Homeschooling With a Meek and Quiet Spirit: Reinventing the Wheel

WhenCowsKidsCollideby Mel cross posted from When Cows and Kids Collide

Now that we’ve discussed a wide variety of ways to homeschool badly, I’d like to start reviewing snippets of Teri Maxwell’s book “Homeschooling with a Meek and Quiet Spirit”.

Teri Maxwell has achieved some prominence in CP/QF homeschooling circles for her series of organizational self-help books including “Managers Of Their Homes” (often abbreviated MOTH), “Managers of Their Chores”, and “Managers of Their Schools.  The Maxwells have eight grown children.

The vast majority of this book is inspirational ideas scavenged from Scripture.  I hate inspirational literature across the board – spiritual or secular.  The only time I used inspirational literature was when I was a camp counselor for tweens – they LOVED the Chicken Soup for the Soul series so I was more than willing to read one of those stories to them before bed to help them transition to lights out more easily.

To save everyone from listening to me bitch continuously, I am just going to pull out the sections on homeschooling or parenting to discuss the expectations placed on the mothers in CP/QF.

Mrs. Maxwell begins by giving an example of a frustrating day when she began homeschooling:

“I remember sitting down with my third grader for his first home school “read out loud” session. One reason we had decided to home-school was that this son was having trouble with reading. The pace at school moved too fast, and he was left behind with a very negative, reluctant attitude toward reading.

I was looking forward to the opportunity to help my son develop a love for reading. We were simply going to slow down to a pace he could reasonably manage. We would read out loud together, snuggled up on the couch side by side, and I would be right there to help him over the rough spots –no pressure!” (pg. 13-14)

Mrs. Maxwell begins with an important trope within homeschooling narratives: “How Schools Injured My Child”.  Now, many parents choose to homeschool to remedy issues within traditional schools – but the trope has a few important characteristics.

  • The homeschool child’s issues in school are severe enough to merit removal, but vague enough to avoid searching questions.  In this example, the Maxwell son shows a dislike towards reading caused by the class moving too fast.  Honestly, I have no idea what that means.  As a teacher, these are the type of questions I would need answered if it were my son:
    • How far behind was his reading lagging compared to the average third grader – a month, a semester or a year?  (These questions are to gauge how severe the deficit is and to verify that my expectations are not too high.)
    • Does he dislike reading across the board – or dislike reading materials that are at too high a level for him?  Does offering a book that is of high interest to him increase the amount of time he tries to read before giving up?  (These questions are trying to determine if the problem is with reading as a skill, frustration at overly hard material, and if a cool book can be used as a reward to help make learning to read less frustrating or boring.)
    • Does he struggle more when the class is in stations/rotations/lots of small groups?  Do you see any signs that he might have hearing or vision issues?  Does he seem to need more physical activity than most of his classmates?  Does he do better at reading shortly after recess?  Does he seem distracted or daydream more than average?  (Looking for signs of auditory processing issues/attention issues, vision and/or hearing issues, attention issues, attention issues and attention issues respectively.  The last question is especially helpful for students with ADD.)
    • What in-class remediations have you tried?  How did they go?  (No need to reinvent the wheel if the teacher’s already tried something that didn’t work – or maybe she’s figured out a trick for your kid….)
    • Do you think my kid needs to be evaluated for more in-depth help like pull-out reading support or a Special Education evaluation?  (Parents can always begin a Special Education evaluation by requesting it – even if the teacher doesn’t believe the kid needs help.  An excellent way to make school much harder for your kid is to refuse a Special Education evaluation when a teacher recommends it; parents can do that, too.  I’ve worked with far too many older teens whose path to dropping out of high school accelerated when a parent refused Special Education services in elementary school – and as a result their student never learned how to read or do math because of severe dyslexia.) 
  • The bar for fixing the student’s problem is as nebulous as the problem itself.  I can assess accurately if a student is reading at grade-level; there is no standardization for “love of reading”.  Additionally, students can love to read and still be below grade level in reading.
  • The solution is self-evident: Parents know how to teach their own kids.  Now, Mrs. Maxwell implies that her son’s reading issues were severe – but could be fixed by bringing him home and removing all the pressure to learn how to read.  This plan may work very well if the child’s reading issues are primarily due to anxiety about school or performance – but I don’t understand what the long-term plan is to help him learn to deal with that anxiety.     If the kid’s problems were due to a vision issue or dyslexia, being at home is not going to make much of a difference.
    • On a personal note, my life greatly improved when I received professional counseling targeted for anxiety.  There are many techniques that a person – even children – can use to recognize and reduce anxiety.

