Saturday, October 31, 2009

Favorite Passages from New Memoir Inklings

I reviewed the soon to be released memoir Inklings by Jeffrey Koterba here.

Here are some of my favorite passages that I’ll share before shelving my copy of the book.

Age 6 or 7:

“Above, I search the purple and choppy sky for the firs star of the evening. Too cloudy. I become aware that our yard is swarming in lightning bugs. A train whistles. Crickets are in full symphony. As I run circles through the weedy yard, I imagine the lightning bugs are stars and I’m in a rocket ship hurtling through space where my father sings.” (page 44)

(Previously was told that radio waves go out into space and keep traveling outward for all time. His father was in a band.)

Age 6 or 7:

He has a crush on a girl at school. He wrote her a note saying he loves her and included some of his prized drawings created around Halloween time. He gave them to her at school and she said she’d look at them later.

“A block from Hawthorn, on the sidewalk, a lump of runny leaves reveals something white, something that didn’t fall from a tree. The envelope is smeared with muddy footprints. The writing looks familiar. “To: Nancy.”

In the street, in the rotting leaves, curled along the curb, wet drawings of pumpkins, black cats, bats, a skeleton.

I scoop them up, cradling them against my windbreaker – leaves are mixed in – and take them home to my room, where I shove them under my bed to dry. I don’t tell my parents about Nancy. I don’t tell them about the other boys, the names, the hitting. They have enough to worry about as it is.” (page 52)

The author grew up in a home cluttered with stuff. He talked about seeing houses that gave him an idea for how other people’s homes looked. He lived in the city, not in a suburb

“We make our way west on the interstate, past the bridge where the car fell, to the suburbs where all the houses repeat like Monopoly pieces. I dream of living in one of these “cookie-cutter houses” as my father calls them. The lawns are perfectly manicured, the sidewalks and driveways spotless, uncracked. I imagine what these houses are like inside; I know they must be clean and orderly. If I’m lucky I catch a glimpse, from a garage, of a rec room or a finished basement. On rare occasions, if Artie or I have to use the bathroom, the sellers invite us in. We might go through a kitchen, the appliances white and gleaming. I might pass a child’s bedroom, the bed made, baseball pennants hanging on the wall. There are no crayons inside these houses, only open fields of carpet.” (page 65)

Talking about mowing the weeds and grass on a lot the family owns:

“As soon as I finish the weeds retaliate, and I must begin again.
All I do, it seems, is mow and chop, keeping the weeds at bay, but the constant drone of the mower allows my mind to drift. I sing, too, confident that my voice is drowned out by the mower. I also draw with the mower, creating scenes in the weeds. Every so often I stop and run up the hill to look upon what I’m drawing. I attempt landscapes of mountains and trees. And also downtown buildings. If I make a mistake, I mow over my efforts and wait a few days to try again. The lot is like a giant Etch A Sketch.” (page 86)

His father used stuff they had lying around to convert a red metal wagon into a covered wagon.

“I’m inside now, stretching, my legs and feet dangling in the summer air. My father is the perfect father. He loves me by building covered wagons. And my mother is the perfect mother, sacrificing her nicest bedding for her son’s toy.” (page 91)

(The only white sheet they owned was her best sheet and his father insisted they use it rather than the old floral sheet she initially offered.)

From his teenage years, after seeing his girlfriend’s parent’s bedroom:

“Our family may not have the nicest house on the block, or the tidiest, but at least my parents don’t sleep in separate beds. When we are sad, we show it. And when we’re laughing at the TV, we laugh loudly, so everyone on our street can hear how much fun we are having. We worry about one another more than other people, too, I’m convinced; there’s not a better way to show love.” (page 171)

From his adult years, the father of a baby, about working drawing cartoons after everyone is asleep, he writes about the baby waking and he calms him, then goes back to work.

“After I return Josh to his crib, I watch his chest rise and fall with the softness of butterfly’s wings. Peeking in on Joni, I watch her breathe, too, finally pulling myself away to return to my drawing table, tidying my mess, stacking newspaper clippings. When I am sure the ink is completely dry, I erase, brushing the dust into my hand, carefully transporting it outside. The May air is cool and damp from an earlier shower. I swing my arm, opening my fingers, releasing the eraser dust, which dissolves instantly into the night.” (page 193)

While working at a grocery store stocking the baby aisle, he shares this:

“Joni and I hadn’t planned on having a child so soon – we had not even discussed children. But when Josh arrived, health problems and all, he brought out in me the belief that I could somehow reverse all I was attempting to escape. This is why I let Josh strum my mandolin and guitar with his soft pink fingers. I never force him. I will support and encourage him no matter what he loves. Just as he needs physical nourishment, I will also provide him with emotional nourishment –the ingredient that can’t be found in any aisle.” (page 211)

I really enjoyed reading this book. If you like these passages perhaps you should read the book.

Disclosure: I did not receive monetary payment to write this review from any source. I received an advance reading copy of this book through the Vine review program. I cannot resell this book or give it away. It’s retail value to me is therefore $0. I do not own this book per the Amazon Vine agreement and must give it back to them if they request it.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Part 8 Series My Experience With and Theories About Learning Styles

Part 8: New State Homeschool Law?

This was really bad timing for me!

One month after getting those test results, my state (Connecticut) had a bill in the legislature regarding withdrawing children from school in order to homeschool. There had been a number of cases where as soon as families pulled their children out of public school in order to homeschool, the school staff turned them into the state’s DCF for educational neglect (and/or medical neglect and/or emotional neglect). The bill was to make it easier for a family to pull the child out of school and to start homeschooling without false investigations being launched against them. The bill would not affect current homeschoolers. That sounds good, doesn’t it?

At one point the bill was modified in committee and suddenly was a BAD bill for ALL homeschoolers. What started out as helpful for potential new homeschoolers trying to leave the public schools had turned bad for every single homeschooler in the state (even if the children had never been in public school). The revised bill placed more constraints on homeschoolers in our state including more government monitoring. We homeschoolers didn’t want any additional monitoring!

Being An Activist

I got involved with the bill by reading the bills and informing myself. I contacted my representatives to share my opinions.

I chatted on local homeschool discussion boards to try to get the word out. I phoned friends I knew were in the dark and clued them in. I called relatives and asked them to write letters about this to share their own opinions of it.

My children and I attended the public hearing in our capital. I marched in a protest alongside my children.

The worst part of this which I didn’t know would happen was I heard some horrible stories from parents falsely accused of educational neglect. Since some were turned in for educational neglect on day one or two of their homeschooling that makes them false reports in my opinion as how could the parent have failed to home educate them well when they’d only started that same day or were just one day into it? That’s impossible.

By hearing some terrible stories which included very bad things happening to kids in public school and on public school busses and about how the schools failed to remedy the situation, I got even more turned off to public schooling. You would not believe the stories if you heard them. I’m tempted to share the stories but will refrain. Some have been shared in newspaper stories.

Due to our negative experience with school testing and my experience with our homeschooling being judged by an outside party I didn’t like the idea of regular government evaluation of my child such as using test scores to evaluate my children!

It is a very strange feeling when you know something is real from being very involved in that thing for a long time then suddenly have an outside person judging the entire thing on small bits of information. When the data used to judge someone is filled with errors or the flaws in testing used to come up with scores and rankings is known, relying on those measures is not only questionable but is dangerous in my opinion.

On the one hand I wanted citizens to have more freedom to pull their children out of school so I worked toward passing that bill but when the bill’s content shifted, I want more government monitoring that the bill suddenly contained. The bill never made it to law.

How Our Homeschool Changed

Another effect this killed bill had on me was I increased my documentation of homeschool work that was done. I also made both of my children do work that honestly I’d rather not have them do but that schools do. I shifted some of our learning to methods that are more closely aligned with ‘the school way’.

