Friday, November 26, 2010

Flipping the Bird and other Thanksgiving Memories

I woke up at stupid o'clock this morning (3:45) and, after a quick shower, was in the car, eyes barely open. We drove by Wal-Mart in our small town with a population just under four thousand. THE PARKING LOT WAS FULL! We did not turn into the parking lot, however, for there is no way you would ever find me shopping on a day like today. I would rather buy less for Christmas than be caught in a cat fight over Tickle Me Elmo du anno.

The last time I stepped foot in a mall on Black Friday was about four years ago. My glasses broke on Thanksgiving Day, and no amount of duct tape enabled me to wear them. I am legally blind sans specs and the two opticians in our town were closed. Steve chauffeured me to the nearest mall, forty minutes away. Like a SEAL team, I headed straight toward the target, accomplished the mission, and got out of there as fast as I could with no collateral damage.

According to Consumer Reports, nearly 14 million Americans are still paying off credit-card debt from the 2009 holidays. This may sound harsh, but it would be far better to invest in relationships rather than rack up more debt. The Christmas my parents went bankrupt, presents were sparse. Mom turned cheap outdoor carpet samples and rainbow variegated yarn into booties to warm our feet during a brutal winter in Chicago. She recycled everything! My youngest sister outgrew a red coat made of furry material, and, with her magic needle, my mother whipped it into a big red dog. The only store-bought toy for me that year was a jigsaw puzzle from my grandmother in Germany. Since we had so few gifts, one person played Santa and passed presents out, one at a time, so everyone could watch someone unwrap their present and savor the anticipation.

Going to school and swapping Christmas stories was easier than you think. I would tell kids that the elves came and decorated our tree (a German tradition) and we ate chocolate candy from Germany! We sang Christmas carols around the advent wreath and Dad read the Christmas story. Each one of us had to give a gift to the Christ child (saying a poem, playing a song, etc.), and hang a special ornament on the tree. The time we spent together outshone the presents.

Where was I going at such an insane hour? Schlepping Steve off to the airport!

Yesterday, we had a lovely Thanksgiving (scroll down for recipes) unlike the horror story from 2001. That year, we moved to the Shumagin Islands in Alaska. We lived in a house with no fancy indoor heating system. The primary source was a wood stove. We combed the beach for driftwood, chopped it up, and supplemented with Duralogs. Yes, the island has no trees. The other source of heat for cooking and heating the hot water tank and house was an oil stove with a cracked kiln. Anytime we kicked the oven above 350 degrees, the stove spewed soot everywhere and the kids ran around the house looking like little chimney sweeps. You know you are in trouble when your kitchen stove has a big thick pipe running up to the roof! Undaunted, we put on our typical Thanksgiving feast and, after checking the bird an hour into cooking, realized that the top was browning nicely and the bottom was a tad raw. We spent the next twelve hours flipping the bird. We weren't totally deranged and popped a plate of turkey into the microwave, just to be safe.

Last year, I blogged a nature study we did on a butternut squash as we could not find any pumpkins. The post from 2008 includes a picture of an oil stove in case you think I exaggerate and 2007 featured a paper turkey Pamela made. Back in 2006, I blogged recipes for our gluten-free, casein-free thanksgiving. Every year we learn a new trick so this year this old dog will include a new crop of recipes.

Biscuits - Pamela has not eaten biscuits since she sneaked one dropped by her cousin Daniel at a family reunion back in 1996. The next day, as predicted, she developed a rash, hosted several meltdowns, and left a yellow puddle on the floor while watching television. This year's miracle is brought to you by gluten-free, casein-free Bisquick. The only problem I see with this product is that the box is too small! That big pile of drop biscuits between David and I tasted quite delicious, especially piping hot. They are a tad dry a day later, so I plan to rummage online for a meatball recipe in which to recycle them. I got the recipe from the back of the box:
2 cups Bisquick
1/3 cup shortening
2/3 cup Silk PureAlmond Unsweetened milk
3 eggs

Heat oven to 400. Cut shortening into mix, using fork, until pea-sized particles form. Stir in remaining ingredients until soft dough forms. Drop by spoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheet. Bake thirteen to sixteen minutes or until golden brown. Makes ten biscuits.

Sweet Potato Casserole with Marshmallows - Steve did a fantastic job with this recipe which required very few alterations. We substituted Earth Balance butter and made sure the vanilla and miniature marshmallows were safe. He used brown sugar instead of white sugar because it just tastes yummier. We skipped the suggestions for scalded milk and cinnamon sugar (as if the marshmallows don't make it sweet enough). He made a layer of sweet potato mixture followed by marshmallows and another layer of each.

