Thursday, May 28, 2009

Gifted Exchange

I stumbled across an intelligent blog focusing on gifted education issues today. Check out Gifted Exchange.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Scores are in

We got the full results of AJ's WISC testing today. He hit the ceiling. Take that, stupid school gifted program policy that ignores the obvious! Ahem. Please excuse me if I'm feeling a little childish about this. It's been a long haul and I've mostly been very polite.

Also, AJ reports that during his ITBS testing with the gifted teacher yesterday that she remarked, "Wow, you have a very large vocabulary." Well, duh!

I promise I will stop sticking out my tongue at everyone by the next post.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Rules and regulations

AJ's taking the first part of the ITBS tomorrow. Because of the problems he had on his last standardized test, the OLSAT, we printed out a practice test from the internet. My intent had been to just talk through it with him to make sure he understood the questions, but he loves tests and sprinted on through it. The only two questions he missed were both errors from excessive speed. So we came up with three rules to help him tomorrow.

1. Read the directions carefully
2. Take your time
3. Check the question number and make sure it matches the answer sheet number every time you color a circle.

He's looking forward to it. I'll be glad when all of this stuff is over.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Testing, testing and more testing

AJ had his WISC testing yesterday, which I've written about more anecdotally here. AJ took the WISC-IV and got a score clearly in the gifted range. Even better, he had a great time. It was as if a switch was flipped and his brain went into high gear afterwards. He's been extra fun to be around ever since.

I dropped off the score sheets at AJ's school right when school let out at 3:15. Within 30 minutes, I received an email from the gifted teacher saying she wanted to schedule AJ for Iowa testing. This meant that AJ's WISC scores were substituted for the anomalous OLSAT scores. One more battle completed. One more round of testing to go.

I didn't realize from talking to anyone -- not the gifted teacher, nor the classroom teacher, nor the principal, nor the curriculum director -- that there was another round of testing for identification. Although, I'm not entirely surprised, as the gifted teacher had said something about Iowa testing next year if he qualified. If I'd know that there was another round, I would have pushed for him to do Iowa testing (also known as ITBS or Iowa Test of Basic Skills) at the school earlier.

The ITBS is an achievement test, rather than an aptitude test like the OLSAT. Most schools we've investigated seem to use a combination of aptitude and achievement testing for gifted identification. AJ's school district gives all students the OLSAT in second grade and then pulls those students whose OLSAT scores qualify them for the program and adminsters the ITBS only to them. When I was a kid, everyone took the ITBS. The achievement tests that AJ's school administers to everyone are much less comprehensive. I'm sure that the decision to do it this way is all about economics.

I am slightly nervous for AJ taking the ITBS because, like the OLSAT, it is a color-the-bubble test. It is an "off level" test (or, at least, that's the way AJ's school does it), which means some of the questions will probably deal with concepts AJ doesn't know. But AJ has traditionally done well on these types of tests. And since the rest of the identified kids have already taken the test, AJ will be in a room by himself with the gifted teacher, so there will be fewer distractions than usual -- probably best for him. There are a few sample pages available on the web, which I plan to show him, just to give him an idea of what to expect, and I will prep him for the procedures, including telling him that some of the questions will probably be about things he hasn't learned yet. But I don't plan to do much. My goal is to make him comfortable in the testing room, to to help him cram.

AJ's testing will take place over the next two weeks. Thanks to his alert classroom teacher, who let us know about the OLSAT problem as soon as she knew herself, we were able to work both within the school system and also to acquire independent outside testing in time to get the ITBS done before the end of the school year. I have already written to tell her how very grateful we are for her help. As hard as this process has been, is, I feel we have been very lucky with our teachers.

But our schools, like the rest of the country, are suffering financially. Yesterday, an article appeared in the local paper quoting our district superintendent saying that they are looking at closing another school next year as one way to balance the budget. Our classes are already 26 students and up, even in kindergarten. The rooms aren't even big enough to hold any more students. So while one battle appears to be winding down, another one is just beginning. There are more letters to write.

I'm still working on post of general advice for effective public school advocacy. Additionally, the psychologist who administered AJ's WISC test gave us a 25 page resource guide for parents of gifted children, including organizations, support groups, publications and websites. Some of these are local for us, but some are national. I plan on investigating as many as I can over the coming weeks and writing about them here, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Book Review

What to Read When by Pam Allyn
Avery Press (Penguin Group), 2009

Last night, it was my turn to put Red to bed. We read for half an hour – books she chooses – and then she gets to read to herself for fifteen minutes until lights out. Red doesn’t know how to read but she’s developed that book love that, to paraphrase a famous movie, is the start of something beautiful. It took awhile to hook her, unlike her older sister who taught herself to read at four; Red is a more physical, outward and gregarious kid than her sister was. But, the closer she gets to kindergarten, the more she’s gotten interested in being read to.

