Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Calm Before the Storm

Next Saturday is our big day.  The rest of Chicago has been getting scores in the mail with test results for K to 4 entry, and it totally stresses me out.  Next week I will be a wreck as usual.  It's hard enough when one of the kids or parents I coach takes the test.  Vicarious test taking is just as challenging to prepare for as actual test taking.

A while back, a Power Mom asked for a retrospective  what I did wrong.  I'm elevating this PM to PMYL, which stands for Power Mom Yoda Level.  He questions was some sort of Plato or eastern mind trick to make me reflect.  My articles are long enough when I barely have 20 minutes before work to type frantically and check for typos.  Brace yourself.

The approach I took didn't result in any mistakes of lasting impact.  Some of was intentional and most of it was not.   The approach can be split into a few categories.
  • I read the papers and presentations of cognitive skills experts and test authors and did exactly what they recommended.
  • I read the articles of intelligence researchers, education researchers, and psychologists and did exactly the opposite of what they recommended.  From this effort, I can explain exactly what's wrong with education in the US, but I didn't gain any actionable strategies for my own children.
  • I bought all books in print and tried them out.  Only a handful were useful as busy work.
  • I wrote my own test questions, attempting every permutation possible in a desperate attempt to pass the test by brute force.   Somewhere at about the 60% mark, the light bulb went off and I realized it wasn't about shapes.  It was about thinking.
Except vocabulary.  Vocabulary is about vocabulary.  My favorite researcher of all time pointed out that when a child is learning to read, all cognitive skills - math, whatever, all of them - are actively deployed by the child's brain.  He also stated that each vocabulary word doesn't just increase a child's knowledge by a single word, it spurs cognitive growth.  Red is not just the name of a color, it is a member of various classifications, has a hue and brightness and other qualities, is used to represent concepts like stop and danger, works in some situations and not in others, looks good on some people but not others and comes out of your finger when you cut yourself.  The magic happens with the cognition left over after the word red is worked, cognition that is then applied to other things, like math.

So I discarded phonics books from the last decade that look more marketing and fun than learning and thinking, and listed out every word 5 letters or less that would appear in a scrabble championship.  After a few years, the result was a Pre-K Phonics Conceptual Vocabulary and Thinking which I sometimes right as Pre-K Phonics Conceptual Thinking because that's how most people google it.
  • What's inside

    • Phonics through 2nd grade
    • Instructions for a solid reading program at the 99% level
    • Math vocabulary through 2nd grade, just in case
    • The reason my 13 year old is sitting for the SAT on Saturday
    • The reason why I use terms like incredulous, inculcate, and fallacious with my kids and they don't roll their eyes
Click here for fabulous phonics

While Math House is called Math House because I have many wasted years studying graduate math and trying to solve the Riemann hypothesis, the phonics book is the gem of the collection.  Guaranteed high math scores on advanced material is not enough to crush the reading section.  I think my kids spend 2 or 3 hours a day reading - on a good day, and we don't have nearly enough good days.  Last week was mainly band concerts, baseball games, the school play, and me working way too much.

Speaking of last week, here is a question from the SAT from last week's article.

The author uses an extended quote in lines 61-69 as part of a larger attempt to
a) convey the impact of an unexpected discovery
b) illustrate the suddenness of a decision
c) simulate a child's misconceptions
d) criticize the artificiality of the "young adult" classification
e) describe a young reader's sense of history

As I mentioned in the prior article, after a few years of research, we reduced all reading comp exercises to a simple mathematical proof.   It's almost long division now.  But there is a prerequisite that I didn't mention.  These questions are packed with vocabulary.  I should have chosen one of the harder questions but even in the question above you can see convey, misconception, artificial, sense, and not the 2nd grade definition of sense.

Somewhere in the Pre-K Phonics introduction, I might mention that opposites are not very useful, but synonyms are extremely valuable for the COGAT.  This applies to the SAT as well.

