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Learning highlights: July-August 2018

It’s way into September now, but I still want to catch some of the highlights of July and August. We took it slow, taking time to recover from all the changes in our lives, letting go things, thoughts and feelings that didn’t belong anymore and sorting out that is needed for the new phase.

Learning highlights July-August 2018

Some of the highlights of this period:

  • End of the school year business: open lessons at swimming and judo, choir concerts, judo exams (first coloured belts for the girls.
  • Slowing up with homeschooling Thursdays:  instead of the weekly meetings with the others, we did just a couple of things, traditional blueberry picking and swimming event, robot-making workshop and a camping on a farm of homeschooling friends.
  • Discovering lice (which felt like a “socialisation” milestone :), making microscope slide sets from them and Emily’s shorter haircut.
  • Tending the gardens to survive the drought: redoing our rainwater installation and irrigation  devices (seeing the kids experiencing the water going up in communicating vessels is priceless), learning about ground water and the inner working of wells and hand pumps in the university garden, enjoying rain and surviving falling trees while being caught in the eye of the storm. Harvest time.
  • Mornings and walking with Aldo during his stay with us; lots of Pokemon events with the tribe; looking into fermenting and alcohol making with Ferial; local history and nature at Het Lankheet with BTD; boating and sleepover with friends who came back after a year away; friends from Amsterdam staying with us, new experiences at an orthodontist.
  • Slow camping holiday in Monschau: figuring out German; playing with water in the stream and making friends at the camping; glass blowing, Mustard Mill, timber-framed houses, secret codes and steep hills of Monschau; lots of forest trails and an an adventure combining Wild Kermeter route with hiking to the lake shore and a boat to another side; swimming, snorkelling and stand-up puddling at Rursee; medieval history in Niddegen Castle and its museum; exploring Rursee dams, learning about water management in the Water Information Center Eifel and beautiful Heimbach power plant; crafts, history and industry in Torburg Heimat- ind Handwerksmuseum in Stolberg and getting out with free cakes; discovering after the trip that we managed to miss all the rich history of WWII in the area (Battle of Hürtgen Forest and Siegfried Line fortifications).
  • Legitimate peripheral participation: a brainstorm and setting website for a project of their grandmother; Alexander helping neighbours to clean their garden and to working on a car with a homeschooling father; earning money by DJing at a family party; making Smart Stuff That Matters and hanging out at the unconference, organised in the new house of Elmine and Ton.



Dealing with resistance and difficulties

This is something that was in drafts for a while and I hesitated about publishing it – it is personal and about difficult things. Yesterday we had a discussion with other homeschooling parents about “everything is cool and easy” picture that you usually get from the social media profiles of others and the importance of talking about the reality which is challenging enough. And I thought that I should start with myself and share a bit more of the “difficult” stuff that we have to deal with.

The original text is two years old and comes from the document written as part of a certification by Stichting Keurmerk Thuisonderwijs in September 2016 (more from it is at Facilitating unschooling). We are much further now and I have more things to say on it, but that would take more time to put into words.


Alexander is visual-spatial learner. Grasping a new concept, recognising patterns and relationships, keeping an overview, all come in a natural way for him; attention to detail and routine tasks that require automatisation do not. He is a natural builder, who uses construction as a way to explore the world and to process and internalise new knowledge.

He has a strong motivation to explore subjects he finds interesting and a resistance to those that don’t make sense to him, even when extrinsic motivational factors are brought into play. He has a strong preference for learning that is embedded into real-life tasks or obviously related to them.

From an early age language was not Alexander’s strong side, complicated even more by multilingual environment of our family. At the moment, his main challenges lay with the written language and language use in situations with high expectations/significance (e.g. reading aloud when somebody sits next to him). In informal settings, Alexander rarely has a problem grasping new words; he is often asking questions and explaining his point of view. Alexander uses language functionally. For instance, he is not afraid to communicate with foreigners in English to explain a point, even though he is aware of his level in English.

All these personality traits make learning to use written language particularly challenging: it’s a process with a lot of sequential steps that require automatisation and there is lack of meaningful practical applications for intermediate outcomes. In addition, at some point difficulties with reading and writing begin to serve as a barrier, preventing independent use of written materials as a reference or for self-assessment.

