homeschooling

Potential – What’s your maximum?

She has so much potential.  He’s not living up to his potential.  With work they can reach their maximum potential.  All common in the vernacular of our current world.  I heard it (and said it) in my work life as a manager.  And I hear it in the context of my children all the time.  Adjudicators at dance say it.  Avi’s choir director says it.  It’s something people say frequently to either indicate that someone is not doing as well as expected but could improve with work (this is usually meant to be encouraging), or to indicate that they are doing as well as could possibly be expected, (usually with a negative connotation in that the expectations are kind of low).

Potential is defined by Cambridge as:

1. possible when the necessary conditions exist

2. someone’s or something’s ability to develop, achieve, or succeed.

When I think about potential of a human (or lack thereof), I like to combine these two.  Someone’s or something’s ability to develop, achieve, or succeed is possible when the necessary conditions exist.  Take Berrik for example.  (I know, I always take Berrik for example). The more I learn about Berrik and put the necessary conditions in place, his ability to develop, achieve AND succeed increases.  This can be applied to any human, neurotypical, learning disabled, physically disabled, cognitively disabled or otherwise. Incredibly gifted athletes make the Olympics because they and their parents sacrifice many other things to create the ‘necessary conditions’ in the form of diet, training, etc. For some the ‘necessary conditions’ may be more complex than others, but generally speaking, this is how it works.  For all of us.  Even bacteria or viruses develop and succeed when the necessary conditions are in place.  Remove those ‘conditions’ either through medication, diet, or other means, and the bacteria or viruses fail to thrive.  Mold…another good example.  My sourdough bread develops and succeeds if I put the necessary conditions in place.  I could go on.  (and I usually do.)

If you google “quotes about potential” you will find a large number of quotes referring to ‘maximum potential’.  I don’t care for these quotes.  I would argue that there is no such thing as maximum potential, because that suggests there is a limit, and that somehow we can predict it.  Having a child with learning disabilities magnifies this idea of ‘maximum potential’ and the risks associated with putting a limit on potential.  More than once in Berrik’s short school career, someone has put a limit on his potential, either verbally or in writing.  I believe that labels contribute to this tendency toward predicting and limiting potential.  It’s not the only factor, but it can provide a catalyst in a system that is not well resourced for kids who don’t have an easy time in a classroom environment.

Nothing makes me more frustrated than someone assuming a child (particularly MY child) has limited potential.  And if I worried about Berrik’s potential in the past, I worry much less now.  The gains he has made this past 10 months have been mind blowing. I wouldn’t have expected so much growth in such a short amount of time.  And despite a major shift in my own expectations, he continues to surprise me.  And I continue to shift my expectations upward.  Most importantly, I believe his potential has no limits.

Sir Winston Churchill once said:

Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential.

I love this quote.  I love that it doesn’t talk about maximums.  I love that it reminds us that success (however that looks for each individual) takes continuous effort.

As I type this, Berrik is writing a story and is on his third page.  In January he started ‘journal writing’ with one simple sentence.  Today he is using a planning template to plan a story using topic sentences, details, transitional language and powerful endings, and is writing; willingly, albeit slowly at times.  I believed we would get to this point eventually.  In January I would not have believed we’d be here already in April.

img_8508So often, particularly with kids with differently wired brains, learning disabilities, or any other disability, we are quick to focus on what they cannot do.  Often teachers/therapists will talk about strengths, but the system (and sometimes the imposed limitations on perceived potential) result in lack of ability or desire to truly build on those strengths.  I have said this so frequently I feel like a broken record, but despite the fact that we have had many positive (and negative) experiences with teachers, speech therapists etc., the people at Sound Connections are the first to truly believe that there is no limit to Berrik’s potential.  There is no discussion of labels.  It’s not relevant.  Each week we look at where Berrik is at and then we move forward based on that.  I am frequently consulted on what I think Berrik needs.  And Annette uses her considerable experience and expertise to determine what to do next, how fast to go, when to circle back.  Having had years and years of experience working with 100s and 100s, possibly 1000s of kids, she knows that ALL children have potential.  She believes it and you can see it in her program, in her approach.  As a mom who believes this of her child, I can’t tell you how critical it has been to know that someone else believes it too.  Sound Connections, homeschooling, diet, exercise….these are some of the ‘necessary conditions’ that I am putting in place so Berrik can continue to develop, achieve and succeed.  And that has been potentially (see what I did there?) life changing.

 

Socialization and Homeschooling

This is one of those things that non-homeschoolers (myself included at one point) feel that is a critical piece missing for the homeschooled kids vs. kids attending school.   I have heard and read comments about homeschooled kids growing up to be anti-social or just plain weird because they don’t know how to socialize with ‘normal’ kids.  I can only speak to my own experience on this one.

