Category Archives: Core elements of learning and being smart

Creativity Revisited

The holidays are getting in the way of my blogging, but not in the way of my book sales. I am thrilled to announce that I have only 12 books left from the second printing, for an initial distribution in the first year that will be the full 800 from two printings. First-come, first-serve for the few copies left!

Recently Harvard Business Review posted an article on its blog entitled, “The Three Threats to Creativity.” I was happy to see that their thinking aligns with mine, although the ramifications of their findings to our children and country are depressing, to say the least.

The ingredients of creativity discussed in this article are:

1. Smart people who think differently. The concern is that a narrow focus on basic subjects is not only endangering the acquisition of deep knowledge, but it is also limiting the development of creative or inventive thinking.

2. Passionate engagement. This article repeats what I have written before: dreaming, intrinsic motivation and love of learning and challenge are keys to success. The upshot is that workers today are more often expressing frustration than enjoyment in their positions.

3. A creative atmosphere. The researchers find that workplaces are reverting to assembly-line type atmospheres rather than promoting openness, collaboration, and exploration.

I can only keep hoping that our education system will catch up with the times. May all your children and grandchildren know the joys of dreaming, exploration, challenge, collaboration and life-long learning in the home, their schools, and eventually in the workplace.

 

Reading, discussing, questioning, and thinking with Grandma.

Our Babies Need a Different Education

On October 26, public radio had a story on the skills today’s babies will need to master in order to become successful adults. Learning to crawl, clap, walk, and talk, they reported, are a beginning, but technology has expanded/changed what must become the face of education.

I say expanded because we need to start with the appalling statistics that I mentioned in my post on September 27. I repeat: this year, out of 30 developed or industrialized nations, our children ranked 25th in math, 21st in science, and 11th in literacy. Needless to say, the basics have not changed – speaking, reading, mathematics, and science will continue to be the bottom line. And, in a global economy and mobile society, speaking and reading will require something we as Americans have never been required to master in the past – competency in multiple languages.

The story emphasized the importance of creative thinking and problem solving. With technological machinery now able to accomplish many of the tasks that people were required to do in the past, it is the creative, effective, and efficient use of those machines that is left to human endeavor. Interestingly, one of the age-old problems with gifted programs is that some students are removed for parts of the school week to participate in what are called pull-out programs. Often the focus of those programs has been creative problem solving. The problem? Thirty years ago, we as educators knew that creative problem solving should be taught to all children in the regular classroom. It’s no longer a case of “should be,” but rather a fact that these skills must be taught to all children if they are to be competitive in the future job market. Gifted children do need appropriate curriculum and instruction, but pull-out programs that give them a hint of the basics for a successful future while others are left in the dark is NOT it!

Yes, we must tackle the problems of the achievement gap – the unconscionable problems of inequity within the system. And, for all children, we must address the issues of quality. Society today is nothing like it was when I was born. The education of our children, however, has not changed, not expanded. Outdated practices and content do not add up to quality. The system must change.

Comments on Gifted Program in Madison

As the first state consultant for gifted in Wisconsin, here are a few of my comments based on the article in the Wisconsin State Journal, Nov. 7, 2010:

1.  Federal definition – If Howard Gardner had published Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences before the federal government issued a definition, chances are we wouldn’t be saddled with categories that make little sense to most people. Leadership and creative abilities are not parallel to academic or artistic ability. For that matter, neither is intellectual ability. The reason children are most often identified in language arts and math is that it is easy – there are objective measures. Intellectual, creative and leadership potential cross these two domains, and the other six domains of smartness or intelligence, as defined by Gardner. A district can deal with the definition even though it’s not the ideal way to consider learning needs.

2.  The chart that lists characteristics of the bright child versus the gifted child – this chart has been used for at least three decades to great disadvantage in the field, in my opinion. Why? Because, as written, it perpetuates the problem of labeling. The purpose of identification is not to label, but rather to provide a curricular fit for a child who needs challenge. The characteristics listed on the chart are indeed indicators of different abilities or skills, but they don’t line up in two succinct columns, and I loudly protest the use of them to label a child as gifted versus smart or bright. Whatever the degree or kind of talent as well as skill strength, each child needs an appropriately paced and level of content.

