A new reader

An incredible thing happened on Monday. After a couple of years of, admittedly intermittent, attempts to teach Katie to read, she finally got it. I can’t explain what happened except that it seemed like a light bulb went on in her head. Unlike her sister, who took to reading very quickly when she was four years old, Katie has struggled, not recognising simple and repeated words from one line to the next, able to sound out letters but not able to put the sounds together to make words. Every attempt at reading ended in frustration and despair for Katie. No matter how much I tried to convince her I would help with words, our attempts more often than not ended in tears.

Her aversion to reading and the distress reading caused her was the reason why I took up the teaching baton intermittently. I didn’t want to push her if she wasn’t ready and I certainly didn’t want that anxiety and fear to lead to a longer-term aversion to books. I am a firm believer that, given the right conditions, children will learn to read when they are good and ready. They may be ready when they are three years old or when they are twelve years old. There is pedagogic research to suggest that children who learn to read later on quickly catch up with their peers who have been reading from an earlier age.

In the formal education system we are often too quick to label children as having learning disabilities because they haven’t yet learned to read to a certain level by a certain age. Dyslexia and related disabilities are very real and if not diagnosed and supported can disadvantage children, but being a late reader does not mean a child has a disability. The difficulty for education professionals (and, indeed, for parents) is figuring out whether a late reader is simply a late reader or is someone with a learning disability. Not so easy!

Katie found reading distressing, so I didn’t push it too much. But our home and our lives are filled with books. Julian, Lily and I read to Katie, and we read to ourselves and to each other. Katie loves books and loves being read to and can recite the entire text of her favourite Julia Donaldson books. She has recently learned to read Spanish which, with its simple and straightforward pronunciation rules, is a much easier language to read than English. When Lily received Diario de Greg (the Spanish language translation of Diary of a Wimpy Kid) for Christmas, it was Katie who wanted to read it first, and she’s been slowly making her way through it since Christmas Day.

We hadn’t read together for a few days, when on Monday afternoon I took out a level three phonics book from our Oxford Reading Tree box. She read the story surprisingly quickly (for Katie) and with virtually no help from me. She recognised common but tricky words such as ‘the’ and ‘said’ (these had repeatedly stumped her before), sounded out new words correctly, and worked out other words from their context. She continued to mix up ‘b’ and ‘p’ but, instead of becoming overwrought, worked out which letter made most sense (‘boy’ not ‘poy’ and ‘pick’ not bick’, etc) in each case. She read with such unusual ease that I wondered if she’d already read this book recently with her dad or sister, and was now reading it from memory, but she assured me she had never read this book before.

Instead of the despair and anxiety that has accompanied our reading sessions in the past, she flew through this book and then asked if she could read something else. So we tried a level 3 First Stories book (the First Stories are a little more difficult than the phonics books of the same level). Once again, she sailed through the book with glee. It was time for Lily’s afternoon half hour of maths (I am a cruel and sadistic mother), so Katie took herself off to my cabin with Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man stickman2.jpgand read it by herself (aided by what she knew from memory). Then she asked Lily to help her read, and Lily chose a level 4 phonics book. (Wow! There have been times when I never thought we’d get past level 2, never mind level 4!). She read it for Lily, struggling only over the words ‘odd’ and ‘pongs’!

Since then Katie is beside herself, and is reading with gusto. In the space of only a few short days she has moved on to level 6 – the highest level in our Reading Tree set. She is picking everything up and reading it. Lily is going to have to figure out a way to protect the privacy of her journals and the notes she’s so fond of writing, because all of a sudden her sister can read them! This light bulb moment, this spark of recognition of how to read, is astonishing to me. It is something we have all experienced, when we struggle to master some new skill and suddenly, as if by magic, we get it. Of course it’s not magic. It’s practice, the creation of new neural pathways and connections, the brain and body sparking and sparkling. Katie can’t read perfectly, but she’s worked out how to read – how to put sounds together to form words, how to pick up clues from the context or the neighbouring words, how to learn by heart some common words that don’t sound anything like how they’re written (two, said, the, we). The realisation of how to do those things was her light bulb moment.

A couple of weeks ago she learned to ride a bicycle and that opened up a whole new world of freedom and independence to her. This week, suddenly discovering that she can read has opened up another world of freedom and independence. Her first question these past few mornings has been ‘Can we do more reading today?’ You bet!

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The handsome Eskimo

I sat down with Katie to oversee her homework. Left to her own devices, a reading and writing assignment that should take fifteen minutes to complete might take two hours or more. But if I sat beside her and offered light encouragement, we might get through it in half an hour.

The photocopied sheet, consisted of two assignments that tested reading comprehension and cursive writing. The top half of the page contained mixed up sentences. Katie had to put the words in each sentence in the correct order and then write them out twice.

tiene Paco quimono un

Paco tiene un quimono (Paco has a kimono)

(Is Paco a transvestite? Wow, how liberal-minded you are, government of Andalucia!)

The bottom half of the page had sentences that first had to be copied, and then a picture had to be drawn, demonstrating Katie’s comprehension of each sentence.

The first sentence stops me in my tracks.

El esquimal es feo.

Come again? Surely I’m mistaken. There’s no way I could be reading that right. I reach for the dictionary to look up the meaning of esquimal, even though I already know what it is. Yep, just as I thought, esquimal = Eskimo.

El esquimal es feo. The Eskimo is ugly.

