About Me

I am a Christian mother of five, and our highest goal as a family is to serve God in every aspect of our lives. Jesus promised His disciples 'life in all its abundance' (John 10:10) - that has been our story, a rich life, not devoid of challenges, but certainly abundant. Previously writing at www.homeeducationnovice.blogspot.com, we have come to realise that education is just one area where our faith shapes our choices and direction in life. This blog seeks to share our adventure.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Short, diverse lessons

I was talking with a friend this week about short lessons. It's funny, because we all have been influenced by the style of education to which we were exposed as children. It sometimes seems wrong to spend just so much time having fun, whilst learning, when you know that so many other children of similar ages are having to spend many hours per day in a classroom or group environment. But the truth is, short lessons are effective, enjoyable and enough! Charlotte Mason was an educationalist who believed that lessons should be kept short and to the point. Not only are they sufficient because you can focus entirely on the child or small group of children that you are home educating, but also, you teach the child the discipline of full concentration and attention, rather than day-dreaming and dawdling.

The blog post I referred to above concludes with the blogger's examples of her short-lessons that take place during the day. My list might look like this:

1) Bible (10 minutes)
2) Singing/ prayer (5 minutes)
3) Reading (20 minutes)
4) Drawing/ painting (20 minutes)
5) Writing letters/ letter forms (5 minutes)
6) A game such as snap or a jigsaw (10-15 minutes)
7) Music (putting on a CD and getting out our box of instruments) (20 minutes)
8) Watering the garden (10 minutes)
9) Baking/ cooking (15 minutes)

And in between these, allowing time to set up/ tidy up and for a short break - free play, with cars/ toys/ looking at picture books/ playing in the garden etc

Then... nature studies in the park - many 1 minute lessons amongst two hours of walking/ playing/ climbing. Physical education - races/climbing/ jumping/ hopping etc - many short lessons whilst out and about. Several afternoons per week we will do some kind of 'field trip' - a National Trust property, a museum or art gallery, maybe the library or even a shopping expedition. All of these bring many of their own lessons too.

When you think about your daily routine, you probably see many different 'lessons' that fall into short time-spans, so natural within the course of your day that you barely consider them lessons at all. That is another joy of home education, that learning becomes a life-long adventure, and doesn't have a clear beginning and end. Most days I try to keep a short note of our day, perhaps a little like the one above. I do this for several reasons:

1) A record for me of what we have done
2) A type of handover - my husband and I both work part-time and home educate part-time, so it is good to know what the other half has done
3) Enough of a record that I can show evidence that I am appropriately educating our children should anybody ever ask
4) For my own reassurance; that we are indeed providing a diverse and stimulating education, and are not neglecting any of the key areas

Take some time and reflect on what you are doing, and I think you will be surprised and encouraged at just how much can be covered in a short period of time when we choose to educate our children at home!

Sunday, 11 August 2013

'Preschool' year (ages 3-4)



This time a year ago, I was pondering whether or not to use a pre-school curriculum. My eldest son was three and a half, and where we live, would have been due to start 15 hours of pre-school per week if we had wished. Suddenly I wondered whether I should be doing something more focussed or quantifiable than currently. I felt daunted as I looked on the internet and spoke to others, since there seemed simply so many options available. Those who had been homeschooling longest tended to gently reassure me that we were already covering most of the bases and that we need not look for anything more structured or formal unless we really felt strongly that there was some necessity to do so. 

What I did at that point was to continue much as before, but to have an approximate timetable in my head, making sure that we maintained a good balance between subjects and disciplines. I have a mental list of things which we will do daily, those we will do a couple of times per week, and those which are less frequent. More recently, I have started a notebook where I summarise what we have done each day, and comment on anything that is in any way unusual or remarkable (for example, ill health, challenging behaviour or attainment of a milestone, particular joy or focus or anything else). For now, that seems to be sufficient structure. 

As many of those around us take a summer break before progressing to the next level, I thought I would pause to reflect on the past year educationally. I’ll go topic by topic.

