Friday, February 04, 2011

2/4/2011 Projects

How is it I manage to build up a heap of overdue projects? And I mean really silly things, like, going out of my way to buy new kids' storage furniture, then it sits on the porch in boxes for weeks because I never seem to have a block of time to build it, or to bug Dave to build it. Ridiculous.

But finally, finally, finally, I have completed my annual photo calendar. I've set a new record -- it's well into February now!! In the past I've had it done in the first few days of December.

It'd be easier if I didn't insist that every month's photos were taken in last year's month; some months I just don't have good photos, or not enough to round out a "theme." I had particular trouble with photos this year: after completing the calendar and doing a final review, I wound up completely changing 4 or 5 of the months' photos.

Now, can we finally get around to putting together that new furniture?!


Thursday, February 03, 2011

2/3/2011 What to do....

It looks like Mr. Horrible is there to stay at work. Whenever I tell a new outrageous story about the absurdity of it, I get asked, "Why are you still there? Life is too short!"

I ask myself that a lot. I could make a convincing argument that it's better for us financially -- two incomes are better than one, and I do earn more than enough to cover the hefty cost of childcare. We could survive (keyword there is "survive") on one income, so it's not financial life-and-death that I work.

I could also say that my original plan was to work long enough to get back up to speed after a long hiatus, update skills, forge new contacts, and gather information for the real goal of going independent, somehow. And all that is still true, but I haven't done anything or even thought much about that next step.

Part of my staying at work is that the very extremity of incompetence and nepotism in one person results in unprecedented team cohesion. The usual petty workplace annoyances are in the noise, and I'm enjoying one of the best coworker relationships I've ever had in my career. Nothing like a common enemy to unite us. And I have some pretty awesome coworkers, and I've always taken well to being mentored.

And at heart, I do really like the work. It reaches the geek in me, it forces me to think critically, and rewards my otherwise useless excruciating attention to detail.

But the truth is: I'm not sure I'd know what else to do with myself. Even though I lamenting every day that I wish I had more time.

I know what I'd like to do: write. Or what I'd have to do, because it's always been my inevitable fate. I shouldn't pretend I have a whole lot of choice in the matter.

But would the desire to write carry over when it actually could be satisfied? Would the ideas flow when there's a big blank chunk of time ahead? Or do they only materialize when there's a tiny sliver of time to squeeze through between the vast mental demands of work and raising children? So often I'm frustrated that my head is bursting with ideas but it's physically impossible to sit down and write them -- would that frustration turn to writer's block if I had the time?

Being a writer -- a real one, not just a puppet, a slave to a garbled mind as I am -- takes discipline. It means being able to make yourself write when the opportunity is there, even if the inspiration isn't. It means being able to put yourself back in that mental space you were in when the idea struck. Being a writer means developing practical skills, not just satisfying impulses. I'm a long, long ways off from that.

So for now, it looks like I'm stuck with Mr. Horrible. Then again, maybe I can view this as material-gathering for a future book or article -- about how I turn it into him being stuck with me instead.


Wednesday, February 02, 2011

2/2/2011 Singapore math?

A conversation with my nephew, then another one with my sister a few days later, and all the recent Tiger Mom talk, got me thinking.

My sister is home-schooling my niece and nephew this year, which involves a home-school program three days at a farm, and two days of schooling at home. At home, my sister is using Singapore Math to teach my niece and nephew.

We called my nephew on his birthday, and the boys exchanged a few words about school. Gabriel complained to his cousin about boring repetition in math and other subjects, and Aidan said he didn't have that. It was quite clear who had the better schooling situation!

I don't know much about Singapore Math, but it seems to be embraced by the home-school/alternative/whole-learning set that frowns on "traditional" math learning that is criticized for too much rote learning, memorization, and repetition. But Singapore itself isn't known for its granola flexible society -- it's better-known for Tiger Moms. Is Singapore Math hard-line traditional or alternative warm-n-fuzzy?

I asked my manager about this, and he said that he was indeed raised with Singapore Math -- in Singapore -- but not until he had "the basics" down first -- which includes memorizing multiplication tables. He said nowadays in Singapore, Singapore Math methods are used in conjunction with traditional math techniques. He added that he and his wife compel their two sons to do Singapore Math twice a week at home, because the Palo Alto school district's math curriculum is way too easy! He said they're not the only parents who feel that way, and that the aggressive Jewish and Stanford-professor and Eastern European immigrant parents in Palo Alto make Tiger Mom seem like a creampuff.

So, I still don't get it. How is it that the same math curriculum is embraced by the Tigers and the Granolies?

And where does Cupertino fit in?

Tonight, Gabriel had some math homework that involved finding other ways to solve problems than just brute-force multiplication. Gabriel got stuck on the first problem, and so did I. I understood the intent, but not how to apply it to this problem. The straightforward way to solve the problem itself was to use double-digit multiplication, but Gabriel said they hadn't been taught that yet, and clearly that wasn't the intent of the problem. Maybe if we were both better out-of-the-box creative thinkers we'd have figured out the point of the exercise (and Dave did later), but to get through it, I figured I might as well just show Gabriel how to do double-digit multiplication (that is, where both numbers have more than one digit, like, 14 x12). I'm all about brute force.

