Sunday, 28 February 2010

Dealing with the Lords

So the CSF Bill has reached the Lords. It had its first reading on 24th February, the day after it cleared the Commons with great chunks of the Bill left unscrutinised. The second reading is on 8th March. Given the unseemly haste, which smacks of desperation, I fully expect the government to push for the committee stage to start on the 22nd, that being the earliest possible date under the normal Lords operating procedures.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Home Education is holding a meeting and inviting peers along to learn more about the subject. It is clear from postings by some members of the Lords that they hold many of the same misconceptions and misunderstandings as everyone else and the hard work that home educators did in educating MPs and some media people is going to have to be done again.

The bad publicity and falsehoods paraded after the Khyra Ishaq case might have made the job a bit harder, because we now also need to demonstrate that the assertions of Ed Balls and the BBC are false and would probably make things worse. As such, I'm going to try and turn the tables and argue that because hard cases make bad laws, now is actually a very bad time to be discussing regulation of home education because of all the media hype, the lack of time for proper scrutiny of the legislation, poor LA performance and anything else. Such important legislation should be considered away from hype and knee-jerk reactions, so if anything, the Lords ought to either delay the committee stages or agree to remove the home education clauses from the Bill so that they may be properly considered later.

Of course, this does set us up for 'later', but given the raised profile over the past year, it is likely that we'd get stuck with that anyway. If Labour win then we're all screwed anyway, because we'll get exactly the same stuff pushed at us, but hopefully the Conservatives and LibDems now know that this is a hornets' nest to be approached with extreme caution.

So, in response to the Something Must Be Done lobby, I propose to counter with But Now Is Not The Right Time!

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Reading and trust

When we first looked into home education, I read a lot of books. The first one I read was The Unschooling Handbook, by Mary Griffith. I was doubtful. In it, she suggested that children were naturally curious and would want to learn things if left to wonder. I used to be a child. I remember! There is no way I would have spontaneously approached adults with my questions, my curiosities, my ponderings. With so much on the line, how could I trust my child to do it when I could not? I set that book aside and read others. Books about how to structure a day. Books about how to plan a curriculum. There were books by John Holt and John Taylor Gatto. Eye opening. By the time I got to the bottom of the stack, I realized that if we didn't put C into school, he wouldn't lose his curiosity. And he didn't. Unschooling was the method that made the very most sense for our little child, then only 2.75 years old.

We sent him to playgroup, having visited half a dozen. Having seen the ones with time out in a different room, the ones where the workers talked about the children as if they weren't there, the ones with shouty cross adults, I finally chose one for C which was run by adults who talked to the children like people and helped them work out their problems rather than punishing them without concern for their feelings. It was nice for C to be able to go play along side other kids, since that's what they do at that age.

The problem came in the second year. The children, then four or nearly four, were going to have sessions separate from the younger kids. The bigger ones were going to start learning to read because the schools wanted them to. Phonics. C hated phonics. And by hated, I mean if I mentioned letter sounds at all he would cover his ears, scream, and leave the room. Literally. It was spectacular. This child did not want to be taught to read, at least not with phonics. He turned out to be a whole word man. What made sense to him was to memorize every word in the English language, one at a time.

I have to say, I see the sense of it. Is there a single letter in English which always makes the same sound? There are more exceptions to the rules than there are adherents to the rules. It's a lot of work, but it's his way.

I told playgroup that if he was at all stressed by the teaching of phonics, I would pull him out of those sessions. What sense is there in stressing a little child over letter sounds? Fortunately, all went well. He got the special job of telling the other children the letter NAMES each time. A lot of the other little kids knew letters aah, buh, and cuh, but had never heard of A, B, and C. Our C got to be the one to enlighten them. And he learned the letter sounds, but he wouldn't let anyone talk to him about them or ask him questions about them. Totally off limits.

If he had gone to school the next year, he would have been made to learn to read, and he would have been made to learn to use phonics. It was the only way the schools were approved to teach them. We would have had a little boy who possibly could read at the age of five, but who would have no love of it. It would have highlighted what he wasn't ready for. It would have made him behind, slow, and in need of special help. It would have hurt his soul.

In the mean time, he had loads of questions. Loads. We learned science, math, and I read to him a lot. He loved books, and he wanted to read, but he flat out refused to be taught to read. He got his hands on a calculator and asked what the square root symbol was. I told him it was square roots. Not good enough. He wanted to learn more. He wanted a real answer. So I sat down with paper and pencil and explained it to him. He understood. He could explain it back to me, and to others. In time he forgot, but then he asked again, and I explained it again, and I threw in squares as well. He absorbed it much more easily than the first time.

I didn't really need my (then) five year old to know square roots. What I did need him to know is that I take his curiosity seriously. I need him to know that if I don't have an answer I'll find one, or I will find someone who can explain it.

In the mean time, he still did not want to be taught to read. He had questions about where babies come from, which is natural since he quite recently was one. We read books, and he got really interested in cells and cell division. I found a way for him to learn some immunology, which he absorbed greedily. He learned some physics and chemistry, and some other biology.