Bible. We start the day with a Psalm. This is something we have done since they were babies. There is so much depth there, and it has been exciting to hear them apply specific verses to their daily lives. When my eldest heard the Psalms that speak of writing ‘a new song’, he started to write his own collection of new songs. These often display remarkable theological accuracy and show us how he is processing the truths he learns. There is something delightful and innocent about this child-like worship, and it causes me to remember how Jesus said that we must all become as little children if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven. On other occasions, they hear of how life was not always easy for the writer of the Psalms, but that God was faithful. They memorised Joshua 1:8, ‘Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go’ – and they often remark that this was true in the life of David. It is not always a spiritual victory: the words of Psalm 139 tell us that the Lord sees when we lie down and when we get up, which means He sees and knows when we are disobedient at bedtime and climb around the room rather than sleeping! In the evenings, we have been having family devotions (sometimes one parent is working, but when possible all are together), working through books of the Bible. We did Genesis, Joshua, Luke and are now going through the life of David, linking it in with our studies of Psalms. We ask the boys to choose songs that they think go well with what we have discussed, and sometimes they write one of their 'new songs'. Then we all pray together. It's been good to have that routine. Admittedly, this is the most consistent Bible routine I have had for years, and as with other areas, I am seeing new and fresh things as the boys learn these exciting stories for the first time.

Games. Over the past year the older boys have began to understand and enjoy games more. Things like snap, pairs, counting games and other simple ones. We tend to play these after breakfast when the baby goes for a nap because he is at that toddler age of disrupting things carefully laid out on the floor. We cover quite a bit of basic literacy and numeracy in the games we play.

Drawing, painting, writing. Several times per week we sit up at the table and get out boxes of paints, coloured papers, crayons etc. I tend to be quite free in what they do with these, rather than telling them there is a right or wrong way to draw or paint. I show them how to hold the brushes, and how not to mess up the different colours, but that’s about it. Interestingly, the middle boy who is quite passionate (either very happy or very sad) does far more delicate and intricate paintings than the older boy; this took me by surprise at first, and I realised I had stereotyped them already. It is interesting to watch the different styles develop. More recently, some of the shapes and squiggles are starting to form into letters. We aren’t pushing them to write, but rather taking things a natural step forward. We have some workbooks aimed at children aged 3-5 which help make lines and shapes building towards letters. I’ve got them off the shelf a couple of times, but when the boys have shown little interest, have reverted to the more free approach. This week something changed, and they were very pleased to sit at the table each with his own workbook. The toddler has just started to make scribbles with crayons.

Reading. It’s been delightful to see their interest in books. Again, my boys are developing both shared and individual interests; I see this clearly when we go to the library. The four year old is particularly interested in ancient civilisations – he loves books on ancient Egypt, Rome or Greece. He was extremely excited to see the map of St Paul’s missionary journey in both a history book and in the Bible. He gets excited whenever there is a mention of the Romans in the Bible, and you can see him piecing together the events that occurred. It is a good time to build upon this interest, and one idea I saw recently at a friend’s house was that of a Bible timeline across a wall in their front room. It is helpful for all of us to remember which events occurred concurrently. We haven’t focussed hugely on independent reading, but through games and reading signs out and about, they are recognising most letters and basic words. We are starting to focus a bit more on this now, and it is an area I see progressing over the year ahead.

Spanish. For a while we were uncertain which language to choose, and in the end went for Spanish as it is new to all of us, widely spoken in diverse parts of the world, and is a country we are likely to visit. We enrolled them in a Spanish class near where we lived for four months; there were only two other boys in the class. They loved it, and enjoy singing along to their CD in the car. We have bought some more CDs, and hope to find a Spanish speaking student who might come and spend an hour with us once a week to continue learning.

Cooking and baking. We generally just ask the boys to help out with whatever tasks they are capable of. Slowly they are becoming more independent, and as well as learning to cook, they are covering quite large areas of science, nutrition, world cultures, etc as they do so. There are also the elements of literacy and numeracy in reading the recipes. Previously I reflected on just what a broad curriculum can be covered by something as simple and day-to-day as baking acake. For me, keeping a diary, keeping notes, writing this blog – all these tasks help me to realise that life is learning, life is an adventure, but that to try and break it down into quantifiable distinct tasks somehow loses this beauty and continuity.

Music. We don’t tend to have background music on at home, but often we will listen to Classic FM whilst cooking or during specific times. I was astounded about a year ago when they boys were able to easily distinguish the sound of a violin from a cello. When I thought about it more, I realised that they are quite different sounds, different tones, but that as an adult we tend to apply a filter  - first it is a stringed instrument, then we use logic and reason (range of notes, piece of music, other instruments etc) to try and work out which (at least that’s how I do it). The children are learning from the start that instruments simply sound different. They don’t see what the challenge is. Its a bit like different sounds in learning new languages. We hope to have a piano soon (we always did, but sold it when we left Africa and haven’t yet replaced it). They enjoy me putting on a CD and getting out the box of instruments (rattles, triangle, glockenspiels, tambourines etc). I hope to build on this. Many of us learned instruments as children, my husband and I both did. We were both a bit discouraged by teachers who wanted rigidity, the need to focus on one or two key pieces, sometimes the need to sit and pass a grade or exam. I would love the boys to embrace musical creativity without stifling their childlike freedom. A bit like with my son’s ‘new songs’ -  I don’t correct the grammar or the tunes, but rather let him explore and see how things develop!

