Category Archives: educational assessment

Acronyms R Us

So way back when we pulled PK from school and did all the testing and assessments, we found out that he’s not just “gifted.” He’s “2e.” Welcome to the world of kids-with-acronyms. “2e” (“twice exceptional”) is a euphemistic way of saying “your kid is super smart but he has, um, “issues.” For some folks the “issue” is another acronym: ADHD, OCD, ODD. In our case it’s good old-fashioned anxiety and depression, which don’t have acronyms (though ADHD still needs to be “ruled out”, so we don’t *totally* know), and apparently some kind of “sensory hypostimulability” or something like that.

Which means, in plain English, that PK likes banging on stuff and making noise and sticking his head out car windows on the freeway and other exciting! things. Educationally speaking, he’s smart. But he’s not so great in the classroom, what with the fidgeting and loud voice and constant interruptions and so forth. Not to mention when the anxiety kicks in and he gets shouty and aggressive. It would be so much easier if he were the weepy, cowering kind of anxious kid, because people feel sympathetic to weepy cowering. But alas, shouty aggression is actually pretty common in anxious kids, though people tend to misconstrue it as a Discipline Issue and get even more demanding and rigid. Which isn’t terribly helpful, let’s just say.

So my job has become figuring out how to academically challenge him while at the same time not totally freaking him out (but you can’t just cater to his freakouts because if you let someone with anxiety avoid the things that make them anxious that just reinforces the anxiety) and also learning how to tolerate the jiggling and interruptions and him climbing on the back of the couch while I try to explain math to him, or whatever. And teaching him about the distinction between how he feels (feelings are okay!) and how he acts (shouting at people is not okay!), while being empathetic to the shouting and trying to avoid situations that will push him to that point (but again, not avoiding them too much).

Because of all this, I have to admit drives me batshit when people say things like “you know your kid best!” and “you’re totally qualified to homeschool your own kid!” and “of course you can do it!” and other shit that makes it sound like it should be easy. THOSE PEOPLE CAN STFU. If PK were an easy kid, he’d still be in school. If teaching him were easy, the credentialed teachers (who by and large were super at their jobs) would have taken care of it and we wouldn’t be homeschooling.

Luckily, though PK is not easy school-wise, and despite the anxiety and occasional meltdowns, he is easy in other respects. He’s hyperverbal, he’s got a great sense of humor, he is shockingly self-aware by any standard, let alone for a kid his age. We have learned (are learning) to talk stuff through. I’ve learned to keep myself calm when he loses his shit, the husband is learning not to become enraged when PK is difficult, PK is learning to manage his anxiety (square breathing).

I do often wonder when and why parenting became such a high-stakes activity. Though otoh, I’ve known plenty of smart, sensitive kids who ended up dead, or with serious drug habits, or never really finishing college. So it’s not as if smart kids with Issues is a new invention, even if the alphabet soup and medications and educational accommodations and all the bureaucratic language that boils down to “if you can put a diagnosis on it, your insurance will cover treatment and/or you can generate the paperwork to get a school to take it into account” is.

Things I’ve found extremely helpful:

The Brainology course developed by Carol Dweck (she’s the psychologist whose work showed us that telling a kid “you’re smart!” undermines their confidence; instead, you should praise them for having “worked hard”, which sends the message that their intelligence and achievement is actually something they have control over). Honestly, I cannot too highly recommend that course: I did have to do a little prep with PK by warning him that “the animations are kinda cheesy, but the point is the content, which is excellent and research-based”, and he does indeed make fun of the online cartoon lessons–but he thinks *really hard* about what they’re teaching him and it’s already making an enormous difference (we’re in part three of the program). I’ve recommended it to those of his former teachers I’m still in touch with and everyone else I talk to about school stuff these days.

My overdeveloped research skills. I have read dozens of books and hundreds of articles about anxiety, depression, ADHD, gifted kids, etc etc etc. It never ends.

SENG and GHF. God bless SENG for providing solid, research-based information about giftedness, parenting, and all the 2e stuff, and GHF for providing a support group of other parents who’ve been there, as well as more resources and links than you could possibly explore in a lifetime.

