Monday, December 31, 2007

Busy doing nothing…

We’ve been:

Shopping. Sock shortages led to me actually ironing socks dry for L! We went to town and Pearlie spent Christmas money on a clockwork alarm clock. Leo bought himself another Sarah Jane Adventures toy. Dani had a good time in C and H Fabrics with her vouchers and got lovely wool for a waistcoat for L.

Socialising. The elder of my brothers had his birthday yesterday so we all went round for tea and nibbles. The kids and I also went out with cousin B and his mum to see Bee Movie, on Friday. The kids liked it but I thought it was pretty awful. I didn’t take enough water and had to buy a bottle for £2.50 when I was struck down with a fierce coughing fit during the film.

Coughing. Pearlie, Leo and I are still at the tail end of this illness. I seem to cough very little all day and then, as soon as I try to sleep, be unable to stop. This is tough on Dani who is back at work now. Kids are a bit spluttery still but basically ok.

Eating. I’m really feeling the need for more exercise!

Not writing our annual report. We send one to the Local Authority every year but I haven’t felt very inspired yet. I will do it in the next few days. Now I’ve put that on the blog then I have to!

We’re off to see The Golden Compass once D’s finished at work. Better get dressed…

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Festive reflection

We all seem quite a lot better today – which is a huge relief. My dad and his wife came for lunch today. We did lazy supermarket quiches with salads (home made potato salad to make it a bit less lazy!) and other bits and bobs. I made a raspberry and peach trifle (with just a hint of rum) and we had meringues with fresh berries and cream for those who don’t trifle. We all ate lots of that and then lolled about chatting and consuming some of the chocolate mountain. One of my brothers popped in with cousin B (who is now eight!) and we drank tea while the kids played. My dad and his wife had to leave relatively early to get bus back to ‘the back of beyond’ (family joke about their choice to live in mid-Sussex rather than Brighton or Hove) but my brother and cousin B stayed for a while longer. B’s mum turned up once she had finished work, which was nice. We made a plan to take the kids to see Bee Movie together tomorrow. I do expect it to be rather dire but feel the need to get the kids out of the house and don’t feel energetic enough (still coughing) for much else. Dani is back to work in the morning.

I have been mulling over Christmas a bit. The ill health has certainly taken the shine off things somewhat but the kids have been wonderful in spite of all. Pearlie put loads of effort into making cards this year and bought me and Dani two presents each. Leo also made lots of cards and gave gifts. Pearlie has plans to save up more of her own money so she can buy more presents next year.

It was a real shame that Pearlie and I missed so much of the time with the visiting Watford and Leicestershire relatives. It isn’t easy to get that whole clan together, as everyone is so busy, but I think we’ll have to try to re-arrange something for the spring.

I think we did a better job with the kids’ presents than we have in previous years. We were helped by the fact that neither of the kids asked for anything huge. We picked a few things they’d asked for and bought a few surprises. I have to confess to relief that they didn’t ask for anything like DS Lites, or whatever they’re called, just because it is so much money for a single item – and they weren’t easy to find. My brother had to do a mad dash across town to get one for cousin B, after his mum had been given special permission to phone round all the shops from her work! We had a wonderful moment yesterday when Pearlie was building quietly with her miniature bricks and mortar set and Leo was deep into an imaginary game with his Doctor Who figures and a nice toy dragon I found for them to ride on – very peaceful and 1970s! I don’t think we bought them any single item that cost more than £20 – and spent less in total than last year – which felt better. Mind you, Pearlie needs a new bike this year and we’re thinking of getting her a Dahon folding bike, so her birthday could involve major expense. And, Leo wants a portable DVD player to make camping more Leo-friendly, so his birthday could be pricey too!

One of the things I didn’t mention before is that Pearlie and cousin S (Brighton based cousin S!) had been working for months to prepare a treasure hunt for Leo, cousin B and cousin D to do at the grandmothers’ Christmas Eve gathering. One of the things that was most worrying for P when she was feeling ill was that she would miss this. In the end she was ok to go and I was very relieved, as both the girls had put so much thought into it. They did rhyming clues and each clue contained a bit of a large map, which led the boys to the treasure (chocolate coins) at the end. One of the grandmothers got the boys to do three cheers for S and P, which was lovely.

Books are featuring largely here. I didn’t get many this year, which was odd, but am enjoying Unspeak by Stephen Poole, which was a gift from my dad. Dani’s reading that too, when she’s not knitting! Pearlie is reading The Secret of the Crocodiles and I’m looking forward to sharing Flight of the Silver Turtle with her as a bedtime book. Leo was given the first two Artemis Fowl books, and he is enjoying the first one. They don’t look like my cup of tea, so I’ll be pleased if he continues to read them alone!

Right, I’m off to watch Waking the Dead – we bought a boxed set for ourselves as we always seem to miss it.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In amongst the coughing

There has been some festive stuff here, in spite of the horrible illness. Yesterday I made the mistake of coming off the painkillers for a few hours and having a couple of glasses of cava. My temperature went up and I felt awful. I’m back on the pills today and trying not to talk. For some reason I seem to get every infection in my voicebox this year. This must be the third time I’ve bee robbed of my voice in the last six months. The kids are no longer being dosed up but both have nasty coughs. But, yesterday Leo was well enough to casually eat a whole selection box, so he can’t be that ill! Pearlie is doing remarkably well – eating bits and bobs and busy playing with her cousin S today. Dani is enjoying having time to knit. I think she was starved of her needles when we had to spend all our time decorating.

Here are some photos of the last week.

Pearlie is behind that drum kit! Our camera isn't good enough to get a decent shot of her. This is the Squeezebox Rocks gig on 21st December.

Leo playing at the gig.
Winter afternoon at the marina, where visiting aunt, uncle and grandparents were staying over the weekend.
Leo opening his Sarah Jane Adventures sonic lipstick and scanner watch. He was very chuffed with it.
Pearlie opening a Horrible Histories Jigsaw. She and I did it yesterday afternoon.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas eve in the house of cough

Thanks to all for your good wishes.

Pearlie slept most of yesterday and was still feverish and floppy this morning. This afternoon she has got much better. She has a nasty gurgling cough and is very pale but she managed to make it over to the grandmothers' house for presents and yummy tea. It is very sad that she missed so much of the visiting family fun this last weekend but it's looking like she'll be able to enjoy Christmas day, so that's good. She's eating a bit, which is a relief.

Leo's cough is very bad. He coughs for a very long spell and then does a great gasp for air. This is dramatic enough to have us googling whooping cough. He is vaccinated but it seems that that vaccine does wear off. It probably isn't whooping cough, just a terrible cough, but he is very tired by it.

I have lost my voice and feel like someone's been sandpapering my throat.

Dani is not ill (so far) and I've got my fingers crossed that she'll stay healthy.

So, that's our health update!

Other news is that we've given and received some lovely gifts with visiting family over the weekend and some of our Brighton relatives today. The gig was great and I need to get photos off the camera.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sick kids

Kids did their Squeezebox gig on Friday, already dosed up with Nurofen and Calpol. Ill health seems to be sweeping the kids of the town and there were some kids too ill to perform. Ours soldiered on bravely.

