Thursday, October 29, 2009

My Gifted Girl

Continuing with this week's gender theme, we're joined today by Audrey Borden, founder of She answers a few questions about her website:

GE: Why did you decide to start My Gifted Girl, and why did you choose to focus on the female half of the gifted population?

Borden: Once my oldest daughter was evaluated and I was told she was gifted, like many parents would, I started looking for resources and information in several books and online. Of course I saw all the exciting academic advantages about how great it is to be gifted. Then, even more prevalent in my research, were the challenges gifted girls and women face. Alarms went off in my head when I read about the tendency to "dumb down" to fit in, substance abuse, depression, promiscuity, and the list continues. I started thinking back on my life experiences, the amazing ones and the challenging times, and it was a revelation. I started learning more about myself and understanding why I felt the way I did as a kid, teenager, adult, mother, wife, and businesswoman. I felt like, "Oh now it all makes sense."

As I thought about all the good things in my life, the successes and what pulled me through tough times, one common thread was clear. Mentors! My Gifted Girl is really about the mentoring that can go on through our message boards and the outreach that will come as we grow.

I decided to first focus on gifted girls and women because I have two daughters, I am one, my mother is and so is my grandmother. It's sort of a female trait in our family! Through my research as a parent, I found that our group had a few extra challenges to overcome and also use to our advantage. I felt we needed a resource that can be better accessed by all whether it's a girl who is exploring careers, a mom who is trying to understand her daughter, or a woman who is looking to network.

We have future plans to launch My Gifted Guy. Stay tuned!

GE: How has "business" been since you launched?

Borden: We got off to a great start in July through involvement at the SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) Conference in Orlando, FL. My Gifted Girl was a sponsor and I felt validated by the reaction the participants had to our event booth. We are growing daily and that is exciting.

Members love our logo and so our logo items have been popular. The "g" represents pride in our talents and community.

I've learned that LinkedIn and Facebook are a large extension of our site with many members involved on our Fan Page too. I'm also enjoying my fellow gifted Twitter community. Between the My Gifted Girl site members, the supportive Fans on the My Gifted Girl Fan Page and our LinkedIn Group we've reached 700 girls, women, parents and educators in less than three months.

We have community forums for all students elementary to college. We have parent, teacher, and forums for all women. Our forums exist for us to support one another, network and share ideas.

GE: What has surprised you most about trying to build a community of gifted girls and women?

Borden: The "impostor syndrome" is real for many gifted women. I hear this common challenge from members and individuals I meet in the community. I felt this most intensely in my twenties after graduate school. I was working for a chemical company and amazed myself at how much I could learn, handle, be given, and accomplish. I couldn't understand sometimes why I'd be able to do all of this and that it shouldn't be real. Sometimes I didn't give myself enough credit. Self confidence is vital to our continued success as gifted women. I've learned more about myself as a gifted woman through this process. I have a lot of freedom in my life for my endeavors and my family. I want to share my gifts with others.

GE: Have you learned anything from My Gifted Girl that's been important in your own advocacy in Palm Beach?

Borden: My degree is in political science and I have a masters in public administration. I have learned that through my passion to help gifted girls and women, I get to be involved at a local level in advocacy. I am part of an enormous group effort in Palm Beach County to make changes in our new curriculum that has been implemented this '09-'10 school year. The new format is described as unified curriculum framework: scope and sequence with embedded assessments school district wide. The change was very poorly communicated and received. This is seen as a "one size fits all" curriculum. This type of educational program is not only detrimental to gifted students, it is negatively impacting students with learning challenges and English language challenges.

My goal is to use my experience and passions and be a national advocate for gifted education needs. I am always one to dig down to root cause problems. I'm learning so much and it's exciting.

GE: What's on the horizon for My Gifted Girl over the next year--any new features or projects?

Borden: We are in the process now of assessing where we will expand to serve more and be flexible to go where we are needed with our scope to meet the needs of our community. My goal is to conduct more gifted girls and women-focused seminars and conferences both face-to-face and via web. This week we had a teleconference about "Just Right Books" for Gifted Kids.

I would like to see corporations involved in supporting these girls and women and I would like input from members in our forums. I see more mentoring outreach in our future and even more advocacy!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Packaging Boyhood

While I've never been particularly girly, I'm sure that my childhood was shaped by my gender. That's something I'm thinking about now as I find myself raising a household of boys. What can I expect? What will be different? What influences boys and affects their character? We're still in the Elmo and Thomas the Train stage in my house, but I know that tough pop culture messages seep in more quickly than parents often realize.

So I was intrigued when I received a copy of Drs. Lyn Mikel Brown, Sharon Lamb and Mark Tappan's Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons From Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes. The book documents "the narrow version of boyhood that is sold to our sons"-- a version that involves violence, being aloof and non-emotional, not caring about academic achievement, and often disrespecting women, or at least not seeing them as partners in this adventure called life.

