Friday, December 4, 2015

First semester review of Art of Problem Solving PreAlgebra Online course

I think one of the hardest things to decide on is a math curriculum when homeschooling, especially when hitting the middle school years. In our homeschool, middle school starts in the 5th grade, or when a child reaches PreAlgebra. For us that was this year with my then nine year old, Speedster. This is going to be an in-depth review of the first semester of the Art of Problem Solving online Prealgebra course.

Speedster has always been a "mathy" kid. I have tried to choose challenging programs for him, but never really found the right "fit" until we got to 4th grade last year. The combination of CTC Math and Beast Academy was good for him. It was the first time he really had to think about what he was doing in his math work. He worked through Beast Academy 4A - 4D and CTC Math 5th and 6th grade. Beast Academy did not have the 5th grade series ready for this school year, so we decided to make the leap to Art of Problem Solving PreAlgebra.

Let me start by saying the book is huge and even a little intimidating. The book itself is over 500 pages (not including the separate solutions manual), and lots of words. That can be a bit intimating for a severe dyslexic, even a profoundly gifted one. But, I knew the time was right for him to begin this program. My husband and I talked and decided to enroll him in the online program and purchase a copy of the online text as well.

I cannot say how happy I am with that decision. First, we definitely needed the text copy of the book. Speedster participates in a math circle and they use this textbook as their guide, so I am not disappointed with the purchase of the text. That said, the online version of the text is amazing! There are a couple of reasons why I truly love the online version of the book. The first is because the videos that are aligned with each chapter of the text are embedded in the book. So, no searching through video files and wondering if you are watching the correct one, the video that you need for an additional explanation is right there waiting for you. Second is that practice problems located in the book can be answered in the online text. Once you answer the question (and only after you answer the question) you can click, "take me to the solution" and you will be able to immediately compare your answer to the solution(s) provided.

Okay, enough about the book, now on to the actual online class. I believe all classes are offered in the evenings. This is because many students that take these courses are traditionally schooled students looking for additional challenge or preparing for math competitions. Class sizes are relatively large for an online program, Speedster's class has around 25 students. However, class size is never an issue.

The first component is the live session. The live session runs 1 1/4 hours (for us the class is 6:30 PM - 7:45 PM) one night a week. This was a bit tough on Speedster at first as he wasn't used to having an academic class so late in the day, but he learned to manage the time quickly. The live sessions have a lead teacher as well as teaching assistants. Teaching assistants are there to help students with questions in real time. For instance, the lead teacher will ask a question. Answers do not appear automatically on the screen. All students submit answers and only some of those that provided the correct answer will come on the screen. Those who did not provide a correct answer or who seem to be struggling a bit will have a private window that opens where the teaching assistant will help to guide them through the concept. This is brilliant as it ensures students who need help receive it and there is no shame associated with needing a bit more guidance. Because answers are put on the screen quickly, it also encourages students to answer fast when they can - so they can see their name on the screen. While there is no grade or points associated with getting your name on the screen, I have seen it be a motivator for my son to really pay close attention in class and try to be ready to answer questions.

Transcripts are provided for each online session, so if a student misses a session for some reason, they can read the transcript and be caught up with the rest of the class. It is also nice for students to be able to look back through the transcript if they need a refresher on something that was covered in class, or maybe misunderstood. It is nice to be able to go back through examples that were worked in class as they sometimes come up in the homework.

Let me talk a bit about names on the screen. Another great aspect of the online course is that real names are not used. So, the child is allowed to maintain their privacy, plus have a bit of fun with their name. My son chose to keep his online persona of Speedster and his name fit right in with the other names of students in the course.

The largest chunk of work comes from the "homework" associated with the course. In addition to the questions answered in the chapter sections preparing for class, students are provided with two other types of homework - Challenge Problems and Alcumus Problems.

