Tag Archives: Individuality

The Value of Challenge

15 Jul

 

Almost all parents of highly to profoundly gifted children know quite well that one of the major difficulties in their children’s education is a lack of appropriate intellectual challenge. When Leta Hollingworth suggested in the first half of the last century that highly gifted children waste most of their time in school and profoundly gifted children waste almost all of it, she was making it clear that the primary challenge for these kids in most school situations was boredom. There was little or nothing for their active, questing minds to engage with, little challenge from which to grow and develop their knowledge base, or discover new ideas and to evaluate them, or to learn how to come up with and best express their own important thoughts and judgments. No challenge.

In a blog post entitled “The Right to Struggle,” The Gifted Development Center’s Dr. Linda Silverman poses the situation as a matter of civil rights. “How are egalitarian beliefs served by teaching a student what he or she already knows? Effort is kindled when students wrestle with new concepts—when they have to struggle to learn. Gifted education specialist, Carol Morreale, said that when we give gifted students the same work as all the other students, we deprive them of the right to struggle to learn.” [italics mine]  http://www.gifteddevelopment.com/blogs/bobbie-and-lindas-blog/right-struggle

This lack of challenge or “struggle” is clearly shown in the answer a profoundly gifted teenage girl gave in 2012 when Patty Gatto-Walden and I asked Yunasa campers to respond to a speech made by the then President of NAGC, advocating a move away from the idea that “giftedness” is an innate difference.

“…I started ninth grade when I was twelve—and … there was another girl a couple months older than me who was also starting the ninth grade…the main difference between us is that she was working really, really hard to maintain good grades at the ninth grade level at age 12. She was having a real struggle, she was constantly having to do homework, she had to put a ton of effort in. Whereas, I was sitting in all my classes daydreaming because I still wasn’t being challenged—because the way traditional curriculum is taught doesn’t hold my attention, so I always thought there was an extreme difference between [us]. …seeing this girl’s experience compared to mine when we were the same age in the same grade, …I didn’t really understand much about giftedness, but even at that point I thought, ‘This doesn’t really seem like the same situation!’” (Gatto-Walden & Tolan, 2012 presentation at NAGC)

None of this will surprise parents of highly gifted children or the teachers who understand and work with them to provide either acceleration or intense levels of enrichment (or both) to give them worthwhile learning experiences in school. They need to encounter real challenge.

But today I want to take this idea of the value of challenge in a different, and maybe new-to-most readers, direction.

Bear with me. When I was a child we kids were sent out in good weather to “play outside” and told to be sure to come home by dinner time, or when the streetlights came on. My husband’s and my boys (the next generation kids) were also allowed to go out and play on their own. It was what kids did! They rode bikes or roller skated, played games, invented games, pogo-sticked, walked to parks, libraries, playgrounds. In my case the kids on my block explored the shores of Lake Michigan, across the street from my house. Kids without adults, just being kids.

But something changed in 1979 when our youngest had just turned seven. Six year old Etan Patz, walking the two blocks to his school bus stop in New York City by himself for the first time, disappeared. What followed across this country was the launching of the missing children movement, the practice of putting the faces of missing children on milk cartons, and the idea that all children must be taught about “stranger danger.” Even though we lived in a pleasant residential neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio I remember following the official advice to get our son “dog tags” to wear with his name, address and phone number. Of course, he knew that information himself and could perfectly well find his way home on his own, but news broadcasts reminded parents steadily that “something might happen” to children to keep them from being able to do that. That “something” that loomed over all of us was whatever had happened to Etan Patz. Eventually, of course, the world learned that he had been murdered by a mentally ill neighbor.

But something fundamental had changed in our culture. Over time parents came to think that whenever their children were outside their homes “unsupervised” by an adult they were actually in danger of being hurt or killed by a stranger. Though some (or many) parents knew how rare such events really were, they were still plagued by a fear that such an “almost-never-happens” catastrophe might happen to their child. And it would have been their fault…

Now, closing in on four decades later, parental fear has grown and spread from the possibility of kidnapping or murder to a huge variety of unpleasant experiences that children “need” to be protected from. The media (social and otherwise) bring us a steady diet of warnings, and examples of dangers children may face on a daily basis. And given that highly and profoundly gifted children are often unusually sensitive and different enough to be frequently bullied, they may seem to be especially vulnerable.