Her first choice of the evening was Harold and the Purple Crayon, one of many books her sister has graciously gifted her. Dusty’s moved on to bigger things, namely Inkheart and Harry Potter (I don't think I need a link for this one).

Harold is one of my most favorite children’s books. There are probably a hundred books in that category but Harold’s near the top. I am still envious of his power to create his world own with a simple purple crayon. He can draw a city, a tree, a dragon, nine pies (which flavors, I wonder?), an ocean. He can get himself in trouble and then rescue himself. All alone. No parents required. He has the utmost confidence in his abilities and when he’s lonely, he draws a friend.

I recently won a copy (through a contest held at the 3Rs) of Pam Allyn’s What to Read When. I was curious – I mean, we’re preaching to the choir here – to know what books she felt were important and when. Particularly, since Dusty is reading four grade levels above her own.

The search for challenging books with appropriate themes is becoming trickier. Dusty’s not ready for middle school books about puberty and sticky friendships involving boys. She doesn’t really want to know about sex and how babies are made. Trust me; we’ve ventured down that road before, inching along until the stop sign went up. So, I’m always looking for new books to introduce her to. At school, her teacher is encouraging her to read classics (rewritten for an elementary school audience, I assume) such as Treasure Island, Oliver Twist, and Robinson Crusoe.
So, when What to Read When arrived, I sat down with a pen to take notes and star new books to find for Dusty. The book is divided into three sections. The first (the preaching to the choir section) discusses the importance of reading to children, outlines how to help your child become a lifelong reader, and lists fourteen “Landmark Books” – books so important to the author, every child should read them.

The second section is a chronological listing of books to read to each age, birth to ten. The third section looks at books that fall into fifty themes. Oh, pardon: Fifty Essential Themes. Or rather, Forty-Nine, since Allyn wusses out and invites us to create our own essential fiftieth theme. I have a few beefs with that section but I’ll get to it in a minute.

First – Landmark Books. There are fourteen listed. I’ve read all of them. I’m sure you have, too. I agree with the author’s choices – only one of these books do I question as being “landmark” (Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman – is she our only token African-American heroine still? What year is this?) – but guess what isn’t there? Harold and the Purple Crayon. What is, you ask? Madeline, Charlotte’s Web, Pat the Bunny, Curious George, A Snowy Day, etc. The list ends with Harry Potter. The list is not so much wrong, as dated. And seriously limited. I don’t disagree with any of the choices but feel that way too many really important books were left out. And then, because this is a list that apparently covers the first ten years of a child’s life, I thought, gee, why bother? Fourteen books? Are you serious? Every single one of them, except Harry Potter, was written before I was born. And I’m well over forty. I suspect Ms. Allyn is, too.

I think she should have spent more time at the library, talking with librarians (and if she did, she must have gotten there via a time machine), because there are so many really wonderful books, books I consider modern “landmarks” (Not a Box by Antoinette Portis, for example; or The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle – which is not mentioned here at all), that have been written since 1966, that may get overlooked if one used this book as their main guide. Which, of course, it shouldn’t. It’s not a bad starting point for a parent who is not necessarily a hard-core reader. But it’s a decent place to begin.

So, I won’t belabor the point. More recent books show up elsewhere.
The second section is, to me, the most useful section. It divides books up by ages – and subdivides them by subject and/or theme. Books listed for birth to two include Goodnight Moon (on the landmark book list and published in 1947), some Eric Carles, some books about words and numbers and faces. The usual.

Since Dusty is my oldest child, and my most challenging in terms of her reading level, I was particularly interested in the lists for eight, nine and ten year olds. These lists include fiction, nonfiction, cooking, poetry, science, humor, plays, and art, among other categories (they differ for each age). Many familiar books are here: Bunnicula, Captain Underpants, David Macaulay’s Castle, Where The Sidewalk Ends, etc. But, these sections were also filled with plenty I was unfamiliar with: Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, to list a few. Almost every book listed under “Books for Building Complex Thinkers” (Age Nine), Dusty’s read already. But, just having three in that category that she hasn’t read gives me three more books to introduce to her.

The final section is entitled “The Fifty Themes: All the Best Books for the Moments That Matter Most.” A tall order. My biggest problem with this section was the way the headings – the themes – were alphabetized. “The Challenges and Joys of Siblings” is under C. I’d put it under S for sibling, since that’s the theme, not “challenges”. Ditto with “The Complexity of Sharing.” I’d also put that under S for Sharing rather than C for Complexity. What. Ever. You’ll have to refer to index to find what you’re looking for. A very strange choice.

