Chess Club Versus Football

Freeman Hrabowski, an African American with a Polish heritage (explaining his last name), was arrested at age 12 for participating in the “Children’s March” in Birmingham, Alabama. He also excelled in school, started college at age 15, and became president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). I was intrigued when his story aired on 60 minutes on November 13. Under his leadership UMBC has become known for innovation, interesting students in math and science careers, and for its high standards of discipline, community and achievement.

Of his students and educational philosophy Hrabowski says, “We teach Americans of all races what it takes to be the best. At the heart of it is … hard work. I don’t care how smart you are, nothing takes the place of hard work.” Football? Not at UMBC − no football. One student explains, “You might go to another university and the football team might be top dog. Here, it’s the chess team that’s top dog. Yeah, it’s cool to be smart.”

Hrabowski speaks of a typical first day message on many campuses: a dean saying, “Look at the person to your right and the person to your left. One of you will not graduate.” Being assured that from day one turns it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, at UMBC they say, “Look at the student to your left. Look at the student to your right. Our goal is to make sure all three of you graduate and if you don’t, we fail; And, we don’t plan to fail.” He explains that he wants his students to keep dreaming about future possibilities while at the same time understanding that hard work, a positive attitude, and getting support from each other are their keys to success.” Underlying his passion for education, it’s clear, Hrabowski truly believes it’s cool to be smart.

PS The list of good books according to Jocelyn from The Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver is growing. Check it out on the Tips and Previews Page of this blog.

Children’s Picture Books for the Holidays

Of course I’m selling “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart” for the holidays. I’m thrilled that CUNA Mutual Insurance Foundation and The Rainbow Project of Madison are working with me to distribute 50 copies to poor children. I read in early November at The Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver − where “Grandma Says” is still available, will be selling books with the Rainbow Bookstore  Cooperative at the trade show in Madison on Dec. 3, and am reading at Liliana’s Restaurant in Fitchburg on the evening of Dec. 4 − children eat free.

I am also thrilled that I met a new friend in Colorado −Jocelyn , who works in the children’s book department at Colfax Branch The Tattered Cover Book Store, running their children’s Story Time every Tuesday morning. She recommended several great new books to me for my grandchildren, one of which I mentioned in my last blog. Jocelyn has agreed to send me lists of her recommendations of new titles and old favorites, at least through the holidays. I will post these on the Tips and Previews page, with the first list appearing today. Thank you Jocelyn for helping me to finally update my tips page, and in such a valuable way!

Grandma Says It’s Good to Read

Brotherly Reading

This past week I got to live what I preach. I spent a week babysitting with my two grandsons, and reading was at the core of our activities. The little guy is 5. He says, “Kindergarten is ‘kinda’ easy.” Every night his homework consists of reading a different book that he has selected to bring home. While he read aloud to me, the older brother was to engage in a quiet activity until I could help him with his math. On some nights it was his own reading homework. On others, it was reading a book for fun. Here the two boys have extended fun as the younger boy climbs into the chair and joins in.

I have written about the significance of early reading previously. In this posting, I reiterate its benefits based on the National Institute for Literacy’s recommendations in action:

* Gives children information on a variety of topics. The older boy is intensely interested in frogs and toads, sharks, dolphins, and fish of all kinds. We read several reference books on amphibians and ocean life, some from his school library and other treasures from his personal bookshelf. The younger boy is still 100% into picture books and we had fun with all kinds of stories. One old favorite is “Scranimals” by Jack Prelutsky. We brainstormed our own Scranimals, then drew and made stories about them to add to the book. Two new favorites are “What Animals Really Like” by Fiona Robinson and “Black and White” by David Macaulay. The first is highly imaginative with beautifully complex pictures to read. The latter is a book I bought when I heard David Macaulay speak a few years ago. It consists of four stories that can be read separately but become increasingly blended into one complex story as you read. I was waiting for the two boys to grow into it, and they sure did!

Promotes language development and literacy skills. Both boys are growing into independent reading. The third grader did not learn to read as quickly as other Schatzes in our family, but he was always read to, loved stories, and eventually became the reader I knew he would become. The younger boy craves books. Both have learned that reading can introduce them to adventures, people, lands, and ideas that otherwise they’d never know.

Helps increase attention spans. The photo proves it. What I expected to be at maximum a 10-minute activity, became a long expedition into the imagination. I think I had to peel them from the chair to get back to unfinished homework assignments.

Promotes family relationships. Again, the picture is worth a thousand words.

Raises reading levels. I do think the kindergartner grew several grade levels in reading ability in the week I was with him. His ability to use context and his memory for words once he’s seen them once was a joy to observe. Whatever skill it is we are attempting to master, practice is the key. Practicing reading should never be a chore. I’m so glad both boys are totally delighted when reading a good book.

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.

 

Pyramid Model

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let the Children Learn, Dream, and Reach Out for More

I read an article in the New York Times this week that made me nostalgic and hopeful at the same time that I continue to be alarmed by statistics that show little progress in three areas that greatly concern me.

First, we’re no closer to realizing an education system that will challenge all children than we were when I started my career (many years ago). With gifted children, this means that if they come to the classroom knowing what is about to be taught, the school has an obligation to find a way to take them to new levels of knowledge/understanding. When we know that happens in scattered schools across the nation, why can’t we ever learn to get it right?

