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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.

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Gen Two

Back to school brings with it a particularly content-looking smile in the hallways of our local school, particularly among parents of kids newly admitted to the GT program. It’s a dreamy  facial expression that we’ve seen dozens of times before – a surge of inner confidence and joy, the child in question having suddenly shaken forth an apparent pinata-like trove of new delights: our child is smart! Brilliant, even! Cash the 529 out and call the realtor! We’re on our way to full-ride scholarship land! And once our kid invents the next iPad, we’ll be set for life!

What I want to do is pull these parents aside and gently, gently, tell them something important; it’s not all good news. In fact, their lives probably just got a lot harder – and so did their kid’s. But I don’t; we should all have that one day.  And then, we need to set these ideas firmly aside – and move from what Kath and I call ‘the Gen-1 perspective’ to ‘the Gen-2 perspective.’ For Gen-1 parents, the notification letter they received looked a lot like a finish line. Gen-2 parents know it for what it is: a starting line, and one for a very long race.

Gen-1 Gifted parents may or may not be gifted themselves; many times they are, but were never identified as such in childhood and, as a result, may or may not consider themselves gifted. Or they may have not had much of a gifted education experience – perhaps some enrichment here and there, but little more. Perhaps they got ‘missed’ when bright children were identified in their classes; this happens very commonly, even more so for 2e kids. Gen-1 parents of gifted kids start at very different places along the philosophical continuum, but the Gen-1 perspective usually contains some, if not all, of the following points:

They largely consider a gifted education program in a public school to be a comprehensive panacea for their child’s proper education. They’re genuinely glad for their child that s/he will grow up in an environment tailored specifically for his/her needs. They’re profoundly relieved to know that their child is, in fact, gifted; life is easier for smart people, after all, and their child is likely to find good employment easier to come by, and will probably have a happier life than an ordinary kid. They’re also looking forward to seeing the amazing ‘outputs’ that their gifted child will produce – songs, screenplays, mathematical formulae, fantastic inventions, amazing works of fiction, and more. 

Not one sentence in that previous paragraph is guaranteed to be true, and many are flat-out false – but that’s unlikely to bother blissfully optimistic Gen-1 Gifted parents. It will, however, someday greatly bother the children, and will probably color the way they – as Gen-2 gifted parents themselves- go about things. It is also a sure-fire recipe for creating resentment and exhaustion in Gen-1 parents as things unfold very differently than they expected. That’s why it’s critical to jettison these societally-encouraged viewpoints as quickly as possible. You’re wasting your time, and your child’s, every minute you hold onto them.

Let’s take the Gen-1 Gifted core belief set apart one component at a time.

  • They largely consider a gifted education program in a public school to be a comprehensive panacea for their child’s proper education.  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but classroom-based gifted education is – at best – a foundation for the education of a gifted child. Not everything a gifted child needs to grow and thrive intellectually is going to be present in a classroom environment, and intellectual intensity is just one of the five intensities; what’s to be done about the other four, if present in your kid? What’s to be done if your child is asynchronous in one or more subject areas? Subject-based and whole-grade acceleration are good tools for keeping your child involved in the local school, but if their passions take them into astronomy, or Mandarin Chinese, or theater, you’re likely going to have to look elsewhere.
  • …s/he will grow up in an environment tailored specifically for his/her needs… Again, sorry, but no. I have tremendous respect for the educators who work in our local GT Center Program school, but there’s nothing you can possibly build for 25 that will fit any one of those 25 exactly. Classroom GT education is targeted at a point somewhere among the children in the room, but like most averages, it’s not itself part of the dataset, any more than that amalgam is actually one of the kids in the class. Educators can perform miraculous feats in terms of moving that point around within the classroom during the course of the year, reading one year’s kids as more creative, another year’s as slightly in need of more focus on math, another year’s grateful for an extra round of repetition. But the odds that your kid is the amalgam are slightly less than one in 25, given that curricula are built year over year based on experience, not foresight. So while a GT classroom is likely to be closer to your kid’s needs than a traditional classroom might be, it is not designed for your kid.
  • Life is easier for smart people, after all, and their child is likely to find good employment easier to come by… Well, he or she might; we’d like to think so, anyway. But will s/he end up fulfilled with the work? Gifted adults often end up underemployed and many find it difficult to navigate the traditional path of corporate worklife. Even if your child does find good work in a fulfilling field, is s/he really going to be able to hold down a traditional job? Because…remember…there is substantial work to be done outside the school setting to fully engage your child’s gifted children. And on and on the cycle goes!
  • …and will probably have a happier life than an ordinary kid. This one is, perhaps, the most important issue from which to clear the fog. Gifted kids grow into gifted adolescents, a group at substantially higher risk of depression and suicidal action than neurotypical children. Those gifted adolescents who mercifully survive the turbulent teen years can look forward to a lifetime of ongoing risk of depression – and the truly lucky ones will be identified as such and receive care. The more sigmas separate your child from the norm, the greater those risks become.
  • They’re also looking forward to seeing the amazing ‘outputs’ that their gifted child will produce – songs, screenplays, mathematical formulae, fantastic inventions, amazing works of fiction, and more. Gifted children aren’t necessarily laser printers, or chess-playing automatons, or manufacturing robots. Some gifted children do enjoy creating things, but some are equally comfortable contemplating concepts and turning over ideas in their minds without ever putting pen to paper. Others are creatures of pure imagination, and the mundane boundaries and bonds of our world will never allow them to fully realize their visions. Still others see relationships between and among systems – grasping the ‘big picture’ in all of its vast richness, but seeing no need to attempt to document the infinite.

