Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Mighty Memory

My 1st grader has 15 spelling words a week.  My older son had up to 35 spelling words a week when he had the same teacher.   My wife asked about the difference and the teacher just rolled her eyes.   I'm guessing that a parent complained.

My older son not only had 35 spelling words a week, but he also had me piling on the extra work.   The class works two years ahead in language arts and science, and we were totally unprepared.  Parents don't think of this when they are doing test prep.  That's when I bought vocabulary workshop for extra work on the weekends.  We also downloaded all of the vocabulary words I could find for the FOSS science units in order to keep up.   Our whole house was covered with post-it notes for 3 years.  It wasn't until later that I realized the school used Wordly Wise as well.  So he had double or triple the vocab.

This is of course the best thing you can possibly do for your child between 1st and 3rd grade.

The end result is that I have a forth grader who can memorize anything on site.  It's his Super Hero ability. He's not that great of a student right now in terms of paying attention, trying really hard, or caring about the material because he's a boy and because he is 9 years old.  But he'll take a few minutes and memorize verbatim the material to regurgitate it on tests and quizzes.  When I ask him what a vocab word means, he can tell me exactly what is written in the book.   I'm not 100% sure he knows what it means, and I'm 95% sure he doesn't really care.

This is an extremely useful skill for all classes.

I remember guys in college who didn't go to class and didn't do homework.  The night before the test, they would pick up the book for the first time at about 11 pm and ace the test the next day.  I hated them.   There are about 3 primary skills required for this approach, and the ability to memorize is the first one.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The UnGifted

Recently a reader commented that her kids didn't really want to do their evening at-home academic work. This comment really struck a nerve.  If I could summarize my entire world-view of children, parenting, and my blog it's this:  "It's a parent's duty to produce a gifted child whether the child wants to be gifted or not".

In this family, I am assuming that the kids definitely don't want to be gifted.  This is an assumption because I've never asked them and don't really care what their opinion is on extra work.  Also, they are boys and what boy wants to sit there reading a boring book or doing boring math?  Certainly not me.   All I know is that their behavior is way better when they do extra work instead of start playing and end up fighting, and extra work has a way of improving grades and test scores if done right.

I read through some articles from a few years ago to see if I documented the nightly battle to get kids to do their homework.  Fortunately, I only have a few dozen articles on this topic, but I could write 100 more.   Instead, I found my series on "the 99%" wherein I researched families and children that are in the 99% and listed their secrets.   I concluded that a child is in the 99% academically not because the child is special, but because the parent does not give up.

Last Thursday, we attended my 4th grader's first band concert.   It was like the music man in that the kids were awful and all of the parents were proud.   I was shocked to find out that one of the children dropped out.  As it was told to me second hand, "He didn't really want to be in band..."   Are you kidding me?  What parent would even ask their 4th grade boy what he thinks?  I tried to think of all of the valid excuses a child might have.  "Dad, none of my friends are in band", "Dad, I really hate playing the clarinet", "Dad, I would rather spend an extra hour a day doing math", "Dad, I don't like that boy who's parent writes a blog".  I have a response for each of these and none of my responses involve letting my child not do band.  I'm really disappointed because this particular child is going to be the most successful of all in terms of years in graduate school and my son, who will be a top salesman, needs friends like this.

The band parents had a discussion about practicing, and some of the parents commented that their children were really gung ho about practicing early on but they practice less and less now.  There seems to be a consensus that this is up to the children.   Keep in mind that all of these kids are in the top gifted program in Chicago, maybe the country.  I sense a train wreck in the making.

My kid practices every night because he has to.  It's up to me to lay awake at night trying to figure out how to make him want it.  Lately, I got out an old clarinet and practice with him.  It's the high point of my day.  I wish I didn't quit band in the 7th grade.  In a few months this will get old and I'll try something else.

I convened the Parent Advisory Board from Competitive Parent Magazine on this topic and the results are mixed.  My experience is that it takes about 6 weeks of hell to get kids caught up and to the point where homework or practice goes smoothly and quietly.  My wife says it never goes smoothly and quietly.  The Guy From Work commented on sports and says it's definitely up to the child, and then he repeats his lecture on the topic and it's pretty clear to me and the children that it's not up to the child.

In the mean time, I'm assuming that my kids don't want to do stuff that they need to do, like study and be in band.  I'm also assuming that they lack motivation and organizational skills to successfully practice on a daily basis.   I'm further assuming that they will some day thank me for helping them do it and not letting them quit.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Theory of Everything

Recently I've taken on a few tiny Test Prep clients.  I do this for free as part of my research.  In this article, I'm going to talk about my Academic Consulting Practice of Awesomeness® in the context of Test Prep of little kids, but these methods apply to all kids of all ages up to Engineers that work for me who are in their 40's.

First, I grill the parents on their attitudes, habits and values.
Next I watch the little ones think while they respond to test questions.
Then I make up stories about what is happening.
Finally, I tell the kids what to do and they go on to be geniuses.

The scientific part of this research is the work with kids, cataloging their behaviors.  The common sense part is working with the parents.  The totally unscientific part is my story telling of why the kids behave the way they do.

Here's the brief version of me working with parents.  After quizzing them for a while, I'll ask this question: "If a person practices golf all day long for 10 years, what do you think will happen?"  "The person will probably get good at golf."  "OK, your kids watch TV and play video games all day long."  I'll do a separate post on the parents later.   I'm the Suzie Orman of raising kids.   (She's a financial consultant that states the obvious and the rest of us are stunned with her genius).

Most Test Prep Consultants have stated to their clients and publicly on their website the limits of their practice.  "I can't take a kid with test scores in the 50% range and improve their scores to 95%".   I can.  I'm going to start talking about how.  Of course, I'm not taking $1,500 from a client.  If I were, I would make the parents feel great about how great a parent they are and what a genius their child is so they would feel good about me stealing their money.  Instead, since this is free and I'm already out of patience from my own kids, I'll tell them point blank with expletives that they stink as a parent and their kid needs to be whipped into shape.

Sometimes the parents just underestimate their kids and consider thinking exercises to be torture for their kids.  Sometimes the parents think their child is obviously the smartest child on earth and forget to actually compare their child to other ones or they would find out that their child needs a lot of work.  Sometimes the parent doesn't want consulting or test prep for their child, so I have to track them down like the Terminator until they get a restraining order on me.

Here's my guidance on the kids.  I'm the Yoda of thinking training with girls, but the Drill Sargent From Hell with Boys, not because I'm nice, but because they are from different planets.  My goal is to watch the problem solving skills and fix them.  

It's starts with the question.  Test questions are really hard and imply things that one has to figure out before answering the question.

The question is a problem in and of itself.  It's a trick.  It's confusing.  It's designed to make you cry.  "Are you going to cry like a little 4 year old?"  Oh, I see.  You are a 4 year old.

Step 1 in test prep is to get the kids to understand the question and not just skip to the answers.   When your kid gets to 4th grade math, and then 8th grade math, and then Calculus proofs, you can do this all over again.

Where have you seen this question before?  (It was the previous page but since you are a 4 year old boy you don't care enough to remember it for more than 7 seconds.)  What did you do last time you saw it?

Is the question missing some key bit of information that you have to figure out for yourself and insert?

When you are finished reading the question, did you catalog all of the nuances of behavior in the question before you started looking at the answers?

When I'm finished, I want the kids never to trust test questions again.  I want them to stare at the test question and ask how this adult is trying to trick me.

When  you look at test prep questions like figure matrices or series, you see squares rotating or getting bigger.  I see vocabulary in action.   For this reason, to improve a child's problem solving skills, add concept rich vocabulary.  This will improve the reading of test questions. (See my math chapter.  I wrote the math chapter when I was doing hard core test prep).

Here are some examples that we came across in test prep:
1.   Wider and taller are specific cases of bigger.
2.   A 180 degree rotation is the same as a flip.
3.   Shapes have different number of sides.

When a kid looks at a question quickly assuming that they know what it is, but not really thinking about it because he thinks he knows everything already (like my oldest when he was young) he gets to the answers and either doesn't see one that applies or gets it wrong.   If he doesn't see one that applies, is he going to bother to read the question again and start over?  Don't assume kids know they can start over.  Just tell them. Over and over and over and over again.

Some kids skip over vocabulary words in the question that they never saw before, or skill a concept that doesn't fit with what they already know.  95% of 4th graders will answer 12 to this question when it's buried in a simple arithmetic test:  4 + 8 = ___ + 6.

"Smart kids take as much time as they need with the question.  Smart kids are under no time pressure.  Smart kids read the question 5 times before they are ready to answer it.  Smart kids get something wrong (in the form of not seeing an answer they are looking for) and start over repeatedly.  Are you going to be smart?"  This is me yelling at a student like a Drill Sargent.   "Here, I'll write down Smart on a green post it note and Dumb on a pink post it note.   Pick one and stick it on your shirt. You decide what you want to be."  I can get pretty mad when I'm working with an older kid who makes the same dumb mistake over and over again and it's because they are lazy and don't give a stuff.   I now know that he is missing skills and not lazy, but even though I know it I still respond emotionally like it's a character flaw.   Maybe if the parents didn't drop the ball for the last 4 years I wouldn't be screaming at their kid.  Can you find a paid consultant who will go the extra mile like me?

