Heroic Homeschooling

(Thanks to Kirsten Lesko, author of quirky and laughing, for helping me out of my funk.)

A reader and fellow blogger recently commented that my homeschooling was a heroic act. I protested, but she pressed, giving me a hurrah for following my instincts.  I thought that through for a moment, then resumed my doubting. Many days, I find myself questioning where I am and why I’m here homeschooling my kids. I spend too much time worrying that I’m not doing enough for one child, or perhaps I’m doing too much for another. Either tact I take confirms my worst fears:  that I’m failing my kids.

Yes, I know that’s unlikely, but I often find myself caught in the “what’s going wrong” loop. I’m an optimistic person by nature, but I also have an exasperating tendency to look for fault. I can temper much of that tendency in public, but when my eye turns to my life, the fault-finder runs full-strength. Lately, my focus has been on what’s going wrong on the homeschooling front. I don’t expect it to all run smoothly all the time, but lately I’m seeing  holes in their homeschooling experience, and I’m panicking.

My older is 14, and if he were in school, he’d be in ninth grade.  Ninth grade.  That’s high school.  That’s transcript time. He doesn’t have one of those. In a fit of panic at the start of the year, I solicited my homeschooling high school mom-friends for templates of their transcripts.  While waiting for replies, I scoured the internet, searching of the perfect form on which to lodge his pertinent data. It’s not really the form that matters: it’s what goes on the form. I feel myself in mental free-fall, wondering if we’ve been doing anything in these last seven years.

So what’s the big deal about the transcript? First, I haven’t graded much of their work.  Sure, my older’s taken math tests and received grades for them since he started Algebra, several years back. And I graded his high school biology and chemistry tests (4 for each class).  But the rest of his work has gone ungraded, although hardly unevaluated.  Papers, lab reports, and problem sets are returned with places needing corrections marked. I look for improvement and mastery of the material at hand, not perfection. This means some papers go through two or three edits while others stop at one.  When the learning goal is reached, the assignment is done.

Sometimes we mutually agree when enough is enough. Sometimes neither of us can look at an assignment one more time without suffering all sorts of ills, and at that point, we’ll generally call it done. Those events often indicate that we have a gap between what I thought he could do and what he can do. If I view that gap constructively, I can structure the next assignment and intervening learning events to take steps to close that gap. But if I’m in a panicky state, I just, well, panic. And then go online to look for more transcript forms.

Given this method of evaluating our homeschooling, it’s hard to make a meaningful transcript template.  I’m too aware that “Mommy grades” aren’t helpful to future colleges — I don’t imagine too many homeschooling parents grant a “C” or lower, and I’d bet that the B’s are few and far between as well. I can’t see just pulling a grade out of the air, besides, with my tendency to see what’s not working, I’d likely seriously run my son’s GPA right into the ground.

Likely, that won’t matter.  Next fall, he’ll take a class or two at local university, a place where they’ll grade him without bias and with an organized plan. That’s my other panic point.  I’m a fairly organized homeschooler, but I retain a flexibility that defies the confines of the four-quarter school year that makes transcript-making easy. Ever since we started homeschooling, I’ve made mid-course directions with my older, leaving behind what wasn’t working for us and adjusting repeatedly to his rather hard-to-define learning challenges and nebulous learning style. When I don’t think about transcripts and college applications, this ever-shifting style works for me. The optimist in me is always sure that this shift or change will make the difference. And often, it does, at least for a while.

But ninth grade is here.  Try as I might, I can’t figure out how to explain much less evaluate with a single number or letter what he’s done this year. And my focus keeps centering on what’s missing. While some of our subject studies stand alone, many others merge together, with “English” wandering across the curriculum and “History” being a conglomeration of experiences that taught him much but defy grading. When I start to write it all down, all I see are the holes — the class left mid-year (for good reasons), the books unfinished, the continued lack of a foreign language despite honest attempts to find a way for that subject to work for him. My brain floods with the implications of my neglect.

