Monday, December 08, 2014

Obsessions

Gifted kids have an intense relationship with certain topics. You can't just read about the topic, then move on. You read everything on it. You create your own projects about it. You want to be it when you grow up. Eventually you move on, but the obsessions are intense while they're there.

We've gone through some common obsessions in our house: dinosaurs, of course. Astronomy happened for a while as various balls of different sizes were pressed into service in models of the solar system. After reading Uno's Garden, there was the obsession with perfect squares (thus forcing me to finally memorize the squares up to 400). We had Magic Tree House for a long time -- series books are good for that.

Now we are deeply into the Guinness Book of World Records. We keep hearing over breakfast about the tallest people in recorded history (with some ambiguity, alas -- a Ripley's Believe It Or Not! book listed a different person in one category!) We have been staging 100 meter dashes around the house and the yard as my 7-year-old is convinced that, despite the genes he's been dealt, he's only a bit of practice away from beating Jesse Owens' time from the 1930s, and then Usain Bolt's from more recent times. He has been inventing fictional people who in the future will beat the world record 100 meter dash time, and has created record lists as they move on down from 9.58 seconds. He'd bought the 2015 book at the school book fair, and so I hauled out the 2005 book I had, and he's been comparing the records broken in the intervening 10 years. Men's marathon times? Yep, multiple changes. Women's? Nope -- Paula Radcliffe still holds that from 2003.

Of course, the problem with all this is figuring out how long the obsessions will last. I hunted down some old Guinness Books from the 1970s and 1980s to give my son for Christmas. Unfortunately, we may be at the peak of world record obsession right now. By Christmas, who knows. Maybe it will be World War II era military equipment. My husband let the boys watch part of The Right Stuff, and it's only a short distance from the world record topic of sound barriers to becoming obsessed with airplane makes and parts.

What obsessions have you gone through at your house? Which were your favorite, and not-so-favorite?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Standardized tests: The good, the bad...

I've been reading through Jim Delisle's Dumbing Down America. One of his proposed solutions is to declare a 3-year moratorium on statewide standardized testing. This moratorium broadly overlaps with the switch to the Common Core, and certainly the early states that have switched to new tests based on the Common Core have seen pass rates plummet in a way that requires a strong stomach to deal with. Not all politicians have strong stomachs. There is a very real risk that efforts to raise standards will completely backfire.

On top of that, of course, there are the usual arguments against standardized testing. It wastes gifted kids' time. I know this personally; back in high school I had to lobby to be exempt from my 10th grade level test since it was given at the same time as my calculus class. I didn't think it behooved me to miss 4 days of actually learning something to be tested on something I'd learned 3 years before. People teach to the test, and so forth.

I know all this, yet I have mixed feelings about moving away from testing, since it is the most visible aspect of the school accountability revolution. Many of the NCLB tests were watered down. That is true. But in states that chose to make them difficult, passing rates truly do show something. Take Massachusetts, where the MCAS is pretty comparable to the various international benchmarks. Some charter schools (e.g. Excel) have made a point of getting pretty close to 100% pass rates, and publicizing their scores. Are teachers teaching to the test? Perhaps, but since it's high level material that kids should be learning -- and in many states are not -- there's nothing wrong with that.

In the absence of clear metrics, it's easy for people to judge schools on the wrong things. The teachers are nice, decorate their classrooms well, and care about the kids. That's all wonderful, but if the kids can't read and do quantitative analysis well enough to go on to college or well-paid careers, caring alone is insufficient.

I'm not sure that the answer to bad tests is to stop testing. It's to change the philosophy of assessment to something more frequent, with immediate feedback, and without ceilings (so it doesn't waste gifted kids' time). Tests that can show how individual students progress over a year are quite helpful for evaluating what kids are learning, and keep teachers from being penalized for winding up with a class of kids who don't come in as prepared as others. Given that most assessments are moving online, this certainly seems like it should be possible. If a moratorium would end with us getting there after 3 years, that would be a good thing. But it's important not to confuse the fact that accountability is often unpopular with what is actually good for kids (gifted and otherwise).

Friday, November 21, 2014

One way to help gifted learners

I've been reading through Jim Delisle's new book, Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation's Brightest Young Minds. I agree with much, and disagree with a few other things, and will be writing about various aspects over the next few weeks.

There is much broken in terms of America's schools, and particularly in how schools nurture kids who need more advanced work. We don't even need to use the loaded "g" word ("gifted") to recognize that. It's common sense that kids develop at different rates academically, and that there is a mean in any given classroom, and kids that deviate far from that mean are going to pose a challenge that effective teachers would do well to think about.

When thinking about how to address the problems in gifted education, it's easy to get overwhelmed. But there are a few practical places to start. One idea Delisle throws out there? Requiring all teacher candidates, as part of teacher preparation programs, to learn about the needs of gifted learners, and strategies for challenging them.

To be sure, many of us who support gifted education would love to see far more self-contained classes taught by teachers who've specialized in the field. However, "most gifted students spend the majority of their time in a regular classroom environment, and their teachers may know very little about who gifted kids are and what to do to challenge them," Delisle writes. "Only six states require that every teacher candidate receive such information, and even that is likely to be minimal."

He recommends the use of the Knowledge and Skills Standards in Gifted and Talented Education for all teachers developed by the NAGC and CEC-TAG. That's a reasonable idea. Though honestly, the more I have looked at teacher prep programs for other projects I've done, the more I wonder if even having the word "gifted" in a curriculum might be problematic. There is a strong political element in many programs, and it's not one that embraces the concept. But meeting the needs of all children sounds good. As a few programs do try to re-orient themselves around practical approaches to teaching, pushing states to require instructional strategies for advanced learners and struggling learners alike is not a bad idea.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The kids on the margins

Questions about gifted education often come down to who should qualify. If some people qualify, then some people don't, and given the way humanity often works, there may not be a huge difference between people just over the dividing line, and people just under. So what happens in those cases?

Jay Mathews, in a recent Washington Post column, addressed this issue. He talked with Jim Delisle (whose new book, Dumbing Down America, is on my desk, and which I will get to in another blog post soon!) Delisle argued that gifted education needs to be better funded and more available; Mathews argued that challenging classes should be available to anyone who wants them.

