Still Learning Together

I have neglected writing on these pages.  But I have not neglected learning and teaching Robert.

1. Everyday, Robert is copying pictures of people from a little book   I Can Draw People.  The pictures are very simple.  They are mainly basic shapes connected together  with some extensions and additions.  For last three days, Robert copied twice the picture of a soccer player, added a gallery of spectators, and started coloring. Maybe, he will finish today.  In the past, we spent a lot of time on copying different pictures.  Usually, after Robert was done, he took he drawing to a recycle bin.  That of course is not a good outcome as it demonstrates how Robert treats his artwork.  But then, since  he just concentrated on drawing only one object, there was not much to the picture itself.  It is different this time around.  I hope that today Robert will hang his picture on the refrigerator.

2. Three days ago, we started reading My first Book of Nature, How Living Things Grow by Dweight Kuhn. Every day we spend 5 minutes looking at pictures and reading short paragraphs related to them. There are not many new facts for Robert to learn from this book.  But the great pictures might fill the gap in his understanding of some of the words.  Moreover, bringing together pages about different living things might result in Robert better appreciating of the richness of the nature that surrounds us all.

3.  Every few days, Robert reads two very short texts (one paragraph each) from Power Practice Science grades 3-4. After reading, he answer simple questions either related to the text or requiring additional knowledge.  The workbook is rather dry.  I am using it instead of a curriculum.  I simply don’t know what to teach and this workbook shows me the topics and general direction.  I use, however, many books I bought over the years, as a main tool in teaching.  For instance, before Robert read a short paragraph Structure of the Earth, he and I looked at two colorful pictures (one from a pop-out book The Earth Pack  by Ron van der Meer , and one  from a flap book Amazing Earth by Heather Maisner)

4. We continue with Reasoning and Writing level C . On some days, I ask Robert to just talk and on some days to write, what he said.  At this time we are concentrating on Robert noticing small differences in what people do, where they are, or what they wear.  With the help of those pictures, Robert builds sentences that would first address the difference, and then they would state the main things the characters do. For instance: Robert has to notice that the character X in the first picture (A) has a parrot on his shoulder, and in picture B does not.  That should lead to a sentence, “X has a parrot on his shoulder.”  Then, Robert notices that in both pictures the character A is opening a treasure chest, the fact that Robert  should describe in the next  sentence.  And so on.  It has been a struggle to build sentences that address the differences.

5. And of course, we still work on Saxon Math, level 4, repeating it yet again.  All computations come easy, everything else needs prompts. For different problems, different prompts.  For finding an average of a few numbers in a math problem, it suffices that I emphasize the word, “average”.  For balancing a checkbook knowing interests and service fee, I would have to write on a separate page that interests we add, the service fee we subtract.  Of course, Robert doesn’t know that, as I still failed to practice that skill in his real checkbook.   For Robert to find the estimate of 5 times 78, I would have to start with drawing a horizontal line.  Robert, then, places 70 and 80 on both ends of that line and 75 in its center.  He decides that 80 is a better approximation of 78 and  without difficulties chooses the right answer, 400.  But without me drawing this horizontal line, Robert wouldn’t know what to do.  When he has to find the value of a mixed number A presented on the number line with each unit divided into small parts, I would began counting those parts from 0 to 1.  Robert continues to  find into how many parts the unit was divided and what is the denominator. After that,he doesn’t have problems finding that for instance A = 3 and 2/5. I still don’t know how to make Robert rely on his memory and his own deductions and not on my prompting.

Hopefully, I will learn, and so might he.

Pictures for Thinking

When four years ago, I saw for the first time SRA curriculum Reasoning and Writing  by Siegfried Engelmann and Jerry Silbert, I was thrilled as I felt that I found the greatest tool for teaching thinking.  I was also mad that nobody (NOBODY!!)  mentioned that program before.  In the past years, Robert and I completed the first two parts A and B. Robert should have been introduced to that program when he was 10 or 12 or 14.  But he wasn’t.  He was past his 18th birthday when we started working on part A and then B.   Not that he mastered them.  For Robert, parts A and B were harder than  part C, we are doing now.  Second time around.  I will certainly return to the previous parts, but only after we complete most of the of the part C. Because it is the easiest one for Robert and because it seems priceless to me. I don’t mean  the elements of grammar (parts of speech, punctuation etc) which are also introduced there in a solid, easy, and systematic way.  I mean, something more important for Robert:  forming sentences based on pictures and limited bank of words.