This was my first foray into home-schooling; timely since I'd been thinking a lot lately about how challenging it must be. My boys are so rude and resistant about doing even the basics around the house -- how could I possibly get them to respect me as a teacher?

But "home-schooling" has a huge advantage of a tremendous teacher:student ratio. This became apparent within seconds, when I showed Gabriel how to multiply multi-digit numbers. I was floored by his reaction -- he was actually excited by it. Usually he whines and complains about math homework, but he took to this eagerly. It only took a few minutes to show him what to do, then I gave him a 4-digit x 4-digit problem to solve, and he was all over it. He exclaimed, "I learned way more from you than I ever do from this stupid homework, Mom!"

The one-on-one attention likely mattered the most, but I was struck by a few additional things. Gabriel mentioned foam cubes they use in school to demonstrate 1s, 10s, and 100s placement -- visual aids that I think are commonly used in the "whole learning" approach. So our school isn't all about hard-line learning, and the homework reflects that too.

But he had nothing good to say about these visual aids -- he explained eloquently and convincingly how all that is "stupid," and he'd just as soon get on with the regular math. He went on to complain about having to "explain his answer" on worksheets, and the worksheet content itself, which focuses on finding another way to solve a problem (e.g. if you can't do 14 x 12, can you do 14 x (10 + 2)).

Frankly, I'm with him on this. Out loud I defend the methods -- and in principle I do agree with them -- but in truth, I'd just as soon get down to the dirty too. The concept teaching likely works for most kids, but for the uber-literal among us, it's actually more painful. Perhaps it's exceptionally beneficial to us then.

I'm not cut out for home-schooling, and our family dynamic would never support it. But there are certain aspects of it I have respect and envy for, primarily around customizing a curriculum around a particular child. We've long thought that Gabriel of all kids has more specific needs, or would respond better to a more varied curriculum, and lately I've been thinking a lot about this. Tiger Mom inspired me to be much tougher about his attitude toward math tests, and to take a strict line on traditional things like his "math facts" tests (solving 100 simple multiplication problems in 5 minutes to reinforce memorization -- which we now make him do over until he gets them all right). Then my sister inspired me to think more about customizing teaching for a particular kid -- she does this every day after all.

On the other hand, part of life is adapting to the world around you, and there's a whole lot he's gotten out of school that I'd most certainly have missed. He's a really pretty good writer, for instance. He's decent at presenting things and speaking in front of groups, and gets a kick out of tossing humor in.

But there's no doubt that Gabriel would like math much better if he could fast-forward past the concept stuff -- the very material that is supposed to establish the foundation -- and get right to the problem-solving. On the other hand, maybe a kid who has no trouble doing the multiplication needs the supporting material, like how to make the problem easier to solve by reorganizing it.

How much of his enthusiasm about learning multi-digit multiplication was from the material challenge, and how much was from the one-on-one attention? It was both, but he can't fake "ah-hah" moments just because he was basking in individual Mom attention. Gabriel's talented cousin has the acting chops for that, but Gabriel doesn't. He meant it.

I could take this kid places...if I could. His enthusiasm and smiles and relaxation were contagious -- seeing him truly enjoy the lesson instead of bitterly complaining about it really struck me. It's like releasing the emergency brake and letting the car go.

But even if I could home-school, how much else would be lost along the way? He'll always have whatever gifts he was born with, but he won't always have external influences insisting he stretch the sides of him that don't come easily. I was conflicted even before kindergarten with him: should we choose his schooling to develop his strengths or weaknesses? Julian and Katrina are more well-rounded in their abilities and these questions just don't present themselves. But raising Gabriel has always been about unanswered questions.

So what is Singapore Math about anyway?!


p.s. Here's the homework problem that started all this.

A restaurant uses 14 dozen eggs each day. If the restaurant is open 7 days each week, how many eggs will they use in 4 weeks? Explain why your answer makes sense.

Dave and I both first thought this was simply found as 14 x 7 x 4. But Gabriel pointed out "a dozen eggs." So the problem is really 14 x 12 x 7 x 4, and there's no way around double-digit multiplication -- which they haven't been taught yet. Later, Dave decided that the answer was supposed to be expressed in dozens after all, which brings you back to 14 x 7 x 4. I got tired of trying to divine the semantic intent and just figured I'd show him multi-digit multiplication, which wasn't the point of the exercise, but we both liked it a whole lot better. The "explain why your answer makes sense" is what Gabriel hates the most, and I don't like it either! See, I'd make a horrible home-schooler.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

2/1/2011 Anniversary

One year today, working full-time at my old company, which is now a new company. It's been good in many ways and horrible in others. One thing I know for sure: I will have no lingering doubts when it's time to go -- I'll be done!

