Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I've been investigating possible school options for next year. We may stay put. Or homeschool. Or we may get lucky and win the lottery making private school an option. I'm looking at them, in any case. We are lucky to have quite a few private school options in our area, including several specifically for gifted children. Unfortunately, most of them cost significantly more than sending my kid to the University of Illinois for a year. Admissions procedures for these schools vary, but are mostly a pretty straightforward, with some kind of cocktail of forms to fill out, recommendations to obtain, and test scores to submit. One school for gifted children, however, also requested a five-page, twenty question parent questionnaire. I was kind of intrigued by the questions, although I suspect answering them will send me back to that catatonic state I inhabited my senior year in high school. Some of the questions ask the parents to assess the child's schooling and list extracurricular activities. A few other questions:

• What kinds of building or artwork does your child do? Please describe your child's favorite building or art materials and the work that he or she creates.

• Does your child like to make up stories, plays, rhymes, or intentional puns? Please describe any ways in which your child has used language creatively.

• Please describe how your child adapts to the spatial environment. For instance, does your child give you directions on how to drive or walk to a familiar destination? Does he or she show an understanding of how to find his or her way around the neighborhood? In other familiar places?

• Does your child play a musical instrument? Or demonstrate musical, artistic or theatrical ability?

• With whom does your child share interests?

• What does your child like to do:
a) When playing or interacting with others (children or adults)?
b) When alone?

• How does your child react to new situations and people?

• Describe your child's verbal language (vocabulary, sentence structure, clarity, etc.)

• Describe your child's attention span. How does it vary in different situations?

• What are the things that you and your child enjoy doing together?

• How does your child respond to parental directions?

• Does your child show an awareness of concern for global issues? If yes, please give examples.

These are pretty interesting questions, but also, I think, a bit invasive. On the one hand, I think they'd get a pretty good idea of what AJ's about if I filled these out. And I like that they seem to be trying to get at a variety of ways of being gifted, although I'm not sure it will really accomplish what they are hoping. On the other hand, I'm not sure why some of these things are any of their business. If the public school asked us about some of these things, I might be inclined not to answer. As if that weren't enough, there is also a recommendation form that needs to be filled out by a current teacher. About half of this form asks the teacher to assess not the student but the parents, specifically whether the parents are clear-headed as to their child's abilities.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Has it really been nearly a month since I've posted here? It's not for want of things to write about, only that the news on the gifted education front is depressing.

AJ, while having his snack today said, "I wish I could have challenge every day." He proceeded to tell me about the things they're doing in his challenge class, which meets once a week on Mondays. Next year he was supposed to get a second day. But it is not to be. Next year, there will be no gifted program. It was one of the first things on the chopping block.

"I wish you could too, AJ," I said. "But next year I don't think you'll have it at all.

"Aren't there gifted schools?"

"There are and they're great, but very, very expensive. I wish I could send you there."

And here we are. A kid who's dying to learn and a school system that appears to be failing him. This seems so wrong. Doesn't he have any rights? If a kid were learning disabled and his school couldn't accommodate his educational needs, he'd be sent elsewhere. Is that an option for AJ? Or is our only option homeschooling? I feel trapped here. I could ask for acceleration, but I think it would be an enormous fight and I'm not convinced it's the best thing for AJ, nor do I think it would really help all that much. I could homeschool, but that would be difficult for our family for a number of reasons and again, I'm not sure it's the best thing for AJ.

One more possibility that I've been afraid to think about is private school. I don't see how we can afford it on our own, but we might qualify for financial aid. Then again, we might not. But it's probably worth investigating. We have a number of schools to choose from, all in the 15-20K/year range. If we got rid of our health insurance, we could do it. But that doesn't quite seem like the way to go, does it?

Right now, all I've got are questions.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Today marks the end of the first grading period at AJ's school and the beginning of Thanksgiving break. AJ is far more excited about getting his first real report card than he is about having a week off from school.

In AJ's school, third grade is the year they start traditional letter grades. I find this a little odd. I'm pretty sure we didn't have letter grades until junior high -- just a system of checks, pluses and minuses. AJ is sure he's doing great -- and I'm sure he is too. But I'm also prepared for surprises. Past experience suggests there will be some.

I'm much less interested in the report card than in our conference next week. We'll meet with both the classroom teacher and the gifted teacher. I'm trying to assemble a list of questions. The big one is about why the math in the classroom is so much easier than the gifted math and why can't there be more advancement. The other is why are the spelling words easier than first grade.

But the big thing I'm looking for, I won't ask about. I'm gearing up for what is likely to be the next big fight. The financial troubles our district is having are dire and art, music and the gifted program are probably going to be eliminated next year. I'm trying to prepare for what to do if and when that happens. It is likely we'll petition for acceleration. It would be easiest to do it next year or the year after, as next year there will be a big student shuffle as they redistrict schools and the following year, in fifth grade, all of AJ's grade will be merged at one central middle school.

Big things ahead.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Tomorrow night marks the beginning of the peak of the annual star show known as the Leonids meteor shower. Astronomers are predicting this year's Leonids will be more spectacular than usual, with a rate of upwards of 500 meteors per hour.

AJ and I have enjoyed starwatching since he was very small. In the semi-rural area where we live, it gets mighty dark at night. Star viewing is pretty spectacular. But we've had trouble with our identification. We like looking at star charts, but we're not so talented at mapping them onto the sky.

But this week, I discovered an abolutely amazing computer program to help us look at and learn about the stars. And it's completely free.

Stellarium is an open source planetarium program. The graphics are great. You can set your latitude and longitude; it gets the date and time off the computer. You can set a variety of background photos. You can chose to overlay any number of things -- constellation labels (from any of 10-12 cultures), constellation pictures, planets, planetary orbits, etc. You can adjust the amount of star detail with a slider. You can make the atmosphere go away so you can see what the stars would look like in the daytime, if you could see them. You can add shooting stars. We're still exploring and finding new things.

We had a good time looking at the constellation legends from different cultures (we checked out Navajo and China). But my favorite thing is that the background screens show the horizon and the compass directions, so we won't have any of the problems we have reading the flat star charts. There's even a dim feature, which turns the screen darkroom red so it doesn't interfere with your outside viewing.

We'll do some reading to go along with our star viewing. A Child's Introduction to The Night Sky by Michael Driscoll is one of our astronomy favorites. It also with a glow-in-the dark star chart, one several we've been struggling with. We also really like Stars: A New Way to See them by H. A. Rey, better known as the creator of Curious George. We'll also be looking at some Greek Mythology. Andy loves the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, but we haven't yet read a lot of straight up mythology. I'm hoping I can get him interested in the originals with D'Aulaire's Greek Myths.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Guidelines on Acceleration

The Institute for Research and Policy on Acceleration, The National Association for Gifted Children and the Council of State Directors of Programs for the Gifted have released new Guidelines for Developing and Academic Acceleration Policy. This document is designed to help schools, but it looks as if it might be a tool for parents trying to work with schools as well. You can download the pdf here. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but I'll report back when I do.

Monday, November 9, 2009

History begins at home

This morning, I was reading at one of my new regular stops, Playing By the Book about her latest book-inspired project, a mural-sized family tree that she made with her daughters (check out the whole blog -- it's full of great ideas for pairing books and activities with kids). It got me to thinking about how I ended up as an historian. I was pretty disdainful of history as a class in school. I think I may have had an exceptionally dry bunch of history teachers. But I read a lot of history as a child, especially after we moved to England where histories for children were more cultural than political. I was particularly enamored with the works of R. J. Unstead, especially the book on English history he wrote for children, Looking at History: From Cavemen to the Present Day. I checked the book out of the library so many times, that my parents eventually bought it for me. It is a tome. After I'd committed that to memory, I moved on to Unstead's books for adults, which I liked nearly as much. But it wasn't just the books that drew me in. It was that while living in London, I was in the middle of history. It stared at me from every corner. The flat I lived in was nearly 200 years old. There were places to go where the roads were built in Ancient Roman times. There were castle ruins to be visited, a statue of Queen Boadicea to touch, stone circles to find in the countryside. History meant something to me there, because I could see the stories everywhere I looked.

There was another book I loved, one that I'd actually discovered before I moved to England and which I returned to when I went back to the States. This one was not about history but about how to be an historian. David Weitzman's My Backyard History Book is part of the Brown Paper School series that first came out in the 1970s, about which I've raved in these pages before. The entire series is about outside-the-box thinking and it should be in every teacher and parent's toolbox. My Backyard History, as the title suggests, takes the viewpoint that history starts at home. Look at your own history. Follow it back. What do you find? Make a family tree or a time capsule. Think about what makes your time different from other eras. Talk to your relatives and your neighbors. What are their stories? How do we preserve our history? How can you preserve yours? These are all questions that continue to interest me. I ask them daily in my own research.

