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 (using font only to enable access in settings with poor internet)

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Building a Biblical Worldview

I like to read Christian blogs, particularly those on Christian parenting and education. I often find encouragement in seeing how other families approach challenges, and come away inspired. This week, I have come away quite challenged!

I came across a post entitled, '65 apologetics questions every Christian parent needs to learn to answer'  - take a look, and see how you fare! I think I could do more than half without having to think too hard, but there were some, particularly some of the ones relating to creation and the different viewpoints, that I knew less about. By profession, I am a scientist, but in my faith, there are some areas where I am content to simply accept that God is greater than anything than we can understand and find no need to really grapple or be able to present the arguments for and against different perspectives. So I believe that God being God, of course the world could be created in 6 literal days. And God being God, it is hardly surprising to me that the best scientists have not been able to fully explain some of the apparent contradictions in evidence that they find. However, whilst that may be the most appropriate response in my personal faith, I am raising children who ask many questions. I realise that it is indeed important for me to be familiar with these apologetics issues, not so much for my own faith, but to help those who come to me with questions. The great thing is the number of helpful resources available - the blog I have referred to above has many detailed posts on numerous topics - the writer reads extensively as she seeks to address the questions in her own mind, and shares her insights. There are many other links presented such as Answers in Genesis. I resolve to spend more time considering these things.

At the same time, I came across a cautionary tale of a woman who had been raised in a fundamentalist Christian home, yet had 'converted' to athiesm as a young adult. The argument given was that she had been raised to believe, almost without questioning, the young earth creationist perspective and that all of Christianity stemmed from that; so when she encountered scientific argument that challenged her view on creation, her whole worldview crumbled. This underpinned to me the importance of being aware of both sides of the argument, and being able to prepare the children for the inevitable challenges of living in a society and age where Biblical truth is often scorned.

A great advantage of home education is that we can filter what our children read, hear or watch; but it would be naive to think that this will shield them from the influences of the world around them. Indeed, many choose to home educate with the aim that our children will eventually be a productive member of society (and as Christians, our prayer is that they will have a genuine life-transforming faith that shines out to those around them). We need to pray for wisdom in knowing which resources to introduce and at what stage.

This is one of the reasons I have been impressed with Sonlight. If you read their '27 reasons why you should not use Sonlight' , the presentation of controversial texts is specifically discussed. I met a a family of seven children (aged between 4 and 19 at the time) who seemed well able to weigh up both sides of an argument in order to reach their own view; this was a skill I did not learn until half way through my PhD. When I asked more questions, I learnt how the Sonlight curriculum had equipped them in this way. It is my prayer that the boys grow with this ability to listen, evaluate and formulate a correct view. And as we start to use materials from Sonlight in the near future, I look forward to seeing their questioning develop further.

Tonight, my challenge to you is this:

Are you able to answer the challenging questions about our faith? Why does God allow suffering? How did the world begin? Is hell really 'fair'? And so forth.

If you are challenged that you need to read more on some of these, how do you propose to make changes in your reading in order to achieve this?

How does your home education schedule enable your children to develop a Biblical worldview?

How do you teach your children to ask questions and evaluate material to draw a balanced view?

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Book Review: The Three R's by Ruth Beechick

Ruth Beechick has written much on home education. I picked up a copy of 'The Three R's' at a local home educators meet up. It was a refreshing read!

There are three sections:

1) A home start in reading
2) A strong start in language
3) An easy start in arithmetic

I was encouraged to realise that many of the 'methods' that have naturally developed in our family are in fact considered ideal for the one to one education of young children, in contrast to the more formalised methods that are used in larger classrooms where a teacher has to teach a large group of children with diverse abilities and then obtain some kind of proof that the teaching has been successful. It was also a helpful reminder that many 'methods' have been shaped by trends, subsequently superseded, and often are developed to enable a classroom teacher to work with a large group of children of diverse abilities rather than being the most efficient means to teach your own children at home. I don't want to fall into the trap of thinking that because somebody else validates our own methods that we must right in our approach, but what was helpful to me was this reminder: we know our children better than anybody else, promoting a love of lifelong learning is a major desire, and we seek to use 'real life' to teach.

