Saturday, February 13, 2010

New Platform

Hi- I have transferred this blog to another platform that I think will better suit the forum. The new address is I hope you will follow me over there. Thanks for your support. Erik

Monday, February 1, 2010

The 3 "R"s; Rigor, Relevance, and Risk-Taking

In the current educational climate where so much focus is on bringing low performing students up to proficiency, I wanted to throw out a reminder about the importance of keeping advanced and high ability students engaged, motivated, and challenged. Three areas in danger of being forgotten in classrooms are my three "R"s; rigor, relevance, and risk-taking. Without these elements, many gifted students are in danger of losing their interest in school.

We all understand about rigor and setting a high bar for students. However, I often come across well-meaning teachers who, in their efforts to help an under-performing GATE student, will lessen the difficulty or amount of work in hopes of improving results. If that student is truly overwhelmed or has learning gaps that need intervention, this may be a benefit. In many cases though, the distinction is not made between "can't" and "won't". Our brightest under-achievers can often be very convincing with their "can't" pleas but sometimes, it is really a "won't" disguised as a "can't". How do you know? Engaging assignments and offering rewards (tangible or intangible) can often help suss out where there is a problem. If there is a reason or interest in performing, many times students will step up and do more than we thought they were able to.

This leads me to relevance. Teachers and parents working with gifted students invariably are faced with the question from gifted kids "Why do I have to do this? What's the point?" Answering with a "Because I said so!" rarely works on intelligent children. The more we can do to make every lesson (in school and at home) relevant to what the student thinks is important, the better. Gifted adolescents in particular need to be able to make the connection between their academics and real life. Many of them are smart enough to realize they can leave school early, get a GED, and be in the workforce earning money sooner rather than later. For most, this is obviously not the most prudent course of action.

Finally, with curriculum and assessments often being formulaic and prescribed, creativity can sometimes be swept under the rug. Gifted students (well, actually all students) benefit greatly from variety, being able to try new things, and taking intellectual risks. Much of the best learning occurs when we try something and it doesn't work out. Just ask the makers of the cleanser 409. It got it's name because that many attempts were made before they found the best formula. Creative problem solving is an essential skill for life and needs to be practiced at school. Moreover, for our highest ability students who rarely experience failure, they need that experience within the safe confines of school and home. It will help them know that first, it will happen to them, second, they will survive it, and third, they will learn from it.

So, in my perfect school world, all kids will experience their reading, (w)riting, and 'rithmetic with rigor, relevance, and risk-taking. Would love to hear from any of you that can share other ideas of how you bring the three "R"s to your students!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Changes in GATE Funding in California

Last year, the governor and other legislators made some dramatic changes in how specific school district programs are funded. In the past, the state would send money to school districts with the condition that the funds be spent only on those particular programs. For example, as the GATE coordinator in my District, I received a budget and those dollars could only be spent on supporting the GATE program and the students it serves. That system has changed. Now, the state still provides some funding, but the decision of which programs and students the money is spent on rests with local school districts.

The term attached to this change is "flexible spending". For programs that will lose their funding to other interests the district deems more important, the term has the same ring to it as "positive attrition". Advocates of the change point out (quite correctly) that local administrators have a far better sense than the state of the best places to put the few precious dollars they are allotted. Moreover, many districts, like the district I work for, did not take money away from GATE and are continuing to run as they did before. We took a budget cut but it was no higher or lower than any other program. I am fortunate to work in a district where there is a clear understanding that leaving gifted and high ability students unchallenged and unserved will lead them to lack motivation and perform poorly. There are, however, districts that have taken away all GATE funds and put them toward other services and programs. As a student in one of my university classes put it, "GATE has gone away" in her district.

I am curious and eager to hear what is happening in districts across the state regarding their GATE funds. Even in the best of economic times, this population of students does not get adequate attention and funding. In this "high stakes testing" age, often there is the assumption that gifted students will always test well so there is no need to worry about them. The truth is, their performance will decline if they are bored and see no relevance to their academics. Even more importantly, they will not be given opportunities to practice higher level thinking and problem solving.

If you are a parent or teacher in a district where "GATE has gone away", I urge you to actively advocate for gifted students and to let me know if and how I can support your efforts.

Monday, December 21, 2009

"B" is for Busy not Bored...

Despite the curriculum often not being commensurate with their abilities, most gifted children love being in school. There are always curiosities to satisfy, things to investigate, and learning (on at least some level) to be done. As a result, for many parents of gifted kids extended periods at home like winter break can be a challenge. I thought I'd throw out a few ideas to help keep the dreaded "B" word (B O R I N G) from arising this holiday season.

