Aristotle and the “Blue Light”

It was a few weeks before Christmas while I was gently tucking a four-year old Aristotle into his car seat when the hysterical crying began. We were leaving Grandpa’s house as we had done a million times before, and to me nothing appeared out of the ordinary, but Aristotle was beside himself with screams of “I want the blue light!” A quick mental checklist confirmed that neither we nor Grandpa had a toy, book, or device with a prominent blue light, so what could possibly be causing Aristotle’s distress? He simply could not clarify what blue light he was referring to, and all I could think of was that he must have previously seen a blue Christmas light on one of the nearby houses that was now burnt out.

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Despite my reassurances that the light would soon be fixed, Aristotle’s intense crying continued for several hours (no, that is not an exaggeration), and this same scenario repeated after every visit to Grandpa for several months. And then, one miraculous spring day Aristotle happily climbed into his seat without any sign of a meltdown at all. I was completely overjoyed at this turn of events but also incredibly curious as to what had changed. Was the blue light back or had he simply come to terms with its absence, and dare I ask this question lest I rekindle the trauma of the last few months. In what was probably not the smartest parenting decision I have ever made, I asked, and to my utter amazement found out that the “blue light” was indeed back and the world in Aristotle’s eyes was as it should be. It turns out that the blue light was actually the blue reflector that is placed on the street to mark the location of fire hydrants, not a malfunctioning holiday light after all. Grandpa’s street had been resurfaced prior to Christmas, and the blue reflector had not been replaced until Spring.

So, what does this have to do with homeschooling? Well, it demonstrates the severity of one of the hurdles many children with autism and sensory integration disorders deal with: adjusting to change. Managing all the physical, social, and sensory inputs that come with a change in situation, even when it involves moving from an unpleasant task or location to a pleasant one, takes a tremendous amount of energy for many of these children, and it is often just too much for them to handle. Aristotle and Archimedes originally attended the public brick and mortar schools in our area, and though the experience was difficult for them and was one which they desperately wanted to leave, switching them to homeschool represented a “change” and presented us with a unique set of problems that have persisted for years.

I have often wondered what our homeschooling experience would have been like had we started homeschooling our children right from preschool without ever sending them to a traditional brick and mortar school. There have been many times throughout the years when I’ve realized that my boys would have more effectively learned many things if we had had the freedom to approach subjects in ways more suited to their learning styles and interests from the very beginning. And, I think their whole attitude towards school and learning would be much more positive – at this point, if I called playing video games “school,” they wouldn’t go anywhere near their game consoles ever again!

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The question of when to start homeschooling your children is an extremely complex one, and there are equally compelling reasons to complete their entire pre-college education at home as there are to divide that education between brick and mortar schools and your very own living room. I often feel that had I started teaching Aristotle and Archimedes at home beginning with preschool, we would have been able to do the more creative, hands-on, fun type of projects that would have fostered a love of learning and boosted their natural curiosity. Furthermore, they would have been educated in this way from the beginning and would not have had to adjust to a change from traditional lectures, textbooks, worksheets, and classroom operations. An adjustment that has brought serious tears, frustration, and setbacks to both boys and their mom alike.

Aristotle is fundamentally an auditory learner though he does possess some strong visual and kinesthetic abilities that are only limited by his sensory and neuromuscular difficulties. As a result of his auditory learning style, he actually excels in the traditional brick and mortar school’s curriculum structure. He easily listens to a lecture, reads printed material, and completes standard worksheets, but he literally hates this format and longs to complete more creative endeavors such as model building, watching a play, or doing an experiment. However, whenever we tried to incorporate these types of assignments, he quickly became frustrated and discouraged because in his mind that is not how school is done, and it is too overwhelming to learn any concept in a new way, even a way that he actually wants. Many children with autism have extreme difficulty with “rigid” thinking and get stuck with a single viewpoint that no amount of reasoning or demonstration can modify. Aristotle simply can’t think outside of the “learning box” he already knows. I suspect that if we had homeschooled Aristotle from the beginning incorporating many of these projects, he would have acquired a different “learning box” and would be comfortable with and enjoy this type of education.

lego-300pxAnd, what about Archimedes? Archimedes is a very visual, kinesthetic learner who struggled terribly with the traditional public school’s structure. While he has more easily made the transition to the visual, hands-on type projects that better suit his learning style, he suffers significantly from the many deficiencies in his understanding of the foundations of math and language that weren’t laid effectively when he was in an environment not conducive to his learning style.

