Archive for the ‘Gifted’ Category

Adjusting the Plan

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I was flipping through channels on Sunday while the Super Bowl was on (being from Denver, it was unwatchable), and came across The Adjustment Bureau on the SyFy channel. Dave and I saw the movie while it was in theaters, and really liked it, so I watched it again to cure my Super Bowl blues.

For those of you who have not seen it, The Adjustment Bureau is not a revolutionary movie idea (it borrows from The Matrix and Dark City, among others), but it is a well-acted science fiction story about a New York couple, David and Elise (played by Matt Damon and Emily Blount) who feel they are meant to be together, but are secretly being kept apart by members of “The Adjustment Bureau” because it’s not part of “The Plan.” Early on in the movie, David inadvertently finds out about The Plan, and, as the movie unfolds, the Bureau members reveal to David the reason he is kept from Elise: apart, he will go onto become President of the United States, and she will go onto become a famous dancer and choreographer. Together, however, they will fill each other’s voids; David will not become President, and Elise will teach dance lessons to 6-year-olds. David has to make a choice about whether to leave Elise alone so she can fulfill her dreams (and he his), or be together with her, and have their dreams altered. Eventually, they decide to stay together, and The Plan is altered by the Bureau.

The first time I saw it, I was emotionally drawn to the scenes between David and Emily. It reminded me of how I felt when Dave and I met: we were instantly drawn to one another, as though we had found a soul mate. Later, I recognized this as both physical and intellectual attraction: gifted young adults, in our early 20s, who had never really met anyone like ourselves. That attraction has stayed strong 23+ years now, and it is still the basis of why we like to be around one another as much as possible. The choice the movie presented to David was never a choice in my mind: I would have chosen to be together, no matter the cost to careers or fame.

What interested me most, though, was my reaction the second time I saw the movie. During the movie, the Bureau members use doorways to move around the city; when they are wearing a special hat (I know, corny), they can open a doorway and move large distances within the city. At one point, David is wearing one of the special hats, grabs Elise, and they open a door from a random bathroom in an attempt to escape. The doorway opens into Yankee Stadium, with green grass and blue sky, and Elise is at once thrilled, terrified, and confused.

I was reflecting on our last 3 years, and how that one doorway opening is one of the few visual representations I’ve seen that accurately conveys the intellectual and emotional intensity of raising highly/profoundly gifted kids. Each doorway we open – sometimes looking for a way out – is a jarring awakening that we are not on a regular journey. We think the kids are headed off to school, but through the door is a full-time gifted program at a different school. We think the kids are continuing in the gifted program, but through the successive doors are grade-skips, part-time homeschooling, and full-time homeschooling. The rules (if indeed there are any) are altered, the outcomes unpredictable. It feels thrilling, terrifying, and confusing all at once. We’ve gotten more used to it now, opening doorways into uncertain places, and wandering around when we get there. But the visceral, emotional feeling when you think you’re headed into the grocery store, and instead you end up on top of a building, never goes away. It’s an endless cycle of sudden disorientation, finding our way, and heading forth.

The one thing that didn’t change when I watched to movie, however, was my feeling that no matter what, it’s all better when we’re together. We are drawn to each other, my family and I, as we walk through each door together; gasping in awe, laughing, and looking for the next one to open.

Through the Looking Glass

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What is screen time anymore, anyway?

(No…seriously. If you have a good handle on this, please contact me. But read on before you answer.)

I know the simplistic, medical perspective: time spent staring at screens is neither active play nor imaginative play. I get it. Do I think the Collective should spend six hours a day staring at anything? No. But the further along we go, the more the lines begin to blur, and the more convoluted I’m finding screen-time rules to become.

Just to toss out the dog’s breakfast of issues we’re contending with: is a Kindle the same as a book? Does a book simulate screen time, or is the imaginative component of reading a sufficient stand-in for ‘imaginative play?’ What about interactive video games, then? And, within that category, is Mr. Crab in the same category as The Room? What if they’ll work up a frothing sweat playing Kinect Sports or Just Dance, but I find them quietly drawing with chalk if I send them outside?

