Issue #6

In this issue, I'm taking on competitive math for no reason, creating an award winning college resume 4-7 years in advance, and cramming for tests...
Issue #6
We're back to daily At Home Schooling, and it's not only going well, but everybody appears to be having fun. This week we had the last big test before high school. I think everything went fine, but we have 4 months to think about thinks that could have gone wrong.
From the Editor
I made it to issue #6.

In 2011, I started a blog under the rough heading of how I was going to cheat my child into a GAT program, not merely passing the entrance exam, but showing up ready to compete. I had an entire year of writing before the blog was discovered, which gave me the luxury of a series of failed experiments that I have since retracted.

This blog is no different. I've got an 8th grader paving the way; fortunately he wants to go to a selective enrollment school that has some room in the final score. I've got an arsenal of methodology and pedagogy to help, plans B, C, D and E if needed, and a second child to benefit from our experience.

Math Competition

We're going to enroll in competitive math this year. It's not so much competing in math as it is practicing timed tests. As you know, tests are everything...

Math Competition

We've been doing daily math now for almost 6.5 years. When I say 'daily', I mean a few times a week, but always on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, because the iron clad rule in the house is 'No math, no computer.' When I say 'math', I might assign reading comprehension or programming. Regardless, this has resulted in a lot of math. We started dabbling in competitive math material in 2nd grade because there's no point in going ahead in academic math until after pre-algebra. Going ahead in long division just makes a kid dumber.

The mother of one of the new kids in school teaches math. She suggested we get a 5th grade team together and enroll in an upcoming competition. What a great idea. Unfortunately, she also suggested that one of our teachers lead the effort. This is a non-starter; why would anybody want to work on the weekends? In lieu of the team effort, we signing up for the Math Kangaroo competition in March, 2019.


In third grade we attempted Math Leads for Mathletes. The book is described as best suited for advanced fourth and fifth graders as well as for extremely talented third graders or for anyone preparing for AMC 8 or similar mathematics contests. I would describe it as 'insanely hard', even by my standards. We had little luck with the book in 3rd grade, even though we knocked off algebra and trig the next year. I knew we were in trouble when the term 20482048 appeared in a problem.

We are currently plodding through the problems on Not only does this website have a name based on a lame pun, but it has good problems. We are doing the problems in order and are up to #6. You may notice heavy doses of algebra and trig. My little competitor ignores the algebra and solves the problem anyway, and trig at this level boils down to a few simple equations which I can explain in an afternoon. So don't be put off by the subject matter. So what if it takes us 20 minutes to get through a single problem?

We're going to take another shot at the Mathletes book. The challenge is that each problem takes about 45 minutes if done properly. I suppose that I could figure out a way to speed things up, but math is the opposite of speed.

Plan B

As I mentioned, Kangaroo Math has a competition on March 21, 2019, so we're signing up. My son complained in a very high whiny voice, with a pitch only achievable by someone with a promising math career, the kind that dogs can hear, saying 'I'm not going to a math competition for 13 year olds!'. It's for all ages. He's going.

It turns out that there are other competition available in the Chicago area, including MathCON (another great name). We'll have to do all of them.

How to Win

In addition to a variety of math skills, the little competitor would benefit from calculating quickly and accurately. We do some of that in school, but never at home. Speed and accuracy are the enemy of real math, and I'm not going to do anything to jeopardize graduate school, where the ability to regurgitate learned behavior and apply formulas are a prescription for failure. A child who practices math facts today is the employee of tomorrow.

Nonetheless, taking a timed test is good practice. We'll have to overcome deficits in calculation skills by clever problem solving so we're doubling up on clever problem solving. I'd like to say I wrote the book on problem solving for this age, but I didn't write it yet. I spell it out on my other blog, but it's not a book. If you want the book, see Poyla's 'How to Solve It' and reduce it to the level of a 10 year old.

A week into this, we've switched over to released tests from some of the competitions. The problems are much higher quality. We learned a new problem solving skill! That makes 6. One of the math comp sites actually listed Poyla's problems solving techniques on their website, but only 4 of them, and not the most powerful of all, and certainly not the new strategy 6.

Competitive math is the only category of childhood where every participant is a winner. Someday, they'll all be sitting for multiple high school entrance exams, the PSAT, the SAT and the GRE. Competitive math tests are good practice. I don't draw any correlations between standing in the outfield at a little league game and future success in anything. But doing 22 out of 45 problems in math competition under time pressure is good practice for lots of things.

Spider Man and the Bible

Our reading program started with the bible and meandered to philosophy and other types of literature. Then I read this article about Stan Lee and we're changing back...

Spider Man and the Bible

Somewhere around issue #2 I outlined our 8th grade writing program. My idea was to start with Jewish scriptures because it captures all of the foundational themes of western literature, is the basis for democracy, and provides a lot of great life lessons for a teenager. We're not Jewish and this reading program requires extra effort. We strayed from the course.

