Off the Charts On Its Way!

11 Dec

OTCFCBreaking news!  I have been reliably informed that Off the Charts, Asynchrony and the Gifted Child  will begin shipping today.  

Those of you who have already ordered your copies will have them soon—those of you who haven’t, can order them now, secure in the knowledge that they will show up soon.  They can be ordered at www.rfwp.com 

In case you missed earlier descriptions, this book—19 chapters from 14 authors—covers the phenomenon of asynchronous development in the gifted (there’s a chapter about asynchrony in adults and one about the asynchronous family) from many perspectives.  In the twenty years since the Columbus Group brought the term asynchronous development into the field as a definition of giftedness from the inside, many people have written about it, many of them considering asynchrony primarily as the uneven development often seen in gifted children, or the “many ages” of gifted kids.  But it is much more complex than that.  It has to do with a fully outside-the-norm mode of experiencing life–a different quality of awareness.  The gifted are not just different from those in the center of the proverbial bell curve—they are different from each other and may even, as they develop, become extremely different from earlier versions of themselves. 

I’m one of the editors of this book (the primary editor is Christine Neville), as well as the author of two chapters and co-author of one with Michael Piechowski (another of the editors), and I have to say that it is one of the most important books you’ll encounter if you want to gain a greater understanding of the beingness of gifted individuals, and how that beingness (in interaction with their learning and living environments) affects their ability and motivation to achieve.  

Even firm supporters of the talent development approach to educating the gifted need to understand the complexity of experience that lies behind the unusual specific abilities we call talents if they are to support and encourage their development.  Giftedness and talent may not be precisely the same thing, but they are often inextricably combined.

Revisiting A Wrinkle in Time 50 Years On…

3 Dec

Wrinkle-bigger

November 29 was a big day for birthdays of writers of massively successful books for kids.  Louisa May Alcott, C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle were all born on that day. But as loved as all these authors are, it’s Madeleine’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, that I am moved to talk about today. It was published fifty years ago—something I find not only hard, but quite annoying to believe—and has sold over 10 million copies.  Having been rejected by publisher after publisher, many of whom believed its foundational concepts of theoretical physics “too hard” for kids, it won the Newbery Medal in 1963.  

(If by some chance you or the gifted kids in your life haven’t read it, I urge you to head for your book store or library or ebook and remedy that oversight as soon as you reasonably can.) 

When I told my friend and sometimes collaborator Katherine Paterson, another Newbery medalist, that I had just reread the book, having had to get it from the library because my own copy has disappeared, she sent me a copy of this year’s anniversary edition, for which she wrote the introduction.  A brand new copy (with all sorts of lovely extras) now sits on my desk, with newly written blurbs on its back cover, such as this from Scott Westerfeld: “…Hers were the first books I read that mixed math and magic, the quest and the quantum.” 

I had read A Wrinkle in Time aloud to my son when he was six years old because he was in great need of meeting Charles Wallace Murry, the profoundly gifted, highly asysnchronous little boy who is the younger brother of Meg, the novel’s profoundly gifted protagonist.  My son needed to know that there were other kids who were as different as he was feeling in the first grade, and in pretty much the same way.  The profoundly gifted characters in this book—and the companion books that followed—Charles Wallace, Meg, and her friend Calvin O’Keefe, have given super bright children a sense of having peers and companions in the world for half a century. 

But it is not the giftedness of the young characters, or the anniversary year, or even the occasion of Madeleine’s birthday last week that motivates my writing about it here just now. It is the book’s plot. I reread it because I needed to be reminded of the particular evil the children struggle with once they tesseract to the planet Camazotz where they hope to rescue Mr. Murry, who has been imprisoned by IT, the planet’s all-powerful leader. The evil “shadow” that has fully engulfed Camazotz, and threatens other planets, including Earth, is uniformity.  IT is not so much a person as a singular consciousness that enforces absolute conformity of thought and action. The people of the planet, IT assures the children, are happy, content and safe because they are essentially identical.  There is no need for individual thought. 

Recently I posted “Are We Redefining the Wrong Word” in response to the conflict in the gifted field over what giftedness means and how the educational world should address it.  The effort to unite the field under the single banner of talent development has been presented as a more politically viable, more efficient, more fundable and less complicated method of holding a place for gifted children in the country’s educational system than continuing to contend with varied points of view and a multiplicity of approaches.  

When my husband read that post, he accused me of having become a raging radical when he wasn’t looking, and asked whether I was actually calling for the replacement of all the schools in the country with learning communities. “What would you do with the 80 or whatever percent of people who are okay with the current system?”   I reminded him I’ve always raged a bit.  I used to say I wanted schools to be bulldozed and the ground salted so they couldn’t grow up again.  (Put it down to OEs!)