It is this constantly growing fear that has created the phenomenon known as the “helicopter parent.” The image this term conjures may seem extreme enough that most parents don’t see themselves this way, but it can be hard to avoid some of the over-protectiveness it suggests. That over-protectiveness has spread beyond individual parents to our society itself, so that neighbors and even strangers have been known to contact police to report children going to a park, a library, even sometimes on their way home by themselves, without an adult to watch over them. It is in response to this level of concern that the “free range children” movement was started to bring childhood at least a little closer to what it was when I was growing up. But the phenomenon of helicopter parenting does not appear to be greatly affected by this press for greater freedom. Usually starting when children are quite small, over-protection continues these days into high school and college.

Recently, my grandson (who starts high school this fall) was talking to my son about where he might like to go for college. Son told grandson that out of state tuition for his first choice university was wildly expensive. “That’s okay,” grandson said, “you and Mom can just rent an apartment there and I can take a gap year and live in the apartment so I can become a state resident.” There followed, of course, a brief and realistic financial discussion!

When I learned of this conversation, I pointed out that I’ve been hearing about helicopter parents who rent an apartment for themselves in the town or city where their child goes to school (in some cases may even buy a house!) so they can live close enough to help their son or daughter choose classes, to feed them, do their laundry, meet all their professors, and arrange regular conferences with any who fail to give the child acceptable grades, etc. My son just shook his head. “In this family we are all looking forward to the time this kid goes off on his own!”

So when I was recently talking to a young woman whose job it is to counsel students who are having difficulty adjusting to college (of which there are apparently an ever-increasing number), I asked if this issue of parents taking up residence in the same town was something this particular school had to deal with. “Not just in the same town! There are mothers who move in with their kids—sometimes even in the kid’s dorm room.” It was in that startling conversation that I first heard the new term, snow-plow parent. “These parents don’t just hover over their kids,” she said. “They go in front of them in everything they do to make sure the kid doesn’t encounter any obstacles of any kind. It’s practically an epidemic!”

These conversations got me to thinking about the whole issue of learning and challenge. For a number of years employers have been reporting that young men and women newly out of college (or even prestigious and challenging graduate programs) seem unable or unwilling to take responsibility and make decisions for themselves. When given a task typical of the job they’ve been hired for they need far more support in figuring out how to do it than earlier generations did. “They want and expect—in fact need—someone to lead them by the hand, tell them what to do and how to do it, and then keep an eye on them to be sure it gets done.” I’d like to think this doesn’t apply to highly or profoundly gifted kids, but given some of the top schools these young people graduated from, one wonders.

So I decided to write this blog in order to ask  parents the question “What, if anything, might you change in your parenting methods and strategies if you treated your children’s need for life challenges the same way you treat their need for intellectual challenges–as a valuable, even necessary aspect of their development as human beings?”

Years ago I gave a talk at NAGC called “The Problem of Pain,” which was later published in the CAG Newsletter in California and is included in my 2016 book Out of Sync. [https://www.rfwp.com/book/out-of-sync-essays-on-giftedness] The piece provides what I call a “Nifty Tool Kit” for helping one’s child cope with pain. It is difficult for any of us to watch our children suffer physical, emotional or psychological pain. We tend to want more than anything just to take it away. Fix it. Find a way to keep it from recurring. But no one gets through life without pain. Reaching adulthood without developing any strategies for coping with it is not a benefit.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating pain. I’m not a believer in the adage “no pain no gain.” There are many ways to learn important life lessons from positive experiences. And by life challenges, I don’t mean only those that bring pain. It is a challenge to choose a major, a challenge to fulfill an obligation one may have undertaken without fully understanding the work involved, a challenge to walk away from a relationship that is forcing one to camouflage one’s real self, and a challenge to stand up for oneself when one has been judged unfairly. And it is, of course, a challenge to begin accepting responsibility for one’s actions and choices. Those are all part of learning to be a fully functioning adult. And here’s one that highly to profoundly gifted adolescents often struggle with—a challenge to discover not just what one can do, but what gives one joy in the doing.

