Monday, December 16, 2013

Stronger peers, and more misunderstanding of gifted children

To many people, gifted education is perceived as a life boat. In struggling schools, the gifted classes are the "good" classes. The kids are supposedly well-behaved, and they'll keep standards high. So the push is always to expand a little, to take the hard-working kid who's on the margins and "reward" him with the gifted class. He'll be better off, right?

An interesting new study out of Michigan State University shows that may not be the case (here's a link to the full paper). Scott Imberman and colleagues looked at the test scores of children who were right on the margins of qualifying for gifted classes. They did not do any better on standardized tests than children with similar qualifications who were not placed in gifted programs. As Imberman said in a press release about the study, "This paper is part of a growing body of literature suggesting that just because you have stronger peers doesn't necessarily mean you are going to perform better."

The press release itself goes on to hint that this is a strike against gifted classes. After all, they have no effect on one group of children vs. a control. So that's a problem, right?

Well, not so fast. Is the purpose of GT programs to raise the standardized test scores of marginal students? I think most of us would say that the point is to meet the needs of children whose needs can't be met well in a regular classroom. Ideally, scores in all classes will be rising as every kid is pushed to learn to the extent of their abilities. Gifted kids aren't learning proportionally more -- every kid is being challenged. Gifted classes aren't meant to be "better." They're meant to meet outlier children's needs.

It is interesting to note that stronger peers don't give kids an extra boost, though. One reason GT classes sometimes wind up being watered down or expanded (to take in 25% of kids, in some districts) is that it is viewed as a reward. You're giving a hard working kid a little extra that will help him. But perhaps one's peers aren't quite as critical as some believe. And if having students more on the margin in these classes causes the teacher to aim to a different level (many naturally teach to the median) this could wind up changing the class in ways that wouldn't necessarily help anyone.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The wrong argument for gifted education

Here are four statements that are true: 1. Some gifted children grow up to do amazing things. 2. Some gifted children grow up to have rather quiet lives. 3. Some children who do not score multiple standard deviations above the norm on IQ tests grow up to do amazing things. 4. Others with similar "average" IQ scores do not.

None of this is particularly profound to say, but occasionally people trot out points 2 and 3 of the above statements to make a point about giftedness, or gifted education. Even people generally sympathetic to the cause make such points. I was reminded of this while reading Jay Mathews' recent column on "Why geniuses don't need gifted education."

The point? Much of what passes for gifted education doesn't particularly nurture gifted children's talents. And many adult high achievers didn't have much in the way of gifted education as kids. All true. But so what?

Often, advocates for gifted kids try to appeal to the public's self-interest of why such children should be identified and served. The reasoning goes like this: "These kids will make the future scientific discoveries that will save us all!" or "These kids will be the future Nobel prize winning novelists whose work we'll all read" or something else along those lines.

But I think this is the wrong argument for gifted education. No one knows what anyone will do later on in life. All children deserve to be challenged to the extent of their abilities. They deserve to be treated respectfully. Done right, gifted education doesn't require extra or special resources. If you're going to have 5 sections of a grade, it doesn't cost anything extra to concentrate children according to their level of preparation, so people can be taught right where they are. If you're going to have 13 years of available public schooling, it doesn't cost anything to have people go through that in, say, 10 years. Indeed, it costs a lot less.

Mathews argues that potential geniuses need room to explore, and shouldn't be confined to grade level classes. And that's true. But what should be done? Given that most parents aren't going to home school their children, schools need to do something for these kids. Likewise, there are certain skills that it helps to learn from other people. Gifted writers need space to write. But they probably need teachers to help them learn grammar, too.

There are many factors that come into play when we're talking about outsized achievement as adults. But whether gifted kids become those achievers or not has nothing to do with whether schools can't also do their best by these kids. I wish the arguments over gifted education wouldn't take this form. Instead, it should be about all children receiving the education they deserve.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Approaching the parent-teacher conference

Blog reader Sara asked on the previous post about advocating for your gifted child. The staff of the Davidson Institute posted a number of their online resources, which I recommend looking at. In this post, I'd like to talk about how people have approached parent-teacher conferences.

Ideally, there is plenty of communication going on between school and home. You've been in your child's class on occasion to help out; you've exchanged emails with the teacher already. The first parent-teacher conference isn't your first get-together, and so you've already established a working relationship.

My husband and I like to approach these things much as we would meetings for work. We discuss before hand our objectives and questions. We talk before hand with other stakeholders who won't be there (e.g. the kid himself, babysitter, etc.)

If one major objective is to convey that your child is capable of challenging work, and would like to be challenged, you want to bring in evidence to support that. Think a portfolio that represents what you see: stories the child is writing, what books he's reading, the pie charts he draws for fun in his spare time. Particularly if your child doesn't do his or her best on assessments -- because they're boring and cover stuff the kid already knows -- you want to show material that shows your own assessment of the child.

Obviously, if you've had the kid independently evaluated -- which ideally the teacher already knows about -- you'd bring that information in too.

Then, hopefully, it's a pleasant conversation -- approached as "what can we do to be supporting you" in making sure the child has work that challenges her brain and keeps her engaged. Take good notes; thank the teacher for specific examples of what's happening the class (like your kid being put in a small reading group tackling a higher-level book).

I'd love to hear how Gifted Exchange readers have approached parent-teacher conferences, and how they've gone. They've gone well for us, and I know we've been fortunate that way. I'd love to hear how you've navigated them, and I'd love to hear from teachers who read this blog about how they like them to go.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Building bridges -- but to where?

I have recently learned that my state, Pennsylvania, requires that gifted learners be identified and served. My local school district sponsored a small gathering on gifted education recently, which I'd hoped would feature a discussion of our district's policies and offerings for such children.

Instead, we got a discussion of the skills gifted students would need in the 21st century. And while it was fun, and fascinating, it reminds me of the trouble gifted advocates have gotten ourselves into, historically, in the way we've shaped the conversation on gifted education.

We spent much of the hour devoted to this conversation on gifted education building a bridge. Each table had a divider in the middle, and the teams on both sides of the divider had to build a bridge with a package of random materials. The catch was that it had to exactly match the bridge on the other side of the divider. Every 3-5 minutes or so, we'd send up a negotiator to talk with someone from the other team. They'd confer, they'd come back, and we'd all adjust.

It was certainly a more enjoyable way to spend an hour than many other things we could have been doing with our time, but the point was that we were using 21st century skills: problem solving, negotiating, team work, and so forth. These soft skills are the ones that employers say people most need. They're also the ones employers are likely to say people lack. These are the skills that gifted children will need in the 21st century.

Except they're also the skills that all children need. And this is where the gifted conversation goes awry. Because many pull-outs over the years have been built around fun project based learning. But all kids can learn that way, and all kids can enjoy going to science museums, or whatever other trips these pull-outs have entailed.

What gifted kids need in particular is work that stretches their brains to the extent of their capabilities, in an environment with their intellectual peers. Bridges can be part of that. But bridges can be part of everyone's learning. What belongs under the gifted education rubric is something a little different.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Starting your own school, part 2

In my last post, I asked a few questions of Robert and Susan Gold, the founders of the Feynman School in Bethesda. Feynman serves academically gifted children, and has a science-centered curriculum for these young explorers. The Golds were interested in starting a school in part because their own daughter needed such a place. While this is a labor intensive approach to meeting a gifted child's needs, it's one that some parents consider, so I wanted to share their experience.

Today's post is the second part of the interview.

Q. What did you try that did not work? What did you learn from that?

A. Well, let’s start on a positive note. Feynman School is fulfilling its mission to provide a high-quality education for academically gifted children. The resources we have gathered from NAGC, MEGS (Maryland Educators of Gifted Students), the College of William and Mary’s Center for Gifted Education, our Advisory Board members, and others, have allowed it to do so. Nearly everyone we have consulted with to this point has been very willing to help mentor us, a “pay it forward” mentality we try to impart to our students at Feynman.

On the other hand, the business side has been rife with struggle, heartbreak, trial and error, and in some cases, the same battles gifted advocates have fought for decades.

One of the first things we did after obtaining nonprofit section 501(c)(3) status was to try to raise money. We figured, this is such a great cause, won’t folks be lining up to write checks? When that didn’t pan out immediately, we sought the advice of professional fundraisers. One said he had recently raised more than one million dollars for another local independent school’s annual campaign, and even though our school was new, he thought he could realistically help us raise $500K.