If this is math catch-up or test prep, the question is 50% of the battle.   If the child really doesn't know the material, you can teach the material on the spot, but do it patiently because Test Prep is on hold if you are talking.   Mostly it's just a matter of question reading skills.

If your child is doing work and not stuck on the question, then you're not teaching him anything and he is not progressing.  You think he is really smart but he's a dummy.  Find really hard questions to raise the bar so you're not disappointed whey you get the test score.  My rule of thumb is that the child should be getting 50% wrong during test prep, and about half of these should be because he doesn't read the question if your child is normal.

I like to use reading comprehension, vocabulary and grammar questions for standardized test prep books 2 or 3 years up because the questions are really hard and the kid doesn't know what half the words mean.   "Learning that questions can be hard, you are" I say in a Yoda voice.  The point is you force the kid to realize that they don't know everything and to begin to mistrust test questions.  (This approach teaches cheating and guessing as well, but that is a different article because I've been burned repeatedly by teaching cheating.)

By the way, before I use Smart and Dumb in teaching older kids, I make list of behaviors that make a kid smart or dumb.  You'll see some of these behaviors above.  It's pretty obvious to the kid that Smart or Dumb requires a choice and some practice.   When I ask "Are you going to be Smart or Dumb today?"  two things are obvious - anyone can choose to be smart and your test prep coach thinks that dumb is a horrible character flaw.  Kids below 4th or 5th grade can't understand what smart or dumb means so I just use a bowl of skittles and feed them one skittle per question like they are a seal.  Again, can you find another Test Prep consultant who will do that?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Wordly Wise 3000 vs. Vocabulary Workshop

I've gotten a lot of great questions over the Thanksgiving weekend from people who aren't out shopping but are still at home bored.  I'm beginning to realize that it's not clear to everyone how and when to use a workbook because everyone hasn't made all of the mistakes I made and bought the wrong material.  Plus I've got some excellent teachers to watch.

Wordly Wise 3000 is used at my sons' school.  The books are introduced in the 3rd grade.  Each unit has about 15 words (I'm looking at the 4th grade edition right now), about 5 pages of complicated questions, and a single story with super hard questions.   The teachers do not use any supplementary material other than the student workbook and treat the exercise like SAT test prep.  The program overall is very enriching with projects and plays and great books, but the Wordly Wise 3000 is used just for boring old disciplined memorization.  It fills this role.  It's also used as a spelling word list because the kids lose points for misspelling the words on the quizzes.  There is another spelling book that is organized around phonics as well.  This class is hard core and the kids thrive under the workload.   They are working 2 years up, which is hard but doable.

At home, we use Wordly Wise 3000 like SAT test prep as well, but I stick post-it notes around so I remember to work the words into the conversation.  This drives my oldest son crazy but he's managing to do well in school.

I got Vocabulary Workshop for my kids starting at about age 5 or 6 because at the time I was obsessed with test prep and vocabulary is 74.3% of test success.   Vocabulary Workshop has it's own stories and is much more interesting and enjoyable than Wordly Wise 3000 for little kids.  There is a great online component that will read the story to you.   My youngest would wake up early on Saturday's and beg to do the next unit of Vocabulary Workshop ahead of schedule.  I'm not kidding.  My oldest would usually not grumble about doing it which was also miraculous.  I think this has more to do with the fact that kids like to learn stuff at this age and less about the book.

When my 1st grader was struggling with 3rd grade science, I started to hang up the next unit's vocabulary list on the refrigerator so we could memorize the words before kids started the unit.  This trick works wonders and he's gotten A's in science ever since.   Mental note to self - the ability to memorize lots of vocabulary words quickly is a very useful skill in the academic environment.

Wordly Wise 3000 is about $11 on Amazon and Vocabulary Workshop is about $15-$19 on Amazon but $14 on the website.  I think Vocabulary Workshop is much better for kids under the age of 9.

It's harder to say for older grades.  I've got the 4th grade version of each open in front of me. Vocabulary Workshop's stories are way better.  Wordly Wise's questions are harder and more complicated.  Wordly Wise has a page at the end to describe definition variants of each word, and Wordly Wise has 2 pages at the end that have a grammar lesson.

Each book has about 20 units, maybe 30 words combined.   There are 52 weeks in the year.  If I were home schooling or approaching an important testing year for a GAT program or high school, I might use them both.  Otherwise, I would lean toward Vocabulary Workshop because I can't image doing boring rigorous SAT style test prep at home year round.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

NWEA Test Scores

Fall test scores are being released across Chicago and other places.  Here is my guide to interpreting test scores.  This does not apply to 7th graders worried about high school.

If child's your score is below 70%, it's time to get serious about education.   There are no excuses.  More reading, occasional extra math throughout the week of any type and level, and most of all, cancel activities and get more sleep.

If your child's score is between 70% and 98%, reread the prior paragraph and decide whether you want to do this now or staring in a later grade.  Right now my forth grader is loading up his schedule with activities and sleep is going out the window.  I'm on the fence with this because there are a few more things besides the four R's required for a successful child, the things that underly motivation, determination, resilience, aka grit.   I'm working on a course that addresses all of these things at once. I'll have more to say about this next year.  Right now it's in the secret weapon R&D department.

If your child's score bounces between the 80's and 99% from season to season and year to year, it's because a) he is not a geek, and b) if he is at 99% with a standard deviation of 16%, he can only go down because there's no such thing as a score of 116%.

For those of you looking at 99's on the test scores:  If your child is in a early grade, 1st - 3rd, and he does really, really well, the primary reason is that the rest of the country hasn't got serious about education yet and if he doesn't pick up the pace, he will be left behind.  In other words, don't get excited about your genius because it doesn't mean anything yet.  If your child is in the 4th grade and reading at a college level, don't get overly excited because she'll find other interests in high school while the rest of the country catches up.  None of this is static.

If your child is below 50%, for whatever reason, I recommend a 365 day boot camp, the type only found in dire test prep situations.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Two step logic

Test preparation season is only 19 days away, and I'm waking in the middle of the night sweating and yelling out "It's the red square!".   Fortunately, my parent support group Veterans of Freakin' Tests, or the VFT, has resources available to help me with my transition to the civilian life.  Alas, my next tour of duty starts in a year.

Sitting there writing thousands of questions has taught me one thing.  Most test questions apply 2 step logic.  The very first question my first child remembered coming out of the test was a simple picture math problem, but the correct answer was split into 2 awkward looking groups.  Most test questions set up with 2 formal steps, and you'll see this in the test prep literature.  (Except the OLSAT literature errs on the easy side, and I think it's OLSAT in format only but not complexity.)

Most math word problems have 2 steps.

Most problems at work and in life have at least 2 steps.

I think this skill is a big predictor of success in school.

There are a variety of ways that a child can learn two steps.   First of all, it's the nature of our language and most speaking and writing.  There is at least a subject and a verb. Reading a lot will teach this. Reading a lot is great because most of us are tired by the time we see our kids, and reading together will do the work for you.

Puzzles will teach two step logic.   Puzzles are puzzles because there is more than 1 step.

Talking in big sentences from birth gets the job done like a sledge hammer.  Ever wonder whether or not baby talking to your child is good?  It's good to teach talking and proper pronunciation so you don't have to go to speech therapy when you should be doing test prep.  After the child can pronounce words properly, switch to talking to your child like they're in grad school.

Two step logic has some intermediate skills, like identifying the steps and formulating mental models of the problem.  Short term memory and concentration may play a role, but I think something different is going on.

There are a variety of things that can interfere with a child managing both steps to solve a problem. Sleep, hunger, belligerence, and not understanding the language hurt.   It doesn't matter whether the test is verbal, or disguised as non-verbal.

When I do test prep, I take a simple problem, and then pile on the complications.  Or I take 2 simple problems and put them in the same problem, either by stringing them together or by asking that they be solved at once.  My original objective was to make a problem that was twice as hard as the test, just to be on the safe side, and cave man logic determined that 2 problems at once would achieve this objective.   The approach inadvertently got the job done.  If there is not a word yet for that, you may refer to this approach as "Norwooding" the problem.

My most recent graduate of the program that I like to call "Two Steps Away From Hell" is going into first grade.   He likes to shout out the answer to problems that I'm explaining to his older brothers.  (In fairness to them, he answers first because they are not listening to me.)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Key to Hard Core Test Prep

On June 28, I presented my review of test prep books for one of the common tests.

After that, I have a few rambling posts that spell out exactly how I turned 2 marginally intelligent kids into test performers.  But I think I need to spell out my secret formula very carefully.  I'm going to work this into the next update of the test taking chapter, and it should probably be my new top 10 list.

Step 1:  Have a stack of material, both books and workbooks on hand at all times.
Step 2:  Reading should be at all levels and all topics, but the workbooks should be 2 grades up.
Step 3:  No fun whatsoever until the workbook page is done.
Step 4:  The parent has to be prepared for the inevitable - the child can't actually do work 2 grades up.

