Ready, Set…

We’re about to launch into our very first official year of homeschooling. Schools in my town already back, but since I consider starting before September heresy, we’re starting September 1. This also happens to be the day Hogwarts always starts, so I figure we can’t go wrong with it. Never mind that it’s Labor Day. We’re starting then, dammit (I actually only realized it was Labor Day after I decided we’d start that day and decided not to bother changing anything).

I’ve spent the last few weeks photocopying all the curriculum resources I have, three-hole punching them, and filing them away into binders as well as drawing up a tentative schedule for how this fall is going to run. I think I’ve arranged things so we’ll have time to take off a month when the baby is born and my family comes to visit. I figure most homeschoolers slow down around December and just do holiday stuff anyway, so it shouldn’t be a huge deal. I’m still nervous about it though. Our ability to take off in December is dependent largely on us being on the ball before then. What if we’re not? What if we’re hugely lazy? Unfortunately you can’t plan for every contingency and at least we have a lot of flexibility built in.

Beta will be going to preschool this fall, which makes the thought of homeschooling first grade with Alpha a lot easier. I’ll have 9 hours a week with only Alpha around. Hopefully we can get all the Important Stuff done then.

I’ve also made his Schultüte, a concept my husband failed to understand.

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I showed him it when it was mostly finished and he just looked confused. “So how long does he have to wear that? Everyday?”

“What? No, it’s just for the first day.”

“So why do you wear it the first day?”

“NO! You don’t wear it at all! You put stuff in it.”

“Like a backpack?”

“NO! Like sweets! The point is to sweeten the child’s first day of school so that it’s fun and they look forward to it.”

Then he decided it was a neat tradition. I still have to buy fillers for it, though.

As far as our curriculum is concerned, I’ve opted to use materials that strike me as tried and true by various homeschoolers: Singapore Math for Math, Explode the Code for reading/phonics (along with beginner reader books), Handwriting without Tears for handwriting, History Odyssey: Ancients 1 for History, and R.E.A.L Science Life I for science. Additionally, Alpha will have  German class on Mondays, Gymnastics and Art on Tuesdays and Finnish school on Saturdays.

So with fingers crossed, we will dive right in…and hopefully everything will work out well.

In Search of ‘Normal’ Homeschoolers

I need to find some normal homeschooling friends. Desperately. I’m sure they’re out there. I’m in a homeschooling “network” of about 400 hundred people, so you’d think some of them would be more on the normal side. The problem is sorting having the tenacity to go through of the weirdo ones and still be around for the normal ones.

What do I mean by normal?

Well…one homeschooling mom decided to start a group to help her 8 year old daughter find some friends her age. So she sent out a message saying “Although Sally [not her real name] adores her younger brothers [being about 4] and loves playing with them, some times she also likes to play with kids her own age….” What the hell. Of course she wants to play with kids her own age! What kid doesn’t? I’d be concerned if she only wanted to play with boys half her age. Why so defensive in the beginning? Would anyone actually read an email saying, “My daughter wants to make more friends in her age group. Let’s get together!” and conclude that Sally hates her brothers and wants them to die painful slow deaths?

This kind of pro-active defensiveness seems to be common in homeschooling groups. Mention Halloween or Easter or any holiday that traditionally revolves  around candy and you get a chorus of “Although I hate the candy part of it…” Sigh. Yes. We know.

Along with this are the little reminders tacked on to group events or celebrations to bring a “healthy snack to share with all allergens labelled!” I’m fine with labeling the allergies bit; I’d be pissed I was chowing down on something only for it to turn out to have lobster in it and end up covered in hives. But why do they feel the need to tell us to bring a healthy snack? Are we adults or not? Can we not decide for ourselves what is healthy? One mom brought cookies to an Easter Egg Hunt (oh, sorry, Not Easter Egg Hunt. I referred to it as an Easter Egg Hunt when RSVP-ing and got promptly corrected by the leader that it was strictly secular and had nothing to do with any religious holiday whatsoever. I resisted the urge to immediately schedule a random egg hunt in September), but I guess that was okay because they were gluten free and, as everyone knows, gluten free makes it healthy. I spend most of these events resisting the urge to bring Doritos and a can of cheez whiz. Non-organic, of course.