Family therapy. PK hates talk therapy and won’t go (the last time I took him he freaked out), but me and the husband go anyway, and talking about parenting stuff and getting advice has helped enormously.

Health insurance and the husband’s well-paying job, without which all this therapy and the coursework would be out of our financial reach. Thank god for Obamacare: I hope it means that more families with kids who need support can get the help we’ve been lucky enough to have access to.

 

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On Public Education Today

Memorization, not rationalization. That is the advice of my 13-year-old daughter, Esmee, as I struggle to make sense of a paragraph of notes for an upcoming Earth Science test on minerals. “Minerals have crystal systems which are defined by the # of axis and the length of the axis that intersect the crystal faces.” That’s how the notes start, and they only get murkier after that. When I ask Esmee what this actually means, she gives me her homework credo.

-from “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me,” Karl Taro Greenfeld, in The Atlantic.

Here is the thing. If it’s ridiculous to expect kids to understand this stuff in a wide range of different subjects, it’s equally ridiculous to expect teachers to understand this stuff in a wide range of different subjects and be experts in pedagogy and be up-to-date on research in child development and have time to deal with every individual child’s academic, social and emotional needs and be their own secretaries to boot. Even if you want to argue that eighth-grade teachers usually (but not always!!) teach just one or two subjects, keep in mind that for eighth grade science that means earth science and biology and chemistry and physics; for social studies it means ancient history and the middle ages and the columbian exchange and american history and the history of whatever state they’re living in.

I’m not unfamiliar with “the standards.” And while I think it’s ridiculous to expect every eight-grader to know about the crystalline systems of minerals (who cares?) I believe that most kids are capable of achieving the kinds of depth and excitement that learning about the crystalline systems of minerals is intended to provide. If not in every subject, then certainly in the subjects they’re interested in. Many kids are capable of going beyond those standards, if they’re really into minerals or if they have a teacher who can really help them understand why minerals are fascinating. As someone who is very highly educated, the stuff I see in “the standards” excites me.

But from homeschooling PK, who is very academically capable indeed, I know that trying to teach several different subjects to just one kid is getting pretty close to a full-time job. And I don’t have to give a crap about standardized tests or the bureaucratic paperwork that teachers have to spend so much time on. I don’t have faculty meetings. (I do spend a surprising amount of time printing stuff, though, it turns out.)

Yes. We can have an excellent, exciting system of public education. We can “raise the bar” and give kids fascinating stuff to learn rather than boring the bright ones to tears and teaching the less academically-inclined ones to think of themselves as stupid. But we cannot do this on the cheap, in classes of 40 or 30 or even 20 students at a time. We cannot do it by expecting teachers to have little more than a bachelor’s degree in education while somehow having the understanding and command of facts in multiple fields that comes from a really solid undergraduate degree or even an MA/MS. We cannot do this by simply demanding that kids memorize facts for standardized exams rather than really doing what it takes to provide learning environments and resources that will let truly engaged teachers help kids really get into how cool the crystalline structures of minerals really are:

"Cool," geddit? Haha.

“Cool,” geddit? Haha.

We need to decide. Do we want our education system to be good? or do we want it to be cheap?

And we need to stop sacrificing kids and those who love them by drawing and quartering them between the various fights over which one matters more.


Un/Schooling

This post is part of

Speaking of Unschooling: A gifted homeschool blogger's hop

Speaking of Unschooling: A gifted homeschool blogger’s hop

Click for the whole list, or see individual links at the bottom of the post.

A major part of the last fifteen months with PK at home has been about me observing how he acts and what he does when he’s learning something new. When he is trying to do something that’s a bit of a stretch, he gets anxious. If the anxiety is minor, he can handle it by being jumpy and physical: he’ll get up and pace around, or crawl on the back of the couch and look over my shoulder while I show him how to work a problem or something. If the anxiety is major–or if he isn’t allowed to do the wiggling, like if I say “come back here and sit down!” rather than *very gently* saying, “sweetie, I need you to look at this, come back” and then letting him crawl on the back of the sofa rather than pacing around the room–then he starts arguing and trying to physically get away, and it looks like refusal. (Though interestingly, sometimes after refusing and leaving he’ll come back a few minutes later to say “I figured it out in my head.”)

