Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Good-Bye, Fall!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

You Know You're Taking a Science Exam in a CM School When the First Half Minute Is about the Government

One thing you learn early on with living books is that it's hard to confine them to one subject. They have a delightful way of taking all sorts of rabbit trails. Yesterday Pamela did several examinations. The one about a science book started off like this:
They making a, they doing a bill. Congress. They wrote for your vote. Congress, they're in Washington. House, they had the bill. C-SPAN, they have President. Senate.
Was Pamela adding filler to the exam like so many of us have done in our blue books in years past? Nope! The first chapter we read in this science book was about politics. What does science have to do with politics? Money! The topic of this book is technology, the kind of technology that alters forever how the world communicates. Sometimes, expansion of such technology is funded privately as consumers drive the widening of a network. At other times, the project is so grand, linking nation to nation, requiring large amounts of money, treaties, and legal minutia. The first topic of Pamela's exam narration accurately represents the material she read, taking into account her struggles with aphasia and how well she can communicate.

This week, Pamela and I will wrap up the last few exams for Term 1. Pamela did nothing to prepare for exam week as suggested by Charlotte Mason: "Children taught in this way are remarkable for their keenness after knowledge, and do well afterwards in any examination for which they may have to prepare" (Preface). She had been preparing for them during the entire term by reading and narrating living books every day. Whenever I gave her a choice of narrating one of two stories from a book for an exam, she opted to do both! During exam week, she has smiled often, chuckled and giggled many times, and talked about what she knew supplemented with the most lovely body language. If you doubt me, I dare you to watch the video.

Compare those sweet moments to your experience with exams as a student or as a homeschooling parent. Don't you wish you had had that much fun when you took exams in school? Compare it to the typical experience of cramming as described by Charlotte Mason,
When the schoolboy 'crams' for an examination, writes down what he has thus learned, and behold, it is gone from his gaze for ever: as Ruskin puts it, "They cram to pass, and not to know, they do pass, and they don't know"...we learn that we may know, not that we may grow; hence the parrot-like saying of lessons, the cramming of ill-digested facts for examinations, all the ways of taking in knowledge which the mind does not assimilate. (Pages 155-157)
Here are some points to keep in mind about elementary school examinations:
  • The point is for the child to share what they know and what they think. Exams are a record of what the child knows, not an exercise in tricking the child or uncovering what they don't know.
  • Young children narrate their exams orally: teachers or parents record the narration. In Pamela's case, I pay attention to nonverbal communication.
  • Examinations are done at the end of a term.
  • Questions are open-ended: "Tell the story of..." "Tell the history of [a particular person]." "Describe [a particular event]." "Describe a journey through/to [a particular place]." "Tell what you learned about [a particular place]." "Tell a fairy tale." "Describe your favorite scene from [a book or play]." "Tell about the..." "Draw a diagram or map of..." "Describe [a process in nature]." "What have you noticed yourself about..." [We did worms this term]" (Appendix II)
  • Some things to be narrated involve opinions: "Why do you think?" "What do you think this means?" "What is [an idea] and give an example?"
  • Examinations include singing a song or line from a instrumental composition, describing a favorite painting, reciting a poem, acting out a scene, and speaking or singing in a foreign language.
  • Because of Pamela's theory of mind gaps and difficulties in sequencing thoughts, I do have to make additional declarative comments to help her share more fully what I know she knows.
Lessons Learned about Pamela
  • Pamela takes great delight in narrating. She enjoyed exam week.
  • Her sense of time and technology is exceptional. She easily spots anachronisms.
  • She sees connections between books.
  • Her nonverbal communication emphasizes what she expresses verbally. Her body language continues to blossom.
  • Her ability to retrieve names, pronouns, and verbs is limited. She knows them but she struggles to retrieve them while narrating.
  • Her sequencing is still confused.
My Lessons Learned for Me
  • Doing handwork helps slow me down and refrain from talking too much.
  • I need to think through a plan to work on word retrieval issues and sequencing.
  • I am so thrilled that Pamela uses her body to express herself, even when her words are limited.

The point that I insist upon, however, is that from his sixth year the child should be an "educated child" for his age, should love his lesson books, and enjoy a terminal examination on the books he has read. Children brought up largely on books compare favourably with those educated on a few books and many lectures; they have generous enthusiasms, keen sympathies, a wide outlook and sound judgment, because they are treated from the first as beings of "large discourse looking before and after." They are persons of leisure too, with time for hobbies, because their work is easily done in the hours of morning school. (Page 305)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Citizen Science

Pamela and I have enjoyed the Great Backyard Bird Count every February for the past few years. This year we are stepping up our citizen science program by trying out Project Feeder Watch. We joined the program for only $15: they mailed to us a handbook with instructions, a calendar (which Pamela loved), a bird identification poster, and a sample tally sheet. Feeder watch season runs from November through April. The handbook contains detailed information about how to set up a feeding station, which you can view from indoors (it is winter after all). You can also download a free guide designed for homeschoolers. Ours has three different feeders (two different kinds of tubes and suet), seed on the brickwork, and a bird bath. The feeders hand from the camellia "tree" (it is really a shrub that is tall as a tree), which never sheds its leaves. Ivy below the tree provides ground cover for the chipping sparrows. Shrubs and pine straw near the brickwork offer similar protection.

