kitchen table math, the sequel: Vicky S on starting afterschooling early

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Vicky S on starting afterschooling early

I have a close friend whose kids are several years behind mine, and I bent her ear continually about this stuff. She took my advice and began afterschooling with Singapore from day 1 of first grade (and now wishes she'd done English, too, by the way). So it was just what they did from the start, and the kids thought it was normal, so there's been much less friction.

Without a jumpstart like this board or a friend with older children, it can take years for the insanity of elementary education to sink in. I started smelling a rat when my kids were around grades 3-5 but figured it out too late to do anything but remediate and try to fill in the gaps.

With math I was lucky; it was touch and go and at least one of my boys has emerged from the other end of afterschooling and interschooling (middle school at home) both good at, and liking, math. But I'm sad to say that it was too late for writing--they were too resistant. It breaks my heart because writing is so important.

For many kids, when you catch it at middle school, I think despite a parent's best efforts it may be too late.

A couple of things I've learned as a parent are:

1. If your elementary age child is hiding under the bed every morning refusing to go to school, it's more likely that there is something wrong with the school, not the kid, no matter what the school tells you. Ditch the school, pronto.

2. If your elementary age child is crying while trying to do math homework and/or if you do not understand your child's math homework, your school is probably using a constructivist curriculum and if you don't do something about it, soon, your child will probably end up hating math for good and the world may have lost yet another chemical engineer, thanks to the NCTM.

3. If most or all of your child's writing exercises have to do with connections, personal reflections, autobiographies, feelings, favorite this or that, past experiences, family, community, and hopes and dreams, your child will end up with a monumental case of writer's block, won't know how to write even if he does ever break through it, and the world may have lost yet another lawyer or diplomat, thanks to Lucy Calkins.


Doug Sundseth said...

If your child's teacher suggests beginning every paragraph with, "In this paragraph I'm going to write about ....", you need to be contemplating the method of remediation. (Yes, really.)

I recommend beginning with, "I don't care what your teacher said, I forbid it."

Catherine Johnson said...

I recommend beginning with, "I don't care what your teacher said, I forbid it."


Cheryl said...


Good heavens, did a teacher actually suggest that?? Gah! If so, that person has no business teaching writing.

Anonymous said...

Excellent Vicki!

We had #1 in Kindergarten. We got to avoid #2 due to acceleration. Yay!

But, #3 was exactly as you have written, and it completely snuck up on me.

Watch out for #3. It looks real pretty on the surface.


Redkudu said...

"Good heavens, did a teacher actually suggest that??"

Oh, yes. I have to train this out of my high schoolers all the time. They come to me starting essays with "My name is XYZ and I'm going to tell you about ABC" for thesis sentences - and then are under the impression that's all they need for an introductory paragraph.

I finally figured out a way to use this method against itself and teach kids how to write a real thesis sentence. I just did it the other day and had a substitute paraprofessional (I have a paraplegic student) come up to me and say how he wished he'd learned that in school.

Redkudu said...

About #3:

There are two English teachers at my school doing an entire 6 weeks of writer's workshop. Their students love it. Of course they do - what other subject do they know better than themselves to write about?

At the lunch table one of the teachers was explaining how she got down on the floor to write and was telling her students that this is how real writers do their writing. I asked her if she meant people who keep journals for their own pleasure. NO, she insisted, this is what REAL writers do.

I used to write a little, and had a few short stories published a while back, very small time. Even so, I remember I had to work at it for years, and after my first publication it was still a rigorous process of finding paying publications, studying the type of writing they preferred to publish, keeping a detailed database of submissions and responses, deadlines, who they were publishing, and other info. Even though I liked what I wrote and had no illusions of being a pro at it, when I was writing for money I sat at my desk, set writing times, and very rarely could afford to daydream down on the floor. I did, and still do, know some people who made their careers out of writing. I knew them to be people who worked long, disciplined hours, even at home, were constantly searching for writing gigs and developing contacts, churning out article after story after book and editing, editing, editing, submitting, submitting, submitting.

I dunno though - maybe a REAL writer around here can tell me I'm wrong? Do the real writers lay on the carpet and navel-gaze and get all that published without knowing grammar, spelling, organization, and how to write to a market? If so, I worked way too hard.

VickyS said...

"In this paper I am going to tell you about . . . " oh yes, this is exactly what my guys do, too.

Redkudu--what is your secret to help your kids unlearn this?

Redkudu said...

