The mug that was chipped

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Today I heard about a good friend of mine expecting a baby.
Obviously, I’m thrilled for her. She’s a lovely woman and is going to make a wonderful mum. Her husband is really wonderful, and I know he wants kids and will be an involved father. It’s all very lovely.
And, I have a baby of my own now, I’m not infertile anymore. So, why do I still feel that horrible sinking what’s-wrong-with-me feeling whenever I hear about someone having a baby?
I honestly thought that having a baby of my own would mean that I could just be pleased for other people’s babies. But, I just feel broken and crushed.
I had a nice cup of tea, and that brought me a realisation: I feel broken, like my chipped mug.
Other people have lovely families with fresh, planned, innocent babies. I have my broken family, my lovely adopted boys with all their past dragging behind them and my long-time-coming baby. We have our therapy sessions, our fraught birthdays, our close relationship with social services; I’m still jealous of the ‘perfect family’.
Other people are whole, shiny mugs, and we have a great big chip on one side.
Really, I ought to get rid of the chipped mug. I have a cupboard packed with mugs as it is.

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One less would be a good thing!
I would be able to stop worrying that I will accidentally make tea in the chipped mug for a guest. I am very careful not to give a guest the chipped mug. I keep special inoffensive, unchipped mugs for guests.
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Which is probably pretty common. I expect a lot of people keep their chipped mugs in the back of the cupboard and hide them from guests.
Of course there are no perfect families. Everyone has their chips, even if they don’t usually display them.
And, I have always believed that there can be a beauty in flaws. There is something extra lovely about being a bit chipped but still being able to do your job.
Our wounds have a beauty all of their own. Our wounds and chips have the beauty of imitating Christ’s own wounds. He sits on the throne of heaven not as a whole and perfect man, but as ‘a lamb that has been slain’ (Rev. 5:6). One day the wounds and flaws of my little lambs will be glorified too.
Until then, I will remember to treasure them, chips and all, and remember that everyone has chips.

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How we home educate

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At the moment we are following a pretty rigid timetable. We aim (well, I aim and on a good day the boys are onside) for three hours teaching a day, usually in the mornings. The afternoons are more varied. We go to a local home educators group once a week. The boys have play therapy once a week. My mum takes the boys swimming once a week. Sometimes we go to the park with friends, or to the library. Sometimes we go to a National Trust property or a museum.
We have teaching time from Tuesday to Saturday. So we can take Mondays off and ease ourselves into the working week, and my husband can teach one morning a week, on Saturdays.
I have a fortnightly timetable, which the boys helped make. I made cards with all the lessons that I wanted to include. Then I let the boys contribute one lesson each (their choices were art/music and French). Then we all sat down and glued the cards to big sheets of paper to make a timetable. I let the boys choose where to put all the subjects. The hope was that they would be more inclined to do the work if they felt some ownership of the plan.
It’s been pretty successful, but we’ve been using this timetable for several months now and I’m beginning to plan something new for after Christmas!

Cooking and Housework

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Being children, and only human, the boys definitely prefer the decorative bits of home economics. It’s never hard to persuade them to decorate biscuits!
I want to teach them useful life skills as well, however, so once a week we do an hour of housework. I try and vary the tasks for the boys, and I try to find things that they enjoy. At the moment, this is a list of what they can do, in order of preference:
1) Polishing the bannister,
2) Putting a load of washing on,
3) Cleaning windows,
4) Cleaning the bathroom,
5) Cleaning the table,
6) Getting the washing off the line,
7) Putting the washing on the line,
8) Hoovering,
9) Tidying up!

They may not always be as thorough as me, but I love watching them learn useful skills, and they love feeling genuinely helpful! They both enjoy telling family and visitors all about how hard they work.

To help maintain enthusiasm for tasks, I let the boys help choose cleaning supplies. There are loads of scents available as well as the choices if foams or liquids, spray bottles or pouring bottles. They are always excited about using something they chose. Being pretty relaxed about these things myself probably helps. I don’t really care which bathroom cleaner we use, so they boys may as well pick one with a fun name or a bright orange squeezy trigger.

We have a similar approach to cooking. They enjoy having done it a lot more than they enjoy actually doing it! And they have another clear hierarchy of the desirability of tasks. Stirring is more fun than chopping. Grinding pepper is more fun than pouring milk. Turning the oven on is more fun than measuring ingredients. And tasting is the most fun of all!

