Friday, December 3, 2010

Making Connections, Creating Opportunities

When AJ isn’t worried about being persecuted for doing extra homework, I think he really enjoys Latin. He seems particularly interested in the ways in which Latin intersect with real life. I’ve been going out of my way to point out Latin roots, not just in our Latin lessons but also when we’re reading out loud or even watching TV. AJ was reading one of his 90 gazillion books about space the other night and he got a look on his face that suggested a bulb had just burned on over his head. “Mom, does ‘astronaut’ mean ‘sailor to the stars’? Because it sounds like astra and nauta.” Exactly right, AJ. Suddenly language is seeming more meaningful to him, imbued with history and poetry.

At our parent-teacher conference last week, I mentioned to his teacher that I’m teaching him Latin at home and this week his spelling list was drawn from words related by common Latin and Greek roots. Coincidence? Maybe. AJ’s not the only kid that gets the challenge words. But they weren’t the words on the regular challenge list. I think she made the list because she knew we’d been working on it. Big points for the teacher in my book.

Yesterday, when we sat down to do Latin, I could tell AJ was tired and not so into it. I turned to the next story and he groaned. It was long. We started to translate, but he was getting frustrated with all the new vocabulary and with the fact that he kept forgetting some of the little words that come up all the time. I slammed the book shut. “Let’s try something different.”

We’ve been flying through the textbook and are nearly done with it already. He picks things up so fast that it’s easy to do, but with language, you need processing time. I think it’s time to slow down and try some new things.

I sat down at the kitchen counter and wrote out the words to the first verse of “Adeste Fidelis.”

“Do you recognize this, AJ?”

“Hmm. I think it looks kind of familiar.”

“I’ll sing it for you. Maybe it will sound familiar.”

So I sang the verse. He recognized it, but didn’t remember the words in English or in Latin. I turned him loose to translate it. He’d had almost all the vocabulary. I just had to coach him through the imperative verb forms. He wrote his translation out. Then I wrote out how we sing the carol in English and we talked about some of the things you need to do when translating poetry or song lyrics that are different than just a straight translation. He was fascinated.

And then we sang it together, first in English, then in Latin.

“Are we done?” he asked when we finished.

“Yup.”

“That was more fun than regular Latin. Can we do it again?”

Lucky for me there are plenty of Latin carols to draw on this month. And as soon as we dig out the Christmas decorations, we’ll work on my Latin copy of How The Grinch Stole Christmas. That’s going to blow his mind.

* * * * *

Yesterday’s study session was at an interesting intersection between a couple of different trains of thought I’ve been pursuing this week. One is an email exchange I had with our school district’s curriculum director. I’d sent her a link to a project of the Society for American Music that seeks to help teachers to use music in teaching American History. They are running a training institute this summer and have already got a website up with helpful links and suggestions for specific ways to incorporate specific pieces into history curricula. The site will eventually have lesson plans as well. I’m really excited about this project, as was the curriculum director. At a juncture where many schools are axing their music programs, this kind of approach seems very promising. If I can teach music in Latin, surely we can teach it in History. How else can we blend the arts into the mainstream public school curriculum?

It also came up in my meeting this morning with the director of the gifted ed program at the local community college. We were sitting down to brainstorm ideas for bringing extra-curricular classes into our public school district and were considering waysto construct classes that would a) appeal to a lot of kids, b) be rigorous enough that parents would pay for it but would also c) be fun enough that the kids would be enthusiastic to functionally extending their school day. So we were thinking: what makes classes fun? Mixing the arts into other subjects is one of the things we came up with.

I’m not sure I really have a point here. If I do, it’s maybe that it’s easy for us musicians (and educators too) to think of the arts as an end in itself, but it they are also valuable as a methodology. AJ got both language and music yesterday. And history too, because I took the opportunity to talk about classical Latin vs. church Latin when he asked why there were so many Christmas carols in Latin.

However, I’m not sure how I’m going to explain Quomodo Invidiosulus Nomine Grinchus Christi Natalem Abrogaverit.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Problem Solving

Our district still hasn't managed to work out the extra-curricular after-school program for gifted kids that they'd said they'd put in place, so I've been researching other alternatives that could be volunteer run. I have come across several team problem solving competitions that sound intriguing.
Two of them are international:

Destination Imagination

Odyssey of the Mind

And one is for the state of Illinois:

Future Problem Solving Bowl

There are several things that appeal to me about these programs.

1. It's not school work, but it draws on things kids need to know in school.
2. The problems require multiple skills, which encourages them to work in teams where members have different strengths
3. There's a social component.
4. It sounds really fun.

Does anyone know anything about these programs? I am wondering how difficult they might be to implement at our schools.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Science videos from NPR

Last week, my mom pointed out a video she thought AJ would like at National Public Radio's site. We liked it so much, that we went in search of others. Here is our catalog of science videos by NPR commentator Robert Krulwich collaborating with cartoonist Odd Todd.


How Much does a Hurricane Weigh?

A five part series on carbon and its role in global warming:

Carbon 1
Carbon 2
Carbon 3
Carbon 4
Carbon 5

Ants that count

The Crow Paradox

How much heat can you take?


All of these videos are informative and fun to watch. Our only complaint is that there aren't more of them.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Midterms

For the first time ever, we got a midterm report from AJ's teacher. We are continuing to learn that AJ's teacher this year doesn't do things like everybody else. While some kids are struggling with that, AJ seems to be thriving. He is taking greater responsibility for his work and is less inclined to take the easy way out. We are still seeing some mighty basic math homework a lot of the time, but not all the time. AJ, who has brought home straight As since he started getting grades, actually seemed proud of his grades this term. I think he had to work for some of them. And I think he's starting to learn that working means you're doing okay, that you're not supposed to know everything before you start. If the only thing AJ gets out of this year is the message that working is worthwhile, then the year will be a success as far as I'm concerned.

There were three other areas of note that came out of the midterm report.

1. AJ's teacher had the students evaluate their own progress, and their self-assessments were included with the midterm report. I asked AJ about it and he said it was really hard to do. He did, however, offer a fairly accurate assessment in most areas. Although I did think that his high rating on listening in class was undercut by the five warning slips also included (these were handed out throughout the year to date), as each one was for talking in class. He's his mother's son, for sure.