A few days back, a day that benevolent commenter bestowed me with the title “heroic,” a forum I frequent carried a thread asking for what was going well for homeschooling families. As I read through the replies, I felt a bit of confidence and, dare I say it, hope. What is going well?  With that, my thoughts shifted.

For my older, piano is going well. He managed to successfully negotiate a new approach to his piano education, one that respects his desire to play more of the romantics and her concerns about him learning the technique to play a greater repertoire than his current fascination. His joy for the instrument returned, which is reflected in his practice, and he furthered his self-advocacy skills as well. He’s also taken an interest in politics, spurred somewhat by the election season and well-supported by a history class on American history and Middle-East/US relations he takes.  Somewhere in the past few months, he went from giving me a rather brief reporting of class topics to a longer discourse on a host of issues, illustrating an understanding that allows him to apply the events of the past to the present. And somewhere along the line, he became quite useful in solving my computer woes, a skill that happened completely without me.

My younger, whose struggles with the social dynamics life requires seems to be increasing lately, has written and published his first novel and continues to take in history in large gulps, filling much of his spare time with books, videos, and writing centered around history. By all measures, he’s academically thriving.  However, my attention often moves to what is not working, the ways his struggling emotionally and socially.  It took a stranger’s question to refocus me on what was going well.

I’m no hero.  I’m just a parent working hard to meet the needs of her kids. I am fallible and occasionally fatalistic while remaining generally optimistic. I see my children as imperfect and yet totally amazing creatures, realistic views, I think. Perhaps the heroic, or at least brave,  moments come when we allow ourselves to see the whole picture of our children and ourselves, the good and the bad, and still continue to try, not letting one overwhelm the other. It’s the balance of lessons from the past and vision for the future, with a huge dose of staying in the crazy, wonderful, terrible moments we are in now.

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Revolutions: Self-Taught History

My younger, now ten,  is in the midst of a Revolutionary War (the American kind) binge.  He’s been not so patiently waiting to start his third semester of American History courses via Online G3 — the course that covers the bulk of that war and covers Joy Hakim’s History of US (second half of volume 3 – 5). His excitement started to build when his fall US History class covered the French and Indian War, and he’s spent much of the last month and a half devouring everything he can on that time period.

History has been my younger’s primary interest since he was five, when he fell in love with all things Ancient Greek and Roman.  From there, he moved to the Middle Ages, Continue reading

NaNoWriMo Part III: The Final Product

(Part I recalls the start of his writing process, moving from reluctant writer to willing novelist.  Part II discusses the editing process.  Part III.V covers e-book publication.)

He’s published.  My ten-year-old son self-published his NaNoWriMo novel through CreateSpace just a month and a half after finishing is 12,000 word book.  It took an intense month of writing followed by a challenging month of rewriting and editing, but Grand River Hotel is available in paperback at Amazon.

I’m obscenely proud of him.  He’s pleased and quite modest, although he likes to remind me he’s the first in our house to be published.  CreateSpace proved to be relatively simple to use, taking us from his story on the computer (originally written on Google Docs for greater portability from laptop to Mac to Dad’s house) to print with minimum pain and wailing on my part. CreateSpace offered a host of cover designs and art, templates for Microsoft Word, and decent support along the way.  (He did all the writing work and cover design and text.  I did the data transfer from Google Docs to Microsoft Word then to their layout software.  It wasn’t tricky, but each edit once it was in their format took a few somewhat tedious steps.)

Anyway, it’s done.  Five free copies are on their way, thanks to a NaNoWriMo code he received for meeting his writing goal, although we’ll likely order a few more for unsuspecting relatives.  I’d like to report it’s available in e-book formation, but the price point for doing that was a bit steep via CreateSpace and the reformatting a bit much for me via Kindle Direct Publishing, at least now.  His biggest thrill?  Having he own ISBN number.  He’s proud of his accomplishment – writing a novel and surviving a few edits – but that number seems to bring the greatest satisfaction.

