Sunday, 13 November 2011

Freedom food

People have exclaimed in wonder at the number and variation of mushrooms in my garden. It's not entirely surprising - they like nutrient rich soil, a food base of plenty of decaying plant matter, and each prefers its own situation - hedgerow, sunny field, etc. In the twenty-nine years that my dad owned and worked this garden, he deliberately created a rich and organic haven for wildlife of all kinds, not with birdseed and bee-boxes, but by letting nature do its thing: encouraging the plants that birds like, allowing slugs to feed the frogs, leaving undisturbed areas for the shy creatures to hide. 

Many fungi thrive in great numbers if the autumn is wet and mild, so this is a particularly good year to find them. If I speak like an expert, I'm deceiving you well, because everything I know I have learnt in the last twenty-four hours from Richard Mabey's 'Food for Free', and a brief Google Search.

Now, I'm not great advocate for self-sufficiency. I think that as an ideal it is flawed and impractical. I would prefer to aim for community-sufficiency. You know, I'll provide the apples and the mushrooms, you give me a few of your eggs and walnuts, Fred over there knows how to build a house, so we're well on the way to a happy life. But what I do believe in is being able to live without outside help. To not be one of the people who, when the system collapses and the shopping malls have all been looted, are panicking and considering cannibalism.

So, considering I'm a little too squeamish and sentimental to pop outside and shoot myself a woodpigeon (especially as they kindly eat my slugs for me now the toddlers have scared most of my frogs away), I'll have to get my protein from somewhere, and the mushrooms in my garden seem a pretty obvious place to start. But - big, stinking, screaming, almost insurmountable but - I really don't want to accidentally kill myself and my family!

Richard Mabey considers why so many people feel like this, considering that "there are 3000 species of large-bodied fungi growing in the British Isles, yet only twenty-odd of these are seriously poisonous." Yes, but what if I accidentally pick one that is? He does, after all, also state that, of the poisonous ones, "each one resembles maybe half a dozen edible types". He goes on to list many reasons why fungi are taboo, including mystical reasons and psychological associations, but for me it simply comes down to the scary possibility of death. Then again, I'm happy to pick berries and leaves from my garden, and there are deadly ones of those in Britain, too!

So I have decided to learn as much as I can about mushroom identification and usage this year, so that next year I'll have the confidence to consider them as a food source. Richard Mabey assures me that as long as I am absolutely exact about matching descriptions, locations and times of year, there will be no mistake. He also advises, mind you, to discard any mushrooms I'm unsure of, as "indigestion brought on by uncertainty about whether you have done yourself in can be just as uncomfortable as real food poisoning!" Less deadly though, I'd imagine.

The picture shown at the top of this post is, I believe, a group of parasol mushrooms. I took this photo last week, down by the woodpile. If you wonder why they're called "parasol", the next picture is what they looked like a few days later. Mabey suggests stuffing them or making fritters out of them.

 Next is (I think) field blewit. And if you know me to be wrong about any of my identifications, please, please tell me! These ones were amongst the dead leaves and fallen Bramley apples, and were spaced out in a straight line in the shade of a hedgerow. Mabey suggests using them as a tripe substitute (why would I want to do that?) or making an omelette out of them (much better).

Finally, on the slope of my front garden, I found a fairyland of these tiny specimens. They're not food, but Google searching suggests they're probably a kind of mycena (I hope so), though they look scarily like liberty caps. Hm. Well, I'm not breaking any laws as long as I leave them right there in the grass, and I won't be shouting about it to the local kids, anyway, just in case!

Friday, 11 November 2011

Friday Frolics

We haven't spent much time in the garden recently, so I thought today we'd better put that to rights. We found some work to do, and some games to play, and some activities that fall somewhere in between. We also found lots and lots of mushrooms, which warrant their own post, so I'll try and get to that tomorrow! For now, here are our frolics:

This is a game we call 'Good Apple Bad Apple'. We would ideally play it every few days at least, but as you can see there were three weeks' worth of apples on the floor today!

Next came the job of raking up the leaves. No-one wants unsightly piles of leaves, right?

Much better to have pretty piles of leaves.

