Thursday, February 10, 2011

Home Schooling: What Hasn't worked over the past year?

You can have almost anything you want. You just can't have everything you want. There are plenty of wonderful resources I'd love to use with my kids, but there simply aren't enough hours in the day to try them all, let alone put in the time and energy to get the maximum benefit from each. Life is a series of choices. Not always between good and evil, but sometimes between good, better and best. Sometimes the good is the enemy of the best—you settle for "good enough" when you could have had the "best". Other times, the best is the enemy of the good—you could have had "good enough", but you hold out for the "best" and get nothing. And what's best for one person isn't always best for another. So as parents, we try to decide what's best or reasonable or attainable for our kids. It's hard enough sometimes to make good choices for ourselves, given the myriad of options, and it's even harder to know another person, especially a child, whose personality and abilities are still unfolding and developing. Is it any wonder we second-guess ourselves?

Years ago, I spent time on a home schooling forum that had frequent flame wars. What was the hottest topic? Creationism vs. evolution? Religion? Politics? Racial bias in history books? No. The longest, hottest flame wars were over math curricula. Math is a challenging subject, and one that many children (and adults) struggle with. So when a child just isn't getting it, despite the expenditure of blood, sweat, and tears (both his and his parents') desperate parents will try anything. When the child makes a breakthrough, it seems like a miracle. The parents are likely to regard the book they were using at the time with a reverence bordering on worship. And some just can't sit idly by when someone disses their Holy Math Book.

Remarkably often, Parent X starts firstborn with book A, which fails miserably, tries book B, meets with weeping and gnashing of teeth and, nearing despair, tries book C. The child has an epiphany, and math becomes a delight (or at least a tolerable burden). Parent X begins preaching the gospel of book C. Meanwhile, Parent Y starts firstborn with book C, which goes swimmingly, until firstborn hits a wall and can go no further. Parent Y tries book B, but to no avail. In desperation, she tries book A, and meets with near-instant success. Parent Z has six children (or more). They all use book B, and none of them ever have the slightest difficulty with math. One of them gets a math scholarship to Harvard. Then along comes child seven or eight, who can't make heads or tails of book B. Parent Z tries book A (or C) because, while both come highly recommended, the arguments for one of them sound more convincing. Child seven (or eight) doesn't do much better with book A (or C), and Parent Z even finds it confusing. In desperation, she tries book D and meets with success at last!

There is a common theory in home schooling circles that the best math book for your child is the third one you try. The disagreement is on whether this is because it generally takes three tries to find your child's learning style or because after having a concept presented three different ways, the child finally gets it through sheer repetition. That said, if your child is doing fine with the math book he is presently using, don't switch just because the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence. I've heard from too many parents whose children were doing well in one book until their parents switched to a "better" book, which the child didn't understand. Often the child was so confused, he continued to struggle even after returning to the original book.

Some things have worked, but we haven't had the time to pursue them as far as we'd like. Other things came highly recommended, perhaps because of the theory or research behind them, but preferably because they worked really well for someone else's child. Some of these worked wonderfully for one or the other or both of my kids, while others fell flat. That doesn't mean they're useless; that just means they didn't work for us. So if I list something here as not working for us that worked wonders for your child, please don't take offense. I'm not doubting it worked for you; it just wasn't a good fit for us. And some books are good at the right time, but a particular child might not be ready at the same age as others.

Now hold on to your hats. I recently contacted our local public school about enrolling GL. It's not that home schooling hasn't worked well for him. I'm convinced he would not have come this far without it. And I intend to continue working with him at home. But one of the difficulties we've encountered due to home schooling is getting him the services, especially therapies, he needs. When you home school, it's amazing how many service providers don't even want to talk to  you. If a service is even theoretically available through the public school, any other provider expected us to get it there. When we asked how non-PS children were supposed to get these services, they had no answer, other than that we should enroll him. Now I have heard of a few special-needs kids getting services through the PS in some districts without enrolling, but that's rare. What's far more common (I mean nation-wide, not necessarily in our district) is for kids to be promised services through the schools and not get them. We felt home schooling was the best choice for him, but we knew he needed certain services. So we did the legwork. Sometimes we had to pay out of pocket for services that he should have been entitled to for free. Often, we had to buy the books and materials and learn how to do various therapies ourselves. It hasn't been easy, but it's been worth it.

So why change now? We're looking at what we want for him after high school: a job where he can feel useful, and the most independence he is capable of. At this point, that looks like a vocational program and living with some kind of supports. Whether that means a sheltered workshop or a job in the community with a job coach, a group home, or independent living with someone to check up on him to some extent, it's too early to say. But with any program, it's easier to make contact through the schools. He's fourteen, and will be starting high school in the fall. We want him to have the maximum time available to make the transition to adulthood. Socially, elementary and middle school would have been a disaster for him. We think he's finally developed to the point where is is capable of learning to function in a classroom, but he'll still need a lot of help.