His next project?  The next book in the Grand River Hotel series is underway, but the author is otherwise occupied lately.  With the rush of NaNoWriMo gone, he’s moved on to a deep study of the Revolutionary War, including daily private re-enactments in the living room (so private, my older son and I are not welcome to enter).  I’ve hinted that he may want to try a piece of historical fiction, and he’s mulling that over.  Whatever he decides, he’s gained significantly from the writing, editing, and self-publishing process over the last three months.  Now it’s time for his mom to catch up.

Behavior is Communication

Behavior is communication.  That’s a maxim more recently held among many parents of autistic spectrum kids. It’s certainly true with my Aspie son.  His behavior is my best indicator of internal milieu.  While my younger son is verbally precocious and his output, um, prolific, it’s his behavior that tells me what’s really going on.  When I see him chewing his shirt or blanket, I know he’s needing to soothe himself.  That behavior isn’t random, and it isn’t there to drive me nuts.  It may appear to be both of those things, but it’s not.  It’s communication and coping mechanism wrapped into one.  Holes and soggy clothing aside, it’s not a terribly problematic behavior, and he’s glad to substitute a piece of gum when asked.

Some behaviors are less clear.  Breakdowns during lessons require more detective work and rarely related to the assigned work.  When he becomes teary during a page of math problems, fatigue and anxiety are often to blame.  The anxiety may be about an upcoming flu shot, global warming, or his birthday.  Even fun stuff causes anxiety, since it also entails change. But his behavior for all is pretty much the same — teariness for assignments he generally manages well and resistance to all demands.  In the last year, thanks to growth, good therapy, and low-dose medication, with prompting he’s often able to identify the problem and work through.   We didn’t have this a year ago, but not just because he was struggling to express himself.

I wasn’t listening as well then.  I was listening for words, words in response to, “What’s wrong?”  I was watching for body language that matched his words, and the match wasn’t there.  I wasn’t considering the behaviors themselves to be communication.  Oh, I knew that certain behaviors meant he was distressed.  But the tantrums and all tended to overwhelm me, making it hard for me to really listen to what his behavior was saying.  I saw the meltdown, the chewing, the foot tapping, and I just felt frustrated.  Frustrated that I didn’t know what was wrong.  Frustrated at the behavior, which was often loud and large. Frustrated at the interruption in our lives, which occurred nearly every day.

When I can remember that behavior is communication, I can respond initially to what is being communicated, not to the behavior.  No, I don’t tolerate violent acts to people or property.  And yes, behavior does have consequences.  But we do the best around here when I listen to what he’s really communicating.  When I recognize the anxiety, fear, anger, or sorrow behind the behavior, I can respond to that. When he identifies the emotions behind his behavior (which often takes help), he’s more likely to shift away from more problematic behaviors.    Also, there are some behaviors best let be.  I’m delighted my son has found ways to calm himself, even if one of those ways is chewing his shirts to pieces.  He spent more than half of his life without any of those independent mechanisms, requiring me to soothe him.  I still do help him out, cuddling or just being near when needed, but finding ways to manage that oneself is a task of growing up.

Behavior is communication.  This holds true for my older son.  At fourteen, he has plenty of ability to express his feelings, but, whether due to gender, age, or temperament, he often doesn’t say much.  He speaks volumes when he retreats to his room to read –again.  Even missed assignments and failed tests give me information as to his state of mind and mood.  It’s harder for me to see his behavior as communication, perhaps because, in general, he communicates his feelings in words more readily than his brother.  But his behavior towards his academic work or music studies are a window into his heart and mind, one that as a mom to a teen, I’m glad to have available.  As with my younger, I try to verify my understanding of a behavior.  Did he not finish work because it was too hard, because he was bored, or because he has bigger matters on his mind?  This isn’t an out to assignments he doesn’t want to do — life requires us to do plenty that we’d rather avoid.  (My examples to my boys include cleaning toilets, cooking meals each day, and showing up for work on time.)