Six months and $6,000 in consulting fees later, he still hadn’t raised any funds (for us, that is). Apparently, raising money for a new school is harder than fundraising for a school with 600 students, a one hundred year history and lots of wealthy alumni. Who knew?

We just took it for granted that our society would see the value of gifted education and early science education. But before we had even opened our doors, there were naysayers with the usual charges of “elitism”, “gifted kids are socially maladjusted”, why are we “pushing” kids so early, and “they’ll get all the parents who are THAT parent”. One of our favorites: an anonymous poster on a local chat board quipped, “sounds like another school for the financially gifted.” In reality, we try very hard to identify high-potential learners, and offer academic scholarships so that children who can best benefit from Feynman may do so regardless of socio-economic status.

Then, too, we have approached businesses that publicly pride themselves on supporting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, but when presented with a true opportunity to do so, will not respond. Is “gifted” the problem? Whether these businesses are looking to support STEM education for the betterment of society, ROI, or some combination thereof, we believe it is shortsighted to fail to recognize that academically gifted children are an underserved population. Most people seem to think these kids will do just fine on their own. Research says otherwise.

Some of the things we have learned in our fundraising efforts are:

* a private school for academically gifted children does not, on its surface, sound like a particularly needy cause;

* people invest in people, not causes;

* personal stories are important;

* fundraising requires great resilience; and

* silent auctions can raise significant funds and can be fun community-building events.

Q. What are the advantages of having a school like yours, versus homeschooling your child?

A. Funny thing is, parents at Feynman School have joked that we are homeschooling our girls—except with a campus, eleven teachers and forty other children around. Most Feynman families consist of working parents who cannot devote the time to homeschooling their children and are thankful to have a school that echoes their concerns and goals for their children’s education. These children get to be around their intellectual peers every day. Initially we were concerned that our classrooms would contain many chiefs! But the truth is, they get along extremely well. Our students come from a wide variety of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, but share the common bonds of inquisitiveness and the ability to focus their attention well.

We believe Feynman School offers the best of both worlds: highly individualized instruction, flexible curriculum—something that approaches the agility of homeschooling—along with some advantages of scale. The benefits of a strong, collegial teacher community with expertise in different academic domains (science, math, Spanish), and that prides itself on professional development cannot be overlooked when educating gifted children.

Further, being an approved nonprofit school has allowed Feynman to convene a strong advisory board with experts in the fields of math, science, gifted education, corporate management, entrepreneurship and psychology; work alongside colleges and universities to pilot curricula; raise over $300,000 in tax-deductible donations; and easily coordinate elective classes such as music, drama, chess, basketball and robotics.

Moreover, Feynman School’s parent community is largely comprised of like-minded individuals whose paths might not have crossed otherwise due to location (our students hail from Maryland, DC and Virginia). The bonds we have formed extend well beyond the walls of the school and benefit our students.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

One parental solution: start your own school

Parents figure out lots of ways to get an appropriate education for their gifted children. Robert and Susan Gold's approach? Starting a school. I asked them to share the journey to starting Bethesda, MD's Feynman School, and I'll run the answers in two parts. This is part 1.

Q. How did you figure out your daughter was going to need a different sort of education?

A. Madeline just came out "ready" to take on the world! She reached developmental milestones early, ascending a flight of stairs at seven months; and by twelve months, looking up from her changing table and announcing, "Mommy, I'm irritated! I need some Aquaphor." Even as a toddler she could think abstractly. At eighteen months, entering a donut shop with her grandfather she surprised him by asking: "Papa, when you were a little boy did you like donuts, too?"

At Madeline's eighteen-month-checkup her pediatrician gave us our wake-up call. "You're going to have to watch out for her in school," he explained. "She's going to be bored if she isn't challenged enough." He added that parents and teachers need to be extra careful with gifted girls because often they don't let on how bored they are. Of course that's a gross generalization but in practice it does appear that bored, gifted boys are more likely to make their boredom manifest.

Fast forward nearly two years and, sure enough, Madeline's preschool teachers reported that having her in class was like having a third teacher in the room. We were thrilled that Madeline's teachers found her bright and helpful (she could be a bit bossy at home), but were concerned she wasn't seeing much new material. This was a kid who assembled 200-piece jigsaw puzzles and stayed up solving Sodoku puzzles for fun.

Thanks to Madeline's innate curiosity and her pediatrician's advice, our research on gifted education was in full swing well before Madeline's fourth birthday. We would only note how important it is to choose a pediatrician who has the know-how to identify talents as well as concerns. Madeline's pediatrician had himself raised an academically gifted son, now also a physician.

Q. Starting a school seems like a lot of work! What made you think this was the right choice?

A. It was the only choice. Around three and a half Madeline began asking big, sometimes philosophical questions: "Where does the sky end?" "What's inside the computer?" "Were there always people here?" (People where?) "On Earth?" For this last one we found an evolutionary chart online with Australopithecus and so on. Looking at the chart she exclaimed, "This is really interesting. Do you have a book on that?" So basically we threw up our hands and said, let's hire some very learned teachers who can answer her questions. That was the beginning of Feynman School.

All kidding aside, we knew there were other parents in the Washington DC area seeking a school for gifted young learners. Once we had figured out that Madeline would require gifted and talented programming to fully develop her abilities, we had researched the area to see if any schools fit the bill. Surprisingly in the greater DC metropolitan area, none did. This was 2009. There was no early childhood program or primary school where academically gifted children could explore and learn at their pace. One of our first contacts was Jeanne Paynter, Specialist for Gifted Education at the Maryland State Department of Education. We asked her if we had overlooked anything in our search. Dr. Paynter said no, we hadn't overlooked anything -- but she did get calls every year from parents looking for a school exactly like the one we were describing.

We also received an early vote of confidence from Dr. Joyce VanTassel-Baska, longtime Director of The Center for Gifted Education at The College of William and Mary and one of the world's foremost experts on gifted education. She met with us for nearly three hours at her Washington office and helped formulate Feynman School's curriculum and methods. It was Dr. VanTassel-Baska, for example, who suggested we start with science as the cornerstone of an integrated curriculum.

Emboldened, we searched nationally for successful schools catering to young gifted children. We visited Hollingworth Preschool at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Hunter College Elementary School, both in New York City. We saw Hollingworth students at the ripe age of four fully engaged in the study of architecture. Hunter's youngest students, meanwhile, were applying critical thinking skills on a daily basis in many subject areas.

At the 2009 NAGC convention in St. Louis, we were also fortunate enough to meet representatives from Mirman School, which educates young gifted children in Los Angeles. When Dr. and Mrs. Mirman opened the school in 1962, they had just nine students, in their living room. In 2013 the school enrolls over 300 students on a beautiful campus. The Mirman administration has helped us tremendously. Jocie Balaban, the Interim Lower School Head, has even been out to visit Feynman School in Bethesda and says we're doing the right things.

Many, many people in the field of gifted education have been generous to us over the last five years. So we haven't had to go it alone, or engage in a lot of guesswork regarding talent identification, curriculum or materials.

In sum, it was the critical need for a school like Feynman in the DC area, the support we received from the gifted education community, and also, our belief that our professional backgrounds, education and business law, were well-suited to opening a school, that persuaded us to go forward with the endeavor. When we see the growth and progress our students make and how happy they are to be at Feynman School -- they often don't want to leave at the end of the day -- we know for certain we made the right choice.

(Part 2 coming in a few days...)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The instrument question

I apologize for the gap in time since my last post. I've been trying to figure out what to write about -- not because I don't have topics to write about when it comes to the challenges of raising gifted kids, but because I am experiencing many of those things personally right now. I'm trying to figure out how to write about my children given that I am not particularly anonymous on the internet and they're increasingly literate.

But here's a topic I can write about -- starting kids on an instrument. My 6-year-old is quite interested in music. I have a keyboard he's talked about playing, and he has tried a few notes on. However, he also heard one of his friends' older brothers play the violin and was quite taken with that.

I think he'd like learning to read music and I think he'd find studying an instrument challenging in a way that aspects of school work are not. So what direction do we go? I'm curious what age Gifted Exchange readers started their children with various instruments and your thoughts on which are good for beginners. Are there good ways to try different instruments given that we probably won't take on lessons in more than one instrument at a time? I suppose one option would be to try violin first in a more structured lesson setting, given that I can show him how to play the piano. But I'm curious what people think, and your children's experiences with learning music.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Making homework worthwhile

My oldest child just started first grade, which in our district is when homework officially begins. It's supposed to be light at this age (10 minutes a night) and is done more for the idea of building the habit than anything else. My son's teacher also has the good system of assigning homework on a weekly basis. You turn it all in on Friday, so if you want to get it all done on Monday and not do it the rest of the week, fine. If you want to cram at the end, you can do that too. I think it will probably be a valuable lesson in time management, since much of life requires us to manage our own deadlines over multiple days.

