Saturday, December 1, 2007

Leftover Pi

Scene: Harriet's kitchen. It is breakfast time. AJ has just finished playing a game of multiplication baseball on the computer.

AJ: You know what my favorite number is?

Mr. Spy: What?

AJ: Pi. Do you think I could have pi on my basketball jersey? [AJ's first basketball practice of the season is this afternoon.] How do you write pi?

Mr. Spy: [who was probably getting ready to go for a run and not just passing the buck] Go ask Mommy to write it down for you.

Harriet: Pi looks kind of like a table with a little curve in the top on the left. I'll show you. [Harriet draws a picture of the symbol for pi=the word pi, and also a pie chart equalling the word pie.]

AJ: Can I write it?

Harriet: Of course. [She hands AJ the pencil. And he writes it out.] I don't think they'll put it on your jersey, though.

AJ: It would take too long to write it in numbers.

Harriet: Yeah. Your jersey would be WAY too big for you.

* * * * *

AJ and I then proceeded to look for websites to help us with calculating pi, because even after coffee, I am not up to it on my own. We found this page to help us. But even better were the instructions for how to calculate pi by throwing frozen hot dogs. We will definitely be trying this sometime in the future. But first, I need to go to the grocery store.

[Crossposted at Spynotes]

Monday, November 12, 2007

Hooked on Phonics

Like many (if not most) early readers, AJ learned to read by devouring words whole. Phonics meant nothing to him. He was, for a long time, stymied by sounding out words, even though he could read them just fine. This seems to be a common trait among the early readers we know, although so far I have been unable to find any studies that have been done that suggest those who read early learn how to read in that particular way.

In any case, for the last couple of years, we've been working with AJ so that he could be more comfortable deciphering and pronouncing words not previously enncountered. Initially, we were working on phonics. More recently, we've been spending time talking about root words. For the last several weeks, we've been working with AJ's teacher to create challenge word lists for him. After he takes the class' standard issue spelling test (mostly three letter words), AJ gets a test of his own. AJ has been struggling a little with this. He's a good memorizer, so he gets it, but he was getting frustrated with thinking of things this way. So we started making up chants of the letters that rhythmically broke the words into smaller groups. For example, for the word "chocolate":


This worked well, because he remembered the ATE because CHOCOLATE was something you ATE.

This week, all of a sudden, something clicked.

As usual, AJ and I practiced his words on the walk to school. We make up his list on Sundays, so Mondays we do it cold. Usually I make up chants for him, but he did it himself today.

"Spell 'invisible.'"


"Perfect! Did you remember or it or did you figure it out?"

"I remembered it was 'visible' with "in" in front. Then I just figured it out."

"Good thinking. Try 'forecast.'"


"Almost, but it's not quite right. You forgot..."

"Oh, wait. It needs to be "f-o-r-E-c-a-s-t."

"Very good! How'd you figure that out?"

"Well, there are two kinds of "for." This is not for something. It's before something, because, like, you're telling the weather before it happens."

He figured that out all by himself. This may not seem like a big deal for anyone who's taken an SAT prep course, but given the way we've seen AJ struggle with separating words into components, this strikes me as a huge leap in his intellectual development. But more importantly for AJ, it's a huge boost to his confidence. Spelling has, I think, been somewhat mysterious (another word on his list this week) to him, something that he's mastered by force of will and power of memory. Now he actually understands it. It's exciting to watch that happen.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Cold spell

As AJ's first trimester of first grade at the local public school draws to a close, it seems like a good time for an assessment at how the school and I are doing at getting AJ work at his level.

I've had the chance to be in AJ's classrooms several times in the last few weeks for various things which has allowed me to see how things operate. AJ is in a class of 26 kindergartners -- huge by district standards, but the first grade is an anomaly this year. Every other grade has three classes. AJ's grade has four. And the classes, on average, have 4 more students than classes the rest of the grades. AJ's class is lucky in that there is a state-funded assistant because one of the students has a visual disability. But she helps all the students and they all benefit from the increased attention.

One of the things I've been curious about is how AJ's separate lessons are integrated into the class work. So far, it appears extremely smooth. Their reading assignments are all different anyway, so that is not a problem. AJ's teacher and I have been working together to provide the books he needs. They all do the same spelling words in class, but AJ has a separate list that AJ, his teacher and I put together from his reading assignments. When he's done with the regular list, he works on his own list. On spelling test day, AJ takes two tests, one with the rest of the class, and one on his own words. He is pulled aside in the classroom for this, but since each student has some one-on-one time with the teacher each week for reading and other things, this does not single him out. AJ seems to be enjoying the challenge -- we make silly games to practice spelling at home -- and he feels like a normal kid.

The one thing that isn't working out as well as I would like is math. AJ is just not getting enough challenge. Math is more difficult because unlike reading, the whole class works together. AJ is bored out of his wits. A little boredom never hurt anyone, but AJ is, as a result of the boredom, getting sloppy with his work. He doesn't always read the instructions carefully. He is supposed to be getting challenge assignments, but it has only happened once. Math is harder for me to supplement because the material AJ should be working on has little to do with the assignments the rest of the class is doing and because I don't have access to a standard curriculum. I need the teacher's and school's help, but I haven't quite figured out how to get it. I don't want to push AJ's teacher too hard. She does so much on her own initiative, much more than we expected and I don't want to take advantage of her. She's got a huge class, a huge job. I also don't want to overstep my bounds too far by telling her too much of what I want for AJ at once. We have parent-teacher conferences coming up in a few weeks and I'm hoping by then I'll have figured out a way to talk about all this without causing trouble.

AJ is also loving his extra-curricular Spanish class. It's given him a whole new lease on life. It helps that it's a smaller group this year and mostly of first and second graders -- last year included K-4 and was a little diffuse. Overall, AJ is still enjoying school, loving his teacher and fitting in well.

It's all feeling like I'm trying to walk a tightrope blindfolded.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Child Left Behind

A few days ago,Dandydandy
posted about two of her boys “who are exceptional when one compares their educational abilities against what is average and/or expected of them.” Ten-year-old Sam loves school and is doing well in it by traditional standards. Dandy says she worries about him getting used to not being challenged at school, so that he shuts down when he faces something more difficult. Thirteen-year-old Gabe, on the other hand, does not like school, is doing extremely poorly, yet is scoring off the charts on standardized tests. The result of the failing grades plus high test scores is that he’s been invited to participate in a special early SAT program for high performers because his test scores are high, but is being denied access to special programs for gifted students because his grades are bad. [Please correct me if I’m summing this up badly, dandy!] You can (and should!) read the whole post here

Dandy asked for input on dealing with the situation with her 13-year-old Gabe. The questions are, if I understand it correctly, if our kids are not performing in the system, does it necessarily mean they are not performing? What if the system’s failing him? Do we need to teach them to jump through the hoops or is there another way to let Gabe be Gabe but still make sure he comes out knowing the stuff that’s important to know?

This is exactly the problem I am hoping not to face with my own son. AJ is currently more in the Sam camp. He loves going to school, but seems to have come to have the expectation that it will not be challenging, so when he gets stuff that is more at his level (which, at the moment, is usually coming at homework time), he balks because he can’t do it as quickly as the easy stuff.

But I’m seeing signs of some Gabe-like tendencies too. In the past few weeks, he’s started balking at doing his math homework – it’s always been his favorite subject. But he’s bored. He wants to do more and it’s not happening fast enough for him. We have tremendous arguments about homework just about every night. I don’t like the way the wind is blowing. And yet I respect the quality that makes AJ resist assignments that seem like busywork. And I know the Gabe-like approach because I’ve been there. The only thing that kept me from crashing and burning in high school was parents who laid down the law. And for some kids, that’s not enough.

If AJ were in Gabe’s shoes, I would have several concerns. First, I would be concerned about the impact of failing on his self-esteem. Even if it he feels like the failing is something under his control, a decisions he’s made, at some level he’s chosen to fail and regardless of how a kid feels about the system, most of them don’t like to fail. I don’t know enough about Gabe, but from what dandy’s said, I’m sure dandy’s working on this part of the equation already. Is Gabe motivated in other areas of his life? You mention his frustration with school, but are there things that really turn him on? Trying to get at the school stuff through something he likes is one way to work. When I was having a tendency to throw in the towel, finding ways to relate to my music-making always helped me. (Need to study French? Listen to French music. Balking at math? Look at acoustical properties, etc. We were pretty creative about that sort of thing in my house.)

The second area of concern is the school system that’s not working for Gabe. There can be many reasons for this, from poor organization, laziness, or just a simple lack of resources (time, money, warm bodies). I think there are a lot of problems with school systems, but they are the systems we’ve got and it pays to try to work with them if at all possible. One thing that AJ has got going for him right now that it sounds like Gabe does not is support inside the school. This can be hard to get. We’ve been lucky in finding a school and, this year, a teacher who are receptive to my requests. But I am also being a royal pain in the ass (in as nice a way as I know how). I have been talking to principals and teachers and social workers and gifted support people at AJ’s school since the year before he started kindergarten there, making sure they were going to be paying attention and finding appropriate stuff for him to do. When the schools can’t find materials on their own, I provide them. I never take it for granted that the school knows what AJ needs. I never assume they have the resources he needs. I spell it out for them and I offer to help. No one will be a better advocate than I and even if all I’m doing is letting them know I’m paying attention, then I think things will be better. And I'm learning not to care that some of them may think I'm just another crazy parent. Because the ones who count know better.

