Monthly Archives: September 2011

Homeschooling – Controlling or Pro-active?

Actually, you’d think I was going to say definitely the latter, but I’m not. I don’t have a problem with admitting to being controlling. So I’m not going to try and justify myself, oh no – I am, in fact, going to claim “controlling” back from the dark side! I think controlling and pro-active are the same thing. Goodness, when Nelson Mandela quotes the William Henley poem in the film Invictus, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul”, I’m sure I’m not the only one who gave him a standing ovation from the sofa! It has been said that the way you picture life says a great deal about the way you will approach it, whether you see it as an adventure, a journey, an endurance test… I would think however, that whatever picture you have of life, we all have in common an experience of “the bludgeonings of chance”. Now hear me out, before you think, what the heck has all this got to do with homeschooling. People are complicated, me included, but I have a point to make.

We were chatting this week in the staff room, over our lunchboxes, about various things and I happened to mention one of my strange habits – that of reading the last page of a book first. I have only ever met one other person who does this so I’m willing to admit that I’m quirky. Anyway, someone said “do you like to be in control?” and I said “yes!” but thought, less politely, “Doh!! Of course! Who doesn’t?”. I mean really, whoever consciously says to themselves “well, I’m just happy to let things happen to me and other people can run my life”? Nowt wrong with enjoying some surprises along the way, I don’t mean that, but I can’t think that anyone with a healthy sense of self would purposely relinquish control of their lives. My daughter is five and she already says “mummy, I can’t wait to be grown up so you won’t boss me around!” She totally wants to be in the driving seat – quite literally actually, she was about three when she first expressed a desire to drive herself to nursery! And showed great self-belief that she was capable of it too! Come to think of it, Mae was about 20 weeks old when she made it quite clear to me that she had no intention of eating that disgusting baby rice I was trying to shovel into her.

About my strange reading habits – my logic is simple. However strange you think it is, nobody but nobody enjoys that feeling you have when you read a book and it’s got a rubbish ending. Or watch a film (yes, I do look up film synopses online). I really hate it and it seemed a simple solution to avoiding that feeling you have of wasting all that time in your life hoping for a different ending. Free from the worry of that I can relax and enjoy the twists and turns on the page, or on screen, that lead to the satisfactory conclusion. And I never have to say, apart from in real life of course, “well, that was disappointing”. Obviously I’m only talking about reading, not real life, but I think it’s a great little example of ‘good controlling’. Making pro-active decisions.

Homeschooling is a much better example. And now I warm to my theme. You bring this little life into the world – and I always have a moment during my pregnancies when I think “Oh my God. Am I doing the right thing?” Usually when something happens that reminds me how vulnerable we are to “the bludgeonings of chance”. Just watching the news can bring one of those moments on when you’re pregnant. You think “what kind of world am I bringing my precious child in to?” and “How am I going to explain that?”. My children are mixed race and I’m dreading the day when I have to explain that, despite their extraordinary beauty and intelligence, some ignorant people will judge them inferior because of the colour of their skin. Becoming a parent can seem terrifying. Terrifyingly wonderful.

Our instinct is to protect and control everything which the new little life, for which we are so enormously responsible, comes into contact with. To what degree that nurturing takes place, as well as the length of time it continues, varies according to geography and across history. The ultimate goal is the same – an adult who is strong enough to take their independent place in the world. We parents are, mostly, all aiming for the same thing.

What I don’t understand is, why someone who does not know my child, someone who I myself know nothing about, could be more capable of nurturing my child into independence than I am. It is a truth universally acknowledged…that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife… oops, sorry, got caught in a Jane Austen loop there… what I meant to say was, it is a truth universally acknowdged that “the law is an ass”, to quote Mr Bumble in Dickens. I’m rather partial myself to e.e.cummings: “a politician is an arse upon/which everyone has sat except a man”. Or, in plain prose, most people agree that the powers that run a country are very flawed. But, here is the odd thing, most people are quite happy to then have those powers decide what happens to their child for the majority of it’s life from the age of 5 upwards. Isn’t that strange. At least as strange as always reading the last page in a book first I’d say! I’m not simply being anti-politics here, I’m being anti not questioning that power, examining it’s motives and assessing to what degree you are happy for it to affect your life, or the lives of those you love. Talk about leaving it to fate. The point is not the choice you make, that is every parent’s right, the point is whether you even made a choice.

