Thursday, January 26, 2006

Unschooling conference

For a while now, I've been wanting to blog about the meeting we attended in November, organised by the Bundesverband Natürlich Lernen, a German Unschoolers' organisation. It was an incredibly inspiring weekend for me.

The highlights were hearing Pat Montgomery, founder of Clonlara School, and Andre Stern, a grown-up unschooler, address the meeting. Pat spoke about the problems that homeschoolers faced in the USA when she founded her school, and how they mirrored what we are experiencing in Germany today. She spoke on the subject of civil disobedience, saying that many people she had spoken to during her stay in Germany were totally against doing anything that was against the law. Their inclination was rather to fight for permission from the authorities, even if this was likely to prove unsuccessful.

Pat maintained, on the other hand, that by asking for permission (which would in most cases not be given) German homeschoolers are just putting themselves at the mercy of the arbitrariness of the authorities and of the unfair and inhumane schooling laws.. She said that each family had to do what it felt was the right thing, but if staying underground helped that family to a contented unschooling existence, then that was the right thing for them to do. Andre Stern made the same point when asked how it could be possible for us beleagured parents to give our children the idyllic unschooling experience he had as a child in Paris. His reply was to do stay underground if necessary.

I can understand the argument for going against the authorities and fighting for our rights. But as one who has been following the underground route for the last year, I can tell you that I don't miss the palpitations that come with the first method. Unfortunately it isn't easy to stay under the radar in Germany. They haf vays und means of finding out about your children, one of which is through the law requiring every person resident here to be registered at their local authority. But hey, I reckon, if you're breaking one law, you might as well go ahead and break a couple more.

Those of us who are not registered are no worse than those people I know who register one spouse and the children in a different town, so they can attend the school there instead of the crappy one in their home town. There is also the added complication of whether people whose children are not officially resident in Germany can claim child benefit payments, but the pragmatist can add up the cost of legal battles, fines and the emotional cost of tussling with the authorities and maybe choose to forego the child benefit.

My point here is that I think more people will choose homeschooling if they can do it quietly and remain unbothered by the authorities. If many families choose that route, then maybe by the time they are discovered, the authorities will be overwhelmed by the wave of homeschoolers.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Shipping News

We have been on quite a history roll the last couple of days. Yesterday we took my mother-in-law, who has a thing about docks, to visit the riverside docks in Bremen. We paid a visit to the harbour museum, which documents the development of the docks with an absorbing and interactive display. Going up the ship's gangway which led to the upper floor reminded me vividly of the scene in Kong Kong where Ann Darrow embarks on her voyage. The children loved the aerial photo of Bremen and the river Weser which covered one floor and which they were able to run around on. You can see it if you go to this page and click on Rundgang at the right. We were able to see, touch and smell the various types of cargo which was commonly unloaded at the port in Bremen.

Today we drove up to Bremerhaven to see their even more spectacular docks and ended up at the German Maritime museum. Five year old Leo, who loves looking at model ships, was spoiled for choice and the children all enjoyed climbing around on the reconstructed steamer and watching its moving parts (which were behind perspex).

Ships are not my thing at all but even I was quite fascinated. I was entranced by the cog on display there, a piece of living history. Looking at a leather shoe that had been recovered with the cog made me wonder about the person who had worn it - what he or she looked like, what kind of person he or she was. There is something about the thought that a real person who lived over 600 years ago wore that shoe that really freaks me out. I had the same experience looking at an original Van Gogh painting and thinking that those raised splodges of oil paint had been put there by his own hand. This kind of experience is what makes history meaningful for me. At leaving time I spotted an original enigma machine, which I intend to gaze at properly the next time we come.

We didn't see the whole exhibition (nor did my mother-in-law and I have our customary coffee stop at the museum cafe!) as we went in late but we will definitely be back to see some more, such as the open air section, as well as revisiting our favourites.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Unschooling - the expanded version - part two

When I last blogged about my nephew and niece visiting, I mentioned how surprised I was at their reaction to our educational philosophy. I wanted to expose them to the kind of activities that form part of our life experience (although our pace is normally much less hectic). I tried to intersperse (relatively) quiet days at home with days out. Even our days at home resulted in new activities for both our children and their cousins.

One activity that kept them busy and fascinated for many hours was playing with our marble run. They set it up in different configurations and raced marbles down it to see which one would win. When I suggested that they tabulate the results they told me that they were already busy doing that. They kept track of the results by marble and then changed marbles to determine if any marbles were better than the others or they themselves were particularly lucky or unlucky. It was soon clear that one particular marble was the champion. If we had more time, I would have shown them how to graph their results using this website. The boys spent much of their time at home playing the computer games they had bought on some of our shopping forays, watching movies, listening to music, playing card games (traditional and trading cards) or reading.

My niece, Taryn, and I have a lot in common, so I found it really easy to keep her occupied. Like me, she loves food and she was always willing to get involved with cooking and baking. She tried out every non-alcoholic glühwein and all the seasonal delicacies at the various Christmas markets. She loved the medieval houses in the Schnoor, the oldest section of the city of Bremen and got quite interested in the various impressionist paintings at the nearby Kunsthalle.