3.  Superintendent Nerad stated, “Our responsibility is to take every child from where they are to their next level of learning, whether they’re kids in the middle, kids that are already meeting our proficiency standards, or kids that are experiencing achievement gaps.” The first phrase of this statement is perfect! Regarding the different types of kids listed, be aware that these are not discreet categories. For example, kids experiencing achievement gaps can be meeting proficiency standards and in the middle, when they should be soaring.

4.  Not implementing the MMSD TAG Plan now – I was the DPI consultant for Gifted Programs when MMSD did not meet the requirements of Standard (t) in 1990 (it was before I left DPI at the beginning of 1991). Twenty years to establish compliance, and now, as I read the timeline, March 2011 is not a firm date to require the plan to be put into action. I don’t understand the issues in Madison. As I read it, the parents are asking for more options that will allow students to go as far and fast as they require to “take them to their next level of learning.”   They are not advocating for either labeling or elimination of existing options. It sounds like Mr. Nerad sees it similarly to me. So, let’s get on with it!

 

Waiting for Excellence in Education

Waiting for high expectations. That’s what all the good teachers and good schools featured in the “Waiting for …” excellence in education documentary had in common. We can all agree on that.

Waiting for world class standards. Good schools are based on curricular models AND instructional models that are demonstrated to yield results.

Waiting for there to be good teachers in every classroom. Waiting for every child to have access to the curricular models and teachers who will inspire them to be all they can be.

Waiting for accountability.

I feel a little like Geoffrey Canada says he felt when he realized he couldn’t turn the problems with education around as easily as he had hoped the day he started teaching. After a 40+ year career in education, and having made a positive difference in the lives of lots of children, I had still lost hope. It wasn’t enough. As one parent had said to me, “It felt a little like building a beach, one grain of sand at a time.”

This movie both rekindles my hope and exacerbates my worry. Why did I exit the movie crying? Because Bianca, Daisy,  Anthony and the other children in the movie each represent so many children like them. I was crying tears for the children whose stories had just touched my heart, but moreover for all the children without guaranteed options.

We are asked to act. Beyond what I am already doing in taking my WCATY message to the next generations through children’s books and parenting support, I resolve to take these steps:

  1. I join the team of concerned citizens who will work with Kaleem Caire and the Madison Urban League toward the goal of opening a top notch school for boys who are not making it in the system – Madison Prep.
  2. I pledge to share my background in instructional philosophies and models that go beyond world class curriculum in setting the stage for excellence in education, i.e., my message to Madison Prep is the same as it was to Madison Country Day School: World class curriculum is great, but it is just the base. Individual pacing and relevancy, high expectations, inspiring teaching, supported learning, accountability … these must all be added to the curricular base.
  3. I will continue to establish mentor programs and/or work as a mentor when that is the best choice for making a difference. In particular, as I left the movie theater, I thought, “Madison Prep, if it is over-subscribed as I expect it will be, will have the same problem as the great schools in the movie that were portrayed as using a lottery system of selection. Maybe what we need are mentors for all the children who DON’T get selected.” Maybe the students and parents of the students who do get selected could become a part of the mentor team. This is an idea that excites me. We’ll see where it goes.

 

Achievement Gap Versus Opportunity: A Success Story

According to the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University: “The best available evidence indicates that children of different racial and socio-economic backgrounds come into the world equally equipped to excel… However, by age three, between-group skill differences are clearly in evidence. Later gaps in school readiness are firmly established by the first day of kindergarten.”

Talking and reading with small children are two parental musts that are often lacking in low-income homes. A third factor, as I noted in my post about “The Other Wes Moore,” is the establishment of high expectations.

Meet Angie, who was born poor and under the influence of the drugs in her mother’s system. Raised by her father, she proceeded to thrive because he was determined that she would be all she could be from day one. Talking, reading and high expectations are a large part of her story.

She relates, “My father read to me and I received speech therapy to help overcome stuttering and slower-than-normal language acquisition. I didn’t understand the reason for these early language experiences at the time but they probably explain my affinity for reading and writing. As a preschooler, I learned to read by memorizing the words of book after book, and by age 8 my speech problems had been conquered. By age 10, I had read Shakespeare. Although I had far from comprehended all that I read, spelling and reading became second nature to me.”

Although it was the early home environment that set the scene for her success, it was her kindergarten teacher who first accelerated her. “I never considered what this acceleration meant in terms of aptitude. All teachers after that advanced me. I first became aware that I was considered academically talented when I was in eighth grade. My guidance counselor approached me about Talent Search, and six months later, I was taking the ACT. I had never heard of such a test, and even after I received my scores, I didn’t expect to hear much about it again. I figured someone somewhere was testing my academic limits for a giggle and never expected it would amount to much. I was mistaken.”