So then, to end on a flourish: I am happy to declare that I am proud of being controlling! I have no intention of relinquishing my parental responsibilities in any way or to any body. For sixteen short, short years I am not only the Captain of my own soul but I have a little boat tied alongside and I will not set it adrift into the big, wide sea until I am absolutely certain that it is prepared and fully equipped. I know I will need, at various times, to call on the skill of others, but I will be sure before I call that those other people really are the best people for the job and that they know who is ultimately in charge. That is called leadership. Captaincy. Being pro-active – which, by the way, can be defined as: creating or controlling a situation by causing something to happen rather than responding to it after it has happened.


Cadbury World

The Chocolate Factory

Well, let’s just say this first. Cadbury World is completely overpriced and, well, boring. On the other hand, a visit there involves eating quite a bit of chocolate, some of it in a delicious molten state, so maybe that balances out the ennui and the ripped-off feeling you get when you go. Also it is very near to our house, about ten minutes away. That said, I was so disappointed last time I went (about 6 years ago) that I haven’t been since. We do drive past it every Sunday on the way to church however and the children had started to ask to visit “the chocolate factory”, so when a friend gave me some Tesco day-out vouchers in return for babysitting favours I thought we would pop over there for the afternoon. Yes, that’s right, even if you hopped round on one leg then you still couldn’t spend a whole day there – there’s a route, you go round it and when you emerge, blinking into the sunshine, lighter in the purse, heavier round the middle, it’s only a bloomin’ hour later!

trains and chocolate - a perfect day for Jude!

Leaving Mae at home with Daddy, Cana, Jude and mummy set off for the factory. At least two of the party were wildly excited and this was intensified by having to walk past an old steam engine on our way in. If you haven’t read my previous blog about Birmingham Model Engineers then you won’t know that my small son is train-mad. And just mad aswell, but we expected that with us two as parents, it’s just the train bit that came as a surprise as I identify cars, all vehicles in fact, by their colour alone (the red one) and Christian is ahem, not mechanically minded, there being no room for anything else in his head besides the vast amount of football trivia he has crammed in to it. I digress. So we took photos by the train, then I had to drag them past the play area which looked like a good one although crawling with school-trip children, and head for the chocolate.

Before we did the main tour we went into the separate little side show about how Mr Cadbury came to add a glass and a half of milk to his chocolate. I had missed that bit on my previous visit so had a glimmer of interest as we queued up to go in. It was well done, but the thing is, how interesting can you make the story of someone making chocolate – oops, sorry Roald Dahl, your version is MUCH more interesting than theirs! A few orange oompa loompahs would’ve been much more interesting then watching a short film in a series of different rooms, and it was way above the children’s head, way above any child’s head, and quite frankly they lost me on “hello”. What wasn’t above the children’s head, or my head, was the last room where you can choose a sweet to get mixed in a little cup of melted chocolate which you can then eat. No complaints there.

Sooo, the main tour. Mostly as I remembered –  first, you go into a jungle and read about the cocoa bean and the hideous treatment of the Inca’s by the European invaders. Jude was terrified immediately by the spooky totum-like carvings and leapt like a monkey into my arms as soon as the door shut behind us. Even Cana wasn’t too keen on the ominous drumming soundtrack and I didn’t particularly want to elaborate on European brutality (especially to my half-African children – colonialism is going to be on our home-schooling curriculum but not just yet!). Then you go into a ship and learn a bit about what that was like, but the creaking noises were even more scary so we hurried onto the introduction of cocoa into Europe. Cana liked this and was fascinated to see a man writing with a quill pen. To make up for rushing through the first bits we watched this little 3D film twice. Then it’s on to the actual Cadbury experience. Now, as an adult I like this bit because they were revolutionary in their treatment of workers.  Obviously, the children did not understand this one bit but the projections and the fact that you moved from room to room stopped them from getting too restless. Oh and the fact that you get free chocolate when you go in so every time one of them said in a stage whisper during one of the presentations “when can we go?” I fed them some chocolate.

