Saturday, February 13, 2016

Working Ahead in Math for the nth time

In my last article, after lots of blah blah blah I divulged my secret plan to go ahead in math 3 years with the end goal that we cheat our way into a top selective enrollment high school in Chicago.  Day 1 of The Plan was today and I realized 2 things.  First, it is exactly a repeat of age 5 all over again, and secondly, there is no way any other parent is going to pull this off unless they read my blog diligently and also buy my goofy books.  That narrows down my competition to about 2 people so I'm just going to blog articles about my progress and mistakes like I've been doing for the last 5 years without fear of negatively impacting my son's chances.

Since this strategy is identical to what I would do if my child had to pass a 2nd or 3rd grade Iowa Test of Basic Skills  as part of the GAT selection process, those who have been asking about the ITBS might find this material informative.   In Chicago, the elementary school selection enrollment process has a GAT test but doesn't look at grades or standardized tests (except for schools called 'Academic Centers' which I'm not interested in).  The next school enrollment process for us uses standardized test scores, and therefore this is now part of the focus of my research and experimentation.

A parent of a 5 to 9 year old has a good shot of raising ITBS or other standardized test scores into the stratosphere, at least for a single year, using my strategy, because the math is simple and you can generally follow the curriculum because it is straightforward.  It's much harder after that.

Here's the plan:

  1. Follow best practices in reading.  This part of the approach is fundamental in making everything else work and anyone can do it even if they are illiterate or don't speak English.
  2. Get a vocabulary workbook (like Vocabulary Workshop) and do a few pages every Saturday. Go slow, have fun, and let it work its magic with little effort.
  3.  Go 2 years ahead in math.  Take math completely out of the equation.  Give your child a breather on the test so they can expend more mental effort on the reading comprehension questions.  Math will give them confidence.
  4. A few months before the test, practice some reading comprehension questions for 2 grades up just to give your child a sense of struggle.
That's it.  Quite doable.  I have written many articles related to all of these points especially my missteps and struggles.  In this article, I'm going to summarize my history of #3 so you can see where I failed and how to do it right.  At the end of this article, after most of my readership has dropped off because the phone beeped, I'll describe Saturday's first day of The Secret Plan.

February 2010 
My son took a GAT test.  We prepared for it using goofy material I created.   When he came out, I looked back over the last few months of preparation and decided that it was a disaster.  I don't think he was reading at the time.   I decided that we needed to raise the bar.  This decision was based on the same level of knowledge put into our test preparation, which was zero.   

March 2010
I bought the workbooks for Every Day math for 2nd grade, and we started on problem #1, page 1. No textbook, no lesson, just problems.  This part I did right.  I sat there frustrated that he wasn't getting it. This part I did wrong.  Lots of crying and arguing resulted.

June 2010
He completed the last problem in Student Journal #1.  I reminded him all of the times (daily) he said he couldn't do it and handed him the book.   I suggested he never tell me he can't do it again.  He got the point and is willing to do anything academically without verbally complaining.  I keep this book on the shelf to whip it out should he ever tell me he can't do something.  He never does.

August 2010
We got half way through every problem in Journal #2 and we stopped.  It seemed pointless to go on because he was doing most problems quickly and correctly and getting nothing out of it anymore.

September 2010
He enrolls in a GAT program and we find out most of the first graders can read at the 3rd grade level or higher.  A few months later, after the nightly homework nightmare was no longer a nightmare, we start working on vocabulary, reading, and more math, at least on Saturdays.  I continue to assign work on most days in the Summer and the only day that he officially gets off is Christmas.  This became a family joke.

The teacher handed him his math book and it was Every Day Math Student Journal #1, which he completed every single problem.  This was a life saver.

At time time, I start working with the 3 year old sibling, Child #2.   The math curriculum before 3rd grade is OK, but it's really good for Kindergartners.  For lots of reasons, I don't care how he does, just that he does something.  Some days he gets 100% incorrect.  Some days I don't check the work. Many days I don't ask for corrections.  At this time, I started this blog with the theme "How to reverse engineer the GAT test".

The other difference with Child #2 is by this time I had finally figured out what skills were behind the GAT test, so I switched from teach math (or anything) to teaching how to read the question, how to decompose a problem, check the answer, look for hints or clues, etc, and just let him figure out the math concepts on his own, or not, because I no longer cared about math concepts.  We had a GAT test to prepare for.  