Vicky -

I think I'd have to show it. I'll try to think of a way to do that. Basically I do some intense direct-teaching with an overhead or document camera in which I provide a sort of formula to fill in depending on the type of essay we're writing. They start with that ugly "I am and I'm saying" formula, then edit for "professionalism and efficiency", which I define and illustrate for them. I can't think of a good way to show this in comments.

My students are very at-risk, so I'm not shy about giving them a formula which works at this point in the year. As they grow, their writing becomes more sophisticated.

Doug Sundseth said...

"Good heavens, did a teacher actually suggest that??"

Yes, in so many words.

"Gah! If so, that person has no business teaching writing."

When I start to get angry, my mantra is, "You can't expect all that much from the bottom quintile." It doesn't help much. 8-) At least the school uses Core Knowledge and Saxon, so much less remediation is needed in those subjects.

Right now, for first sentences I'm trying to stress that you need to let me know why I should care about your topic right at the start. Oh, and don't tell me that your going to tell me, just tell me. Mixed results, but it's fourth grade, so I'm not expecting Hemingway.

Jo Anne C said...

I would love to know how I can get my son to stop telling me "I think that ..." or "I am going to tell you about" in his essays.

I keep pointing out that he doesn't need to write those phrases, and he should just state the facts.

It would be a great help to know of your effective methods.

SteveH said...

My wife and I are starting to review our son's writing in more detail. He can get started OK in terms of the general idea, but he doesn't want to put in the hard work of fixing it all up. All of the organization grids and graphs and idea webs he is taught in school don't help one bit. What helps is when my wife or I tear his writing apart line by line. It's painful, but I think he sees the difference.

We flip sentences around, we combine or break sentences. We chop out big parts (he doesn't like that), and we talk about what he is really trying to say. He has a tendency to get a good idea and then repeat it several times. He also wants to get it over with quickly. We also see how lack of background knowledge is a big barrier. Maybe that's why schools are stuck with navel gazing and creative writing.

His teachers have talked to them about some sort of hook to get people to read more. Actually, it makes his writing sound like a newspaper article, but not in a good way. The focus becomes the hook or angle and not the content.

Writing takes time, practice, and feedback (as soon as possible). I think immediate detailed editorial feedback is very important, and it shouldn't be from another clueless student. My son (and I) hate it when he gets comments about his writing from other students.

I'm looking for more small writing projects and more immediate feedback. I want to speed up the feedback loop. I don't like it when the writing projects get larger and burdened with art and pseudo-research. Writing across the curriculum waters down both content and writing.

VickyS said...

Boy, Steve, you hit on all my pet writing peeves. One thing that comes out loud and clear is how universal our kids' writing experiences are, across this huge country. The emerging truth is that despite states rights and local control, we have a de facto national curriculum. What if the machine that put that in place were put to use in the pursuit of real education? We'd rock on those comparative international exams and eventually kick butt in the global economy, all right!

Topic sentences: My first rule is that unless you are writing one of those sappy autobiographical pieces, you NEVER write in the first person. I don't want to see one "I" in your writing. This gives them a specific rule to follow to avoid the "telling me you're going to tell me" problem. Of course you may still be left with "this paper is about..." but at least that's a bit of improvement.

Rewriting: The irony!! Kids spend enormous amounts of time rewriting in elementary school. I think Lucy's curriculum has them working on the same piece for weeks or sometimes even months (my son worked on the same piece from Sept. through November in 3rd grade). Yet, they get to middle school and high school and (1) cannot effectively revise a piece and (2) don't have the patience for it in the first place. I think the editing process was introduced way too early developmentally and gets totally screwed up as a result. This is a general problem in education today--all the stuff they introduce too early (complex math topics, rewriting and polishing, organizing a long term project) seems to backfire in the end and prevent them from ever learning these things.

Like you I also, when I do intervene, take my son's work apart sentence by sentence. But sometimes even this is impossible. One thing I've started doing is to take one of his paragraphs (especially the lead paragraph) and completely rewrite it myself. Then he doesn't have to sit there for a half hour while we do this, and when I'm done we look at them side by side to get a more wholistic view of what I have done. It has helped. The light bulb goes on. From there we outline the topics for the subsequent paragraphs and he takes it from there. Just starting out with a good strong paragraph seems to carry through. I do this at work, too, and have found it's the best way to rapidly fix someone's writing, if they are bright enough to learn by example.

