Thursday, January 27, 2011

"He wished he could be in pullout all the time"

(Laura's note: I'm continuing with posts from parents of gifted children. Today's post comes from Monica, a mom of a 10-year-old boy who is in the local public school's GATE program, and a 4-year-old preschooler. She discusses the difficulty of advocating for early kindergarten, especially for an oldest child. You're new to schooling, and you know that the educators you are meeting have much more experience with schools and grade placement than you do. But you also know your child better than they do. Below are excerpts from two emails).

To: Laura
From: Monica

I think that parents really need to feel more empowered in making decisions for their children’s education.  I was not and relied on the assistant superintendent for my local school district to say that yes they did have other children who started kindergarten early, but they weren’t emotionally ready.  She didn’t mention anything about a law that was just passed to allow for early entrance to kindergarten, and I didn’t dig up this fact until later. 
 
Her comment made me start to question my own gut feeling that my son was ready for kindergarten at 4. My son could read before starting preschool at 3 and knew basic math facts and got along with other children- even to the point of going up to complete strangers and asking them questions or inviting kids over to play.  So with a December birthday, my son entered kindergarten at 5 years, 8 months and without going into too much detail, he wasn’t in the right educational environment.  His kindergarten teacher knew my son could read and so she had the reading specialist use the DIBELS assessment on him (they had to go up to the 6th grade level…at least that was as far as they could go with the materials they had). 
 
The principal at the school (who did the kindergarten assessment and knew my son could read since he read part of the assessment to him), was very cooperative and wanted to help the following year.  Grade acceleration for reading/language arts was decided on (he went to a 2nd grade teacher in the morning for those subjects and went back to 1st for math, science, and social studies).  This wasn’t an ideal situation as both of the teachers were new and were out quite a bit for in-service/mentoring and he was still unhappy.  He would go to the nurse to get out of class and then just not want to go into school at all. 
 
I pressed the principal the spring of that year to get my son evaluated for the ALPHA program (the district’s self-contained gifted classroom for 3rd/4th grades combined).  The school psychologist did an IQ and achievement test and then there was a meeting with teachers, and the district's gifted consultant.  As a result of that meeting it was decided that my son was to skip 2nd grade and stay in a regular 3rd grade classroom with a gifted pullout once a week for a few hours.  The request for going into ALPHA was shot down, because of my son’s writing ability (didn’t expand on his thoughts, using the RARE method was torture for him).  The gifted consultant said that there was lots more writing involved in the ALPHA class and that he would feel overwhelmed.  She also had me work with him over the summer on 2nd grade math and science to fill in the “gaps”. 
 
Third grade was fine, but still my son wasn’t challenged in math or reading as far as I could tell.  The GT pullout was mainly nice enrichment activities, which he loved doing and he said to me often that he wished he could be in the pullout all the time.  At the end of 3rd grade the principal and GT pullout teacher (who was also the librarian) recommended that he go to the ALPHA program for 4th grade.  That is where he finally met some kids who were more like him. 
 
The teacher for that program had some knowledge (took coursework) in gifted kids and I felt confident that he would enjoy the class.  This year he is in 5th grade in the GATE program and has one teacher with a Masters in gifted education and another who is very gifted herself and has gifted children.  They are differentiating a bit more (mostly in math) and he seems to enjoy his classes.

To: Laura
From: Monica


After writing that lengthy e-mail yesterday about my son’s educational story, I got to thinking more about advice to other parents.  I know I gave you one piece of advice about parents feeling empowered to make decisions and with that I should have mentioned being informed enough about what the school provides in the way of programs (my son’s school did a poor job of communicating what was available in the beginning).  They should also investigate other online resources to get ideas of what other options there are even if their school doesn’t provide them.  This knowledge is important when going into meetings with teachers and educational professionals. 
 
Go into school meetings being informed and realize that most teachers do not have extensive knowledge about gifted education.  I myself who studied to be a high school biology teacher only took one class called Exceptional Children and there was only one mention, I think, of the characteristics of gifted children, and perhaps education options that were available to gifted learners.  Granted this was back in 1994, but from what I’ve read in other recent gifted blog posts, not much has changed. 
 
I know that most parents don’t want to seem pushy, but you can go into a meeting with confidence and work on an educational plan with a team mentality.  I also found that e-mailing right after to say thank you to the principal, teachers, and others who attended the meeting  was helpful in getting things accomplished. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

Family stories: Private school guilt...and acceptance

(Laura's note: From time to time I'll be running posts telling stories from families of gifted kids. We can all learn from each other -- about parenting, schooling, and doing what's right for our children. Some of these will be told by the parents, and some will feature me interviewing the parents or children. Today's post is the former, and comes courtesy of "Ginger," mom of SJ. She talks about her feelings on choosing the right school. Thanks to folks who have already emailed me about being part of this. I'm at lvanderkam@yahoo.com).

