Reflections on a Journey

Reflections on a Journey

This reflection I wrote for a family blog in 2017 when we stepped out of school. I rediscovered it again this week and thought I would share it here. It very much captures that sense of freedom that you feel when you step out of the system. It is a decision made five years ago that we have never regretted.

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2017 – So, we have finally taken the leap and are officially home educating our kids… I am aware that there should be a coherent answer to the ‘why’ questions which have already started to come – the dog walker we met as we flew our kites yesterday, the cashier at the checkout… I have not yet quite worked out quite what to say; other than knowing it is where we are meant to be right now!

The ‘what if school looked different’ thought process began when my son started school age four and half… I could see quickly that my little boy with boundless energy was contained and restricted in the classroom; so much of his energy was taken by trying to sit still, that school became something that needed to be simply got on with and out of the way. We decided quite quickly that one day a week out of school at a local Forest School was going to be good for him – and how he thrived; I would collect him wide eyed, covered in mud bursting with excitement after five hours of exploring ‘Hidden Woods’ with his ‘teachers’.

This stopped when we moved to a city and we decided to join the local school at the end of our street. As a family we have loved them being part of the community for three years. However, the more I read, the more I observed my children in school, the more I knew that it was right for us to exit the traditional school setting.  This spring we felt the time had come to take the leap.

I am not anti-school – I think school can be amazing.  So many teachers work so hard to enable young people’s learning journeys and there can be a lovely sense of community both for the children and adults. The bit that I struggle with is seeing the immense pressure put on teachers, and the subsequent pressure that children feel as they sit tests and are told what to learn. It takes a brave head teacher, like ours was, to fight to keep the extracurricular activities on the weekly schedule alongside the Ofsted assessed maths, literacy and reading.

In our journey, I know we are privileged to be able to make it work financially (although this comes at a cost, we are learning to prioritise different things). I am excited, but I am also a realist and know that some days will be tough and many will be chaotic! So, as we journey into the unknown of our kids learning and exploring life outside of the system, we will take a day at a time.

People keep asking me if I am a teacher, to which the answer is no. People ask, “but what about the curriculum? What about SATS? GCSEs? How will you teach Science and DT? What about Bunsen burners? How will your child be prepared for real life if they don’t navigate the challenges that school brings?” I feel starting with these questions is the wrong place to begin. We have chosen to start with looking at the big picture and ask the question, ‘what do we want our kids to be?’ Our thoughts are that we want to grow children who will be independent lifelong learners, who are creative, resilient, fearless, and fun loving. Kids who are confident in who they are; understanding what gives them life and excites them. We want a slower pace of life, with opportunity to reflect, to learn life skills as well as maths and literacy, to celebrate the lessons learnt through failure together, to encourage and support one another. I am not saying school can’t do that, I am simply saying I could see it was not doing this for our children and the individual personalities they are. Already I have found it is easy to lose sight of the big picture and start to wobble and feel overwhelmed by ‘curriculum’ and what our children ‘should’ be learning.  In these wobbly moments, I am finding I have to remember to focus on the ‘why’ and the daily freedom we now feel we have as a family in this journey of learning.

This week gave me a wonderful example of the freedom we now enjoy. My son has spent the week building puzzle boxes from Lego. He has set his own challenges by making three dimensional boxes with so many moving pieces. He has also learnt to do the Rubix cube watching YouTube.

At school these past two years writing had become so difficult for my son, he hated literacy. The reason being that he had to write cursive. Last year I chatted with his teacher one day and asked why he needed to do this – she said because ‘that is what Year Five kids need to do’. Yet for my son this does not work; he is left handed. To write cursive as a righted handed person, you pull your pen along a page, the writing flows as you move from left to right. As a left-handed person, you have to push the pen, it is slower work as you move across the page. Writing cursive was simply hard work.  My hope is he can continue to learn to write in a style that suits him.

So, we are home educators. We look forward to breaking down some of the stereotypes these two words can bring to mind; we are excited to be doing something I believe stirred in our hearts six years ago, again, a seemingly reckless decision made with confidence because we believe our children will flourish. ‘What if you fail?’ people have asked, ‘what if you get it wrong?’ In response to this I feel we can answer – at least we will have tried! And what if we get it right? What if this is the right way for our kids to learn and thrive? Our kids will always be richer for knowing we had the courage to pursue our dreams and explore a different way of doing life.

