Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Parenting By Difference

For two weeks, I have been painstakingly (emphasis on the first syllable) working on a blog post about...well, nevermind, I'll come back to that.  Then the tics started again and now my thoughts on parenting and homeschooling are focused on Bean's blinks and head bobs and shoulder jerks.

From the time Bean was about two, it became clear to us and to other adults around her that if we were to seek out any number of diagnoses, we would probably find them.  Teachers and school administrators have suggested occupational therapy, speech therapy and IQ testing.  Take your pick of acronyms or diagnostic labels - many of them beginning with "A" - and it would not be a stretch to picture Bean.  Well, some of the time.  Her periods of equilibrium and disequilibrium have always been extreme.  After eight years as her parents, we know that we will spend half of any given age wondering what's wrong and the other half wondering why we ever thought anything was wrong at all.

This is part of the reason we have never sought out professional help beyond our pediatrician.  By the time we decide that Yes, this time we are really making that call, she - and we- have turned a corner and worked through things.  We come back to our grounding philosophy for parenting her: she is who she is and when we remember Bean 101, we usually work through things pretty smoothly.

Bean 101 is our shorthand - in the absence of any diagnosis - for those things that make her uniquely her and uniquely challenging: loud noises disturb her (unless she is making them); change is hard for her - whether it is an emotion or a place or a person; she is intense at play and rest; she has an unusually strong inner compass; she is persistent, sensitive and has prodigious amounts of both mental and physical energy; sleep can be elusive for her; if she doesn't like the feel of something, it will be an uphill battle that may not be worth fighting to get her to try it once, let alone go back.  She is also very empathetic, intuitive, caring, and curious.  Many of these characteristics have mellowed as she has matured, but will come roaring back under stress (change, fatigue, illness, etc.) for a moment or longer.

One of the reasons we decided to homeschool rather than try the public school system or another private school is that we felt that in the school environment, sooner or later, we would be forced to have her tested for one thing or another.  We have always felt that if we had a diagnosis, we would parent to the diagnosis and not to her own uniqueness.  In our completely unprofessional, but dangerously over-read opinion, we think that if she is anything, it is borderline and we want to keep parenting on that border because, no matter how uncomfortable, it is real.  It would be easier to be in one camp or not: "normal" is far too relative a term, so I will say that the two camps are diagnosable and non-diagnosable (How's that for hedging my bets? I just made up a word.)

And then came an open house at a new gym on Saturday.  We had been talking with Bean for months about taking gymnastics again.  She has taken gymnastics off and on at various gyms since she was three but often didn't like the class environment.  Without a regular outlet for her acrobatic pursuits, our house feels like a Cirque du Soleil set.  Once she started taking private ballet lessons and realized this was an option for gymnastics, we started looking into it.  She was extremely excited about her first trial lesson with a coach at her previous gym, but the coach had her own ideas and it didn't go at all the way Bean or I had intended.  After that disappointment last week, I immediately began looking at the few other gyms in the immediate area and a few in nearby counties.  The newest incarnation of her first gym was having an open house in a new space so we all went.

As Dr. Yap and I stood in the cavernous space, watching from afar as she waited for her turn on the trampoline, Bean looking especially small and exposed in her shiny blue leortard, we realized at the same time that she wasn't merely fidgeting expectantly waiting for her turn: her shoulders were twitching, and her head was jerking forward.

This wasn't the first time we noticed her tic.  Several months ago, she started jerking her shoulders, usually in the evening and at bedtime.  At the time, I convinced Dr. Yap that this was nothing to worry about.  I thought it was just another manifestation of her energy and like earlier bouts of throat-clearing, sniffing, and lip-chewing, this would pass if we didn't say much.  Dr. Yap (who, it should be noted, has neither a medical degree or a PhD, we just all think she's brilliant and have thus bestowed upon her this honorary moniker - but don't tell her it's not legit) didn't like it but agreed to go along with it.  Soon, it passed, and so did her obsession with "catching the 59s" - her term for trying to see the last number of each hour on a digital clock wherever she was.  Just as this habit went from being maddening to worrisome, it passed.