We have family down here for the weekend but celebrations are being well and truly scuppered by illness. Today, Leo seems to be much better in himself - though he is coughing a lot - but poor P is really ill. She doesn't often succumb to illness - but when she does it's pretty dramatic. I'm at home with her while everyone is off at the bowlplex. She is sleeping at the moment, with high fever. I think it is just a seasonal virus, but the timing could hardly have been worse. I'm really hoping she is on the mend by tomorrow. She is such a slender little thing and when I was sponging her down earlier she looked tiny. I don't remember her being this ill for years. I have a head full of cold and ache a lot but its nothing compared to poor P. Better go and check on her. No point calling doctor as I'm sure they'll just say to give drugs, water and sponge her if her fever is very high - all of which we're doing.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Groups and stuff

Kids had their last session at Kids’ Club before the festive break. I realised today that I usually mention the kids’ various groups without much explanation. Kids’ Club runs three times a week. Pearl goes twice and Leo once, at the moment. In the new year, all being well, Leo will go twice too.

The group is for home educated kids between the ages of six and (roughly) eleven. There is a play worker to lead each session. The session lasts for two and a half hours. The play worker prepares things for the kids to do, based on topics which the kids choose by discussion and voting. No-one has to do those things – there is always scope for an alternative activity. The kids eat lunch together and there is space outdoors to play. I’m very grateful to the home educators who set it up, as it is great for our kids just now.

The kids are performing in the fabulous Squeezebox Rocks gig tomorrow. These gigs happen twice a year, and are an opportunity for the kids who learn music at Squeezebox to perform in a big venue. Squeezebox is just the sort of music learning environment I wish I’d had access to as a child/teenager. The kids choose songs they want to play and have fun, productive sessions working together to achieve that end. It is very much about the here and now, which suits our educational philosophy well.

I learned to play the flute as a child, playing pieces I didn’t like, over and over again, to prepare for exams. I was deemed ‘good at it’ and took grades three, four and five between the ages of ten and twelve. I didn’t develop a love of classical music – and classical music was all that was on offer. In my teenage years I found music I really loved and lost all my enthusiasm for learning the flute. I hated the endless competitive festivals, exams, and bitching in the orchestras.

Tonight we’re off to see Pearlie in some skits at her Woodcraft group. Her group is led by a very experienced woman who appears to be loved by the kids. Pearlie enjoys the sessions and the opportunities for trips and camps. It’s a shame that Leo’s group folded but I actually think that Woodcraft probably comes into its own when the kids are older and can enjoy it more independently of their parents. I’m not sure if Leo will want to re-join when he’s old enough for Pioneers (nine) but if he does then he can.

The kids are taking a break from capoeira at the moment and Leo and I have just left our other weekly home ed group. I’m glad the week has a few more ‘group free’ windows in it now as we had definitely got over-stretched. We all appreciate more time for other things.

I must go and make some early tea for everyone. Tomorrow we have cousins arriving to stay. Aunt, uncle and grandparents are staying in a flat at the marina. They are all here until Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Time warp? Reality? Housework.

A quick aside... Yesterday, on the train on the way home, we were surrounded by commuters. Being on commuter trains with the kids is far easier than it used to be now the kids are older, more sensitive to the atmosphere, and so sit and read or draw in silence. Happy, chattering kids tend to make commuters look murderous at the end of a long day!

Somewhere in mid Sussex the man opposite us made a quick call.
"Hello, I'll be in about quarter to seven. What's for dinner?"
Listens to reply.
"And for dessert?"
Listens to reply.
"Good. See you later."

The train got later and later as we kept having to wait for platforms. I was thinking about the dinner waiting for the man. Eventually he made another call.

"Yes, it's me. The train's late so I won't be in for another half hour or so."
Listens to reply.
"Don't start without me."
End of call.

All sorts of rude words were floating in my head at this point! What a damn cheek! He clearly assumed his partner would do the following:
Make him a meal.
Make him a dessert. (!)
Wait until he was home before eating.

Now, maybe all this is part of some negotiated agreement, but the general tone of the calls was such that I'd have been inclined to lob the dinner at him out of an upstairs window - no matter what the agreed division of labour in the home! The guy could have been talking to a male partner, or his mum, or his housemate, but something just made me sure he was talking to his wife. How many grown men are there these days who still expect this kind of 'service'? I knew lots back in the seventies, but I kind of hoped that this attitude was dying out.

If I'm out at work then I do expect D to feed the kids. But if I'm home late from work (as I am two or three nights a week) I might find food waiting for me and I might not. It depends on what the others have had, and how busy D is, and if we've got any spuds in. I don't expect food any more than I expect to have my clothes washed, carpets hoovered, or toilet cleaned. That's because I'm an adult. What the hell is going through someone's mind when they think they can just get their needs met by another person like that? What seems to happen is that they stop appreciating what the other person does for them - and just expect it.

We're planning a change in laundry round here. Plan is for the kids to each have a basket for their own dirty clothes, do their own wash each week, and then hang stuff on an airer in their own rooms to dry. Things can then go straight in their own drawers - unless they want to learn how to iron! Who knows if it will work, but we thought we'd give it a try. After all, I don't want either of my kids turning into Mr Commuter! Lol!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Tree drama, bouncing grandmother, all painted out and a dead king…

It seems that Christmas is really coming – all of a sudden, as it seems to these days. Not much time to blog, so here’s a short explanation of the title!

Tree drama. We had our annual row and bickering match while dragging the old buggy up to the garden centre for a tree and found the centre had no trees left! A phone call to B&Q found they had sold out too. Dani phoned the lovely, local delivery people and they had one little, storm damaged tree left. We have given it a home in our living room. It looks fine now it has lights and decs on.

Bouncing grandmother. My mum’s partner got knocked down by a car, while in search of nice whiskey to give my mum for Christmas! According to an observer she did a somersault and landed on her back. She is battered and bruised but otherwise uninjured. We are very relieved it wasn’t worse.

Living room painted. Dani and I worked like loons over the weekend to get the walls in the living room done. They are a warm gingery/orange/terracotta and it is super cosy in our basement now.

We are skint and doing the cash flow juggle over Christmas – but I guess that is inevitable if you go in for work as extensive as that we’ve had done. Pressies are on the credit card but we don’t do debt, so we have to make sure we’ve got enough to pay it all off at the end of the month. I get paid tomorrow, which is good.

Dead king. I took the kids to London to see the Tutankhamun exhibition today.

A local home edder had got us group rates, which made it affordable. It was at the O2 arena thingy, where I’d never been before. I allowed way too much time to find it (it is quite large and unmissable!) and it was cold, even inside the dome, so we were pretty desperate to get in to the warm once our time slot came round. We all enjoyed it. The kids took extensive notes (all day, actually – including details from the train) and made sketches. The journey home in the rush hour was less enjoyable but we got home to some food (thanks, Dani x) and now the kids are tucked up in warm beds.

Dani has gone to her knitting group – and I need to go and give the great bowl of mincemeat a stir…

Oh, and here's the kids on the meridian.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Books and bangs and making and shopping

Gawd, it’s busy here. We have finished decorating P’s room and the new kitchen. Now we need to paint the front half of the basement – our living room. I’m not entirely certain that we’ll get it done this side of Christmas, though I’d like to. There are little patches of matchpot paint here and there, which will look very odd with the Christmas decs!

I’m reeling after a whole day in town Christmas shopping. I met up with my mum at 10am and we had a really good trip - checking lists, advising each other on purchases, and eating eggs on toast in a cafĂ© for lunch. My mum had to go and pick up nephew and niece from school, but I stayed on for another couple of hours. Nearly all done now, which is something of a relief.

I got home to find that everyone had been engaged in Christmas card making. Dani is out at her work Christmas meal but the children and I have continued making cards this evening. Buying card blanks is an extravagance we’ve never indulged before, but it has been a real hit. We spent a lovely couple of harmonious hours making and admiring each others’ creations.

