Grateful For Our Gifts

This blog is designed to celebrate the childhoods, accomplishments, and joys of our two greatest gifts: Brendan and Ryan. It is also a diary, of sorts, to record our educational journey as we explore homeschooling with profoundly gifted children. We invite your positive support and love as we share our personal family stories here.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Grateful for Our Gifts: My Babies Can Read!

My Babies Can Read!

When our oldest son Brendan was 22 months old, we silently listened in awe as he recited his favorite Thomas books in his crib. Shortly after his second birthday, Brendan would “read” his well-worn “Step Into Reading” books as we turned the pages, pointing to the correct text and calling out words when we paused. While those first readings were by rote memorization, Brendan soon discovered that he recognized words in new books and gleefully pointed them out. By his third birthday, he was able to read newly-introduced Step 1 books on his own. Before he turned four, his preschool teacher introduced him to Magic Treehouse chapter books. At five, he read the entire Harry Potter series; he also tested at nearly-9th grade level on our district’s reading comprehension test. This past Spring, at 6, he read Lord of the Rings. Brendan has never been given formal reading instruction. He taught himself to read.
When our youngest son Ryan came along, his personality was so different that we had no expectations. As an infant, he was “too busy” for reading time. Yet, by 18 months old, Ryan too wanted to be tucked into bed with his books, and he was soon “reading” to his stuffed animals. At two, Ryan became enamored with Baby Tad videos, which were played often while I homeschooled Brendan. When Ryan was 2 ½, I discovered, where he played kindergarten-level phonics games for a few minutes a week while Brendan did his math on another computer. By his third birthday, Ryan could read most of the kindergarten sight words. Now at 3 years, 5 months, he too can read new books on his own. It’s suddenly dawning on us that producing two preschool readers is unusual, leading us to reflect on their early reading paths.
Thoughts on early reading seem to fall into two camps. On the one hand, most parenting articles and developmental charts suggest that children aren’t cognitively capable of learning to read before their 5th birthday. Most preschools limit reading instruction to “letters of the week” and their corresponding sounds. Many elementary schools rely so heavily on phonics instruction that children aren’t even introduced to common exceptions like “the” before the second half of kindergarten. On the other hand, the market is flooding with “teach your baby to read” flashcards, workbooks, and other curriculum for “those parents” (we all know some, right?) who intend to “hothouse” their children to the front of the class.
I like to think that my parental approach falls somewhere in the middle. While I have been blessed to be a stay-at-home for most of my sons’ lives, Ryan’s “one on one” time is cut very short by the homeschooling/sports/social schedule of his big brother. While those “hothousers” are working with their babies, Ryan is more likely in the gym play center, en route in our daily treks, or spending far too much time with Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Once, and only once, did I attempt to introduce flashcards. Not only did it turn him completely off of our one-on-one time, but it also temporarily decreased his reading interest. Even a toddler recognizes the difference between work and play!
How did my children learn to read so young? Most parents recognize that reading together and demonstrating your own interest in reading are crucial. I also believe it is critical to incorporate reading into children’s play time, not their work time. When my toddler has tv time, his options are Baby Tad, Between the Lions, or some other entertaining (but secretly educational) program. If he earns computer time, he gets to play silly shoot-it-up games (that combine phonics instruction with whole-word sight words) on While he’s waiting for his brother’s sports practice, he occasionally plays word puzzles with Mommy. Best of all, when he’s not ready to fall asleep, he gets to “stay up as late as he wants” by reading quietly in his bed. We intentionally keep toys out of the bedroom to give books that special place at night.
I also believe it is important to build a child’s confidence as he learns new words. Picture books are integral to children’s libraries, but so are simple phonics books. I highly recommend Step Into Reading Books, which combine simple vocabulary with popular characters. As you repetitively read these books to your children, pause and point out the words. Let them point to and “read” words they recognize, such as the characters’ names. At bedtime, read those books last, then let your child snuggle with them. On their own, they will connect the story they’ve heard with the words they see on each page.
I am abundantly grateful that my sons’ lives have been enriched as early readers. Reading brings them a greater appreciation of their own history, religion, and culture, as well as an understanding of diverse points of view. Books connect children together, as they share common interests like Harry Potter on the playground. Reading helps them in all areas of their academics, from grasping their math instructions to reliving historic adventures and even to learning to read music. Best of all, families who read together share a special bond. There are few moments more precious than those when we’re cuddled with our little boys, reading and sharing our books.

