Monday, November 03, 2014

Lessons about Learning from a Praying Mantis

Has it really been three months?

Between retreats and starting a new school year at Harvest, my poor blog has been quite neglected. Pamela and I just returned from l'HaRMaS in Canada and, if you want to know more about it, Mama Squirrel has written a series of posts about it: our bedtime story Roxaboxen, delighting in a praying mantis eggs sac as a party favor, feeling empowered rather than small and dim, on place and architecture, acting on ideas, THE Voice, learning-serving-learning-serving-..., and starting with a story.

My friend, Jennifer Gagnon, blog writer of BeLikeFabre, lives out what we believe. Her bookshelf — an AmblesideOnline paradise — mesmerized Pamela and I. Every inch, from floor to ceiling, from one end to the other end of a joyously long wall is crammed full of literary treasures and hidden gems. On a table nearby sat a white ceramic pot with another guest she was hosting, a praying mantis that we named Hildegard, of course! Watching Hildegard eat a bee reminded me of important lessons about learning.

Before Pamela and I arrived, Jennifer and Jeanne (our surprise visitor from Australia) watched Hildegard feed on a spider and a cricket. They talked up the process so much we had to see it for ourselves. The morning after l'HaRMaS ended we stood outside (me in my pajamas), gathered around the pot, and waited for her to attack and eat a bee. We watched and waited and watched and waited and... Occasionally, Hildegard would focus intently on the bee and move her head to track it. Poor Kathy delayed her departure for the airport as long as she could to see the great event.

We tried scaffolding Hildegard to speed things up. In the process of moving the pot, the stick where she perched had gotten stuck under a plastic container. Jennifer tried to give her a leg up, but the mantis grew frightened and fought her help, even trying to bite her. Things settled down, and Hildegard tracked and follow the bee's movements. She knew the distance was too far but did not realize the plastic wrap covering the pot prevented the bee from flying off. She did not know that climbing onto the container would close the gap between herself and her prey. We tried pinning the bee to the edge of the pot, hoping a leaf protected fingers and thumbs from its stinger. Even that did not encourage her to pounce.

Hildegard neither knew nor cared that Kathy longed to see the big event. That minutes were ticking by and our friend would soon be bound for the airport. She tracked the bee warily but did nothing more. We offered her a big leaf with a long stem, and she ended up stuck under that, too. We pushed a hydrangea and stem to no avail. Kathy left, and we waited some more. Hildegard stayed hidden below the scaffolding we had offered her.

My mind wandered while we waited. As Dr. Gustein points out in a recent note, we are born driven to seek out and engage in challenging situations. Certain conditions encourage the most growth. Learners are most engaged when they feel safe and supported. All of our hurried attempts to scaffold her must have frightened her terribly. It took her a long time to feel secure enough to venture out of hiding. That is what happens to all learners who have been placed into environments that create frightening learning experiences.

Clearly, Hildegard needed to feel a sense of normalcy — that things fell into a predictable pattern that made her feel at home. The unfamiliar environment of the pot and our frantic attempts to help left her unsettled. All the resources of her meager brain were channeled toward safety. Once we left her alone and watched her without prodding her, she settled down. She began to feel secure. Slowly, a foreleg crept up to the plastic container. She waited for signs of trouble, and, when there were none, another leg popped up. One by one, carefully, hesitantly, the mantis crawled on top of the container.

Once we backed off, we saw that she could handle the challenges in her own time, Hildegard made progress. It was not immediate. She saw the bee but did not pounce on it right away. She started to track it. It looked almost as if she were measuring it and assessing whether or not she could manage it. Fabre's description is exactly what we saw,
For a long time she waits in vain ; for the Wasp is suspicious and on her guard: still, now and then a rash one is caught. With a sudden rustle of wings the Mantis terrifies the newcomer, who hesitates for a moment in her fright. Then, with the sharpness of a spring, the Wasp is fixed as in a trap between the blades of the double saw — the toothed fore-arm and toothed upper-arm of the Mantis. The victim is then gnawed in small mouthfuls.
Before we headed out on a nature walk along Lake Erie, we released Hildegard and took lots of pictures. She's quite a celebrity. You may be wondering how to apply these lessons to learners in your life. How does one approach the ambitious Year 7 of AmblesideOnline with a person whose language skills are very delayed? Well, I will let you know in my next post because that is exactly what Pamela and I are doing.

