Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sunday School Stew

No, not that kind of stew. Not the Sunday church kind of School, either. No, my Sunday School Stew is based on the following definitions:

Sunday, n., day of the week before Monday.
School, n., where my kid is supposed to learn stuff.
Stew, n., agitation resulting from active worry.

Read on, if you can take a lengthy rant about my frustration with my son's education (or lack of education). And please, if you have any ideas that might be helpful, leave them in the comments section.

My daughter flew through Kindergarten and First Grade. My son, not so much.

He is a smart kid (sometimes a little too much of a smart-alec), and he has a good memory in general, especially for social information. For example, the week he started preschool, his teacher talked about a horse she had when she was a kid. She did not mention the horse again. Three months later, he asked her whatever happened to her horse. She did not remember even mentioning the horse and asked him how he knew she had a horse. He said, "Miss L, you told us about your horse when I was new here." He can also spout a ton of information about his favorite Bakugan characters and what they can do. Clearly, he can remember information if it is important to him.

But he has a few problems my daughter did not have.

First, I think he is a little ADD or ADHD. He often has trouble sitting still for very long - although he is able to focus and build fairly complex things with his legos and Lincoln logs. My mom (a licensed Ph.D psychologist) has been doing some testing with him and says the tests definitely indicate at least mild ADD / ADHD. His ability level consistently tracks significantly above average, and tracks well above his achievement level (which is below average), and he has trouble focusing on boring tasks for extended periods of time.

I hesitate to have him officially diagnosed, as I'm not sure what good that would do. IEP's can be a good thing, but they can also be trouble with a capital T, as I've discovered with some of the cases I've been litigating on behalf of some clients lately. And I'm not sure yet about the medication issue. I know it is good for a lot of kids, and it might be right for my son, but I'd like to try other solutions before turning to labeling and medication.

Second - and I think a much bigger factor - is that I think he did not get the same fundamental drilling and instruction that my daughter had in Kindergarten, and I think he's not getting solid instruction now, either. When my daughter was in Kindergarten, they sat in a group and said aloud the letters and sounds every single day. They also did the number chart every single day, counting by ones, then fives, then tens, learning to add by ones and tens. The letter and number charts were prominently displayed in the room. I never saw a letter or number chart in my son's Kindergarten classroom (he is at a different school, supposedly a better school than the one my daughter attended). They sent home a letter chart, but he insisted his teacher said he did not have to do the letter combinations and sounds on the back (initial letter combinations and dipthongs such as ch, sh, ph, ou, ow, oi, ie, and fundamental building blocks like -ing, etc). He has trouble recognizing and reading those sounds now, in First Grade.

Third, he has an older sister who is hyper-competitive and cannot stand to think that her little brother might know something she does not, so she constantly tells him he "can't do" things and points out things that she knows that he does not. As a result, he is not motivated to try something if he does not immediately know it. I think he is afraid he'll be teased if he's wrong. I've tried everything with my daughter to get her to quit treating him this way, and she's getting better about it, but the damage will take a while to undo.

He had troubles learning to read last year. He didn't even want to try. I worked and worked at it and finally got him motivated to try. We did the letter charts, and then got out the "Dick and Jane" book. (Literally. It's cringe-worthy, but effective). Once he tried, he saw that he could do it and became more motivated. We still read every night for at least 15 minutes. He reads me a story, then I read him one. Sometimes he gets so excited, he wants to read me two stories. He still has trouble with some sounds, but his reading is much improved and he is tracking along at grade level, at least.

This year, he has had problems with spelling. He is at least motivated to try, but has a lot of trouble with it. His grades are ok, in part because I spend 15 minutes every morning working on his spelling with him. I talk to him about the sounds certain letter combinations make and we practice the words with those combinations, sometimes even making up other words. For example, if "ball" and "wall" are on the list, I'll ask him how to spell "mall" and "call," and he can do it. But when the teacher puts old words from a week or two prior on this week's list, it is like they are new words for him. He has to learn them all over again. What's with that?