But his point had sunk home.  I’ve been thinking a lot about Camazotz.  A Wrinkle in Time does not seem to me today quite as brilliant as it seemed when I read it originally.  But its evil is demonstrably evil, which is why I reread it in the first place, to support my own extreme distaste for age-grade, lockstep, factory schooling–way too much uniformity. 

The danger of uniformity of thought and the total dismissal of all other viewpoints seems a bigger threat than ever in today’s world.  One has only to think of our recent election and the hostilities that are still going on in its aftermath to see why some would find relief in everyone thinking the same way they do. People whose ultimate goals and intentions are much the same have come to think of one another as enemies thanks to a disagreement over how to achieve those goals and intentions.  The more I thought about Camazotz, the more IT-like my own wish to rid the world of factory schools began to sound. 

And then I encountered an interview with Barbara Marx Hubbard, whose new book Birth 2012 and Beyond considers what she calls humanity’s “Great Shift” to conscious evolution.  Her thoughts are just what I needed.  Many people who have commented on my “Redefining the Wrong Word” post in various venues have spoken of the need for and the supreme unlikelihood of a paradigm shift of sufficient magnitude to fundamentally change education.  Hubbard’s “conscious evolution” is a way forward.  

She suggests that allowing people to find something new to do or commit to in their own lives that can help with positive evolution, “is far better than if you ask people to do the same thing together” [italics mine].  She speaks of social synergy and explains how it differs from cooperation.  “Cooperation could be many different things, including ‘We’ll help you if you help us.’ Synergy happens when one group has a yearning to express something that another group feels the need for, and vice versa.  So you get to be uniquely more of who you are by joining than you do by remaining separate.  …That’s a big growing edge for human endeavor right there. When we come together in synergy, each person or group gets celebrated, amplified and empowered.” 

What if we could find ways for all the groups who care about and work for gifted kids (the kids themselves, parents, teachers, counselors, academics, theoreticians, pediatricians, school administrators and yes, politicians) involved in social synergy, working in their own individual way, but jointly focused on the best developmental future for the kids?

Pretty much everything on the planet is in the midst of massive change.  The time is past for top-down planning and the old hierarchies.  There is no single “IT” mind that can possibly have the answers to all the questions humanity needs to address.  We need to stop seeing different ideas as a threat and begin to look for what aspects of other points of view could support, supplement, or create new possibilities for our own.  There is no them and us in our need to support the growth and development of our children—WE are part of a fully interrelated whole, and it is our very differences that create the possibilities for positive evolution.  

And speaking of massive planetary change, how can any of us be satisfied with an educational paradigm designed quite purposefully to put limits on all the variety of developing minds with both the ability and the desire to push ahead into unexplored territory?  Almost everything that faces us these days is unexplored territory, whether we like it or not!  Instead of labeling these out-of-the-ordinary minds arrogant or elitist—or odd or broken, let’s invite them all into the conversation about possible ways to move forward.  Any for whom the past methods seem to provide what they need, let them stay with those.  Transition times are just that—times when the old and the new overlap.  But let us please quit kidding ourselves that past methods are “best methods” and acknowledge that we have barely begun to scratch the surface of possibilities. And let’s give young minds more respect than we have generally granted them before.  Let’s not just talk—let’s listen!  

There are other values in A Wrinkle in Time and the later books about the Murry family that may seem to be fantasy.  But who knows what real synergy could begin to show us?  There is a great deal more to mind than intellect and it could be time to quit limiting the rest of mind, too!  

Instead of what’s wrong with other thoughts and other ideas, let’s begin looking for what’s right with them.  Just as there is no one-size-fits-all method, there are none that are all brilliant or all worthless. Imagine that our lives depended on developing synergy.  They just might!

hands-earth

Are We Redefining the Wrong Word?

27 Nov

NAGC 2012

 As George Betts pointed out today or last night on FaceBook, this year’s convention of the National Association for Gifted Children was perhaps the most polarized, fiercely divided convention in recent years.  A year ago the organization’s president, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius gave an address that argued the need for the field to come together under the umbrella of a new and singular definition of giftedness, of a unified concept that could and should direct both educational programming and research—Talent Development.  It is unlikely that she had any idea before she gave that speech advocating unity that it would unleash a firestorm of controversy and develop over the following months a split just about as intense and fraught as the current split between America’s political parties. 