I ask Katie to read it. She doesn’t know the word esquimal. ‘It means Eskimo’, I tell her. ‘Do you know what an Eskimo is?’ I ask her. ‘Like an Inuk?’ she asks hesitantly. ‘And do we know any Inuit?’ I ask. Before Katie answers, Lily calls from the aft cabin, ‘Me. I’m Niviaq’.

You see, Lily’s more longwinded name, as it appears on her birth certificate, is Elizabeth Niviaq. Niviaq is her Inuit name, given to her by Paul and Linda, my adopted family in Arviat. Niviaq was Paul’s younger brother who tragically died in 2003. Because Lily has his name, by Inuit custom, she is related to all his family. Despite being a girl, she is ‘little brother’ to Rosie and Paul, ‘little uncle’ to all her namesake’s nieces and nephews, and she is related, through her namesake, to all the other children who have been named after Niviaq since he died. And the characteristics of his personality are passed on to Lily in her name. Ugly Eskimo indeed!

‘What should we do about this?’ I ask the girls. At first Katie doesn’t want to do anything other than complete her assignment the way it has been set out. In other words, write out ‘El esquimal es feo’ and draw a picture of an ugly Eskimo. ‘The teacher might get mad’, she says. ‘But there must be something we can do’, I say, ‘that allows you to complete your homework, but also let the teacher know that you’re not happy with the sentence. Maybe you could do something that would start a conversation’.

‘How about ‘El esquimal es guapo’?’, Lily suggests. The Eskimo is handsome. Katie and I both like this idea.

‘And what will you do when the teacher reads it?’ I ask.

‘I’ll tell her my sister’s an Inuk and she’s not ugly’, Katie says. ‘And anyone else?’, I prompt. ‘Granddad Paul and Maya and Ujarak and Frank’.

I then suggest to Lily that she can explain the origin of her name to her teacher and classmates. I’ve heard her describe it very well in English in the past. And they both can tell the class what they know about Inuit culture – about caribou and beluga whale hunting, and igloos and sled dogs; about the fun games people play at birthday parties; about clothing made from animal skins; about throat singing and drum dancing.

Katie writes ‘El esquimal es guapo’ and draws a picture of an Inuk in a fur-hooded yappa. And I send my little cultural ambassadors to school the next day hoping they’ll do their bit for cultural sensitivity and understanding.

Singing my fears

For as long as I can remember I have been a confident public speaker. Put me in front of a crowd to speak on a topic about which I am familiar, and I am in my element. I have been reading in church since I was seven years old. As a university lecturer I have always enjoyed the performance of standing in front of a lecture theatre of 200 or 300 students and sharing my enthusiasm for my subject. I have never been unnerved by radio or television interviews. Speaking in public has never fazed me.

But the thought of standing up alone and singing in front of a crowd turns my legs to jelly. I’ve been in choirs and in musicals, but always with my voice hidden in the crowd, indistinguishable from everyone else. I come from a family of singers. My mother and her brothers and singers all sing and have the same confidence with singing in public as I have with speaking in public. But, for some reason, their confidence in singing hasn’t been passed on to me.

However, I love to sing. I sing all the time – while sailing Carina, driving a car, while doing household chores. From the moment I knew I was pregnant I sang to my babies and carried on singing to them for years, singing them to sleep every night and soothing them by singing to them when they were upset. These days we sing together.

I’ve always harboured a dream of getting up on a stage some day and singing in front of an audience, but never thought I would ever have the confidence to do it. Tuesday nights at the Riverside Tavern in Alcoutim is open mike night. Many of the ex-pats who live on and along the river, and visiting yachties, bring along their guitars, banjos, fiddles, flutes and harmonicas, and a session gets going. At Christmas, when Tom asked me if I could sing ‘The field of Athenry’ I bit the bullet and sang it with him. My legs were shaking but I tried to forget that I was standing at the front of the pub being stared at by lots of my fellow live-aboards on the river.

It was a few months before I sang again. Because the girls have to be up early for school, we don’t often go to Tuesday music nights, but in the past few months I have twice taken to the mike to sing. Both times I sang songs I know well and that I know I can sing well – Christy Moore’s ‘The voyage’ and ‘Missing you’ and Eric Bogle’s ‘Green fields of France’. And I sang ‘The fields of Athenry’ with Tom again. I gained in confidence each time.

So, when I was asked if I would sing a few songs at the Guadiana International Music Festival a few weeks ago, I said yes before my nerves could kick in and make me say no. My friend Jak wanted me to sing a few songs with her. We rehearsed for a week or so, and in the end we sang two Fascinating Aida songs – ‘Cheap flights’ which we sang together, and ‘The Brexit song’ sung by me with Jak doing back vocals. I finished the set by fronting a wild group consisting of Jak and a bunch of cross-dressers (all wearing my dresses) and sang The Ronette’s ‘Be my baby’.

 

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Me and my ‘beaufiful’ band!!

Was I any good? I honestly don’t know. I was nervous, but I contained it and got on with the job. I sang my heart out and was so pleased that I had overcome my fears of singing in public to get up on a stage at an, albeit small, music festival, and perform! When I came off the stage, Lily and Katie ran up to me and Lily said, ‘Mummy, you were BRILL-I-ANT’. Whatever anyone else thought, the people who mattered most thought I was great!

I may never get up on a stage and sing again. I overcame a fear and I did something I have always wanted to do. I now know what it feels like to stand on a stage, in the floodlights, singing to a crowd, performing. I left my comfort zone and made myself do something that was nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. I experienced it. That’s good enough for me!

