Changes of State

IMG_0553After four months of not blogging or otherwise writing anything more than website content and emails, I’m feeling a bit wobbly as I figure out how to fit writing into a very busy and quite changed life. I now have two teens, one entering his senior year and the other starting eighth grade. I’m married after many years of being a solo adult in the house. I’m also taking on more work under the (hopefully not false) belief that older children will be more independent children, thus creating some additional space for me to expand my professional life. Oh. And I’m still homeschooling.

Somewhere in all that flux, I stopped writing. While I needed to put my time and energy into the changes our family has been experiencing, I’ve missed the outlet writing provides. I process when I write. I move from minutiae to main idea, finding themes and patterns and often gaining perspective. But the last four months required privacy of thought and experience. They have demanded time, attention, and planning, accompanied with heaps of patience and perseverance. Teens. A husband. Work.  Oh, so many deep breaths.

Teens. Somehow, without permission, my younger son entered his teens. If you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s “twelve plus one,” insisting he’s not a teen until he’s fourteen, because that’s when high school formally begins. Whether this is a bit of reluctance to be grouped as the suspect being named “teen” or just a quirky way to spin a milestone that he doesn’t see as meaningful (“No, I don’t feel any different now that I’m twelve plus one.”), I don’t know. When I do the family body count, I find two teens, two beings wrestling with autonomy, responsibility, hormonal fluctuations, dramatic brain changes, and the necessity of regular showers. For the past few years, I’ve found myself holding my breath, relishing the relatively easy preteen years of my younger son, wondering what changes would happen. It is getting harder again, as it should. Teens have a hard job, growing up into themselves.

Marriage. Sharing a home with an adult who loves me deeply delights me. The preparation for sharing a home and a life challenged all of us, with all the physical work of moving and the emotional upheaval that goes with even the best of change.  It’s taken less time than I anticipated to find our rhythm and for the boys to adjust to the change. It’s still new, and I know we have plenty to learn about living together as a couple and as a foursome, but the joy seems to deepen by the day. It’s the most worthwhile sort of work, learning to love more completely and communicate effectively within that shared love of family.

Work. For two years, I’ve taught writing to gifted homeschoolers via the internet. One-on-one, I’ve worked with children ages ten through sixteen on academic writing (essays and research papers) with a bit of fiction writing worked in for those who feel the need. I’ve also coached a few graduate students through their academic writing projects and dissertation proposals, helping them organize their thoughts and present them more professionally while nudging along skills in grammar, usage, and punctuation. (See Write With Sarah for more information. My individual tutoring spots are full for 2014/15, but I’m available for coaching on a project-by-project basis for writers of any age.)  I’m also offering copy editing, a new service that will likely take some time to develop, but seems a natural extension of my coaching.

More work: This year, I’m also serving as writing coach for Online G3, an online source of classes in the humanities (and now science!) designed for gifted kids. (Click here my review of Online G3.) Joining an organization that’s been the highlight of my younger son’s homeschooling experience is heady and daunting. My technological acumen is, ahem, rudimentary, and I’m slowly wading my way through electronic classroom software and forum software. I have fine guides, and I’m keeping my focus on the content of this endeavor and trying not to fret about the tech end too much. It will come together. I’m sure!

Oh. And homeschooling. Homeschooling older teens often consists more of administrative duties than teaching duties. Dual enrollment courses for my older require me to drive a fair amount, write a few checks each semester, and keep the internet provider paid, but I do little actual teaching for my older. Despite years of maintaining his transcript, I still find myself awed by the responsibility of the task. What exactly is a high school credit measured by, time spent, material learned, or some magical mix between them? What do I grade, and what is just deemed “passed”? I’ve gained some confidence in this role, but I can’t say I’m comfortable reducing his educational experience to a few sheets of paper full of numbers and letter grades. Oh, and college applications. I’ll have on my counselor hat for that task.

My younger still is transcript-free, but one administrative job this fall is to start one for him. I’m still actively teaching him, although online classes and homeschool group classes put me in the part-time teacher category. Math lessons are done with me. Latin is at least graded by me, as I’m not devoting myself to actually learning the Latin with him. ( I know my limits, and he’s far better at the language than I.) Chemistry, however, is all mine — my younger son along three other teens will be my students for lab, lecture, and hopefully a fire-free year of high school chemistry. I’ve started to plan but still have a good way to go before the syllabus is complete. Oh, there’s work to be done…

So with teens, marriage, work, and homeschooling in front of me, I return to blogging and other writing endeavors. I’ve missed writing. Writing offers time for me to be present with a single line of thought, and while I’d not name that process meditative, I’d call it mindful. I need more of that in a life that feels constructed of dozens of pieces, many calling me at the same time. I want the peace of the process brings and the clarity that results from the sorting and thinking as I go. How it fits into an increasingly busy life remains to be seen, but I need this part of me back.

 

 

 

Homeschooling in the Digital Age

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For more on homeschooling highschoolers, check out the GHF Blog Hop. 

“Time to get off the computer.”

I don’t know how often I say that to my boys. I say it politely, adding a please. I say it with a time attached, giving a number of minutes. I say it with fewer words, each a sentence of its own: “Get. Off. Now.”  I say it with more: “If you continue to sit at that computer after I’ve asked you to get off, you’ll not see that game tomorrow (or this week, this month, in a lifetime of Thursdays).” I’ve yelled it. I’ve written it as a note or passed it as a text. Some I’ve even cried while saying it.

This is homeschooling in the digital age.

When I started this gig at the start of 2005, mom to one seven-year-old and one three-year-old, we had one computer, and we used it minimally. I checked my email. My older son might play a game for 30 minutes a day. I sometimes sought out homeschooling information and read through the archives of the TAGMAX and the like. My cell phone was a pay-as-you go, and texting wasn’t a verb I knew. As a family, we were fairly strict about “screen time.” We had a few educational games (remember Zoombinis?), and TV watching was limited to documentaries and other overtly educational programing. Our internet connection was slow, and our cable line nonexistent. We were largely unplugged.

We’ve come a long way on the technology train since then. As I write this, my older son, almost 17,  is in the basement on the computer he built, an “ancient” laptop (5 years old) nearby on the floor, sporting an operating system that isn’t familiar to me and being used for purposes I don’t understand. He’s doing his biology using online software from Plato Courseware. Before that, he worked on his 3D Programming course and his Intro to Statistics course, both free offerings through Udacity, one of several available MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. Later, he’ll log into his course on the local community college’s website to work on his Advanced C++ programming class or English 101 course. At some point, he’ll turn to his Java homework, and while the homeschooling group class he attends this week is a live, in-person experience, the programming work is all on the computer, of course. After that, he’ll click through to  Codeacademy, his go-to site for informally picking up computer languages, where he’s picking up Ruby, a language, he tells me, that is something like Python, which still means little to a mom who learned Basic and Pascal decades ago. Then have an IRL human experience in the afternoon: real teens chatting and eating while real moms drink coffee and chat. Then, after an IRL dinner at the kitchen table, he’s likely back down to his computer to Skype with either programming online friends from the college or to Skype/Minecraft with a good buddies (most whom he knows in their human form).

