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?