The Single Hardest Thing About Homeschooling

As you can probably imagine, there are many things that are hard about homeschooling. But they haven’t been the things I expected them to be before I started.

At first, I thought the hardest part would be making the decision to do it. That is so often the hardest part about anything, isn’t it? But once the decision is made, the rest seems to fall into place, as if the very idea of change was what was providing resistance in the first place. But, it was not a terribly hard decision. Cheeks was deeply unhappy in public school and growing more so every day, so naturally we had to choose to change that.

Then, I thought the hard part would be figuring out what to teach him. I guess that was a little hard, because I had to choose from a lot of options. There are literally hundreds of homeschool curriculum packages, and too many good books and other tools to count. I certainly wasn’t left trying to figure it out for myself. Once I realized that anything he learned would be more than he was learning while in school, it became much easier. I could pretty much start anywhere and allow ourselves to follow his curiosity. And the benefit would be better than just learning, it would be giving him the chance to love learning.

 

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Cheeks getting “socialization” at the school bus stop he used for six years. You can probably see why I’m not too concerned about finding a homeschool substitute for this.

One of the hardest parts has definitely been the reactions I get from others. All of a sudden, everyone seems to be fixated on his socialization. It’s all I hear about from strangers and acquaintances when they first hear that we homeschool. I suspect these people who are so concerned have likely never bothered to reach out to a disabled person to be their friend, or gone into a self-contained classroom to see how much socialization disabled students in the public school setting are getting there (read more about that here). You would think that after all these years as an autism parent, I would have grown a thicker skin to the advice and judgments of strangers, but that’s only true to a degree. Long ago, I stopped being invested in their stares and comments, but you never get over it all the way. Nobody wants to be the odd one out. (Note to all: Please do not ask a homeschooling family about how their child is getting socialization. Just don’t. The question is inherently condescending. Thankfully, this question doesn’t come from my friends, but from casual onlookers.)

But the single hardest thing is the only one that surprised me. If you’ve read this far, maybe you see the common thread in the examples above: it all comes down to what the school system wouldn’t or couldn’t do to teach him. I am a lifelong fan of public schools and the teachers in them. My mother was a teacher, and I received an excellent education in public schools. But this homeschooling experience and Cheeks’ spelling to communicate has really broken my faith in the public school system for all but the most mainstream, typical learners.

As a taxpayer, I agree that the school system shouldn’t immediately embrace every new methodology that a parent has decided to try. They are already a system of infinite need and limited means, and there isn’t money or space for every unproven idea. But as a parent, I was shocked that the administration wouldn’t even observe a session. That tells me that they are more interested in adhering to their system, regardless of whether it might be failing him. And the only way to tell themselves that they weren’t failing him was to put the burden on him and assume the problem was because he couldn’t learn.  These people, who at one time I truly believed wanted the best for him, didn’t want to even see what he could do if it didn’t already fit their expectations. Cheeks’ classroom teacher was even told he was not allowed to hold on to a book I had loaned him, and was told to turn it over to a supervisor until I asked for it back. The school district banned a teacher from having a book about education. Let’s just sit with that one for a moment, shall we?

 

Screen Shot 2017-09-11 at 12.59.03 PMThe implications of this revelation have been enormous for me. I’m sad that Cheeks’ good teachers — of which there were several — have been denied seeing the daily “lightbulb” moments he has. Witnessing those moments are why many teachers enter the profession! I’m offended that anyone is able to dismiss Cheeks as unworthy of a true education; or who dangerously assumed him to have a cognitive disability (which is not part of any autism diagnosis) based on his inability to speak or maintain motor control. Because make no mistake, that is exactly what they were doing when they refused to make room for possibilities. And I’m now also questioning the advice I get for Cheeks’ older, neurotypical brother, because I’ve seen how the system can be so far off the mark. And to think, this entire system exists to teach our kids new things. The level of contradiction between their words and their actions is stunning.

It’s hard to change everything you once believed to be true. I’ve been faced with it more than once, so I empathize with the challenge I’m placing before the school system. Where I draw the line is their refusing to try. They wouldn’t even open their mind to the possibility that Cheeks could do what he was doing, and while my head can understand the challenge they faced, my heart can’t accept the result.

Mark my words: ten years from now, the people and systems that refused to presume competence in their students will be on the wrong side of history. When that happens, I will not be sympathetic toward the ones that had opportunities to do better but refused them.

