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