Of course, homework can be done well or done badly. It's no surprise that in many schools, a lot of it is done badly. It winds up being busy work covering the exact same stuff done in school that day. That time could be better spent reading for pleasure. Or playing outside.

But some forms of homework can be very helpful. Annie Murphy Paul wrote, recently, at Mind/Shift on how to make homework worthwhile. A few ideas?

First, try spaced repetition. Rather than cover what the kid did at school that day, homework can revisit topics from earlier in the year. Or preview topics coming later! A history class may have moved on from the American Revolution, but revisiting the founding documents later in the semester may remind children of the ways those documents influence later events (being covered at that time in class).

Another option is "retrieval practice" -- which is basically quizzing yourself to make memories stronger. Tests don't just show what you know, they change what you know.

Paul also notes that knowledge is better burned into our brains if we have to work harder to learn it. People retain more knowledge from reading passages that are smudged, or in hard-to-read fonts, because they're working to decode them. Schools aren't really relying on those awful mimeograph machines anymore, but homework's difficulty level can be upped by putting different kinds of problems together. You don't get 30 subtraction problems in a row, you get a mixed bag of different functions and different numbers of digits. That keeps your brain working.

What kind of homework do your kids get? Do you think it's worthwhile?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Self-contained, with a broad definition of gifted

In Houston County (Georgia), the gifted program used to be a pull-out program. Students got one day a week of gifted instruction. This year, they've moved to self-contained classes, all day and for all grades. You can read about the change at in this article. (As a side note, it's a really good article, talking about many issues stories of these nature miss, like that gifted kids have to work a lot harder in classes when they're no longer "stars").

One reason few districts do self-contained classes is cost. If gifted education is targeted at 1-3% of students, then self-contained classes are often small, even if you combine a few grades. This means you have to actively put money into the program beyond the normal per pupil cost. For a variety of reasons, some political, schools find it difficult to do this.

The choice Houston County seems to have made is to broaden the definition of gifted. According to the article, some 4000 of the district's 27,000 students have been put into gifted classes. This is about 15% of the population. At this level, you could have 6 classes in a grade, with one being a gifted class, and not need any extra staffing levels.

So is this a smart choice?

On one level, a gifted designation this broad will be tricky. There is a huge variance within that 15%.

On the other, any attempts at ability grouping (or "readiness grouping" as we like to say here) will increase the chances that a class will be taught closer to a highly gifted child's level. The differentiation within that class can offer the highly gifted child more than the differentiation within a far more mixed class.

And since pull-outs are sometimes more disruptive than worthwhile, I think Houston County is moving in the right direction.

If your child is in a self-contained class, are you satisfied with the level of rigor?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

What age Harry Potter?

There's not much that unites our diverse world these days, but it does seem that reading the Harry Potter series is a pretty common thread for even quasi-bookish children. When the books came out over the past 20 years, children visited book stores at midnight to buy the first editions. They're exciting. They're fun.

They're also, at times, kind of dark. So here's the question: how old were your kids when they started reading Harry Potter?

I've been debating this as I see what my 6-year-old likes to read. We've gone through the Magic Tree House series. We've enjoyed or are enjoying some classic works like Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and Charlotte's Web. I think Harry Potter would be a lot more exciting (and epic!) than Junie B. Jones.

But we've had incidents of being scared of the dark, and he's a bit blown over by the concept of death (naturally, really -- who wouldn't be?) So I'm wondering how scary he would find Voldemort et al.

What was your experience with reading the series? How old were your kids, and how did they react?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Congratulations to the 2013 Davidson Fellows!

Every year, the Davidson Institute awards scholarships to young people who have done outstanding original projects. Unique among the big scholarship programs, kids can be any age up to 18 to win. While most winners are high school students, there have been much younger winners too. The Davidson Fellows program also recognizes great projects in music and literature, along with math and science. This makes for a diverse crew (though most are science/math this year), and it's always fun to see who wins.

The Davidson Institute just announced this year's winners last week. You can read the press release here.

If you're the parent of a young person who's got a big idea, check out the frequently asked questions about eligibility for next year.

Monday, August 26, 2013

"Their mere participation in G&T programs entitles them to good grades"

John Rosemond has a nationally syndicated parenting column. He's often got an edge, which is fun to read -- though oddly enough, Kentucky seems to be accusing him of practicing psychology without a license (at least a Kentucky license that is) because of his sharp advice. As someone who freely dispenses my advice all over the place, I think this is kind of an alarming development.

But anyway, the problem for our purposes is that he seems to have it in for gifted children. I'm not quite sure what Rosemond has experienced that's led him to have a negative view of the whole enterprise, but that certainly comes out in his columns.

This past week, he wrote about "Motivating a smart kid who is lazy." The gist of the advice -- that people don't change unless the consequences of their behavior affect them personally -- isn't wrong. But he gets at that with some broadsides against gifted education in his response to a parent worried that a gifted son isn't doing his homework.

As he writes, "The fact that the school has identified your son as 'gifted and talented' may be part of the problem. My finding is that a good number of children who've been so identified seem to feel that their mere participation in G&T programs entitles them to good grades no matter how much effort they put into their schoolwork. So they do just enough to get by and no more. The further problem is that schools will not, generally speaking, lower the boom on these kids. Teachers continue giving them decent report card grades even though they don't complete assignments or turn in work, do poorly on tests, and so on. And once a child's been promoted to G&T status, demotion is virtually out of the question. These kids are smart all right. They're smart enough to figure out that the only consequence of their lack of effort is that adults get upset."

Note the use of the word "finding." It implies that there's some research backing this statement up. There isn't.

There are, of course, gifted children who don't do homework. Some may feel entitled. Some may be lazy. And some may object to spending big chunks of their lives doing work they've mastered years ago. Perhaps parents should teach that we follow the rules...and sometimes, perhaps, they should try to find alternate educational arrangements that actually challenge the kid. I know that in my life, some of my biggest educational accommodations have happened when I spoke up about why I shouldn't do certain assignments or classes. Adults don't always know best.

The point is that these situations are often not black and white. Education and parenting both require a lot of understanding of complex reasons for things. Especially when we're dealing with children with special needs of any sort. But Rosemond has decided that gifted kids are con artists, looking to lord their smarts over the rest of us. I'm sure plenty of readers from this blog could share stories pointing otherwise -- stories of gifted kids doing poorly on tests, and getting poor grades, and parents' struggles to figure out how to solve those problems.

As for entitlement and lack of effort? I maintain that the best way to undercut any entitlement in gifted students is to truly challenge them so they have to work. Which is far more likely to happen in GT programs than in regular classes, whatever Rosemond may think.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Spelling, punctuation, and the young writer

My 6-year-old son is an obsessive little writer. When we went to Cape May for a week this summer, and didn’t have a whole lot of paper or notebooks with us, he wrote stories on napkins. When he’d run through all our paper napkins, he moved on to the paper towels.

Mostly he’s been writing Magic Tree House fan fiction -- stories incorporating Jack and Annie as main characters, with some of the same conventions (they go to the tree house first every time, and it spins faster and faster, until “everything was still. Absolutely still.”)

It’s all very cute and fun, and I’ve mostly been like “that’s great, sweetie.” But on all of these books, he writes “Majic” Tree House. He’s seen dozens of the real books and has read this word many times, but still writes it as “majic.” So the question I’ve been pondering is whether it’s helpful or not helpful to bring up such matters as spelling, grammar, and punctuation with the young writer.

Part of me says no, I don’t want to in any way second guess his creativity. He’s having fun. He’s writing purely for the joy of it. Writing is play for him and I’m in no hurry for him to think otherwise.

But another part of me says that I’m bringing negative baggage to spelling and grammar and such that isn’t inherent in these things. I wish I’d had the finer points of grammar introduced to me far earlier. I also love the growth mindset inherent in writing a draft and then making it better. My son writes a story and then abandons it, rather than going back and doing it again and making it better and thinking about how he can improve it. That’s probably the part of writing I like best -- taking a rough draft and experiencing the joy of progress as I see myself making it better.

