Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ketchup Post after Taking a Breather

Last weekend was quite busy. On Saturday, Pamela expected me to shop at the health food store, which is a four-hour event since the drive takes three hours, round trip. Driving home, I noticed white clouds ahead of us and ugly black clouds in the rear view mirror. Soon after arriving home, the storms that spawned tornadoes in Atlanta slammed into us: the hail was flying an hour north of us and tornadoes knocked down power lines, trees, and a church steeple just twenty minutes to the south.

The next day, I spent two hours at Sunday School and church. During my short break, I accepted petsitting custody of a parakeet named Lily (isn't she adorable?) and two beta fish before heading off to a choir festival. I drove an hour (round trip), rehearsed an hour, and sat through the two-hour concert. Then, we took the youth to a pizza dinner, which lasted about two hours followed by an hour long conversation I had with the pastor.

Monday, I filled in for our Bible study leader, which ate up three hours between the preparation, lesson, and cleanup. Not that I mind getting together with other ladies to discuss lesson 8 of Beth Moore's Daniel, a fascinating and exciting Bible study, which covered two prominent figures in history: Alexander the Great and Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Even better, I shared with them other stories I knew about Alexander the Great based on The Story of the Greeks, a living book recommended by Ambleside Online. Since I had not read very much about Antiochus IV, I located The Hammer, a living book about this period of Jewish history. I spent the rest of Monday doing narrations with David, catching up the laundry, and helping Steve pack for his ten-day trip to China.

After Steve left at four Tuesday morning, I could not get back to sleep. Pamela and I had an appointment to do some paperwork for autism stuff, which required another hour in the car, round trip. We made it home by noon. And, who could forget about pollen season! I am obviously allergic to something blooming that leaves a trail of yellow pollen everywhere. That nasty stuff piles up on our brick pathway and coats the car, too. Fortunately, I stumbled upon two tricks that keeps me off of medication during allergy season: bee pollen made in Carolina and homeopathic eye drops. Whenever my throat itches, about ten granules will stop the reaction in its tracks. If I ignore the itch without taking bee pollen, the sneezing attack starts about a half hour later. Whenever my eyes burn and itch, the eye drops will prevent any further reaction. Again, if I ignore the first symptoms, my eyes will become inflamed and turn red within a half hour.

I spent the rest of Tuesday, taking a nap and trying to get over a dull headache. Except to read and dump email, I didn't answer any emails nor blog. My eyes crossed every time I looked at the computer screen.

Pamela invented some car games with all of that drive time! (1) If we see a license plate from out of state, we decide if it is going the wrong way or right way to get home. It is a great way to work on sense of direction. (2) Pamela usually holds the atlas and studies the states. Then, she asks me questions to test my knowledge of the states!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Redirecting My Apprentice

A couple of people have commented, either publicly or privately, about Pamela's ability to be a willing apprentice. Trust me! It took years and years and years of trial and error (lots of error on my part) to get this far. I can still hear her piercing screams and crying and falling on the floor when I was asking her to do things way outside of her zone of proximal development or when sensory overload caused her to meltdown.

On Friday, we had a couple of power struggles where Pamela got angry at me. My strategies include:
  • Stay calm. If I am calm, she has a greater chance of staying calm.
  • Stop and spotlight my emotion. A year ago, she would not have even noticed. Now, she sees when I am upset.
  • Make a command decision to scaffold by making the task a bit easier.
  • Use body language and slower pace of speaking to spotlight what I am saying.
  • Agree to her proposition if it fits my objective for the activity.
  • Postpone her proposition until after she meets my objective for the activity.
  • Remind her to breathe and use sensory calming.

The follow clips shows our missteps on the path of self-regulation.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Forming Character through Private Speech

I promised myself to finish up Chapter 3 of Awakening Children's Minds by March 15, so I better get on with it. This blog post covers the middle of that chapter, which points out the relationship between private speech and behavior. Parents of older children with autism often reassure parents of younger children that behaviors are at their worst between the ages of 3 and 5 (meltdowns, tantrums, overall unhappiness with something unexpected happens). This chapter got me wondering if one reason why behaviors are so challenging for young autistic kiddos might be language delays.

