Homeschooling with Frankenstein

“I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy one, I will indulge the other.” ~ Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

Anyone who knows us will be shocked to hear that I am not a natural home-schooler. Frank is the teacher here; I am the one who hides in the bathroom when it’s all kicking off because Izzy doesn’t understand why she needs to know the area of a triangle. While Frank patiently outstares Sam when he doesn’t care who the Ottomans were or why they’re important, I am the one happily delivering drinks and snacks, saying something encouraging before scuttling back to my hole to utter up silent thanks to the homeschooling gods that a very small portion of this particular burden lies on my shoulders. I’m perhaps painting an unfair picture. Frank loves teaching. He gets joy out of all the ‘a-ha!’ moments and spends hours finding ways to teach that keep the kids engaged and enthusiastic. I am extremely invested in the whole process. Just… from down the hall.

Having said all that, I occupy one small corner of our home-schooling world, and yesterday I experienced some of what Frank must feel everytime the kids really get something that he’s teaching them.

I am a very keen reader and always have been. I love books more than TV or cinema or even shopping. I usually have one fiction and one non-fiction on the go simultaneously, as well as whatever I’ve bought from Audible to listen to when I don’t have time to sit down. Happily, this is a passion I (we – Frank loves reading too) have managed to pass on to both Izzy and Sam.

I heard once, a long time ago, that while the books children read themselves should be appropriate for their reading age, the books we read to them should be much more challenging. Reading more complex texts aloud to kids increases their vocabulary and allows them to find the story – even when it’s embedded in unfamiliar or complicated language. They comprehend so much more than we think they do.

Now eleven and nine, Izzy and Sam still end each day with one of us reading to them. Frank and I each have separate chapter books for the occasion and we read on alternate nights. Up until the last year or so, we’ve had favourites from Roald Dahl, Michael Mopurgo or Enid Blyton. We even have an impressive collection of Templar children’s classics (exquisitely illustrated and beautifully produced if you ever want a collection of your very own). We have loved reading every one of them; The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden – etc. Even when the text is challenging (I’m looking at you, Secret Garden), the kids get wrapped up in the story, excited about plot development and invested in the characters. And still, it hadn’t occurred to me that they might be ready for more.

For my own book consumption, I try to throw in a couple of classics for every three or four modern books I read. I have a list that I’m working my way through – something cheerful like ‘100 classics to read before you die‘ that I found on the internet somewhere. So back in August when I was reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Sam sidled up to me to ask what I was reading, I was surprised by how excited he got about it. I tried to explain that though it was a creepy, gothic story (they’re both very keen on cheap scares at the moment), it was also quite difficult to digest having been written in the early 1800s, with unfamiliar syntax and long swathes of figurative prose. Undeterred by this, Sam leapt off the sofa to tell Izzy that our next bedtime chapter book would be ‘Frankenstein.’

I’ll be honest, I could never have predicted their reaction to this story. Right from the beginning, where Walton rescues an exhausted and dying Victor from an icy sea, they were fully in. I read, expecting to have them stop me every few sentences to explain something, but what I got instead were exclamations – dismay at Victor’s selfishness, shock at the injustices delivered to the characters around him – we even had tears from Izzy at the end of the monster’s story, so fully invested was she in the misery and sadness of his life. At the end of each chapter we’d stop and I’d ask a few questions to get an idea of their comprehension – each time they told me exactly what had happened. Each time, they had opinions and incredulity – Frankenstein became the best thing I’d ever read them.

We finished the book a couple of days ago and after giving them a little time to digest the whole story, I jotted down some discussion questions – having my first real go (save for some seaside art lessons) at playing teacher. During a walk on the beach, I began to throw my questions out: What do you think Mary Shelley was trying to say with the story? What part does the monster play in Victor’s life? Is Walton a trustworthy narrator? What themes run all the way through the book?

Joy. Complete joy. They talked for ages. They discussed compassion and empathy; how humans treat things that don’t look like them or are in some way unfamiliar. They were insensed by Victor’s irresponsibility; his play-acting god, his refusal to accept that his actions had consequences – his performative outbursts of love for his family while his actions consistently told a very different story. No other book I have ever read them has provoked a reaction like it. So it looks like the kids will be completing my classics list with me.

