Monday, 30 May 2011

Life is a Blog Post

Do you ever find your children standing looking over your shoulder, anxious to see what you’re doing? Mine are always quietly watching and absorbing. They observe carefully and they think deeply, and then they come to the conclusion that anything I can do, they can do too. In fact, they assume that anything I can do, they can do even better than me. And before I know it, they’ve worked out exactly how to do what I’m currently involved with. Soon I’m no longer the only knitter, writer, photographer, cook… or blogger in the family.
Blogger? Yes, my four youngest daughters are bloggers. Somehow we’ve turned into a family of bloggers with a multitude of blogs. There we sit, each at our own computer, thinking and writing and editing, and writing some more. Eventually, ‘Publish’ is pressed and then there is anticipation and excitement.
“Did you read my post? What do you think?”

"You've written a new blog post!"
“I love your post!”
We sit and share and enjoy each other’s writings. It’s a family affair.
Just recently, Callum joined the blogging world too. Is writing contagious? Is blogging contagious? Yes!
Callum and I are sipping coffee in the café, having some mother-son time.
“How’s your blog going?”
“Slowly. I haven’t posted much yet. But I do have a few ideas…”
“Do you mind if I share some blogging guidelines, things I’ve picked up?”
Now I know sons don’t normally want advice from their mothers, but we are relaxed and enjoying each other’s company, and so Callum is in the mood to indulge me.
I recite my guidelines for a blogging son:
1.       Write about things that really interest you, things that you are passionate about. Write about what you know. Your posts will be interesting.
2.       Be yourself, that’s good enough. Don’t write what you think others want to read. You  don’t have to be someone else.
3.       Share honestly and your posts will ring true and you’ll make connections with others.
4.       Never use posts to complain and whine and whinge, especially about other people.
5.       Never write anything that will embarrass someone else.
6.       Never post embarrassing photos of anyone.
7.       And most important of all, never complain about your mother or embarrass her or post photos of her that make her look old.
Callum gives me a sheepish grin and says, “What will happen if I do the last one?”
I fling out my arm in a mock swipe. “What do you think will happen? Look after your mother. It’s in your own interests. You’ve got to live with her!”
We often talk about family loyalty.  And how important it is we show a united front to the world. We don’t whinge and complain about each other in public. We don’t pull each other down. We need each other, our family, our safe refuge from the troubles of the world.
“I think I’ll write about fixing things, Mum. You know how we tend to throw everything away when something goes wrong? Well, it’s so satisfying making something work again. I get a real buzz working out all the problems with my computer.” Callum’s eyes light up.
I love sharing with my son. I’m glad we can talk blogging. Shall I tell him he’s just given me an idea for a blog post? Will he mind if I write about our mother-son time? No. He’ll grin widely and say, “I thought you would, Mum.”  Callum is a blogger. He understands. As long as you remember to be kind…
 …life is a blog post!

We're Catholic Unschoolers: Woo! Hoo!

