Here in the UK, we haven’t sprung our clocks forward yet, but the signs of spring are definitely upon us.

As the followers of the Charlotte Mason method, nature study is supposed to be a big part of our homeschool curriculum. We’re not always very good at it, but this time of year, it seems that we can’t help but notice the changes all around us.

This week, we’ve been particularly revelling in the annual sightings of frogs in our pond, a frenzy of their little slimy bodies in piles, usually sitting atop a grapefruit-sized lump of spotted clear jelly.

It’s during this mating period that I am strict with what my kids can do with the garden pond, ie, absolutely nothing! Don’t touch! Don’t poke! Don’t ferry buckets of its water to your paddling pool!

Frogs have always been a fascination of mine, ever since I was 4 years old. One of my earliest memories is the day I kissed over thirty toads.

The endangered Houston toad - just look at those kissable lips!!

I lived in Houston, Texas, at the time. Whenever we got one of our summer gully-washers, the toads would come floating out of our downspout drains. This particular time, I collected them all in the paddling pool in the garage. I must have spent half-an-hour in just running around the pool, popping their little bumpy bodies back into their confinement. Each one I picked up, each time I picked it up, I kissed it.

Sadly, none of them became a prince (at least, not to my knowledge), and even worse, this species of amphibian (Bufo houstonensis) is now endangered, limited to only 9 counties in that vast state, and not seen in the Houston area since my childhood era of the 60s. The finger is pointed at habitat alteration, because this species is a burrowing animal and safe burrowing sites in that huge metropolis are rare these days.

My love for frogs and toads persists to this day, many years from those childhood escapades, and many (many, many!) miles from them as well. To me, frogs and toads of any description are still my dearest wild animals to observe, to cultivate, and to protect, and so I can be a little hitler when it comes to who can do what with my pond in early March.

Of course, the return of the frogs in England is only one sign of spring. Others I've noticed are the little nodding heads of pure snowdrops, the bright and upright purple crocuses under the walnut trees, and on one recent walk in Oxford’s University Parks, the starry yellow faces of the dainty little winter aconite. (Not yet time for the daffodils, but their spears are making their way up through the grass)

Winter aconites add floral sunshine to shady spots.

Then there are the birds. Oh, the birds!!! As England’s long winter nights give way to the piercingly early summer days, the birds are starting their dawn chorus at about 5 am right now (later, in June, it will reach its earliest of about 3:30 am). So far, I have seen only our winter dwellers: robins, dunnocks, a variety of tits, blackbirds, and my nemesis, the wood pigeon. It won’t be long, though, when I will hear the tell-tale calls of the chiff-chaff and the cuckoo, both of which make the same sound as their names.

Chiff-Chaff: I'm kind of boring to look at.

Some of the early signs that are still wanting include the buds of hawthorn bushes. These pale, yellowy-green leaves will soon give way to a darker, fan-shaped leaf which hides the nasty little thorns, but every year I see them, I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s beautiful poem about spring: Nothing Gold can Stay.

Nature's first green is gold, 
Her hardest hue to hold. 
Her early leafs a flower; 
But only so an hour. 
Then leaf subsides to leaf. 
So Eden sank to grief, 
So dawn goes down to day. 
Nothing gold can stay.

As with so many of Frost’s poems, this one is as much about life in general as it is about a season, but the hints of spring are so numerous right now that the cold and dark days of England’s winters will soon, happily, be a distant memory.

To capitalise on the current seasonal changes, there’s an initiative at the UK charity, Woodland Trust, to record eight “firsts” for this season: flowering, mating, bud burst, leaf, feeding the young, first cutting of the lawn for the season, and first live individual animal (which I think means those waking from hibernation or returning from winter grounds, like the brimstone butterfly I saw two days ago, and not the fact that, day in and day out, I've seen those darn wood pigeons flapping about in the birch tree).

The Trust provides many resources online such as some nice pdf charts; a set of 6 information packs about ladybirds, frogs, two kinds of butterflies, and two kinds of plants; and updates to remind you what to look out for: today, that’s the song of the song thrush.

The link for getting involved is here: The Woodland Trust.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

From Caterpillar to Moth

Back in December, Rocky discovered a bright green caterpillar on the floor of our kitchen. We scoured the internet and our butterfly identification books, but couldn't pinpoint the species of caterpillar we had suddenly decided to adopt.

