Make cookies

On Friday afternoons we take a break from traditional academia in homeschool land.  Sometimes it’s time to watch a documentary, other times we go skiing or on a bike ride.  #2’s favorite is a cooking project.

He loves to make cookies.  #4 helps too.  He reads the recipe, does the math (when we double a recipe), follows directions, plans ahead (when he gets out all the ingredients before he starts…something I’m guilty of failing to do very often!) and cleans up.  All valuable life skills.

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My favorite cookie is chocolate chip.  I like this recipe so much because when I get up too late before an early morning run to have breakfast, which is always, I can shove 2 of them in my mouth and call it nutritious because of the oatmeal.  Right?

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Chocolate Chip Cookies (my grandma’s recipe)

2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon hot water
1 package chocolate chips
2 cups oatmeal
1 teaspoon vanilla

Cream butter and sugars.  Add eggs.  Dissolve soda in water and add.  Add vanilla.  Add flour and salt, and then fold in the rest of the ingredients.

Grease cookie sheets and warm them.  Roll dough balls, place on cookie sheets.

Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes (they will still look a little raw) .  Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

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Gaining Strength

We acquire the strength we have overcome. 

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

One year ago I was spending a lot of time sitting around rubbing ice on my ankle.  I didn’t know it yet, but I had a severe stress fracture that was 3/4 of the way through my ankle bone.  I had just run the Fargo 1/2 marathon, injured, and only made matters worse with more intense pounding.

It was time to change directions.  Speed should no longer be my goal.  It was time to learn from my mistakes and not add a lot of speed and a lot of distance, at the same time, to my running.  It was time for me to finally face the facts….if I’m going to be a distance runner, I need to gain strength, I can’t rely on willpower and stubbornness alone.

This time of the school year is always difficult for me.  It is filled with lots of anxiety…for me and for the kids.  We mourn having to leave a beloved teacher and move to the next grade, we have anxiety about what next year will look like and what will be difficult as academic demands become more intense.

It has been a great year academically and socially for all 4 children.  This is not something I have been able to say…..EVER.  #1 is at a new school and is getting his confidence back.  He has friends and he feels accepted for who he is instead of ridiculed.  He knows that certain things are hard for him, but once again he is willing to try.  #2 had a full year of homeschool and confidently tells people “I’m a really good reader.”  At times his classmates are retired ladies who are fellow dog walkers in the neighborhood.  They enjoy asking him what he is currently learning at school.  #3 finished year 2 of kindergarten (first year was 1/2 day, this past year was full day) and is wishing he could make “kindergarten student” his career choice.  Kindergarten is about curiosity and wonder, something #3 thrives on.  #4 is wrapping up preschool and will head off to Pre-K next year.  I am wrapping up 7 years of driving to our beloved preschool and feeling intense sadness and loss that in a couple days I will never again have a child at Dodge Nature Preschool.

A year ago life was so different.

A year ago I was sitting in the principal’s office pounding on a table asking, “Will someone in this school ever do something to help?” For 5 years I had been sounding alarms about #1’s struggles…and for 5 years I had been told not to worry.  Finally, at the end of May during 5th grade his classroom teacher listened to him (attempt) to read out loud and they tested him on his phonics skills.  The Friday afternoon before Memorial Day Weekend I received an e-mail from the reading specialist detailing the test results.  If I would have had a child in my 1st grade classroom with these results at the end of the year I would have frantically looked for interventions to help the child….that’s how bad the situation was.  At this moment I knew I was done with the school, but I agreed to meet with them one last time.

The next week I limped into my last meeting with the principal and various teachers at the school where I was told to put #1 in intense tutoring for the summer, and find a counselor for him to see a couple times a week because they were seeing signs of anxiety.  We would meet again in the fall.  They had no plan to change their instructional methods at school.

I don’t think so.

Their unwillingness to take responsibility for the education of my children had pushed me right over the edge and I needed to be done talking to them.  Walking out of that school I knew in my heart I would never return.  It was the place where I had volunteered and formed friendships with other parents for 5 years. The school failed to educate two of my children and the administrators didn’t seem to have one bit of remorse, just a lot of excuses.  I had spent the year fighting with the principal, first about #2 and now about #1.  I am a person who does not like conflict and fights.  Conflict makes my insides churn and keeps me awake at night, and I had spent an entire school year in conflict.  I was feeling incredibly betrayed, angered and hurt.  I was broken….physically (my ankle), emotionally and mentally.

