Monday, March 30, 2015

Summer Planning

I look forward to each summer.  Unburdened by school curriculum, we're free to zoom through certain subjects and pick up key skills.   Last summer, we did advanced math, reading comprehension (advanced) and of course Vocabulary Workshop which is by definition advanced without using the word advanced again.

I like to see my kids struggle with material that they are totally unprepared for because it fosters skills like having to read the directions 5 times and check the back of the book to see whether or not I ripped out the answers.

I will have to put more thought into this summer's at home schooling program because I have a child who is exiting 4th grade, where the material emphasizes memorizing facts and applying examples, and entering 5th grade, where (I hope) there is more thinking and problem solving required.

For the last few years, the youngest child got all of the attention as we prepared for The Test.   In the process he picked up a formidable skill set.  I wish I did all of these activities with the older child, but he got about 6 weeks of test prep instead of 2 years.  Therefore, to address this gap, the 4th grader is going to get all of my attention while the 1st grader does his 6th grade geometry book.  On that note, Kumon has really let me down, and I'm once again anti-Kumon.   The workbook spoon feeds math and with a little help, a 6 year old can muddle through.  How embarrassing.  Ironically, the 3rd grade Kumon math workbook is suitably challenging for the 1st grader and he finds the 6th grade book easier.

I stumbled across math books for math competition.   (I googled "math books for math competition").  These books are all about problem solving, mainly at the high school level.  I wish this was the only math curriculum taught in elementary school.  As a matter of fact, there is a new curriculum emerging called Beast Academy, but it only goes up to 4th grade so far.  I only read the titles, and I already highly recommend it.  I'll be experimenting with it this summer for the younger guy.   For the older child, we are going to try AwesomeMath, which appears to be advanced problem solving for the upper grades.  These are expensive books.

In addition to problem solving skills (see the bottom of my math page), I'm looking for 2 skills in particular.   The young one has no clue that he can't do something.  He see's the older brother do it, so he assumes that he can.   If he doesn't understand a word or concept, he'll look for examples or ask questions.   Basically, he just does it however he can until he's finished.  The older one is perfectly capable, if he tries, which he doesn't do without lots of stalling, negotiating, and complaining.  He'll make a great lawyer some day.   I dread the day he learns the terms "continuance" and "abatement".  

The skill I want to teach in some way is the "I can do anything" skills.  I know he can, he knows he can, he just doesn't really try unless it involves Minecraft or disarming the security on my computer.

The other skill has to do with figuring things out for oneself.  Again, the younger one does this naturally because he doesn't know better.  The older child just spent 4 years in the Spoon Feeding Machine, which is how I describe the school curriculum in the U.S., no offense to his great teachers or school.   Topics in math and literature and history that I find fascinating bore him, not because they are boring, but because he expects them to be boring.  I need to undo this.

This summer, the 10 year old will spend 2 weeks away at the YMCA camp learning to be a leader, 1 week at Boy Scout camp learning to be a leader, 1 week at some sort of acting camp learning how to pretend to care, and in between he will get heavy doses of Awesome Math problem solving or he won't be allowed to use the computer.

Thanks to the American Hero Channel, we all have a budding interest in history.  The first episode we saw described how battle field flag codes were first introduced in the Civil War.  The next episode demonstrated how a slave played a key role in the winning of the Revolutionary war.  I did not know that.   Therefore this summer I'm going to introduce a history project.   I'm not sure what, maybe the history of tanks lined up from level 1 through level 20 just like Clash of Clans.  I'm dealing with boys, after all.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Generating Interest in Music

Music is an important part of education.  The problem with music is getting children interested in music and keeping them motivated day after day to practice.  There are numerous opportunities to do this between K and 6th grade.  It would be nice if they developed a life long love of music and played in the Symphony while writing award winning musicals and headlining a Jazz fest, but technically 3 or 4 years of music is going to jump start their academic career and after that I don't care.

Here is my how to guide.

Occasionally I talk to parents who ask their children if they would like to play an instrument.   This is a mistake because the answer is "yes for the next 5 minutes and then never again after that" because that is how kids think.  If the child knew how much practice was involved, then their answer is definitely no.  So don't ask.

A better question to ask is "Which instrument are you going to play?"  I ask my kids this in 4th grade.  The options are join the band and play any instrument, or join the guitar club and play guitar.   I ask this question after 4 years of playing the piano.  I never asked if they would like to play the piano.  I ask questions like "Would you like to go downstairs and play (after piano practice)?",  "Would you like to have desert (after piano practice)", "Would you like a box of tissues to get through piano practice?" etc.

A bright child might wonder why, if playing an instrument is so wonderful and important, his or her parents don't play one every night.  This is a legitimate question and I side with the child on that one.  This is why I practice every night or at a minimum sit next to my son at the piano enjoying his practicing.   Last night, the 3 of us (me, big son, small son) played Merrily We Roll Along on the trumpet, saxophone, and clarinet. We were horrible because I forgot where the notes were on the saxophone and our clarinetist can't cover the holes with his tiny fingers.  But it was lots of fun and from now on, I'm cutting piano practice short so that small son can join me and big son for band practice.