We’d got through a Crunchy bar and half a Curly Whirly by the time we went to find out what happens to the beans from start to finish. This would be suitable for older children I think and Cana and Jude just loved that every time the beans were shaking on screen our benches shook too. After all this history we entered the more child-friendly part of the tour. And the most interesting, although it sounds uncharitable to say so as they really have done their best with the raw material.

mmm, my kinda writing...

The following part of the tour was by far the most interesting and you can also take it more at your own pace so

we like pressing buttons!

we went round at a snail’s pace to get our money’s-worth (or our friend-who-gave-us-the-voucher’s money’s-worth). First, you get to walk through a bit of the real factory so you can see the conveyor belts and the wrapping machines actually working on the other side of the perspex. You can have a little go at piping warm chocolate and watch someone expertly decorating some real items. Along the way are various 2 minute films about how different types of chocolates are made. Then, you can go on a ride through “chocolate bean” land, no educational value whatsoever, unless you are teaching your children that cocoa beans are really little people who live together in specially designed houses and enjoy pastimes such as rock-climbing and skiing. But what the hey, it was fun, we have the picture on a keyring to prove it, and it is already the only part of the day they remember!

my tree's bigger than your tree...

After this, at the end of the tour, and this was not there 6 years ago, there’s a room where there are various hi-tech games. As it was the end of the day and we had lagged behind the crowd anyway, and it was past the time when all the school-children would have had to leave, we had lots of fun in here. Big is always good with littluns, big and moving even better, big and moving and controllable equals two happy, excited (ok, maybe their blood-sugar was a tad high by now) children. We all competed to grow the biggest on-screen cocoa tree by pressing sunshine and water buttons; we posed to have a giant projection of our silhouettes transformed into a chocolate statuette

chocolate children

(and yes, my bum did look big in chocolate!); we jumped around in front of a floor to ceiling projection of chocolate bubbles (well, the children did, I was just trying to strike a pose in which my bum didn’t look so enormous!)


and then Cana and Jude played in a big  mirror cube (I used to have to clean the mirrors in a mirror maze when I was a student and worked at Wookey Hole one summer so I could only see all the grubby little finger marks and be thankful that we didn’t give out molten chocolate where I worked). Finally we emerged blinking into the sunshine and it was only a bloomin’ hour later!

Ok, maybe it was an hour and a half. Maybe two hours. So then we went down and had loads of fun playing in the fab play area. Even better, I found out that bit’s open to the general public so we will probably go back there, although definitely avoiding the school-visit window. On the whole, not a good day for my diet, but enjoyable enough. Considering it was free.

I am happy to announce, after extensive research, that this is the pose you need to strike to make your bum look the smallest.

Reading and Writing – leaving it to chance?

Been meaning to write about this for a while because I have quite strong opinions about it and because I’m so delighted with Cana’s progress in this area. She gave me a note this morning that said “dear Mummy soory I all ways say meen words to you when your in the shoere love Cana”. Burst out laughing as she is banned from coming in the bathroom when I’m in the shower now due to her uncomplimentary comments such as “why is your bottom so HUGE?”, “when I was in your tummy were your legs all fat at the top like they are now” and “I don’t want to look like you when I’m grown up”. When your post-baby body confidence is at a low these are not things you want to hear!

Anyway, when you tell people in England you’re homeschooling, especially your work colleagues when you’re a teacher, they mainly look at you like you are confessing to child abuse. Or you are too lazy to take them to school or something. Not as if you were an intelligent, educated person who has researched the topic and found out that homeschooling, done properly, is actually better for your child than institutionalised learning. Your child is getting quality, one-on-one teaching from someone they love and they are being taught to find things out for themselves. In other words, self-manage their learning, in the same way that we, as adults, do.

