Archive for June, 2012

“What?”

I have always had an ability to block people out when I am concentrating. Even when I was a kid, I would be reading somewhere in the house, my parents would be trying to find me for dinner, and they would have to walk right up to my face to get my attention. This ability served me well in college, since I was able to get homework done in my personal zone of quiet while (usually) chaos surrounded me.

Dave noticed this trait early on in our relationship; he eventually learned not to try and talk to me when I was reading or concentrating, but to get my full attention first. [Dave: “a flare gun is handy for this.”] It’s just an accepted fact of our marriage after 18 years. If Dave is telling me something and I’m not concentrating on what he is saying, I might say, “What?” and then answer his question moments later, when I finally realized what he actually said. Frustrating for him, I’m sure, but we’ve (well, he has!) learned to live with it.

It was no surprise, then, when two of our children exhibited this same trait, presumably inherited from me. I have chuckled as I have tried to get their attention while they are concentrating on something, or reading, and I am unable to even get them to look up. Or waiting for a few moments after I say something for them to definitively process what I just said. Of course, I can’t complain about any of this, without the “tree, meet apple” conversation coming up.

It was with interest, then, that I learned about something called “auditory processing” problems. Medically, these made sense to me: kids (like myself) with ear infections as a child, whose brains didn’t quite develop the ability to fully process what they heard. Thus, a “delay” built into the system between actually hearing what is said, and then further processing what that means. Annoying, certainly, for those around me, but it hasn’t hindered me in any way from being able to become a wife, mother, or physician. Jobs, I might point out, that involve lots of listening.

Psychologists have politely suggested that we may want to look into auditory processing therapy for our kids with this issue (and probably with myself along for the ride). We have agreed to look into it, and thankfully I have a great resource through my medical group of someone who can help me sort out recommendations that we receive. Drawing the line about when to “do something” is simple for me: it’s when the “something” starts to interfere with day-to-day functioning. Thus, we explore what the options are, and whether any intervention is evidence-based. Meaning, someone apart from the person making money on the intervention has studied whether the intervention is effective. Evidence-based interventions for issues that are interfering with day-to-day functioning are, in my book, typically worthwhile from a medical point of view.

Yet, here’s my confession: I love having my cone of silence. Being able to effortlessly retreat to my own private world in the middle of chaos is wonderful. I suspect my children love that they can do this, too (Dave wishes he could do this). It’s like our own superpower, or superhero flaw, depending on your viewpoint. The kids will routinely go to Dave instead of me with their disputes, because they know they have to get my attention before I’ll even listen to them. No one bothers me when I’m working from home or reading because they know it’s pointless (I will look up for blood or smoke). The kids don’t try to talk to me all at once in the car because they know I can’t process everything at the same time. They’ve all learned to adapt, and it’s probably taught my kids to be more polite. Other than hearing more “what?” around our house, you might not notice it exists.

So, we’ll plan to go down the road of “looking into it”, and perhaps even “doing something” if we can find anything that meets my criteria above. But I plan to ask whether any intervention would hinder our cone of silence superpower. That’s not a price I’m willing to pay.

Owning – And Loving – Intensity

“She does this thing with her hands,” E’s first kindergarten teacher told us. “Kind of a grabby, flappy thing. It seems to happen when she’s excited. If you want, I can work on that with her.”

Work on that? My PG, basket-of-intensities kid does one thing that is a clear and unambiguous signal that one of her intensities is at work? And you want to eliminate that?

I’d pay a substantial sum of money to have a set of lights on my children’s heads that come on when one intensity or another is active. It would help immensely, for instance, to know that E is all imaginational and sensory on any particular morning; we’d probably swap-write creative fiction in a sea of blankets arranged on the family-room floor. Or to know that A is all psychomotor; off to the pool we’d go, on the spot. I never know precisely what intensities are at work at any given hour of any given day, but what I do know is that one of my children provides me one clear-cut signal regarding one of hers.

It’s not a pathology. It’s a lifeline. And this woman completely missed that fact. (Full disclosure: she also told us that giftedness ‘tends to even out by around third grade.’ Thanks.)

