Category Archives: Teaching smart kids

Advanced Placement (AP) Classes

Yesterday, students at West High School in Madison staged a protest against the district’s response to a complaint filed with the department of education by parents of gifted students. I understand the students’ desire to have a voice in decisions regarding their own curriculum, but I don’t understand the negative reaction to the district’s plan. As some of the parents have stated, the plan doesn’t go far enough, but it seems like a viable first step. Students district-wide would have an opportunity to take advanced or regular classes, as well as to complete work for honors credit in regular classes. If the issue for the students is the opportunity to take elective classes, the district administrator declares that current electives are not on the chopping block. Why would they be? Isn’t the district proposing to simply add more electives, i.e., Advanced Placement (AP) classes?

As one of the parents who filed the complaint pointed out, this newly announced plan addresses the need for more Advanced Placement classes at West High School, but it does not address the question of access. This might be the students’ issue also. Will freshmen and sophomores be able to take Advanced Placement classes if they have completed the prerequisite learning? This is what the parents want. Will any student who can demonstrate motivation as well as completion of prerequisites for an Advanced Placement class be allowed to register without formal identification as gifted or talented? Readiness and interest should be the factors under consideration, not identification. Is there an Optimal Match philosophy in the school plan that will guarantee all students the right to advance as fast as they are able and wanting to complete the curriculum in all areas of learning? Optimal Match is an issue of instruction – how and when the courses are available. Beyond committing to a more rigorous curriculum, the district must assure that it is well taught and available when and to whom it is appropriate. The “to whom” aspect must be clearly defined as any student, regardless of racial, ethnic, cultural, age, or economic background, for whom a curricular match is possible. This should be viewed as an opportunity to further close the achievement gap, not broaden it.

Reaching Poor Smart Children

As our nation’s Supreme Court welcomes its newest confirmed member, Elena Kagan’s high school is in a turmoil over questions of diversity according to an article in The New York Times on August 4, 2010. Hunter College High School, for intellectually gifted students, has been ranked the top public high school in the country. Yet it has experienced a significant decline in numbers of black and Hispanic students served in recent years and debate over admissions policy has left a respected principal with no choice but to resign and faculty and students up in arms.

Justin Hudson was chosen by the faculty from among all the graduates of Hunter this year to be the commencement speaker. I read his speech in an attempt to better understand the emotion-laden situation. “I don’t deserve any of this…. We received an outstanding education at no charge based solely on our performance on a test we took when we were eleven years old. We received superior teachers and additional resources based on our status as ‘gifted,’ while kids who naturally need those resources much more than us wallowed in the mire of a broken system….”Justin told his classmates.

“We are playing God and we are losing,” he continued. “Hunter is perpetuating a system in which children who contain unbridled and untapped intellect and creativity are discarded like refuse. And we have the audacity to say they deserved it, because we are smarter than them. We have failed to inspire and uplift an entire generation of children. I am acutely aware of where I would be right now without (Hunter).

“I hope that I will use the tools that Hunter has given me as a means to provide opportunities to others … I hope that in the near future, (quality) education will not be a privilege for the few in this world.”

The problem is not Hunter High School, but the entire broken system to which Justin refers. When I was coordinator of gifted programs in the schools and later consultant for gifted programming at our state department of education, I stated that the ideal would be to eliminate my position. That could only happen if all students received a quality education. All children should be taught the skills of creativity in the regular classroom. All children should be able to learn as quickly and deeply as they are able. No child should be expected to wait for others to “catch up.” No child should be denied an opportunity based on ethnicity or economics. All children should graduate with the same curiosity and sparkle with which they started kindergarten.

My goal now for “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart” is to get it into the hands of poor children through community centers, day care centers, and other community connections. At the same time, I am preparing to submit “Color Me Smart,” the story of children from diverse backgrounds who had doors of opportunity opened to them through WCATY, for publication. I need to reach a broader market. What I can do and what Justin can do are tips of the iceberg. It may seem like I can’t make a difference, but if I don’t try and you don’t try, what are the chances that “schooling” will improve? Wouldn’t it be nice to have children NOT hide their talents in school because they are proud to openly use and develop those talents? Will we ever be first in the world in education again?

Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Creative

On July 10, there was an article in Newsweek headlined, “Research shows that American creativity is declining. What went wrong and how can we fix it?”