Pumpkin Pie - The first thing we made last summer when Betty Crocker's miracle arrived, we made Impossibly Easy Pumpkin Pie and it tasted impossibly fantastic. We used the following substitutions and made sure the vanilla was safe: gluten-free Bisquick, coconut milk, and Earth Balance butter. I wanted a traditional crust for Thanksgiving since David's braces ruled out pecan crust. I adapted the crust (and only the crust) from this recipe for Cream Cheese Pumpkin Pie for my 9.5 inch glass pie dish with fluted edges. The unsweetened almond milk gave the crust the nutty flavor we love. I made the pie as directed with these ingredient portions:
1 1/2 cups Bisquick
8 tablespoons Earth Balance butter
6 tablespoons Silk PureAlmond Unsweetened milk

Cornbread for the Stuffing - Steve, who prefers white-bread stuffing, made a cornbread stuffing that he didn't enjoy. Next year, I'm thinking about trying a slow cooker cornbread stuffing recommended by my friend Queen Mum over at Setting of Silver. It definitely solves the problem of running out of 9x13 dishes and limited oven space at the critical moment. I tried a new recipe by adapting one from The Little House Cookbook. Because we could not add pecans to our stuff, I substituted unsweetened almond milk for the buttermilk. As much as Steve hated the stuffing, he said the cornbread was phenomenal, the best he's ever had in the annals of gf/cf cookery. I doubled the Crackling Cornbread recipe minus the crackling to fit a 9x13 dish:
1/2 cup Earth Balance butter
2 cups stoneground yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
3 cups Silk PureAlmond Unsweetened milk
4 eggs

Preheat oven to 425. Melt butter by heating it briefly in the baking pan. In a larger bowl mix cornmeal, salt, and baking soda. Stir in almond milk. Beat eggs well and add them to batter. Stir in the melted butter last. Pour batter into hot greased pan and bake about 30 minutes, until the brown edges pull away from pan and the center of the bread bounces back when pressed.

As always, I made cranberry conserve, which we serve on the turkey, eliminating the need for gravy. We also served turkey, brussels sprouts, green beans, and macaroni and cheese that was the yummiest thing to cross my lips in ages and full of gluten and casein.

Pamela's cousin Jose drove all the way from Charlotte for dinner even though he heard Steve and I were cooking! Brave soul!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Car Schooling

Some days, I end up being a human ping-pong ball being bounced back and forth from David's school, church, and shopping.

Sound familiar?

Whether it's poor planning on my part or anyone else's doesn't change that bee-bopping here and there eats up precious homeschooling time. Pamela isn't deterred because of carschooling! While some people market games, audio projects, and other mobile products in the name of carschooling, I design car time on busy days with our homeschooling philosophy (Charlotte Mason) in mind. I am not worried about the myth of studying on one place for retention of new information. The reverse is true according to the article Forget What You Know about Good Study Habits,
Instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention . . . In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics.

The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.

“What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting,” said Dr. Bjork, the senior author of the two-room experiment.

Audio CD
Every week I burn a CD for two reasons: carschooling and laziness. I'll start with the last first. Once Pamela and I are sitting on the couch, going through our books and things, I really don't want to get up and down, up and down to play a song, audio book, or other recording. Even if I burn CDs and wield the remote, someone has to change them. For that specific week, I copy individual songs (Spanish, hymn, folk music, classical compositions), books (Librivox and Spanish stories), and homemade stories (Spanish) onto my weekly playlist on iTunes and then burn, baby, burn. Then, all I need to do is pop it in the CD player and plop on the couch. If we are going somewhere, everything we need is ready to go.

Tote Bag

Before we leave I put together our to-go bag with activities Pamela can do independently in the car or with minimal scaffolding. I grab her copywork, studied dictation (her sentences are short), purple folder (Spanish lessons, sheet music, recitation, etc.), written books to accompany the audio books, easy books, drawing, pencil/marker bag, etc.


Every week, I break up everything we do into five days. While the schedule looks jam-packed, keep in mind that many lessons are only five to ten minutes long. Whenever we complete an item, we highlight the block to help us keep track of what is done and what is left to do. Sometimes, I highlight it and, at other times, Pamela does it. When we carschool, Pamela keeps track of all her work.


