Thursday, 30 May 2013

Education for everyone

 Today I'm taking a little sideways step to tell you what's been filling my time this year...

Not pictures of cats or videos of people falling over, but the democratisation of education has to be the best thing the internet has given us after the facilities for easy communication. I joined Coursera in December, since then I’ve taken a 15 week course on world history which has quite literally changed my life, ideas and goals. I’ve studied Ancient Greek history and Philosophy too. Currently I’m taking a Child Nutrition course and one on Greek and Roman Mythology. I’ve never studied Latin or Greek and would have considered something like reading Homer impossible. Okay, so the original may remain a blank for much longer, but after 4 weeks of our Myth course spent on a close reading of The Odyssey I feel very personally much the richer for the experience. 

This is all free. If you have an internet connection, it’s all there for you. With classic novels now available for free download too, not to mention excellent educational podcasts, education really is now there for the taking. It's wonderful.

I now feel so much more motivated to learn than when I was an undergraduate. I put more love and effort into my peer-marked myth assignment then into essays in my university days and certainly enjoyed it a lot more.  The courses I’ve taken have all been of a really high standard from good universities. 

Another advantage of this system is there’s no commitment necessary if you try a course and it’s not for you. I’ve started a few other courses and decided not to continue so I could focus my attention on the ones that really grab my interest. No penalties, no embarrassment, just click ‘un-enroll’. Easy. This would also be a really great way for people considering studying with the Open University or similar to try out online learning and see if they enjoy it and how motivated they are, before paying the not-inconsiderable course fees. 

Online university courses won’t replace bricks and mortar universities, and neither should they.  Many people keep learning and studying after they graduate but far more do not as they move into the workplace. Others don’t have the opportunity to go to university, or like me would love to go back and have another go. Coursera and other providers can really help bridge this gap for those that want to learn something new without stopping working or paying a lot of money for the priveledge.

Maybe I can’t put my completed courses on my CV and they probably won’t help me get a better job, but learning purely for the love of learning- there’s nothing better. 

Heading Home- Part Three

Since I lost my Mum in December 2010, and soon after my childhood home, the idea of 'home' has been a moveable one.

My eldest son F has lived in seven houses, in Scotland, England and China in his 5 years so my own little family has moved a lot. This has never been a big problem for us, lots of upheaval for sure, but we have a fairly flexible attitude towards our living spaces and we enjoy change.

My Mum's house always seemed like an anchor though, unchangeable and always warm and comforting. Full of people, music and good conversation. Her house now belongs to my Dad and sits empty, unloved and for sale. I wish there was another family dancing and laughing there.

I found being around that area very hard, as I wrote about last year here, but I think I'm ready to go back to these much loved places again. 

So where is home now? I instinctively say we're going 'home' to Edinburgh but that's not where I grew up. As a couple we lived there for 4 years while we were studying, we got married there and there's no city we like better. My husband grew up in England but when we lived there and returned to Scotland to visit, we both instantly felt relieved as we crossed the border. It's always been Scotland for us.

There's another reason that makes the pull of 'home' so strong though, Edinburgh is home to not just one but both of my beautiful, kind, funny younger sisters. The super-aunts, the confidants, the greatest sisters a girl could ask for.  For the first time since we all left home, they are living in the same place so like a magnet I am drawn to be there too.

When we told my youngest sister H that we were returning she was very excited and said to my son, "Oh F I can see you every day". F replied patiently, "Not every day Auntie H, sometimes we might be busy".

My sisters are busy girls with their own lives, jobs and friends but having them back in our own regular, normal life is immensely exciting. It's a cliché but one not without meaning, I think home really is where the heart is.  Girls, this cheesy old song is for you. See you soon!

Monday, 27 May 2013

Heading Home- Part Two

One of the many reasons that we fled the safe security of two good jobs in England was the approaching deadline for F to start school. In England children start at 4 and to me this just seemed far too young, it still does. I was confident that the local schools were good and that he would have coped (and I know there would still be a lot of play), but it did feel like cutting his childhood a bit short. Also, it's undeniable that once children are in the school system it becomes a bigger wrench to up and move them across the world. It felt a bit like 'now or never'.