My basic philosophy in dealing with bureaucracy is that if the system isn’t working, the best way to help is to get yourself on the inside and try to figure out how to make it better. Fighting the system usually just meets with resistance and can be counterproductive in the extreme if you’re not in a position to get up and walk away from it. I talk to AJ’s teacher at least once or twice a week, either in person or by email. I’m in regular contact with the school’s gifted teacher. When I have concerns, I put them in writing. I try to work with the school hierarchies (Start with the classroom teacher, then the gifted teacher, then the principal, at least in our school. And if I’m going to contact someone other than the classroom teacher, I always let her know.). Even at our school, which has been a largely positive experience, there is a lot of insecurity and it pays to understand the hierarchy and make it work for, not against you.

Also, I would be a little concerned about the disjuncture between the way the school’s handling the SAT invitation and the way they’re holding out on alternative programs for Gabe. Because I’m pretty sure that the school has something to gain for turning out students who perform well on tests. It seems to me that this might be a bargaining tool if you can find someone to go to bat for Gabe. I would keep talking to people until you find someone who can help.

And finally, while I like to see a kid who is idealistic and who understands the idiocy of systems that think of kids as scores instead of people, I would draw the line at saying it’s okay to buck the system entirely. Unfortunately, most people need to know how to jump through hoops once in a while in order to get through life – to hold down a job, buy a house or a car, get insurance, etc. Public schools may not always be a great place to learn about math and science, but it is almost always an excellent place to learn about bureaucracy. And the value of that lesson should not be underestimated. That aside, Gabe’s failures, even if a conscious choice on his part, will have complications for him in the future. They are likely to limit his choices for further education, careers, etc. There’s a good chance that a few years from now, he may look back at his grades and regret his actions. I’d hate to see that happen to any kid. He may be smart, but he’s still very young and may not yet be in the position to judge the outcome of his actions objectively. Thirteen is a tough place to be when even when everything's going great. Thirteen thinks it doesn't want help, but it really needs it.

And what of a system that is so failing a clearly gifted student that he’s shutting down entirely? What should we expect schools to do? In Gabe’s case, I would think it would be obvious to the school that there was a problem – he has two very different sets of scores, one from classes, the other on tests. He’s clearly underperforming in class. The school should want to know why. The first question they should be asking is whether he can do the work. The standardized tests suggest that he can. The next question that they should be asking is why isn’t he doing the work. Is it a behavioral problem? Is it a learning disability? Is he having problems at home? I’m pretty sure our school would have called in the social worker and school psychologist in a case like this. But then, these things are easier to spot in early elementary school when the kids spend all day with one teacher. If Gabe has different teachers for different subjects, then it’s possible that no one is really paying attention to the big picture. It’s one thing for a kid testing off the charts to fail one class. It’s quite a different thing to fail most of them. They should be looking at learning style. They should be talking to him. The fact that they aren’t suggests big problems at the school. Get yourself on the inside and find out what’s going on. Make sure the teachers are talking to each other. Find an advocate if you can.

And maybe there’s a way to teach Gabe to be his own advocate. When I moved from one school district to another in high school, I found myself repeating an almost identical curriculum in English two years in a row. The school was an enormous urban high school with plenty of problems of its own. Dealing with the administration was usually a total waste of time. I was bored out of my mind. I wasn’t interested in doing it all again. I wrote my teacher a letter and asked if I could make some substitutions – Macbeth for Hamlet, Jude the Obscure for Tess of the D’Urbervilles, that kind of thing. The teacher was all for it and it kept me involved in the class in a way I would not have been otherwise. Another teacher allowed me to do an independent study in Latin, as I’d already finished all the levels the school had to offer (my previous school system started languages earlier). As far as the school was concerned, I was taking Latin II, but the teacher let me work at my own level. I still got stuck taking freshman health in my senior year, but because I’d managed to make the rest of it work for me by working with individual teachers, it was almost tolerable (if a still a bit humiliating).

Whatever you all do, good luck. I hope you and Gabe work this all out one way or the other. And I hope you’ll post here or on your blog about what happens.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Separate but not necessarily equal

In her post yesterday, Freshhell discussed her daughter's first forays into her school system's Gifted and Talented program. Freshhell's daughter Dusty is the same age as AJ, but their schools are handling their giftedness in markedly different ways. I'm hoping that our posts here will offer the chance to compare and contrast different public school approaches to educating gifted kids (and if there's anyone else reading who'd like to add another point of view, we'd love to see it. Email me for details at harri3tspyATgmailDOTcom).

As Freshhell pointed out, one of the advantages to having your kid labelled as something outside of the norm by the public school system is that you tend to get more information about what your kid is doing. My six-year-old is just as reticent about describing his day as Dusty can be. AJ can never seem to remember what he does in class by the time he gets home, but his teacher emails me to talk about our choices for his independent reading, something that I know does not happen with kids performing in the standard range of first grade readers.

But what AJ does not have, that Dusty is getting, is peers. In fact, our school has pretty much told us that he doesn't have any, at least not at his level. So he's quite literally in a class by himself. AJ's teacher is working really hard to both challenge him and also keep him excited about his work. I wrote earlier this week about how AJ had come home with a book about Sue Hendrickson and an assignment to outline it and write a summary about it. I had him turn this assignment around in one night, as we were told at the beginning of the year that all homework assignments, unless otherwise noted, were to be turned in the next day. As I was helping him with it, though, it was clear that this assignment was taking a while, not quite enough to make it impossible to complete, but enough that AJ was getting very tired and grumpy. He is, after all, still six. The next day after school, AJ's teacher found AJ and I on the playground. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean for you to do that all in one night," she said to AJ. She turned to me. "I was shocked when he brought it in today." "I'm sorry" I apologized. "That was my fault. I thought it was due today." She apologized again for the mixup. "I don't want him doing too much." She turned to AJ again. "I want you to just LOVE it, okay?" And AJ nodded, but he did not smile.

That's the crux of the matter, though. Mrs. M. wants AJ to love it and I want AJ to love it, but right now, I think that AJ feels a little like he's being punished. He has more homework than his classmates because he's at a level where he needs more time to get into his assignments. It's not a lot more, but enough more. His classmates are not doing written assignments like he is. And I think it's making him feel a little persecuted.

So here is the question: if there is no peer group, how do you keep him working at his level without making him feel like he's being singled out? How do you help him love what he does? AJ is lucky in that he's getting work tailored just for him, but the very process that's giving him what he needs is making him feel different in a way that he does not especially appreciate.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Shape of Things

The journey has begun. My daughter, Dusty, is officially a first grader and a participant in the school’s Gifted and Talented program.

A week into the school year, we attended Back to School night and a meeting with the G&T teachers. The women have a confusing job sharing set-up which seems to work for them, underscoring their amazing organizational skills. They gave a presentation that covered what they do, what the different grades focus on throughout the year, how they work with the classroom teachers, etc. In short, they said all the right things in all the right ways and I felt very excited.

We were given Dusty’s Individual Education Plan for each subject area and...I saw a lot of jargon and incomplete phrases that appeared to be more for the teachers' benefit than the parents'. My excitement turned to confusion. And I have a degree in education. Granted, that was a long time ago and I did not end up teaching, but I was back to feeling a bit left out of the process.

I knew which days the teachers would be in Dusty’s classroom so I quizzed her at dinner one night.

“So, Mrs. A. was in your classroom today?”


“And you like her?”

“Yeah, she’s fun.”

“What did you do?”

“I don’t know. Shapes.”

“Shapes? Did you play with shapes?” I’m imagining some hands-on activity with tangrams or some other similar manipulative.

“No. She had one of those things. A machine. Like a movie projector.”

“An overhead projector?”

“Yeah. She moved the shapes around.”

Uh. So, no hands-on activities? The teacher just moved triangles around on an overhead? The fact that I got this much information out of my six-year-old was a triumph of sorts but clearly I wasn’t getting the entire story.

So imagine my surprise when I received an email from each of the teachers the next day. Wow! Here’s what they’ve been doing:

1. A lesson using the book “A Bad Case of Stripes” that involved patterns. The “shapes” on the overhead were used to create masks using “patterns from our imaginations.” They then filled in Venn diagrams to show more than one way the patterns were alike and different.

2. A lesson that falls under the title Socratic Seminars using “Chester’s Way”. This was a citizenship lesson involving social studies and language arts that analyzed the text, discussed respectful behavior, comparing and contrasting, and relating personal experiences to the big ideas presented.

3. A lesson using “The Principal’s New Clothes” which again used Venn diagrams to compare this story to “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” They then designed a new outfit for their principal and wrote a descriptive sentence about this outfit.

4. A lesson in patterns and skip counting using “Jack and the Beanstalk”. They got to work with beans and glue for this one.

So far, so good. If nothing else, these email messages have given me a window into what Dusty does all day and what she’s learning. The fact that the G&T teachers communicate weekly with worth its weight in gold.

Now, if I could only get Dusty excited about her homework...