At its worst I think this has just wasted some of our time and energy. I don’t think any of it was damaging to my children so am consoling myself with knowing that “doing that kind of work can’t harm a child”. Perhaps it might dull their curiosity and make them think some kinds of learning is boring but my hope is they’ll clearly see the more free homeschooling lessons we do are more fun and more effective while the school-y learning is boring and seems stupid. Some of the school-y stuff may be a means to an end. Maybe knowing better test taking abilities may help the child take the SAT and take community college courses in homeschool high school then might help them get into a good college to pursue the career of their choice.

Learning Styles?

While dealing in this kind of emergency mode, this fear based mindset that I was in for a while, learning styles went out the window for me. To document remedial work done I used school-y assignments that were not in alignment with any part of my older son’s learning styles or with my homeschool and educational philosophy. I knew he mastered the stuff before the remedial work was even done so I just wanted proof to show I did the remedial work in case we were evaluated by an outside party. I was cramming information and checking off boxes, something I normally don't like to do.

Later I’d revisit learning styles when my sons were to learn new information I preferred it to be learned faster and easier so if I could change my teaching techniques to be something that would help this effort then I was willing to try it.

Part 7 Series My Experience With and Theories About Learning Styles

Part 7: Thoughts on Test Results and Testing in General

A Confession

This story would not be complete if I did not share that my son’s test results freaked me out.

I didn’t like hearing that my son was behind in some areas even though other tests had him on grade level or even above grade level. I know what I taught my son. I know the work he produced. I felt he had mastered certain concepts yet a test said he didn’t. Which should I believe?

Some things he scored terribly on (contractions) he should have scored better at since he did know all about contractions and used them in his daily speaking. I did a review of contractions. He was annoyed and said he knew it all already why were we doing this? Indeed he did all the work with perfection, showing mastery in my opinion. Well at least I could document we did the work if we were ever questioned on it.

I explained in Part 6 that I changed the way we handled reading comprehension.

I gave him some practice with test trickery such as being careful about reading through all the multiple choice answers and slowly and carefully selecting really the best answer not just the first on the list that is correct but is not the most thorough answer.

Educational Neglect?

Those test results threw me into a tailspin also because some comments were made to me about the test results are credible and used in courts to show educational neglect. This was said along with telling me the deficit areas my son had. I was told that teachers are mandatory reporters to the state. This was a bit confusing to me as this woman was a teacher in the last state she lived in and was not currently teaching while she attended graduate school for this degree. She was not yet a mandatory reporter in this state. I didn’t quite know what she was trying to say. She said that these tests hold up in court as proof of educational neglect. I was reading between the lines and not liking what I was hearing. Was she going to report me for educational neglect?

What I definitely felt was that she was disappointed to think that my son had certain gaps in his learning. I can’t say I blame her for having that opinion. But real life and the test scores were not in alignment in my opinion, so an opinion based on those tests was wrong.

I was told that my son should have known what a “short a” is when in fact our phonics curriculum (Alpha Phonics) didn’t teach the terms, it just taught the child how to read the words. I felt the fact that he could decode at an eighth grade level according to one of her tests was proof he knew phonics but the teacher said no, that one test said he did not know phonics. Can you see how this exchange was crazy-making? Which test shall we choose to believe (plus based on witnessing the boy reading aloud and properly decoding) and which test shall we choose to discard and ignore?

I was told my son didn’t know how to subtract with borrowing because he made an error and added the math problem. That is ridiculous because my son very well did know how to subtract! The test shifted back and forth from adding to subtracting and I can only assume my son got on a roll with addition and didn’t pay attention to the different operation symbol. The teacher seemed angry at the idea that my fifth grade son could not subtract. I probably would be miffed by that too if I was the teacher. I have years of math teaching with a good math curriculum, and I have his math practice work here as proof that my son did learn and could do that kind of work. I resented judgment like that from an outside person when obviously the issue was that my son just messed up the test!

You see my son’s testing with the different tests all checking the same content could be looked at in different ways. A person could look only to the high scores with praise or they could look only to the low scores and claim there was a real problem. Since I got to see the inconsistencies in how different tests could yield such different scores the idea of a stranger judging my child on a score really bothered me. This also was in light of the circumstances I mentioned (death in the family, Lyme Disease, long testing times and fatigue).

Can you imagine the negative consequences a child may have if they are given just ONE test and the results are low? Can that test be trusted? I honestly don’t know!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Part 6 Series My Experience With and Theories About Learning Styles

Part 6: Getting an Expert’s Opinion About the Eye Tracking Problem and Changing Homeschool Plans

The first thing I did was ask around for a referral to a good behavioral optometrist and to ask who to avoid seeing. I heard the appointment with that doctor was not easy to get, so I called right away to get an appointment for a couple of months later.

The second step for me was to figure out what I could glean from those test results about academic content. I decided to re-teach some concepts that had already been taught, and I thought, mastered, but had not received high scores on the tests, just in case he really did not learn them (I had my doubts).

Another thing I did was decided to start a reading comprehension teaching program that veered from the Charlotte Mason method and was more in line with how the public schools teach and measure it. First I read a book about the modern ‘school way’ of teaching it. Then I decided to use a workbook based program. I’d teach the concepts and he’d do the work. The questions were multiple choice, fill in the blank and open-ended. I figured this doubled as practice for test taking too. I was hoping to cover all the bases while not abandoning the best parts of the Charlotte Mason method. In other words, work on dry and boring “public school like” work but still do the “great stuff” with different methods used in classical homeschooling and with good materials and narration, and also using the Charlotte Mason method when possible.

What the Behavioral Optometrist Said

The doctor said he was part of a year behind in reading speed, processing speed and the doctor said he had very small visual fields. He had convergence insufficiency which meant his two eyes were looking at two different things on the page; they were not converging (focusing) together to meld the text into one thing. Kids usually will try to focus on what one eye sees in order to read it. Some kids (not mine) tilt their heads to the side to see things out of one eye only and some squint or try to shut one eye to close out the second view. Imagine trying to read like when you look through binoculars and see two different views that don’t meld together. That is what my son was seeing when he was trying to read!

The doctor asked if he was behind in school. After saying we homeschool he asked how he was doing with learning. I explained that our method of homeschooling (Charlotte Mason) relied heavily on being read aloud to from more difficult books. He replied that unbeknownst to me I had been compensating for my son’s learning disability. By giving him input of information in an auditory fashion his weakness with obtaining content from reading text had been accidentally hidden or masked, thus I didn’t know it existed. I was speechless when he said that. I had never thought that the use of the Charlotte Mason method might actually hide a problem from being discovered. (In a future blog post I will tell about a discussion I had with this doctor in October 2009 about neurobiology and neural pathways as that is relevant to this discussion.)

I was reading aloud from higher level books starting in Kindergarten based on the Charlotte Mason method’s recommendation not to make up for deficits, but the result was the same, my son was learning content just fine as he was receiving most of it through auditory methods. But my choice to read aloud had masked the realization that my son was suffering with an LD connected to reading and visual processing. He said if my son was in school and being forced to learn using the methods the whole class was using he would do more poorly than his peers and he may have been flagged for having a problem with reading comprehension.

I will remind you at this point that my son’s learning styles test showed he was a visual (image) learner primarily and secondarily a kinesthetic learner. In last place was auditory. So the idea that for years he learned best by listening to books read aloud or on recorded audio books is something to ponder about the validity of learning styles or at least that one test my son took (from Discover Your Child’s Learning Style book).

Although his eyes were deemed 20/20 in the spring of his third grade year by an ophthalmologist (after my son said he had blurred vision) this doctor said at age 10 my son needed reading glasses for farsightedness. He has a mild prescription lens plus something called a “prism” in the lens to help with the convergence insufficiency.