When Berrik was in grade one, he was struggling.  In every sense of the word.  He came home crying or sad many, many days.  He told me he had no friends because the other kids thought he was stupid.  He told me about kids throwing leaves and twigs at him on the playground.  And he hated being singled out in class to do ‘special’ work because it meant he was singled out as ‘different’.  In his mind, this equated to ‘unworthy’.  Now… I spoke to his teacher and she felt Berrik was over reacting to what was happening.  And at the time, I agreed that his reaction probably didn’t match the situation from the outside looking in.  But what I knew was that Berrik’s perception was that he was unworthy of friends, and he was not smart enough.  So, does the reality even matter, when that is his perception?  Not to me.  My formerly happy, social boy was beaten down.  He lacked confidence.  His self esteem was about zero.  He didn’t want to try anything.  He was negative.  ‘I can’t do it’ was a consistent phrase.

Fast forward 10 months.  Ten months of encouragement, cajoling, celebrating successes, learning from failures, and my confident, happy kid is back.  It took months for this confidence to come back.  Months.  Imagine a kid who felt like Berrik did for years!?  They might never recover.  And you know what came with the confidence?  Friends.  The more sure of himself and his own intellectual abilities (and otherwise), the easier he has made and maintained friendships.  He’s back to assuming that kids actually WANT to play with him, and he easily marches up to kids he doesn’t know and chats them up.

img_8404My point in this is that the socialization that Berrik was getting at school, was not beneficial to him.  Because of his learning disabilities, he was identified (possibly only self-identified, but likely more than that) as being the weird one.  So, I would rather my kid be the ‘weird’ homeschooled kid who is confident and friendly and secure in himself, than the kid ‘socialized properly’ at school feeling like a weirdo and feeling like he isn’t worthy, lacking in confidence, and feeling miserable.  Is it harder to find friends to play with when you aren’t in school?  Yes.  But Berrik has friends that he met on the toboggan hill, at Cub Scouts, in the neighborhood.  I have to work a bit harder to arrange play opportunities, but it’s not that difficult.
And let’s not forget that socialization happens within families as well.  Berrik has to navigate the scary, time-bomb laden world of having teenaged sisters!  Talk about reading social cues and adapting to actions and reactions often well out of proportion for the situation!

Homeschooling isn’t for everyone.  Neither is a bricks and mortar school.  Kids can socialize regardless of how they receive their education. Nothing is black and white (read more about my feelings about ‘black and white’ here).  My homeschooled kid is very social and very happy.  He’s not a weirdo. (Or at least not any more than his gene pool would indicate!).

Teach for Mastery, Not Test Scores

I will admit that I am a bit of a Ted Talk junkie.  Add to that a healthy respect for and frequent use of the Khan Academy learning materials and you’ll understand why I LOVE this particular Ted Talk by Sal Khan:

I recommend watching the Ted Talk – it’s 10 minutes of simple brilliance.  But the general overview is that our current education system that teaches for test scores rather than mastery is causing a multitude of issues that could be overcome with a shift in mindset.  My favourite analogy in the talk is about Math.  Kids learn math concepts from an early age.  They are tested.  Let’s say they get 75%.  That’s a good grade.  They move on.  After a few years of 75% mastery, you can imagine that the 25% gaps in knowledge will create some critical issues.  Without mastery of earlier concepts, at some point, more complex concepts will become extremely difficult, and you will start to hear kids say, “I’m just not good at math.”  You can apply this to many subjects.  If kids were expected to achieve mastery before moving on (by using technology and any number of free and easily accessible resources – thank you, world wide web!), then nearly 100% of the population would be able to read, do calculus, organic chemistry etc.  He goes on to talk also about the benefits of kids learning to seek the information they need, the perseverance, taking agency over their own learning, as critical life skills.

As a homeschooling mom of a kid who has had significant challenges learning to read, and as a result also struggled in math, I fully subscribe to this philosophy of mastery over test scores.  My first introduction to this concept, or at least the first time it was articulated to me in a way that really hit home, was in Sound Connections.  Berrik does not move on to a more complex concept until he has mastered the concept he is currently working on.  And we constantly review earlier concepts as full mastery and ability to quickly access those concepts results in faster and more successful mastery of more complex concepts.

Imagine a kid who has trouble learning to read due to a learning disability that is diagnosed in grade 3.  In a typical classroom, that kid who may now have accommodations or therapies is just starting to learn to read.  What are the chances that anyone at school will go right back to the beginning…the early reading skills that kids are exposed to in preschool, kindergarten and grade 1?  Slim.  There just isn’t time. So unless he’s in a program like Sound Connections, there are going to be some gaps that will make things more challenging down the road.

