Friday, December 14, 2012

Show, Not Tell

Sitting down with Theo to write an essay is tough; he's in the big leagues now.  He needs a thesis and he needs to support it. There are times he needs to give an opinion, and he asks me to help him, and I pull my hair out reminding him I can't tell him what he thinks.

He requires a good deal of prodding, but often produces something pretty special. For instance, last night his thesis was "Rain is the worst weather ever!" and as an example, he was discussing the suckiness of outside plans being canceled. He was supposed to go the beach, but then he saw it was raining. I used the lingo that's sent home and said "show, not tell." He thought about it for a minute and then smiled silly and wrote, "it looked like tears falling down from the clouds."

"Show, not tell" is one of the items on the writer's checklist Theo's sent home with. Without it, he's entirely stumped. He writes short, mundane sentences. It's interesting (and frustrating) to see how dramatically his writing improves with the checklist, that has stuff like

-strong lead
-similes and metaphors
-5 senses (I write these out because he doesn't process things as well in broad concepts and needs to see specifics in front of him)
-other words for "said" (he's particularly good at this)

I'm really fascinated by this teaching method that manages to inspire creativity through rigidity. And  Theo's whole grade is learning to write this way; it's kind of satisfying that the "checklist" technique usually reserved for toddlers and special ed is applied to everyone. 

Theo doesn't have a grasp on how much is enough for each paragraph. An adult sorta knows OK, I've said everything I need to say here, so I'll move on. Theo is told 5 sentences per paragraph. It's a guideline, of course, but he takes it to heart. (Just like "read for 30 minutes" is a guideline but he watches the clock.) For now, it helps, because it forces him to write more than he normally would.

And even though he's good at implementing the stuff on the checklist, he has trouble knowing where to incorporate the various styles. That's where I come in -- "would this be a good place for dialogue?" He says oh, yeah! and then comes up with something that's usually on the mark.

I wonder how the checklist is working for the rest of the kids in his class.  It's a good method for Theo since he's such a stickler for rules. He takes the list very seriously, going through it at the end and checking everything off. I'm not sure to what extent he understands why those things made his paper interesting. Hopefully he will be so accustomed to this style of writing that it'll become ingrained.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tea Party With My Princess

A couple weeks before Halloween, Melody's Cinderella costume came in the mail and she's barely taken it off since. And who can blame her...

I was the peasant Cinderella.
Lately, we've been having tea parties. We drink berry tea (because it's pink, of course) out of espresso cups. For our first one we had Nutella sandwiches. Now we just eat whatever's around.

Wearing my jewelry and er, make-up
They were pretty confused by this whole pinky in the air thing, but they tried. Of course, Theo used the wrong hand. Leave the dainty to the girls, eh?

And look who else was invited -- their students! The kids have been playing school all.the.time and they take it very seriously. She is Ms. Amy and he is Mr. Mahon, and they give their students real lessons and help them do the work. The students were allowed a break to join us for tea...of course, we didn't have enough cups, so Melody had them share.

One day recently, I overhead Melody's dolls having a conversations. One of them told the other, "I love my mom because we have tea parties and she snuggles with me." Definitely one of those rare and lovely "I'm doing something right" moments. 

Saturday, December 08, 2012

One of those memories I need to glue to my brain so I don't lose it: asking my little girl to zip my dress, and her going to get a stool to reach. 

Monday, December 03, 2012

Yes, That IS a Pickle

"I have a problem," Melody told me last night. "When I grow up I want to be a mommy and a superhero, but mommies can't fly."

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Slang Fail

As I headed out the door, I said to Joe, "I'm gonna bounce, see you later." You know, 'cause I'm hip like that.

Melody asked sweetly, "Where are you bouncing to?"

Friday, November 30, 2012

I've Totally Made It Now

How exciting! For the article "The Autism Advantage," The New York Times selected 3 comments to highlight, and mine was one of them. It wasn't even my main comment, which was much longer, but my response to this turd eater:

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Autism: Asset?

On stage in "How To Eat Like a Child"
I always have mixed feelings when the next "big autism article" comes out. I just read Gareth Cook's "The Autism Advantage" in the NY Times.

When I started reading, I thought "Oh great, another article about an autistic kid's special superpowers that will make me feel bad that Theo doesn't appear to have any." Remember, I struggled with this topic a couple of years ago in "Theo, What Are You?"

But I'm glad I kept reading. Cook thoughtfully conveyed the spectrum of autism -- while many of those affected are suited to technical-but-tedious types of jobs, they aren't all, and nobody's running a charity (and in fact it would be a disservice to those with autism to employ them out of charity, when there is, as we are learning, a niche for many of them).

