Monday, July 18, 2011

Phenomenally Unforgettable

The trouble with reading hundreds of picture books in a few months time is that no matter how charming the text or delightful the illustrations, unless it is on your child's constant rotation list it has to be phenomenally unforgettable for either good or bad reasons.  Otherwise, you will forget all about it's charms and delights and only remember, that it had both (or horrors, depending on the book).  This is all compounded by the fact that I am often sleep-deprived and actually do manage to cram non-children's literature into the crevices of my brain.  So this group of books from the New York Times Parents Guide to the Best Books for Children are our absolute favorites so far.  These are the finds that surprised us with their existence, charmed us in multiple readings, and delighted us with sequels.  Above all, they are phenomenally unforgettable.

The Holes in Your Nose
Written and Illustrated by Genichiro Yagyu
As soon as I had the faintest whiff of impending toilet training when Bean was a toddler, I went out and bought the companion volume to this book, Everyone Poops, which I knew from my younger days as an itinerant bookseller in various emporia.  I would only give that book minor credit for its role in the process of bodily function awareness, but I was so impressed with how simply and thoroughly the book dealt with defecation for a juvenile (and juvenile) audience that I bought (new!) as many of the other titles in this series of Japanese origin as I could get my hands on, including The Holes in Your Nose, The Gas We Pass, All About Scabs, and Contemplating Your Bellybutton.   Seriously, a set of these books would make as good a baby shower gift as the perennial Good Night Moon/Pat the Bunny combo.  (Indeed, I can think of some people who'd appreciate them more.)  Each book is about exactly what the title states, and a little bit more.  Everyone Poops is aimed directly at the toddler set, but the others can wait until preschool.  They can be introduced at opportune developmental moments: instead of reminding your child over and over not to pick their nose and eat the contents in public, read The Holes in Your Nose, with its description of booger ingredients, "Boogers are made from dirt, so they're dirty" and it's instructions to "look up and show the person reading this book the holes in your nose."  The Gas We Pass, may not actually deter public flatulence from a five-year-old (or their urge to use the word FART in as many ways possible), but at least they will know exactly what they are doing.  All About Scabs is equally good for scab-eaters and junior scientists/doctors.  Contemplating Your Bellybutton is great for a preschool start to the "where do we come from" discussion, as well as a good one to pull out if mom's pregnant.  A little bit of old-fashioned hygiene is also thrown in for good measure.

Horace and Morris But Mostly Dolores
Written by James Howe
Illustrated by Amy Walrod
This is a grand girl -power book written for an intended audience of girls, boys, and mice.  Its message of inclusion comes across loud and clear (without feeling like you're being hit over the head with a soap box) to kids from about three up.  Older kids (6-9) will also enjoy the story and may want to go out and start their own club, complete with a clubhouse.

Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain
Written and Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone
If ever a book embodied the admonishment not to judge a book by its cover, it's this one.  The old-fashioned illustrations give away it's 1936 vintage, and the Little Tim of the title is an English boy of means, presumably living somewhere near Dover, with it's white cliffs and coastal orientation.  If I were a less open-minded parent and not singularly bent on reading as many of the books in the NYT Guide as possible, I might have skipped it with Bean and waited to read them to Boo when he was older.  We are all glad I didn't.  Everybody loved the first book so much that we checked them all out and read them in chronological order by publication date.  Little Tim is a short-suited boy of about ten who dreams of a life on the high seas, just like his friend the old sea captain.  Every book finds him either running away on a ship or begging his angelically tolerant parents to let him join a ship's crew for just a few days.  The voyages always turn into adventures of far greater magnitude than he had intended and many of them include his best friends, the orphans Ginger and Charlotte.  One of the books foreshadows his future life as a ship captain which made me think that Tim would surely be one of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers were he real, putting in his 10,000 hours aboard ships to become a talented admiral.  Fair warning: any empty box lying around the house while you are reading these will immediately be commissioned as the SS Cardboard and Marker Enterprise.

Minerva Louise
Written and Illustrated by Janet Morgan Stoeke
We are new, but ardent, fans of Minerva Louise the chicken with a small brain and huge amounts of imagination and gumption.  The illustrations are simple and tell the chicken with a heart's story perfectly. All ages will enjoy these books which are just plain good picture books.  No grand morals or adventures, no messages or achingly beautiful prose or pictures.  Just a chicken.  Get to know Minerva Louise and you won't be sorry.  And you will get to say "Minerva Louise" out loud a bunch of times.

