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Narration with Special Challenges
Today I’m chatting with Sarah MacKenzie about narration when you have special challenges.
Sonya: Sarah, I’m so glad you were able to stop by.
Sarah: I am just delighted to be here. Thanks so much for having me over.
Sonya: It’s our pleasure. When we were talking earlier, we were talking about narration, and how each of us has a special challenge with at least one child, if not more than one. We’ve had to tweak narration, tweak the method, but we wanted to make sure our tweaking was based on Charlotte’s principles. Before we dive into what we did, let’s talk about what we were dealing with, the special challenges that we have. Now, a lot of our audience knows that my youngest has autism and pervasive developmental delays, and so that’s my challenge. Talk about your challenge.
Sarah: So we’ve had a few. The biggest one, I think, that has impacted narration in our homeschool is a diagnosed anxiety disorder. Anxiety showed up in more than one of our children, but that seemed to be the one that impacted specifically narration the most. That’s where I saw that maybe what we’re doing, or what I expected us to be able to do, isn’t going to quite work. Another one is dyslexia, because we’ve had several children who are dyslexic as well.
Sonya: Both of those would be big challenges. I can see the dyslexia, especially when you get to the written part. But you’re talking diagnosed, like clinical anxiety. Not just–
Sarah: Not just, “I’m a little worried and anxious about this new thing you’re asking me to do, mom.”
Sonya: Right, debilitating anxiety. All right. So let’s talk about the principles that we we want to hold to and fall back on. To me, the first one, of course, is the child is a person.
Sarah: Yes. Which is one of those things I think it’s easy to forget when we’re in the middle of homeschooling we forget our children are images of God. They’re born persons, like Charlotte always reminds us. And this idea sometimes is hard, especially when we’re maybe a little anxious or worried about our homeschool and our children. We all want to do it right. We all want to make sure we’re doing this right. We feel like, “If I follow the method exactly as I’ve been told, then I’ll get the results that I’ve been promised,” which is not actually how it works with raising children. We all know this.
Sonya: Yes. Well, and Charlotte talked about a method versus a system, and how we always want a system like, if I do A, B and C, I will get this.
Sonya: Exactly. But that’s, as you said, that’s not how it is with children. Charlotte said that too. It’s not like growing a garden, because seeds don’t have personalities, but our children do. I love how you said that we think if we do it the typical way, and with many of our children it does work that way, if we do narration exactly as Charlotte outlined it, we can get good results. But we’ve got to take into consideration that child as a unique individual.
Sarah: Which I think is one of those God-given instincts that we have as mothers anyway. We see it at the very beginning with an infant, when we have an idea of maybe how we’re going to get a good night’s sleep. And then we’ve realized that whatever we thought was going to work with this infant isn’t actually going to work. We need to adjust things a little bit. So, to me, homeschooling feels like a perpetuation of that. It’s a constant recognizing that this born person in front of you isn’t always going to follow the playbook of what we think.
Sonya: And it’s hard because that means we’re in a constant state of potential change. But I read something the other day that really stuck with me. I love how Charlotte said the goal of education is growth. That we learn to grow as a person. And what I read was that growth means constant change. As you watch even a plant grow it’s constantly changing as it grows. And so that does set you off balance a little bit. And we don’t like to be off balance, so it’s a challenge. But I love how you said we have the mother’s intuition if we’ll just follow it instead of all the other pressures, comparisons, and challenges we see around us. Okay, another principle. I love how Karen Glass talks about how narration is a relationship-building activity.
Sarah: I’ve not read that from her, but when you say that, it just feels to me like, “Oh, yes of course.” Homeschooling is all about relationships. That’s why homeschooling works; it’s because it’s based on this really strong foundational relationship, where you love your child and want what’s best for your child more than anybody else in the world. So you’re highly invested, which also adds to, number one, your success in homeschooling, but also to the pressures you probably feel about getting it right or doing it right. So I love this relationship building as a key foundational principle of whatever methods we’re using.
