Category Archives: Homeschooling

Getting in Gear

There are no bells, no forced schedules, no dress code. No busses, no other students, no anxiety. This is homeschool. And even though it is the ideal learning environment for some kids (like Nigel), it’s still school. And he’d rather not do it.

We’re relatively new to homeschooling, having started six months ago (and the past three months were summer vacation), but, knowing my son, I think that even if we’d been doing it for years he would still complain, as he did this morning. I pointed out to him that I was sure he’d rather be doing homeschool than be in a classroom with lots of other students bothering him. You’ve heard of fantasy football? Nigel wants to do fantasy school. He responded, “I want to do school on a video screen lying in bed.”

So, even for homeschoolers, it’s hard to get in gear. Maybe it’s because we don’t have bells and lockers and busses. I’m still working on our schedule because we’re waiting to hear back about the time slot for the social skills group meeting that Nigel will attend once a week at the middle school. And we’re waiting to hear back about checking out an eighth grade math book for the year.  So for now, we work with our tentative schedule, we do a review of last year, we go through the math and grammar workbooks, we discuss our plans for electives (Spanish, psychology, and judo), and wait for things to be ironed out. It’s our way of warming up and easing back into academia. Short of lying in bed with a video screen, that is.

Homeschool Review

Now that it’s summer, our first term of homeschooling is over, and I thought I’d write about how it went. Overall, it was wonderful, and so good to know that Nigel was actually learning something instead of being sent to watch a video in the library as he had at the middle school. Considering the fact that I had to pull him out at the beginning of December and wasn’t able to start homeschooling him until mid-February, he learned a lot. We went quickly through all the science and social science subjects but didn’t get as far as I would have hoped in math and language arts. Next year that is what we will focus on.

I learned a lot about my son’s learning style and how to teach him. He has a semi-photographic memory which helps immensely in fact-memorizing subjects like science and social science, so that’s why we breezed through those. Language arts is challenging because it is difficult for him to organize his mind enough to write an essay, which is what we will spend much of our time on next year. And then there’s math. Nigel, I discovered, is a kinesthetic learner. He learns by doing things, physically taking things apart and putting them back together, climbing, mowing, cooking, sewing, even typing. So I had to figure out a way to teach math kinesthetically.

I realized as we went along that if anyone had tried to teach him division in the past, they did not succeed. I had to start from the beginning. And what I did was this: I got a bag of raw almonds and pulled out 12 of them. Then I said, “Nigel, how many groups of 3 are in 12?” And he looked at the almonds on the kitchen table and he started separating them into groups of 3, and then I saw the light bulb go on in his head. He got it! There was a hint of a smile on his face as he quickly finished separating and then said, “Four!” And then I showed him how that translated on paper with the long division sign, because when we first started going over it, he acted like he had never seen it before. My boy must have just felt so lost at school.

The other thing I did in teaching math which helped tremendously was to write out a list of steps for working with fractions, like changing improper fractions into mixed numbers, which I had written about previously. I was smacking my forehead because I didn’t figure this out until near the end of the school year, but at least I did figure it out, and I will certainly be implementing the “written list of steps” technique next year.

The last two days of homeschool, I had Nigel take a CD-Rom test, State Standards Middle School Edition. The tests were great, but I experienced some aggravating compatibility issues. The tech support guy I spoke to for over half an hour was not sure if it was a Vista issue or my dual-core processor. After uninstalling and reinstalling both Quicktime and the test program, it still takes about fifteen minutes to load the program, but once we get the test up and running, the test itself works fine. It’s easy for Nigel to navigate, and at the end it shows his scores in different categories of each subject so that we know which skills he needs to work on next year and in which areas he’s doing well. I’m very satisfied with how homeschooling went for the past four months, and I’m looking forward to next year. I think we’ll both really hit our stride.

Comes the Dawn

Recently I wrote about experiencing setbacks with Nigel’s development and how it gets me down. It seems like I’ll never get a break. But what I didn’t remember is that usually when setbacks occur, soon afterward something happens that’s positive, a step in the right direction. And that’s exactly what happened today.