 It was an important detail to pin down: different species require different plants for food. At first, wee hedged our bets with some bramble, grass, and nettles, but fortunately, we soon found out what it was through a very helpful website run by Steve Ogden, called Wildlife Insight.

Angle Shades Moth Caterpillar

So apparently, we were on the right track with our brambles and nettles, and before long, we had a cocoon!

According to Steve's site, it would be about 20 days until we got a moth. The jar sat on a shelf in my kitchen, in front of my cookbooks. I looked in on the cocoon every day, in between our full-on attention with our new puppy.

This is a bit more exciting than a cocoon!

But lo and behold, on the 18th of January, the one-inch long brown capsule had turned into a fully fledged, speckly angle moth!

Behold: the cycle of nature!

So thanks to Steve's great website, Rocky's keen eyes for spotting the creature on the floor, and our patience to see the project through.

Today, I met one of my homeschooling heroes: Sally Clarkson

Sally is the author of numerous books, some about homeschooling and some about mothering and child-rearing with spiritual vision.

My favourite of all was Educating the Wholehearted Child, which she co-authored with her husband, Clay, but that's a really hard decision to make because I also love Seasons of a Mother's Heart, Mission of Motherhood, and their devotional guide called Our 24 Family Ways.

Sally's Homeschooling Books, through the Years

She has a new book coming out in January called Own Your Own Way, and I can't wait to get my hands on it.

So, what does one do when one meets a hero? First, you meet them at the train station and make them walk a mile up a steep hill. It's in the bright sunshine on a crisp and glorious autumn day, so that's all right!

Then, you place in her hands a steaming mug of Yorkshire Gold tea, served in a Blenheim Palace mug. Next, you chat about her children's endeavors and admire how far they've come in nine years since you first met her at a conference, and you giggle as your children keep popping into the room with little gifts for her, mostly pieces of paper with hearts drawn in different sizes.

The big moment comes when we give her a present we found at a National Trust property two weeks ago: a CD of Tea-time songs (Sally writes a lot about having a quiet cuppa when things get a bit too much, or when she needs to re-connect with God).

Another family arrives and we have a slap-up meal, courtesy of Ocado's delivery service earlier in the day. Various savoury pies, cheese, crackers, olives, and my homemade hedgerow jam, homemade raspberry preserves, and homemade bread and butter pickles. (Since everything else is pre-prepared, I want to show that I can put SOME effort in the culinary arts).

The teenage girls then take their turns at telling funny stories, sharing their reading experiences, describing trips to places like Exmoor and Stratford, and then Sally inspires us all with stories of her own children's successes via the narrow way, and encourages us to keep growing in God, keeping our eyes on his vision for us, and making sure that academics are of high quality without being of too high a priority.

After all, my 14-year-old has already read the entire book of Paradise Lost, published 9 books on Kindle, and run successful micro-businesses. Soon, it will be time to cut her loose of the drudgery of high school style studies and let her spread her wings in the real world. When I say soon, I don't mean at 18 or 22, but, according to Sally, at 16, when it's time to take on projects that matter, meet people who are experts in their fields, and grasp her own destiny with both hands while her father and I provide the safe foundation from which to jump.

This is what Sally has done, and now sees her children studying at Oxford, breaking into the Hollywood film industry, and composing musical scores to be performed in the Vatican.

And do you know what she puts it all down to? Keeping a tight hold on God's vision for each child, and inspiring them in conversation over the dinner table.

All the more reason to turn off the tv at night, eh?

So, I look forward to reading Sally's latest book in the new year, but more than that, I can't wait to pull up to the "school table" in the morning and inspire, empower, and enkindle my children to become their very best.

Me, with the person I want to be when I grow up!

I was recently interviewed on FB for a home-edder's blog about homeschooling, especially to encourage newbies. I thought it might be worth reproducing here.

Who am I? I was born in Texas, but now live near Oxfordshire. I have a PhD in literature, a PGCE in secondary education (English), and formerly taught in private girls' schools in Oxford. Now, I homeschool my four kids who range from 7 to 14, examine for Cambridge International at iGCSE and A-level, and run my own online tutorial business for homeschooled students throughout the world (called Dreaming Spires Home Learning: links below).