Do my experiences suggest that homeschooling from the beginning is the best choice? Not necessarily. Attending a traditional school, even for a brief time, exposed my boys to the type of learning environment they will most likely encounter in a typical university classroom. A lecture in a room full of other people, worksheets, notetaking, and standardized tests will at least be familiar to them and won’t represent another overwhelming “change” in their school life. I also benefitted immensely from the wisdom and experience of their teachers, therapists, and fellow parents which ultimately saved me valuable time in understanding how best to educate my unique children once I did bring them home.

However, if I could reset time and do things all over again, I think I would chose to homeschool Aristotle and Archimedes from the very beginning. I think we could have built a curriculum and learning environment that would have given Aristotle a more varied and enjoyable way to experience education and Archimedes a more substantial foundation on which to learn all the wonderful things this world has to offer. I might have even been able to help them accept change and the loss of a blue light a little more easily.

Self-Reflection, A Renewed Purpose, and A Little Bad Grammar

Hello, Everyone! I would like to sincerely apologize for my long absence from this blog and for the self-indulgent tone of this particular post, but life and some serious self-doubt do sometimes get in the way of consistent productivity and strictly objective composition.

When I first started my blog, I was excited to share my experiences homeschooling my two gifted, special needs sons as I suspected there were many others dealing with many of the same issues I had been addressing for years.  I had hoped that my struggles and victories would be both a source of advice and encouragement as well as a source of comfort to anyone trying to homeschool children similar to my own.

20170206162136-72162916-sqAs I interacted more and more with other bloggers and homeschoolers, I realized I was definitely not alone in the “homeschooling multiple children with special needs” department (very comforting), but I also realized that I was far less experienced and educationally qualified than many of the other bloggers currently posting their stories online (very intimidating and discouraging for this Type A, perfectionist person).

Did I mention that all of these bloggers also have wonderful and witty writing styles that I, quite frankly, do not? The constant inner voice of my high-school English teacher detailing proper essay writing was dictating a writing style that certainly wasn’t more compelling than others trying to relate the same ideas as me. I started to doubt the usefulness of my blog and truly felt that I had nothing unique to contribute to either the homeschooling or special needs community. There were far too many professionally trained teachers, doctors, therapists, and seasoned homeschoolers with strong support networks and engaging writing styles out there for me to have any kind of expertise or experience that was of value to anyone.

I am a very good book learner, but I think I am a very slow life learner. I am definitely getting older, and life has thrown our family quite a few curve balls in the last few years that have finally, maybe, made me realize a thing or two about what really matters in our short time on earth and where I fit in this world. And I do have a unique voice and an incredible, wonderful, unique family whose individual stories can be of significance to others even if it is only to bring a smile to someone’s face or to ignite a sliver of hope for a brief moment in a reader’s otherwise hectic day. While my experiences may mimic those of others, my personal set of circumstances and way of communicating may just resonate with someone in a special way that others cannot.

I am also an intensely private person, as are my husband and children. But, I have learned that the things that have helped me the most through all the tough times in my life are the heart-felt, personal revelations of others and their responses to my own 20170209223345-2689ec26-sqpersonal thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Knowing that you are not alone, that others care about you, and that you have made a positive impact on someone else are priceless realizations. Being willing to share your stories, even those that expose your imperfections (utterly terrifying for someone like me), is what connects you to those who are looking for inspiration and hope from your personal narrative.

So, I am back with a renewed drive and updated mission to share more of my experiences not only homeschooling my two boys but also working with their specific diagnoses. I may even break a few grammar rules along the way all in the hopes that you will find a tidbit of help, comfort, or fun in what I have seen in my amazing and unbelievably loving journey with Aristotle and Archimedes. Thank you for joining me!

Relishing Our Unexpected “A-ha” Moments

There are times when homeschooling one’s children can be the most frustrating, stressful, and, quite frankly, unsuccessful endeavor you will ever attempt. Through the years, I have had my share of days where I felt completely defeated and absolutely unqualified to teach my children even the most basic of subjects.

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These days would lead to sleepless nights spent relentlessly analyzing why things had gone so terribly wrong. These nights would, in turn, lead to days filled with exhaustive research on curricula, lesson ideas, learning styles, and any other thing I could find to help us. Eventually, I would feel like I understood what my boys needed and a small ray of hope would appear. If I just tried X and Y, everything would work out, and most of the time it did – at least for a little while.

All this analysis and research yielded some good results and was definitely worth all the effort, but I have found that the greatest success and joy in teaching comes when your child has an “a-ha” moment, and those moments rarely come from your carefully crafted lessons. They have a habit of sneaking up on you in the most unexpected ways.

