Volume V Number 1-2, June 1998

Math and Science From A Home-school Perspective

Pat Guthrie
Home School Teacher

My grandson, now my adopted son, Joshua, fell from a tree two and a half years ago at age 12 1/2, and had traumatic brain injury as a result. This injury changed his and my life, and its effects on his entire person are extensive. After his accident, Joshua recovered from the four-week coma during which time he neither spoke nor moved. He spent five months in the hospital, only two of which were rehabilitative, and has been left with many disabilities that make life difficult for him and for us who love him.

Joshua has several physical disabilities resulting from his injury. His balance and coordination are affected so he uses a wheelchair for mobility. He has motor difficulties not only with walking, but with hand, arm, and finger movements (jerky motions, dropping things, etc.) He has relearned enough written language to write his name, but this takes so much time that it is about all he writes. The nerves in his eyes were damaged so that he has continual double vision and nystagmus (his eyes cannot hold his place when reading). His speech has returned, but it is slow, and sometimes slurred. He fatigues easily and needs more rest than the average 15 year old.

Joshua is very intelligent, but he also has disabilities in the function of the brain, all of which impact his learning abilities. He remembers everything he had learned in school before the accident, but he has delayed mental processing, so it takes him longer to think things through and to respond to material or commands. He has difficulty in organizing and planning how to study or approach subjects on his own, and in doing any type of problem or assignment with more than one or two steps. He has short-term memory loss, which makes him unable to remember to turn in papers or to do what he is supposed to do next without reminders. He has trouble retrieving information he has learned without memory cues and is either easily distracted, or has too much concentration - making it difficult for him to change tasks or hear what the teacher is telling him. Joshua is not able to absorb large amounts of material at one time and becomes over-loaded. His physical and mental fatigue make the need for frequent breaks necessary. He is also easily frustrated, and is impulsive, which may lead to inappropriate remarks or actions.

All these disabilities cause Josh problems in the regular classroom. In the county where we lived last school year, the school system had, remarkably never had a student with traumatic brain injury, and thus, their special education classes did not meet his particular needs.

He was placed in a small special education math class for students with learning disabilities. In the small group setting he was able to concentrate, and it was discovered that he had the ability to quickly grasp the math concepts long before the other students understood them. However, when he went to write out his answers, it took him a very long time, and so even though he understood the concepts, he was falling behind the rest of the class.

Joshua was allowed to use a calculator, but he made mistakes in pushing the buttons, plus he really preferred working the problems in his head. His teachers attempted to let him do his work verbally on a small tape recorder, but this was difficult for the teacher to understand and took extra time for her work with. Because of slowed speech and without voice modulation which made his speaking too loud, he had the tendency to disturb other students as he spoke. His special ed math teacher determined that he needed an aide to write his math problems for him. We were told that Joshua could not have an aide - that the county did not provide aides except in elementary school. Thus, Joshua continued to learn, but he kept falling behind. Out of 15 problems, for example, he might complete seven in the class period, simply because he couldn't write.

In 8th grade science class, Joshua was mainstreamed, but he had a special education teacher in the class who rotated between her 13 students and helped them as needed. Here, in a large, general education classroom, he became distracted, interrupted the teacher frequently with questions, didn't understand the material, and was again falling behind. He had no aide to write for him, and the amount of material coming at him at one time overwhelmed him with no individual checks to see if he was learning, except tests.

Even though an Individualized Education Plan was written for him, because of the types of problems he has and the fact that the county would supply him no aide, (they finally agreed to give him an aide half a day during the subsequent school year), we moved to another county.

This year Josh is in the 9th grade. In this county, the school system is working with us because they have several children with traumatic brain injuries, and they realize the specialized difficulties these children have as compared to other disability groups. Here, Joshua has a personal aide in Adaptive Physical Education. He has taken an elective in a regular classroom and with the help of the aide, did fairly well. This was a very open and unstructured classroom - where he studied various methods of communication including photography, videography, and computer graphics, which were all hands-on subjects.

His teacher was helpful in understanding his special needs and helped him not only in the curriculum, but in socialization and appropriate classroom behavior, which are also major issues in Joshua's life. He is now taking keyboarding and computer software in a mainstreamed classroom. He is struggling with the motor skills to accomplish this task, but his concentration is good in this type of course because he is involved with the computer and is working on an individual level. However, due to his organizational deficiencies, memory, vision (reading), writing, fatigue, and motor problems, we feel that Joshua could not handle the core curriculum in a general education classroom.