Challenge Problems are just that, those problems that push a little beyond the concepts covered in the text. They are the same type of problem, but they require the student to extrapolate the concept just beyond what was covered in class. Most problems are word problems, which push the student to apply mathematical concepts learned in the text. These problems are graded automatically. How it works is the student will work out the problem and provide their answer, the right answer and solution for working out the problem will not appear until the correct answer is provided. However, there is a "Give up" button that can be pushed when the student feels they have reached their limit and they need to see the problem worked out. I love that the solution is not provided until the correct answer is provided because Speedster has found on several occasions that he took a longer way of answering the problem than was needed. This course is teaching him beautifully to become a more efficient and proficient problem solver. He is learning that it isn't just about getting the right answer, but "how" you get the right answer is important as well. He is also learning that their are often several efficient and correct ways of getting the answer. This isn't a cookie cutter approach to solving problems, this course is all about teaching mathematical thinking.

After about the 2nd or 3rd week of first semester, a writing problem is also required each week as part of the Challenge Problems. These problems require that the student not only answer the question, but explain their answer. These written problems are graded by a real, live person and feedback is robust. The student is given both a technical and stylistic grade. I have found the grades to be very tough, but very, very fair. The graders are very proficient in using the "sandwich" version of feedback. They first acknowledge what the student did correct, then discuss what was incorrect or incomplete, then finish with appropriate praise and encouragement. This is needed because the written problems go beyond anything I have ever seen in a math course, especially one with such young students (Speedster is not the only 5th grader in the course, there are many). For instance, Speedster is slowly learning to think beyond just the "right" answer the pops into his head. Often times the written questions ask students to explore "all possibilities" for a concept. One of the first lessons Speedster learned was to not forget about negative numbers when coming up with possible answers. Another great lesson learned was having ideas about concepts that were just on outside the edge of being correct. For instance, he once answered with a solution that would be correct in "most" instances, but there were some rare instances in which his solution would not be correct. Although they were times he probably wouldn't encounter for the next several years of mathematics, he learned that there are going to be some concepts in the future for which is assumption would be wrong. I love that he is being pushed to think outside of the silos of the math course he is currently in and to be reminded that mathematics concepts build upon one another, speak to each other, inform each other. He is learning the beauty in numbers. The second grade is a stylistic grade, it is based on using proper grammar and mathematics notations. Again, I love this! He is seeing that his grammar lessons do, in fact, have an impact in other areas and if he does want to truly become an aerospace engineer/black hawk pilot/wildlife researcher - he needs to write well just as much as he needs to know mathematics deeply. All hail the cosmos for getting confirmation that scientific minds still need the social sciences!

The second component of homework is Alcumus, which is an adaptive program that covers a more traditional scope and sequence of problems. One thing you will learn about the Art of Problem Solving is that it doesn't look or perform like traditional math courses. You cover things in a sequence that may feel unfamiliar. Also, there is going to be some assumption of proficiency in some topics or students will need to work on some of the more basic math functions outside of what is covered in the text. Behold, Alcumus! Alcumus is wonderful because it adapts to the skill level of the student. It basically assumes a level of proficiency, but if a student gets the problem wrong, it will automatically go back a level and let the student "catch up". However, this is done without it being obvious for the student. There is a colored bar that shows the student where they are in the concept. Red means the concept is unexplored, orange means they are working on the concept, green means they are proficient enough to move on to something new. If they want, they can continue to work and to blue, which means they have mastered the concept. This program is great and really squelched any fear of "gaps" with having such a young student jump to pre algebra in 5th grade for me.

This online program has been a great fit for Speedster. Now, when it comes to reviews there is often times a component of recommendation. So, the question is - would I recommend the Art of Problem Solving online course? The answer is, it depends. This course is amazing for a very specific type of student. The student must be both great in math and also really enjoy math. If a student that was great in math, but didn't enjoy math and enjoy struggling with math to get the correct answer - this course would be a disaster. A perfectionist that always has to be 100% "right" is not going to fare well, because it is really close to impossible to get 100% on the written problems, mainly because they are introducing the student to concepts that it is assumed are well beyond their current level of knowledge. On the reverse side, if a child enjoys math, but isn't great (not good, great) - they can also get discouraged. This class is asking students to again do things that are just beyond what they should be capable of. This class is designed to challenge students that are already exceptional math students. This isn't a class to "teach" pre algebra, this is a class designed to teach the theoretical framework that defines the rules in which preAlgebra operates. This isn't a class of "how" or even "what", it is a class of "why". If your child really needs to spend a significant time on the "how" of things like dividing negative fractions that include exponents, it may be a bit much to ask them to also uncover the theoretical rules driving the why behind that concept as well. The class also moves quickly, so if your child needs a lot of time to digest concepts, the online course may not be a good fit. The book self paced may be excellent, but the course itself moves online with the assumption that the student is moving along with it.  However, if you have a mathy kid that you just haven't been able to keep challenge and you know they want and need more - this is the course for you! Well worth every dollar spent.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Duality - A different face of gifted

When being both/and seems inconsistent with reality.....