Last night we went to the Bigger Bang Show, in town. It was really good – lots of loud noises, bright lights and jollity. Man in Faraday cage, getting zapped with electricity, was fun.

Yesterday afternoon we had another shopping excursion into town, involving complicated swaps of mums, so the kids could buy us, and each other, presents.

Finally, a quick mention of books:

Dani and Pearlie have just finished Kit’s Wilderness as a bedtime book. Dani says it was lovely – spooky, haunting and truthful.

Leo and I enjoyed The Arabian Nights. We were in a roll with classic tales and last night I found a great telling of Ivan and the Sea King, in an anthology. We also re-read a family favourite, A Gift From Winklesea.

Pearlie is nearing the end of The Tiger in the Well, which she has loved. She’s been telling us a lot about it.

Leo is deep in Dav Pilkey land, again. He spends a lot of time on the Pilkey web site, reading all the biographical information and enjoying the copies of Pilkey’s childhood creations, which can be found there. Leo was pleased with a book all about Comics and Graphic Novels. Some of Leo’s own latest creations are evil Turbo Tweezers, The Incredible Lizard, and the Evil Robo-Guy. These feature in comic books and graphic novels. He works on these novels over several days.

Dani's just finished Now is the Time to Open your Heart, by Alice Walker. I'm loving A Winter Book by Tove Jansson.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

In a tea shop

Before I start, let's just re-cap on some basics about me and Dani.

Dani is about five inches taller than me.
I wear specs - D has perfect vision.
Dani has black hair and I have mousy brown.
I have family chubby cheeks - D does not.
We also have different body shapes.

The other day, while the kids were involved in the dress rehearsal for their panto, Dani and I had an hour or two to kill in town. It was pouring with rain and there was no point going home just to come out again so, after we'd dropped the kids at the church hall, we legged it to the nearest cafe. This turned out to be a greasy spoon. It was a rather remarkable find in Brighton. It had typed menus on the tables and served things like 'Banana Longboats' and 'Knickerbocker glories', as well as all the 'something, chips and peas' options you could expect from a cafe twenty or thirty years ago. Cafes in town here tend to be rather swish and over-priced, generally, and serve cakes and drinks you don't recognise.

We were rather pleased with the place and made two teas last a good long while. Behind us were three old women who sat in a row, facing our table. They were talking all the time and every now and then went a bit 'muttery'. Eventually we'd sat there as long as was decent without buying more tea, so we got up to go. As we wrapped ourselves in waterproofs and headed for the door, one of the women called out to us.

"Are you twins?"

She said it with the air of Oliver Twist, like she'd been picked to ask, while the others sat there expectantly. There wasn't much we could say, really, except to say that we weren't. They looked quite dissatisfied with that - and off we went into the rain.

Twins??! It isn't that odd to be taken for sisters - what with wearing similar clothes, having developed similar speech patterns over the years, and clearly being very close - people sometimes do mis-read us. But twins? Have we really got that similar that our radically different colouring and height difference have become invisible?

It is especially funny as the cafe is on the edge of what is, these days, called Brighton's gay village. I wonder if those women amuse themselves by sitting there all day and asking gay people if they are related, in ever more bizarre ways. I can see it now...

To gay couple with age difference. "Is he your grandson?"

To lesbian couple with very butch partner. "Is he your brother?"

To foursome of gay men. "Are you the Jackson Five?"

To older dyke ladies. "You're the Beverley Sisters, aren't you? Where's the other one..."

I bet the days fly by.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

He’s behind you!

Both the kids, and a lot of their friends, put on a lovely panto performance for an appreciative audience this morning.

The plot was quite complex, and the play featured Leo as both pig and innkeeper, Pearlie as a highwaywoman, and an assortment of other engaging characters such as talking horses, a fortune teller, a strong man, a duke and duchess, gypsies and ballgoers.

It was pretty much as chaotic as I was expecting (quite a lot) but was remarkable for the fact that everyone was clearly having a good time. I thought all the kids worked together really well, supported each other, and managed to tell their story clearly and with panache.

My photos are rubbish, but here are just a couple to show the kids’ costumes.

I am particularly proud of Leo’s ears and tail. Here they are by themselves, for any knitters reading!

Other recent events have included:

  • my birthday yesterday. I got lots of lovely presents and Allie made the most delicious lemon drizzle cake. Thanks and yum!
  • watching cousin S. playing violin at a gigantic carol concert involving children from all the local primary schools
  • painting and decorating
  • artistic endeavour – Leo is churning out comics and graphic novels, and P. made a beautiful slot-together Christmas tree to go in her bedroom window
  • a lovely library trip, where we all made serendipitous discoveries on the shelves at every turn

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Where are you going to, Little Brown Mouse?

Just recently I’ve found myself thinking about what we want for our children – and the futures we imagine for them. I think most (if not all) parents think about their childrens’ adult lives. I am a great one for day dreaming – story telling in my head. Sometimes I like to imagine how my kids might look in their twenties. I might just create a mental image of a smile or a phone call.

Of course, I can’t help but imagine them happy. That’s what I want – happy and healthy adults that my kids will become. But I know that I can’t make that happen - not really, not at all. Life is far more of a lottery than we care to admit. Just a quick flit around my past can turn up young adults who developed substance abuse problems, or were schizophrenic, or who self-harmed, or who had eating disorders. Some of that might have been predicted by those who knew those people, but plenty was not. That’s the scariest aspect of parenting - the haunting feeling that my children might suffer in those ways - and I wouldn’t see it coming. And, of course, there’s the random accident or terminal illness that could snatch them away.

I know I can’t do anything to stop most of those scenarios. I know that they are free people who will make their choices and that fate can deal us all a nasty kick somewhere painful, when we least expect it. But, what I hope I can do – what I try to do – is to give them my love, like some kind of fortifying tonic for the years to come. Do you remember that Ready Brek advert from the 1970s/80s? How the kids ate the Ready Brek and went out into the cold morning, glowing and warm? That’s how I hope my children will feel as young adults. Even if the wind bites sometimes, and they despair, there will be a little spark of that glow inside them.

For me, part of that love is not to expect them to follow any path in terms of education or career. I want them to know that nothing they choose could make me love them more, or less. That I trust them to make their choices – and they should trust themselves too. I want them to know that I respect them as individuals and have no magic eye through which I can direct them along a ‘successful’ path.

Sometimes I wonder if that is more of a pressure than that felt by children whose parents do plan out a future, or at least expect a particular path. I know that when I was nine or ten I was sure that I’d be going to university. Someone must have told me that – and I didn’t feel it as a particular pressure. But I suspect that it did stop me thinking as far, and as wide, as I might otherwise. It was a goal that I had been given and I didn’t do too well at thinking beyond it. And I was scared of a scenario where that didn’t happen. I was quite unsure of who I might be if I didn’t go to university.

I think that all this is floating round my head as P is nearing the age of eleven. Suddenly I can see the teenage years looming. Let’s just hope the Ready Brek is going to do its job…

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Vertical - just...

Blimey, that was a cracking migraine. I reckon its the worst I've had in months, if not years. I woke to the feeling of knives being driven into one eye. I was determined to get up for work, as in eleven years I've never had to call in sick on a weekend shift. I drank some water, swallowed painkillers and went to have a bath. Five minutes later I was throwing up the painkillers and water. The pain was accompanied by flashes in my vision and an overwhelming feeling of anxiety. I also couldn't string my words together properly.