AJ isn't inherently interested in history, or, at least, he suffers from being the child of two history freaks. But we've figured out ways to work family history into other projects. For instance, every year for Veteran's Day, AJ's school has each child decorate a star on which they write the name and branch of service of someone close to them. For the past couple of years, AJ has written his great grandfather's name. Since AJ never met his great grandfather, who died many years before he was born, I used the opportunity to tell him some stories about his grandfather and to look at pictures together. This year, AJ decided he wanted to do someone he had actually met. So we wrote to my great uncle B, who was a career army officer. He wrote back an amazing letter with many details I'd never knew. He enlisted in the army at 18 during World War II and trained in the infantry for a Japanese invasion, but was spared combat when Japan surrendered in the wake of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At 19, he went to officer training school and became a second lieutenant and learned to govern occupied territories. He was a paratrooper in Korea and flew a helicopter in Viet Nam. After he related many exciting stories, sometimes funny , sometimes sad, he wrote a paragraph that was heart-wrenching, addressed directly to AJ. He told AJ how hard being a soldier was sometimes, but how rewarding it was too. He told him how he still felt guilty about some of the decisions he made, but that he had done the best he could and he trusted God to forgive him. It was incredibly personal, just the kind of thing you almost never see in history books. Just the kind of thing that means more coming from someone you know.

Later today, AJ and I will read this letter together. We'll both learn something about our Uncle, about our family, and about our national history. If you're not lucky enough to be surrounded by history, make your own. Find a copy of My Backyard History and get out and start talking to people. You never know what kind of stories will emerge. I'm thinking that the letter from his great great uncle and the book his father wrote for kids about the Korean War might do the trick.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Math methods

When I was in school, I was pretty consistently a math underachiever, always scoring in the top percentiles on standardized tests, but rarely succeeding in class. My mother blames this tendency on my second grade teacher, who liked to announce to the whole class when I made a mistake. Some of it may also be due to gender bias -- girls weren't supposed to be good at math. But whatever the reason, it was my own lack of confidence in math that kept me from achieving well. I second guessed myself all the time. Frequently I would look at a problem and know the answer, but without knowing exactly why I knew it. Then, in trying to prove it to myself, I'd make a mistake. It wasn't until I was in sixth grade, while at the American School in London, where my math issues were identified appropriately. I didn't need remedial math. I needed more challenge and confidence. So along with 3 or 4 other kids in my grade and the grade above, we were pulled out of our regular math class and put with Mrs. Heumann.

Mrs. Heumann was one of the very best teachers I ever had. She was tiny and wildly energetic, one of those people who seemed to inhabit her whole body and also several inches of the space beyond. I had thought I'd been thrown into remedial math, but Mrs. Heumann didn't seem to know that. She worked us hard. On the very first day, she took away our pencils and paper. "We're doing math in our heads. Because you need to know that you can." And I could. We all could. And we were good at it. I moved away before the end of that school year and I was very sad to say goodbye to Mrs. Heumann. But amazingly, some of her lessons stuck, especially the one about "you can do it." I still battered my head against the wall sometimes with math, but I kept at it. I was even on my junior high math team for a year. I couldn't believe it.

But after high school calculus, I never took math again. I went to a college without distribution requirements outside the major. The closest I ever came to math again was a microeconomics class that was so bad, I stopped going to class after the first month. The teacher was canned after a single semester and I got the only D on my college transcript. Pretty good, considering I only ever showed up on test day and rarely cracked a book.

But as I see AJ struggling in similar ways, I've been thinking about all this again. AJ has a brain that absorbs higher math concepts readily. He's had a good understanding of complicated issues since preschool. But those things that require memorization or tedious practice often give him enough time to talk himself out of the simple solution and into something more complex and erroneous.

One of the things that can, I think, help students like AJ and like me back then (and maybe me now) are some alternative ways of thinking about the problem. One of the great strengths of the Everyday Mathematics curriculum that AJ's school uses is its support of multiple solving methods. But as the curriculum is actually taught, there are not that many methods endorsed. I've been digging around for other possibilities to help. AJ is very visual and physical, so here are two that have interested us in particular.

1. Finger Math. At one point in my own math struggles, my mother came home from the library with this book, or one very much like it.

I was fascinated. Based on a system used in Korea, Finger Math takes counting on your fingers to a new level by assigning different values to your fingers. The fingers of the right hand are worth 1; the thumb is 5. The fingers of the left hand are worth 10; the thumb is worth 50. This allows you to count to 99 on your fingers. The book also explains how to use fingers for adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, although I no longer remember the methods. I need to reacquaint myself with it. Here is a website that explains the same system.

2. Chinese method. Earlier this week, Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas posted a video of a Chinese method of addition that fascinated AJ and I. It involves drawing lines to represent the columns of numbers and adding the points of intersection. AJ and I were both fascinated and need to play around with this a little. Here's a video explanation:

Do you have any alternative math methods or tricks you like to use? Fill us in!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Transfer students

I've been finding links to this story, about a home-schooled gifted boy who tries to go to public high school, in a lot of gifted forums over the last couple of days. I feel for this kid, I do. Schools can be really frustrating to work with, as the parents of this boy know -- they pulled him out of public schools when the school's couldn't adequately handle his needs. And no one should have to take the same classes over again if he's already passed them. But I also feel like this is not totally responsible journalism. This is a very one-sided article. The school cannot adequately respond, thanks to privacy laws. And no investigation into their point of view appears to have taken place.

I think the problem here is not so much the giftedness that the author focuses on as the transfer of home-schooled students into the public schools. Schools have strict guidelines they need to follow in order to ensure students have met state mandates. This may or may not be the right approach for any given kid's education, but it's the way public schools work. It does seem to me that community college classes should count for high school providing they meet the requirements of the equivalent class. But do they? The author doesn't tell us that.

Maybe this school really is the bad guy. But in my experience, many, if not most, schools can be convinced to do the right thing if you handle it in the right way. When I was about to start my junior year in high school, I moved to a large urban public high school in Indianapolis, IN, after spending my first two years of high school in Connecticut and France. My Connecticut schools were public too, but were smaller and much more like college prep. I arrived at my new school a year ahead in English and French, and I'd finished the Latin curriculum the new school offered but wanted to keep studying. I was behind in history because, after spending a number of years in Europe, I'd never studied American history. And as my previous school had reduced gym requirements, I had to take freshman gym and health in my senior year -- oh, the humiliation! The school could have told me to just take the courses they offered. It was a huge and very bureaucratic place. But they didn't. In junior English, when the class read Macbeth, which I'd studied the previous year, I worked on Hamlet as an independent study. At every juncture where I'd studied something previously, the teacher let me choose another relevant work instead. In French and Latin, I attended a regular class and got practice speaking, but the teachers assigned me my own work that I did on my own in the back of the room. For the rest of my courses, I was able to make adjustments on my own. By high school, I was my own best advocate. I didn't need my parents' help. And my teachers were just happy, I think, to have a student who wanted to work more instead of less.

As far as I can tell, the difference in my case is that I didn't ask for alternate classes, only alternate work. I wasn't trying to get out of high school early. I just wanted to be challenged. I didn't have to deal with the administration or school board. I worked with the teachers themselves. If there was any red tape to be handled, they handled it. I also wasn't trying to transfer in credit from community college or homeschool curriculums, which may be more difficult. But it seems to me that if the issue is keeping a child challenged, going through the bureaucracy of the school is not the only way to handle it, nor is it even necessarily the best way.

School District changes gifted ID matrix

In the last year, I've learned a lot of educational jargon like "cluster" and "matrix." If only "matrix" were as exciting as it sounds. It's actually just a fancy word for the cocktail of test scores, recommendations, and school work portfolio that results in a score that determines whether or not a given student is admitted into the gifted program.

As we discovered last year when AJ had a bad testing day, the matrix in our school district has included 2nd grade OLSAT scores, teacher and parent recommendations and a portfolio of work. This sounds good in theory, but the OLSAT scores were so heavily weighted that the other things didn't really make any difference. The district knew there was a problem, but hadn't been able to put through changes. Last year only one person in our school tested into the program the normal way. AJ got in because we had him privately tested. Several other children who should be in there were not. The school said they'd retest in January when the next testing cycle began, but most of us think that is far too late. Kids should not have to wait for appropriate material.

I knew something was up when we went to the gifted program orientation meeting a couple of weeks ago and they mentioned offhand that the district would not be using the OLSAT anymore.

Today I got a call from the mother of one of the kids who, like AJ, had been informally identified but hadn't met the OLSAT requirement. I've been helping her navigate the advocacy process for her son. She heard from the gifted teacher that instead of waiting until January, they'd be using the MAP scores and, where necessary, administering the ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) and it would be happening in the next week or two. The ITBS was what I had asked for for AJ last spring. I knew they could do it -- they administered it to all the kids who'd been identified (all two of them at AJ's school). There's no reason other than money that they couldn't do it for others. I even offered to pay for it, but was told it wasn't an option. I'm glad they've come to their senses. I'm not sure what changed to make this possible, but it's definitely a step in the right direction. So it sounds like AJ's challenge class will be getting a little bigger. I'm not sure how he'll feel about that, but I think this is a very good thing.

