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January 2015
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Educational Off-Roading

There are things I don’t realize I hope for until the moment when I realize they won’t happen. In that moment I am smacked with sadness just as I have to figure out how to readjust my expectations. It was somewhere in November or December that I realized Link’s high school education was going to veer sharply from the standard path. He needed it to. I needed it to. Yet I still had to find that part of myself which had expected “normal” and make it let go.

The new plan is a partial home schooling arrangement. Link does most of his coursework through online packets. Most of the time he does that work in the computer lab at school. Sometimes he does that work at home. He still has a few regular classes on campus. I’m functioning as the enabler, assistant, and aide. I don’t make the curriculum, but I assist him in understanding what he is expected to do. Link loves this new format for school. For the first time he isn’t constantly overwhelmed by noisy classrooms where the coursework goes so slowly that he tunes out and misses important assignment details. He doesn’t get surprised by assignments being due when he didn’t even know he had one. He doesn’t have to fret over knowing he has an assignment, but not being sure how it is supposed to be done. All of the instructions are right there in front of him, patiently waiting for him to absorb them and do the work.

I can see how this arrangement is going to be good for him educationally. We’ve spent years adapting his school work to allow him to keep up in a regular classroom. Now he has to struggle with types of assignments that he’s never done before. But instead of simply failing an assignment and rushing onward because the class can’t stop for him, he will be required to re-do assignments until he has learned the necessary skills to move onward. In the areas where the assignments are easy for him, he doesn’t have to sit around and wait for other students to catch up. For a student like Link, who has some significant learning disabilities that impact some of his educational capabilities, this is brilliant. Especially since Link also has some off-the-chart educational advantages in other areas.

It seems like a perfect plan, but I’ve spent quite a lot of time being afraid that it won’t work. I fear that it will cause as many problems as it solves. In this plan Link has to sit for hours in a room mostly by himself. He has to keep himself working. He’ll have to work longer and harder hours than he has been used to doing. Unlike regular classrooms, those hours will all be focused thinking. Some of the skills he’ll have to learn are how to run the necessary software and format assignments for himself. There won’t be a teacher there tap-dancing and trying to keep him engaged. Instead it is just Link, the material, and Link’s own motivation. It is very possible that Link will not step up. That he won’t work at a rate sufficient to keep him on track for graduation next year.

This is one of those hidden hopes which I have had to acknowledge: I really want my son to graduate with his class. Ultimately the decision to do so is up to Link. I’ve done everything in my power to turn that goal from impossible to possible. Now he has to do the work to make it happen. It has been important for me to see that graduation goal. Even more important is for me to consciously recognize that I may have to sacrifice the graduation goal in service of a much more important goal: preparing Link to be a self-sufficient adult.

This is one of the other potential drawbacks of this plan, social isolation. In order for Link to be ready for adulthood, he needs to interact with other people. He needs to learn how to socialize and make friends in ways that he hasn’t yet learned how to do. He needs to figure out how to communicate his needs and how to listen to the needs of others. Sitting in a room by himself does not help him accomplish any of the important social learning which happens in high school. We’re going to have to figure out other ways to make sure he learns those things. That will mean more work for us as parents. This whole plan is a lot more work for me than the standard educational route. On the other hand, I’d much rather do this work than what I have been doing in the past few months. I was constantly manageing emotional crises as Link began to despair and consider himself a failure in all things. This new educational approach means that for the first time in years, Link can picture himself succeeding. We are both very aware how fortunate we are that the administration at his school is willing and able to support this plan. There are other schools in our school district who would not do the same.

We are now at the end of the first week and we have mixed results. Link loves it, but we’ve been confused by assignments frequently. I had to purchase and install Microsoft Office to make sure we had the same tools at home that Link has at school. We’ve spent lots of time just figuring out how to find necessary information, how to take the tests, how to submit assignments. And at the end of this first week, Link had a moment of despair because he could see that the work was all going too slowly. He thought he would fail at this too. I told him it is too early to tell if this will work. We need to keep going, ironing out the wrinkles, giving this our best try. So we’ll keep rolling along bumping our way over weeds and gullies as we travel parallel to the standard path.

5 comments to Educational Off-Roading

  • This post made me want to jump up and down with joy. It’s probably mostly selfish happiness that we’ll be able to hang out and talk homeschooling when I get to Utah, but there’s a healthy dose of “Oh, what an awesome solution I hope it works well!” in there, too. 🙂

    If it helps ease the anxiety re: social isolation, I’ve found that my son’s social skills increase most quickly when he’s not in school. School stress combined a bunch of rowdy kids inflicting developing social skills on each other tends to put him in social shut-down mode. When he’s relaxed, he starts spontaneously interacting with his siblings. He’s also open enough for one-on-one conversations about eye contact, conversational etiquette, and so forth.

  • Martin Bonner

    First (and most important point): GOOD LUCK LINK!