Sonya: Yeah. And we want to protect that relationship. And it is relationship-building between us that’s very important: the child and the parent, but also between the child and the material, and we don’t want to interfere with them building those relations.
Sarah: That is one of the principles that I found most compelling when I first stumbled across Charlotte Mason, because, at the time, I think my oldest was one or two and I was pouring over all these homeschooling books, and the idea that you don’t want to get in the way of your child—oh goodness. There’s a Charlotte Mason quote that I’m thinking of, maybe it’ll come to me in a moment, getting it for herself. The idea of getting the knowledge for herself.
Sonya: What a child digs for is her own possession.
Sarah: Of course. You would know it off the top of your head. (Laughs)
Sonya: That’s just one of them. There are several that apply. I didn’t know if that was the one.
Sarah: But it’s so different than the way I learned as a child. But when I read that as an adult, I thought, “Oh, yes.” I mean, I always felt like most of the best learning I had done came after school. It didn’t come during my school years, but came after that when I was learning things, because it was just me and the book. It was me and the ideas. And so then there’s nothing standing in the way between your mind and the mind of the writer or whatever the idea that’s being presented, so this makes a lot of sense to me.
Sonya: Which then brings us back to the first principle because you were interacting with that material as an individual, and the ideas, and the way you related to that author’s ideas is different from how another person is going to relate. So Charlotte was so smart.
Sarah: So smart.
Sonya: So, so let’s talk about how we have tweaked narration in our situations. Why don’t you start with your child with anxiety?
Sarah: Okay, so here is one of the things I struggled with early on when I would try to do oral narration with my oldest daughter, who was very anxious, and like I said, had a clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder. It wasn’t just that she was a little nervous. I started to feel like I was probably not doing this right. There was something wrong with either me or my child because this wasn’t working. What would end up happening is I would ask her for a narration. I would read a short story or a part of a story or something and I would ask her to tell me back what she remembered. And you could see like panic rising in her. She would fumble around like, “I don’t know. I don’t know what you want me to say.” The other thing she would do is the next time I would go to read to her, she would ask me at the beginning, “Are you going to ask me for a narration?” And if I said no, I realized she would relax and listen better. I could ask her for a narration at the end of it, and she would do much better job than if I said, “Yes I’m going to ask you for a narration.” Because then I almost don’t think she could hear. It was something like there was like a rush of water in her ears or something, that panic of, “Oh no, I don’t know if I’m going to say the right thing.”
Sonya: So the anxiety got her attention rather than the story.
Sarah: Very good. That’s really well put. Yes. So what I realized is, with her, I could tweak it just slightly so that it was more of a conversation. Often times after we would read, and still I do this with all my children to this day, I will just model narrating rather than asking them for a narration. For example, we were just learning about Revolutionary War history this last year. So if I was reading them something about Paul Revere, I would say, “You know, something that sticks out to me about this is how Paul Revere was so good at so many different things. He was really widely talented but also really well-skilled in a whole bunch of different areas. I did not know that about Paul Revere before this. What’s something that stuck out to you?” Or, “What do you think of that?” And then that opened up the conversation in a way that being put on the spot didn’t. That was sort a way to get in on the side of her anxiety.
Sonya: It is. Saying what stood out to you, that’s narration. You’re asking for a narration, you’re not using the word. And with you going first, they don’t feel like they’re being put on the spot.
Sarah: Yes. But it’s still that open-ended question where I’m not saying, “So, does anybody remember where Paul Revere lived?”
Sonya: No, no, no. That steals the joy.
Sarah: And it gets in the way. Right? It puts us right in the middle of the child and the text.
Sonya: And Charlotte said, direct questions on the content are an impertinence, which we all resent.
Sarah: I love it.
Sonya: Isn’t that great?
Sarah: Yeah, that’s good.