Community

Community

The word community evokes different emotions. For some the thought of ‘community’ brings up warm sentiments, for some their experience has been negative and at times, painful.  With such a broad understanding of community interwoven with a myriad of personal experiences, it can be helpful to step back and look at what community is and then explore why it is important. The Cambridge Dictionary[1] describes it as ‘the people living in one particular area or people who are considered as a unit because of their common interests, social group or nationality’. From research completed in public health[2] a different definition is given:  ‘A common definition of community emerged as a group of people with diverse characteristics who are linked by social ties, share common perspectives, and engage in joint action in geographical locations or settings.’

Both these definitions feel devoid of emotion. Searching further there is a beautiful zulu word ‘Ubuntu’ which translated means ‘I am, because you are’. It is part of the Zulu phrase “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, which literally means that a person is a person through other people, embedded in the philosophy that community is one of the building blocks essential for humanity. The late Desmond Tutu said this:

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity. [3]

I find this definition beautiful, powerful and, also, challenging. Perhaps a rallying call for humanity? Where community has generally been seen as geographically local, in our ever-evolving online world the concept of community is enlarging. This is even more so in our post Covid world where community can be seen as transglobal with dynamic groups forming community via zoom and other online platforms. Yet in our western culture there is increasing individualism, a drive for personal success and a seeming disinterest in the world around us. Loneliness is a reality for many [4]. We need to rediscover community.

On a very personal level my desire for deeper community developed when we had our first child. Living in central London at the time, we were fortunate that our block of flats was opposite a small park. The surrounding flats were full of a culturally diverse mix of people which led to a beautiful gathering of mums from around the world in the park with their little ones. I quickly realised that life as a mum could be quite isolating; the daily rhythm and desire for sleep often disconnecting you from others. Where the park bought conversations and smiles on sunny days, on the wet days we could find ourselves each in our own flat missing the social interaction. It didn’t take long for there to be a regular gathering in our flat with shared meals and lots of little people, ‘more the merrier’ seemed to be the unadopted mantra. Our flat became a space of seeming chaos with numerous toddlers bouncing around and creating mess; on reflection what I experienced was the buzz of life done in community. The ups and the downs of being a mum; space to laugh and to cry, to be vulnerable and to encourage, to release each other to have a little space (maybe even grabbing some sleep), and to laugh with the little ones as they played and explored. The kids had fun too!

Leaving London was a necessity when we found out we were having twins – our small third floor flat with no lift was far from ideal. Moving west and landing in a small city with an active three year old and then giving birth to twins was hectic – I craved community, it developed slowly over the first year with our house becoming a place for mums to gather. Yet I longed for more!  This led to us as a family choosing to create an intentional community home. Moving to Bristol we took a risk; renting a large townhouse and inviting people to come share our family home. For seven years we lived with a range of people of different ages from 0 – 65, singles, couples and two families, some for short seasons and a few for the duration. Our extended family developed a rhythm of shared meals, evenings hanging out and adventures together. Challenges were discussed, dreams were encouraged and birthed into reality. Sadly our landlord selling led to us stepping into a regular small, terraced house for just the five of us, but the desire for a community home does not go, and it is a dream we still pursue.

What we learnt in that time was that life is richer with when shared with others; yet not always easier – we had often had to work through some tough issues – choosing connection, being vulnerable, choosing to forgive both others and ourselves, this is where community is built. In real, gritty, and vulnerable living. On our wall was a framed print with the words ‘May we catch each other with grace[5] when we fall short of who we want to be.’ This underpinned the values we embedded in our home.

It was during these years that we stepped out of school and became home educators; this had never been the plan but a decision we have never regretted.  I knew very quickly that finding community was key to us thriving as a home ed family.  This community was slow in developing but it did grow, as did we as a family.  What I recognise for healthy community to flourish is that we have to be willing to be vulnerable, to love, to sacrificially give, to open our homes, to welcome in chaos and mess. Within this, acknowledging we are different, we have different opinions, different educational approaches, different families and within this variety there is opportunity to learn and develop. Always choosing connection.

I wonder if deep down we are all meant for community, a movement from ‘me’ to ‘we’.  Individualism, consumerism, and careerism don’t seem to be working anymore, I feel around me a longing for more. Surely we are more than isolated individuals, more than the careers we pursue, and more than the stuff we own? In our western culture our lives can become fragmented, and yet, I believe we all crave connection. There is a deep desire in us all to be real and belong.

Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance. [6]

Sian, Matt and I would discuss community and how it could healthily grow. Being connected by a mutual friend to Juliet our joint desire for community led to the birth of Streams; a place to belong, with a mission to encourage, equip and connect home educators. Our dreams for Streams are big and we are evolving slowly, listening to members, and growing in new ways that were unexpected. However, as we evolve and grow at the heart is always community. Community forms one of our core values: We’re inclusive, we appreciate difference, we know we are stronger when we journey together. Community is experiential, not taught, therefore as home educators we have the gift of being able to build a healthy community around our children.

Our desire is bigger than just our own children. Our desire is that all children grow in a community where they can flourish; collaborating, championing each other, experiencing loss, failure, and success, growing together. A healthy community surely must be the foundation for all education. With so many conversations happening globally about the need for educational reform, a need to move away from competition and standardisation, it surely is essential that community is at the heart.  To bring change we cannot go alone; our world faces huge challenges which are complex and difficult. They cannot be solved in isolation, we have a need for ‘ubuntu’. Only in community can we discover this; dreaming big dreams, championing each other, navigating failures, and, encouraging each other to believe for the impossible.

So, I hope you can take a moment to look at your own community you find yourself in, often it is there even if we don’t recognise it. If you don’t have it, how can you find it or create it, have courage to reach out to connect with others. Let us each to take a moment to examine our hearts, seeking to be more generous, to look out for those who maybe isolated, to be willing to welcome others in.  May we find ways to celebrate together, collaborate, challenge broken systems and create safe spaces that enable growth and flourishing. To do this we need to be brave, take risks, put ourselves out there, be willing to step up and lead for a bit even if it does not feel natural, and, importantly to catch each other with grace when we fall short of who we want to be. My experience is always that we are richer for it and surely the world will be a better place with ubuntu embedded at its core.

[1] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/community

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1446907/

[3] No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu, Image; New Ed edition (October 17, 2000)

[4] https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/loneliness-research/

[5] Grace, has many meanings, in this context it is defined as ‘kindness freely given’ https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/grace

[6] https://brenebrown.com

 

Image credit: Bethany Sweetland

The start of a learning adventure

The start of a learning adventure

Guest Blog Post by Fabienne Vailes

On 17th January 2022, we started our journey and adventure into home education and officially de-registered our son from secondary school.  He is 14. We initially described it as jumping out of the plane! 10 weeks into this new approach to learning, we feel like we’re slowly settling into our new life and routines. I’ll be honest – it was harder for me than it was for Thomas. He took to it like ‘duck to water’. I initially spent a lot of time crying and letting go. We both said that it felt like breaking up with school.

Here are our four take-aways so far:

FOLLOW YOUR HEART

As I said in the intro, it took us several months to finally make the decision to de-register Tom and it wasn’t an easy one for us to make. That said, my heart knew long before I allowed my head to ‘catch up’. My challenge is I am an overthinker. A pure product of the academic system in France and in the UK, I used to believe that I had to use my logic and to ‘think about things’. My final decision was made when I watched my son’s face as we were heading home after having a chat with another home ed Mum and her son in early January; Thomas asked me: ‘do you think it’s possible for me to leave school? Do you think there is truly another way?’ Sometimes as parents we know in our ‘heart’ what the right answer or the next move is. We just need to give ourselves permission to follow our hearts. Taking this step for Thomas and starting the journey has enabled my ‘head’ to catch up.

AGENCY

Our decision to home educate coincided with my own year-long sabbatical and stepping off the ‘hamster wheel’.  Combined with Thomas becoming self-directed in his learning, this means that we are both discovering the power of agency – that feeling of freedom and choice. We can decide how we schedule our day and what we explore. We can be open and flexible and that feels good. And the exciting thing is that as we develop our sense of agency and we explore new skills, we build a sense of competence too.

BELONGING

We were very lucky that we connected with a local group of home educating families. We join their regular gatherings two days a week. With a range of ages from 10 – 15, all the young people have been so welcoming.

With Thomas’s help, I started sharing my French and Spanish skills one day a week offering an immersive languages day.  The young people have embraced this learning opportunity and every week I feel so energised. I feel so lucky to be able to spend time with these young people. They are all so different, so friendly and always willing to share. What I love the most about this group of adults and young people is that they are so life-giving and life-affirming. They have created a real safe space for us all to learn, grow and evolve.

I feel like I am also getting to know my own child. I am discovering who he is, what he likes and doesn’t like and what he stands for. Last week, Thomas and I commented on how we both feel that ‘we have found our tribe’ and how lucky we both feel to have access to this amazing community and self-directed learning hub. Everything in life is relational and interconnected and we can feel the real benefits of the sense of belonging and the positive relationships we are establishing with every single individual in the group.