What about board games turned into iPad games? One thing we worry about video games is the isolating effects of constant, solo, immersive time. So if I come across them playing Monopoly on the iPad – and Monopoly, like Ticket to Ride and Scrabble and Small World and Risk, are just better-executed, more fun games on the iPad – am I supposed to call those proceedings to a halt as ‘screen time?’

And then there’s the even more convoluted category of consumption versus creation. Where, for instance, does writing fall on the ‘screen time’ continuum? What about coding? If coding and writing are both creation, does that equate video-game time with reading as consumption? Do I need some sort of insane ratio system for consumption time versus creation time?

The reality is that nothing is cut and dried any more when it comes to allocating and monitoring screen time, because what kids are doing on those screens is very different – sometimes active, sometimes passive, sometimes creating, sometimes consuming. Nor is it really a viable option to expect kids to play outside for the full balance of their free time. My kids love a bike ride, or an afternoon playing in the pool, as much as the next kid, but it’s not realistic to think that they’re going to spend the entirety of their days in those activities. They love to read, to come up with new, imaginative play worlds, to nap by the fire.

Moreover, what am I telling them about how screens are going to integrate into their adult lives by centrifuging out ‘screen time’ as kids? I can’t count the times I’ve seen the person next to me at the gym reading on a Kindle or an iPad while exercising, and tech like Google Glass is only going to further integrate the concept of the screen into their everyday lives. We live in a connected, data-driven world, and while it’s fun to unplug from that world for periods of time,  it’s tough to leave that world on a permanent or even semi-permanent basis.

When many of us were kids, screen time was an easy issue for our parents to manage; it came down to “turn off the TV and go outside.” But increasingly, as parents in 2014, we find ourselves stopping short to consider the circumstances involved in screen time. I don’t have any easy answers on this front, and I suspect many of us share the same question: with screens involved in nearly everything we do and nearly everywhere we go, is it even possible – or desirable – to police this concept anymore?

I find it easiest to subscribe to the Let’s Move! standard of sixty active minutes per day. There have been many, many days we’ve started with 60 as our baseline and gone on to 120 and then 180, and those are good days. But the days they’ve come home exhausted from a hike or a tennis match and proceeded to invent a society of sentient cats in the basement, or collaborated on writing a Doctor Who script, are good days too. And so I come back to a saying that’s helped our family in virtually every area of our lives: everything in moderation, including moderation. 

Walking on the Moon

Moon walking

For a first time in a long time – probably since before preschool – they are happy. They are intensely, exuberantly, singing-at-the-top-of-their-lungs happy.

I don’t know when I first noticed it, but this “school year” is different. Sure, I’m not dragging them out of bed every morning, dropping them off (sullen) at school, then picking them up (even more sullen) to come home, coercing them through homework, and forcing them get to bed and repeat it all over again. No, this ” school year” has been full of discovery, pajamas, projects, plays, singing, strife, emotions, intensity, and happiness. And that just covers the first two hours.

I couldn’t have predicted the complete change in their behavior at this point in the year. We had been part-time homeschooling both girls for the last two years, so I figured we had seen both the benefits and drawbacks of homeschooling gifted kids. I assumed we would see more of the same – content, less-stressed kids with a general love of learning.

What I got, however, was happy.

They are playing in the playroom downstairs, engaged in intricate play between the three of them that involves something along the lines of singing a favorite song, while one of them plays the accompanying keyboard. For H, this means a Police song – she asked for a DVD of a Police concert for Christmas – and she’s singing her rendition of “Walking on the Moon” with the piano. Their music teacher would be proud (and thank goodness she is OK with them doing pop songs for their music lessons.) It’s the type of thing I would have heard them doing at age 3 or 4, but that slowly melted away as they went to school. Once they moved beyond preschool, the monotony of school ground the playfulness out of them, and they came out the other end, as a Pink Floyd face. It happened so slowly, so insidiously, that I barely noticed.

