Monday, December 29, 2008

Time for a new bookshelf

Here at the Spy house, we've been wrapped up in Christmas for a couple of weeks now. AJ's relatives spoiled him rotten, as usual. In addition to the assorted non-educational toys and games, he got two science kits and a big haul of books. This year, AJ was gifted with:

Daniel Pinkwater: The Hoboken Chicken Emergency. AJ and I have been fans of Pinkwater's for years, ever since we discovered his picture books about a thoughtful polar bear named Larry and his badly behaved friends. I haven't gotten to read this one yet, but AJ laughs hard when he picks it up.

Kate DiCamillo: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. This is one I've picked up at the bookstore and put down again, uncertain if AJ will respond to it. But my mother finally got it for him and I'm looking forward to reading it, maybe as our out loud book.

Rick Riordan: Book 1 of the 39 Steps series -- The Maze of Bones.
We've been fans of Riordan's Percy Jackson series, AJ for the adventure, I for the clever uses of Greeky mythology. I'm skeptical of this series, due to the contest and cards and internet sites attached. I'm always cynical when it seems like the books are created by marketing instead of the other way around. But I decided to give the first book a try. This is scheduled to be a 10-book series. While Riordan outlined the series and wrote this book, other authors will be taking on the rest.

Eleanor Cameron: The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. This was another book provided by my mother, and one I'd never heard of before. It dates from the mid-1950s, the beginning of the space race, and revolves around two boys who travel to another planet covered in mushrooms and meet some unhappy green people. It sounds totally up AJ's alley.

Jason Lethcoe: The Misadventures of Benjamin Bartholomew Piff #1: You Wish. This was a gift from AJ's aunt and uncle. I'd never heard of this one before either. It looks old-fashioned (in a good way) and the description, which tells of a boy growing up in an orphanage, sounds a little old-fashioned too, although it was written in 2007. AJ has inherited my childhood penchant for books set in orphanages and boarding schools, so I'm sure he'll enjoy this. I'm looking forward to checking it out too. If it's good, there are more where it came from -- the series has at least 4 books so far.
Bette Bao Lord: In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. Also from AJ's aunt and uncle, i've been hearing about this book for years -- it was published more than twenty years ago -- and I'm glad to finally see it in person. This also sounds right up AJ's alley -- baseball and history.

Jeff Kinney: Diary of a Wimpy Kid Do-It-Yourself-Book. This one was on AJ's Christmas list. While I have some reservations about the Wimpy Kid series, I can't deny that it seems to turn on AJ's imagination. This one is really a diary in disguise. The first third or so of the book offers ideas for writing -- half-finished comic strips to draw, self-interview questions, etc. The second part is just a blank book. On Christmas Day, AJ was already writing in it. And anything that gets AJ writing voluntarily is a good present.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Children's Books about Animals

The Miss Rumphius Effect posted a list of favorite children's books about animals this morning. It's a good list, but there are many more good ones too. I commented on several of my favorites that were omitted: Dodie Smith's 101 Dalmatians, Felix Salter's Bambi, Marjorie Rawlings' The Yearling, and many of Gerald Durrell's books. What are your favorites? And don't forget to check out the link in the sidebar to After Seuss, our list of recommended books for precocious readers.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

More on Math

AJ and his teacher are continuing to struggle with math. They really just don't understand one another. But now when his teacher doesn't get why he is making mistakes, she has started sending things home to me to go over with him, which allows me to figure out what the problem is and explain it to her, so hopefully communication will continue to improve.

This week, Mrs. F. sent AJ home with a worksheet on a estimating addition, something they've been working on in class. AJ has been struggling with estimation, because he doesn't see the point of the technique, where they round to the nearest 10 and then sort out the ones to get the total. He doesn't like the imprecision of estimation and it takes him longer to do it than it does to add the "normal" way, so he's been assuming he's doing it wrong and keeps coming up with these crazy algorithms that aren't really functional but which explain whichever problem he's working on. Once I explained to AJ that his class was learning a bunch of different ways to add and this was one way, then he was fine. He is a kid who needs to know why he's doing something before he can understand it. I know, because I was a kid like that too.

This morning I was tutoring his reading group. They were looking at an interview between a modern Wampanoag and a pilgrim interpreter from Plymouth talking about the way their respective people did things in the 1620s and creating a Venn diagram based on what they learned (the second grade is very bigg on Venn diagrams). One of the questions asked how many were in their respective settlements and the pilgrim replied "9 score." So we talked about what a score was and I asked if anyone could figure out how much 9 score was. "9x20!" AJ barked out without hesitation. But he was crushed when another kid got the answer before he did. If he can't be first, he doesn't want to participate. While I'm sympathetic to that point of view, I also know how paralyzing such self-expectations can be (talk to me about my decade-old dissertation some time). Still, when such pressure is internal, what's the best way to help ease it?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Emergency drills

Mrs. PQV writes:

Yesterday gunshots were heard in the vicinity of my daughters' school. Immediately the entire facility went into lock down for the first time since 9/ 11. Much as schools have fire drills and tornado drills, their school had also held lock down drills, so everyone knew what to do, even if they were rather frightened.

Happy ending: the grounds and school were safe, no one was hurt and we parents were and are thrilled by how quickly the school appraised us about the entire situation. D#1 was a bit frightened last night, so we talked about all of the locked doors that stood between her and the outside world during a lock down. I don't think D#2 fully understood what had happened.

In the cold light of day, several aspects of this situation are sinking into my maternal consciousness. My children were safe, their teachers did all of the right things, thank God they attend such a school with such wonderful people.

My God, my children have lock down drills?! Not that I didn't know that they had the drills, they're always included in the newsletter, but until this moment I hadn't thought properly about this drill ever being needed. C'mon, all of those fire drills, did your school ever actually catch on fire? Yet there they were on lock down.

Yes, far better lock down than Virginia Tech all over again. Yet oh my glory -

Monday, December 1, 2008

Parent-teacher conferences

At our first parent-teacher conference of the year last week, AJ’s teacher Mrs. F handed us a packet of grade 3 and 4 math worksheets that AJ has been assigned to work on when everyone else is doing the regular curriculum. “I’m not sure why he’s having trouble with this,” Mrs. F. said. “It shouldn’t be hard for him. But I find him just sitting there staring at it and not doing it. I even asked him to put a star on the pages he thought were hard and a smiley face on the pages that were easy. But he starred some of the easiest pages.” I told her we’d go over it with him over break and I’d try to get to the bottom of it.

AJ is starting to struggle with the format of school. His teacher this year is much more structured than any he’s had before. I get the impression that he feels like he’s always doing the wrong thing, but I haven’t yet figured out why. His teacher, who is trying to do everything she can to help him, is truly frustrated and perplexed. His test scores are off the charts, but he is having trouble with a number of class activities.

We had trouble working on math over break, a subject that AJ has always dearly loved. But every time we’d sit down to try to look at it, AJ would burst into tears. I have been trying so hard not to let it come to this point. My own love of math was squashed by a clueless (and downright mean) teacher in the second grade. This is what I’ve been afraid of. But eventually, we were able to get past the tears and into the problems. And AJ started to have fun again.

This morning, I sat down and wrote a long email to Mrs. F.:

AJ and I went over the math packet over break and I tried to get a sense of what had made him star some pages. He also worked on a few pages on his own and we talked them through afterwards. After looking more carefully at the packets, AJ decided that it was all pretty easy for him but mostly not so incredibly easy as to be boring (except for the time pages, at which he rolled his eyes).

I think his stars say more about his difficulty understanding instructions, both those you gave him on starring things, and also the ones on the starred worksheets. He said they are easy now that he knows what they are, but that he didn't know what things like "expanded notation" meant at first. [AJ’s class curriculum is the somewhat controversial Everyday Math program; the packet is drawn from the much more standard Spectrum series; the presentation and some terminology is markedly different.]

He also isn't clear on what the "show your work boxes" are for [each problem has a space on the right margin marked “show your work” -- are they required or are they just there when he needs them? Because he does a lot of the work in his head, if he needs to show his work, someone might need to show him what that means. I did talk to him about how he will at least at some point, need to demonstrate how he figured things out (we talk about this a lot at home, so that shouldn't be a total surprise to him, but he's not used to writing it, and he may balk at it because it slows him down). You'll see how he tried to fill in the "show your work" columns on some of the pages and I think it will give you a good window into how his math brain works. For example, On Lesson 2.3 of the Spectrum Math grade 3 (page 22), the first question gives digits for the various places and he has to figure out what number it spells. The number is 600,903, which he got correctly. In the "show your work" section, he wrote out the number, and then wrote the numbers for each place squished in underneath each digit(100,000, 10,000, etc.). Below that, he wrote "3x3=9" with arrows connecting the 3 and 9 with their twins in 600,903. Then he wrote "3x2=6" and drew arrows between the 3s and 6s. He told me that he thought it was cool that you could make all the digits out of 3, so he decided to show that. Further down the page, where he had to write biggest and smallest numbers made with the digits, he ended up writing the (correct) answers in the "show your work" column and leaving the answer blanks blank. He was so worried about showing his work, that he forgot to write the answers where they were supposed to go.

But AJ also wasn't sure what "hard" meant -- from his perspective, it was too vague. He doesn't always deal well with grey areas. I explained it to him as "hard is something you don't know how to do by yourself and you need someone to show you how to do it." By that definition, the only stars that remained were on the "expanded notation" pages. And once he figured out what that meant, then those stars disappeared as well.

