Category Archives: Insight

Insight into us – the non-fluffy bits of who we are.

Lightbulb moments (various)

Daisy has been providing lightbulb moments galore, in the last couple of weeks. We haven’t really talked about education much recently, so maybe I should summarise where we are.

I’ve known for some time that Daisy learns through conversation. It’s a fairly common phenomenon with home educated children (school educated children, too, probably, but their parents don’t seem to talk about it as much) – however structured or unstructured the style of education that a family chooses, it’s nothing compared to the learning that you stumble into while driving to swimming lessons or walking to the park. In recent times, we have engaged in in-depth explanations of the credit crunch, supply and demand, and the relative merits of renting versus buying property, in the car; we have established to the satisfaction of both of us, that she understands the mathematical principles underlying times tables, and that learning the answers is just an exercise she can indulge in if she likes, whilst walking along the river bank to the swing park; we have talked about group dynamics, empathy, what drives some people to need to be in charge, and what we can do help feel less defensive (that was in the car again); we have discussed heaven, hell, various theological positions on the subject, and I briefly summarised a chapter of Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” for her consideration.

I have to say, it’s my favourite form of education, though it’s almost impossible to quantify in any way that means anything to anyone else. It’s no way to PROVE she’s getting an education, but it’s the best bit of the education she’s getting.

Daisy is, as I believe we’ve discussed before, largely autonomously educated. In practical terms, this means I’m not prepared to have the necessary fights that would be involved to force her to learn particular things at particular times. In some ways, it would be nice to feel like I could, because, again, Provability makes me feel better, and makes the Difficult Conversations with people who don’t quite understand, that little bit easier. But since it takes me all my energy to get her into clothes in the morning, and to enforce some sort of regime of tidying up after herself (even just a bit, now and then, would be a start…), we have found ourselves taking a different route. What this means in practical terms, is that I fill the house with broadly educational Stuff, and vaguely hope that she’ll accidentally trip over something, and learn something.

On the good days, I recount the complex conversations that we’ve had, and list the museums and galleries and whatnot that we’ve visited, and note that she has, somewhere along the line, learned to read without my really being able to say when or why. And I feel good. It’s all working, I am not, after all, destroying her life with my hare-brained experiment.

On the less good days, I torture myself with how much time she spends watching CBBC iPlayer on the computer, and achieving, it seems, almost nothing.

Except that last week, I suddenly realised what she was doing. She is learning from the TV! Honestly! I know you and I were brought up believing that such things were only possible if you stayed up till 3am and watched the OU professor with the beard draw incomprehensibly on a blackboard, but she’s actually watching a fairly wide variety of programmes. She watches Blast Lab, and picks up science. She watches Horrible Histories, and learns about the past. She watches Newsround Extra, and Blue Peter, and learns all kinds of random and peculiar things. Recently, she’s been fixated on the Blue Peter woman who went to the South Pole, and the Sport Relief piece about the boy who walks two miles each way for water. The other day I found her watching a YouTube video I couldn’t understand, and it turned out to be Barbie: Thumbelina, in Czech. Czech! Apparently, it wasn’t easy to follow, but the dog kept running into a window, and that was funny. :-/

This probably doesn’t sound remarkable to you, but this was the nature of the lightbulb moment. We have been subscribed to Education City for years, and Reading Eggs for about eight months, and she loves the idea of them, but she never wants to do them. I’m not allowed to cancel the subscription, mind, but she never uses them, and I couldn’t work out why. And now I know.

Daisy doesn’t really want to be asked to engage with these things. She doesn’t want to answer the questions, and work to get the gold star, and constantly be expected to interact. On the other hand, she seems to learn very effectively audio-visually. She watches, she listens, she absorbs, if she doesn’t understand she plays it again, and she LEARNS. She learns so very much. In a sense, that’s what she’s doing when we’re having those in-depth conversations. I talk, and she listens, and if it doesn’t make sense, she asks a question, but if it does, she just soaks it in.

The other realisation of this week, is that she’s actually terrified of failure. That’s one of the reasons that she doesn’t enjoy the risk that she might NOT get the gold star for playing the game. She’s something of a perfectionist, and to cope with that, she wants to be in control of the goal-setting. It’s odd, because what I actually experience of her, is that she’s very slap-dash about things, which doesn’t sound perfectionist at all. Her handwriting is all over the place, and the effort I’ve made, over the years, to get her to take her time, use lower-case letters appropriately, form letters correctly, spell things right, have been rebuffed in short order on almost every occasion. Sometimes, I’ve interfered, and put her off doing whatever she was doing, which I regret immediately, but can’t fix by then. Increasingly, she’s learning to be sufficiently bad-tempered as to make me go away so she can carry on doing it her way.

But, for all that long, slow, frustrating process, she CAN read, CAN (sort of) write (as long as no-one else wants to be able to read it), she can count, add up, take away, these are skills she is developing. So what have I learned?