It was time to pick myself up and get strong.

I promised #1 I would find a new path for him.  We have.  I did not cancel his camps, which are also valuable experiences, to put him in tutoring.  I thought this would feel like a punishment for a very active child.  He spent the summer decompressing and doing things he enjoys and reading some easy books.  A year ago I had a 5th grader crying, “Don’t make me go to school.  I hate it there.”  Now I have a 6th grader who is sad the school year is ending because he has loved it so much.  He has worked tremendously hard this year, and reading and writing are still difficult, but he feels understood and valued.

I spent the summer doing yoga, going to physical therapy and pushing my cardio skills in a spinning class.  With very little actual running during the summer, I was able to run the marathon in October.  This winter I learned how to skate ski and pushed myself more in the yoga studio, along with running over the ice and snow.  My entire body is stronger, and because of that, so is my spirit.

Although next year may be tough, we are ready.  Our injuries have made us stronger.

A Balanced Approach

#2 and I have been working a lot on his Russian history project that I talked about in a preview post.  He has been enjoying learning about czars, communism, the Cold War and practicing writing verbs in the past tense with the -ed suffix.  It’s amazing how quickly he can understand the big picture of history and political systems, and how slowly he remembers that even though he hears a /t/ sound on a verb, the suffix is -ed. (Will it ever cement in his brain?)

Tonight an interesting editorial was posted in the New York Times, Defining My Dyslexia.  The author talks about his own experience as a person with dyslexia, beginning with the labels that other children gave to him.  #1 and #2 have experience with being teased and labeled by classmates and peers as stupid, idiot, retarded, etc.

Currently there is a lot of discussion in the “dyslexia world” about defining dyslexia as a gift.  Books, conferences, and websites are devoted to discussing the upside of dyslexia….as though the negative doesn’t exist or is a side note.  I find this approach slightly nauseating when I am sitting for the thousandth hour correcting the direction of a “b” for #2,watching #1 struggle with writing a paragraph or seeing #3 unable to sound out the word cat.  Yes, I believe dyslexia is a gift for my children at times, but sometimes I want to mark the gift “return to sender” and shove it out the window.  I know that  reframing it has its time and place, but maybe a balanced approach is best.

For years I listened to teachers and administrators talk exclusively about #1’s gifts, as though being in 4th-5th grade and barely able to read, write and spell is just a side note of little importance.  I was told he was of above-average intelligence (directly after they told me how intelligent and advanced in math he is) and so if he is reading slightly below average, that’s not really a big deal….it was my job to remember his gifts and forget about the things that are hard for him.  I was told not to worry about the areas he struggles in.  I was told he doesn’t have a disability because he is good at math.  Huh?

I was glad to find someone else that thinks only focusing on the gifts of dyslexia is short sighted.  The author wrote:

“Not a disability? My years of functional illiteracy suggest otherwise. Today’s educational environment exacerbates dyslexic weaknesses….Until these disadvantages are removed, “disability” most accurately describes what young dyslexics confront.”

I just wonder how many of the educators that told me not to worry have spent hours with their upper elementary children trying to help them write one paragraph….just one…only to have the parent and child end up in tears because the task is impossible.  Have they ever sat down to do a science project and realized their child can’t read the directions for the assignment, let alone read any books for the research portion of the project? How many of those educators have had to open envelopes with standardized test scores that show your child is not only below average, but at the bottom of the district and state for reading and no one in the school seems to care.

But, I was told not to worry each time I brought up my concerns.  “He just isn’t a kid that is going to read well because he likes math.”  This was a constant refrain and it made no sense to me.  “Remember all the things he is good at.  Your job is to focus on those things.” It’s terrifying to think what would have happened if I would have left him in a school that ignored his needs while his peers pointed out his weaknesses.

The article continues, “Those affected by unjust diagnoses — like those affected by unjust laws — should protest and help redefine them….I believe that scientific evidence and social observation will continue to show that defining dyslexia based solely on its weaknesses is inaccurate and unjust, and places too grim a burden on young people receiving the diagnosis. A more precise definition of dyslexia would clearly identify the disabilities that go along with it, while recognizing the associated abilities as well. If the dyslexic community could popularize such a definition, then newly diagnosed dyslexics would realize that they, like everyone else, will face their futures with a range of strengths and weaknesses.”

So true.  A balanced approach.  Fight for it.  Your child depends on it.

What are your thoughts on Assistive Technology?