A blended education

Recently, a few people have asked me, not unreasonably, if, now that we have had a taste of formal education, I have given up on the idea of home education. The answer is absolutely not. While I love that the girls are currently attending the village school in Sanlúcar, my commitment to the philosophy and practice of home education is as strong as ever.

A very particular set of circumstances led to the decision to enrol the girls in school here. We liked life on the Rio Guadiana in general, and we felt that enrolling the girls in the tiny village school would provide them with an immersive education in Spanish language that we could not give them at home. And, we felt that their attendance at school would give all four of us opportunities to participate in village life that we wouldn’t otherwise get if we continued to home educate while living on the river. We were drawn to the size of this school, with only seven or eight children per classroom, and thought that experience would be very different to being in a larger town or city school.

Apart from learning Spanish language and culture, the girls are learning other things at school that they wouldn’t necessarily learn at home – or at least would learn very differently at home.

One of Lily’s favourite school subjects is Religion, although she can’t quite express why. She’s certainly getting a very different perspective on religion at her predominantly Catholic Spanish school than she gets at home from her agnostic-Anglican and atheist-Catholic parents!

In school there is a big emphasis on perfectly neat cursive handwriting – something that I’ve never bothered with – and the girls are now writing beautifully. The great advantage of this for Lily is that she can now write faster, and doesn’t get so frustrated when trying to express herself on paper.

And, I must admit, one of the things I like best about having the girls in school is that I no longer feel the need to do the thing I like least about home education – arts and crafts! Even as a child I hated making things with scissors and PVA glue and toilet roll inserts and poster paint, and drumming up the enthusiasm to do that stuff with the girls has always been a guilt-inducing burden for me. Katie now has a very arty teacher and she comes home almost daily with some new creation. (Finding space to display these masterpieces at home is now the challenge!)

We have decided to spend another year on the Rio Guadiana, so the girls can continue to attend this school. Their Spanish language skills are developing so rapidly we feel that, with another year of immersion in the village, they will be close to fluent for their age. And after that? Who knows.

At home we continue to focus on those areas of education that are important to Julian and I and, in unschooling fashion, we facilitate the girls own educational interests.

At first, Lily found maths at school too easy (although I pointed out she was learning in Spanish), so she has continued to study maths at her own pace and level at home. In addition, she writes almost daily – letters, book reports, her own daily journal – and we try to give her the space and freedom to just get on with that. And while Katie is learning to read and write in Spanish, we continue to work with her at home to develop her reading skills and I’m hoping independent reading is just a few months away (this has been my hope for a long long time!!).

But, much as before, their informal education is led by what interests them and us. Katie has decided she wants to be a palaeontologist when she grows up (independent reading a necessity, Katie!) and our walks through the countryside these days are usually with the purpose of searching for bones. The many bones we find lead us in all learning directions. Through observation, conversation and research we are learning about physiology, how joints work, how to recognise different parts of a skeleton, the structure of bones, the different wild animals that live around here, distinguishing between carnivores and herbivores based on the teeth and jawbones we find. Believe me, it’s fun!!

Lily is recently fascinated by evolution, and asks endless questions about the origins of life, how plants and animals evolved, where the Earth came from, and so on. I told her recently that the answers to these questions were much easier when I asked them as a child. ‘God made the world’ was the answer that had to satisfy me! On our long evening and weekend walks, I try my best to answer her endless questions, and back home aboard Carina, we get the reference books out or search the internet for answers.

At home, we continue to actively learn through cooking and baking (weights, measures, how to cook, nutrition), through boat maintenance and care (learning to row, buoyancy), through shopping (maths, budgeting, practicing Spanish) and through all the other things we do on a daily basis. The girls are generally unaware, of course, that they are learning, but that philosophy and practice of learning by doing informs much of what we do together.

At the end of the next school year we will have another decision to make – to stay or move on. If we do move on I hope we will return to home education. But if we stay here, well, like many families, we will continue to blend education at school and home. The most important thing for me is that the girls retain their enthusiasm and joy for learning.

At the helm

After two and a half weeks on a fore and aft mooring in the absence of Julian, I moved Carina on to the Sanlúcar pontoon. I woke on the first day of the last week of the school term feeling tired. Tired of trying to maximise every trip ashore by loading the dinghy up with rubbish and recycling bags and empty 5-litre water bottles to be refilled. Tired of returning to Carina having forgotten to refill the water bottles to top up our onboard supply. Tired of having to think of our battery usage and the limits of our solar panel to power cabin lights and recharge the laptop and smart phone. Tired of the time it took all three of us to get to shore – helping the girls into and out of their life jackets; adding a few extra minutes to wipe early morning condensation from the dinghy seat and to pump out any excess water that had accumulated overnight to soak our feet. Tired of worrying whether the outboard would start and tired of having to pump air into the dinghy on an almost daily basis. Sorry to say, I’m not hard core enough. Or I would be hard core enough if I didn’t have two kids to look after and writing jobs to do besides.

Besides all that, it was the last week that Lily’s and Katie’s other live aboard friends would be on the river and both boats happened to be berthed on the Sanlúcar pontoon. I wanted the girls to be able to make the most of their last week with their friends and being on the pontoon meant they could run around together, play on each other’s boats and have the freedom to roam the village. And it meant I could enjoy a few glasses of wine with my friends before they left, without worrying about having to get my two kids back home by dinghy! So, at €7 per night, I chose the pontoon.

