Yes, I Do Have an Opinion about HR 4038

According the the UNHCR, the refugee agency of the United Nations, there were 4 million, 289 thousand, 792 refugees from Syria spread out among 5 neighboring nations, all of those nations, with the exception of Jordan perhaps, having had recent issues with war and violence themselves. Hence 800,000+ have attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, in addition to trying other routes, routes that have been gradually cut off as European nations feel the strain experienced by Middle Eastern countries as they attempt to meet the needs of a desperate, homeless, frightened group of people.

The borders are porous, which at the moment serves ISIL well, because an easy to penetrate border allows them to continue to fund their caliphate through the sale of contraband, oil, and through cash fundraising. It also allows them to spread their hatred to other countries. It is not hard to imagine, therefore, an ISIL operative entering the ranks of the refugees, just as it is also easy to imagine an intelligence operative entering the ranks of recruits.

The plight of 4 million people is hard to ignore. Taking 10,000 (.25%) of those people does not seem like too much to ask, yet our country is like the urban homeowner responding to homelessness. You want to allow homeless people to stay in your home, you know that the majority of people are law abiding, decent people, but it only takes one to steal from you or knife you in your sleep. However, most of us don’t spend 2 years vetting every potential resident in our homes. The U.S. does.

Evidently, it is difficult to obtain good information from Syria these days. The Washington Post reports that FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress last month that  “Although…the process has since ‘improved dramatically,’ Syrian refugees will be even harder to check because, unlike in Iraq, U.S. soldiers have not been on the ground collecting information on the local population. ‘If we don’t know much about somebody, there won’t be anything in our data,’ he said. ‘I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.'”

FBI Director James Comey in 2013

FBI Director James Comey in 2013

So the motivation behind the House Republican sponsored H.R. 4038 appears to be, on the surface, the safety of the American people. Just an additional layer of security. It is so deceptively reasonable that 47 House Democrats voted in favor of it. All Congress asks is that the FBI director and the director of Homeland Security personally certify  that a “covered alien” (that is, a refugee from Syria or Iraq) does not pose a threat to the United States, and reports monthly to 12 Congressional committees. It bumps the background check process to the highest level of government. But they assure us that it will have no appreciable impact on our refugee program, except to make it safer.

I find it terribly disingenuous for the party of no gun control to be suddenly so concerned for the safety of the American people.

The sincerity test would be to apply the wording of H.R.4038 to gun control. What if everyone who bought a gun had to be certified as no threat to the American people by the director of the FBI? No one waits two years in this country to purchase a gun, and to have the highest police officer in the land certify you as safe? The idea is laughable; of course that would bring gun sales to a virtual halt and the politicians advocating for such a change would find themselves on the NRA’s blacklist. The slaughter of innocent Americans is a “tragic but acceptable risk” for the sake of 2nd Amendment freedom, but no risk is acceptable for the sake of compassion.

Once James Comey made the statement that it would be impossible to know everyone’s story for sure, Republicans found the perfect way to impede the progress of compassion under Obama’s plan; there is no way Comey can sign off after saying what he’s said without some major change to the program. And, predictably, Comey has balked at this legislation. Who knows how long it could take, and whether it can be done without sending foot soldiers to Syria, against Obama’s better judgement.

Even during the Cold War we could not certify that there were not spies among the defectors that eventually made it to the United States. The fact is that no one, not anyone can guarantee that anyone else, stranger or neighbor, is perfectly safe. To expect that sort of guarantee before you offer safe haven to the refugee is ludicrous. Surely there are better ideas out there?

Meanwhile, millions of refugees are crowding into nations that can barely hold their own in the international community, and ISIL is using the internet to recruit disaffected youth from all parts of the world. In fact, Comey testified in writing in October “It is no longer necessary to get a terrorist operative into the United States to recruit.” ISIL wants to take us from within, using terrorists sprouted out of our own soil and nourished from afar by their propaganda. This was the case in Paris, in Nigeria, in Mali. H.R. 4038 is a smokescreen, a diversion that hands ISIL exactly what it wants.