I wrote, “It wouldn’t take much for us to become unschoolers. Just a little more letting go…” I was writing to the fabulous Leonie, enthusiastic and experienced unschooler. I’d been reading her blog Living Without School, and what I read, excited me. I could relate to all she wrote. I wanted to find out more.
I remembered a book, Homeschooling with Gentleness: a Catholic Discovers Unschooling” by Suzie Andres. A friend had spoken about it at a homeschooling camp last year. I ordered a copy and impatiently awaited its arrival.
The book dropped into my mail box on a day when I was planning a lake-side adventure with my Speed Angel Sister daughters. We packed a basket with drawing books, afternoon tea, cameras and… Homeschooling With Gentleness. We arrived at the park, dumped our basket onto a picnic table, unpacked our supplies and then the girls went off eager to do what all adventurous girls do when they find themselves at a duck filled lake, on a beautiful sunny weekday afternoon. And I did what all sensible mothers do: I settled back in the shade, with a mug of coffee and relaxed with my new book.
I read and I pondered and then I almost yelled out loud: “We don’t need ‘just a little more letting go’. We're already unschoolers. We’re Catholic unschoolers!”
I hadn’t quite understood the concept of Catholic unschooling until I read Suzie’s book. My ideas about unschooling were being influenced by an experience that happened many years ago.
Let me explain:
When Felicity was six years old, Andy and I took our then three children to our very first homeschooling camp. We travelled for many hours in our old but trusty vehicle, all the way through Sydney and up the coast, to spend just three days with what we hoped were like-minded people.
We were so excited as we bumped along a windy dirt road which led to another world, a Gilligan’s Island world, a world which for three days was going to be an unschooling world. There was a sunny clearing edged by palm trees and tropical island huts and a communal building… and close by, down a hidden path, a beach with waves that gently lapped the fine golden sands. Between the clearing and the beach was bushland hiding a scientific observation centre. We looked around with anticipation. We knew we were going to have a fantastic weekend.
And we did. But we didn’t really meet any like-minded people. There were a number of sharing times dotted throughout the few days of the camp but I was a bit afraid to share too much. Though we were all supposedly unschoolers, I began to think I was an imposter. Perhaps I wasn’t a real unschooler at all.
All the other homeschoolers were lovely, friendly, welcoming people but they weren’t like us. Many of them lived on large sprawling properties and grew their own organic food, spun their own wool, bartered, built their own mud brick houses… which is fine, but they also talked about Mother Earth.
Their children were very intelligent and confident and mature but something was lacking. Perhaps it was respect. All the children called their parents by their first names. They were treated like little adults, not sons or daughters. They appeared very sure of themselves, perhaps even arrogant. And I wondered: where does parenting fit into unschooling? Where does Faith fit in? My own faith wasn’t strong but I knew I wasn’t an atheist or a Mother Earther.
And so we came home a little confused. We agreed with the unschooling principles of education, but we didn’t feel we could let go completely and trust our children to develop into respectful, disciplined, virtuous human beings all on their own. And later, we thought it was our duty to teach the Catholic Faith in an orderly manner. We didn’t want to take the risk of letting our children discover the Faith on their own. And there was one other thing I became concerned about. I had this idea that unschooling is very individual, even very self-centred, with children going off to discover the world entirely on their own. And we wanted to be a family that often shared and learnt together.
So maybe we were ready to turn away from unschooling when we met Anna whose disciplined children really were models of virtue, and who had a strong sense of responsibility to God (they were Protestants).
But back to dear Suzie and her book.
Suzie defines unschooling as “a form of education in which the child is trusted to be the primary agent in learning what he needs to know to lead him to happiness.” This doesn’t mean a parent sits back and does nothing, leaving her child to learn by himself. No, she will “recognise and honor his natural ability to learn” but she will also be there guiding and helping and taking an interest in his education. The focus is more on the child learning rather than the mother teaching.
And while some parents will apply the unschooling principles to all levels of their life including parenting and disciplining, I don’t have to. As I read Suzie’s book, I realised that I don’t have to treat my children as my equals (in experience, growth and development), let them call me by my first name, look upon them as small versions of adults instead of my sons and daughters. I don’t have to take the risk they may never discover their Catholic Faith. I can claim my duty as a Catholic parent to teach my children the virtues and their catechism. But while I am doing this, I can still call my family ‘unschoolers’. I discovered we are not just ‘unschoolers’. We are ‘Catholic unschoolers’.
I also found out that unschooling means different things to different families. Even the label 'Catholic unschooler' can mean different things to different families. This makes such a lot of sense. Aren’t all families very different? Why should one size fit all? Perhaps this is why we were never successful with Charlotte Mason or the Classical Curriculum. Although we liked living books, narration was a burden, and while I could see the value of the tools of learning, memorisation was so very painful. But picking and choosing what suits the needs of a family and the individuals within a family: that makes so much sense.
But who should do the picking and choosing? Well, Suzie has put forth the idea that our children are the primary agents in their own education and they will naturally learn what they need to know and what interests them. But this doesn’t mean we can’t make suggestions and even gently insist they learn something in particular (such as their catechism). They can even choose to learn something in a more formal way.  We can share our own interests and passions. Learning can be a family affair. And learning together in an unschooling manner can create strong bonds between everyone.
I read Suzie’s book and then I posted the following on Leonie’s Facebook wall:
“Don’t tell any of my friends. They might start to worry. WE’RE UNSCHOOLERS!”
Leonie’s reply jumped off the computer screen, the letters dancing up and down “WOO! HOO!” I could just imagine Leonie jumping up and down too. Immediately Leonie invited me to join a Catholic Unschooling forum.
I soon discovered other families ‘doing their own thing’. Yes, there are many parents unschooling their children. We are all educating our children using the same principles. But every family’s homeschooling looks a little bit different because every family IS different.
I know our homeschool is based on sound principles. Our children are learning. But I also now know we can be Catholics and teach the Faith to our children and still unschool. We can actively bring up our children, insisting on behaviour that is respectful and considerate towards others, and unschool. We can learn together as a family and unschool. We can even do some more formal type learning when there is a need, and still call ourselves unschoolers.
 I don’t need to crack the whip to make my children learn and we don’t spend time arguing over education. Like all families there are days when someone feels a bit out of sorts, but generally we live without conflict. And it is not because I take the path of least resistance, that I just let my children run free and do what they like. No. I am not being a lazy mother.  I think our peaceful and joyful days come as a result of listening to each other, respecting each other and trusting: trusting our children, trusting ourselves and trusting God.
So thank you Suzie for writing your book. You have given me the confidence to listen to my children, my own heart and God, and to continue ‘doing our own thing’.

I haven’t done justice to Suzie’s book. There is so much wisdom contained within its pages and I hope to explore it further in future posts. But nothing will replace reading Suzie’s own words, and pondering the whole book.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Doing Our Own Thing