PURPOSE

Over the last ten weeks, it feels like we have ‘freed’ Thomas. We have opened the cage and most importantly unclipped his wings. We are allowing him to explore new areas of interests. We are allowing him to stretch his wings and to see what they are for. He is discovering who he is and what he stands for. He currently thinks he might want to become an architect and so every week he attends a local architecture course, and he is loving it. He also takes part in a weekly woodwork workshop. These things wouldn’t have happened if he had stayed in school. It’s so wonderful as parents to watch our child flourish. His passion-led learning is enabling him to soar.

And it’s not just Thomas who is becoming a self-directed learner. I am also allowing myself to explore my own interests and to become in charge of my learning – this is a truly liberating experience.

It feels like we are both discovering what inspires us – our sense of purpose and passion: architecture, design and technology for Thomas, educational reform and the link between being self-directed and wellbeing for me.

Together we are discovering our preferences, through experience and we are taking action. Empowered to do so.

And of course, it’s still early days – we are only just starting on this new adventure, but I feel that we have the right ingredients to move forward. My professional research has shown me that it all starts with ‘flourishing’. We have the five wellbeing essentials in place: intrinsic motivation (purpose), sense of belonging, positive relationships, agency, and sense of competence.

I am sure the rest will follow…

 

Fabienne is an educator, author of The Flourishing Student and co-author of How to Grow a Grown up, wellbeing expert and parent of 2 boys aged 14.5 and 12. She will share her learning from 7 years of action research and hours of conversations on her Flourishing Education Podcast in order to empower all to become flourishing lifelong learners.

You can follow Fabienne’s journey as she connects with educational thought leaders in her weekly blog: https://flourishingeducation.co.uk/podcasts/

You can find her book here:

https://flourishingeducation.co.uk/book/ 

Taking the leap & no regrets!

Taking the leap & no regrets!

If you had told me when my son started school in 2011 that we would become home educators, I honestly would have laughed out loud. Coming from a family of teachers, the thought of home educating did not even come onto my radar. I will also confess the term ‘home school’ would bring up images of feral children in tied dyed clothes – ‘an irresponsible way to grow your children’ would have been my initial thoughts. In hindsight, I am now sorry for those unfair presumptions!

When my son started school as a small 4-year-old with he was full of beans, excited to go and bouncing with energy. He is not one to sit still… over the months that followed we noticed he became quieter and more withdrawn; he was constantly tired. My wife kept asking do you think he is happy? He feels different, less bubbly…? My response was always, it is just school he will get used to it and he needs to toughen up and learn to manage it (after all he had another 12 years in the system!).

My wife started to question if he was in the right school (not so much questioning actual school as a concept) but, more was a two form entry large primary school the best for him. At the same time, she discovered a new local forest school who were keen to have kids who were flexischooled. A new term to us but one we quickly embraced – one day a week he would run free in the forest under the guidance of a couple of leaders who encouraged risk, taught him to use tools, light fires and play imaginative games. To say he loved it was an understatement – he would come home beaming, covered in mud, the sparkle back in his eyes. And yet with this small decision came the slow trickle of ‘concern’ from friends who were worried he would miss out academically if he missed 20% of his school week. Something at the time I could not answer with a confident rebuttal, more just a smile knowing how happy he was and a growing confidence that was a critical part of being able to enjoy learning.

Then parents evening came, and his teacher informed us he was doing well, he was settled and she said ‘to be honest he’s so well behaved we don’t really notice him’. This of course was meant to be a compliment – he didn’t stand out academically yet neither did he cause trouble. However, I heard it that my child was not a problem and as such ‘not seen’. It triggered further reflections (not angry or upset, more intrigue) … in reality can a teacher with 30 kids in their class actually see each child and support their individual learning effectively? What about the fact that children learn differently? These questions coincided with the Education Minister removing the right to flexi-school which meant forest school was stopped. I had ‘moved’, a reluctant flexi-schooler to appease my wife, I had experienced the change in our son and now knew we needed a change. We decided to move schools and found a local village school which had only 18 kids in the class and focused on learning outdoors. We watched our son come alive again; lots of play, outside nearly every day, lots of moving around not sitting still, being quiet and listening…

Then we unexpectedly moved to a city, village school no longer an option and so he joined year two of a nice city primary school with a good mix of international kids and a ‘Good’ Ofsted report. Our son was happy and we hoped the opportunities at forest school had restarted his enjoyment in learning. For the next three years we ‘did school’, his younger sisters joined and my wife juggled work in school hours, and after school commitments. Yet, this niggle of ‘is this best for our kids’ never went away – in reality I wish it could have stayed quiet!