Poetry. Psalms, new songs, enjoying words that rhyme. We try to avoid dumbed down ‘twaddle’ (as Charlotte Mason would have termed it). There are some childrens’ books out there which are really trite – the words are not good, the messages conveyed are either meaningless or assume that all children will seek to be disobedient and that this is OK, and I can barely see how they were published. Others, mostly slightly older books it must be said, although some great new ones do exist by writers such as Julia Donaldson, really seem to enjoy using words. 

Geography. The boys can tell you where they were born. They can point to different countries where we have lived on a map, and tell us a bit about the time-zone, the culture, the languages and the food. They know about seasons – when we were in West Africa, it was watermelon season, and we sought every creative recipe for using the whole of the watermelon, flesh and rind. Similarly, it you end up living through the mango season, you almost become tired of them too. I say almost. Has anybody ever really tired of eating mango? I appreciate that our life is a little unusual in the way we move; but at the same time, through choosing to home educate it becomes a little self-perpetuating as when an opportunity arises we can respond to it rather than face concerns about disrupting the childrens’ education. We are able to seize opportunities which others with a similar size and shape of family, might feel compelled to turn down or not even consider.

History. Whenever we visit a place, we look at the old buildings, visit any local museums and try and find out a bit about the history before we go. Often a simple walk around a town leads to a discussion of what happened there (we’ve recently spent four months living in a part of the country which was important during the Industrial Revolution, for example, and there was quite a bit of evidence of this around us.) I am often astonished, and feel that I have been living life with eyes only half open until now, and places which are familiar to me take on a new meaning.

Nature studies. Probably could be better categorised as science, or geography perhaps, but we spend many hours out of doors exploring the world around us. Last year, it was good to see them making the links between certain types of tree and their fruit, such as acorns to oak trees. There have been some interesting discussions about the times where the Bible speaks of fruit, of bearing fruit, of recognising a person’s true nature by their fruit. When you think about it, much of the Bible was written to people with far more of an agricultural background than urbanised children of today. Some of the lessons become strikingly clear when you consider farming life (and many others shone out with a new depth when we spent time in a West African village, which I have described previously). It is wonderful to see the boys gently collecting insects (the gentleness has taken a little bit of work, and some insects have met a sudden unexpected death at the hands of my little entomologists), naming flowers, marvelling at butterflies and realising that these are all part of God’s wonderful creation, each tiny detail planned by Him.

Sport. The boys can easily manage a 5 mile hike that I find tiring as an adult (and I routinely run 3-4 miles twice a day); it’s great, as there are no whines or gripes about being tired or having sore feet, but instead each loves the responsibility of carrying water or a snack in his backpack and going exploring. They also learn agility through climbing trees, jumping off rocks, balancing on stepping stones and navigating different types of styles. This year they have also started to play together well with a Frisbee or a football, and this is an area where the toddler loves to join in just as much. One of his first words has been ‘ball’. It has been really satisfying to see their strength, agility and stamina, and it pays great dividends in terms of daily routine (walking several miles is not a challenge, carrying shopping is seen as fun etc).

I could probably go on. But the point is to celebrate with you some of the delights of a relatively unstructured, naturally developing pre-school curriculum. Your children and your circumstances will differ. You don’t need many resources, vast amounts of space, great riches, but rather to know your children well, and to embrace the opportunities as they unfold day to day. Recently I visited a friend with four children of similar ages who took quite a different approach. She did more from home, and made more use of video clips and internet resources which she had downloaded onto a hard drive. Her children were more advanced in terms of pure literacy and numeracy, and I could have compared our experience unfavourably. However what I did was see the differences in styles, have decided to embrace some elements, but incorporate it into what we are already doing rather than chopping and changing to an entirely different style and method. I think that is key. Your family is unique, you are unique, the opportunities which present themselves to you today are unique. By all means use curricula and resources, and prayerfully consider the academic year ahead. But trust also that God will guide you, and pray that He inspires you to use those things which surround you to teach your children.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Words, encouragement, friendship...

