Monday, February 23, 2015


My 7-year-old has a love-hate relationship with this online math program he’s been doing. It’s just extra practice -- drilling on arithmetic -- and he zoomed through addition and subtraction. Multiplication has been a bit more challenging. The goal is to help him memorize his times tables, and to do that, the program asks you to figure out each problem in less than 3 seconds. Unfortunately, this has been making him rather flustered. He’ll get one wrong, then that will set him off. He’ll hit wrong numbers on the keyboard which, on at least one occasion, led to a massive fit about “I’m so bad at this!”

I’ve been debating how to deal with this. One option is to encourage a bit of a break from the program while he figures out a different way of practicing. The program is supposed to help him memorize times tables, but he can memorize on his own and come back to it, particularly if part of the problem is trouble with the keyboard (more number keys are in play than in single digit addition and subtraction). Since I’m not that big a fan of giving in to fits, though, I’ve also tried to have conversations about how part of practicing is making -- and recovering from -- mistakes. Think about how many times he fell off various tracks in Mario Kart on the Wii, and now he wins most races!

What’s actually seemed to work best, though, was his own suggestion. He wanted me to log into the parent portal and tell him how far he’d gone in the multiplication section. For some reason, learning that his placement score was 24, and he’s now up in the 30s, made him happy. He’s making progress! He’s making mistakes, but that number is going up.

How do you deal with children hating to make mistakes?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

When kids qualify for gifted programs, but don't sign up

Given how few districts prioritize gifted programs, one is always suspicious of certain stories. For instance, according to this article, the Moline-Coal Valley school district (in Illinois), plans to alter its set-up from self-contained gifted classes to one that would "mix high performing students with students of various classroom performance levels," according to the story. "The change would create a mix of students who play off of each other, said Matt DeBaene, assistant superintendent for assessment and accountability."

In other words, yet another story of a district setting up a system that may wind up cutting the program while not officially cutting it. Differentiation is very, very hard to do well, and when teachers get busy, it often doesn't happen.

However, the district does have a point that the gifted program was being under-utilized. In 2013-2014, of the 35 kindergartners offered admission to the program, 20 did not enroll. This year, only 17 (of 45 students ultimately offered admission) enrolled.

Why is that?

There are a few reasons families might choose not to participate in any given district's program. For instance, districts might centralize gifted programs at one school, which makes a lot of sense. But, of course, plenty of families prefer to have their children in neighborhood schools that are close by. You get a shorter bus ride, you know the neighborhood, and it might be more possible to drop by for events during the day (if parents work nearby, or are at home).

Another reason might be that a district makes the wise decision to screen everyone. In some districts, parents have to ask to have their kids screened for the gifted program, which means the parents want the kids to participate. If everyone is screened, not all parents might prioritize this. The district can encourage parents to sign up, but probably can't force this.

If your district has a gifted program, do most families that qualify enroll? If not, why not?

Friday, January 30, 2015

New Year, Gifted Exchange's 10th, and learning to read

I apologize for the radio silence these past few weeks. Those of you who read my other blog ( know I welcomed a fourth kid on January 15. His older siblings are enjoying getting to know him, and we're all getting used to being a bigger household!

This blog is celebrating a milestone this year. It pre-dates my own parenting experience, and goes all the way back to 2005. So we'll be celebrating the 10th anniversary this summer. As I look for topics to cover this year, as always I welcome suggestions.

I've been thinking about how kids learn today as I spent this morning touring an enrichment program my school district offers. The district has only half-day kindergarten (which I still find somewhat surprising). However, there's a half-day enrichment program that many students attend because they coordinate busing with the district, and maintain pretty affordable rates.

My second son turned 5 this September, right after the cut-off. We'd talked about trying to push to enroll him in the public kindergarten this year, but wound up not making a stink about it for a simple reason: I don't think it was a rock solid case. He's an incredibly bright little boy (the questions he comes up with!) but in terms of the "school" stuff, he's shown less interest. He doesn't practice writing just for fun. He likes to be read to, which we do frequently, but given his curiosity about the world, I sort of assumed he'd teach himself to read so he could study books on topics that fascinate him. But he's taking his time on that.

