Unpublished Letter to the Editor

Three weeks ago, I sent a letter to the editor of our local paper.  It was not published.  I can only speculate why it was rejected.  Was it too personal for  a paper that is mainly about general thank you notes, or political fight for and against the proposed hockey rink? Was it because the information I included would have to be confirmed through other newspapers?   It might be that the paper is just not that interested in the part of population with  special needs.

It is true, the letter was as personal as all my calls on the matters mentioned in it.  I called Loyola Hospital, I called the sheriff in Maryland, I called the superintendent in Winthrop.  The patient relation office from Loyola called back.  The sheriff from Maryland called back personally.  The secretary of the superintendent from Winthrop, screamed that it was ” a personal matter”. The worst response of the three. Any way, this is the rejected letter:

To the Editor,
Since the beginning of the year, I read about three terrible events that concerned two children and one young adult with special needs.
Alex, 14 years old boy with special needs was kept for 19 days tied by wrists and ankles to his bed in emergency room in Loyola Hospital in Chicago.  No medical tests were performed during those 19 days..
Ethan, a 26 years old  man with special needs died of asphyxiation while being restrained by three security guards at the Regal movie theater in Maryland.
An unnamed student with special needs had a tape attached to his eyebrows and then pulled out by an unnamed special needs teacher from Winthrop. The teacher recorded this “event” on her cell phone and showed it to other teachers.
The common factor in each of these events was the fact that the professionals who should care for the most fragile members of the community demonstrated their inability to do so
I realized that my son, given his disability could be treated like Alex, Ethan, or an unnamed boy from Winthrop. I could easily point to a few incidents from the past when something terrible “almost” happened. ALMOST.
I  struggle to understand what went wrong and what could be done to prevent any of the tragedies from being repeated.  My first bitter conclusion is that although money are spent on educating children with many severe disabilities and make them members of their communities, the communities themselves do not learn how to accept and how to treat people who are different.
Because the communities, even the communities of providers, do not learn quickly or properly how to treat people like my son, it is crucial that my son learns more,learns better, and learns quicker how to fill the gap separating him from others. He has to learn how to communicate that something hurts.  He has to learn that he has to follow the rules.  He has to learn how the community works.  He has to learn how to respond to policemen, if they approach him.  He has to learn how to let others know that he has been abused.  He has to learn more, because the world around is not learning.
For children like mine, special education , if delivered properly, could be a life saving device.  If the special education is reduced to custodial care, light sort of babysitting, without thoughtful programming and diligent execution of the program, my son and many other children won’t get equipped with the tools for a simple survival.
For some children good special education means that they can graduate from college, for others it means that they can held a job, cook a meal, and write a check, for children like mine special education means that they can survive.
At this point I am not sure if my son can.

As of Yesterday Evening

I planned to rest for 30 minutes, no more.  I felt exhausted.  Robert had a  session of speech therapy in Boston which ended a few minutes after five. Robert’s dad met us in Boston and together we drove for two hours in the afternoon traffic.  It did not help that we stopped at Costco to pick up proscription and glasses.  We finished dinner a few minutes after eight. I decided to relax  in front of the TV.  Just for half an hour, so without rushing I could  drink a cup of hot tea.  I fell asleep.

Robert woke me up at quarter to ten. “Work, work, work”, he demanded.  “Work” in our language means “study”.  Robert wanted his daily dose of learning. I was exhausted and hardly awaken. “We will work tomorrow”, I suggested.  The demand intensified, “Work, work, work!” Robert was already at the dinning table checking worksheets I had prepared in the morning.  I could put my foot down and refuse, but that would require energy and  a state of heightened alertness.  At this time, I lacked both.  So I joined Robert at the dinning room table.  I tried to hide a two page story about a donkey who wanted to be a puppy.  With a corner of his eye, Robert noticed my maneuvers and  from  a pile of workbooks and folders, quickly pulled out the story.

I hid the story, because I was not able to prepare Robert for the reading. I did not read it carefully  myself. I did not create mental story map which would help me pace the reading or plan additional activities for  before, during and after the reading.  Clearly, I was not ready for a reading instruction. I wanted to postpone it until the next day.  Robert would not.

