Monday, December 29, 2008

Baking Cookies at Midnight

Sometimes it's brownies at 11 pm. Sometimes it's cookies at midnight. Sometimes it's chocolate milk at 1 am. Sometimes it's a sandwich at two. Sometimes I'm so tired I just don't think I have anything left to give, but I manage to dig down deep for the energy to do that one more thing I need to do for them before I go to sleep.

Life wasn't always like this. Once upon a time I would have told them it was too late, and they should have eaten more of their dinner. Then I heard Dianna Jenner's story. A couple of years ago her daughter, Hannah was diagnosed with cancer. A few days later, she was dead.

Anytime I have to clean up one more toy, wipe up one more spill, fix one more sandwich, I think of Dianna. She would give anything to be able to clean up one more mess or fix one more sandwich at 2 am. I realize how lucky I am to have that paint spilled all over the floor and those crumbs on the couch. It just means I have children in my life. I don't have to clean their messes - I get to clean them.

If I were to find myself standing in Dianna's shoes, would it matter how polite and well behaved my children were? What would I miss? What would I regret? I have a feeling I'd miss baking cookies at midnight.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Power of a Song

It's amazing that something as seemingly simple as music can have so much impact in our lives. Pop in Def Leopard or Bon Jovi and I'm instantly in middle school again. Pearl Jam, Tom Petty, and the Chili Peppers conjure images of my college days. A song carries with is so much more than just some lyrics and some instruments. For most people, a song can bring back memories that were long forgotten. In some cases a song heard when one is at a crossroad can have the power to change lives.

Flowers are Red
by Harry Chapin

The little boy went first day of school
He got some crayons and started to draw
He put colors all over the paper
For colors was what he saw
And the teacher said..
What you doin' young man
I'm paintin' flowers he said
She said... It's not the time for art young man
And anyway flowers are green and red
There's a time for everything young man
And a way it should be done
You've got to show concern for everyone else
For you're not the only one

And she said...
Flowers are red young man
Green leaves are green
There's no need to see flowers any other way
Than they way they always have been seen

But the little boy said...
There are so many colors in the rainbow
So many colors in the morning sun
So many colors in the flower and I see every one

Well the teacher said..
You're sassy
There's ways that things should be
And you'll paint flowers the way they are
So repeat after me.....

And she said...
Flowers are red young man
Green leaves are green
There's no need to see flowers any other way
Than they way they always have been seen

But the little boy said...
There are so many colors in the rainbow
So many colors in the morning sun
So many colors in the flower and I see every one

The teacher put him in a corner
She said.. It's for your own good..
And you won't come out 'til you get it right
And are responding like you should
Well finally he got lonely
Frightened thoughts filled his head
And he went up to the teacher
And this is what he said.. and he said

Flowers are red, green leaves are green
There's no need to see flowers any other way
Than the way they always have been seen

Time went by like it always does
And they moved to another town
And the little boy went to another school
And this is what he found
The teacher there was smilin'
She said... Painting should be fun
And there are so many colors in a flower
So let's use every one

But that little boy painted flowers
In neat rows of green and red
And when the teacher asked him why
This is what he said.. and he said

Flowers are red, green leaves are green
There's no need to see flowers any other way
Than the way they always have been seen.

A few years ago, when my oldest son was in the fourth grade, we were having a really hard time with his teacher. She believed in conformity, only she called it "community." She didn't seem to appreciate Toby's own personal drummer. In fact, she seemed downright determined to bash that drum into oblivion. I came to a point when I realized this was not a good environment for Toby to be in, but I thought maybe we could make it to the end of the year. I was dealing with a good bit of inner turmoil centered on balancing my commitments with my son's needs.

In the middle of all of this turmoil, a friend sent a copy of Harry Chapin's lyrics to me. When I read the final verse, I was crushed. I realized the damage that my son was enduring could become permanent. I realized his needs vastly outweighed any commitments I believed I had. First and foremost, my commitment was to him. I turned in my resignation and his withdrawal the next day.

Two years later, I am still trying to undo the damage a little bit each day. Just today, I had to remind him that I actually want his opinion when I ask him a question, rather than what he thinks I want to hear. I get a little more of my boy back each day. I'm just glad I was able to change his environment while he could still see most of the colors.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Living and Learning Together

This month, like so many others before, is speeding by. September has been a great month full of many quiet moments and fun adventures.

Trevor pulled out a pin map, and we spent one afternoon attempting to label Australia and Oceania.

We gave up when we got to the tiny islands.