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


AJ has been in first grade for a little over a month now. This past week, his teacher started him on a new approach to reading. Now that he’s had a few challenge books, mostly brought from home, under his belt, she’s been giving him some non-fiction chapter books that he picks from her classroom materials or supplementary materials provided by the school’s Gifted teacher. With these new books, AJ has worksheets to complete which try to focus him on summarizing what he reads. AJ has been finding this challenging, because up until now he’s been largely reading for speed not for retention. The first book he brought home in this series was about paleontologist Sue Hendrickson. AJ liked this because the T-Rex skeleton “Sue,” which was discovered by and named for Hendrickson, is in the Field Museum in Chicago and AJ has seen it. When AJ finished the book, which consisted of three chapters with lots of pictures and “Did You Know” boxes, he had to pick one chapter, outline it, and write a summary. I have trouble teaching these skills to some of my college students, so I was amazed to see an assignment like this in the first grade. But with help, AJ managed it. It helps that the books are organized in such a way that make them easy to outline.

AJ’s next book is longer and is about the space race and the eventual moon landing. This worksheet asks him to create a timeline of events mentioned in the book, giving each a name and date and a brief 1-2 sentence description. AJ loves timelines and is excited about doing this one. Still, although he’s responding well to the new challenges, he’s also dragging his feet a little about having to work harder.

“I like math homework,” he says. Or “I wish all we did in school was recess.” Well, that last one’s understandable. Who among us hasn’t wished that at some point? But I pressed him on it. “Why? I thought you liked math.”

“I like math homework. Math class is boring.” And now we’re at the crux of the matter. AJ is having a little trouble adjusting to the pace of the classroom. He comes home from a day of counting, gets out his copy of G is for Googol and a calculator and tries to figure out which is the better deal: a lump sum of a million dollars for allowance, or an allowance that starts at a penny and doubles every day for a month.

But his teacher is spending a lot of time with him. Yesterday they sat down and talked about the 50th anniversary of Sputnik.

“I hear you and Mrs. M. talked about Sputnik today.”


“What did you talk about? Did you learn anything?”

“I don’t remember. Can I go play outside?”

And off he goes through the door, screaming like a banshee for his friend next door.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Numbers Game

It is the 21st day of the school year (not counting the half day at the beginning) and here in the Harriet household we are encountering our first signs of resistance. AJ doesn’t want to do his math homework.

The whole idea of homework has taken some getting used to, along with a school day that is four hours longer than last year and eating lunch away from home. AJ averages about 30 minutes of homework a day. 20 minutes of this is his reading assignment, which is a book that he and his teacher and I pick together, currently Chasing Vermeer. This is challenging and he likes the story, so this part of the homework is only a problem when his friends are standing on the front porch wanting to play kickball. The other ten minutes is supposed to be spent reviewing spelling words and doing math homework. The spelling words are so ridiculously easy for him, that we play games with them instead. We write crossword puzzles, put them in alphabetical order, write sentences using as many of them as possible, etc. I suppose we could skip them altogether, but I’m also trying to teach him that he needs to follow his teacher’s instructions and that he needs to figure out how to make his work interesting, because he’s going to have to do stuff that he thinks is boring some of the time. That’s just life. So we do our spelling like everyone else, but a little differently.

The real problem has been math. Our school uses the contraversial Everyday Mathematics series, a revamping of the traditional methods of teaching math to elementary school students that came out of research done at the University of Chicago. The idea is to teach kids how math relates to the world around them in much the same way that English is taught by relating writing to things the child knows and can write about. The curriculum seeks to eliminate rote memorization in favor of explaining the concepts about why things might be useful. Those who think Everyday Math is misguided usually focus on the lack of memorization and ability to handle basic arithmetic problems. But from my first views of the materials, that would appear to be a problem with the teaching and not with the materials itself. As a kid who refused to do my work unless I knew why I had to do it, I think I could have benefited from this approach, and I think it will ultimately be good for AJ too.

However, the early material is extremely basic. The math work in school for the last three weeks has pretty much consisted of counting things. AJ could count to 100 when he was 2. This is kind of a drag. But not as much of a drag as the homework, which has almost entirely consisted of finding numbers somewhere in our house. Yesterday he had to write his phone number, his grandmother’s phone number, and think of three other things in the house that have numbers on it. Last week he had to count the number of calendars in our house. Another day he had to count the number of thermometers. This is getting really old.

AJ has always loved numbers. He anthropomorphized them when he was little. “Let’s play the game where the numbers talk to each other,” he’d demand over and over again. And we’d take his foam rubber numbers and pretend they were going to school or to the playground or to a birthday party. He made puzzles out of them, trying to fit as many numbers into as small a space as possible. Counting was one of his favorite games from his earliest years. But by age 6, he’s looking for something more. “When are we going to get to do math problems?”

I wish I knew. We do them at home, but he wants to do them at school with his teacher and friends.

I feel like it’s still early to be worrying about this, so I’ve decided to wait it out for another couple of weeks to see what happens. I want to communicate to AJ that it’s important for him to do his homework even if he thinks it’s stupid, but that it’s also okay to ask for something more challenging if he finishes what he’s supposed to do. I was reassured in my approach by my job as a classroom volunteer this morning. I spent an hour collating math homework from the last half of the school year, homework that looks a lot more interesting than what they’re doing now. There’s still none of the multiplication or division that he craves, nor even subtraction that uses borrowing. But there are pages of problems that ask for multiple solutions, demanding that the students thing broadly and creatively, not just solve by rote. There are fractions worked both numerically and geometrically. There are complicated charts.

“Everyone is starting from a different place,” I tell AJ. “School is for everybody, so sometimes things will be easier and sometimes they will be harder.” I hope that this is true. Are we doing the right thing? Is it better for AJ to learn in a group of unlike abilities than to have lessons tailor-made for him? I think so. But I’m not sure. I wish I had more support. I wish I knew even one other parent in our district who’s going through the same thing. But from what I can tell, there aren’t any other kids like AJ, at least not in his grade. We are our own discrete subset.

Monday, September 17, 2007


A small victory today: AJ came home with a chapter book from library day at school and the news that his teacher talked to the librarian and told her he should take books out from the big kids shelf. This after several weeks of picture books. Hooray!

Wish List

Last week, when AJ and I were at the library, he wanted to play a game on one of the computers, so after I installed him in front of one of the hypnotizing screens, I took the opportunity to talk to the head children’s librarian about what books AJ might like. After wandering the stacks with her, I learned that I had a pretty clear idea of the kind of book I was looking for for AJ and very little that fit the bill.

One of the big difficulties we have in finding books for AJ, or any early reader, is that the books that are at an appropriate level of language usage often contain subject matter that doesn’t interest him or even that is downright inappropriate. Add this problem to the fact that there is generally a lack of quality literature for young boys, and you’ll see why we have such a hard time at the library and why we usually end up in the nonfiction section.

I think nonfiction is great, but I also think it’s important for kids to read fiction, to learn how to tell a story, to know that a person can make things up out of their heads. Kids need to be exposed to more poetic language than generally appears in non-fiction for kids.

When I got home from the library, I sat down to think about what kind of books I would like to see for AJ. I took as a starting point The Magic Tree House series, which AJ loves, but which is no longer challenging enough for him. I came up with this list of criteria:

1. A boy should be at least one of the main characters.
2. There should be some non-fiction information integrated into a fictional context.
3. It would be nice if it were a series that included recurring characters. These characters should be well-developed.
4. It should be adventurous.
5. It should be funny.
6. It should have pictures. Good pictures.
7. The non-fiction topics dealt with should include some science and not just history (almost all of the boys series at an appropriate level, by which I mean book series aimed at or about boys, in existence are either history or mystery or both).
8. It should have 10-14 chapters.
9. A good puzzle worked into the story and/or the pictures is always a bonus.
10. It should have vivid visual descriptions. This helps with the transition from a reliance on pictures to pure text.

And now for my next plan: to convince Mr. Spy to write these books!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Chasing Vermeer

AJ is settling into first grade, but I’m still working out the kinks. One of the things the first graders have to do is to read an assigned book each night. In AJ’s case, he’s reading longer books for a total of 20 minutes a night. After AJ’s reading assessment at the beginning of the year, the teacher asked if I could help provide him with books at an appropriate level, since, as she put it, “he’s off the charts” and she doesn’t have enough books to challenge him in the classroom.

The first book AJ picked was one of his beloved Magic Tree House books. He loves the blend of fact and fiction, the associated research guides, and his old friends Jack and Annie. But the books are getting too easy for him to read and he’s not getting a lot out of them anymore. He’ll check one out from the library a mile from our house and will have finished most of it by the time we pull into our garage. So for his second book, I asked him if he could think of something new that he wanted to read.

We came up with Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett. We were both interested in the book for several reasons. AJ likes the math manipulatives at school and has been wanting to get some for home. I’ve been wanting to try working with pentominoes and tangram puzzles with him. Pentominoes play an important part of the book. AJ was also excited about the secret code that is used in the book. Some passages have to be deciphered. AJ has been fascinated with codes and codebreaking lately after finding a book about it at a library sale over the summer. Third, as the title suggests, there is art involved in the plot. AJ loves going to the Art Institute of Chicago, where some of the book takes place, and I thought it might be a good way to bring some more discussion about art into AJ’s world. I was envisioning reading through the book slowly and taking time out to pursue some of the affiliated digressions, perhaps ending with a field trip to some of the places mentioned in the book, like the University of Chicago and the Art Institute.

But AJ is still in the mindset that he should read books as fast as possible, just because he can. The problem with Chasing Vermeer, though, is that he misses a lot when he reads in his usual way. There are words he doesn’t know. And even more complicated than the vocabulary, which is largely explained in context, is the frequent use of metaphors with which AJ is unfamiliar. I’m getting the sense that his experience of the book is probably somewhat like that of a person from a foreign country reading the book. He doesn’t have all the cultural references.