I asked his teacher about it. I asked what method she's using in class to teach spelling so I can reinforce it more effectively at home. She said, "well, it seems to me you just have to memorize how to spell all the words." She also said she is having trouble keeping all the kids in line, having them pay attention to the spelling lessons.

Holy cow, no wonder the kid is having trouble. If she's truly not giving the kids any spelling rules, just random lists of words to spell, no wonder it's so hard for him. I mean, can you imagine memorizing the spelling of all the hundreds of thousands of words in the English language with no guidance at all about how certain sounds are generally spelled?!? And no wonder he seems to tune me out when I talk about spelling rules. It probably seems to him like random boring stuff mom has come up with, not relevant to what his teacher told him at school about just needing to memorize the words.

So, I'm working on that. We'll do flashcards with the words. We'll talk about spelling rules (even if I have to look up a bunch of stuff on the internet to make sure I'm remembering things correctly). Eventually, hopefully, he'll "get it" and have an easier time with spelling.

But now it turns out he's having issues with math, too. This week, his teacher wants him to memorize math facts such as 2+2=4, 3+3=6, 4+4=8, and so forth up to 9+9=18, plus 10+1=11 up to 10+1=19. But again, she seems not to have provided any foundation of rules or a method of understanding what it means to "add" these particular numbers. Maybe he was supposed to learn that in Kindergarten and it's not her "job" to teach it? I really don't know.

I just know that when I asked my son about it, he seemed to have no concept of what it means to "add" four plus four. I showed him 4 fingers on one hand and 4 fingers on the other hand, and he can count up to 8 and answer. But then I asked, "what's 5 plus 5" and he had no idea how to do that. And forget about 9 plus 9 - there aren't enough fingers for that one, even if he did understand the concept!

So, I made him a number chart on Friday (he said he had not seen one like it before) and we played with it all weekend. We started by simply identifying random numbers on the chart. He couldn't do it consistently at first but we practiced and now he can. Then we practiced "adding 1" to given numbers. He finally seemed to "get it." So we practiced "adding 2" to numbers. He finally could do that, too. We talked about what it means to "count by ones." Then we talked about what it means to "count by fives." We practiced counting by 5's, which he can now do. We practiced "adding 10" to given numbers, and he seems to "get" that, too. He seems to finally understand the relationships between the numbers on the chart - this one is one more than that one; this one is ten more than that one. He even counted by fives up to 200, even though the chart only goes to 100.

But he still hasn't memorized this week's math facts. He can do all the 10+x problems up to 19. After having practiced with the number chart, he "gets" it that all you have to do is replace the 0 with the number you're adding to 10. But having spent a couple of hours just learning to count properly by ones and fives and tens (things he should have learned in Kindergarten, I think!), we didn't have time to learn how to add the other numbers or to memorize the fact that 9+9=18. And those problems aren't as obvious from the chart, either.

And I'm not sure how to explain much more. I don't feel qualified to teach elementary mathematics. I was good at math in school, but I'm not trained to teach it, and first grade was too long ago - I don't remember what my teachers did to teach me. My husband is a teacher, but he teaches sixth grade, not first. Plus, he seems to think the school should teach our son and we shouldn't have to. I agree in principle, but if it's not happening, then what should I do, just sit there and watch him fall further behind?

I am a little resentful. If I wanted to home-school my son, I would have done that. But as it is, I have a job. I can't stay home all day to home-school the kids and I don't really want to. I want my kids to interact with the other kids and to be exposed to a variety of teachers and cultures and ideas.

And, done right, school (with the variety of teachers trained for different subjects such as math and music and P.E. and so forth) should be able to teach the kids more, and more effectively, than I could.

Plus, it's not fair to my son to have to go to school all day and then come home for another hour of lessons, plus 15 minutes of spelling every morning.

He has above-average intelligence. He sometimes lacks focus, but I have had very little trouble getting him to focus on math or spelling for 15 to 30 minutes at a time, and he learns the information fairly quickly when he focuses. I want the school system to teach him what he needs to know, but so far, it doesn't seem to be happening.

