Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Capturing the Elusive Aha! Moment

After years of sightings, I have finally caught it! Whenever Pamela has a moment of discovery, a big smile grows on her face. Sometimes, she even giggles. I call it her Aha! moment. Today, I captured it on video while filming us doing math for an RDI objective.

Pamela's task was to look at part of a shape and then draw the whole, given the fraction representing the part. All of the shapes had either 30, 45, 60 or 90 degree angles so that all she needed to complete the shapes were her drawing tools (drawing board, T-square, 30-60 triangle, and 45-45 triangle). On the third problem, Pamela had to draw another trapezoid, given the trapezoid representing a half to make a hexagon. I sat there and patiently watched for about twenty seconds because I could tell she was thinking. I gave her no hints and, immediately after her aha moment, she proceeded to draw the answer with absolute confidence in her understanding.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Assessing without Testing?

In a Charlotte Mason paradigm, we give exams at the end of a term, or trimester, which is eleven weeks long in our case. We just started our half-way point, Week 6, and are only a day off the schedule I mapped out last summer. To date, I have not administered a single test. Not one! But, how do will I know my child is learning? First, after a reading, we narrate what we know. From day to day and week to week, I can see what Pamela understands and what she does not understand. I see the connections she is making and the personal meaning she is finding. I see the relationships she is forming with books and things in our curriculum.

Children who struggle with language can do this! My friend Niffercoo did not think her eight-year-old daughter with autism was processing Heidi. She wrote, "The oral narrations Reece has been giving me from this book have been fairly sparse. I've even been wondering how much she understands." She walked into her daughter's room one night and learned otherwise. She added, "Reece used her playmobil pieces and created these wonderful scenes. In this first one is Grandfather's house, with Heidi sleeping on her hay bed in the loft, Grandfather sitting on his chair that's attached to the wall, and Peter outside with the 'goat.'" Niffercoo grabbed her camera and took some lovely photographs of these scenes. Then, she shared how this living book has touched her own heart and presented some lessons to the teacher as well as the taught. Her post is a must-read!

Niffercoo's story reminds me of a passage Charlotte Mason quoted from Frederika Bremer's novel The Neighbours,
The Swedish Charles XII was my idol, and I often entertained my friends in my class with narration of his deeds till my own soul was on fire with the most glowing enthusiasm. Like a shower of cold water, Darius (the tall girl, whose name was Britsa) one day came into the midst of us, and opposed me with the assertion that the Czar Peter I was a much greater man than Charles XII. I accepted the challenge with blind zeal and suppressed rage.

My opponent brought forward a number of facts with coolness and skill, in support of her opinion, and when I, confuting all her positions, thought to exalt my victorious hero to the clouds, she was perpetually throwing Bender and Pultawa in my way. O Pultawa! Pultawa! many tears have fallen over thy bloody battlefield, but none more bitter than those which I shed in secret when I, like Charles himself, suffered a defeat there. (Page 165-166)

The upshot is that the girls challenged each other to a duel to defend the honor of their historical hero. What would inspire such a passion for history in teenagers? Charlotte Mason concluded that it had to be living books for teachers did not use oral lessons nor textbooks in the time covered in thist semi-autobiographical novel. She observed that children of her day typically did not develop unbridled passion over textbooks and our current generation of students are examples of apathy. As you read her thought-process, consider the type of cottage industry of horror "literature" aimed at pre-teen girls today or the gross-out books for boys,
What manner of book will find its way with upheaving effect into the mind of an intelligent boy or girl? We need not ask what the girl or boy likes. She very often likes the twaddle of goody-goody story books, he likes condiments, highly-spiced tales of adventure. We are all capable of liking mental food of a poor quality and a titillating nature; and possibly such food is good for us when our minds are in need of an elbow-chair. (Page 168).

Niffercoo's post alludes to the essential ingredient of the kind of book that inspires such enthusiasm. One passage in particular left my friend speechless, "I cried, yet I made it through the rest of the chapter. But I wasn't able to even ask Reece for a narration. I just sat there with my heart full of emotion. Who knew how wonderful this book was? I knew the basic story, from a Shirley Temple movie, I think. But reading it for myself, sharing it with Reece, is a priceless experience!"

Charlotte concluded, "The great work of education is to inspire children with vitalising ideas as to every relation of life, every department of knowledge, every subject of thought; and to give deliberate care to the formation of those habits of the good life which are the outcome of vitalising ideas. In this great work we seek and assuredly find the co-operation of the Divine Spirit, whom we recognise, in a sense rather new to modern thought, as the supreme Educator of mankind in things that have been called secular, fully as much as in those that have been called sacred. (Page 173)" (And, if the thought of finding sacred in the secular unnerves you, read Lisa Cadora's post "The Thaw" for what Charlotte meant.)

Getting back to how I assess what Pamela is learning, here are some observations that go beyond the sparse narrations:
  • We finished reading some paragraphs on geography that I threw together based on a chapter in our geography book. It was talking about the difference between a picture and a plan. I tossed the reading notes in the trash, and she said, "No! I want to keep it." Then, she took them in her room.

