Category Archives: Grandma Says It's Good to Be Smart

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.

 

Serious Grandma Extends Special Price Through September

Several of you asked that I extend the offer of buy one, get half off the second Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart. For two reasons, I will continue that Grandparent’s Day special through September 30. First, it’s because you asked. Second, it’s because I care about learning and now, as school starts, is a great time to support it in a special way.

In July, David Brooks wrote a column in The New York Times regarding the value of books to disadvantaged children versus the advantages of participating in an Internet/games-based culture. Researchers from the University of Tennessee showed that children who read just 12 books over the summer did just as well upon the return to school as they would have had they attended summer school. Research from 27 countries showed that kids who grew up in homes with 500 or more books in them did better in school and stayed in school longer than children from families with fewer books. The final conclusion, though, was that the real debate was not books versus Internet, but how to build an Internet-based culture that would attract people to serious learning.

My concern is about serious learning. My concern is about giving positive reinforcement to children who engage in serious learning. To use a cliché, it takes a village to raise a child. Grandmas are key players in the village structure. For my “Start of the 2010-1011 School Year Special,” please still go to the “Contact Ellie Books” page for order details. And, buy one book for $10, with the second – for another child in the family or community – being just $5 through September 30.

"What if you were the lion in the zoo?"

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.

Grandparent’s Day Special

In honor of Grandparent’s Day on Sunday, September 12, I have two special offerings. First, I will be reading and signing at the Oompa Toys store in Middleton between 1-3 p.m. on Saturday, the 11th. It will be great fun to see grandparents and their little ones on that occasion or to meet parents who might be getting the book as a gift to give Grandma on the next day.

Second, I am featuring a BLOG SPECIAL. For two weeks, from August 30-September 12, I am offering a “buy one copy of Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart, get a second copy for another grandchild or favorite little one, for one-half off.” Go to the Contact Ellie page of this website for the details.

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?

Learning on Cruise from the Ground Up

On July 4th, ‘The New York Times’ ran a commentary on the pitfalls in identifying a gifted child.  It was precipitated by NYC officials stating that they were looking to identify children as young as 3, and asking what measures to use. I will not go into the whole debate, but if you are interested you can look up the opinions of contributing writers: Susan K. Johnsen, Baylor University; Clara Hemphill, Insidesschools.org; Joseph Renzulli, U. of Connecticut; Tonya Moon, U. of Virginia, and Bige Doruk, Bright Kids NYC.

I agree with Susan Johnsen’s suggestion that what we should be talking about is “talent spotting, from the ground up.” That’s what I encourage when I talk about using the “wow factor” to identify young children. When a child writes a poem, makes an observation, performs artistically, or does anything so extraordinary that it makes you go, “Wow!” I consider that an indicator of talent, or potential giftedness. This “wow factor” is clearly noticeable in children from the day they begin communicating. What you observed in that child may be so different from what you expected at the child’s age or stage of development that you would call it the work of a gifted child. Or, you may not be willing to go quite that far yet, which is fine. What is important is acting on your “wow” feeling.

This is where Susan and I depart from many of the other commentators in the article. As soon as the term ‘gifted’ is applied, the issue of labeling often becomes the focus of discussion or concern rather than the true purpose for acting on your “wow” feeling. That purpose is called “optimal match.” Optimal match is defined as a fit between the characteristics of the learner and what he is expected to learn. This match cannot be made unless the degree of ability is ascertained. Thus, there must be an evaluation of his interests and ability in whatever subject or topic is to be taught. It can be as easy as following up on the “wow” observation with an opportunity for the child to produce more in that area and at a comparable and steadily increasing level. At home, through the use of modeling, materials, space, and time, your goal most likely has always been to provide an optimal match between his interests and abilities and what he is learning. In most cases, a parent does not need formal testing in the early years to be able to feel that appropriate encouragement and support is being provided. But as he moves forward in the educational system, for most children, someone other than you will be determining the curriculum. Your goal doesn’t change, but the system for matching curriculum to learner does.

In school, there is a standard curriculum that is offered to all learners who are basically grouped according to age. Whether or not this is the best way to group learners, this is the way we have been doing it for years, and changing that system is not easy. When you ask that your child’s teacher provide an optimal match, you are asking for two things: first, that the pace or tempo of learning be appropriate. Second, that the depth and breadth of the subject be appropriate. In other words, you want your child to learn something new and to have to spend no longer doing it than she requires. A diagnostic assessment would be used not to label her, but rather to pinpoint where she is at in her learning and to suggest where she should go from there.

In the debate on identification in NYC schools, the call for identification as early as age 3 was in response to a louder call for identification among diverse populations. Again I agree with Johnsen, who states, “giftedness is exhibited across all racial, ethnic and income levels; however, children from these groups remain underrepresented in gifted education programs. Some of this underrepresentation may be explained by exclusive definitions (required superior performance on a single test), attitudes (teachers or parents do not recognize the gift or talent) and test fairness (characteristics of the norming population, item bias, linguistic demands).”

I remember years ago observing a first day of school for kindergartners in Milwaukee. Did I see eyes alight with enthusiasm and wonder? Yes. Did I hear a buzz of excitement about new learning activities? Yes. Among those children, there were some who needed to be advanced at a faster rate than others. Very few, if any, in this low-income neighborhood probably had developed far in their abilities yet. But they did have the potential to learn at varying rates. They each had the right to have his or her curiosity and readiness fully addressed. One young African American boy told me, “I can cruise.” He didn’t need to be tested for his teacher to allow him to ‘cruise’ through his skill development at a pace that would keep his spark of excitement for learning alive. He did need a teacher who was open to individualized learning and who believed that any child could have an as yet unrealized talent.

