wonder and inquiry

Ordered minds…



The winner of the Restful Teaching series is—-

Sandi Meyerhoff


Andrew Kern tells the workshop at one point in his young education, he picked up Euclid’s geometry and read the first line, which is “A point is that which has no part.” I and all the other workshop participants all looked up at him with a sort of an expectant, “well?”, maybe even- “so?”. After a breath’s pause, he says, “it took me five years to truly understand that line.” He goes on to explain how it didn’t just affect his understanding of mathematics and geometry, specifically, but also theology and a thousand other things. It takes a while to learn a truth and fully, completely understand it- when the eureka! moment hits and we see not only what we are learning but many other related truths.

This reminder is something I really needed to hear that day, and I continue to remind myself of it daily. Learning is on a child’s own time table. 

This becomes all the more true when you have the privilege of teaching children with special needs. Some of those eureka moments come after incredibly long battles for the child. Years. Sometimes decades. It takes so long sometimes that we forget what we’re aiming at and lose hope and wonder why we’re going over that idea, again.

The Circe Institute is very quick to point out (you’ll find this reflected in most Classical learning communities) the dignity of the human person, and that we are all on this journey of learning- to take our dis-ordered thoughts and find order for them. The idea of learning is not limited in any way. We can all embark on the journey. Even though on the surface the ideas of Classical learning look difficult and hard to reach- Latin roots, anyone?- an education rooted in wonder and inquiry and contemplation will open worlds to anyone willing to try.

I loved how Andrew described what teaching the languages of math does, when I think about my sensory processing kid- he said: 1) it is healing to the mind, 2) it helps develop a habit of seeking out harmony, and 3) it will moves us from being materialists (concrete thinkers) to being able to entertain abstract ideas (faith is the evidence of things unseen). Well, when you put it that way, no wonder it is my owly boy’s favorite subject.

Here’s where the nitty-gritty comes in. My twelve year old has some pretty significant processing delays due to the Sensory Processing Disorder. (Think of a internet browser window with dozens or hundreds of tabs open and how slow your computer gets as it “thinks”- except on a human kid level.) Part of teaching Isaiah is teaching him in basic terms (completely unrelated to learning) how to close some of those browser tabs and up his operating memory. Sometimes this is coping mechanisms. Sometimes this is tools like gun muffs that deaden the sound input. On the learning level when it comes to math, Isaiah is exceptionally brilliant and is always thirsting to know more and understand more. His processing delay holds him up. He ‘gets’ the idea, but it often takes him a long time to calculate. He can give you an answer (that is usually right) but would be hard pressed to spell that out in mathematical language, so it’s hard to tell if he really understands the concept or if he is just guessing. We’ve had to find a happy medium between him doing it all in his head and spelling it out for others to check his work. Personally, I think he completely understands it and probably far better than I ever will, but I have to teach him how to express what is in his head, especially in mathematical and scientific languages, so that he can communicate with others who are like-minded.

At the moment, he struggles in a profound way with the multiplication tables. It’s not that he doesn’t understand the concept- it’s that he can’t remember/re-gurgiate the products in a timely fashion. He literally has to recalculate each factor every time. So how does this work for a kid that is more than able to work with extensive fractions and understands basic pre-algebraic concepts? We fudge a bit. He’s allowed to have times table in front of him at all times. (We don’t allow a calculator yet.) He skips the extensive processing lag he’d have if he was having to calculate the products all the time. We hope in time that we’ll bump over this hump in his working memory and he won’t need such a concrete tool in front of him all the time. Meanwhile we work both backwards and forwards. He pursues and drinks in the upper level math as much as he wants, and we spend about twenty minutes each day working on the basics, slowly filling in the holes, increasing his autonaticity and processing in each area. In standardized testing, he blows the curve because he will be both exceptionally strong in some areas and incredibly weak in others, reading at ninth, tenth, and even post-high school levels in some areas, but in others rating no higher than first grade. To note- those things he is most deficient in are processing-heavy concepts. Right now we use Math U See Epsilon to guide his higher level learning (although he has been known, like Mr. Kern above, to pick up Euclides and others in the Great Books of the Western World that we found at Goodwill, like Plato and Aristotle). When he works with me for his ‘basics’ we basically play. (I highly recommend it!) We play different math games. Sometimes we try to stump each other. I am usually presenting games that apply to a specific area that he needs process speed-up practice. We work on his multiplication tables once or twice a week. Right now we’ve been playing games that remind him of place value and patterning concepts because that is what I’ve assessed he’s weakest in at the moment. Since he has come home in July I have watched a steady improvement in his processing speed all around, and I will continue on in this approach. There are literally a billion different free math games to be found on Pinterest and even more for a few pennies on Teachers Pay Teachers. Just search the concept you want to work on. We also play chess, and he is fast getting better than I. (Oh, the degradation! Heeee.)

