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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