Reading the article took me back to the early days of my career in gifted education when E. Paul Torrance was still alive and at the forefront of the research as well as development in the area of creativity. It takes me down memory lane in terms of all the work I’ve done over the years with direct or indirect goals and outcomes related to creativity development.

There are several important messages from the Newsweek coverage to discuss in relation to my current interest in writing and publishing children’s picture books on the topic of “smartness.” The first is the misunderstood definition of creativity. It is not just about imagination and playing with ideas. In reality creativity is the “production of something original and useful…to be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result).” I hope and believe that in “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart,” I portray the importance of encouraging our children to develop and use both kinds of thinking.

Second, the article reports that preschool children ask their parents about 100 questions a day. Often those questions start with, “why?” and tragically, as the article continues, it stops! I could never describe the issue of low motivation for learning that so often occurs by middle school if not in earlier grades better than with this quote from Newsweek: “They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest. It’s the other way around. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.” It’s not all the fault of parents – some teachers encourage questioning and others don’t – but nevertheless parents need to keep the spirit of curiosity alive regardless of the school’s role in their children’s development from year to year.

Third in importance for today’s parents and grandparents to understand is the long-term benefit of promoting the skills that “Grandma” (in my book) says she values from early childhood on. The research points out that children whose curiosity, imagination, and divergent and convergent thinking are encouraged over time tend to excel, i.e. they finish high school and they finish college at much higher rates. This only makes sense. If they stop asking questions and start languishing in the classroom by or before middle school, a downward spiral is inevitable.

The bottom line of the Newsweek article is that although we have always valued creativity in American society, we are not purposely fostering it. We need to do that. Creativity doesn’t just happen!

Learning on Cruise from the Ground Up

On July 4th, ‘The New York Times’ ran a commentary on the pitfalls in identifying a gifted child.  It was precipitated by NYC officials stating that they were looking to identify children as young as 3, and asking what measures to use. I will not go into the whole debate, but if you are interested you can look up the opinions of contributing writers: Susan K. Johnsen, Baylor University; Clara Hemphill, Insidesschools.org; Joseph Renzulli, U. of Connecticut; Tonya Moon, U. of Virginia, and Bige Doruk, Bright Kids NYC.

I agree with Susan Johnsen’s suggestion that what we should be talking about is “talent spotting, from the ground up.” That’s what I encourage when I talk about using the “wow factor” to identify young children. When a child writes a poem, makes an observation, performs artistically, or does anything so extraordinary that it makes you go, “Wow!” I consider that an indicator of talent, or potential giftedness. This “wow factor” is clearly noticeable in children from the day they begin communicating. What you observed in that child may be so different from what you expected at the child’s age or stage of development that you would call it the work of a gifted child. Or, you may not be willing to go quite that far yet, which is fine. What is important is acting on your “wow” feeling.

This is where Susan and I depart from many of the other commentators in the article. As soon as the term ‘gifted’ is applied, the issue of labeling often becomes the focus of discussion or concern rather than the true purpose for acting on your “wow” feeling. That purpose is called “optimal match.” Optimal match is defined as a fit between the characteristics of the learner and what he is expected to learn. This match cannot be made unless the degree of ability is ascertained. Thus, there must be an evaluation of his interests and ability in whatever subject or topic is to be taught. It can be as easy as following up on the “wow” observation with an opportunity for the child to produce more in that area and at a comparable and steadily increasing level. At home, through the use of modeling, materials, space, and time, your goal most likely has always been to provide an optimal match between his interests and abilities and what he is learning. In most cases, a parent does not need formal testing in the early years to be able to feel that appropriate encouragement and support is being provided. But as he moves forward in the educational system, for most children, someone other than you will be determining the curriculum. Your goal doesn’t change, but the system for matching curriculum to learner does.

In school, there is a standard curriculum that is offered to all learners who are basically grouped according to age. Whether or not this is the best way to group learners, this is the way we have been doing it for years, and changing that system is not easy. When you ask that your child’s teacher provide an optimal match, you are asking for two things: first, that the pace or tempo of learning be appropriate. Second, that the depth and breadth of the subject be appropriate. In other words, you want your child to learn something new and to have to spend no longer doing it than she requires. A diagnostic assessment would be used not to label her, but rather to pinpoint where she is at in her learning and to suggest where she should go from there.

