Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Math vs. Verbal prodigies

The Siemens Westinghouse competition just announced its 2005-2006 math, science and technology winners, and the projects are stunning as always. You can read about them here.

One of the winners is a young man named Michael Viscardi, a mathematically gifted student who is also homeschooled. The press release says:

“Michael Viscardi’s project, entitled On the Solution of the Dirichlet Problem with Rational Boundary Data, develops exciting new approaches to a mathematical problem first formulated in the 19th century by the French mathematician, Lejeune Dirichlet. His research, in an area of mathematics called complex analysis, shows solutions to the Dirichlet problem which are, in many important cases, what mathematicians call ‘rational functions.’ Elegant, simple and useful, ‘rational functions’ are particularly amenable to computer implementation. …

"‘Mr. Viscardi dazzled us with his creative use of the mathematical language,’ said judge, Dr. Steven Krantz, Professor of Mathematics at Washington University in St. Louis. ‘His research is profound, substantial and complete, with potentially important practical applications ….’”

The phrase “creative use of the mathematical language” stuck with me.

You see, while mathematical prodigies making creative use of the language are rare, language prodigies are even more rare. Plenty of gifted kids learn to read young. But almost no new, widely available literature is created by people under age 20. I was struck by Davidson Fellow Laureate Heidi Kaloustian’s comment in The Prodigy Puzzle (NY Times magazine) on whether she hoped to publish her work:

“I wouldn’t dream of trying” she said. “I have so much more to learn.”

I can think of a few practical reasons for this dearth.

New research in science and math often happens within the academic world. Sure, universities have their politics, but a proof is a proof, a result is a result. A real world implication is great, but not absolutely required.

Literature, on the other hand, is a commercial business. Books are published not just because they are good, but because acquiring editors could see a market and thought the author had a good “platform.”

Second, more people view themselves as qualified to produce literature than new mathematical or scientific findings. Few people would send in an article to a peer-reviewed science journal without being a working scientist in the field. But scores of folks are typing away on what they believe to be the next great American novel, even if they’ve never published a thing in their lives. This volume means the publishing industry has set up a more intimidating process of agents as gatekeepers. A gifted child is unlikely to have the connections to get an agent to read a manuscript, and a manuscript sent unsolicited to a publisher will not be read.

But there’s a matter of skill, too. Literature deals with the scope of human experience, and even a very imaginative gifted child will have trouble writing about the disappointments and wisdom that come with age. Stories by children often feature the most dramatic of life events – deaths, usually. It is the one thing they know to be momentous enough to justify a story. But this lends a melodramatic tone to student writing. Audiences prefer true tension to deaths.

I also think young children with writing talent aren’t nurtured the way mathematicians are. Sure, few gifted kids are nurtured. But on the margins, we recognize math to be a “tough” field, and so a child with talent there is more likely to be recognized as precocious and sent to higher levels. What are higher levels of writing? Because we believe math and science are “tougher,” winners of those contests get more press. We believe that anyone can write. So young writers are simply encouraged to be creative.

To make a living as a writer, though, that creativity needs to be honed and trained. Given how infrequently it is, and the commercial savvy a young writer would need to navigate the publishing world, it’s no wonder you read of so few literature prodigies.


BlueGenes said...

I read your whole article, and I found it fascinating, because I raised a gifted child, and I did it at a time when the library was the WWW. At the time, I didn't know that children such as these even existed. This child made me teach her how to read at 2 1/2, and she demanded I teach her phonics as she didn't like to be told every new word.

I find every word that you wrote to be relevant to the "problem" of gifted children, and such children can be a problem if you don't know what you've got!

However, I have never seen a word written about what it is that makes a child gifted. I think that a good, healthy baby is a beginning, but I also believe it is the things that a mother does with her baby that contributes to its abilities, and I have never read anything about a mother's contribution in the first twelve months. I believe that gifted children develop from mothers that talk to their children (this would especially apply to illiterate mothers who talked a lot) when they are very young. If that is the case, it is time to promote more "talking" to babies and to bring back the old rhymes that so many of us were brought up with.

Anonymous said...

As the mom of a verbally EG/PG girl I say "amen." And I see this at work in how our local public school system (Montgemery Co. MD) is (or isn't) meeting the needs of gifted students. While acceleration in mathematics can occur from third grade onwards in homogeneously grouped classes, and there is a lot of talk of all students completing algebra by 8th grade, etc. etc.--there is nothing done for children who are similarly gifted in the language arts. Some grouping for William and Mary and Jr. Great books occurs within heterogeneous classes for part of the year, but that's it. The result being that a HG k-5 child (let alone HG+) will spend the entire year talking about literature with the maybe one or two other kids in class who are at their level. How is that meeting their needs, providing them the opportunity to be challenged with a variety of ideas?