The school subject that Nigel has the most trouble with is math. Yes, math. Is that “anti-autistic?” I seem to read so much about how math appeals to autistic people because of the formulas, the predictability of working with numbers, and I don’t know why else because I’ve never liked math, so trying to come up with reasons to like it is a stretch for me. But I’ve always done okay with it, learned the basics, use them regularly, and identify the importance of mathematical knowledge as I’m trying to teach Nigel. But he has so much trouble with it (and no interest – must be genetic), that even when we go over the same problems and I walk him through so many and do them with him, he still doesn’t get it. After working on multiplying fractions for close to two weeks with no hope of him retaining any of it, I wasn’t sure what to do.

Then I remembered: break it down into written steps. That’s the only way I’ve been able to get him to pick up his room. That’s how some of his classroom teachers got him to work on activities and follow directions. And that’s how he was able to just get through the day when he was younger: having a schedule broken down into steps. I decided to break down the steps of what he was having the most trouble with – changing improper fractions into mixed numbers. Here is what I wrote for him:

Steps to convert improper fractions to mixed numbers:

1) Divide the numerator (# on top) by the denominator (# on bottom)

2) Write down the whole #

3) Multiply the whole # by the denominator

4) Subtract that # from the numerator

5) Answer is the new numerator for mixed #, placed over same denominator

He did the next problem completely unassisted in less than two minutes. I have to remember to break things down into written steps more often. Why do I forget? It should be common sense to me by now! Maybe I’ll remember better now, since I’ve written about it here. I think that’s something that works for both of us. 

Before Paragraphs: Typing

Because of Nigel’s aversion to holding a writing instrument, and his earlier difficulty with acquiring verbal skills, I had always thought that learning to type would liberate him to no end. He had taught himself to read at three and a half, so I didn’t think it was too much of a stretch.

I had purchased a kids’ learn-to-type CD-Rom program years ago, when he was about seven, but he had been resistent to working with it until we started homeschooling three months ago. Maybe it seemed academic to him and he didn’t want to do “work” outside of school. When school became something he did at home, he was only too happy to work with the typing CD-Rom during the designated time for electives. And he loves it.

That probably has something to do with the fact that the CD-Rom is by Disney – Adventures in Typing with Timon and Pumbaa. The Lion King was the first Disney movie he saw that motivated him to try to quote single words, his first attempts at echolalia. And I had seen it on the big screen when I was pregnant with him, so it’s always been a special movie for me as well. But now I love it because it has motivated Nigel to learn to type, and he’s enjoying it. He typed the horse video summary by himself, as well as several others. He says he’s going to type up a list of all his invention ideas.

So, typing, paragraphs . . . maybe next a mini-essay? A blog post? Not quite yet, but someday, quite possibly soon.

Paragraph Practice

As part of our homeschool program, I am trying, ambitiously, to teach Nigel how to write essays, since he will need this skill to achieve any success in his future academic career. It is proving to be difficult, needless to say. In his mind, an essay is a pasted-together document of sections of text written about a subject (usually found on Wikipedia). He cuts and pastes a paragraph at a time, until he has cut and pasted six paragraphs, clicks save, and triumphantly announces that he is finished with his essay.

After I explained to him the concept of plagiarism, and he got mad because his easy essay-writing method had been thwarted, I decided that we should back up a bit and focus first on paragraph writing. I had him watch an educational video about horses and had him write a one-paragraph summary. I had told him that the paragraph needed to have 5-7 sentences, but he claimed that if he combined two sentences that they should still count as two sentences. So his paragraph consisted of two compound sentences and one concluding sentence. Below is his paragraph, written in his own words, titled “The Horse.”

The first horse came to be 5.5 million years ago, but had 3 toes on each hind leg and 4 toes on each front leg. As time passed, the forests turned into grasslands and the horse lost all but one toe on each leg and those turned into hooves. The reason why a horse wins the Kentucky Derby is because it is just following it’s gut instinct.

