Home education diary, February 2000

February 1st

Still in the UK, nearing the end of our six weeks way from Cyprus.

I wonder if my ideals are too low. Having got hold of some English GCSE books, I realise we've done very little about literature discussions, almost no essay writing, and Daniel is years away from being able to take an English GCSE. I don't think I'd even know how to deal with an essay, even if I could persuade him to write one. He doesn't think at all the same way I do, and also gets upset at criticism. 

His fiction writing is excellent but when he tries to answer fiction or English comprehension questions, even at Key Stage 3 level, they're just a sentence or two and not properly structured. He can't see the point of essays! But, other than maths, I think he'll need to be able to write them for almost all GCSEs, and will therefore need to practise beforehand.

Overall, my ideals are for the boys to love God and others, to be honest and caring, and to follow careers that will fulful them. Both the boys are bright, and in a good school would probably get plenty of GCSEs with good grades, so I do worry sometimes that they're wasting their gifts or potential by doing so little.

Just because they've stayed ahead of their age peers in maths and computer work (and, I suppose, fiction and reading skills) doesn't mean they shouldn't do other subjects. Perhaps I'm aiming much too low academically, but since I've forgotten almost all my secondary school learning, it all seems rather pointless to study things that don't interest them.

February 4th:

Although we're now staying with my parents in Moseley, Tim decided to continue in St Francis School for this week, since there are only three days where we have to negotiate the bus. He wanted to be in on Tuesday because of choir after school, Wednesday because of 'reading partners' where he gets to read with a Year1 boy, Thursday because of Chess, and Friday because by the time he got to Thursday he might as well stay! 

But he's spent a lot of time helping the Year 2 teacher with her computer so he doesn't have to do literacy hour. And the bizarrest thing... this week his teacher has decided he's so far ahead of most of the rest of the class in maths that he can wor with the two really advanced students who are taking GCSE maths in the Summer! 

This evening he told me about a couple of questions that confused them all, so we ended up having an impromptu maths session at 8.30pm where I gave Tim a crash course in simultaneous equations. He said it was wonderful, but his brain couldn't quite take it all in. So I said that when we get back, we'll find the chapters on algebra in his book, and take it a bit more slowly. I was glad he loved it as I always thought algebra was such fun.

Daniel meanwhile has been reading lots of books, and using a Photoshop package to do some picture editing. Tomorrow he's going to reconstruct some old photos of my parents' church which were in their archives, which I think he'll enjoy. Today he too was in school, helping Year 3 with LOGO, and Year 2 with another program; also sorting out network problems and typing up a 'how to' sheet for one of the classroom volunteers, showing how to save documents on the network. 

The main problem with school, it seems, is that it has to be fairly rigidly structured to cope with thirty or so children at the same time. Whereas we can be so much more flexible at home. If the boys dont feel like doing something, then we leave it for the day. If they start out with enthusiasm and get bored with something, we move on to something else. If they're using a workbook or text book, I ask them which questions they think would be the most interesting and they choose them, or else (for instance in maths) I ask them how many they think would be reasonable to do, and then select the appropriate number.

I keep reminding myself that the best time to learn is when they want to know something. That's why tonight I was able to go through about a year's worth of algebra with Tim in 45 minutes. He'll need some more practice and consolidation, but he grasped the principles quickly and wanted to know more. Yet when I tried to introduce algebra to him before, he wasn't interested. This time he wanted to know... and so he took in a huge amount quickly. 

Sometimes in Cyprus we realise we've done no geography for months - this happened 20 months ago when we were planning to come back for July/August 1998 and both boys were going into school for three weeks. Tim was worried he was 'behind' on geography. I happened to have the text book his class had been using for two terms, so we sat and read through and discussed the entire book, in about an hour and a half! 

He said it takes so much longer n class because there's always wasted time getting out pencils, moving seats, finding the right page etc. Then half the class has forgotten what they'd done the week before. Then the teacher teaches something (for perhaps five minutes) with a bit of discussion, then they have questions to do from the book and/or worksheets, of which maybe one is interesting research or creative thinking, and the rest are just to ensure they've understood. Then most of the class drag out the 'easy' questions to 45 minutes anyway. 

However, at home we can mainly concentrate on the new material, with discussion, and a look at perhaps couple of the most interesting questions. I also like that that geographical concepts occur in computer games (ike Civilization II. Caesar II, Flight Simulator etc) which gives the boys a good practical understanding anyway. Then having lived in three different countries gives a much better understanding of culture than any amount of school geography. 

February 15th 

Back in Cyprus again. Lots of good resolutions about structuring our weeks, now that both boys are going to continue with home education for at least another year or two. 

The maths book we use for Daniel is the Letts GCSE classbook, which has the full coursework (for all syllabuses, apparently), some interesting examples, and also some GCSE type questions in the back. I think we may see if he can sit maths GCSE in Summer 2001 - he's quite keen to do so, and it would be a good one to start with since maths doesn't change as much as some subjects, and doesn't rely on particular set texts! 

An excellent looking English coursebook we've found is a Collins 'revise and study' GCSE English, which has sections discussing various kinds of literature, how to look at characters and how the author conveys emotions and so on, and plenty of hints about writing for exams as well as what needs to be done in coursework. It seems like a lot to me, but we can take plenty of time over it. 