September 2011 - June 2015
Child #1's math grades are like a yo yo.   It's pretty clear at this point that while he can do math, he hates it.  Child #2 on the other hand, is ready to do calculus.   We had the same different approaches to reading (yes, the approaches were different for reading as they were different than math), with the same different results.  Child #1 was a reluctant reader, and Child #2 reads every book 3 times in the same day because he enjoys books so much.

At this point I had a pretty clear idea what I have done as a parent.   I have created one child who is prepared to solve unsolvable math problems at Stanford as a math professor and researcher, and I created one child who will cheat his way into Stanford, drop out, and then solve the world's unsolvable problems as long as they don't involve math.  I will never undo this, but at least I can fix it a bit.

Summer 2015
I spent the entire summer playing catch up with Child #1.  We used the SAT test prep book and I approached the math program like I did for Child #2.  I just focused on problem solving and let it be known in no uncertain terms that I didn't care what the actual answer was or whether or not it was correct. Sometimes I checked the material secretly to determine if I was nuts or not.  I also used both kids as guinea pigs for Test Prep Math Level 3.  Not only were the questions nonsensical, but most of my answers were as well.  They spent a lot of time correcting me.  Many of the answers in the published version are nonsensical, as are the questions.  Now you know why.

September 2015
Child #1 has solid teachers.  The reading teacher is extraordinary.   Not that the math teacher isn't great, but I already know how to teach math.  Whatever the reading teacher does we do, and subsequent research confirmed why we should do it.   (See recent articles, or you can just buy the Read Aloud Handbook.)

October 2015
Standardize test scores have recovered.

February 2015
Grades have recovered, except for a single math grade indicating that my job is not finished.

Today, Day 1 of Secret Plan
We opened "Thinking With Mathematical Models, Linear and Inverse Variations", page 15.  We skipped the material and went right for the exercises.   I showed him the formula for a line (y = ax + b), and it's inverse (x = (y - b)/a).   Seemed appropriate from the title.  Should be easy.  After 10 minutes he looked at me with teary eyes.  It's Kindergarten all over again.

The first problem is a chart of numbers.   I thought he should just turn it into an equation, solve it an move on.  He really struggled, so I had to pull out the 2nd most powerful of all math tools which I was saving for later, and we turned the problem into an easier one.  Here are the x,y coordinates.  I'm sorry to make you read this, but there is a really big point here for children and parents of any age.
The coordinates in our simplified problem are (1,60), (2,30), (3,20), (4,15), (5,12).  In case you didn't notice, this is not a line like y = ax + b.  There's no algebraic expressions in the whole book, just thinking about lists of numbers.  Now we are both baffled.

Two baffled people in math is the single most powerful of all math tools.  The opposite is one person feeling like a dummy, which is not good.  But two baffled people makes for a highly motivating challenge.   I told my child that the only time anyone is allowed to swear is when a person is in a combat zone being shot at.  I had to tell him this because war documentaries is part of my own personal At Home curriculum, and swearing is a common theme in interviews of veterans.  Well, I almost let one slip.  He was teary at this point and I'm almost swearing.  I have decided that tough math problems almost, but not quite, qualify for combat swearing.

So we went to powerful math tool #3 and tried to put into common sense type words what the heck is happening.   The official name of the tool is "Read the Question Over and Over Again and Try To Make Sense of It".  He came up with this:  Whatever you multiply the x value by (i.e, going from 1 to 4), then you divide the y value by that.  We used up an hour and he had to go to the Symphony because my wife is the World's Most Awesome parent.   I looked at the actual questions for this problem and I think he can answer them when he gets back.  I'm not going to check the answers.

Here's where we are.  We spent an hour doing the first problem in a 137 page math book.  There are 7 more books that we have to get through in the next 18 months.  Neither of us knows what the heck we are doing.   While his class is a year ahead in math, this material is 3 years ahead.

From doing this many times with my own children and the children of other unfortunate parents, here is what I expect to magically happen:
  • He will gradually get the hang of it and his pace will accelerate.
  • We will finish about 75% of the course and find out that the 7th grade class only does 4 of the books.
  • He will stop getting teary at some point and learn a ton.
  • We will find an algebraic expression for that darn problem using tools that we are going to have to invent because I've never seen them in a math book.  Because of this, he will somehow like math, or not.
The big question that I have to figure out is this:  Will he get to 7th grade and blow away all of his classes because he loves to learn and has fun doing it, or will he get a B in math because he's seen it all before and hates it?  