What’s to be done, then? Am I really attempting to vacuum out all the pride and hope you have for your newly-anointed gifted child? Far from it. Ahead of you lie unimaginably rich experiences – just not the ones you’re thinking of today as you dreamily help your child put school supplies away and fill out paperwork. Some of those experiences will exhaust you mentally; others will exhaust you physically and emotionally.  But all will leave you the better for having gone through them.

What I am trying to do is temper both the procedural and outcome-based expectations for raising a gifted child. Gifted kids aren’t easier to raise; they’re harder. They’re not guaranteed to become particle physicists and bestselling authors and brilliant surgeons. They might – don’t get me wrong – but they might not. Case in point: last year, Kath and I had a bathroom retiled by a contractor referred to us by a friend. He showed up on time, worked promptly and skilfully (and was overjoyed when I told him I had no problem if he blasted Five Finger Death Punch while he worked). On his lunch break, he asked if it would be all right if he ate at the kitchen table, and I of course confirmed that it would – at which point he pulled out a copy of Infinite Jest bookmarked at around the two-thirds mark,  and set about an hour’s read, his sandwich receiving only the sparsest of attention. “Great book,” I commented. “I miss him already. Wish we could have one more from him.” My contractor nodded vigorously, returned the bookmark to the book, and spent the next fifteen minutes holding forth on his fervent wish that Wallace had tried something as toothsome as Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. “Doing this on the way to a master’s in lit?” I asked, immediately wishing – by the look on his face – that I hadn’t. “No,” he said with a shrug. “This is good work, and it leaves me plenty of time to think about my own books while I do it.” Did I have a Gen-1 moment there? I did. I’m sure his book, when finished, will contribute vastly more to society’s artistic enrichment than another night-school MFA would – and I was ashamed of my short-sighted shallowness in the question I asked.

The road to Gen-2 is hard, and it feels strange sometimes. You can look forward to many nights spent staring at the ceiling, because as Kath says, you’re departing from the Yellow-Brick Road – but in the end, we both believe it embraces the realities of gifted childhood more fully. Here’s a starter set of Gen-2 philosophical planks to get you going, if you’ve been thinking a change of perspective might help.

  • School is a backplane, not a comprehensive solution. I first heard this piece of advice years before I had children at all, and didn’t believe it; I didn’t want to believe it when our kids were, one by one (well, two by two and then one by one) accepted into the center program here. Couldn’t it be one complete solution? But the more data we got, and the more we understood about E (profoundly gifted and only barely within the parameters of the program at all) and H (2e, and simultaneously ahead of and behind her grade), the more completely I embraced the ‘backplane’ concept. It’s the basis of our annual ‘what are we getting out of this?’ discussion.
  • Gifted is wiring, not choice; gifted is existence, not output. Gifted is what our children are – not what they do. They didn’t ask to be gifted, and there are days I’m sure they’d rather not be. They have days where the paper dragon masks and parental invitations to tonight’s skit and Kindle purchase requests pile up thick and fast. They also have days during which they seem content to watch raindrops trickle down the panes of their room windows.  I don’t expect more ‘output’ from them on a day-to-day basis simply because they are gifted. They will show their gifts to the world in the way they choose, at the time they choose.
  • Your challenges will echo down the generations. You had a crazy-smart kid. Guess who s/he is likely to get along with best – and choose for a spouse themselves? That’s right – another crazy-smart person. They’re likely to have crazy-smart kids of their own, and around and around the loop will go, generation after generation. Show them how to do it in your life, and they’ll thank you later. Acknowledge that these are kids that need more room in your life – not less – because of  who they are.
  • Gifted is a package of positives and negatives. For better or worse – and usually a mix of both – your gifted kid has been handed a strange life, one destined to be full of understanding and alienation, imagination and isolation, triumph and tragedy and sensitivity and joy, all intertwined together. It’s not a passport to lifelong happiness and wealth, and it’s not a life sentence in intellectual solitary confinement, either; it’s a strange mix of pros and cons, a unique life experience different for every gifted child.

But the most important single message I can get across in moving to a Gen-2 perspective is this: misguided expectations create resentment. If we expect the experience of raising a gifted child to be easy, and handled effortlessly in a traditional classroom setting, and full of amazing ‘output,’ then we run the risk of becoming angry as our actual parenting lives unfold much differently than we’d thought. Knowing what is involved in parenting a gifted child – and being aware that the rewards of doing so may not take the form we think – is key to raising happy, emotionally healthy children.