Daisy learns best from within her comfort zone. Attempts by well-meaning people to bully her OUT of her comfort zone, to the place where THEY think she should be, do not work. They make her dig her heels in. It won’t take very long at all, before they will make her quit the lesson altogether. For four months, last year, we had the kindest, gentlest, most patient piano teacher you could ever wish to have, but Daisy decided that the beginning of the process of playing with two hands at once, instead of one at a time, was too far out of her comfort zone. She melted down, more than once, refused to engage, and eventually quit.

We are currently facing the same problem with swimming. Last week, I was taken aside by the swimming teacher, and asked if I would do some work with her, during the week, on persuading her that the teachers know best, and saying “No” when they ask her to take the next step towards learning isn’t a valid response. She is not, they tell me, making progress, and if she’s not prepared to trust them and do as she’s told, she isn’t likely to.

The more I’ve thought about that conversation, since, the more I’ve felt, with a sinking heart, that they don’t understand how she ticks. Autonomously educated children do not, generally, do as they are told to, without question. She understands very clearly that water is a place people can drown, and they haven’t managed to secure her trust sufficiently to override that fear. She will do what she will do, and she will go no further.

Now, I am not concerned by her “progress”. I believe I am paying £4 a week for someone else to take her swimming, because I don’t want to. I also, autonomously educating nutter that I am, believe that if she hangs about at the pool with people who CAN swim (and I can’t, really – not well enough), she’s bound to pick it up eventually. That’s how she learned to read. When I pushed her, she resisted, HARD, but left to herself, she worked it out.

So the question becomes, does it matter if she doesn’t make progress, or at least, make it as quickly as they think she ought? Well, to me, not at all. I want her in the water, and not hating it. So does it matter to them? I don’t know. It crossed my mind, chatting to a friend last night, that they may well have targets. The swimming lessons are outsourced by the council, and it’s possible that the rate of improvement is a target they’re being measured on. If that’s the case, then we’re quitting. I can’t talk sense into people whose livelihood depends on Daisy exhibiting certain behaviours, if those behaviours turn out to be unnatural and unnerving to her. If, however, all they’re concerned about is my having a tantrum over her failure to make progress, then I can reassure them. I don’t care in the slightest. She’ll learn when she’s ready, and all I really care about is that she doesn’t start refusing to get in the pool.

Pyjama Crisis

I am starting to worry about my pyjama situation.

My pyjamas live in a drawer in my bedroom, neatly folded, and accessed in strict rotation. The idea is that they will be worn evenly, and the oldest of them will fall apart and be removed from the pile at periodic intervals.

I don’t generally buy pyjamas. That is to say, I buy them for Kevin, because nobody else does, but I haven’t needed to buy my own for many years. They usually materialise among my Christmas presents – last year it was my mother, this year it was my mother-in-law.

I have become faintly aware over the last couple of years, that fitting the pyjamas into the drawer is becoming increasingly difficult. Also, once they are in, the tightness of the squeeze is causing the neat pile to become upset, and the strictness of my wearing rotation is starting to be affected.

The thought that has only occurred to me this week, however, is that I may, now, have crossed a line of no return. I now have so many pairs of pyjamas squashed into my drawer, that the rate of wearing out has dropped to untenable levels. And if I can’t throw away at least ONE pair in the next eleven and a half months, where on earth will I put next Christmas’s pyjamas? I am not like the children. I don’t grow out of them. None are in good enough condition to give away, but none are in BAD enough condition to throw out. Whatever am I going to do?

That was a little insight into the workings of my mind. Doesn’t it explain a lot?

Format Shifting & the future of your bookshelf

Most people don’t know but in the UK it is currently illegal to put a CD into your computer and copy the music to the hard drive, it’s just as illegal to copy it from that PC onto your iPod but everyone does it all the time.

The government have realised that this is a bit of an oddity and have indicated that “format shifting” (the act of changing the media the music/video etc is on) is going to be allowed when the new copyright laws are framed. Continue reading Format Shifting & the future of your bookshelf

Halloween, or How difficult it is to be this uptight

When I was a little girl, on a random Sunday morning one autumn, a chap stood up to address my church. I noticed this, because he was a) someone whom I had never seen addressing the church before, though I had seen him playing an electric organ there on many occasions, and b) I wasn’t usually there when people stood up to address the church. This wasn’t the sermon, when I would normally be in Sunday School with all the other little darlings, this was an additional message for the church, and it caught my attention.

The chap concerned – Keith, his name was – had stood up to regale the church about the the evilnesses that schools were inflicting on their children under the guise of Halloween. Witches, wizards, ghosts and gouls, spells and potions – it was all bad, and evil, and wrong, and the children’s heads were being filled with it all.

His message hit home, with me at least. I was nine. I realise now, of course, that his message wasn’t targeted at my nine-year-old self. It was aimed at my thirty-something-year-old parents, who needed to Be Aware of the Danger, and Do Something About It. But I was there, I was listening, he didn’t explicitly exclude me from his intended audience, and in my innocence, I took his message to heart.

