Tag Archives: #THISislearning

Astronauts and alligators

The unschooling diaries: week twenty

One of the most awesome things about travelling with Arthur is the way it opens my eyes to new experiences – both seeing the familiar in a brand new light, and encouraging me to explore places I might not otherwise have ventured into.

We managed to squeeze a surprising amount of adventures into our recent whistlestop tour to Florida – we were only there for three full days, and one of those was a wedding. But in between cooling off in various pools and making lots of lovely new friends we managed to make the most of where we were with two very different excursions.

The first was to the Kennedy Space Center. Now I love space as much as the next person, but honestly if it hadn’t been for Arthur being as fascinated as he is about all things interstellar I very much doubt my husband would have persuaded me to go. But we did, and it was brilliant!

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Arthur was almost climbing out of his carseat with excitement as we approached, the models of various Saturn spacecrafts towering into the sky. Everything was familiar to him from the books we’ve read and the documentaries he’s watched with his daddy, and as we got closer he began pointing out to me the different parts of the rockets and explaining how they flew.

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He got to sit inside command modules, try his hand at moon landing simulations, experience a re-enactment of the Saturn V launch (actually possibly the best bit of multi-media theatre I’ve seen) and walk beneath the Saturn V itself, his all-time favourite spaceship.

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He was fascinated as we trawled round the various displays, looking at old photographs and actual rocks from the actual moon. Being there just put into context everything he’s been exploring at home, making it so much more real – and so much more exciting.

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We even almost got to see a rocket launch, but it was cancelled at the last minute. Even that Arthur took in his stride, though he was clearly disappointed. It wasn’t quite the same watching the video one of our friends took when they caught the rescheduled launch the following night, though that was still kinda cool!

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In total contrast to this, the next day we went to Gatorland. Now again, this was not the sort of place I would have rushed to if it weren’t for the talk of alligators piquing Arthur’s interest – and again we had an awesome, and enlightening, few hours of exploration.

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There were literally thousands of alligators and crocodiles, some so close that you could almost touch them, spread around an awesomely retro site where egrets, herons and storks swooped and squawked. There was a balance of wide open spaces and smaller displays, and we had some really interesting talks about habitat and animal behaviour as we explored the park.

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Arthur was also fascinated (and a little bit scared) by the snakes, peering in through the glass. Less scary (though a little bit random) was the petting zoo, where he sneaked in a cuddle with a kid before we continued on our way.

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The other unexpected highlight – and one that was particularly helpful as the mercury topped thirty degrees – was the kids’ splash park. We dipped in there twice during our visit. The first time Arthur hung back, nervous in the company of raucous older children. On our return, though, he threw himself in with confidence – proud with himself for having overcome his fears and rewarded by being drenched in deliciously cool water.

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For a holiday that I thought would revolve mainly around socialising, albeit on the other side of the world, I was amazed by how much we managed to pack in. It reminded me, though, of the wonderful thing about travelling with children: it might add another layer of complication to the journey, but when you begin to see the possibilities the world presents through their wide eyes it can’t help but bring a whole new dimension to the adventure.

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21/52

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“A portrait of my child, once a week, every week, in 2016.”

We have had a day of ‘getting things done’ today, which has meant that for much of it Arthur has been left to his own devices.

Sometimes, that’s a disaster.

But today, with Leigh and I busying ourselves with organising and tidying and planting, he has been a little star.

I found him at one point this afternoon with his balance bike upside down, bits of twigs strewn around him. I asked what he was doing, and he told me he was using his bike as a stick cutter. Obviously.

I’m still not entirely sure what that meant, but he was clearly utterly absorbed in experimentation. And rocking quite a cool outfit too…

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project. 

Venturing into the forest

The unschooling diaries: week eighteen

I am always on the lookout for new and exciting learning opportunities where Arthur gets to hang out with other kids, and in the past couple of weeks we’ve found a brilliant one.

My main motivation for leaning towards homeschooling as a vehicle for Arthur’s education is the complete pedagogical divergence between how I know children learn best and the constraints and controls being put on our schools by our current government. I am not anti-school per se, and I’m definitely not anti-teachers: I just wish our education system was able to be fed by the wealth of research over the past fifty years that advocates a child-led approach, steeped in creativity and the natural world. It is just so depressing that instead our schools, and our children, have been hijacked by a government obsessed with data and narrowly-focused assessment.

It’s not like there aren’t real alternatives to the system that is currently stagnating in the UK. Finland has had amazing results with an approach that is much more closely aligned to my own beliefs. One of the cornerstones of that approach is the dominance of forest schools, particularly in the early years: and I decided a couple of weeks ago that I owed it to Arthur for that to be part of his early-education experience.

