The Highs and Lows of Gifted Parenting: Little Lawyers

I sometimes joke that lawyers should know better than to breed with one another — the inevitable result is highly argumentative children who endlessly negotiate every single point. While it can be fascinating to watch reasoning and logic abilities develop from a young age, and it is sometimes enjoyable to engage in debates on interesting issues, it is probably the aspect of gifted parenting that I find the most challenging.

My husband and I are both lawyers.  We are both logical, rational personality types who are always gathering ideas and information with which to formulate arguments in our own minds (or to deliver as a spontaneous lecture on any topic which might come up, in the case of my husband).  It should have come as no surprise that we would have children who are equally adept at marshaling evidence, recalling prior testimony (i.e. remembering everything you ever said, and using it against you), zeroing in on the key issues, and, more effectively, on the weaknesses of the opponent (generally me).  Not only are they adept, but they surpass my own well-honed litigation skills and leave their opponent (again, me) sounding like a blathering idiot, spewing ad hominem attacks and making emotional responses rather than logical ones.  I’m never ready when the argument hits, despite the fact that this happens innumerable times each day.  There is never time to review my notes, pause to consider the evidence over a court recess, practice my final arguments…or even to take a deep breath.

How did it come to this? They were honestly born that way — I cannot remember a time since they began to speak when they weren’t incredibly strong-willed and verbally precocious.  I imagine there are effective ways to deal with this, although on some level I respect the fact that my kids are so sharp and so willing to stand up for what they believe in (even if it’s just about why they shouldn’t have to go to bed at a particular time).  Any correctional approach that stamps out that spirit might have short-term appeal, but I can’t in good conscience consider it (not that I think it’s really possible to change this sort of nature).  I have read many articles about argumentative children, peaceful parenting, spirited children, etc., but when the time comes to use any strategies I may have read about, they are gone.  Just gone.  The emotional rollercoaster of parenting exceptionally gifted children has seemingly altered my brain.  I am not the capable and in-control person I was before I had children, and I don’t know where she went (hopefully someplace warm and sunny, where they serve margaritas by the pool).

I adore my kids, and I think they have a vast amount of potential.  But I dislike the many inadequacies they bring out in me.  I am used to being gifted myself.  I am used to being good (maybe even the best) at what I do.  I am used to being in control and getting things done my way.  Correction: that is what I used to be used to.  In the last 15 years, I am more used to feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and sorely lacking for the task at hand.

I am envious of the unschoolers — those who place no limits on their kids, and therefore, presumably, don’t face any conflict or arguments (at least, that’s how I imagine their world must be like).  Yet, I can’t entirely yield to that, however easy it might make my life in the short-term.  My need to be somewhat authoritative in my own family, and to set boundaries, prevents me from just letting them rule the roost.

Someday I know they will make me proud with their persuasive verbal skills.  It just may be difficult to applaud them from inside the straight-jacket I will likely be wearing.

How I feel when I’m doing battle with my little lawyers. Photo courtesy of Ann Althouse.

This article is part of the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop.  Please click on this link to enjoy more posts.

Convictions and Conflictions

It’s been years since I’ve blogged, and I’m sorry.  Those cute little kids in the header photo are taller than me now, and have mouths full of braces.  When I started blogging, I was fairly new to homeschooling and felt inspired to share our particular journey.  I had it all figured out and I was keen to share my successes and insights with everyone else who might be heading down this path.  This seems to be the way with a lot of new homeschoolers and bloggers — everyone has advice on how to do this thing which they have only just started doing themselves, despite having no idea how on earth it will all turn out in the end!

That became disconcerting for me, particularly when I went through a long period of homeschooling where I was far less sure of myself and what our outcomes might be.  There were so many days when I just wanted to give up and put my kids back in school, where I could be sure that they were covering what they were “supposed to” and so that I could get a break from all of their intensities.  I stopped blogging because I didn’t want all of you to think that I had all the answers, when I so clearly did not.

We pushed through, however, and here we are.  Still homeschooling.  Still wondering if it was the right decision some days, and still wishing to throw in the towel from time to time.  One year has never looked like the next.  Each child fluctuates between being incredibly frustrating and deeply concerning, to being ever so impressive and awe-inspiring.  Then they switch back — sometimes in a single day.  It’s terribly hard, and it may have taken years off my life.  It’s wonderfully rewarding, and I wouldn’t trade it (except for all the times when I would, indeed, trade it).  See why I stopped blogging?  I haven’t known which end is up for a long time.

My eldest child, SciGuy, is now 15 years old.  Homeschooling has been really good for him, in hindsight.  He has always been a quirky, intellectually-curious kid, and being outside the system has allowed him to thrive.  Our approach with him has been to allow him to take the drivers seat with his learning, certainly up until the past year or so when we needed to start turning our minds to university prerequisites.  With him, my role has been to facilitate his own self-directed learning, to line up courses in areas of interest (or, more recently, that I think he needs), to help keep him on track and bolster his executive functioning skills (as much as he dislikes my involvement), and to keep an eye on the end game and help steer him there.  For him, the end game is to put him in the position where he can get into a science and/or engineering program at university, while still maintaining those qualities that make him most interesting.

