Thursday, October 25, 2012

Spoiler Alert

One of the fun parts about having a middle school student under our roof (and some would argue that there aren't a heck of a lot of fun parts) is that all of a sudden, I can share some of the more mature aspects of adult culture and entertainment with my son. We listen to NPR in the car, and he actually requests certain programs. We watch The Daily Show together over pancakes, and he laughs out loud. I get to pimp him out to the New York Times, and he plays along. He helps me with my Algebra homework.

All those times I turned to Tim and said, "You know, when Ben gets older, he'd love this..." Well, he's older, and it's time.

Ben has always loved reading, so we fell all over ourselves to fill Ben's bookshelves with all of our favorites. A Prayer for Owen Meany? Loved it. Catch-22? Ditto. A Walk in the Woods? Yep. We love to talk about them all over dinner. And now that his tastebuds have matured, that dinner table is laden as often as possible with magical adult fare such as the hot-cooling juju of Szechuan Gourmet (on 21 W 39th St, between 5th and 6th, you must try the dumplings in sweet chili soy, dan dan noodles, braised whole bass in chili soy, and spicy cucumber salad...but I digress).

Recently, his interests turned to film, and we were intrigued.

But whose list to check off? AFI? Rotten Tomatoes? Oscars? In the end, we've compiled our own, and it's been a blast. We started with Godfather I (two enthusiastic thumbs up) and off we went.

Tonight, however, our entertainment loves have collided in a way I would have never predicted. Ben loves a good twist ending, so I queued up The Sixth Sense for tonight as Tim is away at a conference. I put Finnegan to bed, so it was just the two of us (and the snoring dog) for movie night. I pulled the Netflix envelope out with a flourish and a "Ta-DAH!" and...nothing. Blank stare.

Ben scowled.

"But I know how that ends, remember? They gave away the ending on Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me."

No...they'd wouldn't. My close personal friend Peter Sagal would never...okay, fine. I've never met the man, but I read his columns in Runner's World, I adored The Book of Vice, I listen to Wait, Wait podcast faithfully every week while I weed the garden or stack wood, and when we drive anywhere, the last thing Ben asks as we leave the house is, "Do we have all the new Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me on the iPod?"

So I defended. I went to bat. My running and radio friend Peter Sagal? He'd never.

"No, Ben, they'd never do that. I mean, I remember when the film came out, everyone kept the secret. Really? No, they wouldn't have."

"No, they did. Remember? They were talking about how badly NBC messed up during the Olympics and gave away all the spoilers about who won the events, and they said it was like at the end of the movie Sixth Sense, when...[...]"

Nope. I can't do it. I won't quote it here, I won't even link to the podcast's URL, and if you have been reading me for any time at all, you know I love a good hyperlink. Sorry. It's just that sort of negligence that ruined movie night with my son. Heck, I spent an entire afternoon gluing together two specific pages of my student's copies of Great Expectations when I realized that the introduction's list of characters gives away important plot points. Don't mess with me when it comes to spoilers.

So here we are. I loved you once, Peter Sagal and the crew of Wait Wait, but boo. Booo to you and your spoilers. A new generation is listening, and take my word for it:  The adolescents, they will rise up and punish you.

I'm a middle school teacher. I know.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Hanging Out Under the Sword of Damocles

Interesting experience today. I received an email from one of my son's teachers, a very personable woman who was contacting me out of concern for a particular aspect of my son's learning. You would think that as a teacher, a teacher who composes at least a couple emails just like the one I received from this teacher every day, that I could maintain some perspective.

But I didn't. I got a little sick to my stomach, a little lightheaded. I worried about my child's ability to make it in high school, whether or not he'd get into college, if he'd ever be able to get a job that paid at - let alone above - the poverty line...

In other words, I may have overreacted, and I may have required a medicinal glass of wine. I just might have had one or two bitter thoughts about this teacher I otherwise adore and believe to be a great educator. How dare she question my child's competence? How dare she think my child is anything less than adorable and wonderful?

Yeah, I went there, and I could very easily have flipped out on that teacher. But I didn't. At least not outside the confines of my addled brain, because I logged off and closed the lid on my irrationality. Crazy, protective mom mode was not going to do anyone any good, and flipping out on my son's teacher would be the worst possible reaction, a surefire way to destroy my (and my son's) relationship with this teacher.