So, those are the two sides of this argument. What do you think? It occurs to me that I could let him type some of his stories and he'd see the indication in a Word document that something was spelled wrong.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Bedtime stories worth staying up for

Laura's note: This is cross-posted at my personal blog,

Like many parents, I try to read to my kids most nights before they go to bed. I find that I enjoy this ritual much more if the stories I’m reading are interesting -- with good art as a bonus -- than if they’re pedantic, as too many kids’ stories are.

Here are some books I’m really enjoying right now:

Bedtime Math. When I first heard of Laura Overdeck’s Bedtime Math daily email a little over a year ago, I knew it was a great idea. Too many people consider math this scary, difficult thing, as opposed to a neat way of making sense of the world. But what if math was presented to us in the same way bedtime stories are, with cuddles and introduced by a caregiver you love? Overdeck’s email blast has now evolved into a series of books, the first of which came out this summer. My 2 boys (ages 3 and 6) are loving this first installment. Each page has a silly little introduction to a subject (cooking spaghetti, the size of whales, etc), and then 3 levels of story problems: wee ones, little kids, big kids. My 3-year-old can do the wee ones problems counting on his and my fingers, and my 6-year-old does the little kids and (usually) the big kids ones. They’re finding this so fun that I have to tell them “Boys, we can only do 2 more math problems -- you have to go to bed!”

The Boy Who Loved Math. Artist LeUyen Pham was working on this book when I interviewed her for What the Most Successful People Do at Work. It’s a story about the life of Paul ErdÅ‘s, the legendarily prolific (if eccentric) mathematician. My boys love that as a kid, Paul used to calculate how many seconds someone had been alive. The illustrations, needless to say, are a stunning mix of pictures and numbers.

Night of the Moonjellies. There are lot of books about kids at the seashore, but this is one of my favorites. Little Mark, age 7, works 2 days a week at his grandma’s hot dog stand that serves the best lobster rolls in New England. This story tells of his busy day filling the ketchup jars and grabbing straws, and then at night taking a boat ride to where all the moonjellies live in the water. Mark Shasha (the author -- and the main character) does a wonderful job recreating the seashore not just as a place where people relax, but where people live and make a living, too.

One Morning in Maine. This classic is a bit lengthy for a bedtime story, but worth it if the kids have somehow finished up their baths 10 minutes early. A little girl named Sal lives on an island in Maine, and wakes up one morning with a loose tooth. While the plot is about losing the tooth, and misplacing it, but getting her wish anyway, Robert McCloskey’s tale is more memorable for how it paints a picture of rural Maine, with people who need to take a boat to buy groceries, and who go dig clams in the morning to eat for lunch. That's a sort of locavore eating that’s now hip but used to be life. For 50 pages, you’re transported to a completely different world.

The Magic Tree House series. My 6-year-old is utterly obsessed with the stories of Jack and Annie, siblings who discover a magic tree house in the woods near their home in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania. The tree house belongs to Morgan le Fey, the librarian of King Arthur’s Court, and she sends the children on missions through time and space to solve riddles, save books, and the like. We’ve gone to visit pandas in China, to a Civil War battlefield, to the first Thanksgiving, to 15th century Florence, etc. Each 70-page story (a few special Merlin Missions go to about 110 pages) is fast-paced and the prose is simple enough to allow a new reader the thrill of making it through a chapter book, whether he does this alone or with a parent. I’ve probably read at least 20 of these books aloud now, and have found myself actually thinking I’d read -- of my own volition! -- through one of the installments my 6-year-old brought home from the library and finished without me. That’s saying a lot for early chapter books.

What’s on your list of bedtime story greatest hits?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

When did you have your children tested/evaluated -- and why?

Children are tested and evaluated for giftedness at a variety of different ages. In New York City, with its oversubscribed gifted programs, kids can be tested going into kindergarten. In some other districts, gifted programs don't start until 3rd grade, so that's when children are evaluated. Some schools or districts screen all kids, and in some, children are privately evaluated.

I went to a magnet school with a gifted program starting in 1st grade, so I must have had some sort of evaluation or designation -- perhaps informal -- for that.

Then, if I recall correctly, I took an IQ test around 3rd grade from someone in private practice who did such things. It was partly so I could take Saturday morning classes in a gifted program in our area. I had a lot of fun in that program -- taking classes in Esperanto and the like -- though humorously one of my favorite classes was cross-stitching. You definitely don't have to be gifted to learn to cross stitch! (though I imagine the social component was a big part of all these programs).

Now, as we're figuring out school for my oldest child, who's 6 and going into first grade, I'm thinking through these issues again. When did you have your children tested or evaluated, and why? Was it triggered by the desire to put children in certain programs, or because it seemed a school wasn't meeting a child's needs? How did it go and, looking back, does that seem like the right age and time?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What's the point of tests?

School these days have lots of assessments. But what is the point of tests?

I was thinking of this after reading Jay Mathews's Washington Post column on a parent's frustration that a teacher wouldn't send home his child's math tests. The child was struggling in math -- getting bad grades on those tests -- and so the parent wanted the child to work with him and a tutor on figuring out why he was getting those problems wrong. The teacher wouldn't send the test home because the tests get re-used year to year, and the presumption is that copies floating about could be used for cheating.

There's a lot that's problematic about this scenario, but beyond the worry about cheating, it raises interesting questions about why kids are tested and missed opportunities.

In the traditional educational mindset, a test shows what you know at some point in time. The information is presented, and then you are tested on it. You get a grade -- say, 14 out of 20 questions right, which is a 70% or "C" -- but regardless of the grade, the class is moving on.

But there's another view of what tests should be -- one more represented by the parent in this column -- that tests are about diagnostic information. You see what a child knows at one point in time, and then you use that information to tailor instruction based on that information. The goal is mastery. A 70% isn't a sign that you're a mediocre student, per se. It's a sign that you don't know 30% of the material, and should learn that material before you move on.

Personally, I think the latter view is more useful. A basketball player in practice might shoot 20 3-point shots, and he studies why he makes some and why he doesn't. He's not assigned a grade that follows him around for his 50% success rate. The goal is to improve.

I'm sympathetic to the increased use of testing in schools over the past 10 years. In many cases this is the only real accountability put on schools -- the only way we have of knowing that a school that has great band uniforms and nice cheery classrooms has not, in fact, been producing graduates capable of succeeding in college.

But end-of-year testing is a very rough way of doing this, and doesn't provide nearly the information we need to actually get better at things. Instead, constant assessment -- maybe of the sort computer programs could do -- could help parents and teachers figure out where students stand on their math skills, and how to shore up weak points. Parents like the father in Mathews' column could be getting information every week on their child's progress and not be in the dark -- except for a grade like "C" or "D" -- on what the child knows. Especially in a subject like math, it seems it would be possible to have enough problems generated through software that it wouldn't make sense for a teacher to use the same tests year after year anyway.

What do you think is the point of tests?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Summer entertainment for the kids

Our family spent much of the past 2.5 weeks on the road. First, we traveled to Seattle and Washington State for 10 days, then we spent a week at a beach house on the New Jersey shore. Travel is generally good for stimulating kids. There are lots of new experiences -- from going to the top of the Space Needle (I forget how fun touristy things really can be for little kids) to beach combing on Bainbridge Island, to seeing snow on the ground at Mt. Rainier National Park in late June.

Now we're home for a bit, though, and are figuring out how to structure the days. My oldest two have been going to YMCA camp, and have liked it a lot. We're doing a lot of swimming, and are trying to load up on the books. I welcome recommendations of your favorite early chapter books that might appeal to a slightly sensitive 6-year-old boy. There's time for firefly catching at night. But we only signed up for 2 weeks of camp, so after that we'll have to figure out other things to keep them occupied. We've learned that when they're not occupied, there's a lot of whining and fighting.

How are your children spending the summer? What are they reading and what are they doing?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Should you let your child decide whether to join a gifted program?

The Fort Wayne News Sentinel ran a parenting advice column the other day from John Rosemond. Some parents wrote in saying that their 9-year-old daughter had recently qualified for a gifted program. She'd always liked school, but became quite upset when informed that she'd qualified. None of her friends were in the program, so she didn't want to be either. The school counselor didn't think the parents should let the daughter make the decision, but the parents wanted to know what Rosemond thought.

