Archive for October, 2013

Killer Bs

I forget, every year, that we’re going to have to go over the concept of grades. A was no different this year; he’s often brought me work with the same eager question that H and E had for the first few months of their own homeschooling: “what do I get?”

I’ve answered him, honestly, as I’ve answered all of them so far: I have no idea. It’s not done yet.

I don’t exist in a world of grades. Most professionals I work with don’t, either. There is one grade – suitable – and the potential for compliments that live above the line of pure actionability. Solutions can be elegant, or quick to the point, or cleverly designed to perform under budget, but those are frosting terms, sprinkle terms, atop the concept of suitable.  The hurdle for workability varies by functional area and by project; some work most definitely needs to correspond to an academic A-plus, and other work simply needs doing at a C level. (No pun intended.) Moreover, picking the wrong execution level is a sin in its own right, so taking an extra week or ten days to do something at an A level that needed C work isn’t just a quality surplus; it’s a different kind of mistake. It’s not only important to be able to trade quality for speed of execution, it’s important to be able to correctly read the circumstances that demand each.

What A provided me wasn’t workable – not yet, anyway (he was close) – so off he went to make it workable. I also informed him that he was on the hook for the work he would have started if what he’d turned in had been workable the first time through. That’s life’s C-minus: you get to do it again, while you’re taking care of everything else that needs doing. The machine neither grinds to a stop while you rework your mistakes, nor does it shrug and move along the next task with this one still undone to spec. But that’s the school system, in which the most dangerous grade possible – a B – somehow lets students move along without ever mastering the concept. (No wonder school districts are slowly beginning to insist on mastery.)

It’s new to him, just as it was new to E and H prior, and there have been teary moments when work piled up, but they slowly, gradually, came to understand how it worked. Then the other questions started coming. What kind of evaluation spec will this assignment be on? What are the evaluation criteria going to be? How long do I have to do it? How long before deadline will you look at work in progress?

Grades, as they are currently constituted, are bullshit, and don’t do a thing to prepare kids for the life that exists for them beyond the walls of academia. Even venerated institutions like our college testing system can’t actually tell a kid whether he or she can write anything meaningful or compelling.  Even graduating from college doesn’t necessarily mean anything anymore, as employers both here and abroad complain that staggering numbers of graduates – half, by consensus – aren’t ready for real-world work. How bad is it? We’re now seriously talking about having a post-graduation test to determine if graduates learned anything.

So we’re starting over with the concept. In here, tests and essays and projects aren’t due by the calendar; they’re due by when our kids feel they’re ready to tackle work at that level with the confidence of skill mastery in hand. They’ve got responsibilities to get that mastery done on a reasonably timely basis, and we’re happy to excuse them from secondary responsibilities that are less important. (I’d rather have my kids spend twice as long on the reasons for the rise of the Maurya Empire than the dates it fell between.) But ultimately, we’re moving in a direction that’s more goal-oriented than grade-oriented, and that goal is ability (as we’ve discussed previously).

We’re also increasingly aware that there’s just more to education than can really be measured by a single number or letter at a single point in time.  As such, we’re much more about concepts like cross-disciplinary application and skill re-acquisition, so we carefully watch their ability to apply what they’ve learned creatively in a variety of learning settings than simply cramming and dumping knowledge sequentially (kind of what this kid is doing). We’re looking, long-term, to see if concepts like the rise of the state show up in critical reading, or whether knowledge of geometry shows up in entrepreneurial work. We’re also watching to see how quickly they can re-learn lost skills; that’s going to be important over time, too.

In the end, I hope I’m readying them for the world they’re going to live in, one in which a series of unsuitable work deliveries (that came oh-so-close) are just greasing the skids toward the inevitable exit interview, and blowing the quality peak off of a midweight project is just costing everyone time for other work. Bs and Cs where As are needed, and As where Bs and Cs will do, are among the many and complex forms of error their world will challenge them with. They’ll need to be ready for both.

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The Maddening Transience of Memory

man-inserting-memory-card-in-brain

This week found us comfortably ensconced in the airy confines of the Leprino Family Atrium at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science – homeschooling has its privileges! – as E learned systems of linear equations in two variables for the second time, and I learned them right along with her, for probably the seventeenth time in my life. And E’s upset about this fact. She knew this, just last spring. What happened? The same thing that’s happened to me, I tell her: I forgot. And that’s okay.