OMG, that’s pasteurized? Don’t you know how bad that is?

Lately they’ve changed the rules and decided that if people don’t want to do potluck (probably because all the rules make it too much of a pain in the ass), you can also just bring food for you and yours. Uh, thanks?

It’s not so much that people do these sorts of things, it’s the way they go about it: completely pompous. It’s not about what they do so much as it is about how they present themselves to other people. The last thing any of these women want is to be revealed as the only mom there who let’s there kids eat sugar and who things pizza pockets are a healthy entree. And it annoys me.

I’m not sure if meeting normal homeschooling parents would help in this regard since this behavior is common to all women. We had one of DH’s co-workers over and grilled food. I commented to his co-worker’s wife that Beta could eat 4 hot dogs in one go and didn’t even care if they were cooked. She replied, awkwardly, “I bet Billy could too, but I usually don’t let him because of all the preservatives and nitrates in hot dogs.” She must have seen this meme going around Facebook, I guess:

hotdogs

I base 99.9% of my parenting decisions on facebook memes. Fact.

Uh, thanks for insinuating that I basically want my kids to get cancer, Mom Lady. Sheesh. Way to suck all the fun out of grilling.

So while most of the mommy population seems to have this problem of covering their mommy-asses whenever they say anything, ever, it seems like it’s more common among the homeschooling population. This is probably due to the fact that the homeschooling population is self-selecting. Of all parents, which ones do you think are going to be most likely to decide that public school is inadequate for their children’s needs? Ones who feed their kids 12 hot dogs a month, cancer be damned, or those whose kids would be hard pressed to recognize a hot dog? So I’ve decided to try and recruit my less militant friends who are on the fence about homeschooling. This is going to make me super annoying, I know it. It probably won’t work, either. But I want my kids to have friends. Preferably friends where I don’t feel like the other mothers are constantly outraged at how I raise my children and therefore will never let their kids play at my house and would really prefer it if they didn’t hang out with my kids at all, but they can’t actually say that because that would lack the appropriate passive-aggressiveness they’ve become accustom to. They could always stick a smiley face at the end of the email they eventually write to break the news; everyone knows no one can get mad at you if you put a smiley in there :).

Maybe I’ll start a Meet Up Group: “Normal Homeschoolers.” After all, everyone knows that if you want to get the really militant homeschoolers, you label your group “Gifted Homeschoolers” because everyone who homeschools has gifted children. Homeschoolers have one hell of a bell curve.

(As a post script, I’m basically trying to summon up the courage to keep going to homeschooling things in the hopes I will meet some kindred spirits without getting too discouraged and quitting all together)

Teaching Kids to Write

I recently met up with two of my friends from high school and we started discussing how much we benefited from the education we got in the IB Program, especially the writing skills. All of us, at one point or another in our careers have realized that we have the ability to write and structure essays that most of our peers simply lack. For me, team projects in college consisted of everyone doing their parts and then me taking them and massively editing them so that they sounded good and used proper grammar. My first friend ended up taking a college English course, where she found out that the way she learned to write in high school was too complicated and she needed to dumb it down a bit. My second friend is currently getting her Masters degree and ended up writing a ten page paper at the last minute the same week her mother died and her teacher praised her writing, saying it was uncommonly good.

This discussion made me think about teaching writing in homeschooling and the many arguments I’ve read about how you don’t need to teach your kids how to write, period, because the kind of writing you need in the workplace is completely different from the kind of writing you’re taught at school. I think that line of thinking is missing the point. The point is not that you don’t need to teach your kids how to write, it’s that you need to teach them how to write properly, or at least to develop their writing skills so they can express themselves fluently on paper.

This reminds me of all the arguments I’ve read about homeschooling vs. unschooling. Unschoolers argue that kids are natural learners and do not need formal instruction because they will naturally pick up things that they want to learn and learn it. They will naturally specialize. The problem I see with this argument is that this seems to say that some people are just naturally good writers while others are naturally bad and there’s not much you can do about it, but i know for a fact this isn’t true. Both of my friends were told by the IB Administrator in their interview that he was concerned about their writing and they were going to have to work hard to improve on it if they got into IB and both of them did. The first friend I mentioned went from getting Ds on her first IB essays to getting As in her Senior year. The second friend was in IB gifted English in spite of any writing weaknesses she or anyone else may see in her whereas I was not. They’re both very good writers because of the instruction they received and both of them are extremely grateful for it (although they may have been less grateful at the time).