Finally, when the work was done, there was enough daylight left for some skittle action. After all this fresh air, Minnie ate exceedingly well at tea time, and is no doubt falling asleep quickly as I type!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The home education debate continued

Blogger wouldn't allow Kay's essay as a comment, so I'll reverse things a little by posting her words here, and my own comment below.

What are schools for? Why do we have them? Why do most people assume school is a legal requirement? It's an idea that developed along with the industrial revolution. Suddenly, the people with the power and the momentum of the era wanted most people to be *workers*: people who could read and write and count and, more imporantly, people with a deeply ingrained work ethic. That is, people who feel that going to the same place, to do the same thing, every day, whether you think it's a good idea or not, is necessary, sensible and virtuous. That idea does NOT come naturally to humans. You have to train them to it from a young age.

And once the industrial revolution had put paid to the old ways of families and communities organising themselves, you had a population that mostly lived in towns, and mostly worked. Unwatched kids, hanging around getting up to mischief when the parents and older siblings were at work were a nuisance. Daily school was a way of containing them.

I discussed the school-or-home thing with some of my associates and there were elements of the work ethic in the worries that surfaced. What if the kids don't learn to put up with things, stick at things, find ways of dealing with things? I know what they mean, and it concerns me a bit too but most of the time, the thing that concerns me most is the way most people DO accept things, put up with things - you know, little things like managing to ignore mass murder, state-sponsored torture, the wholesale destruction of the environment, the majority of taxpayers' money being spent by ministers' chums in the city, the cynical destruction of the welfare state...

To the people who say 'how can you teach them everything, you don't know everything' I'd reply, go look up 'education' in the dictionary. It means 'drawing out', not 'stuffing stuff in'. One of the features of the 21st century is the extraordinary amount and variety of information that's available. What kids need is not facts (many of which, I daresay, you won't know) but how to find, judge and make use of facts. Make bags of use of that magic phrase "I don't know, let's find out..." Have lots of projects that explore finding and evaluating information sources. Lots and lots of "who is saying this?" "Why are they saying it?" "What evidence do they have?" "Why *that* evidence?" " Do *I* think that evidence makes their case, or could it be interpreted another way?"

Someone I discussed it all with was worried about the kids not getting maths or scientific method. I love (and have) that idea that all would-be home-educators are artsy and can't count! So yes, make sure they get scientific method - the ability to observe and record events, to experiment, to develop, question and test theories, to evaluate other people's scientific work - especially to evauluate statistics. Most of the people, most of the time, are flummoxed and misled by bad statistics. Bad statistics are all over the internet and the newspapers (remember that newspaper report that said SHOCK, HORROR, MOST UK CHILDREN ARE NOW BELOW AVERAGE IN MATHS!) So, in short, if they've got information and science methodology, they can learn just about anything they want to.

Another worry is that they won't 'fit in', won't have the chance to be 'normal'. Quite a large proportion of life's great oddballs either didn't go to school or went sporadically, or went to a variety of schools. When I say oddballs, I mean writers, movers, thinkers, hackers... anyone who's had to learn to think for themselves, you might say. The big question is what made the fork in the path between the bright, brilliant, world-changing oddballs and the seriously deranged, misfit oddballs. In some cases, you might say they are two sides of the same coin but, if I were you, I'd make a study of it! I suspect the answer might be having the consistent attention of someone who cares and knows how to listen and question. Kids can take quite a long time to voice their concerns, and often need inspired questions - ones they know how to answer - before they know clearly what their concerns are.

There is the danger of claustrophobia - for you and for them - if the family gets too closed and inward, the ideas and the assumptions too easily agreed. Outside influences cause friction and chaos. If there are no compulsory outside influences, it's all too easy to reject troublesome ones, and waste opportunities as a result. I don't think I got much out of being at school, but I did get the experience of having to get along with a wide variety of people with a wide variety of backgrounds and views. You need to make sure the kids get that - not just the 'BBC balance' that says, 'here's the normal way, and here are a couple of whacky alternatives'. I suspect that, if the claustrophobia worry does manifest, it will do so during adolescence, when school is a daily bolt-hole to get away from home and parents (who are, for a while, the fount of all evil) and then at the end of the day, home is the bolt-hole to get away from teachers/peers (who are of course, etc)... mind you, I didn't actually GO to school much at that stage of my life. Er... how do home-educated kids go about playing truant when they're 13?