According to this chapter, the ability to inhibit impulses and redirect behavior "depends in part on brain development--specifically, growth of neural connections in the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex" (page 89). The frontal lobe controls planning, inhibition, and memory encoding (all challenges for children in the autism spectrum). In a paper published in 2005, neuroscientists Eric Courschene and Karen Pierce found abnormalities in the frontal lobe: they suggest that "connectivity within frontal lobe is excessive, disorganized and inadequately selective, whereas connectivity between frontal cortex and other systems is poorly synchronized, weakly responsive and information impoverished." The frontal cortex studied excessively connected with itself, making it "deficient in reciprocally interacting with other cortical regions." In short, the frontal lobes of an autistic person may be autistic! This means that people in the spectrum often find it difficult to integrate information from a variety of sources and to provide feedback to, guide, and control lower level parts of the brain. All of these issues would make it difficult for spectrum children to control their behavior.

Dr. Laura E. Berk recommends teaching preschoolers good habits through "adult conversation, guidance, and example" from "warm and sensitive and clear, consistent, and reasonable" parents. One challenge in forming habits is the sheer number of them (page 88),
But the young child who wants so much to be good must assimilate a great many rules--rules for taking care of property; rules for respecting other people; rules for safety; rules for self-care, eating, and dressing; rules for doing chores; rules for good manners; and more.
Here is the nut of this section for parents of autistic children: "And the best predictor of individual difference in self-control was language development" (page 89). Why? Children benefit greatly when adults suggest how to wait patiently by changing their thoughts or how to resist doing something unacceptable by thinking about the other person's feelings. They reference the reactions of adults to learn when to feel proud, guilty, or ashamed of their behavior. The child would have difficulty changing behavior when she finds it difficult to process verbal guidance from adults, lacks the private speech to direct herself, and cannot interpret the reaction of adults to her behaviors.

Laura also points out that how we guide children should depend upon their temperament. Sensitive, inhibited children form good habits easily and respond best to "mild, patient discipline--polite requires, explanations, and suggestions for how to resist temptation" (page 91). Impulsive, fearless children show little remorse with mild parenting but become belligerent with tough love. Relationship is everything to these children: "an early, warm sensitive parent-child bond is a good predictor of conscience at age 5 in these children" (page 91). I have one of each, and my experience matches this theory. My inhibited child (Pamela) needs a soft touch, while my impulsive child (David) responds best to people with whom he has a close bond.

I found many parallel thoughts between Laura Berk and Charlotte Mason in this chapter. Charlotte devoted many pages to developing good habits in children of all ages: infant, mental, and moral habits and physical, intellectual, moral, and religious training. Just like Laura, she realized that children who want to be good need guidance, "He is born to love the good, and to hate the evil, but he has no real knowledge of what is good and what is evil; what intuitions he has, he puts no faith in, but yields himself in simplicity to the steering of others" (page 331). She also preferred a hopeful and expectant style over a barrage of do's and don't or bullying children into submission. To teach self-management (pages 324-326), she recommended thinking about the benefits of resisting temptation, finding a diversion, changing thoughts, etc. Finally, Charlotte recognized the role of temperament and, in her book on forming character, she employed different strategies, depending upon the nature of the child. I will close with a quote from Charlotte (page 102),
We entertain the idea which gives birth to the act and the act repeated again and again becomes the habit; 'Sow an act,' we are told, 'reap a habit.' 'Sow a habit, reap a character.' But we must go a step further back, we must sow the idea or notion which makes the act worth while. The lazy boy who hears of the Great Duke's narrow camp bed, preferred by him because when he wanted to turn over it was time to get up, receives the idea of prompt rising. But his nurse or his mother knows how often and how ingeniously the tale must be brought to his mind before the habit of prompt rising is formed; she knows too how the idea of self-conquest must be made at home in the boy's mind until it become a chivalric impulse which he cannot resist.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Blending Therapies with Graphic Organizers

To recap my last post on how Pamela and I read books, we begin a reading by recalling the last one: (1) thinking about the known and asking questions about the unknown, (2) reading the title and predicting the problem, or (3) narrating the previous reading. After that, Pamela is ready to read several pages from a chapter book. Keeping in mind the zone of proximal development, we rarely read an entire chapter in one sitting.

