Sunday, December 30, 2012

"I Have Never Let School Interfere with My Education"

We are not big on pricey Christmas gifts. Steve gave me a cover for my Nook with the most perfect quote, and I plan to buy a camera since I finally killed my last one. I gave Steve his own boxed set of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for the ones the kids and I read are worn out. While he read The Hobbit in college, he never got into three books that followed. Not even the Peter Jackson movies inspired him until he saw The Hobbit in the theater. He began to see enough connections between Bilbo's adventures and those of Frodo that LOTR finally caught his attention. We spent the next few evenings watching a marathon of special extended edition DVDs, and Steve now appreciates my wealth of trivial knowledge about Middle Earth. He just asked me if you can order lembas bread on e-Bay. If you don't know what that is—well, nevermind....

Mark Twain never spoke truer words when he said, "I have never let school interfere with my education." In this day of the state standards, I suspect students will find it even harder to get an education. I told my son about the requirement that only thirty percent of material read by high school seniors will be literary: everything else is supposed to be "informational texts." His knee-jerk reaction was, "They don't want us to think!" The Washington Post opinion page summarizes my concerns well,
The major problem with the new Common Core State Standards is that they further diminish something that is greatly undermined from the moment we enter school: our creativity.

School essentially limits innovation. The best way to succeed in school is to repeat exactly what the teacher says. But the most effective way to express one’s creativity in school has always been through the reading of fiction.

Through novels, we can let our imaginations run wild, assign meaning to complex passages and have a chance to attack certain situations and moral dilemmas without living them. Reading fiction is an active, involved process.
Information is easily standardized and testable. It is static, predictable, and consistent. We can break information down into pieces that are right or wrong. Either you know a given factoid or you don't. We can put it into multiple guess format for scanners to score. Students have a hard time cajoling a few points from the teacher because information is so cut and dry.

While so many in the autism world seek to pump our kids full of information, my aim is to see what Pamela does with it. Although language is flowing more readily now, Pamela has such a hard time expressing what she thinks. I often find myself in the role of observer, pondering what she does and says to elicit what she knows and understands.

Scene I. A conversation. Tammy checking Facebook. Pamela watching television.

Me: Wow!
Pamela: What?
Me: Stormin' Norman is dead.
Pamela: Is he an actor?
Me: No, he was a general.

We were both together, but doing separate things. When I left out vital information, Pamela grew curious. When I shared the news about Norman Schwarzkopf, Pamela assumed he was an actor. In the past, she has asked me about famous people who died. They are usually actors or musicians. Her knowledge of the latter is wider, so she assumed he was an actor. Even more important, Pamela took an active role in seeking out information. Instead of passively receiving information, she searches for it herself.

Scene II. The four of us are at the movie theater watching terrible trailers. The green preview screen appeared for an R-rated movie.

Pamela: I cover my eyes! [Puts her hands to her face.]

Pamela did not have to tell us what she was doing. In fact, we probably would not have even noticed had she remained silent. She wanted to share her thoughts with us. Pamela knows that R-rated movies are recommended for people over seventeen. Although we avoid those movies for the most part, we have never made any "rules" about it. She has probably figured this out based on her own research. She also has an accurate sense of her age. She sees herself as a big girl because she does not have many interest in common with her peers. She resists the idea of having to buy adult movie tickets. She enjoys having dolls and was quite thrilled that Queen Victoria had a large doll collection as well as Pamela's great grandmother. She even tells people, "I'm not [in a] grade. I'm Charlotte Mason." She seeks reassurance that she is not in elementary, middle, or high school. Now that her brother attends college, she declares she is not in college either. She has a strong sense of her true emotional age.

Scene III. We are enjoying a two-week vacation from school.

Pamela: I can't wait for the last week!
Me: It's almost time for exams.
Pamela: Term finale!
Me: We will say farewell to some books.
Pamela: Happy ending!

Pamela enjoys how we learn together. Unlike most styles of education, we spend a long time on some books. We would rather spend two years reading two years reading Oliver Twist together than zip through something abridged over a term. The end of a term means the beginning of new books. We are finally closing the door to the Civil War and opening the one leading to World War I. Pamela is intrigued to enter a new phase of history through our literary readings. She created her own analogy to television shows: a season has a finale and, therefore, her term has a finale as well: exam week! She finds our exams delightful because we record her telling everything she knows about what we read. She does not feel pressured because we avoid impertinent "gotcha" questions that focus only on information. Pamela is getting clever in choosing the right words to express her thoughts and she is eager to transition to make friends in far away lands of another time.

I think Mark Twain would approve.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

RIP, Lovely Loa!

When Amy Cameron at Pathways Treatment Center contacted me about an interview for Pro-Active Development, she asked me to explain how I became such an empowered parent. Her question caused me to grapple with the idea of the "warrior mom", which is not the path I chose. Although I spent my childhood living on one naval base after another and spent fourteen years as an officer in the U. S. Navy, I bristled at the idea of having to fight for services, argue with insurance companies, and debate the doctors. I did not want my relationship with Pamela to be tainted by always having to be at war with something or someone. Without carefully thinking it through, I typically took the path of researching information and quietly applying it to our life as a family. That process made me a mindful mom.

