How to read a fire

In the opening weeks of spring, there have been over fifty different bushfires burning across NSW at any given time. As a kid, I remember fire season starting sometimes as late as November. In parts of the state this year, it was declared in August. Each summer, fire season gets a little longer, and a little worse.

To the north of us, world heritage Gondwana rainforests were burning. To the east, a number of fires were burning tens of thousands of hectares of land within a fifty kilometre radius. Although many people like to normalise these events by claiming Australia is a land of extremes, these conditions are much more driven by political inactivity than anything else.

A thick blanket of smoke covered the coast for hundreds of kilometres. The smell permeated everything. The fire alarms in the house went off. Strange birds appeared in the forest at our house, looking nervous and lost. Hungry nocturnal fruit bats would appear in the daytime to eat unripe fruit off our trees. The smoke would only get thicker, and the sun was red in the sky.

The boys had to go to Yamba with their Mum for a day trip. Before setting out, they checked the Fires Near Me app to keep track of the local fires. The heath just south of Yamba was burning. This was going to be a day of applied practical knowledge.

They spent quite a lot of time reading maps and learning about situation reports. These are concise little reports that manage to fit a lot of information inside them. The first and most obvious thing about them is the colour coding, which marks how much or little control there is over the fire. Other things to note on the cover page are the type of fire, the size of the fire, and when the information was last updated. On a second page is a few sentances on what is happening, what is expected to happen next, and recommended action to take. Over the course of the day, the boys were able to watch not only the moving fire lines on the map, but also the number of hectares burned increasing.

Satellite photo of smoke across northern NSW 12 Sept 19

Having determined that the only road in and out of town was not going to be cut, they went in. Most places were closed for the day, as so many people were preparing their homes for the rapidly approaching fire. Still, with not much to do outside of their appointments, there was room to go play at the park.

This is an opportunity the boys rarely let pass. Although it was filled with the usual climbing and jumping on everything, it was preceded by and interspersed with a lot of situational awareness. Where was the fire front on the map in relation to them? What was the wind direction? How strong was the wind? Was the smoke getting thicker? Were there any spot fires jumping ahead of the front? What were people around them doing? Where were the firefighting crews and aircraft? Did they still have a clear way out? Did they have a plan if everything suddenly changed?

Having determined that it was all safe, they were then free to play hard until it was time for the next quick pause and reevaluation of the situation. The fire was moving up the coast between the ocean and a lagoon. A couple of km south of Yamba itself are two small villages where the land is pinched down to a narrow point. Here, fire crews had burned a containment line, and also the boys were able to watch a waterbomber plane prepare to drop a load of fire retardant across the strip.

Satellite image showing the advancing fire front. The containment line is clearly seen at the top of the picture. Yamba is just off screen to the north

That was the situation when they had finished their jobs in town and it was time to leave. To finish the picture, though, the fire briefly jumped the containment line before the ground crews were finally able to bring it under control.

So now the boys have a solid introduction in fire safety. While most of our lessons are fairly fun and colourful, some are very firmly grounded in real life applications with genuine consequences. Like it or not, learning to read a fire is a critical skill these boys will have to develop.

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Liver and unicorn poo

As the basis for a lot of our science work at the moment, we are using the Lift-the-Flap Periodic Table book. This is a great book to use. It is written in a cartoon like style, so is really engaging for the boys. At the same time, the information that is in there is a lot more complex than the pictures suggest, so they learn a lot by focussing on the details.

We have a bundle of lesson plans that go with the book. Several of them revolve around making different variations of slime. We watched the video on how to make the first of these last week, but didnt have all the stuff to do it. The boys spent a week prompting me to go shopping.

Finally, the day arrived when we had all the ingredients. Although it was the end of the day, the boys insisted that the time had come for slime making. This lesson was lots of fun, and as silly as it sounds.

Exact measures are not really needed, but the qualities of the slime will change depending on how much of the various parts you add. We did it like this.