I'll be visiting the classroom to see exactly what the teacher does all day with the kids and to offer assistance. If the instruction seems appropriate but she truly is overwhelmed with a lot of behavior problems, maybe I can round up some parent volunteers (including me) to take turns coming in every day to help keep the kids in line so she can teach. And if the problem seems to be that my son isn't listening / paying attention, not that she's not teaching, then I'll keep supplementing and consider the ADD issue further. But if the instruction seems to be lacking, and it's not about behavior problems with the kids and/or my son, then I'll talk with her and/or with the principal about what she could do to teach spelling and math more effectively.

But meanwhile, does anyone know anything about teaching basic math to 6 year olds? Any good web sites I can look at? Any ideas for teaching addition?

Or am I crazy for thinking First Graders should learn math theory? Should I just use the flash cards and have him "just memorize" the basic math facts, as his teacher seems to want? If that is the recommended method, the thing that all schools do and that all kids need to do, then that's what we'll do.... it just seems to me like you'd explain the concepts first and teach how to add, and what it means to add, not just have kids memorize random facts. But maybe I'm just nuts.

Does anyone have any other ideas for what I can do to help my son learn - not just math, but spelling, too?


thenerdqueen said...

My mom, who's been a public school teacher for 20 years, tries to teach all math concepts at least 3 different ways, to help her kids "get it". Flashcards to memorize, manipulatives (like beans) to count and add, number lines (NOT charts - going back down to 11, 21, 31, etc. can be very confusing.) can all help your son with this concept.

As far as spelling, as long as your son's teacher is using a standard textbook, there should be some sort of sound breakout (ex. the -ar words or sort i's).

How many kids are in your son's classroom? Most of the time, when a problem happens in classroom management, it's because there are too many kids for one person to both handle and teach.

Have you talked to the teacher about your concerns? That's probably the first thing that needs to be done - it's amazing how many parents DON'T go talk to their child's teacher when they have a concern. Perhaps some communication there could really help the situation. At worst, the teacher may be able to find some additional worksheets or have an opinion on the ADD question.

I hope everything goes well with your son and don't fret too much.

Gaston Studio said...

Yep, you need to check out the teacher!
When my second daughter started kindergarden, she came home one day with a note pinned to her dress, telling me that she was a bad child as she didn't pay attention.
I paid the teacher a visit and after much discussion, I went straight to the principal. My daughter happened to be bored, and after she finished the assigned work, she would read if she had something to read, or fidget, if she didn't.
This was the teacher's first year of teaching and she didn't recognize a gifted child when she saw one and automatically labeled her incorrectly.
The teacher was fired and my daughter finished kindergarden in a special class with others like herself, with top grades.
So check it out, thoroughly.

Green said...

I have so much to say. But, in a nutshell...

1. Is your son's teacher an older woman? She seems to want to teach by rote, which is an older style of teaching.

2. If this is the way he is taught, he will not have a comprehensive understanding of how to read or do math. So, he will have 500 words memorized, but god forbid he comes across a new word, he will have no concept of how to sound it out.

3. I think his teacher sucks. I vote for changing his class to a different one.

4. Feingold Diet. Look into it for ADD/ADHD. Neither my brother nor I have ever taken medication, just gone by the diet. If you see enough that you're interested, email me and I can give you a lot more specifics on how to easily figure out what foods work and don't. It's a much easier diet to follow now than in the 80's when health food stores didn't exist.

5. IEP. Honestly, if you get him a better teacher and he gets a handle on feeling too hyper to focus, he may wind up not needing one. However, please consider for every IEP lawsuit that comes your way, there are probably over 100 IEPs swimmingly being handled. YOU ONLY SEE THE PROBLEMS, you know? It's like when I worked in the complaint dept of a furniture store, and I concluded one day that nobody should buy the furniture because clearly, it sucked.