Because language arts so permeates the school experience--it isn't "discrete" like math--schools are hesitant to create homogeneous accelerated classes for fear of what the resulting classes will look like.

(I should add that at middle school level there is one highly competitive magnet for humanities and communications arts, and high school AP and IB programs are an option.)

Anonymous said...

I have a gifted 9 year old girl. She was an "intuitive" reader, reading well by age 3, reading at a post high school level by grade 1 (by SAT's).

She is now a 5th grader who writes constantly. She writes to express her self, to develope her ideas into stories, her dreams into stories, her real life adventures into stories and the lives of her friends into stories. As she is in a very academic private prep school, her writing is encouraged. She is even able to do science projects using her writing. As an example, a project to demonstrate the parts of a cell became a travel agency brochure to lure traveling families to miniturize and tour an animal cell!

We have the good fortune to have some excellent enrichment programs in our town. My daughter just took an afterschool course in creative writing with other gifted children. She was finally in a group of like-minded children. In her class of high achieving children, she is still an anomaly.

Where do we go with a writer like this to get started for publication? She is published in the high schools literary magazine, but I do not know where to go from here.

You are so right that there are not the resources for talented writers that there for math. I think it is more nebulous, harder to identify this kind of giftedness.

James Aach said...

You are certainly correct about publishing looking for a "platform" for each item. I would also add I believe there is a strong bias against any new, unique approach to presenting science and technology. There are science books and there is literature, and apart from the rapidly shrinking science fiction (not fantasy) realm, the two do not meet. (Techno-thrillers, which showed promise, have now devolved into shoot'em ups.) A reader who wishes to both read a good story and discover and learn about science and technology shouldn't get their hopes up. The impression I've gotten from my own struggles with a science-based novel (see my website) is that fiction editors and fiction agents are very uncomfortable dealing with science and technology in any form. This may just be reflective of our whole society's problems with science. Just a theory, anyway, based on a limited set of experiments.

Anonymous said...

If you are looking for examples of gifted young authors, check out Christopher Paolini. He is a fascinating homeschooled young man who published "Aragon" at age 16 and followed up with a sequel this summer. My gifted kids love this book.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Anonymous: There are a few children's literary magazines with national audiences that she might try to crack. I was published in something called "Stone Soup" when I was little, and there's another magazine called Merlyn's Pen for the slightly older set. Look at a copy of Writer's Markets in the library to see if there are other literary magazines by/for children out there.

Anonymous said...

Here's a website that has a list of resources for young writers:
I don't have experience using it, but it seems the WWW has a very writers communities. I think that the word community is key when thinking about developing writing talent. I am so proud of my son's school for using the "6 traits" of writing approach. I think this is a way to bring up the quality of writing instruction.

Evan Adams said...

From where I'm standing, a lot of the problem seems to be that teachers prior to the undergraduate level don't know what reasonable first steps toward publishing actually are, and that the standard approach with talented young writers is to have them focus on developing their craft rather than trying to publish. It's also worth noting that even among non-gifted populations, writers, especially fiction writers, generally publish later in their lives and careers than people in math and science. Personally, my advice to a young gifted writer who felt ready to publish would be write short stories, because a) when you're a relatively new/young writer, you're learning so fast that your whole sense of yourself as a writer will have changed 20-100 pages into a novel, b) it's nice to finish things, and the sooner you do that the sooner you know you can, and c) a child's lack of life experience need not be such an impediment in the smaller scope of a short story, and d) short fiction is often easier to publish; the commercial aspect is often less of a concern (not at all if you're writing "literary" fiction instead of SF or fantasy), and you don't usually need an agent.v
Two other suggestions: focus on having young gifted writers learn to "read like a writer" so they can both learn better prose craft and gain some of the perspective and sense of story structure their young lives might not give them; also, consider trying to publish in Cicada or other youth literary magazines that take work from young writers, as this is a step up from local/school publication.
Also, do NOT push them to try to publish before they feel ready, no matter how good you think they are. If you're not a writer yourself, your child or student may have a better sense than you of where their work is "at" and how it compares to published fiction in the same genre.