Friday, March 30, 2007


I've been lying around feeling ill for a day or so, and have been reading:
Palestine by Joe Sacco
I wasn't sure how I'd take to the graphic format. It was utterly compelling and I'd recommend it to anyone. So much suffering. Not a light read.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Full up life

Tuesday 27th March 2007

Full up life

It’s been a very full day. We got up slowly –Leo has been very tired for the last couple of days. I think it’s fall-out from his party – he was so excited and had such a great time. He eventually woke up at about ten. He set about writing thank you notes.
Pearlie spent the morning working on invitations to her party (their birthdays are five weeks apart) and trying to make sure that all the complicated instructions were clear! Leo watched some Class TV, which was a bit of a mixed bag. We like the old ‘Look and Read’ programmes and both the kids enjoyed a ‘Middle English’ programme last week. But today it was ‘Starship’. Here’s what the web site says about the aim of that programme:
the aim of making learning fun and provide plenty of opportunities for children to practise and remember things, as they prepare for their National Tests at the end of Key Stage 1.
All I can say is that the test element is very much to the fore. I eventually lost patience when they delivered the message that children should have their whole story mapped out before they embark on a piece of creative writing. Of course, that is because they need to complete their SATS writing in a restricted piece of time. The timed essay is a vital element in public exams, but isn’t it sad that children of seven should get the message that they should have their stories all mapped out before they start? I have written several stories that took me somewhere I had never planned to go – and they have often taught me something quite surprising about myself.. But there’s no time for self-discovery when you’ve got your KS1 SATS to complete.

The kids drifted off to their rooms to practice drums and keyboard respectively.

We had a quick lunch and then the kids spent a lot of time trying to get ready to go out to Squeezebox. When we finally got underway I realised we’d forgotten Leo’s folder and the cash we needed to pay for the lessons… We had, however, remembered the heavy skateboard with handle that Leo bought recently – joy!

Once we got to Squeezebox things perked up! P and her band had a really good session. I read some of ‘Eragon’ to Leo, while we waited for his class. I am quite looking forward to reaching the end of ‘Eragon’. It is a good book but I think it could have been edited quite ruthlessly and gained from it! I guess I’m not very used to the fantasy genre – the books always look like doorstops, so it must be necessary. I think I was rather spoiled by the ‘Edge Chronicles’, which are beautifully written and so well crafted that they never seem to drag. ‘Eragon’ does occasionally include passages that seem to have been written to impress… Mind you, who am I to criticise? I couldn’t begin to write such a thing!

While Leo had his class Pearlie and her band mates walked round to the park. I was a bit anxious about the big, dangerous roads, but P assured me she’d use all the crossings. She is very sensible and, of course, experienced at crossing roads. Being aware of traffic, kerbs, safe crossing points and all that is one of the benefits of living car free. Of course that doesn’t guarantee safety but I think that knowing all the routes we walk, and being so used to walking round town, does help her confidence.

Leo had a great session and is going to play with P’s band, in preparation for the June gig. We’ll see how that goes. But the one to one lessons have really helped him and he and the teacher are more used to each other now – so I think it’ll be fine. He told me today that Squeezebox is better than lots of chocolate bars and £20 pocket money a week – so I know he’s enjoying it!

After Leo’s session we went round to the park and found P running about with her friends. It was a beautiful, sunny day and the schools had just chucked out, so it was heaving. Leo ended up finding two cousins (B and D) and he was happy playing with them and various home ed friends. P accidentally dropped a heavy metal catch on her friend’s head but he seemed ok after a while – poor thing. I scoffed choccy cake and drank tea and chatted to people.

On the way home I was just pleading with the kids not to load me down with their possessions and run off , when I realised I was standing next to the LA home ed officer! Whoops!

When we got home P went out again to meet Dani from work, but somehow they missed each other. Then there was a ‘Fawlty Towers’ type half hour as they took it in turns to come home without each other! Poor Dani had taken a detour on her walk home, to post a letter, and missed P. Eventually they both came home together.

This evening Pearlie and I spent time doing Kakuro together and Dani and Leo played Mousetrap. P is very slick at doing Kakuro these days. Leo triumphed at Mousetrap – again!