Based on this, I'd like to see him gaining more independence on worksheets like this, being able to carefully read and figure out the instructions for himself. But I also think he may need some spoken words about what to do before each one. It's not so much that he gets it wrong all the time, but that he doesn't trust himself to be getting it right. He seems to expect that he's going to do it incorrectly and wants reassurance.

The other thing it seems like he needs work on, is interpreting word problems. There weren't actually too many examples of that in the packet, but he doesn't trust himself to turn the word problems into equations a lot of the time. He wants constant reassurance. And when the word problems involve subtraction or division, he doesn't always get the order right.

And, perhaps most important, overall, defining things with almost comic precision helps him out a lot. If there is an exception of any kind, he will find it and be confused by it. He hasn't yet learned the psychology of figuring out what the question is asking by what makes sense, not just what is literally stated.

I think, although I’m not certain, that his teacher is turning him loose with extra work and is not willing or able to spend much time explaining things to him. And I know that AJ is not always willing or able to get up in the middle of class and go ask his teacher what he needs to know. His class is very large and, as generally happens, those who are struggling to work at grade level get more attention than those who are working too far above grade level. But all second graders need help and personal attention, no matter what level they’re at. None of them is independent yet. I didn’t want to come right out and say, “pay more attention to my kid,” because I know she’s doing what she can. But at the same time, she needs and wants to know how to help him. I hope I was diplomatic enough while also being clear.

Monday, November 17, 2008

One foot in front of the other

Last Friday was the day I volunteer in the library at AJ's school. It was an unusually quiet day. The librarian was working with her classes in the computer lab down the hall. No one was coming in to check out books. I had plenty of time to check in all the returned books, reshelve them, and scan the shelves for Christmas, Hanukah and Kwanzaa books to pull for the post-Thanksgiving displays. AJ's teacher came in while I was covering some new paperback books.

"Don't worry! I did give him the book! I just was worried about him being able to keep track of his work," she said. This was excellent news. And we proceeded to have a long talk about what's up with AJ.

The fact is, some of what is going on is still a mystery to both of us. I don't think we're talking about a learning disability here, although I'm not ruling it out. Nor am I ignoring research on learning disabilities related to "executive functioning" (thanks for the new term, Fern!), because regardless of the cause, the symptoms need addressing and some of the suggestions freshhell mentioned are excellent and already working well for us. Last year we bought AJ a small chalkboard that we use specifically for his schedule. It used to live in the kitchen where Mr. Spy or I would write out first his morning and then his afternoon schedule along with some silly pictures and jokes so that it was something he wanted to look at as well as something he needed to know. Recently, we've moved the chalkboard to his room and had him write out his schedule and then cross off the activities as he does them. This is both teaching him how to help himself and allowing us to see what he's doing. It's the number one best tool we have for keeping AJ on track at home.

But the reason I suspect it isn't actually a learning disability (and I really think it may be too early to tell) is that a lot of the problems are situational -- they take place in school and to a lesser extent in certain situations at home (usually on tasks he doesn't want to do when there's some other activity he wants to move on to as fast as possible). They are not universal behaviors. I think there are some triggers for the behavior, though, and boredom is definitely one of them. A lack of respect for the activity is another -- writing the assignment is important, putting it away neatly is not. I am sensitive to these issues, because I was the same way when I was in elementary school. Once it was done in my head, it was done. The rest of it didn't matter to me -- writing neatly, putting things in my backpack so they didn't wrinkle, even doing the assignment on paper. It didn't matter. I would willfully fail to show my work in math because I thought it was a waste of time, no matter what anybody else told me. I would fail to answer questions in English class because I got carried away with my answer to the first question and wanted to see where it would take me. It wasn't that I couldn't get organized, it was that I didn't really care. I wanted to do the right thing and I tried when people asked me to, but at a gut level, I didn't get why it was important. It appears to me that AJ is showing signs of a similar attitude problem. And while such an attitude problem is one he needs to know how to solve to get through a lot of real life situations, I think the attitude itself may eventually serve him well when channeled for good instead of evil.

At school, AJ is easily distracted by other children. He's often overstimulated by a lot of activity, even as he's attracted to it, and he always wants to know what else is going on. When he's working, he likes things quiet and still. He doesn't get that at school. And he likes it that way -- he's a very social kid and he wants to interact with others. But at 7, he still doesn't have the self-control needed to be consistent about his in-class work habits. I am not concerned that he doesn't yet know how to do this. I am concerned that he doesn't seem to be understanding that learning how to do this is extremely important. But working on him both from home and from school, I am hoping it will try to sink in.

From the beginning, we've been focused on helping AJ learn how to organize himself. Fern mentioned trying to talk out loud to AJ about how I'm organizing things as I do it. This sounds like an excellent idea. And while I think I've always done some of it, I bet I could do more. He has the ability to organize when he wants to -- woe betide he who messes with the elaborate ordering of his baseball cards! He just doesn't like to take the time to think about it, because, I think, he gets overwhelmed with possibilities. I need to try to help him take that part of his brain that deals with his baseball cards and apply it to other things.

Jill mentioned that her son's teacher had handed out an agenda/planner to each kid to help them keep track of their homework assignments, which had to be initialed in the planner each day. This gave me an idea. I stressed with AJ's teacher how lists seemed to work for AJ at home but that when we tried to have him write lists for school, that he ran into the same problems he did with other assignments -- he often forgot it or didn't do it. I suggested that I could write up a checklist -- one page for a week -- that we could tape to the front of his take-home folder, so he could run through it each day, a list of all the things he needed to remember during class. I told the teacher I'd be happy to make it, but that I needed her help for what to put on it, since I didn't know all the routines of the classroom. She agreed that it sounded like a good thing to try and she's going to think about things to put on it and get them to me. So I feel like we're on the same page about this and that she will try to back some of this stuff up in school.

The other issue that his teacher is worried about is the damage AJ occasionally inflicts through his carelessness -- ripping books by shoving things into his desk without looking to see where they are going, absent-mindedly spearing his pencil at the desk, leaving marks and holes, bending back the covers of a book he's engrossed in. I'm not sure what to do about this beyond drawing his attention to it and asking him to be careful, which we've already done many times over. I did, though, suggest to AJ that he should pull out the stack of things in his desk, put the thing he wants to put away on top, and then put the hole thing back in. Part of his trouble is that there's way too much stuff in his desk. But he can't really do much about that. It's just the way things are when there are 27 kids in a class and there's nowhere to put anything. And I suggested to the teacher that there should be consequences for the damage at school, just as there would be at home -- a missed 10 minutes of recess, for example, which is a standard punishment for misbehavior in the classroom. As Jeanne mentioned, if the behaviors start causing more trouble for him, I think AJ will get it.

So it was a productive conversation all around. Our parent-teacher conference is a week from today, so we will have a chance to follow up quickly. And from there, we'll see how things go. Thank you so much for all of your comments and suggestions. I'll report back next week.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Naughty or Nice?

A few days after we got the results of AJ's latest standardized tests (he missed 3 questions out of 362), his teacher pulled me aside in the school hallway, where I was waiting for my volunteer job to start. "I was hoping to talk to you"

AJ, it turns out, is having some trouble at school. You'd never know it from what comes home. But his teacher is concerned about his lack of organization.

We're concerned about it too, although we didn't know until this moment that it was affecting his work at school. AJ, like many gifted kids, is easily distracted and frequently has trouble completing tasks, instead getting sidetracked into other things. He can't plan his time well. He is sloppy about putting his things away and loses his belongings regularly. Scarcely a week goes by when we're not going back up to school to pick up something he's forgotten. I find it infuriating because the trait seems so intractable. AJ does well with lists. If we write lists, he does things. I gave him a notebook to take to school so he could write down the things he needs to do. It worked beautifully for one day. Then he forgot it at school and I threw up my hands.

His teacher is concerned at this particular moment because she wants the better readers in the class to start a reading group. But since the class has 26 students in it, the members of the reading group will have to do a lot of independent work. She's not sure he's up to it. I know he is up to it when he wants to be. The question is, will he be able to pull it off?

I came home and talked to AJ and looked up the book that most of the class is reading. It is a good book, but painfully easy for AJ, a level he was reading independently four years ago when he was three. My fear is that if she sticks him with that book, he will shut down out of boredom. Not to mention the fact that it would be a colossal waste of his time. The advanced book will still be easy for him, but it looks like a good book with a much more complicated storyline.

So I sat down this evening to write his teacher a letter. This is always an exercise in diplomacy. I don't have the faith in this teacher that I had in AJ's teacher last year, but I do have respect for her. She is good at what she does and she is challenging AJ at school. He loves being in her classroom. But I really think she's wrong about this. At the same time, I really don't have any solutions. I've tried everything I can think of. So my letter kind of lays it all on the line.

