Friday, February 27, 2009

Where are they now? (Intel/Westinghouse)

In a little over a week I'll be going down to Washington to write about the winners of this year's Intel Science Talent Search. The modern version of what used to be called the Westinghouse Science Talent Search brings teenage finalists to DC every year, puts their independent research projects through rigorous judging, then awards the top winners big prizes.

I've spent the past year writing a weekly online column for Scientific American about former finalists in the Westinghouse called "Where Are They Now?" A few recent fun ones: Scott Fruhan, a med student/songwriter who actually plays in a band called Heath Street with a friend of mine; Andrew Heafitz, who got a patent for the model rocket camera he built for Westinghouse, and now works on building flying cars; and Jonathan Gershenzon, director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany. He grew up burying his nose in plants because he liked thinking about why they smelled how they smelled and now... he's studying very similar things.

If you haven't had a chance to check out the series, please do! It's a good look at what gifted young people have done and become when they grow up.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Is Genius Born or Learned?

We'll be returning to our Q&As with various folks in gifted education soon (I have several requests out). But in the meantime, I wanted to share an interesting article from Time Magazine (Feb 13): Is Genius Born, or Can it be Learned?

Reporter John Cloud tackles the genius wars going on between people who say that genius is a divine gift, and those who say it's all a matter of nurture and practice (like Malcolm Gladwell, whose book, Outliers, we've discussed here at Gifted Exchange).

It should come as no surprise that more measured heads believe that high achievement is a mix of both, a position taken in Dean Keith Simonton's new book, Genius 101. Gladwell, for instance, took the rather contrarian view that IQ means nothing. After all, the "Termites" (children participating in Lewis Terman's longitudinal study of high IQ young people) did not achieve in a particularly out-sized way compared to what you'd expect from a group of generally well-to-do kids raised by generally-well-educated parents. Geoff Colvin's book, Talent is Overrated, elaborates on the theory with references to three sisters whose parents chose, quite randomly, to make them into chess champions through hours and hours of practice. The idea? Anyone can be a genius if he works hard enough.

According to Cloud, "Simonton rather dismissively calls this the 'drudge theory.' He thinks the real story is more complicated: deliberate practice, he says, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for creating genius. For one thing, you need to be smart enough for practice to teach you something. In a 2002 study, Simonton showed that the average IQ of 64 eminent scientists was around 150, fully 50 points higher than the average IQ for the general population. And most of the variation in IQs (about 80%, according to Simonton) is explained by genetics."

I think most of us here would agree with this nuanced view. Success in many cerebral occupations does require a lot of innate intelligence, just as success in basketball almost always requires some amount of height, and success in modeling requires physical attractiveness. None of these qualities, alas, is evenly distributed in the population. Of course, innate intelligence by itself (or height, or beauty) won't get you too far, something even Julian Stanley, founder of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, said later in his life. As he once told Johns Hopkins magazine, “I used to sort of worship I.Q., but you can't major in I.Q. A high I.Q. and 50 cents can buy you a 50-cent cup of coffee. There's a lot to the work ethic.”

He's onto something, if overstating the case. It's the intersection of intelligence and hard work -- plus some luck and opportunity -- that makes success possible.

So what does this mean for gifted education? The problem is that currently, children with high IQs are identified, but then very little is done to help them develop their talents. We don't give them the opportunity to work hard. We don't give bright young children a chance to spend many many hours in deliberate practice, challenging them to the extent of their abilities. Instead, we give them a little pull-out here, a little award ceremony there, and some chastising to be happy with this because, hey, you're acing the grade level tests. Clearly we can do better (also a subject Cloud wrote about in the past, highlighting the Davidson Academy of Reno in a piece called "Are We Failing Our Geniuses?").

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Case for National Standards

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten had a thought-provoking piece in the Washington Post recently on "The Case for National Standards."

As Weingarten points out, she lives in Washington, DC. She can hop on the metro and get to Virginia and Maryland easily. Yet these states have quite different standards, as do the other 48 states in the union plus DC. Some states have high standards -- like Massachusetts and Minnesota, whose students rank near the top of the world in international comparisons. Others? It's more of a mixed bag. But for purposes of recognizing which states and schools are making adequate yearly progress for No Child Left Behind, the federal government treats these standards as equally valid -- as if (she suggests) the Pittsburgh Steelers had to move 10 yards to get a first down, and the Arizona Cardinals only had to move 7.

This is a point that has been made before, but what's interesting is that Weingarten, the head of a teachers union, is throwing her support behind it. More importantly, she says that the creation of national standards will not lead to teachers becoming robots, simply going through a prescribed curriculum. "Just as different pianists can look at the same music and bring to it unique interpretations and flourishes, various teachers working from a common standard should be able to do the same," she writes.

