Wednesday, October 29, 2008

It's NaNoWriMo Time! (Nurturing the Young Writer)

Writing a novel is a huge undertaking. Not only do you need to have a good story, you need the discipline to sit down and crank out the 50,000+ words necessary to deem a manuscript "book length."

The folks at the National Novel Writing Month Campaign, or NaNoWriMo for short, can't help you with the plot or characters. But they can help you with the discipline part. Every year, they challenge writers to pen a novel in the 30 days of November. That comes out to about 2,000 words a day (if you take Sundays and Thanksgiving off).

Now, if you've ever tried to write 2,000 words a day for a long period of time, you'll understand a certain reality of this pace: the quality of many of those words will be low. Not just a little low. We're talking way down low, sweet chariot low.

But you know what? That's OK. I can say from personal experience that getting the basic draft of a book down on paper is the tough part. Revising can be done in shorter spurts; chiseling away at a sculpture feels far more doable when you have raw material to chisel. Whenever I'm trying to write fiction, I force myself to spend a certain amount of time every day just writing the words out longhand. Then, by the time I type them, everything has taken more shape in my mind and it's already a second draft.

I'm trying to secure an interview with someone from the Young Writers Program part of NaNoWriMo, which so far has not happened. When it does, I'll post an update. But in the meantime, this is the gist of my post: I think NaNoWriMo is a great way to challenge a budding young writer.

Here's why. First, many gifted young people are prone to perfectionism. They worry whether every answer is right, or if the story is as good as it could be. At times, this can be paralyzing. The whole point of NaNoWriMo is that your draft is supposed to be atrocious. How can it not be? Almost no novels are polished to perfection in 30 days. Yours won't be either. The young writer need not show the content to anyone. All she has to do is verify the word count.

And here's the second part: As we've talked about before on this blog, people in general (and I suspect gifted, creative people in particular) are happiest when they throw themselves into something difficult, and then, finally, achieve it. You lose yourself in the flow. You stretch your brain. You stop worrying so much about the silliness of school and the institutions of our daily lives.

There is still time to register your young writer at the official NaNoWriMo site, or you can just do your own NaNoWriMo at home, writing down the word count every evening. Maybe you could do it alongside your child (ever thought you had a novel in you? If the stories I hear at cocktail parties are true, everyone does!) In the next few days, you can spend some time creating a plot outline, sketching out the characters, and so forth. Or you can just dive in on Saturday. As the official NaNoWriMo motto goes, no plot, no problem. It will come to you. And if you give yourself a month, you'll be amazed at what you can do.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Beam me up, Scotty

So the Davidson Institute kindly sends me round-ups of gifted education in the news each week. This past week, one of the more bizarre headlines in the package was from a publication called Planet Blacksburg, entitled "Virginia's Gifted Not So Grand." After reading the piece by Kaylie Brannan, I was puzzled that a serious, adult news outlet would run it, constructed as it is by throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks. But then I realized that Planet Blacksburg is actually a website that showcases Virginia Tech student freelancers, so perhaps it's best to use this essay as an excuse for a good Friday chuckle -- and a chance to count up the usual anti-gifted canards.

Technique #1: Bash "pushy parents," everyone's favorite target.

"'Our little Suzy is just so special...' How many eye-rolling moments have we all suffered when particularly proud parents begin boasting of their children's fine natural abilities? Most would say, probably too many."

Technique #2: Claim IQ tests are biased or ineffective.
"If we're using IQ tests, then it may be possible privileged children are scoring higher than disadvantaged ones."

Technique #3: Claim separating students by ability leads to horrible ostracizing and bullying.
"...Why should we have these programs anyway? Would not separating a child from his/her peers to be put into a 'gifted' program be a cause for ostracization or bullying? And wouldn't telling a child he or she is not gifted enough to be separated from 'the crowd' be sending a bad message from trusted adults and/or be cause for ostracization or reverse bullying from gifted students?"

Technique #4: Claim that incorrect socialization leads to lifelong problems.
"...A study published by the Society for the Study of Addiction, as well as research described on (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted), found that people deemed gifted often experience alcohol or drug abuse as a way of coping with their differences from peers."

