Thursday, January 24, 2008

Progress on School Research

In the interest of being fully informed, I have been researching alternative schools for AJ. Today I finalized my list, which includes 3 schools for the gifted and two private schools with a reputation for helping kids work at their own levels and paces. All of these are about 30-40 minutes from home. In addition, I've included two centers for the gifted affiliated with colleges, both of which offer extra-curricular programs both during the academic year and during the summer. These are the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University
and the Center for Gifted at National-Louis University. Although the former is better known, the latter looks excellent and has the added benefit of conducting some of its programs within 30-40 minutes from here. Evanston, where the CTD is based is much farther away and an often irritating drive. The distance and timing of their after school programs would rule out a lot of things for us. And their weekend programs are Saturday mornings, when AJ almost always has some sport or another. They do, however, have online classes starting in the 3rd grade. Something to keep in mind, at least. The Center for the Gifted has weekend programs on Sunday afternoons -- a much better time for us.

I'm also trying to track down some extracurricular programs. I'm looking into a chess club for AJ, and I know about a foreign language program. But I'd really like to find some math and science programs. Not quite so easy for this age level. I'll keep trying, though.

I sent out a gazillion information queries today, so hopefully I'll be rolling in information within a week or two!

Sheep from Goats

I’m back from my conference and am now jumping into issues about AJ’s school for next year. We are, for now, assuming he will stay at the public school for second grade, unless we have a concrete reason to believe that it won’t work. In the mean time, I’m researching other area schools so that I know what else is out there, to look for extra-curricular resources, and to get ideas for things we can ask the school to do. We will be having parent-teacher conferences again in mid-February and I’ve already given AJ’s teacher a heads up about the fact that I’d like to ask her for her advice in preparing both AJ and the school for the transition to second grade.

At the moment, I’m working through home school resources to get some ideas for things to do with AJ at home, outside school. I’ve also been trying to talk to other parents who homeschool, but I have yet to find a homeschooling family who isn’t doing it for religious reasons. This doesn’t necessarily mean we have nothing to learn from them, but we are so different that it is often hard to find common ground. There are so many resources for homeschooling families in our area, but we can’t find any groups that are not affiliated with evangelical Christian churches. That is totally not us. Any homeschooling Agnostic-historically-Catholic-and-Episcopalian/Presbyterian/Unitarian-but-maybe-Buddhists out there? Anyone?

But really, I'm not looking to homeschool, just for ideas for what to do and where to get necessary materials. The interesting thing about this process is that it has forced me to come to terms with some of the things I think are fundamentally important about education. Some of these have relatively little to do with curricular learning and much more to do with social learning. I’m finding that I think schools are important, even if they’re not doing a great job at defining or teaching curriculum. I think group learning, something I always abhorred when saddled with it, is pretty important. Variety of experience is key in education. Sometimes one thing works, sometimes something else does. Ideally, many methods should be available.

Also, I’m seeing more and more difficulty ahead with the notion of moving through curriculum in an orderly fashion. I’m intrigued by the idea of a topic-based curriculum that would incorporate all subject areas. Some elementary schools actually manage to do this some of the time. But what about, to use an example I mentioned a post or two ago, studying Ancient Greece and Rome. Language arts could be focused on reading myths, learning some Greek and Latin words and learning how they function as roots for English words. Learning about history and culture; In art, studying art and, I don’t know, painting vases and using the golden mean to look at proportion. Math is wide open – so many of our mathematical ideas are based in that era. Music might be tough – we don’t have much actual music that survives. But the tuning system and our concept of harmony could connect it. Etc., etc.
And then there’s the idea of spiral learning – introducing topics, moving on to new ones and spiraling back over them, adding on. I am not an educational theorist (except as it suits my own purposes) and haven’t done much research since college. But for something like math, this makes sense to me. And I can see it makes sense to AJ, who is bored if all he gets to do is think about how to add and subtract in rote logarithms. He has big ideas about math and he needs to have a chance to express them, even if he’s not quite ready for the higher levels. Why not introduce the big ideas at the same time you introduce the basics? It helps motivate you when you know where you’re headed. The more pedestrian tasks are less dull when in service of something more interesting. Of course, I’m sure that’s not for everyone. I know some who are scared off by the big picture too. But some need it desperately.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Shape of Things To Come

An amazing thing happened recently. Dusty, my first grader, read out loud. To the class. This might not seem like such a big deal to you but it is a milestone reached. A year ago, Dusty started kindergarten. We knew she was smart. She’d taught herself to read by age four. She had already begun to read chapter books to herself the summer before kindergarten and had proven herself to be quite a talented artist as well.