This happiness in my house has made me question everything that I thought I knew. I used to think I understood, without a doubt, the benefits of education, acquiring knowledge, and training for a profession. I knew the right way to study, the right classes to take, the right way to get into school. But thinking about happiness, and what that means to a human life, has made me realize that I have much to learn. How do I guide my kids through an environment that I never knew existed, one so vastly different from my own experiences as a child? How do I focus on their happiness as an end point, not as an unexpected side effect?

How do I teach them to walk on the moon?

Or maybe – and probably – they should teach me. The good news is, I’m never too old to learn, especially from my kids.

I’m heading downstairs to start singing.

The Chair Is Not In the Plan

Hokaido

There’s a fantastic scene in the movie Contact – a surefire crowd-pleaser in any gifted/intense home, by the way – in which the protagonists are assembling an intergalactic travel portal from plans sent out by a much more advanced species. The device is simple, elegant, and beautiful to the eye – but when Jodie Foster comes to examine it, she finds that the design team has added a chair for the traveler’s comfort. Said chair is not, of course, in the plan, and it’s not surprising that when they do fire up the device, it shakes and smokes and shudders…until she pulls out the bolt, and the chair is removed, at which point it works beautifully; it turns out that seating was not really necessary anyway.

I started to feel, somewhere along the line this year, that structured math was the chair we had added to our otherwise beautiful homeschooling equation. Where every other subject we teach – from foreign language to coding to critical reading to world history to science – feels like an environment for exploration and mastery-based learning, structured math is off vibrating in the corner, stuffed with worksheets and Common Core lunacy. So we’re pulling out the bolt, and hoping for a more blissful ride to come.

The reality, we’ve come to realize, is that most structured math curricula have two core faults. First, they assign equal weight to everything, forcing a month of multiplying mixed numbers on us (because THAT’S a crucial math skill to have) while short-changing more important topics like problem-solving strategy development and statistical analysis and data interpretation. Everything’s granted the same stature, and there’s no way to hurry up the check-box skills and stretch out the more critical tasks, because assignments need completing on time. We clearly communicate to our children, through equal-weighting mathematical ‘units,’ that learning to convert tons to ounces or resolving improper fractions is just as important as algebraic problem-solving. It’s not.

Second, math is still focused on computation, in an era when computation is not a skill that is differentiated in the labor market. I’m not receiving any resumes that talk about an applicant’s skill in computation. What I am receiving are resumes that focus on the applicant’s skill in creative mathematical problem solving – a skill I’ve yet to see emphasized in a traditional math program.  All of this goes against what Conrad Wolfram said in his most recent TED Talk, too – the idea that we are falling further and further behind the standard of mathematical capability, simply because computation is easy to teach and easy to grade. Anything beyond computation – teaching actual mathematics – has historically been deemed too time-intensive and personal to be effectively performed in a traditional school setting. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t, but once again, we’re in danger of becoming the infamous drunk looking for his keys under the streetlight – not because his keys might be there, but because the light is better for looking. Is there another way we could pursue a math curriculum designed to emphasize creativity and problem solving while Wolfram’s vision matures?

“What if,” Kathy said to me, “we filtered down the topics to get rid of the computation focus, and then just moved along at the pace of their mastery?”

What if, indeed. Much of math, from grades three through seven, is just churning the same topics over and over again, tacking on a single decimal place to multiplication or adding in the area of one more shape as we go along. It’s not as if there’s an enormous gulf between one grade and the next; I’ve watched H and A tackle the exact same unit, at the exact same time, for the past few years. But we’re rushed from one topic to the next by the demands of the traditional academic calendar, and there’s no room whatsoever for taking a topic that interests them and allowing for a few extra days on it. Nor is there any freedom to dispense with blatantly goofy Common Core effluvia like this and this and this; my kids’ progression through nonsensical bullshit must be documented, worksheet page by worksheet page.