Disorganization is extremely common for gifted kids, more common than in the general population. But teaching them how to focus is extremely challenging. And it's doubly challenging in school, where we can't help on a daily basis and where the teacher who wants to help is trying to do so while teaching 25 other kids to do the things they need to do. I mentioned in the letter that written instructions were working for us at home and I hope the teacher will try that. But I am not sure that she'll be as successful. AJ is a master at looking for loopholes and her writing is not always airtight. Last week, for example, AJ missed a question on a social studies test on the unit on maps they've been working on. The test question read, "Name the four directions. AJ wrote "North South East West," which was a perfect answer to the question asked. But that wasn't what she wanted. She wanted him to draw a compass rose and label the points. Now I have no way of knowing whether she asked for the compass rose in class. She very well may have and AJ may not have been listening or may have been too literal minded about the written question. But I'll probably never know for sure. I want to ask but I don't want to come across as a grade-grubbing freak. After all, this is a second grade test and AJ got a 97. Why quibble? Still, I was seething at the injustice. AJ, however, took it all in stride.

Teacher conferences are coming up in two weeks and we'll talk in person then. But I didn't think this could wait. Assigning AJ the easier book would be like asking his teacher to spend a month studying a book for fourth graders. Maybe diverting at first, but ultimately unsatisfying and tedious. Ultimately, the solution is the teacher's decision. I hope she makes the right choice.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Curieing Favor

Our local park district has started a science club for girls. I endorse this in principle, as our experience with extra-curricular science programs is that the boys outnumber the girls by at least two to one. But I have several concerns with the club in its current practice. The first problem is that there is no equivalent science program for boys. They appear to have abandoned the coed programs as well. So for the moment, at least, this club is the only science program being offered. The second problem is the gender profiling used in advertising the program:

"Learn how science art and cooking go hand in hand." Now, AJ took a class called kitchen science this summer that showed kids how science is used in the home. And there's interesting stuff to be learned. But this class seems to be about Easy Bake ovens and other things designed to appeal to pretty princesses. If the class were for boys and girls, I wouldn't have a problem with the subject matter. But because it's for girls only -- "NO BOYS allowed," it says, right in the class description -- it makes me squirm. And the worst part is the name of the club: "Madame Curries." I still haven't figured out if that's a play on words because it's kitchen science or if it's just a typo that nobody caught. I'm also not sure which is worse.

Maybe I'm being curmudgeonly this morning, but isn't there a better ways to get girls into science?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sunset Towers

Now that AJ's in second grade, his at-home independent reading assignments have gotten a little more formal. Where last year he could just read, this year he is supposed to answer a general question about what he read. The question changes every month. It started simply in September with, "What was your favorite part?" October is asking for him to describe the main idea of what he read. This can be tricky. AJ remembers just about every detail he reads. But as a second grader, he's still trying to figure out which details are important and which are not. At the beginning of the month, he was reading The Westing Gameby Ellen Raskin, a mystery. This made the assignment even more difficult, because the book reveals its story slowly and throws out tons of details -- many red herrings -- along the way. Trying to help AJ figure out what to write was challenging. And I'm not sure he entirely understood the story because it wasn't organized the way he knows stories to be. He got enough of it to enjoy the book, though.

After he finished The Westing Game, we returned to Roald Dahl (He read Matildabefore The Westing Game). I gave him a copy of Danny, The Champion of the World, which had been my brother's favorite Dahl book, and AJ dove in with relish (it's also the book where the BFG makes his first appearance, as a story within the story). The difference between the two books struck me. Leafing through both without reading carefully, I would have expected AJ to have an easier time with The Westing Game. The vocabulary was entirely under his command. The chapters were short. Dahl's vocabulary is much more complicated and occasionally arcane (AJ had to look up "pheasant" and "poaching" and informed me afterwards that pheasants are related to peacocks). But Dahl's structure is much more straightforward and this makes all the difference. After having to coach AJ carefully through each main idea last week, this week he's almost completely independent. And he's feeling good about it.

Our experience with these two books has me thinking about a few things. 1) What makes a book difficult or easy for a given person? 2) How much it too much to stretch? 3) Is there a developmental aspect to the perception of literary structure or is it merely experiential? This last question interests me most, because as a teacher (and self-learner), I think a lot about the importance of frameworks, some kind of structure on which to hang the facts you need to remember. For example, as a doctoral student, I had to pass comprehensive exams, several days of hell, including separate 2 hour exams on each major period of western art music (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, etc.). We took courses for four years to prepare. We read lots of scholarly articles. But when it came right down to it, the book that helped me most of all was the general music history text I'd used as an undergraduate, because it had a framework that I could remember and which, in term, helped me to remember the rest of what I needed, no matter how complex. As a teacher, I work frameworks into my course plan that guide my lectures, study guides and review sessions. Usually I have a central idea -- a theme -- that I overlay onto chronology, which I break up into subthemes. These themes serve as scaffolds to which the details of composers and pieces and historical events are attached, giving them both a point of view and an organization. It seems to work.

Many, if not most, gifted children are exceptionally good at identifying patterns of all kinds. They are quick to establish their own mental scaffolds. This makes them quick at figuring things out for which they have a half-knowledge. Sometimes, in AJ's case, at least, this can make them resistant to things that don't fit the patterns they know. When I try to help AJ accept the idea of something new, I usually do it by encouraging him to freefall -- so what if you don't know what it is? Just get in and experience it and see what happens. And pretty soon, he figures it out. (Aha! This is the pattern of the mystery with the slow reveal!) And once he does, there's no stopping him and his world gets just a little bit bigger.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Chess for gifted kids

I had asked about how to find some chess competition for my gifted 12-year-old over at Spynotes this summer, and got a lot of good advice. Here are some of the results, for those of you who are interested.

1. Many gifted kids crave personal contact. Because their intellectual peers are often considerably older, they're used to doing a lot of their advanced thinking online. So computer chess only goes so far in sustaining their interest in the game. They're still kids. They want to see who they're beating, or who is good enough to beat them.

2. Because they're still kids, they often have holes in their tactical thinking. There are a lot of good chess books out there. A good one to start with is Weapons of Chess, by Bruce Pandolfini. There is also a good computer game for kids who are learning chess, Majestic Chess. (Unfortunately, this seems to be only available for Windows.)

3. Asking around is the best way to find an adult who might be willing to play chess with a gifted kid. We found one at the local college. He's an assistant track coach, and tells me that he enjoys playing with Walker. So far they've played four times, and he's beaten Walker every time. (Walker is delighted by this; it's not often he finds someone better than he is at something, and he's learning a lot.) As you probably already know if you have a gifted kid who plays chess, it's usually not a success to find anyone near your kid's own age who wants to play more than a couple of games with him, because either he will always win or he will have to fake a draw just to be polite.

4. The local public library is a good place to advertise your interest in finding a partner for chess. Retired folks are sometimes available, and are often delighted to find a young person who is interested in the game.

Have any other suggestions? Want more specific benefits of my experience? Leave a comment!

Friday, September 26, 2008

It's Starting to Add Up

The other day I figured out exactly how many mpg my car gets: 31.6. Which is not bad. I'd originally estimated it at 32 based on the average miles I drove on a tank of gas and the fact that I have a 14 gallon tank. But on Wednesday, when I coasted into town on fumes, I completely filled the tank. The machine stopped at exactly 14 gallons. I looked at the odometer afterwards, before resetting it and noticed I'd gone 440 miles on one tank of gas. So, I did the math - long division, on paper, all by myself. I double-checked it on a calculator later and got 31.4 but, hey, I'm not a math whiz and there's the proof.

I've always loved numbers but because of a piss poor education, I've always done horribly in math. And its one of the reasons I want Dusty to do well in it. She doesn't have a super math whiz gene (few in our family do) but I want her set on the right track now. I don't want to her derail like I did.

Which is why I'm happy she's where she is. The school system instituted full-time gifted and talented teachers in EVERY school over the summer. We met Dusty's new G&T teacher this week and I am very pleased.

The teacher, Mrs. G, has been teaching at the school for a number of years so the environment, and many of the students, are familiar to her. She outlined how the G&T thing will work this year. Last year, Dusty worked with two part-time G&T teachers - both of them brilliant and capable but doing an impossible task. The two of them taught at four or five different schools on different days. I don't know how they pulled it off, but they did.

This year should be even better. Mrs. G explained that they have clustered the G&T students into certain classrooms. Which explains why Dusty is still with her BFF and her partner of the last two years, Nathan. All G&T kids. This cuts down on Mrs. G's workload because she doesn't have to be in every single classroom every week. But she does do that on occasion, especially when a teacher in a non-G&T cluster room discovers a possible G&T candidate.

Mrs. G and the classroom teacher co-plan their lessons and co-teach them. There are no pull-outs at this level. They co-teach and then break the classroom into groups for small group work. Mrs. G gets the G&T group, Mrs. J gets the other students.

Best of all, Mrs. G teaches an accelerated math class for 5th graders. It's a pull-out class and she's a math person so I feel really good that Dusty's in good hands. In all aspects.

Not only that, but Dusty will soon get Spanish lessons. Students at the closest high school have started a Spanish Club that will meet at Dusty's school on Monday afternoons. While the county continues to "consider" foreign language classes in the elementary schools, Dusty will get a change to learn a second language. She'll get a tiny step up.

At this point, I have zero complaints. Dusty's in very good hands.

I also learned - through Mrs. G - about the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. I'm considering signing Dusty up for the next testing date (which is in Feb or March). If she passes the test, which is given locally, she would qualify for a number of educational opportunities, classes, etc. that she wouldn't have access to otherwise. She won't run quite so far if she's not wearing the right shoes. I want to give her those shoes.

