On state testing and holding hummingbirds

On state testing and holding hummingbirds
Written by Kari Patterson of Sacred Mundane.

Sometimes it’s like I sabotage myself. Have you ever been there? It’s like,

“Oh let’s see: I’m super tired and grumpy today, we’ve had a full week and we’re all a bit on edge this morning. Why don’t we go ahead and set the day on fire by doing our state achievement practice tests today?!

Even though I’ve never given you a bubble test before, I think I’ll just throw it at you with zero preparation and expect you to do well, even though you have Asperger’s and are incredibly intolerant to change or surprises or new situations. Sure, great idea!”

What in the name of all that is good made me think this was a reasonable idea?

With unfounded optimism I glanced over the test and smiled — it was all stuff he knew, so I figured he was more than prepared.

What he wasn’t prepared for is test-taking

Surprise surprise, it went poorly. The frustration began when I explained he couldn’t talk to me about all the reading comprehension. He wanted to discuss it, of course!

He disagreed with the historical section, so he wanted to give his opinion: They should have included the Romans in this summary! I continued to redirect him to the bubbles, to fill in the little circle for the correct statement. 

Photo by DrWurm

Then the trick questions on math threw him for a double loop, the ones where “none of the above” was the answer, which I hadn’t told him about. Even though he did the work correctly, he doubted himself and picked a different choice since he didn’t see his answer.  

I became more and more frustrated as I watched him work his way through problems I knew he knew, second guessing himself and becoming flustered. 

I was clearly disappointed, which upset him even more. Time was running out. 

Somewhere along the way we both just quit. (Hence the hiding in bed and my head in my hands.) It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I’m guessing we’ve all had an all-time homeschooling low-point somewhere along the line. This was mine.

Eventually, I went into his room. We sat in silence together, all my frustrations and fears and doubts and discouragement just weighing heavily in the air. There are so many things about him I don’t understand.

Finally I suggested we go review the test together. He agreed, his head still hanging down, and he shuffled out of his room.

I sat there for a moment longer, praying, asking for insight to try to understand him. Then suddently I heard shouting,

“Mommy! Mommy! Come here quick! There’s a hummingbird in the house!”

Photo by Ken Bondy

I ran out to the dining room. There it was, a hummingbird flying frantically against our large picture-windows, trying to break free. He must have flown inside accidentally, and now the powerful, rapid flapping of his wings were loud against the glass. He darted up and down bumping into the window-frame corners.

I glanced around the house, trying to think of a solution, a box or a net, but didn’t know how we’d ever get it inside, it darted and fluttered so quickly. I didn’t know what to do.

“Mommy! I can do it! I can catch it!”

I looked at my boy, his eyes wide, his hands shaking with excitement. He loves birds, loves to study birds, watch birds, often pretends to be a bird (!). He’s my bird boy.

He leaned in, timid at first, and moved toward the hummingbird but then it darted the other direction. I watched his face, excited and scared and determined.

“You can do it, Dutch! I know you can. You always manage to catch the chickens. I know you can do this.”

He put out his hands a little farther, stronger, surer. He inched slowly, slowly in, then with a quick swish –thrust his hands out …

… and caught that hummingbird. The tiny creature stopped frantically flapping and lay perfectly still in his hands, the most amazing sight. He stared down in wonder, watching, then whispered into the air.

I did it.”

We carefully walked out the door onto our second-story deck perched high in the trees. He carried the perfectly-still creature in his outstretched hands, over to the railing, then lifted up his arms as high as he could and thrust the tiny bird up into the air. In a split second the hummingbird’s wings burst into blurry-action and it took off like a shot into the open air, out above the trees, far above our heads, into the distant sky … wild and free. 

Dutch stood there, silent, breathless, watching.

“I did it, Mommy.”

“You did it, Son. You saved the life of that bird. I knew you could do it.” 

He broke into a wide grin.

“I did it! I saved his life! I’ve never held a wild bird before!”


He started walking around the deck, back and forth, talking a mile a minute, like his mind was suddenly uncorked and now rushed out with ideas, inspiration.