Robert began his daily work with vocabulary worksheets.  Although considered to be adequate for a second grade level, Robert’s understanding of the words: “gaze, scurry, pounce”, and a few similar was  wobbly.  So I assisted Robert in completing worksheets but I have done it almost mechanically.  I  provided very limited support to Robert as he completed two pages of Daily Geography which related to New York State Tourist Map.  He answered the questions from lessons 30A and 30B of Saxon Math 4, almost independently, asking from time to time for my clear acknowledgment that his answers were correct.  As soon as I nodded, or said,”Great” ,he went on.  (That need is  a leftover habit from years of expecting to hear, “Good job.” after every small task Robert performed.)

Whenever Robert did not need my attention, I tried to familiarize myself with the story Donkey Wants New Job.  I could not concentrate.  Thus, when Robert finally placed a story in front of himself and started reading it,  I was still unprepared to handle this unit appropriately.

It was clear from the way Robert read that he  felt as lost as I was.  He needed directions, he needed simple explanations, and  he needed some help in forming mental pictures of the action.  He needed so much more, and I couldn’t help.

I began to understand how to teach reading comprehension to Robert, not too long ago.  I always knew that Robert had huge deficits in this area. After all he had severe problems with spoken language as well. Over the years, I relied on ideas from many sources to facilitate Robert’s understanding of speech and written texts.

Only a couple of years ago, however,  I started working in a new way on Robert’s comprehension of stories.  I have been learning ever since.  I am not done yet.  I have to rethink and plan each reading carefully.

Yesterday, I did not do that.   I was punished.  I witnessed Robert reading without understanding, being overwhelmed by sentences that did not connect to each other, and  unable to picture silly events that should have made him laugh.

A few times, I tried to interject some comments, but they did not make the meaning of the paragraphs any clearer.  After Robert finished, I helped him to answer three questions and skipped the long one on the worksheets following the story.

Left on the table was a general template for a story map.  In the past we did a lot of those with fables and fairy tales.  “Look Robert”, I said,” we will fill this page another day, after we read the story again.”

To my surprise, Robert,tired and  overwhelmed by what he read, agreed.  Instead of insisting on finishing the whole pile without missing a page, as I expected, he agreed!  He took a template and gently placed it in one of the folders where  the copies of  worksheets waited for their turn to engage Robert in the future.

When the Teachers Teach

When the teachers (or teacher’s aides) teach  every day and  diligently follow well developed curriculum, the students learn.  Robert learns.

One constant in Robert’s learning at school, as far as I can say based on Robert’s worksheets from school, is Saxon Math 3.  Every day he completes one part of a lesson with the help of the teachers, and then works independently on a second part, which is equivalent to homework.  Except he is doing  his homework at school.

He still makes errors.  Sometimes many, sometimes few.  But he learns to be independent.  The school teaches him that and teaches him well.

Today at home, Robert, for the first time, worked independently on the test.  It was the test for the  lessons 25-29 of  Saxon Math 4.  I gave Robert instruction.  I gave him compass (as one of the problem called for drawing of a circle with a radius of 1.5 inch.  I brought him a math journal and opened it on the page with a perpetual calendar.  Then, I went to the kitchen.  A few minutes later, I lurked.  Robert already solved correctly first two problems, but then he got stuck.  I passed him a ruler and placed the compass a little closer to him. It was a cue and he read it correctly.  He drew the circle with 1.5 ” radius and then measured its diameter.  He finished two pages of problems with 80% accuracy.  He missed one problem, because he did not read the whole instruction.  (Dividing a circle into 6 parts).  But the errors are not important.  What is important is that he worked without calling for help.  That he did not freeze, as he often did in the past when he was not 100% sure what to do.

I have never before  left him with the test alone.  I usually sat next to him, pretending to do something else, but at the first sign of Robert’s hesitation, I jumped to assist him.   I cannot help it.  So the fact that Robert completed the test with only one cue from me (ruler and compass), is not of my doing, but is the effect of the instruction he received at school.

It is not about the content of the teaching – third grade versus fourth grade math.  (For Robert, both levels are equally difficult, because of language).  It is about significant change in behavior. Yes, Robert can independently complete  a whole page of similar arithmetic problems.  He did that many times in the past.  But the tests in Saxon Math require reading, require flexible switching from one operation to another – to count elapsed time, to find a date on a perpetual calendar, to draw a circle,to solve a word problem with multiplication, to change units of time, to compare numbers after first completing some operation.  In the past, with every new problem, Robert would stumble and wait for a prompt.  Now, he stumbled only once.

