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One of the things you see when you meet in a group of homeschooling families regularly is what I call “family bias”. While all of us aim at well rounded education for our kids, when you dig deeper it’s sometimes visible how parents’ interests and preferences shape learning environment for their kids. There is often a theme or a looking angle that flavors different learning activities. In one family there is more focus on art and music, in another – on sport and all sorts of outdoor activities… In our own family science and technology seems to be the theme that permeates a lot of what we do (which is not that surprising given two parents with a PhD 🙂

So, what can be done about it?

The first thing is awareness: recognising your own family bias helps to counterbalance it and to do something for the areas that don’t get in-depth coverage in a default mode of homeschooling. To find out your family preferences it is useful to document how learning is facilitated on a daily basis and what choices are made first or what is left lingering. It might also help to look at existing curricula or to compare your own experiences with other homeschooling families.

Once you have an idea what needs to be added, there are several routes to go:

Spend more time with other (homeschooling) families and ask each one to organise or guide activities that reflect their own preferences and lifestyle. Organising an activity around own interests is fun and allows family doing it to shine as experts and facilitators. It’s also interesting to see when visiting houses of other homeschoolers how “learning design” of the space, choice of materials and activities change what kids are choosing to do and their interactions. However, just spending a lot of time together with other families works well: each time kids and their parents have a chance to observe and experience different ways of doing things together, their own repertoire becomes richer.

They join me for watercolorsFocus on developing your own “blind spots” (if that is what makes you happy :). When you learn new things you diversify activities at the family level, your kids will see your learning and learn next to you. Its funny to see that when I’m busy learning improv and singing with other homeschooling parents, my kids are joining or working on performances of their own. And I immediately have all three of them around at the moment I get out watercolor materials and start practicing.

Outsource. While we spend quite some physically active time exploring nature or working in the garden, organised sports is not something that we particularly enjoy. So most of formal learning activities that our kids do outside of the house are actually sport classes – swimming, judo, yoga or gymnastics. Of course, it doesn’t have to be formal – often there are family members or friends who are happy to guide kids’ learning around their own passions. For example, between our homeschooling friends there is a family with an explicit arrangement on subject-specific responsibilities for several family members next to parents.

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Gruffalo and a window onto practice

I went with kids to an exhibition of Gruffalo’s illustrator Alex Scheffler in Muenster and keep on thinking about it. I guess it has something to do with my long-term interest in understanding how people work and how to provide novices with a window onto practice of their more experienced colleagues. And this time I could enjoy not only looking through the window myself, but also share this experience with my kids.

It’s about simple things: seeing sketches where characters emerge and the story gets told page by page, comparing different drafts of a book cover with it’s final version, seeing how the illustration style emerges from the early works to the later ones and the influences from other masters (the envelopes from correspondence with Rotraut Susanne Berner are the works of art by themselves)… And all of that comes with lots of kids-oriented things – books to read (with pillows to sit on the floor), interactive walls to play with, theater stage and dress up clothes to play and a simple, but powerful – illustrations height at the kids level.

 

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Learning highlights: February 2015

Aviodrome: space and planes. Playing flights.  *  Making Lego building instructions. *  Emily writes letters, makes art into rolls and gives as presents. *  Lego broken by young guests and socio-emotional impact of that. *  Making things with ideas from Lego book, medieval castle with drawbridge, secret door and traps, and then turning it into an airport terminal before I could make any photos. *  Palm tree learning. *  Ice art museum. *  Space and rhythm for learning: workbooks organisation and to do calender. *  I will talk and Holliwood will listen. *  Programming with Scratch. *  CCCP. *  From fried onions to chemistry exploration. *  Meisjes kamer. *  Sneuwklokjes. *  Anna reading books to Emily.  *  Music: rhythm exploration. Orpheus: opera, story and Greek mythology.  *  Anna’s first sewing project.

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Things you learn while homeschooling

Colorful swirl :)Recognise signal in the noise
Literally. Three kids make a lot of noise – they switch activities and materials, they produce a lot of stuff, they occupy lots of space and they are just noisy even if you don’t count the media and electronics that they use once in a while. And when other homeschooling families come over it’s all multiplied.

Would be nice to ignore this chaos all together, but this is not the job. The job is observe, to recognise learning, to see when there is a moment to bring in materials, to offer help, to reinforce an emerging pattern, or stop something particularly unproductive or dangerous.

So I learn. Learn that the noise is the source of everything, learn not to be overwhelmed by it, learn to recognise those signals in the middle.

Focus
There is no escape. There was a time I could switch off email notifications, phone, internet, book a room for a meeting, close the door of my office and focus on the task at hand. Now, while the kids are still relatively small interruptions could come unpredictably practically 24/7.

Instead of waiting for a better moment, I learn to do what I want to do in between. Start a task when it’s relatively quiet, be prepared to drop it when there is a need, say ‘no’ to interruptions when it makes sense, pick it up after a break… And deal all the time with unpredictability – not giving up to it, but learning to ride whatever waves come my way.

