Healthy Families

If you have some dysfunction in  your family, I recommend Traits of a Healthy Family, by Dolores Curran. Few can define what a healthy family is, but I didn’t learn about the dysfunction in my family until I was in my thirties. At the time of my parents’ childhoods, it was bad manners to speak highly of oneself and children were supposed to be obedient to their parents. So, that was how they parented.

How far we have come in our knowledge of the needs of children, including gifted children. Instead of being told, “You’re too sensitive,” I would have loved to have been told, “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. I will try to do better in the future.” Instead of being laughed at when I banged my head on the floor, I would have loved to been shown an appropriate way to express anger. Instead of feeling frustrated at meals because I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, I would have preferred a family that shared the conversation. That is the past. That can’t be changed.

If those were the only memories I had of my parents, I would be angry and resentful. Instead, I was lucky enough to get to know them into my golden years, and my perspective changed considerably. From my parents, I learned how to get a job and keep it, how to stay in that job even when things were miserable. I learned to sacrifice my needs for the needs of my children for a short period of time (which seems like forever when you are going through it). I learned to eat healthy and get exercise, to forgive each other over and over, and to love nature and classical music. I learned to ask questions, to be myself, to have fun and best of all, that we can change the way we approach life, even in our nineties.

The best and most important social skill my parents gave me was resilience. Having left the poverty of the Depression behind and survived the horror of WWII, my parents thought their days of suffering were past, but life has a way of presenting challenges forever. I moved home during their retirement with three children, my dad’s health failed and he died, and my mom had to carry on alone. Each time, my parents adjusted, showing me that life is manageable if we become the best we can be.

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Lego Robotics

I have been teaching Lego robotics in the summer for almost a decade now and I never tire of teaching it. The new students start by learning the name of the parts and what they do, as well as a simple program using the computer-graphical interface. They quickly advance to programs with loops, sensors and parallel processing. My classes this summer included students who went ahead on the first day because of previous knowledge. They used the sensors, which give input to the main brick, or “brain,” to make decisions in the program. To keep them challenged after that, I also threw out daily challenges, such as “Who can make the tallest robot?” or “Who can use the third motor?” We only had a week, but my students met every challenge I gave them with grace and even with extra features. At the end of a week, we had a dance contest, and one student even figured out how to use the third motor to make a John Travolta-like movement. I was blessed with kind, polite students who had no trouble sharing, for the most part. Because of my continuing interest in gifted education, I recognized students who were so sensitive they had trouble saying their name in front of others, or who were easily offended by team members. I foster an attitude of collaboration in the classroom, and to my knowledge there is no bullying, but there are team members who do not take turns with the various aspects of the class, and I sometimes have to switch teams after a day or two.

What they are learning, however, is some solid computer programming. The programming language used by Lego Mindstorms is Logo, created by the MIT professors Daniel G. Bobrow, Wally Feurzeig, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon. At its inception in the late sixties, it was a small triangle on a computer screen that could draw. It has evolved into a language used by universities and , of course, Lego.

As a former computer science teacher, I no longer teach the firmware available in each brain. Some students are happy just doing that and never stretch to try the software. To use this program, blocks I want my students to learn are placed onto the sequence beam by clicking and dragging. Blocks are responsible for movement, sounds, pictures, and they teach such computer topics as loops, switches, and iteration. Students who are not familiar with concepts surrounding files learn to name the files with a unique name, save their work when they are done, close the window so no one changes their program, and to open a saved program. These classes are for gifted students ages eight through fourteen. They provide a fun challenge with some socialization with other gifted children. Sometimes lifelong friendships are formed. It is expensive to own a kit, hundreds of dollars, so it is not really easy for a family to purchase, but I think the kids gain the most from the priceless social interactions.

If you live in the Chicago area, this class is offered by the Center for Gifted in Glenview, Illinois.