I had never manoeuvred Carina on my own before. Julian and I have made sure that we swap roles aboard and I have brought Carina alongside pontoons many times before, but always with the reassurance that Julian was there, ready to give advice and instructions to help me along. I wasn’t about to do it on my own this time either. I asked Paul, one of our live aboard friends, if he would come aboard Carina and crew for me. He was only too happy to assist.

As luck would have it, the tide turned at the same time as the girls started school on Monday morning, and about an hour later Paul came aboard. I had already set all the lines and fenders and I instructed Paul how I wanted to come off the fore and aft mooring. I took the helm and Paul untied the mooring lines. I turned Carina around and slowly motored two hundred yards down river, turned again to face into the ebb tide and gradually brought her alongside. Paul said little, but just having him sitting beside me in the cockpit gave me the confidence to bring her along smoothly. Paul’s wife Emma was standing on the pontoon waiting to take the lines. Paul never moved from his seat in the cockpit, but quietly instilled confidence in me to bring Carina gently alongside so that Emma could effortlessly take the bowline from the guardrail. They helped me set the lines and then I was comfortably on the pontoon.

Ah blessed mains electricity, blessed electric water pump, blessed hot water on demand! Usually I am very happy living without these things, but it had been over a month since we’d last been on a pontoon and over two weeks of that I had been acting single parent to the girls.

Our final week without Julian turned into two weeks, as French air traffic controllers went on strike and on the morning he was due to fly back his flight from Birmingham to Faro was cancelled. As it was Easter week, there were no flights to be had for an entire week, causing him to miss the girls’ Easter holidays from school and Lily’s seventh birthday. In the end, we were without Julian for four and a half weeks. But the time flew by, as we were busy with school, friends, village Carnival, Lily’s birthday party and the birthdays of two of the girls’ school friends.

I think next time I might just have to confidence to come alongside on my own!

Carnival

C—-‘s mother looks at me in horror. ‘You can’t have a blue nose’ she croaks, her heavily accented Andalucian Spanish all the more cackily for her 40-fags a day habit. ‘Clowns have red noses’, she cackles indignantly. We stand, clown-face to clown-face, both of us dressed in orange bin bags decorated with cardboard bowties, buttons and pockets, our faces covered in sticky face paint, yellow hats on our heads. ‘M—-‘, I say to her in rapid English, knowing she won’t understand a word. ‘Free yourself from convention. A clown nose can be any colour you want it to be. Live free M—. Live free’.
‘Qué?’ she croaks at me, before turning her attention to her children to make sure they will be the most spectacular clowns in the parade. I skip off to adorn my shoes with large yellow paper bows.

It’s Carnival. Two weeks late. But it’s Carnival. Around here, Carnival is staggered so that residents from different villages can participate in each other’s festivities. Kinda defeats the purpose of Lent, if you’re spending the six weeks before Easter dressing up and eating copious amounts of sweets. But hey, who am I to judge? To complicate matters further, the Sanlúcar village and school Carnivals are held on different days – the school Carnival taking place on a school day to accommodate teachers who don’t live in the village. Today, for the school Carnival, I am ridiculously dressed as a clown following weeks of intense preparation.

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It all started about a week into the new term. A sign went up on the wall outside Katie’s class informing parents we had to provide our children with black boots, red leggings and red long-sleeved t-shirts. And we had to give the teacher €5 per child so she could buy the rest of the items necessary to complete the costumes. We had none of the above (apart from the €5) at home, so I borrowed and improvised. I covered Katie’s pink rubber boots in a cut up pair of old black tights and borrowed leggings from Ana and a top from Hannah. It was all relatively easy.

The preparations for Lily’s class were somewhat more involved. Her teacher arranged a meeting with the parents to decide what the class would dress as. Various ideas were thrown around – clowns, rainbows, Peppa Pig. This last would involve the parents laboriously making papier maché Peppa Pig heads. We quickly ruled out that option. In the end we decided on making clown outfits, at which point the teacher washed her hands of the whole affair and left us parents to get on with it.

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A week later the parents met in the classroom. There were six mothers and two fathers present There are only nine children in the class, and only one mother was absent – the aforementioned M—. There was a clear cultural divide. The two English, one Dutch and one Irish mum just wanted to get on with it as quickly and painlessly as possible, make the costumes and go home again. The Spanish dads agreed with us, but the Spanish mums were aiming for perfection.

Heated discussions ensued concerning hats, the positioning of buttons, whether to use glue or staples to assemble the costumes once we had made all the constituent parts. After an hour, when we already have a production line of paper, scissors, glue and stickers going on, M— arrived in, talking loudly on her mobile phone and proceeded to loudly (while simultaneously talking on her phone and drinking a can of Coke) inform us that she was not happy with what we had achieved in her absence and she would have done things differently. The other Spanish parents have no patience for her and told her loudly, without any ado, to shut up, sit down and help out.

After an hour and a half we had achieved a little, but there was still much to do. We agreed to meet at the same time next week, to finish the costumes. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, getting to know the Spanish parents who I had only ever said hello to before, practicing my Spanish and listening hard to the rapid Spanish conversation going on around me. (One of the English mums and the Dutch mum are Spanish speakers).

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We met the next week and completed the costumes, but there was still debate about the necessity of hats on top of the clown wigs the children would wear and if we were to make hats, should they be top hats or cone shaped. The English/Dutch/Irish contingent argued that if there must be hats, they should be of the easier-to-make cone-shaped variety, but the Spanish mums thought difficult-to-make top hats would be better. No conclusion was reached and we agreed to meet again the next week.