I often involve the children in cooking dinner, because fairy cakes are not the main stay of a healthy diet. I think if you’re going to cook with your children, you should cook real food. Last week we made spinach and riccota cannelloni (particularly fun because we got to harvest spinach from the garden before we cooked!). Making meals without using a recipe book are a big part of our cooking lessons. It won’t help them get jobs as chefs, but it will mean that once they have a kitchen of their own, they should have some idea of how to make a meal. I showed them how to mix riccota, spinach, grated cheddar, salt and pepper; then stuff it all into cannelloni tubes and lay them in chopped tomato sauce; throw on a few handfuls of grated cheddar and parmesan; then bake. They are already used to me saying ‘oh, we don’t have enough of this, that’s ok we can use that instead’. A bit of bread flour when we run out of plain, a can of kidney beans when there isn’t enough mince, caster sugar instead of granulated, brown sugar instead of caster . . . The substitutions are endless! I’m not aiming for Michelin star cookery, just an ability to feed themselves.

Sometimes we do really lazy cooking, or make something from a box. Like this creme caramel.
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It may not be really clever cooking, but it involves reading and following directions and measuring. Plus, they can do it all by themselves! They really enjoy the few dishes they can prepare independently (salads and Angel Delight!). They like to experiment with different seasonings (lots of tasting involved there) and adore taking ownership of ‘their’ recipes.

I think they learn lots of practical skills, as well as an appreciation of all the work that goes into running the house. In these lessons more than in any other, I find I have one eye on the independent men I hope they will become. I imagine them leaving home and needing to make healthy meals for themselves, and keep their own places at least a little bit clean. I think about the lives they will live, and hope to prepare them as well as I can. Sometimes it seems like one of our most important and serious lessons.

But every now and again, we just decorate biscuits!

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Maths

Personally, I think this (now both boys read fluently and independently) is the most important lesson. So it’s the lesson I devote the most time to, and the one that ends up being the least relaxed!

We use a lot of workbooks. I also have maths books for both boys where I make up exercises to go over things they need to work on.
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One of the strangest things I have noticed about teaching the boys maths is that the work must be just right. If it too hard, they are quickly discouraged, which is not at all surprising. But, if it is too easy, they become silly and refuse to engage. Sometimes, if I’m struggling to show them something , it helps to make a sudden jump to much more complicated work. That can inspire them anew. One example of this would be basic arithmetic. They needed to work on getting all their operations the right way round (not adding when the problem called for subtraction, for example). I tried making maths more real using sweets, but they weren’t interested. Then I introduced the Four 4’s puzzle. The idea is that you can make every number from 1 to 100 inclusive using exactly four 4’s and any operation you like. The boys loved it and got excited about arithmetic again! Really, the puzzle is rather hard for them, and they do need help, but they engaged really well and their arithmetic skills improved.
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We have ‘Fraction Action snap cards’ which have been very handy. In conjunction with fraction equivalency cubes, they have helped the boys get to grips with fractions, decimals and percentages.

Sometimes I take maths outside and draw all over the patio with chalk. This way we can revise triangles, shapes and fractions.

I would like the boys to learn their times tables. The boys are not at all sure. They prefer the delay method.

Me: So, Otter-kit, do you know what eight times seven is?
Son: What?
Me: Eight times seven.
Son: Eight times seven . . . Seven times eight . . . Eight times seven iiiiiiiiis . . .
Me: I know what you’re doing here. You’re working it out.
Son: It’s fifty six. See, I know it!

Bah! That is not knowing your tables, that is counting in your head, whilst repeating a question.

Sometimes, I get the boys to play a times table memory game that I made. Somewhat ambitiously, I made prime number cards as well, but we’re nowhere near ready to introduce those yet.

Sometimes we play Beep-Crash (you sit in a circle and begin to count, but every time you reach a number in the five times table you say ‘beep’ instead of saying the number, and every time you reach a number in the four times table you clap instead of saying the number.). The boys have a sixth sense for educational games and resist playing this one too often.

Of course, the boys love playing maths games on the computer. I’m not convinced that these games improve the boys’ skills, but they do convince the children that maths is fun!

There are many days when I think I may as well admit defeat and accept the boys will never learn their tables. But, then I remember that a year ago I thought the same thing about telling the time, and they can pretty much do that now. I do realise that this is almost certainly proof that the boys can pick up maths without me pushing it so hard. I do believe that a good home-educator knows when to trust their children to learn on their own initiative. But, I also believe that I am not that home-educator!

English: plays!

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I have a whiteboard, which we have a lot of fun brainstorming with!
We began our plays theme by talking about what makes plays special.

