Tag Archives: Homeschooling in general


Today, I got the academic year planner for 2008-9 and began the task of filling in the weeks on which we are going to homeschool, however loosely, as opposed to the weeks that are holiday.  I have to do this because all the possible holiday time is taken with up with trips abroad or visits from family.  It’s a struggle to fit in 36 weeks of school time, but I make the effort.  If I did not mark those weeks out, they would disappear into more trips and visits.  And I’ve just remembered an extra thing I didn’t count, so I’m already a week down.  Now, I’m not knocking the educational and social value of trips and visits, but:

a) They are usually exhausting and over-stimulating, such that all attempts at reading, writing, maths, rational thought and maturity go out of the window during them.  Whereas those things are important.  All the little schedules we set up to make our life work better get blown away too.  There is pretty much always a longish take-off ramp for getting back in gear.

b) During trips and visits, every available minute of the child’s time is pretty much planned out by the adults around her.  Whereas when we are ‘doing school’ she gets large amounts of the day and week to do exactly what she wants: play, carry out a project, read a book, or ask to visit somewhere or someone locally (she knows what’s available, so she can make a choice).  This, I think, is even more important.

I would love to have more flexibility, but the year isn’t long enough.  Mike has a solution: we “do school” during trips and visits.  Then we can squeeze in more of them.  He doesn’t understand that point a) means I have noticed that this is a failure already.  He thinks we can somehow make it work if we just try harder.  Maybe it will work better if he is on board as well.  I don’t think he really appreciates the value of point b) at all.  I would be more motivated to try to do school during trips and visits if I knew for certain that it was going to pay off with a couple of quiet weeks at home just pottering around.

Why we homeschool – Part 1 is about why we sent our child to school in the first place.

With the social services knocking on the door in a week or so, it’s time to put some ideas in order.  Don’t worry, readers, this is not as terrible as it might sound in the US.  They are not picking on us, but following a procedure required by law.  The law might be picking on us, but that’s another matter.  So, their remit is to find out why we are homeschooling, and that we are actually doing so, i.e. we are not forcing our child to work in the fields all day, and cook and clean as well when she gets back!

They won’t have thought of wondering why we put our child in school in the first place, but it’s a point homeschoolers sometimes raise.  Since we had a reason, I thought I’d start there.  We had heard of homeschooling before our child was born, and I, at least, liked the idea.  But we felt that some aspects of our situation prevented us going ahead with it.  We, the parents, live in France and are English and American respectively.  At least I am English in theory.  In practice, I also lived in France during my childhood so I was bilingual early on.  My husband, not so much.  He speaks French pretty well now.  When we were awaiting our child we obviously had a decision to make over what language we would speak to the child.  My husband was very keen that we both speak English.  He was afraid, and statistics back him up, that if I spoke French and the environment was French, our child’s English would be weak.

The inevitable consequence of English in the home was that our child needed to spend plenty of time with French speakers from an early age, in order to pick up that language as well.  Now, since virtually all French children are in daycare or preschool from the earliest age, and since virtually all their parents are unavailable for socialising in the day time hours, we felt we pretty much had no option.  Antonia went to part-time daycare between the ages of 1 and 2, then to a Montessori pre-school (so not quite to public school) full-time upto the age of 5.  Part-time was not an option.  Our only goals for these years were that she should learn French and have a nice time.  Alas, she did neither.

What a bad day looks like!

Every so often, I read a post in which someone is getting all depressed about the rosy picture of homeschooling we all paint in our blogs. So I thought I would describe our day. It’s the kind of bad day that’s already quite funny in retrospect even though it’s not really over.

The bad really started yesterday evening when Antonia’s swimming class for today was suddenly cancelled taking a whole pile of other plans with it. She didn’t know about this as she was already asleep… that is until she woke up at 2am and came to our bed. I didn’t manage to wake up properly at the time. I remember grumbling something vague, and feeling as if my head was about to explode. I later learned that the other two had opened the built-in cupboard that is our bed head, laying the door down on top of me, in order to remove an extra duvet. Because Little Miss’s feet were too warm while her arms were too cold or vice versa. Apparently I didn’t really wake up, but I didn’t sleep well either, and the other two didn’t really get much sleep at all. This boded badly for everybody’s day.

At 8.30 am we were all awake and theoretically having breakfast. The weather outside was dreary and damp. On finding out she wasn’t going swimming Antonia pulled one of her ‘I’m going to cry faces’. I was attempting to learn the location of all the countries of the world, which is about as much of an intellectual endeavour as I can manage just now. Antonia dumped herself in my lap, pretty much on the computer, so I put on the game that just has the continents and oceans, assuming she knew them. She went off in a huff, which is her way of letting me know she’s forgotten them.

