Review: Models for Writers (Short Essays for Composition)

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 9.09.33 AMPerhaps the best part of teaching writing to other people’s children is the curriculum I accumulate along the way. Over the past two years, I’ve purchased more writing books than I could have ever justified buying for my two boys alone. I’ve tried a few that have flopped (Brave Writer and One Year Adventure Novel), used some old favorites (Michael Clay Thompson’s Paragraph Town and Essay Voyage), and found some new friends. Still more sits on my shelf, waiting for the right student to come along. The longer I teach gifted students to write, the easier it is to make guesses about what will work and what will flop, but  as children are as different from each other as are snowflakes from one another, I’ve tossed very little aside for good.

Models for Writers: Short Essays for Composition (Alfred Rosa and Paul Eschholz) has served as assigned reading in college and high school composition classrooms for years. I teach out of the 9th and 10th editions, which are recent enough to be easy to find and old enough to make used copies easy to afford. (I’ve never seen the urgency in having the newest edition of a writing text anyway.) There is little difference between these two editions, so I’ll not be drawing distinctions between them. I use this text after Michael Clay Thompson’s Essay Voyage and before more formal argumentation texts, finding it works well after a student understands the essay writing process overall while providing a bridge for writers before they move to formal and cited academic writing, as in MCT’s Academic Writing 1.

Models for Writers is divided into four sections. The first three (The Writing Process, The Elements of the Essay, and The Language of the Essay) focus on just what an essay is and how it is put together. The first section covers the basics of all writing, from prewriting through first draft to revising and editing. It’s an effective review for students who’ve done projects requiring prereading, not a guide for the first-time writer.  The second section does much of what MCT’s Essay Voyage does — it addresses what writers must master to make any essay work: thesis, unity, organization, beginnings and endings, paragraphs, transitions, and effective sentences. The fourth, Types of Essays, the section I use most heavily when I teach one-on-one,  explores the many genre of essay: illustration, definition, comparison and contrast, narration, argument and more are explained fully with examples. The book concludes with a short treatment of the research paper. I’d not call this last section sufficient for teaching the process of writing from sources, but it does serve a fine introduction to the craft. It touches what comes next, just as the first section provides a short look back.

For all but the first section of the book, the format is the same. Rosa and Eschholz provide a few pages of instruction on the topic at hand. These brief but comprehensive portions of each chapter give the reader the language of the topic and the basics of the technique at hand. What follows are three or four essays to serve as examples for the topics at hand. Essays by Russell Baker, Eudora Welty, Helen Keller, Annie Dillard, Natalie Goldberg, and many others illustrate the chapter’s lesson. After each essay are questions for study and discussion, questions focused on helping the student analyze the given essay in the context of the lessons it’s supposed to illustrate. These questions demand a set of skills I’ve not found elsewhere: careful reading followed by deep thought not just about what the writer wrote but about the devices the writer used in the essay.

These are hard questions for many young students, quite gifted ones included. Even organic writers (not the sort grown without pesticides but the kind who were born with stories to tell and a keyboard attached to their fingers) struggle when it’s time to talk about elements of writing within another’s writing. Initially, I used the book without those questions, assigning the readings as examples. That worked fairly well, as we could talk about some of the patterns a writer would use or note a particular way to handle an introduction. Using the book this way won’t shortchange a writer, as there is plenty to learn without those questions. But despite the struggle they cause for some students, these questions are generally worth the grapple. They move a student to think about what they read and then, hopefully, about their own writing in a critical and analytical way. Whether discussed or assigned as written work, using at least some of these question sets will bring your writer further along in composition and reading skills.

After the questions come classroom activities which, I suppose, would be helpful for one teaching in a classroom. A few are amenable to using one-on-one, but most require a partner or small group. The suggested writing assignments that follow each essay are far more helpful. Note: Some of these assignments aren’t directly addressing the skill at hand while others are more chapter-related.  Because I like my students to have some say in what they write, I usually ask them to look over particular assignments in these sections, selecting options that would elicit writing that best addresses the purpose of the chapter.

As mentioned earlier, I use Models for Writers after I’ve taught the essay via Essay Voyage or with students having some basic command of the essay, understanding the principles of the form and format all essays share. Because of that command, I start with section four, which addresses the types of essays one can write. (Note: The division into types helps teach techniques that might be hard to sort out otherwise. Few essays fit neatly into a single category. A comparison and contrast piece may have highly descriptive passages, for example.) This book could certainly be used start to finish for a writer less familiar with the form.  I generally assign material from the first three sections as needed with my more experienced writers, combining, say, the chapter on introductions and conclusions with the chapter on definition writing. This reinforces the essential techniques and parts of the essay while providing context for using that skill while writing. It’s a flexible text.

I like Models for Writers. It’s approach to technique is straightforward and logical. It’s essays are highly engaging and carefully chosen to illustrate the point at hand. Its assignments for essay types are varied and can easily be expanded upon. The essays are, however, chosen with a college audience in mind. If you have a particularly sensitive child or if your child is quite young, pre-read the essays you assign, ensuring they are appropriate for your child. All essays come with an introduction to orient the reader to the context of the essay (time, publication location, author background). Don’t skip these sections, as they help guide the reader through the piece.

What happens after Models for Writers? Michael Clay Thompson’s Academic Writing 1 could follow or be used along with Models. I’ve also used Writing from Sources (Brenda Spatt) when I want to develop a student’s ability to summarize, paraphrase, and quote effectively. They Say, I Say (Graff, Birkenstein, and Durst) helps students effectively incorporate the writing of others in to argumentative writing. New to me this year is Everything’s an Argument (Lunsford, Ruszkiewicz, and Walters), a book teaching argumentation. Whatever text one chooses, it’s likely time to move into using outside sources for one’s writing, learning the techniques of academic writing. The essay skills learned in Models give writers a strong start for that next task.

