Friday, May 29, 2015

May update & reflections on homeschooling

Until pretty recently, public school was quite an important part of what I believed in-- it lent itself to images of some level of socioeconomic equality, whereas homeschooling evokes images of elitism, unnatural cloistering, or religious conservatism. Those images don't necessarily fit with what public schooling or homeschooling actually looks like in South Africa (or anywhere)-- at least the parts of South Africa I've lived in. Bad public schools offer virtually no social mobility for those living below the poverty line, and at worst are akin to prisons, whereas elite public schools are, well, elite. A school leaving certificate is seen as a major tool for making ones' way in the world, which I'm not sure is really the case. And the middle ground is so hard to find.

So part of the choice to homeschool has evolved out of the extraordinarily complex choices facing parents in South Africa: private or public? How diverse? How good is good enough? A lot of times this complex choice is framed in terms of our children's long-term futures-- we want to do the best we can to get our kids to whatever adulthood we perceive as ideal.The thing is, when we make a choice about school we're also making a pretty massive choice about our lives in the present, and that's even more difficult: Do we spend more time at work, or have a more demanding job, in order to send our children to better schools? Do we find a public school that's pretty good, but then subject ourselves to 2 hours in a car each day? Do we move to stand a better chance of getting into a "good" school? I don't know the answers to these questions in any kind of universal way, but it's this cascade of decisions that we're consciously sidestepping when we're choosing to homeschool.

When I imagine the broader social consequences of homeschooling I have two main responses 1) Our lives are small and our intentions in homeschooling our kids comes from a place of hopefulness, prayer (often for our small lives to form part of some bigger story), and thoughtful consideration 2) Maybe small cottage schools and home schools would positively, rather than negatively affect the education of many South Africans living below the poverty line.

In these updates, I mainly focus on what we're actually doing. Not because we're doing something special, but to keep a record for ourselves and demystify some of the day-to-day stuff, for others. That said, we don't take pictures of the kids crying or running away when we set lunch on the table. So it's a skew picture, often with idealized bits of what we're hoping for rather than the full picture of the day. Looking back, it's also clear that some things are going really, really well, which is sometimes difficult to see when one is still hearing cries almost every day.

This month I was inspired by Thomas Jefferson Education. Occasionally I want to have something tangible to show for our days -- like the kids starting to read or count better. But I'm sold on the idea that these early years are primarily about building a good foundation relationally, and providing the kids with lots of good stories.

Making a solar oven

We used this instructable (somewhat flexibly) to make a solar oven. It was a fun project that the kids got super engaged in-- though it'll be even better when we find out if it works. I didn't fully think through doing this in winter.

Eli faithfully scrubbed an old window we found on the plot. Unfortunately, the pane of glass broke when we were cutting it, so we have to buy a new one.

Put some food in the painted black box, a pane of glass on the top, angle the foil-covered sides towards the sun, and voila!

Life and love with Honey Bunny.
 Craft time
I've finally embraced craft time, and it's been a very helpful transition for me. Planning seems to make all the difference. The kids are super keen to try new things at particular times of day. A couple of blogs have suggested that art is sometimes less rushed early in the day (including a favourite South African-based blog, so that's what we've been trying out-- though haphazardly-- this month. For Eli, this is often cutting and doing stuff with stickers. For Noah, it's more likely to be weaving, colouring or drawing. The kids have a small table here at my parents' house, but I find that sitting together at the big table is a lot better, as I can do something with them and there's lots of space.

Eli makes Totoro out of origami paper.

Making planets
Eug's mom sent us two wonderful sticker books for the kids. Korean sticker books are the best (Ok, probably there are some great sticker books in other places, but so far I haven't found good South African sticker books). 

Laq time

In the kids' birthday package were also these small Japanese building blocks, called Laq. They're a lot more compact than legos (yippee!!!), have only a small variety of blocks so if you lose one it's less of a crisis than with legos (yippee!!) and they build slightly different kinds of things-- including different angles etc. After a frustrating morning feeling like I was back in organic chemistry, I'm now a huge fan. Following the paper instructions is pretty difficult (more difficult than with legos) but using the blocks gets super fun because of the options created by 45 degree and 30 degree angles.

iPad reading
This month we were gifted my mom's old iPad. So we also dropped speech therapy in favour of a couple of iPad reading programmes. Unlike speech therapy, which the kids did for the chocolate, the reading programmes they do for love (iPad love). It also helps with speech-- to discover the sounds that go with specific letters or words helps Noah to understand the words that he typically mixes up. The two apps the kids have really enjoyed are Endless Reader and Joy of Reading. They have different strengths, and together seem to have helped the kids progress in word and sound recognition. Of course, we still spend a lot of time reading to them. To be honest, I'm hoping that Noah is reading somewhat independently before our baby girl is born in September. It's not necessarily a reasonable goal, so I'm saying it to you rather than to him, and trying to hold it lightly. Progress over perfection (on my part), who cares if Noah reads now or in a couple of years time. Well, I do, but that's my own issue.

Otherwise, our attempt at a schedule seems to make the kids feel safe. They do a fair amount of baking and cooking (in which I try not to have a heart attack, so no pictures), time at our plot (I keep on forgetting the camera) and lots of playing. It's getting pretty cold and rainy here, so I'm excited at the prospects of fires and a sense of security and rhythm here, in my parents' home.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Tiny incremental progress, in pictures

We're in a state of limbo, but life continues and we adjust to new ways of doing things. We have the use of my parents' car, which has been more or less indispensable in this time in the suburbs. We use it to run errands for the farm, for me to get to campus, to visit friends. You know, normal stuff. The kids keep growing and learning new stuff (most recently, Eli has taken to calling everyone "penis". It's awkward). 

