I'm sure it would have been a very different story (if anyone needs online Maths tutoring, I can recommend Absolute Maths - they were great).

I feel a lot more cheerful, prepared and relaxed as we get ready for the new term.  I'm sure there will be challenges and stresses ahead, but right now we're just basking in the glow of our (albeit unexpected) success!



Thursday, 29 June 2017

Back to the Fun Stuff

Well, we've done it!  Eldest has sat his exams, after which we immediately drove to Wales for a week's family holiday - and a blissfully relaxing time it was too!  Now that we're back, I can't express how much I am enjoying getting back to the fun stuff with Middle and Youngest!  Eldest is taking full advantage of my promise to him that after exams he would be free to sleep-in every morning and just do whatever he wants once awake - that stands at least for a month, and I figure it is well-earned!

Meanwhile the younger two and I are enjoying some time together doing all the fun stuff that I have missed so much.  They were having fun anyway while Eldest and I were on Planet Revision, but now I get to join in too - it's so lovely!

They have being doing MathsWhizz and Literacy as usual, and Youngest is doing a little handwriting every day (one page from his Collins book) as he's in need of some extra regular input, and then we loosely follow a plan drawn up for the remaining month of term:

Monday: Maths, Art
Tuesday: Literacy, STEM
Weds: Maths, History
Thurs/ Fri: Literacy, Geography
Fri/ Thurs: Forest School (we go to two which both run fortnightly on different days, so one week we have Thursdays at home, and the other week it is Friday)

It's hardly an exhausting schedule - just adding in one extra subject per day to prompt me to find some fun things that I think we'd all enjoy, and it leaves plenty of time for them to choose further games and activities for me to join in with or follow their own interests while I attend to the huge piles of housework that accumulated while I was engrossed in exam-season.  Of course, we are also taking every opportunity to socialise in all the groups and park meet-ups that proliferate in the summer term - just lovely!

So this week we started off with Art, and a marbling project that actually took most of the week to complete as the boys were very generous with their oily inks, which then took days to dry(ish) before we could cut out the shapes and assemble them...






On Tuesday they chose a couple of Dyson's STEM challenges that they fancied having a go at: attacking a potato with a straw (exploring pressure and stability), and learning about surface tension using ground pepper and washing-up liquid...




We also played a couple of games of Latice (a strategy game using colour and shapes), at Youngest's request...


For history on Wednesday I wanted a fairly short project as we only have a few weeks left of term, so we opted for a mini project on local history.  Browsing the internet, I found a nice potted history of Droitwich Spa (one of our closest towns) and read it to the boys, after which they wrote down and illustrated the bits that stuck out to them...



Finally Youngest chose an "Earth Science" DVD to watch before Gaming Club with friends
On Thursday we combined Literacy with Youngest's handwriting practice and made up some colour poems...



This was followed by a fun project for Geography.  The boys have a cousin who is - conveniently for us - currently traveling around South America with her fiance and their mascot, Brian-the-Duck, so today I thought it would be fun to print off some maps and trace the journey that Brian (and his travelling companions) have taken so far this year, courtesy of their blog, Ticket42.



Finally we watched a Horrible Histories special before a lovely visit from friends that rounded off the day nicely!

Tomorrow we have lovely Forest School to look forward to, with all the usual socialising, fire-lighting, marshmallow-toasting, den-building, rope-swinging fun that is to be had there, and then we have Daddy home for more weekend fun!

So that's our week - it sounds a bit busy written all down in one place but really it's been mostly chilled-out fun, and I am relishing the break from the intensity of exam studies. Roll on next week!

Friday, 19 May 2017

Three Days To Go - How Far We Have Climbed...

So here we are.  All the planning, research, investigation and work has led us to the end of the week before Eldest's first IGCSE exam.  We have one full day left to revise (today), and another half-day (more if possible) tomorrow. We are having Sunday off - Eldest, like so many others, works so much better after a rest, it's a principle we have learned time and time again throughout our Home Ed journey.  Last weekend was a perfect example: towards the end of last week he completely hit a wall and couldn't take anything in, couldn't think how to make sense of the questions, couldn't remember things that I knew he knew.  I was stressed - 10 days before an exam is not a good time to crash and burn - but I could see he needed a day off.  It felt like a huge risk: knowing that he is still not working at a high enough level, I felt he should be revising every waking hour. But I am allergic to 'should's and I know that is no way to live, let alone learn! We had Sunday off.  We went to church, he played on his computer, he relaxed (and I drew up the plan for the week's revision).  On Monday he had a lie-in, during which time I asked friends on Facebook to pray for him to find strength for the week ahead.  When he woke up and came down he was so much brighter!  He even commented on how much easier everything seemed! RELIEF!  So this weekend I am summoning all my courage and insisting on Sunday off again.  Monday's exam is in the afternoon which is not ideal as he tends to work so much better in mornings, but it will allow for a lie-in before running through some flash-cards/ last minute pop quiz stuff.