In the end I had to recognise that I just couldn't make it to work. Thank goodness I was on with another qualified member of staff, otherwise the library can't open. Dani looked up my colleague in the phone book and called to let her know. I went to bed, where I've been on and off all day.

So, what triggered that?

I'm going to list all the triggers as a reminder to myself not to let this happen again:

Low blood sugar in the afternoon - didn't take enough food to work
Drinking a small bottle of beer instead of water with my dinner
Eating white chocolate cheesecake
Lack of sleep over several nights
Rushing to get to the pizza place from work
Stress about several things at once and no time to process with D
Suppressing upset feelings
Painting with satinwood paint that has a nasty 'heady' smell, when I was already feeling strangely lethargic

Migraine runs down the female line in my family and I do know how to handle it, usually. But waking up in the middle of a monster is just impossible.

I'm left feeling like someone has punched me about a bit, and still vaguely dizzy. I'll be moving slowly over the next few days.


It’s been a funny weekend, with Pearlie away. We took the opportunity to get started on painting her room, so I went to B&Q on Friday night (in the pouring rain) to get paint, and Allie and I stayed up stupid late filling, priming and painting.

Leo and I spent a peaceable and productive Saturday together. He went to a writing workshop at the library in the morning, which he enjoyed greatly. The workshop was being run to encourage kids to enter the Write around Air Street competition which is currently running, and he came up with a lovely poem about clouds:


When I look up high I see…

A pirate ship sailing to France,
Speech bubbles hanging over people,
Mashed potatoes waiting to be eaten,
Ice cream melting in the sun,
And peas rolling down a blue plate.

© Leo, 2007

He is hopeful about winning, but I think it will inevitably be something of a lottery, as they are bound to get loads of entries.

While we were waiting for the library to open, we looked at a photographic exhibition in the square outside, which has been put together by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance. I told Leo some basic facts about HIV and AIDS. When I said that HIV stood for ‘human immunodeficiency virus’, he astonished me by thinking for a second and then coming straight back with “so it affects their immune system”. He was bewildered by my explanation that people in poor countries continue to die from AIDS because they can’t get hold of the expensive drugs they need – “why don’t they just send them the drugs?”, he said. Why, indeed? I took and sent some postcards being given out by a volunteer standing next to the exhibition, to ask my MP and the prime minister the same question.

Allie had gone to work by the time we got home, having squeezed in a bit more painting, so we pottered about together for the afternoon. He rattled out several more fantastic comics, I read an interesting book I’d borrowed from the library, and made brioche dough, we popped into the local community centre where there was an arts and crafts fair going on, but didn’t buy anything.

By 4 o'clock, when we had to go out again, it was really pouring down, and we both got soaked during the 5 minute walk to the bus stop. Cousin B’s birthday celebration was an extended family gathering at a pizza restaurant in town. We met Allie there, together with 3 cousins, 3 aunts and uncles, 4 grandparents, plus two more of B’s grandparents as well. Pearlie was missed, but it was a lovely meal, and we all made pigs of ourselves.

Once Leo was in bed, Allie and I made the mistake of pressing on with the decorating instead of going to bed ourselves, with the result that she has been laid up with a cracking migraine all day today.

Leo has produced loads more brilliant comics today, all without ever getting dressed! I cooked brioche for a late breakfast (yummy, but quite a hassle to make), tidied up, looked after Allie a bit, and gratefully accepted a lift from a friend when it was time to go and collect Pearlie.

She seems to have had a fantastic time, and came back bubbling with tales of rain soaked walking, hilarious games, a spider-filled attic, close proximity to cows, and enormous waves crashing over the marina wall on their journey home. It’s good to have her back.

Friday, November 30, 2007


I meant to mention this in my post this morning, but I forgot. I wish I had before and after photos to illustrate this, but I didn't take any before we started as I wasn't at all sure it would work.

While the builders were here they managed to tear the vinyl flooring in the kitchen, which we weren't keen to replace as it is only about eighteen months old. I bought a kit online, of which I was highly suspicious. But it worked. We painted on the magic gunk (went with clear as we thought a rubbish colour match would be more noticeable than a tear) and then heated it. We abandoned the silly little 'heating tool' they provided, which was a little lump of metal on a stick that you were supposed to heat with an iron. We just used the iron itself, with a cloth underneath.

It worked very well indeed and I'm happy to live with the floor as it is now. It isn't exactly pristine anyway, owing to an unfortunate incident with a permanent pen and a child.

Here's the mended bits. There were two bigish tears - about five cm each.


We are very much in need of the Christmas break here. It seems to be a long while since everyone was 100% healthy and there’s a lot we must do...

There is a long list of decorating to be done.

Christmas shopping needs to be fitted in somewhere, along with all the birthday pressie buying. We have a nephew, Dani, and my mum, all in the next eight days.

The kids’ panto is coming up next week and Dani has completed a magnificent woolly tail and hat with pig ears, for Leo, but I’ve so far failed to engage him in snout making.

Pearlie is off to a Woodcraft youth hostel camp tonight.

Tickets for Squeezebox Rocks (the gig the kids are performing in) are on sale and we must pick them up for various family members. Kids have to remember to keep running through their songs!

All this is going on alongside our usual work pattern – plus some odd variations. I booked some leave, ages ago, right at the end of the uni term, to give me some time for decorating. As is typical, we have managed to fill most of that with other commitments. Dani has to go to London for a meeting and I have booked in a Christmas shopping day with my mum. I find that this always happens. One of us will take some leave, just to give us a bit of space, and then we seem to see it as our mission to fill it up again.

I can see this decorating getting done late in the night. I think the reason that I’m so keen to get on with it is the fact that I think we could easily just stop right here and live with lots of bare plaster and filled holes forever. We had various bits in my family home, when I was growing up, that were never quite finished. Looking back, it was rather lovely – and quite typical of the happy, relaxed place that was out home – but I can’t bear to have spent all this money and not see the job through.

So, we’re busy.

The kids are pottering along with their own stuff too, of course. Leo is rather in need of a break from all the groups, I think. Whenever we are at home he is totally absorbed in comic making. He produces several a day at the moment. I can hear him now, humming away faintly as he works at the kitchen table. When Leo hums he is very content. He often hums while eating an enjoyable meal! His current crop of comics are great. He is adding a bit more commentary to make them easier to follow. They are rather in the Captain Underpants tradition – evil toilets and so on – but also very much his own.

Pearlie has packed up all her stuff for camp. It seems like just the other day that she went to summer camp. The weather looks lousy for this weekend, so I imagine they’ll be doing a lot of games in the youth hostel. She’s also enjoying playing cards. In fact, I need to go as she’s asking for a game now.

Oh, and here’s a bit of Pearlie wisdom re. the fascists speaking at the Oxford Union. She was asking us who David Irving was and Dani told her he was a man who denies the holocaust happened. She just stopped dead and looked at us in total astonishment.

“But, how can you deny the holocaust?”

Well, exactly.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Lucky people

Just watching a programme about homeless families and feeling so very, very lucky to have our home - and enough money to get these lovely improvements. I am certainly aware of the nightmare of finding affordable housing and my thoughts go out to a friend who is facing eviction in the new year. You know who you are, and I so hope things work out ok. xx.

The builders finished today. We are looking forward to Christmas in our new arrangements - though the budget might be a bit tight this year.

This is the new cooker and hob - and a work surface big enough to work on. We really wanted those pan drawers, they're Tardis like in their capacity.

We used to have a really crappy little fridge that kept things at about 10 degrees. It was balanced on top of an old freezer. Now we have this big fridge freezer, in which we can fit a weekly shop.