I grew up in a home that was intensity-intolerant. Intellectual intensity was fine; the others were character flaws to be abraded, vestigial limbs to be neatly removed and cauterized. It was a perspective diametrically opposed to the modern thinking of ‘gifted is wiring,’ and in having a family of my own, it was a core goal of mine to build an intensity-tolerant environment. They’re going to have to pull themselves together out there; we all do. (I do.) But in here, I very much wanted to establish a DMZ, a free-flight atrium where any and all intensities are welcomed and endorsed and engaged.

And yet, beyond our four walls, we still struggle to find them acceptance, even within the gifted community. It emerges everywhere; the gifted psychologist (!) who wants to treat A’s psychomotor intensity as ADHD (it’s not); the counselor who’s sure that H could be more focused and disciplined with particular therapies (she won’t). What I want to tell them is that they are the children they are. While I’m sure I could whittle an externally-convincing version of some societally-idealized child out of them with medication and therapy and focus exercises, inwardly, they would become gifted amputees; someone forced to indulge an intensity shamefully, privately, away from us.

I don’t want that.

In graduate school, I had a fantastic medical anthropology professor who wrote a seminal quote on the chalkboard the first day of class. It read You can understand almost everything about a culture through the study of the conditions it medicalizes. (Try a taste spoon of this concept if you like.) I loved the quote then and I love it now. In particular, I find it chilling with respect to gifted education to think that we are so highly selective of our ‘approved’ intensities and so broadly intolerant of others, choosing to apply labels to them. Daydreamer. Fidgeter. Crybaby. We think nothing of working, as a culture, to reduce the impact of other intolerant words – I won’t list them here, since they just jumped into your head anyway – but these remain.

I wonder if that is because their targets are too small to defend themselves.

Making Our Own Path to Happiness

I’ve been reading all the the press recently about whether women can “have it all” and what that even means (see Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All“). My own perspective on this is, as usual, “off the grid,” so I thought I’d share. My reflexive answer was, “Why the hell would I want that?”

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about how to help my children find true happiness in life. Note that happiness does not equal achievement in my book. Why? Doesn’t every parent of a gifted child routinely say they want their child to grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer? Isn’t that why we all spend so much time on the “right” schooling –  thus getting into the “right” college? Once they’re working as a doctor or a lawyer, game “won”, right?

I’ll let you in on a secret: I am one of the only happy female doctors I know. I love being an internal medicine physician, and the years of medical school and residency, although tough (never mind paying the medical school loans), and now twelve years in practice, has not dimmed my love of my profession. I work part-time, in a very flexible position where I can set my hours day-t0-day, which obviously helps my happiness quotient. It’s hard work, rewarding, and intellectually interesting.

So, after all those years of school and training, what do my fellow female physicians want to do? Most of them, when asked, say that they would like to stay home with their kids.  Perhaps not full-time, but a lot of the time. That, they say, would make them happy.  Publicly, they will all deny they feel this way, because it’s not politically correct to be wishing to be a mommy when you’ve become a doctor. Privately, though, it’s what we all talk about: the elusive work-life balance. No less important: most of my male colleagues struggle with this, too.  I can’t speak for lawyers – although my sibling is one – but I would bet the same conversations come up.

It presents an interesting conundrum for the parent of a gifted child, especially a gifted daughter. We continually tell them they can be anything they want to be, and if they work hard and go after their dreams, they will be “fulfilling their amazing potential”. But what does that really mean? And what if they have fulfilled their potential, in highly educated professions, but are unhappy with their life? Haven’t we then failed them as gifted kids – because then what would be the point of being gifted in the first place?

As has been said many times, by many others before me, I wholeheartedly agree that the solution is to change the conversation. I have been reading some different ideas over the last year from people who are really, truly, changing the conversation.

A recent Equality Blog post from Equally Shared Parenting’s Amy Vachon really cuts to the chase :

“Many of us want all the nontangible, nonmonetary things that come with true equality. Not for the sake of equality but for so much more, including balanced lives for both partners that include all of what each considers important. And to choose equality (and balance), we often need to dethrone Money as the reason for all decisions. And dethrone its friend, Prestige. We have to decide how much money is enough, and exchange the neverending prestige quest for the joy of being an artisan worker in whatever career we choose. Then, the whole world opens up for both partners.”