I know this is not all due to my work. I also know the work I've done in the last year -- in advocating for AJ and others, in taking the time to get to know the curriculum policy makers, in teaching others how to advocate for their kids -- would not have gotten this far this fast if the school hadn't recognized the problem and been willing to change. But nevertheless, it feels like a personal victory. The schools may still think of me as a pain in the ass, but at least I'm a pain in the ass who got something done.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Another day, another test

AJ came home this week with scores from the NWEA MAP testing that all kids third grade and up take in the fall and spring. The MAP is a self-leveling achievement test. The students take the test on a computer and the computer adjusts the questions based on the students answers. As more and more answers are correct, the questions get harder. The tests are used for K-12, so there are a lot of levels. This is the first time AJ has had a chance to take what I'm learning is called an "off level" test, meaning there is less of a problem with hitting the test ceiling, as he did with the WISC-IV. The MAP, however, is a very different kind of test

AJ felt like the reading part of the test was hard, mainly because a lot of the questions dealt with vocabulary, which he either knew or didn't. The math he thought wasn't hard at all. On both parts of the test, he scored in the normal range for an 8th or 9th grader, or at least that's what the charts tell me. This seems wildly high to me, but when I looked at the breakdown of what subjects are covered, they seem like things he probably knows how to do. Am I overestimating what kids know? I'm not sure. I'm also not sure this really means that AJ is performing 5 or 6 grades ahead of his level. But maybe he could be. I'm not really sure.

AJ also came home last week with a brochure from the gifted coordinator about Northwestern University's Midwest Talent Search -- an opportunity for a true off-level test. For AJ's grade level, the youngest eligible grade, that means the EXPLORE test developed by ACT (for older kids, it means the SAT or ACT), which is designed to be administered to eighth graders and used as a high school entrance exam. AJ is really interested in taking it so, as he put it, "I can see what I"m up against," but I'm not so sure what the point is. There's been a lot of testing around here in the last five months. He doesn't need the scores for anything. He qualifies for every program he might need to qualify for with the scores he already has. But if he really wants to do it, should I let him?

This brings me back to my ambivalence about testing in general. I hate that I had to cave to it last year, because I feel like his test scores shouldn't matter if he's demonstrating in class that he needs extra material. But the system is so score reliant. I've been good at getting around a lot of things in the public school system, but not the reverence for test scores.

But even feeling as I do about testing, I can see how it's useful. I'm a teacher myself, and although I don't use standardized tests with my college students, I know how important some kind of systematic evaluation can be. But at what point do you cross the line into lab rat status? And does it make a difference that AJ himself is initiating this? I don't want him obsessing about scores. Am I crazy to worry about this stuff so much?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Book Reviews

My daughter Dusty spent quite a lot of time over the summer reading books. Part of the reason was her obvious love of books. The other was to boost her AR scores. She's hoping to get into the 100-point club this year, at the very least. So far, she's earned 50 points. I thought I'd review (and recommend) three of her favorites.

The Beastly Arms by Patrick Jennings

Of the three, this was the book I read to Dusty. It's the story of a middle-grade boy, Nick, and his mother, a photographer, who live in New York City. Nick's parents are divorced and they need to find another apartment as the landlord is threatening to raise the rent. Again.

Nick's a photographer, too, of clouds. He's able to use the darkroom where his mother works and there is quite a bit of detail about the film developing process, something Dusty hadn't known much about. Nick also has a knack for ascribing animal characteristics to the people he knows and meets. He's an animal...sympathizer. He owns Miriam, a kangaroo rat, who spends most of her time in his shirt pocket.

Quite by accident one afternoon, Nick stumbles upon a strange building - with a plaque on the wall that reads: The Beastly Arms - down a dark alley in an iffy neighborhood he's normally not allowed to be in. He is drawn to the building and knocks on the door. The owner is a strange man, Mr. Beastly, who, as it happens, turns out to have an apartment available. For $200.

Eventually, Nick and his mother move in. Nick is aware that Mr. Beastly is hiding a secret and he sets out to discover it. I'll divulge no more as I'd hate to reveal the secret of Mr. Beastly. We both enjoyed this story a lot and I'm glad to learn the author has written many more.

Igraine the Brave by Cornelia Funke

Dusty loves Inkheart and is plowing through Inkspell this fall. I found Igraine at the library and thought Dusty might like to read something a tad shorter by the same author. Dusty continues to talk about how much she loved this story about a girl who is a member of a family of magicians but wants to be a knight. When someone steals an important spell book from the castle, Igraine goes into full warrior mode to solve the crime and retrieve the book.

Hot Air (Edgar and Ellen) by Charles Ogden

This is one in a series of Edgar and Ellen books. I found it in the library one Saturday and Dusty loved it so I recently ordered another for her birthday. It's always a relief to discover a new series of books she likes or a prolific author because it means she'll be kept happily occupied for awhile.

Edgar and Ellen are devious twins who enjoy making mischief in their town of Nod's Limbs. They pull pranks and outwit evil doers and that's about all I can tell you about this series as I haven't actually read it. But, I have it on good authority from my resident eight-year-old, that its "really good." A series certainly worth exercising the library card for.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

New Day

It is exactly on month into the school year and there has been a sea change in the Spy household. AJ is a different kid this year than he was last year. He goes to school without a fus and comes home from school in a good mood. He almost never forgets his belongings. I haven't had a single note home about behavior. He does his homework willingly and generally with enthusiasm. He doesn't always take the easy way out. He thinks about things and writes about them too. He takes his responsibilities more seriously, not just with school work, but in other areas as well.

What happened?

I'm not entirely sure. Some of it's probably due to maturity. Some of it is definitely due to the challenge program. Even though it's only one afternoon a week, he looks forward to it and it gets him through the stuff that's less interesting. But a lot of it is, I think, the teacher's classroom style.

Yesterday I accompanied AJ's class on a field trip and I was struck by stark differences with similar trips I took with his class last year. I heard many children get praised, but I didn't hear one kid get yelled at for behavior. It's not that they were so much better behaved -- they were just as wound up at the beginning as last year -- but that the teacher was so much more even-tempered. If a child was doing something inappropriate or disruptive, she would walk up to him and bend down to his level, putting her arm around her shoulders and talk quietly to him so that no one else could hear. But she also tolerated a greater range of behavior from her class. She enforced the rules that needed enforcing, but let some things slide if they weren't disrupting others. By the second half of the trip, the class was behaving extremely well. They learned a lot and got to explore not just by listening to someone talk at them, but by touching and feeling and smelling the things they came across.

And the homework! AJ has so much less than last year. Less busywork means he takes greater responsibility for the things he does need to do. I'm still frustrated with his math assignments (there's still a lot of counting of objects going on; most of the assignments to date he could have done in preschool), but I know they won't be this easy for long and I know what to do if they don't get better. In the mean time, they're not bothering AJ yet. He's taking pride in his work and that's worth a lot. Last year he was constantly bringing home assignments with the kinds of mistakes that indicated he hadn't been paying any attention. This year, nothing gets by him. The difference is remarkable, and I can't say I'm unhappy about it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Tonight, Mr. Spy and I attended an orientation for all parents of students in our school district's gifted program. The program was run by our district's Curriculum Director, who was one of the people I spoke with by phone last year when we were trying to deal with last spring's testing debacle, and the two gifted coordinators -- Mrs. C who teaches at AJ's school, another elementary school, and the middle school; and The Cheerleader, who teaches at the other two elementary schools and the junior high.

For the most part, we didn't hear much that we didn't know, mainly because we have been such pains in the ass so involved with the program at AJ's school since kindergarten and because I am nosy and ask a lot of questions. Neither of the gifted teachers was particularly good at public speaking -- the meeting was wildly disorganized, despite its powerpoint presentation. The Cheerleader reminded me very much of Reese Witherspoon's character in Legally Blonde -- hyper perky and very wide-eyed with a high squeaky voice. At one point, she actually said she had been a cheerleader and I had to literally bite my tongue to keep from laughing. But the curriculum director is smart and said some interesting things about district-wide policy and its devotion to challenging all children. This and the program itself, which is well-integrated with the general curriculum, reassured me that it will be less of a target for cuts when the budget gets slashed next month.

The most exciting thing we heard about was the math program. They begin the acceleration process in third grade so that by next year, they are doing 5th grade curriculum. By the time they get to sixth grade, they are doing algebra. By the time they start high school, they'll be a full two years ahead of the traditional curriculum.

The other thing that sounds great is that they have a stand-alone gifted class starting in grades 5-8 when the four elementary schools consolidate into first the middle school and then the junior high. But we knew about that already.

One more item of interest was thrown out there: the school has dropped the use of the OLSAT, the test that gave us so much trouble last spring. They didn't say why. It might be because of the problems we and others encountered. Or it might be a financial issue. In any case, I am glad to see it go.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Budget Cuts

Last night, I attended the finance committee meeting of our school Board. Yes, I went to a three-hour meeting about numbers that I didn’t have to attend. Sometimes I even amaze myself.