1. Writing a short paragraph starting with a general sentence about what characters in the picture did, and following with details about each character’s action.  The bank of words follows the picture and helps the learner focus.

2. Comparing two similar pictures to find differences in small details and then build paragraph that would include details from one picture but not from the other.

3. Writing the sentences about what  happened between the  two situations presented in “before and after” pictures.

4. Following the sequence of pictures to tell the story  – again with the bank of words for support.

And of course, there is more than that.  Much more.

As I mentioned this is the second time, we work on Part C.   It is because before, neither Robert nor I really grasped most of the concepts which this book presents. In other words, it is  I who didn’t understand this textbook as a tool to teach foreign language.  But that what this curriculum is.  Connecting pictures with words.  Translating pictures into words, and then imagining invisible pictures that complete the scenes presented by other images and using words to “paint” it.  Translating images into words and words into images.

In the past, Robert always wrote the responses on the paper.  Now he does it only 50% of the time.  Another 50% he “talks”.  He strings words painfully into sentences.  But although he misses or mispronounces some words or syllables,  he, nonetheless,  tells what he sees, what he assumes, what  meaning he construes from the sequence of pictures.  He tells what he thinks.

On the Crossroads

I am quickly approaching my 60tiest birthday and Robert is approaching his 22nd.  In a few weeks he will leave the school and enter  adulthood (by name only) for which he is not prepared. I cannot help but look back and bitterly analyze all those lost days, weeks, months,  and even years that depleted me of energy and destroyed my health without really leading to positive changes in the way my son was “educated” at his schools. I tried to use all the venues: talking to teachers, administrators, school committee members, asking  for the advice the Federation for Children with Special Needs, attending SEPAC meetings, using parents internet lists, complaining to the Education Departments (state and federal), using mediation, filing for the hearing with the BSEA , contacting SPEDEX, and writing to local newspapers.   There were sometimes positive results but there were so miniscule (as I kept accepting less and less) and they never lasted longer than a few months, sometimes just a few days.

Of course, there are those who kept advising me not to look back but plan for the better future.  Unfortunately, the future is dark and cloudy.

It is the result of Robert not having sufficient opportunity to learn being in group, working with a team, learning social skills, and using his not so small vocabulary to communicate with others.  Those are the things I couldn’t teach him at home in one on one setting. So Robert enters the adulthood alone.

It is also the result of the first impression Robert leaves on many people who give him a very little chance to demonstrate his wonderful, rich but complex personality. They place him in an artificially designed category and Robert, ever complacent, remains there and acts accordingly.

As Robert visits, for a couple of hours a week, three different programs (Yes, it is just two hours in each) I feel as powerless as ever.  Rightly or not, I do feel misinformed and, well, manipulated. There are factors used by others in determining my son’s future that I am not aware of and they not necessarily relate to my son’s characteristics.

I cannot really plan for the future when I feel the ballast of lost chances, and very dim lights ahead.

After Winter Break

This year, it took me much longer to get back on track with teaching Robert. It was the first winter break in at least 10 years during which we didn’t do any desk (I mean” dining table) work.  Of course with his sister and his grandmother coming for almost two weeks and his dad having a few days off, the house was full of people who could engage Robert.  But, of course, sometimes it took a little nagging.  Anyway, Robert was busy with others and found ways to occupy himself.

His main concern, however, was to clean the dishes, decorations, napkins, and tablecloth of the table and reinstate a few piles of teaching materials on top of it.  He didn’t mind removing textbooks, workbooks, a ruler, a pencil and an eraser from the table and setting it for almost daily celebrations. As soon, however, as the chairs around the table became empty, he returned the table to its main function – place of learning.

