It was a few weeks before Christmas while I was gently tucking a four-year old Aristotle into his car seat when the hysterical crying began. We were leaving Grandpa’s house as we had done a million times before, and to me nothing appeared out of the ordinary, but Aristotle was beside himself with screams of “I want the blue light!” A quick mental checklist confirmed that neither we nor Grandpa had a toy, book, or device with a prominent blue light, so what could possibly be causing Aristotle’s distress? He simply could not clarify what blue light he was referring to, and all I could think of was that he must have previously seen a blue Christmas light on one of the nearby houses that was now burnt out.
Despite my reassurances that the light would soon be fixed, Aristotle’s intense crying continued for several hours (no, that is not an exaggeration), and this same scenario repeated after every visit to Grandpa for several months. And then, one miraculous spring day Aristotle happily climbed into his seat without any sign of a meltdown at all. I was completely overjoyed at this turn of events but also incredibly curious as to what had changed. Was the blue light back or had he simply come to terms with its absence, and dare I ask this question lest I rekindle the trauma of the last few months. In what was probably not the smartest parenting decision I have ever made, I asked, and to my utter amazement found out that the “blue light” was indeed back and the world in Aristotle’s eyes was as it should be. It turns out that the blue light was actually the blue reflector that is placed on the street to mark the location of fire hydrants, not a malfunctioning holiday light after all. Grandpa’s street had been resurfaced prior to Christmas, and the blue reflector had not been replaced until Spring.
So, what does this have to do with homeschooling? Well, it demonstrates the severity of one of the hurdles many children with autism and sensory integration disorders deal with: adjusting to change. Managing all the physical, social, and sensory inputs that come with a change in situation, even when it involves moving from an unpleasant task or location to a pleasant one, takes a tremendous amount of energy for many of these children, and it is often just too much for them to handle. Aristotle and Archimedes originally attended the public brick and mortar schools in our area, and though the experience was difficult for them and was one which they desperately wanted to leave, switching them to homeschool represented a “change” and presented us with a unique set of problems that have persisted for years.
I have often wondered what our homeschooling experience would have been like had we started homeschooling our children right from preschool without ever sending them to a traditional brick and mortar school. There have been many times throughout the years when I’ve realized that my boys would have more effectively learned many things if we had had the freedom to approach subjects in ways more suited to their learning styles and interests from the very beginning. And, I think their whole attitude towards school and learning would be much more positive – at this point, if I called playing video games “school,” they wouldn’t go anywhere near their game consoles ever again!
The question of when to start homeschooling your children is an extremely complex one, and there are equally compelling reasons to complete their entire pre-college education at home as there are to divide that education between brick and mortar schools and your very own living room. I often feel that had I started teaching Aristotle and Archimedes at home beginning with preschool, we would have been able to do the more creative, hands-on, fun type of projects that would have fostered a love of learning and boosted their natural curiosity. Furthermore, they would have been educated in this way from the beginning and would not have had to adjust to a change from traditional lectures, textbooks, worksheets, and classroom operations. An adjustment that has brought serious tears, frustration, and setbacks to both boys and their mom alike.
Aristotle is fundamentally an auditory learner though he does possess some strong visual and kinesthetic abilities that are only limited by his sensory and neuromuscular difficulties. As a result of his auditory learning style, he actually excels in the traditional brick and mortar school’s curriculum structure. He easily listens to a lecture, reads printed material, and completes standard worksheets, but he literally hates this format and longs to complete more creative endeavors such as model building, watching a play, or doing an experiment. However, whenever we tried to incorporate these types of assignments, he quickly became frustrated and discouraged because in his mind that is not how school is done, and it is too overwhelming to learn any concept in a new way, even a way that he actually wants. Many children with autism have extreme difficulty with “rigid” thinking and get stuck with a single viewpoint that no amount of reasoning or demonstration can modify. Aristotle simply can’t think outside of the “learning box” he already knows. I suspect that if we had homeschooled Aristotle from the beginning incorporating many of these projects, he would have acquired a different “learning box” and would be comfortable with and enjoy this type of education.
And, what about Archimedes? Archimedes is a very visual, kinesthetic learner who struggled terribly with the traditional public school’s structure. While he has more easily made the transition to the visual, hands-on type projects that better suit his learning style, he suffers significantly from the many deficiencies in his understanding of the foundations of math and language that weren’t laid effectively when he was in an environment not conducive to his learning style.
