Monday, 30 January 2012

A few things I have learnt recently

As I learn from reading articles, blogs, books and websites regarding my son's evolving developmental/learning needs, I am more convinced than ever that each child's situation is unique.  There are many interacting dynamics that come into play to create that certain situation -- factors that need to be considered together yet separately in order to find an appropriate response.  I am listing some of my findings here in case they help anybody.  Please note that the following are based on my own observations pertaining to my particular circumstance.  I do not pretend to be an expert about anyone else's situation and have absolutely no interest in telling anybody how to parent their children.

1) Assess all environmental factors that might have given rise to a change in the child's behaviour and/or attitude.
Sometimes as parents faced with challenging behaviour in our children, it is easy to try to solve the immediate and most obvious problem by pinpointing the child's difficult behaviour.  However, that will only treat the 'symptoms' rather than the cause of the problem, especially for young children.  Young children often do not have the means to communicate their frustration/dissatisfaction; they may not even understand what is causing them to misbehave or why they are misbehaving.  A perceived difficult behaviour in young children is often a call for help.  Something is out of balance for the child.  It is up to the adult to pay attention and look into all possible environmental factors (for example family situation, social relationships, diet, daily routine and structure, etc) that may be the source of imbalance in the child's life at any moment, and try to rebalance it.

In our case, I used the elimination process by going through the list of possible factors in my mind, from whether there is any tension in my marriage (there is none, luckily) to whether we need to adjust our daily routine.  By eliminating the non-contributing factors, I was able to narrow down the causes to a few that really mattered and thereby find the solutions for them.

2) Rely less on labels, more on your personal observations and common sense.
I find labels useful to the extent that: (1) they tell me that my situation is not new or an isolated case, and (2) someone has looked into similar situations and may have suggestions worth considering.

The danger with labels is that they are very restrictive and are very often misinterpreted/misused.  For example, I really don't care to have Tiger labeled as 'gifted'.  I'm more interested to support him as the child he is, regardless of whether he is 'able and talented' or not.  My commitment is to him, not to any label.

Sure, people have asked me whether I have had Tiger tested and I have considered that in the past, especially in his preschool years when he was doing many exceptional things that were not normally observed in children of a similar age.  However, as I read through all the literature written on the topic of 'gifted children' I could find from the library, there is no doubt that Tiger's behaviour is close to a perfect fit of the descriptions in the books.  I don't think I need to spend a few thousand pounds just to have someone affirm to me what I already know about my own child.  What I need are practical advice and suggestions on how to best support my child.  No doubt that the hefty testing fees would include some kind of suggestion but they are usually geared towards solutions for school-going children, and honestly I don't think they can suggest anything that either (1) I am not already doing in our homeschool, or (2) someone hasn't already written extensively about in books.  So back to more research.

The recurring themes I have learnt from the 'gifted children' literature that are relevant to their academic provision are:
  • flexibility
  • increased breadth and scope of the topics
  • personalised curriculum
  • acclerated learning
  • differentiated learning
  • increased variation of instructions and learning opportunities
After assessing what we have been doing in our homeschool in terms of learning opportunities and materials, I am happy to report that the above criteria have all been met in our little homeschool.  Nearly all the books I have read are variations on the same theme.  This is the reason I have cancelled my order of the Edision-Trait book mentioned in my previous post.  As far as academic provision is concerned, we are right on the mark.

3) Don't lose sight of the child as a whole human being.
This third point follows closely to point number 2, especially if parents get too caught up with the labels given to their children.  As a family (Tortoise, Tiger's grandparents and I), we take the position that while we are happy that we don't have to worry about Tiger's intellectual capability, we believe that above all that, he still needs to be a balanced, well adjusted human being who contributes positively to our world.  Tiger is aware of his own intellectual abilities but nobody in our family gushes over him or tiptoes around him because he is 'gifted'.  He is expected to show respect, learn self-discipline and self-control, have good manners, learn to live harmoniously with others, learn to work with people of different abilities, know right from wrong, work hard, take responsibilities for his own actions... much the same as what other normal children are reasonably expected to learn as they grow up.