I thought you might enjoy what carschooling looks like. Pamela just started learning "The Apostles' Creed" as she prepares for taking communion for the first time.


We are singing two songs: "When the Train Comes Along" for folk music and the modern hymn Open Our Eyes Lord, one of Pamela's favorite Christian songs.


We spend about fifteen minutes a day on Spanish, rotating through a wide variety of activities: songs, audio books (Ricitos de Oro and Blancanieves), homemade stories, and reading a book in English about El Salvador.

Spanish takes quite a bit of prep work, which you will see is worth the results. Keep in mind we completely skip looking at the written word. The songs are simple, a straightforward copy of the audio file with no pictures or visuals. Right now, we are learning "La Araña Pequeñita." The homemade stories are not much of a drag because they last for three or four weeks: it takes time for I write the story in English, record Steve translating it into Spanish, edit the recording, and find pictures for each sentence. The audio books are the toughest because they have a lot of vocabulary. I edit the recording and make a new audio file with vocabulary review, single sentences, and the whole story from the beginning to the current page. Then I scan or find pictures to go with everything and print out those pages too. The page contains pictures for the vocabulary words at the beginning.

The article previously quoted supports the unusual way we are learning Spanish together. "Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. "

The video is long, but delightful. Pamela clearly enjoys learning Spanish to the point of borderline stimming. She is not completely zoned out because Pamela is able to multi-task in between giggle fits. At the end, I quizzed her and nearly all the words she knew were words we had never addressed before this school year.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Visualizing and Verbalizing da Vinci

One component of our plan for visual art includes picture study, which I have not blogged in a year. We are wrapping up our study of Leonardo da Vinci, so I thought you might enjoy a video of us doing a study of "The Annunciation." Last year, I blogged a detailed description of how I have adjusted picture study in a way that emphasizes the importance of mind to mind communication (a challenge for people with autism). It includes a lesson plan for how we do picture study.

The key to making this work is surprise. I do not know what painting she is going to describe in advance. My questions are meaningful because I am letting her know what I am having trouble visualizing. She enjoys watching me go through each picture and stating whether it is the one she described and, if not, why.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Camellia Nature Study

The Camellia by Honore de Balzac
In Nature's poem flowers have each their word
The rose of love and beauty sings alone;
The violet's soul exhales in tenderest tone;
The lily's one pure simple note heard.
The cold Camellia only, stiff and white,
Rose without perfume, lily without grace,
When chilling winter shows his icy face,
Blooms for a world that vainly seeks delight.
Yet, in a theatre, or ball-room light,
I gladly see Camellias shining bright
Above some stately woman's raven hair,
Whose noble form fufils the heart's desire,
Like Grecian marbles warmed by Phidian fire.

We have several camellia shrubs in our yard. My favorite sign of fall is the camellia sasanqua, a native of the evergreen coastal forests of southern Japan, with its delicate white flowers with pink scalloped edges. We believe the people who built our house in 1910 must have planted it in the backyard. What started out as a shrub fools people into thinking it's a tree, nearly as tall as our two-story house! It shelters birds and feeds the insects. The last bloom emerges at the beginning of winter when the magenta camellia that houses our bird feeding station starts. All winter long camellias on either side of the house cheer me up and the one that borders the yard with the neighbor sustains the Baltimore orioles. Camellias lovingly remind me that spring is just around the corner.

Until last year, our nature study efforts occurred in fits and starts (I knew enough to share some great resources but lacked consistent application). This year, we have studied painted lady butterflies, lady bugs, pears, webworms, and wasps (blog to follow once winter kills off the wasps so we can study their nests). We have never studied flowers intensely enough to name the parts of the flowers and study their seed production cycle. I chose camellias because we have several varieties in our yard and can study them off and on during the winter. Another advantage is that, at any given moment, we can see every stage of seed production: bud, blossom, flower, browning, and fruit (nut) on one shrub.

The ideal way to teach the parts of a flower is simply to talk about them as you and your child study flowers, discuss what you observe, and make drawings. Anna Comstock, who wrote Handbook of Nature Study, explained, "All the names should be taught gradually by constant unemphasized use on the part of the teacher; and if the child does not learn the names naturally then do not make him do it unnaturally” (Page 456). However, Pamela doesn't learn the names of most things naturally because of her aphasia: she requires new words to go through multiple channels: saying, hearing, reading, writing, etc. We began our study by taking apart a flower and doing some whole-part thinking (i.e., stamen = anther + filament). We focused on using the vocabulary words in sentences (rather than memorizing and drilling them). It will probably take a few months for Pamela to remember these words.

