29 January 2015

The Homeschooling Path

The homeschooling path for our daughter was a deliberated subject for 3 years. As expats in Singapore (we've been here 4 years) our education option for Trini was either international school at approx. $25,000 per year or local school at $6,000 per year. Had we remained in Melbourne, Trini would have attended our local primary school at minimal cost.

As you might imagine, the international school fees are substantial for primary school education but entry is reasonably easy, after you paid the application fee, registration fee, for some schools building maintenance fee, school uniform and eventually the actual education fees. The abovementioned fee is somewhere in the middle. The elite international schools can reach up to $40,000, but there are a few that are more reasonably priced at $15,000.

If you're an expat on a package, that might be okay. The company will absorb the education fees and the decision is much simpler. However, unlike us who are on a local hire with a mortgage makes it more difficult to outlay such sums.

The alternative you might say is easy. Just put her in a local school. Oh if it was only that easy. Local schools are regularly over-subscribed. Registrations are in 3 stages: each June is set aside for Citizens, followed by Permanent Residents in July and Expats in August. With oversubscribed schools, that usually means that many expat children miss out on a spot. Distraught expat parents don't know what to do since not all of them are on packages that affords them access to international schools, especially if there are multiple children in the household.

Fees are one of the parameters when considering the schooling option. The other is education style.

Most international schools follow the International Baccalaureate Program. The IB program is an inquiry based approach that covers languages, maths, social studies, science/technology, arts and physical education. The program's mission statement is to: "...develop inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect." and "... encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate, and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right."  This particular style would suit Trinity very well.  She has an intrinsic love of learning and willingly gives anything a try regardless of whether it's maths, English, art or phys ed. She would thrive very well in an IB program.  Unfortunately, the fees make it inaccessible.

The local system on the other hand is academically driven.  Singapore is one of the most highly regarded educational systems regularly attaining top 3 in mathematics and science. However, there are concerns that rote learning is emphasised at the cost of critical or creative thinking.  There are also concerns that children are driven too hard to excel at the cost of their childhood.  

I can't agree or disagree as I've not experienced education in Singapore.  I have however, spent my primary years in my birth country Romania where the education system was very much the same. Academically driven, encompassed with rote learning and a lot of homework.  By the time I was 10 typical weekly subjects were: Mother Tongue, Literature, Maths, Biology, Botany, Geography, History, Phys Ed and two foreign languages.  I remember failing due to the rote learning approach and my inability to understand how it all fitted in the world around me (can you see how I should have done an IB program).  It's not that I wasn't capable, it's that the style of teaching and learning was wrong for me.  

How does that fit in with Trini?  Both John and I are similar in the way we learn.  We have completed several years of post-secondary studies, thereby giving us ample experience in understanding how we learn best and recognising that our daughter's learning style is the same.  She's a hands on child, who learns best through experiences, visuals, music and concepts.  Knowing this we were concerned that in a local school system, she would disappear in the large classrooms and her love of learning would be extinguished under the weight of studies; provided that she would even be placed in a local school given the difficulties of expats who have unsuccessfully undertaken the registration process.  

All along we knew there was the homeschooling option.  I am not a qualified teacher but I am and always have been very interested in education for kids.  When we first began discussing homeschooling as an option 3 years ago there was a great deal of concern as to whether I had the patience, the discipline and even the capability to deliver lessons at home.  

Trinity didn't start kindergarten until she was nearly five.  In the next 18 months she went from not a clue how to write, to writing, basic mathematics, basic spelling, and early reading. She attended Eton House International Pre-School and she was blessed with an excellent teacher who knew how to bring the best out in her.  The school, whilst it drained us financially, set the basic foundations of learning.  During that time we realised that we couldn't maintain international schooling but we didn't think the local system was for her either.  

In comes homeschooling.  Trini was completely aware and quite excited about the idea of learning at home with mum.  She went ahead and told everyone who raised the subject of schooling.  Besides being a very nice compliment it encouraged me to pursue the homeschooling path.

I've been asked several times some very common questions.  How will she socialize?  What curriculum are we using?  How are we conducting the daily lessons?  How will I know if she's on par with her peers?  How long am I planning to do it for?