  • Pamela LOVES RightStart Intermediate Math, which blends drawing with graphic design tools, fraction review, measurement practice, figuring out patterns to prepare for pre-algebra, and learning some geometry by drawing and doing. She needs extra support in trying to maneuver the T-square and triangles and trying to steady them while drawing. Yesterday, she learned how to make crosshatches to shade fractions of a shape. She had such an easy time, I backed off and let her work unassisted. She beamed with pleasure at being able to fly solo. She also uses these tools in geography to draw up a plan of one of the rooms in our house.

  • Last night the clear, cloudless sky revealed the harvest moon and Jupiter, side by side. I told Pamela I wanted to show her a planet in the sky. She gladly headed outdoors and ran down the driveway with excitement. Then, she said, "Space! It's space!" She spent the next hour going in and out of the house to catch more glimpses of this rare treat. The harvest moon, a full moon shining at the fall equinox, will not be seen again until 2029. Jupiter, aligned with Uranus, is especially visible to the naked eye because it is closer to Earth than it has been in fifty years.

  • Pamela is doing some interesting things while we read. Sometimes, she stops in the middle of a passage to ask what a word means. She tracks with me so well as we take turns reading aloud that I no longer need to run my fingers underneath the words. If I say a word slightly louder and pause, she takes it as a cue to pick up the reading.

  • We were reading a suspenseful moment in our animal story book when the police officer was going to shot a crow creating a nuisance. She said, "No! Don't shoot! Don't do it!" and then covered up the page with her hand. After I reassured her that the bird would be fine, we kept reading.

  • Pamela stood up before we started reading our book on Native Americans and ran out of the room. She came back with the worn-out atlas and asked me to help her find where the main character lived. After finishing our short lesson, she said, "And who moved from Wisconsin to Kansas? Laura Ingalls!" For the next four books, she looked up all the places in which the books were set.

  • We are on a scary chapter in our fantasy literature book. The children are transported to another world, but Pamela thinks they are still on earth. Before the reading, I asked, "I wonder where they are going." She replied, "Florida." We read a few paragraphs and Pamela realized that Florida was not known for its utter darkness devoid of any sound or vibration so she changed her prediction to Washington, D. C. She must know more about politics than I thought! We stopped after the three children materialized in a beautiful green field filled with multi-colored flowers and a golden light at the foot of a tall mountain. I asked again where she thought they were and she replied Colorado. She chose Florida and D. C. because the family in the book had lived there before. She chose Colorado because we had lived there and the description matches a valley behind Pike's Peak.

  • She is using more Spanish words. The other day, she finished eating her breakfast and picked up her empty bowl. She said, "No hay más!" ("No more!"). When reading about a character's encounter with bears in another book, she talked about Mama osa y dos ositos (mother bear and two male bear cubs). When the character came home, she ate la sopa (stew) for dinner. When we discovered that more dry cells (batteries) generated brighter light, she used grande (large), mediano (medium), and pequeño (small). Pamela is even becoming a bilingual verbal stimmer . . .

  • Pamela loves "The Simpsons," which we have on DVD. The other day, while reading about presidents, a realization hit Pamela about the election episode in 2008 in which the voting machine forces Homer to cast three votes for Senator McCain. She made the connection that Obama on the machine in 2008 was the same as President Obama in 2010. She said, "Just like Homer" and repeated "Obama . . . McCain!" three times and laughed uproariously because she suddenly got the joke. A few days later, we were reading that same book, which was written in 1962, and she thought of another election episode from 1996. Pamela asked, "Who's Bob Dole?" But, she did not ask about President Clinton because she already knew he had won.

The early years of our homeschooling journey were very difficult because Pamela struggled to get the words out. Remediating her body, her auditory processing system, and her aphasia took about ten years! What got me through those lean times was observing her reactions and what she did in her free time. A little bit of faith helped too.
Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home!

Sometimes, we do nature study outdoors and sometimes indoors. Sometimes, we plan things and sometimes we wait to see what happens. Last week, Pamela and I took a walk at an old bridge over a lake not far from our house while David went for a run. I had no idea what we might find and was delighted when we came across a large patch of passion flowers (Passiflora incarnata). I have always hoped to find some growing in the wild because they are such fascinating flowers. Yesterday, on our daily walk, Pamela asked, "Is it a rabbit?" I glanced over at what my peripheral vision told me was a squirrel and then I did a double-take. "No, it's a squirrel without a tail!" We both laughed and Pamela said, "A tailless squirrel." I quipped back, "I wonder if it got into Mr. MacGregor's garden?"

For the past week, we have also done some indoor nature study with a kit of live ladybugs. I checked out the Outdoor Hour Challenge for Ladybugs, have not been able to find any aphids nor wild ladybugs in the yard, and plan to keep my eyes peeled as autumn progresses.

