Thursday, May 22, 2008

Take a memo

This morning I went to meet with the district gifted teacher. I was much better prepared than I was last year and consequently, the meeting was much more productive than last year's. I've learned a lot this year.

I went in with a list of things I wanted to talk about: AJ's testing, creating an IEP or something like it but perhaps less detailed (more on that in a minute), and getting info about summer programs I might not know about and help in finding math materials to work with over the summer.

First of all, it turns out that the decision to test was an excellent idea. She said several times how that will help a lot in terms of getting AJ what he needs from the school. I'll be passing the scores on to her as soon as we get them in written form.

Second, I requested some kind of formal and written goals for AJ. I mentioned the idea of an IEP, but it seems that a formal IEP will not fly this year for several reasons, although having IEPs for each gifted kid is a goal she's working towards eventually. At the moment there some "major roadblocks," she said, mostly financial and mostly stemming from the state of Illinois' decision to more or less eliminate funding to gifted programs a few years ago. Before the cuts, there was a gifted teacher for each school in the district (in which there are six schools, two of which have close to 900 students apiece). Now there are two for the district altogether, each spending about a day and a half a week at each of three schools. Before the cuts they had begun to establish a county-wide group for gifted students and their parents so they could pool their resources and network. That project was scrapped when the money pulled out. Less money and fewer people means there's not an effective way to oversee a formal IEP. Moreover, since there technically is no gifted program until third grade, IEPs aren't considered yet. It's sad seeing what could have been, but it's also hopeful to see the energy and creativity going into the program. It's too bad the teachers and money are stretched so thin.

However, there was some good news too. Because the gifted teacher feels that IEPs are fundamentally useful as both a way of holding gifted kids accountable for their individualized work and also as a tool to help parents, the classroom teacher and the gifted teacher work together, she's interested in trying to come up with something. We just can't call it an IEP. The challenge will be that we won't know who AJ's classroom teacher is until a week or at most two before school starts. This doesn't give us much time for collective planning.

I underscored some of my reasons for wanting a plan like this. I want continuity and direction in assignments. The breakout challenge assignments that are more puzzle-like are great, but when they're substituting for classroom work, I fear he's losing a sense of moving from point a to b, which is important both in terms of his establishing good work habits and understanding what is expected of him at school and also to give him a sense of accomplishment. AJ enjoys achieving mastery. He likes having a task and being able to work on his own to achieve it. I don't think he's always had a clear sense of his goals this year. I think if he did, some things would have been easier. For instance, he has balked at writing assignments. When he's in class, his classroom teacher will tell the class to write "at least 3 sentences" about a particular subject in their journals. AJ will write exactly 3 sentences. If the teacher pushes him to do more (which she does), he feels like he's being punished and tries to get out of it. I think if he knew ahead of time that his expectations would be different, if he knew what they were and why they were different, I think we wouldn't be having the attitude problem. Like most gifted kids, he has a love-hate relationship with his talents. He likes feeling special, but he hates feeling different. Clarifying that there are expectations for him just as there are for the other students in the class but that the goals will be different because he is at a different level is extremely important.

We decided to do several things. First, I'm going to try to write up a more anecdotal description of the work I've been doing with AJ (this will include both the work I've done with his classroom teacher on independent reading and spelling as well as other stuff) and create a list of things we'd like him to accomplish this year. I will take care to make this look like more of an idea list than a hard and fast plan, because I don't want to come across as someone who's going to be bullying the classroom teacher. But I want to have some information for her and speed up a conversation that will take place much later than is ideal. I will also get the test scores to the gifted teacher as soon as I can, hopefully before the end of the school year. She will get AJ's scores where they need to go and she will use them to help lobby for pretesting in math for him next year as a way to identify areas where he'll need supporting curricular materials. It will then be possible to assign extra math materials that coordinate with the curriculum the classroom is doing by topic. She is hopeful that we'll be able to do this because a) AJ's school has already been trying hard to help us out b) we have test scores to back up the need and c) she was able to put this through at a different school this year, so a precedent has been established.