2. As I mentioned in a post at the beginning of the summer, AJ's school has adopted the Accelerated Reader program for guided reading. This involves standardized tests for level assessment. Each book a student reads for independent or in-class free reading is assigned a number of points based on length and difficulty. After each book is completed, the student takes a computerized test of 10-20 questions about the book. The questions are quite detailed and it is not uncommon for students to have to test more than once. After a successful test (which I believe is defined as 80% or higher, although I'm not sure about this), points are assigned to the students account. If the student gets all the questions right, they get full points. If they miss a question or two, they'll lose a few points. Students need to accumulate a certain number of points in their accounts each trimester. The idea is to motivate students to read and to encourage them to read more challenging books, which garner them more points. Readers with greater ability will be expected to earn more points per term than those who are still struggling with the basics.

In principle, I think this program can work. But the book level system is highly flawed, as I mentioned in my previous post on lexiles. AJ's teacher is using book level rather than lexile number. They are basically different ways of stating the same information. The book level is defined by grade level. For instance, a book that is deemed a good reading level for an average fourth grader in the middle of the year will be level 4.5 (month 5 of fourth grade).

Up until now, they've been able to read whatever books they like. But the Midterm Report informed us that from here on out, the only books that would count toward the point totals are the ones that fall within their reading range. AJ's level has been determined to be between 4.5 and 8.9. I'd say that's probably about right in terms of ability. It's better than it could have been -- he's testing at an advanced high school level. The problem is, he likes to read a lot of books that are in the 3.8-4.4 range.

The latest example: Diary of a Wimpy Kid was assessed at 5.2, nearly a grade level above Adam Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday, a much more challenging book from both the standpoint of vocabulary and subject matter, which is registered as 4.5. Smekday was just barely inside AJ's reading level. It's his favorite book at the moment. If it were one point down, he wouldn't have been allowed to read it. If any of you has read both of these books, can you explain the book leveling? It's a mystery to me.

I'm all for pushing AJ to challenge himself with reading. I think he often cops out of things that are a little harder than he's used to because he's afraid he won't succeed. But the book levels seem so random to me that I'm not sure of the value of the cutoff. The AR program does try to acknowledge age appropriateness with their book search system as a separate category from reading ability, for which I commend them, but as I pointed out in my previous post on the subject, the age assignments are frequently random (although not as downright inappropriate as some of the things we found on lexile.com).

I'm a little concerned that AJ is feeling like his book choices are not good enough, like his reading is not up to par because many of the books he likes are below his assigned level. In order to encourage him, this weekend I took him to the bookstore to pick out a new reading book. He came home with Pseudonymous Bosch's The Name of This Book is Secret (book level 5.6). He is loving it and is excited that there are more in the series. So we're good for now, at least.

3. We discovered a really not-so-good result of the school day that is now 45 minutes shorter than it was last year thanks to budget cuts: they can't teach science and social studies at the same time. They are alternating science and social studies units. How can kids not have both subjects all the time? I read Obama's sweeping statements about the education reforms that we need, about having a longer school year, blah blah blah. I have one thing to say to him: Show me the money.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Afterschooling update

With bigger classes, no gifted and a shorter school day, AJ and I decided to do some after school homeschooling. While some of it involves enhancing his daily lessons especially in math, most of our time is spent on learning a new language.

The language AJ picked was Latin. I’m not sure why he decided Latin was a good one but I was happy about it because a) I had Latin in school and b) I’ve been wanting to relearn the grammar, which I seem to have largely forgotten.

I have to admit, I did not do a whole lot of research into curriculum. The homeschool pages recommending Latin curricula were almost entirely including Latin for religious reasons. And that’s just not us.

Instead, I picked the Cambridge Latin Course. I used the course in high school Latin myself and I already owned the first two books of the series, which saves us some big bucks. Plus their website has some helpful tools on it, including games and self-quizzes for every chapter. A warning, though, to those who use Chrome as their browser of choice: some of the components are not compatible. We switch to Firefox before heading to the site.

We’ve also located some online flashcards for the series, which let AJ study vocabulary on his own.

I’ve already written a little about what I like about Cambridge Latin. I was a little nervous about using it with a 9-year-old, but it seems to be working out well. He likes the humor of the stories – yesterday he learned how to say “dirty poem” (versus scurrilis!). I like the way the stories keep circling back on vocabulary so it’s easy to learn. And we both like reading the culture sections.

I wasn’t sure how the grammar issue was going to go. AJ’s had some Spanish in an after school program, but it was strictly conversational and largely aural/oral. They didn’t discuss things like conjugation or even much about masculine/feminine/neuter. But the book explains grammar so logically, with one main point per chapter (or “Stage” as they call it), that AJ is all over it.

The book is very translation oriented like many Latin books. But to keep AJ interested, we’ve been reading out loud and doing some of the translations orally, others written. I agonized for a while about pronunciation. In school, I studied classical Latin. But I’ve spent much more time as a singer working with church Latin so in the end, that’s what I decided to teach. I’m more familiar with it and less likely to make mistakes. And really, it doesn’t matter. I’m more concerned with giving him a connection to the language than about what it really sounds like.

Every chapter ends with an exercise that includes a list of English words with roots based on the chapter’s Latin vocabulary. You have to match the English words with their definitions. We’ve been using these exercises as a springboard to talk about English vocabulary, which has been fun. I’m not sure where I’m going with it. AJ’s been really interested in the Scripp’s Spelling bee, so maybe we’ll work on some vocabulary/spelling games as well.

So, so far,so good. I’m liking our afterschooling routine. Even with football practices every night, it seems to be working.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Executive Function

Normally at this time of year, I post about our back to school experiences with gifted at AJ’s school. But this year, there’s not a whole lot to tell, at least not yet. They’ve been in school for two weeks now, but there is still not a lot coming home and they are about to launch into round one of standardized testing (STAR and MAP) for the year.

But while I can’t talk much about academics, there is one thing I am definitely happy with about school, and that’s about the way his teacher is teaching study skills.

Like many gifted kids, AJ has some problems with what psychologists like to call “executive function.” To say he is not good at organizing himself is an understatement. He has classic absent-minded-professor syndrome. He forgets things. He loses things. He starts on one task and gets distracted by some shiner more exciting thing in the middle and forgets what he was doing. We have tried and tried to help him with routines and lists but nothing has worked. But this year, things are better, at least as far as schoolwork goes.

There are two reasons that AJ himself has identified for the improvement. One is actually a result of the overcrowded classes: no desks. Because they sit at tables instead of desks, AJ can’t shove stuff in there never to be seen again. Instead of desks, they keep their important stuff in fabric pockets that go over the backs of their chairs. These pockets are small and you can see everything in them, so there’s nowhere for things to hide. Most supplies are shared by the tables, so they are stored in a shared space and don’t get lost either.

