Monday, 20 February 2017

Sonlight: Review of Year 2/ Planning Year 3

Somehow, despite it being mid-February, we have reached week 29 of a 36 week curriculum. Actually, I understand why we are a little ahead of what we might have expected. You see, the whole reason we chose Sonlight was that it was a perfect match for our family. Even before we moved to having more structure, the backbone of our family life has been reading books together. Sonlight really embraces this as both a wonderful learning opportunity and also a time to build strong family relationships. And for us, if we have days where we are not reading together for several hours, something feels missing: the children can be restless, the parents are not quite sure what to do, and we'd all much prefer to settle down on the sofa and read. So, for that reason, we don't take many breaks. Even if we have a day or two off some of the 'table' subjects like maths and spelling, we find it can be very easy to catch up on these by the end of the week. So we just keep ticking over.

As I look ahead to the next year, I find it helpful to consider each subject in terms of what we have enjoyed most, what has been challenging, and whether we need to set any specific goals for the next year.

1) Bible. This year, we've been going through Leading Little Ones to God. Somebody gave me a copy of this years ago, and I was not so keen on it, but actually we've found it very helpful. The boys have a very good knowledge of the Bible and memory verses, but don't always understand the application of these verses. LLOTG has a very gentle, conversational style and discusses how the wonderful truths might apply to our lives. There is then a recommendation for a hymn and a prayer; we have rarely used the hymn in the book (we have known few of them) but I ask the boys to choose a song they think matches what they have learnt. I also have some copies of Christian Hymns - I am keen that whilst we are living in east Africa and singing in many languages, that they don't miss out on the rich heritage of hymns that is there. I love starting the day with a devotional time, and I pray this is a habit that goes with the boys as they grow (and my daughter - I tend to talk about 'the boys' since she is only 17 months old, and we aren't really focussing on her specific educational needs at the current time). I'm not sure what the Bible materials that go with Level C are, but I'd be equally happy to repeat this year, or go back over Ergermeier's storybook Bible from last year.

2) Language arts. My boys have been doing Grade 2 and Grade 3 language arts and readers. This is something I love about the Sonlight programme (I am sure it may be the case for other curricula too - I just haven't explored these). My older boys are both aged 7, but have quite different learning styles. One is quick to rush ahead (sometimes rushes a bit too much) but can write screeds and screeds of reasonable quality English, and is reading everything he can get his hands on, and reading fluently (for example, now he often wants to read the Bible passage at cell group, and does so perfectly). The other boy is making steady progress but really lacks in self-confidence. If he feels too much 'put on the spot', he gives a really silly answer, or writes a word completely incorrectly, almost as though he chooses not to try, so as not to fail. I came across this when I read John Holt's 'How Children Learn' a couple of years ago, and immediately recognised my son in what was described. Partly for this reason also, it is good to have him working at a different level to his brother; there is not a feeling of competition or of failure. An interesting thing is that they often are covering similar themes, since there is a spiral curriculum. So one can encourage and reinforce things for the other, and it's been interesting to hear the less confident boy remind his older brother what an adverb is, for example. I like the fact that the lessons are simple, but build on one another; I also love that as homeschooling parents, we know what they have covered and what they may have struggled with. So we can later on say something like, 'Describe how you ran across the sports field, using at least two adverbs' and they will often do it well. Or, 'Thank Daddy for dinner, but you can't use the same words you usually do', and encourage wider vocabulary. Often we write letters home, and we can sneakily bring in some of the themes. I particularly like Brave Writer too, since there is a very natural approach to writing (I love her concept of 'stealth attacks' - this is something that has worked well for us.) For both levels, the readers have been great; they don't just have increasingly complex language, but the stories are good too and the boys love them. They are hungry to read more. Next year, I'm just going to keep going - LA3 and LA4, and for the one who is about to turn five, he will probably start LA1 a couple of months in. We are using Explode the Code with the four year old, with which he has a love-hate relationship. But he is steadily learning. I've never been that convinced by phonics programmes - they seem to learn quite well just through reading.

