Category Archives: Teaching smart kids

Let Us Find and Motivate More Smart Kids

An article in the October 2 New York Times highlighted the success of an incentive program in which low income high schoolers are taking AP courses and earning college credit with high scores on the AP exams. The article emphasizes a rising concern that students and teachers are earning cash incentives as one part of a program that also provides teacher training, student tutoring, and lab equipment. I wonder how many people read it like I did — with a feeling of “YES, another story showing that ‘smart kids’ are not just a tiny predetermined group, but rather children from all economic, racial, and cultural backgrounds!”

One teacher from Massachusetts increased his AP class size by 8 times, and 70% of his new, enlarged student population received the necessary 3’s on the AP exam to receive college credit; 25% received a 5, the top score possible. One of the students who got a 5 reported that the after-school and Saturday classes and tutoring sessions helped a lot. When asked about the $100 incentive for getting at least a 3, he said,“There’s something cool about the money. It’s a great extra.”

The fact is, money or no money, the teachers in the program are believing in the kids and the kids, in turn, are believing in themselves. The statistics speak for themselves. A teacher in Arkansas had 9 kids in his AP math class 3 years ago, all the children of professionals. This year 65 kids from his math classes earned college credit with scores of 3 and higher. Organizers of the initiative say that over three years, the program has led to nearly 38,000 AP exams being taken in math, science and English, many of them by black and Hispanic students.

At the same time, an article recently published by the Association for Psychological Science rightly emphasizes that public schools must do a better job of identifying gifted students. It states, “the former president of CalTech observed that one truly excellent scientist is more valuable than 1,000 very good scientists.” Generalizing the statement to any field — writing, sports, investment — the author observes that the most gifted are not only very rare, but also existing within a large pool of high potential candidates, many of whom are not recognized for their potential. He points to opportunity and motivation as necessary to talent development, noting, “cases are legion in which the most unexpected individuals, confronted with a major challenge, rise brilliantly to the occasion.”

Money has not been a part of every equation where disadvantaged students have been given opportunity and motivation. In the new AP initiative, money may be a part of the motivation, but the results are clear. Whatever the motivation, it works. I heartily endorse any program that lets more students show they are smart. Who knows, one of those students may one day have the opportunity to show that he or she is the one who is so truly excellent as to be “more valuable” (we’ll worry about this definition later) than the 1,000 who are very good.

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Gifted Pyramid Model Revisited

At the end of the WSJ article regarding Madison’s planned gifted program on August 10, one critic stated, “…the district already requires teachers to develop individual learning plans for every student and the talented and gifted plan duplicates that effort. If that function worked for every child, there would be no need for additional attention given to gifted students.”

I wish we could individualize for every student, but we don’t. When I introduced a philosophical model to DPI, it was to establish a clear pathway toward such an ideal. Here is the pyramid as it was intended to work. Let’s hope MMSD can so integrate their gifted plan that it seems as though “additional” attention is a thing of the past.

The base: Not every state, every district, is known for excellence in education. Wisconsin, including Madison, has earned a reputation for excellence in education. It is necessary that we examine and build on that reputation from the standpoint of these three premises:

  1. All students must develop to their fullest potential.
  2. There must be healthy regular programs in the schools to provide a foundation upon which excellence can be built.
  3. Excellence is attained only when the ideal of meeting differentiated individual needs is met.

Side 1: The model assumes active participation and sincere advocacy by significant players – administration, school board, staff, parents, community, and students.

Side 2: Support functions are a given in the school district now. This model makes clear that talent assessment is a part of individualization, parents must be involved in decision-making, counseling is often important, flexible pacing through any given curriculum is critical, staff development helps define and support each teacher’s roles, and coordination holds the parts together.

Side 3: This is the part we usually see and discuss (see my last post), but it does not exist as a lone triangle, just as one-third of this side cannot exist without the two functions above it. All programming begins in the regular classroom. When sharing this model with classroom teachers I always draw a dark line between regular classroom and special group programming to insure them that this is where their personal time commitment ends. The individual teacher must recognize the need for and help facilitate options beyond the classroom, but that is when the other support roles and functions kick in. Group programming and individualized services must be available to any learner should the regular curriculum not be a perfect fit.