I have two thoughts about this. First, I recognize that what gifted students often need most in schools is flexibility. I would of course be concerned that national standards -- tied to accountability -- would lead to even more focus on lower achievers at the expense of higher achievers. A recent Fordham report found that NCLB had led to this very result, so NCLB with more teeth could do that even more.

BUT... I would never say that raising standards (if that's what national standards would do) would be a bad thing. Gifted kids, like all kids, need better schools -- ones that demand lots of their students and view themselves as places where kids should be challenged. On the whole, I'm sympathetic to Weingarten's ideas, and am curious what readers here think.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Gifted Education in the Time of Budget Cuts

This has been a year of dreary economic news. When incomes fall and vacant housing increases, that takes a chunk out of state and local tax revenue. Since many states are required by law to balance their budgets, that means that the money has to come from somewhere. Education being a big chunk of the average state budget, any program that is seen as optional (and some that aren't) will get a look.

And so, I'm starting to see headlines about gifted programs being restructured and the like. In Prince George's County, Maryland, school officials are looking at combining some programs and schools. If there is talk of restructuring in your district, please let me know, as I'm trying to make a list.

I have two thoughts about this. As long time readers of this blog know, I have no particular fondness for the "pull out" programs that are labeled by many districts as gifted education. Kids leave their normal classrooms for 90 minutes or so a week to do enrichment activities like studying bugs or Robin Hood, or the culture of Japan, or go on special field trips, etc. You do not have to be gifted to learn about these things, and such programs tend to breed resentment. Plus, while they give gifted kids a social outlet and are always fun, they don't give gifted kids what they really need -- which is academic work that challenges them to the extent of their abilities.

Of course, the problem is that when schools cut these pull-out programs, they tend not to implement the far more effective alternatives, which are either self-contained magnet gifted schools, if your district is big enough, or acceleration (subject matter or whole grade) or some combo of both. Acceleration is effective and costs absolutely nothing. It's also routinely disparaged in districts that should know better. I heard recently from the family of a 4-year-old who wanted to start kindergarten because he was already reading. No dice. If the family had wanted to hold the child back until he was 6, though, so he'd be bigger and better at sports and handwriting and all that good stuff, the district would have had no problem with that. Magnet gifted schools are no more expensive than other magnet schools if you keep the pupil teacher ratio at the same level as other district schools. Kids can be accelerated within such self-contained schools if necessary.

Unfortunately, neither of these ideas are being broadly implemented. It's a missed opportunity. Tough economic times can spur people to re-examine old ways of doing things, but it's never easy.

Friday, February 06, 2009

"I never, ever sit behind my desk"

Today in our series, we have a Q&A with Kirsten O'Neill, a high school English and art classroom teacher. She has worked with children of all levels and discusses differentiation and quality teaching with us.

GE: How does a good teacher deal with a wide range of abilities in a class?

O'Neill: My classrooms have always been all inclusive, so my students fall along all lines of the learning spectrum. A.D.D., A.D.H.D., Asperger's, dysgraphia, dyslexia, gifted, twice exceptional - I've worked with all of them. I have found that there are basic, key elements that lead to success when working with such diverse populations. First, one must understand what each of the learning disabilities and giftedness are. I make it a personal priority to educate myself on the characteristics, learning styles, possible challenges, and behavior traits that may be associated with each learning disability, as well as giftedness. I keep a binder, divided into sections, by my desk with the most up-to-date articles, research, and best practices. While this research does eat away a lot of personal time, I find the efforts well worth it.

Second, I use a classroom management system that works for all students, regardless of ability. I am a personal advocate and user of Love and Logic in the Classroom. I find that the methods in Love and Logic work, because students learn to accept the outcomes of their choices. I like the methods because students can sense that favoritism is not an issue.

Third, I expect my students to be actively engaged in the learning process at all times that they are in my class. I do not expect them all to be at or functioning on the same level, but I do expect them to learning and working. Because there is such a wide range, students may need to use tools to help them succeed. One student may have a headset on, listening to a book on tape instead of reading one. Another may be isolated in a quiet corner, working, due to sensory issues. One may be sitting on a floor or sprawled out while writing. Another may using a laptop to type notes. I have found that giving the students freedom to use whatever tools they need to be successful works. Distractions are rare and occur more at the beginning of the school year. The students learn quickly that distractions won't be tolerated and the source of the distraction will be removed, whether it is the student herself or her tool. I have had a few parents and administrators raise an eyebrow at such un-school like methods, but any objections are short lived, especially upon observation.