The Center for a New American Dream continues the discussion. Their video, “Visualizing a Plenitude Economy,” gives a profound visual of what’s possible when we let go of what we’ve been told is the goal.

We need many more intelligent people to model and speak out about the fact that being gifted gives you more choices, and more potential, on your way to your own happiness path in life. Achievement by itself will not make you happy for the rest of your life. Working hard on something you love so you can have more real choices, however, just might. Teach them about working less, spending less, having less stuff, educating themselves for the sake of knowledge, doing what they love, and sharing their lives equally with each other and their children. Let’s have conversations with our gifted children about joy in work, balance, and the importance of designing a life where they can spend lots of time with their (likely gifted) kids. It will be more important than anything they learn in school.

My small pledge: next time I’m talking about my hopes for my children, I promise to not reflexively jump to any of them being a doctor or a lawyer. I will focus on happiness. In my own small way, I will start changing the conversation.

“Do You Have a Second?”

“Do you have a second?” can mean so many things in my life. It can mean that someone would like to ask me a medical question, or they are looking for volunteers for the carnival at school. So, I’ve learned to be a little hesitant when it comes to answering the question.

Over the past few years, I’ve also learned to recognize it as a call for help. I volunteered to be one of the GT ambassador parents for my kids’ elementary school about a year ago, which means I act as a conduit to help other GT parents find information. When a parent of a gifted child asks this question, I know that we are likely looking at a conversation much more than a “second” long. These are the mornings when I’m glad I don’t have to hurry to patients already waiting in the office for me. I can take a few moments to listen to a GT parent, and try to help steer them towards the resources they need.

The questions usually fall into some basic categories: how and when to test into the full-time gifted program at the school; trouble with the parent understanding their child; trouble with the child not being engaged at school; coping with intensities. Since I’m an internist in a geriatric practice, I steer clear of any medical questions about children (other than to say, “you should take your child to his/her doctor”), because clearly I’m not qualified to comment.

I do preface any conversations I have with an explanation that Dave and I are “off the grid” – the best way that I can think of to explain that we are pretty far out there in terms of having left most traditional GT schooling ideas behind. By way of explanation: all of our kids are in a full-time gifted program, and are skipped up an additional grade; my daughters both part-time homeschool literacy and math. Plus, all of our kids have different issues: E is extremely unusual in terms of her intellectual level; H is 2e with a profound math learning disability; and A has all five intensities, all at once. Consequently, what has worked for one child did not necessarily work for the others. We’ve literally done every type of acceleration that exists within our school district.

What I love about volunteering, though, is listening and having empathy for the parents. Their stories can be heart-wrenching, and you can see how much they genuinely care for their child. This is such a tough road to go down, trying to help your gifted child choose a path that makes them truly happy. So much easier to concentrate on measured achievements, test scores, or fighting with the school. One of the parents I spoke with earlier this year commented to me recently that our conversation really opened her mind to possibilities she hadn’t known existed. She seemed so much happier to be pursuing a path of exploration, rather than doing the same things she’d always done. A definite bright spot in my day.

Here’s hoping I can help a few more parents find resources, and happiness, for their gifted kids “off the grid” – well worth many “seconds” of my time.

Elric of Melnibone’s Fireside Chai Symposium

Gifted children learn hard lessons quickly in a traditional school setting. I did. One of the first ones I learned was the ‘river of worksheets’ paradox. Finish my work early, and I was simply given more work; I might have only needed to see that particular cycle once or twice at the most before I learned to keep pace with my classmates. But that, in turn, created disappointment among my teachers, and by extension, my parents; I seemed capable of so much more, but tended to work no more quickly than anyone else in the class. That made me lazy. So which was I to pick? Scylla or Charybdis? Down one path lay an endless stream of ‘enrichment,’ really no more than rearranged versions of the work I’d already done; down the other lay a label, and an endless stream of parental disappointment.