It’s not that they don’t make sense to me; they do. And it’s not as if I’m not fairly sure I know how to do them (E was, too); it’s just that I’m not a hundred percent sure, and that forms the basis of what I call ‘the maddening transience of memory.’ I learned systems of two variables first in eighth grade algebra, and then again in geometry, again as review for the SAT, and then for the ACT, then again in Algebra II, and since then, there’s been a double-fistful of times I’ve needed to solve a system of linear equations in two variables. The last time, prior to this one, was two years ago when I was working on modeling the educated and English-speaking population of the Philippines for a client. I’ve learned and re-learned how to solve a system of linear equations in two variables over and over in my life, and to be honest, I don’t consider myself an educational failure for it.

The reality is, we retain what we do, and we slowly discard what we don’t. And that, in turn, is why I’m more focused on making sure my kids know how to quickly re-learn something than permanently know it, because permanence – unfortunately – is kind of a relative thing. If the goal of learning is ability, as we’ve said before, then ability is surely the axle that turns the wheel of learning. Leave the axle alone too long, and rust accumulates.

That’s true of everything. Things I’ve known within the last twelve months that I don’t know right now: the guitar solo to Queensryche’s I Don’t Believe in Love; the muzzle velocity of a magnetic coilgun (writing-related, I assure you); contracting regulations for the Federal A-76 outsourcing program; trends in public-sector budgeting for state employment offices; how to bias a 12AX7 amplifier tube; the part number for our whole-house air filter media replacement; the telephone number of our drywall installer (don’t ask).  The list goes on and on. When I’m in the moment, I know the information, and once I’m done with it, it slowly gathers its hat and coat over the course of a week or so and makes its exit. By the way, every single one of those neurons was refilled with some other item of knowledge, and I’ve probably forgotten that, too. The older I get, the more I realize that some aspects of our brains are just like a quirky hard drive of limited capacity; there are things that will always be remembered (the way my wife looked in the sun of Fiddler’s Green on August 6, 1991) and things that will swiftly come back to me when I need them (how to solve a system of linear equations in two variables) and things that I may have already forgotten I ever knew.

So why, then, do we focus so keenly on testing and comprehension for kids? I buy into the argument that it’s important to know something once so that you can re-learn it quickly, and for that, I’m grateful I received 1980s-level rigor in my algebra testing. I did know this once, and did well on it, but testing is (obviously) no guarantee that something has taken up anything like permanent residency in my head. It’s not even a guarantee that the second, or third, or nth, exposure will cement it permanently. I’ve done about a hundred Z- and two-tailed t-tests in statistics in my life, and almost every time I do one, I have to go double-check to make sure which is which; about half the time, I’m wrong. I just don’t do them often enough that the information lives in a high-confidence neuron for me. It’s a never-ending ‘oh, right’ moment.

When Kathy was in medical school, she bought – and made extensive use of – an HP palmtop computer (back when THOSE were a thing) that she had the most marvelous term for. She called it her ‘peripheral brain,’ and in it she stored everything that was useful to a physician from a reference perspective. She was ultimately still responsible, during her intern and resident years, for coming up with a diagnosis and plan for every patient she saw, but dragging around a hundredweight of medical textbooks isn’t an option for an exhausted intern (or anyone, for that matter). Over time, I saw her use it less and less, and when I asked why, she told me that an increasing proportion of what was stored in her peripheral brain had moved to her ‘primary’ one. But it never left entirely, and to this date, she still uses a service called Up to Date, which keeps physicians informed on recent developments in medicine (because it’s a daunting challenge for any physician to remember what’s already been learned, but next to impossible to stay current with every new piece of research). In a sense, she, too, is forever learning and forgetting information in service of the need to do a good job now.

So, what I’ve come to is a position that I’d call the polar opposite of the current grind of elementary and primary school testing. I’m less concerned with my kids’ ability to permanently learn the date of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, or the formula for the volume of a quadrilateral pyramid, or the five major varieties of Pacific salmon. If one of them ends up being an industrial historian, or a civil engineer specializing in pyramids, or a Pacific marine biologist, those facts will end up taking up permanence in their ‘primary brains,’ and for the rest of us, if we need to know it, there’s Khan Academy or Wikipedia or a hundred other sources of ‘peripheral brain’ capacity.

