Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Adoption and education

(First my obligatory disclaimer... or two. 1. I am not a trained special education teacher nor I am a trained therapist, but I have a lot of experience with both these things and have done a ridiculous amount of research. I suppose this gives me just enough knowledge to be dangerous. Use your own judgement when following my advice. 2. This post is written for the homeschooler. I know many children who have been adopted go to public school and fare just fine. That's great (and you can read that sentence without any irony because I really mean it.) Just remember, when I write about homeschooling it does not automatically assume I am saying the negative about other types of school. There, that should head off any comments right off the bat, huh?)

Over the past several years, I have updated everyone on H.'s academic advancement. (If you missed them, here they are:  6 months home and 7 months home.) After those, in looking back through the hundreds of posts I've written in the ensuing years, I haven't updated in a purposeful way. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, there just wasn't that much to say. We had worked diligently and for much of the next year and a half we couldn't see a whole lot of discernible progress. I wasn't too worried, though, because of reason number two for not updating. That would be, we weren't doing a whole lot of straight academics, but really were just continuing preschool. If I was going to experiment educationally with my daughter, I wanted a longer period of time to elapse before sharing what was happening.

I have my own pet theories, which are not entirely made up but based on what I have learned about children and development and trauma and neuroscience and play, plus my own experiences raising and educating a bunch of children. Those theories boil down to something like this. Our children who have joined our families by adoption come to us with a  very mixed bag of experiences. While some of those experiences may have been positive, there is also a great deal of loss and trauma and at least, for some of my children some really horrible parts of their past as well. When you compare this with a child growing up in a stable, nurturing home, the differences are pretty huge.

In order for a child to learn optimally, there need to be certain things in place. First, there must be trust. Without trust, the child plunges into fear and no one can really learn anything when in a fearful state. Second, the foundations for later academic learning must be built. This usually happens during baby and toddlerhood for most children. The child is constantly investigating his or her surrounding environment... touching, tasting, hitting, throwing, dropping... to see what happens. The parent is constantly naming the things in the child's environment and explaining what is happening. The child is surrounded by print in their language and is beginning to become familiar with what it looks like. Numbers are used in a concrete way; to count things in the child's world. The child's small successes are heralded and when the child fails, is immediately encouraged to try again.

Now look at a child living in a less optimal environment. First, if there is no single caregiver, there can be no sense of trust. Fear is a constant companion, whether recognized as such or not, and the child focuses on learning behaviors which give a feeling a safety. These are not always behaviors that will help the child grow in the long run. Often a child in an orphanage is kept in a very limited environment. Sometimes this is a crib for hours on end or, as in K.'s case, the two blank cement rooms of his orphanage. There is little to explore and there is no one to give language to what he is doing. There is no print... in any language. The early lessons that little squiggles on a page can have meaning do come. Also, the vocabulary the child builds is cursory at best and probably involves more commands than anything. More complex sentences, ideas, and words are never heard by the child.

If this child is adopted at an older age, these deficits add up. They do learn some things because children are natural learners and they will take in what's available, but it is not much. If you imagine a child's early learning as building a mental scaffolding to hang later language on, the deprived child has scaffolding that looks like something that would not be approved by the inspector on a building site. It is a hodge-podge of this and that, thrown together in a random fashion. It is not structurally stable and to try to build a real building on this base would be foolish. The building would not stand in the long run.

If I imagine my child to have a sketchy mental scaffolding, then before I can ever hope to teach them something, I need to go back and do some rebuilding. In order to do this, I need to provide experiences that mimic what I would do with a much younger child. The brain is much more plastic than researchers had believed and I think we can use this plasticity in conjunction we a second chance at being a small child to build a better scaffolding.