Our school system has the 90-minute block system in which a year's work is covered in one semester. We felt that this would cram too much into each classroom period, much more than Josh can absorb at one time. Written work and homework would be overwhelming for him, and with his fatigue levels he would not handle both a full day at school, occupational and physical therapies, and homework in the evenings as well. His distractions would be increased and he would not listen as well and thus, not learn as much.

We felt that the IEP is not sufficient to meet all his educational needs. Even what is written into the plan is not always transferred into action in the classroom, and it takes many meetings between parent and teacher to stay on top of what is happening at school. Nor do we feel that a separate special education classroom is what Joshua needs.

For these reasons, as well as the fact that I truly enjoy teaching and want to impact my son's values and character development through learning, I have decided to educate Joshua at home in the core subjects of English, history, math, and science, which are so vital. I am convinced, and it has been proven by his discussions, work, and tests, that Joshua CAN learn, and learn well. He just needs special accommodations to ensure his success.

At our home school, Guthrie Academy, Josh is kept on task by involvement, and he is doing extremely well. Distractions are kept to a minimum. With me, he gets one-on-one tutoring where I can make accommodations for his type of learning, give him the breaks he needs, and pretty much ensure success in learning the subject matter. I am in touch with what he is learning, how he learns, and what his problems are, so I can meet these needs better than if he were left totally to the public school system. I believe at the present time, Joshua is getting the best of both worlds: the benefits of one-on-one teaching as well as the chance to learn appropriate classroom behavior and social skills in the public high school.

I am preparing Joshua with college in mind if he chooses to go. Another option for him may be vocational school and much will depend on how much healing takes place in the next four years. Whether or not Joshua will attend public high school on a full-time basis is a question we have not attempted to answer. We are now going on a year-by-year decision.

At Guthrie Academy, I keep all of Josh's work. I have a plan book just as I had when I taught public school (I have taught for nine years). I plan each week's teachings and activities just as I would in public school. I have a grade book and keep his grades religiously. I have a deep sense of accountability. We have a schedule which fits with the high school schedule, and this year, I am teaching on the semester plan as they are. Next year I plan to spread out the four classes over the entire year because I feel he will learn better and can cover more material that way. We begin our school at 8:30 a.m. go until 11:30 a.m. (two 90 minute blocks). I have five-minute breaks to stretch and give his mind and body time to re-group every 30 minutes or as necessary. I have water to drink available, and snacks at 10 a.m.. I prepare a detailed report card each semester where I record not only Josh's grades, but also what we have covered and comments about his behavior and physical improvements.

In mathematics, my teaching is geared for Joshua's problems. I use the Saxon Math program because it is clear, basic math with no frills. It is uses an incremental approach that builds concepts step-by-step, with excellent explanations of each concept, practice, and much review of past learning with each lesson. (Companies that carry the Saxon Math may be contacted through the Home School Favorites Catalog at 1-800-225-5259 or Homeschool Warehouse Phone: 1-800-775-5422.

My procedure each days is to go over the new lesson, explaining and checking for understanding by questions and discussion. We then practice. With Joshua's vision and writing problems, I speak the problem out and then ask him what he wants me to put down on paper. For example:

I point to the book and say, "3 1/2 x 3 1/2" while I write down the problem. Then I ask, "What do we do first?"
He will probably say, "Change them to improper fractions."
I say, "O.K. What shall I write down?"
He will say, "7/2 x 7/2."
I say, "Then what do we do?"

He gives the next step which I write down according to what he says. This method gives him the cues he needs to go from step to step, while still allowing him to do the thinking.

I will often allow him to work a problem out on our dry-erase board just to give him the experience. However, when he does work on his own, I find that it takes him two to three times as long to work through a problem - mostly because of his motor difficulties, but also because of the problems in his thought process. Allowing him to be free of the motor demands, and giving him appropriate cues to move his thought process along has proved successful for him and for me. We can cover much more material and his learning is less hindered by his injury-related disabilities.

On his daily work Josh averages in the 90's to 100 range. On tests, his averages are high 90's. For these reasons I know he is learning the material. In fact, he is able to think mentally better than I can. We have tried calculators but he still has problems with pushing the buttons correctly which causes errors and so he would prefer to do it in his head or on paper through me.

As to science, as indicated above, I have felt that Joshua would be "lost" in a regular science classroom. For one thing, due to his brain injury, he has to be held on task and this is best done by his being directly involved in the learning through questions, little experiments, eye contact, and much reviewing in various ways.

