Sunday, 27 September 2015

Priorities when starting afresh

We have often found that moving home (particularly when it involves moving to a different country) makes us reassess our priorities. Some of this can be deliberate - time to leave old things behind, perhaps start a new routine, a time to make new habits. Some of it is borne of necessity - water needs to be boiled and stored, clothes need to be washed by hand and dried in a small space, the electricity is intermittent. And some of it comes through unexpected challenges or questions as we get to know new people. I find it a helpful time, to consider which things have true importance.

Some recent examples:

1) Settling in a church. Wherever we go, if it is for more than a couple of weeks, we desire to get regularly involved in a church. We believe this to be Biblically correct, to join with the body of Christ wherever we are. And it brings other advantages too - we get to know other believers and be encouraged by them (and hopefully bring some encouragement too). We make it known to those around us that our faith is important - either we are seen walking to church, or when people ask how we intend to spend the weekend, we will talk about going to church. It helps the children realise the importance of this in any move - that no time is too short to be important to God. And in many respects it mirrors what we will see in heaven, when 'every tribe and tongue' will worship. We've been amazed at how blessed we have been in places where we have only lived for a few months - and our involvement and commitment to the local church has been a major part of that.

2) Patterns of family worship. We find that keeping our family devotional routines always helps with transition. We start every morning with a Psalm, and end every evening by reading through one of the books of the Bible before praying together. Wherever we are in the world, this has been our pattern, and I believe it brings the security of knowing that 'if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me' (Psalm 139)

3) Increasing involvement of the children in chores. There are more chores to do here - it fluctuates from dusty and dry to wet and muddy, and the beautiful red soil  which is so characteristic of Africa makes a delightful mess on the tiled floors. Dishwashers are unheard of and we don't currently have a washing machine. It is actually very good for the children to see how these jobs need to be done, and to reflect on how blessed we are with labour-saving devices in the UK. And now they are a bit older, we are increasing their responsibilities in terms of folding their clothes, tidying up before meals and at the end of the day. Small things which (in honesty) would be easier done myself, but we are using the move as an impetus to  instill better habits.

4) Building relationships in the community. As an expat living in Africa, it can be possible to live behind a locked gate and travel everywhere by car. We've seen that. Our approach is to try and walk as much as possible, and to find local stalls to buy our groceries rather than supermarkets in air-conditioned malls. (I am not saying the malls are wrong or that we never go there, but rather am describing the patterns we try and build). The market we have found is about 3 Km away, and is bustling, noisy, dirty and a little smelly. It's great! Several of the sellers recognised our family from our time here last year, and it's great for the boys to stop and greet people, to see daddy bartering for vegetables (the mental arithmetic can be quite fun to follow) and to get a much better idea of the value of money and where food comes from. So it's both a rich learning experience, but we also hope and pray it is a chance for us to walk with locals from different backgrounds and for them to perhaps question 'the reason for the hope that [we] have' (1 Peter 3:15).

5) Our commitment to living as a godly family - and that a major outworking of that is the decision to home educate. When I started to write at, one of the big challenges I faced was the reaction of some friends, family members and colleagues towards our decision. I think almost every home educator can tell you the typical list of concerns that well meaning people raise! And most of them can be very easily refuted (maybe I'll do a separate blog post on that soon!). I felt we'd got beyond that, and people just generally accepted it as something we did. Quirky or eccentric perhaps, but I was actually quite encouraged by how positive people tended to be once they saw how it all worked out. However now, in quite a different culture, I feel we are going back through the same kind of process with a slightly different slant. Amongst the middle classes here, there is very much a culture where a child will be raised by a nanny and in some kind of childcare or school from early until late (in fact the sign on the gate of the school next to our compound comments that 'children left before 6.30 am or collected after 6 pm are under their parents' responsibility' or words to that effect. It would be quite normal for a child to be at school from 6.30 until 6! There is always a temptation to justify our choices; sometimes this is right and helpful, as by explaining our priorities we might be able to challenge. But some of it comes back to 'being fully persuaded'. It is also easy to feel guilty for not being able to work between certain hours every day; again, I can summarise how we do this, how actually we are more productive in the hours we do work, and that we have considerable lattitude in terms of exactly when we work. But the point for me is to be confident before God that we have made the right choices, and not feel the need to apologise! I am sure I will write more on this too, as the weeks go by.

So there you have five things we are trying to prioritise as we build our lives here. Central to everything is having a Christ-centred, Christ-focussed household where visitors are welcome, and where we seek to encourage other believers and challenge non-believers. Many of the other things we do in our day to day life are just frills. It doesn't really matter if I walk, drive or take a taxi - the key is that I am seeking to build relationships, seeking to use my time wisely to glorify God and to make the most of every opportunity. I am sure you can think of similar examples - things that are of primary importance, and others which are just a means to that end.

So my challenge tonight is: What are the key priorities for your family?

