Books I read in 2014

I LOVE having others recommend books to me… so I’m going to tell you a few books I read this year and perhaps you’ll find a new friend for your shelves.

Roddy Doyle’s “A greyhound of a girl” entertained and moved me. I liked John B. Keane’s “The Bodhrán makers” and Frank O’Connor’s “An Only Child”.

I enjoyed Charles Frazier’s “Thirteen Moons”.

It wasn’t as affecting as his “Cold Mountain” but still an amazing read, as a 12 year old narrator is given a key, a horse and a map and sent to run a trading post at the edge of the Cherokee Nation.
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Of course, as usual I re-read Anita Shreve’s “The Pilot’s Wife”.

I LOVE this book. I live differently after I read it. I got it in 2000 when I was pregnant with Oran. It was free with a box of tea bags and I was very dubious that it could be insightful or moving but it proved to be both.
She published her new book “The Lives of Stella Bain” which harked back to an earlier novel, which I can’t name or it would spoil the twist!

Kinta Beevor’s “A Tuscan Childhood” is autobiographical and evokes the landscape and artistic milieu of the author’s family.

I’m currently reading Barbara Ehrenreich “Smile or Die” which is a perfect antidote for anyone who’s fed up with the devotion to “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne. I get the theory of the Law of Attraction and creating vibrations to attain our desires, but the die-hard proponents of the theory seem sadly lacking in compassion to me… if you take the theory to its logical conclusion, then EVERYONE deserves their circumstances, and my 47 years have shown me that’s nonsense; we all need to help each other and be sympathetic and empathetic, rather than judgemental. Ms. Ehrenreich’s personal experience is with breast cancer treatment and what she identified as a dangerous addiction to preaching positivity to ill and depressed people.

I found two John Holt books which I hadn’t read before: “Instead of Education” and “Freedom and Beyond”. Like so much he’s written, I found myself nodding along.

I’m re-reading Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” after studying it 33 years ago for my English exam. I usually read very fast but am trying to deliberately slow down and savour his brilliant story of Pip, Joe and Mrs. Gargery, Miss Havisham and Estella.

For Christmas, as well as a bookshop voucher, I got a copy of Charlotte Bronte’s “Villette” which looks brilliant – based on her own experiences teaching in Brussels. The cover says it’s about bearing repressed feelings and cruel circumstances with heroic fortitude.

The book which has had all of the older family members laughing this Christmas is the compilation of satirical news stories from Waterford Whispers News.
One of our favourite spoof stories was:

WWN story

And this one:

I’m reading Roald Dahl’s “Esio Trot” to Eamonn and we are both loving the story of Mr. Hoppy who loves his neighbour, widowed Mrs. Silver, and gains her love by “magically” helping her to achieve the dream of having her per tortoise grow bigger.
Anthony Hopkins, playing C. S. Lewis in “Shadowlands” says “we read to know we’re not alone”, (quoting a student’s father, I think, who was a primary school teacher). That phrase stays with me and I feel there’s truth in it. I guess it’s why the breastfeeding, home birth and home education newsletters are so important to me from my memberships of these support groups. I have old newsletters from MANY years ago (20, even) and I know they may seem superfluous now that all information appears available on-line (for a fraction of the cost of felling a tree) but I am SO GRATEFUL for the trees and process that produces paper for me to hold. I can’t imagine nursing a small baby with a phone or screen in hand instead of a newsletter or book!
Here’s to many happy hours reading in 2015!


Making an example of oneself

You might not believe this, but we are actually a fairly “let’s keep to ourselves” family.

I know…

…we have a facebook page Home Education Support Fund which recounts our various media forays since our court case began rumbling…

…we have  a YouTube documentary “Homegrown Knowledge” (but we were being filmed to help film student Eoghan McQuinn in his final year assignment, and never thought it would be on the screen of the Irish Film Institute – as part of their “Stranger than Fiction” series)…

… a month ago, I began a blog…

but we are genuinely quite private, actually.

Sometimes, you just feel you have to make a stand.

And if publicity and an amount of public debate (plenty of it negative) is the result, well, then  you just read some quotes by Gandhi or other inspiring people or better still, do some finger painting, snuggle on the couch and read to a small child, make a cup of tea, breath deeply and remind yourself that “other people’s opinion of you is none of your business”.

A quick summary: we have home educated since finding out about it when eldest child (28 this month) was 9 months old… so really, we just continued facilitating his learning, as we’d done since his birth in 1986. Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Constitution of Ireland, Article 42, specifically names parents as primary educators and says parents “shall be free” to provide education at home. A “new” law, (well, it came half way through our home educating journey) the Education Welfare Act 2000, says parents must apply for assessment, and if they are deemed to be providing “a certain minimum education”, then they are ALLOWED to educate at home… so the state asks us to request permission… which can (and has been) refused.