In the meantime, I received a note from Katie’s teacher asking for parents to come to school to help sew costumes for that class. I arrived at the school on the day and, with five other mums and one dad (all Spanish), all speaking rapid and mostly incomprehensible Spanish, sat around a table sewing the costumes the way the teacher instructed. I discovered Katie was the only child whose red top was not a polo neck. How did everyone else know this and I didn’t? It was too late to do anything about it now. By the end of two hours I was exhausted, not from the sewing, but from trying to keep up with and participate a little in the conversation.

I went home for lunch and returned two hours later for my by now weekly meeting with the parents of Lily’s classmates. It was decided to not make hats for the children, but instead to make matching clown costumes for the mothers. The English/Dutch/Irish mums were none too keen – dreading the extra work involved as much as dressing up like bloody eejits – but the Spanish mums were rarin’ to go. So we set about making seven more clown outfits.

We didn’t have enough orange bin bags, so one of the English mums said she would buy some more a couple of days later when she drove down to Ayamonte. We arranged to meet yet again, on the day before the Carnival, to assemble the costumes.

The day before Carnival arrived, but the mum who had bought the bin bags couldn’t make it to the school, so she gave the bags to me and asked me to pass her apologies on to the other parents. The first person I met when I got to the school was M—. She looked suspiciously at the roll of orange bin bags I was holding in my hand and angrily asked me why I had so many. ‘We only need four’, she croaked, pulling on her fag in the school playground. ‘But they only come in packs of ten’, I replied, simultaneously showing her the number 10 on the side of the bag. She looked at me like I’d spoken to her in Klingon.

Another mum arrived with the key and we let ourselves into the school and set to work in Lily’s classroom. But horror of horrors – the new plastic bags were a slightly different shade of orange and slightly bigger than the other ones. The English/Dutch/Irish mums didn’t think this was a problem, but the Spanish mums seemed to think Carnival was now ruined. We assembled the costumes and, without anyone saying anything, the three sturdy shiny plastic bags ended up in the hands of the Spanish mums while the English/Dutch/Irish mums were left with the flimsy, less shiny other four.

I was ready to go home when one of the Spanish mums thought it would be a good idea if we all – children and mothers – had yellow paper bows for their shoes. We spent the next half an hour on a yellow paper bow production line. Finally, all was ready and I was not the only non-Spanish mum who made a beeline for the Chiringuito bar and a glass of chilled white wine.

The afternoon of Carnival finally arrived. The nine girls in Katie’s class were dressed as majorettes and Diego, the lone boy, as a ring master with a cat-o-nine-tails. The teacher and mums were also majorettes. Lily’s class and mums were clowns, the class above and teacher were Smurfs and the oldest class and mums were a Mexican mariachi band. Whistles and bags of confetti were distributed and we set off through the streets of Sanlúcar, led by Pepe the principal, amid great excitement and fanfare.

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For weeks Lily and Katie had been learning songs, and when we reached the village plaza each class sang its song. We then carried on back to the school where they all sang their songs once again. The smaller children were wonderful. But the older boys (aged 9 to 13) looked thoroughly embarrassed and ill-at-ease and only the enthusiastic and full-voiced girls in those classes saved the day.

When the parade was over we were treated to Coke, Fanta, crisps and chorizo sandwiches. For once, the kids didn’t run around. They were exhausted and just wanted to sit with their food and drinks. The festivities came to a sudden end when the heavens opened and a heavy shower of rain caused us all to run for the cover of our homes.

In two days time the village Carnival will take place. I’m looking forward to being an uninvolved bystander!

Reflecting and resolving

Like many people, the end of the year is, for me, a time for reflecting on the year that has past and looking forward to the year to come. I’m a consummate list maker. Few things in life make me happier than drawing ‘job done’ lines through the items on my to-do lists. And the list par excellence is, of course, the list of New Year’s resolutions (I know, I know! ‘Get a bloody life, Martina’, I hear you scream, ‘You control freak!’). So, as 2015 drew to a close, I reflected on last year’s list to see where I had succeeded and where I had, ahem, not succeeded quite so much, and I started to think ahead to what I hope to achieve in 2016.

So there were the ‘take care of my body’ resolutions – quit drinking, quit processed sugar, exercise more; the ‘writing’ resolutions – finish my book, write ten blog posts per month, keep a daily journal; and the ‘be a better person’ resolutions – be more patient with the children, give Julian a break.

How did I do? I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol from December 28th 2014 to November 10th 2015. A bottle of locally produced red wine, left on our saloon table by the guy who was taking care of our boat while we were away, broke me. I’ve had a beer or wine most days since then. Why did I want to quit alcohol? Since I returned to drinking post-pregnancy and post-breastfeeding, I haven’t drunk very much. I certainly haven’t been drunk for over seven years. But I don’t need it, and I didn’t miss it while I was off it.

Quit processed sugar? Those of you who have been following my Christmas baking extravaganza will know how well I got on with that one! I think I had three weeks sugar free in January, and then my will broke. That stuff is too damn addictive.

I didn’t exercise more in 2015, but neither did I exercise less. Walking and swimming, but I wanted to do more.