How hard is it for an adult to pick up an instrument starting with a beginning book?  Very easy.

Every boy I know who practices an instrument has a parent who picked up the instrument at the same time or a parent who used to be in band.  So there are lots of parents in my neighborhood who are playing guitar every night with their kids and enjoying it, one dad who started playing violin, and me with Woodwinds.  A mom called me for some music because she is picking up the trumpet again after a 30 year hiatus.

There are lots of parents who would like their child to practice 3 hours a day.  This is the minimum level requirement for music majors and symphony members.  This won't work unless at some point the child on their own falls in love with music and dedicates their life to it.  I'm not sure my kids want this and we're not really headed in this direction.  If they chose to dedicate their life to music, I will dedicate my life to making them practice when they don't want to.  I owe them this, because if if weren't for them, I would quit my job and join a and go teach in an inner city school for no money, or be a monk.

At some point, my children will pick up an interest in something other than Video Games and Jokes, and I'm not going to help them at all pursue this new interest because I've been showing them how to pursue interests like music, reading and math (aka my interests) their whole life.  Plus, any involvement on my part is just going to ruin things.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Priority #1 - Cognitive Skills

3 years ago, I aligned all of my priorities toward preparing my youngest child for school.  The oldest one had already begun first grade, and I wanted to give the younger brother a fair chance.  The oldest was exposed to a little of this approach formerly (with test prep) and a lot informally.  But as you can see from this blog, I over did it with my second son.  Now it's time to switch.

Yesterday before dinner, my kids asked to use the computers.   It was Friday, technically the weekend, and they are no longer permitted to see a computer during the week.   So I assigned a page of math.  The 4th grader did his work quickly - in about 5 minutes, but he has seen this material before.  The 1st grader struggled.

"What do these 2 words mean?  I can't pronounce them."

The words were perpendicularity and intersection.  I explained each word with a little diagram.  It's odd that my First Grader can't pronounce words or asks me for help in math.  Must be tired or getting sick.

"Can you explain this question to me?"  Sure.   Must be having a bad day.  The question wants to know which faces on this rectangular prism are perpendicular to face AECB.  

"OK, I did the problem.  Do I have to finish this?"

Of course you do.  When have I let anybody ever not do a whole page of math?

"But it's 6th grade math."


They each have a Kumon book and the books both look the same.   I gave him the wrong one, and he jumped right in the middle where his older brother left off and proceeded to answer questions correctly, albeit with a little help.

I have many friends in a similar situation.   Younger sibling wants to be like older sibling.  Older sibling gets parents attention learning how to read, learning how to count, early homework and projects.  Younger sibling wants it so bad they try everything they can think of and learn ways of learning.  In technical terms, the younger sibling picks up the most important cognitive skills, the ones that are on the GAT tests:

  • keep trying
  • try different things
  • do a little bit at a time 
  • teach yourself
  • if the older sibling can do it, I must be able to do it
The younger child goes through this in a way the older child doesn't.  The parents spoon feed the older child with every type of knowledge and not permitting him to exercise learning skills, whereas the younger child has to fight for himself.  

The textbook case of this situation would be that the older child get's 99% on a standardized test, but barely a 105 on a cognitive abilities test, whereas the younger child might get 75 or 80 on the standardized test but a 160 on the COGAT.

There is nothing magic or genetic about these skills.  If a child doesn't have them, he should get them.  If a child forgets them by 4th grade, and then again in 8th grade, and as a Freshman in college, which is typical to the point where it's almost expected, then he has to learn them again.

What is important about 4th, 8th, and 13th grades is that the education curriculum shifts dramatically at each point so that a 3rd or 4th grader who gets really good grades because they learned the material that the teacher taught may do poorly in 5th or 6th grade because they have to relearn what is expected and how to approach it, whereas a "learner" will hate 4th grade because it's boring and get bad grades but excel in 5th or 6th grade.  A senior in highschool with AP honors and all A's may end up with all B's as a Freshman because they know how to memorize crap and do homework but don't know how to think and be organized.

My 6th year old knows how to learn, which is the list above.  My summer project will be to help my 4th grader relearn these skills in the context of the new standard of learning for 5th grade.  When I say "relearn" what I mean is that whatever his level is, what is it going to take to get to 99% in terms of learning skills? This is not a matter of me being competitive.  These skills are the most important of all academic survival skills, and make the difference between getting 1 page of math complete per hour or 15 pages of math in an hour.

We do a little bit every week for both kids called "learn to think" or "learn to learn".   They both have really great teachers that do this as well (I hope), but the teachers are limited by the curriculum and I am not.