The washing machine used to be squashed in the corner of our living room, but now its more appropriately located in the kitchen - under another surface!

Sockets aplenty and a hanging rail. We need a few more hooks!

Meanwhile, where the old kitchen used to be is Pearlie's new en suite shower room.

We're looking forward to not getting up at the crack of dawn tomorrow! Now all there that remains is all the painting...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Silly consequences

The kids and I had a few hours at home this morning while the builders fiddled about with the washing machine – again. (Don’t ask, but they seem better than the plumber with this!) We played cards for a bit – cheat – and then I remembered how much we all enjoy story consequences. There have been some short tempers round here recently, which is mainly due to illness, lack of sleep (up late for various reasons, some better than others) and a steady stream of men called Paul who need to turn off the water, or get that floor up, or something. Story consequences is a great collaborative activity and no-one got cross with anyone else – until I had to go and talk to a builder for a minute, but that didn’t last long.

Here’s one of the best. If you don’t find it screamingly funny then there’s something wrong with you, evidently, as my children declare these stories to be hysterical. Don’t argue with me, BTW, lack of sleep does bad things to my patience levels.

Here is a story by Allie, Leo and Pearl. Each person writes two and half lines and then folds over the completed lines, passes the paper to the next person, who carries on. Leo, who writes in small capitals, seemed able to fit in more than me and P, who use a joined script. So, guess where we passed the story on? Some of us try to write a continuous story, others tend to get a bit carried away…

“Once upon a time there was a king and a queen. They lived in a castle. Knights with pet rooks guarded by a dying dog. It had two heads, everyone from far off lands came to see it. Other dogs would bow down to it. Until one day. That day two mice came to the kitchen and stole the king’s cutlery. The kind died later. “Oh, I don’t eat sweets!” snorted the boar. He went on chewing the rusty bench, with a grim, purposeful air. “If you happened to have a painkiller I’d be grateful as I have an upset pet lion. He came home today without having any time to play,” said the bishop, once they had got to his house. It was not far away. He said that some children had scared a note pad and loved the telly. They also ate cannon bear cheese with a ball of fluff. But that was a bit strange. The next week they bought back the farmer’s dog. Two fish also liked to stay down their shirts. The end.”

I have another eight stories like that and if you’re not careful I might just blog each one. BTW, cannon bear is one of my favourite cheeses – just in case anyone here is in need of Chrissie present idea for me.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The joy of picture books

Now the kids are older, one of the things I miss most keenly from their early years is the sharing of picture books. We still read to both the children most days – sharing a bedtime book together. We swap over mums, every now and then, which means that Dani and I get to enjoy the children’s different tastes in fiction. Much as I enjoy the sharing of a chapter book, it is quite different to the moments we spent with picture books in years gone by.

One of the first books that Pearl loved was a board book version of a Dr Seuss book, “Mr Brown can Moo!” This was great fun, with lots of opportunity for making funny noises. We probably got this book when Pearl was four or five months old. I can remember reading it to her when she was crawling, and it has slightly chewed edges that indicate a baby mouth at work some time. Pearl was a very active baby, but I can remember her sitting still, looking into my face as I buzzed and mooed away.

Sharing books with babies is a good exercise in humility. If the baby likes the book, you can read it through two or three times. They flap, wave and bounce their appreciation. If they aren’t interested then they just crawl, or walk, away. Sometimes I’d carry on reading and the child would come back for their favourite words or pictures. Leo liked books of rhymes, especially ones with pictures of babies in – babies faces interested him. Pictures, in general, were very important. He loved the Pienkowsky pictures in Meg and Mog books. He was also quick to spot jokes or incongruity in the pictures – noticing little details. Pearl liked that too, giggling away at all the jokes in "Hilda Hen's Happy Birthday". I guess that was when she was three.

Pearl’s first clear word was “Go!” A lot of her early words were commands rather than the usual list of nouns that many babies have. “Up dere!” (there) was an instruction to be lifted to see or reach something. One of her favourite books about this time (maybe eighteen months) was a Shirley Hughes book of opposites called “Bathwater’s Hot”. This was a book of beautiful rhyme and warm illustration. Pearl loved it when we read the following text:
“The red lights says stop and the Green light says….”
“GO!” (Supplied with gusto by our purposeful little Pearl.)

One of the best things about our neighbourhood is a strong community culture of passing things on. Our next door neighbour gave us lots of great picture books from the late 1980s. So, as well as keeping up with new picture books, like Charlie and Lola, or the Julia Donaldson books, we could enjoy some classics of the late 1980s that came our way. We inherited a whole collection of the ‘powerful princess’ genre that was fashionable in 1980s picture books – “Princess Smartypants”, “The Paperbag Princess” and “The princess and the dragon.” We also had a wonderful, and quite dated, picture book called “I’ll take you to Mrs Cole”. This felt quite transgressive in lots of ways – a boy is left alone by his mum when she works, he ventures into the house of a neighbour, he finds a messy, chaotic household of warmth and care. The pictures were beautiful. Leo, in particular, loved the contrast between the dark forbidding outside of the house and the red glow of Mrs Cole’s face. I liked it that the boy solved his own problem and that the book showed that appearances can be deceptive.

The fact that the children developed favourite books was something that I loved. They needed the comfort of the familiar text and pictures. They could relax in knowing that the story would be the same as yesterday – that the drama would be resolved. Alfie would get up on that chair and open the door, triumphant, every time. Even if the real world was unpredictable, in their favourite books there was safety.

Leo was a toddler with strong interests. He used books as a way of pursuing those interests, from a very young age. He loved frogs when he was two and it was truly amazing how many pictures of frogs he found in the pages of books. One of the frogs we loved best was Frog from the series by Max Velthuijs. These books had a very ‘un-English’ feel – and sometimes read a little strangely, perhaps because they were translated. “Frog is Frog” had a very overt message of self-acceptance.
“That’s me, thought Frog, a green frog with a stripy swimming costume.”

When I read requests by people with children of three, four or five who are looking for reading scheme recommendations, my heart sinks a little. I suppose some people do find reading schemes useful, somewhere along the way, but I think they are, by and large, a rip-off. We did have a few of the Alan Ahlberg “Red Nose Readers” knocking around. But I reckon that if you want to spend money on books for young children you should spend it on a selection of picture books. They will have been written as books, not as a selection of words of a certain level of difficulty. They will have real content and will have been written to attract a reader – not to be doled out to a child as ‘the next level’. And they will often have pictures that stay with children in a way that words may not.

I cannot, of course, really understand how my children learned to read- though there were interesting differences to observe between the two of them. That said, I credit picture books as the start of their love of reading. But, that is not the reason I’m glad that we shared those books. It wasn’t a master plan to turn them into early readers. It was an expression of love and a means of communication, even before they could talk. It was a comfort. It was a joy. If I had one moment of my life to live again before I died I think it would be reading a picture book to my two children when they were tiny.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Getting there

Can’t catch up properly as so much has happened. Here’s some highlights and lowlights, or something.

I’m a bit speedy as I’ve taken Sudafed for the last two days. I find that pseudoephedrine hydrochloride is great for keeping going when you feel rough, but it suppresses my appetite, makes me feel like I never need to sleep, and garbles my brain a bit!

Dani has had a horrible illness for the last week, and I just started to feel bad on Friday night. It is a throaty, feverish head cold.