The reason I went is that rumors have been flying about a school closing next year. Now I know that they are not rumors. The question isn’t whether a school will be closed next year. The question is, which one. And also, will that be enough? At the moment it doesn’t look like it.

Our school district is in the middle of a perfect storm of financial crises. It’s been managing it’s money poorly for a decade and only last year did we finally vote enough of the old board out and get a new superintendent so that real changes could be made. But it should have been done a long time ago. There is a massive enrollment shift going on. With the exception of AJ’s class, which is a weird bubble, enrollment is in serious decline as the bumper crop of new residents from ten years ago have stayed and their kids have grown up. The upper grades are much bigger than the lower grades. The overall economy hasn’t helped either. But the biggest problem that wasn’t of our district’s own making is the State of Illinois, whose total lack of fiscal responsibility and dedication to education has them rescinding state funds right and left. They’ve drastically cut the per student aid our district gets AND they’ve taken our nearly a million in stimulus money that was supposed to be extra and are using it to pay those cut fees. Drastic spending cuts have already been made, but they are not enough.

This is bad news, but it’s news I already pretty much knew. What was good news is that I was reassured last night that with one exception, the people working on the fix are smart and qualified and have similar feelings about education as I do. I also felt better about a school closing after learning about empty classrooms in other schools – AJ’s school is so overcrowded that we didn’t believe that was the case. Moreover, the district has lost nearly 500 students in the last 5 years – that’s about the same number who attend AJ’s school. So it sounds like it makes sense. Unfortunately, based on what I heard last night, the school I think it makes the most sense to close is AJ’s.

Of greater concern, however is the “non-mandatory programs” also on the chopping block. No decisions have been made and no specific programs were listed last night, but I know that one of them is the gifted program. Illinois has lagged in gifted education support and recently cut all state funding to gifted programs of any kind. I know the district thinks it’s important, but given the small numbers of students participating, I think there’s a good chance that it might disappear.

And here’s the kicker. AJ came home from school yesterday ON FIRE. He spends Monday afternoons in the challenge program, and yesterday was his second meeting. His brain was running so fast that his mouth could barely keep up. He said, “It was really hard, but it made the time go REALLY fast because I had to think. I didn’t know school didn’t have to be boring.” Then he started asking if he could practice some harder spelling words and do a project on geography for fun. I remember this boy. I haven’t seen him in a while. It’s really nice to have him back.

I was so happy about it, that I emailed a thank-you note to his Challenge teacher this morning. She told me that he spent have the time reading a novel and talking about it (Michael Dahl’s The Word Eater) and the other half working on geometry problems with tangrams. She said that the tangram problems were a real struggle for him and that at first he didn’t think he could do it, but she encouraged him to keep trying and he figured it out on his own. It’s the first time he’s had to struggle at all in math. He was pumped and dying to learn more.

I realize it is impossible for schools to be all things to all students, but if the gifted program goes away, I really don’t know what I’ll do. I will not let him go back to the lethargy and resistance of last year, the result of boredom and a well-meaning teacher who just didn’t get him. Maybe I’ll push for acceleration. I’m not sure. But in any case, yesterday afternoon made all the testing angst of last spring, all the expense and anxiety, totally, one hundred percent worth it.

Moreover, if this does not demonstrate that gifted kids have “special needs,” I don’t know what does. Hooray for good teachers. Hooray for schools that try. And a pox on all governmental agencies who don’t look at the small pieces of the big picture.

Free Webinars from the National Association for Gifted Children

AJ's Challenge teacher alerted us to a series of webinars for parents and teachers of gifted children. Participation is free through the end of 2009, but registration is required. NAGC webinars take place on Wednesdays. You can find information here. The next one, tomorrow night at 7 p.m. eastern, is currently full, but take a look at the full schedule. The next webinar targeted at parents will take place on October 21; registration opens October 9. You can also access archives of past webinars from the link above.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Website roundup.

I wanted to the list of recommended websites in the sidebar. I've tried to keep the list relatively small. These are all sites we refer to regularly for either resources on advocacy and education or for playtime. Even among the fairly short list, there are some particular favorites.

Hoagie's Gifted doesn't look fancy, but it's the single best place to go for all things gifted. In addition to producing its own content, it does a great job of rounding up content from elsewhere, so if you only have time to go to one place, this is the place. The downside is that the cluttered site design is somethings hard to navigate. But the search tools work well.

•The elusive Green-Eyed Siren reminded me recently about the wonderful site Brainpop. The subscription price is not cheap, but the content is well worth it. And if the subscription is more than you can bear, there is plenty of free content to keep you busy for a while. This is one of AJ's all time favorites.

•AJ and I recently paid a visit to Free Rice, a vocabulary quiz site so named because it donates rice 10 grains of rice to the UN's World Food Program for every right answer, has ramped up its content. Since last we visited, it has added vocabulary in French, German, Italian and Spanish as well as quizzes in English Grammar, math facts, geography, chemistry and art. AJ likes the reinforcement of the advancing levels and the piles of rice. It's his new favorite way to practice his times tables.

•Laura Vanderkam at the blog, Gifted Exchange, posted a link today for a website full of interesting "virtual field trip" videos by and for kids. The videos are sorted by category and cover a wide variety of topics. Most interesting to AJ, there is a section of tutorials on how to make your own videos and podcasts so that you can participate in the project.. Check out Meet Me at the Corner. You can read more about the project and the people behind it here. I'll be adding this site to the list of recommendations in the sidebar shortly.

Do you have favorite sites you'd like to tell us about? Write us a review or just post the link in the comments.

Is there more content you'd like to see on this site? Would you like to write for us (there is no money involved, but we'd love to hear from others? Leave a note in the comments or contact Harriet at harri3tspyATgmailDOTcom.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

No more machines

Scene: Harriet, Mr. Spy and AJ are sitting on the beach by the river. AJ is digging in the sand. We are listening to Motown blasting from a house on the opposite shore and watching boats go by.

AJ: Mom, how come when people talk about the future they always talk about technology?

Harriet: In what way?

AJ: Well, they always say how technology is going to make things better and better. I don't think that's true. I think the opposite is true.

Harriet: You might be right. I think more and more, people are starting to agree with you.

AJ: I was reading in Boy's Life about how some people are trying to build a car that doesn't run on anything.

Harriet: How do they make the engine go?

AJ: I don't know. But they're not having a very good time. Maybe I should invent a car.

Harriet: Maybe you should.

AJ: And then, no more machines.

* * * * *

When I was a girl, we saw a lot of filmstrips and projected movies (on actual film! There were no video tapes, let alone DVDS back in the Stone Age) about the efficiency of factories and the mechanization of farms, about the amazing developments of modern medicine and the godsend of pesticides. But the message AJ's generation is getting is a lot different. He still wants to be driven to school when at all possible and will fight about it every single day, but it was nice to realize the message that I try to give him when we walk or bike places is sinking in.

We had ridden our bikes down to the river where we had that conversation. On the way home, we passed a couple on bikes with headlights on, as it was starting to get dusky. AJ was fascinated by the lights. He'd never seen lights on bikes before.

"That's a really good idea. Then you can ride in the dark."

"My favorite thing about lights like that is that they're powered by the bike. They don't need batteries or anything."

"They don't?" AJ asked skeptically. "How do they work?"

"There's a little machine that uses the power of your feet making the wheels go around to generate a small amount of electricity, enough to turn on a lightbulb."

"Oh, I noticed that when they stopped pedaling that the lights got a little dimmer," AJ recalled.

"That's right."

"That's a really cool idea."

It is a really cool idea. And then I told AJ about someone I used to know who had hooked up his television to a stationary bike instead of an electrical outlet. In order to watch television, he had to pedal.

"So you have to get exercise, even when you're watching TV."

"That's right."

"That's like what my gym teacher said we should do."

"What's that?"

"We should do jumping jacks or pushups or something during the commercial."

"Well, that won't generate electricity, but it's a great way to get some exercise."

"Do I have to do that?"

Well, we're not there yet.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

First Day of Challenge Program

The challenge program began yesterday and AJ seems to have had a good time, although it all seemed kind of vague to him. There is one other 3rd grader in the program -- his friend C, who also sits next to him in class and is in his Cub Scout den AND on his baseball team. It's lucky C and AJ are friends, because they're sure going to see a lot of each other the next few months. Like AJ, C qualified in both reading and math, so the two of them work with the gifted coordinator for both subjects every Monday afternoon from 1:30-3:15, when school gets out.

AJ was unclear on what he'd be doing. He said they played a bunch of reading and math games yesterday, but was vague about what exactly they did. My guess is that the coordinator was trying to get to know them and get a read on how they worked. She told them that they'd get a book to work on next week. AJ thinks there may be homework that will be assigned through his regular classroom.

