Wednesday, November 29, 2000

Death by spelling

I’ve watched the Olympics and thought about how much stress that sort of intense training and competition places on young people. I’ve read about parents behaving badly at Little League games and wondered how their children survived the pressure of being expected to perform perfectly. I’ve generally considered that athletics as it stands today in America may be a mess best avoided. But I’m rethinking that now, because over Thanksgiving, I witnessed a competition more grueling, more stomach-churning, more devoid of childish joy than any I have ever seen.

And it was a spelling bee.

The National Spelling Bee, to be specific, shown on a cable channel that must have been pretty desperate for programming. I’m pretty sure it was actually last spring’s National Spelling Bee, or else all children engaged in spelling activities are in grades a year below their proper age level. I’d be overjoyed, as the mom of a daughter who’s two years behind her age group, if all those 12-year-old sixth graders were really starting out the year instead of finishing it, but why would you have a national bee in the fall? Surely you give them at least half the school year to memorize all those ridiculous words.

And these children certainly had them memorized. Words that I would have sworn the moderator made up on the spot, just for fun, they spelled. Words that no one has ever used in actual written matter, they spelled. Words that made grown-ups sitting at home, grown-ups with college degrees and careers as writers, say “Huh?”, they spelled. But they didn’t look too happy about it.

Indeed, most of them looked like their deepest desire was to have a sniper in the balcony shoot them and put them out of their misery. One girl bent over double every time she heard a word, then straightened up briefly and with a terrible grimace asked for a definition, a sentence, a clarification of some sort, then doubled over again. I wondered if losing your lunch onstage was grounds for disqualification. I wondered if she’d been checked for ulcers. But mostly I wondered how her parents could sit in the audience and watch that and not immediately tell her “Sweetie, I don’t care how much you want it, your spelling bee days are over.” Perhaps the problem is that she’s not the one who wants it so badly.

I’d certainly be proud if my kids could spell well. I might encourage them to participate in competitions if it was something they were good at, and certainly a little nervousness is to be expected. But most of these children looked to be in genuine, soul-scarring agony. I could smell the tension and fear in the air through the TV screen. And for what? Presumably there’s money or maybe a scholarship for the winner, but it’s not like there’s a future in spelling. Pressure your kid to excel in sports, and maybe there’ll be pro prospects or Olympic glory or a spot on a Wheaties box. What kind of box would spellers go on--AlphaBits? Perhaps there’s a lucrative Campbell’s alphabet soup contract that I’m not aware of.

No matter what, though, there’s no way any of that is worth putting a child through such torture. Give those kids a dictionary and an electronic spell-checker and send them outside to play already.

Monday, November 27, 2000

Stuff happens

Christmas, as any television commercial will tell you, is just around the corner, and what frazzles me most about the oncoming holiday is not the rampant commercialization or the cards to be sent or the gifts to be shopped for or the in-laws coming over for Christmas dinner or even the kids off school for a whole looooong week. No, it’s the thought of all that stuff descending avalanche-like on our already stuff stuffed home.

Don’t get me wrong--I like presents as much as the next person. I love getting new stuff. And I’ll certainly need some new stuff for the kids to keep them occupied through their endless school-less holiday. It’s just that we’ve got more stuff than we know what to do with just now, and how on earth will we handle more? Where will it go? We’ve tried keeping the tree up through, say, March or so to avoid putting presents away, but eventually the day must come. And with every closet, corner, and cubby currently covered with stuff, stuffing in still more can be the stuff of nightmares.

The logical thing to do, of course, would be to clear out a bunch of the old stuff to make way for the brand shiny new stuff. In the case of our house, this would require a steam shovel, but never mind. Frankly, if I had time to sort through all the stuff and separate the stuff we need from the stuff we might one day use from the stuff we’ve outgrown and the stuff we’ve lost interest in, we probably wouldn’t have so much stuff piled up now. That sort of thing takes patience I haven’t got--certainly not in December, when there’s stuff to be bought and stuff to be wrapped and stuff to be mailed. It’s ever so much easier to just let the stuff pile up and think about it tomorrow, which as we all know is always a day away.