One Power Mom did Pre-K Phonics with her 4 year old and asked me do you really expect kids to know 'due' and 'dew'?  Ha. No I don't.  I expect them to figure out that there are things like dew and due lurking out their, which is a cognitive gold mind, but mainly I expect parents to read these two words in a phonics book, freak out, and raise the bar in their house.  Some words strike the imagination of one child, some strike the imagination of the other child.  You never know.  Some times we would just burst out laughing and move on.  Sometimes the word went on the Word Board for the 112 days it took to get it because I thought it was important for the COGAT.

From then on, it was 3 years of the Word Board and vocab workshop.  By 2nd grade, words just became the fabric of Math House.

By the way, I owe this Power Mom an article on how to get a four year old to internalize halving and doubling, tripling and cutting into thirds and make it part of their visual-spatial cognition.  Maybe next week.

In the mean time, for the last week, we've done zero to prepare for the SAT on May 5.  I first came up with this idea 8 years ago, when a Mentor Mom told me that her 7th grade daughter got a 700 on the SAT and Stanford sent her a letter asking her to apply in 4 years.  Since then, I've been asking the question, what if we could crush the verbal section?  Our incremental preparation could fill about 30 pages if I included all of the setbacks, 3 pages with just recounting the how to.

Well, we probably can't crush the SAT because we go so very slow on our work, both math and verbal. It's tempting to change gears and shoot for speed, but the MAP test is in June and we need 99% to get into high school.  The MAP and the SAT are not the same thing, and I don't want to negatively impact the MAP.  So the SAT has been relegated to MAP practice.  Still, it's the SAT.

Last night I was out with Power Dads on a biking brewery research tour and we were discussing how preparation is going for the MAP.  All of their kids are genuinely smarter than my kids. Officially, it was just a biking brewery tour, but I don't drink much, I ask a lot of questions, and dads talk a lot when they drink. So putting that altogether it was prime research.  One dad said his daughter was in a prep course and she recently had a grueling 4 hour MAP test prep session.   The SAT is our prep, but it's only 3 1/2 hours so I kept my mouth shut.  We might have the edge, however, in the grueling department.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Tiger Mom Revisited

Some of my readers complained that when they google Test Prep Math they get GMAT results.  This is totally offensive to me.  If a result came up with the GRE math, chemistry or physics subject, that would be OK.  After all, 99% on the MAP tests year after year in grade school is going to be a waste of time if Stanford turns down my children's graduate applications.  At the risk of looking like every other test prep website:

On To Tiger Mom
In the famous seen in her book, Amy Chua recounts a 4 hour ordeal of screaming and crying while she forces her daughter to rehearse an impossible piece for an upcoming piano recital.   Chua is presented as an overbearing evil mom with unrealistic expectations for her child and no concern for her child's long term mental health.

This scene replays itself over and over in Math House, usually on simmer instead of full boil.   There are two important difference between the Evil Overlord of Math House and Tiger Mom.  These differences are why I am not a Tiger Dad, and beyond criticism, and Chua took a lot of flack for her book, even though Chua and I think and act in nearly same way.

The first difference is that I have assumptions, not expectations.  My expectations for my kids are abysmally low.  I strive for zero expectations.  I expect that a 7 or 8 year old would rather play video games and watch TV instead of worry about his future.  I expect that a young child will cry when presented with a problem that exercises grit and cognitive skills.  Maybe he'll just complain at first, but as soon as it's clear I'm not doing his work for him (because then he won't get the benefits), he might try crying.  I expect him to not know what he's doing, to make lots of mistakes, to do far less than I've assigned, and to end up with wrong answers.  That's where the skill set is born, and that's why he's doing this work.  If I gave him something he could do, like 30 easy math fact problems, he'd look good but fall far short of the goals I have for him.

On the other hand, I have assumptions.  I assume my kids will get the work done one way or another because I'm withholding all fun activities until it is done.  I assume that I can't withhold food because his performance will suffer (tried that, it doesn't work).  I assume that he'll learn key skills that other kids don't learn and that a year from now, he'll be scoring in the top 1% on everything for the rest of his life and be 6 years ahead of other kids in key subjects, even subjects we don't do at home, all because I stayed focused on grit and cognitive skills during 2nd and 3rd grade.