Oddly, my own experience of the convention was extremely positive overall.  Others who share my focus on the internal world of the gifted child, and on the fundamental developmental differences between the gifted and other children, had been stirred up by such an overt challenge to and dismissal of their perspective.  They showed up to any sessions that fit that perspective with an unusual level of passion.  I doubt that in the more than 25 years I’ve been attending and speaking at NAGC I’ve ever experienced more enthusiastic and responsive audiences. 

As usual, the Columbus Group gathered after the convention, to share with each other our experiences over the last year and consider what we as individuals and—now that we’re out in the open—as a group, can and should do going forward.  I arrived home wiped out and faced with only two days to get ready for Thanksgiving.  I’ve been home now for a week, and my mind has been seldom at rest as I’ve pondered my experiences in Denver. 

Patricia Gatto-Walden and I did a presentation this year, titled “What the Kids Want You to Know: It’s My Life.”  A group in the UK 20 years ago took the keynote of the World Conference (a speech focused on gifted education as a way to make the best use of each culture’s natural resource of bright kids to benefit their country) to the kids at summer camps for the gifted and asked for their feedback.  Taking a cue from them, we read aloud the shortened version of Paula’s speech that appeared in Compass Points to our Yunasa campers.  Expecting no more than a handful to show up, we invited anyone who wanted to respond to it to share their thoughts for an hour long session.  So many kids (nearly a third of the campers) were willing to give up regular camp activities for that hour, that we could barely fit them into the room we had available.  They spoke enthusiastically for the full hour and several of them asked afterward that we send them the full text of the Subotnik, Worrell and Olszewski-Kubilius monograph that had formed the foundation for Paula’s speech.  

Few of these kids knew anything about NAGC, and one of the first questions they had was, “Does this organization have kid members?”  

We said it does not.  Quite naturally, the kids thought this was outrageous—“How can it be for gifted kids, then?  Don’t they get it that we have pretty good ideas about what we need?  Do they think we don’t think about education during all the time we’re in school?”  

What shocked me was not their question, but that I had never asked it myself.  I’ve been aware, of course, that schools bring kids to NAGC, most often to perform, sometimes to serve as panel members in a session or two.  But kid members? I hadn’t considered it necessary.  

A Moment in the Wayback Machine 

From the time my five year old son had the “head-on collision” with school that led me to begin learning everything I could learn about gifted kids, I have thought that it isn’t really the existence of kids with unusual intelligence that creates a need for specialized “gifted education,” it’s the way education is structured in this country and in most of the rest of the world.  It’s a factory model created well over a hundred years ago and it has changed only slightly since. Children are treated pretty much as interchangeable cogs (or, with an emphasis on product, as “widgets.”) 

At the very first gifted conference I ever attended a speaker said, “If God had known what schools would be like, He wouldn’t have made kids the way he did.”  I thought it was a clever statement, but its full impact escaped me at the time.  After all, school was school!  I’d known what that meant since my October birthday allowed me to start kindergarten at age four in a system with a December cut-off date.  

In the 1980’s, when I had begun to write and speak about the needs of gifted kids, I said in several talks that if school were done differently, we wouldn’t need the designation “gifted kids.”  

People invariably argued with me, pointing out that gifted kids would still learn faster, more broadly, more deeply, and more connectedly than others and we’d still have to diagnose those learning differences.  I agreed that gifted kids wouldn’t vanish—but that if we found a way to individualize education to meet the needs of every student, doing the same for the gifted would be just part of the deal.  I kept remembering what my son said one year when I asked him after we’d moved—yet again!—whether the kids at his new Quaker school would tease him for wearing Kmart sneakers instead of the currently popular expensive brand.  “Mom!  Nobody teases anybody for being different in a school where everybody’s different!” 

The absolute joy of that school was that the children were treated as individuals.  Yes, they went to classes mostly based on age, but within those classes, probably because of their specifically Quaker focus on that of God in every person, each child was respected for being him or herself.  But it was a small school and “everybody knew” (including me) that the whole country’s public system just couldn’t afford to be run that way. 

When that school ran out of grade levels for my accelerated son, I briefly considered homeschooling, because we lived in Norfolk, VA, the only city in the USA where at that time homeschooling was legal. I’d been reading John Holt’s Growing Without Schooling and conversing with him by mail for a couple of years by then, loving his ideas and the freedom they provided for the kids. He didn’t focus on gifted kids–just kids.  A friend of mine had illegally homeschooled her son back in Ohio (which had necessitated “hiding” him in the house all day every day) and insisted that it was the only way to individualize sufficiently to truly meet the needs of an exceptionally gifted child.  But it was not in the cards for my family—I didn’t have the necessary patience and my extraverted son was horrified at the whole idea and refused even to consider it. 

What Do We Mean by Child? 