Part of being a mindful mom is to sow seeds that may not be reaped for a long time. Back in 2007, when my brother's dog died, I began to consider how we would handle to death of our beloved pets, in particularly the lovely Loa. While one dog ran off and we had to give away another due to a move, we had never had a pet die on us at that point (except for nameless fish). When our parakeet Lily died in 2008, we chickened out: Steve came home with a new parakeet and then we broke the news. I even mentioned in the blog post how we had spotlighted that moment because we would eventually have to face the death of Loa. At the time, she was still in good health except for hypothyroidism which brought on arthritis more quickly and caused us to restrict her food intake. This girl would balloon if fed according to directions on the dog food bag. Later that year, Loa started developing a horrible skin condition which eventually led us to put her on Limited Ingredient Diets dogfood. We had to make a fifty-minute round trip just to buy her special food, which also happened to be gluten-free, casein-free, but she was worth it.

Elderly Loa had slowed down considerably a year later. While she had always been docile, we never trusted Pamela with her in case a squirrel caught her attention. The dog's movements had become so stiff that even Pamela could walk her. The signs of aging had become more and more clear in the past year. Loa's joints swelled, and she had to hurl her front legs when she walked. Her coat became more gray and sparse around her legs and tail. On Steve's visit early last November, he noticed how much weight she had lost. I tried fattening her up with some coconut oil and increased her daily allotment. Before Thanksgiving, she had a nasty allergic reaction to anti-flea medication. She appeared paralyzed but was too alert for it to have been a stroke. She recovered some of her leg function and could walk very slowly. When the steroids wore off, her back legs went cold and she couldn't hold her own weight.

Off and on in the past year, we have made little comments in front of Pamela about Loa getting old. Every single time, we were met with screeching and loud protests, "Loa's not old! She's YOUNG!!!!!!" We persisted in bringing up the topic calmly to probe her reaction. Oddly, when Pamela saw the decline herself, she made comments like "Loa is floppy." Then, I added something to her comment. "She can't run outside anymore." Pamela watched me prop her up to drink. She saw that Loa kept having accidents. She could not deny that Loa was not only old, but dying. Pamela stopped freaking out when we talked about this painful topic. I think she realized that Loa was not living life to the fullest. She was no longer the dog the kids could use as a pillow for she yelped, even when treated gently.

In that last week, we had to broach the next issue. Having two households, eleven-hundred miles apart, makes pets an inconvenience. We always have to finagle someone into watching the bird and to kennel the dogs. This time we would not buy a replacement pet. At first, Pamela freaked out about that, too. I explained why and my reasoning must have made sense to her. She negotiated and asked for a toy dog instead, and I gladly agreed.

Two weeks ago, we said our good-byes to Loa and I took her to our vet (who, by the way, was absolutely wonderful to us). Pamela remained quite calm and has yet to buy the toy dog. She has been reading the blogpost about Lily to reassure herself (yes, she reads my blog--"Hi, Pamela!"). Steve and I were much more emotional about it than Pamela, and my tears are far more cleansing than Pamela's meltdowns.

And, in God's perfect timing, Loa died on the day of one of our walks in the swamp with its ghostly pines. We just "happened" to be reading poetry by Walt Whitman, who captured the mood of that day so well. We are near the end of a term, which means saying good-bye to a pile of books, and reading of the death of beloved companions like Louis Braille and Alfred the Great. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the morning we let our sweet old dog breathe her last, a lost soul far to the north was heading out to commit an unthinkable act to our nation's youngest and bravest.

And, of course, it was a season rich in carols for the One who was born simply to die...

Then with the knowledge of death
As walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close
Walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle as with companions,
And as holding the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding
Receiving night that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water,
The path by the swamp in the dimness,
To the solemn shadowy cedars
And ghostly pines so still.

And the singer so shy to the rest received me,
The gray-brown bird I know
Received us comrades three,
And he sang the carol of death,
And a verse for him I love.

From deep secluded recesses,
From the fragrant cedars
And the ghostly pines so still,
Came the carol of the bird.

And the charm of the carol rapt me
As I held as if by their hands
My comrades in the night,
And the voice of my spirit
Tallied the song of the bird.

Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world,
Serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Lessons from a Snail: Shut Up and Teach

I've been meaning to blog this since October. In September, Pamela and I headed out to the yard to study a dogwood bud. As most flowers bud in Spring, I thought Pamela might enjoy nature's little anomaly. We were delighted to find a garden snail clinging to a dogwood leaf! Comstock's Handbook of Nature Study suggested we build a little snailery. Since I didn't know how long our new pet would stay, I added some cuttlebone which I had on hand for our bird.

The Comstock book has some wonderful ideas for observing our snail. We watched it eat fruit; we watched it walk—or really glide—on one foot. We saw it climb the side of the glass jar and even cling upside down to a clear glass bowl. We studied the eyes and watched its reaction when we slightly touched one of the eyes. We did the same with the feelers. We saw the snail in the early stages of drying up when we did not offer quite enough water. We even set it on its side and watched the snail right itself. Snails have much in common with turtles: they move slowly enough for Pamela to process and keep up!