Anyway... as to your assessment of what's wrong with schools: for one reason or another, I've spent quite a lot of time in quite a lot of schools in recent years. My conclusion is that there are (or have been) some very good primary schools - but most of what I liked was going on because I was visiting Creative Partnership or Arts Council or Community Regeneration projects, most of which are currently being starved out. Secondary schools I found less attractive - mostly a boring, containment exercise and yes, I was astonished at the frequency and persistence of stuffing the students with sweets, cakes, fizzy drinks and other such garbage. I simply can't figure out how they get away with it, in this era of dietary panics and allergies and diet-related ADS concerns.

Nothing there to make me think they're missing much. So with all that in mind, I suppose my ideal would be for children to have a year or so of primary school education and as much secondary school education as THEY want, plus a plan and an opportunity to get into college/uni later.

And finally - cost and resources. You need to find sources of materials in a wide variety of subjects. There must be courses... oh and, those old-fashioned things, what are they called? Oh yes, BOOKS! (All home educators, in fact all parents, should (in my view) be members of Alan Gibbons' Campaign for the Book.  Is there any kind of organisation that funds home-educators for buying resources and doing courses? It'd be worth agitation for if not. I mean, now concepts like 'free schools' and 'faith schools' and 'technology academies' allow all kinds of weird people to teach kinds in all kinds of odd ways at the tax payers' expense, I don't see why parents shouldn't get some of that money. That is, I don't see why they *shouldn't* but I can see why they might not - funding parents to teach kids to think doesn't, after all, comply with the original purpose of schools (see para one, above).


I can quite see why you're taking Dawn out of school and I think I would possibly do the same, at least for a while but beware assuming what's right for one sister is right for both. I think I'll suggest you and Dawn working together for now, sort out some of the difficulties she's been having, try out this whole home-study lark, let Min join in as much as she wants and then when the time comes, put Min in school for a year or so, then she'll have the experience, the evidence, and the habit of independent thought, which will allow her to decide whether she wants to go through school or join in the home-study world.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Yes, it's legal, and yes, I'm sure I want to do it!

At Christmas, my six-year old daughter will be leaving school. We are all very excited about the decision to educate our children outside of school, and I’d like to share with you our reasons, arrived at after years of research, thinking, and discussion. We have recently had some problems with Dawn’s school, but I won’t go into those because they have not been a major influence in our decision. We believe the state school system has inherent faults (as do many of the private schools, but they vary so widely that generalisations are unsafe), and the best teachers in the country, with the best management, do not have the power to overcome them.

Here are the things which have convinced me:

There will never again be a situation in life where you are forced to work solely with 29 other people your age. The closest comparisons to school socialisation would be among homes for the elderly and prisons. What a child in school learns about socialisation is how to survive or thrive in a culture where bullying is rife, usually by making yourself exactly the same as the other children, from the Disney merchandise you carry and the TV programmes you watch to your attitude towards education, drugs, or which people are cool. Home educated children have plenty of opportunities to become friends with people of all ages in a variety of settings.

Plenty of studies have shown that home educated children are consistently one to four years ahead of their school age-group, and go on to successfully complete university degrees and join a wide variety of career paths. 

It has been proven that there are no benefits to making children learn academic skills at a very young age, and some professionals believe it may even be detrimental. It certainly robs toddlers of creative play time, and gives them unnecessary stress, particularly when tests and targets are introduced. Also, the age gap between the oldest and youngest in the early classes at school is developmentally significant, meaning that summer-born children are very disadvantaged in lessons such as phonics, which are developed for and aimed at specific age groups.

In most schools, children are taught to follow rules, not to ensure the safety and happiness of everyone involved, but because they will get rewards if they do and punishments if they don’t. I don’t believe this to be an effective way of teaching children to discern right from wrong, or to be truly considerate of others.

In many classes, the child who is lucky enough to find a subject easy and interesting will be rewarded with sweets, toys, and other rewards. But the child who tries hard, but struggles with the subject, has no way of getting attention unless they resort to bad behaviour. I find it hard to believe that in this diet-conscious time, when most parenting books strongly discourage using food as a bribe or reward, schools are actually allowed to dole out sweets to high-achieving children!

