Friday, April 29, 2005

Ability Grouping--Does it work? Stay Tuned...

Interesting article about a school in Britain switching from grouping by age, i.e. ten-year-olds belong in fourth grade, to grouping by ability. My only concern is the following "Mrs Heron is encouraging older pupils to become "mentors" to their younger counterparts." Mentoring is all well and good, as long as the older kids don't end up doing the teaching instead of the learning. I've seen that occur in multi-ability groupings here in the States. The older kids are more engaged, but they're still not learning anything. Since their idea is multi-age kids of the same ability, hopefully that won't happen.

On a side note: Wolfie has been accepted into the Super Challenge Math and Accelerated Science programs next year in middle school. He'll do sixth- and seventh-grade math, move on to algebra in seventh-grade and geometry in eighth, earning high school credit. In science, he'll essentially be skipped ahead a year: straight into seventh-grade general science in sixth grade, eighth grade science in seventh and then bussed to the high school for Biology in eighth grade. Yay!

He's been having trouble in school in the last month or so, keeping himself organized, etc. He's been sick a lot and I think he's a little depressed. They're doing a big toothpick bridge-building project in school and he was assigned to a group of kids who don't know him, speaking of multi-ability grouping. Wolfie's group elected him to be the supply gopher rather than the bridge architect. Talk about a waste of potential.

Don't get me wrong. I don't believe that because he's bright, he should automatically be the architect. But he's been practicing and testing bridge ideas at home all winter, and could hardly wait for this project to begin. And to his credit, he's not complaining. He's doing as much on the project as the other kids will let him, which apparently isn't much. I can tell he's disappointed.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Don't Rain On My Tirade!

It was suggested to me that we as a society feel athletic achievement is a product of hard work, whereas intelligence (and she included wealth) are inherited and can't be changed--either you have it or you don't. It's true our egalitarian tendencies value perspiration over inspiration. And I think that's as it should be, but a full-ride academic scholarship is the product of just as much hard work as a full-ride athletic scholarship, and society doesn't see it that way.

In the end, talent vs. hard work is a fallacious argument--talent plus hard work equals success, not just one or the other. For example, you're not going to convince me that Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods do not have God-given talent in their respective sports. For proof look at Michael's baseball career. I'm sure he worked as hard at that as he did at basketball, but his talent lay in another sport. And you can't say that Sam Walton and Bill Gates have money "only because they inherited it." Besides, this is America--land of the self-made man. Surely we know the difference between potential and success.

This discussion started on the Mensa BrightKids list when one of the mothers said she taught her kids that they should keep their intelligence "low-key" in public and cited as proof that she was right in doing so the Mensa membership pin (scroll down the organization's history), a tiny yellow triangle only recognizable to other Mensa members. Why should Mensa be an underground society? What are they, Masons?

My kids aren't show-offs and I don't take out full-page ads in the newspaper when they do something good, but I also don't believe we should only satisfy our intellectual curiosity in whispers in case someone else overhears us. And it really burns my butt (as you may have noticed!) that my kids are learning that academic achievement isn't worth as much as athletic achievement. And that some intelligent parents of intelligent kids think that that's how things should work. Even the Bible says, "Don't hide your light under a bushel," but that's exactly what we're teaching our kids to do.

Friday, April 22, 2005

The Latest Tirade

Why can parents of athletically
gifted kids brag about their accomplishments on the
playing field and send them to all-state competitions
and then to the Olympics but our brightest minds have
to keep their talents low-key? If my son was a great
baseball player would that mean everyone else in his
class or school or town should feel bad because
they're not as good at the game? Then why does saying
"My son is smart" mean everyone else must be stupid?

I've been frustrated by this for a long time.
Maybe it goes all the way back to being separated into
reading groups in first grade. Everyone knew who the
smart kids and the dumb kids were, even if you called
them the "Bluebirds" and the "Cardinals" instead of
Groups A, B and C. Parents seem to think that ability
grouping is some sort of unassailable caste system and
that those of high ability necessarily look down on
everyone who doesn't measure up. Is this part of the
victimization culture we live in?

