Thursday, May 3, 2012


Interviewer from Toronto:

I appreciated the opportunity to talk about risk and intellectual development.  I am not sure that I was at my best as I was a bit distracted.  Given my busy week, there wasn't really a better time to speak.  However, I am hoping that my college is not portrayed negatively in an article. I don't feel that our students are different than other college students; rather that our modern tendency to prevent our little darlings from any failure, risk, or disappointment has made it more difficult for young adults to be just that.

Contact me if you have questions.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Homeschooling Journey

Our homeschooling journey is going to come to an end.

We started homeschooling our oldest child, Z, because the public schools were letting him (and us) down.  While they were ready to recognize his abilities as they suited the school, they failed to help him meet his learning needs.  That is, they berated him for not completing fairly braindead, repetitive assignments and let him through the system on his amazing testing ability.  He helps them (achieving test scores higher than predicted by his in-class achievement).  He learns nothing new from them (he is a self-directed learner) and has lower and lower self-esteem from being berated for his attentional problems.  This was pretty much lose/lose.

I slowly came to the realization that for the three hours nightly that I was browbeating our gentle son into doing fairly mindless and inane assignments (chapter summary after chapter summary, ad nauseum); I could spend the same amount of time helping him learn new stuff.  And, he has learned some incredible new stuff.  He is ahead in reading, science, math, and critical thinking.  He has explored history, government, and geography.  He has done some cool engineering (google First Lego League for more information).  What an amazing mind this child has, and he has had nearly free liberty to let it go while homeschooling.  We have two last blast trips planned - one to Washington D.C. by train and another to Connecticut.

Why stop homeschooling?  Well, for a regular homeschooler, homeschooling has lots of social benefits.  But, homeschooling while working full-time has limitations.  Namely, it can be somewhat socially isolating.  This could, by itself, be rectified.  But this year an additional wrinkle has become increasingly pronounced.  He is better at avoiding me than I am at holding him to a higher standard in the skills that he needs to work on most.  Like everyone else in the world, he prefers to do things that come easily than things that are hard.  And, for him, writing is hard.  For the last four months (or more) our homeschooling has devolved into a "I'll do what I like then vanish" strategy on his part and a frustrated game of hide-and-seek on mine.  I do not have formal grades or any other currency that motivates him.  This has created a frustrated mom and a sometimes sad child - and, that is not successsful homeschooling.  It is clear that the public school for our district will not meet his needs. If only dictation software worked well enough, he could really rock school...

So, what next?  Private school is our plan.  The hope is that he is motivated enough by being there to earn his way to stay.  Intellectually, it should be a piece of cake...  but, the output required of students there far outstrips anything that we've seen in homeschool or regular school.  It will take a while to get there. 
On our side is that he has some wonderful friends there already, the teaching looks exemplary (from what I've seen), it looks like a fairly loving environment, and he wants to go.   There are other gifted children there and they recognize his quirks and are willing to work with us to meet his needs. Will this be enough to make up for the mental toughness he will need to develop in facing his writing demons? 

This can be a brilliant move or an abject failure. Only time will tell...

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Not to be outdone.

Here is a picture of a dog:
What?  You say you want the whole dog?


And, finally, I'll add a child to the mix...

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Living and dying with Faith

Yesterday was my mother's birthday.  She was a wonderful woman: full of love, compassion, grace, and (yes) faith.  She was always the first to arrive in the casserole brigade for anyone in need, sent notes to her friends for milestones (both good and bad), and shared in people's joys and woes.  She set a good example of living well, being kind, and behaving honorably. 

She contracted cancer at age 72.  It was misdiagnosed for months.  When she was finally diagnosed, the cancer had metastacized to multiple sites.  The primary tumor was lung cancer - they hadn't looked for it because she was not a smoker.  She suffered terribly during her illness.  Bone metastases are, as it turns out, incredibly painful - as they can impinge nerves.  Cancer also uses a great deal of energy and metabolism, leaving its host feeling quite sick.

She showed tremendous grace during her illness.  While she was sad about being sick; not once did she ask "why me?".  She didn't complain.  She didn't moan.  She did her best to maintain her sense of humor and remain pleasant and upbeat.  She didn't just do that when she was out and about. I was with her, every day, and that was how she lived.

When she was confronted with treatment options, she made it clear that quality of life was more important than trying every treatment.  She was very clear that she didn't want to take treatments that would depreciate her quality of life if they weren't likely to fix the problem.  Time after time we were reassured that the chemotherapy was sure to help. 

