Sunday, 31 January 2016

Home Education. Rhythms

I came across this interesting article yesterday: basically a reminder of one of the main reasons why we chose to homeschool in the first place. I think it is always good to stop and consider what we are doing and why. In our society (and by 'our', I mean a western, achievement-orientated, goal-focussed, individualised society) it can be easy to start to feel the pressure to achieve. This pressure I believe has several sources:

1) Many of us were brought up with this to be our worldview. I was raised in a non Christian home where affection was rarely shown and praise was hard to earn. Hard work and solid results were at one time the only currency in which I felt I could deal. Even many years later, having come to know the amazing salvation of Christ some 20 years ago now, these voices still remain at times.

2) Often as homeschoolers we feel a little (or perhaps a little more!) misunderstood by those around us. In the face of criticism, it can be tempting to feel we have to 'prove' ourselves, be that academically, in terms of specific talents or skills, or in terms of 'good' behaviour. I know I can feel this pressure at times!

3) Even when we meet with other homeschooling families, there can be a temptation to compare. Of course all of us would agree that one of the greatest benefits of home education is that each child can move at his own pace in each subject, and do not need to subject our children to testing and comparison with peers; however, it would be nice if our child was doing 'well', would it not? (But then, how does one define 'well' anyway?)

I know some friends who have recently made the decision to home educate their children, and I was wondering what advice I would give them. Their situation of course is different to our own experience (as in fact every other family in the whole world's is!), and a particular challenge we have not faced is having removed children from mainstream education. Our boys have never been to school or nursery, so have really known nothing else. But where does one start? Do you find the best resources? Or the best schedules? Or try to continue what was being done at school, but move it to the home environment with more support? Or is this completely the wrong question to be asking? (I believe that final question to be the truth!)

Last summer we had the privilege of attending a Home Education Encouragement Day with Voddie Baucham being the speaker. One quote which remained with me was when he said what his response was when people asked him to recommend a home education curriculum. He pointed out that this was the wrong question, and instead, parents should ask themselves, 'What is your philosophy of education?' What are your overarching goals and aims for your children?

For us, we started just by embracing the lessons that surrounded us. Long walks in the parks and countryside were often among the best opportunities to talk about life, creation, beauty, lifecycles, biology, botany, ornithology, weather, clouds and the water cycle and so forth. In the kitchen, we learnt to count, measure, weigh, cut, to understand a little of the underlying science and the creative presentation (or otherwise, when you are two years old!) of food and baking. Sometimes a particular question would captivate them, so we would head to the library to find a book, or watch a you tube clip. Many hours were spent reading out loud together - I would let the boys choose books from our collection, but would take greater care as to what went into our collection (Charlotte Mason, the educationalist of the 1900s who wrote much on home education would speak of 'twaddle', and similarly, there seem to be stories today that glory in disobedience and dishonouring of parents). We try to have a mixture of Usborne information books, Christian biographies at different levels (from Little lights and lightkeepers through to more detailed books), almost anything by Julia Donaldson, plenty of history books (particularly 'living books'), 'classics' like Swallows and Amazons and the Little House on the Prairie books and so forth. Every day was different. Amongst all this, there was the opportunity to really practice Deuteronomy Chapter 6, bringing the word of God naturally into many different situations throughout the day. We were already living like this when we started to use the more structured Sonlight curriculum, but our choice was mainly influenced by the way our rhythm and pace had developed as a family - therefore it was the ideal tool to complement what we were already doing, and several months in, it has certainly been a good match.

But it might not be for everybody. Many people here use the ACE programme - and whilst I can see its merits, I just see that wouldn't work so well for us. My point is that it is not the curriculum which should shape how you home educate your children but rather your families pace, structure, goals, philosophy and worldview should help you choose which resources might be best.

Some home education bloggers write a lot about scheduling. I suppose our life has taken a certain rhythm with more 'curriculum' activities in the morning and electives/ field trips in the afternoons - but I've never really made a schedule (Sonlight does structure the teaching materials beautifully, so I just open the folder each week and it guides me!). But if I were starting and really not sure how to make that start I would stop and consider the following questions. If you aren't sure, then just enjoy some time together as a family, do the things you enjoy most, and try and make a couple of observations.

1) What are the time points in your day? When do the children wake? When do you eat? When do you aim for bedtime?

2) When are the children most receptive to sitting down and listening? For us, that tends to be in the morning, or early evening. Afternoons are a bundle of energetic boy-ness. Some families aim to do all the 'lessons' in the morning, others in the afternoons, and still others in the evenings. Find a time when your child is likely to learn best.

3) What is their attention span? Can they listen to long stories or focus on tasks for 30 minutes or more, or do they work in shorter bursts? One of the things I have loved with my boys is the ability to do a couple of short tasks, go out for a brisk walk, come back and do some more tasks, take another break and so forth.

4) Do your children do better with a fixed schedule and structure, or do they thrive on the freedom to spend longer on one thing or another? Some homeschooling families are very relaxed in terms of time, and allow children to follow their interests and passions fully; others prefer to keep a clear, written schedule and have the children pursue interests in the 'free time'

5) What are your child's strengths? What really captivates them? For my middle son, this has always been cooking, and whenever he seems a bit tense or irritable, it really helps to get him into the kitchen and help chop some vegetables or bake a loaf of bread! He doesn't always like to sit and 'work', so we try and learn reading and numbers in the kitchen when he doesn't realise he is learning.

6) What are your child's weak areas? Are there any mental blocks? Has it been made worse by unhelpful resources? For example, Sonlight offers three different maths curricula, and each has pros and cons; there are many other maths resources, and sometimes it is simply a matter of finding one which works best

7) Does your child learn well on a computer? Would web-based or DVD resources be helpful?

8) Are there any hobbies or sports they might like to do as a group? What groups are there locally?

By thinking of the natural rhythms and patterns of your family, together with your goals and philosophy in home educating them, you may be able to start to work out how to move forwards. There are helpful resources written specifically for those who remove their children from mainstream school, how to break patterns, how to enable children to recover after challenging times, how to establish a gentle pace of life; these I am sure will help too.

I continue to think home education is the ideal way to instill in our children a biblical worldview which runs contrary to what is often spoken of today. Yes, there are huge academic and social benefits too, but we must always remember our highest goals.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Five Encouragements

Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus' 
1 Thessalonians 5:18

We moved into our home two days before Christmas, and now I finally feel we are settling into life here. Where we were before was beautiful, peaceful, convenient, but somehow felt like staying in a deserted, dilapidated 1970s hotel, and there were also unfenced swimming pools which meant I was not happy for the boys to play outside without close observation. We have much to give thanks for, and thought I would share a handful of these encouragements.

1) Our next door neighbours are Christians who homeschool! This really was a surprise, as homeschooling is still quite unusual here. At work, I often feel there is an undertone that I should put the children in one of the big international schools and then I'd have more time to work! Even when people speak reasonably positively about homeschooling as a concept, they still don't seem to understand that time and effort it can take, and that I will not be at work every day of the week. This is fine; I would not expect people to automatically understand our lifestyle choice! But to have people who share our compound who totally understand our motivations is amazing. The children are similar ages, and already they have spent many afternoons playing together and we need to consider some activities that can be done as a group. (They use ACE, whereas we use Sonlight, so the structures are a little different, but there is so much potential to overlap). It was also quite humbling to realise we were an answer to their prayers as much as they were to ours; our house had been occupied by older single people for some time, so I think it is a breath of fresh air to have a group of lively children.

