beth woolsey

mess maker • magic finder • rule breaker • kindness monger

School Conferences, Part Deux: The Catapults Edition

“Trebuchet!” my pacifist Quaker husband hollered, his joy in ancient devices of war made manifest.

Abby, our 8th grader, is making a catapult for her science class. By which I mean, Greg is trying his very, very best to let Abby help him make a catapult for her science class. So far, Greg has conceded that Abby can decorate it. (We’re working on him; I swear.)

Frankly, though, if Greg’s enthusiasm alone could launch Abby’s rock, she’d get an A+++.

Cael is one of our 5-year-olds. Most important for this story is the fact that Cael is, in nearly every single way, from his looks to his logic to his bed-hogging, sleep-snuggling ways, Greg’s mini-me. If I didn’t know that I grew Cael in my own womb and was there when I pushed him out my hooha, I’d think Cael was a radical, DNA-cloning science project.

So Greg’s ecstasy over building a catapult? Equals Cael’s ecstasy over building a catapult. Honestly, I think by the time we’re done, the teacher is going to have to give the grade to Abby and Greg and Cael.

As Greg outlined for Abby (and – ahem – certain other grown-ups in the room who had no idea what he was talking about) the differences between trebuchets and mangonels, Cael jumped into the conversation to explain to Abby that what she really needs is a Class One Lever. Of course, he called is a “Cwath One Wuhver” so it took us a while to try to decipher his meaning. Amidst our confusion – what’s a Crass One Lover, anyway, and how much should a preschooler know about it? – Cael sprinted for his Encyclopedia of How Things Work and grabbed a sketch pad and a pencil so he could detail for his sister exactly where she should place the fulcrum.

Class One Lever (which is not at all the same as a Crass One Lover)

Because one thing is true for sure; it’s not depressing at all when you’re 13 to have your 5-year-old brother trying to explain your homework to you.


Yesterday, I posted about School Conferences and the fact that, well, they’re really hard for some of us with kids who don’t always (or ever) perform at the standard level. That we can feel pretty isolated and lonely in the face of the celebrations for kids who have more academic success.

Your comments on that subject are – Wow! So honest, so transparent, so kind and so true. THANK YOU for those, and please do add to the conversation if you’re itching to speak.

There are a couple of comments at the end of the string of that conferences post that I just added – they’re from people who wish to remain anonymous. One comment is from someone who feels (to put words in her mouth) judged by her commitment to advocate for her daughter who is academically gifted. And the other comment is from someone whose (now adult) kids struggled but who couldn’t then and can’t now talk about those struggles out loud for fear of judgement from her family and church community.

This, to me, is what’s at the heart of the presumed “Mommy Wars” – this reality of being judged and found wanting and our frustration and sadness over not being able to fully celebrate or mourn or struggle out loud.

I read the comment from the mama who’s trying to advocate well for her child who’s at the top of her class, and, to be perfectly honest, I felt conflicted. I read her message with an entire circus of “yes, but” monkeys cycling through my head because I don’t think it’s as hard to advocate for an child who is academically gifted as it is to advocate for a child with special needs. Which isn’t what she was saying at all, and was, in fact, the exact opposite of her anti-judging message, but I read it through the first time through a lens of my own woundedness. YIKES! THIS IS NOT WHO I WANT TO BE.

She went on to say, “Parents should all be on the same team with other parents. … We could teach our kids and each other that the only person’s success that matters is their own, comparing all they have accomplished to where they started, not comparing themselves to someone else.” 

And I think she’s right on the money.

As I look forward to shepherding my twins who are academically gifted through school, I have to consider a broader question. I’d like to pose my question to YOU because I am very selfish and I’m benefitting profoundly from your shared wisdom and I want to do that more.

Here it is:

How do you – as a parent or a teacher – fully champion both your children who are high academic achievers AND your kids who need buckets of academic assistance?

In other words,

How to we build a catapult, you guys, that knocks all different types of obstacles down? 