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The Mystery of Music

Who was the first person to realize that a sound could become a note? Who put notes together and sang for their baby or lover? Why does music convey feeling more effectively than words ever can? If you listen to the music of a country, you can feel what that country is like, from the complex music of India to the simple chants of Native Americans to the Caribbean mix of Africa, Spain and Native Central Americans. Why does music carry a personality that is at once both definite and yet undefinable.

Why do some people have perfect pitch? That is, they can name a note when it is played on a piano, and they can tell when that note is out of tune on that same piano. The quality of a person’s voice is determined by genetics and environment, but can be nurtured to produce beautiful sounds?

Why can some people play a harmonic on a violin that is perfectly in tune, while another cannot even hear it? How do trumpet players change notes just by moving their lips a fraction of an inch?

How do composers lead with their bodies responding to every note and rest, cuing players in at the right time, yet focused on what should happen at that moment in the score?

It was Pythagorus that discovered the relationship of ratios between notes and the vibrations of strings, and the parabola focus of directed sound waves. Fascination with music has existed perhaps as long as music itself. Teenagers are best known for using music to define their generation, but everyone enjoys a good concert and is unaware of the passage of time.

I taught Early Childhood Special Ed for sixteen years, and I always celebrated Earth Day. Most of my students, aged three to six, had language deficits, from moderate to severe. One year, I gave the students blue and green paint, and played “La Mer” by Debussy. They painted waves.

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Einstein, The Big Bang, and Scorpion

People have idolized Einstein for centuries because he was so smart, but not many know that his personal life was less than ideal. He wrote letters to his first love while married to his second, and had relationships with other women during his second marriage. He was not cool and remote, however, as revealed in his private letters, which were released in 2006, twenty years after his daughter’s death. He cared for his children just as many fathers do.1
A fairly recent sitcom called “The Big Bang” portrays physicists as inept socially, even to the point that one is portrayed to resemble a person on the Autistic Spectrum. Another series on television (Scorpion2) portrays a group of misfit geniuses that work for the government to solve crimes. It is a little more accurate because it shows that there are different types of intelligence (psychological, mechanical and photographic memory), hence more types of giftedness. However, the series is dedicated to Walter O’Brien, who is portrayed as socially inept and awkward at approaching the love of his life (Paige), or even being aware of his and her feelings. She is the token “normal” person with a gifted son, who gets along well with the group. In all of these examples of socially inept geniuses, there is a lack of understanding of what it is like to be a genius.
Just because a person has a high IQ, they do not necessarily lack social graces. There can be some difficulties adjusting to others, as a friend told me twenty years ago. Her son’s IQ approached 190, and he would complete assignments that did not fulfill the teacher’s requirements. She would patiently explain to him why he should change it, and he would patiently explain to her why it had to be done his way. I don’t remember if he had an understanding teacher.
Highly gifted individuals are more sensitive, which can lead to unusual reactions to everyday circumstances. They can be hurt more easily and are more deeply hurt, they can be more sensitive to body language, they can worry more about natural and man-made disasters, they can experience existential depression by the overwhelming awareness of the suffering in the world. But many highly intelligent people get along quite well when they have a supportive network of both similar and dissimilar peers. Those peers may be of different ages or backgrounds, but may meet the needs of the gifted adult or child as no others can. When society begins to imagine geniuses accurately, we will make a huge step forward into understanding the incredible diversity of the human brain.





Academic Boosters Club (ABC)

As a disclaimer, I must admit that all these events occurred about three decades ago, so my memory may not be clear about all of them. What is clear is that the formation of a parent group for the gifted students in Aledo, Illinois had a profound emotional impact on me and my family.