And so, for the past two weeks, we have travelled to the little village of Stoke Gabriel on a Tuesday morning to join in with their forest school. It’s a bit of a mission – I still don’t drive (though I’m determined to do something about that this summer) so with the limited bus service it means getting taxis. But we are rewarded by our efforts with four and a half hours in the wilderness, which without a doubt makes it all worthwhile.

Weeks alternate between a community orchard and the forest, depending on whether the tide is too high to cross the weir. We were in the orchard for our first week, and I was struck by democratic, respectful atmosphere that pervaded – children were trusted, and they rose to that challenge. There were planned activities – from worm charming to clay modelling – but around that there was plenty of time for children to just play, inspired by each other and the world around them.

This week, we ventured into the forest. And it was amazing. The journey itself was rich in challenge and learning: navigating along the shore of the millpond, walking carefully across the weir and climbing up into the woods. Along the way the children were encouraged to be mindful of their environment – of plants, and insects, and the (metaphorical) need to tread carefully so as not to leave too significant a footprint.

After close to an hour, we reached Mr Magic Tree, the guardian of the woodland playground, and passed into a world of natural balance beams and fire pits and bug hunting and wooden xylophones. Again the time was punctuated by shared experiences (like cooking nettles to see if they lost their sting), but largely the children just played, and   no doubt learnt more than we could ever truly compute, let alone measure.

I think we’re going to have fun at forest school, Arthur and I. There is so much to learn, so much to experience.

And underpinning it all is a pedagogy that makes my heart sing.



Project metamorphosis

The unschooling diaries: week seventeen

Just over a month ago, we were in my parents garden when we spotted clusters of tadpoles in their pond. I mentioned how cool it would be to have some for Arthur to watch grow at home, and a little while later my brother appeared with a jar containing four little tadpoles and a healthy dose of pondweed. Thus began our science project for the past few weeks – one which fascinated me at least as much as it did Arthur!

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First step was to prepare a suitable habitat. A bit of googling suggested a fairly shallow container with space for the tadpoles to swim and also to hide, and rocks for them to crawl up on once they developed legs. I decided that the fish kettle was the closest thing we had to a tank, and Arthur helped me collect a selection of stones to help make it a bit more homely.

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He was pretty chuffed with how it turned out, and loved to watch the tadpoles swimming around and getting used to their new home.

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In fact each morning we both gravitated towards the tadpoles to check how they were getting on: Arthur curious to see what pets were up to, me desperately hoping that I would have more success with amphibians than I do with house plants.

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They seem to get on ok, but after the first week or so it was clear that we were going to have to clean them. My mum brought over a fresh supply of pond water, and Arthur helped me clear out the worst of the muck using a baster (thank you google again) which worked surprisingly well!

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All of these online investigations, though, were making me doubt the wisdom of the receptacle I’d chosen to contain them. Apparently you shouldn’t use anything made of metal (though I didn’t manage to find a reason why) and, more compellingly, a lid would come in very handy for stopping seagulls from sourcing an easy lunch when they were out on the deck and stopping the little froglets themselves from climbing (or jumping) out when metamorphosis kicked in.

So I found a cheap and cheerful fishtank, and Arthur helped me transfer them over (with another dose of pond water for good measure).

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The transparent tank had the advantage of making it much easier to see what was going on, though I’m not sure how much the tadpoles liked being on display 24/7…

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Under our constant surveillance it did feel, for ages, as if nothing much was happening. The tadpoles were definitely getting bigger: we experimented with feeding them finely chopped, frozen lettuce, though to be honest I think they preferred the pond weed. We read some books, so we knew what was coming: Osbourne Beginner’s Tadpoles and Frogs was predictably good, as was the slightly macabre Tadpole’s Promise.

But every morning when we checked they were still just tadpoles. Until one day things began to change… And once the metamorphosis had started they seemed increasingly frog-like (and increasingly well camouflaged) every time we looked.

One of the things that I thought was particularly interesting (and particularly apt, seeing as we were right in the middle of our anti-SATs campaign), was the different pace at which the tadpoles developed. Even though they had all looked identical at the start, their metamorphosis progressed at quite different rates.

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They all got there in the end though, and one morning we came down to find four tiny but perfectly formed frogs witting on top of the rocks.

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It was at this point that I started to get really worried about keeping them alive – whilst the tadpoles can survive on pond weed, frogs are carnivorous and need live insects to sustain them. There were a fair few bugs in the pond water, and we increasingly left the tank outside to entice others into their lair, but still it was clear that we were going to have to return them to their habitat sooner rather than later.

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And so, on a suitably grey and rainy day, we took our little frogs in their tank back to my parents’ pond, and released them back into the wild.

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It was genuinely a little bit sad to be saying goodbye to them (though I was secretly proud as well that we still had four). Arthur was incredibly careful and gentle as he helped me transfer them one by one from tank to pond, and once the frogs had got over their initial bewilderment at how big their world had become they hopped happily away.

