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.

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.

Spelling with Dyslexia and CAPD

Archimedes was a brave man. After all, he dunked the king’s crown in his bathtub, designed weapons to keep the vast roman army at bay, and reputedly ordered said army to pause prior to executing him so he could complete his final set of calculations. My Archimedes is also brave in his own small way. Each day he must face numerous tasks that most would consider easy but which are, in fact, extremely difficult given his numerous disabilities. He generally approaches each of these obstacles with a smile and quiet determination. There is, however, one thing that will strike terror into his heart like no other and crush any sense of achievement and fortitude he has managed to muster that day. No, not monsters under the bed, not broccoli, not politics, not even a trip to the dentist (though that is a close second). No, that unspeakable thing is – spelling.

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Spelling has been his archnemesis since early childhood, but there are several good reasons for this. My Archimedes has central auditory processing disorder and dyslexia. He also possesses a very, very strong visual-spatial learning style. Most people are reasonably familiar with dyslexia, a disorder in which the orientation of letters and numbers in words and equations appears inverted and transposed. Central auditory processing disorder or CAPD is a less well-known but equally frustrating condition. In CAPD the ears are fully capable of detecting all the volumes and pitches of normal hearing, but the brain routinely and inconsistently misinterprets the information it receives. My Archimedes cannot reliably hear all the sounds in the words we speak and is often confused as to what people are saying. You may declare, “The cat is soft and furry,” but he hears, “Ton cap is often hurry.”

Needless to say, sounding out words, recognizing common diagraphs, and spelling phonetically are incredibly difficult for anyone with this combination of disorders, and, unfortunately, most spelling curricula rely heavily on the aforementioned techniques. While there are a number of curriculums that focus on helping students with either dyslexia or CAPD, there are virtually none that address both issues simultaneously and effectively. Thus, we do what homeschoolers do and adapt existing programs to better fit our needs or even resort to creating entirely new ones. This method of customizing study materials has been incredibly successful in many of the subjects we have investigated, but I must admit, we are still struggling a lot with this spelling monster. I found great comfort in the list of famous authors (Agatha Christie), world leaders (Winston Churchill), businessmen (Charles Schwab), and entertainers (Walt Disney), just to name a few, that site director Carolyn K. identified in her article “Twice Exceptional = Exceptional Squared!” at Hoagie’s Gifted Education Page. There is hope for the spelling-challenged!

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One of the programs we tried early on was All About Spelling, a very comprehensive program designed to address spelling visually, auditorily, and kinesthetically. It is a beautifully composed, very thorough, and user-friendly program in my humble opinion. It’s use of color-coded spelling tiles was especially appealing to my hands-on, visual Archimedes, but because he has disabilities in two of the three pathways this curriculum utilizes, we weren’t as successful as we had hoped. Remember, it is extremely difficult to associate a letter or letter combination with a sound if the sound you hear is different each time and the letters change orientation in an inconsistent way – no fault of the program, just a reality of Archimedes’ learning style.

A couple of years ago during a late-night, stress-inducing search for help in this area, I stumbled upon a video presented by Dianne Craft, a veteran special education teacher, who seemed to really understand CAPD, dyslexia, and many other learning challenges. In the video, Ms. Craft demonstrates a technique of drawing a picture which represents the meaning of the word but also reflects the physical shape of the word. It also attaches a simple story to the picture to help give the student a way to remember the details of the drawing and thus the letters of the word. I thought the idea was brilliant, and dutifully began using the process with Archimedes. He liked the technique and initially responded quite well to it, but drawing and coloring are extremely difficult with his neuromuscular difficulties, dysgraphia, and OCD, and the frustration of completing each picture quickly overshadowed any progress he gained in remembering the spelling of the word. I soon learned that having Archimedes do the mental work of determining what image he would choose for the word and then having me do the actual work of drawing it for him to later color worked the best. The only real drawback to this system was that eventually he tired of the process and certain words (in fact, many words) were pretty difficult to depict easily. I recently saw that Ms. Craft has launched a very informative website we and online store, and I am seriously considering purchasing her Brain Integration Therapy book to see if some of her additional techniques might serve to deal with Archimedes’ multiple learning disabilities more effectively. Both Archimedes and Aristotle benefited tremendously from the many integrative therapies employed by their amazing occupational therapists, and I have high hopes that Ms. Craft’s recommendations will have a similar positive impact for us.

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There are times when homeschooling parents have to come up with completely new curriculum on their own. Each parent knows his or her own child’s skills and weaknesses and also knows how that child has responded to each program he or she has tried. I have often had to create my own programs using combinations of techniques and pieces of multiple curricula that I know my children respond to. Sometimes these things work spectacularly. Other times they fail equally spectacularly, but each time I learn a little bit more about how my children process information. And so, I am in the process of creating a spelling program for Archimedes that will play to his strengths and incorporate strategies that seem to work for him. I will be using the Dragon speech recognition software, keyboarding, patterning, and color-coding. When the details are done, and Archimedes and I have tested it out, I will share the method and let you know if it worked or not.

There are many great spelling resources on the market and on the internet, and though most do not exactly fit my Archimedes’ needs, they all have certain qualities that work very well for many students. The key is to identify those effective qualities and then modify the program to fit your individual child’s learning style. Sometimes you’ll have to take those qualities and use them to design something of your own making. This can be a difficult process, and it can be very frustrating to abandon a curriculum you’ve invested in financially and emotionally, but the rewards when your child finally conquers a difficult subject are indescribable. Please, feel free to share your successes and frustrations with the specialized materials you have had to develop for your own children in the comments! I would love to hear about them!

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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