Archive for August, 2013

Actually, You Probably Could


Now that school is back in session, we’re starting to run into our old trad-school friends – at restaurants, in the Target aisles, at the pool in the evening. There are pleasantries exchanged, and they often feel the need to bring up alternating positives and negatives about their own experiences, as if to both reassure themselves and reassure me at the same time. I’m sure we’ll get past all of this in time, and we’ll all agree that we’re doing what we need to be doing. It’s with that thought in mind that I’m finding that the most common denouement to these conversations is a simple statement on their part with respect to homeschooling: “I couldn’t do it.”

Actually, you probably could.

If you felt you needed to.

Seriously. When have you, as a parent, not tried to do what you felt your kid needed? Not wanted; needed. And how often have you, in a split-second, made a judgement call as to whether something was a want or a need? I found myself in the school-supplies aisle at Target this week, and I saw parents make those calls a hundred times over. Yes, you need a binder; no, you don’t need a binder with a built-in iPad holder. Yes, you need a protractor, but I’m sure you could get by with this one instead of that one. Yes, you need a backpack, but…yes, you need a calculator, but…on and on it went. We’re in the business of drawing those invisible lines as parents; where am I serving this kid’s needs, and where am I being wheedled into something unnecessary and indulgent?

I know where that line is in education, and so do you. We all do. If you felt as if homeschooling was a need, instead of an indulgence, you’d do it, and you’d do fine. You’d at least go down swinging, which is all most of us do anyway; some days are wondrous voyages of enlightenment and learning, and other days, we’re fighting through our frustrations just as our kids are fighting through theirs, to get their heads around writing assignments and algebraic formulas and the role of the sickle in early agriculture. Like anything, there are days that we feel like we’re doing it, and there are days we feel like we’re not.

I think that sensation – “I couldn’t do it” – is probably a good and healthy test of your own thought process on homeschooling. This was an option for us for several years, and nothing more, despite a very dear friend and counselor – the inimitable Patty Gatto-Walden – calmly taking Kathy’s hand during a counseling session, looking directly into her eyes, and saying, “you’re homeschooling in three years.” We exchanged a quick glance, one that probably betrayed the shared initial feeling of we can’t do that. And that was true, at the time, because I didn’t know everything I needed to know to perceive homeschooling for my kids as a need, not an indulgence.

But the data piled up, like snow in March here in Colorado, layer upon layer, silent drift upon silent drift, until the same instinct kicked in that makes you start pulling on boots and coats to go and shovel it. EXPLORE scores and WISC-IV data and dyscalculia information and case studies on emotional sensitivity all accumulated until Kath and I began to exchange other glances, ones that suggested that maybe, just maybe, Patty had been right. Were we really going to send a kid off to sixth grade who already tests high mastery of all of middle school and a fat wedge of high school? Were we going to undertake increasingly distant split-grading for another kid who belongs squarely in one grade for writing and reading and squarely in another for math? What about our kid who just doesn’t seem to learn anything in school because the emotional ‘noise’ is too loud? This was looking less like an indulgence with each datapoint.

In the end, Patty was right, of course, and here we are, ready to get going again, and I’m nodding and smiling in response to I couldn’t do that in all of its varieties of delivery.

I couldn’t either, once.

But I can now.

2e or not 2e?

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

― William ShakespeareHamlet

We are spending some time over this month preparing for homeschooling in September. For Dave and I, this involves more conversations with the kids, and lots of research about what’s out there in terms of tools and curriculum.

We have decided to continue a structured math curriculum for each of them. This helps us support their math learning without having to create a curriculum ourselves. For H (our dyscalculic), a Connections Academy single course worked well last year for math, and she’d like to continue this fall. We have tried, it seems, every possible variation for her in years past: math at school on a 504 plan, private tutors, LD specialists, etc. Last year was her best year so far, and although H certainly struggled, she definitely had fewer emotional issues with math, and she really learned and retained the material.

E finished Algebra through Northwestern CTD in May. The class was decent, but frankly not worth the money. As it turns out, we paid the price of a college course for a textbook, some grading, and a stamp on a transcript. Although E did have every other week chats with the teacher – which were great – she essentially taught herself algebra out of the textbook. She also loved using the Algebra Touch app on the iPad. Luckily, she enjoys learning, and she truly learned algebra inside and out. However, this year, we are moving on to try Thinkwell Homeschool (which gets good reviews from other parents) for Geometry.  We’ll use the HMH Fuse iPad app to go with it. The combination of the two will be about 1/3 the price we paid this year, with potentially higher quality instruction.