We read up on home-schooling and were very excited by the prospects and really keen to do it. We decided we'd be in no rush to get back to the UK for school as we could teach the boys ourselves. We loaded up on phonics books and the like and felt pretty confident. We both love learning, surely we could pass that on?

18 months later one of the reasons we're heading back is for F to start school. With the Scottish system children start at 5 so he'll be beginning with all of his peers at the same time. He is very excited.

Why the change of heart?

Well as I've written about in previous posts, here F goes to local school in the mornings (so we can actually go to work for at least some of the day!) and then both boys are with one of us in the afternoon. We try to do play-based home-schooling in the afternoons (okay, perhaps just play).  We've spent some time with those phonics books but don't want to push it as he's still young. I'd never forgive myself if it was me who put him off learning to read!

F's school experience here has been quite mixed, he's fine when I pick him up and his Chinese has certainly benefited (see my husband's blog here for much more about the Chinese learning) but he really, really hates going. Kicking, screaming, crying, making threats...every single morning. He hates going, I hate taking him. Leaving my sobbing son in a classroom every day is torture.

And the joyful afternoons? Well, we cherish our time with the boys, really we do, but it is so, so exhausting. Going to work and delivering energetic English lessons can honestly feel like a break as it's so much less exhausting. (In the UK I worked until the last week of my second pregnancy for very similar reasons!) With two boisterous boys of 2.5 and 5 each demanding attention and often wanting to do totally different things, J and I end each day totally drained. No different from any other parents I'm sure I'm not claiming to be any different, but when I think about being totally responsible for the boys education when I feel like this...I have serious second thoughts.

There's no guarantee that F will love school in Scotland but for him and for us right now, it feels like the right decision. Edinburgh schools are pretty good so wherever he ends up he should be in a happy learning environment. I hope we'll treasure the time spent with the boys even more, and we are all excited to be moving to a place with excellent parks, museums and libraries as well as our friends and family, things we've really missed here. 

Friday, 22 March 2013

Heading Home - Part One

For all of our bravado setting out on this adventure over a year ago, it sometimes feels a little embarrassing to say that we're heading back to the UK. We're bringing this Chinese chapter of our lives to a close next July and moving back to our beloved Edinburgh.

There are many reasons for this choice and I'm going to try to explore some of them over the next few posts.

Leaving China doesn't mean that this experience has been a failure, it really hasn't. We've had many opportunities for growth and learning and I think we've all become more resilient over the past 13 months. I have two Chinese speaking children who are unfazed by epic journeys and new customs. They're curious, interested and almost always filthy as our green campus has given us lots of space to play outside. I'm really proud of them.

However, it's partly for them that we're ready to leave. At school my eldest has playmates but he has no close friends and this is hard. Plenty of parents want their children to come to our house, but they want English lessons not playtime. When we say there isn't a class but they could come and play and use some English at the same time, we just get a confused look and "when does that start?" The constant study and extra-curricular activities that even four year olds are embarking on are very different to our style of parenting. Almost daily we are asked why our son doesn't go to school in the afternoons. When we explain that we want to spend time with him and to give him the chance to learn and play at home, again the confused look and, "I think it's more convenient for children to be at school all day". They're right, it would be more convenient, I'd have lots of free time then I could be on the Chinese ebay equivalent all day too. It wouldn't be better for my child or my family though and that's what matters to me.

Here, we are part of a community and there are people I'm fond of. But I am, and will always be, an outsider. We assumed that it would be easy to meet other parents because we'd have children the same age in common, we've met some lovely people in the UK this way. This was not to be. We have friends here but none of them are parents. At the school gate there are smiles but never more than that. We parent in very different ways and I think we're just too different, too foreign. Defeatist? Probably, but it's been a year of trying to befriend them with no success.

