Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Homeschooling as The Accidental Bystander

For three years now I have been homeschooling my special needs son. This is a blog of that journey.

In 2011 after working at a Public School and seeing how psychologically unhealthy the environment was and how woefully unprepared the system was to educate my son or prepare him for any kind of future other than a life time of being warehousing, I made the choice to pull my son out of of public education and home-school.

During the 1st months of our journey I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a article in the local newspaper that informed me about a new program my State's government had legislated where parents of special needs children could apply for a state scholarship, elect to take their child out of public education and receive 90% of the funding their child would bring to the district.  For me this was a no brainer.  I applied for the money and we were off and running into a new hybrid of homeschooling. The results of funding to buy curriculum has been life changing for my son and me. The scholarship is very limiting, in what I can purchase and the process of applying for the money and reporting somewhat convoluted but it allows me to buy curriculum and educational therapies for my son.

In the 1st year I began researching curriculum. After three years of relentless research I consider myself an expert on what is out there.  I find new products everyday but I am confident that I have done my homework and am using the best possible materials for my son's needs.

Mortensen Math

One of the major finds for me that 1st year was Mortensen's Math Curriculum Kit.  Let me back up.  I first found a educator on You Tube, Crewton Ramone's House of Math, who was using the Mortensen Math manipulatives and bought his kit. It came with videos of instruction on a web sight.  I found the instructions on this web sight difficult to follow.  The educator spoke very fast and often his camera angles were not satisfactory in showing the viewer the details needed in teaching the lesson.  While he was a excellent source of information I just needed more procedural work and opted to back track and buy some actual work books from the main source, Mortensen Math.  Both sources were very satisfactory and the visual learning of the manipulative changed both my son and my self's perspective on learning math.  The work books cover everything from arithmetic and multiplications, to problem solving, algebra and calculus at an elementary level. I purchased the first and second sets of levels of work books. There is no languaging with the workbooks.  It is all visual and numerical.  For our needs and my son's language delays it was very empowering for him to not have to read but just comprehend the language of math and do the work.  We are still using these materials and work books and have used them for 3 years. The manipulatives are wonderful and I have used them to teach everything from addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and algebra. I use other materials and procedural work as well now but this system has served as our base.  We come back to them and pull them out and it really is a mathematical play time.  They changed my mindset on how I feel about math.

Here is a link to Crewton Ramone showing what comes in the super kit that he is now bundling and selling from his sight.

Here is Crewton teaching his cute little boys.

I have in last two years purchased Montessori math materials.  The creator of Mortensen Math studied Montessori in Italy so the too methods compliment each other although the colors of the materials are different which can be a bit confusing.  We are so use to it now that it isn't and issue.
Factoring algebra  3x sq + 8x + 4=  