So what I have done with H. in these past two years is to let her play and explore and discover and converse. We have spent a lot of time reading stories. She needs to hear her new language before she can ever hope to become fluent in reading it. I just finished reading Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryann Wolf. In it she confirms my ideas that the combination of vocabulary, awareness of the sounds of the language, memory, and pattern identification are necessary to create a good reader. So we play with words. We rhyme, we talk about the beginning sounds of things, we talk about words that mean the same thing, we name things. We talk and read and read and talk. Her reading has improved. She can sound out most simple, short-vowel phonetic words; she can read quite a few sight words; she can sound out some words that are not phonetically simple. We have a long way to go before she is reading fluently, but I see a lot of progress. The biggest thing is that I find her every so often trying to sound out words that she comes across in the course of her day. This tells me that she has learned two very important lessons. The first is that words surround us and they have something to communicate. It is worth figuring out what they say because you might want to know their message. The second is that she has a sense that she can figure the words out. The squiggles have turned into letters which have turned into words which hold the promise of meaning and she now has the code for figuring out that meaning. With my other children, I knew we were close to real reading when they started to read words around them. Reading became personal at that point and worth the effort.

This is long, even for me, but here is there is a reward for those who have managed to make it this far. Now I am going to talk about H. and math. Math for the past two years has been a huge hurdle for H. She came to us knowing how to write and count to 10, but any knowledge about what those numbers meant wasn't there. It was something you did by rote. By the end of last year, after a lot of playing with numbers and manipulatives of all sorts, H. could identify the numerals 1 - 5, but 6 and up were a complete bafflement to her and I despaired of ever having her learn them. We took the summer off and only talked about numbers when they came up in real life, which, if you really think about it, is quite often. It was with a little trepidation that we began math again this year. Well, her math scaffolding may still be a bit shaky, but it is strong enough to build on. Do you want to hear her really, really good news? Not only can she identify all the numerals up to 10 now, she can count and identify numerals up to 100. Yes, you read that correctly. 100. But wait, it gets even better. Not only can she count to 100 by ones, but she can skip count by 5's and by 10's. That is still looking at the 100 chart, but she can find the right numeral and say its name. She can almost do the 10's by memory.

There is so much more I could say about the idea of rebuilding a mental scaffolding, but I've gone on too long already. For the moment, I just want to sit and relish the idea that H. can name numbers past five. Last year, if you had asked me if she would ever learn to do this, I'm not sure I would have said she could.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, September 15, 2014

Shoe shopping with G. and L.

With the cooler weather comes the need to wear warmer clothes. This also means that over the past week I have had multiple children coming to inform me that they have nothing to wear. Nothing. (Actually, in D.'s case this was actually quite true. No long pants, no pajamas, just t-shirts and shorts. It all comes of growing to fast.) One of the casualties we discovered was that G. and L. needed new shoes. L. in particular since I didn't think I could wedge her sneakers on her feet one more time. So A. and I loaded the little girls into the car and headed off to the shoe store.

In G. and L.'s life, it is very rare to have an outing with just Mommy or Mommy and a big sister. This was an event and it was very exciting. When G. and L. are excited they jabber. The entire ride to the shoe store was spent listening to two little girls talk and laugh and make funny noises. It was quite hilarious and A. had fun taking several videos of them. The little comedians were in rare form.

We park in front of the store and G. and L. pile out of the car dancing and jumping and exuberantly expressing their delight at such an outing and getting new shoes, too. Happy, happy, happy. Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy. Laughing, laughing, laughing. We come to the shoe store and enter it.


Some magical spell must have been put on the shoe store because the second they girls entered it they were rendered mute and expressionless. No smiles, no laughs, no words. Not a sound.

They solemnly stood on the foot measuring things and then sat back down in their chairs and waited. The clerks brought out sneakers and dress-up shoes and started to take the shoes out of the boxes. No expression. I asked them which shoes they would like to try on. Each girl silently pointed at the pair she wanted and the clerks put them on each child's feet. They obediently stood in their news and when asked to walk took two or three tiny steps and then stood still as if the new shoes prohibited all movement. I asked each girl if she liked this pair of shoes. Each girl then nodded with the same expression a child would use to indicate they would now bury their dead pet. I ask again to be sure each child is happy (happy at this point seeming to be a moot point) and pay for the shoes. We exit the store.

