Saturday, 25 October 2014

Writing: Waiting and Readiness

In an earlier post, "Spring Sunshine, Challenge and Training Wheels", I wrote about a child's readiness to acquire a new skill, and how much stress and angst can be avoided if we can just wait until the time is right. Just as a baby learns to crawl and then to walk at their own pace, and we delight in their first tentative steps, so other skills might be acquired by different children at different ages. My second son is not naturally inclined towards numbers and mathematics, so we haven't pushed his maths too hard since he came out of school. However, I have noticed that he has acquired mathematical concepts naturally through living, learning and talking so that, now aged 11, he does not seem disadvantaged alongside his schooled peers. Telling the time, for example, can be pushed at a certain age by the school curriculum, but actually requires a number of skills to come together ... a concept of time, the 5 times tables, fractions ... It is actually quite a complex thing, and may cause problems for small children. Writing is another thing which is pushed so hard from such a young age in school when, actually, the fine motor skills required are still developing. I know from talking to other Mums, that writing can be an area of particular frustration to boys. So, what happens if we just back off?

Well, my third 'unschooled' son is now 8, and has recently appeared to want to write more. I have noticed little notes appearing around the house, and he has sat down a few times to write his "Minecraft" manual, both by hand and at the computer. He now has quite a good knowledge of words and spelling, acquired by reading, talking and just helping him to spell words when he has wanted to. So all the knowledge that is required to actually begin to put words and sentences together is now in place. Also, aged 8, his fine motor skills are much more refined than they were at 4. And, if the interest is there, then it seems to me the time is ripe for writing. What harm is there in waiting for this moment? Well, in school, children need to sit and be busied for long hours, many of them in confined spaces. That is just part of the challenge and nature of schooling the masses. But, in other countries formal schooling doesn't start until much later than here in the UK, and this seems to me a good thing. Why is there this continual push to get children learning formally younger and younger?

I suggested to my 8 year old that we might work a bit on his writing now, perhaps it would help him to write more quickly and to be able to get his ideas down as he wants to. (He was a little frustrated the other day by the slowness in development of his manual.) He seemed keen on the idea, so we have begun to work on forming his letters correctly. I bought him a workbook. It is for Ages 5-6. I said, "Don't worry. In school, children have to do certain things at certain ages, but that is not the case for you." He hasn't seemed bothered about that. And we have been doing a little every day. He forms some of his letters a little awkwardly, perhaps more so because he is left handed, but now that he knows the letters and what they look like so well, it is not nearly such an issue to practise forming them. We intend to move on next to a book which will help him to join his letters. Whilst I think this is a useful skill, I do not think that, in the modern, technological age in which we live, it warrants the hours which our primary schooling affords it. He will get there, at his own pace and, in the long term, what difference does it make? I hope he won't hate writing. I hope he will enjoy it as just another skill to master now he is willing and able. I hope years of free play and the experience of learning outside of school will have enriched his vocabulary and will enrich his writing and help him to be better able to communicate and to express himself. I hope so.

In the summer, this same 8 year old learned to swing independently. As with his cycling, I long wondered when he would acquire this skill. You might think it is late in happening. At the park, he has always asked to be pushed on the swing, and we have pushed him, but shown him how to swing himself, to no avail. He hasn't really been interested. Suddenly, this summer, something clicked and he could do it! Such delight. The sense of achievement, whenever it comes, is well worth waiting for.

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Monday, 29 September 2014

Quotes from "Schooling the World"

"Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials -children - are to be shaped and fashioned into products. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of 20th century civilisation, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down."
- Ellwood P. Cubberly, Dean of Stanford University School of Education, 1898.

"School forcibly snatches children away from a world full of God's own handiwork. It is a mere method of discipline which refuses to take into account the individual, a manufactory for grinding out uniform results. I was not a creation of the schoolmaster: the Government Board of Education was not consulted when I took birth in the world."
- Rabindranath Tagore, 1913 Nobel prize Winner for Literature.

