Questioning Summer

It’s July.  Summer is in full swing.  In July is when my marathon training really kicks in for the Twin Cities Marathon.  Soon I will be breathing a sigh of relief when I “only” run 15 miles early on a Saturday morning.  This is the third summer I have trained for the TCM.  I have yet to make it through an entire summer without some sort of major injury that sidelines me for months.  So far this summer, I am still feeling good.  The past 9 months I ran 3-4 times a week pretty consistently and found two new sports that I love and wish I had more time to pursue, yoga and skate skiing.  Because of yoga and skiing, my body is stronger than its ever been which has helped me a lot so far this marathon season, yet I remain anxious about an injury.

When I am running alone my brain doesn’t stop thinking, “Is that an injury? Or that? What about that?” THE ENTIRE TIME.  When I’m not obsessing about every little tweak I feel turning into a major injury I’m thinking, “Can I actually run a marathon again? Can I run it faster? Perhaps I should not worry about the time.  Maybe I shouldn’t run the marathon.  If I think this 14 mile run is tough what am I going to do when its 26.2? Why am I doing this to myself? Who do I think I am? When did I decide I was a runner? Am I lying to myself?”  No wonder I get exhausted.

Last weekend I was out on a country road alone and wanted to get my long run over with because my brain wouldn’t turn off (see above), even when I started singing Beatles songs to myself.  I slipped into a long stride which allows me to run pretty fast with many less steps.  It only took about 5 minutes before I felt the scar tissue in my upper hamstring remind me that this stride doesn’t work for my body.  My brain immediately flooded back to September, 2011 and I could picture a particularly painful 10 mile run that good friends dragged me along on (at my request!) before I decided the marathon just wasn’t going to happen for me that year because of the severe pain. The memory of that injury is always looming and I can feel myself hold back because of the fear of re-injury.  When I’m alone, I can never truly run free and enjoy the meditation of running….I have too much fear of what is to come that continually cycles through my inner-monologue.

This sort of anxious-anticipation-while-doing-something-you-love must be how summer break feels for a profoundly dyslexic child.

All of my children are completely immersed in summer.  Sports, camps, swimming lessons, afternoons with friends, trips to the cabin, planning our summer vacation to Yellowstone, lazy days flipping through the Guinness Book of World Records for the one billionth time, playing Monopoly with your siblings and flipping the board across the room when you land on Boardwalk (and you don’t own it, but your big brother does, with hotel)…..  #1, #2 and #3 all worked very hard in school this year to overcome their many challenges and made great strides.  I thought I would do more academic work with them this summer, but I quickly discovered we all needed a break from phonics, handwriting, writing assignments, spelling and splitting words into syllables.

We have all been enjoying the break from syllable division and flashcards.

It’s possible to almos relax and forget how hard academic work is September-May….almost.  Dyslexia pops up nearly every day, sometimes when we least expect it.  The library reading program now requires children to write a book review, not just the name of the book.  Great idea, but not for my boys.  It takes them almost as long to write a short paragraph as it does for them to read the entire book.  None of us wanted to deal with the tears of forced writing assignments in the summer.  A camp counselor called to discuss #2’s journalling project during a week of nature/science camp.  #1 receives e-mails from friends and has a hard time responding without his mother to help with spelling.  #3 is asked to read and write something at his piano lesson.  Although dyslexia is not at the forefront of our lives in the summer and things are going pretty smooth, the anxiety and frustration are still there and I can see the anticipation on their faces when they are entering a new situation.

I’m continually wondering if I’m doing too much, or too little, or not the right approach, or the right approach but not enough of it, or too many camps, or too few, or the wrong camps, or enforcing reading too much, or perhaps not enough, and what about writing, and should we be doing math worksheets?  Exhausting.

