Friday, 4 November 2016

Crazy Halloween Fun

Although I dislike the commercial side of Halloween, we found much to enjoy this year in the dressing up and messing around with things that are a little bit scary. We decorated our windows and lights with bats, spiders and black cats, made scary Halloween luminaries, dressed up and played all kinds of funny games. 

The costumes were fairly easy to put together. A classic ghost made out of an old table cloth for Noah. I did a bit of sewing down the sides to get a better drape and painted round the eye holes with black paint to make him a bit spookier. He came up with the idea of using his headlamp on red (just got it for his birthday) underneath to transform into a bloody ghoul once it got dark - it was pretty scary. 

Maya decided she needed a Hermione Granger costume. I made her some robes with black cotton I had left over from the time she dressed up as Kiki the Witch. I used this tutorial. I didn't have material for a lining so I just edge stitched round the front to prevent fraying. She likes them so much she's been wearing them ever since. For the Gryffindor scarf we taped strips of yellow felt to a red scarf we had. Her hair is a bit flat in the photo but in the beginning it was very Hermione, all over the place and wavy. We achieved the look by plaiting her hair the night before and then backcombing it a bit. Under the robe she had a grey skirt, white t-shirt as we had no shirt and a grey cardigan. She was really pleased with the results.

Lotta's costume was the easiest. She wanted to be a black cat and I made that costume years ago for Maya. It's an old polo neck sweater of mine. I sewed ears made out of some old tights onto the rim of the sweater. The wearer pulls up to frame their face and the ears stand up. I also made a tail out of some old tights. Worn over black tights with a nose and whiskers painted on (I used water paint from a tube - so easy to clean off) the costume is complete. She was very cute.

The games included, a giant spider web on the floor to walk along in order to get to some treats thanks to no time for flashcards, pin the boo on the ghost, halloween bingo (we used Crayola printable boards) and the pièce de résistance in my humble opinion - toilet roll gruesome ghost bowling as pictured below. This was so simple to put together - 10 toilet rolls (recycled paper please), some black dot stickers for eyes and mouths drawn on with a red pen. What I really liked about this craft compared to mummifying one of us for example was that all we have to do is peel off one layer of toilet roll and we can use the rest.

We didn't trick or treat, we didn't watch a single scary movie and we didn't even get round to carving our pumpkins but we had a lot of fun. And anyway, pumpkin carving was a traditional 5th of November, Bonfire Night activity in the UK before apparently so we're going to do them then and maybe we'll have another round of bowling while we're at it, or perhaps we can make a pin the bang on the dynamite!

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Hello Again - glad to be back!

It has been a very long time since I last posted. What started off as a short break for holidays with the intention of posting a few holiday pics has turned into a three month hiatus. There are so many reasons, family sickness, an injured cat, other projects taking priority. All things which have led me to wonder how much time I can spend on blogging at this point in my life. 

After a lot of reflection though I realised I miss sifting through our everyday to find things to share here. So I'm going to begin again with no promises to do much more than share a few a photo or two for now. And aren't these just lovely ones. 

Good times in the forest, amazing light and mighty tree stumps that lead me to want to share this poem I discovered recently as part of ModPo a brilliant mooc I'm following at the moment. It's by John Ashbury and it's called Some Trees. Here it is:

"Some Trees"

by John Ashbery

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

Thursday, 28 July 2016


It's holiday time here and we're enjoying family, river bathing, sunshine and barbecues down in St Etienne. We're going to be away or entertaining guests on and off from now until September so I'll be taking a rest from the homeschooling files and mainly posting photos of our adventures for the next few weeks. But first here are some pictures of a quilt I made for Maya's birthday back in April that I've been meaning to share for ages.

The quilt is made of strips of fabric alternating patterned strips and plain strips. The plain strips are white with small blue dots and the patterned strips are made up of squares sewn together. Making the patterned strips was a lot of fun, I had a colour scheme of pinks and purples and a hint of blue in mind and had bought some fabrics specially a few years ago and used other fabrics from my stash. Quite a few our from this lovely shop in Paris. There's also an African fabric in there with beautiful zebras and a few organic cottons ordered online.

