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 (http://www.stephanietolan.com/is_it_a_cheetah.htm).  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 http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/]
If only we can survive early education - it will be amazing to see where they can go.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The intended audience.

Is the intended audience important when we consider creativity?  How does the audience change the process, the product, and the enjoyment of stretching your brain to see connections, view new perspectives, or represent thoughts or ideas.

While I write this blog primarily for myself, I enjoy the occasional comment or email that it provokes.  But, I am not driven to write here because I want or need your feedback.  This is truly a repository for me.  If something resonates with someone else - that makes me happy.  If no one responds, that is also fine.  I love writing.  But, when I write with a strong audience in mind (particularly my scientific writing), the actual critic that will view my work takes away from some of the pleasure in sharing my findings. 

I dabble in other art forms as well.  I sketch and draw (a common tool of natural historians) as these sketches help me keep structures, forms, and identification straight.  I enjoy photography, both for the aesthetic value of capturing natural moments and capturing the children as they grown and change.  Occasionally I pick up the guitar and try to remember some of what I once knew.  I periodically will pick up paint or other crafty things.  I enjoy doing these activities as an outlet.  But, if I participated with a future audience looming over me, my inner critic gets in the way of the process being enjoyable.

I love to cook.  Finding nutritious and delicious ways to feed myself (and my family) is a joy.  Sadly, our palates do not always agree on what constitutes delicious.  With a terribly fussy youngest child and a super-taster for a husband - I have been somewhat limited here as of late.  Thus, here is another creative endeavor where my process changes when I have an audience.

When you create - how does your audience change the process?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Island Time

I am still having a difficult time re-entering the United States.  I have been in the Bahamas, teaching a course on coral reefs.  While J argues that I seem equally stressed there as here - I argue that it is a different kind of stress.  It suits me more.

Here, I eye my watch (or the bottom corner of my screen) all day long.  When new email pings in, I jump to determine whether I need to respond right away.  I am constantly monitoring Z, to insure that he is making progress in his (eclectic) homeschool assignment du jour.  I am trying to fit my own work in around the edges here (which is probably backwards).  I figure my job will be there for awhile, but Z will grow up and I don't want to miss these moments.  Once the other kids arrive home from school, we start the slog through the day's homework, packing their school things away.  Then, off to lessons, sports, or other commitments.  Finally, we have hungry children to feed, dirty children to clean, dirty clothing to clean, fold, and pack away.  Then, we have tired children to convince to bed.  Thus, only leaving a house to clean (not often), and the various other life forms that depend on us (dog, plants, yard, etc.).  Don't get me wrong - I love it all, but there is always a sense of immediacy.  This doesn't really suit my type B personality.

In the Bahamas, the stress is different.  My watch is less important - there, it is the weather.  I watch prevailing winds, temperatures, and storms to try to fit in all of our activities around the (mostly) unpredictable whims of the weather.  I worry about keeping track of our children and other people's children (my students).  I count heads a lot and try to warn people about risks that are new to them.  

In the Bahamas, parenting is different.  I don't cook or do dishes.  I have a different sense of clean and dirty for the kids' clothing (and my own, frankly).  The kids are busy all day exploring, creating, learning, and living - no homework drudgery.   The kids feed off of the playful energy of the students. The students feed off of the curiosity and unbridled enthusiasm of the kids. In addition to J watching the children, we have a dedicated helper keeping them from killing themselves or each other.  The kids are so exhausted at night that, for the most part, they pass out once their heads hit the pillow.

In the Bahamas, teaching is different.  The class is so compact that the students have a constant sense of urgency - no one gets tired of the day-to-day schedule.  Everything is new and different, which makes it more salient.  The buddy system in the water and their trepidation at the unknown (will there be sharks?  stingrays?  are the currents strong or waves rough?) makes them operate naturally as a team.  We are released from the drama that is associated with our relationships with people out of class.  We are released from the constant pull of electronic communication.

In the Bahamas, introverted folks like me interact regularly with new and interesting people from all over.  And, with the tropical setting and the communal meals - it is easier to get to know people than I find it here.

I returned home to a cold, gray and rainy world.  The kids are sluggish getting ready for school and balk at working on homework.  I know that they are having the same trouble re-adjusting.  How to balance providing compassion for this challenge and the need to make it happen?