Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Patience and Persistence

     Caught up in the day-to-day business of homeschooling, enjoying the little victories and successes large and small, it is easy to sometimes lose the big picture in the overwhelming jangle of incremental changes.  Such loss can sometimes breed insecurity for the home educating parent, who does not necessarily have an objective backup, or outside evaluation of how the kids are faring.  It is easy to stride confidently forth in areas where you know your little geniuses naturally excel, but what about those areas where they are just average or (gasp) perhaps even struggling?  What then?

     We began our homeschooling journey just under a year ago (mid-February for DS2, end of February for DS1) with some areas of strength, but also some areas where I had serious concern for each boy, and I wasn't really sure what I was going to do about it.  For DS2 in particular, I had concerns in the area of writing.  Far above grade level in every subject area, writing, for some reason I could not fathom, was far below.  A voracious reader, he possessed an outstanding vocabulary, grasp of grammar, and facility for spelling.  A sensitive and creative mind seemed capable of spinning endless stories and tales at the dinner table, synthesizing stories and novels and themes and turning them on their heads in ways that left us wondering.  Yet when asked to put pencil to paper or even to dictate his thoughts to be transcribed, he suddenly descended down to the level of Dick and Jane.

     We began with one recommended program, Writing Strands, that seemed to make a lot of sense to me.  It still does.  It broke the process of writing down into pieces, then built it back up, in a very logical way.  I started him back a couple of grade levels, figuring we could accelerate appropriately as his skill level dictated.  I still think it is a good program; it just didn't work for DS1.  He would insist he had NO ideas, even given the very leading prompts in the book.  Time to ditch, after just a few weeks.  I kept the books though, in case they came in handy later.

     So now, what to do?  Back to the drawing board.  All the way back.  I grabbed a program that focused on zero original productivity at first.  Zero.  The theory seems to be that it makes no sense to ask kids to write original material until after they have been taught to write, and spent a significant amount of time being exposed very closely to high quality writing, examining that writing, working up the connections between forming a sentence in their heads and holding it there long enough for it to emerge from their pencils onto the paper (using a prefab sentence) and then looking at a longer piece of writing, being taught to understand the difference between the details and the important stuff, and how to summarize the important stuff and write it down (at first, by dictating it to an adult who writes it down; writing it down themselves comes much, much later).  Addressing severally and sequentially examples of excellent writing intentionally, the neurology of writing, the physical mechanics of writing (kids sometimes have a problem because hands get tired) and the mental organization of writing (getting several ideas organized at once, then writing) makes sense to me.  I decided to give Susan Wise Bauer's Writing With Ease a try, and as my super-bright ten-year-old was struggling so much with writing, I went ahead and started him in  . . . level One.  As in, the level many people use for their six, seven, or eight year olds.  Now, we did work at an accelerated pace.  In WWE, each lesson is broken up across four days, with one day "off" each week in a typical usage pattern.  We did one "week" of work each day, completing a lesson per day, four days per week, and in just over half a year, moved through books one and two, and have begun book three just recently.

     Okay, say that again?  I started my kid, whom in public school we were seriously considering bumping him up a grade so that right now, he would actually be a sixth grader, in the first grade book???  Yes, I did.  He needed it.  But, here's the problem.  On a daily basis, we were copying sentences from great books.  I was giving him dictation from great books (and adding some terrific books to our future reading list).  He was getting better at summarizing the main points of a story, leaving out trivial details, and at responding to questions in complete sentences comfortably.  BUT was his writing improving measurably?  Without asking him to do any really meaningful writing, how could I even tell?  On a daily basis in our history program, the simple fact was: I could not tell.  For all I knew, he enjoyed the program because it wasn't stressing him out too much.  However, having already jumped ship from one writing program, and having thought through and bought into the ideas behind this writing program, I was willing to give it a full year; I strongly feel much damage can be done by 'curriculum hopping' about too frequently and not giving something a real chance.

     Along came our history program.  Primarily an outline of assignments, it provides guidance and suggestions for a year of studying ancient history.  Over the course of the year, the student is asked to complete four library trip/research assignments, designed to help him become familiar with using the research section of the library, learn to read multiple sources for information, learn how to use an outline to organize his thoughts, and to write a very short paper of a couple of paragraphs about the topic.  Over the course of a four-year cycle, these assignments transform into full-fledged research papers with appropriate citations, footnoting, and length.

