Less Payneful Homeschooling . . .
By Laryssa Payne
“Look, Jasper, here is where Grandpa is hiking - Nepal. See how far from Omaha that is. What do you think about that?” “I want to do that too!” Jasper responds nonchalantly. Ever an opportunistic mom, I reply, “if you learn your letters, your numbers, you can – what do you think of that?” “That’s good,” says Jasper, “Now can I do what I want to do on your computer?” “What do you want to see on my computer?” (Aren’t teachers supposed to answer a question with a question?) “I want to see eaaarsssssss,” says Jasper. So I start a You-Tube video about the inside of an ear, and another homeschooling day has begun.
Sitting there with my arm around him, watching him watch the video, I feel a warm glow of achievement – I am actually homeschooling! But it isn’t all eager concentration. Doubts and fears have dogged my journey. No magic mirror gives me the feedback I crave - that homeschooling was the right decision. When Jasper was born with a hearing loss, I felt two fears born alongside: would he ever be able to understand or hear “I love you” from us? And, will he ever hear, understand and enjoy music? A little over a year filled with appointments, worries, tears, fears, growth & professionals passed, and I finally heard one answer. I was sitting at my desk focused on paperwork and heard “I love you,” in Jasper’s quiet voice. All the stress, strain, meetings, strategic thinking, loss of sleep faded away in the joy and beauty of hearing my son say he loved me. Last fall, when he turned four, we were gifted with another present. While jumping on the trampoline, he started to sing along with Bob & Larry to the tune of Where is my Hairbrush? with great vigor. Months later, he started adding his own Suessical-style words, worthy at least of an off- off Broadway show.
That past spring, in preparation for the coming Fall in which Jasper would be starting school, we had choices to consider. Factoring into the decision is his conductive loss, which has been aided since he was four and a half months old. He also has good speech clarity and leans toward verbal expression as he aged out of the program at Boys Town. He could go to a center based program for kids with hearing loss within a local elementary school, his neighborhood school , a private school or he could be homeschooled. While in general, we trust that the Omaha Public School (OPS) system is good, I had reservations about how well Jasper could handle the extroverted structure of school. To most introverts, school is a constant drain on their energy. It’s specific structure and pacing generally won’t allow for much downtime or the flexibility an introvert needs to have any energy to spend on actually learning. However, I entertained doubts on my ability to home school him. If I was to do it, I wanted to do it right. Would Jasper see me as “mom” or “teacher?” What would be the impact on me or Jasper’s younger sister, Elani, or our whole family dynamic? And how would we meet his continuing speech needs?
With the help of some talented and dedicated speech therapists and my own determination to be a collaborator and not a contender with the professionals, homeschooling was chosen. The IEP rollover meeting concluded with the agreement that Jasper would get speech services at our neighborhood school while homeschooling. I was excited, nervous and at moments, felt alternately joyful and fearful that I would be wasting his time. In addition to stack of paperwork that makes most taxes seem like a click’n’vote, I needed to assess and determine Jasper needs, how to handle an IEP, and how to find the time and the balance to home school as well as parent my two children. Since one of the main reasons we want to home school is to provide him the mentoring that suits an introverted, right brained thinker, it made sense to find time for homeschooling when his little sister was not always present. She has full hearing but has articulation difficulties, and when she was recently accepted into a half day preschool classroom, an answer to that dilemma presented itself.
But when August came around, I felt overwhelmed and crazy for even trying homeschooling, despite the wonderful support of Homeschooling Educators Network (HEN), a Christian based support network for Nebraska homeschoolers. I was concerned that somehow I would miss how I should tweak material for a student who is hard of hearing. Such issues as sound management of our home, classroom discipline techniques, how to assess language, curriculum, and working with the new speech pathologist kept me up late. I put off visiting his new speech teacher after school began. I had jitters. I remembered something that really helped – I had learned at a workshop that it is vital to support and collaborate with the professionals in your child’s life. Rather than getting defensive and upset, you can invite them into your family. The example I enjoyed hearing about in the workshop is that you can even serve ice cream at an IEP meeting. Imagine that – it is pretty wonderful how relaxed and how well families and teachers can work together when trust is built. And that is what works. While I keep a close eye on things, I do so assuming that the professional will do their best and if I am concerned I will speak up but for benefit of everyone, not to “get my way” or prove I am right. And with this attitude in mind during our first few interactions, Jasper eventually settled in with his new therapist. By listening but also sharing my “expertise” as Jasper’s mom, I know that we have built a good working relationship with her. Of course it helps that she appreciates his quirkiness and his love of rhyming, and also has a cat in her life -- one with three legs like a pirate!