And isn’t that the point of learning? To get better at things we suck at? My son sucks at talking although his brain works fine, so we spend 15 minutes every day practicing his speech. He may never grow up to be a great orator, but that’s no reason not to make sure he can speak as well as possible. Alpha seems to be chugging along well enough in  math, though, so I could theoretically not teach him in anything in that subject. If left alone, maybe he would come up with the Pythagorean Theorem eventually, but he’d probably get their a lot quicker if I just told him about it. Because the point of teaching is to show us what other people have discovered, what they’ve done and what best practices we can use to get there ourselves. Maybe this is why American schools are so bad. I tried helping my 11 year-old nephew with his math homework and he kept protesting that yes, he could solve the problems the way I showed him, but that wasn’t how his teacher wanted him to do it and so he wouldn’t get full points. Screw that. That’s bad teaching and it results in bad learning. Similarly, teaching kids that a paragraph is four sentences long and a good essay consists of an introduction, three supporting paragraphs and a conclusion, all of which support your thesis which should definitely have the individual topics of the three body paragraphs is a boring way to write, but at least it does teach kids how to organize their thoughts, which is important. It’s a good starting place. But you should start there and work your way up instead of just staying there or never getting to that point in the first place.

So, we will definitely be teaching writing. I’m not entirely sure how, but we’ll probably start by just telling narratives, which I’ll write down and improve upon so the kids can get used to the differences between talking and writing. Then hopefully they will be capable writers when they’re grown.

Is My Son Dyslexic?

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Alpha, writing his name

I’m beginning to suspect that Alpha may be dyslexic.

Since my husband is dyslexic, we’ve always been aware of the possibility of having children with dyslexia since it is genetic, but I’ve been wondering more and more since Alpha’s last parent teacher conference in April, when his teacher advised we get him evaluated for weak fine motor skills. The evaluator told us that he was behind, but not so severely that he needed therapy at this point and that the fine motor skills necessary for handwriting don’t develop until 6 or 7, anyway, so not to worry. These tend to develop in boys later than girls as a general rule. His teacher also showed me some of his handwriting books that he’s done, which in all honesty I don’t take too seriously and find it rather amusing they’re dedicating so much time teaching 4 year-olds to write when that is more of an elementary school thing. She showed me some pages, where he did pretty well, and other pages where the writing was very sloppy.

Then she brought out the binomial cube.  “This is is one of the harder works we have in the classroom. We have some Kindergarteners who can’t do it, but Alpha can do it perfectly, everytime.” She explained how they use cube. The teacher takes the cube, which has different colored sizes and dismantles it. She points to each similarly colored side to show the student that the similarly colored sides go together. Then the student is supposed to rebuild the cube. This is the sort of activity that would be easy for someone who can easily rotate objects around in their head would excel in. Rotating images in one’s head is a special talent dyslexics have.

A few other things gave me pause, as well. I’ve been going over the alphabet with Alpha since he was about 2. He knows some letters, but he seems to know them inconsistently. Sometimes he knows them, sometimes he tells me, “I can’t.” (He says this in English, with an English accent, which is hilarious). Other times, he tells me they’re different letters. He’s told me that E is M (which if you turn E on its side, isn’t unreasonable), that N is Z (again, if you turn it on its side, yes it is).

His speech problems, as it turns out are also a sign of dyslexia as dyslexics tend to have problems with blends and differentiating between sounds in the language.