When Felicity was about 6 years old and we’d been homeschooling for maybe a year, I met Anna. She lived in a wooden oasis of a house on the top of a hill that led down to the creek and the bush. The house was a warren of fascinating rooms filled with unusual treasures, a real storybook home.
And in that storybook home lived a storybook family… we were sure of this. Anna had a beautiful family: polite and charming children who excelled at everything. They were musicians and dancers and craftsmen and academics. And they were perfect.
An invitation to Anna’s house was like an invitation to the palace. We would set out from home full of excitement, knowing we were going to have a fantastic day. Anna would serve Earl Grey tea from fine bone china cups and offer us slices of home-made cake. And we’d sit in her country farm-style kitchen wiping our lips delicately with real napkins, while feeling very special.
Afterwards, we’d descend the stairs to the lounge, and the baby grand piano lid would be lifted and we’d be treated to a concert where little child fingers would play adult sized music. While listening, I'd admire the trophies, the exquisite project books full of knowledge, the displayed artworks and crafts... Then someone would suggest putting on a play and the dress-up box would be raided, and my children would eagerly be dragged along in the wake of their more inventive and creative friends. Later, Anna and I would sit on the decking which jutted out among the bird filled trees while the children played in the home-made wooden cubby house, perched above the steeply descending path that led down to a creek side paradise. And Anna shared and I listened, eager to pick up tips on how to have such a splendid family.
I wanted to be just like Anna. And have children like hers.
I enrolled my children in music lessons, then dancing and drama and gymnastics, and filled the house with musical instruments and craft materials, classical music and books. I wanted the same rich creative environment as my friend. I looked out for opportunities to enter competitions that might lead to a few trophies. And I carefully planned units of study and I hoped my children would produce impressive, creative project books to show how much they were learning, books that would rival those of Anna’s family. And although John Holt may have approved of some of the things we were doing, it was Anna I listened to, not John.
When Felicity was 9 years old we moved house. We said a very sad goodbye to Anna and her family. But around the corner there were more friends waiting to share ideas and influence our way of homeschooling.
And one of those people was Helen.
Helen was the first Catholic homeschooler I ever met.  In the three or four years we’d been teaching our children, we’d never met another Catholic family who was educating their children at home.  But we now discovered there was a whole network of Catholics out there, quietly educating, not only their children’s minds but also their souls.
The Faith hadn’t really played a big part in our homeschooling up to that point. I hadn’t really discovered the treasures contained within the Church. I hadn’t thought too much about what God wanted me to do and how I was going to help my children become the people God intended them to be. Helen introduced me to the treasures of the Faith. She also introduced me to Kimberley and Mary Kay, and soon my head was spinning with ideas on how to incorporate a good education with a solid knowledge and love of the Catholic Faith.
Then one day I met Charlotte and she shared, and I listened and wondered. She told me about living books, narration, the value of outdoor play, nature study. We discussed dictation and copywork and I loved her concept of ideas and beauty, and providing the right atmosphere and instilling disciplining through good habits… Yes, I liked Charlotte Mason.
But before I knew it, Laura had joined us at our homeschooling table. Laura Berquist convinced me that I wanted children who could think and analyse and reason critically. I pondered memorisation, the different stages and the tools of learning.
Now I wanted to be Charlotte… or maybe Laura. Which one? These were exciting times as I read and pondered and experimented. My homeschooling methods swung this way and that and then back again.
But one day I realised I’d left both Charlotte and Laura behind. We were ‘doing our own thing’. I’d stopped reading and pondering and looking for the perfect method of homeschooling. I no longer had the time or the energy or the interest. We were too busy living our lives. We’d slipped into a way of learning that felt comfortable, that seemed to work for us as a family.
And I knew that although I’d made a lot of new friends along our homeschooling journey, friends who’d given me some very valuable ideas, it was time to be me, Sue. I wasn’t Anna, or Charlotte or Mary Kay or Laura or…
Our days were enjoyable and fun; our children were learning and growing. We’d get up each morning and follow our noses, experiencing real life, having learning adventures, not always knowing what we’d do, where we’d end up or what we would discover. No big plans. Just life. And I felt at peace. Well, most of the time…
Just occasionally, I’d feel a little bit guilty. Was life too easy? Why didn’t I have any battles trying to get my children to learn? Perhaps I wasn’t pushing them hard enough. I wondered: Was ‘doing our own thing’ other words for being lazy? Were my children really becoming the people God wanted them to be? Would they be prepared for the jobs God wanted them to do? Maybe I was jeopardising their futures. Perhaps we needed to be more structured, plan our days better and make a few concrete goals.
So at the end of every year, when the long summer holidays rolled round and I had a bit of time to read and think, I’d say to myself, “I really must do some more research, buy a few new books and plan the school work better.” But every holiday passed without me ever quite getting round to making those new plans to homeschool in a different way. And we’d just slip back into our usual routine when the new school year resumed.
We continued to do our own thing.
But what was ‘our own thing’? I wasn’t sure until I met Suzie. Yes, I hadn’t quite finished with books and pondering. I had one more friend to meet: Suzie Andres. I read her book Homeschooling with Gentleness: A Catholic Discovers Unschooling  And then I wondered: Could we have gone full circle and ended up back as unschoolers?  But not quite full circle: Could we be Catholic unschoolers?
I really want you to meet Suzie Andres. In her own special way she will tell you all about Catholic unschooling, that gentle and little way of educating our children. I hope you will return to hear more.
Do I want to be Suzie like I wanted to be Charlotte and Laura? No. I could never be Suzie, that warm and beautiful soul. But I can be me: Sue Elvis who still knows her children and their needs better than anyone else in the world, and who now has the confidence (thanks to Suzie) to continue doing her own thing.

Who have been your friends along your homeschooling journey?

Please find out more about Erin's and Leanne's homeschooling friends by sharing their stories:

Leanne: New Inspiration at the blog, Roses, Tea and Our Lady

Erin: Our Friendship Quilt at the blog, Seven Little Australians and Counting

Would anyone else like a link to their homeschooling story?

