Category Archives: Teaching smart kids

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.”

Autistic and Gifted

Every parent of an autistic child should read the books of Temple Grandin and see the movie about her life. While downplaying the autistic child’s need for personal relationships, Grandin  emphasizes their need to be identified as smart. She writes, “Autistic children will remain in their own little worlds if left to their own devices…. People with autism can develop skills in fields that they can really excel in. Where they really need help is in selling themselves.” She goes on to explain that it is now thought that Einstein might have had Asperger’s. He didn’t speak until he was three, he silently repeated words to himself, and he didn’t interact with his peers. He did poorly in school until he was sent to a school that allowed him to use his visualization skills. Later in life he told a psychologist friend, “I rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I try to express it in words afterwards.”

One of the smart, autistic children I worked with is Terra, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when she was in 2nd grade and who is now a graduate student living independently of her family. Terra’s mom, a special education teacher, admits that she wanted only to see Terra’s strengths and not her weaknesses when she was little. She says, “I didn’t want her labeled for her deficits in school. Kids with the learning-disability label are categorized based on their weaknesses. But Terra’s social and sensory deficits became more and more apparent as she approached middle-school age. I knew I needed to get an IEP [Individualized Education Plan] with Asperger’s listed. By pretending the issues don’t exist, you are denying the child her full development. You must work on the weaknesses, as well as the strengths.”

When Terra was in 7th grade, she took the ACT through Talent Search. She had a phobia against math, and those scores were low, but her English and reading scores were high, a 28 and 27 respectively, compared to a mean of 20 and 21 for college-bound seniors. Her mom sent her to me at WCATY. “My goal in sending Terra,” she reported, “was for her to see herself in relation to smart kids, rather than only in terms of her disability. I wanted to expand her world intellectually and build her confidence, and I hoped that maybe she would find a friend.”

Terra concentrated on the areas she excelled in – art and writing. She did grow intellectually, gained confidence, and made a friend – a close friend.

Her mother advises, “Do not push thoughts of the future on your children with multiple exceptionalities when they are not ready for thinking that far ahead. But do help them to develop their gifts. At the same time, don’t deny their limits. They must know and understand both their weaknesses and their strengths if they are to become all they can be.”

Like all mothers, Terra’s most wanted her child to be happy. “So much is heavy in her life,” she said, “But I can’t make her happy. The best I can do is to keep making connections and hope to get her in the right environment. She sees herself as being from another planet, an alien. Once we get her through high school, maybe the connections in the academic world will work. She is a little professor.”

The connections worked, and this little professor is succeeding in her academic world today!

 

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

Valentine’s Day Special

Among the loves of our lives are our little ones, in my case my grandchildren. This special is for those of you who want to give the gift of talking, reading, and thinking to your grandchildren (or children) this Valentine’s Day. I will hold copies at a special price of $7.50 through Valentine’s Day. Let us “toss them the world” together.

Sorry, not much I can do about shipping – that remains the same. Contact me with your order per the instructions on the “Contact Ellie” page.

Happy February and Valentine’s Day.

Smart and ADD

I’m on vacation in the Caribbean, but I got to talking with someone about adults with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). I don’t think I’ve written much if anything on ADD or ADHD on this blog, so here goes – the story of Rand.  He was identified with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and struggled in school because he looked at the world in a different way. As an adult, Rand thinks his ADD has made him the creative and productive thinker he is today.

Rand’s Story

Rand’s parents were essentially the only people who recognized his talent when he was little. Because he had trouble paying attention and didn’t perform well when he went to school, Rand remembers, “The teachers didn’t think I was smart. I tested well, but the school chalked it up to being a fluke. My parents recognized that something had to be wrong, so they took me to a psychiatrist who identified ADD. With the help of professional knowledge, treatment, and medication, they were able to get me into more advanced math classes. The teachers didn’t favor this decision but complied with it. A few teachers believed in me, but most viewed my distractibility and my different learning style as signs that I was not as intelligent as others.”

