Friday, February 26, 2016

While I Was In Paradise

Five years ago I was just getting home after two weeks of sunshine, coral reef snorkelling and utter pampering in that paradise. Yes, the fine white sandy beaches, the turquoise hues of the ocean, the unbroken azure of the sky and every other descriptive cliche you can imagine . . . . a little patch of luxury in the middle of a wide ocean.

It had been a 'last hurrah' holiday with my family before I started fostering. We figured it would be a long time before we had chance to do an 'adult' holiday again. With my parents, my sister and one of my nephews, I sauntered around for two weeks in bare feet and swimwear, frequently donning the flippers and snorkel to explore some of the richest coral reef in the world. We laughed, we ate, we swam, we relaxed, we ate, we took lots of photos and did I mention we ate? Suffice it to say some of the clothes I took with me no longer fitted properly on the return journey.

If I had thought about it at the time, I suppose I would have realised that future foster children of mine were already born, and living their lives far from paradise. I didn't think about it. Yet, less than two months after this holiday, I accepted my first placement, a tiny four-month-old who would later become my adopted son.

Sometimes I think about where he was and what was happening to him while I was on that holiday. I don't think about it to be maudlin or to depress myself. I don't think about it because I feel bad about being on a soft, sandy beach while he was . . . There's no point in thinking like that. Five years ago, when this photo was taken, our lives were completely unconnected. I could have spent that two weeks anywhere; it wouldn't have made any difference to what happened to him.

And yet, every year, when Timehop throws up the photos of our little piece of paradise, I think about how my son was already alive somewhere, the subject of assessments, meetings, reports and plans, and I didn't know that he even existed. It's an annual reminder, if I needed one, of the twisty path that his little life has taken. I wish his path had been straighter for his sake but, as it is, I'm glad one of the turns brought him in my direction.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Why I Home Educate My Son

I wonder what image springs to your mind when you think about home educating families? Perhaps it's the 'earth mother' image - a sort of modern-day hippy family eating home-grown vegetables most people have never heard of and generally running wild in the woods. Maybe you think of driven, wealthy, middle class types who home educate because schools aren't good enough for their 'gifted' children. Or religious maniacs, closeting their children away so that they can brainwash them. Or families home educating children who, for whatever reason, couldn't cope in school. Or over-protective parents who can't bear their kids to be out of their sight? Or perhaps, and we're getting more sinister here, people using home education as a cover to abuse and neglect their children?

I would imagine for most home-educating families, a range of factors have contributed to the decision. I'll admit there is a part of me that isn't ready to let my son go off for the better part of his day without me and, for us, faith is a contributory factor, although not the only one. I do have my concerns about how well OB would have coped with school but, again, that's not the whole story. We don't run wild in the woods. We don't grow any vegetables. I don't need my son with me 24/7. I am not trying to create a genius.

So why? My interest in home education began many years before I ever knew that I would be a parent. What prompted it has been succinctly summed up in a web article I read this week: Key Stage 1 Changes Take Writing Back to the 19th Century. If you don't have time to read the article now, this short extract will probably be enough for you to get the drift:

"....moderators will need to see evidence of seven-year-old children using a very specific definition of “exclamation sentences” in their writing to be judged to be working at the expected standard.

"The definition of an “exclamation sentence” being applied is that it must start with either “how” or “what” and, to be a full sentence, must include a verb.

"So, an exclamation such as “How amazing!” would not count. It would need the addition of a verb (e.g. “How amazing it was!”) to qualify. Not exactly common parlance for your average 21st century seven-year-old." 

These children are seven years old. Their writing is being assessed against a feature-spotting checklist of what someone, somewhere has decided constitutes good writing. If it has an 'exclamation sentence' it is good writing. If it does not, it is not. If I was teaching to these criteria I would be so tempted to make all the children memorise four or five qualifying sentences and crowbar one into their writing at some point. Tick. Good writing.

Not good teaching though.

Not good learning either.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am a qualified teacher with years of experience, a first degree which was half English Literature, and a Masters Degree in The Teaching of English (Distinction). I promise I understand the importance of knowing (and breaking!) the rules of grammar in creating writing that is communicative, interesting, engaging and excellent. But let me ask you, the last time you read something really, really good, what was it that made it really, really good? I bet it was those amazing exclamation sentences wasn't it?!

I'm not even anti-school. In a mass education system, there has to be a certain amount of compromise, of one-size-fits-all. But a mass education system really, honestly, is not the only way of getting an education. Think of all you learned before you even went into a school. Think of all you have learned since you left! (Is that an exclamation sentence?) Let's all use our collective imagination to envision a world where there is more than one right way of doing things, and where those who choose a different way are not social deviants with a sinister agenda. I'm not only thinking about education here - the temptation to judge and categorise all aspects of other people's parenting choices is apparently quite irresistible sometimes.