Not long ago, Archimedes had a bit of a meltdown over the value of pi. He understands that it represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. We physically proved it with string and a bunch of mixing bowls. Lots of mixing bowls, lots of times. He gets how it’s calculated and how it’s used throughout mathematics, but he doesn’t like its value. Why isn’t the ratio 4.21 or 5.89? Why, in the grand cosmic scheme of things, does this ratio turn out to be 3.14 specifically? Oh… well… um. Yeah, he had me there. Time for a sleepless night and a day of “googling” theoretical mathematics.math-pi

As it turns out, Archimedes was sitting beside me while I was scouring the internet in hopes of finding some way to explain pi’s specific value (other than, “Just accept it!” or “Because Mommy said so!”) when he noticed an odd entry for “Japanese multiplication” in the search results.

Multiplication is a particularly painful process for Archimedes. While he has mastered the standard “western” procedure for completing multiplication problems, he has never felt like he understands why this process works, and he is extremely frustrated by the amount of writing it requires. So, just for fun, we clicked on the link and watched a video in which “Japanese multiplication” was demonstrated. And the “a-ha” moment occurred!! Just like that, out of the blue, without any of my meticulous planning!

Japanese multiplication is a visual method of completing multiplication problems. Though many people refer to this method as Japanese, it is not actually known who originally devised this technique. Japanese, Chinese, and Indian cultures have all been credited with its development a one point or another. The method uses the visual intersection of lines representing the ones, tens, and hundreds places in numbers to calculate the product of a multiplication problem. A quick search on YouTube will reveal many good videos on this subject.

As Archimedes watched the video, his eyes lit up and he exclaimed, “That’s how it works! That’s so cool!” My son who will do anything to avoid using any type of writing implement promptly pulled out three colored pencils and began “drawing” multiplication problems just for fun! I used to watch his shoulders sag as he resolutely wrote out multiplication problems on his dry erase board, but now he actually gets his colored pencils out for calculations without hesitation or reminders and happily draws his lines and counts his dots.

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Source: Su, Francis E., et al. “Visual Multiplication with Lines.” Math Fun Facts. <http://www.math.hmc.edu/funfacts&gt;.

It was such a pleasure to see Archimedes understand something that had long been a mystery for him and to see him actually apply that new understanding to different situations. And, it all came about from an impulsive click on a random link that showed up in an unrelated search! While I still spend many sleepless nights and active days trying to build that perfect homeschool experience for my children, I have learned that sometimes it’s best just to let things happen naturally and let the boys explore on their own. Sometimes following a tangent or a different line of questioning leads to awe-inspiring revelations in a completely different topic. These discoveries have proven more valuable than any planned academic study has ever been for us.

I am a Type A, ultra-organized, have-to-know-everything-in-advance type of person so following a path without knowing where it goes is actually quite difficult for me. But seeing the happiness and growth that comes from your children suddenly grasping an elusive concept is an unbelievable joy. I truly do relish our unexpected, but welcome, “a-ha” moments.

Have you or your kids had some unexpected “a-ha” moments, too?

It’s Okay for Homeschoolers to Ask for Outside Help

Aristotle despises math! Okay, the original Aristotle probably loved math, but my Aristotle quite literally hates it; a fact that has perplexed me from his earliest interactions with the topic. Math always struck me as a very logical, structured, rule-oriented subject, something that should appeal to my very rule-abiding, structure-loving child. While it is true that higher level mathematics can get quite abstract and confusing, basic arithmetic is very concrete and obeys a relatively small set of rules. It also involves a certain degree of rote memorization. Following rules and possessing a computer-like ability to memorize and organize information are two of Aristotle’s many remarkable skills. If he can remember the name, type, and move set of every Pokemon ever created, math should be a piece of cake, right? Unfortunately, not for Aristotle.

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I vividly remember sitting in the psychologist’s office watching Aristotle work through some pattern recognition tests when he was about four years old. I was a proud mother reveling in her child’s ability to accurately predict each pattern, and I was completely shocked and devastated when the psychologist revealed that, though Aristotle’s answers were correct, the speed with which he recognized the patterns was far, far below the average of typical children his age. Furthermore, his grasp of abstract concepts was virtually none existent.