First of all, the antidote to boring is busy. While I'm there, my first suggestion is to involve your kids in two more "B" words, budgets and buying. Many families already do this but I saw on on TV recently a holiday shopping suggestion that would be great for the kids. Set a budget amount for them to be able to spend on presents. Then, give them that amount in cash in small bills. Before leaving the house, have them make an envelope for each person they want to buy for and put in an amount they want to spend on each person. Now, many of your little rascals will immediately conclude that if they don't spend it, they will be able to keep it. Be sure to inform them otherwise- that anything left over comes back to you. If they end up wanting to overspend on one person, they need to pull the extra money from another person's envelope. Now I warn you this will slow down shopping considerably. Still I think it's a valuable exercise on several levels. It teaches basic budgeting, responsibility, problem solving, and even has them wrestle with the ethical dilemmas of pulling money from one person to spend on another. My suggestion would be to do it on a day separate from when you are trying to do your own shopping.

Similar activities can be done around planning holiday meals and grocery shopping. There are tons of opportunities for some pretty heavy mathematical calculating here. They can investigate everything from costs of items, coupons, measurements, quantities needed based on the number of people eating, comparing supermarkets, to comparing the cost of eating at home to dining out. Of course not all kids will be interested in this but many will enjoy wrestling with the complexities of this type of planning. It will also give them a better understanding about all that goes in to what you do for them!

A couple of other suggestions involve technology and having the kids go through the important skill of conducting research. Many gifted children are extremely empathetic and have a keen sense of justice. The holidays can be an opportunity to expose them to the world of non-profit and charitable organizations. A great use of a day would be offering them $5 or $10 that they can donate to the charity of their choice but they first need to research a certain number of organizations and explain to you why the funds should go to that cause. Depending on the age and computer skills of the child, you could pre-plan it by creating list of websites you have already checked out. This is another project that has kids reading, analyzing, making decisions, and justifying those decisions.

Another way to have children do some research is to mark a day on the calendar and ask your child to plan a family outing for that day. Instruct them they need to take into account everyone's interests and ideas of fun, give a budgeted amount that can be spent, and ask them to write up how you all should spend the day. They can research about places, calculate traveling times, plan out a schedule, and propose it to you at a family meeting. Again, for younger children, it will be useful to offer up some alternatives first to focus them (i.e. family movie day, family hiking day, etc.).

One of the areas in which children are identified as gifted is in the area of leadership. All of these activities offer an opportunity for kids to take on the role of leader and exercise critical and creative thinking. Hopefully they will be positive family experiences and grow brain cells at the same time. Would love to hear any suggestions any of you have too!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Highlights on Gifted Sites

I spent some time tonight visiting the websites I have listed so I could share with you some of the highlights of what they currently have posted. For anyone who is an advocate for gifted children, I encourage you to check out these sites as they all contain great articles and resources. I would go even further to say that the strategies and pedagogy offered by experts in the field of gifted are enormously helpful to all learners. As the cliche goes, "good teaching is just good teaching". For all four sites, simply click the link on the right and it will take you there.

Most states have an organization that focuses on gifted education. I have highlighted Arizona and California as I have attended, presented at, and gained a wealth of information from the state conferences of these two organizations. Arizona's AAGT website is really nicely organized with clearly laid out separate pages of information and resources specific to parents, students, and educators. California's CAG site currently has a thought provoking article titled "What About 'Race to the Top' for our Kids who are Already at the Top?"

SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) focuses more on the affective than the curricular needs of gifted children. On their site at the moment for kids is a film contest with the theme "What it is Like to be a Gifted Kid". Rules and how to enter are listed. Also posted is the opportunity to nominate educators for the SENG Honor Roll based on their passion and commitment to help gifted students.

The NAGC (National Association for Gifted Children) has released the "State of States In Gifted Education Report 2008-2009". This report gives state reporting results on areas of gifted education from teacher credentialing, to student identification, to programs and services. Another valuable section is their "Legislative Action Network" where educators and parents can turn their advocacy into political action.

The articles and resources on these sites are updated often so I hope you will visit them regularly. Also, if you have a great resource you would like me to share on here, please leave me a comment about it!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Brilliance and Resilience

Earlier today I added a handful of book titles to the page. I strongly recommend everything on there but tonight, I wanted to highlight one book in particular. More than any other, this book has had a huge influence on me as a teacher of gifted children. Ironically, it is one of the few books listed that is not specifically written for parents or educators of gifted children.

The book I'm referring to is Miles Corwin's And Still We Rise. Corwin is an investigative journalist who immersed himself into the lives of teachers and students at the gifted magnet high school in LA's Crenshaw area. Although it reads like a novel, the stories and characters are real. The students, twelve highly intelligent African-American teenagers from one of the city's poorest and toughest neighborhoods, struggle to overcome the barriers in their lives, focus on education, and get to college.