Recently, this article about Stan Lee came across my news feed: Stan Lee Gave Comic Books Permission to be More Jewish. It is well known that DC comic books had one dimensional characters and Marvel introduced more complexity, like the teen age angst, humor, and sassiness of Spider Man. The article describes these traits as Jewish. I wouldn't know. But its obvious to me that Spider Man has a lot in common with biblical characters, as do the rest of the Marvel Universe.

It's worse than that

In the 1st century, the Jewish leadership decided that all Jewish children would learn to read by mandate, and they had literature to work with. The rest of world history has been continually impacted by this decision. Do other cultures write as much? Maybe my culture the Irish when we take a break from talking. In the United States, I am just now seeing a bit of writing coming from the Indian and Chinese cultures, but there's still a lot of 1st generation STEM immigration producing second generation STEM students.

It's pretty obvious that a large portion of the best script writing is either from Jewish authors or influenced by Jewish authors. Historical and bigoted criticism misinterpreted their success as following the money. This line of bigotry states that wealthy people pay their way into gifted programs. A more accurate and intelligent interpretation is that super intelligence - the kind that comes from early reading and hard work usually produces high salaries and educated offspring. Good for them.

I lost this article, and to find it searched for 'Jewish news Spider Man'. Try it. There is a lot of Jewish news. Boy do they write a lot. According to this unscientific study, 47% of Jewish adults write for news organizations, probably part time.

What about STEM?

I found out about the 1st century reading mandate when my oldest was a toddler. We used Pre-K Phonics and Conceptual Vocabulary and made heavy reading part of our At Home culture. Since all cognitive skills are present in the process of learning to read (known since 1915), the result of out over-the-top reading program has been extraordinary math skills. Common Core has shifted math requirements to the verbal side as well.

When I was in graduate school, I stopped by a Jewish professor's house to have a meeting one night. He took a break to read the Hobbit to his 4 year old daughter - part of their bed time routine. It was a great experience, and I decided that I would steal from every culture when I found something worth stealing. I have gems from India, China, Africa and every place south of El Paso to share later. This is what it means to be American - to misappropriate other cultures. I'll share these other gems later.

We're not short cutting STEM in this house. But STEM isn't a path to leadership without strong verbal skills, and the CEO suite requires the ability to tell stories on top of regular communication skills.

On the other hand, most of the competition is in STEM. As I think about the fastest and easiest way to get to the top, I'm thinking about writing. A 1600 on the SAT is no longer a path to college. At 1550 with a few published papers or literary competitions on the other hand is a winner. I'm starting to look in this direction.

Building a College Resume

According to the stack of books I'm reading, a college application won't get very far if it lacks 5 or 6 strong activities...

Buidling A College Resume

According to the stack of books I'm reading, a college application won't get very far if it lacks 5 or 6 extra curricular activities. I'm not in favor of loading up on clubs, sports or even AP courses because it produces a shallow automaton destined to lead an uninspired life. I complained to my wife.

My wife replied that our oldest just survived 7th grade, the grade that counts in Chicago, achieving great grades except for that one quarter where he blew off one class because he calculated that he could, did well on his entrance exams, and did band, boy scouts, cross country, track, the math team, and met regularly with his Friday after school social group. That makes 5 1/2. He could have joined the science club for a solid 6, but he didn't.

Breaking it down

Schools are looking for 2 things beyond the 5 or 6 required activities: leadership and longevity. I'm looking for one thing - balance, aka not burning out.

My contribution was to disallow quitting. Thanks to this policy, he is the only 8th grader in band, slowly taking on leadership responsibilities. The boy scout troop is planning a trip to Florida next year, but the endeavor requires the scouts to be 1st class by then. Being 1st class by freshman year makes the eagle scout rank all but inevitable. Not quitting always pays dividends.

The sports mentioned above are barely sports. It's more like occasional jogging. In my day, we had hard workouts up to 2 hours every day for 5 months. The butter bean kids are spoiled with practice twice a week for 6 weeks. A good warm up for high school and no where near over doing it.

I don't know what he's doing on the math team. They are pictured above. Free parent consulting to the first reader who looks for clues in this issue and correctly identifies my son and the 2 smart kids on the team. If you put together the math competition article and the reading article in this issue, you'll see that I'm OK with it but wonder where it came from. I blame the science teacher. I've been training little brother from birth in math like Tiger Wood's abusive father trained his son; I limit the abuse to 30 minute sessions these days.