To deal with this, he’s been reading it out loud to me and we’ve been discussing the phrases he doesn’t know and looking words up in his dictionary.

“What does it mean when the teacher says, ‘I’m not letting you off the hook this time!’?”

“What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’ll give you a hint. Think about fishing. What happens when you let a fish off a hook?”

“He escapes.”

“Right. And if the teacher’s letting them off the hook?”

“They’re escaping?”

“Sort of. They’re escaping having to do what she asked them to do. But she’s saying she’s not letting them off the hook. That means they’re not going to escape this time.”

“They’re going to have to do the work.”

“Exactly right.”

I’ve been worried that I’ve been pushing AJ too hard on this one, mainly because I haven’t yet encountered a book that elicits quite so many questions. But AJ is loving it and is not at all daunted or discouraged by what he doesn’t yet know.

Then I was worried that it wasn’t quite what his teacher was looking for. Was she trying for more fluency and independence?

I got the chance to talk to her today and she confirmed all my positive first impressions of her (no doubt because we had the same opinions on everything). She thought it was great that he was doing a challenging book, suggested maybe alternating harder and easier books to give him both the sense of independence and the chance to expand his reading skills, and thought the book discussion format sounded great. And she filled me in on some of the things she’s doing with him in the classroom, which include some followup on the books he’s reading at home. AJ signed a Reading Contract with her to do some extra work, which is including some discussion of literary elements as well as some creative writing. For his first assignment, he was to find the longest sentence he could and bring it in to class. Later he’ll be writing new endings for books he’s read, writing stories, etc.

Because the school’s been doing reading placement testing for the last week or so, they haven’t done much with math yet. I’m hoping we’ll be hearing more about math in the weeks to come. In the mean time, AJ has been busy playing with his pentominoes at home. And that’s enough for now.


While I was in the middle of a post about AJ in first grade, it occurred to me that I should probably fill you in on what this blog is likely to be about this year. For those who haven’t read my main blog spynotes at either its present or former locations, you might not have followed our every angst-ridden, self-imposed crisis as we try to figure out how to arrange the best possible education for our high-achieving kid.

We have a number of issues. First, AJ is an only child and he needs and craves normal social interaction with other kids. He doesn’t want to hang out with his boring and sometimes embarrassing parents for the rest of his life. So we were interested in putting AJ in a traditional school situation rather than home schooling or some other type of arrangement. Second, while AJ, a first grader, is reportedly reading at the level of a “very smart sixth grader,” and is also engaging with math and science tasks at an as yet undetermined level higher than his grade, we want to make sure AJ is kept interested and challenged at school. It is important to us that he continue to like and get something out of school. It is also important to us that we are not responsible for all of his education because, well, we have jobs to do to pay the bills. We are, however, more than willing to assist classroom teachers and do lots of enrichment projects at home. In fact, we love it.

After much soul-searching (and, perhaps more importantly, piggybank shaking) and exploration of multiple possibilities, including private schools, schools for the gifted, tutors, enrichment programs, and shipping him off for a stint at the International Space Station, we’ve decided to send AJ to the local public school while maintaining our civic right and duty to be a pain in the ass if necessary to get him what we think he needs.

As it happens, we haven’t had to do much injury to anyone’s posterior. The school has been remarkably enthusiastic about trying to help, from the principal to the classroom teacher. We are, however, working with some handicaps. For one, the school, like most public schools, has limited resources. Among the things it does not have is any kind of formal program for gifted kids before the third grade. After that point, high achieving kids are tracked into groups within classrooms and receive special programs once a week or so. But for the next two years, we’re making it up as we go along.

So my posts for this space are likely to be about, in one way or another, what it’s like to put a gifted kid in a public school.

We don’t really have a plan. We’re improvising as we go, as we’ve always done: responding to AJ’s questions by showing him the ways to find the answers. One of the things I’m finding liberating about AJ being in formal school is that I am free to follow his whims at home without the burden of having to stick to a curriculum.

I expect that my posts over the next few months will deal with activities with which we supplement AJ’s school work as well as information about how we’ve been working with AJ’s classroom teacher and his school in general. I hope that others will find our experiences helpful and I hope that, you, the readers, will share your experiences as well. We feel like we’re embarking on an adventure in a strange place without the luxury of compass or map. It’s exciting and a little big scary. And sometimes we could use some help. Or a snack. Or maybe a nap.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Little Man on Campus

Over the summer, my six year old went to college. No, he’s not that kind of a super-genius – keep in mind that this is the kid who, just this very minute, shouted from his bathtub, “Mommy! I just made my armpit fart!” He participated in a program run by our local community college that offers enrichment courses for elementary school kids on the college campus.

I first heard of this program through AJ’s school’s gifted teacher, who recommended it and was one of the program’s ffounders. After third grade, the programs are limited to kids who have been defined as gifted either by their schools or through formal testing. But for younger kids like AJ, the programs are open to all who are interested, which I think is great. For one thing, testing is expensive and of dubious value. And for another thing, why shouldn’t any kid have a chance to pursue his or her curiosity about something?

The college for kids offers a variety of courses, most of which, for AJ’s age group at least, seem to be centered around science topics. We saw that there was one about space, AJ’s favorite subject, and signed up for it right away. It was the first thing on our summer schedule.

For four days, AJ spent three hours with three other kids and a teacher talking and learning about space. Three hours is a long time, even for graduate students. I dread the day I have to teach a three hour seminar. I’m not sure I have the attention span. But space is AJ’s favorite subject and as far as I can tell, three hours is not enough. He comes home still asking questions, wanting to look things up and begging to watch his favorite space videos.

The teacher seemed to have tailored the class for the interests and abilities of the kids who showed up. They played games, did art and did research. They were each assigned two planets to research and had several worksheets with questions they had to find the answers to. They were given books and several recommended websites and more or less turned loose to see what they could find. AJ learned a lot, not so much about space, but about how to find out the answers to things he didn’t know. That’s something a lot of kids don’t get in school until much later. The teacher treated it like a treasure hunt and they loved it. AJ learned to love the process of finding things out, not just the end result.

Currently AJ is busy with first grade and football and friends. He doesn’t have as much time to do research with 30 minutes of homework a night. But I know there’s more research in his future because the to-do list on his desk reads:

1. Do reading log.
2. Write to pen pal.
3. Research chromosomes.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


AJ is settling into his school routine a little better. He's still struggling a bit with the structure of the day, but he is coming home happy, albeit tired.

After hearing from AJ's teacher about his reading level, we were feeling better. But the math homework that's been coming home has been alarmingly basic. AJ is bored. I'm pretty sure this will be sorted out before too long (and if it isn't, the school will be hearing from me) as they are able to check on each kid's individual levels. But in the meantime, I thought I needed to get some math going at home.

The challenge, though, is that the school day is already long for AJ. How could we add some more academics at home without wearing him out?

Since I don't have the burden of following a curriculum, we've decided to keep it as fun as possible. Since the Everyday Mathematics curriculum used by AJ's school uses a lot of what they call "manipulatives," and what AJ calls "toys," we decided to invest in a few things to explore spatial relations. AJ requested a geoboard, which they use at school for exploring shapes. I voted for a few sets of tangrams. And then, as a way to connect his chapter book reading, which he'll need to start doing as homework, with some math, we picked up a copy of Blue Balliett's Chasing Vermeer, which features pentominoes as part of the plot. And we got some pentominoes to go with it. I'm still looking for idea for how to use these things, but already AJ's been having fun making shapes out of rubber bands on the geoboard and trying to figure out the tangram puzzles in the book that came with the sets.

I'm feeling kind of haphazard about our whole approach to learning at home, but I'm also feeling okay about it. Because AJ is so motivated and because he's in a school with a formal comprehensive curriculum, I'm fine with the idea of self-directed and parent-guided learning at home. AJ gets ideas and we follow them. This morning's idea was to research chromosomes. I hope I'm up to the task.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


This morning AJ said he didn’t want to go to school.

This was a notable event, because AJ always wants to go to school. Even on the weekends and holidays.

“Why don’t you want to go to school?”

“I just don’t like going all day. I want to go to a different school for second grade. I want to take a school bus.”

We were unable to get to the bottom of this. I suspect a combination of exhaustion, not knowing the people in his new class yet and boredom. The first two will be amended in time – he’s three and a half days of school. I’m not so sure about the third one.

I started worrying again when I got the introduction to the math curriculum the teacher sent home in his backpack yesterday.

“Counting to 100. Counting things out in pennies. What?” I ranted at Mr. Spy. “AJ’s known how to do all these things since he was 2.”

“I know.”

This morning after I saw AJ to his class line, his teacher, who I really like, came over to me to talk about his reading.

AJ had mentioned yesterday after school that he had read with his teacher “like I did in kindergarten.”

“What did you read?” I had asked.

“I don’t know. We read a lot of books. I don’t remember them all.”

So when Mrs. M. came over to me, I had a feeling I knew what this is about.

“AJ and I did some reading yesterday.”

“I heard. He said you read a lot of books.”

She laughed. “Yeah. I kept bringing out books. He’d read a little and I’d stop him and say ‘Nope! Too easy!’ and toss it aside.”

I told her about my conversation with AJ at breakfast. He finished reading the first Harry Potter book with me last night and was desperate to start the next one. “Please, Mommy? Do we have to wait until night?”

