Thursday, February 10, 2011

all learners are unique

As a classroom teacher I didn't really know my learners.  There was precious little individual time.

Now that I'm intimately involved with four learners here at home,  I see the individuality.  I see more differences than likenesses.  It's amazing, actually, how unique God created each brain.

Paul has an incredible visual memory, with special strengths in spatial relationships and number relationships.   He's technically first grade, but I teach him with third grade materials.  He loves puzzles, maps, numbers, inventing, board games, spelling and crafting.

He has the shape of most states memorized, and puts a US map puzzle together just by looking at the shapes of the states.

He never did any invented spelling.  His visual memory--even though he's not an avid reader--was all he needed to move right into conventional spelling.  His weakness is that he's entirely a visual speller, and doesn't use sounds even when he needs to.  For example, he knows the four letters he needs to spell read, but once in awhile he'll spell it raed instead--not using the sounds as a cue.  He'll notice it doesn't look right, and then he'll fix it.  I know better than to ask him to sound something out.  That'll bring tears of frustration.

I use the same third grade spelling program with both Paul and Peter, but Paul masters the lessons in a day.  The words are grouped by phonics chunks, such as choice and voice, and join and coin.  Paul's brain naturally groups visual likenesses easily and quickly, making spelling a joy for him.  It's like a puzzle he does for enjoyment.

Peter, on the other hand, has a very poor visual memory, but he began hearing separate phonemes very early (great phonemic awareness).  He's a very strong auditory learner.  At three years old he could spell three-letter words effortlessly.  He was very attentive to rhyming and sounds even as a baby.  He soaked in books very early, while my other three wiggled away at the same age.  I remember being on couch bedrest with Paul's pregnancy and reading to Peter--him standing on the floor next to me. At 19 months old, he would pause his play for six or seven books at a time.

Naturally, I thought Peter would read early and read well.  He did start early, but sight words--those nasty visual beasts--took him two years to fully master.  Really nice, fast, fluent reading didn't come for him until January 2010--around his eighth birthday.

Just as he struggled with reading sight words, he now struggles with spelling themfor the same reason--poor visual memory.  One would think that chanting them would help, but he has little patience for chanting.

His spelling, in general, is awful.  Really awful.  Oh, you can read it alright; that's not the problem.  It's entirely phonetic, in keeping with his auditory learning style. He gets every syllable down accurately--just not conventionally.

While Paul reads two chapters per day, Peter reads an entire book in a day, or a day and a half.  Paul writes in a journal, focusing on penmanship and accurate spelling.  The topics are uninteresting, however, most of the time.

Peter composes poems, keeps a fascinating science journal, and will spontaneously sit down and start a story.  He focuses on ideas--on content.

Paul loves math and rarely needs help with any new concept.  How he memorized his addition, subtraction, and multiplication facts without ever studying is beyond my non-mathematical brain.

Peter struggles with math.  His brain doesn't do many mathematical shortcuts--like his Momma's.  He's getting through, though, earning B's or C's on tests.  He can memorize Bible verses like nobody's business, but math facts--except for those that rhyme--are a frustrating beast.

Peter naturally looks for the big picture, focusing on the whole--relating his learning to the world around him.  Paul focuses on the parts and how they fit together--largely missing the big picture, and even tuning out the world around him, like an absent-minded professor.  Facts and figures keep Paul awake at night sometimes--mathematical insomnia, I guess you'd call it.

To outsiders, it appears that Paul is very bright, and Peter is average--even low, if you look at his spelling.

As a mother, this puts me in a hard place sometimes, at least socially. I can't be so quick to defend Peter that I downplay Paul's amazing ability to do square roots for his uncle's pleasure.  He knew them at age six, after his uncle gave a few minutes explanation.

I need to acknowledge, and even defend when necessary, both their unique intelligences.

I need to give them room to soar, as well as fail.  And to not be good at something.

I can't feel shame or embarrassment, or regard Peter's awful spelling as some reflection on me, any more than I can regard Paul's showy talents as a reflection on me.

I need to be their loving, grace-filled facilitator.  Their cheerleader.  I need to draw out and praise their strengths, and patiently assist with their difficulties.

I need to thank the Lord for their uniqueness and for the privilege of learning along with them.  I need to ask Him for wisdom in the daily guiding and facilitating.  Since every brain is so unique, even the best teachers need direction, from the Creator, on how to proceed.

I preach this to myself for a reason.

Last night, I foolishly suffered insomnia about Peter's spelling and multiplication weaknesses. Earlier that night, I researched why he might be having so much trouble.  Little, it turns out, is written about spelling.

But I did learn a couple important things.  One professor wrote that he no longer graded term papers for spelling, because spelling had gotten much worse over the years he'd been at the university.  That I find unacceptable. Students need to learn to spell, even if it takes them much longer than their peers.  Spell check should be a weak speller's backup, only.  It shouldn't be a reason to give up on spelling.

The other thing I learned was from a homeschooling mother, and it mirrored my own instinctive prediction, in regards to Peter.  She said it took her children two years of fluent reading before they began to spell conventionally.  Students with average to poor visual  memories might take longer than two years.  Their brains, I presume, need more bombardment with words, before the sight words and phonics chunks finally sink in.

Peter has been reading fluently only one year.

I need to relax and continue to work with him consistently, but with loving kindness, assuring him he'll get there.

Most of all I need to remind Peter of God's unique design--His unique plan--for Peter.  That plan includes both triumph and struggle. Our triumphs are of God.  Equally true, our struggles are of God. Struggling is not failing.  It's walking the path--experiencing the process--that God designed to make us Holy.

Psalm 139:14
will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.

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