Besides, you never know when you might need some of that stuff, all evidence to the contrary. My husband chides me for holding on to every paper the kids bring home from school, but I have actually needed to refer back to those classroom papers from time to time...well, okay, just once, but it was nice to have it there. Even the most neglected toys get played with now and again, if only because my son sticks them in his bags and pretends they’re items for recycling.

And so somehow, some way, somewhere, we’ll have to find a way to wedge all the new stuff in. All I want for Christmas extra room? five more closets? a storage shed out back?

Wednesday, November 22, 2000

Harmless for the holidays

As we gather together for Thanksgiving, the thoughts of health-care advocates naturally turn to all the ways that the holidays could be dangerous. And amazingly, they’re not even thinking about the toxic combination of too many relatives in one room. That alone has probably done more lasting damage than all the salmonella in the world. But no--they’re worried about things like choking toddlers. The easy stuff. A recent report on the intellihealth Web site helpfully outlined several of the ways your little one could find trouble during holiday events, to which MWA would like to add our own helpful comments and suggestions:

* Hard candy and nuts. By all means, keep them off low tables. Thousands of small children choke to death each year, and the fact that your son can stuff an entire soft taco into his mouth at once does not mean he won’t choke on a peanut. Put the munchies on a high bookcase; it’s good exercise for the adults to have to stretch to get them.

* Visiting medications. Don’t let folks staying at your home keep their medications in their suitcases on the floor, where nosy little ones can find and partake. Forty-one percent of all poisonings involving children also involve pharmaceuticals. Find a safe place for all those pills. And if doing so allows you to completely check out the personal medication needs of all your visiting nearest and dearest, well, you’re not being nosy, you’re being pro-active.

* Silver cleaners and household products. Beware of toxic substances, and we’re not talkinga bout Aunt Mabel’s perfume! Almost 12 percent of poisonings involving children were caused by household products, so clearly you’re better off keeping that stuff out of your house and never cleaning at all. Dust, dirt and tarnish are certainly a small prices to pay. Alternatively, you could keep the stuff in a locked cabinet. Don’t forget to throw away the key.

*Cosmetics. Another 12 precent of child poisonings are made possible by makeup. Again, we’re not talking about the poisonous looks your preteen daughter gets when she comes downstairs in blue eyeshadow. No, we’re talking about her little brother eating the stuff. Right into the locked cabinet it goes!

* Electricity. More than 3,000 children under 10 are treated for electircal shock each year, and it’s all because their parents forgot to put those little plastic doohickies in the outlets. Or maybe because--and I know you’ll be as shocked by this as I--they keep their blow-dryers and curling irons in the bathroom, where they could fly across the room and fall into a tub. Surely any reasonable person would know that you’ve got to keep those things in the garage, or in a shed out back, or possibly a locked cabinet.

*Raw eggs. Poor little kiddies, they’re so susceptible to salmonella. No cookie dough for them! Mama will have to thoughtfully eat it all to protect their delicate digestions. What we won’t do for our children!

Monday, November 20, 2000

Stupid math tricks

I got a note on Friday from my daughter’s teacher. It expressed concern that our girl was having trouble with a couple of exercises in her math book. Since the teacher has given us a set of textbooks to use for incessantly drilling arithmetic, I was able to flip to the pair of problem problems. What was it, I wondered? Addition? Subtraction? Were they finally starting on multiplication? Did it involve counting money, as they had earlier in the chapter? The teacher mentioned my daughter’s difficulty in working in steps: Perhaps it was some involved word problem requiring addition and then subraction.

And then I found the questions in question, and this is what they were:

“I am a 3-digit number less than 300. My tens digit is less than my hundreds digit and my ones digit is less than my tens digit. Who am I?”

“I am a number between 600 and 700. My ones digit is 4. My tens digit is the difference between my ones and hundreds digit. Who am I?”

I am confused and befuddled by the sort of things that are considered math these days. I am disturbed that a simple ability to add and subtract is put on an even track with the ability to do parlor tricks. Who am I?

I am the parent of a 3rd grader.

