Tuesday, 31 May 2016

What legacy will you leave?

Sometimes I really do feel life is like a spiral curriculum! You learn certain lessons, move forward, move into new areas and new challenges, and then after a while, find yourself back asking a question which you thought had been answered conclusively.

I recently turned forty, which might be the source of my current unrest! I know it is just a number, and really doesn't mean much. And physically, I am as fit and healthy as I have ever been, although a little tired of late. I suppose the question I have been asking is whether my life has had value. I know that might sound a strange and self-centred question, and perhaps it isn't even one that a Christian should ask. But it is there, and I often find writing helps me reflect and consider. I hope these musing might bring encouragement to others elsewhere too!

A good place to start is always the words of Jesus. In Matthew Chapter 6, He says, 'Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.'

Treasures in heaven? What are those? What has eternal value?

Often I reflect on Psalm 127, and the words, 'Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain'. In considering what has lasting value, we must consider what God is calling us to do with our lives. Each of us only has twenty four hours in a day. We all have different relationships and responsibilities. I imagine most of us feel that there are more things that we would LIKE to do than we actually CAN do, and maybe particularly in this season of life with many young children we can feel stretched very thinly. But what is God actually calling us to do? Do you know? If not, how can you find out?

As I write that, I am not going to discuss in full the different ways that God guides - many others have written on this topic. There are different perspectives here - some believe that God has a specific perfect will for each believer. I am not so sure about that since it would imply that if we make a single wrong decision, then we could be 'outside God's will', and His plans are perfect; it also tends to negate that we are given free choice. I am more convinced by what some term the 'wisdom' approach - that God has a clear moral will ('Is this sinful?' 'Does this route lead to excessive temptation or compromise?') but otherwise we are free to choose between the options which provide the greatest spiritual opportunity. There may be several different options through which God can be glorified, and we are left, through prayer and seeking wise counsel, to make the best choices. 'Decision Making and the Will of God' is a helpful book reviewing this concept.

But I digress. Even having made choices - many of which were made long ago (to train as a doctor, to marry, to have children, to work overseas) - there is still that day to day question: Does this have eternal value? Why am I doing this?

As home educators, I think we are often challenged about whether we are making the best use of our time. In our culture, it seems that looking after other people's children is a reasonable thing to do, but to prioritise your own children is not worthwhile. I recently read a blog post encouraging me that I am not alone in having some days when all I seem to do is correct behaviour and attitude. I was reminded that in fact this is one reason why we do home educate! Our priorities are not simply academic achievement with a few hobbies such as music and sport thrown in. Rather, godly character and wise choices are of great importance, and these things cannot be taught in simple 30 minute instalments but rather through the day to day grind, the challenges, the arguments between siblings, the times when ungodly character is visibly displayed. I need to remember that. Because otherwise it is easy to get discouraged. I haven't achieved my to-do list today and don't have a beautiful piece of art to show you, because we actually spent most of the day discussing attitude and having time-out as a consequence of disobedience. Yet, that has greater lasting value.

Which leads on to another big challenge in today's generation, and yes, a challenge I struggle with often! I am very goal-orientated. In the workplace I am efficient and have lists where I can tick items off with a sense of satisfaction and completeness. Yet parenting (whether or not one home educates) does not lend itself to check lists! And if it were to, it would miss the point. Our goal is far longer term, and not one in which it is easy to see progress or achievement. We need to remember that. In Galatians, Paul writes to the Christians, 'Do not become weary in doing good...' There are times when the world around you seems to scream that you are wasting your time, and making sacrifices in vain. This is where support networks (online or in real life) can be of immense value, to remind one another that what we are doing is worthwhile!

