Tuesday, June 1, 2010

First Grade Homeschooling Recap: Respecting the Development of our Children

A Typical First Grade Smile :D

Beginning Grade 1 : Day 1 - Two Students...
Two Different Reactions...

Charley, my eager to please daughter...
Developmentally mature and Ready to
Take on Grade 1!

And Elena (or part of her anyway) my
Developmentally "Immature"
Grade 1 daughter - very bright, but
still walking on air...

I normally don't blog about development issues, but my friend Catherine, who also has twins (and a wonderful blog found here) asked me yesterday if I ever have days where the girls don't cooperate or don't want to do school and how I handle it. After losing a long reply to her, I realized I had too much to say on this subject and it deserves an actual post. I will bear my soul here...and be forewarned...this is l-o-n-g...

With twins, it has humbled me as a parent as I can literally *compare* the girls side by side. They may look a lot alike and they are BFF's (most of the time, anyway), but they really couldn't be more different emotionally and developmentally.

Our history: After a high risk pregnancy and hospitalization at 30 weeks due to a shortening cervix and preterm labor, I gave birth vaginally at 37 weeks, in the operating room (required by the hospital) with Charley (at just over 6 lbs) requiring vaccuum extraction after I pushed for over an hour with an infection (fever) and my anemia, losing blood fast. It wasn't a great experience...a mere 17 minutes later, the doctor pulled all 5 lbs of Elena out, feet first - (I felt everything!) yes, a vaginal twin birth, including a vaginal footling breech, thanks to her sister, who had paved the way for her!

Charley was difficult that fist year or two - colicky, breastfeeding issues, a UTI at 10 weeks of age, demanding - literally waking up to 9 times a night - no joke. She slept no more than 45 minutes at a crack for most of her first year, which was mainly in our bed. Those teeth really did a number on her and she's not good with pain. With no help nearby, refusing to let her cry it out, and a hubby who worked 80 hours/week, I was exhausted! But wait...I also had another newborn to attend to (parents of triplets and quads...you are my heroes!)

Thank God for Elena. She was my angel baby. If she had been remotely "difficult", I think that I would have crumbled. Elena was so good, and so patient - the easiest baby in the world - always being breastfed last, attended to last, sitting next to Charley who was screaming in her face (literally) as they slept in our bed with us. Very rarely could I nurse them together, as Charley would scream and get so upset if I moved slightly to tandem nurse and she got bumped off her rhythm. If it weren't for Elena, who was a natural nurser and got my milk really going, I am not sure Charley would have gotten the hang of breastfeeding. I didn't supplement or pump or anything. I made a commitment to breastfeeding and stuck it out though countless tears, but it took a good month or two for Charley to really get going as a nurser and Elena helped so much with my milk production. What would I do without my angel baby...We all owe her so much...

Flash forward to age 6, when we began Grade 1 and now it is Elena who is my light sleeper, who is my *cling-on*, who needs much patience and reassurance. She is very sensitive emotionally and cries a lot. We had a *squeaking problem* in 1st Grade. She escalates easily and compares everything. I can't help, but wonder if it was a result of her being second fiddle for so long. I had heard that Attachment Parenting produces very secure children and I see it in Charley, but I see how Elena, being made to wait during a very difficult, sleep deprived time, has been shaped by her experiences. I've tried hard the past 4 years to "make it up to her" and perhaps have now fostered this behavior. I know I did the best I could at the time. It's easy to look back now, with experience and question things, but the first three days after their birth, I literally got 3 hours of sleep total. That set the precedence. It didn't improve a whole lot until the girls were 3 and started to sleep much better. I even weaned Charley at 2.5 years old, thinking it would help her sleep, but really made it harder to get her down to sleep. I wouldn't do that again, if I could go back in time...

Months of getting up 9-11 times a night with no relief (no sitters or help, except DH on most weekends) left me a bit of a zombie going from day to day. No wonder I didn't feel *ready* to have more children until my girls were 4 years old! Then I got sick with my allergies, but that's a whole other story - lol!