I think step 4 is the real problem.  It's one thing to hand your Kindergartner a 2nd grade test prep book, but it's another thing to get him to understand any of it.  More likely, he'll just cry and you will get frustrated.

Unless, of course, you had a toolset to deal with this situation.  And if you read my chapter on math (past all of the boring parts down to problem solving), you'd see that one exists.  Once a kid knows these techniques, then he's officially gifted.   I think preK (or pre 1 or pre 2) is a perfect time to teach these tricks to future geniuses.

Right now I'm teaching this skill set to a 10 year old and the results are stunning.

Here we go, in order of importance:
1.   When stuck on a hard problem, start with an easier problem of the same type and work your way up a little bit at a time to the harder problem.
2.  Look at all options, try them all, and eliminate ones that don't work.
3.  Draw a picture.  (Not very useful with nonverbal tests).
4.  Look at similar problems for help.
5.  Start over and look for a different answer.
6.  Skip the hard one and try the next one.  Come back to the ones skipped.

The difference between a GAT kid and one who just sits blinking is that the GAT kid has a toolset that he can bring to bear on super hard, new material.  The way the child learns this tool set is that the parent and the material teach it.

The Tipping Point

Why is this toolset the difference between GAT kids and regular kids?

I'm trying to teach a native French speaker who is way behind academically, both math and English at the same time so that he's prepared to start 5th grade.  I have a stack of math word problem books (which are awesome).  We're on page 43 of the 3rd grade book.

"CJ has 2 bags of birdseed, and each holds 90 ounces.  The birdfeeder takes 10 ounces of seed, and the birds eat it all each day.  How many days will the birdseed last?"

We went back and forth on this and he finally came up with 9.   Arrgggghhhh.  He's not dumb, but he doesn't understand any of the English.  He's happy if he can just pronounce the words, let alone know what they mean, let alone translate it into math, let alone solve the problem.

My youngest son who just turned 6 was reading nearby.  I asked him to pick up some paper and try the problem.  "There are 2 bags, not 1", he said, and went back to reading.

The Break Through

Up to this point, my 10 year old and I were fighting.  He has 10 word problems to do, and he thinks the fastest easiest way is just to do the word problem.  This method will guarantee at least 20 to 60 minutes of pain per word problem.

I told him he has to follow these steps:
  1. Search the problem carefully until you are sure you know every word and what is being asked.  Leave no stone unturned.
  2. Write out an equation to solve, and change the big numbers (eg 90 and 10) into small ones (such as 9 and 1). 
  3. If you are still unsure, draw a picture.
  4. If you are still unsure (is it multiplication? division? adding? subtracting?) try each possible approach until you find the one that makes sense.  (This is also the way to pass the Mensa test.)
  5. Once the lightbulb goes off on the easy problem, write out the equation properly (in this case 90 x 2 / 10).
  6. Solve it.
  7. Prove to me that you got it right.  If it's a division problem, reverse multiply.  If you added, subtract.   (There are only 4 of these for arithmetic).
He looked at this list like it was hell.  It's bad enough solving the problem, but now I'm asking him for 7 times the work!

After being humiliated by his 6 year old brother, he was so crushed and demoralized that he gave up arguing and just did what I asked.

The first couple of problems were hard because he was a bit unmotivated, to say the least.  But he started to see the results of these new toolset, and he started to move quickly, even though he doesn't know what the words "display case", "marbles", or "knitting" mean.  Even with the English tutorial, he's solving each "Problem of the Day" in less than 2 minutes each.

This is almost exactly the same process that I went through with the other kids with GAT test prep.

The 5th grade book has much more difficult English vocabulary, but the math concepts will not be any harder for the toolset.

As a bonus, I'll get another confident, determined kid who knows how to work hard and how to work smart.  It's a bit early, but I'm now thinking Selective Enrollment High School.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

How To Learn for the GAT Test

My wife and I have an ongoing debate about learning and teaching.  In short, I refuse to teach our kids anything and this drives her crazy, and then she steps in and teaches them something and undermines my whole program of giftedness.

When my first son was going through Daddy Test Prep Boot Camp From Hell, I didn't know very much, but it seemed logical that gfited kids could figure things out on their own, and it also seemed logical that the only way to become good at figuring things out on their own was to practice figuring things out on their own.

Therefore, I decided that my job as a GAT Test Prep Coach was to make sure they sat without quitting while they figured things out.  I provided a stack of things that required figuring things out, mostly 2nd grade academic work (for a 5 year old) and whatever brain teasers I could make up.

As I became more seasoned at Test Prep Coaching and Academic Coaching, I started to teach some of the skills that gifted kids use to figure things out, like reading the problem a few times, looking for examples, trying an easier version first, solving it backwards, not crying, and other skills that I've written about elsewhere.  But I would never tell them what it was that they were figuring out.

My wife watches this and gets annoyed.  'Why don't you just tell him how to do long division', she says, and when I'm not around she'll actually teach the topic.  Then I say, 'You're spoon feeding him everything.  How is he going to survive graduate school?'  And she says 'He is only 7 years old.  He is not in graduate school.'

The reason why I'm bringing this up is that I think this is the #1 thing to keep in mind when you begin test prep season in 1 month.  Figuring Things Out covers 50% to 75% of the skills needed to past the GAT test.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Workbook Parenting

Five years ago when I started my career as an academic coach, all I had were workbooks.  I didn't know a thing about teaching kids, but my theory was that I would just give them a bunch of problems and let the problems do the teaching.  If it was too hard, I would give them easier problems, and if it was too easy, harder problems.

Later I started diagnosing "too hard" as missing skills, and then I would think about which workbook or exercise was appropriate to filling in the skill.  Straightforward if the missing skill is "addition facts" but more challenging if the missing skill is "paying attention".

This approach works surprisingly well.   Because of this approach, I own shelves of workbooks. At $7 to $30 each, it's been a good investment that has paid off.

My original vision with workbooks was test prep.  Therefore, I don't help with the instructions other than ask insightful questions ("Can you read the question to me for a third time?").  I figure a "gifted" kid should be able to figure things out for himself, and the only way to get this "gift" is practice.  This annoys my wife, who doesn't understand how I teach math without teaching.

This summer, in the test prep off season, we've been addressing gaps in academic material, specifically Reading Comprehension for a 9 year old and Math Word Problems for a 10 year old. Once again I'm looking for workbooks.

For reading comprehension, I'm using the half completed "Comprehension Plus Level E" workbook that my son brought home from school.  We're doing the other half.   Unfortunately, teachers can't make it through 100% of the material, and it's a parent's job to finish the job.  This topic happens to be part of every academic test I've ever seen.

For Math, I almost did Kumon.  We're missing number sense, English, and a whole bunch more. Instead, I bought 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade versions of Daily Word Problems off of the Evans Moore website (8$ a piece if you want to grade them yourself).  All of the parent reviews assure me that the problem can be done in "just a few minutes", which means dozens of these a day are doable.  We've only got 5 weeks of summer left.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Coasting Through Math

For the last 4 years, I've been overseeing math homeschooling a few times a week to supplement the school curriculum.   The results are stunning, and some of the goofier things that I did turn out to have a big impact on all academic work.

I'm going to describe how I implement it and where the payoff is.  I'm not really concerned that my kids are ahead in math, or even learn math.  Instead, I'm using this program to teach really powerful academic skills and cognitive skills.  That's were the big payoff is.

This program does not have to be started at age four.  I note below how to implement it for older kids, but it's basically the same approach.

Ages 4 -5 I use fun workbooks like Kaplan or Sylvan K math, and concentrate on building a huge vocabulary of any word that can be visually described.   "Rectangular Prism" qualifies, for example, but "arc tangent" and "prime number" do not.

Optionally, if the kid is ahead, I'll pick a 1st grade math work book next.  Something condensed.

During Christmas break of Kindergarten, we start 2nd Grade Math, one page a day.  I use the Every Day math because if the child does every single page, he can begin to teach himself new concepts.  I expect Common Core books to be similar.   (No text book, just the work book.)  What I'm really looking for during this phase is to make the child comfortable working with problems, vocabulary and concepts beyond his abilities.  I'm also looking for some days where the kid gets every problem wrong, and some days where the work takes a ridiculously long time.

For older kids - I just pick material 2 years advanced and am prepared to backtrack as needed to fill in missing skills.   It is important to work through material that is advanced.   The kids will eventually pick up all of the concepts, but without advanced material they lose out on a lot of ancillary skills.

Since I teach the kids, I keep the Poyla problem solving guide handy (see my math chapter at the bottom).  If he is stuck on anything, I walk through the problem solving steps with him until one of the solution techniques clicks with him.   I'm not sure which one will work, so we may try them all.

I will demonstrate to the child that he did every single problem in the work book (except the group exercises) and he has nothing to blame for his achievement but his own hard work.

