Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Gifted Blog

The Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University has started a new blog, "Talent Talk." Click here to check it out.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Making Connections, Creating Opportunities

When AJ isn’t worried about being persecuted for doing extra homework, I think he really enjoys Latin. He seems particularly interested in the ways in which Latin intersect with real life. I’ve been going out of my way to point out Latin roots, not just in our Latin lessons but also when we’re reading out loud or even watching TV. AJ was reading one of his 90 gazillion books about space the other night and he got a look on his face that suggested a bulb had just burned on over his head. “Mom, does ‘astronaut’ mean ‘sailor to the stars’? Because it sounds like astra and nauta.” Exactly right, AJ. Suddenly language is seeming more meaningful to him, imbued with history and poetry.

At our parent-teacher conference last week, I mentioned to his teacher that I’m teaching him Latin at home and this week his spelling list was drawn from words related by common Latin and Greek roots. Coincidence? Maybe. AJ’s not the only kid that gets the challenge words. But they weren’t the words on the regular challenge list. I think she made the list because she knew we’d been working on it. Big points for the teacher in my book.

Yesterday, when we sat down to do Latin, I could tell AJ was tired and not so into it. I turned to the next story and he groaned. It was long. We started to translate, but he was getting frustrated with all the new vocabulary and with the fact that he kept forgetting some of the little words that come up all the time. I slammed the book shut. “Let’s try something different.”

We’ve been flying through the textbook and are nearly done with it already. He picks things up so fast that it’s easy to do, but with language, you need processing time. I think it’s time to slow down and try some new things.

I sat down at the kitchen counter and wrote out the words to the first verse of “Adeste Fidelis.”

“Do you recognize this, AJ?”

“Hmm. I think it looks kind of familiar.”

“I’ll sing it for you. Maybe it will sound familiar.”

So I sang the verse. He recognized it, but didn’t remember the words in English or in Latin. I turned him loose to translate it. He’d had almost all the vocabulary. I just had to coach him through the imperative verb forms. He wrote his translation out. Then I wrote out how we sing the carol in English and we talked about some of the things you need to do when translating poetry or song lyrics that are different than just a straight translation. He was fascinated.

And then we sang it together, first in English, then in Latin.

“Are we done?” he asked when we finished.


“That was more fun than regular Latin. Can we do it again?”

Lucky for me there are plenty of Latin carols to draw on this month. And as soon as we dig out the Christmas decorations, we’ll work on my Latin copy of How The Grinch Stole Christmas. That’s going to blow his mind.

* * * * *

Yesterday’s study session was at an interesting intersection between a couple of different trains of thought I’ve been pursuing this week. One is an email exchange I had with our school district’s curriculum director. I’d sent her a link to a project of the Society for American Music that seeks to help teachers to use music in teaching American History. They are running a training institute this summer and have already got a website up with helpful links and suggestions for specific ways to incorporate specific pieces into history curricula. The site will eventually have lesson plans as well. I’m really excited about this project, as was the curriculum director. At a juncture where many schools are axing their music programs, this kind of approach seems very promising. If I can teach music in Latin, surely we can teach it in History. How else can we blend the arts into the mainstream public school curriculum?

It also came up in my meeting this morning with the director of the gifted ed program at the local community college. We were sitting down to brainstorm ideas for bringing extra-curricular classes into our public school district and were considering waysto construct classes that would a) appeal to a lot of kids, b) be rigorous enough that parents would pay for it but would also c) be fun enough that the kids would be enthusiastic to functionally extending their school day. So we were thinking: what makes classes fun? Mixing the arts into other subjects is one of the things we came up with.

I’m not sure I really have a point here. If I do, it’s maybe that it’s easy for us musicians (and educators too) to think of the arts as an end in itself, but it they are also valuable as a methodology. AJ got both language and music yesterday. And history too, because I took the opportunity to talk about classical Latin vs. church Latin when he asked why there were so many Christmas carols in Latin.

However, I’m not sure how I’m going to explain Quomodo Invidiosulus Nomine Grinchus Christi Natalem Abrogaverit.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Problem Solving

Our district still hasn't managed to work out the extra-curricular after-school program for gifted kids that they'd said they'd put in place, so I've been researching other alternatives that could be volunteer run. I have come across several team problem solving competitions that sound intriguing.
Two of them are international:

Destination Imagination

Odyssey of the Mind

And one is for the state of Illinois:

Future Problem Solving Bowl

There are several things that appeal to me about these programs.

1. It's not school work, but it draws on things kids need to know in school.
2. The problems require multiple skills, which encourages them to work in teams where members have different strengths
3. There's a social component.
4. It sounds really fun.

Does anyone know anything about these programs? I am wondering how difficult they might be to implement at our schools.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Science videos from NPR

Last week, my mom pointed out a video she thought AJ would like at National Public Radio's site. We liked it so much, that we went in search of others. Here is our catalog of science videos by NPR commentator Robert Krulwich collaborating with cartoonist Odd Todd.