"You have an institution that is in place globally that is branding millions and millions and millions of innocent people as failures. What's amazing is that people who are claiming to be concerned with social justice cannot see the huge social hierarchy and inequity that is created through education, modern education. It's mind-boggling for me how people don't see that."
- Manish Jain, Shikshantar: The People's Institute for Rethinking Education and Development.
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Friday, 26 September 2014

Schooling the World

If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children.

The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th century when it forced Native American children into government boarding schools. Today, volunteers build schools in traditional societies around the world, convinced that school is the only way to a 'better' life for indigenous children. But is this true? What really happens when we replace a traditional culture's way of learning and understanding the world with our own? SCHOOLING THE WORLD takes a challenging, sometimes funny, ultimately deeply disturbing look at the effects of modern education on the world's last sustainable indigenous cultures.

Watch the full documentary online, but only if you are prepared to be seriously challenged in your thinking: Schooling the World (2010)

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Friday, 12 September 2014

You Can Learn Anything!

Love this short video from Khan Academy. Cick to view: You Can Learn Anything

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Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Not Back to School

September ... A time of mixed emotions for the home educating parent. In recent years, most children's return to school has heralded a time of glorious sunshine, and early autumnal warmth. It is such a great time of year to be out of doors. And there are numerous "Not Back to School" picnics being held in parks up and down the country in celebration. We attended one local to us today. As we watch other children return to school, September can be a time when we are at peace and in celebration of the freedoms home education brings. However, it is also a time of new beginnings, the time of curriculum appraisal, a looking forward to the new school year and thinking about what it is we are hoping to achieve. It is very easy to panic. And it is then easy to look around at curricula, many of them expensive, and hope that by introducing some expensive new set of resources, our home education will be miraculously transformed into the exemplary ordered and joyful process we so want it to be.

I do not think a curriculum will solve the problem. Usually the problem is in our heads. It is borne of our own confusion about what learning ought to look like, and about what our children ought to be achieving. This thinking is a product of our own schooling, and the process of unlearning it - of redefining learning - and of releasing control, is a difficult and sometimes painful journey. It forces us to ask questions, to evaluate and to change. Changing attitudes requires change deep inside us, and it does take time. We often read about the process of 'deschooling' - at least a month is recommended for each year a child has been in school. But for us, the parents, it is a far longer process, and if you have any background in teaching, well, give yourself even longer!

If I could recommend one book to aid you in your home educating journey, it would be Lori Pickert's "Project-Based Home-Schooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners". I intend to pick it up again this week, and re-read it. So much of what Lori writes - both in her book, and on her blog, resonates with the way I feel home education should look, and it is a very easy book to read. Recommended.

As I begin the process of attempting to reign back some order to our days - It has all been rather lax since our move six months ago - I have looked around for 'projects' for the boys. I found a website which I thought was full of great resources for my eldest son, that he could really delve into: Iggy. My second son is very enthusiastic about his Arts Award. And for my third son, I spent a minimal amount of money on a unit study with which we will journey around the world, learning about the geography of our planet, as well as lots about different countries. I figured that some time each day could be devoted to these 'projects' and bring some focus. However, as I reflect upon the Project-Based Home-Schooling idea, and the idea of autonomous, child-led learning, I realise I am beginning in the wrong place. A post on Lori's blog today reminded me that, rather than running with my own good ideas, I need rather to begin by looking at the boys, by really looking and by seeing what they are actually interested in, right now. And we need to start from there, in dialogue, giving them ownership of their own projects and supporting them in that however we can, in scaling the walls they want to climb.