His brother, twelve, who’s at another machine built by his brother, is on the main floor, working (I hope) on his Marine Biology Coursera course, another MOOC offering, or perhaps on one of his literature classes from Online G3. He could be checking in on what’s due for Biology, an IRL class I teach but that has assignments posted on the web and sites to visit on the web. Perhaps he’s honing his latest essay about aquariums and fish-keeping, using Google Drive for writing and the internet for research. Either way, after practicing the very real piano, tending to his water-, fish-, and plant-filled aquarium, and reading a book made of paper, he’ll spend an hour or two on Skype with a friend he knows in human form and play Minecraft. Loudly. Then we’re off to fencing — the live type, with foils, epees, sabers, and real humans.

As I read through those paragraphs, those ones that plant my children, for hours a day, a foot or two from a screen, I’m filled with a mix of awe, sadness, and concern. I’m awed at the offerings my kids have. Homeschooling has never been deeper in its offerings than it is now. While my younger still spends a few hours a day at the proverbial kitchen table with books, papers, and a real pencil, working with Mom, more and more the picture of homeschooling is more akin to partaking in a buffet than the family-style meal it used to be, and the buffet includes some incredible online offerings.

This metaphor, introduced to me by a friend as she related how she explained their eclectic homeschooling style to friends and the Powers that Be on the college Common App (meaning even the college application process has gone digital), fits how many families now homeschool. I can’t think of a more apt comparison. This monstrous buffet caters to learners of all styles and with all sensibilities. There are endless choices: traditional texts and workbooks, online classes for free, online courses for more than free, homeschool classes via co-op or even school district, in-school electives, DVD programs, subscription classes, field trips created for homeschoolers, individualized instruction online or live, dual enrollment classes at local colleges and universities — or online, and much, much more. It’s overwhelming, frankly.

A decade ago, when homeschooling was the back-up plan if the second school in two years failed, I talked to friends and paged through catalogues. I dog-eared pages and took trips to the local teacher’s store. I attended used curriculum sales, frequented used curriculum sites, and purchased the leftovers of my friends. We were at the library weekly, often with dozens of books exchanging residence during the visit. Our homeschooling day was a mix of reading aloud, discussing any variety of topics, working through math workbooks, doing science experiments, watching science videos, and playing. The computer had little to do with it.

Today, our internet connection is our lifeline. It links my younger son, who has Asperger’s and finds real-life interaction fatiguing and bewildering,  to classes, friends, and aquarium enthusiasts (he’s a bit fish-obsessed). I’ve seen his social skills grow, interestingly, and I attribute some of that to the practice with people without bodies that he gets through audio-only Skyping with friends. (Facial expressions and body language can overwhelm some people on the autism spectrum. He does experience people live often enough to be building skills in this area of communication as well.) It connects my older son with friends, other programmers, a few mentors, and even to students who can benefit from his programming knowledge. It brings him classes he can’t get from a book and encourages the rabbit trails that have brought him to find himself fascinated with computer engineering and programming.

And yet I remain uncertain about my sons’ relationship with their computers and the worlds they open to them. It’s hard to manage the lure of the online world, full of stimulation and distraction. I struggle myself, and I’m far from my impulse-driven teens. As a forty-something adult, I find myself checking email, online Scrabble, text messages, and Facebook far often than I likely should, distracted from writing and assorted computer-based obligations. Those temptations threaten the rest of my time, with a smart phone that makes access to diversions way too easy. So if I struggle, an adult with a (theoretically) fully developed frontal lobe with no deficits of executive function except those induced by child-rearing and homeschooling, how hard must it be for them, with their developing teen brains, to manage the Siren’s song of the digital world, balancing work and pleasure with habit and addiction?

Mighty hard. And so I set limits. I insist on meals at the kitchen table and time away from screens.  I plan time for them away from the screen and with live humans. But as my children age, I give them more say in how they manage their time, on the computer and off. This is part of their education, the management of whims and work, the balance of life offline with life (and often work) online. With practice, support, judicious limits, plenty of reminders, and some missteps on my part and theirs, I’m confident they can move healthily from homeschooling teens to working adults while living in the digital age.

Review: The Blessing of a B Minus

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 3.02.47 PMI read plenty of parenting books during my first decade as Mom: books on babies and infants, attachment parenting gifted children, difficult children, children with Asperger’s, children with ADHD, mindfulness and parenting, and even Buddhist parenting. Then I stopped. Whether satiated or jaded, I just stopped as my world steadily broadened beyond parenting young children.

But when a conversation thread on Facebook led me to a post on overparenting by Wendy Mogel, PhD, I decided it was time to read a book on the genre of child that now lives in my home — the teen. My older, nearly seventeen, was late to bloom, or at least that’s my excuse for not giving more academic and practical attention to this stage of life until now. He’s also a pleasant and easy teen, the sort who almost always agrees to help with a chore (although getting to it may take time and reminders) and who rarely eye-rolls or talks back. I’ve actually been relieved when he slips into a rare argumentative mode, defending his reality and rights. It’s reassuring somehow, seeing those stereotypical teen behaviors.

While I’d heard plenty about the teen brain, reading articles online and listening to TED talks and the like, I’d not thought I needed a parenting book to guide me through my older son’s version of the teens. I certainly didn’t think I’d read one called The Blessing of a B MinusUsing Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers. I’m not Jewish (although my mother converted a few years back, giving me at least a bit of backing in some basics). I’m not even Christian. I’m an agnostic Unitarian Universalist who respects the teachings of the world’s religions but doesn’t talk about blessings or children being or gifts from a god. I was dubious, but with a friend’s good review of her first book for parents of younger children, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, and a desire to manage my younger son’s teens with a bit more poise (and it will be needed), I ordered it.

I was delighted with both the intelligence of Mogel’s writing and her thoughtful approach to parenting the teen. She maintains that teenagers as being thwarted by and, yes, blessed by their rapidly developing and therefore unwieldy brains. While the preteen years are a time for increasing connections, the teens are when the unused connections are pruned. This consolidation of sorts, when paired with hormonal changes and plenty related physical changes, leads to the weak planning, poor organization, and  spotty self-regulation that many teens experience. It’s physiological chaos, and accepting that a certain amount of mistake-making, rule-bending, rudeness, and general drama accompany that chaos is, per Mogel, the first step in finding a way through. She speaks of appreciating these traits, these blessings, in her words, and working from the assumption that there is good in both the short and long-term to these ubiquitous, problematic, and even desirable elements of teenage life.

Mogel doesn’t advocate letting a teen rule the house with rudeness or preferences. She doesn’t suggest being the teen’s best buddy. She advocates some compassionate distance with firm limits and emphasizes that mistakes and near-mistakes are experiences teens must have to gain the skills needed for the next stage of life. Her primary audience is Jewish, middle to upper middle class, intelligent, open-minded, and prone to helicopter-parenting. Don’t worry if not all those descriptors fit. The essential advice — that teens have to struggle and that the struggle can be frightening and frustrating for parents but should not be squelched — works regardless of faith or socioeconomic class. After all, rudeness, poor grades, materialism, poor judgement, and risk-taking are to some degree part of the lives of most teens at least for part of those challenging years.