Sonya: But yes, exactly. So with my daughter, we were able, for a while, to have her draw her narrations. Getting her words out her mouth, getting her thoughts into verbal words is very difficult for her. Very difficult. So for a while, she was able to draw it and then I would say, “Oh, tell me about your drawing.” And she might give me a sentence. So I could write it down. I discovered this little trick: if I did what Charlotte said, about give the child your full attention, “Uh-huh, yeah,” it would shut her down completely. Because of the eye contact. She couldn’t think. So I had to tweak it, keep the principle, but tweak it. I gave her my attention as she told me her one sentence and then I turned to write it down. Then I came back and said, “Anything else?” And for a while there, I was getting two and three sentences from her because I was looking away. And that gave her opportunity to come up with another sentence without the eye contact. I stumbled upon that. That worked for a while. Then she got very tired of the drawing because she has very low fine motor skills. It’s difficult for her. I shouldn’t say it was only because of the fine motor skills it was also because of the verbal component. It was just so hard for her. So we moved to trying to do an oral part. So I would read a section and I would say, “Can you tell me about the story?” She would always repeat the last thing that I had read, always. But now looking back on it, it’s like of course she’s going to because she has always had echolalia.
Echolalia, for those who are not familiar with it, is where the child will use other people’s words and just repeat those. And at times, it seems like it’s random and has nothing to do with the situation, but if you’ll look closer, a lot of times there’s a piece in there that gives you a hint as to what she’s thinking about what’s happening. Quite interesting. So all I was getting was the echolalia. So then we moved to, and this is over the course of years, this evolution happened. Then we moved to writing the narration. I would write it. I would read the section and I would say, “What should we say?” Like, we were reading about dogs for her science lesson. “What do you want to say about dogs?” And she would look back at the book that was open between us. And she would point to the words that she wanted me to write down.
Sarah: Oh, excellent. Okay. Yes.
Sonya: But again, it was still somebody else’s words. She was just pointing to the sentence or the phrase that she wanted to pull. So I wrote that down. That worked for a little while. Then she got tired of that and I’m thinking, “I’m still not getting her words. I’m getting other people’s words.” And then we finally got to the point where I gave her the notebook and I thought I’m going to let her write it. Because she had started typing and emailing with a friend of mine, and she would type, so she was trying to capture her thoughts and put them into writing somehow. So I thought, “Here’s our chance. Let’s do this.” So I gave her the notebook. We would read the story and she would write down the title of that chapter. That’s all she’d do. And after a while, she wouldn’t pull out that notebook anymore. She always would gather our materials. She’d look at the list of what we have for the day and pull out what we’re going to use and stack it. She would leave the notebook on the shelf. That was her way of telling me, “I don’t want to do that anymore.”
Sarah: Not doing that anymore.
Sonya: No. So where we are now is I just read to her. And trust that it’s getting in there. I don’t know if you know Tammy Glaser?
Sarah: Oh, the name sounds familiar.
Sonya: She has an autistic daughter, Pamela, and helped write the chapter on special needs, narration with special needs kids. In Karen Glass’s book, Know And Tell. She’s been a big inspiration to me over the years. And she said something in that book, Know and Tell about always assuming that there’s more going on in the child’s mind than it appears. And you have to hang on to that. If you’re going to respect the child as a person, you’ve got to have that hope, have that belief. That there is more going on than you can see.
Sarah: Which I think is almost always true actually. Because I know a lot of times when I’ll be reading aloud, I remember with my oldest three, I’d have I’d have these two girls and then a boy who was very fidgety, very, like he would be standing on his head and jumping on the trampoline while I’m reading aloud, and I would think, “There’s no possible way this kid knows what I’m reading.” But the next day when I’d say who remembers what happened yesterday? He’s the one that could remember. And so I think, again, it’s that trust in there being way more than we can quantify or see. Also, trust in what our role is. Our role is to present this feast and then they take what’s fit for them. There’s some Charlotte Mason quote about that too.
Sonya: Exactly. Each small guest takes what they’re ready for.