My eldest son wanted to learn about the Crimea and the Israeli / Palestinian conflict, so that he can better understand what is going on in the world. He came home from his grandparents' this week knowing far more about the Crimea than I do. He is interested in history. He learns by talking to his Grandpa, and taking it all in. He retains it. He knows a lot about history. He is also interested in the building work we are having done on our house. He loves scouting and the outdoors. He and his brother are very interested in yo-yos and are looking for ideas for new tricks on youtube, then practising and practising to get them right. He is interested in playing tennis, in learning to confidently navigate our new locality .... Lots of things if I am paying attention. And these are not things which I have to try hard to engage him in. The motivation is intrinsic. Can I not just draw alongside him in these endeavours, and support and encourage him to dig in and deepen his understanding and skills?

My second son saved up so hard to buy himself an iPad. He wanted to use it for art and for music and did a lot of research before deciding it was worth the money. He is totally absorbed by this new gadget at present, and in figuring out what he can do with it. He is interested in musical composition using Garage Band, and in making movies with iMovie. He is figuring out how to connect with his friends using his new technology. And then there is yo-yoing, tennis, fencing (which he wants to try this term), baking (He loves The Great British Bake-Off), scouting. Both boys love Bear Grylls, and are watching and reading a lot about him.

Our 8-year-old loves Lego and Minecraft. He is just beginning to be much more confident about attending a few more clubs with friends. That's a new thing for him. He is reading more and chose a book about "The Wonders of the World" from the library with great enthusiasm. (I haven't even looked at it with him yet!) There are so many starting points if we will only stop to look!

So, having mentioned Lori's inspiring post, over to her blog for some timely advice: "Trust, Respect and Attention: How Not to Diminish Your Child's True Self". Enjoy September!

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Model Boat Building Develops Imagination

A Guest Post by Grandpa following ongoing project work with the boys this year

Our experience of Model Boat building is that it develops the imagination, it builds skill in project planning, in drawing, in measurement/arithmetic, in mechanics/physics and in construction techniques. It also provides a platform for looking at the science of flotation, and at history. It develops manual dexterity and instructs on the effective/safe use of power tools.

We used a powered jig saw, a power drill and a powered sanding machine. We also used a sewing machine. The boys had to be taught how to safely use these but then trusted to operate them solo.

We first discussed what sort of boat we were to build. As a result, we have built five different designs:
A pirate ship
A sailing boat
A bigger sailing boat
A big fast racing sailing boat
A warship from the Second World War.

We used three techniques:
A Horizontal sandwich
A vertical sandwich
Solid wood

The Horizontal sandwich: On a piece of 5-ply wood, we made a series of 10 drawings of horizontal sections through the hull. Straight lines were OK at this stage so careful measurements, and reducing or increasing the same point in successive sections by a centimeter produced the desired result.

The Vertical Sandwich: We decided that we wanted to sail the second boat we made. It followed that it had to have a keel. The keel had to be integrated into the hull. So we used a mix of 5-ply and timber in vertical sections, the first section featuring the keel and then four to six sections each side. Into each vertical slice we needed to cut a central flotation chamber – that is, the hull is not solid but hollow.

In our “sandwich”, we needed reference points at a position common to each section to give correct alignment as we glued.

When we had drawn, we cut everything out with the electric jig saw. The sections were then glued and their alignment carefully checked before clamping and leaving for the glue to set. In all three of our sailing boats we used an “exterior” waterproof wood adhesive. Applied generously it gives a wonderful seal.

The hull was then sanded to shape. This required some hours of work and produced a great deal of sawdust.

We then varnished the hull, building up 8+ coats over a period of days, sanding down in preparation for each. A pleasing feature of the horizontal 5-ply design was that the exterior of the hull features “planking”: use the 5-ply vertically and the planking appears on the deck.

We then drilled holes into our hull for the masts. These were commercially produced dowel, cut appropriately, and then glued into their sockets.

We prepared for the installation of the rigging by fixing brass eyes, for which a small hole had to be drilled at strategic stress points in hull and masts. We identified those stress points by discussion of the forces that would act upon them.