As I’ve thought about how the two sides in the current definition argument might possibly come together, it has occurred to me that maybe gifted isn’t the problem word.  The problem word is child.  Why does NAGC not have child members, when its stated mission is to serve children?  Because today children are still defined by the field of education not as young individual human beings with individual needs and minds and drives and lives, but as a class of beings in need of being taught by adults what they presumably will need to know when they become adults.  

There is an extent to which that definition makes sense, of course.  Children have a lot to learn and there’s a long period of dependency during which they need to be sheltered, touched and held and cared for, fed and dressed.  Human children need to interact with other humans (though not exclusively with adults) to learn language. Much of what they learn begins with observation and imitation. And of course there are all those tricky things like silverware to handle, stairs to navigate, windows not to fall out of, streets to cross. Plus there are reading, writing and arithmetic, which many of them will first be exposed to in school.  

But what we believe about children has changed. There was a time when a child was thought to be an empty vessel, waiting for adults to fill it up with information.  (Just last year I saw a YouTube about educational reform that actually still said this!)  Science long ago showed that belief to be in error.  Human children are learning creatures determined to explore and manipulate their environment, to test and try, to build and tear down, to question and experiment and interact with whatever other living creatures they encounter—all of which can be classed as “play” in the early years.  And today in any household with technology, they mostly find a way either to use that technology on their own or get someone to show them how. 

The sooner we put them in “school” where the primary activities are to sit still, be quiet, listen, wait for and then follow directions, answer questions “correctly,” and judge themselves in terms of how other children are doing at these tasks, the sooner we begin to limit their natural modes of learning. Instead of play that expands their experience and mastery, learning becomes what they do (or rather what they are directed to do) in school.  There is very little difference in what they are directed to do, one student to another, and little if any concern about individual interests or personal choice.  Natural learning gives way to coercion, solitary activity directed toward a predetermined goal, and a teacher’s external validation or criticism of their efforts. 

(One could ask oneself just what sort of adult life these “lessons” are designed to prepare them for.  Factories, yes.  But factories are either in other countries now or use a lot of robots.  Schools should not be in the business of programming human robots!) 

Meantime, as the Yunasa campers told us last summer, the adults don’t ask them what they need or listen to them when they express their needs anyway.  

And What Do We Mean by School? 

Like it or not, times have changed! How often have you heard one adult say to another, who is struggling with some aspect of current technology, “what you need is a ten year old.” When my now nine year old grandson was two, he was already more adept at using his father’s computer to find what he wanted to interact with on the internet than I was.  Now he scoffs at my efforts to learn something new on my “too smart” phone.  It isn’t only theory that tells us that learners can be teachers and teachers learners.  It is our everyday lives. And there is a tsunami of information available to and through the new technologies that kids are more adept at finding than many of us. 

It is long past time to give up schools or redefine them as learning communities, where it is not just age that creates groups, but interests (passions), knowledge, experience and needs.  In such learning communities there could be webs rather than boxes–language, math, history, geography, art, meant to be dealt with separately in small blocks of time–webs that could interweave what is known in service of creating something new, or helping the learner to grasp new information and move into and understand greater complexity.  And children need to have a voice in how such learning communities would or could operate; because children are unhampered by the structures and restrictions of prior experience; they lack our long memory of “how it has always been” that would hold them back from imagining how it could be.  

Our gifted kids, so very interested in learning, so passionate about exploration, could genuinely help to lead the way.  One of their major differences (at least until we squash it out of them with work sheets and grades and gold stars and tests, grade point averages, boundaries and limitations) is their rage to learn and understand, and to do something with meaning.  Those same kids who discovered at two how to find what they wanted on a computer screen, have ideas about how learning can happen, progress and change.  And how the technology so many of them love and the games so many of them play, could enhance learning for themselves and other kids. They could work with adults who are willing to collaborate on finding the best ways forward rather than determining and dictating those ways! 

Teachers who love their profession and have passion for their subject matter could, in learning communities, be freed to practice that profession instead of struggling to prepare a broad spectrum of kids in a narrow age range to succeed on standardized tests that really can’t measure either student learning or teacher competence. 

We can’t have what we can’t first envision.  And we are in a deep and dreadful rut.  I started a Face Book page (www.facebook.com/deependxgifted) last November in hopes that those who visited it could begin thinking in new ways and sharing their visions about how education could happen if we began over again without schools.  We didn’t get far.  FB pages aren’t that great for collaborative thinking—everything gets pushed down the page and disappears. But that doesn’t mean the discussion shouldn’t be taking place. 

