Thursday, April 30, 2009

Success (breeds success)

Youngest Daughter is preparing for her Advanced Placement tests in US History and English Language. It's been a difficult year, for many reasons, but the upcoming tests have been more of a drag than we expected. YD's having trouble concentrating on her studies - and without being able to turn up the focus, it's very hard to retain the solid factual stuff which makes up the first part of each test. She's also having trouble finishing the essay questions in the allotted time, and those comprise the second part of the test. Things don't look good.

Focus is a problem for her at the best of times and not one I expect her teachers to be able to solve; she's got a powerful case of ADD and we work on it in our own ways at home. But she's had no advice from either of her AP teachers as to what strategies to employ in order to improve her timing on the essays, and that surprises me. Wouldn't you think they'd have an idea or two on the subject? One of her teachers was alarmed enough to contact me; the other simply offered her failing grade after failing grade.

Both of these teachers, I should mention, obviously care about her. They enjoy having her in their classrooms: the first is urging YD to take a follow-up class with her next year; the second failed to flag YD's failing grades for the office because he didn't want her moved to another, less rigorous, classroom. Without her, he said, there'd be no insightful class discussion. He couldn't let her go.

Middle Kid - the one who intends to pursue a career in teaching - offered her the first piece of helpful advice she got: if you can't finish in the time allotted, he said, then write less. He was right on the money - YD is a perfectionist and wanted to be able to write the same sort of essay in forty minutes that she would have written if the essay were assigned as homework. It was hard for her to attack these questions at that different, shallower, level; but once she got the hang of it, the grades began to come up.

The second bit of helpful advice came from me, but it was entirely accidental. Over spring break, she wrote several practice essays taken from the College Board's website. For some reason, on the very first one, I set a kitchen timer next to her. She finished the essay with a minute-and-a-half to spare - and it was a damned good essay, too! It turns out that YD really has no internal clock at all, no sense of time passing, no ability to gauge how much time is left. Having a timer at her elbow made all the difference.

We still had to battle a bit with the College Board. She'll take a timer to the test, we thought, and that will be that. Not so fast, said the CB. You can't bring anything that beeps. Okay. How about the stopwatch function on a watch? All you do is push start, stop, and reset. It won't beep at any point because it isn't timing down - it's counting up. No, no, said the CB. The start, stop, and reset buttons beep when you push them. Fine. She'll set the watch next to her, make a note of the time she should finish, and proceed from there. Fine, said the CB.

But let's go back to those teachers for a moment. I'm a huge fan of public education in general, and of our local school system in particular. But in this case, I felt that YD didn't get the sort of attention she deserved. It's true that students in AP classes are expected to keep up, but when a student who clearly should be able to work at that level fails, is some teacherly action too much to ask? Maybe YD's profound disconnect with time is unusual enough that her teachers were stumped; but surely runaway perfectionism is something they confront regularly.

The excuse I hear most often is that this is a college-level class, and in college she wouldn't receive any special treatment. Ah, I say, but she's not in college yet. She may be able to comprehend more intellectually challenging material, but she's still a high school student. Obviously she needs strategies for dealing with work of this caliber, and if you aren't going to offer them while she's still in high school, when exactly will you? Is an AP class really a place where students can't expect help?

Apparently so. If YD manages to pass her AP tests, it will be in spite of this odd blind spot on the part of her otherwise talented and dynamic teachers. Succeeding at writing the essays has been key to improving her focus. She doesn't feel quite so hopeless, or helpless, anymore. She can come at the material without all that angst, so she's better at retaining it. I think she's got a shot at passing, and that's a good thing. But I have to ask - how many kids with extraordinary intellectual capabilities fail because no one will help them when they're struggling?


~Sia McKye~ said...

I know jake has problems in conjuction with time. Hmmm, never thought of it in this way. Chronicially loses track of time. Has two weeks to get something done and waits until two days before he has to turn it in. Why worry about it before you have to? that's his motto. Problem is, by then, he has 3 assignments due at about the same time. He can't get them all done.

Focus is a big problem with Jake. there are many things that take away his concentration--a butterfly fluttering by. Staying organizied is another. I've tried everything. Tools, day planner--I don't remember what I did with it mom, it WAS here. I wrote down the assignment but I can't remember where. Forgets to go by the counseling office to pick up his folder with the weeks assigments so I have them. That means I'm going to have to go and get them every Monday afternoon. Missing assignments? Oh well we're on this now, that's past. Hard headed but brilliant kid.

Next year, if he makes it to next year, he's a 9th grader. Grades count. By this time, they figure the kids are primed and ready and not a lot of help. He should know the routine now. Assignment handed out and it's on them whether it's returned or not. Not our responsibility, the teachers say. They say that to some extent now.

It's all very frustrating. Answers? I haven't found them yet. I ADD and I had to learn how to organize and stay on task. I understand but I can't let him have slack now. It puts us at odds.

I dread next year. I will have to be on top of things from day one and not let them put Jake in easier classes because that solves nothing.

McMama said...

Oh, Sia, I so know how this goes. He does sound a little ADD-ish. It's characterized by an inability to focus on things that bore him (we're talking IMPOSSIBILITY, not difficulty), and hyper-attention to things he likes. There are some specific tests for it, mostly involving monitoring boring activity. It shows right up...and when my teen was diagnosed, a lot of things made sense. Like, we all knew that if you wanted her attention, you had to touch her. She wouldn't hear you if all you did was talk.

If he has ADD, the prescribed drugs really make a difference. AND, you might still get lucky - he's pretty young. One-third of ADD sufferers outgrow the condition after puberty.

One-third remain the same, have to learn strategies to cope, and are somewhat more likely to engage in risky behaviors. The other third develop bi-polar disorder.


So it's well worth diagnosing. Don't let the naysayers get you down. It's real and it has consequences. And it can be handled.

As to the time thing - yeah. Me, too. But even with all these years of nagging and reminding and following up, I was surprised to realize how completely insensitive she is to it. No wonder she procrastinates - time has no meaning for her.

And the forgetting. Argh. Mine writes things she must remember to do on her hand. It works. The back of her hand will read 'Meet Mom in office @ 2' when she has a doctor's appointment. Stuff like that.