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


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

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.