Category Archives: Passion in teaching and learning

Chess Club Versus Football

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

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

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

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

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Grandma Says It’s Good to Read

Brotherly Reading

This past week I got to live what I preach. I spent a week babysitting with my two grandsons, and reading was at the core of our activities. The little guy is 5. He says, “Kindergarten is ‘kinda’ easy.” Every night his homework consists of reading a different book that he has selected to bring home. While he read aloud to me, the older brother was to engage in a quiet activity until I could help him with his math. On some nights it was his own reading homework. On others, it was reading a book for fun. Here the two boys have extended fun as the younger boy climbs into the chair and joins in.

I have written about the significance of early reading previously. In this posting, I reiterate its benefits based on the National Institute for Literacy’s recommendations in action:

* Gives children information on a variety of topics. The older boy is intensely interested in frogs and toads, sharks, dolphins, and fish of all kinds. We read several reference books on amphibians and ocean life, some from his school library and other treasures from his personal bookshelf. The younger boy is still 100% into picture books and we had fun with all kinds of stories. One old favorite is “Scranimals” by Jack Prelutsky. We brainstormed our own Scranimals, then drew and made stories about them to add to the book. Two new favorites are “What Animals Really Like” by Fiona Robinson and “Black and White” by David Macaulay. The first is highly imaginative with beautifully complex pictures to read. The latter is a book I bought when I heard David Macaulay speak a few years ago. It consists of four stories that can be read separately but become increasingly blended into one complex story as you read. I was waiting for the two boys to grow into it, and they sure did!

Promotes language development and literacy skills. Both boys are growing into independent reading. The third grader did not learn to read as quickly as other Schatzes in our family, but he was always read to, loved stories, and eventually became the reader I knew he would become. The younger boy craves books. Both have learned that reading can introduce them to adventures, people, lands, and ideas that otherwise they’d never know.

Helps increase attention spans. The photo proves it. What I expected to be at maximum a 10-minute activity, became a long expedition into the imagination. I think I had to peel them from the chair to get back to unfinished homework assignments.

Promotes family relationships. Again, the picture is worth a thousand words.

Raises reading levels. I do think the kindergartner grew several grade levels in reading ability in the week I was with him. His ability to use context and his memory for words once he’s seen them once was a joy to observe. Whatever skill it is we are attempting to master, practice is the key. Practicing reading should never be a chore. I’m so glad both boys are totally delighted when reading a good book.

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.

Special Offer for National Parenting Gifted Children Week

National Parenting Gifted Children Week is hosted by SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted).

 Follow their Blog Tour

Download SENG’s free NPGC Week ebook, The Joy and the Challenge: Parenting Gifted Children.

On June 24, The New York Times reviewed Alexandra Robbins’ “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth,” in which she states that although adults are proudly admitting their earlier nerd status now that they have achieved success, “there have been surprisingly few trickle-down effects… bullying and exclusion are rampant” (in our schools). She elaborates, “many of the traits that correlate with ‘outsider’ status among high school students — originality, self-awareness, courage, resilience, integrity and passion — reveal themselves as assets later in life.”

The review is less than an endorsement of Robbins’ writing style or message, and I do not agree with the concept of overachievement, the topic and title of her previous book. However, as the reviewer – Jessica Bruder – points out, “None of this dampens the urgency of her broader message. Adults tell students that it gets better, that the world changes after school, that being ‘different’ will pay off sometime after graduation. But no one explains to them why.”

The article concludes that Robbins is “dead on: teenagers need to hear that adolescence ends. And more than that, they need to believe it.”

The point of “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart” is that for many gifted kids, the teenage years are too late for this message. That is why they don’t believe it. Grandma says start telling them that it’s good/cool to be smart early on. Starting in infancy and toddlerhood, smart and gifted children need to feel good about their abilities and have that message reinforced every time an unfortunate incident of name-calling, bullying, or negative peer pressure to hide who they are and what they know occurs.

In honor of SENG’s National Parenting Gifted Children Week, I am offering a special price for “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart.” Start your little ones on a path to believing in themselves and their talents at an early age. Go to the “Contact Ellie Books” page of www.allkindsofsmart.com for details on how to order.

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.

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