The quilt is backed with half of an old duvet cover from Ikea. Originally it was cream but that's not the most hard wearing colour and so a few years ago I dyed it pink. The nice thing about using old sheets, pillow cases and duvet covers is that they're really nice and soft from all that washing, perfect for snuggling up under. Maya loves her quilt and put it straight on her bed, what more can a sewing mama want?

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Homeschool Files : Art and Artists - Matisse


As you may have gathered from many of my posts, we spend a lot of time crafting and drawing. This probably began because it's something I enjoy doing and the kids do too. It's also because I believe it's really important for people to have different ways of expressing themselves and art is one valuable form alongside, dance, music, talking about our feelings, writing and many others.

Recently we have been working on Matisse. It began when we decided to spend some time drawing bodies using our wooden artist's doll. After we'd done sketching over several days and sessions, I wanted to offer the children another way of representing bodies and I immediately thought of Matisse. Both his paintings and his later collages represent bodies beautifully in ways that reveal their underlying shapes and fill them with movement.

We began by looking at some Matisse pictures online. We talked a bit about the pictures and I shared a bit with the kids about Matisse particularly how he turned to collage when he got older and he couldn't paint anymore because of rheumatism. This led to a discussion about frustration and how you can deal with it before we got stuck into collaging.

Dancing man

I placed all our collage materials in the middle of the table. These include old magazines, newspaper, wrapping paper, speciality papers such as origami, tissue paper etc and painted paper, snippets of paper the children have stamped on, kraft paper etc. Basically anything that I think could possibly be interesting goes in the box (ok boxes now- shh). I also put out a pair of scissor each and a couple of glue sticks, everyone having their own tools makes for much less squabbling in our house.

I put the artist's doll back in the middle of the table and let one of the kids arrange his body the way they wanted. Maya decided to begin with a cat rather than a person, I worked on a man mirroring the artist doll's position. The youngest two decided they would just use the papers to do a collage and spent a lot of time with the magazines cutting out anything that interested them.

Man and his cat
For me the important thing about this sort of activity is that we're doing it together and that it is a proposition that the children can take up and run with as they wish. Quite often I find myself alone or just with one child at the beginning, but the fact that mum's doing it often means that by the time I've finished everyone has joined in and carries on long after I've moved on to getting the tea or running the hoover around. 

Pink Flamingo
I was really pleased with how my artwork turned out and the children's too. It's been a really fun project and one we're continuing with as you can see from the photos, using it to explore our experiences at Branféré Animal park. For the younger children collaging is a great activity for their fine motor skills and the littlest one also had fun hunting through magazines for specific colours or objects we named.


If you want to do this kind of art activity at home you'll need:
  • collage materials 
  • glue sticks
  • A4 or bigger sheets of paper
  • scissors
Remember anything can be collage material, you could even do the same as Matisse and make your own materials first by painting paper. You could also work on another artist. Copying great artists has always been a part of artistic training and is a great way to think about how art represents the world and to learn knew skill sets.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The homeschool files : Passionate about Ponies

As I've said before, one of the principles of our approach is following the children's interests. Home educated children have a lot of time to explore their passions if we let them. Both at home and out in the world, all the time they are not spending in school can be used to pursue their interests. In the case of our oldest Maya this means a lot of time is spent on horses and horse riding. 

Watching Maya's passion grow has been a joy. From her first tentative steps at age 4, she has grown to be very disciplined about this activity. She's also so enthusiastic it sometimes verges on being annoying, like when she asks you for the fiftieth time in how many minutes you'll be leaving for pony club! This is really her world, as none of the rest of us have any experience with our equine friends. Of course we've all learnt a lot from reading books and watching films and documentaries about horses but she is still our resident expert.