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If only all kids were given the opportunity to master all pre-reading concepts and then early reading concepts and so on and so on!  Watching my kid go from low self confidence and feeling as though he was ‘stupid’ to successfully reading, and learning to decode words, and understanding advanced sound rules (and learning that the rules are all made to be broken in the English language), and learning to spell and write stories has been an incredible journey.  Yes, I homeschool so I have time.  But it’s not the time so much as the access to resources and guidance that have allowed us to efficiently work on mastering concepts. We are playing catch up.  But if these resources and methods were implemented in all kindergartens and grade 1 classes, the foundations would be strong for all kids.

Knowing that mastery is the key has changed the way we approach everything.  This is the true beauty of homeschooling for me.  We do NOT move on until a concept is mastered.  And there is no one telling me I have to.  And not surprisingly, ensuring mastery along the way has resulted in Berrik moving more quickly (especially in math) even as concepts get more complex.  We are still unravelling the puzzle pieces of why Berrik struggles so much with reading and writing – more on vision therapy and other things later.  However, in Math, we started in September doing Grade 1 Math.  We are now working on Grade 2 Math and I expect Berrik to be ready for Grade 3 Math in September when he enters Grade 3.

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My two older daughters both do well in school.  Even so, Khan’s example rang true for both of them with regard to Math.  Lack of mastery of some concepts (like memorizing timestables, for example) took 3-4 years before it truly came back to bite them. Suddenly more advanced math concepts that require an ability to recall single digit multiplication became onerous and challenging.  I remember McKenna at one point, maybe in grade 7, realizing that knowing multiplication tables like the back of her hand was a critical skill, so she took the time (on her own time, because that is a grade 3 concept!) to memorize them.  This year in Grade 8, Math is one of her strongest subjects.

It is so very simple, and it is now scalable in the classroom like it never has been in history.  It simply requires a shift in thinking.  An example Khan talks about is hearing from teachers who started assigning the Khan Academy math videos as homework and then doing the practice in class time, instead of the typical method of lecturing and teaching concepts in class and sending kids home to practice on their own with their busy and bewildered parents.  It’s no surprise that this resulted in significantly higher success rates.  And as a parent who has spent many an hour at the table doing math with kids (in spanish no less), I would be over the moon if our homework was to watch the video instead of do the practice.  For the record, many times I had to Google translate the instructions to english and then watch a Khan Academy video to teach myself what my daughters were supposed to be practicing, and then try to help them! PAINFUL.

I think a lot of homeschoolers choose homeschooling for this ability to allow kids to learn at their own pace, and achieve mastery before moving on.  It has been life changing for us this year.

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I am going to throw in a final plug for the Khan Academy.  This website/app is FREE, and you can learn just about anything.  We are using it for math and it’s pretty fantastic.  Sal has created videos about concepts which you can watch as many times as you need to. Then you practice.  A specific number of correct answers identifies mastery.  If you struggle, there are links back to the videos right in the questions, and there are also hints to help you. If you have an account, your data is tracked and you can access and analyze your child’s (or your own) progress.  Even better, the site has been gameified which I know from my L&D world is excellent for motivation and engagement.

My engineer husband who works in the construction industry would never consider building a skyscraper on a foundation that is 80% complete, so why are we building the minds of our children on these faulty, incomplete foundations?

It’s Not What You Think…

Like most people at this time of year, our family life is feeling particularly hectic. Christmas concerts, Christmas parties, dance open house, holiday prep including baking, buying, wrapping, decorating, and entertaining….and all of this on top of the regular, day to day stuff that we do year round.  It’s exhausting.  And a bit overwhelming at times.

christmas_tree_covered_with_gift_170128Berrik and I are trying to stay focused, but it seems as though the ‘to do’ list is so long that it keeps interfering with our daily routine.   A friend texted me yesterday that I must be enjoying being a stay at home mom due to all the free time to get ready for Christmas.  The truth is that I’m the least prepared for Christmas that I have ever been. It’s difficult not to be a bit sensitive about the insinuation that staying at home means having lots of free time.  The ‘stay at home’ moms (SAHMs) I know are rarely home.  They may not all be homeschooling, but they are volunteering, supporting family members, driving, fundraising, and doing so many other unpaid jobs.  I’ll admit that I didn’t fully understand this when I was working full time.  I thought it must be easier to be at home.  There are perks for sure.  I like getting up and putting on sweats and starting my day with a coffee while chatting with the kids over breakfast.  When I was working, I didn’t get to do that as I was out the door before the kids were even out of bed most days.  But after the girls leave for the bus at 7:30, Berrik and I are often busy right until the girls arrive back home again at 4…and then the real craziness begins.  There are many days where I know it would be easier to get up early, dress in my work clothes and head into the office for a day talking with adults, going to the washroom SOLO (I truly thought that having the kids join me in the washroom would end after the toddler/preschool years, but I was mistaken.  Even my almost 14 year old knocks on my bathroom door to inquire as to what I am doing!), feeling respected for my knowledge/expertise, and receiving a lovely paycheque every two weeks!