Some things he has done over the years include teaching himself how to program and developing a very popular ‘mod’ for Minecraft — it was reviewed favourably by several YouTube personalities and therefore reached millions of people.  He is hoping to invent or program The Next Big Thing, and make enough money to do something really interesting with his life, like Elon Musk, or Bill Gates did.  That’s the plan.  The fallback is to study science and robotics at university, and to that end, he is enrolled in a science class at our local university this year (while still being considered a high school student).  It is going very well so far, and we are pleased to have had this option.

In addition, he has been taking online courses with Online G3 (which has spawned a nice little community of very bright and keen kids from across the continent and beyond, who get together on Skype to debate, discuss, or just be silly), with Math and Music Studio (taking Calculus this year), and with Lukeion.  He loves his online courses.  He also has local native-speaking teachers in Spanish and German, which he is enjoying learning.

BioBoy is now 13 years old, and continues to be inspired by the natural world.  He has become a recognized young birder and naturalist, and has a vast knowledge of ornithology, herpetology and other related studies.  Homeschooling has allowed him to pursue his passions without negative judgment (something he is increasingly conscious of, whether it exists or not), to run around outside as needed to satisfy his boundless psychomotor overexcitabilities, and to find novel and somewhat more inspiring ways to learn things with which he would rather not bother (basically, everything other than nature and biology).

Together, they have gone twice to the Global Finals with their Destination Imagination team, which I have enjoyed (and sometimes hated) coaching.  We have also been running a bi-weekly teen learning and social group at our home, which has been a wonderful way to solidify local homeschooling friendships.

I will probably continue to keep fairly silent with this blog, for the same reasons that I went quiet in the first place.  I am not sharing with you the things that have frustrated me about homeschooling, or my children, because they are teenagers who are entitled to privacy and respect.  (Of course, they were entitled to it when they were little, too, but as with most bloggers, we become more acutely aware of this when they grow old enough to read what their parents write about them!)

We will probably continue to homeschool, at the end of which I will be both greatly relieved and terribly saddened.  Those feelings, which likely all parents experience to some degree, seem magnified for the homeschooling parent who bears such a monumental responsibility for their kids’ success, and feels such deflation and undoing when things hit a rut.

So, soldier on homeschooling parents.  We will all stumble through this and find, in the end, that in spite of the ups and downs and the daily grinds and struggles, we have nurtured pretty amazing young adults.  Of this, I am absolutely certain.

The Type-A Homeschooler

We’ve all heard this comment when people find out we’re homeschoolers:  “I could never do that.  I don’t have the patience.”  Sometimes I just smile modestly, leaving the commenter to believe that I have some divine gift of unlimited patience that allows me to enjoy the company of my delightful offspring without the respite offered to normal families with the daily arrival of the school bus. 

Sometimes, especially if it’s someone who actually knows me, I have to ‘fess up:  I have been called many things, but ‘patient’ has never been one of them.  I’m generally pretty intense, opinionated, aggressive and assertive.   In my past life as a lawyer, I thrived on deadlines and demands and believed I could out-work anyone.  I always set the bar high for myself and had goals to work towards.  I wasn’t terribly patient with others, and I most certainly wasn’t patient with myself.  I also needed to be in charge and fully in control of my life at all times. 

When kids arrived, I did manage to morph into a slightly less aggressive and more maternal version of myself, but the underlying traits are still there.  There is no question that the skill set I have is far better suited to a courtroom than to a rarefied example of motherhood. 

It surprises no one more than me, given this state of affairs, that homeschooling has been going as well as it has and that my children are generally happy and flourishing in this environment.  That is not to say that we don’t have days we wish we could start over, or times when I would dearly love to plop them at the threshold of the local school and announce that these kids are someone else’s problem now!

Despite those occasional hiccups, most of our days are pleasant and relaxed.  Yup, pleasant and relaxed.  (Even I had to make sure I read that right!) 

Having kids who are intense, strong-willed, opinionated and assertive (gosh, where’d they get THAT from?) with an incredible internal drive to learn has played a big part in our success, strangely enough.  I simply can’t get away with being a control-freak, or, I’m objective enough to realise, I would completely kill their love of learning and might just as well send them back to school.  Their intensity effectively balances out mine.  Yes, sometimes that intensity, well, intensifies, to the point where you risk electrocution from the bolts of negative energy zapping around our house, but we try to keep that to a minimum.  Even my uber-difficult 8 year old is starting to understand that we have built a profoundly deep, connected, and loving relationship with each other over these last few years of homeschooling, and it’s simply not worth it to get angry with each other over little things (or, if we do, we get over it pretty quickly).