Since I'm always looking for something to show the kids in our church afterschool program, I decided to bring our pet snail for nature study after our Bible lesson. The children who have been in my class for the past few years weren't a bit surprised to learn I had a pet snail. The new kids were shocked and one cried out, "You have a BUG for a PET?"

The first thing we did was to gather around a large glass bowl. We simply watched the snail glide across the bottom of the bowl. I didn't do much teaching for the snail taught the children simply by doing what snails do best: move slowly. The students began to have little side conversations and, in essence, they were teaching nearly everything I would have said:

"Snails sure are slow!"

"I think it's opening its mouth!"

"What are those things?"

"Those are its eyes. Snails have alien eyes."

"Look at how it glides!"

"Do you think it can fit back in its shell?"

"Well, the shell is its house."

I didn't need to take an active role as the teacher for the children were doing all of the work––they were observing, thinking, asking, and answering. One turned to me and said, "Mrs. Tammy, I think it has another set of eyes on the bottom." So, I supplied the vocabulary word he needed, "Those are feelers. They are like fingers that touch everything."

Then, I turned the snail on its side, and the children watched it right itself. They were so enthralled that they asked me to do it one more time! Turning the snail on its side revealed the foot, which lead to more conversation.

"How many feet does it have?"

"A million?"


"I think it's one. Look at how it curls up its foot."

After this, we handed out art supplies and children depicted the snail: watercolors, markers, and crayons. The boy who knew the most about snails was not interested in illustrating it. The snail inspired him to draw a diamond-backed rattler. He is the same person who said he could not draw three years ago!

While they were working on their art, I turned on Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. One child sighed and said, "Miss Tammy, I wish I could live with you for a week." That comment was sweet, but convicting. My role as teacher is not to be the mediator between the child and the world. My role is to lay out the materials and ideas and see what they do with them. Am I the showman to the universe or the one encouraging them to lay hold of interests when they leave church?
Our error is to suppose that we must act as his showman to the universe, and that there is no community between child and universe except such as we choose to set up.

Interests––Have we many keen interests soliciting us outside of our necessary work? If we have, we shall not be enslaved by vapid joys.

Interests are not to be taken up on the spur of the moment; they spring out of the affinities which we have found and laid hold of. And the object of education is, I take it, to give children the use of as much of the world as may be.
~ Charlotte Mason, Volume 3, Page 219
I hope that our time together has taught them to grab hold of what interests them and to develop life-long passions that add meaning to life.

Two weeks later, Pamela and I met a distant ancestor of our snail at the National History Museum in Gray, Tennessee. We added the fossilized shell to our nature notebook entries for our pet nail.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

A Little Consideration

Before getting into the meat of this post, a few unrelated administrative things:
  1. I blogged our adventures on the trail we adopted at Santee National Wildlife Refuge over at ChildLightUSA.
  2. You still have time to sign up for the free interviews at Pro-Active Development. You can replay everything you missed through midnight of December 17. You can even download them to your computer if you are tech savvy.
  3. If you are struggling with the sameness imposed upon you by your autism spectrum child, my friend Di offers wonderful insight on how to make this happen even with the most severely affected.
  4. If you have not seen it yet, you may want to watch Federal Response to Rise in Autism Rates at C-SPAN. Diet (and the challenge of implementing it), gut flora, thimerosal, numerous and combined vaccines, challenges for families, unemployed adults, etc. were addressed by witnesses as well as Representatives on both sides of the political spectrum.
Last Tuesday, Pamela and I attended a lecture by Temple Grandin at the College of Charleston. Her talk was very similar to her talk in Austin two weeks prior.

Because of her language challenges, Pamela is not going to chat in the car on the way home and share what she learned. I know of one thing that resonated with her. When Temple talked about how to help a child slowly become desensitized to balloons, Pamela smiled and whispered, "Just like May 2009!" Grandin was concerned at how few life skills people with disabilities learn. Students graduate from high school without knowing how to shop. "Don’t have a handicapped mentality,” she said. During the question and answer session, parents of young children asked for advice. Temple emphasized to make sure our children are learning to do things and not just sit around all day playing video games.

I felt pleased at how much Pamela does and helps. She has taken over more responsibilities in our meals on wheels deliveries (for example, she fills out the tally sheet). She requires only minimal help with her hygiene (mainly, I follow up in a few key areas). She can shop by herself and, since we know she can do that, she helps me. She is almost to the point of me trusting her to avoid hitting cars with a shopping cart when returning it to its proper spot in the outdoor rack. She carries groceries into the house. She fixes her own leftovers, and, when I had what resembled the flu in October, she cooked a hamburger on the stove! She also loves cleaning trash out of the car.

One thing she does not seem to enjoy is housework. She probably gets that from her mother!