In first grade, I just supplement the school math with some addition and subtraction worksheets, and move up to multiplication and division during second grade.  Think of Kumon here.  In my case, the children are taking accelerated math, so I can do this.  If the school doesn't provide accelerated math, I would do it at home instead of Kumon worksheets.  During school, I encourage my kids to take a break with material already covered - just do it fast, practice it, and then do something else like spelling or science.

If this goes well, the child can't help but notice that he is ahead through his own prior hard work.  This is the kind of confidence and self esteem is earned.  In other words, the right kind.

Next, I take a whole year off (in this case, starting around fall of grade 2) and let him sink, swim, advance, or slide back on his own.  This is the hardest part for me but teaches the most valuable lessons.

In third grade and beyond, one or 2 days a week he has to do a page from a 6-8 eight grade algebra book.  Sometimes this is ridiculous, but at this point, I've got a kid with the following skills:
  1. Hard work
  2. Ability to focus and concentrate
  3. Comfort with really difficult material that he doesn't understand
  4. Patience doing work until he gets it
  5. Not frustrated by wrong answers and mistakes
  6. Exposed to problem solving techniques
  7. Used to applying examples without 100% understanding
  8. Complete lack of fear
The payoff - the real surprise to me - is that I've got a soon-to-be 4th grader that learns really quickly.  I didn't expect this.

A few weeks ago we did exponent operations (multiplication and division primarily).  This didn't go well, and when I explained things I wasn't sure if any of them made sense even to me.  After a few weeks off, he did the test and got everything right.   It took me a while to calculate things and grade them.  An adult I know who will remain nameless got the sample problems wrong.

I can clearly see him applying his learned skill set to this exercise. 

I'm now trying to transition this approach to reading comprehension exercises.   This skill set listed above is not automatically working yet in its entirety , but we're making progress.  For example, he'll read a passage he doesn't fully understand and then get stuck on the questions.  I point out that he doesn't have to understand it, but just copy the sentences into the answer that address the question.   We can both do this with math.  But it doesn't work so well with reading. 


Saturday, June 28, 2014

Review of Gifted Practice Tests

In this article, I'm going to review books on the market for the COGAT and OLSAT, with special mention for the NNAT.

The practice test is the very last step in test prep, unless you are thinking ahead, in which case you can do one 6 months before the test and the in the last few weeks leading up to the test.

A practice test is designed to familiarize the child with the format and rules of the test.  Research shows that familiarity is good for about 4 points.  With cutoff scores in many school districts at 98% and above, those are 4 important points.  I've found that really bright children can make up their own creative rules and associations during the test; I use a practice test correct this problem and potentially avert disaster.

A practice test is not a good way to increase cognitive skills, especially if you speed through it a few weeks before the test.  To teach cognitive skills to your children, see the basic curriculum on the Gifted and Talented Test Prep Curriculum page.  I don't use practice tests to build cognitive and academic skills.

There are a few subtle differences between these tests but I'm generally happy with all of them for their limited but important role.   In case you were wondering, I have no relationship with any publisher and don't get paid, and if you check the links in this blog, they are just regular old links.

Starting with the COGAT...

One of the strongest publishers on the market is Smart Cookie.   There material is slightly more creative than other test prep books that have been on the market for the last 10 years.  For grades K-2, the a great all around general purpose COGAT test prep book on the market in my opinion is their Form 7, 2 practice tests in one for $34.  Best is of course relative.  Each publisher has their differences and in diagnosing a student and their test strategy I might choose a different book for different puproses.  I also like their 3rd and 4th Grade NNAT book, again 2 tests in one.  The NNAT is a much easier test, much easier to prepare for.  It's not uncommon for Kindergartner's to work with 4th grade material (as long as it's non-verbal) because many cognitive skill are independent of age.

I had high expectations for the K-2 practice test from Big Brain Books in the "Crush The CogAT Series" but it's comparatively easy and the format isn't close enough to the test.  I'm going to do some more experimentation with this book because the price is less than $17.  The book covers K through 1, and I think it would be a good starter book (the one you use 6 months before the test) for at least K, especially at the price point.

Origin Publications has a K and 1st Grade test that is much more challenging.  Their number puzzle section (train questions) have subtraction, which is great.  This $17 book contends that it helps the child become familiar with the format and content of the test, but I think the authors are trying a little harder than that, and that is a good thing.  I'm going to start using this one.  I think it has a slight advantage.

Gateway Gifted Resources produces a test prep book for first grade that is suitable for use in a Kindergarten classroom.   The book is priced reasonably at $20 for a color book and contains the types of characters you would find in a Kindergarten text book that is not a gifted program.  I would use a book like this as early as Pre K, and my child would get most of the questions wrong, and it would take a long time, and thus it would provide some value.  Just because your child is 5 and practice test material is generally easy doesn't mean there is more value using a book for a 7 year old.  But in the case of Gateway Gifted Resources, there is value in doing their books at a very early age for the 3 verbal sections.  I like the fact that their graphics vary.  It's a small but nice touch.

The original COGAT practice test is from Mercer.  It's also the most expensive at $40.  This book is designed to look just like the test.  If you want to do a full dress rehearsal to deal with a shy child, this is a good book to use.

On now on to the OLSAT...

For many years, there was only one OLSAT test prep book on the market and it looked just like the OLSAT test and I hated it.   Way too easy.  An easy test does not give your child an experience like the test and might in fact prepare them to fail.  In 2014, 4Kids published an OLSAT Practice Test that I hate less and might use as a quick workbook before we start test prep, except that it cost $26.

For OLSAT, I prefer COGAT practice tests because both the books and the actual COGAT are harder than the OLSAT.  Practicing for the OLSAT is more about practice answering questions and I have a completely different approach.

And the NNAT...
I don't spend nearly enough time worried about the NNAT as I should.  There are 2 reasons.  Preparing for the COGAT is much closely aligned with the broad academic skill set you want your child to have, and I can't say that about the NNAT.  Secondly, the Smart Cookie NNAT book for 3rd and 4th grade is my favorite test prep book for any age.  In my opinion, test prep should be nothing more than taking time out to improve your child's cognitive and academic skills, and then blowing away the test is an after thought.  I feel pretty strongly that test prep for the NNAT should be 1 official looking test like Mercer and then heads down thinking and problem solving work, and finally back to the NNAT practice test like Smart Cookie's for the last month.

Now some parting advice...

First, if 100% of your test prep regime is just a practice test, go slowly and carefully.   Don't do more than a section a day, and I recommend 1/2 of each section first, and then go back and do the other 1/2 on the second pass.  Since the problems get harder in each section, 3 passes of 1/2, 1/4, and 1/4 might be in order if you have time.  If you are getting this book overnight because the test is in 2 days, all of these passes will be in a 24 hour period of insanity.

While the child is going through a practice test, scores of 50% or less are common.  This is not unusual.  Keep in mind you don't want to spend 2 weeks conveying your impatience and high expectations on your child.  That is not the goal.  The goal is cleaning up their confusion and reinforcing best practices going into the test.  Some of the test prep books provide some guidance on this, especially Origin Publications.

The core cognitive skill set is somewhat age independent.  There are a few questions in the kindergarten books that I found really challenging.  This means that some of the same material at the K and 1st grade level can be found in a slightly more advanced version for 2nd or 4th grade.  But the complexity, working memory demands, and tediousness of the questions will increase.

The amazon reviews for these books are not helpful at all.  5 stars from someone who bought a single practice test and their child is going to pass anyway because they've been reading 7 books a day from birth doesn't apply to the rest of us. Even worse, I've seen 1 and 2 star reviews because the questions are unclear and sloppy and poorly worded. These are the books I want to get for my own children because the last thing I want going into a really challenging thinking test is to spoon feed my kids clear problems expertly drawn.   The exception is Bright Minds publishing which appears to have been created by a non-english speaking author and which I didn't review above; I like the thought of my kids having to fix grammar to do a question or fix a question with wrong answers but I wouldn't trust other parents to be as excited as I am about the extra work, especially with the test approaching.

And what to do if your child doesn't pass...

There's been a huge shift in home education in the last 10 years.  Many come late to the game, especially with the first child.  For years schools have been measuring cognitive skills without bothering to teach them.  Then a few parents like Jessie Wise and home schoolers discovered that you can teach your child much more - way more, much earlier, and produce more capable students.  The gifted test prep industry started a rebellion against selecting a few lucky students into the gifted program, but trying to get a few extra points on the test is just the beginning.

So if things don't go well after one or two practice tests, you've got some more work to do, and that is the main focus of

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Secrets of Smart Kids

If you bothered to read my long winded post from last Saturday (Teaching Genius), you'll see a few lists of characteristics or skills that smart kids have.  As a parent, Job One is teaching these skills and reinforcing these characteristics.

I'm really excited about the combined list.  It's a game changer.

I've seen lists of GAT kids before, but it wasn't until recently that I broke it down into the underlying skills and considered all of these as teachable.

I am immediately changing gears on my one hour a day of summer home schooling.