Mysterious Thelonious
Written and Illustrated by Chris Raschka
In no way could this be considered a biography of Thelonious Monk, but using fewer than ten different words and graphical, abstract illustrations, Mysterious Thelonious does a better job of conveying the feeling of the jazz impresario's music than a biography ever could.  When I read the first page of this book, Bean scowled and asked me with great suspicion what this book was about.  I kept reading and by the last page, she was bopping around the living room saying "Mys-ter-i-ous The-lon-i-ous" in as many ways as she could think of: hissing, jumping, swooping, spinning, shouting.  Boo of course had no idea who Thelonious Monk was or why we were saying his name over and over again in syncopation, but that didn't stop him from joining in.
Homeschool Connection: For good measure, and because that's what good little homeschoolers do, I dug up as much Thelonious Monk as I could from the iPod archives after we finished the book.  We left it at that, but starting with this one, small picture book could easily lead to a greater exploration of Thelonious Monk or a whole unit of jazz music.

Vera's First Day of School
Written and Illustrated by Vera Rosenberry
The numerous Vera books are yet another series which we had never heard of before the NYT project, but which made repeat appearances in the library bag.  Whether she's going to school for the first time, learning to ride a bike, adjusting to a baby sister, or recovering from the measles, Vera does it earnestly and with all the aplomb that a youngest sister turned middle child can muster.  The Vera books are not of the flashy ilk that show up in bulk at Costco or become television series, they are far quieter and far better.

Where's Our Mama?
Written and Illustrated by Diane Goode
When I first read the description of this book, I thought it would be an anxiety-inducing tale of losing and finding one's parent.  Instead, it was a beautifully illustrated tale of mistaken identity, that made me wish I was lost in Belle Epoque Paris.  We loved it enough to check out Mama's Perfect Present, which is an equally beautiful tale of the innocent mischief caused when the same protagonists from Where's Our Mama? go looking for a present for said Maman.

Happy reading aloud!  And if you feel so inspired, please continue to share your experiences with these or other favorite books in the comments.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

What It Takes

If you are a homeschooler, even a new one, you already know what people are going to say when they find out you homeschool.  There will be something about the S Word of course.  They may ask why or how you do it if they are comfortable, and interested.  Most likely though - especially if they are parents of school-age kids - they will tell you all the reasons why they can't or won't homeschool.  There are few variations among these reasons: I don't have the patience is the most common.  I also hear "I couldn't spend all my time with my kids, I need a break" and "I couldn't be my kid's teacher and parent."

So here's the thing.  I don't have super-human patience (or even human levels of it unless I've had enough coffee and/or sleep).  I don't have a degree in education.  I don't love being around my kids more than the average parent.  Last night, at my monthly homeschool parents support group (read "my monthly lifeline to adult conversation with women to whom I'm not married") I saw many amazing moms.  Women who are homeschooling one, two, three kids; some by design and some by accident, or out of necessity, like myself.  I love these women and gain sustenance from those two hours.  But as I looked around the room, I didn't see any supermoms.

Well, I didn't see any parents who are more super than you, or more super than any other parent.  That's because any parent can do it, no matter the reasons for homeschooling or the financial or intellectual resources one brings to the table.  (I admit, single parent homeschooling could be tricky, but I know some who do it and know it's not impossible.) Any parent can do this because parenting and homeschooling are the same thing.

You need the same amounts of patience, fortitude, and love to homeschool your child that you need to parent that particular child.  Your child doesn't suddenly need different amounts of your energy, time, attention or intellectual capacity because you are now teaching them grammar and multiplication instead of potty training and brushing their teeth.

Think of all the things you taught your child before they went off to school and think of all the things you teach them on a daily basis that are not strictly academic: how to set the table, behave in public, count change, ride a bike, negotiate sibling rivalries.  Sure, you are not going to be an expert on every subject - outsourcing is perfectly acceptable.  You have probably already outsourced swimming and music lessons.  I tried to outsource Bean's potty training to a Montessori school, and that didn't go so well but we got through it.

And that's what you do: you get through it.  Every day, since the day your child was born, you've had to make a million decisions, negotiate a minefield of tricky situations, and figure out how this little human creature who came without any instructions -not even a DNA map printed on their forehead for gosh sakes- works.  And you have.  Sometimes better than others.  You have listened to the good advice of your friends, ignored the good advice from your mother and mother-in-law (and later went back and did that too).  You've tried dubious suggestions from websites and had dubious results, you've tried to keep up with the playground moms and then didn't bother.  You keep trying and figure it out every day some days better than others.

That's homeschooling.  I started homeschooling Bean with a million expectations of her and of myself.  Many of these we've discarded and refined.  Before we even started homeschooling, I was dissatisfied with the curriculum I saw being taught both in private and public schools.  I thought surely there must be something stronger and more rigorous out there.  There is, but that doesn't mean I could tell Bean to read ten pages and answer three essay questions.  If she was the kind of kid who could sit down and do the work put in front of her with no questions asked, then my blog would probably be about something other than homeschooling because I wouldn't be doing it.  The early days of homeschooling were frustrating when I saw myself as more of a teacher than a parent.  I had to work through my expectations, set them aside, and do what worked for Bean.  It's still a work in progress.  Just as she is, and just as I am as a parent.