His answer revealed some of the deepest flaws of many gifted programs. As he wrote: "In most cases, and especially at the elementary level, the programs in question are examples of what are known as 'pull-out' programs. The children in GT programs attend regular classes and are then pulled out of class three to five times a week for enrichments of various sorts. I am unable to find any compelling research to the effect that these programs result in long-term intellectual or academic advantage. Their ultimate benefit, therefore, is questionable."

So if the child thought being singled out for special treatment wouldn't sit well with her friends, Rosemond said the parents should let her make this decision. You can still live a good life if you skip a gifted program, which he backed up with the evidence of his own daughter, who had a similar take on her pull-out program.

I've been pondering this answer. While in general I like the idea of children taking ownership for their education, there's a lot wrong with this scenario.

First, good gifted programs should be self-contained classes or even schools, not pull-outs. Second, they shouldn't appear to be special treatment for the smart kids who are somehow different from their friends. Gifted programs should be an educational intervention for students who need it. While one can imagine parents letting a child decide whether or not to use accommodations to address her dyslexia, one hopes they'd have a strong opinion on that matter.

I'm also a little wary that we're talking about a daughter here. Girls face pressure fairly young not to be seen as smart -- that being smart somehow works against you in terms of what's considered attractive. That she sees being put in a gifted program as upsetting may be rational...or it may be her absorbing a million awful media messages. Parents are supposed to counteract those messages, not indulge them.

Also, the point of school is to learn, not just to hang out with your friends. Our cultural narrative doesn't really see that -- witness the big deal made about sports teams and proms and other such things people fret about when acceleration comes up. But it's true nonetheless.

Personally, I'm not sure that pull-outs are worth much -- just as Rosemond says. But there's so much going on with this issue that needs to be discussed.

Would you let your child decide whether to be in the gifted program or not?

Monday, June 03, 2013

Gifted centers vs. in-school enrichment

A good gifted program does many things, but here are two key parts: First, children are challenged to the extent of their abilities. Second, they're surrounded by intellectual peers who help their learning along.

To try to achieve that, Pinellas County in Florida has been busing students at elementary schools with no gifted services to gifted centers one day a week. This allows the district to concentrate such students. The problem, though, according to this article from the Tampa Bay Times, is that busing eats up quite a bit of instructional time.

So under a new program, all elementary schools will now offer gifted programming, part or full time. The district is investing close to $1 million in these new services (though saving some cash on transportation costs).

I've been pondering these alternate set-ups, and have a few thoughts.

First, I'm happy to see any district spending more money on gifted education -- certainly not the usual course of events these days.

I also think that one day a week at a gifted center doesn't really constitute an ideal set-up. While that one day will certainly serve a social function of bringing gifted kids together (no small thing, really), doing something special one day a week isn't really about challenging kids if they're in their regular classes the rest of the time. In this sense, full-time (or even part-time if it's more than 3-4 hours/week) instruction in a home school would be better.

But on the other hand, why the interest in having home schools? In an ideal world, perhaps Pinellas County's 11 gifted centers could have become full GT schools. Kids could be bused straight there in the morning 5 days a week, rather than their home schools. That would solve the problem of missing instructional time.

The fear is always that a school will hire a gifted coordinator, but then somehow only wind up with a small number of students in the gifted class. When resources become tight, people will wonder why a teacher is teaching 10 kids instead of 27. The program will be disbanded, and the gifted coordinator sent around to offer "in class enrichment" or pull-outs to those 10 kids, plus 10 kids at 3 other schools. And we'll be back down under the 3 hours kids were getting at the gifted centers. Minus the chance to learn in an environment with their intellectual peers.

What would you see as an ideal set-up if a district was trying to create a good gifted program?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Getting kids to practice

I give a fair number of speeches these days. But even though I have given the same speech many, many times, I always practice beforehand. I've realized that part of being a polished public speaker is knowing your material so well that you can use your extra brain power to read the audience, riff off things they say, move faster through material if you see their attention lagging, etc. This makes getting up in front of a big group of people a fairly easy thing to do. And that makes speaking a lot more fun.

I also know that practicing is a discipline I've come to somewhat later in life. I played the piano for years, but I never really wanted to devote large amounts of time to practice. I run, but I'm still not into doing the drills I know would make me faster. I do writing drills of sorts -- kind of what I consider my other blog -- and I can see my first drafts getting faster over time. So I know it works. I also know it's hard to embrace.

And so I've been trying to figure out how to convey this idea to my son (who just turned 6 last week). We aren't doing any sports or music right now that would require a practice schedule. But his kindergarten class is putting on a play. He has a few lines and a song he sings by himself. He seems to like some of the other songs in the play much better. And so he'll practice the other songs a lot. But not the one he personally has to sing.

I dislike nagging, or going all Tiger Mother on the concept of practice, so I've tried to just matter-of-factly say "Ok, we're going to run through your song once now and then once more after dinner." But he's resistant. Yesterday, I tried to explain exactly why we practice something like this. He may not like the song, but in two days, he'll be up on a stage and he'll need to sing it. And he'll feel much better being up there if he knows the words well enough that he can have a little fun. Things feel different on stage. Even if you vaguely know something in a practice situation, you have to really know it to not have being on stage affect you.

Or, then again, maybe this will just be a good learning experience about why practicing matters.

Do your kids practice music, sports, or other such things? Do they want to? If so, how do you go about encouraging this?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Changing a name

The Davidson Institute sends me a list of gifted-related headlines each week. This past week, a short article from Davis, CA announced that the school board had voted to change the name of the gifted program from "Gifted and Talented Education" (GATE -- a common acronym) to an "Alternative Instruction Model."

When I hear such news, I'm struck by two things, which point in different directions.

On one hand, I generally suspect that few school boards are excited about the concept of gifted education. Indeed (if I'm reading the story right), the Davis board seems to be moving away from self-contained gifted classes, and to in-class enrichment. This is a problem. It basically means watering down gifted education and depriving gifted children of the opportunity to be challenged with their intellectual peers.

On the other hand, I don't dislike the idea of calling gifted education something else. The "gifted" label can become a bit of a lightning rod, which is one reason that school boards like getting rid of gifted education. It seems to satisfy some false egalitarian urge, as opposed to being what it really is (choosing to under-invest in part of their student population). An "alternative instruction model" is, in reality, what gifted education is. Some children's needs cannot be met in a regular classroom. They need alternative instruction, just as children with other special needs do. Calling gifted education something more neutral could turn the whole discussion from something political to something more practical. Here's what we do to help some children learn best. Here's what we do to help other children learn best.

What do you think of alternative names for gifted education?

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

AP classes: helpful or not?

The Washington Post picks up on a new report challenging various assumptions about Advanced Placement courses -- college-level courses taught in high schools. The College Board holds national AP exams that young people can take to show they've mastered this material (and potentially place into more advanced courses in college).

The report claims that while students who take AP classes are more likely to go to and do well in college, this may be a correlation vs. causation issue. Obviously, the kinds of kids who are interested in earning college credit, and taking challenging classes, likely have their sights set on higher education anyway. That's worth keeping in mind, since expanding AP offerings is often suggested as a way to increase the proportion of college-ready students graduating from high school. The report also frets that since AP classes are smaller, and tend to be taught by top teachers, they siphon resources away from the rest of the school.

I certainly don't think AP classes are perfect. I took a great number of them in high school. My take away, as with so much of education, is that the teacher matters. I am the same person, with the same study habits, and while I got 5s (the top score) in BC calculus, chemistry, and biology, I got a 2 in physics. I am not holding myself blameless, of course. A more motivated student might have studied hard enough to do well regardless of how the class was taught. But I do feel the others did a better job of presenting the material and checking for understanding.

My problem with this analysis, though, questioning the efficacy of AP classes, is that this is one of the few nationally benchmarked ways we have of aiming for high standards and challenging classes in high school. If a certain teacher produces mostly 2s on an AP exam, and another produces lots of 4s and 5s, you have a pretty good indication of which is covering the subject better (you can argue that the AP exams don't really show knowledge, but given how many colleges do accept the scores, I think there's something to what they show). There is little accountability in much of education, and the AP exam at least creates that. Passing such a class -- perhaps early in high school -- might also give a gifted young person a credential for taking college classes. Early college is another good way that kids can be challenged.

As for siphoning off resources, well, this is the same argument that gets hashed out about gifted education in general. Some educators really do not think that high achieving kids should be a priority. As it is, in the NCLB era, gifted kids have become much less a priority than those who, with a push, might achieve grade level standards. AP classes are at least something of a bone tossed to high achievers in high school. It would be a shame to take them away too.

