Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Asperger's and unique gifts

USA Today ran a feature piece recently on professional surfer Clay Marzo, who has Asperger's syndrome. It's a fascinating profile of an incredibly physically and artistically gifted young man. While having difficulty with social interactions, media interviews and the like, he can be incredibly focused in the water, logging more hours surfing than many of his competitors, getting better -- rather than more tired -- as the day goes on. He scores fabulously in competitions when he wants to, but sometimes doesn't because he doesn't particularly want to play by the same rules as his competitors. Rather than waiting for waves that make it easy to show off certain skills, as the article notes, Marzo believes "there's merit in every wave." And so, like a sculptor seeing what the block of marble wants to be, Marzo rides the wave for what it is.

Reading the article, it becomes clear that this young man's brain is just wired differently -- but fortunately, there seems to be a place in this world for such a different brain. As Jamie Tierney, who directed a film about Marzo called Just Add Water, says, "Let's talk about Asperger's but not as disease or a disability. Clay is so good because he has Asperger's, not in spite of it. His level of focus in the wave is incredible, he makes instant natural connections with the water, something very few people have."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Rubber Room

My maternity leave has not gotten off to quite as quick a start as I'd wanted (baby is now 8 days overdue) but at least I'm getting some extra time to catch up on the New Yorkers that are sitting around the house.

One particularly fascinating piece that I wanted to share with Gifted Exchange readers is called "Rubber Room" from the Aug 31 issue. In it, reporter Steven Brill pays a visit to one of New York City's "Rubber Rooms" -- places where teachers who have been charged with incompetence or misconduct, but who have not yet had a full hearing (which can take years), report every day in order to continue receiving their salary and benefits. I had read about a similar set-up for GM workers a few years ago (albeit not ones charged with misconduct -- just ones for whom there wasn't any available work). Basically, when union contracts specify that people have protected employment, but their employer decides that their services are either not needed or not desired, you have to do something with them. These rubber room situations arise because if an employer has to continue paying salary and benefits, it behooves them to make the experience as unpleasant as possible, in the hopes that people will quit. So rubber room policies tend to require people to clock in at a certain time, take certain specified breaks, and leave at a certain hour, but otherwise just sit there.

This sounds absolutely atrocious to me, but the fascinating thing is that often, people don't quit. In New York City, at least, teaching is pretty well paid (teachers with a master's degree start off around $50,000 with pretty good benefits, the contract is for a slightly-less-than 7-hour workday and tenure is granted nearly automatically after three years). So we New York City tax payers are funding the rubber rooms and also the bank of reserve teachers -- those let go because programs are cut but who either can't find or refuse to take another job in the system. They continue receiving their paychecks and benefits too. Given that excellent teachers are scooped up almost immediately, Brill makes the point that anyone on the reserve list after a year is probably going to be there indefinitely.

Of course, there's little point in writing a gee-whiz-isn't-this-crazy story; the broader question is whether this set-up can be changed in a way that is fair to teachers but doesn't waste massive amounts of taxpayer dollars. It is a question that turns out to be critical as a growing body of evidence shows that teacher quality is one of the most important factors in student achievement. In that sense, it is good that New York City isn't keeping incompetent (or in some cases, criminal) teachers in front of classrooms; on the other hand, the fact that hundreds of teachers sit in rubber rooms or on the reserve list, and continue to draw salaries, lessens any pressure on merely mediocre teachers to step up their game. Even after 7 years of what some people term "dictatorial" mayoral control of the schools, the percentage of New York City teachers who are not awarded tenure after three years has risen only a few points.

I'm not sure what the solution is. I think many people would be willing to pay for a system that lavished rewards on excellent teachers (with high value-add -- that is who can show student improvement even at the very high and very low ends) as long as bad ones could be weeded out. But this is proving very hard to do in practice. There is much hope that Pres. Obama and Ed Sec. Arne Duncan, who at least talk a good game of not being beholden to the education status quo, will shake things up with Race to the Top money. But we shall see if, over time, this manages to close the Rubber Rooms.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Gifted Exchange Turns 4!

This week marks the 4th anniversary of Gifted Exchange's founding in 2005. Blogging tools have definitely improved since then (I used to need to type whole strings of characters to put in links). We've covered a lot of interesting topics and have a fair number of regular readers. We now log, on average, more than 200 visitors per day. As always, though, I am looking for ways to make this blog more useful and interesting, and so I welcome feedback on what people like, and what I can do better. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Gifted Children and Sleep

An article on CNN's website claims that enforcing a bedtime improves health outcomes for children and also has a chart of how much sleep children need. Apparently, toddlers need 12-14 hours, slightly older preschoolers need 11-13 hours, and elementary school kids need 10-11 hours. For most children, this may be true (and enforcing the bedtime may be a good idea for all kids!) but a number of parents have found an interesting truth: some highly gifted kids appear to need a lot less.

