disapproving kitty

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Leaving Behind No Child Left Behind

I heard a comedian once talk about getting a driver's license in New York, which consisted of some extensive training, hours and rigorous testing, and comparing it to getting a license in Ohio which is mostly the examiner saying "If you are taller than this line...."*

It's a great punchline, but it's also depressing when you consider how the same theory has been applied to education. Back in 2002, it's what the Bush Administration† established with No Child Left Behind. All kids had to pass a minimum bar as established by these one-size-fits-all tests. Makes sense to have minimum standards, right? I mean we had kids graduating that couldn't read for crying out loud! (Newsflash: we still do.) Districts poured money and resources into special ed and remediation. Some kids with special ed ID's were exempted from these standards, and numbers of kids with SpecEd ID'd soared. So did numbers of kids with anxiety and depression.**

Money also poured in to testing companies and into tutoring companies and the one place more money didn't show up was, you guessed it, gifted ed.
Gifted kids walked in the door able to pass those "minimum standard" tests. So nobody needed to teach them anything. They were going to be a tally in the positive column pretty much no matter what, so why waste time on them when the school was going to get slammed heavily for every child beneath the bar?
Gifted kids got left behind. 
That's the legacy of NCLB and it has been devastating to our students. We spent 13 years being encouraged to ignore the gifted in service of this backwards mandate. 13 years. That is an entire school career for a generation of children. 
ESSA came along and established that not all kids need the same bar but maybe they all ought to make a year's growth each year instead. It's still all determined by highly flawed testing and questionable statistics, and without doubt it's far too heavily driven by the testing industry (I'm looking at you, Pearson.) At least, though, educators are realizing that for the past 15 years the group with the least amount of growth each year, to the point of sometimes moving backwards, is gifted students.
While the new law is bringing about some needed attention to gifted kids and their needs, we also have a generation of now-veteran teachers who have lived for more than a decade in a culture that focused exclusively on bringing up the low kids as the Number 1 Top Priority. Above all else, get those students past the bar. Even today teachers will admit that the couple of gifted kids in their classroom just "aren't a priority" because there are so many other kids who are behind. The notion that the gifted children are likely even father behind on their "year's growth" than the other students are is simply not considered.
So we're ever-so-slowly moving the focus on growth for all, rather than a single target for all. It's an improvement, to be sure, but as an advocate for gifted children, it's still not enough. Because a year's growth for an average child looks different than a year's growth for a gifted child and we still aren't recognizing that yet. We have embarked on an era of differentiation and personalization but we're still using a single test as the measure of all our children and our schools. We're embracing "growth mindset" but not understanding (and even actively fighting against) the idea that valuing all students equally does not mean believing they can all do the same things. 
We have begun, in education, to recognize that gifted students deserve a year's growth, but we have yet to realize that simply setting that expectation upon overworked classroom teachers is not enough. Even with extra training, it is too much to expect a single teacher to oversee a year's growth for every child, including gifted ones, without support. The range is just too great. We have unparalleled support for struggling students (as we should). It's time we invested even 1/10†† of that in our gifted students, don't you think?


*It's an exaggeration, but not by much.
†The even more horrifying part is that Dubya seems like a solid elder statesman now, by comparison.
**Yes, I know post hoc, ergo propter hoc is a fallacy, and there's a lot more going on than just testing, but I'm positive school stress has played a part.
††recently a teacher told me there are more gifted kids ID'd in her building than special ed kids, and they have 1/2 a gifted teacher and 7 special ed ones. 1/10 the support would be an improvement.

Monday, November 13, 2017

10 Reasons Not to do Improv in Your Classroom

1. I don't even know what improv is. What the hell are you talking about? I do not need another thing to learn. This isn't on The Test™. Go away.

2. Isn't improv, like, games and stuff? Unless it's a math game, I really don't have time for it in my classroom.

3. Acting isn't a serious career choice. Nobody actually makes it in acting. Okay, so like, 1 in a million. The rest are working as waiters in expensive cities and that's a terrible thing to doom a child to. Kids learning how to act is a waste of time.*

4. If I let my students do improv, I won't have control of the situation. Something really inappropriate could happen!

5. It's too complicated. Some references say there are only 3 rules. Some say 5. Tina Fey says 4. If nobody can agree on this, how could I possibly teach it?