Leo complained of a headache and ‘feeling hot’ at bed time. I really hope it isn’t the start of some illness. He’s gone to bed with a dose of Nurofen and one of those cool sheets on his head. We’ve never used those before but I got given some that came free with a nursing magazine at work!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Birthday season continues

Great fun was had by all at Leo’s party on Sunday. Entertainment was skilfully provided by Trickswop Workshop, and it was wonderful to see all kinds of people having a go with juggling balls, devil sticks, diablos and even a tightrope. I’ve heard some people were so bitten by the circus bug they ended up in the juggling shop the next day!

Thanks to everyone who came for making it a mellow and happy occasion.

Leo was thrilled with all his presents, which were a great crop, and is fully intending to write thank you letters to everyone.

It was quite an acquisitive weekend for him, actually, as he picked up several bargains at Pearlie’s Woodcraft Folk fundraising event on the Saturday. This had been organised by the kids themselves, and was appropriately chaotic, but the auction of goods and promises raised a respectable amount of money for Comic Relief (much to the amazement of the group leader).

We followed the weekend up with our usual round of work and groups on Monday, this week making judicious use of annual leave to enable me to pop in at Kids Club to help clear up and discuss waiting list issues, before taking over from Allie for the last bit of MMs.

Pearlie had a good Kids Club session, starting a new project on comic books, while Leo enjoyed making a den and creating an Easter basket (of dragon eggs) at MMs. P. later did gardening at the grandmothers’ house, in celebration of the returning spring weather.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Another week whirled by…

… with the usual smattering of groups, classes and gatherings. Some notable bits this week were:
  • An enjoyable trip to London on Saturday 17th, where Pearlie, Leo and I met up with my parents, my sister and her family, and my uncle and aunt, over from Australia for a quick visit. We looked round the Museum of London, appreciating the reconstruction of a Roman water lifting machine in the garden, as well as the exhibitions on the Great Fire of London and more Roman stuff inside. After exhausting the possibilities of the gift shop, we moved on to St Pauls Cathedral, only to be thwarted by the unbelievable entrance fee. Finally, we walked across the Millennium Bridge and the kids went down giant slides at Tate Modern.
  • Leo’s birthday, as mentioned previously
  • A full-on Wednesday, with a hard-fought game of basketball, followed by a mass sword fight (!) in the park, and then straight on to demanding capoeira classes for both kids
  • More sport at Kids Club – football in the cold drizzle – plus card games, reading and writing. As well as preparing for a Comic Relief fundraising event on Saturday, P’s Woodcraft Folk group this evening debated the whole concept of charity as a means of tackling world poverty.
Meanwhile, Leo has been working on his own website, a showcase for his series of books, the Corner Cronicles. All typing, spelling and punctuation on the site is Leo’s.

Pearlie has been enjoying Kakuro puzzles a lot recently, choosing to do them with me instead of having a bedtime story for the past week or so.

We have now begun to read The Lark and the Laurel, by Barbara Willard (on loan from cousin S). Allie and Leo are still enjoying Eragon.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Leo is seven!

We've been having a lovely, lazy day - all at home for Leo's birthday. Here he is unwrapping a big box of dragons and ramparts.

We got out to the park in a sunny moment - before the school kids arrived. It was a day for wild, high swinging.

Home for lemon drizzle birthday cake.

Leo has had phone calls from family, cards in the post and by hand, and a little visit from his cousin B.

Happy birthday to our lovely boy. Seven!!!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Extra! Extra! Read all the prejudice...

Shock News Story!!
Same old nonsense spouted about home education

“Dr Philip Dixon, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru, said children miss out on wide social interaction if they don't go to school.

Home educators have their children's best interests at heart, but they have a very narrow understanding of what education is. The best service they can give their children is to get them to socialise.”

These quotes are from a newspaper article - see link at the bottom. People who know nothing about home education imagine what they think it might be and then condemn that. It’s great being an ‘expert’ and a ‘professional’, isn’t it?

Ok, so let’s just consider these criticisms– one more time…through gritted teeth...

Do my children “miss out on wide social interaction”?

No, they don’t.