The day we received our pink spotted ladybug larvae (Coleomegilla maculata) in the mail was pretty hilarious. I was disappointed because we only received three larvae (we were promised fifteen). Pamela was even more disappointed. She was expecting sweet little ladybugs and all she saw were these ugly-looking miniature alligator bugs. I reminded her of what came in the mail for her butterfly kit and then she realized these were not adult ladybugs.

As we do with every nature study, I consulted the Comstock book and leafed through pages 364-366 (Lesson 89) for ideas. I made two sheets for her to record her observations of the larvae and the adults. As the life cycle of the ladybug progressed, Pamela made entries in her nature notebook. One ladybug larva died after we put it in the kit, but the other two lived to be adults. When the first larva pupated, Pamela thought it was just sleeping. The larva had not moved for a day, so I gently asked what had happened to the caterpillars. She made the connection to chrysalis, and I told her the proper word was pupa. Then, she made her notebook entry.

We got lucky the day the first ladybug emerged from its pupa case. We had just finished reading right before lunch. We glanced up at the ladybug container, just in time to see a ladybug half the way out. We were disappointed again! It was yellow and had no spots. At that point, Pamela really felt ripped off! During the next hour, we watched the ladybug slowly turn pink (Pamela thought it looked orange) and gained its spots. Today, she made her final journal entries and observations and then set them free!

Ladybug! Ladybug!

Fly away home.

Your house is on fire.

And your children all gone.

The first ladybug reacted according to plan. It crawled on Pamela's leg and flew off! The second one refused to come out of its home. We finally had to unscrew Ladybug Land and took it apart. Pamela yelled, "Come on! Fly away! You lazy ladybug!" Finally, we watched it crawl down the brick steps.

Sheets Based on the Comstock Book

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Making Connections

Some people with autism have incredible, but discrete gifts. Temple Grandin, as depicted in the movie with the title of her name, sees the worlds in pictures and can convert a blueprint into a 3D image in her head. That plus her her sharp observational skills and empathy for how animals see things means she can create revolutionary designs for animal management systems.

Then, there's Donald Gray Triplett--autism's "first child"--the first case described in Dr. Leo Kanner's original article on autism. Some reporters caught up with Donald, now 77 years old, and shared more of his story with the world, "Donald nevertheless possessed a few advanced faculties of his own, including a flawless ability to name musical notes as they were played on a piano and a genius for multiplying numbers in his head. Polgar tossed out '87 times 23,' and Donald, with his eyes closed and not a hint of hesitation, correctly answered '2,001.'" Donald's parents provided for him and he never needed to work.

Pamela has a couple of gifts of her own. She has an eye for color because she enjoyed experimenting with the utility Paintbrush for years. She spots numerical patterns and catches on quickly when given one, which helps her learn math. She has all fourteen calendars in her head, so, if given a date, she can tell you the day of the week in seconds. We often use that gift as an icebreaker because suddenly people see her as someone who is both quirky, smart, and interesting. She has been taking classes off and on at the art guild and the artist community has embraced her as well as our church. The other day we were taking our daily walk and a Facebook friend called out while she was driving by, "Hey, Pamela, how're your ladybugs doing?"

Like Pamela, Temple and Donald have family and community that accept them and encourage them. In Temple's case, her mother and her aunt balanced acceptance with challenging her to go beyond what she thought she could do. Her high school science teacher and mentors in the ranching industry saw her gifts, encouraged her to use them, while pointing out what social glitches had to be fixed: everything from the dangers of punching a loudmouth in the jaw to wearing deodorant. Donald lives in a small town in Mississippi where people know he's different and have accepted him to the point of threatening violence to anyone who messes with him. On three occasions, townspeople warned, “If what you’re doing hurts Don, I know where to find you.”

The article points out how our artificial time limit when education ends makes things harder on adults with autism, "Once they become adults, the teaching, in all too many cases, stops completely. In general, state-funded education ends the day a person with autism turns 21. Beyond that, there are no legal mandates, and there is very little funding." Temple has continued to learn important social skill in the years of middle age. When we lived in Louisiana, one parent of a teenager told me she had lunch with Temple when she first started speaking on autism. Temple shared her passion for developing humane animal management systems, whipping out pictures you wouldn't want to see while eating hamburgers. Some kind friends pointed out the social faux paux and Temple no longer grosses out dinner companions with gory photographs. Donald "learned to golf, to drive, and to circumnavigate the globe—skills he first developed at the respective ages of 23, 27, and 36."

Stories like this encourage me to keep homeschooling Pamela. She is truly a late bloomer because of her autism and aphasia. During her first decade, she missed most of what we said and she could not form a single, coherent sentence. Language programs for autistic children failed her. When she turned 10, I learned about Charlotte Mason's ideas and began reading aloud to her every day for hours. At 12, we found a great reading program: she leapt from picture books to chapter books. She could finally hear some of what we said. At 15, we found the right language program, which included staples of Mason’s language arts program: copywork, dictation, and oral and written narrations. After three years of hard work, Pamela could put words together into sentences. At 18, we came across the key to being more flexible and better equipped to handle social situations. At 21, she makes herself understood to us. In moments of clarity, she converses with people outside her family.