 

“That day, as he began to read, it didn’t take long until he was stuck on a simple word. “Sound it out,” I said.  Nothing came from him. “Come on, Nathan. What did your teacher tell you about how those letters sound?”  He attempted the word, but the vowel sound wasn’t right.  ” Try again, Son.”  He did –very same way he had before! Finally, in exasperation, I said the word for him, and we continued.

By the end of those first 15 minutes of my dream homeschooling life, I had become a very frustrated mother. I was close to tears. Rather than being patient and loving, I have been short and irritable I expected my seven-year-old son to sound out the very words he struggled with at school! I felt I had failed. I wondered whether I was wise to take on this job of homeschooling. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for it.” (pg. 14)

Oops.  That first paragraph is agonizing to read.  Good intentions do not instantly lead to good teaching unfortunately.

Part of becoming a teacher in any age group or subject is learning a variety of methods to teach an idea.  With practice, teachers present the method that most students pick-up rapidly and then use alternate methods for students for whom the first method fails.  Teacher also learn to adapt.

One method of teaching reading is by using phonics to sound out words.  From the story, it’s clear that Nathan has some issues using phonics to determine vowel sounds.  This is not uncommon in English; we have lots of vowel sounds and plenty of non-standard spellings.  (Think “weigh” and “way”.)

The problem is that Mrs. Maxwell fails to attempt any teaching method when her son struggles.  His first attempt produces the wrong vowel sound.  The most basic intervention would be to tell him that the vowel sound is wrong before he tries again.  Even a simple one syllable word like “ton” or “cat” has three different sounds.  Letting him know which is wrong would help him focus on a different vowel sound.

Asking a student to try again without giving feedback is extremely unlikely to cause a positive change.  Imagine I handed a student an algebra problem.  The student completes the problem and gives to me to check.  I check it and say “It’s wrong.  Try again.”  The student is very likely to do the problem the same way again.  Better to say something like “You lost track of a term in the third line”.  I’m more surprised at Mrs. Maxwell’s shock that her son repeats the mistake rather anything else.

Equally importantly, Nathan is showing that anxiety alone is not causing his reading problem.  This means that he will likely need more intensive remediation than simply reading at home with mom.

Mrs. Maxwell does deserve credit for admitting that homeschooling wasn’t a success immediately after starting.  Admitting that takes guts.

“It wasn’t long before I was on my knees crying out to the Lord over the sin in my life during these daily fifteen minutes of reading. If homeschooling was to provide sweet, precious moments with my son, and if he was to make progress and learning to read, I needed a change of spirit! Not only that, but I deeply desired a meek and quiet spirit to replace the irritable, impatient, and sometimes even angry one I was displaying.” (pg. 14-15)

CQ/QF theology has a very, very different understanding of sin than I learned as a Catholic.  My understanding is that sin requires a conscious action with the known outcome of hurting others or damaging our relationship with God.  Making common teaching mistakes isn’t a sin.  Equally importantly, feelings in the absence of action are not sins.  Feeling irritable, impatient or angry is not a sin.  Really, the only way this crosses into sin is if Mrs. Maxwell was taking her frustrations out on her son – which she doesn’t seem to have done.

This section begins a strange ATI/ATIA/IBLP corollary: Unresolved sin causes all sorts of problems that are completely and totally unrelated to the sin itself.   In most Christian theologies, sins create problems as a natural consequence of the sin.  For example, lying causes people to trust each other less.  The lack of trust is a direct consequence of the sin.  ATI/ATIA/IBLP teaches that sin causes all sorts of bizarre consequences.  A famous lesson for home study states that bitterness causes damage to bones including bone infections.  Mrs. Maxwell applies this warped logic to blame her son’s reading problems on her ‘sin’ of being irritated.

“The Lord showed me that my reactions during the reading session were sin. 1 Corinthians 13:4 tells me,” Charity suffereth long, and is kind.” My love (charity) was not long suffering or kind. I needed to confess my sin to the Lord Jesus Christ (1 John 1:9). I also had to ask my son’s forgiveness. As I prayed about our reading time, the Lord prodded me to develop a plan for those sessions. It went like this. When Nathan came to a word he didn’t know, I encouraged him to sound it out. If he didn’t have any idea where to start, I would very slowly begins sounding it out for him. Then, he was to sound out the word after me. (pg. 15)

Thought experiment: Mrs. Maxwell’s new plan to improve her son’s reading has three subparts – apologizing to God, apologizing to her son, and actively teaching her son phonics.  Are all three of the parts equally important?  I see some benefit to apologizing to her son – especially if their lessons have become tense.  I believe that teaching her son to read is also beneficial.  Apologizing to God may be needed for her relationship with God – but I don’t think it will directly or indirectly impact her son’s learning.

