Recently I enjoyed the honor of helping several professionals carefully photograph an extensive collection of high-quality quilts, each the culmination of hundreds or even thousands of hours of work by a dedicated artist. During my volunteer time, I helped prepare the quilts for photography—de-linting and steaming as needed, and then pinning to the wall for Pantone-perfect photographic documentation for future generations.
I stood awestruck in the face of the beauty of the quilts–their colors carefully chosen, their threads expertly hidden inside the batting layer, their meanings and visions calculated to differ depending on whether viewed closely or from a distance. None of these works of art resembled the simplistic quilts I have sewn over the years from fabric scraps, as in the photo above.
The “F” Quilt
Imagine my surprise when I found hundreds of threads hanging raggedly from one quilt in the collection. What was the artist thinking? I couldn’t delint that quilt for fear of taking off the hanging threads that the artist, for some unknown reason, decided to leave all sloppy and unruly. The quilt, close up, did not impress me.
After I helped pin the quilt to the wall for photographing, I stood back to let the photographers do their magic. From a distance, the cream and brown colors of quilt’s fabric emerged into an elegantly scrolled capital letter, F, similar to the F in the photo illustration here. Suddenly I understood. The quilter’s decision to leave those threads hanging all raggedy was an “F message” about perfection.
Perfection as a Talent
During my years as a teacher, I met many teachers and parents who considered perfectionism as bad. These teachers and parents worried about children who spent too much time completing assignments, who considered mistakes as significant personal shortcomings, and who failed to understand that learning from mistakes is a large part of education.
Although I, too, worry about children who suffer from perfectionism, I no longer consider perfectionism as a problem to be cured. Instead, I consider perfectionism as a talent to be tamed.
When a child is able to make good decisions about when to strive for perfection and when to strive for merely “good enough,” and when the child is able to turn off and on the perfectionism talent in accordance with those decisions, the child has tamed the talent.
Tips for Taming the Talent
How do we teach children to tame their perfectionism talent? Here are some tips.
1. Teach children that some tasks require perfection, and some are better completed without great care. When we sprinkle water on a flower bed, do we really want to spend the time necessary to give each plant exactly the same amount of water? Of course not. Assuming no drought exists in our area, we sprinkle water in a carefree fashion, roughly estimating rather than perfecting the amount of water required by each flowering plant.
2. Teach children to ask, in advance, what level of perfection a given task requires. As a teacher, I was sometimes surprised to learn that a child spent hours on an assignment, even after I told the entire class to complete the assignment in rough form. Yes, the child might have enjoyed the extra time spent on the assignment, but often the extra time spent seeking perfection cheated the child of sleep and other essentials of childhood.
3. Teach children to ask how much time a given task should require. As a teacher, I often told my students in advance how much time to spend on a given assignment. Also, I discussed with my students how reading and writing speeds differ from child to child, how children can increase their reading and writing speeds, and how children can improve their focus when completing assignments. When children know and follow the time parameters of an assignment, children not only learn to tame their perfectionism talents; children also learn to manage their time effectively.
4. Help children create charts for assessing how well they are proceeding in efforts to tame their perfectionism. Rather than having children assess a completed task based on its level of perfection, have children assess the completed task on how closely its level of perfection matches the target level of perfection for that task. Also, have children assess how closely the time spent completing the task matched the time parameters for that task.
5. Encourage children suffering from untamed perfectionism talent to take advantage of available counseling resources. Sometimes perfectionist tendencies can hide other issues affecting a child, such as anxiety and low self-esteem. Make sure children who need help have opportunities to voice their concerns with people qualified to hear those concerns.
6. When appropriate, use humor. My husband has told many a perfectionistic child, “If you keep doing this, you’re going to put an angel out of work, and there’s nothing worse than an unemployed angel.”
7. Lastly, show children quilts. Here I’m not talking about the “F quilt” I encountered recently and symbolized in the photo illustration, above. Rather, I’m talking about any quilt of beauty. For instance, look closely at the red quilt below—see the imperfections? The quilt would not be the same without the wonky angles and uneven sizes of its fabrics.
Although quilts often include seemingly perfect elements, subtle imperfections often add to a quilt’s beauty, as well as provide proof of the learning curve and humanity of the quilter.
I leave you with this gem of wisdom from my quilting friend Julie of Pink Doxies:
“There are many quilters in the Mennonite/Amish community who purposefully leave one thing noticably imperfect. Their testimony that only God is perfect, and they are not. I am mystified that I can look and look for correctness, sew it together, and see the mistake later when I am ‘not so close’ to the quilt. That is what makes it mine.”
I agree. We are imperfect beings. Learning to love our imperfections and to tame our perfectionist tendencies is part of being human.