Aristotle was fortunate enough to spend the first few years of his education in a very supportive and understanding public elementary school. He also enjoyed the attentions of some very experienced and talented teachers who were quick to identify some of his learning challenges with math and help me help him with his assignments. One thing we all noticed was that Aristotle could not complete addition and subtraction problems without assigning some sort of description to the numbers. The equation 2+3=? was too abstract for him to grasp, but if we said, “2 cats plus 3 cats equals how many cats,” he was able to complete the calculation. A number on its own meant nothing to him; it had to be attached to a physical object for him to understand it. In addition, his processing speed for math problems was abysmally slow.

Like the Aristotle of old and like many special needs students of today, Aristotle is very intelligent and has subsequently developed many of his own strategies to conquer the math tasks expected of him. Most of these strategies are something of a mystery to him (and utterly incomprehensible to me), but he is somehow able to correctly solve many math equations using his own unique numerical manipulations. He is able to perform all the basic math operations, he can execute the calculations required for many algebraic problems, and he can usually pass a math exam with excellent scores, but he has absolutely no understanding of what he is doing and cannot apply the concepts he has learned to a new, slightly different problem or an actual real-life situation.primary-kbruch-exercise-common

I spent countless hours trying to understand Aristotle’s learning styles (he’s a top-down, auditory type of student) and trying to figure out what specifically bothered him about this subject all in an effort to either purchase or customize an appropriate math curriculum for him, but it was to no avail. We struggled through math lessons using a myriad of very good programs, and we managed to slowly move forward, but never to the point of clear understanding or appropriate application of the various math concepts. The one bright spot in our math studies was Aristotle’s increasing ability to verbally express his confusion with mathematical ideas as he got older. He often stated that he simply could not trust numbers. He fundamentally couldn’t accept that two plus two is always four and instinctively felt that there was some strange magic controlling the value of the numbers. Clearly, not an easy obstacle to overcome.

We live in an area with relatively few homeschoolers and while there are some popular, extra-curricular, tutoring programs reasonably close by, I was hesitant to try them due to their high cost and their use of the same, standard, teaching techniques that had failed us previously. So, we were left to just keep experimenting with and adjusting our methods as best we could. It wasn’t until Aristotle took an algebra class at the local community college that a little spark of understanding was ignited, and it was all due to the efforts of a wonderful professor who knew how to speak math in Aristotle’s language.profesor_1

This professor understood all the ways students misunderstand math and was skilled in explaining things in a way struggling students could comprehend. Suddenly, concepts that had been sources of constant frustration were now manageable. Relationships between various, abstract, math concepts were now understandable to Aristotle. He started to gain some confidence in his ability to tackle increasingly complex equations and even faced advanced algebra with minimal trepidation. Mind you, he still personifies mathematics and thinks it’s a sneaky, evil construct bent on global annihilation, but he has mastered it enough to use it in his daily life and complete the math courses required to eventually transfer to a four-year college.

So, what was the lesson for this homeschooling mom in this long, complicated journey? The lesson was simply that sometimes homeschooling parents and students need outside help, and it’s okay to ask for said assistance. When we left the brick and mortar school behind, I incorrectly assumed that all traditional sources of educational support were no longer available to me. I believed that it was my sole responsibility to provide the perfect education to my children, and it was up to me to figure out how to do it successfully. Sure, I could search the internet, the library, or the words of other parents for tips and techniques, but relying on anyone else for day to day instruction seemed wrong and out of reach. In hindsight, it probably would have been much wiser to seek the help of a professional teacher or trained tutor early on to assist Aristotle than to try to teach myself how to work with his challenges. In the end, it has all worked out, but I have learned that I can’t always do it all and that sometimes getting help from others is the best way to provide that perfect education I so want for my children.

An Introduction to Our Non-Classical Classical Homeschool

There is nothing like the sight of a cheerful, brightly-decorated, primary classroom to fill me with an incredible sense of both anticipation and nostalgia. The beautiful, themed bulletin boards with their fanciful colors and shapes recall the excitement I felt for each new school year and the sheer delight I experienced with each new season. The crisp black and white alphabet strips snaking their way around the room, the neat rows of paints, crayons, and pencils, and the pint-sized desks and chairs artfully arranged around the room flood my mind with blissful memories of crafty projects, picture-filled books, and the tingling excitement of learning something that was genuinely new to me each day.

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School was a mostly happy place for me. Sure, I had all the normal problems any growing child has at some point or another. Learning to make friends, grappling with sharing, enduring hurtful teasing, feeling left-out and misunderstood, or struggling with sports or schoolwork that others seemed to find so easy were all issues to be confronted, but, overall, I was quite good at school. I was always one of the top students in my class, and though I was never one of the popular girls, I had a nice circle of good friends and the respect and friendship of most of my teachers and peers. I had to work hard to do well, but it was never overwhelmingly difficult.