I'm interested in how this is all going to pan out. This is very different from the kind of pull-out programs I was involved with in several different school systems in the 1970s and 80s. Back then the focus was on critical and creative thinking, not on curriculum. The stuff we did in G&T was completely separate and in addition to classroom work. I loved it. It was fun. And we rarely had much homework. But it always seemed kind of unfair to me, because a lot of the things we did (e.g. interview Anne Morrow Lindbergh on her writing habits, write stories using a wacky collection of required elements) seemed like they could have worked for most people I knew and they probably could have got something out of it. In reality, that may or may not have been true. But this sense of gifted programs as extra-curricular has been problematic, because it makes them easier for school districts to cut if they don't look necessary.

At AJ's school, there is a concerted effort to both integrate the gifted work with the regular classroom work and also, when possible, to have it substitute for regular classroom work, instead of being extra. This keeps the kids from feeling punished by having an extra class and also, at least theoretically, provides more continuity for the kids as they move through the grades.

In addition, AJ came home with his first set of homework of the year. The math homework was laughable, but AJ enjoyed it. There are many things I love about the Everyday Mathematics curriculum, but the assignments where children have to find numbers around the house are not my favorites. AJ likes getting up from his table, and that's fine, but he had nearly identical assignments when he was in preschool. By third grade, shouldn't they be doing something more with the numbers they find? Apparently not.

The at-home reading program is a little different this year. Instead of assigning an amount of time to read each day (last year it was 15 minutes) and reporting on the books, which aggravated AJ to no end, there is a total number of minutes for the month (400, or 20 minutes a day 5 days a week). The kids log their minutes and book titles and that's it. This will work much better for AJ. It allows for adjustments from day to day depending on activities. Reporting once a month instead of once a week will take the pressure off. And it's exactly the same system the public library reading programs use, so he's used to it.

In addition, there is a new reading assignment. Every Monday there is a page of reading sent home along with a worksheet. AJ is supposed to read it out loud to a parent and then answer questions about what he read. The reading that came home this week was not difficult, but AJ is not always great at gleaning information from what he reads in any kind of organized fashion, so I think these assignments may help him with that.

We've been spending a lot of time talking about organization which for AJ, as for many gifted kids, is a huge challenge. He has trouble getting his chores done on time because he gets distracted by his books and magazines as he's putting them away or wanders off into play before he finishes getting dressed. He gets lost in thought while eating meals and has trouble finishing them. And he regularly forgets his homework.

This year, I decided to make organization a priority for us. I let AJ pick out a school planner (he chose this one) and showed him how to set it up and write things in it. He is responsible for taking it to school each day and bringing it home each night. If he forgets, there is a set of consequences. For the first couple of weeks, I'm going to show him how to track his work. After that, he'll be on his own. My goal is to make him more independent with his homework. I expect there to be a bit of a learning curve, but I'm hoping letting him make choices of how to write things down and giving him stickers to decorate his calendar pages when he does things well will keep him on track. I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Back to School

AJ finished his first week of school and is still enthusiastic about it, which is a definite step up from last year and a huge step up from his attitude over the summer. This is a great relief to all of us, especially AJ. There was no homework last week, so we haven't seen enough to know how the work is going to be, but we did hear that the first book the class will be reading together is Patricia MacLachlan's wonderful novel Sarah Plain and Tall, which they are using to supplement their social studies and science study of the prairie and prairie cultures. Sarah Plain and Tall is a HUGE step up from the regular classroom reading they did in second grade (AJ didn't do the regular reading, but I worked with kids in the classroom who did). It's a book I read and enjoyed as an adult. I also love the way the curriculum integrates the various disciplines in a multi-faceted approach to a topic. AJ really responds to such an approach.

We think, although we're not sure, that the Challenge Program (which is what the school calls its program for gifted students) starts this week too, possibly tomorrow. I'm very curious to see how exactly this is going to work. The challenge program is both an in-class modification program and a pull-out program. A letter that came home this week suggests (although it is not totally clear) that the math part of the program will be initiated in the pull out program but will also replace classroom work with work at the appropriate level, generally at least one grade level ahead. The reading program, however, is more like a book group. The pull-out reading group will read and discuss novels together in addition to the classroom reading. The gifted teacher has not overly impressed me, although I also really don't know her that well. And the things that have given me pause are all about social skills, not about interaction with children, so I think it is something that is likely to improve. She wrote a very good letter about why she does what she does and about how her own experience as a gifted child has affected her approach toward gifted learners.

So in general, I am feeling very optimistic for the new year. Even so, I'm already thinking about what words I should put on a spelling list for AJ if the first list, which should come home tomorrow, is too easy. AJ says spelling is his favorite subject, which I think is because it is the only subject in which he was consistently challenged last year. Here's hoping for a better balance in the weeks to come.

What's going on with your kids? How are you and they handling the first weeks of school?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Summer is winding down around here. AJ starts school a week from today. Tomorrow the class lists and teachers will be posted, like Luther's theses, on the front door of the church school.

Last year at this time, we were preparing to meet with AJ's teacher. We'd arranged a meeting for the morning after the class posting by going through our school principal who set it up without telling us with whom we were meeting. The district gifted coordinator came too. And while I think AJ's class was not ideal for him, I think that meeting made what could have been a dreadful year into a passable one.

This year, we did not request a meeting. Why, when we felt that last year's meeting was so important, did we skip this step? There are several reasons. One is that we have a much bigger paper trail on AJ now than we did then, including detailed IQ scores that clearly place him upwards of the 99th percentile. Numbers speak louder than words in getting action in public institutions. The second reason, though, is that we're venturing into new territory: a formal gifted program.

I did check in with the gifted coordinator last week to make sure we didn't need to be meeting this time and she agreed that the best approach this time was to let AJ and his teacher (whoever it turns out to be) get to know each other first. She also told me that AJ will be pulled out of class, most likely on Monday afternoons, for 2-3 hours, half for reading, half for math.

I'm still trying to get a sense of how the gifted program works. It is curricular, meaning that it's replacing classroom work, not adding to it. My sense is that the reading part is not all that different from previous years, but that AJ's reading group will be overseen by the gifted teacher rather than the classroom teacher. Math is the area with which I've been most frustrated. I feel AJ lost ground last year because of a lack of systematization with his substitute work. I hope this new system will be better.

AJ's greatest interest is who will be in class with him. After last spring's testing fiasco, we know that only one kid tested into the program in the normal way and, because this kid happens to be one of AJ's best friends, we know who that is and that he will be in class with AJ. What we don't know is whether there are other kids who, like AJ, got in some other way. I think this friend of AJ's will be a good companion for him in class. He is less of an outside-the-box thinker than AJ, but he is more mature and disciplined and academically driven, something for which AJ could use a model. I suspect their strengths will play nicely off each other in class.

Also on the table for fall is the new possibility of taking classes through the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University. When we had AJ tested for their programs in first grade, we ended up deciding we couldn't handle the commute. But this year, they've added a new location for some of their programs, one that is only a half hour from here. Their classes are expensive and I'm not sure we'll qualify for financial aid, but they also sound awesome. You can read about their offerings here.

How are you getting ready for school?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Recession strikes back

A few days ago, Illinois announced a long list of cuts in educational funding in an effort to balance their budget. Buried between devastating cuts in preschool programs ($123 million) and bilingual education (19%), was a total reduction of gifted education programs. The state is no longer funding them at all (you can read about it here).

On the one hand, this is not as dire as it looks at first glance. Illinois has been hacking away at the gifted programs for years. Our district, for example, went from having a gifted coordinator in each school to having two for the entire district of 6 schools. It is my understanding (although I'll certainly be checking on this) that the gifted program in our school district is no longer funded by the state anyway. However, for the state to remove all funding is for the state to say, "these programs are not important." The state is saying that teaching children at their appropriate level does not matter. And that is a very dangerous message to be sending.

Laura VanderKam at Gifted Exchange suggests that this may give parents of gifted students more ammunition for grade acceleration. Grade acceleration, she points out, does not cost anything the way special programs do. Moreover, grade acceleration actually reduces per student spending, because accelerated students spend less time in school. But for those who have struggled with their school districts over acceleration, funding cuts may, indeed, cause schools to reconsider their policies.

But I'm not yet convinced by the acceleration argument, nor am I convinced that acceleration is right for my child. If our school's gifted program is cut, then what? Probably we'll be back to what we've been doing -- working with individual teachers ourselves, only we'll have to provide more curriculum on our own, because presumably the gifted coordinator will no longer be there to help us find materials. The alternatives would be home schooling and acceleration. And home schooling may not even be a viable option, because I really need to scare up some income. I don't like having my choices reduced.

More alarming even than the Illinois gifted funding cuts is the financial crisis our district is already having. We are looking at a $2.3 million deficit this year, a deficit caused by a series of things -- poor management from the last board, bad hiring choices resulting in multiple superintendents on the payroll for several years in a row, difficult contract negotiations for teachers, violent shifts in student enrollment from year to year, failure to pass tax referenda several times in a row because our property taxes here are already sky high and because they've done a lousy job selling it. And then of course there is the recession. But the true force of that hasn't even hit yet. Our county estimates property taxes as an average of two years. This was a system put into place to prevent sharp leaps in tax amounts during the boom years. Next year will be when they reevaluate the levels. If a referendum isn't passed, there will be further income cuts. Our district is looking at closing a school. But that will only save 600,000 -- a fraction of what is needed. And where will all those students go? Our classrooms are already filled to bursting. If they don't balance the budget by 2010-11, the state will take over. And who knows what will happen then. But given the budgeting precedent, if gifted programs make it that far, I'm pretty sure they'll be gone when the state gets involved. The state, after all, has set a precedent.