The second tool, though, is something that is actually part of the curriculum: The Binder. The binder organizes all their school work. The teacher talks to them about it, let them decorate the cover, and showed them how to put it together. It’s an awesome tool. But mostly I just love that the teacher is backing up what we try to do at home. In the past, we’ve given AJ a calendar and a folder system to help him remember his homework, but without the teacher helping him with it at school, it failed.

The front pocket is for parent-teacher communication only. Inside the 3 rings, there is a zip pocket for money – both the real money that goes back and forth to school and the fake money that AJ’s teacher uses for certain types of rewards. We’re not quite sure what happens with the fake money yet, but AJ is already loaded. After the pocket are several pages of sheet protectors containing the monthly lunch menu, the weekly spelling list, and any other lists of terms to be studied. Next is an assignment book with a page for every week. Each day, the students write in their homework in each subject and other due dates and tests. Each time they finish an assignment, they check it off. Parents sign off on it weekly. After the assignment is a red Velcro pocket folder. This is where the daily assignments travel home to get completed and put back in the folder for the return trip. After this are several divided sections, each with its own stash of lined paper. So far these haven’t been much used, except for the daily journal section, which includes a story the class is writing one sentence at a time each day and a sheet protector with a list and explanation of the parts of speech on one side and a list of proofreading marks on the other.

Thanks to this binder, AJ always knows where his homework is and we always know what he’s supposed to do. It’s not up to his memory. It’s wonderful. It’s wonderful now, and it will be even more wonderful when he heads to middle school next year and has more responsibilities.

How about you, parents/teachers: do your children struggle with organization? What are some of the tools in your box?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Book Review: Steven Caney, Steven Caney’s Ultimate Building Book

Book Review:

Steven Caney, Steven Caney’s Ultimate Building Book
Philadelphia: Running Press Kids, 2006


A couple of weeks ago at the library, AJ and I may have stumbled on the best book ever written. Or at least “the coolest book ever written,” says AJ.

Steven Caney’s Ultimate Building Book has it all. It’s entertaining. It’s interesting. It’s philosophical. It encourages free thinking and free play. And if you were stranded on a desert island, it might even help you survive. If you had a whole stack of these books, for instance, you could build a shelter with them, as books do a good job at withstanding compression (see pages 354-355).

The Ultimate Building Book is extremely comprehensive. It’s a big book and might be daunting if it weren’t so engagingly written. The first part of the book covers all kinds of structures, large and small. It discusses the different people involved in building and offers an overview of architectural style and history, not just of buildings, but of many kinds of structures. There’s a section on architecture in nature – how animals build things and what we can learn from them. And there’s a big discussion on tools, which doesn’t just talk about things in your toolbox. I found all of this very interesting to read and especially enjoyed some of the sidebars, particularly one discussing the bridges of Merritt Parkway, which I loved as a child growing up in Connecticut, and another telling the story of the town of Roosevelt, NJ, which I knew nothing about but am now completely fascinated with. . There are also chapters on style and scale, on invention and inspiration (and how to find it).

The second half of the book, though, is where AJ’s attention is firmly focused. It’s all about projects. Many of the projects relate to the architectural and construction ideas introduced in the first section. In the books introduction, the author says he had originally set out to write a book about making toys out of common building sets, and some of this is in evidence in the projects. But many of the projects use creative, cheap materials that are often easy to scavenge at home. There’s an entire chapter on building out of rolled up newspapers. Many of the projects use basic geodesic dome construction technology. Some of the projects are things I’ve seen before, but most are new. I was particularly taken with a set of giant Lincoln logs made out of cardboard paper towel tubes filled with expandable insulating foam. And I am seriously considering building the small greenhouse made out of PVC pipes for my garden. AJ has his eye on another PVC pipe project, a sort of sculptural sprinkler made out of a crazy array of capped pipes with holes drilled into them at a few key places. There are Rube Goldberg machines and marble tracks. There are forts and games and puzzles. There are a whole bunch of projects made out of food, including dominos made out of crackers and M and Ms, totem poles made out of fruit, and a set of building blocks made out of Jello and ice cube trays. And there are some remarkable projects made out of nothing but coat hangers and zip ties.

At the end of the book is an appendix “For Parents and Other Teachers” that talk more about the projects, the building sets he refers to and how to buy and use toys to maximize open-ended play.

I cannot put this book down. It’s overdue at the library, because every time I pick it up to take it back, I end up sitting down to read something. Then I have to show it to AJ and we end up getting up and doing some project or another. This book has made us look differently at the things in our house and at the house itself. Although we’re already somewhat prone to environmental consciousness, this book has inspired us to find new ways to use things we might otherwise have thrown away. This is why I think it may be the best book ever written. It has inspired us, given us tools, spurred us to action. This is what books for children should be. This is what any good book should be.

I regret that I have only two thumbs to give to this book. Maybe if I constructed some gigantic skyscraper-like prosthetic thumbs out of cardboard tubes and glue, my review would come across with a more accurate level of enthusiasm.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go convince my husband to let the grass grow a little so we can make a maze in our back yard. The instructions are on page 556-557.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Book Review: Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs

A few weeks ago, AJ found that he had some money left on a bookstore gift card and we headed off to spend it. After wandering through the bookstore for a while, he ended up with a book neither of us had ever heard of before, Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs. AJ was attracted to the large cartoon hippo lying on its back with its legs in the air and xes for eyes. Clearly this was a book about a dead hippo.

But it's much more interesting than that. Belly Up is a terrific murder mystery that keeps you guessing until the bitter end. It takes place in a zoo and is full of interesting information about animals and zoos, which AJ loves. But what he loves even more is that it is funny. Teddy is a smart and somewhat cynical 12-year-old kid, the son of the Funjungle's resident ape expert and wildlife photographer, who suspects the recent death of the zoo's mascot was no accident. Teaming up with the celebrity daughter of the zoo's wealthy owner -- and with a little help from mom and dad -- Teddy sets out to find out how Henry the Hippo really died.

Belly Up is Gibbs' first book and it's a good one. It's also a particularly good one for gifted readers, I think, because it's a smart and interesting story and the vocabulary is more complicated than you often see for this age group. That said, some reviewers at Amazon have expressed discomfort with some of the language, which includes some minor swearing. Personally, I didn't find anything too egregious but if you are the kind of parent who is less tolerant of that kind of language, you might want to preread the book and see what you think.

My one beef with this book is the editing. It is possibly the worst copyedited book I have ever read. And that's saying something. There were so many extra words and omitted words, that it detracted from the story. AJ and I were reading it together and it got to the point that when we'd sit down to read, AJ would say "how many mistakes do you think we'll find tonight?" The most problematic of the errors is when one of the minor animal characters changes it's name in one chapter from Henrietta Hippo to Hildegarde. I was half tempted to mark up the book and send it back to the publisher. This author deserves a better showing than this. It's a terrific story well told. The book's quality should match the work the author has clearly done.