Do my experiences suggest that homeschooling from the beginning is the best choice? Not necessarily. Attending a traditional school, even for a brief time, exposed my boys to the type of learning environment they will most likely encounter in a typical university classroom. A lecture in a room full of other people, worksheets, notetaking, and standardized tests will at least be familiar to them and won’t represent another overwhelming “change” in their school life. I also benefitted immensely from the wisdom and experience of their teachers, therapists, and fellow parents which ultimately saved me valuable time in understanding how best to educate my unique children once I did bring them home.
However, if I could reset time and do things all over again, I think I would chose to homeschool Aristotle and Archimedes from the very beginning. I think we could have built a curriculum and learning environment that would have given Aristotle a more varied and enjoyable way to experience education and Archimedes a more substantial foundation on which to learn all the wonderful things this world has to offer. I might have even been able to help them accept change and the loss of a blue light a little more easily.
Hello, Everyone! I would like to sincerely apologize for my long absence from this blog and for the self-indulgent tone of this particular post, but life and some serious self-doubt do sometimes get in the way of consistent productivity and strictly objective composition.
When I first started my blog, I was excited to share my experiences homeschooling my two gifted, special needs sons as I suspected there were many others dealing with many of the same issues I had been addressing for years. I had hoped that my struggles and victories would be both a source of advice and encouragement as well as a source of comfort to anyone trying to homeschool children similar to my own.
As I interacted more and more with other bloggers and homeschoolers, I realized I was definitely not alone in the “homeschooling multiple children with special needs” department (very comforting), but I also realized that I was far less experienced and educationally qualified than many of the other bloggers currently posting their stories online (very intimidating and discouraging for this Type A, perfectionist person).
Did I mention that all of these bloggers also have wonderful and witty writing styles that I, quite frankly, do not? The constant inner voice of my high-school English teacher detailing proper essay writing was dictating a writing style that certainly wasn’t more compelling than others trying to relate the same ideas as me. I started to doubt the usefulness of my blog and truly felt that I had nothing unique to contribute to either the homeschooling or special needs community. There were far too many professionally trained teachers, doctors, therapists, and seasoned homeschoolers with strong support networks and engaging writing styles out there for me to have any kind of expertise or experience that was of value to anyone.
I am a very good book learner, but I think I am a very slow life learner. I am definitely getting older, and life has thrown our family quite a few curve balls in the last few years that have finally, maybe, made me realize a thing or two about what really matters in our short time on earth and where I fit in this world. And I do have a unique voice and an incredible, wonderful, unique family whose individual stories can be of significance to others even if it is only to bring a smile to someone’s face or to ignite a sliver of hope for a brief moment in a reader’s otherwise hectic day. While my experiences may mimic those of others, my personal set of circumstances and way of communicating may just resonate with someone in a special way that others cannot.
I am also an intensely private person, as are my husband and children. But, I have learned that the things that have helped me the most through all the tough times in my life are the heart-felt, personal revelations of others and their responses to my own personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Knowing that you are not alone, that others care about you, and that you have made a positive impact on someone else are priceless realizations. Being willing to share your stories, even those that expose your imperfections (utterly terrifying for someone like me), is what connects you to those who are looking for inspiration and hope from your personal narrative.
So, I am back with a renewed drive and updated mission to share more of my experiences not only homeschooling my two boys but also working with their specific diagnoses. I may even break a few grammar rules along the way all in the hopes that you will find a tidbit of help, comfort, or fun in what I have seen in my amazing and unbelievably loving journey with Aristotle and Archimedes. Thank you for joining me!
Christmas is just around the corner, and while most people don’t really think of homeschooling supplies as Santa’s first choice of a gift, there are many wonderful books, science kits, art supplies, and unique online programs that would delight most children and provide welcome relief to a parent’s strained homeschool budget.
Throughout the years, I have discovered many incredibly useful, online, homeschool suppliers, and I thought this holiday season would be a good time to introduce everyone to a few of my absolute favorites. I have relied on these sites not only for the purchase of outstanding materials but also for research and inspiration in the development of Aristotle and Archimedes’ various lesson plans. I will be featuring one site per week for the next four weeks.
