Ask the grumpies: What acceleration to prioritize and what about when they return to school?

Chelsea asks:

We are homeschooling because of high rates of transmission in our area and because my kids don’t sit in front of computer screens and pay attention well (TV on the other hand…). I have a question about a kid with mismatched skill levels. My DC2 just started K (will be 6 in Nov) and has very mismatched math and language levels. He’s a pretty normal Kindergartener as far as reading and writing goes (can write simple words but handwriting is terrible, can read sight words and is learning word families) but he has very good number sense and will probably be ready to start Singapore Math 2nd grade in a few weeks.

I guess the question is… should I care or try to do anything about the mismatched skill level? Like back off on math time and push reading and writing more? Or just roll with it and figure that his reading skill will catch up? DC1 made huge strides in reading in 1st grade so I assume this will probably happen for DC2…

Also, both of my kids are working ahead of their grade – at least for some things. DC1 is in 2nd grade and doing Winning With Writing and Growing With Grammar 3rd grade, etc. What should I do when they go back to school? Should I try to maintain what we’ve learned through homework (which is unappealing because they will have school homework, too)? Not really worry about it? I don’t think grade skipping is something that is done here, nor do I really think it’s what we want because I’m not sure they are ahead in every way (especially in maturity).

Thoughts?

I’m of two minds about letting kindergarteners just explore their interests and… helping give kindergarteners the skills they need to be able to discover new interests.  I mean, learning how to read is BIG and opens up huge wonderful worlds to explore.  It’s basically necessary for everything else.  So, I’d say in this case, so long as the kid is happy with it, add some phonics.  Since he likes TV, get a copy of the Leapfrog DVDs and learn their wonderful phonics songs by heart.  Sing them while doing chores.  As you continue to read to your child, putting your finger under the words you’re reading while you do it, reading may just happen on its own without additional upper-level instruction (We loved the Step into reading readers, like Too Many Dogs and Cat Traps — way more interesting than the dreadful Bob books).  A good phonics foundation is important, but there’s no reason not to start off in a way that is easy on you and fun for the kid.  No need to add any upper-level workbooks unless you and the child want to.  We also had some fun phonics puzzles where the kids matched a picture of an animal with the name of an animal, that sort of thing.  And definitely no need to cut back on math to make room for reading– just swap in some educational videos for TV and reading together for family time.

In the more general question… should you try to keep everything even, or allow single subject acceleration… What we have generally done:  If we think there’s going to be a grade skip, we push on anything that is not on level for the next year (like memorizing facts about who “invented” the steamboat in the US).  If one of the kids is behind on something (like spelling or grammar or Spanish or handwriting or typing) because it wasn’t picked up in the schools, we supplement for that, at least up to grade-level.  For acceleration, we mostly focus on making it so they’re not bouncing off the walls.  I love math and both my kids are interested in math, so it has been easier to push them on math than on other things (though DC2, the only artist in the family, has been using youtube to help explore that side of creativity, and DC1 has an extensive and growing knowledge of magic tricks).  So, for the most part, we have a baseline level of what we expect them to have, and we make sure they’re at that baseline, then we accelerate in things they (or I) find more interesting.  But a lot of it is about getting rid of some of their energy so they don’t start moving things with their minds like in Matilda.

When they get back to school, play it by ear.  You may want to talk to the teachers about if they do single subject acceleration or if they do differentiation and clustering within the classroom.  They may need to have new placement tests.  Also look ahead:  testing out of fifth grade math is REALLY common in our school district… in DC1’s year they had two full classes of seventh grade algebra because of it.  If something like that is common, you may want to make sure you keep up with the math and fill any missing gaps.  If school is challenging enough, then only supplement if they want it.  Currently we have DC2 doing a full set of workbooks on weekends, but only Singapore Math (on grade level currently) during the week.  Since zie only does a page a day instead of a full lesson a day it doesn’t generally take that long after everything else is done.  When school wasn’t challenging enough, we had more supplementation during the week.  DC1 finished a round of handwriting practice this summer because hirs was atrocious but zie doesn’t have any other outside-of-school assignments because zie gets enough at school (as a sophomore) now and isn’t super behind on anything.