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Scope and Sequence

When I was in teacher-training, the latest, greatest curriculum design was called scope and sequence. The premise is curriculum as a spiral. Let's use American History as an example. In kindergarten, you introduce the concept at the kindergarten level--probably in the context of Pilgrims and Thanksgiving. The unit is short and sweet in accordance with the capabilities of an average five-year-old. This is the tight end of the spiral.

In first grade, you do a unit on American History again, revisiting the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving to catch anyone who didn't get it in kindergarten and expanding the scope of your exploration of the subject to a first grade level--let's say George Washington and Ben Franklin.

In second grade, you do another unit on American History, starting with the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving and providing greater context for George Washington and Ben Franklin by discussing the Declaration of Independence on a second grade level.

In third grade, well, you get the idea...

It's all very logical, isn't it? All the pieces fit together into a whole, there is allowance for children who didn't catch on to the concepts the year before to catch up--perfect!

Now imagine the gifted child in the scope and sequence classroom. The Pilgrims set her brain on fire with curiosity, so she goes to the library and reads everything she can on the Pilgrims and the American colonies. Fabulous, very exciting.

Then she goes to first grade, and they do the Pilgrims again, and she says, "Oh, I remember this." She's already learned about George Washington and Ben Franklin and King George III and the Declaration of Independence, so she tunes the lesson out.

Then she gets to second grade, and she's beginning to forget the details of what she learned in kindergarten but the curriculum still hasn't caught up with what she knows. She tunes out again.

Then she goes to thrid grade, and fourth, and so on. Every year it's the damn colonists--again! And history, which she used to love, now bores her.

I know whereof I speak. I was in my senior year in high school before my social studies/history classes ever got beyond the "powdered wig" stage. I hate 18th Century America with a passion. And since I am a historian by nature, this hatred is a direct result of my school experiences.

When choosing schools for gifted children, beware of scope and sequence.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Hooray for Sergeant Mickey Crocus!

Wolfie won some movie passes in a radio contest this morning. The prize went to the person with the most unusual names for their pets. Wolfie has a gecko named Sgt. Mickey Crocus. Don't know why but it's never "Sarge" or "Micky" but always his full name: "Sgt. Mickey Crocus shed his skin" or "I'm going to feed Sgt. Mickey Crocus."

We had trouble keeping ghost shrimp alive in his tank so Chester suggested he name the shrimp "Kenny" since they were dying and being replaced so often. "Oh my god, you killed Kenny!" LOL

He also has had a number of Betta fish (the pet store was having a problem with fin rot at one point): Betta-alpha, Betta-beta, Betta-gamma. The current two are Betta-Delta and Betta-Epsilon.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Speaking of Perfectionism...

I attended the Historical Novel Society's first North American conference over the weekend. A wonderful time was had by all, but in one presentation in particular, i realized it take a certain kind of person to write historicals--namely, anal. ;)

The speaker was discussing how women's history has been left out of history in general and how, when she sees a powerful man, she asks, "What's the female equivalent?" something she learned from the daughter of a friend of her family. This led her to a story about the daughter who, on the way to a bar mitzvah, asked her father what the ceremony was about. The father "didn't want to talk about such things with his daughters, but he gritted his teeth, clutched the steering wheel and began to tell them about circumcision and its meaning in Judaism..."

At this point, there was a general rumble in the audience. I, too, realized that circumcision had nothing to do with the bar mitzvah, but didn't feel the need to share it with my neighbor like most of the rest of the group. When question time came around, the first one was, "You might want to tell your friend that a bar mitzvah has nothing to do with circumcision" which the presenter said she knew but had nothing to do with the story.

I had to laugh. How many of those writers are just as demanding of themselves as they were of the presenter, do you suppose?

