Thursday, 28 February 2008

Finding your work

I've currently found myself in the situation where I am reading around 4 or 5 books at the same time. No this isn't my usual scatty 'where-did-I-put-that-book-nevermind-I'll-start-another-one' behaviour, but a pleasant side effect of ordering too many books from Amazon, them all arriving within days of each other, and me not being able to resist peeking into each new arrival.

There's something truly wonderful about receiving a book in the post. In my imagination the books are individually wrapped in brown parcel paper and tied with string, smelling of exotic libraries in foreign places.

In reality they appear in a dull-looking padded envelope sandwiched in between bills and junk mail, and mostly they smell of the sorting office floor where they've probably been kicked around a bit.

But at least our regular postman is considerate enough to knock on the door and pass them over in person, a huge improvement on the relief postman who will try and stuff anything forcibly through our rather narrow letterbox. If on the rare occasion we are actually out, our lovely postman will carefully place the packages in the porch behind our green recycling bin. Sometimes I don't notice them there and have the surprise of finding them a day or two later when I'm not expecting them. It's almost as good as finding a ten pound note in a pocket that you didn't know you had, except that the latter is such a rare occurence that I don't believe it has ever happened to me.

One of the books I've just finished is John Holt's Freedom and Beyond. I'd like to say it's a beautifully written, eloquent examination of educational philosophy, but I'm not that posh and actually it's not always that well written (but who am I to criticise the acclaimed Master?). It does however make some very interesting points (in between the grumpy-old-man-bemoaning-the-state-of-society ramblings) and there is certainly lots of food for thought. Some of the issues I'm sure have already been covered in his other books; I have no idea in which order his books were written, but there is a great deal of overlap between them in terms of subject matter. A large proportion of this book is devoted to discussing Schooling and Poverty (plus a further chapter on Deschooling and the Poor) which make some pretty damning accusations against the American education system. These accusations are a common theme in most of his books, though there are occasions when he strangely holds up aspects of the English Education System as an example of better practice. I'm not so sure this would apply today.

Here is a quote from the book in which Holt is agreeing with the arguments of James Herndon (How to Survive in Your Native Land) :

' one can find his work, what he really wants to put all of himself into, when everything he does he is made to do by others. This kind of searching must be done freely or not at all.'

Sometimes you find someone says something that says exactly what you would wish to say if you found the words to say it.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008


A friend and I once came up with the idea that parents can tell how mean they've been to their kids recently by using the 'SPILT DRINK TEST'.

In essence, the 'SPILT DRINK TEST' is revealed by assessing your children's response to knocking a cup of drink over in the lounge. Responses can be graded on a scale of good, ok or REALLY bad.

If the children ignore the spilt drink, don't bother telling you and carry on watching the DVD while cheerfully sitting in the puddle of liquid then you know you've been far too lax in the parenting department recently. Not exactly good, but not bad either.

If they promptly get up, get a cloth, clean up and THEN make a casual remark about it to you an hour or so later, then you're probably doing a pretty good job of parenting. Just don't brag about it to much to other parents because they will probably never speak to you again.

If, on the other hand, following a spilt drink occurence, the house suddenly becomes so quiet you can hear the rat in the garden tunnelling under your new compost bin then all is not well. On investigation (ie opening the lounge door) the worst response you can expect is a pale face looking up at you which promptly burst into tears and apologises profusely in a hysterical terrified sort of way. Then you know you've been REALLY MEAN to your kids for quite some time.

Well, let's just say that on the Spilt Drink Test we are so close to the hysterical apologetic teary face that I daren't even let my kids have drinks in the lounge for fear of what proof a spilt drink might provide about my recent tyrannical parenting.

But ON THE POSITIVE SIDE, apparently England, or more particularly Lincolnshire, had an earthquake at 1am this morning.
Not that we noticed.
Like most of the faintly exciting things that happen in England (so few I can't think of any other ones at all) we missed it. Slept through it. Bit of a bummer really, but hey, ho.

