Q and A with Castle View Academy in Northern Ireland, September 2019
Recently, we visited Castle View Academy homeschool and learned many interesting things about it. This post has an interview with Crystal about her homeschool. Last week, I wrote a post about visiting some of the geographical tourist highlights of Northern Ireland with Castle View Academy. At that post, I offer a free instant download of an A to Z PowerPoint and PDF.. It was a wonderful experience to be able to visit and finally meet Crystal and her family in person. I met her on a teaching forum several years ago. Castle View Academy may be found on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and YouTube.
- The name of Castle View Academy and the cherry blossom design are so original. How did you decide on the homeschool name and theme?
The name is based upon the area we’re living in, and the cherry blossoms are memories of Japan, a place that is special to me.
- When we visited, we noticed your children are so well-behaved. We were so impressed. Does your school have a discipline plan?
Nothing specific; our main rules are to be polite and respectful of people, places, and things. When they were toddlers we used positive reinforcement. As well, we tried to have things set up in such a way that they felt they could participate in the family and household without always having to be told no. Of course, we do often say no, but we try our best to explain to the children why this shouldn’t be done, what the consequences of it could be, and what they could do instead. The children see the way some children and teens behave that is disorderly and disrespectful, and they will comment on it and how they don’t want to be like that. Long may it last!
- The curriculum has a wide variety and depth. How do you select lessons and resources for your school?
We are an eclectic homeschool, so we don’t follow any given template or philosophy. We acquire the majority of our curricula in exchange for reviews on our blog. This keeps us on our toes as we never know what’s coming up. If something is a good fit for the children, they continue on with it. If it doesn’t work for them, after the 5-week review period they can put it to the side. This way of learning means they are introduced to many things that they otherwise may not be.
- I notice that you mention in several blog posts that you take the children to the library frequently. Recently, the library program has changed. What did you like about the previous program? How has the library change affected your school?
Due to funding issues over the years our local library’s hours were reduced, and reduced further. Because it is semi-rural, they were able to secure funding from a different government body and it is now accessible to patrons (after special training) during specified hours when the librarians aren’t there for ‘out of hours service.’ Because of the reduction in opening hours and the physical reconfiguration of the interior, it was more difficult for us to visit and have room to work. Now we can access the library 7 days a week rather than just the 4 days it’s open to the general public. We’re no longer usually the only ones in as it’s become quite popular, but we can spread out our work easier and not have to worry so much about disturbing other patrons should we play a game or have some fun on their big tables.
- Japan and Southeast Asia are prominently featured in posts. Why do you select these geographic areas in your book and other blog posts?
Before moving to Belfast I was teaching English in Japan and left a piece of my heart there. I want to share my love of Japan with my family and have them grow up loving world cultures as much as I do. Northern Ireland is still very much homogenous so it’s important to expose them to the rich and wonderful cultures of the world.
- Cooking is a big part of your school, and your 9-year-old daughter is even baking and considering a YouTube baking channel in the future. How do you include the children in the cooking activities?
I’ve always included the children in the kitchen; they were taught how to use sharp knives when they were 3 years old (under supervision, of course). The children help as much as possible with meal prep and are taking on more cooking duties on their own; they can now make a simple roast dinner with Yorkshire puddings with very little help, as well as the majority of their own lunches. Kitchen skills are life skills and they need to be passed down to the next generation as so many memories revolve around good meals and it would be heartbreaking to lose that.
- Phil has a Guinness Pie post on the blog, and is featured in a post about a book featuring fathers. Is he helpful for the school lessons when his talents can support the children?
For the majority of our home education Phil has left that area to me, but as the children become a little older they need to know that their education is also important to their father. With this in mind, I have been trying to include him more, such as if the children are having trouble with an assignment and need a different perspective they are directed to Phil. Or if they have work remaining that didn’t get completed during the day, I’m asking Phil to ensure the children get it done in the evenings or on weekends while I work. Yes, even homeschooled children can have ‘homework’! Tristan and Phil also design virtual 3D models with a computer program and compare designs and ways of doing things.
- How did living in Northern Ireland affect your initial decision to homeschool? Does living there continue to do so?