As soon as the teacher assignments are posted (which I'll probably know before the gifted teacher will), I will contact both the gifted teacher and classroom teacher to arrange a meeting all together, hopefully before school starts, but possibly not until shortly thereafter.

I also found out several interesting things about what lies ahead. At the end of second grade, the kids will be tested for both aptitude and achievement. The aptitude tests are limited in terms of how high they go. The achievement test in reading makes up for it on the reading end. If students test high enough in math, they will be tested further. The tests include the Otis-Lehman and the Gates-McGintie. She didn't specify what they used for the additional math testing.

Also, I learned that starting in 5th grade, which is when students move to the middle school (our district has a strange arrangement where they go to elementary school PreK-4, middle school for 5th and 6th and a junior high for 7th and 8th) there will be a class of gifted kids. They'll be at various levels in various subjects, but they will all be together. Once they move to the junior high, they will be clustered within a given subject area as they move from class to class. This sounds like a logistical nightmare for the school, but it sounds great for us.

All in all, I felt much better after this meeting. Last year I didn't have enough of a plan. The gifted teacher is a talker, so I kind of got derailed. This year I was in charge of the agenda and I felt like by the time I left we were all on the same page, that I had learned some things about her and about the way things work in the schools and she had learned more about AJ and what we want and need. It sometimes feels awkward to take a professional approach to these meetings. I want to come across as friendly and helpful, not as some crazy parent dictator. AJ's teacher assures me that I don't come across that way and promises she will tell me if I do. But I still want to respect the expertise of the people I'm working with (unless they give me a good reason not to). I feel like we've got a collegial situation at the moment, one where we're all engaged in the same project and I don't want to mess it up. And even though it may be odd in this setting, I plan to write up what I took away from our meeting and email it to the gifted teacher to confirm that we're thinking about the same things. I really hope I don't come across as a slave-driving nut.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Good news on the school front: There will definitely be four, not three, second grade classes next year. I ran into AJ's teacher on the playground after school and she filled me in. She also said that right after she'd sent her reply to my email, the principal walked into her room to ask her about AJ. So it sounds like a principal meeting really won't be necessary. I am going ahead with the meeting with the gifted teacher and hope that it can at least partly about planning, no doubt at a preliminary level, since we still don't know his teacher and won't until August, at a curricular level for next year.

Time marches onward

So I've had a few days to think about the testing. I'm still not sure how we're going to use it. And I'm holding off on decision-making until we get the written report, which I hope will be more comprehensive than the minute and a half verbal review we got in the office. Here is what we know for sure: AJ is working at least three grade levels ahead of the norm. AJ's school only goes to up to the 4th grade, therefore there may be limitations on appropriate curriculum available from within the school next year.

Here are some variables: The gifted teacher at AJ's school also works with the middle and junior high schools, so while the basic school curriculum may not be advanced enough, she should be able to provide materials. Also, the math curriculum, Everyday Mathematics, seems tailor-made for a kid like AJ. It keeps cycling through concepts big and small, so it looks to me like it's relatively easy to adapt what's going on in the classroom by asking more complex questions about the same material. This year, AJ's been going back and forth between the regular curriculum and what they've been calling the "challenge" materials. The challenge materials are terrific and interesting and definitely challenging (even for me sometimes, not that math is my strong suit). But the drawback with them is that they are not tied into any kind of classroom goals. Challenging work is great, but next year, I'd like to see if there can be more of a focus so that AJ can feel like he's mastering some skills and not just like he's playing games. If this stuff is replacing curriculum material for him, I want to make sure someone's still holding him accountable for the skills he needs to know. I'm mostly concerned about this with math, where I feel I'm not as competent at overseeing the process. I've also been able to see that with math, he's been jumping around a lot. He needs more accountability, particularly with rote exercises, where he doesn't always pay enough attention. I see him doing a lot of things I did -- boredom makes him slack off on the easy stuff. It's understandable, but someone still needs to be letting him know that it's important to be paying attention to the easy stuff too, because if you don't do it right, then the hard stuff doesn't work either.