Last, I never, ever sit behind my desk. My seat is usually a depository for whatever supplies I bring in for the day. Working with such wide ranges also brings in a host of social and emotional levels and challenges, too. By staying active, being aware of classroom undercurrents, walking around, sitting with students, pulling students into circles for round-robin sessions, I try to head-off or eliminate any potential disruptions. I also try to get to know my students personally. I try to make time to talk with each student before or after class. I stand by the door and greet each one by name as they walk in the room. I have found that sometimes, it's the personal connection, much like a nurse's bedside care, that students respond to best.

GE: Describe how you differentiated a certain lesson or curriculum for kids with
varying needs.

O'Neill: This is a very technical question. I have to differentiate the majority of the time I teach. I start with a common theme or unit that all of my students will be studying at one time. I then break the units into categories, then break the categories into lesson plans and activities that can be easily adjusted to each student's learning ability. This provides flexibility, allowing me to individualize up or down the learning curve as needed, without too much re-write. Therefore, all of my students are engaged in learning the same unit/material; differentiation allows them to reach the lesson's objectives according to ability.

I will illustrate with actual lesson plans derived from my junior English class' study of Hamlet. Obviously, I started with my theme - Hamlet. Next, I broke down what I wanted my students to be responsible for collectively learning as we study the unit. I broke my original theme into six categories, not including the scheduled tests, quiz, or project, as follows: Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Era (pre-reading/background info), Act I, Act II,(Test Act I & II), Act III, Act IV (Test Act III & IV) Act V (Quiz), and End-unit Project.

The categories provided the framework for the lesson plans - and room for differentiation. Here's a sample of how it worked and where I used differentiation.

Act One, Lesson 1: Dramatics Personae
Objective: Students will identify key characters in the play and create a character sketch for each player. Students will use information gathered and learned in the pre-reading activities to help build their sketches.

Before students enter the classroom, the following will be posted on the board:

- What does the title, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, tell the Elizabethans who have come to see the play?

Today's Objective: Using only the Dramatis Personae, create a character sketch for each of the following key characters. (*Clue: What did you learn about the Elizabethans that might help you describe the characters?)

[List includes Claudius, Gertrude, Ghost of Hamlet's Father, Hamlet, Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz, etc.]

Start of Class: Five minute discussion dissecting the question.

At the end of the q & a session, spend another 5-10 minutes asking questions about what they recall about the Elizabethans.

Next: Students become engaged in creating their character sketches. (25min)

Ok - here is where the differentiation really occurs. Notice that I did not specify how the character sketch is to be completed; only that one must be done. The students are able to create individualized character sketches, without breaking into groups. At this time, students have their books out or are listening to their taped Hamlet. All of my students are actively creating a character sketch. My g/t students created complex outlines or wrote essays, with lots of detail, others used simple charts or wheels, and some of my dysgraphic students drew actual sketches.

Close: At the end of 25 min., students share what they created. Because my classes are small, I usually could get to everyone before the end of class.

End: Cliffhanger: How many predict that their character sketches are accurate? Take a tally and write the number on the board, to begin Act One, Lesson 2.

Grading: If one met the class objective, then one earned an A for that lesson.
Simple, fair, and everyone learned.

GE: What do you wish more teachers knew about gifted kids?

O'Neill: I could write an entire book on this very subject! If I could have one wish granted, I would wish that every teacher would receive education and training on teaching gifted students. That way, every teacher would have a basic understanding of what giftedness is and what it entails. Gifted children are not perfect; they are not perfect children with model behavior and perfect decorum. Gifted students are not perfect students, either. There may be one or two that fit into that unjust expectation, but by and large, that is not the case. Gifted students are messy, disorganized, perpetually late, both to class and with assignments; sometimes, they can even be failing and in danger of dropping out of school entirely! Gifted students do, at times, require direct instruction and sometimes, remedial instructions. These students deserve to be properly educated, challenged, and stimulated; they are not in class to act as a peer-tutor, classroom aide, student monitor, or run errands.

One can be gifted in one area and not another. One can be intellectually gifted or artistically gifted or both. Gifted students deserve as much attention and support in the classroom as lower-level students. Being gifted is not elitist; a gifted student needs support and challenges, especially because of the negative emotional and social impacts that gifted students endure simply for being who they are. Giftedness is not found among only wealthy students; giftedness cuts across race, cultures, and socio-economics. I wish that more teachers were trained to observe the traits of giftedness, so that more gifted students were identified at early ages.