We have to find a way to make things work better.  I would welcome the best ideas of the Talent Development folk, but I would want them to acknowledge the existence of kids whose inner experience of the world really is different from the beginning.    It isn’t just our field that’s in crisis and conflict.  Our whole world is at stake.  Pretty much really!  New thinking, new ideas and new partnerships are essential as everything continues to change at warp speed. Let us outsource factory schools to some other planet so that we don’t have to find ways to keep squeezing human children into boxes designed for widgets or robots.

I end all my talks with the following quotation, meant for every human, child or adult, because we need to know that we are not interchangeable!

“You are not accidental.  Existence needs you.  Without you something would be missing from existence, and no one could replace it.”  –Osho

Found this on A Space for Learning, 11-12-12

Off the Charts! — Book Debut

13 Nov

Twenty years ago the field of gifted education was beginning to define giftedness very specifically as achievement—as doing rather than being.  One of the leaders in the nation’s gifted community was claiming at that time that schools “created” giftedness and that children who were not achieving academically were clearly not gifted (and therefore should not be taking up the limited numbers of “seats” in gifted programs).  Dismayed by the narrowness and external focus of this definition, a group of us whose experience with the gifted had shown us that unusual intelligence was an internal aspect of the child, apparent well before the start of school, gathered to discuss how we might help to refocus attention on this way of understanding the gifted population.

Out of our meeting in Columbus, Ohio in the summer of 1991 came the definition of giftedness as asynchronous development that was quickly recognized and adopted by many teachers, parents and counselors throughout the country and around the globe.  A phenomenological view of unusual intelligence, it provided a way of comprehending both the potential for extraordinary achievement and the struggles the gifted face in being out of sync both internally and with the expectations of the broader culture.

Last year at the national conference of the National Association for Gifted Children (just a few months more than 20 years after that first Columbus Group meeting) the suggestion was made in the presidential address that the field of gifted education should unify its disparate viewpoints by adopting Talent Development, with its clear attention to the issue of extraordinary achievement, as the single driver of both this field’s educational programming and its research.   So it was that members of the Columbus Group, that has continued to meet throughout these two decades, decided it was an important time to put out a book to remind the field of the critical “other side” (the inside) of giftedness, which is part of the gifted individual’s experience whether in or out of school, whether achieving in the eyes of the world at any given moment or not! 

So, we’re thrilled that the book (conceived only a year ago, and with chapters from 14 experts on the needs of gifted and highly gifted individuals) is to be available online from Royal Fireworks Press (http://rfwp.com) as of today (though at 1pm EST it wasn’t yet up on the website).  Dedicated to the memory of Annemarie Roeper, the book includes her last writing about the population of children to whom she devoted her life. 

We had hoped to have the actual books at NAGC this week, but weather (a modest incursion of Hurricane Sandy on its way to devastating the North East) intervened and stopped electricity to the presses.  

Prepublication discount!  The list price of the book is $30 but for online orders this week (through November 18th) the price is $25. 

Included in the book are chapters on the historical foundations of the definition, methods of identification, characteristics of asynchronous development, understanding individual needs, gifted adults, counseling, parenting and family issues, and educational options from a group of authors, each of whom has decades of experience working with, researching, and writing about “off the charts” kids and families.  

On a personal note:  the other thing that happened last year at NAGC that particularly motivated me when the idea for the book was being considered occurred at my presentation for the Counseling and Guidance network called “The Asynchronous Cheetah.”  (My cheetah metaphor was developed originally for a keynote at the Hollingworth Conference for the Highly Gifted in 1992—the same year the first article about asynchronous development was published in Understanding Our Gifted.)  When I mentioned the Columbus Group during that presentation, an attendee raised her hand and informed me that when she had been doing some research on asynchronous development for her graduate degree in gifted education, her professor had informed her that the Columbus Group didn’t exist.  “It’s a fiction,” he told her. 

Laughing at that representation, I explained that not only was the Columbus Group not a fiction, but it had actually met the evening before in the conference hotel. 

It’s quite true that I’m a fiction writer, and I’m really fond of fiction and the fundamental truths that are often explored in the pages of a novel.  But I prefer not to think of myself as fictional.  So–for those who may be interested in the Columbus Group’s “true story” and the reason a leading figure in gifted education could make the assumption that it wasn’t real (as a group, we have flown quite purposely under the radar all these years) I wrote an introductory chapter giving the “true story” of that 1991 meeting and the definition that grew out of it.  So if you’ve ever tried to find out more than what could be gleaned from the usual citation of the “unpublished transcript” of that meeting, you can learn why you couldn’t.  There are hours of audio tape from that meeting, but no plans to publish the transcript!

Tomorrow I’ll be off to Denver for NAGC 2012 and hope to see some of you there.