It’s quite fascinating to talk to people…both those I have known for years, and people I have just met. Invariably the question comes up about either how things are going ‘at home’, or in the case of new people, questions about what I do for a living.  It seems many people have some interesting, but not totally accurate, ideas about what I’m getting up to these days. I’d like to take this opportunity to dispel a few myths that I have heard in my short time away from work:

feet-932346_960_7201.MYTH: Homeschooling is easy and you get everything done by noon so you can spend the rest of the day relaxing.  Oh how I wish this was the case. And I only have one to teach.  I know people teaching 3, 4,5,6, even 7 or 8 kids at once.  Or teaching 5 with a toddler and newborn!  I’m teaching one grade only.  And I need to prepare for that.  It may not be the same amount of prep that a teacher with 25 grade two kids would have to do, but it’s still quite a bit.  Especially because doing worksheets is not the way that Berrik learns best, and therefore it is not the way we do school.  And can I add that without Sound Connections and the ability to use their materials, I’d have considerably more work to do. The language and literacy components of Berrik’s homeschooling are almost exclusively using materials and/or techniques we have learned through Sound Connections.

money-case-163495__3402. MYTH: Homeschooling is lucrative.  Ahahahahahahahaha.  Um.  No.  In total I received about $1000 in funding for Berrik this year.  And every dollar must be accounted for, and used for specific education related items.  His funding is pretty much already gone for this year, so anything else we need (and any other classes I want him to attend) are out of pocket.  I once heard someone suggest that a mom chose homeschooling her multiple children because she wanted to ‘give herself a paying job’.  What a joke that is.  Even if we could pretend that the $5000 per year in funding that she receives (for 5 children) is a good salary (obviously it is not, by anyone’s standards), she can’t use any of it for stuff for herself anyways…  we buy curriculum, perhaps some field trips, or a few classes from our homeschool board if offered…. and oops, it’s all gone.  Not lucrative.  This is not something people choose to do for financial gain.

3. MYTH: I COULD NOT homeschool my kids.  I would go crazy!  Admittedly, these words have come from my mouth. And not all that long ago either.   The truth is that homeschooling is not as crazy-making as I would have thought.  In fact, I quite enjoy it most of the time.  It’s busy.  It’s not easy.  It takes some discipline and some preparation. But overall, the rewards are daily, and limitless.  There are so many benefits to being able to spend time on areas that require additional support and speed ahead in areas of strength, to explore areas of interest further, and move more quickly through topics that are less interesting.  The benefit that I didn’t anticipate is the bond with all of my kids getting stronger as a result of my being more available to them.  My daughters confide in me, they know they can depend on me, and I now know their friends better because I get a chance to drive them all to the mall, or to a sleepover.  Berrik and I are closer than ever. And I know him so much better now.  I know how he likes to learn, what he is interested in, how he feels about his friends.  These are the priceless benefits that I didn’t expect but that I so enjoy.  All this to say, if you feel it would be the best choice for your family, but are hesitating because you feel like you COULD NOT DO IT, then call me.  I’ll explain why you totally CAN do it, if that is what you want.

stretching-498256_960_7204. MYTH: Stay at home moms have time for the gym, lunches out with other SAHMs, and watching soaps.  Sadly, I go to the gym less frequently now than when I was working, I almost NEVER go out for lunch, unless you count feeding Berrik in the car while driving from Sound Connections to a school class or function, and I haven’t watched soaps for 20 years or more.  As I said above, SAHMs are busy doing many of the unpaid tasks and roles that the working moms can’t do.  I was (and am) always thankful to the moms (and dads) who volunteer at the school or for other organizations as we all benefit from their hard work and commitment.  When I was working full time, I didn’t have time to do those things, much as I would have liked to, and my kids fully benefited from the work of those moms who were willing and able to sacrifice their precious time.

5. MYTH: Working moms have it better.  SAHMs have it better. This is a ‘grass is always greener’ style myth.  There are pros and cons to both.  I liked working.  I like being at home.  One is not easier than the other.  One is not more fun than the other.  One is not more time consuming than the other.  They are just different.  Completely and totally different.  One pays better in terms of cash.  The other pays out in other less tangible ways.  Every family is different.  And it changes. What worked this year may not work next year etc. etc.  Having been raised by a working mom, I know that working moms can raise successful and relatively well adjusted people.  (I’m mostly speaking about my brother here… ;-))  Having known many people raised by SAHMs, I know that staying at home produces some pretty cool adults as well.  The fact that we, as women and mothers, (and dads!) have a choice to have one or the other or a combination of both is what we should be celebrating.  That is all.

 

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