Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Now Accepting Mid-Term Entries for January 2018

If you've got tired of your curriculum already, if you're new to home education and looking for something to inspire you, or you just think it's time your teen buckled down and started working harder, then Dreaming Spires Home Learning may be your answer.

Are your current studies leaving you cold???
Let Dreaming Spires warm you up!

We offer live and online courses and accept mid-term entries for January, so your child can jump into our New Year units with any of our subjects, whether Spanish or Biology, Ancient History or English Literature and Composition.

Jump into our courses at mid-term!
We've been allowing people to join us mid-year since we first began, and nearly 100% stay with our programme for two-, three-, or four-plus years, so we know it ends up being more of a long-term love affair with our approach to studying, than a short-term quick-fix.

Get in touch today about registering for courses - we'll kick off the new year during the week of 8th of January, 2018. All classes will take a couple of students so the timetable is completely open.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

To Coach to the Exam or not (hint: NOT!)

In the UK, students have just been receiving their GCSE grades over the past week or so. Judging from the comments on Facebook, the results have been mixed. Some really high highs, and some reporting ... bravely reporting, imo -- those that are not so great.

In England, taking GCSEs is a secondary-school milestone

I think we home-educators have advantages on the one hand when it comes to exams, and disadvantages on the other. On the one hand, we can choose only the ones we want to do, and we can take some a year or two early so to spread the load. On the other hand, we have to pay for them separately, find a centre that will take us as private candidates, and of course, there's a lot of re-inventing of the wheel whereas school teachers will generally have more experience in preparing students for the exams.

It may or may not mean home-educated students get better or worse exams than their schooled counterparts - many articles and postings online will trumpet success or broadcast poorer results for everyone who took the latest round of GCSE or IGCSEs.

So for those who are preparing for next year and perhaps worried about these results, I just want to say that I think there is only one way you can really screw this up, and that's by ...


I'm not saying you shouldn’t coach your child to take the exam, but I’m really unsupportive of teaching ONLY to the test. That is, for a year or two years, to drill and drill.

What am I basing this opinion on? I suppose it's related to the three hats I wear: that as a former teacher who taught up to A-level and even US university; as a home-educator of four children; and as a current examiner for CIE/OCR.

It seems to me there are three reasons that keeping those exams under the microscope is less than ideal.

The obvious reason is that, once the test is over, what have you got to show for it except that your child jumped through some hoops that are now irrelevant? Where do you go from there?

The other reason is that the hoops you jump may or may not be a real-work experience and translatable beyond that narrow exercise.

Another really important reason is that you run the risk of killing your child’s love for the subject, for exploration, and maybe even for learning anything at all.

Did you ever have a teacher say to you something like, “I know this is what we taught you about, say, Physics last year, but I want you to forget all that because that wasn’t really true - it was just a simplified version to make it easier to understand, but now we’re going to do the REAL stuff.”

You what???!!!!

Man, I hated that! You might has well have said, “Everything you’ve done up till now is a waste of time.”

This is why I make my own children, and all my online students, learn the REAL thing from the beginning. This is particularly true in English, my subject, but equally true in other subjects when it comes to exploring the subject and not drilling to the exam paper.

We don’t read abridged books. We don’t use Cliffs Notes or other summaries. We don't drown under twenty-five past papers and just work and re-work them for a year or two. If it’s writing, we learn the real-world skill of revising essays. We learn how newspapers differ from speeches. We learn how to explain ourselves and our thoughts so that the books come alive and we remember them.

Reading the real thing helps it all sink in.

Sometimes, the topic or approach is over their heads, but sometimes, it’s exactly that stretching approach that brings them to a higher level - a level they would not have reached if we didn’t try in the first place.

Am I saying you should never do a past paper or coach to an exam? Of course not. The exam that I mark is, in my opinion, notoriously counter-intuitive, so you do need to go over some past papers and learn its idiosyncracies, but to do ONLY that for a year or more, I don't think a student will be best served by not gaining any higher literacy skills during that time.

So if you have a big exam coming up in the future, I urge you to study subjects in a solid and true way as the majority of your learning. You can then practice the hoops either little and often (key word: “little”), or in a more focused, short-term way such as in the month before the exam.

This way, you don’t lose sight of the reason you’re probably educating your children at home in the first place: to create life-long learners who can think outside the box.

Loving to read hard books is rarely normal!

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Reviews are Coming In!

I just received a student's review about the Ancient History course she took with Mrs Samuels at Dreaming Spires Home Learning last year. 

You'll probably not be surprised to learn she was the first one on the list to sign up for the follow-up course about Greek that's starting in September!