My oldest child was in second grade when he was diagnosed gifted, and it came as a surprise to me. Everyone in my family was like this – able to pick ideas up quickly, using an advanced vocabulary, able to sing and play musical instruments, and, I must add, having a hot temper. While it took me a few months to really comprehend what this meant, I went to an educational conference in Iowa and heard Joan Smutny speak. Inspired, I went back to Illinois and began to question school officials about getting a gifted program into the school system. I learned quickly that one parent receives nods and is ushered out the door. I consulted with friends, and we decided to organize a parent group called the Academic Boosters Club. Our first venture was to create weekend enrichment programs for all children. It was thrilling. My children and I went rock-hunting with the science teacher, I taught a class in Logo for kindergartners, and there were many more classes. We scheduled these on two weekends in the spring. Then, as a group, we began asking the high school to allow students who were academically talented to receive the same letters as athletes, which they did. One of the parents was more diplomatic than I, and she convinced the schools to begin a pull-out program in fourth grade. They hired her to do it. The fifth graders were allowed to progress at their own rate, but couldn’t “bother” the teachers if they had problems on something that wasn’t being discussed. Luckily, my kids were very independent. We moved away in 1989, so I don’t know what happened to the group. If my experience helps anyone, I am grateful. The most important thing I learned was to form a group. Administrators will not listen to parents who come in one at a time, but they will listen to a group of parents whose children are not receiving the services they need to learn.



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In Praise of Math

AS a young girl, I loved math. I was good in math as were all of my family members. It wasn’t seen as something masculine or even special. It was just a characteristic of our family. I did well in math until high school. I took all of the math classes and got high grades in them, but the math called for in Physics was too much for me. I couldn’t figure out which formula to use in which situation. Did I mention I was the only girl in my Physics class? That was the end of my science classes. In college, I took Calculus, but got sick and missed three weeks of classes. My A dropped to a C, and I was placed into Analytical Geometry. Since my weakest skills are in visual-spatial orientation, I only got a C and changed my major to German. Most of my life, I have regretted that decision. Luckily for me, I have had the opportunity to tutor some students in math and I rediscovered my love for it.

Two of my children have inherited the math gene and were placed two years above grade level, thanks to an encouraging gifted program in my area. They have since gone into computer programming and management and are able to make good incomes. My daughter has been less achieving in math, and I have to wonder how much of that is due to the influence of society. When the boys were taking off with algebra and geometry, she was practicing Britni Spears’ “I’m a Slave for You.” No matter how hard I tried to encourage her in math and science, the lure of the stage was much stronger. Gifted girls have a much more difficult time navigating math and science than boys.

What is it that I love about math? It is the idea that math is really just another language for describing what’s going on around us. Children learn to love math when adults love it. If I never hear another teacher say, “I’m not very good at math,” I will have done my job. Teachers, if you’re not very good at it – take a course in it!!!!!

I only have three resources for you, but I love them. The first is the author Theoni Pappas. She has created calendars and over twenty books with math challenges in them, anything by Christopher Freeman, and Math Games played with Cards and Dice, by William Gaslin, Charles, Lund, and Maring M. Gaslin.

I recently wrote this poem that gives a glimpse of the joy of math.



In Praise of Math

Praise the vigesimal Mayan numerals, used for thousands of years by their complex civilization.

Praise binary code, which created out of nothing a vast system of communication, an industry of chips and processors, and a social movement to include everyone.

Praise honey bees, who wax together hexagons in rhombic sections to store honey, and dance the location of nectar, water and pollen.

Praise Pythagorus, who discovered the relationship of ratios between notes and the vibrations of strings, and the parabola focus of directed sound waves.

Praise x- and y-intercepts that show us the increase or decrease in a child’s reading fluency or emigration from a war zone.

Praise Alan Turing, whose Bome helped break the Enigma codes of the Nazis.

Praise farmers, who calculate ratios of soy to corn in feed and percentage of moisture in crops still in the field, as well as estimating quantities of seed to plant.

Praise elliptic geometry, where pseudosphere parallel lines intersect.

Praise algorithms that control traffic flow, track our spending and analyze it, and recognize damaging weather conditions.

Praise symmetry of butterflies, Fibonacci sequence of sunflowers and fractals of a snowflake.

Praise acoustic ceiling tiles with many holes for giving children something to count during unchallenging math lessons.





Follow Their Lead

My family of origin was very competitive. There were three siblings vying for the attention of our parents and it never occurred to me to give less than my best on tests or papers. Not that I always studied, mind you. But I had skipped from first grade to second grade upon entry to the suburban school system, due to an anomaly in the Chicago school system that allowed me to start in mid-year previously. I was also a benefactor of tracking, which put higher achieving students together.

