Saturday, March 28, 2015

Parenting Month 53: When Eagles fly

T's major events for the month were taking a trip and our first experience with high stakes testing.  By all accounts both went quite well. T has always been a good traveler, and the high stakes testing experience was one that was sane.

On their way to a flight
We need to go that way to get on our plane
This month was noted by mommy taking a work trip to Las Vegas, and we took T out of day care for the week and had him go along. Auntie P also went along, having been to Las Vegas before, but not in the company of a 4-year old. So amid lots of walking in the hotel, through a casino, to other hotels on the strip, we got many comments that he was a good traveler, standing patiently through many lines, and doing his job of pulling his own bag around and staying with mommy (or auntie). The flight itself was spent reading and playing. Even when tired, the worst he got was asking for a carry. It would be hard to expect any better from a pre-schooler. This was another instance where we pulled the 'you need to be a very good boy' on him prior to the trip. Of course, he also knew when the trip was over, so he reverted back to normal (which is still pretty good, but there is a notable difference. Weeks like this are where we want to ask if we can keep this child :-)

The other major event for the month was kindergarten testing. This is known as high-stakes testing in the pre-elementary world, because the test is being used to make choices on admission into a school.  Because T's birthday is in October, he would not be eligible for kindergarten next fall in our school district. Since he started pre-Kindergarten in November, that would imply that he has to repeat a year of something, either he takes Kindergarten next year at our daycare (which does offer Kindergarten) and then goes to Kindergarten again (when he is eligible for Kindergarten) or he repeats pre-K at the day care and goes to Kindergarten when he is eligible.  While there are arrangements to test into pre-K at the local school district, word on the street is that almost no one passes (to get into Kindergarten early, apparently the standard is test at a level of passing the year after the one you want to test into).  In addition, the public school Kindergarten is a half day kindergarten, so you still need to make arrangements for the other half day (which our day care offers).

So we are looking at a nearby Catholic school K-8. It is very highly regarded. In visits to the school we have noted the interaction between the kids and the staff, and also between older and younger kids (the 6-8th graders mentor the K-2 grade students). We like the smaller class sizes (our day care had a pre-K with 20 and a pre-K with 8 students. T responds to the difference).

The issue with high-stakes testing is that pre-school kids do not perform on demand, to having to make decisions with long-term effects based on a one time event, and the parents are fully aware that the kid's behavior is essentially random.

While the general concept of testing is rather insane, the concept of evaluation is not, a school needs to do an evaluation to determine if a child is ready, especially in a case like this where a child is trying to go above grade level (in the U.S. the pattern is to hold children back, so the effect of some parents holding children back and other parents pushing kids ahead is that there can be a 3 year range in ages. Later, the difference almost disappears, but at age 6, a three year range is very significant, so the school needs to know that the younger end of the range can handle it.

Hence, there is a little cottage industry of preparing pre-schoolers for high-stakes testing, especially in places like New York City where the better pre-schools and kindergartens are known and they get full. Because how the child performs in a span over a couple hours does make a long-term difference.

Fortunately for use, the evaluation at this school was sane. We have an ongoing relationship with the school, so T has visited a couple of open houses, another event, and has visited during a normal day. The school staff were aware that he has a record of not interacting with strangers, so we have been building the level of recognition over time with the staff who would do the evaluation. And the testing was only one part of an overall evaluation (which included observation of multiple interactions with the current Kindergarten students).

So he did pass and got accepted for next year. Does test preparation make a difference? We actually got test prep materials (yes there are such a thing), but in the end, while we did read them, we did not use them, with life generally getting in the way, and we spent our time with him doing other things. The book we have, Testing for Kindergarten by Karen Quinn, probably would have preferred it that way. The core of the advise was that the best way to prepare was to interact with the child over a long period of time and develop the skills needed that way.  But the reality is that formal test prep could have made a very big difference in a child's performance. I joked that in the efforts to make a test that was cultural and background neutral, the tests give a big advantage to one major group. People who prepare for pre-school hish-stakes testing. Many of the questions are based on the fact that a person understands the concept being tested and the form of correct answers. The test prep books and programs are somewhat built around making sure the child is exposed to the types of questions being asked and how they get answered. They also run through the various topics. While the topics of questions are all topics that children can get exposed to, to be exposed to the whole range almost requires deliberate test preparation.

Tiger mommy finds it ironic that having geared up for preparing for high-stakes testing a year ago (as we realized the effects of an October birthday and the implication that it would have essentially meant repeating a year someplace), we did not actually put time into test preparation. Instead, while mommy school did involve reading and arithmetic workbooks (and recently, music), daddy school involved going to museums and other places, doing wood projects, and building LEGO.  And we were applying to a place that did assessment, but did so in a sane manner as part of an overall assessment that worked with the characteristics of the child in question.

In other news, A also had an assessment done. She is somewhat behind in motor skills development (does not crawl) so we had the Alliance for Infants and Children come (a free program for those under 3 in PA). The assessments results were highly encouraging, they think that the delay in crawling is due to a physical characteristic, which is not a long term problem. But, they also evaluated other aspects of development. I was very amused at the report. It frequently references the fact that A likes to play with her older brother.and how that relates to the way she babbles and plays (even if she does not crawl).  I even had T read those parts of the report. :-)

Big brother is making Jello
Gege is making Jello. Can I have some?

A does not really crawl, although she is now at the point that she will get on all fours and rock (and sometimes even move!)  But she does enjoy pitcking up things, banging them together (almost) stacking items Particularly amusing is when she goes into babbling mode. It is as if she is trying to hold a conversation.

This past month of parenting has had its share of concerns, but we leave it thankful that our children are active and engaged in their world, even for any faults they may have.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Parenting Month 52: Passing tests

A new belt

This month's milestone was T's advancement testing for Taekwondo. He passed! Of course, the issue is not if the dojang passes him, when dealing with pre-schoolers, it is silly to hold them to a real serious standard. The question at hand is how does he handle himself in a setting where he needs to perform on demand. The norm is to be scattered and play around, another common reaction is to freeze in nervousness (which is T's historical norm), the goal of a preschooler in a martial arts program is to pay attention and follow when being specifically addressed (and generally you accept being relatively stationary the rest of the time.)

Under those standards, T did very well.  As a child who does not like crowds, he handled the crowd and structure of testing day well (much bigger group than I have ever seen there). So we were gratified to see him dealing with it through chatting with the instructors (benefit of being one of the first to show up), concentrating on his forms, and even paying attention as it was everyone's turn. (of course, it probably was because he was trying to remember the forms of the upper ranks)

Another source of gratification is that he was focused during his turns. He was grouped with the smaller (i.e. younger) kids (4 year olds) and the obvious thing that makes 4 yr olds different than 6 yr olds is that 6 yr olds pay attention to what they are doing and the 4 yr olds generally did not.  So that he did focus on what he was supposed to was good to see. We don't often get a chance to see him in a setting with other kids his age, but being able to focus on what he is doing is something we have tried to encourage in many areas.

Other activities for the month include more cooking. I've been letting him work on the stove for making jello, pudding, and pies from mixes. And having him stir while the pot is on the stove. This has two problems, one the danger from a hot pot or stove, which is not as visually apparent as a knife blade is, second, that these required continuous stirring over a period of time. Reality is that his endurance is just short of what is needed here. If he gets to the point where he can stretch out another minute, he will reach the point where he can see the transitions in form caused by the food being exposed to heat. But for now, he likes the activity of doing something that we tell him is dangerous and that he needs to be careful around. And it provides another way of discussing perseverance and focus on task. (in addition to the usual comments about cooking being a good way to talk about math)

He continues to read more. This past month we have realized that he is pretty much out of the emerging reader series.  His current reading level is Dr. Seuss. The shorter books he reads happily away (including reading them to his baby sister) Long books such as Cat in the Hat are possible, but when he finished Cat in the Hat, he was tired (he did not realize how long the book was going to be.

Another area is preparation for kindergarden. I took T to an open house for one school that we are looking at (because they will take in someone who has not turned 5 before September). It looks promising. After a couple of rooms he warmed up to our student guides and was chatting away with them. I have noticed on previous occasions that the older kids are used to interacting with the younger ones, and had an opportunity to discuss it with some of the staff who explained how they encourage it. And we talked about how the evaluation would be done (basically, the primary evaluation would be from his preschool, which is not something that we will worry about).  There is a clear difference in T thriving in a smaller environment, and this is besides the fact that we don't like the idea of T being in pre-Kindergarden for a period approaching two years, then being in a half-day kindergarden (which is what our area is like). So this school has a lot of things going for it in our book.

A also had a big 9 month milestone.  Her first deliberate word (i.e. not counting the various vocalizations like mamamabababagagaga *sqwawk*)  ah-ooh, to be used when something drops or falls.  I'm particularly happy because I've been trying to train her to say this over breakfast all month.  And this was actually T's first deliberate word as well..  S thinks that ai-yaah is a candidate for a second word, which she clearly picked up from her big brother.  I'm not convinced that it is deliberate as opposed to mere mimicking.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Parenting Month 51: I can do that

Cutting peppers to go on a pizza
Cutting peppers to go on a pizza

This month's catch phrase is "I can do that."  I think that a characteristic of the pre-school years is the see-saw back and forth between a child wanting to become independent, but wanting the security of the parents. In our case, it expresses itself in the form of competency. And right now, we are well into the development of competency side of the spectrum.  

Competency has a number of manifestations with T.  One is the reading. At this point, he is at the Dr. Seuss level of reading. The small books are easy. The longer classics are not hard, but they are long and they test his endurance more than his reading ability.  We are at the point where it is possible to put him on the floor or couch with a pile of books and he will read away.  What is really cute is when we put him next to A and he reads to his little sister (and she pays attention!).  The other place this shows up are LEGO sets. He can now read instructions well enough to follow instructions on reasonably complex sets (where the recommended age range begins at 8 or lower).  His most recent one was the LEGO Movie trash chomper (recommended age begins at 8). It took him three days to complete it, but he did it pretty much on his own.

Building the LEGO Master Builder Academy Space Fighter
Building a LEGO Master Builder Academy Space design #3
The second place that competency manifests is in taking part of tasks around the house. He can handle simple tools (hammer, screwdriver) and can do set tasks (nail in place, screw already set) and we have him at least touch many such tasks as they come up (he does not have the strength to finish the job).  Also light vegetable cutting (with a plastic knife) and food prep (mixing) is within his level of competence.

And while he has better and worse days, there are the days where he is very helpful around the house (cleaning up, clearing the table). Actually, there are days where he is hyper-polite and helpful. It is cute and almost funny as he says please and thank you and does things like get food, help prepare, put the used dishes in the sink, and even help take care of mei-mei (little sister), and he keeps this up all day! (the consistent use of polite words after an half an hour or so drives S and I to the point where we have to make an effort to keep from laughing)

Dinner time. Is this yummy?
Dinner time for mei-mei

The Taikwondo classes have been a contributor to this. Each month has a character building theme, and this month the theme was 'goals.' And part of the assessment is to develop a list of 10 goals, and for T, these were dominated by goals to do standard daily tasks himself (put on/take off shoes, jacket, clothes, etc.). He has gotten into it. He thinks of goals at all sorts of times (especially at night when we talk about what he did during the day) and he immediately wants to add it to the list (which he will remember the next morning!).  And reminding him that he declared something a goal is incentive enough for him to give it a good try.

Sibling interaction is another area where we are quite fortunate. T and A are quite fond of each other. A is easily amused by T's activities, and T actively assists in entertaining and taking care of A (given his size as a four year old). What is amusing is now that A is semi-mobile and can scoot, she tries to join in with whatever T is doing if he is close to reaching distance. And sometime he is not careful and she turns out to be a lot closer than he thought and can grab something.

A is turning into a babbler.  Typically, after she eats, she is good for an extended period of babbling away if there is a willing conversation partner. I usually get this dark and early in the morning when I get her when she is awake and everyone else wants to sleep longer. (typically after she gets fed) I get breakfast for myself and she babbles away.  Today I brought her to a Red Cross meeting and she amused everyone by babbling after eating (I took her out to a hallway) until she finally stopped, because she fell asleep!  Everyone joked that it sounded like she was telling a story, not just vocalizing.

As far as parenting was concerned, this was a very pleasant month. Both children being engaged in their worlds, and increasing their competencies at the level they are at. And both being well behaved in the outside world. While both are not pass around kids (neither of them takes well to strangers), we joke that they are both advertisements for having children and we both get encouraging comments while out and about.