Life—for everyone—includes difficult challenges like loss, grief, loneliness, uncertainty, disappointment, mistakes and bad choices. If their parents constantly rush in to “fix” any uncomfortable situation, or remove any and every obstacle children or adolescents might encounter, how do they develop the kinds of coping strategies that will be essential in the rest of their lives? We insist that children need to learn at or near the top of their cognitive capacity so they’ll have the intellectual tools they’ll need to reach their potential. It’s equally important to let them stretch themselves to contend with the difficulties they encounter in their personal lives.

Parenting is difficult and scary, and parenting out of sync kids is no walk in the park. We don’t have “owner’s manuals.” We do the best we can. I’m certainly not suggesting you abandon your child in the face of difficult life experiences! I’m suggesting only that you consider that question I asked earlier:

“What, if anything, might you change in your parenting methods and strategies if you treated your children’s need for life challenges the same way you treat their need for intellectual challenges–as a valuable, even necessary aspect of their development as human beings?”

Special?

30 Nov

Not long ago when I was talking about my work about highly gifted kids with a healer I was seeing, she asked whether I thought highly gifted kids were special. “Well,” I said, “I prefer to think of them as different.  The word special seems to suggest better than others, and I don’t mean that.  They’re just different.”

She nodded.  “Yes, but we’re really all different, aren’t we?  I can’t think of any two people who aren’t.  Even identical twins aren’t actually the same.”

“I didn’t mean that kind of different,” I corrected myself.  “Of course there aren’t any people anywhere who are exactly the same.  I meant more like ‘outside the norms.’”

She nodded again, gravely.  “What sort of norms?”

I took refuge in an analogy.  “Think of height.  There’s a great height variation among same age children.  But there’s a ‘normal’ range that the majority of kids fit into, and then there are some that are much shorter and some who are much taller.  Highly gifted kids are like the taller kids.  All children have height, but not all children are tall.”

“But instead of height, you’re talking about intelligence, yes?”

“Right.  There’s a range of intelligence into which most people fall, and then there are some who are outside that range.  The greatest clustering is in the middle of the continuum, with smaller numbers of individuals on either side.” 

“So the ones on either side are special and the ones in the middle are—what?—regular?

“Well, the ones on either side have special needs that are different from the needs of the ones in the middle, but all kids have the same value.”

“So all kids are special—or else no kids are.”

“Wait,” I said.  “If all are special then of course no one is.”  I had a strange sense of being caught in a language trap.  “But if gifted kids are going to get an education that fits their need for challenging learning in a system based on norms, they have to have something the others don’t need.  In that sense they’re special.”

This healer knows what my spiritual beliefs are—we share most of them, including that we are all aspects of the divine.  She looked me steadily in the eye.  “So they are something others are not?” she asked.  “If all people are Spirit, do gifted kids somehow have more of Spirit, or a different Spirit?  If there is just One Spirit, how could that be?”

We went on to talk of other things, and then she worked with me on the PTSD left behind after the deaths in my family in 2013, and I headed home.  We’d made excellent progress with the PTSD.  But I was still genuinely unsettled about that conversation. 

My connection with the highly gifted began with my own experience of childhood, with my husband’s and then our offspring’s experiences, and then with families and teachers of such kids all over the country.  I have seen their struggles to get a challenging education and to find friends who understand them, their sense of “not fitting” in the world.  I have related powerfully to their trials and challenges.  How could I not?

But she had challenged me to notice for the first time the “us/them” dichotomy I had created in my own mind in spite of my deep belief that we humans are all one family, all expressions of the divine, all coping with the challenges of life. And—all supported through those challenges by that all-encompassing Spirit.  I have an image I’ve used in some of my talks of “Indra’s net,” the Buddhist symbol used to describe the non-dual transcendent basis of all existence, or its holographic equivalent. 

The human tendency to identify an “us” to feel comfortable and safe with, and a “them” to defend against, has been obvious to me among races, among political parties, among countries, ethnic groups, religions, and people with different sexual orientations.  I have felt that it was one of humanity’s most dangerous and self-destructive tendencies, leading us to generalize about groups defined as other.  But never before had my focus on highly gifted kids who so seldom get their educational needs met seemed to be in any way part of that tendency. My reaction to her questions showed me that it was.

Please understand me here.  This confrontation with the disparity between my deepest beliefs and my feelings about this population I care about doesn’t change my awareness of their needs or my wish to help them get those needs met.  It has only shifted something inside. 