But if you can get past the errors in the text, AJ and I each give Belly Up two thumbs up. We hope there may be a sequel, or at least another book, from Gibbs in the not-too-distant future.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Courtesy of Hoagies Gifted, some timely advice to pass on to your kids' teachers about how to integrate gifted kids into a mainstream classroom.

The article doesn't present anything you don't probably already know, but it's a nice succinct list with links to articles for further reading about each topic. Many of these are useful for parents as well as teachers.

The 10 ways to integrate gifted children into the classroom are::

1. Learn to identify your gifted students
2. Communicate with your gifted students' parents and previous teachers
3. Understand it may be harmful for gifted students not to be academically challenged
4. Go beyond test prep
5. Use cluster groupings
6. Create open ended assignments
7. Maintain a positive social atmosphere
8. Encourage pursuit of outside interests
9. Offer praise for hard work instead of level of knowledge
10. Make good use of modern technology.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Classics

Last night I checked the school website for the first time in months. I noticed there was still a link for gifted, even though the program has been eliminated by budget cuts. I clicked it.

“Due to budget cuts, the gifted program has been eliminated. Any differentiation for students will come solely from the child's classroom teacher. If you have any questions you can contact XX, former gifted resource teacher.” The former gifted resource teacher will be teaching fifth grade this year. At another school.

In a week and a half, AJ will start fourth grade. We've decided to leave him in his current school and grade, at least for now. It will be his fifth and last year at his elementary school (our district starts middle school in grade 5). It’s the first year we will have no formal assistance with his curriculum, the first year class sizes will top 30 (AJ’s grade will be one of the most overcrowded at 34 per class), the first year with a 5.75 hour day instead of 6.5 hours. We don’t really know what to expect out of this year or even what to hope for in terms of teachers. There are just too many wild cards.

On Wednesday, the class lists will go up and on Thursday, we’ll be meeting with whoever will be AJ’s teacher for the next nine months. At this point, it’s kind of a formality. The school has an enormous file on AJ. But it makes sure that the teacher’s seen that file and lets us get a sense of what to expect and how we might be able to help with his curriculum. And the preparation for the meeting gives us a chance to think about what we want AJ to accomplish this year. Now that AJ’s getting over, I want to include him in some of the thinking. What does he want to accomplish? Does he want to do some projects? Learn something new? Have more time to practice piano or make some art?

We are trying to view this period of change as an opportunity. The shortened day gives us time to do more work at home, which may ultimately be a good thing. I've always thought a combination of public and home school would be good for him and now we have a chance to try it. I suggested to AJ that we work on a foreign language and he picked Latin. He’s had some Spanish, so he’s able to read some basics already. Thanks to Percy Jackson, he’s interested in mythology, which we’ve approached to date solely from the Greek side. But he knows the Roman names from his interest in astronomy. His fascination with all things disaster led him to do some reading about Pompeii, so he knows a little about the culture from there.

Although Latin is not my strongest language – I had several years of it in high school, but didn’t much pursue it beyond the Latin I use as a musician or during the time I was a music director for a schismatic Catholic church that did the pre-Vatican II Mass where everything was Latin but the homily. But I didn’t have to think twice about a textbook. We’re using the wonderful Cambridge Latin Course, which unlike many Latin texts, teaches it as if it’s a living language. There is a ton of cultural information in the books and lots of beautiful pictures. Although I used the book in high school, there is nothing here inappropriate for a bright nine-year-old. Best of all, the series’ website (see link above) includes online activities for the books, including a feature called “explore the text” which lets you read the texts in the book with the option of clicking on any word to get a definition. These materials are free. If you’re not confident enough teach Latin yourself, there’s even a distance learning option for a fee. We had our first lesson today. I’m hoping it holds his interest. We’ll let you know how it goes!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Horned Dilemma

I realize things have been quiet over here for a while. It’s not for lack of subject matter. I have a whole lot of posts planned, including one on teaching critical thinking, one on the challenges of encouraging both good work habits and creativity in gifted kids, one on this fascinating article on the decline in creativity, and a book review.

But we at Spy Headquarters have been wrestling with both the serious illness of a close family member and some pretty big decisions regarding AJ’s education. Six weeks before school starts again, we still don’t know what we’re doing. And so it’s been hard getting my head out of that place.

I know, I know. You all have been reading about our school woes for months. But we’re getting down to the wire and here’s where we are:

Gifted School. We are lucky to live not too far from a school that serves as a model for gifted education to the country. I visited several months ago and was absolutely blown away by what they do there. Their facilities are not impressive – they are housed in a former public library with overflow into a strip mall next door and it doesn’t offer ideal functionality. It’s a little crowded and shabby in places. But all the things you want to see in a school that really matter are there – great and enthusiastic teachers, engaged and happy students from a wide variety of backgrounds. An incredible curriculum. But there are two things standing in our way and they are large. The lesser of the two is the commute, which would require us to spend roughly 2.5 hours a day in our car schlepping AJ to and from school, unless we moved or opted to spend the day in the library near the school. The bigger of the two is the price: about $18K/year. The second one is a deal breaker. We simply can’t afford it. If someone offered him a free ride, I would figure out a way to make the logistics work. It has been universally recommended by everyone from the psychologist who did his IQ testing to his school gifted teacher to the Elite University that first tested him and which runs gifted enrichment programs. But even if I had the money to pay for it, I’d have to think about whether it might be better spent taking AJ places – to Egypt, where his uncle and family will be moving in a few weeks, to Europe – and learning what he could in that way. $18,000, as an old friend would say, is a lot of samoleans. That’s more than my annual salary my first year out of college (which was, admittedly, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth). This option has been ruled out for the moment. We may try to apply this fall and see what kind of aid we get for the following year.