Blown away in the Orkneys

Why did I start homeschooling?
My interest in homeschooling started when my eldest was about 3 1/2 -- she was a late-summer baby, and Oxfordshire changed its entry policy to start children in the YEAR they turned 5 instead of the TERM they turned 5, so she was due to start when she had just turned 4. Being American, where children start in the September AFTER they turn 6, I found this unacceptable. I was even more spurred on by three things: the book called Better Late than Early by Raymond S Moore which argues that children aren't ready for school in a variety of aspects from eyesight to emotional maturity; the fact that our local school was being very anti-Christian at the time, and I have a strong desire to promote a trust and respect for God in our day-to-day lives, plus my daughter was a very intense child and often bullied even at the sweet Montessori nursery where she went -- my belief was this personality was given to her by God, and I didn't want an institution to bully her out of her natural personality; and finally, from the practical viewpoint, I didn't see the point of my being paid to teach other people's children, and paying for my own to be taught by someone else -- I could just cut out the middleman!

What top tip would I give newbies? 

  • If your children are under 6, take a leaf out of Life Child in the Woods or other natural childhood books -- they really, really, really need to have a lot of physical activity to develop their inner ear, and if this doesn't get developed when a child is young, it will never fully develop. Same with things like literacy and numeracy and spatial skills -- there is a time in the brain when these will develop, and it's rarely before 6. Eyesight, too, isn't developed enough for reading a lot till after 8. Three of my kids now wear glasses, and I wish I'd not rushed things when they were younger. 
  • If your children are between 6 and 12, I'd say that taking things slowly at first, establishing a nice routine for living and learning in the mornings (a la Charlotte Mason, which is the method I like), and make sure, above all, that you finish "table work" academics by lunchtime, freeing a child to explore the parts of life and hobbies that inspire them. They need to be left alone to be bored; otherwise, they will never learn to motivate themselves. They also need to be left alone to learn that things don't work in life like a microwave does -- planting a garden or building a tree house or whatever, these things take time, and include a lot of trial and error. 
  • Finally, if your children are older than 12 and you're in the UK particularly, please don't rush into taking exams. The British exam system is so limiting and narrow, and the point of education is to be inspired, broad, and connected, not to mention, children need to know how to learn for themselves.

Is there such thing as a typical day? Our routine is to do chores in the morning before 10, then sit in our school room until about 1 pm. This happens three days a week, as one day, my youngest has private swimming lessons so my older ones work on their homework for the online literature and/or art appreciation courses they do, and another day, we meet with a family for watching videos about the Bible or biblical issues, and we're studying art this year together. On our other three days, we start with Bible, then read a selection of books about chemistry, biography, history, natural history, geography, and literature. While I read, they usually paint or draw or play Lego, then they narrate back to me what was read so they can solidify the story and what they learned from it. 

My school room

My students
Once the reading is done, the children separate to work on their maths and copywork. If I can snatch some time in the afternoon, I might sit down with someone and read a book to them that only they want to hear. My 9-year-old, for example, really enjoys the book about the Titanic called A Night to Remember. My 7-year-old likes A Pocketful of Goobers, about George Washington Carver and the invention of peanut butter. My 14-year-old enjoys all things Brother Andrew who founded Open Doors, and my 11-year-old follows me around the house to read his weekly assignments from the online literature class: it's tough reading, like Spenser's Faerie Queene, so I totally understand, and really admire this year that he's decided he wants to get an A in the course, even though it's a course designed more for 14-year-olds.

What's the best and worst thing about HE? There are so many positive things about HE, but the best to me is relationships -- we really get to know each other, we have to learn to get along, we have to realise that our actions have a knock-on effect on the family (whether it's something like breaking a dish or failing to do one's chores), we can't just swap our siblings and parents but have to sort out difficulties, we have to take turns and share and work out what's the difference between equal and identical. This doesn’t mean my kids have no friends: far from it. We could have an outing every day or visits morning and afternoon if we wanted to, but my kids are competitive swimmers and mostly out every evening, so we try to stay home for those three days of study, and preferably, without distractions. Other positive things are taking holidays when prices are lower, traveling to see family in America for a month or more at a time, leaving the books behind if the weather is particularly gorgeous, taking the time to eat healthy, un-rushed lunches.