When I first tried using Handbook of Nature Study, I felt lost when I could not find things studied in the book. Barb over at Handbook of Nature Study blog helped me realize I could adapt lessons from the book. Since camellias are shrubs, I adapted Lesson 191 about another shrub (the mountain laurel) and developed my own lessons, which took about two weeks to complete. Because the camellia is a bug magnet, this lesson dovetailed nicely with the insects we have studied during the fall.

Pamela made an interesting discovery that many of us overlook. Beauty aside, what is the purpose of a flower? The picture to the left provides a clue. When asked what had happened to the flower, Pamela told me it had died. I corrected her and pointed out that the flower was getting ready to make seeds for new plants to grow. Something Charlotte Mason wrote about flowers has stuck with me all these years, "Presently they have the delight of discovering that the great trees have flowers, too, flowers very often of the same hue as their leaves, and that some trees have put off having their leaves until their flowers have come and gone. By-and-by there is the fruit, and the discovery that every tree––with exceptions which they need not learn yet––and every plant bears fruit, 'fruit and seed after his kind'" (Page 54).

Nature study crosses many disciplines. Besides improving attention span and the powers of observation, you can squeeze the grass between your toes on a gorgeous fall day. Pamela drew many beautiful pictures (art) and wrote many sentences (language arts) about what she saw. She is adding new botanical words to her vocabulary (science). Nature study is all that and a breath of fresh air!

We even incorporated math! Besides easy things like counting (except for fifty-four golden stamen), I designed a lesson in which we estimated the height. I took a picture of Pamela standing next to the shrub. I printed out a copy of the picture and we measured how tall Pamela and the shrub were: 1.6 inches and 6.4 inches. That means the shrub is four times as tall as Pamela. We estimated the height to be twenty feet by multiplying four times sixty-four and converted the result to feet.

My Favorite Picture

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Student or Statistic?

The other day I was chatting with a high school senior. He was bummed because his parents weren't happy with his grades. I asked what he found hard about school. He replied, "Nothing, really. I was on the A and AB honor roll my first two years of high school. I burnt out in junior year and didn't want to work that hard anymore." Even though he is not on the honor roll, the college of his choice accepted him, and he is looking forward to digging deeply into his favorite subject (music) once high school is behind him.

David, whose case of senioritis is very mild, studies diligently to stay on one honor roll or the other. Steve pressed one of David's teachers, who lives nearby, to make sure that David's dry wit wasn't getting in the way. [When asked about how he got to be so tall, David quips, "I did NOT eat my vegetables." When someone wants to know what he plans to major in college, he deadpans, "Psychology. I like messing with people's minds."] His teacher told us that he would love to have more students like David because he works hard and what he says contributes to the class discussion. At the parent teacher meeting, his Spanish teacher said that, even when he gets an A on a test, David wants to know what he missed because he cares about what he is learning. His English teacher pulled me aside at a senior parent meeting and told me how much she loved his Powerpoint presentation on Chaucer's monk. Not only was the content well done, but his wit, creativity, originality, and enthusiasm earned him a 100.

I believe the contrast between the attitudes of David and his classmate boils down to the difference between viewing a student as a person or as a statistic. Please don't take this the wrong way. I am not saying that all teachers are bad. However, because the beast unleashed by No Child Left Untested obsesses over standardized testing to assess school performance, the view of students becomes obscured by one detail: test scores. Not only are the results inaccurate and poorly measures knowledge, they neglect intangible qualities like motivation, persistence, dedication, innovative thinking, etc. While the burnt out senior has been tested and retested for most of his school career, David took his first standardized test last year, his junior year!

My perspective started to change the year the state of Pennsylvania required standardized tests for Pamela, which I relate in greater detail in a written narration I did on a talk by Lisa Cadora. The upshot is that, when Pamela was working at a first grade level in math, she got two different math scores on two different standardized tests in the same school year: pre-Kindergarten on the Peabody and third grade on the WIAT! I didn't realize it at the time, but that was when my civil disobedience against standardized testing was born. From that year on, I procrastinated giving Pamela and David standardized tests. Either we lived in a state that didn't require them or we moved often enough for me to stall. I wouldn't recommend that for people who never move because, by ignoring minor points of homeschooling law, you might face harsh consequences.