Note: I’m unable to accept new private students this semester as my docket is full. Should I have openings for weekly students, I’ll note availability at Write with Sarah, my professional website.  I do have room for project coaching, a service detailed on my website.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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.

Seventh Grade: Plans for 2013/2014

School is underway for my seventh grader (whatever that means when you homeschool), now twelve. As I write, he’s working on math, and once that’s done, he needs to spend time on a project for an online class. Our early start wasn’t my choosing, but since his online classes started last week and he does better when occupied, here we are.

Math (mean, median, and mode today) picks up where we left off in the Spring. Rabbit trails, anxiety, and a textbook switch means he’s still a few chapters short of finishing Singapore’s Discovering Mathematics 7B (Common Core edition).This seriesweaves algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and miscellaneous math topics across four years of texts, meaning that we’re likely trapped in this series of four books until we see our way to the other side. That’s fine, Singapore has served us well for many years, and we’re both happy while he’s learning.

Biology is our science this semester, and I’m thrilled. I’ve spent weeks reworking the high school level biology course I used for his brother and a friend when they were technically in  seventh grade. (Syllabus here.) Centered around Exploring the Way Life Works (Hoagland) and Biology: Concepts and Connections (Campbell), this is a rigorous study with plenty of labs, reading, and writing, as well as explicit teaching of note taking skills.We have two weeks before our first class, and I can’t wait.

Much of my twelve year old’s learning is online this semester. He’s taking two classes from Online G3, an impressively taught source of real-time classes for younger learners ready for big ideas and dialogue. He’ll take Current Events, where a portion of each session is in the hands of a student who takes fifteen minutes to present on an event he or she finds interesting. (My younger son is taking on Common Core and presents next week. That should be interesting.) Also from G3, he’s studying Shakespeare’s Comedies, a high school level literature course using Lightening Literature’s text by the same name. For second semester, he’s hoping to take Shakespeare’s Tragedies and perhaps British Literature. My children couldn’t be more different.

New this year is Latin. We played with Latin in the spring, using Linney’s Getting Started with Latin, which provided a gentle introduction to the language. He’s enrolled in Lone Pine Classical School’s Latin 100, an intense course requiring strong study skills. What he does not have now he’ll hopefully develop along the way without too much drama or trauma for either one of us. He’s also plotting his language learning course, debating the benefits of four years of one language then two of another versus two years each of three different language. That’s my child. Planning years ahead when there is absolutely no need.

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month — write a novel in a month) will keep him busy come November, although he’s not decided on a word count goal. He’s participated two other years, with a published book coming out of his first experience. While I love his dedication to the project and accompanying word goal (25,000 this year, he says), it does take a good-sized chunk out of each day. Our only flexible point this semester is math, so we’ll likely take a break from that for November. He’s not complaining.

Social skills are my hidden agenda for him. Asperger’s doesn’t go away with age, and he’s struggling more again as he approaches his teens. There is more to miss, more subtext, and more to feel anxious about. We’ve not had an easy time, and I’ll admit that homeschooling has buffered us from not just the perils he’d face at school but  also made me a bit complacent about his lagging social skills. He has good friends who accept him as is. I’m grateful. But he needs some assistance in the everyday sorts of relations: small talk, meeting new people, even emailing a friend. So we’ll be hitting these harder at home and enrolling in a live class for homeschooling  middle-schoolers, Jury Trial. He adores the topic, and I’m glad to have him try some of those skills in a live classroom. We’ll see how it goes.

His extracurriculars remain the same: fencing with Salle d’Etroit  and piano with a private instructor. He makes slow but steady process in both. Neither come naturally to him, and I’m some mix of pleased and surprised that he’s not daunted by that. As he says, he’s not sure where his body is in space. He simply can’t feel it, and both endeavors are far easier for those who have access to that internal wisdom. I hold my breath when he struggles over and over with each, hoping he’ll stick with it despite the struggles. That can be hard for gifted folks. When so much comes so easily, persevering in what doesn’t (fencing, piano, social skills), takes a good deal of sense of self outside of one’s natural intelligence. I admire his persistence.

Reading through our plans, I realize my role is gradually shifting from teacher to facilitator. This didn’t happen with my older son until tenth grade, when he started dual enrollment courses and a few online classes. I can’t say I mind, since my younger definitely does well learning online, and the options for that mode of learning expand by the day, but it does remind me that we are closer to the end of our homeschooling journey, which started nine and a half years back, than the beginning. As I somewhat reluctantly look at our schedules and the waning days of August, I find that a bit of a relief.

Will I Eat My Young? (Homeschooling for Beginners)

Thanks M.M., a new homeschooling mom who asked the big questions all new homeschoolers asked. Here’s a longer answer to one of her questions. Click on the blue links if you want to read more I’ve written on a particular subject. 

Welcome to homeschooling.

Perhaps you’re bringing your 5th grader home from school because she was miserably bored in 4th grade. Perhaps you’re skipping kindergarten round-up, suspecting kindergarten won’t be a good fit for you or your child. Or perhaps your son is in the middle of second grade, in the second school of his elementary career, and is miserable, and with his mix of exceptional giftedness and learning disabilities, you know home would be a better environment for him to grow. Wait. That last one is our story.

