Saturday, April 12, 2014

What to do this summer?

There's a certain story that schools are so academically-focused these days that it's necessary to preserve summer as open, non-academic time. I think there are a few problems with this story -- first, that most schools still aren't that challenging, and second, this is not an either/or prospect. Summer is a long time, and you can do some academic oriented camps and some s'mores type camps too, and still have space for hanging out in the backyard.

We're doing 2 weeks of YMCA-type camp, and 2 weeks of an outdoor program. Then we have some relaxed time at the beach and at home. But I imagine as my kids get older, we'll start looking at academic programs too. Gifted kids really like to learn, and often summer presents an opportunity to learn a new subject, perhaps in an environment with your intellectual peers. If a kid isn't challenged enough at school, then summer programs can be a lifesaver. I have very fond memories of the 3 weeks I spent during 3 summers at Northwestern University's CTD program. I learned a lot about geometry, computer science, and modern world literature, and I was around people who really liked to learn too. It's a fun combination.

There are all kinds of programs if you know where to look. The Davidson Institute has pulled together a list of resources and links for me to share with you. The NAGC, for instance, has an article on How to Choose a Summer Program. The Davidson Institute produced its own article on Tips for Parents: Finding a Summer Program. You can find a list of links to summer programs sorted by topic, and residential vs. day camp by following this link. And finally, the Davidson Institute hosts its own summer THINK Summer Institute for highly gifted kids ages 13-16. They can earn college credits in programs during this time. Here's the THINK home page, and the deadline for applications is now April 30.

What are you doing with your children this summer? I'd love to hear about people's experiences with various summer programs too.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Ready for kindergarten?

Different districts have extremely different cut-offs for kindergarten. If we still lived in New York City, my 4-year-old would be starting kindergarten next fall, and he wouldn’t even be among the youngest in his class. He’s got a late September birthday, and the NYC cut-off is December 31. But out here in my suburban PA district, the cut-off is September 1.

Of course, kindergarten here isn’t exactly a huge step from nursery school. It’s only a half-day program. Because of that, most of the preschools in the area also offer kindergarten options. The school he’s been attending has a full-day kindergarten program that accepts slightly younger students. So he’ll be doing that this coming year, and then we’ll see what we do.

It’s hard to know how children will develop. But I’m not sure that repeating kindergarten will seem like a particularly great idea in another year. Which means I may have to find a private 1st grade that will accept him, or create a case that he is ready for 1st grade work in the public school. I have some hope -- one of the children in my older son’s first grade class turns out to have a September birthday. But it probably won’t be easy.

What makes this all interesting for me is that many parents have told me how fortunate we are that his birthday is in September -- because he’ll always be one of the oldest kids in the class. I guess for sports that might be good but for gifted kids being the oldest can just make you feel even more bored. It’s also interesting to me that if he’d been born a few weeks earlier (before September 1st which, given how much past his due date he arrived, totally could have happened), and I elected to keep him back, that would have been OK. Parents are given much latitude to hold their children back. They aren’t given as much latitude to accelerate their children.

What age were your children when they started kindergarten? Does your district allow early enrollment? What has convinced your school that it would be OK?

Friday, March 21, 2014

How busy students get it all done

I had a fun mash-up of my different worlds this past week or so when I interviewed several of the top finishers in the Intel Science Talent Search for my Fast Company blog on time management. You can read 7 Time Management Strategies From Some Brilliant Teenage Prodigies by following that link.

I've got a pretty full schedule now, but I certainly remember feeling about the most busy I ever have in my life during my senior year at the Indiana Academy, when I was taking various tough classes and applying to college and still trying to look like the sort of well-rounded kid colleges would like. I don't really remember how I got it all done. Some times I probably didn't.

