Monday, February 20, 2012

A Full Life in the Real World

Charlotte Mason warned against creating an atmosphere so sweet that children crumpled in the face of adversity. She believed children must face life as it is through household ways with the family and relationships with people from all walks of life. In her analogy of a hot-house plant, she quoted a scientist from India, Professor Jagadris Chandra Bose.
A plant carefully protected under glass from outside shocks looks sleek and flourishing but its higher nervous function is then found to be atrophied. But when a succession of blows [electric shocks] is rained on this effete and bloated specimen, the shocks themselves create nervous channels and arouse anew the deteriorated nature. (Pages 95-96)
Bringing her recommendations to fruition is quite difficult when raising a person with autism. They are born with highly sensitive sensory systems that react to the smallest change, minor sounds, and even the softest touch—princess and the pea on steroids. We create environments that prevent them from melting down, or face tantrums. Setting up slightly challenging situations in public sometimes lead to ugly scenes at WalMart, and disapproving looks (and bad advice) from anybody and everybody. If we protect our children too much, their world becomes more narrow and their lives become more atrophied.

Throughout the years, we have found ways to encourage Pamela to experience new things and different people. The other day we read about the first candy widely embraced by Americans in 19th century: mint candy. I bought some mint leaves. Pamela whipped egg whites, dredged a leaf in the egg white, rolled it into sugar, and placed it on waxed paper (in this case, the recycled liner of a cereal box) to dry. This activity was worked on our relationship skills by taking turns coordinating our actions with each other. It also challenged her ability to integrate her senses. Foamy, sticky stuff puts anyone with tactile defensiveness into red alert. When the ickiness grew too much for Pamela, she headed to the sink to wash her hands.

After the candy dried, we had our taste test. Steve said the candy tasted like tic-tac's (minus the unreadable chemicals). Before she took a bite, I asked Pamela what she expected. She beamed and said, "Junior Mints." Then, she chewed on the candy (well the leaf because the sugary stuff melts in your mouth). The expression on her face reminded me of a baby eating spinach for the first time! I asked her what she thought of the candy. Pamela answered "Great!" but I don't think she meant it. Yet, another opportunity to let her senses experience something outside daily life.

Volunteering to deliver meals on wheels has enabled Pamela to get used to seeing elderly people from all walks of life. She meets all sorts of people with all sorts of special needs. Some take forever to reach the door, and Pamela has learned to wait patiently. The last time we delivered a meal a man who seemed to have autism and cerebral palsy waved to her and called out, "Hey, girl! Hi!!!!" And she waved right back and greeted him in the same way. On the Sunday before Valentines, I joined the kids in the afterschool program for a Valentine's Day Party at the nursing home. The kids had made a bunch of cards to share with people. I gave Pamela a choice to stay home, but she chose to come with us and even gave a card to a lady in a wheel chair.
In January, some dear friends invited us to a Twelfth Night costume party. The day before we hit the thrift store to find clothing that barely passed for clothing in the era of Dickens. We drove three hours and arrived just as the party was getting started. Pamela had never seen most of the families in attendance. Yet, she chose to participate in several things. She tried to learn all the steps in Jacob's ladder, which was well beyond her level of competence for fine motor skills. Pamela went outside in the dark with the large group to a nearby cul-de-sac, where we played a game none of us had ever played: bad egg. After she sat still long enough to have her silhouette made, Pamela retired to the family library and quietly browsed through books.

We continue to see signs of Pamela's ability to thrive in the real world. The other day, McDonald's made a mistake in her unusual order (a hamburger happy meal with no bun and no cheese, coke with no ice, and an extra order of small fries). We drove off before grabbing the soda. Instead of freaking out and making me drive back around, Pamela calmly, yes, I really mean calmly said, "Oma has coke." We were on the way to my mother's house and she tries to keep soda in stock for Pamela. Not only that, Pamela is more and more able to have conversations with my parents without me interpreting for her. The other day, Mom was talking on the phone with a friend. Right after Mom said, "We will be out of town then," Pamela flew into the room and demanded, "Where are you going??????" She has become quite the dropper of eaves.

And, when we travel, we find all sorts of interesting things to do. We have made two trips to Kansas and have made two trips to the art museum: one focused on Impressionists and the other on Ancient Egypt. She also tried Thai food and visited the American Jazz Museum, the St. Louis Arch, the Cosmosphere, and the Combat Air Museum. On several walks on brisk, chilly days that whipped our hair, we heard the wind whistling through prairie grass, the water trickling down Independence Creek where Lewis and Clark picnicked, and hundreds of Canada geese resting at a lake. Pamela even touched a scrap of metal from the USS Arizona and walked inside an earth lodge, quickly spotting the anachronistic fan on the wall!

Monday, February 06, 2012

Nature Study in a Ginormous Room

Once the intimate relation, the relation of Teacher and taught in all things of the mind and spirit, be fully recognised, our feet are set in a large room; there is space for free development in all directions, and this free and joyous development, whether of intellect or heart, is recognised as a Godward movement. ~ Charlotte Mason (Page 275)
The Great Teacher has created a ginormous room in which to place our feet and explore freely. When we head outdoors, we learn about both the creation and the Creator. Nature study builds the foundation of upper level science. Getting to know what is around us outdoors builds deep, personal knowledge that lives in our hearts and inspires us to wonder. It creates a longing to know more, which leads to a more intimate relationship with the One who created all.