Sarah: Something else that popped to mind for me, as you were talking, is something that helped with the anxiety with narration was making sure I wasn’t using superlatives when I was asking for something, or when I was saying when I was modeling narrations. So instead of saying “The most important. . . ”? Or, “What is the most important thing you remember from that?” Or, “What is the best part?” Anything best, most.
Sonya: “What is your favorite?”
Sarah: Yes, exactly! If I was to ask you right now, “What is your favorite book of all time?” you’d probably. . .
Sonya: Oh, I would shut down. You can’t; it’s the effort of decision. It’s like there’s so many possibilities.
Sarah: “I need to pick the one that rises above all the others.” But if I said, “Can you tell me about a book you’ve loved?” Then that’s totally different now. So, especially if you have a child that’s dealing with any kind of anxiety or any kind of panic at the idea of giving a narration, just saying, “What’s one thing you don’t want to forget? What’s one thing that stood out to you?” That’s one that I use all the time. That feels way lower pressure than “What’s the most important?” pieces. And even if you’re not saying it, your child might be hearing something like, “My mom wants me to tell her the most important part of this chapter, and I don’t know what that is.”
Sonya: And “Mom has something in mind.” Potentially, that might be what the child’s thinking. So now we’re back to the direct questioning, the “guess what the teacher is thinking” scenario, which is not relationship building.
Sarah: It’s not relationship building. And it’s not relationship building with the text either. It gets in the way there. That’s so interesting. The other piece with written narration, and this feels to me like what you were talking about with your daughter, is with my dyslexic kids, it’s been really helpful to keep writing their narrations for them for longer than you might see recommended from Charlotte Mason resources. For my oldest son, who’s now 17, when he was younger, I would find that if I asked for some kind of a narration or said, “What do you want to remember from what we just read?” If I just asked him and wrote it for him, he would make all these really great complex connections and do this really good thinking which is the much harder part of writing than forming the letters. But if I said, “Write it down,” he would just shrink it down to the smallest, shortest sentence that he could get away with, because he knew he had to do that writing himself. Extending that length of time, where I was doing the writing, really helped. He might have been 14 before he was really doing most of his writing himself. And even still, I only would transition because I felt like, “Okay, now he’ll write down the great thinking that’s happening that I hear coming from his mouth, but I don’t see happening on paper.”
Sonya: Yes, the age thing and the grade thing can be big detriments to respecting the child as a person, or obstacles. It’s just because of the way we were taught.
Sarah: Yes. It plays into that fear that we all have. That maybe we’re not doing it right.
Sonya: Am I going to ruin my child?
Sarah: Exactly. “Am I like teaching my child in some way where they’re not going to be ready to do what they need to do? And so if they’re not being able to write their own narrations at 12, what am I doing wrong?” Instead of going, “That just might be the way that God made this child. This is his timeline.”
Sonya: Right. He’s not ready yet. We have to hang onto that word yet.
Sarah: Yes. Then we can offer those bridges. The word that came to mind, as you were talking about the different ways you interacted with your daughter with narration, was scaffolding or bridges. It’s giving your child scaffolding as a way to get to where you’re trying to go. For me, it feels like being able to tweak the method, while keeping the principle at heart, feels like a way that we can meet our children exactly where they are, exactly the way God made them.
Sonya: Yes. So it’s the principles: a child is a person. Respect that child as an individual. Keep the relationship going between you both and with the book. And let that child interact with the material in the way that he or she is ready to. As long as we’re doing that I think we’re going to be okay. Thanks.
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This interview came at a time that I needed to hear it. Thank you for the insights and encouragement.
Thank you so much for the detailed methods you are sharing! I have a daughter with nearly EVERY attribute of your daughter, Sonya. It is so very encouraging to hear we are not alone and God does have a plan for our kiddos!! Knowing this, we can keep forging onward-
Wow – 2 of my favorite ladies, really!!
This podcast is rich with nuggets of wisdom! I appreciate how you both share how you’ve navigated integrating some of these Charlotte Mason principles with your real life experiences. It’s hard not to get hung up on idealistic visions of homeschooling! Thank you!