Smart Kids Being Dumb

I homeschooled my two boys, Noah (17) and Collin (13) from 2003 to 2009 before putting them in school. The school thing did not go well. Collin got on the B honor roll once which was the extent of either of their success with the whole thing. Noah seemed to think that not getting straight Fs was a high enough goal for him. Collin was bullied by both students and teachers. Noah contented himself with trying to make everyone scared of him so they would leave him alone. This last year I allowed them both to start doing online schooling which came with its own new set of problems, but they are finally getting the hang of it. Of course, for those who always KNEW I was making a mistake with homeschooling them, their lack of performance is proof-positive that homeschooling them was a horrible mistake which has most likely ruined their ability to become productive human beings who don’t live in someone’s basement playing video games.
If I had it to do all over again, I would never have put them in school. I would have gone straight to online schools once I could no longer continue homeschooling them myself. Noah had been on track to finish high school a year early had we continued homeschooling and now will barely eek out graduating. Collin discovered that he really was smarter than most people, including a lot of adults, and became nearly insufferable. After being in school, both of them are extremely concerned about the moral and intellectual development of their younger sisters who are just finishing kindergarten and 1st grade this week. They were not impressed with the end result of the school system to say the least.

Homework in kindergarten

An example of my 1st grader's homework

So, I have my kids in the local public schools which has real drawbacks and benefits.  One of the things I am struggling with is when – if ever – to push back over some the homework issue.  Like has happened at a lot of schools, homework has creeped down into earlier and earlier grades.  So, my 1st grader has nightly homework and my kindergartener has homework once or twice a week.

There are so many problems with this.  First of all, there has been a bunch of research into the matter and homework has no benefits – not educational, in fostering good work habits – until at least junior high.  The problem is that this conflicts with deeply ingrained ideas about the importance of starting good habits early, the need to practice those habits, etc.  So although it is literally a fact that homework for elementary kids has no benefit, people think that it must and won’t let go of it.  When confronted, people either deny reality or fall back on another admirable goal: parental involvement.  Which leads to the next problem . . .

I am very involved in my kids life without your help, thank you very much!  And I don’t particularly feel the need or desire to document the time I spend involved with them.  And what if we go two weeks without reading together and then devour 4 books in a weekend?  I don’t need/want the schools making me feel like part of their job is to hold me accountable for reading to my kids!  The best predictor of whether a kid will be a reader is whether they see their parents reading and how many books are in the house – NOT whether I spend 20 minutes a day reading to them.  Needless to say I read on occassion (ha!  on ocassion.) and I have a few books in the house.  If I got nothing else right while homeschooling, at least I made readers.  I really don’t need or want the school’s help.  This is the one thing which I have held my ground on, I steadfastly refuse to document time spent reading to my kids – not for bribes of pizza or so my kid can get her gold star.  I’m not going to do it.

But it’s not just the tracking of minutes reading that is a problem.  It’s the homework itself.  The homework is BULLSHIT.  It would be much easier to settle into complacency over sending my kids to school rather than homeschooling if I didn’t actually have to confront the bad pedagogy and pointless drivel which passes for school curriculumn.  Not to mention that it’s pointless to have my daughter “read” the same story each night for a week when by the second night she is reciting it from memory.  This does nothing to help her learn to read.  (And don’t even get me started on spelling lists.)  Seriously, people – sending this crap home each day is not confidence inspiring.

It doesn't get better - an example of my 7th grader's homework

I’m struggling with how to handle this.  I don’t believe in telling my kids things that I know aren’t true, so it’s hard for me to try and convince them that homework actually has a point.  Mostly I just focus on the expectation of the teacher that it be done and the star that the teacher will put on her chart when it is done.  I did finally start sending the names of books Michaela read to me or other family members in lieu of reciting the week’s story from memory (I still let her do that when she wants to – memorization is an important skill.  But it doesn’t count as reading.)  I have started refusing to help her with worksheets like the one above and insist that she figure out what she’s supposed to be doing herself instead.  Do I say anything to the teachers?  I know its not really their fault – and they are so sweet and seem to be genuinely good teachers.  It’s not really even something a teacher can do anything about.  Sending home work with kids is something they are all expected to do.  But there is  pressure on my girls to conform and jump through the hoops to get the grades (good skills to have, but hardly what the main focus should be about).  I want them to be successful in school, but I don’t want them to fall for bullshit claptrap like doing things simply to collect gold stars instead of to learn.  I know that my and even my daughter’s teacher’s power to effect change is pretty limited.  Schools are inherently limited in how flexible they can be.  Other parents no doubt completely disagree with my suggestions.  Curriculum is a huge investment and can’t be tossed on a whim.  Etc, etc, etc.  So . . . anyone have any suggestions, insights, experiences to share?  I’m all ears!