Being two different and seemingly opposite things can be hard, being Twice Exceptional or 2E is no exception to this rule of nature. In this video I talk about another "face" of gifted, one that is often misunderstood and seldom discussed with depth or openly invited to participate in the world of gifted. Today, I try to give a bit of a voice to what it is like homeschooling and parenting twice exceptional children.

Thank you for taking the time to visit my blog. Please take a moment to visit others participating in the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum blog hop.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Why #IStandwithAhmed is so Important

The story has now gone viral of a young man, a tinkerer, a maker, an inventor - being arrested at school. The story can be found far and wide, but the short version is 14 year old Ahmed Mohamed built a clock at home in his spare time. He was proud of his invention and took it to school to show one of his teachers. The clock was in his backpack in English class and started to beep. The English teacher asked what it was and when Ahmed pulled it out, the teacher assumed it was a bomb. Ahmed was sent to the principal's office, the police were called, and Ahmed was led out in handcuffs and taken to a detention center. You can read more of the story here:

Why such a big response to a kid inventor? It is pretty clear from the report that the response from the school and the police department were the direct result of Ahmed being a Muslim student. In the mind of his English teacher, the principal, the arresting officers, and even the police chief - it was reasonable to assume that Ahmed would make a bomb, but not a clock.

This assumption of ill intention, criminality, of having people really and truly believe the worst in you is a common thing faced by many Black/Brown children and teenagers. While there is no official claim by his family that Ahmed is gifted, he has a hobby that is common to many gifted children, including my own, being a builder, a maker, a tinkerer, and an inventor.

When I first heard the story, my heart sank. I was immediately transported back to the time when I was standing in a room at the daycare center, being told that my eldest, who was 9 month old at the time, was showing signs of violence and aggression. I was shocked and horrified; not my loving little guy! As I prodded to see exactly what behavior the teacher was referring to I was told that he was throwing balls at children and adults. I asked them to demonstrate and they tossed the ball the same way I had seen my son do many times. I asked them a simple question, "Did you ever catch the ball and throw it back?" No, they hadn't. My son had been playing catch with his father for a few weeks, he just wanted to play catch with his daycare teacher and peers. Instead of assuming my little 9 month old baby was smart enough, bright enough, to know how to play catch, they assumed he was a thug in a diaper and was trying to use the little foam ball as a weapon against his teachers and his other classmates. They never saw a gifted child, just a criminal in the making. I was able to advocate for my son and he got his first "grade skip" out of the baby room and into the toddler room with his "peers" who were all playing catch, even though they were all twice his age. It was the first of many grade skips, then I was tired of advocating and fighting against negative stereotypes and we finally brought all three children home.

Seeing Ahmed in handcuffs, I saw my worst fear in front of me. I saw in his expression of fear and confusion the face of my own three makers. I saw the very reason why we had to pull them out of the traditional school system and bring them home to a safe environment. An environment where they can make contraptions and no one assume they are making weapons. Home - where they can explore chemistry and no one assume they are trying to play Jr. terrorist. A place where they can invent and tinker and no one view their innocent hobbies with distrust, or assume their intentions are anything but pure creativity to be applauded and encouraged. But, most Black and Brown makers, inventors, and tinkerers aren't home. Most are not in a safe environment where their passion for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math is encouraged and allowed to thrive and grow. It is for Ahmed and the many children and teens like him that we must show solidarity - across racial and religious lines. This isn't about standing with one young Muslim child that was judged not on the basis of his brilliance, but of negative stereotypes of his religion, but for standing with the thousands of children just like him being viewed with suspicion and distrust, having their innocent passions crushed in a school-to-prison pipeline that can't seem to be plugged with enough force to make it stop for good. Ahmed has gotten support from across the world, including the President of the United States. I am overwhelmed with joy, but there are more like him that we still need to support and encourage.

