Friday, November 15, 2013
Blog reader Sara asked on the previous post about advocating for your gifted child. The staff of the Davidson Institute posted a number of their online resources, which I recommend looking at. In this post, I'd like to talk about how people have approached parent-teacher conferences. Ideally, there is plenty of communication going on between school and home. You've been in your child's class on occasion to help out; you've exchanged emails with the teacher already. The first parent-teacher conference isn't your first get-together, and so you've already established a working relationship. My husband and I like to approach these things much as we would meetings for work. We discuss before hand our objectives and questions. We talk before hand with other stakeholders who won't be there (e.g. the kid himself, babysitter, etc.) If one major objective is to convey that your child is capable of challenging work, and would like to be challenged, you want to bring in evidence to support that. Think a portfolio that represents what you see: stories the child is writing, what books he's reading, the pie charts he draws for fun in his spare time. Particularly if your child doesn't do his or her best on assessments -- because they're boring and cover stuff the kid already knows -- you want to show material that shows your own assessment of the child. Obviously, if you've had the kid independently evaluated -- which ideally the teacher already knows about -- you'd bring that information in too. Then, hopefully, it's a pleasant conversation -- approached as "what can we do to be supporting you" in making sure the child has work that challenges her brain and keeps her engaged. Take good notes; thank the teacher for specific examples of what's happening the class (like your kid being put in a small reading group tackling a higher-level book). I'd love to hear how Gifted Exchange readers have approached parent-teacher conferences, and how they've gone. They've gone well for us, and I know we've been fortunate that way. I'd love to hear how you've navigated them, and I'd love to hear from teachers who read this blog about how they like them to go.
Sunday, November 10, 2013
I have recently learned that my state, Pennsylvania, requires that gifted learners be identified and served. My local school district sponsored a small gathering on gifted education recently, which I'd hoped would feature a discussion of our district's policies and offerings for such children. Instead, we got a discussion of the skills gifted students would need in the 21st century. And while it was fun, and fascinating, it reminds me of the trouble gifted advocates have gotten ourselves into, historically, in the way we've shaped the conversation on gifted education. We spent much of the hour devoted to this conversation on gifted education building a bridge. Each table had a divider in the middle, and the teams on both sides of the divider had to build a bridge with a package of random materials. The catch was that it had to exactly match the bridge on the other side of the divider. Every 3-5 minutes or so, we'd send up a negotiator to talk with someone from the other team. They'd confer, they'd come back, and we'd all adjust. It was certainly a more enjoyable way to spend an hour than many other things we could have been doing with our time, but the point was that we were using 21st century skills: problem solving, negotiating, team work, and so forth. These soft skills are the ones that employers say people most need. They're also the ones employers are likely to say people lack. These are the skills that gifted children will need in the 21st century. Except they're also the skills that all children need. And this is where the gifted conversation goes awry. Because many pull-outs over the years have been built around fun project based learning. But all kids can learn that way, and all kids can enjoy going to science museums, or whatever other trips these pull-outs have entailed. What gifted kids need in particular is work that stretches their brains to the extent of their capabilities, in an environment with their intellectual peers. Bridges can be part of that. But bridges can be part of everyone's learning. What belongs under the gifted education rubric is something a little different.