We were told to have him use the glasses when he read so that is what he did. However about nine months later I asked about other close work and was told he should have been wearing them whenever doing close work, on the computer, doing math work, spelling, anything with handwriting, any reading, even fun comic book reading, and if playing handheld video games too.

Eye Tracking Treatment Started

My son began treatment for his condition which was convergence insufficiency. I have shared lots of details of that story in other blog posts (one is I've Been Learning About Convergence Insufficiency).

In summary he had syntonic phototherapy (see explanation in this post A Little Information About Syntonic Phototherapy) for 21 days in a row, after a wait time for the rental unit. After six months of no therapies, the doctor trained me to do what I believe are more traditional vision therapy eye exercises at home. A few months later he was changed to use a computer software program for increasing visual processing speed and retraining the mind to do quick recall of sequences of numbers. I note that some of these same exercises were discussed as neurodevelopmental techniques in lectures I heard at a homeschooling conference given by Lynda Kane. There was a three month interruption in that treatment in the summer of 2009 while my son recovered from infectious mononucleosis, when he was so wiped out with fatigue that the exercises were very difficult and seemed to be a total waste of time. The last tweak to his program implemented in October 2009 centers around learning strategies for spelling and vocabulary (one of his weak areas) and continuing with the computer program which I can describe as a visual processing speed exercise to retain the numbers seen on the screen after having them flashed at him for 2 or 3 seconds.

Results I Could See in His Schoolwork

His reading, spelling and math immediately improved once treatment began. He got passionate about reading and went on to read much longer and more difficult books, jumping from Andrew Clements books (grade 5 reading level) to reading the entire Eragon series (much longer and published for young adults). He was so happy to read some books and would stay up late at night as he was unable to stop reading them. I was overjoyed.

When Did Symptoms First Appear?

For clarification I’ll share this. It seems my son’s learning plateaued when in the fourth grade. There was a shift from good progress in grade three to stagnation in grade four.

In the summer between his grade three and grade four he had a terrible case of Lyme Disease. Our family had done a lot of hiking that spring. That is the same exact time that my other son got a bad case of Lyme Disease and also a second tick-borne (life threatening) illness called Ehrlichiosis. I also got Lyme at that same exact time. Our family had a terrible summer of trying to heal from these diseases.

It was proposed to me by my son’s doctor that the Lyme for my older son progressed to stage 2 which involves the neurological system. This can cause processing disorders (learning disabilities) in children. This all makes perfect sense to me because my son was not a challenge from the start of his homeschool life; a big shift happened between the end of grade three and the beginning of grade five. Some other challenges were forgetting math facts that he used to know, and his spelling went backwards all of a sudden such as not knowing how to spell “had” and “went” and doing really weird spelling error such as leaving out major letters that are key to the word’s pronunciation such as leaving the “b” out of “notebook” when repeating back that the word spelled was “notebook” and by orally spelling it correctly then looking down at the written word he just finished writing and being surprised there was no “b” in it. His ability to spell went out the window. Lastly he seemed to forget every single phonics rule he had already learned that allowed him to learn to read in the first place which seemed nonsensical to me.

A Learning Disability

This diagnosis is a learning disability. I had trouble adjusting to the fact that my son had a diagnosis label and was no longer just ‘normal’ or ‘average’. I had taken it for granted that my son was just a typical kid.

In an attempt to provide my son with the best treatments and to give him a good quality education I needed to educate myself about this condition. The next phase included finding out some general issues regarding learning and kids with learning disabilities. I learned that motivation can be an issue, poor self-esteem can be felt but hidden by kids and numerous other things. It helped me to find out some general information that can apply to all kids (and adults) with an LD.

Homeschooling an LD Kid?

A few times I worried about homeschooling a child with an LD. I wondered if schools might better handle this. After dealing with my son and his known condition for a year and nine months my outlook is that homeschooling is working out just great. I worry that the load of school work in the traditional schools may not be a good fit for any child with an LD. They have on and off days. Some days they are tapped out of energy. These things are not in alignment with the demands of traditional schools.

If he was in school he may have low self-esteem due to comparing his performance to that of his peers. I can only imagine how quickly a hurt child can turn into an angry child and then turn off to learning in general and start to hate school. I also can imagine that I’d have to deal with the teachers, asking for accommodations, being his advocate and so forth. That takes a lot of time to work to try to change the normal routines of a system. Frankly I think homeschooling him is easier for me than doing that!

It remains a challenge to both provide my son with an adequate or excellent home education plus allow for relaxed lessons or looser schedules to accommodate his LD issues and his recent mono! I have not let go of certain high educational standards yet. I want my son to be prepared to enter the career field of his choice. At present that is engineering which requires a college degree. The engineering degree is a difficult one heavy in math and science. If he is to pursue that degree he will have a lot of hard work in his middle school and definitely in high school. So having a label and an LD is not an excuse for him to let go of his dreams and hopes. I just have a hard time being both the mom and the teacher sometimes. I have to spend time educating myself on these LD issues and the specific conditions. I have to research teaching methods and tweak the curriculum’s recommendations sometimes. Making customized changes takes time and effort. It creates more work for me, more than “just” homeschooling.

So far I think I’m doing well with handling homeschooling a child with an LD.

And I’m keeping meticulous records just in case anyone accuses our family of educational neglect.

And I continue to monitor state government and will always work to protect homeschooling freedoms in my state. I am happy that education is a state issue not a federal issue as I feel I have more power as a citizen to work with my state legislature, I feel their ears and hearts are more open than that of our reps in our federal government.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Carnival of Homeschooling Week 200 Published

The Carnival of Homeschooling week 200 was published this week at Consent of the Governed.

This Carnival provides a lot of homeschool-related reading. Take a look!

If you have a blog or a website and write about homeschooling I encourage you to consider submitting an entry to this weekly blog Carnival. For information on how to make a submission, see here.


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Don't Assume That About Me!

I understand the world has a large number of stupid people. It is just a fact.

I hate it when I catch someone who doesn't really know me assuming I'm one of the idiots.

I'm not.

Through experience I know many people are either truly dumb or else I've caught smart people making mistakes. Mistakes are common. No big deal, right?

There are also bad people out there who are negative and seek to cause problems everywhere they go.

But I've found that it is much better for me to maintain a positive state of mind by instead assuming everyone I come in contact with is a good person, not an idiot, not dumb, and that they all have good intentions rather than being empty hearted or even evil. Despite assuming that, I sometimes experience negativity due to either an honest mistake or incompetence or their intentional malice. I can handle the crap when it comes my way, intentional or due to someone's error. Often I'd never know if what they did was intentional or an error, so it is just better to assume it was a mistake and forgive them instantly. There is no good that can come of focusing on the negative, getting angry over all the little stuff that can happen in a day.

I just really resent it when other people treat me like I'm an idiot especially if it's my first interaction with them and they know nothing about me. (Nor do I like seeing people do that to other people.)

I also don't like it when people assume I'm evil hearted due to a simple mistake mad that was not pre-planned or linked in any way to mean-spiritedness.

But really right now I'm annoyed by people who think they're better than others and assume I'm below them, stupid or incompetent when I'm neither of those things, and they have no reason in the world to assume so.

Thanks for listening to me vent.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Inklings Book Review by ChristineMM

My Summary Statement: A Moving Memoir of an Artistic Child

My Rating: 5 stars out of 5 = I Love It

Title: Inklings
Author: Jeffrey Koterba
Genre: Memoir
Publication: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (November 3, 2009)
Full Retail Price: $25.00

Jeffrey Koterba’s first book is Inklings, a memoir (in traditional text not a graphic format memoir). Koterba is no stranger to publication, he’s a professional editorial cartoonist . He’s also a musician. His story is told in parts, about his early childhood at age six and seven, his older teen years and then in his adult life.