I don't necessarily think these opinions are completely at odds. We've worked ourselves into this world where in some schools, the gifted classes are the "good" classes. Everything else is so mediocre that the only way to get any challenge is to qualify. Likewise, in sinking districts, a GT program can be a way to keep people in.

But that doesn't mean anything is wrong with gifted education per se. It means that everything else has a big problem. Why can't we solve all these problems? Why do they have to be pitted against each other?

To me, the best world doesn't hinge on whether gifted classes exist or don't exist. It's whether we have an education system where every child is challenged to the extent of her abilities in an environment with her intellectual peers. A self-contained class is one way to do that. In some cases, people might be better off with acceleration. Independent online study could help kids who need lots of advanced work in one particular area. Technology is increasingly allowing individualization. There's no reason a group of 10 year olds have to be doing the same thing whether gifted education exists or not. The problem is that doing away with gifted education isn't generally coupled with making things more challenging for everyone, including gifted kids. It's coupled with...nothing.

I know a number of people who likely seem like they would have qualified for gifted programs but were never officially evaluated because it was never really needed. Perhaps they were in schools with a focus on individualization and challenge within that. As long as each teacher was committed to meeting those needs and given the resources to do so, it never became an issue. But that's rare, unfortunately. Which is why gifted education is often needed. And just because there are people who might just miss the cut off doesn't mean it should be denied to those who do make the cut off.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

More on reading routines, and a dilemma

I wrote in a recent post about trying to get into a routine of reading and online math practice with my 7-year-old. I’m happy to report that once I figured out how to log on to the school-specific Dreambox site, my son has been perfectly happy to play with it. He requested Dreambox instead of a TV show a few times this weekend, so I think that’s a win.

The reading routine presented more of a dilemma the other night. It had been a busy day, and he hadn’t done his official 20 minutes of reading. Among the reasons he hadn’t: He’d been constructing his own Harry Potter fan fiction, writing several chapters in this new book, and telling me he’d probably need 800 pieces of paper from my printer paper stash. I think writing is a great way to get better at reading, but it doesn’t really fit on the homework log so well. I hadn’t pushed it until night when we realized he still hadn’t done it yet. I came into his room to tuck him in and check that he was reading. But he wasn’t...because he was constructing his own new language. He’d come up with names of numbers all the way to 120, and had created a worksheet labeling all them, and then started in on the shapes, which all have their own names too.

So the dilemma: tell him he needs to stop and read 20 minutes in a “real” book, or let him continue with this creative project that so fascinated him? What would you do?

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Building online math time and reading into the routine

We're a month into second grade now with my oldest kid, and we're figuring out how to build a good homework routine. Fortunately, he has very little in the way of make-work homework. He brings home a few math worksheets (about 4/week) but he has the whole week to do them, and it takes less than 15 minutes, so this is not too onerous. The remainder of the homework has more of a point. His school is now signed up with Dreambox (a math program that is adaptive -- another plus. Previous ones the school has have not been adaptive, and hence got boring very fast). He's supposed to do at least half an hour of Dreambox over the week, though ideally more. He's also supposed to read for 20 minutes a night (much preferable for literacy than worksheets, too!).

Obviously, none of this is particularly time-consuming, but we've been trying to figure out when best to build it in to make it a routine. The reading can happen before bed if he's got a good book. He's in a semi-shared space with his little brother, though, and they often prefer to play at night. Turning on the computer for math homework then inspires requests from other siblings to turn on the TV, the Kindle Fire, etc. for cartoons. Right after school is hard because he doesn't feel like focusing.

So for those of you who've figured out a good time for doing online math practice, when is that? If your kids do daily reading time at home, when do you build it in? I welcome tips.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Screen everyone

Pennsylvania requires that schools serve their gifted students, but to serve students you must identify them. How do you do that?

My district has not had a great system for this. Basically, you had to request to have your child screened. This wasn't advertised, so people learned about this option through word-of-mouth: If you knew people with older kids who'd figured this out, and if you were involved enough in the school to have such lines of communication open.

There are obvious problems with such an approach. I'm not sure that giftedness would be correlated with parents' social capital. So I was pleased to see a notice come home the other day that the district will be changing the approach. From now on, all first graders will be screened.

To be sure, there are limitations with this too. Any screen given to everyone will likely be cursory. Nonetheless, the idea is a good one. Screening everyone is the best way to avoid biases that both parents and teachers can bring to the table.

Does your district screen all students for giftedness? In what grade? Of course, what is then done with the results is often a different matter...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What makes a gifted program a success?

Much of education is focused on data these days. Reformers want to move to a world in which teachers and schools are held accountable for helping students achieve gains on tests.

It raises the question for me: How would you define an effective gifted program? What would be a metric that would show it is successful?

I was thinking of this while reading some new research on how different kids perform in gifted programs. In a working paper published with the National Bureau of Economic Research, David Card and Laura Giuliano looked at what happened when children were placed in self-contained gifted classes after achieving certain criteria. You could be a "non-disadvantaged student" with the standard selection criteria of IQ>130. You could be a student receiving subsidized lunch, or an English language learner, with an IQ>116. Or you could have missed these IQ cut-offs, but scored very high on grade level achievement tests.

The researchers then looked at test scores at the end of the year. The first two groups (those selected by IQ) had not seen improvement in scores. The latter group did, with the gains most concentrated among lower income black and Hispanic students.

The conclusion is that separate, self-contained classrooms are most effective for children chosen on the basis of past achievement, "particularly disadvantaged students who are often excluded from gifted and talented programs."

Past performance on achievement tests could certainly be a criteria for gifted programs. Frankly, I'm thrilled to see any separate classes aimed at high-achievers, no matter how participants are chosen. So many schools fail to create any such environments where kids' minds can be stretched, and they can learn with their intellectual peers. It's also great to find that self-contained classes are effective at raising scores among disadvantaged students who are already doing well. Again, many schools do nothing for such children because teachers have limited time, and must concentrate their attention on kids who need a lot more help to pass grade level tests.