Grumpy Nation, what are your thoughts?  Anyone in a similar situation, what are your plans?  Philosophically, how do you feel about whether to allow a single subject to be super accelerated vs. making subject learning levels more even?

Ask the grumpies: Recommendations for Bread books (with some bonus other baking books)

Natka asks:

It looks like your husband uses a mix of on-line recipes and cookbooks… Any recommendations for tried-and-true bread books (especially sourdough) for amateurs?

Bread by Treuille and Ferrigno has a lot of explanation of different bread-baking processes and a number of their recipes involve a starter and they explain how you can modify any recipe to use a starter in the intro. I got a copy for my sister because it explains so much. (There are multiple editions– we have the 2004 one.)  I can’t think of any dud recipes we’ve made from there.   I think we started with the Stromboli recipe (so did my sister, actually) and are currently going through it somewhat in order, skipping recipes that require ingredients we don’t have (I keep telling DH we should just get malt extract, but our local brewing store only sells it in gallon increments…)

If you’re into whole grain only breads, The Laurel’s kitchen bread book is the one you want. It explains how whole grain breads being thirstier means they are treated differently. I’m sure at least one of those mystery breads listed is a bean bread from Laurel’s.  These have all been good and there’s some discussion of things to look out for while making the breads which is helpful.

Ok, so those are our two books that are both tried-and-true bread books and good for people who want a little more guidance.  We also have a number of other baking books.

Baking with Julia doesn’t have a lot of bread (it does have some though!), but it is a fantastic teaching book for other baked goods.  This is how DH mastered the pie dough, for example.  It’s an all-around fantastic book.

Home Baking by Alford and Duguid is a wonderful book taking you around the world and helping you make different breads.  There’s not so much detailed how-to as in the Treuille and Ferrigno book, but we’ve found it pretty easy to make things like pita bread from their instructions.  And the pictures are gorgeous.  For a long time it was our coffee-table book.

If you want to up your sourdough game, Flour Water Salt Yeast is where to go.  I personally don’t have the patience for this one, but DH does.  We also have Artisan Bread in five minutes a day, but DH quickly got tired of it.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe the Jim Lahey original no-knead recipe is just good enough.

We talk a lot about Pure Dessert.  This is mostly a desserts book, but it has our favorite brioche recipe in it.  The recipes are generally pretty simple but often call for unusual ingredients that we have to special order.  (Nuts.com, not a sponsored link, has a lot of them.)

Simple by Ottolenghi isn’t a bread book, but it does have some quick breads in it. So far we’ve been astonished with how good a lot of the recipes are.

And, of course it is no longer anywhere near in print, but I taught myself baking from the Old Fashioned Cookbook by Jan McBride Carleton which remains one of my favorite cookbooks of all time.  The bread section is especially wonderful, particularly all the Christmas breads.  (Likewise the cake section, and the stews… really it’s just an all-around fantastic book.)

(All amazon links are affiliate links.)

Grumpy Nation, what are your favorite baking books?  Do you bake bread?  Where do you get your recipes?

Ask the grumpies: Computer educational programs that DC2 (grade 4) loves (and others zie’s ok with)

Parent to two virtual learners asks:

“Have you or your readers been using any computer programs to supplement virtual learning at home? I need to work full-time and my kids (elementary schoolers) seem to get done with their work in 2-3 hours each day. They don’t want to spend all their time reading books and I don’t want them to spend all their time playing video games or fighting with each other. Do you have any educational games and similar things to recommend? Anything non-electronic that doesn’t create too much of a mess?”

DC2 loves Prodigy to pieces. It’s basically an RPG-ish game where your choices don’t matter much, but in order to fight monsters you have to get a math problem correct. The math problems are very similar to going through Khan Academy– they get harder and you master a specific skill and then they give you a new skill. I think it’s free and they make their money with in-game purchases that DC2 would really like to have but we have not been doing.

DC2 loves Epic! though sadly we have to pay for it now because this year’s teacher didn’t sign up for it like last year’s did. (Technically zie can sign in as guest with hir class from last year, but that seems wrong somehow.) Epic has a lot of fun books, including a TON of comicbooks to read. All the Big Nates, even some that are so old or new that DC1 doesn’t own them. (There are Bill Clinton jokes(!))