Not surprisingly, I feel great. I feel great for many reasons.

1.  Robert demonstrated ability to  THINK much  more independently than before.

2. My strongest conviction, that children learn when the teachers follow good curriculum (and not worksheets haphazardly taken from internet) was validated yet again.

3.  Mostly, however, I feel great because … it was not me, but others who brought this change.

I like teaching Robert.  I am glad and satisfied when Robert learns something with my help.  But whenever other people manage to teach Robert something, I feel more than happy.  I feel like the heavy load was taken of my shoulders. I stop being bitter and no more I feel alone in my educational endeavor.

Scenes from the Special Education (Transition) Classroom

Episode 1.  Doing So Well

At the beginning of the school year 2011/2012, I visited Robert’s classroom to meet a new teacher’s aide and a new speech pathologist.  At that time, the classroom had THREE  students including Robert.  The  teacher and his two aides were present.   Two students were sitting at the table with one teacher’s aide.  They were playing Connect Four.  Robert did not sit.  Nobody asked him to do anything.  So Robert was running around the table and flapping his hands.  I could not believe it.  Robert could be very  easily redirected.  Even, if nobody wanted to work with him, Robert could at least get a few simple worksheets that would occupy him for a while.  Robert wants to finish his work, he is diligent and thorough. He would work instead of being disruptive.   But no, during the time I tried to concentrate and, despite growing anger, talk to  the aide and a therapist, Robert was not given one instruction.  Nothing!!! Finally, he figured it out all by himself, and sat down, next to one of the students.

But just before he did that, when he was still running and flapping his hands, one person I was talking to said, “He is doing so well.”

I was speechless. It was the beginning of the year and I wanted to be nice.  I did not say anything, but left the classroom completely bewildered.

Episode 2.  Could This Happened to a Student in Regular Classroom?

Two weeks into the school year 2011/2012, I asked the teacher to schedule the time for me to observe Robert in his classroom.  I repeated my request a few times adding that I would also like to see my son’s classroom work.  I asked for that  because no worksheet was sent home.  In the beginning of October, I visited the classroom accompanied by the  director of district’s special education department.  I asked for worksheets.  The teacher was looking around not sure what to do.  A few minutes passed.  I asked again.  Finally, the special education director found a  pile of papers – few hundreds pages thick.  Triumphantly, she showed me the worksheets.  All the pages had Robert’s name written on top.  They were definitely his.  But none of these pages was completed at school.  They were done by Robert at HOME during our daily sessions.  Robert faithfully kept taking them to school to show to the teacher.

For over a month, Robert did not do any reading, writing, or math at school.  There was no science and no  social study either, as those subjects were dismissed as inappropriate for children with special needs by the school administrators from the start of this program.

Episode 3.  Group Instruction

During the school year 2010/2011, Robert had Mrs. S. as his aide.  She worked very diligently with him providing one to one instruction.  She looked for materials, curricula, made copies, and tried her best  to meaningfully occupy Robert.  Nonetheless, one of the main goals for Robert was to learn to work in group, to listen to an instruction given to the whole group, not just to him.  I wanted Robert to stop relying on just one person but being able to be a part of a group, observe other children, and, if possible,  follow their lead.  I sent a few language games to school (From Super Duper School Company) hoping that the teacher might used them and engage other students.  I sent Reasoning and Writing Curriculum to school, and showed the teacher how I used it with Robert  at home.  I explained that there were parts of this curriculum that should be given to the whole group.  The teacher never used it.  Mrs. S. said, that she couldn’t use games with other students, because she was directed to work only with Robert.  So, I asked the main teacher to schedule for me the time to observe Robert during group instruction.  It took more than a month and a few reminders for such observation to happen.  I came, I sat, and I waited for the students to come to the table and work together.  The teacher talked to one student trying to persuade her to sit at the table and work on the soft, vocational skills.  She was reluctant.  He promised her to help her with her college class.  Then he followed another student, telling her that he would “own her big” if she did THAT for him.