Now, watching under fluorescent lights as two tics take hold of her slender frame, I know I will have a harder time convincing Dr. Yap that it's nothing.  I try anyway (because I am no stranger to persistence myself.)  The tics continued throughout the weekend and were soon joined by blinking.  This was a much more persistent, continuous phenomenon than anything she had experienced before.  We tried to ask non-chalantly if she was doing it on purpose or if she knew it was happening.  By Sunday evening, she was having a hard time talking and said at bedtime that she wished she could stop blinking because it was bothering her eyes.  Dr. Yap insisted that I take her to the doctor on Monday- no matter what any website said about tics being transient and unharmful in childhood.

On Monday, I made the appointment for that evening with her pediatrician and noticed fewer and less intense tics.  I asked her if she felt like it was less and if she was trying not to do it and she said yes.  Last night, her pediatrician agreed with me that the tics seemed in keeping with her intensity, energy, compulsive nature and likely (though unproven by any testing method) giftedness.  He prescribed nonchalance for Dr. Yap and I and suggested that Bean try to talk about things going on in her head.  The pediatrician agreed that she would probably outgrow some of her tendencies and that it was best to continue parenting the kid we have, without the guidance - or hindrance - of a diagnosis. I trust his assessment of Bean because besides being a good pediatrician and the father of three he has witnessed her intensity live and in person over the years.  For good measure, and because he knew Dr. Yap would appreciate it, he also gave us a referral to a pediatric neurologist in the same medical group who happens to specialize in movement disorders.

Tics are not uncommon in young children, and until they have persisted for at least a year, they are considered Transient Tic Disorder, rather than the more familiar Tourette's Syndrome.  Are we now heading down the road of giving a name and label to every aspect of our child, or are we simply being good parents, availing ourselves of good insurance and sound medical advice?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wordless, But Not Silent

When we started our New York Times book project, I knew I better check as many of the Wordless Books out at one time as I could or I would lose my nerve - the literary version of ripping the bandaid off a wound or holding one's nose to take a bit of broccoli.  One night after dinner everybody piled on the big bed and I "read" books to Boo while Bean sprawled on the end of the bed looking at books from the stack on her own.  For the most part, I was pleasantly surprised (but I was glad there were only about 20 altogether.)

*Because I view this as a library project, all the links are to listings at the Santa Cruz Public Library.  Some of these books are simply good reads, while others are good sources for homeschool subjects.  I have highlighted this at the end of the entry, if necessary.  I will also note books that the 2 year old liked but the 8 year old didn't (and vice versa.)

Anno's Journey
Written and Illustrated by Mitsumasa Anno
I think all of Mitsumasa Anno's books are beautifully illustrated and lead the "reader" into a world that is both magical and real.  I highly recommend any and all you can find. Unfortunately, many of his books just don't grad my kids' attention.  The details in Anno's JourneyAnno's U.S.A and Anno's Fleamarket are so minute that it is hard to describe a story they can hold onto.  His math books are another story.  Boo loved Anno's Counting Book so much that I snapped up a used copy.  Bean spent an afternoon working out the math problem that makes up Anno's Magic Seeds in chalk on the patio.  She also enjoyed Anno's Mysterious Multiplying Jar.  Anno's Math Games I, II, and III can be hard to track down (we found I and II at our homeschool resource center and II and III at the library) but worth the effort.  Bean and I went over and over these until she finally worked through them all and had enough.
Homeschool Connection: Anno's math books are all great for lower elementary level math, especially for kids who don't like workbook computation. 

The Bear and the Fly
Written and Illustrated by Paula Winter
This wasn't available at our library and I haven't found it anywhere else.  If anyone knows of this book, please let me know and tell me what you think.

A Boy, a Dog and a Frog
Written and Illustrated by Mercer Mayer
This story is perfectly illustrated and needs almost no narration.  Really, the title says it all.  That said, Boo (2) loved it and it's charms were lost on Bean (closer to 8 than 7).

Written and Illustrated by Elisha Cooper
We've had a used copy of this book for some time, but I don't know whether this book is mis-categorized, or whether we have a different version because it is definitely not wordless.  Cooper uses just enough words and just enough pictures to show how a building goes up.  Both my kids are drawn in as the book goes from empty lot to finished building. The words are few and written in synchronicity with the illustrations: words march around the outline of the page to describe how the building is framed; as the walls go up, so do the words.
Homeschool Connection: This would make an excellent companion to What it Feels Like to Be a Building to begin a unit on architecture. (I wish I'd been clever enough to think of that a year ago.)