The 9 year old is great at calculating.   If he see's 97 x 4, he'll just multiply.  This is a big mistake, because he's missing out on the skill of rethinking how to solve the problem - a skill that is the focus of math at higher levels.   So I'm having him skip direct calculation problems from now on, and only do the ones like 97 x 4, which can be more easily solved as 100 x 4 = 3 x 4.   I grade him on whether or not he skipped the right problems, and his creativity on the rest.

For the new guy, at age 10, I'm breaking him of the habit of gravitating toward easy work that he's already mastered, of looking for approval every time he does a problem, of not bothering to remember what I just taught him.  This is slow going and involves a lot of frustration and crying.  If he works hard and concentrates, I'm happy and he feels loved.  Other than that, I'm pretty unhappy and he feels unloved.  Per the textbook, growing up he was constantly rewarded for being "smart" and his whole world view was consequently screwed up (or so I theorize).  I remember the other 2 going through something like this, but it took a lot less time at earlier ages.  I should start a Smart Kid Boot Camp and just put the whole South Side through it.

The 5 year old just went through 2 years of test prep where I pretty much did everything right most of the time and is not lacking any skills - yet.  Plus his father is the World's Most Awesome Academic Coach.  But every 3 or 4 years the bar on skills is raised and kids have to step it up, so I have to be diligent.

Once you as a parent get over the hurdles and practice skills building, you might be able to hand your kid a book 3 or 4 years ahead of grade and leave them alone.  When you return, they worked very quickly to make some sense of it.  It's amazing.  Not that they understand any of it, but they try.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Teaching Genius

I'm going to try one more time to prove that there is no relationship between genetics and intelligence.  I've tried this on parent forums and have had little luck.  This is probably one of the more important things for parents to grasp in order to do a good job as a parent.

The concept of intelligence based on genes is very primitive.  By primitive, I mean it's the same thing as equating severe weather with an angry weather god.  Both have the exact same scientific basis.  I get a very similar reaction from each group when I point this out, although the cave people who think intelligence is genetic don't throw rocks as large as the ones thrown by the cave people who believe in weather gods.

Here goes.

Intelligence is a Theoretical Concept
Intelligence cannot be observed, it cannot be measured, and no one can prove that it actually exists. In everything you've ever thought or read about "intelligence", you can substitute the words "pixie dust" and stand on the same solid scientific foundation.

The intelligence theory comes from the field of psychology, a field that has given the world lots of other unproven crap that goes straight from idea to practice with no scientific vetting in between.   This is called the Freudian method, and is the antithesis of the scientific method.  It is widely documented that no 2 psychologists agree on the definition of intelligence.  This is not surprising because no one can see it, measure it, or prove it exists.

I hope that this is the end of the intelligence discussion, but it usually isn't.

Intelligence Tests Don't Measure Intelligence
Intelligence test makers assemble questions and then chooses those questions that result in a normal distribution, with gender parity.  Why do they chose questions that are gender neutral and result in a normal distribution?   Who proved that intelligence is normally distributed?  Who proved that these questions are correlated with intelligence?   No one, since no one can observe or measure intelligence, because it's a theoretical concept.

Intelligence tests are highly correlated with academic performance.  This should surprise no one because intelligence tests are designed to be very academic in nature, because this is the way they are made.   The very first IQ test was designed to measure academic progress.  There are no questions on who won the last world series.  As a result, these tests are good predictors of academic achievement.

Intelligence test results are stable over time.  This should surprise no one because the question content is something a 15 year old can grasp and most people don't really change the amount of effort they make on a daily basis to improve their cognitive skills after they graduate from high school.  A students continue to work hard and be A students, B students continue to coast, and C students discover bars.  If the questions on the test involved decision making and dating choices, scores would go up until midlife then plummet, and then we would all think that intelligence is earned by making stupid decisions.

But it turns out that intelligence test results are anything but stable.  The test is updated every 10 years to keep up with the moving target.  If you took the test in 1900, and you have an average IQ, you would have scored at least 130 and been certified a genius.  Also, there's the unknown reason why 15% of 15 year olds jump 15 points in IQ for no reason.  

Cognitive Skills Are Not Theoretical
If we throw out intelligence and replace it with a list of cognitive skills that make people better or worse at answering questions on intelligence tests, doing math homework, succeeding in college, and making decisions about dating, a much clearer picture of "smart" emerges.  It is actionable and understandable, and we can put our little statues of the weather gods in the closet.

The only way I've ever gotten people to let go of their superstitions about intelligence is to replace it with these lists.

Group 1 Skills
Here are a list of skills that make a child really great at tests, math, and college.   This is the level 1 version (little kids).  As we go up to level 20, the descriptions change, skills are added, but it's the same basic concept.  I'm going to use the term "he" for this, but for kids, girls are way smarter.
  1. Sits Still, Listens and Pays Attention  I'm not going to explain this one.
  2. Work Before Fun  He finishes his question, test prep, math worksheet, drawing or puzzle even though he wants to eat a Popsicle and play on the iPad.  Probably because you've told him he can't eat a Popsicle and play on the iPad until he finishes.   
  3. Loves Challenges  He really wants to learn how to read because it's some challenging mystical magical powerful tool that will get him to level 2 so he can beat his older brother.
  4. Hang In There  Even though he doesn't quiet understand what the heck division is, he's willing to plod along for hours or days until he gets it.  
  5. Blows Off Frustration  When he totally bombs a question or a page, he brushes it off and proceeds to the next one, instead of having an emotional breakdown and quitting.  Will work harder next time.
  6. Remembers Stuff  When he learns something new, he thinks 'I better remember that, it might be useful.'  Kids who lack this skill are frustrating to teach.  With older kids who lack this skill, it appears that they don't care.
  7. Tries Again  If he is thwarted by a hard problem, he tries again and again to get it correct.  If you've ever seen a 2 year old with a basketball standing under the regulation size basket trying over and over again to make a shot, you've looking at a future genius.
  8. Stinks At Sports  For whatever reason, the kid finds himself doing more academic type stuff (reading, art, music, math), than non academic stuff (playing with the hose, riding a bike, kickball).  It basically means that a kid is not going to do very well on the vocabulary section of an intelligence test if he hasn't put in the time to learn vocabulary words.
  9. Is Motivated  Again, for whatever reason, this kids wants to do academic stuff, finish the worksheet, crush the intelligence test.  I blame the parents or older brothers and sisters.
This is the base of the pyramid.  Kids with these skills tend to conquer academic challenges through attrition.   This doesn't mean that they are good at them.  It means that they will continue to work on academics until they've built the the next group of skills.

By the way, you can actually see and measure these skills.  You can also teach these (if you want to go through hell for 6 weeks) to kids who don't have them.  It really doesn't matter where these skills come from because they work regardless, but I'll discuss inheritance below.

Group 2 Skills
Once the kid is in the game, he can develop all sorts of higher level skills that allows him to tear through math and blow away an intelligence test.  This is not a complete list because I'm still compiling it, and there's overlap with Group 1 skills.
  1. Vocabulary  He knows a lot of words because he reads a lot or is around a mom who talks and talks and talks.
  2. Word Usage   He knows shades of meaning and clever use of words because he reads a lot.
  3. Cheating   He's too lazy at math to actually do the problem correctly, so he cheats.  For example, instead of multiplying 4 x .97, he multiples 4 x 1 and subtracts 4 x .3.   Really little kids are good at this which is why you shouldn't make them memorize arithmetic facts.  This single skill might be a summary of 3 of the most important skills for intelligence tests.
  4. Sees The Problem   Does your child take the time to listen (or read) the problem?  Some kids miss key elements, like the + 3 in this COGAT problem:   12 - 5 = ___ + 3.  There's an easy way and a hard way for kids to learn this skill.  The more advanced form of this skill is Takes Time to Understand the Problem.  I spend a lot of time talking about this elsewhere.
  5. Knows What's Important  In history class, he knows what to write down because it will be on the test, as opposed to the professor just rambling on.  In word problems, discards trivia.
  6. Tries Different Approaches  By this, I don't just mean that a child gets it wrong twice and tries the 3rd time.  I mean the child is bored and just makes up new solution methods to see if they work because he's sick of doing test prep worksheets.
  7. Remembers The Last Thing He Learned and Applies It  Have you ever tried to teach a kid Algebra, and you show him 10 examples of y = 5x + 2, and when it's his turn, and he gets y = 4x + 3, he looks at it like he's never seen anything like it before?  In this case, I will bring Beer to the tutoring session and swear until he learns this skill.   
  8. Wonders If He Got The Right Answer  A kid without this skill will be perfectly happy with 4 / 2 = 200.  Lack of this skill not only thwarts performance, it thwarts learning.
These are the first two skill groups on the learning pyramid, and the skills that are generally associated with intelligence tests.  I've got a few more levels from a post 2 months ago that are relevant, but this is good enough for the next discussion.

The Genetics Question
Are these skills related to genetics?  Well, they are in 2 important ways.

First, a genius needs about 5% to 10% of the average human brain to be a genius (which is all we use).  Since most of us are born with the average human brain, we have 10 to 20 times the gray matter needed to be geniuses, and this is totally evolutionary genetics.  No argument from me.