Koterba is a good storyteller. From the beginning, telling about his life at age six I felt I was in his home and family with him, experiencing it all. He is the oldest child in the family, whose parents fought and struggled financially to make ends meet. The chaos of living with a pack rat (perhaps a hoarder) in a family with constant worry about money and anxiety was clearly conveyed. Both the author and his father suffered from ‘nervous habits’, twitches diagnosed later in life as Tourette’s Syndrome. His father was a drummer too, finding joy in playing the drums as a second job and at home for pleasure. Little Jeffrey found peace and happiness in drawing and teenaged Jeffrey became a guitar player.

The book has a certain tone to it, I hesitate to call it sadness, perhaps melancholy is a better word, or maybe I was just feeling the oppression of a tense household and living hand to mouth? I was happy to read of the peace that making art and music gave him. The happy emotions about drawing and music making kept the story from feeling oppressive or depressing, as there was a route of escape, escape into the imagination, release of emotions channeled into drawings, and later thoughts turned into song lyrics and creating original music. I’ll confess to shedding a few tears and wanting to hug the boy Jeffrey or to give words of encouragement to the teenaged Jeffrey. But I want to be clear, this book is not like some other memoirs that were so upsetting that I had to shelve them to keep from getting depressed.

I enjoy stories about artists and creative people who find joy in creative work as a child, hearing of what they did to create, how the adults in their lives reacted to their creativity, and how creating enhanced their life in childhood and later on. I also enjoy stories from adult professional artist and musicians about how their early creative energy was used in their lives, what twists and turns their lives took and if and how they finally were able to make a living from their art. How a person can get from point A to fulfilling their dream of at point B is interesting to me. Being a creative person myself, of course I was cheering Koterba along hoping he could make a living out of his passion! All of this is included in this memoir.

I also have an interest in stories about real life told through the eyes and mind of a child. I am interested in kids telling their stories of school, especially facing adversity at school whether from academic issues, learning disabilities, teachers or negative interactions with other students. I am curious to hear stories of how kids get themselves through school, how they survived various common adversities and how those experiences affected their development along the way, and helped form who they turned out to be as mature adults (especially when the outcomes are good). Stories that tell of that “one special teacher” that made a difference in a child’s life or the one school subject that helped get them through the rest of their school life are of interest to me. Most of the things I just mentioned were touched upon in Jeffrey Koterba’s memoir.

I should also mention I especially enjoyed the descriptions of life seen through the eyes of a creative child. Games of make believe and wishing he could shrink down and live inside his toys are some things in this story are things my sons have said and done or that I myself did as a child.

I also enjoyed hearing of how Koterba’s life experiences helped shape who he is as a father. What kind of father decided he wanted to be to his son based on what he thinks is a more ideal experience was of enlightening. (I’m in the same boat, crediting not the parenting books from experts but my own life experience as a major influence of how I parent my own children.)

Another item to ponder is the question of right brained, creative people who have a neurological diagnosis whose proposed treatments (in the case of Tourette’s Syndrome, prescription medications) may take away or diminish the person’s unique gifts and talents. It’s a hard decision to make about seeking conventional medical treatment or declining it. I won’t tell the details of this, you’ll have to read the book for yourself to find out.

Throughout the book the author does what many adults do, takes bits and pieces of memory and information shared by some relatives and adds new information discovered from other relatives as life goes on, to piece together a more complete picture of reality. I was especially interested in something I myself am dealing with, that the experience of each member of a family can be so different from the others who lived in the same family. No two siblings in the same family experience their own parents and siblings like the others. We can live the same experiences but our impressions of them can vary greatly.

If you enjoy memoir and like to read a story that includes perspectives from early childhood, teenager years and adulthood, from a creative person who became a professional artist and musician, you’ll enjoy this book. If you have an interest in hearing a story about a boy growing up with Tourette’s (but undiagnosed at the time) then you will be interested in this. If you like memoir about kids growing up with imperfect family lives but who wind up living meaningful adult lives you’ll like this book.

If you are interested in reading more about the idea that spending time doing our passion in life can greatly enhance our lives (even if it winds up not being a source of income or our main profession), I encourage you to read Sir Ken Robinson’s THE ELEMENT: HOW FINDING YOUR PASSION CHANGES EVERYTHING and to watch his free lectures online.

Disclosure: I did not receive monetary payment to write this review from any source. I received an advance reading copy of this book through the Vine review program. I cannot resell this book or give it away. It’s retail value to me is therefore $0. I do not own this book per the Amazon Vine agreement and must give it back to them if they request it.

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We've Been Playing DJ Hero

Today DJ Hero was released.

I've been playing a demo kit version (4 songs not 93) with a wired turntable (not wireless that is sold in stores) with my kids. I received this from the Amazon Vine reivew program free of charge. I did not get paid to write my review for Amazon.

Due to the hazy nature of the value of this free demo kit product (in my opinion the value is zero as it's not sold in stores and is just a fraction of the real product's songs) but not wanting to maybe violate the terms of my BlogHerAds contract (which prohibits me from publishing reviews of free products with a value over $40), I decided to post my review of this brand new game on my other blog, here.

If you'd like to read my thoughts on this game go here to read it.

Note this game is rated T = Teen for lyrics and mild suggestive content.

We're playing it on xBox360 but it has also been relased for Playstation 2, Playstation 3, and the Wii.

It can be played as a solo game, with two turntables (when you purchase a second turntable) or along with a Guitar Hero guitar (purchased separately).

It's fun. My kids like it enough that we may wind up having to buy the full bundle package. So much for getting something for free, this will cost me money in the end I think!

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Part 5 Series My Experience With and Theories About Learning Styles

The Testing Process and the Results

Note: I had not shared all this information in detail on my blog in the past as I worried of possible negative ramifications from doing so. What if someone filed an educational neglect charge against our family based on what I shared about these test results?

Since we are two years out from this testing and I have further information to discredit some of these results I’m no longer scared to share this story.

It is my hope that perhaps some parent with a child in school or at home may learn something from our experience with a battery of tests. I pity the school children who are subjects of just one test and get a label from that one test. The fact is the test may be sub-par and the result may be wrong. I can only hope that perhaps a quick and easy test is done first and if the child does poorly, that more extensive testing is done to verify and double-check the results. Still I have questions about testing accuracy. If the child is not fully engaged, if the tests run too long, if the child grows bored or has a bad attitude during testing (including from feeling low self-esteem or being worried over what the result may show) the test result could be disastrous, a falsely lower score than reality.


The Testing Timeframe

I had no stake in this test. I didn't worry about the results. There would be no negative consequences to doing this, or so I thought.

Due to the student teacher’s class deadlines there was a push to get this done. Issues that arose during testing were not a consideration for the student teacher to question the validity of the tests. To give tests in subpar conditions then treat the results as if they were totally accurate and perfect is a bit ridiculous. Given what my son went through in this timeframe, if an accurate result was desired the testing should have been rescheduled for a month or more down the road. Given the two separate things that happened, this would mean two postponements should have occurred. I let the testing continue as it was to help this student teacher and I understood her deadline and the importance of finishing this up on time. The student teacher was also praising my son's performance and behavior so I though the results would be good or fantastic.

Not all the restuls were great. I beat myself up about this for a long time. This is something I didn't even share with some of my closest friends and something I tried to hide from my blog readers. However in 20/20 hindsight now that two years has gone by, I feel I was too hard on myself and perhaps my son too, about what the results showed.

The tests were done over about two and a half months if my memory is correct. The visits were usually weekly. The testing was done in my home and was usually 90-120 minutes in length; some went longer than two hours. I was at home but in another room during the testing. I kept my younger son occupied and quiet by playing quiet games with him so he would not disturb the testing.

Problems During Testing

Two monkey wrenches were thrown into this testing process.