It’s far too easy to jump on the behavior — the tantrum, the late or sloppy work, the retreat to a room — rather than to examine the communication behind the behavior.  It takes a fair amount of self-restraint to block the initial (often negative) reaction to the behavior and think for a moment and ask aloud what’s going on. It takes some patience to help a child sort through their hearts and minds, but it’s worth it.

The more I try to see behavior as communication, the less conflict we have around here.  It decreases my yelling and their whining.  And, to my delight, it increases their ability to identify and share their feelings before they wash over into their behavior.  That makes for a more peaceful home, which we all appreciate.

Secret:  This works with adults, too, but adults tend to be more guarded about their emotions and have stronger ego-defenses.  Strong reactions and grownup tantrums are rarely about anyone but the one having the snit. At least remembering that can help you de-escalate and keep your own behavior in check.

Word Games

That's my score on the right, making for three losses in row.

“Aren’t you proud of how well your children play Quiddler?” my older asked this morning.  

“Sure,” I replied while losing again to his ten-year-old brother.  Admittedly, I agreed through gritted teeth, since I like to win just as much as I like to be right.  However, my sons’ growing prowess with words delights me, wordsmith that I am.  At the start of our homeschooling experience, science and math ruled the house. Looking back, I can see they dominated our plans and energy at home mostly because they weren’t as easily available in school.  For years, science, math, and history were our subjects of focus.  I worked language arts into the edges for many years. However, in the last year, there’s been a swing toward all things wordy. Continue reading

NaNoWriMo, Part II

(Part I explains how my reluctant writer turned novelist.  Part III and III.V cover the sometimes painful editing and publishing process.)

November 30th came and went without much fanfare.  My younger son met his 10,000 word goal for National Novel Writing Month’s Young Writer’s Program on the 29th, so we’d hoorayed and back-patted a day earlier.  It was the 30th when he actually finished his story, which turned out to be 11,007 words.  We cheered that accomplishment, too, but meeting his word and being declared a winner on the site was the joy of the 29th.

What to do next? Continue reading

Ready or Not!

In Michigan, public schools start the day after Labor Day.  It’s a tourism issue, encouraging folks to travel the state for the last weekend of summer, and many private schools start weeks earlier, allowing longer breaks mid year and an earlier end date.  Since a later start and an early finish sound good to me (heck, who learns anything in school in June?), we start after Labor Day and end around Memorial Day, with a few loose ends that we promise to each other to finish in the summer but generally don’t.  So, according to my calendar, we’re less than two weeks from Day 1, and I’ve been planning their work and our end-of-summer activities with that timeline in mind.  Aside from an online class starting this week and three more starting next week, all which I only realized yesterday (What?  The online homeschooling teacher in California doesn’t follow the Michigan public school schedule?) , all is on target.

Kind of.  I have severe pre-homeschooling school year jitters.  Severely severe.  Insomnia producing, anxious cuticle picking, crabby-when-spoken-to jitters.

I don’t usually feel this way.  Generally, I’m excited about our start.  Returning to routine generally soothes me.  This year, the thought of fall just gives me the heebie jeebies.  This summer, while packed with fun stuff like Stunt Camp, SUUSI, good times with friends, and trips to see grandparents, was just too busy.  My younger son with Asperger’s does not transition well, and busy trips away followed by quiet time at home really throws him off.  Heck, I don’t transition well.  Every week has been different this summer, with no semblance of routine at all.  Somehow this summer, we forgot to relax, or perhaps we did that in the first half, and the effects have worn off already.

It’s more than that.  Last year was far from stellar.  Both boys were plagued with executive function challenges, with my older revealing how much he really needs assistance with planning and scheduling and my younger struggling with compliance and anxiety (he’s poor at the compliance and good at the anxiety).  All around, I was glad to see that year behind us.  But the question of how to make this year better all around continues to plague me.  I’ve involved them when planning solutions to those problems, although I’m not sure this will actually change our outcome, as their insight to the problems of last year is a bit foggy given their difficulties with (here’s the refrain) executive function.