An couple of hours later, after that glass of wine, some dinner, an hour of helping my boys with their homework, and bedtime reading and snuggle, I had gained a wee bit of perspective. I thought about all those emails I write from my desk at school. All those emails I bang out when I simply intend to deliver the news that a quiz score was unexpectedly low or a homework assignment was forgotten. I certainly don't mean to send the message that those students are in trouble, out of their depth, or beyond help; I am simply keeping in touch. I only intend to convey the message that their children need support and a solid, open partnership between their parents and their teacher.

I have written about the importance of preserving the parent-teacher partnership for the New York Times but I did not totally understand what it means to receive disturbing news from a teacher when I wrote that piece. I'd been on parental easy street, twirling my umbrella and singing about blue skies.

I did not fully understand what it meant to be on the receiving end of an "I am just writing to let you know..." email until today.

However, no matter how much I'd love to avoid it, I will still have to deliver bad news, because that's my job. Believe me, it's always easier to keep bad news inside the confines of my classroom, because the minute an email leaves my out box, all hell can break loose. It has, and it likely will again. I hold my breath and hit 'send' on those emails, knowing that some parents will flip out on me.

But at least I understand now, in my gut, where it's coming from. Even my most challenging students are someone's kids. And if they were my kids, I would want to know what's happening at school, to have the opportunity to work together with their teacher to find a solution.

That said, I have an email to write to one of my students' parents, as well as a parent-teacher conference about my own son to prepare for. Here's hoping that sanity prevails on both fronts, because both the education of my students and of my children depends on it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Art and Science of Asking Questions

The response to "Against Accelerating the Gifted Child" in the New York Times' Motherlode blog has been overwhelming and gratifying, and I feel the need to write about to some of the main points that have come up in the comments section. There are over 200 comments at this writing, and while many have been quite supportive, many have been angry and critical, as they should be. If there were easy answers to the question of how to best educate gifted students, there would have been about 12 lukewarm comments responding to my post. The emails and comments I have received may have been contradictory, but at least they highlight the issues we must address in order to advance the cause of education for gifted kids. However, as Motherlode is not my personal forum, I have had to retreat here, to my turf, in order to adequately respond.

1. I am not actually against accelerating the gifted child. I teach many gifted students who have been accelerated, and many of them are quite happy and fulfilled. However, some are not, so what I am against is accelerating a child because the parents are so wrapped up in the mystique of having a gifted child that they never take the eventual emotional and social fallout into account. I have received quite a few emails from people who have thanked me for bringing up this aforementioned emotional fallout, and I stand by my thesis. While academic acceleration may be a good - nay, ideal - solution for some gifted children, parents may want to think ahead to middle school and beyond when making the decision to skip a child ahead in first or second grade.

2. Of course I am aware of the Iowa Acceleration Scale. I have experience with it; my current school uses it as a resource. I have been in on meetings where we have used it in order to decide whether or not to accelerate students. I have also read just about everything published on the subject of academic acceleration since 1972. What kind of idiot woud publish in the New York Times without reading every scrap of research on a given topic? I specifically stated that the research does not indicate that academic acceleration causes negative social or emotional fallout, but I confirmed with a statistician my sense that the subjective, retrospective reporting used in most research studies on accelerated students is a blunt research tool. So is anecdotal evidence, but when it comes to my own observations gathered over a decade of teaching, that's what I've got to fall back on. After reading reams of studies, I could have stated that the existing data are the gold standard, the be-all, end-all of the discussion on the state of grade acceleration, but instead, I found intriguing but imperfect data that begs further discussion and further inquiry.

3. "The gift of time." Okay, it may be trite, but it's a real factor. "Time" is a metaphor, an umbrella concept that stands in for so much more than chronological time. It represents time for emotional development, social development, physical growth, and about a hundred other factors that are conducive to happiness. The ability to control one's emotions. The ability to organize one's materials for class. The ability to defer gratification. The ability to filter information. The ability to filter out ambient distraction. These skills get developed during middle and high school, and the difference between a sixth grader and an eighth grader is about as vast as the difference between a pink marshmallow Peep and a well-tempered piece of dark chocolate.

