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?