Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Celebrating Christ at Christmas

I can hear the cicadas and some early birdsong, which I expect will soon explode into a symphony, heralding a new morning. The air is cool and the house is peaceful. It is our first morning in a new home, and today is Christmas Eve.

Advent has been very different this year, refreshingly so. We've been busy, that is for sure! But the things that have occupied our time and the imaginations of my sons have been far removed from what we would more typically associate with 'Christmas' in the UK.

1) Last year I waxed lyrical about the Jesse Tree project. I am still amazed that we had not discovered it previously. As I considered different versions that could be used, I noted that some have strong roots in catholicism with different symbols drawing out some traditions rather than biblical principles. I wonder if some Bible believing Christians have just discarded the idea because of such roots, but then again, I had not even heard it being discussed. Interestingly, as a Christian home educator, we know of many families in different parts of the world who use a similar structure for Advent. If you haven't heard of it either, let me encourage you! The principle is described in Isaiah 11, where the 'root of Jesse' is prophesied. Every day, there is a Bible reading and a 'symbol' or 'emblem' of some kind to draw/ make/ colour. The stories build the picture of creation, fall and redemption as well as illustrating the key figures in the lineage of Christ. It is a wonderful overview Biblically and it has amazed me how well their young minds grasp these truths. For the 'symbols', what we have done so far is print a set, mount them on different colours of card, and for each day I have an envelope hung on a string. On the outside is the number of the day and the Bible passage, and inside there are the three pictures, each on a different colour of card (one for each boy). We read the passage, colour the picture. One is hung on our 'Jesse tree' - we have found the best branch we can in the park or out and about, and spray painted it gold or silver. The second is being glued onto a large timeline we have running across the wall (rolls of Ikea paper are made for timelines!) together with other related drawings and verse written out beautifully (reading, handwriting, copywork etc all come in here!). I can see how this project will develop and change as the boys grow and they increasingly add their own creativity.

I love the fact that it is simple, Biblical, flexible and keeps the whole family focussed on what Christmas means. There is plenty of room for colour and decoration, and it can bring out a lot of 'educational' things such as drawing, craft, reading, handwriting and so forth.

2) Church celebrations. This has been refreshing for us. We have been here three months now, and as we have become involved in some of the music and dancing at church, we have been able to build relationships. I think when people realise you are not just a visitor passing through, but actually here to stay and get involved, then they start to invest in you too. The boys have enjoyed this, although they were a little reluctant to join in at first. What I have loved is that the singing and dancing has sought to focus on telling the Christmas story and sought to honour God. Everybody has been welcome to join in, and they were able to find a task for everybody - some people sang more, others danced, my husband who doesn't really sing or dance much was given an important task as 'narrator' to explain the Biblical thread running through the story and so forth. It was delightful for me to see the boys dancing away with their new friends. I think what refreshed me here was that although the service on Sunday was to some extent a 'performance' or 'production', nobody was running round getting stressed about the quality or the sound or the set, or any of these things. Really it was kept simple and the desire of those leading was to honour God above all things. It may sound a subtle difference, but for me it was important. Many years ago, I used to play music with the group on a Sunday morning. I stopped doing it after a couple of occasions where there was great angst and raised voices due to a malfunctioning PA system or mixing desk (some kind of technical thing which might have meant the music sounded less 'professional', but which would not have stopped us being able to worship God!). I realised at that point that the 'performance' aspect was becoming too important, and that my role (saxophone) was not essential but rather just to embellish, and so I stopped. Interestingly, a few years later, in a different part of Africa, when there really were very few musicians, I did cautiously get involved again because I saw the need. My point is that I do have concerns at times with music and performance in churches - I think the Psalms make it clear that music, instruments and singing should be used, should be done well - 'Play it skillfully and shout for joy!', but should be done all and always for the glory of God. It is one of these areas where there may be a fine line - because the attitudes and motives of an individual heart are known only to God. I digress a little, but what has seemed lovely to me this advent is that it has all been God-centred.