A few weeks ago, I took apart all three feeders, emptied them, and scrubbed them down. I let Pamela practice some problem solving and use tools by helping me put them back together again.

Last Friday and Saturday, we spent time looking out the kitchen door window, watching and counting the birds. The idea is about the same as the Great Backyard Bird Count: record the maximum number of each kind of bird you see at one time. Then, take the maximum number of each kind of bird throughout the two days. The handbook explains the process of setting up the bird station and counting the birds very clearly.

Here are our results:

If you have not developed the habit of bird watching, here are links to earlier posts that might help you get started: scaffolding beginners, inspiration, Great Backyard Bird Count February 15, 2008, February 13, 2009, February 14, 2009, February 18, 2011, painted bunting, head-banger hawk, baltimore oriole.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Hope and Faith

A Facebook friend posted a link to an article about Representative Gabby Giffords' road to recovery since being shot in the head last January. The first minute-and-a-half of the radio program compares an interview with Gabby four years ago to her reading from her husband's new book. Her halted delivery reminded me of how Pamela reads. The description of Gabby's expressive language reminds me Pamela's road to language:
  • "It's very difficult to carry on a conversation. It becomes very one-sided."
  • "Her language is still halting — mostly one- or two-word thoughts."
  • "We can have a conversation — it's difficult for her. She struggles; she gets frustrated."
  • "Now, Giffords speaks in full sentences, according to Kelly. The challenge for her, he says, is stringing those sentences together."
  • "Language recovery has come slowly."
  • "I've come to learn that your brain can rewire itself to some extent. And she can find where those words are now located."
Isn't it amazing that a gun shot to the head causes the same kind of challenges Pamela faces with autism and aphasia?

While Giffords goes through hours of rigorous speech therapy every day, Pamela and I both burned out on it. Unlike Giffords who has already mastered the language once, Pamela is still building language from scratch. Giffords has been at it for less than a year; Pamela has been at it for twenty!

Last week, we were doing "exams" as I posted earlier. Our exams look very differently from what is usually done in this No Child Left Untested world because exams are basically narrations. I ask her to tell me about a topic, and Pamela shares what she knows. This exam is on mythology. Because she is not ready for the book listed for the year we are doing for CLUSA, I substituted an Ambleside Online book we have never read: Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Wonder Book.

I asked Pamela to tell me about her favorite story of the two we read last term, but she wanted to narrate both. The text of the two narrations are quite different and I have been pondering why. The story of King Midas was less complicated than the story of Perseus and Medusa: it involved fewer characters, fewer changes of scenes, and fewer plot developments. It had more of a repeated narrative (much like fairy tales). She could personally relate to the realistic elements of "The Golden Touch" while the story about Medusa contained far more fantasy. Pamela has an interest in children and the character of Marygold captured her imagination from the very beginning.

Pamela's knack for calendars and anachronisms came to light here. Hawthorne stated that Midas had turned a book into gold, but Pamela knew that the story was set in "B.C. times" and, therefore, he must have turned a scroll into gold. She may have trouble fully expressing her thoughts, but her chronology is superior to one of America's great authors.

Many years ago, before I learned other ways to approach language deficiencies, I drilled speech anomalies to the point of killing any joy Pamela felt in sharing her thoughts. Now, rather than stop her in the middle of a narration, I patiently listen because I know that recitation, copywork, studied dictation, and living books are more respectful ways to address grammar and speech glitches. All I do in the context of a narration is rephrase what she said to matching closely what she said in more correct English.

In the video, I edited out the long pauses between Pamela's initial sentences. I am not the most patient person, so, during this exam, I am knitting socks to prevent myself from jumping in too soon. When Pamela finally ran out of things to say, I probed a little further through declarative language. Asking questions that are too specific with clear right or wrong answers box her into a corner. Making declarative comments gives her aphasia a little wiggle room. I was fairly certain Pamela remembered Medusa's snake hair, so I guided her to it through declarative language. I reworded myself to give her a couple of opportunities, and Pamela didn't catch my drift until I asked about what animal her hair was like. You can see by her body language that she is quite confident in this process and she does not feel pressured or frustrated.

I will close an excerpt from the final page of Giffords' book, written and read in her own words and voice: "It's frustrating, mentally hard, hard work." Fortunately, we have learned to find joy, hope, and faith in this journey toward language.

Gorgon's Head. They had. He had a pierce. They had sword. They had cut your head. They had a fighting with kill Medusa's head Medusa's head was wicked. They had a shoe. They fly away. They had a horse, had a wing. Was cut. Medusa's hair was cut. Alive. Snake. Die. Medusa's head turn to stone.

Do Golden Touch: King Midas had a little girl named Marygold. They turned into gold. They had a strangers. They had rose turn into a gold. Scroll turn into gold. They cannot read. The stuff breakfast turn into gold. They cannot eat. They feel sad. They count the money. Marygold turn into statues. Feel sad. They had the water. They get rid of the gold. Marygold turned back to normal.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Proper Care and Feeding of Worms

In the past few months, I have touched on our vermicomposting experience. I had blogged more posts on worms in my head, and now I will share them with you. Yeah, it's been busy.