How Much does a Hurricane Weigh?

A five part series on carbon and its role in global warming:

Carbon 1
Carbon 2
Carbon 3
Carbon 4
Carbon 5

Ants that count

The Crow Paradox

How much heat can you take?

All of these videos are informative and fun to watch. Our only complaint is that there aren't more of them.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


For the first time ever, we got a midterm report from AJ's teacher. We are continuing to learn that AJ's teacher this year doesn't do things like everybody else. While some kids are struggling with that, AJ seems to be thriving. He is taking greater responsibility for his work and is less inclined to take the easy way out. We are still seeing some mighty basic math homework a lot of the time, but not all the time. AJ, who has brought home straight As since he started getting grades, actually seemed proud of his grades this term. I think he had to work for some of them. And I think he's starting to learn that working means you're doing okay, that you're not supposed to know everything before you start. If the only thing AJ gets out of this year is the message that working is worthwhile, then the year will be a success as far as I'm concerned.

There were three other areas of note that came out of the midterm report.

1. AJ's teacher had the students evaluate their own progress, and their self-assessments were included with the midterm report. I asked AJ about it and he said it was really hard to do. He did, however, offer a fairly accurate assessment in most areas. Although I did think that his high rating on listening in class was undercut by the five warning slips also included (these were handed out throughout the year to date), as each one was for talking in class. He's his mother's son, for sure.

2. As I mentioned in a post at the beginning of the summer, AJ's school has adopted the Accelerated Reader program for guided reading. This involves standardized tests for level assessment. Each book a student reads for independent or in-class free reading is assigned a number of points based on length and difficulty. After each book is completed, the student takes a computerized test of 10-20 questions about the book. The questions are quite detailed and it is not uncommon for students to have to test more than once. After a successful test (which I believe is defined as 80% or higher, although I'm not sure about this), points are assigned to the students account. If the student gets all the questions right, they get full points. If they miss a question or two, they'll lose a few points. Students need to accumulate a certain number of points in their accounts each trimester. The idea is to motivate students to read and to encourage them to read more challenging books, which garner them more points. Readers with greater ability will be expected to earn more points per term than those who are still struggling with the basics.

In principle, I think this program can work. But the book level system is highly flawed, as I mentioned in my previous post on lexiles. AJ's teacher is using book level rather than lexile number. They are basically different ways of stating the same information. The book level is defined by grade level. For instance, a book that is deemed a good reading level for an average fourth grader in the middle of the year will be level 4.5 (month 5 of fourth grade).

Up until now, they've been able to read whatever books they like. But the Midterm Report informed us that from here on out, the only books that would count toward the point totals are the ones that fall within their reading range. AJ's level has been determined to be between 4.5 and 8.9. I'd say that's probably about right in terms of ability. It's better than it could have been -- he's testing at an advanced high school level. The problem is, he likes to read a lot of books that are in the 3.8-4.4 range.

The latest example: Diary of a Wimpy Kid was assessed at 5.2, nearly a grade level above Adam Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday, a much more challenging book from both the standpoint of vocabulary and subject matter, which is registered as 4.5. Smekday was just barely inside AJ's reading level. It's his favorite book at the moment. If it were one point down, he wouldn't have been allowed to read it. If any of you has read both of these books, can you explain the book leveling? It's a mystery to me.

I'm all for pushing AJ to challenge himself with reading. I think he often cops out of things that are a little harder than he's used to because he's afraid he won't succeed. But the book levels seem so random to me that I'm not sure of the value of the cutoff. The AR program does try to acknowledge age appropriateness with their book search system as a separate category from reading ability, for which I commend them, but as I pointed out in my previous post on the subject, the age assignments are frequently random (although not as downright inappropriate as some of the things we found on lexile.com).

I'm a little concerned that AJ is feeling like his book choices are not good enough, like his reading is not up to par because many of the books he likes are below his assigned level. In order to encourage him, this weekend I took him to the bookstore to pick out a new reading book. He came home with Pseudonymous Bosch's The Name of This Book is Secret (book level 5.6). He is loving it and is excited that there are more in the series. So we're good for now, at least.

3. We discovered a really not-so-good result of the school day that is now 45 minutes shorter than it was last year thanks to budget cuts: they can't teach science and social studies at the same time. They are alternating science and social studies units. How can kids not have both subjects all the time? I read Obama's sweeping statements about the education reforms that we need, about having a longer school year, blah blah blah. I have one thing to say to him: Show me the money.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Afterschooling update

With bigger classes, no gifted and a shorter school day, AJ and I decided to do some after school homeschooling. While some of it involves enhancing his daily lessons especially in math, most of our time is spent on learning a new language.

The language AJ picked was Latin. I’m not sure why he decided Latin was a good one but I was happy about it because a) I had Latin in school and b) I’ve been wanting to relearn the grammar, which I seem to have largely forgotten.

