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Life Chez Dee Episode #63: Home Schooling

For many, home schooling our children began at the end of March this year. Suddenly, our workspaces, and working hours needed to be split between what we needed to do, and giving our children the education they needed and deserved. Initially, it was thought that the time at home would only be two weeks, with a return after the Easter holidays, but it soon became apparent that the need for children to stay at home would be much longer. I know some parents used those initial weeks to just spend time together, and let schooling and lessons take a back seat, but I personally decided that we would keep to a routine, and the school day would be observed. I saw how long the virus had disrupted other countries, and had thought about and made the decision from the outset that my children were not going to be compromised in any way, if I could in any way help them.

The home school day was a very different experience for Oliver, and I wanted to write this piece, for my own benefit to journal about the education I was able to give my child, and to share my experience of home schooling with others.

I know there have been lots of people unable to school their children, keyworkers for example; I know there have been people who have said they have had to let the children find and complete work by themselves from what has been set from either their school or by searching BBC bitesize or such. There will always be those who haven’t been able to do this for whatever reason, but I’m not about to offer opinion about this, but merely document my own story. I know that I am fortunate to be in a position where I am able to home school my child and that I have had the time, ability and financial circumstances to afford me this privilege. I do work, albeit for no money, on running a charity which I founded, to enable me to make some good come out of the horror of losing a child. This work, as well as all the writing I am doing, which pays me a small amount of money, I have done, after school lessons have finished, and well into the evenings. I know that for Oliver to have received a quality education in lockdown, this has needed to come from me, and that has been my priority.

Looking after the children has always been my priority in life. For those who don’t know I gave up a very well paid job because I knew that I didn’t want to miss out on any part of my children growing up. We were fortunate to be financially comfortable enough for me to do this, we weren’t well off by any stretch of the imagination, we had to watch our pennies, cut down on eating out, holidays, cars and other luxuries, but we were comfortable enough to get by. I have always believed, and still very much think to this day, that it is important to have enough money to be comfortable, but money isn’t everything, and there is much in life that money cannot buy. I never missed anything the boys did as they grew up, I was at every assembly, parents evening, sports day, every school drop off, every school pick up, and around in the holidays to do special things. I have no regrets whatsoever, that I gave up the money and the career I had; having lost one of my children, I know that I have all these memories still, and I know that I don’t live with the guilt of having missed any of these milestones or experiences, because I put work before the children.

I know there are some who must work, where is isn’t affordable to stay at home, but equally, there are those who can afford to stay at home, but choose not to. I have, over many years, received criticism and indeed ridicule, from many people in many forms, about not valuing myself and going back to work, not stretching my mind, not giving myself another focus. Some of these people, even now, commenting that it’s ok for me to be able to talk about teaching my child during lockdown, that they wish they could do this, but it’s too difficult to fit in as they have to work. To those people, I don’t react to your comments, or retaliate; I take your remarks on the chin and say that some of you consciously chose to go back to work, as I consciously chose not to.

I want to talk about all I have done with Oliver over the past few months, because my goodness we’ve done lots, and I’m really proud; proud of Oliver, and proud of myself. First and foremost, I’m not a teacher, and have received no training for this vocation, but I do have a vested interest in my child, and I know that I have a wealth of experience and knowledge which I can share with him. I, and indeed my husband, have always shared lots of knowledge with the children, both practical and academic, and have given them many, many experiences, enhancing their education through visits to museums, galleries, exhibitions and lectures, to castles and historic houses and buildings, to towns and cities, and have enriched their lives with books, music, theatre and film.

We have started each day at home school with a Joe Wicks PE session, except for the occasional Friday, which Oliver wanted to skip as he wasn’t keen on the dressing up, even if that wasn’t compulsory; and this was followed each morning with an hour of maths. We’ve been working through a Collins Year 5 book which I bought for him, and he has coped very well with this level of mathematics, and for some variety we’ve done some of the lessons delivered by Oak National Academy on line, again the year 5 lessons have been more Oliver’s ability.

At approximately 10.30am we’ve stopped for morning break and a snack, and Oliver has often popped on a gadget to Skype his friends for a chat.