Mom died five months after being diagnosed.  Five months after she and dad celebrated fifty years together.  Mom died four months before my youngest son was born.  Mom died nine months before my youngest niece was born.  While mom lived a rich life and certainly, no one can reasonably argue that dying at 72 having seen all of your children grow up and have families can be considered tragic.  I would, however, argue that I would not wish to die the way that she did.

Chemotherapy made my mother very ill.  Chemotherapy did absolutely nothing to slow tumor growth - her cancer was aggressive and did not respond to the treatment at all.  Ultimately, she failed due to malnutrition as much as from cancer. The biggest hurdle during the five months of her disease was a daily battle to try to eat anything and to keep anything down.  This was the ongoing theme and prevented mom from going out of her apartment, socializing with anyone, and visiting (even on the phone).

My mother died with grace.  But, she also died having suffered greatly and (somewhat) unecessarily.  The pain due to metastases was handled as best we could with radiation (to reduce tumor size) and opiates.  But, the illness due to chemotherapy and the resulting wasting away was not necessary.  My mom died with faith in her doctors, faith in her religion, and faith in her family.  Modern medicine failed mostly by not honestly portraying the road we faced.  Informed consent requires physicians to tell us the bad news as much as the good.  Last week, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal on how doctors die. Specifically, doctors die differently than we "lay people" do. Doctors rarely take advantage of chemotherapy - particularly in metastatic cancer. They know that the prognosis is poor and that chemotherapy produces a cascade of unpleasant secondary problems.  Had we known what we later learned, mom's faith would have been better placed.

My mother died seven years ago.

Faith was 72 years old and I still miss her so. 

I hope that when my time comes, I can follow her example and die with grace, dignity, and (yes) Faith.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Too many corks.

There is an image, tossed about by some, of a job whereby you need to keep a series of corks underwater.  As you push some further down, others escape your hands and pop up to the water's surface.

At the moment, there are just too many corks in the tub.

Z, our oldest, has been homeschooling for a year and a half.  We are always trying to find new and different ways to eke some productivity out of his day.  He has nearly as many ways of evading work as getting it done.  I could make a full-time job of homeschooling just this one child.  I have to satisfy myself with the fact that he is learning (a lot), and even though his work output is small - he has academic gains.  But, he could always use more playdates, more directed activities, and more of my time.

B, our middle child, is going through a difficult time.  It seems like B is always going through a tough time.  He operates from one crisis to another, close-lipped about each of them.  I so hope that he will grow into a responsible man someday, but I worry so.  He has everything going for him... he is bright, athletic, tall, rugged, and capable.  But, he can also be impulsive, irresponsible, dishonest, and rude.  He can be amazingly charming and he needs love and cuddles and understanding (and, he needs them most when he is the most horrid).

T is suddenly not the amiable and easy-going kid he's always been.  He was telling me that another kindergartner has been calling him stupid.  He isn't always honest, so I don't know how much of his agony is truly caused by this other child and how much is his trying to diffuse attention to his own actions.

Then, we live in this house that keeps getting dirtier.  With laundry that I keep folding, washing, folding, and washing - and it just keeps coming.  And, things break and things need attention, and I need to call people and make arrangements and feed the dog and vacuum and all kinds of things.

And, there is this job... I need to do things for my job.  I need to write, and plan a course, and keep up with my materials and my colleagues.  I need to read the right academic texts and prepare pedagogical talks and research talks, and collaborate with other scientists.

Then, I have this husband.  And, I love him dearly and want to spend some time with him.  But, by the time the kids are settled, I am tuckered out.

And, I was hoping to stay committed to getting in better physical condition this year.  I have more time, but I am always feeling like I am in the throes of not finishing something else that is crucial.  And, with a homeschooling kid and a full-time job - I never feel like I can quite get the right stuff done to meet this obligation.

This is where I am at the moment. 

Words to myself: The dirty house will someday get cleaned.  And, I have to be satisfied with not really doing things the way I think that they should be done.  Because, T won't always be six - and, it is now that he needs to be reminded that he is not stupid - regardless of what some other little six-year-old says.  B won't always (please, oh please, be true) need so much constant intervention.  And, Z is going to grow up on us and some day figure out how (please) to get himself through school or work on his own.  And, my job will still be there - even though I wish I could feel like I was really doing it the way I'd like.  And, J loves me and me him - even if I can't always stay awake to tell him so.

Monday, January 23, 2012

That's what you think about in the back seat?

I happened on the most interesting deck of cards the other day.  Each card in the deck shares one, and only one, symbol with every other card.  The game entails a race to see who can find the shared symbol on any two cards first.  It got me thinking about how they are made.