“The Crocodile”
For the pirate ship, our decision was that it would be a model from the waterline up. Waterproofing was not specified. The hull sandwich drawing took some imagination : an old ship was wider above than at the waterline, and there needed to be an authentic tumblehome. This lends itself to the horizontal sandwich. Our hull is 60 x 20cm. It has two hatches in it, and these were drawn in at the earliest stage. The yards were dowel, cut and fixed to the mast by hook and eye. The requirement for the sails was assessed and measured, and run up on a sewing machine. We put a tunnel on the top edge of each sail which then completely enclosed the yard, so the yard was fixed to the mast after the sail was hung. Other details, a figurehead and stairways were fashioned from “Milliput”. The choice of figurehead gave her name. A 1/72 scale plastic crew was purchased before she set sail for the Caribbean.

On reflection, I wished that she had been waterproof. The picture also shows a pirate puzzle, drawn and then made with a jig saw and housed in a specially designed box.

Our first sail boat was named after the Tolkein character. As originally built, Galadriel was inspired by something seen in my brother’s house. She carried a rudder cut from biscuit tin metal, then folded round a shaft and soldered. And to the keel we fitted a lead weight (which we cast ourselves). However, we then found she was not a good sailor. So we discarded the lead, and the rudder, reshaped the keel, gave her a bowsprit, and re-rigged her Bermuda-style, adding a bowsprit. In her radically different new style she sails well. She was made from 11 vertical slices of 5-ply and measures 44 cms in length and 54 cms from keel to masthead.

“Galadriel II”
We had then wanted something really impressively big, so our second boat was planned at one metre in length and over a metre from keel to mast head. Following the vertical sandwich technique we used 5-ply for the centre section with an integral keel, then we used on each side two layers of two-inch timber. The result was a sleek hull. However, she was actually laterally unstable, too narrow, too heavy and sailed poorly. She was at first ketch-rigged but we concluded she could not spill wind and must be allowed to do so. So we radically rebuilt her, power drilling into her hull with a big bit to make floatation chambers, and then added extra width by adding two extra sandwich layers. The result was wider but lighter. Now Bermuda rigged, she sails well. As finally configured, she is 98 cms long and 91 cms from keel to mast head.


These experiences led to “Arwen”. She is a metre long and 95 cms from keel to masthead. From the beginning she was constructed using a hollow hull, and again 5-ply for the central section with integral keel, and four wooden sections on either side. From the start she sailed beautifully, so our learning curve had peaked satisfactorily. Arwen was Bermuda rigged from the start. Note her rudder.

A feature of our sailing designs was “the bath test” at an early stage to check sailing characteristics, and to make changes as problems were detected. We also looked at bouyancy in a crude Archimedes experiment - assessing how much water was displaced by the boat and what that weighed in comparison with the weight of our model.

As suggested above, experience led to complete redesign of our first two sailing boats, and in finding success, we were guided by a “pond boat” which we bought on the internet.

We kept the rigging very simple, following the example of the commercially produced pond yacht. Our rigging is nylon twine which has slight elasticity, but needs the ends glued when cut (as it rapidly unravels). It is fed through small brass eyes, and tension is maintained by small wood “blocks”.

We added the ensigns by painting (in duplicate) a piece of paper in enamel paint and folding and gluing this around twine (so that we can raise and lower the flag).

The solid wood model

This brought much quicker results, but not a sailing model. Following a drawing obtained from a library book, we produced a waterline model of the hull by drawing on a piece of wood and then shaping this with the electric sander. The bow section being higher we had to add and treat similarly a second piece of wood. Details were added using cardboard, wood blocks, balsa wood, and wire from clothes hangers. The funnels were steel tubing. We prime painted and then used grey undercoat, which effectively hid all the blemishes. The gun turrets and torpedo tubes were screwed in place, so they traverse.

