Thursday, November 30, 2006

College Admission "Madness"

It's college admissions season again (with deadlines approaching!) That means we're in for another round of stories on how the college admissions process has become ever more insane. I always roll my eyes a little at these stories, because they've been repeated every year for the past decade. I remember a New York Times magazine cover story back in spring 1996 that followed four high-achieving seniors at a large high school who applied to Harvard. Only one got in. Harvard had an especially low admission rate that year because the SAT had been recentered, which raised most students' scores. Suddenly, people who hadn't been in the top buckets for colleges were, and decided to give it a whirl. Now, in 2006, we're getting stories like $15k to Get into Harvard: How to Stop the Madness about a young lady who's pondering spending $4500 to go volunteer in Thailand because it will look good on her applications.

The net result of all this furor is not positive. When Money/CNN runs a story talking about how one family is spending $15,000 to help get their kid into college, families who can't spend that kind of money start thinking maybe their child isn't college material. In reality, the vast majority of college-bound students wind up at one of their top choice schools. Most colleges actually admit most of their applicants.

The stories also mask another reality. Guess what? A lot of highly gifted kids actually enjoy the college application process (even as they fret about the very public nature of the outcome). Here's why:

1. College admissions is a Big Project involving multiple components that aren't simply handed to you in school. Essays, extra-curricular activities... Too many school assignments are one-off little projects. It's fun and mind-stretching to labor toward a big goal, where you have to figure out how all the pieces work together.
2. It's a Big Project with an obvious purpose. Why did I get graded on the coloring skills I used to shade in a map of all the former Soviet Socialist Republics in school once? I have no idea. But I knew exactly why I was putting a lot of effort into getting into a good college.
3. I learned about platform building. College counselors often talk about kids finding a 'hook' -- something that makes them stand out. What makes me a compelling candidate? What's my "story"? This is 100% the same question you need to ask when you're trying to sell a book proposal. It's a question you need to ask for any award, for landing some jobs, etc. It's also a question you rarely ask in school before the college application process.
4. College applications pit you against the best kids in the whole country (and world, sometimes). Gifted kids get a little bored being pitted against the same 2 other kids they've been in programs with since 3rd grade. New competition helps you sharpen the saw.

Are any families who read this blog going through the process right now? I'm curious if you find it stressful... or fun.

Monday, November 27, 2006

On Raising Mr. Smartypants -- A Parent's Perspective

I really appreciate all the blog topic suggestions Gifted Exchange readers have been sending me. I will try to get to all of them in the next few weeks, and please keep them coming! I wanted to share one fun and thought-provoking article that came over the transom from Kim Moldofsky, a regular reader of this blog. She wrote an essay for the Chicago Parent about "Mr. Smartypants," her son. You can read the essay here.

As she writes, on one hand, it's thrilling to have a six year old who likes to talk about Big Ideas from his booster seat. On the other hand, it's almost impossible to find a good school situation for such a child. Kim writes about her sadness as her first grader's essays devolved from his theories of the universe to "I like cars." Too often, gifted kids learn in school that curiosity only makes you miserable.

The essay still has its light moments, though. A favorite line: "I thank goodness I didn't breastfeed because those extra IQ points he might have gained would have put me over the edge. He already has so many ideas that seem way too big for his little head and questions that are too hard to answer. Even my husband, a veritable walking encyclopedia, gets exasperated at times. 'I can handle questions about sex, but this stuff about quantum physics is really awkward to address,' he says as he again attempts to hide our copy of Einstein for Beginners." I'm sure many readers will be able to relate.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom

One of the critiques levied against this blog when I asked a few months ago was that I'm impractical. I tend to have as utopian a vision of what gifted education should be as many educators who don't like gifted education have about schooling in general. In my world, all highly gifted kids should be in self-contained classes -- or even schools! -- that challenge them to the extent of their abilities in an environment with their intellectual peers.

Obviously, few gifted kids experience this. Most people, alas, are still required to live in the real world. The vast majority of gifted kids still attend regular classes in regular schools. They may be in the top math or reading group, but most of the day still features grade 3 curriculum if you're 8 in September, grade 4 if you're 9, and so on. Many parents and schools, for whatever reasons, don't feel comfortable with whole grade acceleration. Many parents don't feel they can homeschool effectively. So how can schools maximize outcomes for gifted kids in the regular classroom?

I've been reading the "orange bible" on the subject, Susan Winebrinner's "Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom." A perpetual best-seller among teachers, this book describes multiple ways of differentiating heterogeneous classrooms. It would make a great holiday gift for any educator.