3) Handwriting. We use Handwriting without Tears and the three boys are on three different levels. The younger one is very pleased to sit up with his own book and work alongside his brothers. We haven't encountered any particular challenges with handwriting, and generally find it a nice, user-friendly programme. So, next year, we will just continue also! (We have modified some of the letters slightly when it comes to cursive; we found some of the additional loops made it quite hard to read, and so we've made some of the letters a bit simpler, more like what both parents were taught. I think that's fine, so long as we are consistent).

4) Science. We are on Science B, but often flip back to some of the activities of Science A. All three boys have their scientific notebooks and enjoy having a hypothesis and then designing an experiment to test that. I am really quite impressed by the way scientific discipline is taught from a very young age; my school education seemed to be more about memorising facts, and it was only at University, or even as a postgraduate, that I really started to understand what hypothesis-driven research was. We are currently enjoying the story of Pasteur, and the way his enquiring mind is described has captivated the children. They also enjoy the Discover and Do DVDs - these can be great when it is really hot or stormy out, and they just need a bit of chill out time. They find them hilarious, but also are learning to question from them (especially my boy who is a bit less confident - he is really strong on science and figuring things out, and I can almost imagine him being an engineer!) We tend to supplement the science materials with other books we have to hand, or activities that come naturally. My husband and I are both medical doctors and I am a postdoctoral scientist as well, so I think we tend to have a natural inclination towards the scientific; but I am cautious not to be complacent in that, and to provide the children with the materials to learn and explore for themselves. We enjoyed the studies on nature and the different wildlife that is found in different parts of the world; because we've lived in a few different places, this captivated them. We also watch as many nature documentaries as we can get our hands on - the classical David Attenborough ones, but they have also loved Gordon Buchanan and his team who use a lot of complicated photography to explore unanswered enigmas.

5) Maths. We use Singapore Maths, and I particularly like the 'mastery' approach - to go deeper rather than faster. This is useful when I have two boys who are almost, but not perfectly in synch with one another. Sometimes one needs just a little bit longer, and rather than having the other rush ahead, I can get him to do some of the more challenging problems. Whereas in Language Arts, it has felt beneficial to separate them, it would feel wrong to do so for maths. The four year old is doing Level K, and again, likes to do his maths at the same time as his brothers do theirs. I try to bring in games where ever possible, particularly to help them memorise number facts (addition and subtraction, multiplication). Some are simple games using the flashcards, and others involve jumping around (which with boys is often necessary). Often I am surprised by the four year old chiming in with answers, quietly learning alongside his brothers. As with the other areas, we try and reinforce concepts as often as possible through daily life - for example, counting in the market, measurement when cooking and so forth. We've got a small bag with British money in it, so that they can be at least a bit familiar with the money 'from home'. I suppose being familiar with several currencies might be a strength, but that is one area which  is a bit confusing. We have our local currency, and other things here are done in US Dollars. The Singapore Maths we use is the US edition, so more dollars. Dollars and cents are OK, but I do get confused with nickels and dimes! For next year, we are just going to continue. If you use Sonlight, remember to get the 'extra practice' books (I forgot with my first order).

6) History, geography and world cultures. So, we are using Level B, and will progress to Level C. We like the structure a lot. I know many parents say this, but Sonlight really is 'the education I wish I had had'. They know so much more about the world than I did at their age (and even when much older). For us, having lived in several countries and having a very multi-cultural friendship group, it is great to learn about each of these cultures. We like to build upon what we are reading by cooking meals from different places and if we have friends from somewhere we have read about, asking them to tell us more. I've got a stack of missionary biographies aimed at children from about 8-12 (Trail Blazers) and we've been slipping these in at what seem to be appropriate places.

