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On homeschooling, integration and Dutch

Netherlands, thank you and goodbye – This one came on FB and on It’s written by Kai-Ting Huang, a Taiwaneese user experience designer who left Netherlands after four years on study and work. She reflects on the things that made it challenging for her in the Netherlands – about language as a barrier, risk averse professional environment and a need for a sense of belonging that’s difficult to find in a foreign land – all of which resonate deeply with my own experience.

I don’t know where I would end up living if I wouldn’t have family and kids in the Netherlands. It have changed everything, even professional choices. It was not only the burnout: after finishing my PhD I had a feeling that there were few opportunities in Europe to do what I wanted to, but it was already clear that we didn’t want to be a continent away from all of the grandparents. However, it’s a choice for homeschooling that have really changed my relationships with Dutch society, Dutch people and the language itself.

Kai-Ting Huang writes:

…honestly speaking, in most cases, my relationship with locals can only be skin-deep. It’s not because we are not willing to get to know each other, but because the language gap make the price of knowing each other too high.

Yes, while everyone can speak English pretty good, you can’t get get deeper without speaking Dutch. And, in a country which is very internationally oriented and in an English-rich professional environment (which IT-related research definitely is) learning it was a challenge. At least for me, because I prefer to learn a language in a natural settings, from people and with people. At work I slowly became better in Dutch, but there my primary focus was on getting things done, not on learning the language. Also, at that time switching to Dutch with family members and friends would be a challenge: communicating in English gave the safety that comes from understanding each other and the sense of belonging that I needed then. I was working with a teacher on my Dutch at the end of my time at work, but it’s only really picked up when the most of the burnout issues were sorted out and I started to network actively in a Dutch homeschooling community. This is where I found a new sense of belonging, lots of shared challenges and goals, the need for each other, as well as enough reasons and opportunities to practice Dutch.

For me homeschoolers are a bit like expats or third-culture kids, who are often drawn together regardless of their origins and initial languages because they share the experience of establishing a life in another culture. Making a choice for educating our own kids outside of the formal system pushes homeschoolers closer than it might be otherwise.

Like in an expat community, where you are likely to expand your knowledge about very different corners of the world, homeschooling community provided me with an entrance to very different Netherlands then the country that I got to know in 10 years before that. I feel that in the homeschooling community I have contacts with “a more representational sample of Dutch society” compared to the contacts that I had at work, where shared educational and socio-economic background defined a lot. Also many things that I have to deal now are closely related to practices and expectations in the society, so there is a lot of place in my interactions with Dutch homeschoolers for figuring out the nuances of certain cultural practices, local politics or appropriate language use.

And, of course, hanging out with homeschoolers helped my Dutch at lot.  The good thing is that there is enough practical reasons to speak it: our kids share Dutch language between themselves; legal documents, homeschooling politics and activism are in Dutch; physical resources for learning (people, books, materials) are more easily available in Dutch than in English or Russian. And in communication with other homeschooling families the price of not getting your message 100% through is lower then in a professional environment (and most of the communication with the authorities I happily outsource to my husband, who can do it in perfectly native Dutch 🙂

UntitledSo, while the common view might be that homeschooling is “hiding from the society”, in my case it is pretty much the opposite – it provides me with reasons to learn more about Dutch language and culture, an environment to do so safely and lots of helping hands on the way.

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The magic of connecting the dots

What I like the most about facilitating learning is the magic of connecting the dots. Or, better, being patient enough to see the kids connecting the dots by themselves.

Girl looking at archeological excavation

Just a small thing today, seeing how the eyes light up when a book description of how paleontologists study dinosaur fossils matches what we have seen at archeological excavation in Veliky Novgorod a few weeks ago. Precious.

And then, of course, we had to do an excavation ourselves, which still have to be finished and properly documented (because it was interrupted by an applestroop project, also to be finished). And it’s all started from one very round stone that looked very much like a dinosaur egg and an innocent question about the actual size of those eggs.

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From butterflies to pie charts

Butterflies and pie chartsThis is how learning usually happens in our family: we start at one point and end up somewhere totally different. This time Anna wanted to draw a butterfly and wasn’t sure how to draw it and how to color the wings. We talked about the shape, about symmetry and then Robert mentioned that “sometimes they even have ‘eyes’ on their wings”.

That usually calls for an encyclopedia. It came out, we looked at the ‘eyes’ and talked why they were there. And then discussed other things about butterflies (as well as their differences from moths – just because there was a comparison on the page). However, Alexander was more interested in the little square showing numbers of extinct, endangered, vulnerable and threatened butterfly species and a corresponding graph.