This time I printed out sheets on setting from an ebook of graphic organizers (you can also try making your own in Word or downloaded free ones). I needed three sheets to cover the chapter: downstairs, upstairs, and outside.




When we read and narrate books, we cycle from one method to another. First, she reads half a page, closes the book, and narrates what she remembers orally (Charlotte Mason). Then, I open the book and ask her questions with the page in view to practice syntax (the association method). After that, we shift to the graphic organizer for Pamela to record her ideas. Then, we cycle back to reading the book until we make it through our goal for the day. In all activities, I encourage her with a warm, playful attitude and dialog as we figure out what needs to go on the sheet.

The following clip illustrates one day's worth of reading and narrations. I did edit as much as I could, but, since I know parents of struggling narrators (especially autistic kiddos) have asked about how you narrate with someone still learning English as a first language. The clip lasts fourteen minutes, but I did add titles throughout it to explain the method behind the madness.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Asking Questions before a Reading

Pamela and I have worked years for her to be ready to write her own narrations. Thanks to the association method, she has stockpiled enough syntax to form simple sentences. Last summer, I began easing her into written narrations by making sentence strips based upon her oral narration. Now, as recommended by Jennifer Spencer in a presentation at last year's Charlotte Mason Conference, I am using graphic organizers to help her organize her ideas before she writes. In this post, I will cover one of several we review before a reading. I have three sources for graphic organizers: (1) I make my own in Word with the diagram feature, (2) I read through an e-book I purchased online, and (3) I print out free ones.

Charlotte Mason believed that my part, as an educator, is to look over the day's work in advance and "see what mental discipline, as well as what vital knowledge, this and that lesson afford" (page 180). Today, Pamela started Chapter 3 of Miracles on Maple Hill. At the beginning of every chapter, I try to find a graphic organizer to help her get back into the plot. In this case, I chose one in which the student writes what is known and asks questions about what is unknown. Charlotte believed that children ought to come up with their own questions when reading (page 181),
Let the pupil write for himself half a dozen questions which cover the passage studied; he need not write the answers if he be taught that the mind can know nothing but what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself.
In the story, the protagonist, Marly, is a little girl whose father is grieving his experience as a soldier and prisoner of war in World War II. The family decides to move to the country to farm and fix up her deceased great grandmother's old abandoned house in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania. At the beginning of the chapter, Marly enters the neglected house for the first time. We left one column empty because we hope the book will answer these questions. Having previewed the chapter, I know she will be able to answer the third question after she finishes Chapter 3.

In the video clip, you can see us in action. I edited portions of the clip in which Pamela was writing and added titles to spotlight what we are doing. The first obvious thing is how much Pamela references me both verbally and nonverbally! Second, I try to rely on declarative language as much as possible, even when redirecting her when she misses the mark. One thing to keep in mind is that open-ended questions with no right or wrong answers are declarative if she willingly offers an answer. Third, she pays attention to nonverbal cues when I use my gasp and face to point out a missing question mark. I plan to follow-up with more posts and clips about how we blend graphic organizers, Charlotte Mason, the association method, and RDI to teach Pamela written narration.

Friday, March 07, 2008

When Is Cheating Really Cheating?

I find the whole discussion of private speech in the book Awakening Children's Minds fascinating because Pamela has so little of it. Lev Vygotsky found a link between social speech and private speech, which makes sense because Pamela's lack of social speech as a young child would explain the lack of private speech. One quote from Laura's book makes me go "Ouch!" (page 81),
Other observations of children's language concur that social and private speech have common roots. For example, the most socially interactive preschool and kindergarten children tend to use the most private speech. . . When an adult places barriers between young children, such as cardboard screens or upright books that prevent easy visual access (a practice that, as noted in Chapter 2, American teachers often use to keep children from seeing one another's work), both social speech and self-guiding utterances that might be helpful in mastering a task diminish drastically.
My mind gets all twisted in thinking through this. I attended a college that kicked out students for cheating! Clearly, copying another person's work and passing it off as your own is cheating. I think you must give credit where credit is due when submitting work as your own. However, in the real world, people work together; they collaborate and share ideas in nearly job you can imagine. In my first semester of an electrical engineering class, I became lab partners with a football player who excelled at the hands-on work. We made a great team because I excelled at the theoretical calculations and write-up. By some miracle, we ended up in the same class for second semester and teamed up again. Is it cheating when children work together while learning new tasks that should not be graded anyway? Is it cheating when parents scaffold a child doing homework? What is a parent to do when their child develops the habit of frustration because the parent feels guilty about scaffolding?