  • A couple of cm of PVA craft glue.
  • Three or four squirts of foaming hand soap.
  • Half a can of shaving cream.
  • A teaspoon of borax dissolved in a cup of water.
  • Food dye

Put the first three ingredients in a bowl, and mix it thoroughly with your hands. Although it is all water soluble, its probably worth adding that at no stage do you want any of this inside the house. Slowly add the occassional dash of dissolved borax as you are mixing.

After a while, it becomes kind of tacky. This is great because the main blob can be used to pick up all the bits that stick to the sides of the bowl, across the table and down your arms. One boy wanted red and the other wanted lilac, so once they ended up with fairly cohesive blobs, we started adding small amounts of food dye.

My youngest boy was telling me at one stage that he had made a liver. We tend not to come across too many livers at our house, so this took me a bit by surprise. He might have been reminded of a liver cake that we saw online recently, or he could have been thinking of the liver donor card from the Meaning of Life. I didnt get to ask.

It did look like a liver though.

Meanwhile, my eldest boy was enjoying how the colours swirled into each other. He was able to assure me that this is what unicorn poo looks like.

Obviously.

They kept this up for a good hour, and only stopped because we were running out of light. By that stage, each slime blob had become a little denser and firmer in texture. They were great to stretch, but were no longer so uncontrollable that they would drip very much. Not surprisingly, by then they were both just coloured purple. Any loose bits were easily picked up and stuck to the main blob. They had both been careful not to drop it on any dirty or fuzzy surfaces, and I was surprised at how cleanly it all packed away.

Apparently, if you coat your foot in slime it feels really good.

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Gaining approval

Different parts of the world have different regulations around homeschooling. In some parts of the world, you seem to have a complete free reign to do whatever you choose, while others are more tightly regulated.

I get the impression that where I live is more regulated than most. In principle, I dont really mind this. It provides a framework to build a curriculum inside, and it also provides expectations so that everyone is thinking more or less along the same lines.

The regulating body for school kids, either government, non government or home schooled is NESA – the New South Wales Education Standards Authority. Despite their best efforts, there is not nearly as much standardisation as they like to suggest. Still, anywhere you go in the state, there is a fair expectation that education will progress in a broadly similar pattern.

NESA provide guidelines for homeschoolers that everyone is, in theory, objectively assessed against. At the end of the day though, it all comes down to the fairly subjective opinion of the local assessor.

We have dealt with them before, both for an initial assessment, and a follow up a year later. Since we have had a four year break in homeschooling, we had to start the application process from the beginning again. This typically takes around six or seven weeks, although ours took twelve. Our previous dealings have always been pretty straight forward and largely helpful. This time was quite different.

The process starts with a very generic form which is little more than contact details. From there, they organise an appointment to go over your plan with an assessor, and then based on that, you are either approved or not to go ahead for a certain period of time.

Some weeks after the forms went in, I started getting these weird phone calls from someone at NESA. I was never entirely certain what their role was. Over a period of several weeks, they were very concerned that since my wife and I both work, we wouldnt be able to provide a proper education as we would be far too busy doing our own thing. Another time they were very concerned that since our formal lessons tend to be stacked on the weekend, we would probably be too busy socialising to get any work done. Later, they were very concerned that as our kids would be going to a homeschool group, that part of their education would not be happening ‘at home’ so by definition, we couldnt claim to be homeschooling. All of these conversations would wind around to the point where our application would probably be refused if it went to a formal assessment, and it would be better if we just withdrew it.

Eventually, we got in touch with Home Education Association (HEA) who are an excellent support group here in Australia. Although we came up with a number of interesting theories as to why NESA were unable to follow their own guidelines, it was all speculation. What we needed was a plan. Between us, we decided to withdraw the application and then immediately resubmit it. Stupid circumstances sometimes demand ridiculous actions.

A week later, my wife started getting the same weird phone calls. This time, they were very concerned about the welfare of our children, and felt that if our application was not withdrawn, it might have to be escalated to the state director. My wife deals with this kind of situation a good deal better than I do. After a polite, yet rage inducing, half hour conversation, our application had been progressed to the next level.