Private School Guilt... And Acceptance

By Ginger

SJ is now 7 and in second grade. From the time he was 2.25 until 4.5, he went to preschool full-time at a local private school while my husband and I both worked. He loved it there, and we liked it too -- great teachers, approachable director, happy kid. A few months after he started in the 2-year-old class, one of his teachers told us she suspected he could read already. We already knew he was pretty bright and had a great memory -- he knew all his letters and could count to 10 at about 18 months. But, sure enough, he was decoding words, and even started spontaneously spelling them with magnetic letters on the fridge. As he got older, we also discovered that he was an extremely quick learner in math, and able to grasp complicated concepts almost intuitively. The school did lots to encourage his abilities and gave him plenty of opportunities to work ahead.

After our second son was born, when SJ was 4.5, I decided to leave the corporate world so I could spend more time with the kids. Instead of having SJ continue at the full-time private school, I could now send him to public school because I would be available to pick him up when he finished at 1:15 or 2:15 in the afternoon.

I should mention also that my husband and I REALLY wanted to believe in the state education system. We did not want to be one of "those" couples who talk out of one side of our mouths about equal opportunity and fixing our public schools while we send our own kids to a private school. So, we wanted to give the local school a chance, and enrolled SJ in kindergarten there.

The first indication I had that something was wrong was when I started volunteering in SJ's class one morning per week. SJ's behavior was not good, and it was so unlike how he was at home. He would not join in at circle time, preferring to horse around under a desk or go read a book or otherwise do his own thing. I chalked it up to him playing up because his mother was there, but when I discussed it with his teacher, she confirmed that he was like that much of the time -- distracted and not wanting to be part of the group. He had a hard time completing simple tasks -- things we knew he could do in his sleep. He loathed his homework, and complained about having to do things over and over and over again when he already knew how to do them. His teacher, to her credit, realized his behavior problems were due to boredom, but firmly told us he would not do well in school if he could not act more maturely and conform to the group.

Then he moved to first grade. His teacher was young, and well-educated but not very experienced. After a couple of months, we had a parent-teacher conference with her, which went poorly. We were expecting that she would have something to say about SJ's abilities and achievements (by this time he was reading at 4th-grade level and learning about fractions at home) but instead she focused on his behavior -- distracted, chatty, unable to get his class work finished on time. She told us he had tested at first grade level for reading and had mastered first grade math concepts. There was such a mismatch from the boy we saw at home and the boy we read about in the report card; either she wasn't testing him as far as he could go, or he wasn't showing her what he could do at all. We told her we thought that he could do more, and that his distractedness in class was due to boredom. We told her the kinds of books he was reading at home, and gave her examples of the kinds of math problems he was doing at home. We asked her if she could try pushing him a little, and see if he responded. She agreed and said that later in the year she would give him some extra science projects and harder math. All she ever did was to give him a second grade math workbook, which he could do ON TOP OF all the boring first grade homework he had to do. Just what a bored, unmotivated kid needs -- more homework.

After getting nowhere with the teacher, we approached the school psychologist for some help. We told her we thought our son was gifted and asked if he could be tested through the school. She said they only tested children who were doing poorly and/or showed signs of a learning disability or psychological problem, not kids who were doing fine as our son was. She did recommend an outside educational psychologist if we wanted to do it on our own, but it was going to cost a lot and although we now only had one income, we didn't qualify for assistance.

Then the school board in our district announced that, due to budget problems, the following school year it would be firing hundreds of teachers and increasing class sizes to 30+ for K-2 classes. Teachers who were having problems educating 20 students of vastly differing abilities were now going to be asked to cope with 30 or more. We were really disappointed with the public school experience so far, and this was the last straw.

We're not pushy parents, but we do want our kids to fulfill their potential, and most of all we want them to love learning! Our son was so bored, so resistant to homework, so underachieving. We couldn't bear to see him so disillusioned at such a young age. So, about halfway through the year we decided to go back to talk with the director of the private school where he had gone to preschool, to see what she could do for us. She was very accommodating and told us many parents of bright children had come to them hoping for some flexibility and a chance to advance faster. She assured us that SJ would be challenged at her school. We applied to enroll him on the spot.

The director had him shadow with a second grade class, and we talked about the possibility of a grade skip. In the end, we decided against the skip, because we thought he might have a lot to cope with in moving to a new school, and because he was already one of the youngest in his class. Also, the director said they often worked faster than the standard grade level because they found the kids could handle it.

