When Matthew entered 5th grade, we quickly sensed that the traditional public school setting was not serving him well. Of course, it wasn't hard to spot. When your normally laid back, quite adaptable child comes home after the first day hanging his head and declaring, "This is going to be the longest year of my life." as he quietly trudges off to his bedroom, you have a pretty big clue that something isn't right. When you then sit back and realize that the same child, who in years prior had devoured books had grown to seldom pick one up, or when you see the Slouch...you know, that Tween Slouch that speaks to disengagement, you also have some additional clues.
Of course, the fact that Kenny was entirely unable to read, and knowing we were bringing home two Tweens who couldn't speak English might also have been a motivator as well. OK, I know for some, much of that would have been motivating in a different direction...to thrust them quickly in school and trust the job would be done well because I have never said I am a qualified educator. But I guess we were just getting the idea that maybe we needed something a little non-traditional to achieve the results we hoped for.
But what exactly were those results? What did we really want for our kids?
Dominick and I had several long talks prior to making the decision to leap into homeschooling. We didn't really do it thinking we could produce academic geniuses, we did it out of self-preservation! We knew we were throwing square pegs into the public education system's round holes, and it was no one's fault that it wasn't quite a fit. But now that we would be in full control of it, we had to determine what, precisely, we wanted education to look like for our children. That is no easy task, trust me, especially considering the special needs that we had on our plate. We had a limited number of years in which to accomplish an enormous amount, both academically and emotionally.
During our conversations we recognized that there was much about our own educations that we felt was lacking. We also felt that many of those areas had only gotten worse during the interim years between our school attendance and our children's. Most importantly, we felt that the slippery slope of teaching to tests, cramming facts, and filling schedules with courses that had no specific connection to a specific child's interests and individual gifts was harming kids...and was in large part leading to the high drop out rates. Knowing we were bringing kids to the system who already had enough challenges on their plates, we admitted we might need to take a less than traditional approach to their education.
So, silly as it seems, we sat down and I took the sum total of our shared conversations and created a "Mission Statement". Here it is:
LaJoy Homeschool Mission Statement
When our children reach maturity (not necessarily 18 years old) and are released from high school it is our goal that they would:
1 1) Lead a God centered life.
2) Exhibit good moral character in all circumstances.
3) Have an understanding of themselves as part of a community, and not be centered solely
4) Have a well developed intellectual curiosity and be self-directed, motivated learners.
5) Have a base of strong, practical life skills to build upon.
*We will always place “family” above anything else.
*We will recognize that learning happens in both traditional and non-traditional settings
*We will remember that education is not a competition
*We will respect each of our children for the unique and wonderful individuals they are
*We will work to help our children discover their God given gifts and talents
I am really glad we took the time 4 years ago to put down in writing our guiding principles. I have had to revisit this many times to remind myself that our goals might look a little different than the traditional school model, and that will mean we can't compare ourselves to a model that is so divergent from our own. We intentionally created a little "mission statement" that focused more on human development than academic development, because we knew we would need to be reminded that our kids are more than test scores and grades, and the ultimate end goal was not to have children who could hold up stellar report cards but who could handle situations with maturity and grace, and have great care for others as they move through this world while engaging in activities...be it jobs or relationships...that had great meaning for them. That is not at all to say that we wanted to slight academics, but that we knew we had a limited number of years to work with 3 of our kids adopted at older ages, and we needed to be realistic about prioritizing what would serve them best when they entered adulthood.
Now as I type this, I guess I could say that while we were unaware of it, Dominick and I wanted our children to finish high school with a good, solid education and a sense of themselves as viewed through Micah 6:8 ; "He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." We never said that, but looking at it now that appears to be at the root of what we desired for them.
I The other day I came across this amazing...completely, utterly amazing (OK, for me at least...many of you will be bored stiff by it and I recognize that. But I am weird that way! Haha!) Prezi presentation that someone posted on Facebook. WOW! Someone encapsulated all the things we felt were important to education, and named them. Check out this main chart, and then visit the Prezi presentation at this link: http://prezi.com/83lclycrx1tm/curriculum-for-future-minds-by-sunni-brown/
This chart highlights many of the non-academic things we are trying to incorporate into school. In fact, just this week we had a long conversation around the school table about what Emotional Intelligence is as compared to a standard IQ, and which might be more important overall to the success of any individual. We are working diligently to develop critical thinking skills as we analyze everything we read and watch and look for bias or misinformation because in post-institutionalized children, those are skills that are sorely lacking. No one has helped them connect the dots before.
We talk often about generational echos...both good and bad...and how to be aware and intentional about not repeating behaviors that are damaging, and most importantly, that though it IS common for history to repeat itself it isn't necessarily a given that it will happen. I can't emphasize how important that kind of awareness might be for adopted children. We have conversations almost weekly about how to select a good mate and how to be a good, involved parent. We find it extremely important for our kids to learn how to have constructive...not destructive dialogue, and to learn how to really listen to others even if you disagree. And we also feel that showing how interdependent humans are, how much we really and truly need one another, and how interdependent they should be with one another even as siblings, is highly important. Then we take that interdependent teaching further in hopefully sharing how our community at large is a system of interdependence.
I was just so happy to see that someone was thinking in a new direction like this, that we are not the only ones who find the development of little humans into big humans to be about so much more than whether they get an A on their biology test or not, or whether they master geometry. That is not to say that academics are not important, because clearly they are, but how we go about it might be a bit skewed, and the emphasis we place on achievement in academics might be better served if we had an equal emphasis on other qualities as well.
As time marches forward and we find ourselves in the middle of our fourth year of homeschooling, we are seeing some results of our hard work, results that have less to do with academics and everything to do with the whole kiddo.
