Saturday, January 31, 2015

Flexible Thinking in How We Help Spectrum Students

Last year, I blogged a bit about a "Harvester" with autism who enjoys gardening. (Harvest is a Charlotte Mason style school where Pamela and I hang out.) We have several spectrum students in our school, and they are all so different. As the saying goes, if you've met one person with autism, then you've met only one person with autism. We have one boy who "missed" a lot of classroom time last year because he was on a very difficult journey from learning to co-regulate (master his reactions with the help of someone) to self-regulate (know when to excuse himself or ask a teacher to help him deal with a stressful situation). This year, he's learned the lesson so well that he's never out of class. Point One: Sometimes, taking a huge step back fosters a huge leap forward!

Another spectrum Harvester came to us last year from a self-contained classroom, labeled as nonverbal. His real issue is slow processing. When we gave him time to process, he talked. Once he realized that we would wait for him, he began to talk more and more and more, a little bit faster, a little bit faster, and a little bit faster. After the morning meeting, he needs time to eat a snack and burn off energy. Then, he is ready to join his peers for class. He works all day in class at his own level. He goes through an occasional giddy spell and has to leave class until he gets a grip. Point Two: Sometimes, labels are not accurate.

Here is the update on Eman, who could only handle an hour at school just over a year ago and who now stays all day and after school to play with friends. Last year, our goal was for him to work up to a full day at school. While he made it through most days, he left at lunch whenever he had a tough morning. Some mornings were tough, and I believe one issue was that he knew he had an out. His mother assisted the primary class teacher in the morning and went home for lunch. In the back of his mind, he knew he could go home if he acted up enough. Point Three: Some behaviors are deliberate, and they are the trickiest to figure out.

The good news is that we have figured it out. Over the summer, his mother chatted with him from time to time about having to stay all day. Why? This talented lady has joined us as the primary class teacher! The first term he stayed all day, but some days were very tough. Eman is wonderful and, when fully regulated, he is a delight. He gets excited about a story; he stays very engaged; he begs to help. The day we planted seeds in the winter garden he had a hard time taking turns because he wanted to do everything. When he notebooked the garden, he drew his dream garden which included a fountain and a hot tub. He has a big heart and a big imagination. Point Four: Every child, however challenging, has good qualities!

What was the trick? Eman is easily bored, but he needs some structure. Spending all day, in the same class, with the same kids, with the same teacher was a little too much sameness for him. His mother and our headmaster brainstormed a new schedule that gives him variety within a routine. He joins the morning meeting for the devotion, pledge, song, habit talk, and Spanish and then he has a snack. Low blood sugar can ruin a day for him. Then, he goes to the headmaster for independent work: listening to an audio book, notebooking it, and map work. Then, he joins Pamela and I for literature: we practice the fighter verse of the week, read a poem, read from two different literature books, and prepare for Shakespeare on Thursday. Then, he goes to his mom's room for math and heads to lunch. After lunch, he goes to recess and comes back in for copywork. Then, he and Pamela join the junior high in the big room for history and science in the afternoon. I am teaching that class so the junior high teacher can continue to build a solid relationship with him because he will spend several years in her class. Point Five: In spite of what many believe, rigid routine does not help autistic children.

How have things been going for Eman? Surprisingly well. He's only had two tough days all term. On one day, he tested us and realized that he prefers choosing to do the right thing even though he does not always feel like it. The other day was a combination of a cold and a death in the extended family.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Winter Nature Study Y'all