2) The boys continue to achieve milestones. I know this is normal and to be expected in any family, but it is still awe-inspiring when it happens. For example, my elder six year old has grasped reading, and now sees that he can read just about anything he wants - it is like a whole new world that is opening up in front of him, and today he thanked me for teaching him to read. My younger six year old learnt to swim - from being petrified of the water, the other day he shocked me by jumping into the deep end of a friend's pool, swimming a lovely length and nonchalantly climbing out again. For him, this is a huge milestone, and he was delighted to have planned this surprise for me (I was overseas for the final week of swimming lessons, when he really grasped it). My three (almost four) year old is learning his letters fast, and has been enjoying having his own workbooks and sitting at the table with his big brothers. He too can see the excitement of new concepts opening up. One could argue, more importantly than that, we are seeing some nice character development. My eldest told me how he regretted doing something cruel to his younger brother about a year ago. My middle son meticulously tidies up, and they actually argue about whose turn it is to wash up (as in, they both want it to be their turn, and the youngest is going to wash up for a special treat on his birthday). The little one offers me cold water or coffee when he thinks I need it!

3) We are happy with our choice of curriculum - I've written about this before, but it took a while before we decided to use a curriculum at all, and Sonlight really does map nicely to the style we had already developed. We don't stick only to the materials - we try to ensure we are not too rigid, and continue to have flexibility to really delve into a topic, or to embrace a one-off  opportunity that may present itself. People often comment to this effect, but it really is important to remember that a curriculum is a tool, not something we should become a slave to. The boys are excited to be learning - whilst the intensive swim camp over the last couple of months was great, they were actually asking to return to their normal 'school' routine and are enjoying it as much as before. We have some more materials arriving soon with our shipment, and that is exciting.

4) We can run! This might sound like a really strange, and perhaps trivial point. But when I first saw this city, although confident that God was leading us here, I despaired at the traffic. We know those who spend several hours a day in traffic. My husband's workplace is 8 Km away. He can run in 45 min, walk in 1 hr 15 min, and once he went by car and took more than 1.5 hours. So running is actually the fastest and most efficient way to travel around this city, and of course it brings huge health benefits. My workplace is 4 Km away, which I find a lovely distance. We are at a bit of altitude and it is hilly - it can be quite tiring. We both feel more energetic when we run regularly, and I know for sure that the exercise and fresh air are good for my mood. When we previously lived in southern Africa, I found it difficult to run - it was an unusual thing to do, and I found I attracted too much attention, felt immodest in shorts, and never really got used to the altitude. Here, we are relatively close the the altitude training centres in the East African highlands, and there are many runners out and about in our neighbourhood, both expat and local. The boys have been doing Fartlek training on the road outside our compound, and they are also getting very fit.

5) We are beginning (beginning....) to feel more part of the church community. There is a small township next to our road and some of our friends live there; we often meet on the way to church. It is only 15 minutes walk from here, and there was a fortnight of daily prayer meetings after new year. By going to these, and taking the boys to the start of some (to be collected by the second parent on the way home from work), we got to know some people in a different way than you might on a Sunday morning alone. It does take longer in a different culture, that is for sure. When I have visited expat (or more mixed) churches, they are more welcoming on face value. But it has been rewarding to keep working at it here, especially as we are here for a good few years. The Bible teaching is amazing, very solid and clear. In Africa in general, there can be problems with 'prosperity' teaching and the 'celebrity pastor', and that is very much not the case here; it is often spoken against. Many of the congregation are from a tribe from the north - a place which had some real hardships some years ago with the war, child soldiers and so-forth. I think this experience has refined the faith of many, and also taught very clearly that our true home and true rest will come in heaven.

I could say so much more, but these are five examples of recent encouragements as we continue to settle into life here.

How have you been encouraged this week?

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Priorities: Psalm 27

We start every morning with a Psalm. I have been trying to explain to the children the difference between knowing about God, knowing the Bible stories, historical events, prophecies fulfilled and so forth, and actually knowing God Himself, loving and worshipping Him. These are quite difficult concepts to explain to young children, but when it comes to worship, I find nowhere better to start than in the Psalms.

Whilst considering priorities for the coming year, I have often returned to Psalm 27:

'One thing I have desired of the Lord, that will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord , and to inquire in His temple' Psalm 27:4

What one thing do you desire for 2016?
What do you prioritise for your family?
What occupies your prayers?
How will you use your time?