Whatever the reason you’re coming home or staying home, you likely have concerns about curriculum, co-ops, dual enrollment, online classes, transcript writing, and the laws in your state about homeschooler. I’ll be addressing none of those today. Curriculum is a matter of opinion. Procedures and laws vary from state to state. Transcripts give me headaches. Those are all important issues that have been written about here and elsewhere, but they aren’t the crux of what a new homeschooling parent should be pondering but either don’t speak aloud or simply don’t consider.

You won’t eat your young. Fear of conflict ranks high on the list of concerns of homeschoolers-to-be. I’ve known many a frustrated homeschooling parent who often wondered if consuming a child would take care of uncomfortable and perhaps toxic conflict while also solving the perennial question of what to have for dinner, but from my last count, all their children are still present and accounted for. Mine are still here, ages 12 and 16, and I’m not so long in the patience department, so I’m sure yours will survive, too.

But there will be conflict. There was before you homeschooled, right? Kids and parents don’t always agree. Kids don’t always listen to their parents, and parents don’t always listen to their kids. And while as parents, we usually speak (or sometimes yell) our concerns and requests, kids often act them out instead. That stalling on the math assignment? That may be a way to communicate boredom with thirty more problems so much like yesterdays that they hardly seem worth doing. The refusal to sit down at the piano bench for just twenty minutes? That may be a message from the perfectionist child who fears starting what might not go perfectly.

And, yes, your kids will avoid assignments that are Goldilocks just right. Minecraft calls. Books you didn’t assign beckon. The cat desperately needs to play. Even chores seem more interesting than the volume of cones and cylinders or the lab report on kinetic energy. The result? Conflict. You may yell. You may patiently redirect. If you are more relaxed than I often am, you may dump a subject for a day or week or month or even year, finding a way to make your child’s passion the lesson instead. (Warning. This works for some kids, like my younger son. My older then just switches passions. Know when to keep your hands off.)

You will sometimes be afraid. That inability to learn multiplication tables before starting algebra won’t make and engineering career impossible. The writing disability or even just unwillingness won’t eliminate all careers except the skilled trades (although a plumber or electrician in the family would be a serious boon). And that playdate that ended badly? Your child will likely go on to have friends and even a partner someday. Okay, I’m short on data here, but my fears for my children have yet to be realized. Somehow, they keep growing and learning and having other people enjoy their presence. And that’s what we’re after, right? Watch your fear, however, since for many of us, if the fear is ignored — if we refuse to listen to it and accept it — it morphs into anger. And while you won’t eat your young, anger again and again isn’t so good for anyone.

You’ll have to apologize. Own up to your mistakes, those time when your fear boils over into anger and those times when a lack of sleep three nights running overlaps with the sudden coffee shortage in your pantry. You’ll lose it sometimes. If you’re anything like me, you’ll yell at points and say things you’d love to take back moments after they leave your mouth. But you can’t. So apologize often. And try again next time after some healthy reflection on what went wrong. Conflicts happen. Demonstrate that they can happen in healthy, productive ways, and when you can’t demonstrate that, demonstrate humility and the art of the heart-felt apology.

Protect your relationship with your child. Conflicts can remind us that our priorities are out of whack. Yes, we’re trying to raise kids that can go to college (or high school), perhaps go to graduate school, and hold jobs. It’s easy to see today’s refusal to do math or failure to write a coherent sentence as tomorrow’s disaster. At points, I’ve put my educational worries about my children before my relationship with them, worrying about this skill or that skill while losing sight of the child who needs the skills. It’s never made any of us happier or my children any more successful. Yes, there are nonnegotiables when parenting and when homeschooling. Health and safety matters aren’t debatable, and insisting on these rarely causes friction in our house. Yes, there are skills I see as mandatory for adult life, including some academic competencies as well as planning and organizational skills and knowing how to get up in the morning. But even these skills are best learned on the child’s timetable. (Those that know me in real life, please remind me of this next time I lose it. Thanks.)

Don’t make plans beyond the present year (or month or sometimes day). Homeschool today because that is what works today. It might work next school year, or it might not. You’re sure you’ll homeschool that darling 5 year old forever? Don’t be. Life changes. Kids have wills of their own. Positive you’ll return your miserable middle schooler to high school next fall? Leave it open. Sure, keep your child on track for returning if that’s a possibility, but  don’t marry yourself to a plan for a year not yet upon you. While I worry decades down the road, I’ve always taken the decision to homeschool one year at a time. It’s like trying to buy a swimsuit for your post-pregnant body when you’re one month shy of delivery. The shape of things change more than you’d think. Stay open.

Take care of yourself. Those first few years, its easy to lose yourself into the all-consuming world of homeschooling. With thousands of curricula, hundreds of homeschooling boards, and dozens of methodologies, it’s easy to make a life out of your child’s education. Don’t. Read books that aren’t about education and homeschooling. See friends and talk about things other than your children. Nurture your relationship with your partner, and create time to just be alone.

Develop your own talents and pursue your own interests. Take that class. Start that new business. Maintain your professional credentials (or pursue new ones). In short, have a life that is bigger than homeschooling, a position that is not a tenure track job. Also, it’s good for kids to see parents learning and growing and generally taking care of themselves.

Chances are that you’re not doing it wrong. There are as many ways of homeschooling as their are homeschoolers. It’s easy to read the email lists and forums and assume you are raising knuckle draggers who will never be able to make it in the world, much less move out of your basement or that you are the laziest, meanest homeschooling parent in the world. Walk away from the lists and forums. Look at your kids. Are they learning? Are they relatively happy and developing skills that allow them to give back to the world? Are they nice kids? If yes, you’re likely doing just fine. Continuous improvement is exhausting for all involved, so give it a break.