I wish that teachers understood that students should never be punished or put down or singled out because they happen to be gifted. They should not be given extra classwork to make up for missed work during their pull-out programs. Does one give students extra work, if they are required to go to remedial reading instruction? If you wouldn't behave that way to a child with a disability, why behave that way towards one with great ability and potential? I wish teachers would realize that gifted students are not a threat; they may be smarter then the educator, but isn't that what we would wish of all our students?

I also wish that teachers would understand that gifted students are human. Some gifted students, especially older students, are under tremendous pressures. They are still children, and even gifted children may need to be schooled in manners and acceptable behaviors. Disruptive behavior is not an indicator of giftedness; disruptive behavior, in any student, is a cry for help. In gifted boys, acting out may mean that they are not being sufficiently challenged. Gifted girls, however, tend to withdraw, become shy and quiet, especially around peers. Just as rowdy boys may need to learn how to appropriately garner attention, shy girls need to be drawn out. Gifted children may be more sensitive, emotional, or reactive then other students. Most gifted children long to be what they consider normal - and they will learn to live and survive a lifetime accepting that they are not.

And last, I want to remind teachers that our gifted students deserve better then what we, as a nation, currently offer. I would encourage advocacy and teacher education. Gifted students have neither the support, funding, nor legal mandates that would provide them the services they need to succeed. I wish that teachers who have no experience or education on working with gifted students would be bold and admit it. I would rather a gifted student be removed at the teacher's request and sent to another classroom, with a teacher trained in working with the gifted, then have that student and their untrained teacher suffer through a miserable, wasted school year. A mind is too precious, and a terrible thing to waste.

GE: What do you wish more parents of gifted kids knew about teachers?

O'Neill: I wish that parents understood the tremendous pressures teachers are under to conform to their district's and state's standards. Sometimes, what a parent wishes his or her child were learning and what is approved differ. Teachers, even great ones, may find that they are bound by policy. Also, I wish parents knew that one may not be gifted, yet be able to teach gifted children. Sometimes, parents need to have a little faith and trust in the teacher's abilities. We are, after all, degreed professionals, who are required to attend so many training hours a year to maintain certification.

I wish that parents would listen to what the teacher is saying about their child; we actively observe students, day in and day out, and we can be a great ally and advocate for their gifted child. Sometimes, parents get so caught up in their child's giftedness, they fail to see the actual child. I wish parents knew that just because their child is gifted, it does not entitle them to bragging rights or unrealistic expectations.

Last, I wish parents knew how much personal time, research, and training goes into being an educator of gifted children. But, we still have a personal life, too, and our job can't always be an extension of our home life. I wish that parents knew, particularly those who teach gifted children, that teachers are a great resource and are approachable. Even if we disagree, teachers usually have the child's best interests at heart.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Television and kids

We will return to our regularly scheduled Q&As with various folks involved in gifted education soon. But in the meantime, a slight diversion: Television.

I have a column in today's USA TODAY about "The Great TV Disaster."

The news hook is the (originally scheduled) Feb 17, 2009 transition to digital TV signals. The transition could have, in theory, left some analog-only households in the dark. Our government has spent a lot of time and effort making sure no one suffers that great tragedy, but my point was that there is no policy interest in making sure people can watch TV. If anything, there's a major public interest in getting people to watch less. A major NIH report in December found that 30 years of research shows that, when it comes to kids, TV time is highly correlated with obesity, smoking, poor school outcomes, etc. These ills can cost society trillions over time.

Though fewer people study this, TV isn't good for adults either. It creates a time deficit for everything else. We watch 4.5 hours per day, on average, which means we don't exercise, work as much as we could, play with our kids as much as we could, etc. We do still sleep 8 hours, but we think we're getting less, possibly because other studies have found that a lot of evening screen time makes you feel less rested.

Anyway -- there are a lot of problems with TV time. Of course, there's also a lot of cool stuff on TV, too. We are in a big Elmo phase right now in my household. My 21-month-old son (yes, I know, under the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended age for viewing TV) is way into the furry red monster. I believe it started in earnest when he got his first hair cut a month ago. (That's the photo accompanying this post). The lady who cut his hair had him sit on a fire truck and watch an Elmo video. Next thing you know, he's saying "Elmo! Elmo!" and pointing at our TV very insistently. So we have the DVDs.

In theory, Elmo is educational. The reality is that children young enough to be in Elmo's target market don't pick up too much on the educational component. They just know that the character is appealing and, after a short while, familiar. Familiar things are cool in a scary world. So what do we do? We do our best to limit the screen time and make sure Jasper plays outside and with friends a lot too.

I'm curious what other people do. Is TV allowed in your house? What are the rules on show choice and timing? Are there shows that really are educational and smart enough to justify the time they take -- particularly for gifted kids?