    Other thoughts:
    – Wish I’d been in a position to do some home schooling with my son. He did just fine at normal school, but I like the idea of home schooling.
    – You’ve mentioned his Eagle Scout project in the past. He can get a lot of socializing that way. Also, he’s old enough to already have friends and he will be chatting to them electronically all the time.
    – Graduating has to be Link’s goal, not yours (you know that, just worth saying it out loud).

    Final thought: See first line 🙂

  • Brent Kreinop

    I wish all of you luck in this endeavor. It may be selection bias, but I see in my younger self a lot of the same problems you describe Link having. The new school work structure sounds like what would have been ideal for me between about the fifth and tenth grades. It was very difficult for me to remember and comprehend spoken assignments but my reading speed and comprehension was off the scale so it didn’t get understood until much later in life. Again, I second the motion of delivering to you all some luck of the good kind.

  • Brian

    I have been following your blog for some time now and occasionally feel I should comment. Some of my nieces & nephews have difficulties similar to ones you’ve shared about, and the way you explain some of these very personal and sensitive topics had really helped me understand them. Thank you for being willing to open your heart to strangers like this.

    This post finally pulled me from my RSS reader onto the site to comment though; this is an area I have dealt with myself for years. I had a hard time focusing in school when I wasn’t gripped by the subject, both high school and college, and ended up doing several online or correspondence courses to make up credit or fulfill requirements I (and my parents) knew I wouldn’t succeed with under the traditional systems available to me. I have talked many times with family and friends in my field that had similar problems with their schooling, and non-traditional class options either saved their academic career or (probably) would have. All of them very intelligent people who just learned faster or slower or just differently than the format allowed for. All of these individuals, myself included, had to work hard to develop enough self-discipline to get things done, and sometimes the home-school format or a hybrid of regular/online classes really helped us do that. Sometimes our biggest struggle was that no one pushed us because we never “needed” pushing, so when we ran into something we couldn’t do easily we didn’t know how to handle it. Self-discipline is something everyone has to develop on their own at some point, and while all of the tools offered by teachers and parents helped, we never ‘clicked’ with the system. Sometimes we still don’t, but we have since learned to make ourselves adapt to the system or at least work with it in our own way.

    However we all eventually found that computers and software gave us a creative outlet that aligned with the way we tended to think and do things. There are very strict rules in these systems, but you can align them in countless ways to do anything you want. We played video games to learn the exploits and cheats, toyed with robotics, crashed our parents PCs… all sorts of things. But it kept our attention for hours, sometimes days if allowed, because we loved using our brains. Sometimes it got us in trouble because we did things by outside the box that no one had thought to make a rule about; not always a bad thing, and sometimes a very marketable skill if applied productively.

    Most of these individuals are now in very successful jobs in some area of computer science, sometimes having arrived there through rather circuitous routes. While software and other computer-oriented skills generally appear to be a very rigid discipline, they are there because of the flexibility and creativity it allows them to exercise in solving problems in their own way, at their own pace (withing reasonable limits), generally without strict oversight. They work from home, in giant cubicle farms, small offices – all kinds of social situations. They are well-adjusted individuals who have found a social and professional niche that works with the way they think.

    So, why am I telling you all this? I guess just to let you know that there are lots of people who have been where Link is, with parents who have been where you are. Of course you and your family are unique, and what I and my friends have gone through won’t apply directly, but it sounds to me like you’re on the right track together. Keep working with Link, keep pushing him to make the efforts himself and finding ways for him to help himself succeed. Let him fall now and then – sometimes that’s the most effective way to for non-traditional thinkers to learn what doesn’t work and what we really want and how to make ourselves achieve it. Most of all though, I really wanted to strongly suggest giving him a taste of experimenting with software.

    Try Hour of Code, find a great beginner’s programming book, write a simple game in the browser (a la Codecademy). I got hooked on software by building an animated Sudoku solver in Excel during the last half of an ‘Intro to Excel’ class after finishing the (tiny amount of) assigned material and having nothing else to do. I work at a non-software company now and regularly build tiny bits of software to make things more efficient for myself and my coworkers. I’ve even tutored some of them on the basics of programming – I would be happy to do some online mentoring with Link (and anyone else) if he develops (ha) a taste for it and needs someone to look at code when he’s stuck, or to suggest projects or skills to learn (Javascript is everywhere now). There are also tons of great resources online, of course.

    I didn’t mean for this comment to be a novel. Thanks again for being brave enough to talk about the struggles of a family who have different emotional and intellectual needs than the “normal” people (I’ve never met one of those, actually). Secretly we all need something different, and our society doesn’t talk about or allow for noncomformists unless there are -isms involved. Thanks for letting others know they’re not alone either.

    Thanks for being a real individual.

    • Thank you for taking time to comment and for your words of encouragement. It is good to know adults who have experienced similar challenges and yet built fully self-sufficient lives.