Written by Madon Dailey - originally published in the Washington Homeschool Organization's April/May 2014 newsletter and re-posted here with her permission.
My first born arrived with wide-open eyes, smiling lips, and a face that said, “Let’s get this party started.” She skipped crawling and started walking at seven months. Her first words were, “No Mom.” She hated naps and would fight sleep every night. These were my first clues. School officials called her strong-willed, hyperactive, and learning disabled. She was allergic to most food additives and had a host of allergies. By second grade, the family’s “Bossy Pants” had quit learning in school. She struggled to sound out words, and didn’t remember what was read by the end of the page. She would fret, play with her hair, tear up bits of paper, and continually protest that she was too dumb. Parent-Teacher Conferences would be pleasant until they brought out her standardized testing results. Her scores would jump up and down, but always lingered in the bottom half, with a composite of 17%.
So what’s a mother to do? I started teaching her at home, searching for a way to reach the brilliant mind that was there. I knew she was bright because she always had a way of organizing people to get exactly what she wanted before they realized they’d been duped.
Here’s what I’ve learned. It takes more than reading from a book. When curricula claims it’s multisensory, it has to be more than a few activities thrown in on occasion. Like an Olympic athlete training every muscle and every neuron to perform, she needed to have as many senses as possible learning, even while we read. So I’d read a passage, and she’d follow along with her eyes and her fingers. I modeled what I wanted from her. Hear it. See it. Touch it. Walk it. Talk it.
We shortened lesson time to less than thirty minutes per subject per day. We focused on one or two concepts in a lesson. Forget how Columbus discovered the New World. Today we name the three boats. We’d read two or three sentences, then I’d ask questions. “Do trees grow? How do you know? What names do we give to trees at different stages?” It was small steps, immediate review and feedback, then an activity to discover more. “How many different stages can we find in our yard? How will we collect and organize our information?”
I learned that expecting her to sit for thirty minutes was foolish. So we’d read and review for ten minutes. Then do an activity, review, re-read, and talk about what we’d learned today. It was very important for her to verbalize what she’d learned. She could tell people “I learned that…” and feel good about herself. We’d use all of our senses to observe. Granted, she thought I was crazy when I asked her to rub elbows with a tree. But it was a new perspective, a way to realize we don’t always touch with our fingers. It’s okay to feel a rock with your teeth, to decide if it’s sandstone or not.
She wanted to know big words so expanding her vocabulary to include the actual terms increased her self-esteem. She’d love to say, “Do you want transparent, translucent, or opaque to drink with lunch?” This seemed much more powerful, and more true to her “Bossy Pants” nature than asking, “Water, juice, or milk?”
Structure was important. While I could have let her choose the topics, then we’d be on a continuous cycle of “Cats” or “Princesses.” So I chose the topics and tied one to the next so she could feel her learning and growth. New topics would pull in terms and concepts from before, and she’d have those “aha” moments when it all came together and fit into a larger picture. For example, not only do people have a circulatory system but so do insects and plants. So that leads us to the question, what’s a way to know if an object is living or non-living?
Another part of structure that was important was having a written manual or set of directions. If I just lectured, she’d doubt everything and argue. It was back to, “No Mom, that’s not right.” But with a teacher’s manual that had the lesson written out with instructions, she would relinquish control and be happy to learn. It was also a lot easier to remember where we left off if I had to answer the door or break for lunch. Activities needed to be tied directly to the concepts in the lessons. Making a vinegar and baking soda volcano erupt foam all over the kitchen was great fun. But what did we learn? If the activity was more for show than substance, she’d call “No Mom” every time.
We involved art as part of the observation and documentation. She’d groan and pout if asked to write a paragraph. But she was happy to illustrate the concept, our procedure, what she observed, and how she learned. Of course, this also opened up both sides of the brain, putting that “Whole Brain – Right/Left Integration Theory” into practice. Just another sneaky thing parents do to help learning. For her, it was fun. She was also ready to label and use her new vocabulary when it was just a few words or a sentence.
So how did the saga end? She will always have more energy than most. Now it’s channeled into community projects, marathons, and sports. She loves to read and remembers almost everything. She likes to cook because there is a recipe with written directions. Give her a structure, template, or instructions and she will conquer any task. The labels are gone. She knows how to learn, what works for her, and she has the confidence to love herself.