My responses were perhaps a bit rusty in the beginning not because in my own mind I didn't know but to give a satisfactory answer to the person asking required my ability to articulate what I knew or felt deep down.

In the end this is what I came up with:

Socialising - We live in a condo of 950 apartments and an approximate population of 4,000 residents. There's no shortage of kids to hang out with after school.  She has her preference of kids she likes to play with regularly but will engage with newbies if the opportunity arises. She attends many activities in our condo that exposes her to other kids who aren't her friends.  She's also completely comfortable with all ages as her friends range from as young as 2 to nearly 12.

Curriculum - At this point we are not following a specific curriculum.  The State of Victoria where we are from doesn't support long distance education if you're no longer in the country.  There is the option of K-12 curriculum developed in the US, which looks interesting and has potential.  In the meantime we obtain material from Popular, a company that publishes, distributes and retails books for the local education market.  Trini's learning is supplemented with outings to museums, theatre performances, travel, nature experiences, art classes and sport.  The teaching/learning experience is evolving and will continue evolving until we discover a style that suits.  We are both curious and willing to try different approaches, hence nothing is set in stone and leaves us completely flexible to change and maneuver as we see fit.

Daily Lessons - I firmly believe that learning has to encompass four areas: academics, sports, languages and arts.  Four times a week from 12-3.30 Trinity will work on activity sheets that cover; English, Spelling, Grammar, Maths and Science.  The sheets are interspersed with fun stuff like dot-to-dot for further motor skills development, mazes for critical and strategic thinking, and jigsaw puzzles for hand-eye coordination.  Reading is at bedtime.  She will read to me books at her level and I will read to her more complex stories. Three times a week Trinity and John will engage in an hour of sports like cycling, tennis, scooting; once a week she attends paid activities ie, gymnastics, kung fu, swimming and ballet; and, every Sunday she joins a parents' organised Little League session in our condo. For arts and languages, Trini is tutored once a week in Mandarin and attends art classes. Occasionally we'll have an outing depending on what is of interest, ie Leonardo Da Vinci's "Earlier Mona Lisa" exhibition.

Academic Performance - Whilst the aim is to design a curriculum suited for Trini's needs, half-yearly or yearly checks on where she's at academically when compared to peers would ensure that she is meeting the basic criteria required for her age group.  Assessment papers readily available are another useful tool.  

Homeschooling Timeframe - We are in a unique position in that Trini is officially in between schools.  Whilst she did attend an international pre-school last year, it was a calendar year cycle as opposed to mid-year cycle like most international schools.  That means that she finished pre-school in November 2014 but wouldn't be due to start primary until August 2015.  This gives us a good eight months to explore homeschooling.  Again nothing is set in stone and flexibility is our best option.  We are very interested in Trini's education but also in her needs.  If at any point she requested to return to a school environment we would most likely comply.

To sum up a typical week, Trini spends approximately 7 hours on sports, 3 hours on art and 21 hours on academics/languages.  The rest of her waking hours are either spent on play at home, on a playdate or on the playground.  Weekends are solely family activities (Universal Studios rates very highly on all our agenda).

As we are nearing the end of January, we have been homeschooling for four weeks.  As Trini works on her sheets, I'm usually seated beside her to help.  When she doesn't need me, I spend my time researching and developing lesson plans.  Time flies quickly, simply because Trini is focused and keeps working whilst humming a song.  With time we will both gain more experience and become more efficient in our work and learning journey.

I hope to keep journalling our experiences and our projects.  I hope that in some small way it'll help other parents who may be considering this option, in the same way that numerous homeschooling bloggers helped me when I needed it.  Cheers for now.

Here are random pics of Trini involved in her various activities:

Bedtime reading to Daddy.
Botany studies for fun.
Training for her forthcoming Safari Zoo race.

Storytelling Club that brings books
to life through activities.

Develop hand-eye coordination.

With Coach Daddy.

Crafting a bowl out of paper.

Being a caterpillar.

"Mum, there are two Mona Lisa's?!"

Dancing to Jailhouse Rock at the Philatelic Museum.