That said, this brings us back to the question of what makes a gifted program effective. Should it be the criteria from this study: that children's test scores on achievement tests rise over the year? What kind of tests? Grade level tests? On those, gifted kids often max out anyway, so we'd need to be looking at out-of-level tests or those without ceilings. Or should it be something else, and if so, what? Ability to create an intense, independent project? Being more satisfied with school?

I don't really know. I'm curious what Gifted Exchange readers think.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The new Davidson Fellows

Every year, the Davidson Institute for Talent Development awards thousands of dollars in scholarships to recognize great work by young people. The 2014 Fellows have just been announced, and you can read all about them by following this link.

As usual, they're a pretty amazing bunch. Sara Kornfeld Simpson, for instance, built a mathematical model that provides insight into cognitive functioning. (I thought that name sounded familiar and it turns out her sister was a fellow in 2010). Eric Chen (who I interviewed for Fast Company) did work that identified potential targets for flu drugs. While most of the fellows did science-related work, the Davidson Fellowship is unique among major awards for young people in that people can win for music, literature, and other topics too.

The top awards are extremely competitive, of course, but what's cool about big prizes for big projects is that it can lure schools into creating programs that give kids space to try such things. Many of the winners of the Davidson Fellows awards, and Intel and Siemens awards tend to come from certain schools that have exceptional research programs. But given the kind of recognition such schools get when their students win, prizes can induce other schools to try to build such programs. When kids get the chance to throw themselves into difficult, long-term projects, they often learn a lot more than they would in 45-minute science classes.

Did you ever attempt a big project during school? My sophomore year of high school, I wrote a book of short stories (they were pretty bad!) I also wrote a series of sonnets. What have you or your children worked on?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The after-school solution

Long ago when I was writing about education, and the idea of separation of church and state, someone made an interesting point to me. What people got most up in arms about, he said, were the core school hours of 9 to 3. Outside that, people were a lot less doctrinaire. So people might be absolutely against vouchers that would send kids to religious schools at taxpayer expense from 9 to 3. But they were far more willing to subsidize an after-school program run by a church. Districts happily provided busing, snacks, workbooks, etc. Some even paid some chunk of the cost. That was all fine. So were summer programs, before school programs, weekend programs, etc. It was the hours of 9 to 3 that required lines in the sand. (Or 8 to 2, or whenever the local schools held core classes).

I thought of that as I read a story about the Clarkdale-Jerome school in Arizona starting an after-school gifted program. The school didn't have anything for gifted kids. One of the teachers earned an endorsement in gifted education. So they decided to start an after school program to serve kids' needs.

From the perspective of those of us who think gifted kids have educational differences that deserve to be accommodated, this story can invite some smacks on the forehead. Why after school? Why not decide that we're not doing anything for gifted kids now, so let's identify them and see if some acceleration might be in order? Or maybe we decide to do self-contained multi-grade classes for these kids. Or even a twice a week pull-out. But something during the school day, when kids are supposed to be doing the bulk of their learning. Gifted kids should be challenged to the extent of their abilities in an environment with their intellectual peers.

But viewed from the perspective of "core hours" vs. other hours, this makes some sort of sense. Gifted education is a controversial thing. So it needs to be done outside of school hours, just like letting a religious group run an after school program.

I'm not sure how this will play out from a practical perspective. On one hand, many families of young kids have two working parents (or a single working parent) and hence need to do something with the kids after school anyway. A gifted program probably beats a lot of after school options. Unfortunately, it might also pit gifted education against art, music, sports, etc., which plenty of kids would also like to do. It's nice to do something for gifted kids, as opposed to nothing for them. But the decision to use an after-school solution says loads about how gifted education is often viewed.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Do AP exams prepare kids for college? Should colleges "count" them?

The concept of Advanced Placement classes and tests is a good one. Some high school students are ready for college-level work. However, there's little that's standardized across high schools. Advanced level classes with standardized syllabi and exams can give high school students a way to show colleges what they know, and hopefully place out of entry-level classes as well.

However, this ideal isn't always achieved in practice. An article in the Deseret News looks at some colleges shying away from accepting high scores on AP exams as evidence that a student has done the equivalent of college level work. Some let students get elective credit, but not credit for the classes themselves (which might help you graduate early if you major in that particular subject).

There are various ways to look at this. Cynical sorts might note that colleges often get paid by the credit hour, so not giving credit for courses is one way to ensure students don't get too much of a break on tuition.

But there are other factors at play too. For starters, different universities have different expectations, even in entry-level courses. I earned a 5 on the AP Chemistry exam my senior year of high school, so Princeton allowed me to place into organic chemistry. Let's just say it was not my most shining academic moment of college. There are various reasons for that (I took it as a "freshman seminar" which meant instead of 3 1-hour lectures, I got 1 3-hour lecture -- which I just couldn't focus for) but it's also quite possible that Princeton's general chemistry class was more advanced than the AP version. Likewise, my 5 on the BC Calculus exam allowed me to place into a math class that was over my head. I passed it and orgo, but I'm pretty sure I was not as well prepared as I could be.

Second, it's really hard to standardize. The exam helps on this quite a bit. A school can call a class "AP Physics" but if most students score 1s or 2s on the exam, then it's pretty clear it's not covering what it's supposed to cover, and colleges will not view those students as prepared. There is some accountability, though I'm not sure how many schools do anything about it. Nonetheless, it's possible that a student in a generally poor quality class could score a 3 or possibly even a 4 on a fluke (or if he/she crammed before with some independent study). Over time, if colleges see enough of this, it starts to water down the AP concept.

The Deseret News story covers some of this. As more and more students have AP classes on their transcripts, it becomes less of a marker for selective colleges. Though I do think that the advice one person gives in the article -- that getting a low grade can be a black mark, and may not be worth it -- must be taken with a grain of salt. If you're applying to selective colleges, you need to be taking the most rigorous classes your high school offers -- and getting good grades in them. This is not a question of choosing one or the other.

Have your children gotten credit for AP exams?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Clusters vs. Pull-out

The best approaches to gifted education are self-contained classes and acceleration. But given that neither approach seems to win popularity contests with education authorities, what other approaches might work?