Shortly after I published this blog article, another friend named Julie sent me a brilliant comment, and granted my request for permission to share her wisdom here:
“Love this piece, Wenda. My mother is a quilter, so I have heard that “humility square” reference time and time again. Even with that knowledge, my initial attempts at quilting were frustrating to say the least. I must have “reverse sewed” or seam ripped more blocks than I care to remember, due to my eye perceiving some horrendous mismatched seams or mis-measured seam allowances. I made quilting a tedious and slow process. I removed the joy and creativity out of it by viewing every stitch with a critical eye. Needless to say, I really had very few finished quilts to show for all my effort. Only in these later years (2 adult children raised and a young one still in the nest) can I truly appreciate the creativity and sense of pride and accomplishment in finishing a quilting project with as many humility squares as I deem acceptable. When I stopped focusing on what those crooked seams said about me and my ability, and started focusing on giving life to the visions in my head/heart, I feel I was finally able to focus my perfectionism in the right place. That is to be the best version of me as possible. Flaws and all. 😉“
About the graphics: The photo at the top is a close-up of a baby quilt I made mostly from fabric scraps left over from making pajamas for my children when they were young. I created the F photo illustration from a photograph I took of a crumbling shale rock near my home. The bottom photo is of a quilt I purchased while living in China.
I thank my friends at Gifted Homeschoolers Forum for their inspiration and support, both online and in person. Although my children are all grown, I’ve written this article as part of the May 2015 Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop. Clicking on the graphic below will lead you to the titles, blog names, and links of other Blog Hop participants. Thank you for supporting my fellow blog hoppers by visiting their blogs.
Note: I wrote my 2004 dissertation on alternative teacher certification policies. The title of the dissertation: Teachers Union Influence on Alternative Teacher Certification Policies: An Event History Diffusion Analysis.
What exactly is anxiety? A beast that consumes children? A mental disorder listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s latest controversial version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5)?
The Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary says anxiety is “fear or nervousness about what might happen.” For millennia children have been afraid of imaginary monsters in the dark. Children have wondered, “Will those monsters hurt us? Will they hurt the stuffed animals we love tightly in our arms?” But today I’m not going to talk about the usual childhood fears of monsters under our beds.
Instead, I’m going to talk about even worse childhood fears–those fears scary enough to do damage to children, and scary enough to warrant conference presentations, research dollars, and blog hop articles. Although some anxiety disorders are caused by children, the sad truth is that most anxiety disorders result from adult shenanigans, including family breakdowns, violence, and questionable education policies and practices.
In this article, I focus on anxiety relating to education. In particular, I discuss standardized testing, one-size-fits-all standards, over-emphases on grades, and pressures to attend selective colleges. I offer solutions for conquering education-related childhood anxieties, and I urge children and their adults to disengage from the anxiety-producing trappings of our current education climate.
An Epidemic of Anxiety?
When releasing a May 2013 report on the mental health of children, the U.S. Center for Disease Control wrote, “Based on the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine report (Preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders among young people: progress and possibilities, 2009) that gathered findings from previous studies, it is estimated that 13 –20 percent of children living in the United States (up to 1 out of 5 children) experience a mental disorder in a given year and an estimated $247 billion is spent each year on childhood mental disorders.”
But how many of those 13% to 20% of children suffer from anxiety disorders in a given year? The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health factsheet on anxiety disorders in children and adolescents notes, “A large, national survey of adolescent mental health reported that about 8 percent of teens ages 13-18 have an anxiety disorder, with symptoms commonly emerging around age 6.”
Really, truly? Eight percent of our teens ages 13-18 have diagnosable anxiety disorders? Heavens to mercy!
According to a series of seminars by PESI, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to providing continuing education to health professionals, we have an emerging epidemic of anxiety disorders in children and adolescents. PESI is currently offering a seminar titled, “Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents: Recognizing & Treating the Emerging Epidemic” to professionals in 53 locations around the United States.
The description of the PESI seminar says, “The increasing rate of stress and trauma to children, which includes divorce, family breakdown, violence in society, the media, and failing school system, has produced a ”shell shocked” generation suffering from anxiety in many cases.” Notice that the PESI description includes “failing school system” as a cause of the emerging anxiety epidemic.
Scientists are finding that anxiety is not without biological correlates. The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health notes, “Imaging studies show that children with anxiety disorders have atypical activity in specific brain areas, compared with other people.” The atypical activity occurs in brain structures related to fear and emotion. But why are more children fearful and scared these days?
Let’s go back to the PESI list of causes of anxiety disorders among children: “stress and trauma to children, which includes divorce, family breakdown, violence in society, the media, and failing school system.” How many of those items involve adults?
