Category Archives: Compassion and respect

Chess Club Versus Football

Freeman Hrabowski, an African American with a Polish heritage (explaining his last name), was arrested at age 12 for participating in the “Children’s March” in Birmingham, Alabama. He also excelled in school, started college at age 15, and became president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). I was intrigued when his story aired on 60 minutes on November 13. Under his leadership UMBC has become known for innovation, interesting students in math and science careers, and for its high standards of discipline, community and achievement.

Of his students and educational philosophy Hrabowski says, “We teach Americans of all races what it takes to be the best. At the heart of it is … hard work. I don’t care how smart you are, nothing takes the place of hard work.” Football? Not at UMBC − no football. One student explains, “You might go to another university and the football team might be top dog. Here, it’s the chess team that’s top dog. Yeah, it’s cool to be smart.”

Hrabowski speaks of a typical first day message on many campuses: a dean saying, “Look at the person to your right and the person to your left. One of you will not graduate.” Being assured that from day one turns it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, at UMBC they say, “Look at the student to your left. Look at the student to your right. Our goal is to make sure all three of you graduate and if you don’t, we fail; And, we don’t plan to fail.” He explains that he wants his students to keep dreaming about future possibilities while at the same time understanding that hard work, a positive attitude, and getting support from each other are their keys to success.” Underlying his passion for education, it’s clear, Hrabowski truly believes it’s cool to be smart.

PS The list of good books according to Jocelyn from The Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver is growing. Check it out on the Tips and Previews Page of this blog.

Let the Children Learn, Dream, and Reach Out for More

I read an article in the New York Times this week that made me nostalgic and hopeful at the same time that I continue to be alarmed by statistics that show little progress in three areas that greatly concern me.

First, we’re no closer to realizing an education system that will challenge all children than we were when I started my career (many years ago). With gifted children, this means that if they come to the classroom knowing what is about to be taught, the school has an obligation to find a way to take them to new levels of knowledge/understanding. When we know that happens in scattered schools across the nation, why can’t we ever learn to get it right?

Second, we continue to under-identify disadvantaged children from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In NYC, “black children made up 11 percent of this year’s gifted kindergarten classes, down from 15 percent in 2009-10. Representation of Hispanic students was 12 percent in both years. The school system as a whole is roughly 70 percent black and Hispanic.”

Third, why do we under-identify? Because we continue to rely on testing, not authentic testing of what is important in a child’s real world, but rote testing of facts and skills that disadvantaged children have had little or no opportunity to learn.

So why am I nostalgic and hopeful? One article stood out from all the rest. Entitled, “A Sleepaway Camp Where Math Is the Main Sport,” it immediately caught my eye. Is this a Talent Search-based program? Is it even WCATY (the program I founded) today? No to both questions. It is a program for NYC public school students entering 8th grade, where at least 75% of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunches. They represent a diverse population and their past experiences with challenge and opportunity were sadly lacking, but they have three positive characteristics in common: they love learning; they love math, and they are good at learning! Add to that, they love this program and are “cruising” through mathematical concepts that ordinarily most students wouldn’t see before college.

One of the criticisms of the program is that these children cannot catch up with their more privileged peers in the short time they attend the program. As I told parents of underachievers when they were considering attendance at a WCATY summer “camp,” it is true that their school may not have changed and that there will be a hard road ahead, but the children will have changed. They will dream bigger dreams; they will be aware of possibilities; they will refuse to stand still; they will seek additional opportunities; and they have found advocates who can help them to made valuable connections. I can tell many heart-warming stories of WCATY students who have done just that.

Letting Go

This past week, my friend Judy was featured in a video linked to a New York Times education series on autistic children going to college. Judy has 3 sons, all of whom are smart. One is autistic, and in seeking help for him Judy learned that she has autism as well. Of all the mothers I have known, worked with, and admired, Judy is one of the wisest. I remember her telling me how she dealt with the issue of letting go as her boys matured. I hope you find her strategy as amazing as I do.