Reading and Writing: A Natural Approach

For example, in the sections on reading and writing, she describes a 'natural approach'; this means enabling children to see reading and writing in their natural contexts, as useful tools for communication. Rather than learning by rote, she advocates allowing children to explore and develop and so continue that love of learning and the desire to acquire new and useful skills. The section on writing almost exactly describes what we are currently doing, as I blogged just a few days ago.

I also found her comments on phonics helpful. I have never really understood what people mean when they say they are 'doing phonics' with their children, and I have never really understood what the 'rules' are, and how these are useful. My frustrations with what I have encountered is that stories consisting of words which are phonically simple and regular are often fairly stultifying, and I have seen frustration arising in my boys who want 'real stories'. John Holt has made similar observations. Instead, Beechick suggests that phonically irregular words are simply taught in their own context and the child will learn to recognise them, and perhaps to form their own rules to decode them. To me this makes more logical sense. It is clear that such an approach would be challenging in a large group of pupils, but that for those of us who are educating small numbers of children at home, this is a much more efficient approach.

(The basic phonic rules are outlined, as are some simple methods for teaching children involving games and charts. The point is that she does not see any special value in phonics programmes, or in following one particular method over another. And some families may find different approaches work better than others.)

For writing, she encourages children to learn the value of writing to express ideas rather than focussing on spelling and grammar at an early stage. She remarks that every teacher knows that requiring perfect spelling will result in the use of a diminished vocabulary. Instead it is better to encourage the children to write freely, and later to correct their spelling. She suggests grammar be left even later, by which time the child should have a reasonable command of written English and the grammar rules can be learnt more efficiently and in correct context. Whilst encouraging freedom of expression, she makes clear that learning to write does take discipline and is hard work, and recommends that children write something on every day that they are being taught.

Along with Charlotte Mason and others, Beechick warns against oversimplification. She suggests the Bible as an ideal source of model sentences; partly because of the beautiful poetry and expressive prose, but also because of the life-changing truths contained therein. This is teaching children to read and write for a real purpose, not simply to pass a test!


Over the past few weeks I have been a bit nervous about 'maths' or 'arithmetic' because I felt that whilst we have been making good progress in reading and writing as described above, we haven't been sitting down and following any kind of programme in maths. The book chapter was liberating for me. She describes how children have three modes of thinking when it comes to numbers, and that these develop with maturity and cannot be rushed:

1) The manipulative stage. For example, asking the two year old to set the table with the correct number of spoons, and then asking him how many spoons we would need if our friend came round. Children can perform quite complex arithmetic tasks through manipulating real life, every day objects - we did a lot of this in autumn when we collected 524 conkers (horse chestnuts) and played games of grouping them and trading 5 conkers for 1 acorn and so forth. Also recommended are tasks like baking, measuring, craft, helping with the shopping and every day activities which involve number manipulation; all of these are developing numeracy skills in the correct context, rather than rote learning of times-tables or equivalent. It is suggested that one of the biggest reasons people develop a fear or mental block with regard to arithmetic is because this stage is rushed.

2) Mental image stage. This is where the child works out problems by imagining objects in their mind, and then moving them around. For example, rather than actually holding 10 conkers and dividing them into two equal groups, doing it mentally.

3) The abstract stage. This is where the child can work directly off symbols such as 4+5, without using mental images. Apparently this stage doesn't occur until the child is about 12.

She discusses how many workbooks are not appropriate for the developmental stage of the child because they attempt to progress through all three stages within a single lesson, and not always in the right order. For example, writing 3+4, then drawing groups of 3 ducks and 4 blackbirds and asking the child to circle them and work out the total. This is progressing from the abstract to the mental image, when in fact the child may still be at the manipulative stage.

The reason I felt liberated was that I saw how many 'arithmetic' related activities already take place through our daily lives. We consciously seek opportunity to develop these skills, but for some reason I had acquired a mental concept that maths needed to be formalised and involve worksheets and programmes and sitting at the table. Ruth Beechick would counsel the exact opposite and tell us to keep on doing what we are doing, keep making the most of games, daily opportunities, manipulative objects and then when the children are ready (and she suggests that this will become apparent, and reminds us that home educators know their own children far better than a classroom teacher could know her pupils).