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Damaged Flowers

We entered the florist’s, that tiny shop crammed with shelves of pink and blue teddy bears awaiting newborn babies, bobbing helium balloons and racks of greetings cards, potted plants with hot house flowers, hanging bamboo wind chimes… and on the floor, numerous silver metal buckets, overflowing with  the most exquisite flowers with a thousand different scents.
I was at the counter, digging about in my bag for some money when I heard:
“Well, it’s your flower now. It’s no good to me.  I can’t sell a broken flower. You may as well have it.”
I turned my head to see a bright yellow lily being thrust at Gemma-Rose. She took the bloom and stood looking at the floor, her head bowed.
“Children ought to be taught not to touch!” the shop assistant said, looking directly at me.
“I’m sorry,” I apologised. “I guess the flowers are just so beautiful, she couldn’t resist. I’ll pay for the whole lily stalk and the broken flower.”
“No, that’s OK,” the woman said gruffly. “But I can’t have everyone coming in here and touching. Even adults do it. They damage the flowers. They’re delicate. And then I can’t sell them.”
I hastily agreed, handed over my money for the greetings card I’d selected, and decided it would prudent to get away from the annoyed woman as fast as we could.
“You know you shouldn’t touch,” I reminded Gemma-Rose as we headed out the door, and then looking at her subdued face, I added, “Was it just so beautiful you had to feel it?”
Gemma-Rose’s little face bobbed up and down and tears welled in her eyes. By the time we reached the van, a river was streaming down her face. She was sobbing; her little heart was breaking. My heart cracked and felt broken too. I bent down and enclosed Gemma-Rose’s heaving shoulders in a big hug. I wanted to put things right for her, to get rid of all those awful feelings that were consuming her, to see her eyes light up again. The sun had disappeared from her day. And mine.
“If I went back to the shop and bought that damaged lily stalk for you, would that make you feel better?”
Gemma-Rose nodded and I took her hand and lead her back up the road and into the florist shop.
The shop assistant: “You’re back?”
“Yes, we want to buy the flower my daughter broke. She broke it so I should buy it and then everything will be put right.”
The woman reached into the bucket of lily stalks searching for one with a ragged section where a flower was missing. After a few seconds, I could see she couldn’t decide which stalk was the damaged one.
“This might be the one,” she said finally.
“I’ll have another stalk too, please… There! They will look pretty on the table, won’t they, Gemma-Rose?”
She nodded happily as I pulled out my purse. Money was handed over and then I said, “All fixed.”
“The flowers are delicate you know,” persisted the shop assistant. “Children have to be taught…”
I interrupted, “But it’s all fixed now! The flower now belongs to us.” And we left the shop, with Gemma-Rose carrying her bouquet, knowing we wouldn’t be back.
I can understand the woman’s frustration. She is a business woman. The flowers are her livelihood. But I also know mistakes sometimes happen. It’s how we handle other people’s mistakes that is important.
I think about mistakes in general, how you can’t go back and unmake them.  But there is a choice in how they are dealt with. We can make someone suffer when they have made a mistake. We can make them feel really miserable. We can make them pay. Or we can turn that mistake into something good, an unexpected gift.
Just imagine;
“Oh the flower is broken.  I bet you didn’t realise it was so delicate. Never mind. Would you like me to show you the flowers and then you won’t have to worry about damaging them? You can have the lily. Isn’t it beautiful? Take it home and enjoy it!”
And Gemma-Rose’s eyes would have lit up with pleasure. The broken flower would have been transformed from a mistake into an unexpected gift, making a little girl happy.
And she would have known not to touch the flowers next time we went into the florist shop.

I am thinking... I remember when Andy threw his red T shirt into the washing machine with all the white clothes including my new skirt... and how someone else knocked my favourite picture to the floor shattering the glass... and what about the time my precious Aberystwyth mug from my university days ended up on the floor in a hundred pieces?

I turn red thinking of how I reacted. And suddenly I am no longer annoyed with the florist. I am even feeling guilty about telling you her story. I could easily have found an example of my own.
I think about my own mistakes, mistakes I'm always making. Does God shout, “How many times have I told you…? How could you...? When are you going to learn…?” No. God forgives me and uses my mistakes for good. He turns my damaged flowers into beautiful, unimaginable gifts.
And why can’t I do the same for someone else?

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

How Many Children Do You Have? (Part 2)

After our son Thomas died, I often pondered the question "How many children do we have?" I have already posted the story "How Many Children Do You Have? Part (1)". I hope you will read the second part of this story which I wrote a few years ago, but would like to share again.
When our son Thomas died in 1999, we were left with a dilemma: How many children did we have? Was it five or was it six? Now we have a new dilemma: Do we have seven children or is it eight? Of course, the answer is eight. Since Thomas’ death, God has blessed us with two more gorgeous girls, Sophie and Gemma-Rose.

In the months following Thomas’ death, it seemed to me that every second woman I saw, was pregnant. Most of my friends were too. I remember thinking that I would never again hold a precious newborn baby of my own in my arms. It was difficult to see past the suffering. Eventually, I came to understand that it was not important what I wanted. To be happy and at peace it was important to accept what God had decided was best for me. After accepting this, God in His goodness blessed us with more children. I am very aware that not everyone that loses a child is given another baby, let alone two.

Having eight children is nothing extraordinary in our circle of friends. Many families are much larger. I tend to forget that society on the whole, regards our family size as unusual. But we have had a few occasions when our family size has raised eyebrows and led to some interesting conversation.

I was in the chemist shortly after Sophie was born. All the children were with me, milling around the pram like bees around the honey pot. As they were continually on the move, the bewildered assistant asked, “Just exactly how many of you are there?” Our eldest son, Duncan (thirteen at the time), glanced around and then with a puzzled look on his face answered, “I’m not sure. How many children do we have Mum?” That response proved that the answer was “Too Many” as far as the assistant was concerned.

We had great fun after Gemma-Rose was born. I was in the habit of taking our four youngest daughters shopping on a Saturday morning. One day Felicity, our eldest child, said she’d come along too. “You’re in for a fun morning," I told her and proceeded to explain what would happen in every shop we visited. We’d enter a shop, three girls at my heels and baby in a sling. The first question would be, “Is the baby a girl or a boy?” Then there’d be commiserations over the fact that Gemma-Rose wasn’t a boy: “I expect you’d have liked a boy."

“Oh no," Charlotte would answer. “We already have three brothers."

“And another sister at home," Imogen would add. The looks on people’s faces said it all.

Sometimes, my husband Andy and I sneak out to a café for a cup of coffee, taking only Gemma-Rose with us. We pretend we are a career couple having our first child later in life. We fool everyone until someone tries to engage us in conversation.

“Oh what a cute child! Is she your first?” says the fellow coffee drinker leaning towards us with a friendly smile on his face.

“Oh no she is our eighth child,” I reply with a huge grin on my face.

Our new acquaintance draws back quickly and mutters, “Rather you than me." I reassure him that we are exceedingly happy with our children but he seems unconvinced and quickly hurries off. What a pity he doesn’t realise what he has missed out on.