Yesterday I stumbled across this article, Summer Fun, by Kyle Redford on the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity site.  He writes:

“Balance is important to all children, but one could argue that it is particularly important when a child feels that his life has been hijacked by a learning disability.  The amount of time, energy and thought aimed at coping with dyslexia is significant. Since dyslexics spend nine months out of the year grappling with difficult school tasks that frequently lead to despair, summer is a relished opportunity to refuel and recharge.  Summer vacation is also an important time for a child to pursue activities that are fun and fulfilling, not frustrating.”

The article also has great tips about inspiring reading in your children during the summer that I was really happy to see we already do.  Listen to audiobooks! Listen to NPR!  Listen to RadioLab!!!!  We have been doing plenty of science this summer since #2 and I started a vegetable garden at the end of May and everyone has been pitching in to help.  #3 found milkweed in our yard this week and has been anxiously waiting for Monarch Butterflies to visit.  But the article also brought out my anxiety again.  Tutors? Special camps for dyslexic students? Academic remediation? Should I be focusing more on those flashcards and syllables this summer? Oh the doubt.  Where is that crystal ball I wish I could look in to see 10 years down the road and know if I’m doing the right thing.

Perhaps the summer is like the off-season of my running and the school year is the training.  Summer is the time to keep up with your skills without exhausting yourself.  Summer is the time to figure out new things you can do and feel good about.  Summer is the time to enjoy what you are good at, not to reinforce the things that are hard.

So, they will continue to work in the vegetable garden,

Megan in vegetable garden

see how far they can jump off a diving board,

Eddie jumping in pool

build their dreams,

Leonardo's Basement Rocket

experiment in the kitchen,

Leonardo's Basement Test Kitchen

and fish with their grandparents.

Fishing at Sand Lake

Near the end of the article it states, “Educating a child with dyslexia is a marathon, not a sprint.”

At least I’ve picked the right sport to carry me through this journey.

 One less thing to question.

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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.

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):

text

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.

Not exactly helpful

I have found that when you have a child struggling with something….academic, health, behavior, etc….it’s tempting to turn to the internet to look for a quick fix.

In March the New York Times had a short article about dyslexia, Video Games may Aid Children with Dyslexia.

Students trained (?!?) in action video games showed that they had improved reading scores. WOW!  Time to get to Target and load up on all those Wii games I say N-O to.  That’s it?  I can just shove my boys in front of the Wii with ACTION (non-action games didn’t have as dramatic of an effect) games and they will read well? Done and done.

But wait, the last paragraph of the article is this:

“The correlation between attention improvement and reading improvement was very high,” said the co-first author of the study, Simone Gori, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Padua. “The change in attentional abilities translates into better reading ability.”

Wait, is this news?  Of course your reading will be better if your attention is better, isn’t that the trick I wrote about yesterday?

I would argue that instead of plopping your child in front of a video game and hoping that they become a better reader (they won’t), they go outside and exercise to increase attention.  Shouldn’t the goal be healthy children who are confident about their reading skills and engaged in learning….instead of children nagging about needing to play more video games and THEN they will do their homework.

The New York Times has published many articles about the benefits of exercise, even while Phy Ed. and recess time are being cut.  In the last paragraph of Can Exercise Make Kids Smarter by Gretchen Reynolds she writes:

“But for now, the takeaway is clear. “More aerobic exercise” for young people, Mr. Kuhn said. Mr. Hillman agreed. So get kids moving, he added, and preferably away from their Wiis. A still-unpublished study from his lab compared the cognitive impact in young people of 20 minutes of running on a treadmill with 20 minutes of playing sports-style video games at a similar intensity. Running improved test scores immediately afterward. Playing video games did not.”

Hiking in Glacier

Get outside and play!

What is the hardest part about homeschooling?

The answer to this varies.