Dotted around the UK I have an amazing bunch of friends, some are parents too, some are not, but they're all kindred spirits. They understand me and support me as a parent and as a person. I'm thankful that I have such a supportive husband and two boys who love playing together and are very close, but I really miss having friends.

I want friends for my children and friends for me in our daily lives, not just at the end of a phone.
I want to have people I care about laughing and drinking tea in our home again.

A simple wish, but a powerful one.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Dipping my toes back in

It's hard to say why I haven't posted here for a long time. I was really enjoying the experience of sharing my writing and had no intention of stopping. Then last term I got busy, really busy. I was lecturing in English literature every week, I'm an English as a Foreign Language teacher so I was way out of my depth (it was actually a brilliant experience despite the swallowing of all my time). Then I had some techno-issues, I hid from them, unsurprisingly that didn't fix them. I didn't take responsibility for fixing them myself.

Then somehow, I lost the faith. I lost the faith in myself, the belief that I could do it. I stopped believing that I had anything interesting to say or that anyone would be interested in reading it.

So why am I back? Well I want to show my children (and myself) that it's great to try but it's also okay to flounder sometimes and that it doesn't mean you have to give up. I want to show them that dedication to something you care about is never a waste of time, and that by trying, getting lost and trying again we learn and we grow.

So here's to growth and change and a big dose of self-belief for all. The posts here will get a bit more eclectic as I want to share a wider range of writing with anyone who cares to read it. I hope you will.

Thank you ever so much.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Hello autumn

It’s wonderful to see you again. All summer long we slept on a bamboo mat with just a sheet, it was cool and delicious on sultry hot nights. Now I am gladly welcoming back the duvets. We had a thin duvet for about a week before it was time for the thick wintry one, the seasons change so quickly here. 

There’s a nip in the air and it's quite rainy. True Brits that we are, we feel at home with the drizzle, it’s welcoming and familiar.  My pale skin wasn’t made for all that scorching summer sun. Autumn is like coming home.  
Beloved boots
Already I’ve been digging in storage for my warmer clothes and this weekend I’ll put away any summery things that can’t be worn with leggings and a jumper. My old faithful brown boots are back, now on autumn number five. I’m certain that new boots every year couldn’t beat the joy I feel at pulling on these old friends. Autumn clothing is where I feel most comfortable, summery dresses are lovely, but I feel so much more at ease with lots of layers. 

The leaves are turning and the boys are constantly collecting new favourites. As a family we painted huge piece of paper in autumn colours then cut out leaves to make an autumn wreath and leaf 'bunting' for the boy's bedroom. We’ve made ‘fairy sticks’ in the woods, tying on pine cones, interesting twigs and leaves and charging around the mountain with them. The sun which kept us indoors for so much of the day in the summer has faded to let us be masters of our surroundings once again.
This is the end of the third week of term, the old rhythms are back and we are embracing them. Next week the first year students will start their classes, I’m looking forward to seeing them out of the military fatigues they’ve been marching about in for three weeks and see them as people not little soldiers. 

Soup season has made a triumphant return. Every weekday lunchtime is soup time now, with steamed breads and baozi (steamed bread filled with cabbage). Warming, soul nourishing and oh, so welcome.

Autumns of old swirl around my memories, newly sharpened pencils, cosy jumpers and bracing walks. I am thankful that our life follows academic years at the moment. Any September without something new starting has always felt a little strange. As the temperature gets lower, I feel more and more alive; autumn always feels to me more of a new beginning than spring. As the colours are set alight, the joys and hopes for a new year awaken.

If it’s not too soggy tonight, we’ll be going outside to greet the autumn equinox as the sun fades. We’ll have a fire I hope and toast some marshmallows and welcome the colder months.  This September Mianyang, next September who knows. We’re in a constant flux of plans and ideas in this season of change. Just how I like it. 

Have a wonderful autumn.

With lots of love and crunchy leaves
Ailsa xx