Catholic School. Early on we considered the Catholic school in our town, but quickly ruled it out. Class-sizes were large, the curriculum was unremarkable, and the religious practice too archaic. But a week or so ago we visited a school a couple of towns away. This school has won a major national award, one that is not easy for a school to get. It’s also in a different and less freakishly conservative diocese than our town. The town itself is one of the wealthiest in the state and has an excellent public school system (it, too, is having financial woes at the moment, although not as bad as ours). Their facilities are great and their technology and technology instruction the best of any of the schools we looked at, with interactive whiteboards in every classroom and a huge computer lab with all computers less than a year old. The teachers have great reputations and the curriculum is more advanced than our public school and includes a number of things that the public school does not offer: Spanish, music, art, computer class, etc. Class sizes are smaller. There is a certain amount of differentiation built into the system. Each grade has three teachers: two classroom teachers and a resource teacher. For reading and math, the students within a grade are divided into three levels, with each of the teachers taking one level. The downside: no gifted education and the differentiation that’s built in might not be enough. And there’s still tuition to be paid, although it’s more like $5500. A lot, but at least something I can imagine scraping together somehow. This morning I talked to the parent of two children who’ve attended the school. Next year, she’s taking the older one out and putting her in her public school’s gifted program (which is unusually good – they have self-contained magnet programs starting in third grade). I talked to her about why she liked the school and why she was taking her child out and what she would do if the public school program weren’t an option. She felt the school would be better than the public school, but that getting what you need for your child depends entirely on the willingness of an individual teacher to differentiate. She was strongly advocating in our position advocating for a grade skip. She thought a grade skip plus the built in differentiation would be a decent substitute for a gifted school.

Public school. The pluses: it’s free and it’s close and all of AJ’s friends go there. And while there’s no gifted program and few amenities, after four years there, I know how to get things done. So I wouldn’t have to start over with another system. They are adding built in differentiation in math next year, which should help with our biggest problem. The day will be short, so there will be an extra hour available for homeschooling to make up for deficiencies in the program. The downside: no gifted, no art, no music, no gym, no foreign language, huge classes, no money and probably more cuts coming. I come back to the possibility of grade skipping. In fifth grade there is a stand-alone gifted classroom. Classes are still large, but he’d be with kids closer to his level. But is acceleration the right thing for him?

Mr. Spy and I are really on the fence about acceleration. If AJ were a girl, I’d probably jump in and do it. But there are several reasons why I’m concerned. The first is the sports issue. AJ loves sports. LOVES them. He is dying to be old enough to be on a school team – it’s one of the things that excites him most about going to one of the private schools, because they have teams starting in grade 4. But if he skips a grade, somewhere down the line he’s not going to be able to play because he’ll be too small for his grade. For a child who thinks of himself as an athlete, this could be a real problem. The second is that his gifted teacher, while certain he could handle a skip academically, was concerned about his maturity. More specifically, she was concerned that he is not always confident enough to speak up about things and usually waits for someone else to say something or for someone to ask him directly, to force him to respond. He’s a follower in class, not a leader. And she thinks that to survive with older kids, he needs to be more of a leader.
And so we’re really pretty much where we started. Except that school starts in a few short weeks. I keep waiting for a sign telling us what to do. It feels important this decision. We’re at a crossroads and the road we want to take is closed. So now we’re left guessing which of the remaining roads will get us to the destination most quickly, or most enjoyably.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Lexile Problem

A couple of weeks ago, at my annual year-end meeting with our school’s principal to talk about transitioning AJ into the next teacher, he mentioned AJ’s latest MAP test scores. “Have you seen his scores?” he asked me. At that time, I had not. “They are very high. I mean, VERY high.”

AJ’s school started MAP testing this year and AJ loves it because it challenges him. Although I am generally not a fan of the rapid increase in frequency of standardized testing – there were four testing periods this year, each lasting over a week – I think the nature of the MAP has helped teachers understand AJ a little better. If nothing else, it’s demonstrated to the school, using a tool it knows and trusts, that he needs individualization in class.

The MAP, which stands for “Measures of Academic Progress” is a computer-based self-leveling test administered by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA). You can read what NWEA has to say about it here. The test is designed to be administered to all grades K-12 – it’s not limited by grade-level editions, so kids with advanced skills can go as far as their brains will take them. This can be an advantage, although the farther you go, the more concentration is required. This is sometimes a problem for younger kids with advanced skills, so the scores at the upper levels of the test are not always reliable. In one educators’ board where I was reading about the test, a teacher was saying that not all gifted kids turned up in the 98th percentile or higher on both reading and math, but most did in one or the other. And some liked the test for kids with test phobias or certain types of learning disabilities, because the test isn’t timed. Students can take as long as they want to figure out the answers to the questions. The test ends after they’ve made a certain number of errors.

Schools have the option to take the test multiple times during the year and most do, because this allows them to gauge student progress. AJ’s school takes it once each trimester. The repetition of the testing allows teachers to get a number for “student growth” -- the difference of the scores between test iterations. With the final report card, we got a printout of all AJs scores and a number that represents his growth in each segment of the test – in the case of AJ’s school, there are scores for Math and for Reading.

AJ’s math scores are very high, but his growth was lower than average. This is typical of kids performing at the high end. And his pattern of growth was a zig-zag – the second trimester’s score was lower than the first, but the third was the highest of the three. I expect the math scores are generally less high as compared to the reading scores, because these tests are achievement tests, not aptitude tests. In order to get a really high score, you would probably need to have had some exposure to the topics it deals with. AJ’s score suggests that he correctly answered some questions about algebra and geometry, which he’s never studied. But that’s where he topped out. At some point you need to know the rules and may not be able to just figure things out.

The reading scores were a different story. He started high, in the 99th percentile and still made steady upward progress. His final score was well into the zone expected for a high school senior. His growth score was also more than 4 times the norm for his grade. The difference in growth between math and reading is, I think, partly a function of the way he has learned language skills (largely on his own and at home) versus math (mostly at school). I also think the school has done a better job at meeting his needs in reading. He hasn't been getting much above-level math, so it's not surprising he didn't progress as much there.

For reading, there is an additional score, the lexile. The lexile is a measure that teachers use for assigning reading. Huge numbers of books are given a lexile score or range. Armed with your child’s lexile number, you can go to lexile.com and look up books that might be appropriate for his/her reading level. AJ’s lexile was surprisingly close to the maximum possible score on a test designed for K-12.

And this is where things get complicated for a kid like AJ. AJ’s school has just started a new reading program where students are supposed to read a certain number of books from their lexile range. So I went to lexile.com and typed in his number. I came up with a long list of books, many of which appeared on my college and graduate school reading lists. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Assorted works of Walter Benjamin. Novels by Faulkner and Joyce. John Donne’s sermons. The biography of composer Anton Webern written by one of my former professors was deemed on the low end of his lexile range. This made me laugh. Hard. AJ may be able to handle the vocabulary in these books, but there’s no way he’s ready to really read them (I’m not sure I’m even ready to read some of them), nor do I think he’d be likely to have any interest in them. He just finished the third grade. He thought the Marmaduke movie was funny. There's more to books than a lexile score. Does the lexile even mean anything?

