Archive for September, 2012

Wanted: One Rustic, Wobbly Coffee Table

Soon after Dave and I moved in together, his college friend who had been loaning him a coffee table came and picked it up. We were both post-college, headed for graduate school, and totally broke.  We lived without a coffee table for a while, and then read in a magazine (remember those?) that we could build one for $30. What the hell, we thought, let’s build one. So, we set out to the nearest Home Depot to get the supplies, and over a Saturday morning proceeded to build the coffee table from the instructions provided.

What we built, though, wasn’t exactly a coffee table. Dave and I were not the “handiest” people at age 22, so what possessed us to try and do this, I’ll never know. The end product was much larger, and more, um, cubic, than we had expected, and it barely fit in our tiny apartment. The table wobbled, the top resembled the Colorado foothills more than a flat surface, and the wood splintered a bit when you tried to put your feet on it. Compared to the end product in the magazine picture, it was an epic failure.

Dave and I were recently recalling – and laughing about – this experience as we were thinking about our own failures. We have both written about the importance of getting our kids to the point that they experience what it feels like to fail. There’s also a plethera of literature about the role of failure in defining success.

We all instinctively know that achieving success all the time is not only unrealistic and unsustainable, but unhealthy. Real breakthroughs happen usually after multiple attempts, some of which are spectacular failures. But, it’s like balancing on a seesaw: accepting failure and defeat all the time isn’t healthy either. What we want to instill in our kids (and ourselves) is the idea that failure is an expected part of life, but that each failure should lead us to either continue to try and improve until we ultimately succeed, or realize that achievement of the goal wasn’t that important to begin with. If we could only get them to be more comfortable with failure, we lament, they would be more likely to reach true success. Why are they so afraid of failing?

The answer, as always, is that we refuse to model or reinforce failure as adults. A recent discussion serves as an example: a good friend of mine was successful in advocating for whole-grade acceleration for her child after acquiring and presenting the necessary data. Her daughter has started in the new grade, and loves it, but feels she could probably move up in math. She’s interested in trying the next math class up as a challenge, but the teachers won’t budge. Why? They are afraid she’ll fail. Keeping her in the class, instead of encouraging her to try something more challenging (and perhaps failing at it), is showing the young woman, in real time, that even the possibility of failure is not an option for adults.

What’s even more powerful than modeling? Reinforcement. The kids will listen to what we say,  follow what we do, live what we reinforce. Our kids rarely see us have a catastrophic failure and then watch as we attempt to gracefully handle the situation, choosing to either continue to work at it, or decide to move on. We’re also more comfortable as a society celebrating our successes than our failures. Do we celebrate the kids who went for the real challenge, got low grades the first semester, then worked their tails off, learned a ton, and really improved the second semester? Nope. We celebrate the kids who took the less challenging path and got straight As all the way through. Play it safe, we reinforce to them. We may talk about how great failure is, but we don’t want you to actually do it. And when is the last time you “liked” a friend celebrating an epic failure of their own on Facebook?

By the way, our rustic, wobbly coffee table turned out to be quite useful. We put an old blanket from Mexico over it to protect us from the splinters, stuck a book under one of the legs to level it, and put the thing to good use as a combination coffee table/dining table in our little apartment. We both vividly remember the great time we had building it, and how hard we laughed when we finished and compared it to the picture. Neither of us can remember what we did with the table when we eventually moved; it was replaced with a smaller, store-bought table in our graduate school apartment.

But now, having three gifted, intense kids, I almost wished we’d kept it.  It would be a living celebration of failure, modeled and reinforced to our kids every day. In the end, a perfect product wasn’t important to us because we really didn’t care what anyone else thought about our coffee table.  We made the most out of the situation, and moved on with what we had, imperfections and all.

Given our current situation with our kids, Dave and I have started to revisit our (many) early failures. We are working towards freeing our family from society’s tired old models of achievement,  and instead striving to model and reinforce what we express to our kids. Celebrating each of us trying hard at something potentially out of our league, possibly failing at it, and then picking ourselves up and trying again, or moving on.  Because showing them failure, and celebrating it, will be more powerful than any of the words we speak.

The Sweet, Dragonfruit-Scented Smell of Motivation

You’d think I’d have learned from last year’s experience, wouldn’t you?