Northern Ireland has the lowest school starting age in all of Europe, even younger than the rest of the UK. Children can begin to attend nursery school (the equivalent of kindergarten) as young as 2 years 10 months, and they begin compulsory education at the age of 4. That’s 2 out years younger than in Canada. After Tristan’s premature birth and a couple years of depression following, we still needed time to bond. I also wanted Tristan and Kallista to bond and know each other rather than being separated all day. In addition, our plan was to move to Canada when our eldest was 3, but due to the big crash of ’08, that plan was put on hold so at the time home education meant that they wouldn’t have to transfer from one educational system to another as the UK system and Canadian systems are very different. There were also many, many, many other reasons we chose to home educate, such as students being taught to the test, segregation of children in schools, and other personal reasons.
- Your children are several years ahead in some subject areas. Do you plan to continue homeschooling through high school?
We already are! Here in Northern Ireland, high school begins when children are 11 years old. There are other ways to attend university or tech school without having to pass standardized tests. And the goals are changed by the government yearly, so we’re in a better position to change our classes to meet the standards, should those GCSE tests be taken in the future.
- How does being the principal and teacher of Castle View Academy make schooling decision making either easier or more difficult?
Being solely responsible for our children’s education is very stressful and overwhelming at times. I can start to doubt myself when things get difficult…but I need to remember that the issues we encounter with the children wouldn’t be any different if they were in school (I don’t like this subject, I don’t feel like doing school work, etc.). It doesn’t matter whether children are educated at home or at school, ultimately it is the parents’ responsibility to ensure their children are learning to the best of their abilities.
- During storms or bad weather when school is canceled, what happens at Castle View? Do classes continue?
Yes, when traditional schools are closed, we continue to have lessons; however, during really bad weather days when other students must attend school, we like to stay in our pjs and watch movies all day! This post is about what we do to survive the winter blahs.
- Do you keep to a schedule most of the time or are you flexible? I mean, do your children get to continue learning when absorbed and engaged or do you save learning for special times?
We definitely don’t have a strict schedule, however, we do try to keep to a routine. There are one or two classes we aim to begin as close to a particular time as possible as those are ones we all sit down to do together. Otherwise, the children each have their own assignments and are pretty free to do them in any order that works well for them, and taking as much or as little time as needed. Most classes can take as long as needed, but when we need to move on to lunch or head out of the house, they can continue later in the day. We are also flexible when one of us is under the weather, has an appointment, or if the weather is just too good to be in the house, we may move our lessons plans back and get out and enjoy life – that’s part of what home education is all about – enjoying life together!
- What is the best part of homeschooling?
The best part of home educating is seeing the ‘lightbulb’ moments when the children understand a difficult concept – you see the look of understanding flash through their eyes and the smile on their faces; that’s very rewarding. And obviously, I love spending time with my children!
- What do your children think is best about homeschooling?
- How do you ensure physical activity?
This is my weak area, I’ll admit. Each week the children attend Ju-jitsu classes, which they enjoy. We will go out for walks around town or out in the countryside when weather permits. In the winter we all take turns on the wii-fit for some exercise and fun. I’ve recently attended some circuit training that I’m going to be continuing on with the children over the winter so that we can all encourage each other.
- Like any school, I suppose your children do not like taking tests. I have heard Northern Ireland schools accept scores as low as 50% but you have a much higher standard. You even make the students redo work. Do you feel they are possibly learning more than they would in a regular class?
The UK education system is very confusing, even for those who grew up with it. Yes, you can take final exams and pass with 17%, and have what’s considered a ‘good’ pass as low as 35%, and receive an A at 54%. It’s shocking! These are national standardized exams and the passing grade changes yearly depending on how well students did on the exams. I believe they are somewhat graded on a bell curve as well in their formula. It’s more shocking when you know that students are ‘taught to the test,’ so really no student should not do well. Recently there was a news article that stated private schools don’t necessarily teach content, but rather teach students skills on how to pass the tests.