Last I checked, divorce is an adult thing. Except in cases of sibling misbehavior, family breakdown is usually an adult thing. Yes, children commit violent acts sometimes, but the majority of offenders are adults. I don’t know of any children who work in media outlets, except perhaps young actors who have little say about the dramas they perform and young newspaper carriers who have little say about the content of the newspapers they carry. And the failing school system? How often do children control their schools?
Without a doubt, the vast majority of childhood anxiety disorders result from adult behaviors. (See, also, the comments from poprice, below, reminding us about genetic and environmental causes of anxiety disorders.) I’ll let others write about anxiety caused by divorce and violence. For this article, I focus on education-related causes of childhood anxiety.
Education-Related Causes of Childhood Anxiety
Whose bright idea was it to sit children in chairs and desks for hours at a time, many days during the school year, forcing them to answer questions designed by national and multinational corporations to measure the performance of teachers and schools?
A particular child has difficulty focusing for long periods of time? Give that child an even longer period of time to complete the standardized test. Another child has a cognitive disability so severe that everyone knows the child can’t possibly pass the test? Make the child take the test anyway. Worried about the tests interrupting school’s normal schedule for weeks and months at a stretch? Stay calm and carry on.
Imagine how children who are living in the standardized testing shadows of No Child Left Behind are feeling this year. Even first graders are taking state-mandated tests. Little first graders, some with all their baby teeth intact. According to one media report, teachers say that some young children have thrown up and cried during standardized testing.
And whose bright idea was it to create a Common Core State Standards aimed at all children in the nation? Although I’m happy to see some of the challenging Common Core State Standards for Mathematics that require teachers and students to think hard about mathematical concepts, I’m scratching my head about how adults who participated in the creation of the standards could think it’s ok to expect all children of a certain age to learn the same thing at the same time.
For instance, the Common Core State Standards website includes a two-page document about applying the standards to children with disabilities. Witness this last paragraph of that document:
Some students with the most significant cognitive disabilities will require substantial supports and accommodations to have meaningful access to certain standards in both instruction and assessment, based on their communication and academic needs. These supports and accommodations should ensure that students receive access to multiple means of learning and opportunities to demonstrate knowledge, but retain the rigor and high expectations of the Common Core State Standards.
Wow. I had to read that twice. Does the paragraph really advise educators to apply the same “rigor and high expectations” to all children, even those with the most significant cognitive disabilities? Do you think some children with the most significant cognitive disabilities might feel anxiety as a result?
And what about children who are functioning intellectually one or two or more grade levels ahead of their age mates? Why are the Common Core State Standards presumed to apply to all students, when some students are ready and eager for higher standards? I thought we were in the 21st Century, complete with technology available to help individualize various aspects of education for those in need of individualization. I thought we had sufficient common sense and brain research to know that different children have different minds.
Policy-makers are not the only guilty parties in our current anxiety-provoking education climate. During my years of teaching middle school and high school, I met many students who were afraid to show their parents low quiz scores. Some high achieving students felt that anything less than a top grade would result in significant parental disapproval. A few parents felt so strongly about their children’s school grades that the parents argued about the grades not only with their children, but also with their children’s teachers. Those parents obviously cared deeply about their children and their children’s futures–but cared too deeply and cared in anxiety-producing directions.
Talk to any college counselor in a high school serving a majority college-going student body. Ask about “those parents”–the ones who refuse to accept the college counselor’s recommendations regarding which colleges will likely accept the student and where the student might fit best during the college years. Or ask about the parents who act as though they themselves are the ones applying to college. How do those parents’ hyper-involved actions and attitudes make their children feel? Do you think the parents’ anxieties might rub off on their children?
What can adults do to prevent anxiety among children besides staying happily married, refraining from violence, and accepting the advice of college counselors? Here’s a list of education-related solutions.
1. If the curricula in your child’s school do not match the level and speed of your child’s learning, advocate for change. If change isn’t imminent, help your child understand that school is not as high and mighty as teachers and parents sometimes appear to believe. Sometimes it’s ok to smile at the bird outside the classroom window even if you’re failing a quiz or sitting through a lesson you already know. Give your child permission to enjoy life despite policy and economic failures to provide all children with ideal educations.
2. Tell your child that lots of important learning happens outside of school, and outside the confines of lessons that teachers plan for the entire class. Tell your child that teachers are sometimes willing to allow children to suggest interest-based or passion-based embellishments to assignments and projects. Encourage your child to express interests and passions, and to ask for permission to embellish assignments and projects.