3) That as Christians, we do have something to celebrate at Christmas! I have known very devout believers who have eschewed all Christian celebrations because many are based in pagan roots, because Christmas is not a 'biblical' feast, and because many things that take place do not honour God. Many of the leaders at the time of the Reformation took this view too. I can kind of see their point, but at the same time, I wonder if in some ways they have missed the point. I believe that what the world needs and yearns for at Christmas is something different. People do not come to church for a watered down and mediocre version of what is taking place outside (in terms of music, decorations, entertainment, food and so forth). I think people yearn for something deeper, some peaceful reflection, some genuine hope. Christmas is a time when those who do not know Christ might well come to church, and I think we do a great disservice when we seek to become too like the world in order to reach them. And for Christians, we should be celebrating the birth (and life, death and resurrection) of Christ daily! That can become a cliche - and that is why I think it is great to take the period of Advent and the Christmas activities to really focus again. This can be particularly important for children who love family traditions and the build up of anticipation. I think the key thing is, what do the children anticipate? Is it gifts and food? If so, they will ultimately be disappointed. Is it time with family and friends? That too, does not fully satisfy, although it is a good thing. As parents we need to pray for wisdom as we enjoy the good things that God has blessed us with, without seeing them as an end in themselves.

4) Complete lack of materialism. We have not heard any comments from the children along the lines of what they might get as a Christmas present. They know there will be some small gifts, but that hasn't really been a priority or concern to them. We have not heard any of their friends mention shopping or presents, and in church we haven't heard it either. The larger shops have had a bit of tinsel up, and maybe one or two aisles that are remotely 'Christmassy' in some ways, but there hasn't been the constant bombardment of advertising, Christmas jingles, conversations about shopping, gifts, money and so forth. I think as homeschooling parents, it is easier to shield our children from this, even back in the UK, and to focus on the more important things. But here, it almost hasn't felt like there has been much to shield them from. The children have some friends who have no shoes. Another friend mentioned how his mum made great chapatis (if you know my boys, you will realise that the street chapati has become a friend to them!). However they realised that what he was saying was that what he would eat for his evening (often only) meal was something we would buy as a snack without a second thought. None of these things affect the friendships, and we don't spend ages reminding the boys that they are privileged to have a balanced diet of three meals a day, or shoes on their feet; we don't need to because they can see for themselves. And I think it is helpful for them to realise the blessings they have - that material things are just 'things', but they are God-given blessings we should not take for granted.

It is still dark, the birdsong is escalating and I can hear a chorus of The First Noel coming out from the boys' bedroom. Christmas Eve is going to consist of gardening - we moved yesterday, but grew some plants from seed on the balcony of our apartment, which are ready to plant. We have work to do on our Jesse tree timeline. And there is a carol service in the cathedral at 5pm. And yes, there may be some presents too - my grandmother was Polish, and in many European countries the celebrations take place on Christmas Eve not Christmas Day. We remember her, and the family traditions, by opening one present each on Christmas Eve.

Happy Christmas! 
I wonder how you will celebrate this year?
Do you have any family traditions which help you focus on the things that really matter?

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Sonlight: Week 12 in our new home

We started to use Sonlight 12 weeks ago, just after moving to east Africa. It was a time of much change in our lives - moving to a new culture, new climate, adapting to urban life here, new forms of transport, new languages heard, new foods, new friends, almost everything different. The thing that has remained stable has been our home life. Working in medical research and medical education, we are able to both work part-time and have flexibility regarding some tasks which can be done from home (indeed, often done better from home in a quiet evening with no interruptions). One of us is always home with the children, much as when we were in the UK. This provides stability, and using the curriculum provides structure. I wrote previously about how we had found the transition, and it seemed a good time for an update.

The first thing to say is that we aren't ending term! We've all enjoyed it so much that we see no need to stop for a holiday. Charlotte Mason, an educationalist whose philosophy has certainly influenced the Sonlight team (although purists would argue it does not strictly adhere to her principles!) said, 'Education is an atmosphere, education is a discipline, education is a life'. That being reflected in our family, we are not going to take a break from the atmosphere of our home, from consistent Biblical discipline and from the continual dialogue and experience that develops as we live our lives! Also, the boys love the books, the activities and the routine. By proposing a 'Christmas holiday', it would almost imply that there was something we needed to take a break or a rest from.

However, the routine will change a little. Our regular home school sports is being replaced by a daily two hour swimming lesson in the middle of the day, in a place 10 Km from here (requiring two minibuses or quite a lot of walking). This is a great opportunity, but might well mean we take slightly longer over the curriculum. That is just fine! I think it is important to remember that any curriculum is simply a tool we use to enhance our home education experience, rather than a master to whom we must slavishly submit. Flexibility is key.