First, let’s define Assistive Technology (AT).  The best information I found was, surprisingly, on the PBS website:

Assistive technology is any device that helps a person with a disability complete an everyday task. If you break your leg, a remote control for the TV can be assistive technology. If someone has poor eyesight, a pair of glasses or a magnifier is assistive technology.

Assistive technology includes many specialized devices as well, like typing telephones for people who are deaf and motorized wheelchairs for people who cannot walk. Assistive technology can be “low-tech” (something very simple and low-cost, like a pencil grip), or “high-tech” (something sophisticated, like a computer). Assistive technology can be critical for the person using it – if you wear glasses, think how hard it would be to get through the day without them!

The federal government recognized the importance of assistive technology for students when it revised the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1997 and again in 2004. IDEA states that school districts must consider assistive technology for any child in special education. That means that for any child receiving special education services, the educational team must ask if there is a device that will “increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities” of that child. If the answer is yes, the school district must provide certain services:

  • a qualified evaluator must complete an assistive technology evaluation;
  • if the evaluator recommends a device, it must be acquired;
  • and if you, your child or the staff in your child’s school need training to use the device, that training must be provided, too.

There is the information.  It sounds pretty good….yet in my experience it’s a slippery slope.

In third grade #1’s reading scores started on a sharp decline, actually showing that he made backwards progress during the school year.  In fourth grade his teacher suggested he start listening to all the books he was reading (the curriculum is designed around independent reading), telling me this is Assistive Technology and a way that has been found to help children with learning disabilities or children who are struggling.  Because he had always loved listening to books on CD at home I thought, “GREAT!  At least he’ll be looking at a book and taking something in instead of staring into space.” (which was his mode of operation in 3rd grade)  Becuase he was now listening, he really blasted through those books, but did he learn to read better?  No.  Did anyone teach him? No.  He was put in a corner with headphones on during reading where he quietly spend all of his reading time for the next TWO YEARS.  Because I was dealing with so many issues with #2 (and other complicating factors) I wasn’t paying much attention to the fact that no one was actually teaching him how to read (although the school did believe they were fulfilling their requirement for reading instruction).  What did he learn? Reading is not for me and I can only “read” a book if I listen to is, so why even try.  He had no confidence and no competency when it came to reading.

When #2 received his IEP (Individualized Education Plan) the school also wanted him to use a lot of Assistive Technology.  Although its against the law, they suggested I get him an iPad so he could dictate his work to a computer at all times.  There is also an app that will read material out loud.  I was a little smarter the second time around and I asked, “What is your plan to actually teach him how to read and write without the use of a computer?” They had no answer….except that they believed an iPad was essential for his life because they doubted he would ever read or write (I have proved them wrong).  And don’t get me started on the numerous ways I was outraged when they suggested the district could assign him a scribe…an actual person sitting next to him all day long doing all of his writing so he wouldn’t have to.

Assistive Technology, to them, was a crutch.  A replacement for actual teaching.  A replacement for actual learning. An excuse to not do the hard work….for both the teacher and the student.  Would #2 like to play on an iPad all day? Y-E-S!!! Would #1 like to listen to all his books on an iPod? Of course.  Will their mother allow this….N-O!  Sorry children, your mother is stubborn….and a Scandinavian Lutheran with a strong work ethic.

Last Friday the New York Times had a wonderful article, When Helping Hurts.  It focused on the harm that helicopter parenting can do to our children.

“it [help] must balance their need for support with their need for competence. We should restrain our urge to help unless the recipient truly needs it, and even then, we should calibrate it to complement rather than substitute for the recipient’s efforts.”

I think this ties in perfectly when thinking about Assistive Technology.  With #2 I use AT for homeschooling, however, it looks much different than what the school was proposing.  He does use a computer for writing…but he is not dictating into a microphone.  He is typing with Microsoft Word.  He does write with paper and pencil, but is more motivated to write a paragraph when he can type it.  He is delighted when he can look through a list of spelling suggestions and figure out the correct way to spell a word.  He is still doing the work and using the skills he has learned through the Wilson Reading System.  He uses a Kindle to read, but he is still the one reading.  #3 uses large pencils, but he is the one doing the writing.

The main point is this: when dealing with learning disabilities Assistive Technology should be used as an aid to help the child do the learning and work independently.  Use AT to aid in competency, not harm their confidence.  The AT should not be the thing that is doing the actual work.  Any more invasive of AT should be used only as a last resort after many interventions and instructional methods have been tried.