Friday, April 15, 2005

The Perfectionist II, The Heretic

Found this fabulous article on gifted students with spatial strengths and sequential weaknesses. It was a revelation for me.

I'd known since he was born that Chester did not think like other people. I remember telling his kindergarten and first grade teachers, "He's so visual", usually in the context of why we were still reading picture books at home when he was capable of comprehending chapter books. He really hated being read to until about third grade. He often loses track of the question you asked while he's supposedly thinking about it, although he's very fluent when he initiates the conversation. He understand mathematical and logical concepts but still counts on his fingers. His teacher told me he has surprising gaps in his knowledge base and thought perhaps it was an attention problem, as I mentioned earlier this week.

But it's not an attention problem, it's a translation problem. He thinks in pictures.

For example, instead of saying, "the kitchen door", he'd say "The door that looks like a window that leads from the kitchen out onto the deck." It's a picture of the door. When I ask him if he likes the science experiments they're doing in class he says, "What I really like is chemistry because you take the yellow liquid in one test tube and the blue liquid in the other test tube and you pour the two together and Boom! A mini mushroom cloud!" Also a picture.

I talked to Chester a bit about this last night to see if my hunch about the way he thinks is correct. At first he didn't understand and thought I was criticizing him. Then I told him how I can't figure out elasped time without picturing a clock face and manipulating it in my mind, which is hard. "I know," he said. "I hate that." Bingo! And then I told him that many famous smart people thought in pictures--Einstein and Edison particularly--but they had trouble in school and no one knew why. The more I explained to him about thinking visually, the more excited he got. Eventually, he told me, "I feel like you're a psychiatrist and I'm lying on that bed-thing."--a word picture that told me he had had some insight into how his brain works, too.

I passed the article along to Chester's teacher this morning and she seemed to think I was onto something. I'm hoping now that we know what the issue is, we can figure out a way to help him be less frustrated at school. There's at least one girl in his class (one of Chester's best friends, not coincidentally) who has the same issue, I'll bet. When we're discussing our Junior Great Books stories, she always acts out her answers to the discussion questions, rather than just answering them. Maybe we can help her (and the other spatial thinkers), too. Wouldn't that be terrific?

Crisis Update

#1 Son received a "Superior" on his science fair exhibit--the highest grade. He actually had done all the thinking/planning, just not the writing, printing or gluing. And the judges thought he knew his stuff. So congratulations #1 Son!

Why I hate to do my taxes

It has nothing to do with owing money to the government or trying to figure out the tax forms. I hate paying taxes because when you sign the back, you have to put your occupation. Since I am not paid for any of the work I do, my occupation reads "Housewife." This isn't a feminist diatribe against being "married to my house." I just don't want the government to think my most important job is keeping house because, honestly, I suck at it.

My house is not a fire hazard or a threat to public health, but it's not exactly taken care of with wifely devotion, either.

The work that occupies most of my time is Mother. That's where I do my best work. And you'd think being a mother is contributing far more to the well being of the country than being a housewife. But for some reason, this is not an acceptable occupation as far as the IRS is concerned. Go figure.

Thursday, April 14, 2005


#1 Son just called from school. Apparently, the science fair is today. ::insert ominous music here:: How he could not know this (he thought is was "in May sometime") is far far beyond my ability to understand. But that's where we are.

He wanted to participate in the science fair in the first place because his science teacher gives 50 bonus points to anyone who does. That's the equivalent of an entire extra unit in the class and could well bump him up to an A this quarter. He missed the application deadline, then got special dispensation from his science teacher and the head of the science department to participate anyway. Luckily, his teacher has had him for two years now, likes him and knows what he's capable of.

So he came up with the idea of building a mag-lev train. cool project. I worried it might be too advanced a project for him but we found a kit in the Edmund Scientific catalogue. The first night, #1 and his dad got really angry at each other because Dad was helping too much. I convinced Dad to let #1 do it by himself. The kit sat around unfinished for a couple weeks, but #1 eventually put it together with help from some friends.