6. Did I mention that improv is not on The Test™?

7. Teaching students how to think on their feet is another way of teaching them how to be better liars. Nobody will thank me for that.

8. School isn't supposed to be funny. This is work, dammit.

9. It's not my job to teach kids how to work together. Working together is not on The Test™.

10. I'm just not comfortable with it. The kids will see that. I can't do something I'm not comfortable with. Please just go away.

Well, now.

Got that out of your system?

Now I'm going to give you the one reason to teach kids how to do improv in your classroom:

Improv teaches kids how to communicate, how to collaborate, how to think critically and be creative all at the same time and requires no technology at all.**

I'm not kidding.

It does all that, and it gets kids more comfortable with public speaking, and with analysis and even with writing. And it's really, really good for kinesthetic learners. (And we're usually pretty bad at including those kids in our lessons unless we're the gym teacher.)***

Want to try some simple games? Try here. Push a little outside your comfort zone. Your students will thank you for it.

*Raise your hand if you've ever said (or thought real loud) "Didn't anybody teach this child how to act!? ARGH!" Yeah. I thought so. Me, too.

**We had our network go out today and I swear it was nearly apocalyptic for some of us.

***Yes. I'm totally aware that's more than 1 reason.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

An Open Letter to Jo Boaler and All the Growth Mindset Devotees

An Open Letter to Jo Boaler,

I'd like to start by saying I absolutely love you. I love your math problems that are written so our struggling students have a way to engage with the math. I love your insistence that a slow mathematical thinker isn't a bad mathematical thinker. I had the wondrous experience of teaching a girl a couple years ago who thought so profoundly about what she was learning that it would take days for her to process it and then come back to teach us about a way things worked that we hadn't even considered. This is a child who will some day invent new math. 

Because of you and other leaders in growth mindset, my district has been embracing it for all our kids, starting from the moment they walk in the door. Teaching math is a terribly exciting endeavor these days and you have been a big part of it and I am so grateful.

But I would very much appreciate it if you'd stop picking on gifted kids. 

Yes. You pick on the gifted kids by insisting, over and over, that they don't really exist. That really, everybody is equally capable. For example, in your latest missive:

"...labels and ideas of smartness and giftedness carry with them fixed ideas about ability, suggesting to students that they are born with a gift or a special brain."

The truth is that gifted children ARE born with a special brain. They are born with a brain that learns faster than the average brain. Concepts come easier, mastery comes more quickly and by the time they enter kindergarten, gifted children are able to understand ideas that children two grades ahead of them are just starting to learn. They hunger for knowledge at a different pace than the average child. They are different. 

You, and many others, claim that it's the label that does the harm because it separates them from other kids and it teaches them that they don't have to work, they're just "naturally smart." The label doesn't teach them that. Schools do that with or without the label. We do it through our insistence that children must always be with their age peers. They must always learn the same lesson at the same time at the same pace as their age brethren. It can take as little as a couple months for that kindergartner, so eager to learn when she stepped through the door, to learn that it doesn't matter how much she already knows, she has to do the worksheet. She has to complete ALL the problems. She has to chant and sing "B is for Bird! B goes Buh!" even though she's been reading since age 3. 

"You're so smart!" chirp the adults. "You can help Johnny with his letters, since you do them so well, and he needs a little help." And now our gifted child has learned that she is just "smart." And she has learned that her job in school is to teach the slower kids. And she has learned that being smart means never having to struggle like Johnny.

Her label didn't teach her that.

WE did. 

And we teach it over and over and over, every time we make her wait for everyone else to finish. Every time we give her more of the same kind of problem to solve so she will have something to do. Every time we give her a 100% with a big, shiny star on work that she breezed through. We teach her and reinforce the lesson that she is smart and that means never having to try very hard.