This fall will be A’s first time homeschooling. He was in a second grade GT class last year, finishing up the third grade math curriculum at school. I had him take an online, above-level math placement test to see what he really knows. As many parents have found when their kids come home, he knows more higher-level math than I had expected he would. He likes to watch Khan Academy videos to learn new math concepts, and uses IXL to practice math. One of the questions he didn’t know on the placement test was a long division question, and afterwards, he wanted to learn long division. In the “it’s awesome to be a kid in 2013” column, Dave showed him Long Division Touch on the iPad, and he learned the basics of it in about 5 minutes. (I relearned it, too!)

The post-test, though, led to a much more interesting discussion about fairness. We have never required H to perform long division by hand. She has struggled so much to learn basic math concepts that we have had to focus on what is important, and what she will need to know to survive. Long division is not, in our opinion, something that is necessary. So-we’ve had her look at it, so she understands that it exists, but when she sees problems of this nature, we have her use a calculator. In fact, her calculator skills are much better than her siblings, because this is her lifeline to math.

The natural question from my son was: why does H get to use a calculator, while I am required to do it – initially – by hand and in my head? We discussed with all of them that H has a learning disability, and gets tools for this. My son has always struggled with writing down concepts and paragraphs, and so he keyboards or uses Dragon Dictation instead of writing by hand. I explained to him that this was no different; each child gets the tools that will help them learn. He understood, and didn’t have a problem with the situation once we discussed it; he has certainly watched his sister struggle with math as he has surpassed her knowledge level this last year. Plus, he enjoys doing math, which helps. On the flip side, H has watched her brother strain to write a paragraph that would have taken her a few minutes to dash off.

The kids all got iPad Minis for the school year, and we helped each of them choose all the apps that we thought would help them the most.  Each of them also has their own laptop, which they use to access Google Drive from anywhere they want. I got to thinking, as I watched them all working away happily at their individual levels, whether it even matters anymore exactly how gifted they are, or which ones have a learning disability, too. As long as we give them the tools, they will learn what they would like to learn, at their own pace, in their own space, and in their own way, no matter what the labels.  My thinking is changing to make it so.

Third Time’s A Charm

This fall we’re at it again. For the third year in a row, we’ll be taking a child (our son, age 7) out of the local GT program and homeschooling him. He’ll join his sisters, age 10, in homeschooling full-time. We’re all excited, because this means more time, more fun, and more learning together. It means being able to stand back and watch, up close, their amazing brains and personalities. I would have never guessed the capacity for a human brain to learn something until we started homeschooling. It is nothing short of astounding.

Thankfully, though, this is our last child. Why do I say thankfully? Because Dave and I have learned some lessons ourselves after we’ve done this two years in a row. So I thought I would share what we’ve learned, and, as an added bonus, we’ll both have this post to look back on when things get dark, and we get scared. Because, as Yoda said, “you will be.”

1. Halloween is not only All-Hallow’s Eve, but also the date at which we will be convinced this is absolutely not working, and we need to send him back to school. By Christmas, everything will be fine. By spring break, we’ll be wondering how he ever went to school.

2. We will need to start from the beginning. No, the actual beginning. Even though the school says that he knows how to write a sentence, read a book, or perform basic math functions, none of these things are completely true. We will need to find out what he knows and doesn’t know, and in some cases, go back to kindergarten level.

3. There are some things he knows at a much higher level than we thought. He will show us what he really knows on these topics, and then we will stare wide-eyed at each other in amazement.

4. There will be days, or weeks (hopefully not months) in which we’ll be fighting. A lot. He’ll be fighting because he hasn’t ever really had to learn, and we’ll be fighting because we don’t understand how he learns. Eventually, we’ll all figure it out.

5. He will have no concept of how to study for a test.

6. He will not know how to critically read a piece of writing, or make inferences.

7. He will not know how to effectively find the answers to his own questions.

8. He will move through some subjects, and grade levels, faster than we thought he ever could.

9. He will find a passion, and in this area, we won’t be able to stop him from anything.

10. He will find confidence and joy. And so will we.

So here’s to the rainy days, the dark days (let’s be honest – jet black), and the sunny days ahead for all of us. It just might be a while before the sun comes out.