Friday, August 08, 2014

On Being Like a Child: Hildegard's Gift

Some of our special needs children face many illnesses, and a book like Hildegard's Gift by Megan Hoyt offers encouragement. In full disclosure, this review is biased because Megan is my friend. I did buy a copy for her to sign with my own money. And, if you don't believe my praise, read the wonderful review at Publishers Weekly. And, it happens to be on sale right now!

Hildegard was a composer, nun, herbalist, writer, and many other things who lived nine hundred years ago. From the time she was a young child, she suffered from terrible headaches that left her worn out and bedridden at times. Megan's book weaves many big ideas into this children's biography of Hildegard: not all gifts come in packages, with some gifts comes pain, sometimes our frail bodies need rest, sometimes we must persevere even when our body is not cooperating, sometimes our talents are as plain as day, and sometimes they appear in God's good timing. Megan sprinkled Hildegard's words throughout the text. The illustrations by David Hill strike me as Narnian, and that is the highest praise I can give to a piece of art. The tone of the book is sweet and gentle, but also gives children a glimpse of the dark times in Hildegard's life.

We were blessed on July 28 when Megan did a book signing event for us during Clockwise. My friends from prov.en.der came to Harvest and shared what they know about "unhurried time" with our teachers, parents, teachers from one of our sister schools, and homeschoolers.

Humility, being childlike, going through a day done Mason's way, helped us understand "unhurried time." We did copywork, studied dictation, recitation, picture study, history, poetry, prayer, hymns, literature, math, handicraft, nature walk, etc. Our special guest Megan introduced us to Hildegard, not just through her book, but in many ways. She gave us more details about her world and what life was like. She showed us paintings of how people portrayed this visionary woman.

Megan shared many delightful things about Hildegard in ways that tapped into our senses. Throughout the day, we listened to her music while we did work that required quiet thought. We tried singing "O Ignis Spiritus" in the best melisma style that we could. She invited one of our teachers, who grows all sorts of herbs in her garden, to share those that Hildegard might have enjoyed. I don't want to give it all away, but we enjoyed it so much I plan to invite her back so our kids can get to see a bona fide author who is published! If you live within a reasonable distance from the Charlotte area, I encourage you to contact her for a book signing.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

What Humility Has to Do with Autism

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. ~ Lord Acton
Some friends and I were commenting on an article which states that people in power are less sensitive to social cues. "Studies have repeatedly shown that participants who are in high positions of power (or who are temporarily induced to feel powerful) are less able to adopt the visual, cognitive or emotional perspective of other people, compared to participants who are powerless (or are made to feel so)."

People in power are less able to mirror the emotions of others. It explains why politicians seem out of touch the longer they stay in Washington. Why the people who suffered at the hands of the monarchy and the czars committed cruel acts after they won revolutions. "When people experience power, their brains fundamentally change how sensitive they are to the actions of others." It causes me to appreciate people like George Washington: the people would have given him honors, titles, rank, and lavishness worthy of a king, but he remained humble. He went back to farming after his eight years in office ended.

If you have a special needs child in your life, this article becomes personal! The world views our children as weak — less than human. Their vulnerability makes others feel powerful. A friend's husband is in a wheelchair due to a recent accident. Although she works with special needs students, she didn't understand what it's like until now. People don't look her husband in the eye: he's beneath them. He communicates well, yet one waitress didn't leave a bill until my friend had returned from the bathroom.

Even in fleeting encounters, power lowers resonance with social cues. "For those participants who were induced to experience feelings of power, their brains showed virtually no resonance with the actions of others; conversely, for those participants who were induced to experience feelings of powerlessness, their brains resonated quite a bit. In short, the brains of powerful people didn't mirror the actions of other people."