One other observation: in real life (my life) I edit my own work all the time, and word processing makes this a breeze! But the kids in elementary school have to do this painstakingly by hand. Talk about frustrating! 21st century? Yet another irony at the expense of our kids!

VickyS said...

More on writing...

Lack of background knowledge: No kidding! This is a huge impediment to writing! And I cannot easily convince my kids of the necessity of doing the research to obtain some. They've been writing for "constructing" their own knowledge (i.e., making things up), they don't know how to do it any other way. Plus, oddly, the extremely heavy handed approach to plagiarism has made them afraid to use any material whatsoever from outside sources! Has anyone else seen this? It seems they are not taught attibution; they think everything is plagiarism.

Peer editing: Absolutely the worst. I tell him not to listen to or believe anything they tell him. Just totally ignore it.

The hook: This is a baby step in the right direction and my sons have been instructed to do this too, but all too often it ends up being totally contrived and putting some weird slant on the piece. It's not being taught correctly. They need to see examples of good hooks and bad hooks. And in general, they need to see pieces that illustrate what not to do as well as what to do, but they don't seem to be shown that.

Topics: You didn't mention the dumb topics, especially in English comp. For a beyond the pale example out of New Hampshire, see this.

Writing across the curriculum: I actually support this, when done correctly. Writing in your science class, history class and foreign language classes is a great way to do more expository writing, cover more interesting, content-driven topics, and become comfortable writing in the disciplines. Didn't you do this when you were in school? I wrote papers in all my classes. That's the only way the kids get enough writing, and they get feedback from lots of different teachers. My subject teachers didn't put up with run on sentences or poorly organized paragraphs any more than my English teacher.

Navel-gazing: Again, the irony. You'd think the multiculturalism push in our schools would define curricula that expanded our children's horizons, not turned them inward. Diane Ravitch puts it succinctly in a recent article in the Boston Globe: What matters most is our capacity to see beyond
our own immediate experience
. I don't see that being furthered in our "national" writing curriculum.

Anonymous said...

This was why summarizing was so difficult for my son. He was trained to write what he thought instead of summarizing what the author actually wrote.

It took weeks to get him to understand that I wasn't asking his opinion.

The funny thing is that they say they teach it, but like Steve said, without consistent feedback, it isn't going to "take."

They also claimed to have taught him to outline, but I think they are referring to all of the little idea webs and charts with bubbles. There's also no wrong or right with those things, or at least there wasn't with my kid's charts.

When he did get criticism it was usually a comment like, "You need to show me, not tell me." Well, if he could figure out what the teacher meant in that particular instance, he didn't understand how to transfer it to other writings. I mean, what were the rules here? When do I "show" and not "tell"?

And what is actually wrong with telling? Why is it okay here and not here? The criticism would just randomly show up some places, but not others. Much of his writer's block came from a lack of consistency about what was wanted. At least spelling and usage had some rules to hang on to.

It was far easier to see if he understood outlining when he had to write it out on a piece of paper and not in a bubble on a page. It was clear he didn't really see the difference in main points or secondary points, or his own personal opinion. They were all the same somehow.

It took around 6 months to be able to assgin him an outline and to actually get a proper one. His papers improved immediately because he had a better brainstorm starting point.

THe odd thing was that he knew how to pick out the main/secondary points from his reading. I used the 6-Way Paragraph books over the years (another great late grade school/middle school afterschooling book.)

Susan Wise Bauer suggests 4th/5th graders start small outlines. By middle school they write more extensive ones. It's almost all they do, and I now realize why it's such a good idea.


Redkudu said...

I teach very high needs kids, so I explicitly model everything I want them to do on the overhead or document camera.

First, I make sure students have read at least 3 published samples of increasing complexity which illustrate the essay form we're working on (classification, compare/contrast, etc.) After reading each one of these we break the essay down to study how it's organized. (For example, classification essays are broken down into outlines: topic, categories, examples and details.)

Then the students are given their writing assignment - right now it's a classification essay. They create an outline of what they want to write about following my model (this year I did "Three ways animals adapt to humans").

Most of them have a vague idea that they need a thesis sentence, but don't know how to write one. I ask them, "Did you ever learn to write something like this?"

I model "My name is X and this essay is about the three ways animals adapt to humans. The three ways are by finding food, shelter, and protecting their young."

They usually say yes. I have them copy my model, but insert the info from their own outline instead.