This doesn't apply to sports.  The minimum weight requirement for NFL linemen is 300 pounds, and it can't be all chub.  Genetically, my kids will never get there.

Secondly, parents who have learned the skills above tend to pass them on to their children one way or another, and parents lacking these skills will unfortunately pass on their fear of math.

Take "Work Before Fun" for example.  A parent who doesn't have this cannot stand the whining and complaining ("parent work") of a kid who has to do a test prep worksheet page before he gets to use the iPad and will shut up for 30 minutes ("parent fun").  This quickly wears down the parent who caves in and gives up, thus passing on the lack of this skill to her child.  The parent with this skill in uber portions lets the child play with the iPad for 5 minutes after a week of hard core visual spacial matrix worksheets.  The child will begrudgingly do the work, change their expectations, and adopt "Work Before Fun", at least for the time being.

Also, left brain PhD in literature parents sit around with mountains of books and their kid has nothing to do but read for 4 hours a day and turns into a guess what?

Dads who are over the top in sports put their 3 kids in 5 different baseball leagues at the same time, and the kids end up spending each week driving around or standing next to second base.  This is an experiment in progress right now with my neighbors.   I'm the control group (math, reading and piano daily or don't even use the term "iPad" in a sentence.)

Of course, the only thing genetic about any of these skills is the fact that we evolved brains.

Can These Skills Be Taught
There are some really clever studies that measure and teach these skills.  There are fewer studies that teach these skills because it takes time and money.

The problem with research on these skills is that the Psychology + Early Childhood Development + Education fields are a friggin train wreck of morons.   Just when the latest 100% unsupported intelligence theory has run its course and proven to be useless, another one comes along and otherwise sane researchers will drop what they are doing and start writing text books based on the unproven theory and destroy another generation of students.

Teachers generally see these skills develop in some students, time permitting.  Coaches and music teachers are more likely to witness these skills develop in each child.

It's great to see a little brainiac use these skills in conversation or on a test, but it is far more interesting to me to see a kid who completely lacks one or more skill.   First, how the heck did that happen?  I have a list of probably cause, but it's usually the parents.  Secondly, how to get the child to develop the skill?  Lacking any sort of patience, I use the brute force method: This is the skill I want you to learn and you're going to sit here doing this hard boring work until you do.  I prefer the brute force method because it helps develop several other skills for no extra cost.  I'll have to write more on this topic because it's my current line of research.

For the Sake of the Children
I assume that intelligence is not genetic because intelligence doesn't exist.   I further assume that I can teach my kids the intellectual skills they need to go as far as they want because I've done it repeatedly and it seems to work.

Compare my behavior and actions as a parent to a parent who thinks intelligence is genetic, even partially.   They know in their misguided heart that their child has limits and don't think to find or teach cognitive skills.

Our parenting styles will differ.

Our kids will turn out differently.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck from Stanford University gave a talk on the Growth Mindset at Evanston High School a few weeks ago.  It was great for parents.   If you want your average child to be gifted, this is how to do it. Conversely, if you think you have a gifted child, this is how not to ruin him.  Dweck has a book called Mindset: The Psychology of Success that you can check out from the library after reading the Amazon reviews here.

Here's the bottom line.  For a kid to succeed in everything they do, they need 3 things:
1.  The child must equate hard work with success, or equivalently, their success with their own hard work.
2.  The child must have a good attitude.  This is a long discussion, but the short of it is a joy of learning, handing failure well, bouncing back, excited about challenges, etc.
3.  The child must use their efforts wisely.
4.  The child must define and solve their own problems.  (I added this one myself.  Don't blame Carol Dweck.  The child must own this at some point.)

For three years I pursued #1 hard work with my children at a level that would make the Marine Special Forces Survival training look like a day in the park, although we only did about 15 minutes a day, so it would be more like a 15 minute walk past the park for the Marines.  Once you let go of the ridiculously unscientific idea that intelligence is anything but work, the child has no limits.

#2 is a problem because we are right in the middle of a $50 deal for straight A's on the report card.  I just learned from Dweck that this is the second worst possible thing I could do as a parent.   I had to convey this to my son, and tell him frankly, "Good grades are the enemy of learning."  I'm adding this to "Speed is the enemy of math", which I've already been following.

Because we only got 15 minutes a day (at age 4 - for test prep), I naturally progressed to #3 use the time wisely.  The wisest way to use time is to ask "What should I do here?  What do others do?  What did they do in Euclid's time?  Am I doing the best job?  What's the standard?".  Don't read any education literature, because 97.63% of it is completely wrong.  Ask parents of kids who are way ahead of yours.

This is all really hard to stomach for a competitive parent, especially for a 2 time "Compettie" winner.  I'm wrong person to summarize this material since I'm still struggling with it myself.  Read Dweck's book.

How To Use Time Wisely

Wise for Math is easy.  In general, wise is challenging problems and thinking, logic, computer programming.   Not wise is multiplication tables, long division, and repetitive calculation of any kind outside of a problem.  Of course, by 3rd or 4th grade, it's a necessary evil to memorize arithmetic in order to succeed at higher levels of thinking, and Kumon is a good idea if your kids doesn't have number sense yet, or if you're desperate and your kid is behind in numerous areas of math and he woke up one day in the 4th through 6th grade with a C in math, or worse.

Wise for Reading is not so easy for me, but consists of great books that require thinking, judgement and imagination, a range of writing styles, and vocabulary that requires some thinking and exploring on it's own. Wise includes a stack of books and magazines of any kind at any level even baby board books just for fun, and staples that have learning content (Stick, Captain Underpants, James Patterson etc have ZERO learning content for a child that has mastered the technical aspects of reading, but we like them anyway).

Wise for Science is almost anything because it's all really great stuff for little kids and it's almost always a project with some background research - the definition of good teaching for a gifted child.. Get a big jug of vinegar and a box of baking soda, and then google Science Experiments for little kids.  I just saved you lots of money on kits.

How Not To Destroy Your Child's Future

Dweck's audience was primarily over achieving North Shore suburban parents and their over achieving gifted kids.   Seeing this, Dweck gave a special talk on "gifted".   Here's how it went, in my own paraphrasing.

The director of a private school out East came to me for help.   This school costs $50,000 per year and the children are the cream of the crop.   Given the substantial tuition, the teaching level and resources devoted to these students are over the top.  The director pointed out that none of the children have ever succeeded after college.  What are we doing wrong, he asked?

There was a look of death in the audience.  (That was me realizing I'm ruining my child.)

Dweck went on to explain and prove scientifically that if a child thinks he is gifted, and this dumbass idea can only come from the parents, he is destined for failure.  Yikes!  Here's how it works:
  • Step 1:  I'm gifted!  Yeah!  Everything comes easy to me.  I'm better.
  • Step 2:  At some point, the child is challenged with something and doesn't do well.   This will come with 100% certainty. 
  • Step 3:  If I'm really gifted, then this would have been easy, and I would have done well. Therefore I am not gifted.  I better avoid challenges for fear that people find out I am a fraud.
Meanwhile, all of the kids who know they are not gifted just plod along with hard work and eventually surpass the gifted kids.

Logically speaking, there is no proof at all that intelligence or giftedness is genetic in any way, and lots of counter proof that it is not.   I can't get parents to understand this logic, even though it is simple.  Maybe inability to think logically is genetic.  Regardless, there are plenty of kids that are "Ahead" and working at an accelerated pace (meaning they read for 20 minutes a day while the rest of the country plays wii) and will likely always be ahead.

I'm renaming "giftedness"  with the term "ahead".   More on this later.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Review of Testing Mom

This is my 3rd or 4th in my ongoing reviews of test prep material.  I'm generally focused on tests like the OLSAT and the COGAT.   I have a suspicion that the Naglieri or NNAT is more like the OLSAT in terms of test prepabbility, but I didn't dissect it.  To jump to my full list of recommendations, see my permanent page on the right.
I think I'm the only test prep blog that is not on the payroll of and the only objective one.

With 25,000 test questions, Testing Mom is the 500 pound gorilla for test prep (even though she's a petite little woman in person).

Her Story
My favorite part of Testing Mom is the story.  A mom has a kid who doesn't measure up, spends time with him every day on Cognitive Skills building activities (aka test prep), and puts him into a GAT program with an adequate mental tool set and presumably an understanding that success requires hard work and dedication.

My Story
I signed up for a year of in the summer of 2011.   My 3.25 year old son was about 12 months from his test date.  I was on the fence with material buying decisions and just starting this blog.  So I went online and bought everything I could find, including 12 months of  At the time, this was $240.00.   (I just checked today and it's less.  I think it gets more expensive as testing season approaches.)

I spent a lot of time going through the practice tests, creating a curriculum and assigning a few questions to my son every night.  I kept a wall chart to track progress.  Testing Mom issues an email each day with practice questions, about 1/2 for aptitude and 1/2 for critical thinking.