Happy, happy, happy. Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy. Jabber, jabber, jabber.

"I looove my new shoes."

"My new shoes make me run so fast! See me run!"

All the way home.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

One-point perspective

Yesterday was our first art project day. I had planned in some actual art lessons this year and yesterday we learned about one-point perspective. I found a great exercise that involved painting and decided to copy it. This teacher was doing it with slightly older children than most of mine, so I wasn't sure how it would work. I also had them use acrylic paint (or Sharpies) instead of the watercolors. I think acrylics are slightly less frustrating for little people to use.

The little people (G., L., and K.) enjoyed the project and their sketches before the painting began were pretty good,but the paint makes it a little difficult to tell what's going on. The loved the painting part, though.

(Who, if you look in the upper right hand corner, has a tendency to draw out whatever is going on in her head. It's kind of like stream of consciousness drawing.)

K. (He was really interested in drawing cars and trucks. You can see the red firetruck right in the center of the road.)

Having shown you those, I realize you still have no idea what exactly the point on the lesson was. The next four may clear it up. Here is TM's. You can see the single vanishing point there in the center of the paper. We talked about horizons and scale and the imaginary lines that lead to a vanishing point. 

 Next comes P.'s.

And D.'s (he decided he's rather have a river than a road.)

And I've saved H.'s for last. She worked so hard on this. When it was time to eat lunch, she wasn't done, so spent another chunk of time after lunch finishing it. I wasn't sure she would 'get' the lesson, but before she began, she studying the examples I had shown everyone very, very carefully and drew this:

What a long way she's come!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Why my arms are sore

I swore to myself that I wouldn't blog about exercising, but sometimes in the search for blog fodder the opportunity is too good to pass up. The worst part about being 48 is the shocking change in metabolism. Change might be an understatement. The screeching sound of breaks from my metabolism coming to a sudden and very definite stop could probably be heard on the other side of the world. At least that what it felt like. If my body's decline was to continue in the way it had for the past year, then when the little girls were, oh, say, 13, I was a little frightened and horrified that I would actually be fulfilling the 'elderly' label which appears in my medical file. Thus, in utter desperation, I have been hauling myself out of bed every morning to exercise. While I do feel better and it's helpful with my overall stress level, I don't enjoy it and it is sheer will-power (and the not insignificant desire to fit back into some of my clothes) that gets me out of the house.

So all of this is leading up to why I when I was at the store the other day I was standing in front of the hand weight section. Part of what I have been doing is walking with weights, which I thought were five pounds each. It was feeling pretty easy, so I decided to go up a couple of pounds to make it worthwhile. Eight pound weights seemed like a good choice. I did notice that the eight pound weights felt more than a little heavier than the weights I had, but you know how it is... when you are focusing on how much something weighs it can feel different than what it actually is. At least that's what I told myself.

The next morning I set out with my new weights. They felt heavier, but I was expecting to feel as though I was working a little harder. That's why I bought them after all. By the end of the first block, I was a little disappointed that such a small weight increase was proving to be so difficult. By the end of the second block, I was starting to have the sneaking suspicion that perhaps my original pair of weights weren't five pounds each as I had thought. Halfway through my walk I was trying to come up with ways to carry the weights so I could rest my hands a bit. I only thought briefly about putting them on the ground and pushing them along with my feet. I ruled that out pretty quickly since the ends are not round, but hexagons and so they wouldn't have rolled well.

After I staggered home and told my tale of woe, we took another look at the first set of weights. They are not five pounds, but two or three. Instead of going up three pounds for each weight, I more than doubled what I was carrying. At least I knew why I felt like dying while I was out walking.