The glory of God is evident in creation, and there are many beautiful things in this world. There are also many dreadful occurrences and ugly scenes which dominate the press. There are achievements to celebrate, disappointments to commiserate. There will be life events - some planned, others unexpected. There will be times of rejoicing and times of sorrow. But what matters most?

This morning I read Philippians Chapter 3, and the words of the Apostle Paul:

'But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ, and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead'. Philippians 3:7-11

That Paul wrote this - the man who did so much for the gospel, who faced so many hardships and trials and yet counted these 'a light and momentary affliction'. He wrote with real humility - that he wanted nothing other than to know Christ more.

In my own spiritual life, that is my priority. I often rise early before the rest of the family - at times that is difficult and can be tiring, but the quiet morning hours are so precious. Even ten minutes alone with the Bible and prayer in food for my soul, and yet so often I am ashamed at what a small percentage of each day I spend alone with the Lord.

In my family life, this is my priority. We read the Bible and various storybook Bibles and Christian biographies several times a day, and the curriculum we use (Sonlight) provides a Biblical worldview. Our decision to home educate has been largely shaped by our desire to provide the boys with this foundation (although there are MANY other positive reasons to home educate!)

In the workplace, using every opportunity for God's glory has to come before the pursuit of academic success or popularity. Working amongst vulnerable populations, my desire is to radiate some of the love of Christ.

And more widely, in the community where we live (and we certainly do get known around here; a family with several young children of different races who walk miles and travel on local public transport do get noticed, and of course living on a compound brings its own ready-made community) our desire should be to make the most of each opportunity.

Yes, I may need to translate this into some specific, measurable goals and areas of accountability, but simply my greatest desire for 2016 is to know Christ more. 

Monday, 4 January 2016

Priorities: Unless the Lord builds the house...

Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat - for He grants sleep to those He loves. Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from Him. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver if full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their neighbours in court. Psalm 127

When I consider priorities, I often return to this passage. It is so easy to work increasingly hard, staying up late, rising early, skipping meals, making unhealthy choices in order to reach our goals. Note that the passage does not say that hard work and striving for excellence are wrong - there are many places, particularly the book of Colossians, that talk about working at everything with our whole heart to bring glory to God. The point is not to suggest we all become lazy! But rather, it questions what our priorities are. Over these past two years, I often pray regarding these verses. When I am not homeschooling our growing family, I work as a medical academic, and over the past couple of years the work has been successful and productive. This leads to more work, teleconferences between time zones (often at conveniently late times when the boys are asleep!) and travel. All of these are stimulating and exhilarating, but I need to keep checking on my motives. For example:

Why do I aim for academic excellence? Is it to improve the health of HIV positive individuals across Africa, or is it for my own career stability and success? 

Why do I apply for the grants I apply for? Is it because I think this is a wise and best use of much time and effort, or is it because I am fearful for my academic standing if I do not continue to perform? 

When things go well, do I feel that it is through my own achievements, or do I praise God who guided and opened the opportunity?

When things go less well, do I blame my own shortcomings and feel I must work harder still (labouring in vain) or do I praise God who guides through both openings and closings of doors?

But what also struck me tonight as I read the Psalm was the juxtaposition of the two sections, which are often quoted separately by different groups of people to make different points. That is why I have quoted it in entirety without line breaks above. Immediately after the reminder that we must not labour in vain and that we must keep seeking and serving God at the absolute centre of all we do, is the well known passage about children being a blessing from God. Why are the two together in the Psalm?

I think these can be quite clearly linked when considering today's society. How often have you heard people lament that they cannot 'afford' children, yet live in a lovely suburb, own two cars and enjoy foreign holidays at least once a year? How often have you heard people (particularly women) state that they do not wish to start a family until they reach this or that milestone in their career? Or even sadder, how often do you read reports of the increasing number of women who leave starting a family for so long, that by the time they 'try', they are unable to conceive? We also know many families who state they cannot afford for a parent to stay home with the children (but are in fact paying a fortune in childcare and all that goes with it). I know many women who feel that going part time would be seen as a lesser commitment to their career, and seem to put the opinion of their bosses above the wellbeing of their families. I believe that as we prayerfully consider whether the Lord really does build the house, then we are liberated from selfish motives and misplaced ambitions, and able to make those choices which bring God glory. And children are indeed a blessing, raising children in a godly manner is of far greater value than my academic work, and the Psalm makes clear that God will bless these choices.

