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.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Lying: Sin, Developmental Milestone, or Both?

Teaching a child to tell the truth is more complicated than it sounds. It requires more thought than a simple rule.

My grandmother told whoppers, and her daughters knew it. The four of them were caught fleeing Nazi Germany. They weren't Jews: they were simply a widow and three homeless children trying to survive. They had to live in a Danish refuge camp where nurses gave them "health shots." My grandmother suspected they were experimental vaccines after a few children died. She figured that, if her girls missed a couple of shots, the nurses would lose interest in them. On the day of the next set of rounds, my grandmother found a ditch, had the girls lie down, and covered them in leaves. She told them that she was going to pretend she didn't know where they were when the nurse came. She told them that, no matter how much she called, they were to be still as mice. They could come out only when she came and removed the leaves.

My grandmother was right. After missing a couple of shots, the nurses stopped paying them visits. She and her daughters survived the war.

Mason taught morals through the Bible, biography, and poetry because of their complexity. While the Bible doesn't condone lying, heroes of the faith lied. The midwives' lies in Exodus let the Jewish people flourish. Rahab lied and helped the Israelites topple a tyrant. Like my grandmother, Elisha lied during wartime. While these lies served a purpose, the Bible neither justifies them nor excuses them.

Morever, telling lies is a developmental milestone. Children younger than three don't intentionally lie. "Lying is a cognitive signal that people understand what others are thinking." Children can lie when they have language, theory of mind, self-regulation, and the connection between rules and their consequences. Some people with autism are unable to lie if they don't realize that others have their own thoughts, feelings, plans, and perspectives. They assume everyone knows what they think, know, and feel.

Mason's educational view of lying and other moral issues makes sense.
Some time ago I was present at an interesting discussion, among the members of an educational society, on the subject of children's lies. It was interesting to notice that the meeting, consisting of able, educated people, divided itself into those who held that children were born true and those who held that they were born false; it did not occur to anybody to recall his own childhood, or even to reflect on his own condition at the present moment (page 129-130).
Mason wasn't making a theological point (in case you're wondering about original sin, total depravity, and all that).

Very young children are incapable of lying because they lack the cognitive abilities, not because of their innocence. Once all the pieces are in place, they can and do lie. The delays in development found in autism highlight this. Because of her aphasia, it's hard to tell if Pamela lies. Stating something with inaccuracy has more to due with language stumbling blocks than morality. I know a boy who has all the pieces in place except theory of mind: he speaks well; he understands consequences; he sneaks when he's trying to break a rule. He is brutally honest. If you ask him if he did something, he admits it freely and openly. I suspect his first lie will be the one typical of toddlers: the punishment-escaping variety.

Mason discussed this kind of lie in the chapter entitled "Mrs. Sedley's Tale" in her book, Formation of Character. Mason saw the source as moral cowardice: the child has done wrong but is afraid to confess. She recommended parents address a wrongful deed in an encouraging manner: "Make sure of your ground, then show her the pieces; say the vase was precious, but you do not mind about that; the thing that hurts you is that she could not trust her mother." We invite our children to trust us, so that we can help them address the wrong without complicating it with lies. As their best guide and advocate, we can help them repair the situation when we know the truth. Our role model is our wise, gentle God, unconditionally loving, readily forgiving.

What about inventive, creative lies? Developmentalists compare it to exploring new spaces. "They explore this new mental playground as well. Kids will lie about their names, the color of the dogs, their favorite foods — just to see what happens." Mason's solution is two-fold.

1. "Teach her truth, as you would teach her French or sums––a little to-day, a little more to-morrow, and every day a lesson" (page 83). Develop the art of accurately narrating in lessons: narration, picture study, nature study, even math. The other day, one of our students with autism and aphasia was narrating a story to me. When he got to the part about the kite being stuck in the tree, he chuckled. Then, he said, "The sun eat the kite." I played along with him at first because he was communicating the nonverbal component of telling a whopper beautifully: a playful grin, a twinkle in his eye, a knowing look. I gave him a funny look, and he tried again, "The moon eat the kite!" I played along, winked, and said, "The kite got stuck on a cow's horn." He laughed out loud. Then, we got serious and he narrated what really happened to the kite.

2. "An imperious imagination like Fanny's demands its proper nourishment. Let her have her daily meal: 'The Babes in the Wood,' 'The Little Match-Girl,' 'The Snow-Maiden,' tales and legends half-historic" (page 83). Show children the proper playground for inventive, creative lies. Let them play freely and let them exercise their imagination. Let them explore imaginary worlds in books where anything can happen. (For a literary treatment on the topic of what purely factual education does to the mind, read Hard Times by Charles Dickens or problems Eustace Clarence Scrubb encountered in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.)

