Monday, July 20, 2009

Reeling and Writhing

Once upon a time there was a boy named Zane.

When Zane was eight he loved puzzles, mazes, taking things apart, and the food channel. He had a wicked sense of humor and a hilariously accurate Swedish accent. He was patient. He was kind to his younger sisters and cousins. He was a happy, quiet kid who was well liked by his teachers and helpful in the classroom. There was just one problem... Zane's teachers said he couldn't read or write.

In the third grade Zane was singled out because of his reading problems. Zane didn't like this extra attention and countered it with a new tactic. Silliness. His third grade teacher wasn't amused and decided that his problem was ADHD. Zane's mother didn't agree. She didn't believe that the boy who could work on complex puzzles for hours had an attention problem. She didn't believe the boy that would sit perfectly still in order to avoid disturbing the baby sister sleeping on his lap was hyperactive. She knew the teacher was wrong but the teacher had Zane six hours a day and, as the school year progressed, his confidence waned and his silliness increased. At the end of third grade the school said he was reading at a first grade, third month, level but they were sending him on to fourth grade with the warning that if he didn't catch up he might have to repeat the year. The district reading specialist suggested that the problem could be dyslexia but she was unable to provide assistance because Zane was less than 2 grades behind.

So Zane's parents made a radical choice. They decided to stop sending him to school.

When we decided to start homeschooling it was truly an act of desperation. We didn't know what we were doing.. we just knew that we couldn't face another year of watching Zane struggle. A neighboring school district had a charter school for homeschooling families and they happily accepted us into their program. The school supplied curriculum, a few enrichment classes, and an education coordinator.. a teacher who was available to give advice and guidance. Our education coordinator was also a reading specialist and she helped me to design a plan to help Zane. We turned every subject into a reading or writing exercise. I spent hours every night planning lessons.. dividing text into chunks for reading aloud and planning questions to enhance his comprehension. Every morning we sat down with a huge list of tasks, and a stack of worksheets, and dutifully plodded through fourth grade. Zane hated it. He would struggle to read aloud but after a while he would give up and just put his head on the table and refuse to even try.

One day he asked why he always had to read aloud when it was so much faster to read silently. I explained that all of the reading we were doing would help him read better and he protested that he could read just fine.. he just couldn't read aloud. Writing it out like this makes it all sound so polite and civilized but actually there was a lot of whining and growling in this conversation. I was annoyed, he was frustrated, we were both sick and tired of sitting at the dining room table day after day doing nothing but reading the most boring textbooks on the planet. So I got mad and decided I was going to prove to him how wrong he was. I slammed open the science book.. next on our list of tasks.. and told him to read a page silently. He said he was finished in just a few minutes, a fraction of the time it should have taken him to read a page at his 88wpm skill level, and then I started firing question at him about what he had supposedly just read... and he answered every one correctly.

For the rest of fourth grade and all of fifth grade Zane took charge of his schedule. I still made lists and worksheets and gave tests but I didn't teach him much. He learned by reading and he learned fast. He could zip through a day of work in just a few hours and spend the rest of the day doing more important things.

When the school invested in a program to test comprehension and reading speed we discovered that Zane was actually well above grade level. He still struggled with writing so our coordinator suggested that he learn how to type.. and before I knew it he was doing most of his work on the computer and writing funny stories and poetry too. One of his poems even won a state competition.

Zane went back to regular school in sixth grade and faced a new group of teachers who were convinced that they could fix his problem by forcing him to read aloud. But he was a more confident student who knew what he was capable of and teachers didn't seem to scare him anymore. He did what was asked of him and faced their concerns with good humor... and let his work speak for him.

Last week we were notified that Zane passed his high school exit exams with an "exceeds standard" score for reading and an amazing 23/24 score for writing. The next day we learned that he passed the college board AP World History exam and will be able to recieve college credit for the course. Zane just shrugged but I felt like dancing... I wanted to send copies of the tests to a few of his old teachers... I wanted to hug him and celebrate... but he's sixteen and cool so I just said "Good job!" and made him a mango smoothie.

The regular course was Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with; and then the different branches of Arithmetic - Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.

~Lewis Carroll

Saturday, July 18, 2009

20 years ago

Today my first baby turned 20.

From the day he was born Ian was determined and self willed. He was three weeks late when they finally decided to do something about getting him out. There I was, lying in a hospital bed, upset that I was disappointing my natural childbirth instructor, while they pasted sensors on my belly and prepped me for induction, but before the nurse could even get the IV started Ian did a little flip and suddenly alarms were sounding. The umbilical cord was pinched and they couldn't find a heart beat. Within a minute my room was full of staff. I have a vivid memory of a harried, gray haired Asian nurse telling another nurse to stop messing with the monitor and get a doctor NOW. For the first time I really appreciated our HMO insurance that forced me to give birth at a huge teaching hospital rather than the newly remodeled birthing suite at the little local hospital... because there was an obstetrician on the floor and I was wheeled into surgery (as the bossy nurse cursed the new-fangled birthing bed that didn't roll fast enough) immediately. The last thing I remember was telling the surgeon "His name is Ian." as they knocked me out and delivered him... a mere six minutes after the alarms started going off. He was in amazingly good shape for a baby that required an emergency cesarean. I wasn't in such good shape but I survived. Everyone joked that Ian had decided he wasn't going to go through that labor crap and just found another exit... I wonder if we set the stage for a life of doing things his own way?

Nah.. he really was that determined.

Happy Birthday Ian!