Friday, February 29, 2008

Life on Venus

Scene: A snow-covered road. Harriet is walking AJ to school.

Harriet: You have a spelling test today, right?

AJ: Yeah.

Harriet: Are you ready?

AJ: I think so.

Harriet: Let’s practice. Spell “genetics.”

AJ: G-E-N-E-T-I-C-S.

Harriet: What does “genetics” mean?

AJ: Well, it’s like the study of life. And it has something to do with chromosomes. It’s like about how if you have red hair or blue eyes, one of your parents and some of your grandparents do too.

Harriet: That’s about all I know about genetics. That’s a great definition for a first grader. Spell “chromosome.”

AJ: C-H-R-O-M-O-S-O-M-E. Chromosomes tell you if a baby will be a girl or a boy. If there’s an X from the mom and an X from the dad, then it’s a girl. If there’s an X from the mom and a Y from the dad, it’s a boy.

Harriet: That’s right. [thinking: Please don’t ask me how they get together. Please. Please.] Spell “impossible.”

AJ: That’s easy. I-M-P-O-S-S-I-B-L-E.

Harriet: Okay, Mr. Smartypants. Use it in a sentence.

AJ: It is impossible for an astronaut to live on Venus for more than 20 seconds.

Harriet: Excellent. Has an astronaut even been to Venus?

AJ: I don’t know. I think so.

Harriet: I’m not sure about that. I think it might just be robots who’ve been to check it out. I’ll look it up when I get home.

* * * * *

And I did, too. And I found this site which, in addition to having some really cool pictures of the Transit of Venus, also informs us that “any astronaut who landed on Venus would be simultaneously crushed, roasted, choked and dissolved.” I’d say that’s a pretty definitive “no.” I showed AJ the website when he got home from school.

“Ouch,” he said.

“Which do you think would be the worth thing?” I asked him.

He considered it. “Probably dissolved, I think.”

I have to agree with him there.

AJ also came home from school with a completed “challenge packet” of math problems that were actually challenging, unlike the last one. There were word problems that involved multiplication. There were questions that involved the estimation of the area of shapes when the area of a smaller shape was known. There were questions about probability and graphing. In short, it was math at about the level I can handle and AJ came through it with flying colors. The one area he has trouble with is in showing his work. We’ve done so much mental math with him at home, that he doesn’t always understand how to write down the middle steps. But we’re helping him practice turning word problems into “number stories” as his math book calls equations and he’s doing better.

The interesting thing is that the more challenging work he’s been getting lately seems to have turned him on in other areas at school as well. He’s really thrown himself into the project on Viet Nam that his class is doing. I really like seeing that he’s able to take a project that everyone’s doing and find a way to get more out of it for himself just because he’s interested. He’s always been like that at home, but not with schoolwork. I think it’s finally sinking in that he can make of his time at school what he wishes (well, to some degree).

Friday, February 15, 2008

Trimester report

We had our trimesterly parent-teacher conference today with Mrs. M. This one held many fewer surprises than the last one. AJ’s been doing much better with taking on the more challenging tasks and he’s thriving with the reading partner that the teacher’s matched him up with. Mrs. M also mentioned that she’s been working with the gifted teacher to get more curriculum materials, which he’ll be starting soon. AJ is still having problems slowing down enough to pay attention to the details and having some trouble being patient with other kids when they’re not as quick as he is. And he still gets very frustrated when things don’t go the way he thinks they should (we’ve seen plenty of evidence of that at home). But some of that’s just being six, too. Most importantly, it seems like we’ve hit the right balance between more advanced but individualized curriculum and social involvement in the classroom.

Mrs. M. also had a list of steps she thought we should take to prepare for next year (I had asked her if there was anything we should be doing). Most of it is what we’re doing already – being his advocate, being involved, that kind of thing. She also told us that we should fill out a special services request form. This was news to us. It’s the same form parents fill out for children who are physically or developmentally disabled and will need extra help or equipment. We are to request curriculum modification for next year. As I understand it, the form will serve several purposes. First, it will create a paper trail on AJ, one that may give us some minimal legal protection in the event that his needs are not being met. Second, it may help the school get extra money for resources to help him. And third, it will flag AJ for special attention when he is assigned to a teacher for next year. This was exactly what I was hoping we could do, but after we were told that we couldn’t request specific teachers, I wasn’t sure we’d be able to do it.

In general, I came away with a much more positive impression of what we might be able to accomplish through the school for next year. We plan on keeping AJ there and putting some money into extracurricular programs, especially over the summer. Speaking of summer, I probably need to get on that soon. It’s hard to imagine with all this snow on the ground.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Book of Humanity

Scene: Harriet’s bedroom. Harriet is watching Gandhi.AJ has come in to tell Harriet that he is ready for bed.

AJ: What are you watching?

Harriet: Gandhi

AJ: What’s it about?

Harriet: It’s about…Gandhi.

AJ: Huh?

Harriet: Gandhi was a man who lived in India a long time ago. He believed that we could change things not by fighting but by protesting peacefully.

AJ: It’s like Martin Luther King who thought we shouldn’t fight but should make ourselves heard.

Harriet: That’s exactly right. Martin Luther King got a lot of his ideas from Gandhi.

AJ: He did? Did he talk to him?

Harriet: No, I don’t think so. But King read about Gandhi and was inspired by him.

AJ: I wish he talked to him.

Harriet: Me too, AJ. Me too.

* * * * * *

AJ has been practicing his own brand of non-cooperation these last few days. We have been at our collective wits' end trying to figure out what's going on with him. Mostly, I think it's a double whammy of insomnia (alas, poor kid, he seemed doomed to get it sooner or later, seeing as both of his parents lean in that direction) and cabin fever. But AJ is feeling a little burned out just when he's got more school work than at any other time of year -- a research project, the science fair and all his regular homework.

We find ourselves wrestling with the old problem of when to push and when to lay off. AJ is dragging his feet about anything that isn't play time. On the other hand, he's six and he doesn't at the moment get much play time, so I can't say that I blame him.

Meanwhile, the school information is rolling in. I'm finding that there are really only two significant differences between the schools and AJ's current school. The biggest one is class size. Most of these schools have classes of 16 or less. AJ's class has 27. The other is foreign language -- most of these schools start Spanish in kindergarten or first grade. AJ's been taking Spanish as an extra-curricular activity at his school since last year. Class size, then is really what differentiates the private schools from the public. Class size is what allows them to individualize curriculum. Is class size alone worth spending AJ's college fund on elementary school?