Friday, October 16, 2009

Part 2: Series: My Experience With and Theories About Learning Styles

Part 2: Kindergarten for My Oldest Child

When homeschool Kindergarten began for my oldest child I was still unschooling. I should note for anyone who is curious about ages, my son was just 5 years and two weeks old when Kindergarten began. In my geographic area it is now common for boys to be held back a year ("red shirted", they call it) in hopes that they will be developmentally ready to learn or sit still. I didn’t red shirt my son. Actually since we homeschooled I didn’t care much for labels of grades (but would later realize that to do anything like Scouts or even homeschool classes he had to have a grade number assigned to him).

I was worried about teaching reading because it was such a big topic in America. Reading is said to be so important for young children to be able to do. Preschools do pre-reading activities starting at very young ages. Toys are sold with phonics sounds and given to one and two year old’s. So many reading aids are sold to parents of schooled kids. Tutor companies cater to kids who cannot learn to read in school. I had a fear that I’d not be able to teach my child to read. This fear was furthered by the debates over phonics vs. sight reading. I also wanted to teach my son to read in Kindergarten to get everyone off my back: friends, neighbors, and relatives. You see in those early days I was still hearing opposition to our decision to homeschool. Even loving relatives didn't know if I should be entrusted with the education of our children (since I was not a certified school teacher).

My mother was taught to read using sight word methods and was labeled dyslexic in public school. She graduated high school with terrible self-esteem about this and rarely reads anything. The exception is she has read very dry technical books which I feel are difficult reading level if it is a topic she is highly interested in, and she does understand it and applies the content in real life. She has taught herself things from books written by and for gemologists about precious stones, how to propagate and cross breed African Violet plants and show them to win prizes as well as teaching herself difficult handcrafts like custom designing and making stained glass windows.  She thinks she is stupid and unteachable. When she sees a Dick and Jane reader she becomes quickly angry as she has so many bad feelings about her experience with those books!

My father was also taught with sight reading methods in school and supplemented at home with sight reading flash cards (which I know own) and he began Kindergarten when aged four years, nine months (Connecticut allows this) and mind you that was in the 1940s before anything such as preschool ever existed for 'Kindergarten readiness prep'. He was flagged in Kindergarten as not being on track developmentally as his penmanship was poor (looks normal to me, I saw all of his saved school papers!) My grandmother was so freaked out she brought him to Yale for an evaluation at the famous Geselle Institute child development center! I have a copy of this report. My father didn’t think he was good at school, did not enjoy it, and dropped out of high school in order to ‘live in the real world’ and to 'be an adult'. Later he earned his GED and took a few night college courses. He is still happy with his decision to drop out. He reads the city newspaper daily but has not read a single book since high school in the 1960s. In case you're wondering he is of the hippie generation but was definatly not a hippie. He worked hard at his jobs and conceived a child when he was 21 (with me) and went on to get married and became a family man.

(In case you are curious, as to my parent's view of education they felt children should use public school since their taxes paid for it. "Get our money's worth!". They left the education of me and my brother to the school. I recall being helped with homework in grades four and under but after that I was on my own. My parents were what the schools would now call "hands off" or "uninvolved". Honestly we never spoke of education or the importance of learning. We were just told "do your homework as the teacher says to do it". And we earned a few dollars for A grades on our report cards.)

Besides my thoughts on what outsiders thought of our Kindergarten year and on learning to read, I put the pressure on myself to teach my child to read in his Kindergarten year. I was trying to keep up with the public school schedule even though my state’s homeschool laws are not detailed (they don’t say what must be learned or taught in what grade). I decided that if I could teach him to read which Americans think is such a hard thing to do, that I could teach my kids anything in homeschooling. I figured if I failed at teaching them to read then I’d fail at homeschooling so was prepared to give it up.

My son had every single reading readiness sign that exists in the check lists. Yet with phonics or sight reading methods he could not learn to read. He even found it a struggle to learn the names of the letters of the alphabet at first, finally mastering that either shortly before Kindergarten or in the beginning of Kindergarten. When he knew the sounds it was an effort to blend them together /c/-/a/-/t/ was dragged out and not easily said as ‘cat’. I kept teaching him to read then would give up and shelve the program for a couple of months then retry it again. I first blamed the curriculum so kept shopping for another product. I amassed a collection of phonics reading programs. There was no magic bullet. Hard work in short lessons on a regular basis is what worked. The motto could have been Nike's "Just Do It".

I looked into a program that was largely sight reading based but did not like the guessing games and wanted my son to decode the word not say a word based on an illustration on the page. It was “Teach Your Child to Read With Children’s Books”. Plus that didn’t work either.

Finally in the late winter of his Kindergarten year my son was able to learn phonics. It was, to me, slow and grueling. Lessons lasted generally 5-10 minutes (trying for 10) but I tried to stop the lesson before any frustration erupted. My son did not like the lessons and just wanted to keep playing. But he played all day long so I felt strongly that 5-10 minutes of a lesson that I wanted him to do was perfectly reasonable to ask of him. The phonics program that worked in the end was “Alpha Phonics” by Sam Blumenfeld.

Actually at that time I began to worry about my parenting style. I used attachment parenting and he did have limits. He was a well behaved boy and we had a harmonious family life. He would do what I said. He didn’t do ‘bad things’. He didn’t cause trouble. He’d make reasonable requests and I would agree. We did not use pain infliction punishment methods (i.e. spanking or slapping) nor did I use “violent” communication tactics like shaming, belittling or mean talking to induce shame. The word ‘no’ was not used much in this home, not because he was a demanding brat that got what he wanted but because he was a reasonable kid and didn’t make requests for things that I should deny. Such as we didn’t keep candy in the house as we were trying to eat healthfully so we never battled about having ‘just one more piece of candy’.

