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!

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.