Well, I started out full of hope on this return to homeschooling – see my optimistic outlook in the last blog post – and now we are two weeks in, I can report mixed results. I’ve managed to stick to lots of the stuff in there about balancing work and school, but the education element has been a bigger challenge than I was expecting – and it’s been Back to School for me in more ways than one.
First, a little background. Our boys are in Years 5 and 2. The little one’s work is no problem for me, I’m pleased to report, but the older one – it’s a brand new world. When I was in the equivalent of Year 5 – and that was so long ago that it wasn’t even called that then – I was at a convent school for girls. The class was small, only 14 or so, and there was a range of abilities. I fell generally in the middle for Maths, and somewhere near the top for English. But in spite of the small class sizes, and although I wasn’t the worst at Maths, I never felt very good at it at all, because I didn’t understand why I was doing a sum a certain way. There was no real explanation: you carry the one in a multiplication because that’s the way it’s done. Just do it.
Over the next couple of years, work began to Prepare Me for the Eleven Plus. My parents had grammar school in their sights, and there was work to be done to get me there. My Dad, a teacher for a while in a former life, was my tutor. There were struggles, numerous exercise books, tears probably at times, and a variety of knotty problems to work through – one that sticks particularly in my memory involved the timetables for the Roscoff and Santander ferries. Funny what sticks.
Anyway, the emphasis was firmly on my area of weakness: the Maths. It was all worth the effort though, because I passed and went to a great school until after my A Levels. But the whole 11+ process shaped how I have viewed my abilities in these subjects for the rest of my life, confirmed by an adequate GCSE result in Maths, and a much more pleasing one in both the Englishes.
What does all this mean now? Well, it means that I embarked on helping our Year 5 boy with his studies feeling much more confident in one subject than the other. The big surprise came when I had to learn a brand new English skill as well.
His Maths has presented us with a set of problems that I think most resembles the Long Multiplication from my school days – except it’s done completely differently, and I discovered this when I saw a very confused look on his face when I explained how I would do it. So there was nothing for it but to get stuck in and watch all instructional videos from the school. This was a revelation. The emphasis is now all on the actual meaning of the numbers you’re multiplying – so 3×30 is three ones times three tens. When you “carry the one”, you’re actually carrying the 10. It all makes so much more sense. Four days in, and I think we’ve both got a handle on it now…it’s a great achievement, and I suprised myself (and possibly him) with our joint success!
Then came English, and creative writing. Now, I thought the very point of this was to let the words flow as they might – but instead, the online lesson we opened was a meticulously forensic approach to writing a paragraph, using a technique called “sentence stacking”. I was staggered, and initially could not believe that this time-consuming, cumbersome method was being forced upon vibrant little minds, and squashing all their spontaneity…but this soon changed. I watched my son, for whom writing does not come naturally, following the structure of the lesson: he was given a “story starter” to set the scene; he was guided to think of a list suitable verbs, adverbs and adjectives to match the situation; and then given a type of sentence to write, and to fill with the words he’d come up with in the list. He reviewed his finished sentence with pride, and after a few of these exercises, he had a full paragraph of story that he read back to me, beaming.
I thought about how he would have reacted if given the task of writing the paragraph cold. I know what would have happened, because it happened last summer – I can’t, I don’t want to, but it’s HARD…just the way I used to feel about Maths when I was 9, and actually, how I felt about multiplication at the start of this week. I saw the confidence he was filled with by using this approach; the sort of confidence I had gained by the end of the week, from following and learning a brand new Maths method.
And I marvelled at how teaching and learning has advanced in all these decades. It’s not just about teaching a subject – it’s about making sure children understand it, master it, and can use their knowledge confidently and independently. It’s about bringing everyone along, and not just the children for whom a subject comes naturally.
It’s not easy learning a brand new way of doing things, especially at my age, but it’s amazing to see how the understanding of what they learn has taken centre stage in how our children are taught.