I sometimes think that I would love to have the type of calm energy that lends itself to home education but, as my ethnobotanist/herbalist friend says, I’m a volcano: I just do hot, hotter, hottest, then I erupt, followed by a long period of inactivity! My daughter’s got a similar disposition, and being five she doesn’t share my world experience and need for order, so in our house trying to explain how to do jigsaws, for example, can result in quite a lot of shouting….we don’t do jigsaws.
Plus I’m single and freelance, and whilst I would love to be able to take her to work with me and she could learn as we went, there would be a lot of jobs that just wouldn’t fit into that model and money is enough of a challenge without turning down exciting work!
So it seems home education is not a realistic option for us at the moment.
But school throws up all sorts of issues. I find the attitude to promoting a healthy, respectful and considerate attitude to differences of religion, culture and ethnicity somewhat behind the times. It’s still obviously one that makes the staff feel awkward, as it is frequently clumsily managed or swept under the carpet and not addressed at all. I find the government enforced teaching of health and wellbeing riddled with dumbed down soundbites. Class sizes are prohibitive; needs and issues are often not addressed or spotted because teachers are unsupported and under-resourced.
Basically, school has a role to play for my daughter and I at the moment, hopefully she will emerge able to read, write, understand maths, and have experience of people with different beliefs and lifestyles to us. I also hope that she will understand why we choose to be atheist but respect our planet and all life, and within that context, respect others who have different beliefs to us. I hope she understands why I value an organic vegetarian diet and a plant and nutrition based route to health, why I think creativity, movement and beauty are fundamental rights and offer the key to happiness, and why I think that observation skills and being positive and interested are more valuable than following every rule….in fact I think we should ALWAYS question everything. Sometimes I feel that schools – low on resources and shackled by the need for uniformity in order to achieve order – make my own priorities in life very hard to uphold.
But here my work provides a solution, the antidote to too much school related stress and influence for us both. One of our favourite sayings is from a character in the rather lovely book ‘The Story Blanket’ by Ferida Wolff and Harriet May Savitz with beautiful illustrations by Elena Oriozola (published by Anderson): “Where there’s a problem, there’s always an answer.” And the answer is storytelling.
I quite often use storytelling to elevate a relatively ordinary day out. Sometimes even just a walk round the block to drop off the recycling can became an exploration, an adventure. I’ve used it to calm fractious two year olds and move exhausted four year olds, and occasionally just to make a routine journey more enjoyable for myself. It can teach new things, encourage observation skills, and provide a way out of problems, a way to see beyond the immediate and embellish the mundane.
Words matter – people forget that a lot. How you suggest something to someone relays immediately what the experience is going to be like; your tone of voice, your own attitude (remember: children don’t like fakes, their instincts shout ‘hoax’,’liar’ and they act accordingly if you don’t genuinely get excited yourself), and how you describe what you’re about to do allows them to become involved in the experience. So whether I’m starting a working session with a group, or going on an adventure along the road with my daughter, I want to make it captivating. I focus on the interesting features and create a picture with language (from an educational view alone this increases creative use of language and increases comprehension). For example, what’s special about the weather: Is the rain driving? Soft? Is it cold and hard? Is there a possibility of a rainbow? Why is there the possibility of a rainbow? Do you know a lovely line or two by way of a rainbow story? Maybe leprechauns are more your thing? Maybe you know the mnemonic for the colours ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’, did you learn it at school or maybe from your Granny? Did you ever go looking for the end of the rainbow?
We left the house on a rainy day just a few weeks ago with a big bag of glass for the recycling bin a mere 200 meters up the road, singing the song ‘I can sing a rainbow’, collecting rain in one of the recycling jars as we went. I told a story, one of the popular ones that starts ‘when I was little….’. These were my own favourite from my parents when I WAS little, and not only are they invaluable as they provide an easy way to empathize with children’s concerns, thereby strengthening the bond between parent and child, but they can also serve to underpin your position as an ally, an invaluable role to build on when times are tough, and a fun place to be at any time. The story was about trying to remember all the colours of the rainbow in the right order, I tell my daughter the mnemonic, she doesn’t understand and thinks it’s hilarious, so I tell her what I did: I collected a toy of each colour and lined them up in the garden to help me remember. We decide to recreate the challenge with the jar, we start off well with a red berry then struggle for orange. This is where the storytelling skills come in, I turn it into a story: Suppose she was a magical creature in charge of the weather and she needed colours to make a rainbow, I suggest; we must be able to spot something. An orange drink can left on the building site and a passing yellow van get grabbed in our story and popped into the jar with the rain and the berry. A green leaf from the hedgerow, a blue light on a fire engine, a lady in a purple jumper, a shop sign….we grab them in our imaginations and swirl them into our jar. ‘Now you need sunshine,’ I tell her. She studies the sky, a chink of sunlight and a hesitant patch of watery blue rest low over the dipping buildings, she holds up the jar and twists on the lid. The key with this game is to spin it out for as long as the walk will take, as details allow your imaginations to take flight.