When your homeschool child finds something they love and pursues it outside of the home, as for parents who send their kids to school, it can sometimes be complicated to know how involved you should be. Maya's pony club is her world and as she's grown up a lot this last year she's needed us in it less and less. And although it's delighted us to see her have the confidence and responsibility to do this all by herself (well except for lifts - agh), it was sometimes hard not to know much about what was going on. 

So, it was with great curiosity and delight that we attended her club's annual party and barbecue last weekend and were admitted, if only for a day into her world. The opportunity to meet and speak with her teachers was great and we were happy to hear that she's a useful and much appreciated member of their community as well as a good rider. We were also able to put names to the faces of all her friends who share her passion for riding. 

As our children get older I expect we will be less and less involved with their learning process, but I hope and believe they'll always be these windows into their lives which let us share with them the progress they're making and the joy their finding in pursuing their passions. 

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

The Homeschool Files : Branféré Wildlife Park

As home educators we do like field trips. Last Wednesday we headed South to La Guerno and the Branféré wildlife park (site in French for info in English try here or here). Unlike at a zoo, none of the animals at Branféré are behind bars. They roam around large green spaces and we the visitors must keep to our paths while we roam around and enjoy the show.

Like these lovely Alpacas who'll sometimes even let you get up close and personal...
Baby Alpaca nursing

Or these Dromodaries who seemed very chilled out but kept their distance...

Dromodaires resting

The plentiful Wallabies look very friendly but remained quite shy during our visit. The kids spent a lot of time trying to see if there was anybody in the pouches...

A thoughtful Wallaby

This layout means that sometimes you have to stop to let birds like this cross the path... 
This Peacock is magnificent and knows it!

But Lotta, our youngest's all time favourite animals at Branféré were these guys. Seeing them up close really gives you an idea of just how long those necks are.


I know there are probably some of you who have the same kind of concerns as we do about visiting animals in captivity. Without a doubt the best place for all wild animals is as their name implies, in the wild.  We do not take our children to zoos anymore. We've visited some of the best in our time and even from those we took away an overwhelming sense of sadness to see such magnificent animals as tigers and lions confined in such small spaces.

Branféré's concept is however a far cry from more traditional zoos and is supported by their strong commitment to educating people about biodiversity and helping the environment. For many of the animals this is a lovely setting. You can see the animals are in great condition and clearly well cared for. However, it isn't perfect. For the giraffes and wolves and some of the marine wildlife like otters, I couldn't help but feel they must suffer from such reduced circumstances so to speak. 

For our family, Branféré worked. We had a wonderful day out with good friends and learnt more about animals we've enjoyed studying at home. We didn't shy away from our concerns for the animals but discussed them openly. We also talked about the environmental problems and the human behaviour which means that so many animals are under threat in their natural habitat. Our enjoyment was undoubtedly helped by the sites educational stance and the bird show one of the best I've ever seen - pictures coming soon!

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

This week our household is still reeling from the referendum in Great Britain. As a European household with Anglo-French children we believe in the European project even if we're not always happy about some of its policies or the way things are run. We also feel there's a need to unite faced with the undeniable rise of extremist populist politics.

In light of this and a very hectic schedule I've decided to give the homeschool files a rest this week and instead in the spirit of five little things, share some pictures which bring me joy. Writing in the Guardian today Zoe Williams warned, these are dark times. In the face of this darkness which I fear is striking the heart of not only my country but many different parts of the world, we all need to remember to share love, kindness and joy as much as we can. 

First tart of the season
Apricots, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, blackcurrants and apple purée on a wholemeal pastry base. Served in the sun. Yummy.

Maya's flourishing veggie patch
Rocket, baby salad leaves and radishes already and carrots coming up beautifully. Well done Maya!

Our resident robin
This fellow can be seen perching on the top of our swing most mornings if you take a look outside and he sings cheerfully and brings a smile to my face every time.

Beach flowers
When everything goes to pot, go to the sea. I may adopt it as my motto. These beautiful flowers were out all along the dunes at Kerhilio beach near Erdeven on the Atlantic coast. They smell good too.

