Homeschooling on the Spectrum Series, Post #1: The Torturous Path to a Kindergarten Curriculum

I wrote about our decision to homeschool Beth for kindergarten in this post (http://wp.me/p2OomI-Fo), where I mentioned I was in the process of developing a kindergarten curriculum. I was determined to not get stressed over choosing a curriculum and, as someone once said to me, “It is just kindergarten, how hard could it be?” Well, when you have a child on the spectrum who has significant attention, communication, and self-regulation issues, choosing the right curriculum weighs heavy on your mind. I spent countless late nights reading about various homeschool approaches and their pros and cons, chatting with fellow homeschoolers online about their experiences, and researching the state and local standards.  In the last month, I tried a few old, but new to me, teaching methods and pulled together all that I have learned about Beth while trying to teach her preschool concepts this past year.  And in the end, the curriculum decision almost made itself after considering Beth’s interests and special needs. This post is about how I came to settle on a mashing of approaches, which is largely based on two turn-of-the century educators, as a plan for our kindergarten curriculum.

Experimenting with Charlotte Mason

Charlotte Mason was a British educator at the turn-of-the twentieth century (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotte_Mason). I was intrigued by what I read about the “Charlotte Mason method” (http://simplycharlottemason.com/basics/what-is-the-charlotte-mason-method/), and while I wasn’t interested in large amounts of “copy work” and “habit training” and avoiding books almost altogether for young children (http://amblesideonline.org/00.shtml), I wanted to try “narration” with Beth and I loved the emphasis on outdoor learning, music, and the arts.  My friend and fellow homeschooler recommended the book Language Lessons for Little Ones, Volume 1 by Sandi Queen (https://www.queenshomeschooling.com/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=60_61&zenid=af9a80aedf01b3ca304ffaa5dbbd6515), which is a book of language lessons that are “Charlotte Mason inspired.”

language lessons for little ones

We fumbled our way through the Language Lessons book, and a few of the strategies really worked well with some tweaking. So, I decided the following “Charlotte Mason inspired” methods will be incorporated into our kindergarten curriculum:

1. Picture Study and Narration

For picture study and narration, the Language Lessons book used pictures of classic paintings for study. I asked Beth what she saw and asked open-ended and direct questions about the painting. For example, I said, “What do you see?” or “Which one is your favorite? Why?” for open-ended questions, and asked about colors, how many animals, and what is happening in the picture for direct questions.  I came back to the same picture a day later, asked her to remember that we looked at the picture the day before, and related the contents of the picture to Beth’s own experiences through open-ended and direct questions. The picture study and narration process worked remarkably well, and what Beth had to say often surprised me.  Picture study is not only a practice of expressive language. Based on what I have read in a fascinating visualization and reading comprehension book for educators (http://www.amazon.com/Visualizing-Verbalizing-Language-Comprehension-Thinking/dp/0945856644/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1374835782&sr=8-6&keywords=autism+reading+comprehension), children on the spectrum often have reading comprehension problems due to a hyper focus on certain parts of a story to the exclusion of other parts. Therefore, I believe it is very important to show Beth how to focus on all the parts of a picture during picture study, and I see it as a reading readiness activity.  

2. Drawing to Learn

The Language Lessons book included parts where I instructed Beth to draw a picture on a blank piece of paper.  With Beth’s attention issues, her stimming while making circles and scribbling layers of crayon on the page, and all the prompting that I have been instructed by experts to do with her, free drawing with her seemed daunting and I wasn’t even sure how to approach it. But I took it step by step by pointing out exactly what we were drawing (the parts of the object, person, or animal), relating it to shapes and language she already knew, and used a lot of demonstration as an imitation example. Drawing helped us slow down and talk about each part of an item, and sometimes lead to more detailed discussion.  It also helped her with attention. When I wrote, because of her attraction to movement, she attended longer. And when she drew something herself, she was more likely to absorb the information.

3. Poetry

When I saw the poetry in the Language Lessons book I was hesitant. Poetry for a child with significant language delays? But the poetry was relevant to the lessons with topics that young children understand (trees, wind, farm animals, swings, etc.). The poems were a hit with Beth, especially if I repeated the poems over several days and reinforced the topic of the poem with other activities.  I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that she liked them, because she has recently started singing every song she ever learned in its entirety.  Clearly songs and writings with rhyme are motivating and source of joy for her.

4. Topical Learning

The Language Lessons book was roughly topical, which I noticed resonated with Beth. So I started supplementing the Language Lessons book with other activities to reinforce an idea over a period of 2 or more days.  For example, for a section of the book on caterpillars, I added art and sequencing activities, in addition to viewing the life cycle of a butterfly on Youtube and observing butterflies outside. Here are some examples from our caterpillar lessons:

Drawing Caterpillars on a White Board (Mine on Top, Beth's on Bottom)

Drawing Caterpillars on a White Board (Mine on Top, Beth’s on Bottom)

Beth is starting to notice more things in the world, but she still struggles with attention, organization and connection of ideas, and integrating concepts into new situations. I believe that setting up Beth’s educational concepts in a topical, processed-oriented, hands-on, experienced based approach will be an essential part of the kindergarten curriculum, because it fits where she is developmentally and it is the best way to help her understand the world.  Also, when we cover a topic and make it part of our days, opportunities to ask her what she is observing and what she thinks comes naturally, which makes it a low-stress way to work on language development.

Oak Meadow (Waldorf Inspired) Curriculum

The Language Lessons book mentioned in the previous section made me realize that there is a great benefit to having an official lesson plan.  It keeps me organized, gives me new ideas, and basically keeps me on track with goals. Therefore, I went on the hunt for a formal kindergarten curriculum.

I wanted a curriculum that was in line with Beth’s interests and was process-oriented, and included nature, arts, crafts, music, cooking, drawing, songs, poems, and a focus on play. Also, in general, I wanted a total hands-on, integrated into home life, approach.  Oak Meadow , which is a Waldorf-inspired curriculum, seemed to fit most of my criteria.  Briefly, Waldorf education is based on the ideas of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who developed the method in the early 1900s. Waldorf tries to consider the whole child and is based on a theory of child development that reminds me of a form of religious humanism (for more on Waldorf, see here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waldorf_education).

Oak Meadow is a secular curriculum, and the website describes it as having a “strong Waldorf influence” with a “standards-based curriculum that will satisfy homeschooling regulations across the country” (http://www.oakmeadow.com/faq.php?category=oak-meadow-general-info#5). I compared Oak Meadow to our state and local core standards, and it was clear that the math and science were not totally in line with the core standards.  Since math and science are two of Beth’s strengths,  I decided that may need to be supplemented if we used Oak Meadow.  In addition, due to Beth’s speech and language therapy needs and her strengths in letter, number, and word recognition, I anticipated that I would need to tweak and supplement that as well. Also, I wasn’t sure if all the great “Charlotte Mason inspired” ideas were part of the Oak Meadow curriculum, but I was comfortable tweaking and adding those elements as well.  So, that is how I settled on our complicated kindergarten curriculum. To put it as succinctly as I can, it is a Waldorf-inspired curriculum, with Charlotte Mason elements, and a touch of core-aligned language, math, and science. It is the plan for now, and is likely to change.

I purchased Oak Meadow’s pricey kindergarten package and eagerly awaited its arrival.  And that is where things started to get funny, and enlightening, which will be the topic of my next post.

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