I think that while this book attempted to do too much, it’s not bad. It’s a good place to start. While I’d agree that “Adoption” is a good theme (if it’s relevant to your situation), I’m not sure I’d equate it to “Bath Time.” Which underscores my biggest issue with this book: it’s trying to be all things for all ages. Readers, and parents, would have been better served with perhaps a series of books that really encapsulated the best books for narrower age groups.

Reading aloud to each age group is also different. When I read to Red, I’m frequently interrupted because she likes to point out letters. Or, I stop and ask her what c-a-t spells. With Dusty, I’m interrupted because she wants to know what a Receiver is and why it’s not necessarily a good thing to be one (The Giver). She likes to think ahead, guessing what might happen next. She might stop to look a new word up in the dictionary. I think that’s the kind of information parents need. Kind of the literature version of the What to Expect series on the care and feeding of babies and children. My children (almost five and eight-and-a-half) have different reading requirements, different expectations. Not that the introduction of What to Read When is lacking, I think the book's attempt to be all things is.

That said, there are plenty of books my children haven’t read that are listed here and that’s worth it for me. It’s not a bad reference at all but as a hard core reader raising hard core readers, it’s just not quite enough. Or too much. I can’t decide.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Book Review: City of Names by Kevin Brockmeier

Kevin Brockmeier, City of Names
New York: Viking, 2002

When I was a kid, I lived at the public library. Sometimes I'd go to look something up or to check out a book I loved. But my favorite thing was to wander the shelves looking for something to call to me, something in the title or perhaps the shape of the spine, to pull it off the shelf and take a look. Many times the book went straight back where it came from, but if I was really lucky, I'd find a keeper. For some reason, maybe because it was my own discovery and no one told me about it, those books were often the ones that stuck with me the best. Natalie Savage Carlson's The Family Under the Bridge, Sydney Taylor's The All-of-a-Kind Family, and Meindert' de Jong's The Wheel on the School were several I found this way and all are still well-remembered and much beloved.

AJ has come to shelf-wandering later than I did. It is, I think, because public libraries are a lot different than they were when I was growing up. There are many more distractions -- computers with games and internet connections, playrooms, art projects to do. It wasn't really until first grade, when he got to go to his school library and pick out his own books that he started to figure out the pleasures of wandering the shelf and finding something good.

A couple of weeks ago, we all took a trip to the public library in the next town, which is much larger and nicer than our local branch. AJ was in a browsing mood and came out with a number of good books, one of which turned out to be a real find: City of Names by Kevin Brockmeier. AJ and I both enjoyed it. It turned out to be one of those books we read out loud at the same time AJ reads it to himself. He's read it 3 times since we checked it out and is hoping to squeeze in one more read before it's due back at the library next weekend.

City of Names is narrated by Howie Quackenbush, a fifth grader at Larry Boone Elementary School in the town of North Mellwood. Howie's been an only child, but his mom is pregnant and he's finding himself with a few too many Taco take-out dinners and a little more time on his hands. Howie looks forward to getting his school book club orders each month, but is surprised to discover that instead of the copy of 101 Pickle Jokes he requested, he gets The Secret Guide to North Mellwood, a map of his town with mysterious names. The map turns out to allow him to travel around his town, into homes and businesses even after hours. But Howie doesn't know where the map comes from or what exactly he is supposed to do with it. And when another unexpected book order delivery comes and leads him to mysterious underground rooms all over town, the mystery only deepens. Howie gets to the bottom of the mystery, with the help of his best friend Kevin Bugg and the girl who makes him blush, Casey Robinson, and his artist-Aunt Margie, just in time.

The story is engaging, but what really struck me was the quality of the writing, which is a definite cut above most books written for the 8-12 age group. His command of language and his way of spinning out a story was perfectly paced, and his characters were unusual, compelling and convincing. In lesser hands, this story would have taken much more than 137 pages to tell. Brockmeier's authorial skill should come as no surprise. Although this was Brockmeier's first novel for children (he has since written at least one other, Grooves, A Sort of Mystery ), he has written a number of acclaimed novels for adults, and has the sort of credentials that writers envy. He's a graduate of the Iowa Writers workshop and has racked up a host of honors including a Michener Fellowship, an O. Henry prize, and inclusion in Granta's Best of Young American Novelists (2007). As an author of adult fiction, Brockmeier is known for turning the sci fi genre on its ear. I was first introduced to him by an article in Slate a couple of years back called, "Who is Kevin Brockmeier", whose author Megan O'Rourke calls Brockmeier's A Brief History of the Dead, "a novel that gracefully captures modern-day anxieties about terrorism and futuristic decay—and a book that makes us feel, for a moment, how strange it is that humans live in glass and metal boxes suspended above the ground. This, after all, is what fantasy can do best: restore our sense of wonder."