Friday, June 4, 2010

My "Confused Kindergartner"

One of the great misnomers people have about profoundly gifted children is in thinking that life is easier for them because they don't struggle as much in school. The fact is that these children have their own burdens and challenges because they don't fit in the "average" mold society has created for most children their age.

Brendan is incredibly lucky in that he is naturally friendly, outgoing, compassionate, and attractive. These attributes enable him to make acquaintances in most settings. While he has 2 or 3 age-peers whom he considers his best friends, he isn't able to see them as often as he would like. He craves other friendships, but it is hard for him to emotionally connect with most children his age. He prefers the more complex role-playing games of the older children vs. the "run-around" that most kindergartners still engage in, but his 5 year old body's motor skills impede him from keeping up with the older crowd.

I digress to share my favorite story about this..... Brendan started preschool when he was 3 years, 3 months old. At the time, he was crazy about the Lion King and would invent these long drawn out "movies", assigning everyone roles like producer, director, etc, and tell everyone their lines. Every day of his 1st week of preschool, he came home sad because the other children wouldn't play with him. Finally, I asked his preschool teacher if there was a problem. His teacher explained that Brendan was trying to direct the class into his production on the playground during recess. As she explained it, Brendan had this huge vision for what the other children should be doing, but the others were "just normal 3 year olds, and most of them barely even talk. They had no idea what he was trying to do." More than 2 years later and 2,000 miles away, the same playground issues still abound.

While homeschooling and co-ops have helped blur the line between his age peers and his academic peers, the grade level gap appears over and over again as well-meaning people ask him what grade he's entering. (We are keeping him registered as a 1st grader, but his work will all be 3rd grade and higher.) No matter how normal we try to keep it, every time he's somewhere doing homework while Ryan has a class, or reading a novel while waiting for an appointment, or I get asked why we're homeschooling, the comments come about how he's not "normal" for his age.

All this leads to a lot of confusion for this little 5 year old. Sometimes, he's scared of letting the other kids know that he's smart because "the smart kids always get beaten up in the movies and books." (Sadly, he's right.) Or, he doesn't want the older children "to be mad at him" for being in higher level curriculum than them. As I talk with other moms of highly gifted children, I hear that these feelings are extremely common, and they are highlighted even further by the fact that these children also have deeper and more sensitive feelings than others.

Brendan wrote a tongue-in-cheek autobiographical essay about these feelings to share with his last writing workshop. He wrote it in the style of Diary of a Wimpy Kid to get a laugh out of his (older) classmates, but I still found parts of it rather poignant:

So, what is a parent to do? We do not want him to skip over years of his young childhood, but it is also unfair to pigeonhole him with younger children when he fits better with older ones. My hackles rose at one person's suggestion that we seek a psychiatrist. A mom of other highly gifted children had wonderful advice passed along from a psychologist, though. She suggested that we take the summer off from reading Harry Potter and other books where the child heroes face heavy burdens, and instead focus on lighthearted entertainment. I am going to try and pry those heavy adventure novels out of his hands, and help him enjoy summer playdates, vacation bible school, swim and soccer, and other non-academic activities so that he can simply be 5 (soon to be 6) years old. When the new school year begins, we'll do what seems to work best.....participate in educational co-ops where the age/grade lines are blurred, and figure everything else out on a case-by-case basis that best works to his unique needs.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Mini the Minotaur

We've been studying Greek mythology for the past week, and Brendan is loving all the great stories. His favorite Greek myth is Theseus and the Minotaur.