Meanwhile, I'm going to go back and check my long division work. While 31.6 is close, it's not 31.4. Maybe Dusty'll be able to point out my mistakes soon. At least, that's what I'm hoping. I only had kids so they could help me with my homework.

Walking the rail

This morning, after school drop off, an unofficial meeting of parents of gifted second graders was called to order. The mothers of two of AJ's friends, O. and N., and I stood around chatting after the lines had disappeared into the school. These are two of my favorite parents. Both are smart and have done interesting work but are taking time off to be home with their young children. O's mom is an engineer. N's mom is a former middle school science teacher. This year, as last year, O and AJ are in the same class and N is in a different class. We were talking this morning about how O and AJ have challenging spelling lists. N's class isn't getting a challenge list and N is bored. I was urging N's mom to ask for it and told her what we did with AJ last year. O's mom told her how the challenge lists work this year (any kid who gets 100% on the pretest on Monday gets the week's challenge words instead of the regular words. The first week it was just AJ. But this week, as the kids are settling in, there were 6).

We also talked about the ways classroom boredom can lead to errors or slacking off and can often give a teacher the impression that the kid is either lazy or not very bright. We talked about the way our kids have a tendency to take the easy way out if given the opportunity and how having other kids to be competitive with can either spur them on or shut them down, about how their tendencies toward perfectionism can yield them to be unbelievably hard on themselves, and about how this latter tendency is something we all live with too.

It was a nice conversation of commonalities. It's nice to feel that you're kid is not alone, that you're kid is not alone. And yet, whenever I have a talk like this, afterwards I walk away worried that I've said something I shouldn't. Do I sound like I'm bragging about my kid? I don't mean to. I want to help other people get what they need and I feel like I know a little more about working the system at this point. But do they think I'm an insufferable bore who needs her kid to be better than everybody else? Or am I actually an insufferable bore who needs her kid to be better than everybody else? I don't think so. But if I were totally innocent, I doubt I'd be so anxiety-ridden after these encounters. I wish it weren't so hard. I'd love to have a more united front. Next year, when there's a formal gifted program, it will, I think, be easier.

It should be easier for AJ too, I think, as long as the classroom teacher doesn't think that the gifted program absolves her of responsibility for giving him appropriate work. I'll be interested to see who shows up there. All the kids I know who would seem to meet the criteria are boys. This flies in the face of my own experience of gifted programs, which were heavily female, even as the high level academic awards were mostly given to boys. Interesting.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


I posted this yesterday at Spynotes, but it seemed like it belonged in this space as well. -- Harriet"Mommy," AJ said at breakfast this morning, "when can I see the atom smasher?"

AJ has taken a sudden interest in particle physics. I attribute this to the opening of the CERN large hadron collider coinciding with his spotting of a book on physics by Dan Green and Simon Basher. Last night I told him that there was a particle collider in Chicago and I thought his jaw would hit the floor. Apparently, he was thinking about it all night.

I went online this morning to see if Fermilab offers tours. The good news is that they do. The bad news is that children under 10 don't seem to be permitted and most of them are for high school age and up. There are probably good reasons for this. But still, I'm pretty sure my little science geek would get something out of it. And it's hard for me not to to feel like this is part of a larger trend of science being reserved for older children and adults.

We are very excited to have a new hands-on science curriculum at AJ's school, one with lots of experiments and projects, that begins in kindergarten. It appears to be the centerpiece of the language curriculum as well -- many of the books they are reading are about science and many of AJ's spelling words have been drawn from their science readings. But the more I talk to other parents, the more I realize that this is unusual.

I don't remember doing any significant amount of science until seventh grade, at least not in school. My mom signed me up for an experiment of the month club when I was in kindergarten, which helped my mom focus my explorations. My memory of these monthly experiment kits have in turn influenced some of the things I've done with AJ since he was in preschool. Beyond them, though, there were not a lot of resources for a kid with an interest in science. I turned to writing and let the science drop.

I feel like an unlikely advocate for the expansion of science education for children. The last science class I had was a biology class I took my freshman year in college more than twenty years ago. I never had a formal physics class, although I've done some reading on my own. The physics teacher in the high school I was in when it came time for physics was notoriously awful and I decided that I'd be better off on my own than letting an idiot kill the joy of physics for me. I had planned to take it in college, but was talked out of it by my advisor who thought someone so clearly rooted in the liberal arts would never survive. And so I have many degrees in literature and music but science is a great big hole in my own education.

But why do we think science is so much harder than literature and music? Really, I think music is about the hardest thing I've ever studied in many respects. Anything really interesting and big is going to be difficult. But somehow, we see music as something that should be accessible to everyone. But science is only for the educated, the smart, the special.

A seven-year-old certainly won't get the same thing out of a tour of a particle accelerator as a college physics major. But is that any reason to exclude him from something he wants to know about it? What if the tour inspired him to learn more so he could understand it better? What if that kid decides to major in physics down the road? What if he becomes the discoverer of the elusive Higgs Boson? Or what if he just passes on his love of learning to his own kids someday?

With AJ, I take the approach of "if he's interested, let him try." If he asks questions about how particle accelerators work or how to calculate with irrational numbers, I don't know the answer. But together we find out to the best of our ability. AJ is not afraid of big, complicated answers. He's okay with not understanding them all the way for the moment. But he likes to try. And maybe someday he'll get it all the way there. In the mean time, let him see what he wants to see.

Yesterday, I went to the bookstore to buy the other two science books in the Dan Green/Simon Basher series, one on The Periodic Table, the other on Biology. AJ sat down with them at breakfast and started to read The Periodic Table, laughing at the cartoon characters and noticing, for the first time the way the elements are grouped in the table. He spread out the poster that came in the back so he could map each one-page element profile with its position on the chart. He liked how the one row all looked like clouds. "Oh! That's because they're [the noble] gases!" He followed the numbers with his fingers, memorizing the positions. The books are the perfect mix of silly cartoons and serious science. They suit him perfectly.

I put the books on the checkout counter to buy them. The cashier, about a decade older than I, picked them up and leafed through them. "Wow. Science books for kids. These look great. I wish they'd had these when my kids were small." He turned a few more pages. "I wish they'd had them when I was small. Maybe I'd be a scientist now instead."

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Educational Television

Mrs. Permanent Qui Vive, who doesn't yet have her own account here at AJ's Clubhouse, sends us this post. Thanks, Mrs. QV!

What with ballet, soccer, the first tests of the school year and the power outage, everyone in the family pretty much collapsed after school. Television time is a struggle for me as a parent. On the one hand, I want D#1 and D#2 to watch reasonably intelligent and tasteful television and, reluctantly, I have come to lump "Little Einsteins" in that category. On the other hand, I also want them to be familiar enough with pop culture to chat with friends and peers, thus occasionally I allow them to watch the Disney pre-teen sit-coms.

Yesterday an hour of bonus television meant "Hannah Montana," which I will never like, and "Zach and Cody's The Suite Life" which, despite my attempts to be pretentious and artful, I think very funny.

What struck me, amidst being very confused about some of the outfits, is that both shows had storylines in which a lead character's poor grades and/ or lack of I.Q. points played a crucial role. Hannah Montana laughed about failing two Biology quizzes and boasted of getting a D+ on a third. The only reason she became motivated to study for the big Biology test had nothing to do with her G.P.A and everything to do with her parents insisting that she couldn't go on tour with her band unless the grade went up.

Either Zach or Cody (not sure which) had failed English and had to take summer school. Everyone in the class wanted to pass, but prided themselves upon Ds; even the teacher assumed the worst of the class. When Cody/ Zach correctly guessed the meaning of a Shakespeare quote, he promptly became the subject of ridicule, bullying, etc.

Hannah Montana ended up acing her Biology test by setting the names of all the bones in the body to music, though she could only remember them if she sang and danced the song. Even with her A, though, the jokes about her stupidity continued. Now, I know that the stupidity is part of her secret identity, but... Zach/ Cody went through an internal struggle and was eventually inspired by Robert Frost (bet you can't guess which poem) to continue doing his best, despite the bullying.

The shows were vaguely amusing - well, the Hannah thread was dull, but I laughed at the bits where her brother took care of a parrot - but I wish we could glorify brains rather than think it's more appropriate to be mediocre.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Head of the Class

Sorry for the lack of, er, postage. Things have been a little busy since last week.

The day after the class lists were posted, Mr. Spy and I met with AJ's classroom teacher, Mrs. F, and Mrs. C, the gifted teacher. The principal, who had set up the meeting for us, was unable, at the last minute to be there. But much was accomplished.

Mr. Spy and I were very impressed with the preparation Mrs. F. had already done. She had contacted AJ's teacher from last year to find out what had been done and what had worked. And she came into the meeting with a list of questions for us -- good questions. In turn, she seemed to really appreciate the information we had brought for her. I am always nervous about how such things will be received -- will a teacher see it as helpful, which is how it is intended? Or will she see it as meddling? Which, let's be honest, it is a little bit. Mrs. C. was able to talk a bit about how she'd pulled together materials for last year, and we were able to ask for her help in ordering readers for AJ which, since the school only goes up to 4th grade, it did not previously own.