Developmentally, the girls are very different.

* Charley is very mature for her age. She was practically born with a heavy gate. She knows what she wants and isn't shy about getting it. She's already shown abstract thinking at a very young age. She's lost 5 teeth (starting as a late 5 yr old) and now at 7 years and 3 months, she has 2 more that are loose. She is one of those kids that makes those connections and says profound things. Charley has been able to read some difficult words at a young age (before I found Waldorf, I started phonics at age 3.5, but did pull back to *correct* my mistake and managed to put them back to sleep :D) Reading is now coming organically to her and while she claims she can't read, she can, though I am staying away from practicing until Grade 2...

* Elena only recently has taken a heavier gate. She was one of those kids whose feet hardly touched the ground - she would literally float on air, all smiles and innocence. She is bouncy, wiggly, emotional, and hasn't actually lost any teeth yet. Though she, like Charley, has shark teeth, so she would have lost the bottom two, if they were lined up correctly. The tooth fairy is waiting patiently in the wings...Elena is going to be fantastic with math. She started doing puzzles when she was only 2 years old, working patiently on them until she finished. She is a wiz at tangrams and sees patterns in everything. She has a great memory, but she's not really reading much yet and I'm happy about that. I would say they are about 2 years apart in some aspects.

So when we started first grade, Elena wasn't anywhere near as ready as Charley, who was quite eager and excited to learn. You can see in the pictures, that Elena spent much of the first two months of grade one hiding under the table - or under our piano. She hides when she gets upset and cries, though I can now see her coming out of that stage - even her crying is somewhat forced now. My baby is growing up! I have learned that she needs to hide and cry and I have to allow her to do so, so that she feels better. I then can pull her into my arms to snuggle. If I it try too soon, she escalates. She has taught me much...

So, to answer your questions, Catherine,

"I wonder if they always happily participate to the activities and lessons that you bring up. What do you do when they start doing silly things together (we both know twins are reknowned for that!) or when they do not feel like learning or paying attention to the lesson?"

No, they don't always happily participate, though it has improved a lot since we started in the fall. I believe it is all dependent on the developmental readiness of the child, along with how the material is presented (and if they are tired, hungry, over-stimulated from too much activity, etc). We've had many, many days that have been challenging in Grade 1. Like we adults do, our children have off days or days they just don't feel like doing school and I have learned to be flexible.

On those days, I would just lead by example. Charley & I would continue and try to draw Elena in. It worked when it was timed to her readiness. Then she would join in and often want to continue well past the allotted time. Other times it wouldn't work and I would just move onto the next thing. You will notice in the early days of Grade 1, through the blog, that often Elena is absent in the pictures (like doing yoga). I allowed her to be absent, but present through observation on the sidelines where she was more comfortable.

If Elena wasn't a twin, I would have probably waited to start Grade 1 until January - ah...a benefit of homeschooling. But Charley was clearly yearning to jump in and because they are twins, I didn't want Elena to feel like she was behind Charley intellectually or academically. So I decided we'd start in Sept and I would allow Elena to work at her own pace. She has done that, done well, and has caught up to Charley in many areas, even surpassing her in some. My experience has completely supported the years of reading I've done on delaying academics and how those children do often catch up and surpass those who started way too young. They aren't burned out and they are inspired and excited about learning, as they are hungry for it! It clicks because you have allowed that connection time to be made - rather than making your child feel it's too hard, simply because they haven't been allowed that time to develop! Learning to read at age 4 can be done by some mature children, but it will be more difficult, even for them, than if they are 7 or 8 or 9 or even 10 years old. I loved reading about the Colfax family, who sent 3 out of their 4 children to Harvard (two of the children were adopted so it wasn't a genetic thing), but the oldest, who was the first homeschooler to be admitted to Harvard, didn't learn to read until he was 9 years old and by age 10, he was checking out college textbooks from the library!

