Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Young, Black, Gifted, and Homeschooled?

I believe there is within every human a desire to belong. Unique is wonderful, within reason, but we all long to find our tribe. One of the reasons I was so happy to have three children was I felt they had a better chance of having their "built in" tribe at hand. Thankfully, it worked out that way. If each were an only child, I am not sure how easy it would be to find their piece of "home".
First let me say, we are not isolationist. We are very happy and very comfortable with our large diversity of friends. Our friendly gatherings generally have every color, culture, and custom represented in our neck of the woods - it brings a smile to my face and a dance to my heart! However, I also realize family reunions have a much different fell than neighborhood cook-outs and picnics among friends. There is a familiarity there that is unspoken, an acceptance of faults as well as gifts. There is an amazing freedom in being able to be your complete, imperfect self.
Blacks (or African Americans depending on your liking) represent just under 13% of the United States population. Gifted people represent less than 10% of the population, with profoundly gifted people representing less than 2% of the population. Home schooled children represent less than 2% of the school age population in the United States. With those numbers, my children have very few people in this country, let alone this world - that live a life similar to their own. Now, we know other Blacks, we know other gifted children, we know other Black gifted children, we know other profoundly gifted children. However, I am not sure we have had an opportunity to for my children to step into a room and find another family of children "like them". There is always something different about them, something not in common, some gap of experience. Kind of like walking into a classroom and being the only Jewish kid that celebrates the Sabbath in a school full of Protestants and Catholics. You realize that no matter how much you have in common, most birthday parties will be on a Saturday and you won't be able to participate. It takes nothing away from your classmates and friends, you just always have that tug of being, at least on this point, a bit alone.
One of the reasons I started this blog was so often coming up with a void when looking at things on the internet from other Black, Gifted, and Homeschooling families (wait, did I forget to mention Twice Exceptional children as well - add that one too). Its not so much that we only associate with others "like us" or we want to only associate with others "like us", its just sometimes wanting to have that conversation with someone who "gets it".
It really does get hard sometimes when you are at an event and no one looks like you, then you go to another event where everyone looks like you, but no one educate their child like you do, then you go to another event where some people look like you, they even home school like you, but they don't have a first grader that took a course on the "Anatomy of the Human Brain" like yours did, 2 years ago - when they were four.
Race generally isn't an issue for me, but I had the recent experience of looking at an article online about a researcher who "proved" Black women were categorically unattractive. As I looked through the comments I saw Blacks referred to as ugly monkeys, big fat welfare queens, and other things I would rather not mention. It wouldn't have been so bad if those comments didn't have 300 likes and only 4 dislikes! However, even my White friends couldn't help me from feeling a bit alone and overwhelmed. I don't just have to prepare my kids to for academic life, work life, religious life, I have to prepare them for a world where my daughter may see someone posts about Black women looking like monkeys and 300 fellow humans "liking" the comment. Those are the times when it feels overwhelming. If they were just young, I could ignore such nonsense. If they were just Black we could probably go to school and sit with friends. If they were just gifted I could post to other parents of gifted kids and ask what resources they pulled out for their inquisitive, yet sensitive little ones. If they were just home schooled I could shield them from even knowing about such people. But we don't  get to ignore it - they are intelligent enough to pick up on the subtle things that separate them from the rest of their fellow Americans. And while they are proud to be Black, they understand we live in a diverse country with many wonderful races and faces and they must learn to live with and love them all. And I can't just pick up a book or show them a video and help them understand the intellectual faults and limitations of racism and prejudice, for they will be living in a world filled with good as well as bad people. And I can't just shield them, because at some point they will live this nest, and being profoundly gifted they may leave for college or other intellectual pursuits much sooner than their age mates. At those times, my heart is heavy. At those time, I tremble a bit with fear. At those times, I want a tribe. I want someone who not only understands intellectually, but feels my hurt, my pain. I need someone who also read those comments and cried. Cried not just for herself, who looked in the mirror at her natural twists and mocha complexion and wondered just what the world saw. Cried not just from the anger of it being 2011 and there still being this type of hate in the world. Cried not just because it hurt that even though she has a PhD she is assumed to be an uneducated "welfare queen" by some in this world. But cried for her beautiful daughter; cried for her beautiful young, black, gifted, and homeschooled little baby girl. I cried because her brothers have each other, but sometimes a woman needs a girlfriend to talk things over with. As I held my baby girl in my arms as she fell asleep that night, I cried at the weight of my task. I know the numbers, I know how hard it is going to be for her to find another person "like her". She is a social butterfly, she will have plenty of friends her entire life. However; I cried, because I realized that I must prepare her that somethings she will be facing in this world completely alone.