Technique #5: Lament some lost golden era of a classroom "community" and champion the idea of gifted kids teaching others.
"...[we] could reestablish the idea of everyone appreciating each other's differences and working with each other instead of singling people out. Maybe kids like Suzy could share their uniqueness with others instead of being herded into a room with a handful of other special kids."

Technique #6: Hint that gifted kids are nerdy. It helps to mention Star Trek.
(On changing the requirements for entrance to gifted programs): "It would be like inviting a group of intelligent adults to hold hands, cling together and chant, 'Beam me up, Scotty!' and then, when it was not really working, deciding to choose participants more assiduously."

That's a lot of the usual suspects for a short op-ed, but I bet Gifted Exchange readers can come up with a few our pundit missed. Have at it!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

2e: Twice Exceptional Newsletter

Just a quick link to the folks at the 2e: Twice-Exceptional Newsletter blog. They provide a summary of news articles related to gifted students with disabilities, and also a link on their home page to Gifted Exchange (thanks!) Be sure to check them out.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Are Too Many People Going to College?

It's been a while since we've had a good Charles Murray discussion here on Gifted Exchange, but since we're debating the use of IQ tests in designating children as gifted, I figure now is the time. Murray, co-author of the highly controversial book The Bell Curve, has a new book out called “Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality." An excerpt ran as part of a cover package in September's American. That essay was called "Are Too Many People Going to College?" (Hopefully we will get a chance to discuss the other "simple truths" at a later point).

The gist of Murray's argument is this: Large percentages of American high school graduates are now attempting to earn 4-year degrees. Some reformers want every student to attempt college. But in the process of expanding access to college, educators and administrators have watered much of it down, to the point where a BA is now merely a signal to employers that the person has some level of motivation and competence. Hence, requiring a BA for a job is an easy way to do a first cut on resumes. As employers require degrees for occupations that don't really require degrees, this increases the pressure on ever more students to go to college. The result is an expensive waste of time for most people.

For starters, big chunks of people are not going to enjoy a liberal arts education -- not because they're stupid but because it's not where their interests lie. Everyone needs a survey of the liberal arts (and certain cultural knowledge), but this should be covered in K-12. Many very good occupations -- electrician, skilled craftsman, etc. -- are better learned in trade schools, community colleges, or through on-the-job apprenticeships. While it appears that people with BAs earn more than people without them, Murray notes that this is a bell curve. A very good electrician earns more than he would if he became a mediocre white collar employee. And if he likes working with his hands or, say, accomplishing something each day, he will definitely enjoy life more than he would filing expense reports. It's only our own snobbishness that we treat, oh, say "Joe the Plumber" as less worthy because he does skilled labor rather than sending silly emails and crunching spreadsheets all day. And frankly, the spreadsheet cruncher doesn't need a BA either.

Second, even though college is watered down, a BA is still not achievable for a great number of people. Large numbers of people drop out. That wouldn't be a problem, except that when we expect everyone to go to college, not going to college marks someone as a failure from the start. That makes class divisions even worse in our society.

Here's Murray's take:

"Imagine that America had no system of postsecondary education and you were made a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. Ask yourself what you would think if one of your colleagues submitted this proposal: First, we will set up a common goal for every young person that represents educational success. We will call it a B.A. We will then make it difficult or impossible for most people to achieve this goal. For those who can, achieving the goal will take four years no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward for reaching the goal that often has little to do with the content of what has been learned. We will lure large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability or motivation to try to achieve the goal and then fail. We will then stigmatize everyone who fails to achieve it."

I think Murray's got an interesting idea here -- that our system of higher education has become pretty problematic. Plenty of people managed to get good jobs with high school diplomas in the past. Not just mindless assembly-line kinds of jobs that have long been outsourced. I mean jobs like, say, journalist. But, of course, many high schools now show a total lack of rigor. Students graduate without knowing much about economics, or our system of government, or how to express themselves clearly. So it's been left to college to fill in those gaps. In some occupations, I'm even hearing that a master's degree has become the equivalent of a bachelor's degree. Now that many people have a BA, you need a better signal. Where does this end?