It was an easy read (two short evenings), a breath of fresh air and commonsense, and I would highly recommend it to those who are home educating young children. (The subtitle suggests grades K-3, but of course our children don't always fall into such neat packages!)

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Diaries, Boys' Writing and Antarctic Adventures

It seems quite common for boys to be slower to write than girls, and when I read education blogs and research articles, there are clear differences in the methods that are best for the different sexes. Our boys are keen to write when there is a clear purpose in it, but seem a little turned off by worksheets or repetitive 'for the sake of it' type work (whereas I remember as a child that I loved to make rows and rows of 'perfect' letters). For example, writing thank-you letters after birthdays and Christmas, or sending postcards from trips. During our last trip to Africa, we started getting them to write a diary (more reflections on the educational opportunities here). This is a very simple thing - we ask them to describe something they have done over the past day - this might be a place they have visited, a game they have played, something they have eaten, something they have read. Then we ask them to describe it in a bit more detail, and say what it was about that thing that interested them most - we seek to encourage correct and colourful use of language, and it also helps us guage what they have gleaned from a situation (a bit like narration). We help them write a sentence, they then copy it into their notepads, and to finish, they draw a picture which goes with what they have written. It has been really interesting to see not only their handwriting, but their use of descriptive language developing. They have particularly enjoyed looking at their last diaries and remembering events, and it is a habit we have continued (in fact that is the main 'language arts' activity we do on a daily basis).

This past week, my husband was working in Scotland, so rented a cottage on a farm near Dundee. Nearby was the RRS Discovery, the ship on which Captain Robert Falcon Scott (and 48 other men) sailed to the Antarctic in 1901. The boys were fascinated - the ship was laden with enough food to last 49 men 3 years, but was not actually that large. The conditions faced were hard to imagine. But one of the main ways in which we are able to know these things was through the meticulous diaries, particularly that of Captain Scott. You may well know that after reaching the South Pole (narrowly defeated in the race by the Norwegian Amundsen), all five explorers died on the journey home. We only know the details of what happened, and how they approached the final demise through these diaries. The final entries are particularly poignant. This experience has consolidated the concept of writing and detailed description as a valuable tool, and whilst we were away they were asking to draw and write of their experiences.

We were then blessed with some uncharacteristically 'Antarctic' weather - about 10cm of snow and temperatures of -7. We made snowmen and an igloo. They also discovered that it was difficult to play out for much more than an hour at a time because fingers and toes got painful - this helped them understand a bit about how frostbite happens. We were able to discuss how privileged we were to have a warm home, plenty of warm nutritious food, and how we could only imagine what it must be like to face a journey of 800 miles, on foot pulling sledges in temperatures of -40 and blizzard conditions. During a heavy snowfall it was difficult to see, and the sky and ground seemed similar; this also helped them understand why Scott and his companions eventually could simply not leave their tent.

A couple of days later, in a different part of the country, we were able to go sledging for the first time. As well as being tremendously good fun, it was also a valuable lesson in how physically hard it is to pull a laden sledge up a hill. When we went inside to drink hot chocolate, we wondered what it must have been like to have very limited rations and no opportunity to get fully warm and dry.

My reflection from this week has been:

1) How satisfying it is to be able to embrace the unique opportunities that arise (here through travel and unusual weather) rather than being constrained to stick to a particular 'schedule'

2) How a hunger to learn skills flows from the appreciation of how those skills are useful - the example here being the ability to record one's own experiences

3) That tactile, active learning suits our boys far more than simply reading and talking about things (although these are useful things for consolidating)

4) That children learn things when they are ready (point 5 in this reflection) - we've been working on writing for a while, but often there is a point at which a key concept is grasped, or a there is a change in attitude and motivation - seeing this happen at different times and different rates in each of our children serves as a valuable reminder not to push too hard, not to compare against a certain 'standard' but rather to provide the resources and opportunity, and let the boys develop at their own rate.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Communication: A 'language barrier'

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. Ephesians 4:29

Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,holding fast the word of life... Philippians 2:14-16

Today I want to consider communication. Rather than a theoretical consideration of what is required for good communication skills, I rather wish to discuss a challenge I seem to face with increasing frequency. The Oxford English Dictionary defines communication as 'the imparting or exchanging or information by speaking, writing or using some other medium'. In objective terms, I think my communication skills are reasonable - I have won several prizes for oral presentations and I have been invited to write blog or opinion pieces on contemporary issues facing Christian doctors. Yet in my personal life, I sometimes feel I  am speaking a different language entirely.