Taking the next step

My next step as a parent is to do even more lessness than I'm doing now. The secret to raising a successful child is to do less and less. I'm not sure that band is going to survive to high school, although that would be nice. I'm leaving grandfather's college band memorabilia around the house as a hint. I am dropping my prohibition against quitting and replacing it with short, pointed lectures as needed. Here's an example:

What, you want to quit _______ ? Of course you want to quit. You're 13. Everyone wants to quit at that age. Let me warn you now, not quitting is the single biggest factor in your entire future. In fact, last night, the ghost of your future self visited me and thanked me for dissuading you from quitting because not only was __________ so important to your future life, but it opened many doors related to your future success. Why don't you put it off for a month and then we'll have the same talk then.

Studying for the test

Today is the final test for high school entrance. Once again we took a close look at the topics on the test and have been following a strategy of...

Studying for the test

Yesterday we took the the last test before high school. It's been 9 solid years of tests.

Going into the test, we took care of logistics, topical areas, practice, strategy, and last minute coaching advice (don't miss any questions and don't get any wrong and don't take too long). Coming out, my son explained to me the one thing we missed so that I'll spend the next 4 months with anxiety, doubt, and regret.

Preparation & Logistics

There are plenty of testing services available for this test. I strongly recommend that you sign up for one of these. We didn't sign up for any of them. Instead, I looked at the list of topics and we practices our weaker ones from high school level tests.

On the bright side, we shined logistically.

If you plan to arrive ahead of time so that your child is relaxed going into the test, you will find a solid 30 minute mess of just getting into the parking lot, assuming you select Lane like we did. Actual panicky nightmare may vary. There is a single entrance on a major road with barely enough capacity to handle regular traffic. I told my son to get out of the car, follow parents into whatever door they go into, get in line and register. We would touch base via text and I'll show up later if needed. It turns out that parents are not allowed in the building; I wasted 45 minutes getting into and out of the parking lot.

The test is timed, so I gave him my watch. We ate the breakfast of champions and he decided to forgo snacks. I told him to text me if needed before the test, but then turn off and hide his phone. The SAT requires number 2 pencils, but he was sure he didn't need any because we read through the lack of instructions multiple times before we left.

We ignored all other other types of test taking advice. The best way to prepare for the soft skills of test taking is take lots of tests, and my child is nothing if not over tested.

The dropped ball

It turns out that some of the advanced topics from the test prep websites are either not on the test or not on the test at the level of our preparation. For example, I was told after the test, 'Exponents were not on the test', but this could have meant 'high school level exponential proofs are not on the test.' I didn't ask for clarification.

The problem is that the math test is timed. This format favors fast and confident calculation from memory. This is our weakest skill area. We not only didn't practice this ever, we skipped any homework that was calculation oriented. I've never set a time limit on math practice and never will. I think this is a mistake, not necessarily something that would negatively impact the test score, but something that will negatively impact my nerves while I wait for scores to be released in the end of March.

Learning from mistakes

As I assigned practice tests for each topical area, I slowly decreased the complexity level of the material from solid AP high school vocabulary, for example, to something from an 8th grade test at a good school. High school preparation would benefit from overkill on certain subtopics like belated math facts memorization or Greek and Latin word roots. As we practiced over the last few weeks, I noted these goals for this summer and we agreed that they would be beneficial. It's weird to get agreement from a maturing child. We actually had a conversation that went like this:

  • I think it would be a good idea to memorize these 200 word roots this summer in preparation for high school.
  • Ok. Sounds good to me.
  • I really don't care for your bad attitude. Your doing it anyway.

When I asked how things went, the first question was did you have enough time to finish.

'We only had 40 minutes for 40 math problems. It was a struggle to get through them all.'

I'm cursing silently to myself. Fortunately, we have plans B, C, D, and E and have already discussed them thoroughly. It is entirely possible for any child to come out of the test feeling bad, having a headache, and finding out an hour later that they have a 103 temperature and just blew their future. We're prepared. Any of our other routes would get the job done for the future. Each one would be a bit harder though.

The worst part

Going into the test, we passed all varieties of people, including a family dressed as tiny Inca villagers. I would have loved to help if asked. I'm not assuming that their child is any less prepared than mine, just pointing out that there is a 99.72% chance that this is the case based on all available information. Any child is capable of academic success, but almost none of them have spent the last 2 years dedicated to it.

Even worse, coming out I saw plenty of capable kids who were totally exhausted by the experience, a few with a ghostly look for failure on the faces, and one crying in her mothers arms. This sight hurts me personally and is enough to turn my blog from a deep shade of red to a deep shade of blue. But no one is asking me for help, and when I offer, it is generally perceived negatively.

My general approach to offering help is welcomed by most people as 'Your child sucks academically and you obviously dropped the ball as a parent so can you kid come over on Saturdays so I can fix it?' Everyone is more than happy to believe that it's not their fault, that nothing is wrong with them personally, but there is something wrong with 'the system'. Trumps & Reagan's success came from the fact that they changed the Republican line from the former to the latter. I'm going to try it.