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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ᖃᔭᖅ (qajaq)

Glide, slice, glide, slice. The kayakers glide gracefully along the river, sun glinting on the water dripping from their paddles in mid-air. For a year I have watched them with longing, envying their seeming effortlessness, their freedom of movement, their closeness to the surface of the river. And there are lots of kayakers here. The racers who used Carina’s stern as the starting point of their timed practice back in the spring when we were on a mooring buoy. Portuguese teenagers taking over the river each evening after school, working hard, their coach shouting encouragement to them as he races alongside in a motorised dinghy. There’s one of my English students, who puts in hours of work on the river in his kayak, up and down the river, up and down, each evening after work until the sun goes down, pushing to be better, faster, stronger. There are our friends who paddle their kayaks between their house in town and their plot of land down river, more relaxed than the racers, in less of a hurry. And then there are the tourists who hire kayaks from the beach in Sanlúcar and paddle about in the water between the two villages. Some kayaks are long and sleek and enclosed, others are broad and open, far unlike the original Inuit qajaq.

Hard to believe that my professional career was devoted to learning about the role of the sea in Inuit life, and I have never been in a kayak. Except once on a lake in Roscarbery in west Cork. But that was a long time ago.

So I’ve gazed with longing at the kayakers, wanting to feel what it’s like to paddle through the water. I never told anyone I wanted to do this. Only the other day I thought to myself ‘maybe I’ll hire one of those kayaks from the beach someday’.

Two days ago I was rowing the dinghy upriver when I saw Diana. She was effortlessly paddling her broad, open kayak, with her little dog Daisy happily sitting behind her. ‘That looks so relaxing’, I called to Diana. Ten minutes later I was back aboard Carina and Diana called to me. She had a proposition. If I would look after her kayak on the pontoon, and keep the paddle and seat aboard Carina, I could use the kayak whenever I wanted. What could I say? After I’d gleefully thanked her for her generosity and after I’d spent some time imagining myself paddling up and down the river, it dawned on me that I had no idea how to get into or out of the thing.

I looked at the kayak yesterday, trying to figure out how best to approach it. This morning I found Diana having a coffee at the cafe. ‘Can you show me how to use it?’ I asked. Twenty minutes later I was in my swimsuit and Diana was on the pontoon instructing me how to launch it, and how to get into it without overbalancing. Five minutes later I was paddling away from her, upriver. Just me and the kayak.

I wasn’t graceful or effortless. I over-paddled to one side and had to correct my course. I splashed water all over myself. I’m sure I paddle a kayak the way I ride a horse – ungainly and ungraceful. I’m not a natural at this sort of stuff.

But goodness, it was everything I hoped it would be. I paddled upriver against the ebbing current, staying close to the riverbank where the current is weakest. For half an hour I paddled, the sun streaming down on me, the water from the paddles keeping me cool. Then I turned around, and drifted back downstream on the ebb, only dipping the paddle in occasionally to correct my course.

I can’t tell you how delighted I was. I had tried it, and I had discovered I liked it.

I plan to go again tomorrow, at sunrise.

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!

What I’ve learned from yoga

I’ve been practicing yoga for sixteen years. Not consistently. I start and stop. When there’s a class nearby I go. I’ve attended classes for a few months or even years. But when I move someplace where there are no yoga classes, then my practice wanes. I lack the self-discipline to practice on my own. I’ve tried. I’ve rolled my yoga mat out on the living room floor and given it a go. But in twenty minutes I rush through a yoga practice that takes an hour in class, and I skip the bits I find tough. I never skip the tough bits in class.

I love yoga for so many reasons. Before I ever tried yoga I used to wish to be put on one of those stretching racks you see in old movies, so that I could have my limbs and back stretched. When I attended my first yoga class I was astounded to discover that yoga practice is like being put on a rack. I’m not sure what I thought yoga was before that, but I never guessed it would satisfy my desire to stretch my limbs and my back.

I love yoga because it keeps me flexible and supple, it encourages me to concentrate and work on my posture, and it has taught me relaxation techniques that I can put into practice anytime anywhere. While I’m not consistent in my practice, I have breathing, stretching and relaxation techniques that I can call upon whenever I need them.

Going to a regular class this summer has drawn my attention to the one aspect of yoga that has influenced me more than any other. It has to do with my mind far more than my body. And it is something that has come to influence the way I think about and engage with other people, the approach I take to raising my children, and the way I approach my life in general. Like my posture, it’s not something I have perfected, but it’s something I work on and try to improve all the time.