I’ve also noticed he doesn’t understand rhymes. We have a German book called, “Wir Entdecken die Buchstaben” (We discover the letters) and one of the pages has activities involving rhyming. You have to find the words that rhyme together. So it will have have Topf, Zopf, Kopf mixed in with Haus and Maus. You have to know that Topf, Zopf, and Kopf rhyme and so do Haus and Maus but Topf and Haus do not. He doesn’t get it. I explained to him that these are words that have the same sound at the end. tOPF, zOPF, kOPF, but he doesn’t get it. How do you explain rhyming? Don’t people just GET rhyming? My husband told me he didn’t understand how rhyming worked until he finally figured it out when he was 16. His lack of understanding contributed to his long-standing hatred of poetry. We did another worksheet from a German book that involved drawing lines to connect rhyming objects. On the top row were:

MAUS   KNOPF    TISCH   HASE

On the bottom row were:

TOPF   NASE   HAUS  FISCH

Now, if even without knowing German, can you figure out which of those words would rhyme? He pointed to each object and said what they were and then I pointed to mouse. “What rhymes with mouse?” I asked him. “Ummmmmmm….” he looked at the paper and then pointed at nose. “Nope,” I said. He tried again, each time looking at me to see if it was the right answer. He did get ‘Hase’ and ‘Nase’ right, mainly because by the time he got to the rabbit, nose was the only thing on the bottom row that hadn’t been crossed off.

He also mixes up he/she/it a lot when he speaks. I thought this was my fault because I make a lot of gender mistakes in German, but my husband does this all the time, too. He will often tell me things like “My sister got his apartment today.”or “His husband….” He tried blaming this on Finnish, which does not differentiate between he and she, but I pointed out that he learned Swedish at the same time and Swedish does, so that doesn’t explain why he does it all the time in English. Apparently dyslexics do that a lot, too.

Here is a full list of dyslexic symptoms Alpha presents that we’ve noticed so far:

  • Difficulty pronouncing words
  • Difficulty with before/after, left/right, and so on (he often tells me in German, “Ich gehe auf die Küche” (I’m going on the Kitchen) when he means “Ich gehe in die Küche”)
  • Difficulty learning the alphabet, nursery rhymes or songs
  • Difficulty with word retrieval or naming problems (we notice this when DH reads to him at night and asks him what things are in Finnish, which he knows, but he just can’t find the word  and during the speech evaluations and vocabulary tests he did. There were many words, like finger, I knew he knew but he couldn’t find them during the evaluation)
  • Difficulty identifying or generating rhyming words, or counting syllables in words (phonological awareness)
  • Difficulty hearing and manipulating sounds in words (phonemic awareness)
  • Difficulty in learning the sounds of letters (phonics)–he tells me ah-ah-Musik. What? There’s no a in that word!
  • Difficulty in remembering names and shapes of letters (he’s still very young for this, but he spent all last year in Kindergarten working on writing his name and hasn’t come as far as many of his classmates)
  • Inconsistent schoolwork
  • Relatives may have similar problems
  • Poor or slow handwriting (not too applicable for him since he’s so young, but again, compared to other kids in his preschool, his handwriting is very bad)
  • Poor fine motor skills
  • Difficulty remembering the kinesthetic movements to form letters correctly
  • Difficulty coordinating facial muscles to produce sounds
  • Overwhelmed by too much input

These are only the ones from the list that are relevant now, to a preschooler. My husband and I have discussed this a lot in the last few days and I’m reading a few books on dyslexia, including the one that helped my husband stop feeling like he was an idiot all the time (The Gift of Dyslexia), in order to learn more about it.

Once he starts his speech therapy in August, I will discuss our suspicions with his speech therapist and see what she thinks and then find out where we go to have The Full Battery of Tests done.

In the meantime, we’re changing the way we educate him. We’re not going to be sending him back to preschool in the fall (I still need to call his school and de-enroll him). This is for numerous reasons. First off, he needs to spend a lot of time working on strengthening his fine motor skills and apparently MORE writing practice is not the way to go about this. Instead, we will be doing zero writing whatsoever and concentrating on cutting activities, pinching activities, playing with playdo and coloring with crayons. These build the motor skills necessary to write without frustrating him. Secondly, I don’t want him to start thinking that reading and writing are things that other people can do but he can’t because he’s too stupid, which is a feeling my husband basically internalized from being in school. Finally, no preschool will free up more of our time and funds for intensive speech therapy, which will probably be more helpful for his speech at this point than preschool.

I’m working on putting together a Kindergarten homeschooling plan. Although I’m not required to officially do any schooling as a homeschooler until a child turns 6 where I live, I figure a year of getting into the habit of doing it without any pressure will be good for me.