When I saw Ahmed in a video talking about his clock, I couldn't help but think of Benjamin Banneker and his wooden clock he made with his own hands. It has been a long time since a clock maker changed the way the world viewed him and those of his faith and/or ethnicity. Ahmed, we stand with you today and we look forward to seeing all of your great inventions in the future! Keep making my friend!

Friday, June 12, 2015

F16 Parenting - that space between

Photo: By Limkopi at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

I get asked quite a bit about our "parenting philosophy" and I finally started to describe it as being an "F16 Parent". This is somewhere between the concept of the "Helicopter Parent" and the "Free Range Parent". In a nutshell, we give lots of freedom - with a ton of back-up "fire power" if there is the need for intervention. You never know when that safe Bruce Banner loses his mind and goes all Hulk Smash, putting your child in harms way! Here is a video where I give a more in-depth description of what an F16 Parent means to us!

Well, I am off to finish helping my 9 year old pack for his 3 week adventure and polishing up the fighter jet in case it's needed for "reinforcement"

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Is Every Child Gifted?

The picture above is a box of "giftedness". Apparently all children have this magically box, some are just told they can't have theirs just yet. Is that helpful or just plain cruel?

Every few months there comes about a blog post or a FB meme stating "Every child is gifted." The latest one rolling around in social media land states, "Every child is gifted, they just unwrap their packages at different times." These memes never answer the question of what do we call children that learn and absorb information at a much higher rate than what we would expect to find in the human population? What should we do with those children? Should we require them to sit in the same class as all the other children (since everyone is gifted) and stare at the wall while everyone else tries to learn what they mastered two years ago? Should we require them to help the teacher get the other students up to their level, using them as unpaid tutors and teacher's aides? Should we give them extra work as punishment for finishing early? Should we tell them "you aren't so smart" and try to find things they suck at in order to embarrass them and bring them down a few pegs? I ask because, these are ALL things that happen when people with the premise that "every child is gifted" are put in charge of the education of gifted children. It becomes a mission to prove that kid really isn't that bright.

If everyone "unwraps their package at different times", why do we make the kids that have already "unwrapped their package" sit and wait while other people try to figure out how to unwrap theirs? Even worse, do the kids who haven't "unwrapped their package" sit around frustrated because everyone is telling them, "You're just as good as Little Johnny, just get that package unwrapped!" while they struggle with concepts that are appropriate for them to be struggling with at that time. Telling EVERY kid that are just as "gifted" as the math genius sitting next to them, or the spelling whiz in the class next door, or the kid down the hall that just got the patent for an invention then sets the precedent that EVERY kid is actually expected to be a math genius or a spelling whiz or a peer reviewed published scientist by the time they reach middle school. What happens when they aren't, but everyone keeps telling them they should be? Have you seen the pressure being put on kids today? Thank the "every child is gifted" folks for that.

Here is the point I think is missed with these "everyone is gifted" commentaries - most people aren't gifted - and they are doing fine in life! Not every leading scientist if gifted. Not every mathematician is gifted. Not every prima ballerina is gifted. Not every spelling bee champ is gifted. A non gifted child can STILL graduate with a 4.5, get a full ride scholarship to a top university, and lead a happy and fulfilling life. Being gifted may put a child ahead in "school" (sometimes), but it by no means puts them ahead in life. What is the point of telling a child they are gifted, just a "late bloomer" when there is absolutely zero lifetime advantage from being gifted? For every Einstein there are thousands of gifted people that became scientists whose names we never, ever read about - because they never did anything "notable". Just like for every Michael Jordan there are thousands of athletically superior basketball players that never played competitively after high school, or just did "okay" in college, or never made it off the bench in the NBA. And then you have the scores of people that played the hand they were dealt and we know their story as well. We know their name because they did something notable in this world.