Eric and Zarin had some great strategies that adults can use too. If we want to get big things done, we need to block in time for those priorities. Even if you don't know exactly what you'll need to do, blocking in 30-60 minutes for a big project every day guarantees that you will spend a lot of time on it. I'm kind of doing that right now as I'm working on a new novel. I don't know all of the plot or characters yet, but by forcing myself to produce 2000 words a week, I wind up spending time and mental energy on it, and as I do that, I figure it out.

They also pointed out that big projects can be broken into manageable chunks. And those chunks can often be done in bits of time. Eric would do his homework in the waiting time he'd have in the lab. Consequently, he didn't have a lot of work waiting for him in the evening or on weekends.

One thing I didn't put in the article, though, is also the importance of space in your normal schedule. Eric got to go to the lab during school hours frequently, which means it wasn't added time. When I was at the Indiana Academy, we had classes M-W-F, mostly, with more open time on Tues and Thurs. So there was time for studying and projects that just wouldn't be available with 5 full days of classes. Schools can arrange to make big projects possible if they want, and a lot of the schools that send people to Intel STS finals every year have just this sort of option available.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bedtime math is back!

My kids loved the first Bedtime Math book (by Laura Overdeck) when it came out last year. We read through the whole book multiple times, and it was fun to see my then 3-year-old and 6-year-old work through the book together. So we made sure to pre-order the sequel, Bedtime Math 2: This Time It's Personal. It just came out this week.

If you liked the first installment, there are even more reasons to like this one. For starters, there are 4 problems, instead of 3, for each story. The fourth is labeled a "bonus," but basically it's a new level that is just a little trickier than the "big kids" problems. So that extends the readership to kids who might be just a bit beyond the big kids level. It's also a nice development, in general, to have more problems per story, as it makes each individual story more satisfying and gets kids thinking about the topic longer.

I've also found that some of the "wee ones" problems in the second book are more accessible to the very earliest mathematicians. For instance, some problems involve counting things in the pictures. This makes Bedtime Math even more of a family activity, as you can potentially involve a 2-year-old and a 7-year-old. Whether they're going to bed at the same time is, of course, a different matter, but bedtime math doesn't just have to be done at bedtime!

Of course, while Bedtime Math is like a bedtime story, I was informed by my 4-year-old the other night that it couldn't take a story's place. "Bedtime math is just math!" he told me. "I need a story too!" Anything to stay up later, right?

On a side note, I wrote about Bedtime Math from the lean start-up angle over at Fast Company. The title is a little misleading (it's a non-profit, not a business) but there you go.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Perfect Score (or not)

I've been fascinated to read the media coverage of Debbie Stier's new book, The Perfect Score. As her teenage son prepared to apply to college, Stier decided to uncover the secrets of the SAT, and took it 7 times herself in the course of a year. She went through lots of coaching and SAT prep too in her quest for (as the title notes) the perfect score.

What's most fascinating to me, though, in light of the debate about the role of the SAT in college admissions, and hence society, is that she didn't actually succeed.

The SAT began to be used, many decades ago, as a way to compare students from various backgrounds. In some ways, such a standardized test was supposed to be an equalizer. A kid from a rough background could still score well on a test of intelligence, and hence could open up elite colleges to students not from the Andovers and Exeters of the world.

Of course, the idea of testing intelligence has gone in and out of favor over the years. The SAT has broadly been changed to test more of the material covered in high school. In theory, it can still be a way to compare kids from different backgrounds. Some high schools are much harder than others. Straight A's at one school may mean little in terms of how prepared for college you are, whereas straight A's at another school may mean a great deal. I experienced this myself in my two different high schools. A good college admissions test should be able to show this.

But people can prepare for tests. And so, one widespread criticism of the SAT is that well-to-do kids can spend thousands of dollars on test prep. They can be coached to higher scores, and take the test numerous times, and hence appear more prepared than they are.

Which may be true. But stories like Stier's also show that the SAT may still mean something. After her year of coaching and prep, she did manage to get a perfect score on the writing component. And guess what? Having worked in publishing for years, and as a published author of a book, she probably is quite competent at writing!