In other news: President Obama recently hosted the third annual White House science fair. You can read about some of the projects here.

And in personal news, my 5-year-old just won first prize in a local poetry contest for younger students. I am so proud! He's telling me he wants to be an author and an illustrator.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Bill Gates on curious kids

Fast Company's Anya Kamenetz interviewed Bill Gates for the most recent issue of the magazine. In it, Gates touches on ideas for boosting teacher skills, MOOCs, and the like.

But I thought Gifted Exchange readers might find this part most interesting. Kamenetz posed this question: "You've said that when you were in high school, you followed your own interests, taking on independent study, working on computer programming day and night. Is there room for that kind of student-driven learning in a highly rigorous, metrics-based environment?"

Gates answered that "People who are as curious as I am will be fine in any system. For the self-motivated student, these are the golden days. I wish I was growing up now. I envy my son. If he and I are talking about something that we don't understand, we just watch videos and click on articles, and that feeds our discussion. Unfortunately, the highly curious student is a small percentage of the kids."

What do you think of this? Will the brilliant and curious do well under any system? Are these the golden days for self-motivated students?

On one hand, there certainly are a lot of resources now, available online for anyone. If you're interested in learning advanced math, nothing is stopping you from watching Khan Academy for hours. My 5-year-old son is really into maps right now, and he's been studying Google maps, sometimes announcing how many miles it is between two random destinations, and exactly how long that will take by car, mass transit, or foot.

But I'm not sure that schooling is in a golden age for the curious. As Gates points out, the campaign to measure what kids are learning is not a bad thing. But some schools, obsessed with pass rates on grade level standardized tests, have decided that kids who easily meet the bar don't deserve any attention. One way to close the achievement gap is to lower the ceiling, rather than raise the floor.

What do you think? Are these the golden days for self-motivated, curious students?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Is ability grouping back?

A few weeks ago, the Brown Center released its report on education called "How well are American students learning?" This report looks in particular at the practice of ability grouping in 4th grade, and the acceleration of students into advanced math in 8th grade. The campaign to "detrack" schools -- vocal, if nothing else -- pushed the decreased use of grouping in early grades, and the idea that as many students as possible should take algebra in 8th grade. Some previous writings have labeled algebra as a "gatekeeper" course, and the idea is that if kids took the course in 8th grade, they'd then be able to fit all of college prep math into high school. Kids who didn't take algebra in 8th grade risked forever being left behind.

While grouping became something of a dirty word in educational circles, it never disappeared. According to the report, in 1998, 28% of fourth grade teachers were grouping students by ability for reading. Some 33% used some other grouping (like "interest") and 29% did not do grouping.

Now, it seems, ability grouping is experiencing a resurgence. In 2009, 71% of fourth grade teachers reported grouping for reading by ability, with 21% reporting some other kind of grouping and only 8% not grouping.

It's interesting to ponder why that might be. Between 1998 and 2009 there was increased emphasis on reading test scores. There have been small increases in reading scores in benchmarked assessments over this time. Certainly, teachers asked a few years ago about teaching mixed ability classes were quite likely to report that classes were so heterogeneous that they couldn't teach effectively. Grouping -- whether it is treated as an educational no-no or not -- may be done simply as a practicality. Theory is nice, but how do you actually help kids learn? You give them material matched to their level of preparation. How do you do that? You group by ability.

As for 8th grade algebra, the Brown Center reports that states with widespread acceleration into 8th grade do not do better on the NAEP than states that don't push as many 8th graders as possible into algebra. Earlier claims that algebra was a gatekeeper course suffered a bit from the correlation/causation problem. Stronger math students selected into 8th grade algebra, and these students were more likely to take and succeed in college prep math in high school. Students who wouldn't have selected into algebra in the past did not magically become stronger students by taking it.

It's an interesting report in general. What it reminds the reader is that moving the needle on education -- an undertaking that involves millions of students with very different backgrounds -- is hard. Various simple solutions (get rid of grouping! put kids in algebra in 8th grade!) can not, by themselves, change much.

Why do you think ability grouping is back?

Friday, April 05, 2013

Toy Story and blended learning

We spent spring break in DisneyWorld. We did this last year and had so much fun that we went again (thanks to my very generous mother-in-law).

One of the few "big" rides that we didn't do in 2012 was Toy Story in Disney's Hollywood Studios. When we showed up in 2012, the line was 2 hours long and the FastPasses (Disney's way you can commit to a specific time and skip the line) were gone for the day.

So this year I vowed to do it. We showed up at the park early, and got our FastPasses (which were already for mid-afternoon!) The line was already 90 minutes and would soon stretch to 180. Of course, when I saw that, I was definitely intrigued. What is it that makes this ride so fun?

The answer is that it's a combination of carnival games (think shooting at things that pop up) and video games. You spin in a little cart to the front of a screen, and start aiming your little toy gun at the bullseyes and such. You get points, which you can see on your cart, plus your accuracy rating and (good for competitive sorts) what your family members in the same cart are scoring.

This instant feedback is not only helpful in improving skill -- I realized that by slowing down and aiming I could do better on points and get a 58% accuracy rating -- it's kind of addictive. It's fun. That's why kids love to play video games. You know instantly how you're doing, and that instant feedback becomes a game. You're challenged and developing skills.

I've been thinking about that topic a lot lately as the Philanthropy Roundtable just released my short book called Blended Learning. While primarily aimed at philanthropists and people who work at foundations, the book gives an overview of the topic for general audiences, too. Blended learning might also be called "tech assisted teaching." The idea -- at least in the perfect form of it -- is that computers can gamify the rote learning of skills that is part of education. While part of education is about deep, critical thinking, you need to develop competence at certain skills in order to have space for higher-order thoughts. If you can read with ease, you can ask deep questions about the text. To learn to read with ease, you need to practice, and figure out what you're getting right and wrong. A computer can help with that. Likewise, math involves all sorts of skills that can be practiced (the reason teachers have long assigned problem sets). Why not have adaptive games that make this more fun?

The hope is that this frees up teacher time to tutor children, and the adaptive software challenges children to the extent of their abilities. There are few places doing this today, but the technology is getting better, and some places (which I write about in the book) are trying.

Anyway, the book is a free download if you're interested in checking it out. I've discovered that the more I blog, which has some instant feedback aspects associated with it, the more clear the logical order of an essay appears to me in drafts. That cuts down on the number of drafts I need to do.

Do your kids like educational software games?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Should gifted classes be open to all?

Slate magazine ran a story recently by Sarah Garland on who should be in gifted programs. Garland attended a magnet school in Louisville, KY, shortly after desegregation. Southern school districts (as mine did, in Raleigh NC) discovered that by putting a gifted magnet program at a school in a predominantly lower-income neighborhood, you could keep middle-class kids in your district. Indeed, you wouldn't just keep them in your district, you'd keep some of them in what might otherwise become the most stressed and under-funded schools.

Garland seems to have a problem with this. She notes that her gifted program had fewer African American students than her school at large (though certainly not zero; the numbers she cites are 11% vs. 20-40% in the school district). "The problem was that gifted programs tended to foster racial separation inside schools, undermining the very goal they were supposed to support." Maybe. In my school, the gifted classes were only for a few hours a day, and everything else -- including art, music, PE, lunch, recess, etc. -- was a non-tracked undertaking. All parents would be in the same PTA; the parents of more privileged students who wound up in these schools would still be advocating for better staffing, would be volunteering in the schools, would be noticing maintenance problems, etc.

Since I tend to think that was a smart move by these districts, I have to say, I did not have high hopes for Garland's article. But after she got the usual complaints about gifted programs out of the way, she raised a rather interesting question: what if parents and kids can simply self-select into them?

The upside is that this would remove all possible questions about testing bias -- about whether intelligence tests measure intelligence or are measuring other things. One could also imagine that open-enrollment gifted programs would have more political support. It's not a lifeboat strategy, really, if anyone who wants can get on the lifeboat.

The downside, though, is that the point of gifted education is to challenge and meet the needs of children whose needs can't be met in traditional classrooms. Teachers naturally instruct toward the middle of their classes. Good teachers are constantly assessing how many children have figured things out and how many have not, and if most are confused, the teacher will stay on the matter at hand until she or he gets a satisfactory percentage of students over the hump. The challenge would be to make sure that the rigor of such classes remained as high as they should be.