One of my favorite suggestions is to allow kids to "buy back time" from the various lesson plans. If kids can show they already know how to do the most difficult work in any given unit at an 80% competence, they can buy the time to work on their own projects. The teacher should help the child set goals for this individual project (such as writing a book -- one chapter this week, one the next, etc., or working on geometry, covering spheres this week, angles the next, etc.) Then the kid keeps track of progress toward the goal (a way of learning self-discipline, by the way). This option is available to any kid in the classroom, but tends to work best for gifted kids. This eliminates the kid sitting around waiting for everyone to finish up. She already has permission to go play to her strengths in her "choice time" (not "free time").

Of course, I can't help remembering, reading this book, that systems are only as good as how they work when the average person implements them. Any teacher who can implement all the suggestions in the book -- who designs individual plans for the kids in her class, encourages them to write books or do other big projects and tracks progress toward a goal, and is willing to squeeze the curriculum into an hour a day for a kid if that's all she needs -- is already an outstanding, energetic teacher. Any student would be lucky to land in that classroom, gifted or not!

It's easier to teach roughly the same thing to everyone in a class. The beauty of ability grouping (or "readiness grouping" as we called it in the last post) is that it fails better. I wish all teachers were energetic and excellent, but a self-contained gifted class will still meet these students' needs to some extent even if the teacher is not so energetic or excellent. Heterogeneous classrooms led by mediocre teachers will not.

But anyway, I'm curious what other methods your children's teachers have used to differentiate within a regular classroom.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Readiness v. Ability

Blog reader Robin, the mom of a highly gifted sixth grader, sent me this link to the Duke Gifted Letter the other day. This particular issue has a two expert back-and-forth about abilty grouping.

While the evidence from various studies shows that ability grouping is the best option for gifted kids (kids learn best when they're challenged in an environment with their intellectual peers) it remains somewhat controversial. Schools usually tolerate different math groups, for instance, but won't differentiate for most other subjects until high school.

Anyway, one of the experts interviewed for the Duke letter said that "readiness" was a much more potent word than "ability." Reading into her words, I think she means that ability implies something set and unchanging -- it's a value judgement. But readiness is a simple statement of the facts. Some kids are ready for more advanced reading, and some aren't ready yet. That doesn't mean they won't ever be ready. They just aren't right now. "Readiness grouping" implies a correct match, at a particular point in time, for a kid's needs.

So I think it's a great phrase, one gifted advocates should consider using instead of "ability grouping." I'm curious what everyone else thinks.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

On Being "Well-Adjusted"

Please keep posting on the parenting books thread -- I really appreciate it! One of the comments, though, had me thinking about the concept of gifted kids being "well-adjusted," so I thought I'd do a separate post on the topic. All parents want this for their children -- for them to have a happy social life, be resilient, etc. Unfortunately, I think this is more possible for gifted children once they grow up than it is for them when they are children. That's because adults can set up their lives in ways that make them happy, fulfilled, etc. Children don't have this option -- mostly because that's part of being a kid.

For instance, I'm pretty happy with my life right now. What a reason to be grateful, right? I work from home, so my desk is as messy and disorganized as I wish. It's got bits and pieces of different projects scattered everywhere. No one let me get away with that in school! I work on projects when I want to work on them. And I choose my own projects. So naturally I gravitate towards ones I find fascinating. I always had a bit of trouble sitting still; fortunately, by running my own small business, I rarely get stuck in meetings that don't directly pertain to me. I have friends of all different ages, and I rarely spend too much time with people who aren't smart or inquisitive. Because the bulk of my social interactions are with such people, I can handle other interactions with a lot more patience than I had in 8th grade when the only conversation going on at the lunch table was about the mall. Nothing about my life looks much like the average kid's class in school, where you interact only with people your age, and only do assignments someone else tells you to do. So no wonder I'm much more relaxed and well-adjusted than I was as a kid!

I've been thinking about how some of these adult choices could have been put in place when I was a kid -- or if that's even possible. Some parts are. For starters, it's more possible for gifted kids to be well-adjusted in self-contained gifted classes than in mixed-ability classes. In mixed-ability classes, you are simply the "smart one," while in gifted classes, other sides of your personality can come out. Voila! You are magically more well-rounded and well-adjusted, just by changing classes. Gifted kids also magically become more well-adjusted when they're allowed to pursue their favorite topics in depth, and when they're challenged. Suddenly, your brain is more engaged. Smart people like it when their brains are engaged. Life is more fun!