Three weeks later, the local assessor was in our house, looking at our plans, and checking out the details of what we intended to do. We also had a representative from HEA there to act as an independant observer for us. Its what you do when there is no sense of trust.

In fairness to her, the assessor was very human and easy going. The whole visit would have been quite unremarkable were it not for the absolute circus which had preceded it. We were given a years approval, which is the maximum you can get for the initial application.

It is a win, but it doesnt feel like one. Its disappointing that the organisation who exists to provide direction and advice is obstructive, inconsistent and a major barrier to our educational decisions.

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Handwriting

I hate to admit it, but it physically pains me to watch my children write. For the most part, I hold a Steiner education responsible for this. For three formative years, all their writing was done with big chunky coloured pencils and blocks of crayon half the size of their fist. While this makes for a colourful and friendly book, they are just not writing tools. We always write with biros at home, and I find it alarming that at times I struggle to read what they have written.

These days, the boys are aged 9 and 11. Tucked away in a box at home are a couple of exercise books from when I was that age. It makes for an interesting benchmark.

A number of our lessons involve a lengthy discussion, and then we all write notes on what have just talked about. I get to closely watch, for the first time in years, how they go about forming the letters on the page. I feel myself cringing, and have to hide my reaction because the lesson is going otherwise great and I dont want to ruin it.

Their spelling is quite good, and their sentence structure is fine. They clearly understand what they are trying to do. It is just that for all the effort and enthusiasm, what comes out ends up looking so untidy.

Of course, I cant say any of this openly. I need to find another way.

During our formal lessons, we actually write a fair bit. Partly its because our conversations tend to go further than the lesson plan and we are trying capture some of it. Partly, it just gives them an opportunity to practice the mechanics of writing.

I often stress to them as we do this that neatness is more important than speed, and that pen strokes go from top to bottom, left to right. It doesnt take long before this becomes nagging though, so I try not to overdo it. It has become very clear to me just how important all those lessons are that you do when they are about five or six, where you just keep writing letters over and over, not for the purpose of writing anything meaningful, but to develop good pen control.

I got to thinking about calligraphy lessons that my mum taught me as a teenager. We would always start with an exercise that she herself had learned back in about 1950 when she had a job labelling maps by hand. This was a job that required every letter to be uniformly shaped, correctly spaced and perfectly formed. Every day at work would start with a page of these exercises so she could get her eye in.

You start with a row of circles, then a row of vertical lines, a row at 45 degrees, a second row at 45 degrees in the other direction, and then a row of horizontal lines. Repeat until the page is full. The idea is to get everything perfectly even.

Its a really simple exercise and we did it at the end of the day when everyone was tired and didnt want to do anything too challenging. Despite it being pretty low on brain power, this is a good deal harder than it looks. You need to both focus and relax at the same time. There is something quite satisfying about watching the patterns slowly fill the page.

Technical attributes aside, I like this exercise because it is completely non judgemental. It doesnt focus on letters at all. The font you actually write in is irrelevant, and this will improve your artistic ability as much as your handwriting. I think it would even help with maths and written music, where the idea is to document ideas in a neat, orderly fashion. Also, and I think best of all, is that no matter how often you do this simple exercise, there is always room for improvement.

I was quite thrilled to see my eldest boy take this idea to his homeschool group. He used it to run a ‘writing and drawing enhancement workshop.’

I think I might be winning.

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Codes and ciphers

I had a book when I was a kid which was all about how to be a spy. Characters in trenchcoats, hats and dark glasses lurked furtively on every page. They would give tips like ‘you can bend down to “tie your shoelaces” and use that as an opportunity to hide a coded message for your friend to find later.’ Not surprisingly, it also had a lot of codes and ciphers in it. With so much of their lives being directed by other people, there is a real appeal to kids in this sort of thing. It is thrilling to be able to communicate secretly.

At his homeschool group, the idea of codes came up between my youngest boy and a friend of his. They spent a lot of time coming up with a cipher they could use to write messages to each other. The pair of them were very secretive about the whole thing. No one was allowed to see what they were up to.