Breathe. Laugh. Sleep. Sit still when you desperately feel like you shouldn’t or can’t, because that’s likely when you should. Do less than you think you should, because there really are only 24 hours in a day, and some should be spent on contemplating the universe, reading for fun, playing Scrabble, watching BBC dramas, wrestling with your children, playing with kittens, and writing blog posts about homeschooling. You’ll make your own list, of course, but only follow it if you want to. Homeschooling, like most worthwhile endeavors, is hard work requiring long days and sometimes sleepless nights. So take nap. Take a walk. Take time to recharge. And have fun.

 

 

Summer at Sixteen

It’s summer. Not the calendar kind but rather the school kind. Well, my younger son is finishing three Online G3 courses while my older strolls through the ends of a writing course, but it’s mostly summer.

Summer vacation once meant a break from school entirely. Aside from problems from the Math Can, weekly piano lessons, and plenty of time for reading, summer meant no planning for Mom or regular work for the boys. But last summer, we decided to move some of my older son’s study to summer, freeing up some time in the fall for the college coursework he had planned. He started a Coursera literature class towards the end of July. I started teaching Physics at the start of August, partly as security against the inevitable illnesses that would interrupt our study and partly hope that we’d finish before May. (We did.) Thus summer as free and light ended and some form of year-round homeschooling began.

Summer remains simpler than the school year, at least a bit. For my newly sixteen-year-old son, it offers a chance to focus on a few subjects, some  passions and some despised necessities, but without the distraction of five or six other areas of study. By age, he’s a high school junior. He has 19 college credits from the past year, although acquiring more isn’t the agenda this summer.  For the next three and a half months, he’ll focus on a few carefully chosen subjects, along with the usual piano study, balancing what he needs with what he wants. I like to think of it is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. He may have a different analogy.

For the remainder of May, he’ll study for the SAT subject tests in Physics and Math Level 2.  It turns out Calculus 1 and 2 don’t help you recall the vagaries of trigonometry identities, probability  and matrices, so those are receiving the bulk of his time. Physics is fresher and going well on practice exams, so less work is required there. Why bother with the standardized tests? Because some colleges like proof of mastery, plus studying for exams is a skill that could use some practice. Plus, as many homeschooling parents know, no matter how much we feel we’re getting this homeschooling right, a bit of outside evidence doesn’t hurt.

My older will also start driver’s ed, albeit with much anxiety from both of us. He’s not that eager to drive. I’m eager to have another driver, but I’m not so excited about it being from that tiny, helpless baby that slept in my arms sixteen years back. Growing up is hard on moms. He’ll also finish a programming course in Python through Computer Science Circles (University of Waterloo). He’s resisted programming for years, figuring like foreign languages that it was not accessible to his brain. For once Mom was right. It’s different from a foreign language and is now a preferred activity of the day, done first each morning. And after Python, he’ll move on to another language, possibly Java, although through what route of study remains to be seen. He sees it as fun, making just about any route effective.

With a friend and fellow electronics nut, my older son will work his way through Make: Electronics (Charles Platt), an instructional electronics book with plenty of photos and fun. (The first of 36 projects is to lick a battery.) From there, they move on to building progressively more complicated circuits, exploring transistors, logic chips, magnetism, and a host of electronic wonders I don’t understand. To document the work done, the boys will make a series of YouTube videos of their projects. He’d been dabbling informally for much of the past year, and formalizing the study encourages him to fill in holes, complete projects, and allows me to issue some credit for the amazing amount of learning that went on when I turned my back.

The “medicine” end of summer includes finishing an online writing course. With two assignments remaining, this shouldn’t take long, but somehow writing is always his last priority. After that, we’re moving to a literature study of a hopefully appealing kind: Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative, a Coursera offering. It’s not his mother’s literature class, but he’s a very different learner than his mother, so that makes sense. In my most optimistic mode, I’m picturing adding a history/English hybrid, with readings about scientists, mathematicians, and the history of science and technology. While I initially wanted to start that this summer, I’m becoming overwhelmed with the list of confirmed summer study, so perhaps that will wait for fall.

On top of his studies, my older has started repairing computers (PCs) for others. He received certification (TestOut PC Pro) by exam after completing a PC Troubleshooting and Repair class at a local community college. While this isn’t likely to produce steady work, it’s something he enjoys and does well. We’ve discussed communication with clients, turn-around time, rates, and other business practices, and are hoping for the best.

As I read through his plans for summer, I’m awed. He’s come so far in the last year, a time when I was frankly hoping he was reaching the bottom of the teen slump, since I couldn’t imagine him dipping any lower. Clearly, he’s on his way up and out. Along the way, he’s found his passions — computers and electronics. His passions match his skill-set, and he knows he’d like to pursue computer and electrical engineering in the years to come. I’m relieved. He seems to still find plenty of time for Minecraft, sleeping, and goofing around, top activities in his niche in the teen boy culture. And he still seems to like his family, at least most of the time. At sixteen, that’s a fine sign for our summer together.

Twice Exceptional: When Exceptions are the Norm

DSCN0301I realize that after three years of blogging about my twice exceptional boys, I’ve never written about what twice exceptional means. The conventional definition of twice exceptional, or 2e, is gifted with learning differences. Parents would tell you that it’s a life of contradictions and contrasts, often pulling against each other resulting in a child who looks, well, average, whatever that is. They’d also tell you stories of advocacy twice failed, kids who work twice as hard with half the results, and twice the concerns about where a child will fit in the world. And the kids? Some might tell about wondering who they were, wondering at why life seems so hard, and perhaps about just feeling not so smart.