I like to say 'Of course you don't want to do this.  You're 8 years old.  I'm an expert at being an 8 year old.  I was an 8 year old for an entire year'.  Seems like a good thing for a dad to say.

I expect the first 6 weeks are going to be really tough because school just spoon feeds easy work and the parent is used to helping and answering questions when the child falls short.  Scaffolding is great when you want your child to memorize and master a bunch of new concepts in a short period of time, but the child never learns the thinking and learning skills tackle learn pre-algebra on his own.

4th grade was a blur of algebra.  You can't do algebra without pre-algebra, and that means you either have to learn it on the spot or get assigned backtracking material by The Overlord before you can move on.  I threw in some functions,  a little geometry (prove everything starting with a line is an angle of 180 degrees), a little trig (everything you need to know in 30 minutes or less), and it's on to SAT test prep books.

Test Prep Math Level 4
SAT test prep is surprisingly easy compared to the real thing.  I generally assign 5 problems at a time, from the math section, with no time limit.  A few years later, we've not only completed all the math problems but learned high school math on the way, with the exception of advanced trig topics and calculus.  Again, my expectations are really low for this exercise.  I expect almost nothing.  I assume we'll get through it and come out on top.

In a few weeks, my 7th grader is sitting for the real deal, all 3 1/2 hours of it.  I gave him a few timed versions of certain sections, but our real goal is the 6 hour MAP test ( 3 hours of math on one day, and 3 hours of reading comp on another day).  I figure 3 1/2 hours of SAT brutality should be good practice for the 7th grade MAP.

After we licked math, we had a book full of reading comp questions.  The reading comp was really hard.  It didn't go well.

I traveled to the planet Dagoba to be trained by the Jedi Master Yoda of reading comp.  A high school English teacher, he coaches SAT on the side.  He told me things like "When the question asks 'which answer reflects the tone of the passage', count words in the passage, you will".  He also told us to 'figure out an answer wrong, why you got'.   His advice got us past Baffled; it gave us things to do instead of crying and yelling at each other, but ultimately it's not for 99% and its not for an 11 year old.

Once again, I'm stuck with an area of cognitive research that is unexplored and undocumented, so as the Foremost Expert in the Field of Real Cognitive Skills, The Kind That Actual Children Have, Not The Useless Made Up Crap That Fill Education Journals, I took on the challenge.

So I applied the learning framework outlined in Test Prep Math.  After all, the math word problems in TPM target reading comp.  This isn't obvious how a math problem prepares a child for reading comp until you see the SAT.   Here's why reading comp = math and math = reading comp.

The author uses an extended quote in lines 61-69 as part of a larger attempt to
a) convey the impact of an unexpected discovery
b) illustrate the suddenness of a decision
c) simulate a child's misconceptions
d) criticize the artificiality of the "young adult" classification
e) describe a young reader's sense of history

Step 1 - look at lines 55-60 and 70-75 for the answer.   This is more of a geometry thing that I'll cover later.

Step 2 - Notice each answer has 3 concepts.   You simply take each concept (like convey), and if the author complains, states, recounts, but does not convey, cross out the answer.  Test Prep Math hammers away at the 3 bucket limit of working memory, and here it is in action on every single question in the SAT reading section.  The iterative permutations of solving these questions are identical to Section 3 of TPM, which is why figure matrices are such good predictors of academic success.

That's it.  There are no other question types.  It is really helpful if the child can tell you about the author and the type of passage (propaganda, argument, description, memoir, what ever) because the first 2 questions are going to require this knowledge.  But all questions require the same mathematical approach.  If a question looks like its a different type, it's just disguise.

Once we got this, I went from assuming that reading comp questions are impossible to assuming that I'm going to be disappointed if my kids miss any.  'Convey' went on the Word Board.