Sequence of Events

Here is how the worms looked on the first day they arrived. You cannot see them but they are there.

Here is a photograph of them today.

Every once in a while, we pull off the top layer of bedding and study the worms. Pamela has made two entries in her nature notebook so far.

Worms are more low maintenance than I expected if you keep in mind a couple of tips. I keep them in the laundry room with the light on at all times. They have a habit of trying to escape before they become accustomed to their new surroundings. We occasionally have a small outbreak of fruit flies, which I deal with in a natural way: (1) put a thick layer of bedding on top of the food and (2) keep a dish of cider vinegar mixed with dish soap near the bin (the vinegar attracts them and the dish soap traps them). I feed them only once a week and left them unattended for ten days when we went to Kansas. I am not sure how long is too long. January is the earliest we can harvest castings, but I can tell you we are already seeing a solid amount of black gold for the garden.

Since Pamela has learned quite a bit about worms through first hand experience, I picked the topic of worms for her nature study exam. Exams in a Charlotte Mason style of education are stress-free. All Pamela needs to do is tell me what she knows about worms. A couple of times I follow up with questions designed to let her narrate what she knows but has not thought to share with me. She did a lovely job of narrating what she has learned about vermicomposting this term.

This video illustrates the nature of aphasia well. Sometimes, Pamela speaks in full clear sentences. At other times, single words pop in her head. One thing that has really opened up her confidence, even when semantics and syntax are lagging, is what I learned from Relationship Development Intervention: keep a slow pace and give her time to think, avoid the temptation to correct her all the time, rephrase what she says with no pressure for her to repeat, encourage nonverbal communication, etc. In fact, following these three tips in communicating with a person with autism can forever change their ability to communicate back.

I love the ending when she says, "Feel happy," and kisses me on my arm. How many teachers do you know get kissed after an exam?

The worm was wiggling. It had small head, and it's eating foods. Worms had a hole. Go in. Worm's head doesn't have holes. Holes on the box. We have bananas. Yummy! Box, dirt, poop. Poop look yucky! BROWN POOP! It has dirt yucky. It's pink line. No legs. Get ready for the food and box. Paper was ripped: the bags, papers, white paper, newspaper. They set up the home. They get the new worms from the mail. Feel happy.

Friday, December 09, 2011

101 Plus One for Good Luck

Around this time last year, I shared Pamela narrating a fairy tale in Spanish (Ricitos de Oro y los tres osos). We spent the fall listening to another fairy tale (Caperucita Roja). New readers to my blog may wonder why Pamela is learning Spanish when she is still working on English as a first language. My husband was born and raised in Latin America. Half of our extended family is fluent in English and Spanish, and we occasionally travel to El Salvador to visit them. More importantly, Pamela enjoys learning her father's language.

Back in 2010, I shared our plan to build an ear for Spanish. We teach Spanish completely orally through audio books while we study and point to pictures and sing folk songs. Last year's blog post explains our rationale, so I will not repeat it here. Because Steve is in Kansas, we found it hard to record series, so we are testing out a program for CLUSA that meets the criteria of focusing on audio and pictures in the early stages of picking up a second language. The two of us are making progress in hearing Spanish and speaking it a bit.

While we are focusing on receptive language, her expressive language is coming along, too. I assessed how her Spanish is coming along in several ways. I said words in Spanish and she pointed to pictures and I said words in Spanish and she told me what they meant in English. Pamela sang two folk songs that she learned this year ("El Coqui" and "Al Tambor"). She also narrated "Little Red Riding Hood" in Spanish while looking at pictures scanned and printed from the storybook (which I keep hidden to prevent her from seeing written words). Pamela correctly identified 102 words or phrases covered this term. She knows even more words from last year, so her understanding of Spanish is improving. She is doing so well, I think she will be ready for copywork and reading next year!
Vocabulary Words: la abuela, la abuelita, adiós, adónde, allí, amarillo, el amigo, el árbol, el autobús, el automóvil, auxilio, el avión, bebiendo, el bocado, bonita, el bosque, la cama, caminaba, la camisa, el camisón, cansado, cantar, la carne, la casa, cerró, comerte, comiendo, comió, el coqui, corría, la cuchara, la cuchillo, de, de bajo, despacio, el día, el diente, dijo, donde, dormido, en, enferma, enorme, está , la flor, fuera, las gafas, el gorro, grande, guapo, la hacha, hasta la vista, el huevo, el lápiz, la leche, el leñador, el lobo, malo, la mamá, la mano, la mantequilla, la manzana, el médico, la mesa, morado, muy bien, el nariz, la niña, el niño, nunca, el ojo, olerte, la oreja, el pan, pasa, pequeño, la piedra, el plato, el pollo, por favor, la puerta, qué asco, quién es, rico, rojo, la señora, la silla, sobre, socorro, soy yo, el tambor, la taza, el tazón, el tenedor, tengo hambre, tengo sueño, el vaso, a ver, verte, vivan, y, la zanahoria
Spanish Folk Songs

When you watch the video of Pamela, you might think she is reading. She is not. She is looking at pictures of the story and narrating what she recalls. I love how Pamela references me by turning to look at me face-to-face when she needs help with a word. She did this three times for orejas, nariz, and leñador. Her narration is a combination of memorized script but also her original wording. Many times in her narration, she uses different words not originally in the book.