There is something to be said for the relationship between telling a child that he or she is special before asking them to be special. They go together hand in glove. Feeding a gifted child that endless stream of worksheets is not communicating anything other than the outlines of a game to be played out, Cold War-style, among the desks and chairs of mainstream education. Why, then, are we surprised that – when we ask a child to be special – the response is underwhelming? Should we perhaps not first tell a child that he or she is capable of more, and to bring that child into the discussion of how best to match motivations, capabilities, and content? Conversely, beginning with a statement of fact – “your capacity for thought changes some of the rules of the game, and that should not mean simply asking more of you” – can be valuable in motivating a child. The end goal, for us, is to encourage our children to use all of their gifts without fear of being loaded down with make-work or expected to be ‘gifted on demand.’ And that begins, not with a request, but with a discussion.

We can begin that discussion anywhere; in some areas, it merits a discussion of tools and technologies to be made available. There’s a fantastic movement going on in mathematics, for instance, to acknowledge the existence of calculators and computers and iPads and such and to, essentially, elevate the discussion; to determine, once and for all, that tools exist to perform calculation tasks, and to raise the stakes, so to speak. Given the existence of a calculator, the logic goes, I can – as an educator – simply give you a more difficult problem, and assume your use of a calculator. Instead of grinding a child into the ground with times tables, we can acknowledge that technology has moved us forward by some certain distance, and begin to focus the conversation in mathematics on the human capacity for creativity in problem-solving. That happened with us; E learned the basics of algebra through a fantastic iPad program called Algebra Touch, which is – as the name suggests – a solving environment that enables students to drag mathematical terms about an equation, cancel with the slash of a finger, and re-arrange a problem haptically to suit the plan of evaluation. She loves it, to the point that she’ll occasionally just fire it up and create some large algebraic equalities for the sheer Zen of dragging them to their base mathematical elegance, fingerstroke by fingerstroke. It makes algebra an organic, graceful dance of numbers for her, and I love it. Am I letting her use it to work her algebra homework? You bet I am; she’s a nine-year-old girl, and whatever I can do to make the subject get up off the page and move and breathe for her, I’m going to do. She’s nine and doing algebra; rules have already been broken. Why not break some more on her behalf? I’m telling her that she’s special before asking her to be so.

In other subjects, telling before asking can be as simple as enabling the child to place some environmental variables under his or her control. Critical thinking is an area I tackled this past fall with E. My plan was to do a month or so on the works of Michael Moorcock, discussing the relationship between the Eternal Champion (as Moorcock sets him forth) and other mythological constructs, as The Hero With a Thousand Faces discusses. I also wanted to get into a bit of the nature of law and chaos, which Moorcock handles fantastically, and I wanted to tie it all together under the banner of a genre that E reads well (science fiction and fantasy). And, in my pre-Get Out of the Way mindset, I was going to do it all in very traditional didactic fashion.

The first day of this was an utter disaster.

Deeply school-ingrained E showed up ready with all of the plot basics in hand, ready to write a dreaded five-paragraph essay on Elric at the drop of a hat, but I realized quickly that school had done nothing to build her literary critical thinking skills yet. Worse yet, I’d done nothing to bring her into the discussion as to how we were going to work on this. I’d committed by own cardinal error; I’d asked her to be special before I told her she was special – or, in this case, even prepared her to succeed! So back to the drawing board I went, and we did a week’s worth of crash-course discussion on reading a book critically, using books she knew inside and out as examples. I let her pick the books, and even let her turn the tables here and there and come up with the discussion questions (and she greatly enjoyed that). It was hard for her to learn that it’s not enough to understand the plot; that’s table stakes, like calculation in 21st-century math. What I was going to be asking of her was to think about the book. But, I told her – in tell-then-ask fashion – we could do that in any setting E liked. As it turned out, that involved a lot of whiteboarding on her part (she loves to draw out concepts and connections), and she made it clear that she’d very much like a cup of chai before launching into this, and would it be possible to have a fire while we talked?