Of all students in America, gifted children have traditionally made the fewest gains each year in school. Some gifted children walk in the door the first day of school knowing nearly all the material they are supposed to "learn" that year*. And when gifted children are introduced to a new topic, concept or idea it takes 1 - 2 repetitions for mastery once they truly understand it. That's it. 1 - 2. Other students in the same class, depending on their ability, can take up to 12. Imagine if I made you do the same task 12 times after you'd proven you could do it by the 2nd time? How would you feel? Angry? Frustrated? Bored? Fed up? 

Now, listen as I tell you that you are no different than any other child in the room and you all have the same capacity to understand everything as long as you try hard enough. Are you going to believe me, especially when you see that half the class has failed on their 6th attempt, while you had it on the 2nd go? When you almost always have it on the 2nd go and the rest do not? Do you think anybody believes that no one is different in that room just because you refused to label them? And how do you think the child who failed it again on the 12th try is going to feel? "Gee, if only I worked hard enough I could have gotten it a week ago." 

Denying that innate abilities exist in mental capacity is like denying that innate athletic abilities exist. I could have practiced basketball every day from age 4 on and done nothing but basketball to the detriment of all else in my life and still never have made it to the varsity team much less the WNBA. Not everybody can be LeBron James. I'm not discounting his hard work and his passion for his sport, but he also had a leg up in the genetics department. 

You accuse the labeling as the culprit, or the acknowledgement that some kids learn things faster than others as the problem. But even as you do this, you speak of the actual problem: "Students who grow up thinking that they have a special brain often drop out of STEM subjects when they struggle." YES! They do! You are absolutely right about this, that when they finally struggle -- after years of NEVER STRUGGLING -- they have no resilience! And whom, do you think, is to blame for them never struggling? It's not the label. It is a school system that NEVER REQUIRED THEM TO STRUGGLE. 

The solution isn't to quit labeling students. The solution is to give students challenges at their level every single day. Gifted children deserve to have material that challenges their brain to grow just like every other student does. You would not give our dear friend LeBron a 5' hoop to practice with and expect it to do him any good, would you? I don't think that LeBron needs a higher hoop because someone labeled him as a gifted player, I'd know he needs more challenge because he demonstrates his abilities every single game he plays! 

And despite the fact that I believe you are 100% wrong about gifted kids not existing (or that everybody is equally capable), I still believe that growth mindset is tremendously beneficial for gifted students. But they cannot develop that growth mindset unless they are given the challenges that will cause them to struggle and grow.

Growth mindset has much to offer, and I do agree with you that the majority of learners can learn to do challenging math or difficult work in any subject successfully. But please stop going overboard and making claims that gifted kids are harmed by being called gifted, or that they don't really exist in the first place. What harms gifted kids is not being challenged. Blaming the label is blaming the wrong thing, and I ask you please to cut it out. 

But please keep on with the fabulous math problems. My gifted kids love them.


*http://www.davidsongifted.org/Search-Database/entry/A10029 has more on this topic, or you can find many articles about it via NAGC.org.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

TL;DR Kakooma, Krypto and KenKen

So, hey! A few nights ago, in the shower*, I came up with a bunch of ideas that I wanted to write about and I actually wrote them down. This is a small miracle in and of itself, so I'm not going to harp on the fact that one of the topics on the list is a total mystery to me. With luck I'll remember what it was I wanted to say.

I do remember this one, though, so I thought I'd start here. Uh, this is turning out longer than I thought, so if you'd like to just skip to the games, scroll down a bit. I won't be offended†.

It starts with a common complaint I hear from parents and from teachers, too: kids don't memorize their math facts anymore! They don't do flash cards or mad minutes or "around the world" (which is a dreadful game) and it's all about just "feeling good about doing math!" Sheesh. What a bunch of whiny snowflake children. When we were kids, we had to memorize our math facts! And walk uphill both ways to school.

I will kindly request that you stop it. Please. Memorizing without understanding is pretty much useless. If you don't get how math works, or how to apply it, all that memorization isn't going to help you. If you're like a lot of people, you've forgotten a lot of it by now anyway. And even though, yes, you DO have a calculator with you all the time, if you don't know what numbers to put in, and what operations to choose, math facts aren't going to help you.