Judy likens letting go to a yo-yo where she controls the string. When her gifted son was born, she explained, “He looked like a brand new yo-yo with the string wound around and around. When he started moving away from me – crawling, walking, running – I still held the string and controlled the yo-yo. It wasn’t always convenient having a mobile child, but I was in control so it was okay. I knew how to work the string so the yo-yo could go but always come back to me.”

As this son got older and left home more often Judy said, “It was like a yo-yo that has been used for awhile: The string unwinds further and further, and it takes more effort to get the yo-yo back. Then it doesn’t seem to want to come back all the way. But still I hold the string, and the yo-yo for the most part goes and comes at my command.”

When it came time for his first extended trip, Judy explained, “The string wasn’t long enough to extend that far away, so I concluded that I should pack it up and go with him. The following year I decided he could go without me. As he boarded the tour bus I had a mental picture of undoing the string from the end of the yo-yo. It was the first time the string was detached. I took it home, wound it up carefully, and stored it inside me until he returned, at which time I immediately reattached the string.

“But the yo-yo never worked the same after that. Over time it left for increasingly longer periods and with decreasing need for a quick return of the string. I learned to become a keeper of the string, rather than its controller.”

Judy had used this same technique with her older son. As both became more independent she said, “Sometimes I would allow them to untie theirs strings on their own, and sometimes I would do it. After all, I was still better at it.” When they would return from a camp, trip, or other extended stay away she reported, “I was fulfilled, happy, and satisfied because I could see each one tying his string back to his yo-yo. They were not ready to be the keepers of their own strings.”

When her oldest reached adulthood, Judy adjusted her yo-yo principle to this next stage of life. “I gave him his yo-yo string. It was not easy for me. Then one day he needed me and handed it back. Even though we both wanted things to be like they used to be, I no longer matched the string in the old way. I didn’t know what to make of it until I realized I could hold the yo-yo in my arms but I could not hold the string. The yo-yo took up his own string again and said, ‘Thanks mom, love ya always,’ which had been my line – love you always. That,” she concluded, “is how you let go of little yo-yos and teach them to control their own strings.”

From Curiosity to Mentors to Career

In December 2010, Royal Society Publishing reported on a study completed by 8- and 9-year old scientists under the tutelage of a neuroscientist from University College, London. This morning, I was talking with a colleague about a mentoring program we ran for middle school students at WCATY. This conversation reminded me of the “Bee Study” and the role of mentors in encouraging young learners to pursue their interests.

In a commentary accompanying the children’s scientific report, a scientist wrote, “The perceptual and decisional abilities of insects [bees] are …  shaped as successful responses to environmental challenges. The same can be said of the children who carried out this research. The resulting article is a remarkable demonstration of how natural scientific reasoning is for us. The insatiable curiosity that characterizes childhood, combined with … scientific method, provides a powerful tool that allows us to prosper and grow.”

Our WCATY scholars and their mentors made similar observations. One student’s story shows how building on early curiosity ultimately defined his personal and career goals. Sebastien reports, “During middle school, I participated in a program that provided a stipend for me to do a mentor-guided project over the summer. That was my first introduction to hands-on, scientific research. I studied the effects of a virus on chick-embryo development with a biology professor at the local college. In retrospect, I recall almost nothing of my actual research at this young age, but I remember the lab and the excitement of doing research vividly.”

He goes on to say, “The summer before my junior year of high school, I became involved in biological research again, this time studying lighting effects on plants… I received a grant through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to work with Ph.D. candidates in plant genetics. I had this full-fledged research experience. That’s when I knew for sure that genetics was my life. That is also why I entered the Siemens Westinghouse competition in science. My [lab] partner and I had pages of graphs and scientific results, and the next step was to figure out how to develop a bibliography and put together a scientific paper. From there we became regional finalists, regional winners, and went on to Washington, D.C. to become national semi-finalists against fifteen other teams and six individuals, the best of the best in the nation.