However, that said, I do not advocate letting children do whatever they want, whenever they want. For a start, one day they will have to have a job and a boss. Secondly, children do not know what is best for them. And thirdly, although left to themselves I’m sure they will learn to read and write eventually I don’t want to leave such a crucial skill to chance. Apart from anything else, if they don’t learn to read till they’re ten then they miss out on 5 years of reading and I was reading Pride and Prejudice by the time I was ten. What a lot of pleasure they’ll miss out on.

So I always resolved to start mine on reading by the time they were 5, but in reality it started much younger because Cana started asking what things said when she was 3 and simply gobbled up the alphabet and blended C-A-T perfectly the first time I showed it to her. I know she’s exceptional because I’m a teacher, a practising teacher, so I work with children who aren’t that quick every day. Jude is showing much more normal progress. He’s 3 and three quarters and has learnt all his alphabet (largely due to some Thomas the Tank Engine flash cards I  made him – A is for Annie, B is for Ben, C is for Clarabel etc.) but is still working on CVCs (consonant, vowel, consonant)  and has been for a few weeks. My method is simply little and often. Just a few minutes a day and no more than 6 letters at a time. When they were learning their alphabets I would have a set of whatever letters they were learning in  the car and whip them out a few times a day. It only takes 30 seconds to run through 6 letters with them.

Writing is on our curriculum once a week, and by that I mean writing with a pen on paper. Cana does ICT every day which often means writing and she also has spelling to learn everyday. I’m not a mean mummy, only two a day, and sometimes these take her a few days. She’s working through the first 200 high frequency words in the English language. These two spelling are linked to handwriting so she practises them in joined up. And although she wrote her note to me this morning in print, more often than not she is choosing to write in joined up now.

I have a bit of a thing about joined up because the first school I worked at taught it,successfully, in Year 1, basically as soon as they could form all their letters correctly; so when I went to other schools where it’s taught much higher up the school I couldn’t understand it. I have always taught it in Year 1 and the children have always really enjoyed learning it and quickly took to using it all the time. I now teach Year 6 children who can join their letters in handwriting lessons but don’t do it the rest of the time. They have consolidated writing in print. There’s always smart alec ones who say “Miss, why do we even need to learn, it’s only 3 points in the SATs?” and I point out that it will help them write faster and it looks more grown-up.  I know doctors have notoriously bad handwriting but we’d all be pretty unimpressed if we got a prescription and they’d printed their name.

So Cana spends 5-10 minutes a day practising her joined up, and Jude will start on letter formation pretty soon. And if there’s any advice I can give to homeschoolers it would be: make sure they form their letters correctly. The first time Cana wrote her name we were pretty impressed but I quickly stopped praising her if she hadn’t formed her letters properly. The way I see it, in a year she’ll be fluent so it’s worth investing the time in being pernickety now. Oh and make writing real, for real reasons. Cana writes cards and letters to people, she texts Daddy and Nana (obviously using proper, unabrieviated words) and she blogs. She just got her first proper pen-pal too, one of my old uni friends has a little girl of a similar age up in Scotland so they are going to send real letters in the post to each other. Jude is already beginning to play at sending letters to people , he drew his Auntie Rachel and very good blue pig the other day!

So we are NOT leaving it to chance and in fact it’s loads of fun watching these little children develop into literate people. I leave notes in their lunchboxes when they go to nursery and now I text Cana (on Daddy’s phone) from the bus on my way to work. Reading and writing is a big part of our adult lives and it’s brilliant introducing them to it.

I’m going to finish my rant by adding a photo of a story Cana wrote a week or so ago. I told her to do some writing as it was her writing day, and she decided she would write a story. She spent so long doing it she had to break to have her tea and then she asked if she could continue while I took the other two to bed. Most importantly I did not have to nag her once, she just sat there quietly for about an hour writing away.  It’s not the most interesting story in the world and she had to explain bits as she missed a few words out but considering it’s her first ever attempt we were pretty impressed! 

