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?