We're also going to study 'Twelfth Night', along with a 'Letts explore' guide, and then 'Great Expectations'. Apparently GCSE English expects two full studies of Shakespeare plays, one at Key Stage 3 level and a different one at GCSE level, as part of the coursework. I don't know how this works with IGCSE which is supposed to have less coursework, but it seems like a good principle to study some in depth, then if and when the boys want to take English GCSE, it won't be too hard to embark on another for that.

The Collins 'Revise and study' books looked superb - they were in WH Smiths and I was tempted to get several, but opted for just the English one for now. The boys are still working on history and geography at Key Stage 3 levels and I don't feel competent even to begin to help them with these GCSEs (I gave up both subjects when I was about 13!). So we'll stick with English and maths GCSE work, at least for the next year or so, and while we decide which are the best correspondence courses. 

For science, we've found at last some books which look great, and ideal for use at home. I'm extremely impressed; they're called 'Physics for You' and 'Chemistry for you', published by Stanley Thornes. Both are for Key Stage 4/GCSE level, so again I'll have to take it slowly, though at least I did take O-level physics & chemistry. Richard should be able to help there too. If necessary we'll backtrack to the Key Stage 3 books, but it seems to repeat a lot of the same stuff anyway.  The boys are only 13 and 11, so there's still plenty of time. 

February 18th 

We seemed to get through quite a bit this past week. The more we continue, the more I'm combining my 'teaching' sessions to cover the same topics, and encouraging the boys to work together at their different levels. The only thing they do separately now is maths, which works because the examples in their books are directly related to the chapters we're following. Daniel is also supplementing his GCSE maths text book with the Dorling Kindersley maths revision CD-Rom. 

For history, geography and RE we sit on the couch and read together through Key Stage 3 materials, stopping and discussing as necessary. Sometimes we do some further research online or using a reference CD-Rom. Sometimes they do a bit of computer work, or produce a poster or something, but mostly we just read and discuss. 

We've just started doing English all together too, sometimes reading poetry, sometimes Shakespeare, sometimes looking at a GCSE English coursebook in a low-key sort of way, discussing characters and the way different authors express things. Both boys do like creative writing (on the computer) so they do their own things - either writing for magazine competitions, or working on ideas of their own, or letters to relatives, or web-page writing. I usually help them proof-read and check their spelling/grammar but try to get them to do it themselves rather than 'marking'. 

The design and creation of web pages is a wonderful challenge, and can be an ongoing project. Daniel spends hours at his site, and has learned - by the by - a huge amount about programming, and maths. and English construction and graphics, as well as doing some research into programming languages. He finds it hard to finish things, and is easily distracted, but his site has given him a focus and some completable targets of his own making rather than something imposed on him from someone else. Having learned that he can finish things, he's more able to apply that principle to other things he does. 

February 19th 

This week, Tim was working on a maths chapter about fractions and percentages, and converting between them. We read each section, and he seemed to understand easily (having assured me he'd done it all before), and then he did a couple of examples verbally for each one. No problem, I thought. 

So I suggested that, rather than work on some of the examples after each section, he just do some of the 'review' at the end of the chapter. The review was mixed questions, sometimes converting percentages to fractions, sometimes the other way round, and sometimes using word problems. He got totally stuck, trying to divide where he should have multiplied, and then apparently not having any idea how to get started. 

I find that kind of thing a bit confusing too, but always go back to first principles and think what I'm doing, whereas Tim rushes in and tries to apply forumulae because he was able to do that before. But he forgets which formula to apply. I feel that if I could help him to hold back a bit, and always think about what he's doing, he'd get along much more easily with maths. But when I try and say that, he groans that I'm 'lecturing', and that of course he knows that... (which, indeed, he does!) So I try not to worry. It doesn't matter what speed they learn, and the important thing is that they know how to learn. 

I was encouraged that Tim picked up long division easily - so easily I was amazed, because Daniel struggled with it for ages and never really understood the principles, or how to apply them. I think there were too many stages for Daniel to be able to remember or understand, and it didnt seem logical to him. He also thought it was totally pointless, since he can always use a calculator or computer to do a complex piece of arithmetic, if he really needs to! 

But when I showed Tim long division, he immediately spotted that it was a shorthand for the kind of cumulative subtraction method that's used in the Steps books; he even showed me the page in his exercise book from nearly a year ago where he'd been working out long divisions by that method. Perhaps the idea of sharing things out or dividing something up is 'obvious' to him because he has such a scrupulous belief in fairness.

I'm interested to see that, after spending a month in school, he's suddenly started (a) laying maths work out neatly (b) showing all his working (c) remembering to do an estimate to see if his answers are sensible. Why? Because his teacher in Year Six spent a lot of time in Numeracy Hour telling the class how important it was to do these things.

I'd been trying to tell him that ever since we started home education, and he considers it nagging when I do. But for some reason, when Mrs G tells the whole class, he considers it a helpful and useful comment, and remembers and applies it!  Perhaps all home educated children should have the opportunity to spend a month every so often in school, so they can see the sense of things like that, and also be reassured that they aren't 'behind' - and also see for themselves that home education is a better way for them to learn. 

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