Common Core, despite its detractors (who I'm not going to link to because they don't deserve any more traffic than they get) is a pretty good way to teach math**. It's slower than the way we learned, but taught well with the time kids need to understand it, it's a better way. Common Core focuses on understanding how numbers work, what patterns exist in numbers and operations, and figuring out the relationships between all kinds of numbers. The plan is that developing this understanding and being immersed in math will lead students to knowing math facts.

This is where it kind of falls apart. With Common Core, students do seem to come out with this deeper understanding, and they have multiple strategies for solving problems (which is incredibly important) but many are still pretty slow on just knowing their math facts. And after a point, around grade 5, this starts to really become a problem.

Kids who have not internalized the patterns inherent in times and addition tables start to struggle, a lot, to understand fractions and later, algebra. If an equation has a 84 and a 7, a child who has a real understanding of how times tables work should immediately figure out that there is a 12 in that problem somewhere. Students who don't take much longer, tediously pounding out guesses or trying to apply an algorithm they don't really understand (and thus can't fix if they bungle the formula.)

You could think of it like this: my daughter knows how to spell and is familiar with a QWERTY keyboard. She mostly sorta knows where the keys are. But to sit and type out her ideas is tediously slow because the positions of the letters aren't just part of her. She still has to hunt and peck, which makes creative writing, a task she enjoys, into a slog. She understands how to make the words, but she lacks fluency.

That's where the games come in. Fluency games.

GAMES. Not flashcards or speed races that pit kids against each other (Hey! Let's all give kids more reasons to hate the gifted girl and pity the slow thinker! No.)

All three of these games improve mental-math fluency, are level-able and most of all, are fun. I encourage students to challenge themselves, not their neighbor, and focus on their own improvement.

Kakooma: 18 levels each with +, x, negative numbers, and fractions. Played solo. Timed. I don't recommend the app or the "pretty" version of the game, because it crashes.

Starting with addition: In each box (or hex, octagon, etc.) there are several numbers. Two will add up to a 3rd number. Click on it. Once you've solved all the puzzles at the edges, the answers will create a 2nd-level Kakooma, and you need to find which two of those add up to a 3rd.

Multiplication is similar, except that two numbers will multiply to a 3rd. For the 2nd level, it becomes an addition Kakooma.

Negatives is just addition, but it throws negative numbers into the mix. Fractions is also addition, but with mixed fractions.

KRYPTO: Level-able by increasing or decreasing the number values available, eg. 1 - 10, 1- 18, 1 - 25. Playable solo or with an entire class.

You can play this with a deck of cards, a set of "everything math" cards, or with a traditional krypto deck. If you'd like to print your own, here's a set.  You lay out 5 cards in a row, and then a 6th card as the "target." Players use all 5 numbers with +, - x and / to create an equation to reach the target.

For younger students, you can also level it by having students create an equation out of 3 or 4 of the cards. For older students, require them to correctly write out the single equation that uses all 5 numbers to reach the target. (requires an understanding of PEMDAS.)

KenKen: This game is a little different because it requires both fact fluency and logic. Think sudoku with math facts thrown in. It's a lot to explain, and the website does it better than I do, so just check out the link. There are a multitude of good apps, too. Goes from super-easy 3x3 to fiendishly difficult 9x9. For a gazillion printable ones, look here: Crazy Dad Inky Puzzles.

Try the games. They're fun! And if you're feeling brave, challenge your kid to beat you at them.

*Yeah, you probably didn't need to know that, but whatever, I already wrote about it, so there it is.
**It's not perfect, but that's another post.
† I'm well aware that this entire post could have been 10 words long. But I like to write, too, and I do know where all the letters are.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

It's NaNoWriMo (NotGonHapNo)

While showering I remembered that it's going to be November in an hour and I still don't have a Great American Novel in my head to write for NaNoWriMo. Long ago* I thought that might be a cool goal for myself but now I'd settle for remembering to write down the cool ideas I think of while in the shower. Seriously, I need to start keeping handy those bathtub crayons they have to amuse kids during baths. There should be adult versions of those things, like they have adult footie pajamas now. Not that I want those. Those make your feet all sweaty, if you ask me**.
I digress.
So I'm not writing a novel, and likely never will have that as an actual goal. I'm okay with that, though, partly because I read this excellent post not too long ago about a better way to think about goal setting and, well, it's resonated with me. I don't know that I'm any better at achieving things because of it, but I've been less frustrated. Maybe.
So instead of creating a goal I know I'm not going to achieve, maybe this month I'll just set out to write in my blog a few days a week.
Here's what I want to write about:***