A nation willing to risk the lives of its young men and women in a ground war overseas can surely risk its own comfort and convenience to care for its victims.




Charlotte Mason for Children with Special Needs, Part 2

In my last post, I related how two of Charlotte Mason’s three instruments of education – discipline and life – allow our special needs children to partake of the great feast that is their schooling. By saying that education is life, we acknowledge that our children crave knowledge to the same degree as typical children, and that no area should be closed off to them. By saying that education is discipline, we look at therapy with new eyes, in the hope that learning skills consciously will allow our kids to overcome at least some of their obstacles.

Education is an Atmosphere

Now I will turn to education as an atmosphere. When Mason said that education is an atmosphere, she was not referring to the decor or the background music. She mocks that sort of thinking in Volume 6, the idea of education by osmosis, and I have to admit that having placemats of the U.S. states and the periodic table did not magically help my kids learn their geography or their elements. Atmosphere refers to something modern educators came to realize when they started making the connection between children missing meals at home and their grades at school. If you don’t have your basic needs met at home, you aren’t going to learn in school.

Atmosphere refers to to healthy food, adequate sleep, exercise and fresh air (in Mason’s day, the air was heavy with the products of combustion – ventilation was a must if you expected kids to concentrate). Our kids may have some additional needs that need to be met: their diets may have to be restricted, they may need to bounce as they listen to a story, they may have to wear soft clothing with no labels, special glasses, hearing aids. Their physical needs must be attended to before they can do the work of meeting their academic needs.

The emotional atmosphere is also important – parental authority must be well established and “the strong must not lay their burdens on the weak.” Further, children must be spared the effort of decision (although they don’t need to have all choice removed). The structure of the day, for example, is the parent’s job to establish. This creates a secure environment, and doubly so for our special needs kids. However, kids are not to be sheltered. A wide variety of social interaction is necessary and normal for our kids, the child is not to be “isolated in what may be called a ‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared” but allowed to “live freely among his proper conditions.”

The Method

Moving from principles to method, there are aspects of how Mason put her ideas to practice that are already well suited to our children.

  1. Lessons are very short, and varied. This is particularly of value to our ADD/ADHD kids. A lesson may be 5 minutes long, and lessons only reach the 50 minute mark in high school. Our kids may not get to that point, but some will.
  2. Mason encouraged daily out of door time, and some sort of daily exercise or drill. Everyone wins with this.
  3. With varied lessons and activities, one will inevitably support another. A child whose hand struggles to write will be strengthened by piano playing and handicrafts, for example.
  4. Mason said “Let there be a definite time table.” Autistic children feel secure with a lot of structure, and understand better the passage of time. We invested in a tool called the time-timer to keep us both on track. It helped ensure that I didn’t plan lessons that were overly long.
  5. For kids with auditory processing issues, there is less reliance on having to listen to a teacher talk. This gave my daughter time to work up to listening to lectures.
  6. The writing process is broken down into its component parts: copywork, dictation and finally composition. In school, kids are expected to handle letter formation, spelling, grammar and punctuation, and composition all by the age of 7, all at once. Mason recognized that as insanity. Miss T. had issues with eye tracking, so even copying letters was a huge challenge. And the concept of invented spelling made her crazy – if it didn’t look like what she saw in the book, it wasn’t right. Mason’s idea of ensuring the child never sees a word spelled wrong sat well with Miss T.
  7. Hands-on activity, or “education by things” receives equal billing with education by books – or at least books have a supporting role. Science, nature study, handicrafting, these are legitimate areas of study. So a child need not feel handicapped by language if they can draw what they see, or engineer their ideas in some form.
  8. The absence of cramming, or of memorizing isolated bits of information is a relief to those who struggle with short term memory issues.