I started to get nervous about the reading thing. He was getting to be six, then seven. Yes, I know that the Scandanavian countries which start their kids reading at seven or eight have the best adult literacy, but this trusting your kids to want to learn business can take nerves of steel, and mine were faltering.

I tried to be sneaky and teach him little bits. In the car he would see signs and ask what they said. I told him that as driver I couldn't look, but if he could read me the letters, I would tell him what it said. So we did a lot of that. I was thinking it would all go into his brain and help the concept of reading gel a bit.

What finally got him reading was electronic games. He wanted to know what the instructions said. We'd read some, but he might have to wait for someone to help him. I'm not sure exactly when it was, but some time in that year he was seven, he just started reading things to us. He taught himself to read the same way he learned to speak, just by listening to other people doing it. He makes some mistakes because he still likes the whole word method, but now at eight he will accept some help. I tell him that English is actually really tricky, and that sometimes you just need to be told things about words and how they're said. He takes it in.

But he reads. We let him take his own path, and he got to about the place schools would have wanted him to be by now, but without making him feel bad about having his own time for learning it. We trusted him, and it paid off. When they want to know you can't stop them. Not unless you teach them that what they want doesn't matter.

And he still understands squares and square roots. I asked him to explain them to someone just the other day, and he got it right.

Monday, 22 February 2010

So tired of the socialisation question

So, seriously. I don't get it. How does school make kids social? It surrounds them with a bunch of kids about their age. It tells them what to do and when to do it. It tells them when they can be social and when they cannot.

We hear a lot about how home educated children are not socialised. It's the main point most people want to make when the topic comes up. They won't have friends! Poor children! They won't know how to make friends or be with other kids or any of that essential life stuff.

A few weeks ago, C and I went to the dentist. We were new patients at that practice, so we went early to fill in paperwork. Armed with forms and a pen, we went to the waiting room. I sat at the table to do the writing. C nearly sat next to me, but asked if he could go sit over there. On the couch next to two waiting children. A boy of about 11 and a girl, probably 7, both in school uniforms. C is drawn to children. They have a lot in common: Childhood. I said it was fine with me if it was fine with them.

So he went over and politely asked permission to join them. They shrugged and grunted okay. He sat and showed the kids his DS Lite, pointing out that it actually does have a microphone, just like a DSi does, so you can do games that want speech. Cool, eh? There was a nature DVD on about reptiles, and C commented on interesting things. The older boy picked up a magazine and occasionally glanced over at C with an uh-huh.

Eventually the boy was called in to see the dentist. C slid over and asked the girl if she'd like to see his game. She shrugged and looked down. Over the next 10 or 15 minutes, she started warming up, getting closer to C and carefully observing everything he did. His game. His getting a cup of water. His cleaning up his spilled water. By the time she was called out, they were sitting an inch apart, heads together, sharing attention on his game. She never said a word.

So which child was "properly socialised"? Mine was friendly and outgoing, but clearly wasn't put off by the disinterest of the school kids. He ignored social signals, so I suppose we could argue that he's missed out on some social training. At 8, does he need that particular training? But what about the other kids who wouldn't engage with him? All right, the boy was older, and might not want to talk to younger kids, but the girl was age-appropriate, and seemed interested, but had no idea what to do about it. She was afraid to talk to C. She couldn't accept friendliness.

It's entirely possible that the girl was just naturally like that, and would be like that in school or out. And that C is just naturally like that, in school or out. And if that's the case, home education has nothing to do with it. Moot point, can we drop it now, please? No, it seems we can't. It always comes up. Always. Evidence changes nothing.

C was also very friendly with the dentist, and asked a thousand questions about how things work. I was very pleased that she answered him and thought his interest was great.

Today we returned to the dentist for a quick repair to my work done last week. When we were called upstairs, C asked the assistant if he could please bring the display book on teeth with him as he didn't want to stop reading it. Asking permission sounds very social to me. Afterward, he returned the book to the waiting room, but on his way noticed a second staircase. He asked me where it went. No idea. He asked me if he could ask someone who works there. Yes, but they might not tell you. So he went to the receptionist on his own. He asked politely and got a polite answer.

C found some foreign currency from a recent holiday. I'd told him we could change it for him, or he could go to the Post Office and do it himself. He chose the Post Office. He walked up to the counter (I was behind him, just in case), and told the woman he would like to change US dollars for British pounds. He was told the value he'd get, and he accepted it. Able to conduct his own transactions sounds very social to me.

So we have a boy who makes friends easily, isn't afraid to ask questions of people he knows have the answers, will talk to children just because they are children, and can conduct his own business. Honestly, what was school supposed to give him that he didn't get anyway?

All right. That's all sort of rambling. Bottom line: Some kids are just not social no matter where they are. Some kids are social and go to school and follow school rules. Some kids are social and don't go to school. It's not the same thing, but why is anyone assuming that school social is superior to unschool social?