He talked about joy, about how to persevere through hard days, about the kingdom of God. Out of his little mouth flowed wisdom so far beyond his years, I sat and listened in wide-eyed wonderment. Just fifteen minutes before he’d been in tears staring at a test-sheet and despairing about long-division.

Like a bird stuck against a window-sill, desperate to be free. 

Here, having touched nature and held life and done something that matters, his tears dried and his mind flew free, out into the open of endless possibilities.

I sat out there on the deck, beside him, watching his face, soaking in his steady stream of joyful observations. I saw it, of course, so clearly.

Tests have their place, but that place is small. Learning has its place, and that place is large. That place is life

So we will learn about bubble-sheets and “none of the above” answers and why 3rd grade test-excerpts aren’t always the most historically accurate source of information.

But we won’t stay stuck there. We’ll touch nature and hold life and do things that matter.

We’ll pursue an education that cannot be summed up on a standardized test. And, most of all, I’ll never again surprise my poor son with a practice test on an already-difficult day.

Good grief. So glad the hummingbird saved the day.

How do you keep your perspective on the hard days? What has proven most helpful for you?

About Kari Patterson

Kari Patterson and her family live out in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. As a 2nd-generation homeschooler she espouses the same philosophy her own mom did in the 80s: Cultivate a love for learning and one's education will never end. She bakes bread, brews kombucha, speaks at conferences & writes at Sacred Mundane. Her new book Sacred Mundane is available now.


  1. Tasmanian says:

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Almost the same as my combined yesterday/today. Today we went to the zoo, found the pelicans that my 5 year old was obsessed with from the book Storm Boy, and made a whole bunch of connections between things. I’m not going to tell you about yesterday but it included ONE SENTENCE of copywork and a meltdown.

  2. I’m grateful for this post on many levels–all of which would take a book’s worth of writing to explain, so I won’t do it here. Mostly I’m grateful for the human frailty you shared about yourself and your efforts to understand and raise your boy. I’m also grateful you had a miracle.

    Gives me hope.
    Anne’s latest post: Assessment 2016–Brother

  3. I think this post sums up and captures why homeschooling is so wonderful. Because it doesn’t get in the way of life.
    Carrie Willard’s latest post: 18 Things I’ve Learned In 18 Years of Parenting

  4. Our perspective helper has been honoring the balance of with-ness and alone-ness. I have one child who can’t function as a part of the group during certain times of the day. So, I don’t make them. We plan our days together so that everyone’s expectations of when we will all be together working collectively, and then I allow for a lot of freedom for this child to go off on their own either to work independently or play creatively. I am still learning that I don’t need to interrupt in order to offer suggestions – this child has a LONG attention span if allowed freedom. If I force this child to focus on what I want without first giving space for what they want, then it’s a battle of constant distraction and refocus.

    I can relate completely to the – I’m on edge, so let’s dive into the most difficult task – thing. There has always been enough grace for those days too. 🙂
    Cara@TheHomeLearner’s latest post: Planning Your Year-at-a-Glance: Homeschool Planning Tip #3

  5. You actually have me tearing up. Wow! Thank goodness we are not judged in life by tests. And thank goodness for moments that put us back into our place in this world. When we are having a rough day, we head outside. Everything comes together for us outdoors. It is magical. Thank you for sharing. What a terrific way to start my morning. 🙂
    Sharon’s latest post: Picture Post-Signs of Summer in the Garden

  6. Whenever we have a difficult day, we tend to either go outside or if it’s raining, we’ll put in a movie, pop some popcorn, and drink some hot chocolate. I’ve finally come to realize that kids do not learn under stress. They just don’t. Their best learning moments are in those moments of relaxation after we’ve thrown in the towel, so to speak. Those moments come about in watching a snail crawl along and discussing how its shell is made of calcium carbonate and grows with them, or in watching Minions and realizing how much Minion language sounds like Spanish, after which the kids all start practicing how to count in that language. (Thanks, Dora!) State testing time is, by far, the worst period of our year. Thankfully, we can do it online at home, so we make sure to take plenty of outside breaks whenever they’re needed.
    Shelly’s latest post: Homeschooling Methods: An Overview of the Unit Study Approach

  7. The place for learning is large…puts me in mind of that psalm…thou hast set my feet in a large room. Fist time state testing still looms in our Summer. Pray for us?
    kortney garrison’s latest post: Wednesday (with Words)

  8. Wow, what a beautiful experience. Thank you for sharing it.
    What’s most helpful for us — change the momentum. It can be hard for me b/c it feels like quitting, but it’s what we need (e.g. to stop doing math when my son’s frustrated to tears). Our momentum-changers include music, tea, going outside, a read-aloud.