Some people like Dr. Peter Gerhardt are trying to develop programs for adults with autism. He takes a behavioral approach which I find inadequate because they focus on outward behavior not remediating the gaps created by autism. The article describes a social gaff that lead to a neighbor turning in an autistic man named Tony for sexual assault and concluded, "He was sufficiently self-aware to understand that he was missing vital cues, but he had no idea what they were. He later explained to Gerhardt: 'The rules keep changing on me. Every time I think I learn a new rule, you change it on me.'" Through RDI, we are teaching Pamela to read and understand those missing vital cues rather than to memorize a system of rules. I am trying to find that balance between helping Pamela to know a larger world while avoiding the process that "overemphasizes traditional academic achievement—trying to learn French or the state capitals—at the expense of what someone like Tony really needs, a set of social skills that keep him from making mistakes such as hugging his neighbor the wrong way."

Our science class is a good example. We are doing a year long unit on weather in which we are studying various aspects of what happens in our atmosphere. We are trying hands-on experiences to build concrete knowledge, observing and tracking weather data, and reading and narrating a book what we see in the sky. The other day Pamela said a mild howler (an "expression that make one view one's [teaching] efforts with a feeling of utter despondency" (Page 158)), "Clouds are made of cotton." She was quite serious. Rather than correct her and make her memorize a fact, I encouraged her to think about it by having a conversation.

Me: "Has cotton from a cloud ever fallen on your head?"

Pamela: "No."

Me: "What has fallen on your head?"

Pamela: "Rain."

Me: "What is rain made of?"

Pamela: "It's water."

Now, when we talk about how cumulus clouds look like cotton, she will quickly add that they have water inside. My goal is for Pamela to think for herself and to marry what she knows with what she is reading or studying. I want her to find her own personal anchors and make her own connections.

Before doing a hands-on activity, I try to find ways to included guided participation (or how we teach children to pick up those vital cues in social situations). We are doing a unit on electricity and were building electric puzzles (click the picture on the left to view a larger version). I noticed the sheet called for students to solve three different puzzles. First, I made one by myself to make sure I knew what to do. Then, I had her solve the puzzle so she would have a preview of why we are building these things in the first place. Then, I built one and Pamela built one by watching and doing what I was doing. She is very good at "watch and do" now. There were plenty of moments of uncertainty when Pamela looked up at me, waiting for my nod to let her know she was on the right track.

The puzzle works like this. You tape together a sandwich out of two index cards and aluminum foil. Then you punch six holes in a third index card and tape foil with the shiny side peeking through the holes. You make two holes an island, unconnected to any other hole. Then you connect one pair of holes with foil and do the same for the final pair of holes. Why? So that the student can work their way through the pairs of holes to see if they can figure out where you made the foil connections.

Then you flip over the hole-y card, place it on top of the sandwich, and secure it with paper clips. Finally, you label the puzzle with a letter and number each hole. Then, the fun begins as you foist the puzzle on some unsuspecting victim and have them try to figure out when pairs will make the light bulb work.

You take foil ribbons made in earlier lessons and strap them to the ends of a dry cell (you know, the b-word, not allowed to be said in the book, it's that silver, blue and black thingie in the picture). You wrap the other end of one foil ribbon around a flashlight bulb, causing your husband to admonish ("The flashlight in the upstairs hallway is for emergencies only! No experiments!"). Then, you place the free end of one ribbon to one of the numbered holes of the electric puzzle and place the tip of the bulb on another hole. You keep trying combinations until you find a pair of holes until you find one that lights the bulb. Since we set up the puzzle to have two connections, you keep going until you find the second. That means, if you are really unlucky, you will have to go through fifteen potential matches (which you can calculate with the help of the combination formula).

I could have showed her the most organized way to work through these combinations. I did not because I wanted to see how she thinks and to see what strategy she would use. Her brother would have randomly gone from one to another in no discernible order because he is the liberal arts thinker in the family. When Pamela tried Puzzle A, she was orderly. She first tried (1, 2), then (3, 4) and (5, 6), and none of them worked. Then, she tried (1, 6) which lit the bulb. After that, she stumbled her way through (1, 3), (1, 5) and (3, 5) before discovering (4, 5) was the other pair that generated light.

So what, you say? Here is where it gets interesting. With Puzzle B, Pamela added more order to her search: (1, 2), (1, 4), (1, 6), (1, 3), (1, 5) and finally struck gold with (2, 3). After that, she sticks to a tightly organized search pattern: (2, 4), (2, 5), (2, 6), (3, 4), (3, 5), (3, 6), (4, 5), (4, 6) and--Ding! (5, 6) worked. By the time she hit Puzzle C, she had her highly orderly search pattern down. I was struck about how she learned the most efficient way to organize her search with each puzzle! Not only that, Pamela just demonstrated her understanding of a high school level mathematical concept: combinations and permutations are the building blocks of probability theory! Moments like this reinforce our determination to continue schooling Pamela in academics as well as dynamic thinking.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Our Plan for the Year: Architecture

Architecture? Bueller? Anyone?