Mistaken is an understatement. At age 13, Angie had received a perfect score on the ACT English test. Going from a fragile beginning in which her language-acquisition skills were delayed to a perfect English score on a college admissions test while still in middle school was an accomplishment in which her father rightly took great pride and joy. I met Angie at this point, and worked with her through her high school years. I’m happy to report that now, as a college graduate, she continues to seek opportunities that match her abilities and interests. She says, “When more opportunities came along, I jumped at every chance. My (early) experiences had given me the courage to open new doors. The catalysts in my life were important to where I am today. Cumulative advantage cannot occur without a beginning. Of the future, I know it will build upon early advantages. I know there’s a way to bring my passions to other people and that words are important. I am living in that spirit right now and will continue to live in that spirit.”

 

Waiting for Superman

I hate to think of myself as a pessimist, but I have been feeling that, as a country, we were doomed to a bleak future. Because of partisan politics, the economy, crime? All of these are among the many reasons to be concerned, but the underlying factor for me is our broken education system. In 1983 the problems were clearly outlined in a book presented by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, entitled A Nation At Risk. Our children were already falling in international comparisons of student achievement. But we were going to fix it, right? Wrong. Today, the statistics that are quoted are worse: 25th out of 30 developed or industrialized countries in math, 21st in science, and 11th in literacy. Doomed is not too strong a word.

Then along came a documentary film: Waiting for Superman. The movie hasn’t come to Madison, and I intend to see it as soon as it does. But I don’t need to see it to have a glimmer of hope. Oprah had two shows devoted to it in one week,  Meet the Press devoted half their Sunday morning hour to it, the news hours are covering it, the talk shows are talking it. A seemingly sincere dialogue has begun. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan called it “A Rosa Parks Movie” because, he said, “the country is compelled to act.” Maybe he’s right. I hope he’s right.

I say go Newark; go Washington D.C.; go Detroit; go New York City! Leaders from these cities have been featured on the shows I’ve seen over the past few days, and I applaud their intentions to act. I join the Madison Urban League in its goals to turn around dismal statistics regarding graduation rates here for children of color. I await news of commitments in community after community, state after state. As in New Jersey may our Democratic and Republican leaders join forces in saying, “Yes, we have some great teachers, but that’s not enough. Every child deserves an excellent education. Every child deserves rigor in the curriculum. Every child’s dreams should be heard and encouraged. And we’re going to work TOGETHER to make it happen.”

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.

Turn Curiosity Into Passion

Recently, Oprah aired a show about “dream jobs.” Not surprisingly, the common element between all the stories these people told was passion. They loved their work. It was hard to distinguish their work from play.

Parents of preschoolers can learn from the story of Michael, a boy I worked with and later interviewed regarding his talent development. Michael knows he had high academic ability even at a preschool age, but it’s unclear to him whether his parents noticed it or created it. “Preschool life was a series of educational games and activities, and I loved it. When a child is young and malleable, curiosity and optimism are the pre-stages of passion,” he explains. “I was naturally curious, but my parents modeled these characteristics and encouraged them in me.

“I remember little about formal schooling before third grade. That’s because my parents shaped my education, and that is as it should be. They took charge of making sure I stayed challenged and excited about learning. To do this, they moved me to a private school when they determined the public school stifled my curiosity.“

At his new school, Michael says he was never bored, but always challenged. He experienced a delicate balance between boredom and anxiety that helped his curiosity and optimism to grow into a life-long excitement for knowledge.

Later at a special program run by the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin in cooperation with WCATY, Michael’s architect-mentors modeled pure love for what they were doing. “For the first time I thought of myself as a passionate person. I define that passion as the lack of a dividing line between work and play. My motivation was purely intrinsic. The external environment of Taliesin provided a challenging course of study, but it was up to me to take from it as much or little as I wanted. There were no grades or bad consequences for doing less than my best, but I always felt stimulated. Taliesin simply allowed my joy of learning to evolve.”

Michael came away from that program with a deep understanding that passion comes from the heart. He further explains what he learned. “Passion is a strong emotional affinity for some kind of activity. For some people it is innate and for others it needs to be developed. That’s why parents need to cultivate curiosity in their young children. I think developing one’s passion requires conditioning a child’s curiosity for learning and optimism for life at an early age into his or her own areas of interest.”