Complicating the issue is the $800,000 of stimulus money the district has received. You'd think that would help the situation a lot, wouldn't you? But it doesn't. The stimulus money cannot be spent on deficit spending, nor can it be applied to capital "improvements' -- including the much needed new roofs for two of the schools. It can be spent on upgrading technology, which is also needed. But how will the school's pay for maintenance and training on new machines if they are running a severe deficit?

In the face of such dire financial circumstances, is lobbying for gifted education programs the right thing to do? Of course. Why? Because the programs are not about enrichment. They are about giving children the work appropriate for them, in just the same way that special education provides appropriate work for children on the other end of the learning spectrum. But in the era of No Child Left Behind, schools do not always see it that way. Gifted children can meet -- and exceed -- the standards that they are asked to meet. Why spend extra time and money catering to them? Because their parents pay taxes too and they can and should expect to have the needs of their children met by an institution they are forced to attend. Realistic? Perhaps not. But fair policy? Definitely.

Now is a crucial time to lobby for gifted education, in Illinois and elsewhere. Schools need to hear what the stakes are. They need to hear about what matters. In the end, all children suffer when schools make policies that exclude some of them.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I Hate Mathematics!

A few days ago, AJ and I made a trip to the library. We have a routine at the library. We conduct any business at the desk (registering for programs, reporting on reading programs, etc.), examine the new books shelf in the children's section, find books to check out on the regular shelves, look for movies if we want one, and then AJ settles down to play on a computer for a few minutes while I head to the adult section to look for books of my own.

When we went a few days ago, AJ and I found a bunch of books for him quickly. He picked up a new book about the moon landing and a book on giant squids. I got him a copy of Marilyn Burns' The I Hate Mathematics! Book. Second grade seems to have caused some problems for AJ's math skills. He was a top notch multiplier when he went in, but the methods confused him and made him focus on the method instead of what he was doing. Consequently, he no longer understands the process of borrowing and makes a lot of mistakes. Consequently, he's getting frustrated and feeling as though he's not good at math anymore.

I had similar problems with math when I was in second grade and The I Hate Mathematics! Book helped me remember that math is fun and challenging and not just like beating your head against a brick wall.

AJ was really excited about the book and sat down at the table to look at it. We were talking about the book when AJ's friend J walked up. J has been in AJ's class for the last two years and they are in Cub Scouts together and they both play a lot of the same sports, although they've never been on the same team.

"Hi, AJ. What's that? 'The' What's 'mathematics'?"

"Hi," AJ said gruffly. "It's just another word for math."

"Oh," said J.

"It a dumb book about math. I don't know what it's doing here." AJ buried it under the giant squid book.

"Cool! Squid!"

I know that AJ has been embarrassed about some of the things he likes, but this is the first time I'd witnessed it so clearly in action. One minute he's telling me about all the cool things he's found in the book. The next he's making fun of it to his friend so his friend doesn't make fun of him. I actually don't think his friend had any intention of making fun of him. I think what sounded to AJ like mockery was really just J struggling to read an unfamiliar word.

This is one of the reasons why I think separate gifted programs are important. It is easier to deal with your sense of difference if you can be different with somebody else. It's easier to appreciate your different interests if there's someone somewhere with whom you can share them.

In the last couple of weeks, AJ has made a friend at camp. He doesn't live very close to us, but AJ and K have been making plans to meet online at Club Penguin, where they can chat and play games remotely. As much as I try to limit AJ's video/computer game times around here, I can also see how things like Club Penguin help him in situations like this. I know the internet helps me find people with like interests to talk to. I'm glad there are places where AJ can go too. Everyone needs to know they aren't alone sometimes.

After we got home from the library that day, AJ pulled out the I Hate Mathematics Book! first and started leafing through it. He found a page of math riddles and started giggling. "Mom, you have to hear this one. Can I ask you some?"

"Hit me. But I bet I'll know the answer."

"You will?"

"This was my favorite book when I was your age."

"It was?" He smiled and started to read.

* * * * *

Marilyn Burns, The I Hate Mathematics! Book (Brown Paper School book)Covello, CA: Yolla Bolly Press, 1975; reprinted by Little, Brown & Co.. The whole Brown Paper series is exceptional, but this is my personal favorite (My Backyard History Book was a close second). Most, if not all, of them are out of print. Marilyn Burns has written other math books for kids, including some more recent picture books. All are worth looking at.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Hello Mother, Hello Father

AJ started his 2-week session at a camp run by the Center for Gifted at National-Louis University (there's a link over there on the right). He did this camp last summer and loved it. We had been a little nervous about it last year, because our experience signing up and our phone communication with them before the camp started was a little confused and the first day was chaotic. But we soon learned that this program is fantastic where it really counts. The teachers are outstanding -- creative, exciting, interesting people, interested in the kids and what they do. And the communication between families and teachers is great. Each teacher sends home a parent letter on the first day of class introducing themselves and what they'll be doing in class. At the end of the session, they send home another letter, this time with a review of what was done and references for books, websites, etc. so you can help your child learn more about the things they've been doing in class after it's over. A couple of weeks after the last session, they send a report card -- no grades, but a paragraph or two written by each teacher about your child and how he or she did in the class. So not only did AJ have a great time in class, but I got some great ideas for more things to do with him at home.

This year, we knew the score and weren't surprised when we got two different sets of registration forms or when we got to the first day of camp and discovered all the classroom assignments had been changed. But whatever happened in AJ's classes today was definitely working right. He came out all excited and rattling off about things all the way home. I usually call this "switched on," because when AJ is somewhere where something challenges him mentally -- at his IQ test, for example, or at this camp, or any time he's around a kid with a brain that works like his-- he lights up, he talks a lot and is interested in everything. He's his best version of himself. He loved all his classes and he couldn't wait to come back the next day.

Each kid takes three classes per session. This is one of the things AJ likes: he gets to change classes like a big kid. He's taking art, science and math. The art class is taught by a woman who has spent time at an artists' colony that I've had friends attend. AJ thought she was very nice and that their projects would be cool, but that they didn't get to do much today. The science class was his favorite, although when he said that he also took pains to make sure that I knew he really liked them all. The science teacher won him over with dry ice experiments today. They tried dropping pieces of dry ice to find out what would happen to it (it crumbles). Then they put some in water (it dissolved). For homework, he had to come up with a hypothesis for what would happen to a hot metal object if it was put on dry ice. AJ is hoping it will melt, but I don't think he thinks it really will. His math teacher is his only repeat from last year. Last year's class was a math mystery class, where they broke into groups to solve a series of mathematical clues in order to figure out a larger mystery. This year's class sounds even better. It's focusing on geometry and they are studying geometric patterns in architecture, art and nature from a mathematical perspective. It sounds like there's going to be math, science and art involved. I wish I could sit in.

That was a common sentiment among the parents waiting outside the front doors of the school at the end of the morning session. I got into a conversation with two other women while we waited. It turned out we were all working on doctorates. Later it occurred to me that this was probably the only place in the area where random doctoral students were likely to run into each other. It was nice to talk to other who understand. I think we all need gifted camp.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Game Set Match

"To the Parents of AJ Spy:

Your child, AJ, meets the requirements ot participate in the XXXXX School District Gifted Education/Academically Talented Program in the areas of:

x Language Arts x Mathematics

Identification for the Gifted/Talented program is based on school ability and achievement test information as well as teacher recommendation derived from a checklist of gifted characteristics.

Students identified for this program are placed in a heterogeneous classroom. The classroom teachers work with the Gifted Resource Teacher to support students through the use of enrichment activities, increasing the level of expectations, and requiring the use of higher level thinking skills.

Students identified in math will be placed into an accelerated class beginning in fifth grade. A new identification process will determine gifted placement in seventh and eight grades.

For students identified in Third and Fourth Grades:

The Gifted Resource Teacher will collaborate with your child's classroom teacher to provide alternative curriculum or enrichments according to student or curricular need. In the area of math, this may mean pre-testing, contracts, more complex problem-solving or enrichment packets. Students might read and study alternative, though related, novels or enrichment activities, if identified in language arts. The Gifted Resource Teacher may introduce new concepts to students as scheduling permits. Attempts will be made to schedule Junior Great Books or other intensive studies on a semi-regular basis."

So I guess being a persistent pain in the ass pays off (although I'm underwhelmed by "Attempts will be made...") There is a family orientation in September (a month after school starts). I am so relieved about this.