Aside from that apostrophe, the paragraph is grammatically correct. But what impresses me the most is the complex idea that he takes as a given: a horse’s “gut instinct.” What is a horse’s gut instinct? Running? Feeling its hooves hit the ground? Trying to find its toes? I like the fact that his writing makes me contemplate different ideas. It also gives me a little insight as to how his mind works, and that is something I value and enjoy.

The Schedule

As those who teach or live with autistic individuals know, schedules are a necessary tool, not only for teaching, but for just getting through the day. For Nigel, his schedule is a lifeline, a beacon to show him the way. It has always been so. When so much about dealing with people is unpredictable, it comforts him to know what he’s supposed to be doing when (of course, this does not usually apply at bedtime).

I found this description of schedules for autistic students at Specialed.us:

Definition: A daily visual schedule is a critical component in a structured environment. A visual schedule will tell the student with autism what activities will occur and in what sequence.

  • Visual schedules are important for children with autism because they:
    • Help address the child’s difficulty with sequential memory and organization of time.
    • Assist children with language comprehension problems to understand what is expected of them (5).
    • Lessen the anxiety level of children with autism, and thus reduce the possible occurrence of challenging behaviors, by providing the structure for the student to organize and predict daily and weekly events.
    • Assist the student in transitioning independently between activities and environments by telling them where they are to go next.
    • Can increase a student’s motivation to complete less desired activities by strategically alternating more preferred with less-preferred activities on the student’s individual visual schedule.

      Example: By placing a “computer” time after “math”, the student may be more motivated to complete math knowing that “computer” time will be next.

    • For the student with autism, the consistent use of a visual schedule is an extremely important skill. It has the potential to increase independent functioning throughout his life – at school, home and community.

Without a doubt, schedules are highly effective tools. But Nigel’s schedules over the years have been much more than that. They have been a type of therapy. And I’m sure they will continue to function as such perhaps for all his life.

Yesterday I wrote about the type of homeschooling program I’m doing with Nigel and how I designed it. Here is his weekly schedule:

homeschool scheduleTime: What we are doing Monday through Thursday
8:00 alarm rings
8:10 out of bed, go to the bathroom, wash face
8:15 eat breakfast, rinse bowl
8:20 brush teeth
8:23 get dressed
8:30 start homeschool: Math: 1 pg of If Mathematics, 1 pg of Core Skills Math
9:00 Writing/Language Arts: 1 pg Quick Practice Writing Skills; Essay Writing, either 1 section with Mom or 1 pg by self
9:30 Science: go online to study topics from Grade Level Standards; take 5 footnotes from websites
10:10 snack & 10-min. break
10:20 Social Science: read books from library or go to websites to study topics from Grade Level Standards; take 5 footnotes from each source
11:00 Physical Education or Library Time
Mon: bike ride on Greenway
Tues: 15 min. yoga/15 min. push-ups & weights
Wed: walk to Phoenix library or drive to TMS library
check out 3 items: 1 social science book, 1 educational DVD, 1 book of choice
Thurs: 15 min. yoga/15 min. push-ups & weights
11:30T/Th Elective for the week (see elective list)
12:00 prepare & eat lunch
12:30 check responsibility chart & do chores for that day: when chores complete, you have free time
Ohomeschool schedulen Fridays I go into the office for a few hours, so that day has a different schedule. Nigel gets up at the same time and then takes one of the aforementioned educational videos, watches it, takes 5 “footnotes,” as he likes to call them, and then types a summary on his computer to show me when I get home. I am fortunate that he has reached a point where he will be okay for a few hours alone at home, following his schedule. Maybe it’s a lifeline for me too.

Thoughts on Homeschooling

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

I did some online research and found (per consensus) that, in the United States, approximately 3% of students (Kindergarten through 12th grade) are homeschooled. That is certainly a less-traveled road.

But it’s also certainly one that, as Robert Frost’s immortal poem deems, has made “all the difference.” I ran into a friend today while walking to the library with Nigel, and she asked how the homeschooling’s been going. I told her that it’s the best decision I ever made.