Needless to say, this is a BIG FUCKING CLUE as to why middle school–where he was finally starting to have to push himself *and* where, unlike his hippie (public) elementary school, they weren’t even going to consider letting him move around the room for a bit–totally, totally didn’t work for him, and why the math teacher in particular thought it all boiled down to a battle of the wills. He says that he mostly didn’t even try to move around, because it was so clear that that was not how things were done, and in elementary school we had done a LOT of work on teaching him not to shout or act out when he was frustrated, so I imagine that his attempts to restrain himself sent him fairly quickly into the refusal mode and would just shut down (and feel anxious, which is pretty much the recipe for causing depression). His first grade classroom was also a “traditional” school, and one that was very proud of its “good test scores” and mostly attended by the children of the kind of affluent (or hoping to become so) parents who “value education” in the sense of wanting their kids to go to the “good” school, so there, too, he was pushed to sit still and complete his work, which led to nightly crying jags and homework avoidance. Which is why I put him into the hippie school.

I’ve also come to recognize that when he’s doing something new that’s physical? He deals with that discomfort–including the excitement of the new–by talking. Which his PE teacher loathed (“stop talking to me and go run laps”) and which honestly drives me nuts b/c whenever he’s got a new video game, same thing: he has to tell me all about it at top speed any time he takes a break.

There’s some of that with new learning of ideas, too. He stops video lectures like seventeen times every half hour to comment on them, and when he was in elementary school I used to try SO HARD to get him to just write down questions/comments instead of interrupting. Most of his 2-5 teachers did a good job of setting up some kind of “hold on, ask/tell me later” signal with him, bless them. The first grade teacher and most of the middle school teachers, though, just tried to shut him down. Result? Frustration, anger, anxiety.

Which has led me to a broader realization or, at least, a hypothesis. It seems to me that everything about and around education, in the U.S. right now, is under enormous pressure. I used to be firmly of the “send your kid to public school, it’ll be fine” school in part because I saw people of my socioeconomic class worrying about whether public schools were “dangerous” or “good enough” as unnecessary anxiety, and I still do, where that anxiety is focused on whether kids will be exposed to “gang violence” or whether the standards of public schools are up to snuff. Which I still think are concerns that are motivated (consciously or no) out of racism, primarily. But what I didn’t realize is how much public schools themselves have become the focus of those pressures. In fact, it seems to me that homeschooling, too, is affected by the broader social pressure and anxiety around the entire category of “education” these days.

“Unschooling,” maybe, can be seen as an attempt to open up the pressure valve and let some of that build up out of everything associated with education. I’m not comfortable with the term for reasons that I think led me (and lead a lot of other people) to misunderstand it as *anti*-schooling (and indeed, there is some anti-schooling prejudice in both un- and homeschool circles, as well as among people who send their kids to private school; and I think that all of that has  roots in historic racism, but that’s a different topic). When people start making blanket statements about schools as “factories” or how they “oppress children,” it gets my back up. And I continue to not understand how people who care about education enough to actually decide not to just follow the beaten path with regard to their own children’s education can be hostile to free, public schools as a fundamental institution in a modern society.

But that said, I am starting to understand where people are coming from when they talk about actually experiencing school as oppressive or inimical to education, because I am starting to see exactly how the amount of pressure in the system right now does function to undermine one of the most basic requirements for learning and teaching, which is the ability to be patient, and to listen.

I got this off FB and can't read the copyright--if anyone knows where it's from, please let me know so I can credit it properly.

I got this off FB and can’t read the copyright–if anyone knows where it’s from, please let me know so I can credit it properly.

People under pressure don’t listen well, and they tend to be a lot less patient than they otherwise would; and psychological stress tends to be “catching.” (Which might also suggest, by the way, why mass shooters sometimes attack schools even if their grudge isn’t “against” the school or they have no association with it? As well as why school shootings, more than any other kind of mass shooting, push all of our buttons. Yes, obviously the fact that school shootings affect kids is a big part of that last one, and it’s certainly a sufficient explanation in itself; but might there also be something going on with shootings that happen in an arena about which we all already feel enormous pressure and anxiety just ratcheting it up that much further?)