Montessori Math
I had worked for a short time in a Montessori school.  While the school I worked in was not the best example of the method and philosophy of Montessori it did bring me to a love and appreciation of the materials and a natural gravitation to the ideas of Maria Montessori's method.  After studying and reading on my own more, I decided to purchase some of the math materials and supplement our math work with Montessori's principles of education.  I purchased a few manuals/albums from Montessori Research and Development.  These gave me a firm base of lesson ideas as to how to teach lessons with the materials and how the manipulative materials worked.  It was a point of reference, but I quickly found out the manuals did not give many key points necessary to really educate my son.  I needed more experience and I needed a teacher.  I jumped right into a training program with a Montessori non accrediting North American group and purchased their manuals and educational program.  I found the manuals/albums very hard to follow, the instruction almost non existent and and the support deplorable.  While the manuals were beautiful, they did not help me teach and the program was costly.  I will not mention names, but they did refund my money for the course, when I complained and gave me a substantial discount on the manuals.  It was a very discouraging experience but I was thankful to get closer to my goal and redefine my needs.  I was also able to buy the materials that these albums required and my next step was to hire a teacher or mentor to teach me and my son how to master using the materials.  While I can use the materials with the instructions in the manuals, it does not replace the hands on teaching benefits of a certified and accredited Montessori teacher.  I found a wonderful teacher who comes to our house quarterly and instructs my son and mentors me in all things Montessori.  This has been invaluable.  She has shared her vast experience with me, teaching ways and means, helping me with my languaging in presenting lesson and just uncluttered some of the confusing that the generic albums I had bought from vendors were causing.
My favorite Montessori work the Bead cabinet and bead materials
Scope and Sequencing 
One of the biggest hurdles for me has been adapting the scope and sequence of any curriculum to fit the needs of my special needs son.  Montessori has a very precise plan of scope and sequencing for it's curriculum subjects.  While I respect the thought and expertise that goes into these plans of scope and sequencing, those writers do not know my child.  I am a firm believer in everyone needs an individual education plan, not just special needs learners.  I believe you MUST fit the scope and sequence to the learner not the learner to the scope and sequence.  The main reason I left public education was about this factor of grinding down learners to fit the plan and standard.  We need problem solvers and creative thinkers, so why is education so bent on making every learner follow the same plan of learning.  I value my son and his mind.  I have never limited him by his disability.  He is capable of living a full and productive life and contributing to our society.  His brain is wired differently, he is neurological diverse, not disabled and incapable.  He is able, but his intelligence is different than the norm, so I learned his language, studying how his brain works and adapt all lessons to his learning style.  This is time consuming and it would be hard for a educator with 25 or more students to do but I have a vested interest and life long connection to how, who and what my child will be.  I adapt the lesson to his needs. Along the way I have learned that we learn best from relationships. We learn best in a environment of love and nurturing and safety and we learn when we are engaged.  If we are stressed,  shamed or afraid learning is crushed and negative things are happening.  I believe some of the issues with our educational system here in America is the emotionally unhappy place schools have become for everyone involved. This being said, I have gravitated to projects and field's of interest he is passionate about.  I choose work he is interested in, and focusing on his strengths and bringing all the core subjects to that point of intent and interest.  In a nut shell if he is interested in snakes, we use snakes to teach. Write a report about them, research them, find out everything we can about their nature and then we can gear lesson's of language, math and even history around that interest. Snake word math problems, how many months do they hibernate? How many months does it take for their gestation?  How and what are the ancient myths of snakes and what is the relationship between them and us.  I look for all the "Teachable Moments" and focus on passion based learning, because it works. Another step in my journey to define learning for my child was to figure out how he best learns or absorbs information. It had studied the method of Multiple Intelligence and the ideas of R. Steiner on the four types of learners. Also I read Piaget and Montessori's writings on early education and how studied how the brain learns.  These studies have led me to some new directions in learning. All of these studies have helped me choose our path and find our way.

So back to Montessori.  I have bought most of the math and language and science materials that a Montessori class would have.  Here are some photo's of the Montessori materials in action.  My son loves them.  He says they help him understand.  I have created some of my own open ended math lessons using the Montessori materials.  I love how you can allow for a child to explore and find their own way with math manipulatives.   There is plasticity of neurological learning that happens when children are allowed to explore and make mistakes and figure out the right answers on their own without a teacher dictating the steps and direction of learning.  The dialectical reasoning that goes on between the ears of my son as he is problem solving and finding his own way and own answers is truly worth the effort of me letting go of control of the lesson and helps justify the costs of the materials.
The look of learning.

I purchased a 20 year old bead cabinet and beads this year form a school closing in Texas.

Snake game and bead squares.
With the Montessori math materials my son is able to see square roots, comprehend negative numbers, factor equivalent fractions and work on some higher level problem solving that I do not think he would have ever had learned in traditional education.  In my opinion schools get rid of manipulatives way to early in the math game of education and kids are forced to memorize facts that they often fail to understand.  It takes time to go from concrete to abstract and often in higher level math thinking a manipulative can mean the difference between success and failure in comprehension.
Fraction boxes
Alternative Education and Project Based Materials
My son's strengths are in the STEMS areas.  He loves Lego education for this and he has excelled at Mindstorm work.  I purchased some books from Amazon that were created by a graduate student in engineering in Germany named Laurens Valk.  They have taken Conor up to the next level of building and programing with the NXT robotics materials of Mindstorm.  He has learn so much with this project based material.  While it is not Montessori, I do think it fits into the method of Maria's ideal vision of creating a world where children are educated to be problem solvers, creative and altruist members of our society.  We have also used many different videos we have found to create simple machines, differential gears and anything that interest my son that he wants to learn.  Last spring I took an online course at MIT Media Lab on Learning Creative Learning.  This class which focused on MIT's Lifelong Kindergarten and was invaluable to me as an educator in thinking and redefining what is education and what is learning.
Working on a claw that grabs using a sensor.