DC2 likes DuoLingo just fine. Zie is doing Spanish with it, mostly on weekends. There isn’t much playing with it if it’s not required like there is with Prodigy.

We’ve recommended DragonBox before– DC2 did a spin through again before school started this past summer.

Similarly to DuoLingo, DC2 is fine with Khan Academy. Zie is mostly going through the math part.

DC2 is supposed to go through a math thing called xtramath, but finished last year, so after zooming through addition and subtraction, hir teacher asked hir to play Kakooma instead. DC2 is not a fan of the timed aspect of it, but did enjoy it at first.

Instead of Epic!, DC2’s teacher is doing Reading A-Z, which has more educational stuff than does Epic and has step readers in both English and Spanish. One not so great thing is that it tested DC2 in English and is now only allowing hir to read within a few levels of hir tested level in Spanish. Hir Spanish level is not as high as hir English level! There’s no Phoebe and Unicorn here, but there’s lots of non-fiction.

With all the additional laptop stuff, DC2’s computer class has a lot of typing. They use Typing Agent through Clever. This is not as much fun as typing of the dead, but it’s more focused for if you don’t know how to touch type (as opposed to just needing practice to get your speed up).

In terms of exercise, we have two games for the Switch right now that DC2 has been using. Ring Fit Adventure is a good exercise game, much like Prodigy except you do exercises to complete an attack. Zie has also been doing Just Dance 2020 and now I have Baby Shark stuck in my head for all eternity even though I’m fairly sure I’ve only heard it twice.

DC2 is also getting into Minecraft Coding Academy, though that occasionally requires assists from DH. Similarly DC1 (in high school) is working on USACO coding projects (zie isn’t actually signed up, just going through the problems)

I’m probably forgetting something, but these are the things that have been popular enough (or required enough by class) to come to mind.

In terms of non-electronic stuff:

DC2’s art teacher requires them to draw daily in a composition book. We’ve gotten some calligraphy pens and so on to make that a little more interesting. They’re both also into origami, but that makes a mess.

DC2 does a page of Singapore Math each day.

We’ve downloaded a bazillion children’s classics from Gutenberg to DC2’s kindle (Oz is very popular with both kids, also E. Nesbitt).

We’ve increased the chores they have to do– doing laundry has been added to their list which previously only had laundry folding and removing things from the dishwasher. Now there’s 15 min of cleaning their rooms each day, though sometimes we add an additional 15 min to DC2 because zie is so talented at making messes. DC1 cooks a meal a week (usually on Sundays) and DC2 helps. They also pick out one meal each week for menu planning (DC1 makes hirs).

DC2 also has regular minecraft playdates with friends which isn’t exactly educational but is social at least. DC2 and hir frenemy are actually much more mature playing on minecraft together than playing on the playground. Now that it’s cooler outside they’re getting kicked out for exercise again. Oh, and they’ve started teaching themselves contact juggling (using a weighted rubber ball, not one of DH’s actual clear contact juggling balls because there’s a lot of dropping). I’ve been trying to get DC1 to pick up pencil twirling because zie fidgets by worrying things until they break off and zie needs to stop doing that, but so far no luck (zie is also uninterested in fidget spinners). DC2 has been working on juggling one club, but that somehow morphs into all the juggling clubs being all over the floor of the living room.

Grumpy Nation: What educational stuff do you recommend for when you have to work but your kids are out of schoolwork?

Ask the grumpies: Could you revisit 529 plans?

Minnesotan asks:

Can you please discuss 529 plans again? Do you still have your kids in Utah’s plan? My state now has “parity” and will give some income tax deduction for donations to any state plan (still need to read more on this). Should I go with Utah, or is another state the best option now?

Disclaimer:  We are not financial professionals.  Please consult an actual financial professional and/or do your own research before making important financial decisions.