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Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Authorities

Since deregistering our boys from school in 2010, all my contact with our local authority had been positive. I took the approach that the authorities have their job to do and we have nothing to hide, so we would respond to their enquiries and accept their visits. I had an education welfare officer on my doorstep unannounced a week after taking the boys out of school. She came in and I offered her a coffee. She had a look round, gave me a few websites and left. Later, we had a letter from Staffordshire asking us about our intended provision for the boys and there followed two visits, 12 months apart, both of which were positive experiences. The first gave me quite a confidence boost because our visitor was so positive about home education, and the boys enjoyed having the opportunity to show off all their work to someone who was actually interested in it. The second visitor in July 2011 was a former headteacher, new to the job, and she spent several hours with us talking about home education and asking lots of questions, which was quite tiring but, again, positive. On both occasions, the reports they produced said that our educational provision for the boys was 'exceeding expectations'.

I expected a visit a year later, but didn't hear from the Staffordshire authorities again until just before we moved away in the spring of this year. I assumed this was because of funding cuts and because our family had not presented any concern. We were clearly low priority which was fine with us because, whilst the authorities have their job to do, they do not offer any support to home educators. Anyway, since we were leaving Staffordshire, I contacted the Elective Home Education (EHE) Department by email to tell them that we would no longer be in their area so they could remove the boys from their register. I figured, once we had settled in our new location, I could decide if and when to inform our new city authority of our presence, but I know that home educating parents are not obliged to do that. I thought we could spend some time getting settled into our new home and networks first, and also find out from other home educators about our new authority and how they operate, whether they are open, friendly and supportive, as I know people's experience of their local authority varies tremendously up and down the country. I was a bit surprised to get a reply to my email from our contact at the EHE department in Staffordshire asking for our new address. She said she would then be able to remove the boys from the Staffordshire register and hand us over to her counterpart in our new location so that they could contact us and offer support. Now, I know she was just following procedures and doing her job, but I decided not to reply to that request just at that moment, in the midst of our moving chaos. So, imagine my surprise, when I received a phone call a few weeks ago from the EHE person in our new city. He had been given my phone number by Staffordshire, which annoyed me. Now, I could perhaps understand information sharing if there was concern about our children's welfare, but we have always accepted visits from the local authority, and concerns have never been raised. Why then the information sharing, without our permission?

Caught on the back foot by this phone call, I gave this chap our new address when he asked for it. When he suggested arranging a visit, I explained that it was the summer holidays, we were going away, we were about to have some building work commence on the house, could he perhaps call again in September and we could talk about a visit then? Reasonable request, I thought. And he accepted that. We were even more surprised then last week when he turned up on our doorstep at 9.00 prompt on an August morning, unannounced, introduced himself and, looking at his diary, said he thought he had an appointment with us that day. Er .... no. It was embarrassing, and rude actually. I didn't like it because it made it look as if there had been an appointment made and we hadn't got a record of it. But it simply wasn't true. It upset me. Why can't the authorities just be honest and up front? OK, he needs to tick a box on his paper to say he has heard about these home educated children, newly arrived in the city, and he has seen them. Child protection. Safe-guarding. Why pretend to be offering support which they are not? It makes ordinary families our to be suspicious and a cause for concern, and it feels uncomfortable. My husband said he has his job to do, and parents can be good at lying, so they have to play a game. What a sad state of affairs. I try to remember a shocking local case of parental abuse and that little boy's face every time I think of the local authorities and feel cross about it. I try to remember why they have to behave as they do. But it still isn't right, is it? It's a sad state of affairs.

And to finish the story, today we received a letter informing us that this man has arranged to visit us in October. Of course, we can refuse the visit if we want to. That is within our rights, but having spoken to the department on the phone today, we will just go ahead and have it. I mean, as I said, we have nothing to hide and, I hope, everything to gain by showing our local authorities how learning happens outside of classrooms, by opening their eyes again to the possibilities. The letter informs us "As you know the People Directorate is responsible for monitoring Educational Provision". Well, no, we didn't know actually. The People Directorate? Well, we looked them up and they do have a responsibility .... for safeguarding. Actually, everyone ought to know that it is parents who are responsible for the educational provision of their children under law, whether that provision be in school or otherwise. Here endeth the rant!

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