This week’s featured favorite “go-to” resource for finding great curricula and loads of inspiration in absolutely every subject is the Homeschool Buyer’s Co-op. This incredible service was started by Brett Walker, a homeschooling father, who recognized that homeschooling individuals could receive similar purchasing discounts to those enjoyed by many school districts by working together as a large buying group. The co-op is completely free to join though their website can be viewed in its entirety without joining the group giving potential members an opportunity to see what types of products and savings are offered before deciding to register. Joining the co-op requires no commitment from you; it simply offers you the ability to make purchases through the co-op’s very user-friendly website.
The Homeschool Buyer’s Co-op offers a myriad of products in virtually every subject homeschoolers study from world languages, math and science, art and music, and history and social studies. They even offer deals on special needs products and driver’s training programs. The various offerings include access to online programs such as Plato Science, Adaptive Learning, or Youth Digital, access to discounted purchases and delivery of physical textbooks, math manipulatives, or science equipment, and access to discounted purchases and immediate download of educational pdf files. While many of the programs are available only for a limited period of time or require a minimum number of buyers, I have found that most products become available multiple times a year at the maximum discounted rate due to the popularity of this service. They also feature many free products and a “SmartPoints” program for additional savings.
Each product has a detailed description of the item with links to the developer’s website for additional information. The website will alert you to opportunities to try a product prior to purchase if such a trial is available through the product’s developer. The co-op’s listing clearly indicates whether the item is a physical product to be mailed to you, an access code, or a downloadable file and details the time frame for delivery of the product as well as the price of the item. The co-op covers its expenses by charging a small fee (usually in the one to five dollar range) on top of the product’s listed price. This additional fee is clearly disclosed in the product’s listing so the buyer knows exactly what his or her costs will be when assessing whether or not to purchase a specific item.
I have purchased many products through the Homeschool Buyer’s Co-op and have always had a smooth and easy transaction. The one time an access code did not immediately appear in my mailbox was a situation which their customer service representative corrected in a matter of minutes. The savings I have gained from this site has allowed me to purchase additional materials for our school that have significantly enriched our overall homeschool experience.
One of the best aspects of this wonderful service is the ability to thoroughly evaluate a product before purchasing it and to assess a large number of similar products in one sitting. For example, when searching for a science curriculum, I prefer a secular program. At the Homeschool Buyer’s Co-op, I can easily review a product, and if I find that the curriculum in question is religiously based, I can simply move to the next product on the page. It really is a wonderful resource for finding a large variety of materials within a given subject, and it has frequently been a valuable reference for finding a number of different types of products to complete an area of study.
Some of the products we have purchased through the co-op have been subscriptions to Thinkwell math programs, Wordly Wise, Intellego Unit Studies, and Driver’s Education. Many of these programs were purchased at a significant discount and all were immediately available and problem-free transactions.
I hope you will stop by the Homeschool Buyer’s Co-op and spend some time browsing its many offerings. You just might find a gift or two for the special people in your life!
Next week we’ll look at my favorite science supply site: Home Science Tools
There are times when homeschooling one’s children can be the most frustrating, stressful, and, quite frankly, unsuccessful endeavor you will ever attempt. Through the years, I have had my share of days where I felt completely defeated and absolutely unqualified to teach my children even the most basic of subjects.
These days would lead to sleepless nights spent relentlessly analyzing why things had gone so terribly wrong. These nights would, in turn, lead to days filled with exhaustive research on curricula, lesson ideas, learning styles, and any other thing I could find to help us. Eventually, I would feel like I understood what my boys needed and a small ray of hope would appear. If I just tried X and Y, everything would work out, and most of the time it did – at least for a little while.
All this analysis and research yielded some good results and was definitely worth all the effort, but I have found that the greatest success and joy in teaching comes when your child has an “a-ha” moment, and those moments rarely come from your carefully crafted lessons. They have a habit of sneaking up on you in the most unexpected ways.
Not long ago, Archimedes had a bit of a meltdown over the value of pi. He understands that it represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. We physically proved it with string and a bunch of mixing bowls. Lots of mixing bowls, lots of times. He gets how it’s calculated and how it’s used throughout mathematics, but he doesn’t like its value. Why isn’t the ratio 4.21 or 5.89? Why, in the grand cosmic scheme of things, does this ratio turn out to be 3.14 specifically? Oh… well… um. Yeah, he had me there. Time for a sleepless night and a day of “googling” theoretical mathematics.