It has given me a new understanding of those people who have ranged their arguments so intensely against the gifted, seeming to believe that if my us gets the world’s focus and support it will somehow leave their us out.  We all of us have problems, have needs that don’t get addressed, have trials and tribulations and pains that we cope with as best we can.  The world we see around us often feels and is said to be limited, a place where there is never enough for all of us

In that world, the truth is that we who have been given the blessing of fine minds need to remember that humans are more alike than different.  Many of our kids are clear about wanting to work for all. We don’t need more struggles between us and them, no matter how subtly (or internally) they occur. 

None of this changes the fact that there are infinite numbers of differences among the beings of our planet—cheetahs and whales, butterflies and frogs, snails and humans and bluebirds and gnats—life is diverse.  And life forms have diverse needs.  Naturally we will go on working to meet the needs of our own particular bits of the web of life, but it is essential to remember that we’re in this together–that life itself is one.  And it is life that is special.web

 “The flowers and the candles are for protection.”

18 Nov

flowers-candlesI myself was protected last weekend by being out of touch with television and the social media at the NAGC convention in Phoenix.  I was lucky enough to see not a single image from Paris until I got home on Sunday night, by which time memorials had sprung up at every site of the violence.

The title of this post will be readily recognized as a quotation from a video interview that went viral—with more than 14 million views on social media. In case you haven’t seen it, a father and his very young son were being interviewed in Paris at one of the sites where those lost in a bombing on Friday were being memorialized with banks of flowers and hundreds of candles.  The boy was very much afraid of the “mean people with guns.”

“We have flowers,” his father told him. The boy began to protest about the effects of mere flowers, but the father assured him that they were protection. Flowers and candles. The boy looked for a time at the banks of flowers and candles, and gradually his face relaxed. “For protection,” he repeated. When the interviewer asked if that idea made him feel better, he nodded. “I feel better,” he said.

In a powerful way, that father was right. The purpose of the terrorists is to spread fear, and at first, for that child, as for so many others, they had succeeded in their mission. The little boy wanted to move to a new home, a place safe from mean people with guns. “Paris is our home,” his father told him, and said that there are mean people everywhere. But in telling him that the flowers were protection, he showed his son the absolute truth that there are many people—vastly more than the paltry number of terrorists on this planet—who care.

Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) said that his mother told him when he was a child and upset (as so many sensitive kids are) about news from some disaster, that instead of paying attention to the disaster, he should “watch the people who come to help—there are always people who come to help.”

A great many of the children we work with and care about are deeply empathic, feeling the pain of others, and easily overwhelmed by news of man’s inhumanity to man, of images of what “mean people” do in the world. How do we help them (and ourselves) deal with the chaos we see around us? Far more dangerous to a child than the possibility of a terrorist attack is an ingrained fear of other humans and a world of random violence. How do we protect them from the terror that is being purposely unleashed in our world today by people who themselves are terrorized by what they perceive to be massive world powers ranged against them?

By seeing, really seeing, under, over, past and around the images of death and destruction that the media insist on pouring into the atmosphere of this interconnected world.  By focusing on the vast majority—on the helpers, on those who bring candles and flowers.  We can think of every candle as “the light of truth” and every flower as a symbol not just of love and caring, but of the beauty of life itself.

When fear is being ratcheted up around the world not just by the terrorists and their guns and bombs, but by the news media that continually push those images on us, warning us that this sort of horror could happen anywhere at any time we can focus differently, and use our very good minds to support us. The numbers are on our side!

There’s an Allstate ad that says, “Man-eating sharks live in every ocean, but we still swim. Lightning strikes somewhere in the world, but we still play in the rain. So many things can happen. However, bad things in life can’t stop us from making our lives good. People live for good…”

While we tend to think of insurance companies intentionally frightening us to get us to buy their product, consider for a moment the principle on which that industry was created in the first place—that there is more “daily life” than catastrophe.

At this time in the history of the world our countries still respond to guns with guns, to bombs with bombs, to killing with killing.  But that father, pointing his son’s attention toward the flowers and candles, was giving him more protection than any gun or bomb ever could, by showing him that there are more people who care than who kill.  More people who help than harm.  He is giving his son faith in the deep, natural tendency of humans to help each other, and softening his fear.  It is fear the terrorists want, fear that becomes a deadly viral infection if we can’t look away from the killing and focus on the caring.