Mogel addresses those teen issues about which make most parents grumble as blessings, using plenty of Jewish references throughout the book. She manages this without writing a religious book, one that assumes the presence of the divine in day-to-day life. Yes, God is mentioned, but never in the way that makes me, an agnostic, struggle to read on. She avoids platitudes about God’s plan or will and places the job of parenting up to the humans with their boots on the ground — parents. Instead, concepts like shalom bayit (peace in the home), yetzer hara (the animating source of energy that can lead to greed and selfishness), and tikkun olam (repairing the world) provide a set of Jewish terms that manage to resonate across beliefs. She weaves these terms throughout her writing, bringing wisdom from one culture to anyone parenting teens.

Mogel’s advice may be a bit more hands-off than some modern parents want to hear. She advocates less panic about college admissions and encourages more focus on the ways teens benefit from learning from their own mistakes. Mistakes made during these teen years, the ones where children are at home, she asserts, can prevent much worse ones when children go away from home.  The Blessing of a B Minus emphasizes that teens need to learn from the pickles that they get themselves into — late assignments, lost items, poor grades, and questionable choices about sexual activity and substance use. But unlike other books on teens that advocate straight natural (or at least consistent) consequences for each error, Mogel manages to preserve boundaries between parent and child without sacrificing the connection. She advocates compassion for parents and children and respect for the dignity of both as well.  She notes early on that the sort of relationship with our children that many of us have built — attached and cozy — is exactly what can lead to parental shock when teens start to distance themselves from us (often only to pull us back in when things go wrong). She is at her best when helping parents negotiate that distance, allowing that it hurts and yet is necessary and, perhaps most importantly that compassion can sometimes be the best way to manage a situation. After all, as adults, when we lock ourselves out of our car or procrastinate on a tax form or work assignment, we both have to pay the price (a cold walk to a warm gas station to wait or a late night that leaves us groggy the next day) while often counting on others to care and assist (a neighbor rescues us from the gas station or a partner makes a pot of coffee for our long night). We don’t live alone in this world.

In other words, Mogel advocates a type of parenting that respects both parent and child today and in the future. It is compassionate and respectful parenting aimed at creating compassionate and capable children. It’s not for sissies, however, and her advice about managing teen substance use and sexual activity will likely make some parents close the book in fright or anger. Don’t. Stick with her. She’s realistic — many kids will try alcohol before they are of age, and many of them will sexually experiment to some degree before they are thirty and married. Good kids. Kids who generally follow rules and turn in their homework on time. Zero tolerance, while tempting, she says, may drive experimentation underground, which will lead to less teaching moments and fewer opportunities for teens and parents to have calm and productive conversations about the decision making that goes into these situations. She concludes this sticky chapter, titled ‘The Blessing of a Hangover,’ however, reminding us that pleasure is important for adults as well as children. She encourages adults to make adulthood look responsible and appealing by taking time to responsibly experience pleasure ourselves and to protect our private time with our partners because that nourishes us and shows our children that it’s worth surviving the teens to be an adult. If it’s all bill-paying, kid-carting, and endless work, why bother to grow up?

Perhaps it’s just that raising my teen hasn’t been that angst-filled, at least relative to her examples, or perhaps it’s that homeschooling allows some families a chance to escape some of the more harrowing parts of some children’s adolescence (hopefully not displacing it to college), but I came away from the book appreciating my older son’s relatively easy adolescence. Mogel’s raised teen girls of her own, girls in school, and her examples seem girl-biased (although I just may have a boy-lens on when reading). Many of us with boys have more silence and grunting than drama and open angst, and she seems to address the drama and angst more fully than the inscrutable silence of many teen males. This is a small criticism of what is otherwise a fine book on both raising and appreciating teenagers. Perhaps, when my almost-teen is a few years older, I’ll better appreciate more of her examples.

If you’re looking for a way to interpret and respond to your teen’s behaviors with reason and compassion with an eye on the future adult you’d like in the world, The Blessing of B Minus is a fine place to start. I don’t doubt that I’ll be returning to sections over the years as I continue this journey through my sons’ teens, searching for a bit of wisdom to guide me through.

Review: One Year Adventure Novel

One Year Adventure Novel (OYAN) , a year-long high school level course on how to write a novel, caught my eye when my younger son, then ten, was gleefully working his way through his first NaNoWriMo. He’d started that process on a bit of a whim, and despite having only written one short story before that November, he completed a quite readable story of over 10,000 words. (For the details of our experience, read this.) He’d been bitten by the fiction writing bug, so naturally, I searched for more avenues to learn about that style of writing. I visited the OYAN homepage several times over the next two years, but the price was off-putting. (Full price, it is $200 and, per the website, not to be resold, although doing so seems to only bar purchaser of the used material access to the website forums and the ability to purchase additional workbooks.)  I wasn’t sure I wanted to make a formal study of this personal passion. But last semester, a parent of a writing student of mine wanted her daughter to give it a try. My excuse to purchase had presented itself, and I agreed, excited to try it out with an eager, exceptionally bright fiction writer.

OYAN, a DVD and text-based program,  is designed to be used over a school year of 36 weeks.  The Compass, a textbook of 78  short chapters including excerpts from novels, gives the meat of the lesson. Each chapter is just a few pages, periodically including a few pages of text from an adventure classic with a few questions for the student to answer. The DVD lecture is nearly identical to the textbook, meaning the curriculum supports auditory and visual learners. Some lectures include well-chosen movie excerpts to illustrate a particular point, but many are simply explanations of what is in the text.  Ranging from six to about fifteen minutes, the lectures are easy to fit into even a busy schedule. At the end of the last DVD are student quizzes, designed to give weekly, other adventure novels, and other extras.

Daniel Schwabauer, the author of the text and the lecturer on the DVDs, is thorough and generally interesting, first covering minutiae about every element of first the main character then the supporting characters. Plot receives similar attention, with nine chapters dedicated to outlining each chapter in great detail. It’s only in Chapter 40 that the writing begins, along with discussions of dialogue, narration, a variety of literary devices, and  a smattering of other topics about writing. Revision receives four chapters, a seemingly paltry amount given how much time it generally takes and the importance it has, an importance acknowledged by the author but given short shrift in the schedule. Getting the first draft done seems to be the main goal.

The Map is the accompanying workbook, and it consists of forty chapters (the workbook stops when the writing begins),  starting with discussions of theme, conflict, and protagonist, leading to character sketches, and ending with detailed chapter outlines. The student who completes those forty chapters will have a clear template for writing his or her book. Some of these questions are quite challenging, reaching beyond the text, especially in the first half of the workbook, when the student may have little idea of what will happen in his or her book. This intense focus on sometimes abstract novel characteristics can be frustrating to the writer who just wants to tell a story. Discussions of theme and the necessity of meaning are repeated, with an emphasis that this is to be a novel of depth rather than a fun read. Again, given this is likely often the first substantial writing project in a student’s experience, this can be overwhelming. A fun, cohesive read with a strong plot and well-developed characters would be likely a more appropriate goal.