But no, Robert really didn’t want to study.  When once I suggested that, he replied, “Later, later.” and disappeared in the den downstairs.  I did not insist.  Besides, Robert helped a lot during that time – washing and folding laundry, sometimes washing dishes, and changing beds when needed.  Reluctantly, he also helped with snow shoveling, following methodically the pattern demonstrated by his father.  He played a new board game with his sister, build gingerbread village and a gingerbread carousel with her.  He went to movies twice and twice he went skiing.  Once to Sunapee Mountain in New Hampshire and once to Killington in Vermont.  That trip included, Robert’s favorite activity, staying in a hotel with a pool.  He went to New York with us.  After he visited Rockefeller Plaza, he went to Polish restaurant in Brooklyn and drove with us to the Kennedy Airport.  Yes, he was busy.

The reason, however, why we did not jump into learning as soon as possible didn’t have anything to do with how busy HE was.  It didn’t even have anything to do with how busy I was.  It had everything to do with my sort of altered state of mind.

I felt lost.

I lost the drive to work.

I doubted if our work was  important.

I was overwhelmed by how much skills Robert still needed.

I was lost.

So although Robert dutifully, cleaned the table after every family meal and put back all educational materials, I took a break.  Maybe too long.  It was harder for me than for Robert to go back to our routines.  But we did it.

Slowly, in short intervals, we resumed our study time.

Because it is important.

Because Robert needs a lot of skills.

Because, if I didn’t do it, who would?

Thinking in Pictures

Many years ago, I read a book about psychology of mathematical discovery.  I don’t remember its title.  I read it in Polish translation and have already forgotten most of it.  I think it was through that book that I was introduced to the concept of thinking in pictures or visual thinking.  According to my memory, it was Poincaré who talked about thinking in pictures.  Those were not classical pictures, however, but hard to  describe, vague shapes/spots.  And yet, those hazy smudges led the mathematician to the discovery of a new rule/theorem. The author stated that the hardest part of that process was to find words that would precisely translate those images into theorems.

A couple of days ago, I attended a presentation on modes of learning.  According to the presenter there are four of them: auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and mixed.  The presentation did not have anything with Poincaré and his way of thinking.  If anything it vaguely related to the way people learn new facts and skills.

But it occurred to me, that it might be quite possible that Robert not just learns new things with all kinds of visual support but that he might indeed THINK in images and that those images are impossible to be  translated into concise sentences.

Those images are not depicting new concepts and high level mental operations, but they are dealing with Robert’s environment and his day-to-day observations and experiences. But they are as difficult to express in words as the images that led Poincaré to new discoveries.

Sometimes in the evenings, when he is in the bathtub or his bed, Robert “sings” softly and desolately inarticulate sounds.  Their lonesome melancholy penetrates my conscience and breaks my heart.  



I took an unplanned break from teaching Robert during holiday vacation. More than thousand words are needed to explain why this happened.  And yet, I had a chance to teach Robert in completely unplanned manner a very important skill – to say “excuse me”  while passing by someone who is obstructing his way.

Robert was putting away laundry and walking from one room to the three others to place clothes in proper drawers and closets.  As I stood at the door, and Robert was squeezing by me, I decided to start the impromptu lesson. I reminded him to say “Excuse me.”  He did, I let him pass. 

I moved to another door.  Robert stopped in front of me and after I gave him “meaningful” look, he said, “Excuse me.”  Another door and another door.  Went well, but then, Robert began to say,”Excuse me.”  as soon as he noticed me in standing in the door, five, six or even 7 feet away.  That did not work.  I did not move, so he repeated, “Excuse me” while standing a foot or two in front of me.  I let him pass.  Again and again.  Then I asked Amanda to do the same thing.  She stood in the door obstructing the passage.  Robert didn’t need to be told what to say, he said. “Excuse me” every time. 

Not that he liked to do so.  Until our lesson started, he kept moving one piece of clothing at a time, passing by doors multiple times.  By the time we finished, he learned to take a few items at a time to reduce the number of “Excuse me” needed to complete a job.

Oh well.