To sum up -- TIME!

Texas Baseball in June - holiday freedom

 The worst thing? Honestly, I can't find a down-side. Sure, there are issues one must face like a messy house or higher food/electricity bills or setting aside time for appointments like hair cuts or even just prayer time, but it's only a season of life, and these things can be worked around, planned for, accepted. I remember when my eldest turned 9 and I realised I'd had her for half the time that she would probably be living at home -- I had seen her every day of those 9 years, and I still thought: "Oh, my gosh! We're halfway through already!!!" (BTW, my daughter said, "Oh, no!!!! I have to live my life all over again before I can drive!!" It's all about perspective, isn't it!!!!) So for all the annoying little bits here and there, I will know that I gave it my all, and spent as much time with my precious kids as I could while I still had them at home.  It goes sooooo fast in the grand scheme of things.

Something to link to, or promote?

Boyschooling is my personal blog about my family's homeschooling journey, and especially about homeschooling boys. I also have a blog for the online tutorials I run for homeschooling teens: or the US-based version at My online classes are designed for homeschooled students from age 12 and up, and whether US, UK, NZ, or wherever, I try to make them relevant to your aims like exams or college entrance, but more than that, I aim to teach the kids how to have a relationship with books that will last a lifetime. 

I also offer Easter “crammer courses” for the UK national exams:  iGCSE English Language (CIE board) at

I'm now a veteran of homeschooling of more than 12 years. I once taught in secondary schools in England, but decided I was in a ludicrous position of being paid to teach other's children, and paying others to teach my own -- so, I decided to cut out the middleman and start to teach my kids.

Equally, I became more and more aware that eight hours of school a day merely results in four hours of homework at night -- at least, it did in the private girls' school where I was a teacher. What an empty life for a child of 11 -- just school, school, and then when they got home, more school.

Again, I saw the value in cutting out the middle bit -- that is, the eight hours at school -- and just doing the homework bit, leaving my children an extra eight hours to bond together, to connect with me, to meet up with friends, and sometimes, to be quite alone and do nothing, if that's what they wanted.

BUT, people new to homeschooling, or thinking about homeschooling, or criticizing homeschooling, always want to bring up the "socialization" card, as though schools are the only place -- or, what's more, the BEST place -- for children to learn to get along with people.

Is this the ideal way to make relationships???

In fact, I would argue that they are actually the WORST places to learn to get along with people. Why?

  • For one thing, if you fall out with a friend at school, you can just get another one. Homeschoolers have to cherish their friendships, and work through issues. They may not have hundreds to choose from, but they have a few that they bond with over many years of a quality relationship.
  • For another, you are stuck in a room of 25 or 30 or 35 or more kids exactly your own age, give or take a few months. Real life doesn't work like that. My best friends range in age from 30 to 50. My kids' best fiends are several years apart from them in both directions, too. In fact, my gregarious 9-year-old sometimes does the "rounds" with the elderly ladies in our neighbourhood.  Sure, she's after extra cookies or sweets or a chance to pet the dogs, but she is connecting and relating to the elderly ladies at the same time. Just two weeks ago, we were at the Bunyan Museum in Bedford, and she begged me to use her pocket money for buying a souvenir thimble for one of her lady friends, because she has a relationship with that lady and knows she enjoys collecting them.
  • A third point, and this is my own observation, is that schools tend to only tear families apart -- younger siblings daren't play with older ones, and everyone has a passel of their own friends who make no room for taggers-along. Siblings rarely have anything in common with each other, and are lucky to come together in a sort of tag-team moment in the kitchen over cookies and milk before running off to this and that and the other activity of an evening. We still have the afternoon activities, but the rest of the day, the kids are learning, playing, and living together, and gathering vital information and putting into practice about how to get along.
  • Finally, so much research out there points to how socially adept homeschooled kids are, and these studies cite the fact that they interact so much with adults in their day-to-day life, instead of school-based children who mainly get peer behaviour as their role models.  In the Bible, this would equate to Proverbs 13:20 -- "Walk with the wise, and you will become wise: for a companion of fools suffers harm." I'd rather my kids grew in wisdom, frankly.
Quality over quantity when it comes to homeschooling relationships.
I think most people start with the assumption that school-based relationships are right, and thus, homeschooled ones -- being different -- are wrong. What they need to do is, first, take a look at their own life out in the real world and genuinely assess whether their social life looks anything like the high-pressured, ultra-distracting, regimented, and segregated system that's found in most schools.