We’re participating in a blog hop this week with Gifted Homeschoolers Forum on “Homeschooling: Where and How to Begin.”

Check out the other posts on this topic!

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Hurray 4 Sugar Meter

I’m often of a single mind with Sugata Mitra, but when he said last week that spelling and grammar should no longer be taught as individual subjects, I had a sinking feeling that I was suddenly parting ways with a pedagogic ally.

Now, Mitra ‘revised and extended his remarks,’ as they say, on Facebook later, noting that he never said that these subjects shouldn’t be learned; only that they shouldn’t be taught. I’d like to think that his argument is that both should be taught in-line with writing, a concept I can’t say I disagree with. I’ve seen plenty of instances in which separating out a subject creates what I call Performing Seal syndrome, in which a kid can spell wonderfully so long as s/he’s only being asked to spell. Put that same kid in the context of writing a paragraph, however, and suddenly a significant percentage of that spelling skill goes out the window. The same thing can be true of grammar, where a kid might have no problems circling predicate nominatives, but can’t use them correctly in his or her own writing. My personal opinion is that we learn something best by doing it in the context of execution, not abstraction.

I do, however, take issue with the idea of not introducing words, in their fullest possible interpretation, to kids, and Mitra still seems guilty of not wanting to teach words at all. Call that didactic function whatever you want – vocabulary, spelling, etymology, et cetera – but Mitra’s contention that ‘my phone will correct my spelling’ is analogous to saying that ‘McDonald’s always has something for me to eat.’ Sure it does, I suppose, but if you never branched out and tried anything else, you’d still be on an all-McNugget diet. Your phone can, indeed, correct your spelling, but I’d call that something of a dubious victory for accurate spelling. If you can’t spell the common words typically used in text conversations, I don’t hold out much hope that you can spell anything richer or more varied. And, toward that end, your phone (and your word processor) will also – as some Mitra critics have pointed out – only correct the spelling of the word you intended to use, not the word that would work better in place of it. I’m still more than a bit disappointed that Word 2013 doesn’t pop a window open and say, ‘somber seems a bit over the top for the lighthearted subject matter you’re discussing. Have you considered maudlin?’

And yes,by way of full disclosure, I’m a word guy. I’m a proud owner of The Highly Selective Thesaurus for the Extraordinarily Literate and The Superior Person’s Book of Words and a host of other unbelievable snobby-sounding books, but beyond the ivory-tower titles, the truth is that I just love rich, interesting words. I distinctly remember learning the word gloaming; for a solid week, everything I wrote took place at sunset, just because it was such a fantastic word. Fulminant, effervescent, dalliance, cabotage, jentacular, piquant. Had I never been introduced to them, I’d never know when and how to use them, let alone spell them. Diminishing the function of introducing language to children diminishes their ultimate capacity to write effectively and elegantly.

There’s more than just an evolved lexicon lost in that decision, too; there’s the eventual loss of the fascinating story of how we came to speak this bizarre language. The richness of English is the story of its higgledy-piggledy assemblage, rivers of syntax flowing together into a broad, deep, burbling body of water. We don’t have words for shellfish, for example, without the Second Latinate Borrowing, since early Britons apparently wanted nothing to do with musles, oysters, or lopysters (the names of which all came into English from Continental Europe.) Similarly, our amazing wealth of synonyms was a direct result of the Viking Invasions, which mixed Norse and Anglo-Saxon together and provided us options like rear/raise, carve/cut, craft/skill, and hide/skin. To go the other way, and to crush out that wealth of linguistic history, is an act of destruction.

I’m not saying, to Mitra’s point, that SMS-speak isn’t useful, or that it’s not appropriate to ‘dialectize’ English on a smartphone for the sake of expediency. My SMS grammar is ghastly, all split infinitives and dangling participles, and my Oxford comma gets very lazy when texting. That’s more appropriate than you might think; English began its life as a battle language, after all, and I’m fairly sure that good grammar was not a vital part of battlefield communication. So while yes, I concur that afaik is a great SMS response when I don’t want to type out as far as I know, but I’m not going to say afaik (‘ah-fay-ik’?) in conversation or use it in formal writing. There’s a difference between SMS English, spoken (casual) English, spoken (formal) English, written (casual) English, and written (formal) English, and I put those two ‘dialects’ at opposite ends for a reason. My SMS vocabulary is as abbreviated and terse as anyone else’s, but that’s because the one is a subset of the other. I’d much rather know what I know about formal writing and cut it down for SMS purposes than to try and go the other way, a sorry state of affairs I hope Mitra isn’t espousing.

