Monday, December 29, 2008

Time for a new bookshelf

Here at the Spy house, we've been wrapped up in Christmas for a couple of weeks now. AJ's relatives spoiled him rotten, as usual. In addition to the assorted non-educational toys and games, he got two science kits and a big haul of books. This year, AJ was gifted with:

Daniel Pinkwater: The Hoboken Chicken Emergency. AJ and I have been fans of Pinkwater's for years, ever since we discovered his picture books about a thoughtful polar bear named Larry and his badly behaved friends. I haven't gotten to read this one yet, but AJ laughs hard when he picks it up.

Kate DiCamillo: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. This is one I've picked up at the bookstore and put down again, uncertain if AJ will respond to it. But my mother finally got it for him and I'm looking forward to reading it, maybe as our out loud book.

Rick Riordan: Book 1 of the 39 Steps series -- The Maze of Bones.
We've been fans of Riordan's Percy Jackson series, AJ for the adventure, I for the clever uses of Greeky mythology. I'm skeptical of this series, due to the contest and cards and internet sites attached. I'm always cynical when it seems like the books are created by marketing instead of the other way around. But I decided to give the first book a try. This is scheduled to be a 10-book series. While Riordan outlined the series and wrote this book, other authors will be taking on the rest.

Eleanor Cameron: The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. This was another book provided by my mother, and one I'd never heard of before. It dates from the mid-1950s, the beginning of the space race, and revolves around two boys who travel to another planet covered in mushrooms and meet some unhappy green people. It sounds totally up AJ's alley.

Jason Lethcoe: The Misadventures of Benjamin Bartholomew Piff #1: You Wish. This was a gift from AJ's aunt and uncle. I'd never heard of this one before either. It looks old-fashioned (in a good way) and the description, which tells of a boy growing up in an orphanage, sounds a little old-fashioned too, although it was written in 2007. AJ has inherited my childhood penchant for books set in orphanages and boarding schools, so I'm sure he'll enjoy this. I'm looking forward to checking it out too. If it's good, there are more where it came from -- the series has at least 4 books so far.
Bette Bao Lord: In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. Also from AJ's aunt and uncle, i've been hearing about this book for years -- it was published more than twenty years ago -- and I'm glad to finally see it in person. This also sounds right up AJ's alley -- baseball and history.

Jeff Kinney: Diary of a Wimpy Kid Do-It-Yourself-Book. This one was on AJ's Christmas list. While I have some reservations about the Wimpy Kid series, I can't deny that it seems to turn on AJ's imagination. This one is really a diary in disguise. The first third or so of the book offers ideas for writing -- half-finished comic strips to draw, self-interview questions, etc. The second part is just a blank book. On Christmas Day, AJ was already writing in it. And anything that gets AJ writing voluntarily is a good present.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Children's Books about Animals

The Miss Rumphius Effect posted a list of favorite children's books about animals this morning. It's a good list, but there are many more good ones too. I commented on several of my favorites that were omitted: Dodie Smith's 101 Dalmatians, Felix Salter's Bambi, Marjorie Rawlings' The Yearling, and many of Gerald Durrell's books. What are your favorites? And don't forget to check out the link in the sidebar to After Seuss, our list of recommended books for precocious readers.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

More on Math

AJ and his teacher are continuing to struggle with math. They really just don't understand one another. But now when his teacher doesn't get why he is making mistakes, she has started sending things home to me to go over with him, which allows me to figure out what the problem is and explain it to her, so hopefully communication will continue to improve.

This week, Mrs. F. sent AJ home with a worksheet on a estimating addition, something they've been working on in class. AJ has been struggling with estimation, because he doesn't see the point of the technique, where they round to the nearest 10 and then sort out the ones to get the total. He doesn't like the imprecision of estimation and it takes him longer to do it than it does to add the "normal" way, so he's been assuming he's doing it wrong and keeps coming up with these crazy algorithms that aren't really functional but which explain whichever problem he's working on. Once I explained to AJ that his class was learning a bunch of different ways to add and this was one way, then he was fine. He is a kid who needs to know why he's doing something before he can understand it. I know, because I was a kid like that too.

This morning I was tutoring his reading group. They were looking at an interview between a modern Wampanoag and a pilgrim interpreter from Plymouth talking about the way their respective people did things in the 1620s and creating a Venn diagram based on what they learned (the second grade is very bigg on Venn diagrams). One of the questions asked how many were in their respective settlements and the pilgrim replied "9 score." So we talked about what a score was and I asked if anyone could figure out how much 9 score was. "9x20!" AJ barked out without hesitation. But he was crushed when another kid got the answer before he did. If he can't be first, he doesn't want to participate. While I'm sympathetic to that point of view, I also know how paralyzing such self-expectations can be (talk to me about my decade-old dissertation some time). Still, when such pressure is internal, what's the best way to help ease it?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Emergency drills

Mrs. PQV writes:

Yesterday gunshots were heard in the vicinity of my daughters' school. Immediately the entire facility went into lock down for the first time since 9/ 11. Much as schools have fire drills and tornado drills, their school had also held lock down drills, so everyone knew what to do, even if they were rather frightened.

Happy ending: the grounds and school were safe, no one was hurt and we parents were and are thrilled by how quickly the school appraised us about the entire situation. D#1 was a bit frightened last night, so we talked about all of the locked doors that stood between her and the outside world during a lock down. I don't think D#2 fully understood what had happened.