We can discuss whether you believe the state should ask parents to prove their fitness to home educate (but seeing as education is for us, a seamless continuation of our parenting, then you might as well require all people, hoping to have children, to prove their fitness to be parents).

I could offer the idea that what has happened to our family is evidence of a heavy handed approach by authorities to make lines-be-toed.. to what end, exactly?

How is one “educationally” neglected child in this state better off because we went through a court process, were convicted of “failing to cause” 2 children to attend schools, were fined and imprisoned?

I know people are afraid that we will make things worse and scare off potential home educators.

What I can say is this:

a mother in another county read about our court case, dropped her two children to school, drove to Tullow, enquired in a coffee shop, from a postman, from a man walking his dog and finally found our neighbours, who directed her to our home.

We sat for an hour over coffee and shared stories, She borrowed 2 books and left somewhat reassured, that home educating might be possible for her family.

Maybe she won’t home educate.

Maybe she would have anyway.

But she turned up at our door with doubts and questions, and we did our best to assure her that the ONLY requirement you need to home educate is



That’s our secret.

Your own success at school. college or life is fairly irrelevant.

Your (lack of) teaching qualification is irrelevant.

But your love for your child and joy of being on a learning journey together is the key.

Learning to read

This feels like the biggest home educating milestone, doesn’t it? Still, 27 years into our home educating adventure, I’m not sure how the process happens.. but with a span of 6 children we have seen a variety of approaches and outcomes. I made the Montessori sandpaper letters for Darragh… but he was a year old and they were packed away in one of our many moves (14 in his first 8 years!) by the time they might have interested him. My mother had a copy of Glen Doman’s “Teach Your Baby to Read” but I was trying to be less parent- led about the process. He wasn’t a fan of flash cards.

He LOVED the Teenage Mutant Hero (Ninja) Turtles. So he was 4 years old and we we were walking back from Bushy Park in Dublin and he said “there’s Raphael’s letter” when he saw an “R” on a manhole cover on the road. Hmmm… maybe there’s some truth in this theory that children learn according to their interests,  my 23 year old self mused. We collected various props along our travels… magnetic letters being a favourite. All upper case because “PDBQ” are very different as capitals but “pdbq” are all the same shape, just oriented differently.

We read books. We listened to stories on tape: early 90s folks! (before CDs were much than a twinkle in some-one’s eye). The whole reading thing came together for Darragh before he turned 9, which didn’t seem late or early to me by then; it just WAS. The next 2 boys, Oisín and Emmet, read a Level 1 Ladybird (“3 Little Pigs” and “Little Red Hen”) around the age of 6 1/2 and were reading fluently and for pleasure 2 years later. There was a stage when Darragh stopped reading for his own enjoyment, it seemed to me. (Co-incidentally or maybe not? he went to school aged 12 years and 10 months.) He would read to his younger brothers, though. I tried all sorts. I bought “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. No interest.  I took out a year’s subscription to an astronomy magazine. The last few month’s envelopes lay unopened. I bought football magazines. Then when he was 14, he was given a copy of “The Lord of the Rings” and he’s been an avid reader ever since. He had finished his early school experiment by then, and came out after completing first year of secondary school. Tolkien remains a family favourite and the younger 5 all like Harry Potter.

“Letterland” was all the rage when Oisín and Emmet were beginning to read and we bought one book each but they were nearly £5 in old money, at least twice as expensive as other books and it felt a bit gimmicky to me.

Elva went from reading a Ladybird Level 1 to an Enid Blyton “Secret 7” 4 months before she turned 9, and by that birthday she had read the 7 Harry Potter books. She generally has at least 4 books on the go and will take at least 2 books on any journey, even if it’s to the post office or some quick errand.

Eamonn is 6 and sometimes demands “teach me to read!” when an older sibling tells him he needs to learn so he can take part in whatever board game they’re playing. He’s writing his own book and learning some words, but the “switch” isn’t quite there… when those squiggles all make sense.

A lovely souvenir we have for each child is a book of pictures and photographs with a line dictated by the child e.g.

“Here is Oisín’s family”.

“This is a giraffe”.

“We saw monkeys at the zoo”.

I made them from photo albums with photos, pictures form magazines and index cards with the words the child said.

I love that books and stories and words and ideas are important to everyone in the family and that most of the children see themselves as authors who are writing their own tales (with a heavy emphasis on mediaeval sagas:swords and horses feature alot!)

A Funny Kind of Education

I’m reading Ross Mountney’s “A Funny Kind of Education”. It’s her account of taking her 5 and 9 year old daughters out of school where they were plagued by unhappiness and health issues. They live in rural England. It’s a very touching, honest and sometimes “laugh out loud” funny account of finding their own path to learning together.

She had contact from Education Otherwise, one of the home education support groups: “a whole community of other aliens. Nice to know there really are other people as weird as me.”

