Thursday, November 29, 2012

Challenging the kids at home

My 5-year-old is really enjoying kindergarten. He's a social little boy, and likes being around other kids who are not his younger siblings. Riding a school bus turns out to be tons of fun, as are certain life experiences like taking money to the school book fair and choosing a book that fits your budget. Since he came into kindergarten reading and doing two-digit addition and subtraction, however, there hasn't been a lot of opportunity to move beyond that in the roughly two hours of daily instructional time that half-day kindergarten provides.

So we're working on challenging him at home. The first thing I thought I'd try was DreamBox, the adaptive math program. I'd heard good things about the program, and my son was initially interested in it. But he doesn't really like playing on the computer that much. When he gets computer time, he'd prefer to look at Google Maps and find photos linked to different spots ("Mommy, there's the Sydney Harbor Bridge!" and "Mommy, look at this village in Kenya!") So I'm not sure I'll be buying the program after the initial trial period just expired.

He will do math problems straight up, however. He spends a few minutes in the morning working with our sitter on math worksheets. In his perusals of map books, he's come across charts on precipitation, temperature, etc., and so he's been making his own graphs for fun.

As for reading, this seems a bit more straightforward. He is checking out books from the library to read, and is writing and illustrating his own. At the moment, they seem to resemble the Magic Tree House books pretty closely, but hopefully Mary Pope Osbourne won't mind the copyright infringement... :) We've tried to encourage him to tackle more challenging books, for instance reading the text in an atlas under pictures he finds interesting, and puzzling through what the words must mean.

I welcome suggestions on any other ideas for keeping the brain stretched. What books or software programs have you found helpful for early elementary school aged children?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

At CNN.com last week, Carolyn Coil wrote a post on Ten myths about gifted students and programs for gifted. The list touches on many we've discussed here (like not ID-ing kids until 3rd grade under the misguided belief that everything evens out by then). But my "favorite" myth, if one can use that word, continues to be #9 -- that if a gifted child already knows a topic being covered, it's a good strategy to use the gifted kid as a tutor for struggling classmates.

I've often argued from the perspective that gifted children deserve to be challenged with appropriate work. They often already deeply know whatever topic they're being asked to teach to peers, and hence aren't going to learn it better. Time spent tutoring is time they could be working ahead. But while Coil mentions this argument, she also throws out another one: teaching is a skill. Assigning children to teach each other "assumes that teaching struggling students is something gifted kids innately know how to do. Most gifted students do not know how to tutor others. They often are frustrated that struggling students don’t understand what they perceive as easy."

Some kids like to learn how to teach, and want to get better at it. Some do not. This is a different skill set than having mastered certain math concepts.

Yet peer tutoring remains quite popular as a strategy. I think some educators see it as win-win. The more advanced child is given something to do and the child who is struggling gets extra help. But it may be lose-lose.

Have you or your children been in classrooms that have relied a lot on peer tutoring? What did you think of the strategy?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Raising the ceiling

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, writes of “The Suburban Education Gap.” Long-time readers of this blog know that America doesn’t have one education gap. There are really two. The first -- the fact that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are far less likely to graduate from high school college -ready than children from more advantaged circumstances -- gets much of the attention. Education reform efforts are usually focused on raising achievement levels for these children, which is certainly a worthy goal.

When Americans hear that our children do poorly on international comparisons (like TIMSS and PISA) we assume it is because of high levels of poverty in inner cities. That’s part of it. But it’s only part. As Levine reminds us, “of American 15-year-olds with at least one college-educated parent, only 42 percent are proficient in math.” Even when you look at ritzy suburbs, only a few perform as well as students in Finland or Singapore. Evanston, Ill. does well. So does Scarsdale, N.Y. But places you’d think would be stellar, such as Greenwich, Conn., or Montgomery County, Md., or Grosse Point, Mich., do not outshine the international competition, Levine writes.

Why is that? I’ve been pondering this in light of some observations of my own school district. Lower Merion in PA is known for being very good. The high school students win various academic competitions, and in that nice marketing letter accompanying my property tax bill, I learned about all the wonderful colleges they are admitted to. My son’s kindergarten class has iPads! But looking at what my son is being assessed on, the expectations for being at benchmark largely center on being able to recognize numbers and letters. If you can do that, all is good.

In a world of many woes, raising the ceiling does not feel like an urgent educational priority. But it should be. As Levine writes, “The international achievement gap makes the U.S. less competitive and constitutes a threat to national strength and security. Stanford economist Eric Hanushek has estimated that America would add $1 trillion annually to its economy if it performed at Canada’s level in math.”

So why aren’t we focused on raising achievement levels among kids who aren’t stuck in basket case schools? I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition, that by raising standards for such children, we’ll take our eyes off the ball for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. You can raise the ceiling and the floor. Refusing to look at how low our ceiling is amounts to sticking our heads in the sand.

The existence of the “suburban education gap” is why I get frustrated by narratives lamenting pushy parenting and how much pressure children in well-to-do suburbs are allegedly under. We need to relax and not push academic achievement so hard, the story goes. But while there’s no point in making children miserable, the reality is that we’re not asking nearly enough of kids. There is no kindness in failing to challenge a bright child’s little mind in the days when she still thinks learning is wonderful.

Friday, November 09, 2012

What to do if your kid wants to be an artist

Those of you who follow my other blogs know that I've been writing a lot, lately, about what sort of career advice parents should give children. Specifically, what should you do if your child wants to pursue a creative career? (see my post at CBS MoneyWatch, and over at LauraVanderkam.com).

I've been writing about this question after reading a guest post at the Motherlode NY Times blog from Dan Fleshler. His nearly grown-up daughter wants to make documentary movies. He debates what to tell her, with the shadow of his own career hanging over the discussion. He wanted to write novels; he wound up doing public relations. This question gets at one of the fundamental tensions at the heart of parenting. You want to prepare your child for the world. The world of creative careers is not known for being easy (and to a degree, these days, the academic careers that young mathematicians and historians and the like might pursue are not that straightforward either). On the other hand, you also want to encourage your child. The world is full of people who will stomp on his or her dreams. Why should you do that too?

Parents of gifted children face particular challenges in this regard in that sometimes children show prodigious talent in certain fields, or have very ambitious goals. Should one spend 18 years encouraging a child to be creative, and then zoom in with the practicalities? Should one encourage practicalities all along -- but hopefully delivered in a "this is possible" tone of voice?

My vote is for the latter. Musicianship, artistry, or research on the cutting edge of a field often involves years of practice and a discipline aimed at getting better. Hopefully as a child is working on the discipline of a creative calling, he or she is also meeting people who are pursuing this field, or have pursued this field, professionally. These people can show and tell what is involved, and explain the role of luck, timing, and being entrepreneurial. If you want to be a choreographer, it's important to know that there are very few organizations hiring people as full-time choreographers out of college just because they have a degree in dance. You'll need to be producing a portfolio, and being entrepreneurial about getting people to perform your works in visible places.

What advice would you give a child who wanted to pursue an artistic career?

In other news: I just read Practice Perfect, by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi. The book consists of 42 strategies for "getting better at getting better" and has a lot of interesting ideas on how to practice one's craft. While the authors primarily train teachers, you can apply the strategies to just about anything.

I'm also going to two of my three kids' parent-teacher conferences this week and am mulling the concept of silly mistakes on assessments. Lots to unpack there, so look for that next week.