The look on #1’s face when he got to the end of his first book during the fall of 6th grade was priceless.  He looked up and with a big smile said, “I just read an entire book by myself! That is the first time I’ve done that since 2nd grade!”

Don’t use Assistive Technology because the child CAN’T do something….use Assistive Technology because they can.

A Sense of Belonging

“Giving rights to one group doesn’t take away from the people that have the rights already. Everyone can be a part of our world.”

~#2’s commentary during the marriage equality debate

Rally in Rotunda

Yesterday #2 and I biked to the capitol (Phy. Ed….check) to see and participate in the rally for marriage equality.  We talk a lot about civil rights and social justice at home, so seeing this historic moment was a good fit.

#2 has always had a deep sense of fairness.  Sometimes this is a wonderful trait, like when he expresses and will work for his deep sense of social justice and civil rights…but sometimes his deep sense of fairness is not helpful, such as when he is dealing with his siblings!

I have always wondered where this burning desire for social justice comes from.  Because of his dyslexia, he is incredibly sensitive to the world around him visually, auditorily, and emotionally.  His brain takes everything in and he has a very difficult time filtering things out.  He is normally the first to react when he senses something is not right.

I just started the book Reading David: A Mother and Son’s Journey through the labyrinth of Dyslexia by Lissa Weinstein, Ph.D.  She is describing the process she went through to have her son diagnosed and it’s strikingly similar to my journey.  The interesting part is that her son has written part of the book and talks about how he always knew he was different from people around him.  I asked #2 if he always knew he was different, and he said he did, with tears in his eyes.  I can’t help but wonder if he has known how different his brain worked from others because of how sensitive he is.

Yesterday #2 was able to see our democracy in action.  He saw people of all walks of life participating in a historic day.  It was a great lesson in civics.  He noticed that just because your have a clerical collar on, that does not define what side of the issue you are on (yesterday, more times than not it meant you were there to support marriage equality).  He witnessed many people holding signs expressing their joy of finally belonging to part of our society, the institution of marriage.  It was striking how many people were there that, by appearance only, many times don’t fit into the norm of our society.  We saw many same sex couples showing affection to each other, other people with fluorescent hair, people holding signs expressing their bisexuality, etc.  How long have some of these people felt like they had to hide their identity?

A main theme of the debate yesterday was a sense of belonging.  People in same sex relationships were asking to belong.  They were asking for a tolerance of differences.  They want to openly be themselves and able to express their love in the same way that opposite sex couples do, through a publicly recognized marriage.  They want society to accept their identity and who they are.  This debate took a lot of courage from people who have been labeled as “different” their entire lives and told they don’t belong.  Everyone wanted to be included in something that for to long has been for “us” and not “them.”

Yesterday, everyone belonged to society.  People from all walks of life came together in a sign of unity and acceptance.  #2 was amazed at all the people and loved being surrounded by the acceptance, hugs, music, love and joy.  As I watched him beam I realized that a sense of belonging is what he has asked for his entire life too.  He’s always known he was different, and it was pointed out to him continuously throughout his time in public school.  While the class was reading and writing he was told, in so many words, “this is not for you” and put in front of a computer to play a game. He was taught that his dyslexia was a barrier for his life and a reason he would never belong, instead of the gift that it is.  He was even taught that the thing that makes his life so difficult at times, dyslexia, is something that the school district denies is real and refuses to discuss.

He wants to belong.  He wants to be accepted for his differences.  He wants to be praised for his creativity, ability to care for animals and deep compassion for other people, not ashamed of his low standardized test scores.  I can only hope that someday he will feel this acceptance when he re-enters a public school.

I am filled with gratitude towards the MN legislators who voted for acceptance, tolerance, social justice, fairness and love.  What a wonderful thing that our children will grow up in a world where people of different sexual orientations can all experience the joy of a marriage.  Yesterday we honored the golden rule….may that continue into other areas of our society.

Bob Books

#3 is ending his kindergarten career in a couple weeks. He is beginning to decode words, however, he has a hard time finding books at his reading level. He needs VERY EASY books that are phonetic.  Emphasis on the VERY EASY!

So often I find Level 1 reading books at the library like this:

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Score!  This is going to be great! High interest in this house! Motivation will not be a problem.  Then my beginning reader tries to decode the words and the pages are like this:

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Frustrating! This book is called 3rd grade reading in our house! Soldier? Capture? This is not for a beginning reader…especially a dyslexic one!  Sure they could look at the pictures and figure out something about the Death Star, but we want them reading….not guessing.