Why is private speech so important? Vygotsky discoverd that the rate of private speech doubles when young children face obstacles in their learning. While older children do not react in this way, "they usually pause (as if to think) and quickly redirect their behavior" (page 83). He asked older children about their thoughts, and they described inner thought that matched the private speech of younger children. Private speech is the foundation of the soundless inner speech we use to guide our actions when solving problems. This reflection of social speech allows children to regulate their behaviors. Children keep tasks within the zone of proximal development through private speech in the same way that adults encourage children with their warm social communication while scaffolding. In short, private speech is one form of self-regulation.

Right now, when she feels stuck, Pamela engages in social speech, not private speech. To verify my assumption, I ignored her today when she started verbalizing her struggles with math and language arts. She repeated her statements several times, getting louder, and then looked up at me to see if I was paying attention to her. I quickly realized that Pamela intended these verbalizations to be social speech and not private speech because she was not satisfied until I responded!

Pamela's lack of private speech fascinates me because I am not sure whether she has already advanced to soundless inner speech or is still mastering the social speech that will become private speech (and eventually inner speech). Time will tell!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Grace in Geometry

Lisa Cadora's blog post on Grace and Learning got me to thinking about David and his checkered past with math. She described the frustrations of teaching herself to crochet a cool, hip accessory and how much more gracious we are with ourselves than with our students. She concludes,
Charlotte Mason said that the only education is self-education. Did she see that grace is necessary for learning, and that we are most graceful with ourselves? If so, maybe it’s not only that we as teachers must create gracious, grace-ful conditions, environments and relationships in which our students can learn, but that we must bring them to be gracious to themselves.
My husband has two engineering master's degrees, and I have one in statistics. For many years, I thought the math gene had skipped my fifteen-year-old, neurotypical son, David. His temperament is very much like that of my father, who has never met a math problem he liked. Teaching David elementary school math frustrated us both. In hindsight, I think I was part of the problem. I think sometimes, if I had shown more grace, we would have shed fewer tears. Fortunately, he finds algebra and geometry a breeze. Was it maturity and a leap in abstract thinking or a more gracious attitude from me?

I think grace in learning might be related to masterly inactivity (wise letting alone). Elements of masterly inactivity include "authority, good humor, confidence, both self-confidence and confidence in the children," which I lacked because I assumed David would always struggle with math like my father. I stopped looking him as a unique person and saw him as a mirror image of my father because they have so many personality traits in common.

Charlotte Mason believed that we should be gracious enough to let children take personal initiative in their work (page 37-38):
In their work, too, we are too apt to interfere with children. We all know the delight with which any scope for personal initiative is hailed, the pleasure children take in doing anything which they may do their own way; anything, in fact, which allows room for skill of hand, play of fancy, or development of thought. With our present theories of education it seems that we cannot give much scope for personal initiative. There is so much task-work to be done, so many things that must be, not learned, but learned about, that it is only now and then a child gets the chance to produce himself in his work. But let us use such opportunities as come in our way.
On the flip side of this coin, we hurt our children by letting them get so frustrated that they develop the habit of tears. I think we also must keep in mind scaffolding, being alert when to step in and support the child and when to step out a la masterly inactivity. The geometry problem above is a great example. David had to figure out the measurement of each angle in the problem, based upon the diagram and information provided. He had to apply the definitions of bisected angles and right angles, the relationship between vertical and supplementary angles, and the sum of interior angles for triangles (180 degrees) and quadrilaterals (360 degrees). What made this problem difficult is that one wrongly calculated angle would create a domino effect of errors.