Just when I was ready for a paradigm shift, I started reading Charlotte Mason's books. I believe her principles resulted from her experience as a young teacher in Victorian England's very early protoype of NCLB called "Payment by Results." As described by Brendan Rapple, the government allocated funds to schools according to how well students tested. To earn the highest pay, teachers gravitated to mindless repetition to drill facts into their students and limited curriculum to the required facts. In 1869, Matthew Arnold stated, "It tends to make the instruction mechanical, and to set a bar to duly extending it." He was adamant about its flaws, "By concentrating the teacher's attention upon enabling his scholars to pass in the three elementary matters, it must injure the teaching, narrow it, and make it mechanical." The system encouraged teachers to abandon children on the edges (the gifted and the at-risk) and focus on the middle.
Because of the striving for uniformity of attainments, there was little financial incentive to encourage clever children to realise their full capabilities. Weaker pupils, those perceived as unlikely to pass, were also often neglected by teachers. It was alleged that slower children were occasionally told to stay away from school on the inspection day and that some dull children were refused admittance to schools altogether. (Rapple)

While Mason and her contemporaries may have differed in how to change education, they agreed about restoring personhood through "the insistence on treating children as individual persons requiring love, understanding, and respect, and not merely as grant earning entities" (Rapple). While England abandoned at the turn of the century, it fell for the same schtick at the turn of the next century. Every year on the same day, ten- and eleven-year-old pupils take the national SATS. That is until last May when teachers played hooky on test day and took their students on field trips to museums and parks instead. Michael Rosen, the former children's laureate, expressed disenchantment with testing well, "I think we are obsessed by giving kids scores, measuring them and producing research that is based on statistics. This biometric approach to human behaviour is to my mind corrupting. It tries to reduce the variability in human behaviour. The difference between humans and machines is that with machines, you can keep all the variables in your test constant . . . you can't do that with human beings." A quarter of primary schools boycotted the SATs to protest their interference with productive learning.

In a recent post at ChildLightUSA, Dr. John Thorley shared an anecdote about the situation across the pond,
I was talking the other day, at the half-term holiday, to our grandson Joel, who moved into secondary school in September. "Ten times better than primary school," Joel insisted. "Why?"’ he went on. "Because we don’t spend all the time practising for those awful SATs tests." Now let me stress that I don’t blame the primary school; all primary schools throughout the country do the same. The last year in primary school is devoted largely to getting children through the SATs tests in Maths, English and Science, because the national "League Tables" are based entirely on the results of these tests. Joel is fascinated by History and Geography, and he is quite musical, but he had done nothing of any of these for the last year and a half of the primary school. Now he gets his History, Geography, Music (he is learning to play the guitar), and many other things, and from Joel’s enthusiasm they appear to be well taught, with an emphasis on getting out and about to look at things and finding things out for themselves, all within a structured and caring environment that stresses friendship and helping one another.

Stealing an idea from this post on the financial cost of NCLB, I came up with my own graphic. "During the 2007- 08 school year, states will spend almost $1.1 billion on these tests, according to Eduventures Inc., an education industry research firm." That is such a large number to envision. This graphic represents how many items you could buy with that whopper of a figure. You could download 1,111,111,111 MP3 songs for composer study and folk songs with that money. Or, you could pay for 158,273,381 Leonardo da Vinci print books by Dover. This graphic does not take into account how much more time could be spent on neglected subjects like the arts and nature study.

What You Can Do with $1.1 Billion (Pick One)

You may be wondering how David did on his first standardized test. For all my bravado, I must admit I was nervous about the high school exit exam. I had no idea what was on it. I had never intended for him to take it because I thought we would homeschool him through his senior year. He chose otherwise and I respect him enough as a person to let him make that choice at the age of sixteen. I made sure to tell him the important things like not leaving a stray mark and erasing changes completely. He passed the math portion of the test last October and the language arts and writing on his second try last April. There are seniors who have been measured and tested for all these years and still have yet to pass the exit exam.

David took his ACT last June and you would expect some consistency in results. Right? Ha! I just love the vagaries of bubble tests. He scored very well on the language arts and writing, and his math and science scores were not that hot. Is it a big deal? No! His college of choice (The Citadel) has already accepted him, and we are wrapping up the medical qualifications. He has already qualified for the Life Scholarship ($5,500) and he is submitting other applications too.