Take care of yourself

I had a burn-out once, so I know the symptoms. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the responsibility, ‘to do’ lists or time slipping between my fingers. I’m learning to recognise when I need a break, how to help myself (with sleep, meditation, physical activity or whatever works in the moment), how to communicate it to others and arrange for help. I learn to recognise my own boundaries and to accept them. And then stretch them a little bit further 🙂

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Of course, there are a lot of other things to learn while homeschooling, like specifics of different methods to facilitate learning reading or math, how to choose and organise learning materials without turning your house into a school or how to communicate with people around about progress of your kids. They come as part of practice, but they are quite specific to education in general or homeschooling in particular. And of course I’m very much into meta-learning and things that are easily transferable to other contexts, so I’ll keep to those three above for a time-being 🙂

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Educational innovation: schools vs homeschooling?

Last week I saw Wired article The Techies Who Are Hacking Education by Homeschooling Their Kids, then the reaction to it, essentially accusing homeschooling parents from the article for “living in the bubble” and creating nice environment for their own kids instead of contributing to changing schools for everyone, and then a follow-up from a homeschooling side, No one’s going to DIY that for you, sweetheart.

It’s a pity that with the current educational climate there is often either/or situation where both sides do not want to do much with each other. It feels that in the Netherlands the gap between two sides might be even worse. Within the current legal and political situation providing more flexibility and individualisation within the school system may contribute to proposed prohibition of homeschooling (because in this case ‘schools can cater reasonably good for everyone’).

If you look at the parallels in business, this is the choice is between working for a big (hopefully nice and flexible 🙂 company vs. being self-employed (ideally in a network environment ;). Everyone makes their own choice and deals with the consequences. Homeschooling how I see it fits very much with the second option. You do have to deal with more potential risks, but you have more flexibility as well, so there is a great potential for developing truly individualised and networked learning practices. There are many things to learn from homeschoolers both at the family and at the network level.

Homeschooling groupAs a learning professional and a homeschooling parent I would like to contribute to the changes in the system, but I also would like to make the best choices for my kids. And I’d like to do both, without the need to take sides. As kids are getting bigger I am slowly getting more active contributing to Dutch homeschooling scene and I also try to keep up with ideas that come from the schools that push boundaries of the current system (some examples to keep: TV program De onderwijzer aan de macht or Plan flexiklas from democratische basisschool De Vallei).

While the “either/or” situations might be unavoidable at times, at the end it is not that important where educational innovations appear, within a school or at a family level (or somewhere in between), as far as all sides are open to learn from them.

And now back to my daily job of facilitating three learners 🙂

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Learning is everywhere

UntitledYesterday I went to pick up a few things at Viermarken, a little farm close to our house. It’s may be 5 minutes cycling, but it was a crispy sunny day, so we (my crew of 3 and me) were not in a hurry and went for a walk on the farm, to look at chicken and vegetable fields in winter.

Just a little shopping trip and a bit of a fresh air, but when I look back I see many learning moments that were packed in there.

Practicing reading signs; looking at different sorts of cabbages that still grow in the winter, partly empty herb and flower garden (lifecycle of plants, annuals and perennials); talking about empty rows with grass that clearly was planted there after the harvest, and big heaps compost, fresh and old (fertilising); noticing a scarecrow ball and nets over berries (pest protection) or stones and ropes used to shape tree brunches.

UntitledWe all played with making photos – exploring different perspectives and their effects for the older one, finding something interesting to shoot and fine motor skills wearing thick gloves for the middle one, and practicing turn taking for 2,5 years old.

There was also a dose of social-emotional development. Chatting with the seller in the farm shop (communication norms, relationship building) and learning when it’s ok to eat inside a shop (cultural practices and exceptions from a rule). Learning to recognise and accept own fears and building self-confidence dealing with a big dog who was very interested to see the kids.

There was probably also a couple of implicit lessons – seeing people with all kinds of problems that work on the farm or going there (and not to the supermarket) to get chicken for the soup (instead of using ready-made bouillon cubes). And there could be more learning – practicing with money in the shop or figuring out what this strange row of Christmas trees is doing in the middle of the farm…

Learning doesn’t necessary take a lot of time. Mainly it takes a mindset of recognising learning opportunities everywhere and going for them. And a bit of practice – of observing, improvising and not making a duty out of play 🙂

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Facilitating learning of our kids

Where are many ways to do homeschooling (and even unschooling :), so it’s often difficult to explain what exactly we do to facilitate learning of our kids. I can go on and on with specific examples, but also find it important to articulate a few educational principles that guide our practice.

Informal and self-directed learning

ReadingIn our family learning is viewed as part of life, so any moment could turn in a learning opportunity (very much in line with the meaning of ‘mathemagenic’ 🙂 In practice that is often addressed via ‘inquisitive conversations’ where questions about various aspects of a topic of a discussion are asked and answers are explored together with kids.

As much as possible learning is self-directed: kids indicate their interests and we help them developing the skills necessary to find their learning style and appropriate resources, to learn and to reflect on the process. At this point we use ideas from the project-based homeschooling approach to address it in practice. Structured instruction is chosen when necessary to achieve specific goals. For example, workbooks are used to practice writing or math, kids are taking swimming lessons.