"Little Red Riding Hood"

Caperucita Roja: Su mamá. She’s so bonita. Un día su mamá Caperucita Roja, “Capericita Roja, abuelita enferma. Por favor, llévale cesta.” “Muy bien, mamá,” dijo Caperucito. Caperucita Roja, cuando de repente salió un lobo detrás árbol. “¿Caperucita Roja, adónde vas?” “Mi abuelita, alli.” “Adiós, Caperucita Roja. Hasta la vista.” “Adiós, Señor Lobo.” Caperucita Roja caminaba despacio, muy despacio bosque. “Una flor bonita. ¡Flor, qué bonita!” Y el lobo corría y corría. Caperucita Roja caminaba despacio, muy despacio. “Bonita flor. ¡Qué bonita!” Y el lobo corría, corría. Caperucita Roja caminaba despacio. Esta bien bosque. “Bonita. ¡Qué bonita!” Wolf corría, corría. El lobo tan, tan. “¿Quién es?” dijo abuelita. “Soy yo, Caperucita Roja.” “Pasa, pasa, querida.” Lobo comió se. Y lobo. “¡Yuck! No me gustó abuelita. Tengo hambre... Caperucita Roja.” Lobo camisón, gorro, gafas. “¡Qué guapo!” Caperucita Roja despacio. “Flor enorme. ¡Qué bonita!” Caperucita Roja tan, tan. “¿Quién es?” dijo lobo. “Soy yo, Caperucita Roja,” dijo Caperucita. “¡Abuelita, qué ojos!” Dijo lobo. “Abuelita, abuelita ¡qué tienes más!”—What’s nose?“ Nariz, nariz más grande. Abuelita, abuelita ¡qué tienes más!”—What’s ears means? “Orejas. Abuelita, abuelita dientes los.” Y el lobo comió Caperucita. “¡Muy rica! ¡Una cestita! ¡Leche! No me gusta leche. ¡Fuera! A ver... ¡mantequilla! No me gusta mantequilla. El pan.” Lobo. Caperucita Roja. “¡Qué sueño tengo! ¡Lleno estoy!” Dormido. Poco después lobo—Woodcutter means? Y leñador see lobo. “¡Auxilio! ¡Socorro!” Un leñador say, “Crash!” Un leñador, Caperucita Roja y abuelita. Caperucita Roja y abuelita más y más. El lobo is done. !Ohhhhhh! And lobo nunca más volvió. Caperucita Roja dijo y abuela, “¡Muy rica!”
Little Red Riding Hood: Her mother is so pretty. One day, her mother to Little Red Riding Home. One day, her mother Little Red Riding Hood, “Little Red Riding Hood, grandmother sick. Please take basket.” “Yes, Mom,” said Little Riding Hood. Little Red Riding Hood, when suddenly came a bad wolf from behind a tree. “Little Red Riding Hood, where are you going?” “My grandmother, over there.” “Good-bye, Little Red Riding Hood. See you soon.” “Good-bye, Mr. Wolf.” Little Red Riding Hood walked slowly, very slowly woods. “A pretty flower. Flower, how pretty!” And the wolf ran and ran. Little Red Riding Hood walked slowly, very slowly. “Pretty flower. How pretty!” And the wolf ran, ran. Little Red Riding Hood walked slowly. It is good woods. “Pretty. How pretty!” Wolf ran, ran. The lobo knock, knock. “Who is it?” said grandmother. “It’s Little Red Riding Hood.” “Come in, come in, dear.” Wolf eats her. And wolf. “Yuck! I don’t like grandmother. I’m hungry... Little Red Riding Hood.” Wolf nightgown, cap, glasses. Little Red Riding Hood slowly. “Large flower. How pretty!” Little Red Riding Hood knock, knock. “Who is it?” said wolf. “It’s Little Red Riding Hood,” said Little Riding Hood. Said wolf. “Grandma, grandma, what you have big!”—What’s nose? “Nose, very big nose. Grandma, grandma what you have big!”—What’s ears means? “Ears. Grandma, grandma the teeth.” And the wolf ate Little Riding Hood. “Very tasty! A little basket! Milk! I don’t like milk. Get out! Let’s see... butter! I don’t like butter! The bread.” Wolf. Little Red Riding Hood. “I’m sleepy! I’m full.” He slept. A little later wolf—Woodcutter means? And woodcutter see wolf. “Help! Help!” A woodcutter say, “Crash!” A woodcutter, Little Red Riding Hood, and grandma. LIttle Red Riding Hood and grandma more and more. The wolf is done. “!Ohhhhhh!” And wolf never came back. Little Red Riding Hood said and Grandma, “¡Very tasty!”

Monday, December 05, 2011

A Broad Range of Communication

Communication is more than text. We have been doing exams, which are narrations of what Pamela learned in Term 1. I have been recording the exams so I can write a transcript of them. We made it all the way through Act III, Scene I of Shakespeare's play "Julius Caesar"—yes, we are really reading the entire play, unabridged, bits at a time, after watching a BBC recording of the passage. Reading just the transcript only tells you the words she used and what she remembered to share. Since Pamela struggles with aphasia, you might not be impressed by what she had to say.