I think somewhere in the intro to Test Prep Math I might fess up to targeting reading comp.  I should have said targeting 99% on reading comp.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Now Is The Time

Over the next few months I'm going to be unleashing some really powerful test crushing material that I've been working on diligently for the past few years.   All of this fits under the head of 'well, we did that stuff, let's see if it will work elsewhere'.  It does work elsewhere.

I've noticed that interest in GAT material drops off after the test scores are released in the spring.  I suppose this is normal.  Normal as in not the top 1%.  When I was in eighth grade, I read the biography of the world's greatest athlete.  He used to have really intense workouts after the year-end tournament was over.  Like right after.  That night.

Giftedness is going to be born in the next few months.

Have you ever heard the expression 'Fake it until you make it'?  There is a great Ted Talk on this subject from Amy Cuddy.  My idea of giftedness is similar.  My idea of giftedness is to take the skills of the gifted and use them.  It's not profoundly gifted, but with a little practice and change it's enough to get into a gifted program. 

An odd thing happened on the way to giftedness.

The difference between a gifted child and a profoundly gifted child is that the profoundly gifted child has so much practice exercising gifted skills that she does it quickly, so quickly, in fact, that neither she nor her parents can explain how she actually does it.  It's like magic.

It's not magic if you look closely.

Last week I doled out more SAT test prep to my 9 year old.  I've been working a lot and it's good for a few minutes without distraction.  Here's one of the questions I gave him.  Take a minute to solve it.

He asked me what the area of a circle was.  I thought kids learned that by this age, but whatever.  Before I could leave the room, in the space of about 15 seconds, he solved it.  That was freaky.  I asked him how he solved it, and he showed how he subtracted one half circle from the other, etc., and nailed it.

We spent 18 months learning the skills from the ground up with Test Prep Math.  There were 2 types of questions.  The first type required a long discussion and argument.  The second type required 4 or 5 attempts.  A year of weekly math later and the discussions have dissipated.

I maintain a slow pace of a few problems here and there.  I've been worrying a lot about how our slow pace in Math House is going to thwart the SAT.  The MAP test requires a slow pace, and we need a perfect score this year, so I don't want to add risk by practicing timed tests.  Last week, I wondered if we should just switch to Kumon and drill boring useless math facts.  I know that slow, careful, and lots of mistakes produces award winning mathematicians so I'm going to stick with principles.  But I gave a 55 minute practice test to older brother and he only finished 30 questions out of 38.  In 70 minutes.  He'll be lucky to break 1200.  I'm beginning to feel the same way I felt watching them being led away to the COGAT at ages 4 and 5.  It was excruciating.  How am I going to survive 3 1/2 hours of waiting while my baby takes a college entrance exam?  Older brother is only 13 and is the subject in one of my diabolical experiments yet again.

The younger feakazoid learned his visual spatial skills from Shape Size Color Count.  He does an adequate showing on reading comp within the official time limit as well.  That skill set started with Pre K Phonics and Conceptual Vocabulary & Thinking and was fully developed by the Test Prep Math Series.  Those 4 books (there are 2 Test Prep Math books) stand out for two reasons.  There is a 2 foot high stack of test prep material for K and 1st grade.  I have a four foot stack, but only recommend about 2 feet of it.  There is almost nothing for children who aren't in K or 1st grade.  Secondly, these 4 books are the only books on the market that present material at the 99%, at least by the end of the books. What is the secret to doing work at the 99% if you're not actually there yet?  It's slightly different than fake it until you make it, but in the same spirit.  Go slow, do less, and make more mistakes.  Until you make it.

If you want a permanent showing at 99%, step out of the crowd.  Work diligently when the rest are taking a break.  Work differently (think Anti-Kumon instead of Kumon).   K and 1st are extremely competitive years but scores drop off after that because the interest drops off.   If your child hasn't reached the magic age of 4 yet, think about SSCC and phonics.  If K and 1st grade were a struggle, double the effort in 2nd and 3rd grade.  It's worth it in the long run.