Up next, getting ready for pre-kindergarden assessments for T (we really don't want to have him do pre-K again next year like his birthday would require, and his reactions to stranger can lead to problems when it is time to do assessment).  And we probably should try to get A out and about more for more interaction with people (even if we are in a cold northeastern winter!)

Friday, January 30, 2015

Lessons in teaching: Fall 2014 edition - Using the news

I had started using news articles to illustrate class concepts last year, but this year I started doing so from the very beginning and made it a standing part of the class to do this once a week in both of my classes last semester.  Of course, taking 10~30 minutes a week out of class came at a price.  In both cases it meant a chapter not being covered. And I pointed this out to the class when time came for course evaluations.

Every week I would identify news articles, magazine articles, or blog posts to discuss in class.  (or sometimes it was a historical case).  The discussion would always open by evaluating the article through a standard technique.  In my decision analysis class it was either generating a value tree or a decision tree.  In my simulation class it was generally generating an event diagram (i.e. a white board exercise).

The cases included the international and domestic (U.S.) handling of the Ebola outbreak, health care provider reactions to the rise of independent urgent care clinics, potential expansion of a light manufacturer, pulling a goalie in hockey in the final minutes, flu vaccinations, Corporate restructuring, the construction of super containerships, NASA Commercial Space initiatives, waving a (baseball) runner home, handling of death threats (Gamergate), Space Shuttle Challenger launch decision, automation of warehouses and manufacturing, delivery of disaster response services, and hub and spoke airline operations.

For the discussions themselves, it was a great way of getting students interested. Because of the wide range of topics, international, domestic US, health, industrial, sports, space, different people tended to get into different discussion topics, so across all of the cases, a very large portion of the classes contributed to the conversation at some point.

The other big benefit of the cases was to reinforce the modeling aspect of both classes. For decision models this meant many opportunities to consider the value tree and decision trees, even as we moved to other techniques and topics. For simulation, this was the chance to work on modeling while the course focused on analytical and statistical methods.  Even for those who did not take part in the class discussion, there were a few discussions that I think were particularly memorable.

One unexpected benefit was that I had an opportunity to engage in give and take.  Once we got past the first few sessions, we were comfortable with me questioning some of the responses, or asking to go a little deeper than the first answer.  (without scaring the student into a shell) Students also started asking questions, so we occasionally got a real discussion going.

Sometimes it was fairly light and even entertaining discussion (sports were good for that). And there were times that it went very serious (we looked at the decision not to provide protection from threats of mass murder with plans in Utah with Anita Sarkeesian (meaning it also involved the politics of gender oppression). Ebola was also a big one in September.

So, when compared to the loss of a chapter of coverage, I think that this was a worthwhile direction. The course evaluations commented on how much the students liked using current events as examples of material, and that they felt confident in modeling (which is only one or two chapters in each subject).  Compared to a chapter of material that would probably be forgotten, I'll take the tradeoff.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Small Town Heroes by Harmon: Book Review

Small Town Heroes (Wearing the Cape, #4)Small Town Heroes by Marion G. Harmon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So the main character of the series, Astra, gets herself taken away from Chicago, her home, and her friends, because she sees a vision of something she should not know anything about. She makes new friends, learns how to work with others who are extremely competent, and her old team gets to meet the new ones.

I liked this book because it maintains that in the world of superheroes, the most dangerous ones are the ones that can plan. Astra is depicted as someone who is learning how to do this, and she spends the book recognizing she is around people who do it well. A team of third-string supersoldiers is depicted as being a match for a first-string villian because of teamwork, and these opponents are the most dangerous, not because they are the most powerful that Astra has faced, nor because the Young Sentinals are weaker than the main Sentinal team, but because this group works well together. All of the supers (and other leadership figures) are highly competent and dangerous, and that makes for a better story than many.

The book can get a little corny/sappy occasionally, and that may be because the main character is a pixie teenage girl. But it helps that everyone is competent, and the main hero, while competent and universally accepted, still has much to learn and the others around her have much to teach

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Parenting Month 50: A-T-A yaaa! enrichment and assertiveness

Carnegie museum of natural history
We're reading instructions for mommy at the Carnegie Science Center.  This is the next step.

We have finally caved in to the suburban parenting pattern of enrichment classes.  In our case we focused on the one thing that we do not provide: lessons in assertiveness.  And the vehicle we chose was a local taekwondo studio that had started out around two years ago.  We are not particularly interested in mastery, although if T wants this to be his sport for his growing up years, we would not be particularly disappointed. But we want him to relate to other adults (or at least older people) who are authority figures and can give instruction for him to follow and command respect.