Monday, May 30, 2011


In an earlier post I said that we separate reading and writing. This is because writing is a fine motor skills and has little to do with comprehension. One of the reasons homeschooling was so important to me was the push for writing to be the main form of instruction in schools today (public and private). My eldest did K at a private school (they grade skipped him in to K one year early). I almost fell over when I realized they were expected to write almost 100% of all of their reading and math work. His teacher would tell me for math "I know he knows this, he can do it in his head. However, since he can't write it down I can't give him credit for knowing it." She was sweet, but it confirmed what we already knew - homeschooling was going to be our only option. We have put handwriting back in its place and it has become something neat to learn as opposed to holding the kids back from other intellectual pursuits.

1. Cursive first. While my eldest didn't get the pleasure of starting with cursive, he is able to learn it as new along with his brother and sister. The know what print looks like and they will learn to write print as well. However, they use computers quite a bit, so they are getting plenty of print exposure. Please see my blog post: Cursive First, for more information on why we start with cursive.
2. Montessori sandpaper letters. I LOVE Montessori Outlet - they have the best prices and highest quality Montessori supplies I have found. We have the upper and lower case cursive sandpaper letters. I love this for giving the kids a feel for how the letters are formed.
3. Cursive letter strips - these are tapped to their desks so they can always see the correct formation of letters if they get stuck.
4. Games for Writing: Playful Ways to Help Your Child Learn to Write by Peggy Kaye. This book has some really creative games for practicing handwriting!
5. Modified Basic Skills: Correcting Reversals by Penny Groves. At times the kids need to print and this book has been great with helping my dyslexic eldest who sometimes reverses print as well as instruction for teaching a left handed child to write as one of my twins is left handed.
6. Play dough letters. We will use play dough to form various letters in cursive as well as print. Its really just kind of fun to do!
7. Supplying paper, pencils, pens, and crayons for them to practice writing as they please.
8. I have several cursive practice writing pads, including some HUGE pads for them to practice with. However, I am choosing to wait on those until we finish our phonics instruction.

Intensive Phonics Part 2

I'll be adding some pictures a bit later, but wanted to get the plan up now (while I am organizing things). I always cover information in at least four ways with the kids. This covers there different learning styles, and allows me to reinforce information in fun and new ways.

Spines that influence the way I set up our curriculum
1. Uncovering the Logic of English by Denise Eide
2. Find the vawol: Read the Rime Learn to Read by Miriam Cherkes-Julkowski
3. Reading Horizons Intensive Phonics at Home

These two books are written for the parent/teacher to help you have a more foundational understanding of the reading process. Reading these two books before designing our curriculum was key in helping me to set things up.

The main four ways the kids learn reading/spelling through intensive phonics is 1) parent-led instruction, 2) computer-based instruction, 3) reinforcing DVD's/videos, 4) arts and crafts/games. Since I separate reading and writing, our main source of interaction is through communicating - I can tell if the children understand by their responses and interactions with me during our lessons. I also use magnetic boards. I have several sizes of magnetic boards - from lap boards to wall boards. I have tons of magnetic letters and hundreds of words.

Parent-led instruction:
Using the principles from my two spine books, I set about with certain activities we will do on a weekly basis. We will cover a minimum of 2 phonic rules a week. Weekly activity include:
1. Parent-led intensive phonics at home - one or more sections each week
2. Webber Phonological Awareness Photo Cards - these are flash card that deal with a unique set of phonological awareness (such as syllable deletion). These are really important for my dyslexic child
3. AlphaTales books - these are 26 books that focus on the different letters of the alphabet. They are neat stories that utilize a number of interesting words that start with the various letters
4. Starfall books - these are books to coincide with the various stories on the Starfall website.
5. Bob Books - we have the entire set and I like these because the children can use their phonic skills quite quickly to read the books. Mind you, the books are a bit boring, but they work for us.
6. Dr. Seuss books - Dr. Seuss books are AMAZING at reinforcing phonics. Especially with the made up words that coincide with phonetic skills. Just a great tool to use. I LOVE Dr. Seuss books!

