Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Making homework worthwhile

My oldest child just started first grade, which in our district is when homework officially begins. It's supposed to be light at this age (10 minutes a night) and is done more for the idea of building the habit than anything else. My son's teacher also has the good system of assigning homework on a weekly basis. You turn it all in on Friday, so if you want to get it all done on Monday and not do it the rest of the week, fine. If you want to cram at the end, you can do that too. I think it will probably be a valuable lesson in time management, since much of life requires us to manage our own deadlines over multiple days.

Of course, homework can be done well or done badly. It's no surprise that in many schools, a lot of it is done badly. It winds up being busy work covering the exact same stuff done in school that day. That time could be better spent reading for pleasure. Or playing outside.

But some forms of homework can be very helpful. Annie Murphy Paul wrote, recently, at Mind/Shift on how to make homework worthwhile. A few ideas?

First, try spaced repetition. Rather than cover what the kid did at school that day, homework can revisit topics from earlier in the year. Or preview topics coming later! A history class may have moved on from the American Revolution, but revisiting the founding documents later in the semester may remind children of the ways those documents influence later events (being covered at that time in class).

Another option is "retrieval practice" -- which is basically quizzing yourself to make memories stronger. Tests don't just show what you know, they change what you know.

Paul also notes that knowledge is better burned into our brains if we have to work harder to learn it. People retain more knowledge from reading passages that are smudged, or in hard-to-read fonts, because they're working to decode them. Schools aren't really relying on those awful mimeograph machines anymore, but homework's difficulty level can be upped by putting different kinds of problems together. You don't get 30 subtraction problems in a row, you get a mixed bag of different functions and different numbers of digits. That keeps your brain working.

What kind of homework do your kids get? Do you think it's worthwhile?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Self-contained, with a broad definition of gifted

In Houston County (Georgia), the gifted program used to be a pull-out program. Students got one day a week of gifted instruction. This year, they've moved to self-contained classes, all day and for all grades. You can read about the change at Macon.com in this article. (As a side note, it's a really good article, talking about many issues stories of these nature miss, like that gifted kids have to work a lot harder in classes when they're no longer "stars").

One reason few districts do self-contained classes is cost. If gifted education is targeted at 1-3% of students, then self-contained classes are often small, even if you combine a few grades. This means you have to actively put money into the program beyond the normal per pupil cost. For a variety of reasons, some political, schools find it difficult to do this.

The choice Houston County seems to have made is to broaden the definition of gifted. According to the article, some 4000 of the district's 27,000 students have been put into gifted classes. This is about 15% of the population. At this level, you could have 6 classes in a grade, with one being a gifted class, and not need any extra staffing levels.

So is this a smart choice?

On one level, a gifted designation this broad will be tricky. There is a huge variance within that 15%.

On the other, any attempts at ability grouping (or "readiness grouping" as we like to say here) will increase the chances that a class will be taught closer to a highly gifted child's level. The differentiation within that class can offer the highly gifted child more than the differentiation within a far more mixed class.

And since pull-outs are sometimes more disruptive than worthwhile, I think Houston County is moving in the right direction.

If your child is in a self-contained class, are you satisfied with the level of rigor?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

What age Harry Potter?

There's not much that unites our diverse world these days, but it does seem that reading the Harry Potter series is a pretty common thread for even quasi-bookish children. When the books came out over the past 20 years, children visited book stores at midnight to buy the first editions. They're exciting. They're fun.

They're also, at times, kind of dark. So here's the question: how old were your kids when they started reading Harry Potter?

I've been debating this as I see what my 6-year-old likes to read. We've gone through the Magic Tree House series. We've enjoyed or are enjoying some classic works like Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and Charlotte's Web. I think Harry Potter would be a lot more exciting (and epic!) than Junie B. Jones.

But we've had incidents of being scared of the dark, and he's a bit blown over by the concept of death (naturally, really -- who wouldn't be?) So I'm wondering how scary he would find Voldemort et al.

What was your experience with reading the series? How old were your kids, and how did they react?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Congratulations to the 2013 Davidson Fellows!

Every year, the Davidson Institute awards scholarships to young people who have done outstanding original projects. Unique among the big scholarship programs, kids can be any age up to 18 to win. While most winners are high school students, there have been much younger winners too. The Davidson Fellows program also recognizes great projects in music and literature, along with math and science. This makes for a diverse crew (though most are science/math this year), and it's always fun to see who wins.

The Davidson Institute just announced this year's winners last week. You can read the press release here.

If you're the parent of a young person who's got a big idea, check out the frequently asked questions about eligibility for next year.