I did have some faint (desperate) hope that the shaking that we apparently experienced might have worked some magic on the DVD recorder which is doing a very good impression of a useless box of wires at the moment. As if I haven't got enough to contend with with picky children who like an excuse to moan about everything. Now I have a piece of technology with a similar temperament. It's not as if I'm asking for alot. ALL it has to do is:

(1) play DVDs - i.e. all of them, not just a select few that it deems are boring enough to be worth waving its little laser finger over, and NOT by spinning them so hard it sounds like our old lethal twin tub on its manic fast spin.

(2) record onto it's hard disc the programmes I want to record. Yes SOUND would be helpful as I'm not a professional lipreader. And no, I do not want a very long recording of the precise actions of a small child looking up and down through the freeview channel listings before settling on an episode of Top Gear.

and then

(3) allow me to copy the programmes I want to save onto a DVD. Yes, preferably ANY of the 40 or so I have spent a fortune buying in a desperate attempt to get the damned thing to work.

Whoever said that technology was here to make our lives easier? Perhaps they should be given the punishment of trying to make the DVD player work while cooking dinner, fending off a small ravenous puppy determined to stick its head in the burning hot oven, and putting up with the smell of rotting Giant African Land Snails, which have made the dining room a no-go area. He obviously wasn't a woman OR a home educator.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

All quiet on the Home Ed Front...

Well, it's been a deliberately quiet few days wrt home education. After a visit from friends and their daughter 2 weeks ago and some rather intense socialising the previous few weeks (enough to put paid to all the 'what about socialisation' quesions!) we had a week of hiding at home during our local half term, avoiding the crowds.

That's not to say that the kids haven't been occupied. Ds1 and 2 spent a couple of saturdays at a local free animation class. I'd seen the poster the day before the first session and on finding there were hardly any children attending (why?) I phoned round some of our local home educators who soon filled the group with their kids. As always, the boys' animation had a rather violent theme - there's usually a killer mutant 'something' trying to take over the world - but having seen a quick draft version of their mutant killer rabbits (in plasticine) it looked fantastic for 8 hours of teamwork. There's still the sound to be edited on, apparently one of the adults does this, and then we will get to see the finished result plus other children's efforts during a screening this Saturday.

I need to get my head around the couple of animation programmes we have on our pc at home. the kids use two drawing ones (from There is also the facility to do stopframe animation using one of our basic windows packages, but I'm yet to work out how. They're all fairly clunky programmes and our pc seems to struggle with anything at the moment, so it may be a case of having to buy a new pc for the kids before we can get anything to work. As I have a new laptop my personal urge to buy a new efficient pc is rather diminished, but I think there will come a point when the kids are totally fed up with it's constant misbehaviour and refusal to play their favourite games.

After a long period of little structured 'work' I'm hoping to start up 'The story of the world' again soon, a really good children's history book/curriculum. Although I've been progressively getting rid of workbooks off the shelves, and we're mostly autonomous in our educational style, I think the kids are missing a bit of structure and direct adult interaction. Ds1 even asked when we were going to do some more history, so I think that's probably a good sign (there are obviously some positive advantages to leaving them to their own devices for a few months). Japan during the middle ages was our last theme that we were working on and there's still plenty of scope for doing more on this. I've plans to look at Japanese art and also try out some Haiku (have I got the spelling correct?) with the kids. We might even get to do some reading about Samurai. Then I have ambitions for the kids to go sketching in a local museum, an anthropological museum that has literally thousands of little and large artefacts from all over the world and I'm sure they have a Samurai 'outfit'. Is 'outfit' the right word? - uniform?- oh I dunno. At least if they have weapons of some sort it will please the boys. Of course these are all possible plans and in the world of home educating very little goes according to plan. FLEXIBILITY and the patience of a Saint seems to be the key to a calm home educating life.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Instruction leaflet for schools: 'How to be Creative'

The children had been asked by a member of staff at our local Scrapstore if they could do an instruction sheet to give to schools. The instruction leaflet was for making stampers out of 'sticky pads'. The idea was received with (mild) enthusiasm, so yesterday I figured I'd start off making some stampers and see if the children were interested enough to join me (a John Holt approach of course...)

Here are some photos of our morning, some of which we used to illustrate the instruction leaflet.