When our daughter was at school she was in a friendship group of lovely little girls – all middle class ‘high achievers’. This was engineered by the school who put them in ‘groups’ – based on how well they could read or do sums. There were certainly children of a range of backgrounds and abilities in her classroom. That didn’t mean she had any meaningful interaction with them. She did get to witness the frequent ‘telling off’ of lively little boys who couldn’t ‘sit still like a lion’ (!) and the total dismay of children who couldn’t understand what was being demanded of them. She spent the day with children all of the same age – and one or two adults. The adults had to maintain constant control in a small room with 30 young children. There was a system of reward and punishment that was used to enforce the adult wishes and ‘resolve’ dispute between children.

Now they are home educated, our children choose to go to many group activities which generally involve children of a wide range of ages – and many adults. In these groups the diversity of the members is appreciated as an asset. Toddlers are respected – and included in older children’s games. Adults talk with and listen to children. If people can’t read then someone reads to them – whenever they need it. The likes and dislikes of group members are valued. If someone is good at climbing they do it for hours – and others applaud their skill. If someone gets hit then people step in to help resolve the conflict. It is not ‘perfect’ and things go wrong but there is not a list of criminals posted up on a notice board at each session. Everyone who is there has choen to bet there. We don't have to send the police out to catch people who have run away.

When not going to group activities my children meet many people. They talk to shopkeepers, bus drivers, neighbours.

My children are not shackled to the kitchen table with a pile of workbooks. Do we really have to keep saying this stuff?

“Home educators…have a very narrow definition of what education is.”

Someone working in an education system that has a National Curriculum, that builds all its structures around ‘progression’ and qualification – accuses others of having a ‘narrow’ definition of education!

I have met many home educating parents (wonder how many Dr Phillip Dixon has met?) and one of their most noticeable characteristics is that they have thought long and hard about what education is. Personally, I think that true education is lifelong, should be led by the heart and is bounded only by the limits of human brain capacity. It can’t be reduced to a list and it should never be declared complete. So, is that a narrow definition?

There is lots of good stuff in the article I have taken these quotes from. Some brave home educators have tried to get the reality across. But it seems that no matter how often, or how well, we explain ourselves and our lives, the assumptions about home education persist. I have thought of something that education should include – open-mindedness, the ability to learn from what you see and hear and adjust your opinions accordingly. The reps that get trotted out by the teaching unions don’t seem able to do that.

The newspaper story is in the Western Mail – available from the web site below.
_http://icwales.http/icwhttp:/icwales.http:/icwales_ ( scroll down to the article "Why we didn't send our children to school"

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Bloggily catching up and a bit about work

Here's an update, through the snotty haze of my cold...

Wednesday was a good one. In the morning Leo watched some of the schools' TV programmes – including Watch, which was about making books. He got out the Pritt stick and scissors and made a flap book all about spooky things in the night.

Meanwhile, Pearlie and I had taken a Maths book out into the hallway and started looking at it. Somehow we never really did look at it – but got sidetracked into written methods for division sums. Pearlie has a method she likes to use to multiply numbers – using boxes. She wanted to be able to somehow use this ‘in reverse’ to do division. When she couldn’t make this work we discussed the way that I do division sums. I know I’ve shown this to P before but we had a really good conversation about how and why it works. I remembered that I’d once seen a good illustration of this on the Portico blog – using a base ten set. We don’t have a base ten set so I drew pictures. But I think a base ten set would be a good thing to own – I can see it being useful for explaining and experimenting. Anyway, P and I enjoyed a bit of conversation and then we did use the book to find some sums to use the method we’d been discussing. It is odd that I remember there being a lot of fuss at school about ‘long multiplication’ and ‘long division’ and yet the distinction doesn’t really mean anything to P. She uses her box method for all multiplication of whole numbers and division is all the same to her if she’s dividing by 6 or 16.

I had to rush off to a meeting at work and Dani took the kids to Sports. After the session they went to the park, where one of the other kids got bitten by a dog. She was more frightened than hurt (luckily she was wearing jeans) but it was a horrible thing to happen.

Capoeira happened as usual and P played a good game with one of the adults.

is the day I barely see the family, as I do cleaning and then my real job. Dani was on the rota at Kids’ Club, where there was lots of outdoor play to take advantage of the sunshine.

When I got home tonight, P and I had the following conversation:

A: “How was Woodies?”
P: “It was the best ever.”
A: “What did you do?”
P: “I went to the pub with Callum.” (ten year old friend at Woodies)
It turned out they’d been touring local businesses begging for things to auction in aid of Comic Relief, rather than just training for adult life in this part of Brighton!