I wish Mrs. Maxwell had created a plan before removing her son from traditional schools for teaching reading if Nathan needed more support than reading on the couch with his mom.  The internet wasn’t available in the 1980’s, but Mrs. Maxwell had access to a great resource known as the local library.  Many libraries have plenty of materials for homeschooling families to use at the nearest branch plus access to the holdings of many other libraries through interlibrary loans. Mrs. Maxwell could have saved a great deal of frustration for Nathan and herself by familiarizing herself with some basic ideas on teaching reading prior to homeschooling her son.

“The Lord also showed me that I needed to praise Nathan abundantly for every little word he read correctly.” I am not a ” gushy” kind of person, so this felt very artificial to me. However, that little boy beamed as he worked through his readers, while his mom lavished upon him, ” Good boy, Nathan. That’s it. Wonderful. Keep it up!” ” (pg. 15)

All teachers in my state are required to take “Introduction to Psychology” followed by “Educational Psychology” (or similar classes).  One of the major themes in Psychology is learning how people respond to reward systems.  People often respond in positive ways to encouraging words especially when they are in the early stages of learning a skill.  The fact that Mrs. Maxwell was unaware of that idea makes me sad for her homeschooled kids.

Students do best when they receive prompt, accurate and non-judgmental feedback on their work as well as praise.  Interestingly, Mrs. Maxwell lumps the feedback phrase of “That’s it” into praise rather than feedback. Thinking back of when I would tutor students in math or chemistry, I would have a series of running feedback responses.  Often, the feedback was a simple as saying “Mmm-hmm” while nodding to tell the student that they were on the right track during a problem.  I suspect that Nathan needed that level of continuous feedback while working on his reading skills since he was working at decoding vowel sounds.  One of the hardest teaching skills to master is learning how to interrupt a student who needs feedback for a mistake without discouraging the student.  After all, no one enjoys hearing “That part is wrong”.  I developed a calm, but upbeat tone to say “Let’s pause here for a second”.  I’d quickly explain what needed to change and let the student try again.

The final thing I noticed was that I chose different praise words than Mrs. Maxwell did.  I dislike blanket praise phrases like “Good boy/girl”.  Academic success has very little standing on if a person behaves in a socially conscious way.  I don’t want a student thinking that I dislike them as a person because the student struggles in science.    I try to make praise very specific like “I am impressed by how long you stuck with that problem.  You worked very hard on that” or “Helping so-and-so out was very kind.  Thank you for doing that.”

“Can you guess what happened once my spirit changed ? Within a few short weeks, Nathan’s reading had improved immensely. Soon he became fluent reader and came to thoroughly enjoy reading, even doing it during his free time.(pg. 16)

I have so many questions and so little information to glean answers from.

  • I find the connection between Mrs. Maxwell’s spirit and Nathan’s reading skill incomprehensible.  I’m willing to bet that a well-trained reading tutor would have gotten the same result even if the tutor was spiritually desolate.
  • Nathan was a seven-year-old third grader.  That seems very young to me.  Perhaps Nathan crossed a developmental threshold and would have improved regardless of if he was homeschooled or not.
  • His jump in reading levels seems suspect to me as well.  If he was struggling with phonetics enough to be “falling behind”, that implies that he was reading at lower than early second grade lexile level – or at least a full year behind in reading.  I’m extremely skeptical that 15 minutes of reading aloud at home with Mom every day was enough to bridge a full year’s reading lag.  On the other hand, “falling behind” is completely subjective in this context.  Perhaps Nathan doesn’t like reading aloud – but was doing alright on reading to himself.  On the other hand, if the books Nathan was reading at home were of a lower lexile level, he might appear to catch up – but is really not.
  • As a voracious reader who graduated from traditional schools, I find the obsession with “reading for fun” very odd.  I love to read – but not everyone does.  Many intelligent people like to read – but enjoying reading is independent of intelligence.  Now, homeschooling a kid who loves to read is much easier, but that’s a whole other ball of wax.

The next selection from this book will demonstrate some of the unreasonable societal pressures that CP/QF homeschooling moms face.

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