One was the fact that my son contracted Lyme Disease during the testing including having fever symptoms and headache during one testing period. He was on antibiotic therapy after the diagnosis and was still not feeling well during treatment. Lyme can affect the thinking process and memory and can cause “brain fog” and indeed he was having that as I saw his learning negatively affected during that time.

Second, a very close relative died. My father-in-law finally passed away after suffering with Cancer. He had a decline in health during the last few weeks of his life, during the testing period. (Our family helped him a lot and we were busy caring for him, my son was with him often, seeing his decline. This was a very emotional time for our whole family and my children were there to see it all. At the time of his death, my children were present in the next room. The rest of our family was at his bedside but I felt that was a bit too much for my boys aged seven and ten to actually see happen since neither me or my husband had ever been bedside to watch a person pass away and we didn’t know what to expect. Additionally some of the other family members were very emotional and that would have upset my kids (who could not hear everything since they were watching television).

One testing session was given two days after the four day long family gatherings and funeral finally ended. That was an emotionally grueling week and my children’s sleep schedules were off due to all the activities. The teacher was under a tight deadline since the death was near the end of her class, and insisted on doing the testing, not wanting to cancel the appointment the week we were busy with the funeral.

Lastly my son admitted to intentionally guessing and not paying attention then making up answers because he was burned out, especially in sequencing testing where he was flashed 4-6 numbers or letters on a card and was told to state back what he saw. If the card said CABBCA and he said GXUTMS, I’m sorry but that is not a processing issue or dyslexia that is a nonsense answer done on purpose. You see for some answers, my son was giving gibberish letters and numbers which had no resemblance to what was there so I could not resist asking him what was he thinking? And that’s when he said he was just making up some of the answers!

Getting the Test Results

In January 2008 I finally got the test results. To be honest I was expecting to hear he was on grade level or slightly above. I had no worries other than what I knew about him guessing on some of the answers.

The Big Picture or Parroting?

One thing the teacher noted was her surprise at something he did which she did not like at all. This has to do with seeing things in a big picture context. For the open ended oral questions, she said often he’d include on topic information which was not in the passage that had been read. I asked for some examples and I was shown them. I recognized information that my son had learned at a museum a year earlier and explained that to her, how he had taken the new information from the reading test and mixed it together with what he already knew and his answers were synthesized into one coherent answer. Another test item had data from a unit study we did when my son was in first grade and had not covered again since! I was so happy because he retained that old information and infused new information in proper context and learned! I took that as an education success story.

I should also mention that our homeschool method has never been about parroting back information or practicing spitting back just exactly what was said twisted up a bit and with a few words switched out so as to not look like plagiarism. The Charlotte Mason method is dead set against parroting. The method encourages the learner to take in information, make it his own by picking out parts of it that speak to him and impress him and then narrating about that. The only wrong action in a narration is to state back wrong facts or misunderstood information. If a student winds up discussing a certain element from a history lesson such as how the society built roads and managed the community and another student focuses on the way people dressed at the time and another focuses on battles and dates, that is fine!

But the teacher said this accurate telling of information that included bits from other sources properly placed in context caused her a problem for scoring, and sometimes she marked the answers incorrect as she wanted him to say only what he’d just learned form that one passage in the test (parroting). She said she repeatedly asked him to only reply with the information from the passage just read but that he didn’t always comply. I asked if he said the right information from that reading and extra information was included that was from another source, to me that meant he learned from both the new information and the old. She disagreed, saying the only way to gauge if reading comprehension was achieved is if the student only parrots back what was in that exact passage.

Later when I had time to ponder this it occurred to me how difficult that can be, I know it would be for me. Think about this for a minute. Let’s say you know X about a topic then read a new passage. While reading you are trying to understand it and in so doing some assimilation with prior knowledge in your mind is thought about. Then to answer a battery of test questions about what was read you would have to concentrate back on just what was read at that last reading to be aware to not reply in open-ended questions with any single thing that was known formerly.

This was my first taste of when school test measurements may not match to the bigger picture of what we want learning to be. I thought also that teachers wanted this type of “big picture” learning but apparently not all of them do. I thought that learning was about setting a foundation then building upon it. As a person grows older the knowledge builds up and up and information and ideas intersect and weave together with connections happening all over the place. I asked myself, “Is it not the goal of teaching and reading new material to link it to past information learned, make connections, synthesize it and understand the new information in a bigger picture way?” I still can’t understand a teaching model used in public school where this type of learning is not the goal. I remain totally miffed about this.

Perhaps the answer is that the goal of public education in America is truly not what the publicly stated goal is, but this is not something I’ve researched thoroughly or chosen to buy in to. I am speaking of the idea that our country wants robot like compliant citizens to be passive participants in what factory owners or corporations want from a workforce or what our government wants from its citizens. That theory is laid out in “The Underground History of American Education” by John Taylor Gatto if you want to learn more about that. If that book is too much for you consider reading “Dumbing Us Down” by the same author.

Results All Over the Place
I will also share my son got some excellent scores on the testing, so the picture painted of him was all over the place. In the same content areas, he was deemed ahead in some areas, behind in others, and on grade level in others. The tests themselves were scattered even when testing the same thing, thus leaving me with little confidence about school testing of academic ability!

For example one phonics test said “doesn’t know enough phonics to be able to decode and learn to read and needs remedial phonics work” when in fact he can read and did score on another test “decoding words with phonics at a grade eight level”. (My son was in grade five, second month at that time.)

I consoled myself also with the information that his verbal communication portion of an IQ test tested at age 17 which impressed the teacher very much. A person cannot be a good oral communicator if they can’t think or if they don’t have any content to discuss, right? At least that very high score balanced out the writing composition which was all over the place from grade 5, grade 4 and grade 1! Also I didn’t believe the grade level score for two of the tests. I checked these writing pieces he did for homework which I had copies of against the Flesch-Kinkaid scores in Microsoft Word and instead of coming out below grade 5 level, and they scored grades 4 and 5. So what is up with her scoring system?

A Problem with the Tests Themselves?

When I heard the results I asked about the inconsistency. I wanted to know how the same kid could score below grade level, on grade level, and above grade level on reading comprehension when tested by the same person in the same time frame. She looked at the tests and made the connection for the first time that he scored well on the short passages of one or two paragraphs but did worse on the longer tests. The test with 1.5 pages of reading he did the worst on.

She also mentioned that on the long passage test he was skipping some lines and losing his place on the line. She said she noted he could not answer questions on data he missed due to skipping lines or skipping words (which she said makes perfect sense). She said she thought me may have had an eye tracking problem, that she saw his eyes jumping around or searching to find his place when he got lost on the page, but was quick to say she’d not yet learned about what that exactly is. I told her I have some friends with kids under treatment for eye tracking problems and I’d get him to a qualified doctor for an evaluation.

The eye tracking thing really surprised me because in the past he had never skipped words or lost his place on the line. I used to have him read aloud to me and he never used to do that. But in third grade I stopped having him read aloud since he was doing so well (and never skipped a line or lost his place on the line) and he went on to silent reading. In third grade he was reading Boxcar Children series of books which was on grade level. For fourth grade he was battling with me to move on to harder reading, longer books and such. I read about eye tracking problems and saw many symptoms that my son had but they were things that parents and teachers often dismiss with things like “not all boys like to read long books in fourth and fifth grade” or “boys love to read comics” and “not every kids is a bookworm”.

Learning Styles?

To be honest I was still touting the benefits of being aware of a child’s learning style but I was not using the data from his tests very much (I’d retested him over the years) in a very thorough way. I was focusing more on doing what works for him and also doing what is recommended by the classical homeschool method and the Charlotte Mason method.