I find that many literature on 'the gifted' seem to skew towards explaining away difficult behaviour in 'gifted children' as some kind of expected by-product of their intellectual ability.  I don't subscribe to this theory.  It sets people up to expect neurotic and awkward behvaiour from those who think differently, as well as to assume that high intellect and social graces are mutually exclusive.  I personally think that being smart (through exceptional academic training) is only one of many parts of the equation to having a happy, successful life.  The thing that troubles me greatly about most of the books I have read so far about 'gifted children' is how they have overly empahsized the importance of developing such children's intellect at the expense of considering the other factors that are necessary to achieve overall fulfilment in adulthood.  The only person whom I have found to take a more pragmatic view (in my opinion) is Dr. Joan Freeman.  She is not very popular with parents who like to gush about their gifted children and cannot bear the thought that it takes more than being super smart to succeed in life, but her observations and theories certainly strike a chord with me.  Her book, Gifted Children Grown Up, is a sobering read, especially to those who desperately want to believe that a strong intellect is the single most important guarantee of a successful adult life.  If you can stomach the idea of reading real stories of unsuccessful 'geniuses' and why they fail, this book or a more recent one will open your mind to a number of seldom-considered factors in terms of supporting gifted children.

4) Be patient.
Sometimes the issue ceases to exist after a short while, especially when it has to do with a child's development.  Children often have their own timing with things.  Forcing children, or anybody for that matter, to do something that they are not ready for is counterproductive.  What seems to be an incompatibility in terms of educational approach or materials can simply be a matter of giving the child time to grow the necessary (motor) skills or interests or aptitude to perform those tasks effectively.  I have found being patient with myself (in terms of understanding a situation and my child's needs) to be very helpful too.  Sometimes there is nothing else you can do about it except to wait.  To me, such waiting time is not a period of passive inactivity but one of engaged gestation.

I have implemented a few changes based on what I have learnt so far -- I'm still learning, as you can tell from the books in my reading page.  Since learning is a continuous process of change for us, I will share our story as we go along in the hope that it will be relevant to some of you.

Friday, 27 January 2012

How many ways to classify?

After using puppets in our previous science session at home, we continued with more cementing of how classification can be done.

Tiger attended a hands-on lecture on taxonomy where he learnt about the complexities of taxonomy in simplified concepts.  The lecturer presented the session in a very hands-on way by having the children put on different types of hats, and to learn about how classification works by using hats as a proxy to the different ways that things can be grouped together.

Back home, we did another quick visual revision of classification with a few home-made cards and lollisticks:

Once the general visual (above) was laid out, I used a piece of yarn to highlight the area (vertebrate) that we will be spending more time on from now.

Using puppets in our previous science session gave us the idea to make more use of the toys Tiger has at home. We gathered all the cuddly toys and puppets into a corner to be sorted out.  It turned out that all the toys in the house happen to be vertebrate!

The classification exercise gave us many opportunities to discuss the various characteristics of each type of vertebrate.  It caused Tiger to consider carefully what makes a bird, a reptile, an amphibian, a mammal, and a fish, so that he could put each toy in the correct category.

Tiger did not have much problems with the exercise apart from hedgehog, which succeded to confuse him into thinking of it first as an invertebrate (Tiger thought the hedgehog has no backbone because it can curl into a ball), then as a reptile (I can't remember how or why this particular confusion had happened).  After a few minutes of questions that led him to discover the 'errors of his ways', Tiger realised for himself where the hedgehog should go -- with the mammals.

The lesson concluded with us looking for items around the house that had come from animals.  The food stuff was very obvious, but some of the non-food items offered new learnings for Tiger.

Food from animals
Non-food items from animals

This post is linked up to several blog hops, where you can visit to see what other homeschoolers have been busy with.  It has also been linked to the Homeschool Showcase #92.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Time to pause and rethink

Just as I thought we were on the roll in our little homeschool with plans, schedules, etc, something else has been brewing in the background....  My son has shown me, yet again, that he is a child who is still growing and evolving.  The comfortable application of a very structured, mum-led approach of Classical homeschooling that I thought we have finally settled into for the past 18 months now shows signs that it needs to be reconsidered and/or tweaked to better meet Tiger's evolving learning needs.

The rigour and structure of the Classical approach appeal to me, and Tiger was happy for me to take the lead most of the time so we had a good time while picking up many interesting knowledge such as learning all about the ancient world, and learning Latin.  While I was not entirely sure whether Tiger could keep up with the rigour of this approach, he has shown me that he is capable of achieving more than the standard when required.  While we follow the structure very closely, I am not an unreasonable mum, so I have let Tiger spend more time on topics that captured his imagination, such as everything-about-ancient Rome.