I think Temple's talk must have run more deeply than I had imagined. Last Saturday, I was in the kitchen folding clothes. Pamela announced, "I'm doing chores." She was fiddling with a drawer, but I figured she was just looking for something. I watched her take out all the stray pens, markers, pencils, etc. and place them in an organizer pouch for holding stuff like that. She left the kitchen a couple of times and I thought perhaps she was getting distracted with other things. Sure enough, when I checked the drawer that night, she had done an adequate job.

The next day, she continued her task. When finished, I checked again.

CLUNK! (Jaw hitting the floor.)

It was a work of art!

I wondered what happened to some of the junk. Some of it was in the trash, where it belonged. She up-cycled a clean plastic storage container that once held ham and put several sets of card games in that. She put all the craft items, including my crochet hooks, into drawers in the living room that holds all of her sewing notions. I could see how she put a lot of thought into where things belonged. After I posted the picture on Facebook, she received several job offers including one in Australia!

Today, Pamela got under my nerves. She wanted Thai noodles for lunch but I told her I was not going to cook. She still had leftover noodles with spaghetti sauce in the refrigerator. After our little tiff, she announced, "Arwen ate lunch!" I fussed at her some more for Pamela had fed all of those leftovers to the dog! Arg! When the phone rang, I said coldly, "I just might cheer up if you get the phone." She did and left the room.

After I hung up the phone, I headed to the kitchen to fix lunch. Pamela announced, "I'm so happy." She was trying to repair our little tiff. Then, I opened the drawer with the placemats and potholder to look for plastic wrap. It was a thing of beauty to behold! She put all of the stray over-the-counter stuff into a container—heartworm medicine for the dogs, cough drops for the humans, and several punch cards holding garlic pills and expectorant tablets. She put the old batteries that have been taking up space for years in the trash. Not only did she clean, but she correctly reasoned that her actions might smooth over our fight. She had guessed well!

But, wait! There's more! The picture on the left shows how the first drawer looked before Pamela tackled the second. The picture on the right shows how she adjusted the first drawer to take in the stuff that clearly did not belong in a drawer for placemats, potholders, and wrap.

A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference. ~Winnie the Pooh

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Free Resources, Did I Say Free?

I don't do give-aways on this blog, but I do offer links to free resources that I love. In the past, I have shared my favorite free resources (Librivox, Best Web Buys, Paperbackswap, and Audacity audio editor) and here are a few more: (1) the new Ambleside Online forum, (2) a free seminar for families raising autism spectrum kids, and (3) a radio podcast with a scientific bent.

This fall, AmblesideOnline opened another free resource for homeschoolers and school teachers who follow a Charlotte Mason paradigm. They have created a well-organized forum, an online message board like no other. If you find slogging through yahoo message digests tiresome and struggle with finding the right search terms to find a thread of interest to you, the AO forum might be an answer to prayer. They offer:
  • a welcome center to help forum newbies to get started,
  • a curriculum help center set up by form (i.e., grade level) and other categories (family dynamics, international, etc.),
  • a study hall for specific subjects and for discussions on Charlotte Mason's series, Parents' Review articles, exams, and Charlotte Mason schools
  • a private area to which you can subscribe if you have specific needs that may require some level of discretion: special needs, gifted, AO alumni, etc., and
  • an amble ramble for all sorts of random topics.

Every section of the forum is moderated by people who have expertise in that area and/or have a passion for the topic. Many of my close friends that I have actually met in real life are sharing their wisdom and experience: Amy Tuttle, Leslie Laurio, Melanie Malone, Jennifer Gagnon, Megan Hoyt, Laurie Bestvater, and Nancy Kelly. I bet you can guess what I moderate (Mathematics and LD/Special Needs) plus the red-headed stepchild of the Charlotte Mason's series, Formation of Character. Volume 5 is wonderful for special needs families because the children sound so familiar to those of us dealing with distracted children and major meltdowns. My belief that this treasure is the most neglected book of the six is proving true. So far, we are lacking in visitors.

Next month, a group of like-minded experts at Pro-Active Development are offering a free seminar to empower parents of children in the autism spectrum. They are focusing on new understandings of noninvasive therapy options such as Relationship Development Intervention, Brain-Body Connection, Magutova Sensory Motor Reflex Integration (MNRI), Cranio-Sacral Therapy , Eating and Feeding Issues, and more. Since Amy Cameron, the RDI consultant who refined our ability to guide Pamela, is interviewing me as part of the seminar, homeschooling is a topic I plan to discuss.

From December 3-7, 2012, the hosts will chat with ten different people about their experience in the world of developmental disabilities. If you want to participate in the free seminar, all you need to do is register. The discussions will begin at noon and 6pm CST. They aim to offer ideas to
  • Improve overall quality of life for your family.
  • Explore how you can make easy lifeshifts for optimal developmental change.
  • Unlock your child's potential through innovative noninvasive techniques.
  • Discover the importance of body-brain relationship, and so much more.