Let me illustrate this with a recent example. Two nights ago, I was at work and two colleagues were discussing their young children and the frequency with which they wake through the night. They asked me how often mine woke, and I was quite honest and said that they all woke every two hours until about eight months of age, but that after a breastfeed they would settle immediately. I said this a couple of times, and then both colleagues said, 'You must have got lucky because my baby wakes up crying a couple of times every night'. Did they not hear me when I said my child woke as often or more often than theirs? But I think the difference was that I spoke in an upbeat manner, because to me, waking through the night is a normal part of life with a young child.

I've reflected several times on this blog about the need to look at the positive in every situation. I believe this is not only important, but a biblical instruction for how we should speak. I am also aware of the dangers of speaking negatively about our children, rather than embracing our God-given role. 

I do not think Christians should present a false, trouble-free perspective on life, but neither do I see myself as doing this. I continue to speak quite openly about the pain of having had a child die, and use this as an illustration when talking to others about the need to consider priorities carefully whilst there is opportunity. Whilst discussing the wonderful opportunties presented to our family through our flexible  and international work patterns, I am also frank about the fact that you cannot 'have it all', and that there have been times, particularly over the past few months where my husband and I have both felt quite stretched. When I am amongst Christians, for example at our church mid-week housegroup meeting, I try to be quite honest in describing the current challenges - for example that our family have all been unwell over recent weeks, or that we are heading for another international move later in the year and there are uncertainties involved in this, or even the fact that my husband and I have only been out for dinner alone together three times over the past five years. 

My difficulty is this: People do not seem to hear me. Sometimes I wonder whether if I were to break into tears or start to drop responsibilities, that maybe things would be different. I sometimes feel as though I am asking for support and encouragement as clearly and directly as I am able, yet those words are not heard. What I cannot find an easy answer to, what I am hoping some commenters on  the blog may be able to advise on, is how does one communicate vulnerability and need without moaning, displaying excessive emotion, or showing obvious signs of not coping? 

In the past, it has been clear that our profession can be a problem. I've been told on more occasions than I can recall that 'it must be easier to have a sick or dying child as doctors because you understand medical things'. I don't really understand that. When my daughter's heart stopped, I knew immediately that the outcome would be death or severe neurological disability to the point where at first I didn't even want to start resuscitation. We were able to accept her condition as terminal more readily than others perhaps, but that acceptance didn't mean it was easy! When our son had septic shock, we were only too aware of what that might mean (although praise God! He is now a healthy five year old). Sometimes I want to tell people in simple terms, 'Doctors are human too. We feel pain. We get tired. We get ill. We get lonely'. But again, with friends I do try to communicate simply the situations, challenges and opportunities that we face, in order to be able to mutually support and encourage one another in our various roles. 

Perhaps homeschooling creates a barrier too. There can be a perception that we never get tired or frustrated with our children. And as I know many other home educating parents feel, there is sometimes an unspoken 'you should just put your children in nursery/ school/ childcare' when we do talk about being tired or struggling to do the simple things like attend hospital appointments. Sometimes when you have made a choice to do things differently, others see it as a tacit criticism of their lifestyle (and so become defensive). Or on the other hand, sometimes people see you as being full of perpetual energy, patience and creativity and don't understand that you have vulnerabilities too. I don't know how that could be changed. Certainly meeting up with other like-minded families is a helpful encouragement, but it doesn't always offer practical solutions.

Today, I am simply left with the question of how to communicate clearly and effectively, without complaining or being emotionally manipulative. (To me, to deliberately show emotion in order to get a response would feel manipulative - I am not saying that public displays of emotion are wrong, or that others who display more emotion than I do are using that to manipulate others. I just know that for me, this would be a deliberate thing, and would not seem right!).

Can you relate to this challenge? If so, I am most grateful to hear how you approached things! Last year, a friend challenged me about how our lifestyle lends itself to true community and fellowship. I believe it is possible, but I feel I am facing a language barrier at the moment!

