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.