 

 

 

 

Sh*t People Say, Homeschool Edition

Want to see an awkward moment? Tell someone you’re homeschooling. Usually the response is a polite smile and nod, sometimes with wide eyes or a raised eyebrow. When questions do come up, this is what they have been:

“Why?”

It was never something I wanted to do, but the gap between Cheeks’ abilities and the education he was getting at school had become too wide. I advocated within the system for years to correct that, knowing that he was surrounded by people who wanted to see him succeed. But there was no getting around the fact that the system measured his success by teaching him to behave and learn the way other students do. I don’t think that will ever happen. And even if it did, at best we were looking at a lot of time, effort and emotion to get there. The likely result would be him aging out of school before getting the chance to learn all that his peer group did.

“How has it been going?”

For me, it’s like having a newborn baby again. I’m isolated, overwhelmed, exhausted and confused. But I’m also discovering a whole new relationship, I’m giving him something only I can give him, and there are many moments of immense gratitude. Cheeks is happier than he has ever been, and focused on learning instead of compliance.

“How do you know what to teach?”

There are many curriculum packages available to the general public, and numerous web-based educational resources. But for now, I’m not using a curriculum guide. I want Cheeks to enjoy the process of learning again, so I’m temporarily allowing his curiosity to take the lead. All I have to do (for now) is offer a variety of topics and see what captures his interest. I have confidence that anything he learns during this adjustment period is more than he would have in school. I’m researching curriculum packages and plan to start using one at the end of summer.

I’m not under the illusion that it’s easy to acquire the skills of a trained educator, but I also don’t have to learn how to teach all kids – I only have to learn how to teach mine.

“Did something happen that made you take him out mid-year?”

Yes, but it wasn’t a one big thing. It was several small things.

First, I tried to show Cheeks’ IEP team what he can do when provided with the right academic tools. I brought them videos, books and news articles regarding his method of spelling to communicate. There was some interest in learning more, but not much. The district-based administrator on his team wouldn’t even take a copy of one of the articles I brought, much less read it.

I also offered a demonstration of how Cheeks spells; provided by Cheeks’ and his therapist, and done at our expense. I was flatly denied, and told that such demonstrations are considered training and therefore are not allowed. Privately, I offered his teacher to come see it unofficially and on our own time. That was months ago and the invitation has not yet been accepted.

The last straw came from a behavior therapist on the IEP team. I had often reminded the group to interact with Cheeks in an age appropriate manner, and presume his competence to understand. When we got to the part of our meeting where we would discuss how to reinforce his preferred behavior, one of the team members described a suggested example of what that might look like. She said in a sing-song voice, “Yay! You had quiet hands, buddy! Good job! High five!” Once again, I kindly reminded her that he is on the back half of 11 years old. Did she think maybe he knows her expectations of him are low when she speaks to him like that? She replied, “I talk to all the kids in his classroom that way.” The fact that I didn’t face palm right then and there is a testament to my self-control.

Regarding the middle of the school year, Cheeks’ educational programming is largely dependent on his IEP dates. Those occurred at least once annually, sometimes more often, but were not scheduled relative to a school year; rather, they were planned based on the elapsed time since the previous meeting. We had just finished his most recent IEP cycle when the decision was made. Being in the middle of the school year suggests that we take into consideration things such as grade-level curriculum, field trips, project-based learning, standardized testing, etc. When you have a student who is not included in these elements of a typical school year, then “mid year” becomes an arbitrary guideline to follow.

In short: it was because when you finally figure out what you’re supposed to do, you want that to start right away.

“Will he get socialization opportunities?”

This question presumes that Cheeks was getting socialization at school in the first place.

He was in a self-contained autism classroom with two other students, who were also nonspeaking. The playground where he spent his recess was the fenced-in one reserved for special education and kindergarten classes, not the one where the other fifth graders were. He had an assigned table in the cafeteria at lunchtime, which he shared with only his nonspeaking classmates and two adults. If there was an assembly, he sat in a chair at the back with his teacher, not on the floor with other students, in case he made noise or movements that could disrupt others. He usually sat alone on the bus to and from school, and no one has ever invited him to a birthday party or play date. He did have some times during a typical week when he was included along with other classes, but it wasn’t much and it was not social time. So I’m not too concerned about taking all that away.

At home, he’ll get facilitated activities, outings with other homeschoolers, or even just trips to the community pool. That’s already more than he got in school.