So he started reading it to me while I did the dishes.

“Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number 4, Privet Drive…”

Mrs. M. nodded and then explained to me how the reading program worked, how she usually sends books home with students to read for their at-home logs. “But I think maybe,” she said, “you could do a better job finding things for him at home or at the library. I’ll be able to keep him challenged at school, but I’m not sure I have enough for home too.”

“I’d be happy to.”

“Thank you,” she said. “And thank you for sending him to me.”

That last sentence made me feel a lot better. Because I really feel like to Mrs. M., AJ is a challenge, something exciting. Not a burden. Even though, as I’m sure she knows, he’s going to mean more work for her.

And it’s this attitude at AJ’s school in general that is why I kept him at this school. It’s why I haven’t listened to the many naysayers I’ve encountered on websites catering to gifted kids, and within my own community. There is a big difference between wanting to help and being able to help. But you certainly won’t get the latter without the former. It’s not perfect, but it’s workable, because they’re open-minded. And that helps a lot.

Still, if AJ learns to loathe school, if the boredom thing doesn’t disappear soon, I’m not sure what I’ll do. Skip a grade? Figure out how to get a scholarship to a gifted school? AJ’s not a brainiac freak. He’s a boy with a brain. He loves to play football (although he may be the only kid on his team who really understands the game) and baseball even more than he likes to play chess, although he likes that too. He still sleeps with a blankie, even when he wants to stay up late telling you about the eclipse. He values being silly over being smart. And sometimes, a lot of the time, he just wants to be the same as the other kids but he seems to realize that he’s not quite.

[Crossposted at Spynotes]

Saturday, April 28, 2007

April Book Review

When I was much younger, years and years before I had children, I worked as a nanny for my two half-sisters. The oldest was four years old and the baby was five months old. The experience had its good and bad points but one thing I learned, which at nineteen I hadn’t really thought about before, was how much goes on in a young child’s brain. How preferences for things are formed and set in stone before a child can even explain those preferences.

My four year old sister, for example, loved to be read to but she didn’t like variations on stories she already knew. There was only ONE Cinderella story and any retelling of the tale was rejected. There was only one correct way to tell the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Bring in a James Marshall version and forget it! My sister wouldn’t have anything to do with it. She seemed almost angry that someone would reorder her universe.

For a long time, I figured this was just a normal phase of childhood, this rigidness. But, as I interacted with other children, especially while earning a degree in early childhood education, I realized that my sister’s distaste for alternate versions of fairytales was simply her taste. She’s not so rigid anymore. Quite the opposite, thank goodness.

Dusty, on the other hand, revels in retellings. She’s probably read ten or fifteen different versions of the big bad wolf – he seems to be quite a popular subject for writers of children’s books these days – and has enjoyed each one.

One of our current favorites is The Big Bad Wolf and Me by Delphine Perret. The book is unusual in many respects: its size and shape (like a large postcard), its design (it reads like a comic strip without the boxes between frames), and the illustrations.

Ms. Perret’s techniques are unique and add to the fun of the book. The book is not just a pleasure to read but to look at as well. It’s drawn using maybe only four colors: line drawings in blue ink for the boy (and the other people), thicker brown pencil for the wolf, gray pencil for the sparse backgrounds and shading, and yellow for the beam of a flashlight. It’s reminiscent of Harold and the Purple Crayon in its simplicity and ability to create a world with the most minimal use of lines and color but it’s not Harold in any other way. The themes are not new ones but Perret’s unique storytelling and illustrations gives them new life.

The story is a simple one: a boy walking home from school discovers what he thinks is a lost homeless dog. A talking dog. He’s actually a down-and-out big bad wolf – THE big bad wolf who is depressed because nobody’s afraid of him anymore. The boy takes him home and hides him from his mom. The wolf (whose name is Bernard) has to learn to be scary again and the boy becomes the teacher. They practice roaring and making scary faces. The biggest difficulty for the wolf is that in order to regain respect, he really should be eating children, which he is not allowed to do. At least not yet. Eventually, the wolf is back in business and manages to scare all the kids in the school yard.

This is Perret’s first book published in the U.S. (she’s had five others published in France, her home) but I hope it’s not the last. There is always room for exciting original books like this one. Occasionally, there really is something new under the sun.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Everyday Mathematics

Scene: Harriet’s car. Harriet and AJ are en route to the local ice rink, as they are at this time every Friday morning.

AJ: You know what I think?

Harriet: What?

AJ: I think that if there’s no end to how big numbers can get, then there’s no end to how small they get either.

Harriet: Interesting theory. Why do you think that?

AJ: Well, because if a number can always have a bigger number, then there should always be a smaller number too. But I can’t figure out zero.

Harriet: (parking in front of the ice rink). There’s another way to think of it. What if you were trying to go somewhere but you could only go halfway at a time?

AJ: Then it would take you two times. You’d go halfway and then you’d go the other half.

Harriet: But what if you could only go half of the distance to the door. Here, I’ll show you what I mean. (They grab their skates and gear and lock the car). We’re going to walk halfway to the door of the skating rink and then stop.

AJ: O.K. (He eyeballs the distance and walks to the halfway point). I’m halfway.

Harriet: Good. Now we’re going to walk halfway between here and the door.

AJ: Oh, I see. And then we’ll go halfway again.

Harriet: That’s right. What’s going to happen?

AJ: We’re never getting to the door. The door is zero!

Harriet: What happens to the distance we walk?

AJ: It gets smaller and smaller to infinity!

[AJ runs into the ice rink and spots his friend D., who is waiting for him inside the glass doors.]

AJ: Hey, D.! I just ran infinity!

* * * * *

Blazingstar recently left me a link to a contentious debate about the teaching of math in elementary school that is being waged on YouTube. One of the subjects of the debate is Everyday Mathematics, the curriculum that has been adopted by AJ’s school. The first of the videos can be seen here. There is also a series of responses, most of which I’ve had a chance to watch yet. The basic problems the first video has with Everyday Mathematics is that 1) it doesn’t teach the traditional algorithms for mathmatics, 2) it teaches math in a way the parents don’t always understand 3) it forces the students to come up with more than one way to do a problem (which apparently prevents “mastery” that is better acquired through rote memorization) and 4) it relies on calculator use.

Everyday Mathematics’ take on the teaching of curriculum as well as the rebuttals to the video, believe that the problem with teaching rote memorization is that we’re not teaching comprehension but the following of instructions. Everyday Math seeks to teach children how to problem solve. They spend a lot of time on the practical uses of math, having children figure out how to find math problems in everyday life.

I find the debate interesting, because I was one of those kids who balked at rote memorization. I’m still like that. If I didn’t know why I was supposed to memorize something, then I just wouldn’t remember it. AJ is the same way. AJ is, however, quite good at traditional algorithmic-based math. He likes practicing counting by 3s or 5s or 10s. He likes doing pages of problems. And he also craves the sense of mastery that the completion of a task, like the memorization of times tables or finding quick and accurate solutions to a page of problems provides. The big question I have is why does asking “why” and showing “how” necessarily mean that no memorization is happening? Can't they be used in tandem?

I feel like AJ’s current way of learning math is ideal for him. It is “Everyday mathemetics” at its fundamental sense. He thinks about something he notices in the world and we try to figure it out together through numbers. Numbers, to AJ, are yet another way of exploring meaning, the same a language or art or music. He plays in the real world with numbers, but he also likes to play with the numbers themselves to see what they will do. It's like the way he plays with Legos, sometimes building buildings -- a house, the Sears Tower-- sometimes just experimenting to see how he can put them together

After the conversation about infinite smallness, I found myself noticing AJ’s mathematical mind at work on the ice rink. Or rather, what I noticed was that other kids run into each other all the time but AJ almost never does, unless someone gets him from behind, out of his line of vision. Why? Because AJ triangulates with amazing accuracy. I’m sure this is more an issue of his attention than his ability – he doesn’t like to get run into. He’s never been the kind of kid who hurls his body around without fear of the consequences. But it struck me what a complicated skill it is to figure out how you, a moving object, might intersect another moving object, where that intersection is likely to take place, and then adjust your own speed and direction to avoid an intersection. That could easily be another math problem from the everyday, although I’m not sure I’m qualified to do the calculations.

But it is still a mathematical skill, and a much more useful application of math than pretty much anything I remember ever doing in an elementary math class. You do the math, you stay on your feet. You fail the problem, you hit the ice. It’s that simple.

[Crossposted at Spynotes]

Thursday, March 15, 2007

March Book Review

My daughter Dusty is a budding artist. I’ll admit the deck has been stacked in her favor since before birth. My parents are both artists as are my sister and brother-in-law. So it’s in the genes. But, I’ve always felt art education as important as the ABCs so there have always been art supplies on hand since she was old enough to hold a crayon and scribble (at 16 months old, but who’s counting?). Once, I bought huge rolls of brown paper which were cut, in four- or five-foot increments, and taped to the floor so she could color and draw and there was room for us to draw as well.

Turns out, Dusty’s got talent and an eye for color. Her drawings are, developmentally, beyond her peers. She’s discovering perspective and point of view.

Recently, we read “The Artsy Smartsy Club” by Daniel Pinkwater. In it, the children create an art club and visit a museum to educate themselves about art and the artists who created the pieces. One museumgoer discusses Vincent Van Gogh with the children and they become acquainted with two of his most famous paintings, “Starry Night” and “Sunflowers.”