For a writing topic, I suggested that he write a short story from the viewpoint of one of the villians. We talked about how people can see the same story differently based on their perspective, and how sometimes the stories sound very distinct because of misunderstandings.

Brendan got the idea to write a story from the perspective of the poor misunderstood minotaur (Mini), and his story is truly creative and adorable!

Mini the Minotaur
My name is Mini but everyone calls me the Minotaur. I’m not very mini, so I think that’s why they don’t like my nickname.

I think it’s the horns. I call them toddler pigtails. They might think they’re a little scary.

I live in a labyrinth which is a huge maze. It’s on an island called Crete. Then this king just shut me into this trap. It’s not a very good bedroom. I don’t think I like the concrete for my pillow.

It’s lonely. On my birthday, I had a party and I invited 7 boys and 7 girls. They got lost in my maze and everyone thought I ate them. But I’m really an herbivore!

I was taking a snooze and dreaming about 14 kids finally coming to my party. I wanted this cool minotaur mask. It looks a lot like a greek warrior. I also want an awesome greek warrior sword.

Then this guy Theseus came to slay me. I was in the ancient mythology monster hospital for 10 hours. It’s not easy being me!

Here's a video of him describing his book:

Monday, April 19, 2010

Who Knew LEGO Playdates Could Be So Educational??

Homeschooling provides countless ways to turn education into playdates.  We recently found Brendan's favorite activity yet, and just like the "hiding spinach in brownies" trick, I don't think he even realizes how good it is for him!

Every Monday afternoon, approximately 10 children get together for a LEGO Engineering class.  Several homeschooling moms are coming together to create a co-op, and we have a company called Play-Well Teknologies ( come to a home to teach the class.  A young fun adult named AJ brings about 20 large bins of LEGOS in with him, and the excitement begins! 

Week 1: Belt and Pulley Car
Objective: Learn how to get an electric moto to turn using a battery.  Learn names and sizesing of basic machine parts.  Learn how the belt and pulley mechanism is used to transfer power from the motor.  Learn how to use different size pulleys to speed up or slow down.

The second week, they talked about structural foundations and how to build strong brick structures while building houses:

Week 3: Gear Drive Systems - Gear drive "tractor" that pulls a heavy load.
Objective: Learn how gears work and how they are used to transfer power from a motor.  Learn about torque and review gearing up and gearing down.  Discuss when one would gear up or down.

Outside of this class, we've learned that there is a LEGO engineering non-competitive robotics event  for 6-8 year olds called Jr. First Lego League.  This might be the pefect group of LEGO enthusiasts to make a fun team project come Fall!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Feeding a Toddler's Rapidly-Developing Mind

Ryan sharing a drum at his MusicTogether class.

Childhood should be fun, no doubt about it, and it should be carefree (for the children anyway) but it should also be looked at as the foundation upon which the rest of a child's life will be built. Preparing children for the challenges they will face in school and in life are the definite domain of parents.....
From Parents: A Child's First & Best Resource for Learning
Early Child Cognitive Development,
May, 2005

Early childhood is a time of wonder, openness, insatiable curiosity, and immense parental influence. The best way to help ensure your child's success later in life (from elementary school through adolescence and on) is to lay the groundwork for the education that will help them achieve their goals--whenever they figure out what those goals are. Early childhood curriculum should not be too demanding, of course, but it should present learning challenges.

From Build Confidence And A Love of Learning
Early Childhood Curriculum
November, 2005

Lately, I've been getting lots of inquiries from moms of preschoolers who are thinking about homeschooling their children. Many find the prospect daunting and aren't sure they're up to the challenge.

If you're an interactive parent, though, you have been homeschooling all day long since birth. Every time you sing, read, call out the ABCs and 123s with those puzzles and Leapfrog toys, color together, etc etc, you are homeschooling. (but see below) Elementary school homeschooling just takes the scope of what you're doing with your child to the next level.