Doesn't this picture below represent the way that adults socialize???

Business lunches, book clubs, weekend warriors --
the way adults work and play sure look a lot like a homeschooler's day!

Whether you're a follower of the Charlotte Mason method or not, I think having a working timeline for your family is a very important addition to your history studies.

Children can cope with our tendency to hop around historical studies -- even schools, notorious for having children dress up like Cleopatra one day and an Evacuee from World War II the next, are able to help their pupils form some kind of mental timeline in their heads.

Yes, the Egyptian pyramids were built before Hadrian's Wall.

But did you know the Egyptian pyramids were being built the same time that Stonehenge was being built?

In the Charlotte Mason method, the usual suggestion is to keep a Book of the Centuries. This is nothing more than a loose-leaf notebook where you insert pages in chronological order, perhaps even jotting down a list of things that happened roughly in the same era.

We have tried a "BOC" in the past, but it just wasn't visual enough for me -- just not enough

 for my liking.

Other methods have their own preferences: Konos curriculum has a wall timeline where you put cut-out figures on their century; Montessori has a little number-line kind of timeline that makes one work out that 1st century means 0-99 AD. I'm sure there are scores more.

In the end, though, we took 54 pieces of A4 card, used clear packing tape to stick them together (with a gap between the card so the tape works as a hinge), and created a 30-foot timeline. At the earlier end, each piece of card is a millennia, but as we work our way past 0 AD, it tends to be centuries.

Killer holds the 30-foot long timeline

Sometimes, we fill up a century easily, such as our study of the English Civil War last year. If that happens, we just tape another piece of card over the top, hinging at the top so it lifts up like a giant flap.

We mix photocopies and drawings,
text and print-outs
(Yes, that's Phineas and Ferb in the chariot)

We're in our fourth year of using this timeline, and it serves as an excellent tool for review as well as for putting our studies into context.

Why don't you try one? It will cost less than a fiver. whatever your currency!
If you know anything about Charlotte Mason, the founder of a liberal arts method followed by millions of homeschoolers all over the world, you know that she famously described education as "an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."

We here at "Skylark School" (the name of our home school, inspired by CM's skylark emblem) are firm in our adoption of this attitude to education, and I thought our experience today would underscore how this might look in practice.

OK -- the date today is 22nd July. Most schools in the UK broke up for the summer last week. We, in fact, stopped sitting around the table every day at 10 am on the 14th of May. (Long story -- we went out to the US for a holiday, and since they broke up from term while we were there, we sort of declared the year was finished, too).

It's summer! Start the party!

However, we still maintain a life of education in other ways, since our home is a learning place in which we pursue living ideas.

So, for today's lessons.  First, the kids studied some card tricks on YouTube and worked on perfecting them. Seeing that they were interested in magic tricks today, I found a few videos of Christian magicians who mix their magic with their message. They studied a couple of them to work out the secrets behind the illusions.

Next, we watched a documentary about bees on BBC iPlayer. After lunch, we took part in the Big Butterfly Count, using the smart phone app to total our spottings for a fifteen-minute period (21 -- a darn sight better than last week's 5!).

In the afternoon, their friends came over, some of whom then worked on a money-making business idea. Later, they chatted on Skype with the new au pair from Spain, took part in a little ceremony that celebrated the experiences we've had with the old one, packed up for summer camp, and now we're finishing with a bedtime reading of Tom Sawyer.

So, while it's true that there are seven hallmarks of a CM-style education (habits of learning, style of lessons, living books, narration, dictation, art & music, and nature study), they are merely a set of tools for carrying it out. The key to them all, however, is the underlying and pervasive desire for learning all day, every day, whatever the weather or the date on the calendar!

Join us in our No-Screen-Time August Challenge of reading top-notch books instead of wasting time with TV and computer games. Pop over to Facebook and let us know what books you'll crack open on the 1st of August. (While you're there, "like"our page, please!)