In the Humboldt Unified School District (in Arizona) elementary schools had been using a pull-out approach. This usually means that kids identified as gifted are pulled out of their classrooms once or twice a week for a short period of time for accelerated or enriched material. According to a recent article in the Prescott Valley Tribune, Lake Valley Elementary School will be moving to a cluster model. The students identified as gifted in a particular grade will be placed together -- or "clustered" -- in a classroom (with other kids).

Is this a better approach? It's not perfect. You could "cluster" 2-3 grades worth of gifted kids in their own self-contained classroom and do better by these children. Even in a class with a cluster, such kids won't be the norm, and classes are almost always taught to the middle. So the kids will be bored.

But clustering has its benefits. For starters, kids like to learn in an environment with their intellectual peers. Having at least a few other kids in your classroom with similar readiness levels can make more engaging interactions possible.

Second, a cluster allows for more ability grouping as these kids can be easily grouped together for math or reading instruction, or for projects. If kids have to switch classrooms, that's one more barrier to ability grouping happening.

Many teachers find it tough to find time to differentiate for advanced students. Having 6-8 such children in your classroom might make you more likely to find time, vs. viewing it as something that's nice to do, but not a top priority.

In addition, since only one teacher will have the cluster at a grade level, schools can concentrate training on that one teacher. Since funds are always low for such things, it's better not to need to spread it around.

Does your school district use clusters? Does it work, or at least does it work better than other approaches?

Friday, June 27, 2014

Parenting blogs and resources you enjoy?

It's summer and I seem to have more time available to read. Partly that's because I'm taking some vacation time, and partly that's because I don't feel like working as much when I can sit on the porch reading!

I'd like to add some new parenting blogs, websites, and maybe magazines to the mix. What have you found interesting and useful? What do you read daily, or at least weekly? What useful ideas have you gotten from these resources? They don't have to be focused on gifted kids, though they can be.

Please share your favorites in the comments so others can check them out too.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

It's all in the details

I have no particular fondness for pull-out gifted programs. They're of limited duration -- an hour a week, or 45 minutes twice a week. They are often the result of a district's desire to do something to meet a state requirement of serving gifted students without actually devoting many resources to it. One teacher can wind up covering a vast number of students, often at vast numbers of schools, which is cheaper than having a teacher teaching a self-contained class.

But at least pull-out programs are visibly there. Something is happening. It's a step above the idea of simply attempting to differentiate in the regular classroom and hoping that happens. Indeed, an interesting question could be this: If your individual education plan for gifted kids is to serve them in the regular classroom, do you actually have a gifted program?

I was pondering this while reading a story about a controversy in the Norwalk City Schools (in Ohio). An article in the Norwalk Reflector noted that -- contrary to rumors! -- the district was not ending its gifted program (known as ABLE). It was changing how it was delivered. According to an official, "This means students will not be pulled from the classroom, but serviced in the classroom with a differentiated curriculum that will provide additional assignments and projects with alternatives based on a student's individual needs. Students will continue to have W.E.P.s (written education plans) and assessments of their progress provided to parents."

In other words, we'll try to individualize work in the classroom. Which is hopefully what teachers are doing for all kids anyway.

Some parents were calling this a subterfuge. If you scroll down to the first comment on the article, you see this assertion: "Despite what the school board may be saying, the reality is that, after the levy was passed, they made a last-minute decision to eliminate a teaching position. One fourth grade teacher was leaving, and rather than replace that teacher, they chose to reassign the gifted intervention specialist to fill that position. That is an undeniable fact. They ARE ending the ABLE program. They may try to cover the situation up by saying that gifted education will be 'delivered differently', but who is going to oversee their curriculums and make sure that the needs of these children are met when the school will not be employing anyone to do so?"

The truth is, differentiating in a classroom is incredibly hard. It's hard even for excellent teachers with tons of experience. Even if you do manage to provide some challenge, you don't hit the other half of what gifted kids need, which is the chance to learn in an environment with their intellectual peers.

Gifted education is never going to be the top priority for many districts. Many of us have wondered if creating state mandates or even national mandates for identifying and serving gifted kids will push districts to offer better programming. But the problem is that when districts don't want to do something, they can come up with a way not to. Officially, this district in Ohio still has a gifted program. It is identifying and serving gifted kids. That it probably won't happen in practice -- that it is set up to fail to give kids what they need -- is just a detail.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Challenge -- it's a good thing

Long time Gifted Exchange readers know I write about time management for lots of places. As I've looked at the data and research, I've been fascinated to see that, for all adults claim to be overworked, most people aren't. The average number of hours worked per year has fallen by about 200 hours since 1950 (for Americans). Some of sociologist John Robinson's studies, looking at "extreme" work weeks, have found that people claiming 75-hour workweeks are often overestimating by 25 hours or so.

So I'm always a bit skeptical of stories about how American school children are overworked, or under too much pressure, too. Most children don't have that much homework, and most aren't in that many activities either. Looking back on much of my own school career, I know I could have worked much harder than I did, and I would have been a lot happier if I'd had to.

So I enjoyed reading Jay Mathews column on how "Kids Can Learn the Rewards of Pressure." After writing about the usual worry of extra-curriculars crowding out academics, Mathews heard from a number of parents pointing out that, guess what? Kids can handle a lot. Indeed, kids who learn the time management skills and discipline required to balance school work with extra-curricular activities sometimes do better in school. There's less time to get in trouble, and they have to be more organized.

As with adults, I think it's important to look at total numbers. A week has 168 hours. If children are in school or on the bus around 35 hours per week, and have 10 hours of homework per week (more than most), and sleep 10 hours per night (which my kids barely do!) that leaves 53 hours for other things. That's enough time to devote a few hours to a handful of activities as well. And since activities can sometimes stretch the brain and challenge kids in ways that school doesn't, it's nice to have this mix.

What activities do your kids devote time to? Does it help or hurt their school work?

Friday, May 30, 2014

Does a "good" school need a gifted program?

New York City has long built gifted education into the structure of its schools. A few entrance-by-exam schools (Hunter, Stuyvesant) have long offered gifted kids the chance at an education that challenges them to the extent of their abilities, in an environment with their intellectual peers. The system is far from perfect, but at least gifted education exists in a way that hasn't been easy to get rid of.