Until my older son struggled in school with handwriting tasks, I didn’t know a child could be learning disabled and gifted. Since he was my first child, I took much of his way of being in the world as normal kid stuff. Well, I knew he was ahead in areas, largely in the academic realm, but I also knew he lagged in fine motor skills, from writing to tying shoes to buttering bread. The diagnoses of his level of giftedness and dysgraphia, a disorder of written expression, arrived in tandem, making sense out of what we’d noticed while making the job of finding an appropriate educational setting that much harder. The poor fit of school was made no easier with those pieces of information.

So eventually we came home from school. Three years later, the ADHD diagnosis came along for the ride, with a trail of question marks still following, challenges undefined and unexplained. And three years after that, my younger was formally diagnosed with Aspergers, changing everything and nothing in a few sentences that were too long in coming.

That’s what those second exceptionalities do. They change everything. And nothing.

Ideally, they how we frame our children’s challenges. What was once seemed stubborn is now likely anxiety about what just doesn’t come with effort alone. What looked lazy is avoidance of what just feels bad or is simply beyond one’s skill set. What appeared to be neglect is a brain that struggles to make sense out of time and space. When I knew that my older son’s refusal to write more than the briefest phrase was because holding the pencil hurt and that making each letter took intense concentration that made it impossible to focus on content, I stopped thinking of his resistance as stubborn or lazy. It was a reasonable reaction to facing a Herculean task. When I found out that his trouble following a list of tasks, never mind create his own, came from a frontal lobe that was taking its time maturing, I stopped seeing his day as strewn with neglect.

Or at least I mostly did. Truthfully, it’s hard to look at a kid who started to add at three and explore the details of earth science at four and understand why the trajectory of learning that came so easily when no product was demanded comes screeching to a halt when it seems to be time to write a simple sentence about the moon. It’s not much easier at 15, when detailed monologues about computer guts dominate conversations but writing a list of tasks and following it still requires Mom.

Parenting a gifted kid often means parenting a child who was somewhat like you. Even if time and thousands of questions without answers seem to have beaten the giftedness out of us, apples don’t fall far from trees, as my father would say. For many of us, there is something familiar about the intensity of our gifted children, if only in shadowy images as we remember our childhoods.

But if you are not also learning disabled — and my children’s father and I are not — the dichotomy of the 2e kid is frankly mysterious. I don’t know what it’s like to be unable to write  with ease, to be unable take notes during a lecture, to look for my homework that I’m sure I did only to find that I never did it, or be stymied by the social norms of conversation. I just don’t know. It’s an unfamiliar way of being in the world.

Now, that’s expected to some degree. I don’t expect my kids to like what I like or see the world the way I see it. They are individuals. But when their operating systems seems so foreign, it’s sometimes hard to parent effectively and respectfully. In a fit of frustration, I once asked my older if the world in his head was as chaotic as it appeared from the outside. “It’s much worse,” he replied, without hesitation or, thankfully, frustration with his stymied, frantic mother.

Having a child who is twice exceptional means school will never be a sure fit. Or at least not a simple and comfortable fit. Mid-second grade, when my older came home, I was exhausted by meetings where I tried to explain what seemed like impossible partners, my son’s disparate needs for more information and challenge with less written output (although a keyboard would have been welcome). Having mercy on my son, myself, and even the school, I took the challenge home. That doesn’t make any exceptions vanish, but it does return your child to being your child, free of as many comparison points and evaluations. The dissonance with the world persists when field trips are missed (too loud, too many people, too many places to go in a day, or just too something else) and when reading through boards for parents of gifted kids, but being at home is a respite from the expectations of the world, where “gifted” and “learning disabled” mean different classrooms, methodologies, and outcomes. And as I’ve returned one to school (dual high school and college enrollment), I’ve been reminded that the differences persist, causing different challenges than eight years back, but still making fit difficult.

And for the kids? It’s even harder. For my older, having learning disabilities has caused him to question his intelligence. How can being smart and a quick learner coincide with forgetting to do assignments and struggling still to write a legible sentence? It seemed a more likely explanation that he wasn’t very smart at all, I suppose, and at an age where being “normal” is valued above being oneself, it seems reasonable to want to wish both away. Having both his giftedness and other challenges negated by school didn’t help, either, although by now I thought time would erase those feelings fo poor fit. Thankfully, college experiences in schools with strong disability resource offices have somewhat ameliorated of those feelings. (See Accommodating Disability, College Style for more on that adventure.)

My younger, at least on the surface, has an easier time. At home and in online classes, his difference doesn’t often interfere. After all, a preference for no eye contact, fewer bodies in the house, and a tight routine all mesh well with homeschooling. He’s also comfortable in his own skin, embracing his difference. (Don’t you dare call it a disability, Mom!) But I worry. The accommodations for him are largely invisible to him — careful scheduling, plenty of time for transitions, and adequate downtime happen without him realizing it. And while he’d likely be eaten alive in a live middle school classroom, he’s just one of the pack in his online classes. I’d not say it’s been easier to parent him over the years (oh, it’s not been), but out of school, the social issues just don’t cause as much difficulty day-to-day. He sees himself as smart and capable and enjoys the friendship of some wonderful children and adults who accept him as is. I’m grateful for his comfort within his own skin.

There is no ending. Twice exceptional kids become twice exceptional adults, and with guidance, support, and a bit of luck, they enter adulthood confident in their talents and equipped to seek and use supports for their disabilities.  I keep my fingers crossed, admittedly, but mostly I just keep guiding and supporting. And loving.