One of my Charlotte Mason study group friends turned me on to a podcast called Radiolab. One in particular affirmed a notion that mindful moms of children in autism spectrum have known for years: the brain and the gut are connected. What is the gut? The podcaster explained so concisely, "It's the interior space that runs down from your nut to your butt and it's called the gut." In fact, most conversations between parents like myself eventually end up on the conversation of *ahem* what comes out of the body. The second segment of the show appropriately called Guts validated what we have been doing for years! They interviewed Carl Zimmer, author of Microcosm, about the couple thousand of species of one-celled critters that live in your gut and weigh about three pounds. Professor of Neuroscience John Cryan described findings about how the yogurt-making bacteria lactobacillus acidophilus alter physical reactions to stress. Namely, probiotic-fed mice have lower levels of stress hormones and higher levels of GABA (the calming chemicals that our children in a meltdown lack).

And, if you think what we have been doing since 1995 "crazy talk," read on! Finally, some validation for this mindful mom (the term I prefer instead of warrior mom).

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Feast for the Eyes

Many gentle readers have been following Pamela's growth as a watercolor artist, but, in case you have not, clicking this link will catch you up. For two years in a row, Pamela has attended Lake Marion Artisan's annual open house, where her work is featured among the student display. Pamela takes classes there once a week with her wonderful teacher, Carrie Detwiler, pictured with Pamela below.

As always, we offered a "before" versus an "after" example of how far Pamela has come.

Before (Spring 2010)

After (Beginning of 2012)

Christmas Gift for Oma and Opa

Christmas Gift for Grandma and Grandpa

More Paintings from the Past Couple of Months

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Feast

Earlier in the month, I alluded to an enrichment afternoon that our local Charlotte Mason study group has just launched. We are offering short lessons, learning together, sharing what we know, and deepening relationships to three classes of students: nursery, primary, and elementary. Right now, primary students are hearing and narrating passages from The Book of Virtues, learning to sew, and studying mapwork from a big picture point of view: the solar system first. Elementary students are doing mapwork of Europe and studying the Tarquin kings of Rome. The whole group gets to view early Genesis accounts through Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel, learn South Carolina folk songs, study three states of matter, and read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. What amazes me is how even the youngest students yearn to have parts in the bard's play!

Many Charlotte Mason bloggers have shared how they started their enrichment gatherings, so this post focuses on a completely different angle: guiding an adult with major developmental delays in that setting.

The first step for me was to view the schedule in light of my responsibilities and figure out roles for Pamela and me. Setting up social situations based upon roles is a big element of framing activities in a Relationship Development Intervention lifestyle. My friend Di illustrates this well in a blogpost about her plan for putting away oranges.
  • During our short opening time, I lead the group in learning South Carolina folk songs. Since she loves singing and already knows most of the music, she has no trouble knowing her role: sing along with other children.
  • Then, Pamela and I head out to help with the wee ones in the nursery (more on that later).
  • Since I teach citizenship, my primary responsibility is teaching the class, not Pamela. Right now, I need to focus on getting to know the other students while Pamela sits quietly and listens. Once I establish a solid rapport with her classmates, I can figure out how to guide her in the group while teaching the class.
  • Since another person teaches science, I can concentrate on being a good guide and help Pamela function as a competent member of the class.
  • Since I teach Shakespeare, my top priority is the class. Fortunately, the parents wanted to study a play that Pamela already loves. She has a leg up on the class because of her background knowledge. Guiding her in this class is much easier for that reason.

Nursery Time - Bonding with wee ones didn't seem promising when Pamela and I arrived in the nursery on our first enrichment day. One daddy was playing with his little girl. One mama was settling down her newborn who was reacting to the tears of a toddler crying for his mama. The little boy didn't know me well and I feared that picking him up would only add to his stress. I had to find a way to calm him before guiding an interaction between him and Pamela. Showing him stuffed animals made him cry louder. Pretending to play with trucks and tractors brought on more of the same.

I fell back on RDI principles and established a co-regulatory pattern (which Di also used) that served two purposes: help him feel more comfortable with us and get Pamela in a groove. I took a basket of Duplos and began to build a wall. After four blocks, I handed Pamela a block and she added to the wall. We continued that assembly-line pattern: mom picks a block and hands it to Pamela; Pamela places it on the wall. Over the course of a few minutes, watching our co-regulatory pattern quietened the boy and, when he looked like he wanted to join us, I said to Pamela, "Jacob wants a block." She handed the block to him and he added to the wall.

We stuck to this pattern far longer than I would have with Pamela alone. While she fell into the groove of having a third person quickly, Jacob looked a bit shaky. Whenever the wall wobbled, his lower lip trembled. I solved that problem by making the wall turn a corner until two corners stabilized it. As his confidence grew, he began to chatter. I joined him: I played match plus one, repeating what he said with an extra word or two. Match plus one prevents me from talking too much. I also threw in my unique comments, and he repeated them beautifully.

The point of establishing a co-regulatory pattern is to have a fall-back position when you add a variation that upsets a child. Interacting in such a rigid pattern can become mindless and robotic, empty of emotion. At this point, while Jacob and I were working on our rapport, Pamela was completely ignoring him. Since both seemed comfortable, I added a variation to encourage Pamela to become more dynamic. I picked up a waffle block and handed it to Pamela. She startled and handed it back to me, "That's the wrong one!"