Fortunately, lexile.com allows you to cross-reference by the age of the reader. Unfortunately, though, most of the books are miscategorized or not categorized at all, so the age limitation is pretty useless. A search of fiction for ages 9-15, for instance turned up only 25 books, several of which would have been inappropriate (Harold Bloom’s biography of Stephen King, for instance). And a number of appropriate books from the full list – Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events books, for example – didn’t appear on the age-limited list. Moreover, some of the books had puzzling age ranges applied to them. Why, for instance, is the very academic book African-American Women’s Health and Social Issues, edited by Catherine Fisher Collins, labeled for ages 8 to 12?

I am working under the assumption that the school will not hold to AJ’s lexile range. While I’m certainly open to him reading as broadly as he wants to, I don’t see the point in him reading things that his experience will not allow him to understand just because the book has the correct number. For kids like AJ, it is a real challenge to find books that challenge their reading and thinking skills, but which also engage them by being well suited to their experience and interests.

So what’s a parent to do?

1. Get recommendations. Ask teachers, ask friends, search the boards at Hoagie's Gifted. A few years ago Freshhell and I started making a list of books that worked for our kids. We’ve continued to update the list with things our own kids have read and suggestions from others, including many readers here. You can find the list here. There’s also a permanent link to it in the sidebar. It's a list I turn to again and again.

2. Preread. When he was younger, I used to preread all of AJ’s books. Now I can’t keep up with his speed, so it’s lucky for me that he’s old enough that he can find his own books. But prereading let me figure out where problem areas might be so that I could be prepared to discuss them. For instance, when he was reading a book that took place in the Civil Rights era, I didn't want him reading the word "colored" without context and without talking about racial language. It turned out, though, that AJ totally didn't understand the term had anything to do with race. He figured the character that someone called "colored" had tattoos (he was 6 at the time). I was glad to be able to help him understand the story, but I also was reminded that kids reading books that are out of their experience often either gloss over or reconfigure the things they don't understand to fit in with what they know.

3. Read together. We are big on social reading in this house. At bedtime, Mr. Spy reads with him first and then I do. Sometimes AJ wants to read out loud for a while. Sometimes I do all of it. Currently, AJ and I are reading Roger Lancelyn Green’s The Tale of Troy, which is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey that I loved as a kid. The vocabulary is pretty challenging (and a little old-fashioned), there are a lot of unfamiliar names, and a lot of references to the culture of ancient Greece that AJ doesn’t know about. Reading the book together lets us talk about some of the unfamiliar words and fill in the background. I’m also able to connect the dots to the Percy Jackson stories he’s read, with also draw on Greek mythology. Reading together allows for a deeper experience with a book.

4. Free range reading. While pre-reading can help a child find the right book, and reading together can help with deeper understanding, it's also important to let kids explore on their own. Like AJ, I was an advanced reader. When I was seven or eight, I was given special permission to use the adult collection of the public library. Children had different library cards that only allowed them to check out from the children’s section. But I got an adult card and could go anywhere. Freedom! My mom turned me loose. I don’t remember what I checked out on that first trip, but I remember taking my time. It seemed like such a big responsibility to pick the right book. But soon I was wandering through there regularly. I read a lot of literature that was perfect for me. And I remember being slightly obsessed with a book called Ginny about a girl who’d been in a terrible accident and nearly died but who had a long but miraculous recovery. At some point, I discovered the shelf with Colette books and found a book “Claudine at School” that seemed to be about a girl not much older than me. I checked it out. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but I read it. I read all the Claudine books. Maybe I shouldn’t have. But honestly, the only thing I can remember from them now is how her nanny or maid had breasts like melons. I thought that was hilarious. I do remember picking them up again when I was older and being properly horrified. But I just didn't understand all the stuff that makes Colette Colette when I was in elementary school, and so I kind of ignored it. So yes, I read some inappropriate books, but so what? Most of the time I checked out books from the kids section anyway. I thought they were more fun. But I got the message that I could read anything and could make my own decisions about what is right for me. And isn’t that more important? It was to me. Still is.

5. Own books. Last week, Laura Miller wrote in Salon about a study that correlated household book ownership to the level of education achieved by children in the household. The study suggested that even more than socio-economic status, having books yielded better school performance, the more books, the better. Having a lot of books in your house sends the message to your kids that books and reading matter. Encouraging your kids to prowl through the shelves can encourage “free range reading” – a safari right in your own home. And having books in your house means there's always something to do.

6. Make connections. When the books are hard, it’s easy for a child to get discouraged. When AJ has expressed an interest in something challenging, I usually try to provide some backup, some other activities that get at the topic from a different angle. With the Troy book, for example, we found some easier reading at the library that filled in some of the background holes. We’ve looked at pictures of Greek art and will look at some in person in a week or two when we pay a visit to the Art Institute. We’ve looked at maps. I showed him the journal I wrote and photos I took when I went to Greece with my sixth grade class after studying ancient Greece in school. And we’ve signed him up for a class on mythology with a couple of his friends who are also interested in it. I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m too overbearing. It’s not really the way it came about. It’s AJ’s interest that has guided us. But by expanding the boundaries of the project beyond the covers of one book, I hope I’m giving him the tools to make his own explorations.

I’m sure there are more. How do you handle the reading level/age disconnect? What do you recommend?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Our Courts

A few days ago, I read an interview somewhere...I can't seem to figure out where...with Sandra Day O'Connor, who was talking about her retirement project, the website, ourcourts.org. The site, which has been running for a couple of years, aims to remedy what O'Connor sees as a deficiency in civic education by presenting material on civics and law for middle school students and teachers.

I will confess, we have not yet read much of the really informative stuff on the site. But we have played and learned from some of the games on the site, which are designed to be used in conjunction with classroom materials -- lesson plans are also offered on the site. The games seem perfectly suited to his level as a gifted 3rd grader, but are also kind of fun for me to play. My last civics lesson was in high school government class my senior year. I spent most of the class trying to stay awake and listening to the kid next to me tell stories about working in his family's funeral home. The one useful thing I learned in that class was how to file my taxes. I do thank my government teacher every year for that. But there's plenty for me to learn.

AJ hasn't shown any special curiosity about the law and courts, so I wasn't sure how he'd take to this. But he likes computer games and I thought the cartoon characters and basic animation would attract him. I also knew that he'd talked about Brown v. The Board of Education in school as part of a Martin Luther King Day unit. I noticed that one of the games, "Argument Wars," included that case as one of the options.

