Saturday, 26 August 2017

To Coach to the Test or Not ... (Hint: NOT!)

In the UK, students have just been receiving the grades on the national exams they sit at the end of their general high school career, that is around 16 years old before going onto their higher or "advanced" studies. 

In England, 16 yrs is the first major school milestone

Home-educated students have advantages over their schooled counterparts on the one hand (ie, choose only the ones they want to do, take some a year or two early so to spread the load), but there are disadvantages, too (they have to pay for them separately, they have to find somewhere to agree to they can take them as private candidates, and of course, there's a lot of re-inventing of the wheel whereas school teachers will generally have more experience in preparing students for the exams).

I recently read on an FB forum that home-ed students were getting poorer grades on their exams than they expected, despite working so hard. This will be true for kids in school, too, but in my experience - as a teacher, a home-ed parent, an examiner of these exams - anyone who is preparing their students for a big exam (whether in the UK or even something like SATs in the US), there is only one real mistake you can make, and that is ...


I'm not saying you shouldn’t coach your child to take the exam, but I’m really unsupportive of teaching ONLY to the test. That is, for a year or two years, to drill and drill.

The obvious reason is that, once the test is over, what have you got to show for it except that your child jumped through some hoops that are now irrelevant? Where do you go from there?

The other reason is that the hoops you jump may or may not be a real-work experience and translatable beyond that narrow exercise.

Another really important reason is that you run the risk of killing your child’s love for the subject, for exploration, and maybe even for learning anything at all.

Did you ever have a teacher say to you something like, “I know this is what we taught you about, say, Physics last year, but I want you to forget all that because that wasn’t really true - it was just a simplified version to make it easier to understand, but now we’re going to do the REAL stuff.”

You what???!!!!

Man, I hated that! You might has well have said, “Everything you’ve done up till now is a waste of time.”

This is why I make my own children, and all my online students, learn the REAL thing from the beginning. We don’t read abridged books. We don’t use Cliffs Notes or other summaries. If it’s writing, we learn the real-world skill of revising essays.

Reading the real thing.

Sometimes, the topic or approach is over their heads, but sometimes, it’s exactly that stretching approach that brings them to a higher level - a level they would not have reached if you didn’t try in the first place.

So if you have a big exam coming up in the future, I urge you to study subjects in a solid and true way as the majority of your learning, and only practice the hoops either little and often (key word: “little”), or in a more focused way such as in the month before the exam.

This way, you don’t lose sight of the reason you’re probably educating your children at home in the first place: to create life-long learners who can think outside the box.

Loving to read hard books is rarely normal!

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Reviews are Coming In!

I just received a student's review about the Ancient History course she took with Mrs Samuels at Dreaming Spires Home Learning last year. 

You'll probably not be surprised to learn she was the first one on the list to sign up for the follow-up course about Greek that's starting in September!

It's a unique course because it made me obsessed with Rome afterwards. I got a good understanding of society, the class system, the family, and the military, plus a lot of the Roman literature. I took the extension to learn how to write essays about ancient objects, and that was useful because it helped me understanding how archaeologists date objects, and what they say about the culture they come from. Mrs Samuels has a quirky teaching style that adds interest to the subject - she'll frame a subject like Octavian's exile in such a way to make it seem humorous/ridiculous, and that helps you remember it really well.

If your teen wants a detailed look into all-things-ancient-history, then join us on Tuesdays or Wednesdays this next year: "carpe diem" and sign up now!

The "naughty" Greek bowl at the Ashmolean, Oxford.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Calendar of Dates

This is an updated calendar of dates after deciding to break earlier for Christmas and start earlier in the new year. The changes are highlighted in blue.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Summer 2017 Mountain Series Episode 2: Take Time to Acclimatize

This summer series about homeschooling was inspired by my recent family trip to the mountains, and will be added to weekly. Be sure to subscribe by leaving your email in the right-hand menu bar, or “like” our Facebook page to get updates posted directly to your timeline.

Whether you're brand new to educating your children at home, or finding yourself at a transition phase such as high school, there is a period where you'll be tempted to rush when actually you need to take it slowly and ease into it

I think this period is like our mountain trip when we arrived at our condo and found that it was over 10,000 feet.

High Condo - Waiting for Adventure

For native Texans who live at at 496 feet above sea level, this was a real challenge to our systems. We felt like all the descriptions of acclimatizing for Everest - sinuses dry out, tummies get rumbly, headaches abound, breathless, listless.