We ended up looking through the whole book to find what the abbreviations meant and to compare endangered species graphs for different classes of animals. Then (of course :)) the relationship between the numbers and the graphs came out. So we talked about it, played making pie charts and then other types of graphs that kids know from looking at the weather forecasts…

And the good thing is that despite all that Anna has actually managed to draw and color her butterfly, complete with its own eyes and eyelashes 🙂

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Learning highlights: May 2015

TO muziek en theatersport. Maria and puppet show.   *  Museum in the garden.  *  TO judo.  *  Playing superheros. * Digging mierikswortel. Making containers for my tomatoes.  *  Family from Suriname.  *   Playing with flower press.

12 days in Delft and around. New friends and old friends and random interactions. Trams, buses, trains, boats and steps. Public transport schedule math. Missing two trains while finishing ice-cream.  *  Communication museum. Scanning kids, old phones and typewriters.  *  Glasshouses, princesses and permaculture.  *  Naturalis. Interactive evolution tree.  *  Sea and sand in Scheveningen. Swimming in the cold water. Speaking English.  *  Delfts Blauw. Secrets, guided tour in English and clay.  *  Escher museum. Puzzles and visual illusions.  *  Maritiem museum. Fireboat and helping Emily to slide. * Mindstorm robot. Lots of Lego. Custom made minifigs. *  Riding on steps while eating icecream late in the evening.

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On reading

You recognise an unschooling house by its space and materials… This time I pick up How children learn from a shelf and start reading on reading. Between other things Jonh Holt writes about the complexity of a language that children learn by themselves and how reading compares to it:

Allover the world children acquire this extraordinary amount of information, most of it by the time they are six, and most of it, as I have described, by themselves, without anything that we could call formal instruction. Compered with this task, the task of learning to read even English is very, very small. To be sure, it can’t be done overnight; but it certainly doesn’t deserve all the worry and agony that we put into it. All we accomplish, by our worrying, simplifying, and teaching, is to make reading a hundred times harder for children than it need be. p.158

That, of course, brings me to a bigger question – how much of a school program is essential? How much is there because of our assumptions that certain theoretical constructs aid learning particular concepts or skills? How much is legacy or being politically correct? How much of the content is “just something” that was good enough to help a growing mind developing in a right direction?

And talking about the language acquisition – during our stay in Delft we have found that Alexander picked up enough English by osmosis to start using it 🙂

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Using Cynefin for learning design?

Eventually I’d like to get further in thinking about designing learning experiences using Cynefin as a framework (thanks Nancy for pointing to an update). I’m not 100% sure about designing learning experience as a term, but it’s way better than instructional design. Essentially I’d like to explore ways of recognising different domains from a learning facilitation perspective and zoom in into the complex domain in relation to others. Most of my interests are on the level of specific learning experiences and a bit up to principles/strategy/curriculum.

Cynefin as of 1st June 2014 by Dave Snowden, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsAs I was out of the learning field for a while and don’t have a good orientation on recent interesting experiences and thinking, I’d be happy for any references and links. This are some of the things I found so far, but hopefully there is more…

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Holding the space

Holding space means protecting the boundaries so that people can work. Harold Jarche

As I read this it adds up to another article on holding space and then things fall into places – this is the biggest part of my job in facilitating unschooling.

I don’t really give lessons. And I do less focused facilitation than I’d like to. Often it feels that Robert has more intense sessions with the kids than I do, helping them to learn programming, looking into space missions or exploring ancient myths. So sometimes I feel not fully satisfied because I’m not able to pinpoint in traditional terms what exactly I do.

Holding the spaceI make sure our kids have exposure to the world, time and space, safety and fun, food, movement, books, building blocks, art supplies, tools and toys. I help to negotiate rules and exceptions from those, to prevent or resolve conflicts, to make appointments and to get to people and places. I do all kinds of things “meta” –  keep eyes on meta-learning, observe, document, reflect and get others in the loop.

Most of the work kids do themselves. It’s their learning and I’m holding the space for them.

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Heather Plett writes on holding space in a totally different context, but it’s well worth reading. She shares a few lessons learnt that I’d like to explore further:

1. Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom.
2. Give people only as much information as they can handle.
3. Don’t take their power away.
4. Keep your own ego out of it.
5. Make them feel safe enough to fail.
6. Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness.
7. Create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma, etc.
8. Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would.