Tonight I tried out the Brown v. BOE version of "Argument WArs" on AJ and not only did he have fun, but the game really got him thinking about different ways to interpret text. We had a discussion about how "separate but equal" could have been considered constitutional. He had to put together evidence to make his case for Brown. He did an excellent job and he learned about the case, about legal procedures, about the interpretation of law, and about making an argument. When he'd finished the game, which took about 10-15 minutes to play, he wanted to try again with another case right away. Unfortunately for him, it was bedtime. But we'll be revisiting it soon.

There are two other games on the site, which AJ has yet to explore. "Do I Have A Right?" allows you to set up your own law firm -- staff it with people with a variety of specialties, match client cases with lawyers with the correct specialties, take care of waiting clients, etc. It's maybe not quite as specifically informative as "Argument Wars," but it still requires some critical thinking, particularly in the area of client-attorney matching. The clients come in with stories like, "I organized a protest in a public park because I think kids should have the right to get their drivers licenses when they are 12. Do I have a right?" You have to decide whether the client has a case. If you think so, then you need to match him/her with an attorney who specializes in the proper area of the law (all the lawyers I used were focused on a particular Bill of Rights amendment). Out of this part of the game, you learn what the various amendments are and you have to figure out how to categorize the cases. But you also have to figure out how to run the law firm as a business. You need to diversify your staff, to win enough cases to allow you to hire more lawyers. You also have to provide your lawyers with a good working environment, or they don't win as many cases. And you need to provide a pleasant waiting area for your clients, or else they storm out with the word RAGE steaming over their heads. My favorite part of this game, though, is the fact that all attorney-client conversation is characterized as "yadda yadda yadda." Every lawyer I've mentioned this to has said, "Yeah, that sounds about right."

The third game, "Supreme Decision" takes you inside the workings of the Supreme Court. A judge escorts you through an initial hearing and afterwards tells you that the other 8 judges have split their decision and that she needs you to cast the deciding vote. You then have to eavesdrop on the other judges who have broken into four pairs, each discussing another aspect of the case. You have to demonstrate that you understand the issues each pair is discussing and that you know which side is supporting which party to the suit. Then you get to vote for which argument you think is the more compelling.

AJ and I agreed that all three games are more interesting, more fun and more educational than most "educational" games out there. The only drawback we can see is that it appears that game options might be too repetitive for replay to be much fun -- once you've visited all the cases on "Argument Wars," for instance, there might not be enough to interest you to come back for more. But these games are well suited as curriculum enhancement, which is what they were designed for. And if it gets my 9-year-old thinking in some new directions, it's definitely worth a visit.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Wrapping up the third grade

There are only a few more weeks of the school year left. I feel like every year ends with drama. Last year at this time, we had received the off-the-wall results of AJs OLSAT and the subsequent news that he hadn't qualified for the gifted program. We took him for WISC testing and then heard that he'd hit the test ceiling, and thus more than qualified for the program. It was a bumpy roller coaster ride, but in the end, we felt good about his next year, because FINALLY we were going to get some help from the school district through its formal gifted program. Unfortunately, thanks to drastic budget cuts, we are ending this year in worse shape than ever before. The gifted program is gone, as are art, music, P.E. and anything else that could possibly termed "enrichment." Class sizes will be increased by 8-10 students next year. It's grim.

Every year, I try to schedule an end-of-year meeting with AJ's teachers to make sure I have a good handle on what has happened over the course of the year. I ask pretty much the same questions every year. What types of curriculum modifications have been enacted? What has worked and what hasn't? What does the teacher see as AJ's biggest challenges going forward? What does she think are the most important things for his next teacher to know about him? What can we, as parents, be doing to help him and support his teacher? And this year, I also asked about how the classroom teacher had been working with the gifted coordinator. Next year, there will be no gifted coordinator, and I wanted to know in what areas the next teacher might need extra support.

While I know, at times, AJ has wished for more challenge in class, I basically think he's had a good year. And after talking to his teacher today, I can see why. She may not have clicked with him in the same way as his first grade teacher did, but she clearly gets him and enjoys working with him. Her descriptions of him rang perfectly true. She is a calm and gentle soul and has found ways to help him take responsibility for himself that have worked beautifully with him. For instance, when he kept forgetting to put his gym shoes away after gym, she started putting them in the lost and found at the end of every day. After a couple of weeks of never being able to find his shoes and having to take extra time away from gym to walk down to the office and look for his shoes, he finally started remembering to put them away in the first place. I wonder if I can figure out a way to do this at home?

She asked me in the end about the multi-grade class. One of the things that is happening is that in order to maximize class size (a financial necessity, unfortunately) there will be one class of mixed 3rd and 4th grade next year. When I filled out the form for my requests for next year, I had requested no multi-age. It's not so much that I'm against it -- I think it can work very well, in fact. But the combination of the new multi-grade with the large classes, no aides and the fact that AJ will be on the higher end of the multi-grade has made me think that it is a terrible idea. But after talking to a few other people, and after hearing that one of the gifted teachers at another school I've heard good things about is going to be the teacher for the multi-age at AJ's school, I suspect the gifted cluster will be in that class, and it's more important to me that AJ be with his peer cluster than that he be in a single grade class. How will AJ do there if that is, indeed his placement? I'm not sure. But in some respects, that's the least of our problems for next year.

So tomorrow I'm off to talk to the school principal to find out more about what will happen and to arrange a meeting with AJ's next teacher, whoever she will be, in the fall. I am trying not to feel like we're back where we started. Progress has been made. We have more evidence, more experience under our belts. But it is discouraging to be looking once again at a struggle for services.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Looking at Art Online

Like many school districts around the country, our district is making drastic cuts next year. Among the many devastating losses is the art program and the wonderful teachers who run it. Consequently we've been spending some extra time thinking about how to do more art at home.

Art was a big part of our daily lives when AJ was younger and was home more of the time. But since going to school full time, AJ's home art projects have tended toward the unsupervised. His school teachers do a great job at not only teaching concepts and techniques involved in making art, but in connecting those same concepts to the work of well-known artists. We're going to need to bring more of that back into the home next year.

Lucky for us, the fantastic Art Institute of Chicago is only a train ride away, and we go there as often as we can swing it. There are a number of other museums and galleries still to be explored as well. But what about the days when we can't get away?

There are a number of great art resources on the web that have brought virtual museums to life.

The Louvre offers a virtual tour of its galleries online. We also like the Louvre ap for the iTouch/iPhone. While it only has a few paintings, it does a great job of representing them. And the ap is free.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC has some great art games for children that grownups will probably enjoy as well.

And the Art Institute of Chicago has a page of online resources that include education tools for both adults and children.


