Monday, May 9, 2016

Are You Having a Happy Mother's Day?

This afternoon Eric put his little arms around my neck and asked, "Are you having a happy Mother's Day?"

Since Mother's Day was YESTERDAY, I understood that Eric was just carrying on the festivities, like when 2-year-old Benjamin pretended to be Santa Claus well into June.

But I also just thought it was the sweetest thing--especially when Eric also said, "You're the best mother I ever saw!"

And it started me thinking about all the "happy mother's days" I've had on many days other than the second Sundays in May when people make a point of honouring their mothers.

Like last Monday when my kids had the day off of school and I took them to the beach to escape the heat (even though I got lost on the way there AND the way back!),

or the Saturday before that when Janae wanted to go on a mommy-daughter date.

Then there are all the sweet little moments when I see the kids getting along,

or helping each other,

or helping me,

or just being funny,

or creative,

or cute,

or smart,

or when they're just sleeping.

I guess what I'm saying is that pretty much any day can be a happy Mother's Day with these little guys.

And I feel very blessed to have them!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

I'm Ready to Talk about It . . . Or at Least Write about It . . .


After years of not liking school, and five months of being truly miserable at middle school, Ben enrolled in a virtual school this past January.  About three people outside of our immediate family know this.  Why?  Because it has been a very difficult subject for me. . . .

When Ben was little, I was so excited for him to start school.  I bought him a little backpack for his second birthday and worked at teaching him his ABCs.  I thought he would be reading and writing before he started preschool--you always hear about kids who can do that, and I thought "why not my son?"  (I do have a master's in English. . . .)

While Ben loved listening to books and looking for bugs, he did not love what I will refer to as "structured learning."  Now that I've had four children, I realize this is not unusual for little toddlers.  They learn by exploring and playing, and my role is just to provide lots of opportunities for them to play and explore, and to give them lots of love.

But back to Ben. 

When Ben was old enough to go to school, he enjoyed being with the kids and learning songs and games.  But I have to admit that from day one he did not necessarily thrive in a school setting.  I think he felt a lot of stress, and structured learning did not come easily to him.

Anyone who knows Ben realizes that he is smart and can learn.  He is amazing with people, caring for others very deeply and often knowing exactly what to say to help someone feel better when things are going wrong.  He is incredible at building with Lego, drawing, and writing stories and poems.  He is great at running and climbing--he loves playing tag and swimming, and he rarely complains about anything.  His teachers and peers at school have always thought he was a likeable, responsible, creative guy who had lots of potential.

In Grade 3 Ben was subjected to a psychoeducational assessment that found he didn't have much of a working memory and gave him a learning disability classification.  This seemed to explain why he couldn't spell (except for on spelling tests that he'd prepared for extensively) or memorize times tables.  But it still didn't exactly ring true for me . . . and I didn't have much confidence in a single test giving a life-long diagnosis.

With learning assistance, a reduced workload, lots of help at home, and amazing teachers, Ben got good grades.  He didn't really like school, though, and often came out feeling sad and discouraged.  Still, he enjoyed art and gym (most kids' favorite subjects, right?), and--while he felt he didn't have any close friends at school--he had fun playing tag with the boys in his grade at recess and lunch, and worked well with others in class.

I was a little worried about the transition to middle school this past fall--Ben opted to go to a "regular" school, rather than continuing on to a "traditional" middle school from his traditional elementary.  But I thought this might be a better fit for Ben, with less focus on academics and a less rigid environment.  I was excited for him to make a fresh start, especially since the second half of grade five was pretty miserable for him. 

We had a counsellor and learning assistance teacher who made contact with the middle school and arranged a tour for Ben.  They made every effort to tell the new teachers and staff about Ben's background and needs, and we were all optimistic.

The first day of school went great, and everything after that was pretty much downhill.  Ben had no learning assistance, couldn't find friends, and pretty much hated every moment outside of the classroom.  He had nice teachers, enjoyed learning the trombone in band, and got really good grades (all A's and B's)--he even tried joining the chess club.  But he came out of school every day emotionally exhausted, completely dejected, and talking very negatively about his life.

We talked about trying different ways to meet friends, prayed about the situation, gave lots of encouragement, called the school to try to find more support or ideas, and once in a while Ben had a better day.  But overall, the trend was downward, and I felt like we were losing our Ben.