Or, as this school principal puts it,

Teachers are engaged in practices like these because they are pressured and afraid, not because they think the assessments are educationally sound. Their principals are pressured and nervous about their own scores and the school’s scores. Guaranteed, every child in the class feels that pressure and trepidation as well.

Surely, this is not a good atmosphere for learning, or working, or teaching, or collaboration of any kind.

One of the things they say about unschooling is that if your kid has been in school, there’s a “deschooling” period of about a year–during which the kid (and the parents) need to “unlearn” the entire mindset of school: that work is opposed to play, that learning is something grownups have to make kids do, that what kids want to do on their own is almost certainly neither educational nor healthy. That certainly proved true in our case (it took a little longer than a year). What we’re doing is not quite unschooling, I don’t think–we have a formal math curriculum (which I love), we have a formal series of history lectures (which are in accordance with the historical period his grade peers are doing in this state–and which he loves), I am “making” him learn to type (which initially he had a panic about but is growing to really enjoy), I “make” him get some kind of exercise, which we call P.E., every day. For language arts stuff I rely on my own expertise to be able to determine how his skills in exposition, persuasion, marshaling evidence, forming theses, etc. are coming along simply via our talks about things (he’s very good at this stuff), since writing is still a sore spot for him. I am arranging occupational therapy for him at the suggestion of a psychologist, and in the hopes that it will help him with the writing (which is also what the typing is for, obviously).

However, this “curriculum” of ours has taken shape very, very slowly, and only within the last couple of weeks has it really started to be an everyday thing. For the most part, we’ve been “deschooling”–giving PK time to get past the anxiety (with the help of medication) that is probably his birthright, but which I think was also made much worse by the current atmosphere in public education.

And while I’m pretty happy with how we seem to be doing for now, I can’t stop thinking of all the kids and teachers who are still swimming in that pool. I’m glad to know that lots of folks are starting to resist, challenge, and organize against those who want education to mean pressure, stress, distrust. I wish for public education that it be an institution where we don’t need to “un”school kids in order for them to enjoy learning.

And for all the kids and teachers, I wish them a nice long period of un”schooling” from the way we currently think “school” is supposed to be. Because that shit isn’t healthy for anyone.

More unschooling posts:

Red White and Grew: Reflections on Unschooling

Building Wingspan: I’m Not an Unschooler … But …

Thea Sullivan: How Unschooling Saved Us, Sort of

Cedar Life Academy: Everyone Deserves A Childhood

Wenda Sheard: A True Story: Unschooling and the Superintendants

Life with Intensity: We Unschool (Well, Sorta), What’s Your Superpower?

Laughing at Chaos, Between Homeschooling and Unschooling

Chasing Hollyfeld: I am Not a Teacher

Sui Generis: Unschooling and the Benefits of Unstructured Time

A Voracious Mind: Unschooling 101


Writing

So lately I write more about PK learning math than I do about his writing. This is because it’s math that’s the challenge for me as his teacher; I’m not fluent with math, I have no experience teaching it, so I’m fumbling around trying to figure out how to ensure that PK continues to learn math outside of school given that he loathes textbooks and that I don’t know the math he needs to learn.

Writing is a whole different story, for three reasons.

  1. I know how to teach writing.
  2. I’m not “teaching” PK “writing” at all.
  3. I can tell that PK is nonetheless a good writer–though he almost never willingly writes more than a paragraph–and is getting better all the time.

Both of those points hinge on the first one, but how point three hinges on point two is the real subject of this post.

“Writing,” see, means two different things. When you’re a kid, and to far too many adults, it means “using a pencil or pen to put marks on a piece of paper that represent words, which represent the ideas that you want to communicate.”

To writers, to college writing instructors, and to good k-12 writing instructors, “writing” means “communicating your ideas using written words.” Whether you use a pen, a pencil, a typewriter, a computer keyboard, dictation software, or an amanuensis is irrelevant, as long as the ideas end up in the written form somehow. Back in the old days, writers may have handwritten their stuff–or they may have dictated it to a secretary, partner, child, or friend. Once typewriters came along, they could handwrite, dictate, or type (and their secretaries could either handwrite or type). In any of those situations, though, getting the words into print meant that editors, typesetters (often, in the early days, typesetters were actually illiterate), proofreaders and printers got their hands on it at some point, too.