Strands of Light

2 Nov Hurricane Sandy
Hurricane Sandy

It has been a long time since I have had the time, combined with a strong need, to write something for The Deep End.  This week provided both, when the fury of Sandy-the-Super-Storm shut down a surprising amount of what passes for normal on our continent.  Yes, lots of us –most of us—were outside the storm path, but given the importance to our country of the Northeast coastal states, there has been something of an enforced pause.  Many people who meant to fly somewhere ended up somewhere else, or not flying at all.  The power grid that we so fully depend on proved once again to be fragile in the face of wind and water, and the edges of our country that looked one way on Google Earth one day looked very different the next.  It isn’t a disruption that can be ignored.

“What passes for normal.”  It’s a phrase that the storm washed up in my mind the way it washed boats onto railroad tracks and shoved cars into a tangle in lower Manhattan parking garages. As a person who now looks for what there is to be grateful for in any given situation, I am still hugely challenged by the Big Bad Events that are occurring with apparently greater and greater frequency on our planet.  One can, of course, be grateful that any one of those events hasn’t happened to us personally (not only did the storm pass us by, but our kids and grandkids in New Jersey and NYC came through it okay).  Still that doesn’t feel enough in the face of images of people who very much are NOT okay. 

In the thirty-plus years I’ve been paying particular attention to extremely bright kids, one of the things that I’ve noticed and written about is their tendency to question what passes for normal, often because what passes for normal (the expectation about who they should be and how they should function for instance) doesn’t work for them.  But that isn’t the only reason they question it.  They notice that what passes for normal doesn’t work for others, either. 

One of the reasons super bright kids are at risk for an early experience of existential depression is that they’re able to conceptualize how the world ought to be, and are aware, from their own observation or the daily news stories, of how far from that ideal it really is.  They may see that adults—the people who “run the world”—either somehow don’t notice the gap between ideal and real, or don’t care enough or aren’t smart enough to fix it.  That can be really scary.  From global issues of war, poverty, hunger, environmental destruction, animal cruelty to unfairness in the classroom and bullying on the playground, these are all, to one degree or another, considered normal and the kids are aware of and upset by that. 

When far away catastrophes happen, child psychologists are often quoted in the media, advising parents to assure frightened or upset children that those bombs or that earthquake or those wildfires won’t come near them, won’t take their houses or their loved ones or their pets.  But even very, very young highly gifted kids are not frightened and upset solely about themselves!  They are upset for those these catastrophes really are happening to. Many of these children feel connected to the other beings in the world, from people to animals and plants.  They seem from the beginning to “get it” that when one strand of the web of life is stretched or broken, the whole web is affected.

For this reason I have often called these children the “necessary other,” the individuals in our species who are able to perceive in new ways, invent new possibilities, demand changes in what isn’t working, because they see and feel what isn’t working.

But the other night, when I was lying awake worrying about how the city of New York and the northeastern states faced with such immense destruction were going to be able to make things work again, an image came into my mind of strands of light reaching from person to person all across the country, gathering in all those places affected by the storm and providing more light and warmth in that cold darkness.  Some strands were very, very thin, no more substantial than spider webs, some were larger and brighter.  But there were a great many of them–millions

It came to me quite clearly that human beings are social animals by their very nature.  When we see images of other beings in pain, we have an innate impulse to reach out, to help, to share resources.  The images that come to us from the devastation of something as massive as that storm are not just images of destruction, they are also images of people helping each other.  Some of those helpers are workers who have chosen to be the first responders to trauma, but many—probably most, many of whom don’t get on camera—are just people who see a need and choose to help. 

Maybe it isn’t so much that these super-sensitive kids are “other,” but that they develop those deeply human impulses early and powerfully, and insist on expressing them.  As with the other over-excitabilities, their empathy is aroused by a smaller stimulus and affects them more deeply over longer periods of time than is true of other kids, or even of many adults. 

During the cold war when there was a great deal of fear in this country about a possible nuclear war with Russia, it was discovered that children’s fears could be alleviated a bit if they saw their parents or caregivers taking some kind of action, however small, in favor of cooperation and peace.  This is a time to do whatever we can to show that we are “doing something” to help the people whose lives have been devastated.  For some of us it can be contributing money to relief agencies, or helping to organize fund-raisers.  Kids can help with any and all of this and get a sense of empowerment. 