I don’t care that they know something within an inch of their lives today, because there will come a day when they don’t know it anymore, and they need a sense of calm about that; a lost ability is just a few moments of review away from being recovered. What is important to me is that a concept makes sense to them today and can be grasped; anything grasped once can be grasped again, and that’s why I’m talking E off of a ledge, here in the sun-drenched air of the atrium, opening Khan Academy and starting a video on systems of linear equations. It’s as much for me as it is for her.

Aggressive Acceptance

I’m bookending Kathy’s post this week with a few additional thoughts on homeschooling a 2e child; where she did more of the why and what, I’m going to talk a little about the how of the decision. Specifically, there were three processes that I felt like, if we went back and could do them over again, we might have handled differently. The first was our speed to acknowledgment; the second was our boldness of decision; and the third was the shift in our educational strategy. All three are probably easier to define in their inverse, which is exactly what we did: we were slow to figure out what H was struggling with, tentative in the steps we took initially to work on it, and corrective – rather than pragmatic – in our approach to dyscalculia.

Learning disabilities can be notoriously difficult to spot in gifted kids, simply because there’s so much horsepower on tap that kids can often find a different route to managing tasks that might just be impossible for other children. Both H and A, for example, got the same math facts sheet for every number group – the 6’s started with 6×9, then 6×4, then 6×6, every day – so they just memorized their way through the sheet. (Crafty devils). A  – who runs toward the unmotivated side in reading, although we’re not 100% sure there’s not something else at work with him – could literally memorize, and read back, any book he’d ever had read aloud to him. We finally had to tell teachers to test his reading specifically on books not included in the read-aloud portion of the class. H had so much raw processing power available to her down other channels that she managed to get through a great deal of formal ‘math’ without learning any of it – so by the time we really started seeing cracks appear in her math skills, she’d been struggling with dyscalculia for years. If we’d done more detective work beneath her math grades, and investigated issues like analog clock reading more closely, we might have gotten to it before we did.

Similarly, once we did know what we were contending with, we edged toward a solution rather than making a bold leap. Tutors, manipulatives, pullout sessions with aides – they were band-aids on a gaping wound. We would probably have been better served to pull H out for a year and work intensively with her on building up both mathematical confidence and basic skills. Instead, we took advantage of what’s often served up to parents with 504s – a host of half-measures that mitigate, and manage, a situation that needs more. We were changing tires and oil on a car that needed an engine overhaul – and once we finally stopped frittering around the fringe of H’s disability, and got to work with her full-time last year, we saw real results and demonstrable progress.

Finally, there’s the issue of whether we’re trying to whittle a child into form or prepare her for the world she’s going to live in. I could likely sit with H for the better part of a year just on a concept like long division by hand – but what am I telling her by doing so? Do I believe she should be doing manual long division as a primary mathematical tool in her adult life? (Do I believe anyone should be doing manual long division as a primary mathematical tool, let alone someone with dyscalculia?) The reality is that H will come of age in an era that will feature unprecedented access to arithmetic and financial management tools, and I’d be far better off teaching her to run with a knee brace than insist on a thousand fruitless leg lunges a day. Add to which, by teaching her to use the tools that will be available to her – calculators, spreadsheets, Mathematica, etc – I can leave more room in her day to explore areas in which she has some genuine and often-dazzling mathematical gifts, such as algebra. There is so much focus in the popular press on educating children with learning disabilities to move children stubbornly toward normalcy that it’s possible to lose sight of the advantages of embracing the condition and teaching for a practical future of managing its challenges.

I wouldn’t call any of these a regret, in the long-run view of things; we got H into an environment that’s working fantastically well for her. But for other parents contending with the educational strategy for a 2e child, I’d certainly call them factors I wish I had been – at the same time – more aggressive about and more accepting of.

2e: A Dyscalculia Story

Dyscalculia

Parenting a twice-exceptional child as they enter school could be likened to hacking your way through a horrible, complicated maze in the jungle, only to finally come into a clearing and realize that homeschooling is really the only viable option. I retell our personal experiences here not only to offer some hope to those considering homeschooling their 2e child, but also to inform others about dyscalculia, a math learning disability. Had we, or the teachers we encountered, known about dyscalculia sooner, it would have saved my daughter a tremendous amount of pain and heartache.