Now, though, we have computers. Which, for writers, means that you can skip the pen(cil) and paper stuff altogether; hell, you can get your writing to your audience without even touching a keyboard, if you have decent dictation software and know how to use it. You also don’t need editors, proofreaders, typesetters, printers, or secretaries. The words you are reading right this minute went through no other minds but mine before they reached yours (though of course their reaching you does depend on other people maintaining servers, power grids, and so forth–much as with original proofreaders, they could in theory be illiterate, though it’s unlikely).

So, from the point of view of writers (and college writing instructors, and good K12 writing teachers), “writing” doesn’t have to involve your hands or paper. It just has to involve translating your ideas into the written word somehow.

But for elementary-school-aged children, “writing” means “pen or pencil in hand with paper in front of me sitting at a desk.” And for most elementary school teachers, “writing” means “words written on paper by a pen or pencil by the child him- or herself.” (In high school and college we start to differentiate formal writing, which is typed, from informal writing, which is handwritten, but there’s still a general expectation that the student do the manual labor him- or herself. Though it used to be considered totally okay for [male] students to have their [female] partners, parents or friends do the manual part.)

This is a problem. Elementary school kids tend to lack motor skills and patience, which are the things that make writing with a pencil or pen reasonably easy; as a result, the writing they do for school is not nearly as complicated, sophisticated, or interesting (to them or their audiences) as their ideas.

For some kids, that’s not a huge deal; their motor skills develop pretty quickly and/or they love communicating their ideas enough and/or they are book-oriented enough that the hurdle of writing by hand doesn’t unduly impair their production. They, and we, end up saying that those kids “love to write.” Other kids may not love it, but they are patient enough and/or have good enough fine motor coordination that they are okay with “writing.”

A lot of kids, though, develop motor skills more slowly, or they have lower frustration thresholds or less patience, or they develop verbal skills more quickly so that the gap between their motor skills (which may be perfectly normal) and their verbal skills is huge enough that they find “writing”–in the sense of putting words on paper with a pen or pencil–incredibly frustrating. Maybe even impossible, if they have serious motor impairments. Those kids usually end up “hating writing” and considering themselves (and being considered) “bad writers.”

When I used to teach college writing, those kids used to make. me. crazy. Not as crazy, though, as the “good writers” who had so internalized the idea that “writing” was about fluency that they actively resisted being asked to actually think. See, from the point of view that thinks of “writing” as “communicating ideas,” “bad” writing is writing that is boring. If it’s interesting, it’s good enough writing, or at least promising writing.

And that’s the thing that trips up way too many kids. They don’t like writing, or think they are bad writers, because to them the writing they produce is boring; it’s not nearly as interesting or complicated as the stuff they can say or the ideas they can think.

The awesome thing, if you teach college writing, is that those kids can often–not always–revise their opinions about writing, once you get them to realize that grammar and fluency are less important than interesting ideas. If you have something to say, most people aren’t going to get too bent if you have the occasional comma splice any more than they’re going to worry about you occasionally mispronouncing a word or saying “uh” in the middle of a sentence. If your grammar or fluency are bad enough they’re impediments, just as a strong accent or stammer might be an impediment in spoken communication; but if anything, written language is more forgiving, because things like editors and secretaries do exist.

What sucks in writing instruction is that the only reason that kids learn to think of “writing” as “pencil and paper,” and therefore one of the major reasons kids learn to hate writing or to think of it as boring, is because we are too damn cheap to provide the tools we have–tools that most middle-class adults take for granted–to children in public schools. Kids could produce much more interesting and sophisticated writing if there were enough adults to let the kids talk out their ideas while the grownups wrote them down, or if there were a computer and excellent dictation software for every kid, or a computer and some fun typing software so they could learn to touch type instead of practicing making letters. (Interestingly, one of PK’s first teachers told me that handwriting is primarily taught in order to give kids motor skills rather than as a reading/writing issue; dunno if that’s a truism or just his opinion, but it seems true to me.) If we could avoid introducing the pencil-and-paper hurdle until kids are old enough to be reasonably patient, they could learn that the primary distinction between spoken and written communication is the ability to revise, to hone and words so that ideas are not only communicated but communicated clearly. Maybe even with some grace or humor or beauty.