The building work is not quite finished, but is nearly done. It is fantastic and I’m glad we’ve done it. We now have the house organised as follows:

Basement – kitchen/living room. This is the largest single space in the house and is now a cosy shared living space.
Ground floor – bathroom and Pearl’s bedroom with en suite shower room. The shower room is where our old kitchen was. The shower room is not quite finished but I think it will be very useful.
Top floor – Leo’s bedroom and the mums’bedroom. We have a top floor room with a door and everything!

Other news includes:

We spent from 11am Saturday to 2.30am Sunday moving furniture and organising rooms. Dani and I dismantled two beds and re-assembled them on different floors of the house. We have so many books! We weed regularly but they seem to breed.

We have a bed again after three weeks of camping on the kids’ floors – yeah!

I took the kids’ swimming to the local evening Family Swim and we had the pool to ourselves most of the time.

Pearl and Leo are starring in a pantomime with their Kids’ Club mates. Leo is going to be a pig and Dani has knitted him a curly tail. Pearlie has a cool part but I’m not sure if I can tell you more. We’ll blog the performance.

Pearlie has had letters from both her pen friends, which made her happy. She has had a cold too, which makes her cross!

Leo has renewed his passion for Captain Underpants. He is making comics every day and photocopying them.

Pearlie has been playing cards a lot – and is knitting something. She’s loving reading her way through the Sally Lockhart books.

Leo and I have decided to leave our weekly home ed group after Christmas. We’ve been going to that one for more than three years but its time to move on. Leo is going to add an extra session at Kids’ Club on a Wednesday. This means that I’ll get some one to one time with Leo on a Monday morning and with Pearl on a Wednesday morning.

Lots of talk and lots of bickering between the kids. It will be a relief when all the work is finished and we can get properly settled again.

Anyway, Annie Lennox is distracting me, so I’ll have to go. She’s on the TV, you understand. If she was really here I wouldn’t be blogging…

Here's some pictures of room transformations

Our back basement before the kitchen

Now it is a kitchen, with lots of surfaces.

The old kitchen. It was lovely but not big enough for a family of four.

Now it is this shiny shower room - not quite finished.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A queer notion

Being a home educator is a lot like being a lesbian.

I don’t want to offend anyone by saying this, but I have noticed several similarities over the years.

For example:
  • It's not normal.
  • Because it’s not normal, people who don’t know you think they can judge and condemn you for it
  • People who haven’t thought about it much find it impossible to imagine what you actually *do*
  • Some people’s parents and extended family find it hard to understand or accept
  • Because it’s not normal, it gives you an outsider’s perspective on the way things are usually done.
  • It shapes your life in a holistic way that is difficult to describe to people outside the relevant community

Another similarity is that there are often violent disagreements within the community about both politics and terminology. One such recent discussion on the UKHE email list is what prompted me to start thinking about this again.

Some people believe that our status as outsiders logically and inevitably puts us in a position of opposition to the existing institutions (eg marriage, school, capitalism), and that we should therefore all fight for their downfall.

Others think we should be aiming for acceptance and inclusion, and work in more respectable ways for law reform and equal rights.

Many of us are struggling along on the rocky path between these two peaks, engaging with society enough to represent our particular interests and defend the legal freedoms we have, while trying not to become corrupted and co-opted in the process.

And of course, there are many, in both communities, who do their best not to think about such things, and just get on with their lives.

For myself, I’m on the rocky path, but emotionally drawn towards the downfall-of-society side. For example, despite the conventional form of our family set-up, I’ve never supported the campaign for gay marriage, for the reasons given here. In fact, I think the example of marriage may also be instructive for home educators.

While LGBT activists have been lobbying for equal access to the institution of marriage, the rest of society has been slowly but surely abandoning and dismantling it. I think that’s good. I’m for diversity in household forms and respect for personal choices about relationships, not a single state-sanctioned family type, with everything else treated as a failure of some kind.

What puzzles me is, when is that going to happen to the institution of schooling? It’s clearly outmoded, oppressive and unfit for the purpose of enabling children to gain an education that fits them for the world we now live in. It seems to me that saying things like that in home education circles is commonplace and unremarkable, but saying it elsewhere is a bit taboo.

Do we have a particular insight because of our outsider status? Do we therefore have an obligation to share that with everyone else? How could we do that in a way that is not smug or aggressive, or that would actually have any effect?

I think it is undeniable that the world has changed for LGBT people in the last 20 years. Almost beyond recognition. Some things are as they ever were, and I wouldn’t want to pretend for a minute that there is no homophobic bullying in schools or workplaces, or that coming out is not still a hard process for many people. But there is definitely a different atmosphere in the air now. You just have to watch an episode of Doctor Who to see it!

I don’t really know how this has happened. I like to think the robust response of our community to the vile Section 28 had a part to play, but I also think that big social change is always partly a subterranean thing. It just seems to happen when we’re all looking in the other direction, and afterwards the new way of things seems as natural and solid as the old one did.

Maybe we’re on the verge of an earthquake in educational thinking, and we just can’t see it yet. Ah, well… we can but dream!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A curriculum or a dance?

The other day I had one of those, slightly awkward, conversations that most home educators will recognise. I bumped into someone I used to see quite a lot when the kids were younger – but haven’t seen for a couple of years. She asked me if we were still ‘home schooling’ and told me that she was studying for a PGCE. I told her that we were, and that we were very happy with it. When I mentioned that P had decided not to apply to any senior schools she said,
“Won’t it all get rather advanced now?”

That’s the point where the conversation got tricky. The problem, of course, is that we seem to be on a different educational planet these days. We do know, more or less, what the kids in school are doing, but it just isn’t relevant to us. Our children’s education is not a linear progression from ‘easy’ to ‘difficult’. I am frequently amazed at how it swings about – how their interests are fluid. Their ability to grasp things is also not predictable. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that if the children show stress and confusion then that is not the moment to be learning that thing. Their learning has its own timetable. When the moment is right they grasp things extremely fast.

When I wrote that we were “beachcombing for an education” – three years ago – I had no idea how true that was, and would continue to be. Both the children pick up snippets all the time. Here are three questions P asked yesterday:
“What is a heart transplant?”
“What are lorgnettes?”
“What is a dominatrix?” (!)
I think that these are the older child equivalent of “What DAT?” from a toddler. The mission is the same – the acquisition of knowledge. Every question asked, book read, web site visited, place travelled to, is part of their education. It is as ‘advanced’ as they feel like making it that day.

Pearlie might join in with a discussion on the morality of charity or the different ice creams available at the cafe. She might spend an hour or two reading all about Sally Lockhart’s Victorian adventures or Lady Grace’s sleuthing around the Tudor court – or pick up an old Mr Majeika she read when she was six. When she watches TV it might be Basil Brush but she’s also keen on Have I Got News for You. That’s what I do too – sometimes I challenge myself and sometimes I enjoy the comfort of something familiar. She’s also out a lot – working on collaborative things with friends, or playing and chatting. She’s much too busy to be ploughing through someone else’s curriculum. And that is why I don’t worry that she is getting older and we won’t ‘manage’. If P wants to know about something then she’ll find out – that’s what she does. That’s what we all do.

I suspect that the person I was speaking to the other day was anxious that there would be gaps if we allowed the children to define their own education. Other people have said this to me. What if we “leave something out”, something “vital” or “important”?

So, I was pondering all this as I walked around a single floor of the library where I work. I was thinking about curricula. And the library laughed at me. Every aisle just seemed to let out a guffaw. The internet is vast, as we all know, but on your screen at any time is just a screen’s worth of information. We tend to keep to our own, well trodden, paths in cyberspace. We forget the vastness of human knowledge. But on just those shelves of a small university library was more information than you could assimilate in years of reading. It was a great warm hug of mirth. How can anyone worry that there are gaps in an education? Of course there are gaps. Any education is simply a path, or perhaps a dance, through all there is to know.