I don’t usually blog about work but I want to say a bit today. I have been working on enquiry desks for about 10.5 years now – in academic libraries. It has its down sides - every job does. But today I was struck, when helping train a new colleague, that I have learned loads from this part of my job. I help people find the right information sources, use the databases efficiently, locate the journal articles they need – and so on. But what I really enjoy is the fact that my role is essentially an enabling one and when I do it well people go away feeling more confident – more able. I do some teaching (in the sense of showing people how to use things - telling them things they didn’t know) at the moment when they really NEED to know the answers and have come to find them – and so what I’m telling them is usually very much appreciated. They then take what I’ve shown them and go away and use it for themselves – that’s the point of librarians like me. I think I’m lucky to have a job that enables me to be useful in that way – and I think that maybe there is a link with the way we home ed.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Spring, sprung, snot

On Sunday Dani and the kids went up to the park and enjoyed the sun. Monday was MMs for me and Leo, Kids’ Club for P (they finished the puppet show) and work for Dani. I also popped to town to do some secret things. Leo went to the grandmothers' and looked at frogspawn and delivered local newsletters. Today has been another lovely day. This morning the kids both did some helpful stuff around the house – taking their stuff up to their bedrooms, and hoovering. After their Squeezebox sessions, the kids and I went to the park to hang out with other home edders.

Leo is currently reading his way through the Horrid Henry books, watching it on TV, and making related posters. I don’t like it – sexist nonsense based on constant confrontation between adults and children – but he’s enjoying it. He’s also drawing lots and doing various Doctor Who stuff. He illustrated to me how confident he is with the number system today - reading six digit numbers as we watched something about money on tv.

Pearlie is doing lots of Kakuro and playing draughts and Othello. She beats me fairly consistently but I don’t mind losing – legacy of being youngest of four, perhaps? She is also following Comic Relief does Fame Academy. She's also back on Club Penguin quite a lot, and playing her Map Detectives Urban Mystery pc game.

Pearlie and I - and I suspect Dani too – have colds. This is because I boasted about having had a relatively disease free Winter.

I have been pondering the purpose of this blog. As the kids get older I find it more awkward to blog their stuff – it feels a bit silly when they could put it on their own blogs. But, just now I think it will remain a mix of news and thinking. Will try to avoid the long lists of groups – as I get bored writing it, so you must get bored reading it!

Anyway, I have P’s permission to share this Haiku that she wrote recently, when we spent a morning thinking about moles. I thought it was great.

Mole Haiku. By Pearlie.

Moles, burrowing deep.
Slow, long, hard work, and for what?
A warm burrow. Sleep.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Success = Life

It was beautiful as I walked to work today. The sun was warm, buds fat on the trees and bushes, and the air felt washed clean as it hit my lungs. Other people in our family are currently living through a dark time – the death of one of their closest friends from cancer, leaving her partner and 12 year old son. I find – and have always found – the relentless push of the seasons a great comfort when thinking about death.

The spring morning, every bird and leaf, was right here – right now. In spite of all the pain, beauty persists – life persists. I have a particular vivid memory of watching the sun glinting on the rippled surface of a river, the very morning my sister died.

I have been thinking a great deal recently about what constitutes success. When the government look with concern at our un-measured children they worry about success. When we ourselves succumb to moments of doubt about home educating, we worry about success. The spectre of failure lurking in the shadows – it haunts our whole world. And yet, it seems to me, we are so pitifully unaware of what success is. We are coached to chase it, chase it all our lives, and it is always just ahead of us – one more hurdle, one more qualification, one more promotion, one more pound.

Yesterday I read an article about people killing themselves at a Renault plant, where they were under extreme pressure to be successful – to be creative to order. How insane is our world that we should take people’s innate drive to create and make it into a weapon they eventually turn against themselves? How powerful is the spectre of failure that people sentence themselves to death if they feel its hand upon them?

For me, success is in the tiny moments. It isn’t in the certificates, the prizes, the appreciation. It isn’t in the smug lists of all that I can do – it isn’t in the cv. It isn’t invested in successful adults that my children must become. It isn’t in the unblemished record or the heroic comeback. It is in the tiny moments of peace. It is in the second that I pause to look at a sleeping child’s face. It is in the laugh that I can’t suppress. It is in the sun on my face on a spring morning. It is in life – it is life.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Look what you can do when you stay home!