But I do understand that it would be pretty hard to run a school where you come and go as you please, do all fascinating work and only interact with people you like. Maybe there are benefits that come with adulthood. I guess this is something to tell a gifted kid who's getting frustrated with school and the rules of being a kid. For all we romanticize childhood in our culture, if you've got an adult brain in a kid's body, it's often better to actually be an adult. So hang on... it'll get better as you get older.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Best Books on Parenting Gifted Kids?

Genius Denied was largely a policy book (about the sorry state of gifted education in this country). Occasionally, people ask me about good resources that focus more specifically on parenting gifted kids. I don't have a favorite book to recommend, so I'm curious if readers of this blog do. Have you found any handbook to be particularly handy? Have any specifically addressed the issue of talent development (helping your child navigate the transition from potential to accomplishment)? What would you like to see in a handbook on raising gifted kids? Thanks!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Specialized High Schools in the Humanities

About a dozen states across the country have created specialized residential high schools for gifted students (usually covering junior and senior years). Most focus on math and science. I've written about my own school, the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and the Humanities, which also focuses on students with gifts for literature, history, religion and arts studies. At times I've wondered why none of the other schools made it clear that students with humanities gifts needed differentiation as well. I'm happy to report, however, that I was wrong. Texas has such a school as well.

The Texas Academy of Leadership in the Humanities, like the Texas Academy of Math and Science, offers students the opportunity to earn college credit as they also complete advanced high school course work during their junior and senior years. You can visit the school's website here.

I still think the Indiana Academy model is the best, since it combines top programs in math, science and the humanities on one campus. Where should a Texas young person with profound gifts in math and writing enroll? While I don't mind the idea of kids getting to specialize in high school, this seems like a rather arbitrary distinction.

But I'm glad that Texas recognizes that not all gifted kids express their gifts through being, say, math whizzes. I've always been amazed how little differentiation there is in humanities coursework in most schools. Granted, creative assignments (such as writing a paper) can differentiate themselves. But some students in a given grade may be able to focus on the deeper philosophical meanings behind a work, while some are still having trouble understanding the vocabulary words. Forcing all children to follow the exact same lesson plan bores the former and confuses the latter.

I've certainly experienced this in my own life. I know I'm a much better writer than I am a mathematician. Yet I had differentiated math curriculum since fourth grade. Only as a tenth grader did I wind up with an independent study in literature/writing (and that was because I'd enrolled in too "easy" a level of English to start with -- because that was the only course that kept my schedule open enough for me to take a math class with children two years older than me!). While I had a few quite good English teachers along the way -- interspersed with some rather wretched ones -- specialized, accelerated classes simply weren't as high a priority in this subject.

That's too bad, because children with gifts in the humanities, no less than those with gifts in math and science, need to have their creativity honed and trained. They need to be pushed to think deeper, to draw more insightful conclusions. While I wish Texas had combined its schools from the get-go, I'm happy that the Lone Star State recognizes that advances in our society may someday come from right brain types as well.

Friday, November 03, 2006

How "Equality" Hurt Bronx Kids

As many of you know, I live in New York City, which has the best and the worst in terms of public schools. High schools like Stuyvesant, a magnet school for gifted kids from all over New York, are as good as schools get in this country. On the other hand, many students come to Stuyvesant from the city's private elementary and middle schools, because the public options in the early grades are often wretched. That's not always the case. A city that created Stuyvesant certainly doesn't have a blanket hostility to gifted programs, and some isolated pockets of excellence exist. But unfortunately, all it takes is one bad district leader to plow these under in a misguided pursuit of "equality."

That's exactly what's happened in the Bronx. While the Bronx is one of the toughest boroughs in the city, it's got some rather middle-class sections up near the border with Westchester. Many parents of gifted kids in these neighborhoods -- and parents of bright kids in the grittier urban areas to the south -- kept their children in the public schools because of available gifted options. Then a few years ago, a superintendent for the district, Irma Zardoya, set about gutting them. You can read the tale and the aftermath in this article in the New York Sun. It's a rather chilling account of what ideology can do to schools.

As the Davidsons and I wrote in Genius Denied, destroying urban schools' gifted programs hurts all kids, and gifted kids especially -- but it does not hurt all gifted kids equally. The wealthier Bronx parents chose to move across the county line out of city limits. Or they paid for private school. Less well-off kids? They're stuck with the lousier schools they get as a result. Indeed, Bronx test scores have been so-so, and the number of applicants admitted to schools like Stuyvesant is way down. How did that help anyone?