A library holds out its hand and says,
“Come and have a dance with me.”

That’s what we do each day. The dance evolves as the children grow up. There are new steps. There is a moment of being swept into the arms of an author, spinning in their reality. There is an intricate slow foxtrot with a complex idea. There is a raucous family barn dance of argument. There is a slow rumba, held close to something familiar. There is just rocking, drifting in thoughts to the music inside. That’s what our learning consists of. All of us. There is no way I can, or want to, remove the children and present them with a sheet – every footfall marked out for them. There is no need.

That is what I will try to remember when I find myself burbling into the blank face of someone who asks about the ‘home schooling’. When they ask about education, curriculum, goals, targets, essential knowledge, keeping up, and all the rest. I think what I might say next time is,
“Oh, we just dance.”

They’ll think I’m mad – but they probably think I am anyway.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Back online for a sec

I needed to check the opening hours of the library, so that I could print out the credit card statement that hasn’t come yet, so we can take P’s new boots back to the shop because they have both developed holes in the soles, after less than 3 weeks!

Anyway, the house work is going splendidly. Our new kitchen is lovely – before, after and during pics to follow.

Yesterday we had builders, a plumber, an electrician, two plasterers and a tiler all working in the house at the same time. We went out.

Off the top of my head, some of the things we’ve been doing lately are:

  • Going to work
  • Extra sessions at Kids Club, because there’s an end of term panto being rehearsed
  • A workshop at Kids Club with the brilliant Richard Robinson of Brighton Science Festival – they made propellers out of straws and towers of spaghetti and marshmallows
  • A visit to Allie’s dad and his wife – lovely as always
  • Shopping for house things
  • Putting things in boxes and taking things out of boxes
  • Giving away stuff on Freecycle, and by putting it outside the door – very satisfying, but we still seem to have an enormous amount of stuff

Normal service will be resumed in about a week.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Learning all the time

A lovely little film made by some home educators in South Wales. Enjoy

They would welcome feedback, over at

Friday, November 09, 2007

Quick update from the makeover house

All still mad here! Things are going ok. Trouble with old houses is that once you start looking at things you tend to find more things that need doing. So far these have been:

The discovery of a wormy old floorboard that has led to us deciding on a plywood floor in the small shower room we're putting in. Joists were all sound - thank god!

The need for various improvements to the electrics in the house. We nned a proper earth bond (congratulations if you know what that is!) and is about time we got a proper fuse board with trip switches too.

We asked the builder to have a look at what could be causing damp upstairs. (We have damp in the basement that is just caused by solid walls and condensation and so on and is requiring some creative wiring to avoid the damp back wall. The boxes behind the plugs embedded in that back wall were completely corroded by damp - erk!) Anyway, the upstairs damp was being caused by cracked rendering on the front of the house. Builder has filled a crack but told us that most of the rendering on the front of the house has blown and we'll need to start saving to get it re-rendered next year!

Apart from all this, the new kitchen is looking good. For the last couple of days we've had our cooker on one floorand the rest of the kitchen on another - which makes for interesting cooking experiences. I've been too chicken but Dani managed to cook pasta and home made sauce.

Got to go, as P has asked me to find her a list of hard spellings. Both kids were able to do nearly all of a list in a KS3 book we were just looking in.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Builders are here

All is a bit mad here. Any moment spent doing anything other than sorting/boxing/clearing is pretty much impossible. The builders have blocked off a door and built a very fine set of doors for our understairs cupboard. I bought a fridge freezer and arranged for it to be delivered when the new kitchen units etc. should be built. I hope that works.

I realised, with some horror, that we couldn't freecycle the cooker when it was so much in need of a clean. So, this evening, I spent an hour or two attacking it with the steam cleaner. So, we had takeaway pizza. The takeaway have started putting cheese on the garlic bread so Pearlie didn't really like it - and that is the only bit of a takeaway pizza meal that she really eats. So, she's gone swimming without a proper meal and I'm feeling like a rather rubbish mum.

On the plus side, Pearlie wrote some more of a long story she's working on and Leo made some pretend newspapers. Oh, and Pearlie had a large slab of choc cake at the park cafe today, so that's some sustenance. Leo had egg mayonnaise sandwiches. Thank goodness for our saviour at the park cafe. I can remember feeding Pearlie from there often when Leo was a baby and things were demanding.

We're all tired from getting up and dressed by 8pm, ready for the arrival of the builders. Tomorrow involves the ripping up of floors to lay gas piping, and the delivery of the kitchen units. I'm planning to take the kids to buy more boxes (plastic crates with lids) as we don't seem able to get enough...

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Whizz bang!

We’ve just got back from a firework party round at the grandmothers’ place. It was great. The kids and their cousins all played ‘welding’, like last year. This involves holding sparklers against a manhole cover!

Dani and I have been working hard to clear the important bits of our house for the builders to start on Monday. I have to get back to that in a minute.

Just wanted to mention a fab book that P and I have just finished as our bedtime book. It was A Free Man on Sunday, and was a fictionalised account of the mass trespass on Kinder Scout. P was particularly pleased to find that this admirable event occurred on April 24th – her birthday – albeit sixty five years before she was born!

Friday, November 02, 2007

Reading and control freakery

I watched this tv thing last week all about a primary school that was implementing a mixed-age synthetic phonics programme. It got me thinking again about the learning to read question. (Have a look at Deb’s interesting post on this.)

I know quite a few kids of seven, eight, nine and older who don’t read yet – or who don’t read much. These are home ed kids. I also know several home ed kids who have learned to read, quickly and efficiently, with no tears, at around these ages – or older. Yet, in the school system it is clearly a problem if you’re not reading by seven or so. This is mainly because of the high pupil/teacher ratio in school – which means that a lot of the teaching is delivered in the form of writing. But, I also think that it is because the system has a plan that the children will all read, more or less, by the end of KS1 – at seven. As we all know, in a big structure you generally have to ignore things that haven’t gone according to plan and carry on as if everything is fine! This means that the kids who can’t read just have to manage somehow. I had always known that this was so, but it was still a shock to see these poor kids of Pearlie and Leo’s ages, who spent a large chunk of their week being frustrated and bored. There was all this information presented to them, that they just couldn’t access. What on earth is the point of putting kids in that position?

Though the synthetic phonics system set my teeth on edge a bit (so BORING!) I could see that it was the best option for kids who must learn to read, right now, or be bored in every lesson. It seemed that all it took was for the school to decide that it would stop ignoring the kids who couldn’t read – and carry on teaching them until they could. The sheer relief on the faces of kids who had been ‘failing’ to read for several years, was clear. But, what a shame that they had to be put through that ordeal, of feeling like a failure for several years of their young lives.

It seems to me that the best way to manage a mixed group of readers and non-readers, is to have many more adults around who can make sure that the non-readers can join in – and culture of co-operation. This is what happens at Pearlie and Leo’s kids’ club group. People who can’t read just get read to by someone who can. It isn’t really rocket science, is it?

If everyone could access the experiences on offer, then maybe the system could relax a bit more about exactly when people learned to read. Like walking, talking or being reliable with toilet use – children vary massively in the ages at which they will be able to read. And some people will never learn – and that shouldn’t be the end of the world either, should it? We are amazingly inventive creatures – we can get round most things if we are given the freedom to do so.