When #2 was in second grade I discovered Bob books.

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They are short, phonetic, with controlled text, and the different levels move through phonetic skills sequentially.

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With coaching, even severely dyslexic readers can find success with these books when they are just entering the world of reading.  #3 can read a couple of these books independently now, which grows his confidence and encourages him to read more.  This creates a positive reinforcement loop with reading.

If others have suggestions for great books for children to practice beginning reading skills with, please post them in the comments so we can learn from you.  I know I’m always looking for new suggestions!  (There is really only so much of Cat and Sam and Mat sitting on each other that I can take.) And remember…emphasis on VERY EASY!

Reframing it

It is almost time to begin training for the Twin Cities Marathon in earnest.  I’ve been looking over Hal Higdon’s training guides and trying to decide which option would be best for this year.  I’ve been doing a lot of thinking: What is my goal?  Fast? Just get it done? No injury? Boston Qualifying? Run as fast as I possibly can?  Stick with my much more experienced (and smarter) running partner? All the above?

There will be times when I’m mad that I’m training for the marathon.  I will want to go out late on a Friday, but I know I have to run 18 miles the next morning.  The two don’t mix.  I will be running when its way too hot and humid to rationally run, but the training guide says I must and there is no end in sight for the heat wave.  I won’t want to get up at 4:55 AM.

But, I will remind myself the entire time….I get to do this.  I’m the lucky one.  My body let’s me do this.  My husband supports me doing this.  My lifestyle allows me to run.  I have wonderful friends to run with who encourage and challenge me.  I get to.

This is the rationale I’ve been turning to lately with raising children with dyslexia and especially homeschooling.  It’s May.  The weather is finally nice.  I feel like I’m on those last couple weeks of marathon training when your body is so tired and you are crossing your fingers you don’t get injured.  I have worked so hard for so long and I’d like to be done for awhile.  Homeschooling #2 is not easy for me.  It’s nothing I thought I’d ever do.  And just when I think we are getting somewhere….that there is light at the end of the tunnel….that some spelling is really sinking in and that -ed ending is cementing…I get the following text from #2 (sent from my mom’s phone):

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Are you kidding me?!?!?  GUST? PAST? YORE?  Can someone tell me how this sentence passed autocorrect? Where is Siri when you need her?

OK, I’ll give him yore….at least he got the vowel-consonant-e concept we’ve worked so hard on.  And the g/j sound is really hard for him. He needs to learn it to 100% accuracy and obviously we need to review.  BUT PAST?!?! No -ed suffix? It’s what we’ve worked on for 6 weeks!

Forget it.  Running a marathon, no make that an ultra-marathon, up a mountain, in elevation, on a really skinny path, is easier than this.  I’m a total failure of a teacher and parent.

I believe this is what they call “hitting the wall” in marathon terms.

It was time to dig deep.

There are two types of perspectives you can take when thinking about dyslexia; the deficit perspective or the strength perspective.  I was stuck in the deficit perspective.  The end of the school year is approaching and I’m stuck thinking of all the things that are incredibly hard for #2.  Spelling, reading speed, reading comprehension, writing, slow processing speed, math facts, sports, coordination, physical strength, attention, musical note reading, holding that darn violin bow straight…..I could go on and on.  It was (and is) bogging me down and it must be bogging #2 down too.

It’s time for me to re-frame. For myself I need to remember that I get to homeschool.  My life life work and personal background has lead me to this.  I am strong.  I am capable.  I get to be my child’s teacher.  I get to.

For #2 I need to help him reframe his dyslexia.  (#1 and #3 are also dyslexic, but they have different strengths.)  He gets to be dyslexic.  He gets to have dynamic reasoning.  He gets to be an intuitive thinker.  He gets to have the same strengths as Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Mozart (both dyslexic).  He gets to have vision about a complex process.  He gets to be good at connecting the dots and spotting patterns.  His diffuse attention is building creativity. His creativity is especially valuable in situations that are changing or ambiguous.  A high percentage of his type of dyslexics are in the following careers: entrepreneur, chief executive, finance, geology, physics, business consulting, economics, medicine (immunology, rheumatology, endocrinology, oncology), farmer, and construction. (Information from The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain)

He gets to be profoundly dyslexic.

I get to be his teacher and parent. I get to  help unlock his wonderful brain. I get to.