Reading games, RussianWe use several strategies to address those challenges:

  • Decouple practices for developing persuasion with routine or boring tasks from “difficult” domains. Practice dealing with “stuff that has to be done even if it’s not so much fun” in situations where the need for it and its impact are obvious (e.g. helping with household activities). Provide opportunities to take end-responsibility and develop ownership of a task (e.g. responsibilities for timing and preparation for judo or swimming lessons).
  • Create an environment where use of written language has visible practical outcomes and rewards: navigation in the computer programs, lists and instructions essential for carrying out an activity, digital communication… Take care that language requirements lay within the zone of proximal development and do not become detrimental to working on a task.
  • Create opportunities to practice tasks that require automatisation in playful and engaging way, through meaningful activities, board games, computer programs and free play. Draw attention to “practice makes perfect” attitude and value of intermediate results when the progress is slow.
  • Provide low-text alternatives that build on Alexander’s strengths for independent exploration of new domains, practicing and self-assessment: hands on learning; making, building and experimenting; story-based communication; use of videos, visual material and infographics; games and computer programs with built-in feedback.

Small things to enjoy

Sorting out photos I find back all those small things I enjoyed this summer:

  • coming for blueberry picking and being greeted by a newspaper clip with a photo of Emily from 2016;
  • spending an afternoon in Monschau climbing hills and discovering secret codes with Anna;
  • watching Alexander doing things with other adults – helping neighbors cutting wood in the garden, peeling apples with a friend, working on a car with a friend’s father;
  • learning to use scythe with the “elders” of our vegetable garden and evening “dates” there with Robert, harvesting and making berry pergola;
  • walking forest trails with the whole family and then being slow watching kids playing in the waters of Rursee;
  • reading books – in a hammock, on the beach, in bed, in a camping chair…

Those and many other moments were definitely needed to recharge and rethink.


Transfer of learning

In the camp of Natural School in Russia kids had to decide themselves when and what to cook* when they were hungry. And then cook that, learning all kinds of handy things on the way (e.g. how much work it takes to make a pancake cake and how many people it could feed at the end).

Baking pancakes Now they are standing in the kitchen making pancakes for breakfast, using the recipe from the camp (which has more sugar than I’d like to :)). Once the sugar issue is fixed and we see how the cleaning afterwards goes), I should be very happy with this learning transfer – at some point of life in a family with three kids I’ve learnt that there is nothing tastier than the pancakes you don’t bake yourself.


* They also had to decide themselves about a lot of other things and then live with the implications of that.


June in review

The whirlpool of transitional events and general “end of spring travel crazyness” seem to be quieting down and now it’s time to start setting in a new rhythm while enjoying the things that do not change (the berry harvest from the garden is pretty stable although which berries are there change 🙂

June was a crazy month on all fronts:

  • #3 workshop of Wowlab series on making an own bordgame with homeschooling group (as much as I’d hoped that we would be ready by then, there is #4 I still have to plan).
  • Anna’s pirate birthday party on the beach which was a logistical nightmare and lots of fun of Dutch-English singing at the end.
  • Nancy‘s visit, with fun, personal conversations and a good reason to meet with Aldo, Elmine and Ton after a long break.
  • Honeyberries, (wild) strawberries, shadbush berries harvest with lots of “put in the ground everything that you want to live” work in between.
  • Two weeks with the kids in Russia, with an intense week-long camping with Natural school and then no less intense days of meeting with family and friends and sorting out the remaining boxes from my mother’s house at dacha.
  • Emily’s cooking birthday party on the beach on the second day after arriving home. It was a bit of crazy, with making fresh pasta and tiramisu “in the field”, but gave a good sense of accomplishment.
  • Discussions about Russian and Dutch and changes in the homeschooling group.
  • A last-munite decision of going to a buschcraft weekend with the whole family, which was a nice learning adventure.
  • Lot of personal growth on making sure that boundaries do not become borders.

So, July and August will be a time of rethinking and repacking lots of things:

  • homeschooling goals and plans
  • work activities, routines and personal growth plan for me
  • figuring out how to combine blogging and homeschooling portfolio
  • house and garden long waiting fixes and organisation
  • slow time, travel, books and enjoying in the sun

Mother tongue and identity

Still, for many of us, our mother tongue is bound up with our deeper identity, our memories and sense of self.

The article, Can you lose your native language?, is about language attrition, but my brain picks up this piece, because it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot recently.