In the end, I came away from the programme thinking (again!) how controlling the whole system is. The government wants to be God, I reckon. They set up all these plans and schemes with no humility. They perceive the people involved as pawns, or little machines maybe – put X in and get Y out. And, in the education system, they ruin so much that way – take the fun and joy out – and kill it.

A while ago, I was talking to a lovely little boy of my acquaintance. He was five at the time – and had just finished a day school in a reception class.
“Hey, P, what’d you do at school today?”
“Cemetery!” Glum face, pouty lips.
“Cemetery? Didn’t you like it?” (Allie tries to imagine what they could have been doing about cemeteries…)
“No, it was borin’ – cemetery.”
“Oh, symmetry? Was it symmetry, P?”
“Yeah, cemetery – yuk!”

What on earth could they have been doing at school, with a five year old, to make symmetry so unappealing? My experiences helping out in P’s reception classroom led me to suspect that the problem was just pressure to understand symmetry as a concept. Even very little children learn to cover their confusion with bluster (such is the shame in our culture when we don’t understand) and declare that they “don’t like” things and they are “boring”. I think that most of that is about pressure to ‘get’ things when we’re just not ready. Back off - make butterfly paintings, put up some posters of symmetry in nature, let the children draw, let adults talk around them. One day they’ll just declare something to be symmetrical. Maybe then they’ll want to learn more about the whole business.

I suspect that we make all the same mistakes with teaching reading. We are so stressed about it. Instead of making sure that all the children have had hours and hours of stories, exposing them to adults who use the written word, letting them see that this reading business is a part of life, we dive in with the structure first. Many of them are boggled, exhausted by the effort to understand, and lacking any real motivation to try.

When I saw those kids who didn’t like reading, who slumped and shifted their eyes and hung their heads, I felt angry that we do that to children. I reckon its robbery – we (adults) steal something from them. Yes, we can ‘fix’ it with a structured programme – but I wonder if that’s not just a solution we have to come up with, to a problem we’ve made in the first place?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Unsorting our house

So, the builders and all that…

Dani and I have a rather nice Ikea bed, which we bought a couple of years ago. Somehow we have managed to throw away any instructions we ever had that relate to the assembly of the bed. I do have a vague memory (as does D) of it being all a bit hellish and heavy to put together and us thinking,
“well, we’ll never be able to take this apart again so why bother keeping the instructions.”
Now we need to get this bed from the basement to the top floor of our house. Our little, terraced 1860s house has extremely narrow staircases. So, that bed is coming apart again – even if it ends up being by hacksaw.

The work we are having done in our house is a bit like one of those games with the sliding pieces, where there is only one empty space at any time. We need to start by clearing as much of our basement as possible. This is going to lead to a rather unhappy bedroomless state for me and D. We will have to sleep on the kids’ floors until the whole thing is finished. I shall not be happy with this.

Ah well, it will all be worth it in the end – we hope. I am looking forward to sleeping on the top floor rather than down in the basement – and to having four walls and a door on our room. Maybe we’ll even stretch to a lock. I reckon we could all do with locks these days – our babies are babies no more.

Today has involved much putting of things in plastic boxes. Leo and Pearlie had Squeezebox sessions too. Leo is learning a solo for the gig, which seems to be getting more elaborate every week. Pearlie has some pretty hard stuff to learn too. Pearlie has also tidied her room so that a friend can sleep over tonight. Leo got out his watercolours and painted for a while.

I went to get a small pumpkin and failed to find one, so staggered home with very heavy pumpkin in my rucksack. I’ll miss trick or treating tomorrow as I’ll be at work until 8pm. Dani is taking the kids out – with all the local cousins. Trick or treating is very big round here as there are lots of kids - and houses right on the pavement with no dark paths and so on.

Last night I spent a while reading information about the Lewes bonfire traditions to the kids. It is all rather bizarre and the kids were astonished at the sectarian aspects of it all. I used to be taken as a child but we have never taken ours – the crowds alone are off-putting enough. This reading led us on to some info about Samhain, which I have been mis-pronouncing for years!

Then Dani, Pearlie and I played together on the Free Rice website. We managed to get Level 47 with lots of talking about the words. Pearlie is very good at finding roots and patterns in words and D and I both love that kind of thing too. One of the things that pleases me in a quiz situation is realising the many different places I pick up information. I had a sudden flash of memory that told me that the word tocsin meant alarm bell – from a TV Miss Marple, of all places!

Leo had a fun evening making serious amounts of mess everywhere. He juiced citrus fruits, hacked a candle to bits and then sloshed a large quantity of water out of his bath. He’s out in the garden at the moment – better go and see what he’s doing…

Monday, October 29, 2007

Busy - and a spooky story

Listening to my best of Pet Shop Boys cd – love it. I’m still without my mp3 player, which is irritating the hell out of me. What have I done with it? The worst thing is that I can remember putting it somewhere and thinking, “that’s a strange place to put that, I hope I don’t forget doing this…”

I’m in slight mourning as I have just found out that the gasp-worthy Horse is playing Brighton in December, on the night we have a big family meal arranged. So I can’t go. Boo-hoo, screamy tantrum, etc.

We’ve had (well, are still having) a manic day here. There have been two home ed groups (one with mad Halloween activity), two meetings for D, a visit to grandmothers (L), Woodcraft (L), a massive delivery of food to be put away - and other stuff. Oh, and it is now only a week until the builders start. So, I thought it was probably urgent to blog.

Dani’s afternoon meeting was with Hedline and some high ups at the council. This was pretty encouraging and it is to be hoped that they read the 30 page dossier we made that details horrendous experiences (of ten families) at the hands of various local authority employees. They seem to finally understand the need for proper consultation and a Trust-wide policy. Fingers crossed for us please. Trying to affect the workings of local government is rather like wading through treacle – thick treacle laden with assumptions…

Leo wrote a fab spooky story at the weekend, which he read out at MMs today. The wonderful A read out others too – and it was very spooky in the sports hall by pumpkin lantern light.

Here it is – it deserves a wider readership. As usual, all spelling and punctuation is as per the original. He wrote this alone in his room at his desk, just like a real home educated child should (wink, wink) spend every day.

It was a dark and stormy night. The wind blew a map from a window. The map slid down a well into the 4th dimension… The next evening there was an article about a boy missing and a dug up graveyard… Earlier that week a boy was on a trip with his family to a cottage beside a graveyard but when the car slid in the rain the boy fell out of the car window and fell into a deep watery well and drowned. The boy was never seen again. Forwards in time. About 20 years after the boy died there was a low rustling under the cottage (yes that very cottage.) Then in the graveyard a skeletal hand pushed itself up in front of the gravestone and then an arm. After about 20 minutes a sticky-old-gooey-decayed body of a boy was standing there. After two nights and six days there was an army of those bodys. They hid under that cottage and slid through a portal to hell. But we shall call it the 4th dimension. They were stealing living humans for their ranks and squads. They dug a network of tunnells all over the village. They built up their ranks and mustered them and they dug a long tunnel to the Greenwick graveyard 20 miles away. By January 23 thousand swarms hit a body. They had struck another plague pit. All the more bodies for them. But one body never came back from that dig. The body of the owner of that cottage. Sir Walter Hellcraft. He was the great grandfather of Paul Hellcraft. The boy who fell down the well.

I think this is a fab story. What I love is the way that Leo writes in an appropriate style for his theme, even if the plot is tricky at times.

Pearlie writes beautifully too. I feel the need to say this as, in case any of you are not aware, it is important to be utterly FAIR. This is a big theme in our house at the mo!