As societies with any sort of inflation have discovered, it's hard to reverse these expectations. Individuals who choose not to go to college face a hard battle in a tough job market. And even if they don't -- Alaska "First Dude" Todd Palin, for instance, made about $100,000 a year in his blue collar work without a college degree -- these people often face contempt from those who did go to college.

Two things could reverse the degree inflation. The first -- an actual, rigorous, high school education system and a top-notch professional training and apprenticeship system -- will be a long and unsure road. The second, unfortunately, might be the declining student loan market. If it becomes harder to get loans for a 4-year degree, fewer people may attempt it. If Murray is right, if this pushes smart people to do jobs they are more suited for, this may actually be a net benefit for many people and society in general -- a tiny silver lining of the credit crunch.

What do you think? Are too many people going to college? Has college become what high school used to be?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Does Giftedness Wax and Wane?

Education Week has a fascinating article up on their website titled "Gifted Label Said to Miss Dynamic Nature of Talent." It requires a free registration to read, but I hope a few Gifted Exchange readers will take the time to do so, because I'd really like to hear your take on this one.

The article is basically a preview of a new book being released by the American Psychological Association called "The Development of Giftedness and Talent Across the Life Span." In this book, various researchers comment on giftedness at different stages, with an emphasis on the idea that talent can wax and wane.

“The essence of this book, and the reason I found it so exciting, is that it is moving away from this idea of talent as something that some people have and some people don’t. It’s showing talent as something developable,” Carol S. Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the author of the book's forward told EdWeek. Dweck is, of course, the researcher who's made a name for herself by showing that praising for effort, rather than ability, inspires children to try hard things and risk failing. Children praised for being "smart" don't want to challenge that assumption, and hence don't want to try things that make them seem not smart.

The book will talk about giftedness in various areas (spatial understanding, music, art) and the problems with the way school gifted programs tend to address the issue. "If schools were to view giftedness as more of a developmental process than an immutable attribute, they would likely need to test children more often. And children might move in and out of “gifted” programs more frequently, based on their individual needs," the article notes. "Instead, many schools test children once for academic advancement, and students tend to retain that classification for the rest of their school careers."

It's all well and good -- we all know that talent, not nurtured, can certainly fade. And hard work is probably the deciding factor between which, of two talented children, will wind up succeeding as adults. Furthermore, the whole pull-out enrichment concept is -- as we've talked about many times on this blog -- absolutely ridiculous. There is no reason you need to be gifted to spend 90 minutes a week learning about bugs, or Robin Hood, or the culture of Japan, or whatever. All kids could benefit from these programs. What gifted kids really need is advanced, accelerated academic work. It at least sounds like the contributing researchers are pushing that idea.

But... I'm worried about this book. I'm worried because of this explanation of the thesis near the top of the article: "Academic talents can wax and wane, the latest thinking goes, meaning that a child who clearly outpaces his or her peers academically at age 8 can end up solidly in the middle of the pack by the end of high school. Instead of being innate and immutable, giftedness can be nurtured and even taught."

If acceleration were widespread and uncontroversial, if students were grouped by ability and schools were committed to meeting gifted kids' needs, this statement, that academic talents can wax and wane would be fine. True enough. I used to be sharper on, say, math than I am now. We all know some kids who were identified as gifted who wind up having trouble later for a variety of reasons.

But the problem is, we don't live in that world where intellectual talent in children is seen as a precious resource and is nurtured appropriately. We live in a world where school systems seek out any reason to not allow acceleration, seek out any reason to mainstream gifted kids, do heterogeneous classroom groupings and the like. The last thing we need is a group of gifted advocates trying to make headlines by claiming that yes, kids really do all even out by third grade (the argument that's used to avoid serving younger gifted kids) or that giftedness can be taught, and hence we don't need gifted programs. See, all kids can be gifted! Gifted kids are probably just hot-housed by their parents and once professional teachers get involved nurturing other kids' gifts (and neglecting the gifted, who will fend for themselves) it will all get straightened out.

