Monday, December 08, 2014

Obsessions

Gifted kids have an intense relationship with certain topics. You can't just read about the topic, then move on. You read everything on it. You create your own projects about it. You want to be it when you grow up. Eventually you move on, but the obsessions are intense while they're there.

We've gone through some common obsessions in our house: dinosaurs, of course. Astronomy happened for a while as various balls of different sizes were pressed into service in models of the solar system. After reading Uno's Garden, there was the obsession with perfect squares (thus forcing me to finally memorize the squares up to 400). We had Magic Tree House for a long time -- series books are good for that.

Now we are deeply into the Guinness Book of World Records. We keep hearing over breakfast about the tallest people in recorded history (with some ambiguity, alas -- a Ripley's Believe It Or Not! book listed a different person in one category!) We have been staging 100 meter dashes around the house and the yard as my 7-year-old is convinced that, despite the genes he's been dealt, he's only a bit of practice away from beating Jesse Owens' time from the 1930s, and then Usain Bolt's from more recent times. He has been inventing fictional people who in the future will beat the world record 100 meter dash time, and has created record lists as they move on down from 9.58 seconds. He'd bought the 2015 book at the school book fair, and so I hauled out the 2005 book I had, and he's been comparing the records broken in the intervening 10 years. Men's marathon times? Yep, multiple changes. Women's? Nope -- Paula Radcliffe still holds that from 2003.

Of course, the problem with all this is figuring out how long the obsessions will last. I hunted down some old Guinness Books from the 1970s and 1980s to give my son for Christmas. Unfortunately, we may be at the peak of world record obsession right now. By Christmas, who knows. Maybe it will be World War II era military equipment. My husband let the boys watch part of The Right Stuff, and it's only a short distance from the world record topic of sound barriers to becoming obsessed with airplane makes and parts.

What obsessions have you gone through at your house? Which were your favorite, and not-so-favorite?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Standardized tests: The good, the bad...

I've been reading through Jim Delisle's Dumbing Down America. One of his proposed solutions is to declare a 3-year moratorium on statewide standardized testing. This moratorium broadly overlaps with the switch to the Common Core, and certainly the early states that have switched to new tests based on the Common Core have seen pass rates plummet in a way that requires a strong stomach to deal with. Not all politicians have strong stomachs. There is a very real risk that efforts to raise standards will completely backfire.

On top of that, of course, there are the usual arguments against standardized testing. It wastes gifted kids' time. I know this personally; back in high school I had to lobby to be exempt from my 10th grade level test since it was given at the same time as my calculus class. I didn't think it behooved me to miss 4 days of actually learning something to be tested on something I'd learned 3 years before. People teach to the test, and so forth.

I know all this, yet I have mixed feelings about moving away from testing, since it is the most visible aspect of the school accountability revolution. Many of the NCLB tests were watered down. That is true. But in states that chose to make them difficult, passing rates truly do show something. Take Massachusetts, where the MCAS is pretty comparable to the various international benchmarks. Some charter schools (e.g. Excel) have made a point of getting pretty close to 100% pass rates, and publicizing their scores. Are teachers teaching to the test? Perhaps, but since it's high level material that kids should be learning -- and in many states are not -- there's nothing wrong with that.

In the absence of clear metrics, it's easy for people to judge schools on the wrong things. The teachers are nice, decorate their classrooms well, and care about the kids. That's all wonderful, but if the kids can't read and do quantitative analysis well enough to go on to college or well-paid careers, caring alone is insufficient.

I'm not sure that the answer to bad tests is to stop testing. It's to change the philosophy of assessment to something more frequent, with immediate feedback, and without ceilings (so it doesn't waste gifted kids' time). Tests that can show how individual students progress over a year are quite helpful for evaluating what kids are learning, and keep teachers from being penalized for winding up with a class of kids who don't come in as prepared as others. Given that most assessments are moving online, this certainly seems like it should be possible. If a moratorium would end with us getting there after 3 years, that would be a good thing. But it's important not to confuse the fact that accountability is often unpopular with what is actually good for kids (gifted and otherwise).

Friday, November 21, 2014

One way to help gifted learners

I've been reading through Jim Delisle's new book, Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation's Brightest Young Minds. I agree with much, and disagree with a few other things, and will be writing about various aspects over the next few weeks.

There is much broken in terms of America's schools, and particularly in how schools nurture kids who need more advanced work. We don't even need to use the loaded "g" word ("gifted") to recognize that. It's common sense that kids develop at different rates academically, and that there is a mean in any given classroom, and kids that deviate far from that mean are going to pose a challenge that effective teachers would do well to think about.

When thinking about how to address the problems in gifted education, it's easy to get overwhelmed. But there are a few practical places to start. One idea Delisle throws out there? Requiring all teacher candidates, as part of teacher preparation programs, to learn about the needs of gifted learners, and strategies for challenging them.

To be sure, many of us who support gifted education would love to see far more self-contained classes taught by teachers who've specialized in the field. However, "most gifted students spend the majority of their time in a regular classroom environment, and their teachers may know very little about who gifted kids are and what to do to challenge them," Delisle writes. "Only six states require that every teacher candidate receive such information, and even that is likely to be minimal."