Some nights I can't sleep because I'm worrying about grown-up Theo. Other times, on glass-half-full days, I feel confident there are attributes of Theo's autism that will be assets in the workforce. While he's not robotic, he's likely to tolerate repetitive tasks as described in the article. He will be punctual, remember his duties, and adhere to rules. Incidentally, this will also make him a kickass husband.

But is there a place for him to thrive beyond rinse-and-repeat labor? When I attended a lecture by Temple Grandin, I asked her how to find that thing my son is good at. She essentially said to just keep trying everything and see what sticks.

Theo isn’t a savant; he has no knack for assembling legos or machines, nor does he play chess masterfully like the kid in the article. But he does have a beautiful (and often outrageous) imagination. We have found theatre to be a decent outlet for him; improv in particular allows him to shine. I don't know (yet) how that will translate into career skills, but at least it's something.

I almost didn't publish this post because, reading it through, I realize it sounds like I'm shortchanging Theo, and that is not my intention. There is a reason everyone is crazy about this kid. So I'll do a follow-up post on his many strengths. This post was solely based on my realistic fears about his employable skills.

It gives me chills to think of heroes of today who are impacting Theo's future; I'm pleased to see Thorkil's work showcased in the Times. His business model could open doors for those who were previously underestimated to use their skills, or mainstream the idea that people with autism have some use beyond entertaining the masses with their quirks. Gives me hope for my bug.

*If all else fails, the back-up plan is to exploit him as a model.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

When Loved Ones Leave

If you zoom in, you can see the tears.
I'd just told her, in the perkiest, most no-big-deal tone I could muster, that her friend was moving to another country. They'd known each other since baldness.

"That's bad news!" she sobbed, the saddest girl on the swings.

I snapped this picture of her private moment; I wasn't sure if it would be obnoxious to send it to my friend. I didn't want her to feel guilty, but I wanted to share this evidence of our four-year-old daughters' connection. I was sad for Melody, but moved that she could love so deeply at such a young age.

That was the second time this year that her reaction to a loved one leaving surprised me. The first was on July 4th, when I told her our beautiful Aunt Don died. We were on the subway, and she cried heavily, her head burrowed in my shoulder.
The kids wearing two of the hundreds of hats Aunt Don knitted in her last years.

In both cases -- death and a friend moving -- she asked a lot of thoughtful questions. As she struggled to understand the answers, she was comforted by promises of visits, a better place, etc., but her grief at the reality of no longer spending time with these people was still the prominent emotion.

She also cried in the appropriate places in Bambi recently -- another milestone.

If it seems odd that I'm stricken by what are probably pretty normal reactions of a little girl, remember this is a kid who never used to scare easily during movies and, thanks to having a big brother, was used to incorporating killing and crushing into imaginary play. So to see this sensitivity gene develop in the past year has been heartwarming. You don't wish sadness on your kids, but you do wish empathy and love and deep connections.

P.S. Don't worry, she hasn't become a complete ball of mush. She later saw the photos of her sobbing on the swing and scolded me, "Don't ever take a picture of me crying again!" Oops, remind me to delete this post when she learns how to search blog archives.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Does Coffee Come From Chickens?

I woke up to that question this morning.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Rant of the Mommy Homework "Helper"

In Confessions of a Mommy Homework "Helper", I wondered just how much homework help is appropriate. But that's just a part of the big problem, which is, how the heck is a parent supposed to find time to help with hours of homework a day?

I work full-time and am in school myself, my husband works around the clock, and my three-year-old is desperate for attention at all times, especially when Theo's getting all of mine during homework.

Not to mention the small details of getting Theo fed and cleaned after school. A bath is considered a triumph in this house. Keeping up with laundry and housecleaning are fantasies long since forgotten.

And because I'm a ridiculous mother who insists that Theo should have some fun in his life, he's in play rehearsals after school twice a week, which means by the time he gets home at 5, homework hasn't started yet. Theo must be in bed by 8 because he's on the school bus at 6:30 a.m., so that gives us three hours to make dinner, clean up dinner (ha! sometimes), do homework, and stumble through bedtime. And bedtime often isn't quality time with fun books and cuddles like it should be.

If we do get to read, it's usually one of the boring books he's assigned, since that's the only time we can squeeze them in. There are a few Roald Dahl books I'm dying to read to the kids that keep having to wait. And my toddler gets shortchanged, because I don't have time to read to her as much as I'd like.

I used to savor weekends for family time, but as the NYC Board of Ed views the weekend as two days that serve no purpose but 48 hours of available homework time, the assignments double and triple. (Notice I'm not blaming teachers.)

I thought homework was supposed to reinforce what was learned in school. So how did I end up giving my son a 3-hour lesson on Ben Franklin? And apparently not very successfully. If I -- a mom who works with words for a living -- can't get my kid to do a writing assignment, how are the non-English speaking parents doing it? Which is 90% of the parents in Theo's class.

Google tells me that plenty of other parents of third graders are fed up at the amount of homework their kids get and the help required from the parents.