Applying masterly inactivity, I left David to his own devices. He worked his way through the calculations and figured out the angles for about five shapes before coming to me because the problem stopped making sense. Then, I switched to scaffolding and congratulated him for recognizing when he was stuck. I studied his work and noticed an error. I erased all of the mistakes and highlighted what was correct, and he went back to work. He went back and forth with me several times, getting frustrated at himself for his errors. Rather than joining him in his vent, I told him about Lisa's blog post about giving yourself grace when making mistakes. I even emailed it to him later in the day. I reassured him that the problem really was challenging and got him back on track.

In the last round, he made another little mistake and I decided to put all of the formulas into a spreadsheet to make sure I was on the right track, too. As I built the spreadsheet, I realized how complicated the problem was. At that point, I was so thankful to have read Lisa's post that morning and let grace win the day.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Hear Ye, Hear Ye, All Ye RDI CMers!

ChildLightUSA just posted the audio file, handout, and three video clips (Tweaking CM, RDI, Association Method Part I and Part II) of my talk on assessing therapies from a Charlotte Mason perspective.

The blurb about the talk is:
Therapies recommended for special needs children can cloud one's vision of education as "an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life." The speaker will demonstrate how to translate one autism therapy into Charlotte Mason terminology and accept or reject principles that respect a child's personhood. The participants will do the same for a speech program for language-delayed children. They will leave the class more confident in selecting the therapies most suited to a Charlotte Mason philosophy. They will leave inspired by Miss Mason's language arts program, which enabled a person with life-long speaking challenges to learn recitation!
P.S. Don't forget to put the Fourth Annual Charlotte Mason Conference on your calendar: June 11 through June 14. ChildLightUSA even offers online registration and a discount for early birds!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Go Ahead! Talk to Yourself!

I finally hit Chapter 3 of Awakening Children's Minds by Dr. Laura E. Berk. Since this chapter focuses on children talking to themselves, I started thinking about Pamela and her private talk, which began when she was seven years old. Prior to that, we had to orchestrate and encourage nearly everything that came out of her mouth--words did not come easy to her so most were not spontaneous. If she wanted something and she could say it, we waited for her to say it. About the only self-talk I can remember from her early years was repeating, "Mowgli! Mowgli! Come back!" to comfort herself when she was extremely upset. Up until the time we put her on a gluten-free, casein-free diet, she had no self-talk.

About six months into the diet, I noticed she began reciting her favorite lines from videos during pretend play. In fact, when I think about it, the only times I have heard Pamela talk to herself was during pretend play. Even when learning to do difficult tasks, she does not talk herself through them. Nor does she talk to herself when looking for something lost. When she needs help, she comes and talks to me, but I hardly ever observe Pamela talk to herself, even though her social and language abilities are at ages in which self-talk is the greatest in typical children.

Most children speak to themselves during nearly any kind of activity: pretend play, doing artwork, building things, working on academics, or falling asleep. In fact, 20 to 60 percent of the language of children between the ages of 3 and 10 is private talk. Vygostky believed that it "seems to grow from our history of supportive social interaction in the zone of proximal development" (page 76). Children incorporate their dialogs with more experienced guides during scaffolding into their private talk. As they mature in problem solving, self-talk lowers its volume to whispers then to silent moving lips to inner speech.

Think about it! When do we adults talk to ourselves the most? When we are solving a problem or looking for our keys (*ahem* which happens more frequently as Momheimer's sets in). And, even when we are not talking to ourselves aloud, adults have that inner speech flowing through our minds most of the time. I even compose blog posts in my mind while I am doing the dishes!

According to Vygotsky's theory, the whole purpose of private talk is self-regulation--"the central means through which children take over the support provided by others, turn it toward the self, and use it to guide and control their own thinking and behavior" (page 77). I do believe that we all self-regulate our behaviors by more than just self-talk. We regulate our emotions in many ways: jiggling keys or shaking your leg when nervous, rocking and hugging yourself when extremely upset, giving a high five when excited, chewing the back of a pen when bored, or slamming the door when angry. Autistic children often regulate themselves through their sensory channels. A dear friend's daughter started flapping recently because of her extreme excitement over a pending family vacation. I reassured her that her daughter very wisely recognized her need to calm down her intense feelings by flapping, which is far better than a meltdown.