Much of the controlling that is done these days is of my own self.  That’s not to say I don’t have relapses into deep Type-A territory, but I tend to get out of them before too much damage is done.   When I am in control of myself, I do not bark out requirements or make unrealistic demands.  Instead, I find ways of inspiring the kids to do the things that I want them to do.  Our days are always pleasant and relaxed when I can adhere to the “inspire, not require” method of homeschooling.  (More on the Thomas Jefferson Education method in another post – I’m just beginning to explore this.)  Indeed, one thing I can control is my own education and understanding.  I have spent countless hours researching and learning about educational methods, innovations, trends, and failures, as well as how the gifted mind works and what it needs to thrive. 

Another thing I can control is the educational path for my children.  No, I’m not envisioning a particular school or career for them – that’s entirely for them to decide.  I DO know that I want my kids to arrive at the end of their homeschool career firmly entrenched as lifelong learners.  I want them to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, creative thinkers, self-disciplined, innovative, and able to appreciate and understand the beautiful works (literature, art, science, music, etc.) created by humans throughout history.  I want them to be able to make connections across disciplines and draw conclusions as to the kind of world they want to play a part in shaping as they venture into adulthood.

I can control the educational path leading to those goals by providing the kind of learning environment that encourages them to flourish:  surrounding them with great books; inspiring them with learning materials that offer a “profound engagement with the world” (thanks to Michael Clay Thompson for those words of wisdom); giving them time and support to pursue their passions; spending time with them out in nature every day, or as often as possible; encouraging them to make beautiful music; showing them, through discussion and character study, what the best qualities are to be found in a human being; encouraging them to reach those ideals and endeavouring, to the extent possible for a flawed character such as myself, to model those characteristics every day.  

Where my Type-A nature comes in handy is in making sure that I have found the most suitable materials for them, given their interests, abilities and learning styles.  I’m also pretty firm about making sure that they put forth their best efforts at the things they undertake.  While “inspire, not require” is my ideal, that doesn’t mean that nothing is demanded of them.  They have daily chores to accomplish and they are expected to apply themselves to their studies.  I do work with them to set out goals, whether in projects they are undertaking, or in their core subjects, and then try to find ways to make it enjoyable to pursue those goals.  I DO expect my kids to learn certain things, but I want it to be done in a way that excites and inspires them.  Not only will they retain it better, but their love of learning will continue to be preserved.     

If you’ve read this far, Dear Reader, you obviously have the gift of boundless patience.  I wrote this piece to serve as a reminder for myself on those days when I have forgotten who, exactly, needs controlling, and for when I’ve strayed from my homeschooling mission.  I suspect I will be reading it often.

Reigniting the Joy of Learning

Small children have a natural desire to learn.  That’s how they figure out how to walk and talk and do the myriad other things that we adults take for granted.  They are little sponges who soak up knowledge constantly, seeking even more answers with their endless “why” questions.  I think all children are like this, but gifted children are even more inquisitive and curious about the world and their place in it.  For these kids, the need to learn, understand, and make connections is a fundamental need, ranking somewhere up there with breathing.

When they turn school age, we tell them how wonderful it’s going to be at school — they’re going to learn so much!  With their little backpacks and lunch pails in tow, they trundle off excitedly into the world of formal education, only to find that, sadly, their boundless excitement, questions and inquiries really aren’t welcome.  For gifted children, there is often very little to learn that hasn’t been learned already.  Attempts to take their learning in a new direction, or to a higher level, are met with roadblocks by teachers and administrators who are insistent upon uniformity.  The excitement about school quickly wanes and some children begin to associate all learning with the unstimulating stuff of worksheets and busywork that they find in school. 

Sometimes behavioural problems develop, as the child is not having a fundamental need met — the need to have his brain stimulated.  Teachers generally do not seem to understand this about gifted children.  They do not suddenly become gifted at grade 5 when pull-out programming is available.  They are gifted in Kindergarten, they are gifted in grade 3, and they are gifted in grade 5 on all of the other days of the month that “gifted programming” is not available.   Gifted children need to learn and they need meaningful work, not extra sheets of drill designed to keep them quiet at their desks.

As behavioural issues intensify, the gifted child is further marginalized.  Not only are his basic needs not being met, but his self-esteem is being driven into the ground because he is constantly being told that he is a problem.   There is no hope of more meaningful work being provided at any time in the near future, and the work that is put in front of him was mastered years ago.  Any adult would find this situation untenable, yet we expect young children, who haven’t yet mastered their emotions, to simply accept this state of affairs without a whimper, and wonder why they have behavioural issues.

Such is the lot of many children whose parents find themselves becoming “reluctant homeschoolers”.  There simply is no other realistic option for having their gifted child’s needs met, so they take on this daunting role themselves.  Yet, in many cases, the child comes back home already scarred somewhat by his horrible school experiences.  How should a parent help their child to get through this? 