It's a reminder to me about how different kids are. I assume at some point he will decide he wants to read and it will all go very quickly then. The enrichment program seems a bit more given to pushing literacy than some other programs I've looked at, which might provide an extra nudge. And at least he'll get to ride the bus with his older brother!

When did your kids learn to read?

Monday, December 08, 2014


Gifted kids have an intense relationship with certain topics. You can't just read about the topic, then move on. You read everything on it. You create your own projects about it. You want to be it when you grow up. Eventually you move on, but the obsessions are intense while they're there.

We've gone through some common obsessions in our house: dinosaurs, of course. Astronomy happened for a while as various balls of different sizes were pressed into service in models of the solar system. After reading Uno's Garden, there was the obsession with perfect squares (thus forcing me to finally memorize the squares up to 400). We had Magic Tree House for a long time -- series books are good for that.

Now we are deeply into the Guinness Book of World Records. We keep hearing over breakfast about the tallest people in recorded history (with some ambiguity, alas -- a Ripley's Believe It Or Not! book listed a different person in one category!) We have been staging 100 meter dashes around the house and the yard as my 7-year-old is convinced that, despite the genes he's been dealt, he's only a bit of practice away from beating Jesse Owens' time from the 1930s, and then Usain Bolt's from more recent times. He has been inventing fictional people who in the future will beat the world record 100 meter dash time, and has created record lists as they move on down from 9.58 seconds. He'd bought the 2015 book at the school book fair, and so I hauled out the 2005 book I had, and he's been comparing the records broken in the intervening 10 years. Men's marathon times? Yep, multiple changes. Women's? Nope -- Paula Radcliffe still holds that from 2003.

Of course, the problem with all this is figuring out how long the obsessions will last. I hunted down some old Guinness Books from the 1970s and 1980s to give my son for Christmas. Unfortunately, we may be at the peak of world record obsession right now. By Christmas, who knows. Maybe it will be World War II era military equipment. My husband let the boys watch part of The Right Stuff, and it's only a short distance from the world record topic of sound barriers to becoming obsessed with airplane makes and parts.

What obsessions have you gone through at your house? Which were your favorite, and not-so-favorite?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Standardized tests: The good, the bad...

I've been reading through Jim Delisle's Dumbing Down America. One of his proposed solutions is to declare a 3-year moratorium on statewide standardized testing. This moratorium broadly overlaps with the switch to the Common Core, and certainly the early states that have switched to new tests based on the Common Core have seen pass rates plummet in a way that requires a strong stomach to deal with. Not all politicians have strong stomachs. There is a very real risk that efforts to raise standards will completely backfire.

On top of that, of course, there are the usual arguments against standardized testing. It wastes gifted kids' time. I know this personally; back in high school I had to lobby to be exempt from my 10th grade level test since it was given at the same time as my calculus class. I didn't think it behooved me to miss 4 days of actually learning something to be tested on something I'd learned 3 years before. People teach to the test, and so forth.

I know all this, yet I have mixed feelings about moving away from testing, since it is the most visible aspect of the school accountability revolution. Many of the NCLB tests were watered down. That is true. But in states that chose to make them difficult, passing rates truly do show something. Take Massachusetts, where the MCAS is pretty comparable to the various international benchmarks. Some charter schools (e.g. Excel) have made a point of getting pretty close to 100% pass rates, and publicizing their scores. Are teachers teaching to the test? Perhaps, but since it's high level material that kids should be learning -- and in many states are not -- there's nothing wrong with that.

In the absence of clear metrics, it's easy for people to judge schools on the wrong things. The teachers are nice, decorate their classrooms well, and care about the kids. That's all wonderful, but if the kids can't read and do quantitative analysis well enough to go on to college or well-paid careers, caring alone is insufficient.