They thought this was great, and somewhere over the couple of days they were playing around with it, someone explained morse code to them. He really got into the idea of morse code and decided that what all the kids needed was a lesson in how to use morse code. He fielded this idea to the group. They are very communicate as a collective, and regularly get together in circles to discuss what they want out of their days. The idea was enthusiastically received, and fifteen kids said they all wanted him to give a lesson on using morse code.

He came home, announced his intention and then set about making a powerpoint presentation. This was an idea he had picked up from school. Presentations are made in powerpoint. They dont have a projector, or a computer at the homeschool group, but that was a minor detail.

He made an intoductory slide that laid out the points he wanted to talk about and then went hunting on the internet for information. His mum suggested that he didnt want too many slides, or too many words on each one. In the end, he trimmed it down to four slides – the title page and three more with information. I helped him find a good picture that deciphered the alphabet, and then printed out a bunch of copies for him to hand out.

What I especially loved about this whole episode, is that he just thought it up and did it all by himself. Outside of the couple of pointers I mentioned, we didnt have anything to do with it, nor did he want us to. This was his show.

We had a few conversations about morse code and how neat it is, because you can use it in so many different forms. You can transmit it via telegraph like it was originally designed for, or write it down as series of dots and dashes. You can use it as a series of flashes from a light or reflected from a mirror. This led us to briefly touch on heliographs, which I think are really neat. We got onto more unconventional uses which I remember hearing from stories about prisoners of war. You can tap out your message and send it along water pipes, or use the rhythm of a broom as you sweep a courtyard to talk to someone. We had quite a bit of fun playing around with these ideas, but mostly, he just wanted to tell his friends about it.

The big day came but, disappointingly, he missed the necessary moment to catch the crowds enthusiasm and nobody was interested in hearing his lesson. Understandably, he was pretty upset about this. He had gone to a lot of effort and wanted a success. We talked it over, and arranged for someone to give him a good lead in to it next week. Those kids are going to hear about morse code whether they want to or not.

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What do they teach kids in schools these days?

So after a four year hiatus where the boys went to school, we have gone back to homeschooling again. They are in the last half of year 5 and year 3. Getting them formally registered for homeschool has proven to be harder than it should be. Consequently, we are being meticulous with our curriculum planning and accountability.

In my work these days, I operate in a somewhat obscure niche. I look at fairly subjective organisational processes, quantify them, and then put processes in place so that people can work with defined measures of what they are doing. Although the context is completely different, this shares a lot of common ground with planning and assessing in a school / homeschool environment. Its actually very difficult to measure someones education in a truly meaningful way.

The last couple of weeks have been a process of working out what the boys have done in the last four years, and what they are capable of. Not a great deal came home from school, especially in the last year.

To make the whole thing a collaborative effort, I keep a workbook the same as the boys. Partly it acts as an example of what I want their books to look like and copy off. Mostly though, it lets me take an active part in the lesson. This is important, and its also fun. I also find it kind of funny that we can spend a solid two hour block of intense focus and only walk away with a short paragraph and a couple of pictures to show for it. It seems about the right output though. It is more about consolidating ideas than recording them.

They both read and spell very well, which is no real surprise. I would love to see them write more neatly though. A surviving example of my own work as a ten year old shows that neatness was emphasised a lot more when I was a kid. Still, its not a big deal really. What did horrify me was realising that neither of them had ever written a story. Writing your own story used to be the best part. We will be working a lot on that in the future.

Also, neither of them seem to have studied any history over the last four years. I find this kind of incredible, given it is one of the six keys areas that every primary school kid is supposed to cover. Still, they both deny it, and when I look through the work they brought home, I see nothing of note there either. I have no idea what either of them did in that space. I love history. I tend to use it as the main lesson of the whole week. It easily acts as a gateway into all the other subjects.