I really do love the ocean and it's tides and the way light plays on the white as it foams onto the shore. I could spend an eternity watching it and I'm always reminded of how insignificant we really are faced with its vastness. And funnily enough, it's not frightening just humbling and for me a reminder to live my life fully because it's so brief and to show a proper amount of respect to this earth which was here before me and will be here long after I'm gone. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Homeschool files : managing time and different ages

Two of the questions I get asked a lot is how do you manage your time when you work and homeschool? And isn't it hard to balance the needs of three children spanning such a wide age range? These are tough questions and we certainly don't have all the answers, in fact I would say they are challenges we struggle with regularly. However, I did think it might be useful or encouraging to someone to tell you what we do even if our solutions are not always perfect.

Balancing working from home and home education is not easy but it is a route that many home educating parents take in order to be able to spend enough time with their children. We have several ways of managing it. Firstly we both have set work times during the week which the children are used to and which we work hard to respect. That means that we try not to plan activities or meet-ups during those times unless everyone but the person working can be involved. Basically whichever of us is working is not available, for child care, for housework, for driving etc. 

The parent caring for the children tries to keep them occupied and away from the working parent's workspace. The spring and summer are easier as we spend more time out of doors and take more trips. Now that both of us are driving leaving the worker in peace is more common. Another solution has been working elsewhere, particularly at our local library; it's quiet and most importantly free of the interruptions inevitable at home.  

My partner also works in the evenings after the children are settled. I think the ability to do this or not depends on individual's rhythms and it's certainly not something I could do. I do try to get up early most days so I can do my yoga then, which frees up time on my work days and also to read poetry which is an important part of my creative process. 

So to the second question, the age disparity - we run a range from 3 to 10. Clearly our children have very different learning needs. We have several approaches to this. Firstly we think it's really important that each child has one on one time with both of us and we schedule that in once a week. Monday afternoons are with Papa and Fridays with mum. This means each child is getting two hours of individual time a week. It might not seem much when you think how long kids spend in school but it is not the only time they're learning by a long leap and also this is very effective, concentrated time when the adult's energy is entirely focussed on them and their learning. 

We also take advantage of moments that come up when siblings are busy, to read a book together, talk about something, answer some questions. I also often just adapt things to each child. So if I've decided I'd like the kids do dome some literacy work I might put out a couple of alphabet puzzles for Lotta, work on his alphabet and writing practice with Noah and help Maya write a letter to a friend. And if they're not all doing the same thing then I just get them started one by one and try to give everyone as much attention as I can when and if they need it. To be honest they're often very autonomous once they're started. 

These are just some ideas and as I said at the beginning they're far from perfect. Sometimes we get very frazzled and frustrated and envy our home educating friends who have only one child! But it all passes and in the muddle and the mess somehow everyone is learning, everyone is progressing and each of the children are emerging into themselves more and more each day. 

Friday, 17 June 2016

The Homeschool Files : Climbing


Climbing is an activity we began this year. Both Noah (6) and Lotta (3.5) take part and have stayed motivated and enthusiastic all year. Last Sunday our climbing club went on an outdoor trip to La Chaise du diable (The Devil's Chair), a site next to our river, the Blavet a little further down stream towards the ocean. 

It was a lovely day and the children and their dad were delighted to put all their new skills to the test in the great outdoors. As a mother, watching these things is all kinds of nervousness combined with pride and delight in their achievements. My heart really was thumping as I tried to hold the camera steady and record their scaling of this impressive cliff for grandparents and posterity!

Coming down

Lotta only climbed once, up at the top she suddenly noticed me and took fright. Our lovely instructor Julie, who is always kind and supportive, told us that one climb is usually enough for smaller children. Not only are they impressed by the reality of climbing a rock not an indoor wall, they also get tired quickly from all the muscles they have to use. Noah climbed three times, three different climbs. Seeing their satisfaction makes the effort of the thirty minute drive to the climbing wall each week feel worth the while.