3. Consider opting your child out of standardized testing. Even if your child doesn’t suffer anxiety as a result of taking a standardized test, the overall testing burden is so onerous in U.S. public schools that we all ought to consider joining the fast-growing opt out movement. For more information, see any number of the dozens of Facebook pages and websites from around the United States with titles such as Opt Out, Refuse the Test, and Badass Teachers Association. One milestone this week: New York State United Teachers president Karen Magee urged parents to opt their children out of standardized tests.
4. De-emphasize grades. Convince your child that your love is unconditional, not based on report card grades. Tell your child that millions of successful people have received poor grades in school now and then. If your child hopes to attend college, show your child that there are colleges in our country, particularly community colleges, that accept students with below average high school grades and prepare those students for worthy careers or for transfer to four-year colleges.
6. Spend time with your child. Let your child know the worries and fears you experienced when you were growing up. Compare and analyze worries and fears. Read and discuss the suggestions in Dealing with Child Anxiety? 9 Things You Can Try. Talk about the benefits of focusing our minds on happy thoughts and experiences most of the time.
7. Find people with whom your child enjoys spending time and then spend time with those people. Do your best to pay attention to all aspects of your child’s being, including the social, emotional, physical, and spiritual aspects. Do not limit your child’s friend choices to same-age friends; friends can come in all ages as well as all sizes, shapes, colors, and religions. When we have friends, we have less time for fears.
8. If your child is truly suffering from anxiety, seek out counseling. According to the U.S. National Institute of Health, the Child/Adolescent Anxiety Multimodal Study (CAMS) published in 2010 found that high-quality cognitive behavioral therapy has shown promise in helping children with anxiety disorders.
9. For the benefit of all children in your school district, consider advocating for a grading system similar to one that includes only two grades choices–an “A’ or a “Not Yet.” Advocate that children should be able to learn at their own speeds, without putting forth anxiety-producing degrees of effort. All children are entitled to learn in a manner compatible with good mental health.
10. Advocate for local control and equitable funding of public schools. Much of the anxiety-producing parts of today’s schools results from standards imposed by policy makers far away. No one knows a local community better than the residents who live there. Let state and local communities decide what educational standards and assessments are right for the children in their schools given the local political, cultural, economic, and social climate.
When a child suffers from anxiety despite our best efforts, let’s do whatever possible to disengage the child from the negative effects of the anxiety. When education is the source of the child’s anxiety, let’s consider telling the child about the failings of adults involved in education policy decisions. Let’s also consider giving the child permission to disengage from whatever elements of education might be causing the child undue pain.
With courageous parental support, children who earn an “F” on a test or quiz due to factors beyond their reasonable control might feel as though they have earned an “A'” in taking care of their mental health. Our children deserve no less than our best efforts to preserve their happy childhoods as we prepare them for the adult world.
From Comments From Elsewhere:
Thanks to Kristin Humbarger for sharing The Neuroscience of Anxiety Disorders with me and others with similar interests.
Acknowledgements and Credits
This blog article is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page April 2015 Blog Hop on Anxiety. I thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page and elsewhere for their inspiration, support, and suggestions.
I created the comics via the Comic-O-Matic website of Nina Paley and Margo Burns. (Thanks!)
The photographs are my own, taken in 2014 in Athens, Ohio, except for the forest photo, which I took at last summer at Camp Copneconic outside of Fenton, Michigan.
Please click on the graphic below (created by Pamela S Ryan–thanks!) to see the titles, blog names, and links of other Hoagies Blog Hop participants.
I rarely write about my now-grown children in blog entries, but this month, it’s SO tempting! But alas, because all three of their accelerated hearts adore privacy, I’ll remain mum.
Suffice it to say I’ve witnessed accelerations not only as a parent, but also as a teacher, advocate, and friend. All of the accelerations I’ve witnessed have supported, not stunted, the individual’s social and emotional growth. The accelerated children I’ve followed into adulthood all are scoring high on the life happiness rubric. Many are scoring high on the financial security rubric as well.
In this article, I offer tips for slaying the stay-put beast. He’s an ugly, awful monster. Society throws him willy-nilly at unsuspecting children who dare to object to spending hours upon hours of their childhoods pretending to learn content they mastered years earlier.
A Nation Deceived
If anecdotes about acceleration aren’t your thing, check out A Nation Deceived. That 2004 report, funded by the Templeton Foundation and written by experts in the United States and Australia, debunks the ugly myths about acceleration that jealous schoolteachers have spouted for generations. For those who dislike judgmental adjectives like “ugly” and “jealous,” here’s a more palatable description of the report: “A Nation Deceived highlights disparities between the research on acceleration and the educational beliefs and practices that often run contrary to the research.”
