Monday, April 25, 2011

You Can Get a Diagnosis If You Want One

A couple days ago at a routine checkup for Boo, when it was just the two of us, I asked our pediatrician that question Dr. Yap and I had been wondering about for so long: "Do you think we should get [Bean] evaluated for ...anything?" I then rattled off a list that began with Asperger's and trailed off uncertainly with sensory processing issues.

We have gone back and forth wondering whether we needed to ask this question, have Bean's exact level of giftedness tested, or just needed to keep parenting the heck out of her and loving her even though we know not what...

A year ago, at her well-child checkup, we determined to ask.  Before we got that far, Bean imploded, then exploded, giving him the meanest look she could muster, refusing to allow him to examine her, and shutting down.  The visit ended with a referral to a therapist whom we never called. It took several weeks, but we finally got out of her that while he had been making friendly conversation with her at previous visits - commenting on her colorful outfits, agreeing with her that her first grade teacher was wrong about a presumed rash on her face (just eczema) - she misunderstood and thought he was teasing her or making fun of her.

I mentally lined up several alternate pediatricians who were already acquaintances and hoped it wouldn't come to that.  Several months later, Bean was having unpleasant side effects to a medication and I thought it would be better discussing this with someone she already knew than with someone new.  We weren't sure if medication was causing the problem and she was scared about what might be wrong.  As soon as Kid Doc came into the room, she shrank against me.  He listened to me explain the problem, then addressed her directly and asked if she was afraid of him.  She shook her head no, but refused to look at him or talk to him.  I waited a few seconds then asked her if I could tell him what was wrong.  When she consented I relayed to him how she felt about his previous comments.  He immediately told her that he had the utmost respect for her and her moms and brother and apologized for his insensitivity.  She then let him examine her and as he left he thanked her for teaching him an important lesson.  Bean hasn't had a problem with him since.

Back to yesterday's question.  Kid Doc didn't seem surprised by it.  He asked how she was doing academically and socially now and when she was still in school.  After I answered with a few examples  and told him how ambivalent Dr. Yap and are about diagnoses, he thought about his experience with her and said carefully, "You know, we live in a very strange society.  I happen to think that many of the most brilliant people who change our world and create brilliant things could probably have been or were diagnosed and labeled, whether it's necessary or not. I think [Bean] fits in that category...But, eventually, if she goes into a public school or on to college, she may need accommodations." So Kid Doc was almost as ambivalent as we were. But he had information.

After suggesting a few people to call, Kid Doc looked at me and said, "[Bean] would definitely get a diagnosis." Between the lines, his tone and meaningful look said, "If that's what you want and I am not sure it's what you need." He added, "And it would probably be Asperger's."

Exhale. Well, crap.

Or maybe not.  As Oma said, Kid Doc isn't qualified to give that diagnosis.  But he is qualified to give referrals, to a neuropsychologist who could give us a diagnosis, if that's what we want.  And to an educational therapist who could do a thorough academic/neuropsych evaluation, if we want details that we could use to accomodate Bean, without a diagnosis.

Even if I do make the calls this morning, maybe what we (and Bean, eventually) will be getting isn't just a diagnosis, but information.  More information about our daughter that we can take in, absorb, and use or not use.  I realized, after stewing about those seemingly fateful words from Kid Doc that whatever we find out, it will be information, not a prescription for parenting or a lid sealed on her future.  We had no qualms about getting her allergies fully tested and diagnosed, multiple times. Now we have that information and can make informed decisions to medicate or not, to avoid all allergens religiously or haphazardly, to define her by her allergies or not.  Sometimes we list them on forms and sometimes it just doesn't seem necessary.   If I make the calls, we can decide what to do with that information.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

In the Beginning There Were Picture Books

Okay, so it's not the absolute beginning of the The New York Times Parent's Guide to the Best Books for Children, but the Picture Book section is close enough and whether anointed by some list or merely a parent's childhood favorite, picture books are the beginning of many a childhood milestone: first book at laptime, naptime, and bedtime; first book read on one's own after many readings by a parent; the first time a parent is rewarded with hearing that their childhood favorite is their child's too; the first time a parent realizes their childhood favorite is completely and almost unredeemably politically incorrect.

