Category Archives: Role models

From Curiosity to Mentors to Career

In December 2010, Royal Society Publishing reported on a study completed by 8- and 9-year old scientists under the tutelage of a neuroscientist from University College, London. This morning, I was talking with a colleague about a mentoring program we ran for middle school students at WCATY. This conversation reminded me of the “Bee Study” and the role of mentors in encouraging young learners to pursue their interests.

In a commentary accompanying the children’s scientific report, a scientist wrote, “The perceptual and decisional abilities of insects [bees] are …  shaped as successful responses to environmental challenges. The same can be said of the children who carried out this research. The resulting article is a remarkable demonstration of how natural scientific reasoning is for us. The insatiable curiosity that characterizes childhood, combined with … scientific method, provides a powerful tool that allows us to prosper and grow.”

Our WCATY scholars and their mentors made similar observations. One student’s story shows how building on early curiosity ultimately defined his personal and career goals. Sebastien reports, “During middle school, I participated in a program that provided a stipend for me to do a mentor-guided project over the summer. That was my first introduction to hands-on, scientific research. I studied the effects of a virus on chick-embryo development with a biology professor at the local college. In retrospect, I recall almost nothing of my actual research at this young age, but I remember the lab and the excitement of doing research vividly.”

He goes on to say, “The summer before my junior year of high school, I became involved in biological research again, this time studying lighting effects on plants… I received a grant through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to work with Ph.D. candidates in plant genetics. I had this full-fledged research experience. That’s when I knew for sure that genetics was my life. That is also why I entered the Siemens Westinghouse competition in science. My [lab] partner and I had pages of graphs and scientific results, and the next step was to figure out how to develop a bibliography and put together a scientific paper. From there we became regional finalists, regional winners, and went on to Washington, D.C. to become national semi-finalists against fifteen other teams and six individuals, the best of the best in the nation.

“I was never a person who as a child said, ‘Wow, I’ve got passion,’ but now people tell me I have it, and I guess that’s true. Passion is about things having a greater purpose. For me, a career in clinical genetics will be a way of giving back. It will be a way to honor all the mentors and people who have helped me, starting with my mom. So it’s more than love.”

Postscript: Last time I talked with Sebastien, he was in medical school pursuing his career goal, as determined and happy in his direction as ever.

Establishing the Habit of Reading

Did you know that 1 in 4 adults did not read a book in the past year? Worse yet, 50% of adults are unable to read an 8th grade level book. According to the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 37% of 4th graders and 26% of 8th graders cannot read at a basic level. Reading statistics are grim.

Children learn to read by example. If they see you reading, they will want to read too. Reading to infants establishes a pattern, or habit of reading. Soon, they will be able to read to you. They can then be introduced to more complex literature if someone simply helps in selecting books they can understand and discuss but not tackle alone. By the teenage years or even earlier, students’ growth should start signaling that the oral reading years are coming to an end. As a parent, when that happened I independently read books that my sons recommended to me. Thus we continued to discuss concepts, share ideas and feelings, and enjoy reading ‘together’ until they left the nest. In fact, we still share titles, give each other books as gifts, and discuss mutually-read books today.

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

An interest in books may be encouraged through regular visits to the public library. Some smart children have an inherent respect for books from infancy on. Others need to learn this respect through careful instruction on how to treat a book. You will recognize your child’s natural tendencies and thus be able to guide him or her according to individual needs. Little children develop responsibility, as well as awe for storytelling and knowledge acquisition, by picking out their own books, taking them home, reading them (with and without you), learning to treat them with care, and returning them for another set of tales and experiences.

Although books may be attained at no cost through the library, it is good for the blossoming reader to start developing a personal library as well. Children’s books vary in expense. Books can be purchased at garage sales, book swaps, and used bookstores at a very small cost compared to the value of the investment. The possession of some books that can be called  ‘all mine’  brings deep pride and satisfaction.

However, the National Institute for Literacy points out that many children do not have access to books except through their classroom and school libraries. This is why they encourage caregivers to take on this important role. To summarize, reading with young children as the parent or caregiver is important because it:

  • gives children information on a variety of subjects
  • promotes language development and literacy skills
  • helps increase attention spans
  • raises reading levels
  • promotes relationships.

Parents and students ask questions as we read together

Urban Prep: A Model for Excellence

I had the opportunity to hear several young men from Urban Prep Academies of Chicago speak this morning of their high school education. Their all-boys inner-city school expects the best from them; slacking off is not an option. The first graduating class experienced a 100% enrollment in college this past year, and it is expected that every graduating class to follow will achieve the same. One of the young men explained, “I wasn’t thinking of being college bound when I started at Urban Prep. But they kept saying, ‘college bound’ along with ‘we believe.’ Now I see why it is they repeat this over and over. They want us to become leaders. And, we’re going to college to graduate.”

Here are a few more words of wisdom shared in the presentation.

From the school leader, “We hear people refer to ‘those’ kids, but they’re really ‘our’ kids.” And, “You cannot demand exceptionality without showing them what it is. The key to our success [in addition to modeling] is passion. We discipline hard, educate harder, and love hardest.”

From the panel of three high school juniors: “Talent without character doesn’t cut it in the world. Urban Prep develops the character as well as the talent.”

“I was unguided and undecided when I arrived as a freshman. At Urban Prep, it all fell into place. I gained confidence in myself because of the resources I was given and the assets I see in the people around me. We all come in as raw materials, but we learn that we can become gemstones.”

“Knowledge is power; education is power; wisdom is power.”

A member of the audience commented, “It shouldn’t be necessary for these articulate young men to tell us this, it should be automatic to us. Excellence should be a way of life.” I agree that it should be a way of life, but unfortunately for the majority, it isn’t. Special services would not be necessary if all children were alike. Our age-grade paradigm might work if all children of the same age were alike. Mentors and corporate sponsors might not be necessary if all families could support their children academically, psychologically, socially, and of course financially. Gifted programs would not be necessary if every child could learn at his or her own pace. But these ‘ifs’ describe an ideal that does not exist in our society. It takes extraordinary commitment, compassion, discipline, and support for a whole school to turn every learner’s story into a success story.

As Kaleem Caire, CEO of the Urban League summed up, with 52% of our black and Latino boys not graduating from high school in Madison, and with only 7% of the very few boys-of-color who even take the ACT demonstrating that they are college ready, we are in crisis mode. Madison Prep, like Urban Prep, will turn these statistics around. We need to do in Madison what it seems to the clear-headed thinker to be common sense. We must put forth the passion that Kaleem models so well. We must rise to the challenge of turning a plan that is well into the making into reality. We must turn the ‘ifs’ of excellence into every day occurrences.  I can’t wait to hear that 100% of our boys from diverse backgrounds are graduating from Madison Prep as they are at Urban Prep, with graduation from college as the next goal for each and every one of them.

Young men from Urban Prep in Chicago

Modeling for Young Learners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

 

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.