Second, we continue to under-identify disadvantaged children from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In NYC, “black children made up 11 percent of this year’s gifted kindergarten classes, down from 15 percent in 2009-10. Representation of Hispanic students was 12 percent in both years. The school system as a whole is roughly 70 percent black and Hispanic.”

Third, why do we under-identify? Because we continue to rely on testing, not authentic testing of what is important in a child’s real world, but rote testing of facts and skills that disadvantaged children have had little or no opportunity to learn.

So why am I nostalgic and hopeful? One article stood out from all the rest. Entitled, “A Sleepaway Camp Where Math Is the Main Sport,” it immediately caught my eye. Is this a Talent Search-based program? Is it even WCATY (the program I founded) today? No to both questions. It is a program for NYC public school students entering 8th grade, where at least 75% of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunches. They represent a diverse population and their past experiences with challenge and opportunity were sadly lacking, but they have three positive characteristics in common: they love learning; they love math, and they are good at learning! Add to that, they love this program and are “cruising” through mathematical concepts that ordinarily most students wouldn’t see before college.

One of the criticisms of the program is that these children cannot catch up with their more privileged peers in the short time they attend the program. As I told parents of underachievers when they were considering attendance at a WCATY summer “camp,” it is true that their school may not have changed and that there will be a hard road ahead, but the children will have changed. They will dream bigger dreams; they will be aware of possibilities; they will refuse to stand still; they will seek additional opportunities; and they have found advocates who can help them to made valuable connections. I can tell many heart-warming stories of WCATY students who have done just that.

Special Offer for National Parenting Gifted Children Week

National Parenting Gifted Children Week is hosted by SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted).

 Follow their Blog Tour

Download SENG’s free NPGC Week ebook, The Joy and the Challenge: Parenting Gifted Children.

On June 24, The New York Times reviewed Alexandra Robbins’ “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth,” in which she states that although adults are proudly admitting their earlier nerd status now that they have achieved success, “there have been surprisingly few trickle-down effects… bullying and exclusion are rampant” (in our schools). She elaborates, “many of the traits that correlate with ‘outsider’ status among high school students — originality, self-awareness, courage, resilience, integrity and passion — reveal themselves as assets later in life.”

The review is less than an endorsement of Robbins’ writing style or message, and I do not agree with the concept of overachievement, the topic and title of her previous book. However, as the reviewer – Jessica Bruder – points out, “None of this dampens the urgency of her broader message. Adults tell students that it gets better, that the world changes after school, that being ‘different’ will pay off sometime after graduation. But no one explains to them why.”

The article concludes that Robbins is “dead on: teenagers need to hear that adolescence ends. And more than that, they need to believe it.”

The point of “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart” is that for many gifted kids, the teenage years are too late for this message. That is why they don’t believe it. Grandma says start telling them that it’s good/cool to be smart early on. Starting in infancy and toddlerhood, smart and gifted children need to feel good about their abilities and have that message reinforced every time an unfortunate incident of name-calling, bullying, or negative peer pressure to hide who they are and what they know occurs.

In honor of SENG’s National Parenting Gifted Children Week, I am offering a special price for “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart.” Start your little ones on a path to believing in themselves and their talents at an early age. Go to the “Contact Ellie Books” page of www.allkindsofsmart.com for details on how to order.

Grandma Says Start Advocating Early

Eric Heidin, Olympic skater and gold-medalist, once remarked that it all began because someone gave him some skates. This is an apt metaphor for advocacy. Someone must provide the skates. But Eric received more than that. Advocacy for him meant also receiving an arena, a coach, time for practice, competition, guidance, caring when he struggled and lost, and pride when he achieved and won. It means the same for all children with talents, whatever the field of endeavor. They must be given the materials and the tools for learning. They need someone who can feed their passions and guide them through the hard work and determination it takes to succeed. They need to stretch their limits and be respected for their goals and accomplishments. Advocacy for talent development is advocacy for excellence, whatever the domain. Advocacy for appropriate educational options is essential along every person’s road to success and happiness.

In the literature on talent development, Peggy Dettmer (1991, p. 170) presents stages of advocacy that she believes can help parents and teachers become more effective in bringing about educational change. Attention is the first stage, because if you are going to make a difference, you must first gain the attention of key people in whatever constituency you need to affect. After attention, the interest you’ve roused in the situation invites participation by those you need to assist you. Their concern for the students you’re trying to help should follow. Those who are concerned should be ready to get involved with your situation. As they grow in knowledge they should become more willing to make adjustments to the curriculum, policy, or program. This leads to their commitment and puts them in a position to provide encouragement for others to support your efforts. They will be able to help you promote an optimal match between learner characteristics and curriculum or program. Finally comes resolve to make the change successful, perseverance to see that this is accomplished, and progress toward realizing the educational goals you had in mind. Dettmer suggests that as your children go through school, you will need to cycle through the stages again and again at increasingly sophisticated levels.

These descriptors need not occur in any set order. You might or might not experience them as stages. Chances are your advocacy will require you to work at increasingly complex levels, but you might simply consider these helpful key words that inform your thoughts, feelings, and actions as you guide your child’s talent development.

“Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart” can help you to start advocating at the basic levels for your smart and talented children when they are preschoolers or in the early grades. In honor of National Gifted Education Week from July 17-23, I will offer a special sale of the book throughout July. See the Contact Ellie Books page of this blog for details.

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.