I thought that maybe I was the only one having trouble with this stuff, but on Friday night I ran into the mother of a girl who was in 2nd grade with my daughter last year at a different school, and we got to talking about how hard 3rd grade was, and specifically how hard the math was, and she said in exasperation, “This front-end estimation! That’s where you round everything down, right? What is that?” Who knows? The various techniques our kids were taught for estimation made approximately no sense to me. After going to the trouble of teaching how to round to the nearest ten a few chapters before, the textbook was now telling them to estimate by either rounding both numbers of an equation up or both numbers down. Why, oh why? It seems designed to be confusing, and to make you forget how to round properly. Plus, you don’t get a very accurate estimate.

Apparently we two aren’t the only ones confused. This mother mentioned that one night, her daughter brought home both a math worksheet and her math textbook. When asked why she needed both, the daughter reported that the teacher told them to bring the book home too, in case their parents didn’t get it. Frankly, I doubt the book will help much. Perhaps they need to set up night-school classes.

Now, parental confusion with the way children are taught arithmetic has been going on at least as long as the “new math” movement when I was in school, so there’s no reason I should expect to be on top of this. But as the parent of a learning-disabled child, I do have to have a clue, because she so needs me to give her one. I find myself giving advice and instructions on concepts I don’t understand, and I wonder if I’m re-teaching it wrong--or making it even more befuddling, if that’s possible. And I also wonder if a lot of this stuff, including “who am I” number games, is worth reteaching at all. At any rate, I can’t begin to imagine how I would go about showing her the right way to figure it.

Personally, I can’t wait for multiplicaiton. That, I know how to do. I think.

Friday, November 17, 2000

You must remember this

The human brain is an amazing, complex, and sometimes perverse instrument. It’s capable of astounding calculations and leaps of creativity and thought, but can also be a black hole where important bits of information--from high-school algebra to your ATM number--can vanish without a trace. Whenever we feel we have it figured out and can predict somebody’s capacity for learning or growth, we’re liable to find that we don’t know as much as we thought. The brain is unpredictable, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. And memory is perhaps the most treacherous aspect of all.

Think of the way you can remember the lyrics to every chart-topping song you heard in high school, but nothing you learned in class. Please tell me I’m not the only one. Think of how your moments of glory fade, but your moments of extreme humiliation run on an endless tape loop, ready to rerun in any idle hour. Think of how two witnesses to the same event can remember it entirely differently, and be entirely certain they’re right. Think of how my daughter can retain the name of all 22 classmates, but not the result of 17 + 5.

The condition and potential of my daughter’s brain has been an item of interest to doctors and educators since we brought her home from Russia six years ago. And of dispute, since it always seemed to me that the potential part was greater than anyone wanted to admit. We could always agree that she had learning disabilities, and language delays, and a not particularly stratospheric IQ (though with the learning disabilities and language delays, it’s hard to tell). But were these a result of brain damage at birth, and more or less intractable? Or more a combination of damage and neglect and lack of stimulation and late-starting therapy, and could she make up the difference, though maybe at a snail’s pace? I tend toward the latter, though the jury is still out; there are nights when I’m doing homework with her when I feel we should just set up the reservations at the group home right now, she’s never going to make it out of 3rd grade.

But consider this conversation I had with her at bedtime last night. We’d just finished studying for a reading test, in which her comprehension of the text was mostly based on getting me to give her hints and then making lousy guesses. The ideas of stories are slippery stones that slide instantly out of her memory banks. Then, when the lights were out, she asked: “Do you want to know how many different kinds of pencil boxes we have in our class, and who has the same ones?” And she proceeded to detail which kids had which box in common, and moreover which color each one of them had. If her teacher ever gives a quiz on pencil boxes, my girl will get an A+.

So why can she remember that, and not anything useful? Maybe this just proves that her brain is more normal than we thought. A thorough grasp of trivia seems to be worth more these days than solid academic information, and our heads all seem to be more full of it. It’s clear, anyway, that she does have the capacity to absorb information and memorize it, when it interests her. Too bad math facts and grammatical irregularities are so much less colorful than plastic boxes.

Wednesday, November 08, 2000

They're smokin'

They’re hot, they’re cool, they’re irritating. They make the user look trendy and with-it, and make non-users whine about selfishness and pollution and space violations. They’re easy to carry around, and are handy for passing the time. They may be bad for your health, but once you get used to them, it’s hard to go without. Are cell phones the new cigarettes?