Except for a handful of stragglers, and a few we just couldn't find, we have made our way through most of the 230+ books in this section.  Among them were some truly sublime treasures, some books that were fine but would not have made our family Best Of list, and some real stinkers that maybe we are either too immature or too high-fallutin' to appreciate.  According to the Guide, picture books "have simple texts, and for the most part, a very young child can study them and understand what they are about...Picture books are principally for preschool-age children, but school-age children often continue to enjoy them." (Lipson, p. 11.)  Having an eight-year-old and a two-and-a-half year old, I can attest to the accuracy of that definition.

So, here we go with the first round of picture books.  (I am using the same reviewing conventions as with the Wordless Books.)

10 Minutes Till Bedtime
Written and Illustrated by Peggy Rathman
This was an unexpected pleasure.  It's by the author of Goodnight Gorilla, so I knew Boo would probably like it, but was prepared to grit my teeth and just get through it.  I didn't think Bean would pay much attention.  I was wrong on all counts.  Everybody had fun with this book, following an unruly group of hamsters through a boy's bedtime routine and shouting out the countdown to bedtime on each page.  (This is the only text and I would therefore have put it in the Wordless Book section, but alas, I do not work for the Times and no one asked me). The illustrations are fun and include a visual reference to Goodnight, Gorilla, which delighted everyone when we found it.

101 Things To Do With A Baby
Written and Illustrated by Jan Ormerod
As soon as this book about a 6-year-old girl's relationship with her baby brother came home, Bean commandeered it.  She read it aloud to whomever happened to be in the room, punctuating every few entries in the list of things to do with a baby (diaper changes, feedings, playing, etc.) with exclamations that she wished she had had this book when Boo was a baby.  That all stopped somewhere about 83 on the list when the girl was mean to the baby.  Instead of reading on to see how this was handled and whether or not the girl mended her ways, Bean instantly declared the child unfit for big sisterhood and closed the book.  Back in the library bag it went, never again to see the light of day in our house.

17 Kings and 42 Elephants
Written by Margaret Mahy
I wish I had more to say about this book, but even though Patricia's McCarthy's illustrations were beautiful, the text just didn't grab our attention.  A fine library check-out, but not on our grand list.

A Firefly Named Torchy
Written and Illustrated by Bernard Waber
The illustrations in this 1970 book about a firefly who's light is just too bright in the country are, well, exactly like the art that assaulted me during my early-70's childhood.  Nevertheless, Bean and I liked the story of the misfit firefly who headed to the bright lights of the big city.

A Teeny, Tiny Baby
Written and Illustrated by Amy Schwartz
This quiet book has a little something for everyone: the illustrations are pretty with just enough detail, Boo described the story as "thweet," and I could relate to the dazed by happy sleep deprivation portrayed by the infant's parents.  Funny, the kids didn't pick up on that part.

Aardvarks, Disembark
Written and Illustrated by Ann Jonas
We are big fans of Ann Jonas' books.  Her simple, graphical style betrays her background as a graphic designer and her spare text aims to convey the biggest amount of information with the least amount of text.  (Her Color Dance was in constant rotation when Bean was a toddler.) In Aardvarks, Noah lists the names of exotic animals (many extinct) as they leave the boat.  This book definitely passed the all ages test as both the toddler and the big kid enjoyed it, but for different reasons.  Bean liked the vocabulary and Boo loved looking at the different animals. (Ann Jonas is married to Donald Crews, another great children's book author with graphic style: Harbor, Freight Train, and Trucks are all favorites of Boo and will get their due when we reach their sections of the alphabet.)
Homeschool Connection: This is an excellent introduction to zoology, extinction and evolution for younger kids and would contribute nicely to larger units of study of any of those subjects for older kids.