There are various theories about this: the kids' brains don't really shut down, or they're just wired differently. While this can be a positive in families with two working parents (hey, more time together in the evenings!) it can be tough if the kid needs less sleep than the adults.

I'm curious if parents who read this blog have found this trait in their own children, and how you've dealt with it. How do you figure out how much sleep your child needs? How do you stay sane if your 3-year-old likes to go to bed at 10pm?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Without skipping a grade"

Kay Williams, director of the Division of Accelerated and Enriched Instruction of the Montgomery County Public Schools, wrote a letter to the editor of Education Week regarding Richard Whitmire and my recent commentary "What Ever Happened to Grade Skipping?" We had noted that Montgomery County was debating whether to label 2nd graders as gifted or not gifted.

In her note, Ms. Williams highlights the various options that Montgomery County uses, such as allowing 8th graders to take algebra, and offering AP classes. She states that "acceleration is already an integral part of the program options in Montgomery County public schools" -- at least with math (the examples she notes, and which is the one subject schools tend to allow some acceleration in).

But what was most interesting to me is her statement that "The district’s systemwide model for acceleration ensures that students can access an appropriate, above-grade-level curriculum every day without skipping a grade." This was our main point -- why is it considered so horrible to skip a whole grade? Or two or three? Often highly gifted young people are ahead of their peers in many subjects, and need more mature classmates in order to fit in, socially, as well. If Montgomery County has a systemwide model in order to ensure that no one need (horrors!) skip a grade, this seems to show that the prejudice is alive and well.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Virtual Field Trips

Add this to the "fun stuff on the web" file: If you're looking for a rainy/winter day activity for young children that's slightly more enlightening than watching Happy Feet again (don't get me started on my kid's obsession), check out Meet Me At the Corner.

This site offers virtual field trips on topics kids find interesting, such as visiting a pet owner who is training a service dog for people with disabilities, and a trip to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden's Chili Festival. The segments are about the length of Sesame Street's video clips (and have some similarity in terms of topics and videography). Upcoming episodes will deal with the wolf population in Colorado and San Francisco's cable cars.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pink Brains and Blue Brains

As I'm not-so-patiently awaiting the arrival of my second son, I've been enjoying reading Lise Eliot's Pink Brain, Blue Brain, subtitled "How small differences grow into troublesome gaps and what we can do about it."

Eliot, a neuroscientist and mom of three (1 girl, 2 boys), examines the existing knowledge about children's brain development and gender differences. Are boys and girls different because of nature or nurture?

It will probably surprise no one that the answer is both, though often not in ways people enamored with explaining everything in what she refers to as the "Fred and Wilma scenario" (men used to hunt so they did this! women gathered so they did this!) mean.

First, differences between boys and girls as a whole are often quite small -- much smaller than differences between individual boys and individual girls. One of the most interesting, innate ones is that boys are born slightly bigger than girls, and mature slightly slower in the womb. Of babies born quite prematurely (say, at 24 weeks gestation) girls are a lot more likely to survive than boys, because, for whatever reason, they are about a week more mature. Because boys are bigger, birth is a slightly more traumatic experience. Couple that trauma with greater immaturity, and baby boys tend to be fussier.

So people interact with lnfant boys and infant girls differently right from the beginning, with girls getting lots of eye contact and cooing, and boys getting less because screaming babies just aren't that much fun to deal with. Is it possible that girls' vaunted social skills may arise out of just such differences?

For all modern parents try to raise their children in gender neutral patterns, we still have very set ideas of what is "good" for little boys and girls. When people in experiments are led to believe that baby girls are baby boys (and vice versa; researchers dress them as such or refer to them by incorrect but gendered names such as "Marie") the little girls are far more likely to be referred to as aggressive and independent (with corresponding more "little girl" attributes for the boys) than if people think the girls are girls.

We tend to notice events that fit with gender identities. Parents laugh about their sons turning dolls into guns, or little girls giving trucks a bath, but here's the thing: Jasper has given his trucks a bath, I just tend not to think about it much one way or the other. He likes to push his own stroller and he fought to play with a toy vacuum cleaner at a little girls' house recently. But I've never bought him a doll or a toy stroller or toy vacuum cleaner or toy kitchen even though, when we hauled out some tools the other day and he seemed fascinated, I mused that I should get him a toy tool box.