In a state of limbo it's sometimes hard to commit to things outside ourselves, things that seem difficult, that relate to justice or sustainability or anything beyond the next week or two. So we try to double down on the tangible bits-- the cooking, bits of work, the caring for kids-- of the next week or two, tiny increments of progress, but mostly just regular life. 

I found an old rusted cast iron tub on gumtree, and Eug de-rusted re-enameled it into a really beautiful tub. Then Eli insisted on bathing outside. So we have a bath tub for our house, if not an actual house.
The latest picture of our house. We're still waiting on council approval to begin to build. The trees on the right of the picture are our neighbours', and this picture faces north (the orientation of our house will also be north, which makes the most sense here in the southern hemisphere). The foundation has gradually been leveled and prepared, and we're still putting a tree or shrub in the ground every weekend.

Noah had a two-day birthday celebration. On day 1, we went to Kirstenbosch with our friend Caitlin, her son Sebu, and my sister. This is their beautiful forest canopy walk, with Noah running ahead.

Kirstenbosch is a beautiful, huge garden and forest at the base of Table Mountain. But basically, the kids wanted to come to climb this tree: an old wild almond, and the perfect climbing tree.
The second part of Noah's birthday celebration involved the Clay Room in Hout Bay, where you get to paint pottery which is then fired up. It's a wonderful place- the outdoor net is just a bonus. Can you spot the kids in this picture? 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Beginner Farming

One pretty cool thing about moving out of Observatory is that, in the moving process we bought a refurbished 6m shipping container. It's now on the plot. With all our stuff inside. So if someone wanted to, I guess they could just take it all. Hopefully not. A truck with this little crane dropped the container off about 15m into the plot, then the truck promptly got stuck in the sand. They used their crane to dig into the ground and free the wheels as they reversed, leaving holes about 1m deep in the sand. We're hoping to convert the container into a guest cottage in the next couple of years, as we come across materials and time.

This past summer we didn't have a water source, so planting trees was more of an experiment than anything else. There was a lot of manual labour involved- mostly my dad and I lugging water around in bottles, digging holes through very stony, sandy soil, and bringing bags of leaves from wherever we could find them, to provide mulch.

This is what's on the plot right now:

3 lemon trees
1 tiny apricot seedling, which somehow survived a summer without water- these seedlings are surprisingly hardy!)
lots of moringa trees
7 acacia trees, for nitrogen fixing and security (various South African acacias, not Australian wattle, though we have a lot of that, too, because it is so prolific on degraded soil!)
1 peach tree
1 pomegranate tree
24 pineapples
some little sweet potato vines, trying to get started
6 grape vines
4 avocado seedlings
1 mango seedling
1 macadamia nut tree
1 granadilla vine.

The great news is that most of our trees survived the summer though they didn't grow much, they got acclimated to the plot. We're desperately need to get a borehole/wellpoint in place to provide a source of water in the months where there is no rain. Our long-term goal is to channel winter rainwater as well as our household greywater through mulch-filled ditches, so that we don't need to water the trees at all. But it will take several years for the trees to get well established (and for us to dig ditches by hand!), and if we don't irrigate in summer in the meantime, we're in danger of losing a lot of trees. So we'll use a wellpoint after the rain ends (September October), then dig trenches to allow water to flow around trees and encourage root spread.

We keep on finding more interesting and beautiful things on the plot. By no attentiveness of our own, and with no irrigation and a super hot dry summer, one of our olive trees bore plenty of olives this year. A friend brought over an oil press we ordered on Amazon (thank you Mardi! Thank you Amazon!), so we'll be ready to try our hand at olive oil... next year. This year, we'll let the birds enjoy them. With any luck (mulching, irrigating, adding vermicompost), I think we can get at least one of the other olive trees to fruit next year. We also found 6 eggs, which we had for breakfast. Next time we'll try incubating them instead. Pretty sure they were hens eggs. Most of our neighbours have chickens, and our plot has been vacant for long enough that random chickens and guinea fowl think they own the place.

In other news, we've realised we will need a car on the farm, ultimately to be shared with my parents when they move onto the farm with us. I remember Wendell Berry once wrote he could not get around the need for a car if one lives in a rural area, and at the time I thought we could find a way (the Amish certainly do, after all) but as we're figuring this out and trying for community, it feels like we'll need to use a car.

So there's are the hopes and dreams related to living on a farm, then there's figuring out the day-to-day. I don't really know what the day looks like yet, but if it's anything like the past couple of months, there's a lot of labour involved. Which is quite ok for Eug and I. What is challenging for me is how slowly things grow. I want to see massive change overnight, but really we're just seeing small, incremental changes to the plot. It's slow work. As winter approaches, things will grow even more slowly, but there will be more water, so who knows... we may see unexpected growth spurts.

We also have many trees and shrubs ready to go into the soil, and whenever we visit the plot we add a few more. The main difficulty this year has been waiting for rain. The rain came very late this year- last week. So we're ready to scavenge leaves for mulch and get trees in. Basically, getting ready for spring before winter has really started...