“I could never do that.” 

I think when people say this, it’s code for a mixture of respect for my choice and an underlying suspicion that I’ve lost my marbles. I used to think the same thing about homeschooling. I didn’t want to have to do this. I never aspired to it, or believed myself called to it. In fact, I fought it as hard as I could. But if, like me, you were also faced with no other good choices… you would figure it out, too. I’m glad you don’t have to.

That about covers what I have heard so far. If you’re thinking something and I’ve left it out, feel free to ask. I promise not to make it awkward.

 

Let’s See Who You REALLY Are…

I have recently started homeschooling Cheeks. The main reason for this is that the public school system refused to accommodate Cheeks’ spelling to communicate, because it is not yet an evidence-based academic methodology. This created numerous disparities in what they believed to true about his cognitive ability; and in turn, how they taught him.

We know that Cheeks is intellectually competent to be just what he is, 11 years old and learning at a 5th grade level. In school, he was being taught at approximately the 1st or 2nd grade level based primarily on his inability to speak or write correct answers. His most recent work samples sent home last month had him writing the words hot-pot-robot; answering reading comprehension questions from a three sentence paragraph; and doing two-digit addition and subtraction.

In our lessons at home, we are jumping in at a 5th grade level in most subjects. Core subjects such as history, science, and language arts can all be taught starting with any topic; and presenting the lesson at a 5th grade level of complexity. As it turns out, Cheeks loves to spell long, challenging words: his recent vocabulary in home lessons has included “hieroglyphics”, “archaeologist”, “xylem”, and “anesthesia”, among others. (Note: I was a state-level spelling champion in sixth grade, but spell check had to correct two of those words for me as I typed this post. He got them right on the first try.)

The exception in terms of the difficulty level I present to him is math, because the concepts build on one another as you progress through the subject. If you’ve never had 3rd grade math, you can’t really jump in at 5th grade. So for that area alone, I was preparing to teach at a more basic level. I spent the last three weeks researching methods to teach math facts in a fun way: one that would allow him to learn what he needs to know but did not teach it in a way that would talk down to a 5th grader, who in ordinary circumstances would have learned them much earlier. I bought and borrowed books, read lesson plans, and studied everything I could find.

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Me, planning to teach Cheeks’ his multiplication facts.

Two nights ago at bedtime, on a whim, I decided to ask Cheeks if he already knows his times tables. He answered yes. I was surprised, but his speech can often be unreliable, and he says things that are not what he means to say. So I didn’t know if his answer was intentional. The next morning I still had all my books and lessons ready to go, and we sat down to start learning multiplication.

I warmed up his motor skills by giving him some of his beloved long words: “multiplication,” “accelerated addition,” and “mathematical.” I switch to the number board and this followed:

Me:  What’s 4×4?
Cheeks:  (body language reflecting total confidence)  [points to 1, then 6 on the board]
Me: (thinks to self “What the…? Must have been an easy one for him.”)  OK, what’s 7×5?
Cheeks: [points to 3, then 5]
Me:  (???????)  What’s 9×9?!
Cheeks: (looks at me as if I have three heads)  [points to 8, then 1]
Me:  ~laughs like a giddy little girl~
Cheeks: Can I be all done now?
Me: (still giggling)  Yes buddy, you can be all done. You’ve earned the day off. I’m sorry I didn’t understand when you said you already knew all this.

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Me, after realizing I didn’t have to teach him.

It felt a little like that moment in the Scooby Doo cartoons when the characters say, “Let’s see who you REALLY are” before pulling off the ghost’s mask to find Old Man Jenkins up to a nefarious scheme.

I have never been so happy about the massive waste of my time all that lesson planning turned out to be. And I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. I am being reminded every day of how much he does know, and after all, he told me he knew this too. I just thought since it had never been expressly taught to him, how could he know it? There should be a name for how a person feels when they are both surprised but not surprised. Maybe I will ask Cheeks what that word is, he’s clearly more likely to know it than I am.

In the meantime, I caution those reading this to assume that he’s extra-smart in math simply because he’s autistic. Maybe he is, or maybe he’s not. That assumption is based on stereotypes that have actually inhibited our understanding of him until now, so let’s reject those. Better to presume his competence, provide his tools, and then get out of his way while he shows us who he is.

Come to think of it, that’s pretty much what all parents and teachers should do for their kids, autism or not. Imagine that.

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