Because I am a hopeless nerd (or a librarian wanna be), I went looking for copies of the paintings for us to look at as we read (and it will not surprise you to learn that we had books in the house with those paintings – in Dusty’s room, no less!). We talked a bit about Van Gogh but I couldn’t let it rest.

I went to the library soon after and found a couple of books to further our impromptu study of Van Gogh, the Impressionists, and art in general. Here’s what I found:

The Starry Night by Neil Waldman is about a young boy (Bernard) in New York City who meets a painter named Vincent. Vincent has just arrived in New York and is looking for things to paint. Bernard gives him a tour of his favorite places – Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, etc. “Vincent’s” paintings grace the pages. Only the painting themselves are in color. The rest of the book is done in brown ink on brown paper. They go to MOMA and find a painting that looks just like the ones Vincent’s already painted. As soon as Bernard asks whether this is one of his, Vincent disappears. Bernard decides to try his hand at painting. He’s been officially inspired. The story is simple but effective. It helps lay the groundwork for an appreciation of art. The endpapers of the book showcase the work of school children: their renditions of “Starry Night.”

No One Saw – Ordinary Things Through the Eyes of an Artist by Bob Raczka is a bit more elementary in nature. Truly an basic introduction to art and artists and while good for the beginner, may be a little light for the more advanced art appreciater in your family. Each page presents a painting by a famous artist, one that represents the kind of work they are most known for. To the side, in one sentence, is a statement about what this painter does best. “No one saw flowers like Georgia O’Keefe” by a painting of lilies. “No one saw mothers like Mary Cassatt.” 16 artists are represented. 16 different styles ranging from Van Gogh to Grant Wood to Andy Warhol. Biographical notes for each artist are appended.

This book is a nice one to have in a classroom. It might work well as an introduction for an art lesson but it doesn’t offer much beyond that. If you have a young art lover at home, especially a fairly precocious one with a long attention span, I’d recommend a larger coffee-table type book that covers a range of artists within a particular style that offers more paintings by each artist with more biographical information. I’d also recommend a book that includes more than just paintings.

Picture This! Activities and Adventures in Impressionism by Joyce Raimondo hits closer to what I was looking for for Dusty. This is a particularly good book for homeschoolers and parents who want to present “art lessons” in a more structured format. There is some discussion about Impressionism – what it is and how it was received during its heyday. There is discussion about color, color wheels, experimentation, and observation of nature.

Paintings by Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pissarro and Cassatt are used as a jumping-off point for further study. Study this painting. What do you see? Can you tell what time of day it is? What season is it? How can you tell? Is the wind is blowing? From what direction? What techniques does the artist use to show this? Now, paint your own favorite outdoor place.

There are step-by-step instructions for making “art inspired by Monet,” as well as using different methods and materials to do things like watercolor, tissue paper, pastels, plastic foam painting, plaster gauze, printing with sponges. You can even try your hand at pointillism using q-tips or experimenting with facial expressions and movement. There’s a lot to this slender book and it’s my favorite “how to” art book so far. It’s not too advanced for a kid like Dusty nor is it too basic. I may end up buying it so we can have it as a reference.

All that being said, Dusty still tends to do her own thing. These books are more used for general inspiration and reference. They’re good to just have around the house. Like a box of band aids, you never know when you’re going to need one so it’s important to stock up.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Books, books, books

One of the greatest challenges I've encountered as a parent of an early reader is trying to find appropriate books. The ones that appeal to him topically are often too easy. The ones that are at the right level are often too far beyond him subject-wise. Just because he's reading at a level of older children doesn't mean he wants to read about them. He's still five. The resident book reviewer here at AJ's Clubhouse, Freshhell, and I have been trying to come up with a list of our favorite books for early readers under age 9. They could be read alone books, or read together books. We're working on our lists separately but will edit them together for a joint entry at some point in the future. We'd like your input: what are your favorite books to read to your kids? What were your favorite books when you were a kid? What are your favorite kid-friendly books to read right now? Which ones have the best staying power? When is it important to have just the right book at the right moment? What are your favorites to read aloud?

If you have any thoughts on any of these questions or if you have some related questions of your own, please comment below or email me at harri3tspyATgmailDOTcom. And thanks for helping us!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Fun with Reading

Recently I was asked about resources to help a bright girl who has shown no interest in wanting to read. Her school thinks she’s learning disabled but those of us who know her better think it’s more of a combination of character traits. She’s extremely energetic and physical and doesn’t like to sit still to read when she could be building something or making something or moving. She adores being read to and seems to crave the physical contact being read to implies. We think she might be afraid that if she learns to read that she’ll lose her lap time. And then there’s her older sister who is “The Reader.” She read early and reads often. If the reluctant reader sees a picture of anyone reading, she always says it looks just like her sister. We think she may not want to compete on her older sister’s turf.

And so I’ve been thinking about things that made reading fun for AJ when he was starting out. I came up with a few resources, but mostly what we had fun with was making up games to play with words. As AJ’s reading has advanced, he still likes to play games with words. He loves to do Mad-Libs. He loves jokes and wordplay. And I love that he’s learned to enjoy language as much as I do.


• Scholastic DVDs with accompanying books. These videos are fantastically done and they are very faithful to the books and their artwork. Most if not all of them have a “Read Along” feature that allows you to put closed captions on so you can read as you listen. We own about 10 or 12 of them and have had many more out of the library. We love them all.

• Videos of Between the Lions

• Sesame Street videos

• Electric Company videos


We haven’t found too many computer games that are terribly good at inspiring new readers.

• Reader Rabbit is often recommended but we found it kind of lackluster. It’s too teachy and not fun enough.

• The Dr. Seuss computer games (there are several, all good)

• Arthur computer games. AJ liked the way you could click on things and surprising things could happen. There are read to me and read it myself modes.


Read aloud a familiar book while changing some of the words and see if she can catch you. It works best if you change the word to something really silly. We started off with changing rhyming words to something that didn't rhyme, so it was fairly obvious, but then we'd substitute other rhyming words.

Read aloud together and alternate words or lines. You can do this with any book, but try You Read to Me and I'll Read to You (there are also one or two sequels). It has stories that are written out for two people alternating with cute pictures. Andy really liked them. And they're designed for early readers.

Have her tell stories and write them down and read them back to her.

Have her write the grocery list and/or give her the grocery list and have her find things at the store.

Make an Alphabet Tree based on Leo Lionni's book of the same name. Make a paper tree and cut out one leaf for each letter of the alphabet and write the letters on them. You could also do a few extras of common letters. Hang it where it is easily reached and put blue poster putty on the back of the leaves so they can be easily moved around. Have her put them together and try to pronounce it -- it doesn't matter if it's a real word. Sometimes sillier is better. Or have her make crazy letter formations and you try to pronounce it. This same game would work with those foam letters that stick to the walls of the bathtub.

Using giant floor mat ABCs or large letters written on paper on the floor or on driveway in sidewalk chalk, shout out words and have her run and jump on the first/last letter of the word (whatever you ask for).

That’s our list. How about you? Do you have any ideas for things that make reading fun?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

February Book Review

Dusty loves projects. Particularly those of her own design made with all her assorted art supplies and other found objects. She’ll make Valentine’s out of season with construction paper, scissors, stickers and bugleweed flowers. She’ll make caterpillars from fuzzy balls, feathers and double-sided tape. Dusty also loves nature and has an inquisitive mind: What’s the sun made of? Could you ever fly there? What makes snow? If it’s too cold, can you just buy a new thermometer? Why does water turn into ice? What happens if you mix all the colors together? Once they’re mixed, can you un-mix them?

Recently, I found a couple nature and science project books to capture her enthusiasm. Not only are they full of things to do, and present new concepts to her, they give us excuses to do things together, as if we need the excuse. There are probably hundreds of books like these around, filled with similar projects, but the ones mentioned below are the two we’ve been working from lately.

Interestingly, both books are listed as appropriate for ages 9 through 12 but Dusty, a kindergartener, has thoroughly enjoyed both. She has probably spent less time actually reading the text than looking at the pictures and figuring out if we have all the ingredients necessary to perform the experiments. Do we have straws? Check. Paper cups? Check. Baking soda? Check. Then let’s begin!

The Kids’ Science Book – Creative Experience for Hands-On Fun by Nancy White (Williamson Publishing, 1995) was a great introduction to science experimentation and the scientific method. Its large format and page design allows for easy-to-follow and understand projects. The book is divided by basic science concepts: light and shadow, air, water, plants, etc. There are sidebars for further study aimed at older kids (or young precocious ones) such as making predictions and drawing conclusions, facts about each concept under investigation and information about the particular scientific specialty, and history lessons (inventors and discoverers) with titles like “Tools & Techniques,” “In Focus,” and “Science Talk”.

The illustrations are simple black and white drawings that don’t distract from the text and or clutter up what could have been, in the wrong hands, a messy collection of too much information. The prose is direct and to the point. It’s neither above the head of its audience nor does it talk down to them. A sample of subjects covered include the refraction of light and making rainbows, shadow puppets, water pressure experiments, and making marbleized paper (oil and water).

The thing I like best about this book, especially considering the suggested age range, is that the experiments themselves can be understood and enjoyed by any elementary school-aged child. There is enough here to launch anyone’s interest in a particular area of scientific study without going overboard. Older children dying to know more about a concept can read the sidebars (and move on to other books on the subject).