Yes and yes, I replied; and in so doing, I communicated clearly to her that I was not going to be weighing her down with elementary-school trappings, nor asking for the sort of plot-centric descriptions fourth-graders are asked to do. But the counterweight to that, to the fireside whiteboarding with chai in hand, was that I was going to ask more of her again. And she delivered – beautifully – over the course of the next month. I made a lot of chai, and cleaned a lot of whiteboard territory, and in the end, telling E that she was special before asking her to be so won out again.

Going forward, I made it a point in homeschooling E that I would never ask of her with one hand without offering with the other.

2 + 2 = Fish

E has made something of a name for herself in our household as our resident puzzle-solver, so the events at our breakfast table one sunny morning were a wide-eyed surprise.

See that pic up there? Go give it a minute or two. I’ll wait.

Back? Super.

H  – our resident dyscalculic – looked at this and got it, literally, in about one second. Seriously. Through a mouthful of cinnamon roll, her immediate comment was, “you flip the shape around and stick it together, so two 2’s make a fish, two 3’s make an 8, and two 7’s make a triangle.”

Sleepy E arrived at the table minutes later to find the iPad at her place, and frowned. And then her ‘working’ face went on, and I could see the gears starting to whirl and steam starting to rise. I could literally watch the permutations and insinuations get examined, one by one, and discarded.

“I don’t get it,” she sighed.

The real revelation for us was that it was literally impossible for E to discard the symbolic freight of numbers as mathematical fact. She was trying mathematical possibility after mathematical possibility, analogy after analogy – do fish have four fins? Does a triangle relate somehow to the number seven? – without success.

It’s a rare moment when H’s issues in subitization become a gift. They’re not numbers first to H; they’re shapes. If I gave you a set of squiggles that, mirrored and docked, became recognizable shapes, you could probably solve that problem as fast as she did. (And maybe you did anyway.) But load down a graphic with meaningmathematical meaning in this case – and E’s traditional problem-solving machinery grinds into motion instantly. I had to point out to E, as a hint, that if you began by thinking of them as numbers, the puzzle actually became more difficult to solve, at which point she ‘got it’ – but whole minutes had gone by.

This strikes me as particularly important having watched (again) the video entitled Future Learning, in which one of the most important skills for next-generation success is the ability to reject doctrine, to slip dogmatic bonds and free the mind to approach problems freshly, with what amounts to that child mind. As I marveled at what H had done, I wondered to myself: are there fish and triangles in my own daily challenges that I’m not identifying and addressing correctly? And how do I teach ‘machinery’ like E’s to start with the ‘child mind’ when we approach problems like this one?

It’s All in Context

Learning happens when we need to know something.

Read that last sentence again.

What I saw this year was that the concept of subdividing a student’s day by topic borders on the ludicrous. What relationship does that concept have to your day? Is your professional task set neatly subdivided by the clock? Odds are quite good it’s not. So why do we teach our children this way?

This year, I taught E math inside of gaming; science inside of creative writing; logic inside of literature; creativity inside of geometry. We spent the last few months of the year writing a steampunk version of Alien, set in the Azores, a project that led E into all kinds of areas unrelated to creative writing – from deep-sea diving pressure and how it impacts the human body to the gender roles present in Victorian England. When we encountered the need for the information, we researched – not before.

Could I have delivered a twenty-minute talk in December on the subject of Victorian gender roles? Sure. It would have gone in one ear and out the other, because it wasn’t connected to anything. That’s why doing the proverbial ‘unit’ on something – no matter how integrated the subject matter is constructed to be – is doomed to failure. Units don’t exist in life. What does exist is passion and action and interest and curiosity.

“Sure,” you’re saying. “But how do I manage a classroom of thirty different sets of passions and actions and interests and curiosities?”

You don’t. That format is not for gifted learners. Sorry. I’ve long been a hard-core proponent of trying to ‘do gifted’ in the classroom setting, and the unfortunate reality is that it doesn’t work.

“What for?” has become a mantra in our home on this topic, thanks largely to an exceptional (and very moving) video entitled Future Learning. Kathy and I both watched it over and over, and we both still go back to it from time to time for the sense of wonder and possibility that seeps from every frame. It’s awesome in its scope, spine-shivering in its hope; it’s everything we want for our kids, and it merits ten minutes of your time.