An hour of English has taken us to lunchtime each day, and these lessons have varied enormously. Some SPAG lessons have been from the Collins Year 5 English book, whilst others have been from Oak National Academy. I have, however, creatively engaged with Oliver to spark his ideas for writing in a variety of ways. We’ve read, studied and written poetry, humorous, and serious, and looked at the patterns within. We’ve looked at hidden meanings, and interpretation, as well as rhyme, alliteration and onomatopoeia. Some of the poetry as just been an English lesson, but other poems have been used to offer some light hearted relief and variety to our history, music and art lessons too.

Our writing has also included letters and postcards to family and friends (and even a birthday card for Her Majesty), diary entries, newspaper headlines, balanced arguments, journaling and book reviews.

In Science we’ve learned about plants, naming parts, what they need to grow. We’ve grown our own vegetables from scraps, and we’ve learned about how water is taken up by capillary action. We’ve studied our solar system, and Oliver created a new star constellation out of marshmallows and spaghetti, which after much deliberation, he finally decided on puteus, which is Latin for pit, as it looked like a group of snakes.

Just recently Oliver has been learning about the different rock types, how they’re formed, what their properties are, and what they’re used for, which he’s found really interesting, and I have to say I’ve learned lots too.

We’ve studied the water cycle, and rivers, and we’ve learned some interesting facts about some of the rivers in Britain, and around the world, found them on a map and even plotted some. Similarly we have plotted some towns and cities on the map of Britain, and again looked for some notable facts.

Music has continued in our house, with piano lessons and saxophone lessons continuing by skype call with his teachers. He’s continued with his music theory, and with daily practice he’s progressed massively on both these instruments, with us moving on to new pieces and a higher Grade, as we can assume that exams will be cancelled for the foreseeable future.

We’ve listened to how music can be used to tell a story, and set the scene and the mood, and listening to Peter and the Wolf was a good way to illustrate this. We’ve listened to Jupiter whilst we worked on our planets topic; The River by Smetana; and The Trout Quintet by Schubert whilst we studied rivers. The music of Cats by Andrew Lloyd Weber was played whilst we read some of the TS Eliot poems, and whilst we did an art lesson on drawing a train, to illustrate his favourite of these poems, Skimbleshanks The Railway Cat.

Oliver has loved our history lessons. Our first topic was WWII and we did lots of the lessons delivered by Western Approaches in Liverpool. He learned about the declaration of War, The Blitz, Convoys, Evacuation and Evacuees, Communication, Semaphore, Morse Code and Caesar Cyphers (even writing a coded message to Akela); Rations and Rationing, and Wartime Entertainment, and of course VE Day has featured in our lessons with the 75th Anniversary falling last week, for which we made and put up bunting, and ate our very British Cream Tea.

We’ve also been learning about some of our monarchs, and given that it’s really difficult to picture on a timeline when in fact various significant historical events happened, we decided we’d start at the beginning, and went right back to medieval times beginning with the death of Edward the Confessor, the battle for the throne, the Battle of Hastings, and William I. We’ve learned about the murder of Thomas Beckett, and tried to work out which was the worst King, Richard I or John. We’ve learned about Edward I, his trouble with the Scots, and his building of all those castles in Wales, as well as how he made improvements to our judicial system and laws. All of this has been of enormous interest to Oliver, who has had many historical discussions over the phone with my mum. Of course, Oliver is interested in this topic, especially given that we can trace his family tree right back to Edward I, him being Oliver’s 20 x great grandfather.

Reading Goodnight Mr Tom linked his reading to some of the topic work; and we linked some other of his reading with book reviews such as Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce; and All Change by Jill Reidy, which he initially listened to being read by the author, and then read the book himself after she sent him a copy to cheer him up as he felt so miserable with Chickenpox. Horrible Histories about WWII has given Oliver a bit more information after Western Approaches whetted his appetite on this subject, and has been keeping up with current affairs in his magazine The Week Junior. He’s also spent many an odd half hour reading his National Geographic Magazine, as well as laughing his way through The Beano.