I think they've learnt a lot from climbing. It's an activity that requires discipline, a calm head and a steady hand. You have to be observant to find the right hand and foot holds. You also have to listen to what's going on inside, how your body feels, where it will fit best with the wall or the rock. I believe that the skills they are learning practicing climbing will serve them in their daily lives helping them to stay calm under pressure, observe data and analyse it quickly, problem solve and have confidence in themselves; their bodies, their instincts. 


Saturday, 11 June 2016

Five Little Things : blooming spring!

Hedgerow flowers
The verge in bloom
More cultivated plants
Field full of Cow Parsley
Bee in the Foxgloves
All this beauty was observed whilst out walking with Lotta (3.5). Flowers uplift me, bring grace and beauty, a feeling of plenty into my life. I am glad when I am mindful enough to notice them, appreciate their value and be grateful for them. 

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Homescholing Mama : Poetry Masterclass Ty Newydd

Through the train window - Wales

Over the last couple of weeks it was my turn to further my education. I headed off to Wales to participate in a poetry master-class with the great poets, Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy, former national poet of Wales and poet laureate of England respectively. 

To say I had a great time would be a glaring understatement. I found myself thinking perhaps I'd died on the plane and gone to heaven! Surrounded by like-minded people, or should I say similarly bonkers people in a beautiful house I was told to treat as my home, there to write poetry and learn from the best - what more could I ask for. 

The view from the garden

Ty Newydd is a very special place, a beautiful, old house with a lot of character, it's been lovingly renovated with great care and attention paid to comfort. The result is a cosy, homelike haven in which people come to write and learn. It's rural setting close to the sea, surrounded by rolling hills and fields makes it very peaceful and refreshing. On my walks I saw wildflowers, herons, plovers and sheep (I'm rather partial to the latter who aren't so common here in Brittany).

The back of the house
With all that beauty around you, the inside more than matches up. After all, what more can a poet ask for than a room full of poetry books! The Ty Newydd library pictured below is probably one of the most beautiful and cosy rooms I've spent time in. It was the venue for nightly poetry readings firstly by Carol Ann and Gillian, then the wonderful Imtiaz Dharker and finally on the last evening, us - the participants. I loved spending all day working on poetry, eating a fantastic meal and then getting right back into poetry again right there in that room.  

View of the garden from the Library window
The other end of the Library

After a week of workshops, group work and rich conversation, I've come back inspired and invigorated with a bunch of new friends who are all as talented and amazing as each other. I feel very lucky to have had this time for myself; to learn, to grow, to meet new people and take a few steps further with my writing. Thank you to my family, especially Frank for managing without me for ten days and to all the wonderful people at Ty Newydd who really make the house a home from home for all who visit!

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Homeshcool Files : Tests

The hamac, ideal location for reading, chess and chilling out!

Testing has been in the media quite a lot in the UK recently with parents choosing to keep their children out of school, on 'strike' over the SATs. Parent's are complaining that their children's performance in such tests is more important to their teacher's and schools than their happiness and well-being and joy in learning. Although we live in France and are home educators it's a debate I've taken a keen interest in and that does have a relevance to what we do, why we do it and what I'd like to tell people about the choices we make. 
Firstly, I'd like to say that the amount of testing, homework and what I felt was too serious school work for small children was one of the first things that put me off schooling my eldest daughter. I would often look out the window at the kids walking home from the school down our street and feel saddened by the site of their little hunched over backs weighed down by such heavy backpacks. Somehow it seemed as if their wings were clipped. Choosing to home educate was a way to give our children freedom and keep them out of a system that to my mind places too much emphasis on the quantitative and not enough on the quality. I wanted a childhood for my kids full of adventures and imaginings and no testing. 
Maya running wild at the Beach

But even as homeschoolers we are not free of the threat of tests. In France as a family having chosen l'instruction en famille , we must declare our situation every year and the local Education Authority then carries out an inspection. Their duty is to verify that instruction is being given to our children and that it is adapted to their needs. There are no benchmarks that we have to meet except that we should have roughly covered the socle commun or national curriculum by the time they are 16. They are not supposed to compare our children's progress to children of similar age within schools. They do not need to test our children, but they'd like to. As school inspectors they are used to testing children and it is hard for them at first to understand how they can evaluate whether what we are doing with our children is effective without testing their level.