I often get asked what type of program I’m doing, so I thought I’d describe that a bit. When I was initially researching homeschooling techniques, I discovered that there are as many different ways to homeschool as there are families who do it. The programs vary from highly structured to something called unschooling and everything in between. I decided on a structured schedule with a flexible curriculum. On any given day, Nigel and I work with the following sources: his public school-assigned math book, workbooks from Clas E. Professor, articles on Wikipedia, Kids Discover Magazine, National Geographic books and magazines, CD-Rom programs, educational videos and books checked out from our local library as well as the middle school library, and books from our own collection. We have more than enough material to work with, and aside from what I’ve spent on the books and CD-Roms we already had that we’ve accumulated over the years, this year I spent $20 on a Kids Discover subscription and $40 on workbooks. That’s it! That’s our homeschool budget! Of course there’s the reduced income to consider when figuring the real cost of homeschooling, but it’s worth it. Definitely.

The other thing I did in preparing to homeschool was to go to our state’s department of education website and inform myself about our state’s requirements for homeschooling. I also thoroughly read and noted their detailed list of grade level standards, i.e. what each student is expected to know by the end of benchmark years (3rd, 5th, and 8th grades). My goal is to follow the list of grade level standards because Nigel has expressed a desire to transition back to public school in 9th or 10th grade so that he can attend our local high school. I would certainly love for him to be able to do that, so in designing his curriculum I try to keep up with whatever the state says his peers are supposed to be doing academically. That resource was extremely helpful in figuring out what to teach him. (For anyone interested, here is the webpage with Oregon’s grade level standards for every academic subject.)

It was a bit of work designing my own homeschool program, and some financial sacrifice, but every day I see the benefits. Every day I’m glad I took this road.

Our Homeschool Story

Every family has different reasons why they choose to homeschool. Many do it for moral/ethical/religious reasons. Some do it simply because they love to spend as much time as possible with their children and want to be responsible for their education as well. Some do it out of necessity for the child. Our family’s homeschool story, of course, falls into that last category.

About seven years ago, I attended a special needs parenting workshop on IEP preparedness and advocacy guidelines. The moderator went around the room prompting all the participants to introduce themselves and mention their child’s educational status. I vividly remember a woman seated by herself who explained in a tired but accepting voice that due to mainstreaming problems, she would need to homeschool her twelve-year-old son who had Tourette Syndrome. At the time, I thought I could interpret the exhaustion on her face, the frustration, the resignation. I thought, because I was a single parent with an autistic six-year-old, that I knew how she felt. I remember at that moment being thankful because Nigel showed such great potential that I wouldn’t need to consider homeschooling in the future. On some level, I didn’t even want to consider it because I thought it was something I wouldn’t be able to do. But now when I remember that woman’s face and her voice, I comprehend on a deeper level what she conveyed at the meeting that night, seven years ago.

This is what I need to do for my son. I don’t know how yet, but I will do it. I will make it work.

I know this now because this is how I felt five months ago. Six months ago, as the school year was about to begin, Nigel asked me several times if I would homeschool him. At the time I had not even considered it an option, mostly because, as a single parent, I had to work. How could I homeschool him? I couldn’t be the stay-at-home parent: I was the only parent!

I will write in future posts about all the bullying and social problems Nigel experienced that made me decide to find a way to homeschool him. Within weeks of school starting, his already fragile status in a low-support mainstreaming situation had deteriorated to the point where I had begun to seriously think about homeschooling him. I started researching homeschooling websites in general and looked at our state’s requirements for specific information. But I had no idea how to swing it financially.

Opportunity knocks. I had been working at my job as account manager for an order fulfillment company for almost ten years. My boss walked up to my desk a few weeks after I decided I would need to homeschool my son, and she said that one of our clients, a music label, was looking for someone to handle the royalty calculations for their 45 artists. It was tedious accounting work, but it could be done from home, and did I know anyone who might be interested? My spine tingled; I hadn’t told her yet that I needed to find a way to homeschool Nigel.

I took the job. And after several weeks of hiring and training my replacement at the office, I begain homeschooling my son. I am so glad he asked me to do this. It is a dream come true for both of us. 