Rand talked with me about his differences at age 25, elaborating on their effects on his life as an adult, and the implications they have for children. He says he doesn’t ordinarily tell people he has ADD until he knows them fairly well. “First, I don’t consider it a disorder. Second, people generally associate ADD with hyperactive adolescents. I recommend the book Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping With Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood Through Adulthood, by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. and John R. Ratey, M.D., for those who want to understand more about ADD. ADD in adulthood is no different than it was in childhood, except that adults have [often] learned coping mechanisms and thus handle it better.

“I have what is now called ADHD, but without the hyperactivity. I think about that a lot. To say that I have no hyperactivity is actually wrong. If you look closely, you will notice that I am fidgeting. I always fidget, but I am not noticeably hyperactive. This is why at first they didn’t think I had ADD or ADHD, whichever you want to call it. It’s even harder for girls to be identified because they often don’t show the hyperactive signs.

“Calling ADD or ADHD an attention deficit is misleading. Actually I have too much attention. For example, if I am reading a student’s paper, I will be focusing so closely that when someone says something, I’ll jump sky high. It’s called hyperfocusing, which means you can get a lot done because you’re not focusing on anything else. It also makes you impulsive. You can get stubborn about going down a blind alley. So, hyperfocusing is a two-way street. Sometimes it irritates others or blinds you to tasks you should be doing. At other times the focusing works advantageously.

“The flip side of hyperfocusing is distractibility. When this trait is working well it is akin to free association. I can connect A to B when they don’t appear to be related. Because you are thinking about so many things at once, you are able to connect things that no one else sees. I always have about five different threads of thought in my mind; if I am working on a math proof, I’ll have three threads of thought working on the proof itself, one working on what I’m trying to prove, and one finding the problems with what I’m doing. It’s parallel processing. People with ADD understand this, but people without it usually can’t relate at all. This trait has been very helpful to me.

“If somebody told me now that they could take away my ADD, I wouldn’t do it. My medication helps me control the negative effects. I like my ADD as long as it is being controlled. I don’t know anyone else who is able to think about five things simultaneously. I like being able to hyperfocus too. I like being able to control when I do what, and that’s what my medicine helps me to do. ADD has its great sides, as well as its bad. Creativity is one of the largest positives.

“There is a closer relationship between creativity and logic than most people understand. I do a lot of logic. But I follow the chains of logic so far that my conclusions don’t look rational to a lot of people. I put things together that they have not been able to link, because they couldn’t go far enough to discover those links. Logical thinking incorporates creative thinking. My research specialization within computer science has to do with logic.”

Thinking back to childhood, Rand continued, “Throughout my childhood, I had to have the guts to tell everyone, ‘You are wrong! Just go away and leave me alone.’ My parents aren’t included in the ‘everyone.’ If they had been, I don’t know what would have happened to me. If I had listened to ‘everyone,’ I would have been in danger of becoming what they thought I was or should be.

“Now, it’s not everyone that I have to convince of my abilities. People sometimes say, ‘How did you do that! It’s strange, but if it works, okay.’ I have the credentials and confidence to prove that I know what I’m doing, and people believe me.

“What I really like,” he continued, “is finding people who don’t think they are good at something, but they really are. My discussion sections are almost always informal so that students will know they can talk with me individually. I have done my best not to listen to others when they said I was not smart. I knew I was, and I stuck by my convictions regarding my own abilities. In my life, when I believed in myself, good occurred. When I didn’t believe in myself, life was not so good. Recognition and support of ability and accomplishment raises any individual’s self-esteem, and that in turn can change society. Just think of Einstein. He was told as a child that he was not good at math. If Einstein had believed that, there would be no Einstein as we know him, and our world would be different—and not for the better. You can’t tell who is going to have what potential. If you pass any child up, you may be missing an Einstein.”

Rand advises young students who have what may be considered a disability:

  • Accept that you are not like everyone else and be happy about it. Who wants to be like everyone else anyway?
  • Don’t listen to others when they tell you you’re not smart. It doesn’t matter what they think. It just matters what you think.
  • There are going to be difficult days, but you will survive them.