One of the things we were pleased to hear is that Mrs. F. already has some systems in place for dealing with kids working above and below the average. This week homework began and we are starting to see how they work. AJ took the week's spelling pretest with the rest of the class and, as expected, aced it. This meant he got the challenge words for the week, which were drawn from their current science unit on geology (more on the new science curriculum another day -- all good). The words were more challenging than I had expected and AJ is excited about them:


In addition to learning the spelling words, he has several activities to do with them for homework. On Mondays, the new list for the week comes home and for homework he has to write five sentences using as many of the words as possible. Tuesday and Wednesday nights he has to do an activity that he chooses from a list. This week he chose to make a game (he figured out a game with flashcards for two players) and a crossword puzzle, for which he is allowed to use computer software. If anyone has any software/websites for crossword creation to recommend (Mac compatible), I'd love to hear them!

The reading program has three components with three different sets of books. There is the guided reading, which happens in school in small groups with a graded reading series (Gates-McGintie). Thanks to Mrs. F. and Mrs. C., AJ's school now has more of the series -- he had finished what they had early last school year. There is independent reading at home, for which he chooses his own books that he reads daily and then writes a short sentence or two in his reading log. Each month's log has a different question to answer. This month's is "What was your favorite part?" The third component is another in-school reading session called "Reading Workshop." It is not yet clear to me what this entails, but the students get to pick their own books, either by bringing them from home (which has been recommended for AJ) or choosing one from the classroom library.

They are still taking math assessment testing, so we will hear more about that soon. We received an email from AJ's teacher on Monday saying that she will get back to us when she's done with the assessments to talk about goals for AJ for the year -- exactly what we wanted.

In general, it sounds like I'll be less involved in the devising of materials than I was last year, which is great. The teacher seems fully capable and interested in doing it herself.

Someone asked me this morning if AJ wouldn't do better in a Montessori school or some other educational situation with more flexibility than a public school. I said that maybe, yes, if he were at a different public school. But this school is working hard to help us and is learning from the situation -- I thought their willingness to order new series of books was an excellent sign, because it shows they're trying to prepare for other students too, which is the best case scenario. It's why I want to keep working with the public schools. And AJ is currently getting an education tailor-made for his abilities. I'm not sure we could do better than that anywhere else. The only additional thing I would wish for is foreign language instruction. But that we'll try on our own. The year is definitely off to a promising start.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Class lists

I am sticking close to my computer, stalking AJ's school website. The class lists are supposed to be posted in a half an hour.

AJ was remember when he was about to start kindergarten and we went up to the school in person for the posting of the lists. There was a big crowd of people, most of them his friends -- the kindergarten families without older children didn't yet have access to the website. They were the only ones who came in person. It was exciting and fun -- the official beginning of the end of summer. School starts one week from today.

I just checked again. The lists still aren't up.

I'm working on the folder I will bring to the meeting we are having tomorrow with AJ's (still phantom) teacher, the gifted teacher and the school principal. The school has asked for test scores and Mystery Teacher has asked for samples of his work. I distilled my long document into a much shorter one that lists our contact information, his reading level and interests and math skills, his test scores and an outline of the modifications that have been made in his curriculum in the past as well as a few things I'd like to see happen this year. I think I've decided to give the teacher copies of his dinosaur report and comic book and his water cycle lab journal -- an independent project he did over Christmas break. I'm also going to bring one example each of his reading contract, his advanced math packet and a spelling test so she can see and not just read about the modifications we made last year. I won't copy those, though, as I don't think she'll need to look at them that closely to see what they're about. At least I think it's a she.

It's past four. Still no lists posted. It's going to be a long afternoon.

Friday, August 15, 2008

More back to school

Success! The principal has scheduled the meeting with AJ's teacher. They will post the class assignments on Wednesday at 4 p.m. and the following morning, we will be meeting with the new teacher and the principal and, hopefully, the gifted coordinator. If the gifted teacher can't make the time we've set, we will have a separate meeting with her and the teacher without the principal. The mystery classroom teacher has asked us for as much information as we can give her, so it looks like my document will help. She's also asked for examples of his work from last year that will give her an idea of what he can do. So this weekend I'll be going through the things we've saved from last year to see what we can find.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Back to School Lists

AJ starts second grade on August 27, a mere two and a half weeks away. The summer that seemed endless back in early June is now racing to a halt.

Like most families of young children at this time of year, our lives are consumed with lists at present. There are the lists of things we want to do before summer is over, the things that will make it feel like we had a summer. There are the lists of things we need to do before summer is over. AJ's Cub Scout homework comes under this category. AJ's school doesn't, at least for his age group, have summer homework; but many families we know are also racing through those last summer books and essays and journal entries. We've given AJ some unofficial homework -- to finish a long story he's been writing, to write in his journal. He's behind on those too, because we are all behind on our summer work. Same as every summer.

There are a couple of things we're doing well on, though. We've got all the school supplies except a pencil box, for which we were given very specific instructions as to dimensions. Such a box does not appear to exist, but we persevere in looking for it. We also haven't bought the requested flash cards for home use because they require a long drive in a car to the teacher supply store and because if they are as described, I'm pretty sure they will be totally unnecessary for AJ, as they contain math facts he's known by heart for years. But we'll probably get them anyway, because he likes flash cards in general, and sometimes a few bucks spent on having the same things as everyone else is worth it.

The other thing big thing checked off my list this week was contacting our school's principal to see about setting up a meeting with AJ's teacher and the gifted ed coordinator for the district. Our school doesn't announce class lists until a week before the first day of school. Old timers in the district tell us it wasn't always this way. I don't know whether the policy exists because they want maximum flexibility to deal with last minute changes in enrollment or because a few argumentative parents trying to change their kids' classes caused trouble for the rest of us. But I was pretty sure that the class lists were made up far earlier than a week before school began. So I emailed the principal asking if he could help us set up a meeting. I was careful to phrase my request in a way that would allow it to be met without me knowing the teacher's name: I asked the principal for help, not the contact information for the teacher. He responded almost immediately and positively about the meeting and agreed to arrange it with the mystery teacher for as soon as possible after the class lists went up.

In preparation for this meeting, I've been tweaking a document that began as an exercise for myself and will probably end up being handed out at our meeting in some form or other. After my meeting with the gifted coordinator last spring, when she told me IEP's could not happen at this time, even though she thought they were a good idea, I started thinking about writing up a sort of dossier on AJ which would include information about where he is academically -- both anecdotal and quantitative data -- and what kinds of interventions have been implemented in the classroom in the past ("intervention" sounds like something you do to a troubled case in the classroom, but it is the language the schools use; when possible, I always try to speak their language), and what kinds of goals we're thinking about for the coming school year. After a couple of months of sketching out ideas and poking around the internet for things other parents have done, I've ended up with a document that looks something like this:

I. Personal data: Name, date of birth, address, phone, brief sentence about his parents, schools attended and past teachers at his current school,etc.

II. Extra-curricular interests: What AJ likes to do outside of school. Originally this was lower down, but since the first part of this document is designed to give some basic info about AJ, it seemed more appropriate here. It may still move down the list, though. I stress his interests in academics and athletics. My point is that he's not just a brain behind a desk but a well-rounded kid.

III. Academic skills and interests: This is sort of a short (1 paragraph) anecdotal summary of how we realized AJ was performing a little differently than his peers -- we mention his learning to read at 2 and telling time on analog clocks by 3 because those are markers we know that past teachers have paid attention to. But I also give specific examples of his favorite books, which demonstrates a pretty wide range of difficulty and also the way he delves into topics that interest him in depth, using examples from both independent work and also school projects from last year. Because I'm concerned about him being pigeonholed as a good reader, his most salient gift, but not the only one (he's probably more interested in math at the moment), I wanted to make sure that he looked well-rounded here too.

IV. Test Scores. This is a summary of his independent (outside school) testing from last spring that the school does not yet have a record of. We will attach copies of the formal reports, but since they are long, I thought 1 paragraph summary might help as well.

All of the above sections will, once I edit them down a little, take up one page. The following sections are longer and more descriptive.

IV. History of Curriculum Modifications at [his] school. This is my summary of what has been done for him already. I break it down by subject (Reading, Spelling, Math) and I name names -- who did what (Gifted teacher, classroom teacher, us) and with whom (kids who were paired with him for projects). I stress here that both social and intellectual development needs to be taken into consideration and that this has already been done successfully. I stress that this description is from a parents point of view and it is possible that the teachers will have other information or a different take on my descriptions. But because of the way the changes were often made on the fly as opportunities presented themselves, I'm not sure to what extent the school keeps records of these things or passes them along to AJ's future teachers, and I thought it might be helpful to a future teacher to see the big picture and also to get an idea of what we've come to expect.

V. Goals for Second Grade. I begin by stressing that I feel strongly that goals need to be a collaboration between the classroom teacher, the gifted educator and us and that I'm not trying to dictate what the classroom teacher does, but that these are the things that are of concern to us as parents who are educators ourselves. My goal with this opening is that we are showing support of the teacher and the school, that we are offering to help, but that we are not trying to threaten classroom/school autonomy. But at the same time, I want them to know we are paying a lot of attention to what goes on. The rest of this section is set up to more or less parallel the structure of the previous section. The goals are broken down into subheadings of General, Reading, Spelling, and Math. Built into the goals is an assessment of AJ's strengths and weaknesses. Some goals are curricular -- studying multiplication and division, for example. I've kept these relatively vague for the moment, because I want to see what the teacher and gifted teacher, who are much more familiar with the overall curriculum than I am, think is possible. Some are social -- working in reading groups with other children. And some are about classroom skills -- learning to focus when there are many things going on in the classroom; learning to keep track of his things and organize and prioritize tasks for a bigger project. Many of these will be goals for other children in the classroom as well. Many are also goals that will be pursued at home. My point in this section was to give a fair assessment of AJ and what I think he needs, but also to demonstrate that we are not just parents trying to push for special treatment for our special, special child. We know he's got strengths and weaknesses just like everybody else. I also wanted to get across that AJ's classroom behavior problems, when they occur (rarely), usually stem from his not having work appropriate for his level. When he's bored, he acts up. But I also mention that I want him to learn that less interesting tasks sometimes need to be done to accomplish more interesting things. I wanted the teachers to know that I wasn't expecting them to entertain him, but to make sure he had appropriate work and to help him learn good work habits.