Sandpit has spent the winter full of stagnant water and sludge. Now's its empty, clean and ready for a new bag of play sand!

All the bats, balls etc, are in a tub in the porch.

The porch now we can actually walk through it - and reach our tidy little back garden. For the last few months we've been jumping over piles of junk.

New labels!

The stationery/art stuff has emerged from under a pile of paper!
Also done:
Bathroom floor mopped after everyone walked mud through while sorting out the garden.
Pages from yahoo calendar printed out and put up on kitchen wall - so everyone can see where we're going on each day.
Seeds planted in tubs and flowerbeds
Drawing (Leo)
Skipping (Pearlie)
Now we're doing a bit of craft stuff - using all the materials we've found...

Friday, March 09, 2007

Never really home...

We have ended up with at least one group or activity every day from Monday to Friday. I work all the Sundays and half the Saturdays during term time. So I guess it’s no surprise that I feel like I’m not getting much time at home – it must be because I’m not. The kids are also tired – well, Leo is.

It is a tricky balancing act. P has a peer group now in the local HE world and she gets to see them at the groups. Some of them are kids whose families have known each other all their lives, so it has really taken her time and effort to feel that she fits in. So she wants to go to Kids’ Club twice a week, Sports, and Friday group – to see them. She wants to do yoga and capoeira with her cousin S. She wants to do Squeezebox because she really enjoys the drumming. And she wants to be in Woodcraft for all the games and the possible camping trips and outdoor activities.

Leo is much more into groups and activities than he used to be – and he enjoys a lot of what we do. But he gets tired – and needs time and space on his own. It is quite intense being around a big group of people of all ages. Today we went to Friday group – which P really loves. There’s lots of hanging out, playing, trips to the shop for sweets – all that. It is a big group - maybe thirty families today – and often quite loud. Leo was tired today and he tripped over and bumped his knee. Really he wanted to go home. I like the social side of it but I too like some time in my own house, just pottering. We sat cuddling and eating chocolate raisins – but it was a relief to get home.

In another year or two it really won’t be an issue because P will be able to be independent in her social engagements. She’s already taking steps in that direction, which is great. So if she wants to go to more groups than L it won’t matter. But just now we need to work out compromises.
I think a lot of it is about using the time we have at home to really relax – rather than stare at the tv. For me that means doing little bits of sorting and tidying – and writing. For Leo I think it means more long baths and solitary play. We also need to buy more easy picnic food – as most days of the week I find I’m making sandwiches - and it gets boring! We also must make sure that we leave our 'once a fortnight Saturday' free of commitments. Tomorrow we’re planning to just sort out the garden – which badly needs doing. It is too easy to think, “ooh – a free day – quick, fill it up with a trip or a meet…”

We aren’t a family who would be happy without group and social engagements. Our kids both need their friends, and the opportunities for different play that the groups provide – not to mention learning! I need the support of other HE friends – people who know about bad days and doubts. I find it inspiring to see the teenagers – friendly and chatty. But we also need our time at home – writing stories, playing on the pc, reading, playing board games, baking. I guess it is inevitable that group/home balance will shift as the kids change and grow. We just have to watch that we’re all still getting everything we need.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Lots of football, sunshine, draughts and famous people

Been just too busy to blog this week. Here’s a round up…

Saturday 3rd March

I went to work. Dani and the kids had a grand football match in the park, with all the local cousins.

In the evening Dani and I went, with my mum, to see Joan Armatrading at the Dome. It was a great night out. Joan Armatrading is in her late fifties now but she still plays a mean guitar, sings like an angel (my idea of an angel) and had a very devoted audience to appreciate her.

Sunday 4th March

I went to work. Dani and Pearlie took Leo over to play at his friend G’s house. They then went to investigate a new Sainsbury’s that has opened up nearby. When I got home Leo was still not back, and Dani and Pearlie were in the middle of a game of Scrabble.

Leo and his friend G had been busy making comics which they went on to sell at MMs the following day.