Garland discusses some pilot programs in Washington DC that take such an approach. There are two realizations that the pilot programs have involved: first, they have to be well-staffed, so if kids are struggling, something is done about that. Second, there also needs to be a lot of outreach and some explanation of what a gifted program is. Not all parents are familiar with the concept, and whether that would be something for their kids to try.

I'd also add a few other thoughts. First, such gifted programs should not be the only "good" programs at a school. You want parents and kids to opt into gifted classes because they think they need them, not because it's the only way to get a class with few discipline problems. Second, there also needs to be a seamless and non-judgmental way to transition out of them. Frankly, all gifted programs suffer from this problem. In districts that do have gifted programs, if you're identified once in an early grade, sometimes you're in for good, even if it turns out that wasn't the right placement. There should be some good way to move in and out of programs, evaluating every year what is the right fit.

What do you think of the concept of open-enrollment gifted programs?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Is boredom good for kids?

Gifted kids learn things quickly. Left in a class with their age peers, they spend a lot of time waiting for other kids to catch up. The result: boredom. Which raises a question: is boredom good for kids?

I was thinking of this while reading a post on this topic at the blog Grumpy Rumblings of the (Formerly) Untenured (blogger NicoleandMaggie sometimes comments here). Some well-meaning sorts acknowledge that gifted kids might get bored, but they tell concerned parents that learning to cope with boredom is an important life skill for kids. After all, not all of adult life is scintillating. It's like learning to cope with difficult people too.

But the problem is that as an adult, you have more choice about how you spend your time, and you also have other options for changing your environment. If you are thoroughly bored with a job, you do have the option to find another one. It's a bit harder for a 2nd grader to, on her own, remove herself from a boring classroom.

Adults also get to draw on more strategies than we tend to allow children in schools. Bored on a train? Pull out your iPhone. Bored in class? Often not allowed.

Furthermore, much of adult life is far more ability-grouped than school. I wrote a post several years ago here about an academic researcher who was vehemently against grouping...but whose university department bragged about how selective it was. So, there's that.

Personally, I think that one of the worst things we teach gifted kids in "regular" school is that learning should be easy, and also boring. Discovering new things is actually quite exciting! But it's also a lot of work. When children think they should be able to figure out anything required of them quite quickly, and then wait for the rest of the world to catch up, they miss an opportunity to learn how to stretch to understand something that seems just outside their reach. That's why we need to challenge gifted kids, rather than bore them.

How does your child handle boredom? What do you tell him or her about boredom?

Thursday, March 07, 2013

The kid with his head in a book

My 5-year-old made a fascinating discovery the other day. He can read! Of course, he knew he could read words on signs and worksheets and in his picture books and the like. But the other day he discovered that, really, all books have words in them, even long chapter books, and if he wanted to find out what happens next in Peter Pan, or the Magic Tree House books (insert number here, we're like on 18 or something) he didn't have to wait for an adult to read it to him. He could just pick the book up and read it himself.

It's kind of a fun moment. I remember a similar moment when I was around that age and my parents had been reading me some book (I forget which, now). I wanted to see what happened next, so I kept reading. I soon learned that books had great stories, and you could become completely absorbed in those worlds. Once, I was wondering around outside reading a book and I stepped on something sharp. I was too absorbed in my book to pay much attention. When I finally put down the book later, I noticed blood all over my foot from a rock or some such. I was just too engrossed in the story to care.

My son seems to have inherited a bit of this as well, because we're now trying to establish a few reading rules:

1. No reading during family meals. I won't say no reading at the table, because I've been known to read the newspaper in the morning if the kids are doing something else and I'm sitting with my coffee. But if we're all there at dinner, it's not the right time for Dingoes at Dinnertime.

2. No reading while walking. Apparently the bus driver made sure my son got off the bus at his stop (I'm sure he would have kept reading to the end of the line, otherwise), but he was reading while walking down the bus aisle and down the steps. Not a good idea.

3. No reading while someone else is trying to talk with you. A difficult one to be sure, as no doubt 9 times out of 10 whatever is happening in the book is more exciting than whatever the other person is trying to convey. Nonetheless, we need to be polite, and put the book down and answer. That's why one learns to go hide away somewhere in the house if you want to read undisturbed.

What rules do you have for voracious readers?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Would you let your child blog?

At one of the blogs I read regularly, Modern Mrs. Darcy, Anne recently posed a question. Her 7-year-old daughter, who is homeschooled, loves to write. She sees her mom blogging. So she asked for a blog for her birthday. Should she get one?

On the one hand, blogging is a great way to practice writing. There’s also some evidence that people take writing more seriously when they know there’s a big audience (no kidding!) I’d add as a side benefit that many of us need a digital platform these days for whatever aspect of Brand You we’re promoting later in life. Building a blog readership is hard and takes time. Imagine if you started at age 7!

But, of course, there are downsides too. A blog takes a lot of time...for the parent, who will have to monitor what the child posts (e.g. not your home address), moderate all comments before the kid sees them, and so forth. There’s always the chance that a child will write things she’ll later wish she hadn’t written. I guess we’ve all had this experience, but as grown-ups, it’s easier to be rational about this than if you’re a kid. And the kid could get bored of the whole thing after you’ve gone to the trouble of setting up the website.

I suggested Anne give her daughter a regular guest-posting gig on Modern Mrs. Darcy for a year and see how it goes. That way, Anne would already be moderating comments, and the child would have a built-in audience. It’s quite possible she’d lose interest in a year, and then you know that there's no need to set up her own blog. If she keeps up the writing, however, she could get her own real estate.

What would you recommend? Do any of your kids have a blog?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Homeschooling, a la carte's Administrator magazine ran an article recently called "The Homeschool Twist." Aimed at principals and district leaders, the article encourages them to consider partial homeschooling for gifted students whose needs can't be met fully during the regular school day. The idea is that a child can take some courses at school (language, art, music, PE, electives, or any subject where the regular classwork will suffice) and then others elsewhere. Perhaps this is at home via online courses. Perhaps this is at home via tutors, or the parents, or perhaps it's through a local college.

There are all sorts of ways to structure such a program. My favorite example in the piece is a school district that lets high schoolers enrolled in online AP classes miss the first hour of the school day. You can take the class whenever you want (so 9pm works, too) but you get to sleep in! Not a bad deal.

As the article notes, "With partial homeschooling, gifted students still have access to other children and activities and parents can work or have personal time without paying for child care. Students can take advantage of master classes in a talent area, and spend time on individualized study or hands-on learning." This is getting at one of the main obstacles to homeschooling -- namely, that many parents need the school day as a form of childcare while they work (though we've written here about homeschooling and working).

Anyway, I'm a big fan of the school day being less set. Some districts -- and some parents -- view the school vs. homeschool issue as black and white. You're either all in or you're all out. If you're all out, there's no participation in anything -- which some parents, who might be homeschooling for philosophical or religious reasons, might be fine with. But if you're homeschooling for more practical reasons, then an a la carte approach to school has a lot going for it.

Frankly, there's no reason to limit this a la carte school choice to gifted students. Perhaps another child might want to take his core classes during the morning and run a business during the afternoon. Someone else might want to do a morning internship and take classes in the afternoon. As school changes, and as methods of content delivery evolve, there's no reason to have school mean what it has in the past. One can envision a system where schools are reimbursed per course, and if students take an online course while in the school building, the school could be partially reimbursed as "rent" for providing the computer, the broadband, and supervising adults.

Have you tried partial homeschooling? Is your district or school for it or against it?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How we discourage creative children (in 1963)

I’ve been reading a lot of women’s magazines from 1963. It’s the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique this year, and comparing consumer titles from the early 1960s and now show how things have changed...

...and in some cases haven’t. In March, 1963, Redbook ran a story called “How we discourage creative children.” The sub-headline noted that “This surprising report explains why teachers, parents and even intelligence tests fail to spot the real talents of seven out of ten of our most truly gifted youngsters.” The story leans heavily on the work of Dr. E. Paul Torrance of the University of Minnesota, sometimes called the “father of creativity.” He told writer John Kord Lagemann (yes, men used to write for women’s magazines, and not just as the guy’s-point-of-view columnist!) that “IQ tests do not measure creative talent. By depending on them we miss seventy per cent of our most gifted youngsters.”

Torrance noted that “creativity involves getting away from the obvious, safe and expected and producing something which -- to the child, at least -- is new.” This, the article says, “makes extra trouble for teachers and parents. The child’s constant questioning, experimenting and exploring can make him trying to other people.”