Yesterday, I posted about the choice of words that are used in talking about our children.

I thought I should discuss a little more why I find this area so difficult, and why I end up feeling more isolated in consequence. In simple terms, it is because my heart is fundamentally selfish! I notice it was about this time last year that I wrote about cultivating a 'gratitude attitude', and it was partly in relation to similar feelings to those I currently describe. Our words are important. They do speak volumes about our greatest desires, our most deeply held beliefs, our fundamental worldview.

Jesus said, 'A good man brings good things out ofthe good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out ofthe evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what theheart is full of.' (Luke 6:45). Phrased differently, 'out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks'. But once spoken, those words are out there, cannot be taken back, cannot be changed, and may go on to have consequences beyond what we can imagine.

In the writings of James, one of Jesus' contemporaries, this is more fully discussed:
'Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.' (James 5-10)

It is easy to speak. And to say things which can harm others.

If it were easy to speak positively at all times, I might not be writing this post! If it were always my first and instinctive reaction to speak positively of others at all possible times, I would not be describing this as a challenge. If it were never a source of conflict (both internal and interpersonal), then there would not be anything to say. But sadly, that is not the case.

But there are days when I do feel tired, discouraged, frustrated. Yes, there are days when I walk past the windows of coffee shops and see perfectly groomed women sipping coffee with their daintily dressed daughters sitting obediently with their colouring books and wish for a moment that I could join them inside rather than run around a park in the pouring rain with a rugby ball, half a dozen sticks and a few caterpillars in our 'collection'. There are days when I feel a little envious of friends who have a parent or an in-law who regularly looks after the children for a time. There are days when I do not remember that God graciously gives all things as He sees fit; rather than rejoicing in His wise and sufficient provision for my family, I am tempted to covet. And I know, only too well, that these are unpleasant, selfish attitudes and that they do not fit with one of my favourite exhortations, 'Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ' (Philippians 1:27)

It might be shocking, but there are times when I almost catch myself agreeing with the derogatory comments that other parents make about their offspring. It can almost seem as though those comments are there as a test, there to make one stumble! It is tempting to give in, to swim according to the prevailing stream.

And so, what do I do? Do I spend time with friends who seem to have a very different attitude towards their children than ours, and hope to ignore comments and remarks? Do I counter them, suggesting that the attitude is not helpful and is potentially discouraging? When others seek simply to 'entertain' their children in a way that keeps them quiet for longer periods of time, how do I continue to interact with my own children in a way that is normal for us, without appearing to tacitly criticise the others? Already, there is often a defensiveness about the fact we haven't put the children in a nursery or used a childminder, as though simply by being different we are implying criticism. Sometimes it feels like a minefield to navigate, and there are times (and perhaps in the school holidays more so than at other times!) when it is simply easiest to be alone as a family, despite the loneliness.

Where is the encouragement? I don't think  anybody consciously seeks to make me stumble or to bring discouragement. But even within the church, where people will reel off the verses about how 'children are a gift from God, the fruit of the womb an inheritance', or tell the story of how Jesus bid the little children come to Him for blessing, the  same attitudes seem to prevail.

I am grateful for the role models I have. I am grateful for those who will read this and understand what I am trying to say. I appreciate the prayers of those who hold my family close to their hearts, and seek that we be a household where God is honoured, and where our home is a place of rest and refreshment for the weary. I value the encouraging comments made here on the blog, or via email. It helps to read the writings of others who seek to walk the 'narrow path' and to encourage one another on the way.


Friday, 9 August 2013

How we speak about our children

This evening, I feel quite tired and drained. Looking for some encouragement (see a previous post on this!), I turned to an old favourite blog, and read this post about the value of words that had me nodding in agreement, and feeling less alone.

In the UK it is the school summer holidays, and for the third consecutive year, I am surprised at just how lonely I find this time. Some of this is because friends tend to go away for several weeks at a time, whereas our family rarely would go away during the school holidays (why would we choose to do so? A minor advantage of home education is that flexibility). Churches also tend to close down a bit over the summer, and many of the regular mid-week activities that I am involved with have a break. But an additional reason for feelings of isolation relates to the comments made on the Making Home blog: that many mothers find their children overwhelming when they are home for the six weeks of school holiday. In fact, I do not think I have ever heard a parent make a positive remark about this, such as 'Fantastic, I love the summer holidays and all the time we can spend together!' I find the way that people speak about their children really quite telling. For example,

'How am I going to entertain the children for six weeks?' - I hear that one so often, but it makes me think two things. Firstly, do you have so little imagination that you cannot think of fun activities for this short period of time? Secondly, if you think your role as a parent is to 'entertain' your children, you have already lost certain battles, and are going in with an unhelpful attitude. If I were to ask you to list the key attributes of a parent, I don't think 'entertainer' would be up there among the top ten, but people don't seem to see the paradox when they use the phrase.