 Computer-Based Instruction:
1. CD-ROM based intensive phonics at home (my eldest, age 5, enjoys this program a lot in this format)
2. Help Me 2 Learn Super Star Phonics CD-ROMS. We have the entire set, so they can do computer based activities based on what we are learning
3. Hear Builder Phonological Awareness CD-ROM - great for ear training, again necessary remediation for my dyslexic child
4. Starfall - a great free website that teaches phonics skills

 Reinforcing DVDs
1. Rock-N-Learn Phonics DVD - we may do this depending on our mood and if we need some reinforcement
2. Tad Letter Factory and Tad Word Factory DVDs - these videos are fun ways to reinforce things we are learning
3. Classic Electric Company DVDs - fun way to reinforce some of our learning
4. Word World - a great program for letter substitution

Arts and Crafts/Games
1. Wood and Card board letter decoration. We are starting with the alphabet and phonics associated with the different letters, then moving on to blends. Each new letter we do gets decorated as we discuss it's phonic sound(s), the role it plays in words (consonant or verb), what is special about it (like Q always needs a U after it or Y is sometime a noun and a verb).
2. Games on the magnetic board - like Hangman, Scrabble, etc.
3. Felts - I have quite a few nursery rhyme felt scenes, so if we are doing sounds that are common in a nursery rhyme I have felts for, we will act those out. I also have felt letters so they can write a word or sentence that has to do with the felt scene showing.
4. Rory's Story Cubes - these are nine dice with different pictures on each side of the dice. You pick how many dice you want the child to throw (the more dice you use, the harder the story to develop). We will start with one die and kids will have to try to come up with a story utilizing at least one word made up of the phonic rules we have learned.
5. Story development. Just to have some fun, we will sometimes take an object or even a painting and each child will make up a story around it. I love this as a way for them to utilize their language skills and expand their vocabulary.
6. Letter bead bracelets. There are times when they may want to learn to spell a particular word. Especially if it is a new word we learned during story telling or in science or from reading a new book. Instead of just telling them how to spell the word, we will spell it out with beads, then make a bracelet with the word spelled out. They can wear the bracelet around as they learn to spell and sound out the word. If we haven't gotten to the correct phonetic sounds yet, I will just tell them the rule and let them know we will learn about it more later. They will eventually have enough bracelets where they can wear messages on their arms. Also have necklace strings so they can create long words or even sentences to wear around their necks.
7. Painting and coloring based on different words we focused on while learning our phonic rules.

These are some of the things we do weekly. I want to keep things interesting and focus on the outcome of learning. Since my kids are at such different levels - intellectually working quite far above their ages, but also dealing with dyslexia and limits in fine motor skills based on age - we have to be creative. Hopefully things work, but if we need to try something different - we will do that too!

We will discuss Handwriting in my next posting

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Intensive Phonics Part 1

For some reason, complete phonics is often referred to as "intensive phonics". The reason is because most children never get to opportunity to have a complete phonics education when they begin to learn to read. I absolutely LOVE the book "Uncovering the Logic of English" by Denise Eide. I use this book at the "spine" for our trip through intensive phonics.
I teach solid phonics first for many reasons. The first is that my eldest is dyslexic, so it is immensely important that a dyslexic person have a solid foundation in phonics. The second reason is that English is a phonic language. I have no inkling why we teach English often times as if it were a pictorial language like Hieroglyphics! Sight words are pictorial, so the absolute worst way to teach English. By teaching intensive phonics you can teach 104 phonics rules that will explain 98% of all English words.  It isn't at all too much to assume that even a young child can learn 104 rules - it would be similar to a child learning the 100 sight words they are expected to know when they complete First grade. So - do you spend your time teaching 100 words so that at the end of the day they know 100 English words, or do you teach 104 rules so that at the end of the day they can read 98% of the over 40,000 words in the English language?
Our lesson plan begins with us learning 2 rules a week - which means we should be finish learning all 104 rules in a calendar year. We will adjust faster or slower as needed. We are starting with the alphabet because they know it already, but it really needs to be re-taught from a phonic perspective. We will learn each of the sounds that the letters make - teaching all the sounds associated with each letter. For instance, when starting with "A", we go learn the three separate sounds that the letter "A" can make. We then will move on to blends.
It can seem as if it takes longer for a child to learn to read when they are taught intensive phonics. However, the wait is worth it. While sight words give a child a fish, phonics teaches the child to fish for themselves.
I have found many people start with phonics, and quickly to sight words. This is like starting to carefully work a puzzle with a child, the quickly fill in the rest of the pieces and show the child the picture. While the child started to learn the puzzle for themselves, the learning process simply stops and they see in whole pictures instead of pieces. This becomes a problem when a child sees new words that have some of those same puzzle pieces. The child just doesn't know how to effectively use those clues to put the new picture together for themselves.
This is the reason there are "sight words" for every grade level as children are given more and more words to try and memorize. At some point, the capacity to memorize gets overloaded. Some children learn to decode for themselves, although it can be hard to learn when to use "f" and when to use "ph" without given explicit instruction. English starts to feel random when it isn't random it all; in fact - English is very logical!

