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.