Professionally, things are going well. But it is always easy to look at others who have achieved more, or faster or have visible success. Even there, one must remember that you rarely see the whole picture. I may see evidence of grants awarded and papers published. But what I do not see is the hours and hours spent working on grant applications which receive harsh reviews, or the manuscripts which are rejected and cannot be improved upon. Also, probably more importantly, one does not see another researchers' life and eternal destiny. And hence here also, one can miss the point entirely. Work is good. We were created to work, even before the fall. Glory Days by Julian Hardyman expounds upon this beautifully. But work is really just a means to an end, and if we lose sight of that, we have missed the point. Would I be more 'successful' if I were a professor by now? If I had a massive research portfolio? Or if I had made a discovery which had a huge impact on global health? Or actually, seeking to work at everything with all my heart as working for the Lord and not for men (Colossians 3:23) am I doing well enough by keeping that eternal perspective, encouraging others in their work and making a small difference to a vulnerable population somewhere? Even in the workplace, it can be easy to prioritise wrongly. Teaching and mentoring the next generation is important, and as a Christian I believe brings great opportunity. But it does not bring the kudos of large research grants and high impact papers. What should be the priority? We all know those who are motivated by selfish ambition and will do almost anything to achieve their goals; but this is clearly diametrically opposed to what Christ calls us to. 'Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself' (Philippians 2:3).

What matters most? Is it not summarised in the words of the prophet Micah? 'He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?' Micah 6:8

So as I reflect, I see clearly that I am asking the wrong question, or asking the question with the wrong emphasis. It is not what I have achieved in life that matters. It is what eternal legacy I will leave. My greatest priorities are to my family - to my husband and children. And then in the workplace, the priority is to swim against the tide where need be, and to seek to use every opportunity for the glory of God. It may be that I never see clear, well defined fruit from these labours, or it may be that I do. It certainly is not a matter of a simple formula or checklist for success. But the Bible makes clear that living in the light of eternity is our calling, and in His strength I will continue.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Sonlight: Review of Year 1/ Planning of Year 2

We home educate our children using the Sonlight curriculum (plus various other bits and pieces and a whole lot of freedom to play and explore). Whilst it was a curriculum we had seen others using, and had seen very positive results from (in terms particularly of character and critical thinking over and above any academic, musical or sporting achievement), we only started to use it in September when we moved back to East Africa. Within a week we were captivated. Within a few months we were settling into a nice pattern. Now, we are approaching the end of the first year, and I am preparing my order for the next batch of materials. It seems a good time for a quick subject-by-subject review, considering what we loved and want more of, and what (if anything) we would do less of.

1) Read alouds. Sonlight bases a huge amount of learning on books that are read aloud together as a family. These tend to be what are termed 'living books', whereby the characters live in a particular place and time or go through a set of circumstances from which we can all learn a lot. An example was 'Twenty and Ten', a story of children who helped protect a group of Jewish children from the Nazis. It brought up many interesting concepts for the children, but in an accessible way. One question is how far you want to take these! We ended up reading the biography of Maria Ann Hirschman, which although not typically a children's biography, really illustrated some particular points - for example that any one of us could be drawn into an evil ideology through our exposure, education and peer interactions, and that the gospel brings hope and forgiveness for all. Whilst I know some people have complained about the amount of reading aloud that Sonlight brings, we have actually wanted to add more, but we appreciate the freedom of being able to choose our add ons. Often I choose something which relates to a question which has come up in conversation, or something which we have to hand that builds on what we have covered in Sonlight. We often add in biographies. I'm going to do this a little more pro-actively this year, by looking ahead to see if there are any that complement the topics covered in Level B. It might be easier for us to add in extra read-alouds as we have only been using one level of Sonlight (level A) - it might be more challenging for parents who are teaching multiple levels at once! There are a few changes to Level A this time round, and so I've ordered in the books that I like the look of that we did not have the chance to read this year. The only one I really haven't liked was Beezus and Ramona; it seemed to glory in dreadful behaviour and I couldn't quite work out why it was there!

