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.


FreshHell said...

That was my thought, too: he's not receiving any instruction on how to do the work. I was never good at teaching myself math. But, with some guidance, I could go off on my own and complete the assignment. Sounds like you handled it well and I think the point needs to be reiterated that before the teacher gives AJ extra "hard" work, she needs to take a few minutes to explain them first and to make AJ feel like he can ask for help. She's got a lot on her plate but the students should feel that she's approachable. Otherwise, he's going to keep hitting the same wall over and over. I totally feel his pain.

Harriet said...

I've slammed into that wall a number of times myself. I'm chaperoning a field trip tomorrow, so I'm hoping I'll be able to have a few words with her about this in person as well. But essentially, I think she really wants to help, but she doesn't understand AJ in the same way his teacher did last year. I've been trying to underscore the message that it's not just that he learns faster than most kids, it's also that he learns differently. As for approachability, I think that may be an issue. She tries to be approachable, but with a large class, there are also times she needs not to be interrupted. I don't think AJ understands that. I think when she tells him that she can't talk to him right now (because she's helping another group), he thinks she doesn't want to talk to him ever. And then she gets frustrated that he doesn't ask for help, because she's not looking at things from his point of view. But she also gets frustrated when she's working with another group and he just stands behind her waiting to ask her a question. He needs to know what he is supposed to do, not just what he is not supposed to do. Maybe I should have mentioned all of that too. But one thing at a time.

FreshHell said...

Sigh. It's tough being a kid. Maybe she can set aside a few minutes with him each time to go over the extra work, explain it AND also explain when he can and can't ask for help and why (when he can't). If things are clearly laid out, they both might work better together. Good luck.

My Kids' Mom said...

I'd say he *doesn't* learn that differently from other kids. She doesn't expect any of them to teach themselves the material. The point is, if you give a child boring material you won't have to instruct him on it. If you give a child challenging material you have to teach it. AJ is being given challenging material. She's giving the other children challenging material. The items are different, but she needs to use the same process. Sit with the "group" (of ten children, or of one child!) and teach the material. Then ask them to practice it on their own. Not so crazy to expect that in my opinion.

Jeanne said...

Sigh. Both my kids went through this in first and second grade, both the understanding instructions part and the when to ask questions part. The hard answer they learned is that a busy and structured teacher like that sometimes has no good time to answer questions. So they learned to bring them home.

We all still remember the time in first grade that my daughter brought home an arithmetic worksheet for which the instructions read "show your thinking." She had drawn pages full of elaborate pictures of what she was thinking while she solved the problems, none of which the teacher thought were related to her answers.

There is a kind of school-speak that first and second graders are expected to learn, and which teachers are occasionally surprised to find that a kid doesn't already know. It's almost like school jargon.

And it's so discouraging for a gifted and creative kid to learn that the teacher really doesn't want you to show your thinking; she just wants to see the steps you took to solve the easy arithmetic problem, when already some of those steps are automatic for you.

More sighing.

Harriet said...

MKM, I actually do think he thinks differently than a lot of the kids in his class, and certainly than his teacher, who seems puzzled by things which to AJ are really very logical. But yes, you are certainly right that all kids need explanation. Our whole learning system is based on social interaction (internet education and self-learning is still far from the norm). And I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that for AJ when the rest of the class gets it. But the cold hard facts are that a lot of teachers seem to expect the advanced kids to be able to figure everything out for themselves.

But she has been responsive. I have already heard back from her and I think she found my comments genuinely helpful. "He does seem to pick up concepts very quickly once he gets an explanation." An aha moment for her, I think.

Jeanne, the story of your daughter is heartbreaking, and I'm pretty sure my mom has some stories very much like that about me and my brother. I think you hit the nail on the head with language. School culture needs to be learned, but those who live in it often forget that there are those who don't know the basics. I feel like a lot of my job this year has been that of a cultural interpreter, translating teacher-speak for AJ and vice versa. He will get there on his own eventually, but right now he needs to know that it's okay to ask questions when he doesn't understand.

Anonymous said...

This sounds interesting and horribly frustrating. Why would any kid know what "expanded notation" was?

Harriet said...

Exactly. I remember when I was in 6th grade, they wanted to have me take English with the 7th graders (it was an open classroom middle school, so this kind of thing was easier to manage than it might be in a more typical type of school). Before they moved me, they wanted to make sure I could keep up with the class. The seventh grade teacher gave me a one on one test. A big chunk of it was identifying parts of speech. Now I certainly knew the difference between nouns and verbs and the rest, but I had never heard the term "parts of speech" used before and I didn't know what it meant. I tried to explain this to the teacher, that it was just a term I'd never heard before. But she failed me for the section and I stayed with my class as a result. If she'd been willing to give me even one example, I would have aced it. The injustice of it burned me for a long time. This is exactly the kind of problem AJ has run into, and my own experience is no doubt why I'm so sensitive to it. I've tried to help the teacher see the difference between a language barrier and a difficulty grasping the concept. But learning the language is a big part of what school does, and it's an important skill to learn. Still, more and more I feel like an interpreter.

FreshHell said...

This is one of the reasons I've not had Dusty skip a grade. I want her to learn her grade level skills and then some. If she misses the labels put on the functions, and that knowledge is assumed in a higher grade, she'll be lost. Same thing happened to me in high school. Because I could write well, I was told I didn't need to take Grammar. I thought the class would help me - same kind of "parts of speech" problem you had. I knew how to put nouns with verbs but I didn't know what that was called, exactly. I eventually learned all that terminology in a Linguistics class in COLLEGE. Thanks Public School!

Fern said...

My son confessed to me in 2nd grade that he'd throwing his math homework away because it was too easy. When I went to his teacher in part to have him make up the work (I'm a stickler on the work ethic piece), she told me that she'd known he was throwing it away and that it was, indeed, too easy. And then she refused to give harder work - quote, "Oh no. I'm not going down that road." Neither were we - we switched schools for 3rd grade.

It's so hard to watch your child struggle in school. I think you're doing a great job communicating with the teacher. From my perspective from years teaching, your tone is perfect. You are informative without being judgemental or critical.

I love the way that AJ thinks about math. Tell him that I can't remember what expanded notation is without looking it up every single time, and I taught 5th grade for 3 years. It's one of those terms that just won't stick in my brain!