In my next article, I'm going to describe how Math House crushes reading comp questions.   It's going to be a let down for my readers.  Math House built math from the ground up with foundational skills and ignoring routine practice and memoriation.  We didn't get around to worrying about reading comp until all the math parts of the practice tests in the SAT book were finished and we were looking for the next challenge.  By this point, foundational skills were used and not discussed.  We ended up with a simple reading comp formula that works.  No wisdom, cleverness, counter cultural pedagogy wars.  Just a simple formula.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

My Latest Insane Plan

Before I announce my new plan, and freak everyone out, I'm going to issue disclaimers.

Math House is very low pressure.  Our bar is pretty low.   I think a day is successful that has no video games. I have zero expectations.  I never know if the next paper I grade will be all wrong or all lucky.

Let's go through plans of the past and how they generally turned out.

  • I spent 2 years carefully crafting a phonics book that includes phonics through 2nd grade.  Every word that could possibly be relevant to a cognitive skills test and can be sounded out.  The last shred of expectation were crushed out when it took 3 weeks to get past CAT.
  • We jumped into 2nd grade math midway through K.  3 weeks again to get through the first page.
  • I've got 6 or 7 other plans that I presented on this website in the last 7 years.
Of course, a little here and a little there paid off.  Within 4 or 5 months, the little ones were zooming along adequately.   The bar raised itself.

The new plan is to take the SAT in 7th grade.  This is where you feel bad as a parent and panic because things are so competitive and you're falling behind.  

We'll, it's not about the SAT.  I read an article this week that explains why 1600 on the SAT won't help you get into Stanford.  Stanford only accepts 4% of applicants.  I couldn't help but think a) 1600 on the SAT won't help and b) 4% is a easier to achieve than the 2/10th % that we faced for 1st grade.

The SAT plan began in 2nd grade with TPM.  If you've ever seen it, and you think 'this isn't school math' your right.  It's the base of the mountain.  School math is more of a detour through the foothills.  This doesn't mean TPM is super hard (some of it is), it's just super different.  Different will get you into Stanford, according to the article.  I started experimenting with SAT books with older kids when TPM was written.

My last insane idea was to start assigning work from an SAT test prep book after 4th grade.  Here's your SAT question:  How long will it take to get through a 600 page book if you only do 4 or 5 problems a week?  The work accelerates on it's own, by magic, just like my other insane ideas.

Back to the new new bar.  On May 7, my 13 year old will spend the morning in a high school taking a 3 1/2 college entrance exam.  What fun.  I'm not sure how he's going to do, but here's what's going to follow:
  • First, we get to see the whole test and his answers.  This is a new service by the college board.  I can't wait.  I'll be able to compare our practice to the real thing and prepare little brother appropriately.
  • Then in a few years, he'll be sitting for the PSAT, the shorter easier version of the SAT.  Will he be stressed taking a test that is easier than the one he took in 7th grade?  I don't think so.
  • But even more importantly, a few weeks later he'll sit for the Test That Won't Be Named for entrance into high school.  How can you expect a child to do well without practice?  I don't consider a test prep course practice.  You don't practice sky diving jumping off the stairs onto a mattress.  You practice sky diving jumping behind enemy lines in the dark while the plane is buffeted by flak.
I gave him his first timed test today - one 55 minute math section.  I think it was section 7.   He did awful, as usual.  I let him go 90 minutes and I think he quit after 75 minutes on his own.  (He's on to my trickery.)   Awful is a normal performance going into the test, as I have pointed out to many, many parents worried about COGAT prep.


This morning - a day after the timed math test, and the day after I published the article above - I'm assessing our situation.  I don't like timed tests and he needs to get every single answer correct no matter how long it takes for that other test.   So I'm going to do only one timed reading test and then we're going back to our normal program for that other test.  The SAT is going to an endurance exercise of concentration.   I had this idea that we will 'prepare for the test' if you know what I mean, but this doesn't really work for our plan, so instead we're just going to sit for the test and I'll find out how ready my 13 year old is for college.  In other words, he's not going to get an extra 150 points because we made a concerted effort to get an additional 150 points. 