He is marching: Caesar. Caesar! Caesar! Caesar! They saw Brutus. They saw a fortuneteller. Ides of March. Beware of the Ides of March. They had a fortuneteller because they had a rain. Caesar was sick because party. Brutus whack Caesar. Caesar death. They had Mark Antony. Mark Antony was angry. They are having a funeral.

There are many things you cannot tell from pure text. Does Pamela enjoy reading Shakespeare, or is it a deadly dull droning of meaningless words for her? Would she be able to act out any of the play? Does the story affect her emotions? Since Pamela said so little about over two acts of a five-act play, should I give up on the bard? Why give a person with autism a task that befuddles high schoolers who speak English and understand emotion perfectly well?

Now try reading the text with a description of Pamela's nonverbal communication. Clearly, she could act out some scenes in the play for Pamela was quite active even though she sat during her narration. Her emotions change appropriately throughout the narration. Her shifts of attention to me reveals a high level of comfort with the material.
He is marching: Caesar. [Turns her head to me abruptly. Almost like a soldier. Chants and pumps fist.] Caesar! Caesar! Caesar! [Giggles and recovers her composure.] They saw Brutus. [Gazes at me.] They saw a fortuneteller. [Laughs. Turns hand as if doing an aside.] Ides of March. [Looks to the camera. Imitates the tone of the fortuneteller in the BBC play.] Beware of the Ides of March. They had a fortuneteller because they had a rain. [Looks at me again.] Caesar was sick because party. [Leans head back. Strikes her chest.] Brutus whack Caesar. [Feigns death.] Caesar death. [Turns head to think. Looks at me again.] They had Mark Antony. [Quickens pace of speech.] Mark Antony was angry. [Acts angry and covers face.] They are having a funeral.

You still do not have a clear picture of how the play captures Pamela's imagination until you see how she narrates it. As you watch Pamela narrate, keep in mind, as my friend Di points out in her presentation on communication,
Children with ASD found to experience particular difficulty with:
  • gaze shifts,
  • shared positive affect,
  • joint attention,
  • using a range of communication means and functions,
  • use of gestures/non-verbal's,
  • social affective signaling and
  • imitation.

Relationship Development Intervention helped me become a better guide to Pamela so that she could broaden her ability to communicate more effectively (among other things). By decreasing my verbal communication, I gave Pamela the chance to be an equal and competent partner. By increasing my nonverbal communication, Pamela learned to understand it and communicate nonverbally herself. By slowing down and feeling comfortable with long pauses, I gave her time to process what I communicated and think through her own response. (Check out Di's presentation for more specifics on this.)

I edited out my part in setting up and keeping the narration going. My role was completely opposite to what is usually recommended for teaching autistic children to speak.
  • I began with a very open-ended question: "What do you know about the play Julius Caesar by Shakespeare?"
  • I did not interrupt her to correct grammatical errors.
  • I gazed at her attentively, smiled (because I truly enjoyed watching her narrate), and affirmed her with nods.
  • I did not hit her with a bunch of nit-picky questions that would cause her to falter.

The whole point of narration is to share what you know, which comes instinctively to most of us anyway. If you are a bit foggy on this effective, quick, and inexpensive way to assess children, check out this classic article: We Narrate and Then We Know.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"I Need to Be Inspired"

Every Wednesday afternoon, I get to enjoy "the delightful commerce of equal minds" with first through third graders in our church afterschool program. In a blogpost for ChildLightUSA last summer, I described how children outside a Mason paradigm can learn to embrace the science of relations. In that post, I voiced a hope that we could transition to reading from the Bible, line by line, so that they could directly connect to God through His word. In September, we started the first verse of Mark's Gospel and, next week, we will finish the fifth chapter of Mark. Every Wednesday, I leave inspired by watching children read passages straight from the New Testament and ask questions like "Why did Jesus send the spirits into the pigs?" "How could Jesus sleep through a storm?" "Why do the lawyers want to kill Jesus? He's healing people!" "Why did Jesus tell the leper he couldn't talk about how he was healed?"

I love their questions and often give them time to try to answer them on their own. Sometimes, I have no answer and we continue to ponder from week to week. Their insight stuns me.

To give them a sense of place in which Jesus ministered, I drew a map and add new places to it when we read about them. One day, the children asked how the Dead Sea got its name. The next week I showed them pictures of people floating in it, and we applied trial and error to figure out how many tablespoons of salt would make a boiled egg float in water. When we read about the fishermen, I found pictures of the first century A.D. fishing boat revealed during a drought near the Sea of Galilee in 1986. When we read about the healing of the paralyzed man in Peter's house, I showed them pictures of the archealogical digs in Capernaum.

We read from a verse-by-verse translation designed for children with its clear language and storyboarded illustrations. I encourage curiosity by weaving it into our class activity. The picture of the parable of the new wine in new wineskins grossed them out. "Why are those people stepping on grapes?" I researched winemaking and answered their questions the following week. We explored a cousin of the winemaking yeast (Baker's yeast), so they could see the temperature and food needs of yeast. The children marveled at the bubbles released once we properly activated the yeast, and one little girl commented, "That smell reminds me of dance class!" One little boy narrated to his mother what one should and should not do with yeast when she came to pick him up. The following week, we made bread and some children kneaded for the first time in their lives. One little girl told me, "I asked my mother if I can have some pet yeast." Before they left that day, I showed them how much it had risen. I froze the dough and the week after that they made rolls.