Monday 5th March

Pearlie took herself off to Kids’ Club. She calls for a friend on the way and they both got caught in a very sudden, and dramatic, hailstorm. After Kids’ Club she went to the grandmothers’ house and did some French, and watched Shaun the Sheep.

Leo and I went to MMs, where it was a quiet session. After that I went to work.

In the evening Leo and Dani went to his Woodcraft session, which was a trip to a local leisure centre to do trampolining.

Tuesday 6th March

Tuesday was a big day for Leo. Dani managed to get a long lunch break and took him to see his favourite author and illustrator combo – Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. He took his ‘Corner Chronicles’ books to show them. He got his copy of ‘Clash of the Sky Galleons’ signed by both of them, and greatly enjoyed the reading and talk. Chris Riddell had brought his sketch book, which Leo thought was wonderful. We’ve booked tickets to see them again during the Brighton Festival in May – though Dani wonders if they’ll give the same talk again!

While they were doing that, Pearlie was at Squeezebox having her session. There’s going to be a gig in June and there is some talk of Leo joining in with P’s band for that. He really needs the one to one sessions but, as he is learning the same songs, he might be able to join in with them just for the night. He came from the author/illustrator event on a high and enjoyed working on a new song.

On Tuesday night I went to ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ at the Theatre Royal, with my mum. It was great – very cleverly done. Dani had to take the kids along to a Woodcraft meeting, which was a bit much for all of them as it ran on late.


Dani went (with some HE comrades) to another meeting with the local authority person responsible for HE. They made a great deal of headway in re-drafting the letters and leaflet that the council send to home edders. It seems to be going very well. I would like to go to the meetings too, but it is hard to manage the required childcare and the manic schedule of groups. Dani is so efficient at this sort of stuff, and has already made a new newsletter to publicise the progress.

I took some leave from work and took the kids to home ed sports group. They were pleased because it was football. They seemed to play very hard – all the kids emerging halfway through, purple in the face and gasping for water! Leo told me proudly that he had got the ball five times.

After sports we went to the local park and the kids all played in a big gang and re-fuelled on cheesy chips. It was a beautiful day and P enjoyed towing around friends, who were on roller blades. Roller blades have jumped to the top of P’s birthday list! Leo played happily in a muddy puddle – making stick bridges.

I had to rush the kids off to capoeira – where Leo did his class with his cousin D. Pearlie had to do her class without her cousin S, because S was busy practising to sing for the Queen!


Today was a glorious day. Pearl and Leo both went to Kids’ Club, where the kids were working on their puppet show. This is being videoed by the kids, so they will end up with a complete product even though they are actually acting it out in chunks.

Then there was football on the sports pitch – for a full ninety minutes! Dani said that it was a great match – kids of all ages playing together.

After a quick stop off at home, Dani took the kids to Sussex Stationers, where P bought herself a pretty purple diary, and Leo bought yet another Horrid Henry book. Leo is funding his current book habit with pocket money, topped up with money for housework. He seems to be aiming to get more money this week than I do – something that has never yet happened. Today he has done washing up, helped put washing on the airer, made his own breakfast, and helped clean out Bunny. We all get paid for jobs in this house, which is working well at the moment. I like feeling that I have a bit of cash of my own – I think we all do. Though it is a bit odd to pay ourselves with our own money!

Pearlie went to Woodcraft this evening, where they were busy planning a table top sale fundraiser for Comic Relief. They also talked about summer camp. Pearlie is thinking she will probably go to this camp – a week in Dorset.

I had a day of two jobs – cleaning for a neighbour and then to real work. I did manage to fit in a short walk in the sunshine by getting off my bus a couple of stops early – buds, birdsong, blossom – beautiful!

So that’s it. In our (limited) time at home we’ve all been doing various things. I discovered I liked making Zooks at the Bamzooki web site. Pearlie is thrashing me regularly at draughts. Leo is playing a lot with rope and string – hazardous for the rest of us! He’s also reading loads. Dani knits and knits and manages to meet all her deadlines for meetings and groups - money management, waiting list maintenance, newsletter production – and so on. We have a family day off approaching this weekend – with plans to potter in the garden if the weather holds.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

A sense of purpose

I have long been meaning to write a reflective piece about writing. I am fascinated by the way people develop the skills of literacy and was prompted by another blogger whose daughter sent him a card with wonderful, phonetic spelling on it.

