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!

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

No means No

A friend and I were talking about the word 'no' lately.  In the past I have beaten myself up for using the word: there are many among the Home Ed community who subscribe to the philosophy of 'yes' parenting (brief overview here).  I have come to admire the concept and have allowed it to challenge my assumptions on parenting.  And yet 'no' remains a word that I use regularly.

I say no to people who request/ invite me to do things when I am already overloaded and don't have the physical/ emotional energy to join in.  I have no intention to change this, even in the face of a culture where so many peers are obscenely overworked but keep compulsively adding to their workload for fear of appearing lazy/ unhelpful/ not good enough. I say no to the new puppy when he is trying to attack the furniture/ chew my feet/ steal the boys' food - though most of the time I am also frantically waving a distraction in front of his unreasonably cute face to divert him from whatever forbidden object he is momentarily fixated upon.  I say no to my children when they ask for things that I don't think are good for them or we can't afford - sometimes I say 'no' even when I could say 'yes, when...'.  I do ask myself if this is a symptom that I am entrenched in negativity, but then I have a week like the one I have just had and decide that the word 'no' is every bit as important as ever.

You see, the friend who was discussing the 'no' word with me has children who don't always take 'no' for an answer.  She was acknowledging that it can cause problems, such as when a child pesters her to change her mind and she gives in against her will just to keep them happy, thus perpetuating the 'pester power' cycle.  I am not comfortable with this myself as it seems to go against my desire for my 'yes to mean yes and my no to mean no' - to be a person whose word is dependable.  But I also want to be a reasonable person who can change their opinion/ decision when presented with previously unknown information that sheds a new light on the matter, so in parenting terms I don't want to have children who can wear me down with their whining, but neither do I want to be so stubborn that they have no hope of changing my mind in really important matters.

I was mulling over all of this when the aforementioned friend asked me to do something.  It was nothing sinister, just a silly bit of fun, but not something that I personally wanted to do, so I said 'no' in the nicest way I could and changed the subject.  A little later on the friend asked again.  She was obviously more keen than I, but I still did not want to do it and saw no value in changing my mind, so I said 'no' again.  She did not want to accept it, so pressed the matter while making a joke out of trying to change my mind.  I'll be honest, I was starting to feel uncomfortable.  We are good friends who go back a long way, and she is no bully, but I felt pestered into a place where I had to say 'no' very firmly.  It was awkward.  I asked myself if I had just been stubborn and pointlessly unreasonable. Now, she is lovely, and we moved on: all is well, and it wasn't a massive deal.  I only mention it here because the 'no' word came up again today in a different scenario...

We had other friends over for a play date.  One of the visiting children has ASD.  During the game play one of my children did something reasonable that the other child did not like, and it led to an autistic meltdown.  During this meltdown he went to my child's room and put a fair amount of pressure on my child to give in to what he unreasonably demanded they do.  It was really uncomfortable, but my boy didn't give in.  He said 'no'.  We Mums intervened and the situation was resolved.  Again, no big deal. They are good friends of ours and lovely people - there is no residual offense.

I mention it here because it all contributed to a thought process that has been chugging round my head for the last couple of weeks since I noticed an increase in Facebook posts about consent.

As a Mum of boys I feel the weighty responsibility of teaching them about consent.  There are too many men in the world who apparently still don't get it, and I don't want my boys to be in any doubt. Yet my seven-year-old at least is too young to discuss rape with, surely.

But today, as my son refused to give in to the demands of someone who wanted him to do something he did not want to do, I felt proud.  And I felt hopeful that he understands the value and importance of the word 'no'.  It wasn't a big issue, but he showed even through fairly trivial conflict that he gets it.  I like to think that my (and their Father's) example of saying 'no' to them sometimes and sticking to it in the face of pestering has contributed to that.

And as I reflected regarding my friend who is struggling to instil the importance of the word 'no' in her own life and those of her children, I felt glad that I had said a repeated 'no' to her harmless request. Glad for my own self-respect, glad for my children who may have witnessed it, and hopeful that it somehow might have helped her to have me stand up for myself.  Because she is worthy of such self-respect too.  We all are.  We all deserve to be able to say no when asked to do something we do not want to do, and to have that word respected.

'Yes parenting' rocks, when done properly (it does not mean just giving in to everything your child demands).  But 'no' is still a very valuable word - perhaps today more than ever - and when necessary, I intend to keep using it.

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 ;)