The general consensus from parents who have been there is that children should be given some time to “deschool” — to find their love of learning again and separate the idea of school from learning.   It may take a matter of weeks, or even months, for them to get past their bad experiences, depending on how long they were in school and how much damage was done.

During this period, it is recommended that no formal curriculum be introduced, and, in fact, no routine that looks at all like school be imposed.  This is a time to regain lost ground and bring back that curious child, so flexibility and fun are key.  Days could be spent on enjoyable outings to museums and parks, nature hikes, reading anything they like, playing games, building with Lego, getting lots of hugs from Mom, toodling around on the piano, drawing pictures, or whatever is of interest.

The parent’s job is to have fun alongside their child, give them lots of love and support for who they are, and listen carefully to what they say.  Answer their questions.  Help them research things they are wondering about.  Wonder aloud about some things yourself, then show how you go about finding out more.  Keep notes on things they seem to be interested in, and gradually, and without pressure, start to encourage that interest.  Are they noticing some beautiful birds in the back yard?  Why not get a feeder and a bird identification guide and have fun figuring out what’s there.  Interested in the stars and planets?  See if you can go to an observatory and use the big telescope, and maybe trying photographing Saturn through the lens.   Trips to the library could follow, getting out some books on topics in which the child has begun to express interest. 

Eventually, the old spark will come back and your child will regain his or her love of learning.  Then, if you think it appropriate, you could begin to introduce some required learning, but make the child a partner in that.  Let him express his opinion about what he thinks he’d like to learn and how.  If something isn’t working, it’s okay to change it to something that does work.  In all things, strive to keep the learning meaningful and stimulating.  Your gifted child (and, frankly, ANY child) will be grateful to you.

It has made my heart soar to hear my children thank me for bringing them home and for keeping their love of  learning alive.  As you can read in my previous posts, I am always adapting my approach (from schooly at the outset, to a comfortable balance now), and I expect that will continue.  What works one week or month may need to be changed for the next week or month, but that seems to be par for the course with gifted kids.  It’s worth it though, because when their brains are stimulated, they are happier and easier to get along with.  That child with the bad behaviour at school will likely become a whole new kid at home when he gets to be who he really is.

Changing Education Paradigms

This is the animated version of a thought-provoking talk by education guru, Sir Ken Robinson. It is well worth the 11 or so minutes.

What do you think, Readers? Please consider this an open post — how do YOU think we can foster creative thinking in our children? Is the fact that homeschooled children are not in the “system” enough to preserve their natural curiosity and creativity? 

To get the ball rolling, here are some methods that I think help to facilitate creative thinking:

  • Project-based learning is a great way to give creative control to the learner (assuming that they themselves determine the inquiry and the output.  I’ll talk more about this in my next posts.)
  • Having regular discussions with children about thought-provoking topics (current events, social justice issues, philosophy, etc.) allows them to engage and share their views.
  • Using Socratic method to assess their understanding of a topic, rather than giving them a test, encourages more creative thinking as it lets them demonstrate what they know, yet pushes their knowledge to its limits and perhaps opens up a new line of inquiry that they hadn’t previously considered.
  • When assigning projects (as opposed to letting them design their own), give them a “real-life” problem to solve and see what happens.

None of these things is easy to implement.  Probably all of them require the parent or teacher to step outside of his or her own comfort zone.  There seem to be few resources on the market that encourage this type of approach, meaning there is no crutch for us to lean on.  (There is no “answer key” for Socratic questioning.)  Most approaches require the mentoring parent or teacher to have at least as much knowledge of the topic as the child (which can be very difficult, indeed!).  For these reasons, I am attempting to introduce these elements into our homeschool, with some modest success, but it isn’t easy and I find my own self to be creatively challenged (perhaps a product of my education?).  Yet, listening to Sir Ken, it certainly seems that fostering creativity is absolutely critical to the future success of our children in the 21st century economy, and perhaps for the greater good of society.

I love Sir Ken Robinson’s ideas, but he hasn’t given the world a roadmap as to exactly HOW one keeps that creative genius alive in our children.  Despite being critically important, it’s left up to us.   I do think we homeschoolers have a unique advantage, in that we can tailor our kids’ education any way we wish. 

Any thoughts on where we begin?

The Sacrificial Frog

The boys were asked to choose a project to work on, and BioBoy, not surprisingly, chose to do some animal dissections and study the differences between a variety of specimens. 

In order to prepare himself, he worked from The Zoology Coloring Book, which gives college level descriptions of animal anatomy in a colouring book format.  I’m not sure who the target audience is expected to be, but it works great for an advanced 8-year old biologist-to-be who happens to enjoy colouring.

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He has also been using the Digital Frog software, which shows videos of actual dissections, along with the opportunity to do virtual dissections.  Fall 2010 192

After arranging his new dissection kit with surgical precision, he was ready to begin.