What’s most odd about the article, though, is that this constant questioning and experimenting is presented as something that high IQ children don’t do. As Torrance said, “Suppose the problem was to improve oil lamps...The IQ mentality would apply all the known facts about oil lamps to build a better model. The creative mentality would invent the electric light.”

This either/or mentality -- that what we’d think of as “book smart” people aren’t creative and vice versa -- is often present today too. Since Torrance is lionized by the gifted community, I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what’s going on. Reading a little deeper, it seems that the “IQ tests” being discussed -- at least as written about in Redbook in 1963 -- weren’t what many of us or our kids have taken. Sample questions include “How many weeks in a year? How many hours in a day? Where is Peru? If you start with ten newspapers and sell four, how many are left?” This is sheer factual knowledge, something that aptitude tests are supposed to lean less on. The creativity tests Torrance was proposing had such questions like “list all the uses you can think of for empty tin cans.” But, of course, there’s no reason such questions couldn’t be incorporated into tests for gifted programs (and often are). The article also seems to advance the idea that intelligence and creativity aren’t simultaneously present, which seems to be the author and editors’ attempts to hook readers. Torrance is known for the threshold hypothesis, which is that low IQ and low creativity are related, but that past a threshold (around IQ 120) they’re not necessarily related. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be both present -- and in many cases, are, as any parent who’s fielded questions from a 5-year-old on whether you can add and subtract from infinity, and whether you’d still pray to God if you lived on Mars? and what about Pluto? knows.

That said, the advice on how to nurture creative children is fascinating, with some interesting ideas:

Don’t discourage fantasy. “One of the qualities of the creative person, young or old, is his ability to move freely back and forth between the world of facts and reason and the vast realms of the mind that lie just below the surface of consciousness.”

Don’t hold him back. Let your kids try things and fail. “It’s never too early for self-initiated learning,” said Torrance.

Make creativity rewarding. “Sixth graders who are rewarded for originality and interest produce much better stories than children who are rewarded for correctness, but they also make many more mistakes in spelling and grammar.” (OK, I’m not so keen on this one -- there’s no reason you can’t check your spelling and grammar in a second draft! Then again, we live in an era of spell check and word processing programs, which no one had in 1963)

Avoid sexual stereotypes. “Sexual stereotypes are destructive of creativity,” Redbook noted (we’ll just ignore that this is in a magazine full of cooking and diet advice). A little boy who refuses to play with dolls because his parents criticize it is missing out on lots of forms of expression.

Don’t judge him by his reading and writing. “Creative children often lag behind the group in verbal abilities” -- well, they could, especially if you have a gifted child with dyslexia. On the other hand, there are plenty of gifted creative writers who do great on this front. I’d call this a wash.

Allow freedom to experiment. “Instead of laughing at him, encourage him to test his statements, imagine what the world would be like if they were true. Don’t pin him down to ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Parents and teachers both have a tendency to confuse getting right answers with being morally right.”

Help him use his creativity in social relations. “One of his biggest problems in life will be getting along with others without sacrificing the qualities that make him creative and ‘different.’ Help him use his sensitivity to be kind, his insight to be understanding and tolerant of those who don’t see things his way. Show him he can assert himself without being domineering, work alone without being withdrawn, be honest with others without being overcritical. Prepare him to accept the fact that anyone who has original ideas must be prepared to be a minority of one, at least for a time.” That’s good advice for parents of any kind of gifted child.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

If not 'gifted,' what?

News flash: many people don't like the word "gifted." Even if they recognize the concept -- that some people have swifter cognitive processing power than average -- they dislike the word.

I was reminded of this while reading Stacy Hunt's column in a New Zealand newspaper (the Otago Daily Times) on how 'Gifted Should Be Retired For Good. Some of the column is just puzzling. Hunt writes that the whole gifted concept leads to separating a group of people off, which is news to me. If only modern gifted programs actually separated children into homogeneous groups for any real period of time! The reality is often small pull-outs which cause the problems of separation but give none of the benefits. Other parts of the column rehash the usual arguments (yes, motivation matters. And so does intelligence -- these are not either/or concepts). Others are a bit more sensible ("some children show unusual aptitude in specific areas of learning. Our society should provide support and resources to give them the chance to realise their potential.")

Anyway, this piece -- and the many, many others like it I've read over years of looking at gifted education -- got me thinking again about the word "gifted." Is it helpful or not? There are certainly other ways to describe the same idea of helping children who can learn swiftly be challenged and reach their potential. One can talk about talent development. One can talk about "readiness" for different levels of challenge. One can talk of being accelerated, or advanced. Or then there's the euphemism of "special needs," which could certainly be adapted to other contexts. Perhaps, if there is broad adoption of "personalized learning" then giftedness will simply manifest itself in kids moving forward in progression much faster than their similarly-aged classmates. She's in level 10 and someone else is in level 4. Ho-hum, just another day of personalized learning.

But here's a question for people who don't like "gifted" -- is there another word or concept you would use? Or no? "Gifted" is, of course, not perfect. But I suspect many people who don't like the word don't like the idea of gifted education in general, and so this is not an easily mollified problem.

Is there a word you like better than gifted?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

My kid's other mom

Some children have an imaginary friend. My 5-year-old has an imaginary mom. He calls her “My other mom,” and regales us with all sorts of tales about her life. And she has quite a life! While I sometimes think I’m doing OK in my attempts to have it all, I have nothing on this woman:

*She works for McKinsey, the management consulting firm

*She has 18 children. Curiously, two of the other children are my 3-year-old and 1-year-old; I like that even in his alternate universe, my 5-year-old kept his siblings

How, you might ask, has she done all this? She’s 99 years old. My son isn’t aware of the dilemma of the biological clock, so in his mind, she had much of this time to build her career and family. She isn’t doing it on her own. She’s married to my son’s other dad, though we hear less about this gentleman than we do about the other mom. His other dad was, for a while, 33 years old. I think my 5-year-old picked up that we thought this was funny, and so now he’s started saying the father is 45. Not that that’s less cougar-ish, really. When my son got into watching Crocodile Hunter, he claimed Steve Irwin was his other dad for a while. We haven’t told him the story yet of what happened to Steve Irwin (who died 8 months before my son was born).

Recently, he’s decided that Steve Irwin is not his other dad. But his other mother has similarly crazy adventures. She’s taken my 5-year-old to Australia, to Africa, to Russia, to Hawaii, to the myriad other places he’s studied on his maps and his atlas. She’s patient with him on plane trips, though as he told me this morning “People thought she was crazy to take a 3-year-old on a trip to Australia!” She lived in Botswana for a while. This came out when my son once told me that “You’re my favorite mommy!” I thanked him and he clarified that “You’re my favorite mommy in the United States.” His other mother had sub-Saharan Africa covered.

Crucially, she lets him have a cat. This is a major point of contention between us. I am adamant that I can’t have another living thing depending on me -- I’m not even watering my house plants anymore -- and the kids aren’t old enough to take care of a pet. My son’s other mother doesn’t have such problems because hey, she can do anything. Remember the part about her big career and 18 kids?

The other mother ebbs and flows in the frequency of her mentions. I thought she’d stayed in San Diego this summer when my son didn’t mention her for about two weeks after the trip. This would be keeping with a fine family tradition of imaginary friends staying on the west coast. When I was growing up, my family lived in San Diego for three months when I was 8 and my little brother was 3. He had a friend called “Baby Crunchy” who did everything with us, but stayed behind when we moved back to North Carolina. Alas, after a few weeks, the other mother was back, and she’s been with us pretty steadily since.

Have your children had imaginary playmates or parents?

Cross-posted at

Monday, January 28, 2013

A new year, a new start (and silly mistakes)

It's been a while since my last Gifted Exchange post (OK, more than 6 weeks). We'll call it a long holiday break, and I'll try to dive back in.

Today's topic: small mistakes on assessments, and the outsized impact they can have. Many parents of gifted kids can sympathize with this problem. A child has moved far ahead in math on his own, and zones out during class. He makes some small mistakes on a test on grade level material because he hasn't been studying it. But then the take away is, well, how can he be advanced? See, he gets Bs on tests!

How should a parent address this? Is it worth encouraging a child to really pay attention during tests? To spend time studying what the child already knows? How should one explain this? (Yes, we know you know how to do this, but other people at your school don't spend as much time with you and don't know it?) How does one convey that a child is doing more advanced work at home?

I'm curious how parents have dealt with the problem of small mistakes.