Changes, Changes
Written and Illustrated by Pat Hutchins
I was actually excited to see this book because we've seen an animated version from the Scholastic Video Collection (we got many of them form Costco) and I just thought it was darn near the best use of wooden blocks I'd ever seen outside a nursery school classroom.  Both kids enjoyed the book version, but I missed the 70's music score that sounds like a marimba recorded in a coffee can.

Written and Illustrated by Quentin Blake
You can check this out for yourself, but Bean and I looked at it in the library and decided the titular clown was the kind that gives clowns a bad name among children and Blake's thin drawing style didn't give us enough else to work with - it didn't make it into the library bag.

The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher
Written and Illustrated by Molly Bang
The entry in the The New York Times Parent's Guide to the Best Books for Children described this as "eerie" and "startling" so I wanted to preview it at the library and give Bean the right of refusal.  I kind of regret this since she promptly pronounced it too creepy.  It didn't make it into the library bag that day, but I think I will give it another chance on the sly.

Written and Illustrated by Joan Steiner
This series of books, which is filed in the "Indoor Amusements" section of the Dewey Decimal System, creates two-page worlds made out of found objects.  I could imagine some kids spending hours looking at the pictures, but Boo paid no attention and Bean was only mildly interested.  I think it was hard for them to tell what some of the quaint objects were.  Still, I like this as a good quiet-time book to be pulled off the shelf occasionally for independent viewing and I would pick up a used copy if I stumbled upon it.

Paddy Pork
Written and Illustrated by John S. Goodall
The Guide actually listed Naughty Nancy, but since our library didn't have that, we checked out two Paddy Pork books, Creepy Castle and The Life of a Farm by Goodall.  They all have the same format: wordless pages with beautifully painted illustrations which tell the story on a series of pages and half-pages, which cleverly change the action.  The Paddy Pork books were mentioned in the Guide, and Boo liked those.  Bean and I especially liked The Life of the Farm, which takes place over several centuries on a pastoral piece of land somewhere in Europe.

Sector 7
Written and Illustrated by David Weisner
This book about a boy wandering into the cloud factory is kind of weird and kind of beautiful, but feels like it's missing something.  Bean kind of liked it and Boo kind of didn't.  Forget that though, and let this book lead you to the other wordless picture books by David Weisner in the the JEasy section of your library.  Flotsam is an especially wonderful visual fantasy.  I would even buy a new copy of it, just to have around for those times when children or adults need to get lost in something definitely weird and definitely beautiful.

Written and Illustrated by Raymond Briggs
For the sake of the project, I made myself narrate this frame by frame to Boo one evening at bedtime.  And you know, this tale of a boy and his snowman was charming.

Will's Mammoth
Written by Rafe Martin and Illustrated by Stephen Gammel
Our library only has copies of this book about a boy and his wooly mammoth at outlying branches so it took us a while to get to it and by the time we read it we were deep into the Picture Book section of the Guide.  We were finding so many sublime treasures among the picture books that Will's Mammoth fell flat for us and failed to get anyone's attention.  Maybe if we had read it in that first night of wordless book bliss...

Written and Illustrated by Istvan Banyai
This book and its sequel, Re-Zoom, are exactly what wordless picture books should be: beautifully illustrated, mind-stretching, and captivating.  Bean and I loved these, but Boo lost interest after the first perspective-jump.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Looking for the Tower of Babel

One of the things I like about homeschooling is that when there is an academic or behavior emergency, we can deal with it immediately, ourselves - without emails, phone calls and meetings with the teacher or principal.  Likewise, when something isn't quite working, we can decide ourselves whether it's an emergency or not.  If it's not an emergency, we can let it simmer until we come up with something new to try.  Right now, foreign language is bubbling on my back burner.

When we first started homeschooling, I had a vague notion that we would include a language in our curriculum - mostly because it was possible and because Rebbeca Rupp listed it as a subject for each grade in Home Learning Year by Year.  I had no clear goals for this subject and figured that whatever we did would probably be more than she had done in her private school and definitely more than she would have done in a public school. (The private school provided weeekly Spanish instruction for K-3, and several of the local public schools have popular Dual Spanish/English Immersion programs, but not at the public school Bean would have attended.)  I took six years of French between 7th grade and college and one, mostly-forgotten year of Mandarin in college.  I have always loved languages and want Bean and Boo to be exposed to other languages and learn at least one apiece, but I have never been fervent enough in this wish to instill a second language at home.