I'm not sure that the answer to bad tests is to stop testing. It's to change the philosophy of assessment to something more frequent, with immediate feedback, and without ceilings (so it doesn't waste gifted kids' time). Tests that can show how individual students progress over a year are quite helpful for evaluating what kids are learning, and keep teachers from being penalized for winding up with a class of kids who don't come in as prepared as others. Given that most assessments are moving online, this certainly seems like it should be possible. If a moratorium would end with us getting there after 3 years, that would be a good thing. But it's important not to confuse the fact that accountability is often unpopular with what is actually good for kids (gifted and otherwise).

Friday, November 21, 2014

One way to help gifted learners

I've been reading through Jim Delisle's new book, Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation's Brightest Young Minds. I agree with much, and disagree with a few other things, and will be writing about various aspects over the next few weeks.

There is much broken in terms of America's schools, and particularly in how schools nurture kids who need more advanced work. We don't even need to use the loaded "g" word ("gifted") to recognize that. It's common sense that kids develop at different rates academically, and that there is a mean in any given classroom, and kids that deviate far from that mean are going to pose a challenge that effective teachers would do well to think about.

When thinking about how to address the problems in gifted education, it's easy to get overwhelmed. But there are a few practical places to start. One idea Delisle throws out there? Requiring all teacher candidates, as part of teacher preparation programs, to learn about the needs of gifted learners, and strategies for challenging them.

To be sure, many of us who support gifted education would love to see far more self-contained classes taught by teachers who've specialized in the field. However, "most gifted students spend the majority of their time in a regular classroom environment, and their teachers may know very little about who gifted kids are and what to do to challenge them," Delisle writes. "Only six states require that every teacher candidate receive such information, and even that is likely to be minimal."

He recommends the use of the Knowledge and Skills Standards in Gifted and Talented Education for all teachers developed by the NAGC and CEC-TAG. That's a reasonable idea. Though honestly, the more I have looked at teacher prep programs for other projects I've done, the more I wonder if even having the word "gifted" in a curriculum might be problematic. There is a strong political element in many programs, and it's not one that embraces the concept. But meeting the needs of all children sounds good. As a few programs do try to re-orient themselves around practical approaches to teaching, pushing states to require instructional strategies for advanced learners and struggling learners alike is not a bad idea.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The kids on the margins

Questions about gifted education often come down to who should qualify. If some people qualify, then some people don't, and given the way humanity often works, there may not be a huge difference between people just over the dividing line, and people just under. So what happens in those cases?

Jay Mathews, in a recent Washington Post column, addressed this issue. He talked with Jim Delisle (whose new book, Dumbing Down America, is on my desk, and which I will get to in another blog post soon!) Delisle argued that gifted education needs to be better funded and more available; Mathews argued that challenging classes should be available to anyone who wants them.

I don't necessarily think these opinions are completely at odds. We've worked ourselves into this world where in some schools, the gifted classes are the "good" classes. Everything else is so mediocre that the only way to get any challenge is to qualify. Likewise, in sinking districts, a GT program can be a way to keep people in.

But that doesn't mean anything is wrong with gifted education per se. It means that everything else has a big problem. Why can't we solve all these problems? Why do they have to be pitted against each other?

To me, the best world doesn't hinge on whether gifted classes exist or don't exist. It's whether we have an education system where every child is challenged to the extent of her abilities in an environment with her intellectual peers. A self-contained class is one way to do that. In some cases, people might be better off with acceleration. Independent online study could help kids who need lots of advanced work in one particular area. Technology is increasingly allowing individualization. There's no reason a group of 10 year olds have to be doing the same thing whether gifted education exists or not. The problem is that doing away with gifted education isn't generally coupled with making things more challenging for everyone, including gifted kids. It's coupled with...nothing.

I know a number of people who likely seem like they would have qualified for gifted programs but were never officially evaluated because it was never really needed. Perhaps they were in schools with a focus on individualization and challenge within that. As long as each teacher was committed to meeting those needs and given the resources to do so, it never became an issue. But that's rare, unfortunately. Which is why gifted education is often needed. And just because there are people who might just miss the cut off doesn't mean it should be denied to those who do make the cut off.