Not any more. While we’re on our way to a computer-based math (CBM) curriculum, we’re going with a combination of Thinkwell and Khan Academy, both of which encourage topic exploration and mastery-based learning rather than traditional-math rubrics handed down from Cold War educational philosophies. We’re going to work with them to sift grade-appropriate topics for meaningful mathematical work and let them work those subjects until they feel comfortable with them – learning driven by the student, not the calendar.

And, hopefully, what we’ll find is that the beauty of mathematics is there for grade-school students to find, too – just as long as we don’t go installing upholstery that doesn’t belong there.

Pushmi-Pullyu

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Despite Susan Wise Bauer’s advice, I don’t always feel like quitting in November – but I’m glad the month is over, and we’re on to the long, pleasant glideslope into the holidays. It’s not really that quitting comes up as a desirable option, because we’ve got responsibilities to each of them that require our time and effort; I can no more ‘quit’ work or laundry or cooking than I could ‘quit’ homeschooling. But I do often find the need to take a deep breath and remind myself what I’m doing – namely, offering an environment in which skills can be developed and knowledge obtained. Nothing more, nothing less. There’s nothing magical about homeschooling. It’s still an interaction between and among scholars. If there is a difference, it’s that we acknowledge the fundamental nature of learning: while I’m happy to share what I know,  ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the student to learn. I don’t push; you pull.

In a fifteen-year consulting career (and going), I’ve often been told that I’m a good salesman, and I generally take a moment when I get that compliment to deflect it. I’ve never sold a consulting engagement in my life, I like to say. Plenty of clients have bought one from me, but I’ve never sold one. Selling implies some degree of sleight of hand, some aspect of false demand, that I take exception to. I like to think that I’ve gotten clients excited about the prospects that a given engagement or project might have for their business, or the outputs or applications of a quantitative tool or re-engineering process. That’s fine. But in the end, they’ve all bought something they wanted.

Similarly, I don’t think of what I do as teaching. That word is a cousin to selling in that it somehow implies push. I’m all about pull. I’m happy to expose my kids to subjects and concepts and disciplines and skills, but in the end, it is up to them to reach out and take them. I’m equally happy to go on ‘content walkabout’ to find new, interesting things that might fire their imagination. That’s how we found Algebra Touch and Little Bits and Slooh, among a sea of other such tools and technologies and, frankly, cool stuff. I’ll put these things in their path, pull the kids aside to talk about them, sit down with them to run through something once. I’m looking, frankly, for spark, because spark is the beginning of pull.

But I don’t push. Because there’s a day when there’s no one to push, except themselves, and what then? Sure, in one sense, I hope they’ve learned to push themselves, because there are moments that you do need to push yourself: reaching a personal savings goal, or lowering your golf score, or leaving the last slice of Lou Malnati’s alone. But that’s a very Tiger Mom-ish perspective, and not all of life works on push. The larger things, the important things, will be done with pull. In a larger sense, I hope they learn to pull themselves – to keep identifying the activities and concepts and hobbies and careers that incite passion in them.

Part of the challenge is that there’s still a part of them that is waiting to be pushed to, waiting for education to happen, and I have to remind them that this is an environment for skill development and knowledge acquisition. Want some? Get some. Want more? Get more. Want nothing? Get nothing, most likely – or get what you keep by sheer luck or happy accident. If I allowed myself to become offended, or get to the point of wanting to quit, based on their consumption, I’d be in a lot of trouble. I don’t. I’m in the business of fomenting pull. I’m a pull provocateur – not a push pimp.

But yes, I’ll be re-reading this post again in February, probably when I feel myself starting to push again.

Bobamento

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In the summer of 1979, there was much to be excited about for me. Van Halen II still had singles in heavy circulation, Alien  and Star Trek were in movie theaters, and Trivial Pursuit was a brand-new source of intra-family strife on board game night. Hell, it snowed in the Sahara for thirty minutes that year; anything, it seemed, could and would happen. It was in that spirit of unbounded excitement and possibility that I ripped open a padded mailer from the Kenner corporation to reveal an action figure I knew absolutely nothing about.

