I just dropped my 12 year old off at Rita’s house. Rita Cevasco is the Brave Writer instructor who is our reading and language specialist. She’s testing our fourth child, Liam, for issues similar to Noah’s. Because I now have a better idea of what the issues might look like in a home that accommodates their non-traditional learning styles, I felt it would be helpful for us to get a better picture of what we might be able to do for Liam so that he doesn’t have quite as bumpy a transition to a traditional schooling environment (whenever he chooses it for himself). He hopes to be a zoologist some day and we both know (he even more than me) how much science and math that requires. It’s quite possible that he’ll uncover a non-traditional route to his dream job, but in the meantime, the primary requirements of every zookeeping and zoological post we’ve discovered include at least two years of college heavily focused on science and math.
Liam happens to be gifted in both… but can’t handle learning them in anything resembling a traditional educational format. He learned his math facts literally through playing online games. He has never used a math text until this year… which is a chore for him, but given his maturity, he is more willing to keep at it in spite of frustrations and tedium. All his natural science knowledge has come through reading, observation, zoo classes and Discovery channel. He retains animal related data like a steel trap!
Rita and I chatted a bit about my recent blog entry and many of your questions. The truth is, Rita says that she rarely sees a parent who comes to her that has misread her child. Usually a mother does know when something isn’t quite right. Sometimes the disparity is that the child is so amazingly gifted or bright in one area and then is profoundly average in others, that that gap between the brilliance and the average performance gives rise to concerns. And those concerns are often warranted because for a talented, smart child, the frustration of being held back by lacking verbal skills or poor handwriting or the inability to write or sit or organize thoughts is more frustrating than it might be for a child whose skills were more balanced.
As I read through the questions and comments in last week’s post, I thought I’d address one at a time as I have time and the ability to post. (My Master’s thesis is in revision right now so I’m juggling that in the midst of everything else!) Clare asked about the articles I read related to brain development. Because it’s been ten years since I read them, I no longer have the specific articles in hand. But interestingly, through a quick google, I did find an article that stated something similar to what I remember reading. (Note the happy placement of the word jungle as his metaphor for how the brain functions!)
Recommended educational approaches, then, consist primarily of trying to maintain a relaxed, focused atmosphere that offers options for learning in individually satisfying ways. The old paradigm of students as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge has given way to the constructivist belief that students continuously build understandings based on their prior experiences and new information. The idea of a fixed intelligence has given way to a more flexible perception of gradual intellectual development dependent on external stimulation.
Gerald Edelman, chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at Scripps Research Institute and 1972 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physiology, offers a view of the brain that could influence the future classroom. Edelman’s vision of the brain as a jungle in which systems interact continuously in a chaotic fashion suggests that learners would thrive in an environment that provides many sensory, cultural, and problem layers. These ideas suggest that students have a natural inclination to learn, understand, and grow. Surround students with a variety of instructional opportunities and they will make the connections for learning. (http://www.sedl.org/scimath/compass/v03n02/1.html)
The primary breakthrough in brain research has been that real learning occurs through relationships between ideas, building on previous learning and engaged interest. For kids who struggle with verbal skills, sitting still to study, handwriting, sequencing and so on, this kind of brain research would indicate that perhaps you can cut a different path through the jungle. Capitalize on your child’s interests, hook up learning to areas of competence, and immerse your child in a subject area long enough for a child to form a relationship to that subject matter. Learn through channels that work rather than trying to beat a path through dense forest and obstacles.
When we first “deschooled” Noah based on the brain research I had read, the revolutionary new concept I incorporated into our lives was to focus on a single topic of interest at a time. We didn’t study math, spelling, writing, reading, history and science all in a day or even a week. Instead, when Noah showed interest in origami, we got books from the library, we bought the little colorful square papers from Michael’s, we looked up origami artists online and then, we made origami… for weeks. It’s not that origami was all we did for those weeks, it’s that we gave into it fully while the interest existed. I didn’t think to myself (as I had been likely to do previously), “When can we get done with origami so I can get him to do his mathbook?” Origami was sufficient for that season.
Origami naturally led to an interest in Japanese culture. I found and read the book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes aloud to the kids. This book led us to World War II. My husband started checking out old WWII videos from the library and he watched them with Noah in the evenings. Noah became fascinated with old tanks both due to the movies and due to a computer game he liked to play with his dad called Bolo. So I checked out Dorling Kindersley books about WWII tanks from the library. The Internet was in its infancy at the time and Jon (my husband) was a big Internet dabbler. He set up a website for Noah and Noah built a website to feature tanks. It was never finished, but it did host photos and diagrams of the tanks and gave Noah his first taste of the power of html.
I could go on from here, the way his love of computer languages (and our family obsession with Shakespeare) has climaxed in his interest in linguistics in college. I see it now. I did not see it coming then.
Sometimes when I give this example of Noah’s, it looks too pristine, too obviously educational and wonderful. You must know that in the midst of this learning journey, he still had a hard time coming when called, remembering to brush his teeth (and other ordinary daily life kinds of expectations), and he became a target of bullying in our neighborhood. Learning became wonderful for a time (until I panicked again and imposed schoolish learning), but life was not without challenges.
Our fourth child, Liam, exhibits many of Noah’s traits, but his interests have been far more narrow and less obviously schoolish in disposition. His primary area of interest has been a couple of computer games he plays online. Having raised Noah and having watched the way pushing him to learn backfired so many times, I have been more hands off with Liam. His computer gaming led us to making a notebook (of about 20 pages which took a year to complete) that featured maps of an island chain he created out of his imagination. Because of his online gaming, he became deeply interested in maps, languages, flags, wars, topography. We used “Mapping the World by Heart” as a way to understand things like longitude and latitude, how to indicate mountain ranges and so on. Handwriting has consistently been a struggle for this left-hander so half of the text is in my handwriting as he narrated to me.
It was fascinating to see that his love of gaming led to this creative project. Immersion has been key to keeping his interest. It’s taken some creativity on my part to see how to capitalize on it.
Time’s up! I need to go pick him up from Rita’s right now. I’ll continue this entry tomorrow. Feel free to post more questions and thoughts.