I conclude by reiterating how happy we've been with his education at this school to date, by acknowledging that it can be a lot of work for a classroom teacher to make accommodations for a student who is not working with the rest of the class, and by offering to help in any way that we can.

I think it's a good document, but I'm still not sure if it's something I should hand out to everyone. I don't want to appear confrontational, at least not until it might be necessary. And even though I've bent over backwards in this document to say that I want to follow the teacher's lead and that this is information I thought she might find useful, I'm concerned that just by putting it in writing I'm looking like I'm itching for a fight. But even if I show it to no one, I'm going into the meeting prepared.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Fun with Math and Science

AJ had a great time at Camp Gifted. We were really impressed by the end-of-session documents that were sent home. AJ's projects and lab notebook were fantastic, of course. So was the DVD that the physics teacher made of the kids' egg drop and Rube Goldberg projects. But we also really appreciated that each teacher sent home a summary of the course and list of websites and books and things to do if we wanted to do more of the kinds of things they did in class. I thought some of these references would be appreciated by readers here. The two science classes were targeted toward gifted children entering 2-3 grades. The math class had a broader age range of 2-6th grades.


• Search youtube for "Rube Goldberg" (this one is AJ's and my favorite)

• Arlene Erlbach, The Kids' Invention Book
• Laura S. Jeffrey, American Inventors of the 20th Century

Places to Visit
• Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
• American Science and Surplus, 5316 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60630 (773-763-0313)


Math just sent home one recommendation, which is for kids' sudoku puzzles:

I would add to that the essential,


Experiment books
• Tamara Perchyonok, Chemistry and Fun for Kids of All Ages
• Robert W. Wood, 39 Easy Chemistry Experiments (Science for KIds)
• Judi Hechtman and Karen P. Hall, Explore and Discover Kid Chemistry
• Janice VanCleave, Janice VanCleave's Chemistry for Every Kid: 101 Easy Experiments that Really Work


PBS Kids Kitchen Chemistry
Bill Nye Home Demos
Build your own Volcano at Discovery Kids
Experiencing Chemistry at OMSI: How to Make Flubber
Chem4Kids Website
ChemShorts for Kids: Links to a variety of experiments

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Books for Gifted Boys

Walker’s list of good books for gifted boys from ages 6-12

The “duh” titles (as in, you must read these—many are available as audiobooks):

The Harry Potter books, Rowling
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkein
Narnia books, Lewis
The Dark is Rising series, Cooper
The Black Cauldron series, Alexander
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, Adams
The Swallows and Amazons series, Ransome
Five Children and It and The Enchanted Castle, Nesbit
Half Magic, Eager
A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle
D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths

12-year-old Walker’s current top ten titles:

1. The Lightning Thief series (Percy Jackson), Riordan
2. Ender’s Game, Card
3. The Artemis Fowl series, Colfer
4. Half-Moon Investigations, Colfer
5. The Thief Lord, Funke
6. Evil Genius, Jinks
7. The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Stroud
8. Maximum Ride series, Patterson
9. Gregor the Overlander series, Collins
10. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, Edwards

Other good books for gifted boys ages 6-12
by author, usually with a suggested title to lead you to the others:

Anderson, Feed
Balliett, Chasing Vermeer
Birdsall, The Penderwicks (younger readers)
Bloor, Tangerine
Brinley, The Mad Scientists’ Club (younger readers)
Byng, Molly Moon series (younger readers)
Chabon, Summerland
Cleary, Ramona, Henry Huggins (younger readers)
Cooper, The Boggart (younger readers, start with this one)
Dahl, Matilda, George’s Marvelous Medicine
De Larrabeiti, The Borrible Trilogy
Dickson, The Dragon and the … series
Doctorow, Little Brother
Dunkle, The Sky Inside
Enright, The Saturdays (younger readers)
Estes, Ginger Pye, The Moffats (younger readers)
Farmer, Sea of Trolls
Gannet, My Father’s Dragon (younger readers)
George, My Side of the Mountain
Haddix, Among the Hidden series (younger readers)
Howe, Howliday Inn, Bunnicula (younger readers)
Ibbotson, The Secret of Platform 13 (younger readers)
Jones, Charmed Life (the Chrestomanci series)
Konigsberg, The View from Saturday, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. B. E. F.
Lee, The Mysterious Benedict Society
Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
Mieville, UnLunDun
Philbrick, The Last Book in the Universe
Pinkwater, Once Upon a Blue Moose, The Hoboken Chicken Emergency
Sachar, Wayside School series (younger readers)
Selden, A Cricket in Times Square (younger readers)
Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events
Ursu, The Shadow Thieves
Westerfeld, Uglies, Pretties, Specials

Monday, July 21, 2008

Out of the frying pan

Amazingly, school starts in just over a month. AJ is ready. He printed out his school supply list yesterday and we went to buy his supplies. AJ loves school supplies, but he especially loves them in a huge pile waiting for the start of school. He was disappointed that the school has specified notebooks and folders without pictures on them this year, but he was won over by the fact that he gets his very own ruler and, finally, scissors with pointy ends.

One of the items on the list was flash cards of addition and subtraction facts. AJ looked skeptical. "We don't need those, do we, Mommy?" And I hesitated, because I want AJ to understand that there are some things he will need to do with the rest of the class even if they are easy for him. I want him to have respect for his teacher and the rules he or she will set in the classroom. At the same time, I want to teach him to stand up for himself and what he needs to do in a way that isn't just bragging. It's a hard line to walk with a seven-year-old. Seven-year-olds are not inherently tuned into nuance. But the cards were not inexpensive and frankly, AJ can add faster and more accurately in his head than I can. He already knows these facts by heart. So I really didn't see the point.

"I'm not sure, AJ. It says here, though, that these are for use at home. So maybe we'll check with your teacher after we know who it is. And it doesn't hurt to practice even the things you already know sometimes, to make sure you're paying attention."

This might actually be an argument to pick up the flash cards. When things are easy for AJ, he rushes and sometimes misses key details, like whether it's an addition or a subtraction problem.

But the flashcards are now another thing to add to my list of things to talk to the school about. And the question at the store reminded me that I needed to write up something for the school so that we can have that meeting we've been planning with us, the gifted teacher, the new classroom teacher, and maybe his fabulous last year's teacher and possibly the principal.

Last week, I heard from the mother of one of AJ's friends and my partner in gifted advocacy, that the class lists had been drawn up. She's a former teacher so she has some inside contacts. She only knew where her son had ended up and that, since they've decided to loop his class, AJ probably won't be in the same class, although that is not definite. The school won't announce the lists until the week before school, a policy I'm pretty sure has arisen because of parents badgering the school for classroom changes. But if they know the class lists, I may be able to arrange an earlier meeting than we'd thought. It's at least worth an email to the principal to see.

I didn't really have a plan when I sat down to write, but I ended up with a five-page draft of a document that summarized AJ's interests and abilities and his participation in extra-curricular gifted programs this summer. I included a summary of test scores and will attach copies of documentation, and I outlined the curriculum modifications that were used last year. The second half of the document I laid out as the opening to a discussion on establishing concrete educational goals for him this year, along with some of the things I've been thinking about. I was careful to say that while these were things that were on my mind, that any actual plan would need to be a collaboration between us, the teacher and the gifted teacher. Although I was extremely diplomatic, I'm not sure that everyone would receive it well. My intention is to help bring the new classroom teacher up to speed, not to take over, and also to begin the conversation that needs to happen in order to establish individual educational goals for AJ this year. But the fact is, that some people might be threatened by my proposal of involvement. I don't want to come across as if I'm telling the teacher what to do, but as a concerned parent who wants to help. I'm going to sit on this for a few days and see what will happen. In the mean time, I will draft an email to the school's principal to start the ball rolling. Wish us luck.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


Please pardon our appearance. We are in the process of trying to improve the appearance of this site and adding some links to the sidebar. If have any opinions of what we're doing or if there's anything you'd like to see us add here, please let us know.

Thank you,

The Management

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

There should have been coffee

Yesterday, it was my turn to take AJ to camp. After I walked him to his class, I stopped by the information desk to look at some of the literature they had displayed. One of the people behind the table said, "Oh, the parent meeting is in 216." I hadn't heard about the parent meeting. I'd been planning on asking if there was some place I could hole up with my laptop for a couple of hours. But since it sounded like I was supposed to go to a parent meeting, I found my way to room 216.

It was not what I was expecting. I had assumed they were going to talk to us about some of the other programs that the place that runs the camp has to offer. Instead, it turned out to be a sort of airing of issues of gifted education. And I was really surprised by some of the things I heard.