Side 4: Evaluation completes the circle back to talent assessment and flexible pacing. This is outcomes-based education at its best. Talent assessment details the learning needs. Student outcomes should show an optimal match between those needs and the learning process. Pace, depth, and breadth of learning should be a correct match for each child. If not, back to the drawing board. Which support role, which function is not working properly?

 

I agree with the critic and made a similar statement years ago. If the system is working, I’m a “teacher of the gifted” or “gifted program coordinator,” but rather a learning coordinator ensuring the needs of all learners are met.

 

Pyramid Model

In the investment world, pyramid is a bad word. A pyramid scheme is structured with an initial recruiter who is on top. This person recruits a second person, who is required to invest money that is paid to the initial recruiter. Then the new recruit must recruit more people under him and so on and so forth.

In gifted education, pyramid is a good word. The Richardson Foundation of Texas originally coined the name and concept in the early 1980s based on sound research. When I was Consultant for Gifted Programs with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction in the late 80’s, we developed our own pyramid model for the state. Now the Madison School District, in an attempt to be in compliance with the state standard for gifted programs, is planning to adapt a pyramid plan. Interestingly, the Wisconsin State Journal article on the plan (August 10, 2011) doesn’t label it a pyramid.

With the gifted education pyramid, you start at the bottom rather than the top of the triangle denoting direct curricular options. Enrichment and differentiation options exist for all children in the regular classroom. Differentiation means that each child should be able to proceed through an appropriate curriculum at his or her own pace. For teachers to be able to successfully differentiate for a classroom of diverse learners, training, materials, and support are necessary. The concept of creativity explains the enrichment component perfectly. In the 70’s and 80’s, gifted programs typically followed what was called the pull-out model. Certain children were identified as gifted, usually using test data, and then pulled out of the regular classroom for 1-3 times a week for enrichment. Often this enrichment entailed learning how to be creative and participating in creativity activities. This was neither what the identified children needed nor what the children back in the classroom didn’t need. On top of that, the pulled-out kids were labeled “the gifted.” With the pyramid model, creativity is back where it should be.

The middle of the gifted pyramid is where “pull-out” now occurs. But, if administered correctly, it will be by interest and broad ability as opposed to labeling and narrow ability.   The best way to present it is as the ensemble model. This is where high schools do best and middle and elementary schools could use the upper grades as the model for expanding options. Many children leave the classroom for various ensembles, groups, or teams based on their interests and talent areas.

At the top of the model, an individual child’s learning needs are so great as to go beyond the capacity of the group and its leader. The familiar example is the musically talented child for whom private lessons become necessary. The difference here is that the top of the pyramid is not where individualized education starts. It’s where it leads because of demonstrated interest and ability in the classroom and in the ensemble. The teacher’s obligation – at the bottom or middle of the pyramid – is not to provide the individual lessons or even to necessarily set them up, but to recognize the need and see that the necessary resources are contacted so that the child, regardless of cultural and economic background, has the opportunity to pursue the area at an appropriate depth and pace.

I hope that a comment in the newspaper that “one goal of this [plan] is to sort kids” is not true. The pyramid model de-emphasizes labeling. Of course kids recognize the person with exceptional talent and achievement. But they are more apt to naturally admire and support this person if the pyramid works as it should.

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.

Early Learning: Not a Fast Track to Kindergarten or College

On May 13, one month to the day after psychologist Sharyl Kato and I did a presentation for our 500-member Rotary Club on early learning in honor of “Week of the Young Child,” The New York Times printed an article entitled, “Fast-tracking to Kindergarten?” I certainly hope, and believe, that our audience knew that Sharyl and I were suggesting no such thing. To say this article is disturbing to me is putting it lightly. From this blog, it is clear that I am someone who believes in the importance of early childhood learning, so why am I loathing what I read? Because it tells the story of a 3-year old child being reprimanded by a teacher for sloppy writing. Because the children in these preschools are being forced to learn, sitting with workbooks, and being given homework. “Age 3 is the sweet spot,” said a leader of one of these organizations that tutor small children. He continues, “If they’re out of a diaper and can sit still … for 15 minutes, we will take them.”