If you’re homeschooling your kids – or even if you aren’t – I really recommend having a go at some of the more difficult texts with them. Our obsession with infantilising children gets in the way of their developing brains. They pick up complex and subtle themes so quickly and have to work much less hard at it than I do at 36. Comprehending stories is instinctive to the young brain and I’m ecstatic that not only do they a real love for them, they are getting real preparation for secondary school or even college-level English.

Don’t underestimate your kids, folks – they’re a lot sharper than you think they are!

Nin: The Birthplace of Croatia

I am excited to write about Nin for two reasons. Firstly it was an amazing place to visit with the family with its large safe beaches and history reaching back as far as humans have been in this part of the world. Secondly, when we stayed near here and the pressure of the four of us in a small apartment became a little too much, it is to Nin that I would scuttle to find some space to read or write or have a conversation with someone not in my immediate family. 

Old Nin itself is a small islet only 500m or so across and surrounded by a beautiful grey stone wall typical of this part of the adriatic. Artifacts, dwellings and bones have been found here showing that it has been continuously inhabited for at least the last ten thousand years. The current town predates the founding of Rome and is a joy to explore if you have even a historical bone in your body. Once you’ve explored, if the weather is nice there are beautiful beaches with sun loungers and every watersport you can think of. 

Going through the town allow time to be surprised at the thousands of years of history that will fall out at you as you move from place to place, explore the alleyways and admire the views. These are the things I loved most and I have laid them out in an order that would be natural to do them in on a pleasant summer’s day.


Branimir and Gregory


When you arrive at Nin, I would recommend parking  in the car park to the West of the historic centre you will have a chance to see Nin in all its petite glory. In front of you the old walls 16th Century arched gate with a small bridge leading to it. Guarding this bridge on the mainland side is an enormous 9 ft statue of Prince Branimir of Croatia, a 9th Century duke. Created in 2007 the statue itself is not historically important but the man is. It was under the protection of his sword, prominently displayed, that Croatia inched its way towards becoming a country in its own right, receiving official recognition from the pope (as close to being recognised by the UN as they had back then). 

Once over the bridge and through the archway head straight on 200m through the beautiful narrow streets and past the bakeries, cafes and ice cream sellers, and you will see, just past the church tower, the imposing  Ivan Meštrović statue depicting Bishop Gregory of Nin. By all reports if you rub/kiss his much worn toe it will bring you luck. As we visited while the COVID 19 virus was still prevalent around Europe my suggestion is that the good luck of kissing this fine toe may be outweighed by the rather worse luck of coronavirus. But I am a cynic. 


Church of the Holy Cross: Smallest Cathedral in the World.

Having topped up on homemade icecream from one of the numerous sellers and  luck from our good and holy friend Gregory, head North just 100m to the seat of his diocese, the Church of the Holy Cross.  This 9th Century former Royal Chapel holds the claim of the smallest cathedral in the world.

 Pedants may note that there is no incumbent bishop resident at the Holy Cross so technically it is no longer a cathedral and I accept that but where is your sense of the dramatic? Also, this was the seat of Gregory of Nin, arguably the most influential bishop in Croatian History, the man who stood up to the pope and had church services changed from Latin to Croatian thus cementing both Christianity and the Croation language in this burgeoning country. I would argue that its long history as a cathedral earns it the right to keep the title.  And I suggest that when you see how impressively small this ancient cathedral is all your thoughts of ecclisastical pedantry will fall away at the simple joy of the place.


Queen’s Sand Beach and mud bath

If you are getting hot by now head over to Queen’s beach, a 15 minute walk away. This is a sand beach (a rarity in the area) and is broad and shallow making it difficult even for a parent who is focused on buying a pina colada from the bar to lose their children permanently. If you enjoy windsurfing, paddleboarding, kitesurfing or kayaking there are plenty of watersport options available during the summer months.

Typically for us though we found the most fun to be had in the mud baths to be found just behind the beach in a shallow pond. The locals claim it revitalises your skin and I can report that anything that smells that pungent must be good for you. It is a lot of fun to slither like ells in mud then allow it all to dry for half an hour while you walk like a slowly rusting tin man. To be fair to the local assertions my skin did feel amazing after we finally washed off.