School that week was very uncomfortable for me. Mr Liddle, in his wisdom, had decided to use a large navy blue sheet to mock up a kind of a spooky corner at one end of our classroom. I forget the details of what was in there, or what we were expected to do about it, but I remember the overwhelming feeling of wanting to avoid the Halloween corner, because it was BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil. I said nothing. I just fretted. And, a bit, hated myself for not telling Mr Liddle about the BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, thereby enabling him to see the error of his ways, and take the blue sheet down.

Imagine my relief, then, when he came over to where I was sitting, and said, “You’re not at all happy about all this, are you?” I shook my head, miserably. He smiled at me encouragingly, and my spirits lifted. He understood! About the dilemma of BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil. He’d stop, now. He’d take the sheet down, and stop.

Oddly enough, the unarticulated discomfort of a nine-year-old girl was not enough for Mr Liddle to change his plan for the week’s lessons. I quite see, now, that it would be an extremely odd state of affairs if it had, but the realisation that the Halloween stuff was going ahead anyway, in SPITE of that conversation, was something of a blow, at the time. I avoided it as far as possible, and took comfort in the fact that once Halloween is over, it’s downhill all the way to Christmas, a festival I felt much more comfortable with.

I’m telling you this story, because I still get that feeling about Halloween. That uncomfortable feeling that I’d prefer it just not to be there. That it would be better for everyone if we just didn’t do it. All the spooky-spooky programmes on CBBC; the trick-or-treating; the randomly ghoulish fancy-dress of the staff in the Pizza Hut – all of it. Bobbing for apples, is, as far as I can tell, harmless, but my gut instinct is to bob for them another time. So that it’s a fun game, rather than a Halloween Activity.

We carved pumpkins in church*, on Sunday. My initial reaction was pretty much the same as that of the nine-year-old in Mr Liddle’s class – Why? It’s uncomfortable. It’s associated with the BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, and it’s not necessary. Why would we choose to do something that’s neither comfortable nor necessary?

Well, I can tell you that, having never carved a pumpkin in my life before, it’s a lot of fun. We sort of justified the event by discussing All Saints Day, and the remembering of Those Who Have Gone Before, which seems like a very Catholic thing to do, for someone of my religious background, but not beyond the pale. Besides, we all knew that we were REALLY there to carve pictures into fruit, because that’s fun. And you can’t get a pumpkin for love nor money at any other time of year, so unless you want to switch to carving strawberries or clementines, it’s not easy to break the link with a certain late-October festival. But I really wanted to.

It’s all part of a very confused thought process surrounding a great number of things, of which Halloween is the pinnacle. I blame Keith from church – I think I’ve probably been confused from that day forward.

I am not against Harry Potter. I have friends who are, and when I’m with them, I feel lax, and naive, and foolish, and like I’m taking massive spiritual risks with my children’s well-being and future. But I have other friends who produce pumpkins to carve in church situations, and when I’m with THEM, I feel uptight, paranoid, and like I need to Get A Grip.

Don’t tell me that I primarily need to drop the angst over what other people think. I know that already.

I’m definitely not against dressing up – I love that my seven-year-old still dresses up, and whilst finding dressing up clothes to fit her is getting trickier (apparently, dressing up is an under-fives activity), I think it’s a fabulous part of being a child. But perhaps not dressing up on the night of BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, in case that which is usually fine suddenly becomes BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, by association (I’ve now got “BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil” in my Copy-And-Paste clipboard, because it’s awkward to type).

Can you see how utterly tangled up and irrational my thinking is on this? I’m finding it all very confusing.

So, yesterday, I did what I often do when I have no clear idea of what I think about something. I talked to my dad about it. And, in the way that he very often does, he threw some very interesting light on the thing for me. What if, he said, Halloween is actually necessary? What if there is genuinely BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, in terms of real spiritual influences, but that the stuff that goes on at Halloween – the dressing up, the pumpkin carving, the being delightfully scared, but not TOO scared – what if the role of those things is specifically to fulfil a need in us to acknowledge the scary. What if, without it, many more people would be driven to seek out the genuinely BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil spiritual experiences? What if Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, rather than opening us up to such things, actually protect us from them?

I had honestly never considered such an angle before, and I’m still working out whether I think it’s valid or not. It does sound a little like precisely the argument one might construct if one was seeking to justify something that was actually BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil. But it certainly gave me some food for thought.

Don’t get me wrong, I remain very much against Trick-or-Treating – it amounts to demanding sweets with menaces, and is a no-brainer, as far as I’m concerned. But maybe I might just calm down a bit over the rest of it.

* For the record, whatever picture entered your mind when I used the word “church” just there, I can guarantee it was more formal and structured than the way we are currently spending our Sunday mornings. Picture a dozen people hanging out at someone’s house, carving pumpkins and cooking lunch.