It is well known that everyone has different strengths and learning styles. Some people may struggle to pay attention when asked to sit still and listen for a long time, for example, but may absorb information easily when it is introduced via an active game or artistic exercise. It is impossible for one teacher to find the best way of engaging 30 different people, each with their own learning-style, intelligence level, experience and background. At best only the average people will thrive, with the majority of children either bored or struggling.

If you know anyone who has learnt everything, I’d be very interested to meet them! At school you study a limited selection of subjects and topics, decided by the government, most of which you will have dropped by the time you reach your A-Levels, and forgotten completely a few years later. Outside of school you can study those very same subjects if you wish, or others which the government haven’t thought of, and are not restricted by timetable clashes or forbidden combinations. You can also teach them life skills in the real world rather than classroom simulations – for example using real money in a real shop, or cooking a real meal for your real family to eat.

Yes, I get ratty when I’m around my children, especially in the holidays. But it’s hardly surprising, when my daughter has been fitting herself into school all term and is suddenly let out and given no direction for a few weeks. The boredom and the hyperactivity kick in, and it’s such a contrast that it’s hard to deal with. But getting the best out of children requires putting a lot in, and many home educating parents find that once the stress of the constant school runs and early mornings and tired children having to walk home and unwanted homework has worn off, they actually learn how to live with their children and enjoy their company, and family relationships are improved all round.

Yes, adult life can be hard. But I don’t believe that putting children in scary situations is the best way to prepare them for scary situations. Making them feel loved, confident, and able to find things out and make choices for themselves will go a long way to teaching them to be a successful adult. Throwing them in at the deep end simply forces them to deal with difficult issues before they are emotionally equipped to do so, resulting in all kinds of insecurity and bad decision-making.

I very much resent the amount of money that the school ask for on a regular basis, for trips and activities which I wouldn’t choose for my child, but which they must attend to avoid feeling left out. For the most part, education need not cost anything, but just think how many exciting art materials and reference books you could buy with the money you save from taking your children on holiday in term time rather than in August! 

I hope it won’t, but if it does, you can always send them back to school! The only complaint I’ve heard regarding home educated children entering the classroom is that they are less likely to blindly follow the herd, which can be inconvenient for the teachers. Plenty of people choose to send their children to school for GCSE’s and A-Levels (although plenty don’t), and this doesn’t usually present any problems.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Lovers

Back in my maidenhood, much of which I spent exploring Wicca, I was well used to the process of raising energy from the earth, letting it fill me, spill over, and flow back to the earth, completing a give-and-take circle of energy that was rejuvenating and satisfying. And, walking across green fields in Cheddar, shortly after reading We Borrow The Earth by Patrick Jasper Lee, I could feel the buzzing energy welling up beneath my feet, even with thick shoes on.

But recently, in the harried, distracted time that is my adult life, I have been finding it much harder to feel that connection. Since the beginning of my time working with the Earth element, I have tried to recall the technique of raising energy, and it just feels like going through the motions. I can put down roots, ground myself, but that's about as far as I get. Then I just feel cold.

I'm a real Gemini, predominantly ruled by Air, and the earthy experiences of touch are easy for me to neglect. I prefer to have an intellectual debate than to hold hands, particularly as I tend towards eczema, and there's no limit to the things that can set me off. But thankfully, I have children, and children leave no room for being physically disconnected.

I was sitting this morning, as I often do, with Minnie curled up under my arm, leaning against my body, silently reading a book and putting off the time when Things Need To Be Done. And in that time, I became aware of how impossible it felt to move. I couldn't bring myself to end the moment, because we were busy exchanging energy. I could feel Minnie's whole being, merging with mine, an echo of the time when she was part of me. We were nourishing each other with warmth and love, and to move away at that moment would have painfully wrenched something fragile and important. This is not the first time I have felt this mutual energy-flow, but it is the first time I've really been aware of it and realised how precious it is. So thank you, Minnie, for reminding me how to make a genuine physical connection, how to feel that flow of energy that makes it all work.

(photography by Dawn and Minnie)