Year 2 started off well, but by last December Tiger started to show signs of "underachieving" (for lack of a better word) -- easily distracted, having to move constantly during lesson time, unable to listen, moody, just doing the minimum required at any time, unmotivated... generally very unpleasant to be around. Having read many scare stories about boys being underachievers in mainstream schools, I thought I was witnessing a nightmare unfolding before my eyes.

For example, recently he wrote the following note to me just before our usual Latin lesson:

Being in one of my pushy-mum moments, I read the note, left it on the table and said to Tiger, "We'll talk about this after the lesson."  I thought that maybe Tiger was feeling the pressure of not being able to understand the lesson.  To my surprise, he got through it quickly and perfectly!

Tiger wanted to put ten stars, but we stopped at six.
Tiger was all smiles when he saw his score, and could not wait to show the paper to his dad when he got home.  I pointed out that he would not have experienced the joy of his success had we given up without trying.  I only said this because I know what Tiger is like.  His ability to achieve coupled with (what I perceive to be) his unwillingness to try or work hard are what I find annoying yet distressing.

After talking with Tortoise about the challenges I have been facing in our homeschool, and searching for answers on the internet, I came across a post from Suji, who had had to rethink her homeschooling strategy a few years ago, following an evolved learning need of her son.  Suji's post made me look deeper into the concept of a divergent learner, as Tiger seems to be showing many of the traits described.  I already know that Tiger is more of a visual-spatial learner so have tailored his learning materials to suit this particular style, but obviously now I need to learn about this new learning style of his and adapt to it.

Interestingly, having read a little about how divergent learners learn versus how convergent learners learn, it is clear that Tiger and I are polar opposites in how we learn, which explains why it has been so difficult for me to understand why he struggles with things that are extremely straightforward and logical to me.  Luckily for Tiger, his dad (Tortoise) is largely a divergent learner so at least he has been receiving sympathy and understanding from that camp!

A very convergent-learning mother having the job of homeschooling her increasingly divergent-learning son.  This is going to be very interesting.

At this point, I am still doing my research and absorbing the new information that I have found so we have changed neither our curriculum nor approach.  Intuitively, I think the solution has less to do with changing specific learning materials but more to do with how we use them.  However, now I can at least empathise with Tiger's struggles, and make adjustments as I learn more about this new phenomenon.

At times like this I fantasise about how blissful and easy my life would be if I had a more easy-going child who just follows whatever directives I give him.... But wait!  That will actually make my role no more than that of an assembly line worker putting together a pre-specified output.

That's certainly not how I'd like our homeschool to be.  It'll be a worse nightmare than having to respond to the continuous natural development of my child.  I'd much prefer to think of our homeschool as an art studio where the working process isn't always tidy and predictable, and we don't always know when we'll have to make changes in our process.  However, in an art studio we have the possibility of creating a beautifully unique piece of art, whereas in an assembly line all we'll end up with is a mass produced, standardised product with very little indivdual personality left.

Having said this, I'm still in the process of figuring all this out.  I'm waiting for this particular book to arrive in the post soon.  It may shed some light on the matter.  My son certainly keeps me on my toes and makes my life very interesting!

Friday, 20 January 2012

Fra Angelico

'Fra' is actually a term meaning 'Brother', since Angelico was a monk as well as a master artist in the early Renaissance period.  I must admit that I am not overly excited by religious paintings, but they were the main types of art work produced for hundreds of years when the Church was a part of everyday life so it makes sense for us to learn something about it.

Picture Study
The first place I go for artist study is BBC Your Painting site.  It is very relevant to me because this site lists the art works that are held in the British art museums and galleries.  Even so, there is not much information on Fra Angelico there, although we did spend some time looking at the paintings there, and discussing about the prevalent style, symbolism, and the use of Biblical stories in the Middle Ages.

After the generic introduction, we focused on a specific painting, The Adoration of the Magi, for further exploration and discussion.  The online tour of this piece of art work, used together with the accompanying notes, was very helpful in this regard.