“I was never a person who as a child said, ‘Wow, I’ve got passion,’ but now people tell me I have it, and I guess that’s true. Passion is about things having a greater purpose. For me, a career in clinical genetics will be a way of giving back. It will be a way to honor all the mentors and people who have helped me, starting with my mom. So it’s more than love.”

Postscript: Last time I talked with Sebastien, he was in medical school pursuing his career goal, as determined and happy in his direction as ever.

Establishing the Habit of Reading

Did you know that 1 in 4 adults did not read a book in the past year? Worse yet, 50% of adults are unable to read an 8th grade level book. According to the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 37% of 4th graders and 26% of 8th graders cannot read at a basic level. Reading statistics are grim.

Children learn to read by example. If they see you reading, they will want to read too. Reading to infants establishes a pattern, or habit of reading. Soon, they will be able to read to you. They can then be introduced to more complex literature if someone simply helps in selecting books they can understand and discuss but not tackle alone. By the teenage years or even earlier, students’ growth should start signaling that the oral reading years are coming to an end. As a parent, when that happened I independently read books that my sons recommended to me. Thus we continued to discuss concepts, share ideas and feelings, and enjoy reading ‘together’ until they left the nest. In fact, we still share titles, give each other books as gifts, and discuss mutually-read books today.

The modeling experience involves doing many things together—reading, talking, listening, exploring, thinking, wondering, laughing, and even crying together.

An interest in books may be encouraged through regular visits to the public library. Some smart children have an inherent respect for books from infancy on. Others need to learn this respect through careful instruction on how to treat a book. You will recognize your child’s natural tendencies and thus be able to guide him or her according to individual needs. Little children develop responsibility, as well as awe for storytelling and knowledge acquisition, by picking out their own books, taking them home, reading them (with and without you), learning to treat them with care, and returning them for another set of tales and experiences.

Although books may be attained at no cost through the library, it is good for the blossoming reader to start developing a personal library as well. Children’s books vary in expense. Books can be purchased at garage sales, book swaps, and used bookstores at a very small cost compared to the value of the investment. The possession of some books that can be called  ‘all mine’  brings deep pride and satisfaction.

However, the National Institute for Literacy points out that many children do not have access to books except through their classroom and school libraries. This is why they encourage caregivers to take on this important role. To summarize, reading with young children as the parent or caregiver is important because it:

  • gives children information on a variety of subjects
  • promotes language development and literacy skills
  • helps increase attention spans
  • raises reading levels
  • promotes relationships.

Parents and students ask questions as we read together

Autistic and Gifted

Every parent of an autistic child should read the books of Temple Grandin and see the movie about her life. While downplaying the autistic child’s need for personal relationships, Grandin  emphasizes their need to be identified as smart. She writes, “Autistic children will remain in their own little worlds if left to their own devices…. People with autism can develop skills in fields that they can really excel in. Where they really need help is in selling themselves.” She goes on to explain that it is now thought that Einstein might have had Asperger’s. He didn’t speak until he was three, he silently repeated words to himself, and he didn’t interact with his peers. He did poorly in school until he was sent to a school that allowed him to use his visualization skills. Later in life he told a psychologist friend, “I rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I try to express it in words afterwards.”

One of the smart, autistic children I worked with is Terra, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when she was in 2nd grade and who is now a graduate student living independently of her family. Terra’s mom, a special education teacher, admits that she wanted only to see Terra’s strengths and not her weaknesses when she was little. She says, “I didn’t want her labeled for her deficits in school. Kids with the learning-disability label are categorized based on their weaknesses. But Terra’s social and sensory deficits became more and more apparent as she approached middle-school age. I knew I needed to get an IEP [Individualized Education Plan] with Asperger’s listed. By pretending the issues don’t exist, you are denying the child her full development. You must work on the weaknesses, as well as the strengths.”