Monday, June 29, 2009

On parenting a gifted child

When I was pregnant with AJ, I worked until the day before I went into labor – several days past my due date. I lived a block and a half from my office. I didn’t see the point in sitting around waiting for something to happen. My boss let me stay on, even though I was officially quitting my job when I left (a situation forced by working in a very small office and the coincidence of pregnancies of GreenEyedSiren and myself, who were the two most senior employees at the time). I loved the structure work provided in those days before AJ’s birth when I was at once excited and terrified by the knowledge that the world as I knew it was about to be blown to pieces to be reassembled in an entirely different way.

But with all the work time, what I really relished was any chance to talk about the baby, something that wasn’t part of my everyday life. An ultrasound appointment, lunch with GreenEyedSiren, even an appointment to pee in a cup. Knowing that you weren’t alone, that there were other people who understood what you were going through became really important.

I’m finding the same thing is true of parenting a gifted child. There are so many challenging things, so many occasions when you feel like you’re flying by the seat of your pants, and so few occasions when you can sit down and honestly talk about what you are going through. You don’t want to just start chatting about your problems with other parents in the PTA. They might not understand. They might think you were just bragging about your smart kid. Again. When really, sometimes you just need another opinion. Or an ear. I’m so grateful for GreenEyedSiren’s ear and also for the comments of readers of this site. Half the battle of parenting is acquiring some sense that you are doing the right thing.

We had a long phone meeting with the psychologist who gave AJ his IQ evaluation a few weeks ago, the official follow-up appointment. It was an interesting conversation, but more than anything, it was a relief to converse about it at all, to be able to talk about some of the things I worry about all the time, but can’t usually discuss with anyone.

The psychologist, who specializes in work with gifted children, started out explaining the components of the test (WISC-IV) and the reason for the Dumont-Willis Index (discrepancy between IQ-important verbal and performance/perceptive reasoning scores and less-related processing speed/working memory scores). Most of this I’d figured out on my own. I know that the WISC-IV weights the processing speed and working memory higher than previous versions of the test and that the weighting was problematic in determination of IQ because it is not correlated with giftedness in the same way the other categories are. We learned that AJ is very strong in both left brain and right brain activities, but especially so in left brain (language center, crystallized knowledge, computation). As she started to describe what this meant, I had my first, “Yes! This is AJ!” moment. It was the first of many.

I don’t have a lot of “This is just like AJ” moments when talking to other parents. As parents of an only child, we wonder a lot about what’s “normal” and what’s not. How do you know when to worry? We have no basis for comparison. My best guide has been my memories of my own childhood as a gifted kid. Mostly that seems to guide me well with AJ, although I worry about revisiting my past on him. He’s his own person. And while there are many similarities, there are many differences. He cares a lot more about what other people think of him than I did, for one. He’s got better social skills in general.

After going over the test results, we asked for some advice – in working with the school, in evaluating the decision to stay in public school vs. sending him to a school for gifted kids, for dealing with some of the behavior issues we’ve encountered in school and also at home.

The first thing she pointed out was that AJ’s IQ is more than two standard deviations above the norm. Curriculum is targeted for IQs of roughly 85-115 – norm (100) and one standard deviation above and below. An IQ of 85 is considered learning disabled. An IQ of 70, two standard deviations below the norm, is considered mentally retarded. There are state mandated special services for them both. Why not for a child functioning at an equivalent amount above the norm? They are “special needs” children too. They have different behaviors, their intellectual development doesn’t gel with the rest of the class and their emotional development is often delayed. The psychologist used the word “asynchrony” to describe the difference between intellectual and emotional development in gifted children. She said they’re not sure why this asynchrony is so often found in gifted children, but that it may be because they seldom have peers.

The behavior issues often stemming from asynchrony mean that gifted children are frequently misdiagnosed or too soon diagnosed with a variety of psychological disorders, especially ADHD. (For more information on this, see this article) When we asked about AJ’s difficulty focusing in class, she cautioned against medicating too soon (something we had no intention of doing, but still, it’s nice to hear that encouraged). Then she proceeded to describe a child that sounded very much like AJ – one who is easily distracted, who likes to move around when he works, who fails to complete tasks and often ignores instructions or balks at classroom rigidity.

We asked about what benefits we might be missing out on by not sending AJ to a gifted school. She said that if the schools were $4000-$5000 a year, she’d recommend them to everybody. They offer a chance to go to school with intellectual peers. They often have more behavior flexibility – for example, allowing students to stand or move around while they are working. And they usually teach a grade level ahead. But, she added, there are advantages to being in a neighborhood school too – friends nearby, more like the real world, integration into the community he lives in, less commuting, which can take a toll. Especially if there is a gifted program at the school, it can be better to keep him there and maybe put some money toward extracurricular programs for gifted kids. This was nice to hear, because it’s exactly what we’ve been doing. She was particularly partial to the program we’ve signed AJ up for this summer (the same one he did last year) because the teachers tend to not just be certified to work with gifted children but to actually be gifted themselves. She thinks gifted kids respond better to teachers like that. And based on my experience with my own teachers and with AJ’s, I know she’s right.

Finally, we asked about helping AJ to function better in a typical classroom, to learn focus and discipline – is there anything that works better with gifted kids? She didn’t quite answer this question the way we had intended it, but she recommended two parenting books as being particularly useful for parents of gifted children (both with some qualifications – neither is perfect). The first was The Self-Esteem Trap by Polly Young-Eisendrath. The second was Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay. A quick glance through reviews on @m@zon suggest both might be useful to us, but I’m particularly intrigued by the first one, which seems to be focused on our precise concerns about AJ right now. Also, the second one sounds more or less like the approach we take already, one, incidentally, that was espoused by Dr. Haim Genott may years ago in Between Parent and Child, a book my own parents consulted regularly.

We didn’t really learn anything new today, but somehow it is different hearing these things from a person than reading them in a psychological journal or a website devoted to gifted ed. I came out of the conversation that it is in AJ’s best interest that I, as a parent, do my best to find some other people I can talk to about this stuff as it comes up. It makes me a better, more assured, more relaxed parent. And I’m less likely to get quite so frustrated with some of AJ’s behaviors, which, as the psychologist reminded me today, are perfectly normal for a kid like him.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Book Review: Stories told by toys

Book Review

Kate DiCamillo: The Miraculous Adventure of Edward Tulane (Candlewick, 2007)

Rachel Field: Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (Aladdin, 1998; orig. published 1929; Newbery Medal winner)

Margery Williams: The Velveteen Rabbit (there are too many editions to count; orig. published in 1922)

Mariana: Miss Flora McFlimsey’s Christmas Eve (Lothrop Lee & Shepard, 1949)

I am the last one in our house to read Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Adventure of Edward Tulane. My mother gave it to AJ for Christmas and he’d read it immediately on his own and then moved on to other things. Recently, when Mr. Spy was looking for something to read out loud with AJ, I happened upon it on the bookshelf and suggested it. They both loved it, although Mr. Spy had been worried that it was too sad or dark for AJ. AJ liked that it was a little dangerous. They both thought the ending was perfect.

Last night, after I tucked AJ in, I slipped the book off his table and sat up to read it. It is a beautifully written story about an elegant China rabbit, Edward Tulane, who begins as the favored toy of a young girl who loves him. But Edward does not appreciate what he has. He is arrogant and he is irritated when he is not treated in just the right way. Each night the little girl tucks him into his own bed next to hers and tells her she loves him. But he does not love her. He doesn’t love anyone.

The girl takes Edward on a boat to England. On the trip, some boys grab him from her and throw him overboard. He sinks to the bottom of the ocean. It is then that his trials begin. Many terrible things happen to Edward and often also to the people he takes up with. This is not an easy book. There is death and abuse and violence. The illustrations, which are beautiful, only accentuate this – a picture of Edward nailed up as a scarecrow looks for all the world like a crucifixion. But in the end, there is also redemption through love. The ending is, perfect, too perfect for me to want to give it away. Suffice it to say that Edward’s adventures changed him for the better and he was ultimately rewarded.

A number of reviews I’ve read of this book question whether it is suitable for children. It is indeed very dark and as such may not be for all children. But many children, my son included and myself when I was his age, like darkness. I know I always thought it seemed more interesting and somehow more trustworthy. I obsessively read the fairy tales of Grimm and Andersen when I was young. And it doesn’t get much darker than that.

The book put me in mind of a number of other books told from a toy’s point of view. The first, and the one with the greatest similarity, is Rachel Field’s Hitty: Her First Hundred Years. I first picked up Hitty at my grandmother’s house when I was probably about AJ’s age, or maybe a little younger. And I loved it. It is the memoir of a doll who was carved by a peddler for a little girl. Like Edward, Hitty has many adventures, some of which are similar to Edward’s – both, for instance, have run-ins with birds. But Hitty’s adventures are not all sad, nor are they meant to teacher her anything, but rather to showcase her optimism and willingness to make the best of situations that she is powerless to control.