Since I avoid worksheets and contrived activities explicitly connected to the lesson, I try to help them learn about God through His world. One week I brought my bird for the children to study and draw. Another week I brought a dead sad underwing moth and a dead swallowtail. Sometimes, the children draw what I have planned, but at other times they draw what inspires them. One boy brought in a book about Mozart (one of those twaddly series books) and I happened to have my classical CDs with me. I played the overture to the Magic Flute as well as other music by "Wolfie." He ended up drawing his own magic flute that day. I always have some yarn on hand to teach anyone interested finger-knitting. One of the teenagers who volunteers to help the children with their homework asked to learn. The following Sunday, my son came home from church wearing a hot pink scarf made by finger-knitting three scarves and braiding them together.

One child in particular excels in the "friction of wills." Rather than forcing total compliance, we offer several options: do the activity or something with the materials on hand, help a classmate, or quietly watch. We have learned that this child will seem reluctant at first and, when allowed to make the choice to join us, will participate with great gusto. One day, our church secretary loaned me some mounted insects she had purchased from Ben the Butterfly Guy. Ben, who lives in Peru, pays friends and families to gather dead butterflies for him to sell. By making butterflies an economic resource, people have the incentive to care for the eco-system that sustains them. I knew my class would love observing and drawing these ginormous insects!

As usual, our strong-willed student was adamant about wanting to do homework to maximize playtime. We stuck to the game plan we always use: do, help, or watch. One by one, I pulled out an insect and walked around the room for each student to get a close look. Then, I set them in different spots around the table so they could get out materials (watercolor or markers) and draw or paint whateve caught their eye. At the sight of the pink-winged grasshopper, the eyes of our headstrong kiddo nearly popped. We heard "I have to draw that grasshopper" and twenty minutes of steady concentration yielded a colorful and accurate drawing. The child was quite pleased with the results and could not wait to show the family.

Later, we gently chided the child. "Look at you! You wanted to do homework and look how much you enjoyed drawing your grasshopper." The child smiled and talked about all the details that generated the most interest and thoughtfully concluded, "I need to be inspired."

What a revelation and insight into the mind!

Had we turned the "friction of wills" into a "battle of wills" our friend might have never made such important self-discovery. We would have missed the chance to learn how best to appeal to our friend's mind with inspiration rather than harassment. What an important lesson on personhood for us all!
We as teachers depreciate ourselves and our office; we do not realise that in the nature of things the teacher has a prophetic power of appeal and inspiration, that his part is not the weariful task of spoon-feeding with pap-meat, but the delightful commerce of equal minds where his is the part of guide, philosopher and friend. The friction of wills which makes school work harassing ceases to a surprising degree when we deal with the children, mind to mind, through the medium of knowledge. (Pages 237-238)

Pictures of the Critters:
Giant Brown Grasshopper (Tropidacris dux)

Pink-winged Butterfly (Lophacris cristata)

Owl Eyes Butterfly (Caligo memnon)

Pamela's Nature Notebook Entries:

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Avoiding a Culture of Overload

"More is better" thinking is everywhere. When making calls to set up wireless Internet at Steve's apartment, I stunned sales peeps by declining bundles. How could anyone turn down all those channels at such low prices? They laughed when I suggested calling me back when they offer the few channels that I really want for a lot less.

It is so hard to avoid "More is better" thinking. We stuff ourselves on Thanksgiving and follow it up shopping until we drop on Black Friday. Our textbooks are getting heavier and curriculum, more extensive because every topic a student could possible learn must be covered during the K-12 years. We even feel guilty if we do not hit every single ride, attraction, or exhibit when on vacation or touring a museum.

That is why the "more is less" thinking behind a Charlotte Mason philosophy of education is so liberating.

Yesterday was Black Friday. Except for books, I am neither browser or shopper. When I buy clothes, I go in like a SEAL team. I know my mission, and I get in and out of the store as fast as humanly possible. Black Friday doesn't tempt me in the least. So, how did Pamela, Steve, and I spend the day? We spent our Black Friday bucks on lunch at an authentic Thai food restaurant, two McCoffees, parking and a donation at an art museum, four postcards, notecards, a can of whole cranberry sauce, and a can of fruit cocktail. We even applied "more is less" thinking at the museum, skipping outdoor sculptures and the exhibits upstairs.

So, how does one avoid overload at a museum in which it just wouldn't feel right if one didn't hit each and every room? We focused on the science of relations, or the relationships that we already have with items in the gallery. I scouted the website for artists we have already studied through picture study. Our top priority was to see the works of people we know well (Monet and Millet). We strolled from room to room until we found three paintings by the former and one by the latter: Boulevard des Capucines, View of Argenteuil—Snow, Mill at Limetz, and Waiting. Pamela's favorite was Monet's Boulevard des Capucines, but mine was Millet's Waiting. I loved the story behind Waiting, illustrated by Tobit's blind father with his walking stick and his mother Anna, eagerly waiting for their son. I admired the details of rural life: a beautiful sky, the perching crows, the sheep poking their heads out of the pen, etc. I kept looking at the ginger cat, wondering what was causing it to hiss and arch its back. Will we ever learn the source of the cat's discomfort?