I, the mother, witnessed the teacher having difficulties even in assembling a group. I felt bad thinking that my son’s skills might be so below those students’, that a group lesson would be a waste of time for others.
This was not the case.  Although Robert had most difficulties talking and was hardly understood, he was not far behind the other three.  All the students  could benefit from the instruction.  They all could benefit even more if  they were used to such instructions delivered regularly.  It was clear, however, that this was the first and the last group instruction in the school year 2010/2011 in this classroom.


Every observation of the classroom left me concerned and disappointed. Although I knew I should observe Robert regularly, I found that there was a heavy price to pay for each visit to the program.  I insisted on observing, repeated my calls to schedule classroom visits, but was more and more apprehensive about any contact with the school.  Mainly, because I had never seen Robert demonstrating new knowledge or skill. It was  stressful. So, at some point, I asked the teacher (the previous one) , to notify me as soon as Robert learns something new.  I would schedule an observation only when there is something positive to see.

I have never received such notification.

However….(February 23, 2015)

The last four months in this classroom, everything changed for the better. It was as if the lead teacher shook off the magical spell that was imprisoning his creativity, diminishing his skills, and  preventing him from …well, teaching. Suddenly, he prepared great teaching units with well planned field trips at the end of each unit. He understood my son’s needs and was able to adjust a few specific curricula to match my son’s strength and weaknesses. It was an unbelievable methamorphosis.  This was the teacher I always wanted my son to have. If, I however, didn’t write THIS conclusion soonner, it was because I was also mad at this teacher. He became a great teacher and then he QUIT making room for, oh well, that is another depressing story.


Up and Down Three Levels of Saxon Math

April 22, 2013

We go on in circles or, hopefully, in  spirals.  Just a month ago we celebrated completion of level 4 Saxon Math by Nancy Larson.  In anticipation of upward movement I ordered and received Saxon Math level 5 by Stephen Hake.  I looked at it.  I compared the two programs.  For now, I decided to return to Nancy Larson’s  edition of Saxon Math 4.

There is nothing wrong with Stephen Hake’s textbook.  It is well-organized.  The presentation is clear and simple.  The problems are chosen appropriately to provide a good practice of the topics covered in preceding chapters. The level of difficulties would not intimidate Robert as, I believe,  he already knows approximately 80% of the material covered there.  It would also benefit Robert to become familiar with a type of textbook that he could, theoretically,  read on his own.  Until now, he got all the information from his teachers and me.  We introduced all the facts. We  presented tools for solving all the problems. Nancy Larson books, did not explain anything directly to Robert, they left explanations to instructors.  Stephen Hike’s textbook, on the other hand, would give Robert a chance to learn by reading, by studying examples of solutions, and by solving new problems himself.

Of course, Robert would have to learn first how to learn from a textbook.  I would have to teach him how to study by himself.  The fact that Robert is familiar with most of the topic presented in  the book might be either beneficial or disadvantageous.

Beneficial, as Robert might recognize the information as familiar.  Disadvantageous, as recognizing something familiar might lead to ignoring presentation and/or skipping over it as not relevant and thus not accepting it as a tool of independent learning.

While Hake’s edition offers a chance to learn by following a written lecture, Larson’s edition presents such opportunities by allowing the student to follow the pattern of solving problems  from part A to part B of each lesson.  Parts A and B present similar problems requiring application of similar methods.  Ideally, Robert should learn techniques from part A with the help of the instructor, and then use them to independently solve problems in part B turning, when necessary, to part A for additional cues.

That is  what Robert is  doing at school with level 3 of Saxon Math.  He carries on the knowledge of facts and/or skills from part (A) to part  (B).  Except that  in the school edition, part B is called “Homework”.  That is what he has been doing at home with level 4.  It has to be said that level 3 is not necessarily easier for Robert than level 4.  It is because the main problem Robert has with math is really language.  Following written directions is still a problem because Robert bases his “solutions” on one or two words in the text. For instance, while the expression,  “How many are left? ” immediately leads Robert toward subtraction and ” How many altogether”  results in Robert’s adding numbers, the word “more” confuses him a lot.  On one hand, “10 more than 30”  should lead to adding, on the other hand “how many more is 30 than 10?” should lead to subtraction.  When Robert sees “more” he ignores all other words and mostly do addition.

(I remedy that in many ways, mainly by slowing Robert and asking him to read again, or by giving the clues, which might be as confusing as the problem itself.  That topic is so wide and complex that it would require another entry on this blog.)

Because of Robert’s difficulties with understanding  language, both level,s 3 and 4, present similar challenges.  That is why Robert simultaneously work on both grades, one at school, and one at home.

There are four reasons why I decided at this point to repeat level 4 of Saxon Math and only carefully explore level 5.

1. Importance of language.  This is the program that allows Robert to still practice such important words like,  for instance, ” ago” , ” before”, “from now” as they relate to time.

2. Flexibility. By presenting problems requiring application of different information as the student moves down the page, the arrangement forces the student to switch from one mode of thinking to another. Yet the student still has the ability to support himself by lurking at the  problems on the previous page,

3. Generalization. Application of the same concepts in different problems, allows for generalization.  For instance, after introducing terms: “vertical, horizontal, oblique lines” , the student has to find such lines in polygons.  In another lesson, the student is expected to draw horizontal or vertical diameters.  A few lessons later, the student is asked to circle letters that have horizontal (or vertical) lines.

Of course, one might rightfully argue, that to learn quicker and easier it would be better for a student to concentrate on just one topic during one math session and solve variations of similar problems at that time. In one lesson Robert would have to find all those lines in different polygons or different letters and draw them as diameters in circles.  That still would allow to generalize the skills.

But, the time of presentation of tasks is different and that might lead to different ways of retaining materials.

4. Real life applications.  Level 4 Saxon Math presents many tasks that do apply to real life in a very straightforward ways – calendar skills, time skills, time zones, writing checks, counting change from the store.  Those tasks are spread over entire program and mixed with other tasks.  Just like in life.  At store, the student has to estimate the price of two items not ten times in a row, but just once while being preoccupied with something else.

I have to say, I don’t dismiss Stephen Hake textbook   As I stated before, it might be a good place to start teaching independent learning.  I am not sure Robert and I are ready for that step.  We will try and see.

Maybe, to simultaneous studying level 3 and level 4 we add level 5.

I don’t know.  I wish, there were more research done on the way children learn, and specially children like Robert.

I suspect that because Robert does learn slowly, the steps in his learning are easier to observe. The obstacles to learning are easier to define and remedy.  From the way Robert’s learns many researchers of methods of education could learn so much and so well.

So where are they?  WHY ARE THEY NOT LEARNING ?!

Generally on Generalization

Not only was it difficult for him to see that the generic symbol “dog” took in all the dissimilar individuals of all shapes and sizes, it irritated him that the “dog” of three-fourteen in the afternoon, seen in profile, should be indicated by the same noun as the dog at three-fifteen seen frontally.”  Jorge Luis Borges

Ireneo Funes, created by Borges, character in the story Funes Memorious , rejected, as too general, Locke’s concept of a language in which each INDIVIDUAL thing would have its own name.  Although Locke entertained the idea of such a language, he dismissed it quickly and for a good reason.  Imagine that each and every spoon in the set of 12 came with its own name.  Imagine all the spoons in the world having their names.  Imagine, parts of those spoons claiming the right to their own labels….

In the late nineteen nineties, I attended a short workshop with Gina Green on generalization.

I don’t remember this workshop too well because at that time, I was not concerned with generalization.  It is true, that a couple of years before that workshop, I had considered the possibility that Robert’s difficulties with receptive language might be a result of the his over-selective hearing. I thought, it was possible, that because of differences in pitch, volume, or length of sounds Robert heard the same word completely differently.  The fact that for six months Robert could click on one of the 100 pictures when computer voice ordered him to do so, but was not able to point to one of two objects when his therapist (or I) asked him to, seemed to confirm over-selectivity of Robert’s hearing. I had noticed also that Robert had been able to differentiate between the sound of my car’s engine and the sounds of all other cars passing by our townhouse.

By the time,  I came to Gina’s Green lecture, I was  concerned neither with Robert’s over-selectivity nor his lack of ability to generalize language concepts.  That is why, I only remember the most basic things from that workshop.

1. When teaching receptive labels, for instance  “table” it is important to have two or three pictures of different tables.  If only one image of a table  is presented, the child might learn that “table” is always round, has the color of fresh pine, and its legs are shaped like thin cylinders. Thus, the child might not recognize that the rectangular, dark cherry  object is also a table.