These are warning signs that we were now in a place that are bodies were struggling to maintain normal function.

After a terrible night's sleep (another effect of altitude), we decided to see how far we could climb up the mountain in view of our balcony - Kuchina Peak.

Kuchina in our sights

Long story short, we ran into two problems: first was our unfamiliarity with the terrain (this will be the subject of the next blog post!), and the other was, no matter how fit and experienced we were with hill-climbing at sea level, we just weren't ready to tackle the exertion at 12,000 feet higher.

Some of us had headaches, malaise, nausea: all symptoms of altitude sickness! They told us that we needed to get back down a little lower and wait till our bodies were more accustomed to the thinner air.

Not ready for prime-time mountain climbing!

However, by the end of the week, we were able to climb not only it but its higher valley-mate, Wheeler Peak: New Mexico's highest mountain at over 13,000 feet. That was because we waited to get used to the elevation, and meanwhile, made sure we prepared a little at a time.

So as you're hitting transition periods in your homeschooling, just keep in mind that rushing it is probably a poor idea. You'll find yourself ill-prepared and perhaps even in danger - if not in terms of your health, then probably in terms of your wallet!

What am I suggesting instead? Take your time. Research. Read through Rainbow Resources detailed catalogue with lots of reviews by homeschoolers for any curriculum you're thinking of buying. Have a look at last year's Series 1 about starting out homeschooling where I encourage you to take a look at your values and your aims, and above all remember this: if you are starting homeschooling from scratch and have removed a child from school, you both need to deschool first.

The reason you deschool is this: going to school is putting yourself under an institution and there are rules and requirements and expectations that have become second-nature to you, most of which have nothing to do with one's real desire and aptitude for learning. Motivation often needs rediscovering; self-directed exploration of interests has almost certainly been dampened down; realizing that one can find curiosity and something intriguing to delve into further 24/7, 365, and yet, it rarely requires 6 hours a day of sitting at a desk.

There is a big world out there, but if you're transitioning, then I would suggest putting your feet up and getting used to the new, rarefied air.

Take Time to Contemplate the View

Monday, 26 June 2017

Guest Post: Let's Talk about Spanish

In this guest post, our newest tutor - Señor Joel Baker - shares his story about teaching languages that stick.

My story for how I came to teach Spanish for Dreaming Spires actually began with a different Romance language: French.

Several years ago, while assisting a French teacher in a secondary school, I took a small group of 12-13 year-old boys out of the class for a small group activity of some kind, though the main reason was probably to remove the rowdier element of the class and make life easier for the teacher! While we were doing the prescribed activity I asked the boys, “do you want to learn French?” Their reaction made a real impact on me. At first they just looked puzzled. The question made no sense to them. Then after a moment one replied, “No, of course not, why would I want to do that?” or something to that effect.

Learn a language? Why???

Having worked as a prep school Spanish and French teacher, I wasn’t surprised by the answer but the sheer incomprehension struck me: not that they didn’t want to learn a foreign language (why should they?) but that they had never considered that they might – they had no sense that the purpose of all those hours of school French lessons, not to mention the homework, were provided for them to learn French (the language). 

In their world, and I dare say that of most schoolchildren in England, French (or German or Spanish) is simply a subject that you have to do and then if you are all right at it, you’ll sit a GCSE exam and get a qualification which will somehow lead to success in life. But that’s if they think about it at all. The four boys in my makeshift class that day almost certainly never had. 

My experience that day, along with many others before and since, led me to the conclusions firstly that there is a disconnect in school-based language education (at least in an English context). Languages are not primarily an object or a discipline of study, they are ill -suited to being a school subject and as long as children engage with them as a subject, they will not, by and large, learn them as a language, especially if they are obliged to take the subject/class. 

Secondly, people cannot – will not – learn to speak a foreign language unless they want to or really need to (for practical reasons). The vast majority of children I met in the four schools I worked in knew very well that they didn’t need to learn a foreign language, and they had no inclination to do so. As a result, they didn’t. Most of them did, however, pass all the necessary exams in Spanish and French.
You mean there's more to a new language
than just an exam??!!!

This does not mean that languages cannot or should not be learnt in schools, and I do not wish to get into language education theory: that is not my purpose at all. Rather my reflections thus far represent the downbeat beginning of a triumphant tale, and Dreaming Spires Spanish is a glorious chapter in that happy story, which you are invited to enter. 