Academically, in math, I think he's gone about as far as he will go. I'll be thankful if I'm wrong, but I've taught him as much as I can. His handwriting is by no means beautiful, but it is usually readable. He can write his name. He can copy words, phrases, and even short sentences. But about age thirteen, he decided he didn't need my help any more, and absolutely refuses to take any instruction. Sometimes he'll listen to his OT, but no one else. Maybe his teachers will have more luck. After being stalled at the same reading level for several years, he's made phenomenal progress in reading this year. He's gotten to the point where he'll sometimes pick up a book out of interest or curiosity and start reading it without prompting. He still needs help with the occasional word, but that's all. All I have to do is continue providing him with books of the appropriate reading level.

Where do we go from here? We've requested his records. The next step will be setting up testing and evaluation for placement. We should have all our ducks in a row by the end of this school year to enroll him in the fall. He's excited about going to high school. He has absolutely no idea what high school is like. Some people have expressed surprise that we would send GL to PS and not BB. They seem to feel that home schooling is okay for a kid who doesn't have much potential anyway, but not for average-to-bright kids. Actually, I understand their concern. I've seen home schoolers who only do the minimum they can get by with, and graduate barely-literate kids. I've also seen brilliant kids frustrated by schools that hold them back to the pace of the class. Most of them have dropped out of school mentally by seventh or eighth grade. He's also behind in several subjects, not because of a lack of ability, but a lack of focus. I've seen too many kids who were smart enough, but worked slowly or daydreamed too much to keep up with the class. They were put with the kids who were slow because they couldn't handle the material. After drifting with that group long enough, they lost whatever spark they had.

I mentioned several books that worked well, but got crowded out. Scheduling has been a problem. I start GL's lessons first. If he starts school first thing, he's motivated to finish, so he can watch his DVDs. If school is delayed, he accomplishes nothing. BB needs ten, preferably twelve hours of sleep to be at his best. No way he'd get that on a PS schedule! He goes to bed at eight, but it usually takes him until nine to get to sleep. That means he gets up about nine most mornings. If I wake him earlier, he is a grouch, and school is a battle. When he's been up later the night before, for Civil Air Patrol, for example, he sleeps even later. So while we try to start school by 9:30, it's not uncommon for him to sleep until ten or later, and start school at eleven or twelve. The problem is, he works very slowly, with frequent daydreaming. We're working on it, but sometimes he works from the time he gets up until time to go to bed, and does nothing but one lesson each in math and grammar!

What's been frequently crowded out this year? Logic, science, art (both drawing and appreciation), map skills, and music. I divide subjects into content, where there are facts and ideas to be learned, and skills, like reading, writing, and math. Yes, there is some overlap, for example, in reading a book about history, you practice reading (a skill) while learning facts about history (content). While both need to be learned, and I would not postpone all content until every skill was mastered, I tend to emphasize skills. Once you can read fluently and with understanding, you can fill in missing content. So science has been temporarily set aside.

I've yet to find an elementary or middle school science text I like. They seem to contain a random assortment of topical chapters, with little or no emphasis on underlying principles. The Well-Trained Mind recommends using a book like The Usborne Illustrated Encyclopedia the Natural World as a "spine" for studying biology at the elementary level, for example, and reading books about various types of plants and animals as you come to them in the "spine".  I think that's an improvement, and works well at that level if your kids are fluent, voracious, and independent readers (like I was at that age) or will sit for long periods while you read to them. GL would sit and listen to me read for hours from birth to age 7, and then abruptly lost interest. After that, getting him to listen was a battle. BB never had GL's appetite for read-alouds, but he would listen for shorter stretches throughout the day. He still enjoys the occasional read-aloud, but only if it's an exciting story, and taken in short sessions.

I'm also undecided on how to do science at the high school level. High school texts tend to be better-organized, and take one branch of science (biology, chemistry, physics) per year. They read like junior versions of college texts. The problem is, except for biology and geology, most high school students don't have the math background to do much science yet. The Well-Trained Mind takes a different approach. Since the whole book heavily emphasizes the humanities, especially history, at the expense of the sciences, high school science becomes a history of science. Not a bad approach if your student is set on a degree in one of the humanities, but a major setback if he decides (now or later) to pursue a career in the sciences.

What hasn't worked?

We tried Spelling Power because it claims to be based on actual research and is designed for people who struggle with spelling. I do like the idea of only studying the words you misspell, testing on them until you get them right, and periodically reviewing them to make sure you can still spell them. The exercises did seem to help him learn the words he was misspelling, and after a few days, he would get them right on the test and move on. But the correct spellings he learned never transfered to his other written work, and there was absolutely no long-term recall. When a word came back for review, he would misspell it. Every. single. time. And it would take just as many days of study to re-learn it as it had taken to learn it the first time. Next time it came up, he would misspell it again.

What weren't the boys ready for? With GL, there weren't many surprises. He mostly continued at his usual pace. He became more stubborn about handwriting, but reading finally seemed to click. Except on the days when it doesn't. BB started the year with Rod and Staff Grade 5 Bible Workbook, but his reading and writing skills weren't up to it yet. I think he's ready for it now. I had hoped to start Latin with him during the past year, but again, he needed more practice reading English. Maybe some time this year. 

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