If you want to know more about supporting 2e learners, follow the links below. 

Accommodating Disability, College Style

I was a lousy grade school advocate. I tried my hand at speaking up for my oh-so bored (but don’t use that word) older son during his first grade year, asking for assignments that took bigger bites with less repetition. I didn’t get very far, and even when we handed over the testing they requested to prove that he really didn’t need that, the testing that showed that he very much did, nothing happened. We were welcome to keep him in the school, but with the understanding that they had nothing to offer him.

Thinking that getting little for nothing was a better deal than getting nothing for 10K a year, we tried a public gifted program. Now we had more information. In addition to a quick mind, my older had a writing disability. Intervention via a scribe or keyboard wasn’t available for a gifted kid, it seemed, so while free, he was stuck with education that was boring and unaccommodating to his disability.

So eight years ago, we went home.

Last spring, it was with great trepidation and a good amount of encouragement from a psychologist who “gets” twice exceptional (gifted and learning disabled) kids that I made the call to Madonna University  a small private college just minutes away from home. With my son just months from 15,  called their designated admissions advisor for dual-enrolled students (a good sign of an open-minded institution). I spouted a few scores and what we were seeking — Calculus I and Sign Language and Society (a liberal arts intro class with no signing). Yes, they’d be glad to have him. Then I asked for what I’d not asked for in the previous seven years — accommodations for dysgraphia and ADHD (and assorted executive function disorders.

I held my breath.

“Of course we can accommodate him,” she began before spouting off a list of accommodations I’d not known was even possible. I exhaled, thanked her profusely, and nearly cried on the line.

A few weeks later, after scheduling his classes, we were walked down to the Office of Disability Resources (ODR) to meet his advisor. This would be a first for the university, a dual-enrolled student using the ODR, we were told, with a smile and not a small amount of enthusiasm. I could hardly believe it. Two grade schools had met him with doubt of the validity of his gifts and his disabilities, despite reason, pleading, paperwork, and repeated meetings. This place — this college — was ready to help as soon as we presented ourselves.

Well, not only ourselves. We’d brought the latest evaluation from his psychologist, complete with diagnoses and specific recommendations. We had ACT scores and more, hoping that the high scores on those measures wouldn’t negate the very real challenges my son faces. My son and I were both nervous. Me because I’d failed every previous attempt to advocate for him. Him because he was sitting in a college advisor’s office and was not yet 15, plus he felt that somehow his disabilities negated his intelligence. Being twice-exceptional is quite the head game.

The rest was easy. The advisor chatted with both of us, getting a feel for what worked and didn’t work for my son. Note taking was the biggest concern. Dysgraphia affects the ability to write by hand but also the ability to organize thoughts. Note taking in college classes require a rapid hand and an ease with sorting out what is relevant and noteworthy from what is just interesting. It requires constant focus, which in these classes, meant attending for up to three hours at a time. Note taking is his greatest nemesis.

And the box was checked for a note taker. A paid — by the university– note taker chosen by the ODR was available. This service could be done anonymously or more openly, with carbon copy notes either handed over after class, sent via email, or placed in a numbered box in the office.  If the first one didn’t work out, a replacement would be provided. Either way, a student already in the class would provide him with notes. I exhaled again.

What else did he need? Quiet testing? Okay. Time-and-a-half for testing? Just in case. Keyboard for testing anything longer than a single-word answer? Definitely. Permission to use a laptop during class for in-class writing assignments? Yes.  We were handed the list of possible accommodations to consider, encouraged to take what might be needed. It was overwhelming. And encouraging.

College accommodations come with a caveat: it is up to the student to enact them. The student needs to approach the professor with the paperwork for scheduling a test in the testing center then file the paperwork with the ODR secretary. The student needs to ask to use a keyboard for an assignment in class instead of writing it out. No teacher or advisor will come after the student, meaning that it all can be in place on paper but go unused in reality. For a student with executive function issues (difficulty planning and organizing), this seemed a daunting task.

Fast forward to fall, with nine credits on the schedule, a nervous mom, and plenty of adrenaline for my son. Only the note taking accommodation was used, and without that, he’d have been lost. Thanks to long class times, extended test-taking time wasn’t needed. While offered a reader and a scribe for tests, he decided to use neither, and thankfully his Calculus teacher assured him she’d dealt with far worse handwriting than his (somehow his numbers are legible where his letters aren’t). He was sure that telling someone what to write down for math would be far more challenging than just showing the work himself, and he was likely right. But just like most security blankets, knowing the accommodations were there for the taking was a comfort.

Accommodations even when enacted, don’t solve all the problems of the learning disabled student. Poor executive function — the skills of planning, organization, and impulse control — isn’t easily accommodated for. I’ve served as his frontal lobe for a good long time, and I’ve had to continue that role as he moved some learning to the college classroom. While we’ve worked on ways to keep schedules and lists, these skills still aren’t used to anything close to their full potential. Additionally, a few tests went bad — or at least weren’t that great — mostly due to poor self-monitoring and a tendency to be overly optimistic about what he knew. An assignment was missed (miraculously just one), likely due to wishful thinking that he’d already done it paired with a lack of follow-up to assure that was true. In short, the  usual problems persisted.

So this semester, he’s taking three classes, carrying eleven credits between two colleges. I hold my breath again and again, wince regularly, and cheer whenever appropriate. The second school offered similar supports, including audiobooks, preferential seating, advance copies of in-class reading and writing assignments, and speech-to-text software for writing assignments and tests. None of those are necessary in the PC Troubleshooting and Repair class he’s taking, but it’s good to know they are there. For a reading and writing heavy class, he’d need it all.