After doing his fiction reading for reading practice he seemed ‘tapped out’ of energy to read any more. (I later learned this is a huge issue for kids with any kind of learning disability or who struggle with an area of weakness. One source of this information in book form is "The Motivation Breakthrough" by Richard LaVoie.) I saw this "tapped out of learning energy" starting in about grade three and it continued up to that point when he was in grade five. I had continued using heavy Charlotte Mason influences and classical methods from "The Well Trained Mind" (book) but was still relying on a lot of reading aloud for educational content not just to follow those homeschooling methods as I thought they were wonderful but also because my son had no energy or desire to switch to independent reading for history, science, and other content.

I was also surprised on retesting my kid’s learning styles when they were in grade 2 and 5 that they scored exactly the same as each other for learning styles. They learn very differently and want different things from their learning experiences so this mystified me. (I will explain more details in the Brain Dominance portion of this series that helped things fall into place.) I just left the question dangling unanswered but I did wonder if learning style were really accurate. Again I was not obsessing over learning styles. I felt they were something that might be helpful, one part of the puzzle, but they were not the ‘end all and be all’.

Books Mentioned in This Post

The book I used for learning styles was:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Part 4: Series: My Experience With and Theories About Learning Styles

Part Four: In Which I Offer My Son Up as a Guinea Pig for Testing

I am sharing these stories in chronological order but this point is where three things converge. The fact that my older son might have a learning disability was brought to my attention in January 2008 after some testing was done by a student teacher in the fall of 2007. The appointment with the doctor and the actual diagnosis was in April 2008. Also in April 2008, I learned about what is called brain dominance and its affect on learning. These events affected me in ways that profoundly shifted my thinking about children and learning. I also went through a priority shift during this time due to learning all these things and being faced with addressing new challenges. Lastly a state legislative issue that threatened homeschooling freedom affected me greatly as did learning of numerous false reports to the state for educational neglect of homeschooled children and worried about how our homeschool may be judged by an outsider.

At this point a few issues meld together to form my opinions. To make my points and to explain my reason for thinking what I do, I need to tell about each part. I can’t discuss my opinions about learning styles unless I include “brain dominance” (or whatever you prefer to call it) and also discuss my son’s new learning disability. I can’t talk about one or two without talking about the others. I tried to talk about our story in a vague and general way but worried that readers won't understand or will think I'm just tossing about opinions based on nothing concrete. I have a reason for thinking the things I do!


My older son loved (and still loves as a preteen) being read aloud to. I’d been reading aloud to him since he was a baby. He sat more still than my friends say they think boys should be able to do. He loved the illustrations in picture books and seemed to be a visual learner. By that I mean he was very interested in the illustrations and images on the page (he could care less about the text). He also learned a lot from watching documentaries.

My son was not ‘always on the go’ nor was he one of the kids who must move, run, or jump around while listening to a book read aloud or practicing math facts. He didn’t “need to move to learn” even though is learning style was equally visual (pictures) and kinesthetic. (Some homeschooling mothers I know whose kids seem to me to have undiagnosed ADHD or at least be “wild” or seem to have impulse control problems claim their learning style testing shows the child is a kinesthetic learner and credit that for their child’s physical actions.) He learned easily from watching people do things with their hands also but I never classified him as a kid who needed to touch things and do projects related to learning, but give him some LEGOs and he can play alone or with other kids with them for eight hours. He loved making art and doing hand crafts. He never much cared for ‘hands on’ educational projects, acting things out or dressing up like historical characters.  Learning activities that “they say” kinesthetic learners want and thrive on were a turn-off for this son despite his test score saying he was a kinesthetic learner.

My son has a photographic memory. He can remember events attended and places visited in vivid detail. His earliest memory goes back to about his first birthday. Emotional incidents have a large impact on him and those things are more permanently stamped into his mind. Small incidents that upset him may leave a scar while positive emotion incidents seem to be very important for shaping his persona in a positive way (this is harder to credit than the clear, bad experiences’ negative impact). Something like a spanking is etched in his memory forever. I cannot imagine what his mind and heart would be like if spankings or other pain infliction methods were used on him regularly. Although I'm against spanking I did try it a couple of times and it really seemed to scar his mind and heart and it wasn't effective at stopping the problems anyway (other methods worked). I think the emotion has some connection to his memory because he doesn’t have a photographic memory for words, math facts or academic information but for experiences, interpersonal communications (detailed recall of full conversations or exchanges witnessed) or linked to places (travel etc.).

Because I was reading to him from higher level books than his independent reading level, and because we visited museums with displays geared toward adults, and by watching documentaries for adults, he got exposed to higher level information and understood it. He absorbed it like a sponge. I did these things because they worked for my son and also because I was following the Charlotte Mason method which recommended reading from higher level books than the child could read to themselves. I did not do those things because the learning styles test said to do them. I just looked at that son’s test from when he was early age seven and he was equally scored as a visual learner (pictures not text) and kinesthetic. Auditory was low which I recall confused me since he learned so much content that was read aloud to him.

I did not have him reading ‘on grade level’ nonfiction books for academic reasons for kids as I felt the information was too simplified and dumbed down in order to deliver it in a reading level they are able to comprehend. For example a book I could read to him about space exploration had so much more information than on grade level space exploration easy readers. I had clear indications that what my son learned from read-alouds, audio books, videos, and museum trips was being learned and retained. My son could make unbelievable connections. When reading a book about Egypt, when narrating he linked it to something he saw a year ago on a documentary, in the right context. To me that is what we want from learning. (We have so far never used textbooks such as I used in public school for learning about topics such as science and history. The homeschooling methods we chose to use seek to avoid these boring and often dumbed down tomes at all costs.)

A Panel of Tests

At age ten I offered my son up as a guinea pig. A post came across a local homeschool discussion board asking if any children could be test subjects for a student teacher. The woman was an experienced middle school teacher who was getting her master’s degree to be a reading specialist. She had to give a full battery of tests to one child in order to learn how to administer them. This was her first time administering these tests. For her grade she had to do a big report on the child including making recommendations for addressing any weaknesses. One purpose of the exercise was to realize how different tests exist that test the same concepts but the tests are weaker or stronger than each other (all these tests are presently used). I was told different schools use different tests (the same school might not use two tests; someone at the school has chosen which will be used and which will not be used). Some are considered more credible than others. (The fact that any schools use the sub-par tests is confusing to me, why don’t they all use only the most accurate tests? But I digress.)

I thought my son had fantastic reading comprehension based on his oral narrations which was a key element of the Charlotte Mason home education method. This was my son’s first time taking tests like this. He seemed to tolerate it well, being patient, calm, and polite. The teacher complimented me many times on how easy it was to work with him and what a ‘great kid’ he was.

Bottom Line Lesson Learned

If you teach with a certain goal and method and then you test a student using different standards and methods, the student may not score well. In some academic areas where defined content is learned if that is tested, the student may perform well. However even in some cases such as something as seemingly clear cut as math, this may not work.

For example if I homeschool my children using old style math such as I learned in public school in the 1970s and 1980s, if they took the Connecticut Mastery Test and were asked to estimate first not just do the operation, then write a paragraph explaining their thought process and show two ways the problem could be solved, my kids may get that wrong. I do not have my children writing out in words how they do math. I do not teach guesswork methods of math. I focus on concrete operations not guesswork as a primary objective.

Lastly anything having to do with a calculator may not work out well as my children are banned from using them to do schoolwork. Thus if I teach my kids to read and they can read and enjoy the selection and learn from it they still may not fare will doing testing that focuses on other objectives.

One test prep booklet with real test examples was asking my child to guess at emotions of characters in the selection with subjective answers such as after a young child was lost at the zoo my son said the mother would be happy when the child was found but the right answer was the mother would be angry with the child for having wandered off. In our family this mother would have been happy!

So one impression I had of testing was to be careful that if an alternative education method is used (even a popular homeschooling method) that effective learning might not be clearly shown on standardized tests that are built to measure learning effectiveness used in a different model of education.