When David comes home from school, I never ask him about his homework or his tests. I ask him questions like "What are you reading in English? Tell me something new you learned in history. Did anything funny happen today?" Yesterday, David told me he was reading the part of the narrator in Pygamalion. I asked if that was the play by George Bernard Shaw. He answered in the affirmative and added that his classmate reading the part of the flower shop girl sounded hilarious. Then I asked, "Do you know what musical is based on the play?" David thought for few seconds and told me My Fair Lady. I asked him if his teacher told him that in class. Then, he said what every Charlotte Mason teacher loves to hear, "No, nobody told me that. I just knew it."

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Person Is a Person Period

Several blog posts this week have led me to ponder Charlotte Mason's first principle: "Children are born persons." There are situations in which a disease destroys a person, and my words are not directed toward families in such a crisis. Over the past few years, my roommate in college has watched Alzheimers slowly eat personhood from her mother: "Never a chatty Cathy, in recent years my mother has been silent or nearly so – words stolen away. Her life as a gardener, seamstress, traveler cut short by the inability to walk, to process her surroundings, to navigate the mysteries of three dimensions."

Ellie's mother died last week and already the person her mother was before the disease struck is beginning to revive:
Today my mother lives on; full and whole again. The memories of her life before Alzheimer’s emerging from behind a veil . . . Memory is a fragile thing. Not just my mother’s memory, ravaged by disease, but my own memory, smothered in the reality of my mother’s condition in recent years.

But today my mother is alive again, undiminished and undamaged by disease. She lives on in Jim and Jane and I.

She lives on in all who carry memories of her.

Whether we are dealing with autism or aphasia or just have a disorganized child whose room is nowhere near even the second degree of squalor, it is easy to lose track of the person underneath the fault or label. Sonya Shafer, a fellow autism/Relationship Development Intervention/Charlotte Mason mom, pointed out that our view of the child blurs when we spend too much time wearing our "fault-colored glasses." She related a quick object lesson she observed at a recent seminar.
The speaker grabbed a sheet of paper, drew a dot on it, and held it over his head. He asked the audience, “What do you see?” The immediate response was, “A spot.”

He asked again, “No, what do you see?”

The answer, again, “A spot.”

“No,” he corrected. “You see a good-looking guy in a sweater, holding a piece of paper over his head. That paper just happens to have a spot on it.”

Sometimes, I catch myself obsessing like Lady MacBeth and her damn'd spot! Pamela and I are quickly reaching Week 11 of our homeschooling year, the end of the first trimester. I hope to try exams with Pamela this year. Because of her aphasia, I plan to keep the questions very open-ended and simple: "Tell me what you know about Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, or Rebecca Motte." On Tuesday, I remembered seeing sample exams for Intermediate Math over at RightStart Mathematics, and I figured I better check out their first exam which covers Lessons 1 through 45, the lessons completed in our our first term.

That is when the trouble began! As I glanced over the test, I panicked. While Pamela understands the concepts very well, she struggles with the vocabulary because of her aphasia. I began reviewing words like parallelogram, quadrilateral, and rhombus, hoping to help her link them with her known words (rectangle, square, and trapezoid). We are attaching words to real life pictures and math diagrams to see how many she can soak up: parallel, perpendicular, horizontal, vertical, line of symmetry, altitude, and bisect. Sometimes, it frustrates us both when she gasps for language because she knows the meaning but the gap between meaning and word is huge.

Schools accommodate children with special needs for tests based on their special need. A child with ADHD or LD may take untimed tests, while one with dyslexia can have the test read aloud. A child with autism may sit in a quiet room for tests. Since Pamela has aphasia, I plan to spend the next two weeks creating word pictures as her accommodation for aphasia. These visuals may be enough to help her determine what the problem is asking when it says, "The area of a square is 81 square centimeters. What is the length of a side? What is the perimeter?"

A post at Autism Jabberwocky again reminded me of the importance of looking at the whole person,
Just because you have a label of autism does not mean that you are just a set of negative characteristics- there is much more to a person that just a label of autism. A person with autism can be smart, funny, loving, caring, or any of the other traits that can apply to any other person. The autism label just describes one small part of who a person is . . . When using a label you have to use it correctly. You have to be able to separate out the characteristics that it implies from the person as a whole. Each and every person is much more than the sum of their labels and just because a person has a specific label does not mean that they are limited to being just the label. A person is a person, not a label.