'My children have so much energy, they are bouncing off the ceiling!' - Well my answer to that one is very unpopular: Get out more. Go on long walks. Plan 'adventures'. Pack sufficient food and water (it doesn't need to be a beautifully prepared picnic - something like peanut butter sandwiches and fruit would be just fine). And go off without a clear plan. Walk through town and talk about things you see along the way. Explore a park. Go on a day out on the train. Think of all the things you loved as a child, and head out. It really does help to burn off the energy in a constructive way. I know that on days when we are not active, I find the boys' behaviour more challenging. It helps us all to keep active.

'Yes, but I don't like doing things like X, Y or Z'. This one can be hard. I have family members who refuse to come to the park/ go for walks/ join us doing anything active with the children because they don't personally enjoy these things. This effectively means that they are unable to really get to know the children, and are choosing to withdraw from the potential relationship by limiting it to short visits spent inside a cluttered living room where the children do get restless and irritable after about an hour. Although I enjoy sport, particularly running and hiking, I never previously would have been particularly interested in many of the things that occupy our days. But I needed to get alongside the children, to see the world through their eyes, buy some warmer clothes, a pair of wellies and get out there. Now, I wouldn't change things, mainly because I see how much the whole family benefits. (And yes, there is still a part of me that feels like saying, 'I don't like that', or 'I don't want to do that', and I have to repent of my selfish attitude.)

'Don't your boys drive you crazy with their constant chatter and questions?' I've had this a few times in the past weeks, often whilst on public transport. No they don't. Yes, it takes energy to listen to their flurry of often seemingly unrelated questions. Yes, it means they hold my focus and attention and so I cannot chat to others as freely as I might once have done. But by answering patiently, I am teaching them about the world around them, teaching them that their questions are valued and important, and teaching them the basic rules of conversation. Often we will follow-up questions with trips to the library or to particular places, or they may lead on to experiments. Much of their education stems from the questions that arise. (And yes, there are days when it would be nice to sit and daydream and look out of the window, but that is not what this season of life is about. I've had those days, and probably have more in the future. For today, it is my delight to answer the questions my boys raise).

'I can't wait until September and they are back at school' - often spoken within earshot of the children themselves. How are they supposed to feel? Loved? Valued? Appreciated?

I think one reason why I find it so hard is that just because I embrace the opportunities of parenting, and we have chosen to prioritise time with our family, it is NOT always easy. I try to keep a right attitude, and and prayerful about my choice of words, but it doesn't mean I don't find things difficult at times just like any parent. Lately, I have felt a bit more tired, and as I mentioned above, I find the school holidays can be a lonelier time. Something may be immensely rewarding, but is not necessarily easy by any means. I don't know that there are many things of great value that don't take hard, consistent, focussed work. Another set of comments that frustrate me are those which somehow imply that because I don't complain about my children that I must have it easy:

'I didn't even know you were pregnant. Wow. You weren't sick or anything' - having not complained about sickness, but ending up in hospital with hyperemesis gravidarum!

'You always have such 'easy' babies, its OK for you' - I have not had any real challenges with my babies (except the death of one, and the near-death of another - to be slightly sarcastic), but they have all fed every 2 hours through the night until about 8 months which is normal, but can be tiring. I just chose not to spend my waking hours reliving that, or moaning about it!

'Yes, but I can't get my child to eat well' - Do you offer other foods when they refuse what you have given? Do they get dessert if they do not eat the main course? I think if they are genuinely hungry, then they probably will eat and be thankful!

'You don't need as much sleep as I do' - how do you know?

'You're so lucky that X, Y or Z' - I am thankful for all God has provided for me. But often this is said in relation to something which has been an active, conscious choice and may have involved some kind of sacrifice on another level. I thank God that He has guided our decision making as a family, and that we have a unified approach, but I don't think it comes down to 'luck'.

This post expresses some frustrations I have felt lately. And I am thankful that the one thing I chose to read this evening directly spoke to some of the things that were on my mind and brought God-given encouragement and peace!