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.


Anonymous said...

"He likes feeling special, but he hates feeling different."

I love that sentence. It's so simple and sums up the problem so perfectly.

Anonymous said...

Oh, that is a lot of good news! What a relief it must be for you and Mr. Spy.

My Kids' Mom said...

I'm doing a lot of thought about what I *don't* do for Pook in this regard. Watch for a similar post soon. I'm wondering if I'm being too lax and trusting the system too much.

harriet said...

J, it's really hard to know how much to intervene. I worry a lot about being too much of a pain in the ass, because I go in expecting little and I always come out impressed with how hard the school tries to help. That said, I am pretty sure that much of the intervention we're getting would not be happening without my involvement and without the particular teacher he has this year, who has really helped me figure out how to be an effective advocate. I don't think advocacy can hurt unless you go about it the wrong way. If someone were riding roughshod over school hierarchies and systems, if someone were constantly questioning the classroom teacher and trying to override her, then it would be difficult. And if there were more difficult people involved, it wouldn't work so well. But I've always gone in with the attitude that I want to help: to help the teacher and school understand AJ and his needs, to offer suggestions on what works in the past (here my experience as an educator gives me a certain amount of credibility as it would for you) , to make things easier, to volunteer. I am careful to make sure the classroom teacher knows I respect her and her work. And I volunteer as much as I am able, because I know how much extra time she spends on my kid and I figure the least I can do is try to help with the workload. And as much t worried as I get about making a pain in the ass of myself, I have had nothing but positive feedback from teachers and principals (there have been two since AJ started at this school) for my level of involvement. I've found that they are truly excited to be able to work with a parent -- which gives me some idea of what usually goes on. So I guess what I'm saying is that my approach, learned on the fly, of acting early and often as if I'm expecting a fight but behaving as if I expect cooperation has served us well. If nothing else, by getting in there and making sure all parties know who you are , you are letting them know you're paying attention and they will have to deal with a person not a name on a piece of paper and I have to think this makes them feel more accountable.

diber said...

THis is very interesting. Especially since I've given myself a crash course in the IEP as we set out to write our first one this year for E. I can definitely see how having an IEP would be exceptionally helpful for your situation, and I don't think you're asking too much as a parent.

I'll be interested in reading how your experience develops.