In the end, I suppose I’m still of a mind with Mitra in suggesting that spelling and grammar be learned rather than taught, although I think his SMS argument is a clumsy way to get there. And maybe, just maybe, he got his just desserts in the form of a Facebook commenter who posted ‘Hurray 4 Sugar Meter‘ in response to Mitra’s comments – perhaps as an honest (and errant) comment, his phone attempting to correct his spelling along the way, or perhaps as a tongue-in-cheek poke at Mitra’s comments. (It’s not clear which was intended). Either way, I found it an ironic – and insightful – closure to the conversation.

The Rule With No Exceptions

It’s 1:30 am, and I’m awakened from a deep sleep by an incessant beeping to have an important conversation.

It starts with one thought in my mind.

There is no cure for death. It is the rule with no exceptions.

My 1:30 am call typically goes like this: I receive a call from the night nurse on call for our practice. These nurses are incredibly knowledgeable, and try not to wake up the physicians unless they really need to. So, when they call, I know things have gotten serious with a patient’s condition, and they are looking for help. The typical patient is a geriatric patient in a nursing home, likely with dementia, who may have been declining for some time. Often, family members have taken care of the patient for years before having to place them in a nursing home. The family may have decided, after multiple hospital and emergency department visits, to focus on comfort care. Meaning, we will do everything we can to make someone comfortable in their familiar surroundings, and, if a natural death does occur, we will not interfere to bring the person back into this world.

Family members of these patients have often watched their mothers and fathers suffer from months of pain, endure care that can be humiliating (such as wearing diapers), and forget all of their family members, one by one. In the daylight, these decisions seem easier.

“Mom would not have wanted this,” they tell me. “She would have never wanted to end up this way.”

Or, “Dad was clear in his living will that he didn’t want any heroic measures.”

But at 1:30 am, it can be a different story. After I’ve spoken to the nurse at the facility about the patient’s condition, and confirmed that the patient may be “transitioning” (meaning, passing from this world), I call and speak directly with the family member who has been tasked with making decisions for this patient. Since I am the physician on call, they typically don’t know me, and I don’t know them. But we’re about to have one of the most intimate conversations two people can have at this hour.

I explain that their loved one has had a change in condition, and make sure they are comfortable if our comfort care results in the patient dying tonight. I don’t skirt around the issue, since the alternative is to call an ambulance and send them to the hospital for evaluation. I want to make sure we are clear about the decisions we are making at this very moment. I certainly can’t say for sure if their mother or father will die this evening, while I am on call. But, given the circumstances, they might.

It is said that a person’s life flashes before their eyes while they are dying. The same can be said of the family member at this hour. Every touch, every encouraging word, every disagreement, every smile, every experience with the patient is relived in that moment of the family member making the decision. The patient has either lived a life worth living, or they haven’t.  Regardless, all of that may be gone tonight, and there’s no going back from this one.

And yet, the patient must move forward at some point, too. We discuss that even if we cheat death for their mother tonight at the hospital, the true reality of mother’s life will remain,  and we will likely be back here soon, staring down the grim reaper as he waits to take this soul to places unknown.

There is no cure for death. It is the rule with no exceptions.

In the end, many of the family members opt to continue on the path that they decided on in the daylight: continue comfort care. They get up in the middle of the night and drive to the nursing home to sit by their father’s side, soaking in each last moment of his time on earth. Others are not ready, and opt to send their mother to the hospital, hoping to prolong the event for when everyone is more ready.  They understand that day is coming, but not tonight.

When my day eventually comes – hopefully when I’m old and gray – I don’t want my kids to try to hold on for too long because the time we spent together was too short. So, once I’m off the phone, I creep silently into their rooms, hug and kiss them again, and then snuggle up to my husband for the night. Enjoying each hour as it comes, no exceptions needed.