What I would like to figure out before the summer is what to do for an effective, concentrated effort for the older child.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Algebra for Kids

There is an App that teaches algebra visually in the form of a game.  It is called DragonBox.  My son and I got quite far with it when he was 8.  I think it's more appropriate for 8th graders even though it's very easy to play.

Last summer, when he was 9, we did an algebra workbook.  He was comfortable with variables and understood the most common equation transformations.  He used the rules properly, but struggled a bit.  It went well, but he internalized none of it and he retained very little.  It looked like a failure.

Recently, we've been doing geometry  in preparation for Middle school.  Again, he can do it if computer time is on the line but doesn't really appreciate what he is learning, if in fact he is learning it.  It's going slightly better than algebra because to solve geometry problems one has to use arithmetic and this gives arithmetic some meaning.

Today I asked him to do a page of math so we could watch history on the American Hero's Channel.  (Any time this channel is on, we all stand there mesmerized.  Best channel ever.).  He was taking too long answering questions like this:  "15 is 5/8 of ___ " so I suggested algebra.  After getting a blank look, I showed him how to write the equation, multiple both sides by 8/5, cancel equal factors, and the answer just falls out.  The light bulb finally went off.

The problem with the US math curriculum is that the first 5 grades teach tools with very little useful, important application.  This is a disaster for math and the reason why our colleges have almost no math majors.   Computer science is taught in reverse - first create video games, and secondly figure out the tools needed to make them work.

Tonight my 10 year old found a vital use for algebra - finish his boring workbook page so we could watch TV - and his math skill set jumped 3 years.

I think computer programming might be the solution to this problem, but again my efforts to date have been somewhat unsuccessful because 12 or 13 might be a better age to tackle bigger problems.  Should I just abandon math until then?  This is a problem I need to solve.  This is as bad as the reading drought that hits little boys between 3rd and 4th grade.

Regardless, I've noticed a change in the last few weeks from memorizing and learning facts or tools to thinking and learning.  In the Classical Education, this is the definition of the shift that takes place around age 11 for most kids.  Ideally, I could retire from my blog, but there is a 6 year old who just got all 30 problems on his subtraction worksheet wrong.  I didn't know he was capable of getting a math problem wrong.  Looks like I have more work to do.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Overcoming Bad Days

A few times a week, a very loyal and insightful reader named "Anonymous" sends me an observation or question via comments.  This week it was a gem about completely losing sight of extra work.   "My kids completely skipped their all the extra workbook time and had computer/tv time for most of the nights."

Last week, 2 1/2 of us were sick. Trumpet practice is usually the last thing in the day, maybe 30 to 45 minutes before bed time, and I'm in charge of making it happen.  It didn't happen.  On Saturday, we had to drive 90 minutes for "Contest" so my 4th grader could play for 90 seconds.  We were late, barely got a spot, rushed in without warming up, and the results were as expected.

Between January and December, there are lots of bad days, bad weeks, and bad months, especially with little kids who tend to get sick a lot.

Computers is a big problem.  Children in this house observe a parent with a smart phone, or a parent blogging, and expect to be on the computer all the time as adults.  

Computer is also a big solution.   Kids who have to do work to earn computer time are 98.7% more likely to work super hard and get things done right the first time (so they won't have to do it over again) in order to play with computers.  It is the #1 motivator of all time with the exception of not getting eaten by a monster.

So here's my answer.   Put your little gifted kids in charge.  Obviously, we parents can't do it alone.  

Step 1:  Make a chart of weekly work and post it on the fridge.  I just made one and it took about 1 minute. It has math, vocab, and music practice on it.  Reading is assumed.  There is one section for each child and a section for me.  My row has "Enforce no screens" on it with my name.  Each night we are going to check off our work, and mine will be enforcement.

Step 2:  Announce that there will be no screens of any type until Saturday, and only if everything is complete on the chart.  When I first introduced the no screen policy, we had a few Saturday mornings with quite a bit of work still left to do.  I think my kids were seeing if I was serious.  They never worked harder before.

Step 3:  Make sure every child has a few interesting books or a kindle so they have something to do in lieu of screens.  At least one of these should be challenging to read, but the rest can be comic books, nonfiction, magazines, whatever.

Why go through all of this extra effort?

First of all, if your child gets into an advanced program or course as a result of this extra work, they are receiving a better, more expensive education.  I wish all children could be enrolled in a GAT program, but a GAT program requires a minimum effort by parent and child.

Secondly, the average curriculum and homework load in the U.S. is not enough to put the kids at the level of their international peers, the level where a child will naturally get to if they work consistently every day.  If you the parent manage to overcome the obstacles and hang in there, your children will hopefully make it into the top 5%.

Thirdly, you child will eventually get A's because of all of the academic skills that result from the extra effort.

As for TV, I almost never turn it on at all.  It's all trash.  Then last weekend we turned on the Military History Channel and sat enraptured for 3 straight hours.   We learned so much.   Alas, it would be better to learn it from reading.