Even given all of the above, there are aspects of Mason’s ideals that are extraordinarily difficult for those of us with kids who struggle with language. Mason believed in the power of language, in learning multiple languages, and her expectation was that children would easily catch on to difficult vocabulary as long as they had the power of attention to do so. She believed that even slower children had this power. So it is hard not to feel bitter when our children look at us blankly after a reading, without the power of expression, without the ability to make sense of words on a page. In order for our kids to access the power of a Mason education, then, it is possible to support them without departing from the method. Supports can be gradually lessened or even removed over time.

  1. Task your child only with what they can accomplish perfectly. If your child is 10 years only and can only read at the level of a first grader, then that’s where you start. If they can only make straight lines, but not curves, then that’s where you start.
  2. Find the next increment. It may be smaller than you would expect of a typical kid. They may not write capital A’s, but can make upside-down V’s. So there you are. Or, maybe they need to start with cursive writing if they tend to reverse their letters when they print. They may not complete a paragraph for their first written narration, but perhaps they can caption a picture.
  3. Use technology, but sparingly. Just because they cannot read on their own yet does not mean they can’t comprehend it read aloud. This does not mean you quit trying to get them to read their own material, you just don’t close off their access to great works because they can’t read for themselves. The same goes for writing. My daughter is a fluent typist, her written narrations are three times as long typed as written. However, there is a place for handwriting and we don’t give that up. The kid who just can’t memorize his multiplication tables may still be able to comprehend how to solve a tricky algebra problem.
  4. Many children, such as kids with Down’s Syndrome, will need the support of pictures as they learn to translate language into mental images and vice versa. Children who cannot speak can manipulate pictures or figures to narrate while you verbalize what they are trying to communicate.
  5. The choice of reading programs for kids with dyslexia is a controversial one within the Mason community. Most specialists recommend a phonics-based approach, while Mason’s approach was decidedly visual. Because people with dyslexia can learn to read, I would be willing to assume that it was more important to Mason that children be able to access the written word in whatever manner – the most important thing to her was that children belong to the group of people who “read and think.” I think the same is true for math. Mason had ideas about math, she knew it was hard for some kids, but she encouraged them to develop the discipline to solve problems with speed and accuracy.

Education is a lifelong endeavor, and for some of our kids their basic education will not end at age 18. There will be weeks without progress, months of slow progress, and then remarkable breakthroughs. It will feel like all of your time is spent with the neediest child. Give yourself grace, get professional support if you can, and don’t ever give up. And pray.

Charlotte Mason for Children with Special Needs, Part 1

At the PNW Charlotte Mason Conference, I gave a short presentation that outlined why I thought using Mason’s methods worked well for children who have special educational needs. Here is that presentation in written form.

This June, my daughter will graduate from home education, eight years after we made the decision to pull her out of public school. It had never been part of the plan. My commitment to public education was solid, in fact, until I realized one fine spring day that no amount of advocacy and involvement in my daughter’s school would change the fact that her needs did not fit the resources available. Not only would the process of setting up an IEP (Individual Education Plan) forever doom our relationship to focus on the negative, but the relentless negative feedback from her peers and teachers would have shredded any sense of personal efficacy and hope as well. Rather than being a source of intellectual nourishment, academics would have been served with heaping platters of stress.

What is a special need? How do you diagnose it? In a group, this is easy – the kid that’s falling way behind in the classroom is the one with the special needs, right? Maybe he or she can be diagnosed: dyslexia, dyscalculia, autism, ADHD, NVLD, Down’s Syndrome, seizure disorders, OCD, SPD, and various physical disabilities that rob children of the use of their limbs or their senses – such as CP, deafness and blindness. What do they have in common? Language and communication are difficult, and abstract thought may take more time to develop, if it develops at all. Unusual thought processes and behaviors interfere with learning.

