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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.


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.



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.


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.





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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.

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 🙂


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 🙂


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 🙂



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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