In the debate on identification in NYC schools, the call for identification as early as age 3 was in response to a louder call for identification among diverse populations. Again I agree with Johnsen, who states, “giftedness is exhibited across all racial, ethnic and income levels; however, children from these groups remain underrepresented in gifted education programs. Some of this underrepresentation may be explained by exclusive definitions (required superior performance on a single test), attitudes (teachers or parents do not recognize the gift or talent) and test fairness (characteristics of the norming population, item bias, linguistic demands).”

I remember years ago observing a first day of school for kindergartners in Milwaukee. Did I see eyes alight with enthusiasm and wonder? Yes. Did I hear a buzz of excitement about new learning activities? Yes. Among those children, there were some who needed to be advanced at a faster rate than others. Very few, if any, in this low-income neighborhood probably had developed far in their abilities yet. But they did have the potential to learn at varying rates. They each had the right to have his or her curiosity and readiness fully addressed. One young African American boy told me, “I can cruise.” He didn’t need to be tested for his teacher to allow him to ‘cruise’ through his skill development at a pace that would keep his spark of excitement for learning alive. He did need a teacher who was open to individualized learning and who believed that any child could have an as yet unrealized talent.

Let’s let our children cruise from the ground up. Let’s let them know that to be smart is cool, and that they are indeed smart!

Reading to young children

I had the opportunity to spend a week with my youngest grandson. At the end of that week, he went back to preschool following his spring break and I read to his class before heading back home. This classroom and a few others now have my book for the children to enjoy at their leisure. Jordan is the little guy to my left in the photo. The children sitting on the letters on the other side of the rug (as directed by their teachers) are creeping in (as can be seen by the partial child to the right).

I’m thrilled that the book is reaching more and more children with the message that it is cool to be smart. This means that they enter the world of learning knowing that curiosity, exploration of ideas, reading, and thinking are all positive traits or skills for them to develop.

Book signing on April 14

I’m excited to have the opportunity to read and sign my books at one of the most popular sites that grandparents visit with their young grandchildren in Madison – Ella’s Deli. Please bring your young children or grandchildren to visit with me and get their personalized copy of the book between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m on the 14th.

Go to the following links for more information:

Book Signing with Ellie Schatz – Ella’s Deli and Ice Cream Parlor
Ellie Schatz Book Signing – April 14. Join us on Wednesday, April 14 for a book signing event with children’s author Ellie Schatz
www.ellas-deli.com/ellieschatz.php

Myths About Smart Children

When I looked at news and links from www.schoolinfosystem.org, I happened to click on an archived article that caught my eye. The headline: “They’re all rich, white kids and they’ll do just fine” — NOT!

Written in 2006 by two parent activists from the Madison Metropolitan School District, the article went on to say: “Two of the most popular — and most insidious — myths about academically gifted kids is that ‘they’re all rich, white kids’ and that, no matter what they experience in school, ‘they’ll do just fine.’ Even in our own district, however, the hard data do not support those assertions.” Their bottom-line question, after quoting statistics that clearly documented that high achievers at the start of their school career were dropping out of school disproportionately if they were poor or from minority populations, was: “Are we really prepared to sacrifice so many potential scholars and leaders of color?”

I find it appalling that the answer still seems to be “yes.” Why can’t our public school system ask of EVERY student, “How far can this student go?” Children of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, this is one thing that should be the same for all: the recognition that they are smart when they really are! Smart children cross all economic, cultural, and geographic boundaries. More than that, there are more poor children than there are rich children. So if we ignore the poor children when we consider talent development needs, we are losing LOTS of natural talent. These are children who might one day find – and, I’d like to think sooner rather than later – the cure for cancer, the key to peace in the world, the economic policy or health-care plan that will work for poorer and richer, conservative and liberal alike.

Poor children need someone to tell them they are smart. If their parents don’t know it, their teachers don’t see it, and the school systems deny those teachers the opportunities and tools to see all children for their strengths rather than their deficits, the chances are that many of them will end up among prison statistics as well as dropout numbers. Research suggests that the approximately 20% of the incarcerated could be classified as gifted – that’s a statistic AND an economic drain on our pocket books that we don’t want to hear.