The Prisoner of Zenda (an adventure novel by Anthony Hope) rounds out the student portion of the curriculum, and reading assignments about that novel with occasional question sets occur throughout the textbook. While this makes for slow reading of a short book, the readings are timed to match planning techniques. The Teacher’s Guide, a thin volume, contains guidelines for parents and teachers as they evaluate their students as well as answers to weekly quizzes. The course is designed to be completed solo aside from parental evaluations, leading the appropriately light amount of information in this book. (We did not use any of the 78 short answer quizzes, so I can’t speak to their usefulness. I suppose they would provide another criteria for granting a grade for the class, if that were desired.)

Disclosure point: My student and I made it only as far as Chapter 18. Mostly, we stopped because my student was bored and frustrated. Faced with thirteen weeks of not writing, she was losing enthusiasm for what she wanted to do — write her novel. She, like many gifted learners, is a whole-to-parts thinker. OYAN is the ultimate parts-to-whole curriculum. She was, therefore, rather miserable. She’d quickly created character sheets, and after the first week or two, we’d discussed her character’s goals and fears to the point of irritation. (Yes, I was bored, too.)

It’s not that I don’t see the point of planning. I’ve seen students start stories with enthusiasm only to reach a point where they didn’t know where to go next. These stories without a climax were initially wonderful, with compelling characters and well-planned settings, but they simply fail to reach satisfying endings. After a few such episodes, I insisted on a few planning basics: Know your setting, characters, plot, and climax with resolution before you start writing.  OYAN takes this several steps further, insisting on intricate planning before a word of the actual novel is written. Major points of focus in the first six weeks are theme and meaning, subjects that OYAN states are what make a novel worthwhile rather than just an entertaining read.

This is where my student got stuck. Me, too. Here was a bright, capable writer who’d discovered the essence of the story she wanted to tell. But what would be the greater message? She was stymied, and I was convinced it didn’t really matter whether she had a theme or message. We both simply wanted a story. Had she wanted to go on, I’d have walked with her, but as mentioned previously, this curriculum is best for a parts-to-whole thinker, particularly the meticulous type, and she was neither.

The issue of message also bothered me on another level. I’d done my homework. This is a curriculum claiming to have a biblical worldview. On principle and because of poor fit for us, I generally avoid these titles. Most tend to be, at best, simply dismissive of other belief systems and usually far worse. I knew that OYAN’s Chapter 18 contained language that belittled nonbelievers, but I’d also heard that was the worst of it, easily discussed with a student and let go. Given my student was not my own child, I planned to forgo the discussion, which worked well, as we had plenty of other matters to discuss.  The video, however, shook me up. Reading his words in the text had not prepared me for hearing his vitriol toward (and poor understanding of) secular humanists. After he misrepresents agnostics and atheists, he backtracks, saying and writing that meaning doesn’t have to come from religion. I can see no purpose to this rant of his other than to wave the flag of his beliefs while denigrating those who find meaning in something other than supernatural.

But even without this disturbing chapter, OYAN wasn’t for us: Not for my student, and not for me, and likely not for my novel-writing son. It has a good deal to offer for the student wanting a fiction writing curriculum with structure, a bottom-up approach, with plenty of examples of technique from a range of classics. It provides parents with plenty of points of evaluation, something that matters more to some homeschooling families than others. It also offers online support via forums for students and parents. Still, it’s expensive for what it offers, and given that purchasers of previously used copies (a company no-no, but not illegal) cannot simply buy a new workbook to go along with the durable materials.

So what is my novel-writing student using now? A free (for the pdf version), high school level workbook from NaNoWriMo. Elementary and middle school versions are also available, as are sets of lesson plans designed for classroom use. I’ve yet to check out the plans, but I can say that the workbooks are far more to-the-point than the OYAN curriculum, and that’s what she needs.

Review: Searching for Meaning (James T. Webb)

I am prone to a winter funk, a recurring time of personal darkness starting with the holidays and extending until spring seems possible. This year was no exception. As I have other years, I reached for my full-spectrum light, just the right amount of human interaction, and a mix of escapist fiction and practical nonfiction. When struggling emotionally, I tend to reach for books on mindfulness and meditation.  I hold a special affection for Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart, doled out in small parts to be read and reread as needed. While only an intermittent meditator, her wisdom steers my thoughts away from the existential muck while still giving advice remaining firmly rooted in the here and now. It works for me.

This year, I stumbled upon help from a different source: Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope, by James T. Webb, PhD. Webb, founder of SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) and psychologist renowned for his work in gifted education. In Searching for Meaning, Webb identifies idealism as a central cause of existential depression, the sort of depression associated with a questioning of the purpose and meaning of one’s life. This, according to Webb, can happen to anyone after a loss or other jarring event but seems more spontaneous in gifted individuals, including children.

So how does idealism fit in? Idealism requires that one has a sense of what is right and good — what should be. What is ideal varies by culture and religion and is made up of, according to Webb, relative rather than universal truths. Ideals are also illusions, which Webb points out doesn’t make them bad but is essential to managing those ideals. They are simply structures we create based upon the where and when of our lives, with plenty of influence from those around us helping them come to be. Some idealists recognize this illusion of ideal, realizing that different people have different ideals, while other struggle to see that their way is not the proverbial highway for all.

Idealism, says Webb, is also borne out of dedication to fairness and equity, and gifted children and adults, keen observers of the world, seem quick to hold to these ideas early in life. Idealism paired with the observation that ideals often go unrealized can quickly lead to despair. Mismatch of belief and reality hurts. Add in a sense of powerlessness (“I can’t fix all the pain in the world”) and the intensity present in so many bright and gifted people,  and the train to existential angst has left the station. Webb spends two chapters exploring idealism and giftedness, time well spent, as accepting that these premises are linked is essential to the rest of his exploration.

If you weren’t experiencing existential depression before starting the book, Webb’s fourth chapter will bring to at least of taste of what it’s like. My routes to the blues are two-fold: perfectionistic thinking that reveals how often I and other fail to live up to ideals and a more episodic sense of existential aloneness. It was here I thanked Webb for managing the theism issue without apology to either side. As an agnostic raising atheists, I was grateful that religion wasn’t brought as an answer to the question of meaning. Religion wasn’t demeaned either, although those who hold their particular religion as a universal ideal and not just their chosen schema for managing life may be less than thrilled with this portion of the book.

If the book had stopped there, I’d have been fine. It was this connection between intelligence, idealism, perfectionism, and deep thinking about our place in the universe that helped me connect the dots of my recurring bouts of the blues. While light deprivation is a piece of my problem, most of my mood dumps occur when ideals don’t match reality. Holidays, where my ideal family together, clash with reality, shuffling children between houses. This mismatch and my attachment to a vision of the ideal family (one that isn’t divided by divorce) lead directly to the blues. This is the first domino to go, for the next step my ever-busy brain takes is to question our connections, which leads me to a profound sense of loneliness followed by concerns that my children will also feel alone in the world. And so the dominos fall.