Thursday, October 31, 2013
In my last post, I asked a few questions of Robert and Susan Gold, the founders of the Feynman School in Bethesda. Feynman serves academically gifted children, and has a science-centered curriculum for these young explorers. The Golds were interested in starting a school in part because their own daughter needed such a place. While this is a labor intensive approach to meeting a gifted child's needs, it's one that some parents consider, so I wanted to share their experience. Today's post is the second part of the interview. Q. What did you try that did not work? What did you learn from that? A. Well, let’s start on a positive note. Feynman School is fulfilling its mission to provide a high-quality education for academically gifted children. The resources we have gathered from NAGC, MEGS (Maryland Educators of Gifted Students), the College of William and Mary’s Center for Gifted Education, our Advisory Board members, and others, have allowed it to do so. Nearly everyone we have consulted with to this point has been very willing to help mentor us, a “pay it forward” mentality we try to impart to our students at Feynman. On the other hand, the business side has been rife with struggle, heartbreak, trial and error, and in some cases, the same battles gifted advocates have fought for decades. One of the first things we did after obtaining nonprofit section 501(c)(3) status was to try to raise money. We figured, this is such a great cause, won’t folks be lining up to write checks? When that didn’t pan out immediately, we sought the advice of professional fundraisers. One said he had recently raised more than one million dollars for another local independent school’s annual campaign, and even though our school was new, he thought he could realistically help us raise $500K. Six months and $6,000 in consulting fees later, he still hadn’t raised any funds (for us, that is). Apparently, raising money for a new school is harder than fundraising for a school with 600 students, a one hundred year history and lots of wealthy alumni. Who knew? We just took it for granted that our society would see the value of gifted education and early science education. But before we had even opened our doors, there were naysayers with the usual charges of “elitism”, “gifted kids are socially maladjusted”, why are we “pushing” kids so early, and “they’ll get all the parents who are THAT parent”. One of our favorites: an anonymous poster on a local chat board quipped, “sounds like another school for the financially gifted.” In reality, we try very hard to identify high-potential learners, and offer academic scholarships so that children who can best benefit from Feynman may do so regardless of socio-economic status. Then, too, we have approached businesses that publicly pride themselves on supporting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, but when presented with a true opportunity to do so, will not respond. Is “gifted” the problem? Whether these businesses are looking to support STEM education for the betterment of society, ROI, or some combination thereof, we believe it is shortsighted to fail to recognize that academically gifted children are an underserved population. Most people seem to think these kids will do just fine on their own. Research says otherwise. Some of the things we have learned in our fundraising efforts are: * a private school for academically gifted children does not, on its surface, sound like a particularly needy cause; * people invest in people, not causes; * personal stories are important; * fundraising requires great resilience; and * silent auctions can raise significant funds and can be fun community-building events. Q. What are the advantages of having a school like yours, versus homeschooling your child? A. Funny thing is, parents at Feynman School have joked that we are homeschooling our girls—except with a campus, eleven teachers and forty other children around. Most Feynman families consist of working parents who cannot devote the time to homeschooling their children and are thankful to have a school that echoes their concerns and goals for their children’s education. These children get to be around their intellectual peers every day. Initially we were concerned that our classrooms would contain many chiefs! But the truth is, they get along extremely well. Our students come from a wide variety of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, but share the common bonds of inquisitiveness and the ability to focus their attention well. We believe Feynman School offers the best of both worlds: highly individualized instruction, flexible curriculum—something that approaches the agility of homeschooling—along with some advantages of scale. The benefits of a strong, collegial teacher community with expertise in different academic domains (science, math, Spanish), and that prides itself on professional development cannot be overlooked when educating gifted children. Further, being an approved nonprofit school has allowed Feynman to convene a strong advisory board with experts in the fields of math, science, gifted education, corporate management, entrepreneurship and psychology; work alongside colleges and universities to pilot curricula; raise over $300,000 in tax-deductible donations; and easily coordinate elective classes such as music, drama, chess, basketball and robotics. Moreover, Feynman School’s parent community is largely comprised of like-minded individuals whose paths might not have crossed otherwise due to location (our students hail from Maryland, DC and Virginia). The bonds we have formed extend well beyond the walls of the school and benefit our students.