Yes, architecture is part of the curriculum, albeit a small part. When you think about it, we should study architecture because none of us can escape it. We live in a small rural town and, even though we would have to drive over an hour-and-a-half one way to see a masterpiece on canvas, we can walk around the block and see some of the architecture we are studying! Architecture builds a sense of beauty that is concrete and personal. Architecture is local and part of our daily lives. Charlotte Mason wrote,
Leonardo knew nothing about Art for Art's sake, that shibboleth of yesterday, nor did our own Christopher Wren, also a great mathematician and master of much and various knowledge, to whom architecture was rather a by-the-way interest, and yet he built St. Paul's. What an irreparable loss we had when that plan of his for a beautiful and spacious London was flung aside because it would cost too much to carry it out! Just so of our parsimony do we fling aside the minds of the children of our country, also capable of being wrought into pleasaunces of delight, structures of utility and beauty, at a pitifully trifling cost. (Page 54)

Later, she quoted a letter from a parent describing a few days spent in London with her eleven-year-old daughter, "Mother took her to Westminster Abbey one afternoon and while I was seeing her to bed she told me all the things she had noticed there which they had been hearing about in 'architecture' this term. She loves 'architecture.'" (Page 77) In the next paragraph, Mason reflected, "It will be noticed that the child is educating herself; her friends merely take her to see the things she knows about and she tells what she has read, a quite different matter from the act of pouring information down the throats of the unhappy children who are taken to visit our national treasure houses."

The first week of school we started learning about the kinds of buildings used in the colonies and by the Native Americans. Pamela drew these illustrations. Granted, we have none of these structures in our town. However, Pamela has been in several log cabins and a teepee and has enough context to fill in the gaps.

Our text is by an author who writes with the kind of voice that tickles the ears of children (and, therefore, delights the teachers who use it). He knows how to spin a story in such a delightful way that children forget that history is supposed to be boring. History, poorly taught, is boring.

We explore architecture in several ways. When Pamela and I walk, sometimes we look for things we are studying. A few weeks ago, we concentrated on building her sense of direction. She is fairly secure in knowing which way is north, south, east, and west. Last week, we started talking about the clouds that are in the sky (sticking with the basics for now, cumulus, cirrus, and stratus). One day a few weeks back, we read that Gothic architecture was the first style tried in the colonies. Pamela drew a picture of St. Luke's Church in Smithfield, VA, one of oldest churches in the United States. Then, we went on a walk and looked at a Gothic church around the block from our house.

Last week, we started reading about Georgian Colonial architecture which the colonists favored once they started receiving architecture books from England. Pamela immediately connected the name to King George for she is studying King George III in one biography and King George IV in another. I downloaded a picture of this style of house on Meeting Street in Charleston, which Pamela drew in the picture above. You can see her drawing it into the following photograph on the left. Again, we found a Georgian Colonial house, just down the oak-lined street where we saw the Gothic church.

This week, we started reading about specific features of Georgian Colonial architecture. I zeroed in on the transom windows to make it personal. Pamela loves our house, which is a Victorian-style house built in the Edwardian era. Our front door has a transom window, and our back door has double transom windows, which Pamela drew beautifully. We walked the neighborhood and found several houses with a wide variety of arrangements of transom windows. It took some time, but we finally spotted the illusive Georgian fanlight (it helped that I had already secured the location on a top-secret advanced scouting party).

We have very modest goals for reading the book on architecture: three chapters that cover the time period we are studying in history. Because Pamela developed an interest in all things B.C. last year, I decided to strike while the iron is hot and we are reading the first eight chapters of the architecture book to supplement our readings on ancient history. Typically, one would not cover both in the same year. We are not a typical family if you haven't noticed.

P. S. Not that I'm making excuses about my lack of postings in the past week, but my mind was working through the details of a blog post for ChildLightUSA in case you are interested.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Our Plan for the Year: Visual Art

I communicating with a niece on Facebook. She is enrolled in college and was blown away by some Georgia O'Keeffe flower paintings on display at her school. I told her how much we love art: I prefer Vermeer while Pamela likes Monet. We gladly carve time into our packed schedule to get to know da Vinci. My niece admitted she knew very little about art because it wasn't taught in school. How sad! I took an art class in high school and hated it because of the teacher's abrasive personality. But, Mr. P., the English and Humanities teacher, helped us to see the beauty of art. He had slides and slides of art and would spent part of class going through them and engaging us in conversation. His enthusiasm reversed my low opinion of art.

The beauty of Charlotte Mason's approach is that, like Mr. P., you do not have to be an artist to teach visual art. That's a good thing because, when I started homeschooling back in the Ice Age, I couldn't even draw what a caveman could draw. My mother, sister, brothers, and niece were all born knowing how to draw. I was not! A decade of homeschooling has improved my abilities (I dare not use the word skill) and people can actually tell what I am trying to draw. I paint with watercolors, too. No matter how old you are, you are never to old to improve your drawing and painting skills. This mathematician is living proof.