Charlotte Mason does not dwell on self-talk too much. However, because she encouraged dialog with children about all sorts of things including character flaws and habit formation, I do believe she understood the concept of self-talk allowing children to regulate themselves. Volume 5 of her books is full of examples of using dialog to influence thinking and behavior.

In short, if your child talks to herself while doing math, it is okay! If you talk to yourself while teaching yourself to crochet, it is okay. If you start answering yourself back . . . well . . . let's not go there!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Move Over Baby Alive!

This morning, we spent two hours at the Living History Encampment at Camp Bob Cooper. People dressed in Revolutionary Era costumes manned twenty-three stations, where they displayed primitive skills, crafts, and demonstrations. The South Carolina Legislature designated February 27 as General Francis Marion Memorial Day. Part of Mel Gibson's fictional character in the movie The Patriot was loosely based (and exaggerated) upon Francis Marion, or the Swamp Fox, a revolutionary war hero known for his guerrilla warfare tactics. He is so popular in these parts that they hold annual symposiums and paint murals to commemorate his engagements.

We met some homeschooling friends there: David headed in his own direction, and Pamela and I explored together. David learned some interesting facts at a Carolina trading post, where the interpreter pointed out a historical document that will be a great supplement when we hit the Colonial Era in American history: A New Voyage to Carolina by John Lawson. David enjoyed being part of the action: he threw an ax, carried buckets of water with a yoke on his shoulder, wielded weaponry like a grenade and swords, learned about making stinky soap (no wonder they bathed only twice a year), and observed them firing a tennis ball from cannon. Pamela and I flitted from fire starting and a British officer encampment to looms, weaving, and woodcarving. She enjoyed sensory aspects such as feeling the different kinds of fur (buckskin, deer, rabbit, etc.), touching musket balls (recalling Pa making bullets in the Big Woods), and running her fingers along the pretty beads.

I enjoyed learning about British coins they had on display: copper coins like the farthing (1/4 pence), ha'pence (1/2 pence), pence, tuppence (2 pence), thruppence (3 pence); silver coins like half a shilling (6 pence) and a shilling (12 pence); and a gold crown (5 shillings). We also learned that the idea of a dollar came from the Spanish pieces of eight. The coin was soft enough to cut. You literally cut it in half to make a half dollar and in quarters to make a quarter of a dollar. The term buck came from the practice of treating a buckskin like a dollar when cash ran short. Pamela signed up for the militia and received an enlistment bonus in Continental cash (which was worthless at the time).

The highlight of the afternoon was making a cornhusk doll, which turned out to be an RDI-like activity. The lady making Pamela's doll was not as wordy and full of stories as the other one and suited Pamela perfectly. She explained to Pamela each step of the process as she put on the arms, skirt, scarf, belt, and bonnet. She waited very patiently for Pamela to do her part and I did as much nonverbal scaffolding and referencing as I could while helping Pamela figure out what to do.

The dollmaker even asked Pamela to hold down the string with her finger. I was glad because Pamela did not mind the doll's wetness for they cannot work with a dry husk. I did not capture it in the photos, but Pamela wore a sweet smile on her face because she was so thrilled to have her very own cornhusk doll. She even waited for the lady to make two dolls before it was her turn!

Another thing I liked about the dollmaker was her kindness. She was very sweet to Pamela, sensing her quiet, gentle nature. The next child in line was a boy who wanted a boy doll. The dollmaker had not made one yet, but she improvised by making two legs and a cape, which, of course, the boy turned into an 18th century flying super hero.

Pamela's new doll needs to dry a couple of days. She named her Charlotte. Why Charlotte? Well, that was the name of Laura's first rag doll named Charlotte!

We joined some friends for lunch on the lake and spent much of the afternoon outdoors watching the birds and basking in the sun. You would think that was enough socialization for one day. But no, we pigged out on shrimp, oysters, and chili at a neighbor's house for dinner. Our neighbor is also gluten-free, so they even had Pamela friendly pretzels and brownies.