6. Teach math with food. Or baseball cards or whatever kind of cards he collects. Or pebbles. The point is something he can touch. Teach spelling with words he's interested in that are simple. They can be long, they just have to have no silent letters. Football. Basketball. Baseball. Hoop. Throw. Foot. Arm. When you see him getting frustrated and antsy, stop the lesson, and have him skip around a room or frog hop back and forth three times or do pushups - anything to get the energy out. I taught my friend's 6 year old (1st grade) to spell "kitchen" by skipping around our apartment building while spelling out the letters in a singsong voice.

7. Stop telling your son he's smart. Instead, praise him for his efforts when he repeatedly tries things. When kids are told they are smart, they understand it as things should be easy, not as they are smart enough to tackle more complicated ideas. Say things like, "I knew if you tried you'd get it!" and "Wow, trying again really paid off this time!" and "Good effort" rather than "Good job, you're so smart!". Enough other people will tell him he's smart.

8. Go hardcore with your daughter. Tell her to compete with people her own age/size, and punish her where it hurts every time she competes with your son. Charge her a quarter each time or something (you can put it in a bank account for her or take her for ice cream once a week or whatever - she doesn't have to know).

9. This is the longest comment ever left on any blog in the entire world.

Raine said...

Wow. Everything I was gonna say has already been said. So I second all that above me.

Dora said...

Hi there, Janice sent me a link to your blog to see if I could offer you anything else. I have an education and behavioral Psych background.

First, you are doing well! Be proud of yourself. The most important gift you can give is a parent that clearly cares. Your son will remember that.

A horrible teacher at 1st grade is painful. My daughter also had one and I did not do enough to supplement. It took me until the end of 3rd grade to have her back on track. You are saving yourself many hours by putting in the time now.

Definitely do everything you are doing. Look into the classroom. Work with your daughter. Read daily with your son.

With the work, I would suggest heading to your local school store and grabbing a couple of workbooks for 1st grade. They have colorful pages and will help with spelling and math rules. They are also easy to have your son do while you work on dinner or other tasks. Additionally, they can give him small bites which will work well with increasing his attention span.

Constructive praise is your best weapon. Success breeds success. Make certain that it is real so you do not lose your credibility with him. Every third day, give him something new to improve on. Small items like writing a certain letter neater.

Finally, find a way to make learning fun and REAL. Help mommy with dinner--get 4 potatoes and 4 tomatoes. oh how many things do you have there? Right, 4+4 is 8. Thanks, honey. He is clearly very auditory in learning (horse story) so it will click if he hears it repeatedly.

my email addy is Please ask anytime about anything. I am happy to help you brainstorm ideas.

You are clearly an amazing mom!

Kristen said...

I can totally relate to your concerns with the ADD/ADHD. My daughter is in third grade and this is the second year we've gotten "the talk" during parent teacher conferences. Academically she is doing fine (this year, last year not so much) and we don't want to medicate, so just put it on the back burner and worry. It is hard to know the right thing to do, as with all parenting.

LOLA said...

I realize it's been a long time since you wrote this post. How is your son doing in school now? I'd love it if you wrote an update. My kids had sucky teachers and principals throughout school and my daughter was especially miserable and bored. Some of her teachers were downright hostile toward her because having a student who needs more of anything takes extra time. Then my daughter decided she wanted to attend a private high school (ritzy prep school in Pennsylvania) we could not afford. I said, If you want to go, then make it happen. She did. She applied, got a great scholarship, everything. I should have helped her more instead of worrying about the cost and about getting her there because it was a great school. Class sizes were so much smaller (usually about 10 - 12 students/class) and the teachers were so much better. Almost every teacher had a master's or Ph.D. and not one single teacher had a degree in education. The teachers knew so much more about what they were teaching than the public school teachers. She loved her teachers, loved school, met kids from all over the world, and ended up valedictorian. Went to a great college and at 21 came home from England with a master's in math from Cambridge and a lovely British boyfriend who is also a mathematician. Now she's getting her Ph.D. in math at a big name school. Sometimes the right private school or magnet school can make a huge difference. I want all kids to get the kind of education she received. It shouldn't have to take going to another state and attending a school that costs $30,000/year.