SJ started second grade at his new school at the beginning of this school year, and he is doing so much better! He is no longer so distracted in class (although he is still a bit chatty -- he's a friendly guy. :) ) He is getting his class work done and participating in the group, and his grades are excellent in all subjects. He takes responsibility for completing and handing in his own homework, with no pushing/cajoling/bribing from me -- a MAJOR accomplishment for him. His teacher started an after-school Math Club for him and a few other kids to learn more advanced concepts, which he LOVES and is so proud of. There are one or two other highly gifted children in his class, and suddenly he has a little competition, which is also spurring him to work harder. He has made some good friends. And, most importantly, he has his enthusiasm for learning back.

When we first discussed it with him, SJ liked the idea of switching back to the private school. He kept telling us he was bored and already knew everything they were making him repeat over and over again in first grade. We told him this would help, but warned him it would be challenging and that he would need to work harder and really show them what he could do. He replied that he wanted to do harder work. He was sad to leave his friends of two years at the old school, but seemed excited to be going to a place where they would expect more from him. And I am so pleased at how he has responded, truly living up to his potential.

We hope to be able to keep SJ here through middle school, and his younger brother too. We love that it's small (<200 kids, K-8) and that we can talk to the teachers and director any time about making changes to our son's schooling. We love the extra activities they offer as part of the regular curriculum such as drama, Spanish and music, and the extra-extras like chess club and all kinds of sporting activities. We love that there are only 20 kids per teacher, and that the classrooms are well-stocked. They also provide healthy snacks and lunches as part of the tuition. Even though it's expensive, we are so glad we made the switch. I do feel a little pang of guilt that we opted out of the public system, but hey, my kids come first.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Indiana Academy, budget cuts and what we do with an education

It's no secret that state budgets are strapped these days. While Indiana is doing better than its neighbors (see Illinois's recent tax hike), the state is exploring areas to cut, and education budgets should probably be no more sacrosanct than anything else.

So I was not surprised to see this recent article from the Star-Press that my high school, the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and the Humanities, a 2-year residential school for gifted high school juniors and seniors, is facing a 15% budget cut. As a generally fiscally conservative person, I'm always wary of making arguments that programs I care about are somehow more deserving than others. But I want to talk a little bit about the value of specialized secondary schools, and why the questions some of the lawmakers asked about the Academy are probing the wrong vein.

First, gifted education, as we often talk about here, is not a reward for hard-working kids. Hard work should certainly be rewarded, but gifted education is something different. It is an educational intervention for people who require it.

Regular high schools -- even good ones -- find it very difficult to serve highly gifted young people. I attended Clay High School in South Bend, Indiana for my freshman and sophomore years, and it was certainly not a failing institution. One or two kids went to Ivy League schools most years. There were a handful of AP classes. They were also reasonably accommodating to me. I was allowed to accelerate 2 years in math, and would have worked out an arrangement for studying at Notre Dame or IUSB had I stayed there. After I had a showdown with my sophomore English teacher about various things, the department head used his planning period to do an independent study with me. He taught me grammar, introduced me to the classics of American literature, and definitely honed my writing craft. But I was still miserable. I actually made hash marks on the back of one of my notebooks to count through the 180 days of my sophomore year. I felt like being smart wasn't particularly valued, and "smart" was my only identity. I was still not challenged enough.

So that was my position when I started at the Indiana Academy in the fall of 1995. It was not perfect either. There were various controversies over administration, over rules that were more of the CYA variety than about rationality. Some classes were better than others. Some students were not emotionally prepared to live away from home, and in the early years of a school sometimes people enroll who are not prepared. But I learned to work. Hard. I would scribble lines in my journal about my brain stretching. I failed at things and had to learn to try harder. Because my peers were mostly academically inclined as well, we did not all have to fit into the "smart kid" role, and we learned new things about our identities. Thanks to the crucible of the Academy, not only was I admitted to every college where I applied, when I showed up at Princeton I felt prepared.

Note: Princeton is not in Indiana. I mention this because the article quotes Rep. Peggy Welch of Bloomington as asking "Do most of these students, after they graduate from the academy, do they go to Indiana colleges?" She asked a representative from the school, "Are you tracking them? Do they stay in Indiana for their jobs or are we losing them?"

Welch continued that "Obviously we should be supporting it (the academy)...But I think it would be helpful to build the case, or, if we find they are kind of leaving the state or not returning to the state after they go to an Ivy League school, track that to see what we can do differently to have them land in Indiana."

I understand that politically, it is easier to sell education as an investment than as an expenditure. But staying in state for college is a silly metric on which to judge a high school. By this definition, the Academy "failed" by sending me to Princeton, and would have succeeded if I'd stayed right there and gone to any college in Indiana.