Whether we are parent, teacher, or therapist, power can go to our head, especially when a task is vital. For me, that hot button was potty training because diapers shut down many opportunities. Pamela was six years old and still in pull-ups. No matter how often we headed her to the bathroom, she never realized it was time to go. Fortunately, I had read that a benefit of a gfcf diet was improved bladder control. I quit potty training until we started homeschooling Pamela and took her off certain foods. Fortunately, I had never pushed Pamela to the point of causing me to regret my actions. Had I not known about food connection, it could have happened.

Certain kinds of therapy puts the adult into a powerful role. Think about what a person might do to a child, even a well-intentioned adult who only wants the best for that child, might do because of the power differential. Even an intelligent, loving adult might overstep boundaries because power has shut down the mirror neurons that promote empathy. We know what can happen when a low-verbal or non-verbal child is put in the hands of someone with too much power. We see the awful stories on the news all the time!

I prefer Relationship Development Intervention and Charlotte Mason because adults are viewed as encouragers and guides. Children are valued for who they are, whether they are brilliant or a bit delayed or far, far "behind." In this "must-see" video on being the father of someone with autism and apraxia, Matt Oakes put our roles as parents and teachers very well.

"I don't think it's my job to force Liam to be the kind of kid, the kind of person that I want him to be. It's our job as parents, it's my job as his dad, to help him find who he is."

"Is." Not "will be."

"A child is a born person." ~ Charlotte Mason

The view of ourselves as persons in authority must be accurate as well. Matt appreciates the importance of humility.

"Instead of being this sort of superhero for their kids, I think that a good dad is someone who just humbles himself in front of their kids and finds ways to reach to their kid where they are and say I see you and I love you."

"I think to help kids unlock who they are you have to realize as a dad, as a parent, that it's really not about you. But, to make it about the kid, you have to be vulnerable and you have to be humble. You have to let that stuff go."

Mason cautioned us about our view of ourselves in this way, "Our deadly error is to suppose that we are his showman to the universe; and, not only so, but that there is no community at all between child and universe unless such as we choose to set up." She kicks this view of humility up a notch by recognizing authority properly.
"When we learn to realise that––God is, Self is, the World is, with all that these existences imply, quite untouched by any thinking of ours, unprovable, and self-proven,––why, we are at once put into a more humble attitude of mind. We recognise that above us, about us, within us, there are "more things . . . than are dreamt of in our philosophy." We realise ourselves as persons, we have a local habitation, and we live and move and have our being in and under a supreme authority." ~ Charlotte Mason
Humbling ourselves forces us to trust in the Teacher, the Holy Spirit, to work in our children what we cannot do. Like Matt said, our role is not to force our children to be what we want them to be. Only the Holy Spirit knows who they are. In our humility, we can help them find out. Since God already knows, the more we trust Him, the less we get in the way.
"When we recognise that God does not make over the bringing up of children absolutely even to their parents, but that He works Himself, in ways which it must be our care not to hinder, in the training of every child, then we shall learn passiveness, humble and wise. We shall give children space to develop on the lines of their own characters in all right ways, and shall know how to intervene effectually to prevent those errors which, also, are proper to their individual characters." ~ Charlotte Mason
I attended two Charlotte Mason retreats in the past two weeks. Clockwise invited me to assume a humble posture, that of a child, where we immersed ourselves in a typical school day. Living Education Retreat gave me three verses on humility:

"Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.'" 1 Peter 5:5

"Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves." Luke 22:26

"At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, 'Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?' And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, 'Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.'" Matthew 18:1-4

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

The Un-Vacation

I've never cared for amusement parks. It's not because I'm old. This has been happening since I threw up on a roller coaster in fourth grade. My stomach hates curveballs. It has rejected its contents on a windy road on the way to Neueschwanstein castle in Germany, on Navy ships and sail boats, on a Navy training propeller plane and helicopter, and on a P-3 mission over the ocean near Russia. I even have to close my eyes during intense Imax moments. For many years, Steve and I tolerated amusement parks for Pamela's sake, hoping David would take on our role when he got bigger. He inherited my weakness so we take turns escorting Pamela until we all turn green.

I know families who love this kind of vacation. We're not one of them.