Pamela knows the joy of reading the signs of the season. Unlike the snowy winter last year, we have enjoyed unusually mild weather. In early January, Pamela said wistfully, "I can't wait for the wisterias" (which we studied last year). Last week, while driving around town, she spotted some saucer magnolias in bloom and she cried out, "Look at the blossoms! It's almost spring!" She wondered when we would see the Carolina jessamine bloom at our mailbox. When we walked into church last Sunday, Pamela stopped in her tracks, pointed, and said, "Look at the daffodils! Signs of spring!" However, she hasn't said much about the camellias in bloom (which we studied in 2010) because she knows they bloom all fall and winter. On Thursday, we brought our nature notebooks to church and drew the daffodils with arms uplifted, praising the Glory of the season. Pamela's watercolor teacher started the students on painting impressions of daffodils she had picked (the watercolor is a work in progress with finishing touches on tap for next week's class). On Saturday, the Creator granted Pamela's wish for she spotted the season's first Carolina jessamine!

Several years ago, we eased our way into bird watching through citizen science programs online. Four years ago, I scaffolded Pamela into being able to do the Great Backyard Bird Count from our kitchen and the post about our baby steps may help beginners. Every year (2008, 2009, 2010—no time to blog, and 2011) we have joined the count and plan to join in the fun this year. Last Fall, we decided to up our game and try Project Feeder Watch, a flexible bird count that starts in the fall and ends in the spring. We ordered the kit, scrubbed our feeders, and set up our watch station. Once the material arrived, we recorded information about our station online and have made regular observations. Over the weekend, we noted nine different species of seventeen birds at our feeding area! The number of sites reporting in South Carolina is between forty and fifty, so we feel pretty special.

In the past two years, we have sharpened our focus on bugs. We try to either photograph or catch our creatures so that we can study them more carefully. Last school year, the wasps in our old cookhouse captured our attention, and we studied their nest and the declining population as the weather grew colder. We kicked off the school year with a garden spider and her egg sac, which we are now watching for signs of life. Since the fall, we have taken custody of a walnut sphinx moth, praying mantis, black swallowtail, and two unblogged insects, sad underwing moth and Eastern tiger swallowtail (which my mother gave us). We have made the first recording of some species in our very rural county at Butterflies and Moths of North America: we submit a photograph with our best guess for identification and they either confirm it or point out where we went wrong. What a joyful thing it was to release the sphinx moth and see for ourselves why it has earned the nickname of hummingbird moth. Last fall, we were sitting on the back porch making a nature notebook entry when a monarch butterfly fluttered by. We didn't want to stop it on its journey south, so I chased it around the yard to snap a picture. A church friend loaned us some amazing, gigantic Peruvian insects carefully preserved in display cases, yielding several lovely nature notebook entries.

Last week, we studied a cloudless sulphur butterfly that we kept in the butterfly cage until it died. First, we drew pictures of it and carefully pulled out its curled tongue with a pin (a trick we picked up from the Comstock book). Then, we pulled off the wings and studied the body. We noticed how furry the body was and, after Pamela touched it, she said, "It's feathery." Being able to see things up close and smell and touch them provides a rich context hard to glean in a book! To extend our understanding of critters, we have ordered insect kits: painted butterfly caterpillars and ladybug larvae (which are not at all what you would expect). Last week we prepared the home for some Western harvester ants and are awaiting their arrival when weather permits.

A new interest this year is raising redworms that make compost of our food and paper scraps. At the beginning of the school year, we started gathering and shedding things needed for bedding. We made a cheap bin because I didn't want to invest a bunch of money only to find out that raising worms wasn't worth for the hassle. In October, we ordered our worms and got the bin going! We are finding them to be pretty easy to maintain. Even when I didn't do a thing to them for a little over two weeks when we headed out to Kansas, they were fine when we returned home. There is a limit to how long you should leave them unattended, but two weeks is not it! Last week, we took our first steps in harvesting compost using the Red Worm Compost Guy's garbage bag method. We removed the top bin and, to my delight, we only found one dead worm that had escaped. Then, we took the top layer of bedding (thick to prevent fruit flies and gnats) and put it in a temporary storage bin. Working together—and it was a four-hand job—we scooped the bottom layer into a trash bag punched with holes at the bottom. We washed the bin that holds the bedding, scraps, and worms. Then we put the garbage bag on top the old bedding and new food sitting at the bottom of the bin. The idea is that the worms will migrate through the holes in the trash bag to the new bedding. Once that happens, we can store what is left.

Finally, we have been studying weather too. Right now we are studying humid conditions and made our own hygrometer to measure humidity. We are making indoor readings this week, and Pamela is recording them in her science journal. Next week, we will try outdoor readings. I am curious myself to see how accurate the thing is on a rainy day when the humidity ought to be 100%. Last week, I brought my camera along for our walk and saw haze in the sky, which we happened to study that day. The point of our reading was that fires release particles into the air that causes light to scatter and sometimes changes the color of the sky. You can see the smoke just above the line of pink clouds, and we noticed how particularly pink that sunset was.

P.S. If you aren't already inspired to get off the couch and head outdoors, enjoy our sequel to Jean Craighead George's The Tarantula in My Purse: "The Raptor in My Prius."