7) Spanish. We are using Rosetta Stone. I think the biggest challenge is scheduling. Most of the activities noted above take place between 8 and 11am, and then the children go out to play, the baby gets up and joins them, it's lunchtime and then we might be going somewhere in the afternoon. To come back in to do Spanish can feel burdensome (to the boys!). The younger seven year old, the one who is a bit less confident in some areas, is the most committed to language learning and has very good pronunciation. I hope to bring a bit more structure into this next year - maybe aiming for 2 lessons each per week or something. I  am aware that this is the age when they can learn languages far more easily, and so don't want to miss the opportunity. I'd like to get hold of some CDs to listen to, maybe some Spanish Christian music or something. I need to spend a little time searching.

8) Art. This goes in fits and starts. Around Christmas, we did plenty of art and craft, and there are other times where we make huge paintings, or some other complicated project. Then we will do nothing for a few weeks. We have the Artistic Pursuits book, but this year I forgot to order the consumables, and we can't get much out here. So, this year, I'll get the consumables and try and aim for at least a lesson a week - probably on a Friday, which is often quite a quiet day. It is interesting to see how the boys are all interested in art at different times - they will all go through phases when they can sit at the table for quite a long time drawing or colouring, whereas at other times they are not interested. A challenge in homeschooling is trying to keep that natural curiosity and rhythm - not to force them to do things, and so stamp enthusiasm out of them, but at the same time, to encourage practice and discipline. (I suppose I also need to remember that they are still quite young!)

9) Sports. We are blessed with a homeschool sports co-op which does a different sport each term. We've had swimming, athletics, field hockey, basketball and football. I like they way they are exposed to a range of sports, and also it's a great opportunity to meet other local home educators. In between that, we try to do a range of games (I love Homeschool Family Fitness for ideas) and ride bikes up and down the road outside when it is quiet. We usually walk 3-5 Km every day, and on Sunday mornings we all go for a run (except the toddler).

10) Read alouds. I nearly forgot one of the best things! Children learn so much from being read to, and the Sonlight team choose a really good selection of books that are often more than just nice stories - they often bring in elements of history, world cultures, character and so forth. It is really nice to be able to start reading and be fairly confident that I won't get any unexpected shocks or have to rapidly start editing as I read. We enjoyed all the Level B books. We added a few extras - some more Boxcar Children, revisiting Little House in the Big Woods and some of the following stories, a few Jungle Doctors, and as I already mentioned, quite a few biographies. I love that learning can be so natural and enjoyable, and I often find myself encouraged, inspired and uplifted as we read together, and that is important in this season of life where it can be busy, and I can feel a little drawn in many different directions.

So, all in all, it's been a good year, and we are particularly thankful for the way most of this just feels so very natural, just really building upon our family life. I love the way homeschooling does allow for flexibility - we had some sickness and went a bit slower for a week, we had swimming camp for three weeks, so covered two weeks of materials over that time, and at some point we might return to the UK for a month or two, and again the pace would change (oh, just think of the museums, art galleries, docks, parks, libraries, friends to catch up with...) I love the way there is space to add extra activities and books if we wish (without missing out on the benefits of the scheduled resources), and that we can tailor each subject to the needs of each child. There are times when I wonder whether my middle son would attract some kind of label if he was in a mainstream school; I don't think he has an educational challenge, but rather that it is some kind of confidence or personality issue. When he's relaxed he can do everything perfectly fine (spelling, maths, reading out loud etc), but when you put him on the spot, or he's in a funny mood, it can just be painful to get him to do anything, and he can get into a very negative spiral. With him, often giving him a high energy snack and sending him off to play for half an hour is enough to re-set him, and that wouldn't be possible in a classroom. I wonder how many children are given labels simply because they cannot conform to the structures of a classroom setting and working at the same rate and in the same style as 25 other children of their own age. (Actually I kind of know the answer to that, and I'm sure I'll write about it again).

There are no areas where I feel the curriculum is not matching. Occasionally we have had frustrated tears in maths, but that is more often to do with temperament - a child not listening, and then getting frustrated when he does something wrong (older seven year old), or seeing quite a number of questions, just panicking and thinking they can't do it (younger seven year old). I don't think it is a curriculum mismatch, but when this happens I try and bring in more games and supplementary activities to try and consolidate what they do know before moving on to the next topic. The other areas are all going very smoothly, and in general, I'm just going to order the next level up for next year. I also saw a workbook on logic or critical thinking which I think would go well, so will get that.