Dusty and I did one that involved freezing water. We poured an equal amount of water into two paper cups. In one, we added a teaspoon of salt to one cup and put them in the freezer. I asked her to guess which one she thought would freeze first. We then checked back at intervals (we did not proceed very scientifically; we didn’t check back at specific times) and noted what we observed: the plain water froze quicker. In fact, even after a couple days, the cup with salt water never froze at all. We talked about why salt and salt-containing chemicals are used to melt ice and snow from sidewalks and roads. We didn’t get into too much more detail but it was there if we’d needed it. This book is one you can come back to over and over for years and learn something new every time.

We also made a volcano. We made salt dough for the outside of the plastic bottle and then added water, dish liquid, red food coloring, baking soda and vinegar. While the “explosion” wasn’t quite as climactic as we’d hoped (we’re going to have to play around with the ratios of baking soda and vinegar given in the recipe), we still had fun. We left the dough volcano outside because Dusty always likes to “see what happens” when things are left to benign neglect.

The second book, Nature Crafts for Kids - 50 Fantastic Things to Make with Mother Nature by Gwen Diehn and Terry Krautwurst (Altamont Press, Inc., 1992) was just as fun but very different in look and feel.

The book’s sections are divided by season. Each section includes a number of projects which are specific to what’s found in nature (flowers, critters, snow, etc) during a particular season as well as groupings of the same basic concepts (rain/water, sun/heat, wind) that exist during each one.

The layout is clear and colorful, with step-by-step instructions, illustrated with photographs that show certain critical steps along the way. The “ingredients” for each project are clearly listed at the top of the page. The projects include birdbaths, pinch pots with clay, wild flower candles, wreaths, and bird food. They run from the simple and easy to accomplish (bark rubbings) to the more elaborate that require a bit more planning (sand painting and sun dials) with ingredients not necessarily found in the average household.

Dusty and I haven’t done much with this book yet (it’s winter and things of most interest to her involve spring and summer activities) but we’ve enjoyed looking at it and planning future activities. It might be a book I eventually buy so we’ve got the leisure of time to do as many as we want. I have a feeling some, like making sun prints, will be done over and over.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Po Bronson’s article in the February 19th issue of New York Magazine hit home for me. The article, How Not To Talk to Your Kids is about gifted kids who are afraid to fail and as a result often don’t try things they don’t know they’ll be good at that.

This sounded familiar. Also familiar: Bronson blames the parents. Parents are praising their children too much and about the wrong things.

The article recommends some advice that appears in many articles and tomes about childrearing: praise the action, not the child. Don’t say, “You’re so smart,” but “You did a great job figuring out that hard math problem.” This should encourage further action – it rewards the action rather than the person.

Despite my knee-jerk crankiness about articles that blame the parents (it’s just too easy; our inherent uncertainty and guilt makes us willing targets), this rings true for me. I’ve had innumerable conversations with fellow academics about how we all feel like frauds, how people have always told us we’re smart and how we all feel like it was some big mistake, that people just haven’t seen what we’re really like and that someday we will be revealed and humiliated. This is exactly why my dissertation is still not finished: I am terrified to turn it in. Because once I turn it in, it will exist only on its own merits, not on the promise of my intelligence. I am afraid that the answer will be, “What were you thinking? I thought you were smarter/better than this!” The fact that this exact thing has happened to several people of my acquaintance, several people whom I’ve always considered “smart,” has not helped me feel better about it.

Perhaps AJ’s fear of failure is genetic, at least in part. Or perhaps he’s caught it from me. Some of AJ’s fear is, I think, due to temperament. He wants to be in control. And who can’t identify with that? One of the reasons I think it is about temperament for AJ is that his avoidance of new things extends to foods. If he hasn’t tried it before, he doesn’t want to try it now. I assume he’ll grow out of this eventually. Boy cannot live on hot dogs alone. And as long as his pediatrician says he’s okay, I’m okay with his eating habits.

As a parent, I try hard to praise AJ’s actions not his intelligence, to encourage him to try new things. But what do you do when other people call him smart? His preschool teacher who used to come up to me when I’d pick him up and tell me what amazing things he did that day that she’d never seen a kid that age do before? The friend we met in the library who talks about how smart he is to others in front of AJ as if he isn’t there, as if he isn’t listening to every word? Or even his grandmother, who says it almost every time she sees him? How do you handle that? We’re not guiltless either. We slip sometimes. Maybe we shouldn’t have played into his incessant demands for quizzes and grades.

I was stunned the first time AJ asked for a grade. “How do you know about grades?” I asked. “I’ve seen you grading your papers,” AJ replied. And my stickers say “A+.” The stickers did – amongst the “Good job”s and the “”Nice work!”s there were some “A+”s. How could a three year old be worried about grades?

We played along for a while, but were uncomfortable with it. But we also thought it was kind of cute and funny. Lately we’ve been trying to wean him off of it. It’s hard going.

I’m also a little afraid that AJ is coming to associate “smart” with “more work.” Sometimes it looks like more of a burden. I remember that feeling from when I was a kid. I loved my “special” classes designed to develop my skills and my creativity, but I had twice as much homework as my classmates. AJ’s teacher keeps asking him to do extra reading to her in class, but he won’t because no one else does. Part of it is because he doesn’t want to look different. But part of it is also that he doesn’t think it’s fair.

And then there’s the fear that it’s not okay to try something and fail. Nobody likes to fail, of course, but it’s a skill to be learned like any other. How do we teach our kids to fail gracefully? We can tell them that trying is what matters, but how can we convince them that failing honestly is a virtue not a vice? Such a statement doesn’t carry weight in a world of stickers and chore charts and grades and performance evaluations.

So what do you tell your kid when he comes home from kindergarten wondering why he’s the only one in his class reading chapter books by himself? I usually just tell AJ that he learned to read at a younger age than most kids and that he’s had more practice. It kind of begs the question, but it usually satisfies. AJ loves to read, but he doesn’t enjoy the difference. He desperately wants his best friend to read too. He reads her stories. She likes that. He wants to help her with her words, but she doesn’t like it when he tries. But the day she reads her first book, besides her parents, there’s no one who will be more excited than AJ. Because it means he will have company.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

January Book Review

The Moffats and The Middle Moffat by Eleanor Estes

Once upon a time, almost one hundred years ago, a family called the Moffats lived in Cranbury, New Jersey. There was Mama, a widow who made dresses for the town ladies in her living room, (her mannequin was referred to as Madame), and her four children: Sylvie, fifteen; Joey, twelve; Jane, nine; and Rufus, five and a half. They lived in a rented yellow house on New Dollar Street with Catherine-the-cat.

The Moffats, the first book in the series, introduces the family told mainly through the eyes of Jane, the middle Moffat. The second book picks up where the first ended – with the sale of the yellow house by its owner and a move to a new house.

I never read Mrs. Estes’ books growing up. I don’t know how I missed them since they were exactly the kind of stories I loved as a child: compelling but simple, realistic adventures that introduced a new and different world but one that was also intimately familiar. I happily stumbled upon The Moffats at the library not too long ago. My daughter, Dusty, a kindergartener who reads at a second grade level, fell in love last year with the Little House on the Prairie series and now enjoys anything that takes place in “old fashioned times.” So I glanced through the book, was captivated by the charming sketchy illustrations of Louis Slobodkin, and brought it home.

Estes prose is so fresh and modern it’s hard to believe these books were written seventy years ago (the first Moffats book was published in 1941). The language is straight-forward and funny. Jane’s adventures in her small town filled with ladies in hats and gloves, the chief of police, the corner grocery store, are timeless.

Estes based the books on her childhood in Connecticut in the 1910s (she was Jane) and clearly knew her audience. Years as a children’s librarian didn’t hurt either, and no doubt exposed her to the best and worst of children’s fiction during that time. She never left the Jane she’d been and writes like a good friend rather than a grown up, the mark of any skilled writer of children’s literature.

What made the books such a find for us, is that they offer a glimpse of an “old fashioned time” that are ready-made for impromptu discussions of history. They introduced Dusty to things like hitching posts, blacksmiths, bread boxes, drinking troughs for horses, coal stoves and oil lamps, trolley cars, scarlet fever, quarantine signs, hurdy-gurdy men, and a world where a nickel could buy enough candy for several children and automobiles were new and rarely seen. Our initial discussions about unfamiliar vocabulary words led to comparisons with other books and where certain of her favorite characters fit it to the history time line: Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up 30-40 years before Jane came along. What had changed? What remained the same? What aspects of Jane’s life are just like ours?

Jane’s “adventures” are normal, believable ones for young children. She does not get lost in a wardrobe and find herself in a snowy land. She does not fall down a rabbit hole or kill a witch with her house. Rather, she fears she’ll get sent to jail when the neighborhood pest, Peter Frost, catches her mimicking the gait of Mr. Pennypeppy, the rotund Superintendent of Schools, as he walks down the street. She encounters a Salvation Army man in a horse-driven wagon on his way to a revival. He stops to ask for directions and the Moffat children end up not only driving the wagon so the man can take a nap in the back, but they manage to get lost, drive the wagon into ditch (which throws the sleeping man out of the wagon) and get caught in a sudden thunderstorm.

Jane’s simple delights mirror those of all children:

It had been a good day in school because the drawing teacher, Mrs. Partridge, who visited every class in town once in the fall, once in the winter and once in the spring, had paid her autumn visit.