Meanwhile Mike was seeking out alternative swimming arrangements with other friends which turned out to be only possible between 12.00 and 2.00, so we would be having a late lunch. I called Antonia back and informed her we were starting lessons now. So, back to the continents and oceans game, and 5 minutes later, she’s telling me she loves it. So I let her have a go at Western Europe too.

Then we turned to the 2nd grade maths book, French style. This maths book serves two educational purposes. The first is to teach kids maths, as in other countries. The second is to prepare them to navigate French bureaucracy, such that, by the time they are adults, they hardly even notice it. Even at 1st grade level the pages are laid out like nicely illustrated tax forms. The children have to correlate information from various places and jump through odd hoops. Even I sometimes have to read the page twice to figure out what they’re asking and why. Cutting to the essentials, the problems we were doing today took the form:

Method A
(5+2+3) x 8 = …. + …. = ….

Method B
(5×8) + (2×8) + (3×8) = ….+ ….+ …. = ….

… where method A and method B are of course two ways of achieving the same thing. In this case the problem should be actualised as three columns of 5, 2, and 3 elements in 8 rows. My goal for today was the ‘easy’ one of having her set up the cuisinaire rods for the problems, and to leave the calculations for another day. Unfortunately, Antonia does not like manipulatives and getting her to use them is an uphill struggle. Rightly or wrongly, I think it may be worthwhile for her to overcome this distaste, so I bring the wretched things out every time I know she will not figure out the answer before reading the question (!) She pushed the right quantity of cuisinaire rods vaguely onto the table and stirred them with her finger. Then she got into a huff again when I said I would start the laundry while she was arranging them. The thing is, that while it’s very hard to get her to actualise abstract problems with manipulatives, it’s virtually impossible to stop her turning the manipulative situations into abstract expressions. She had written most of the appropriate sums underneath her rows and columns before I even came back. So we ended up doing one problem completely, and she escaped doing more manipulatives.

After that she went off to play the piano, then to find her swimming costume, then to tell me in Chinese that she is French, because we’re using a French book to learn Chinese and they don’t stretch to “I am English”, then to brush her hair three times, because she forgot what she was doing each time on the way. Then she bugged me to show her the nine times table, because she wanted to know about the pattern I had been promising her. I was reluctant to embark on this because Mike was already moving into the complicated sequence that eventually leads to him leaving the house. I milled around waiting.

They were gone. I decided to be zen about the fact that my whole afternoon for housecleaning and translating work had turned into a mere two hours, and to just get on with it. Fortunately, the stuff I had written in the second book of my project turned out to be much better than I had thought. Unfortunately, the mango we had been planning to eat for our dessert turned out to be the kind you make pickles out of. Fortunately, I got away without having to empty the vacuum cleaner.

I guess that at the pool, Antonia got hurt several times and had at least one of her hysterical fits that tend to leave other people seriously worried about her. The first thing our friend asked when she called later that day was whether she was alright. As usual, Antonia herself was quite cheerful about “getting bumped hard”, and all Mike said was that she was diving really well.

Mike is currently the house chef. When he got back from the pool, he turned the mango-for-pickling into thai fish and mango curry which was delicious. The best part of the day, in fact. Antonia and I spent the afternoon trying to persuade ourselves that we wouldn’t have a nap. We read and listened to music. She cried because the music was sad, so I found something else. She wrote a couple of sentences. Then she decided to make the Italian breadsticks coated with chocolate recipe she’s been wanting to try. You can just feel another disaster brewing, can’t you?

This recipe should be the easiest thing you can imagine. I didn’t say anything when she chose Cadbury’s Dairy Milk for the chocolate, even though I can’t stand the stuff. It was her recipe, after all. I didn’t say anything about melting it in the microwave, although I was dubious, because I felt, rightly or wrongly, that following the recipe instructions was a worthy endeavour for her, and I didn’t want to disrupt it. Microwaved Cadbury’s Dairy Milk turns into calcinated lumps enrobed in sludge. We ditched the instructions and tried again with a bain-marie. Figuring we were safe, we went off to do paper sculptures/origami. More than half an hour later, the Dairy Milk consisted of solid whitish lumps enrobed in sludge. Mike took a hand and turned it into a uniformly grainy mass that looked like milk curds swimming in fat. I read the ingredients of the Dairy Milk and decided there is a damn good reason why the European Union doesn’t let them call it chocolate, and an even better reason why I don’t eat the stuff. We gave up on the recipe and I went to take a bath.

A little while later, Mike showed up at the door. He had that look on his face. “What have I done?”, I said. He went on looking. “What has she done, then?” Still the look. “So what have you done?” After a while the story came out. Antonia had tried to take an egg for one of her informal ‘science experiments’. He had decided that eggs cost money and are for eating, and that she therefore shouldn’t be doing that. He took the egg back off her. Then, since it was already cracked, he ate it! Antonia stormed off to her bedroom. It seemed like he didn’t know what he should do next.

