Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Breaking the code of learning...

Week five of the homeschool adventure, and there are some clear patterns emerging. I'm learning about learning while watching Billy learn.

Scruffy, from his position at my feet, is learning that humans spend their time doing some really odd stuff.

Here's a summary of what he may have observed me learning.

1. The more trivial the goal, the easier the learning
If I spend ten minutes saying 'add 2 and 2'. See 1,2 plus 1,2... what does that equal? Two apples, add two apples, how many apples have you got now? Two blocks and another two blocks, how many blocks is that? Billy will slump, yawn, giggle, look around, squirm around on his squishy sitting cushion, stare lovingly at the computer and ask if cheetahs hunt gazelles.

If I set a timer and present Billy with a number sentence 2+2=? He will answer the question correctly in under ten seconds, while staring excitedly at the timer.

Why? If we take the pressure off the cognitive process and place it elsewhere, the cognitive process becomes easy. Or my son is oddly empowered by timers. Could go either way.

2. Turn down the noise
Though our whole lives are lived by this maxim, there's a figurative side to it too. A page full of numbers and letters is just that - a random, meaningless collection of symbols. In his gigglier moments, Billy tells me things move around on the page and, to be honest, I don't want to contemplate what that means. It scares me like the times he tells me he sees 'fireflies' in his field of vision. Any neurologists out there, feel free to weigh in on that one.

I have a plastic folder full of pieces of coloured cardboard and paper. They are cut into various sizes, some with windows, some L shaped and some N shaped and some H shaped. I use them to either block out the information on the page that we are not working on right now, or to focus Billy's attention on the spot he needs to be writing. The added bonus is that I can also make the windows in the shapes smaller and smaller. Did I mention that Billy's natural handwriting is the size of your average elephant footprint? We're working on bringing it down to a koala paw at least.

3. Recording brings out the inner chatterbox
Billy has, in his lifetime, gone entire days without speaking a word to anyone but us. On these days, even we only get a select few pointed communications, usually related to trains and snacks. The combination of his easy going temperament and extreme sensory processing disorder makes for a generally minimal level of verbal communication.

So, when I realised Distance Education required a fair number of recordings be made and sent back to his teacher, I was worried. I'm thinking, he's going to clam up and say nothing when he has to do 'news' and reflections on maths (lord knows, I've got very few positive reflections on maths, even on a talkative day...) Once Billy worked out the technology, and heard the sound of his own voice on the computer a few times, we were in for a surprise.

We can't shut him up. Nor can we pull him away from the front of the camera, or dissuade him from 'performing' whenever he thinks the video camera might be useful to document his learning journey. With an electronic audience, all the communication compromises disappear.

4. 'Writing' is a relative concept
Billy has to complete two journals every fortnight. I asked if one could be typed, because handwriting for Billy may as well be renamed 'marathon running while memorising the encyclopeadia'. This was fine by his teacher.

I'm still not sure what she's thinking about the first four weeks work from Billy on her desk. The handwritten journals consist of two skeletal sentences. Those took maybe thirty minutes each to complete, and bear the stains of sweat, procrastination and chocolate bribery. The typed journals were done and dusted in ten minutes, and are a couple of paragraphs each. They contain descriptions, jokes, information and the odd line of dialogue.

Why is handwriting so hard for so many kids on the spectrum? There must be Phds out there on this stuff.

5. Everything has a smily face
I'm not sure if all school is the same, but the NSW Grade Two curriculum demands an awful lot of pictures. Draw a picture of yourself measuring the mass of two objects. Draw a picture for every letter of the alphabet. Draw yourself drawing a picture. It's like the Old Spice man sketching.

Billy's not a natural with a pencil in his hand at the best of times, but... every single picture he draws has a smily face. Him on a scooter - smiley (him and the scooter). Him measuring the mass of a stapler and a teddy - smiley (him, the teddy and the stapler). Him drawing - smiley (him, the drawing and his pencil).

I have to say, despite all his challenges, and the exhaustion of processing the vast volume of school work (and art work) he has now, the smily faces endure. And they make me smile.

Last but not least...

6. Chocolate is a potent teaching tool.
Think about it. It's bribery. It's reward. It's distraction. It's mental health for me. Only downside? It's poison for the dog. He's not thrilled with the new currency in our house. He'd prefer dried kangaroo.

I've said it before and I'll say it again... teachers are very special people. I am not one of them. I knew once I did the first prac on my teaching degree way back in the 90s and people called me Miss Foley. It made me shudder. Now that I'm homeschooling, I know for sure I am not a natural teacher. It is hard graft, and I only have one student who I know very, very well.

I can only dribble absent-mindedly when I contemplate the job that teachers of children on the spectrum do every day, for minimal pay. It is impossibly, frustratingly difficult. The modern curriculum provides a lot of multi-modal, many-perspective learning. The average autistic child (and my kid is obviously exceptional at being autistic) generally needs just one doorway into understanding. Problem is, it might be the tenth of eleven modes. As his supervisor, I grit my teeth through all the brick walls, hoping against hope that the next one will be the one that morphs into something resembling sense.

It's not about capability. It's not about understanding. It's about conceptual clarity - the prism of autism docking with the portal of information.

And the caffeine of the chocolate releasing the motivation endorphins of the humans (while avoiding the jaws of the dog).

Easy, really. If you are an Enigma codebreaker.


Sue Davis said...

Bravo for you & Billy. The handwriting thing is major isn't it!? Seven years of struggling with it and our boy will still do anything to avoid it and spelling is a constant guessing game. We try things hoping for a magic bullet but it remains elusive !!

Dana Meijler said...

It sounds to me that despite not having what you term a natural born teacher and Billy's challenges that you both are doing great! Just to put things into perspective, my daughter Maya is 7 (so in neurotypical terms she should be in 2nd grade) and writing two sentences would be a dream come true for her. She is still tracing letters.

I am also interested to know why writing is so difficult for many spectrum kids? Maya is an expert on the iPhone keyboard, maybe I should just let her type all the time.

Great post!

Lisa said...

Love dot points. Will respond!
1. google maths games. Heaps. World Maths Day is awesome.
2. Neuropsych can measure visual processing.
Developmental (or Sports) optometrist finds why eyes may not be focusing in synch (hence brain receiving 2 signals and things appearing to 'move'.
3. Electronics do not have eyes, or distracting moving faces.
4. When was the last time you handwrote more than your signature or a scrappy shopping list? Even schools now (past infants 1-3) put less emphasis on handwritten and accept (or even require) typed.
5. I swear schools use such quantities of drawing/colouring in 1-3 solely because most kids find it enjoyable and easy. Paint, photoshop, powerpoint. Still lots of smileys :)

Yes, I know, all of this 1-3 curriculum stuff is meant to develop fine motor skills.
As an online friend was fond of saying, with our kids you have to separate penmanship from writing.
Penmanship can be worked on through copybook exercises (or whatever), and writing can be produced by typing or voice recording.
If lack of fine motor skill is denying the child access to the curriculum at the appropriate level, then adaptive technology is required. (Dem's edu-speak words).

Ðéví said...

I have enjoyed reading your descriptions of your homeschooling adventures.

One thing that stood out was the letters moving on the page. Have you considered dyslexia? Also, try using coloured paper instead of plain for handwriting, it can be gentler on the eyes. *unless he decides that is not right, of course*

You are an awesome and considerate Mum and I can imagine why your boy draws many smiley faces!