I was happy to find that they both do well at maths. My youngest boy especially was bored out of his mind doing maths at school. He said it was too simple and too slow. I took a bit of a stab and guessed they could both do year 5 level maths. So far, we have largely been sticking to worksheets. They mostly rip through these, although sometimes it slows to a crawl. I think this is the right level for them. Always incapable of fitting inside the box, my eldest boy fills out his number squares with carefully counted patterns instead of blocks.

So the last couple of weeks have been quite exploratory. It has been a good opportunity for all of us to find our balance points working out what is expected and what is possible. It certainly has been a lot of fun.

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Sea bins and storm petrels

So a local group were organising a beach clean up the other day. In one form or another, this is a reasonably common thing to do, organising a group of people to spend a day cleaning up a certain area. We are not a part of the group, but we know some of the kids involved, so we found ourselves going along with it.

Because this group is based around marine biology, it was a 6km walk along one of the local beaches. Here it is. They walked from one headland to the next. We paid a fee to be a part of it, and it was done as a fundraiser going towards buying a sea bin.

Sea bins are a pretty neat and simple idea. It is basically an open barrel with a mesh lining and a pump. It floats around inside a fairly enclosed body of water, like a marina, and as water is sucked through the mesh, it filters out the plastic. Outside of emptying out the catch, there is not a great deal of maintenance.

The clean up was organised in large part by the kids themselves as part of a local response to a global problem. We had a quick look at ocean gyres and how plastic patches in them form. I think the oceanic plastic patches are an interesting example of cultural attitudes as much as anything alse. In an echo of much of what I hear today about climate change, when I very first heard about ocean gyres back in the seventies, the idea that they could become great swirling masses of plastic was dismissed as being an example of scientific overreach driven by scaremongering about something that was only theoretically possible at best.

Anyway, at the start of the walk, everyone was given a bag to fill, and over a period of a few hours, a group of about fifty people made their way along the beach picking stuff up. I left the boys while they walked, ran a few errands, and waited for them at the other end. The walk finished at a local market where they dropped all their stuff off at one of the stalls. I was pretty impressed at some of the things they brought in, including the ubiquitous shopping trolley. I watched a small knot of kids carry it for about half a kilometre to get it off the beach.

After lunch and a rest, we finished the day off with a wildlife release. The organisers had found themselves looking after a Southern Giant Petrel. These are large birds that live all across the worlds southern oceans. This one had been captured after it washed up exhausted somewhere nearby. It had spent a week in recovery, resting and putting some weight back on. It had a gull shaped head, but was the size of a goose and coloured a dark mottled brown all over. The colouring showed it was still immature. They take eight years to grow to adulthood.

We took the bird up to the top of the headland overlooking the harbour. That is the best place to release them apparently, as the updraft gives them good lift and also lets you check that they can fly properly. Outside of the guy who opened the crate it was in, nobody got close to it. We all stood well back and watched from a distance so as not to scare it.

The release itself was not so dramatic as I expected. The petrel spent about ten minutes wandering clumsily around on the headland opening its wings but making no attempt to fly. I thought that it might not be strong enough to be released, and they would have to recatch it, but eventually it jumped off the headland and quickly flew away.

By then it was late afternoon. It had been a pretty relaxed and interesting way to spend the day. The boys were surprised at how quickly it had all gone by.

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The return of Bloke School

I was surprised to find that it has been four years since we last homeschooled the boys. There is no denying that sending them off to school brought us a number of advantages. I was able to fairly quickly shore up a career which had plateaued and for the last few years have had the pleasure of enjoying my work again. My wife has had the opportunity to study outside of work. Life has been busy, but reasonably straight forward. Also, I have to be honest, it is just easy when the boys leave the house in the morning and bring themselves home in the afternoon and I dont have to think about them during that time.

For all the advantages, it has been a situation which has been in a slow decline for quite a while. The boys spent three years at a Steiner school, six months at a private school and six months at a public school. At no stage did I ever have more than the vaguest idea of what they were actually doing with their days.

Steiner school was interesting. It got off to a good start and my eldest boy especially just adored his teacher. We were able to find a community of like minded kids at last. The boys still have friends from there who we often catch up with.