I saw it as Matthew and I had our class session alone together this week. I was excited for him when he shared with me that he is taking a big leap in Civil Air Patrol and is interviewing to be part of the squadron leadership. I asked him how that had come about, and he said he wasn't initially at all interested, but then a couple of the older cadets encouraged him to do so. He knows it will mean taking on more responsibility, and he wisely said he thought he was too young and inexperienced to try to fill any of the higher positions. He is young, at 13, but most of the cadets there seem to assume he is older. What really touched me was when Matthew said to me, "Well, you and Dad are always doing things to lead, even when it is hard. I guess I see it is important." We talked about how he could present his pros and cons, and he was quite honest about areas of his own strengths and weaknesses and able to assess himself well. I shared with him strategies for interviewing and how to go about sharing weaknesses in a more positive light, as well as how to emphasize strengths without sounding arrogant, etc. He is not sure if he will be accepted, but I was very happy to see him wanting to step forward and try.
I saw additional results again as the kids eagerly listened to Miss Mary share about her trip to Italy, Greece and Turkey. They were so interested in what she had to share, each leaning in eagerly to see photos of the Partheonon and Olympus on her laptop screen. They talked about not "if" we can ever go to Europe, but "when"...which signaled to me that they have already learned that no dream is beyond reach if you work hard enough to achieve it! Of course, dreaming was encouraged by our lovely Miss Mary when she gave them books she brought home for them, and a bag full of Euro which she said they should hold on to for their own trip one day, because she too believes in the power of dreams.
As I look back on our Homeschooling Mission Statement and try to assess whether we are making progress or not, I see that we have indeed learned a great deal of life skills, as I watch each of them work well in the kitchen knowing at least some basics, see them be able to approach minor repair projects around the house with just a little supervision, and hear them talk together with a very solid understanding of the cost of living and what kind of income it takes to make a decent life today, which motivates them to further learning.
However, high school is rapidly approaching, at least for Matthew, and the academic learning continues because it, too, is just as important as all of the areas covered in the "Curriculum for Future Minds". I guess the difference is, we realize it is ALL equally important.
This week we had a couple of successes which always helps motivate me. Matthew and I spent time learning his new software for Dysgraphia, which was NOT inexpensive and for which we were super grateful for school funds. First of all, you must have Microsoft Word to use it, which cost us additional money because we had been using the free Open Office word processing software. WordQ and SpeakQ costs $279, and you can only use it on one computer.
But wow, did it make a difference!! Matthew and I were both thrilled to see the changes in the mechanics of his writing. While it still isn't perfect, the difference is quit dramatic.
Matthew wrote first, and looking over his shoulder I could see it was nothing like what he ended up with. Then, he used the software to read it back to him three different times, as he then made edits each time he went through it. He can hear his mistakes, but when reading them he absolutely can not see them. Truth is, I have never seen him write something as a first draft that was this close to being correct and without having any help on it. I was explaining Matt's dysgraphia to a techie friend of mine recently and she said "Ahhh...that explains it. I got a card signed by the kids and each had written something in it. I was a little surprised at what Matt wrote, because it was pretty messed up. I know him so well that I know he is intelligent, so I was confused by his writing. Now I understand." For using the software for the very first time, we were astounded by the difference, and we now feel that we have a solution for him! I can't tell you terrific it feels to have struggled 4 years trying to improve an area in one of the kids that has been so frustrating, and to finally feel like we have made significant progress. He still has a lot of progress to make, but at least now it feels possible.
Then there was Kenny this week, who started out SO SO far behind. The cyclical nature of his deficits was explained to me as being quite normal by his speech therapist, Miss Sandy, who also has auditory processing issues herself which are evident even to me. She said there are bad weeks where it feels like you took enormous leaps backward for no explainable reason. Monday and Tuesday felt exactly like that, as Kenny literally couldn't hear the difference between short "o" and "e" and was pronouncing words wrong all the time, including "London" as "Lenden". I even had to say on Monday, "There is no point to trying reading today as we have to teach a new concept, and Kenny, I just think we'd be wasting our time. Let's work on something else and see how your brain is doing tomorrow." I am SO glad I have learned this critical point, that trying to force learning when his brain is not firing is a complete waste of time and is frustrating to both he and I, so it is better to wait. By Friday though, we reintroduced syllables...and maybe, crossing my fingers and hoping...I think he just might be getting it after all these years. He was able to successfully break apart many words correctly with this instruction that before he would not have been able to do, and he and I both hardly dare breath as we went through the list, looking up at each other and grinning with each correct word.
With Kenny, the growth is in such small incremental bits, it is hard to see it sometimes, but it IS happening!
We all spent a lot of time working on what unsurprisingly appears to be one of Josh's best subjects, life sciences. We are continuing to use Nancy Larson Science, which thank goodness has a scripted teaching manual, for that has helped me a lot. Many people ask how you can teach subjects you are not good at, but they have no idea the kinds of curriculum available to help you do just that if you look hard enough. There are packages that walk you through everything, online courses that are taught by someone else, video classes, local classes taught by experts in certain fields, you name it. As homeschooling continues to grow, there are more and more designed to help walk parents through teaching any subject, and this curriculum we are using for science is terrific for middle school science. This past week we studied cells, and their makeup. All the kids are really enjoying it! We learned about the parts of a microscope, and viewed cheek cells, fly legs, and other "cool" things on slides.
Academics or other subjects, we are busy here trying to fit it all in, with a few hugs along the way thrown in for good measure. There is so much to learn, and so little time to learn it! But I am betting that the most important things learned will have nothing to do with worksheets, planned courses, or tests. It is the lessons of the heart that matter most...and those can't be put under microscopic scrutiny :-)