The point of teaching art is not to churn out artists, but to develop an eye for beauty: "We cannot measure the influence that one or another artist has upon the child's sense of beauty, upon his power of seeing, as in a picture, the common sights of life; he is enriched more than we know in having really looked at even a single picture" (Page 309).

If you have a child gifted in art, that talent will emerge and most families have resources within reach. We live in a rural town, population 4,000, and yet fifteen minutes from our house is an art gallery with working artists who offer classes to the public. In fact, there's talk of expanding the concept to attract artisans to live and work here and share their gifts with the community.

Mason divided her visual art curriculum into two components: "The six-year-old child should begin both to express himself and to appreciate" (Page 308).

Artistic Expression
Illustrations - One thing I love about working on the curriculum project is deepening my understanding of Mason's approach. Unfortunately, I zoomed in on picture study and ignored other elements. My friends reminded me that Mason had "spoken, from time to time, of original illustrations drawn by the children" (Page 312). This year, Pamela is doing some of them. This picture depicts the day when young Francis Marion was learning the ways of the swamp from his servant Prince when he flung his hatchet and decapitated a rattler with thirteen rattles, threatening a gorgeous painted bunting. If you have ever seen this sweet bird, you would be hacked off too.

Nature Notebooks - We have dabbled with nature notebooks for years, and I wrote an entire post on the subject last month. Last week, Pamela drew this male mallard, who lacks his usual color because it is molting season. Mason summarized the benefit of nature notebooks for the visual arts,
This is what we wish to do for children in teaching them to draw––to cause the eye to rest, not unconsciously, but consciously, on some object of beauty which will leave in their minds an image of delight for all their lives to come. Children of six and seven draw budding twigs of oak and ash, beech and larch, with such tender fidelity to colour, tone, and gesture, that the crude little drawings are in themselves things of beauty (Page 313).

Drawing Lessons - I do not give Pamela many drawing lessons for it would be a case of the blind leading the sighted. Sometimes, I let her know if something is not quite right. But, some "errors" have become a trademark for her, such as an animal in profile with two eyes on one side of the head. If I forced her to do it the "right" way, it would not be Pamela! Mason reserved drawing lessons for older children and let younger ones learn by trial and error,
Therefore we set twig or growing flower before a child and let him deal with it as he chooses. He will find his own way to form and colour, and our help may very well be limited at first to such technical matters as the mixing of colours and the like. In order that we may not impede the child's freedom or hinder the deliverance of the art that is in him, we must be careful not to offer any aids in the way of guiding lines, points, and such other crutches; and, also, he should work in the easiest medium, that is, with paint brush or with charcoal, and not with a black-lead pencil. Boxes of cheap colours are to be avoided. Children are worthy of the best, and some half-dozen tubes of really good colours will last a long time, and will satisfy the eye of the little artists (Page 314).
Picture Study - I am not sure why, but, when we first started doing picture study, I thought the kids were supposed to make their own version of a masterpiece. The kids really didn't take to it and I put it away for a year and tried the next year. It never seemed to take with our kids. Charlotte Mason hinted at the reason when she said, "His appreciation should be well in advance of his power to express what he sees or imagines" (Page 308). I must not have been the only one to make that mistake for she wrote in her final book, "These picture studies do not afford much material for actual drawing; they are never copied lest an attempt to copy should lessen a child's reverence for great work" (Page 217).

What is picture study you ask? Last year, I blogged it pretty thoroughly in a post about modifying it for low-verbal autistic children, making connections, and working on theory of mind. We are continuing to play the game described in the third post. We are covering six paintings per artist, or eighteen paintings in a year. More is less because "the function of the sense of beauty is to open a paradise of pleasure for us; but what if we grow up admiring the wrong things, or, what is morally worse, arrogant in the belief that it is only we and our kind who are able to appreciate and distinguish beauty? It is no small part of education to have seen much beauty, to recognize it when we see it, and to keep ourselves humble in its presence" (Page 57).

Living Books - This year, we will be reading a book on da Vinci and another on van Gogh plus books on art history. Pamela drew some busts of people she is studying in ancient history.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Our Plan for the Year: Spanish

While I was checking my email this morning, I heard a wonderful thing. Pamela was repeating bits of Spanish that she is picking up from our Spanish program. "Ay, ay, ay! Sopa esta muy caliente!" which means, "Ouch! The soup is very hot!" We only spend about fifteen minutes a day doing formal Spanish. We can do this because we are focusing on only two aspects of acquiring language, hearing and speaking. We are trying to model how infants learn a language: they hear us talking and, before long, they start speaking. Reading and writing comes long after the ear has acquired the language.