As it turns out, Archimedes was sitting beside me while I was scouring the internet in hopes of finding some way to explain pi’s specific value (other than, “Just accept it!” or “Because Mommy said so!”) when he noticed an odd entry for “Japanese multiplication” in the search results.
Multiplication is a particularly painful process for Archimedes. While he has mastered the standard “western” procedure for completing multiplication problems, he has never felt like he understands why this process works, and he is extremely frustrated by the amount of writing it requires. So, just for fun, we clicked on the link and watched a video in which “Japanese multiplication” was demonstrated. And the “a-ha” moment occurred!! Just like that, out of the blue, without any of my meticulous planning!
Japanese multiplication is a visual method of completing multiplication problems. Though many people refer to this method as Japanese, it is not actually known who originally devised this technique. Japanese, Chinese, and Indian cultures have all been credited with its development a one point or another. The method uses the visual intersection of lines representing the ones, tens, and hundreds places in numbers to calculate the product of a multiplication problem. A quick search on YouTube will reveal many good videos on this subject.
As Archimedes watched the video, his eyes lit up and he exclaimed, “That’s how it works! That’s so cool!” My son who will do anything to avoid using any type of writing implement promptly pulled out three colored pencils and began “drawing” multiplication problems just for fun! I used to watch his shoulders sag as he resolutely wrote out multiplication problems on his dry erase board, but now he actually gets his colored pencils out for calculations without hesitation or reminders and happily draws his lines and counts his dots.
It was such a pleasure to see Archimedes understand something that had long been a mystery for him and to see him actually apply that new understanding to different situations. And, it all came about from an impulsive click on a random link that showed up in an unrelated search! While I still spend many sleepless nights and active days trying to build that perfect homeschool experience for my children, I have learned that sometimes it’s best just to let things happen naturally and let the boys explore on their own. Sometimes following a tangent or a different line of questioning leads to awe-inspiring revelations in a completely different topic. These discoveries have proven more valuable than any planned academic study has ever been for us.
I am a Type A, ultra-organized, have-to-know-everything-in-advance type of person so following a path without knowing where it goes is actually quite difficult for me. But seeing the happiness and growth that comes from your children suddenly grasping an elusive concept is an unbelievable joy. I truly do relish our unexpected, but welcome, “a-ha” moments.
Have you or your kids had some unexpected “a-ha” moments, too?
Aristotle despises math! Okay, the original Aristotle probably loved math, but my Aristotle quite literally hates it; a fact that has perplexed me from his earliest interactions with the topic. Math always struck me as a very logical, structured, rule-oriented subject, something that should appeal to my very rule-abiding, structure-loving child. While it is true that higher level mathematics can get quite abstract and confusing, basic arithmetic is very concrete and obeys a relatively small set of rules. It also involves a certain degree of rote memorization. Following rules and possessing a computer-like ability to memorize and organize information are two of Aristotle’s many remarkable skills. If he can remember the name, type, and move set of every Pokemon ever created, math should be a piece of cake, right? Unfortunately, not for Aristotle.
I vividly remember sitting in the psychologist’s office watching Aristotle work through some pattern recognition tests when he was about four years old. I was a proud mother reveling in her child’s ability to accurately predict each pattern, and I was completely shocked and devastated when the psychologist revealed that, though Aristotle’s answers were correct, the speed with which he recognized the patterns was far, far below the average of typical children his age. Furthermore, his grasp of abstract concepts was virtually none existent.
Aristotle was fortunate enough to spend the first few years of his education in a very supportive and understanding public elementary school. He also enjoyed the attentions of some very experienced and talented teachers who were quick to identify some of his learning challenges with math and help me help him with his assignments. One thing we all noticed was that Aristotle could not complete addition and subtraction problems without assigning some sort of description to the numbers. The equation 2+3=? was too abstract for him to grasp, but if we said, “2 cats plus 3 cats equals how many cats,” he was able to complete the calculation. A number on its own meant nothing to him; it had to be attached to a physical object for him to understand it. In addition, his processing speed for math problems was abysmally slow.