So, as a puzzler, I asked Z to think about the problem.  How many unique symbols does a deck of ten cards have to have for each card to share one and only one symbol with every other card in the set?  I said, don't worry about solving this immediately - but, I'll be interested to hear if you can solve it. 

Without a pause, he starting talking. Here are his words, as closely as I can recall...

"Oh, I've solved this before.  I was thinking about this once while we were driving somewhere.  The problem isn't how many symbols... it's the summing them up.  You see, for ten cards, you'd need nine plus eight plus seven and so on to one symbols.  The tenth card would share one of nine symbols with each card.  Then, the ninth card would share eight unique symbols with the remaining cards and so on.  It's really the summing that is a problem.  Oh, wait, you don't have to sum them.  Nine plus one is ten, eight plus two is ten, and so on until we get to five. That's, uh, four times ten, leaving the five.  So, you need 45 symbols for ten cards."

I can't decide which is more impressive... Is it that he has thought about this while we were driving his brother to practice?  Is it that he could just spew the answer off the top of his head?  Is it that he found summation harder than the problem?  That he found the alternate work-around from summation?  Or, is it that he gave me the answer in about thirty seconds of talking it through out loud?

Now, when he doesn't chit-chat with me while we drive around town, I'll be wondering what algorithms are kicking around in his head.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Feeding fish to cheetahs.

There is a wonderful article by Stephanie Tolan on how public educators define and recognize giftedness (  She talks about how, if we define cheetahs solely by their ability to dash about at nearly 70 mph, we'd never be able to recognize a cheetah in a zoo.  It is a terrific metaphor - zoos don't usually have the space for cheetahs to reach top speeds.  Even the most remarkable zoos, if they offer the space for a cheetah to really stretch out, don't give cheetahs any need to.  Cheetahs only reach top speed if they are chasing something remarkably zippy.  Cheetahs that are fed pre-killed meat simply don't need to dash like that.

Likewise, gifted kids may be hard to recognize in public schools.  While the gifted and high-achieving kids are pretty easy to recognize anywhere, not all gifted kids fit that mold.  The little girl that teaches herself Greek and complies with everything at school quickly and easily - sure.  But, the gifted kid that is bored by the curriculum might just not comply - and, therefore, not fit the criteria in achievement to be recognized as gifted.

But, some zoos don't stop at feeding cheetahs pre-killed meat - they make them chase fish.  What if the school cares about reading and writing skills first in identifying gifted kids?  What if, further, the school documents an inability to sit at their desk and finish their work as a criterion. The little boy that doesn't care about reading because he is busy studying the clock and imagining how different gears might make the hands go at different speeds is basically the cheetah ignoring the fish.  Because, cheetahs don't swim.  Then, the little cheetah that is bored by fish, but fascinated by the ducks that come to the pond will soon be not only passed over by the gifted program - but, passed over by even moderate treatment by the zoo.

We are parenting some cheetahs that hate the pool.  Sure, they aren't much into reading or writing, but they all played competent chess in kindergarten (beating 4th and 5th graders regularly).   You want them to read?  Give the boys a technical manual on construction, building, or sports. Yeah, they don't like coloring, but they can build anything you want out of Lego.  You don't think that they can follow step-by-step instructions?  Instead of having them follow your step-by-step art instructions, you should see how they built the "mini-weapon of mass destruction" from the design manual.  They hate memorizing their times tables, but they've solved algebra problems for our Easter "clue" hunt since they were three.  Sure, you complain that they don't show their work in math, but they don't actually miss any of the answers.  You don't like that they didn't solve the problem using the method you were teaching?  You should realize that they were solving it while you were talking - and, got the right answer using a different method.  Writing sentences about how Suzie "felt" in a book may provoke moans and tears.  But, ask them to explain the importance of "gearing up" vs. "gearing down" and sit back to enjoy the lecture.  They may not remember to bring home the correct books to complete their homework assignments.  But, on the way home, they can disassemble the car's seat belt (the manufacturer didn't think that it could be done).  My kindergartner couldn't remember to take his shoes with him when we left the house, but he explained a graphical model with null cline analysis to my college seniors.

I constantly feel like we battle the ability of the teachers to recognize and reinforce the value of students that have exceptionalities in areas that are not the stalwarts of early education.  The losers here are the kids - their exceptionalities are not valued by anyone at their school. The are learning to hate school - it feels (to them) like hours of uninteresting work punctuated by little or no time out of their seats.

[Image from]
If only we can survive early education - it will be amazing to see where they can go.