I’m glad my point of view was expressed in the article by  Kathy Hirsh- Pasek, a psychologist at Temple University and the author of “Einstein Never Used Flash Cards.” Kathy states, “When you’re putting blocks together, you’re learning how to be a physicist.” When you’re learning how to balance things and calculate how tall you can make your building, you’re learning how to be a physicist. Having your kid drill and kill and fill in worksheets at 2 and 3 and 4 to the best of our knowledge so far does not give your child a leg up on anything.”

Some people, thankfully not too many that I personally know, get the wrong idea that because I wrote a picture book entitled, Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart, I am promoting ‘pushing’ young children to learn. If you look at the illustrations in the book and listen carefully to the message, it’s clear that I am in Kathy Hirsh-Pasek’s camp. Early learning is about talking, exploring, experimenting, imagining, asking questions, and doing all the things that just come naturally. A child in the book dances with her imaginary friend. A boy builds with his erector-set-like blocks. He hangs upside down from a tree. She imagines horses flying through the sky. Grandma asks them what if.. and other open-ended questions.

Early learning is about reading with your children, and sharing a love of books. It’s about catching young children in the act of noticing something they love and encouraging their curiosity about the world around them. It is encouraging their questioning with more questions as well as a search for answers. It’s helping them to dream about all the things they can be when they grow up and knowing that they can follow those dreams.

Early learning is not a fast-track to kindergarten or college. It’s about establishing a life-long love of learning. I’m not against early admission to kindergarten or college if it’s right for the  individual child. But early learning is good for all children. Learning to value their talents and abilities is good for all children. Realizing that learning is fun is good for all children. Fast-tracking is good for some. Negative feedback, dull workbooks, and sitting still for inappropriate lengths of time is good for none.

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.

Letting Go

This past week, my friend Judy was featured in a video linked to a New York Times education series on autistic children going to college. Judy has 3 sons, all of whom are smart. One is autistic, and in seeking help for him Judy learned that she has autism as well. Of all the mothers I have known, worked with, and admired, Judy is one of the wisest. I remember her telling me how she dealt with the issue of letting go as her boys matured. I hope you find her strategy as amazing as I do.

Judy likens letting go to a yo-yo where she controls the string. When her gifted son was born, she explained, “He looked like a brand new yo-yo with the string wound around and around. When he started moving away from me – crawling, walking, running – I still held the string and controlled the yo-yo. It wasn’t always convenient having a mobile child, but I was in control so it was okay. I knew how to work the string so the yo-yo could go but always come back to me.”

As this son got older and left home more often Judy said, “It was like a yo-yo that has been used for awhile: The string unwinds further and further, and it takes more effort to get the yo-yo back. Then it doesn’t seem to want to come back all the way. But still I hold the string, and the yo-yo for the most part goes and comes at my command.”

When it came time for his first extended trip, Judy explained, “The string wasn’t long enough to extend that far away, so I concluded that I should pack it up and go with him. The following year I decided he could go without me. As he boarded the tour bus I had a mental picture of undoing the string from the end of the yo-yo. It was the first time the string was detached. I took it home, wound it up carefully, and stored it inside me until he returned, at which time I immediately reattached the string.

“But the yo-yo never worked the same after that. Over time it left for increasingly longer periods and with decreasing need for a quick return of the string. I learned to become a keeper of the string, rather than its controller.”

Judy had used this same technique with her older son. As both became more independent she said, “Sometimes I would allow them to untie theirs strings on their own, and sometimes I would do it. After all, I was still better at it.” When they would return from a camp, trip, or other extended stay away she reported, “I was fulfilled, happy, and satisfied because I could see each one tying his string back to his yo-yo. They were not ready to be the keepers of their own strings.”

When her oldest reached adulthood, Judy adjusted her yo-yo principle to this next stage of life. “I gave him his yo-yo string. It was not easy for me. Then one day he needed me and handed it back. Even though we both wanted things to be like they used to be, I no longer matched the string in the old way. I didn’t know what to make of it until I realized I could hold the yo-yo in my arms but I could not hold the string. The yo-yo took up his own string again and said, ‘Thanks mom, love ya always,’ which had been my line – love you always. That,” she concluded, “is how you let go of little yo-yos and teach them to control their own strings.”