For teenagers in Great Britain, anyway, the answer may be yes. A study has found that smoking among British teens has gone down at the same time that mobile-phone use has gone up. Coincidence? The researchers think not, reasoning that the phones satisfy the same craving for coolness, rebelliousness, and adult annoyance as cigarettes. And as an added bonus, you can use them to surreptitiously send text messages to your pals in class. Smoking in class tends to be somewhat less easy to pull off.

Will the same trend hold true in the States, where cigarettes are cheaper and cell phones more expensive? I guess we should hope so, though we’re probably just trading second-hand smoke for second-hand conversations and lung tumors for brain tumors. It’s somewhat amusing to imagine bad-seed teens hanging out by the lockers, talking on their cell-phones. Will some new band be remaking “Smoking in the Boys’ Room” as “Calling from the Boys’ Room?” Will tough guys start rolling up cell phones in their t-shirt sleeves?

Maybe not. But one thing that’s sure to change is the way cell phones are marketed. In Europe, it turns out, they’re sold more as fashion accessories than as communication accessories. “Mobile phone marketing in Europe promotes self-image and identity, which resembles cigarette advertising,” wrote the researchers, and that can only mean one thing: Look for the Marlboro man to be tucking a phone in his saddlebags.

And look for advertisers to target younger audiences with flashier phones. If it means that phones will be touted more on MTV than on my TV, that’s a good thing. If it means that cell-phone-service companies will stop calling me on a daily basis because I’m no longer in their prime demographic, that’s a very good thing. If it means that mobile phone use will switch from long-term contracts to quick-fix, allowance-minded pay-as-you-go plans, that’s a thing that’s good enough to maybe get me using the darn things. Hey, you know, I may be over 40, but I can still be hip. Just don’t ask me to smoke.

Monday, November 06, 2000

'Riting + 'Rithmetic

The new trend in education, at least here in Northern N.J., where the standardized tests strike fear in the heart of administrators, is writing. Writing about everything. Writing about reading, yes, but also writing about science, writing about math, writing about writing. It’s not enough simply to learn something--you must also be able to write about how you did it.

And on the face of it, that’s not a bad thing. Goodness knows, the state of writing amongst adults today is not good. My former boss was always stunned at her assistants’ inability to write a simple business letter. Copy-editors on e-mail lists I’ve belonged to could not believe how unable alleged college graduates were to string together a proper sentence. The newspaper where I now work receives press releases and letters to the editor from the general public, and they do give one pause. So the idea of teaching children from a young age to explain themselves in a clear and rational way has some allure.

But man, it makes it hard on the kids with language delays and disabilities. My daughter can’t explain how she does anything. She couldn’t tell you how she ties her shoes. The thought of putting things she can’t put into verbal words into written words fills her with dread. And it was bad enough when we were just talking about book reports and reading comprehension.

Now, she can’t even have math as a safe haven. She got an A in math last year, when all she had to do was memorize math facts and work problems. It was a blissfully word-free place in the day. But now we’re in 3rd grade, where you have to work problems and then write a paragraph about how you did it. Well, who the heck knows how they do math? Am I the only one who coasted through school learning how math works but not why? Is she? In the end, does it matter? And if it’s so important, why can’t the textbook even state it very clearly? I’m paging through looking for the answers she’s supposed to be writing, and it’s about as clear as trigonometry.

Since she’s still classified as special-ed though in a regular-ed classroom, I could probably ask for a modification and exempt her from the writing requirement for subjects like math. I’m particularly tempted because I know the only reason they’re making a big deal of all this writing is because the 4th-grade standardized test is full of it, and although most educators I’ve talked to think the test is exactly that--full of it--they have to teach to it or risk looking like they haven’t taught anything. But I’ve been trying so hard to give her a non-modified year, and working at home to keep her caught up with what’s going on in the classroom, that I hate to fall back now. If she gets all the pure math questions on a test right, and misses all the writing questions, she can still get a passing grade. We’re working toward that.

Ironic, I guess, that although I’m a writer by trade, I can’t teach my child to write. But I don’t think I ever could have written very convincingly about math. I was always too good at faking it to really deeply understand what I was doing. I’m glad I’m not in 3rd grade now, that’s for sure.