I speak Russian to our kids, but we live in the Netherlands and recently I started to get more pressure to speak Dutch to them when other people are present.  I do – when speaking to a group that includes my kids or, occasionally, when I want to be sure that others understand what is being said. But switching into Dutch completely when in public is out of question at this point: that part of my identity, which is about being a mother, is in Russian, our relation is in Russian and my part of facilitating their learning is also in Russian. Speaking Dutch to them would turn me into somebody else 🙂

A quick search on “mother tongue” and “identity” brings a bunch of interesting things to read, but I shouldn’t now: it’s late in the night and our suitcases for Russia are not packed yet.

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Homeschooling over time

I keep on thinking how needs of a homeschooling family change over time. No data-based generalisations here, just observations.

In the beginning it’s all about role-models and information. Finding people, who made the choice, and figuring out how to fit it in in the own circumstances. Vision (why and what) and boundary conditions.

Once the choice is made the need for acceptance and like-minded people becomes very strong: at the beginning the stress from explaining and defending “deviation from the norm” is very high and it helps a lot to be with people who share your views.

Than come practicalities: finding or creating a social space where kids can see others (because all their peers go to school), do things together and learn how to learn. At the same there is a strong need to learn and to talk to other parents, because this is when educational choices are being made, practices are tried out and replaced with something that works better for particular family and specific kids. These are also the challenges of building an environment to support the basics – rhythm, space, materials, learning to facilitate, getting into reading, writing, math, working with resources, managing questions and time.

And then there is plateau. Friends are found, choices made, routines are working. Foundation is there and the big question is what exactly are you building there. The moment than the vision that started it all becomes the reality. And a big question, can you actually build something what would make all this effort of “doing things differently” worth the trouble.

We are now at that stage. Defences are not needed, basics are covered and the playing field is open. Curious to see what it brings.


A sense of community

Now, as our homeschooling community goes through what I’d call ‘growing pains’ and will morph into something new I feel like catching up a few thoughts of what made it as it is.

Weekly rhythm: Thursday meetings

When we started more than three years ago we picked up Thursday as a meeting day. First it was just a convenient workday to meet, but over time schedules of several families had to evolve around it. Family trips, sports and clubs of the kids were planned in a way that Thursdays would stay free to meet. In my case, since juggling agendas of three kids is difficult enough, I was simply not considering any local activity that involved Thursday.

Whole day appointments

It quickly became that in our part of the country meeting for a couple of hours doesn’t make much sense: in any bigger meeting there will be people who have to travel for an hour or more. So many of the meetings are 11 to 18 with the most being present there between 12 and 15. This gives enough flexibility for the families to fit the length and timing of their visit into their own schedules. On the other side it also makes more difficult to plan an activity with a beginning and an end, and plan visits to a museum or a similar place, since there always needs to be time and space for a lunch.

Locations and commitment to travel

Distances between the participating families also made it important to plan the locations of the meetings in such a way that travel time and costs were more or less evenly distributed.  For a long period of time the meetings were planned weekly between two ends of an axis between Zwolle and Enschede-Hengelo. Sharing rides (and travel costs), opportunities to stay for a dinner to avoid rush hours or even stay overs for families from further away became a norm in the group.

Meaningful activities

Time investment required to make meeting happen had an impact on the activities that we did together. Soon it became obvious that bringing kids to play while blocking the whole day in the schedule of the whole family is not enough given the investment. This is how the need for meaningful activities for the parents came into play. Then playing music together and theater improvisation became regular activities in the group next to more structured brainstorms about homeschooling than usual “exchange of experiences”. For me personally thinking about mixed-age (rather than kids-oriented) learning activities became the norm: this is how Wowlab workshops were designed from the beginning. As the kids grew older the need to do more education-related activities and group projects became more obvious: if we spend so much time together is makes a lot of sense to make sure that this time contributes to the “bottom line”, joining our efforts to provide good education for our kids.

Sharing food

The need to have lunch during the meetings and occasional dinners together also made a difference, since sharing food is one of the secret ingredients of building relations. I also found it funny to see how traditional Dutch “bring your sandwiches to eat by yourself” lunch eventually morphed into “share what you feel like sharing and try something of others” and “make something warm when the kitchen is available” (I guess as an influence of the preferences in two Russian-Dutch families in the group :). Not only it created a group norm, but also reduced the workload of a single family, making participation easier: taking ingredients saves time to prepare for the day, forgotten ingredients are often replaced by those of other people, kids can help preparing lunch and fiddly eaters have peer pressure of trying something new.