The story begins, as all stories do, at the beginning. Our daughter, H, went through the usual early childhood milestones, a bundle of joyful exuberance and dramatic entrances. She entered preschool and learned to read at age 3 1/2, along with her twin sister.  The Montessori preschool they attended for a few hours a day was a fun place for both of them to make new friends and learn new things. There were a few parent-teacher conferences, where the reading teacher glowed about how well they were both doing with reading. The math teacher would tell us how well our one daughter was doing with the math activities. When we asked about our other daughter, she noted that H didn’t like to visit the math area. We didn’t think too much of this fact, since at age 3 or 4 we had no expectations of them really learning anything of substance.  She appeared to be learning her numbers along with the other kids.

We enrolled both girls in our local kindergarten program at age 5. The school suggested we apply for the district’s full-time gifted program, and we applied at the end of September. They both went through testing, and were accepted in January for the following fall. We would have to move schools, but the other school was only a ten-minute drive.  Although we noticed differences on their testing in math, we just figured that some kids are better at some subjects than others (and to be fair, this is true). H struggled some with basic addition and subtraction in kindergarten, but she didn’t seem to be behind most of the other kids.

The following fall, both girls started in the full-time GT program. The program was a grade accelerated, meaning they skipped first grade math and moved to second grade math, since many of them were already well into or past their knowledge of the second grade curriculum at the start of the year. H began to struggle more, becoming anxious about her math abilities, worried that it was taking her more time than the other kids. The teacher, who was new to GT teaching, was increasingly worried about her anxiety levels, and H’s inability to remember math concepts. H and her teacher started into daily struggles, which always ended in tears. We worked with her every day at home, trying to help her with remembering addition and subtraction facts. She would learn them one day, then forget them the next. At school, she developed a strong impostor syndrome, becoming convinced that she wasn’t smart enough to be in the class, and that she wasn’t really “gifted”. She spent the year watching helplessly as her signature joy drained away, her colorful personality leaching slowly out into grey. Her peers would remark – not always kindly – about her lack of math ability, and she tried to hide her deficiencies as best she could. She remained ahead of the class in reading and spelling, so she was advanced to the next grade, despite not being able to demonstrate competency in math. Her twin sister, without a learning disability, had already moved up another grade during the school year.

The next year, we discussed having the school place her in a regular class for math, while remaining in the GT class for the other subjects. However, since the second grade GT class was very math-focused, the teacher suggested having her pulled out for math individually, so she could work at her own level. We agreed, and for a while, things seemed to improve. H appeared to be learning more basic math when she was alone, away from the scrutiny of her peers. She was somewhat embarrassed to be leaving class during math time, but this was less than her discomfort of doing math with the class. I would ask her what she did during her individual time with the instructor, but she usually couldn’t remember; she did report that they used physical manipulatives frequently. We also worked with her at home, using manipulatives, several times a week. She remained joyless and anxious during school. Despite the individual instruction, by the end of the year, H remained unable to add or subtract without counting on her fingers, she could not read an analog clock or understand time, and she could not understand the concepts of multiplication and division. She also still could not tie her shoes.

It was around this time that we started to research difficulties with math learning, and it was only at this point – bringing together difficulties with time, counting, sequencing, and math skills – that we discovered the word dyscalculia, and the handful of websites out there with information on screening children and adults for math learning disabilities. H appeared to meet every criterion for a severe math learning disability, and for dyscalculia in particular. As a physician, I am aware of the perils of patients diagnosing themselves based on internet information, so I brought the information to her teacher. Her teacher had never heard of dyscalculia, but thought it was worth looking into.

We had H privately tested that summer. I’m not sure what was more jarring: seeing her well-above-grade-level reading and spelling scores, or her well below- grade-level math scores. The testing confirmed our initial suspicions about dyscalculia. We met with the school, requested a 504, and decided to have her move up another grade for everything but math, and then have her homeschool math with a tutor. She started working with the tutor over the summer, and continued throughout the next school year, every school day, one-on-one, for an hour. The tutor was patient, and had experience with both gifted kids and kids with learning disabilities. H made some good progress over the course of the year, and caught up to her age-appropriate grade level for math. The tutor was also a trained and licensed test administrator for the KeyMath assessment, and after testing Hannah, provided us some more hair-tearing news: Hannah was significantly behind grade level in a handful of areas, marginally behind in another handful…and gifted in a third handful. None of the three skill sets had the slightest thing to do with each other. (Of course).