I'm lucky to at least have a little guy who likes homework and who is always compliant. He even asks to do homework Saturday so he can play all day Sunday. I know many parents in my boat have kids fighting them every step of the way.

To all of you parents in homework hell, my heart goes out to you. And so does this rant. 

Did you know it's possible to learn stuff outside of school and homework? Here's Theo with the Metrocard train he, er, engineered at the Transit Museum.

Confessions of a Mommy Homework "Helper"

How did a grown-ass woman end up writing a third-grade biography on one of our founding fathers?

It was the third weekend in a row my 8-year-old had to write a biography for homework. And of course, in order to write one, he had to read one first. I pulled the Benjamin Franklin book out of Theo's bag and practically fainted when I saw its thickness. I glanced out the window at the first snow of winter, which had Theo in little-boy ecstasy as soon as he woke up. Sorry, snow, it's gonna be a while before he can play with you.

The book was on Theo's reading level, so I asked him to read it to me. It took 20 minutes to get through the first two chapters, and as I knew we'd never get to the writing portion at that rate, I read him the rest of the book. It took about an hour.

And so we sped through Ben's life. The printing press stuff, the invention stuff, the famous sayings stuff, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution stuff.

When we were finished reading the book, I asked Theo why Ben was important. "I don't know." I asked him what he invented. "A swimming machine." Yeah, buddy, when he was a kid. What did he invent as a grown-up? "A hot-air balloon." I sighed, partly with the understanding that of course those are the things that would interest a little boy, and mostly with frustration that he'd absorbed almost none of what we read in the last 90 minutes and we still had a whole biography to write.

It was very clear who would be writing the thing.

And so we sat at the table and worked on an outline of Franklin's life, and the topics we would cover in each paragraph. Or more accurately, I worked on it, but discussed what I was writing out loud so I could at least feel like we were doing it together.

Off we went, one painful teeth-pulling paragraph at at time. It would go something like this:

What do you think we should say for the introduction?
I don't know.
How about where and when he was born?
So where was he born?
No, that's where he lived later. Let's check the book. I open the book to the first page and he skims it, looking for the answer. Impatient, I just point at the answer.
Yep. Write it down.

And in paragraph 6:

Why is July 4 important?
We go to Coney Island.
Yes, because it's a holiday. Why is it a holiday?
I don't know.
Because that's when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Do you know what that is?
And so I explain and hope he'll kinda sorta put it in his own words when he repeats my explanation on paper.

The result was a nicely written biography that was no real indication of Theo's skill level. Had I done nothing, the bio would've read "Ben invented a swimming machine. The End."

I squeezed as much as possible out of Theo. Tried to make the homework as authentically from him as I could. But if I'm gonna be honest, I fed him a lot of the words--OK, sentences. And while I tried to check in with him on every piece and make sure he understood what he was writing, I'm sure if you asked him about the Declaration of Independence today, he'd still say he doesn't know.

I don't know what else to do.We highlight important facts as we read them. We discuss what we've read every page or two. But he is simply not good at processing large chunks of info at at time. If we could read one chapter a day and write one paragraph at a time, Theo might actually walk away knowing something about Benjamin Franklin. If Theo can't grasp an entire movie in one sitting, no way is he going to absorb an entire book.

I don't know where Theo's autism fits into this problem except that it accentuates it.

But I bet Theo isn't the only boy who can write 3 pages on Mario Party without help, yet struggles on a subject that isn't interesting to him.

Theo is a gifted creative thinker and writer. His imagination is one of his strongest suits. He'll wake up and decide he's going to write down his dream. He makes up wild stories for Melody every night at bedtime. He randomly sits down and writes plays, complete with roles for his friends and his sister.

It surprises me that reading and absorbing content for school is such a struggle for him. But that's the reality, and it's only going to get harder. I need to figure out how to get through this. I can't go on feeding him answers and pretending he's coming to the conclusions himself because I showed him where to find them in a book. It doesn't do him any favors and I certainly don't have the time.

As a mom of a kid on the autism spectrum, I want my son to be treated like other kids, I want him to advance in school on pace with his peers, and I want him to get assignments on grade level. So how can I then complain when he gets an assignment on grade level, and it's too hard for him? This is a parenting paradox that I deal with every day.

So tell much homework help is appropriate?


P.S. Theo did make it to the snow. His insistence on a banana mouth turned out to be a great move.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Executive Chef at 3 and a Half

I tried making post-surgery muffins for Lisandra this morning. Melody watched me struggle taking them out of the tin.

"Why are you spooning them out?"

"Because they're stuck to the pan."

"But mom, did you ever use food spray?"

Man, it amazes me how smart she is and just how much attention she pays to everything (except for TV, when I need her to).

Incidentally, I had used Pam, so I don't know what went wrong!