It's a unique course because it made me obsessed with Rome afterwards. I got a good understanding of society, the class system, the family, and the military, plus a lot of the Roman literature. I took the extension to learn how to write essays about ancient objects, and that was useful because it helped me understanding how archaeologists date objects, and what they say about the culture they come from. Mrs Samuels has a quirky teaching style that adds interest to the subject - she'll frame a subject like Octavian's exile in such a way to make it seem humorous/ridiculous, and that helps you remember it really well.

If your teen wants a detailed look into all-things-ancient-history, then join us on Tuesdays or Wednesdays this next year: "carpe diem" and sign up now!

The "naughty" Greek bowl at the Ashmolean, Oxford.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Calendar of Dates

This is an updated calendar of dates after we decided to break earlier for Christmas and return earlier in January. The changes are highlighted in blue.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Summer 2017 Mountain Series Episode 2: Take Time to Acclimatise

This summer series about homeschooling was inspired by my recent family trip to the mountains, and will be added to weekly. Be sure to subscribe by leaving your email in the right-hand menu bar, or “like” our Facebook page to get updates posted directly to your timeline.

Whether you're brand new to educating your children at home, or finding yourself at a transition phase such as secondary school, there is a period where you'll be tempted to rush when actually you need to take it slowly and ease into it

I think this period is like our mountain trip when we arrived at our condo and found that it was over 10,000 feet.

High Condo - Waiting for Adventure

For native Texans who live at at 496 feet above sea level, this was a real challenge to our systems. We felt like all the descriptions of acclimatising for Everest - sinuses dry out, tummies get rumbly, headaches abound, breathless, listless.

These are warning signs that we were now in a place that are bodies were struggling to maintain normal function.

After a terrible night's sleep (another effect of altitude), we decided to see how far we could climb up the mountain in view of our balcony - Kuchina Peak.

Kuchina in our sights

Long story short, we ran into two problems: first was our unfamiliarity with the terrain (this will be the subject of the next blog post!), and the other was, no matter how fit and experienced we were with hill-climbing at sea level, we just weren't ready to tackle the exertion at 12,000 feet higher.

Some of us had headaches, malaise, nausea: all symptoms of altitude sickness! They told us that we needed to get back down a little lower and wait till our bodies were more accustomed to the thinner air.

Not ready for prime-time mountain climbing!

However, by the end of the week, we were able to climb not only it but its higher valley-mate, Wheeler Peak: New Mexico's highest mountain at over 13,000 feet. That was because we waited to get used to the elevation, and meanwhile, made sure we prepared a little at a time.

So as you're hitting transition periods in your home-educating journey, just keep in mind that rushing it is probably a poor idea. You'll find yourself ill-prepared and perhaps even in danger - if not in terms of your health, then probably in terms of your purse!

What am I suggesting instead? Take your time. Research. Read through Rainbow Resources detailed catalogue with lots of reviews by homeschoolers for any curriculum you're thinking of buying. Have a look at last year's Series 1  about starting out home-ed where I encourage you to take a look at your values and your aims, and above all remember this: if you are starting home-ed from scratch and have removed a child from school, you both need to deschool first.

The reason you deschool is this: going to school is putting yourself under an institution and there are rules and requirements and expectations that have become second-nature to you, most of which have nothing to do with one's real desire and aptitude for learning. Motivation often needs rediscovering; self-directed exploration of interests has almost certainly been dampened down; realising that one can find curiosity and something intriguing to delve into further 24/7, 365, and yet, it rarely requires 6 hours a day of sitting at a desk.

There is a big world out there, but if you're transitioning, then I would suggest putting your feet up and getting used to the new, rarefied air.

Take Time to Contemplate the View

Monday, 26 June 2017

The Summer 2017 Mountain Series Episode 1: Finding Yourself in the Heat

This summer series about homeschooling was inspired by my recent family trip to the mountains, and will be added to weekly. Be sure to subscribe by leaving your email in the right-hand menu bar, or “like” our Facebook page to get updates posted directly to your timeline.

In this first episode, I want to share about how homeschooling teens can feel like the hottest journey you’ve ever undertaken.

A blog post about a hot road trip ...

No matter where you live now, you have probably taken a trip somewhere that taught you all about assumptions. In my case, I thought I knew all about packing for a self-catering trip to the mountains, having done so almost twice a year in England for the past five years.

So my brothers and I loaded up our three cars and caravanned west to New Mexico. Once we got west of Post, Texas, the temperatures soared over 111º F (44º C). 

It ultimately reached 113!

We stopped for gas, drinks, etc, and my brother who was driving the pick-up truck announced that all the food that had been stashed in the back of his truck had melted. We threw out butter, yoghurt, milk, cheese, and all the chocolate, and though the boys liked to blame me for it, I did point out that they were the ones that loaded it back there in the first place!