Let’s let our children cruise from the ground up. Let’s let them know that to be smart is cool, and that they are indeed smart!

Opening Doors of Opportunity

If a child opens one door of opportunity, other opportunities that otherwise might not have existed will follow. This phenomenon is called “cumulative educational advantage.” It is about never holding a child back in his area of aptitude and interest. It means carefully planning special, supplemental educational experiences, starting early in school and continuing into college, graduate school, and professional life. It means studying deeply and broadly. Early experiences can include summer programs through private institutions and on college campuses; mentorships, apprenticeships, and internships; local, state, national, and international competitions; travel and study at special learning sites within our own country and abroad; distance learning and traditional correspondence courses; dual enrollment between two levels of school, such as high school and college, or early entrance to any level of schooling; and many more possibilities.

Such opportunities should never be viewed as “frosting on the educational cake,” according to the late Julian Stanley, renowned expert on educational acceleration. “Rather,” he writes, “they can be the most important ingredient… things that give you cumulative educational advantage are likely to be the best investments in your education your parents could possibly make” (1994, p. 4).

Harriet Zuckerman (1977) introduced the idea of educational advantage in her study of Nobel laureates in science. Scientists who studied at topnotch institutions and with past laureates had increased potential for becoming leaders in their field and even laureates themselves. She states (p.59-60), “Advantage in science, as in other occupational spheres, accumulates when certain individuals or groups repeatedly receive resources and rewards that enrich the recipients at an accelerated rate and conversely impoverish (relatively) the non recipients.”

Cumulative educational advantage is not about pushing, it is not as simple as graduating early, and it does not always involve being number one. It is about being in the right place at the right time, and usually it does not happen by coincidence. It happens when students are introduced purposefully to concepts, programs, activities, career possibilities, and people, who in turn introduce them to more and more possibilities until the right one clicks. It happens when their learning activities are accelerated in comparison with those of other students of equal ability and motivation. The effects may be multiplicative, because any one opportunity may open the doors to multiple other opportunities.

I just received a note from the mom of a past student of WCATY’s accelerated programs. He had lived and studied for three intensive weeks with the architects of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture as a high school junior . Here’s how cumulative educational advantage worked for this young man when his parents opened a summer door of opportunity:

“At the end of May, he graduated from Harvard University with a Masters in Architecture.  He was one of 14 out of 104 students who graduated with distinction.  At this time, he is temporarily working at his previous employer, Perkins + Will, in Chicago.  On August 1, he will begin employment at Adjaye Associates in Manhattan.  Chris is quite thrilled to be with such a creative and world-renowned firm.  He loves big city life (after coming from a town of 10,000!), and is looking forward to living and working in New York City.

“We are incredibly proud of Chris, and always tell people that the start of his confidence , determination, and drive came from his experience with WCATY at Taliesin.”

Parents often ask if the money for a special program or class will be well spent; they view it as a hardship (which often it is) instead of an investment (which may ultimately be of higher value). Yet through and since my years of experience in working with smart, motivated kids – matching them to opportunities that interest them – I have accumulated a wealth of stories like Chris’s. This IS the frosting on the cake of my career!

Please keep sharing your stories.

Another nice review

I have to share my joy in reading your book to my 3 year old granddaughter this weekend. She was interested and attentive to both the story and the illustrations.
It’s a wonderful, beautiful book.
Thanks so much for the personal message too!
Pat Neely

Is it good to be smart?

Obviously I think yes. That has been the premise of my work for decades as a teacher and non-profit executive, and is currently the premise of my children’s books, including the one I’m working on now with a multi-cultural focus. Is that what  you think?

The reason I ask is that I talked with a grandmother of a 3-year old this past week. She said of her grandson, “My daughter-in-law won’t let me tell him he’s smart. I naturally want to say, ‘_____ you’re so smart.’ She says, ‘Don’t say that. Say you are a good problem solver or I like the way you figured out how to…’

“So,” the grandmother asked, “you disagree with her?” My quick answer was yes, but it’s not that simple.

I think it’s a shame when children learn at home as well as at school that being smart is something to be ashamed of. Or, if it’s not shame, it’s taboo. We just don’t say we’re smart.

The point of my book for small children is to do exactly what this grandmother’s daughter-in-law was doing, but with one significant difference. When I say “exactly the same,” I mean the book defines what some of the characteristics of being smart are – reading, using a good vocabulary, problem-solving, imagining, being good to the world around us, etc. By a significant difference, I don’t think the daughter-in-law should make the word ‘smart’ taboo.

I used to do parent workshops on being gifted where at the beginning of a session, I would ask people to “stand up if you’re a good runner, a good pianist, a good cook,” etc. People would stand up with no hesitation to being good at different specific skills. Then I’d move on to “stand up if you’re creative, smart… gifted.” Usually people are comfortable with creative or smart, but rarely if ever are they comfortable with calling themselves gifted. This is the consequence not of anti-intellectualism but rather of a problem with comparing and labeling in our society. I choose to use the word smart in my books for young children because everyone should be proud to be smart. I’m troubled that this parent is not giving her child the freedom to understand that it is smart to be able to skillfully use all of his developing aptitudes in a positive way.

So, the bottom line? Grandma Ellie says it’s good to be smart. Grandma Ellie doesn’t limit her discussions of being smart to the skills in her book. Talking about using our cognitive as well as emotional and social abilities as we grow and learn and admitting there is a concept called “smart” can only help our children to understand themselves and others.