With Waldorf, I am very drawn to what speaks to a child when - so even a child who is very advanced intellectually (or *gifted*, as they say) will benefit from the fairy tales told in Grade 1 or the Fables/Saints/Heroes in Grade 2, etc, etc. So as long as Elena was listening to the fairy tales and hearing stories that took place in our Maths Blocks, I was happy she was getting soul nourishment and having fun playing within the creativity that is waldorf!

I've also had to change things to suit their strengths and weaknesses. Charley does not like to write, so I allow her several days to finish copying verses into her MLB, whereas Elena will do them all in one sitting. One of the great things about homeschooling is that you can be flexible and tailor everything individually to your child or children! We have to remember that we are not waldorf schools, nor do I want to attempt to replicate a school of any kind. I believe strongly in the strength and energy of a home setting and our learning is not confined or restricted by the walls or a clock, or even other children with different needs than our own. For my family and our goals, the home is the ideal place to spend childhood - to learn and to develop. So I try not to get caught up in playing school at home or even getting caught up in what would be considered a "purist" mentality because that has the potential to destroy what I believe was one point Steiner believed very strongly in - bringing the lessons from within to the students as individuals, which stems from my own thoughts, my own being and I work into that the individual needs and goals of my family. I try hard to allow the lessons to reflect my inner self, and not just an interpretation of what he may have discussed for a particular institutionalized setting during the time of his life. And just to clarify, while homeschooling is right for us, I am aware that it is not right for every family. Many traditional schools and certainly waldorf schools are surely fantastic and would give my girls things that I can not. On the alternative, I am giving them things that those schools can not, so it's a matter of what works for each individual family. I know several mothers who would love to homeschool, but for one reason or another, can not and they do an amazing job balancing out what their children receive as they grow, because they are aware and in-tuned with those needs.

As far as silliness goes - YES! Twins really do have a sacred relationship and are often in their own world with their own language and jokes :D And ya know what, I usually try to let them go with it. I think having a schedule really helps and while it might be hard at first to get it going, it does become habit and then they know what will be expected of them and usually comply without much craziness. In our kindy year, we did *school* in the afternoons as I wanted the primary focus of their day to be full of free play. We'd mainly play, but would also run errands and go ice skating or to art class in the mornings and then in the afternoon would do *school*, which consisted mainly of stories, gardening, art within the Waldorf medium, baking, etc. We usually did *school* 3 days a week.

In Grade 1, we tried doing school 4 days a week, within the hours of 9am - 12pm, though it would sometimes start before or run afterwards. The rest of the day is mainly free play and errands. Our main lesson usually only took 30 minutes of actual MLB time and it took no more than 2 hours of total time, so having that additional hour built in, allowed for silly rages to happen, be appreciated, and gotten over. I think keeping it as simple as possible is best. And give yourself more time, rather than less, to accomplish what you'd like to during that main lesson time. That also will allow for more time to continue with something enjoyable or take off with it and spin it into something they want to do. I encourage creativity and independent thinking, so if I planned one particular experience with wet-on-wet watercolor painting, I would assume they'd want to do two more paintings that were self inspired. This way, I felt like we accomplished what I wanted, and they felt their own creativeness was fed and their ideas and needs, respected.

I think working in rhythms is so valuable - focusing on switching from inward to outward activities (like breathing in and out) can't be underestimated. There is much written about this in the various waldorf books.

Have patience. Allow yourself to take in each moment. Don't get too caught up in getting it "just right". Enjoy the journey and relax. Your children will feed off of this, as well...

I'd recommend reading the developmental books by Louise Bates Ames. They are broken down by age from 1-14 (I believe). They are carried by most libraries. Here is the age 6 book from the Steiner College Bookstore...they will give you an idea of what is happening developmentally so you kind of know what you might experience and also, that like everything, it changes. The beauty of life...

I also highly recommend checking out Carrie's wonderful The Parenting Passageway blog, if you haven't already. She's an AP, waldorf inspired homeschooling mom who writes extensively about development and parenting , teaching, living. Her blog is full of wonderful reminders, advice, help, knowledge - you name it!