Reaching Poor Smart Children

As our nation’s Supreme Court welcomes its newest confirmed member, Elena Kagan’s high school is in a turmoil over questions of diversity according to an article in The New York Times on August 4, 2010. Hunter College High School, for intellectually gifted students, has been ranked the top public high school in the country. Yet it has experienced a significant decline in numbers of black and Hispanic students served in recent years and debate over admissions policy has left a respected principal with no choice but to resign and faculty and students up in arms.

Justin Hudson was chosen by the faculty from among all the graduates of Hunter this year to be the commencement speaker. I read his speech in an attempt to better understand the emotion-laden situation. “I don’t deserve any of this…. We received an outstanding education at no charge based solely on our performance on a test we took when we were eleven years old. We received superior teachers and additional resources based on our status as ‘gifted,’ while kids who naturally need those resources much more than us wallowed in the mire of a broken system….”Justin told his classmates.

“We are playing God and we are losing,” he continued. “Hunter is perpetuating a system in which children who contain unbridled and untapped intellect and creativity are discarded like refuse. And we have the audacity to say they deserved it, because we are smarter than them. We have failed to inspire and uplift an entire generation of children. I am acutely aware of where I would be right now without (Hunter).

“I hope that I will use the tools that Hunter has given me as a means to provide opportunities to others … I hope that in the near future, (quality) education will not be a privilege for the few in this world.”

The problem is not Hunter High School, but the entire broken system to which Justin refers. When I was coordinator of gifted programs in the schools and later consultant for gifted programming at our state department of education, I stated that the ideal would be to eliminate my position. That could only happen if all students received a quality education. All children should be taught the skills of creativity in the regular classroom. All children should be able to learn as quickly and deeply as they are able. No child should be expected to wait for others to “catch up.” No child should be denied an opportunity based on ethnicity or economics. All children should graduate with the same curiosity and sparkle with which they started kindergarten.

My goal now for “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart” is to get it into the hands of poor children through community centers, day care centers, and other community connections. At the same time, I am preparing to submit “Color Me Smart,” the story of children from diverse backgrounds who had doors of opportunity opened to them through WCATY, for publication. I need to reach a broader market. What I can do and what Justin can do are tips of the iceberg. It may seem like I can’t make a difference, but if I don’t try and you don’t try, what are the chances that “schooling” will improve? Wouldn’t it be nice to have children NOT hide their talents in school because they are proud to openly use and develop those talents? Will we ever be first in the world in education again?

Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Creative

On July 10, there was an article in Newsweek headlined, “Research shows that American creativity is declining. What went wrong and how can we fix it?”

Reading the article took me back to the early days of my career in gifted education when E. Paul Torrance was still alive and at the forefront of the research as well as development in the area of creativity. It takes me down memory lane in terms of all the work I’ve done over the years with direct or indirect goals and outcomes related to creativity development.

There are several important messages from the Newsweek coverage to discuss in relation to my current interest in writing and publishing children’s picture books on the topic of “smartness.” The first is the misunderstood definition of creativity. It is not just about imagination and playing with ideas. In reality creativity is the “production of something original and useful…to be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result).” I hope and believe that in “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart,” I portray the importance of encouraging our children to develop and use both kinds of thinking.

Second, the article reports that preschool children ask their parents about 100 questions a day. Often those questions start with, “why?” and tragically, as the article continues, it stops! I could never describe the issue of low motivation for learning that so often occurs by middle school if not in earlier grades better than with this quote from Newsweek: “They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest. It’s the other way around. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.” It’s not all the fault of parents – some teachers encourage questioning and others don’t – but nevertheless parents need to keep the spirit of curiosity alive regardless of the school’s role in their children’s development from year to year.

Third in importance for today’s parents and grandparents to understand is the long-term benefit of promoting the skills that “Grandma” (in my book) says she values from early childhood on. The research points out that children whose curiosity, imagination, and divergent and convergent thinking are encouraged over time tend to excel, i.e. they finish high school and they finish college at much higher rates. This only makes sense. If they stop asking questions and start languishing in the classroom by or before middle school, a downward spiral is inevitable.

The bottom line of the Newsweek article is that although we have always valued creativity in American society, we are not purposely fostering it. We need to do that. Creativity doesn’t just happen!