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Parents figure out lots of ways to get an appropriate education for their gifted children. Robert and Susan Gold's approach? Starting a school. I asked them to share the journey to starting Bethesda, MD's Feynman School, and I'll run the answers in two parts. This is part 1. Q. How did you figure out your daughter was going to need a different sort of education? A. Madeline just came out "ready" to take on the world! She reached developmental milestones early, ascending a flight of stairs at seven months; and by twelve months, looking up from her changing table and announcing, "Mommy, I'm irritated! I need some Aquaphor." Even as a toddler she could think abstractly. At eighteen months, entering a donut shop with her grandfather she surprised him by asking: "Papa, when you were a little boy did you like donuts, too?" At Madeline's eighteen-month-checkup her pediatrician gave us our wake-up call. "You're going to have to watch out for her in school," he explained. "She's going to be bored if she isn't challenged enough." He added that parents and teachers need to be extra careful with gifted girls because often they don't let on how bored they are. Of course that's a gross generalization but in practice it does appear that bored, gifted boys are more likely to make their boredom manifest. Fast forward nearly two years and, sure enough, Madeline's preschool teachers reported that having her in class was like having a third teacher in the room. We were thrilled that Madeline's teachers found her bright and helpful (she could be a bit bossy at home), but were concerned she wasn't seeing much new material. This was a kid who assembled 200-piece jigsaw puzzles and stayed up solving Sodoku puzzles for fun. Thanks to Madeline's innate curiosity and her pediatrician's advice, our research on gifted education was in full swing well before Madeline's fourth birthday. We would only note how important it is to choose a pediatrician who has the know-how to identify talents as well as concerns. Madeline's pediatrician had himself raised an academically gifted son, now also a physician. Q. Starting a school seems like a lot of work! What made you think this was the right choice? A. It was the only choice. Around three and a half Madeline began asking big, sometimes philosophical questions: "Where does the sky end?" "What's inside the computer?" "Were there always people here?" (People where?) "On Earth?" For this last one we found an evolutionary chart online with Australopithecus and so on. Looking at the chart she exclaimed, "This is really interesting. Do you have a book on that?" So basically we threw up our hands and said, let's hire some very learned teachers who can answer her questions. That was the beginning of Feynman School. All kidding aside, we knew there were other parents in the Washington DC area seeking a school for gifted young learners. Once we had figured out that Madeline would require gifted and talented programming to fully develop her abilities, we had researched the area to see if any schools fit the bill. Surprisingly in the greater DC metropolitan area, none did. This was 2009. There was no early childhood program or primary school where academically gifted children could explore and learn at their pace. One of our first contacts was Jeanne Paynter, Specialist for Gifted Education at the Maryland State Department of Education. We asked her if we had overlooked anything in our search. Dr. Paynter said no, we hadn't overlooked anything -- but she did get calls every year from parents looking for a school exactly like the one we were describing. We also received an early vote of confidence from Dr. Joyce VanTassel-Baska, longtime Director of The Center for Gifted Education at The College of William and Mary and one of the world's foremost experts on gifted education. She met with us for nearly three hours at her Washington office and helped formulate Feynman School's curriculum and methods. It was Dr. VanTassel-Baska, for example, who suggested we start with science as the cornerstone of an integrated curriculum. Emboldened, we searched nationally for successful schools catering to young gifted children. We visited Hollingworth Preschool at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Hunter College Elementary School, both in New York City. We saw Hollingworth students at the ripe age of four fully engaged in the study of architecture. Hunter's youngest students, meanwhile, were applying critical thinking skills on a daily basis in many subject areas. At the 2009 NAGC convention in St. Louis, we were also fortunate enough to meet representatives from Mirman School, which educates young gifted children in Los Angeles. When Dr. and Mrs. Mirman opened the school in 1962, they had just nine students, in their living room. In 2013 the school enrolls over 300 students on a beautiful campus. The Mirman administration has helped us tremendously. Jocie Balaban, the Interim Lower School Head, has even been out to visit Feynman School in Bethesda and says we're doing the right things. Many, many people in the field of gifted education have been generous to us over the last five years. So we haven't had to go it alone, or engage in a lot of guesswork regarding talent identification, curriculum or materials. In sum, it was the critical need for a school like Feynman in the DC area, the support we received from the gifted education community, and also, our belief that our professional backgrounds, education and business law, were well-suited to opening a school, that persuaded us to go forward with the endeavor. When we see the growth and progress our students make and how happy they are to be at Feynman School -- they often don't want to leave at the end of the day -- we know for certain we made the right choice. (Part 2 coming in a few days...)