Awareness of the first thought — that idealism (an illusion) crashing with reality causes pain — can stop the cascade. The part of me drawn to Buddhist thought finds comfort in even that simple revelation: I’m unhappy because my ideal doesn’t match reality. Is this the path out of that particular ideal-driven depression? Not entirely, but paired with letting the feeling be rather than chiding myself for it (If the ideal is NOT feeling depressed, not meeting that ideal is also…depressing) and thus perpetuating the cycle help. Knowing where the discomfort originates is somewhat comforting as well as informative.

Webb spends a good deal of the book describing just what existential depression is and what others have said about it. While interesting, those of us realizing just how our idealism has landed us in these funks will be wanting more practical assistance, and that arrives a few chapters later. Those looking for detailed instructions about what to do and how will be disappointed at his brevity here, but Webb’s list of healthy and less-healthy coping mechanisms should provide grist for many a mind mill. The healthy mechanism bring the reader beyond illusions and are practical: Humor, bibliotherapy, volunteerism, healthy relationships, mindfulness, and many more make this list. Webb recommends restraint with less-healthy methods: distraction, business, narcissism, apathy, substance use, and the like.  He acknowledges that even these less-than-ideal coping methods can have, in small amounts, mitigating effects on existential depression, alas at the price of maintaining illusion.

And that’s perhaps the essence of his message and advice. Webb isn’t against the illusion of idealism. He does encourage an awareness that ideals are illusions and promotes conscious choice if one continues to hold to those illusions. He also supports an active engagement in this imperfect world paired with an active search for personal meaning as antidotes to existential despair.

Searching for Meaning steps far away from the traditional self-help book, offering no simple solution for the pain of being human. Webb avoids the trite, explores deeply the connections between idealism, giftedness, and questions of meaning, and offers solutions that demand metacognition (thinking about thinking) and personal responsibility. This is a book about the gifted for the gifted, and it is written to the adult or older adolescent. (Younger readers may benefit from the chapters on coping mechanisms, but it’s heavier than many younger readers may find comfortable.) It’s certainly a tool I’ll add my box for my recurring wonderings about meaning and bouts of foot-stamping idealism that brings my mood south. It’s a fine complement to my current regime of  meditation,  Pema Chödrön, a full-spectrum light, and kind companions who accompany me on this shared journey of life.

For more on how I manage the challenges of existential despair:

Strings Attached

018Birth is the start of a separation that most mothers long for, as gravid bellies grow beyond all believed limits and small hands, feet, head, and even pointy elbows poke the most intimate parts of their host. Nothing, for the pregnant woman, is done alone, and all that mom does during those 40 weeks is done with two beings in mind. But at the end, those weeks before birth, most moms are ready for the change to come, if only to experience less trips to the bathroom and to stop pushing that foot out from under her ribs. The first-time mom learns quickly that birth just changes rather than severs the connection.

Sure, squeeze-induced bathroom trips decrease in frequency after that first separation, but for the next oh-so-many years, they are rarely the private venture they used to be. And while babies out of the womb can be passed to another set of loving arms or even set down for at least a bit, they are persistently vocal about their preference, even when all the available arms full of groceries, in the shower, or holding onto someone else. And while we moms don’t do it with grace every time, we accept that our separation at birth was only the cutting of a single strand of connection. It was only the beginning.

And so it goes. That cord-cutting starts a cascade tiny separations. Weaning. Walking. Talking. Eating and toileting and dressing and bathing — with less and less assistance. Reading. Writing. Exploring the world and their place in it. Finding their own voice and learning to use it to show how separate they are from their parents and siblings. And all the time running away and coming back, more on elastic bands than string, with the furthest runs out followed by crashes back into the safety of a parent.

It’s not a linear process, and it’s often unclear when a given separation occurs. The child who spends weeks working solo suddenly wants mom by her side for math — every day. The boy who was saying goodnight to mom with little more than a quick and squirmy hug suddenly needs stories and conversations between the stuffed animals that returned to his bed after years of absence. No wonder it’s easy to be confused and conflicted about when and where and how to let go.

My older son is sixteen. He is a bit more man than boy everyday. I’ve not tucked him into bed in years, as his sleep cycle sends him to bed hours after my eyes close. He’s driving on a permit, taking college classes, and shaving (occasionally), and he spends much of his day in his office, a corner of the basement where interruptions are fewer and where, I guess, he feels more his own person. He’s working on the organizational skills required by college classes and the high school variety, a process that reminds me of whiplash. For days on end, all cylinders seem to be firing. Each time I check on him, he’s working on schedule or making adjustments as needed. I start to loosen my hold to the string that seems attached to his frontal lobe. I might even set it down for a bit.

And then it’s mayhem. Deadlines are missed. Assignments remain undone or not turned in. Test grades plummet. Alarms go unheeded. Chores are abandoned midway. 

And so I pick up the string, tie it around my wrist and pull. Hard. The resulting unpleasant collision of mother and son makes for all sort of ugly exchanges. I’m disappointed that he couldn’t maintain the organization needed for his life. I’m frustrated that I’m again his frontal lobe, which leaves me a bit short-handed for my own life. And I’m scared that he’ll not be able to manage just a few years down the road when I’m not so close to grab the string.

It’s that last part that’s the key. Separating is scary. Not separating is scary, too. As with the rest of parenting, there is no guidebook about when to let go. If my experiences are any indicator, there aren’t any clear rules. Strings are rarely cut outright or even set down with forethought and intention. Often, parent and child just set them down, either worn out from holding Most just slowly dissolve out disuse by both parent and child after some time on the ground, . It’s hard to see what separations have occurred without stepping back a good deal and seeing where you haven’t been in years. I’ve not tied his shoes in almost a decade. I don’t recall when last I cut his food, coaxed to shower, or thought twice about wondering if a household chore was within his ability set.

As he’s grown, we’ve formed other attachments, the sort where I need his assistance or occasions, those borne out of common interest. I’ve long turned to him for computer problems and other technical challenges, and he’s now the one who manages what’s up high and too heavy. There’s a comfort in this pattern of give and take, each of us with skills that help the other, an interdependence that feels somewhat similar to my relationships with other adults in my life. Somewhat.  He is still — and always be — my son. Strings attached.

Wrestling With Authority

Every day, I tell my kids what to do. Get in the shower. Pick up your dishes/clothes/books/shoes. Remember your English homework. Get ready for bed. Many of those requests begin with a “please,” but let’s face it. For most of us, “Please brush your teeth,” isn’t offering choice but rather a veneer of manners we hope helps our children that there are polite ways to tell someone what needs to be done when. “I’d appreciate it if you’d pick your dirty clothes up off the floor and put them in the hamper so they can be washed,” is just a sanitized, “Pick up your clothes.” It’s not an invitation to debate or discussion, and both child and parent know it.

But that’s not the kind of parenting I prefer. In the parenting world in my mind, we all do what we should because, well, we just should. We pick up our things and put them away because it is then easier to find them later. We do our respective jobs because they are simply our jobs to do or because they make our life as family better. We all brush our teeth because that’s good for our teeth. I pay the bills because it keeps the heat on and the keys to the house in our hands. We all take up the tasks of keeping that house intact, each to ability and time of life. And we never run out of ice cream or dark chocolate because that’s just not how we roll.