1st Century AD


Roman Temple Ruins

Once you have finished cleaning the cleansing mud from your now silky smooth skin and have completed your seaside frolics you should walk back to the historic centre and spend some time in the ruins of a Roman temple. If you are not from the Mediterranean area you will doubtless be astounded by the way that history in this part of the world is just lying around the place. These first century ruins (the largest this side of the Adriatic) are no different with a corinthian still standing and beautiful carvings, the blocks laid out to show the original floor plan. 

The area is grassy and spacious with plenty of room to walk about and admire the beauty and revel in the 2000 years of history you are touching. If you have kids this is a great place for a picnic or a game of hide and seek (if you are visiting on your own I don’t recommend this people will think you strange) or just to allow them to burn off some of the pizza they had for lunch. 


The harbour at sunset

Finally, as the summer sun sets slowly over the Adriatic, make your way to the low harbour area where scores of small wooden fishing boats and the occasional flash speedboat bob quietly on the calmest of seas. You can start at the northern end, by the extremely impressive and brightly decorated graveyard (worth a visit if you share my macabre streak). There is a wide footpath that will allow you to skirt the town and watch the sky sea and mountains take on the burned orange colour of the sky. Eventually the sea will be the darkest of blues and the sky a deep crimson and you should be back at the bridge you entered that morning. 

From here there are numerous eateries and bars if you wish to continue into the night or you can depart, having enjoyed a pleasant day in the birthplace of Croatia.

Travelling with kids in a pandemic: One month in

This sounds ridiculous, but when I used to think about being away for the whole year, this was the time-stamp I was worried about. I would wake up, usually around 2-3am thinking but what about when the holiday period is over? What about 1 month in when the novelty has worn off and you just want your own bed and your own stuff around you? Even while booking accommodation for 2021, I worried that my brain didn’t get that I would be away for a year; without a solid base for a year. I definitely wouldn’t be fitting my own bed in the car (unless I balanced it on top with the kayak, the paddle board and the pink flamingo).

So one month in, how’re we doing? Let’s start with the obvious:

The Pandemic

It will come as no surprise whatsoever to anyone who has ever visited Croatia, that the Croats aren’t letting Coronavirus have much of an impact on their daily lives. There is a beautiful simplicity in the way people see life here and I have to wonder if it’s because the climate just allows them more space. In the UK, your lockdown options are greatly hindered by the weather. Being locked inside is giving you cabin fever, but the weather is horrendous and so your ‘going out’ options are actually limited to ‘going somewhere else in options – like the pub – but that now comes with a whole extra layer of hassle, with social distancing, track and trace, and the worry that your mate’s wife’s sister has a cough and you’re not sure if you want to open that particular can of Covid into your life. It’s hard and it’s frustrating.

Here though, just by virtue of the sun being out for 80% of the year, suddenly space isn’t an issue. Social distancing isn’t an issue, because on any given day you can take a walk up a hill and spend the entire day not seeing anyone else. Sure, you can do that in Britain, but the weather stops you from wanting to.

Croats are also big champions of young people; they occupy the universities, keep the cities open, keep the life going. In turn, the young people are looking after their elders – the sense of community here starts so early and is completely immersive. It’s hard not to draw comparisons with the UK, where our youth are constantly battered by accusations of inconsiderate non-compliance, loathed for illegal parties and shouted at for daring to try and utilise our outdoor spaces. Bear with me, because I know a lot of people don’t agree with me, but I have a point – I promise! Since March, we have cut young people off from their friends – in some cases the only source of emotional and social support they have access to – and told them to stop whining about it. After months of isolation we then, in a stunningly transparent display of trying to win favour with the frequent voter demographic, opened garden centres, pubs and hunting (Ha. That last one actually made me lol). In comparison with the Croats, we have done nothing to support and help young people through this pandemic – and it shows in the reciprocal behaviour we now see in return. Just a thought…

For us, the pandemic has not hindered our ability to move about in public spaces. We wear masks indoors, we’re mindful of social distancing, but the inevitable doom we were warned of from countless people who thought we were irresponsible for heading out during the pandemic has not materialised (yet – there’s still time and it is 2020 after all).