I paused and waited for her to look at me. Then, I winked and explained, "We're going to trick Jacob!" Pamela accepted the block and handed it to Jacob. I watched his lower lip carefully and was ready to help him solve the problem if it trembled. He studied the block, studied the wall, and wondered. I said, "I wonder what we can do with this block." Very slowly, he placed the waffle block on a perfect spot on the wall. I continued handing Pamela "right" blocks and "wrong" blocks and she and Jacob continued their roles. Then, I gave her a foam block and this time she made no complaint. Giving her varied blocks kept Pamela on her toes, which prevented her from mindlessly playing her part.

At this point, our little friend made a crucial error. Fifteen minutes into our little game, he thought of more familiar faces and asked, "Where's my mama?" At that point, he burst into tears again and only her arrival soothed him.

Reflecting upon the framework, I can see room for improvement. Pamela was not "with us" as much as I would have liked. Admittedly, I was guiding two persons and I had to keep both Pamela and Jacob in their comfort zone. Next time, I will keep in mind Di's own self-talk, "Remember to pause! Remember to pause!" Why pause? The activity (building a wall) is only a prop. Building relationships is the real point of our activity. Pausing gives us time to share an emotion, savor a moment, think through the next step, etc. Forgetting to pause may prevent something beautiful from happening.

Hospitality - Because we were the host family, we arrived early. Pamela helped me push tables together so that everyone could gather around one large rectangle at snack time. I gave her roles in setting the table. She placed a plate and cup in front of each seat. During snack time, I dished out fruit while Pamela placed a brownie on each plate. Being tight on time with many folks to feed allowed few opportunities for experience sharing while we were serving. The slower pace of eating our treats fostered a neat interaction between Pamela and a fellow sojourner on the path of autism.

Although he is more than a decade younger than Pamela, Joseph speaks far better than Pamela. Thanks to RDI, she is far more flexible and patient than Joseph, who makes sure that the entire world knows when he is bored. Finicky in his food choices like many children in the spectrum, he voiced his frustration at the snack very loudly. Unsure of what to do, everyone quietly ignored his comments. Everyone except Pamela. She clearly recognized his anxiety, and having learned how to regulate her own anxieties to some extent, Pamela tried to encourage him. Whenever he complained, Pamela took him quite seriously and responded with all sorts of positive self-talk. "Don't be sad." "Cheer up!" "It's okay." "It's not the end of the world."

Shakespeare - Being responsible for guiding the class ruled out my ability to foster dynamic thinking for Pamela. I decided to set the entire class up for success because none of the students have ever read Shakespeare. I asked my friends for input on who could handle reading aloud longer parts and who needed short parts. I tried to give silent parts to the youngest to help them feel included. I emailed highlighted scripts to the families, so everyone could have a chance to become comfortable with reading their parts. It is the King's English after all!!

I set Pamela up for success by giving her the role of the soothsayer, who, as faithful blog readers know, says Pamela's favorite lines. We followed the same process we have used at home: we watch a segment from the BBC version of the play and then we read the script. When it came time to read aloud her scene, the soothsayer stood up with Anthony, Caesar, and the crowd, followed the reading of the script, and said her lines without any prompting from me. I was so thrilled to see her participate in a group activity and succeed on her own. While the setting is quite static, falling short of the aims of what we frame in RDI, sometimes you have to be realistic. My ultimate responsibility was teaching the class, which made relying on her static abilities a necessity.

Science - The first science class was probably one of the more challenging scenarios for a person with autism. A bunch of excited children in a long, narrow classroom with four stations for freely exploring three states of matter. They all gravitated to the more active stations (liquids and gases): blowing up balloons with seltzer tablets, mixing oil and water, playing with a bottle with honey, feeling zip-bags filled with squishy jello, putting things in an ice chest, etc. Boring, old solids (blocks, sticks, and a rubber duckie) didn't seem to capture anyone's hearts, so that is where Pamela and I headed with her science journal. Once the excitement died down, she was able to explore other stations and draw pictures in her notebook.

Then, God showed off for us. I peeked out the window and noticed movement in the recently plowed corn fields. Grackles (very greedy black birds) were gleaning for food. Not just a small flock. Thousands and thousands of grackles were right next to the church. Of course, we couldn't pass up such an opportunity for nature study. We quietened the children and headed them outdoors. Pamela said, "Just like the New Testament. Birds eating the seed." Another child exclaimed, "It reminds me of the time God dropped quail from the sky for the people in the desert." The sheer massive numbers of birds made them quite bold, and eventually the kids figured that out. Then, they all started yelling and shouting to see if the birds even noticed. The birds ignored the noise at first, and then they slowly moved to more promising fields.