I had interviewed Lamb, a professor of mental health at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, about girls and media in the past because she previously co-authored a book called Packaging Girlhood. She agreed to join us here at Gifted Exchange for a short Q&A.

Gifted Exchange: You (well, 2 of 3 of you...) wrote Packaging Girlhood before Packaging Boyhood. Is it tougher to raise girls or boys these days, or is that the wrong question to be asking?

Lamb: Thanks for mentioning that it might be the wrong answer. We are so trying to get away from 'battle of the sexes' and even though you're not really going down that lane, it's close enough. It's hard to raise kids and I find raising boys has particular challenges related to the kinds of stuff being thrown at them about what it means to be a boy or man in this society.

GE: Why do media messages aimed at young children enforce such strict gender segregation? And given that society is becoming more tolerant, why is the "sissy" label still so potent?

Lab: I think that there are a couple of reasons for the segregation. It's easier to sell to a stereotype than to a bunch of unique kids... And think about who are the people creating most media? White guys is my guess... But we all live in a world where these stereotypes abound. It's not like the creators of media start from scratch; they look around with no concern about gender stereotypes and write what they see. If we could work with these producers to be alert to the stereotypes and the harmful effects, they might write/produce differently. Re: the sissy label. It's homophobia -- and it still exists. Plain and simple.

GE: While there are plenty of slackers (and violence), at least many of the TV shows targeted at boys show the main character taking action to solve problems -- something many of us wish there was more of in girls' entertainment. Why should parents still be cautious about these messages?

Lamb: What kind of action? Sure it's a problem in girls' media that they too often are spectators... and yes boys get action. And solve problems. But with what emotional involvement? Do they have to solve these alone? Do they get friends? Can they rely on their parents? Are they allowed moments of desperation and sadness? Is the solution a solution that gets revenge? Those are the things to consider.

GE: Little girls are the target of increasingly sexualized messages from marketers. Did your research find this is starting to happen to boys, too?

Lamb: I don't think as much. But boys are being sexualized to be the ones that reinforce, call for, and celebrate the sexualization of girls as a form of bonding or to enhance their image as players... The sexualization of boys comes in the form of their not having a range of options of ways of being sexual. They can only be gung ho 24/7 and never have complex romantic feelings that might lead them to back away at times rather than "go for it."

GE: What advice would you give parents of highly gifted boys-- who sometimes behave like children and sometimes like adults -- about talking about media messages? How do you start these conversations? Why should you have them?

Lamb: Gifted boys will be great at deconstructing media messages and sharing this with their friends. The best thing for them to know, though, is that they are not immune. They may think because they're smart that they are able to fight the stereotypes and media messages in ads and such. But research shows that when people think they are most immune, they are most vulnerable to picking up these messages. Watch and listen with him, and have good conversations about what he enjoys as well as what he sees. Tell him it's okay to enjoy this stuff some times, as long as you don't let your guard down in terms of the really damaging stuff. Lyn, Mark and I are fans of some really stupid TV shows... what can we say? When some damaging stuff comes on, we get on email and deconstruct it. Sometimes we even complain to the shows!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Dual enrollment

Many gifted young people are ready for college-level work before they officially graduate from high school. When they enroll in college courses at the same time they attend high school classes, this is called "dual enrollment" and, according to this recent article in the Omaha World-Herald, the practice is catching on. At least four districts in the Omaha area, the paper notes, are planning dual enrollment programs.

Of course, if this conjures up images of kids actually going to college campuses, that appears not to be the case in Omaha. Local colleges contract with high school teachers, approve a syllabus, and the teachers teach at the high school itself. So on some level, one could just call this more rigorous high school classes... which (unlike, for instance, AP classes) students have to pay for by the credit hour.

On the other hand, they don't have to pay much, and they do get college credit. Since college isn't cheap these days, this means students who enroll in local colleges can save some serious money on tuition (a point the particular reporter who wrote this piece seems mildly obsessed with). Even those who don't will probably benefit from more challenging coursework. So, on the whole, if this is catching on, I think it's a positive development.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A good idea out of India... and the NAEP

Two interesting news items on the education front. First, everyone had the headline yesterday about American school children's scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This nationally benchmarked test is equivalent from state to state and year to year, and so, unlike many state tests used for No Child Left Behind, it actually means something. And unfortunately, what it showed wasn't great. Despite the accountability movement and an increased emphasis on teaching basic reading and math skills, 4th grade math scores did not improve from 2007 to 2009. Eighth grade math scores were up slightly, which is good, but the improvements weren't large enough to call for celebrating in the streets. What is clear is that for all the complaints from some parents and teachers of kids being stressed out by constant testing, or the emphasis on math and reading crowding out the arts, music, recreation, etc., all of that is either an exaggeration, or if it's true, then it isn't working.

This, of course, raises the question of what does work to raise student achievement and build the skills necessary for later careers -- and brings me to an interesting idea coming out of India on the science front. According to this article from the Times of India, the National Council of Science Museums has decided to create 1,000 "school science centers" across the country. Sometimes located far from any science museum, these centers will involve professional scientists mentoring teachers on how to help students conduct experiments, and will try to emphasize the hands-on nature of science.