     We arrived at his first research paper.  He diligently read several books on the topic.  He even took notes, and following my instructions, organized them by topic on different pages in his notebook.  When it came time to actually write the paper, he managed to stretch out the assignment from a four-day affair into nearly six weeks.  He was really terribly dreading the writing portion of the assignment.  He then discarded his notebook and wrote the paper off the top of his head, in a style intended to mimic his favorite fiction author, one who has a slightly irreverent tone.  The average sentence length was about 5 workds.  The effort gave me pause about our entire homeschooling enterprise, and certainly about my choice of writing program.

     However, for the time being, I held off on being overly critical.  It was the single longest piece of writing he had produced, ever.  He has written it on the computer, and even edited it several times.  He had really, really tried.  We hole-punched it and filed it into his history notebook.  I tried not to despair, and I thought hard about how to provide better guidance for the next paper without putting undue pressure on him, while still raising the bar.  I also pondered exactly what his lack of confidence (in the form of his uncharacteristic delaying of the assignment) was trying to tell me that he needed.

     A couple of months went by.  We continued with copying, dictating, and summarizing, plus typing lessons.  Every other month we do have a quick, fun assignment from a book called Unjournaling, but it is mostly fun and creative, not strenuous writing.  During this time period, I questioned my choice of writing program many, many times, and wondered whether I should jump ship and take a more aggressive tack, and run to something with much more explicit instruction and pegged at "his grade level."

     Recently, we arrived at the second research paper.  I let him know that the deadline on this one was firm.  I limited the scope of the assignment in his mind, by reminding him of the maximum length I expected; this was not to be a ten-page paper by any means, but a couple of well-written paragraphs, and written by DS1, not DS1 pretending to be someone else, please.  Just as we did with the prior paper, we had specific days for research, reorganizing notes, rough draft, and final draft writing, and again reminders that this time the deadlines were set in stone.  This time, I sat with him and had more discussion after the rough draft, and discussed ideas about how to generate a topic sentence and a conclusion.  We discussed how the body of the paper works, and what supporting details were hinted at, but missing in the paper, and he went and researched that information and added it.  I noted with pleasure (to him!) that he had done a phenomenal job of using paragraph structure that led neatly from one paragraph into the next, even while changing topics-- a light-year jump ahead from his prior paper.  The whining factor also dropped by a bucketful.  I let him head back to the computer to rework his rough draft.  He emerged from the office and announced, "No more drafts.  The paper is complete.  I am confident in it just the way it is."

     I let his paper sit in the printer where he had left it until he went to bed, letting him know I too had confidence in him.  Guess what?  That gap in time between the first and second history papers is exactly what he and I both needed.  Yes, there is still room to grow.  However, in just a couple of short months, he has already grown by light-years.  Roughly two months time has been enough to erase my worries and doubts that time spent copying sentences, taking dictation, and summarizing passages of literature and so forth has not been time wasted.  Nor was it time wasted to start at the beginning and walk through all of the lessons, even if we accelerated the pace.

     Patience and persistence have begun to pay off.  I could not see it at the beginning.  I could not see it in the middle of the year, at the time of the first research paper.  I really doubted my sanity many times.  There were times when DS1 noted the level number on some of the printed out stories and asked, incredulously, if he was doing "little kid" work.  If he continues to improve at this rate, he should be caught up to grade level or close to it by late spring, and after that, with some writing-specific tutoring that I already have in mind for him, I predict that he should have no trouble writing at (or who knows; possibly slightly above, but at is fine, too) grade level after that.  Best of all, I think I saw his confidence level rising with the success of the second paper, and I am hopeful that that trend will continue as his facility with writing improves.  And with each increasing success of his, of course, my confidence that we're heading the right direction improves as well.

     After close to a year in the homeschooling game, two things bubble to the top in difficulty to deal with.  First of course, is not popping off smart-alecky retorts to people who are not homeschooling and have never tried it, or who tried and failed, who try to tell you all about it and why it's bad for you (if I hear from one.more.person. about "socialization," who does not actually seem to understand what the word means . . . ).  Second is dealing with the areas of asynchrony in my kids.  Everyone is asynchronous in some fashion.  We're all good at one thing, and stink at another.   Homeschooling is great at dealing with asynchrony in one sense:  we aren't pegged to grade levels (I don't even refer to my kids as being in a grade any more; it just doesn't make sense to me).  You simply work in each subject at whatever skill level provides a challenge.  In another sense, homeschooling can be lonely and frustrating and a challenge to one's self-confidence when dealing with a long-term skill deficit.  Dealing with these issues is most often not a quick fix, but a long-term commitment, requiring patience and persistence, and above all, faith that you have picked some method that will return results over the long haul. 

     I'll be biting my nails just a little until he's encountered history essay #4.  Please wish us luck on our journey of patience and persistence.  And I will do my best to not force you to be quite as patient and update a little more often in the future :).

--Thanks for reading!