During this time we also did lots of other things like reading, a math workbook and other material.  But we did lots of Testing Mom questions, including almost everything COGAT and OLSAT related on the site, and some things that were not.   We did everything all the way through the 3rd grade level.  At age 3.25, he struggle a bit, but by age 4 he would generally get everything correct without trying.   Much of the other test prep material I purchased I set aside for the following year, but we focused on.

We only got a 99.4% on the OLSAT and no seat in the GAT program.  Curse you!  Just kidding, of course.  Curse me for signing him up for the test too early.

When we took the COGAT like test at age 5 (the next year), I didn't use, and our 99.3% was good enough for a seat.

Testing Mom Con's
Let's start with the negatives.
  1. There are 25,000 questions.   You will be lucky if your child can do 1,500 in a year, and that's only if you are insane like me.  If you work on the wrong material, he won't learn well, and you're not an expert on the test.
  2. The material is too easy.  If the material was at the 99.8% level, which I needed, Testing Mom would lose most of her customers.  I did find quite a bit of material that was harder, but it was a small subset of the 25,000 questions.  Maybe this solves my complaint #1.
  3. While the material for the OLSAT will train your child for this test, it is unlikely in my opinion that the material for the COGAT will produce the cognitive skills that the COGAT test is looking for.  (Test scores generally drop dramatically from the OLSAT for K to the COGAT for 1st grade, and I think it's because the former is much easier to prep for).  
Testing Mom Pro's
These are the positives:
  1. Until the end of test prep season, I generally found material at my child's level, even if I had to go up 2 or 3 grades to get it.
  2. I don't think test prep is a good way to learn vocabulary, but Testing Mom makes a good effort.   Here's where 25,000 questions come in handy.
  3. The critical thinking questions on the email take time, and my impatient son and his impatient father just wanted to get the 5 or 10 questions out of the way each day.   I think the email might be as valuable as the test questions, and if I did this over again, we'd spend more time with the email.
My Recommendation
The best way to use is to sign up well in advance at a lower price and sample most of it.   It works best with tests that are easy to prep for at the younger grades, like the OLSAT (and I'm going to say the NNAT even though we didn't take it).  I don't think it works well for the COGAT and there are other alternatives.

I think I'm giving 2 or 3 forks, although I've never given out forks before and don't know what the scale is. There are plenty of books available to do a more careful job that don't involve a computer, which you can find here.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Bring Back the Word Wall

For the GAT test, a child should be at 99% in 3 areas:  Vocabulary, Problem Solving Skills, and Guts.

Lately I've been harping on problem solving skills because of the success I've had with Poyla's 'How to Solve It'.  But this is only 1/3 of the off season regime in this house.  I spend more time fretting about my children's advancement in vocabulary.  A solid vocabulary is necessary for all tests in between the preK OLSAT and the GRE.  Vocabulary is an adequate barometer of school success as well.

For vocabulary, I do three things.   I assign a few pages a week from the Vocabulary Workshop workbooks, post challenging words (from any source, but usually their books) on the refrigerator, and spend an hour or more a week finding books that boys will read.  Unlike math, the only pain involved is mine.

Here's our refrigerator:

The pink words are from the Magic Tree House book 1, which I'm using to help my new 10 year old learn English.

The blue and green words are from a 3rd grade vocab workbook that my Kindergartner is using. It's amazing where a kid will go with a few minutes a week consistently applied for a few years.  He doesn't know most of the words in the unit used to define the vocab words.  We'll be slowing down.

The blue words are for my 3rd grader's vocab book.  He goes much slower because he's already in a GAT program and already has a hard vocab book at school.   The only reason why I still have him do it on Saturday's is to encourage the other kids.

The 1st 2 kids went through a year or so of what I call "guts building".  No child will progress academically (at the 99%+ level) if he can't work hard.   This involves the ability to stick it out and bounce back when things are going poorly.  It involves me assigning very hard work work and then sitting there with them making them do it.

The 10 year old walked into the wrong house.  He's fun, jovial, really good at anything sports or physical, and very musical, as long as it doesn't involve any music practice.   He's hard not to like.  He laughs a lot and will play with anything, including doll houses, if these are the only toys available.

Like any normal child, he doesn't want to do homework, especially an hour of catch up math from a 5th grade workbook (he's in 4th grade).  If I leave him alone for 2 minutes, when I come back he's wandered away.  If I force him to stay seated, when I return in 5 minutes he may have not done anything.   Of course, the work is way above his current skill level and he doesn't really know what he's doing.  There's no textbook and no teacher.  And he doesn't understand the language.

This is why I frown on Test Prep consultants.  There's no way a consultant would put a child through the hell that is needed to get them to their potential.

In a year, this 10 year old will be very comfortable jumping into extremely hard work, and concentrating on it until it is complete.  He'll have a brand new tool set to make this happen, and I will have unleashed another Gifted Child onto the world.  He will be my first test taker for the Selective Enrollment exam for High School.

Let the boot camp begin.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Getting It All Wrong

It's spring break for my 5 year old, and that means double the math!  I won't be able to pull this off in a few years, but since there's virtually no work in Kindergarten, he can work nights and weekends and play the rest of the time.

I came home from work and found one page at 75%, not a bad effort.  On the next page, he missed 100%. So the first page I was kinda proud, and kind of disappointed that I wasted money on the workbook.  But on the second page, I was super duper extra proud with extra smiley faces.  I looked for treats, but couldn't find where I hid his Easter candy.  After he fixed all of his mistakes, all 100% of them, we watch 1/2 of one of the movies that I bought for last week's trip (to the disgust of the mother in line ahead of me at the Target).

Well, enough rambling.  Time for the Most Important Test Prep Tip Ever.

The reason this little guy got to 100% wrong was that little by little we inched our way to the point where a) he did the workbooks on his own without my help until it was too late and b) he worked his way through the easy stuff to the point where he get's things mainly wrong.   If you are reading this in October or November (or even December), you have to jump right into this point and deal with the crying and yelling.  If you are following along in April, you can spend a few months inching toward this.

Jumping in or easing in isn't really a big deal to the kid, but easing in allows the parent to learn how to sit there while the kid complains or whines or stalls or gets distracted or wanders off and still make it an effective test prep session with super hard material.   Also please note that this is the test prep off season, so we're doing academic math, but this basically applies to everything except for Flotsom.   And even Flotsom.

To get to 85%, you child can do the workbooks.  To get to 99%, he has to get them mainly wrong.

When you start seeing test prep material, maybe as early as September if you're bored, more likely later, you'll see advanced visual spacial matrices and think that somehow this will determine a smart kid.  But this is only the muck he'll have to wade through.  The real test will be the barb wire and the obstacles he'll have to dodge and climb over.  The matrices are just the excuse.

At 99%, the kid will have to figure out problems he's never seen before, extrapolate from examples, get things wrong and recover.  All of that was on the page of 100% incorrect.  The fact that kids learn 5x when they make mistakes was only a bonus.

There were months where I basically had to sit there with the workbook doing all of the problems myself.  It was workbook hell, if you ask me.  I'm not saying this is easy.

If you are plodding along with some reading or some critical thinking workbook or some math, keep the end goal in mind.  99%.   If you can work toward 100% wrong, you're half the way there.  Does this make sense to anybody?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Poyla on Math

I am currently using Poyla methods with incredible success.

George Poyla wrote a book called 'How To Solve It' in 1945.  For more advanced students, he outlines a general approach, and I encourage you to read it.  For younger kids, cut right to the methods of how to solve a problem and work this into your Math homework.  These are awesome.

Take 40 + 38.  For a 5 year old, this is a challenging problem.  Now, refer to Polya's suggestions:
Now accepting nominations
1.  Decompose the problem into 2 or more simpler problems
2.  Try smaller numbers, a problem solving pilot if you will that you can solve on a smaller scale, and then work your way up.
3.  Restate or rework the problem into something simpler to solve.
4.  Draw a picture and use it to understand the problem if not solve it
5.  Estimate, guess, see if you got it correct, adjust, and try again.

I tried 40 + 30  plus 8 at the end - decomposition.  I tried 40 + 30 + 8 - restating, albeit a fairly trivial one.  Then I tried 10 + 10. Since he doesn't really know double digits really well, this was an opportunity to learn.  10 + 10 was a hit. Next came 20 + 20 and 30 + 30.  Light bulbs.   The rest of the problem fell with 40 + 30 + 8 and he was in business on the next few similar problems.

In Everyday Math, I see all of these methods routinely applied.  I wish I knew this the first time I went through it.  If you can just get your kid to double digit addition and carrying the one, you've cheated him out of an opportunity to learn to learn.

Now we spend math not solving problems, but problem solving (tm).

On word problems, I'm almost always leaning toward picture.  If he can get that down, high school math will be so much easier.  I don't care if he has a "visual learning" style or not.  He needs to learn one.

Older brother is playing catch up on Poyla.  He's a bit on the lazy side (a math skill I taught him), and usually just solves a problem.  I'm trying to break him of that habit.  So this weekend we spent 15 minutes on problems like this:

Apply the Distribution Property of Multiplication and simplify:  5(4a -3) - 7(6 -3a).   This is a great opportunity for decomposition, and the instructions specifically call for restating.  This wasn't going very well so I suggested Guessing.   He wrote of a few versions of the problem, a bit unsure about negative numbers and not really getting distribution.  Guess, see if it works.  Guess, see if it works.   It worked.