We have done a plethora of art projects, again as standalone projects, other times linking in with our topic work. He’s learned to paint with watercolours, and how to paint a scene reflected in the water. He has drawn cartoons, and still life, and learned about perspective, and has worked with paints, pens, coloured pencils, as well as charcoal. We’ve made and painted a fish out of egg boxes which links with our river topic; copied a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry to link with history (which was actually liked by the Bayeux Museum on twitter); and done a newspaper headline collage to link with English when thinking about our current situation in lockdown because of the pandemic, as well as a Beano style comic strip about lockdown, for which we cut up old magazines and rearranged to make our own story. A picture collage depicted all that was found on a campsite for Akela, and we pieced another picture together through weaving. We’ve pressed flowers, created cards with already pressed flowers, and created a beautiful piece from rubbings after learning about texture.

There has been many an afternoon spent learning practical skills; cookery or gardening with me, or woodwork and DIY with Justin. We’ve made pasta dishes, baked cakes and grown veg, and he’s helped to build a compost bin, and flower trellis out of wood, as well as painting the shed, and a garden bench.

For Religious Education we’ve talked about the Easter story, starting with Palm Sunday, and finishing with the resurrection. We’ve linked Religious Education with PSHE to cover discussion about our time at home and why we are in this situation. Oliver has shown resilience, resourcefulness and responsibility on many an occasion. We’ve compared and discussed the differences between his education at school, and at home, with Oliver’s conclusion being that he prefers home, as he can do interesting work, without distractions or disruptions, and he’s not particularly missing assembly.

I’m not surprised at his conclusion if I’m honest. He’s getting interesting, bespoke, challenging and engaging work, 1:1 focus and attention and plenty of praise. He isn’t competing with 30 or so others, vying for attention, or putting up with noise and disruption. I would say that Oliver hasn’t missed out a jot with his learning, but he has missed out on the various school interactions with all manner of the characters in his class, and the coping strategies therefor which he’ll need when he moves on to high school.

A lot of the work which Oliver has had access to via the links to Purple Mash, set by the school, has not really enthused Oliver in any way, and indeed it has bothered me somewhat that Oliver said on numerous occasions that he doesn’t like it.

Oliver’s weeks in home school have been of enormous value to him, and I’d go as far as saying that he has been stretched, engaged, enthused and has come on leaps and bounds. He has been a joy to teach, and has leaped out of bed each morning, ready and keen to start the school day. He even said to me this morning that he hoped he could continue lots of different topic work with me even after he goes back to school.

Newspapers, television, radio have all been reporting how detrimental the situation is for children, that they’ve lost several weeks of learning, and that they must go back to school as they’ve fallen behind so much. I’m aware that not all children will have been as lucky as Oliver with their education provision during lockdown, but to hear so many saying that children have suffered and fallen behind in their education, is simply not true.

The government have not been entirely honest when it comes to reporting the scientific evidence, and hearing that most children will not be affected by the virus doesn’t really wash with me. I know first hand how risk is illustrated with statistics, and that there is only a remote chance that Oliver will become ill, however, I would point out that Edward wasn’t considered at risk of catching meningitis based on statistics, and yet he fell victim to this disease and lost his life. Suddenly, that remote statistic doesn’t feel quite so remote anymore when you are personally affected, it then becoming a reality.

I understood the reason schools closed in the first instance was to avoid the spread of the virus, not because of the danger to children. So isn’t that the same reason now? Why is the spread of the virus no longer the focus? Or does the reason just change as and when it suits? Given that the children of key workers are in school, and it is they who are more likely to be exposed to, and therefore carry this virus, even if they have no visible symptoms, it is they who may then pass the virus to my child, which in turn puts me at risk of passing this to the elderly and vulnerable in my family who I am looking after and running errands for.

My mum and dad are isolating, my mum being very vulnerable having both MS and cancer, and yet even though she has been told categorically that she should remain isolated, she isn’t able to have help with shopping, deliveries or errands offered to her by the authorities; she doesn’t qualify for help as she is not currently undergoing chemotherapy, even though she has only recently finished a course, and is about to start radiotherapy. I wonder just how ill you have to be before help is offered. Thankfully, I am able to run errands for my parents, and therefore it is important that I am still able to look after mum and dad safely, and I can’t do that if I don’t know who Oliver is coming into contact with. Given that schools can’t control coughs, colds, sickness bugs, chickenpox, or even worms and nits, then they certainly won’t be able to control coronavirus.