Margery William’s classic tale, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” which you can read in its entirety here, always struck me as unspeakably sad as a child. The Velveteen Rabbit, a Christmas present to a small boy, becomes his favorite. The Rabbit loves being the boy’s favorite, but he longs to be Real (with a capital “R”). The part that always disturbed me was when the boy contracts scarlet fever and the rabbit is tossed in a trash pile, along with all the boy’s sheets and clothes, to be burned, in order to kill the germs. It seemed so heartless. The Velveteen Rabbit is rescued in an unexpected way and has a happy ending. But the adults in the story came off as careless and unobservant.

It is this separation of adult and toy world view in all three of these stories that also makes them appeal to children. The toys have hard lives. By the ends of these tales they are battered and broken and they have transformed into something beyond mere object. The adults, however, are mostly thoughtless, selfish, mean and careless with something that has feelings and little or no control over its own circumstances. Frequently, the adults don’t even notice the toys, much as children feel ignored or overlooked or misunderstood by adults.

The fourth book on my list is much slighter than the others, but is similarly wistful. It’s a picture book I adored as a child, and the pictures are a very large part of this book’s appeal. Flora McFlimsey is a doll who, when she was new, was given as a Christmas present to a little girl, who loved her. But now she is stuck in the attic on Christmas Eve with all the other unwanted things and a mouse named Timothy. But Flora McFlimsey has a wish: she wants to see a Christmas tree again. And she has another wish too: to be loved by a little girl again. And because it is Christmas, sometimes wishes come true. Even this book, though, is not all sweetness and light. There is the sadness of Flora’s abandonment in the attic. And once she makes it down to the Christmas tree, as a replacement for a doll that is missing from Santa’s bag, she is taunted to two brand-new and fashionable dolls. But in the end, the three sisters who come down on Christmas morning all like Flora best. She is old fashioned and not in fashion, but she is lovable.

In all of these books, the toys’ lack of agency is placed front and center. In three of them, the toys gain some amount of visible agency. In Hitty’s case, it is through writing her memoirs. In the case of the Velveteen Rabbit and Flora McFlimsey, there is a magical intervention that allows the toys to gain movement and thus control. Edward’s case is different. He gains control not of his surroundings, but of himself.

The difficulties the toys go through are exactly why we should let children read these books, why we should read them with our children, why writers should keep tackling difficult topics for children’s books. As parents, we tend to want to protect our children from the darker side of life. But children’s lives are often darker than we know. Like the toys in these books, they have little control over their lives. They are told where to go and when to go there. Things are taken away from them, and they often don’t understand why. Other children are sometimes cruel. Adults, even those who love them, don’t always listen to them as well as they should. Children will find familiar ground here, whether parents wish to admit it or not. None of these stories are depressing or hopeless. Quite the opposite. For a child who feels trapped and frustrated by his status in the world, the message of resolution may be a welcome one.

Edward Tulane may be an even more important figure for children than the rest. His character flaw is selfishness, and it brings about his downfall. Learning to connect with others redeems him. He is punished, repents and is forgiven. There is no magic. It is his own internal journey, a lesson taught by hardship, that transforms him. These are all issues that young children wrestle with but often cannot articulate. And as a parent, I worry that punishment looms larger than the forgiveness. Edward Tulane ends with forgiveness and reward.

Have any of you read The Miraculous Adventure of Edward Tulane? What did you think? What do you think of it as a book for children? Do you have any other books about toys to add to the discussion? I thought also of the Lonely Doll books, but I don’t remember them very well. I’d love to hear of more.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Second Grade wrap-up

Yesterday was AJ's last day of second grade. I think we were all ready for it. The last month or so has been tough on all of us.

AJ came home with a pile of old projects and a report card stuffed with test scores. The report card was...not great. Many of his marks slipped from the last report card, mostly in the category of "learning/social characteristics," which is the non-academic stuff. AJ has definitely struggled this year with his classroom behavior. He has had a particularly hard time keeping himself focused in the face of the many distractions of a small classroom crammed with 26 kids. But he also, apparently, has had motivation issues. We've seen it at home too. A lot of it is, I think, boredom. But he's also balking at more challenging work, not wanting to work too hard. In the past, such reticence has often been based on a sense of social isolation, wanting to do the same thing everyone else is doing. But this time, it seems to be more about fear of failure or sometimes just plain laziness. It's a behavior we'll need to watch carefully. At the moment, we're addressing it by reiterating our expectations that he try his best.

The distraction issue is something I'd like to work on over the summer, to find ways of keeping him more focused. One of the things I've notice about AJ, and about many kids his age, especially boys, is that he concentrates better when he is moving. When he works on his homework, he is often moving around or fidgeting with something and he does well. He can't do this in the classroom. We need to help him channel his energy.

The test scores were another matter. We finally got the official notice of the OLSAT. We also got the report on the ISEL, the individually administered state standard test. The results of both were a little puzzling. For the ISEL, which is an achievement test, AJ was in the 100th percentile in most areas. But his lowest area -- noticeably lower -- was verbal comprehension. This was the same area that had given AJ the most trouble on the OLSAT, an aptitude test, where it was also the only percentile below the 90s. AJ took the ISEL last year too and the score was more than 10 percentage points lower than the last time he took the test -- a significant difference. But that isn't the weird part. The weird part is that verbal comprehension was his highest score on the WISC, at the very top of the range at 99.9th percentile. What accounts for this drastic difference between tests? I know it's probably not fair to compare the tests in this way. But still, what is the reason for a nearly 20 percentage point difference between his scores in the same area? I wish I knew.

Has anyone else experienced such anomalies?

We still have one more round of test results, for the ITBS, due in sometime this month. Then we're off the hook for a while.

In addition to all his projects, he brought home a book of letters to him, one from each member of his class, his teacher and her aid. They've been working on these letters for months. Each child got the chance to be the "Star Student" for the day and got to make a poster and get up in front of the class and talk about their favorite things. Then the rest of the class wrote letters in response. The letters from the students were wonderful and sweet. But the one from his teacher made my day because she wrote it in a code for him to decipher. I was thinking about how hard they both struggled to understand each other at the beginning of the year. The code was perfect and AJ loved it. She's done a good job of trying to figure him out.

Over the next few weeks, AJ will be busy with sports and piano lessons and camps, including two weeks at the camp for gifted kids he attended last summer. I was, unfortunately, too late to sign him up to get the fabulous physics teacher he had last summer, who this year is teaching their most popular computer gaming course. But he'll be taking art, science and geometry, and he's very excited about it all.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Testing roundup

Today AJ finished what I believe is the last standardized testing for the year. Since this time last year, AJ has taken the KTEA-I (Kaufman Test of Eductaional Achievement, 2nd edition, brief form), KBIT-2 (Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test Second Edition), CTD Inventory (Center for Talent Development, Northwestern University), the Gates-McGintie Reading Test, the Darrell Morris Developmental Spelling Test, the ISEL (Illinois Snapshots of Early Literacy), the OLSAT (Otis-Lennon School AbilityTest), WISC-IV (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children – Fourth Edition), and ITBS (Iowa Tests of Basic Skills). Hard to believe at this point that I was, not all that long ago, testing averse.

Why am I no longer testing averse? It comes down to circumstances. I don’t see the point in intelligence testing for children unless you are trying to accomplish something – get into a program, get services needed at school, etc. And while I hate seeing schools teaching to the test, as a teacher, I also know the value of good student evaluation. It helps a lot to know what your students are getting and not getting. I love giving tests because it gives me a ton of information (I still hate writing and grading them, though. Well, not hate, exactly. More like resent the time they take.)

Of the tests above the first three (KTEA-I, KBIT-II & CTD) were administered in a single one-hour session. We elected and paid for that one to get AJ into a summer program that, ironically, we ended up not doing because of the test – we discovered just how awful the commute would be when driving there. The WISC-IV was the only other one that we elected, and that was to get AJ into the gifted program after a subpar showing on the OLSAT. All the rest of the tests were administered by AJ’s school. I’m thinking his file is going to need its own cabinet by the time he graduates.

But tests are designed to accomplish something. If you are just fishing for information, I don’t think you’ll get your money’s worth. You need to know what you need to know.

Then there’s the issue of the IQ number. We’ve deliberated about this. My feeling is that no one should know his own IQ. It can limit you or intimidate you when really, the number is a description (and not a very nuanced one at that) of a moment in time. It’s not a solution to anything.

AJ wants to know what his IQ is. I can understand the frustration of having someone know something about you that you don’t know. It’s why I wanted to know, when I was pregnant with AJ, whether he was a boy or a girl. I didn’t like the idea of my doctor having information that I didn’t. But in this case, I can’t see anything good that can come out of him knowing the number. He could brag about it. He could feel like he’s not living up to it. He could even be disappointed by it. Right now, it could be anything. And moreover, since he hit the test ceiling, we don’t even know for sure what that number is. We could sign him up for more testing, but what is the point? We know what we need to know.

But I didn’t like the idea of holding out on AJ. So I told him that I’d tell him what it is on the day he graduates from college. I plan to stick to my side of the bargain. But only if he remembers to ask me.

We are all looking forward to a break from testing for the summer. Now we just have to wait for the rest of the scores to come in.

What about you? What are your thoughts on testing? Where do you stand?