Friday, August 27, 2010

Reading in My Family of Origin and Our Homeschooling Decision

My mother has severe dyslexia, diagnosed in school. School was a struggle for her and she was happy when she graduated from high school because the learning was a struggle and the bullying due to her learning difficulties was brutal. I knew this growing up and other than my own personal experience this was a perspective I was aware of and that I viewed school through. I knew some of my peers struggled in school and I had empathy for them. I was bored in school and felt it could be better and different and I hated some of it, especially the emphasis on short term memorization and testing only to move quickly onto the next topic and forget what we just finished.

My mother read books aloud to my brother and I before we learned to read. She read a few Judy Blume novels before giving them to me to read and since that day she has not read a single book of fiction.

My father hated school from day one. He should have been held back a year as Connecticut's public school start date says to enroll in September if the child turns five by December 31. So my father was aged 4 and 8 months at the start of Kindergarten and he was flagged immediately as being behind in everything and being behind developmentally. He was NOT behind developmentally by age but by grade only. I know this for certain as I have the paperwork from the teacher stating his struggles. Based on his writings and drawings he seemed to be developmentally normal to me for his AGE. My grandmother was so upset she paid for him to be tested at Yale's Gesell Institute and that result was basically he was on target developmentally (but not explicitly stated he started school too early and the goals were too high for him). She should have held him back a year but didn't due to the social stigma and the fact that the teacher didn't push it (I think that was hardly ever done in the 1940s).

My father is a hands on learner and has a problem solving mind geared toward fixing mechanical things. My father dropped out of high school, something he was ashamed of in part as he lied to us about that fact. I myself discovered this through research when I was a teenager. I was told he didn't have his high school yearbook. I wanted to see his senior year picture and his yearbook so one day at lunch at high school I went to the library and asked to see the yearbook for his graduating year. He was absent. I tracked him back to his sophomore year only.

I confronted him that night and was told yes he did drop out in his junior year as he'd always hated school and didn't see the point. He wanted to be working in the real world at a real job and making money and living an adult life. He dropped out and enrolled into community college nights while working days and still living at home. He took some basic courses like English 100 and then he quit community college. He said he lied to us as he wanted to inspire us to graduate from high school and not use his example to give up and quit as he did. He felt graduating from high school was what he wanted for his children. (He was not supportive of us attending college much at all but that's another story.)

My father has not read a book since quitting high school. He has not subscribed to a magazine since he was a teenager (he used to read Popular Mechanics). He reads the city newspaper every single night cover to cover except he skips the sports section as he could care less. He is a slow reader. He says he has no desire to read fiction.

My father is an autodidact. He learns what he wants to know. He used the PBS TV show "This Old House" to teach him many techniques for fixing houses and repairing things. He learned other things from people he knew and by doing them. He renovated our entire house one room at a time nights and weekends after working at his day job. None of his learning was from books or reading it was largely by trial and error and by creative problem solving thinking.

Money was tight for our family growing up and my father is not just thrifty or frugal, he is cheap to the point of ridiculousness. My mother was given a small allowance to spend as she wanted and she spent it buying my brother and me new picture books then later, chapter books. We were frequent customers at the used book store one town over and we swapped back the already read books for new ones almost weekly. We also went to the public library together. Despite her struggle to read she encouraged a love of learning in us.

I was allowed to read anything and everything. There was no censorship in my home. My mother was happy I was reading. With that said the stuff I read as a middle grade reader was good wholesome stuff and some of the crap that is on the market today for young kids was just not available. I read all of the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew then I was sick of series mysteries. I read Laura Ingalls Wilder and Lois Lenski and Scott O'Dell and Jean Craighead George and many other books. I bought books from Scholastic through school. Then I was onto Judy Blume. I'm not sure if I was in 8th or 9th grade when I'd moved on to adult fiction. I know in 8th grade I read the popular biography of Jim Morrison and in 9th grade I was onto Stephen King. I also was reading Jackie Collins and some other adult beach read gossip type books for adults. I came out unharmed and not living the values expressed in those books. My mother was so happy that I was a bookworm. I am glad she instilled a love of reading in me despite her personal struggles.

Sadly my brother struggled to read as my mother did. He really was not reading with ease until grade four. I will not share all the details of how it affected him as they are too personal, but you'd be horrified to hear the abuse and humiliation he endured at the hands of one particular teacher in second grade. She ridiculed him in front of the other students when she made each student stand in front of the class to read aloud. To this day he is a slow and deliberate reader who will only read what is really worth his time and energy, that is mostly nonfiction to teach himself things he wants to know when no one he knows can teach it to him by talking or seeing. He is not against reading but chooses not to read much as it is just too hard and takes so long. He reads magazines on nonfiction topics of his hobby passions and watches documentaries. He also talks to other people and learns from them through discussion or doing activities together.

My brother was never tested or diagnosed with any learning disability as in our public school in the 1970s hardly anyone was ever tested or received special education. Even when I graduated in the mid-1980s the only kids in special education were mentally retarded (a common phrase back then), some with Down's Syndrome. The kids who left the class for special instruction in reading or math could be counted on one hand out of a class of 250.

Looking into my family tree farther shows varying abilities to learn at academic school work and with reading. On both sides of the family it seems to be two polar opposites. Either the person is a good school type learner who thrived in school and is a bookworm and a lifelong reader or they hated school, struggled there, quit or barely graduated and hardly ever reads as an adult.

Among the grandparents that were living when I was growing up I had a non-reading great grandmother (gossip rags and city newspaper only), her daughter was a nonreader (newspaper) and her husband/my grandfather was a nonreader (just the newspaper). My other grandmother was a lover of fiction reading and devoured books for pleasure. She read technical manuals for doctors, to learn more about her career, a technical field of limited scope in a hospital, so she was an autodidact when she wanted and needed to learn something. She also read field guides to identify birds and plants and read about herbal medicine.

Not every person is a reader as an adult, that's just a fact. Some of the hardly-ever-readers have learned to adapt by learning through talking to wise people or watching how they do their work, or through watching television documentaries or by trial and error in the real world. Some of them seem mechanically gifted and have special abilities for visual-spatial thinking. Some of them are artistic and creative people who use those talents as hobbies only (sadly) and are passionate and intense about their "hobbies".

I note those I know like this are living a bit more in their own world, their lives are centered more around their own lives not really thinking much about society and culture as a whole, they have more myopic lenses and live for themselves and don't think about everyone else much. I mean, they spend more time at home doing their thing and they are not really social people and not involved in the community, not doing volunteer work and such.

The readers who did well in school live more cerebral lives, living in their head more, thinking about things more. They stay more on top of current events, feel they are more vital to things like thinking their vote in a political election actually matters and they may even volunteer to help their candidate of choice, if not run for office themselves. These people are sometimes more outgoing or outward focused, knowing both themselves and how they fit into the community around them. Some readers are autodidacts and nonfiction readers. Other readers are busy working and doing things but not reading about those, but read a ton of fiction books. Their reading may also focus on current events (the newspaper or news magazines or magazines for women, fashion, or those focusing on celebrities). Certain people are into celebrities and fashion and makeup and so forth, that's a personality thing that affects their reading life as well.

I do feel that some of the struggling readers may have learning challenges or learning disabilities, some which, if identified correctly, can be cured by changing the method of instruction. Other times the student must learn adaptive techniques to cope to get through the material and to study in special ways in order to learn the way the schools or our society requires.

I shudder to think of a child or even a now-adult who has a learning problem but was never identified and thinks they are just stupid or incapable of learning. To see kids and adults who have fallen through the cracks drives me crazy. This is why I cannot become a school teacher. I would go insane and be miserable being confronted daily with either kids not getting the individualized instruction they need or kids hurting due to past experiences of feeling or being told they are defective.

I am too sensitive to handle seeing so much of that on a daily basis. As it is, in my volunteer work with Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts it pains me to see boys who clearly have learning issues and to know they are not being addressed. I see potential in children and to know that the adults in their lives are failing them, and to watch them struggle do read or write or do math, or to see them treated differently by their peers pains me. Worse still is seeing parents who fail to be advocates for their children.

I think the only kind of teacher I could ever be is one at a private school specifically for kids with special needs. I'd need to feel I was part of a system that works and goes above and beyond to help children realize their potential. I would work best with kids who on a path to success knowing they have challenges but who are willing to do the work it takes to realize their goals. It would feel good to know the work I was doing was effective. It would be icing on the cake to know the parents care enough about their kids to take special measures to enroll them in a special school. I'd love to feel I had an equally committed partner in the student's parents and would welcome their advocacy.


I am thinking about this today as I'm thinking about planning our upcoming homeschool academic year, thinking about college goals for my sons, thinking about schooling versus what it means to be educated. I'm thinking of all the different ways people learn and how our culture still is stuck in a "one right way" mindset and seeks to push everyone to college.

I heard a couple of stories this week about the lack of skilled trade workers, from workers doing a big heating and plumbing job in my home. We need all kinds of people in our society and we should help each child realize their potential and use their natural gifts and talents to use in their adult lives.

My decision to homeschool was based in part on what I have shared with you today about my family. I have seen adults who I know and love live adult lives of happiness or success, and sometimes struggle and dealing with feelings of low self-esteem due to what happened to them in school. Despite the fact that I'm a bookworm and I love reading, and that I want all kids reading, the fact is that not all adults are readers and maybe that's not a bad thing after all? Or perhaps it's not ideal that some kids fell through the cracks on reading instruction but not all suffered for it, some do, but not all of them. Even the kids who did learn to read and did fine in school somehow wind up not being readers as adults, I have no explanation for that.

I know that people are different and have different abilities. The "one right way" of schooling in America, sadly points out deficits in some kids but ignores their strengths. If a person lets themselves be defined by the failure label or the "defective" label it can have life-long negative effects on a person.