The same could be said for both he and my oldest daughter, who was diagnosed with dyslexia last year in regards to writing and reading. Both have global delays. Isaiah’s is caused by unregulated sensory input and Lorelei’s is related to the flip flopping that the dyslexic brain likes to do. They both have “too many tabs open” in their language and writing browsers, but the tabs are open for different reasons. We use All About Spelling for formal work, but we don’t stop with the program. I give them both extensive multi-sensory approaches to their spelling lists each week. Writing in scented salt is a favorite of Lorelei’s (so cheap and not quite as messy as sand!). We use both big (three foot wide) and small (10 inch) white boards to write and I encourage them to both write BIG and small. Writing big usually crosses the mid-line of the body, helping to solidify connections in the brain. Writing very small increases focus. Sometimes Isaiah hops out the word or moves his body side to side as he spells a word. Writing in the air is popular too. And, it should be stated, I don’t teach like this just for my special needs learning kids, I teach like this for all my kids in all areas.

Our language work increasingly looks like play. We primarily use Montessori “games” or work boxes. (Again, Pinterest search is your friend!) Currently all of my children save my oldest are working in the Primary Arts of Language (PAL) curriculum from Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW). This program is fantastic and is particularly fantastic for children with special needs. If you buy nothing but the Phonics Games book, you have made an excellent investment. To this day one of the kids favorite games is Mugs, which is one of the first games in the book and one of the most basic. You feed him bones with letters on them, saying their sounds as you feed it through his mouth. (I’ve adapted this as time has gone on to use sight words that all the kids should recognize automatically, especially Isaiah and Lorelei.) They giggle so hard, every.single.time. They work and they laugh and they learn! The PAL books (there are two, one for writing and one for reading) guide you as a teacher through a series of lessons and ideas. As it stands right now, my middle two boys are using the program basically as written, and I don’t tweak much of it. They are currently working in Part II in both Reading and Writing books.

My bigs (Lorelei and Isaiah) use the general concepts presented in Part III in Writing (they don’t use the Reading book), and we use excerpts from the My Book House series to practice. Right now we are working on writing a creative story, so over the last month we have been forming our character, place, and main outlines to refer to as we begin to write the story using the concepts we’ve learned from Part III. Because it is hard for them to write, we take it slowly. Two or three sentences are usually the max, though we have been slowly building to a whole section of an outline or a paragraph worth. For them both, I will immediately back off or begin to scribe for them if I sense frustration or shut down. Scribing is important for them both. They’ve truly understood how to form their thoughts and can speak them aloud. When it comes to writing, the processing slows them down to a point that all the fun and joy of creating and sharing thoughts disappears. So again, we work both forward and backwards- scribing allows them to work “on-level” and get their ideas across, and we work carefully and slowly on building writing stamina and skills.

Lorelei has gained so much confidence in this area (as opposed to the heart-breaking tears last year) that she will often write her own little stories and ideas in notebooks I have always available on our shelves. Sometimes she asks for help spelling a word, but she is often holed up on the window seat scribbling away. That is incredibly heartening for me to see! Even writing something as long as a paragraph last year would result in tremendous frustration and shut down because she was struggling SO much with syntax and spelling.

For all my children, we are using the Montessori grammar “shape”concepts coupled with the lines we are memorizing from Shakespeare.  Each type of word has an associated shape- a pronoun is a tall purple triangle, an adjective is a large blue triangle, a noun is a black triangle. And when you need the best, richest, most loveliest examples of how words can fit together, there is a reason Shakespeare is Shakespeare. The prose is incredibly well crafted and gives them plenty of meat to feed upon. It’s absolutely a game to “solve” the sentence first, picking out the shapes they think fit with the words. I will take the grammar farther with my eldest, often diagramming the sentence with him to illustrate the ideas further and often comparing it to a Latin form (as he is also taking Latin) , discussing why Shakespeare chose to use iambic or short verse or prose for that particular line and how it changes how the line falls on the ear. I usually do that later, as it overwhelms the younger kids.

The point I’m getting at here is that we use as many great embodiements as we can find to illustrate what we are learning, we make it as multi-sensory as possible, and we keep trying. I had already begun to lean this way in my thinking before taking in the workshop, and hearing Andrew and Matt speak only further solidified in my mind that I was on the right track with teaching my special needs kids. We keep working on ordering our minds, trying fresh and new each day, building bit by bit with careful steps- and I can truly see how their mastery is increasing. On a standardized test they are still going to be very weak in some areas, but it doesn’t matter to me at all- I know they are working towards their best and they will get there- on their own time.


I will have a post for you later this week full of some great resources for teaching special needs children.


This is the eighth entry in the Wonder and Inquiry Series.




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