But no, a month into the school year, and I’m seeing the same pattern all over again: dusty worksheets and dead-end assignments and bizarre story problems merit glazed expressions and frequent sighs, while project-based learning (PBL) has them on their feet and clapping and shouting and working feverishly. I can be a little slow on the uptake at times, but I’ve seen enough; this is probably the last year of structured, ‘traditional’ learning for H&E. (And I’m only keeping them on rails this year because we’ve, ahem, invested in their online educational experiences.)

And so, after watching The Sighing Show for a month, with some increasingly strongly-worded hints from E – are we ever doing any projects like we did last year, Dad? – I relented and told them they were starting a business. Any kind they wanted. But they would be doing all of the hard work in getting it up and running, and they must make it perform at breakeven by the end of the year.

“Can we do a spa?” they asked.

“Sure,” I replied. And they were off and running. In the past few weeks, I’ve held out working on the spa as a reward for good effort in their other studies. If we have a good week checking the boxes and crossing the t’s for Traditional Schooling, they can work on the spa on Friday mornings. They’ve done their part, and so Friday morning has become spa business planning morning here at the casa.

So far, they have:

  • Researched demographic data to find the best available local commercial real estate;
  • Called the power and water utility companies to get estimates on monthly utility costs;
  • Done the floor planning for the spa and picked out fixtures and furniture;
  • Developed a monthly operating budget and estimated the amount they’ll need to borrow;
  • Built a wiki to track trends in spa treatments and prices

…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Subsumed under those tasks are mathematics, creative writing, spreadsheet design, social media, qualitative and quantitative research, and scenario development. They’re all the same subjects they’d be doing in any here’s-another-worksheet setting, but the very fact that they encounter learning opportunities as they move through the project makes each of those opportunities more meaningful for them. Put simply, they’re learning what they need to learn when they need to learn it, to advance their project forward. And, I’m finding, I’m getting more out of them when they do learn it.

Case in point. Here’s a worksheet problem: a square has an area of 121 square centimeters. What is its perimeter?

Here’s a story problem: a farmer owns a square pasture with an area of 121 square miles. How much fence is needed to completely fence in his pasture?

Here’s a PBL problem: you’ve decided that the optimal massage room has 121 square feet. How many feet of copper wire do you need installed in each room, if every wall needs an outlet?

Those three problems are essentially the same problem, with the same answer. The first two are real problems that showed up (with different areas) in E’s algebra book. The third is one that emerged through PBL. They all yield basically the same problem-solving strategy, but the third one comes with a built-in twist: the girls were incentivized to find the smallest possible perimeter for a given area, since copper wiring costs money – and more expense in construction means less available for massage tables and dragonfruit-scented oils. They tried a dozen different dimensions before concluding (correctly) that square rooms would, indeed, minimize their costs for wiring, and in that moment was an exploration of geometry and algebra – along with a hint of calculus! – that would never have happened in worksheet/story-problem country.

They have a stake in this endeavor. They’re not trying to figure out the area of some random square, or assist another mathematically-helpless farmer in the fence-buying process; this is their business, their expense, their creative cost-saving tricks. It’s hooked to something that they’re invested in, and that makes all the difference in the world in motivating them to learn.

And, with that, I think we’re going to cucumber-slice the eyelids of Traditional Learning, turn the lights down in its aromatherapy room, and move along. I’ve seen enough. It’s PBL for us going forward.

Planet of the As

Like most schools, September is when we all start to schedule our first parent-teacher conferences of the year. We began this process when the girls started kindergarten, eagerly awaiting the conference, and hoping to hear those words every parent (thinks they) want to hear: she’s smart, she’s wonderfully behaved, she’s doing just great.

Our first conference for the girls was a shock: we’re not sure what to do with them. 

Then we moved into the full-time GT program, and the discussion at the conference began: so we think she needs to skip a grade.

I’m sure some parents react calmly to these sorts of discussions. I was not one of them. My doctor’s mind wanted to know: where is the data about what we should do? Hasn’t this been studied? So I launched myself into learning everything I could about gifted children and gifted education in general. Thanks to Hoagies, I found the Iowa Acceleration Scale and the studies behind it, and research from Leta Hollingworth and Miraca Gross on profoundly gifted kids. I listened to psychologists who specialized in gifted children, and got our kids tested to find out what we were dealing with. Dave did just as much exhaustive research as I did.