I suggested to him that if we restricted Antonia’s access to anything that cost money and had a purpose other than the one she intended to use it for, she might not learn very much. I offered to buy her cheap (non-organic) eggs to do what she wanted with, like the oil, flour, salt and vinegar she already has. I pointed out that there were lots of very interesting experiments to be done with eggs. He grumped and growled and claimed to draw a distinction between real experiments and “just mixing things up like Horrid Henry”. I think he was feeling guilty, and worried that I might point out the actual cost of one egg in relation to the cost of other forms of child entertainment. I would have been thinking that if I had been him.

He left to coax his daughter out of her room and to try to agree on some form of protein that she was willing to eat for her supper. When I came down he was watching her make plastic ornaments out of Haba beads while her beans and rice mixture cooked. She finished her supper just as it was bedtime. At that moment he remembered that she had not called any members of his family for a while, and that it had to be done today. While she was doing that, he took a call from a friend about a weed whacker we’ve borrowed that nobody knows how to use. Said friend doesn’t know either, but he was willing to come over and try to figure it out with Mike, at dusk, on a damp evening. Hmmm…. fortunately they thought better of it. I cleaned up and found a manual for the weed whacker on the Internet.

Rather late, we got Antonia into bed, after I persuaded her not to cry because her Haba beads had melted over the hole she intended to pass the chain through for a pendant. I assured her it would be easy to make a new hole. Often, at bedtime, she likes to talk to us about science, but today she had a mini-crisis about one of her friends whose mother is single, and what would happen if her Daddy went away, etc… At 10.00, her Daddy did go away – to bed, claiming utter exhaustion! At 10.30, I nearly fell over her on the dark landing as I was leaving the bathroom. She looked forlorn, and asked me in her most woebegone way for more cuddles. At 11.00, she is actually asleep, until tomorrow morning, I sincerely hope.

Evidence based education: memory tasks

One of the things I’ve been puzzling over lately is whether memory tasks are worthwhile in education for their own sake, and if they are, then which ones?

The official answer of some education systems is that memory tasks, most often poem recitation, ‘train the brain’, and are worth carrying out for their own sake.  The French public school system holds this view and the experience of homeschoolers here is that they will try to test our children for memorised poems.  Clearly, poetry learning is dear to their hearts.  The alternative point of view is that memory ability is innate and can’t be trained, so memory tasks shouldn’t be chosen with this aim in mind.

In practice, I had leaned towards the idea that memory ability was innate, but my back was covered because memory tasks cropped up for other reasons often enough.  Antonia was memorising the order of the days and months, her multiplication tables, and irregular spelling words.  I had her recite a few poems to try to help her with speaking in groups, and memorising them was a prerequisite.  The Suzuki piano method we are using depends on children memorising the pieces rather than reading music.

As things stand now, I’ve decided that motivation and strategy are probably important in remembering, and that these can be acquired and improved.  I noticed that Antonia would fail to learn facts no matter how often they were casually mentioned.  She seemed to us and to other people to be a child who was bright but did not have a particularly good memory for certain things.  In fact, she’s even capable of forgetting the name of a child she has spent the last three days playing with.  Then again, she has amazing recall of events in her life.

While we were puzzling this out, I started telling her beforehand that a given fact needed to be remembered and she suddenly morphed into a child with a pretty good memory, though not yet for people’s names.  I also noticed that some time after her sixth birthday she spontaneously developed that little conscious strategy we all use of repeating things we are supposed to remember a few times.  I now think that memory tasks that focus on learning mnemonic strategies probably are useful, though I haven’t researched and tried any in detail yet.

And today, I discovered this interesting article about some research that looks at working memory.  Working memory doesn’t have much to do with memorising multiplication tables, hopefully forever.  I had always heard it called short-term memory before, and it involves holding pieces of information in memory for a short period, so that they can be used.  Issues in working memory include how long an individual can remember the information, protecting it against distractions; and how many items of information they can remember.  The research suggests that training working memory may improve ability in other tasks related to intelligence.

The activity we do at the moment that is most like training working memory is narration.  I read a passage, and Antonia narrates it back to me, hopefully in order, with detail.  I noticed that the key for her is to make a conscious effort to remember the beginning of the story, the contents of the first paragraph.  I am sure she partly remembers and partly reconstructs the story from this.  I started using narration with my own non-fiction reading and noticed that it is much harder than usual with the author I’m currently reading .  He has a tendency to skip about within a single section with no obvious links between his paragraphs, and no sub-section headings.  He’s not completely useless, BTW, he usually draws his points together at the end, but he tests my working memory on the way.  Let that be a lesson to writers! Specially designed working memory tasks are likely to be more abstract, so that people can’t rely on the flow of a story or argument.   I found a few listed here, but I have no idea how good they are.