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Not the least bit squeamish, he dove into the project with great enthusiasm.

 Fall 2010 180 Fall 2010 181  Fall 2010 183  Fall 2010 186    

He pulled out all of the organs, including the eyeballs, for further study and dissection. 

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Still sitting on my desk, awaiting their fate, are a mouse, a perch, an earthworm, a lizard, a massive grasshopper, a couple of cow eyes and various other delightful specimens.  Indeed, the faint smell of formaldehyde is wafting over to me as I write, intermingling with the aroma of my tea.   It’s all worth it, though, to watch his passion in action. 

Project-Based Learning

Our homeschool has been gradually getting back in session now for a couple of weeks as we continue our efforts to disentangle ourselves from the school calendar.  The boys are actually quite happy to be back to a bit of a routine, having enjoyed a week of nature camp and a week at engineering camp, along with several weeks of just relaxing.  We still have a camping road trip to go on next week, following which we will be fully back in the saddle, just like the rest of the local school kids.

Their idle time this summer wasn’t without learning, of course.  SciGuy may have to change his moniker to something like History Buff, after spending the last several months utterly obsessed with all things historical.  He has been reading voraciously, playing Civ City Rome and Age of the Empires II on the computer, and delivering spontaneous professorial lectures to whomever will listen (usually Mom) on various historical topics.  Even a swim in the backyard pool evokes a historical turn of phrase, as he queries whether he should “cross the Rubicon” and leap out over the cold water, unable to turn back.

I had once harboured the notion that I would introduce history to my kids chronologically, so that everything would be contextual, thorough and orderly — not in the piecemeal fashion in which I remember learning history in school.  We had started at the beginning, with the Big Bang, and were happily, but slowly, working our way through the centuries, until SciGuy decided he was really interested in history.  Being a visual-spatial learner, SciGuy doesn’t really want to learn things in an orderly way.  He wants the Big Picture.  He wants as many facts as possible from as many angles as possible.  He wants to jump around all over the world and throughout all of the centuries, and he wants to start making connections and drawing conclusions about it all.

My two years of homeschooling have taught me that when my kids are passionate about something, that’s when I have to back off and move into the role of facilitator.  My job now is to listen carefully about the direction his thoughts are taking him, provide resources to help him dig deeper, and suggest new areas for him to branch out into. 

He has been thinking a lot about empires lately – how do they form, what elements are required to develop one, what makes them successful, why do they all ultimately fail – and his thinking (mostly out loud, as is his wont) has gotten me thinking about how to focus his inquiry and generate some sort of output that is meaningful to him, not just in history, but in all of the boys’ subjects.

While we could largely unschool most subjects, and let them just read and process information as they see fit, I feel uncomfortable with the lack of focus that sometimes ensues.  Sure, they’re obsessive about a topic for a bit, but then it leads them to another topic which they rush off to research, then another, then another.  They flit about filling their heads with all sorts of interesting information, but I have a hard time knowing if they have actually processed anything, or completed an inquiry.  Like the empire questions SciGuy raised, for example – has he come to a satisfactory resolution of them in his mind, or has he simply jumped on to another time period in his quest to soak up all knowledge the world has to offer?

I have come to the conclusion that project-based learning is an approach that could work well for us in addressing this issue.   Unfortunately, the difficulty with so many products on the homeschool market (including unit study packages, as well as many history and science curricula) is that, while they usually do a good job of providing information and suggesting supplemental resources to look at, they fall down on the output (as far as we’re concerned).  They demand busywork (lapbooks, crosswords, crafts, fill-in-the-blank worksheets, etc.) that don’t take the learning anywhere close to the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (evaluating the information gathered). 

Using sites like this one, on Inquiry-Based Learning, I have begun pulling together projects in various subjects, and across the disciplines, that are designed to take the boys on a journey of research and inquiry that helps them to truly address the questions they have asked (or, in some cases, that I think they would ask if they were introduced to the topic).   Their output might consist of a Socratic discussion, a presentation, a blog entry, a book (complete with cover and binding – fun in itself), writing about a historical event from the perspective of a particular participant, etc.

I feel like I am reinventing the wheel a little bit, although I realize that there are some teachers and homeschoolers who are using inquiry-based or project-based learning.  Blogs like this one and this one are instructive and inspiring.  Unfortunately, I have yet to find a package of “projects” that cover the subjects we’re interested in and meet our needs entirely, so I’m simply going to try to create them myself, as time-consuming as that may be.  While the kids’ interests will provide the framework for many of the projects, I plan to introduce new topics in the same manner.  While there is an inherent structure to get them started (a list of resources, websites, questions to ponder and a suggested method of output), it is my intention to remain flexible so that the process satisfies them primarily, not me.  If they want to use the project as a stepping stone to something else, so be it.  If they come up with other burning questions, go for it.  If they excitedly announce that they want to produce a movie, rather than an essay, to share what they’ve learned, that’s fine by me.  I just want to help them pull it all together and introduce them to some new areas of thought.

