kitchen table math, the sequel: milestone

Friday, January 4, 2008


C. arrived home in high spirits this afternoon.

"I'm not the dumb kid in math any more," he said.

And he's not. "Mr. P. gave us a really hard problem and I knew how to do it. And I could explain it."

It's all been worth it.

Every single minute.


Karen A said...

That's awesome news!! Congratulations! What a great feeling!

Tex said...


concernedCTparent said...

My first reaction was that this must have been music to your ears.

This morning, however, it struck me just how very life altering this is for C. This is certainly a milestone-- a life changing one.

Keep up the good work! (Both of you.)

palisadesk said...


I can only distantly empathize, but it's such a satisfying feeling.

A friend whose child attends a "good" (high-scoring, upper-SES, non-diverse) school had a chid who, in middle second grade, was still a total non-reader. School did not find this a problem. Child and parent did not agree.
I tested him myself: no phonological issues, extremely high verbal aptitude, outstanding vocabulary. Parent read to him, took him to library, bought him books.


Just wait, school says. He will read when he is ready.

Ever my cheerful self, I suggested maybe this mystical readiness might materialize around the time Medicaid kicked in. Meanwhile, perhaps we should give "development" just the teeniest push? After all, we don't see many teenagers in diapers, do we? They would probably "naturally" develop continence. Doesn't stop us from toilet-training toddlers.

Following a curriculum wasn't something the mother was confident with. So I suggested the online instructional program Headsprout Early Reading. Kid started it in January. He was at a Kindergarten level. He learned quickly. I told mom, you watch, no one in school will notice. And when they finally do, they will NOT want to know what you are doing. They will take all the credit!

Sure enough, in March he had come up 20 levels on the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) and was at grade level. Mom tried to tell the school about Headsprout (developed on DI and PT principles). Of course, no one was interested -- they said, "Oh, it just finally all 'clicked'." Oh sure. But I felt a warm glow (the more so since I didn't do any of the work!!)

I did do some of the work on a kid at school. I first noticed her when I was on recess supervision duty. She was young for first grade, only five, and unprepossessing in appearance -- Coke-bottle glasses, somewhat clumsy where gross motor movement was concerned, often solitary and engrossed in her own interests. I went up to her on one occasion as she was scrutinizing the ground and putting sticks carefully in some sort of order. "What are you doing ?" I asked .

"I'm testing my hypothesis," came the reply. Whoa! I thought. She was in fact putting obstacles in the way of ants and predicting what they would do. But her language got my attention. This is a largely ESL school where "He gots mines" is the normal level of oral expression at age 5. I started to pay attention to this child, who had intriguing ideas, loved to play with words and concepts, socialized well and had lots of friends but happily went her own way as needed. Teachers liked her, but no one thought she was bright. She was on an IEP in third grade -- could not read or write. I was L.A resource teacher that year and manipulated things so she got into my sub rosa Reading Mastery group. Zoom! By Christmas she was in RM V (fourth grade level). The following year, we were pressured to nominate some kids for screening for the Gifted program. Of course teachers insisted we had no gifted students. I nominated Miss Hypothesis Testing. Big flurry -- "You can't nominate her! She had an IEP! She must be LD!"

Nonsense, I said. She is not LD. She is gifted. Wanna put some money on the line? How about $500?

I had no takers. But I did get her tested. Later in the day, I saw the psychologist in the hall. She wore a peculiar expression.

"I've been testing a lot of kids, because there's a push on to find kids in these low-performing schools who qualify for the gifted program (have to be 99th percentile on the WISC). But, the kids nominated at these schools are nowhere even close. Until today -- your little M. is off the charts! Wow! How did you know??"

I had a wicked thought and just said, "It takes one to know one," and sauntered on. But I had that warm glow again -- reactivated recently, when I found out that that same child is now in the first cohort at our new high school gifted program. Later, I did pump the psychologist for information. Would M have qualified for the gifted program if she still had reading and writing skills at a K level in 4th grade?

No, the psych said. She would qualify for an LD class.

I felt like I had just pulled somebody off the Titanic. It's a great feeling, I'll bet waaay more so when it's your own child. These truly are life-changing milestones.

concernedCTparent said...

Please have palisadesk's entry posted up front. Everyone should read it (maybe even more than once).

concernedCTparent said...

BTW, Palisadesk, you did pull someone off the Titanic.

I bet you've done it many more times than you even realize.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Great story, Palisadesk,

You really saved that little girl.

When my special ed son's middle school kept sending him home with 2nd and 3rd grade math sheets, I grabbed a Saxon 6/5 text and started afterschooling him over the next 2 years, 5 days a week.

The teachers often reported how good he was doing in math class, but the kicker was when his teacher asked me if I realized that he was doing pre-algebra.

Why yes, I did.


Catherine Johnson said...

that story's going up front RIGHT THIS MINUTE

of course, that will delay my posting a paragraph from another palisadesk find....

Catherine Johnson said...