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Challenge: Illness

It's a challenge when a parent who home educates becomes ill, because you can't just call in sick the way one might do with an external job. It simply does not seem possible to get the rest that you would really like! I've recently reflected on how much I appreciate that our health is, by and large good. We've had some times of serious illness among the children, I have a chronic illness that I manage better as I get older, but in general our health is not a limitation during the average week or month.

These past couple of months have been a challenge simply because we have faced one virus after another. I had two days when I did need to call in sick from my job, but most of the time it has just been chronic aches and pains and lots and lots of snot. The thing I struggle with then is that I simply don't have the energy to do some of the extra things I would really like to do. My experience with illness (and indeed with most challenges in life) is that God gives sufficiently (2 Corinthians 12:9). Whilst this giving is often abundant, it is not always in excess of the actual needs presented. And that causes me to stop and consider those things that really matter. We might often use phrases like, 'You can't do it all', but at the same time, continue to burn the candle at both ends, take on extra projects, try to be in several places at one time. But the truth is, we cannot do it all. But as Jesus reassured Martha who was frustrated at her sister Mary's lack of help in the kitchen, 'Only one thing is needed'. (Luke Chapter 10, and a helpful book expanding 'a Mary heart in a Martha world' is reviewed here). Often as Christians, we can 'know' certain things, but it is times of challenge and trial which really remind us of what is true.

There are a number of helpful blogs describing how certain families have continued home schooling through the illness of one or both parents. (Simply google 'homeschooling whilst ill' and other similar keywords and you will find many hits). It can be helpful to read how other families have approached situations, but there is always that problem that nobody else's situation is exactly the same as your own - sometimes comparisons can be helpful, but sometimes you want to ask, 'What about if we have nobody to ask for help?', or 'what about when X, Y or Z?'. I would encourage you to sit down, to reflect and to pray, both alone and with your spouse, about those things which really matter. If we are talking about short term illnesses which are part and parcel of being human, then having a list of essential tasks and priorities might be all you need to lift the burden enough to recover. (Of course if you are facing something more challenging - perhaps requiring frequent hospital visits, operations, or treatments that make you feel very unwell for a prolonged period, then the decisions you need to make as a family are different - and I will not attempt to address these here).

What are the things that really matter? For our family, this could be our list:

1) Three meals. Whilst we cook everything from scratch, and often seek to involve the children in the cooking as a great educational opportunity, there is nothing to be ashamed of in having a meal from the freezer, opening a few tins, or having cheese on toast as a main meal. So long as it is not every day! It might be worth freezing batches of meals you have cooked at other times, in anticipation of such 'rainy days'

2) Bible time. Especially when people are not well, it is important to remember that God has not changed, and that His promises are particularly rich.

3) Time out in the fresh air - this can be a challenge if you are feeling dreadful. What I have found helpful when I've been less energetic than normal is to take the boys out on their bikes (they are aged nearly 3, 5 and 5) because then I can walk quite slowly around the park whilst they whizz up and down, playing races and all kinds of other games and generally getting cold and tired. It uses a lot of their energy, and conserves some of mine! (And also, a small amount of time in the fresh air is generally helpful).

4) Stories. Because we use literature-based methods, it can be quite nice to cuddle up on the sofa and read some of our favourite books time after time. I ask the boys to bring me a book each, and this keeps on going as long as their attention holds, which can be a good hour or so.

5) Free play. The boys all still nap, but the older two for a shorter time. Sometimes, if I am feeling awful, when they get up I let them choose a favourite game or toy (often lego) and ask them to play quietly on the floor whilst I rest on the sofa. I have been surprised at how kind they have been when they realise that mummy isn't well, and how well they have been able to play with little supervision for about 40 minutes.

6) Something else I keep for such rainy days is you tube Bible stories, such as those from the Beginners' Bible which I would highly recommend. We don't have 'screen time' as part of our day to day life, and I am glad for that, but it can have occasional value if the material is carefully selected (wildlife documentaries are also a big hit). I've explained some of my concerns about television elsewhere, but heard this delightful poem by Roald Dahl on the radio this evening, which says a lot!

And often, then, the day has almost passed. It can feel like survival. It can feel wrong to go to bed at 7.30pm shortly after the children. But we have managed to do the things that matter most, and another day is over.

I wonder what strategies you use when you feel very unwell?