Having lots of children provides us with many funny and interesting experiences. We love having a larger-than-average number of children. But we never take our family size for granted. At one point in our life, we couldn’t have foreseen that God would bless us with so many beautiful children. Having children is not always easy: as well as losing Thomas, we have lost seven other babies due to miscarriage. We have had many dark days when we’ve felt we would never again experience joy. But God in His goodness has helped us through each sorrow and given us many gifts to balance our sufferings. I would experience every sorrow again in return for the beautiful family God has blessed us with.

The only question now is: do we have eight children or is it fifteen?

Undercover Homeschoolers

When I was a child I loved playing school. Fortunately, I had two younger sisters, and because I was the oldest and the bossiest, I could order them to sit in front of my blackboard and be my students.
“Vicky, sit still and pay attention!” I’d say sternly, waving my chalk in front of my poor five-years-younger sister. “Now repeat after me, A is for apple.”
Vicky and Barbie would endure my games for a while and then they’d dissolve into tears or start to moan and my mother would come running. “They’re only little. Leave them alone.” And then I’d be reduced to teaching the teddy bears.
Years later Vicky admitted she’d learnt quite a bit from those childhood games. And those school games couldn’t have been all bad. Now she is a mother of 8 unschooling her own children.
Surprisingly, I didn’t become a school teacher. I became a scientist and then a mother. But those teaching ambitions must have been lying there dormant, not dead… waiting. The year our eldest child, Felicity turned five, I saw my opportunity.
At that moment in time, all my friends were talking school. Where were we all going to enrol our children for kindergarten
“I’m thinking about the Catholic school.”
“But the public one is closer.”
“What about you, Sue? Where are you sending Felicity?”
“Well…umm… I think we’ll hold her back another year. She’s not yet five. April birth, you know. Bit borderline. Probably better to wait until she’s a little older…”
And my friends accepted that and I kept my secret. My secret? My secret desire to homeschool.
I’d thought about it carefully. I knew the possibilities. My mother was homeschooling my much younger brother (he hadn’t settled well into regular school.) I’d read up on all the rules and regulations. I knew how to get registered. I just didn’t know how to tell my friends. I suspected they’d think me crazy. So I decided we’d be undercover homeschoolers. We would look like a normal everyday family in public, but when no one was looking we’d disappear behind the closed doors of our home and assume our secret identity: homeschoolers.
Sometimes I wondered: What if my friends were right? Maybe I was a little bit crazy. Could I really teach a child of my own? I questioned and answered myself.
Who knew my child best? Me.

Who cared about her the most? Me.
Who had already taught her so much? Me.
What was so special about the magic age of five? Well, there was the issue of reading. Could it be any harder than toilet training? Or sleeping through the night? Maybe not.
Would Felicity keep on learning if I kept on teaching?  Probably.
Questions asked, questions answered. I convinced myself I could do it. But I had a back-up plan. Just in case.  I reassured myself that Felicity could always start school with the 5-going-on-6 year -olds the following year if necessary, and no one would ever know about our failed experiment.
I was so excited. I had a real live student, not a reluctant younger sister or a row of stuffed teddy bears but a daughter and she was going to be brilliant. I just knew it. But I had a lot to learn.
I guess all my ideas of education were based on my own experiences of learning. I’d gone to primary schools, high schools, correspondence schools, public schools, private schools, religious schools, co-ed schools, girls’ schools. A lot of schools. The only thing I hadn’t tried was boarding school. I did beg my mother to let me try this out too but somehow she couldn’t bring herself to let me go. Anyway, I knew all about school even though I’d hated most of them. I knew nothing about homeschooling.
 When we set out along the homeschooling pathway, we didn’t know any other homeschoolers, apart from my mother. So we went looking for people we could connect up with. We heard about a homeschooling conference and of course we had to attend. I couldn’t wait.
The day came and we set off with three children in tow. What a day! I sat enthralled, soaking up everything I heard. The speaker talked at a million miles an hour, pacing around and around the room, waving her arms in emphasis and infecting us all with her bubbling-over enthusiasm. It was heady stuff.  I came home buzzing. I’d seen the possibilities: homeschooling was going to be a huge enormous adventure.  I’d learnt so much in the space of a day. I had so much more to learn. But one thing was certain: we wouldn’t be doing school at home. I wouldn’t be sitting our daughter in front of a blackboard. I wouldn’t be waving a stick of chalk under her nose as I ordered her to, “Sit still and pay attention!” There were other ways.
Yes, our first contact with homeschooling wasn’t at-home-school.
It wasn’t classical education. It wasn’t even Charlotte Mason. No, we’d stumbled into a style of homeschooling that was there right at the cutting edge of alternate education. We were going to be unschoolers.
I’d spent the day in the company of pioneer homeschoolers, those brave and forceful mothers who’d lobbied and fought to have the education laws reformed, the women who read John Holt and Growing Without School and whose children learned and played and discovered and were brilliant.
Words danced inside my head forming sentences: Children learn all the time not just between the hours of 9 and 3. They have a natural love of learning. Children don’t need to be bribed to learn. They don’t need to be threatened with punishment to learn. They cannot help learning when surrounded by a rich environment. Life is learning. Let children lead. Trust your children. Help them. Listen. Respect each other. Enjoy. Have fun. Follow passions. Learn together. Be a family … So much to think about.
We became unschoolers. The months passed swiftly. Soon it was the end of the year.
“So where will be Felicity be going to school after Christmas?”
“We’re not sending her to school. We’re teaching her at home.”
We’d done it. We were no longer undercover secret homeschoolers. We had come out in the open.
Our friends sort of drifted away. It was inevitable. We were walking different roads. But we didn’t want to return to the mainstream. We were headed out on a big adventure. Our feet were firmly treading the homeschooling pathway. We’d followed the sign marked “Unschooling”.What was ahead?
A side track was coming in view. We glanced quickly around. No one was looking. We headed down it and away from unschooling…
More next time!