I have to admit, I did not do a whole lot of research into curriculum. The homeschool pages recommending Latin curricula were almost entirely including Latin for religious reasons. And that’s just not us.

Instead, I picked the Cambridge Latin Course. I used the course in high school Latin myself and I already owned the first two books of the series, which saves us some big bucks. Plus their website has some helpful tools on it, including games and self-quizzes for every chapter. A warning, though, to those who use Chrome as their browser of choice: some of the components are not compatible. We switch to Firefox before heading to the site.

We’ve also located some online flashcards for the series, which let AJ study vocabulary on his own.

I’ve already written a little about what I like about Cambridge Latin. I was a little nervous about using it with a 9-year-old, but it seems to be working out well. He likes the humor of the stories – yesterday he learned how to say “dirty poem” (versus scurrilis!). I like the way the stories keep circling back on vocabulary so it’s easy to learn. And we both like reading the culture sections.

I wasn’t sure how the grammar issue was going to go. AJ’s had some Spanish in an after school program, but it was strictly conversational and largely aural/oral. They didn’t discuss things like conjugation or even much about masculine/feminine/neuter. But the book explains grammar so logically, with one main point per chapter (or “Stage” as they call it), that AJ is all over it.

The book is very translation oriented like many Latin books. But to keep AJ interested, we’ve been reading out loud and doing some of the translations orally, others written. I agonized for a while about pronunciation. In school, I studied classical Latin. But I’ve spent much more time as a singer working with church Latin so in the end, that’s what I decided to teach. I’m more familiar with it and less likely to make mistakes. And really, it doesn’t matter. I’m more concerned with giving him a connection to the language than about what it really sounds like.

Every chapter ends with an exercise that includes a list of English words with roots based on the chapter’s Latin vocabulary. You have to match the English words with their definitions. We’ve been using these exercises as a springboard to talk about English vocabulary, which has been fun. I’m not sure where I’m going with it. AJ’s been really interested in the Scripp’s Spelling bee, so maybe we’ll work on some vocabulary/spelling games as well.

So, so far,so good. I’m liking our afterschooling routine. Even with football practices every night, it seems to be working.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Executive Function

Normally at this time of year, I post about our back to school experiences with gifted at AJ’s school. But this year, there’s not a whole lot to tell, at least not yet. They’ve been in school for two weeks now, but there is still not a lot coming home and they are about to launch into round one of standardized testing (STAR and MAP) for the year.

But while I can’t talk much about academics, there is one thing I am definitely happy with about school, and that’s about the way his teacher is teaching study skills.

Like many gifted kids, AJ has some problems with what psychologists like to call “executive function.” To say he is not good at organizing himself is an understatement. He has classic absent-minded-professor syndrome. He forgets things. He loses things. He starts on one task and gets distracted by some shiner more exciting thing in the middle and forgets what he was doing. We have tried and tried to help him with routines and lists but nothing has worked. But this year, things are better, at least as far as schoolwork goes.

There are two reasons that AJ himself has identified for the improvement. One is actually a result of the overcrowded classes: no desks. Because they sit at tables instead of desks, AJ can’t shove stuff in there never to be seen again. Instead of desks, they keep their important stuff in fabric pockets that go over the backs of their chairs. These pockets are small and you can see everything in them, so there’s nowhere for things to hide. Most supplies are shared by the tables, so they are stored in a shared space and don’t get lost either.

The second tool, though, is something that is actually part of the curriculum: The Binder. The binder organizes all their school work. The teacher talks to them about it, let them decorate the cover, and showed them how to put it together. It’s an awesome tool. But mostly I just love that the teacher is backing up what we try to do at home. In the past, we’ve given AJ a calendar and a folder system to help him remember his homework, but without the teacher helping him with it at school, it failed.

The front pocket is for parent-teacher communication only. Inside the 3 rings, there is a zip pocket for money – both the real money that goes back and forth to school and the fake money that AJ’s teacher uses for certain types of rewards. We’re not quite sure what happens with the fake money yet, but AJ is already loaded. After the pocket are several pages of sheet protectors containing the monthly lunch menu, the weekly spelling list, and any other lists of terms to be studied. Next is an assignment book with a page for every week. Each day, the students write in their homework in each subject and other due dates and tests. Each time they finish an assignment, they check it off. Parents sign off on it weekly. After the assignment is a red Velcro pocket folder. This is where the daily assignments travel home to get completed and put back in the folder for the return trip. After this are several divided sections, each with its own stash of lined paper. So far these haven’t been much used, except for the daily journal section, which includes a story the class is writing one sentence at a time each day and a sheet protector with a list and explanation of the parts of speech on one side and a list of proofreading marks on the other.

Thanks to this binder, AJ always knows where his homework is and we always know what he’s supposed to do. It’s not up to his memory. It’s wonderful. It’s wonderful now, and it will be even more wonderful when he heads to middle school next year and has more responsibilities.

How about you, parents/teachers: do your children struggle with organization? What are some of the tools in your box?