Ooh, great question, and great benefit.  Let’s take a look at this parity thing…

From savingforcollege.com:

Minnesota taxpayers now have the option of claiming either a tax credit or deduction for contributions to any state’s 529 plan…

Deduction:  Up to $3,000 for a married couple filing jointly or $1,500 for all other filers for contributions made to a qualified 529 account…

Credit:  Credit can be claimed on half of contributions up to $500, subject to phase-out starting at a federal adjusted gross income of $75,000…

Calculator for which is better In 99 percent of cases, however, they’re going to be better off using the credit if they’re under the $100,000 income threshold…it’s safe to assume above and below the $75,000 and $100,000 income levels that they should take the credit or deduction, respectively.

So that’s cool.  The question then becomes, what state’s 529 plan should you use.  It seems like the answer should be the same as for people who don’t get any state income tax deduction from being in a 529 plan.  And for that, you want places with (1) low fees, (2) reasonable investment options, (3) reasonable customer service… and probably in that order.

Let’s see what the big financial sites are saying now.

Forbes:  Rates Maine, Nevada, and Utah as best options.  (They also like Alaska, but note it has higher fees.)

Investopedia:  Ohio, Utah, Illinois, Virginia, New York

Morningstar:  Illinois, Virginia, Utah, California, though they intend to put out new numbers using a new methodology sometime in October that emphasize fees more.  You will probably want to check this out before making any major changes/investments.

Kiplinger:  Utah

So… to answer your question, yes our kids are still in the Utah plan.  Although some years another plan may match or even beat Utah’s fees, those plans don’t tend to consistently have the lowest fees.  Although Utah doesn’t always have the lowest fees every single year anymore, it has always been competitive for non-resident plans every time I’ve looked.  That consistency over time is why I don’t regret picking Utah and sticking with it given that we don’t get a tax break only from using our own state’s plan.  Past performance doesn’t predict future performance, but there is something to be said for having a steady track record with fees over time.  You’ll probably also want to take a look at Illinois and Virginia and maybe some of the other states listed above and see what you think.

Grumpy Nation, if applicable, what state is your 529 plan from?

Ask the grumpies: What do you want to do when you retire?

CG asks:

What do you want to do when you retire? My motivation for asking is I’m always interested in these people who retire at 40 or 50–they have a lot of time left if things go well and what kinds of things do they want to do or accomplish with their second act? This applies to people who plan to retire at a more traditional age as well.

#1 doesn’t really plan on retiring.  I don’t know what I would do.  I’m honestly not very good at being unproductive 100% of the time (I am very good at being unproductive on weekends) and I’m sure I would feel huge amounts of guilt if I weren’t doing something to make the world a better place.  Depending on the trajectory that the US ends up in, I would probably end up miserable trying to herd volunteer cats to fight the power.  The life of a professor in which I gently nudge students to think critically about their goals and how to achieve them while also removing their math phobia seems a lot better than that.  If the world was in a good place, I don’t know, probably go places to try eating new things, read more challenging novels than I do now, and watch youtube videos.  I’d probably also exercise more.  I would hopefully not waste too much time arguing with people who are wrong on the internet, but who knows.

#2 loves the idea of retirement and would read books, foster kittens, and travel to Italy to eat.  Also all the naps.

Ask the Grumpies: Where should I donate for Activism if I only have a little money?

K asks:

If I only have say, $5,$10 or $25 right now where is the best place to donate, in this present life or death election?

I do not know the answer, but maybe someone from Grumpy Nation will.

If you are someplace in which the local elections matter and aren’t obvious (so you’re not trying to decide between two amazing options), your local elections are probably going to give the most bang for your buck.  A little money will go a long way.  And that money won’t be wasted sending you thick envelopes asking for more money (ugh).  You could also probably pick up a yard sign for someone local for $5 or $10 from your local dems office or from their campaign hq.

If you’re *not* in that situation, I’m not sure.  I’ve been doing a lot of $25 donations to close races in my state that aren’t ones I’m allowed to vote in.  There’s also a lot of small campaigns where you can donate post-card stamps and post-cards.  Or you can combine your small $ with time and write letters to voters (you provide paper, printing, envelopes, stamps) with votefwd.org or write post-cards to voters with a number of organizations (of which postcardstovoters.org is one)

There are also things you can do for free.  Call up your local dems office and/or local (or less local) indivisible office and get on their email mailing list. I find out about lots of important opportunities for giving or doing from mailing lists from a couple of Indivisible groups in nearby cities.