As a parent, I never imagined that a child might not care about grades. Luckily, as an adult, I discovered gifted education. My oldest was identified in second grade and continued to take my breath away with achievements three to seven years above grade level most of his school career. I attended a conference in Iowa and began to learn all I could about this phenomena.  I met Joan Franklin Smutny who has become one of my heroes down through the years. Very luckily for me, she is from Illinois. She was always glad to advise me when I felt overwhelmed. My second child showed musical talent at nine months and was reading at age 4. My third child was holding a pencil correctly at 12 months.

My experience with “other” achievement probably started when my second was in fifth grade. We had moved from a farm in western Illinois and my son was nine. He was placed in a regular fifth grade class even though I had been told sending paperwork was unnecessary. He kept getting punishments for not getting his work done. He would have to write an essay for every assignment he failed to turn in. (I have no problem with this – I think it would help improve a student’s writing if n nothing else.) I would sit next to him at the table to encourage him to do his work, and he would sit doing nothing. I would nudge and nudge and he would say, “I can’t think of anything!” He was moved to the gifted class within two weeks after an IQ test on a Sunday (thanks to the principal). He continued to have problems with assignments for no apparent reason. I knew better than to get mad at him, because I was sitting next to him when he had trouble. Within weeks, we realized that the problems were occurring the week after he had been back to see his dad and the farm. The teacher changed the assignment to one essay per week maximum and his depression slowly lifted through the year. This child did very well with the nurturing teachers he had over the next few years, but a pattern emerged. He was stellar at the beginning of the year, but began to slip by late winter and was struggling by spring. When he entered high school, I called a meeting in the fall and the teachers thought I was crazy. By spring they understood. They supported him throughout many difficulties and I was grateful I had informed them of his pattern.

We received counseling for the family through a long and difficult separation and divorce. Our first year income was below the poverty level. Certainly, poverty is one of the worst things that can happen to a child. Luckily, I was employed full-time the following year. With the help of private and school counselors, I was encouraged to develop a relationship separate from my son’s achievement and to let go of his behavior. Some of it was directed against a teacher who disliked him because he had to leave her class early in eighth grade to go to the high school for math. Sometimes it was a teacher who was very rigid in his/her requirements. Sometimes, this child was overwhelmed with responsibilities beyond his age as I worked one or two jobs and/or went to school and he supervised a younger sibling.

I developed a file on underachievement about six inches thick. That was before the Internet was readily available, but I was taking classes at local universities and knew how to search. I also learned that gifted children can have learning disabilities. That means that they may excel in some skills and struggle with others. If you suspect that your child’s academic behavior does not make sense, get some professional help. A psychological profile is expensive, but can reveal difficulties that are hidden by the exceptional talents.

Interestingly enough, my “other” achiever had another period of failure as a college senior. He was taking an ethics in business class that showed videos of the Holocaust, the massacre in Africa, the Civil Rights Movement, and other atrocities. He got so depressed he had to retake two classes the summer he got married!

About a year ago, I was asked to tutor another student who had taken a dive in math. I was so grateful to let the family know that the student was extremely creative and had run up against a punitive teacher. It was difficult to explain to the student that it was in his best interest to learn how to get along with people like that, but I hope I was able to shed some light on the situation. He began to get opportunities to shine in local theatrical performances, and his mood improved immediately. I’m pretty sure his mom can see that her son is an amazing person who doesn’t need to achieve to be rewarded. I also hope that the alternative universe offered in cosplay will not become more comfortable than reality.

That brings us to a final word on other achievement. My oldest had a terrible year starting in college, possibly because I had introduced him to the Internet (1991). He got a job working in a science lab and spent most of his hours online. He is now navigating the world of technology in the workplace and all those hours have really paid off. So…enjoy your child, somehow and stop worrying so much. We don’t know how things will come out, but with our love in their sails, our children will achieve far more than we can imagine.