Pamela really wants to learn Spanish. Her dad is a native speaker as is his side of the family. They are fluent in English and Spanish, and Pamela is very excited that we will be spending a week in El Salvador with them next month. She has tías, tíos, primos, and primas on one side of the family (Steve's) and aunts, uncles, and cousins on the other. To mix it up even more, Steve's parents are Grandpa and Grandma (born in Louisiana and England respectively) and mine are Opa and Oma (born in North Carolina and Germany). One of my sisters spent many years getting advanced degrees in winemaking in Germany, speaks the language fluently, and is a winemaker in Texas.

I do not speak Spanish, but we have found a way around my impediment that is working: (1) Latin American nursery songs, (2) homemade stories narrated by Steve about family, pets, daily activities, etc. and what she is learning in science, and (3) audio books (the printed books are kept away from her sight). Last year, we stumbled upon this plan for teaching Spanish and I will probably spend the next two years building Pamela's ear for Spanish before moving onto a formal curriculum. Last year, I wrote two rather long posts here and here.

Working with other Charlotte Mason educators on a curriculum project inspired this unique approach. Mason based her ideas upon the work of Francois Gouin's The Art of Teaching and Studying Language, which emphasized the importance of hearing and speaking a foreign language before seeing it in print or writing in it. Other parents interested in the ideas of Gouin and Mason are also attempting this approach from French in Montreal to Spanish in Texas. One mom in Texas (ahem, NOT Massachusetts) did a fabulous job of outlining Charlotte Mason's understanding of Gouin and how it matured in the years between her volumes.

We are learning Latin American nursery songs that my husband learned as a child. You may be asking yourself how effective nursery songs are. Well, the other day, I sang, "Food, glorious food," while David was feeding the fish. Pamela walked in and said, "La comida," a word she learned from Los Pollitos.

Charlotte Mason believed in making curricula personal, so Steve and I are developing videos and audio recordings focused on our family, pets, home, and daily activities. Pamela spent three weeks learning how to talk about her brother David and now she is learning about me. Again, you may be wondering how effective this is. Last year, she learned a story about her dad and loved saying, "Maneja a la oficina en un automóvil gris." After Steve wrecked the gray car, he replaced it with un automóvile anaranjado and Pamela easily amended her Spanish. When he replaced the red commuter car with a white one, it became un automóvil blanco. Pamela had no problem learning a new sentence about David driving to school, "Maneja el auto a la escuela." Not only that, last month while driving home from visiting my uncle in North Carolina, we had the following exchange:

Pamela asked, "What is cero?"

I answered, "Cero is zero."

She said, "Corre cero millas."

Do you realize how incredible this is coming from some still learning English as a first language, who has struggled with aphasia all of her life? Pamela adapted from a sentence she learned last year, "Corre cinco millas," to make a joke. She laughed because she was talking about her running habits which are very different from those of her fathers. Here are the two videos we made about David and I.

We also write stories about what Pamela is learning in science. Here are the two videos we made about a butterfly and a pear:

In addition to hearing homemade stories, we also plan to listen to three audio books read by native speakers of Spanish during the school year: Ricitos de Oro y los tres osos, La Caperucita Roja, and Los Zapaticos de Rosa. This takes a bit of work, but it is worth it! I break up the book into eleven weeks (the length of a trimester). I ripped the track from the audio CD and make clips of vocabulary words for the week. Then, I break the reading into clips of phrases. I create an audio file of vocabulary words (with pauses), the story broken up into small phrases with pauses, and then the story itself. Every week, I start on page one and work up to the current week. Next week, we will be covering pages one through twelve. I put the audio file onto the CD with the nursery songs and homemade stories for that week.

Then, I scan in pages from the book to extract images to create several pages to support what we are hearing. I include no Spanish words. While we listen to the audio recording, Pamela points to the proper image. Is it working? Heck yeah! We started this process three weeks ago and, in the past three weeks, Pamela has learned new words effortlessly: oso, plato hondo, grande, mediano, pequeño, sopa, and caliente. Even though the recording is a tad cheesy, she loves it! That sentence she repeated this morning was from the recording.

So what does a Spanish lesson look like? To make things simple, I put all of the Spanish songs and stories for the week on one audio CD so that we can sit on the couch and play it on our CD player, taking advantage of the remote control. When we have to be out and about, Pamela can do her Spanish lesson in the car because we can pack up the CD and folder and "vaminos"!

First, we sing the new song twice and sing an oldie but goodie chosen by Pamela. We sing the songs based upon what we hear without any lyrics in front of us. Then, we listen to one of two things: the homemade series stories (a personal story and a science story) or the professionally done children's story. I have pages to go along with each story, so that we can point to pictures as we are listening to the audio and repeating what we hear. I keep the new and old videos on my desktop in case Pamela wants to watch them in her free time. Occasionally she does.

What do we plan to cover? Nine nursery songs, nine homemade personal stories, nine homemade science stories, and three children's stories.

By the way, Spanish falls under the knowledge of man, which is the final area of knowledge to be covered in our plan. In the right column of my blog, I have put an outline of our curriculum with links to the posts plus a section of hints and tips.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Our Plan for the Year: Physical Development

Yesterday's blog post title hinted about being frazzled and sady lacking in the "serenity of a Madonna." No, I do not mean the pop diva but the Madonna painted by the masters, she who "no matter out of whose canvas she looks at you, is always serene" (page 34). Always!