The result is that we are not typical GT parents at the conferences. Last year, at our son’s conference, his teacher was explaining her grading on an assignment, and what the kids had to produce to get a 3 (like a B) or a 4 (like an A). I could hear Dave and I sucking in our breath as she got ready to show us what our son received.

But not for the reasons you’d think. See, what we’d learned along the way is that any of our kids getting all 4s in school meant we needed to move them up another grade (or more). All 4s was bad; we call it the “Planet of the As”, where children evolved from grades, rather than the other way around. Continued life on the Planet of the As would mean that we hadn’t reached the ceiling of their potential and ability, and ahead lay much more work in trying to figure out what that ceiling was. In the end, she showed us his paper, and we were overjoyed to see the 3 in red marker at the top. It meant he was in the right place, for now. The teacher looked a little confused, but she’s dealt with us long enough to know that we’re somewhat alien.

I can hear all of you saying now: why push your kids? Let them be a kid! Let them be the best in the class, what a great feeling for them!

For some kids, this is actually the right thing to do. Some kids are happiest when they are killing it, so to speak. They thrive on getting the A+, being the best, and creating perfection. There are times when every kid needs this, regardless of circumstances. E has found the Talent Search to be this for her: she is reminded that she is intellectually amazing compared to peers her age. Parents should encourage their kids to find their wonderful time in the sun.

But the data would say we parents should do otherwise when it comes to school. Accelerate our kids to the point that they don’t know the answer, and have to work to find it. Force them to learn how to learn – and not allow them to coast along. (As I was finalizing this blog post, I found an excellent blog post from today on this very topic – So Your Gifted Child Gets All A’s…So What?)

Both Dave and I remember essentially coasting through high school, despite taking all AP classes and entering college at age 17. We also both remember the first time in college (and graduate school) where we realized we had no idea how to study. Everything had come so easy for us all the way through, that when we were confronted with actually having to work at it, we (almost) couldn’t do it. We had no study skills to speak of, and didn’t know how to work hard to accomplish something. A hard lesson to learn at age 19 or 20, and we both squeaked by with a few C+ grades until we figured it out. Grades, mind you, that we had paid several thousand dollars to obtain.

So, we’ve taken the other path. We launched our rocket off the “Planet of the As” into unknown territory. We have finally, finally, reached that ceiling with E this year. She started an online algebra class for GT kids this August. E blazed through the first chapter and the test. For the second chapter, she cruised through the lessons and then decided to take the test without studying. The online tests are timed, meaning after you start them, you have 90 minutes to complete them. All was well until 30 minutes later, when she started commenting loudly at her computer. By 60 minutes in, she was close to tears. She didn’t know some of the answers right away, and wasn’t sure what to do. In the end, E wasn’t able to finish the test in time.

After she was done crying, we talked to her about what this meant. We had found the place where she didn’t already know everything, she actually had to work to learn, and learn how to study. We told her the stories of our lives, and why we thought this was important. We stressed to her that it was awesome to learn this lesson at age 9 rather than at age 20.

Later that day, as luck would have it, the framing store called to say our project was ready. We went and picked up a copy of her Talent Search certificate and medal, which we had framed. E had the highest English score for her grade in the state, and she happily displayed this in her room. At dinner that night, she took a deep breath and said, “I need a study plan for algebra.” E made a plan, had an online chat session with her teacher, studied, studied some more, and retook the test later that week. When she finished, she was confident and proud of all the work she had done.

And then we celebrated our landing on the “Planet of Life.”   Where you might not get all As, but whatever you got, you really worked for it.

Coloring Outside the Lines

“What grades are they in?”

It’s the most benign of parental greetings, really. A closed-ended question that’s built to launch another, more substantive conversation from itself; “what grades are they in?” isn’t intended to be much more than a HELLO, MY NAME IS nametag for parents at playgrounds and sports practices to break the ice.