Luckily for PK, his mom knows a bit about that. So even though he hates putting pencil to paper (in his particular case, he is actually far slower at it than his peers, for reasons we don’t fully understand), he is not learning to “hate writing”–because I don’t make him write.

I do make him explain things, and I do ask him questions about his phrasing or arguments. I occasionally rephrase something he’s said in a more succinct way. I let him know when he’s taking too long to get to his point, or if he needs to give me an example to help illustrate the point he’s trying to make. I ask him to clarify if something he’s saying is in his words or if he’s repeating something someone else said. Because I’ve taught writing, I make a point of explaining to him that what he’s learning when we do that are specific communication skills that apply to written communication as well as spoken, and because he is quite bright and incredibly verbal, he understands those explanations and is learning to modify his speaking accordingly.

So though he’s impatient and has some kind of weird “processing” issue that makes putting words on paper ridiculously slow for him, I feel pretty confident that he is, in fact, learning to write very well. God knows that I look forward to the day that he also learns how to touch type, or how to use dictation software properly (right now he’s too impatient of formal instruction for me to have been able to get him to do either, but I think we’re very close to my insisting he start practicing typing most days), so that I no longer have to be his only audience most of the time. But I have no worries that he’ll get there.

 

 

 

For those of you who don’t have a background in teaching writing but want to help your kids/students be better writers, here are three links that might help, in order of my personal preference. All three are ostensibly about “gifted” children but imo and experience, the writing issues I’m talking about are very common for all sorts of kids. Help Children Avoid Writing Phobia says basically what I’m saying here, and has a link to a free online typing program. Tips for Parents: Writing and the Gifted Child is a lot more focused on formal writing instruction than I am, but might be very helpful for those working with kids who are less resistant than PK is, or who feel about teaching writing the way I feel about teaching math (that is, they need some kind of structure that lets them ensure learning is happening because they’re not equipped or confident that they can do it without help). Finally, Helping Your Child With Handwriting has suggestions for specific physical therapy type exercises that can help kids develop the motor skills for the pencil-and-paper stuff (which are good skills to have, after all).


Math Epiphany: A Review

PK and I have been working our way through the Interactive Mathematics Program v. 1. Veeery slowly, as I have to struggle with both his $@*! math anxiety and the fact that I’ve forgotten almost all the math I learned in high school :(.

Luckily, however, I actually do have a pretty good head for math (I did well in it, mostly–but my own $@*! math anxiety prevented me from pursuing it once I got to college, and meant that I didn’t actually learn it thoroughly enough to remember it), as does PK. And his father does use higher math pretty regularly on the job and remembers it very well, so when we get stuck we can ask him to help explain what it is we’re missing. More often, though, because this program is all about figuring stuff out with peers, PK and I reason our way through something together and only need the husband to explain what it is we’ve “learned” after the fact (Me: “so is there a way to simplify this problem now that we know how to write it? Is this some form of the quadratic equation?”)

PK and I were really proud of ourselves a couple of days ago, because I had him read the page below out loud to me before we set off on some errands, thinking we could maybe try  to figure out the answer while we ran around town. (Click to enlarge)

"Checkerboard Squares"

I hadn’t yet read it myself, though, and PK pretty quickly said that this wasn’t something we could just reason out in our heads–we’d need pencil and paper, and looking it over myself, I agreed. No biggie; we’d do the pencil-and-paper stuff after we got home, maybe, or the next day.

But while we were erranding, PK was thinking about the problem, and he realized that the smart way to do it was not to start out by trying to figure out how many squares on an 8×8 board, but rather to figure out how many squares on a 2×2, 3×3, etc–and then figure out the formula from the lower numbers. So he started figuring out the lower squares in his head, and when we got home we wrote down the answers (and double-checked the 4×4 board, which was already starting to get hard to hold visually without an actual thing to look at).