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11 responses to “School Conferences, Part Deux: The Catapults Edition”

  1. Okay
    I’m chiming in late on this, but this hits home for me. I have an eight year old who’s finishing the fourth grade through homeschooling. I also have a two year old with Down’s Syndrome. They could not be farther apart on the learning scale. Prayer is huge on our list of dealing with both. Advanced kids are not a breeze. You have to keep them interested which is a major challenge, you just have to be creative. Home school is great for this. I couldn’t send my child to public school, she was already doing 1st and 2nd grade work in kindergarten. I was told they wouldn’t accept her in a higher grade. Basically, no one knew what to do with her. So, I took over with her education.
    Now, our two year old is a handful too. With Down’s, he still isn’t even crawling, or talking. But he’s happy and really healthy. That’s enough for me at this point. We go through daily physical therapy and keep praying he’ll figure out his walking and talking soon.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is, just keep doing what you’re doing, all of you. Love your kids, pray for them, and push yourself to do all you can for them every day. What more can be asked? There should be no “Mommy Wars”. We should all support one another as we get these kiddos through life.

  2. First of all, I am completely laughing over the attempt to decipher Cael’s description, because that is so like my four year-old who quite often has to say something at least four times before we get it.
    Secondly, Yes, yes, yes on the real truth of the mommy wars. This is a super tough gig and we should be supporting each other every step of the way.
    Finally, I don’t know the answer to your question, because I think there is a delicate balance about navigating our way through the academics of school with children, and I certainly have not figured it out.

  3. As a now adult who grew up with gifted brothers and needed academic help, its hard to be on either end of the academic spectrum. Especially with all the cuts happening in public school and for some/most the inability to afford a private education. It took years and years (and somedays I’m not over it) for me to come to terms with the academic structure and the simple fact that I do not fit into it. I may not be ‘gifted’ but it certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t work at it, or understand, or have intelligence. My family was blessed with a Mother that is a pitbull at advocating for her children, but she was also very open with us with her struggles due to her love for us and the systems judgement of us. That was one of the best things she could have done. Simply being open and honest really helped as we aged to come to our own terms and understanding and really value who we were and what we do that academia can’t measure.
    Mothers, never give up. Fight for you children and teach them to fight for themselves and be aware where they struggle. Remind them (and yourselves) that struggle isn’t a bad thing, in fact it is one for the best life shape-ers out there. We special, individual education plan children will grow up and find our way, and we will thank you for all that you have done for us along the way.

  4. As a kid, I was gifted but all those programs were gradually cut as I went through. I basically floated through school, getting my A’s and never being challenged. My younger brother was tested for ADHD, but it was determined that he, too, was gifted and bored. He didn’t have the desire to please so goofed around instead of doing things he thought were boring. But there weren’t any programs for him, so he was just labeled as a trouble maker all through school.

    This article is a couple of years old. I’m super impressed with the education system in Finland. We homeschool and have been more relaxed. As our children are getting to upper elementary, we were wondering about the need to become more strict/academic, but after reading articles about this system, think we’re doing just fine. It would be really great if we had schooling options like this here in the US, but we have to work within the system we have.

    As for advocating for our kids, I think it’s about knowing your kids and knowing what they need to reach their full potential. We can’t expect the job to be done by the schools (no matter how good the school), we need to take responsibility for our own children’s education. Even with a lot of kids, I’ve only got 5 to consider, while teachers have 30+ to keep track of. It’s my job as the parent to make sure that my kids have the resources available to help if they’re struggling, or to challenge them if it’s too easy. Sometimes that comes through the school, and sometimes that comes from other sources.

    Many of the homeschool families I meet started because their kids fell at one end of the spectrum or the other. They advocated for their kids, but determined that in their situation, the best resources available to them were to keep the kids at home and teach to them on their own level.

    Working with what we have and making the best decisions we can is what being a mom is all about 🙂

  5. As a teacher, I believe the “average” student for whom our curriculum is designed resembles the “average” person for whom clothes are made: they are both mythical. However, the larger our classes get (and my district has just revealed dire budget cuts that will put us up over 40 per class), the more teachers have to teach to the “common” denominator. I wish I could go back to the 2 years when I had classes of 20 & 21. Those were some of my best years, even though I was in an inner-city school. I think I still remember those kids so well because I actually got to know them.