I decided to start with a fish shape (nice easy one I thought, though it took me a few attempts to stop it looking like a shark). Once we had peeled off the backing and stuck it to cardboard it was easy for dd1 to paint. Uh oh! No apron. Just as well the jumper is already stripey!

Success!Though dd1 was a bit disatisfied with the missing patches on the fish and proceded to paint them in. (Groan! Just what I need, another perfectionist in the household)

Dd1 made a 'seaweed' stamper by drawing around her hand with chalk. As expected, she needed a little help with cutting it out, but managed the rest fine.

At this point ds1 and ds2 decided to join in too and added to the picture with stampers of 'rocks' and blue 'bubbles' from the fishes' mouths. The rock shape was made by drawing around ds2's fist, though I think it would also have done well as a shell.

Then this morning we started choosing which photos were best to use on the leaflet and the boys helped to think up some essential points that needed to be on it. We used children's cookbooks as a starter for our research on layout and content and these were surprisingly helpful. Titles such as 'you will need' were applicable to our project and it helped the boys to see a way of making the leaflet simple to follow.

Hopefully tomorrow we'll get a chance to print out a draft copy of our ideas and show the Scrapstore staff to see what improvements could be made. It's sad to think that teachers in school lack so much creativity that they can't work out how to make stampers themselves. Still, I guess when they've got limited time to tick all the curriculum 'boxes', then it doesn't leave alot of time for creative thinking.

Today and yesterday's activities have left me inspired to think up more ways of using the scrap and marketing it for schools and nurseries. Curriculum packs and projects would be a good money-earner for the scrapstore.

The afternoon was spent at our regular meet up with other home edders at a local adventure playground. Not content with the ample supply of sticks at the playground the boys decided to bring their own from our back garden (cuttings from when our apple tree was pruned). As usual there was lots of play fighting, occasionally getting out of hand, but mostly good humoured.
I discussed with another home educator how well all the children get on with each other when they play fight and how different it is when other children (particularly school children) join in. We concluded that the group have formed their own unwritten 'rules' about what sort of fighting is acceptable or not and that the group appears to educate newcomers and enforce the 'rules'. It's difficult to see how this happens in practice, or exactly what the rules are, but it is very noticeable how the group dynamics change from their usual state, into a slightly disruptive, excited state of having newcomer(s) enter the group and then again return to normal once the newcomers have been integrated and have accepted these group 'rules'.
The fighting can look very violent, but mostly it is staged and choreographed and so looks worse than it really is. Occasionally things don't go to plan and there are a few tears, but it seems, in most cases at least, to arise from misunderstandings between the home ed children rather than malice. For example a childd (often my ds1) will like to be the victim, being repeatedly captured and taken prisoner, or always succumbing to the bottom of the scrum! But there are times when he doesn't want to be this role anymore and it's not easy for him to communicate this to the others. Fortunately these sorts of problems are quickly rectified, sometimes needing the intervention of a parent, but mostly sorted out among the children themselves. The children have remarkable interpersonal skills which, unless you observe them for long periods of time and avoid adult intervention, would probably go unnoticed

Monday, 11 February 2008

Biology lesson? No problem, just get out the playdough.

Today we spent the morning trying to tidy up a little in preparation for some friends who are coming to stay. I had just managed to clean up the kitchen after preparing some meals for the week when dd1 came in and insisted on making some playdough.Half an hour later, with 2 saucepans encrusted with burnt - or at least very well cooked - playdough and a kitchen that looked like a food fight in a bakery we had successfully made two batches of playdough. The dog cheerfully hoovered up the flour that dd1 had sprinkled all over the floor while I'd been otherwise occupied. I'm not sure what flour does to a dog's digestive system, but I'm guessing we'll find out tomorrow. He's also eaten a raw french bean and two cooked leaves of Kale out the bin in the past few days, so it could be an explosive combination!

The boys, hearing that we were making playdough, didn't want to be left out and had soon acquired most of dd1's playdough in their usual brotherly way and were creating things on the conservatory table. After a while of making 'worms' using one of our playdough contraptions, dd1 decided he could use them to make a brain and set about making quite a good likeness with some red playdough.