Our second day of science gave me another opportunity to consider roles. We headed outside, and the teacher began by explaining how gas molecules behave and directed the students to act it out. They ran around in the field and had so much space they hardly bumped into one another. Pamela doesn't tend to get into this sort of thing, so I gave her the science journal and she drew simple diagrams of the children's action. The teacher reigned the children into a small circle bounded by the driveway and directed them to behave like liquid molecules. Finally, she had them bunch up together to act like a solid. Pamela watched and drew pictures.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Caterpillar Convention, or Deer Rubs Don't Run

For the third week in a row, we took a turn, a rather long and meandering turn, at the Santee National Wildlife Refuge. The ideas of Charlotte Mason (how this family learns and lives) and Relationship Development Intervention (how this family guides persons with autism) began criss-crossing in my mind like the muscadine vines along the path.

Take this pair of mushrooms for example. Our state has a long list of things that ought to be taught and when they ought to be taught. I don't have the time to read through it, but I began to wonder when they recommend children should begin to learn about fungi. Will their first brush with the fungus among us be as something to pick off pizza and toss out? Will they ever see mushrooms in the wild before they meet them in books? Will they have ever tried poking small puff balls to release spores and notice that the white ones are duds, and only the brown ones work sometimes? Will they have seen the many beautiful colors that toadstool mushrooms show off for the world? Will they have ever seen shelf fungi growing at the bottom of a trunk or a dead stump covered in all sorts of mushroomy looking things? What creates the most awe and wonder: reading about them in a unit on fungus or finding a yet another sort of fungal friend in one of many long walks?

Will they ever see a toad hanging out in a chestnut tree crotch before they study the life cycle of a frog in books? Find a dozen frogs dotting the swamp grass? Catch a toad and wonder why their palms feel wet?

Will they ever see for themselves that The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Very Busy Spider both spin webs? They will if they ever see this caterpillar house in the woods or if they find web worm nests in trees.

Speaking of said caterpillar, will they find eggs before they meet the book? A wee, whispery voice in me wonders if seeing a spotty leaf in the woods one week, then finding it overrun with wee caterpillars the next, and seeing the leaf transformed into holy lace another week inspires more delight.

Will they feel the thrill of naming a cluster of critters—"caterpillar convention" coined by one child naturalist—before hearing a very proper term army? Will they know on their own that a caterpillar army hugging a limb might relate to autumn's chill?

Will they see all sorts of camouflage like the little critter on the left who cannot change colors but hides well in autumn spectrum colors? Or will they think animals that change color and shape is only to amuse little children?

What, you don't see the little amphibian yet?

That's a clue!

Will they ever plunge clean hands into a pond to grab a water hyacinth? Will they dirty their nails to rip open its bulb and find styrofoam that God hid inside? Do textbook writers find this idea worthy of making the cut?

Can children whose time is ground up by busywork, homework, worksheets, testing, and standardized exam preparation ever find out if one really can make ink by grinding up oak galls? How many galls will it take?

"But, wait!" exclaim my RDI friends. What does this have to do with autism and experience sharing? What does walking through the woods have to do with developing relationships with people in the autism spectrum?

My friend, the child naturalist, knows the answer. When looking at a deer rub, he shared, "Deer rubs don't run!" He knows that the woods are full of wonderful things to see and know. It takes time to hunt crickets and catch them in a bug glass. Deer rubs take less time to catch because they don't run. Two years ago, when my friend's days were busy with traditional schooling, time was precious. He never had enough time to know all the things he longed to know. Sometimes, his parents took him and his siblings out of school to go on raptor rescue adventures. But, he still never had his fill of time.

It takes lots of quiet time and long experience in the woods learning how to provoke the antlion larva just enough to come out of its home to fight off intruders. Explaining too much too soon destroys the pleasure of seeing it unfold after long hours of exploring. Pumping buzz words into a child and attempting to extract said words steals joy and mystery from the experience. Pushing through the trail quickly while an expert explains all the important stuff on a field trip pushes out time for rabbit trails. Experience sharing is not about getting the job done and all the stuff known. It is about meandering and musing like the endless weaving of muscadine vines.

It also takes someone more experienced in the ways of the woods to guide. My friend spent many long hours learning things as a child naturalist. She carefully chooses when to share her knowledge (how to turn a ginormous beetle on its back and hear if its a clicker beetle) and when to let her children discover for themselves. To know what time is ripe for exploring and discovering a new thing without a lot of words. To know what time is best for supplying a well-timed word, for holding back an answer to foster wondering and yearning to know, for wandering off the path, for returning back to it. Too many words, too fast a pace, too few visits, too many prompts destroy the wonder of the experience.

I watched this little one pet his first frog and caterpillar today. We had to slow down our pace of interaction for him to keep up. When we did, his joint attention was lovely. Rather than flood his mind with blitz of correct jargon explaining everything a preschooler should know about frogs, his mama elaborated on a familiar play he enjoys. "What does a frog say? Ribbet!" Only then, after carefully studying the amphibian, after his mama quietly coaxed him, after slowly, but steadily reaching his hand toward the frog, did he finally pet the critter.

What life lessons would falter if she had goaded him to touch it, forced compliance, pushed out his time to wonder and ponder?

