In His Own Head

A little over a week ago on a Thursday evening, Noah’s math and science teacher Señor S called. Noah had lost the homework packet he’d passed out on Monday and then the copier broke and he couldn’t make another one for him so Noah didn’t bring home the packet—which contained four nights of math homework– until the night before it was due. Señor S wanted to know if Noah would be able to get it done. Beth said it wouldn’t be a problem; he was almost finished. Then the conversation turned to more general matters. Beth says he had “that bewildered tone they all have.” I knew what she meant. Noah either charms or puzzles his teachers. He has since preschool.

“He doesn’t seem to be paying attention…he doesn’t do his classwork…but he understands everything anyway,” Señor S reported. This is what they all say. The telling part is whether they focus on how smart he is or how poor his work habits are. That usually tells us how his year is going to go with this particular teacher. The ones who are better at engaging him gush about his creativity, his vocabulary and the speed at which he learns and then they say, oh, by the way he really could be focusing better on completing his work. The others reverse the emphasis. Señor S wanted to know if Beth had any tips on how to get him to focus on his work. She didn’t. This is something I struggle with as I supervise his homework every day. Some afternoons he cruises through his assignments. Other days, he crawls along at an agonizingly slow pace. I’m not sure anything I do makes a difference.

Later, on Facebook, Beth mused, “The problem is that what Noah wants to think about isn’t what MCPS wants him to think about. Not much to be done about that.” She asked him why he gets distracted in class. She wanted to know if it was something in the classroom environment or the thoughts in his own head. “It’s all in my own head,” he responded quickly.

We’re applying to a magnet elementary school for the “highly gifted” in our school district for Noah’s fourth grade year. Noah’s teachers have been mentioning this school since he was four years old. I’m torn about where he would be better off. Attending the gifted center would mean leaving the Spanish immersion program and I think fluency in another language could have lifelong benefits for him. I’m also wary of having him leave friends behind because he doesn’t make new friends easily. Of course, if some of his friends are accepted and attend the new school, he will be separated from friends whether he goes or not. (He and Sasha have a pact that neither of them will go unless both are accepted.) It’s also possible Noah might make friends more easily in a school where more of the kids were more like him. I also don’t know if a heavier workload would be a disaster for him, or if he’d encounter more creative teaching there that would inspire him and improve his work habits.

This isn’t really a complaint about his elementary school teachers. For the most part, they’ve been skilled and devoted professionals. Some have connected better with him than others, but that’s part of life. I’m more concerned with the teachers’ ability to teach to kids at all different levels. He’s had a couple teachers who did a really stellar job here and others who struggled. His school was tracking students in their math and science classes last year and abandoned the practice this year so while he’s supposed to be doing accelerated math, he’s not in an all-accelerated class as he was last year. I have mixed feelings about tracking, but it was working for him. For the first few weeks of the year this year, both his English and Spanish teachers (both of whom are new to the school) assigned homework that was years below his skill level. Then they seemed to have gotten their bearings and he had more appropriate reading and math to do for the next couple weeks. And then the color-by-numbers and ridiculously easy reading comprehension worksheets started coming home again. I honestly don’t know what’s up. Noah seems happy enough with his teachers, but he’s not chattering on about school the way he did last year, so I don’t know as much as I would like to about how third grade is going, six weeks in.

I found out from the mother of one of his classmates that Señor S gives them daily quizzes. The girl in question finds them stressful, especially as they are getting letter grades for the first time this year, but Noah never even mentioned the quizzes. He’s either confident that he’ll do well or he doesn’t care too much about grades. I think it’s probably both.