Birmingham Society of Model Engineers – Day Out

Promised the children we would blog about this as it was such a fun day out although strictly speaking it was on a Sunday so not part of our home schooling curriculum. Really though, you home school whenever you’re with your children, whether you send them to school or not, it’s just that you’re perhaps more conscious of it when you’re homeschooling.

Jude, Daddy and Cana on the train

I had never heard of this place, well, why should I have? Not being a model train enthusiast. I have however, managed to give birth to someone who may well turn into a model train enthusiast, bless his Thomas the Tank Engine socks. My friend, who also has a small boy, invited us over and we followed her through a load of twisty country lanes near her house to get to what looks like a gateway into a farm – apparently it’s in Illshaw Heath, outside Solihull (B94 6DN). Well, when you get inside the Grown-Up Train enthusiasts have built a mini railway complete with tunnel, footbridge, working signals etc. Jude’s eyes lit up! And even Cana, who watches Thomas  on sufferance, was impressed.

the real tunnel, how exciting!

It’s basically a club for people who like to build trains and this is where they meet up and run them – a train lover’s paradise. They aren’t open to the public generally but do host children’s birthday parties (alas, Jude’s birthday is during the winter when they’re closed or I would truly be the best mummy in the world in the eyes of my little boy) and they have various open days throughout the Summer. These are all on their website if you’re interested. For a small fee (£1) you can ride round their track on a genuine, but miniature, steam train.

on the footbridge

That is it. But Cana and Jude loved it. We had a picnic too, despite it being on the chilly side. And I have put the next open day in my diary. Educationally, apart from the experience, the children saw how the driver had to feed the fire with coal and understood how it heated up the water to make steam. And when Jude asked “but what are cinders and ashes?” I was able to say, ” look, there’s some, it’s what’s left over after the coal is burnt up”. Oh, and these city children got the chance to see coal and find out that it comes from under the ground. All good stuff.

some miniature coal

Camping – by Cana (5years, 2 months)

Oh I’m sooo behind on blogging. Not because we’ve locked all the kids in the cupboard for the last couple of months, but we’ve been really busy doing loads of exciting things and I’m not in such a routine myself when I’m not working. May have to catch up by doing a few mini-blogs of some of our summer days but our big summer event was a week in Dorset this August. We were camping on the edge of a cliff a few miles away from Lyme Regis and it was the first time we’d taken the children camping –  I think they liked it more than I did! When we got home we looked through all our photos and Cana chose the ones she wanted to blog about, needless to say they wouldn’t be my choice of images to convey memories of the week but there ya go!

I look like Jude. Jude brout a story about rose and I got a story about little miss shy.

Bedtime stories

Bedtime stories


Me and Jude and Daddy. With the new tent up.

Pitching in the rain

Pitching in the rain

Jude, with his Lightning mc Qeen top on.

sleepy little brother

sleepy little brother

Mae is lafing. I had a downut.

smiley baby sister

smiley baby sister

This is a picture of a eye. Now I/m going tell you how I made this. 1 I usd white stons for the midde of the eye 2 I usd black and brown stons for the outside.

the eye

the eye

Jude Is with the sandcastle. And he is smiling.

She did write a slightly more enthusiastic sounding letter to her Nana about it all when she again mentions the oh so important fact that she had ‘a downut’, which makes it sound like they’re a rare treat when in fact she has them practically every week. She does like her food, as you can tell by the mention of breakfast in the letter also.

picture of a hill

picture of a hill

The beach pictures were Daddy’s idea and were fantastic. I’ll include a couple more pictures of the ‘pebble art’ we whiled away our time making (well, Daddy and children whiled their time away, mummy mainly went off round all the shops and art galleries, tut tut!)

Cana's stripey fish

Cana’s stripey fish

Cana and Jude's fish, which Jude insisted was also a racing car

Cana and Jude’s fish, which Jude insisted was also a racing car

Daddy's lizard

Daddy’s lizard

We love Lyme Regis!

We love Lyme Regis!