Let's face it! When the temperatures are below freezing, it's hard to muster the mojo to walk. (For folks down south, hot, humid, mosquito-mired days in July are no picnic). Whatever your obstacle, it's worth keeping the habit of a long, weekly walk. Our sweet spot is Santee National Wildlife Refuge, and, while it's twenty minutes from my house and ten minutes from our school, I don't mind the drive once a week. Here are a few tips, one or two gleaned from the AO forum which I encourage you to join because of their collective wisdom.
  • Find a like-minded kindred spirit to walk with your family. Make a commitment with one another to walk the same place at the same time every week.
  • Bring and wear what you need to be comfortable: hats, gloves, mittens, scarves, layers, boots, raingear, sunscreen, insect repellant, etc.
  • Set a temperature limit (minimum and maximum) and use that to buck yourself up when it's cold but not too cold and hot but not too hot.
  • Practice the habit of cheerful resilience. We have sayings to go with the weather: "Harvest kids don't melt/ freeze to death/blubber." (The kids reading Carry On, Mr. Bowditch coined that last one.)
  • Take pictures to help you research what is out there. Let older children take their own pictures if they use it for nature study.
  • Keep a family nature notebook for the little ones and scaffold them into doing their own when they are ready. Record common names and Latin names of what you see whenever possible.
  • Keep a list of what you find at the back of your notebook like the one Laurie Bestvator shared in her book The Living Page. It becomes a handy reference during notebooking time.
  • Let them develop their own names of places: we have the castles and moats, rock mountain, the frog pond, the boat ramp pond, the binocular boardwalk, the swamp boardwalk, etc.
Just over a week ago, we experienced a "long" period of freezing temperature. My friends from up North, please make sure you have no coffee or tea in your mouth. Thirty-six consecutive hours of temperatures well below freezing is long for us — especially when your house is not insulated!

We decided to make Friday's walk optional since it began just as the thermometer began passing 32 degrees Fahrenheit. My group headed straight to the water where the deer drink. Watching them play in the ice was like seeing Lucy explore Narnian snow for the first time. Ice is a rare treat for us. Seeing a section of our lake iced over is extremely rare. Rather than drag them out of the ice and walk the whole trail because that is what we do every week, I let them explore and play with ice. As you can see in the pictures, they had a BLAST.

It is especially rewarding when you get to see students making discoveries. They became mesmerized by chucking bits of ice and watching them skid across the ice. This video shows them cheering when the little chunks slid off into the water.

When this little boy ran through the cypress knees, he announced, "Hey, it's like a maze!"

Then, the kids had an idea just as we are driving away. They wondered if they could explore the ice at the little beach near the mound. They learned that the ice had already melted on the sunny side of the lake.

What was Pamela doing? Well, she and I had violated one of our tips. We had forgotten to wear boots so we did not have as much fun as the others!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Reflection about Term 1

It's hard to believe but we are half-way through our second year at Harvest Community School. We started last year with eighteen students in first through seventh grades, and now we have FORTY-THREE from Kindergarten to eleventh grade. That's not including a handful of preschoolers who join us for lunch and an hour of Harvest time after Montessori. I wish I could tell you all their stories because Harvest has been a place for children to know God, to discover God's plans for them, and to find joy.

Pamela and I go there every day. Because the junior high was overflowing, Pamela and I are working together again. She and I join the entire school for morning meeting where we listen to a devotion, recite the pledge of allegiance, sing a patriotic song or hymn, and learn Spanish (which I teach). She and I are working through a variation of AO Year 7 adapted to a private school, modified to scaffold students who have never learned through Charlotte Mason principles.

It is a challenging transition! She and I worked very hard during the first term in between trips to Indiana and Canada. In Ohio, we watched a jousting tournament! And we met Hildegard and other friends in Ontario.

You may think Charlotte Mason is all about reading tons of great books. While we do read great books, we also study things up close and personal. God has sent all kinds of creatures to us. We studied a dead bat, a baby opossum that found itself in our trashcan one morning, and a mud turtle.

We explored two Carolina bays: one at Woods Bay State Park and another at Santee National Wildlife Refuge. Their staff invited us to go on their autumn audit of snakes and salamanders. We saw how they capture and count these critters. Don't worry! This snake is venomous unlike the cotton mouth that stayed in the cage.

The staff of SNWR also gave us a tour of the bird migration fields and told us all the things they do to keep traveling birds well-fed. We learned a lot about the different habitats along our beloved trail and how to apply terms like producer, consumer, and decomposer.

Finally, we ended the term and our study of Hildegard von Bingen with a visit from the author of the book we had been reading. Megan Hoyt shared things about Hildegard that went beyond the book. We passed around herbs, and the children enjoyed grinding spelt. She passed around scrolls with sayings by Hildegard plus something they might be when they grow up. The Kindergartners was so impressed because they knew the book inside and out. When our headmaster told them that the author of the book is here, their eyes grew wide and one little boy exclaimed in surprise, "She's HERE?"

To read more posts like this, check out the Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival!