Category Archives: The chance to learn

Music Smart

In “Color Me Purple,” my book for children ages 8-12, the character Gommgi is music smart. She loves music and is recognized for the excellence of her piano performances. In this photo, I met a music smart child in the making. The research says that smart children often hum and sing early, have the ability to reproduce songs easily, show a strong desire to play an instrument, and display an emotional sensitivity to music. Little Maeve, while playing at her Grandma’s, broke into lullaby as she hugged and rocked her doll. She decided her lilting version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” needed piano accompaniment, and after playing one chorus invited me to join her in a duet version. Yes, Maeve definitely is showing an early love and talent in music!

Wherever their curiosity and interest takes them, catch the moment!

Visual-Spatial and Twice-Exceptional Learners

In Color Me Purple, in the text box about “Art Smart and More,” I mention that visual-spatial learners may be late bloomers, may not pay attention or follow step-by-step rules, and may not conform to the definition of smart that most people in our society believe in. In other words, they see the world in a different way.

So what does visual-spatial learner mean and who do you know who learns in this way? This question has become very personal to me. When I wrote the book, it was based on children I had worked with through the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth (WCATY), and not about my family. But this year, one of my grandsons has been identified as a visual-spatial learner, and as twice exceptional. It was time for me to delve a little deeper.

First I wanted to read and discuss Color Me Purple with him, one-on-one. My purpose in writing the book was for children from all different backgrounds and with all different kinds of interests and skills to know that smartness or intelligence was not limited to the kids who were identified as gifted because of their reading or math abilities. This was especially important now, because this grandson’s little brother had been so identified in kindergarten and was thriving in school. Yet, year by year the older boy was becoming less and less self-confident and more and more emotional when he thought he was less than “the best” (or whatever his definition of acceptable was) in anything. It helped that he’d now been tested and told by an authority (the psychologist) that he was gifted, yet ongoing reinforcement of what that meant was going to be important.

I also sent his parents to the best authority and book I know on the topic: Upside Down Brilliance by Linda Kreger Silverman. Here is some of what they learned.

Visual-spatial learners think in images or pictures. They “are excellent observers, comprehend holistically—may have sudden ‘Aha’ understanding that leaps over steps—may need translation time to put their ideas into words, and sometimes have word retrieval problems. Their thinking and emotions are intertwined.”

Two things about that definition really struck me in relation to our situation. I already knew about thinking in pictures and many of the other characteristics, but one of my grandson’s increasing problems in school was his need for time to get his very complex thoughts into words, i.e., more time for testing. Another was how his emotional needs were growing exponentially as his thinking he was not smart was spiraling him into turmoil.

What does twice-exceptional mean? I had taught twice-exceptional learners in schools and at WCATY, but now my own grandson was, in a sense, crying out for help. I’d thought he was underachieving, but I hadn’t thought of twice-exceptionality, which Linda Silverman says means gifted with learning disabilities. These are kids who fall through the cracks in school because they perform at or a bit above the norm in school and thus do not qualify for special education support. As we’ve’ve already established, they also don’t qualify for the gifted programs because their high intelligence is right-brained (visual) versus left-brained (auditory) based.

Like Linda Silverman, and I am guessing many if not most of my readers, I am a left-brained learner. I wrote Color Me Purple because I know not all children learn like me, and I want them to have a fair chance to grow up loving who they are and becoming all they can and wish to be. In the fall of 2017 my twice-exceptional grandson will be entering high school. I hope he will be appreciated for his exceptional abilities and that those abilities will be developed as his weaknesses are also being strengthened.

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Color Me Purple

“Color Me Purple,” my just-published 2016 children’s book, illustrated by Madison artist Donna Parker, is a fictionalized story of real kids from Wisconsin. Some of the characters are based on a single child. Many of them are composites of several children. All of these children were lucky because someone recognized that they had a talent. In addition, that someone did something about it. Whatever the child’s economic, ethnic, or social background, and whether he or she was thriving or starting to slip through the cracks in school, someone said, “It’s time to intervene, to encourage this child to become all that he or she can become!”

Children are smart in many different ways. Yet, too often, they are stereotyped based on their deficits and discouraged in their learning rather than encouraged. Color Me Purple is intended to help children and those who care for them understand that it is good to be smart. They can be proud of what they do well. They should work to use and improve their abilities rather than let them languish. They can dream big. But dreaming big alone is not enough. As their support systems help them to gain confidence and feel good about themselves they can hone their skills, define their goals, and help themselves and others to say “yes” to thriving in a multicolored, multicultural, multitalented world.

I have written this book as a way to help children, along with their teachers, parents, and caregivers, understand that there are many, many children who should be encouraged for different combinations of talents or kinds of smart. Based on the theory of multiple intelligences by Dr. Howard Gardner of Harvard University, the story presents 8 children between the ages of 7 and 18, from 8 different ethnic backgrounds, who are smart in 8 different ways. Text boxes, interspersed throughout the book, explain the educational and psychological theories behind the story for readers who wish to delve deeper into the concepts being introduced.

From the last chapter, a bit of what has occurred in the main character’s thinking is presented: “Before the whole Kennedy thing came up, I was just me. Remember? I’m browned-eyed, brown-skinned, and so on? I thought I was ordinary, and in some ways I am. So are Kennedy and Sameer, Bambi and the others. I’m glad to know that we can be ordinary and smart at the same time… There is so much more to me than what you see on the outside. What makes me smart is that I like thinking about hard questions in about the same way Gommgi likes playing the piano…

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I am happy in this rainbow world of smartness. I’m learning about my inside colors. I think they are what make me the me I want to be.”

To meet Angie, Kennedy, Sammy, Bambi, and the others, you can buy “Color Me Purple” by contacting me at ellieschatz1@gmail.com. Directions are on the “Contact Ellie Books” page.

All Kinds of Smart

As people all over the world have been watching the Olympics this summer, myself included, I wish the lessons shared by the participants would be equally applied to all kinds of smart. Whether your talents lie in linguistics, mathematics, music, art, nature, interpersonal, or intrapersonal areas of development, the requirements for success are the same.

As Gabby Douglas flew through the air, and touchingly a rare flying squirrel landed at our birdfeeder (no one in our area had ever seen one until this creature appeared for a few days and then again disappeared), here are a few talent-development lessons I felt were worth repeating:

  1. Opportunity is the key: From Michael Phelps to Gabby Douglas, from track sprinters from around the world to athletes of all backgrounds and specialties, we have heard how the doors of opportunity had to be opened. There are so many potentially talented children out there who are never recognized, supported, and applauded when successful; anchored when in trouble. Gabby’s mother made the supreme sacrifice for her little girl to shine.
  2. Letting go must happen sooner or later: Over the years I have seen parents struggle to let their talented children go to a summer camp in their area of passion, be it academics, music, or any other field. Gabby’s mother listened to Gabby and Gabby’s encouraging older sister when it was time for her to leave home. She let her go, not for a week, but for years of hard training, living with a new family and community, and facing a diverse world of new values and hard lessons.
  3. Hard work: In her first interview upon winning her gold medal, Gabby attributed her success to hard work and dedication. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it isn’t. Young talented children often think success comes naturally or with a little luck. The necessity of hard work, i.e., practice and persistence, must be taught. Our Olympic champions are great role models.
  4. Success is golden: Gabby became homesick in Iowa, but she persisted in reaching for her dreams. Of her win, she said, “I did think it was a gold-medal performance.” Self-confidence and focus are not easy to achieve when things go wrong, as they frequently did for members of the gymnastics team, including Gabby. But, as Gabby explained, “If you can push through the hard days, you can get through anything.”
  5. Belief is golden: “It’s very tough for me to focus,” Gabby reported in The New York Times, Aug. 2, 2012.  But as Douglas was going to the Olympic arena, her mother called and said, “I believe in you, baby.” Douglas said, “I believe, too.”
  6. Success is not perfection: Even Michael Phelps did not always win. Doing your best and working through the disappointments are lessons that loving families bestow upon their talented youth. As Gabby inspires other young African Americans, her message is clear: I am so happy to be me, and although I would have preferred another gold, it’s not the end of the world that I didn’t get it. On to the next competition! On to the next challenge and new experience.
  7. Respect others for their talents and dreams: At WCATY summer programs, I have had students who received perfect 800’s on their SAT Math tests at ages as young as 13 and 14 sit in an advanced math classroom with other smart students who did not and most likely could not achieve perfection. I saw the same kind of respect and camaraderie in those classrooms as I’ve been observing among the gymnastics, swimming, track and other competitors. That their passion for their field includes a desire to experience new levels of knowledge or success by others as well as by themselves is exciting to behold.

In summary, may we realize that the lessons learned by our young Olympians are lessons to be learned, valued, and respected for children with all kinds of smart.

Redshirting: How to Make a Bad System Worse

In school, there is a standard curriculum that is offered to all learners who are grouped according to age. This is an antiquated system, but it is the way we have been doing it since the industrial revolution, and—as I’ve written before, changing that system is not happening. Instead, it seems, it’s being exacerbated. On a recent edition of “60 Minutes,” Morley Safer examined the practice of redshirting children for kindergarten. Redshirting is defined at the beginning of the interview as “holding your 5-year old back from kindergarten until he’s 6 so he’ll be among the oldest and smartest in class.” One parent elaborated that she preferred her son be older in kindergarten so he would become a leader rather than be younger and a follower. All this was news to me—older equals smarter and leader.

Safer suggests that a sharp increase in redshirting is a direct response by parents to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers.” I was disturbed by this book when I read it, not because of Gladwell’s premises as much as by his conclusions. Gladwell’s comments on this show make me even more appalled. In January 2010, I quoted from the book regarding Gladwell’s observation that smart children studied by Lewis Terman who happened to be poor did not “make a name for themselves” as adults because “they lacked something that could have been given to them if we’d only known they needed it: a community around them that prepared them properly for the world.” Gladwell saw them as squandered talent and I agree with him that they didn’t need to be.

Redshirting, however, is not helping poor children but most likely putting them at greater disadvantage. As the show pointed out, low-income parents can neither afford to hold their children back nor to send them to private schools. Redshirting is not “putting a community around them.”

I agree with Samuel Meisels, President of the Erikson Institute, who on the show calls redshirting “educational quackery.” I believe in “cumulative advantage” but not in the way Gladwell defines it. Cumulative advantage does not imply that older is better or that the older a child the greater his or her leadership potential. It means carefully planning special, supplemental educational experiences, starting early in school and continuing into college, graduate school, and professional life. It means studying deeply and broadly. It happens when students are introduced purposefully to concepts, programs, activities, career possibilities, and people, who in turn introduce them to more and more possibilities until the right one clicks. It happens when their learning activities are aligned with their interests, abilities, and motivations.

I agree with Meisels that children need a level playing field and that they develop at different rates. It is true that cumulative advantage is about being in the right place at the right time, and that it usually does not happen by coincidence. Ideally, we would be putting all children in the right place at the right time. The only way we are going to prevent the kind of squandered talent that Gladwell deems unfortunate is to open more and more doors of opportunity.

At its foundation, educational opportunity should not mean forcing all kids to learn the same curriculum at the same pace and with the same strategies—whatever their age. Let them start at age 3 if they are ready and a kindergarten classroom is where they’ll best develop. Let them start at age 6 if they are not ready and a delayed start will mean a better fit with the learning environment when they are ready.

May bullying and boredom never become a part of the conversation! Oh, my mistake, Meisels pointed out that behavioral problems and boredom are already being detected in these opposite-of-pushed children. I’ll not go there—for now.

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.

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.