I emailed AJ's teacher about the test results and to ask her advice. My plan, as I posted here a few entries back, was to make appointments with the school principal and the gifted teacher. I still may, but AJ's teacher is thinking that the principal meeting may not be necessary, as we've filed the paperwork and he has seen it and AJ's teacher has already spoken to him. I may go ahead and do it anyway, though, because my reason for meeting with him has more to do with the issue of classroom size than the other stuff. But I may defer to AJ's teacher's judgment, because I'm not really sure how involved the principal is in this stuff anyway. The School Board will ultimately make the decision about the number of second grade classes and the principal is the one who has to deal with the fallout (i.e., angry parents). I'm going to think about that one for a day or two.

AJ's teacher also suggested that I think about what we might want to ask the gifted teacher for. Are there any particular things we want AJ to do next year? I think I'm going to have a talk with Mr. Spy and AJ about this. What do we want him to accomplish next year? Should we create a math contract the way his teacher wrote up reading contracts this year? A document that explained the goals to AJ and laid them out for his teacher as well? This would be so much easier if we knew who AJ's teacher was going to be. I would love to sit down with the classroom teacher and the gifted teacher and hammer this out in person. But by the time the classrooms are assigned, it is too late.

Still, things are happening. I'll be interested to see where this ends up.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

News bulletin

The testing went well. Very well. Thanks so much to all who gave us advice and support. AJ was pleased with himself and we definitely have more ammunition for our quest in getting more services for AJ at school. And he's now eligible for a whole slew of classes that should be fun and exciting for him, if we can figure out how to get him there -- the commute, especially during the current construction season, is dreadful. But I'm glad we did it. AJ had fun and we're looking forward to seeing the full write-up when we get it in a couple of weeks. I'll write more in a day or two when I have time to both digest and write. Happy Saturday, all!

[cross posted at

Testing Day

Today's the day. I've tried to prepare AJ for the testing situation, but not for the actual tests --we don't really know exactly how those will work anyhow. But AJ hasn't ever been evaluated individually before and has never been alone with a strange adult without a parent or teacher he knows well in the room. We wanted to do what we can to make sure he feels comfortable with the situation and, hopefully, to make sure he has fun.

We told him that we didn't know exactly what the test was going to be like. I told him that he'd be in a room with a doctor that we didn't know, but that he or she was someone he should trust and talk to and that we'd be right outside and he should answer all his/her questions as best he can. We talked through the types of things he might be asked to do -- draw a picture of a person with all the details he thinks of, look at patterns and figure out what comes next, etc. These are all things he likes to do and he's excited to try some new ones. I also told him that there may be some questions that are really easy and some that are really hard and that they may keep trying to ask him questions until he can't answer them. I wanted to make sure that he didn't feel bad when he didn't know the answers. Sometimes he shuts down in frustration and embarrassment when he can't do things, particularly in front of people. I'm hoping being aware that they're expecting him to not know everything will help. We also let him know that if he doesn't understand anything, he should ask questions, and that they are also likely to just want to talk to him and find out more about him.

He's in a great mood this morning, excited about his adventure. It's a beautiful sunny day for a drive to the lake. I'll post later/tomorrow with our experiences.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Testing, testing

While researching how IQ tests are given to children, I've learned that one of the tests used is called the W00dc0ck-J0hns0n Battery. I don't think any further comment is necessary, except to say that I'm very glad that it's not called the W00dc0ck-J0hns0n Tool.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Just about to leap

I spent a long time on the phone with my friend J (sometimes known as Mrs. Unfocused. Eventually she will pick her own pseudonym and join us here) talking about our gifted kids and schools and a few other things. It helped a lot to talk to someone else who both knows AJ and understands the situation from her own personal experience. I'll let her tell you about her challenges with finding the right classroom for her daughter, because I know she wants to. But thanks for letting me bend your ear, J!