What attracted to you to homeschooling? How did you get started? I'd love to hear your stories. Let's share!

Please visit Erin at Seven Little Australians and Counting to read the first installment of her journey into homeschooling: Beginning Our Home Education Journey

Monday, 23 May 2011

It's Back

I was at my Dashboard earlier today and I noticed something very interesting. I have a new follower. Now how did that happen when I don't have a gadget? It is all rather mysterious. Someone far cleverer than me has worked out how to do this. Those magnificent people are Lou and Andy. Welcome friends! I am so pleased you have joined us.

A new follower made me think: what is the point of removing the followers' gadget if someone can still follow? So it's back.

If you don't know the gadget story please share Hello God. You will find out I am a weak and silly woman.

But that was days ago. Now I am stronger. Now I have a brand new attitude. It's simple really. Each day, I'm going to say "Hello God" first and leave blogging to later.

So if you've been hanging out, waiting for the return of my gadget (well, someone might have, you never know) please go ahead and press 'follow' and tomorrow morning (after I've spent time with God and got all my priorities in order) I will notice. I will jump up and down just a little because it is nice to have a new follower. I will get a warm and happy feeling. It's all about connections and sharing and making new friends.
 Thank you. Lou and Andy.

Oh, by the way, I have published my second post on my new blog, Stories of an Unschooling Family. It isn't specifically a homeschooling story. It's called "Come in and Meet My Family". So hop on over, knock on the cream front door, come in and meet all the people who inspire my stories. You'll be very welcome.

You wouldn't like to add a special touch to my post, by writing one of your amusing comments, would you, Victor? I think your comments are much more entertaining than my stories!

Come In and Meet My Family...

If I were Captain Von Trapp and I had a whistle, I’d blow a short sharp trill and my children would come running. They would line up, oldest to youngest, feet together, arms at their sides, eyes straight ahead, shoulders back. I’d blow a long note followed by two short ones and the young lady at the head of the line would step smartly forward and announce, “I’m Felicity. I’m 24. I’m the little big sister.”
But I’m not Captain Von Trapp and I don’t have a whistle and Felicity doesn’t even live at home any more ...
But imagine that line, that line of children extending from oldest to youngest. It will be a very good way of introducing my family to you.

Yes, at the head is Felicity, daughter number one who left home six years ago. She lives in Perth which is right on the other side of Australia, about as far as you can travel from here, without leaving the country. Needless to say, we don’t see her very often. Next time we meet up she will be Felicity-the-bride as she marries her beloved, Graham.

I blow that imaginary whistle and a tall, bearded young man with closely cropped hair steps forward. If you are lucky you will see a most heart-warming grin. This is Duncan, I’ve-just-finished-my Bachelor-of-Arts Duncan. He is 22. Most people believe he is shy. They are all mistaken.  I would say he’s reserved. Just get him talking about movies or film making…
Peer closely at the line. You will notice a big empty space next to Duncan. The space is a four-children-sized space. Yes, these are the babies we lost before we even got to meet them. It is a sad yawning gap.

Next is Callum, 19, cheeky grin, charming, my Sons, Scrapes and Love son. He is going to make a wonderful, friendly, compassionate nurse… as long as he stays focused!

Trill! Trill! Trill!

“Imogen. Sixteen. Musician. I want to be a doctor.” The first of my Speed Angel Sisters, confident and capable.

“Charlotte. Thirteen. Just give me an egg box and I will make you anything you desire.” Needlewoman, knitter, crocheter, creator extraordinaire.

On the floor is a photo. This is Thomas’ spot in the line.  "Thomas, how are you doing in Heaven with God? I guess you're all grown up." Now you wouldn’t think that a child who lived for one day would have much to say, would you? But the funny thing is that Thomas always seems to make his way into my stories. He says, “I’m part of the family too, Mum.” He adds his special touch to my stories and to our lives.

Another empty space and then Sophie, ten years old, beautiful big eyes, kind-hearted, everyone’s friend.
Yet another space.

Then: “Gemma-Rose. Seven years old. Why can’t I cook dinners and use the sewing machine? Sigh! Sigh! I know I am the best hugger and kisser but I want another job too! I want to be bigger.”
 A final empty space, a sad way to end.
And that’s all. There lined up is the Elvis family: Felicity, Duncan, Callum, Imogen, Charlotte, Thomas, Sophie and Gemma-Rose and seven unnamed babies.
I feel rather distressed about that. Yes, I have to face the fact I didn’t give those most wanted children a dignified burial or even a name, except for baby number 15 who I think of as Anthony Plunket. Do you think they mind? Do you think they feel unloved? No, I think they understand and forgive their mother, who found everything too much to deal with. But I have been pondering… I have been wondering:  what names did God give them? … Perhaps it’s not too late.

Oh yes, I almost forgot. You haven't met my beloved, my Dean's Medallist of a Husband. He is a primary school teacher which is rather a funny thing for an unschooling father to be!
Introductions have been made. We have moved to the table, the long wooden table, the unschooling table. The kettle is on and Sophie appears with a huge double batch of Erin-chocolate-chip muffins. Come on. Sit down. Where shall we start?
Noreen is asking, “What is unschooling?”
“Ah!” I reply. “It means different things to different families.”
But I know that isn’t very helpful.  “Look, next time we meet, I’m going to start at the beginning. I’m going to tell you how we began our homeschooling adventure.”
Will you join me? I very much hope so.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