When parents ask me how to protect their super sensitive children in a chaotic world, I tell them to focus their own and their children’s attention on what there is to be grateful for, to notice every sign of life, of love, of caring. The more we look for it, the more we see. We need to know that what we pay attention to expands in our world. Yesterday in an article written long before these most recent attacks, I encountered a quotation attributed to Plato:  “Even the God of War is no match for love.”

Notice the flowers and the candles.

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

8 Feb

heart

An early Valentine’s Day post. This is a subject that I’ve been thinking about for years but seldom speak about and have never (as far as I can remember) written about. One reason it is hard to write and speak about love is that there are so many definitions of this single word and it is used to mean so very many things.

But let’s pretend we all know what we’re talking about here, and I’ll just go ahead; you can decide for yourself (as always) whether this post resonates with you or not. As they say in 12 step groups, “take what you like and leave the rest.”

I have begun to believe, after all these years talking about highly and profoundly gifted individuals, that love has pretty much everything to do with it. We speak of kids who have a “rage to learn,” of kids who have a “passion” (sometimes permanent, often ephemeral) for a subject or a project or a system or a field of study. We’ve seen kids “on fire” to explore something new, who are driven from within to understand, to investigate some mystery or other, who can’t bear to put down a book before they’ve finished it. What is it that we’re seeing? Love.

We’ve seen kids who are traumatized by news broadcasts that show images of man’s inhumanity to man, or to animals, or to the Earth itself. We often explain that trauma by saying they feel innately “connected” to humanity, other living beings, and their home planet. When kids become distraught over bullying or conflict on the playground, even when they themselves are not the target, or protest practices they consider unfair, we call it “empathy.” We could call that, too, love.

Parents have told me of children who “hate” a school subject nevertheless willingly putting time and effort into that subject, or children who make it through an entire school year with few complaints even when—as in the “awful” years—there was almost nothing new or challenging to learn, just because they “like” the teacher. Love, again. The best mentors we find for children with a passion for a subject are adults who share that same passion. The relationship that develops between subject, child and adult—love.

It is often said that as individuals, we cannot fully love another until we are able to love ourselves. Years ago my son said that I should give up the effort of trying to make anyone “feel sorry” for gifted kids, because people see them as having so much more going for them in life. And of course, in one way it is true—they have greater than average capacities that could lead them to the achievement and success so valued in our culture. But they’re also children, trying to figure out who they are in a world that makes it quite clear that whoever they are, they “don’t fit.” How do they learn to love themselves?

Highly gifted kids often suffer the whiplash that comes from systems that aren’t able or don’t wish to really challenge them to give their best, yet at the same time demand perfection in all things—“if you’re so bright, why can’t (or don’t) you…?” If they do shine when challenged, and rejoice in that (as is natural and only fair), they may be accused of arrogance, and if they don’t shine as they and others expect, they feel and may be treated like failures. And in cases where parents are overly invested in their children’s unusual or extreme gifts kids may feel they are loved not for who they are, but solely for what they do; that does not feel like love! A girl once told me that her parents were so insistent that she become a brilliant concert violinist (because she had the talent) that by the age of 15, she still had no idea what she loved to do, because she’d never been allowed the time to explore anything else.

We live in a world that doesn’t much like the word “gifted,” because it seems to mean that God or the Fates, or Life or the Universe has bestowed a gift on some minority of individuals, a gift that has been withheld from everybody else. The backlash is in the often heard (and often disputed) statement “All children are gifted.” I’ve argued against that statement myself, over and over again, usually by using an analogy: “all children have height, but not all children are tall.”

But my own belief about humanity is that every single child and every single adult has value, has a vital place in the world. As a fiction writer, I am aware that every character in a novel or even a vast, sprawling saga, is there for a reason and has a part to play in the story. And science has shown us that each human being is unique. Even among identical twins, there are no two identical human beings.

At the same time all of us belong to a larger oneness, the web of life, the interconnectedness of all things—all of us are, as some have said, “star stuff.” It is a paradox, this individuality and oneness.

It seems likely to me that every individual is born with the capacity for love of one kind or another, though the direction of that love is individual. My husband truly loved to do crossword puzzles. For me doing a crossword puzzle is about as enjoyable as sticking a needle in my eye. But both of us loved words and the stories they can create. We followed that love in different ways.