At the beginning of that first school year, I approached her teacher and emailed the gifted and talented teacher. I explained that Dusty was smart, that I wanted her monitored and assessed as soon as possible. I know, to them, I probably sounded like a typical parent: convinced MY child was smarter than all the others. MY child was special. Please pay close attention to her! But I am not a hoverer. I just wanted to make sure that her needs are met. I didn’t want her to get lost in the shuffle like I was.

I was told that testing for the gifted and talented program happened in January. We’d have to wait. So we did. But we kept a close eye on things. Dusty’s teacher could tell she was smart but not to what degree. Why? One of the main ways of assessing her reading level was by listening to her read. Out loud. Something Dusty would not do. Not to her teacher, not to the reading specialist, not to the principal or her parents or her classmates. Occasionally she’d read out loud to the trash can but her teacher had to be paying attention at just the right moment. Blink and you’d miss it.

We hit a wall. Dusty started to complain about all the “baby work” they were doing in class, how she was bored. The math was “too easy”, the reading….don’t even go there!

At our parent/teacher conferences, we were assured that Dusty was fine. She seemed happy (and she was and still is) and was a full participant in the classroom. But. They were having a hard time figuring out where she really stood because she wouldn’t play the game by their rules. Not that I blame her but it was frustrating all the same.

Then January rolled around. Dusty was tested. She became more comfortable in the classroom. She opened up more (though still occasionally complaining about boredom and how easy the work was) and was given more challenging work.

Dusty was accepted into the G&T program for first grade. The first assessment of the year showed her to be reading at a fifth-grade level.

When the school year began, we met the G&T teachers and I have to say I was very impressed. I’d gone to a public school that had been full of long-term, burned out teachers with too many students. And, while these women not only job-shared but school-shared, they were full of enthusiasm and great ideas. They seemed really happy. They loved what they did. That in itself goes a long way to engendering a love of learning and an enthusiasm for school in children. Their upbeat attitude is clearly infectious.

And Dusty has really blossomed this year. The G&T teachers (one’s in her classroom on Tuesdays and the other on Wednesdays) co-teach with the classroom teacher and then break the class up into groups. The regular teacher works with one group and the G&T teacher works with the other group. The group that just happens to have Dusty and her intellectual counterpart, Nathan, in it. I get weekly emails from the teachers summarizing the lessons.

They take the regular classroom lesson and go as far as they can with it. The teacher challenges them to think in different ways. Here’s a recent lesson:

Language Arts Collab: Brave Stories ~This lesson provided a literature based creative writing experience in conjunction with on on-line Internet experience. After reading the story Brave Irene, by William Steig, the students discussed how brave Irene must have been to battle the harsh wind, snow, cold and darkness to deliver a gown to the duchess. They also viewed stories on the Internet written by children about times in their own lives when they had to be brave: Students then brainstormed about times that they thought they displayed brave characteristics and what it meant to show courage. Students have started writing their own brave stories and will also be illustrating them on the computer.

Not only that, but I get periodic notices of classes in which Dusty can enroll. This past Saturday, she attended a Science with Toys class, with her dad, through the city’s Math & Science Center. Dusty came home with a battery powered motor and a bag full of cool stuff.

Last week was also the school’s Read-a-Thon. We documented everything Dusty read and everything we read to her every night on a chart. We pledged five cents per minute read (the proceeds go to pay for a mural in the school’s new library – opening in the spring). We logged 595 minutes!

The first day of the Read-a-Thon was a Read-In. Students were encouraged to bring in two books to share with their class. Dusty brought her two favorite Sock Monkey books. And it was one of those that she read to her class. Dusty! Reading out loud to her classmates! Amazing.

So, Dusty’s experience in school has been a good one. She will never have quite the disconnect that AJ does between intelligence/capability and emotional/chronological age but she will most likely always be a bit beyond her schoolmates. We do not have the dilemma that faces Harriet. She will remain where she is, in a well-funded public school with top-notch teachers (how we got so lucky, I do not know.). She’ll continue to carry the G&T label throughout her school career in the county in which we live. Whether her “gifts” will get sorted out later, I can only guess. She is strong in all subjects right now, but I have a feeling that reading, writing, and drawing will continue to be strengths, while math may get “hard” in a few years if we aren’t paying close attention to things. Not that “hard” is a bad thing. If she’s taught correctly, she may never have the issues I did with the subject.