Then we talk about what a thesis sentence is, and go back to the three sample readings. I identify the first thesis sentence, they identify the next two. We highlight them.

Then I ask "Do any of these authors start by telling you their name?" (No.) "Let's follow their model and take our names out."

We cross out names.

"Do any of these authors say "I'm going to tell you about, or this essay is about?" (No.) "Let's follow their lead again."

We cross out "this essay is about."

Now we (I) have "...the three ways animals adapt to humans. The three ways are by finding food, shelter, and protecting their young."

By this time kids are usually getting the idea, because we've been going back and forth from our samples to our own writing. Some will say something like "now we need to combine the two sentences," sometimes I have to prompt that response. ("How can I make one, clean sentence that tells the reader all about my essay?")

We end up with "The three ways animals adapt to humans are by finding food, shelter, and protecting their young."

Since they've been doing this along with me using their essay's topic, they usually end up with a fairly clean thesis.

Redkudu said...

The number of students who come to me knowing how to outline is ridiculously low - usually less than a handful each year. And yet, when I show them how it's done and how to use it to organize an essay, they love it.

ChemProf said...

I don't think outlining is taught at most schools anymore. I require that our seniors (college seniors, mind you) outline their theses, which are 20 pages long. It is amazing how many of them just want to start writing, which just doesn't work on something like that. At this point, I know I need to teach them how to do an outline, as some of them have never seen it before.

As a side note, I don't think the computer helps with this process. They kind of edit as they go, but never sit down and really re-read what they've written, and they are too likely to just copy and paste out of sources, rather than paraphrasing (despite all of the emphasis on avoiding plagarism).

Anonymous said...


My son was pulled for gifted writing all through middle school, and he could have really used your lesson. I'm just mystified how they think they can get from here to there without being taught.

Another trick is to get an ACT or SAT prep book and look at the samples. Even a middle-schooler can see the differences between a 1 and a 3, or a 3 and a 6.

The higher scored ones are easy to use for outlining. Comparing the strengths of the thesis examples is another way to demonstrate what is good and what is not, and why.

At this point, the ACT/SAT essays are handwritten. Maybe someday they'll all be on a computer, but not now. To never have kids hand write papers is just setting them up for a fall.


Anonymous said...

This is truly a national problem. My eigth grade son came home from the second week of school last week complaining that English class was "stupid." Since I am a teacher (at a charter Core Knowledge/Classical school not in the district in which I live) he knows that is not a comment I will not let go unchallenged. So, I asked him for details. Apparently, the teacher had handed every student a lump of play dough and told them "Play Dough is a metaphor for the writing process." They were then instructed to make a pencil case out of the clay. When they were finished they were supposed to analyze how they could improve their play dough pencil case and tear it apart and make a new one. When they finished the teacher remarked that they were to use the same steps to improve their writing. (This is horrible teaching on so many levels that I didn't have anything to say to my son. I murmured something about how I was sure the class would improve.) Friday I asked him how the class had gone the next day. He told me that his assignment was to draw an illustration for his writing that would entice a reader to want to read it! There we have it, arts and crafts masquerading as writing. I am sure the teacher believes she is engaging the students in authentic learning and allowing them to use multiple intelligences. My son is bright. He can't believe that he is being assigned this type of work. I am giving the teacher about two more class days to get on the right track before I contact the principal for a class change. My husband and I have already registered him for the admissions test for private high schools. A mind is a terrible thing to waste...

Anonymous said...

Please excuse the mistakes in the previous post. I need to follow the advice I give to my own students and read my work carefully before submitting it! Please excuse my typo on the word "eighth" and the double negative in the sentence about challenging my son's comments about his teacher.

Anonymous said...

Oh, don't worry anon,

I can re-read my posts 15 times and will still miss something. It drives me crazy.

That Play Doh story sounds like a Simpson's episode.


Doug Sundseth said...

VickyS mentioned the problem with writing prompts. Since this is (yet) another of my pet peeves:

Prompts are often very broad: "Write about a person you respect", "Write about your favorite character in a movie", "Write about something you are an expert in". I think the reasons for this are largely twofold: the teacher wants to keep the topic open enough that any child can find something to write about and the teacher wants to keep from stifling creativity. Neither of these is a favor to the children.

The broader the topic, the more difficult it is for a student to choose a subject suitable for a short paper. The result is either a hand-wavy high-level overview that isn't interesting to any audience or analysis paralysis that causes writer's block.