However, we still did not know much about Fra Angelico until we watched the following two clips:

Hands-on activity
The only thing that Tiger found exciting about the art pieces in this period was the use of gold leaf to highlight significant figures in the paintings.  The suggested activity in Discovering Great Artists was to use 'silver leaf', a.k.a. alumnimum foil.

Tiger first sketched his picture on a black card with a pencil.  I suggested to him to make a big drawing so that he would have enough room for the foil.  He decided to draw the head of a holyman, so that he could use the foil as halo around the man's head.

Once the sketch was done, it was time to glue the aluminium foil onto the card where the halo was going to be, followed by painting the rest of the picture.

The end result turned out to be something very different from what I was expecting to see, but Tiger was happy with how his work turned out.  I thought (to myself) that the final result seemed more appropriate as an Expressionist work than an early Renaissance work, but as long as the artist himself is satisfied with his own creation, I do not feel I should criticise his creative efforts.  Afterall, I may not fare any better if I were to do it myself.

This post is linked up to several blog hops, where you can visit to see what other homeschoolers have been busy with.  It is also linked up to Homeschool Showcase #90.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

More tangrams

Since we have had such fun with tangrams previously, we continued working with working with forming numbers with the seven pieces.

We started with Tiger forming various numbers as best as he could, without referring to the 'answers' provided in the lesson plan.

After Tiger had formed the numbers in his own way, we looked at the 'answers' to compare Tiger's numbers with the suggested answers.  I do not know whether there is a right way or wrong way to form the numbers using tangrams -- I assume that there isn't only one right answer -- so I only refer to the ones given in the lesson plan as suggestions rather than the only way to solve the puzzle.

Looking at the answers was helpful in giving Tiger ideas on how to use the pieces in different ways to form the same numbers.

Compared to his approach, the answers given focused on forming the numbers in a more enclosed manner.  Tiger then formed the numbers again, this time following the examples given.



This post is linked up to several blog hops, where you can visit to see what other homeschoolers have been busy with.  It is also linked up to Math Teachers at Play blog carnival #48.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Winter watch

Our first walk in the new year: a winter walk.

Last night there was a sudden drop in temperature that resulted in a sharp frost.

We waited until the afternoon to go out but the chill was still in the air so we were all bundled up.  We took the usual route, mainly to observe anything new this season.

A clear blue sky, which is quite rare in England these days:

Bare trees and branches.  We also spied some early spring buds.

A frozen pond.

Friendly and curious horses.

Walking across fields after a sharp frost is fascinating, if you can live with having to wash up extremely muddy boots...

Mud has its usefulness though.  We certainly saw many animal tracks that fascinated us, even though we already knew which animals they were from: dogs, deer, and horses.


Winter is also a good time to look for animal homes since the lack of bushes reveal their location more readily.  It didn't take long to find many holes of different sizes on our walk.  Most of them are rabbit warrens (evidenced by the rabbit droppings nearby), the rest are probably foxes' dens.

This post is linked up to several blog hops, where you can visit to see what other homeschoolers have been busy with.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Cosmetic Chemistry

This week Tiger has been fortunate to experience life in a science laboratory setting by attending a chemistry workshop which was a good follow up to our soap-making experience last summer.

At the start of the session, the children put on lab coats, wore safety glasses, and were given instructions about lab safety.  After a brief introduction about the goals of the workshop, the children set to work to:
1) test the pH of various liquids: water, lemon juice, sodium hydroxide; and
2) witness the effects of neutralisation by adding varying amounts of liquid to one another.

Once the basics of acids and alkali were understood, the children proceeded to the highlights of the day: making the cosmestics.  First was the bath bomb.

Luckily Tiger has always been actively helping me in the kitchen, so measuring and mixing the various ingredients needed to make the bath bombs were easy steps for him.  Here is a very similar bath bomb recipe, for those who want to try this at home.


Making the lip balm was a similar process of measuring and mixing, except that the ingredients to make lip balm were all liquids.  I found a lip balm recipe here that is nearly identical to that which was used in the lab.


After a while, both products were ready to be collected:

Tiger was very excited about the experiments, especially when he saw that they resulted in products that can be applied in real life.

This post is linked up to several blog hops, where you can visit to see what other homeschoolers have been busy with.  It is also linked to the If I had a Million Dollars edition of Carnival of Homeschooling.

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