Every yoga teacher I have ever had has advised and encouraged students to focus on their own practice. Don’t worry what anyone else around you is doing. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Some students have more yoga experience than others, some are more bendy than others, some can stretch backwards but not forwards, some have better balance than others. Comparing yourself to anyone else is pointless. Focus on your own self – how your body feels, how it responds, how are you breathing, where is your focus. Don’t judge others for good or bad – look at him, he can’t touch his toes; I wish I could twist into a pretzel like her. Work on your own body and mind – on improving your own suppleness, your own breathing, your own relaxation.

Following the advice of a teacher I had a few years ago, I now practice yoga with my eyes closed for most of the class. If I open my eyes at all it is only to look at the teacher, so I can follow her example. Only she and I are in the class. I turn inwards, blocking out external sounds and the other students all round me, concentrating on improving and perfecting myself. Not comparing myself to anyone else.

And that piece of yoga advice infuses every aspect of my life. It’s made me stop comparing myself to other people. We’re all different. We have different body shapes and sizes, different life experiences, different dreams and hopes and fears. Why waste time comparing myself to the tall slim elegant woman that I will never be, when I could be focusing on working with the raw material that my genetic and environmental heritage has given me. Why compare where I am in life with the success or lack of success of others my age. Either accept myself as I am or work to change. And if I choose to change, accept that the change is mine. I will never be anyone other than who I am.

Don’t judge people because they look different to me – short, tall, fat, skinny, symmetrical or asymmetrical features. Don’t judge people because they live different lives to me – they have more money or less money, they work or they don’t work, they come from different cultures or backgrounds. It’s all a waste of the precious short time we have on Earth to compare ourselves to others. Yoga has taught me to accept people as they are, and to concentrate either on accepting myself as I am, or striving to change who I am in a way that is mine alone. It has taught me to live in the world in a way that feels right to me, not in a way that I think society will approve of.

My approach to raising my children and home educating them is also inspired by this yoga lesson. Don’t compare. I don’t compare my children to anyone else’s. I don’t care how my girls compare to other four and six year olds. We all develop differently. I’m not interested in when someone else’s child learned to read or do long division or recite the collected works of Shakespeare while unicycling up Mt Everest. And because my kids are home schooled, I’m not interested in comparing them to National Curriculum or other formal education targets. All our children are brilliant and just like adults, they are figuring the world out for themselves, each one is his or her unique way.

I also strive to not compare my children to each other. It doesn’t help me or them to compare the age at which either one developed particular skills, or to compare their motor skills or athletic abilities. They’re different. They’re built differently, they have different personalities, they approach learning in different ways, so comparing them is futile. I’m not saying I don’t ever do this, but when I do, I catch myself and put a stop to that train of thought.

And finally, not comparing myself to others has informed my approach to life in general. I live on a boat, for goodness sake, in a tiny space with very little money. If I compared myself to others I’d realise this is foolhardy – we have no rainy day savings, no pension plan, no fancy clothes or telecommunications systems. There are sailors out there who have bulging bank accounts and boats fancier than ours, and sailors who make us look rich by comparison. But we’re all following our own paths, each with our own unique goals. So it’s better to concentrate and focus on living my life, on my family, on my goals and dreams, on working with the resources I have at my disposal, than wasting my time comparing myself to others.

Banishing comparison frees the mind up to enjoy other people much more. When someone tells me about their child’s achievement I can genuinely enjoy what that child has done and not worry that my kids haven’t achieved the same. When someone shows me around their brand new half a million pound yacht I can genuinely enjoy the experience, congratulate them on their beautiful home, admire what they have, but not wish that we lived in such splendour. Because we have Carina, and our own lives are splendid. When I see a beautiful or elegant woman I can enjoy her beauty and not worry that I don’t look like her. I can enjoy the success of others and not compare my own achievements. There’s a great freedom in all that.

The breathing, stretching and relaxation techniques I have learned through practicing yoga are immensely beneficial to my life. They calm me, centre me, give me the skills and tools to de-stress and to self-heal aches and pains. But it is focus that has informed and influenced my life more than anything else. Just like my breathing and stretching and relaxation, I haven’t yet perfected my inward focus and concentrating on my own life’s practice. Years ago, when I lived in Japan, I thought it was silly that people could practice tea ceremony for decades and still never get it right. I missed the point. Perfection is unattainable. The important thing is striving for it. I may never have the perfect forward bend, but trying to perfect it feels good. I may never be able to completely banish external thoughts from my relaxation practice, but trying to feels good. And I may never be able to completely stop comparing myself to others, but trying to perfect my focus opens up a world of wondrous encounters with others, free from comparison and judgement.