I remember when I started blogging four years ago, when we were just starting on the home education journey (and when we were facing quite a bit of opposition, as I believe many people do when they declare they are not going to follow the crowd). I really look back over those years with thankfulness. It has been wonderful to enjoy time with the children, to see each one grow and develop and to share rich time together as a family.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

10 things I learnt through my daughter's life

Often I comment on how thankful I am for all that our daughter taught us through her life, illness and her death. Often I look back at that time as a real pivotal point in our lives, something which really crystallised our priorities and values and caused us to focus on what things mattered most. Back in 2012, I wrote a series of blog posts on what we learn through several different aspects of parenting (here, here, here and here). Today, I thought I'd write a short summary of the key things I learnt personally through my daughter. Here are 10 points:

1) Unconditional love. I had never really understood how God could love us irrespective of what we did or didn't do. I could not really understand how one person could love another truly without condition or expectation. But suddenly you hold a helpless baby who depends on you for absolutely everything. And whilst a lot of baby care involves cute cuddles, there are also jobs which are smelly, messy and tiring, and the child never once stops to thank you. Yet that does not diminish your love for the child in the slightest. I perhaps began to understand how we can't earn God's love, but that His love is perfect and absolute already. We can respond to it in worship with thankfulness, but that doesn't change the love itself. It truly is Amazing Grace!

2) The flip side of the above comment was that it made it even harder for me to understand the choices and actions of my parents towards me when I was a child. (I wrote a little about this recently here). I never felt good enough, never felt I could meet some kind of impossible standards, and figured that it must have been because I was unloveable (and indeed, those exact words were frequently spoken towards me). Having a child of my own made it even harder for me to understand how a parent could reject and abandon their own child. I know there are mitigating factors; illness, addiction, sin. But even so, it brought a fresh wave of grief.

3) Priorities in terms of achievements. I used to worry more about small things which ultimately had no lasting value. The Bible talks much of this. We are told that 'everything that does not come from faith is sin' Romans 14:23. We are taught 'do not worry about tomorrow for each day has enough trouble of its own' Matthew 6:34. There are places where were are reminded to build with materials that last, to make sure our treasure is in heaven (Matthew 6:19), and that unless God is central in our endeavours, they are basically worthless (Psalm 127). Whilst I knew all that, when we were suddenly facing a life or death situation, it crystallised for me just how worthless a lot of what we are tempted to run after really is. I remember shortly after her death, there was a minor setback at work. I had to laugh; previously it would have upset me quite a lot, but in the face of what we had just walked through it seemed utterly trivial. And looking back, it was indeed trivial. It is easy to obsess about a detail, or a target, deadline, goal or whatever - and think that if that is not achieved that the whole of the future seems dark. However that is rarely the case. I learnt the truth of 2 Corinthians 4:18 'what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.'

4) Priorities in terms of material things. I have never been one to particularly worry about clothes, hairstyles or the decor of my home. But simply by living in the culture in which I grew up, I did spend some time worrying about my appearance, my weight, the external impression which I might make on others. Also, perhaps as a consequence of some of the things I described in point number 2, I had struggled with anorexia through a lot of my teens and into my twenties. Somehow, when my daughter lay dying, it really did not matter if I was fat or thin, whether my hair was glossy or straggly, whether my clothes were fashionable or simply functional. It didn't matter then, and it hasn't really mattered since! It felt like a choice: to waste a lot of time worrying about things that really don't matter, or to look above and beyond those things. I am not talking about the lack of self-care that might come with depression, but rather a sense that there are things that are more important. The Bible teaches that too. The first letter of Peter instructs Christian women that 'Your beauty should not come from outward adornment such as elaborate hairstyles or the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit which is of great worth in God's sight. 1 Peter 3:2-4

5) That we have a choice to make, sometimes every day, to keep living to the glory of God. I clearly remember one day, whilst our daughter was still on the intensive care unit, going out of the hospital for a coffee. We walked past some very beautiful flowers - vibrant orange bird of paradise blossoms. The coffee was strong, bitter and delicious. The air was crisp and fresh. Every sensation seemed somehow heightened and I realised that life is full of beautiful details provided by God. We can choose to ignore these things, to focus entirely on our problem or situation, or we can choose to pause, look outside of our circumstances and find things to thank God for. A strong coffee was the trigger for a real change in mindset. I found (and still do find) that in the face of overwhelming emotion or a temptation to despair that it is really helpful to focus on something tangible and beautiful and to thank God for that thing.