I don't know what the highpoint of their visit was, but two big contenders were playing in the virgin snow (you don't get much of that stuff in Johannesburg, South Africa) and visiting the Universum, a hands-on science center. My nephew Frank, who thought he was going to be excruciatingly bored, was bowled over by the variety of interactive experiences there.

Near the end of their stay, we paid another visit to the center of Bremen, partly with the intention of seeing the mummified bodies in the Bleikeller, which was unfortunately closed for winter. Instead we popped into the Cathedral, which awed the girls. On our way out Rowena, my 8-year old sighed, "It's so beautiful. Thank you for bringing me in here." That evening the girls had yet another new experience when they discovered that they so liked the artichokes my mother-in-law had bought that they polished half of them off.

The worst experience of their trip was being stranded on the way to the airport in the middle of nowhere at 5a.m. when our water pump went kaput. Thanks to Taryn's excellent time-keeping habits (she had insisted in being at the airport two hours before departure), the taxi-driver who came to our rescue dropped us at the airport well in time to check in for their flight.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Some things change, some stay the same

I've been thinking about how much has changed since we first came to Germany eight years ago. We had just spent a year living in Seattle, so you can imagine what a shock it was to me that you couldn't get lattes to go in cardboard cups, or low fat (or vegetarian) alternatives to just about everything (I discovered fat free sour cream just before we left the USA), or that the stores closed at 2pm on Saturday afternoons for the weekend.

There has been some improvement in the last 8 years. Now the cardboard cups, if not as ubiquitous as they were in Seattle (and we do live near the coffee capital of Germany) are easily obtainable. Low fat has now become the new trend - if I want to, I can buy a flavourless cheese variety with only 10 percent fat. The grocery store round the corner is now open till 8pm on a Saturday, making that frequent last minute discovery that we only have one liter of milk left less of an issue than it used to be.

Unfortunately, the one thing about Germany that hasn't changed much is that it's still in the dark ages as far as homeschooling is concerned. Eight years ago, our move from Seattle to Germany (and darkest Bavaria at that) was like going from homeschool heaven to homeschool hell. The homeschooling support groups, homeschooling conferences and homeschooling magazines I enjoyed in Seattle were replaced with swathes of ignorance, prejudice and a total media blackout on the issue. It was about as taboo as the idea of children sharing a bed with their naked copulating parents. This was devastating for me. I felt as though a major part of our human rights was being violated.

It was only later that we discovered other intrepid homeschoolers and in the meantime our eldest child had started at a nearby Montessori school (although we were able to put off sending him to school till he was seven and a half). It was only when we moved to Italy that we got back on the homeschooling track again. After our move back to Germany a year later, we decided that we were not going to be derailed by peer pressure or stupid anachronistic laws.

Juristically Germany is still as homeschool unfriendly as it was eight years ago. In fact, some of the German states have sharpened their attacks on families who violate the "Schulpflicht", making it a crime instead of just a misdemeanor. There have been some positive legal changes, such as the one in Nord-Rhein Westphalia, formally allowing children who are temporarily in the country (up to 2 years) to be freed from the obligation of attending school in Germany. But that doesn't help the German homeschoolers and in effect nothing much has changed.

Homeschoolers (of all types) and their parents are still being persecuted and prosecuted. Many families have sent their children back to school rather than face the chance of losing custody of them or paying fines up to thousands of euros. Others are preparing to leave Germany or have already left.

On the positive side, the media blackout is lifting. Homeschooling parents and advocates have appeared on talk show panels. There is the occasional article on the issue in the newspapers. There are at least two organisations supporting homeschoolers, as well as a variety of local support groups. For the first time too, a German academic, Thomas Spiegler, has written a study on the local homeschooling phenomenon.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Unschooling - the expanded version

The last six weeks have seen an expansion of our household, in the form of our children's two cousins visiting from South Africa. I found the experience hectic, hectic, hectic, with my desire to share with them all the exciting experiences around here clashing with the inertia created by six children aged from 3 to 12, each with his or her own needs and wishes.

For example, my 11 year-old nephew was happiest in front of the computer playing his newest action game, while my 12 year-old niece could be relied on with out fail to ask me every evening, "So what are we doing tomorrow?"

I had some reservations about whether there would be any philosophical clashes (well, they do go to very good private schools and their parents place great import on good grades). On the first night, in answer to a question from my niece, I explained that we don't "do school" but follow our interests, even when they don't look like anything academic. "Wow!" she said, "That sounds really cool."

Von zuhause aus...

I had better state right now, that this blog is not trying to encourage anyone to do anything illegal, such as spurning the education laws. Just because our two eldest "schulpflichtig" children are experiencing home-based learning (in German, called "Lernen von zu Hause aus", doesn't mean that I think anyone else should. Just imagine - the museums, shopping centers, science centers, theme parks, swimming pools and all those other places we like to frequent in the mornings would be swamped with the shoals of children who now spend half their lives in an institution. No thanks - keep your kids in the schools, please!