I have wanted my children to have a customized education tailored to them uniquely. I want to both emphasize their strengths but also to know their weaknesses and to address those in a gentle and appropriate way. I wanted their schooling to be a blend of the most minimal to get the thing learned (cutting out the busy work and nonsense) and spend more time learning some things that are either their own interest or good stuff not taught in schools in that grade, or to teach more deeply than the schools determined was necessary.

I have been looking into dyslexia more and believe my older son may have it but that's a long story for another day. So far it looks like the reading method I used to teach him is the ideal for dyslexics so we may have avoided the issue of him being a late reader or a barely-reader by using both a best method of instruction combined with gentle learning in a positive environment in a one on one tutor setting, thanks to homeschooling (and never having been flagged as being a problem or flawed person). He has many other symptoms of dyslexia though, that are making learning a struggle for him now. He has just completed a week in the Davis Dyslexia program. I will share more about all this in the near future.

I am so grateful for the freedom we have in America and in my state of Connecticut to homeschool my children. I am happy to be able to be home to raise my own children (but if I were not I'd move mountains and pinch pennies to do whatever it took to continue to be a single income family with my husband as the breadwinner).

Mothering is the most important job in the world, it's the hardest and there is no monetary reward either.

I feel that homeschooling is both rewarding and difficult; it changes as the children grow and go through various developmental stages. The family dynamic shifts as the years go on and especially when puberty hits. I personally have sacrificed various things in order to homeschool my kids but I'd not have it any other way.

The hardest parts of homeschooling (some would call these cons) have to do with me and how I react or adapt to the situation. I try not to whine about it in a "woe is me" way as I am in control of my decision to homeschool. (It was my husband's idea and he is fully on board but if I change my mind about homeschooling, that's it, we're done.)

I mostly take the struggles and challenges in stride and consider these growth opportunities for me. I'm taking responsibility and tackling the problems as they come. Sometimes I don't want to deal with an issue but I have to because it's my responsibility and if I don't handle it, no one will, as it's my job!

I sometimes am rocketed out of a comfort zone into a place where I need to learn and grow and change to continue to make it work. It's not always easy and I don't always have the answers but it sure keeps life interesting and I'm never bored, that's for sure.

Homeschooling is about my children getting a good, unique education that will prepare them for their future. Homeschooling is not about me doing this thing for self-entertainment or something to do. The minute it becomes more focused on me and not my kids is also the day I quit homeschooling.


Mama Burke said...

"The minute it becomes more focused on me and not my kids is also the day I quit homeschooling."

I think that may become my new motto. It's a good thing to remember when I'm having a hard time keeping things in perspective.

christinemm said...

Mama Burke thanks for your note. I am thrilled that you read through over 3000 of my words and loved the last sentence most of all.

I thought with such a long post that maybe no one would read it, to be honest!

Honestly sometimes long stories like this really don't translate well to the recommndation that bloggers keep their posts to 200-300 words. How can one tell a long story crammed into under 300 words?

Danielle said...

I recently started subscribing to your blog and read your post. This is my first year homeschooling my two sons (6 and 7) and the first few days have been enjoyable for me. Two points in your post that struck me were about the impact our education system has on the child's self and your point about readers. Recently I took my boys to the bookstore to find interesting books for them to read (not what they had last year in public). Transformer chapter books and Choose Your Own Adventure books are what we ended up with. My youngest son is not a big reader or workbook kid and he's proving this to me everyday. It's a challenge to find new ways to get him interested in journal writing, mathematics on paper, etc. I'm moving more toward Montessoris' approach using sensory materials with him, less structured. I'm not going to force him to be a reader, I don't feel like pushing him to read, when like you said, our world needs all kinds. My older son loves to read, it's natural to him and I'm going to encourage him. It pains me to know that we turn a blind eye to how generic our system is and how that affects our children. Reader or not, their self worth should always be high and this is what I'm trying to ensure.

Thanks for taking time to share, it's what I needed to read today, Danielle

christinemm said...

Hi Danielle, Thanks for leaving your thoughts.

Have you checked out Math U See for math? They sell via web and distributor at HS conferences. I can't recommend it highly enough. Hands on math with manipulatives, not time intensive, not time wasting.

Second read aloud to your kids at above their reading level, good stuff, not fluff intended for kids to read to increase fluency. Read books aloud that they will love and realize reading is worthwhile.

Enjoy your days with your young kids. Things change when they hit the tweens and early teen puberty times!

TVIKrissy said...


I just read your post and want to thank you! Because of your comments on MathUsee, I just ordered it. This is my first year homeschooling both my boys, ages 9&11. I've done an assessment for my older son with AppliedScholasticOnline where they use the study technology method. Have you heard of it? I didn't do that for my younger son, however. Do you have any other programs you enjoy that you could pass along a review for? There were many blogs, but I read yours, and now I know why :)

Thank you again,