As I come up with these (and if I think they’re good enough to share), I’ll post them on my blog.  Wish me luck. 

BioBoy — always inquiring about the natural world.

Philosophy for Kids (and an Emerging Philosophy About Kids Too)

I haven’t written much about curriculum on this blog.  In part that’s because I have found few things, curriculum-wise, that the kids really enjoy.   I also want to be careful to only pass on recommendations and links that I really endorse, since it is so easy to be overwhelmed by the vast and increasing numbers of resources available out there, and I don’t want to contribute to my readers’ curriculum fatigue.  

As we move along in our homeschooling journey (even since my last post), I’m finding that we are becoming more child-led and more project-based, with me cobbling together resources and my own assignments and presenting them in a format that allows the kids to be largely self-directed.  (The less I’m directly involved in their learning, the happier everyone seems to be!) 

A lot of structure and schooliness works well for me, and I get excited and blog about it when the kids are receptive to it.   Usually though, about a week after the initial success, they’re back to pushing for more freedom and child-led learning time (despite my argument that they are getting way more than they ever would in school).  I’m starting to come around to it, but it’s hard to change my own mindset about education after 21 years of sitting in a classroom (and no, it didn’t do much for me or my “joy of learning”, but that’s what I’m familiar with).   Now, after a couple of years’ worth of research on education, giftedness and neurological issues, on top of lots of daily empirical evidence, I’m starting to see that the approach I have been taking thus far is not entirely the correct one for these children (I’m only speaking to what works, or doesn’t, in our family so please don’t think I am judging anyone else’s style). 

Kids like this, who are inherently curious and self-driven, really do seem to need  autonomy in their learning and respect for their choices in learning.   That said, I still think that they need some parameters to their learning to ensure that they achieve competence in core subjects (which, of necessity, I’m starting to pare down to a much smaller cluster)  and develop good habits and routines.  I must emphasize, as anyone who has been following this blog since the beginning can plainly see, that our homeschool is very much a work-in-progress and I don’t really have the answers yet as to what works long term. 

That was a long digression to say that there is something that we have been enjoying together, and that the kids get really excited about, which I would like to share.  Before they go off to do their independent work, we have a read aloud time which is usually about character or moral issues, and was recently expanded to include philosophy.  We have been working through Philosophy for Kids: 40 Fun Questions That Help You Wonder About Everything, by David White, Ph.D.  It’s got some really thought-provoking questions, made relevant to issues faced by elementary-age kids, with tie-ins to the ancient philosophers and their views on the topic.  It is meant for kids 10 and up, but my almost 8-year-old has been enjoying it as much as my almost 10-year-old.

I like that these discussions get the kids really thinking and opening up as we start our day.  They have been sharing their feelings and thoughts on the issues (so far we’ve discussed “Are you a fair and just person?” and “How do you know who your friends are?”) in an open and respectful manner, and haven’t wanted to stop the discussion when the chapter was finished.  The format is really user-friendly for parents, and while a group of kids discussing these issues might be more lively, it can certainly be done with one child and a parent. 

Philosophy for Kids: 40 Fun Questions That Help You Wonder About Everything!

It is published by Prufrock Press, Inc. and also available through Amazon and other suppliers.

Taking the Plunge from Public School – Can I Really Homeschool my Gifted Child?

A frustrated public school parent on another forum recently asked for some information about homeschooling her gifted child.  Since her question is very common, I thought I’d address it right here on my blog and maybe others who are sitting on the fence can benefit from the information as well.

Maybe you can help me out.  I’m completely fed up with [public school]. My son is very highly gifted and is not receiving any support for his giftedness, he is being kept busy. …

My husband seems to feel I would lose my mind trying to homeschool this very bright and very intense child but I’m beginning to feel there really aren’t many other real options for him.  When he was tested at the beginning of grade 2 the psychologist said he was capable of working at grades 7 to 9.  I don’t think [public school] will ever be a fit for him and I’m beginning to wonder why we’re subjecting him to all the damage they are inflicting on him by denying his needs.

Could you provide us with an outline of a typical homeschooling day? Is it true that homeschooled children can accomplish more in two hours than classroom kids can in an entire day?? How do you handle the biggest issue, “socialization” ??

Many, many parents of gifted children across North America have taken the plunge to homeschool their gifted children after being let down by their local school board. There is a huge network of support online. Please read my blog article “A Guide for Parents of Gifted Children” and consider joining the Yahoo groups listed at the end. They provide a wealth of helpful information (and moral support).  Homeschooling intense kids like ours can be very draining, and it helps to have a safe place to share and vent.

I think that most parents, even those who think they’re going to do “school at home”, ultimately wind up having a school day that, at least in part, is child-led. If your child, like mine, has a lot of intellectual passions, he will want to pursue these and needs time to do so. My eldest makes jaws drop when he talks about astronomy and physics, but I haven’t taught him a word of it – it’s all self-taught.