Then he calls about the science fair today. Could I pick him and his friend up after school so they can come over and put together a poster before 4pm? Sure, I said, feeling this horrible crawling in the pit of my stomach imagining what Dad was going to say about this.

It started, as I imagined, with, "Of all the irresponsible..." which it was. But he could have given up, said, "I'll just take the bad grade and deal with the parents whenever they find out." He's trying to make it right. I'm kind of proud of him for that.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Wouldn't that Be Perfect?

Giftedness and perfectionism go hand in hand, to such a degree that perfectionism is one of the diagnostic traits of gifted children. (The politically correct terms for prefectionism are now "persistent" and "intense".) Hoagies All Things Gifted page is a terrific place to start researching the subject of perfectionism in gifted kids.

What the experts seem to agree on is that there are two types of perfectionists: the ones who will work to the point of burn out to succeed and the ones who decide being perfect all the time is too hard, so why bother trying to do anything well? In my family, we have one of each. Chester has been struggling at school at least since second grade, when he wasn't finishing class assignments because his perfect handwriting was taking too long. #1 Son, on the other hand, is a not-quite-B-average-report-card-carrying classic underachiever. (Wolfie either isn't a perfectionist or he just hasn't hit the wall yet.)

For many years, I thought Chester was more high achiever than gifted (see this article for the differences. You'll need to scroll down some.) His test scores are now saying differently, which is terrific, but I'm almost afraid to tell him, for fear it will put even more stress on his already tightly-wound system. He's a much harder worker than his brothers, always has been. Still he struggles to get his assignments in, even though he appears to be on task 90% of the time. He's also very sensitive to anything that might be construed as criticism. His teachers are all saying there is a problem, but if he refuses to talk about it, how can we figure out what the problem is?

More tomorrow...

Friday, April 08, 2005

Vocabulary for Vocabulary's Sake

I read this week's Junior Great Books story with Chester yesterday. It seems to me the narrative style of this story in particular, The Dancing Princesses by Walter de la Mare, was overly ornate, for no apparent reason. I mean, sure you want to expose these kids to new vocabulary but "forsooth"? The point of JGB is critical thinking about literature, not vocabulary enrichment. The author interrupted himself with twenty-seven words of tangent between the subject and verb of a single sentence--hard to follow on a good day. I could see Chester's eyes glazing over--he likes his subjects and verbs as close together as possible--and as a writer, I don't the story warranted such showboating.

On the other hand, when vocabulary is the only point, that's another story all together. The Minikin Incarnadine Cowl-Titivated Gamine (aka Little Red Riding Hood) also includes "forsooth" but takes the whole thing to its ridiculous extreme. Hypertext links to the glossary for all the five-dollar words included. Impress your friends and talk rings around your enemies! Roget would be proud. LOL

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Grades, Revisted

Speaking of grades, and knowing that #1 son has been diagnosed as terminally bored, I spoke to Wolfie about whether he was sufficiently challenged at school. On a scale from one to ten, one being "fabulously excited to go to school every day because he's learning so much" and ten being "if I never see that building again it will be too soon," Wolfie picked three. "I'm in four extra groups," he told me. "The regular classroom math is pretty boring but the special math group is challenging. And even though I already know what we're studying in science, I like doing the experiments."

So it seems that the school's GT program is serving Wolfie pretty well, unlike his older brother. The most significant difference between them is that Wolfie turns his homework in, so his grades are better. (Actually, excellent--straight A's since 3rd grade.) A bias toward the docile gifted as opposed to the more restless intellect, perhaps? Or maybe the GT program has really improved in the last couple years--it's hard to tell at this point. Even #1 Son is getting more services, scattershot though they be, from the school's GT specialist. The scores from his nationally-normed standardized test came home yesterday--above 90th percentile in all areas which is considerably better than he did in fourth grade. I think this may be why he's suddenly getting so much attention from the GT program.