Intensive Phonics Part 2 I will reveal our year long curriculum for Intensive Phonics

Great "free" color matching game!

Okay, we spend a lot on curriculum and supplies. So much so that I hate to even consider posting the amount. However, there are times when I salivate over the word "free". So, while walking through a big name home improvement store getting supplies for a DIY project with my husband I walked past the paint isle. As I walked past the cardstock paint samples I thought, "Eureka"!
Color matching is something I really wanted to do with the kids. Of course, since they are a big old for matching simply primary colors, I thought this was an excellent opportunity. While color matching is often done with younger children, it really is important to do this with older children as well. I will get to that later, first to back to the "free" part!
Here we had all these wonderful card stocks in almost every shade available using the colors of the rainbow. And they were FREE! Okay, they didn't have a sign saying "take one for a homeschool project", but I really was thinking about painting a room and needed some samples. So, I thought - what a perfect opportunity! I got two of each for several different color shades. For extra challenge, I got two each of textured paint samples in slightly different shades. The wonderful thing is that the names of the colors are on the back of the paint samples. It is really as if they were screaming - "use me as an educational tool".
Now, if you do utilize this idea - please be reasonable. Don't grab more than two cards for any one color, don't take the last card in the slot, and please don't load up on every single sample there! At my store there was literally more than 100 different color samples to choose from and I took about 15 colors, 2 cards per color.
The reason why I think this is excellent for 3 - 6 year old set is that it goes beyond the normal primary color matching. It allows children to see the result of color blending. It can also alert you as the parent to vision issues with color processing. It is easy to distinguish red from yellow - it is a bit harder to see the subtle differences between off white and ivory. Adding in textured samples with slight shading differences can even up the challenge and allow for a 7 or 8 year old child to join into the fun.
An expansion activity can be to use crayons, paint, or colored pencils to try to color blend to match the shades on some of the cards. If you do a color science activity with water and color bath tablets - matching the shades can become a pretty good scientific study.
So, if you are ever in a large home improvement store and happen upon a wall of card stock paint color samples - consider grabbing a few for a great game of color matching. This could easily morph into an arts and crafts by cutting the cards into shapes and making a neat mosaic. There are really scores of things you can do with these neat little kid sized blocks of unique, funky, and new colors.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Cursive First

It really is a shame that most schools have chosen to stop teaching cursive and that print is taught before cursive. One of the big arguments for print only is that typewritten work, the most common type of writing today, is in print.
While this is true, it really fails to recognize that reading and writing are completely separate skills. So, while it is important to learn to read print, it is equally important to teach cursive, traditionally referred to as "handwriting" and rightfully so!
So, why is it important to teach cursive writing first? Well, I will give you several reasons:
1. Cursive writing is easier to master. Why? Don't believe me? Well, the good thing about cursive writing is that it has less intensive pencil strokes. This is particularly important for younger children just gaining control over their fine motor skills. It also has all the lower case letter starting at the same place - the lower line.
2. Stops reversals and letter confusion. Being a dyslexic with at least one dyslexic child - this point is particularly important. While the "b" and "d" in print can be easily confused, this isn't the case at all in cursive. It is also pretty hard to write a letter backwards in cursive.
3. Equalizes the playing field for lefties. What do you know, I also have a lefty! Since cursive has a natural slant, this works in the favor of left handed children that need to slant their paper in order to effectively write without covering up their words.
4. Helps with spelling. Yes, it is true, writing in cursive helps children (and adults) with spelling. How? With cursive, you must think about how a word is spelled as you write it. This is because where a cursive letter ends depends on the letter that comes after it. This means the child must think about how the word is spelled before they start writing it. Having a child do copy work teaches the child to write the word correctly, feeling each pencil stroke and providing motor memory for the formation of the entire word - this will help with their retention of how the word is spelled.
5. Helps with word recognition. Cursive creates natural breaks between words. This is because all the letters that form a word are linked together. A child will see exactly which letters go with one word and which go with another. Have you ever seen a child write a sentence in print, and you have no idea which letters go with which words? Well, that won't happen with cursive - you will immediately see how a child is spelling every word they write.
6. Personality is allowed! While we always expect printed words to look the same, there is a universal acceptance that cursive writing is personal - this is why your signature means something. Your child gets to find their own voice in their writing from the beginning.