This morning I took them out again. I would be thrilled if I could say that it went better, but that wouldn't be quite the truth. I almost made it to the end of the first block without feeling extreme muscle fatigue. My current relationship with the weights continues to be one where they should be glad I brought them home (however inelegantly I managed that) and didn't leave them lying by the sidewalk. The best I can say about them at the moment is that they're a pretty color.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Photos from P.'s birthday

We celebrated P.'s birthday last night and I know at least my mother wants to see pictures, so here they are.

Her birthday dessert was chocolate-covered bananas, because I insisted she had to pick something. (She's not a big dessert person.) Without dessert, there would have been some very disappointed little people.

Of course, with chocolate-covered bananas, there is no place to put a candle, so once again, someone had to hold them. And when you hold burning candles, sometimes you get hot wax on your fingers... if you wanted an explanation as to what J.'s expression was about.

A glimpse into what the dinner table often looks like.

Then presents. P. had lots of 'help' opening her gifts.

A. and G.


More presents.

I love G.'s expression in this one.

Horse bookends from Grammy.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Happy 14th Birthday, P.!

Today is P.'s 14th birthday. A fact that none of us can forget because we've had daily countdown notices for the past several weeks. It's even better that her horseback riding lesson is this afternoon, because for P., life just doesn't get any better than riding horses.

I love this girl so much and have had the privilege of watching her blossom into a lovey and competent young woman over the past year. She has developed interests that she is, in true Curry form, pursuing with diligence bordering on obsession (and I can say this because I and many of my other children do the exact same thing) and it is a joy to watch. I now know more about Japan than I ever thought I would and it is just from hanging out alongside my daughter.

P. has also really stepped into the oldest child at home role with grace and good humor. With M. and B. back at school and A. there for a significant amount of time during the week, that leaves P. as the one in charge when I'm unavailable. She has been great... responsible and caring with her younger brothers and sisters. When the Japanese student stayed with us for a few days, P. was an excellent hostess and I attribute the good time the student had to P.'s efforts.

So, happy birthday, P. I love you and cannot wait to see what you do and where life leads you (and us.)
I have a new article up: A Reading List for Grown-ups

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Preparing children for college

I was asked to write something about how we prepare our children for college for a different venue and decided to double dip and get a blog post out of it as well.

Yet, having now written and deleted three different attempts at writing this, I find it is a little bit difficult to say exactly what we do/have done. Perhaps this is because we never made the focus of our children's learning in high school to be about getting into college. Sure, I kept an eye on the transcript to be sure we had the bases covered as to what was expected, but that was a more of a book keeping issue rather than a learning one. What my children learned or are learning in high school was a combination of what we felt a well-rounded person ought to know and what they were interested in. We never made the end goal of high school to 'get into a good college,' but made it more about the learning itself. We don't test... we don't grade... but we read and discuss and develop broad and varied interests.

Of course, there are some skills we try to develop in our children: time management, responsibility and follow-through, knowing when to ask for help. These aren't necessarily skills just for college, they are skills which help with all of adult life. I don't know about you, but a still feel as though I am developing these skills. They are life long projects.

I'm guessing that when people ask the question of how they should go about preparing their child for college, they are thinking in much more academic terms. What should they student study? What papers should they write? What classes should they take? How many activities should they be involved in? How many books should they read and what should they be?

And you know what? I don't know.

I don't know the child or what they are interested in. What is good for one of my children may not be good at all for someone else. My own children haven't even all read the same books in high school. There are a few titles that have overlapped, not because of some inherent importance, but because I tend to recycle curricula when I can. There just isn't one formula to create a child who will succeed in college and if someone tries to tell you there is, they're lying (though they might not know it.)

Of course, you will also have to decide what constitutes 'success' in your book. Is it graduating something cum laude and all A's? Is it a child finding their passion and their life's calling? Is it getting by to get the degree and then pursuing life far outside academia? Or is it getting a job with a big salary? This is where you will have to start. What is ultimately important? With that answer in hand, it will inform every other decision you make, including how to prepare your child for college.
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