I guess it will be obvious that I’m coming round to the idea that some kinds of memory exercises might usefully be incorporated into our homeschooling.  Learning effective ways of remembering and improving overall ability are very worthwhile goals of education, … if it can be done!  But the memory tasks that seem to have some evidence behind them are a far cry from learning poems!

I notice from the internet that working memory training has also been used to help kids with ADHD.  In that case, I imagine that it would also help any kid who has low concentration in some situations.  It might even help me remember not to burn the lunch when I get distracted by requests from my family.  But that would be expecting miracles!

By themselves

The inspection we had a while ago, in which they were supposed to look at the work we actually do, got me thinking.  Because the sorts of things children do when left largely to their own devices never look quite like the things they do when they’re guided by an adult.

French children are supposed to learn poems, then copy them out (don’t ask me why, since they already know them), then illustrate them.  Antonia doesn’t know this, but for some reason, she decided to copy out and illustrate her favorite poem:


This isn’t quite how these things turn out when the schoolkids are forced to do them.  It’s a bit more original and a whole lot less polished.  Plus, it shows initiative and is an accurate reflection of the amount of time and effort that Little Miss thought the enterprise worthy of.  Even this little figurine, for which I provided some of the brute force, is a bit eccentric.  I believe it’s supposed to be a butterfly angel.


I imagined that the school inspectors wouldn’t really grasp this.  They are used to assessing children’s performance on adult-directed activities. Never mind.  They chose to set her a two-hour exam instead.

Really, really bad reasons to put your child in school

These are just the most abysmally sad socialization related reasons for sending a kid to school that I could ever have imagined.

  1. Your child will develop independence from you, on your timescale, with the process under your control.  This is so much easier than having them tell you that they don’t need you right now, thank you very much.
  2. When your kid goes to school, it helps you feel like you are a participating member of the community.

Somebody really needs to review the nature of the parent/child relationship.

Wild about honey bees

bees-book.jpgI bought this book just as a treat, because the pictures in it are too beautiful. Now the passion for honeybees is growing on me and Antonia. In another life, a life in which my husband was not allergic to honey and I traveled less, I think I would be a beekeeper. I’m fascinated by their senses, their communication, their life cycles and their castes. I’m blown away that they have five eyes of two different types, and two kinds of ‘ears’. And that the workers cycle through a series of tasks during their life, from comb maintenance to brood nursing, guarding to gathering, and that they develop the appropriate organs accordingly. And the stuff that they collect and produce is so attractive to the senses: pollen, nectar, honey, wax, propolis. They’re so furry, I could cuddle them if they didn’t sting, and they have such a hypnotic hum.

In my dreams, I would have a natural observation hive, in which I could just watch the bees do their own thing, and maybe pinch one of their smaller combs from time to time. In fact, the hive I want is this one, below. Maybe I could get those people to swap houses with me! The wild combs are so beautiful, I just can’t help wanting to reach up and steal one, and munch straight into it. They look like galettes, and they must be appealing to some very primitive instinct in me. I don’t think the manmade combs are pretty at all.


Taken by Max xx, a fellow Brit in France, apparently, from Flickr with a CC licence.

Poor bees. They have been having such a hard time lately. It would practically be a civic duty to let some live behind my shutters. Can you just hear me talking myself into something here? In my obsession, I’ve been reading everything I can find about bees. Some proponents of natural bee-keeping like this one, think the bees will do better in more natural conditions. Standard bee-keeping encourages them to build bigger cells and bigger bodies, produce more honey and less wax than they might choose, get moved around so that they produce honey from single plants, refrain from their usual reproductive activities if possible, and live off sugar syrup once the results of their labour has been harvested. When you look at it like that, it’s no wonder they’re struggling. And those nasty artificial combs don’t look nearly so hygienic, safe or well-ventilated as the natural ones, to me.

I was musing on this today, and it suddenly struck me as a pretty good metaphor of homeschooling versus schooling. Like the standard hives, schools provide a ‘safe’, prepared environment that’s designed to draw out some human characteristics further than they might otherwise go while repressing others, and train kids in the habit of over-productivity. Turns out the environment isn’t as safe as all that, and the kids end up weakened in various ways. Then lots of us go on to live adult lives that are much the same. Too much working to produce honey/knowledge/money and the honey ends up too thin, too purified and easily diverted to other people’s ends. Not enough wax, the relationships and life skills that hold people’s lives together in the first place. Bzzzzzz…. I imagine this metaphor will only make sense to me.