6) We have a choice to keep walking by faith. After she died, I also felt there was a choice to make. It would have been fairly easy to fall into despair or self-pity, and indeed there were those around us who seemed to expect us to 'curse God and die' (in the discouraging words that Job's wife spoke to him). But I remember thinking that our daughter didn't have a choice, didn't have a chance to make that kind of decision. It made me realise what a privilege God had given us to keep living in the world, to keep serving Him for as many days as He has given us. That did not mean that it would always  be easy - in fact Paul wrote to Timothy that 'everybody who desires to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer tribulation' 2 Timothy 3:12. We should expect times of pain, trial and confusion. But we have a choice to fix our mind on Jesus in these trials. Hebrews Chapters 11 and 12 are really helpful as they outline the 'heroes' of our faith, and remind us that they, and even more so, Christ Jesus, went before us and modelled for us a life of faith. I do not wish to negate the pain people may go through, or that there may be times when somebody suffers from clinical depression which requires medical help; however I think in our modern age we can struggle to distinguish between clinical depression and simple human grief and sadness. There are days when it can be hard to get out of bed. There can be floods of emotion. It can be difficult to eat or sleep. One friend encouraged me at this time - just keep doing what you know to be right, putting one foot in front of the other and doing the next thing, and one day the fog will lift. Simple words, but they proved true and I have used them to encourage others.

7) That God does not let us be tested beyond what we can bear 1 Cor 10:13. Sometimes, if I was to tell you ahead of time what trials you might face in the future, you might feel that you could not stand up under it. Believe me, I would have been just the same if you had spoken to me of her death. But when we were in the storm, God was very much in the midst of it with us. We knew that more clearly than ever before, and it was a real gift to have 'our faith, which is of greater worth than gold which perishes though refined by the fire' proven genuine. (1 Peter 1)

8) The value of every single life. We had a six week period when we knew that our daughter would be profoundly disabled, but there was a chance that she might live for a few years. All my human hopes and dreams for her had evaporated - she would never climb a mountain, she would never make friends or marry, she would never learn to play music and sing, she would never run barefoot along a beach at sunrise... And yet, her life was as God had ordained. I did not find this easy to accept. God provided a wonderful Christian neurologist who told us that we should try and see her as the child God had made her to be. God had created her body, soul and spirit. The body was broken, badly broken, but the spirit had not changed. I cannot express how much those words meant, and how God used one of His servants who was just in the right place. It has also given me a greater respect and compassion for parents of 'special needs' children, and perhaps some insight into some of their deeper (and at times, darker) feelings. I see this also as a gift.

9) The value of simple comments and conversations: In the example above, I do not think the neurologist really had an idea of how immensely helpful his words were. He just spoke from his godly worldview and his medical experience. It made me realise just how powerfully uplifting simple encouragements can be, and has encouraged me to seek to use my words wisely. The book of Proverbs is instructive as to the healing power of wise and gentle words, and yet the destruction that can be brought by foolish and unguarded use of the tongue. Every one of us can be used by God simply through wise and godly conversation.

10) The biggest one of all I have kept for last. It was extremely painful to have our daughter die. We would have done anything possible to stop it from happening. It made us think long and hard about the sacrifice God made for us, sending His Son to die willingly for people who at that time hated Him. Would I have chosen to have my daughter die? No way! And yet God was willing to go through that pain because of His love for us. Taking the bread and wine at communion has never been the same since - I feel utterly overwhelmed and humbled by what Christ did for me.