Abby tried to figure out how to play Bakugan.

Trevor created a new use for the Lord of the Rings Risk pieces.

Apparently television remotes make excellent fortress walls when accompanied by a plastic volcano.

Charles and Abby bonded over a game of Strawberry Shortcake.
"Can you get that key, Daddy?"

Charles and Trevor attended a cookie decorating funshop at the Live and Learn Conference.

Abby explored the creek at the Blue Ridge Assembly. It was a lot of fun to watch leaves and twigs float down the mini waterfalls.

Trevor made some new friends.

Toby helped the younger kiddos smash bananas for nitrogen ice cream.

Abby somehow managed to fall asleep in the gaming room at Live and Learn.

Imagine four different groups of people all playing Rock Band at the same time. Throw in a couple of laptops running various video games and several groups of kids playing Yu-Gi-Oh!
Oh to be three...

Abby and her friend, Carmella, preformed their version of a play. It was something about a princess and a maraca playing dragon, but the play was greatly lacking in dialogue so I was never able to actually figure out the plot.

Trevor looked out across the Blue Ridge Mountains from the top of Chimney Rock.

I experienced a few nervous moments as Charles helped Abby walk along a wall on the edge of a mountain. It's scenes like this that show what a really great dad he is. Instead of tearing the kids down with "No", he empowers them by helping them do dangerous things more safely.

Monkey see, monkey do.

Trevor experienced a real waterfall for the first time.

Not to be outdone, Toby also made a trek to the base of the waterfall.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bring Up A Child...

I recently had several conversations with various people about hobbies and activities. Specifically, what is a valid way for an individual to invest his time and money? I've met many parents who feel the need to control this aspect of their children's lives. They assign various values to various activities based on their own interests and experiences. They usually devalue their children's interests as a waste of time simply because they do not enjoy the activity and do not see its value.

While pondering this issue of activities of activities and their value, I recalled the verse: "Bring up a child in the way he should go, and he shall not depart from it." This means many things to many people, but I believe most people miss the true meaning of the phrase "the way he should go." Some people interpret it to mean "the way you want your child to develop". Some people think it means "with a good moral background". Some see it as a call for firm discipline. All of these interpretations could lead to rebellion, and therefore cannot possibly be the true interpretation of this phrase. In order for the interpretation to be correct, it must be true 100% of the time.

A wise person I once knew provided the only interpretation for the phrase "the way he should go" I have ever heard that is valid 100% of the time. He said you could replace this phrase with "according to his bent". This is a woodworking phrase. It basically means when you carve a piece of wood, you have to work with the bends, not against them, or your finished piece will not be as beautiful as it could have been. How does this relate to children? Each child is an individual with a unique path in life. You cannot choose this path for your child. You cannot define success for your child. If you force your child to do the things you think he "should" do, the person he becomes as an adult will not be as beautiful as he could have been. Instead, model the qualities you would like your child to have, such as kindness and helpfulness, rather than force them. Let him decide what is a valid use of his time based on his own interests. Bring him up on his own path - not the one you create for him. If it truly is his own path, he will not depart from it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Back to School

It's back to school time for most of the kids in our area. However, my kids scarcely notice as they continue with their perpetual summer vacation. We do notice the neighbors can't play because they have homework, and we also notice we are suddenly getting questions and strange looks from shop clerks who have sent their kids back to school already. Most of all, we notice the places we love to go, such as EdVenture and the aquarium, aren't quite as crowded anymore.

A child starting kindergarten today will spend approximately 2,300 days confined to a classroom. Considering this child has only been alive for about 1,800 days so far, this is more than an entire lifetime for a five year old. Once that child has survived over 14,000 hours of institutionalization, he will move on to four decades of work followed by a brief retirement. He will spend the vast majority of his life, like so many other people, trying to get "there," never realizing there is no "there" to get to, and in his pursuit of this mystical goal, he will not have the chance to enjoy the journey.

I've come to the sudden realization, that we should not ask a child what he wants to be when he grows up. Instead, we should ask what he wants to be today. It is during the unscheduled time when a child is allowed to be what he wants to be today that he will discover who he truly is. During this journey of self discovery, you can rest assured the child will aquire the knowledge he needs to be who he is. With this in mind, I am off to the aid of a wise wizard, a brave knight, and a fair maiden of surpassing creative abilities.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Time to Breathe

We are finally starting to come out on the other end of an entirely over scheduled summer. I know this is my own fault. I didn't want the kids to miss out on anything. I failed to take into account the unexpected in my planning.