Unless, of course, it’s more complicated than that. It is in our house; I’m guessing it might be in yours, too. I’ve tried to work mine down to under a minute in length, but even with that, I can sense the fidgeting and discomfort begin at about the twenty-second mark. Well, E is socializing in fifth, but taking honors algebra and honors creative writing through Northwestern at home, so she’s kind of a high school freshman who still likes California kickball and hot-lunch pizza. H is a fifth-grade socializer as well, but she’s doing eighth-grade writing through Northwestern, and fifth-grade math through Connections, even though her 5GT classmates are doing sixth-grade math. A is in second GT full-time, they use the third grade curriculum, and he was early access, so he’s a year younger than his classmates.

Strange little cultural meme, isn’t it? We don’t do this at cocktail parties and barbecues and tailgaters; if we meet someone new, we’ll just ask, “how do you know X?” or “what do you do?” or simply launch into the regulation-issue small talk that adults are masters of. We don’t really have age-related bins to drop ourselves into. Life has given us very different roads to follow since the last time we were referred to as juniors and seniors and such, and some of us have accumulated mostly gentle highway miles, while others of us have been out four-wheeling the whole time. Relating our age wouldn’t say much of anything about ourselves, so we don’t employ any such system.

But we love to put them into these categories, our kids; doing so groups them into convenient boxes and provides us a means to reduce social tension by finding shared points of experience. Welcome back! How was the summer! Ready for fifth? Or are you new here? Where are you coming from? What was fourth like there? We orient ourselves via these mechanistic, school-year-length slices of homogeneity, and in doing so, I can’t help but think that something gets lost. Not everything fits neatly within the grid squares that the school system has to offer, and to ask every kid to squish into those confined spaces can feel Procrustean for the most forgiving of them. Gifted kids often color themselves outside those conveniently pre-inked lines, mad scribbles of fuchsia that depart the confines to occupy uncharted swaths of white, a blossom of teal that erupts outside of the norm in one area or another. Their blossoms bloom in the cracks of the school grid, refusing to be neatly herded into squares and given a label.

I often ask them if they’re all right with all of this, the loss of convenient identity that goes with this sort of higgledy-piggledy assemblage of courses and ‘grades’ and whatnot, and more often than not, they greet that question with a broad affirmative grin. They like that we’ve endorsed coloring outside the lines, I think, and I hope that the same sense of freedom goes with them as they grow and learn later in life. There are amazing things to be done out there, exciting new things to be learned, and I like to think that some of them will belong to those who dared to jump the gridlines and color where they wanted to.


Algebra has become a newsworthy subject once again, after slumbering for decades in freshman high-school classrooms undisturbed. We are, as a society, suddenly energized by this new research claiming that algebra is unnecessary as a broad-based mathematics course, and should be tracked only for college-bound individuals. Everyone’s dropping out, we’re shouting from atop the local schoolhouse bell tower! They need easier math so that they can stay in school! 

To do what, exactly? Continue on a course of delayed-maturity middle-school mathematics? Do we really think that stunting the mathematical curriculum will ensure us that we don’t need to suffer questionable life choices like this and this and this? This limb seems strong enough to support me, so I’m going to inch out to the very leafy end of it and counter this statement with another potentially confrontational one: algebra is not only necessary, but serves us in life areas beyond mathematics. To further that point, I think that the frustration and ambiguity that algebra engenders in high-school freshmen is, in fact, a good thing – because they will need it later.

Algebra is to elementary- and middle-school mathematics as creative writing is to the five-paragraph essay. These tasks – writing something new, solving a complex system of equations – are the first moments in our lives in which we’re truly asked to go beyond what is given to us, to go outside the prescribed and well-worn path to results. Algebra, in particular, asks us – for the first time in our educational careers – to deal with imperfection and lack of clarity. Just as creative writing asks us to set sail upon the windswept terror of a blank page, that foamiest and angriest of literary seas, algebra tasks us with navigating between Scylla and Charybdis, and making safe landfall on mathematical shores beyond. For the first time, there are unknowns to be brought to heel; there is ambiguity in the route to the outcome. It is left to us to make sense out of what we’re given, to think about what it is we’re going to need to do to get to a solution. Point B, that friendly buoy bobbing in the harbor just a few hundred meters offshore, is no longer the destination. Now, we are only given a compass, a nautical chart, and the position of point Q. Managing sails and wind and drift, sailing by starlight, is left to us.

I call that life.

