Category Archives: It's Good to Be 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.

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.

 

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?

Raising Smart Children: Case Stories

Recently someone suggested I should be writing an adult book in addition to children’s books on the issue of being smart. My response was that my original plan was to write a parenting book on raising smart children. And, I did. THEN I wrote “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart,” believing that I could essentially put chapter one of the adult book into basic terms for small children, including my grandchildren. Now I am working on a children’s book on diversity and kinds of talent based on later chapters of that manuscript.

I did not publish the adult book for two reasons. First, it is not about raising gifted children, but rather intended for a broader audience. I believe there are far more smart children out there than we admit. We are losing potential solutions to serious problems when we ignore this fact. And, we are not encouraging children to be all they can be. I’ve never subscribed to the Lake Wobegon idea – “where all the children are smart” –  but I do advocate something much closer to this Garrison Keilor paradigm than what now exists in our schools and communities. Because of this philosophy and the broad approach I take to the topic, my manuscript is not a perfect fit for publication in the field of gifted education.

Second, the market for books in general has been steadily declining. And books about a field as specific as talent development are not in high demand to start with. At the same time, the market for online materials is exploding.

My conclusion? I’ve decided to remake the tips section of my blog into something potentially of greater interest to my readers (and in full recognition that I really had done next to nothing with it up until now).  I have published the table of contents of my parenting book on the tips and preview page of this blog. You will need to help me take the next step. One possibility would be to post some of the stories in the book, based on your requests. Another would be to send a chapter to someone with the desire or need to read a specific topic. Another would be to excerpt information or data based on your requests or questions. Please let me know if and how this might be of interest and use to you and we’ll take it from there.

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!

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.

Young Learners

I dreamed of influencing new generations of motivated learners when I wrote “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart.” At book signings as well as readings like those with my grandson’s preschool class, I realize that is beginning to happen. This little girl epitomizes what the book is about. She is joyous; she breathes enthusiasm for learning. When I first saw her, her eyes were sparkling with awe as she gazed at all the mechanical devices and aerial fantasies that decorate Ella’s Deli on East Washington Avenue in Madison. Her mother tells me she was excited to meet a real author AND to have me write her name and my name in her own book. This little girl, and my grandson and his friend as I read to them in Lafayette, Colorado two weeks ago, demonstrate the wonders of early learning. Their curiosity, motivation and  awe – for books, the outdoors, meeting people, and exploring the world – delight me.