All of us had come to the camp because we were looking for some additional challenges for our children. All of us were very active in our schools (some public, some religious or private; none for gifted kids only. I was the only person dealing with no gifted program at all). There were cub scout leaders and school board members and PTO presidents. The thing that surprised me was that with all that experience in the schools, no one seemed to have done much to advocate for their kids in their schools, to try to get different programs, to questions policies in place. They mentioned being afraid they would look like one of those parents just trying to push their kid too far (been there. done that. got over it.). Or they didn't want to bother the teachers. Some, like the woman who said her school didn't want her son working ahead in the math curriculum because they didn't know what they'd do with him when they finished it, were frustrated, but they didn't know what to do about it. In talking with them and telling them about my experiences this year with AJ, I realized just how much I have learned. The reason it was so shocking to hear some of these things was that it was exactly where I was about a year ago.

In the end, I came home feeling like I'd taken over the meeting. I was asked a lot of questions and I talked a lot. I felt like a bit of a blowhard. But I do feel that working with your school is something every parent needs to learn how to do. Every kid deserves it. And we all need to get past what other people may think of us. Because if we're embarrassed and hold back, the only people who suffer are our kids.

Beyond the discussion of school advocacy, there were some other things I found interesting. We talked for a while about the way our kids tend to obsess on different subjects, drag you into it, and then often give up on it when they've gotten all they needed and decide to move on to something else. This is challenging for parents. Adults are more interested in achievement and commitment. But we need to get over that too. There's a time to push, and there's a time to let your kid explore. AJ was almost afraid to tell us when he'd decided that space was no longer his most favorite thing. He's still interested. He still likes it, but it's not the same as it was for a couple of years when he could hardly be induced to talk about anything else. Now it's Pokemon. In a few months, it will probably be something else.

We also talked about how we're collectively on the fence about grade skipping. I stand my my previous statement that it may be a good option for some kids, but not for every kid. And I still think it can cause nearly as many problems as it can solve. But it depends very much on the student and on the school and teachers involved.

We also all have trouble getting our kids to eat breakfast. I found this a funny coincidence, but it also made sense. These kids wake up in the morning with their brains running in overdrive. Although getting AJ to sit still for any meal is hard -- he's always begging for a book or a game or to watch TV because the boredom of mealtime is too much for him and apparently talking to his parents is not good enough -- breakfast is definitely the worst. This may seem like an unimportant detail, but it drove home a point, which is that gifted children don't just learn more quickly, they learn differently. I think this is a point I did not drive home enough in my post responding to Miss Self-Important's post on gifted children as victims a few days ago. It's not just about finding advanced work: It's about finding appropriate work and methods. This includes identifying gifted children not only by their test scores, but also by observation in the classroom. Plenty of gifted kids do poorly on tests or in their grades because they are bored and therefore inattentive or because they think it's stupid and don't bother. Giftedness often manifests itself as a behavior problem in the classroom. Appropriate work can make for a better learning environment for everyone.

Although the meeting was not particularly productive, it was interesting and it gave me a lot to think about.I

Monday, July 14, 2008

Mad Hot Science

Today was AJ's first day of Gifted Camp, a camp founded and directed by a well-known educator and advocate of gifted children and operating under the aegis of a university. [I'm bypassing links and using altered names in my discussions of the camp and classes for security reasons] This is our first experience with classes designed specifically for gifted children and we weren't exactly sure what to expect.

Our interactions prior to the first day gave me the impression of a lack of organization, probably due to not enough staff people. There were many glitches, including unreturned phone calls, a mailing with no mention of the address of the school where the camp is taking place, and promises of paperwork that did not arrive. However, none of it was particularly major -- the address was easy enough to find, the paperwork was not important. And this has not had much effect on our impression of the place.

When my husband Mr. Spy dropped AJ off at camp this morning, the school was full of lost and confused parents wandering around the school trying to figure out where they were supposed to go. AJ barely made it to his first class on time.

But after that, it's been all good. AJ loved his classes and his teachers and his fellow students. He is taking three 50 minute classes and gets to change rooms in between them, just like a big kid. They are doing exciting, hands on things. In his first class, devoted to mechanical physics, they experimented with pulleys and ropes to try to pick up a heavy cement block. In his second class, they experimented with common kitchen items to see which would dissolve most quickly in water and which would not dissolve at all. His third class, he said, was his favorite. They are working in teams to solve a math mystery, working with number patterns and codes and math problems over the next two weeks to earn jigsaw puzzle pieces that will fit together and tell them the solution. When he got home, he was totally switched on, excited about all of it.

But I'm still struggling with a couple of issues, which are, in a way, related.

Issue 1:

Afterwards, AJ and I went up to the pool to rest our brains in the sun. AJ was talking excitedly about going to camp in the morning. Of course, the other parents asked me which camp he was attending, and I hestitated. Do I tell them he's going to Gifted Camp? It sounds like bragging. But if I don't, what do I say? I'm a lousy liar, so I just told them the truth, but in such a small town, I wonder about the wisdom of it.

Issue 2:

Yes, AJ needs more academic challenges in his life. He gets grouchy when he's bored, even if he's the one who's not taking the initiative. He doesn't always know what to ask for. And I'm happy to be able to offer him more challenges. But really, what they're doing, at least on the science side of things, is something that could be happening in school. Why don't we start scientific experimentation in preschool? Maybe they do in some places, but not in the ones I can afford. Rising second graders don't need to be gifted to have fun with pulleys or to understand some of the physics behind it. Maybe they won't all get it the first time around, but why not let them try?

These both get back to my difficulty with the label "gifted." I don't doubt that there's genetics behind it. But really, how much of giftedness has to do with opportunity? With parental involvement? With good teachers well paid? And if we're helping out our gifted kids, is there something we can do to help everyone else as well? I'm still not sure I know the answer to this.

Later at the pool, I was sitting next to the mother of a girl in AJ's grade. She and I have had many discussions about the wisdom of our school's decision to isolate the ESL kids in their own classes, rather than figure out how to integrate Spanish and English speakers in one classroom. We both feel that this segregation is egregious and will have far-reaching consequences for those kids in the future. Today, she announced she was running for the school board. She has had it and she wants to do something about it. I told her I'd vote for her. I considered whether I would run and decided I wasn't really interested in being involved in that way, at least not at the moment. Because advocating AJ's needs takes up too much of my time already. Am I being selfish? Most definitely. But is there more I can do from my own angle? Perhaps. I'll have to give it some thought.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Gifted Child as Victim

Miss Self-Important has an interesting post up today about the tendency to cast gifted students as victims. She writes about this in the context of a couple of other posts on public education in which (and please correct me if I'm mischaracterizing you, Miss S-I), she asserts that the point of public education has more to do with societal normalization than with learning per se. Those of you who've been reading me here and at spynotes will know that these are points on which I generally concur.

The casting of gifted students as victims is one of the reasons I started this blog in the first place, although I realize that by blogging about this topic at all, I've already probably played into the system that causes it. But in looking for information about ways to get my kid working in school at his own level, I got frustrated at the forcing of gifted students (and sometimes their parents and teachers) into the role of the victim. What I was looking for is a more practical approach.

I agree with what Miss Self-Important says about public schools. They are mostly about communicating social order and expectations and that is not necessarily a bad thing. But that doesn't mean that my kid should have to sit through curriculum that is several grade levels below what he should be working on. Just because the system seems geared towards accomplishing some specific goals doesn't mean other goals can't be accomplished as well.

When we were making decisions about AJ's schooling, we looked at public vs. private vs. private gifted only vs. homeschooling. The decision of where to send him turned out to be a lot more about socialization than about education. I am well qualified to educate him at home, at least for a while and the resources for homeschoolers in our area are abundant. But it turned out that it's important to me for AJ to not only be with other kids, but to be with other kids from a variety of backgrounds and experiences (or as much variety as our suburban district allows, which is significantly less than an urban district is likely to offer). And I had a very strong gut reaction against schools for the gifted that was only partially based on their exorbitant tuition prices. It took me a while to sort through that one, but it's similarly based: I want AJ to meet a variety of people, to not be in a hothouse environment. Of lesser importance was the fact that it's likely we won't be here terribly long and I want his school experience to be transferable to other areas.

So public school was the clear winner for us. As we got involved, I realized that there were other reasons we landed there. It is important to me to be part of our community and getting into the schools is one important way to do that. After more than four years living here, I didn't know most of my neighbors until AJ left his preschool and joined the public school for kindergarten. Also, the school is not too big and not too small and has teachers and administrators who want to make it the best it can be. They are not necessarily the best and brightest teachers and administrators (although I'd put AJ's teacher this past year in that category), but they are motivated and they listen. There are plenty of opportunities to help make a difference and plenty of opportunities to enact change as needed, as long as you're willing to put yourself on the front lines.