This can be a problem even for experienced professional writers. Narrowing a topic appropriately is a difficult learned skill that is almost never taught effectively. It is certainly not appropriate for fourth graders.

Similarly, creativity isn't aided by wide-open topics. When you're spending all your time defining your subject, you have little time left for individuality or creativity.

My recommendation:

Choose a very limited number of tightly-defined topics. Provide a very limited number of ways to look at each. Require the students to each choose one of them.


The Thirty-Years War resulted in the deaths of perhaps a third of the people then living in Germany. Choose one of the following positions and support it in a paper of not less than 600 words: 1) "While the death toll from the war was horrendous, the economic aftereffects of the war resulted in a net positive overall effect." 2) "The war set the stage for European conflicts that are unresolved to this day." 3) "The war would have ended at any of several earlier points were it not for the irreconcilability inherent in religious conflicts." 4) "The war was directly responsible for a long-term increase in religious tolerance."

(If a student came up after the assignment and proposed a similarly tightly-defined thesis on the same subject, I'd allow it, but I suspect that would be uncommon.)

The topic is unlikely to be of particular interest to any student, but the subjects provided allow for a variety of different approaches and are specific enough for a student to attack them. (We assume a 17th Century European History class or the like.) And there is enough variety for most students to find something to maintain interest.

allison coates said...

Ever since I was in high school and college, I've been told over and over again "when you write, tell me what you're going to tell me, then tell me, and then tell me what you've told me."

It's pretty lousy advice even for a college student, but apparently, it's worse for a 5th grader, where they hear it and then write "I'm going to tell you about my trip to Disneyland" as the opening.

Anonymous said...

-- Writing in your science class, history class and foreign language classes is a great way to do more expository writing, cover more interesting, content-driven topics, and become comfortable writing in the disciplines. Didn't you do this when you were in school?

I graduated from a parochial college prep high school 20 years ago. We wrote in our AP history and AP english classes only, and only write 5 paragraph essays. Other English classes had already moved onto the arts and crafts model. it's been twenty years at least now of not teaching writing or rhetoric.

In honors chemistry, we never wrote. In honors biology, all of our exams took the form "Explain how the XXX system works". we were expected to brain dump everything we knew about the system onto the paper, organized in as close to a linear fashion as possible. Regurgitating the text book was easy if you'd outlined it in your notes.

No essay or term paper writing in foreign language class, just translations.

In English, the first and last term paper was in 10th grade. It was not on something literary; it was on a famous film maker or actor. Instead of a book report in 10th grade, we were draw a tantalizing cover, and write the blurb you'd find on the inside cover. In AP american (11th) and english (12th) lit, we were told we didn't have time to write a term paper or a book report. We were required however to participate in shakespeare day where we were expected to dress up in Elizabethan garb or cook something Elizabethan or write or own sonnet.

The only writing was a 5 paragraph essay for practice for the AP test. We were expected to pick a topic sentence that we could defend with three pieces of evidence from the text. One opening paragraph for the topic, one closing to summarize, and one para per piece of evidence. That was it. We were never graded on the value of our topic sentence. I specifically remember picking more and more obscure ones as the year went on (like arguing that some minor character in Shakespeare's Henry IV behaved heroically) but no one ever cared. It was reminiscent of debate rules: technical marks only, no one would dare judge the intellectual value of your statements, because that wouldn't be postmodern, would it?

Tracy W said...

In terms of teaching creativity, I came across this article which argues that too much freedom kills creativity..
The argument is that students (not just children) when allowed to do what they want, will mostly revert to whatever we previously found enjoyable or successful. For creative teaching, assignment limitations means that the student has to find another pathway into a work, assuming that the limitations are not too difficult.
I see no sign that this has ever formally been tested, but then I know of no evidence that the idea that freedom promotes creativity has ever been formally tested either.

ElizabethB said...


You need to make a series of YouTube movies showing that, that would be helpful to so many people!

Redkudu said...

ElizabethB -

That might be fun...but I don't own a camera. Maybe I'll think of another way.

Jo Anne C said...

Thank you Redkudu!

I agree with Elizabeth B that You Tube videos of your writing instruction would be a fantastic resource.

My son will be more likely to believe what I have been attempting to teach him, if he is able to see another adult providing similar instructions.

I have noticed that while outlining is mentioned in our K-12 writing program, it is not, however, taught to mastery.

I would appreciate any ideas you would be willing to share on the best method to employ for students to master the skill of outlining.