Friday, February 20, 2009

Midyear Evaluations

This week was midyear parent-teacher conference week at AJ's school. The midyears are by request only, not required. AJ's teacher did not request a conference, but I did. I always do. I can't imagine not taking advantage of a chance to get a better picture of what's going on or to let the teacher know you're paying attention.

My agenda this time was minimal. I wanted to see how some of the organization/behavior issues were going. I wanted to find out what exactly was happening with the school reading groups -- AJ tells us very little and I haven't worked with the reading groups on my volunteer days in a while. But mostly, I wanted to find out what on earth was going on with math.

The news was mostly good -- very good. The behavior issues seem mostly about maturity and the fact that AJ will always take an opportunity to act silly/crazy if someone else is acting that way. This is mostly limited to one other person and they've been separated, so that is going better. We will probably always have organization issues -- AJ's just not a natural. But he's trying. We've been making fewer after school returns to school to find lost homework. He's reportedly keeping his classroom supplies in better order. He has good days and bad days, but there's progress. At home, I see him taking more responsibility for his work. I don't have to remind him quite as much. The things he does daily, he does well. He still struggles with the once-a-week things, since they aren't as securely fixed in his routine.

The reading news was great. I got to see the book he's been working on, one of the "Dear America" series. AJ loves it and it's challenging enough, especially when combined with a series of questions he has to answer at the end which require him to pull out information from the novel and analyze it after he's done reading. This week they'll be starting a Louis Sachar novel that I'm not familiar with called something like "Sideways Tales from the Wayside School." We also got to see a portfolio of his writing, which was wonderful. They are doing a lot more writing than I thought they were -- little comes home, so we didn't realize what they were doing. There were scads of essays, short stories, poems and other types of creative writing.

It turned out, though, that it was good for me to be concerned about math. AJ's teacher showed us a sheet of midyear evaluation scores. Everything was 100% or higher (spelling has extra credit options) except for addition -- that was about 50%. Why was this score so low? Part of it was because AJ didn't read the instructions. When he sees things he thinks are too easy for him, he doesn't bother to make sure he knows what to do. I see this on his homework all the time. But much of it was the opposite problem -- he did read the instructions, but didn't remember that the teacher had told him to do something different. AJ is supposed to multiply most addition worksheets because he doesn't really need the addition practice and he's working on other things. She has reminded him several times, but he doesn't remember. So his score dropped. Now I understand the teacher's point of view here. I know exactly how frustrating AJ can be when you are trying to get him to do something different from the way he's done it before. It take numerous reminders over a fairly long period of time for the behavior to change. This drives me crazy, as I'm sure it drives his teacher crazy. But in this case, I have a little more sympathy with AJ. On the one hand, he's being told to pay more attention to written instructions. On the other, he's hearing that he's not supposed to follow written instructions. I suggested that the multiplication substitution be put in writing, either taped to his desk or, better yet, written on each worksheet.

Meanwhile, we are working with AJ on deciphering word problems. He's got his multiplication and division down, but he doesn't always know how to translate a word problem into a math problem accurately. Yesterday he came home with an assignment to write his own word problems with which he is to try to stump the school principal, who will do one student-created worksheet a week. AJ is very excited about this and I am too. What kid doesn't want to try to be smarter than his teachers and principal? And what a great way to get inside the way word problems work -- instead of yet another work sheet, a creative project. The teacher gets a big gold star for that one.

AJ spent much of the week working on his science fair project with his two friends, which meant I got to spend some time with two of my favorite parents. All three of the kids are definitely performing above average. One of them in ways very similar to AJ. He's in another class. Talking to his mother, I realize how well things really are going this year. Her son is getting minimal reading challenge and only gets challenge spelling when the bring a list in from home, like we did last year. He's getting no extra math at all. The mother of the other boy, who has been in AJ's class for the past two years, agreed that while their teacher this year is not as remarkable as their teacher last year, that she's doing a pretty good job.