We started June at a full run by having our roof redone, during which time it rained inside my house due to a faulty tarp on a partially clad roof. While this project was going on, the kids attended Zoo Camp, I damaged the ligaments in my ankle when I fell down the stairs, and my 10yo had a friend visit for a week. Since the roofing crew was family, they stayed at our house during this time, also. Just as the roof was finished and the friend went home, we had a visit from some friends we haven't seen in a while. This was followed by art camp for my 7yo, which prompted me to learn to drive with my left foot. I ended June by ripping out all of the carpet in our house to uncover not-so-beautiful wood floors. We also decided to play musical bedrooms for the third time in less than a year. This time we moved the boys downstairs and decided to convert the entire upstairs into a fabulous master suite, which is far from fabulous right now.

We started July with a bang - literally. We attended an awesome fireworks show at the home of the Del Rossi family. We followed this by a visit from a friend and her four children, as well as my niece, who was attending camp at EdVenture while my 10yo was in camp at the Art Museum. At this point, we are still in the middle of switching bedrooms and refinishing floors. Immediately after our guests departed, we began to pack for our trip to Sea World. Our time in Florida turned out to be pretty great! In addition to not having to wait in line for any of the rides at Sea World, we also had the opportunity to visit the Worlds Largest McDonald's Playplace - imagine McDonald's, Chuckie Cheese, an ice cream shop, and Panera all rolled into one place. After our trip to Florida, we had a few days to recuperate before a camping trip on Lake Moultrie. After the camping trip, my 10yo decided to stay behind with his grandparents, and the rest of the family went home to begin refinishing a heart pine floor covered in mastic.

It's August now, and my 10yo is home and the floor is almost finished. Both boys have birthdays this month, and the Live and Learn conference is getting closer. At this point, I'm just looking for time to breathe and a little calm in the midst of chaos before we dive back in and move on with our crazy life. Would I trade any of the chaos of this summer? No, I enjoyed every minute of it. OK, well maybe not the parts where it rained inside my house and I injured my ankle, but the rest I'll keep.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Summer Vacation?

As the local schools get out for summer vacation, we find ourselves continuing on our learning journey without regard to clock or calendar. With Maria Montessori, Alfie Kohn, and James Paul Gee as my guides, I continue to seek out authentic learning opportunities for my children.

I continue to be amazed by what my children learn without the traditional "skill and kill" methods. I told my 10yo how to add decimals one time, and he can now add decimals flawlessly. Amazingly, he did not have to fill out pages and pages of decimal addition problems to acquire this skill. My 7yo recently started talking to me about scythes, only he pronounced it with a hard "c" and a soft "th" because that is the way he read it. I was pleased with this little pronunciation error because it showed me that my little language challenged boy is trying to read increasingly difficult words. Amazingly, this was only able to happen when I backed off and stopped asking him to read things.

ZooCamp was a huge hit with all of the children. My 7yo hated the first day, but after he got over the initial shock of being thrown into a group of complete strangers with a familiar face nowhere to be seen, he enjoyed the rest of his week. He was quite excited about petting a penguin. My 10yo was able to go behind the scenes in the gorilla house, which made me quite envious. My three year old thought camp was the best thing that ever happened to her, and she can't understand why other establishments don't have camp for three year olds.

We have more learning opportunities on the horizon. Both boys have art camp in the next few weeks, and we will be going to Sea World soon. This, of course, is in addition to the myriad other learning opportunities that happen on a daily basis when the kids say, "Mom, how do you ...?" or "What is ...?" or "Can you help me....?" And there are always those things they figure out on their own without fanfare. I usually don't discover those until weeks later when I realize they are now doing something they couldn't do before.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Year of Transformation

We are nearing the end of another school year - our first year unschooling. I have a mere five days left to record. Learning happens 365 days a year in our house. However, according to the state of South Carolina, I only have to keep records for 180 of those days. As I looked back over those records, I am able to see the transformation that took place during the past few months.

My 10 year old started last fall with the belief that he was supposed to do the easiest thing possible in order to check that subject off on his list of "things to do to keep mom off my back". We redesigned his record book in order to facilitate his transition from quantity to quality. We wanted him to undergo a paradigm shift from the content based subject oriented learning that he endured during his last year in school to a more organic, child centered learning model. We threw out the schedules and encouraged him to choose his learning path. Along the way, he discovered Shakespeare through a production of Julius Caesar that we attended. He learned about history, mythology, and ancient civilizations through comic books and video games. He learned about the metric system through science experiments and erector sets. He experimented with the laws of physics through bowling, outdoor play, and building blocks. One day, he even baked a castle using homemade icing mortar and blocks cut from pound cake. He learned to delight in using his own unique problem solving methods to create mathematical solutions faster than mom and most cash registers. One week he fiddled with a little calculus as he experimented with several exponential series. Through it all, he has maintained his unquenchable need to devour the written word by reading anything he can get his hands on.