After reading all of your thoughtful comments and talking to J, I was feeling a little more clearheaded about what I need to do and the order in which I need to do it.

1. Email AJ's teacher to ask for her thoughts on approaching the school. I hope to do this this afternoon, or possibly tomorrow. But I was volunteering in the classroom today, so today would be a good day.

2. Have AJ tested. This is taking place a week from Saturday. We will receive a verbal assessment immediately following AJ's evaluation. This is not a full IQ test, but the results should still be something that can support our case. AJ's kind of excited about this, which is great.

3. Meet with the school principal. I plan to approach this as an informational/brainstorming meeting about AJ's Specific Needs request for next year and how it will be implemented and what I can do to help. I will also ask about class size and the teacher search. I would be interested in having the gifted teacher in on this meeting as well, but I think the principal is the one who needs to make that suggestion. If he doesn't, I'll meet with her separately. But one of the things I will ask for in the case of giant classrooms is one-on-one meetings with the gifted teacher. This is something that school policy currently doesn't permit for second graders, but it should be a low-cost way to help us in the event that the district doesn't come through with the extra teacher, which currently seems likely.

4. Meet with the gifted teacher to talk about continuity in AJ's curriculum. I think she's been providing great materials for AJ this year, but the things he does don't really constitute a curriculum -- they're not organized toward overall learning goals. But for AJ, they are largely standing in for a curriculum that is completely unsuitable for him. So I'd like to set some goals for him to accomplish and see if the gifted teacher can help us figure out how to make them work. I'm hoping she'll be able to be an advocate for him with his teacher next year, whoever that may be.

I hope to accomplish all of these things within the next 2-3 weeks. At the same time, I will be looking into state regulations and options and district history and I'm going to try to figure out how lobbying gets done. I'm not entirely sure who is in charge of what -- how is decision-making divided between the school board, district administration, and the individual school? I know the superintendent of the school district -- he was AJ's principal last year. Should I be trying to get in touch with him? And also, I'm going to be talking to people I know who teach at other schools in the district to see if I can find out what other people in the are doing.

I feel better having some plans in place. And I feel better after talking with J about keeping AJ in his current school despite all that's going on. Because the fact is, socially he is happy there. And for many if not most gifted kids, the social aspect of school is a crucial part of the picture, even if some of the other stuff isn't going right. I've also been impressed lately at how AJ gets himself through the mundane tasks and finds way to make them more interesting. For example, earlier this week he brought home a worksheet with a partially filled grid of numbers from 100-200. He was supposed to fill them in. Rather than writing them in order (101...102...103...snore), he filled in numbers randomly, picking a box and writing the number in. After he tired of that, he asked me to time him to see how fast he could finish the worksheet. This latter idea was probably not great for his handwriting, but it kept him engaged and that's really all I can ask.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Specific Needs Request

As some backstory to the discussion underway in the previous entry, I thought I'd post our formal request to AJ's school for individual support. At the suggestion of AJ's current teacher, we filed a "Sp3cific N33ds F0rm" (SNF) with the school. This is our first official request for gifted education support. We had alerted the school to the probable need for services when we registered AJ for kindergarten. This year, we just talked to his teacher as soon as possible, giving her a brief overview of what to expect on the meet your teacher event the day before school started and setting up a one-on-one appointment for a few days later.

The SNF is a very general sort of form and asks parents to request what their child needs and not a specific teacher. This was fine with us, because the only 2nd grade teacher we know is retiring at the end of this year. The form is primarily intended for students with learning disabilities of various sorts. This can mean anything from dyslexia to Down's syndrome to severe behavioral problems. It hadn't occurred to us that we could file a form like this for AJ, so we were very glad that his teacher came up with it. Here is what we wrote, with the help of AJ's teacher, who provided us with some of the language we needed to get our point across to educators (I'm still not sure what the difference between modification and differentiation is):

AJ is a very bright and intellectually curious child, and in first grade has been working well above grade level in both reading and math. He needs a teacher who is willing to work with [the school's gifted teacher] to modify or differentiate the curriculum to keep him challenged, and to hold him accountable for doing advanced work. We’re looking for a teacher who is willing to give him assignments that will keep him challenged and motivated, but who will also include him in class activities so that he will not feel like an isolated “special case.” [AJ's 1st grade teacher] and his parents are happy to talk further about what has been done for him this year and what he might need in the future.