3 math games teachers should be playing with their students every day
10 reasons not to do improv in your classroom, and 1 reason you should
The goal of education is growth, not getting the kids to hit a target
DIY Nanofictionary
Common Core in English
Giving the "Personal Narrative" a rest for Pete's sake. (You're making my kid a worse writer and boring everybody to death.)
Drabbles and the art of being a Scottish writer
Why your student can tell you a 20 minute story but only write one sentence (and an illegible one at that.)
Choosing positive
Quit expecting miracles: I didn't learn how to write a real paragraph till 10th grade
Now that you've got that out of your system, how do you plan to solve the problem?
It's all about the love of learning. Everything else is secondary.
It's all about the love, but the process is a close second.
Reaching kids where they are: Experimenting (science), storytelling (language), solving puzzles (math) and playing games (all of the above)

I never intended this to be a blog about education, and I still don't, but this is what I want to write about now, so I will. If it turns into something great, I can port it into a more education-y sounding blog.
As I write these posts, I'll try to remember to come back an hotlink them, so they're easy to find. And it'll help me keep track of how many I've actually done.
If any of my 3 followers want to suggest topics, feel free. Even better, write your own post and I'll link to it.
Happy November, y'all.

*before I had children, or a career. Yes, I know there are women who have both children and a busy career and still write great novels, but I am never going to be one of them.
**If you do like them, then go you! It's cool to like different things.
***And yes, I thought of these in the shower. As soon as I got out, I wrapped up in a towel and wandered around till I could find pen and paper. (My phone was dead, so dictating it into Keep wasn't an option.)

Monday, June 5, 2017

If You're Not Interested in Gifted Ed, This Will Probably Be Boring

It's 1 AM and I'm not sleeping, even though it's summer and I'm officially "off," and should have no worries whatsoever.
You know that isn't true.
Tomorrow I need to be up at 7 so that I can drop DD at a friend's house while J drops DS at day camp so that I can go to professional development where I will learn how to create online classes for my students.
Teachers have it so easy.
This post isn't about that. It really isn't. It's about students. For the past 17 years I've taught gifted kids and I absolutely love them. I love how their brains work, I love how they don't work, too, sometimes and I love how they are interested and interesting. Maybe all kids are like that. I don't know. I've only truly worked with the gifted ones.*
I've been teaching in a "pull out" program for many years, where the gifted kids come to my class one day a week and we work on things like Thinking Skills, and learning how to research and present, how to solve problems and how to create new ones and how to work together as a team (for the love of all that is holy will you stop arguing already?!) and a variety of other skills that aren't really delineated at any particular grade level, but they really ought to be at every grade level.
Those are the skills that every other discrete skill set should be focused on improving, but we tend to lose sight of the big picture when we're all focused on test questions that, by the nature of testing, have to focus on the little, easily measurable things.
But this post isn't about testing, either.
It's about how our model for teaching gifted kids has changed and I'm now going to be "supporting" students and their teachers in the regular classroom, with the aim of having those students be challenged every day. We're following this model that seems to be working well out in Arizona, and checking out how it works in other districts and doing our best to figure it out as we go, but all of us are getting the question: what exactly are we supposed to do?
This is what this post is about and why I'm awake after 1:00 in the morning.
I took a shower to see if maybe that would make me sleepy and that was probably where I went wrong. I do a lot of thinking in the shower, and what I started to think about is the number of times I've been asked if I'm supposed to be helping challenge kids just in math, or is it just math and reading or...what is our focus, really?
That's a good question. What is our focus?
I've had multiple answers from multiple sources but I think, bizarrely, that just maybe our department needs to sit down and do something I truly detest doing and usually find a phenomenal waste of time: Define our mission, and our goals.
No, really.
Way back when I started in my district, we had four broad, overarching goals for our department. I recently stumbled across it and recycled it and now I wish I hadn't because they were elegantly crafted by some amazingly smart and dedicated women who Knew. Their. Stuff. when it came to gifted education. These goals spoke to not just striving to develop deep thinkers and problem solvers, but to bringing students to the realization that there is a big, big world out there and an even bigger one inside of them and they need to learn how to unlock all of it if they are going to suck the marrow out of life.  A subsequent leader discarded these goals in favor of more "curricularly aligned" goals, which could still include problem solving, but the larger picture started to get lost.
Now we're down to wondering if we're here to support just math and reading only.†
Our model has changed, our jobs have changed, the technology is changing by the minute and not one of us can say "This is the big picture. This is what I'm here to help you do."
As a "big picture," whole-to-part thinker, this is keeping me up at night.
As much as I hate to say it, we need a mission statement.
Our district has one, and I think, if we all took it to heart and really honestly tried to follow it, we'd tell the State of Ohio Board of Education and our Legislature to take their "value-added" tests** and stick them where the sun don't shine because we are too damn busy teaching our students how to be prepared for a world not one of us can imagine and ain't nobody got time for teaching to the damn tests.††
It's time we sat down as a department and asked ourselves what is the big picture, and what our mission should be. Is it challenging kids in math and reading, or is it helping them figure out how to be successful as gifted people in a world that is often not built for them? Is it all of the above?