Travelling and kids

This one was a bit of a suprise to be honest. I did research and made notes on helping Izzy and Sam adjust to this invariably unstable way of life. I made sure I knew how to support them, prepared myself with inner-coaching about having patience in the face of difficult behaviour, because it would likely be them manifesting insecurity and worry. However, whenever I sidle up next to one of them, ready to do some of my most exemplary and impressive parenting by asking – “So how are you feeling about all this? Is there anything you want to talk about?” – they look at me like I’m having a senior moment, fob me off with a generic answer and ask if they can be excused to go and throw themselves in the sea.

I have watched, through the ever-increasingly sentimental eyes of a mother watching her children become less tethered to her, as both of my kids have flourished in this banishment of routine. It occurred to me as I watched them during week one, doubled over with mirth and laughing in the kind of paralytic way you only ever do during your childhood, that I hadn’t seen either of them this happy in years. Not since they started school and became worried about how they were supposed to act. Not since it became important what clothes they wore, which football team they liked, what hair-cut they had. Because it turns out, neither of my kids give a shit about any of these things now that we’ve left the race. It’s all I can do to enforce washed and ironed clothes so they don’t look completely homeless.

The unbridled freedom of those long summer holidays has had one hell of an extension for Izzy and Sam. I am concerned for the future; that this limits our possibilities – because I’m not sure I’ll ever be willing to take it away from them again by settling down somewhere.


Frank and his PTSD

It has become quite clear – and this has been a difficult thing for him to admit – that Frank’s days of ever having a career are over. This trip has done for him exactly what we hoped it would do, in that his brain is clearing and he’s now writing and reading for fun again (something he hasn’t done either of since returning from Afghanistan 11 years ago). But whenever there is something official he has to concentrate on – filling out forms, talking on the phone, even booking accommodation – his mind fogs, he becomes glassy-eyed and I find him turning circles in hallways, distressed and disoriented.

So we’re concentrating on just letting his brain enjoy its R&R. Admin has been handed over to me and we’re learning what he needs to avoid. We thought that maybe, having broken away completely from that military environment, that his symptoms would resolve, but that hasn’t been the case. What it has given him though, is the opporunity to define himself by something other than being a soldier, or an officer, or a veteran. He is starting to look as I know he’s always seen himself in his head; a disheveled and contented hippy. In a way, he has done exactly what the kids have done; let go of all that outside pressure – decided it isn’t for him – simply opted out.

It’s a strange thing to get ok with – this notion that life will necessarily have to look very different to the way we just assumed it would be. But on the other hand, this trip has shown us that you absolutely can throw the rulebook out of the window completely and still be happy. Happier.


And me? Is the one-month mark as scary as I thought it would be?

Absolutely not. One month in and all I can think is that there will never be enough time in the world to see everything I want to see.

Some people have described this trip as mine and Frank’s midlife crisis and if that’s the case, I couldn’t be more in love with it. Trite as it sounds, this is a life-changing and rich experience – one that doesn’t depreciate like a sports-car or come with the hassle of trading each other in for younger models.

Homeschool: A wobbly start

From the very complementary description Gemma has put at the top of this page I feel like I am expected to write something sage, learned and profound about the unbridled joys of homeschooling. While I paint this picture, a warm glow should be swelling up inside of me as I speak fondly of the joys of imparting deep wisdom to my grateful and receptive angels. But that would ignore the tears, the tantrums (almost always from me) and the truth. 

So here I will lay out the ethos we are trying to follow with the kids’ education and will try and be honest about the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. I will dive deeper into specifics on future posts. I will also caveat it with the fact we have been doing this for about six months now, so we are really far from expert and would really value feedback on how best to overcome some of the hurdles we face.

As for many families around the world, COVID 19 gave us the unsolicited opportunity to practice homeschooling at a few days’ notice. Along with any parents who were part of that fun experiment in mass homeschooling our results were initially mixed. We tried hard to keep the routine of school going, getting the kids (Izzy 11, Sam9) up and dressed and out for a ‘walk to school’ first thing in the morning. We then pushed through the lessons we had for the day and were often finished by early afternoon. This worked fairly well for a while.

