By Sarah Garrison
I admit that when I decided to take the plunge and try homeschooling, I had no idea what lay ahead of me. Oh, sure, I had read a number of articles and essays detailing the many pleasures and benefits of homeschooling. There was the blissed-out unschooling mother, who watched with such pleasure as her children did “science experiments” with mud, sand, cornstarch and whatever else was handy in the kitchen sink. Religious homeschooling families described how they adhered to a strict schedule, juggling complete curricula for four, five or six children while still allowing ample time each day their offspring to work in the family business. And then, of course, there were families like the Colfaxes – the ur-gifted homeschoolers who built telescopes and observatories, discussed civilization’s great books over dinner and sent their children off to Harvard. Clearly, there were countless ways to make homeschooling work, and the sky was the limit as far as both opportunity and payoff were concerned.
So, armed with a variety of books, guides and helpful e-mails, and spurred on by my son’s deteriorating emotional state and the increasingly negative missives from pre-school, I made A Plan. What a Plan it was!
I broke down each day into fifteen-minute segments, allowing time for lunch, “recess,” at least eight academic subjects per day, with careful attention paid to the essential elementary-school subjects: math, reading, spelling and handwriting – all for my five-year-old.
My Plan worked well – for about ten minutes.
What was I thinking?!?
I spent the first five years of Origami’s life trying desperately to keep up with him. From the initial colicky sleeplessness, through the drive to attain mobility, into the “Why?” phase (which never actually ended, but instead morphed into the “Did you know?” phase) – every day had been a fight to keep my head above water. Why on earth did I think this all would change when we began homeschooling?
Our drive to pre-school each day lasted ten or fifteen minutes. During those drives, we might – and did – discuss the role glaciers played in the formation of the local landscape, the creation and development of the interstate highway system, and human rights issues in China – all on the same trip. Intermingled with these weighty issues was a steady stream of questions intended solely, it seemed, to drive me completely insane, namely: “What street is this? Are we going northeast or north-northeast? Where are those people going? What street did we just pass? Are we still going northeast, or is it east-northeast now?” I am sure that it was a surprise to nobody but me when the constant questioning continued even when we no longer drove to school each day.
As the reality of homeschooling Origami sank in, it was necessary to make some changes to my big plan. Okay, make that “many changes.” The first change was the elimination of “spelling” as an academic subject. As it turned out, my five-year-old could spell much better than I or anyone else had thought he could. Origami was highly offended by the first-grade speller I gave him, and we laid that book aside after he correctly spelled every word in the book – cold – on the first try. Okay, I thought, first-grade spelling lasted fifteen minutes, surely second-grade spelling will take much longer!
The second-grade book received an equally chilly reaction. At the time, I was just learning about Origami’s “handwriting issues.” However, I soon realized that expecting Origami to write out his spelling words was unrealistic and unreasonable. So much for handwriting. Oh well, no problem, I thought, I’ll just quiz him orally. For a while, Origami did spell every word correctly – backwards. After a few weeks, he stopped spelling altogether. So much for spelling.
Math presented another set of challenges. Handwriting again became a point of contention. I also realized that Origami hated elementary math for a reason. The four basic operations – addition, subtraction, multiplication, division – were repeated and rehearsed, sometimes with decimals, sometimes with fractions, endlessly, through five or six or eight years of curriculum. I decided to move Origami through elementary math as quickly as possible, with just enough problems – often only three per lesson – to demonstrate mastery of the concepts. I dutifully scribed much of the work for him, and I added “fun” math books like The Number Devil and The I Hate Mathematics Book.
Some days ran much more smoothly (did I mention that my rigid schedule was scrapped the first day I tried it?). On other days, Origami barely seemed to know his own name. This did little to allay my concerns that Origami had some “extra” issues.
After reading about sensory integration dysfunction, I tried incorporating more sensory activities into our day. The child who barely knew his name was suddenly able to multiply and divide fractions in his head if I put him on a swing. Swimming seemed to remove whatever mental roadblocks Origami was experiencing. But handwriting was still a sticking point.
How much of a sticking point was handwriting? Merely asking Origami to write his (very short) name elicited moaning, wailing, and flopping on the floor like a fish. Doing math was torture. Expecting him to write more than a handful of words per day was insane. I modified our approach as much as possible. Language arts was based almost entirely on reading -- which Origami still did with great zeal, for about twelve hours per day – with the occasional workbook exercise involving little more than “circle the correct answer.” Foreign language was easy enough to handle; Origami took to Rosetta Stone in no time, and the ease with which he learned to read Russian scared me. Science for Origami was like oxygen; he needed it, and he was surrounded by it in the form of hundreds of books, websites, and computer programs.
Origami’s handwriting challenges, together with his microscopic attention span, meant that I had to work with him much more intensively than I had expected, for much longer than I anticipated. Origami could not even begin his math unless I was sitting next to him, ready to keep him focused on his work, encourage, cajole and cheer him on, and ultimately take over the writing for him. This arrangement was stressful for both of us, not to mention for my younger son, who had the chutzpah to expect occasional attention from his mother as well.
The Great Handwriting Standoff became untenable. Certain outsiders, such as the nice “education specialist” from a charter school I considered, accused me of doing my son’s work for him, insisting that he could not possibly be working at such an advanced level, and clearly I was doing the work and trying to pass it off as my son’s. Other people wondered why I did not just drop any semblance of organized work and let Origami run free for a few years. (The answer to that question was painfully easy: a bored Origami was a dangerous Origami!) I wondered aloud – many times – how one might distinguish between a disability – in this case, dysgraphia –and asynchronous development. The answers to my queries were fuzzy at best. I gave Origami the option of returning to “age-appropriate” math, as that would require much less handwriting, but he burst into tears at that idea.
I wish I could say that I stumbled upon a wonderful solution to our problems. I wish I could tell everyone that keyboarding was the answer, or that Origami turned seven and began writing fluidly and confidently, or that cursive was our path to success. This is what really happened: shortly before his ninth birthday, Origami received a month of occupational therapy. During that time, he learned to tie his shoes and print legibly. He now has very large but more-or-less legible printing, which he puts to use in his math, in creative writing and in making gigantic wish lists from the Pitsco and Mindware catalogues. He also can type reasonably well.
Five years after my botched initial attempts to “do spelling,” this subject is back on our schedule, in slightly modified form. I give each child a set of words (from lists I downloaded off the web) orally, without review. Any words they misspell are theirs to study and write out; I quiz them – again, orally – at the end of the week, and I introduce a new batch of words at the same time.
Origami is nearly eleven years old, and on his own he has developed an interest in composition. That interest is proceeding slowly, as his hands still have not caught up with his brain, but he is actively interested in learning how to write research papers and essays. Origami now is responsible for writing out his own math assignments; I sometimes struggle to read what he has written, but to be honest I sometimes struggle to read my own grocery lists, so I do not have much room for criticism.
Cursive just is not happening. The other day, I also realized that Bilbo, now eight years old, still forms many of his letters from the bottom up. So, like it or not I think we all will need to sit down this summer and practice our penmanship. That includes me!
This is the second article in a two-part series. Part One is Raising My Twice Exceptional Children... Not What I Signed Up For!
Sarah Garrison blogs at The Best-Laid Plans.