Tag Archives: Role models

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.

Calling All Savvy Aunts, Nanas, Bubbas, Dadimas

A week ago there was an article in The New York Times about grandmothers, in particular about what they want to be called. Many Hollywood stars, it seems, don’t want to be called ‘grandma’ as it makes their age all too clear to anyone who would hear them so addressed. Goldie Hawn, for instance, is known as ‘Glam-Ma.’ Some of the star’s choices are not that ‘cute.’

When I wrote Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart, I was afraid I might eliminate sales to grandmothers known as Grammie, Bubba, Nana, and the myriad of names based on cultural heritage. I was correct, which is sad. Although I wrote it for my grandsons, the book is based on my experiences as an educator. I wrote it for all young children. I could have entitled it, My teacher says… . But I wanted it to be from the me I am now. My hopes were that I could inscribe books for any grandmothers in ways that would personalize it for them.

This and another article about aunts has brought the issue of markets limited by titles back to the forefront of my mind. Calling All ‘Cool Aunts’: It’s Time to Get Savvy,’ is a book by Melanie Notkin, who also has a website: SavvyAuntie.com. Melanie says she’s “a proud PANK, which is short for Professional Aunt, No Kids.”

Years ago, I was a PANK, and recently my niece, in response to my post Establishing the Habit of Reading, wrote, “Reading is the love of my life, and without it I would surely be a lesser person. Fortunately, my love of reading was nurtured in my young years by a favorite aunt, a teacher, who sent me books for birthdays and Christmas. Today many of those same children’s and young adult books still grace my bookshelves. Of course, now my favorite aunt goes by the name ‘Grandma’, and encourages children all over the country to read. Thank you Ellie, for my love of books!”

In the promotion of Melanie’s book, nothing is said about the importance of books, reading , or growing up smart. But my sense of Melanie’s mission is that she believes in all three. My point in writing this short piece is to CALL ALL AUNTS, NANAS, BUBBAS, GLAM-MAS, DADIMAS, GODMOTHERS, i.e, all savvy women in the lives of children not their own. Talking reading, exploring, imagining, asking questions, dreaming, writing, experimenting, practicing, gaining confidence, and on and on – your little ones need your guidance as well as the guidance of their parent(s) or primary caregivers. They don’t automatically grow up smart, even if they are born full of curiosity, alertness, and quick learning ability. Our American society is sports oriented but not smarts oriented. Skills and interests must be nourished. Children need to hear how proud we are of their every accomplishment.

So change the name of my book, share it, and share it’s message. Savvy auntie says it’s good to be smart. Warm and wonderful godmother says it’s good to be smart. Nana says it’s good to be smart. Glam-ma, I would guess, says it’s good to be smart. After all, the ‘glam-ma’ I’ve followed on television and in movies over the years is quite a talented lady. And she’s passed it on to the next generation.

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

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

Modeling for Young Learners

Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself. —John Dewey

Smart children are evident from the day they are born. You notice it in their eyes. They look at you with an alertness that astounds you. You were told a baby couldn’t focus, but this child seems aware of everything around her. Those eyes are so penetrating that it feels like she has a wisdom a baby just plain can’t have. But she does. You are observing genetic attributes. Genetics is one factor in determining how smart a child is.

As your baby grows, you notice he exhibits natural traits that seem different or more advanced than they appear in other children. Those traits may include:

  • Is alert or keenly observant
  • Is highly curious
  • Is intense
  • Is highly sensitive
  • Sees the funny as well as the serious sides of things
  • Asks questions
  • Makes connections, or puts things together in new ways
  • Learns with ease, or masters new skills quickly
  • Has an extensive vocabulary
  • Thinks abstractly.

But, nature alone will not ensure your child will grow up smart. No matter how smart she is at birth, education (or nurture) is the key to her development. Researchers have found that potential talent cannot be realized unless it is valued in the child’s environment.