Jiu-Jitsu for the Bullied

I homeschooled my boys for years and have always caught flack for it.  However, the one group of people who rarely criticized my decision were other parents with school-aged children.   More often than not, they seemed to feel compelled to offer an apologetic explanation for why they weren’t homeschooling their own kids.  Why?  Because they were well aware that we live in a world where sending your kid to California to learn Jui-Jitsu to defend against bullies actually makes sense, for one.  It’s absurd.  I don’t think anyone who doesn’t have kids in school fully realizes how awful the social situation is at a lot of schools.  Even in schools where the adults aren’t part of the problem, so many kids are so poorly socialized that stopping the bullying feels like mission impossible. 

(It always kills me that “socialization” is seen as a potential problem for homeschooled kids.  Like the barbarians that run the social scene at many middle schools are well socialized human beings!  I’ll take my odd, but genuinely good home-socialized boys over the manipulative, callous and cruel children that are running amok at our local public schools any day.  Heck, my oldest has been trying to convince me to homeschool my daughters precisely so they will not be “socialized” the way the teens he attended school with were.)

I have a few theories as to why bullying has become such an outrageous problem:

1. We don’t let kids work out their own problems when they are young.  Whether they are at home or in daycare, we think it’s normal to jump in right away and mediate every conflict our kids have – particularly if there’s been any hitting involved.  This is not normal!  People get into conflict with each other and have to learn to navigate.  By jumping in right away, we deprive our kids of the chance to learn to stand up for themselves, weather having someone unhappy with us, learn not to take mean people personally and a whole host of other lessons that need to be learned in order to figure out how to get along with people.  I watched a documentary once about socialization of young children in Japan.  The teachers almost never stepped in to mediate conflicts between children – even when hitting was involved.  What happened was what happens in the most of the rest of life: kids stuck up for each other and offered comfort and distraction to each other when feelings were hurt.  persistently aggressive kids were avoided until or unless they learned to treat others properly.  We need to trust our kids to figure out how to manage their conflicts while they are little rather than waiting until they are older and can do real damage to each other.

2. We model a very selfish, demanding attitude for our kids.  We drive around screaming at other drivers for being in our way.  We complain about waiting in lines or servers who make mistakes as if it were the most outrageous thing in the world that we should ever have to deal with anything we don’t like.  We shouldn’t be surprised when our kids treat people to their face with the sort of callous, ungracious attitudes that we have been showing them their  whole lives.

3. We don’t show proper empathy towards our kids when they are the ones who are hurt or need attention.  Especially if they have done something they don’t like, we feel entitled to be as critical and harsh as we like.  If we hurt their feelings in the process we don’t offer any comfort – we just tell them they have brought it on themselves.  I’ve become convinced that many parents and caregivers (obviously not all!) are way too hard on their kids.  We practically follow them around correcting their every move.  We tell them not to touch walls as they walk by, apologize to strangers and scold our kids for not being aware of someone wanting to go by in a shopping cart when we’re in the store.  If we ever hear them utter a sharp word or even a curse under their breath we jump all over them.  If we follow our kids around, correcting ever little mistake and imperfection, they may well display a similarly critical attitude and lack of grace to other children.

4. We are judgmental and condemning of the people we see on TV, in the news, at the local store, our own families, etc.  Too many people are in the habit of pointing out the flaws, errors and even simple poor taste of the people around us.  Many times we do it because we think we are instructing our children in the standards we expect from them.  However, more likely we are teaching them to criticize and condemn people for everything from the way they dress to the way they talk to the choices they make that we don’t approve of.  In a school  setting, this is called bullying.

If we want our kids to be kind, gracious and caring people, we really do need to model that behavior for them.  And we need to give them more breathing room so they can self-correct, manage their own conflicts and feel OK about just being a normal, imperfect kid.  Then maybe we won’t need to give kids Jui-Jitsu lessons just so they can attend 6th grade without having a nervous breakdown.

All Praise the Kids?

Interesting story in the NY Magazine this weekend about how praising kids harms and sometimes helps them.  Much of the research about praise isn’t new to those of us to pay attention to such things, but for many people the reality of how praise can help and harm kids runs counter to what we’ve been taught to believe.