A week later, instead of a new page, I asked him to draw a diagram representing each of the problems already solved, including 5(4a-3) - 7(6-3a).  This is a skill that I don't have that I think is worth developing.

The Competitive Parent of the Year award, known in the industry as the "Compettie", is a prestigious and sought after award.  Nominations are due on April 10, 2014.  If no one applies, I win by default.

Monday, March 24, 2014


The scores came today.  My son's score is about 15 points higher than the current cutoff .

I'm disappointed my son didn't score a 593 out of 160 because of all of the test prep we did. 

Watch this blog in the coming months.   For every book review or tip that I've put out here, I have many, many more that I couldn't post because of the time I've been putting in to the possibility I'd have to do it all over again.  Or the fear therein. You'll see my blog summary change accordingly.

Going from average to exceptional for the day of the test has been quite a ride.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Letters Mailed Tomorrow

The letters for CPS are being mailed tomorrow.   Since my mail carrier has a restraining order on me, I will just have to sit and wait at home, instead of idling my car outside of the post office at 6:00 until she begins her route while I drive slowly behind her until she gets to my door.

It seems like has put more emphasis on high school.  I just don't see the buzz there yet.   I suppose there are more parents stressed out about choice of high school, which I suppose is important, instead of Kindergarten, which I suppose is not important.

Half of me would like to see both of my kids in the same school, and half of me would like to spare my second son the ridiculous work load so he can just coast through grade school and go to Northside College Prep quite refreshed.

There's a 99.8% chance that I won't have the choice.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Winter B's

The problem with an Acclerated GAT program is that the program is really hard, and it's full of really smart kids.   For those of us who cheated their way in, this is a problem.

My son wakes up 6:30 am.  The bus comes at 7:15.   He gets back at 4:15 and is usually done with his homework at 5:30.  Piano and reading happen after dinner.   This is a very long day for a little kid.  In my culture, we need at least 16 hours of sleep a day.

Each winter, he gets worn down and one or 2 B's appears on the report card.   Part of the problem, I think, is sickness, lack of sleep and just being worn out.   However, the teacher is very reasonable of what she expects, and there's no reason why any child couldn't earn an A.   Write legibly, concentrate, explain, check your work.

Each winter, there is another factor besides exhaustion.  The bar is raised.   Last year, it was science.  This year, reading.  There are technical aspects of reading comprehension that slipped by without notice.   The challenge for us this year is a test consisting of questions about a written passage (or a book that they are reading in class).  My son likes to see if he can write 3 words or less and get the test over with.

So guess what we are doing in this house for home schooling?  A crash course in creative writing.   First, we take all of the technical things aspects of his course, whatever these are.  Plot, main character, climax, I have to google these.  Then I have to show him how to read a story checking off these things in his mind in preparation for the questions that follow.  This is just like the SAT.   Then we just have to practice writing long sentences that have the word "because" in them and a clause that elaborates on who what why when and whatever.  Yesterday, I found a page in my Vocabulary Workshop book that requires the student to write 19 sentences.  That's what we did.  It was hell.

This year, another surprise.   He bombed a math test and ended up with a B, because, in his words, he ran out of time.   This child is doing pretty well studying 6-8 grade algebra.   I see focus and diligence, and he tends to start and finish his math homework in one efficient tour de force of concentration and purpose (for a 9 year old boy).  Clearly, this is a horrible injustice and a cruel twist of fate.

I need to diagnose this issue:  First, I can rule out that he's a genius because he's not.  Next, he might have been sick that day.  Or, he may just be slow and plodding, which is fine in math.   But the 2 most likely options in this scenario are a) he needs to practice arithmetic because it's slowing him down on the test and b) we should just give up until math turns more analytic and becomes more interesting.  I'm going with a).  I'm not a huge fan of Kumon, but each year we spend at least 3 or 4 weeks practicing the basics ala Kumon.

It's great having a child in an accelerated program where he's challenged on the right level.  This is the level that the rest of the world is at (read the Smartest Kids in the World) and is age appropriate.  The challenge is that we have to constantly address gaps and new skills to keep up.  This level is for families working together that put education first.

Finally, after coming up with a weekend program to address the reading issue, I let him know what to expect from me if he gets all A's by the end of the year.  I told him exactly what his teacher wants and why, how much work it would be, and what I was willing to do to show him my appreciation for a job well done.

Test Scores are In

While we're waiting for test scores for the 2013-2014 test prep season, I was surprised to receive the scores for NWEA assessment against the common core standards for my third grader.  I thought that Illinois was moving toward this, but apparently my son took the test in Fall 2012, Winter 2013, and a few weeks ago for Winter 2014.  All the scores came on one sheet.

Each of the scores are broken down four ways for competitive parents to poor over the data and plan a comeback strategy for their kid.

The reason why I'm focusing on a comeback strategy for high achieving students is that the only place to go is down.   Suppose that your child is in the 99th percentile.  They have a 1/3 change of doing poorly on a bad day and scoring in the 85% to 90% percentile, a 1/3 chance of doing great at 99%, and a 1/3 chance of getting a 110% if there was such a score on a really good day.  On average, your genius child would get a 85% to 90% ranking every three years and it would break your heart.  You would curse the teacher and blame yourself.   Well, here we are in third grade.

When my son started 1st grade, he was 2 years ahead in math, and we focused on laziness since his accelerated program is only 1 year ahead in math until 5th or 6th grade.  I am literally focusing on laziness.  If I catch him working hard to solve a problem, I'll make him transform or rethink the problem and solve it again without expending mental effort.   If he gets less than 99% on a test, I'm personally wounded, but in truth we are just biding our time through arithmetic until we can get to real math.  I should be drilling him on multiplication and division, but instead we're working through 7th grade algebra.  This isn't going to help us on the bi-annual assessment.

Language is another story.  When he got to first grade, he read at about the first grade level, which was a disaster for a program that used a third grade language arts text book.  Shame on me.  Now he's a third grader who is not overly thrilled to read Little House on the Prairie and other boring books, despite my pleading with him to read carefully so he can take an AP English course in high school and read even more boring books.   His weakness on the Common Core assessment is the part where you have to read stories and answer questions.   I remember very clearly reading these passages on tests in grade school at least 2 or 3 times and not retaining any of it by the time I finished the last sentence and started the 1st question.  If anyone knows how to solve this problem, please post a comment.

In the meantime, I am continuing my project of looking through every adolescent book in the library in the hopes of finding something that is suitable for a 5th or 6th grader, but has the maturity of a 3rd or 4th grader, and is not contrary to my values.  So far, I've come up with James Patterson and Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Not great literature, but at least it uses the occasional new vocabulary word.   Plus it's nice to see my son waking up and grabbing his book, or staying up late to read.   I am reading the material myself to make sure it is clean.  I can see why James Patterson sold 260 million books.

I don't see any reason why my children can't get 99% of everything, other than a long list of reasons why a little boy will not do well on a test on any given day.  It's not an unreasonable request that they put school first and know their stuff.

Related to the annual assessment, the test-prep that we continue to do and will hopefully continue through the rest of grade school is the Vocabulary Workshop.  I mentioned this a few times in the past, but now I'm going to explain why I think it's good test prep for the OLSAT and the COGAT.

First of all, these tests are vocabulary centric, and have a vocabulary section.  I don't think it would be worthwhile to create a stack of 1000 flashcards and drill your child on vocabulary words.   Although I'm going to actually try this if we have to take this test again next year.  Test prep workbooks are not a good way to learn vocabulary compared to reading and talking.  Vocabulary Workshop does a fairly good job of staying interesting.

Secondly, the cognitive skills tests are looking for kids who can figure things out, not necessarily kids who know some knowledge.  That means that the question itself is not as interesting as the answer choice.  What I like the most about Vocabulary Workshop is that most of the questions in the first and second books are either from a choice box, or are antonyms or synonyms.   Add 2 lazy boys who would rather be playing than doing Vocabulary on Saturday morning.  This equals 2 kids trying to figure out the correct answer without having to think.   That is the definition of cognitive skill.  This is what I like the most about the book.

The vocabulary section is going to be our weakest section because I've got the math and logic licked.  Therefore I prefer to work on vocabulary year round.  Since there are about 12 Vocabulary Workshop books (from about First Grade through High School), there is an unlimited supply of material.  It gets harder gradually, but never is too hard.   More and more words are completely new.

What I'm hoping for from this book is that the verbal portion of my child's brain is getting a workout and that mental strength will help on the test.  I have noticed that when they read, they do not struggle with new vocabulary.

Recently, I recommended Building Thinking skills as a critical thinking textbook.  I used it starting at the beginning of test prep season until about the last month or two before the test.   My second recommendation is Vocabulary Workshop year round from 1st grade until they pass the selective enrollment exam for High School.

The next time I post on test prep, I'm going to cover every single book with shapes in it.