4. I actually enjoy teaching way more than seeing my name in print. It has always been thus, and will always be so.

I'd keep going, but I have papers to grade and algebra homework to complete. I appreciate each and every one of the nearly 200 comments on my post, as it ensures that I will be invited back in order to write about some other topic that at least fifty people will assert I am completely unqualified to write about.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Distribution and Association

This has been a heady week. I had two very important moments this week, and both had to do with math. One was a matter of distribution, the other, association.

The Distributive Axiom
x(y+z) = xy + xz

It's been challenging to keep up with all of my homework. There's the grading homework I have do to every night - the compositions to be evaluated, the vocabulary to be graded, the Latin translations to be picked apart - and then there's my Algebra homework. I used to leave Algebra for last, as I had stressed to my students that I don't do my Algebra work until I have completed all of my teaching work. Last week, however, I came home, changed out of my teaching clothes into my comfy jeans, and dove straight into Algebra before I dealt with the grading. For once, I knew I had time to do both because my kids had requested what we call "scavenging night" for dinner and I would not be called into cooking duty, but I was actually...wait for it...excited to do my Algebra homework. I didn't even run outside into the yard to obsessively weed the garden, roll the compost barrel around the yard, and deadhead the flowers. Bonus Jess Lahey Axiom: hyperactivity + a hint of a hint of a hint of ADD = fun-filled afternoons of disorganized odd-job hilarity.

But back to my newfound enthusiasm for Algebra homework. Has the Earth experienced a geomagnetic polarity reversal? (I read on that it happens every 250,000 years or so and now I'm worried.) I don't know what else could account for the crazy shift in my priorities. 

But here it is: I love distributing. It's almost as satisfying as simplifying. Maybe more. I can't decide. Changing 3(x+5) into 3x+15 is fun, and watch: I can even go in the other direction. 10x+20 can just as easily be transformed into 10(x+2). Is it just the imposition of order? I am a fan of organizing. Give me a label maker and five cases of wide-mouthed mason jars, and I can turn a disorganized pantry into the very model of a modern major-miracle. I love the purging of excess clutter, so the removal of factors in an expression is akin to taking truckloads of refuse from my basement to the dump. Satisfying. Cleansing. Where I was faced with a messy 10 and x and a 20 cluttering up the place, I can create order through 10(x+2). Clean. Neat. Minimalist. And gosh darn it, I love it. 

The Associative Axiom for Multiplication
(xy)z = x(yz)

In the midst of this shocking revelation, I attended the Dartmouth Writing Summit. In years past, I would have fallen all over myself to attend every second of this writing geek-fest, but this year, THIS year, was a challenge. I was only able to arrange coverage for a couple of my classes, so I had to choose carefully. I was only going to be able to attend one session. One. 

From Dartmouth Now:

"Pulitzer Prize-winning author and noted historian David McCullough is one of several scholars who will lecture at Dartmouth October 2 and 3 as part of 'Writing Summit 2012: The Power of Writing in the Contemporary World.'"

David McCullough?!?!? David McCullough??!!? Seriously? Holy Crap! I love David McCullough; he's one of my writing heroes. I would do just about anything to meet David McCullough.

But then I was faced with the following associative quandry: 

"The Writing Summit 2012 will feature 12 speakers, including keynote addresses by McCullough, Katherine Bergeron, professor of music at Brown University, Hortense Spillers, professor of English at Vanderbilt University, and Steven Strogatz, professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University."
Hold on...forget that McCullough guy...what's a Pulitzer-Prize winning author and noted historian when real pearls, math pearls, are being offered up by my newfound Algebra guru, Steven Strogatz?
And so, for the first time in my life, I have willingly chose to associate with math over...over...well, over just about anything else on the planet. Even this new crazy, upside-down planet where apparently, compasses point south. 
This reversal of polarities paid off, though, because Steven Strogatz was fantastic. He talked about 1) his work at the New York Times, 2) how he first scored his gig at the Times, and 3) his writing process. Spoilers: 1) He doesn't write about teaching math, but about teaching people to love math, 2) he first met his editor at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, and 3) he employs a combination of longhand and dictation software. 
He even answered my question about how he handles the instant (and aggressive) feedback of Times commenters (his first piece currently has 546 comments) without resorting to a strategy of defensive writing. His answer? He doesn't read them.
And with that, Professor Strogatz taught me his most valuable lesson thus far: 
The Axiom of Successful Writing over Narcissism