During the past few months I have come to accept and even rejoice in my 7 year old's preferred method of learning. For this exceptional boy of mine, learning must be entertaining, and it usually involves a video screen of some sort. Learning has never come easy for this sweet boy. I still remember his frustration when, at three and a half years old, he could not tell me what color popsicle he wanted. Language has always been a challenge for him, and it continues to thwart his attempts to communicate fluidly. Today, he has learned to use the phrase, "certain thing," to fill in for the words he cannot recall. Reading is especially challenging for a boy who has trouble recalling words. It is somewhat difficult to read the word "shoulder" when you have forgotten that such a word even exists. Because of his language and reading difficulties, he has learned to love television programming such as Animal Planet and The Science Channel. "How It's Made" is his favorite television program. As I watch him play his favorite video game, Heroes, I rejoice at the skills I see blossoming. He continues to develop his math and reading skills through the game prompts and labels, as well as the purchase and allocation of resources. He has to use problem solving and strategy skills. However, as I listen to him playing, I realize the most spectacular learning occurs with his imagination and conversation skills. He immerses himself in the game and carries on pretend dialogues in a way that he was never able to playing with his toys as a toddler and preschooler. I am joyfully embracing this method of learning that is doing for my Aspie what no other therapy was able to do.

The greatest transformation has taken place in me. I have learned to let go. I have learned to respect my children's choices. I have learned to watch my children's development unfold like an awakening flower bud rather than trying to shape them like a lump of mud. I am learning to follow the child.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Anne of Green Gables

I recently started reading the Anne of Green Gables series of books by L. M. Montgomery which was first published in 1908. I couldn't help comparing Anne's world with mine. As I thought about how much things have changed, I also noticed that much is still the same. Certain passages jumped out at me, as I pondered their relevance to today and the future.

'Diana, you might take Anne out into the garden and show her your flowers. It will be better for you than straining your eyes over that book. She reads entirely too much' - this to Marilla as the little girls went out - 'and I can't prevent her, for her father aids and abets her. She's always pouring over a book. I'm glad she has the prospect of a playmate - perhaps it will take her more out-of-doors.' (Chapter 12)

I found this passage interesting for two reasons: (1) After 100 years, mothers still sound the same (simply insert tv or video games in the place of books), and (2) We now worry that our children don't read enough where mothers of the past worried that their kids read too much. This lead me to imagine mothers in 2108 complaining that "Johnny won't play his video games."

During Jane Austen's time (appoximately 200 years ago), novel writing was not considered a worthy carreer, and apparently this idea was still held true by some as recently as 100 years ago.

'I think this story-writing business is the foolishest yet,' scoffed Marilla. 'You'll get a pack of nonsense into your heads and waste time that should be put on your lessons. Reading stories is bad enough but writing them in worse.' (Chapter 26)

Again, something that was once considered a waste of time is now considered an essential skill.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Video Game Curriculum?

Radical Unschoolers have known for years what mainstream educational researchers are just now discovering: video games are more educational than traditional teaching methods. James Paul Gee, a reading professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of 'What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy'. In a gamezone interview and again in Wired Magazine, he explains "why games, not school are teaching kids to think." However, he feels parental control also presents an obsticle to realizing the full educational value of video games. "People will object to games that have a variety of choices because they can't limit the choices their children make. However, if you remove that type of ambiguity, you've removed any sense of morality from the game because there are no consequences to bad decisions." In life parents may ask little Sally, "Do you want your red coat or your blue one" while patting themselves on the back for being good parents who allow their child to make choices. However, they never allow "no coat" to be an option, thereby eliminating the potential for real learning. In this way, video games, which show how choices affect future outcomes, are more like real life than the sheltered, consequence free, environment many parents have created. Then again, these same parents use the word "consequence" as a euphamism for punishment.