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Scaffolding on a slide

img_8731I posted this on Facebook, but want to have it here, because FB is new email, where knowledge goes to die together with memories, classification and ability to find your own stuff back.

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Anna was scared to go sliding. So those two boys had built a sand ‘dam’ for her to shorten the slide, tested it, convinced her to try it and then were removing sand each time she went – until she wasn’t afraid anymore. And then I had a reason to explain to Alexander what ‘instructional scaffolding‘ was.

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Learning to read: full sentences and whole books

It’s one thing to hear stories about kids who learn to read by themselves, without use of any particular method. Observing it in your own house is something else.

Anna could read simple words in Dutch and Russian about a year ago. Don’t ask me how it happened.  I guess it was a magic mix of personal drive and having right resources around. She made words with magnetic letters, looked at the alphabet posters around, sang ABC song and played iPad apps making words puzzles and tracing letter outlines.

Full sentencesOnce we saw that she got the trick of making a word from letters, we tried to go further with beginners’ books, those with three word sentences, short words and no capitals. No way – she just didn’t find it interesting.

Then was a new phase, “reading” along the books that she practically knew by heart. While reading Russian version of Gruffalo I had to stop in specific places, so she could read. With other books she would often ask where I was reading and I had to follow the words with my finger.

In autumn she could read a few of the books she knew well. The sweetest one was reading for Emily her favorite, Olifantje Olaf:

Het olifantje Olaf
zat puffend in de zon
ik wou dat ik nu heel snel
de koude sneeuw in kon.

Toen pakte hij zijn spullen
en ging meteen op reis
naar verre, koude oorden
op zoek naar sneeuw en ijs.

And then, in January, we found out that Anna could read (and write) full sentences – not those in familiar books, but new ones. I guess writing back and forth with papa on Skype while we were in Russia, as well as reading instructions in her drawing books, helped to make this leap.

Reading AVI-3 level bookThen she would practice – reading funny combinations from cut-up sentence books, a few sentences here and there, things written on street signs and papers laying around in the house, or those that I would type on the computer. Until one day a couple of weeks ago I found her reading AVI-3 level story (this is Dutch reading level after about 12 months of formal reading instruction).

So I guess now we can celebrate that she reads. I wouldn’t say that it all came out of nowhere – we read together, we use written language, we have books and other reading materials at home, we give reading attention and we facilitate the process. But we don’t have reading targets, we don’t use specific method and we don’t have formal reading instruction…

Learning to read is a big milestone in our society. Witnessing how reading can come without formal instructions is magical. In a sense it’s a way more magical then witnessing first steps of a child – because it shows that learning that comes from within can go way beyond our expectations. Especially if we let expectations go and let it unfold while holding the space and giving a hand when needed.

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Learning highlights: March 2015

We are experimenting with multiple places and ways to document learning experiences of our kids. I share “in the moment” photos and notes on Facebook, keep an organised photo collection on my computer and on Flickr, try (on and off) to keep a project journal, document main developments in my Russian blog and capture occasional moments and reflections here.

Eventually I’d like to get into portfolios that kids make for themselves, but that is still way ahead – we need to build a routine for that, find the right medium (paper or digital?) and get the right skills. So I thought I’d start small with keeping monthly “learning highlights” posts here and then see where it gets us. I start now, but may actually go backwards and reconstruct those for January and February as well, just to keep the calendar year complete 🙂

So, learning highlights for March 2015.

Learning highlights March 2015

Thank you for the music and Bublitchki with TO muziek en theatersport.  *  Local elections.  * Vegetable garden: compost, AH moestuintjes, green peas in kindermoestuin. Making carrot seed tape with homeschooling friends.  *  Colorful houses.  *  Three words and one question a day.  *   Comic books: Arterix and Obelix.  *  Horse taming and diamond harnesses in Minecraft.  *  Outdoor season – playing and eating outside.  *  Playing with Cuisenaire rods.  *  Exploring watercolors (this is actually something that I do for myself, but kids usually join).  *  No solar eclipse live, but enough simulations, explanations, big telescopes and flying to Saturn in planetarium at Cosmos Sterrenwacht.  *  Hugelkultuur and setting up our new vegetable garden slot.  *  Electricity, draw bridge and castle with lights in Minecraft.  *  Zakgeld game, Sleeping queens and Camelot Jr.  *  Behind the scenes of book illustration, Gruffalo and friends in Muenster.  *  Inventing multiplication tables.  *  Making radio with Znatok.  *  Animals and how our bodies work at Natura Docet Wonderryk Twente.  *  Anna reading AVI3 level book.

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