We’re starting off with doing basic phonics, which will be easier once he can pronounce more letters accurately. But since we’ll be starting with A and working our way through the vowels, we have plenty of time for his speech therapy to take effect before we get to the consonant sounds. We’ll spend as much time as necessary with each letter as it takes for him to be able to automatically say what letter it is and what sound it makes in German, English and Finnish. We will also be doing more hands-on letter making activities. I will hopefully come up with more ideas as I continue to read and learn about it.

I know some of you are probably wondering if we should really continue with the other languages? Aren’t dyslexics supposed to be really bad at learning foreign languages? They are. My husband has always stated that he is really bad at languages and he speaks English, Finnish, and Swedish fluently with good working knowledge of German, Norwegian and Danish. Also, it’s important to note the difference between foreign languages and languages you’re born speaking. Since Alpha has had English, German and Finnish in his life since he was born, none of these languages are foreign to him, they’re all native languages. In some ways, this might help him if he is dyslexic because while English has one of the most opaque orthographies in the world (which means it’s very difficult for dyslexics to learn to read and write English), Finnish is one of the most transparent while German falls somewhere in between. Multilingualism also helps strengthen executive control, something dyslexics may have trouble with, and the ability to zero in on important details.

However, I am concerned that the fact he is trilingual will alternately mask some symptoms while making others appear worse. I’m worried that people will (again) tell us its because he’s trilingual and we should drop a language or two because it’s too much. Or that it’s just because he’s trilingual and we should wait a while until he is stronger in all languages and see if the problems persist. However, we’ve already found out that he’s performing normally in all three languages. So this is irrelevant.

As far as making symptoms appear worse, I found a whole paper about bilinguals and dyslexia online. I’m currently reading it and it does outline some difficulties in evaluating and teaching bilingual children in Britain, but it appears to concentrate mainly on sequential bilingualism.

Finnish Schools vs American Schools: Conclusion

I wanted to write this post more about how American schools concentrate more on competition whereas Finnish schools are more cooperative, but I realized there wasn’t a whole lot I could say about that. And really because I think the issue is more that Americans are a lot more ambitious than Finns are overall, so it makes sense that we want to go to the BEST schools so we can have the BEST jobs. If you’re told from day one that the sky is the limit (and Americans are), then you’ll probably be pretty ambitious. What are Finns told from day one? I don’t know, my husband isn’t here so I can’t ask him. But I get the feeling it’s probably similar to what everyone who enters a system is told: if you do well enough here, you will be successful. Go to school, get good grades, do extra curricular activities, go to a good university and you’ll get a good job and be set for life.

The reality is less straight forward than that. In the US, our school system does poorly enough in following through on its promises that we’re looking all over the world to try and find a better way of doing thing. We’re not the only country doing this, either. When Germany did badly on the PISA study in 2002, I was in Germany and got a front seat view of their descent into Angst. They also concentrated primarily on Finland’s school system. “Why don’t you look at Japan or South Korea?” I asked my host sister. “Because they’re Asian and not European,” she answered, the implication being that their culture is so different from the western culture that the conclusions wouldn’t be relevant and that’s entirely plausible. I don’t know enough about those countries systems to offer any other opinion. But I do wonder whether or not it’s entirely beneficial to want to model everything on Finland.

Is Finland’s educational system even living up its promises? Is it providing people with the key to success in life? A relative of my husband’s has worked in it for 30 years and she’s been a strong critic of our decision to homeschool, to say the least. But recently she was talking to him and confessed that he might be on to something. “These young people, I don’t know how to advise them. The world is changing so rapidly, I don’t know if I can really tell them how they should do things or what the right decision for them to make is so that they can have a good career.” This reminds me of the saying ‘you’re always prepared to fight the last war.’ In our education systems, we’re always preparing people to live in the world of today, at best. Not in the world of tomorrow. How can we promise people that if they go to school for 12 years, they will be ready to meet whatever challenges they face when we have no idea what those challenges are?

How can we know if our school systems are actually doing their jobs if the way we evaluate that is based on tests? Or do we really see the purpose of our schools as only to teach them ‘the three r’s (that’s reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, if you’re not familar with the term). Then again, if our schools aren’t even doing that basic task well, we can’t very well expect them to prepare anyone for a career, can we?