Several research studies have been conducted on the relationship between video games and education. In one study, "Psychologist Dr David Lewis discovered more than three-quarters [of 13 and 14 year olds] absorbed facts contained in a historical video game as opposed to just more than half who were presented with the same information in written form." Another study, using 7 to 16 year olds, "concluded that simulation and adventure games - such as Sim City and RollerCoaster Tycoon, where players create societies or build theme parks, developed children's strategic thinking and planning skills." Parent and teachers of the children in this study also noted improvement in math, reading, and spelling skills. Contrary to the popular belief that video games are socially isolating, the children in the study felt that team work was the most important aspect of video games. "Negotiation, planning, strategic thinking and decision-making" were also found to be important skills involved in gaming.

With a plethora if information emerging on the benificial aspects of video games, many indviduals in government and education are starting to examine how this information can be used to their advantage. They are looking into the feasability of using video games in the classroom. However, as with so many other potential learning tools, they are gravely in danger of missing the boat. "What's needed, one researcher said, is research into which features of games are most important for learning--and how to test students on the skills they learn in games." This statement underscores all that is wrong with traditional education and the mentality that children must be fed information and then tested to make sure they swallowed it properly. They are looking to glamorize the dysfunctional teaching methods they are already using. Their goal is still to shove a bunch of facts down the throats of captive children who will in all likelyhood never need most of those facts. This is evident by the concerns some of these educator have over the accuracy of the information in games like Age of Empires III. We must re-examine the definition of "educated". Does one define "educated" as the ability to recall facts or, rather, the ability to learn. If you, too, favor the second definition, then I invite you to join me in a resounding chorus of "Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!"

Saturday, January 19, 2008

I'll Learn It Then

Recently, ds1 and I were filling in his progress report, per a state requirement. I explained the three possible "grades." Each topic (decimals, research skills, oral reading, etc.) could receive one of the following marks: S for satisfactory, P for progress noted, N for needs improvement. I explained that N did not mean that he was lacking in any way. It simply meant that he has not been exposed to that topic. He was not appeased by this explanation, and the following dialogue ensued:

ds1: Why do I have to learn what I need to learn? Why can't I just learn what I want to learn?

me: What happens when you grow up and find out you need to know something you didn't learn?

ds1: I'll learn it then.


This is how I know this life without school is working for him. He really gets it. He learns what he wants to learn when he wants to learn it, either because he is interested in the information, or he needs that knowledge at the moment. Most importantly, he is aware that when he needs to know something he is fully capable of learning what needs to be learned.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

What Does It Mean To Be Well Educated?

This is the question proposed by Alfie Kohn in his 2004 collection of essays. He states that before we can educate someone we must know what the goal is - the desired outcome. Even if we haven't consciously decided on an outcome, we are working towards one. Then we are faced with the question of whether or not we are working towards a desired outcome. He goes on to say, "The trick, however, when deciding what we really want, is to look beyond the surface and think past the short term." Only then can we evaluate whether our short term goals are supporting our long term outcome.

This being said, when educating a child, one must look ahead to the adult that child will become. If your goal is for your child to graduate at the top of his class and go to an Ivy League school, then that grade on Friday's math test suddenly becomes monumentally important. If, however, your goal is for your child "to have the desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends" (Kohn, 10), then that test suddenly becomes inconsequential or possibly even damaging. Indeed, if your goal is to create a lifelong learner, then graduation itself becomes superfluous because graduation symbolizes the end of an education which, in actuality, should never end.

This brings me to my next point: achievement vs. learning. Most people do not realize that these two concepts are not the same, especially when concerned with children. Learning is "the modification of behavior through practice, training, or experience" or the acquisition of new knowledge or skills. Achievement is the "act of achieving; attainment or accomplishment." Take, for example, the laundry. When I get all of the laundry generated by five people through the washing and drying process, I have truly achieved something. However, I have not learned anything because the learning associated with this task was accomplished years ago. Now for a converse example: I love Designed To Sell. I have watched untold hours of this show, all while achieving absolutely nothing. It seemed as if I was merely entertaining myself... until it came time to sell my house. Only then was my learning visible - not on a test, but in real life application - when I received two offers during the first month the house was listed.

I would very much like for my children to grow up to be self-assured, caring, compassionate individuals who know who they are and what they want to do with their lives. I want them to be able to make competent decisions. I want them to be comfortable with their learning processes to the point that they continue to enjoy learning throughout their lives. That being said, our short term goals should be limited to maintaining their safety and well being, giving them plenty of safe opportunities to make real choices, providing opportunities for them to be exposed to new experiences, and most importantly, allowing them plenty of time to be kids - time to explore who they are and what they like and don't like. With an education plan like that, who has time for school?