That said, they can be quite single-minded when they are engrossed in learning about their passions, so I have come to the conclusion that they need at least some structure and some requirement to learn certain core subjects on a regular basis (things like math, French, writing, etc.). I also want them to develop some habits and routines.

You’ll need to find a rhythm that works for you, and that may take a year or two.  Someone told me that at the beginning and I thought that was ridiculous, but I’m still figuring things out now at the end of year two, and probably always will tinker with things to find the right fit.  That’s not a bad thing, by the way, as you can more appropriately meet the needs of your child if you’re not fixated on doing things a certain way.

We have been able to meet their needs pretty well, I think. SciGuy, who is strong in math, has essentially skipped from grade 4 math to beginning algebra (and he gets in the 90s or perfect on most of his course work). He wouldn’t get to do that at school. He studies astronomy by watching documentaries and Teaching Company courses taught by university professors. We have a gifted language arts program (reviewed here) that gets him excited about grammar. Yet, he’s a visual-spatial learner and not strong on detail (and hates to hold a pencil), so he works on grade two handwriting and grade-level creative writing. We can meet their needs at whatever level they are at.

A Typical Homeschooling Day?

Well, that varies. A writer and homeschooler named Melissa Wiley once described her homeschool style as “tidal learning”, and that about sums us up too. Some days we’re at high tide and I’m the captain charting the course for our days. After we’ve done that for awhile, and are in need of a change of pace, we move to a low tide style where the kids spend their days poking around in figurative tidal pools, exploring their interests and seeing where they lead. (Melissa describes it much more elegantly than I.)

When we’re at “high tide”, we usually start around 8:45 in the morning with a character-building story or activity. They then have a 90 minute work period during which they do a piano practice, their math and language arts (alternating between grammar, vocabulary, poetry and spelling).

They usually take a break for half an hour or so, and run around outside or play Lego. After that, we have another 90 minute work period, during which we do French or Spanish (alternating days), handwriting, creative writing and one other thing (maybe literature, typing, or geography).

They take another long break over lunch (about an hour), then I usually go outside and do some physical activity with them (basketball drills, badminton, etc.) for another half hour.

In the afternoons we just do one subject, as the kids often want to explore these in a lot of depth and don’t want to have to switch gears. One day we do history, another is science, then a unit study of some sort (or more history) and nature studies (which usually includes a hike, so it doesn’t feel much like school).

On Fridays we usually do music appreciation, art and Latin instead of the usual schedule, and often they get together with homeschooling friends or go off and do their own research.

Of course, there are weeks when the whole schedule just goes out the window, but these kids are not idle when it comes to learning, and even if I don’t tell them what to do, they almost always choose something educational (researching interests on the computer, drawing maps, reading, looking for bugs outside and then finding out all about them, etc.). Particularly when the weather’s nice, we like to spend time outdoors, go on excursions, etc.

Bear in mind that everyone approaches homeschooling differently and this style may not work for you. I know many parents, whose kids are intrinsically motivated to learn, who don’t schedule anything at all and effectively let their kids “unschool” or choose entirely what they want to learn. For gifted kids, that approach can often be quite beneficial for keeping their love of learning alive, and I encourage my kids to follow their interests as much as possible. I just want to make sure that eventually they will also be able to speak a couple of languages, write an academic paper and do math at the highest levels, so I’m not prepared to hand over the reins entirely!

Even when we have our scheduled days, the kids only do about three 90-minute work periods. In that time, they also get their music practice done, and I don’t make them do homework. By 3:30 they’re done for the day, leaving lots of time for pursuing interests. There is no question that the basics can be covered in a couple of hours; it’s a question of how many subjects you want to include in “the basics”, and for us, that’s quite a few.

Making the Transition to Homeschooling and Dealing with “Socialization”

If your son has had a negative experience with school, he may need some time to “deschool” and find his passion for learning again. In that case, you might very gradually introduce some scheduling, but don’t immediately try to replicate school at home. Give him time to get excited about learning again and also allow him some input into what subjects and topics you will cover if you do start using curriculum.

As for socialization, don’t give it another thought. Everyone trots that out, as though being corralled into groups by age, having to downplay your talents to fit in, being bored to tears, and dealing with brats and bullies is somehow the best way to “socialize” a child. Read “Hold on to your Kids” by Gordon Neufeld  to dispel the myths of socialization. Homeschooled kids (especially in large urban areas) have TONS of opportunities to meet other kids. You could spend all your days just going to homeschool co-ops and park days and organized outings for HS kids. I don’t know if people think that homeschoolers just sit in some darkened cellar all day with their noses in their books, but it is nothing like that at all.

