Monday, September 29, 2008

Chess for gifted kids

I had asked about how to find some chess competition for my gifted 12-year-old over at Spynotes this summer, and got a lot of good advice. Here are some of the results, for those of you who are interested.

1. Many gifted kids crave personal contact. Because their intellectual peers are often considerably older, they're used to doing a lot of their advanced thinking online. So computer chess only goes so far in sustaining their interest in the game. They're still kids. They want to see who they're beating, or who is good enough to beat them.

2. Because they're still kids, they often have holes in their tactical thinking. There are a lot of good chess books out there. A good one to start with is Weapons of Chess, by Bruce Pandolfini. There is also a good computer game for kids who are learning chess, Majestic Chess. (Unfortunately, this seems to be only available for Windows.)

3. Asking around is the best way to find an adult who might be willing to play chess with a gifted kid. We found one at the local college. He's an assistant track coach, and tells me that he enjoys playing with Walker. So far they've played four times, and he's beaten Walker every time. (Walker is delighted by this; it's not often he finds someone better than he is at something, and he's learning a lot.) As you probably already know if you have a gifted kid who plays chess, it's usually not a success to find anyone near your kid's own age who wants to play more than a couple of games with him, because either he will always win or he will have to fake a draw just to be polite.

4. The local public library is a good place to advertise your interest in finding a partner for chess. Retired folks are sometimes available, and are often delighted to find a young person who is interested in the game.

Have any other suggestions? Want more specific benefits of my experience? Leave a comment!

Friday, September 26, 2008

It's Starting to Add Up

The other day I figured out exactly how many mpg my car gets: 31.6. Which is not bad. I'd originally estimated it at 32 based on the average miles I drove on a tank of gas and the fact that I have a 14 gallon tank. But on Wednesday, when I coasted into town on fumes, I completely filled the tank. The machine stopped at exactly 14 gallons. I looked at the odometer afterwards, before resetting it and noticed I'd gone 440 miles on one tank of gas. So, I did the math - long division, on paper, all by myself. I double-checked it on a calculator later and got 31.4 but, hey, I'm not a math whiz and there's the proof.

I've always loved numbers but because of a piss poor education, I've always done horribly in math. And its one of the reasons I want Dusty to do well in it. She doesn't have a super math whiz gene (few in our family do) but I want her set on the right track now. I don't want to her derail like I did.

Which is why I'm happy she's where she is. The school system instituted full-time gifted and talented teachers in EVERY school over the summer. We met Dusty's new G&T teacher this week and I am very pleased.

The teacher, Mrs. G, has been teaching at the school for a number of years so the environment, and many of the students, are familiar to her. She outlined how the G&T thing will work this year. Last year, Dusty worked with two part-time G&T teachers - both of them brilliant and capable but doing an impossible task. The two of them taught at four or five different schools on different days. I don't know how they pulled it off, but they did.

This year should be even better. Mrs. G explained that they have clustered the G&T students into certain classrooms. Which explains why Dusty is still with her BFF and her partner of the last two years, Nathan. All G&T kids. This cuts down on Mrs. G's workload because she doesn't have to be in every single classroom every week. But she does do that on occasion, especially when a teacher in a non-G&T cluster room discovers a possible G&T candidate.

Mrs. G and the classroom teacher co-plan their lessons and co-teach them. There are no pull-outs at this level. They co-teach and then break the classroom into groups for small group work. Mrs. G gets the G&T group, Mrs. J gets the other students.

Best of all, Mrs. G teaches an accelerated math class for 5th graders. It's a pull-out class and she's a math person so I feel really good that Dusty's in good hands. In all aspects.

Not only that, but Dusty will soon get Spanish lessons. Students at the closest high school have started a Spanish Club that will meet at Dusty's school on Monday afternoons. While the county continues to "consider" foreign language classes in the elementary schools, Dusty will get a change to learn a second language. She'll get a tiny step up.

At this point, I have zero complaints. Dusty's in very good hands.

I also learned - through Mrs. G - about the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. I'm considering signing Dusty up for the next testing date (which is in Feb or March). If she passes the test, which is given locally, she would qualify for a number of educational opportunities, classes, etc. that she wouldn't have access to otherwise. She won't run quite so far if she's not wearing the right shoes. I want to give her those shoes.

Meanwhile, I'm going to go back and check my long division work. While 31.6 is close, it's not 31.4. Maybe Dusty'll be able to point out my mistakes soon. At least, that's what I'm hoping. I only had kids so they could help me with my homework.

Walking the rail

This morning, after school drop off, an unofficial meeting of parents of gifted second graders was called to order. The mothers of two of AJ's friends, O. and N., and I stood around chatting after the lines had disappeared into the school. These are two of my favorite parents. Both are smart and have done interesting work but are taking time off to be home with their young children. O's mom is an engineer. N's mom is a former middle school science teacher. This year, as last year, O and AJ are in the same class and N is in a different class. We were talking this morning about how O and AJ have challenging spelling lists. N's class isn't getting a challenge list and N is bored. I was urging N's mom to ask for it and told her what we did with AJ last year. O's mom told her how the challenge lists work this year (any kid who gets 100% on the pretest on Monday gets the week's challenge words instead of the regular words. The first week it was just AJ. But this week, as the kids are settling in, there were 6).

We also talked about the ways classroom boredom can lead to errors or slacking off and can often give a teacher the impression that the kid is either lazy or not very bright. We talked about the way our kids have a tendency to take the easy way out if given the opportunity and how having other kids to be competitive with can either spur them on or shut them down, about how their tendencies toward perfectionism can yield them to be unbelievably hard on themselves, and about how this latter tendency is something we all live with too.

It was a nice conversation of commonalities. It's nice to feel that you're kid is not alone, that you're kid is not alone. And yet, whenever I have a talk like this, afterwards I walk away worried that I've said something I shouldn't. Do I sound like I'm bragging about my kid? I don't mean to. I want to help other people get what they need and I feel like I know a little more about working the system at this point. But do they think I'm an insufferable bore who needs her kid to be better than everybody else? Or am I actually an insufferable bore who needs her kid to be better than everybody else? I don't think so. But if I were totally innocent, I doubt I'd be so anxiety-ridden after these encounters. I wish it weren't so hard. I'd love to have a more united front. Next year, when there's a formal gifted program, it will, I think, be easier.

It should be easier for AJ too, I think, as long as the classroom teacher doesn't think that the gifted program absolves her of responsibility for giving him appropriate work. I'll be interested to see who shows up there. All the kids I know who would seem to meet the criteria are boys. This flies in the face of my own experience of gifted programs, which were heavily female, even as the high level academic awards were mostly given to boys. Interesting.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


I posted this yesterday at Spynotes, but it seemed like it belonged in this space as well. -- Harriet"Mommy," AJ said at breakfast this morning, "when can I see the atom smasher?"

AJ has taken a sudden interest in particle physics. I attribute this to the opening of the CERN large hadron collider coinciding with his spotting of a book on physics by Dan Green and Simon Basher. Last night I told him that there was a particle collider in Chicago and I thought his jaw would hit the floor. Apparently, he was thinking about it all night.

I went online this morning to see if Fermilab offers tours. The good news is that they do. The bad news is that children under 10 don't seem to be permitted and most of them are for high school age and up. There are probably good reasons for this. But still, I'm pretty sure my little science geek would get something out of it. And it's hard for me not to to feel like this is part of a larger trend of science being reserved for older children and adults.

We are very excited to have a new hands-on science curriculum at AJ's school, one with lots of experiments and projects, that begins in kindergarten. It appears to be the centerpiece of the language curriculum as well -- many of the books they are reading are about science and many of AJ's spelling words have been drawn from their science readings. But the more I talk to other parents, the more I realize that this is unusual.

I don't remember doing any significant amount of science until seventh grade, at least not in school. My mom signed me up for an experiment of the month club when I was in kindergarten, which helped my mom focus my explorations. My memory of these monthly experiment kits have in turn influenced some of the things I've done with AJ since he was in preschool. Beyond them, though, there were not a lot of resources for a kid with an interest in science. I turned to writing and let the science drop.

I feel like an unlikely advocate for the expansion of science education for children. The last science class I had was a biology class I took my freshman year in college more than twenty years ago. I never had a formal physics class, although I've done some reading on my own. The physics teacher in the high school I was in when it came time for physics was notoriously awful and I decided that I'd be better off on my own than letting an idiot kill the joy of physics for me. I had planned to take it in college, but was talked out of it by my advisor who thought someone so clearly rooted in the liberal arts would never survive. And so I have many degrees in literature and music but science is a great big hole in my own education.

But why do we think science is so much harder than literature and music? Really, I think music is about the hardest thing I've ever studied in many respects. Anything really interesting and big is going to be difficult. But somehow, we see music as something that should be accessible to everyone. But science is only for the educated, the smart, the special.

A seven-year-old certainly won't get the same thing out of a tour of a particle accelerator as a college physics major. But is that any reason to exclude him from something he wants to know about it? What if the tour inspired him to learn more so he could understand it better? What if that kid decides to major in physics down the road? What if he becomes the discoverer of the elusive Higgs Boson? Or what if he just passes on his love of learning to his own kids someday?

With AJ, I take the approach of "if he's interested, let him try." If he asks questions about how particle accelerators work or how to calculate with irrational numbers, I don't know the answer. But together we find out to the best of our ability. AJ is not afraid of big, complicated answers. He's okay with not understanding them all the way for the moment. But he likes to try. And maybe someday he'll get it all the way there. In the mean time, let him see what he wants to see.

Yesterday, I went to the bookstore to buy the other two science books in the Dan Green/Simon Basher series, one on The Periodic Table, the other on Biology. AJ sat down with them at breakfast and started to read The Periodic Table, laughing at the cartoon characters and noticing, for the first time the way the elements are grouped in the table. He spread out the poster that came in the back so he could map each one-page element profile with its position on the chart. He liked how the one row all looked like clouds. "Oh! That's because they're [the noble] gases!" He followed the numbers with his fingers, memorizing the positions. The books are the perfect mix of silly cartoons and serious science. They suit him perfectly.

I put the books on the checkout counter to buy them. The cashier, about a decade older than I, picked them up and leafed through them. "Wow. Science books for kids. These look great. I wish they'd had these when my kids were small." He turned a few more pages. "I wish they'd had them when I was small. Maybe I'd be a scientist now instead."

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Educational Television

Mrs. Permanent Qui Vive, who doesn't yet have her own account here at AJ's Clubhouse, sends us this post. Thanks, Mrs. QV!

What with ballet, soccer, the first tests of the school year and the power outage, everyone in the family pretty much collapsed after school. Television time is a struggle for me as a parent. On the one hand, I want D#1 and D#2 to watch reasonably intelligent and tasteful television and, reluctantly, I have come to lump "Little Einsteins" in that category. On the other hand, I also want them to be familiar enough with pop culture to chat with friends and peers, thus occasionally I allow them to watch the Disney pre-teen sit-coms.

Yesterday an hour of bonus television meant "Hannah Montana," which I will never like, and "Zach and Cody's The Suite Life" which, despite my attempts to be pretentious and artful, I think very funny.

What struck me, amidst being very confused about some of the outfits, is that both shows had storylines in which a lead character's poor grades and/ or lack of I.Q. points played a crucial role. Hannah Montana laughed about failing two Biology quizzes and boasted of getting a D+ on a third. The only reason she became motivated to study for the big Biology test had nothing to do with her G.P.A and everything to do with her parents insisting that she couldn't go on tour with her band unless the grade went up.

Either Zach or Cody (not sure which) had failed English and had to take summer school. Everyone in the class wanted to pass, but prided themselves upon Ds; even the teacher assumed the worst of the class. When Cody/ Zach correctly guessed the meaning of a Shakespeare quote, he promptly became the subject of ridicule, bullying, etc.

Hannah Montana ended up acing her Biology test by setting the names of all the bones in the body to music, though she could only remember them if she sang and danced the song. Even with her A, though, the jokes about her stupidity continued. Now, I know that the stupidity is part of her secret identity, but... Zach/ Cody went through an internal struggle and was eventually inspired by Robert Frost (bet you can't guess which poem) to continue doing his best, despite the bullying.

The shows were vaguely amusing - well, the Hannah thread was dull, but I laughed at the bits where her brother took care of a parrot - but I wish we could glorify brains rather than think it's more appropriate to be mediocre.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Head of the Class

Sorry for the lack of, er, postage. Things have been a little busy since last week.

The day after the class lists were posted, Mr. Spy and I met with AJ's classroom teacher, Mrs. F, and Mrs. C, the gifted teacher. The principal, who had set up the meeting for us, was unable, at the last minute to be there. But much was accomplished.

Mr. Spy and I were very impressed with the preparation Mrs. F. had already done. She had contacted AJ's teacher from last year to find out what had been done and what had worked. And she came into the meeting with a list of questions for us -- good questions. In turn, she seemed to really appreciate the information we had brought for her. I am always nervous about how such things will be received -- will a teacher see it as helpful, which is how it is intended? Or will she see it as meddling? Which, let's be honest, it is a little bit. Mrs. C. was able to talk a bit about how she'd pulled together materials for last year, and we were able to ask for her help in ordering readers for AJ which, since the school only goes up to 4th grade, it did not previously own.

One of the things we were pleased to hear is that Mrs. F. already has some systems in place for dealing with kids working above and below the average. This week homework began and we are starting to see how they work. AJ took the week's spelling pretest with the rest of the class and, as expected, aced it. This meant he got the challenge words for the week, which were drawn from their current science unit on geology (more on the new science curriculum another day -- all good). The words were more challenging than I had expected and AJ is excited about them:


In addition to learning the spelling words, he has several activities to do with them for homework. On Mondays, the new list for the week comes home and for homework he has to write five sentences using as many of the words as possible. Tuesday and Wednesday nights he has to do an activity that he chooses from a list. This week he chose to make a game (he figured out a game with flashcards for two players) and a crossword puzzle, for which he is allowed to use computer software. If anyone has any software/websites for crossword creation to recommend (Mac compatible), I'd love to hear them!

The reading program has three components with three different sets of books. There is the guided reading, which happens in school in small groups with a graded reading series (Gates-McGintie). Thanks to Mrs. F. and Mrs. C., AJ's school now has more of the series -- he had finished what they had early last school year. There is independent reading at home, for which he chooses his own books that he reads daily and then writes a short sentence or two in his reading log. Each month's log has a different question to answer. This month's is "What was your favorite part?" The third component is another in-school reading session called "Reading Workshop." It is not yet clear to me what this entails, but the students get to pick their own books, either by bringing them from home (which has been recommended for AJ) or choosing one from the classroom library.

They are still taking math assessment testing, so we will hear more about that soon. We received an email from AJ's teacher on Monday saying that she will get back to us when she's done with the assessments to talk about goals for AJ for the year -- exactly what we wanted.

In general, it sounds like I'll be less involved in the devising of materials than I was last year, which is great. The teacher seems fully capable and interested in doing it herself.

Someone asked me this morning if AJ wouldn't do better in a Montessori school or some other educational situation with more flexibility than a public school. I said that maybe, yes, if he were at a different public school. But this school is working hard to help us and is learning from the situation -- I thought their willingness to order new series of books was an excellent sign, because it shows they're trying to prepare for other students too, which is the best case scenario. It's why I want to keep working with the public schools. And AJ is currently getting an education tailor-made for his abilities. I'm not sure we could do better than that anywhere else. The only additional thing I would wish for is foreign language instruction. But that we'll try on our own. The year is definitely off to a promising start.