The cliche, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it,” is true when it comes to being smart or talented. Parents and grandparents can nurture the characteristics you started observing on day one. Children learn by example. If they see you reading, they will want to read too. Reading to an infant establishes a pattern, or habit of reading. Soon he will be able to read to you. You can then introduce him to more complex literature by selecting books to read that he can understand and discuss, but not tackle alone. By the teenage years or even earlier, his personal growth may signal that the oral reading years are coming to an end. When that happens, he can tell you the books he would like you to read independently as he reads them too. Thus you can still discuss concepts, share ideas and feelings, and enjoy reading “together” for years to come.

If you are curious and ask lots of questions about the world around you, your young child will be encouraged to ask questions too. Don’t feel you always need to have the answers. You don’t want to model knowing it all. The curious child is full of “why…?” and “what if…?” questions. Ask her questions that start with “how might we…?” “what would happen if…?” “suppose…?” or “what are all the ways you can think of…?” to stimulate a variety of thoughts and responses.

If you are posing questions, you are talking with your child. If you are reading with him, you are talking with him. When you talk with your child in these ways, you are modeling the kinds of things that are important to you, and you are building his vocabulary and knowledge base. Studies of  language development in children from birth to age three have demonstrated that the more parents talked with their children, the faster their vocabularies grew and the higher their intelligence scores. Early language acquisition builds the foundation for comprehension upon which all later learning experiences are added.

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

I was deeply touched when my friend Nancy sent me photos of her reading to her grandchildren’s classes. Not only does it reinforce for me the importance of the message of “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart,” but it shows Nancy being that model, not only for her own grandchildren, but for their classmates as well. Thank you Nancy for joining me in spreading the word that it is good to read, explore, question, imagine; listen, talk, and wonder. Thank you for joining me in sharing the message, “It’s good to be smart!”

High Expectations from Good Role Models

This summer I happened to tune into Oprah on the day she was interviewing Wes Moore, a Rhodes scholar and now highly successful businessman. They were talking about his life and that of another man who shares his name. The second Wes Moore is serving a life sentence for being part of an armed robbery in which a police officer was tragically killed. I knew then and there that I had to read The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates.

Moore begins and ends his book with the same statement: “The chilling truth is that Wes’s story could have been mine; the tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

I recommend that anyone who serves as a role model for children – teachers, parents, day care providers, community center staff, civic volunteers—read this story of one young man whose mother was so afraid that his early bouts of trouble in school and in his Bronx neighborhood would lead to a life of crime that, with help from her parents, brothers, and sisters, she sent him away to military school. Of that experience, Moore says, “The expectations that others place on us help us form our expectations of ourselves.” From his mother and his grandparents, uncles and aunts, to the military officers and older students at his boarding school, Wes learned that he had great academic and leadership potential. He fought the decision that removed him from the environment that threatened his future when he was a boy. But he ultimately listened, believed, and changed.

The other Wes heard a similar message early in his life. His older brother, already dealing drugs and in trouble with the law at a young age tells him, “Acting stupid isn’t cool. …Tony felt his brother’s life could be saved, even if he felt his had already at age 14 passed the point of no return.”

So what happened? “Wes wanted to be just like Tony.” Although this Wes’s mother moved several times, it was from one disadvantaged neighborhood to another. Try as she did, the help she needed was never there for her. Wes’s  environment never changed. The temptations were always there. Follow in Tony’s footsteps he did. Tony was believed to be the man who fired the lethal shot in that robbery, but Wes was there too, following the brother who was the apple of his eye.

As the successful Wes Moore elaborates at the end of the book, “What changed was that I found myself surrounded by people… who kept pushing me to see more than what was directly in front of me, to see the boundless possibilities of the wider world and the unexplored possibilities within myself. People who taught me that no accident of birth—not being black or relatively poor, being from Baltimore or the Bronx or fatherless—would ever define or limit me. In other words they helped me to discover what it means to be free. My only wish—and I know Wes feels the same—is that the boys (and girls) who come after us will know this freedom. It’s up to us, all of us, to make a way for them.”

I applaud Wes Moore for tracking down and telling the story of the other Wes Moore. I echo Tony’s early message to his brother, putting it in the positive: “It’s cool to be smart!” Although getting that message to all the children who need to hear and heed is a daunting undertaking, it begins with me. It begins with each of us, individual by individual, role model by role model.