A friend recommended Penelope Trunk’s homeschooling blog to me. While a lot of her posts come across as ego soothing (‘it’s okay for my kids to play video games all day while I work, really’) she has a lot of interesting arguments in favor homeschooling. I think they can be boiled down to this: in the future our institutions are going to be constantly in flux and the people who will do best in this situation will be people who are extremely flexible self-starters and self-learners. School does not create these kinds of people and hobbles those who are naturally like that. My husband went to school in Finland and did so badly, he almost didn’t qualify to go to college. While he has been extremely successful since, he still deals with low self-esteem from failing to do the things every other kid in his school could do easily. He can’t alphabetize anything, even though he knows the alphabet. He has horrible handwriting and writes most letters backwards, even though he had remedial handwriting classes in school. If he had taken the PISA test in school, it’s fair to say he would have bombed it in spite of being very smart and being successful in real life.

As he mentioned in his original commentary, what we need to ask ourselves is whether or not school is the best way to educate children. Are tests the best way to measure out income? How many successful people put their success in life down to their schooling? How much is inner drive.

I do think that American schools could benefit in changes based on the Finnish school system (particuarly less classroom time), but I question whether or not even Finnish schools are preparing their students for tomorrow’s economy. Which country to see having a more dynamic economy? Finland, the USA, or Singapore? Or none?

I think the US spends so much time obsessing over its educational system not only because it’s so horrible, so many other systems are just as bad. We watch so much what other countries are doing because we’re so competitive. We take our kids out of school and homeschool them more than any other country on earth because we’re risk takers. We’re also statistical outliers. The reality is that we can’t learn how to create the Best Educational System from other countries, we have to find that answer on our own. And even then we’ll probably be wrong.

Cue the Stranger Danger

I’m reluctant to talk about the recent shooting in Connecticut. It’s a tragedy, but as soon as I heard it happened I knew two things: 1) Homeschoolers were going to point it out as another reason to homeschool, despite the fact that you’re much more likely to be killed by someone you know than a stranger, 2) Anti-gun people were going to use it as another reason to band guns and 3) it would increase the level of security in schools and make them more into mini-prisons, for students’ safety, of course.

So far, the first two have happened. But you know what else happened the week before the shootings?

My husband went to the historical museum to pick up some chocolates for his family. A school group was there at the same time, all the students running around the gift shop, playing in the elevator and generally causing havoc. Hidden behind a clothes rack, he saw a little girl on the ground crying. “Why are you crying?” he asked her. “I wanted to by this,” she told him, “but I left my money at home.” “Well, how much does it cost?” “$4” “Alright, I’ll buy it for you.”

He then turned around to see three teachers standing behind him, giving him dirty looks. “Are you a relative or friend  of this girl?” They questioned him.

“No, I’m not a relative,” he answered, “but whether or not I’m a friend depends on how you define friend.”

“Have you seen her before?”

“No, I’ve never seen her before in my life. Why are you asking me these questions?”

“It’s for safety.”

“Safety?” He eyed the students wearily. “I thought this was a school group, not a prison group. If these are inmates you should have hung a sign up so I would have known to stay away from them.”

“No, no no…for her, safety, not yours.”

My husband lost his cool at this point and stop toying with them. He spoke as loudly as he could and used as many cuss words as possible. “I know you are school teachers and are therefore bad at math and statistics. I know the chances of an adult hurting rather than helping a child are about 1 in a million. For normal people capable at math, that means pretty fucking unlikely. On the contrary, intervening when a child is crying and no one is around the best thing for an adult to do. If you guys would just pull your heads out of your fucking asses, you would see that some of the 30 plus kids you are ‘looking after’ are playing with the elevator and you should probably be more interested in what they are doing instead of pestering me helping a crying child.”

It was very quiet when he finished and everyone was staring at him. He took his candy and went to the register, where the old lady who worked there apologized to him profusely.

A little boy went up to him and said quietly, “You said the F-word.”

“I know,” DH replied.

“That was pretty cool.” He paused. “Can I have some chocolate?”

“No, it’s for my family. But if I had my way, you could stay home and eat chocolate everyday instead of having to waste your time in a stupid school.”
“That’d be awesome!” the boy agreed enthusiastically.’

“Great minds think alike.”

Then he, the teachers and the school group all boarded the elevator for a long, awkward ride to the parking lot.