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
I apologize for the gap in time since my last post. I've been trying to figure out what to write about -- not because I don't have topics to write about when it comes to the challenges of raising gifted kids, but because I am experiencing many of those things personally right now. I'm trying to figure out how to write about my children given that I am not particularly anonymous on the internet and they're increasingly literate. But here's a topic I can write about -- starting kids on an instrument. My 6-year-old is quite interested in music. I have a keyboard he's talked about playing, and he has tried a few notes on. However, he also heard one of his friends' older brothers play the violin and was quite taken with that. I think he'd like learning to read music and I think he'd find studying an instrument challenging in a way that aspects of school work are not. So what direction do we go? I'm curious what age Gifted Exchange readers started their children with various instruments and your thoughts on which are good for beginners. Are there good ways to try different instruments given that we probably won't take on lessons in more than one instrument at a time? I suppose one option would be to try violin first in a more structured lesson setting, given that I can show him how to play the piano. But I'm curious what people think, and your children's experiences with learning music.
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
My oldest child just started first grade, which in our district is when homework officially begins. It's supposed to be light at this age (10 minutes a night) and is done more for the idea of building the habit than anything else. My son's teacher also has the good system of assigning homework on a weekly basis. You turn it all in on Friday, so if you want to get it all done on Monday and not do it the rest of the week, fine. If you want to cram at the end, you can do that too. I think it will probably be a valuable lesson in time management, since much of life requires us to manage our own deadlines over multiple days. Of course, homework can be done well or done badly. It's no surprise that in many schools, a lot of it is done badly. It winds up being busy work covering the exact same stuff done in school that day. That time could be better spent reading for pleasure. Or playing outside. But some forms of homework can be very helpful. Annie Murphy Paul wrote, recently, at Mind/Shift on how to make homework worthwhile. A few ideas? First, try spaced repetition. Rather than cover what the kid did at school that day, homework can revisit topics from earlier in the year. Or preview topics coming later! A history class may have moved on from the American Revolution, but revisiting the founding documents later in the semester may remind children of the ways those documents influence later events (being covered at that time in class). Another option is "retrieval practice" -- which is basically quizzing yourself to make memories stronger. Tests don't just show what you know, they change what you know. Paul also notes that knowledge is better burned into our brains if we have to work harder to learn it. People retain more knowledge from reading passages that are smudged, or in hard-to-read fonts, because they're working to decode them. Schools aren't really relying on those awful mimeograph machines anymore, but homework's difficulty level can be upped by putting different kinds of problems together. You don't get 30 subtraction problems in a row, you get a mixed bag of different functions and different numbers of digits. That keeps your brain working. What kind of homework do your kids get? Do you think it's worthwhile?
Thursday, September 19, 2013
In Houston County (Georgia), the gifted program used to be a pull-out program. Students got one day a week of gifted instruction. This year, they've moved to self-contained classes, all day and for all grades. You can read about the change at Macon.com in this article. (As a side note, it's a really good article, talking about many issues stories of these nature miss, like that gifted kids have to work a lot harder in classes when they're no longer "stars"). One reason few districts do self-contained classes is cost. If gifted education is targeted at 1-3% of students, then self-contained classes are often small, even if you combine a few grades. This means you have to actively put money into the program beyond the normal per pupil cost. For a variety of reasons, some political, schools find it difficult to do this. The choice Houston County seems to have made is to broaden the definition of gifted. According to the article, some 4000 of the district's 27,000 students have been put into gifted classes. This is about 15% of the population. At this level, you could have 6 classes in a grade, with one being a gifted class, and not need any extra staffing levels. So is this a smart choice? On one level, a gifted designation this broad will be tricky. There is a huge variance within that 15%. On the other, any attempts at ability grouping (or "readiness grouping" as we like to say here) will increase the chances that a class will be taught closer to a highly gifted child's level. The differentiation within that class can offer the highly gifted child more than the differentiation within a far more mixed class. And since pull-outs are sometimes more disruptive than worthwhile, I think Houston County is moving in the right direction. If your child is in a self-contained class, are you satisfied with the level of rigor?