Archive for November, 2009

Learning the Hard Way

November 7, 2009

I had such high hopes for my lunch session today. I hadn’t circled or starred it in my program, but it caught my eye and I thought it was one I shouldn’t miss:

Instructional Strategies that Work with Gifted English Language Learners

I’ve long felt that these “ELL” kids moving to the United States certainly have a lot to deal with. They’re adjusting to a new country and learning a new language. Still, I can’t help thinking that their math knowledge far exceeds what their language will allow them to show. I was hoping for some practical tips and strategies for meeting their needs.

I barely made it; I was just a minute or two late. The instructor had already launched into his presentation and apparently jumped right in with a list of positive and negative demonstrations of gifted behaviors. I thought, did I go to the right spot? I should also have taken it as a red flag that he was using a microphone in the room with only nine participants. (You know what they say about hindsight)

A few minutes later, he brought it around. He popped the question, “What are ways that ELL students can demonstrate their talents and abilities? Brainstorm on a piece of paper.”

I thought: well…I’m not exactly sure what he’s asking, but I’m game. I jotted down a few things: native language/bilingual writing, art, you get the idea.

Then he asked us to stand up and take turns sharing our ideas. It quickly became apparent to me that I misunderstood the question. Others were giving VERY different answers.

It was my turn. I spoke up and said, “I think I missed the boat.”

He said, “Don’t worry, say what you wrote anyway.”

I did. He accepted the idea, but I can’t tell you it made me feel better.

After an unbearable three minutes of this, we finally got to sit down. He asked the crowd about the experience and mentioned, “Did you notice that I accepted every answer? And didn’t that make you feel more comfortable?” And somehow the voices in the room agreed.

But the voice in my head did NOT agree, and promptly began a mental rebuttal.

“No, it did NOT make me more comfortable. You did NOT make me feel better by accepting a response that we both know didn’t answer the question.” Perfectionist me did not like that. Grrr!

Now would be when I’d give myself permission to duck out of a session. I have no qualms about leaving when a workshop doesn’t meet my needs or expectations. But I was right there in the front. Sigh. There is, after all, a thing such as manners.

It gets better. The presenter went on to his next slide, when he declared that first and foremost, he has high expectations for learning, performance and participation. OK, mentally I thought he had the “participation” part. But then the voice in my head started SHOUTING back. “High standards!? What are you talking about? You just told me that any old answer was acceptable, and that I’m supposed to feel comfortable with that? Would you expect kids to feel comfortable with that, too?”

The argument in my head got louder and louder until it was interrupted by my cell phone vibrating in my backpack. I thought, thank goodness. Maybe I can leave under the pretext that maybe this is an important call. So I left. Happily.

On my way out, I congratulated myself for taking the initiative and getting myself out of there. It would have been mental and physical torture to sit there and listen to that man for another thirty minutes.


And then I thought.


How often do my students find themselves in the same situation?


How often do they sit there in class, unable to sit still because the voice in their head is screaming:

“I’ve already learned this.” Or, “I don’t get this.”

“I totally disagree.”

“You don’t get it.”


The only difference is, THEY. CAN’T. LEAVE.


Stop, and let that sink in.


If I bring nothing else home from the weekend, that knowledge alone will be worth the price of admission.


Conference Day 2: A full brain is a happy brain

November 6, 2009

Where to start?

What do you say about programming at a conference where the schedule book is 200 pages long? There are over 250 sessions over 4 days across 15 strands of gifted development.

There’s no way I can possibly get to all of the amazing programming I’d like to see. And for somebody with FOMS (Fear Of Missing Something) that can get a bit tricky.

There were all of the poster sessions – people who stood by their displays to talk about their projects. What a great range of work. I spoke with people who conducted Shakespeare theatre for fourth and fifth graders and others who led global education cohorts. I had discussions with teachers who had taken long, hard looks at the process their schools use at testing and identification of their students. I listened in on some incredible conversations about the latest updates in brain research.

And that’s not even the sit-down workshops!

My thoughts are brimming with all of the great ideas I was exposed to today. Overheard:

“We’re looking for kids who violate our expectation of where they ought to be.” – Nancy Robinson, at a panel discussion on early gifted learners.

“Education is like curling. Kids are the curling stone, and standards are the target. Teachers are the ones who sweep the obstacles away (or not) to get the child there smoothly.” – Caroline Cohen, in a seminar on building support for differentiation

“Hasten slowly means to do quickly what needs to be done quickly but take thought before you do it.” – Miraca Gross, in a discussion on accelerating gifted learners

“At this moment in history, it would seem more essential than at most other times to make a clear statement of will and policy to ensure that we raise ceilings of performance as fervently as we raise floors.” –Carol Ann Tomlinson (posted in a discussion on social and emotional welfare)

And now it’s my job to go upstairs, leaf back through the program book and choose the workshops I’ll attend tomorrow. Who knows what great experiences await me! I do know that it will take some time to sit down and process all of this learning. The good news is that it all gets to filter back to the classroom, and back to the kids – the real reason I’m attending in the first place.

By the way, parents, if you want an experience similar to this one, I’d encourage you to attend the Illinois Alliance for Gifted Children’s annual conference in early February.    Check it out!

Nice to Know

November 5, 2009

I’m here at the National Association for the Gifted Child’s national conference. I’m here as a teacher, a program coordinator, a parent, and a product of the system. I’m listening on so many levels that sometimes things get a bit deep.

Today was the opening address, given by Josh Waitzkin. He’s the grown-up chess prodigy featured in Searching for Bobby Fischer. He took up chess at age 6 and won his first of eight national championships at age 9. At 18, he decided to switch to the martial arts and has had two international titles since.

Three words: Ho. Ly. Cow.

What an impressive set of credentials! But even more impressive was the wisdom he imparted.

How about this? He spoke of losing in the national finals at age 8. The experience for him, he said, was “shattering.” And then he said, “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Yes, you read right. it’s about finding resilience in the face of struggle. All through his conversation, he spoke again and again, not of the wins that strengthened his love for the game, but the losses. His learning was always through struggle. He spoke of playing against kids who learned the game just to win the game. They were the same kids who took fewer and fewer risks the better they got. The same kids who wound up challenging themselves less because it was easier to stay in a safe, successful zone.

(Yes! I knew there was a reason why I was committed to making sure each child has the opportunity to struggle in my classroom. And I knew there was a reason why I call mistakes “opportunities.” Yes!)

When a high schooler asked him about teaching chess at school, he discussed that whatever outlet kids had, they needed something to pour themselves into. He said “It’s not about the discipline but the plunge into quality.” Whether you get into music, visual arts, mathematics, martial arts or whatever, the important thing is to find something you enjoy for the pure love of learning. Something you want to learn on a deeper level, even though (and maybe perhaps!) it involves struggle and challenge.

(Yes! Love of learning! And that challenge thing again! Yes!)

He went on to lament the compartmentalization of learning, the way we too often do things in school. That we treat different subjects as if they’re separate. Through his life experience, he realized that what he was learning in chess was actually about life. And that the things he learned applied everywhere in life. The same was true for the martial arts. He hopes that kids can also realize that what they learn connects across all areas of their lives.

(Yes! Just like reading is thinking. And math is thinking. And so is everything else we do. I knew I was on to something!)

I’ll be going to bed this evening knowing that there is lots of learning in store for me tomorrow. It’s always great to know what’s on the cutting edge of educational research and practice. And it’s always nice to know that at the heart of things, I’m getting a few things right.