Now for another story.

A few years ago I was coaching a girl through her AS level* French. We’ll call her Amy. Amy was a somewhat reluctant student of French who found herself out of her depth at AS level having passed her GCSE* with ease, hence the need for a tutor: me. Her story is very common indeed, but it is not hers that I wish to tell you. Amy had a classmate (let’s call her Emma) whose story is much more unusual and really quite inspiring. At 17 years of age, Emma was not just fluent in French; her knowledge of the language was stronger than her class teacher’s and yet she had none of the advantages that usually produce this situation.

A French parent, perhaps? No. A couple of years spent living in France? No. Rich parents who took her to France on holiday every summer? Nope. Pushy parents who made her put in extraordinary effort to excel? Still no. A French governess or live-in tutor? It’s not the nineteenth century, you know. All Emma had was the confidence, presumably received from her parents, that if she wanted to learn to speak French, then she could. And she did. Bit by bit, from about the age of twelve or thirteen she began to learn without any particular help beyond the usual school classes, mainly by reading.

As time went by, she was able to read more and more complex texts. By the time she was sixteen she was watching French television and films, reading French novels and chatting easily in French given someone to speak to. Emma may be particularly gifted and her story is unusual, but it need not be that unusual. Emma discovered French as a language – a living language – and she decided to learn it as such, not because she had to, not because she could use the qualification, but because she wanted to. Naturally Emma got the maximum points available from her French A level, which was to her about as taxing as a Sunday afternoon stroll in the Cotswolds**.

Actual stroll in the Cotswolds!

Learning a language is, oddly, at once easier and harder than most people imagine: easier because you do not need to have a special flair for languages or “to go and live there” as many people say to me: anyone can learn a foreign language, wherever they are. However it does require the discipline of frequent study and practice, some confidence and determination, no matter how much flair you have, and that is probably the main reason that so many people give up early in the process.

So if you are thinking of starting or continuing Spanish in one of my Dreaming Spires courses this year, do so because you want to learn (to speak) Spanish; remember that Spanish is a language: not a school subject (even if you can take exams in it); know that you can become a Spanish speaker, and get ready to work hard and steadily towards that end. Do these four things and you will be speaking Spanish this time next year!

Señor Baker's Spanish courses are available as Beginner and Advanced options: see the timetable here for days and times.

* GCSE exams (for those not familiar with English education) are taken at 15 or 16 years of age, usually about 10 of them, and are elementary, foundation courses, which students prepare for over one or, more often, two years. AS exams are 1st year modules of A levels. A stands for advanced and these are school-leaving exams, taken at 18 years of age, which can earn students a place on a university undergraduate course. The AS level module can stand alone however, and boost the points that a student receives from their other A-levels. It is an intermediate course, a lot harder than GCSE but not as taxing as A level.

** The Cotswolds are a nice, pretty region of Western England (parts of Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Worcestershire and other counties) with gentle, rolling countryside, pretty towns and Roman spa cities. It’s nice: worth a visit.

The Summer 2017 Mountain Series Episode 1: Finding Yourself in the Heat

This summer series about homeschooling was inspired by my recent family trip to the mountains, and will be added to weekly. Be sure to subscribe by leaving your email in the right-hand menu bar, or “like” our Facebook page to get updates posted directly to your timeline.

In this first episode, I want to share about how homeschooling teens can feel like the hottest journey you’ve ever undertaken.

A blog post about a hot road trip ...

No matter where you live now, you have probably taken a trip somewhere that taught you all about assumptions. In my case, I thought I knew all about packing for a self-catering trip to the mountains, having done so almost twice a year in England for the past five years.

So my brothers and I loaded up our three cars and caravanned west to New Mexico. Once we got west of Post, Texas, the temperatures soared over 111º F (44º C). 

It ultimately reached 113!

We stopped for gas, drinks, etc, and my brother who was driving the pick-up truck announced that all the food that had been stashed in the back of his truck had melted. We threw out butter, yoghurt, milk, cheese, and all the chocolate, and though the boys liked to blame me for it, I did point out that they were the ones that loaded it back there in the first place!

Anyway, in hindsight I should have realized that perishables in a pick-up bed in Texas in June weren’t going to survive a 15-hour road trip anyway, but having only experience of Lake District trips in April and September, I recognize the biases I brought to the planning stage. 

