Category Archives: The chance to learn

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.”

From Curiosity to Mentors to Career

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

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

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

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

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

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

Establishing the Habit of Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parents and students ask questions as we read together

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

Smart Kids Who Stutter

With the release of “The King’s Speech,” stuttering has become a topic of conversation unlike anytime I’ve known in the past. Two of the WCATY students that I interviewed for my book on parenting smart kids had been stutterers.

The first is Angie, whom I’ve written about in previous columns. She was born a crack baby. She came to my attention when she scored a perfect 36 on the ACT English test as an eighth grader. It was from her father and eventually her that I learned of her challenging beginnings. By the time she first came to a WCATY program following her eighth grade year in school, there was no sign of a language problem – and who would have expected it from someone whose talent was so clearly language related.

Angie reported, “My father read to me from day one, and I received speech therapy to help overcome stuttering and slower-than-normal language acquisition. I didn’t understand the reason for these early language experiences at the time but they probably explain my affinity for reading and writing. As a preschooler, I learned to read by memorizing the words of book after book, and by age eight my speech problems had been conquered…. spelling and reading became second nature to me. Although Angie has now graduated from college and speaks eloquently, she still reports, “Writing is my bridge between my unspoken thoughts and the world.”

I’ve recently written about Rand’s ADHD. Rand’s second difference is his stutter, which was very noticeable when he was a high schooler attending WCATY programs, yet barely perceptible when I was interviewing him as a Ph.D. candidate.  “When I was really young,” he explained, “specialists worked with me. Then my parents were told it was essentially gone, that I no longer needed to work with the speech teacher. My parents believed it and dismissed stuttering as a problem that had been solved. However, occasionally my stutter was still there, and as other students noticed small stuttering and made fun of it, it got worse again. In high school, I again took speech therapy.

“What it comes down to is that I talk too fast. If I consciously slow it down, then I do not stutter. But it takes a very conscious effort, which I really despise because if I’m thinking about slowing down my speech, I’m not thinking about other things (this is the kid whose ADD allows him to process 5 different things at a time – and he loves having this ability). The high school speech therapy did slow down my natural pace, and that’s okay. It doesn’t matter to me whether I slow it down or not. I just don’t want to have to think about slowing it down. It seems ridiculous to use developmental energy to slow down my talking when I could be using that energy in better ways. I feel like it makes me think slower to have to consciously talk slower. But if it’s not happening consciously, how fast I’m talking doesn’t affect my thinking.”

Rand no longer worries about his stuttering as long as no one points it out to him, or unless he becomes stuck on a word for more than five seconds. When I mentioned that I could barely detect a stutter as we were talking, but brought it up because of the palpability of the problem earlier, he explained, “It doesn’t happen anywhere near as often now that I have matured and am more confident about what I am saying. I rarely stutter when I am teaching or giving a speech, and I consciously slow down when I am working one to one with a foreign student.” I don’t think he had consciously slowed down his speech with me, but his confidence and maturity were clearly evidenced in his smooth flow of talking. And this was a confidence in himself, not just in mathematics – his area of expertise.

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.

Modeling for Young Learners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Your Child Read a Menu?

Recently the Madison Urban League shared the trailer for an upcoming film, “TEACHED: A Film about Education in America.” Howard Fuller begins the 3 1/2 minute trailer by pointing out that students of color can now “sit at a lunch counter where they are welcomed, but they can’t read the menu.” To add to the appalling statistics we already know about the achievement gap/the numbers of poor children who end up in prison rather than college, the trailer states: “Of the students [of color] who do graduate it is estimated that 1 in 5 is still functionally illiterate despite the diplomas in their hands.”

Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart is currently being reprinted. Having sold 800 copies in the first year, some of them to community centers that serve poor families and provide educational resources to the children, my goal for this third printing is to reach more poor children in Madison, Milwaukee, and other communities. Talking about the text and the whimsical illustrations will encourage not only reading, but also questioning, imagining, and dreaming as well as vocabulary building. Talking is a skill not discussed in the book but one that precedes reading in the developmental process. For poor children, a structured reading setting will introduce vocabulary that they otherwise might not hear at this critical stage of learning. Statistics demonstrate that by age 3, children talk as much, but only as much, as their parents. These same studies point out that while professionals talk an average of 3,000 words per hour with their children, welfare families talk an average of 500 words per hour, with most of those words being in the form of commands.

Michelle Rhee states in the film that 3 good teachers in a row can change the trajectory of development for a poor child. I agree that excellent teachers can have a profound impact. That is what WCATY was all about from day one – 20 years ago! But, starting in kindergarten or first grade is too late and too little. The earlier they talk, the earlier they read, and the earlier they come to realize that there are high expectations for their achievement, the better our children’s chances for success. Let’s join Howard Fuller in addressing the issue of not only welcoming the children to the lunch counter, but assuring they can read the menu.

Link to the trailer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0k5TF7PJbo