I hope I am wrong about this, and that the book calls for a massive upgrade in how our country nurtures its brightest kids. But trust me, that won't be the headline.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Gifted Programs and Standardized Tests

Once upon a time there was a fairly clear method of selecting students for gifted programs. The child in question took an IQ test, and if the score was over 130, in you go. This method -- and IQ testing in general -- has fallen out of favor over the years. Now many programs use a variety of measures from grade level tests to school work to portfolios and teacher recommendations for admission. Some people consider this more "fair" than relying on one test. But, as a story out of Duxbury, Massachusetts, shows, this is not always the case.

The Boston Globe ran a story recently that "Duxbury's new program for 'gifted' children puts parents in uproar." Apparently, 14 3rd-5th graders were selected for the program, which was developed quietly. The children were chosen based on their matching "a chart of behavior traits associated with gifted children." Several families who had been agitating for more challenge for their children, who scored high on tests, discovered that their children were not included in the Gang of 14. This led to much finger-pointing and the like. Indeed, "At a forum on the program, held the first week of school, 150 parents peppered school officials with questions and accusations," the article notes. That's a lot more parents than kids in the program, suggesting that many more people think they have gifted kids than the school system decided had them. "Some even think that the kids selected for the program were chosen because their parents had 'connections' at the school," the reporter writes.

Of course, there's a certain element that's humorous about all this. If 14 children had been selected for a program called "remedial learning" or even something totally neutral, no one would be up in arms. It's just the reality of the gifted label. If someone is going to be labeled as "smart" then other people want their kids in too. But when you go down a road of choosing kids for programs based on behavioral charts and other extremely subjective measures, you do wind up in a gray area.

The beauty of IQ tests is that everyone takes the same test, and everyone is judged on the same scale. I've been writing profiles, for the past several months, of former finalists in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search for Scientific American. In the past, Westinghouse gave applicants a test which functioned almost like an IQ screen in order to choose their finalists (now, the Intel search is almost entirely based on project results). The profile running this week is of a woman named Sister Julia Mary Deiters (born Rosemary Deiters; she later became a member of the Sisters of Charity) who grew up in Ohio in the 1930s and 1940s. No one from her school had been a Westinghouse finalist before, and she certainly didn't have much science background. Her parents hadn't gone past 8th grade. But on a standardized test, she stood out with the best-trained kids in the country.

When we lose sight of that fundamental fairness, we miss quite a bit. Perhaps IQ tests shouldn't be the only measure of giftedness. But I tend to think they can play a fairly large role.

Friday, October 10, 2008

"A Nerdy Boy in Mathematics"

The New York Times today has a fascinating write-up of a study of female participants in the International Math Olympiad and other high-level contests. The article, "Math skills suffer in U.S., study finds" makes the point that almost all the U.S. female participants in these contests are either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants from countries where mathematics ability is more broadly prized.

As one top young mathematician noted, in U.S. schools, there is an image of being "a nerdy boy in mathematics." This is, for the most part, an undesirable image. No one wants to be a nerd, and no one wants to date a nerd. And so, given that math ability is undesirable, only those who care very little about the social order of things are willing to showcase their abilities in the field. The fact that US young women are achieving less in these fields is less about innate ability, and more about a lack of cultivation of young talent. After all, other countries have managed to find far greater numbers of promising young female mathematicians to send to international contests. Not as many young women as young men, certainly, but not in the lopsided proportions you see in the U.S.

I find this fascinating because, as we've written about here before on Gifted Exchange, young men tend to outscore young women at top levels on math tests here in the U.S. But this difference is less pronounced (or absent) among Asian American young people. It suggests that there is some cultural element to the difference. We are all assumed to be relatively familiar with baseball. We aren't all assumed to be relatively familiar with math. Maybe if we were, it would be seen as less of a subject for "nerdy" boys.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Where should gifted students' test scores be counted?

It's no secret that gifted kids tend to score very high on grade level standardized tests. It's also no secret in this era of No Child Left Behind that schools like to include gifted students' scores in their averages!