The Bikeriding on a Busy Street Debate

It’s a gorgeous spring day here in southern Oregon, and, after we finished with homeschool, Nigel wanted to ride his bike, alone, to a store a mile and a half away on a busy street. I blanched at the thought.

As I have mentioned before, I feel semi-comfortable with him riding alone around the suburban neighborhood in which we live. I know, I know. He’s thirteen years old, for God’s sake. Let the kid ride his bike. But this particular thirteen-year-old kid, even though he can talk now, still has sensory issues which can compromise his safety (and possibly the safety of others). What happens if a commercial truck drives right next to him and the rumbling (roaring, to him) of it jars him enough to make him wobble, hit the curb, and fall into the path of the truck? Or, if he appears to not be paying attention, the driver of the truck, or any vehicle, could sound their loud horn to alert him, and it would startle him enough to make him lose control of his bike and veer into traffic.

Then there are the flying insects. At any time while walking, if any flying insect, from a tiny gnat to a huge moth, happens to come near Nigel, he immediately begins violently shaking his head, flinging his arms around, and running away. This cannot happen on a bike on a busy street.

So I talked to Nigel about my truck concerns, about holding his line so that he does not wobble too close to traffic (“I hold my line,” he said in his deadpan voice), and about insects flying in his face. That sobered him for a moment, and I could see the wheels turning. Then he said, “We just need to extinguish bees with stingers. Or make flightless bees.” Flightless bees. Time to do a homeschool unit on pollination.

In the end I realized that, safety concerns aside, I have to get him a bike lock before he can ride his bike to the store anyway. So I’ve successfully put off the bikeriding-on-a-busy-street milestone for another day.

Bravery

Every few years I undergo a relatively drastic hairstyle change. Sometimes it is circumstantial: I am experiencing major changes in some other area of my life, and my hairstyle change is symbolic of that. At other times it’s because my hair is down to my lower back, and it’s just too much work at that length! Off with it!

Last week my hair was reaching beyond the middle of my back, the sun was out, and I had it cut. I think this time it was as much because it was too long as it was a metaphor for the changes going on in my life. I came to the realization a few months ago that Nigel can no longer be mainstreamed, as he was (with an extensive support system) for four years. I radically altered my life, my schedule, my finances, and my ideas so that I could wrap my mind around the concept of homeschooling him, and found ways to make it happen. (I plan to write about that subject in detail for a future post.) And now I am doing it. I drastically cut back on my hours in the office at my job, I found some work I can do from home, and I am now my son’s teacher.

It was a huge change, and I am still reeling from it, even though it is positive. It is scary financially, since I am a single parent. And it comes with so many other adjustments that must be made: emotional, physical, social. So when I’m at the hair salon, and the other patrons and stylists who witness my middle-of-the-back hair being cut into a chin-length shattered bob comment on how brave I am to do that, I say It’s only hair.

Getting my hair cut short doesn’t make me brave. Being a single parent? Sometimes brave. Raising a child with autism? Usually. Homeschooling my autistic son while being a single parent? Reducing my work hours from 30 hours a week to 6, thus reducing my income?

And then I think of Nigel, trying to navigate middle school without any support system in place (how could I have let the IEP ‘team’ convince me that he would be fine with that?!) and dealing with the constant harassment and bullying he experienced, just trying to get through his day, pulling out his hair because of the eternal state of anxiety he was in, and I know. He is the brave one. He was brave to make that first leap to try to learn to talk by repeating lines from videos, trying to fit the lines within the context of the real situation. He was brave to learn how to filter all the mechanical sounds that were agonizing to him. He was brave to want to take the regular school bus, because he wanted “to be like everybody else.” That’s all he wanted, and they treated him so terribly. Yet he went back, every day, and he always tried so hard. Finally, he reached his limit, and he begged me to homeschool him. That was brave too.

Maybe the little things like getting my hair cut short are brave. But when you live with autism, it puts a different perspective on things. And it makes you define bravery in a whole new way.