My sister says doing phone-calls this year is way nicer than in previous years– people are happy to talk.  Similarly, there are texting campaigns (I’m not crazy about a lot of texting campaigns, but I do like the “get out the vote” ones).  For many of these you can either use your phone or you can use your wireless internet to actually do the contacting, so if you’re on a limited data plan for your phone you can use the internet instead.

A very simple thing you can do for free is to get your friends and acquaintances to check their voter registration to make sure they’re registered.  Ask folks about their plans to vote– if voting absentee, have they ordered a ballot yet?  Then let people know if/when early voting starts and other deadlines.  You can also call up your local electeds and tell them you are not interested in fascism.  Tell them to impeach Attorney General Barr and to make Postmaster DeJoy resign.  Ask for bipartisan legislation to protect the USPS.  Ask your governor to allow and expand ballot drop boxes.  Ask Congress to support nation-wide mail-in voting.  Demand an extension for the US Census.  And on and on (scripts for these are all available from https://5calls.org/ ).  You can also follow celeste_p on twitter for up-to-date actions.

Grumpy Nation:  Where do you think small donations are best used?  What suggestions do you have for low cost or no-cost actions?

Ask the grumpies: Advice for a new faculty member?

Steph asks:

What advice do you have for a new faculty member?

Here are some book recommendations that we found useful.

Some things to ponder.

First year on the tenure track.

Should you write a book or stick to articles?

Summarizing Boice.

But I think the main main thing is to remember academia is just a job.  It’s a job with nice perks, but it’s still a job and if you got a TT job, chances are you have valuable skills that could transfer elsewhere.  Remind yourself of this fact when things get to be stressful or when you’re at a faculty meeting where mountains are being made of molehills (because the stakes are so small).

Grumpy Nation:  Do you have advice for new faculty members?  What would you suggest?

Ask the Grumpies: What books have changed your life?

CG asks:

What books have you read that changed your life in a long-lasting way?

I was just talking about one of these in the comments of Delagar’s blog.

Your Money or Your Life was pretty life changing.

The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck by Sarah Knight even has it in its title.

Another life-changing book for us was The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. Definitely worth a read.  It introduced Satisficing as a life philosophy

What books have you read that changed your life?

Ask the Grumpies: Help me with my unusual(?) sleep problem!

Couchsnoozer asks:

I am in my early 40s, live alone with my pets, and for the past few years I’ve gotten into a terrible sleeping habit.  At night I conk out on the couch, sometimes as early as 8pm.  Like, I set down and I’m asleep instantly.  And I nap for 2-4 hours.  And the nap isn’t good quality sleep.  So then I get up, usually around midnight, and let the dog out and give everyone bedtime snacks, brush my teeth, etc. which takes about an hour.  Then I go to bed and sleep for 4-6 hours.  It doesn’t seem like that last set of sleep is very productive either.  It seems to be bad quality.  I’m tired all the time and I wake up tired.  My dad does this too, so it might be genetic, but I don’t remember him doing it when I was a kid.  I have tried so many times to stop doing this and it’ll work for a few days, maybe, and then I’m back to my old ways.  I don’t have the discipline to fix it!  Setting an alarm to go to bed doesn’t work either– I either sleep through it or turn it off.  I could just get in bed at 8pm, but I don’t want to get in bed at 8pm.  And lately I’ve been having trouble falling BACK to sleep once I get off the couch, and that is a new thing.

I know you’ve got readers who know a lot about sleep problems [ed.  I think she’s talking about you, gwinne] as well as doctors… do you have any advice for me?  I want to be less tired all the time!

Well, we seem to both be tired all the time even without falling on the couch and getting to bed later, so maybe it’s not the bad sleeping habits?  And just general middle-age/overwork/stress from [gestures broadly]?  Vit D helps #1 a lot, especially if she gets into the habit of taking it NOT right when she wakes up but a few hours later.  (I think my body gets used to getting it first thing in the morning and is extra tired if it doesn’t have it yet.)  And sleeping in two shifts was pretty normal before electric lighting, they say.

But it’s entirely possible that not getting a 7-8 hour stretch of sleep is problematic– you obviously know your body better than anybody.

