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.