Boba Fett was a giveaway in the summer of ’79. Collect enough proofs of purchase, and he was yours, but with a catch: Kenner told you next to nothing about Boba, because they didn’t want to give the plot of Empire away. Still, he was yours to do with as you saw fit between June of 1979 and May of 1980, when Empire came out, and we found out who the hell he was. But for those glorious eleven months, I had the time of my life with Boba, who was one day a rogue with a heart of gold, assisting the Rebellion in its takedown of the mighty Empire, and the next a soulless blackguard who would sell his grandmother’s ashes for beer money. Boba had no story, and, conveniently, no memory from day to day of who he was or what he did the day prior; he might as well have been Guy Pierce in Memento. Boba changed allegiances and personalities at a pace that would have made Loki ill, and I often paired him up with another group of masterless ronin, the Micronauts, a translucent army of action figures imported wholesale by Mego without so much as a thought for backstory or explanation. The Micronauts had only titles and suggestive coloration; Baron Karza was, likely, bad, just as Force Commander was probably good, but who knew? Even the Star Wars figures I had to play with in 1979 were near-ciphers themselves, since we had little concept of what a Jedi Knight even was, let alone the enigmatic Clone Wars. Without an ethnography of the Jawas, or a robust explanation of who Jabba the Hutt might be, I just forged ahead devil-may-care and made up my own stories for all of them.

Flash forward to November of 2013, and the Collective’s Christmas lists are decidedly hesitant. E wants a compound bow, but beyond that, she’s pretty much left things in my capable hands. A, similarly, has designs on a few items, but they’re not just more than broad strokes, and A might be the most toy-detached of them all. The reality is that they grow less interested in traditional toys with each passing year, and I can’t honestly say that I blame them. Toys come with baked-in universes anymore: everything has either an online tie-in, or a supporting TV show, or another culturally circumscribed environment that’s belted so tightly that there’s not much to do but to act out what’s already happened on one screen or another. Where’s the fun?

If Kenner existed today, there would be no possibility whatsoever of a ten-year-old opening an action figure that had no rigorously developed backstory, online product push, television tie-in, and, probably, soft drink promotion at 7-11 tied into it. Everything, it seems, has converged on the concept of play guided by consumerism.  Even Legos, the most historically stalwart of open-ended playthings, has succumbed to this. Everything in Legoland is now a set, and builds a defined entity (or, if you’re lucky, three), but that’s it, and God help you if you toss it into the Lego bin intact for repeated rummaging to begin abrading that completed vehicle into its component blocks.

In 1979, I built an entire army of X-wings out of Legos, and every single one was a ragtag assemblage of rainbow-colored blocks, as if the Rebel Alliance had hired the Teletubbies as its fighter repair mechanics. When one broke, I fixed it. I came across an X-wing that A and I built for his birthday in 2012 in the Lego bin the other day. It was substantially still together, but missing some key chunks. I asked A why he didn’t play with it anymore, and he shrugged and said it had gotten to be too hard to fix. It was, too; it was too close to perfection for intensity to tackle, whereas my godawful rainbow X-wings were usually just a brick or two away from being pressed back into service against the Empire. But creating X-wings from bricks I already own has no value to the Lego corporation, and the more kids are told, stepwise, what to do, the more dependent on Lego ‘set logic’ they become.

The reality is, that was we face off against another holiday hijacked by the consumerist economy we live in, we’re increasingly confronted with what one blogger called ‘junk toys’ -mindless, scripted-recreation plastic that does nothing to let our kids expand their creative horizons and everything to line the pockets of corporations.  It’s strange, that as we’ve begun to purport to value creativity more in our society, we’ve actually provided our kids with toys that encourage less creativity: just follow along with the script, no thought process allowed. It’s for that reason that they’ve come to count on me – in the form of a Christmas who-kn0ws-what-you-might-get construct called the Randometer – to find cool stuff for them. I can’t disclose what this year’s Randometer might bring, since they read this blog, too – but I’m confident that what they find under the tree on Christmas morning is going to encourage out-of-the-box thinking.