There were a few incidents that led to our next decision – one of our daughters coming home, age six, saying she felt trapped at school, ‘what is the point of starting anything at school –  just as I get going, we have to stop and move onto the next thing’. She was frustrated. For my son, there was a ridiculous conversation with his year 5 teacher who was adamant he had to do cursive writing. We tried to explain that as a left-handed writer cursive is more difficult for him, but cursive was the rule and he had to obey. His dislike for writing rapidly increased. Our school term would start quite well, but as the weeks would go by the level of exhaustion would increase, sibling relationships would break down and home felt a battle ground – particularly on the morning, exiting the house to meet the ‘we must be not late challenge’ Mornings were full of stress as the kids – despite good friendships – were not keen to get to school! They were frequently trying to tell us they did not like school.

Finally in May 2017 my wife said enough. Her avid reading of the alternatives empowered her argument to me that we had to at least try it for a year – so we did. To be honest I had been slowly worn down by the experience of the kids but also the ideas (scary as they were) that there might be a better way. It felt more risky to step out – but whilst staying felt ‘safer’ it also meant pretending that we had no choice – and yet we were blessed with the responsibility of choice. So we left – or we jumped – or we fell … and in honesty we were totally ill equipped to answer our own questions, let alone of those of our (mainly) kindly disapproving friends or family.  In hindsight, that’s the hard bit about ‘stepping out’ – you leave the safety of convention and raise an unintended challenge to those for whom the safety of that very convention is itself reassuring and therefore not to be questioned.  And yet… question it we did…

Fast forward five years and I am confident it was a decision well made. Over the months that followed our exit I watched my kids come alive, their curiosity rekindled, their joy in play, their sibling relationships restored, no more early morning wake ups and being squashed into uniform and dragged out the door. Our one year trial simple turned into our reality.

To be clear, I do not believe school is a bad thing. However, I do believe the education system needs to change, but that is a different story and not for here. What I do know is stepping out of the system has given us a freedom to enable our kids own learning journeys. We don’t always get it right, we have good and bad days, we have friends/family who do not understand, we have had to make financial sacrifices, my wife had to step away from her research work, we get the ‘what about socialisation’ ‘your kids won’t be toughened up ready for the world’ questions… yet what I get to experience is three happy kids, they play a lot, have friends of all ages, explore their passions, choose what they want to learn and learning is fun (and does not start or end with a bell) – our family is richer in relationship and they are growing with a deep sense of self and a love of learning. On the wobbly days of doubt (being outside of convention, those wobbly days can come hard and without warning) I need to remind myself and to be encouraged that even conventional wisdom (in the main) agrees that the purpose of education is not just about ‘leaning a curriculum to pass exams’ but about cultivating a joy in creating lifelong learners (albeit that is harder to standardise as an assessment). My kids have this joy and a freedom to pursue their passions, for this I am grateful.

I Feel Proud of Myself

I Feel Proud of Myself

The photo is such a special one to me, the happiness and laughter on my daughter’s face is one thing – but there is something that you can not see in this photo…  Minutes before this was taken on Saturday night, my daughter had just watched herself on a cinema screen for the first time in the film premier of a movie that she is in. As the credits rolled, so did her tears – I watched as the tears flowed fast down her beautiful face, she swiped at them quickly, desperate to stop them before the cinema lights came back on.  I held her in my arms, and squeezed her tightly- when I asked her why she was crying she replied… “I’m happy mummy, and I feel proud of myself.”

Rewind to four years ago when we decided to take our daughter out of school – she was suffering terribly with anxiety and low self esteem – school were not supporting her at all. At her worst, she was being physically sick everyday, it really was such a distressing time.

Making the decision to home educate was the best decision we have made.  At the very start we enrolled Ellila-Jean in a local drama school in an attempt to help her with her confidence, and help it certainly did. She found something that she truly enjoyed and we watched her confidence blossom right in front of us.  In the last couple of years she has had some great opportunities, and met the loveliest people.

So this picture is much more than just a happy photo, it represents an incredible journey that Ellila-Jean has been on.  It has not always been smooth sailing – but we are worlds apart from where we were at the start, and words can not describe how incredibly proud we are of her.

Four years ago I would never have imagined that our little girl would have the confidence to stand up in front of a cinema full of people and talk, let alone be in a film… but what means so very much more than that, is that she now believes in herself…and that truly is the best thing of all!

(Photo credit Grant Archer.  Also in the photo is Tom England)

Written by Kirsty and uploaded by Streams.