The Homeschooling Secret

You might know we are homeschoolers. That’s no secret. But I have something to admit. Something I’m going to admit in a whisper. (I seem to do a lot of whispering.) We’re unschoolers. Look, I‘ll be brave and just come out and shout it: We are Catholic Unschoolers.
Friends, do not worry. No need to panic. We haven’t suddenly become crazy and turned down a dangerous street. We’ve been unschooling a long time. We’ve just never told anyone.  
We didn’t set out to unschool. It just sort of happened. We did our own homeschooling thing, what we felt worked for our family and then one day… hey! We found we’d entered the unschooling world.
I’ve been blogging for some months now, sharing my stories of Catholic family life. You’ve met my dear husband and all our children. You’ve very patiently listened to my musings on everything from parenting, the Faith, marriage, conversion and even grief. But I’ve hardly written a post about homeschooling.
That is all about to change. I am coming out into the open. I am going to share a side of my family previously hidden. And how am I going to do this? In a newly created blog: Stories of an Unschooling Family.
“You’ve created another blog?” one of my children asks in amazement. Yes, just call me the Queen of Blogs. They are mushrooming and multiplying and filling my dashboard and overflowing…
I could have just shared my homeschooling stories here but how easy it is to create yet another blog and have somewhere special dedicated only to family learning.
Whether you homeschool, unschool , school, or don’t do school, please visit my blog and say hello. I hope my stories will entertain and maybe you will discover something you can share. That would be so good!

Behind That Cream Front Door...

If you take the north road out of town, the back road that climbs past tree studded paddocks where fat black cows graze, and if you continue past the two holiday cottages that jut over the dam, you will eventually come to the road that leads up to the village. Drive up this road of gum tree tunnels and high rock cuttings where kookaburras chuckle, and you will soon arrive at the welcome-to-our-village sign.
A few turns and down a side street, and there ahead of you, almost kissing the bush, is a light brick house with a dark brown roof. It is partly hidden by a garden of pittosporums and hebes, and if you are lucky you may catch sight of a family of superb fairy wrens flitting in the undergrowth, or perhaps there will be a cloud of butterflies surrounding the flowers…
There is nothing unusual about this house. Just a one storey brick house, nestled among the gum trees in a village street. But inside the house, behind that cream front door… Ah! Inside is something more rare: a Catholic unschooling family.
Go up to the door and knock. Do you hear the thud of footsteps? The door opens…
A sea of inquisitive girls and cats crowd round the door.
“Come in!”
“Am I interrupting anything?”
“Nothing that can’t wait. What a treat: a visitor!”
The kettle is filled and chairs are drawn up to the table.
“What have you been doing?”
“Well, I have been working on my trigonometry. I’ve nearly finished the section!” The oldest girl’s eyes light up.
“I’ve been writing a blog post. I just have to scan my drawing of a dragon, to add to the post, then I can publish it.”
“I’ve been cooking. I made those muffins!”
“Mum’s been reading to us. The book’s about the Eureka Stockade. Do you know about that?”
Soon a huge discussion is underway and you add your bit.
Two young men appear, lured towards the kitchen by the aroma of coffee. Are they unschoolers as well? No, but they were. The oldest has finished his Bachelor of Arts. The other is studying to be a nurse.
“Is this all of you, the whole family?”
“Oh no! We have another sister and another brother,” someone shouts.
“Five girls and three boys,” adds a girl helpfully, just in case you’re confused.
“Our sister lives on the other side of Australia and our brother’s in Heaven.”
Muffins are devoured, coffee is sipped and there are smiles and laughter. 
And joy and peace fill the house.
This isn’t just any unschooling family. This is my family. The Elvis family.
I have some stories I'd like to share. Stories of learning and growing and loving and living a life of Faith together. I hope you will come on in, sit down with your coffee and muffin, and join us around our unschooling table. Share our unschooling adventures. Join in the discussion. Smile and laugh...  

I hope we'll soon be friends!  

Friday, 20 May 2011

Looking and Seeing

Yesterday we were driving to town. It was the fourth day in a row that I’d travelled along the one and only road out of our village. Imogen was seated next to me, gazing out the window and not saying a word.
“Aren’t you going to talk to me while I’m driving? I’m rather fed-up of going along the same route day after day.  I need some good conversation to distract me.”
I thought for a moment and then admitted, “At least we’re not travelling along a busy city street, stopping and starting at all the lights, fighting our way through heavy traffic. I guess this is rather a pleasant drive compared to that. ”
I looked out the window. I looked properly. How could I have become bored with this journey through such beautiful countryside?
Tall walls of sandstone rise on each side of our van, casting us in shadow.  I drive through the cutting and wonder about its history. It’s a feat of engineering and we are lucky we have this road which climbs gently up the hill to our village. We pass through a gum tree tunnel, tall branch tips touching overhead, dappled sunlight descending upon us. And there is the chuckle of a kookaburra. Now the road seems suspended in mid-air for a few seconds, as the bushland on either side of us falls away. More cutting…and out the other side. We’re rolling along between tree studded paddocks. I twist my head to get a good look at the grazing black cows with their broad white belts around their fat middles. I notice the deciduous trees clinging onto the last of their red autumn leaves. The van winds past the two holiday cottages which are being constructed on the edge of a dam. A new fountain sends spray high into the air, and I think about what it would be like to sit on a verandah that juts over the water. There are cotoneasters covered in bright orange berries and a flock of red and blue parakeets are feeding greedily. I make a mental note to check their names in the bird book. To our right, an ultra-light plane comes into view and then the small historic airport where it must have started its journey. A wombat lies by the side of the road, and I feel glad I have never hit one… And then a moment later we arrive in town.
We live in such a beautiful area, a place where tourists come for their holidays. And I usually drive along without any sense of awe or wonder, thinking only of the mundane. I guess it has all become rather commonplace. I have seen it so many times before. It doesn’t register. I look but I don’t see.
I wonder:  How many other things haven’t I looked at properly recently? How many other things am I failing to see because they are always there?  Sometimes it is only when things are taken away that we truly realise what we had. And then it is too late.
So I am looking and I see:
Little arms wanting to hug me when I  am too busy to really notice; the care which Andy shows towards me each morning, as he brings me my breakfast; the softness and warmth that touches my skin as a cat snuggles onto my lap; the steaming hot water that wakes me up at the start of the day; our own home, our safe refuge from the world; the smiles that greet me when I return home from town; my warm and cosy bed at the end of a tiring day; forgiveness after making a mistake; Jesus waiting for me to come and receive; love and Love...
I'm sure I could never count all the blessings that surround me. But perhaps I can stop more often, and not only look, but see.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Married Twice