My state of frazzilty had nothing to do with our ambitious school program--at least that is what I keep telling myself. Unanticipated events and idiotic scheduling have conspired to squeeze every last drop of time out of the day. Somehow, I scheduled dental cleanings and orthodontic tweaking, two meals on wheels, wanted guests, unwanted guests (escorted by the dogs), meetings, and two desperately needed laptop repairs. On top of all this, my truly wonderful (I really do mean that, no tongue in check intended at all) gave me an early Christmas present--a beautiful, sweet Mac of the snow leopard species. It is going to make my life so much easier once I make it through a humongous learning curve.

Charlotte Mason suggested that decorating our walls with Madonna masterpieces might calm the heart, which just would not mesh with our decor very well. Yesterday, we tried her Plan B with a few modifications, "Let the mother go out to play! If she would only have courage to let everything go when life becomes too tense, and just take a day, or half a day, out in the fields, or with a favourite book, or in a picture gallery looking long and well at just two or three pictures, or in bed, without the children, life would go on far more happily for both children and parents."

I can't really manage half a day, much less three. Mt. Laundry would hit the ceiling and Mt. Dishes would spill over into the back porch. The nearest art gallery involves a 150-mile round trip. The only time I take to my bed is when Mr. Flu pays a visit. Too many books and things and screens already tax my eyeballs, so reading is out. With trips looming in October, I really need to stick to my plan for the school year.

So . . . on the way to the dentist yesterday, we carschooled: doing our audio work (composer study, songs, Spanish, hymns, recitation), copywork and studied dictation, and drawing on the road. Instead of sitting in the waiting room trying to block out the dent-fomercials and squeeze in a few more books, we headed to Swan Lake, whose luscious scenes renewed mind, soul, and body. And, we checked P. E. and nature study off our list!

Over a decade of homeschooling has taught me that we are not superhuman. We cannot do everything nor do it perfectly. We live in the real world and juggle multiple grade levels and/or manage special needs, which means letting somethings go is a must, or have other demanding issues. I believe that every family must adapt to their unique situation. Pamela has autism and aphasia. She needs thinkspace and downtime to be at her best.

I spent last summer pouring over the curriculum plan and dropped many things to make room for Pamela's dynamic thinking curriculum (RDI): dance, drama, grammar, handwriting, Latin, musical instrument lessons, physical education (except for walking), and reading lessons. I omitted books that she had already read and did not replace them with suitable books. I substituted a couple of extremely wordy books with less wordy ones that were no less living. I ignored all of the beautiful, tempting books recommended for the class library. I watered down P. E. to walking.

Pamela has never done well in an organized sports setting. When she attended a YMCA class for homeschoolers in her early teens, she did not track people at all. During the hour of game time, she needed heavy support from me and still had no idea what was going on or what to do. She had no problems with free play in the pool because she loved the water and did whatever her heart delighted. Until she is ready for more advanced sports, I plan to walk with her and, if there happens to be a playground near by, encourage her to explore the equipment.

Now, I understand why she struggled. While Pamela is "big" enough, she is not "old" enough in her social development to enjoy structured games. Mason made a developmentally appropriate distinction between the kind of games children enjoy playing. In fact, Laura Berk quoted research supporting Mason's opinion in Awakening Children's Minds. Mason wrote,
Cricket, tennis, and rounders are the games par excellence if the children are old enough to play them, both as giving free harmonious play to the muscles, and also as serving the highest moral purpose of games in bringing the children under the discipline of rules; but the little family we have in view, all of them under nine, will hardly be up to scientific games. Races and chases, 'tag,' 'follow my leader,' and any romping game they may invent, will be more to their minds. (Page 83)

Don't get me wrong. I am all for organized sports and carefully taught instruction. I benefitted from a fantastic P. E. program in high school that motivated slugs like me to run 200 miles in one school year. Not only did our teacher make sure we learned the basics of organized sports, he set up a conditioning program that allowed anyone willing to work hard to get an A. As long as we met the outlined daily benchmarks in P. E. (run two miles and do a given number of situps and pushups) we got a grade of A for the day. All we had to do after that we to improve our fitness test scores from the previous semester. That is not hard to do if you are out of shape from the summer and put forth consistent effort.

The author of our natural history book, who foresaw many concerns we face today, wraps up the importance of physical development nicely,
The circle of nature's seasons and the discipline of seasonal routine were once signals for individual activity, but the seasons of today involve group activity. With the addition of competition and spectator sports, we now specialize in group sitting and group watching. The benefits of watching a three-hour baseball game on television or at the ball park, can never equal a few minutes of play at the game yourself. Theodore Roosevelt, who was one of the last of America's great individualists, said, "It is far more important that a man should play something himself, even if he plays it badly, than that he should go to see someone else play it well."


That means people like me, who play most things badly, no longer have an excuse!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010