Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Getting kids to practice

I give a fair number of speeches these days. But even though I have given the same speech many, many times, I always practice beforehand. I've realized that part of being a polished public speaker is knowing your material so well that you can use your extra brain power to read the audience, riff off things they say, move faster through material if you see their attention lagging, etc. This makes getting up in front of a big group of people a fairly easy thing to do. And that makes speaking a lot more fun.

I also know that practicing is a discipline I've come to somewhat later in life. I played the piano for years, but I never really wanted to devote large amounts of time to practice. I run, but I'm still not into doing the drills I know would make me faster. I do writing drills of sorts -- kind of what I consider my other blog -- and I can see my first drafts getting faster over time. So I know it works. I also know it's hard to embrace.

And so I've been trying to figure out how to convey this idea to my son (who just turned 6 last week). We aren't doing any sports or music right now that would require a practice schedule. But his kindergarten class is putting on a play. He has a few lines and a song he sings by himself. He seems to like some of the other songs in the play much better. And so he'll practice the other songs a lot. But not the one he personally has to sing.

I dislike nagging, or going all Tiger Mother on the concept of practice, so I've tried to just matter-of-factly say "Ok, we're going to run through your song once now and then once more after dinner." But he's resistant. Yesterday, I tried to explain exactly why we practice something like this. He may not like the song, but in two days, he'll be up on a stage and he'll need to sing it. And he'll feel much better being up there if he knows the words well enough that he can have a little fun. Things feel different on stage. Even if you vaguely know something in a practice situation, you have to really know it to not have being on stage affect you.

Or, then again, maybe this will just be a good learning experience about why practicing matters.

Do your kids practice music, sports, or other such things? Do they want to? If so, how do you go about encouraging this?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Changing a name

The Davidson Institute sends me a list of gifted-related headlines each week. This past week, a short article from Davis, CA announced that the school board had voted to change the name of the gifted program from "Gifted and Talented Education" (GATE -- a common acronym) to an "Alternative Instruction Model."

When I hear such news, I'm struck by two things, which point in different directions.

On one hand, I generally suspect that few school boards are excited about the concept of gifted education. Indeed (if I'm reading the story right), the Davis board seems to be moving away from self-contained gifted classes, and to in-class enrichment. This is a problem. It basically means watering down gifted education and depriving gifted children of the opportunity to be challenged with their intellectual peers.

On the other hand, I don't dislike the idea of calling gifted education something else. The "gifted" label can become a bit of a lightning rod, which is one reason that school boards like getting rid of gifted education. It seems to satisfy some false egalitarian urge, as opposed to being what it really is (choosing to under-invest in part of their student population). An "alternative instruction model" is, in reality, what gifted education is. Some children's needs cannot be met in a regular classroom. They need alternative instruction, just as children with other special needs do. Calling gifted education something more neutral could turn the whole discussion from something political to something more practical. Here's what we do to help some children learn best. Here's what we do to help other children learn best.

What do you think of alternative names for gifted education?

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

AP classes: helpful or not?

The Washington Post picks up on a new report challenging various assumptions about Advanced Placement courses -- college-level courses taught in high schools. The College Board holds national AP exams that young people can take to show they've mastered this material (and potentially place into more advanced courses in college).

The report claims that while students who take AP classes are more likely to go to and do well in college, this may be a correlation vs. causation issue. Obviously, the kinds of kids who are interested in earning college credit, and taking challenging classes, likely have their sights set on higher education anyway. That's worth keeping in mind, since expanding AP offerings is often suggested as a way to increase the proportion of college-ready students graduating from high school. The report also frets that since AP classes are smaller, and tend to be taught by top teachers, they siphon resources away from the rest of the school.

I certainly don't think AP classes are perfect. I took a great number of them in high school. My take away, as with so much of education, is that the teacher matters. I am the same person, with the same study habits, and while I got 5s (the top score) in BC calculus, chemistry, and biology, I got a 2 in physics. I am not holding myself blameless, of course. A more motivated student might have studied hard enough to do well regardless of how the class was taught. But I do feel the others did a better job of presenting the material and checking for understanding.

My problem with this analysis, though, questioning the efficacy of AP classes, is that this is one of the few nationally benchmarked ways we have of aiming for high standards and challenging classes in high school. If a certain teacher produces mostly 2s on an AP exam, and another produces lots of 4s and 5s, you have a pretty good indication of which is covering the subject better (you can argue that the AP exams don't really show knowledge, but given how many colleges do accept the scores, I think there's something to what they show). There is little accountability in much of education, and the AP exam at least creates that. Passing such a class -- perhaps early in high school -- might also give a gifted young person a credential for taking college classes. Early college is another good way that kids can be challenged.

As for siphoning off resources, well, this is the same argument that gets hashed out about gifted education in general. Some educators really do not think that high achieving kids should be a priority. As it is, in the NCLB era, gifted kids have become much less a priority than those who, with a push, might achieve grade level standards. AP classes are at least something of a bone tossed to high achievers in high school. It would be a shame to take them away too.

In other news: President Obama recently hosted the third annual White House science fair. You can read about some of the projects here.

And in personal news, my 5-year-old just won first prize in a local poetry contest for younger students. I am so proud! He's telling me he wants to be an author and an illustrator.