I know kids at this age who are ready to sit for an SAT type test.  They've had the right training.  They are nearly at the peak of the mountain.  Math house is working toward a much much higher mountain and we're only at about the 40% mark right now.  It's really hard for me to be competitive and patiently hold back at the same time.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Word Board

At a young age (like 4 to 6 or 5 to 7), each of my kids made trips to the Word Board a few times a week to see if any of the words from Vocab Workshop or phonics were mastered.   Of course, if 'organize' appeared, I couldn't help but throw in 'organization', 'organic', 'origami' or anything else I could think of, so it was hard for them to keep up.  The best part of this exercise was that it made up for a lack of discussion in the house, because we were usually reading or doing math or cleaning or eating.   It turned me into a vocabulary parent.   Our nightly reading time became more question and vocabulary oriented.

The Word Board started simply to track which words from the Vocab Workshop book were mastered.  If I got a slow response and some thinking, the word stayed.  If it was a really important word, the bar was raised and I wanted synonyms as well.  There are two reasons for delay.  First, if you zoom through Vocab Workshop, you get to a level that's too hard, or you have to use Wordly Wise, Vocab Workshop's more boring cousin.   Oppositely, some words are really hard, and you can leave the word on the board and move to the next section.

Recently, a Power Mom suggested that I advertise. While I'm not interested in monetizing my blog, I will gladly include an ad for my favorite toothbrush, even if I don't get paid and their graphics leave little to work with. Also, currently only available on eBay.  But they are soft, grippable, and counter cultural.   Here is my ad.

Click to buy.
The Word Board saved us in phonics.  Phonics at a young age go really slow.   At one point, we had 100 words on the board, including 'CAT', the very first word, which was never read adequately.  I know from experience in any subject that a child may take 3 weeks on the first page and 2 weeks on the next, but if you stick with it and wait for their brain, suddenly they get it and zoom through everything.  You just have to be patient and keep reminding yourself that you are reading the blog of an insane person.  But once it happens in reading, math, COGAT test prep, you see the process and can relax.  Until that delay happens in science, writing, pre-algebra, and everything else advanced you do, then it's just annoying.

I think that the Word Board was mainly about me learning to be a parent in an educated household.  It raises the level of expectation and it raises the level of the discussion.  More importantly, it trains a parent to let the child do the work with no help.  It trains the parent to wait for a correct answer, even if it takes 4 weeks.  It trains the child that mommy won't help.  The child realizes that he actually has to do the work.  But there is no penalty, no time limit.

By no help, I mean this:
  1. "What's this word mean?"  (Let's say ambidextrous is the vocab word.)
  2. 10 minutes of silence later, Live on water and land?
  3. "No, that's amphibian.  Last time, I said an amphibian is an animal that lives on water and land.  'Ambi' means both.   Phibian probably means tell a small lie or something to do with habitat.   It's greek from about 2500 years ago.  Or latin.  Small break for daddy to wiki phibian.  Ambitdexterous means that you can write with both hands because you either have brain damage or you practice writing with both hands.  Let's take a break to write our names with both hands at the same time.
  4. I know what habitat and amphibian mean.
  5. "Those words aren't coming down until you get ambidextrous"
Then mommy will come by and ask why I'm subjecting our 5 year old to ambidextrous.  By 4th grade, he will have forgotten what this word means.

Once we both got past the training, I could raise the bar as high as 'Stand and Deliver' while I challenged them on word meanings.   Since I didn't care whether the word came down this week or next month, it was all them.  Nor do I give a fig about their self esteem.  They can earn it if they want it.  Which they did.  The hard way.  I've got 2 kids with enough self esteem to fill a class room.

We retired the Word Board after about 3 years.  The Word Board only came back sporadically.   Three years defending at the Word Board produces a child who will acquire and retain word definitions on sight, and this makes the Word Board less useful except for advanced math and science.

I speculate that bilingual children are going to get a permanent advantage for the same reason.  The first few years of their lives are a big Word Board to sort through.