I didn’t finish my book, but as I write, I’m looking at an end of February completion date and then the fun of trying to find a publisher begins. I published 103 blog posts, which averages a little under nine a month, and if my computer hadn’t died mid-way through December I would have posted a couple more. The daily journal had an entry most days, probably 320 out of 365. My morning ramblings helped keep me calm, focused and de-stressed.

As for being more patient with the girls and giving Julian a break, well, let’s just say I’m a work in progress. But I find when I’m happy with what I’m doing – writing what I want to write, achieving my own goals, I’m more patient with my nearest and dearest.

It was a year of ups and downs, of joys and sorrows, but a year that, upon reflection, I feel I grew (and not only because of the sugar addiction). In practical ways I knew more by the end of the year than I did at the start. I went from speaking almost no Spanish to some, I figured out ways to be more sustainable and frugal aboard Carina, and I learned to be a better writer. I like to think I became more patient and more slow to get my knickers in a twist (I use my cool reaction to the recent breakdown of our laptop as evidence of the new me).

So what are my hopes and resolutions for 2016? The list is long, naturally, and falls into different categories. The ‘take care of my body’ resolutions again include forsaking alcohol and exercise. I haven’t touched a drop since December 30th and I have dreams and plans for a lot of walking this year. I’m not talking short little jaunts. I want to don a backpack and walk for days on end (hint hint hint to a couple of friends who I know read this blog…you know who you are!). Reading a lot of walking and wilderness books last year has given me the bug.

There are the ‘writing’ resolutions of course. The book will be finished (and soon) and I have other short and long term projects to complete or set in motion. And I have a new daily writing project, the details of which I am keeping to myself for the moment, as I’m hoping it might evolve into something else.

And then there are the ‘learning something new’ resolutions. By the end of 2016 I want to have completed the Duolingo Spanish course; and, wait for it, I want to teach myself meteorology! I’m serious! I’ve wanted to for a long time, and this will be the year I do it! Besides, I want to improve my handling, sailing and boat maintenance skills, learning to do the things I currently leave to Julian.

There’s method to all this madness. These are not my hobbies to squeeze in around the rest of my life. This is my life. As I’ve discovered, learning Spanish makes life in Spain easier and far more interesting. Improving my boat skills and learning meteorology will make me a better sailor, make life aboard Carina safer for everyone, and take some of the burden from Julian.

Plus, those of you who know me well know that I don’t do sitting down and doing nothing very well. My sister once commented that coming to visit me was like going for a week to a ‘fat farm’. Go go go!! So, in the absence of a ‘proper job’ I have to do something to keep myself busy, active and out of harms way!

I’ll look back on this blog post in a year’s time and see how I got on with my 2016 New Year’s resolutions.

(In)experience

Julian and I are often quite conscious of our lack of sailing experience. Since buying Carina over four years ago we have met so many people with vastly more experience than us. People who have grown up aboard boats; people who have sailed the world three times over; people who have been professional sailors; people who have taught sailing. We have also met people who were less experienced than us when they started out. But for the most part, the other live aboard sailors we meet are more experienced than we are.

Recently we met Tom, an elderly man from Cullen in Scotland, who has been sailing since he was ‘a wee laddie’. Before he was 13 years old he picked shellfish, sold them and saved up his earnings to buy his first little boat and then sailed it out to sea to fish for mackerel so he could earn the money to buy an outboard motor. By the time he was 16 he was a cook aboard a North Sea fishing vessel. He was a professional sailor for years and now lives on his own boat. The sea is in his blood. He’s as cool and at home on the sea as most people are at their land-lubber kitchen tables. He talks like a sailor, using nautical language that I at times struggle to understand.

We told him how inexperienced we were. He quickly corrected us.
‘How did you get here?’ he asked. ‘Did you have the boat shipped down overland?’
No, we said, and told him the route we had taken from Plymouth to Falmouth, across the English Channel to Brittany, from there across the Bay of Biscay to Galicia, down the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula, into the Mediterranean, along Mediterranean Spain, across to Morocco, back out of the Mediterranean again, and up the Rio Guadiana to our current location.

‘When you crossed the English Channel you did more than 80% of the people in the marina you left behind in Plymouth’ he said. ‘When you crossed the Bay of Biscay you did more than 99% of them. So don’t tell me you’re inexperienced’.

It’s easy to feel inexperienced when you are always surrounded by people so much more experienced. And we still are novices. We haven’t crossed any oceans, we have no two week or six week ocean passages under our belts. We haven’t experienced any great violent storms. But we are also cautious sailors. Our pleasant and mostly uneventful crossing of the Bay of Biscay, one of the world’s great patches of rough ocean, was as much due to careful planning and weather watching, and going when the conditions were right, as it was to beginner’s luck. I have no yearning for near death experiences at sea, I have no desire to put my children in danger. So we sail carefully and cautiously – departing quickly and suddenly because conditions are right, or hanging around for days or weeks waiting for the right conditions.

I’m not saying we won’t or don’t experience danger or that our lives won’t be threatened by the conditions we find ourselves in. That’s life. But we are cautious enough not to put ourselves in the way of danger. When we one day make those big ocean crossings (as we hope to) we will plan carefully and go when the crew, the boat and the meteorological conditions are right.

Every time we put to sea, every time we anchor, or raise the sails, or face a storm, or come alongside a pontoon, or do the thousand other things we do, we gain a little more experience. We are not the greenhorns we were when we set sail for Ireland in the summer of 2012. But neither are we this Scottish sailor Tom or Paudi Kelly, or the Dutch guy I met in La Palue, or Ruth and Duncan, or Hazel and Dave or the others we know whose ease and comfort makes us blush at our own ineptitude. We don’t yet, and maybe never will, have their levels of experience.