The first thing that researchers have discovered is that when we praise kids insincerely (ie giving everyone a medal for participation rather than for achievement), we lose a lot of credibility.  The kids know they haven’t done anything special and view all praise as suspect.  Which actually makes even genuine praise far less effective.  Often kids will decide that the only messages which can be trusted are those which are critical.  Which (as some of us have learned the hard way) can be a problem because not all criticism is accurate and often kids haven’t been taught how to deal productively with criticism anyway.   So you get a kid who discounts anything good which is said to them while whole heartedly believing any negative message that comes their way.  Not exactly what we want.

The other major finding is that praising a child for some sort of innate ability decreases motivation, self-confidence and performance.  The reason is that if something is an innate ability, it comes naturally and with little effort.  If this is the case, then putting forth effort is a sign that one is lacking in innate ability.  Then when the child fails (due to lack of effort, of course) the message that is seen as a sign that the child lacks the innate ability to do something, so no effort will fix it anyways.  When this cycle is in place even extraordinarily bright children become risk-adverse, under-perform and lacking in confidence.

There are three keys to making praise work.  First, it must be sincere.  Sometimes this is really easy like when your kid wins a prize.  But other times, you need to look more closely for those things your child does which are valuable, but aren’t usually given a lot of attention.  For example, if you take your child to the store and they hold the door open for people, say please and thank you, look people in the eye when they are spoken too, etc they can be praised for being polite and considerate.  On the other hand, if your 12 year old brings you a drawing that isn’t very good and asks what you think of it, you need to resist the urge to say, “wow – that’s a great drawing honey!”  Instead, just talk with them about the picture: “why did you choose those colors?  What’s happening in this scene?  What made you think of this?”  Often, a kid will value the chance to have their work taken seriously enough to be discussed that they will walk away satisfied and motivated to keep working on their artwork.  But, if they insist on a judgement – good or bad? – be honest without being discouraging.  Something like, “I don’t think you’re ready to find a buyer for your art yet, but you have a good eye for color (or character or whatever) and I bet that if you apply yourself you will keep getting better.  You may surprise yourself with what you can do!”  Which actually leads us to the second point . . .

Praise should focus on effort and potential rather than innate ability.  A child who is told “you’re smart/talented/likable/etc” without having put an effort into developing those skills will fall into the trap described above and not have real confidence in your praise or themselves.  If your child brings home a good grade, instead of saying, “look how smart you are!”, they need to hear something like, ” it looks like all that hard work paid off.  Good job.”  I do believe that simply as a matter of self knowledge a child who has a particular talent or ability should be told that they have that ability.  A smart kid should know that he is smarter than normal.  A talented musician should know that they have an unusual aptitude.  And so on.  However, being smart or talented or pretty or whatever should not be introduced as a form of praise.  A smart kid is no better than a kid who struggles to learn basic math.  A pretty child has no more worth than an awkward child with unattractive features, etc.  These are not things to praise a kid for, imo.  Instead, they should be introduced as a form of self-knowledge and a way to encourage a child to apply themselves.  In our house, a kid is never told that they are smart without it being connected to the fact that this creates an opportunity for their efforts to bear more fruit than most people have a chance to achieve in some areas.  The ability isn’t praised – the effort and discipline needed for the ability to be worth anything is always the object of praise.  Innate ability is neither earned or within our control.  But effort and strong character are.  Praise directed at that which takes effort rather than that which is not earned or controlled is encouraging and rewarding.  In order to do this sort of praise effectively, we must look at the third facet of effective praise . . .

Praise needs to be specific.  Many couple has been frustrated because the husband tells his wife “your beautiful” – perhaps with regularity – and yet the wife neither feels beautiful nor seems to believe the sincerity of the compliment.  The wife may even completely befuddle her husband by claiming that he never compliments her!  The problem is that “you’re beautiful” is a very broad, generic statement.  It is one of those things which encompasses so much that it means very little.  Instead, if the husband can to substitute compliments like, “Your hair is beautiful today./Those jeans make your butt look great./I love the way your eyes light up when you talk about something you care about./Your skin is so soft./etc”   A husband who became adept at pointing out the specific details of what he finds beautiful about his wife will find that a handful of such compliments will have greater effect than saying “you’re beautiful” a million times.  It’s just human nature.  So if your kid plays soccer, compliment him on his hustling or passing ability or how he communicates with other players on the field rather than just saying, “you’re a great soccer player!”  This creates confidence in the child that your praise is sincere.  It also lets your kid know that you care enough to really pay attention, which means more to a child than any particular word of praise ever could.