Even the most nontraditional homeschoolers know when to move on. We came across a garter snake stretched out along the road in a patch of sun. When enough big, loud, wiggly folks ventured too close, the garter snake suddenly sprang into action and sidled to a safe place to hide from the big bad world (just as a person with autism does when we rush too often). We watched the snake wind itself along a muscadine vine, moving onward and upward to blend into the security blanket of camouflage. We all longed to stay for a half hour and see how far it would go. The stomachs of the littlest ones rumbled. The minds of the adult ones knew time was short for we had a hard deadline in the afternoon (the feast of the mind to come). The more experience guides ushered the children along the trail because the time was right to transition.

We know that we will come back to our beloved trail and further our relationship with it. Another day may reveal how high garter snakes climb. Charlotte Mason often said, "Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character." To reap a relationship, we must sow experiences slowly, gently, humbly. When we do that consistently and carefully over the years with our children with autism, then relationships will weave in and out of their lives like the muscadine vines that bear the sweet fruit warmed by the patient sun.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Wish Granted . . . Abundantly and Lavishly

If you have ever read The Five Children and It, then you know the dangers of wishes come true. If you have never read that gem of a book, step away from the computer, find that book now, and enjoy!

Little wishes aren't so dangerous. On Thursday, Paperbackswap granted my wish for a science book that has been sitting on my wish list for two years. It is the kind of book that is truly worth only $15 new but, because it is out-of-print and sought-after in homeschooling circles, is going for $9,999 new paperback, $313 used paperback, and  only $82 new hardcover at Amazon. To think that I'm getting mine for the cost of media mail isn't really mind-blowing because the 48-page book truly isn't worth the inflated-pricing schemes. Perhaps, the tulip mania chapter in Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates isn't so far-fetched after all.

A friend of mine posted a photograph of the Io moth caterpillar about a month ago. This creature is so amazing that I wished to see it in real life. Yesterday, when we headed out to Santee National Wildlife Refuge, my request was granted. The children spied one soaking up sunshine, while resting on the railing of the boardwalk. My cellphone doesn't do it justice, but the picture was clear enough to earn a confirmed sighting of the Io over at BAMONA. Apparently, I'm not as weird as I thought because my sister-in-law, who is so much more hip than I ever was or ever will be, had a cool shot of a caterpillar from her yard on her cell phone too!

I've had another wish, a very long-term wish, really a prayer that finally came true yesterday. In our third year of homeschooling (back in 1997), we joined a homeschooling co-op and loved it. Two things happened in 2000 that changed everything: we moved to another state (and have moved several times since) and we shifted to a Charlotte Mason style of homeschooling. Our paradigm change meant that, while we still occasionally attended co-ops, they never really meshed with how we homeschooled.

Until yesterday!

Backing up a bit, since moving to Carolina, I have tried to start local Charlotte Mason discussion groups, but nobody seemed interest. One spring, a group of us starting meeting in Columbia, but it was such a long drive and life was so busy that it fizzled out. Often, my timing isn't God's timing, nor my plan His plan.

Then, in Spring 2011, God dropped a study group in my lap, or Phase I of my Heavenly Father checking off an item on my bucket list. Long story short, a friend came to me when she first started thinking of homeschooling and I let her borrow For the Children's Sake. Six months later, she plunged into homeschooling and never brought up Mason's ideas, so I assumed that our unusual ways weren't meant for her family. Six months after that, she began telling me that she and some of her homeschooling friends had been reading Mason and they wanted to get together so they could learn more. The first couple of meetings I did some "show and tell" so they could see the sorts of things Pamela and I did and the sorts of books we read. Then, we began plowing through Home Education and moved onto Towards a Philosophy of Education at the beginning of 2012, talking about habit training, exams, mother culture books, and other things CM. Pamela has show an interest in getting to know the babies of the families. During the past eighteen months, we have grown together in our friendship and understanding of Mason's ideas. One friend delighted me with a gift from the British Museum (her husband's favorite haunt in London when he isn't busy flying airplanes).

Last summer, we began hatching a new plan, Phase II of progress toward a bucket list. We all felt brave enough to launch an afternoon of enrichment, which we now call "The Feast". That may sound like an odd name for a homeschooling gathering. We are trying to avoid the "c" word because we are on the road less traveled. We hope to alert fellow homeschoolers we aren't quite what one expects in a typical co-op.

One of my friends said recently that the hardest part of homeschooling and living this way is that you feel sorry for the children who are cooped up in rooms, doing worksheets, reading textbooks, regurgitating facts, too busy to think, imagine, or dream. At that moment, I could finally confide that I felt the same way two years ago when we headed off on our raptor adventure together. I kept the thought to myself that they would probably enjoy the freedom of homeschooling. When she started homeschooling last fall, I kept the thought to myself that they would probably enjoy the Charlotte Mason homeschooling life. Now, her family as well as others in our area are traveling the same road and building relationships as we learn together and share a feast that is both abundant and lavish.

I will hold off on posting on how the day went. Instead, I will share how we spent the past two Friday mornings: walking the trail at the Santee National Wildlife Refuge. The first time we went, Pamela didn't know exactly what to do, surrounded by so many children. She joined in to see what we all found but didn't seemed to find anything herself. Yesterday, she collected sticks, which made me smile.