I know that some studies show that homeschoolers score well in standardized tests and that homeschoolers outperform public schools in those studies. However I question who is taking those tests. Are those homeschooled students just having public school replicated at home (albeit maybe adding in religious content or some great extra learning experiences)? Are the test takers using alternative learning methods such as unschooling? Are kids who are late readers given the test at the young ages when they can't read (they'd fail, wouldn't they?). Are any of those students suffering with learning disabilities taking those tests? I don’t know.

I’ll share more details of the testing and the results in my next post. I wanted to share this in one post but it was too long!

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Stunning Maple Tree's Fall Colors

I was happy to be able to photograph a lovely maple tree whose leaves are turning. Is it not gorgeous?

My kids were on a homeschool group field trip there today. I was a chaperone. Hopefully I'll be able to blog more about the event we attended (A Day at the Renaissance) at another time!

Photo taken 10/19/09 at Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah, New York.
copyright ChristineMM

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Part 3: Series: My Experience With and Theories About Learning Styles

Part Three: What My Younger Son Taught Me

While teaching my older son, such as when I was reading a book aloud, my younger son who was three years younger than my older, began learning alongside his brother. I was doing what I thought was right for my older son per his learning styles yet I could not stop my younger one from learning just by being present when I was teaching my older son.

At age three my younger son sat in my lap while I played regular BINGO and sight word BINGO with my older son. By looking at the numbers I called out he learned the numbers by sight and to read left to right, up to 75 (see story here). He asked to find the words for me on our sight word BINGO card so I’d show the card directly to him and let him find it (he did it with ease).

Later when three, he could count to over 150. I know this because I had bought dot to dot books for my older son that went over 150 trying to get my son to practice math work under the disguise of fun dot to dot puzzles (it worked by the way). My little guy wanted to do that specific book but I was giving him books that went up to 20. I said he couldn’t have the book with higher numbers because he couldn’t count that high but when he could do it, I'd give him a book like that. He replied, “Yes I can”. I asked him to show me, and he went on to do it. I was flabbergasted. I had never taught him those numbers in any lesson (and his brother, at that age had no clue about counting very high let alone anywhere near or over one hundred).

At three and a half my son knew letter sounds without me teaching him, and the letters by name. He would play with toys near my older son and I while my son was doing phonics lessons, I don’t know if that played a part in it. He did also ask for me to put my finger under the words as I read from picture books. That was something that I had never done before with my older son. I know other people do that, but I had not (just like others recommend using funny voices when reading aloud but I never could bring myself to do that).

At three and a half, my son could decode very short words. He did this not because I asked but when we would see signs or words he’d tell me what they said, much to my amazement. He asked to learn to read, he wanted to use “the red book” that his brother used (Alpha Phonics). I was holding him back though.

On his fourth birthday he received a gift of an educational cartoon (Leap Frog) and after one viewing was decoding larger words. He begged to learn to read. I didn’t want him reading yet as I was trying to savor his youth as I was pretty sure he was to be our last baby.

But in September he demanded to ‘do school’ like his brother so at age 4 and 3 months, I set in to teach him to read using Alpha Phonics. He recalled near the end of my older son doing that curriculum I rewarded with an ice cream cone after doing ten lessons (generally took 8-10 school days). That I did out of desperation to try to motivate my son to finish up. My younger son said to be fair he wanted the same thing and I agreed. However what I didn’t realize was that he’d always to 5 lessons a day and sometimes all ten in one sitting!! He would do phonics for 40-50 minutes straight with determination and never getting frustrated. He flew through the curriculum in three months and was fluently reading at that point.

I gave that son the learning styles test. I didn’t use the results very much to be honest. This is because this kid picked up everything very easily, from any source. He asked to learn and do more than I wanted him to do. He begged for workbooks when I hated them and didn’t want my kids wasting their time doing them. Since he was so precocious, learning things so fast and earlier than the schools recommend teaching them, I didn’t pay much attention to what the test said was his learning style. I focused more on giving my son what he needed or begged for. This wound up resulting in doing homeschooling differently than I had wanted to do but I felt that if he needed workbooks and loved them who was I to refuse him that request? We were generally using the Charlotte Mason method but since I customized things based on his requests maybe the style was more eclectic or some would argue we were unschooling (doing what my son requested).

Now that younger son of mine is nine years old and in fourth grade. I still don’t see in real life, any proof that the learning styles he tests out to be have any relevance in his life. I don’t base curriculum choices on his learning styles test result, I base them on real life experiences and his requests.

I was also miffed about learning styles because my two sons tested exactly the same. In case you are not familiar with the test in the book “Discover Your Child’s Learning Style” the children take the test on their own so the parent is not skewing the result to match what the parent thinks about the child. My two boys are very different in their approach to learning and other details such as which wants to work independently and which wanted me by his side, which wanted workbook type learning and which hated workbooks and so forth. I could not understand how these two children could test the same and be so different.

Then two years ago, when my boys were in grades 5 and 2, I discovered ‘brain dominance’ and it all fell into place. I’ll discuss that topic in an upcoming post.

Books and Products Mentioned in This Post

Friday, October 16, 2009

Part 2: Series: My Experience With and Theories About Learning Styles

Part 2: Kindergarten for My Oldest Child

When homeschool Kindergarten began for my oldest child I was still unschooling. I should note for anyone who is curious about ages, my son was just 5 years and two weeks old when Kindergarten began. In my geographic area it is now common for boys to be held back a year ("red shirted", they call it) in hopes that they will be developmentally ready to learn or sit still. I didn’t red shirt my son. Actually since we homeschooled I didn’t care much for labels of grades (but would later realize that to do anything like Scouts or even homeschool classes he had to have a grade number assigned to him).

I was worried about teaching reading because it was such a big topic in America. Reading is said to be so important for young children to be able to do. Preschools do pre-reading activities starting at very young ages. Toys are sold with phonics sounds and given to one and two year old’s. So many reading aids are sold to parents of schooled kids. Tutor companies cater to kids who cannot learn to read in school. I had a fear that I’d not be able to teach my child to read. This fear was furthered by the debates over phonics vs. sight reading. I also wanted to teach my son to read in Kindergarten to get everyone off my back: friends, neighbors, and relatives. You see in those early days I was still hearing opposition to our decision to homeschool. Even loving relatives didn't know if I should be entrusted with the education of our children (since I was not a certified school teacher).

My mother was taught to read using sight word methods and was labeled dyslexic in public school. She graduated high school with terrible self-esteem about this and rarely reads anything. The exception is she has read very dry technical books which I feel are difficult reading level if it is a topic she is highly interested in, and she does understand it and applies the content in real life. She has taught herself things from books written by and for gemologists about precious stones, how to propagate and cross breed African Violet plants and show them to win prizes as well as teaching herself difficult handcrafts like custom designing and making stained glass windows.  She thinks she is stupid and unteachable. When she sees a Dick and Jane reader she becomes quickly angry as she has so many bad feelings about her experience with those books!

My father was also taught with sight reading methods in school and supplemented at home with sight reading flash cards (which I know own) and he began Kindergarten when aged four years, nine months (Connecticut allows this) and mind you that was in the 1940s before anything such as preschool ever existed for 'Kindergarten readiness prep'. He was flagged in Kindergarten as not being on track developmentally as his penmanship was poor (looks normal to me, I saw all of his saved school papers!) My grandmother was so freaked out she brought him to Yale for an evaluation at the famous Geselle Institute child development center! I have a copy of this report. My father didn’t think he was good at school, did not enjoy it, and dropped out of high school in order to ‘live in the real world’ and to 'be an adult'. Later he earned his GED and took a few night college courses. He is still happy with his decision to drop out. He reads the city newspaper daily but has not read a single book since high school in the 1960s. In case you're wondering he is of the hippie generation but was definatly not a hippie. He worked hard at his jobs and conceived a child when he was 21 (with me) and went on to get married and became a family man.