Since I left New York City three years ago, I've been paying somewhat less attention to the schools. But it turns out the new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, has an interesting track record and thoughts on gifted education. Namely, "As principal of P.S. 6, Fariña famously eliminated the school's gifted and talented program," a recent article in Capital New York noted, "initially alarming parents who wanted their children in high-level classes but who were, according to a parent at the time, eventually reassured by Fariña."

Why did she do that? According to the article, "Fariña has not spoken in detail about her philosophy on gifted and talented, but on Monday alluded to the issue of inequality within schools that caused her to toss out the gifted program at P.S. 6 in the first place. 'How do you tell a child that he is gifted but his brother or sister isn't?' she asked."

Since people tell one child that he/she qualifies for special education services, while another child in the same family does not fairly frequently, if gifted education were viewed as what it is -- an intervention for children who need it -- this would seem fairly straightforward. But many educators do not view gifted education this way, Fariña included, it seems. The meeting discussed in this article was held in Manhattan District 2. This is widely perceived as a "good" district with "good" schools. It's in a relatively wealthy part of the city that includes the Upper East Side and midtown. When "a suit-clad father of a district 2 student complained to Fariña that his daughter didn't test into a gifted and talented program, Fariña was not overly sympathetic. 'If you're in district 2, the feeling is that every school is one that's gifted and talented,' she said."

Note this quick mental jump. Programs for gifted kids are basically just "good" schools -- so if a school is "good" gifted kids don't need anything else.

I'm not surprised to hear this, in the sense that many people hold this belief. Gifted education programs are just sops for well-to-do, reasonably smart kids in lousy systems. Once you've solved the lousy system part, then gifted kids in this "good" district don't need anything because their schools are "good." Isn't that just what parents wanted?

Unfortunately, a number of gifted programs set themselves up for this sort of criticism by employing various questionable strategies: forcing parents to request testing (meaning only the connected or in-the-know parents do so), putting the cut-off low enough that it includes kids whose needs probably could be met decently in the regular classroom, or being about fun stuff (trips to science museums!) that all kids can do.

I tend to think that even "good" schools need gifted programs because it's not just about discipline and challenging grade-level work. It's about challenging kids whose brains are far enough ahead of their peers that even the best teacher will have trouble meeting their needs in class. It's about putting kids with others who will show that they are not the brightest kids in the room.

Since NYC is so big, even 1 in 1000 kids can have 1000 kids like them. It's been a bright spot in the system that the city has tried to recognize this and put these kids together as much as possible. So it's unfortunate that the people in charge have a different conception of what gifted education is about.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"If you're always the smartest person in the room, you need to find another room."

That's a quote from Art of Problem Solving founder Richard Rusczyk, on what he tells gifted kids. The quote is in an excellent article on the online resources available to gifted kids that ran at Mind/Shift today.

One of the biggest problems facing gifted kids is that too many come to think that life should be easy. School work is boring, easily finished, not too taxing. Other kids in their grade-level classes aren't raising critiques of their ideas that would force them to rethink and argue. Then when life and work do get difficult -- as they certainly will at the high reaches of college -- they don't know how to cope. People change majors or even drop out. That's a waste.

So how do you find another room? AoPS aims to be one, as do online courses from EPGY and other places. The article has a list of options. Finding another room is slightly easier now when the other room can be virtual. If you live in a small community, it's just going to be difficult to create another room right around you.

What is the other room for you and your children? Where do you go to find places where there are lots of smarter people?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Reading between the lines: A principal on gifted children

I'm always happy to see gifted education covered in the press, especially when not under the headline "the myth of giftedness" (or some such). But reading how people write about giftedness is sometimes a reminder of all the narratives that are out there, and that may or may not be true.

That was my thought while reading the "Your gifted child" column from Lenore Hirsch in the Napa Valley Register. (Curiously, I was actually in Napa in California when the column ran, though I read it later, not at the time. I certainly would have clipped it if I'd seen it!)

Hirsch writes that gifted children often have difficulty if they're intellectually years older than they are, but sometimes behave like their real age. This can indeed be frustrating for parents and teachers (not to mention the kids themselves). But then that sage observation is followed with this: "I have known children who were so far beyond their age-mates academically that they were bored in school and their parents wanted them to skip a grade. But parents and staff must consider the social ramifications before making such a move."

Here we have someone who is profoundly sympathetic to the issues of gifted education writing in a way that implies that skipping a grade is a risky and drastic move -- as opposed to one of the best (and cheapest!) ways available to challenge gifted kids. The reason it's risky? The "social ramifications." Except that one of the best summaries of the research (the A Nation Deceived report) found that social worries were widely overblown. Most kids who've been accelerated turn out fine.

Hirsch's preferred solution is this: "Sometimes the best route for the gifted child is to stay in class with others his own age, but have the curriculum and teacher expectations tweaked to give him an academic challenge. He can read a harder book or write a longer report, while still exploring the same topic as his classmates."

I'm not sure that assigning a child a 7-page report instead of a 4-pager is all that's required to meet a child's needs. But unfortunately this mindset is quite prevalent. I don't know why acceleration gets such a bad reputation. But given how even people who support gifted education write about it, there's no doubt that it does.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Learning new words

My oldest son -- who turns 7 today -- loves making his own books. Part of writing is knowing the right words to use, and a great way to learn new words is to read other people's writing. You expand your vocabulary as you see words that are unfamiliar, and figure out what they might mean from the context.

My kid loves a challenge, so as he's been thinking about learning new words, he thought maybe he should figure out the hardest, longest words possible, and make a word wall for himself of these new monstrosities. We also figured he could look through books with lots of unfamiliar words -- a dinosaur encyclopedia, for instance -- and choose new words as he came across them. This method produced "determine" and "intimidated," among others.

This seems to me to be a more natural method of learning new words than flash cards or, as I once saw, a novel written around the frequent usage of SAT-type vocab words. Of course, it's probably still more forced than simply having conversations and learning new words as part of that.

The last method has something going for it from a writing perspective. I do the occasional editing job, and often wish people stuck more to words they'd use while talking to someone. Often, a simple word is best. It's good to know a lot of words...and then not use all of them.