I have struggled with the gifted label for AJ which is, like any label, confining. AJ demonstrates the kind of skills that make him easy to identify as an advanced learner, namely they are the kind of skills that are easily measurable on standard tests. He read very early and was tested in his school this year as reading six grade levels above the norm. This measure was obtained on a test that everyone took, not on a special test for gifted students. (On those tests, he turns up about 3 grades ahead. This itself is interesting and suspicious, but the testing topic is one to leave for another day. ) His school doesn't take math standardized tests until the end of third grade, so they have not measured those skills, but the results are likely to be similar there too for different reasons. The tests do not measure lots of other things about AJ. They don't measure his ability to comprehend complicated strategies that I see when he trounces me in chess and Stratego and when he makes play decisions on the football field. They don't measure his artistic skills which are, at best, totally average. They don't measure his aural abilities, which would probably show he has a well-developed musical ear. This in turn would fail to show how he has not taken well to instrument lessons. He's certainly no musical prodigy. School testing doesn't measure his freakish ability to identify style, whether visual or musical, which enables him to identify musical and artistic works he's never seen before with astounding (at least to me) accuracy. It's harder for me to come up with things he does not do well, because I am his mother and I'm hopelessly biased. But basically, my point is that by gifted we mean "academically gifted." And I think we should call it such, because it is those kids who are caught in the No Child Left Behind bind that casts them as victims of their higher levels of skill. I am not a fan of the movement to identify multiple planes of giftedness in schools, not because I don't agree with it, but because I think it's beside the point when you're dealing with most schools, which are all about academic skills. In an academic setting, it comes across as one more "everybody is special" maneuver. If you want to include the multiple planes, then they need to be included across the board in the curriculum, and I don't see public schools interested in doing that. Whether or not they should is also a topic best left for another day. But public schools run on test scores and the kids that are gifted in a way that makes them get higher test scores are the only ones we're talking about here.

I totally agree that if a public school's job is to prepare students for good citizenship, then the public schools should be teaching to the basics and trying to bring those falling behind up to speed. There is no obligation in such a system to deal with those performing above and beyond. But as a parent, I know that is just plain wrong. As a parent, it is my job to question the system when it isn't working for my child. After all, I help pay for the system. It is my obligation to help make it do what I think it needs to be doing. My reasons for lobbying hard for resources at my school are entirely selfish. I want my kid to do well and to get what I think he needs. I don't think my kid should have to spend 7 hours a day sitting in a classroom "learning" something he's known how to do for years. If I didn't have a kid in this position, I probably wouldn't be involved in our school in this particular way.

But just because my motivation is primarily selfish doesn't mean my actions don't have a broader reach (much as the school's primary function as a citizenizer doesn't mean the school isn't having other functions as well). And as an educator, my motives are more altruistic. As an educator, I am more interested in helping the school figure out how to better address individual needs in general, not just for gifted kids or kids with learning disabilities. It's something I think about a lot in my own teaching, although by the time I get them, in classrooms at an elite university, they've largely been sorted out into groups of similar skills. Any necessary individuation usually revolves around whether or not the student's first language is English and whether he or she has a learning disability of some sort. And in the music classroom, I also run into students who are so visually oriented that they struggle with learning something aurally. I try to adapt materials and methods for them too. But compared to the spectrum of skills and abilities in a public school classroom, I've got it easy.

So back to the gifted child as victim. This is a rhetorical ploy. In the current system, the kids who get help are victims. Therefore, to get help, we think we have to be victims. This is the logic behind the victimization, flawed as it may be. But before you decry the flaws, let me point out that it is the public school system that is aligning gifted students with disabled students, not just the parents. This happens because in many if not most public school systems, the only way to get individualized curriculum is to be disabled. Disabled is defined loosely as being outside the norm. It was recommended to us to get an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), which is required for LD students. And really, in terms of the way the classroom works, gifted students ARE disabled -- they don't fit the plan. But not, of course, in terms of test scores or achievement.

Also, as any teacher who has dealt with gifted kids in a mainstream classroom (at least at the elementary level) will probably tell you, it's not just about speed of learning but about the way they learn. There are a whole other host of tendencies that gifted kids have that make it harder for them to function in a traditional classroom setting and some of them are disruptive. This comes into play with the giftedness-as-pathology stance as well, but it also suggests that different methodologies are required for these kids in much the same way that kids who are more visually oriented need different techniques than those who are more aurally oriented.

And here's the other reason it happens: if there is no intervention for gifted students, a lot of the time their test scores end up suffering too. They shut down or refuse to perform. It's in a school's best interest -- and certainly in a student's best interest -- to prevent this from happening rather than to try to clean it up after it has happened.

My problem with the victim stance is that it defines the student by his or her lack of agency. In some cases, I'm sure, it is harder to act than others. But being gifted doesn't mean there are no options. Gifted students need advocates and action. If they are victims, it is because someone is allowing it to happen. And, in fact, ANY kid would benefit from this. The more someone's paying attention, the less they get lost in the shuffle.

Miss Self-Important, though, questions whether it's really that bad for gifted students to be bored. In the general scheme of things, it's probably not that bad and I definitely think kids need a certain amount of boredom to figure out how to make things interesting for themselves. But when your kid is forced to read "Hop on Pop" in school when he's reading The Lightning Thief or Harry Potter at home, that just doesn't make any sense. It's not mere boredom. Memorizing times tables is boring. Reading multiple grade levels below your ability is excruciating. And yes, I do think that gifted students need to be held to a different standard, especially in the early grades, because it's in the early grades that they are most learning how to act in school. Here's an example. For the first several grading periods this year, AJ was getting low scores in something called "reading fluidity," which has to do with the way they read out loud. At home, AJ is reading incredibly fluidly and with great expression and has been since he was 3 or 4. He loves to read out loud. But it turned out that in school, he was reading very slowly and with a lot of breaks between words. This is because he was trying to sound like the way the other kids in his class read. He didn't get that they read that way because they didn't know the words. He processed it as "the way you read in school." No, it's not the worst thing in the world to try to fit in, but what he got out of this was that he needed to regress. I don't think this is the message anyone wanted him to get. Another example: in the beginning of the year, he was given the option of alternative math work at his level and he usually chose not to take it because he wanted to do what everyone else was doing and because he felt like he was being punished with extra work. By giving him an out, by not holding him to his own standards, he felt embarrassed about what he could do and he pretended not to know the things he knows. At home, however, he would complain bitterly about how boring the math was and how much he hated it. Again, there is a social adaptation skill that is learned here, but from an educational standpoint, letting it go at that doesn't make any sense. At our request, an alternate program was instituted without asking for his choice and AJ was happier and more relaxed and his attitude towards school and particularly towards math was much improved.

And here's another reason I think such individuation is necessary (and I reiterate, although I don't argue it much here, that I think individuation is beneficial for ALL students, not just for the gifted or learning disabled. The practicality of such widespread individuation, however, is questionable.) I may be a Yuppie parent, at least by origin, I do not think a child needs to be intellectually stimulated at all times. Quite the opposite -- I think a kid needs free time to figure out what to do with him/herself. But this belief does not extend to school. In school, I think he should expect to be intellectually stimulated, at least some of the time (he should also expect some things will not interest him and some rote learning will be required) because purportedly (if not in practice), that is what school is for. You may disagree with me, but that is what schools say they are for (even if they may be operating on other principles, even if it's impractical) and if AJ is to learn to be a good citizen, he needs to get through the educational system. While elementary school may not be intellectually stimulating, it is likely that somewhere down the educational line, something will be. And it shouldn't come as a total shock.

Miss Self-Important also brings up the touchy issue of grade skipping. I'm on the fence about this one and I don't think it's a decision that can be made globally. AJ could probably do just fine in 5th grade intellectually in the fall. But he would be the only seven-year-old in a school of fifth and sixth graders. He's not ready for that socially -- he's too much of a joiner and I'm pretty sure he'd be unhappy. He's still seven and I don't think hanging out with tweens is going to do him any favors at this point. If I thought a single grade jump would help him significantly, I'd lobby for it. But one grade isn't going to help him much and it would likely be social suicide. I know plenty of people who feel otherwise. I have no real objection to grade skipping in principal, but more people would need to be doing it for AJ to feel comfortable. I do, however, think it's a little odd that many schools have a hard and fast policy against grade skipping. Just because it's not right for my kid doesn't mean it's not right for somebody.

And finally, Miss Self-Important questions the value of gifted programs. I think there's too much variability to have an opinion on this. Some work, some don't. I was involved in gifted programs from kindergarten through eighth grade in multiple school districts, all of which were what they call "pull-out" programs, where I was pulled out of my classroom once or twice a week for a special class. Some of them were good, some not so much. I always loved getting out of my class -- change is good. And the activities were more creative and fun. But I didn't really understand why they were for gifted kids only -- most of the activities seemed to me suitable for anyone. Why couldn't we just do this kind of thing in our regular classes? I'm still not sure I know the answer. We haven't hit the gifted program with AJ yet, but our school district does things a little differently. In 3rd and 4th grade, they cluster kids in their classrooms as well as offer them pull-out programs, some individual, some as a group. In 5th and 6th grade, at which point the kids of that age in the district are consolidated at a single school, they have their own class. In 7th and 8th grade, when they start changing classes, they are tracked within their classes (this sounds like a logistical nightmare and I can't believe they actually do it this way, but this is what I've been told). And in high school, as in most places, they are on their own.

To sum up this long ramble, I guess I basically agree with Miss Self-Important that victimhood is not a position I recommend and that boredom is not necessarily so bad. But I temper these opinions with their practical implications. There is a limit to how much boredom a student should have to take. In the working world, I may be plenty bored with the job I accept, but I have choices about what jobs to take. Kids don't have any choice -- they have to go to school somewhere and they have to spend a lot of time doing it. I see no reason why gifted kids should have to suffer a system that does not acknowledge their existence when they don't have any alternatives.