Yes, I have a rich fantasy life. It sustains me when I’m again reminding children to finish math, pick up socks, and place their own dishes in the dishwasher. I’ve pleaded my case for collaborative living and personal responsibility on numerous occasions, often being met with blank stares or, sometimes from my older, a ducked head, indicating a bit of remorse but no real idea what his crazy mom is requesting.

I’ve been known to struggle with authority. Not with appropriate authority — the kind that is given with respect, but not just the verbal trappings of respect. “Please” means nothing if paired with a useless, unreasonable, or impossible request. Where I’ve struggled with authority is where the authority is simply there for the sake of being authority. Authority should have purpose, and a person with authority should have wisdom and vision that those following the authority do not. 

Parents, theoretically, have that wisdom and vision. We are the first authority in our children’s lives, and most of feel ill-equipped as we wield use it. If we’re thinking as we parent, we wonder daily about when to exert authority and when to let go. Aside from the obvious health, safety, and legal points, knowing when to hold fast and when to let a child lead is largely a matter of opinion swayed by our own upbringing and our peers.  We’re charged with keeping our children alive until eighteen when, theoretically, they’ve gathered the knowledge and vision to move into the world with less parental prodding. How we interpret the vagaries of that job is up to us.

When I look back, the authority issues those first few years were simple, revolving around sleep, safety, and nutrition. The sleep issues bogged me down. My children weren’t big on naps. One just needed far less sleep that it seems a small child should, and one just found leaving mom’s moving arms too risky to chance. But I needed their naps. As an introverted mom, finding time to recharge alone was a priority for my own mental health. At many a nap time, I wondered who needed the naps more, me or the small child. But while you can lead a child to bed (or other comfy nap spot), you cannot make a child sleep. Not one to let my child cry it out for purpose or principle, I did what many moms do. I took to the car. Ah. Quiet for me. Rest for the little one.

Authority issues expanded as they grew. I found myself locked in ridiculous power struggles, which any thinking person would recognize as unmistakable signs of authority gone awry. Debating clothing color choices with a four-year-old is a sign of insanity, and yet, I found myself explaining the lifetime woe my older would experience if his idea of matching was to wear a red shirt with an almost-red pair of pants. Yes, I learned. Clothing — and hair length — aren’t areas where my wisdom or vision help one whit. I learned a bit about when to let go.

As the boys grew, I continued sometimes to explode into unneeded authority tantrums, bids for power, really, which is the not-so-virtuous cousin of authority. I say with minimal embarrassment that one pleasure I take in my professional life as a physician assistant is that people actually at least pretend to listen to my wisdom. Yeah, I know they don’t all go home to exercise, eat more fruits and vegetables, and quit smoking, but they often say they will. Shallow? Perhaps. But some days, I just want some recognition that have wisdom and vision in something.

Homeschooling added another arena for the authority question to flourish and, in some ways, raised the stakes to the authority game. While I live in a state with no reporting and no regulation, I have always been acutely aware of the level of responsibility I have educating my sons. What to teach, how to teach it, when to start and stop, how to assure their competence — how to decide what competence means — and much more is firmly in my hands. It’s daunting. Heck, it’s often overwhelming. As my older reaches the end of high school, it’s no less daunting to count credits and wonder where to balance his passions with what he’s not so passionate about. And it’s daunting to know when to let him lead and when to exert authority about his schedule.

So where’s the line? I don’t know. I think it’s different for every parent and every moment in time. While I appreciate the adage that a parent is the one who best knows his or her own child, it’s not that comforting when the parent knows perfectly well that skills ignored today are going to still be required in college in a few years. And just as I’d have been remiss for failing to remind my children at four to brush their teeth or to give another child a chance at the swings, I’d be equally remiss if I did not insist on balance to their education. Computer programming is not a sufficient curriculum for my older. He must learn to read with comprehension and write in a way that transmits information and is readable. My younger must ingest more than literature and history — some math and science are necessary for a well-rounded education.

Of course authority extends beyond academics when parenting older children. Curfew is just as much about respecting the needs of the rest of the family and your obligations the next day as it is drawing a line of “late enough”. Talking back, while mostly just annoying at home, is the possible precursor to disrespect to professors, bosses, and partners in years to come. And nothing about parenting teens excludes reminders about basic hygiene.

So I continue to wrestle with appropriate authority. I wonder when to let a child walk away from an activity and when to insist he try at least a few more months. I ponder whether to legislate bedtimes and waking times for those who find themselves with too few hours in a day for homework. I wrestle with choice — how much to give about coursework and free-time choices. All the while, I yearn to step down from the role of authoritarian, or at least to step back into a more supportive and collaborative role. It’s work, figuring out how to let children grow up and finding your place as they continually grow and change. It’s hard work, the sort that haunt a mom in the night, wondering to which side she’s erred the previous day. It leaves me wanting an authority of my own, an instruction manual, specific for each age and stage of my children.

But there’s nothing, of course. So I make my own way, blundering daily, stepping on their toes one moment and letting them wander too far the next, always wondering if they’ll be ready when it’s their time to leave the proverbial nest.  Wondering what they’ll think once firmly ensconced in their adulthood about the level of authority they experienced at home. Wondering and just wanting them to be okay.

Chip Clip Ed: A Curriculum My Children Need

I opened the pantry this morning for “a little something” as Winnie the Pooh would say. As I dug through our snack shelf, searching for the almonds I’d clipped shut last night, I ran across a bag of pretzels, or should I say a bag that once held more than six stale pretzels, with a chip clip mid bag, holding on by its corner to one side of the bag only. It appeared to be there for ornamentation only. Oh, where to begin?

My children are smart — brilliant at times. They talked early and prolifically, mused about life and death and the meaning of both before kindergarten, fell deeply into subjects like Ancient Roman history and meteorology before the lost their first baby teeth, and generally show all the signs of being smart cookies. They can — and do — vacuum, dust, and sweep. Alas, it seems the more mundane practical life skills — the chip clip variety of skills — correlate poorly with high scores on IQ and achievement tests. As I enroll my older in advanced computer programming classes while musing on my younger’s need for more rigorous writing curriculum, I wonder how these children will survive in the world, or at least how they’ll ever have cereal that isn’t soggy before the milk hits it.

Here’s what I want: classes to teach them the basics of surviving and even thriving in the world. It’s a simple enough request, isn’t it? And should they partner later in life, it seems important that they master a few basic skills. Here’s what I want for them:

How to Keep Good Food From Going Bad:  After an opening exercise of rummaging through the back of the pantry for lonely chip clips and empty bags, beginners will attend sessions such as  “How to Use a Chip Clip” and “Folding Bags Within Boxes: It’s Not Just for Cereal.” Advanced topics would include “Matching Container Size to Leftovers,” “Successful Zipping of Food Bags,” and “Proper Storage of Unfinished Liquids.” Prerequisites: Ability to use a chip clip without self-injury. Or not. They seem to learn quickly.