If you have been home educating for a while, you may not recognize a need until you notice they have been stuck at the same reading level for 3 years. You may have found that when you bring up your child’s challenges to family and friends, they laugh and say “Oh, you did that as a child,” or “My kid does that, too.” You wonder if you are just a bad parent, until you notice that the difference is one of degree. I notice many children skip down the sidewalk when they are happy. My girl skips every night at 7 pm, no matter where she is or what she feels. Many special needs are often the needs of neurotypical children, on steroids. I would argue that Mason’s methods, because they respect the personhood of the child, are the best methods with which to address our kids’ education.

Brandy Vencel believes we start to understand Charlotte Mason’s method by studying her 20 principles first (Brandy’s study guide is here. Soon her conference presentation will be available). When looking at the application of her principles to children with special needs, we turn our attention to her 5th principle, which concerns the allowable instruments of education: atmosphere, discipline, and life.

Education is a life: What does that mean for our kids? It means that there is no reason to believe that a child with disabilities has any less of a need for a “wide and generous” education than typical children. Not too long ago I read of a teen with Down’s Syndrome who was accepted into a university. However, as I read further, it turns out he was accepted into a special program that taught independent living skills in the university setting. It is my fervent prayer that his parents are not paying university tuition for their son to learn how to write checks. Is there any reason to believe that this young man cannot benefit from learning about great works of art, or by seeing the wonders of the world as revealed under a microscope?

Education is a discipline: Mason believed in the power of Habit to fix just about anything that may be wrong with a child, and she believed in starting early. With our kids, it not only means starting early, but keeping at it for a long, long time. In Volume 2 of her 6 Volume series, Mason says

We know how the tendency to certain forms of disease runs in families; temper and temperament, moral and physical nature alike, may come down with a taint. An unhappy child may, by some odd[ity] of nature, appear to have left out the good and taken into him only the unworthy. What can parents do in such a case? They may not reform him–perhaps that is beyond human skill and care, once he has become all that is possible to his nature–but transform him, so that the being he was calculated to become never develops at all.

Never succumb to the idea that your children will never read, or go to college, or earn a living, for your efforts have the power to transform them. Let everything be within the realm of possibility. Can that be true of our children, some who are profoundly disabled? Well, if you’ve ever taken your child to therapy, you’ve learned that it is nothing more than extensive, professionally guided habit training. A good friend of my son has CP, and he drooled through preschool. He was not doomed by his nervous system to drool all his life; however, because he learned in therapy how to make a conscious habit of closing his mouth and swallowing. This did not come naturally, but after a few years of patient teaching on the part of his mom and therapist. This is a fact of life for all of us – if it feels you have to teach everything, that nothing is merely figured out, then you might have a kid with a disability. In your kiddo’s area of weakness, you do indeed have to teach everything.

Once you are in a position to choose a therapy, choose carefully. We are working on one habit at a time, remember? You don’t need to work on habit training to the exclusion of the rest of the feast of education; you didn’t choose home education to spend days in the car shuttling your children to and from appointments. Miss T’s best therapy was a friendship group where she learned emotion regulation. She learned how to deal with disappointment with a tool called “The Big Deal Scale” The lesson plan I linked is very similar, although Miss T brought home a big thermometer and I learned that the group could make up some very wild stories about what might be a big deal. Therapy is often the only place our special children can pick up these tools.

Would you tell your child about their diagnosis? In Volume 5 Mason says “I do believe it’s best to deal with a child’s faults without making him aware that he has them.” She was afraid that a child would “own” their fault, when she would rather the child felt empowered to let go of it. So rather than say that whatever tendency is part of the child’s neurological makeup, she would call attention to how the behavior affected the child and the child’s loved ones, in order to plant a desire for change. On the other hand, most of our kids know already that they are different. They need to know that we know it’s hard for them. Further, a diagnosis tells them that there are other people who struggle like they do, too.  A diagnosis can help a child advocate for themselves, but even so, it is best to do this not from a blanket diagnosis, but from a knowledge of what the child needs to succeed. So the decision to tell or not tell depends on a lot of factors.