Starting Enrichment Classes Before Preschool:Besides "home"schooling, I believe that a lot of pre-nursery school education for toddlers comes from enrichment classes and socialization with other children. We do know several children who haven't joined any baby-toddler groups until they've turned 3 and reached preschool. While I'm a big advocate of preschool, I can't help but think they've missed out on an important first step towards socialization, independence, and respect for group rules.  (Plus, even toddlers must get bored in the same routine every day!)


The first piece of our toddler "un-home schooling" is joining a regular playgroup. Both of my boys have been in playgroups since they were infants. Brendan's group was so close that even today, five years later and 3,000 miles away, he will still name those playgroup playmates among his best friends. Likewise, after several months together, Ryan will happily list off his playgroup children when you ask him about his "friends."

One of the most important things we can provide for our young children are friendships. Playgroups provide an opportunity for peer bonding, empathy, sharing, learning to respect other adults and other people's homes and rules, etc. I'm sure psychologists can add a multitude of other benefits to my small list.

Ryan celebrating his and another playmate's 2nd birthdays with playgroup friends.

Library and Music Classes:
In addition to playgroups, I strongly encourage group classes. We've started both boys with the free library classes, where they sit with Mommy in circle time and learn new songs, stories, etc. Again, they're learning to take direction from a "teacher" and following basic group rules. Ryan also enjoys a music class, where he is learning language skills and rhythm with group play that I couldn't replicate at home. Brendan has been in so many different classes and camps that I couldn't begin to name them all.

Of course we all know that it's important not to overbook our children. I think one or two classes at a time is plenty to mix in to their week (though, admittedly, we tend to book more than that for Brendan with all the great offerings out there). It's not about WHAT class they're in; it's really about just exposing them to a group activity with other children and having a great time with it! 

Again, most of the moms in our circle don't even think about these activities as educational.  This is just what we do for fun with our children when we don't want the tv on all day.  What an added bonus to realize that we're homeschooling at the same time!!

Rote Memorization vs. Conceptual Understanding
I hear all the time from moms of seemingly-gifted toddlers who are amazed at the things they can get their children to memorize.  One thing I've learned is that the big caveat with memorization is that whether it's letters, numbers, presidents, states, etc., it's all the one same skill set, which is rote memorization.  This is clearly one sign of highly intelligent children, but it won't help them much in school unless they are also able to do the preschool skill sets that every child needs. 

For example, there is a big difference between being able to count to 10 and recognize numbers vs. being able to do 1-to-1 correspondence.  Many toddlers/preschoolers can count, but they can't look at a pile of 5 and tell you there are 5 there.  Children in general have an amazing ability to memorize, but taking it to the next level is where you will see them really soar.

Don't Forget the Motor Skills

When Brendan started 3 year old preschool, he could already have easily passed the kindergarten entrance tests.  Greg and I considered keeping him out and instead putting him in more age-advanced enrichment classes, but thank goodness we enrolled him.  Mrs. Rable, who has been teaching preschool for more than 20 years at that Catholic school, found things for us to work on that we hadn't even thought about.  She was the one who encouraged us to get him IQ-tested and first validated how unique he was, but yet showed us how his fine and gross motor skills needed more work if we ever decided to accelerate.  For example, he was a better pre-writer than most 3 year olds, but would've fallen to the back of the pack with the 4 year olds.  Likewise, while other children were playing with balls and jumping, he was reading and playing with trains.  While it's perfectly healthy to acknowledge that your child isn't super-athletic, we know how detrimental poor gross motor skills can be when they reach elementary gym class!

Mrs. Rable reminded us how important it was to put the books down once in a while and focus on basic skills that only come from playing wtih playdough, crinkling up paper, cutting, pasting, kicking and throwing a ball, etc.  THOSE are the "standards" that our children need to learn at this age.  Knowing world geography by kindergarten is fun to brag about, but it's useless information when they fall behind on their craft projects.

I just have to share this because it was a vital lesson we learned along the way.
Workbooks, Word Charts, Flashcards?