When A Nation Deceived first came out, I shouted for joy. No longer did I have to fight acceleration myths empty handed. I had a boat-load of research, complete with an eye-popping title promising truth to conquer deception. And rather than being behind a paywall, the report was and is free. The international version is available for download in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Russian, and Spanish.
The best news? This spring a companion report, A Nation Empowered: Evidence Trumps the Excuses Holding Back America’s Brightest Students will “inform educators, parents, and policy makers of current research on acceleration, how that information has been applied to educational policy throughout the nation, and how educators can use the findings to make decisions for their brightest students.”
Making Acceleration Decisions
Whenever a parent or teacher talks to me about acceleration, I ask, “Is the child happy?” Although I’m an advocate for acceleration, I believe that accelerations should never disturb happy children. If a child is happy with a particular education situation, keep that situation! Academic accelerations should be child-driven and about happiness, not about productivity. Children are not widgets to be mass produced at warp speed.
Speaking of happiness, if a child is unhappy in school because the child years earlier mastered the curricular content, one grade skip isn’t going to be worth a hill of beans. To be as happy as most of the child’s classmates are in their current grade, the child might need several grade skips, plus increased curricular speed (curricular compacting or otherwise), plus additional complexity.
A child’s happiness in a certain grade level might depend on how willing the teacher is to deviate from the curricula, whether the teacher believes in giving students large choices and project-based learning experiences, and whether the teacher has a chip on the shoulder about intellectual prowess in pint-sized packages. A child’s happiness might also depend on whether the child has good friends in the current grade, which extracurricular activities are available for students in each grade level, and other factors.
The purpose of acceleration should be to increase happiness, not to race ahead on an academic treadmill. The child’s needs, not the school district’s policies, should govern whether accelerate takes place and whether the acceleration is in the form of a full grade skip, a one-subject advancement, a curricular compaction, or otherwise.
The Best Story Ever
I once spoke with a mother who called for advice about her son. The problem? The nearby state university wouldn’t let him into its undergraduate program unless he had a high school English credit.
Trust me, this story gets FAR more interesting:
- Q. How old is your son?
- A. He’s 12 years old.
- Q. Why is he applying to the undergraduate program?
- A. Because the university won’t give him credit for his two graduate classes (science and math) unless he is first enrolled as an undergraduate.
- Q. What does he do with the rest of his time?
- A. He’s attending a public middle school for drama and art classes.
Imagine that….FOUR education levels happening simultaneously in that child’s life–middle school, high school, undergraduate school, and graduate school. Can anyone spell “asynchrony” at warp speed?
I offer this extreme example to illustrate two points. First, happiness can reign in an asynchronous child’s life. The parents granted their son’s wish to enjoy graduate level math and science, and his wish to enjoy art and drama experiences with students his own age. Second, inflexible institutional rules can threaten a child’s happiness. Even though the math and science departments in question wanted to give the child credit for the graduate courses he was taking, the undergraduate admissions office was locked into a myopic view of education governed by factory-model rules.
How did I help the child’s mother? Easy. I suggested she contact an organization well experienced with granting high school credits by examination. Although I haven’t heard back from the mother, I’m guessing that the child is now a happy adult. He was lucky to have parents who fed his passions and battled the stay-put beast.
Two weeks ago, my friend Juliet Thomas submitted a comment to my article, On Dropping the G-Bomb: Twelve Confessions from a Gifted Advocate. Juliet is the kind of person whose every utterance, even a mere blog comment, is brilliant. But this comment went beyond brilliant.
For the first time in my blog-writing, comment-approving career, I couldn’t bring myself to push the “approve” button. To memorialize those words as a mere blog comment, buried in cyberspace, simply would not be right. Thank goodness Juliet gave me permission to share her words in this article. Watch how she weaves a multitude of educational issues into one cohesive wish for the future:
Maybe one of the fundamental problems with the nomenclature question [the word “gifted”] is the entire underlying issue. We are trying to illuminate the ways that “these” students are different from the “other” ones – in order to provide “these” students what they need, since they pretty clearly do not have their needs met when simply grouped with all the rest.
My fairly radical view is that virtually NONE of the students’ needs are met when they are all just lumped together by birthdate and set on an increasingly uniform educational path. Combine the deeply ingrained concept that the most salient data point about a student is their chronological age together with the malignant drive to codify THE single best curriculum as measured by the high-stakes-test-of-your-choosing. You have a 19th century assembly line widget factory. (Where the managers and the workers are at each other’s throats, to boot.)