This year, I am teaching Josh Earth Science. I was wondering how I could teach science which demands many experiments I could not afford all the equipment I would have needed. However, the company from which I buy my books, A Beka Book, Pensacola, FL (1-800-874-2352 for catalog) put out a video of the science experiments that go with the text, and a lab manual to go with the video. This video is expensive ($150), but I have found it worthwhile so far. In this way, I can teach the text, show and discuss the video and fill out the lab manual, and Josh can have pretty much what any student would have in a regular classroom.

I also us my kitchen as a "demonstration lab." It is amazing how much you can teach with almost nothing. Here are a few examples of how I teach at home:

1. We were dealing with the ways in which rain is formed. The process of rain being formed in warm clouds is called in the text, "collision coalescence." These two words meant almost nothing to my son, even though the text explained it. I took him to the kitchen sink and told him I was going to show him how collision coalescence worked. I held up a glass and put a drop of water on the side with my finger. Then I put another drop of water just above that. Then I added another drop just above that. The top drop ran down and joined with the second drop, which ran down and joined the third drop, and all ran to the bottom of the glass. "You see", I said, "the drops COLLIDED with each other and stuck together, forming a larger drop."

It was gratifying to see that just a simple water glass and drop of water had explained a difficult concept to him so that he could understand it.

2. Another thing I have done to help Josh remember and organize is to make things he can manipulate. He was studying the layers of the atmosphere and we made index cards for each atmospheric layer such as "troposphere", "tropopause", "stratosphere," etc. I put the Greek meaning of the words on the back of the card as well, such as "thermosphere", Greek - "thermo" (heat).

After he studied the layers, I had him place these cards on the table in order from the earth up. I also had the various gases in the atmosphere on separate cards and had him place them in the order they appear in the layers. He successfully accomplished this.

3. When he studied the Coriolis Effect of the earth's rotation and its effects on winds, we turned his wheelchair on its side, and observed the difference in the speed of a piece of paper attached at the axis, and a piece of paper attached on the outer rim. He saw visually that the paper at the axis of the wheel spun slower than the paper on the outer rim where there would be more wind, thus, he got a visual concept of the Coriolis Effect.

4. When studying hurricanes and the storm surge, we got a simple visual on what causes the storm surge. To illustrate winds blowing the water up in piles before it, I got a shallow bowl and put a little water in it. I laid an object in the water with most of it above the waterline. We observed where the water lay in relation to the object and pretended the object was the beach and a person's house. We talked about the bulge in the ocean which we could not reproduce, but then I demonstrated how the hurricane's winds could push water into a heap and flood the land. I leaned to water level and blew. The water made a little wave which crossed over our "beach" and onto our "house."

In none of the subjects I teach Joshua, do I require him to write or even type his answers to questions. He is learning keyboarding this year at school, but his motor movements are still very slow and this would hinder his intellectual progress to require him to write or type at this point. A Beka science materials (teachers manuals) give excellent review questions for material just taught, and we always go over the lesson, letting him give oral answers with me writing what he says. The tests come in multiple choice format and true/false which are the way Josh succeeds best because he is given visual cues which help him with recall. When he sees the right answer among the choices, he recognizes it.

Of course use the computer as well. Joshua dictates to me if he is writing a paper, and I type what he says. If we have computer programs to go with what we are studying, we use them (such as star charts, math games, history games, etc.) One really good computer game is called "Stop the Rock," featuring Bill Nye the Science Guy, and is put out by Pacific Interactive. This encourages thinking skills as well as challenging small motor movements as he moves the mouse down the hallways of the science building on screen.

Home schooling a child with many disabilities is demanding but is rewarding as well. I have to study hard and plan well. I have to make the material as interesting as possible, and I have to be conscientious in my teaching and realize that Joshua's future depends on how well I educate him. I have to put up with his behavior and deal with his frustrations.

Sometimes I would like to choose an easier road and let the public school system take care of his needs, but then reality and my love for him grip me and I realize something that I have learned after having taught Joshua at home. He will not be educated to his fullest capacity unless he is taught one-on-one by someone who understands brain injury. Yes, I could ask for a homebound teacher to come in and teach him, but then I would miss this joy of educating him, of knowing what he knows and learning with him. I would miss the friendship established between us as we learn together. And so, I choose this avenue for our lives at this point in time, and I am grateful for the opportunity to prepare Josh for future education and for life in general.

Gutherie, P. (1998). Math and science from a home-school perspective. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 5(1-2).