My children may not learn the same things that students in school do, but they can learn things at a deeper level by taking their time, learning things that interest them, and not having to become overly stressed about passing critical exams, just to forget it all later. You’re also right that we teach for mastery. In math my children must score 90% on each topic before they’re considered to have passed. If they get it the first time, great! If not, then they do the lesson and a new set of questions again until they succeed. In other subjects, they must redo any work that isn’t correct. This can be frustrating, but then they have the opportunity to understand the subject matter, as well as set the standard that you should always do your best work the first time so that you don’t have to repeat it!
- The children are brilliant on YouTube as they help review lesson materials. What do they like about the videos? Do you feel this helps retain the learning as they are actually teaching others about what they have learned or experienced?
Turning the children from students into teachers and having them think a little differently about how they see a product is interesting. If I ask Tristan what he likes about a book, he may only give me a sentence. But if he does it in a video he can go on about the plot of a book, the characters, what the illustrations are like, and who he thinks will most enjoy it. It’s a much deeper response. Public speaking is a difficult thing, and being on video is a good way to get used to your own voice and become aware of your mannerisms. It’s funny, the children, Kallista in particular, have a different ‘on air’ persona which is much more grown-up and professional than when they’re talking to someone in person!
- Do you know other homeschool mothers?
We live semi-rurally, so attending the regular meetups in other areas of the country isn’t possible for us, but in the FB group it looks as though there are a couple of new younger families in the area; I’m sure we’ll run into them at the library or elsewhere over the winter – home educators are easy to spot as the other children are all in school during the day! Outside of Northern Ireland, I keep in touch through snail mail and online forums with other home educating families in the USA (where homeschooling is big) and elsewhere. Home education is a whole way of life and it’s nice to be able to chat with others who understand.
- Tristan was born prematurely, and also Kalli. I read those posts. I want to ask you about your care of the children as babies. In America, breastfeeding is considered essential. I was surprised to learn it is not encouraged in the UK. We are told it is for the health of the child throughout life. Why do you think it is not widely accepted there?
My particular area of the UK is among the world’s lowest for breastfeeding, so breastfeeding is one of my life’s biggest accomplishments for many reasons. Some of the theories behind the low rates are that when formula was promoted in the ‘50s it was a modern-day convenience such as TV dinners and washing machines and women wanted to appear well-off and keep up with the Jones’, so there’s a whole generation of women who weren’t taught the skills to pass down.
There isn’t a lot of support for it here, either; even my health visitor told me to go to a bottle within 5 minutes of meeting me the day after Tristan was home from the hospital…it took her a year to stop asking me when I was going to quit! There are many reasons I’ve heard for not breastfeeding that aren’t very flattering, so I’ll refrain from repeating them here; some are personal, but many can come across as it simply being an inconvenience. With the support of a nearby La Leche League, I was successful (even though it often wasn’t easy), and I hope that the rates will continue to slowly increase over time.
- You participate in camera club, rowing club, Japan club, and visit areas around Northern Ireland. How do these activities help enrich the homeschool?
Some of these activities we do as a family, such as the Japan Society and going on field trips, which are always lots of fun. We can learn about the history and culture of where we live as well as further afield. Others, such as rowing and the camera club, I do solo for a little time of my own with other adults and a bit of time to refresh my mind. However, the skills I learn there I am able to bring home and pass on to the children (circuit training and how to use a camera, craft skills, etc.)
- What are some of the special lessons that have been taught at your school?
We’ve had some very special and interesting classes over the years. We surprised the children with a trip to Dublin to meet Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield and have their book signed, as well as going to a talk by Box Johnson in Belfast. Tristan loved learning about aviation and engineering, while Kallista simply loves visiting museums and immersing herself in interactive and hands-on activities at them.
I was involved in a Tiny Life project to bring resources to parents whose baby is leaving the hospital for the first weeks. Tristan and Kallista were with me for all of the meetings around the boardroom table and learned about how real-life business works; even audio and video conferencing between Belfast and the UCal – San Francisco. They were there from the start of the project to the final website launch – and even have their pictures and videos on the site.
For me, the most special classes are when we can all sit together without being in an ‘academic’ frame of mind and we can relax and learn new skills together, such as art and have something beautiful in the end.
Thank you so much for allowing us to visit and ask so many questions! Carolyn