Now that Ryan is two, we're also starting to introduce preschool books with fun activities that he can enjoy while Brendan is homeschooling.  Workbooks aren't about dittos.  If you find good ones, they're just about starting pre-writing skills and spending time together with written activities.   I personally don't like flashcards or word charts, but seeing words over and over in whole-language print seems to put my children on the fast-paced reading track.  I also don't use hooked-onto-phonics or any of those materials.  Brendan learned to read at two by falling in love with Thomas Step-Into-Reading books.  Even now, 5 years old and a fully-proficient junior-high-level reader, he gets his vocabulary through whole-language.

This is a great free sampling of some wonderful early-preschool workbooks we found through Critical Thinking Co.  Ryan just turned 2 this week, but can easily do the first pages of the workbooks these samples came from with colors and shapes.  Plus, the logical aspect is much different than the usual trace-the-letter material in most preschool workbooks that 2 year olds just don't have the fine-motor skills to accomplish. These authors understand the constraints of fine motor skills, too, and the beginning lessons involve pointing rather than writing.

I also found a great "early mazes" book and a simple pre-writing book for 2 year olds by Kumon.;   We only do an occasional page here and there, but it's a great way to get a crayon in his hand for some early-writing skills that he'll need by the time he's three.

We also love for Ryan.  While it claims to be designed for kindergarteners, the "Let's Get Ready to Read" section is perfect for 2 year olds.  In a nice, slow format, they introduce each letter of the alphabet (upper and lower) with the phonetical sounds and several words that begin with that sound.  They also show the words in print and in sentences.  It's a fantastic way to show children the connection between letters, sounds, words, and sentences.   We use it in 5 minute increments when he's clamoring for the computer.

Footnote: I recently learned that I assume too much when I assume that all parents actively engage their children in basic preschool skills like letter/shape/color/number recognition, one-to-one correspondence, and early-writing skills. My eyes were opened when I worked in Brendan's kindergarten class and saw that half the children didn't have all of these basic skills. The studies are clear that the intellectual capacity of children 0-5 is staggering.   Children don't have to be gifted to quickly pick up these concepts, even with just a few minutes' time each week and through playful activities. How so many  children are missing these fundamentals in their first five years, I just don't understand.  For those who say "there's plenty of time later on," I say look at all that you're missing by cutting their horizons short at the beginning.  It's not about competing with other children; it's about maximizing your own child's potential.

More quotes on the topic of toddler education:

Preschool Academics: Feeding The Developing Mind
Preschool Academics, May, 2008,

Today it is widely accepted that young children are fully capable of learning to read, add, subtract, and use organized analysis to solve problems.  Although some critics of preschool academics believe that early childhood should be limited to play, it is generally accepted that preschool children are capable and benefit from academic development. Whether you’re sending your child to an academic preschool, a traditional play-based school, or homeschooling, adding preschool academics to your preschool curriculum can have a significant impact on your child’s academic experience.
We believe preschool age children should have fun. Drill and memorization does not work, but well designed preschool activities can be stimulating, engaging, and fun. Like older children, preschool children love to learn and exercise their minds when properly engaged. Preschool material must be colorful, easily understood, sequenced in small steps, game like, and solvable in a short period. In addition, we encourage discussion and one on one tutoring. 
We also engineer critical thinking into our preschool material to help engage students and teach them organized analysis. Discussion and critical thinking questioning strategy lead to deeper analysis of content. This makes the learning process more about absorbing and reflecting on all facets of the material in a natural and curious state. Here are a few examples of questions that invoke informal reasoning: “Why did you select that one?” “How are these different?” “What happened when you?” “What would happen if you?” “What can you do to make… happen?” “How do you think s/he feels about what happened?” These types of questions develop critical thinking skills and stimulate verbal development as the children try to communicate their reasoning. It also provides them with the opportunity to reason during the course of a discussion, an essential early cognitive development skill.
By designing critical thinking into preschool activities, we build self-esteem, lay a foundation for formal education, and develop a life-long love of learning....