One of the best books I have read on the subject is ‘GNYS AT WRK’ by Glenda Bissex. In the book Glenda Bissex documents and discusses the processes involved in her son Paul’s learning to write and read. The title is phonetic spelling (genius at work) and there are other examples in the book – probably my favourite is his first writing - an angry note – RUDF? – written to get his mother’s attention when she was reading.

The child in the book is not home educated and there are some interesting points about the way that school affected his emergent writing. She doesn’t slate the school experience and Paul himself manages to adapt and adjust his behaviour and skills and get by in that environment. He develops into someone who loves to write in his later childhood and is clearly very imaginative.

But in his early schooling experiences there seems to be a clear difference between his writing at home and his writing at school. This part was especially interesting to me:
“In contrast to the varied forms of Paul’s spontaneous writings, his school writings were structurally monotonous.” (Bissex, 1980, p.58) I laughed to myself on re-reading that recently, imagining how Leo’s current writing would be categorised by someone working with the National Literacy Strategy.

Glenda Bissex mentions the way that the different expectations of school affected Paul’s writing. These expectations were things like correct spelling, neat writing, correct use of upper and lower case letters – and so on. Glenda Bissex also wonders if Paul feels that there is an expectation that he will write like the other children.

“How important was it to Paul to write as they did? Instead of writing by himself, he was writing in a group. Instead of writing when he had something in particular he wanted to write, he wrote during class writing periods.”(Bissex, 1980, p.59)

I don’t suggest that children can’t learn to write by receiving periods of instruction in a classroom. But what struck me in that book, and what often strikes me now, is that when that is the model – and the only model – children never truly own the process. It is ok for people like Paul Bissex, who lives in a literate home and whose own emergent writing is treated with respect and appreciation. Maybe for kids like him there is no real harm done if school lays some claim to the skills and the meanings involved. But if children don’t already have a sense of ownership then I suspect that writing will always be something that belongs to the teacher and the school. I also wonder if the same does not apply even to home educated children if they are schooled in writing, for someone else’s purpose and to someone else’s schedule.

I have known so many people who feel that writing does not really belong to them. I have talked with people who have fascinating tales to tell but who have no belief in their own ability write them down. I once took part in a writing course with a lovely man who wanted to write about his experiences as a young man, in London in the 1950s. He would tell the group about all the fascinating things that had happened but when he came back with the same things written down they were very hard to read. He was so worried about whether or not his use of language was correct that he would end up obscuring his meaning. For example, he once wrote about his ‘English subject teacher’. When we asked him what he meant he said,
“You know, my English teacher.”
“Well, why didn’t you write English teacher?”
“Well, I did but then I wondered if maybe if you write that then it means a teacher who is English.”
His lack of confidence undermined him repeatedly. He was sure that there was always a rule that he might be breaking – and that he must avoid that at all costs. Writing bullied him – it got in the way of who he was and what he wanted to say.

When you watch a child write because they want to, when they have something they need to write, you see them take the language and use it. They pick up the symbols in their hands and they make them work – to serve their purpose. They are a human being working with the written word. They aren’t ‘learning to write’ or ‘practising writing’ – they are writing. I love the spellings that children use when they do this because they indicate that children are in charge. They have understood that this writing business is some sort of code employed to convey meaning. They take what they have figured out about the code and they use it. If they have a reader who wants to hear what they have to say then they do it more. They are empowered by a human invention, rather than cowed by it.

I have seen this happen very clearly with Leo. He (like Paul Bissex) clearly came to independent reading through writing. I don’t think that is the only way to do it but some people do it that way round. Leo took the letter sounds he knew and the letter shapes he knew and he wrote captions and messages. He has never had a list of words to learn – every word he writes he has found a need to write. That need to communicate, to be understood, drives the process of self-correction that hones his skills. It isn’t a linear process (I don’t think much learning is) but a cyclical one. He sometimes picks up a spelling and then drops it again, in place of one of his own. But gradually, bit by bit, the orthodox spellings start to outnumber the phonetic ones. Bit by bit he starts to see the need to punctuate. If he asks questions we answer them – but he doesn’t often ask questions. He generally writes (by hand or on the pc) when everyone else is pre-occupied with something else. He presents the finished article and we appreciate it. That’s it. Slack, eh? We could certainly interfere a lot more - we have the knowledge, the books, the time. But why do it? What we see is that Leo has confidence. He has ownership. From there anything is possible.