Alphabet City
Written and Illustrated by Stephen T. Johnson
This is the quintessential photographic abecedarian. It immediately received Boo's stamp of approval (I IKE that book!) and even Bean leaned over to take a peek while she was reading something of a more narrative nature.

Amos & Boris
Written and illustrated by William Steig
From my point of view, this was the first really big treasure we found and exemplifies the raison d'etre of this project.  The illustrations are simple, but the tale of friendship and diversity is superbly, sublimely told.  It was the first of many books that I wondered why I had never read or even heard of - a puzzlement really.

Angelina Ballerina
Written by Katharine Holabird and Illustrated by Helen Craig
We've had six of the books in this series for a number of years, so one afternoon I slipped the original tale of the mouse who loves ballet into our reading stack.  The illustrations are gorgeous, the stories are engaging and well-told, but Bean asked the question she has been asking ever since we first read Angelina Ballerina: Why do mice get to wear toe shoes earlier than humans? (And the corollary questions: Could mice really wear toe shoes?  Wouldn't that hurt their ankles?)

Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing
Written by Judi Barrett and Illustrated by Ron Barrett
Another book that we took off our own shelf and a good companion piece when pondering the sense of mice wearing ballet slippers.  The Barretts (who also wrote Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Pickles to Pittsburgh) produce absurd children's literature that is better and more absurd than anyone else.  Check out Animals Should Definitely Not Act Like People at the same time and read them back to back.  (I must caution you against purchasing Judi Barret's recent title The Marshmallow Incident.  Borrow it from the library instead and decide for yourself whether it's a worthy follow-up to Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Pickles to Pittsburgh.  Personally, I think it was ill-conceived and choose to pretend that someone with a less deft hand wrote this in her name.)

Written by Clyde Watson and Illustrated by Wendy Watson
What you get when you mix apples, the alphabet, and sweet, old-fashioned illustrations.
Homeschool Connection: Put this and Alphabet City (above) in a big stack of alphabet books for pre-schoolers.  This would be great in the fall if you go the thematic route of organizing your curriculum.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Bible for Secular Homeschoolers

I wasn't just raised Unitarian Universalist, I was dedicated in a Unitarian Church at a few months old.  And my parents, refugees only of stifling Protestantism, raised us a staunch Unitarians, just this side of secular humanism: God is love; God is nature; there is no such thing as a messiah; Jesus was a nice guy, even a prophet, but so was Martin Luther King Jr.; the Bible is a work of literature, the Christian mythology.  I bought it all, even after the obligatory late-adolescence existential crisis.

Despite all this I like the idea of a bible.  A guidebook.  A compass, moral or otherwise.  I read parts of the Old and New Testament as literature in high school and college and know for sure that is not my bible.  But still, I like the idea of a bible.  Something printed on paper that you can thumb through looking for the answers when you are lost and aren't sure where to begin or where to go next when you've already begun. I am embarrassed to admit how long I looked at the Official Preppy Handbook when I was 11, or how many Daily Thought books I looked at each day in my early 20s, but they were my bibles at the time.

So I went looking for a bible when I first started homeschooling in February of 2010.  But first I had to find a prophet.  I stumbled into the (now sadly departed) Educational Resource Center in Santa Cruz with a vague notion that I might be homeschooling soon and an equally vague notion that Heddi Craft, who ran the Center, might be able to help me.  Heddi's oldest daughter is the same age as Bean so even though I didn't know her well, I had run into her over the years at parks, Mothersong, ballet class and I knew she was a homeschooler.  I had already polled the four homeschoolers I knew about curriculum and how they did and everyone had a different answer: one did Calvert "school-in-a-box", another loosely followed the classical style of Susan Wise Bauer and The Well-Trained Mind, one had an eclectic style and still another was an unschooler.