Exploring the Concept of Empty: The concept of zero challenged great thinkers until about 2500 years ago, so it’s not surprising kids struggle with the practical aspect of zero: the empty container. Enroll now for sessions such as “When the Dredge of Milk Isn’t Even Enough for Mom’s Coffee,” “The Last Three Mini Wheats: An Early Morning Conundrum,” and “Depression and Anger: The Consequences of Disappointment When Picking Up the Empty Box”.

Beyond Empty: Remove, Recycle, Replace: Now that they can identify empty and the consequences of the concept, students in this advanced class learn about choosing the appropriate waste disposal method and replacement of key items, like toilet paper and tissue boxes. Extra credit is given for alerting the family procurer of items out of stock. Lecture titles include “Toilet Paper Planning: Saving Embarrassment and Maintaining Privacy,” “From Cupboard to Bin: Preparing Materials for Recycling,” and the ever-popular, “Empty Boxes Don’t Refill: A Study of the Replacement Process.”

Laundry Myths and Facts: No, there is no laundry fairy. Convince your child with stimulating and sense-intense topics like “Balled Socks and Jeans with Inside Out Legs Don’t Come Clean,” “Finders Keepers: Laundry as and Entrepreneurial Endeavor,” and “Washed Gum and Crayons Affect Us All.” Advanced students may move onto “Putting it Away” (syllabus below)

Putting it Away– Socks, Spoons, and More: Taught in the individual’s home, this course will show your child just where everything goes. This course covers everything, from  laundry (“Drawer or Hamper? How to Discern Where That Garment Goes”) to dishes (“Look Before You Load: Are Those Dishes Clean?” and the more advanced “Cupboards and Drawers: A Place for Everything”).  Special attention will be paid to returning chip clips to their proper place after use.  An interactive session on using hangers and closing drawers is included.

Where is It?: Children often lose what is in sight. This course addresses both ends of lost items — looking effectively and putting things where they belong. Attention to personal property is the focus in this follow-up to “Putting it Away.” Schoolwork, musical instruments, sports equipment, and other items are addressed in the session “Yes, There’s A Place for It.” For what does not get put away properly, we offer, “I Have to Look the Same Way You Do,” a course emphasizing the personal responsibility of the one who lost the item. “Search Strategies: Standing in the Middle of the Room is Not Searching” addresses challenging issues, such as  the last place one had the item, actually looking under that heap of papers on the table, and searching for more than 30 seconds before panicking.

Watercloset Wisdom: Does your child leave the bathroom a scene akin to the aftermath of a Category 5 hurricane? Do you need a Hazmat suit to enter? Whether you share a bathroom with your offspring or not, this course can help. “When Toothpaste Escapes” focuses on management of the tube, from cap replacement to sink (or floor) wiping for accidents. “Towel and Washcloth Management: Only You Can Prevent Mold and Mildew” and ” Close the Curtain Tight!” are public health and safety classes included in the curriculum. Boys may attend an additional session on apparatus control, seat placement, and flushing. Repeat attendees welcome.

I sense I’m not alone. Many of you are also raising smart kids who have difficulty applying mathematical, scientific, and psychological concepts to daily life despite (and I bet you keep checking, too) amazingly high test scores. That same child who can rescue you from your latest computer crash CAN learn to recycle the empty granola bar box. It just takes the right curriculum.

Review: Brave Writer (Help for High School)

I’m fascinated with writing curriculum. Since I started teaching writing, I’ve had the chance to sample several. No, I’ve not found the one that works for everyone, but I am developing a sense of what might make a good match for a particular student. This fall, a family wanted to try Brave Writer’s Help for High School, by Julia Bogart,  for their gifted twelve-year-old. I’d long wanted to see a Brave Writer title, given the rave reviews and supposed ease of use, so I eagerly purchased a copy, read it through, and started to work through it with the young man.

Brave Writer’s Help for High School is supposed to “help teens learn how to think, argue, and create their own powerful writing at the same time.” It’s aimed for a teen to read and work through independently, with the parent as “ally” (the author’s word), available for support and conversation while also editing and marking assignments for clarity and thoroughness. Two essay types are addressed, a closed form essay (the traditional formal essay of academic writing) and the open form essay (more informal with the thesis less obviously stated and with a more literary bent). Bogart adds a third category, a hybrid of sorts, which she calls investigative essay writing (or later, an exploratory essay), which seems to be an examination of a problem or question without a specific thesis. An expository essay (closed form and argumentative) follows, with materials on paraphrasing and summary.

Help for High School is broken into two parts, Preparation for Essay Writing and Essay Writing. For each module (chapter), the student reads the material and does some writing. For the first half of the book, most of this writing is personal and highly informal. The purpose seems to be to relax the student and encourage thinking about subjects from different angles. For all the assignments, the student picks the topic, a practice I’ve used in my teaching, since it increases engagement in the material and, for the reluctant students, at least provides a point of enjoyment in what otherwise may seem like an onerous task. Assignments in the first section are designed to help students make associations between topics and their own beliefs, values, and experiences. She stretches students to come up with, for example, colors and shapes that indicate confusion for the student or names of people the student thinks of when thinking of the word greed. While some of this brainstorming and prewriting leads to slightly longer assignments, most is done and set aside, with a focus on the process of generating ideas and thoughts rather than developing those ideas and thoughts into a full piece of writing. There is a sense of “trust the process” through this first half of the book, which can be challenging to sell to a critical young thinker who wants the whole picture from the start.

In the second half, the essay writing portion, the assignments gradually shift. Attention to asking a meaningful question to explore comes first, with an assignment of a  first-person essay that simply looks at a question from many angles with no clear thesis or outcome. As she approaches the expository essay, she raises the question of thesis with tension, and this is where I feel Help for High School is at its strongest. Bogart differentiates between topic and thesis quite well, attention well-deserved, since many a student essay falls flat for lack of a strong thesis that matters. Her attention to support (which she calls points)  and details to support those points (particulars) leads to an outline format that should guide a writer to producing a more organized essay that stays on track. Paraphrasing and summarizing receive a module, but, despite examples of direct quotations in the sample essay, quotations do not. She briefly covers introductions and conclusions as well as essay structure for the five-paragraph essay. MLA citations are mentioned and used in an example but not taught. Formality, addressed fairly thoroughly, is mentioned much earlier in the text and would be more appropriate within the essay writing portion of the text. It goes unused early on, where the writing is personal, and its lessons could easily be forgotten. This portion of Help for High School is a fairly strong yet far too brief introduction to the essay.

Overall, however, I’m disappointed. As a reader and writer of exploratory and expository essays and teacher of the expository essay, I hoped for more time spent on the academic (expository or argumentative) essay and less on lists of associations, personal anecdotal writing, and informal free writing. Her section on the expository essay itself — the sort of essay needed for high school and beyond — is but a small portion of the book.  I do think this text from Brave Writer could be helpful for an emotive child willing to brainstorm, free write, and associate creatively to see how those associations can move from thought to essay.  Much of the first section of the book, however, is intensely personal, and for a sensitive or private kid, the assignments are just too revealing, even if they are only viewed by Mom or a tutor. Given that sort of writing is exactly what won’t be acceptable in academic circles, I question the emphasis. Brave Writer’s Help for High School is, however, gentle. If the goal is to move a comfortable writer who doesn’t mind the level of sharing the text requires, then it succeeds. There are, I’m sure, many emotive writers needing to transition to academic writing for whom this curriculum would be useful.