Do you and your children have conversations about words and how they're used? Have you ever been surprised to hear them use words (nice words!) you didn't think they'd know?

Monday, May 05, 2014

Baltimore's Ingenuity Project: who should pay?

Back in 2008, I wrote about Baltimore's Ingenuity Project for USA Today. A number of specialized high schools, or famous suburban ones, have research programs that link students with scientist mentors and lab space. These students then produce amazing research projects that win them awards, get them into great colleges, etc. The cool thing about Ingenuity is that it is part of the Baltimore City Schools, and so taps scientific talent that too many urban public schools fail to nurture.

Of course, special programs that target the most academically capable students cost money and are easy to cut. Baltimore's schools have myriad other problems and funding isn't infinite. So according to this recent article from the Baltimore Sun, the Ingenuity program (and the IB program) are facing district cuts.

To be sure, it's not that the district doesn't want these programs. It does. But the idea is that they should be school supported or self-sustaining through fundraising.

It's hard to know what to think of this idea. The district isn't wrong that something like Ingenuity might be attractive to donors. The Sun article starts with the tale of a young man who's got a Gates Millennium scholarship that will pay his way to Harvard and through getting a doctorate. The cost of that would likely cover a big chunk of the Ingenuity cost, and that's just one person! Baltimore may be thinking hey, we are shouldering the cost of creating extremely competitive college applicants that other people are excited about. It would be nice to see some of that cost spread.

But the whole point of public education is shouldering the cost of creating extremely competitive college applicants (or career-ready citizens). Other parts of education don't necessarily have to pay their own way, and it's frustrating that programs targeting bright, ambitious, hard-working students need to think about that.

What do you think?

Friday, April 25, 2014

Teaching and reteaching

One of the big criticisms of American education is that the curriculum covers topics, and then goes back and covers them again the next year. I assume the philosophy is that constant revisiting of topics cements them in people’s minds, and shores up any holes people might have. But it can also be mind-numbingly boring. One study I recently came across found that this revisitation might be almost ridiculously widespread.

Some 95 percent of children entering kindergarten can do basic counting and can recognize basic geometric shapes. This is a good thing -- early childhood programs and parents are doing their jobs. Yet kindergarten teachers reported spending nearly 13 days per month working on basic counting and shapes. They spent very few days per month on the topics that children were less proficient in (addition and subtraction, for instance). The more time teachers spent on the basic topics that kids already knew, the more negative were the outcomes on end-of-year kindergarten assessments.

Boredom isn’t good. Being bored is part of life to be sure (I wrote this in a hotel room during a conference, taking a break because I was bored with the panels). But constant repetition on things you already know doesn’t make you more confident in a subject. It makes you dislike the subject. This is a shame -- and not just for gifted kids. When 95 percent of kids know something, it’s time to move on.

What do you remember from school being revisited too many times?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

What to do this summer?

There's a certain story that schools are so academically-focused these days that it's necessary to preserve summer as open, non-academic time. I think there are a few problems with this story -- first, that most schools still aren't that challenging, and second, this is not an either/or prospect. Summer is a long time, and you can do some academic oriented camps and some s'mores type camps too, and still have space for hanging out in the backyard.

We're doing 2 weeks of YMCA-type camp, and 2 weeks of an outdoor program. Then we have some relaxed time at the beach and at home. But I imagine as my kids get older, we'll start looking at academic programs too. Gifted kids really like to learn, and often summer presents an opportunity to learn a new subject, perhaps in an environment with your intellectual peers. If a kid isn't challenged enough at school, then summer programs can be a lifesaver. I have very fond memories of the 3 weeks I spent during 3 summers at Northwestern University's CTD program. I learned a lot about geometry, computer science, and modern world literature, and I was around people who really liked to learn too. It's a fun combination.

There are all kinds of programs if you know where to look. The Davidson Institute has pulled together a list of resources and links for me to share with you. The NAGC, for instance, has an article on How to Choose a Summer Program. The Davidson Institute produced its own article on Tips for Parents: Finding a Summer Program. You can find a list of links to summer programs sorted by topic, and residential vs. day camp by following this link. And finally, the Davidson Institute hosts its own summer THINK Summer Institute for highly gifted kids ages 13-16. They can earn college credits in programs during this time. Here's the THINK home page, and the deadline for applications is now April 30.

What are you doing with your children this summer? I'd love to hear about people's experiences with various summer programs too.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Ready for kindergarten?

Different districts have extremely different cut-offs for kindergarten. If we still lived in New York City, my 4-year-old would be starting kindergarten next fall, and he wouldn’t even be among the youngest in his class. He’s got a late September birthday, and the NYC cut-off is December 31. But out here in my suburban PA district, the cut-off is September 1.

Of course, kindergarten here isn’t exactly a huge step from nursery school. It’s only a half-day program. Because of that, most of the preschools in the area also offer kindergarten options. The school he’s been attending has a full-day kindergarten program that accepts slightly younger students. So he’ll be doing that this coming year, and then we’ll see what we do.

It’s hard to know how children will develop. But I’m not sure that repeating kindergarten will seem like a particularly great idea in another year. Which means I may have to find a private 1st grade that will accept him, or create a case that he is ready for 1st grade work in the public school. I have some hope -- one of the children in my older son’s first grade class turns out to have a September birthday. But it probably won’t be easy.

What makes this all interesting for me is that many parents have told me how fortunate we are that his birthday is in September -- because he’ll always be one of the oldest kids in the class. I guess for sports that might be good but for gifted kids being the oldest can just make you feel even more bored. It’s also interesting to me that if he’d been born a few weeks earlier (before September 1st which, given how much past his due date he arrived, totally could have happened), and I elected to keep him back, that would have been OK. Parents are given much latitude to hold their children back. They aren’t given as much latitude to accelerate their children.

What age were your children when they started kindergarten? Does your district allow early enrollment? What has convinced your school that it would be OK?

Friday, March 21, 2014

How busy students get it all done

I had a fun mash-up of my different worlds this past week or so when I interviewed several of the top finishers in the Intel Science Talent Search for my Fast Company blog on time management. You can read 7 Time Management Strategies From Some Brilliant Teenage Prodigies by following that link.