But Tom made a point that was both enlightening and sobering. ‘You can no longer use inexperience as an excuse for the mistakes you make’, he said. We have sailed a long way from our home port, powered in part by bravado, hubris and optimism. But the sailing we have done comes with a heavy responsibility – to not get ourselves in trouble, to not have others endanger their lives to rescue us, because we’ve done something stupid or intemperate. Everyone has accidents, everyone runs into trouble from time to time, but when something goes wrong we cannot plead inexperience. Having come this far it is our responsibility to act on the experience we have and to use that knowledge and skill wisely in every new situation we face.

After that discussion about (in)experience, Tom presented us with a jar of peanut butter and a jar of his own home made mango chutney. Wise words and food – he’s won me over!

A new chapter

Sunday evening. I take the girls for a shower while Julian makes dinner. Make sure they’re scrubbed and spotless. After dinner I check there are pencils, erasers, rulers and colouring pencils in their pencil cases and I place them inside two Peppa Pig backpacks along with a copybook each. In the morning I’ll add a sandwich and an apple to each bag. Finally, I lay out their clothes for the morning. We all need an early night before the big day ahead.

A new chapter of our lives has begun. Lily and Katie have started school in the tiny village school in Sanlúcar on the Spanish side of the river. When we came up the Rio Guadiana in April we met Rafa and Pilar and their three boys. The family had sailed from Majorca in February, were now living on the river, and the boys were attending school in Sanlúcar. What they told us about the school sparked our curiosity and soon we were talking to other live-aboard families whose children had attended or were currently attending the school.

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Monday morning, heading off for the first day of school

One day the girls and I visited the school, took a look around, met some of the teachers and I expressed an interest in enrolling them at the start of the new school year, in September. The principal was most welcoming and open to the idea, despite the girls (and our) inability to speak Spanish.

Julian and I thought long and hard about enrolling the girls in formal education. I always imagined that as we sailed we might avail of opportunities to immerse the girls in local languages and cultures by sending them to small rural or village schools for six months or a year. The school I have always imagined enrolling them in is the school in The snail and the whale, which those of you who are fans of Julia Donaldson will be familiar with.

The school in Sanlúcar comes pretty close. Serving a village of 400 people with a decidedly aging population, the school is tiny, with less than ten children per class. We saw this as a wonderful opportunity for Lily and Katie to learn Spanish, become immersed in southern Spanish culture, and for all of us to get to know this lovely little village and its inhabitants better.

During our months back in the UK we all studied Spanish in preparation for this new adventure. I had understood little of what the principal said to me on our couple of visits to the school in May and another teacher who spoke some English had to be called over to translate. I didn’t want that to be the case when we finally returned to the school in autumn.

With a date for my operation not until October 1st, I emailed the principal (helped by Google Translate) to explain the situation and, given the circumstances, he was happy for the girls to start school in mid-November.

Lily has generally been very excited about the prospect of going to school, but Katie hasn’t been too sure (‘I want to be a home schooled kid’, she told me repeatedly). On our return to the Rio Guadiana we visited the school. The girls met their teachers – Martina and Cristina. Lily smiled and Katie scowled. I was delighted that I could understand most of the instructions the two teachers gave me in preparation for the first day.

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Julian rows the girls over to Spain for their first day of school

A few days later it was Monday morning. We happened to be on the Portuguese side of the river, so I waved them off as Julian rowed them across the international border for their first day of school! I was on tenterhooks all day, expecting a call from Cristina to say that Katie was inconsolable or had run away. But no such call came. In the afternoon when I picked them up they were both beaming from ear to ear. It had been a good day for Katie to start school. Louisa, one of her classmates, turned five, and they had a birthday party in class, complete with a Frozen cake and strawberry milk.

The school is indeed tiny. Katie is in kindergarten with six other children in her class. Lily is in a class of Year 1 and Year 2 combined. Lily is in Year 1 with six other children and there are two children in Year 2. Nine children in the entire class! The school day is short, from 9am to 2pm. (This was one reason we chose to send them to school in Spain rather than Portugal. The Portuguese school day is longer. Our other reason was that internationally, Spanish is the more widely spoken of the two languages).

So far they seem to love it. Lily appears to enjoy most of her lessons, with the exception of maths, because she’s doing maths she already knows how to do. Her teacher, Martina, says her handwriting is terrible and she needs to work on it, so she’s busy practicing the loopy, flowery writing style particular to southern Europe. On Wednesday, at music lesson, Katie learned about a piano player in funny clothes with white hair, curly bits around his ears and a ponytail with a ribbon. I’m guessing Mozart. Julian’s going for Elton John!

After only a week of school, Julian and I are astounded at how much Spanish peppers their language. They don’t know much, but they are mimicking the sounds of the language and liberally using whatever snippets of Spanish they know. We grin at each other across the table as we listen to them. (It took me a while to figure out that Lily’s ‘Qué fresa’ was actually ‘Qué pasa’. I set her straight!) Julian and I are having our language skills pushed to the limit too, as we work our way through the multiple sheets of paper we’ve been given with instructions for what they need to bring to school each day, the specific pencils, notebooks and folders we need to buy, release forms for using their photos on the school website, and so on, and by hanging around with the other parents before and after school each day. My vocabulary has taken a huge leap forward this week!