  9. Beautifully written and timely for me. We just finished our required state tests and there were so many answers I knew they knew, but they doubted or hesitated. Yes, test skills are important, but real learning, real engagement, real life is so much more important. Thanks for that reminder.

  10. I absolutely love this and you are so good at reminding the rest of us about what’s really important!

  11. I adore hummingbirds! Whenever I see one, I am reminded of the Lord’s abundant care and love. How special for your little man to hold one of His tiny and amazing creatures! I’m jealous!! I smiled broadly throughout the entire hummingbird part of your post. 🙂 Thank you for sharing. And yes, I’ll take hummingbirds over testing any day-ha! 😉

  12. I did it a few days ago. My daughter had had a fever & headache the night before. We had just dropped off her dad at the hospital for a procedure and I still expected her to do her normal school routine…We stopped in the middle and both went to bed at 11 am 🙂
    Sarah B R’s latest post: The gift of a bad mother

  13. I have nothing to add to the discussion but thought this was a beautiful post!
    Jen Steed’s latest post: What Did (and Did NOT) Work For Us – Classical / Charlotte Mason / Memoria Press for Second & Kindergarten

  14. Sniff, sniff–there you go again, Kari, blurring my screen lol 🙂 LOVE this. Dutch saved the bird, and the bird saved the day–beautiful!! Thanks again for your transparency and artful way of conveying simple truths from everyday life. This is a big reason we’re homeschooling too!! I’ve been a teacher in a public school for a total of two years and that was more than enough to see how much testing and assessment dominates and real life learning takes a back seat. Anyway, thanks again! <3

  15. What a wonderful post– but what I find most encouraging is to see a second-generation unschooler. I’ve been living under the specter of what judgments my children might pass on their education when they are adults…so great to read that you enthusiastically endorse what your mother did with you! That’s what every mother dreams of, I’ll bet.

  16. So timely. We are preparing for the first time state test as well and most of our prep is how to actually do the test itself. It makes me feel worried tat he doesn’t know enough, that I’ve failed at this schooling thing because he won’t know all he should in 3rd grade. But my son loves to read and whatever he has missed so far I am sure he will make up for later in desiring to learn it. The test is something we have to do, but then we will go back to learning through life. Thanks for your encouragement.

  17. This brought me to tears. We have had so many moments this year where I knew I was pushing too hard, but for whatever reason I just couldn’t quit and value the learner over the lesson. Thank you for sharing – it encouraged this mama’s heart.
    Katie’s latest post: Sorry Y’all, But Going to the Pool Sucks

  18. Beautiful article. I so appreciated your honest take on the preciousness of learning and how sometimes we’re our worst enemy. It’s too bad that we have to teach our kids how to take tests, but I’m glad that it’s not the most important thing in my children’s education (or mine) anymore. Thanks!
    Anthea’s latest post: Simple Truths About Choosing Homeschool Curriculum

  19. This was beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  20. Bethany Fegles says:

    I loved this Kari. It took Jude 7 hours to complete his 3rd grade state test this year. 😳 We had to divide it into 3 sessions. I was so proud of him for persevering and completing it, but he definitely had those same moments where he absolutely knew the answers but second guessed himself because of the way the question was structured.
    I love this bird story (and your bird loving boy) & when God brings such a sweet and timely reminder of what truly matters. Love you friend!!

  21. Jeannine Tidwell says:

    Wow. This is really an incredibly story and grabs me. Thank you so much for sharing such an intimate, inspiring story. it really is a story about truth.

  22. This post meant so much to me when you wrote it. My son is very similar to yours, and your realizations inspired me. Well, today was our first day back to homeschooling, and it was a tough day. Until… believe it or not, a hummingbird got stuck in our garage. We saved it together, and it turned the day around. I came back to read this post, and it still means so much to me. Thank you.

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