Conference Day 2: A full brain is a happy brain

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

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.

Where the Time Goes, Part 2

So the next day the kids are coming in, having found the areas for all rectangles with a perimeter of 56 units. They had all drawn and counted out the squares. We went through answers together, and then one student pipes up and says,
“Hey. I think I found a shortcut for finding how much space they take up. You can multiply the two numbers together.”
“Hmm,” I say. “Are you saying that you can multiply the two dimensions, and it will give you the space it takes up – its area?”
I’m doing jumping jacks inside with this “discovery,” but I play it cool.
“Kids, take out calculators and see if his theory is correct.”
Sure enough, wouldn’t you believe it!?
Well, then, we can take a look at how we write dimensions in the first place: 3×5, 6×8.
“HEY! That’s the multiplication sign!!”

Why yes, it is, she thinks with a sly grin.

Where the Time Goes

So now that the school year has hit, my schedule and routine has slowly gotten back to its rhythm.

Which means that so many of the things I made time for during the summer have just gone away.

Today, I was just thinking how disappointed I was in myself. After all, over the summer I became a full-fledged Tweeter, networking with others in both tech and gifted education. I joined Diigo, sharing math and other educational links with colleagues on the Internet. I kept up with Google Reader, searching out blogs and websites that would be of benefit to my teaching.

Where all is my time going? What exactly am I doing? How am I working to develop as a teacher?

All my haven’ts and my shouldn’ts were starting to pile up in my mind like papers on my desk waiting to be filed.


Enter my fourth graders, who are working through a unit on measurement. Let the record stand that the teaching of measurement puzzles me. Kids – even accelerated ones – still lack essential foundations needed to truly understand concepts of area and perimeter. I’ve been working for the past year or two to tease it out. And when I do, I’m going to shout it from the rooftops.

But I digress.

The kids came in today with their homework. They had to create animal “pens” on graph paper with perimeters of 56 feet. I was all excited to let them compare the rectangles they had drawn so we could move on with the next part of the lesson: comparing dimensions and looking for patterns.

But here’s the kicker. Obviously, I didn’t spend enough time telling students to draw RECTANGLES. We had all sorts of 56-foot long fences, only about a third of which were actual rectangles. Some of them were pretty wacky, if I say so myself. My heart sank. I couldn’t tell the kids they did the assignment wrong. Because they didn’t. Time to think fast.

And then I realized those crazy shapes would fit right into our discussion later this week about how to most efficiently use that fencing to create pens of the greatest area. Of course they could make crazy fences, but they’d sacrifice space.

Whew! One down. Score one for Mrs. Levin.  And I didn’t even have to claim my mess-up on the assignment.

I thought I was coasting along pretty well until the kids had to take the dimensions of rectangles we recorded on the board, put them in order and point out patterns. We had four rectangles to consider: 14×14, 20×8, 10×18, and 8×20. It was obvious to me they were supposed to arrange with the dimensions going from smallest to largest. Then they were supposed to notice that as one dimension got bigger, the other one got smaller. I did everything I could to steer them down that path.

Then came a couple of stubborn ones who decided that no, they would arrange the dimensions by the DIFFERENCE between the two. They could write down the order, and they could describe how they figured it out. But patterns? They couldn’t find any. Because on their lists, the dimensions didn’t go in order.

And then it hit me. The patterns wouldn’t show up for them. At least, not today. But when we start comparing the areas of these arrays later this week? That’s when it gets good! These kids found a way to arrange the rectangles from most to least square. Some pretty sophisticated thinking from ten-year olds, if I say so myself. And patterns? Judge for yourself. Look at the areas of these rectangles with the same perimeter:

1×9=9 square units

2×8=16 square units  (7 more than above)

3×7=21 square units (5 more than above)

4×6=24 square units (3 more than above)

5×5=25 square units. (1 more than above)

See the differences? Notice how they are odd numbers going down? 7,5,3,1? You can try that with any group of rectangles. It will work. (I’d like to think that I could take credit for this discovery, but I have to thank another fourth grader for sparking the same investigation three years ago.) I can’t wait to lead this year’s fourth graders down this path. Maybe they’ll have another fork in the road for me.


Where all is my time going? What exactly am I doing? How am I working to develop as a teacher?

Oh yeah. I’m teaching. More importantly, I’m learning.


It’s a familiar sight during the holidays: wrapping paper strewn about the floor, children shouting with joy as they open each of their new presents. It’s exciting to remember what it was like to be a kid. Imagine all these new toys. What do we play with first? How can we possibly decide? How great it would be to play with all of them all day long.

It’s also a familiar memory just after the holidays: About a week after the joy and excitement comes the apathy. Most toys go to the corner of the room, the back of the closet, under the bed. Somehow all of those amazing, wonderful discoveries of a week ago have lost their luster.

Not that they’re bad toys. Not that we couldn’t have fun playing with them. But there are so many things that compete for our focus. There are toys, games, instruments, stuffed animals, sports – not to mention all of the electronic media which beckons for our attention nowadays.

Which brings me to my point. While I have to be careful *not* to call technology tools “toys,” I can’t help but draw comparisons. Each great new site, each cool new application makes me feel like it’s the holidays all over again. I get so excited when I see the cool stuff I can do now. I get giddy with each new skill I learn.

I e-mail. I facebook. I wiki. I moodle. I wordle. I scratch. I diigo. I I RSS feed. I voice thread. I google read. I blog. I chat. I tweet. I Jing. I podcast. I ning. The list goes on.

With all of these incredible tools (and more!) my attention becomes more and more fragmented. No sooner do I catch on to a new technology and start loving it than something new comes along to take my breath away.

For a classroom that can be good, in a way. I can keep up with the latest tools and tricks to create a collaborative community of learners.

At the same time, I have to be careful not to let my focus stray too far. If our class has begun blogging, we need to keep it up, even when there are other great sites or applications we can spend our time on. If the students have created a wiki, they’ll need to pay attention and nurture it, even if their attention is drawn to online textbooks and moodle discussions. I owe students the opportunity to keep their focus on a project, even when there are many tech tools competing for their time and attention.

New is fun. New is good. I owe it to my students to keep up with the latest trends. At the same time, I owe it to my students to provide the most meaningful experiences with technology, not just the newest ones.

So bring on the wrapping paper and the ribbons. I’m up for opening up the latest round. Still, I’m keeping the stuff I’ve got on the shelf.

The Most Important Thing

How often does life reward us for being the smartest one in the room? TV trivia show prizes aside, how many things in life come to us because we know more than anyone else?

Will it assure us entrance into a good college?

Will it find us a life partner?

Will it advance our career?

No, no, and no.

The fact is, intelligence alone is almost never the measuring stick for success. Don’t get me wrong – it’s good to be smart. We need quick learners and strong thinkers in this world. But the ones who go farthest in life are those who can work with others and communicate their ideas clearly. That can be hard news for a kid who’s labeled gifted or talented, or “GT.” After all, if I define myself by my intellectual ability, where does that put me once it’s no longer such an big deal?

While it’s an adjustment, this shift in attitude is also a relief. Without the pressure to be the smartest one in a group, children can take risks and make mistakes. It also eases the feelings of competition that often surface when “GT” kids are placed together. Students can focus on creating partnerships in a learning community. As a teacher, I take the job of teaching concepts very seriously.

But life is about so much more.

This is How it Should Work…

…with differentiated instruction across the board, all under one umbrella. Needs are needs, people. Whether a child requires services because he has dyslexia, anxiety disorder, intellectual gifts – you name it. It’s time for us all to look at the services we provide as schools and bring them all together.