In those Lady MacBeth moments, taking off my "fault-colored glasses" helps me see Pamela as a person and keeps me in line. This week, my heart warmed at her listening to a recording of Ricitos de Oro y los tres osos. Pamela beamed and giggled as she pointed to pictures and echoed the Spanish imitating the vocal inflection almost perfectly. She eagerly did her reading, carrying books and the disc of songs and audio recordings for the week to the car on busy days. Pamela easily set up maps for electrical circuits for science and drew stunning pictures for nature study and sculpture. While her rendition of Open Our Eyes Lord and When the Train Comes Along is slightly off-key, my cup runs over when I hear her sing with such joy and gusto. We even shared an inside joke in math this week when she concluded that finding the area of a triangle of height 3.4 and width 4.6 is the same as that of a triangle height 4.6 and 3.4. She said, "You already had this one! It's the same!" and wrote down the answer immediately.

I will close in the same way, Ellen ended her eulogy for her mother,
And she lives on in the good works that she did.

Let us celebrate.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

"We Interrupt This Message . . ."

This school year seems to be full of interruptions: some pleasant (going to El Salvador for a week) and some painful (getting a nasty head cold). Sometimes, it seems like the minute I sit down to read with Pamela the door bell will chime or the phone will ring. Arg!

Teaching an autistic child how to handle interruptions is not easy. We set-up distraction-free environments, usually the same setting every time, for them to work uninterrupted. We work so hard to build them up to working for ten minutes at a sustained task, only to find ourselves trapped.

Trapped? If skipping an aisle causes a meltdown, you have been trapped. If you cannot change channels until the very last credit, you have been trapped. Being trapped means continuing with a memorized script until complete or reading a book until the very end.

Michelle Garcia Winner illustrates how being trapped looks in a social situation,
Sue was a beautiful middle school girl who had worked with me in an individual and group session to help her develop social thinking and related skills . . . One day in our group session with other middle school girls, all of the girls were told that the goal for the day was to “ask questions of other girls about their life” . . . Sue raised her hand then said, “I had to audition in the school play. I had to learn 50 lines” and then she recited many of the 50 lines in her audition. Upon retelling of her audition she added, “I even get to sing in the school play” and then she started to sing.

Sometimes, we set our children up for this by following common wisdom out there about getting our kids on a strict schedule because they crave structure. Because the world seems so unfathomable to them, we do them a favor by creating order they can predict. Because many are talented in spotting patterns, that gift can turn into a curse when it begins to tie us up in a straight jacket. On the one hand, they must learn be flexible enough to stop an activity midstream without melting down to survive in this chaotic world. On the other hand, if they are too flexible about loose ends, they might not finish anything.

My consultant asked me to document how Pamela handles interruptions. Fortunately, she has had years of practicing watching me! David calls me from school and asks me to bring an important paper he forgot. The guy staining the floor of our porch knocks on the door (causing the dogs to raise a ruckus) to let me know he must have caught a stomach flu and is going home for the day. Fedex delivers a package for me to sign and then Pamela dryly observes, "It's a female one," because she has never seen a woman doing that job. For years, she has seen me go with the flow and fit what we can into a day and carry forward what we cannot manage without becoming unglued.

How Pamela Handles Interruptions
When interruptions stop us while working together, I can always guide Pamela to get back track. Because her attention skills are very strong, she follows through all by herself even when doing a task alone. I set up a camera while Pamela was entering data on the computer. She was entering measurements in a spreadsheet to convert them to the scaled inches we were using to draw a plan of our backyard for geography. Steve inadvertently interrupted her by getting the mail. After she satisfied her curiosity, she got back to work. Then I intentionally distracted her by asking her to chose a bow for her sewing project and reading the church newsletter in her presence. She always went back to her numbers.

Then something funny happened while she was drawing a wasp nest for nature study. Pamela took a short break and checked my email (I guess mine is more interesting than hers) like all good multi-taskers. Fifty seconds later, Pamela turned back to drawing.

Reviewing the Video Together
We watched the video together because I wanted to spotlight the idea of interruptions and getting back to work. Pamela was in a playful mood and the interruptions made her crack up. She was quite pleased when she saw herself get back on track. She laughed the hardest when she caught herself sneaking onto the Internet. Since she is so good at reorienting her attention, I kept it light and playful because she was simply doing what everyone does in this world of technological distractions!

Saturday, November 06, 2010

A Green Flag Parent in a Red Flag World

I really love a post I just read about being a green flag parent in a red flag world, an extension of an article written by Dr. James MacDonald called Red Flags versus Green Flags.

Red Flag World - A place where people obsess over what a child is lacking and how far said child is behind peers. A place where people assume you are in denial if you focus on the positives about a child. A place where people say "Yeah, but . . ." more often than they should and leave parents feeling defeated and alone.