But there are other ways of “doing something” as well.  One way is to reframe the whole story for our children.  We can point out all the examples of people helping people.  We can assure them that even though what passes for normal among humans may have flaws and compromises, this species they belong to has a deep impulse to cooperate, to share, to care!  When a strand of the web is broken there is always a rush to repair it.  Not every single individual may be willing to put another’s needs first even when catastrophe occurs.  But many do, and the light of their willingness to help, like a single candle in a big, dark room, pushes back the shadows a bit.  Every “strand of light,” of caring, that reaches from one person to another is real and has an effect, even if we can’t always see it.  As The Little Prince tells us, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” 

Pondering the Olympics Yet Again…

5 Aug

Every time the Olympics come around (winter or summer) I am thrown into contemplation about the difference in cultural acceptance between finding and nurturing children whose innate attributes show them to be potential athletic superstars, and finding and nurturing children whose innate attributes show them to be potential superstars of the mind.  The whole world seems to understand and accept the need for these physically adept kids to have unusual coaching, to be withdrawn from “normal expectations of childhood activities” in order to focus on and develop their gifts, and to find some way to support their passions.  Everybody seems clear that you have to “set the bar high” to encourage growth and improved performance, and that the child himself or herself needs real inner drive and passion to flourish in such a work-focused atmosphere.

This is not, of course, to say that the path from discovery to Olympic superstardom (or otherwise) is easy, for kids or coaches or parents.  There are emotional prices to be paid all the way around.  When we watch a youngster (or occasionally an adult) devastated at getting a silver (only second in the world?) as if they have failed, a twinge of annoyance may accompany the compassion.  But we understand the cultural pressure to be “the best,” and its emotional effect.  And we celebrate the moments when an excited newcomer says what a thrill it is to be at the Olympics at all, or a driven competitor dances with real joy at winning a bronze.

With every Olympics, as I listen to the stories about how these young or adult athletes are models for younger kids, who watch their heroes breathlessly, imagining their own future possibilities, developing their own passions and sense of personal power, I long for that same story to be told for and about our brilliant kids.  NBC focused a moment last night on two kids from North Carolina (the state I live in) who traveled all the way to London to watch Michael Phelps go for more gold.  The story celebrated the effect of role-modeling.  And I got a little wistful.

But this year, fresh from the week of our most recent Camp Yunasa, I find myself processing this all a little differently.  Yunasa is the Lakota word for balance, and we created the camp for highly to profoundly gifted kids in a quite purposeful way to focus on “wholeness.”  There is a spiritual focus that pays attention not just to the unusual gifts these kids bring into their lives, but also to the meaning they can find in being and developing who they are.

photo by Nicholas Farrell

Like most camps, Yunasa wants the kids to have fun, and like most camps specifically for gifted kids, one of the most important things campers get out of it is the opportunity to hang out with their “tribe,” to make friends with kids who get them, enjoy many of the same things, laugh (amazingly enough!) at their jokes. Yunasa is known for group hugs! 

photo by Nicholas Farrell

But we structure the experience carefully around five attributes of individual life: mind, body, spirit, emotions and social self and ask the kids to consider the need to give some attention to all of these.

My own hope is that our campers–particularly those who come back year after year–will become mindful of the meaning of their own gifts and passions, resilient in the face of the world’s lack of understanding, and resistant to a cultural message that defines the value of a human life in terms of competition and winning.

The contrast with the Olympics could not be clearer to me this year.  The absolute focus on competing and winning is inevitable in these games.  Add the national pride issue–which country wins the most medals–and for the first time I’m feeling also a little grateful that the spirit of the Olympics is not readily transferrable to nurturing our brightest minds.

Ideally, in service to the competition, individual passion and effort and skill are celebrated in these games.  And teamwork, too.  What I would love to see is the best of the spirit of discovering gifts, nurturing passion, effort, skill and cooperation that is exhibited in the training of Olympic champions provided also for young unusual minds–along with real celebration of those gifts!  But I would also want for our mermaids/cheetahs a focus on the importance of the whole self and the meaning of that self in the tapestry of life.

Schools are to Creativity… (Part 2)

16 Jul

…as zoos are to wildness.

I got to visit cheetahs NOT on exhibit at Melbourne zoo–thanks to Jo Freitag

Sometimes in order to see things clearly one has to peel back layers of feeling. My philosophy is that we can’t do anything wrong (as we’re doing the best we can at any given moment) but that we may be able to do things better, and feelings can help us do that by pointing to what isn’t working as well as it could.  Today’s post goes on from the feeling response I wrote yesterday.  Different readers will respond differently, depending on their own feeling layers, of course.

