Thursday, September 28, 2006

Finding a Mentor

I just returned from Washington, D.C., where I attended the annual Davidson Fellows award ceremony at the Library of Congress. This year's award winners are fascinating, and I strongly recommend reading their biographies here.

All the recipients spoke briefly, and thanked the grown-ups who had helped them develop their projects. I was struck by the number of non-parent mentors each had found along the way. According to the program, astrophysics whiz Adam Solomon "knocked on doors at Columbia University until he met his current mentor" who led him to study brown dwarfs. Anarghya Vardhana, a mathematician, stayed after school with a math teacher who had a PhD in number theory learning how to move from solving problems in text books to dreaming up new problems (a key shift in breaking new ground in any research-based field). Mentors can help you learn what topics are ripe for investigation. They can give you access to equipment (key for science research). They can help you hone your creativity in humanities fields from something you dream up to something the world will want to consume. Indeed, having mentors is often the difference between kids who show promise in a subject and kids who truly nurture their talents in these fields.

They're also not always easy to find. Some high-achieving kids are blessed to have teachers or parents who are well-connected with local universities, professional artists or other such folk and are able or willing to use these connections. Some, like Solomon, go knock on doors until they find these people. I'm curious how other people reading this blog have found mentors. Alas, they do not all appear like Athena, disguised, who was the original Mentor comforting lonely Telemachus. How do you find a mentor in the non-mythical world?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Nurturing Talent

The Vancouver Sun tackles the tricky issue of nurturing gifted kids' talents in an article called Nourishing the Super Kid. While the Superman art is a bit much, the article is actually pretty good, and worth a read.

The lead anecdote is about a mom whose kid was really into marine biology. She and her husband, to put it mildly, were not. But they were not intimidated by that fact. "It didn't matter that neither of them knew the difference between a sea slug and a salamander," the article states. "What mattered, Ansell-Shepherd says, is that they knew how to introduce their son to people who did."

So they took him to the museum. They took him to the library and let him load up on books. They took him to meetings of the local natural history society -- a move that's going above the call of duty, but hey. Quite simply, the kid's school was never going to teach marine biology. He loved the subject. So if he was going to learn it, he'd have to learn it outside of school. So he did.

The article goes on to give other good advice. Even in small towns where amenities are comparatively limited, it's often possible to find unexpected ways to feed a gift, one of the interviewed experts says. "It's about being resourceful. There are people in every community who can nurture passions. There's an assumption that every good coach was a gifted athlete. That's not true. I know many coaches who can't even participate in the sports they coach. You don't have to be a participant yourself to be a great mentor."

Nurturing gifts is tough. But I liked the approach of this piece. It's doable, no matter where you are.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Neglected Middle?

USA Today ran a column from Patrick Welsh, a D.C.-area teacher earlier this week, called Students Aren't Interchangeable. A true statement, of course. He makes the perfectly reasonable point that average children need to be challenged and that the curriculum should fit the child, not the other way around. He also points out that many educators are more interested in social engineering than in challenging kids. But I found the column unfortunate as a whole. He wants to be contrarian, so he decides to characterize gifted kids and their parents as poorly as possible so the much-neglected middle seems more deserving by contrast.

He starts by referring to parents of gifted kids as "fanatical" -- and "usually white, in my experience -- who think their kids are geniuses, who must be protected from less talented kids and who are entitled to every advantage and resource the school system has to offer." There you go. If you speak up about your kid needing educational accommodations, not only are you pushy, you're "fanatical." And while we're at it, let's get some racial overtones in there, too. Why not? No wonder Nicholas Colangelo, professor of gifted education at the Belin-Blank Center of the University of Iowa, and an expert on acceleration, recently told me that many parents of gifted kids perceive that any such requests will be viewed negatively -- so they don't ask. They don't want to be seen as pushy. With teachers like Welsh roaming the halls, that's not an unrealistic fear.

Welsh then goes on to say he has "heard teachers in neighboring Fairfax County, VA, joke that every middle class white kid is labeled either gifted and talented or learning disabled. The LD label goes over with parents because it implies that the kid is brighter than his or her work shows."

This is complete hyperbole. Fairfax County, VA's own reports show that about 8% of 3rd through 8th grade kids participate in its gifted programs (see the report here (and let me know if the direct PDF link doesn't work. It's the Fairfax County Gifted and Talented Advisory Committee Report from 2004). This is a wealthy district -- more than 8% of the kids are middle-class and white. Furthermore, the district is home to Thomas Jefferson high school, a magnet high school for gifted kids that's ranked among the top in the country. If you do have a highly gifed kid, and live in the greater D.C. area, you're quite likely to move to Fairfax for precisely this reason. So it would stand to reason that Fairfax would have a high percentage of gifted kids, particularly among the high school set. But even so, it's not a de facto segregation system. TJ is nearly 40% minority (Asian children are the largest minority group; interestingly, Asian parents are somehow exempt from Welsh's fanatical label). I'm surprised USA Today let Welsh get away with this stereotyping statement with absolutely no evidence to back it up.