Friday, 25 September 2015

Sonlight: First Week

Last week we moved back to East Africa. On Monday we started our new curriculum. We chose Sonlight for several reasons:

1) We have seen some really positive results. My first positive encounter with home schooling was about 10 years ago, in southern Africa. A family had seven children aged between 4 and 19, and so you could really see the difference in each stage. What impressed me most of all was the way these children could critically appraise evidence and reach a conclusion in a way which I was unable to do until I worked for my PhD. When I spoke with the family, it became clear that a large part was the well-structured and well-balanced curriculum they used, and this was Sonlight. The children all also spoke highly of their education.

2) It is very Biblically based, and seeks to instil children with a godly worldview. The integration of Bible, history and world cultures enables discussion right from the start about what is conventionally taught and what the Bible teaches (Week 1 of Grade 1 kicks off with a discussion of evolution, dinosaurs, the age of the earth etc - it does not shy away from controversy, but presents the Biblical view clearly and correctly)

3) It is similar to the style we had adapted to over the past few years - lots of reading together, lots of reading out loud, lots of discussion. The only criticisms I have ever heard of Sonlight are that the parents spent quite a lot of time reading out loud, but we had already based much of our education on this anyway, so it seemed a natural progression.

So, after the first week, how has it been? Short answer is: Wow. This has exceeded my expectations and I am thankful to God for such a positive start! More specifically:

1) You can get quite a lot of advice before you choose a Sonlight curriculum, especially if you are teaching more than one child. I chose a Core package with the other subjects added on because the core is recommended for children within a 3 year interval. My boys are 6, 5 and 3, and indeed for the core parts, all three of them seem engaged.

2) Then, I had chosen handwriting K (starting off - with manipulatives and very basic letter and number forms) and Grade 1 for the younger two (my eldest seems to write reasonably so I did not feel needed a handwriting module). The youngest is delighted to have his own materials, and both the younger two have been asking for their handwriting books. I chose 'handwriting without tears' out of the different options. We have quite a strong family history of dyslexia (although haven't noticed any signs in the children as of yet), and also my middle child does seem quite obstinate at times. They love the way the letters are described. It's amazing - to go from objecting to writing to actually asking for it from the moment they wake up!

3) With regard to Language Arts, I have obtained Grade 1 and Grade 2. We've started the older two at the start but are deliberately going faster with the six year old, in order to stretch him. I have never seen anything quite like the elation of my five year old as he correctly read his first page of a book. Sonlight author John Holzman has written the series 'I can read it!', and in our household this has proven very true. Right on the very first day!

4) We went for Singapore Maths, having considered the other options too (Saxon and Horizon). We did not want excessive worksheets and repetition (my boys tend to turn off and make almost deliberate mistakes when they are asked to repeat things too many times!) and also, the people we know who are best at maths are from Singapore. It seems to be working really nicely. We bought the textbooks and an extra copy of the workbook and both older boys are going at the same pace here.

5) Science - a lot is familiar to them, but it's nicely structured and I like the way it ties in with what we are doing in world cultures. They were extremely excited to blow pieces of paper across the floor to prove that air is a substance. It was incredible to see their delight

6) One thing I was uncertain about was they way the schedule involves reading short parts of several books, whereas previously we might read fewer books but complete them in a single or a few sittings. I was not sure how that would work out, and whether it might cause frustration. But in fact it has been working well, and has helped balance out the attention between the boys of three different ages (my eldest could listen to a whole novel, whereas the younger two prefer shorter sessions). The rapid change of pace is good and refreshing. In the afternoons we have spent more time reading some of our non Sonlight books, and so we have the best of both worlds. Also, there have been a couple of days when the boys have been more restless, and so the change of topic can help resettle them.

7) My husband and I were together for the first three days of the week, so able to work together and get a feel for it. Out of the two of us, he was a bit more reluctant to buy a package, but it has been quite delightful to see how much he has been enjoying it too.

I am very grateful for this positive first week! Not every moment has been easy, and I am sure there will be weeks that feel more like a challenge. But for this week, we feel like we have established a new pace, a new routine and are excited about the weeks and months ahead!

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Transition Reflections 1: Community, Relationships and Ministry

I haven't written much over the past month because we were busy preparing to move back to Africa. It was a hectic time, but God provided for us in amazing and often unexpected ways. We were very aware of His blessing upon us, even though we were somewhat exhausted. Tonight is our first night in the apartment where we will live for the next month or so before moving into a house. The boys are asleep now, and I want to start processing some of the things which have particularly challenged or encouraged us during the move:

1) Finding a place in our community. Last time we made a big overseas move was 10 years ago, when we had no children and both worked full time. We didn't really know people in the neighbourhood, but would pretty much come home from work to eat, sleep, go to church meetings a few miles away, host Bible studies and then return to work. However that has all changed. We spend a large proportion of each day in the nearby parks, and along the way we meet many people every day. You know the people who become part of your life, but you don't even know their names? The thing that hammered this home to me was that our own postman, and the postlady who does the adjacent streets BOTH knocked on the door with gifts for the boys and to wish us well. Several of the neighbours sent us cards. The ladies at the checkouts at the shops we use commented they would miss us. And I felt quite emotional with some of the goodbyes. I think I had not realised how embedded into the local community we were until it was time to leave. And I have some reflections on this:

  • Alongside all the 'advances' in society, the mobility of the population and the increasing tendancy for both parents to work and children to be in full-time childcare from a young age, there simply is not the close, caring community that older people might remember from their childhood. Often when I think about what the biggest need in our society is, I think it is to feel known, loved and cared about. The postman seemed quite emotional when we said goodbye, and this led me to consider that his role must often seem quite invisible and lonely; how many other people feel this way? And how as Christians can we reach out and make a difference? I think that homeschooling families are uniquely placed for this ministry - because we live out our real lives within a neighbourhood, have time for relationships to develop and the ability to invite others to our homes. 
  • I have been following a thread on our homeschooling group Facebook page, discussing how we can feel that our decision to home educate has an impact on the types of ministry we can engage in. I think it is really really important to realise that we can minister in different ways, but that is no less of a ministry. For example, I have often felt a bit guilty for not being involved in 'one to one' mentoring or being involved in some of the outreach activities arranged through church. However, I have realised that in fact we have been doing more and better evangelism simply by living real, Christ-transformed lives. A couple of the other parents I meet in the park (again, those I do not really know well) have commented on our faith, and that they have seen something different in us. That really really encourages me that we can effectively reach others with the gospel whilst busily homeschooling a young family
  • Taking it slightly further - some of this outreach and ministry would not be possible if it were not for our children. Polite, friendly children who ask others how they are, and occasionally ask them if they worship God (!) are great ice breakers. My husband in particular has commented how it was always a bit more difficult as a young man to start conversations with neighbours etc, and how the children have opened many doors. I find it really frustrating when people consider that devoting time to your children is a hindrance to 'ministry', because I really do believe that they are stereotyping ministry and trying to force it into a far narrower mould than the Bible would suggest.
2) Perhaps relating to the above - the power of an open home. Several years ago I really enjoyed reading about Francis and Edith Schaeffer and their L'Abri ministry which commenced in Switzerland but later became worldwide. One quote was that 'as many people came to faith through Edith's baking and loving care as through Francis's apologetics'. Whilst indeed feeling a bit guilty for not being involved in structured one to one Bible studies, there have been several young adults who have basically become part of our family, have spent many afternoons with us in the park, have had many chaotic and lively meals with us, and in between that we have discussed how our faith impacts upon real life. Perhaps you could even argue that this is more effective discipleship than to set aside a formal hour every week. As with my first comment, I do not think I fully appreciated the depth of some of these relationships until it was time to leave.

3) The closeness of Christian community. We changed church a few years ago, basically because we used to walk an hour to church (and everybody else drove in to the community) whereas a young lively congregation sprung up literally on our doorstep. It got to the point where we seemed to be more a part of the local church simply because of the way our daily lives interacted. Additionally, it is much easier to invite people to things that are local rather than being in a part of town they might not otherwise ever go to. Anyway, we've felt really encouraged and supported both by the church as a whole but also by our house group. People have asked sensible questions about how they can pray and otherwise support us. It was really positive for the boys to be sent out by the church, and to have the chance to publicly explain a bit more about our work here. You might think this should be standard, but the situation was very different 10 years ago, and I never really thought I'd get to the point where I felt closely involved in a church. As with the other comments, it was only really in the build up to leaving that I realised how much we have been encouraged, and how much grace and healing there has been from the previous situations we were in.

These three points are very much inter-related - because in all of them, we simply aim to live as Christians, to share everything we have, and to make the most of every opportunity both to witness to unbelievers and to encourage those who already know the Lord. The 'classic' Christian home education passage is in Deuteronomy Chapter 6 - and we believe we've seen that in our lives. Most of our 'ministry' to our children, to Christians and to unbelievers has taken place as we walk along the road, as we sit at our meals, as we undertake the activities of daily life. I do not want to dismiss the importance of other forms of ministry (and for example, we have been regularly involved in church and Christian Medical Fellowship events, as well as starting a monthly mission prayer meeting, and for seasons of time have done more structured evening Bible studies with young adults). But the purpose of this post is to encourage Christian home educating families:

1) Do not underestimate the power of a Christ-centred life within a community

2) Do not underestimate the day to day conversations and the relationships you and your children form with shopkeepers, postmen, gardeners, mechanics and the other people you regularly engage with; you might be the only Christian they ever know, and so many people are just crying out for love

3) Do not feel guilty if you cannot commit to activities during 'school' time (such as morning toddler groups). Rather seek to live your life alongside younger Christians and disciple them as they share your lives

4) Look around you and consider the relationships you may take for granted. Pray for the people you live amongst. Thank God for the unique opportunities given to you and your family.