Like the Aristotle of old and like many special needs students of today, Aristotle is very intelligent and has subsequently developed many of his own strategies to conquer the math tasks expected of him. Most of these strategies are something of a mystery to him (and utterly incomprehensible to me), but he is somehow able to correctly solve many math equations using his own unique numerical manipulations. He is able to perform all the basic math operations, he can execute the calculations required for many algebraic problems, and he can usually pass a math exam with excellent scores, but he has absolutely no understanding of what he is doing and cannot apply the concepts he has learned to a new, slightly different problem or an actual real-life situation.
I spent countless hours trying to understand Aristotle’s learning styles (he’s a top-down, auditory type of student) and trying to figure out what specifically bothered him about this subject all in an effort to either purchase or customize an appropriate math curriculum for him, but it was to no avail. We struggled through math lessons using a myriad of very good programs, and we managed to slowly move forward, but never to the point of clear understanding or appropriate application of the various math concepts. The one bright spot in our math studies was Aristotle’s increasing ability to verbally express his confusion with mathematical ideas as he got older. He often stated that he simply could not trust numbers. He fundamentally couldn’t accept that two plus two is always four and instinctively felt that there was some strange magic controlling the value of the numbers. Clearly, not an easy obstacle to overcome.
We live in an area with relatively few homeschoolers and while there are some popular, extra-curricular, tutoring programs reasonably close by, I was hesitant to try them due to their high cost and their use of the same, standard, teaching techniques that had failed us previously. So, we were left to just keep experimenting with and adjusting our methods as best we could. It wasn’t until Aristotle took an algebra class at the local community college that a little spark of understanding was ignited, and it was all due to the efforts of a wonderful professor who knew how to speak math in Aristotle’s language.
This professor understood all the ways students misunderstand math and was skilled in explaining things in a way struggling students could comprehend. Suddenly, concepts that had been sources of constant frustration were now manageable. Relationships between various, abstract, math concepts were now understandable to Aristotle. He started to gain some confidence in his ability to tackle increasingly complex equations and even faced advanced algebra with minimal trepidation. Mind you, he still personifies mathematics and thinks it’s a sneaky, evil construct bent on global annihilation, but he has mastered it enough to use it in his daily life and complete the math courses required to eventually transfer to a four-year college.
So, what was the lesson for this homeschooling mom in this long, complicated journey? The lesson was simply that sometimes homeschooling parents and students need outside help, and it’s okay to ask for said assistance. When we left the brick and mortar school behind, I incorrectly assumed that all traditional sources of educational support were no longer available to me. I believed that it was my sole responsibility to provide the perfect education to my children, and it was up to me to figure out how to do it successfully. Sure, I could search the internet, the library, or the words of other parents for tips and techniques, but relying on anyone else for day to day instruction seemed wrong and out of reach. In hindsight, it probably would have been much wiser to seek the help of a professional teacher or trained tutor early on to assist Aristotle than to try to teach myself how to work with his challenges. In the end, it has all worked out, but I have learned that I can’t always do it all and that sometimes getting help from others is the best way to provide that perfect education I so want for my children.
Archimedes was a brave man. After all, he dunked the king’s crown in his bathtub, designed weapons to keep the vast roman army at bay, and reputedly ordered said army to pause prior to executing him so he could complete his final set of calculations. My Archimedes is also brave in his own small way. Each day he must face numerous tasks that most would consider easy but which are, in fact, extremely difficult given his numerous disabilities. He generally approaches each of these obstacles with a smile and quiet determination. There is, however, one thing that will strike terror into his heart like no other and crush any sense of achievement and fortitude he has managed to muster that day. No, not monsters under the bed, not broccoli, not politics, not even a trip to the dentist (though that is a close second). No, that unspeakable thing is – spelling.
Spelling has been his archnemesis since early childhood, but there are several good reasons for this. My Archimedes has central auditory processing disorder and dyslexia. He also possesses a very, very strong visual-spatial learning style. Most people are reasonably familiar with dyslexia, a disorder in which the orientation of letters and numbers in words and equations appears inverted and transposed. Central auditory processing disorder or CAPD is a less well-known but equally frustrating condition. In CAPD the ears are fully capable of detecting all the volumes and pitches of normal hearing, but the brain routinely and inconsistently misinterprets the information it receives. My Archimedes cannot reliably hear all the sounds in the words we speak and is often confused as to what people are saying. You may declare, “The cat is soft and furry,” but he hears, “Ton cap is often hurry.”