So far, so good: despite “we can’t,” PK kept thinking about the problem. More and more I’m realizing that he does that, even when the “we can’t” is more like “WE CAN’T AND YOU CAN’T MAKE ME AND I HATE YOU” followed by door-slamming and crying. Point one for homeschooling: I have the freedom his teachers don’t to just let him walk away when his anxiety peaks, knowing (after much observation) that that doesn’t actually mean he’s giving up (and freeing us both from compounding the problem with a pointless power struggle that just makes him more anxious and more angry).

Awesomeness of IMP program: the book didn’t tell us how to solve the problem, which meant that PK was free to take a different approach, and I felt super accomplished when I said “hey, let’s use an in/out table to figure out the rule here.” (The book has walked us through in/out tables, which were something I never encountered in my own math education but that PK tells me he did in 5th grade math. Wowsers.)

And it didn’t take too long before we figured out the formula: x = 1^2 + 2^2 + 3^2 + 4^2 ….

We both got to feel super pleased that we’d worked through a “Problem of the Week” in one evening (the last one had taken us much longer), and without Papa’s help (the husband being gone on a work trip). So far, so good; I have hope that repeated accomplishments like this one will eventually help overcome PK’s “we can’t” anxiety and reawaken his enjoyment of a tough math challenge.

The epiphanies, however, happened this morning, when I took a risk and opened up the book while PK was eating breakfast. He didn’t immediately start shouting, which is a good sign. I looked over the problem just to make sure that we’d covered it–so far I’m not having PK do the “write up”s to these problems, because writing is another whole ball of refusal that I don’t want to add into the mix quite yet–and said, “hm, we’ve solved the problem, but the book is asking us to explain why the solution works, and maybe how it might be a useful thing to understand beyond the “how many squares on a checkerboard” question. Which is an interesting problem, but not terribly useful in real life.”

We looked at it a bit, and I had my epiphany first: “oh, I get it! The reason that it’s 1^2 + 2^2 + 3^2 + 4^2 and so on is that a “square” in geometry is the same as a “square” in algebra! They just look different! A drawing of a square looks like this, but in the language of math, you write that as x^2!”

(“The language of math” is an analogy I’ve used to try to explain to PK the difference between “getting” math in the reasoning/visual sense–which he’s good at–and being able to “do” math in the algorithmic sense–which he has to learn. IOW, the equations and stuff you see in a “math book” are like words written in English (or any other language) on a page, and learning to “read” math is a slow process, kind of like sounding out words at first–but if you stick with it, I tell him, and don’t let frustration get the better of you, you’ll get fluent at it just like you are as a reader.)

PK’s epiphany–which didn’t feel like one to him, but as you’ll see, it was anyway–was a bored, “Mama, that’s not an explanation. That’s just restating the problem.”

Why yes, it is, I realized. In fact, that’s the WHOLE POINT of this exercise in the textbook–helping us to see that the algebraic expression is just a way of “writing” the geometric/visual drawing (and the abstract figure that it represents)–and vice-versa.

In other words, “the language of math” isn’t just an analogy; it is, in fact, what we’re doing with this algebra stuff.

Once I explained this to him, he “got it.”

This should make the whole thing so much easier, for both of us. I don’t have to be teaching him math; I’m just helping him learn how to read and write it by learning it alongside him.


Educational Practice vs. Parental Sanity

Teachers need to “assess students’ work,” which basically means just finding out if (what) the kid is learning.

Parents need to “keep their sanity,” which basically means getting the kid(s) out of your hair.

I get how these two goals are met with traditional education: the parents send the kid the hell off to school, breathing a sign of relief; the teachers send the kids home at the end of the day, doing likewise; and both sets of adults collaborate to force the kid to “do their work” during the school day and afterwards in the form of “homework,” which the teacher looks at in her “off hours” WITHOUT THE KIDS HASSLING HER EVERY FIVE MINUTES, marks, and sends back home where diligent parents hopefully “check it” and thereby know more or less how the kid is doing. And so on.

This whole process was a big problem for us when PK was in school. He loathed homework, there were lots of fights about making him do it, and lots of passive-aggressive notes between me and his teacher about making him “show his work” in math. The enormity of this struggle was a major part of the anxiety and stress that eventually led to us homeschooling.

Which means that now I have to figure out a better way ALL ON MY OWN.

The pieces of the puzzle are as follows.