In the cold light of day, several aspects of this situation are sinking into my maternal consciousness. My children were safe, their teachers did all of the right things, thank God they attend such a school with such wonderful people.

My God, my children have lock down drills?! Not that I didn't know that they had the drills, they're always included in the newsletter, but until this moment I hadn't thought properly about this drill ever being needed. C'mon, all of those fire drills, did your school ever actually catch on fire? Yet there they were on lock down.

Yes, far better lock down than Virginia Tech all over again. Yet oh my glory -

Monday, December 1, 2008

Parent-teacher conferences

At our first parent-teacher conference of the year last week, AJ’s teacher Mrs. F handed us a packet of grade 3 and 4 math worksheets that AJ has been assigned to work on when everyone else is doing the regular curriculum. “I’m not sure why he’s having trouble with this,” Mrs. F. said. “It shouldn’t be hard for him. But I find him just sitting there staring at it and not doing it. I even asked him to put a star on the pages he thought were hard and a smiley face on the pages that were easy. But he starred some of the easiest pages.” I told her we’d go over it with him over break and I’d try to get to the bottom of it.

AJ is starting to struggle with the format of school. His teacher this year is much more structured than any he’s had before. I get the impression that he feels like he’s always doing the wrong thing, but I haven’t yet figured out why. His teacher, who is trying to do everything she can to help him, is truly frustrated and perplexed. His test scores are off the charts, but he is having trouble with a number of class activities.

We had trouble working on math over break, a subject that AJ has always dearly loved. But every time we’d sit down to try to look at it, AJ would burst into tears. I have been trying so hard not to let it come to this point. My own love of math was squashed by a clueless (and downright mean) teacher in the second grade. This is what I’ve been afraid of. But eventually, we were able to get past the tears and into the problems. And AJ started to have fun again.

This morning, I sat down and wrote a long email to Mrs. F.:

AJ and I went over the math packet over break and I tried to get a sense of what had made him star some pages. He also worked on a few pages on his own and we talked them through afterwards. After looking more carefully at the packets, AJ decided that it was all pretty easy for him but mostly not so incredibly easy as to be boring (except for the time pages, at which he rolled his eyes).

I think his stars say more about his difficulty understanding instructions, both those you gave him on starring things, and also the ones on the starred worksheets. He said they are easy now that he knows what they are, but that he didn't know what things like "expanded notation" meant at first. [AJ’s class curriculum is the somewhat controversial Everyday Math program; the packet is drawn from the much more standard Spectrum series; the presentation and some terminology is markedly different.]

He also isn't clear on what the "show your work boxes" are for [each problem has a space on the right margin marked “show your work” -- are they required or are they just there when he needs them? Because he does a lot of the work in his head, if he needs to show his work, someone might need to show him what that means. I did talk to him about how he will at least at some point, need to demonstrate how he figured things out (we talk about this a lot at home, so that shouldn't be a total surprise to him, but he's not used to writing it, and he may balk at it because it slows him down). You'll see how he tried to fill in the "show your work" columns on some of the pages and I think it will give you a good window into how his math brain works. For example, On Lesson 2.3 of the Spectrum Math grade 3 (page 22), the first question gives digits for the various places and he has to figure out what number it spells. The number is 600,903, which he got correctly. In the "show your work" section, he wrote out the number, and then wrote the numbers for each place squished in underneath each digit(100,000, 10,000, etc.). Below that, he wrote "3x3=9" with arrows connecting the 3 and 9 with their twins in 600,903. Then he wrote "3x2=6" and drew arrows between the 3s and 6s. He told me that he thought it was cool that you could make all the digits out of 3, so he decided to show that. Further down the page, where he had to write biggest and smallest numbers made with the digits, he ended up writing the (correct) answers in the "show your work" column and leaving the answer blanks blank. He was so worried about showing his work, that he forgot to write the answers where they were supposed to go.

But AJ also wasn't sure what "hard" meant -- from his perspective, it was too vague. He doesn't always deal well with grey areas. I explained it to him as "hard is something you don't know how to do by yourself and you need someone to show you how to do it." By that definition, the only stars that remained were on the "expanded notation" pages. And once he figured out what that meant, then those stars disappeared as well.

Based on this, I'd like to see him gaining more independence on worksheets like this, being able to carefully read and figure out the instructions for himself. But I also think he may need some spoken words about what to do before each one. It's not so much that he gets it wrong all the time, but that he doesn't trust himself to be getting it right. He seems to expect that he's going to do it incorrectly and wants reassurance.

The other thing it seems like he needs work on, is interpreting word problems. There weren't actually too many examples of that in the packet, but he doesn't trust himself to turn the word problems into equations a lot of the time. He wants constant reassurance. And when the word problems involve subtraction or division, he doesn't always get the order right.

And, perhaps most important, overall, defining things with almost comic precision helps him out a lot. If there is an exception of any kind, he will find it and be confused by it. He hasn't yet learned the psychology of figuring out what the question is asking by what makes sense, not just what is literally stated.

I think, although I’m not certain, that his teacher is turning him loose with extra work and is not willing or able to spend much time explaining things to him. And I know that AJ is not always willing or able to get up in the middle of class and go ask his teacher what he needs to know. His class is very large and, as generally happens, those who are struggling to work at grade level get more attention than those who are working too far above grade level. But all second graders need help and personal attention, no matter what level they’re at. None of them is independent yet. I didn’t want to come right out and say, “pay more attention to my kid,” because I know she’s doing what she can. But at the same time, she needs and wants to know how to help him. I hope I was diplomatic enough while also being clear.