The school management changed shortly after we arrived, and the character of the place changed with it. It gradually became an increasingly disconnected place which was frequently dominated by weird and fairly hysterical internal politics. A large number of staff resigned.

Toward the end, we were forced to put in a formal complaint against one of the parents who was sexually harrassing women at the school as well as grooming the children. We were told to withdraw it so as not to damage anyones reputation. It all got pretty ugly. When my oldest boys teacher resigned due to constant conflicts with the school management, there were no Steiner trained teachers left. Since she was the only reason we had stayed as long as we had, we left then as well.

We next enrolled the boys in a local private school, which is where a lot of the Steiner kids end up going for high school. It was highly structured, expensive and characterless. I was pretty shocked at some of the fundamental knowledge gaps which became apparent in the boys education. Neither of the boys liked it or fitted in, and after a while we left.

In terms of academic outcomes and opportunities the local public school delivered the same as the private school, except it was logistically much easier to get to, and was less than a tenth of the cost. Again, neither of them made any friends there, and neither of them liked it. It had its pros and cons, I guess. I wouldnt call it a bad school. It just typified the education system.

So that was school. We were resigned to being stuck with it until my wife managed to book the kids into Alithia learning for several days a week. This was the key we were looking for which allowed us the time and space to start home schooling again.

Alithia is super cute. They dont cover much on what I would call pure academics, but they are absolutely outstanding with group dynamics. They do lots of planning and working together as a group, doing exciting hands on type activities. Communication and respect between everyone is dealt with extremely well. Given the change in attitudes which had crept over the boys during their time in the two regular schools especially, this has become very important. They seem to spend nearly the whole day outside making practical explorations of the things they find. Both boys are suddenly happy, excited about learning, and keen to go out for the day. I havent seen that in ages.

The process of registering the boys for homeschooling has not been entirely smooth. Our dealings with the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) has been something of a circus. We worked with them previously and had no problems at all, but something has obviously changed while we were absent.

Still, it will all sort itself out soon enough, I am sure. Certainly, I dont see either of the boys going back to regular school again.

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The end of Bloke School?

When my friends decided to return their kids to school, my eldest boy was angry and upset. His (probably legitimate) complaint was that we would never see them again. This is not the first friend he has lost.

His great friend who he has known from birth went to school at the same time we started homeschooling, and just kind of disappeared. With his friend going to school during the week and doing extracurricular activity during the weekends, they hardly ever see each other any more.

His best friend who he always talks about, moved away a while ago. The boys parents, appalled at Australia’s politics, took their levels of disgust as far as packing up and leaving the country. In the relatively small circles we move in, three friends is a lot to lose.

tile mandala

The subject of friendships has been a recurrent conversation over the last couple of months. This is not something I feel capable of helping with very much. A memorable workplace appraisal in the not too distant past saw me described as ‘prickly,’ ‘intense,’ and ‘difficult to approach.’ Truth is that I have always struggled to enjoy being in other peoples company, and it shows that I have largely stopped trying. I just don’t have it in me to model good behaviour in this regard, and it is a major challenge even to set up conditions where the boys can work it out themselves.

At the same time this was happening, a cluster of interesting, well paid jobs came up at work which I was unable to apply for, due to homeschooling the boys.

I have spent a large section of my adult life trying to follow my dreams and not be boxed in by the system. While such behaviour brings a certain kind of reward, life is definitely far easier and more profitable when you just do what everyone expects you to.

I was brooding rather resentfully over all of this when I started searching the websites of schools in the local area. For the most part, they seemed worst than I remembered them, but there is a Steiner school within reach which held out some promise.

Despite having worked as both a homeopath and a biodynamic market gardener, I am not entirely sold on Steiner. Still, I know a few sets of parents from that school, and while they all do different things, they also all seem to do it with a purpose, which I found encouraging. I booked an appointment for a tour.