(In case you are curious, as to my parent's view of education they felt children should use public school since their taxes paid for it. "Get our money's worth!". They left the education of me and my brother to the school. I recall being helped with homework in grades four and under but after that I was on my own. My parents were what the schools would now call "hands off" or "uninvolved". Honestly we never spoke of education or the importance of learning. We were just told "do your homework as the teacher says to do it". And we earned a few dollars for A grades on our report cards.)

Besides my thoughts on what outsiders thought of our Kindergarten year and on learning to read, I put the pressure on myself to teach my child to read in his Kindergarten year. I was trying to keep up with the public school schedule even though my state’s homeschool laws are not detailed (they don’t say what must be learned or taught in what grade). I decided that if I could teach him to read which Americans think is such a hard thing to do, that I could teach my kids anything in homeschooling. I figured if I failed at teaching them to read then I’d fail at homeschooling so was prepared to give it up.

My son had every single reading readiness sign that exists in the check lists. Yet with phonics or sight reading methods he could not learn to read. He even found it a struggle to learn the names of the letters of the alphabet at first, finally mastering that either shortly before Kindergarten or in the beginning of Kindergarten. When he knew the sounds it was an effort to blend them together /c/-/a/-/t/ was dragged out and not easily said as ‘cat’. I kept teaching him to read then would give up and shelve the program for a couple of months then retry it again. I first blamed the curriculum so kept shopping for another product. I amassed a collection of phonics reading programs. There was no magic bullet. Hard work in short lessons on a regular basis is what worked. The motto could have been Nike's "Just Do It".

I looked into a program that was largely sight reading based but did not like the guessing games and wanted my son to decode the word not say a word based on an illustration on the page. It was “Teach Your Child to Read With Children’s Books”. Plus that didn’t work either.

Finally in the late winter of his Kindergarten year my son was able to learn phonics. It was, to me, slow and grueling. Lessons lasted generally 5-10 minutes (trying for 10) but I tried to stop the lesson before any frustration erupted. My son did not like the lessons and just wanted to keep playing. But he played all day long so I felt strongly that 5-10 minutes of a lesson that I wanted him to do was perfectly reasonable to ask of him. The phonics program that worked in the end was “Alpha Phonics” by Sam Blumenfeld.

Actually at that time I began to worry about my parenting style. I used attachment parenting and he did have limits. He was a well behaved boy and we had a harmonious family life. He would do what I said. He didn’t do ‘bad things’. He didn’t cause trouble. He’d make reasonable requests and I would agree. We did not use pain infliction punishment methods (i.e. spanking or slapping) nor did I use “violent” communication tactics like shaming, belittling or mean talking to induce shame. The word ‘no’ was not used much in this home, not because he was a demanding brat that got what he wanted but because he was a reasonable kid and didn’t make requests for things that I should deny. Such as we didn’t keep candy in the house as we were trying to eat healthfully so we never battled about having ‘just one more piece of candy’.

My son had a good life. He had lots of toys and we did fun things as a family. He was used to having an enjoyable life. So when he refused to sit and do phonics I was actually hurt. I didn’t ask him to do much that he didn’t want to do so I wanted him to not argue about doing phonics for 5-10 minutes 4-5 times a week. He resisted though. I worried that perhaps I over-indulged him or let him think that life was all about fun and games so now that something took effort to learn he was not willing to do it.

It didn’t help when I read Christian homeschoolers discuss defiance of authority and that children who battle their parents are sinning by breaking one of the Ten Commandments. Some Christians have pointed to attachment parenting and gentle discipline as creating monsters, and a monster is what some would have labeled my ‘defiant’ son based only on our exchanges about doing the phonics lessons (the behavior was not present any other time). In the end I stuck to doing what felt right in my heart and it has turned out well. My son is now twelve and is a really nice kid. I’ve received many compliments on my son behaving well and being a friendly, likeable person. He does not have an angry heart. I feel that a good amount of bad behavior or poor attitudes in children is due to having an angry heart (whether imposed by things done to them by parents, peers, or others in their life).

About learning styles, before that Kindergarten year I discovered a book written by two school teachers on the topic “Discover Your Child’s Learning Style”. They said how schools have not kept up to date with new research and information learned about learning styles. They blamed children not learning on ineffective teaching. They argued that now that more is known about learning, developmental stages and brain biology that teachers should be more flexible with their teaching methods or the timing. I did the tests in and found them helpful to a point. The book was not written for homeschoolers (even at this point in time none exists) that shows exactly what curriculums work with that style or modality and none give details about teaching methods. Honestly a book could be written by a homeschooling parent for homeschooling parents that contains detailed information about teaching techniques and curriculum and product choices.

So I believed at that time, that learning styles could help in some way. I did not obsess over learning styles or claim they are a cure all for everything.

The last thing I’ll share in this segment is that by the spring of Kindergarten my son was no longer happy with wide open days of no structure. He wanted some structure to learning, to know what was coming next, to have a plan in place. I looked again at the classical method (a la the book “The Well Trained Mind” which was given to me as a gift from a veteran successful homeschooling family) but it didn’t seem a best fit for us at that time. I began to research the Charlotte Mason method after hearing a happy homeschooling mother praise the method. I read “A Charlotte Mason Companion” by Karen Andreola. I began to use Charlotte Mason methods slowly and by the beginning of grade one we were a full fledged Charlotte Mason family doing short lessons. The rest of our days were more learner-driven like unschooling, which I still liked very much but felt it didn’t mesh well with my son.

So regarding reading, we were doing phonics instruction regularly at the end of Kindergarten, broke for the summer, then resumed using it in September of his grade one year. He finished the program and was reading well in my opinion.

I felt that kids of that age needed open ended time for playing. I didn’t want homeschooling lessons to be long and drawn out. I wanted plenty of time for my child to play. I provided him with good toys that allow for the use of his imagination. He loved to play on his own (and with his brother) and he thrived when given a whole afternoon of playing at whatever he wanted. Back then the major focus was still on playing with wooden train sets, building elaborate layouts and he was just starting to play with LEGO and a little with K’Nex. He played board games like (adult) Monopoly and Parcheesi and some card games. He played no video games but did fool around with some educational computer software games (which I felt taught him little). He loved doing open ended art projects and doing crafts. At that point we were doing arts and crafts every single day usually for about two hours.

At that point in my homeschooling experience I felt what was most integral was the developmental stages of my young child, more than learning styles. I felt that if a child was taught when they were ready to be taught the learning would come fast and easy. I felt that pushing formal academics on a too-young child was a waste of time for everyone and stress-inducing for the child. I wanted my kids to be kids and felt there was a lot of time in the future for more strict, formal academic lessons. I was also still in the mindset that almost all learning could be made fun if the teacher was creative and flexible enough but already knew from real life experience that no matter how hard the teacher tries some things that the learner cannot learn easily just has to be tolerated and “gotten through”. I hoped to not force too much onto my children that was difficult, but recognized that something as vital as reading was non-negotiable.

The last thing I'll share is that those times were some of the happiest in our family. I really enjoyed my young children. I loved being with them. I felt I was doing important work by being an at-home mother. I enjoyed homeschooling despite the reading struggle. I did not resent my younger son for being a normal toddler. I found ways to keep my toddler happy while finding time to have uninterrupted time with my older son. We had a lot of fun and laughs back then. I regret nothing about those years and the unschooling method we used for so many years. We had a happy family and in those times no problems were yet present (no Cancer of our parents yet, no unemployment, no deaths in the family etc.). Those were good times!

Books I Read That Were Mentioned in This Post

Attachment Parenting related books by Dr. William Sears--

Dr. Sear's parenting book for Christians which is the attachment parenting method in keeping with Scriptures---