I would like my son to have a different type of education than the one (the only one) that is available in our state schools because I fundamentally disagree with the over-arching principles that guide those who dictate what that school education must be (I'm not talking about teachers here). I don't believe that testing children improves their achievement any more than I believe that taking my car for an MOT every week will make it a BMW. I would rather go to Rome than read a text book about Romans. I would rather learn about great writing by reading great books. And if, when my son is seven, he does not know what an 'exclamation sentence' is, I will be perfectly content.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Things You Do...Birdy Edition

There's an ongoing debate among parents - both adoptive and biological - about how much it is appropriate to share about your children on the internet. I've got to be honest, if I'd had birth children I probably would have plastered their cuteness all over social media without a second thought! But in our house, we have to be circumspect.

This doesn't mean that I'm not proud of them, or that I don't wish that you could all share in their cuteness. So occasionally I like to create a blog record of my favourite things about a particular child at a particular time. I've posted similar posts before about OB and, back in the day, about NB, but now it's Birdy's turn.

Darling Birdy, here are the things I love most about you right now:

  • Your beautiful hair, all thick and soft and curly
  • The way you wrinkle your nose when you are really laughing
  • Your determination to get around and the progress you are making now you've got the hang of it, from bottom shuffling, to crawling, to standing and now to cruising
  • The way you love shoes and amuse us by bottom shuffling around the house with one of OB's wellies in each hand
  • Your chubby, chubby legs!
  • The way you pose for the camera, breaking out into massive smiles and giggles whenever you see one
  • The 'reading' that you do with your tiny books, turning the pages and shouting out the 'words'
  • Your love of pasta - it really is a thing of legend
  • The faces you pull, especially your 'gurning' face
  • How, when you are shy, you come for a cuddle - priceless!
  • The way you are trying so hard to talk, copying the inflections of my words even though you can't make all the sounds yet
  • The smile you greet me with first thing in the morning, little sunshine
  • Your four, almost five, sparkly white teeth
  • Your delayed response, shouting 'Hiya' and 'Ba Ba' just a few moments too late almost every time!

Birdy, you're an absolute treasure, a delight and a blessing!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Am I Spoiling Them?

An article I read recently in Community Care Magazine has got my cogs turning. The premise of the article was simple, and summed up in the headline: By spending too much on shoes and phones, are we setting up children in care to fail?.

The writer, a children's home worker, told stories of young people finding life extremely hard when they left their residential children's homes and moved on to independent living, perhaps on benefits or in low-paid employment. Suddenly, there would be nobody to replace their mobile if they lost it or broke it or dropped it down the toilet. Suddenly the branded trainers they had previously taken for granted were way out of the reach of their wallets. For some, it means a real crash down to earth.

I have no experience of what goes on in residential homes, and the children I care for will certainly not be experiencing independent living any time soon. But, in the majority of cases, they will be moving on somewhere else. I wonder how well I am preparing them for what they might face? Is there any way in which I'm setting them up to fail?

I've always taken the view that the children I foster deserve good things. Sure, I gratefully accept gifts of second-hand items where appropriate, but there are regular shopping trips for clothes and toys, meals and snacks out in cafes and restaurants, holidays in the UK and abroad, trips to museums and activities and soft play centres, a house full of toys and craft items and comfort, not to mention the 3-6 monthly visit to Clarks for foot measuring and, if necessary, new shoes. This is all heightened when a child first comes into care, often with next to nothing in the way of possessions. The first few days and weeks must seem like an endless disorientating roller coaster of acquiring and acclimatising.

It's hard enough to prepare a child for moving on to an adoptive placement. I have no idea what kind of parents the new people will be, or what kind of home the child will be living in. Occasionally I'll hear or read something an adoptive parent thinks about their child's foster carer's parenting style, habits or lifestyle and I'll raise my eyebrows and wonder what is said about me! But I do at least feel certain that in the home of prospective adoptive parents there will be regular food, a comfortable, warm, safe home, and some thought put into appropriate activities, whatever form they might take. A child's new home and family will certainly be different to mine, but the basics will probably be similar enough.

More uncertain is the transition back to birth family. None of the children in my care have actually had a successful transition back to birth family, although it has been attempted in two cases, but I know that eventually I'll find myself one day taking a child back to their home and their family, and dropping them off with their suitcase of recently-purchased clothes, toys, books and shoes. I wonder how that transition will feel?

Of the children I have fostered, none of their primary care givers have been working. None of them have had a car. I have to presume that money can be tight, and opportunities for day trips and holidays more limited. I do not wish to rush to judgement about birth families. I know there is love. I know that in order for children to return home, progress should have been made in overcoming any previous issues. It's not that I think the child won't have what they need. But I wonder if they notice if some of the little luxuries they have become used to are no longer possible at home. I wonder if they mention it to their families. I wonder if they blame them, complain to them, resent them because of it. And in turn, I wonder how birth parents feel if their child returns to them with a bag full of toys they couldn't have bought, and clothes that would be out of their price range.

We are warned as foster carers not to overload children with too much new 'stuff' when they arrive with us, but over the course of their time with us, they can't help but acquire new things. Maybe they will have a birthday, or it will be Christmas, and there's always the need to replace worn clothes and shoes, and deal with all that growing that they do!

It's hard not to spoil them. It would be counter-intuitive to give them less or to withhold things, and I don't think I could ever do that, but it's yet another huge factor in the dramatic transitions from one life to another that some children will experience over and over again.