Accommodations are readily available at the college level, even for dual enrolled students. While they can help with some of the challenges of the child with disabilities they can’t touch the underlying executive function issues many kids with learning disabilities experience. Twice exceptional kids who need the intellectual stimulation of the college environment will still need support at home to meet deadlines, hone studying skills, and provide organizational support. It’s a continual balance between those disparate needs.  Disability resource offices offer some substantial support, but parent will end up offering a good amount, too. At least for me, that job doesn’t seem likely to end soon.

 

Perfect! Or not.

Cat at pianoMy older son complained about it when his last piano teacher used the word. “Perfect!” she’d exclaim. No, never in reference to an entire piece or even a page, but it was the standard by which she measured his accomplishments. Success was gauged with the elusive “perfect” pegged as 100%. Thus a stopping point might be 80% or 90% or, for some, just 60%. Perhaps a phrase would be perfect, or even a few lines, but a whole piece would never be perfect, and he knew it. It might be played a dozen different ways, all delightful to the ear, but perfect? Nope. Never.

Nothing is perfect except Earth’s spot in the solar system, declares my younger son, reading over my shoulder.  The word ‘perfect’ simply isn’t in our home lexicon. Aside from using it to describe a dessert or a day with nothing scheduled, we avoid it. We’re in agreement: no one is perfect.

Except we all long to some sort of perfection. Not the fuzzy sort, being the perfect me and all that. Thinking of ourselves as perfect us’s might be desirable on some level, but it’s just not in our temperaments. We are three perfectionists, all manifesting that trait in different ways, and the last word any of us want to hear is “perfect.”  I’m a continuous-improvement kinda gal, logical, practical, and highly internally critical. Okay, I can be fairly critical to others as well, but I like to think I’m learning to do it in a supportive, constructive way.  I encourage my kids to look deeply at their work and efforts, honestly assessing what’s working and what’s not. Let’s not ask how that’s working for us.

So we each long for perfection in some domain or another, knowing it’s not at word that applies to human efforts and products. It’s a perfectionism common to gifted folks, paired with the same painful realization that we fail, continually, painfully short of our expectations.  Ouch.

Perfectionism doesn’t always look like perfectionism. It’s easy to recognized in the young child who starts a drawing or essay, ripping it up over and over, simply because it fails to match his or her impossibly high expectations.  But reaches beyond the child who doesn’t know how to stop working on a project, tweaking it repeatedly, trashing parts and starting again, all in pursuit of something better. Those are the obvious manifestations of the unhealthy end perfectionism, but not the only ones.

Perfectionism is also behind the child (or adult) who won’t start a project because of uncertainty that its realization will meet his or her expectations. In a child, this can look like work avoidance — the essay never begun, the empty paper abandoned at the table, the page of math problems anxiously avoided, or the new piano piece left unattempted, because of course it won’t sound like it should today, tomorrow, or maybe never. I’ve watched all these manifestations of perfectionism gone awry in my boys.

In an adult, unproductive perfectionism looks similar. I’ve sat before many an empty page, trying to write but sure whatever I say won’t be said the right way. I’ve avoided larger projects (read: writing an actual book) for the same reason — what I say just won’t be good enough, not for me, not for others. Heck, it’s hard to even make lesson plans for my kids or my students at points, certain that there is a better way to say what needs to be said. It’s paralyzing.

To the outside observer, say a teacher, boss, or parent, perfectionism can look like lazy avoidance.  It’s not. It’s filled with anxiety, self-doubt, and sky-high expectations, colored with a desire to produce the best possible product in the best possible way. And while I know the perfectionist anthems by heart, I can fail to appreciate how much perfectionism plays a roll in my children’s work. It’s easy to see the hole in production and forget its cause. I guess I’m not perfect.

My parenting skills is the arena my self-criticism screams the loudest. Avoidance doesn’t really work when parenting, kids being rather visible and hard to turn one’s back upon. But this arena is where my perfectionism kicks in strongly. No, I’m not out to raise perfect kids. What I want for my children is simple: I’d like them to be productive members of society, giving more than they take. I want them to be reasonably happy and for people to at least tolerate their presence. (Read What I Want for My Children for more on those expectations.)

These arguably minimal desires can bring me to tears as I wonder how to help them find their way to those goals. I worry academically, as I want them to have choices in their higher education. Not choices so they can attend some prestigious university (unless they want to) and then win the next Nobel Prize in whatever.  Choices so the they can attend a school with academic peers and be challenged by other curious minds. Choices so they can find a course of study that will lead them to job choices that make them happy and feel full of purpose. I worry socially, wondering how the world will see them and accept them, my brutally honest younger and my sensitive older. I’d not change them a bit, but I worry still. On more practical ends, I worry about creating the just-right transcript and about missing a crucial educational element. After all, the perfectionist in me wants them to have the perfect education.

Yes, I know that’s not possible, just as much as they know that playing the perfect piano piece or writing the perfect novel are not possible goals. Playing the piece excellently and writing a fine book are possibilities  however.  There is nothing wrong with a drive to do well paired with the effort required to make great things happen. But sometimes, we need to settle with working hard and knowing when to stop and call it good, or maybe even great, but being wise enough to know that sometimes just good enough is all that is necessary or possible. We can only continually look at our efforts at our living and loving and honestly assess how we are doing, not to continually feel we fall short but rather to realize that we’ve done generally quite well but can always still learn more and grow.

