Tag Archives: becoming good at something difficult

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

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 and ADD

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

Rand’s Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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