There's a lot more to unpack here, like "why should gifted kids get all this stuff and not everyone else?" and "are gifted kids really that different from other kids? Why should they get something special?" and "do gifted kids really exist?" and....well, lots of other things I'm not going to write about here because this is long enough already.

It's almost 2 now, and I have to be up in 5 hours. Maybe, if I'm lucky, I'll spend some of it sleeping.

Goodnight.

*that's not entirely true. I have taught non-gifted kids, and found them, in general, so be less intriguing for me than gifted ones. I'm sure I'm equally puzzling to them.
†as if that's even possible. Show me a science, social studies or problem solving lesson that involves neither math nor language skills and I'll show you a blank piece of paper.
**based on a model for agriculture. Seriously. Agriculture. (if the link doesn't work, try loading it up in an "incognito" browser.)
††ok, so this post is sorta about testing, too. I lied. Sue me.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Teaching the Fundamentals Doesn't Mean What You Think It Does

I keep seeing memes float about on Facebook about how the damn libruls have kicked God out of schools, or how the ACLU beats children for praying in school or most recently, how a conservative think tank is proposing to a very welcoming administration the idea the public funds should be going towards religious schools and "bringing God back into the classroom."
I usually post short responses to these statements, but I've grown tired of typing the same thing over and over. So I thought I'd write a blog post and just link to it instead. It'll save wear and tear on my fingers.
The real question isn't: Should God be allowed in school? 
It's: Should the government be allowed to force your child to worship the god(s) of its choice?
Because that's what we're talking about.
Stay with me a moment. If you are mad because some liberal kicked God out of your child's classroom, tell me, how did they do that? Does the teacher stand at the door and tell your kid "No believing in God in here!" or "If I catch you praying, you'll be sent to the office!"
Of course not. 
Every child with a belief in God brings that belief with her. As the joke goes, as long as there are tests, there will be prayer in school. 
Imagine for a moment that the State mandates prayer in school. Great, right? A win for conservatives! Except, they decide to mandate Buddhist prayer. Or Islamic prayer. Or Satanic prayer. Or Jewish prayer. Or Catholic prayer. Or Presbyterian prayer. Or an Atheist moment of silent reflection. And your child is none of those things. What then? 
Well, says the State, your child can just sit respectfully. Or leave the room. Or do something else that marks him as different from his peers.
Life's hard enough without the teacher being the one calling our your kid as the "weirdo," don't you think?
Prayer and belief in God has always been in public classrooms across America. Always will be. It just isn't lead by the government. It's there because your children bring it with them, not because the teacher forces it on them.
Think about it. Or pray on it. Or meditate or whatever else you choose to do, and not because the government told you to. If you are an American, that's one of your fundamental rights.
It's a right I want for my children, too.
Don't you?