My younger wants a schedule that gives the times he’s to do things.  His main concern with a simple to-do list is that he won’t get it all done and be able to do what he wants to do.  Never mind that Mom is pretty good at knowing how long assignments should take for her kids.  Never mind that the day is long and his homeschooling day, if he stayed on task, would be fairly short.  I’ve agreed to give this a try, but I can smell the anxiety in the air when his schedule says math at 9 am and he’s still finishing spelling at 9:05.  This is not a flexible child.  As I said, I’ll try his way, but I have my reservations.

My older wants a daily task list.  As I posted last school year, he and I have tried a variety of planners on paper and the computer with no success for more than a day or two.  Last year, we ended up using the low-tech white board.  I don’t object to the whiteboard, but he took to erasing items that were only partially done, which hampered his ability to remember to finish them later.  Also, I did all the list making, and I think, at 14 and technically 9th grade, he should be learning to keep track of his life just a bit more than that system allowed.  I’m again playing with planners for the iTouch, but I’m still not impressed.  I’ve started using Opus Domini on the Mac, which is the simplest interface for scheduling I’ve yet to find, but that’s yet to be released for the iTouch or iPad, and I have no idea if it will work for him.  Since little of what works for me works for him, I’m keeping my enthusiasm in check.  Whether we schedule on paper, white board, or computer, I’ll be looking for ways to gradually turn the reins over to him.

My planning is another bugaboo this fall.  I’m designing a course for my older son on Earth Science and Meteorology (the latter to a greater depth than a general college level Earth Science class would go, since he’s been studying the subject independently since he was six).  In addition to science, I’ll incorporate history, literature, and composition into the course with and underlying focus on note taking and study skills.  Whew.  He’s quite interested in how weather and geologic events have affected history, so we’ll focus on the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the Little Ice Age, famine and drought across the ages, and more, while learning how to write an academic paper.  I’m enthused but cautious.  Last year, we dropped so much, somewhat due to my giving him more responsibility than he was ready to take and somewhat due to Life Circumstances Beyond Our Control.  Life has settled, and I’m returning him to my side for more of his learning until he has the skills to be more successful on his own.  Still, I’m worried.  Have I put in enough material?  Have I put in too much?  How do I teach study skills when I never remember learning them?  When am I going to find the time to read all these books at the same time he does?  I could go on,  but I’m sure you get the idea.

I have less planning concerns about my younger’s studies, since his three online classes this fall limit my planning to science, composition, math, spelling, and handwriting.  After we tie up a few loose ends for Chemistry, he’ll start Earth Science, too.  I’ve done little to plan for that yet, but the course is clearer there, given we’re using a standard text with labs and all.  I’ll flesh it out with videos, current events, and other readings, but the big work is done by the textbook folks.  Somehow, I continue to feel anxious, but most of that focuses around his compliance issues.

Ready or not, our school year is fast approaching.  While we don’t have the rush to find new clothes and hunt down a long list of school supplies all while filling out the mounds of paperwork that go with sending a child to an actual school, we have our own angst as the school year starts.  And despite my worries, each time a store clerk or stranger says, “Hey, at least they go back to school soon,” I smile, grateful that we’re doing that at home.

Happy new homeschool school year, for all those who see September as a beginning.  I’d love to hear from you about your concerns or joys about your new starts, whether they are in fall or some other time.

Sorta Summer (Home)School

We’re not year-round homeschoolers.  I know year-round homeschoolers and admire their tenacity.  Several times a year I consider the merits of homeschooling.  In later December and all of May, our homeschool efforts are rather lax.  In August, as we tire of the heat, I consider starting school, nixing the idea as we head out on vacation or to see our friends on a traditional schedule.