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Luckily, we had a drama day with our home educators group, so the boys got to perform in front of an audience and be part of an audience.
We were also able – as part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas – to attend a puppet workshop at the ADC theatre.

We looked at Julia Donaldson’s book of plays: Play Time. First we did a read through together of one play (I chose to do thus lesson when my brother was visiting to read a part with us and my mum was visiting and gave us an audience).

Then we chose a play to study together. We studied The Billy Goat’s Gruff. I found a book of ours which tells the story. (This one, but it wouldn’t have mattered much) And I found a YouTube cartoon by Oxford baby. We read the play and the book and watched the cartoon. Then the boys filled in a worksheet I designed.
They finished by re-writing a page of the book as a play script. I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had taken a lot on board about script layout and stage directions.

The final stage of the project was writing our own play. We chose another story we all knew: The Magic Porridge Pot. First we brainstormed the story:
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(as you can see, the baby ‘helped’!)
Then we got all our glove puppets together and cast our ‘actors’.
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Next the boys improvised a play and I filmed them.
They watched their improvisation and made notes ‘what was good about it’ and ‘what we could improve’.
I typed up the script from their improvisation and we went through making changes, adding a bit of explanation and improving a few lines. We typed up the final script.
Then the boys performed it. Here is the final result:
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English, especially poetry.

There’s a lot to cover with English! We use workbooks and sheets I make to look at grammar. We have made our own parts of speech cards, and we play about with those. Both boys happen to be pretty good at spelling, so we don’t do much actual work there, but we play Scrabble and another game called Top Word.
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For comprehension I picked up a game called ‘Bookworm: a game of reading and remembering’. One person reads an extract from a book and asks a question about the extract to the person on their left. If that person gets the answer right, they move forward a square, otherwise the next person gets a go. If nobody can answer the question then the questioner gets to move forward.

We write lots of letters, and are lucky enough to have family members who reply. This really helps the boys to believe that their writing has a purpose!

As well as these bitty things, I have done a project on poetry.
We focussed on ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’. First we read ‘The Jellicle Cats’ and made our own Jellicle cats from saltdough and acrylic paint.
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Next I made copies of ‘Macavity the Mystery Cat’ with words missing. The boys took it in turns to think of words to fill in the gaps. Then I told them which words T. S. Eliot had used and we talked about why Eliot had chosen those words instead of others.
For our final task, we read ‘Mr Mistopheles’. The boys wrote down their favourite words from the poem.
Then they brainstormed their own words about a cat.
Next they went through all the words and ideas they had (their own and those inspired by Eliot) and underlined three. They wrote two lines of a poem, using those three underlined words.
We repeated the underlining and line writing process until each boy had a poem.
Then I wrote out their poems and cut them up so that the lines were all separate. We moved the slips of paper around, trying out different orders for the lines.
Then we looked for unnecessary repetition and changed some words.
Then we sat back and admired our poems!
At the moment, I have a simple format that I use to help the children reflect on their work. They write: ‘what was good about my work’. Then I write: ‘what Mummy thinks is good about my work’. They write: ‘what I think I could do better next time’. Then I write: ‘what Mummy thinks I could do next time’. As they start to get more thoughtful and incisive in their responses, I am hoping to introduce an element of criticising one another’s work. But, right now, I think that would be rather unhelpful!

Why we Home Educate

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Whenever people hear that we’re home educating (which a lot of people do, since a lot of people want to know what my lovely school aged children are doing in a park in the middle if a school day), this is the first question they ask:why?!
I don’t like to explain it fully to everyone, it’s a but long-winded, but I’ve been thinking it over myself.
I think this is why:
Firstly: school made us all miserable.

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The school my boys were at struggled to cope with their various needs and quirks. I want my boys to feel proud of how much they have achieved and not to keep comparing themselves with other children (many of whom didn’t have the traumatic start that my boys have managed to survive). My middle boy learnt at school that ‘girls are good and boys are naughty’ (he actually thinks this!). That is an awful thing for anyone to believe, especially a little boy.

Secondly: my boys love learning.

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They think museums make awesome days out; they think maths is fun and they LOVE reading. The more time they spent at school, the more they began to believe that learning was boring and playtime was the only fun bit of the day. I wanted to get rid of that dangerous attitude.

Thirdly: I was finding the boys more and more hard work and less and less fun. When I told my family that we were thinking of home educating, they worried about me spending so much time with the boys. We were not doing well! I needed to start having fun with them again.

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Fourthly: I wanted to take them on lots of trips, do lots of experiments and crafts, and go to the park loads! We simply don’t have time for school.

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