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Learning Disabilities or Learning Differences? - Marsha Ransom
Perhaps a peek into our experience will help others to understand a little about what can happen when your child is put into the "learning disability" track at school, and how homeschooling can change this "diagnosis" and make a world of difference.

Thirteen years ago our eldest son, Ryan, entered the public school system as a kindergartner. At the end of kindergarten we were informed that Ryan would not be passed into first grade, but must be retained in a transition type room. Years afterwards, I learned that although I had been told this was not a special education classroom, it was a Chapter I program, which is basically the same thing.

Ryan asked his Dad one day while taking a walk, "Daddy, there are children in my class who do not see well. There are some who can't walk well, and some who can't sit still and listen. What is wrong with me?" This, in my humble opinion, was the hardest part of the whole situation. There is something wrong with taking a bright, interested child who has been read to since birth, listened to classical music, taken to the library, who has a huge vocabulary and is interested and excited about learning, and putting him into such an environment that he is made to feel there is something wrong with him. We had to explain about his eye difficulties, and his inability to read, but assured him that there was nothing wrong that wouldn't work out okay in time, and that he was in this class to get the extra help he needed.

The next year, Ryan was in a regular first grade classroom. In second grade we were incredibly lucky in the teacher that Ryan had. She was a high energy person with lots of understanding of the need to have a variety of learning styles addressed in the classroom.

The next year was a disaster. Ryan was assigned a teacher that had no control over her classroom, had several children in her class with behavior problems, and confusion reigned in the room. Testing by an independent agency showed Ryan to have some tendencies toward distractibility, and that he needed help in organizational skills, etc.

About this time, the teacher informed me that Ryan (her star pupil) was 40-plus pages behind in his reading workbook. He had just a couple of days to get it caught up before the marking period was over. Taking the book home to work on it with Ryan, I had him read me the paragraph of directions out loud. I discovered that he didn't know what to do, because once he'd read the paragraph, he couldn't break it down into steps himself. So I took a red marker, and had him read it again, numbering each step with the marker as he read. Then he was well able to do the rest of the pages without my help. He commented that when he'd taken his workbook to the teacher for help, she told him to read the directions to himself and sent him back to his seat.

During this year, I began to notice a lot of changes in Ryan's personality; he was losing his self esteem and zest for learning. Homework time became a battlefield, with cries of "I don't know what the teacher wants" or "That's not the way the teacher explained it".

During the summer, I worked on a special placement for Ryan for 4th grade, begging for a classroom where the teacher kept things relatively quiet and organized, because Ryan found it hard to work with lots of distractions. Nevertheless, I spent a lot of time talking to family and friends about all that was going on, and one day my sister-in-law mentioned that one family of her piano students had started homeschooling. The seed was planted and I began to research the idea, at my husband's instigation. After all, we'd worked with the system for several years and Ryan was getting worse, not better.

I read everything I could get my hands on, attended some homeschool support group meetings and activities and went to three different homeschooler's homes to observe. We started out fairly structured, spending our days doing "school at home," peppered with hands-on activities. In March of our first year, our new daughter arrived from Korea, a needy baby, and "school" kind of got set aside for a while. Although at first I worried about the kids' learning, I soon realized that they were still learning, albeit not necessarily what I had planned for them to learn on a given day.

We had purchased some educational computer games and they were learning to use reference materials in order to find out "Where in the World, Space or Time" Carmen Sandiego was. Since we are book lovers, our home is rich with books of every kind, and over the years has become richer. We have over 65 years worth of National Geographics, complete with indexes, and these have been a large part of the kids' reading in Science, Natural History and Social Studies. We supplement our own library with the public library and use inter-library loan extensively.

Ryan began to branch out into his own special interests, history and things mechanical and electrical. The first or second year, a friend gave us a radio set, using electronics, and Ryan spent hours fooling with that. When he was 12 he repaired our rototiller. Later he met another homeschooler who had his own small engine repair shop, and asked how he'd gotten certified. This boy had used a correspondence course, gave Ryan the information, and Ryan paid for it himself. The course was set up for adults and allowed two years to complete, but Ryan worked through it in three months with excellent grades. He earned an advanced course and passed that as well.

Meantime, Ryan was learning in the shop of a friend who bought and sold snowmobiles and tractors, and he was learning in our garage, on our lawn equipment. His friend helped him get a tractor and a snowmobile cheaply, and those items provided him with more experience working on motors, as well as a way to earn money.

Ryan started his own mowing business and later had a small engine repair shop in our garage. We found an independent mechanic who allowed Ryan to work on a volunteer basis in his shop.  Working in a quick oil change shop later gave Ryan some good experience, and two years attending the county technological institute in the Automotive Technologies program, while completing the rest of his high school credits at home (in less than usual ways) led to a placement in the Auto-Yes program and a job in a Chevy dealership.

Ryan has worked as a volunteer docent (tour guide) at the Michigan Maritime Museum to complete credits in Michigan maritime history and speech, graduated from the Clonlara Home Based Education Program, successfully completed Advanced Electronics training (among others) through the GM Institute in Chicago (in conjunction with his employment), and is attending college part-time. He has proven to us, and the many skeptics among family and friends, that following a child's interests, catering to his learning style, and letting that child grow at their own pace can overcome learning differences that may be there.

The biggest challenges we faced were to let go of preconceived notions of how various subjects should be learned, to be flexible enough to try new things, and humble enough to realize that when something wasn't working it was time to try another tactic. We found that learning differences can be a catalyst if they are recognized as differences and worked with as assets, instead of something that needs to be reshaped into someone else's mold. Whatever happened to the value of marching to a different drummer?

1998, Marsha Ransom

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