In short, it’s not going to happen.  I do, however, have some conviction that a bit of formal education should occur in the summer.  Both my boys are finally read abundantly.  My older goes in fits and spurts and prefers nonfiction and comic collections, while my younger prides himself on devouring fiction.  There skills have long been high enough that I’ve not worried about their summer selections.  In return, they don’t concern themselves with what I read, although picking up a book and sitting down seems to say,”Come talk to Mom,” in a way only rivaled by me taking a phone call.

Math, however, is not a spontaneous activity for my guys.  Okay, my older uses plenty of math in his chemistry and woodworking explorations, and my younger spouts off with mathematical witticisms. But in the house, if you’re pre-geometry, you must dip into the Math Can regularly during the summer.  Click the link if you want the long story, but in short, the Math Can is a can of math problems.  Randomly pick 15 pieces of paper from the can each week, and complete them.  Easy peasy.  No putting unwanted problems back.  Help from mom is okay.

My older continues work on ALEKS Pre-Calc.  He had a less-than-productive year (can you hear the tears and agony in that clause!?), and thus math continues.  ALEKS, an online math program I’ll review soon, does NOT involve mom, making it an ideal way to keep working when mom needs a break from formal instruction.  He’s fine with the arrangement of at least 3 hours a week online, and I know he’s filling in the gaps.

I had grand visions of reading Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World each morning to the boys, but we’ve only made it through the first chapter.  Since morning means something different to each one of us, and since the mornings we all rise early are karate days, we’re unlikely to meet this goal of mine.   Perhaps we just have the wrong book, but it’s a bit early in it to make that judgement.

I’d love to report that the boys have academically oriented summer plans for hours of independent study, but unless Star Wars Miniatures and Minecraft are far more academic than I’ve seen thus far, I’m unable to make that claim.  My older says he has some woodworking ideas in his head, and chemistry is still a regular weekly feature with his Science Friday pals.  Pair that with plenty of meteorology self-study, and I feel a bit better.  My younger is consuming Erin Hunter’s Warrior series at a startling rate, and that’s leading to field trips to local libraries, since interlibrary loan isn’t connecting him with the goods quickly enough.  He remains my history buff, and he has bursts of reading and watching videos about ancient, medieval, and modern history.  He’s still quite the sponge.

But what am I doing over the summer to keep my skills sharp?  My domestic prowess (insert snicker or snort here) receives daily work-outs, but this summer extends to some larger projects aimed at maintaining this 70+ year abode.  I’m keeping three blogs now, having recently added Asperger’s at Home (parenting and homeschooling my younger son, who is on the autistic spectrum) to my list of places to write to avoid writing for publication other than my own blogs.  So far, it’s serving that purpose quite well, thank you.  Readership is slow to build, but hopefully it will catch more followers as time goes on.

I’m also trying to run regularly, which now means three times a week.  I don’t like it yet, but those in the know saw that will come with time.  Along with some infrequent yoga and plenty of yard work, not to mention the usual karate, I’m sweating more regularly than usual.  That’s something.

Oh, and I’m planning for next year.  In addition to planning for my kids, I’m teaching a co-op class for high schoolers using NIH materials.  We’ve used some of them at home a few years back, but planning for more than my child takes a wee bit more preparation than I manage for an audience of one.  I’ll update those plans here sometime before the end of September.

That’s our Sorta Summer (Home) School plans.  They are not considered a binding contract and can be thrown out window at any time for vacations, diversions, field trips, and shiny objects.  After all, this is summer.  We plan to enjoy ourselves.

It’s that time again.  Share your summer plans for homeschooling.  Or for not homeschooling.

A Bit of Self-Promotion

I’ve moved beyond my two personal blogs, Quarks and Quirks and Finding My Ground, and been published on The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism.  I’m delighted to have a spot on that very intelligent and informative blog on all things autism.  If you have a child on the spectrum, know a child on the spectrum, or just want to understand Asperger’s and Autism better (often with a scientific bent) peruse the site and learn a bit more.  I had a similar post (actually, two posts, given the length) with the same resources listed here, but have taken those off for now to keep that content on TPGA only.  They’ll reappear here in a few months.