One of the things I learned from the MIT course was another spiral of Bloom's Taxonomy for Thinking.  This spiral was Imagine----Create----Experiment----Share---Reflect---Imagine---
I prefer to think of it as a moebius strip of continuance rather than a pyramid or spiral that ends.
Here are some of the projects presented in the course which we have done.  We bought a Makey Makey and also have explored Scratch. More on those tools later. Here is a link to MIT's media lab and Lifelong Kindergarten projects.

We use a computer quite a bit to supplement learning because of the my son's auditory processing.  He loves Brain Pop, I love Discovery Streaming and PBS Learning Media.  All of these are fantastic resources for educational videos and lessons. Another tool in our chest for learning has been Minecraft. The educational value of this game is mind-blowing.  I am constantly impressed with the worth of this program and with what he creates with the game. In the last year we have joined a Homeschooling group on line, called SelfDesign Global and one of the benefits of this group of educators and families is they have their own Minecraft servers that have amazing educators leading kids in activities that hone creativity and teach the young people all kinds of valuable lessons.  This summer the group made the Roman Colosseum as a group project.  I will speak more about SelfDesign later. Here is Conor's version of Dr Who's T.A.R.D.I.S created Minecraft.

It is bigger on the inside.

SelfDesign Global

About the time that I was become very disenchanted with public education and looking for a way out, I attended a Human Right Event at ASU.  At this event was a presenter name Dr. Brent Cameron who 20 years ago started a school in B.C. Canada that focused on the child and a more democratic free schooling method.  You can find out more about Dr Cameron and his movement and schools here. 

This was just what I needed to send me on my way.  A group who had 20 years experience in a mentor based relationship learning method, geared to a person's passions.  It took me two more years to sign up with this group.  I embraced the concept of self directed passion based learning but wanted to do it our way. I also knew with my child's special learning needs that I needed to try out some curriculum and see what worked.  SelfDesign doesn't suggest any curriculum. They are a diverse and eclectic group of strong minded highly educated people and I knew before I joined that I had to have a clear idea what our needs were so that I was not manipulated by a group thinking factor. While it has some roots and shoots in the unschooling movement of alternative education, it is it own entity firmly rooted in it's own otherness  of a sub-culture of education.  Another hybrid of alternative education.  For me it will always be a balance of listening to any group, absorbing what they are recommending and then seeing my learner, studying his learning style, accessing his needs and adjusting to what he needs. Intuitive adaptation means the assessor needs to be here, in the room, not just on line.  A very valuable group none the less and I am grateful to have them as teachers for my son.  I just love our Learning Consultant, Michael Bender.  I have learned so much from him and he is a gifted teacher to my son and me.  What a blessing all the educators at SelfDesign have been to me and Conor in our journey, Monica, Jennifer and Brent with his vision of finding a better way.

Zome Tool
This last summer in my pursuit to find visual geometry manipulatives that we can be passionate about, I found a curriculum based method called Zome Tools.  The first time we pulled it out, I present Conor with a poster of the Platonic Solids and without any instruction from me or looking at any directions other than a poster of a picture of all the solids and different 13 semi regular (Archimedean) Truncated groups of shapes he made this.

 He later made this shape.  Again he used no directional or instructional aid. Just his vision and a poster above.  He has made many structures and spaceships, time machines and inventions since.  He is free to choose this work at any time.  We recently purchased the curriculum for it that will take him up to college level geometry work.  He is only a 12 year old boy and you can see it in all the photos I have of him crossing his eyes.