I should mention Chester also scored above the 90th percentile in all areas on the fourth grade test this year. :D

We're working harder to make sure #1 breaks an intellectual sweat sometime in the next several months. He starts high school in the fall and I don't want him to turn off of school completely. I mentioned the possibility of taking some classes at one of the local universities to him yesterday and he seemed really excited about the idea, so I don't think he's to the point of hopelessness yet. Thank goodness!

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Grades! (Huh! Good God, Y'all) What Are They Good For?

Had a talk with #1 about our "grades don't matter" revelation and how if he had something he was really interested in outside of school, we would let the grades slide. (I was careful not to mention any of his interests for fear he would hear that as a parental command and all the joy would be sucked from it.) While we were talking, he said, "It's hard to be motivated at school when they're teaching things I already know." As they used to say in Ms. Magazine, "Click!" (as the lightbulb goes on)

I know exactly where he's coming from, although I used the information I already knew to do my homework and get good grades with zero effort. For him, the same situation is demoralizing. That's hard for me to understand but I can deal with it.

This leaves us with the question of what he's passionate about. He already knows. It's time for me to get my mind around him sitting on the couch all day watching cartoons and/or playing video games and learning. He likes video games, particularly the multiplayer ones. I found a whole bunch of references in praise of video games. These four are the best: Also a great resource for nontraditional schooling. Henry Jenkins from MIT debunks the myths about video games. On the same site (PBS, no less, can't get much more educational than that!) Michael Dolan on how video games have a future (important information to counteract the "you're wasting your life" argument.) And physicist/philosopher David Deutch and an interesting discussion on, which looks like another good resource, although I haven't had a chance to fully explore the site yet.

#1 also has a taste for social satire. Last night, he made me pay full price for America: The Book by Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, et al. despite the fact that he swears he hates history. (The book is written like a history textbook. And what I've read, while hilarious, is also ~80% true.) While I don't always agree with his politics, Jon Stewart is funny as well as wicked smart and #1 really admires him. He could do a lot worse than to grow up to be Jon Stewart. ;) So I guess this means I should let him watch as much of "The Daily Show" and "Futurama" as he wants, huh? And play video games?

I know, I know. I'm slow, but I think I'm getting it. ;)

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The #1 Dilemma

Spent much of yesterday researching and agonizing about #1 son's grades and his "underachievement" in general, and how much my parenting is contributing to that, particularly after reading this article by Emerick on underachievers who had managed to turn their lives around. (You'll need to scroll down about halfway to the "Parents" section.) 1) Are my expectations too high? 2) Am I too punitive? 3) Too controlling?

1) No, 2) maybe, and 3) well, yes, I have my moments. ;)

I generally run my household on the laissez faire model, i.e. "You handle your business and let me know if you need anything." The problem comes in when they need something. I mentioned previously that my boys know if they ask for help and then wait around long enough, I'll do whatever it is for them. Trying very hard not to do that anymore!

I realized that micromanaging #1's schoolwork makes him feel less responsible for his grades--the exact opposite of what I was trying to achieve. Talked it over with DH and we decided that his grades weren't as important to us as what he was learning. (Total surprise to me to hear DH say this. I always thought grades were his bottom line.) What concerned us was that he didn't have any outside interests other than Xbox Live. So we decided to put that ball completely in his court.

More about underachievers and motivation tomorrow.

Monday, April 04, 2005

April Fool!

Sorry I didn't post anything last Friday. I ended up having emergency surgery to remove a number of ovarian cysts. When my husband told Chester and Wolfie (ages 10 and 11) why I was in the hospital, they both asked, "What's an ovary?" DH told me later how he began to explain and Chester's hands slid up over his ears while Wolfie explained loudly that he hadn't had to watch the girls' health video because I'd brought him home early that day (we were having a blizzard) for which he was exceedingly grateful. I don't know if Chester has even had the dreaded "health class" yet but I must say I'm glad that as quickly as they're growing up, as of today Chester and Wolfie are still my little boys. LOL