****************************THE BRAIN (in playdough)

Then he moved onto creating some intestines. He wasn't sure what they looked like, so -sensing an educational opportunity - I got one of our large, slightly gruesome books on the body from the bookshelf and popped it on the table.

******************THE INTESTINES (compared with the picture in our book)

Ds2 decided he was going to make a stomach. A while later he scrunched it up and started something else: with some glittery grey playdough he started to model what I assume is his favourite part of his body. 'Look, I've made balls in a sac'. [Oh joy!]

Ds1's piano lesson was cancelled at short notice, so the afternoon was spent hulking old tyres from KwikFit into the back of the car and transporting them to the allotment. Piled up and filled with compost they make really good containers for growing strawberries and other plants in. Last year we did a trial, putting a few on some weed suppressant material, growing courgettes, strawberries and raspberries in them. They worked pretty well, so this year I'm expanding the experiment. We did two loads (around 16 tyres), so hopefully there'll be a few spare for the kids to use to grow potatoes on their plot. I'm not sure what the people at Kwik Fit think of me, some mad mother, turning up in a people carrier with 3 kids (and a dog on their lap) and filling it up with old tyres. Still, if we get a good crop of strawberries I guess it'll have been worth it!

Thursday, 7 February 2008

And they counted them in...

Today ds1 and ds2 had a chance to work at the local scrapstore. They were given the task of packing boxes with 60 items in each box. The 'scrap' items were pieces of foam (with sticky backs) which apparently make very good 'stampers' and are in demand in local schools (?).

There was a lovely helper there who quickly took them under his wing and helped them find a working method to fill the boxes quickly. ds1 was given the task to count the items into piles of 10 and then ds2' s job was to put 6 of these piles into a box, close it up and take it to where it was being stored. I think there may have been a bit of miscounting, particularly with the distraction of members of the public coming in and out as they were trying to put the items in piles - there may be one or two schools in with a surprise when they open their box! But, generally, it went well, with ds2 slowly learning his 10 times table ( 50 doesn't come after 20 when counting in tens) and the boys entertained for several hours.

We talked a little with the helper about home education and he was surprisingly sympathetic (phwew!). It's always a relief not to have to repeatedly explain - or worse still, defend - why your children aren't in school (yes it's legal, no I'm not a teacher, yes they have a great social life..etc..etc).

Anyway, the boys have been invited for more voluntary work next week, so hopefully it will be a regular thing. Maybe I can throw out all those unused maths workbooks then...

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

"That's one small step for man... giant leap for mankind

- dammit! Fell down the crater again!"

Yes, this is supposed to be chocolate cake. Got the recipe from another home educating friend, but somehow it didn't work quite as well as hers :) You may notice a teensy weensy dip in the middle..?

Perhaps it had something to do with confusion over the recipe - baking powder AND bicarb? - and what sort of flour - hmm let's try self-raising - and uh oh, forgot to sieve the cocoa so it's gone in in huge lumps that now wont dissolve - oh, most of that went on the floor (it's ok, seems the dog likes cocoa powder) - and, oh, only got 10 mins before we're due to go out, better wack up the heat a bit - oh, what's all that smoke in the kitchen? - oh yeah, I remember, pizza from 2 days ago that's still in the oven- hmm, well take the cake out, might not be done enough, but we gotta go - oooh look at it sink - oh dear, one BIG crater.

And as if to add insult to injury, 2 minutes after this photo was taken (while I was washing off the astronaut's feet in the kitchen) the dog got up on the table and ate half of the cake. So now it has a huge dog licky sodden misshapen patch out of it and looks even less appealing.

I can't help thinking that if god had intended me to bake, then I would have been born with oven gloves.

Monday, 4 February 2008

The Lemon Clock

Ds2 has finally managed to pin Dh down and get him to help him over the weekend with his Christmas present, a 'Lemon Clock' kit. Today ds2 got it out again and set it up with 2 lemon halves and a potato.

After phoning dh to check which of the wires was negative and which was positive (I was clueless), ds2 set about trying to get it to work with the fruit/veg and also tried some lemon juice. I pretty much left him to it, just taking a few photos and film of him in action.