Now we have a story… We’re at the recycling bin and we both know THAT jar will be coming home in order for a rainbow to work, but the rest get smashed gleefully into the bins. The rainbow jar, berries, rain and all, gets popped back in the bag to work its magic all the way home.
We have another adventure on the way back: another favourite activity is to take a slightly different route, we like roads we’ve never been down before, we like to explore in however minimal a way. A ten metre diversion round the side of a small local church took us down a lane to nowhere, a lane that had become a nonentity since new flats blocked its destination. The detour revealed a stained glass window, astonishingly radiant, that easily told a story, and broadened her horizons as she thought churches were just about Jesus since her school took charge of Christmas and Easter. The delicate dove with an olive branch in her beak created a gentle flightpath into discussing belief systems and an easy journey out as we returned to talk of colours of glass and light and the way things had changed since the days when the window had been made. A few metres further on the car park behind the new flats led onto the river. As we crossed over the bridge, a story grew about how we would get across the river if the bridge didn’t exist: we created stepping stones and Kelpies to carry us.Having witnessed the bridge’s underbelly, my daughter said she could understand why trolls are grumpy what with living in the dark and the damp, bridge crossers’ rubbish constantly blowing into their domain….the Billy Goats Gruff story gets viewed in a different way. we retell it as we walk: taking it in turns to be the Troll. Cross at first, it then softens and explains to the goats why it’s in such a cantankerous mood. It turns out the Troll and the goats form an environmental education and community gardening collective, and all live happily ever after. By then we’re home……the recycling journey took 40 minutes but what an adventure, and nobody thought about being tired or bored or the bad weather.
All storytelling requires is enthusiasm and observation skills and these are really good fun to develop alongside children. We’re all born with these skills, they are innate, and we just need to give them the food they need to grow. Slow down a bit, look around you, allow your mind to work by talking slowly, paying attention to details and showing interest in what you see. It can be as simple as a bus:.my friend’s two year old was fractious, coming down with something, it was a Saturday in town, he didn’t have his buggy, while his Mum got him some oatcakes I got down to his height and in the middle of a busy street, we discussed the approaching red number 62 bus, the wheels, the people on it, where were they going. I told him the story my Dad used to tell me about when he saw a double decker lose its roof going under a low bridge when he was a boy, then we sang wheels on a bus. Fifteen minutes went by, supermarket queues negotiated, oatcakes in hand, tears and tantrums forgotten. Actually catching the bus became an event, it had become the character in our story, now we were going into the story. That’s how this feels as an experience and it can take you anywhere you like.
Stories are all around us. Reading other people’s stories in books can be a start, but just reading the plaques on buildings and bridges opens a page of history and we all have our own stories we can share. If you fill your voice with life and enthusiasm and show interest, even the youngest child picks up on there being something worth hearing and will stop and listen. You can talk about what you see, or what it makes you think of, or it might remind you of another story – from these beginnings we can make anything exciting for ourselves as well as our children whilst learning at the same time.
So how does this form a bridge for me between home schooling and state education? Well, it provides a non confrontational place for us to discuss things that school perceives in a very different way to me. It offers a way of teaching stuff I think is important without lecturing: it makes the world leap into life in an exciting and vivid way that can make a routine day burst with energy for both of us; it helps to create a happy, confident child who can problem solve and deal with stress in a creative and confident way; it inspires me to enjoy life and create, and not least, it provides a way to blend our lives and the compromises we make for a happy outcome. Storytelling can do all that…and usually helps us find a way to get the housework and the required homework done at the same time. Maybe school will manage to teach her how to do jigsaws!
Amanda Edmiston is a former student of herbal medicine and human rights law. She is an artist and professional storyteller registered with The Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, her main body of work involves researching, collecting, adapting, and retelling stories which include as part of the story the role of plants in societies from around the world, she feels passionately that respect for each other and the planet that supports us should be embraced in storytelling, and that storytelling can explain and open up ideas of audiences of all ages and backgrounds. She creates visual pieces: the story boxes and writes to complement her work. She loves being Mum of her five year old daughter who she says gave new eyes and energy to a formerly cynical soul. Their favorite hobbies are dancing and yoga, cooking and eating, visiting museums and having adventures out and about!
Amanda can be found at: http://www.botanicafabula.co.uk/, http://life-medicine.co.uk/ and http://www.facebook.com/AmandaEdmiston.Herbs.Movement.Grand.Drama