And I haven’t heard Dusty use the word “bored” much this year. But this week the math unit will cover shapes.

To quote Dusty, “Shapes? I already know shapes.” Yes, and even though this is really shapes as pre-geometry I have to agree with Dusty. We already know this. So, no matter how great things are right now, we will have to stay ever-vigilant.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

More adventures in public schools

In November, AJ recieved his first report card of the year and there were more than a few surprises. It has taken me a while to digest it all. This will be the first of what will no doubt be a series of posts on the challenges we are facing with making sure AJ's educational needs are met in a public school.

AJ's report card, while not bad, was not at all what we would have expected. [I wrote about this in detail at spynotes if you're interested, but will recap more succinctly here]. For example, AJ had been coming home from school for weeks complaining about how boring math was. In fact, the day we got his report card was parent visitation day. The first thing AJ did when I walked into the classroom was to drag me over to his desk, open to the back of his math book and say, "Look! See how easy this is?" So I'd been assuming that his teacher (who, I must reiterate, we think is fantastic) hadn't been giving him more challenging math assignments the way she'd been doing in reading. I chalked this up to the fact that either she had too much to do (AJ is in a class of 27 children) or AJ hiding his abilities. But it turns out that his teacher had repeatedly been trying to offer him challenges and he had been turning them down.

I'm not sure AJ was entirely sure why he was engaging in these two contradictory behaviors: begging for more challenging assignments at home; turning them down at school. But later, on a walk to school where AJ and I do our best talking, he was able to articulate it.

"AJ, did you know that when I was a little girl I had to do all my assignments by myself in my class too?"


"I loved having my own work. But I sometimes wished I could be with the other kids."

AJ stopped walking and stared at me. "That's exactly how it is for me."

We talked to his teacher for an hour about AJ's dual needs for challenge and for social engagement. She's very much on the same page as we are. We asked her to stop giving AJ a choice for assignments, because, I think, it's a choice he doesn't really want to have. He's too conflicted to make the decision. We also talked to AJ about how and why he should accept the challenge assignments, and how he will still be able to have time with his peers.

Most of our meeting with AJ's teacher was strategizing for the rest of the year. That part was all good. But at the end, she gave us a word of warning. "In second grade, it's going to be harder. There's much less individualization. You're going to have to be a real advocate for him."

"I'm fully prepared to be as much of a pain in the ass as I have to be."

"Good. You'll need to be."

All of this has returned us the the dilemma that we seem to revisit every year: is this the best place for AJ?

I've begun exploring options and will be writing about it here as I get the chance. First, I've been reading a couple of books on gifted kids. The first, Carol A. Strip's Helping Gifted Children Soar examines a variety of situations and possible solutions. I like that it emphasizes educational fit and I like its tone. There is less of the gifted child/parent as victim stance that turns me off of so much literature. The other book, which I haven't really gotten into yet, is Lisa Rivero's Creative Home Schooling for Gifted Children: A Resource Guide. The one thing I'm fairly certain of at this juncture is that I'm not planning on homeschooling AJ. I don't think it's a good idea for a fundamentally social kid who is also an only child. But I wanted to gain some insight on the homeschooling perspective, to get ideas about what I can do at home, and to come up with ideas that could be implemented for an individual kid working within a standard classroom.

I've also started sketching out options for the future.

1. Stay at current school, in current grade. This is the most likely scenario. AJ's happy there, the school has shown itself willing, if not always able, to help AJ. And it's free, which allows us to enroll AJ in extracurricular activities. If this happens, though, I want to get some kind of plan in place with the school so I don't have to go through this curriculum adjustment process every single year. It takes too long to get it going. AJ wasted two months doing math problems he knew cold 3-4 years ago. It's not fair to him to do this every year. I need to figure out how to get a plan in place that will move with AJ from class to class.

2. Stay at current school, pursue acceleration. Frankly, I've pretty much rejected this option. The school doesn't want to do it. AJ is very much a six-year old in everything but intellectual capacity. And he's demonstrated that he's becoming sort of bilingual in that he'll talk one way to his classmate friends and another way to teachers and us. He seems most comfortable these days with his friend next door, who is in fifth grade. They are much more compatible intellectually and enjoy many of the same things. I'm also not sure accelerating a year would help much. AJ's reading approximately 6 grade levels ahead and doing math at least 2 grades ahead (and I think this might be higher if I were better able to meet his mathematical needs).

