Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How To Handle The Playground?

Small talk with other parents is one of the great minefields of raising gifted children. Over time, gifted children may learn various social norms of blending in (we can argue whether that's a good thing or not, though they often do). But when they are little, there's no such self-consciousness. Which can make the parent feel self-conscious in her place.

I have no idea about Jasper's IQ. We are leaving NYC so we won't be finding out as part of the pre-K testing for admission to the city's gifted programs. But either way, he's a bright and curious little boy who just turned four, and has the usual interest in dinosaurs, animals and, in his particular case, writing and spelling various words.

This creates some interesting situations. The other night on the playground, Jasper worked up the courage to ask another little boy and his mom to borrow their sidewalk chalk. This was the part of the whole sequence of events I was most proud of; we've been stressing that he doesn't need my help to join another group of kids playing, or ask to share a toy or join a game. Anyway, he was drawing various things, and the mom casually asked him what he'd drawn. "A mouse!" he said. Another mother glanced over. "How nice! Oh! HE WROTE MOUSE."

And he had. I guess it could have been worse. He could have drawn and labeled a parasaurolophus. I wasn't paying much attention since I was trying to keep my 20-month-old from killing himself on the playground climbing equipment. But I was summoned over to answer how old my son was, was he in preschool, how we were getting him to sit still and write and to make matters even worse, one of the mothers started comparing Jasper to her own 4-year-old. I tried to just tried to bat it all off, primarily because Jasper can not only write, he can hear. And I don't want him to think there's anything weird about writing words with sidewalk chalk, and I don't want him comparing himself with other children.

I am curious how readers of this blog handle such situations. How do you be polite and friendly on the playground, and let your child be himself?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

What Would You Tell Graduates?

It's graduation season again. I'm heading back to Princeton tomorrow for my 10 year reunion. On some level, I think "oh, I can't believe it's been that long" and then I think back through various things that have happened during that time and realize, yep, it has been a while. Since this season always inspires nostalgia, those of us who make a living dishing out career advice tend to seize the occasion to write columns and such on what grads should know. I'm curious what readers of this blog would like to tell bright young people headed out into the world. I have a few thoughts:

1. You're going to switch jobs. I work with the Princeton Alumni Council's careers committee, and every year we ask classes approaching major reunions to take a survey about their career paths. Basically, almost everyone switches jobs within the first few years out of college, with many going to graduate school 2-5 years out. That's when people become a bit more settled on career choice. So your first job should be something interesting that you'll learn a lot from, with the understanding that it's probably more of a project than anything long-term.

2. "Find your passion" is a cliche... for a reason. We ask alumni to give us their words of wisdom, and probably at least half give some version of "find your passion" or "do what you love." It's a nice sentiment, but the reason people harp on it is that we spend a lot of time working. Not the whole of our 168 hours, of course, but a lot. The difference in quality of life between people who whistle while they work and people who are counting the days until retirement is huge. As someone who's trying to build her career and her family simultaneously, I would add that loving what you do is key to getting over various obstacles that combining the two can present. When you love what you do, you keep at it, which is important because...

3. You get better with practice. I find this absolutely wonderful. I had to give an impromptu speech for something in college and it was horrible. I now actually like public speaking. I like being in front of an audience and drawing energy from them as we find common ground together. Did I change personality? No. I just practiced public speaking a lot.

4. Life is a risk. I have taken a few calculated ones over the years. Submitting that first column to USA Today as an intern who'd been on the job 6 weeks. Having it published has led to just about everything else, including, indirectly, this blog (I co-wrote Genius Denied with Jan and Bob Davidson after they read a column I wrote about gifted education in USA Today a year later... co-writing that book gave me the opportunity to write others...) Moving to NYC without a job rather than getting a regular journalism job. Spending 18 long months trying to get a contract for what later became 168 Hours. Some risks turn out well and others don't, but few calculated ones end in disaster. You have to play career fairy godmother to yourself.

5 Be like Oprah. So it's been the last few episodes of her show this week. BNET had a great column about career tips anyone who wanted to build an empire could learn from her. A few? Bet big on yourself, nurture other people's talent (hello Rachel Ray, Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil...) and never coast. Wherever you are, you can always set your sights on something bigger and better, and work to bring yourself there.

What would you tell grads that you've learned over the years?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

New York City, Gifted Classes and Seats

We've made the hard decision recently to leave New York City. We're actually moving out to the Philadelphia suburbs this summer, since my husband has been working in that general region and I can (in theory) work anywhere. The idea is to have more space for our growing family and hopefully let my husband have a bit of a calmer life. So I've been watching with a bit of detachment as many parents I know have had their 4- and 5-year olds take New York City's tests for its gifted programs and over the past few weeks have gotten the results back. (If we'd stayed, Jasper would have been tested next year).

This is a huge city, and thanks to decent outreach, many thousands of children sit for the test. I think it's great that NYC tries to test so many children, and I also think it's great that New York City starts gifted education in kindergarten. In many districts, the idea is that they'll all "even out by third grade" when, allegedly, any benefit gained via hothouse parenting or any gaps created by a less-enriching home environment will have been erased. So that's when you start. But this is patently ridiculous. Any reader of this blog who lives with a highly gifted child knows that their quirks, gifts and struggles don't all come out in the wash as they get older.

The issue is that New York City has not actually created enough seats to accommodate students who meet its definition of gifted. To qualify for the city-wide gifted programs, a child needs to score in the 97th percentile nationally on the qualifying tests. This year, 1,788 children did so. There are only 250 seats in the city-wide programs (there are others in neighborhood schools...but maybe not your neighborhood school). So it is still going to be a scramble.

One can argue about where, exactly, on national standardized tests the cut-off should be set. But it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to create a program that can't accommodate all the children who qualify. When you create fewer slots, gifted education starts to be a reward as opposed to an educational intervention for children who need it. In theory, gifted education shouldn't cost more than any other class, as long as you figure a way to keep class size constant (which you could do by combining grades or in NYC where schools may be close together, combining programs at one of the schools). So it's unclear why the situation is what it is. But hopefully, as this massive school system starts to change in other ways, the powers that be will think about this issue as well.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Global Science Fair

Intel just announced the winners of the annual International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). I attended this fair when it was held in Atlanta in 2008, and it's certainly a step up from the usual vinegar volcanoes and plants grown in different conditions. You can read about this year's winners here.

Two interesting highlights? One, this is truly an international fair. Three Thai students won a $50,000 award for designing a new type of plastic out of fish scales. Southeast Asia is not short on fish, so this is a fun development (although apparently the bowls can't yet survive the microwave, so the team is tweaking the design). $50,000 will go a long way in Thailand, so it's cool to see science being rewarded there, and for students from various countries to be exposed to their peers in others.

Finally, Taylor Wilson of Reno, NV won Intel's Young Scientist Award for his project which figures out a low-cost way to detect nuclear material. Wilson's work is receiving funding from the Department of Homeland Security which (shockingly!) sees an application for this idea -- possibly in the Port of Newark close to my home. Anyway, Wilson is a student at the Davidson Academy, housed at the University of Nevada at Reno. One of the selling points of this school for gifted young students is that you can devote serious time to long-term, independent projects. We're certainly seeing the payoff from that now.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Gifted Education: Not A Smart Idea?

Over at the Globe and Mail, economist Frances Woolley wrote about some recent research into the performance of gifted students on No Child Left Behind tests. The conclusion of the research was that there were no outsized gains for these students who were just barely identified as gifted on NCLB tests... and therefore, according to the headline, gifted education may not be a smart idea.

I think Woolley and the researchers are completely missing the point.

I understand the befuddlement. An unfortunately high percentage of gifted programs don’t really offer accelerated work for gifted students. They send them on field trips or into resource rooms where you learn about mythology or some such enrichment topic. What gifted students need is academic work that challenges them to the extent of their abilities. An unfortunate number of gifted programs, operating under the idea that the gifted label is a "reward," also set the bar in a place where many kids whose needs could be served in a regular classroom qualify as gifted. We should not be particularly surprised that there are not huge gains there, or that some of these students might struggle in gifted programs that actually are challenging.

(Regular readers of this blog will also get a good laugh out of the idea that gifted kids get "more educational resources coming their way").

But most of my readers here are dealing with situations where a child would score in the 99th percentile on a grade level test. Put her in a gifted program and, guess what, she’ll still score at the 99th percentile. Because that’s as high as grade level tests go! But a good gifted program may actually allow her to interact with peers on a similar level, and do challenging work, as opposed to grade level work that she mastered years before that leaves her bored to tears. What's so dumb about that?

[Deleting the part about Carleton College -- as it's Carleton in Canada, not in US.]

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Is "Most Likely To Succeed" A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy? Or Burden?

Sue Shellenbarger's Work & Family column at the Wall Street Journal today covered a fascinating topic: is the "Most Likely To Succeed" label a burden? For decades, graduating senior classes have voted on which classmate would be running the world at some unspecified future point. The people who win this award tend to be popular, smart and ambitious, which generally does bode well for one's performance in the labor market, according to Christy Lleras, a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana, who's studied this topic. Shellenbarger cites Lleras's study, published in Social Science Research in 2008, finding that people who'd won this award earned 12% more than their peers 10 years later. A different survey by MemoryLane.com found that about 4 in 10 most-likely-to-succeed winners viewed the label as an inspiration.

On the other hand, about a third viewed it as a curse. Clearly not everyone who wins the most-likely-to-succeed label will have a stunning career. People may have mixed feelings about their careers in the first place, but when you add in the pressure that your classmates once expected you to achieve high school definitions of success, it can feel even worse.

I've been thinking of this in light of gifted students and their later career development. Many gifted students clearly feel a lot of pressure to succeed, much of it self-inflicted. When you're young, everything is possible -- you'll win the Nobel Prize in physics and the presidency, and publish best-sellers and perform piano on the stage of Carnegie Hall! Later on, not only do most of us have to specialize, many soon learn that success of the people-have-heard-of-you variety requires other skills beyond sheer genius. Persistence. Risk-taking. Long-term goal setting, etc. These are important skills too, but not necessarily ones we think of cultivating during the school years.

Anyway, I'm curious how people talk with their gifted kids about goals and career aspirations. Do you encourage total dreaming, or ever talk about the practical side as well?

Friday, May 06, 2011

Leaving High School Early... With Credentials

The New York Times (hat tip to GE reader Twin Mom) had an interesting piece the other day about a program in Texas allowing kids who've demonstrated enough subject mastery to receive a certificate that can be traded in for a high school diploma. The standards for the certificate are set by the state's top two universities, Texas A&M and the University of Texas, and while it doesn't guarantee that a kid will be admitted to either, the idea is that the certificate shows she'd meet their criteria. That makes it a definite step above the GED (which adults can test for at later points in life) which, while certainly helpful for employment and community college enrollment, isn't treated quite the same as a diploma -- and certainly not a diploma that indicates you could have qualified for Texas A&M or UT.

I think this is a great idea, and I'm surprised the idea isn't more widespread. What is the point of high school, after all? Is it to impart to children a certain volume of knowledge (academics and citizenship) or is it a holding tank until they turn 18? If the former, then there's no reason that people who've demonstrated that they've learned what they're supposed to learn can't move on. Finishing high school early allows one to finish college early, and then pursue graduate education or other things, without the often compressed 20s timeline dragged on schooling offers.

Does anyone know of any other states looking into a similar idea?