My strengths lay with the liberal arts, and I reveled in the study of history, art, and language, but with perseverance I came to appreciate the sciences as well and grew to love a myriad of topics in biology, chemistry, and physics. My parents and teachers forged a wonderful support system for me and helped me to understand that knowledge of a wide variety of subjects whether they pertain to your chosen profession or not provides one with the tools to accurately assess and successfully navigate all of life’s challenges no matter how big or small. Mine was the classical education derived from the great philosophers and thinkers of antiquity like Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Archimedes.

In my family, everyone went to college, and it was an unspoken expectation that we would attend respected universities and graduate with honors. My husband’s family carried those same expectations for him and his siblings to an even more extreme level than what I had experienced in mine. No other course of action was ever considered for us and so that was what we did and what I found myself naively and unfairly expecting with my own children.

Like any parent, I wanted the absolute best for my children and would stop at nothing to ensure that every opportunity be provided to them. I wanted them to have the ability to choose any career or lifestyle that they could dream of, and in my world, that required an outstanding education from elementary school through college and beyond. A classical education had worked out well for my husband and I and so a traditional, classical, well-rounded education in a traditional, classical, well-rounded brick and mortar school was what I was sure was best for my children, too. Yup, I was sure about that.

Enter reality. My husband and I have two loving, gentle, intelligent, and just plain amazing sons who are in our totally unbiased (okay, I guess seriously biased) opinions the most wonderful children anyone could ever ask for. They bring us so much happiness and joy, and every day we are so proud and honored to have them in our lives. Like all people, our children possess an incredibly complex combination of intellectual and physical abilities as well as challenges which weave together to produce beautifully unique and wondrous individuals. Individuals who may not necessarily thrive in a traditional educational setting in the same way their parents did. Our boys are very intelligent, gifted by the public school’s test standards, thoughtful, and hard-working, but they also deal with some significant disabilities including Asperger’s syndrome, dyslexia, and sensory integration disorder. And so, that happy, memory-filled classroom of my youth which I had so mistakenly known (yup, known) would be an enjoyable and beneficial place for my children is in actuality an incredibly scary, confusing, and frustrating spot for them.

Our oldest son is very philosophical yet has difficulty with abstract thinking. He assimilates languages easily yet struggles with the subtleties of human expression. He is curious about the sciences but dislikes physical experimentation. He notices everything but cannot find the way to emulate the behavior of others or control the anxiety that surges in him with every sight, smell, and touch he experiences.

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Our youngest son is a mechanical genius but has difficulty coordinating his movements. He visualizes intricate contraptions and complex mathematical equations but cannot remember a single multiplication fact. He adores hands-on scientific investigations but struggles to write the simplest of sentences. He is often oblivious to his surroundings and cannot comprehend the sounds he hears when he does in fact tune into his environment.

For my boys, our local schools, though filled with dedicated teachers, nurturing staff, and many kind-hearted children, were places of overwhelming stress, constant frustration, and often deep sadness. They were also places where federal and state mandates had created educational systems that rarely allowed talented and creative teachers to foster a love of learning in their students and drove desperate administrators to simply teach students to pass the required tests to ensure adequate school funding.

After several years of watching our children struggle and losing a continuing fight for resources to help them with their disabilities, we made what was for us the difficult but necessary decision to homeschool our children.

This blog is an effort to share all of the things I have learned about education and the art of teaching in the nine years I’ve been homeschooling my boys since accepting that traditional schooling simply wasn’t an effective or even tolerable educational option for them. What I knew would be a very challenging endeavor turned out to be an infinitely more difficult and far more rewarding venture than I had ever imagined. I am not a trained educator and lack the wisdom and expertise of experienced teachers, and I quickly discovered that true learning involves so much more than a comprehensive curriculum and a willing parent. There is so much to know about learning styles, curriculum development, special needs adaptations, and a host of other pertinent topics that it can be overwhelming for even experienced homeschoolers to effectively help their children achieve their infinite potential. I have benefited tremendously from the recommendations and insights of other homeschool parents, life-long educators, medical professionals, and many others who have bravely and entertainingly documented their personal experiences addressing all of these issues and many more. While I haven’t the wit and prowess of many other writers, it is my sincere hope that this account of my experiences and discoveries will serve to help, comfort, and inspire others who wish to provide a classical education to their very special, non-classical learners as well and maybe share a chuckle or two along the way. I am honored you have stopped by and want to sincerely welcome you to my blog!

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