The best news I heard at the conference was that when his teacher asks, "Who wants a challenge," he's always the first one with his hand up, shouting, "Me! Me!" This is a big change from last year, where he was often embarrassed about doing something different from everyone else. The difference is that this teacher has integrated challenge assigments seamlessly into her curriculum. In some cases, she offers the challenge assignments to everyone who wants to try them. In part because of class reorganization, AJ gets to work with a partner or in a small group on a number of tasks. The teacher is also using the Everyday Math curriculum in exactly the way I'd hoped she could. Everyday math cycles through a series of topics every year. When they get to a section where AJ is not challenged, she is pulling the assignments from the same topic in the 3rd or 4th grade book. He's still doing the same thing, but at his own level. Consequently, I think AJ is feeling much more a part of the class. This is particularly crucial this year, because he's much more aware of same/different issues than he was last year.

So, there has been definite progress on most fronts since Fall. Good news indeed.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Madder Men

In light of my last post and your comments on it, an article in today's New York Times Arts section seemed particularly timely.

The article,"Scholastic accused of Misusing Book Clubs" by Motoko Rich, discusses a watchdog group's opposition to the presence of advertising links and non-book items in the Scholastic Book Club flyers that go out to thousands of school children every month. I know several of us here at AJ's Clubhouse have expressed our concern about this before. The watchdog group is called Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. You can see more of what they do at their website, linked above.

The argument that Scholastic offers is that some of these items help bring reluctant readers to books by luring them with posters, toys and games. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood objects globally to anything that is not a book being marketed in schools and that the add-ons only teach children acquisitiveness, without actually teaching them to value books (I have heavily paraphrased here and take all credit for any oversimplification). I think my own opinion on the matter lies somewhere in the middle, although closer to the CCFC's side. I have already discussed in this space my discomfort with brand name advertising in schools. I don't, however, put the selling of a book with a poster in the same category as the selling of a video game. Scholastic has both types of things. I don't think video games belong in school flyers. But I have no problem with posters -- as long as the poster has something to do with the book. AJ loves it when his books come with posters. He has a number of them up in his room. But I would be surprised if he would choose a book simply because it had a poster. The poster would only encourage an interest that was already there. I don't even have a problem with some of the non-book items Scholastic sells -- science experiment kits, for example. If they get a kid to engage in some scientific inquiry at home, that's great. The Mad-Libs they've started selling are good too. Although not designed as educational tools but for silly fun, they encourage reading and writing and they taught my kid the parts of speech. My objection to most of the non-book items is the quality control -- the few science kit type products we've ordered from Scholastic have been cheaply made and hard to use. If they are going to sell such things, they should make sure they are good quality and worthwhile educational products. Not video games. Not advertising. Not junk.

Of course, what Scholastic wants to market outside of schools is its own business. Inside the school, where they have a captive audience that has to be there -- they have not chosen it -- marketing non-educational, branded, or plain inappropriate products is reprehensible. And Scholastic has been doing plenty of all three.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Mad Men

AJ is a huge fan of the website Funbrain. He loves the math games especially. He plays them in school when they have their computer lab day. I like the games too, but I'm a little squeamish about all the advertising. On the one hand, I'm sure the advertising is the only reason sites like this exist. And anything that gets a kid playing math for the sheer fun of it is doing something right. On the other hand, AJ is being bombarded with ads for Y0g0s and McDon@ld's. AJ and I talk a lot about advertising and what it does and how it works and why you should interrogate it, so I'm not really worried that he's being brainwashed. His friends are much more persuasive advocates for those particular products anyhow.

So my questions for you are, is advertising ever appropriate in educational materials? I am thinking not just of websites, but also things like the preschool math books based on Cheeri0s and M/Ms, school fundraisers with local fast food franchises (ours does D0min0s, Wendis and McDs every month with prizes for the class with the biggest haul) If so, how much is too much? What should we be doing about it?