2. I remember how relieved I was that Robert learned those first 50+ labels from the computer program First Words I and II  in which two pictures represented the same object.  For instance to represent “an apple” there was one picture with red and one with green apple. Fifteen years later, I can only speculate how Robert’s learning of labels would be affected if  each generic symbol was represented by only one exemplar.

3. I was told, either during that workshop or by a parent of a child with autism (in one of the support groups), about a boy with autism who learned meaning of two labels (let’s make them “duck” and ” cow” ) by first separating multiple photographs of different cows  and different ducks by placing them in two boxes.

4. I remember that the labels to be taught had to be chosen carefully, so their names wouldn’t sound similar and so they would not  look alike either.  Starting with goose and a duck would not be wise. Asking for “duck” versus “dog” was not recommended either.

When I attended the conference, I was not yet aware of all the circumstances in which lack of ability to generalize language would gravely affect Robert’s learning, understanding, and his communication.

As I have been teaching Robert,  I was confronted many times by the fact, that he didn’t know what,I believed, he had learned before and thus should had known.  The matter of fact, only when I started this blog and analyzed some of the difficulties I encountered in teaching, I understood the nature of Robert’s problems and limits of my presentations.  In other words, I was teaching Robert what “apple” was by showing him always a GREEN apple.

I did not realize that for Robert, the meaning of some  abstract concepts depended on always changing circumstances in which the meanings of those concepts were evoked.

That was not a precise expression.  For most of us, the meaning of any term changes slightly when the environment changes.  I suspect that Robert  lacks the  ability to make that adjustment, and thus needs a new word to fill the gap.  That word, unfortunately, either doesn’t exist or Robert doesn’t know it yet.

On US States and States of Mind

Each day of the  last week, Robert built from puzzle pieces a political map of the United States. After completing the task, he used the map as a reference to answer questions on one page of his geography workbook by writing names of the ten states and their capitals under the  drawings of the states’ contours. The order of those two activities seemed to indicate that the role of the first one was just  to support the other.  Not exactly. Building the map was the main goal.  Writing names under contours was only  an excuse for repeating the same activity five days in a row.  Since Robert could name only a few states based on their shape, he had to build a map to answer questions in his workbook.  Thus, although making a puzzle seemed to support another activity,  it was a goal in itself.

Moreover, although I usually want Robert to be independent, with this puzzle I kept “helping” him. Fully aware that he could finish the puzzle all by himself just by looking at the shapes of the connecting pieces,  I, nonetheless, kept giving him cues, ” North of California is Oregon” , “Remember, after we left South Dakota we came to Yellowstone in a state of …”  Somehow Robert remembered the state of Wyoming. If he did not, I would tell him the name as well.  “What state is east of California? We drove through it after we left Utah.”

I don’t have any doubt that each of my suggestions, cues, or “helpful” questions only prolonged the time needed to solve the puzzle.  As I redirected Robert’s attention from shapes to spoken words, I caused more problems not less.  Each day, however, Robert was becoming more and more attuned to my directions, although he never stopped relying on visual cues.

By the end of the fifth day, Robert certainly knew what states were on the west coast.  He knew where to place Texas, Florida, or Maine on the map without looking at the shape of the puzzle pieces.

And so, we moved to another task.  He had in front of himself a map  of North America with only the countries drawn on it and thier names written in proper spaces.   Although the states were not shown on this map, Robert was supposed to name two states bordering Pacific and two states bordering Mexico.

I was sure, that Robert would immediately name California.  He was there three times, he had never had difficulties placing it on the map or recognizing  its shape.  But in a context of  empty contours, he could not do it.  He did not know what I asked for.  The word “state” sounded hollow.  After, however, I told him, that one of the Pacific states was California, he soon came up with another one, Washington.

Later,  he named Texas as a state bordering Mexico.