I think that taking literacy from the hands of our children and feeding it back to them in an imposed structure is a great gift for the powerful. Tell people they’re no good at ‘literacy’ or ‘English’ and you shut their mouths. They won’t be writing to their MP, they won’t be writing to the paper, they won’t be telling the truths of their lives. Of course, sometimes they do. People who have been robbed of their confidence get involved in something and find their voice – they find the skills. Sometimes it is taking on the powerful that is the spur. Sometimes it is just the realisation that their story is a fantastic one – and they need to tell it. But there are lots of people who live their whole lives in fear of being asked to write – or made to write. I think that they have been robbed. If they’d been allowed to discover the purpose of writing – their own purpose – then maybe that wouldn’t be so.

If you want to read the Bissex book:
Bissex, G. (1980)
Cambridge, Massachusetts; London: Harvard University Press

Friday, March 02, 2007


Well, it’s been a week of ups and downs. Dani has a rotten cold which has been hanging around all week. I have felt really tired and a bit achy. The kids have been ok but Leo has been a bit overwhelmed with the pace of groups, I think.

Monday was a day of jolly junk modelling at MMs, for Leo and me. Pearlie went to Kids’ Club and then kept the ill Dani company at home. Leo had some time at the grandmothers’ house – and I got my hair cut. Leo had Woodcraft in the evening. Pearlie and I played Scrabble and I got the 50 point bonus for using all my letters in one go. Pearlie played on womanfully although this more or less handed me the game from the start. It was a great game and Pearlie did lots of super neat little things adding letters into little corners to make several words.

Tuesday included Squeezebox sessions for both kids. Pearlie is having a period of renewed interest in Kakuro, which she did while Leo was in his class. The weather was awful and I was feeling pretty rough, so I was glad to flop on the sofa when we got in. In the evening Leo and I did several pages of a maths puzzle book – Leo told me the answers and I wrote them in.

On Wednesday the kids went to sports – basketball this week. They skipped capoeira.

Thursday was Kids’ Club for both. There was a bit of a puppet show – though someone had taken Thor home to work on him, so he was missing! Leo found a game of bulldog a bit frustrating as he kept getting caught. He is spending a lot of his time as the youngest in groups at the moment, which is quite hard work for him. It’s good that we have MMs, where he is one of the older ones.

The kids went on a book buying expedition on Thursday afternoon – and I got home in the evening to a quiet house of knitting and reading. Pearlie enjoyed the World Book Day special ‘The code of Romulus’. Leo spent some of his own money on a Horrid Henry set – joke book, story book and inflatable football. He read the Horrid Henry in a couple of hours. I’m no fan of Horrid Henry but Leo’s enjoying him at the moment.

Today we had to go to pick up a parcel from the parcel office in town. It was Leo’s Doctor Who Adventures, with a bulky free gift. I hope that they don’t keep being so generous because having a subscription is rather pointless if we have to go to town to collect it! We bought bagels from Bagelman for lunch and sat on a sunny bench eating them. There was someone drumming, and the pavements were buzzing and I felt a happy Spring, Brighton buzz.

Pearlie went to yoga without her cousin S this week – as S was a bit under the weather. P was ok to go alone and told me they’d done some group work.

Leo has done some beautiful dragon pictures today. Pearlie has been enjoying quiet time watching tv downstairs a lot this week. She is often choosing to watch news and documentary programmes – as well as Poirot.

Leo has been writing loads this week – by hand and on the pc. I’ll leave you with a piece he wrote on the computer on Thursday – just as he wrote it.

“I Know what’s in the Middle of the Earth Chronicles
For all ages
For World Book Day

Once upon a time in a far desert something stirred. In the midle of the planet. a boy was walking along and a crack appered underneath him he bent down and then the crack opened up. And then he fell in to the planet head first !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!then a load burp……the burp was strange and as soon as the burp soanded then a stench filled the air it smelled like rats mice and dirty stray boys….and it smelled like a very big monster was in there and it had eaten the boy!and after that milions of people were faling in to the earth and milions and milions!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!then the earth’s population was running low and the planet’s top agents were going to do something about it.”