It is a story of profound persistence and resilience. Unlike many other similar stories, it is not about the teacher; it is about the kids. No Edward James Olmos, Hilary Swank, or Michelle Pfeiffer riding in on their white horses turning non-motivated, non-believing students into successes. No judgment here... like millions of others, I enjoyed all of those movies. And, the real teachers who inspired them are in my mind true heroes. The difference in Corwin's book, however, is that the students are the focus of the story. The teachers in the book are realistic and, quite frankly, secondary. They run the gamut from petty and punitive to warm-hearted and inspirational. They certainly have influence but they are only a part of the equation. A far bigger factor is the internal conviction and determination each student possesses.

Another fascinating section of the book is Corwin's discussion of Affirmative Action. Whether you are a proponent or opponent, it is a compelling argument worthy of a read no matter where you sit on that fence. Ultimately though, what makes this book so beautiful is its portrayal of these disadvantaged, troubled, frustrated, yet brilliant, resilient, and hopeful adolescents. As you follow along on their journeys rooting for them, it remains impossible to predict who will rise and who will fall.

Several years after reading the book, I learned the gifted magnet high school in Crenshaw no longer exists. One of the teachers who Corwin shadows in the book, Toni Little, has since become a colleague and friend. She continues to work as a high school teacher in an area with many low income families. She and I talk often on how important it is for school to be a place for critical and creative thinking and problem solving. Those skills empower students and strengthen their inner resolve. I truly hope you will give this book a try. If you do, let me know what you think!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Shouldn't School Mirror Life?...

It seems recently in education, the overwhelming concern of politicians and bureaucrats is to improve standardized test scores. Yesterday, I raised the point that these efforts often leave our proficient and advanced students sitting in classrooms essentially being neglected while instruction targets students in the "low-middle". While my blogs will primarily deal with the advanced kids, tonight I wanted to address some of the dangerous ramifications current trends in public education have on all kids.

Before continuing, let me first say that I am a huge advocate of public schools and feel blessed to be working in a great district, with amazing people, in a wonderful community. We are all doing the best we can. But, given the senseless, paperwork- heavy, micro-managed, and plainly illogical mandates coming from the state level and the enormous expense of these "improvement" agencies and plans, I'm beginning to have serious doubts as to how we are actually helping kids to become smart, independent, deep thinkers. I also question how well we are preparing them for life when the school system works nothing at all like life. Let me give you an example...

I would venture to guess that most of us (if not all of us) spend the bulk of our time as adults doing things we perform well at and things we are interested in. I know I do. Whether it is teaching, writing, playing tennis or going to the beach, most of my time is dedicated to my strength areas and areas of passion. Now, I will grant you I do spend some unpleasant minutes attempting to "crunch" away my middle-aged middle with dreaded sit-ups. However, for my own happiness, sanity, and peace of mind, I do not make it a huge part of my day. I work on that "weakness" but not at the expense of abandoning everything I am good at or enjoy.

My question is this; if life works that way, why can't school work that way? Lately, it seems school functions in the exact opposite way life does. Let's look at Joey, a "B" student in all subjects but two. In art, an area where he shines and experiences the most joy in his school day, he is getting an "A". In math, an area where he shows little interest or aptitude or both, he is getting a "D". The State agency solution for Joey? Take away his art elective and give him double math. Now, I don't know about you, but if I were Joey, I would get mad. My likely response would be "take this school and shove it!". I'd probably get pretty depressed too and dread going to school every day. Teacher training 101 told us the punitive approach is both unfair and ineffective...

I'm not saying we allow Joey to give up on math. Some day, he may learn to love it and be great at it. I hope he does. But, are we instilling in him a passion or excitement for the subject by ramming it down his throat while we take away his favorite part of the day? Even if our sole purpose as educators is to bump up State test scores, how about helping educators out by allowing us to do what we do best? Let us engage and inspire children to eagerly attend and do well in school.

If I were a gambler, I would lay my money on higher test scores coming from a class where the students love to be there, have most of their day spent on building up their strengths and interest areas, and having their deficiencies worked on but in smaller, focused, palatable chunks. I certainly wouldn't bet on the class where bored and depressed kids get double and triple timed on things they don't like or do well at and spend little of their day doing anything that stimulates them.

Then again, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe instead, life should try harder to imitate school. Hmmm how about this? Since I have an unusually heightened fear and dislike of guns, I should give up my day job and become a hunter. If I do it over and over, will I get better at it? Probably but I'm guessing only marginally not to mention I would likely be pretty sad. Will I develop an appreciation and love for hunting down and killing things? Doubtful. Will I remain a solid teacher if I'm hunting most of the day? Also doubtful. What I do know is that life would suck. I'm depressed- maybe I'll do some more sit-ups to put a smile back on my face...