If you're interested in joining a discussion group about development in relation to Steiner, my friend Lisa started a yahoo group found here where we are reading and discussing Steiner's "Practical Advice to Teachers." It is just beginning, so come join in if you want!

Elena, working on her first forms, about an hour later on that first day...Deep concentration, focus and present in the lesson...

Now I can see a huge difference in Elena from Sept until now. She no longer hides under the table or the piano when it's school time. She no longer squeaks (for the most part). She still doesn't always want to participate in circle time (which we ended up modifying to fit our homeschool and don't do every school day), but she does more often than before. She also is more verbal when it comes time to reciting things. She's talking so much more than before - to the point where she is rambling on and on...but I don't mind :D I'm happy she is growing into herself. She walks with a heavier gate, though she still is only about 1/2 way incarnated. The rest of her is still in the spiritual realm...and I hope she always keeps at least one toe in there :D


  1. What a beautiful post about first grade, readiness, siblings, twin energy, and responsive parenting and homeschooling! Congratulations on your wonderful First Grade experience - you should feel so proud!

  2. Thanks for sharing your journey, it has been very interesting reading all about your girls. love and light Marie

  3. Jen, you are my hero! I cannot imagine how hard it must have been in the first couple of years. Thank you so much for this wonderful post. I will re-read it many times! It is so helpful. Thank you so very much! I have a really hard time with the sillies... It usually escalates and becomes out of control...

    One more question: did you do recorder this year? So you do not use afternoon block like in Donna's Christopherus curriculum, right?

    I feel so blessed to have connected with you. I feel like you are holding my hand on this path!

  4. Catherine, thank you for your sweet words, as always. I do feel connected to you, too - and part of it has to be the twin connection :D I think you, of all people, surely can understand how hard those first few years can be - you even had a newborn with two toddlers!!!! What an amazing momma you are! If anything, I'm in awe of YOU!

    As far as the sillies - your girls must be really - really happy! :D Is there a time when they are less silly? If so, maybe try schooling around that time. Some kids get that burst in the morning, some in the evening - but maybe the afternoon would be a better time to school? Maybe everything is hilarious right now, but it should pass a bit over time? Or maybe a different environment - do they feel silly being serious for school? Maybe holding it outside would make them feel more focused on what you're doing together? Play around a bit and see if you can pinpoint a hidden technique that works for them or else let go and let the silliness come out and then come back to it after a bit (or are they endlessly laughing?) I can't help, but smile at the thought of how happy your home must be :D

    To answer your questions, we did do music this year, but not as much as I would have liked. We are going to cover more music this summer to even it out a bit. We tried the penny whistles, which I like (and think Jodie Messler has a nice curriculum), but the instrument just didn't quite fit well with the girls, so we now have one choroi pentatonic flute that we share between the three of us and I teach them one at a time with it. We sing a lot everyday. We also have a pentatonic glockenspiel and use the AMHC program with that (color therapy), as well as a piano that Charley is learning simple songs on from me, a guitar and little drum set that their Daddy (a musician) is teaching them basics of.

    And yes, you are correct, I don't have a formal separate "block" for the afternoon. As long as we do our main lesson work in the morning, the afternoon is not structured. However, that being said, the girls will often do what would normally be done in an afternoon block of their own free will. We often are all felting, sewing, crafting, playing music, baking, playing games, etc. I appreciate a relaxed homeschooling atmosphere and the value of unschooling and find that being flexible with our afternoons helps prevent burnout (both for me and the girls). I love child led learning and while we structure our mornings, the afternoons are great times for the "I'm bored..." creativity or free play or just focusing on our passions. Does that make sense? We don't do eurythmy at all. We do some foreign language in circle time and use the summers to catch up with things we didn't quite get to. The heavy subjects get a rest over the summer, but I have plans to catch up on some handwork and things that we let slide during illnesses and busy times. In Waldorf schools, there are special teachers brought in just for handwork or foreign language, eurythmy, etc so to expect a homeschooling mom to do all that every day with the kids, I think, is an awful lot that will lead to burnout or else the main lessons will suffer a bit. Balance is the main key and there are many ways to obtain that without throwing up your hands in feelings of failure...my 2 cents :D Often setting the example just invites the children to join in. A nice crafting basket of their own - with felt, wool, fat quarters, yarn and supplies always available will do wonders for inspiring the kids!
    HTH! Hugs!