Killer Bs

I forget, every year, that we’re going to have to go over the concept of grades. A was no different this year; he’s often brought me work with the same eager question that H and E had for the first few months of their own homeschooling: “what do I get?”

I’ve answered him, honestly, as I’ve answered all of them so far: I have no idea. It’s not done yet.

I don’t exist in a world of grades. Most professionals I work with don’t, either. There is one grade – suitable – and the potential for compliments that live above the line of pure actionability. Solutions can be elegant, or quick to the point, or cleverly designed to perform under budget, but those are frosting terms, sprinkle terms, atop the concept of suitable.  The hurdle for workability varies by functional area and by project; some work most definitely needs to correspond to an academic A-plus, and other work simply needs doing at a C level. (No pun intended.) Moreover, picking the wrong execution level is a sin in its own right, so taking an extra week or ten days to do something at an A level that needed C work isn’t just a quality surplus; it’s a different kind of mistake. It’s not only important to be able to trade quality for speed of execution, it’s important to be able to correctly read the circumstances that demand each.

What A provided me wasn’t workable – not yet, anyway (he was close) – so off he went to make it workable. I also informed him that he was on the hook for the work he would have started if what he’d turned in had been workable the first time through. That’s life’s C-minus: you get to do it again, while you’re taking care of everything else that needs doing. The machine neither grinds to a stop while you rework your mistakes, nor does it shrug and move along the next task with this one still undone to spec. But that’s the school system, in which the most dangerous grade possible – a B – somehow lets students move along without ever mastering the concept. (No wonder school districts are slowly beginning to insist on mastery.)

It’s new to him, just as it was new to E and H prior, and there have been teary moments when work piled up, but they slowly, gradually, came to understand how it worked. Then the other questions started coming. What kind of evaluation spec will this assignment be on? What are the evaluation criteria going to be? How long do I have to do it? How long before deadline will you look at work in progress?

Grades, as they are currently constituted, are bullshit, and don’t do a thing to prepare kids for the life that exists for them beyond the walls of academia. Even venerated institutions like our college testing system can’t actually tell a kid whether he or she can write anything meaningful or compelling.  Even graduating from college doesn’t necessarily mean anything anymore, as employers both here and abroad complain that staggering numbers of graduates – half, by consensus – aren’t ready for real-world work. How bad is it? We’re now seriously talking about having a post-graduation test to determine if graduates learned anything.

So we’re starting over with the concept. In here, tests and essays and projects aren’t due by the calendar; they’re due by when our kids feel they’re ready to tackle work at that level with the confidence of skill mastery in hand. They’ve got responsibilities to get that mastery done on a reasonably timely basis, and we’re happy to excuse them from secondary responsibilities that are less important. (I’d rather have my kids spend twice as long on the reasons for the rise of the Maurya Empire than the dates it fell between.) But ultimately, we’re moving in a direction that’s more goal-oriented than grade-oriented, and that goal is ability (as we’ve discussed previously).

We’re also increasingly aware that there’s just more to education than can really be measured by a single number or letter at a single point in time.  As such, we’re much more about concepts like cross-disciplinary application and skill re-acquisition, so we carefully watch their ability to apply what they’ve learned creatively in a variety of learning settings than simply cramming and dumping knowledge sequentially (kind of what this kid is doing). We’re looking, long-term, to see if concepts like the rise of the state show up in critical reading, or whether knowledge of geometry shows up in entrepreneurial work. We’re also watching to see how quickly they can re-learn lost skills; that’s going to be important over time, too.

In the end, I hope I’m readying them for the world they’re going to live in, one in which a series of unsuitable work deliveries (that came oh-so-close) are just greasing the skids toward the inevitable exit interview, and blowing the quality peak off of a midweight project is just costing everyone time for other work. Bs and Cs where As are needed, and As where Bs and Cs will do, are among the many and complex forms of error their world will challenge them with. They’ll need to be ready for both.