(I tried to upload the film, but with no luck as it was taking ages)


Dd1 was threading some gold cotton with various beads to make a necklace for me. I was surprised how well she was coping, even finding some sellotape to stick on the end so the beads didn't just slide off the other end. I wonder where she's learnt that technique, perhaps from ds1? It isn't something I've shown her. After about half an hour of intense concentration she came and showed me the finished result. She'd managed to thread even the most fiddly of beads onto the cotton - and without a needle too! It was a little too small to go over my head, but went fine over hers. Shortly afterwards, unfortunately, Jack managed to get hold of the necklace and chew the sellotape off - uh oh beads all over the lounge floor!

Before lunch we watched 'Chicken Little' on DVD. The most interesting bit - at least for me and probably ds1 too - is the part where they show how the animation was done. Particularly the part where they show the actors doing the voice overs.Ds 1 is keen on animation, having done several summer workshops with a local animation group.

As consolation for the necklace/Jack encounter, after ds1's piano lesson I filled some seed trays with compost and dd1 and I set about planting some of the 'early' seeds. I'm always surprised how much she enjoys this and how attentive and careful she is when planting them. The sweet pea seeds were easy for her to handle, but the finer seeds such as Mesembryanthemum were more fiddly. Still, she managed well and we spent about an hour planting seeds, putting in seed labels and wrapping the pots in plastic bags to keep the moisture in. All the time she was learning, sometimes counting or reasoning, sometimes just talking to herself as if I wasn't there and other times just listening as I answered her questions about the seeds and why we were doing the things we were doing.

------PLANTING THE SEEDS ---------- ---------TYING THE BAGS-------------


Friday, 1 February 2008

Learning all the time...

John Holt's book 'Learning all the time' arrived in the post today, and as if to reaffirm some of its content my children have been happily learning all day.

At least I assume they are learning. It's a difficult thing to quantify, but just from observing them (as discretely as I can) I can almost watch the cogs turning, each time leading to a new discovery or a new question.

dd1 (4) today discovered some magnetic letters and shapes that I'd acquired from our local 'Swap Shop'. They'd been in the footwell of our car for 3 weeks, first in a box with a lid, then in the box as the box lid got stood on(!), and then finally, when the box was used first as an impromtu plate and then a notebook, they just got left strewn across the footwell. Feeling diligent today (and aware of the rapidly deteriorating state of the inside of my car) I scooped them up into a perfumed 'nappy sack' and brought them indoors.

Dd1 showed some interest, so I left her with them, not sure exactly what she wanted them for. She picked out a few and quickly found something to stick them on - the metal cupboard door under our kitchen sink. I don't know if I've ever 'taught' her anything about magnets and magnetic things, but I guess she'd just absorbed the information somehow. With the bag (and another box of magnetic letters that we found) she started to make a tower up the cupboard of the magnetic animals/objects, swapping them around. First it was the house on top of the sheep on top of the ....and so on. She talked all the time, not for my benefit, just as if to explain to herself what she was doing and why. Next she made a tower up the cupboard door of the magnetic letters. Sometimes she stopped and asked me what a particular letter was (I was in the kitchen, making lunch). She was particularly fascinated with the 'i' and the 'j' letters because they had joining plastic between the 'dot' and the 'stick' part of the letter.
'Hmm...' she said about the letter j,'this one is the same, but it's got a curly bit on it'.
I said 'yes that's 'j' for jump'. We thought a little more about other words that began with 'j'. She suggested a word.' Yes, jug that's a good word.'
'No, not jug she replied junk' . I had misheard her.
'Ah like junkbot', I said. Junkbot is the name of a game on the Lego website, where the player has to move bricks to assist the 'junkbot' in completing his task. It's a popular game with her brothers.
'Yes, but it's not junkbox, not box like a box', she emphasised. 'It's bot. Junkbot.'
'That's right, Junkbot. Because it's a robot that carries junk', I said.
We laughed as at that moment the dog sneaked in and stole one of the letters. Look I said, ' he's stolen the letter that begins his name. 'He's got j for Jack. What a clever dog'.
It was true. I took the 'j' from his mouth and put it back in the box.