My son had a good life. He had lots of toys and we did fun things as a family. He was used to having an enjoyable life. So when he refused to sit and do phonics I was actually hurt. I didn’t ask him to do much that he didn’t want to do so I wanted him to not argue about doing phonics for 5-10 minutes 4-5 times a week. He resisted though. I worried that perhaps I over-indulged him or let him think that life was all about fun and games so now that something took effort to learn he was not willing to do it.

It didn’t help when I read Christian homeschoolers discuss defiance of authority and that children who battle their parents are sinning by breaking one of the Ten Commandments. Some Christians have pointed to attachment parenting and gentle discipline as creating monsters, and a monster is what some would have labeled my ‘defiant’ son based only on our exchanges about doing the phonics lessons (the behavior was not present any other time). In the end I stuck to doing what felt right in my heart and it has turned out well. My son is now twelve and is a really nice kid. I’ve received many compliments on my son behaving well and being a friendly, likeable person. He does not have an angry heart. I feel that a good amount of bad behavior or poor attitudes in children is due to having an angry heart (whether imposed by things done to them by parents, peers, or others in their life).

About learning styles, before that Kindergarten year I discovered a book written by two school teachers on the topic “Discover Your Child’s Learning Style”. They said how schools have not kept up to date with new research and information learned about learning styles. They blamed children not learning on ineffective teaching. They argued that now that more is known about learning, developmental stages and brain biology that teachers should be more flexible with their teaching methods or the timing. I did the tests in and found them helpful to a point. The book was not written for homeschoolers (even at this point in time none exists) that shows exactly what curriculums work with that style or modality and none give details about teaching methods. Honestly a book could be written by a homeschooling parent for homeschooling parents that contains detailed information about teaching techniques and curriculum and product choices.

So I believed at that time, that learning styles could help in some way. I did not obsess over learning styles or claim they are a cure all for everything.

The last thing I’ll share in this segment is that by the spring of Kindergarten my son was no longer happy with wide open days of no structure. He wanted some structure to learning, to know what was coming next, to have a plan in place. I looked again at the classical method (a la the book “The Well Trained Mind” which was given to me as a gift from a veteran successful homeschooling family) but it didn’t seem a best fit for us at that time. I began to research the Charlotte Mason method after hearing a happy homeschooling mother praise the method. I read “A Charlotte Mason Companion” by Karen Andreola. I began to use Charlotte Mason methods slowly and by the beginning of grade one we were a full fledged Charlotte Mason family doing short lessons. The rest of our days were more learner-driven like unschooling, which I still liked very much but felt it didn’t mesh well with my son.

So regarding reading, we were doing phonics instruction regularly at the end of Kindergarten, broke for the summer, then resumed using it in September of his grade one year. He finished the program and was reading well in my opinion.

I felt that kids of that age needed open ended time for playing. I didn’t want homeschooling lessons to be long and drawn out. I wanted plenty of time for my child to play. I provided him with good toys that allow for the use of his imagination. He loved to play on his own (and with his brother) and he thrived when given a whole afternoon of playing at whatever he wanted. Back then the major focus was still on playing with wooden train sets, building elaborate layouts and he was just starting to play with LEGO and a little with K’Nex. He played board games like (adult) Monopoly and Parcheesi and some card games. He played no video games but did fool around with some educational computer software games (which I felt taught him little). He loved doing open ended art projects and doing crafts. At that point we were doing arts and crafts every single day usually for about two hours.

At that point in my homeschooling experience I felt what was most integral was the developmental stages of my young child, more than learning styles. I felt that if a child was taught when they were ready to be taught the learning would come fast and easy. I felt that pushing formal academics on a too-young child was a waste of time for everyone and stress-inducing for the child. I wanted my kids to be kids and felt there was a lot of time in the future for more strict, formal academic lessons. I was also still in the mindset that almost all learning could be made fun if the teacher was creative and flexible enough but already knew from real life experience that no matter how hard the teacher tries some things that the learner cannot learn easily just has to be tolerated and “gotten through”. I hoped to not force too much onto my children that was difficult, but recognized that something as vital as reading was non-negotiable.

The last thing I'll share is that those times were some of the happiest in our family. I really enjoyed my young children. I loved being with them. I felt I was doing important work by being an at-home mother. I enjoyed homeschooling despite the reading struggle. I did not resent my younger son for being a normal toddler. I found ways to keep my toddler happy while finding time to have uninterrupted time with my older son. We had a lot of fun and laughs back then. I regret nothing about those years and the unschooling method we used for so many years. We had a happy family and in those times no problems were yet present (no Cancer of our parents yet, no unemployment, no deaths in the family etc.). Those were good times!

Books I Read That Were Mentioned in This Post

Attachment Parenting related books by Dr. William Sears--

Dr. Sear's parenting book for Christians which is the attachment parenting method in keeping with Scriptures---

1 comment:

Crimson Wife said...

It's been my observation that there's often a 1.5-2.5 year lag time between when a child learns his/her letters & letter sounds and when he/she figures out how to decode words phonetically.

My oldest could say "/c/ /a/ /t/" by 18 months but it wasn't until she was 3 3/4 before the light bulb went off & she could put the sounds together to make "cat". I've noticed a similar gap in other kids of my acquaintance.