We refuse to allow any testing. In fact we have a golden rule that when the inspectors talk to the children they must only ask open ended questions. This may seem extreme but for us testing makes no sense within the educational philosophy we've adopted. We believe each person's learning path is unique and uniquely personal and therefore asking them to tell someone else what they knew, to provide restitution, is inherently intrusive. Home educated children we know simply cannot understand why an adult would ask them a question they clearly know the answer to? They are derouted by it and find it hard to answer because they think it's a trick. 

So why do schools have tests and why do the inspectors like them? They provide facts and figures which can then be used to provide data about how well or badly an institution (a school, lea or government) is doing. For me, particularly at primary school age they have little or nothing to do with the children. Even at a later stage, I find that at best tests are evidence of what an individual knows on a particular day in a particular place. Having sat many I can not so proudly say, I've forgotten an awful lot of it!
Noah admiring a bird he just decorated
But without testing, I know a lot of people wonder how we can be sure our children our learning and progressing? With no quizzes or even direct questions (as much as possible sometimes you can't help yourself), how can we be sure they're learning anything at all? The honest answer is that we don't know all the specifics of what they're learning. If you asked me right now what any one of the kids has retained from the numerous learning experiences we've had in the last week I probably couldn't give you that many concrete examples. However, what I can say without a doubt is that they are always, always progressing and that is true even when they have their most dormant, stationary periods of all. 
In fact often, those periods when they appear to be learning nothing and what's worse seem not very interested in learning anything at all are often followed by the most significant leaps in understanding of all. It seems the brain needs downtime to process what it's taking in - haven't we all experienced this as adults

What allows us to see their progression is what I like to call the slow reveal; over a long period of time we gradually see emerging all the things that interested them, that responded to questions they had and that they've retained and used to further their understanding of the world around them. These things emerge in conversation at the dinner table, when we encounter a subject again and something's clicked or when they ask another question to further their knowledge. It's a process that requires a lot of trust, trust in their ability to learn, to stay curious and ask questions and to find their own way to the knowledge they need. It can be a bit frightening but I am constantly amazed by my kids and how intelligent they are and this is enough to keep me on track.      

With our inspectors we have been lucky to meet open minded individuals. We explained our approach and our reasons for it and they accepted it. We took the time together to talk about our children, their interests and what they've been learning. We tried to meet them at least a little on their own ground by giving a qualitative account of our children's progress as we see it. Of course they are particularly interested in reading, writing and arithmetic but they were open to a discussion about how other activities help and encourage through necessity if nothing else, the acquisition of these essentials. They give suggestions about methods they know of they think might interest our kids or make suggestions about other activities they might find interesting. Although I can't say I like these inspections they force us to reflect seriously about what we're doing and give rise to some interesting conversation.

Our approach is a far cry from SATs and the like. People in favour of testing constantly insist they're necessary to target kids that need help but for me they only show you what wasn't working on a specific day at a specific time. Wouldn't a qualitative discussion between parents and teacher, between the people invested in the child's education be able to identify difficulties and devise strategies to help them more efficiently? If you spend time with a child, get to know them and how they learn, then you can learn how to help them, what to put in their path so they can learn what they need to. 

What I suppose I think about all the parent's feeling their kids are over tested is this : you are absolutely right. There are other alternatives but they all start first and foremost with having confidence in our children to educate themselves in what they need to know and confidence in ourselves as parents or teachers or facilitators to help them on their path. This is what we need to campaign for for all children whether home educated or school educated.

** I'd like to note that our eldest willingly puts herself into exam situations in her out of home activities - passing her belts at karate and her galops with pony. She spends a lot of time preparing for these tests and is keen to revise. For me the important thing here is that she is choosing to sit these exams because she wants to and feels she is ready to. We've made it clear to her that they are optional.