But we're in a mode these days where complaining about pushy parents is hip. Columns like this are the result.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Genius on CNN

I hope some of you were able to catch the Dr. Sanjay Gupta special on "Genius" on CNN last night (and my apologies for not promoting it on this blog before hand). The hour-long show covered quite a lot, dancing over everything from prodigious savants (I was especially fascinated by one young man who was able to recall any date's day of the week, weather, and what he did, after he got hit in the head with a baseball) to the Davidson Academy in Reno. It even featured a quick shot of the cover of Genius Denied.

My general take-away is that the brain is a strange organ that we're only beginning to understand. We have a very hard time separating out how much of intelligence is nature or nurture (as evidenced by the "Center for Germinal Choice" bit on the offspring of the Nobel Prize winners sperm bank). But regardless of what leads to genius, we should nurture it where we find it. Did anyone else see the show? I'd love to hear your opinions.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Homeschooling, with a Full-Time Job

Today's Wall Street Journal has a fascinating piece from Sue Shellenbarger on parents who homeschool their children while holding down full-time jobs. While homeschooling and gifted education aren't related per se, my experience is that a number of parents of highly gifted children wind up giving it a go at some point. Perhaps the child is asynchronous, so whole grade acceleration isn't a great option, or the school doesn't allow subject matter acceleration, or the high school is great but the middle school isn't, so the family tries homeschooling for two years....

One of the barriers to parents making such a decision is that it's usually perceived as difficult to homeschool a child and make a living at the same time. Homeschooling has religious roots, and many of the families who choose it for those reasons believe in having one parent at home. But those who choose it for secular reasons may not -- or they may not have the resources to live on one income -- or both parents may love their work. So what do you do?

According to Sue Shellenbarger, you make it work. An entire academic day can be compressed into 2-4 hours (given all the down time kids have in school). So parents stagger shifts -- one homeschools from 8am to noon, for instance, then reports to work while the kids stay with a sitter. The other parent gets home at 5 or 6 and finishes up the lessons. Or homeschooling can be done in the evening (there is the question of what to do with the kids during the day -- some families hire a sitter/nanny who drives the kids to college classes or supervises online learning). A number of people who work full-time work at home to make it work. Shellenbarger profiles a woman named Shari Smith, who works 60 hours per week as a moderator for the website She homeschools her daughter as she works at home, putting young Rebekah on assignments, working for 30 minutes, checking in with Rebekah, going back to work, etc. (Rebekah notes that homeschooling "is pretty cool, because I can be in my pajamas at school.")

Online curricula make this all easier, as the parent doesn't have to be "on" quite as much while homeschooling. Shellenbarger even found one single mom, Amy Garber of Mechanicsville, VA, who makes it work. She goes to her employer's office in the morning while a sitter cares for her two kids. In the afternoon, she homeschools. After the kids go to bed, she works at her home office from 7:30pm until midnight.

Obviously, Garber's schedule doesn't leave her a lot of room for hobbies and such. It also requires an employer who's willing to commit to a flexible schedule as long as the work gets done. But her story shows that even being a single parent doesn't have to be a barrier, if the parent decides homeschooling is the best educational option.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Combining High School and College?

Many gifted high school kids already take some college classes as a way to accelerate their education (indeed, AP classes are supposed to be at the college level, and some 60% of high schools now offer them). Now a school district in California is proposing combining a high school with a junior college to allow kids to earn a high school diploma and a 2-year degree at the same time. While many gifted kids have their eyes on 4-year-degrees, I think this close relationship between a high school and a college would be a great model for other districts.

You can read about Chico, California's efforts here. You can also read some complaints about the project here.

This particular letter-writer doesn't like the idea because kids will be giving up "friends and school activities." But one of the big complaints about the last few years of high school for many bright kids is that they're a holding pattern. You're pretty much grown up, but not entirely, from a legal perspective. You're probably ready for college work, but that requires a real push from parents or the kid to make that happen (will you take a bus to a college? Walk? will the college say yes? who pays?) Combining a high school with a junior college not only allows bright kids to move ahead, it allows kids at the junior college to brush up on subjects they might be spotty on. It's an unfortunate truth that approximately 40% of community college students must enroll in some sort of remedial course. If such classes are already being offered at an attached high school, both the students and taxpayers could save some money.

Of course, many concepts sound better in theory than in practice, but I think this one's worth a try.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?

It is according to Newsweek, whose cover story last week made the oft-repeated point that kids are under too much pressure, too soon.

As I've pointed out before on this blog, I'm skeptical. Certainly, there are schools that make kids do too much pointless homework. And certainly some kids aren't ready for academic work at age five. But plenty are. They're jumping at the bit to start reading and doing fun things with numbers. That kindergarten is starting to nurture this curiosity -- rather than just involving nap and playground time -- is not a bad thing.