When Terra was in 7th grade, she took the ACT through Talent Search. She had a phobia against math, and those scores were low, but her English and reading scores were high, a 28 and 27 respectively, compared to a mean of 20 and 21 for college-bound seniors. Her mom sent her to me at WCATY. “My goal in sending Terra,” she reported, “was for her to see herself in relation to smart kids, rather than only in terms of her disability. I wanted to expand her world intellectually and build her confidence, and I hoped that maybe she would find a friend.”

Terra concentrated on the areas she excelled in – art and writing. She did grow intellectually, gained confidence, and made a friend – a close friend.

Her mother advises, “Do not push thoughts of the future on your children with multiple exceptionalities when they are not ready for thinking that far ahead. But do help them to develop their gifts. At the same time, don’t deny their limits. They must know and understand both their weaknesses and their strengths if they are to become all they can be.”

Like all mothers, Terra’s most wanted her child to be happy. “So much is heavy in her life,” she said, “But I can’t make her happy. The best I can do is to keep making connections and hope to get her in the right environment. She sees herself as being from another planet, an alien. Once we get her through high school, maybe the connections in the academic world will work. She is a little professor.”

The connections worked, and this little professor is succeeding in her academic world today!

 

Urban Prep: A Model for Excellence

I had the opportunity to hear several young men from Urban Prep Academies of Chicago speak this morning of their high school education. Their all-boys inner-city school expects the best from them; slacking off is not an option. The first graduating class experienced a 100% enrollment in college this past year, and it is expected that every graduating class to follow will achieve the same. One of the young men explained, “I wasn’t thinking of being college bound when I started at Urban Prep. But they kept saying, ‘college bound’ along with ‘we believe.’ Now I see why it is they repeat this over and over. They want us to become leaders. And, we’re going to college to graduate.”

Here are a few more words of wisdom shared in the presentation.

From the school leader, “We hear people refer to ‘those’ kids, but they’re really ‘our’ kids.” And, “You cannot demand exceptionality without showing them what it is. The key to our success [in addition to modeling] is passion. We discipline hard, educate harder, and love hardest.”

From the panel of three high school juniors: “Talent without character doesn’t cut it in the world. Urban Prep develops the character as well as the talent.”

“I was unguided and undecided when I arrived as a freshman. At Urban Prep, it all fell into place. I gained confidence in myself because of the resources I was given and the assets I see in the people around me. We all come in as raw materials, but we learn that we can become gemstones.”

“Knowledge is power; education is power; wisdom is power.”

A member of the audience commented, “It shouldn’t be necessary for these articulate young men to tell us this, it should be automatic to us. Excellence should be a way of life.” I agree that it should be a way of life, but unfortunately for the majority, it isn’t. Special services would not be necessary if all children were alike. Our age-grade paradigm might work if all children of the same age were alike. Mentors and corporate sponsors might not be necessary if all families could support their children academically, psychologically, socially, and of course financially. Gifted programs would not be necessary if every child could learn at his or her own pace. But these ‘ifs’ describe an ideal that does not exist in our society. It takes extraordinary commitment, compassion, discipline, and support for a whole school to turn every learner’s story into a success story.

As Kaleem Caire, CEO of the Urban League summed up, with 52% of our black and Latino boys not graduating from high school in Madison, and with only 7% of the very few boys-of-color who even take the ACT demonstrating that they are college ready, we are in crisis mode. Madison Prep, like Urban Prep, will turn these statistics around. We need to do in Madison what it seems to the clear-headed thinker to be common sense. We must put forth the passion that Kaleem models so well. We must rise to the challenge of turning a plan that is well into the making into reality. We must turn the ‘ifs’ of excellence into every day occurrences.  I can’t wait to hear that 100% of our boys from diverse backgrounds are graduating from Madison Prep as they are at Urban Prep, with graduation from college as the next goal for each and every one of them.

Young men from Urban Prep in Chicago