My wife and I, along with both the boys, spent a couple of hours being shown around. Although both the adults went with something of a negative eye, we all actually found ourselves loving the place. Physically, it is a beautifully built area of stone and timber on an amphitheatre like ground. The classes which we saw were all small, very relaxed and humanised. Of course there were no uniforms. Despite my boys being dressed in literally the first clothes I grabbed, which was then topped off by ugly crocks and daggy hats, what struck me is that they completely blended in with all the other kids there.

The Stiener school ampitheatre

I took a look at the curriculum, obviously. It always surprises me just how simple the expectations are with school kids, especially given how much time they devote to learning it. Still, what I would see as dead time elsewhere, here seems to be spent in a fairly open ended and artistic environment. I was frequently criticised for being a dreamer as a kid. It is an attribute I would like to encourage in my own children.

There is a lot of musical and artistic expression at this school which, I have to admit, is something of a foible for us. In a sense, I am not so concerned about English, Maths, Science and History. Whatever the boys don’t get at school, I know it will easily be covered at home.

After a biggish pile of paperwork, we enrolled both of them. My youngest boy starts next year, and my eldest begins in a few weeks. He is wildly excited by the prospect. The rationale for Bloke School disappeared instantly and, it seemed, almost by accident.

It has left me feeling strangely nostalgic. The hard times of the last year and a half don’t seem that hard, and the good times seem fantastic. For all the complaints that I had about never having any time to myself, I am already missing the time we spent together with just me and the boys.

I am very glad to know that our homeschooling adventure was something quite achievable. It was often messy, but in a relaxed manner. In many ways, the boys learned far more than they otherwise would have. I am confident that should circumstances change again, we could easily return to homeschooling.

My wife and I always maintained that we were homeschooling the kids, not for any abstract reasons of idealism, but because it seemed the best option available for them. Suddenly our options changed, and we need to acknowledge that.

How long things remain like this is anyone’s guess. One of the best and worst things in life is that nothing is certain.

IMG_4915

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Space is big

We have been studying astronomy this semester. A lot of what we have been looking at has been inside the solar system. Brief descriptions of the planets, the nature of eclipses, seasons, moon phases, that style of thing. One thing the books are never able to adequately describe is the sense of scale involved.

Douglas Adams once had a go in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy when he wrote this.

‘Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you might think it’s a long way down the street to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts compared to space.’

To try and convey this to the boys however, I felt we needed something a little more graphic. We were going to build ourselves a scale model of the solar system.

Sun and planets to scale

Our first step was to draw the sun and all the planets to scale. The scale I chose was 1 mm : 10,000 km. This meant that the inner planets were drawn as little more than dots, but the importance of this scale would come into play later on.

We labelled the planets and then taped them onto garden stakes. The main part of the lesson took place down at the beach.

In a similar way to how we used the beach as a timeline, we needed a lot of space to get the scale right. I could have just drawn the planets to a different scale to the distances I was trying to convey, but that is just what I was trying to avoid. When it comes to scale models, I tend to be a real stickler for accuracy.

Down at the beach, we used the sign at the base of the headland as our starting point. We stuck our sun on the sign, and then measured out the distances of the inner planets.

At this scale, the moon would be four centimetres away from the earth. We ended up putting them on the same label. Altogether, the inner planets made a relatively compact group.

Inner planets of the solar system

Once we moved onto the gas giants, it became quite apparent just how far out the outer planets really are. By the time we made it to Neptune, we were 450 m away from our sun. If you look really carefully, you can see just see the sign we taped it to. In a sense, I am glad they downgraded Pluto from a planet, because we were only two thirds of the way there, and the boys were tired of walking up the beach.

Solar system model

At this scale, the Oort cloud would start at around 74 km away and extend to 1500 km, its outer edge marking the cosmographical boundary of the solar system. Proximal centauri, our nearest neighbouring star, would be at the very tip of Cape York peninsular, 3000 km distant.

Looking down the beach at our model, I was trying to ignore the scenery and focus only on the tiny specs we had drawn in these inconceivable amounts of emptiness. I don’t know just how much of this the boys were able to take in, but it certainly made an impression on me.

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