Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Ideas about Nature Clothed upon with Facts as They Occur

Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science; but it is the ideas we must give, clothed upon with facts as they occur, and must leave the child to deal with these as he chooses. ~ Charlotte Mason
Nature study is the foundation of science because it offers many ideas, clothed upon with facts, in the environment in which living things belong. Our guide on the Bulls Island trip is used to having groups that focus on the product: getting to the beach, exploring it, and finding two souvenirs to take home. The mile-and-a-half walk is simply the way to hit the beach and nab the shells, sand dollars, and other treasures. Going on nature walks every week has taught us that the process of walking a path offers treasures of its own.

The very first thing that caught the eye of our young naturalists was the muddy tracks. We all agreed that they had to be raccoon tracks for we had seen them in the snow at our beloved Santee last February. A couple of the younger students wondered if those were Rascal's tracks. We also spotted some deer tracks. The guide does not typically have students interested in little things like tracks, so our headmaster had to run ahead and let him know why we were lingering.

Our guide has taken many groups, school groups, adult groups, etc. on this path. He knows what to spotlight along the way — things that capture people's attention. He stopped beneath this tree and pointed out the series of holes drilled into the branch. He asked what might have made these holes. He expected insects or woodpeckers. Hands popped up and our kids blurted, "Yellow-bellied sapsucker." "We have one at our school." "It's made holes in our tree." "We found a dead one and drew pictures of it."

His jaw dropped. "You're the first group that has nailed it on the first try."

Our kids recognized it immediately because they have seen it themselves. Parents waiting to pick up students after school have watched a yellow-bellied sapsucker drill for sap from the red maple tree. Kids making entries in their nature notebooks have heard the tapping and looked up to see the bird seeking nourishment. Two weeks ago, my group noticed a pine tree at Santee with the same series of holes with sap pouring out of them. One student piped up, "A yellow-bellied sapsucker must have done that!"

This kind of information is easily recalled because the brain has stored short episodes of this feathered friend. They've studied a carcass carefully to glean details one cannot observe with a live specimen. Firsthand knowledge is easier to recall than disembodied facts memorized from a textbook. When our students hit high school biology, they'll recognize lichen they've seen on trees in many colors including pink! They'll remember how much more striking it looks on rainy days.

When they learn in high school biology that lichen is a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae, they won't have to wonder what they are. They'll have seen example after example in many shapes and colors of fungi, decomposing their space. They'll remember the time we had a massive algae bloom in the fish tank and we conducted experiments (such as turning out the lights for a week and creating a blackout with trash bags for another week to kill off algae). Taxonomic terms won't be something to be memorized and will be drawn from memories of personal experiences.

Speaking of algae, we know that the youngest ones will stop confusing "allergies" with "algaes" as they learn more. They will know the source of the yellow dust that makes many of us so miserable this time of year. They will eventually blame the small male pine cones for the pollen that causes sneezing, runny noses, and burning eyes, not the woody female ones that most people associate with pine trees.

They will also have stored memories of adults curious to know about things and longing to know more. Adults with their own questions about living things. Adults who don't need reward-driven incentives to fuel the desire to find out more about God's handwork. Thus, they see us ask the name of something or come back a week later with possibilities we have researched. They watch us share our favorite nature books or post photographs to each other on Facebook. They hear us joke about coming back to Bulls Island to find out what color blooms on the thistle.

If you have no idea where to begin, I'll let you in on a big secret. Fifteen years ago, when I started down the path of Charlotte Mason homeschooling, I knew very little about nature study. Just get out there. Look at things. Ask questions. Research online. Get excited when you learn something new. Read books written by naturalists. Before long, you'll be so inspired about nature study that you won't be able to stop!

Monday, April 07, 2014

Where Are They?

The CDC recently announced the latest rate of autism: 1:68. Back in 1991 when we first suspected Pamela of having autism, the literature said it was 2-5 in 10,000. I had to drive to another county to find a family like ours. The numbers are so high that even small churches should have at least one family with autism attending regularly. Unfortunately, some families stay home. Here are some reasons why:

Traditional, orderly services often work well for our children. They are predictable, quiet, etc.

However, parents feel embarrassed if their autistic kids — who look old enough to "know better" — wiggle or make auditory self-stims. People stare at us when this happen. Or, our kids makes loud remarks about that fat guy or that old woman or the boring sermon or the bald preacher. Or, getting everyone dressed in their Sunday best to church on time is impossible. Or, someone has a meltdown in the car on the way over because of a detour. Or, the preacher who gets exuberant during a sermon preaches too loud. Or, there is some anomalous noise in the sound system that only our children hear and it drives them bonkers. Or, our gluten-free, casein-free child runs straight to the donut table, which we will regret the next day. Or, some do-gooder decides that a teen isn't qualified to care for your six-year-old in a room nearby while you're at choir practice (true story). Or, children's church is too loud or doesn't exist or has nobody equipped to handle our kid or the "cry room" is too loud or....

Contemporary services often work well for our children. They allow our kids to wiggle, make noise, and wear their daily uniform (sweat pants).

However, parents feel embarrassed if their autistic kids — who look old enough to "know better" — make auditory self-stims during that quiet, reflective hand waving song. People stare at us when this happen. Or, our kids cannot handle the unpredictable nature of service that has no bulletin to cue them when the end is in sight. Or, our kids makes loud remarks about tattoos, pink hair, saggy pants, or that awesome Sponge Bob shirt. Or, our kids sneaked a water bottle in the car, has wet pants, and refuses to calm down until we go home and change and by then it's too late. Or, someone has a meltdown in the car on the way over because of insomnia the night before. Or, the sound system for those rocking worship songs are way too loud. Or, our active, clumsy child knocks over the donut table. Or, children's church is too loud or doesn't exist or has nobody equipped to handle our kid or the "cry room" is too loud or....