2) Readers. These really have been amazing. My middle son, as I have described, did not easily take to reading, but the 'I can read it' series transformed that. I think it was the use of rhyming words and a bit of humour (he particularly liked 'Pat is fat' on the first week!). Currently he is on 'Green eggs and ham', one of the Dr Seuss books, and I have never heard it read with such enthusiastic expression. I can hardly believe how well he is doing. My elder son (also aged six) can now read fluently, and can happily read stories to the younger siblings. This is very useful, as I can then focus with middle son on the things he finds a little more tricky.

3) History, geography and world cultures. This really is the cornerstone of Sonlight, and we use the materials as well as adding on whenever we have friends who are missionaries in different places, or when we get a newsletter or something. It's great! Sonlight is aimed at international/ missionary families (although is also equally good for those who stay in one place!) and my boys worked out that they have friends from 19 countries. So the world cultures is really relevant to their lives, and they have the hunger to learn. We really liked I Heard Good News Today, but got a bit irritated (I did anyway!) but some of the typos. I notice that it is not in Level A any more, but another mission-related book has been put in. So as we don't miss out, I've ordered that in too, just for enjoyment!

4) Bible. Maybe this should have been first, since we start and end every day with Bible and prayer. Biblical worldview is interwoven through Sonlight. We've been using Ergermeier's storybook Bible, which is well written and beautifully illustrated. There are questions at the back for each story, but I find the questions a bit basic, and prefer to use our own system. 'What does this story tell you about God?'. 'What does this story teach you about yourself?' 'What does this story teach us about how we should live?' - and from that move into a time of prayer. One of the Grade 2 readers was 'The Beginners' Bible', and so my eldest read the full storybook Bible and did quite a lot of copywork and creative expression based on the stories. There are also memory verses each week, and an accompanying CD. Sometimes we write our own songs too. They certainly have excellent Bible knowledge and Scripture memory, and have astonished some of the young adults who come to our home for Bible study. But my biggest prayer is that they truly know Christ and that their lives are transformed.

5) Language arts. This was a term I had not come across before, but basically incorporates grammar, spelling, phonics and creative writing. I particularly like the way the children are encouraged to use their imaginations, to express themselves, and to use language well. It builds up in a cyclical or spiral way. This is good because on of boys is doing Grade 1 and the other Grade 2, and often one will be covering a topic (synonyms, or homonyms for example) that the other has done a few days ago. It helps reinforce the learning of the other to have them working separately, but covering the same topics. This year we are adding in the things described as 'Optional' - some vocabulary and phonics resources. I am not sure how much we will stick to these, but I think they will be helpful at times when there is a sticking point. My middle son seems to struggle more with spelling, and therefore we are also adding in a specific spelling programme (we are trying Sequential Spelling this time). I like the way they are encouraged to use creative, expressive language without being limited by their writing or spelling ability (by dictating their stories, poems and imaginative writing to the parent) - it keeps writing 'real' - there is a clear reason for it, rather than being a more abstract exercise.

6) Handwriting. We chose Handwriting Without Tears. The four year old is using K, and the six year olds are using Level 1. They seem to do well with this system, and we will stick with it as they move into cursive.

7) Maths. We chose Singapore maths, and that is working well. What we like is the absence of excessive repetition. They get irritated with that, and so it is better to do the few examples required to grasp the concept. However, as with any discipline, there are certain 'threshold concepts' where they struggle a bit more. For example, one of the boys is struggling to grasp counting in tens and counting in ones. So I've used a few other resources (like the internet and lots of games I have made up). For next year, I am adding in the 'intensive practice' workbooks - I might not use every single exercise, but it will be useful for where they need a bit more. I am also ordering Mathtacular which is supposed to bring real life examples and problems to life, and a couple of books from 'The Life of Fred'. What I really want is for the children to see how maths and numbers are found throughout life, rather than thinking of maths as something dry that has to be done but which has no application. I've ordered Singapore Maths 2A and 2B for the older boys, and level K for the younger one - which seems to have a lot of manipulatives and things.