Everyone in Jane’s class had drawn an autumn leaf. Everyone in Rufus’ class had drawn a pumpkin. Everyone in Joe’s an apple. All the children in the grammar schools came home with a drawing fluttering in the wind – a drawing of a pumpkin, an apple, or an autumn leaf. It is true that sometimes the children grew tired of drawing leaves, pumpkins and apples. However, Mrs. Partridge never thought of letting them draw anything else.

There are several things about this passage I like. Estes’ use of repetition, “Everyone… Everyone…Everyone…” is reminiscent of books for younger children, of nursery rhymes, of poetry. Jane is happy to get a chance to draw even though she restricted to drawing one thing. But she’s also aware, at some level, that her teacher’s vision is limited and limiting. And yet, she is the “smiley teacher,” and is forgiven this shortcoming. I also can’t help feeling fortunate that, as much as some things stay the same, my daughter has art class once a week, not three times a year. And, she is allowed to draw more than just a pumpkin, an apple, or a leaf.

In The Middle Moffat, Jane encounters the oldest inhabitant, Mr. Buckle, who is 99 years old and a Civil War veteran. Jane is unhappy being “the middle Moffat” and accidentally introduces herself to Mr. Buckle as the “mysterious middle Moffat.” He plays along with this “mysteriousness” throughout the book and it becomes their inside joke. (Mr. Buckle references Hawkshaw the Detective, a popular comic strip character of the time who eerily resembles Sherlock Holmes.) They become fast friends, underscoring the importance of befriending the elderly folks in our lives. The book closes with a town celebration of the oldest inhabitant’s 100th birthday. Mr. Buckle invites the Moffat family to join him for a limousine ride through town.

There are four books in the Moffat series. Estes is also the author of The Hundred Dresses (winner of the Caldecott medal in 1944) and other novels. I look forward to reading them all to my daughter and exploring further a world we never knew. I invite you to do the same.

FreshHell lives in Virginia with her musician husband and two brilliant daughters, Dusty (6) and Red (2). She writes a lot and reads a lot. Occasionally she makes cookies. This is her first book review for AJ’s Clubhouse.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

School Cards

One of our challenges with AJ, an only child with two work-at-home parents, is encouraging him to play by himself. He is so used to being around all the time, that he would usually rather be entertained. It’s not that he doesn’t like playing alone – he gets into his own little world. But sometimes he has trouble getting started.

Yesterday we invented a new game, which AJ has dubbed “School Cards.” AJ loves to play school and we also want to encourage him to work on some of the subjects he doesn’t yet get at school. So we sat down together and came up with a list of all the things we could think of that you could do at school. My list included:

Language Arts
History and Geography
Foreign Language
Gym (indoors)
Recess (outdoors)

AJ added:

Rest time
Snack time
Story time

We got a stack of 3x5 cards and wrote the name of each subject on the back of one card. On the other side, we started writing lists of possible activities. For example, for Language Arts, we included things like “Read a book,” “Write a story,” “Write about something that happened to you yesterday,” “Do one handwriting worksheet,” “Take a vocabulary quiz,” “Play Mad-Libs.”

The process of writing our ideas was interesting for AJ, because he had to think about what kinds of skills went into some of the things he likes to do. We included some games like Uno and Sorry under math, because they require addition and subtraction. We put Rush Hour under Math too, because it involves spatial imagination. We also considered putting it under art, though, because AJ thought he cars were like sculpture and because spatial ideas are important in art too. We put other games under language arts (Guess Who) and gym (Twister, Hullabaloo) and even science (Mousetrap).

I didn’t have any particular plan for how to use the cards. I just wanted a tool we could turn to when we were short of ideas for things to do. I wanted it to be a tool we could use to play together but one that AJ could also use to jumpstart his own play.

AJ definitely has his own ideas about the cards. Yesterday he divided them into work and break time (the latter included gym, recess, snack, story time (because that’s when I read to him instead of him reading to me), and rest time). He alternated pulling cards out of each deck, balancing out work and play. It kept him busy all morning. At lunch time, he was begging to do “just one more.” In the morning, we practiced addition and subtraction to four columns, read a book about China and looked at it on our globe, wrote in his journal, read a book in English and another in Spanish, wrote down some new Spanish words, looked through the telescope and microscope, built an obstacle course in the family room and raced through it, had a snack, and played music and danced to it.

Today he tried another tack. He arranged the cards into a schedule and is going through it systematically. This morning we had science (more microscope investigations) and gym (his weekly gymnastics class) before we had to go run errands.

I like the way this game is making his mind work. He’s thinking about how skills learned in different activities relate to one another. He’s also aware of keeping some balance in his pursuits. I hope to keep adding to our activity lists over time.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Mission work

Thanks to all of you who have contributed your ideas and support for this site. We’re still in the formative stages and I want to encourage you to voice any and all comments, suggestions, etc.

At the moment, the plan is to focus this site on so called, “gifted and talented” kids, but I define that term broadly. I also hope that much of what is produced here will appeal to anyone with kids seeking to supplement or replace traditional school learning. Writing and reviews about all age groups is welcome. My own writing is likely to focus on AJ’s age group (he’s currently in kindergarten), since that’s the area with which I’m most familiar.

In terms of content, I hope to present periodic reviews of books, games, toys, websites, other activities. I also plan to write about some of the projects and games we invent for ourselves in hopes they might inspire others to try them to or to do some inventing of their own. And finally, I would like to see regular personal essays here. I envision a variety of subjects, and hope to solicit a few of you to write about your experiences for this page. Some ideas I’ve been thinking about: raising kids overseas; experience with Mensa, homeschooling vs. traditional schools vs. gifted schools; how do you talk about difficult subjects with your kids; getting what your children need from public schools; etc.

My inspirations for this site, aside from my own blogging about my son, have been brain/child magazine and Chicago Parent magazine as well as many e-mailed and guestbooked discussions with many of you.

I’m actively seeking writers. If you’re interested in writing a one-time essay or a regular feature, please contact me. And thanks to Claudia, who has agreed to write a book review and hopefully a monthly book review feature.

Saturday, January 6, 2007


AJ walks into my room every morning at 7 a.m. on the dot. The first thing he asks for is his good morning hug. The second thing he asks for is a glass of juice. The third thing he asks for are math problems. AJ’s brain seems to be at its most mathematically oriented first thing in the morning. Unfortunately, I need truckloads of coffee before I can think about numbers. What’s a mother to do?

While we play a lot of more active math games at other times of day – things like multiplying window panes while I wipe off fingerprints or doubling and halving cookie recipes – in the morning we’ve been turning to the internet to assist us. Here are some of the websites we’ve found particularly helpful. Our criteria for what makes a good math website is somewhat flexible, but generally 1. It has to be fun; 2. There has to be some kind of reward (fake applause, points, cheering) for doing well and 3. The website is set up in such a way that it allows AJ a certain amount of autonomy. This last criterion is key, not so much because we’re not around to help – I’m generally just a few feet away, if that – but because AJ needs to feel like he’s in control of the technology in order to feel like he’s in control of the math.

To give you some idea of the level of the websites we’ve been looking at, AJ’s currently pretty solid on addition and subtraction, including borrowing. He does okay with multiplication, but still has to count it out sometimes. We’re working on fractions and division and also on how to convert word problems into equations. He’s also getting interested in geometry, God help me. Mostly the latter interest seems to lie in a more artistic direction – he likes drawing cubes. Many of these sites offer a variety of math games and quizzes at a variety of levels. My brief reviews, however, are based solely on my experience with AJ’s level.

1. Math is fun!. This website is pretty low-res as sites go and its name always serves to remind me of the Barbie flap from a few years back (“Math is hard!”). But the basics are there. AJ likes “Who wants to be a mathionaire” game especially. There are other, glossier versions of the mathionaire (or mathonaire) game elsewhere, but most are higher level math – more complicated equations, algebra, etc.)

2. Math Arcade at Funbrain. This site is a little confusing to navigate, requiring more intervention from me than is ideal, but AJ likes it because the progress is marked through a board game. What AJ doesn’t like, however, is that you are expected to go through the game in order. He doesn’t like going in order – whether on websites, or in workbooks. He likes to find the most interesting-looking things first. He is coming around to working in sequence in his workbooks as he learns that jumping ahead often means you’ve missed something important. But on websites he still expects free play. Still, the games are good and the graphics are more sophisticated than mathisfun.

3. Cool Math 4 Kids Arithmattack at Cool Math 4 kids offers a range of customization – choose your operation, the largest number, and the level of difficulty. You then solve as many problems as you can in two minutes. There are other games too, but we have yet to explore them. This requires a little adult supervision to get it set up, but once he gets going, AJ can manage this site on his own.

4. Maths Year 2000 This site is relatively new to us and many of the games require a knowledge of more complex math than AJ can handle at the moment, but the Maths Activity Pack and Maths Circus are both entertaining and have more compelling graphics than the typical online math games.

We have discovered some of these sites through other sites with good lists of educational websites for kids.

Internet 4 Classrooms is a well-organized list of sites organized by topic and grade level aimed at teachers looking for ways to supplement classroom learning with computers.

This site is run by the Mifflin County School District in Lewiston Pennsylvania. If you click on the “Curriculum” button at the top of the page, you can access site lists for other subjects as well.

Any of these sites should have enough math activities to keep your child busy through at least one cup of coffee. Maybe even two.