We are well into the 21st century. We need far more creativity, synergistic thinking, collaboration and individualistic viewpoints. We have far surpassed the time where anyone can know most things about everything. This is an era where knowing what to do with all the facts at hand is far more important than holding the individual facts in your head. This time requires that we teach Johnny and Jane to exploit THEIR particular mix of strengths, weaknesses, talents and interests, not to match some exogenous ideal set of knowledge acquisition.
The next century requires ARTISANS, not uniform machine cogs. In science, math, art, literature, philosophy, philanthropy, diplomacy, process design – everywhere. All automation is well on its way to being the domain of machines. We do not need identical humans anymore, and the longer we continue to insist on trying to crank them out, the worse off we will all be.
(And NO, the current approach is not cheaper, fairer or safer. It simply suits the needs of the people in control, and those are not the students.)
As the mom of two PG [profoundly gifted] boys, it was quickly obvious to me that my boys needed a different sort of education. As a sentient human, it’s becoming obvious that ALL students do. The educational system is horribly outdated; if EVERY student were seen as having their own set of needs and potential, there would be no need to name the roughly similar group that is now clustered under the “gifted” banner.
We don’t (just) need a different name. We need a whole different mindset.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Juliet. Once education changes sufficiently to respond to every student’s unique set of needs and potential, words like “gifted” and “acceleration” will no longer be fodder for debate. Students will no longer fall through the cracks, their bodies sitting in classrooms waiting for recess while their minds struggle hard to pretend to learn. Let’s slay the stay-put beast as soon as possible.
Acknowledgements and Credits
I created the comics via the Comic-O-Matic website of Nina Paley and Margo Burns. (Thanks!)
This blog article is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page March 2015 Blog Hop on Acceleration. I thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page and elsewhere for their inspiration, support, and suggestions.
Please click on the graphic below (created by Pamela S Ryan–thanks!) to see to the titles, blog names, and links of other Hoagies Blog Hop participants.
When parents ask me how to improve their children’s academic success, I often want to shout, “Words and books!”
In my view, too few parents and children understand the importance of words and books as keys to academic success. Big words, little words, descriptive words, precise words. Big books, little books, fiction books, other books. Words and books matter for babies, toddlers, young children, teenagers. Words and books matter for English, history, science, and even math. Large vocabularies facilitate easy reading; avid reading facilitates the acquisition of even more words. Words and books work together to build academic success.
Children arrive at school with various levels of vocabulary knowledge. Some children know a large percentage of the words in their grade level vocabulary books even before the first day of school; other children know almost none of those words. A student’s performance on a vocabulary pre-test in September more often than not predicts the student’s academic success at year’s end, not just in language arts classes, but also in other courses.
“How do we best acquire new words?” you might ask. Babies and toddlers best acquire new words by talking and interacting with their parents. Older children acquire new words not only by verbal interactions, but also by reading books.
In this article, I focus on words and books as the keys to academic success. If I inspire just one family to increase their number of parent-child verbal interactions or the number of books their children read for pleasure, my time spent writing this article will be worthwhile.
Words in Pre-School Years
Thirty years ago vocabulary researchers Dr. Betty Hart and Dr. James Risley studied the vocabulary development of children from low, middle, and upper class families. Over the course of two and a half years, the researchers spent one hour per month recording all the speech interactions and utterances between the parents and young children in forty-two families.
Hart and Risley’s results reveal shocking disparities between the number of words heard by lower, middle, and upper class children. Children on welfare heard an average of 616 words per hour, children from working class families heard an average of 1,251 words per hour, and children from professional families heard an average of 2,153 words per hour. Astonishingly, Hart and Risley (1995) found that the vocabularies of four-year old children from professional families were larger than the vocabularies that the parents of the children living on welfare used when interacting with their children.
In their book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (1995), Hart and Risley note that according to their research, an average four-year-old child living in a working class family might hear 13 million fewer words that a child living in a family on welfare. The difference in numbers of words heard by children in lower and upper class families supplied the title for an article on Hart and Risley’s follow-up research: “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” (2005).
The vocabulary gap suffered by poor children persists beyond the preschool years and negatively affects academic achievement and career opportunities. To help improve the lives of poor children, the Thirty Million Words Initiative, led by Dana Suskind, M.D. of the University of Chicago is “an innovative parent-directed initiative designed to harness the power of parent language to build a child’s brain and impact his or her future.” Buildingvocabulary is critical for the academic success of all children.
Although educators agree that vocabulary growth is a key to academic success, educators debate whether to include regular vocabulary instruction as part of the curriculum. Margaret McKeown and Mary E. Curtis (1987), experts in the field of vocabulary instruction, note that although vocabulary instruction can provide rich encounters with a small number of words, only frequent and regular reading can provide repeated exposure to large numbers of words. Vocabularies grow best through repeated exposure to words in a wide variety of books, e-books, and other high quality reading material.
