I have been very fortunate to experience education in different countries and cultures as well as homeschooling. This has given me a different perspective now, as my children journey through their academic years. My eldest is now nearing the end of her childhood and my youngest is about to enter organised learning, her daily life of free play will soon be relegated to weekends and holidays.
I was born in Iceland where formal schooling doesn’t start till the age of six. So after kindergarden in the mornings my brother and I spent the day with our grandparents. As a self employed mother living in a country far away from any family, I am counting down the months until my youngest starts school so I can increase the amount of hours I can work. It would be great if my youngest could have another three years with her grandparents, going to the shop, and the park, or sitting at home on a rainy day singing nursery rhymes. I feel very fortunate, having had those years and all the memories of my grandparents. We rush our children into school so we can earn enough to live life to a standard that ends up distracting ` us from the important things. My brother and I didn’t need computer games or hundreds of dvd’s to keep us entertained. I would make a play house under a table, play songs on my toy record player and if we got rowdy and started chasing each other around the apartment or arguing, the firm words of my grandparents would settle us down.
When we moved from Iceland to England, I was a free spirited confident six year old. I was excited and fearless on starting school. When we were shopping for my first ever school clothes, I was told that it had to be black, grey, white, gold & red, in any combination, and I decided to go to school dressed entirely in red! I wore a red blouse, a red skirt that twirled when I spun, red knee socks, red ribbons in my hair and smart black shoes (they didn’t have red in my size). I stood out, literally, like a sore thumb! But I didn’t care. I skipped into school and was known from that first day as “The Girl in Red” to the tune of Lady in Red.
To begin with, I loved school. Flying through the reading levels and loving homework. Even changing school a couple of times didn’t dampen my enthusiasm, in fact it taught me how to make new friends and integrate into pre-established groups of friends. There was always a bit of trouble with one or two kids, I stood out and had an accent, I’m sure we all know that it takes less than that to make you a target for kids taking out their insecurities on others.
When I was 11 (my brother 13) my parents decided to do something radical. They swapped our house for 60ft catamaran! We left school at the beginning of the summer holidays and moved onto the boat. It was brilliant! We found out about tides as we waited on mud flats for the boat to be lifted high enough to begin our journey. We became competent in using the ICAO Alphabet (Alfa, Bravo, Charlie…) on the ship-to-shore radio. We just had to look up into the sky from the aft deck to practice our cloud recognition and weather forecasting. My brother also became very familiar with the huge engines that powered the boat and assisted with their maintenance. Come September, as we slowly made our way down the south east coast of England and over to France, my mother took on the responsibility for our education. She had bought all the books she needed to keep with the curriculum and created a timetable including 15 subjects. We sat for three hours each morning to work or read. In the afternoons we had ‘Expressing through Art’ lessons and crafts like ‘Soap Sculpture’. Not only did we get one to one attention, but we got to study History and Geography by visiting places of interest where we stopped on our journey. When we were cruising down the Canal de Neuffossé through Arques we learned about glass making at the Arc International factory and the story of Joan of Arc. In Belgium my father taught us how to make bread dough, we built a portable oven by the side of the canal and baked our loaves over an open fire. We learned Dutch from children we befriended in Holland and when my parents were thinking of taking us on through Germany, we took German lessons with a lady she got chatting to at the local church. We came to understand about distances and depths as we watched the radar to see if we could make it along a particularly shallow stretch of canal.
Living in different cultures, shopping in the local shops, talking to harbour masters and lock keepers and children playing along the banks, this is how we learned respect for all, no matter what language they spoke or what colour their skin, everybody, everywhere was just getting on with their lives, working, playing, living, laughing, telling us their stories and wishing us well on our way, hoping to see us come back one day to regale them with our adventures some more.
For two years this adventure lasted, and when we re-entered institutional education, I was two years ahead of everyone else in my age group!
From this point, while I enjoyed the social aspects of being back in school, my enthusiasm for studying steadily declined. I didn’t realise it at the time, but looking back I can see that having had such a rich experience, spoiled me for what now seemed a vanilla world of conventional education. My teachers’ enthusiasm for their subject became far more important than the information itself or the format in which it came. It didn’t matter if I was copying off the board, researching from books or watching movies on the projector. If the teacher didn’t care, then neither did I. If my individual passions and abilities weren’t nurtured, if I had to learn in a way that made the subject, even my favourite subject of art, become dull and lifeless, then I was unable to maintain my own enthusiasm.
I know that this is not everyone’s experience, or even anyone else I know! And what my mother managed to do, bringing learning to life like that, I’m not even certain I could manage myself with my girls. But I now know that there are other ways to learn, and the most important thing a teacher can do is to share their enthusiasm for their subject.