A Word On Professional Teachers

While I value all teachers and their expertise in their fields, I am the expert with my child.  Coming to this certainty has also been a journey in homeschooling. No group or outside person no matter how qualified, is going to be able to interpret my child's needs better than me.  I also have felt from many certified and accredited teachers, the underlining current or unspoken idea and sometimes spoken, that I am not as able as them to teach.  I find that the ones who think this way are really just protecting their profession and often the perspective is not based on my teaching ability, often they have never seen me teach, but their fear of being irrelevant in a movement that is replacing them with Moms.  I have to admit that while I am not certified as a teacher, I am highly skilled.  I have self-educated and I have studied, researched the subjects and I have a vested interested that no educator is going to have with my child.  Compared to what I saw in public education with raising 8 children, I rock as a teacher.  The ones who do not think I do, are the ones who are threatened by what I do.  I also get from many people that I must be some religious nut case who is homeschooling my child.  I am a very spiritual person, but I did not leave pubic education for religious reasons.  I left because I did not want how the public school's educators viewed and defined my child as, to be how he viewed and defined himself as.  For years I watched them basically warehouse him, babysitting and modify his behavior all the while calling this an education.  The public school system never expected him to learn and function in our society other than as a person with disabilities.  He is so much more that a person with autism.  I did not want how they choose to label him and value him as a non person or a substandard person to effect how he label and valued himself.  Because of his autism he brought the district each year a large amount money, I never saw what that money brought in his classroom.  Every year but one, he was given a new teacher who was new to the school, new to the district, new to special ed.  Often the class was bare for the 1st few months. No books, no materials, sometimes no desks. I was appalled whenever I visited the classroom to see most of the day was about standing in line and coping things off the board or learning hygienic lesson. Very little time spent learning the basics core subjects.  Often the aids were unskilled and leading the class. Many time I saw abuse.  Our school district had a non visiting policy and since I worked in the school I knew why.  The school my son attended was/is considered one of the best in the state for it's autism program.  I never saw anything that made me believe that statement was based on any collectable data.  Just because something is said over and over again doesn't make it true.  The principal of that school, at the time I left, also had a nasty habit of making fun of the schools special needs community.  I find that to be so offensive and telling of the state of our school system, that a leader of the community, the school's Principle and pillar of the school district makes fun of his special needs students.  I do not buy into the mindset that inclusion is how we needed to educate special needs children. Bulling is rampant in our schools and society, teachers are over worked, classroom crowded and budget reduced. In our society's natural pecking order the weak get targeted. Inclusion often results in children who are different kinds of learners getting left behind and lost in the cracks. Often they are bullied and in a non verbal autistic child's case they are an easy target. I was told by a mother of an autistic child who believed strongly in a one size fit all policy of inclusion for all special learners that autistic children in a special needs classroom had nothing to offer her child and normal kids do. I find that comment ableistic and insulting. It also tells me that she will only value her son as a person if she can make him over to be nuero-typical. That to her people on the spectrum have nothing to offer is wrong. We all have value and worth. I hope her son survives her crippled outlook on people who are differently abled and nuerolgically diversed. Acceptance is liberating. 
While I still believe there are great teachers I do not suffer fools gladly and just because people have degrees does not make them capable or even competent in their profession.   I focus on the good ones and try to learn from them. And there are many good and dedicated educators.  I do hold the bad ones accountable and believe we are going to have to hold education's feet to the fire if we are ever going to reform it.  My choice now is to not participate in a system where children are not honored and valued and where those young people have become merely statistics and data on a standardized test score.
"Until all the shapes of personhood are recognized as equal, human rights and justice are not possible." Amanda Baggs


  1. The section of this post titled "A Word on Professional Teachers" made me stand up and applaud. Literally. My kids are looking at me like I'm a little nuts, but that's okay :) I explained that somebody wrote down many things I have been thinking for years better than I could ever find words to say it. And, I will add here, from a perspective that society can learn *so much* from. I have these thoughts and I hear from many teachers (who are *good* teachers who follow my blog or Facebook page) who say, "it's sad that people think that public/traditional schools are or are still like this." Well, my husband IS a 17 year public school teacher and we homeschool our children because schools sometimes were and STILL CAN BE like this. We see it in our Newsweek top 100 (not top 1000) award-winning district.

    A couple of the *many* things you said that I loved:

    "While I value all teachers and their expertise in their fields, I am the expert with my child. Coming to this certainty has also been a journey in homeschooling. No group or outside person no matter how qualified, is going to be able to [interpret] my child's needs better than me."

    "Because of his autism he brought the district each year a large amount money, I never saw what that money brought in his classroom. Every year but one, he was given a new teacher who was new to the school, new to the district, new to special ed. Often the class was bare for the 1st few months. No books, no materials, sometimes no desks. " (Didn't "love" that you needed to say it, but love that you said it.)

    "Just because something is said over and over again doesn't make it true."

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thank you! I know and love your blog. I am encouraged that many teachers have been my greatest fans and mentors in my journey to educate my son in another way.