3. Change schools. I've made a list of area schools, none closer than 7 miles, none farther than 20, that cater to the gifted or have a reputation for working well with accelerated curricula. I hope to start school visitations in late January/early February. The cons for these are both expense (how on earth would we pay for private school?) and also social (playdates would be rare if his friends live far away). But working under the assumption that scholarships may be possible and relatives might help us out, we're going to investigate anyway.

4. Thinking outside the box. I don't know if the school would go for this at all, but one possibility I'd wondered about was whether AJ could be in the regular classroom for part of the day and homeschooling or doing extra-curricular activities at his level for part of the day. Or perhaps just add extra curricular activities outside school. Can we find a mentoring program? Is there someone at the middle school who could help us with materials? The Center for the Gifted at Northwestern offers online courses. Could he do these at school in lieu of standard curriculum?

The other question we have is about testing. I'm generally opposed to testing, especially at this age. It's less reliable when kids are younger. It's expensive. It labels the kid. I don't see the point unless it's going to get us somewhere. The school will test at the end of second grade, if we can wait that long. But some schools and extra curricular programs will require testing. We need to decide whether it's worth it to us.

That's where things stand. I plan on trying to schedule a meeting with AJ's teacher as soon as I can to follow up on some things we talked about at our conference, namely the possibility of trying to find a child in another class to read with him occasionally so he's not by himself and also to fill her in on his vacation math escapades. Wish us luck.


AJ's interest in pi has not waned. After several years of obsession with space, which he still likes reading about, he seems to be transferring his obsession to math. The remainder of this post also appears at Spynotes.

Scene: Harriet's car. AJ and Harriet are driving home from an early morning yoga class (Harriet was taking; AJ was hanging out playing video games). They are listening to Car Talk.

Radio caller: I have four kids ages 10, 9, 8 and 6.

Radio host: Four kids! Holy cow. You need Prozac!

AJ: That's funny. Four kids.

Harriet: That's a lot of kids.

AJ: It's funny because there are 4 of them and the youngest one is 6. And 6+ 4 is 10, which is the age of the oldest one.

Harriet: You're right. That is funny.

This scene is brought to you courtesy of one of AJ's Christmas presents, The Number Devil by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, which has AJ thinking about numbers day and night, backwards and forwards, right side up and upside down. He's figuring out his own number tricks and learning some of the oldest ones there are. This is one exciting book, perfectly pitched for AJ right now. The topics are explained exceptionally clearly without at all talking down to children (except, perhaps for a certain amount of sillification of terminology: for example, roots are called "rutabagas" and factorial is called "vroom" because of how fast it gets a number to grow huge; traditional terms, however, are listed in the back of the book). The novel that frames the mathematical concepts and the pictures are both engaging. AJ is on fire with excitement about math right now, so much so that I'm wondering how he can possibly go back to counting at school on Monday. I may be sending a copy of this book to his teacher.

AJ got a lot of books for Christmas: G is for Googol (which we've had out of the library approximately googol times, so I made sure he got his own copy), Stuart Little, a book about Abraham Lincoln, a book about Global Warming, and the first in the Charlie Bone series. But The Number Devil is the one we've been reading over and over again. I purchased it on a whim when I felt funny about buying him G is for Googol, because he's already read it so many times. The Number Devil came up in the "you might also like" of the order page. I took a chance and I'm glad I did.

The Number Devil has had AJ calculating square roots at bedtime, building pyramids out of breakfast cereal, creating his own magic triangles, experimenting with factorials and exponents, and drawing pictures using the Fibonacci series. This is one exciting book. It's particularly fabulous to see AJ at work with some graph paper and cereal and a calculator while wearing AJ's favorite item of clothing from his Christmas haul -- a pi baseball shirt sent to him by the lovely Lass. This shirt, which he has owned for less than two weeks, has already been washed five times and showed off to all of AJ's friends, along with the medal he won in a basketball tournament.

Apparently, this year math is the new science.

But AJ hasn't left the world of science experiments behind entirely. His school's science fair is coming up in a little over a month and he's currently pondering some kind of gravity-related project. Or maybe we'll throw hot dogs at pi to see what happens.