Around this time, my daughter also read My Thirteenth Winter by Samantha Abeel. The book is her personal story of dyscalculia; it is a wonderfully written book, and H has re-read it countless times. She also began using an online math curriculum involving a great deal of repetition, which works well for her, and she really likes the online format. She can hold the information for longer periods of time, and she still needs tools – reminder sheets with math formulas, multiplication tables, and, of course, a calculator. On the upside, she can manipulate a calculator and a spreadsheet better than most adults. She can read a digital clock, and has started to understand the concept of time. Her math anxiety has significantly improved. Since we started full-time homeschooling, she is able to spend more of her time on the things she loves, and come easy for her: creative writing, reading, and art. She is our happy, joyous child again, no longer bound hourly by the constraints of her learning disability, but able to utilize her gifts as she sees fit.

We spend our mornings in the warm sun of the clearing, having no desire to hack back into the jungle. When the time comes that she needs to re-enter formal schooling (college?), she will have the tools she needs to navigate the maze with her natural grace and poise.

If our story describes your child, we urge you to ask a professional about dyscalculia. A math learning disability is more than being “bad at math”, and getting help early on makes a difference. Here are some web sites to get you started:

National Center for Learning Disabilities: What is Dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia.org

The Dyscalculia Forum

The Mathematical Brain

Nature.com: article on Dyscalculia

 

GHF Oct BLog Hop

We Are participating in the Gifted Homschoolers Forum October Blog Hop! The topic is: Homeschooling a Gifted/2e Child. Check out the other posts!

 

The Goal of Learning is Ability

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Deschooling kids is both the best and worst part of homeschooling. Taking kids who have internalized that the goal of school is doing well on tests and moving them to understanding that the goal of learning is, well, actually learning the material, is one of the greatest challenges we have had as parents. The longer they have been in formal school, the harder it is to break them out of this thinking. The process is even harder with gifted children, because they have been able to use the school system to their advantage.

Case in point: my son passed all of his addition, subtraction, and multiplication fact tests last school year. (For those of you who don’t recall this, these are tests where they have to complete 100 problems in 5 minutes for each set of facts.) Does he immediately recall this information when he needs it now? Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t. One of my daughters was the same way: she passed addition through division through the course of a year, but couldn’t immediately recall the information the next school year. Many folks would say this is just the human brain being human: we learn things, and then we forget some of it. Just have them re-learn the math facts, and re-take the tests, and eventually, it will stick.

The problem being, I can tell you how they both passed the tests in the first place. They didn’t actually learn all the math facts. To be fair, they already knew many of them, and some they learned along the way. Generally, though, what they did was to memorize the order of the answers so they could pass the tests. Since both kids have a strong visual memory, this strategy worked well for them in school. Memorize what you need to know, pass the tests: this was what they learned in school. Unfortunately, they learned it better than everything else.

This is where homeschooling changes everything.  They are now in a situation where the consequence of not learning, or internalizing, the material means something entirely different. There are no grades, and no other consequences of not learning it other than not knowing it. Seeing the light slowly come on in their heads that they cannot memorize their way through learning is interesting. As the years of formal schooling slip away, what they are left with is a more existential question.

What is the goal of learning?

We started our homeschooling day with a family discussion around this question. The kids certainly gave some good answers: to be educated, to go to college, to get a job and support yourself and your family. These are all valid answers to the question, and ones that many folks, especially educators, in our society would agree with. One of my answers was: the goal of learning is to learn. Wanting to know more about the world around us, how it works, and how we fit into it.

Out of all of the answers, though, I liked Dave’s the best. He definitely agreed with my answer above. But he took it many steps further. His belief is that internalizing the learning, then using the information to question, redesign, explore and create is the goal of learning. In short, the goal of learning is ability. Not our cultural and educational definition of ability: doing well on standardized tests, or getting good grades. Here, ability refers to the self-driven capability to truly understand and critically think about what we have learned, and then cross-link this information in order to create associations, ideas, and new solutions.

Whatever our kids learned in school, it was not actual ability. As we deschool our son, I have hope as I look towards our daughter, E, who has been homeschooling the longest of any of our kids. As I watch and listen to her now, I have personally internalized how nurturing and facilitating learning in gifted kids blossoms into true ability over time. I don’t care if she ever demonstrates it on a test.