Needless to say, sounding out words, recognizing common diagraphs, and spelling phonetically are incredibly difficult for anyone with this combination of disorders, and, unfortunately, most spelling curricula rely heavily on the aforementioned techniques. While there are a number of curriculums that focus on helping students with either dyslexia or CAPD, there are virtually none that address both issues simultaneously and effectively. Thus, we do what homeschoolers do and adapt existing programs to better fit our needs or even resort to creating entirely new ones. This method of customizing study materials has been incredibly successful in many of the subjects we have investigated, but I must admit, we are still struggling a lot with this spelling monster. I found great comfort in the list of famous authors (Agatha Christie), world leaders (Winston Churchill), businessmen (Charles Schwab), and entertainers (Walt Disney), just to name a few, that site director Carolyn K. identified in her article “Twice Exceptional = Exceptional Squared!” at Hoagie’s Gifted Education Page. There is hope for the spelling-challenged!
One of the programs we tried early on was All About Spelling, a very comprehensive program designed to address spelling visually, auditorily, and kinesthetically. It is a beautifully composed, very thorough, and user-friendly program in my humble opinion. It’s use of color-coded spelling tiles was especially appealing to my hands-on, visual Archimedes, but because he has disabilities in two of the three pathways this curriculum utilizes, we weren’t as successful as we had hoped. Remember, it is extremely difficult to associate a letter or letter combination with a sound if the sound you hear is different each time and the letters change orientation in an inconsistent way – no fault of the program, just a reality of Archimedes’ learning style.
A couple of years ago during a late-night, stress-inducing search for help in this area, I stumbled upon a video presented by Dianne Craft, a veteran special education teacher, who seemed to really understand CAPD, dyslexia, and many other learning challenges. In the video, Ms. Craft demonstrates a technique of drawing a picture which represents the meaning of the word but also reflects the physical shape of the word. It also attaches a simple story to the picture to help give the student a way to remember the details of the drawing and thus the letters of the word. I thought the idea was brilliant, and dutifully began using the process with Archimedes. He liked the technique and initially responded quite well to it, but drawing and coloring are extremely difficult with his neuromuscular difficulties, dysgraphia, and OCD, and the frustration of completing each picture quickly overshadowed any progress he gained in remembering the spelling of the word. I soon learned that having Archimedes do the mental work of determining what image he would choose for the word and then having me do the actual work of drawing it for him to later color worked the best. The only real drawback to this system was that eventually he tired of the process and certain words (in fact, many words) were pretty difficult to depict easily. I recently saw that Ms. Craft has launched a very informative website we and online store, and I am seriously considering purchasing her Brain Integration Therapy book to see if some of her additional techniques might serve to deal with Archimedes’ multiple learning disabilities more effectively. Both Archimedes and Aristotle benefited tremendously from the many integrative therapies employed by their amazing occupational therapists, and I have high hopes that Ms. Craft’s recommendations will have a similar positive impact for us.
There are times when homeschooling parents have to come up with completely new curriculum on their own. Each parent knows his or her own child’s skills and weaknesses and also knows how that child has responded to each program he or she has tried. I have often had to create my own programs using combinations of techniques and pieces of multiple curricula that I know my children respond to. Sometimes these things work spectacularly. Other times they fail equally spectacularly, but each time I learn a little bit more about how my children process information. And so, I am in the process of creating a spelling program for Archimedes that will play to his strengths and incorporate strategies that seem to work for him. I will be using the Dragon speech recognition software, keyboarding, patterning, and color-coding. When the details are done, and Archimedes and I have tested it out, I will share the method and let you know if it worked or not.
There are many great spelling resources on the market and on the internet, and though most do not exactly fit my Archimedes’ needs, they all have certain qualities that work very well for many students. The key is to identify those effective qualities and then modify the program to fit your individual child’s learning style. Sometimes you’ll have to take those qualities and use them to design something of your own making. This can be a difficult process, and it can be very frustrating to abandon a curriculum you’ve invested in financially and emotionally, but the rewards when your child finally conquers a difficult subject are indescribable. Please, feel free to share your successes and frustrations with the specialized materials you have had to develop for your own children in the comments! I would love to hear about them!