I’m biased, of course, but Google “myths of socialization” and you’ll get lots of hits – here’s an article that about sums it up:

Remember, too, that socialization, as defined by the rest of the world, can be a nightmare to a highly gifted kid who is perceived as “different”. And, given that intellectual stimulation is a basic need to such kids, that ought to take precedence over the artificial construct that is “socialization.”

Language Arts Curriculum Review

I promised to share some of our curriculum choices on this blog, and it’s about time I got started. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the number of products that are available out there. If you have something that is working for your children, don’t feel compelled to switch to something else that promises to be even better. (Now, if I could only follow my own advice!)

This review is intended for those who are just embarking on homeschooling gifted children and want some direction; or, for those who are in a rut with their current program and feel the need to make a change. Seasoned homeschoolers of gifted children will no doubt already be aware of this product line; indeed, it was those folks who pointed me in the direction of Michael Clay Thompson when I first started homeschooling.

Michael Clay Thompson gets gifted kids. He really does. In a speech delivered at a gifted conference in 1998, he tackled the “All Children Are Gifted” mantra and pointed out the very real needs of the gifted population:

Need. What kinds of instructional differentiation do gifted children need? They need instruction that responds to their extra curiosity, to their urgency for meaning, to their advanced vocabularies, to their interest in complexity, to their fast comprehensions, to their vast memories. Gifted children need choice– individualized and self-regulating experiences that are appropriate to their self-motivated independence. They need higher-order thinking activities that give their abstract minds a workout. They need Socratic, the energies of their inherent, constant questioning. They need advanced levels of subject matter because they can learn them and short instructions because they will understand them immediately and quick paces through difficult material because they don’t need many things repeated. Gifted kids do need research; they don’t need many workbooks. They do need a variety of learning experiences; they don’t need just more amounts of the problems in the textbook.

And Michael Clay Thompson, with the support of Royal Fireworks Press, has delivered a curriculum that meets those needs.

The first level in his Language Arts curriculum is Grammar Island. The quirky text, unusual graphics and dramatic fonts seem foreign at first, particularly if one has been using a more traditional curriculum.

Don’t be alarmed by the seemingly silly story lines and characters in these books. They are all designed to engage the student and, judging by the eagerness with which my math-oriented 9-year old laps up his grammar lessons, they have succeeded. For a visual-spatial learner like SciGuy, the lack of “workbooks” is much appreciated, although there is a practice manual to work through which reinforces the four-level analysis of a sentence, introduced in Grammar Island.

Even though there aren’t traditional workbooks, the material is so engaging that it stimulates discussion about grammar and language that helps to solidify the concepts. We enjoy snuggling together on the couch to read aloud from the books, and I am always asked to read further than I had planned.

In addition to Grammar Island, which introduces the parts of speech, and Sentence Island, which is the first step in the journey to writing academic papers (which is where your student should be at the conclusion of all six levels), there is Building Language. This is the vocabulary component of the program and focuses on Latin roots in the English language.

The layout of the book is lovely and the text is both informative and challenging. While there is no workbook associated with it, the student is asked to write poems or other mental exercises as a follow up to the stem lesson. These require some real thought (as opposed to simply filling in the blanks, as many vocabulary programs require) and you may be surprised by what your child can produce.

The final segment of the program is poetics. Again, the layout of the book is inspiringly beautiful. I couldn’t believe how much enjoyment my children were getting out of discussing poetry, and they even wrote some lovely pieces on their own following a lesson from Music of the Hemispheres, pictured below:

Some people wonder whether this program can stand alone. I would say that it probably can, although I have felt compelled, at this point, to supplement with an additional creative writing program (we are using Writing Strands). I also think it’s helpful that the child have some familiarity with the parts of speech before embarking on the program. Although it is comprehensive, Grammar Island does move quickly and if the child is having trouble keeping the different elements straight it may be beneficial to get that sorted out first (although using the Practice Island manual will certainly give him lots of practice in identifying them).

Grammar Island is recommended for gifted children in grades 3 or 4. While it is marketed to the gifted population, I see no reason why it could not be enjoyed by any child. I would not rush a child younger than 3rd grade into this program, unless they are profoundly gifted in language, as it is more complex than the simple graphics and pleasant stories would make it appear.

Following Grammar Island, the child moves into Grammar Town and Grammar Voyage, which are the next levels of elementary grammar. Each has complementary writing, vocabulary, practice and poetics texts. Magic Lens, levels 1-3, follow for middle school and early high school.

One final point: Royal Fireworks Press sells each of the six levels in your choice of homeschool package – complete or basic. The basic package includes only the teacher’s guides. While I have chosen to purchase the complete package, with student texts for each subject, it is not necessary to do so. The teacher’s guides are essentially the same book as the student text, except that they have a few notes in the margins to stimulate discussion. These can easily be hidden from the child while you read together.

For the record, I am not affiliated with RFWP or MCT — just a happy customer. There are lots more of us at the Yahoo group dedicated to users of these materials.