Gabriel has another book report due, which of course he complained about bitterly. He remembers a talk he had with his cousin recently about not having to do reports, and now exalts home-schooling as something that's super-easy and he'd have control over.

But the more I think about it, and the more I work with the boys on their schoolwork (which I do more of now, with my new higher standards for quality of work), the more I see home-schooling as some unreachable pinnacle. How do home-school parents do that! It could only happen with cooperative kids -- for me it's a serious struggle just to get the boys to put their lunch away every day. I can't imagine a whole 20-minute exercise or a whole day keeping their attention. What an intense job that must be.

At the same time, I've read in many places that the #1 factor in quality education is the child/teacher ratio, and home-schoolers certainly get a good one of those. They get committed parents who can be right on top of issues or deficiencies, or elaborate on strengths in exactly the way an individual needs.

I'd be the worst home-schooling parent in the world, and I couldn't possibly take the stress of overcoming the sibling dynamic and getting my children to listen to me, but it's like opening up a new world to think of what I could do with them -- if I could.

Meantime, I'll start my 2nd year of work tomorrow and let my tax dollars do schooling for me.


Monday, January 31, 2011

1/31/2011 Star Of The Week

This sure has been a busy end-of-January. Gabriel had a book report due Friday, an in-class "birthday meeting" Friday, and today, "Star Of The Week."

We worked on this poster over the weekend, and rehearsed his presentation last night. We had 3 weeks to do it, and really only did it in a few days, but it worked out.

I went with him to present it, and it went very well. Gabriel talked easily about his "Breaking News," "Travel Guide," his family, and his favorites.

Then his "sharing" about cultural traditional items or a hobby (thank goodness) was of course about electronics. He showed a radio-controlled car and talked about how it's no longer in tune with the transmitter, then showed a timer he made in his Electronics Learning Lab, modified from a design in the manual.

To my surprise, his teacher told me afterward that he's very comfortable speaking in front of a group. I have to give this school district some credit for that; speaking in front of groups is something they've been doing since kindergarten. I think that's a great thing to develop in everyone; I'd certainly have benefitted from that throughout my life.

The odious job of filling in all the kindergarten registration forms and finding all the right documents was weighing on me all weekend. It's shocking that registering for school is the same tired manual process as was probably done 80 years ago. Online? Download? Electronic? Feh! Here in Silicon Valley, technology capital of the world? No way! You have to go to the backcorners of Kansas for that sort of modernization. Here, you have to fill everything out by hand and replicate your address and phone number on every form. At least this year there was nothing about #2 pencil.

Then there's the pain of turning it all in. Conveniently, Gabriel's Star Of The Week presentation coincided with the kindergarten registration window, so I took care of turning in the forms (a 10-minute reviewing process, for each parent -- heaven forbid there's a line) after his presentation this morning. Aside from a quick trip home to fetch the originals of Katrina's immunization records, it went smoothly. And now it's done.

Done! Katrina is officially registered for kindergarten! My baby! But not a baby and thank goodness for that, but still -- my little girl!!

I can't decide which is freaking me out more today -- my oldest turning 9, or my youngest going to kindergarten. All good stuff, but I'm getting dizzy from the speed at which this child-raising thing is picking up!

I didn't mention my favorite second-born child here, and that is the trouble of being in the middle. He's not oldest turning 9 and he's not the youngest on her way to kindergarten, but he is the one who ran out to greet me when I got home and gave me a big hug and one of his famously fabulous kisses. That part doesn't need to go by fast either.


Sunday, January 30, 2011

1/30/2011 9!

Not much happened today for Gabriel's birthday, on the surface. But it was a great day for that reason. Julian was at a rare playdate, and this made life MUCH easier around here -- no pestering little sister, no fighting with brother.

(Katrina is reading every word I'm writing over my shoulder and repeating it aloud as I type...ok she got stuck on "shoulder"...)

I took Gabriel to Toys'R'Us so he could buy "Bey Blades," an old rage in new plastic wrapping, a Japanese take on the old "battle tops" games. He's been absorbed in that all day.

This morning before Bey Blades invaded our house, I heard Gabriel playing the piano and singing, and snuck in to take some video. He noticed me partway through the video, but was overall undaunted. (She doesn't know the word "daunted" either.) He does this for an hour at a time - he sure does like his blues!

Katrina is reading super super well, especially for being only 4-1/4. Most people are impressed at her apparent kindergarten-readiness based on that, but Dave and I are increasingly nervous about a much more serious and meaningful kindergarten-readiness metric: she's been "leaking" in her pants more and more. Today she went through three changes of clothes, and would have had more without numerous reminders. Regardless of reading level, no school will (or should) take her if she's still acting like a new potty-training toddler.

(She's reading all this as I'm writing and giggling, which tells me she comprehends it, and tells me again how much she cares about this problem: not at all. Yeah hah hah very funny.)

Maybe by the time she's 9 we'll be done with this. Meantime, we have a birthday to celebrate!