Entering 2016, a major prayer is that I ensure that the Lord builds the house. That I can use each God-given opportunity, but that through my work I am able to honour God. Through reaching marginalised and vulnerable populations, that I may demonstrate some of God's amazing justice to the oppressed as described beautifully in the book of Micah. That people know me first as a Christian, a godly wife and mother, and then after that as an academic (successful or otherwise!).

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Happy New Year! Resolutions?

Happy New Year! I wonder how you celebrated? Did you make any resolutions?

Here in Africa, it seems very popular among churches to have an overnight celebration on New Year's Eve. Our church met from 9 pm until about 6 am. I confess, I left at 1 am, knowing it would not be a wise choice to begin the new year without sleep. All around, you could hear noisy praise and prayer meetings lasting throughout the night. What a contrast to what I would normally associate with Hogmanay! In my home village in Scotland, there would often be a party lasting until breakfast time, where everybody would bring an instrument or simply their voices, and we would play traditional songs and dance the old dances through the night, often out in the cold, frosty air; I loved these parties. There seemed to be a remnant of good, old-fashioned fun, without excess. In contrast to that, I remember one night when I went to Edinburgh with friends for the street party; that was quite a terrifying evening with large crowds of rowdy young teenagers and young adults, mostly under the influence of excessive alcohol (and probably more). I remember feeling cold, lost, alone and yes, quite frightened at times. Whilst some of the praise parties that go on over here may be loud and not always theologically precise, it is amazing to be part of a culture which places putting Christ first as a high priority. I enjoyed spending those hours reflecting on God's goodness and faithfulness over the past years, and committing the year ahead to Him.

People often talk about resolutions. I gave up on the idea of specific new year resolutions a long time ago; if something needs to be changed, then why wait until new year? However, I do find it profitable to spend some time reflecting on the overarching goals of the year ahead. What should be our priorities? 

A friend recommended a list of 70 resolutions, written in modern English but attributable to the great Puritan preacher, Jonathan Edwards. These were not so much New Year resolutions, but the standards by which he sought to live his life, and against which he continually measured his spiritual state. It's impressive! When I read through it, I feel quite challenged that I don't really think in such depth about all aspects of life.

But what does the Bible say about resolutions? There are so many exhortations and admonitions to live pure, holy, righteous lives characterised by love and acts of service underpinned by pure motives that I will not attempt to list them. But in one place the Apostle Paul specifically talks about his resolutions:

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 1 Corinthians 2:2 

I suppose my goals as we move into 2016 could similarly be summarised. To quote Paul again,

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:17

Whatever you do... The big, obvious, public things. And the small, seemingly insignificant, hidden, private things. And not only what you do, but the thoughts you think, the motives that drive you, the desires of the heart. In all these things to give ultimate glory to God.

The ramifications of this will be different for each of us. But I  think that anybody who reads that verse prayerfully will be convicted. I wish to get to 31st December 2016 (if the Lord spares me) and be able to see ways in which God has been glorified in all areas of life. I won't have a checklist quite like that of Jonathan Edwards, although it might prove helpful to have a shorter, focussed list of areas to consider. But my prayer is that in ALL things I can resemble Christ more and more.

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Philippians 1:27 - the word 'whatever' refers to any kind of outward circumstance which may present itself. Some months and years are characterised by relative peace, prosperity, material blessing and strong relationships. Other times may seem marred by illness, discordant relationships, financial hardships and spiritual despondency. But WHATEVER happens, we are to live God honouring lives.

As you move into 2016, may your life resemble Christ more and more. May your words bring blessing and encouragement. May your home provide peace and security. May your choices be wise. May your Bible reading bring greater understanding of God's goodness. May your hope be fully in Him.