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.


My Kids' Mom said...

But I'll bet that any teacher who has been in the building already knows him, and knows to expect your input. The principal has already told her/him about the meeting and s/he will hopefully be ready with classroom data to discuss it all.

Give good teacher gifts at holidays if you think you're a pain. That's my plan.

Jeanne said...

It sounds like a good document, although you might also think about putting it in outline form (it can be kind of like a resume--too much text, more than one page, and it won't get read).

I keep things like this in a folder for each kid. Easy updating that way. Also, when I've occasionally met with other parents who need something for their gifted kid from the local schools, I can just take the folder to tell them about our experiences.

harriet M. Welsch said...

Yeah, teacher gifts help, and I usually send them with notes telling them I appreciate their work. I also volunteer in the classroom as often as I can. You do what you can.

harriet M. Welsch said...

Jeanne, that's a great idea about the outline. It's sort of in outline form anyway, so it shouldn't be hard to do. I also think that might fix some of my concerns about it sounding too much like I'm trying to pick a fight.

Anonymous said...

I always say this and it's tangential, but WOW. Because I grew up in a district in which teacher gifts were STRICTLY forbidden, I can never get over that they are par for the course in most places.

Also, yes, Jeanne's idea sounds great.

harriet M. Welsch said...

Teacher gifts should probably be the subject of another post entirely. I think they should be forbidden, for several reasons, but they are not and as long as they are not, it seems best to go with the program. Usually I try to get some kind of group gift organized (if someone else doesn't do it first). I prefer this because it costs less for each individual (making it easier for those with less to spare) and because we usually give some kind of gift card, so we're not just providing the teacher with more stuff. But when you do that, there will still be individuals who will give extravagant gifts on top of that. I usually have AJ make or write some kind of thank you and I usually write a letter myself. As a teacher myself, I know I would value that kind of thing far more than any tchotchke that a student would give me and that I'd have to find a place for.

FreshHell said...

Re teacher gifts: there have been several opportunities during each of the last two school years when the "room mother" organizes gifts for the the teacher. Xmas and the end of the year. I think we also did something when she moved into a new house. Basically, it's a "contribute if you can/desire to" and gift cards are purchased. I don't really mind it since I can do a little or a lot. I thought Dusty had a great teacher who really went over the top in terms of energy and enthusiasm and I wanted her to know how much I appreciated all she did with Dusty. At the end of the first year, I sent Dusty to school with homemade brownies. Don't remember what we did this year. Since I can't spend anytime physically helping out in the classroom, I feel the least I can do is show my appreciation this way.