AJ's art teacher also makes use of digital art programs at school and AJ loves to play with them at home.

The art teacher's favorite is Art Rage, which retails, in its full version, for $80. Not a small software investment. But the teacher says that it does the best job of mimicking the techniques of real life materials. For example, when you paint, your brush will start to run out of paint after a while, allowing you to contour your work as you would with actual paint.

But there are free programs as well. AJ and his friends love Tux Paint, a program designed specifically for children that builds in silly sound effects to go along with their artwork.

For 3-d, Google Sketchup is fantastic. It's a complex program that can be used for some pretty serious adult projects, but after a tutorial, it's simple enough that children can use it too. AJ is designing his own town and loves the ability to look on all sides of his buildings, even from underneath.

Do you have favorite online resources for art? Tell us about them!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Top Ten Myths in Gifted Education

Tamara Fisher of edweek's blog Unwrapping the Gifted posted today about myths of giftedness and gifted ed. Her post is a great summary, but this video, made by Baltimore students, is its pièce de résistance. This should be required watching for all who work or live with gifted children.


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Why Music Matters

As I've been sifting through all the arguments for maintaining the arts in a school curriculum in the wake of the budget cuts that removed them from our schools, I came across this. Possibly the most convincing argument yet.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Rube Goldberg machines

Earlier today, courtesy of the facebook incarnation of Hoagie's Gifted, I was introduced to the new OK Go video for "This To Shall Pass." As I understand it, this video was created for the internet and is not the "official" video. In any case, it's got one of the best Rube Goldberg machines I've ever seen:



AJ and I are collectors of videos of Rube Goldberg machines. I was fascinated by them as a child and drew endless plans for them, some of which are still floating around my house. AJ found one a few years ago and has been similarly intrigued. Here are some of our favorites:





Mythbusters takes on Goldberg in their Christmas show:



We also like the Goldberg-esque devices that turn up in the Wallace and Gromit series of films. Our favorite is from the opening of Curse of the Were-Rabbit. You can see it at Gizmodo, which lists the top ten Rube Goldberg machines to appear on film.

Do you have any favorites we've missed? Have you tried any of your own? Tell us about them in the comments!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Flexibility in Education

YES.

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle/2010/01/free-form_gifted_education_for.html

Mathalicious

Lately, I've been trolling homeschooling sites looking for ways to supplement what AJ's learning (or not learning, as the case may be) in school. This morning the site Homeschool Recess posted a link to a site called Mathalicious. Mathalicious is aimed at middle schoolers. What attracted me was this statement on their splash page:

Here, we’re guided by a simple philosophy: Math isn’t something you learn, but a tool you use to learn about other things. Our mission is to help transform the way math is taught and learned by focusing not only on skills but on the real-world applications of math, from sports to politics to video games to exercise.

If you’re a teacher, parent or student, we invite you to use our content in your homes and classrooms. So poke around. Have some fun. Get some smart.


Content is organized by subject area (e.g. "fractions and decimals" or "probability and statistics") and can also be sorted into one of three levels: "middle school math," "algebra I," and algebra II." This is not curriculum, but individual lesson plans that could be an after school project or a supplemental exploration in class or in a gifted program. All of them use math to explore some real world question. For example, in the most recent project posted, mathalicious looks at calculating the area of a TV screen and other screens, explains aspect ratios and theories of Pythagoras, etc. It includes detailed worksheets and files to use with geometer, a geometry software program.

Check it out!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Administrative post: Please ignore

Technorati is having trouble finding this blog. Hopefully this will do the trick:

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Teaching Art

As we're facing the elimination of art and music education in our school district next year, I've been looking for ways to teach it at home. Here are some art lesson plans from the Denver Museum of Art aimed at K-5.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A modest proposal

At the risk of looking like a sock puppet for the New York Times, here's an interesting proposal about the ideal elementary school classroom, a day based on immersion rather than memorization and rote exercises, a schedule that can only be supported in a less test-dependent environment. What do you think?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Math series at The Opinionator

Steven Strogatz, a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell, is blogging at the New York Times' Opinionator about math for the next several weeks. In today's post, he talks about his plans for the series:

I’ll be writing about the elements of mathematics, from pre-school to grad school, for anyone out there who’d like to have a second chance at the subject — but this time from an adult perspective. It’s not intended to be remedial. The goal is to give you a better feeling for what math is all about and why it’s so enthralling to those who get it.


His first post starts with preschool and includes a video from Sesame Street that addresses the question, "Why do we need numbers?" You can read his post here

Friday, January 29, 2010

Sciency things

I've been collecting links for a post on science resources that I haven't had time to write. But we've been stumbling on some great websites lately. Here are a few to get you started. What are your favorite science sites for kids?

General Science

Watch They Might Be Giants science videos. We like "Meet the Elements" the best.

Cosmography

The Scale of the Universe. Use the slider to compare the sizes of things from quantum foam to the universe itself. (Courtesy of Green-eyed Siren)

Physics

A spectacular Rube Goldberg device with everyday objects. (via Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas)

A stylish simple machines game from the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Into the Abyss

I got a call back from the headmistress of one of the school’s I’d contacted. It would take a miracle for this school to work out, but if I could design my own school, it would be pretty close to this one.

The school is K-8, with one class per grade, each of which Is 16-18 kids. They have Spanish twice a week starting in kindergarten and then every day in middle school. They have music twice a week and one long art class per week. This is all fairly standard for private schools.

The school sits on 50 acres of forested land, with ponds and streams and they take full advantage of it. Kids spend hours a day outdoors, not just for gym and recess but for classes. The school emphasizes environmental studies and science classes often take them to explore the land around the school. The various subjects are integrated into general units. When they are studying the Civil War in history, they will be reading novels about the Civil War in English. There is also a character-building curriculum. While that name gives me pause and suggests several big brother-like ideas. But what it means is that they talk about philosophy and ethics and ask a lot of why questions. In that Civil War unit, for example, they also talk about whether there is ever a good reason to have a war, why wars happen, what are some alternatives.

Although this school is not for gifted children per se, the headmistress spent most of her career as a gifted teacher, first as a homeschooler of her own large family, then as a professional. We talked about the pros and cons of homeschooling for a while as well. A number of her articles appear on Hoagie’s. And interestingly, she used to be the gifted teacher at AJ’s current school. We talked about that too.

Mr. Spy and I are making plans to go visit the school, although I really think the chances of AJ being able to attend it are nearly zero. But I'm curious too about how such a school works. I'm excited by the idea of a place that uses its own environment as a catalyst for learning.

If you could design your own school, what would it be like?