Actually, we are more interested in that he can build confidence in action outside the safe harbor that we provide when we teach him things.  When we first went, they were telling us about how martial arts classes in pre-schoolers helps in the case of pre-schoolers who need to burn off energy and bounce of the walls at home. As we have a child whose worst episodes of acting up are probably laughable to most parents of pre-schoolers, we replied that was not the problem. But what we are worried about is that he grow in confidence in action.

He is an introvert, and the son of two introverts, who are fully aware that much of the world is organized and evaluated with extroverts in mind.  And we see that in his daycare. He was part of a trio of introverted boys. They have separated on their fourth birthdays to another daycare, the pre-K at our daycare, and the second pre-K class. And the one in the other pre-K class is worried of him being lost in the shuffle (it is large, the size is at the room physical limit.  While on academic and artistic levels he is expressive (he is in a small class), when it comes to crowds (they merge in the afternoon) he still withdraws amidst the hurly burly of 20+ preschoolers running around.

The first sessions were what would be expected. As the class does their warmups, exercises, and yells, he withdraws.  But, in a credit for this school (and the fact that there are few beginners at any point in time) he got some personal assistance from the school owner.  So the first few session, he essentially had private classes, and now he takes his place with the rest of the (small) class.  Progress!, and kudos for the school!

In other areas, he is enjoying his small, pre-K class. There are only around 8 students, and reports are that he is active talker in the group activities; circle time, singing, etc.  Arts are slow, as he is very deliberate so projects take much longer than others, but he does them.  He reverts to form when the classes merge in the afternoon (the extra space for the second pre-K class has another purpose in the afternoon).

He is increasing his academic abilities.  With LEGO we went through the City Advent Calendar, which required that he take a small number of blocks and figure out how to make the object based on an iso-picture, as the month progressed, he was getting noticeably better at the spatial awareness, and doing the Christmas presents was much better at figuring out instructions by himself. He is also getting better at working with random pieces, as we build things and make up story lines to go with them.

He enjoys reading, especially as he is much more competent at phonics. He will pick out new books, and while he may ask us to read it, by 3-4 pages in he is doing most of the reading. We find it especially amusing when we he reads books to his little sister, because he does it using a teacher voice (as much as a four year old can imitate a teacher).

Lighttable at Carnegie museum of Natural History
Making patterns with shapes on a light table

A is becoming a sneaky little baby girl. She has started manipulative play, taking toys and waving them around. She can move things to her mouth, such as a toy, or more useful, her pacifier (funny event, sometimes when she wants to cry, she will use her hand to move the pacifier over so she can cry more effectively).  Our other big observation was that she is now mobile.  She can scoot. At the beginning of the month, we were not sure, because she does not move that fast.  But give her a few minutes, she will have noticeably scooted on the playmat towards a desired goal.  Our funny moment was when T was trying to play with A's toys (on the pretext of teaching A how to play with them), and she scooted over a couple feet and picked up one of his completed LEGO sets.  We see a lot of that in the future.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Way Into Chaos by Harry Connolly: Book Review

The Way Into Chaos (The Great Way #1)The Way Into Chaos by Harry Connolly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Harry Connelly has made an incredible world. The Way into Chaos is named because it has its protagonists surviving in a world that has fallen from order into chaos. The heroes and other characters are complex, each with a range of motivations. There are those like one of the protagonists who think of things like honor, loyalty to the empire he has sworn an oath to, and devotion to a cause. Others may have had such thoughts, but have looked around them and believed that the empire that they were loyal to has fallen. Others were never loyal to the empire, and made choices on what they thought was best as order fell around them, and a new threat entered there land.

The diversity and depth of the characters is what draws you in. In the first chapter, you are introduced to many characters and their backgrounds, only to have most of them gone by the end of the second chapter. As the book goes on, there are several rounds of this, parties form around the protagonists on their missions, only to break up and go their separate ways in the course of events. These are not handpicked heroes chosen for a special mission. These are individuals who made there way out of disaster into a dangerous world, trying to make their way within their limits. And that keeps my attention as I went page after page. I'm looking forward to working through the rest of this trilogy.

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