I lose my patience some days, spend weeks taking the wrong track with something, and sometimes get it right on the first try.  In the beginning, I used a lot of workbooks from Costco because that's what I had.  As we kept going, and I figured out what worked for each of us, I abandoned those workbooks and began developing a curriculum.  But when we start our school day at 9am, I am not suddenly Ms. Teacher, I am still Mom.  Bean is not suddenly an easy going student ready to learn every subject I throw at her without question.  I use them same strategies to get her to learn anything she's not one hundred percent interested in that I would use to get her to clean her room.

Just as with any other aspect of parenting, from the time Bean and Boo were each born, I just show up each day (second or third cup of coffee in hand) and begin where we are.  That's all it takes.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Evolution of a Diagnosis

June 1 was D Day around here.  Or perhaps I should say Dx Day.  If I had written this post on any of the last 30 days, it would be completely different, and probably have any one of 30 different titles.  If I stop now and come back to it tomorrow, this post - it's text, and the feelings it conveys, the picture of life it paints - will be different.

The diagnosis itself was a bit anti-climatic.  For the most part, there were no surprises, only confirmation of what we already suspected.  The pediatric neurologist confirmed what may turn out to be the most innocuous aspects of Bean's uniqueness: Tic Disorder which will in all likelihood become Tourette's Syndrome.  This is what we brought in with us when Bean and I walked into the exam room.  We left with that plus additional, generalized labels: OCD, ADD, and Anxiety Disorder, with a likely side dish of mild Autism Spectrum Disorder - and - surprise! another referral, this time to a child psychiatrist (or if we preferred, a developmental pediatrician) who could further parse the diagnosis and give specific recommendations.  The neurological diagnosis had the same effect of trying to get a comment from a high-powered PR firm about a celebrity scandal (in the most blustering, yet Groucho Marxish tones your imagination can muster): "We can neither confirm nor deny the presence of OCD, ADD, Anxiety, and Asperger's in this child, but that area of the brain is certainly lit up like a Christmas tree."  

Neither Dr. Yap or I have any interest in figuring out why Bean is the lucky recipient of the alphabet soup diagnosis.  We are pro-vaccine and have no interest in that particular discussion.  Her difficult birth could certainly be a culprit.  Brain Doc was quick to pin the blame on genetics and tried to do me a favor by fingering the anonymous donor, but it didn't take much to figure out that there's plenty of questionable fruit falling close to my side of the family tree: anxiety, OCD, social maladjustment, insomnia - all the major food groups of basal ganglia dysfunction are well represented by me and any branch surrounding me.  That's why it was easy for Dr. Yap and I to brush off Bean's sleep issues and why her many compulsions bothered Dr. Yap more - they looked familiar to me.  On the other hand, Bean's intransigence and difficulty with change also looked familiar (ahem, Oma) and Dr. Yap handles Bean's lack of adaptability with more ease than I do because she didn't grow up with it.  It really comes as no surprise that one region of the brain is responsible for all these related attributes. 

We had already followed earlier advice from Kid Doc to make an appointment with a local neuropsychologist for complete testing.  That will happen later this month.  Dr. Yap and I feel like we can't really do much with the information we already have until we get the results of the assessment.  It's like we've been given the ingredients, but don't have the recipe yet - or some other better metaphor for playing without a full deck.  

Or maybe it's more like getting a diagnosis in slow motion, a little bit at a time.  I began this week with a pre-assessment meeting with the neuropsychologist, delivering the already thick packet of checklists and vital info about Bean that she sent us to fill out several weeks ago.  Based on our meeting, and the Bean we portrayed on paper, the Neuropsych already has an idea which way the the diagnosis  will go.  She can't say that of course, but I can tell by her questions and comments what she's thinking: "Did she look at you or the object when she asked for something as a toddler?...I'd be surprised if you told me her handwriting wasn't atrocious...You will probably find the ADHD symptoms will fall away...You will need to start tracking all behaviors and responses to situations as they come and go - five years later you will be seeing them again...Other people will be involved as we go forward - they will know things you don't and you don't want to be the ones to implement everything...If you have twenty kids in a room with the same diagnosis, they will behave twenty different ways..." These are the pieces of conversational lint that stuck, what I am left with several days later. 

So we go forward, knowing more but not nearly enough.  I suppose that could make it all easier to digest (again with the food/eating metaphors), but it's also maddening.  There are days that Dr. Yap and I spend the day identifying everything little behavior that goes with what we've always known, but now has a name (or names).  Other days, we just think it's best to forget the whole thing and carry on like always.   And then there are the days when we wish we already had the better toolkit we hope to receive (or at least be pointed toward) at the end of all the testing.  Or the "bad" days when we're glad we already have something we can tell the staff at the school where Bean is attending summer workshops.  Some days others say "We thought she was just really bright" or "She seems to handle things so much better than other kids with similar issues."  And we agree.