Andy asked me to marry him when we were still teenagers: we were almost childhood sweethearts. But before our marriage, we wanted to finish our university degrees. During that waiting time we often discussed our wedding. And every time the topic came up, I was adamant I didn’t want to marry in the Catholic Church. Andy tried to tell me that if we had a civil ceremony we wouldn’t be married in the eyes of the Church. I hardly listened. That didn’t mean anything to me. There was absolutely no chance that I would ever be a Catholic.  As far as I was concerned, a civil ceremony was more than adequate.
So we planned our wedding: it was to be a civil ceremony in a registry office.
Once we had decided on the place for our wedding, my thoughts turned to dresses. At first I didn’t consider wearing a traditional, white dress. Instead I thought I’d have a simple, long gown in a pastel colour: perhaps this would be more appropriate for a civil ceremony. But I changed my mind. What little girl hasn’t dreamt of being married in a fairy-tale, long, white wedding dress complete with a mysterious, floating veil? I wanted to be a princess bride regardless of the setting of our wedding.
I found a crinoline gown complete with hooped petticoat that made the wide skirt float out beautifully into a circle. My mother patiently sewed pale pink, satin dresses with Princess Di sleeves for my sister-bridesmaids. Andy hired a dapper, grey top hat and tails. We felt absolutely beautiful as we were joined in marriage in a rather non-descript room, under the eyes of our family and friends.
A few years passed, and then after the birth of our first two children, thoughts of baptism began to occupy my mind. I didn’t want to think about baptism – I didn’t want anything to do with the Church -  but it was as if I had no choice. These inconvenient thoughts nagged at me until I started taking them seriously. I talked with Andy: should we baptise our children and if so, in which church? I didn’t realise it but my heart was beginning to soften. I still thought I would never enter the church myself but our children... perhaps.
I am a very practical person. I couldn’t just go out and get our children baptised. I had to find out exactly what we were getting into. I needed more information. I decided I ought to visit our local parish priest.
Father Bill was a priest of the old school and he looked rather forbidding. I might have been trembling at the knees if I hadn’t given myself a stern talking to before setting out to meet him. I wouldn’t let myself feel intimidated by anyone, especially a Catholic priest. I shook hands with the priest and stated my mission: “We’re thinking of having our children baptised and I think I should find out more about the church so I can make the right decision…this is only an enquiry…we might not get them baptised at all… I just want some information.” It all came rushing out in one long, fast sentence.
Father Bill took me in his stride. I am sure he had met many strange people like me over the course of his long and experienced life. He listened patiently to my prepared speech.  I wanted to get things straight right from the beginning. I wanted him to understand I hadn’t come along intending to join his church. He might not even get our children…
Father Bill reassured me that I was being very sensible. How could I make an informed decision without information? He reached into his cupboard and took out an orange book which I think was called The Catholic Religion.
“Why don’t you read this book and then if you have any questions, give me a call.”
I floated home. I’d done it. I’d visited the priest, been given a book and had emerged without feeling interrogated or pressured, or worse, second rate. Mission accomplished!
I devoured the book Father Bill had given me. As I read, I realised that God alone could give meaning to my sometimes confusing life. I realised I had been searching for this meaning, that something had been missing from my life.  As I turned the pages, I fell in love with the Catholic Faith. I absorbed everything and started to pray, and soon I knew I wanted to belong.  I wanted to belong to the Catholic Church and share one Faith with my family, all of us worshipping God together.
Felicity and Duncan were baptised, and before long I was enrolled in an RCIA program. I was going to do what I’d said I would never do: I was going to become a Catholic… and I was also going to have a second wedding day.
So on a beautiful, sunny autumn morning in April 1991, Andy and I and our small children headed to our parish church for the early Saturday Mass. A few friends and family joined us. I was wearing my second wedding dress. It was rather ordinary, just my favourite green and white, three-quarter sleeved dress. Andy wore his business suit. We stood before the altar and we received the sacrament of marriage. A short time later, I received Our Lord for the first time.
At the end of Mass, Father offered his congratulations and we were given a round of applause by the sparse Saturday morning congregation. I don’t suppose any of the parishioners had expected to witness a wedding and an entry into the Church when they’d set out for Mass that morning.
As I was leaving the church, a woman stopped me. She enfolded me in a tight embrace and smacked a kiss on my cheek. Tears were in her eyes. “Beautiful!” she whispered.
Beautiful? I wasn’t nearly as beautiful as I’d been on our first wedding day. My dress couldn’t compete with that first elaborate creation. I didn’t have an exquisite bouquet of roses in my hand, nor bridesmaids or a veil…
The first time we got married there were two of us: Andy who loved me so much he gave up the idea of a church wedding, and me, that prickly woman who wouldn’t listen when Andy explained the difference between a church wedding and a civil ceremony. All I was concerned about were my own desires.
But at our second wedding, there were three of us: Andy who still loved me dearly, a woman with a softening heart and…  God.
Yes, our wedding was beautiful. It was the most beautiful wedding I could ever have imagined.
I look at this photo and see two very happy people on their beautiful second wedding day.
If you would like to share more of my conversion story please read A Mother-in-Law's Prayers