Part of the reason why all this stuff about class size is alarming is that we don't know any of the teachers and, in fact, only one of the second grade teachers is returning next year. This means that two (or three if we're lucky and they give us four classrooms) will be brand new to the school. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is just one more piece of uncertainty in the puzzle.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

No joy in Mudville

I have not been doing very well in the stress management department today. I was feeling better by evening, when I went to watch AJ's baseball practice. It was a beautiful evening. The sun was starting to set and the boys were running around and laughing hard. AJ hit a home run. Afterwards, we swung by Mr. Spy's softball game to give him the news of AJ's hit and I ran into a friend whose husband plays on Mr. Spy's team. Her son is in kindergarten at AJ's school and she had some terrible news about what the school board is trying to do for next year. They are laying off people right and left, including one of the two kindergarten teachers who has been there for over ten years. This doesn't mean there are fewer students. This means they are planning on increasing the already large class sizes. For AJ's class, this means they are reducing from four classes to three next year. By my calculations, this will mean there will be either 33 or 34 students in each second grade class. This is up from an average of 20.4 students per class in 2007. The state average is between 21 and 22. Parents are lobbying for smaller classes, but the board is telling them that they will not make a decision about it until August. School starts in August. If they decide to add a class, how exactly is it going to get organized in time?

At this point, we can't afford private school next year, nor, at this late date, is it going to be easy to get into one. I will be writing letters to the board and meeting with the principal. But if things don't change, I don't see how AJ can possibly get what he needs at this school. Maybe I need to be looking into homeschooling for next year. This did not help my stress level. Not at all.

I wish I'd known about all of this sooner. I've been so focused on AJ's issues that I haven't been looking at the big picture.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Summertime and the Livin' ain't easy

Well, I just bit the bullet and signed AJ up for testing at N0rthw3stern's C3nt3r for T@l3nt D3v3lopm3nt. I am very ambivalent, and I'm not sure I can exactly explain why. It's one of the top programs for gifted kids in the country. I think it's partly that I don't want to quantify AJ. As long as there are numbers, there is no reason to think that he can't do anything at all. It's not that I think that the numbers will be low or even lower than expected, although it's certainly a possibility, depending on whether AJ feels like doing the test. It's just that it seems to put a defining box around him that I'm not so anxious to do. I'm hoping that I'll feel differently when I see the testing process in action. I remember doing this kind of testing over and over again as a child, each of the many times I changed schools. My IQ is exceptionally well documented, although my mother would never tell me what it was, for, I think, the same reason I'm averse to testing in the first place.

The reason I finally caved is that the CTD has some fantastic sounding programs, particularly in math and science, and I just haven't been able to find anything else like it. And although I'm not entirely sure we can swing the programs financially or logistically (the place is more than an hour away), I feel like I owe it to AJ to try. I keep reminding myself that expensive enrichment programs are still significantly less than private school tuition. Still, I'd like to avoid cannibalizing AJ's paltry college fund.

Summer sends me into a panic every year. I feel so much pressure to give him the best I can and we are not able to do as much as we would like. It's ten weeks of poverty and nerves. Even AJ's not looking forward to it. Every morning, he mournfully asks me what day it is, because in his head he can keep a countdown to the last day of school on June 2 but he can never remember what day it is (he gets that latter part from me). To AJ, it's 10 weeks without worksheets and daily visits with all his friends.

But the battle plans are being drawn. The folders full of colorful brochures are littering the kitchen counter. The calendar I printed out is covered with pencil marks and post it notes. Hopefully we will achieve some kind of balance of necessary child care, intellectual challenge, fun and games and financial stability. But it will be an immense challenge.