Holistic perspective

We practice a holistic approach to learning: exploring different perspectives on a new phenomena, looking not only at its parts, but also interrelations between them, and studying things in a broader context.

Content-wise this comes as an exploration of various aspects of a theme or a project:

  • an ecosystem of elements;
  • cultural, natural, geographical and historical context;
  • relevant vocabulary and practical implications in everyday life;
  • related technical, art, crafts, dramatic representations and incorporation into play activities.

Studying animal tracksFrom a social perspective we view learning as legitimate peripheral participation. In practice that means that we are constantly looking for opportunities for meaningful activities, realistic settings and mixed-age groups. Kids are working with each other and parents on projects at home, participate in joint activities with neighbours or friends. They are also intentionally exposed to a variety of practices in the society through everyday life (=we take them everywhere safe enough to go). When possible, we ask involved professionals to give an opportunity to look ‘behind the scene’ (e.g. talk with a doctor about materials and instruments in the office) or to include kids in an activity (e.g. help to pack theater decorations after a performance).

Bilingual and multicultural settings

Sailing words in Dutch and Russian Our family is bilingual and multicultural (members of the family come from Netherlands, Suriname and different ethnic groups of Russia), so those things come back in the learning as well. Each parent communicates with the kids primarily in their native language, learning materials are in Dutch and Russian (with a slow introduction of English), reading and writing are introduced in both languages. Comparison of languages, looking for differences and similarities in alphabets, expressions, grammatical forms, etc., as well as underlying reasons for those are often used as a starting point for a discussion about how languages work.

The same is true about cultural awareness – exposure to different cultures through everyday life, contact with the family and friends, or travel serve as a starting point for discussion about cultural practices, geography, history, religion… In addition, differences in materials and media, e.g. in representation of events of the Second World War in the Netherlands and Russia, are used to introduce reflective and critical thinking. Next to regular contacts in the Dutch society, being members of the homeschooling community exposes the kids to the people from a variety of ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds.

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Learning highlights: January 2015

Snow, family and friends in Moscow. * Museum of Cosmonautics: sad story of many dogs who died before Belka and Strelka, mirror on the space suit and height of first astronauts. * Practicing reading and writing on Skype. * Reading full sentences (Anna). * Playing with electric construction set Znatok. * Alexander is 8. Astronauts training center, moon stones. Lego rocket and International Space Station on a shelf * TO skype conference. * Drawing one million monsters and then naming them.

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Year of confidence

Going through the photos of 2014 I just realised what it was for me – a year of confidence.

Since I stopped working four years ago things were very much in turmoil – taking care of two and then three kids, homeschooling, being the primary one responsible for running things in the house and garden. All things changed – my identity, circle of people for regular contact and network overall, daily rhythm and responsibilities, planning horizons and finances, even the language used for most of my contacts outside of the family went from English to Dutch.  And lots of that came with insecurities and lack of confidence.

UntitledSo I had to learn, to let go and to rebuild. And eventually it started to work. Last year was the one where all little bits and pieces started to come together into ‘yes, I can’ and ‘wow, it works’ feeling that doesn’t disappear after the next challenge.

And the best thing of all that? It’s the time for myself, my own development and growth that I’ve learnt to make in between all other things. And here I have to send you to read Learning to use the time you have by Lori Pickert, because that was really inspiring for me a year ago.

It’s all far from running like a well-oiled machine, so I guess 2015 will be very much about consistency, regularity and rhythm. And getting closer to those 10 000 hours needed for a mastery 🙂

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Mixed age group learning

My views on learning and parenting are heavily influenced by the ideas of legitimate peripheral participation in a broad sense – making sure that kids experience life in situ, not in a special child-centric settings, but by becoming part of activities of those around them and society as a whole. Which is easier said than done, especially when you go outside of a single family level.

Cooking on the fireOne of the things we enjoy in that respect are family-focused camping trips – ecocamp in Russia, Russian-speaking camp in Germany or homeschooling camping in the Netherlands. Although for a period of time, they give a feeling of that village to raise a child where adults and kids are engaged in authentic activities.

But in everyday life there is not that much things you can do in a mixed age group on a regular basis. Adults go to work and kids go to school. Older kids can work as apprentices with adults, but that’s will take a while for us. Sports, clubs, courses are all either for adults or for kids. There are a few exceptions, usually targeted at parents of babies or toddlers, but even those are usually not accessible if you have more than one child. And, as kids spend lots of their time in school or kids-oriented settings, it’s also not very common to bring them along to where adults do their things. I tried for a while to find offline volunteer work that I can do with the kids, but gave up – at least until all of them are older.

We do get together a lot with other homeschooling families, but many of those meetings are still playdates or kids-oriented activities. Of course, there parents also do something – share experiences and fun or pick up on each others brains, bringing occasionally something to do for themselves – but most of the times it still starts from the kids interests.

Making musicGiven all that I was very happy with the idea of getting together with other homeschooling parents to do something interesting for ourselves – learning improv and making music. So far we had a few meetings, trying to find out a way of doing things together while keeping an eye on our kids. Most of the times kids were busy with their own activities, but they came to look, to ask questions or to play along. We’ll have to see how it goes, but so far it was lots of fun.

 

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