Some people think starting a child with cursive is too hard. However, research has already proven that the best time for a child to learn a foreign language is before the age of 10, and the younger the better. If this is true for a child to learn words to a language with completely different symbols, structures, and rules - why wouldn't it be true for a child to learn to write in cursive and read in print? Children are very capable, we just have to trust them.
And speaking of trust, you also have to trust yourself. Almost 100% of the materials you find aimed towards young children will try to get them to print. This means for the most part you will be on your own with teaching your child cursive. There are many approaches you can take. You can go for it fully on your own. You can take materials geared towards slightly older children and adapt them. You can do a combination.
There are some materials that are designed for you children, mainly Montessori materials. While they tend to be a bit expensive, I truly think they are invaluable. I particularly love Montessori cursive sandpaper letters. We have upper and lower case sandpaper letters - which are individual letters on large wooden boards with the letters done in sandpaper. This creates a tactile surface so your child can not only see, but feel how the letters are formed. You can also trace letters in sand. You can make letters with play dough and even bake bread letters.
It really is amazing when children first begin to pretend to write, they naturally start to form cursive "words", designs that are fluid and flow naturally from the pencil Rather than pick up the pencil after each letter, they link them together for structure as well as grace. We do seem to "educate" the knowledge out of our children in our traditional school structure and mind.

Now, what if you didn't start with cursive? You can always add cursive. It will be a bit harder, but that is okay. They are older, they can handle it. Trust yourself and trust your child! Cursive is your friend!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Gifted Dyslexic

Being gifted and dyslexic myself, and having at least one gifted and dyslexic child (my other 2 are a little too young to make a good determination for dyslexia, but they are definitely gifted) I can't say I am an expert - but I am definitely well versed on this topic.
These are probably two of the most over quoted and misunderstood dualities a person can have. For one thing, being dyslexic can mask giftedness; however, giftedness can often mask dyslexia. Talk about being a "man without a country"! Thankfully with my eldest (5) we were able to have both diagnosis confirmed early in his life. When it comes to giftedness, my eldest is pretty close to the top of that category - being well in the upper 99th percentile of intelligence for his age. This makes him not only "bright", but he also has many of the other and lesser known characteristics of giftedness - emotional intensity, good and advanced sense of humor, excellent memory, perfectionism, heightened sensitivity, vivid imagination, etc. We knew he was gifted at a very young age, and the entire package of giftedness can be quite a challenge. There are all these giant emotions, abilities, interests, ideas floating around in this tiny package. The mind working so much faster than what the body can handle. Singing the alphabet song before the age of one might be cute to passerby's on the street - but being gifted isn't just cute intellectual feats. Being gifted also means being different. Around 10% of people would be considered "gifted", around 3% "highly gifted", and less than 1% "profoundly gifted". All three of my children fall between highly and profoundly gifted. This can be a lonely place, when no other child you meet is quite like you.
Then we add on this dyslexia. Dyslexia is often referred to as a "reading disorder", but that isn't really the entire extent of it. This is especially true for a gifted dyslexic. My eldest actually reads above grade level. However, he struggles with phonetic awareness, being able to see the words clearly, and even being able to mentally retrieve the words he is reading - even though he knows them. Reading for a gifted dyslexic is kind of like being conscience that you have amnesia - you know you can't remember or retrieve something that you know you know! It is frustrating and lonely. This is a child that can build a working robot from scrap parts at five years old, yet he will look at the word "and" in a book as if is written in Mandarin. What makes dyslexia even more confusing with gifted children is they are great a picking up context - so the longer a passage or even a book the more they understand. So, while reading Bob Books might be slow going, having a math book read to him can be quite enjoyable and enlightening. And again, even with his struggles he reads above grade level.
My eldest also has vision issues that many don't understand. So, his eyesight is 20/20 without glasses, but the way his eyes work with his brain causes problems - specifically with tracking and teaming. Basically, his eyes don't always work together to focus on an image and will fight to show him their own isolated image. Imagine trying to read with the words dancing around on the page and the pictures jumping from eye to eye. Yet, though it all, he still shines.
He is just now at an age where we can work on these issues. His homeschool First grade curriculum is quite unique - basic phonics to improve his phonological awareness along with physics. Yes, being a gifted dyslexic is a unique place in the world. My goal is to make it not so lonely for him, help him find his tribe, and help him to realize that unique isn't a curse - but a blessing. We will correct those downsides to dyslexia and vision issues with 12 months of intensive vision therapy. However, there are some upsides of dyslexia we don't want to harm - like the creativity, the ability to see what others do not, the ability to find your own way in problem solving since what you are seeing is uniquely yours and yours alone. I now see why the call gifted children with learning disabilities - twice exceptional. They really are often doubly gifted. Its their unique way of overcoming challenges that make children like my eldest so amazing to watch.