This is a problem for two reasons. First, it creates an incentive against specialized magnet programs, since these pull gifted kids out of their home schools. These kids' high test scores (which they might have achieved at any school) are now counted to the magnet school, rather than the home school. It also creates an incentive against acceleration. If a 9-year-old scores at the 99th percentile on 4th and 5th grade tests, but at the 75th on 6th grade tests, 6th grade is probably the right place for her. But the school would much prefer to have a 99 than a 75 included in its average.

So I was intrigued to see a plan announced by the East Baton Rouge Parish in Louisiana to "re-route" gifted kids' test scores. According to this article from the Associated Press, this plan will "help schools' performance by counting test scores from gifted students who live nearby but attend magnet programs and schools elsewhere."

Needless to say, various watchdog groups have cried foul. Per the article, the State Department of Education spokeswoman Rene Greer said, "The department is extremely concerned and plans to investigate" ways to address it.

A group called the Council for a Better Louisiana published a commentary saying that re-routing "should be called deception," and Stephanie Desselle, a senior vice president with the group, told the AP that "School accountability is not about fooling around with scores to make things look better than they are...The heart of the accountability system is to tell us how each school is doing."

But...while it may be a bit deceptive, it does remove the incentives principles currently have to oppose magnet programs for gifted students. I've become more and more convinced that we'd do better off with a uniform national test like the NAEP that is not so targeted to one grade level. Then you should compare scores of all 10-year-olds in your school, rather than all 4th graders. It's a subtle difference, but it removes the other disincentive -- that schools have toward acceleration. Even if you use grade level tests, they should be re-branded as "age-level" tests. A 9-year-old who's in 6th grade can sit for the 9-year-old test. It will be a waste of a day for him, but better than waste a whole year in 4th grade, which is what some educators currently like to see happen.

I'm curious to know what readers think about re-routing scores, or doing them by age rather than grade, or using a national test that allows for higher out-of-level scores. Do any of your districts allow re-routing?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


I've spent the past week or so interviewing people somehow connected to the Intel Science Talent Search, the Davidson Fellowships and other competitions. What's fascinating to me is how these high-profile, big money contests, and the rising competitiveness of college admissions, are spawning high school research programs. These programs give students the time, support, and skills necessary to do graduate level science research. (For one example see the Baltimore Ingenuity Project here). Students then enter their results in these contests.

Obviously, recognition is a big part of the lure. Even before students won tens of thousands of dollars in these competitions, lots of people entered (the old Westinghouse Science Talent Search prizes were quite a bit smaller than the current levels). But money is part of it. What gets rewarded gets done.

Is that bribing? Maybe. But I prefer to think of it as more of a retroactive patronage type concept.

You can't go visit museums without hearing about the old patron systems in Renaissance Italy. The Medicis had their favorite artists, as did the popes. They gave these artists commissions, supported them financially, and hence inspired some of the greatest works in western art. In the purest form of patronage, patrons give support to creative types not in recognition of some particular work (as the Intel competition does), but because you expect there will be future great work (though the two are always intertwined; people are judged on their portfolios).

I've become involved with this on a very small scale of late. My choir, the Young New Yorkers' Chorus, sponsors an annual Competition for Young Composers. We solicit applications from all over the country. People submit previously composed choral works. We then choose three composers we think can do a great job and commission new works from them. We premiere these works in New York each spring, and give cash prizes (for the entry form, see here).

We've realized that it doesn't take much money to create great works of art. We also realize that we can fill an important niche. Student composers write works for classes. "Grown up" composers are more established in their careers and often have contracts with music publishers and big choruses or orchestras. But younger artists are trying to take risks, and often have less of an established market. They are trying to get on the map. They need patronage for that space between academics and the commercial market.

As a plus for us, when these composers hit it big (and they will) we will be known as the chorus that premiered their early works.

I've been trying to think about how good patronage programs would work in other fields. The MacArthur grants are obviously a good example -- $500,000 to do whatever you'd like. There are prizes for young economists doing good work early in their careers. Certain gallery owners nurture young artists. But it's probably an aspect of talent development that could use more cash, attention, and creativity.