The Local Authority forms, which were sent to them for filling in asked about “subjects and learning rooms and tests and work schemes.”  The parents discuss the requirements. “They don’t seem appropriate to what we want to do at all,” her husband offers. Reflecting on it, she decides “we’ve taken the girls out of school so we can pay attention to their education rather than their schooling.”

When Ross speaks to the Education Otherwise helpline, it’s explained she doesn’t HAVE to fill in the forms and can ask for time to settle into the new learning approach.

She finds a family near her who are happy to meet up and discuss her concerns.

It’s what has struck me so often about this “community” or “tribe” we stumbled into… how generous people are with their time and talents, to encourage others who are tentatively taking the first steps into something that still remains quite counter-cultural.

When we started back in 1987, I had a family to observe with children a few years older than Darragh, and I could see how scheduled learning fitted in around family life. I read their wonderful John Holt books and nodded in agreement with his statements about observing young children’s hands-on approach to learning.. whether that was with his manual typewriter or cello or whatever he was busy with.

Probably the best reassurance a new home educator has, is access to a family who are LIVING their learning each day. (Ross comes full circle with this, and four years from beginning her home education adventure, she takes calls from nervous parents who are wondering if they should try educating at home for their families.)

For me, after companions on the journey, the next thing is to have first-hand accounts of families who have begun, often with great trepidation, as I did, wondering if this path was somehow going to deny a child some experience that they would need. The writers who have most inspired me are probably those who have been very honest about their mistakes, like Alison McKee in “Homeshooling our Children, Unschooling Ourselves”, who talks about how her son’s love of observing the seasonal changes in a particular patch of ground was almost killed by her insistence he RECORD what differences he witnessed.

Ross is very honest about that too. She recounts an exchange with her daughter where she tries to insist on learning being recorded and her daughter’s assurance that she KNOWS it and doesn’t need to prove that to anyone.

“Come on, it won’t take a minute, and you need something down on paper to show all the good things you learn,” mother cajoles.

“I don’t. I know what I’ve learned. And I want to do something else.”

Ross recounts a conversation with her “Home Ed best friend”:

“There’s so much chaos at home I wonder how much proper Home Ed is going on.”

To which her friend says:
“Course you’re doing proper education…The problem comes when you start to compare what you do to the education children do in schools where they produce lots of stuff which is often just to keep the children busy. ”

There are sad conversations with a friend whose children are struggling in school and have been written off by teachers, and of the mother’s attempts to have her child’s needs met within the system.

There are the struggles of daily life as Ross tries to get her own writing done around the constant questioning and companionship of her daughters. Her struggle with migraine she sees as her body saying she needs time to herself, and her husband and mother come up with solutions to take part of the care of the girls so she can have her own space.  This echoes what Jean Liedloff writes in “the Continuum Concept” where the author asserts that babies and young children don’t need fancy “educational ” toys and the newest gadgets, but rather to witness adults engaged in real activities as they go about their daily lives.

There are lovely descriptions of outdoor days and the seasonal changes in the world around them. There is fun and celebration, house moving, renovating, new beginnings, deaths; the circle of life.

“I’m fast learning that I need to rethink the timetable, scrap the school habits, stop being so bloody inflexible and see all the fantastic learning opportunities that are happening right under my nose… what the kids need is a caring, interested, encouraging and inspirational adult. No teaching required. Wish I’d never been a teacher… I’m a human being guiding other human beings on their path to becoming more human. Don’t need teacher skills to do that.”

AMEN to that!


I love how our experience of educating at home means that learning is never confined to a set time or workbook or subject or curriculum.

Last night, as our youngest, Eamonn, aged 6, was snuggling at bedtime he was excited about the story he wants to write.

“What will you call it?” I asked.

“I’m thinking” he replied.

He got his brother’s clipboard, an A4 sized sheet and drew lines on it for the words. He’s not quite reading yet so asked me to spell each word and wrote 3 sentences before realising that maybe he could dictate and I would write for him.  He read back each sentence before composing the next one. He wants me to keep it secret until it’s finished but I can tell you it’s about a hobbit called Nora.

It reminded me of his eldest brother Darragh, now 27, then aged 6, returning to Dublin from a visit to my parents in north county Wexford, coming back by the last train, making our way through the streets on a bus, writing sums (4+6=10) on the fogged-up bus windows. When we got back to our home in Harold’s Cross, he asked to do a page of sums so I scrabbled around for a page of a workbook we’d been sent by his Grandma TC, a 4th grade teacher in Chicago, who wanted to support his learning as much as she could. I remember my feeing of disbelief… a child would ASK to do sums, at ten o’clock on a Sunday night? No-one told me children were this curious, this motivated, this fired up to learn, with no outside nudging or pleading or bribing or rewarding.

We filled the A4 sheet with words and Eamonn needed to think about his hero’s friend’s name so decided to sleep on it.

He moved the page and pencil to the end of the bed, arranged his Turtle and Blue Bear and snuggled up, yawning.

“Oh, I’ll call it ‘Lord of the Rings 2’ “, he said.