Each of these lessons has been a gift; I've seen God's love and grace more clearly. I've appreciated the truth of eternity, the power of faith and the importance of priorities. I feel that distracting superficiality has been stripped away, and the remaining days of life are focussed on serving Him. And I've learnt the value of generosity and kind words, and the impact this may have on others without us even realising it.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Nine years ago. Thanksgiving as we remember.

Tomorrow, my daughter would have been nine. Can I even say that though? Psalm 139 is clear: 'All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be'. It doesn't seem right to say 'would have been' or 'should have been' because that suggests that her life was ever meant to be any longer than it was. Maybe to rephrase, nine years ago tomorrow, we celebrated the birth of our first child.

I've written before about how grief changes with time. The most read post on this blog was a 'wish list' I wrote seven years after her death. I've reflected on the amazing hope we have of eternity, and how there are many precious lessons which we take with us into every day. Sometimes I consider specific aspects of grief, for example how fathers are sometimes forgotten when it comes to miscarriage or infant death.

Tonight, I simply wanted to stop and reflect. We were told that when we had children, 'nothing would ever be the same again'; this was absolutely true, but not in the way we expected! Our perspective changed entirely, and through the juxtaposition of absolute joy and almost unspeakable grief, we came to understand the love of God in a new way. When we remember that God sent His only Son into this world to die for sinners like us, willingly, it almost blows us away. We understood a little more of what that might have cost, and what an amazing gift of grace it was.

So, nine years later, do I have anything different to say than I might have done after one, two or five years? Much is similar, but perhaps I'd emphasise some things more now.

1) We long to hang onto every memory. When she was ill, she lost the ability even to cry. I remember one day, realising that I couldn't remember her own particular cry. I couldn't remember my daughter's voice. And I felt loss. We used to use a particular baby lotion that had a lovely smell. For a while we still had a small pot of it, but after time it lost its scent. It seemed silly to buy another (it was available in South Africa, but not where we were now living). And with time, I forgot that smell. It's the small things like that, that with time, these memories fade.

2) We love to hear about how her life challenged people. I've said that before, but perhaps this element grows stronger with time. It's quite easy for everybody to be emotional and 'challenged' around the time of a death or a funeral, but with time many people go back to their 'normal' lives. When I hear stories of how people were changed forever, that gives me real joy. Several years after she died, we heard testimony from a young man who became a Christian at her funeral. That man is now an elder at our church in the UK, and recently preached a sermon which included that testimony. To us, that is one of the most encouraging things - that through her illness and death, some people came to salvation. I hold onto a mental picture of her greeting us in heaven and showing us all the ways her life brought glory to God, introducing us to people who heard the gospel through her life. Of course we have no idea what heaven will be like, but I am sure that we will know everything about things that have brought God glory. And that will be simply amazing.

3) It still hurts. Grief does change with time. At first, you don't think you can get through a day without feeling it all day, every day. Then one day you laugh again. And another day, it is not your first thought in the morning. But even with time, there can come waves of grief - perhaps triggered by a sight, a sound, a smell, perhaps relating to the experience of a friend or relative, or perhaps utterly inexplicable. It can be strange to try and explain it to others, and it can feel quite isolating. There are other days when it almost feels as though it was all something that happened to somebody else in a different life. There doesn't seem to be any clear reason why we might feel so differently one day to the next.

4) Anniversaries are precious. They are landmarks where you can stop and reflects. Time moves fast, and life gets busy. It's helpful to stop, reflect, remember, and give thanks. Sometimes people don't want to upset us by letting us know they remember these, but believe me, it means a lot, and probably more so as the years go by.

5) We would never have changed things for a minute. We are thankful for the gift that she was, are thankful that she is now rejoicing in heaven, are thankful that we could see God's goodness and grace through her life, are thankful that others heard the truth of the gospel, are thankful that God showed us where our priorities should lie, are thankful for the valuable lessons we learnt regarding what is most important for our other children. We see her whole life as a wonderful gift.

6) We still like to talk about her! I don't think that will ever change.