Consider a change in terminology. What we call “gifts,” could also be thought of as “loves.” Now imagine an education in which love really did have everything to do with it. Imagine, instead of categorizing and grouping children by their abilities, we were to purposely set out to help them find what it is they love and then to support that, even as we help them learn what else they’re likely to need on their life journey. What would that change? How would such a world look?

The symbol of Valentine’s Day is, of course, the heart. Gifted children are often expected (or even required) to “live in their heads,” and when we focus relentlessly on their intellects, we teach them to value that shard of who they truly are more than any other. The HeartMath Institute has shown that the human heart’s energy field is very much larger than the brain’s, and that learning to create coherence between brain and heart is beneficial not only to the individual, but to those around them. Far from competing, our heads and hearts work best together, energizing us and allowing access to ways of knowing and connecting seldom tapped or even recognized in education. It shouldn’t surprise us, by the way, that a standard method of creating heart-brain coherence is to focus on an image or memory that evokes love.

We could use 364 more days to focus on the heart, and to acknowledge what Love has to do with it!

Meantime, Happy Valentine’s Day!

If you wish to explore the findings of the HeartMath Institute further, you might start here: https://www.youtube.com/embed/QdneZ4fIIHE

 

No Less Than the Trees and the Stars

7 May

In the more than thirty years I have written and spoken about the needs of gifted children and adults, I have shared a lot of my personal life. But after the last piece I wrote for this blog (December 2012) that life began to disintegrate, as did my ability to turn it into anything that would seem helpful to other people. Between April and July of 2013 I lost my husband of 49 years and the oldest two of our four sons.

Shell-shocked, I withdrew from the world except for a few obligations: Yunasa, the Institute for Educational Advancement’s camp for highly gifted kids and speaking as a member of the Columbus Group about Asynchronous Development at the World Council’s Conference in Louisville.

At that conference the argument between those (like the Columbus Group) who focus on giftedness as a developmental process innate to out-of-the-ordinary individuals (the child-centered view) and those who perceive giftedness as achievement leading to success, fame, fortune or eminence (achievement that is at least theoretically possible to anyone willing and able to work hard enough to beat out the competition and collect the rewards) suddenly seemed both especially virulent and especially ludicrous.

As I drove the eight hours home from Louisville, the positions within that argument and my whole history of writing and speaking about the gifted began a kind of slow dance in my mind and heart with the three lives in my family that had just ended. Something fundamental in my way of looking at the culture within which we live, was changing—had changed. It has been many months since then, but it feels as if I may have grasped enough of the change now to share it—I’m still a writer, after all, and this is what I do.

Always before, as I thought and wrote about the needs of gifted children and adults, I envisioned, as maybe most of us do, life stretching out from birth to something akin to infinity. Never mind that all of us claim to know the certainty of death. We tend to be woefully unprepared for its visitation. It shocks us with the cessation of a process we cannot somehow grasp as “finished.” We are left picking up shattered fragments of some picture that there just wasn’t time to complete, trying to decide what its meaning can have been now that it is over—there are no more choices to be made, nothing to add, no new turning or opportunity to watch for. What meaning was there, and how much of that meaning had to do with racking up awards or recognition, financial success or lack of it, children to carry on a name or a family vision? Consider these three lives:

Life Number One

When we were married in 1964 my husband was a professor of theatre with three sons, ages 2, 3 and 4. He was in the process of completing his doctorate and we expected to build a nice, secure future in academia. Six years later, when the structure of the academic world began to constrain his creativity, he left college teaching for the uncertainties and risk of work in the professional theatre. It was amidst those uncertainties that our son, the fourth Tolan male, was born. Over time, through plenty of ups and downs, my husband became well known in the regional theatre world as a director, manager, producer and idea person, and he went on teaching from time to time. Actors tended to love working with him. Though he eventually retired from both directing and teaching, the young actors he had worked with in his early years still regularly appear—as senior citizens now, of course—in television, film and theatre. At his memorial service many people (both actors and former students) told of how his faith in them, his ability to spot, encourage and trust innate talent, and his passion for sharing his love of theatre had helped to shape their careers.