I've got a pretty full schedule now, but I certainly remember feeling about the most busy I ever have in my life during my senior year at the Indiana Academy, when I was taking various tough classes and applying to college and still trying to look like the sort of well-rounded kid colleges would like. I don't really remember how I got it all done. Some times I probably didn't.

Eric and Zarin had some great strategies that adults can use too. If we want to get big things done, we need to block in time for those priorities. Even if you don't know exactly what you'll need to do, blocking in 30-60 minutes for a big project every day guarantees that you will spend a lot of time on it. I'm kind of doing that right now as I'm working on a new novel. I don't know all of the plot or characters yet, but by forcing myself to produce 2000 words a week, I wind up spending time and mental energy on it, and as I do that, I figure it out.

They also pointed out that big projects can be broken into manageable chunks. And those chunks can often be done in bits of time. Eric would do his homework in the waiting time he'd have in the lab. Consequently, he didn't have a lot of work waiting for him in the evening or on weekends.

One thing I didn't put in the article, though, is also the importance of space in your normal schedule. Eric got to go to the lab during school hours frequently, which means it wasn't added time. When I was at the Indiana Academy, we had classes M-W-F, mostly, with more open time on Tues and Thurs. So there was time for studying and projects that just wouldn't be available with 5 full days of classes. Schools can arrange to make big projects possible if they want, and a lot of the schools that send people to Intel STS finals every year have just this sort of option available.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bedtime math is back!

My kids loved the first Bedtime Math book (by Laura Overdeck) when it came out last year. We read through the whole book multiple times, and it was fun to see my then 3-year-old and 6-year-old work through the book together. So we made sure to pre-order the sequel, Bedtime Math 2: This Time It's Personal. It just came out this week.

If you liked the first installment, there are even more reasons to like this one. For starters, there are 4 problems, instead of 3, for each story. The fourth is labeled a "bonus," but basically it's a new level that is just a little trickier than the "big kids" problems. So that extends the readership to kids who might be just a bit beyond the big kids level. It's also a nice development, in general, to have more problems per story, as it makes each individual story more satisfying and gets kids thinking about the topic longer.

I've also found that some of the "wee ones" problems in the second book are more accessible to the very earliest mathematicians. For instance, some problems involve counting things in the pictures. This makes Bedtime Math even more of a family activity, as you can potentially involve a 2-year-old and a 7-year-old. Whether they're going to bed at the same time is, of course, a different matter, but bedtime math doesn't just have to be done at bedtime!

Of course, while Bedtime Math is like a bedtime story, I was informed by my 4-year-old the other night that it couldn't take a story's place. "Bedtime math is just math!" he told me. "I need a story too!" Anything to stay up later, right?

On a side note, I wrote about Bedtime Math from the lean start-up angle over at Fast Company. The title is a little misleading (it's a non-profit, not a business) but there you go.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Perfect Score (or not)

I've been fascinated to read the media coverage of Debbie Stier's new book, The Perfect Score. As her teenage son prepared to apply to college, Stier decided to uncover the secrets of the SAT, and took it 7 times herself in the course of a year. She went through lots of coaching and SAT prep too in her quest for (as the title notes) the perfect score.

What's most fascinating to me, though, in light of the debate about the role of the SAT in college admissions, and hence society, is that she didn't actually succeed.

The SAT began to be used, many decades ago, as a way to compare students from various backgrounds. In some ways, such a standardized test was supposed to be an equalizer. A kid from a rough background could still score well on a test of intelligence, and hence could open up elite colleges to students not from the Andovers and Exeters of the world.

Of course, the idea of testing intelligence has gone in and out of favor over the years. The SAT has broadly been changed to test more of the material covered in high school. In theory, it can still be a way to compare kids from different backgrounds. Some high schools are much harder than others. Straight A's at one school may mean little in terms of how prepared for college you are, whereas straight A's at another school may mean a great deal. I experienced this myself in my two different high schools. A good college admissions test should be able to show this.

But people can prepare for tests. And so, one widespread criticism of the SAT is that well-to-do kids can spend thousands of dollars on test prep. They can be coached to higher scores, and take the test numerous times, and hence appear more prepared than they are.

Which may be true. But stories like Stier's also show that the SAT may still mean something. After her year of coaching and prep, she did manage to get a perfect score on the writing component. And guess what? Having worked in publishing for years, and as a published author of a book, she probably is quite competent at writing!

On the other hand, she never managed to boost her math SAT score higher than 560 (out of 800). This is after a year of studying the high school math covered on the SAT and taking the test numerous times. Given that, isn't it possible to believe that a high schooler scoring in the 700s on the math section is, in fact, showing serious mathematical promise? Whether she's been coached or not?

If the SAT were perfectly "coachable," you'd see a lot more perfect scores. As it is, only a few hundred students per year score perfect 2400s. It's fashionable to trash the SAT, but it may mean something despite its flaws.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Does America hate its gifted kids?

In the internet era, everyone loves provocative titles. So Newsweek obliged with a recent essay called "America Hates Its Gifted Kids." The piece offers up the usual arguments: the focus on bringing people up to minimal standards means bright kids get little attention. Teachers who try to differentiate face an uphill battle because, well, it's hard.

All this is true. But does America actually hate its gifted kids?

I'd say that hate is a strong word. I think the emotion is more nuanced. Certainly, we have our narratives. We like the story in which no one expects great things from someone -- and then that person goes on to succeed. Someone who shows a lot of potential from the get-go doesn't fit this narrative as well. We also have a very strong egalitarian impulse. While good in some ways, people are obviously more or less talented in many regards. The problem is that we also dislike the concept of people who think they're somehow more special and better than others. We tolerate this in athletic pursuits (usually -- though sometimes not judging by the reaction to Richard Sherman's NFC championship game rant). But the language of someone being gifted implies this specialness. And sometimes we like to see the tall poppies cut down.

But more I'd say it's just neglect and bad incentives. I was at a conference on educational philanthropy a few years when attendees were asked what they thought were the big issues people should focus on. Gifted children was an option, and got about 2% of responses (and I answered that, so I'm a chunk of that 2%). Teachers wind up with a huge range of academic levels in classes, and have to triage what to address. Weighing options, it's easiest to assume that gifted kids can fend for themselves.

