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.