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We did have one little guy who seemed less sure about the transition, but once we’d persuaded him to check out the world on the other side of the tank he seemed to agree it was preferable.

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All in all this has been a wonderful learning opportunity for Arthur (and me). I’m already keen to do it all again next year, and in the meantime am thinking about what our next living science project might involve.

Arthur’s asking for a dog, but I’m thinking worms might be more likely…



19/52

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“A portrait of my child, once a week, every week, in 2016.”

I love watching Arthur play, especially outdoors.

He is becoming so imaginative and agile and brave: balancing and climbing and reaching and exploring. Even when he is playing on his own – in fact especially when he is playing on his own – he buzzes with the energy of all that he is discovering about the world.

He fell not long after I took this picture, balancing on the beams that spanned the brook, reaching down for his bucket that had tumbled into the water. He managed to catch the beam before he got too wet, and though he needed help to right himself he never lost his calm. Once he was freed from his precarious position he quickly re-found his focus, and carried on as if nothing had happened.

I’m not sure you can teach skills like that.

 

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project. 

“What shall we make with this?”

The unschooling diaries: week sixteen

I think those six little words might be the ones that have made me the proudest yet in this motherhood journey.

It started just over a week ago, when we came downstairs one morning to a couple of empty cardboard boxes waiting to be flattened down for recycling. Arthur looked at me, gasped with delight, and said:

“What shall we make with this, mummy?”

We have had an awful lot of fun making things out of cardboard boxes over the past couple of years, but generally it’s been me or Leigh who’s initiated it. Arthur has happily chipped in as the creation develops, offering direction and issuing demands. But this latest development, where it is him looking at a piece of trash and using it to kickstart his imagination, is just awesome.

On that morning, I bounced the question back at him and he decided we were going to try to build a spaceship. It was a little ambitious, but we worked together and came up with something he was pretty happy with – it had controls and a light and everything.

A couple of days later, Arthur’s new blackout blinds arrived, in THE BEST cardboard tube ever. Again Arthur took one look at it and asked the question:

“What shall we make with this?”

We spent a while exploring ideas – he used it as a channel for balls, experimenting with different sizes, and then as a tunnel for his cars, raising one end up on our mini trampoline.

But then he decided it would make an even better train tunnel, and together we incorporated it into a super duper train set, with the track running up and over another box then all the way down the tube. It took a few goes to get it right – some trains ran better than others – but we got there.

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His other idea was on a smaller scale, but no less fun. He’d been picking up smaller boxes for a couple of days and insisting that we could turn them into a camera. He always managed to catch me at inopportune moment, and I couldn’t quite see how we were going to pull it off, but in the end we succeeded, and he took great pleasure in running around the house taking photos.

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It’s not just cardboard boxes either: as we explore this whole act of making together he is beginning to see potential in all sorts of other things around the house. He picked up a ribbon yesterday and asked his same question:

“What shall we make with this, mummy?”

I was initially stumped, but he jumped in with “A twirly thing! Let’s make a twirly thing!” whilst spinning the ribbon in circles around his head. I had actually been planning for a while to make him a twirly thing out of ribbons (not sure what the technical term for it would be) so dashed upstairs to find an old bangle and my ribbon stash, and together we picked out a selection of ribbons to add to the one we’d started with and tied them on.

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I love the extra injection of creativity it’s given to our everyday routine, and the sense of limitless possibility that Arthur exudes at the moment. He takes inspiration from everywhere – he declared on another morning that he would like to make a scarecrow, and it turned out that he had been fascinated by one in Curious George.

It sounded like a bit of a mission, but I didn’t want to let him down – and actually making a scarecrow wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it was going to be – and we now have him ready for when we finally get round to planting up our veg patch!

It’s not just pride at Arthur’s enthusiasm that I’m loving about this particular phase. It is also, as so many things about parenting are, incredibly liberating: to look at trash and see potential, to have an idea and to keep going until you achieve it.

Lessons for life from a three year old.

 


This is literacy

There were all sorts of things that wound me up about the government’s response to yesterday’s kids’ strike, but by the end of the day the number one accusation I was reeling about was that the tens of thousands of parents and teachers who supported the strike did so because they do not have high enough expectations of children’s literacy.

There are many things I may have fallen short of as a teacher and a parent, but having high expectations most definitely isn’t one of them. It is just that, like many others, I seriously doubt the validity of the narrow interpretation of literacy that success in the SATs exams hinges upon – and fear for our children’s sanity when they are expected to be able to absorb and regurgitate complex grammar knowledge that stumps everyone from masters graduates to the very Schools minister who champions this rigorous approach to assessment.