As Pamela has not been formally introduced to van Gogh, our artist for the next term, I opted for a picture study in reverse. I described to her the picture of interest (Olive Orchard) and let her find it from all the ones in the room. I managed to record this digitally and I love how carefully Pamela listens and looks for the painting I'm narrating. After she spotted it, we sat on a bench and enjoyed the view.

This picture of Pamela cracks me up for it reminds me of Rodin's The Thinker. And, whose exhibition do you think is visiting Kansas City? Rodin! One Facebook friend asked if Pamela's mirror neurons kicked in, but I couldn't recall seeing The Thinker. But, indeed, it was there and somehow we missed it!

"True painting is only an image of the perfection of God, a shadow of the pencil with which he paints, a melody, a striving after harmony." Michelangelo

Sunday, November 13, 2011


This morning started out like any other Sunday morning. Pamela and I headed to Sunday school class with a devotional about the hymn Count Your Blessings printed out. Our class has spent the summer studying hymns, their history, their meaning, and their impact on the lives of people. The author of this hymn was a retail and insurance salesman and, if he had time to compose 5,000 gospel songs, he probably had many down cycles in his work life. In the class discussion, I brought up how people can be going through similar circumstances with very different outlooks on life. I gave the example of autism and how some families become bitter and angry while others find blessings in disguise. What helps me do the latter is to keep my focus on God, not circumstances.

Right now, Steve is working in Kansas, so we do not get to spend as much time with him as we would like. His absence has unfolded a disguised blessing for us. While I am in the choir room practicing and sitting with the choir until the sermon begins, Pamela sits in the pew alone. If Steve were there, his careful vigilance would prevent her from doing something distracting and the people around her would miss the joy she brings to the service. Here are the blessings I am counting today:
  • Before the service began, one of the elders gave Pamela a happy meal toy. He knows she is on a special diet, so he collects toys to give to her from time to time. She smiled and told him, "That's a good one!"
  • She sat in the same pew as our associate pastor's family. Today, his wife was caring for their four-year-old granddaughter. Pamela sat next to the girl, sweetly held her hand, and kissed it. When asked about the little girl at lunch, Pamela told me, "We're friends."
  • She exuberantly and loudly recited "The Lord's Prayer." There was a time when reciting in unison with a large group was impossible because Pamela found it difficult to time her actions with others. Today, she was just a hair's breadth behind everyone else, which meant I heard her from the choir. After everyone said, "Amen," she bellowed, "AMEN!" So many people came to me after the service to share how inspiring they find her recitation. "If only we all could recite like we really mean it."
  • With Steve gone, Pamela has taken the responsibility of turning in our offering envelop. Pamela was so excited she stood up as soon as the deacons headed down the aisle, got tired of waiting, sat down, and then stood up again. "If only we all could give with such joy."
What strikes me most is not only the small miracles I see in Pamela, but it how people respond to her. I have read stories that break my heart about how poorly God's people treat families with special needs. Our kids can be awkward. Their behaviors disrupt the well-oiled machine of church ritual. They remind us that God doesn't always heal the way we want.

My church family really does get Ephesians 3:17-18, which our pastor quoted in his sermon today. They delight in sharing sweet moments with Pamela and telling me about them later. They see the blessings in what Pamela does, not the distractions. The "wide and long and his and deep" love of Christ pours out of their hearts when they see her doing something atypical.

I will not deny that sometimes life with autism is difficult beyond belief. On days like that, blessings are next to impossible to see. Just as life inspires the great truths in hymns of yesteryear, the ups and downs of life inspire hymns being written today. If you are having one of those days, I encourage you to warm yourself with your favorite hot beverage and read the story behind the song, Blessings. Singer-songwriter Laura Story may not know autism but she knows how to see blessings in the most difficult of circumstances.
Ephesians 3:17-18 And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Images of Delight

Charlotte Mason visualized the art training of young children along two lines: the ability to express himself and the ability to appreciate. "His appreciation should be well in advance of his power to express what he sees or imagines" (page 307).  Through picture study, Pamela learns to appreciate the work of master artists by observing their masterpieces carefully and describing each work in her own words. We focus on one artist at a time, studying their pictures and reading of their lives when we can find a living book. Pamela is already making connections of her own about art, that the style of Millet and Monet look similar and that painting really became alive with da Vinci as the Middle Ages waned.

Pamela is also learning to express herself through art, and watercolor classes with a wonderful teacher are helping Pamela develop a lovely sense of style and color. On Sunday, the local artisans held an open house and reception to meet all of the artists and their students. They were kind enough to display the artwork of students to encourage people interested, but perhaps hesitant about taking classes. As she isn't quite the conversationalist, we popped in for about 45 minutes. We checked out all the artwork, took pictures of her with her own display, and greeted some of the artists. Then, she sat in her favorite spot (the yellow couch) where she takes little breaks during class.

I overheard one artist describe the most important aspect of drawing: the ability to see, truly see an object, which is exactly what we try to do in a Mason philosophy of education:
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)
Our friends are very kind and encouraging about the scans of Pamela's watercolors that I post on Facebook. The other artists were sweet to Pamela too, even though she didn't quite know how to work a crowd. After we made an early exit as planned, a potter from Edisto toured the gallery. She loved Pamela's framed turtle enough to ask about buying. Wow! A real person who is not a friend thought that highly of her painting.