It's horrifying, trying to grasp the sheer number of casualties.

The problem with all of these situations is that we're not just dealing with a dysfunctional education system, we're also dealing with dysfunctional "folk theories" of the brain and mind. Americans really do believe that talent and IQ are innate, given, and, much more destructively, narrowly bounded.

For most Americans IQ is a point, not a range, and everyone believes this: parents, teachers, administrators.

I've had the luck to be resistant to this view partly because I'm a natural born contrarian, partly because of the "do your best // practice, practice, practice // no showing off" work ethic I was raised with, and then, later on, partly because I wrote about the brain for a living.

Once you get to know the research a little bit, you realize that no one really knows what IQ is, or what talent is, & no one knows how plastic they may be. Given my background, I conclude from this that one should generally err on the side of assuming plasticity rather than fixed-from-birth givens.

(Since I have two autistic children, I should add that I'm not talking about optimism to the point of denial.)

With C., who clearly has quite decent natural intelligence, it just never made a lick of sense to me to go with the "math isn't his thing" idea.

Why should math not be his thing?

And how would one determine this given the problematic teaching and curriculum he's had?

More importantly, even if math "isn't his thing," why should that matter?

I'm thrilled to have stumbled onto the "acquired taste" analogy. There is just no logical reason for a reasonably intelligent person (or a reasonably nonintelligent person, for that matter) not to develop a competency in math and an appreciation for the amazing creation that it is.

So this is a great moment. It really is.

We'll see how things develop from here, of course. I'm sure he'll have more ups and downs on tests & grades, etc.

But this feels different. It feels as if he may be crossing a border.

Leaving Normal, I guess.

PaulaV said...


What wonderful news! A big smile is on my face just thinking of how proud both you and C. must be!

Tracy W said...

Is this good news day for this blog?
Congratulations to Catherine and Chris. It shows what hard work can achieve.

Catherine Johnson said...

Thank you!

Yeah, I'm back to believing in hard work...I'd been despairing a bit because "hard work" when you don't know what you're doing is such a blunt instrument. When I read about precision teaching & direct instruction -- and when I read teacher blogs and comments (redkudu, palisadesk, pissed-off teacher, nyc educator, ms. teacher ....) -- I see how very crude my efforts with C. have been.

I feel the same way about his two teachers this year. Even from afar, I can see that they know what they're doing where I'm just making it up as I go along.

So I'd been feeling a bit hopeless.

Then I read a nice passage in Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog in which she says, explicitly, that you can get the job done without being good at teaching.

It takes a lot longer, but you can do it.

That was terrifically reassuring, and it's more or less the implicit model I'd been using. I'd been exchanging quantity (extra time on task) for quality of teaching.

I'll post that passage.

Catherine Johnson said...

Otoh, it's clear to me that he is FAR below where he should be. The gap between his Reading Comprehension score on the ISEE and both of his math scores is huge.

Twenty-five points on a 100-point scale on Math Achievement.


Still, the ISEE is taken by only about 100,000 kids in the country, so a 74th percentile score on math achievement on the ISEE means he's "in the game," I think.

He's not hopelessly behind.

Instructivist said...

I wonder if the bar modelers think that the following problem lends itself to bar modeling?

A jacket is on sale for 70% of the original price. If the discount saves $45,
what was the original price of the jacket? What is the sale price?

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the bar modelers think that the following problem lends itself to bar modeling?

A jacket is on sale for 70% of the original price. If the discount saves $45,
what was the original price of the jacket? What is the sale price?
January 10, 2008 9:50 PM

Yes, I can do this problem with Bar Modeling....
XXXXXXX | XXX | = original price
{ ? } {$45} = original price

sale price = 7x = $105
discount = 3x = $45
original price = $150

It's early. I'm no math whiz. I don't know much algebra, but I'm doing SM 5A with my child. Did I get it right?

Instructivist said...

[Yes, I can do this problem with Bar Modeling....
XXXXXXX | XXX | = original price
{ ? } {$45} = original price]

Thank you, Nicksmama.

It's spectacular what can be done with bar modeling. I became an enthusiast after being able to reproduce the modeling of a problem posed by Barry in Singapore Math: Simple or Complex?

The problem was:

Lauren spent 20 percent of her money on a dress. She spent 2/5 of the remainder on a book. She had $72 left. How much money did she have at first?

This intimidating problem becomes child's play once bar modeling is mastered.

Anonymous said...


I think the beauty of bar modeling is that the student must first think logically, then think mathematically to solve problems using a bar model. With both problems you cited, you need to really think about what facts aren't stated. No looking for clue words to figure out whether you add, subtract, multiply or divide. You really have to just concentrate on what you know and what is unknown...

Unfortunately, logic is not formally taught in early education. I home school and we use a separate logic program along with SM. Works wonders. My oldest would probably to the discount problem without drawing out the models at this point. He would just understand that $45=30%, then divide in his head and come out with the unit/10% and multiply by 10 to get the original price.