There are elements of fantasy in City of Names as well, but it is the attention to realistic detail that had AJ from the beginning. He immediately identified with Howie as an only child, as a kid still trying to figure out where he fits, a kid who loves school and books but longs for adventure. And he loved the form that adventure took, especially that it involved kids exploring without much supervision.

Brockmeier so perfectly captures his narrator, that even though I'd forgotten which grade he was in as I sat down to write this post, I was certain he had to be eleven years old. Without browbeating the issue, Brockmeier delicately addresses Howie's ambivalence over his impending big-brotherhood and his uncertainty about his changing feelings for his longtime friend Casey. He is a boy on the brink of puberty, but he's not there yet and he's in no real rush to arrive.

AJ also loved the book's humor, the map (although he wished there'd been a copy of the map in the book to look at), the idea of "secret names" and the esoteric words used for those names -- we spent a lot of time with the dictionary because AJ wanted to know what words like "dolorifuge" ("something to drive away pain," OED) and "floccinaucinihilipilification" ("the action or habit of evaluating something as worthless," OED) meant. I loved the linking of the map with Howie's soon-to-arrive sibling in unexpected ways and the attention on the importance of what we call things. This book is highly recommended and was perfectly pitched for my second grader (who only squirmed a little at the very brief mention of kissing, but then, so did Howie), but could easily sustain the interest of older children as well. AJ is hoping to discover a sequel on the library shelf one day.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Holding Pattern

We're at the end of the line with the school district, for the moment anyway. And yet, the news is, I think, cautiously positive. Mr. Spy and I each spoke this morning with the district Director of Curriculum, who is, among other things, in charge of admission policy for the gifted program. I'm finding that talking to everyone, from the teachers on up, tends to result in their talking very fast over you, as if to anticipate problems before they happen. They all use the, "I understand -- I'm just like you" kinds of lines. These are mostly defensive, but still well-meaning. For the most part, anyway. And I don't think it's necessarily a conscious manipulation. I do think, however, that as a parent-advocate, you need to know how to push through it. Otherwise, when you get out of the conversation, you are left scratching your head and saying, "What just happened?"

Good point number one -- every single person we've dealt with, from the classroom teacher to the district administrators -- has done when that said they would when they said they would do it. This is huge. It means good communication in the district. It means they're taking us seriously.

Good point number two -- the Curriculum Director is talkative, but she is also friendly and smart and we were largely in agreement on matters of educational philosophy. However, she still couldn't tell us what we wanted to hear. But she didn't say no either.

We heard more about the district's reevaluation of the criteria for gifted program admission that our school principal had mentioned last week. It is not just an idea, it's actually happening and it's supposed to be in place this fall. The new policy will add two more criteria and take the weight off the one test. They're still trying to figure out what criteria will be included and in what weighting. They will likely include test scores, portfolio, teacher recommendations and parent recommendations. The goal is to get more kids what they need. It also sounds like the district may be reevaluating the pull-out program. The C.D. is on the fence about it. She has been looking at districts that use a gifted label, but not a gifted program and focus on training and supporting classroom teachers. I think this is a great direction, if it works. What we want is not a label, but the extra challenge AJ needs. But when there is a label, when there is a pull-out program, we need that too. Because if we don't, he is unlikely to get what he needs. When there is a pull-out program, teachers rely on it.

The C.D. seemed to think that it was likely that AJ would be included by the new criteria, especially since he's only 1 point away by the old criteria. But she can't promise -- there are others who, like us, are advocating for their kids. She promised to get him what he needs in the classroom and to call her any time if I needed help. But she couldn't guarantee the pull-out. All she could do is say it looked likely. If we want guarantees, the only thing left is testing -- assuming the test scores are high enough. And so we will be spending the $500 to have him tested later this month and hope it helps.

One thing that worries me slightly, though, is that we're getting mixed messages about how much the test scores will help. The gifted teacher had told us that they will substitute the private testing for the OLSAT score. But that's not what the C.D. said. She said it would be included in the things they look at, although she also said that it was the only thing that really has made a difference in the past. This does not sound like a guarantee to me either, but at least it sounds promising.

While we didn't get what we'd hoped to get, we did get what we expected to hear, more or less. And now we know to focus our energies on learning about the IQ testing on May 19.

I hope all these stories about the process are not too tedious to read. My hope is that others can learn from our experience, that it will help others learn how to advocate for their kids. Since we have a lull in the process, I'm working on a more general post on advocacy and another one on how to approach IQ tests with your kids. I would love to hear some more voices on this subject. If you're interested in posting here on these or other subjects of giftedness, please email me at harri3tspyATgmailDOTcom.