I still have no idea how he will do regards to grade (so much depends on whether the questions are 'kind'). But I am so proud of how hard he is working and how uncomplaining he has been about the mistakes I have taken him through.  He does not seem overly stressed, for which I am so thankful.  And I am consciously focusing on how far we have come...

When we started it was like looking at a mountain from afar on a sunny day and saying "let's climb that", having no idea how to pace ourselves or equip ourselves properly.  We were excited, nervous, and clueless. We did not understand the new depths of character that we would need to draw from, and did not appreciate the lows that occur when you have been slogging away on a tricky bit of the journey, apparently making no progress.  We didn't even really know the techniques that would be needed to climb.  When we started we were strolling along, distracted by the view, and the summit was still a long way off but as long as we were heading towards it we felt we were making progress.  At one point we came to a complete impasse and had to find a different route (when we put Biology on hold and took on Maths instead)  Then we realised that we had got the pace wrong - we still had masses of ground to cover and the climb was getting steeper.  With a few weeks to go, after sending out a distress call (thank you God and social media) we acquired a couple of mountain guides in the form of tutor support.  They are showing us the best route and teaching handy techniques as we go.  We sill do not seem near enough to the summit and have no idea how close we will get, but we are going to do as much as we can in the time left - and most importantly, we now believe in ourselves.  We are experienced mountaineers: we are equipped to do this again and we are not so intimidated by the mountains any more.  So even if it turns out that we did not travel far enough, we have learned so much more than that which can be measured by questions on a paper.  And that is success.  We will climb again and we will reach the top, as so many Home Ed mountaineers have done before us :)


Tuesday, 25 April 2017

4 Weeks To Go - Revision under Pressure

Yes, Home Ed in this house has become all about Eldest's exams.  Middle and Youngest are doing just one required exercise in Maths or English every day, and other than that are occupying themsleves beautifully with an entirely self-led selection of drawing designs for games and avatars, reading endlessly varied books, playing board games (Carcassonne, anyone?  We love it!), writing their own books and designing the covers, cycling round the garden etc.  Meanwhile Eldest and I have our heads down, working hard in the time we have left.  His first exam is in less than 4 weeks, on 22nd May, and his last exam on 8th June.

As advised by many experienced HEors and as part of our revision, we have printed off past papers to attempt (and are trying not to feel guilty about the amount of trees sacrificed for such an undertaking).  Eldest has had his first proper go at completing past papers in Geography and Maths this week, and I have to say we have found it very discouraging.

It really has been the point of greatest pressure for us.  Major wobble alert!  I can see the large gap between what is known and what needs to be known, and it feels very intimidating.  It's not just the facts presented in each curriculum (which are numerous, to say the least), but other concepts such as having the ability to deduce the answer (and workings) that the examiner wants to read; the ability to map out a revision plan and pace oneself through it; the maturity to keep going in the face of discouragement and a seemingly impossible task.  And I have to say, despite the low marks on his past papers, Eldest has grown enormously in this past year and is progressing well.  If we weren't financially committed, it would be tempted to pull him out of the exams as he does not appear to be ready YET (through no fault of his own), but we are committed so we are reminding ourselves of the goal when we first started:  to give it a go a year early it for a trial run to see what we can learn.  And we've learned loads.  I am confident about what we can achieve next year - I just don't know if we can cover all the ground necessary by the 22nd May.

Obviously as we have been followed the curricula this year, and put so much time and effort into learning to order, of course the hope was to pass a couple of exams a year early so there would be less to do next year - BUT I have to remind myself to see the bigger picture.  Even if there are re-takes ahead, that is also a really important life-lesson: not to quit if the first attempt fails.  Maybe that's more important than the actual qualifications themselves?  Of course it's not what we want for our kids, but maybe it will help Eldest in the long-term.  Anyway, ultimately we are still learning. Eldest may pass yet, if revision goes swimmingly well and the exam questions fall in his favour. But right now I am focusing on just two things: how incredibly proud I am of him for transitioning from mostly autonomous learning for pleasure to prescriptive learning to be tested - and the fact that this summer's exams are not the be-all and end-all: whatever the results, they are just one more step on our journey towards fulfilling what Eldest wants to do.

So we are continuing to revise, continuing to aim for improvement and determined to give the exams a really good go.  And then we will see what the results may be, and more importantly, we will be better prepared for what is next.  A home educator's life is never dull!

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!