While toddler playtime is one thing, the magnification of small differences has much more profound consequences once children reach school age. Eliot notes that little boys are slightly better at understanding spatial relationships than little girls. But this is not an insurmountable difference; girls who spend as little as 10 hours playing certain video games can close parts of the gap, and in some cases Chinese girls who have to learn the intensely geometric Mandarin characters seem to do better on spatial reasoning than American boys. As Eliot writes, much of learning skills is like getting to Carnegie Hall: "practice, practice, practice." Small differences become large when little girls don't play with blocks or video games, and when little boys aren't given ways to get around their occasional difficulty with penmanship (so they learn to dislike writing and hence don't work at it).

I find it all very fascinating -- both from the perspective of trying to raise my sons and from what the various research into brain differences says about society. There is some evidence that little girls are becoming more open to playing with boy toys and doing "boy things" which makes sense as women have more paths open to them. On the other hand, boys are still being raised largely as boys -- we worry more about boys being sissies than girls being aggressive go-getters. Eliot also points out that a big problem with brain research is that studies that show gender differences tend to get the headlines. So, when one study seems to show that women do better on spatial reasoning when they are menstruating (and hence have less estrogen coursing through their blood), this gets trumpeted in the popular press with headlines like "Hormones make men and women better and worse at math!" Then, of course, when follow-up studies fail to replicate this result, there are no headlines.

I'm curious about gender differences parents who read this blog perceive in their sons and daughters, and if there are times you've caught yourself in stereotypical thinking. Are there specific ways you try to shore up what might be small differences in original abilities? (e.g. making sure girls play with blocks, or letting boys dictate stories they're having trouble writing?)

Perhaps here's a gender difference: I've written about this topic in the past but, when I started reading Pink Brain, Blue Brain, I didn't even think to check the index for my name. I'm not exactly self-effacing, but still. Imagine my surprise when I found myself quoted on page 248! The quote was from a USA Today piece about why girls are far more likely to go into, say, "Bio-statistics" than "statistics." Both are math-based, but put "bio" in front of it and it's perceived as being helpful to humanity. I wrote that math needed a Stephen Jay Gould explaining how helpful math is to the world, and engineering needed a Sylvia Earle doing likewise. I still do think that's true -- science and math are not nerdy disciplines for people who like to work alone, but that's still, too often, the perception.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Why it's better to be challenged

Some interesting new research from William Bowen, the former president of Princeton, finds that -- holding academic preparation constant -- young people who attend more demanding colleges are more likely to graduate.

Part of this may simply be expectations. Graduation rates tend to be higher at more selective universities, and when graduating on time is what everybody does, people tend to respond. Plus, these universities often have good systems in place to make sure that people take the classes they need and understand the requirements.

On the other hand, as we've pointed out with young gifted children, it's no blessing to find school easy. We are happiest when we are working hard at something that challenges us at close to the extent of our abilities. If college isn't demanding, then I'm guessing that some people find continuing their education to feel a little pointless. Certainly, many gifted children become dissatisfied with school because they are bored, and there's no reason to think this wouldn't happen for older students, too.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Obama Speech

In case anyone missed it, there's a transcript of President Obama's speech to America's schoolchildren here.

In general, I thought it was a good speech. I had a few favorite sections. For instance, I appreciated that he challenged children not to think of themselves as victims:

"At the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying."

I also appreciated his realism: "I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work -- that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things." No, you will not, and as he noted, "No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work."

I'm curious what others thought of the speech, and what your children thought, too.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Myth of the Overscheduled Child

I have another back-to-school piece, this one featuring 2009 Davidson Fellow Erika DeBenedictis, on the Taste Page of the Wall Street Journal this morning. The essay is called "The Myth of the Overscheduled Child" and makes the point that many kids like being challenged and busy. And, often, it's quite good for them to be so! We are happiest when we are throwing ourselves into meaningful projects (like practicing with a sports team to improve, or doing independent computer science research) and making progress. Unfortunately, vast proportions of American teens never get to do any of this.

Anyway, it's been a busy week of back-to-school pieces, but we'll be back to specific gifted coverage next week.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Chat transcript

Glad to see at least one question about gifted kids in the chat! There's a transcript available here.

The Secret of School Success

My column on self-regulation and academic achievement, called "The Secret of School Success," ran in USA Today this morning. I'll be participating in a live chat at theforum.usatoday.com at 2pm Eastern, today, and anyone who'd like to is welcome to join!