Perfectionism doesn’t have to be the bane of the gifted child or adult. It can be the drive to work harder and learn more. It can be what keeps the scientist at her task, looking for what eludes her. It can be what brings the lawyer back to the library, searching for the case that adds to his quest for justice. It can be what keeps the parent looking for ever more creative ways to approach her child with love, compassion, and dignity. Perfectionism channelled properly fuels amazing product, and approaching one’s life and work with the drive behind perfectionism can be deeply satisfying. Healthy perfectionism, in academic, creative, leadership, and social domains, drives the changes we need in the world. It’s not to be squelched but rather directed. Reach far, work hard, and dream big, perfectionists. And be gentle with yourself and those around you. After all, nobody’s perfect.

Further reading on perfectionism in gifted individuals:

Play Date, Version 20.13

My younger son is in the middle of a play date, but not the type of my childhood. I didn’t drive to pick anyone up. No one dropped off a child here or stayed to share coffee while the kids play. No one walked down the street or rode their bike around the block to meet a buddy.

Instead he’s on a Google Hangout with a buddy from California. With three time zones and a couple thousand miles between them, there’s not much spontaneous about this sort of play date, but there isn’t any need to actually get dressed either. They’ve never met in person, but they know a growing amount about each other. Mostly they exchange the important stuff — LEGO preferences, video game tips, and occasional bits about the weather. Having only raised boys and never been one, I’m musing that this is typical preteen boy discussion, regardless of the distance between two kids. After raising his brother through this age, I’m fairly certain that the sharing of feelings of my 11-year-old world is not the stuff of boy friendships at the same age.

They met through me. The young one thousands of miles away wearing a hat and glasses through the wonders of Google Effects is one of my writing students, a brilliant, sweet boy of nine. While I have plenty of email contact with my students, we also “hangout” via Google’s video chat app. My younger son, unable to remove himself entirely from anything I’m doing, often wandered through the room while I was teaching. I can’t recall how these two first got to talking to each other, but I’m pretty sure it began with a lesson interrupted by my child. Soon, they were chatting after our lesson was done. Today’s meeting, however, was the first planned just for them.

It’s going swimmingly. They’ve played games together, discussed email and their level of responsiveness to it, and several dozen things that don’t make much sense to me. And they’re still going strong. All without a drive, clean-up, snacks that no one is allergic to, or shoes. Or even pants. (PJs are on. We aren’t quite that causal around here.)

The boys have other online connections as well. Both play Minecraft on a server with friends, with plenty of game-related and unrelated chat going on in the left-hand corner of the screen. For my younger, these kids border between strangers and friends, many being kids with whom my younger has shared a virtual classroom for the past few years. My older son also has a set of friends with whom he shares the virtual Minecraft playground, some whom he knows IRL (in real life) and some whom he doesn’t. It’s a strange world for me, who grew up when being on (the) line meant being on the (rotary, wall-bound) phone.

I’ve been reluctant to accept that my sons’ social lives have increasingly large elements of virtual conversation and play. I’ve been cautious about this rather anonymous world on the internet, worrying about the proverbial bad guy looking to do them harm. I’ve relied upon a moderate amount of parental controls with a high degree of conversation about online behavior. We talk about privacy. We talk about safety. We talk about how easily misunderstandings can occur through text-only messages. We talk about appropriate conversation, whether on a private Facebook chat, an invite-only Minecraft server, or public forums about games, meteorology, or computer repair. And I keep the computers on the first floor, screens in plain sight. (A glance to my left shows my older with one monitor set to Facebook and the other on an old Harry Potter game. He’s been nostalgic lately.) In short, we’re careful.

But it’s still a bit strange. True, they both have plenty of “live” contact. We’re all introverted, so our definition of “plenty” might not match that of the extroverted school-goer, but they’re not generally lacking for time with Real Human Beings In 3D. While I’ve homeschooled long enough to know that socialization happens whenever more than one person is in the (real or virtual) room and is hardly limited to time with same-age peers, I’m mom enough to worry if my kids get enough live time with their buddies. With busy schedules and a recent loss of neighbors/best buddies, this worry has been more acute this past semester. I’m settling a bit, and these online friendships are helping me relax a bit.

It’s not like I’m online-social-life avoidant. My first online friend came from a gifted education email list, about 10 years back. We emailed back and forth off the list a bit then set a time to meet in real life. She was a key support when, a year and a half later, I started homeschooling my older. I’m not sure I’d have made this leap when I did if not for her very live example. She, after all, did not actually eat her young during those early, trying years (nor since, as far as I know), and if she could avoid that peril, so could I.

Since then, I’ve made several online friends, some whom I’ve met in person and others whom are only names and stories online. More than once a day, I drift to the Facebook forums where these folks gather or to the email lists they populate, sometimes just reading the posts, while other times offering information or asking for support. For some issues, it’s the safest place I know to go, where people with kids like mine can share the stuff that stymies them. I’ve found friends via other online avenues, people with whom I share values and beliefs, some who have become close IRL friends, and many others who remain names and stories.

So as I listen to my young son banter with his online, long-distance pal, a boy who can match him in vocabulary, logical skills, and curiosity, I wonder. I grew up long before an online life was common or even possible. For most of my school-aged years, I was fortunate to have at least one friend who was a sure shelter and who liked me for me. The times between were hard and lonely and, fortunately, generally short. How much it might have helped to have an online community as well.

No, online friendships and play dates aren’t sufficient, but they are fine complements to the real-life friendships we maintain as well. For both my guys and for me they’ve brought us people either out of physical reach or just previously out of view whom share our talent, traits, and interests.  Socialization? Yeah, we’ve got that, online and in person.