McKeown and Curtis point out that an average high school senior knows 40,000 words. If we divide that number by 18 years, we find vocabulary growth rate of 2, 222 words per year. McKeown and Curtis write, “This astounding rate of vocabulary growth by average children sets a mark against which the contribution of any program of vocabulary instruction must be measured.” In their book, McKeown and Curtis make a case for building vocabulary via reading rather than via direct instruction. They write, “the single most important goal of vocabulary instruction should be to increase the amount of incidental word learning by students.”
Fifteen years later, McKeown joined two other authors to write a book advertised as providing a “research-based framework and practical strategies for vocabulary development with children from the earliest grades through high school.” In Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, Beck, McKweon, and Kucan (2002, 2nd edition 2013) note the reality that (1) there is a four-fold vocabulary size difference between top students and lowest students upon high school graduation, and (2) many students do not read. The authors argue that because may students do not read, schools should provide direct vocabulary instruction, despite the fact that the most effective method of vocabulary acquisition is through reading.
The sad fact that many students do not read makes direct vocabulary instruction in schools a necessity for their academic success. If all students were avid readers, direct vocabulary instruction would not be necessary, except for instruction relating to word affixes, roots, and origins.
As teachers and parents, we must do all we can to encourage children to read widely and deeply. Children benefit from repeated exposure to words necessary for high levels of academic success. Children suffer when, for whatever reason, they choose not to read books for pleasure and academic success.
I fear that the lack of book reading among today’s students has risen to unacceptable levels. I am not alone in my fears. Today, as I am editing this article for publication, two major organizations are releasing studies about how technology is changing the way students learn. The study by Internet Project, a division of the Pew Research Center, surveyed 2,462 teachers about their students’ technology-related research. The other study, by Common Sense Media, surveyed 685 teachers about whether technology hurts students’ abilities, including their ability to write and communicate.
In Technology is Changing How Children Learn, Teachers Say, the New York Times quoted Jim Steyer, the chief executive of Common Sense Media, as follows: “Boy, is this a clarion call for a healthy and balanced media diet. * * * What you have to understand as a parent is that what happens in the home with media consumption can affect academic achievement.” I agree wholeheartedly with Jim Steyer’s statement that parents need to understand that media consumption at home can affect academic achievement at school.
I urge all parents to learn exactly what media their children are consuming during long hours online at home. Are their children engaging in sustained reading of a wide range of challenging material online? Are their children spending excessive hours watching silly YouTube videos? Are their children reading news articles or learning about technology?
I wish all parents well in their journeys to understand their children’s reading behaviors and online hours, and in their efforts to help their children understand the importance of words and books to academic success. During my teaching years, I did my best to help my students understand that books bring words, and words bring academic success. I hope my students continue to make choices consistent with their academic goals.
Beck, Isabel L, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan. (2002). Bringing words to life: robust vocabulary instruction. Guilford Press: New York.
Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (2003). The early catastrophe: The thirty million word gap by age three. American Educator, 27(1), 4-9. http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/detail?accno=EJ672461
Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Company.
McKeown, Margaret, and Mary E. Curtis. (1987). The Nature of vocabulary Acquisition. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: London.
Richtel, Matt. (2012). Technology is Changing How Children Learn, Teachers Say. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/education/technology-is-changing-how-students-learn-teachers-say.html
I first wrote this article for publication on November 2, 2012 on a now-unsearchable webpage on the TASIS England website. I have updated the article and added hyperlinks. I thank my students at TASIS for inspiring me to write the article, and I thank Cait of My Little Poppies for inspiring me to update it and post it here. The photos are mine, except for the screenshot of Bringing Words to Life.
I recently met an interesting couple at a social gathering. At one point, the father mentioned that his 16 year old high school junior, who is taking two college courses, finds those courses to be easy. Fine, I get that. Then the father quickly added, “we didn’t push him or show him flash cards when he was young.”
I found the father’s “disclaimer” to be disturbing. I wasn’t sure whether to reveal myself as a gifted advocate or not. The only thing I said in response was, “I understand, I understand.”
In this blog article, I give parents of highly intelligent children advice about how to talk about their children’s successes, challenges, and needs without risking accusations of inequality. I admit that’s a tricky business: avoiding accusations of inequality where inequality obviously exists. But it’s possible. Here’s how.
1. George Orwell’s Horrible Pigs
In the last chapter of Animal Farm, George Orwell’s horrible pigs abridged the seven commandments of Animalism to one sentence: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” The pigs used that sentence not to explain a natural phenomenon, but to justify their murderous and grossly unfair behaviors towards the other animals.