These classes have been indispensable. Pamela and I have learned so much about watercolor, drawing, and technical elements of art. She started in the spring of 2010 and took a year hiatus when her teacher gave birth to her third child. She jumped right back into classes as soon as they started up again. Here are two monochromatic landscapes; she painted the before in 2010 and the after in 2011. These two watercolors show clearly how much more refined Pamela has become in her painting and her style.

Before (Spring 2010)

After (Fall 2011)

Pamela at Her Display

The Watercolors of Classmates

Watercolor Pieces in Chronological Order

Studies - Sometimes, before starting a project, Pamela's teacher will have the class do a study that improves their ability to see and express what they see. At the beginning of the year, they tried out different kinds of brush strokes. The color value strips prepared Pamela to do the shading and shadows of the pink cake. The warm/cool colors were for the apple: the warm colors for the fruit and the cool colors for shading and shadows. The fronds taught us all lessons on what not to do for the palmetto tree. The bold green with salt sprinkles helped her see the effects of salt for the monochromatic landscape. The color star showed complementary colors for her pumpkin.

This is the background of the palmetto tree. The cloud studies she did in the first term of the school year have paid off. Pamela painted this background confidently and quickly.

Friday, November 04, 2011


Pamela never, I mean NEVER, ceases to amaze me. She read this passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s retelling of King Midas and the golden touch in The Wonder-Book for Boys and Girls.
He took up a book from the table. At his first touch, it assumed the appearance of such a splendidly bound and gilt-edged volume as one often meets with, nowadays; but, on running his fingers through the leaves, behold! it was a bundle of thin golden plates, in which all the wisdom of the book had grown illegible.
When she narrated it, Pamela corrected his anachronistic description of the greedy monarch turning a book into gold by substituting the word scroll for book. She knew very well that these stories date back to ancient Greece, which are in B.C. times as she calls them, and that people read from scrolls, not books!

For the past two weeks, she has asked me to pick books randomly, out of chronological order. She turned it into a game by covering her eyes with her hand and asking me to make a sound to give her a clue. When I made the sound, she giggled and screamed with delight. All that changed yesterday for Pamela went back to asking for books in chronological order with a slight refinement of her old system. She inserted a hymn about Jesus between the readings on Caesar andAlfred the Great, followed by a reading set in the 11th century and music by a Baroque composer.

Then, Pamela really amazed me. Yesterday, she made four fascinating time charts in her free time. Starting at 10,000 B.C., she broke up time into thousand year chunks. You can tell what two persons and what great book have impressed Pamela. Once she hit A.D. times, Pamela shifted to century blocks. She shifted to decades once she hit the twentieth century. You can see Pamela's keen eye for the development of her favorite kind of technology. I chuckled when I saw the final block: 2010 - ???? AD.

Did I mention she did this in her free time? The best feedback on how homeschooling is going happens when you aren't homeschooling!

Some find it hard to believe that children can learn to put people and events in proper order when we have several threads of history going at once. In her book addressing children between the ages of six and nine, Mason recommended using a timeline, which we did when our children were younger, or a table of centuries. While we have never done a table of centuries, what Pamela did today looks a great deal like what is illustrated in an article on teaching chronology. I love that Pamela's own brainchild dovetails so nicely with our philosophy of education!

But, even better than that, Pamela continues to make progress in her social thinking:

On Halloween, we delivered meals on wheels in the pouring rain. It was wet and miserable, and Pamela was recovering from a mild cold. A few hours before sunset, Pamela told me to go to Walmart to get candy. Then, she promised she was taking her babies trick-or-treating in 2012.

On Tuesday, our study group was meeting. One of the moms was out in the hall, holding her baby. Pamela smiled and watched them. Then, she walked over to them and held the baby's hand. My friend knew I had brought one of Pamela's babies to show everyone the scarf she had fingerknitted, so the mom asked, "Where's your baby?" Pamela ran off, went to my box of stuff, grabbed her baby, ran back to my friend, and showed off her baby.

And, if that wasn't enough, on Wednesday, I was teaching at our church's afterschool program. Pamela looked in the window of the door to the classroom and all the kids said, "There's Pamela!" She walked into the room, waved her hands, and said, "Hi, kids!" She stuck around long enough for several to tell her their names before she bolted. Fifteen minutes later, one of the boys struck up a conversation with her while he was on his way to the restroom. Someone else was escorting him, so I have no idea what was said. However, there were several exchanges back and forth.

Of course, face blindness (not being able to recognize people by faces, especially if they are in the "wrong" place) did rear its ugly head too. After watercolor class on Thursday, we bumped into one of the ladies from the class in the checkout line at Walmart. We started chatting and, when Pamela came up to us, I asked Pamela, "Do you remember Mrs. X? We just saw her." Pamela looked puzzled and asked, "Is it church? Meals on wheels?"

Oh, well, you can't win all the time!

P.S. About an hour ago (in her free time),  Pamela said, "11th century is Middle Ages. What about 1500?" So, I explained to her that when it was changing to the Reformation and Renaissance. She added, "Yes, and painting!"