The program is remarkably homeschooling- and teen-friendly. The language is designed to be accessible to the teen and to feel conversational. Since I’m not a teen, I’m not certain how her audience perceives her assumptions about teen interests and stances on a variety of subjects, but she certainly tries to appeal to that audience. Some of her topic suggestions (and one of the two formal essay examples) are about homeschooling issues specifically, while others are about topics she thinks might matter to teenage homeschoolers.

This is a secular curriculum. Bogart spends a few pages on writing and faith, noting that “the vast majority” of the homeschoolers she knows are Christian. Early in the book, she differentiates between apologetics and strong academic argument clearly and firmly without putting down the importance of faith in the lives of her students. She weaves in a discussion on audience, encouraging writers to consider the appropriateness of apologetics or reliance on the Bible as evidence for a statement. While there are mentions of religious belief in some of the essay and other writing examples, they are not present in the two formal expository samples and aren’t likely to be a problem for anyone, secular or religious.

Help for High School, $80 through the Brave Writer site carries a hefty price tag for a 166 page PDF file, although it is often on sale on the Homeschool Buyers Co-op for far less. It can be used, says the author, in as little as 6 to 8 weeks or stretched out over longer than a semester. Certainly many of the sections could be done more than once with different subjects, although this is true with most writing curricula.

Would I teach from Help for High School again? Yes, with the right student. With a willing writer comfortable with personal disclosure and open-ended assignments that don’t lead to a finished project, this would be an interesting and likely productive book for transitioning from personal, informal writing to the formal essay. Overall, I prefer more formal tomes: Essay VoyageAdvanced Academic Writing, or They Say, I Say (to be reviewed later). These moved quickly to the sort of academic writing young people need for high school coursework and beyond. And should the writer choose to write personal essays in his or her leisure time, say as a blogger about homeschooling, the lessons learned in academic writing transfer well to more literary writing. Despite her statement to the contrary (“…none of us will read expository essays for pleasure…”), this book has something to offer with the right student and with plenty of deeper essay exploration to follow.

 

 

What Anxiety Looks Like

Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 9.22.23 PMDespite a fantastic first day of his afternoon Montessori class, my older son, age four, grew quieter the morning of the second day of class. He dawdled through lunch and, tears appeared each day as the time to leave approached. I’d reassured him, reminding of him how happy he came out each day, a day he’d walked in with confidence, eyes dry. I asked what was wrong.

Eyes full, face tight with emotion, he confessed: “I’m worried.”

“What are you worried about?” I probed.

“I’m worried that I’m going to get worried while I’m there,” came his reply.

If metacognition is thinking about thinking, this must be meta-anxiety. We talked and continued our daily treks to school, where his teacher reassured me that his anxious expression faded within the first half hour each day, at which point he fell into the rhythm of the prepared environment and stimulation of the Montessori classroom.  That was vaguely reassuring, although I couldn’t shake the sting I felt when looking on his anxious face every day for three weeks, at which point, it seems, worrying about worrying wasn’t necessary.

Twelve years later, that expression is still all too familiar in our house. As an intermittently anxious mom who parents two anxious kids, I’ve watched anxiety in all forms. Too often anxious feelings go unspoken. They can get lost in the frustration feeling tied by one’s emotion.  It can come out upside down, inside out, and sideways, presentations that require a mental contortionist with a sharp eye to recognize.  It can cry and scream and hide and even vomit. It never fails to break my heart.

Anxiety looks like physical illness. It can be the recurring stomach ache or headache that drives a child to bed due to severity. It can look like an approaching cold or flu or case of food poisoning, and separating out what is what can press a mom’s skills of detection. This is not feigned illness. The headache of anxiety is as painful as one from sinus pressure or severe muscle tension. The stomach distress can keep one tied to a bathroom much like the aftereffects of an aged burrito from a street vendor. The chest pain and palpitations drive many an adult, certain death is imminent, to the emergency room. Anxiety and its sibling, panic attacks are as debilitating as the organic diseases they mimic. Classes are missed. Play dates are cancelled. Sleep is lost. More confusing yet, the symptoms can begin after the bout of anxiety ends. Adrenaline may help us outrun the saber tooth tiger, but we pay a price for its untimely release that so often occurs with anxiety.

Anxiety looks like resistance and noncompliance. Anxious children can be avoidant children. Avoiding what is causing anxiety — a difficult piano piece or a math assignment that just might be challenging — doesn’t help, of course. The dreaded assignment reaches gargantuan proportions with avoidance, and delay generally means the work, when finally done, is done under pressure of time, thus producing more anxiety. The piano piece never practiced because it might be too hard causes anxiety at each practice, anxiety that builds as the next lesson approaches. Quiet avoiders may fly under the radar until the next lesson or the day of a test, when anxiety then flairs. More overt avoiders may find themselves in constant (anxiety-provoking) conflict with a parent or instructor.

Anxiety looks like anger. Anxious children can tantrum — screaming, crying, arguing, and even physically lashing out when faced with the powerless feeling that anxiety can bring. Being loud and mad can bring a semblance of control that is, of course, not control at all but often complete lack of it. With the focus moved from the source of anxiety to the misdeeds of all those around the child : mom, who said I had to do it, my brother, who just happens to be in the way, him or self, because being angry seems better than being scared. The wake of the anger can become the focus for all involved, with consequences meted out to children without control of their flood of emotions.

Anxiety looks like sadness. Anxiety can walk with depression. It’s hard to be anxious all the time. Anxiety is exhausting. Anxiety can take a child away from new experiences, because anxious children will avoid what might be fun if the risk appears too great. When anxiety about a new experience – joining a club, attending a sleepover, riding the roller coaster – pride and confidence may develop. But for some anxious children, brave attempts to try something new are met with anxiety that makes enjoyment impossible. It’s easy to feel like a failure, and that can lead to sadness.

And sometimes, anxiety look like anxiety. The keyed-up child who keeps asking if he is safe during each thunderstorm, checking forecasts and windows. The child who, before vaccinations, asks for weeks what day the dreaded shot is, losing sleep the nights before and breaking down in hysterical tears before the actual event. The preschooler who cries each morning before preschool starts, because he saw someone else cry on the first day, so there must be something to worry about.  And sometimes, kids can give it voice.

“I’m feeling anxious, Mom.”

Those words bring me hope and relief. Not for the anxiety itself. I’m sorry my kids worry about what worrying won’t help, and I’m sorry anxiety keeps them from doing all they’d like to do. But that they can express it — identify it and share it — makes me hopeful that they’re learning to cope with what for each of them has been at times a debilitating condition.  And that makes me just a bit less anxious about them.

For more posts about life with twice exceptional (2e) kids, visit this month’s Gifted Homeschooler’s Forum Blog Hop list.