Highlights so far have been:

1) I think the best thing of all has been my middle son (recently turned six) suddenly realising that he could read, and that this was exciting! Previously he had objected, often with tears and great angst, and yet suddenly, perhaps with the start of something new, perhaps with the beautifully designed, 'I can read it' series which enables a simple story to be told with very few words, perhaps simply as a matter of developing maturity, he just embraced the concept. He is now half way through the second book, and also takes time to read (or try to read) just about anything he can get his hands on.

2) Similarly, although perhaps slightly less dramatically and with fewer whoops of delight, my eldest son (also aged six) has been progressing rapidly through the 'Grade 1' readers (the aim is to start him on the Grade 2 ones after Christmas). He has also been reading more and more independently and is starting to read stories out loud to our three year old. The progress seems rapid - its a bit like when they learn to speak, when they go from a few words to sentences, paragraphs and perfect use of grammar.

3) Both of the older two are enjoying writing and spend time trying to write their own sentences (for example, writing captions on drawings). The younger one is making a gentle start with Handwriting Without Tears - not following any real structure, just learning little by little and following his own desire to learn.

4) The science forms a nice foundation. We had covered many of the principles and have a range of other books that complement the Sonlight resources. They are all starting to think a bit more scientifically, forming a 'hypothesis' and learning to develop experiments to test this. I find this exciting because at that age (and indeed even through secondary school), I didn't really understand the concept of hypothesis-driven research; I simply memorised the facts. Things were as they were. I had not learned to question and to test. They seem to have grasped this well, and as a scientist, this excites me!

5) They also love maths. My second son in particular asks for extra maths, and sometimes wants to start the day with maths. We are using Singapore Maths, and mainly what we are doing at the moment is addition and subtraction. We build on this using various manipulatives - for example, we collect the bottle lids from the sodas we occasionally drink and invent addition and subtraction games we can play, as well as categorisation tasks. Also, in the market, the bartering we do here helps with some of the concepts - 'If she is selling one pile of tomatoes for 2000 shillings, and we get two piles for 3000 shillings, how much have we saved?' And from that also, some economics. 'We have 500 shillings. You can choose to spend it on the minibus fee, or we can walk home and spend it on a chapati.' You can guess what the choice invariably is there! I think with maths, quite a few home schooling parents have a bit of a mental block towards it, and we need to take great care not to let our own attitude influence the children. For example, if we often say it is 'hard', or unpleasant or leave it until last every day, then they will be influenced by that. I have been delighted by the way they enjoy it, and particularly that moment of revelation when a concept makes sense.

6) Plenty of time for electives, which can vary to suit our setting. Some things will be the same as in the UK. Cooking (although with some different ingredients and different challenges), drawing, music and singing (again this has the added flavour of learning local songs and learning how to dance!), exploring the nature that surrounds us, swimming and climbing trees, walking and talking about all we see and so forth.

7) That that books have been chosen. The Sonlight team apply stringent criteria to select the books used in their materials. We have really enjoyed the quality of the stories, and that they teach many other things as well as literature. We are using Ergermeier's Bible Story book which we had not come across previously. I am slightly surprised I had not heard of it, given the quality. It tells the stories beautifully, the illustrations are helpful and not distracting, and there a some nice questions at the back to test their comprehension. Similarly, 'I heard good news today' tells great stories of missionaries throughout the ages (I must comment there are a few grammatical/ typographical errors in this, about which I have written to the Sonlight team, but notwithstanding these, it is a very encouraging and inspiring book). I could go on... I think we always need to remember not to restrict ourselves to these books only, but to continue to enjoy other materials.

8) The other books that we continue to draw on frequently are the biographies by Little Lights and Lightkeepers. I continue to receive encouragement as I read these stories, and my prayer is that the children grow with the worldview that being a Christian is not always easy, and might even lead to ultimate sacrifice, but that it is the most important way to live. By exposing them to a wide range of examples and stories I believe they are developing that mindset too.

So, as we reach the end of our third month in our new environment, I feel encouraged. Yes, there  are still challenges - as any family will attest to. There are days when discipline is a challenge, and it can seem to take us many hours to get through the materials because of continual interruptions to deal with an issue in one or other child. I feel tempted to frustration at these times, but need to remember that this is also an intrinsic part of education, and perhaps even the more important part. It would be better to deal with all the heart issues as they arise than to complete all the scheduled activities swiftly! (I need to remind myself of that).