I walked both kids to school on Monday because Beth was out of town and I needed to be walking June to school at the time he and Beth are usually waiting for the bus. Luckily their schools are close to each other. I asked him about the tests, and he said they weren’t tests, but “exit tickets.” He said they have to finish them to be allowed to proceed to recess or their afternoon classes. I was surprised to hear this. He’d never mentioned it. I asked if he was missing recess very often. Never, he said, though he was delayed going to Ms. M’s class one day. Again, I was surprised. I wondered why he was finishing these assignments but not whatever other work, Señor S wanted him to complete. Next I asked him which class he likes better. He said most years he likes his English class better, but this year he liked his Spanish class best. Was it the material or the teacher, I asked him. The teacher, he said. He confided that when one student misbehaves, Ms. M gets grumpy with the whole class. It was an enlightening conversation.

I need to talk to him about school more often, I resolved.

I started when he got home from school Monday afternoon. I asked about gym and he didn’t have much to say. I tried recess and hit pay dirt. He’d mentioned earlier he’d been playing with a boy he was close to in kindergarten and with whom he’s had an on and off friendship ever since. He said Sasha and the other boy both wanted him to play with them and not the other and it turned into an argument between the two boys. Noah sounded annoyed at both of them and it sounded like no one ended up playing at all. I was sorry to hear it because I know the other boy has been frequently excluded from Noah’s circle (and sometimes by Noah himself, though it doesn’t sound like that was the case this day). I tried convincing him that the boy really needs a friend and that he should know how it feels because sometimes he has trouble finding people to play with at recess, too, especially when Sasha’s playing a game that doesn’t interest him. Noah said the other boy “takes it more seriously.” All the more reason to be kind to him, I suggested. At the same time I was remembering befriending an unpopular girl in elementary school and quickly finding out how difficult she could be. It’s easier to give advice about childhood friendships than to navigate them, I think.

Tuesday night Beth and I attended an information session about the gifted centers. I saw a lot of familiar faces in the audience, including Sasha and his dad. It looks like several of Noah’s classmates may apply. The pros and cons raised by the presenters were mostly issues I’d already considered so I didn’t feel too swayed one way or the other. But after the meeting, Beth and I discussed the potentially long and circuitous bus route he would have to take and she sounded pretty discouraged. Transportation logistics are complicated for us since I don’t drive and the bus would not stop in front of our house, but at a central location where I might need to be around the same time June would be dismissed from preschool (the 4s/5s class meets in the afternoons).

Wednesday morning was International Walk to School Day, so Beth and Noah walked. They ran into Sr. S and he told her he was concerned about Noah’s handwriting. Specifically, he was worried that Noah’s test scores might not be counted on the standardized writing tests the third graders take at the end of the year if he doesn’t write legibly. Sr. S is new to the county and understandably nervous about these high stakes tests by which the teachers are judged. He asked Beth to have Noah practice his handwriting on the weekends and Beth started to wonder if all the coloring Noah finds so tedious is supposed to improve the students’ hand-eye co-ordination and their handwriting.

Noah had a lot of homework this week. There was a math packet on different kinds of averages (mean, mode and median) that was right about at his level. He had to draw a duck and write a story about it in Spanish. He had to fill his English vocabulary words into the blanks in a story. What took up the most of his time, though, was the twenty-four line Spanish poem he needed to memorize. It’s about how plants reproduce, which is what they’re studying in science. I think there’s value in learning to memorize poetry but it wasn’t a particularly well-written poem, which I had plenty of time to reflect on as I read it to him and listened to him recite it to me over and over four evenings in a row.

So it was a relief that today was Friday and other than his daily reading, he didn’t need to do any homework. We finished the last book in A Series of Unfortunate Events (#13 The End), which is sad for me, because I’ve really enjoyed reading it with him over the course of the past four months. And because we only had a very short chapter left in it, he picked up the Bunnicula series where he’d left off and read it on his own, curled up in the sky chair. I watched him reading for a while, thinking that even though I don’t know as much as I’d like about his school life, I do know he has an active life of the mind. Some of what’s in his head we share, such as the adventures of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire that we’ve been discussing for months. Some only he knows, but I’m pretty sure the inside of his head will be a pretty interesting place for years to come.