When I think of amusement parks, I think hot, sticky, sweaty, waiting in line, trying to block out what is offered to entertain us. The food is expensive and must be avoided for Pamela's sake. Everything is overpriced and, even if you pay for everything in advance, you end up paying for more than you intended. Lately, we've stopped at unusual places in our travels. We decided to make our weirdness official: over the holiday weekend, we attended a retreat called "Marvelous Mozart" at a Benedictine archabbey, located about half way between Kansas and South Carolina.

What about Pamela?

She loves all styles of music. Her i-Touch has every genre of music imaginable. On long drives, she chooses classical stations on Sirius with occasional dips into the broadway channel and kids' music. Pamela adores Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and too many to list here.

The retreat location was perfect and the grounds were lovely. The guest rooms, dining area, and classroom were all in the same building. Since Pamela knew how to find our room and get in with a key card, she could take a break whenever she pleased. If Steve and I lingered over coffee longer than she liked, she asked to go to the room. If she got a little bored with a session, she left early. The Benedictines built many breaks into the schedule, perfect for Pamela and I since we are both recovering from colds.

What did she do during a session? She watched a documentary about Mozart with us and watched several clips of his operas. She listened to some music as well. While some people took notes or read the handouts, Pamela doodled. She loves to doodle!
Archabbey accommodations lacked a few things. Since we pay for television at home, having no television in the room worked for us. The Internet was down, and monks aren't the most technically savvy people, which is more than balanced by their gracious hospitality. The bathrooms had a shower but no bath, just like two bathrooms in our house. We had no idea where the nearest store was, but we left the windows open at night and awakened to sweet birds. We ate our meals cafeteria style: simple, nourishing, filling, and good for the waistline. One night we had corn fresh off the cob — delicious!

How did Pamela do on the un-vacation? Very well. She had one moment of frustration during a lecture when someone who shall not be named was trying to figure out his complicated travel schedule. Pamela watched his every pen stroke and commanded him to stop after he made one too many changes for her taste. She demanded him to put it away and settled down after he did. She also had a mini-melt during the last lunch. She was out of sorts because she had planned for us to leave after breakfast. I had to stay for the Requiem session (a highlight for me). She rushed during lunch and dropped her tray on the floor in the serving area. I gave her a big hug to calm her because I walked her to her seat. Steve and kitchen staff cleaned up her spilled salad. To help her recover, we went ahead and got food for her. Up until this point, she had had no problems getting her own tray and serving herself.

Pamela and I took a quick nature walk around a little lake on the grounds. Steve had been spied it during his morning run and urged me to see it. Isn't the weather and view gorgeous?

I spotted several new things in this short trek: two new species of dragonflies and crawfish holes in the grass near the water. The dragonflies were moving so quickly I'm shocked my camera picked up anything. These short, stubby dragonflies are called eastern amberwings (Perithemis tenera). They hung out above the water's edge.

I've never seen anything like these black and prom-tuxedo-blue dragonflies. The widow skimmers (Libellula luctuosa) buzzed over water and fields like tie-fighters in a Star Wars movie. They went so fast all I could see was a blur of color. Apparently, the males defend their territory aggressively.

These crawfish holes remind me of mud castles I used to make at the beach as a child. If we ever come back, I want to bring a picnic lunch and watch for the crawfish to come out.

Can you tell that Pamela was in a hurry to go home?

And, in case you haven't had enough doodles....

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Digging for Knowledge

I think we owe it to children to let them dig their knowledge, of whatever subject, for themselves out of the fit book; and this for two reasons: What a child digs for is his own possession; what is poured into his ear, like the idle song of a pleasant singer, floats out as lightly as it came in, and is rarely assimilated. ~ Charlotte Mason
What does "digging for" do to the mind?

The best way to answer that question is to dig for yourself. Until we experience digging, we can only see what our children show us. Digging takes time. It is a slow process. It demands careful attention. The results are not always immediate.

Understanding Charlotte Mason's method requires us to dig. Because we are used to having knowledge poured into us, opening her books and studying them is a challenge. It's much easier to read someone else's interpretation of her ideas or to follow a checklist or "how to". This may be easier but it runs the risk of becoming a system, the very thing Mason sought to avoid. We must understand why we do what we do.