I told Heddi, probably all in one breath, that I thought homeschooling would be the best option for my daughter, and that I didn't know where to start or what I should be covering, but I had heard of The Well-Trained Mind and thought that might be what I needed to get started.  Heddi gave me enough free advice to figure out how to legally go about homeschooling and a pile of books from the lending library, including TWTM.  Also in the stack was The First Year of Homeschooling Your Child, Fundamentals of Homeschooling, and Home Learning Year by Year.  

At home I skimmed through all the books, decided that TWTM offered exactly the kind of education I thought schools should be providing but probably wouldn't suit Bean, and read through all the Week in the Life descriptions of different homeschooling styles in The First Year of Homeschooling Your Child.  In Rebecca Rupp's Home Learning Year by Year, though, I found my bible.  Long before I had to return  the Education Resource Center copy, I had bought my own.

Not a week goes by that I don't gush about this book to someone and my already well-worn copy gets used at least weekly.  Rupp, a scientist, children's book author and mom of three grown homeschooled boys, lays out each year from Pre-K to 12th grade, providing a standards-based blueprint and many resources.  For most grades the book provides suggestions for Language Arts, Mathematics, History and Geography, Science, Foreign Language, Art, Music, and Health and Physical Education.

Rupp wrote her book in Vermont, before the advent of No Child Left Behind.  Instead of following any specific state or national standard strictly, Rupp's "curriculum was compiled from a synthesis of the public school curricula of all fifty states, as well as curriculum proposals from private sources and innovative educators" (Rupp, 6). I appreciate this, because what I am really looking for are suggestions for what to cover; I am not interested in honing too closely to any particular standard.  Rupp's curriculum is far more expansive than what is required by most states (foreign language is suggested at every grade level for example) so as long as I am roughly following her guidelines, we are doing more than enough to satisfy our consulting teacher (and thereby the State of California).

Another big plus - especially for a new homeschooler trying to figure out which resources will work for them is that Rupp's book is secular, and pro-scientific method.  She gives you a heads up if a resource is Christian-oriented and lists evolution and the Big Bang as topics to cover in science.

The book was written in 2000 so some of the books are out-of-print (that's what libraries are for though, right?) and many of the websites are defunct.  I have found that this doesn't matter for the most part because what Rupp is really providing is guidelines that allow ordinary parents to figure out what their kid needs to learn and some direction so you know what kinds of resources to find.  If one of her resources is unavailable, I look for similar books at the library or see what else comes up when I do an Amazon search.

I use this book as a jumping off point, not always following her suggestions exactly, but adding or omitting things that will work for us.  For example, this year we have added Critical Thinking as a subject and use various kinds of logic puzzles for this.  Also, since we opt out of standardized testing and are not attempting to recreate the school experience at home, I omitted any Study Skills from my lesson planning.  We also decided not to do a formal reading program for now and I count Bean's dance and gymnastics classes as PE.  I was briefly enthusiastic about doing theater and improv lessons at home, but quickly acknowledged that no amount of enthusiasm would make up for the lack of classmates and decided that the drama class at her homeschool program would suffice. As you read the book, you find that Rupp didn't always follow her outline either - she admits they never did formal spelling practice and that she thinks memorizing the state capitals is unnecessary as long as kids know how to find the information (here, here.) She also suggests having kids memorize poems but says the only thing her youngest child had any interest in memorizing is computer manuals.  Home Learning Year by Year gives me a blueprint along with the flexibility to do what works for us.

Whenever I am lost with any piece of our curriculum, when something isn't working or Bean is resisting something, I go back to the foundation of Home Learning Year by Year and look for a clue.  Maybe there's a resource I haven't used yet, or a concept that we haven't covered, or maybe I was focusing on the wrong thing.  Sometimes, I realize that we've already covered what is necessary.  Sometimes I look back to a previous grade or ahead to the next grade for a particular subject.  Whatever I need, I usually put down the book feeling calmer and with new resolve.   See, even secular humanist elitist evolutionist ho-mo-sexu-als get a bible to call their own.  If you are a homeschooler.