“…As zoos are to wildness.”  That is a critical part of the sentence!  I am not against zoos.  In fact, I spent part of my life wanting to be a zookeeper.  I had our family read aloud the works of Gerald Durrell, whose life, other than writing, was devoted early on to gathering animals for zoos and then to creating an important zoo of his own.  One of the greatest synchronicities of our son’s life happened during his college semester in London when, looking into a bookstore window, he thought he recognized the reflection of the man standing behind him.  He turned and asked the man if he was Gerald Durrell.  When the man said he was, our son enthusiastically shared how important Durrell’s books had been to his childhood.  Durrell invited him to the zoo run by his Wildlife Conservation Trust, and of course he went!

As with schools, there are zoos and zoos.  Fewer and fewer of them are places of imprisonment for their charges or focused solely on putting animals on exhibit for the entertainment of their paying customers. Many do important conservation research.  And there is for the most part a serious effort to provide as natural a habitat for the animals as possible.  Nevertheless, the task of maintaining wildness is difficult to achieve with some species and impossible with many others!

Just so with highly creative kids.  Creativity itself is about not following directions, about finding new ways to do things, new ways to approach things, new ways to put things together or “reconcile the disparate.”  It is an individual thing.  An institution whose job is to educate all kids cannot function without requirements, directions, methods and–yes–coercion.

One of the most difficult half hours of my life was the first time I was asked as a visiting author to interact with a kindergarten class.   I’d written mostly young adult novels at that point and normally visited upper elementary or middle school classes, where I started by getting the kids excited about an idea.  I had literally never been in a room with more than 20 five year olds before that day.  I made the mistake of starting by getting the kids turned on.  Five year olds, of course, pretty much don’t need turning on–chaos ensued. And I never managed to restore even a semblance of order.

Creativity and institutions of any kind don’t go together easily.  At best there may be an uneasy alliance.  Institutions need patterns that creative people break.  Over and over again the “creative genius” who founds an organization of any kind–a company, a school, a theatre company–is replaced once that organization is up and running by someone whose particular skills are suited to  guiding and maintaining rather than inventing.  And it isn’t always that the founder is thrown out–some leave when they discover that keeping the organization running bores them silly and that making things new all the time can be disruptive and threatening to others.  Creativity often looks like destruction, when old forms have to be taken apart to make way for the new.

When that sixth grade teacher who was the nemesis of my life told my mother that I’d never amount to anything because I was “interested in too many things,” she was thinking along conventional lines:  “jack of all trades, master of none.”  The greatest joy of being a writer, of course, is that I get to keep writing different sorts of stories, doing different kinds of research, inventing whole new people and worlds.  One of the things that made me craziest in school was the schedule–same classes same day of the week, week after week after week.  As an adult I would not be able to do a job that involves constant repetition.

So this is the second half of what I wish to say about creativity in schools.  We can’t support it perfectly, but we can keep working to do better. Some schools and some teachers have more success than others in making room for creative kids, but much of the support the kids need may have to come from the fact that–unlike zoo animals–they get to leave the building at the end of the school day.

What I wrote during school was mostly written in the classes I didn’t like under the guise of taking careful notes (the notes my teachers thought accounted for my good grades.)  But most of my writing as a kid was done in trees, under bushes, at home in my room–outside of school and not at anyone’s request.

It is possible for a creative kid to survive even the most coercive school environment with a little help from outside–parents, other kids, adult mentors or just enough time and space to dream, and materials for playing, experiencing and inventing on their own.

But kids whose creativity can be submerged by doing really well at following directions, by a culture that is uncomfortable with rebels, or by a need to protect themselves from the hostile forces often ranged against them, do get hurt.  There is no life without pain; I’m not suggesting there should be.  But often these kids get hurt more deeply, more often and more permanently than necessary.  Coercion can inspire creativity as the creative kid finds ways to rebel against it or work around it.  But coercion can grind down and destroy as well.  These kids need to hear from adults that resistance is not necessarily a sign of poor character!

“If I had it to do all over again” (something every single parent can say at some point), I would put supporting creativity way higher up on my list of priorities for any kid who has, in addition to a really fine, really capable intellect, a passionate imagination and a drive toward novelty.  It was the nourishing of imagination that Einstein was talking about when he advocated reading fairy tales as a way to create future scientists.  When he said that creativity was more important than knowledge, it wasn’t that he was dissing knowledge.  But stuffing kids’ minds full of the knowledge we think they should have doesn’t make room for what is likely to be needed in a world we can’t predict that will be the world of their adulthood.

I prefer to look for positive possibilities.  If some kids can nourish their imaginations with computer games (like the paper version of Dungeons and Dragons that briefly took over my son’s life) I say there is hope in that.  But I also hope that anyone who can affect classrooms anywhere will keep in mind the need to provide some open spaces for the growing of imagination.  And I would remind parents to value and trust it as Einstein did.

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