Shared norms, memories and traditions

Over time shared context emerged: ways of doing things, unwritten expectations, traditions. Small things, that bind the group together. For me there are certain things that stand out from those (next to the food ;): singing together, where every song has a meaning (“West Virginia”, anyone?), egg hunt for Easter, skating in Openluchtmuseum, picking blueberries and swimming in August. And – being prepared to drive and taking care of each other.


If I look back, I see clear differences between the early stage of creating the network and later period of maintaining/activating it. In the first couple of years there were a lot of explicit discussions about shared goals, norms and values, as well as a relation-forming activities ranged from shared dinners and stayovers to camping together as a group. Later, those relations created a solid base for doing things together that brought a lot of value for the participants without requiring so much investment into relations with each other as in the beginning. It also created something that attracted a lot of new members, who were not explicitly updated on the norms of the group and (by then) unspoken commitments. It changed the balance in the group and eventually resulted in the “growing pains” that we are trying to resolve now.

And I’d like to summarise my own “lessons learnt” from the process:

  • think about growth, attitude towards new members and ways of integrating them into existing group without the group falling apart
  • talk explicitly about group norms, as well as individual needs and expectations of the group members, not only in the beginning, when it’s natural, but also at the moments when membership or situation of the members change
  • beware of fragmented communication space, when there is no time and place for everyone to be heard by everyone else as it creates fragmented views of the group that are not shared by everyone

In the wind of change

Lots of unfinished and half-started posts make it more difficult to start writing again. I feel as I should did something about the backlog first, but new things are coming up and waiting becomes less and less of an option. So, I’ll write. And at some point I finish whatever has been started and post it backdated, who cares.

Anyway. Between the last post in December and now lots of things happened:

  • There were lots of ‘growing pains’ in our homeschooling network that I didn’t take easy. It’s still in motion and I’m still trying to figure out where the new balance lays for me personally. That has implications for our daily practice with the kids and also for the things that I do with or for the others (intervision and Wowlab workshops).
  • At some point I couldn’t do anything with me weblog as a result of accumulated lack of attention. The combination of WP, add-ons and hosting didn’t work anymore, so we changed the hosting and updated everything that could be updated. There are still things that do not work as before, but at least I can write and the old stuff is semi-usable. The old is over and the new shape still has to be defined.
  • I went to Moscow again, this time with the kids, to finish sorting out my mother’s house. That was the place where I grew up, it was our base when in Russia and a point that held my connections to Russia, emotional and physical. There was a long emotional process behind it and transition is not fully over, but one thing is clear: I have closed one period of life and the new patterns have to be established.
  • I became an owner of a company, joining Robert’s adventure of starting his own consulting business. While his plans were in the pipeline for a while and I was involved into all sorts of discussions about it from the beginning, being a co-owner makes a lot of difference. We are still sorting out all the practicalities and I’m not going to work full-time or become very active on a client side from the beginning, but it is a big change. For me personally, for us as a couple, and for the whole family, where work-life balance will need to be redefined.

In a sense it’s not surprising that all the transitions come simultaneously. When the time comes the is no escape from the wind of changes.

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On socialisation and education

Yesterday, in a discussion with our homeschooling friends we talked about schools. About socialisation as a big part of what happens in a school, even when everyone talks that schools are  about education. In a sense that question that every homeschooler gets, often before any discussion about learning, confirms it. What about socialization? What about making friends, learning the norms, experiencing traditions, working in groups, going through conflicts…

We also talked about our homeschooling community. About the effort that it takes to build that village that we all need to raise our children. About newcomers and lurkers. About the challenges of staying open and having an environment build on trust and knowledge of each other. About the choices that everyone of us has to make, because to be fair it’s both education and socialisation that we create the conditions for. And yes, socialisation is an issue and it requires deliberate work.

The irony is that if I look closer into our homeschooling community I see way more support for socialisation than for education. Learning is always there, but a lot of it is incidental and informal. There is always play and a lot of self-directedness. Yet, it feels that “education” is what parents do with their kids outside of the group, mainly on their own. Learning to read and write, practicing a skill, going deep into a topic, reflection and documentation – those things are not often explicitly supported in the group activities that we have.

Which I find sad. Because we have a warm welcoming community that is a treasure. But for me the main purpose of it is not about being together, but about learning deep while being together. I feel that part could do with more support and intentional facilitation. Which is where I’m happy to focus in the coming time.