For parents he adds, “When you ask a school for accommodations, don’t take no for an answer.”

Our Babies Need a Different Education

On October 26, public radio had a story on the skills today’s babies will need to master in order to become successful adults. Learning to crawl, clap, walk, and talk, they reported, are a beginning, but technology has expanded/changed what must become the face of education.

I say expanded because we need to start with the appalling statistics that I mentioned in my post on September 27. I repeat: this year, out of 30 developed or industrialized nations, our children ranked 25th in math, 21st in science, and 11th in literacy. Needless to say, the basics have not changed – speaking, reading, mathematics, and science will continue to be the bottom line. And, in a global economy and mobile society, speaking and reading will require something we as Americans have never been required to master in the past – competency in multiple languages.

The story emphasized the importance of creative thinking and problem solving. With technological machinery now able to accomplish many of the tasks that people were required to do in the past, it is the creative, effective, and efficient use of those machines that is left to human endeavor. Interestingly, one of the age-old problems with gifted programs is that some students are removed for parts of the school week to participate in what are called pull-out programs. Often the focus of those programs has been creative problem solving. The problem? Thirty years ago, we as educators knew that creative problem solving should be taught to all children in the regular classroom. It’s no longer a case of “should be,” but rather a fact that these skills must be taught to all children if they are to be competitive in the future job market. Gifted children do need appropriate curriculum and instruction, but pull-out programs that give them a hint of the basics for a successful future while others are left in the dark is NOT it!

Yes, we must tackle the problems of the achievement gap – the unconscionable problems of inequity within the system. And, for all children, we must address the issues of quality. Society today is nothing like it was when I was born. The education of our children, however, has not changed, not expanded. Outdated practices and content do not add up to quality. The system must change.

Comments on Gifted Program in Madison

As the first state consultant for gifted in Wisconsin, here are a few of my comments based on the article in the Wisconsin State Journal, Nov. 7, 2010:

1.  Federal definition – If Howard Gardner had published Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences before the federal government issued a definition, chances are we wouldn’t be saddled with categories that make little sense to most people. Leadership and creative abilities are not parallel to academic or artistic ability. For that matter, neither is intellectual ability. The reason children are most often identified in language arts and math is that it is easy – there are objective measures. Intellectual, creative and leadership potential cross these two domains, and the other six domains of smartness or intelligence, as defined by Gardner. A district can deal with the definition even though it’s not the ideal way to consider learning needs.

2.  The chart that lists characteristics of the bright child versus the gifted child – this chart has been used for at least three decades to great disadvantage in the field, in my opinion. Why? Because, as written, it perpetuates the problem of labeling. The purpose of identification is not to label, but rather to provide a curricular fit for a child who needs challenge. The characteristics listed on the chart are indeed indicators of different abilities or skills, but they don’t line up in two succinct columns, and I loudly protest the use of them to label a child as gifted versus smart or bright. Whatever the degree or kind of talent as well as skill strength, each child needs an appropriately paced and level of content.

3.  Superintendent Nerad stated, “Our responsibility is to take every child from where they are to their next level of learning, whether they’re kids in the middle, kids that are already meeting our proficiency standards, or kids that are experiencing achievement gaps.” The first phrase of this statement is perfect! Regarding the different types of kids listed, be aware that these are not discreet categories. For example, kids experiencing achievement gaps can be meeting proficiency standards and in the middle, when they should be soaring.

4.  Not implementing the MMSD TAG Plan now – I was the DPI consultant for Gifted Programs when MMSD did not meet the requirements of Standard (t) in 1990 (it was before I left DPI at the beginning of 1991). Twenty years to establish compliance, and now, as I read the timeline, March 2011 is not a firm date to require the plan to be put into action. I don’t understand the issues in Madison. As I read it, the parents are asking for more options that will allow students to go as far and fast as they require to “take them to their next level of learning.”   They are not advocating for either labeling or elimination of existing options. It sounds like Mr. Nerad sees it similarly to me. So, let’s get on with it!