Or, for some reason, we parents lack skins thick enough to get over....

"__________ doesn't look autistic."

"There's nothing wrong with that brat who only needs a pop on the hiney."

"I read this book that your child might be demon-possessed."

"How can you homeschool? You're not qualified to handle autistic children."

"Why don't you homeschool?"

"One little cookie can't hurt."

"I don't believe in medications."

"Your kid needs meds."

"Did you see the program about [insert latest autism cure] the other day?"

Eye rolls and giggles from the cool teens who sit in the back row where you sit in order to get away with your fifteen-year-old who still carries Barney to church.

The inability for Sunday school coordinators to see that your teenaged child would be better off attending a developmentally appropriate class (second grade) instead of the teen class or special needs class. 

Why can't we get over this stuff? If our kids don't sleep, we don't sleep. Or, worry about the future or just the next day's tall order keep us up. Or, we never get a break from our kids. Or, if we do get a break, we worry about our kids. Or, we are exhausted by trying to give normalcy to typical children and cannot wake up for church.

There are wonderful, compassionate, kind, loving families who have done everything under the sun for the child and, with puberty, comes the downward spiral and the overwhelmed teen leaves bruises. How can they take someone who might lash out and hurt someone at church?

Every family and situation is so unique, I can offer no answers. You probably know a family dealing with autism who never makes it to church but wishes they could. Why not ask them what you can do to help make church work better for their family? Then, see what you can do about making it happen. Even if it doesn't work, they will appreciate that you tried.

At the next Charlotte Mason carnival, I will share her thoughts on habits for families who just can't make it to church for the reasons I listed above and more.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Nature Walks: Building Dynamic Thinking for Our SPD Kids

We'd been looking forward to Island Quest, an exploration of South Carolina's barrier island, Bulls Island, for a month! Unfortunately, the day was overcoast, wet, rainy with temperatures in the 60s. Imagine taking children ranging in age five to fifteenish, some with autism, sensory processing disorders, or other reasons to struggle with resiliency. Did the overcast, cloudy skies forecast doom our nature walk?

No! Students, staff, and chaperones had a blast in spite of spending two-hours in a car full of kids, a half-hour on a ferry, walking three miles — half of the trek in rain showers — BEFORE eating lunch.

Yes, at dark moments when the sun had abandoned us, we felt doubt and discomfort. We were soaking wet. Hair dripping with water. Sea water giving us free facials. Chilled by wind gusts. We cycled through the five stages of grieving our dampened condition and let go! We embraced the quiet rain and enjoyed whatever the day gave us.

Wonder is what saved the day! Since the beginning of the school year, we had faithfully walked the nearby wildlife refuge every Friday. We'd walked it on hot days, cold days, wet days, muddy days, snowy days, icy days. Kids who hated going outside have fallen in love with the creation. Kids who couldn't stand the sight of squiggly things now see beauty in them. The habits of walking regularly and of lengthening attention spans have reaped a harvest. We'd progressed from that first disastrous trek in which chased down little ones darting here, there, and everywhere and seeing nothing to a group that impressed the naturalist who guided us (more on that in another post). They see wonder in animal tracks and bird songs; little things like snails, rocks, lichen, moss, fern, and fungi; big things like alligators, live oak trees, and rotten logs.

How do we scaffold wonder?

We walk every week, any weather, with rare exceptions. An outing lasts at least an hour and a half. Our trail is a mile long, but it's more like a mile and a half due to rabbit trails.

We assign children to one adult guide. We space the groups out on the trail so they learn to follow one person. We vary the guide and the group composition every week to promote flexibility for our static thinkers. This time, we all went together and we all followed one guide. Months of nature walks meant they could adjust to a different game plan.

At school, we spend time outdoors. We notebook outdoors. We eat outdoors. We play outdoors. We work outdoors. It feels natural to be outdoors for several hours.

We prepare without over-preparing. Even though there was only a thirty percent chance of rain, we came with boots, raincoats, cheap emergency ponchos, etc. We had bugspray, hats, and sunscreen in case the sun came out in full force. We didn't give too much information. Would you tell kids they had to walk almost three miles before they could eat lunch?

We adapt whether it's hanging out our clothes to dry or finding joy in broken things.

We overcome our own discomfort with things that disgust us.

We stop and study interesting things. Wonder thrives.

We treasure keepsakes.

We respect living things.

We respect our guides.

We enjoy being together.

We dance in the rain.

Pamela did have a moment in which she was quite miserable. We had just left the beach. It was a wee bit cold and rainy. She had figured out we'd have to walk over a mile before we could stop and eat. She fussed and wanted to stop. I told her that there were no roads and the only way we were getting back was by walking. Otherwise, we'd be stuck like The Swiss Family Robinson and we'd have to build a hut and survive on whatever lived on the island. She accepted my perspective, and that was her only moment of real complaining. The day offered enough wonder to make the discomfort and long trek worthwhile.

When we finally reached the boat for our return voyage, it began to rain again. God rewarded us for our perseverance and showed off his creation. We spotted dolphins following our wake far off in the distance. All manner of birds greeted us as we slipped into port. Even the drizzle cannot stop nature's beauty and bounty.