So here’s where I think our journey in homeschooling teens is like this trip into the unknown. We know what it has been like to teach our children when the stakes are low - whether we follow set curriculum, something more flexible like the Charlotte Mason method, or even unschool, we haven’t had the pressures to prepare for national exams, worry about credits and transcripts, or hone down to our child’s interests and vocational pathways.

The stakes - like the temperatures in West Texas - suddenly become higher when our kids hit those teen years. Here are a few suggestions for navigating our way through an environment out of our comfort zone.

Navigating the path ahead ...

First, give yourself some grace if you make some mistakes. Yes, we’re in charge of the planning and the execution, but if we get some of it a bit wrong, then it’s not the end of the world. Our children’s education should, hopefully, be a life-long experience, and not something that finishes at 18 or 22, so there’s wiggle room even in these crucial years of high school.

Second, don’t be afraid to ask for help from someone who has been there before. If, for example, someone else is planning a road trip to New Mexico in the summer, I can now warn them about looking after the food on the journey. I can also tell them that there are plenty of big supermarkets in Taos so packing all those perishables was unnecessary in the first place. 

In homeschooling, there are now so many great forums and FB groups with people who’ve been there and done that, you really need only to ask.

Getting directions can be a good thing!

That being said, my third point is this: don’t just take someone’s word for it, but confirm what people say online by doing your own research, too. In the case of my road trip, I was only tagging along on my brother’s trip at the last minute, and I didn’t check out the shopping facilities in Taos for myself. As my brother is a bit more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of person, there ended up being a lot of gaps in his knowledge where I’d have been more inclined to fill them in (this theme will come up again and again in this series - believe me!).

In the case of homeschooling, I have already seen people’s advice running counter to someone else’s state or country regulations. In the UK, there are HUGE changes afoot in the national exam system as it switches from the A-E grade system to a 9-1 system, plus many of its public exams are ditching the controlled assessment for exam only, a change that favours homeschoolers - except for one important fact! These new exams don’t start being offered till 2019! So for many of you who are now entering the phase of UK exams for your teens, few people will have the experience of the new system to guide you more than saying what they did in the old system.

You have been warned!

In the US, there are still people who talk about the old SAT system rather than the new one, about dual-enrollment arrangements that are often dependent on the processes at the local college, about CLEP or AP or other advanced options that vary from university to university as to their acceptance.

It can still be a minefield for you, even with helpful guidance from those who’ve done it.

Our road trip through the West Texas oven was on Saturday. On Tuesday, I picked an apple out of the fridge for our hike up Kuchina Peak. It was covered in some strange kind of wax. I started washing it and the wax wouldn’t budge. Then I realised it was butter - the butter that had melted into the box in the back of the pick-up truck. Clearly, this apple had been in that same box, and though it had survived the heat, it still had some residue of the debacle on its skin.

Sometimes in homeschooling, there may be long-lasting effects from our past mistakes, and they can arise at the strangest times, even years later. 

It may be hot, but the sun WILL go down!

Just do what I did when I cleaned off the apple: I turned up the heat of the water to melt off the butter. You, too, can just “turn up the heat” - ie, put in extra effort, focus intently, make phone calls or write letters: in short, do what you have to do to rescue the situation.

That apple is worth saving!

Friday, 2 June 2017

STOP PRESS! New Sections of Middle Ages and BritNov on Offer!

We're so blessed and humbled at Dreaming Spires that so many people are entrusting us with the education of their teens, and our popularity meant that two of our English courses became oversubscribed before the end of May!

Problem: how to make sure more students can take advantage of our motivating and empowering style of live, online courses?

Solution: Recruit one of my oldest and dearest and cleverest friends to come on board as a second English tutor!

Introducing Jackie Pavlenko!

Jackie's bio can be found on the "About Us" tab, but the long-and-short of it is that she's an Oxford grad who went into the screenwriting business. She's too humble to tell you about the awards won by the film she wrote, El Greco, including BEST FILM at the Thessaloniki Film Festival in 2007.

Jackie and I have been co-home-educators in the trenches off and on for the past twelve years, and I'm so thrilled that I managed to eventually pin her down to join the Dreaming Spires team. She has so much insight and depth of thought to add to our courses' explorations, and being a "worldschooler" at this stage in life, she'll be one of those value-added tutors with oodles of culture to exchange!

Mrs Pavlenko will teach a section each of Middle Ages and British Novel: refer to the timetable for the new opportunities to study with us.