And it seems we’ve started a trend. Our English friends aboard Spirit of Mystery have decided to enrol their daughters in the school and on Tuesday we were surprised to see the cruising family from Oregon back again. Having told them about our plans to send our kids to school they decided to postpone their return across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and back to Oregon and instead return to the Rio Guadiana. They have enrolled their three children to start school in Sanlúcar in January. All of this is wonderful news for the school which struggles to remain open in this village with an aging population where most of the young people have moved to Seville and other larger towns to seek work and life away from farming the land.

So we have thrown ourselves into a winter of routine, which feels strange at the moment. 7am alarm, making snacks to take to school, breakfast eaten and clothes on by 8.30, 8.40 into the dinghy to go to school. After school we go to the beach or go walking in the hills for an hour or two, making the most of daylight and the hot sunshine, before returning home for dinner.

The girls are certainly enjoying their new adventure and Julian and I are getting used to it too.

What becomes of home schoolers?

Waiting to catch the bus from Malaga Airport to Almería, I struck up a conversation with the man standing beside me at the bus stop. Half British-half German, he had just arrived on a flight from the UK where he was visiting his daughter, a stem cell biology PhD student at Oxford University. We talked about our reasons for travelling to Almería and this led to the man telling me about his family’s move first to Spain in the early 1990s and later to the Dominican Republic. For about four years his children attended school in Spain, but when the family moved to the Dominican Republic, the children still pre-teens, he and his wife took the decision to home educate. As a result, his children had no formal secondary school education, nor had they ever taken exams. And here was one of them about to complete a PhD in stem cell biology at Oxford! He told me about her path through university, from her acceptance for her primary degree at Sussex University based on a written application and a CV that demonstrated a depth of practical biology experience way beyond her tender years, to the particular difficulties she faced as a home schooler entering the formal education system for (practically) the first time, and how she ultimately excelled in her chosen field.

It was a timely encounter, coming only days after a great many people had expressed interest in Lily’s and Katie’s education. The TV and radio interviewers had asked me questions about home education, leading to interest amongst blog readers, and discussions with family and friends in Ireland. On a few occasions in the past couple of weeks I have been asked what will happen if the girls want to go to university or want careers that require university degrees. I’ve been asked if our plan is to never send them to school. And I’ve been asked how I know they are learning the ‘right’ things at home.

I suppose I’ve attempted to answer these questions in different ways in blog posts before, but it’s an ongoing conversation and, as the girls grow older, my consideration of these questions changes.

Talking to the man at Malaga Airport made me think of all the different ways that people are home educated and, just like more formal types of education, there are as many different career and life outcomes as there are people who have been home educated. His daughter’s experience reminded me of people – famous and not so famous – who have been home educated or unschooled for some or part of their childhoods, of the different forms their education took and of the careers they have forged since.

Feminist columnist, novelist, screenwriter, memoirist (need I go on?) Caitlin Moran was taken out of school aged 11 and home educated with her seven siblings; novelist Margaret Atwood didn’t start school until (by some accounts) age 11; US President Theodore Roosevelt was educated at home by his mother until a tutor was brought in to help prepare him for Harvard entrance exams; inventor Thomas Edison was home educated; so was US President Woodrow Wilson; so was model Sophie Dahl. When my knowledge of famous home schoolers dried up, Wikipedia provided an enlightening list.

I only know one adult home schooler personally (if there are more of you out there, set me straight). She is a friend who was home educated for five years in her pre-teens while she sailed around the world with her parents and brother. Her five years away from formal education probably influenced her decision to take a degree in marine biology. I met her when we were both studying for Anthropology PhDs. In the past few years we have met quite a few sailing families with children who are home educated as they explore the world with their parents aboard their floating homes.

Each encounter with home education is different, as the practice fits around each unique family situation. Some families take a formal approach, using state curricula or curricula of their own devising, working to a timetable each day. Others are at the opposite end of the spectrum, giving children complete freedom to follow their own interests. There are children who never go to school or university; there are those who attend school in their mid to late teens; there are those who dip in and out, attending school only to take specialist classes – chemistry, say, or music, where schools provide resources unavailable at home. (In Devon, where we lived prior to moving aboard Carina, children have the option of attending school part-time. We considered its usefulness for older children with regard to language classes, science laboratories, and so on. I wonder do many home schooling families avail of this option?)

My children are six and four years old. I don’t know if they will ever go to school. We don’t have a master plan. I don’t think most parents who send their children to school (apart from those horrid pushy ones) have a master plan. I certainly don’t think my parents knew when I was six years old that I would one day go to university. As home educators, all we can do is encourage a love of learning in our daughters, facilitate their interests, and provide them with the basic skills needed to go out and explore the world on their own.

Friends, family and blog readers have lots of questions about our decision to home educate. I like and encourage those questions because (a) they help Julian and me to think through and give voice to our decisions and (b) they lead to conversations with people who have not encountered this form of education before. But we don’t have all the answers. We don’t even know all the questions!

What we do know is that home educated children generally fare as well in life as formally educated children. Their social and educational experiences are different, but, as Eileen Kane, my first ever Anthropology teacher told us in my first ever Anthropology lecture back in 1990, difference is not deviance.

It’s always encouraging to hear how other home educated children have fared, how their home education has stood to them as they have moved into adulthood. And we encourage people to keep asking questions and keep the conversation going. But don’t be surprised if you question is answered with another question!