The problem is - we assume EVERY successful scientist, mathematician, engineer, artist, playwright, etc. is/was "gifted". We have determined that in order to be amazingly successful one must be "gifted". This is the greatest tragedy in the entire debate of whether every child is "gifted". Instead of the conversation being "every child is gifted", why can't we say, "Not every child is gifted, but given the most appropriate tools, attention, experience, and opportunity - every child can be amazing." Gifted is not a one way ticket to an amazing life, it isn't even a head start. Gifted children need different things in their education simply because the way they process information and navigate the world is different. If not provided with those appropriate tools - we limit their chance at being "amazing" - whatever that means for them. It is also true that by trying to force fit children that fit the normal curve of human intelligence into a gifted box and push them in ways that work for gifted kids, but don't work for others - we limit their chance of being amazing - whatever that means for them.

The next time someone finds themselves spouting that "every child is gifted", ask yourself why. Maybe you should think about how harmful it is to a child to tell them they are simply "waiting to unwrap their gift". You are telling them they aren't good enough right now, the way they are. You are telling them they are incomplete and their true self is in a box somewhere - waiting to be let out. You are telling them that they don't currently have what it takes to be good, let alone great. You are telling them the ability to be amazing is somehow off limits and out of reach for them until this mysterious box of "gifted" is unwrapped at some later time. You have, in fact, done the opposite of what your whole "gifted" meme was trying to portray. Instead of telling every child they are special, you have told 90% of all children (because only around 10% of the population would be clinically classified as gifted) that they are behind, stunted in growth, late to bloom, inferior, and in a holding pattern for intelligence and success. You have told them that who they are, today, right now - isn't good enough. And, with the premise that they are the ones who "unwrap" this gift - you have told them it is all their fault.

Please visit:

Friday, April 24, 2015

Depth - the Gifted Child's Number One Passion

"Help your child find their passion!" We all tend to hear these words in one way or another. I remember being able to rattle off the areas of passion for my three gifted children. However, I noticed something. As they got older (and by older I am talking the 5 - 7 age range), their passions seemed to be changing. They would pick something up for three months, then seem to just toss it to the side. However, about a year later they would come back to that discarded topic and start right back where they left off.
At first I got frustrated, but then I realized something. They stuck with a topic until they reached a point where learning more would take skills beyond what they had at that moment. Maybe they would need mathematical concepts they had not yet mastered, maybe they would need a level of abstract reasoning abilities beyond their current level of maturity. Whatever it was, they seemed to know when they hit their limit of what they could understand. What was interesting - if they couldn't learn more, if they couldn't learn deeper - they would rather walk away until they could. Surface level knowledge and understanding just wasn't enough for them.
This is one thing that seems to really set apart gifted children, especially highly to profoundly gifted children. It isn't so much having a passion, it is the way they go about pursuing their passion. The absolute drive to see as deeply inside an object, an area of study, even an idea - is unrelenting.
As our homeschooling journey continues, I am seeing our homeschool diverge even from those we had been traveling with for a while. Other homeschoolers seemed to be able to move swiftly from one topic to another. It might be hydraulics one week and dissections the next. People would look at us and say, "Your kid is still working on solar ovens? We did a solar oven three years ago!"
This expression of surprise was the key to my understanding just how the differences of gifted children manifest in those middle years. It wasn't enough for my eldest to build a solar oven. He had to study it, to see how he could get it to work more efficiently. He had to work with designs and invent new components that he hadn't seen tried before. It was never enough to simply "do" and move on. He couldn't move on until he understood as much as he could; and yes, three years later he is still working on solar ovens. He is also still working on geography, still working on studies of weasels, still working on learning about the environment. My daughter is still working on astronomy. People seemed a bit surprised - "Didn't she do a report on the eight planets when she was five years old, including telling us why Pluto got demoted? Isn't she done?" No, she isn't. At seven years old she understands there are years and years of things left for her to learn. And yes, she is still studying animals and nature. Her twin brother is still, two years later, reading the same book on "building" - he truly wants to understand what it is going to take to be an inventor, a builder, a creator.
I can't name just one passion they have, but I can articulate their number one passion - depth. To other people it looks like my children have simple jumped into a few small puddles - they don't understand that while the surface area of those puddles are small, those puddles are miles deep. My kids can't be finished with a topic by simply completing a project or report - they can't leave until there is nothing more that can be known with their capacity to understand in that moment.
I get we might be left behind while other people move from one project to the next. That is okay - I am focusing on letting my kids pursue their passion.