Life Number Two

The first born son was a clear example from early childhood of the gifted, hard-working, disciplined and organized achiever. With a clear view of what he wanted in life, he moved steadily and successfully through his many years of education, took on the financial burden of a superior medical school, studied abroad, and became an eminent pediatric infectious disease specialist, researcher and educator, widely known and steadily published in the major journals. He was brilliant, but also caring enough to give his cell phone number to the families of his patients and to his colleagues alike. His much sought-after advice was available 24/7. When he suffered a sudden cardiac arrest in July at the age of 52, he was working at three hospitals and well on his way to being nationally recognized as one of the clear leaders in his field. The often repeated message delivered at his memorial was that it would take many individual doctors now to fill the gap his death had left in his field.

Life Number Three

The second son (age 51 when he succumbed to esophageal cancer in April) was a caring “people person,” who seemed, from earliest childhood, “allergic” to competition. Always available to lend a hand to someone in need, or to rescue an animal and provide it a home, he majored in Religious Studies and Political Science at Indiana University. While working in food service during high school, he had discovered a love for cooking, and after college (following his father’s example of daring to follow a dream that did not guarantee either financial or job security) opened a restaurant—a time he often said was the happiest in his life, cooking good food for hungry and appreciative people. After an economic downturn that resulted in his restaurant’s closing, though he found a variety of ways to be of service, he never managed to get a handle on worldly success, let alone fame or fortune. A cousin, however, once called him the kindest person she had ever met. In the varied work he did over his lifetime he was loved and admired by the people whose lives he touched.

What would the argument about innate gifts vs. worldly accomplishment have to say about these three lives? All three showed the sort of asynchronous development typical of the gifted in the Columbus Group frame of reference. But which of them would the world have recognized as gifted? And which of them would claim the term for themselves?

I ask now, what, finally, does it matter? Life matters. Individuals, in all their complexity, matter.

As for whether a person, looking back on his life, would consider himself a “success,” no one else could possibly know. For everyone life is a series of peaks and valleys. What looks like a valley of failure from the outside might be felt as one of life’s greatest successes once survived and moved through. And some of the peaks of success as viewed from the outside might have felt barren and meaningless once achieved. Achieving “success” must finally have to do with the individual’s own goals, wishes, dreams, visions and passions.

I recently sent a message to Scott Barry Kaufman, author of UnGifted (a book with two subtitles: “Intelligence Redefined” and “The Truth about Talent, Practice, Creativity, and the Many Paths to Greatness”) to congratulate him on the book and tell him that I think his definition of intelligence, is the best and most inclusive I’ve ever seen. But that second subtitle takes me back to the cultural worldview that 2013 shattered for me irrevocably. “Paths to Greatness.” Hiding there is that cultural sense that an individual’s worth has to do with finding a path to recognizable achievement: greatness. It is not just that we think of ourselves as “human doings” rather than “human beings,” it is that we want or expect ourselves and those we care about to do something others would recognize as “great.”

We’ve all heard the saying that life is a journey, not a destination. And yet how many of us live each day of our own lives as if that were true, looking for meaning and joy in the steps of the journey, open to our own loves and passions, trusting that whatever someone else may say of us, however someone else judges us, we both know and value who we are in ourselves?

And which way of looking at life are we sharing with the children we live or work with?

When Guiding the Gifted Child was published way back in 1982, it included the poem “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann. (I don’t remember for sure, but suspect it was Betty Meckstroth’s idea to include it.) A bit of that poem is what I want to share here: “You are a child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”

If we are to have something truly worthwhile to offer children, it seems to me it needs to be not just child-centered (yes, we need to see them as who they are, not who we expect them to be or become), but life-centered. We humans have vast individual differences, which is, arguably, how we have survived on this planet as long we have. As I said at the end of my cheetah piece all those years ago, life here operates on the principle of bio-diversity. Every difference has a place. Every life has meaning. Every life.

Will it be a meaning the children themselves will be able to recognize and value? Are we supporting them in that? Do we even know how to support them in that?

I suspect it has to start with the assurance that each of them has a right to be here, has a value to the larger story of humanity on Earth, no matter how like or unlike others they feel they are, whether they feel they fit or not, and no matter how long or short their time here may be. They surely need to see themselves as the hero of their own story. They have an innate right to make their own meaning of it, starting with who they are and what they love. What they do with that should grow from it, not be imposed from outside, or chosen to provide some external proof of their worth.

What can any other success or label, fame or fortune offer? If their story should end tomorrow, what will it have meant?

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