August will be our books-only month

I was inspired to do this challenge by two things: first, despair at how much of our lives is wasted by living in the virtual world -- telly, computer, email, and even my children's legitimate desires to write books and design 3-D animations are eating up the hours that could be better spent on reading the hundreds of excellent books that currently lie forlornly on our shelves, gathering dust.

Second, I was inspired by Charlotte Mason's writings, especially her 6th volume about a philosophy of education -- as I understood more and more that a child's innate desire for knowledge is ignited through living books, I realised that we couldn't spark a flame if we kept all the matches in the box!

How many books can we get through in a month? That's the big question! We normally have three or four books on the go for our homeschooling, another one or two for pleasure, my elder two in CM Live courses will be reading three more every week, and finally, my eldest was taking the Honours Level of CM Live and its additional 400-plus page novel. We also usually spend hours in the car and the pool for swimming training, but all these activities stop in August, so there should be a chance to tackle at least three substantial books for each child's level.

Some thick; some thin; all brilliant!

Phoenix is now 14 and is taking on Middlemarch ahead of her Great British Novels course this year, The Screwtape Letters and the Doris Lessing Canopus in Argos series are also on her shelf (or, virtual shelf, since some are on Kindle).

Killer at 11 is going to have a choice of books from the Ambleside Online list for independent reading: titles like The Borrowers, Puck of Pook's Hill, The Chronicles of Narnia series, a selection of Edgar Allan Poe stories, and Treasure Island.

Rocky, having just now come into her own as an independent reader, has a lot of catching up to do in terms of a twaddle-free zone. Out go the Unicorn School and Flower Fairy books, and in come Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Billy and Blaze series, Doctor Doolittle, and one of my favourites, Pippi Longstocking.

Busy Timmy is 7 and, after getting glasses last year and a Kindle with its adjustable type-face, has started reading books for pleasure when there's time for doing so. He devours the Burgess animal books, but I'm going to try him with a Pocketful of Goobers (about George Washington Carver), Little Owl's Book of Thinking, and a beautiful edition of Hans Christian Andersen tales.

Fancy one of these??

And me? Well, I will still be checking my emails and FB since we'll be coming up to final enrollment for CM Live classes and I need to stay connected for my job, but I will be sure to a) limit my time on the screen, and b) do it only once the kids have gone to bed.

Book-wise, I usually have about five books on the go at any one time. On August 1st, though, I'm going to crack open George MacDonald's Sir Gibbie. The recommendations for this novel are very high, and the reviews on Amazon are glowing. Others on my list are Thomas Merton's Seven-Storey Mountain and Fahrenheit 451.

Will this be too much for thirty-one days' worth of reading? Too daunting to try? I'm expecting a few days' of screen withdrawal and another day or two as they get into the habit of reading for pleasure. My hope is to avoid incentivising them, threatening, or cajoling. I really want them to feast on the pleasure of reading, just for the sake of the dishes in their grasp and not the whip behind nor the carrot in front of them.

Truly, watch this space!
While my "Boyschooling" family classroom is taking a bit of a summer holiday, I'm hard at work on preparing to teach online classes to homeschoolers via CM Live Online this September.

Both Phoenix and Killer joined a class each last year -- Renaissance and Middle Ages respectively -- and I was wholly surprised at their dedication and improvement in their studies. Let's face it: Killer is 11 1/2 and was reading Ivanhoe, Canterbury Tales, and a bit of Tennyson, trying to keep up with his online classmates and aiming to win some of the virtual badges on offer.

The main point of this blog post, however, is to point followers to the CM Live Online UK Edition website, which I've just been creating and tweaking this week.

CM = Charlotte Mason (a Victorian educator whose 6-volume series of her pedagogical method sets the standard for delivering a thorough liberal arts education at home)

Live = Webinars delivered synchronously on-line.

CMLive = Online education for homeschoolers all over the world, based on CM's methods: you'll find structure and inspiration while the student finds motivation and a friendly peer group to study with.

Come have a browse and learn about our exciting new British Novels course for September -- Phoenix has already put her name down on the list for it!

Now taking bookings for September: a $25/£15 registration fee guarantees your student a place in either Middle Ages, Renaissance, or British Novels literature classes. Don't delay as some classes are nearly full already, having a 90% retention rate from last year's cohort of students and the enrollment now of their younger siblings.

Some things are not too good to be true:
they're just true!