The Newsweek essay does suggest that people be grouped by ability, not age, which is something many of us would love to see happen more broadly. The organization of schools has little to do with the reality of what people can handle. But changing the way 50 million school children are organized is not an easy thing to pull off. And so that's why many parents wind up doing what they can on their own.

Do you think America hates its gifted kids?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Snow day math

Like many other communities on the East Coast, we've had a large number of snow days this year. Yesterday (and today!) was another. Our sitter was snowed in and my husband was stuck in Europe, so I spent the day with the kids. We re-read Graeme Base's Uno's Garden, a book with a number of number games. The plants in the forest decrease in squares (100, 81, 64, 49...) and the number of buildings increase by the power of 2 (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64...) You can see how quickly numbers can change through different functions as opposed to basic counting sequences.

Uno's Garden starts with 10-squared, and goes down. My 6-year-old and I spent our afternoon working on the concept of "squares." We drew dots to show why these numbers are literally "squares." Then we realized that, hey! They go up from 10 squared. You can square 11, and 12 and so on. We also figured out that multiplying larger numbers is really about multiplying the tens place and the ones place -- that 12 x 12 can be figured out as 12 x 10, and then added to 12 x 2. I told my son I'd draw the correct number of dots in a square if he could figure out the squares and, sure enough, I wound up drawing 121 dots, 144 dots, 169 dots, etc. Once we'd figured them out, he decided to write his own book about Uno in a forest, with 225 plants and 15 buildings, and 196 plants and 14 buildings and he spent hours illustrating this thing.

It was a good way to pass the time (we even managed to talk through the concept of prime numbers) but what was a bit sobering to me was how happy he was about it. He was beaming the whole time and not insisting on playing Mario Kart. Eventually we lost steam as the 4-year-old and 2-year-old demanded attention. But we kept going for a good long time, and he was more excited about this project than I've seen him much lately.

So...what to do. We're not going to homeschool but I purchased Hard Math for Elementary School and I think we'll schedule a regular time to do it together. Extra-curricular homeschool as it were. I'm curious when other families make such enrichment work with their schedules.

Friday, February 07, 2014

More math challenge for early elementary?

The upside of the string of snow/ice days we've had recently is that I've gotten a chance to talk more with my 1st grader about school and what he's learning. He's quite enjoying the graphing unit they're in with math, but talking through some problems with him over lunch, I can see that we really need to be challenging him more.

So I've been looking for math resources to use at home with him. The idea is that he and I would do some math projects together. I'd really like them to be fun because getting him to do homework is occasionally like pulling teeth. I don't need more basic worksheets. But I'm not sure I'll come up with particularly fun or inventive things on my own.

Has anyone found such a book or online resource that's really good for gifted early elementary school aged children? We worked through Bedtime Math and are looking forward to the sequel coming out in March!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Gifted sons, gifted daughters, and Google searches

A little over a week ago, the New York Times printed Seth Stephen-Davidowitz's analysis of Google search data. One result? Parents are 2.5 times more likely to search for the phrase "Is my son gifted?" than "Is my daughter gifted?" Parents are also more likely to search for "Is my son behind?" or some other phrase implying that a child is having academic problems than searching for similar phrases about their daughters, but the difference is less pronounced, he notes.

So what are we to make of this? Stephen-Davidowitz notes that girls tend to have more developed vocabularies at a younger age. He also notes that in schools, girls are more likely to be in gifted programs than boys.

It may be that parents are, at least in the privacy of their internet searches, more concerned with their sons' intelligence than their daughters'. Parents turn out to be more likely to search phrases like "Is my daughter overweight?" vs. "Is my son overweight?" -- implying that people are more concerned about girls' looks than their brains.

That would be unfortunate -- though probably not terribly surprising. Of course, as some parents have mentioned here, sometimes gifted girls very much want to fit in, and so will hide their intelligence or do their best to act like all is well in school. If boys are more likely to act out when frustrated and bored, this might create a crisis situation that then triggers an internet search for answers.

I'm curious what Gifted Exchange readers think of this article. In your experience, have you seen parents be more likely to advocate for gifted sons vs. gifted daughters?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Practice and improvement

I'm back after a holiday hiatus, and ready to start posting (occasionally) on Gifted Exchange, now in its 10th calendar year. That is starting to be some serious longevity in the blogging world!

My 6-year-old got a Wii for Christmas. He is particularly enamored with Mario Kart. On Christmas he started trying to play, and had a hard time getting through many a course. He'd steer wildly, fall of the course, and often end up in 12th place (out of 12 in each game).

But, video games being designed to keep you playing, he persevered. We let him play a fair amount -- it was holiday break, after all -- and within 72 hours, he'd improved a lot. He'd come in near the top of races, and pretty soon was winning against the computer. Something similar happened with the 4-year-old. He plays less often (he can't turn on the system by himself) but he can complete most courses and occasionally does so with reasonable speed.

It is one of the great wonders of the world that when we devote time and attention to something, we can improve. Often dramatically. Video games are designed to make this fun. But we can figure out a lot about our interests if we observe when we willingly do this in other spheres.

The 6-year-old also turns out to love lists and charts. He spent weeks studying his school phone directory, figuring out which classes were the biggest, which had the kids with the first last names in the alphabet, etc. Over the past few snowy days, he's been making a Star Wars dictionary. Each page has a letter, and each letter is illustrated by a character (What, you say, there aren't any Star Wars characters starting with some letters? He got around this by making up his own). He's also given each character a strength rating, and charted this in a color coded system.

Of course while doing this he's practicing writing and graphing. But I'm not having to nudge him to do this, the way I have to nudge reading actual stories right now. When we're intrigued by something, we practice without it being a chore. That's not to say we don't need to practice things that do feel like a chore. Sometimes joy comes later on in the process. But it's even more fun when it comes early.

Blogging has, over the years, become my writing practice activity of choice. I don't post often here, but I'm posting close to daily at www.lauravanderkam.com, and 3x/week for Fast Company. What activities do you most enjoy practicing? What do your children practice without nudging, and what have you learned about their interests from that?