Here’s some information on biphasic and interrupted sleep patterns.  Most of the Dr. Google links seem to think it’s a good thing and the only problem with having a biphasic sleep pattern is not having a set routine for it.  (Though this psychology today link ultimately ends on a negative note.)  Terms that may be useful in your quest:  biphasic, polyphasic, interrupted, segmented sleep.  (Shift sleep just gives a lot of links about people who have to work overnight.)

Anybody in grumpy nation more knowledgeable about sleep than we are have advice for Couchsnoozer?  Help!

Ask the grumpies: How do you organize your books?

Steph asks:

If you haven’t tackled this somewhere – How do you organize your books? How do you feel about the rainbow bookshelves trend that is still going on? (Or the “spines inward/pages outward” trend – maybe this is a deliberately controversial question ;) )

We have a somewhat strong disagreement on this topic in that #1 has taken all the pretty hard cover books out of the bedroom bookcases and put them into the living room and #2 thinks this is heresy.

#1:

two of the bedroom bookcases, mostly humorous SPEC fic in alphabetical order by author or editor's last name

two of the bedroom bookcases, mostly humorous SPEC fic in alphabetical order by author or editor’s last name

Otherwise:  #1 has all read paperback fiction books put together in alphabetical order in her bedroom bookcases.  To-be-read books are sideways in a pile double-stacked in no particular order across two shelves.  Our joint comic books have their own shelf in our bedroom.  DH doesn’t tend to keep fiction books (he doesn’t reread much), so the ones that we do have are scattered in with my books or DC1’s books, though they used to have their own shelf. Non-fiction books are loosely organized by subject in the living room shelves.  Cookbooks are shelved mostly by size (because of the different sizes of books and shelves… this bothers me a little, but there are only 3 shelves) just outside the kitchen.

I try really hard to keep the kids’ fiction chapter books in alphabetical order by author’s last name in their bookcases, but that doesn’t always happen.  Kids non-fiction chapter books have their own bookshelf in the hallway (they used to be on separate shelves in their room bookcases, but then we got DC2 a full size bookcase and moved hir smaller case to the hallway), which started out organized by subject but is now a total mess.  Spanish books are the bottom shelf of DC2’s bookcase.  They also keep all their comic books there which started out organized alphabetically by last author, but are not even shelved nicely anymore.  I just give up.   Books that DC2 has really outgrown are currently taking the bottom shelves of 3 bookcases in the living room not really organized at all.  I should note that I have mild undiagnosed OCD and having organized bookcases give me pleasure while disorganized bookcases give me a little buzz of unhappiness.  But I just cannot keep up with the kids being agents of destruction so I have found it healthier for me to just not try to keep up and mentally separate their messed up sections from all books.  I tell myself I’m never trying to find their specific non-fiction or comic or picture books so the lack of organization shouldn’t be a problem for me.

Most of my new books are kindle (because they’re cheaper and more portable… in normal times much of my reading gets done on airplanes) and they’re organized by read/unread and then date last read.  There’s also a separate thing for children’s books that have been read.

#2:

Three of #2's bookcases, creatively organized

Three of #2’s bookcases, creatively organized

I have fiction and non-fiction in my bedroom, with various piles of books stacked haphazardly in the living room, kitchen, etc. (And cookbooks in our kitchen.) I have a couple “emergency” books in a cabinet in the bathroom. They just ended up there.

I do not put my books in alphabetical order.  They are in an order.  For example, there is one case that is all my best-loved and most-personal books.  Authors who coauthor books have the coauthored book in between the other two authors.  I mix fiction and non-fiction together.

I hate electronic books and have been gradually replacing my cheap kindle books with paperbacks as they come available/get affordable/are gifted from my amazon list.

We’re mostly against sorting books by color (#1 moreso than #2).  We’re definitely against shelving them spine inward (though #1’s DC2 seems to favor this.  It drives #1 CRAZY.)  #2 wants to SEE people’s books out of curiosity.  #1 wants to be able to FIND books.  Why organize them at all if you’re not going to be able to use the index?

Related:

Billy the bookcase

Where the books are

Our fantasy library

Couchblogging and rearranging the library