On the other hand, she never managed to boost her math SAT score higher than 560 (out of 800). This is after a year of studying the high school math covered on the SAT and taking the test numerous times. Given that, isn't it possible to believe that a high schooler scoring in the 700s on the math section is, in fact, showing serious mathematical promise? Whether she's been coached or not?

If the SAT were perfectly "coachable," you'd see a lot more perfect scores. As it is, only a few hundred students per year score perfect 2400s. It's fashionable to trash the SAT, but it may mean something despite its flaws.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Does America hate its gifted kids?

In the internet era, everyone loves provocative titles. So Newsweek obliged with a recent essay called "America Hates Its Gifted Kids." The piece offers up the usual arguments: the focus on bringing people up to minimal standards means bright kids get little attention. Teachers who try to differentiate face an uphill battle because, well, it's hard.

All this is true. But does America actually hate its gifted kids?

I'd say that hate is a strong word. I think the emotion is more nuanced. Certainly, we have our narratives. We like the story in which no one expects great things from someone -- and then that person goes on to succeed. Someone who shows a lot of potential from the get-go doesn't fit this narrative as well. We also have a very strong egalitarian impulse. While good in some ways, people are obviously more or less talented in many regards. The problem is that we also dislike the concept of people who think they're somehow more special and better than others. We tolerate this in athletic pursuits (usually -- though sometimes not judging by the reaction to Richard Sherman's NFC championship game rant). But the language of someone being gifted implies this specialness. And sometimes we like to see the tall poppies cut down.

But more I'd say it's just neglect and bad incentives. I was at a conference on educational philanthropy a few years when attendees were asked what they thought were the big issues people should focus on. Gifted children was an option, and got about 2% of responses (and I answered that, so I'm a chunk of that 2%). Teachers wind up with a huge range of academic levels in classes, and have to triage what to address. Weighing options, it's easiest to assume that gifted kids can fend for themselves.

The Newsweek essay does suggest that people be grouped by ability, not age, which is something many of us would love to see happen more broadly. The organization of schools has little to do with the reality of what people can handle. But changing the way 50 million school children are organized is not an easy thing to pull off. And so that's why many parents wind up doing what they can on their own.

Do you think America hates its gifted kids?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Snow day math

Like many other communities on the East Coast, we've had a large number of snow days this year. Yesterday (and today!) was another. Our sitter was snowed in and my husband was stuck in Europe, so I spent the day with the kids. We re-read Graeme Base's Uno's Garden, a book with a number of number games. The plants in the forest decrease in squares (100, 81, 64, 49...) and the number of buildings increase by the power of 2 (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64...) You can see how quickly numbers can change through different functions as opposed to basic counting sequences.

Uno's Garden starts with 10-squared, and goes down. My 6-year-old and I spent our afternoon working on the concept of "squares." We drew dots to show why these numbers are literally "squares." Then we realized that, hey! They go up from 10 squared. You can square 11, and 12 and so on. We also figured out that multiplying larger numbers is really about multiplying the tens place and the ones place -- that 12 x 12 can be figured out as 12 x 10, and then added to 12 x 2. I told my son I'd draw the correct number of dots in a square if he could figure out the squares and, sure enough, I wound up drawing 121 dots, 144 dots, 169 dots, etc. Once we'd figured them out, he decided to write his own book about Uno in a forest, with 225 plants and 15 buildings, and 196 plants and 14 buildings and he spent hours illustrating this thing.

It was a good way to pass the time (we even managed to talk through the concept of prime numbers) but what was a bit sobering to me was how happy he was about it. He was beaming the whole time and not insisting on playing Mario Kart. Eventually we lost steam as the 4-year-old and 2-year-old demanded attention. But we kept going for a good long time, and he was more excited about this project than I've seen him much lately.

So...what to do. We're not going to homeschool but I purchased Hard Math for Elementary School and I think we'll schedule a regular time to do it together. Extra-curricular homeschool as it were. I'm curious when other families make such enrichment work with their schedules.