The Joneses’ Coke Zero-Stuffed Abyss

I call it the Death Star Trench.

I drive it around once a week, visiting a good friend who lives in one of Colorado suburbia’s typical planned-community enclaves, and every single time, it confounds and confuses me. The Death Star Trench, you see, is a normal suburban residential street lined with nicely-landscaped homes, most of which have three-car garages – and every single car is parked in a driveway or on the street. Filling both sides of this street with cars – nice cars, at that – makes for something of a rural-road tractor dynamic; two cars can’t really occupy the choked-down center of the street, so there’s a system of nods and waves that has grown up around driving through the subdivision.

Every single time I make this particular run, the anthropologist in me picks up a mental sliver – an itchy little wedge of substance that refuses to be quieted or dismissed. And it’s a very simple question: what the fuck is in your garages?

I grew up in Venusian Central Illinois, where summer temperatures climbed to hellish, humid heights and winter temperatures plunged us into Stygian nights of frost-rimed gloom. Leave your car outside during the summer, and you’d cultivate third-degree burns on the backs of your thighs upon seating yourself within; leave your car outside during the winter, and odds are good it wouldn’t be starting for you in the morning. The random detritus every household accumulated got stored in the attic, or the unfinished section of the basement, or it got tossed – but it did not get stored in the garage, the sanctum sanctorum of motorized vehicles.

That’s what makes this particular sliver so intriguing. It’s clear that whatever occupies the garages of the Death Star Trench is immensely valuable – so valuable, in fact, that it has forced late-model automobiles and SUVs out onto the street. As I lay awake during one recent Colorado hailstorm (they’re pretty common here), my thoughts drifted to the DST. Were all those Infinitis and BMWs and Cadillacs really being pounded into cellulitic cottage cheese? Surely not. But my next trip up, there they were; claims adjusters by the dozens, nodding and smiling in pressed khakis and agency buttondowns as they took pictures of ruined cars and assured homeowners that help was on the way.

Just park your car in the goddamn garage, I thought. But apparently, this mystery bothered only me, as I found no urban-anthropology studies on the subject. This was, apparently, simply the lifestyle of the Jones, a measured ennui of affluence that I was supposed to be chasing – one in which my fabulous trove of Faberge eggs deserved a warm, enclosed home, while my luxury sedan shivered out in the cold. The Joneses, it seemed, were doing fine; so fine, in fact, that administrivia like the fate of a BMW in the elements were, at best, tertiary concerns.

Then I ran across this.

The Joneses, it seems, aren’t doing fine after all. They’re overworked, overwhelmed, and oversupplied; months of accumulative Costco runs have created the illusion of wealth, with flats of Sprite and tubs of Tide and crates of Cracklin’ Oat Bran piled to the garage rafters. The Joneses have it all – without the time to enjoy any of it. The money, it seems, should go somewhere tangible, somewhere visible, to feed back the value of too many hours spent at work; what better means to do so than to fill the garage with restaurant-sized sacks of coffee and boxes of Splenda? Yet there’s no time in this equation; the Joneses own a back yard they don’t visit, according to the study, and bring in cleaning teams weekly to dust and polish a dining table never occupied for a full family meal. The whole thing is eerily reminiscent of ‘There Will Come Soft Rains,’ of household features unused for a lack of human presence, and I felt sad reading Life in the Twenty-First Century; this is the ultimate outcome of a society driven to consumerist madness over the course of four decades, beginning with the advent of modern advertising.

It’s also everything the Center for a New American Dream opposes. CNAD would have us eat what’s left in the garage, then park the damned car inside. Come home from work at a sane time, cook a meal with fresh ingredients, and sit down to enjoy it together. Go for a bike ride after dinner – or enjoy the deck you built. Boss not thrilled with seeing you exit the building at 5? Find a new job with some work-life balance – and earn less. Then spend less. Costco will still be there when you need cereal and Tide and Coke Zero; it’s not necessary to build a private Costco in one’s own garage. Stockpile time instead of laundry detergent; fill your home with memories, instead of stuff. In the end, those memories will be all you have, the Cheerios long since eaten, the very clothes the Tide cleaned packed off to Goodwill as the kids grew up.

In our house, we have to be doubly cautious about accumulation; there are intensities living in here that get easily overwhelmed with too much stimulation and clutter. Which is not to say that we don’t have our share of things that need to be cleaned out. But intense kids are like pack rats: everything they come across has a deep meaning to them. So teaching them to let it go, or not acquire it in the first place, is a great life skill. This way, they’ll have the time they need to spend with their families, and probably be happier as a result.

I suppose the mystery is solved, and I don’t think I’ll wonder anymore what could possibly have squeezed so much costly automotive technology out onto the streets of the DST. It’s nothing nearly so imposing as I might have thought; it’s simply the lonely efforts of overclocked consumers driven to reassure themselves with great heaps of grocery stores. They’re modern-day Mayans, displaying their wealth in the form of resources. And like the Mayans, they are whistling past the graveyard – for surely the first act of any civilization facing impending shortages of resources is to convince themselves that the Coke Zero shall never, ever run out.