Friday, April 1, 2011

Homeschooling and the "S" Word

I have been trying to write a post about Socialization for two weeks and finally decided that I didn't have any new deep thoughts or big ideas to add to this great debate.  All I have is my family's own experience and the vague notion that the "S" word is really a cipher - a stand-in for all of our collective fears about our children, our decision-making capacities as parents, and the capacity of ourselves, our schools, and society to produce happy, healthy, functioning human-beings.

At dinner the other night, Bean said, apropos of nothing except the common themes on tv shows and in school age books, "You know what I like about AFE [her homeschool program]? There are no school yard bullies." I asked her if there had been bullies at her old school, unsure of what her answer might be.  She said, "No, but I wasn't very school-y, you know? The other kids just had this different ...thing, them."

Yes, I do know.  She wasn't very school-y.  She doesn't have a need to fit in, be a part of a group, pair off with another girl for social protection.  It's not that she doesn't want these things, but she doesn't need them and she was quite willing to hang on the sidelines and do her own thing, only joining in if the game was particularly interesting.  But once there was conflict, she moved on.  In kindergarten and first-grade, this wasn't a particularly big deal, but of course I fretted about it.  That was also the reason I wasn't particularly worried about socialization before we started homeschooling.

It turns out, this was one of the first things I worried about.  In the first weeks, it seemed like Bean decided that she no longer had to follow all of the social niceties that had been required at school.  She was rude to a neighbor who stopped by and asked our home school consultant how old she was.  I don't remember some of the other examples of poor social skills anymore because this behavior seemed to be a phase probably related to adjusting mid-school-year to her new circumstances.  At first we tried the "you know better" lecture but quickly switched to directly, but kindly, reminding her what was and was not okay.

Bean has never liked playdates, either with or without one of her moms.  It doesn't matter where she is or how much she likes the other kid, after about an hour, she's done - and says so.  I've gone back and forth between giving up on playdates unless she asks for one directly (she almost never has) and giving it another try.  Typically, impromptu playdates that arise when we happen to see friends or friendly strangers (of the child-variety) at the park or out and about tend to work best.  What she would really like is a handful of kids in the neighborhood who could just pop in and out of each other's houses and yards at will.  We don't have that.  We might if she went to the local public school and she knew the kids down the block and around the corner better, but our neighborhood is oddly constructed and not really conducive to the kind of itinerant kid-wandering that is romanticized in children's literature.  I remember these neighborhood ramblings myself.

Right now, I think we have settled into a good balance that works for Bean.  Once a week, she attends a 2.5 hour enrichment class at the public school homeschool program with 15 other kids aged 7-10.  She is  the only 7 year old and has been all year, but despite any worries I had (and you know I had them) it seems to be fine.  Academically she is on the same level and there have't been any social issues. Some of the other kids have clear social issues, but the teacher is experienced and there are always parents and other adults on hand so it seems to work out.  In all my observation, Bean has had no problem getting along with the other kids, and following direction from the teacher.  This short class time is plenty for her, though she could probably handle more.

She takes a few lessons throughout the week - dance, sewing, and drama - some with other kids, some one-on-one with the teacher.  I think time with adults who are not her parents is just as valid from a socialization point of view as time with other kids.  We try to get out as much as possible to parks, the library, and running errands.  I encourage Bean to talk to adults and other kids in the environments and make the most of that time out in the world.

Bean and Boo used to play together more, but as she approaches 8 I have noticed that playing with a 2 and a half year old is more of a chore for her and she would just rather do her own thing.  This is natural I think and part of the sibling dance that will change over the years.

My current favorite article on the subject, from the homeschooler's point of view is from Dianne Flynn Keith.  It turns out, she didn't have any of the difficulty I did getting out her thoughts on the subject - maybe because her kids are grown.