Anyway, in hindsight I should have realized that perishables in a pick-up bed in Texas in June weren’t going to survive a 15-hour road trip anyway, but having only experience of Lake District trips in April and September, I recognize the biases I brought to the planning stage. 

So here’s where I think our journey in homeschooling teens is like this trip into the unknown. We know what it has been like to teach our children when the stakes are low - whether we follow set curriculum, something more flexible like the Charlotte Mason method, or even unschool, we haven’t had the pressures to prepare for national exams, worry about credits and transcripts, or hone down to our child’s interests and vocational pathways.

The stakes - like the temperatures in West Texas - suddenly become higher when our kids hit those teen years. Here are a few suggestions for navigating our way through an environment out of our comfort zone.

Navigating the path ahead ...

First, give yourself some grace if you make some mistakes. Yes, we’re in charge of the planning and the execution, but if we get some of it a bit wrong, then it’s not the end of the world. Our children’s education should, hopefully, be a life-long experience, and not something that finishes at 18 or 22, so there’s wiggle room even in these crucial years of high school.

Second, don’t be afraid to ask for help from someone who has been there before. If, for example, someone else is planning a road trip to New Mexico in the summer, I can now warn them about looking after the food on the journey. I can also tell them that there are plenty of big supermarkets in Taos so packing all those perishables was unnecessary in the first place. 

In homeschooling, there are now so many great forums and FB groups with people who’ve been there and done that, you really need only to ask.

Getting directions can be a good thing!

That being said, my third point is this: don’t just take someone’s word for it, but confirm what people say online by doing your own research, too. In the case of my road trip, I was only tagging along on my brother’s trip at the last minute, and I didn’t check out the shopping facilities in Taos for myself. As my brother is a bit more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of person, there ended up being a lot of gaps in his knowledge where I’d have been more inclined to fill them in (this theme will come up again and again in this series - believe me!).

In the case of homeschooling, I have already seen people’s advice running counter to someone else’s state or country regulations. In the UK, there are HUGE changes afoot in the national exam system as it switches from the A-E grade system to a 9-1 system, plus many of its public exams are ditching the controlled assessment for exam only, a change that favours homeschoolers - except for one important fact! These new exams don’t start being offered till 2019! So for many of you who are now entering the phase of UK exams for your teens, few people will have the experience of the new system to guide you more than saying what they did in the old system.

You have been warned!

In the US, there are still people who talk about the old SAT system rather than the new one, about dual-enrollment arrangements that are often dependent on the processes at the local college, about CLEP or AP or other advanced options that vary from university to university as to their acceptance.

It can still be a minefield for you, even with helpful guidance from those who’ve done it.

Our road trip through the West Texas oven was on Saturday. On Tuesday, I picked an apple out of the fridge for our hike up Kuchina Peak. It was covered in some strange kind of wax. I started washing it and the wax wouldn’t budge. Then I realised it was butter - the butter that had melted into the box in the back of the pick-up truck. Clearly, this apple had been in that same box, and though it had survived the heat, it still had some residue of the debacle on its skin.

Sometimes in homeschooling, there may be long-lasting effects from our past mistakes, and they can arise at the strangest times, even years later. 

It may be hot, but the sun WILL go down!

Just do what I did when I cleaned off the apple: I turned up the heat of the water to melt off the butter. You, too, can just “turn up the heat” - ie, put in extra effort, focus intently, make phone calls or write letters: in short, do what you have to do to rescue the situation.

That apple is worth saving!

Friday, 2 June 2017

STOP PRESS! New Sections of Middle Ages and BritNov on Offer!

We're so blessed and humbled at Dreaming Spires that so many people are entrusting us with the education of their teens, and our popularity meant that two of our English courses became oversubscribed before the end of May!

Problem: how to make sure more students can take advantage of our motivating and empowering style of live, online courses?

Solution: Recruit one of my oldest and dearest and cleverest friends to come on board as a second English tutor!

Introducing Jackie Pavlenko!

Jackie's bio can be found on the "About Us" tab, but the long-and-short of it is that she's an Oxford grad who went into the screenwriting business. She's too humble to tell you about the awards won by the film she wrote, El Greco, including BEST FILM at the Thessaloniki Film Festival in 2007.

Jackie and I have been co-home-educators in the trenches off and on for the past twelve years, and I'm so thrilled that I managed to eventually pin her down to join the Dreaming Spires team. She has so much insight and depth of thought to add to our courses' explorations, and being a "worldschooler" at this stage in life, she'll be one of those value-added tutors with oodles of culture to exchange!

Mrs Pavlenko will teach a section each of Middle Ages and British Novel: refer to the timetable for the new opportunities to study with us.