He recommends the use of the Knowledge and Skills Standards in Gifted and Talented Education for all teachers developed by the NAGC and CEC-TAG. That's a reasonable idea. Though honestly, the more I have looked at teacher prep programs for other projects I've done, the more I wonder if even having the word "gifted" in a curriculum might be problematic. There is a strong political element in many programs, and it's not one that embraces the concept. But meeting the needs of all children sounds good. As a few programs do try to re-orient themselves around practical approaches to teaching, pushing states to require instructional strategies for advanced learners and struggling learners alike is not a bad idea.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The kids on the margins

Questions about gifted education often come down to who should qualify. If some people qualify, then some people don't, and given the way humanity often works, there may not be a huge difference between people just over the dividing line, and people just under. So what happens in those cases?

Jay Mathews, in a recent Washington Post column, addressed this issue. He talked with Jim Delisle (whose new book, Dumbing Down America, is on my desk, and which I will get to in another blog post soon!) Delisle argued that gifted education needs to be better funded and more available; Mathews argued that challenging classes should be available to anyone who wants them.

I don't necessarily think these opinions are completely at odds. We've worked ourselves into this world where in some schools, the gifted classes are the "good" classes. Everything else is so mediocre that the only way to get any challenge is to qualify. Likewise, in sinking districts, a GT program can be a way to keep people in.

But that doesn't mean anything is wrong with gifted education per se. It means that everything else has a big problem. Why can't we solve all these problems? Why do they have to be pitted against each other?

To me, the best world doesn't hinge on whether gifted classes exist or don't exist. It's whether we have an education system where every child is challenged to the extent of her abilities in an environment with her intellectual peers. A self-contained class is one way to do that. In some cases, people might be better off with acceleration. Independent online study could help kids who need lots of advanced work in one particular area. Technology is increasingly allowing individualization. There's no reason a group of 10 year olds have to be doing the same thing whether gifted education exists or not. The problem is that doing away with gifted education isn't generally coupled with making things more challenging for everyone, including gifted kids. It's coupled with...nothing.

I know a number of people who likely seem like they would have qualified for gifted programs but were never officially evaluated because it was never really needed. Perhaps they were in schools with a focus on individualization and challenge within that. As long as each teacher was committed to meeting those needs and given the resources to do so, it never became an issue. But that's rare, unfortunately. Which is why gifted education is often needed. And just because there are people who might just miss the cut off doesn't mean it should be denied to those who do make the cut off.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

More on reading routines, and a dilemma

I wrote in a recent post about trying to get into a routine of reading and online math practice with my 7-year-old. I’m happy to report that once I figured out how to log on to the school-specific Dreambox site, my son has been perfectly happy to play with it. He requested Dreambox instead of a TV show a few times this weekend, so I think that’s a win.

The reading routine presented more of a dilemma the other night. It had been a busy day, and he hadn’t done his official 20 minutes of reading. Among the reasons he hadn’t: He’d been constructing his own Harry Potter fan fiction, writing several chapters in this new book, and telling me he’d probably need 800 pieces of paper from my printer paper stash. I think writing is a great way to get better at reading, but it doesn’t really fit on the homework log so well. I hadn’t pushed it until night when we realized he still hadn’t done it yet. I came into his room to tuck him in and check that he was reading. But he wasn’t...because he was constructing his own new language. He’d come up with names of numbers all the way to 120, and had created a worksheet labeling all them, and then started in on the shapes, which all have their own names too.

So the dilemma: tell him he needs to stop and read 20 minutes in a “real” book, or let him continue with this creative project that so fascinated him? What would you do?

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Building online math time and reading into the routine

We're a month into second grade now with my oldest kid, and we're figuring out how to build a good homework routine. Fortunately, he has very little in the way of make-work homework. He brings home a few math worksheets (about 4/week) but he has the whole week to do them, and it takes less than 15 minutes, so this is not too onerous. The remainder of the homework has more of a point. His school is now signed up with Dreambox (a math program that is adaptive -- another plus. Previous ones the school has have not been adaptive, and hence got boring very fast). He's supposed to do at least half an hour of Dreambox over the week, though ideally more. He's also supposed to read for 20 minutes a night (much preferable for literacy than worksheets, too!).

Obviously, none of this is particularly time-consuming, but we've been trying to figure out when best to build it in to make it a routine. The reading can happen before bed if he's got a good book. He's in a semi-shared space with his little brother, though, and they often prefer to play at night. Turning on the computer for math homework then inspires requests from other siblings to turn on the TV, the Kindle Fire, etc. for cartoons. Right after school is hard because he doesn't feel like focusing.

So for those of you who've figured out a good time for doing online math practice, when is that? If your kids do daily reading time at home, when do you build it in? I welcome tips.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Screen everyone

Pennsylvania requires that schools serve their gifted students, but to serve students you must identify them. How do you do that?

My district has not had a great system for this. Basically, you had to request to have your child screened. This wasn't advertised, so people learned about this option through word-of-mouth: If you knew people with older kids who'd figured this out, and if you were involved enough in the school to have such lines of communication open.

There are obvious problems with such an approach. I'm not sure that giftedness would be correlated with parents' social capital. So I was pleased to see a notice come home the other day that the district will be changing the approach. From now on, all first graders will be screened.

To be sure, there are limitations with this too. Any screen given to everyone will likely be cursory. Nonetheless, the idea is a good one. Screening everyone is the best way to avoid biases that both parents and teachers can bring to the table.

Does your district screen all students for giftedness? In what grade? Of course, what is then done with the results is often a different matter...