Returning to the state to work is a trickier matter. I know that this is the same mindset that has gifted education coordinators selling their programs by saying "these kids will save us in the future! These are our future medical researchers, presidents, inventors..." Maybe. I think it's the wrong argument though. Some gifted kids do amazing things. Others don't -- or at least not the kinds of things you'd send a press release about. But as noted above, gifted education is best understood not as an investment in our future, but as an educational intervention in the here and now. Many students with disabilities will not go on to win Nobel prizes, yet this doesn't stop us from spending the money necessary to meet their needs so they can receive an appropriate education. Likewise with intellectual giftedness. It is simply humane to give all children an education that challenges them to the extent of their abilities, in an environment with their intellectual peers.

I would bet that the majority of Indiana Academy alums do go to Indiana colleges and stay in Indiana -- and these stats are worth tracking -- but even if no Academy alum goes to an Indiana college or returns to Indiana to work, the Academy gives gifted children the education they deserve.

No more than anyone else. But no less either.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chinese mothers, intelligence, and parenting

Probably many of you have by now read Amy Chua's essay in the Wall Street Journal, adapted from her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, on "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior." She claims that western parents are squishy, and that one of the reason "Chinese" mothers (a certain archetype, and certainly not encompassing all or only Chinese parents) get high achievement from their children is that they demand it.

There's a lot to like about "Chinese" mothering. Namely, you assume that your children are strong. They are smart and capable kids. While I don't agree that motivational insults are a good idea (the world is not going to be a supportive place -- why shouldn't parents be kind?) accepting failure as the best the kid can do isn't a good idea either. Chua also has a great point that nothing is fun until you're good at it. You get good at things by working. But kids often don't want to work. This is where a parent steps in to force the early stages (though again, it's hard to know why only piano and violin are considered worthy things to be good at).

Chua's essay has sparked a lot of controversy, and I'm really curious what Gifted Exchange readers think. But one of the most interesting commentaries (of course) is from that gadfly Charles Murray. He blogs that "large numbers of talented children everywhere would profit from Chua’s approach, and instead are frittering away their gifts—they’re nice kids, not brats, but they are also self-indulgent and inclined to make excuses for themselves. There are also large numbers of children who are not especially talented, but would do a lot better in school if their parents applied the same intense home supplements to their classroom work."

That said, Murray notes, here's a point that Chua doesn't necessarily raise. Her kids were going to do pretty well regardless (indeed, Chua's more indulgent husband seems to have been raised in a different fashion, and yet he's incredibly successful too). As Murray calculates Chua's children's genes:

"Mother: able to get into Harvard (a much better indicator of her IQ than the magna cum laude in economics that she got there); Executive Editor of the Law Review at Harvard Law School.


Father: Summa cum laude from Princeton and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, now a chaired professor at Yale Law School.


Guess what. Amy Chua has really smart kids. They would be really smart if she had put them up for adoption at birth with the squishiest postmodern parents. They would not have turned out exactly the same under their softer tutelage, but they would probably be getting into Harvard and Princeton as well. Similarly, if Amy Chua had adopted two children at birth who turned out to have measured childhood IQs at the 20th percentile, she would have struggled to get them through high school, no matter how fiercely she battled for them."


There is probably something to this as well. Parenting and genes both play a role, though since they often come in a package, it's hard to tease out what matters.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Gifted Exchange in 2011

Happy New Year to everyone! Gifted Exchange is now entering its 7th calendar year, having started in fall 2005. We've covered a lot of topics and grown steadily in readership. We had a rather exciting milestone of being mentioned in the Washington Post this past year, and hopefully that's the start of great things to come.

When I started blogging here, I was a young newlywed who was interested in gifted education more because of my own experiences growing up, and the opportunities I had to write about education in the mainstream media. I am increasingly less young (happens to the best of us) and now I am interested in gifted education in part because my family has grown in the past seven calendar years. I am now raising two very bright and curious young boys, and as I start to think about what their educations will entail, I am even more interested in these issues.

As such, one of my goals for 2011 is to profile more families. I want to talk with parents and find out: What works? What doesn't? What challenges have you overcome, and which ones are you still facing? What conversations and negotiations with teachers and principals have proved most fruitful? How have you incorporated other resources in your community? How do you deal with discipline issues? Sibling issues? Disabilities? How do you talk about college and careers? How do you nurture creativity or deal with the child who's into everything? Or just one thing, passionately?

Anyway, let's start the conversation. If you'd like to share some of your wisdom with the Gifted Exchange audience, please let me know. My email is lvanderkam@yahoo.com. I'd prefer to use real names but I can be flexible about that. We'll set up a time to talk, or do an email Q&A or whatever we decide works best. Thanks for considering it.