Although research has found that the way praise is often done is actually harmful and counter-productive, I think it’s important that parents not decide to just give up on the idea of praise and building their child’s self-confidence altogether.  Our children depend on us to show them who they are and part of this is pointing out the good parts.  And our kids need our approval like they need air to breathe.  If a child doesn’t believe that he has earned his parent’s approval – that they think well of him and see good things in him – then nothing anyone else says to them and nothing they accomplish will mean much.  When a parent withholds praise, perhaps out of fear for breeding arrogance or because the child’s ability’s are not focused in areas the parent values, it can be crippling.  If the world tells a kid that he is brilliant, but his father never does, he will just tell himself that the rest of the world is lying or foolish.  Because if he really was brilliant, his father would have told him as well.  So, let’s keep giving our kids the praise they need and earn.  Let’s just do it the right way!

Who me, gifted?

Two days ago, I wrote about how being gifted results in an experience of life and existing which is usually markedly different in intensity and complexity than what normal people experience. Today I’m going to talk about why so many highly intelligent people fail to see themselves as gifted and and why gifted people need to understand their giftedness and teach their children to do the same.

The first point which needs to be made is that contrary to the perception that unusually smart people are arrogant and think that they are better than everyone else, many, many highly intelligent people are in denial about their giftedness. People who belong to Mensa report that one of the most common things they hear from other members are jokes that someone must have messed up their test because they aren’t actually smart enough to be there. People who counsel and work with highly intelligent people find that many of them suffer from “imposter syndrome“. Imposter syndrome is a situation where a person feels that they are simply faking their way through life, that anything they have accomplished is due to luck and that their real abilities fall short of what others are capable of. I’m not aware of any actual research into the self perception of people with unusually high intelligence. However, based on reports from people with high intelligence and those who deal with them, it is probably safe to say that a large percentage of highly intelligent people do not see themselves as such. Contrary to the stereotype, many gifted people are not arrogant to the point of being unable to hold an accurate view of their own abilities. Continue reading

How being gifted means being different

gifted childrenOver the last couple of years I have spent time off and on doing research into giftedness and living with unusually high intelligence.  It has been far more interesting and enlightening than I expected.  So I figured I would share some of what I have learned with y’all.  Today I will focus on some of the differences which tend to be characteristic of those with unusually high intelligence.  Tomorrow, I’ll get into why so many gifted people have a hard time recognizing themselves as gifted and why it is so important for them to understand their giftedness and teach their children to do the same.

First, the differences.  I always figured that high intelligence was just about how a person learns new information and skills.  What I have found out, however, is that high intelligence entails not just being able to learn new things quickly and easily, but affects a person’s entire experience of life.  People with unusually high intelligence take in and acquire information differently, process that information differently.  They frequently experience emotions and physical stimuli more intensely than others.  They have motivations and drives which others often find odd or bizarre.  In short, being unusually intelligent tends to create a whole life experience which is markedly more complicated and intense than what most people experience.

Psychologists who deal with highly intelligent people label these areas of high instensity and complexity “Overexcitabilities” or OEs.  Continue reading

In Search of the Perfect Curriculum – Help!

Ok, so I’ve decided to bite the bullet, pay the cash and invest in some actual curriculumn for my boys’ homeschooling for the next year. However, the problem is what curriculum. I’m not really interested in “school at home” type curriculum like A Beka. For kids my sons’ age (particularly the older one), I like the approach of The Well Trained Mind. However, as much as I love my kids, I have two little ones who need watching, writing that I want to do and various other things to attend to along with teaching two boys. So, in order to prevent burn-out, I need something with more guidance than you get from using The Well Trained Mind.

I like literature based learning such as Sonlight and Beautiful Feet. However, after reviewing their materials, I cannot in good conscience hand my children over to either of these curricula. Sonlight actual quotes white supremacist literature in their coverage of slavery for their junior high American history guide. (They feel that the condemnation of slavery and the south for practicing it is too unthinking and seek to offer challenges to this narrative.) Both of them include religion in ways that I find very problematic. For example, I think it goes well beyond the teachings of Christianity and scriptures to claim that Leif Erickson was commissioned by God to find North America (Beautiful Feet early American History). While a quick spin around this blog would show that I am a person of deep Christian faith, I have found that most Christian homeschooling materials take approaches which I strongly disapprove of, so I tend to avoid them.