Before Christmas I'd let Ben take a couple of days off of school, and we'd gone to the virtual school to pick up a registration form.  The school seemed nice and we thought it might be a good option.  Ben would be in a class that met twice a week for two hours, then he would do the rest of his work at home--some on paper and some on the internet.

Two weeks after the break we got a call from the virtual school teacher saying she had room in her class for Ben, and a couple of days later he was enrolled.

We had to go back to the middle school to officially withdraw Ben--which Jason had to do, because I was too sad about everything we were giving up.  Even though Ben had not been happy at school, he had been learning so much--coming home every day with stories to tell and information he'd picked up in class.

As each of his teachers signed him off, they told him he'd been doing well and wished him all the best.  Just hearing about it had me crying for a couple of days, and I've shed many more tears as I've received emails about fieldtrips/fun activities his former class was doing (I am now, fortunately, off of the mailing list), taken back his trombone (we couldn't find a teacher to do private lessons, so he switched to piano), looked at pictures from the beginning of the school year (Ben loved drama and got an A, partly due to his great job at playing the Mad Hatter in his group's skit), and struggled to help Ben with his work at home (I am not a skilled math teacher, unfortunately, and sometimes I am not as patient as Ben needs me to be).

It has been a difficult adjustment, too, for Eric--who was used to having me all to himself during the day while the other kids were at school.  I was enjoying this one-on-one time as well, and it has been hard to give up.  I feel awful about the amount of times a day I have to say "wait a minute, Eric," and--between Eric and Ben--I don't get much housekeeping (or anything else!) done. 

But there have been some good changes--and some days I can catch the vision of this new way of learning for Ben.

As soon as Ben withdrew from middle school, his relief was obvious.  He was smiling and laughing, and willing to do anything it would take to succeed with home learning. 

He comes out of his biweekly class happy and excited about what he has done.  He does science labs and art with his class of 12-15 kids, all of whom are nice--many are a lot like him.

In fact, it breaks my heart to see these kids come out of class, knowing that for one reason or another almost all have found that regular school was not for them.  On a field trip I was talking to the mom of a boy Ben had become friends with, and she was telling me he was bullied at the same middle school Ben had withdrawn from.  It seems unfair that all these nice kids have been made so miserable that they've felt the best option was to leave school and try learning on their own.  At times I have had bitter feelings, thinking that school has failed Ben and many others--kids who want to learn but have had major road blocks, both social and academic.

Ben is still learning--he works hard every day, usually at the kitchen table.  He got 100 percent on his last science test, and good scores on all of his math tests and English response paragraphs (after several drafts and corrections, I can assure you).

As I mentioned, Ben has started piano lessons, and he is learning quickly and excelling in that.

He gets to eat better lunches, and he also gets to do more extra-curricular activities--he has started rock climbing and classical French fencing, which he loves--much better than playing volleyball or soccer in PE, apparently.  I get a lot more exercise, too, since we walk in the mornings to fulfill Ben's personal fitness requirement, and Eric loves having time with Ben on the playgrounds.


It is fun to see the boys together--they are better friends than ever, even though Ben has to focus on his work, rather than playing, most of the time. 

Ben still doesn't have time for much other than school, but he gets more time at home and longer holidays--he will be off for the summer six weeks earlier than his sisters.

We have had several opportunities to talk about what happened with school, and what it was that made it unbearable for Ben.  He wants to continue with virtual school until it is time for college, which both scares me and reassures me.  I'm glad we've found something that seems to work for Ben and that he enjoys school more than he used to.  I am not sure how we will get through the higher levels of math and science, though.

I have found that leaving school to learn at home is a HUGE step--and one that would only be taken by someone truly miserable in a regular classroom.  But I have also met moms of other virtual students--some with up to four children in school--who have taught them at home from the first day of kindergarten, just to have more time with them and to have a larger role in their education.  I have come to the point where I feel I could do this, too, if my other kids wanted to leave school--but I am glad they are happy with their classrooms and teachers at the moment.

Overall, I now feel grateful that we have this option available to us, and even though I struggle and feel overwhelmed so much of the time, I hope we can make it work.