To put this question differently:  People do things that they enjoy doing and which require little effort.  My challenge is to reduce the effort with cognitive tools and to make it fun by not making it painful.  That really doesn't even make sense, but that's where I am.  I'll have articles just on this paragraph because it's really the key to the whole endeavor.

I've got 18 months to solve the parent math problem.  If your child is 5 or 7, you've got exactly the same problem (or will by 4th grade) but it is a 6 month problem and not an 18 month problem.  I'm already wearing 5 ribbons on my chest for those earlier battles.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The How To Be A Parent Guidebook

I found this really great book recommendation on this blog about children, so I thought I should get the book and read it.  It's called the Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease.

Like Your Child's Brain, this book synthesizes lots of research on reading and the eventual success of children.  I've been aware of some of this research, but to see it all together and given meaning by Trelease is stunning.  

My specialty has always been developing cognitive skills in my children so they can pass themselves off as gifted and succeed without really trying.   As a parent, I focus on character and grit.  My personal preference is music and things of a big project nature.  I'd like to see them prepared to succeed in highly technical research in graduate school, but it's more likely at least one of them is just going to go off and do something, what that something is I don't know.

It appears to me that a solid At Home reading program with Read-To will suffice in meeting the complete academic needs of your child and they will live happily above the 95 percentile in everything.  The book describes how.

Unless, of course, you have a son who would rather make jokes or play video games then read.  I didn't see a lot of boys used in the book's anecdotes so far.   Or you spent the first 5 years of your child's life not even thinking about academics and you have catching up to do.  Or even worse, you need to be in the 99th percentile to compete with all of the test prep going on.  Then you're back to my articles.  But I still recommend this book.

A few years ago I was making wall charts of leveled early readers and decided that I would also include every book of every illustrator who won an award since 1950.  Thanks to the Chicago public library, we got some pretty goofy stuff from international illustrators.   I think I brought home 500 books that year.  The whole family enjoyed this program.

According to Trelease and the reading research, all of my achievements as a parent were because of the reading activity.

But according to research on children who play musical instruments, my children are doing well because we practice together each night.

An according to my own research, teaching a child to think (aka giving them a fishing pole) works wonders.

I think I get a B on Trelease's recommendations.  Instead of reading aloud to my 11 year old, I just take my book into his room and read next to him.  I probably get a B in music as well because we only practice for 30 minutes.  I think I'm an A on crafts and projects, maybe an A+.  Anyway, here's the major takeaway from Trelease's book:

  1. People do things that are enjoyable.
  2. The more you do something, the better you get.
  3. The better you are at something, the more enjoyable it is.
  4. If this something happens to be reading, the you will be really, really smart.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Every Book is a Mystery

During 4th grade, I noticed that my son was reading books, memorizing them actually, but not really seeing anything important that is going on.   I told him that every book is a mystery to be solved, and that he needed to pay attention to the clues to see where the story is heading.

I thought I invented this.

I told this to my second grade child and he responded "My teacher already told me this."   Does she read my articles?

It turns out that there is a book called The Read-Aloud Handbook: Seventh Edition by Jim Trelease that describes this and more.

Here is Amazon's description:

Recommended by "Dear Abby" upon its first publication in 1982, millions of parents and educators have turned to Jim Trelease’s beloved classic for more than three decades to help countless children become avid readers through awakening their imaginations and improving their language skills. It has also been a staple in schools of education for new teachers. This updated edition of The Read-Aloud Handbook discusses the benefits, the rewards, and the importance of reading aloud to children of a new generation. Supported by delightful anecdotes as well as the latest research (including the good and bad news on digital learning), The Read-Aloud Handbook offers proven techniques and strategies for helping children discover the pleasures of reading and setting them on the road to becoming lifelong readers.

Buy the book.

If any readers have already used this book, feel free to comment.  I expect no comments.  There are no good resources on the internet or elsewhere under the heading of "How to be a Good Academic Parent" outside of Finland so how would anyone know?

Look at this presentation by Dan McKey.   It's very inspiring, it's got a great list of books for 2nd and 3rd grade, and the slides don't have any content because he talked his way through the presentation.  If the reading program at your child's school is not strong, then you desperately need the missing content of this presentation.  This presentation was given at the Reading Recovery conference.  The next one is February 6th through 8th in Columbus Ohio.  Are there any readers in Columbus Ohio, and if there are, could one of you sneak into this conference and report back to me?