The fact that Robert’s knowledge doesn’t transfer easily from one setting to another, is not surprising.  Many children with autism have the problems with generalization – carrying over skills from one setting to another.  Term “generalization” helps define the condition, but it  is not a cause.  The cause  of the problem, in my opinion, is related to language deficit.  I suspect that Robert learns concepts as they apply to  very narrowly defined situations.  For Robert, language concepts are extremely specific, just like math concepts are.  Maybe that is a reason why Robert’s math skills are higher than his reading skills. Maybe

On Layers, Sides, or Facets of Knowing

He knows it and he doesn’t know it.  Twelve months of the year.  Robert knows them and lists them one by one in a proper order. He knows a month before and a month after each one of the twelve.  He hesitates with naming month after December or month before January, but only hesitates.

When he has to change number of years into a number of months, he doesn’t have problems. And easily, since multiplying by 12 is not difficult for him, he tells the number of months in two, three, or more years.

And yet…When I slightly change the circumstance in which Robert has to demonstrate the same (?) knowledge, he is lost.  He doesn’t know. He forgets. He cannot connect his knowledge with the question being asked.  He cannot apply  what he knows when the problem sets his mind to solve another problem first.

Just yesterday, there was a problem in the lesson 23 of Saxon Math that Robert couldn’t solve. There was a circle divided into 12 sections.  Each part had a name of one month written in it.  Robert was supposed to do two things:

First, he should color the spaces with those months which have 31 days.  With the help of his knuckles, and two cues from me, he managed to do it right.

Next, he should answer the question, “What fractional part of the 12 months make the months with 31 days?”  He was lost.

Yes, there was time in the past, that the word “fractional” confused him.  Not this time.  As soon as he read “fractional” he drew a fraction line.  He put 7 in the numerator.  He did not know what to put in the denominator.


He knew how to tell what fraction of a figure or a set had been colored. Without any prompting, he counted all the pieces needed for the denominator and all the colored pieces for the numerator. In this problem, he could do exactly that, but he did not.

He knew that each year had 12 months.  He demonstrated that knowledge when he had to change units of time from weeks to days, days to hours, and months to years or vice versa. But when I asked, “How many month in a year?” He did not know what to say.

Was that because of the complexity of the problem that required Robert to use a few facts in a sequence?

It might be that the process of finding the number of the days in given months tainted his ability to tell the numbers of all months as if his brain went on a different chain of thoughts and couldn’t find his way back.

Maybe, each information (fraction, and months)  was preserved in a different part of his “brain” and Robert  couldn’t access them both at the same time to make connection.

Were Robert’s difficulties a consequence of a lack of ability to generalize?

What does it exactly mean to “generalize” , and what EXACTLY impedes that ability?

What does this  mean for Robert, for me, and for  ways we both learn?

Not So Simple After All

The titles of my previous two posts The Simplicity of a Good Teaching Part 1 and Part 2  are misleading.  Yes, the methods of addressing  problems encountered in teaching a child who doesn’t learn through standard “procedures”  (telling and showing what to do ) seem simple.  But the simplicity of the methods shouldn’t be confused with difficulties of finding the right approach  As simple as the solutions described in both parts of The Simplicity (…) appear to be, they are the result of analytical thinking which goes against well established, general  practices.

Instructor/teacher has to observe his or her student, guess what is preventing the student from learning, and design a method that would work around the difficulties the student has had so far.  It is a complicated process that requires both analytical skills and creativity.  Teaching is not a passive process.  As I stated before it is more like scientific approach of forming hypothesis and testing them. The only difference is  that you have to proceed with an extra care because there are humans on both sides of the “experiment” ,variables are many, often hard to notice, and they affect also the experiment taker – the teacher.

Teaching is a not simplistic, it is difficult and complex.

On the other hand, when a good method is found, it can be replicated in different setting with some variations.

I learned from Denise, the ski instructor, how giving visual cues helped Robert to adjust the position of his legs.  I realized that his difficulties might also come from not understanding for how long he should keep his legs parallel to each other.  That allowed  me to realize that maybe Robert’s difficulties with holding the reins have to do with similar deficit.  Hence, my suggestion to Kate, horse riding instruction, to have Robert count till ten while keeping reins up.  That was not a good suggestion, as I have just  realized , but somehow it led Kate to finding a better approach, by offering Robert clear,  visual cues to improve his riding skills.

The ski instructors offered Robert visual support.  I noticed that there was a time factor  involved.  My suggestion to Kate was about inclusion of this factor in her teaching, but she translated it immediately into much clearer visual cues.

Very interesting process.  Unfortunately, not something that grant taking institution are interested in