    I’m sorry to say that the assumption made about talented and gifted students is that these kids will learn no matter what, and while this may be true for many of them, there are those who will not thrive unless appropriately challenged. All parents need to be the squeaky wheels these days, no matter what. Do your homework, ask questions, be an advocate, be motivated.

    By the way, I’m currently studying for a science certification test: is Cael available to tutor me on Class One Levers? How is he on Newtonian physics? What are his hourly rates?

  6. Beth, I’m sorry to say that it just might prove much easier to get “academic assistance” than to get challenges for your twins. As a public school teacher, I know first hand that the emphasis is on getting kids up to level, *not* on challenging the ones who are already “there” – or even way past “there” – and that always grieves me.

    Be ready to keep your advocate hat on and wear it proudly!

    • So true, unfortunately. It’s nearly always up to the parents to provide the extra challenges for the kids who need and thrive on them. Luckily, Cael’s older sister has a teacher that assigns projects of interest to him!

    • Yup. I am a public school teacher too. At a recent staff development day we were given a spreadsheet of our students and their recent scores on standardized tests. We were told to find all of our students that were in the middle, close to passing or barely passing. Then, we were basically told to put all our efforts toward those students. I wanted to cry and scream and run out of the building. I’m considering homeschooling my kids next year.

  7. We were discussing this very topic at our homeschooling cooperative yesterday. For us, of course, it plays out differently, but it was started by a mom who is worried about what will happen when her non-standard kid has to take standardized tests next year (required in 3rd, 5th & 8th here in PA, along with annual portfolio evaluations performed by licensed teachers).

    One of the moms shared her story from the last year in which her 2 boys were in public school. It took her 1.5 years of asking for testing for her challenged child (before giving up) and one full year of asking for G&T testing for her advanced one (before likewise giving up–the last week of school, she received a note saying that the teacher had put him on the list of kids who would benefit from G&T testing, and would she like to go ahead with the testing, after she had asked the same office for this testing for a full year). In other words, depending upon the school, it can be truly as difficult for either end of the spectrum to have their educational needs met.

    Another mother piped up that in her experience, Catholic schools are against G&T programs; that a child with challenges is much more likely to have accommodations made for them.

    One suggestion for the mother who was worried about her child was to have him tested for issues (privately, as the school district would not do it in time for next year’s achievement tests); she is likely to do this as her son needs more time to read the test questions (or else have them read aloud to him by the proctor), which a firm diagnosis would give him. Another suggestion was to do a round of testing in the Fall (which would be part of the final evaluation, but not handed into the district) and another round in the Spring, to show the progress made to the evaluator. She also liked this idea.

    Our coop has no standard kids, and we parents are all on the same team: the one that allows every child to be the best that they can be. And we help each other, we brainstorm, we share curriculum advice/experiences, we talk about the law. We support each other! Some kids have been in schools, others not, but we are all here because we feel that we can meet our kids’ needs better in this format than we could in any other one. This is absolutely not a “for everyone” sort of life choice!

    I’m not sure how helpful this is for those whose kids are in schools, except that we all need to remember that each child is an individual, and by sticking together, we parents can optimize our kids’ situations.

    Here’s our coop’s website, for those who are curious as to what kind of community parents can form either inside of or outside of a school:

    This Fall, two of my public-school friends had issues with their kids being bored stiff in school, and the schools were being unresponsive to their pleas for enrichment. I shared lots of resources/books/activities/etc, as well as tactics they could use for getting the support that they needed. One parent gave up (for now) with getting enrichment through the school, and has been doing fun educational things at home, which helps her son but no one else at the school; the other offered to come in and do activities with her son’s class, and so has been the unpaid enrichment teacher (for just that class) 2-3 days per week, for about 45 minutes each time, which helps her son and his classmates, but no other classes in the school. Both were very disappointed that they were not being truly listened to by their schools, and that while they could help some small corner of the population, that there was no widespread policy to help _any_ child in their sons’ situations.

  8. I keep telling my daughter that what God wants from her is for her to do her best joyfully and if she is struggling, she needs to be praying for Him to give her what she needs to accomplish her best. That’s her part. We have also brainstormed with teachers and tried various incentives or punishments to reinforce the behavior we’re seeking. Plus, lots and lots of prayer. That’s our part.

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