Returning my child to a school, on a rota basis, with only 6 or so children in the classroom, staggered breaks, teachers wearing PPE, which has been suggested, doesn’t sound like the best place for Oliver to be at all, and coming nowhere near to the safety of home and the learning environment he is in.

It is constantly reported how much children are missing out on. If this really is a concern, then why isn’t more of the curriculum delivered by way of home school packs, recorded lessons and such. How is it that some schools are able to record lessons and allow children to access these, and yet others are unable? Why are some children having work booklets, written work and deadlines for submitting it, and yet others don’t. The onus has at all times been on the parents to deliver, and not on the teachers to provide, and to be honest I have found BBC Bitesize, Oak National Academy, Western Approaches and other museums a godsend.

Personally, I have been glad to have had the freedom to teach my own curriculum and I’ve been able to rise to the challenge of my new role and deliver creative and imaginative lessons. The messages I hear so often from teachers and parents around the country is that the only important thing is to take this opportunity to spend quality time at home with the children. Yes spending this time together is important, yes it’s important to keep safe, but that won’t help our children when they come to be sitting GCSEs, or going to University, a gap year without education will almost certainly show up then. This is why I have embraced this time with Oliver to engage him, challenge him, enrich him and feed his hunger for learning. My opinion is that lots of time out, ticking over, cruising and stagnating can do a bright child more harm than good.

If children are not receiving an education at home, then get those children back first to stop them falling behind further, get children back if they can’t be cared for at home, focus on the children who are suffering. For the children who are thriving at home, I’d say there isn’t any urgency for them to return to school at all, and indeed I’d be really interested to see how much progress some of these thriving children have indeed made whilst they have had 1:1 focus with bespoke lessons at home.

And for those children who have come on leaps and bounds, let’s hope that the government, and all those education experts rethink the curriculum for them. Let’s get away from grooming children for exams, and refocus their learning based on topics. Let’s give them a great general knowledge, and let’s ignite their enthusiasm and hunger for learning once again.

Fronted adverbials, prepositions and subordinate clauses will not serve them any purpose in their life or careers ahead of them; whereas topics in history, geography and science will be of enormous value, and will help spark creativity, curiosity, and imagination. Will an employer want Oliver to know what a preposition is, or will he want him to be able to construct a well thought out argument, produce a comprehensive document, or send a good articulate letter?

I’m proud of the education I’ve given Oliver, I know I’ve given him a thirst for knowledge, and I know I’ve challenged his ability and his thinking, and if the experts disagree so be it, but I know all he has learned and am happy to provide a detailed journal with photographic evidence of such. No doubt he’ll at least be on a winning quiz team in the future too.

It has been a privilege to be able to educate Oliver, and I’m angry at the constant generalisations I hear that ALL children are worried or unhappy at home, ALL missing their education, ALL falling behind, ALL parents struggling, ALL children needing to repeat a year, ALL finding it painful, hard and difficult … NO THEY’RE NOT. For some this has been a time of calm, happiness and togetherness, and a time that they have thrived. And for those who have suggested that ALL children have been lounging around in their pyjamas, I find this remark incredibly insulting, not just to me, but to Oliver too.

The fact is that some children have suffered, yet for some it has been quite the opposite; some parents have struggled, yet some have risen to the challenge and loved every minute; some people have missed contact with others, yet others have enjoyed the space and quiet to have quality family time; some schools and teachers have carried on delivering lessons and looked for novel ways to get around distance learning, others have struggled and put formal learning to one side. There are so many differences, challenges, expectations, experiences, and outcomes; some good, some not so good. Thankfully, for all in our family the positives outweigh the negatives by a long way, and the government should be mindful of this when they talk of my suffering child, who in reality has had a positive experience, a good education, has thrived and is really happy.

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