On the other side of things, I have looked into the Great Books materials, which is completely secular. However, I am very suspicious of curriculum which seems to take its cues from some UN Commission and arranges units around discussions of human rights and democracy. I also watched a video of a teacher using one of their books to teach a story in which students were encouraged to “make connections” with their own lives. I think pointing out connections is fine, but putting the student and his/her life at the center of the study of literature is NOT how literature should be taught, IMO.

Soooooo . . . here’s my question for y’all: does anyone know of any good literature based curriculum out there which do not claim to be able to read the mind of God, question whether slavery was all that evil, use the bible as a literal history book, or engage in the worst of the modern liberal approach which has made our education system a laughing stock? Come on people! I’m not asking for much here – just the perfect, classical, non-ideological curricula which isn’t too much work for me. 😉 Any suggestion?

The Platypus and Evolution

For people who are interested in these things, there is a fascinating article in the Washington Post about the genetic code of the platypus.  Scientists just finished mapping the odd animal’s DNA and not too surprisingly, it’s odd.  What is particularly useful about this is that scientists have been able to map segments of the platypus’ genetic code which are similar to those found in birds, mammals and reptiles.  Over the ages, and at crucial times in the evolution of life, there were probably many transitional animals bearing the imprint of multiple orders of animals.  We are just lucky to have this one living example to give us a peak at how it worked itself out.

One of the things which I also found interesting about the article is that it repeatedly refers to evolution in anthropomorfic terms.  Evolution is referred to as trying things out, working out how to do something, deciding, etc.  One of the things which people often do not realize is that evolution is not nearly as random or unintelligent as it is sometimes portrayed.  For example, we know that there are genetic sequences which can cause similar but different outcomes in different animals, depending on how it is tweaked.  For example, the platypus makes milk which is a variation on a milky substance which its ancestors made to keep their leathery eggs from drying out.  In other animals, we see that light sensing cells can evolve into organs which detect electrical currents.  So rather than being a completely random process, evolution seems to have given life genetic sequences which act something like one of those tool kits with the different bits and sockets that can be changed out.  The basic genetic sequence is about the same, but can be easily modified to fit different needs.  This would accelerate the process of evolution as slight mutations in these genetic sequences are far more likely to be useful than completely random mutations spread over the entire genetic sequence.

Anyhow, there’s your science lesson for the day.  Hopefully I didn’t mangle it too badly.  🙂

10 year old boys are right: word problems are evil!

A couple of years ago, I stopped trying to get my older son to do word problems. He just didn’t get them. Plus, they often required really convoluted thinking to figure out. I decided that once he knew algebra and knew how to create equations, we’d give them another try. Now he’s in algebra and we’re starting to re-introduce them. Knowing how to create an equation definitely makes it much easier to do word problems.

New research seems to back up my decision to drop word problems. Researchers have conducted experiments which showed that students who were taught the abstract concepts underlying math problems, without real world examples were better able to apply what they learned than those who were taught using real world examples.

So, I guess all the kids who have ever looked at a problem about two trains leaving the station, traveling in opposite directions and said, “this is dumb!” might be right.

HT: Joanne Jacobs

What’s dumber than a gorilla with a bunch of bananas?

A school administrator, of course! I think they perform lobotomies on students in school administration programs. A school outside of Chicago suspended 11 students for taking part in a senior prank where a kid dressed like a gorilla chased 10 classmates dressed like bananas through the halls. From the story:

Senior Andrew Leinonen, who will study criminal justice at Carthage College this fall, wanted to do something that wouldn’t damage property or hurt anyone, while still being hilarious.

“What’s funnier than a gorilla chasing bananas through a school? Nothing,” Leinonen said. “It was a harmless prank.”

Leinonen — who played the role of the gorilla — went on a recruiting mission, quickly finding 10 guys willing to pay $30 for a banana costume. The group drew up a plan and picked a route. They planned to wear black pantyhose on their heads to remain anonymous, and even planned for escape vehicles.

The boys entered the school’s main entrance around noon last Thursday and made their way through the English and science hallways before running into a crowded lunch room and then out a back door. All the while they flailed their arms and yelled “Seniors ’08.”

Under the rules covering “serious pranks”. The boys were given a 7 day suspension. Kids fighting in the halls get a 5 day suspension. I know that as a tax paying parent, I’m so flipping glad that the geniuses running our schools know how to protect children from the grave dangers posed by humor. Did I mention that school administrators score lower on the GRE than almost any other profession?

This goes straight into my file of stories I look at when I need a reminder about why we homeschool.

HT: Joanne Jacobs