  5. What a lovely post. I was struck by how Elena's early experiences may have impacted her in later years. My younger daughter, Lou, was very ill at age 2 (her story is on my blog). Helen was 4 1/2 at the time. I think she was deeply affected by having a sick sibling and parents who, while tending her lovingly, were clearly focused on her sister. She exhibited many of the same sorts of behaviors in Grade 1. We did a lot of storytelling with her over the years to help us all reconnect and "attach".

    I've loved reading your first grade posts and have been sharing them with a friend who will be teaching 1st grade next year.

  6. Thank you for sharing with us. Because of our children and the activities we attend together, we don't ususally get to have an uninteruppted conversation. I enjoyed learning about the gentle approach to learning that you take with your girls.
    Only 3 hours of sleep the first 3 days? I don't know how you did it but you truly are an amazing mom!

  7. Jen,

    It has been wonderful following your family and getting to know the twins this year. I experienced a similar thing with my twins this year. One has a strength in math and is quick witted and knows what she wants(lost 2 teeth). The dreamy one floats about, but is coming down now (lost 8 teeth!)and can really read well and on her own is figuring out stuff I haven't even covered! In the end, they both got the nourishment, as you said and will continue to grow through the summer and we will be amazed where they when it is time to start 2nd grade.

    Thanks for all your inspiration.

    Donna :)

  8. Wow...I really enjoyed reading all of this! Thank you for sharing everything, from your pregnancy to what it's like teaching twins. I feel like I know the girls a little more, now. You are such an amazing mom and homeschooler! :)

  9. Jen, thank you so much for answering my billion questions! It is so very helpful! You have many great ideas about the sillies! I am sure the energy will shift when we start first grade too... I love unschooling and hearing what you say makes SO MUCH sense to me. It sounds like the perfect balance of Waldorf and unschooling to me.

    I have Jodi's curriculum with 4 pennywhistle. Neither JF nor I are musicians (and I mean, zero musical background), so this will be challenging... I love the idea of sharing a flute (they are so expensive!), that might be a good option for us if the pennywhistle doesn't work.

    I really feel a strong connection to you and I feel so blessed I found you! Love, Catxx

  10. I really do think this is one of the best homeschooling posts I have ever read.
    I do not have twins but still find it so interesting as I see the differences in my two girls, and am trying right now to really see my youngest one and know what will be best for her in this next kindergarten year. With my oldest we are finishing third grade, our homeschooling is evolving, we are both learning together...
    I was just this evening writing about how much I believe in Waldorf being right for my children, how bringing the stories to them at just the right time is so important.
    Thank you so much for all you have shared here!

  11. Hi Jen,

    I really enjoy reading your beautiful blog, and thank you for sharing your experiences with us. I found your post about the differences between the girls really interesting. We have raised our son without family support and I too had a baby who woke every 45 minutes, so I know what that is like - consequently my son is an only child :o)

    I am really looking forward to sharing your second grade adventures and watching the girls grow. You are doing an awesome job!

    Cathy, in NZ

  12. Hi Cathy! Thank you for the nice comment and for sharing some of your adventures in parenthood :D Glad to find someone who has been through something like that and I'm wondering if your son is sensitive to pain, as well. Charley is and I think that is part of why she cried so much and had such trouble sleeping - between the tummy (colic) and teething for the first two years...she's a very good sleeper now, but Elena is not - funny how they switch! Hope your son is sleeping well and you are getting some rest now - lol!