Different Kinds of Smart

Recently someone inquired as to whether there were really different kinds of smart. I think the problem is with semantics. We probably all intuitively feel there are different kinds of smart, yet we don’t necessarily align our definitions of talents or abilities with the idea of being intelligent.

In 1983, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner published a book entitled Frames of Mind[i] that opened a whole new way of looking at intelligence. It’s not, according to Gardner, a narrow ability to think that is measured by a paper-and-pencil test. Rather, it is a multiplicity of abilities, all of which can be assessed, and which –when developed – can lead to different forms of achievement as well as feelings of success and happiness.

In this book, Gardner delineated the following kinds of intelligence (or smart): linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, and the personal. He went on to expand his theory to include eight intelligences, the personal intelligences defined as interpersonal and intrapersonal and with the addition of a naturalist intelligence.

Another researcher, Thomas Armstrong, changed the way teachers viewed intelligence in the classroom by writing books and articles that took Gardner’s idea from theory to practice. Armstrong also wrote a book entitled You’re Smarter Than You Think[ii] that translates the multiple intelligences theory into simplified language and explanations for kids. I am currently working on a book for still younger children that does the same thing. Armstrong explains 8 kinds of smart: Word Smart (Linguistic Intelligence), Music Smart (Musical Intelligence), Logic Smart (Logical-Mathematical Intelligence), Picture Smart (Spatial Intelligence), Body Smart (Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence), People Smart (Interpersonal Intelligence), Self Smart (Intrapersonal Intelligence), and Nature Smart (Naturalist Intelligence).


[i] Gardner, H. 1983. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Basic Books, Inc. New York.

[ii] Armstrong, T. 2003. You’re Smarter Than You Think: A Kid’s Guide to Multiple Intelligences. Free Spirit Publishing. Minneapolis, MN.

Second Printing: Grandmas and Little Kids Love This Book

Authoring a book about the importance of early childhood education has not only created many wonderful opportunities for me, it has given me a new career.  Copies of “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart” are now available from the second printing. For those of you in the Madison area, watch for them in more and more boutiques and book stores. For those of you from further away, feel free to introduce me to individuals (grandparents, parents, early childhood education teachers, elementary school teachers, early childhood caregivers, or anyone interested in the education of young children) as well as public venues that you would suggest for distribution. Your continuing notes to me – like this one from a grandma of a one-year old – are heartwarming: “Your book is marvelous. (My son) was very touched to have a copy of your book for his Ellie.  You can be sure that I will read it to her often, as will her parents.”

A Conversation with Jim Zellmer

Authoring a book about the importance of early childhood education has created many wonderful opportunities for me. Copies of “Grandma Says it’s Good to Be Smart” are now in all of the Madison Public Libraries and are for sale at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Recently I was interviewed by Jim Zellmer (link to his zmetro.com blog), a leading education blogger (link to schoolinfosystem.com) whose School Info System reaches tens of thousands of educators, parents, activists and policy makers.

Our conversation about the current state of American education is available  via this 17MB mp3 audio file CTRL-Click to download or read the transcript. I enjoyed visiting with Jim and hope you will find the conversation  interesting. Here’s an excerpt:

Jim: What’s the best, most effective education model these days? Obviously, there are traditional schools. There are virtual schools. There are chartered schools. There are magnets. And then there’s the complete open-enrollment thing. Milwaukee has it, where the kids can go wherever they want, public or private, and the taxes follow.Ellie: [32:52] I think there’s no one best model from the standpoint of those models that you just named. [32:59] What is important within any one of those models is that a key player in making that education available to your child believes that no matter how good the curriculum, no matter how good the model, the children they are about to serve are different, that children are not alike.

[33:30] And that they will have to make differences in the curriculum and in the way the learning takes place for different children.

[33:45] And I have experienced that myself. I’ve served on the boards of several private schools here in the city, and I have given that message: “This may be an excellent curriculum, and I believe it’s an excellent curriculum. But that’s not enough.”

[34:05] You cannot just sit this curriculum down in front of every child in the classroom and say, “We’re going to turn the pages at the same time, and we’re going to write the answers in the same way.” It does not work that way. You must believe in individually paced education.

Thanks to Rick Kiley for arranging this conversation.