The kids’ school, Halton Community Combined School, is an excellent primary school and we received good support during this period but with our eyes set on leaving the rat race behind we had to find a way to turn ‘lockdown school’ into something permanent and sustainable. The National Curriculum followed in English schools is a great template for a group of children to follow and we began by trying to follow that remotely. That did not work. 

Falling on our faces

The children (who’s learning styles I will describe in much more detail in a future post) could certainly be encouraged/bribed/coerced into following lessons appropriate for their ages but  this proved to be miserable for all concerned. We ended up with fights and arguments most days. I would set lessons, putting the least popular (Maths) first, and the most engaging (Art/PE) at the end as something to strive towards. Inevitably one of them would refuse to engage in any way, and my day would then be a running battle of wills, often spilling over into the next day as I desperately reached for metaphorical carrots and sticks to use to move information and ideas from the page/screen and into their growing minds.

The focus on the one who had chosen that day not to engage meant that the one who was keen to learn was largely ignored while an arm-wrestle of wills was carried out between me and the reluctant one. This battle was complicated by the fact that my PTSD flares up when I am in conflict and turns the inside of my brain into a circus of noise and confusion which can go on for hours or days. This is not conducive to even being able to put a sentence together coherently much less educating children.

Something had to give, the children were keeping up but largely, by the afternoon days all four of us were exhausted and in no mood to look at each other let alone enjoy each other’s company. So we changed it up, we did some research and started preparing interactive lessons that taught the subjects we were focused on in a much more accessible way. We included walks and den building and hands on experiments in our day.

This involved a tremendous amount of work for us parents in the build up to lessons and initially led to a real improvement in engagement from all of us but quickly we fell back into the familiar routine of one of them disengaging and taking all of the attention while I again waved around my carrots and sticks: All the more frustrated because the adults would have poured hours of work into a fun exciting engaging idea that received no enthusiasm or interest from our scholars. On several occasions I ended up trying to coerce the children into playing ‘fun learning games’ that may work in classrooms but end up in frustration and tears at home.

A Realisation

When teaching something however it is rarely the students’ fault if they are not learning and  it occurred to me, as I pondered what new tactic to use to create engaged learning,  that carrots and sticks are for donkeys (if you are mean to donkeys that is) these are children. 

The classic carrot and stick analogy presupposes that the donkey does not want to go where you are taking it, it gives the animal no credit for intelligence, curiosity or wanting to understand the world around it. That is not the case with children. They want to know everything, they want to understand, they will pick at a problem until they understand it if it peaks their interest. We just have to enable that interest and give it the space to develop. This was so counter to how we were educated that we struggled to convince ourselves but eventually we made the jump.

A Different Way

So we stopped lesson times entirely. 

Instead we gave them broad ideas or projects to explore and helped them in their curiosity. This all coincided with us arriving in Croatia so an obvious avenue was the complex history of this incredible place. We stomped around museums, played in Roman ruins, walked through a physical timeline (on a path by the sea) and researched weird and wonderful things we came across. Nearly all of which was new to me and Gemma too. The change has been remarkable. 

The  conflict stopped. We give them tasks to do, based on what they are interested in at the time but allow them to do them how and when they see fit, inside broad parameters. 

After getting over the initial shock of freedom (in which they did nothing but swim in the sea and read books) they have both embraced the new way of learning with a passion we could not have instilled with a field of carrots and a bushel of sticks. The tears and tantrums subsided, each one will get on with their projects at different times and for different durations each day depending on how they feel (Sam ploughing on first thing in the morning, Izzy often staying up late to write).This has proven particularly useful for Izzy who is at an age where she feels like she wants to challenge authority. By making the projects hers and giving her the autonomy to research for herself there is no one to rebel against. For me also, if I am having a difficult day I do not have to feel guilty that I cannot help during ‘lesson time’.

For us, at the moment, it works.

What Next?

Honestly we are learning so much as we go along that predicting how this will develop is not something I am willing to do, I am open to all suggestions on moving forward and will finish off by saying that the best thing I did was take the pressure off all of us and give ourselves the space to really enjoy learning about this amazing, beautiful, exiting and complicated world we live in.