Moreso, I think, for parents of gifted kids. Do you recall flipping past your child’s NNATs and CogATs and WPPSIs and WISCs to find, at the end of the document, a neatly-bound roadmap for you to follow for the next twenty years? When you’d need to consider acceleration, and when you’d want to prioritize intensities and sensitivities over the need for intellectual goodness of fit? What combination of work flexibility and income will maximize your children’s social well-being and emotional health? Or maybe, just maybe – and it’s OK to allow yourself the full sinking-feeling sensation when I say this out loud – has life perhaps turned out to look something like a word problem?

Child E will be ready for college a full four years before your college savings fund was planned to be fully-funded. If x represents your current monthly savings rate, solve for your revised savings rate in terms of x-prime.Extra credit: solve for y, the number of extra billable hours you will need to summon forth from the fabric of the charitable universe to make x-prime a reality! (Note: you are not allowed to violate the space-time continuum.)

Child H, our resident dyscalculic, has completely lost sight of whether she is actually doing above-grade, at-grade, or below-grade work in math. If H enrolled on time for kindergarten at age 6 in a program that teaches math one grade level above, and was then accelerated a full grade at age 9, express the grade level that would best address her dyscalculia in terms of x, where x would be appropriate age-level math. (Extra credit for not confusing the high holy hell out of the child along the way.)

Sound like word problems yet? Anything like this going on in your household? Do you really think a sound familiarity with the times tables is going to make a difference in working out issues like these? See, this is the point.  I don’t credit algebra with preparing me to do any particular sort of mathematics with respect to dealing with life (although it’s sometimes handy); I credit algebra for preparing me for a life of unstructured ambiguity, in which I don’t start with all the information I need to solve the problem. Maybe the problem is going to have to be solved in stages. Maybe the answer is undefined – that black hole of vertical slopes and division by zero and infinity to the zero power – and there is no way to solve the problem. Maybe I’ll need to take the issue through two or three transformations before it becomes solvable. Are these really lessons that can be learned in elementary-school math? Much as I love him, am I really going to learn how to manage the ambiguity of modern life by following this fucking rabbit around all day?

These are cold, deep, often frightening waters. Take it from me; I have signed on as the crusty sailing-master for E’s voyages into algebra at age nine, and there are tears and frustration to be dealt with as she realizes the challenges inherent to algebraic problem-solving. My goal is to let her make as many mistakes as possible now; my hope is that by the time she reaches college, she is used to sailing these waters confidently. The future for her, as it will be for all of them, is fraught with precisely this sort of uncertainty. That’s what makes me laugh out loud when the New York Times article cites a Georgetown study indicating that “… in the decade ahead, a mere 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above. ” Really? Does that imply that they will need to be ‘proficient’ in arithmetic? Will they really be doing wedding-cake long division on the job, when the basest of crappy mobile handsets comes with a calculator app better than most of the calculators I had prior to 1987? What does ‘proficiency’ even mean in the context of mathematics in a world where everyone with Internet access now has a free spreadsheet program available? This entire line of thinking is reminiscent, for me, of Sugata Mitra’s comments in Future Learning. 

Here is my counterpoint to the fine researchers at Georgetown: what the next decade will require from our nation is an unprecedented level of creativity, in every line of work, every vocation, every professional discipline, in order to build a new America that is survivable in the realities of a truly global economy. I don’t guarantee that the type of creativity that is forged in the fires of algebraic manipulation will manifest itself in everyone who takes high-school algebra. But five percent? That seems like a shockingly small proportion of young learners who would benefit from exposure to algebra – and it seems to suggest that 95% of the world population will somehow be able to advance human society forward with nothing more than a four-function calculator. I would no more make a ludicrous suggestion like the ‘Georgetown five percent’ than I would, oh, say…suggest that critical thinking should not be taught in schools.  (Sorry, had to.)

What we’re going to need is more adaptive thinking, more creativity, more willingness to turn the ship away from the twinkling lights of the harbor and into the chilly, foggy expanse of blue water that lies out there. For me, that begins with a troika of analytic creativity, literary creativity, and critical thinking. I’ll be talking more about the latter two in other blog posts to come – but given how prominently the ‘algebra debate’ has figured in our nation’s recent educational discourse, this seemed a logical place to begin; with the variable a, the role of algebra in our country, to be solved for by the generation to come.