Indeed, I'm not sure about the point of kindergarten if it's not going to have an academic bent. In this day and age, most children have some experience dealing with other kids in social settings by age five -- through day care, private preschool, or public preschool programs like Head Start. Kids do arrive at kindergarten with a wide range of skills, which makes excellent teachers who can accommodate individual children's needs a necessity. But we shouldn't lament that now schools are saying it's OK -- and maybe even worth a little pushing -- for kids to start reading in kindergarten. If all grades were challenging kids more, we wouldn't have so many of the educational problems we do.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Terence Tao and nurturing gifted kids

Someone had posted a question about Terence Tao, recent winner of the Fields medal in mathematics, on another thread. While the "early ripe, early rot" cliche gets bandied about a lot, Tao's story is more of the "early bud, early bloom" variety. A child math prodigy, he grew up into an adult math sensation.

Much has been written about his schooling. One example from Miraca Gross (like Tao, an Australian) can be found at GT-Cybersource here. I've been doing some research on this topic as I'm supposed to write a column for USA Today on prodigies (once they get done with the Sept. 11 commemoration pieces).

Basically, Grace and Billy Tao realized very early that they had an exceptional son (all their children are, really!) He taught himself his letters and numbers by watching Sesame Street at age 2. He was doing high school math by age 7, and amused himself by working problems and reading books in his spare time. Keeping him in grade level classes was a non-starter. So the Taos directed his schooling, at one point having him study math only at home, not at school, so he wouldn't learn to hate it by being unchallenged. He took various other classes out of sequence as well, at one point doing humanities classes with kids in Year 8 (as the Ozzies call it), geography with kids in years 10 and 11, physics with year 12, etc.

The Taos also gave him plenty of time to become absorbed in his favorite subject but, as his father, Dr. Billy Tao, said in an email to me, never "pushed." They wanted Terence to learn to think for himself. So rather than telling him what he was doing wrong when he got frustrated by a tough problem, they asked him questions that would help him think about the problem in a different way. This was slower in the short run (and frustrating to an impatient little boy!) but in the long run helped him gain a deeper understanding of problem solving. And, as Dr. Tao pointed out, eventually there would come a time when he and his wife couldn't help anyway. So it was good to have Terence learn self-reliance from the beginning.

The results show. Only mathematicians who make major contributions to the field win the Fields prize. Talent has to be nurtured. As M.A. (Ken) Clement wrote in a biographical article of Terence Tao in Educational Studies in Mathematics in 1984, "I had to admire the efforts which his parents, Billy and Grace, had made on his behalf, despite the danger that they would be labeled 'pushy' by persons who did not understand.... In a society where hostility towards parents who regard their children as sufficiently bright to warrant extra-special educational consideration is endemic, it is refreshing to discover parents as courageous and realistic as Grace and Billy Tao."

In other words, when it comes to highly gifted kids, what many people mistake for pushy parenting is, in fact, good parenting of pushy kids.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A Boot Camp for Budding Virtuosos

Business Week has an article in the Aug 21/28 "Competition" issue on the Meadowmount School of Music in Westport, NY. This summer camp creates some of the top string players in the world by putting young people through a rigorous course of practicing (at least 5 hours a day) and performing -- maybe. As the article points out, only the top 60 or so students are allowed to perform, though 220 attend. Everyone else pays their tuition and yet is never deemed worthy to give a concert.

In this way, the school is more or less following the real world of professional classical music. One study found that there are 6 qualified musicians for any open position today in classical music. The last time the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington had an opening for a violinist (in October 2004, Business Week says), more than 320 folks applied and 124 auditioned. I see this myself in the choral field. I'm the president of an organization called the Young New Yorkers' Chorus. We had dozens of people apply for the music director position this year -- and had to choose among people who were all qualified for the job. YNYC runs a "Competition for Young Composers" each year, and also sees how many young musicians are competing for the scarce commissioning dollars out there.

All the students at Meadowmount want National Symphony Orchestra type jobs, and indeed many of them do eventually land such positions. The Business Week article tries to make the point that succeeding in the musical world (and by extension, the business world -- this is Business Week) is almost entirely about how much you practice. Raw talent is not the issue. If you want to be better, do more.

That may be partly true. But music students with more innate talent, in my experience, tend to love their craft more. It is hard to practice 5, 6, 7 hours a day or more if you don't love something. Being naturally good at something and loving it tend to go hand in hand -- which leads to more hours spent practicing, and practicing better.

So unlike Business Week, I wouldn't say that success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. I'd say it's more like 40-60.

But at 60%, the "perspiration" part is still the most major component. That's why in all fields, not just music, it's a crime to let gifted kids skate through without working hard. When a gifted kid is told to just wait for everyone to catch up in math class, she's denied the joy of learning to work hard, which makes her better at math, and more likely to succeed in the future.