When we told Oma that we were homeschooling, she excitedly offered to buy the Rosetta Stone Home School versions for the first year of one or more languages.  (She was so quick and enthusiastic with this offer I had a sneaking suspicion that she knew this was coming and was just waiting to get news so she could buy the items in her Amazon cart.)  I wanted Bean to do either French or Mandarin, but I was undecided and my vision for foriegn language was ambiguous, so I asked her what she wanted to study and she said Dutch and Chinese.  This wasn't a huge surprise since she and Boo are half Chinese and the only eighth on my side that ever gets mentioned is Dutch.  (In real-life, Boo and Bean have both Dutch and Chinese names.)

At the beginning of the school year, we installed Rosetta Stone on Bean's laptop with anticipation and attempted to do two or three lessons from each language every week.  Bean raced through the first unit in about six weeks for each language, but lost steam around the holidays.  Right now, she's back to doing Dutch two or three times a week, but mostly avoids Chinese.

Despite Bean's flagging interest, we both like Rosetta Stone and I would buy it again - but I would probably skip the Homeschool version and would try not to buy the headset/microphone combo which as near as I can tell is useless.  (Or maybe the headset was just overridden by the computer's microphone, I didn't investigate since the program was understanding her for the spoken portions.)  Rosetta Stone's approach is to immerse the student in the language and to this end, there is not English instruction, but the student uses the pictures and repetition to learn the language.  With the Dutch, I can tell this approach is definitely working with Bean.  It helps that there are some similarities between Dutch and English vocabulary and syntax, since they are both Germanic languages.  Chinese is so different that it's definitely more of a struggle, especially if Bean doesn't keep up with it on a daily basis.

We are at the point in the year when we're starting to think about what's next and it's clear that my non-committal approach to foreign language has yielded predictable results.  I think that true mastery of a language will require both more effort and a broader approach.  I have not researched this, but I think if Bean is really to master a foreign language, we will need to add other elements to the curriculum, such as games, video tapes, hands-on materials, and a regular time to meet with a native speaker.  I have only just begun researching the options and would love suggestions if anyone has good resources.

Bean looked at Livemocha when she first asked about learning Arabic, but didn't like that it was interactive, but different from Rosetta Stone.  This could still be a good option at some point though, since the site also has games and gives you the opportunity to chat with native speakers and other students.  We have a children's language school in our town which offeres several languages for kids to learn in a small-group setting.  This could work well in combination with Rosetta Stone or some other instruction.  We know all about Muzzy, since I purchased the Mandarin version for Boo so he would  have Chinese "lessons" too.  We really regret buying this program because it's low production values just don't match the inflated price.  I am curious about the Little Pim series for Chinese, Arabic and French, but I'm wary about buying another video sight unseen.

Right now, I am wondering if we should just keep puttering along doing what we're doing until it becomes clear that Bean wants to focus on one language or another and then add the extra pieces.  Since foreign language is not required by the state of California for third graders, we can basically do whatever we want.  Besides puttering along, we could change or add languages - I want to add French and Bean wants to add Arabic. I am concerned that Rosetta Stone will be as challenging for Arabic as it is for Chinese.  I have been exploring other resources for Chinese, such as the courses offered by Cheng-Tsui and will probably need to do some research for Arabic.  I am also torn between indulging Bean's clear love of languages and giving her a chance to build confidence in one before adding more.  She really loves Dutch and it's connection to her heritage, but it's not the most useful language to learn - and maybe that doesn't matter.  Just the act of learning a foreign language must have intrinsic value: wiring new pathways in the brain, opening one up to other cultures, and teaching problem solving come to mind immediately.

The big question for me is how much to involve Bean in this decision.  That is always a delicate dance, and even more so when it comes to homeschool.  Bean is intense, sensitive, and strong-willed and one false step can lead to years of refusal to even consider a particular path.  When she is reluctant to do something, giving her choice can help her be engaged in the process and more enthusiastic.  On the other hand, giving her choice when she is already uncertain can be overwhelming.  Sometimes I can tell clearly which way the winds are blowing, but other times she keeps her feelings to herself enough that I don't know something is troubling her until I start trying to mess with the status quo.

Things to ponder...and did I mention that I want to add Latin at some point?