I try to respect the school’s systems. For example, I ask permission to join in the Halloween parade rather than just showing up. I ask for services and technology and persist if answers seem to take time in coming, such as getting a final answer on whether or not the school would give him an FM. Currently, the district’s answer is that he does not need one in his speech sessions even if there are a couple of other children, and is not being schooled in large classroom settings. I wasn’t sure if I agreed with that, but ran it by our fabulous audiologist at Boys Town. For the moment it is not a battle that needs to be pitched and won. I have learned that an advocate must discern where to stand firm and collaborating where possible. The need for speech no matter how “good” his test scores is another great example. I am quite pleased that we are fine tuning his /j/ sound in connected speech so that he is now self correcting and applying a /j/ without lateralizing. His therapist was able to help him with a sound that does make a huge difference in the ability of others to understand him. Since he is an introvert and large part of himself is carried in his ideas, it is essential for him to be able express those ideas with clarity.
We knew that finding a yearly language assessment was going to be vital. Thankfully, we participate in a research study through Boys Town which provides us with a wonderful annual language assessment. The data shared with us helps me to set specific, focused IEP goals for his language development as well as how I can use language in everyday situations to challenge that development.
Keeping the Fun in Repetition
In choosing his curriculum, I considered several pieces of information about Jasper. One is that he is clearly right-brained, and as one book indicates, Marti Laney, that when schooling a right-brained introvert, using storytelling works brilliantly. In part, it is because storytelling engages multiple areas of the brain allowing for richer learning opportunities. Additionally, artistic methods of teaching and/or assessment are wonderful for memory and for encouraging learning. When I was in Aurora in June, I learned that Jasper hears with his brain and not his ears. Practically this means that the brain needs to “hear” the sound many times until a sound or new word sinks in, without boring and turning the brain off through repetition. So, I needed to increase the frequency of repetition, but with novelty. The arts fill that need. If a sound is sung with several verses it provides repetition brain needs but the musicality creates a “newness” and excitement for both brain and child. I still expect and start with some basic teaching methods but the liberal use of the arts (drawing, music, drama, and more) has created a sense of excitement and wonder and fun even as we focus on the letter “I” week after week.
To illustrate this, I have used a simple song that I heard at Jasper’s preschool last year. To the tune of Frere Jacques, the song illustrates the two /i/ sounds.
The little song has been a wonderful vehicle to carry the vowel sounds to his cochleas and on to his brain. To both assess and expand his understanding when it comes to the /i/ like line, I pause and wait for him to fill in the blank with an “I” word that has hasn’t been used yet that morning. The repetition of the song allows him to feel confident of the sound yet also encourages finding new words which continues the excitement necessary to engage those brains! In addition, coloring pictures of “I” words and then singing before and after create a multi-sensory learning environment exciting both for student and for parent/teacher.
A final important tool in my repertoire as parent/teacher is humor. I was having a hard time one day engaging him in identifying which /i/ he was hearing as I read Eric Carle’s The Hungry Caterpillar. I decided to let him “hear” his wrong answers. I asked him what “i” is in the word /like/? He said “a short I.” I replied, “You mean “lik (as in lick)?” A fit of giggles. “So, then, which /i/ is in liiike?” I ask, drawing out the vowel. “Short -- no long /i/,” says Jasper. I had both children rolling when I would purposely misread the long “I” and then they would correct me as they roared with laughter. As they kept correcting me, I could also add in asking them to identify the sound they were hearing. And without even breaking a sweat, they were listening and engaged. All it took was a willingness to be silly.
Passing the Social Tests
The social piece is harder to arrange. Without the captive audience of schoolmates, we have to persevere and keep reaching out to other families to invite their children over. Since friends from last year continue to come, I have the peace of knowing that they come because they want to come. The friendships will develop along organic and natural lines. Through sharing stories, asking questions before, during and after social calls, I can model for Jasper the social prompts he now needs. He had a great opportunity to have fun with friends at his birthday a month ago. I was eager to see whether he would play by himself, like last year. Or would he dance around the room singing nonsensical things putting off his cherished few friends? The language he has developed was clear and easy for other children to understand: I watched him interact with joy. I look forward to taking him to community classes at the local children’s museum, the art museum, the botanical center and more. As long as he loves learning, there are endless possibilities to build upon those budding social skills with the right pacing.
However, for the moment, I will stop to “make my cake and eat it too”. After all, baking a cake is also a homeschooling experience. Jasper can identify all the parts of the process; he loves to talk about his cake. It was his idea. I don’t know where his next idea will lead us, but I’m sure it will taste just as good as his last one.