Older children struggle with the lie that covers for a friend. My alma mater expelled people for lying because of its strict honor code ("A midshipman does not lie, cheat or steal"). The dilemma occurred when a roommate broke a regulation and then asked others to lie. The rule breaker usually faced marching tours, extra room inspections, and uniform inspections if caught. The liar was expelled unless the liar was a junior or senior. In that case, a liar enlisted in the Navy to pay back two or three years of college. Such a harsh punishment didn't deter lying for a friend.

I was lucky because my roommate believed in putting her roommates above herself. When she felt like going out for a night on the town (against regulation, of course), she hid her civilian clothes in a book bag, put on her uniform, and headed out the door. She never told us where she was going. We assumed that she needed quiet time at the library. When asked about her whereabouts, I could truthfully say, "I think she went to the library." She was a true friend because she never put us in a position of having to lie for her.

Authority has a great deal to do with lying. In our broken world, sometimes those in authority put us in a position where lying seems to be the "best" option. My grandmother lied to save her children. Rahab lied to avoid breaking a promise she made to the spies. The midwives lied to avoid killing babies. These lies are justifiable in our own eyes but regrettable because God intended us to be truthful in a perfect world.

One post cannot possibly cover more sophisticated aspects of lying. The articles "Liar, Liar, Neurons Fire" and "Is Lying Always Wrong?" offer more food for thought. For a rigorous reformed theological treatment, read this article by Wayne Grudem.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Learning from Whales and Other Inspiring Ideas

This month, the Charlotte Mason blog carnival is considering the topic of moral training — closely related to next month's topic, religious training. Both flow out of the idea of authority: what we ought to do depends upon who is the final authority. As a Christian, I see God as the final authority who decides what I ought to do. I believe that God is the final authority for all, even those who disagree with this view, as did Charlotte Mason. Just as gravity affects those who don't understand it or try to ignore it as demonstrated by countless disasters on America's Funniest Video, the moral Law set up by the Lawgiver still holds true.

I've never considered the word ought until now,
"Ought" is part of the verb "to owe," and that which we owe is a personal debt to a Lawgiver and Ruler, however men name the final authority. If they choose to speak of Buddha or Humanity, they do not escape from the sense of a moral authority. They know that that which they ought is that which they owe to do, a debt to some power or personality external to themselves. God has made us so that, however much we may be in the dark as to the divine Name, we can never for a minute escape from the sense of "Ought, the law. ~ Charlotte Mason (pages 126-127)
As Jesus, the One who paid my debt, attested, this Law isn't a rigidly enforced set of Do's and Don't's that creep into most religions. He boiled it down a simple principle. Love God and love others as yourself. What a timely whisper from God a week after a teen put this on the chalkboard at our school and the day after my pastor shared in his sermon that "We're number three!" in this look-out-for-number-one world.

Some moral impulses, such as generosity, come more easily than others. Recently, a friend leaving soon for a mission trip to Peru (yes, Amy, you read that correctly) shared her experiences with the kids at school. She showed us a video of the orphanage that we are supporting with the gift of construction paper and scissors. Seeing what little they have tugged at the hearts of our children. One, who suffers immensely in our hot summers, asked his mother if he could get a job to help buy an air conditioner for the kids. They all want to raise money, and we are considering something they can do with true work. A worm or cricket farm, perhaps.

Most feel the impulse to take care of the birds in our school yard and feed the fish in the pond and in the fish tank. They love animals! They care for the plants in our garden and watch to see them grow. Even chores get done with alacrity when they know that recess follows.

We also see what Mason called "selfish, resentful, unamiable movement of children's minds." Our task is to figure out what inspires a selfish heart to consider how actions affect people around it. What inspires an impatient heart to slow down and regroup. What helps a deceitful tongue tell the truth.

Mason recommended poetry, biography, and the Bible ("storehouse of the most inspiring biographies") for source material. Even a science book can offer a nugget of moral ideas. We'd noticed a bad habit creeping in one of the classes. They've become very good friends but, along with that friendship, came the desire to chatter all day long, even during a narration or while the teacher gave instructions. One day, we learned from Secrets of Sound that humpback whales sing songs that are more than calls (simple short sequences). They sing songs lasting as long as a half hour. Not only do they improvise like jazz singers but they sing their own "folk" songs unique to a region that change from season to season. And, whales NEVER interrupt the singer. Now, when they are too chatty, merely mentioning whales quietens them.
Stern lawgiver I yet thou dost wear
The Godhead's most benignant grace;
Nor know we anything so fair
As is the smile upon thy face;
Flowers laugh before thee on their beds;
And fragrance in thy footing treads;
Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong;
And the most ancient heavens, through thee,
Are fresh and strong.
~ William Wordsworth