Green Flag Parent - A parent who focuses on what the child is doing and see what developmental growth steps are next. A parent who sees efforts that fall short as practice and opportunities for increased understanding, not mistakes. A parent who realizes how much more she knows about her child than anyone else. A parent who sees his child as a communicating partner more than a student.

On that note, join me in celebrating Pamela's perfect recitation of "The Eagle" by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Four years ago, she struggled to memorize poetry and recite it. So, what if her peers are getting ready to graduate from college. Compared to where she was, Pamela is flying now!

Today we went to the mall for Pamela to get a hair cut. On the way, I said a bunch of Spanish words and Pamela was able to translate every single one into English for Steve. He was very impressed: dura, blanda, mesa, silla, cama, grande, pequeño, mediano, hambre, pelo, cansada, oso, and gruñió. I bet some of her peers can't do that!

Finally, when Pamela was six, she cried when we put a pencil in her hand. Now, she loves to write. She loves to draw. The first drawing is her illustration of Tennyson's poem. The next is copied from her natural history book. The next two are from her architecture book to supplement her studies on Mesopotamia in ancient history.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Snoopy Dancing My Gratitude

I am celebrating two sweet moments today in a day of wonderful happenings on the homefront and elsewhere:

David voted in an election for the first time ever!

Pamela used parentheses on her high school style calculator for the first time ever.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Thanksgiving in October

Saturday was the kind of day that reminds me of grace. The morning was crisp enough to wipe the summer heat off our brows, but not enough to chill our bones. To balance out the morning blown on climbing Mount Laundry, mopping up the email inbox spill, and taking the blog off the endangered species list, we finally explored a newly opened nature trail near our house. When we first moved here, terrible storms had damaged the boardwalk.

The trail started off promising. The turtle sunning itself on the log paused long enough for a picture before slinking off into the swamp. At first, we felt like we were exploring the land of the faerie with the sunlight highlighting the fall colors. We tramped down the boardwalk and conditions quickly worsened. Soft, rotten wood and missing planks are the norm the closer you get to the end. I suspect we walked farther than we should have but turned around before one of us stepped through a board. The path is definitely not wheelchair accessible, but we enjoyed the beauty of the swamp and left with nary a skeeter bite. We had our taste and hopefully will make it to the end when they finish repairing the damage some day.

Once home, I spent all of ten minutes on Pamela's costume. She decided to be herself and take her three babies trick or treating. I cruelly bound them together with rubber bands--it beats dropping them. I ensconced them in a Hello Kitty blanket, pinned together with pink paper clips because I could not find a single safey pin. I confess I only spent thirty seconds looking. Then, I tied the ends of a very long indigo scarf together, converting it into a sling.

Halloween happens infrequently enough to help me measure Pamela's progress. Trick or treating is chock full of uncertainty and proves to be as great a challenge for autistic children as opening presents on Christmas morning. While one might try to teach the rules, the frenzy of the day makes it hard for our kids to figure out. This year, I learned that she functions best walking alone rather than in a group. The chaos at the front door crowds out the mental space Pamela needs to process what she ought to do. The excitement captures her attention, rendering her speechless. We also started about a half hour before the masses descended up on the neighborhood.

Pamela did a couple of test runs with our good friends, the Lees. She proved to be quite rusty! We headed out with the clear blue sky smiling on us, slowly darkening into twilight. While I still had to encourage her to think about what she is supposed to say, I avoided the typical, "Say, 'Trick or treat!'" This was the first year in which Pamela managed to blurt out a close fascimile of the required greeting after several long pauses and hints from me. The people who gave her candy were extra patient in giving her time to process and think.

Now here is the cool part, another moment of grace. Our neighborhood is not a happening place for candy beggars. We usually leave the lights off because it is not worth stocking candy and letting it tempt us the following week. After we got home, Steve forgot the protocol and had the lights blaring. Two little girls rang our doorbell and, of course, expected candy. And, the cupboard was bare.

I ran to the kitchen and grabbed Pamela's stash. Pamela joined me at the door. She watched the girls pick whatever candy they wanted and she did NOT freak out! They did not pick the chocolate stuff that she could not have. They picked the GF/CF, but still bad for anyone, stuff and she knew it. Pamela was cool as she could be! For those of you who know nothing about autism, being able to share coveted candy without any advanced warning is a sign of flexible thinking and not something a person with autism can do easily.

Trick or Treat with Pamela

Pocatiligo Nature Walk