  1. PK’s writing is very slow for his age.
  2. However, he freely draws diagrams and such of ideas he has, so he can/will write if he wants to. Not essay-style stuff, generally, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility for him to write a paragraph on his own if he has an idea. He’s been known to make little books, etc.
  3. That said, he “doesn’t like writing,” by which I mean if you tell him to write something he will complain, dawdle and avoid. (As indeed will I, and most writers I know.)
  4. He’s done powerpoints in the past, and generally preferred them as school-based assessment methods. But there’s still, of course, the “you have to do this” issue and the complaining/dawdling/avoiding.
  5. What he DOES like is talking. A lot. He will ask questions and then interrupt your answers to answer them himself, or to argue with what he thinks you are (going to) say(ing). He is CONSTANTLY coming to me and saying “Mama, can I tell you [about my idea for a new video game/what I think the worst possible movie-theater food is/about this cool thing I built in Minecraft/why Superman is such an annoying cartoon character/etc.?”]
  6. It DRIVES ME CRAZY when he does that.

So basically, it’s like the homework problem that most parents deal with. The preferred assessment method (yammering about whatever pops into his mind) requires Mama to drop everything and focus her attention on the kid. The up side is that I don’t have to “make” him do it and it doesn’t end in tears; the down side is that it requires me to grit my teeth, feign interest (I truly can’t actually get myself interested–not least because if I am interested, then I try to contribute to the “discussion,” which ironically ends in raised voices, if not shouting, as he tries to talk over me), and Be Very Patient about setting aside my own thoughts and activities.

When he was in school, this same talking preference, of course, was a major problem in the classroom. I usually told his teachers they had all my sympathy and I would not, myself, want him for a student. And yet HERE I AM. Most of his good teachers would establish with him, early on, some kind of ground rule whereby there was an agreed-upon signal that meant “not now,” which he would obey, and then he could come to them later (at recess, during a break in activity, etc) to ask his question/share his idea. He and I have a similar system–but whereas at school, there were all sorts of other people (friends, other adults, etc) to share the burden of listening to his non-stop thought stream, now there is JUST ME.

And as is surely clear by now, it drives me batshit. And honestly, I don’t listen all that much; I do a fair bit of nodding and saying “hmm,” and a fair bit of just flat-out saying NOT NOW or THAT’S ENOUGH or YOU TOLD ME THAT YESTERDAY. In my defense, I am not just being an asshole parent; I write (and use online social media a lot) for a number of reasons, one of which is that too much talking or noise overwhelms me. I like social events just fine, but if I’m trying to think, I prefer to do it in silence. (Though come to think of it, I am quite happy to “think out loud,” too, if I have an audience.)

Even so, shutting the kid up because he’s driving me nuts is, of course, Terrible. Doubtless I am making him feel rejected and adding to his anxiety and squelching his love of learning. But I am only human, and seriously, this kid is one of those classic geek types that will go on and on about something while those around listen politely and try to slowly edge away….

(I also want to teach him some damn social skills so that he doesn’t do that to people.)

We’ve tried the dictation software on the Apple OS; learning to work with it will be a long process of slowing down, checking its transcription, adjusting his enunciation, learning to punctuate as he goes along, etc. A good tool, eventually, but not yet–and of course YET ANOTHER THING he “has” to learn (thereby putting me in the taskmasker role and him in the dawdle/avoid/argue role).

He knows that typing software exists; it too is in that category of things I’d need to “make” him do. (I will, because typing is an invaluable skill.)

I’ve suggested to him that perhaps he would like to write a blog (no)? Make YouTube videos about his various interests (maybe)? I could have him simply record himself talking, I suppose, as well (would I have to later listen to it??).

It’s clear that one of the major things we need as “gifted homeschoolers” is to figure out how to balance the flood of information both ways. I have stuff I want to share with him (teach him, make sure he learns); he has stuff he wants to share with me (things he’s learning). Frankly we both kind of suck at listening to each other, because we each value our own thoughts over the other person’s.

I feel certain that I am not alone in needing to figure all of this out. If anyone knows the answer, please tell me. (As I type this, PK is interrupting me–for the third time!–to tell me about some kind of Minecraft shit. HELP. Bonus incentive: if he’d stop interrupting, I’d blog more often…)