Right now, I'm digging into The Living Page by Laurie Bestvater. If you're looking for a quick summer read, TLP is not it! I read a little bit and narrate to my commonplace journal. I copy my favorite quotes and phrases. I join the grand conversation about this book with AmblesideOnline friends.

This is how I process nature study (pages 17-27), which addresses Mason's connection to scouting, how Gilbert White inspired her, what Mason expected in a nature notebook, her thoughts about nature lists, scrapbooks, collections, a family diary, science notebooks, lab books, calendar of firsts, natural history clubs, etc. I read a page and write down my thoughts. I look up examples of nature notebooks at the digital archives. I write a collection of phrases resonating with me: "make Glory 'visible and plain,'" "source of delight," "knowing glory," and "traveling companions and life records."

Reflecting upon my walks at Santee National Wildlife Refuge, I copy Laurie's words, "Perhaps it was his ongoing relationship with a relatively small patch of country over time, allowing him to form deep knowledge of a particular place and to notice even the smallest seasonal changes that Mason admires" (page 20).

I let go of my guilt about the lapses in nature notebooking last winter and spring when I read what one of Mason's student teachers wrote, "I am horrified to find that I have not written in my diary for nearly a month" (page 21). I copy her words into my commonplace journal. Then, I pull out my nature notebook and make my first entry in six months! The skink in my watercolor is too short and stubby. The artists in my family would see every flaw. I remind myself of a recent article about John Ruskin: "So if drawing had value even when it was practised by people with no talent, it was for Ruskin because drawing can teach us to see: to notice properly rather than gaze absentmindedly. In the process of recreating with our own hand what lies before our eyes, we naturally move from a position of observing beauty in a loose way to one where we acquire a deep understanding of its parts."

My goal is not to produce great art. My goals are to learn how to see, observe beauty in a skink, and understand its parts. Process, not product.

I think about the nature lists in the back of a notebook, which Laurie suggests students adapted to their own needs. I spend time in two states regularly and have a special walking place for both. Rather than sorting my items by kind (flower, bird, insect, etc.), I decide to sort mine by place. I get out my ruler and draw lines in the back of my notebook. Since I'm halfway through the notebook I begin my calendar with June 2014, rather than January. I make it a year and a half, rather than two. I leave a column for notes. I title it "Santee List." My first walk yields sixteen items: broad-headed skink (Eumeces laticeps), crane fly (tipulidae), eastern pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis), roly poly (Armadillidium nasatum), daddy long-legs (Pholcus phalangioides), orchard orbweaver (Leucauge venusta), banana spider (Nephila clavipes), tiger beetle larva "chicken choker" (Cicindelinae), eastern tent caterpillar tent (Malacosoma americanum), catalpa leaf (Catalpa bignonioides), bald cypress wood (Taxodium distichum), unripened black cherries (Prunus serotina), sweet gum balls (Liquidambar styraciflua), huckleberry (or blueberry or...?), white blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum), and naked puffball (Lycoperdon marginatum). Here's a video of the whacky crane fly.

Maybe, I'll attempt a calendar of firsts next spring.

I head over to AO's thread about this section of the book. One person asked about identifying and naming things. I write,
On learning the names of things, we take pictures and post them on Facebook. You would be amazed at how passionate the conversations between parents, grandparents, and knowledgeable friends get in naming things. If we don't know what something is, we give it our own pet name. There was this spider that we called either neon spiders or alien spiders and, one day, I got the perfect picture and we were able to name it: orchard orbweaver.

I think it is healthy for children to realize that *WE* are lifelong learners. It's okay not to know something and to research it together. Our elementary students do spend some of their free time trying to find the name of something and it is exciting when they figure it out and share it with the class. Also, you sometimes need to see something several times and to watch it undergo seasonal changes and to observe its behavior before you can name it. It's the relationship that really matters, not the name. The name is just the icing on the cake.

Oh, the funniest thing is when you learn that something has no common name. Then, the kids start to debate what the name should be!
Here are glimpses of Glory from our last walk.