Teach The Basics Even Before Preschool
Early Childhood Education

Through the tireless efforts of countless educators, parents, psychologists, and other concerned professionals, early childhood development has changed fundamentally. There was a time when children under five years of age were considered to be incapable of rational thought or of beginning their educations. Now, however, it is widely accepted that young children are fully capable of learning the basics before kindergarten.

Children that are exposed to basic arithmetic, language, and writing skills can enter into kindergarten with skill sets equal to those of many second graders. Small children are like sponges and they can soak up lessons that often astonish their parents. This early educational foundation can foster a joy of learning and, in later years, can put them far ahead of state and federal standards.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Harry Potter Unit Study

Harry Potter Unit Study
March 22nd:
After more than a year living in Star Wars-mania, Brendan has a new obsession! We've joined the Harry Potter following!

Bren caught a Harry Potter marathon on the Family Channel, so Greg bought him the first book. He quickly became so hooked on it that he went to bed at 7:00 so he could read it in peace (giving up American Idol, no less), and had it finished by 10 o'clock the next morning. He's been driving us crazy asking for the next one.

This, of course, has turned Mommy into a frenzy as I mass cram everything I can find to determine how appropriate HP is for a 5 year old who still sleeps with his lights on. I put Greg on "single dad" duty last weekend so I could read the 1st book too, and I'm trying to get the second one down before he gets it as an Easter gift. After talking with many people, I think we've decided he can go to 3 for now, and then we'll reassess.

Meanwhile, I've decided to lob off some of our other homeschool curriculum next week when we "return" from spring break and make it a fun HP unit study! I found a Harry Potter portal in the 6-8 grade section at our charter, and it has a lot of fun projects. WARNING: MOMMY BRAG: Brendan already took the reading comprehension quiz and practically salivated at how "easy" it was. In grading it, I showed him how he got every single question right except for two sequential events that he numbered backwards. He grabbed the paper, ran for his book and quickly opened to the pages he was looking for, and made a compelling argument for why my answer key was wrong on a minor point. As I read the book myself, I nearly toppled over because he was exactly right! I hope this doesn't mean he's a lawyer in the making.... :(


April 5th:
In the past week, Brendan's read the first 4 books in the series. (I think we're going to hold off after this until I can read ahead of him and determine just how scary they get.) We've found lots of great activities in the Harry Potter portal by Teacher Created Materials. While the materials are designed for middle school students, there are plenty of ways to modify them for younger children. Brendan is having a lot of fun, even writing essays, because we're going to put them together in a collage and present them to his certified teacher for the charter classroom when we're done.

Bren first wrote the letter that Dumbledore would have left with the Dursleys when baby Harry was left at their doorstop. The ditto is on "Hogwarts stationary," which will work great for the collage. MOMMY BRAG: I thought his letter turned out cute:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Dursley,
James and Lily Potter were killed by Voldemort but he really wwanted to kill Harry. You re the only people that can protect him because Voldemort is still looking for him. Take care of him like your own son Dudley. Give him a good education so when he is eleven he is ready for Hogwarts. Sincerely, Albus Dumbledore

April 6th:
2. Brendan drew a picture of what he would see if he looked into the Mirror of Erised. If you've read the story, you know this is supposedly "the deepest, most desperate desire of their hearts." I thought this was hilarious, and SO Brendan:

I would see myself with a dual action lightsaber. They are really cool. If you are scared of the dark you can light it up. You can duel with it and it has real sounds.

Needless to say, he drew a self-portrait as a jedi.

April 7th:
Today, Brendan went back to the books to "research" the characteristics of each of the four Hogswart houses. He then drew the four quadrants of a seal to represent each house.

April 9th:
Back to the Sourcerer's Stone to research what each of the rooms in the Dursley home looked like.

Brendan also did a lot of art work today, researching what a castle looks like and cutting one out for his collage. He also made another seal representing the four books he read for this project.

And....our final product! He's very excited to present this to his charter teacher this week! He's hoping it'll earn a spot on the classroom wall! Great job, Bren!!