8) Science. We are using Sonlight Science A, and will progress to B. It really is a whistlestop tour through a wide range of topics. I suppose at elementary level, that's all it can be, and it presents a taste of many things. We've built around that quite a bit. For example, we have quite a few games and books to do with skeletons and human anatomy so have used these. We have a vegetable patch (and tropical rain and sun making things grow quickly) so have done many experiments out there. We expanded upon Newton's laws of physics with practical demonstrations involving running, bikes, balls and scooters. We don't always do the exercises in the order they are given - sometimes we wait until the opportunity fits in our day to day life. Also, there are days when the boys are restless and distractable and there are some things that just don't work well then!

9) Rosetta Stone (Spanish) - I'm really impressed with this. You can choose to set it to 'listening and speaking' and the software kind of tunes itself to the boys' voices. They haven't done anything via a computer before (we don't have ipads and smartphones and things), but can use the mouse well enough. They like being able to do this independently, and because all three boys are learning, we often hear them using Spanish in their play. We are also trying to learn the main local language here, but that is going less well - they prefer the interactive Rosetta stone interface to a young man coming to the house!

10) Music - we've been doing this independently with music school and choir, but I am ordering the Recorder elective from Sonlight to build on what they are already doing

11) Art - we tend to do quite a lot of drawing and painting anyway, but Artistic Pursuits is providing some ideas and guidance. I'm getting an art appreciation book from Sonlight K, to try and introduce them further to different styles.

12) Sport - again, we've been doing this independently and as a co-op, but there is a book on Home Education physical activity as an elective under K, and so we've ordered that for some fresh ideas for games that we can do on compound (and ideally involve the other children on compound too).

13) Play! Whilst there are so many marvellous resources, we also need to let them be children and to play! We try to let them play freely, but encourage them to use their imaginations and build on some of the things they have been reading about. Swiss Family Robinson is a favourite, and they love building shelters, weaving from fallen palm trees and today build beautiful structures from some bamboo they found whilst out walking. We also have childhood classics - lego, trainset and so forth. We do try and make sure everything has some kind of educational benefit, and it's lovely to watch them create and construct.

So, in summary, we've loved Sonlight. The individual lessons are quite short, but it builds up day after day. There is flexibility so of course you can do more one day and less the next, or take days off whenever you wish or need. There is no hurry. We tend to double up in the few days before an exciting event, and the boys don't really even notice. I love the diversity and flexibility and that they want to discuss so many things. This year we are adding in quite a few extra things that are supported by the Sonlight curriculum.

I must also comment that the customer service and advice provided by the Sonlight team is excellent. If you are not sure what to buy, or how to make the materials work for multiple children, they can advise. Similarly if you wish to pick and choose from the materials, that can be done. Prior to buying, you can have an advisor check over your 'shopping cart' to be sure you are ordering everything you need with no duplications or major omissions. I've been very impressed by this.

Yes, sometimes it gets tiring to constantly answer questions and have deep discussions about the meaning of life! But on the other hand, it for these kind of opportunities that homeschooling is really perfect - we can follow their interests, their curiosity, their questions and their concerns. There is space to speed up or slow down according to aptitude or interest, and you can easily school different ages and ability of children.

I'll likely write more about some of the specific topics on other occasions, and particularly about the new resources we are ordering this year for the first time.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Mothers' Day Celebrations

I was taken by surprise on Sunday when all the mothers were invited to go to the front of church, with a special time of singing and prayer. My husband was overseas, we've recently adopted our fifth child, and I was just feeling quite weary. This was the first time I'd taken four children to church by myself, and to be honest, I thought about staying home. I felt quite emotional as our role was acknowledged and valued, and as people gave thanks for the input their own mothers had into their lives. Motherhood is not something which is often highly valued in today's society. Whilst I appreciate the value of the role, and in some respects (many respects when I stop to reflect) I find it immensely rewarding, there are days when it feels utterly exhausting, unseen, unvalued, painful (physically and emotionally), and thankless. I had felt a little that way on Sunday morning.