I am not convinced, actually, that Nick Gibb knows much about the content of the tests he reveres. In press statements yesterday he talked about the importance of basic comprehension and the use of capital letters. It made the people opposing the tests look pretty stupid – and fuelled the hundred of trolls who engulfed social media to pour scorn on the intentions of parents who pulled their children out of school. The fact is, though, that we’re not just talking about learning basic literacy here: we’re talking about learning (by rote) huge swathes of linguistic terminology. There are many people who have written about this more expertly than I have – I especially like Michael Rosen’s blog for no nonsense critique of literacy in schools. What I want to highlight here though is not only that what primary school children are being expected to learn (and be summatively tested on) is excessive and in many case irrelevant, it is on the most basic level the opposite of what literacy really is.

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The simplest definition of literacy is being able to read and write. As an English teacher, and then a parent, and now a writer, these are both skills that I believe of course to be essential: being a confident reader and writer opens a door to a whole other world of learning and communication. But is being able to confidently label fronted adverbials and subordinating conjunctions really a central part of literacy, or even any part of it, for ten year old children? I think not.

Nicky Morgan says that the new tough regime of SATs exams will help increase the numbers of young people achieving the top grades at GCSE, but if it extinguishes the curiosity that drives the desire to learn then there’s no way it will do that. She insists that the knowledge that the SATs examines will, once children have mastered it, allow them to be more creative. But in saying this she is completely ignoring the much-researched developmental window before the age of seven which has inspired play-based curricula worldwide – and leads to many successful education systems holding off from any formal education for children before that age.

The government accuses us of dumbing down, but I would argue that what they are doing is dumbing down our children: producing a factory line of automatons who have missed out on the opportunity to fully develop their own personalities or a sense of who they are as members of our society.

My concept of literacy is considerably more ambitious. My desire to truly understand how children become confident readers and writers has been rekindled by watching my three year old son learn and grow, and that is what is at the root of my fear of what the SATs, and the pedagogy that is seeping out from them, is doing to our children.

My son is a reader. He tells me the story of pictures in the books we share, interpreting the images themselves and augmenting that with his imagination and his memory of the words being read aloud. He seeks out letters in the world around us – not yet being able to differentiate between more than a handful, but knowing that letters make words and that words label things and concepts. I am confident that, as we continue to make books and stories an integral part of our lives, he will make the transition to reading independently. He will begin to use the multitude of cues available to us as readers to make his own sense of the written word – and he will want to, because he already knows what treasures there are to be found within the pages of his books.

As an aside, I have to admit I really don’t understand the government’s obsession with synthetic phonics when it comes to teaching children to read. Some degree of phonics, sure. But to strip back the process of reading to solely decoding? To insult children’s intelligence by making them read ‘nonsense’ words just for the sake of catching them out? That doesn’t make sense to me . But I guess it’s easier to test than a system that recognises the real nuances that underpin the process of becoming a confident reader.

My son is also a writer. Don’t get me wrong – he can’t actually form letters yet. In fact he shows very little interest in concentrating on the fine motor skills that will eventually lead to him writing down the thoughts that are in his head. But what thoughts he has! He picks up new vocabulary like a sponge, knows exactly how to use words to achieve particular effects, mirrors the complex sentences he hears and reshuffles them for himself to suit his purpose. He tells stories to his teddies and his trains, comes up with brilliant if unlikely explanations for particular juxtapositions of objects in his play, and is developing a very strong line in persuasive reasoning. When he is ready to put pen to paper I have no doubt that these skills and knowledge will underpin his actual writing, but he already demonstrates the aptitude that I admire in any writer who has mastered their craft.

I know my son is not unique. He is doing exactly what every three year old instinctively does – experimenting with language and relating it to the world around him. But I worry about what will happen if he is asked to put all of those thoughts and ideas into nice tidy boxes for the sake of standardised assessment.

I worry for him, and I worry for all of our children.

This worry has not come about because my expectations are low. I have the highest expectation of young people, one that will empower them and motivate them whilst they are at school and throughout their lives: I expect them to want to learn. If they want to learn, if they want to achieve, if they are inspired, they will use that as a drive to overcome whatever obstacles are in their way – including those basic reading and writing skills. Hell, one day they might even be driven by the desire to be able to confidently identify those subordinating conjunctions and fronted adverbials. But if they aren’t? I think they’ll be ok.

I am not sure though that our kids will be ok if this government is allowed to plough on unchecked with its imposition of an increasingly restrictive straightjacket on literacy and learning. And it is our responsibility to stand up for them.

May 3rd 2016 was a momentous day, and it was incredible to see the impact that parents can have on the dialogue surrounding education in this country. We cannot stop now though: parents and teachers need to draw strength from this groundswell of passion and purpose. There is still so much work to be done.

 

 

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