Of most interest to us at Gifted Exchange, though, according to the article, is that this push to train more students in scientific methods is not just about broadening access. It's about using this broad access to identify top talent for future nurturing. The chairman of NCSM said, "We will keep a database of gifted students and follow their career paths closely after school." Another person involved in the project said the students identified as scientifically adept by the school science centers would get an opportunity to "work at the grass-roots level and help the community in solving its problems."

I personally think this is a fascinating idea. We may be trying to upgrade American school children's skills these days, but for the most part, very little about the push to do more testing has involved using individual results to identify top talent and then do something with it. Wouldn't it be interesting if we replaced state-level NCLB tests with the NAEP (or an equivalent internationally benchmarked test) and then not only got aggregated results, but identified the top 1% of scorers on, say, the math section, for further talent development? Wouldn't it be great to do this in other subject areas, too?

For years, people have tried to do similar things with the out-of-level tests used in talent searches (e.g. the SAT for 7th and 8th graders), but as long time readers of Gifted Exchange know, the vast majority of schools do absolutely nothing with these results. Kids who can afford it can use their high SAT scores to go to summer camps at Northwestern, Johns Hopkins and elsewhere. But schools for the most part give kids a certificate or an awards ceremony (if that) and then stick them right back in their grade-level classes. No wonder we're worried about falling behind India on the math and science front.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Jay Mathews: School Rules Stifle Gifted Student

Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews penned a piece recently on the struggles of Drew Gamblin, a 16-year-old gifted Maryland student who wanted the "real" high school experience after being homeschooled and taking courses at a local community college. His family's attempts to get high school credit for his various courses (and to show that he's fulfilled certain requirements) will, I'm sure, sound familiar to Gifted Exchange readers who've tried to carve out exemptions from usual school policies. In defense of Howard High School, it is tough to have one student do things differently than everyone else. But as Mathews points out, the state of Maryland regularly allows students who don't pass their high school exams to do special projects in order to graduate. It's unclear why creating an exception for a young person who clearly can (and has!) done the required work is so much more difficult.

Have any readers fought City Hall, as it were, in this kind of situation, and won?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Is "a widening gap" always a problem?

One of the major goals of No Child Left Behind, and the accountability movement in general, is to "close the achievement gap" between more-advantaged and less-advantaged students. It currently remains true in this country that children from poor or minority backgrounds tend to score lower on standardized tests, and to graduate at lower rates than white or more affluent students. Many people worry that such a gap will translate into reduced opportunities for disadvantaged young people later on. And so, education policy makers closely watch test results to see if the achievement gap is narrowing.

Now, data from the Center for Education Policy, written about in Education Week, show that in most states and in most cases, the gap is getting smaller. But as we achieve this goal, I think it's important to keep in mind that a narrowing gap is not necessarily a good thing in and of itself.

First, the easiest way to narrow the gap is to have more advantaged students suddenly do worse. If the average disadvantaged 4th grader is performing at a 3rd grade level, and the average more-advantaged 4th grader is performing at a 5th grade level, and you knock this down to the 4th grade level, you would have cut the achievement gap in half. But this would hardly be cause for celebration (one hopes). Fortunately, the Center for Education Policy data do not show that happening. In most cases, more-advantaged students seem to be making some progress, with disadvantaged students making more rapid progress.

Interestingly, though, in the roughly quarter of analyzed cases in which the achievement gap is widening, it does not appear to be because disadvantaged students are falling behind. They are making some progress, but more advantaged students are making more progress. In other words, everyone is still doing better. As Jack Jennings, the Center for Education Policy's president put it, all boats are "rising with the tide."

This raises questions. In these cases, the achievement gap is clearly widening. This is generally viewed as a bad thing. And yet everyone is doing better -- which tends to sound like a good thing.

So which is it?

I guess it depends on whether you view higher education opportunities, and the job market as fully competitive or as benefiting from rising skill levels in general. I think it's a bit of both. Getting into Harvard is competitive; there are only so many slots. But a million more students could graduate from high school college ready, and I bet there would, soon enough, be higher education slots somewhere to absorb them. Any given job opportunity is, of course, competitive; no business has an unlimited payroll. But in general, the more students who have solid math, reasoning, reading and writing skills, the better off our economy will be as these young people make productivity gains for their employers or start their own businesses.

So, in general, I'm of the opinion that as long as everyone is doing better, the actual gap is not worth fixating upon. But we shall see if that's the headline that comes out of these results.

On a personal note, we're on a bit of a lighter blogging schedule here at Gifted Exchange as I'm busy with the newest addition to my family, Samuel Dwight Conway. He was born on September 24, was discharged from the hospital at a sturdy 8lbs 8oz and is winning all of us over quickly-- even big brother Jasper! I'm still always looking for ideas for posts, though, so please send them along. (If you'd like to see photos, and you're on Facebook, just send me a friend request!)