Most cultures have some kind of Mothers' Day celebration. (This Sunday was the American one, also celebrated in other countries including here). But in all my years as a mother, this was the first time the mothers in whatever church I have been a part of have been acknowledged. Every other year, the message has been a lot more apologetic, reminding us that this can be a very painful day for the childless, for the single and for the bereaved. Every other year, it has been emphasised that there are many women who take on a maternal role within society and within the church, even if they have not been able to do so biologically. Whilst these things are true, today I feel like being controversial and stating that I think Mothers' Day (in whatever country) is not necessarily the time for these messages, for the following reasons:

1) The role of motherhood is different. There is a lot of unseen exhaustion, at times frustration and at times pain and disappointment. Many of us have resolved never to moan about the blessings we have been given, but that does not mean that the temptation towards discouragement is not there. It is good to recognise this role.

2) All Christians will know seasons of discouragement, pain, bereavement and loss. It may not be our children, or it may. But like it says in Ecclesiastes, 'there is a time to mourn and a time to rejoice'. A mothers' day celebration, to my mind, is a time to rejoice!

3) Expanding on the point above, perhaps more personally, there was a time when I was in a church where there was a young woman who took many years to conceive. We all had to be so careful with any kind of celebration to do with children, and even being as sensitive as we could, we would often spend long periods in the ladies' room consoling her. Now that might be the right and kind thing to do at times. But to me, I almost felt guilty for having a child, and unable to publicly rejoice as I might have wished. And then when my first child died, I felt that his was something else that had been taken away. As a bereaved mother, I appreciated all the more the need to celebrate new life and to support and encourage those who are mothers.

4) How far does one take being politically correct and 'sensitive'? Can one never celebrate a marriage for fear of upsetting single people, or bringing pain to the widowed? Can one never celebrate new birth, without fear of excluding the childless? Can one never celebrate an achievement, for fear of marginalising those who feel they would never achieve such a thing? I think we must take care here.

For me, exhausted and a little discouraged, to be affirmed and encouraged in what I find the toughest role in my life, was a blessing!

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Painting Pots

I know a lady who paints pots. Ceramic pots that you might plant pretty flowers in for the garden. They have beautiful designs and colours, and some are quite intricate. If you like gardens, you would probably like one.

She also has a son, around the ages of my children. A long-awaited only child. She works from home so she can spend more time with him. But for the past few weeks, during school break, the boy has seemed quite lost, a bit bored and doesn't seem to have had much social interaction. We were round the other evening. The boy was watching a cartoon, jumping from glass-topped coffee table to sofa, and eating sweets. There were no adults in sight, but I found them in a side room, painting pots. Like I said, beautiful pots.

Everything in me wanted to point out (vociferously) that she was entirely missing the point, and that her son was lacking in discipline and attention and getting into all kinds of bad habits whilst she was painting pots! I didn't. After a while I took my tribe home and gave them dinner.

But I have been challenged. What are the 'pots' in my life? What are the things that consume my time and energy, but which have no lasting value? Sometimes it can be so much easier to see the futility of a particular task in somebody else. To see a bad habit in somebody else. But we are all fallible human beings, and I am sure we all have 'pots' in our lives. Good things perhaps, things that have a clear end-product and beautiful output, but which are trivial compared to the eternal value of instilling character and discipline into our children.

What might a 'pot' look like? I suppose if I am honest, what I like about 'pots' is that there is something clear to show and be proud of at the end of the day. Parenting, home educating, walking the Christian walk, seeking to share one's faith and encourage others - how often do these things have tangible, 'I did that!' results at the end of the day? In ten, twenty, forty years time, what things that I have done today will I remember? What tasks from this year will have lasting value? Will I wish I had put down my 'paintbrush' and spent time with people, particularly my children, at the time when it has been needed most?

What things in your life would an outsider with an eternal perspective look at and say, 'Why are you doing that?'

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

God's compassion for the weary

Goodness me, I feel tired. Over the last few days, I've asked myself, and asked my husband, 'Why am I so tired?' I mean, I am going to bed at a sensible time, am not working towards any particular deadline (compared to a couple of months back when I was working in the early morning hours most days), I am not ill, and nothing particular accounts for the tiredness.