In many circumstances I am searching for concrete.  To me, there is nothing concrete about homeschooling.  Before #1 was born I was a classroom teacher.  There were a lot of rules that I had to live by and I knew my role.  I had my classroom at the end of the hall where I taught 1st grade. The curriculum, standards, and schedule were dictated to me.  Not all bad.  With homeschooling, for better or worse, I’m the superintendent, principal, teacher, cook, janitor, secretary, community liaison and the parent.  No one is telling me what units I must do, or what due dates there are.  There are no set school hours or calendar.  There are no tests.  No report cards.  No conferences.  No one else in charge of his learning.  I don’t have any idea how many months or years I will be doing this.  These are all good things for the type of learner #2 is, and I am fortunate to have the opportunity to help him in this way. I enjoy the challenge, but it’s sometimes very hard for me to live with the chaos.

Life is still happening.  The house gets continually used (trashed).  #4 is home much of the time doing what preschoolers do, moving things around.  Last year #3 was home too and they moved throughout the house like a pack of wolves just waiting for an opportunity to deconstruct something.  If I had a job in which I left during the day I think it would be a matter of “out of sight, out of mind.”  However, I sit by #2’s side at the dining room table for most of the day with the knowledge that if I turn my head the house looks like this:

living room

and…..

entry

and….

kitchen

and get ready…..

boys' room

AHHHHHHHH!!!!

In response, I make my bed every day.

When the day is particulary chaotic, at least there is this.

bedroom

And you better believe there are crisp hospital corners.

The emotional answer to the question is that it’s hard not being able to spend the time with #4 that I spent with the 3 boys when they were little.  Again, if she was out of the house, it would be different.  However, she roams for much of the day, stealthily flying under the radar.  She is independent, happy and easy-going.  She seems to understand that her brother needs my attention and she doesn’t.  Her preschool teachers said they think #4 should go around with a banner that reads:

“Live and let live.”

Megan

Perhaps I have found the principal for my homeschool.

Running backwards

“Remember 5 days ago when I was so happy to be running in capris?” This is a text I sent one of my running partners last week.   Minnesota is enduring the return of winter.  Little did we know in December that getting through this winter would be its own form of an endurance event.  Each time I look out the window, it seems like we are in a time warp and have gone backwards in time.  We are stuck in February.

path in snow

Sometimes my days with dyslexic children are like this.  Last week while #2 was writing I had to remind him that b is made “bat-ball” and d is “donut door.” I thought I was going to lose it.  Honestly. I usually sit by his side while he is writing and watch him make every letter so I can stop a mistake before it starts.  The more times he forgets which way a b goes and writes it backwards, thats twice as many times I have to remind him which way is correct.  Last year we sat with colorful reminders of trouble letter shapes in front of him.  This year we have tried to move towards cementing that knowledge and relying on kinesthetic reminders with his hands or verbal reminders.  This multisensory approach is incredibly important to dyslexic students when we are trying to make new imprints on their brain of what a b looks like.  Its stunning how much practice an intelligent child needs on such a basic skill. Someday I hope he gains automaticity in his letters (although there are many times that I also whisper “bat-ball” or “donut-door” when I’m writing).  #2 can discuss presidential history, but when it comes to writing I constantly feel like I’m going backwards or stuck in a time warp….Its always gloomy February.

Last fall I heard Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree, speak.  His book is about parenting children with differences.  One part I really connected with is that the parents that seem to come out of difficult parenting situations to tell stories of success have found deep meaning in their parenting journey.  This is something I have found myself going back to as I look outside and wonder what month is it and then I look at #2s writing and wonder the same.  Am I making progress?  Is this worth it?

And yes, it is.  The patience and time it takes to help a child with profound dyslexia is worth it.  I don’t know the path it will take, but I’m determined to make it worth it.  There are bright spots with his language.  18 months ago he broke into tears if he was asked to read a book as simple as Go, Dog, Go!  Last week during free read time I looked over and found this:

fortune cookie wookie

There is hope.  Its amazing what discipline, practice, grit and perseverance can do.  It can turn a non-runner into a marathoner.  It can turn a non-reader into a voracious reader.  Lately its a small battle to get him to put DOWN a book, especially when its such high class literature as The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee: An Origami Yoda Book.

Today my text to a running parter will be, “Let’s try to qualify for Boston at the TC marathon this fall.”  We all need hope.