That's when we almost need to remind ourselves: We just had a baby! I think this is something that friends and family of those who adopt really need to be aware of - that adopting a baby is just as much of a life event as having a biological child.

It's not so much the new addition to the family, although of course that is part of it. For me, the exhaustion relates more to several months of building adrenaline, including several overseas trips made in knowledge that it might be a while before I can easily travel again, all the interviews and assessments, the uncertainties coming up to panel (particularly the potential questions about home education, which in fact never came), then the drama of the final few weeks when it really came home to us that we actually were about to have a new baby.

I feel very little. It's a very strange time of year for us, as there are many anniversaries. There is a grief which will never go away, but regarding which the feelings and emotions can strike more at random now. There is the anniversary of our middle son coming to join us, which is just a few days after the day that our daughter came home. I would have expected some kind of emotional rollercoaster, but instead I just feel numb. Slightly distant, as though I am watching my life from the outside, perhaps a little like watching a film. Being aware of things as though they happened to somebody else far away. There are days when I want to cry, and I don't know why because I feel we should be so happy as we celebrate the new arrival. Sometimes I just feel lonely and distant. But more than anything there is just a numb heaviness, maybe like a cloak which just wraps around me and drags me down.

I didn't expect to feel this way, but on reflection, I suppose it is hardly surprising. I think it's quite common to feel this way after any really amazing life event - maybe after completing exams, or celebrating the results, to then feel that life is just going on, and there is just as much uncertainty as before. Or having had an amazing holiday or an extremely encouraging time at a conference, to step back into the day to day.

What I have found immensely helpful is looking to the Lord, my source of strength. What I love about the Bible is that it really is 'living and active' (Hebrews Chapter 4). One of the most encouraging stories when you feel like I do now, is found in 1 Kings Chapters 18 and 19.

If you are not familiar with this passage, read the link! 1 Kings 18 describes one of the greatest spiritual victories to be found anywhere in the Bible. Elijah stood alone against 450 prophets of Baal. With a calm and simple prayer, fire from heaven burnt up the sacrifice which had been drenched with water, proving to all, without any shadow of a doubt that the God he worshipped was the one true God. Would you not think that after such an experience, you would never doubt or fear anything in this world ever again? Yet in the very next chapter, Elijah gets overwhelmed by a death threat from Jezebel and runs off in despair. He feels so despondent that he would rather die.

There are many things that are encouraging here:

1) God is the true God, and has absolute power and authority. We must never forget that

2) God does not change like a man does. We might feel up one day, and down the next, but God is entirely consistent

3) Elijah was a human, a frail human, just like us. But God used him greatly

4) God did not berate Elijah and 'kick him when he was down'

5) God knew it was exhaustion above all things. So He provided rest and food until Elijah had recovered a little, and then provided further encouragement afterwards

I recognise here that I am suffering a bit with exhaustion - and that there isn't some deep spiritual problem or depression, but rather that I am just worn out. What I need is rest, and probably one good night of sleep is not quite enough. I need to take care to eat reasonably whilst looking after the family. And I need to make time with God a priority, as much as I can do with the slightly hectic pattern of day to day life.

You know, how I feel now is not dissimilar to how I felt 1-2 weeks after biological children. Slightly blue, slightly weepy. At the time I thought that was purely hormonal, but I can now also reflect that there is a similar long build up, a dramatic event to celebrate and then back to the grind of life - maybe some of the 'baby blues' reflects simple adjustment following a life event. (I'm not going to get into a detailed description of the hormonal changes in the postpartum period or perinatal mental health, but rather just make this personal, anecdotal observation).

Tonight, I am thankful that God knows all things, and knows what encouragement I need right now. And I am thankful for the many stories recorded in the Bible, so that we can continue to be encouraged when we need it most. (1 Cor 10:11)