When we speak of children having different levels of intelligence, we are not justifying any murderous or grossly unfair behaviors. The inequality of intelligence levels among children is a simple difference, not an injustice as Orwell’s horrible pigs intended with their commandment of inequality. Some children have lots of hair on their heads; some children have lots of intelligence in their heads. Nutrition and hair caring behaviors might change the amount of hair on a child’s head; nutrition and mind caring behaviors might change the amount of intelligence in a child’s head.
2. The Heart of Giftedness
The heart of giftedness is that intelligence is a real phenomenon. If you don’t believe me, check out the following studies finding brain differences related to intelligence:
- Global Connectivity of Prefrontal Cortex Predicts Cognitive Control and Intelligence (2012)
- Brain Plasticity and Intellectual Ability Are Influenced by Shared Genes (2010)
- Cortex Matures Faster in Youth with Highest IQ (2006)
- Interhemispheric Interaction During Global–Local Processing in Mathematically Gifted Adolescents, Average-Ability Youth, and College Students (2004)
- Individual Differences in General Intelligence Correlate with Brain Function During Nonreasoning Tasks (2003)
To avoid accusations of inequality, remind people that intelligence is a real phenomenon, not an evil plot. Remind people that an individual’s intelligence can change through time as a result of a myriad of factors. Remind people what when we talk about different children having different levels of intelligence, we’re not advocating the mistreatment of anyone. Instead, we’re advocating that all children receive an education appropriate to meet their individual needs.
3. The Worshipping of Intelligence
Once upon a time, I taught middle school at a private Catholic girl’s school in one of the wealthiest suburbs in America. I loved the school’s mission statement because rather than embracing academic goals, the mission statement embraced the much deeper goals of faith, respect, awareness, community, and freedom. Most of the girls in the school came from wealthy families. Many of the girls told me that their parents pressured them to earn high grades, and to aim for Ivy League colleges.
At one point during that school year, my 17 year old daughter spent a day shadowing me at the school. My students marveled that she was already a sophomore at a highly selective college.
One day, as my students’ voices rose to fortissimo levels as they sang their admiration of my daughter’s intelligence, I interrupted with a loud, “Stop!” The girls, surprised by my seriousness, became quiet and listened intently as I reminded them that both their school’s mission statement and the tenets of their religious faith hold other aspects of human lives to be far more important than smarts. I urged the girls to admire their own strengths of character in lieu of worshipping intelligence.
From that experience, I realized that worshippers of high intelligence usually are not people with high intelligence themselves, but rather are people who wish they or their children had *higher* intelligence. Underneath the worship lies a thin layer of discontent. And underneath that discontent often lies a deeper layer of envy. For more information about envy with respect to gifted children, I highly recommend Catharine Vetter Alvarez’s essay, Envy and Giftedness: Are We Underestimating the Effects of Envy? In the essay, she nails the sources, varieties, and consequences of people’s envy of giftedness.
Whenever you encounter people who worship high intelligence, I recommend deflecting their worship from intelligence to whatever their religion or philosophy considers to be most important to life. Remind them that few people on their deathbed ever say, “I wish I was smarter.” Instead, people looking back on their lives talk about friends, family, happiness, and love.
4. The Foundation of Love
As I write this article on Valentine’s Day, I’m savoring Newbery Honor Book author and gifted expert Stephanie Tolan’s recently essay, What’s Love Got to Do With It? In the essay, she writes,
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?
For years, I have steered conversations about intelligence back to basics…back to my belief that we need to affirm the worth and dignity of every individual. Tolan goes one step further: she advocates that people focus on love.
I love Tolan’s idea. Instead of talking about our children’s grade skips as better meeting their academic needs, let’s talk about the grade skips as giving our children a chance to love what they do in school. Instead of talking about our children’s honor roll status, let’s steer the conversation to how wonderful it is when schools give students multiple places to express their passions, whether those passions include a love of history, sports, math, music, science, art, or leadership. Let’s use love to deflect our neighbors’ praise or criticism of our children’s achievements.
5. Concluding Cautions & Hopes
When I shared the title of this article with a friend, she cringed. She reminded me to tell parents, particularly those with highly or profoundly gifted children, that often it’s better NOT to talk about giftedness. I agree that it’s sometimes better to remain silent. Giftedness is a taboo topic in many circles. Parents of the other 95% generally don’t want to be reminded that your child has a higher level of intelligence.
But when we gently share the heart of giftedness with our children’s teachers, with curious neighbors, and even with parents we meet at social gatherings, we can avoid accusations of inequality. When people understand that differing levels of intelligence are a real phenomenon, they are less likely to accuse us of pushing our children. When people understand that we view love and passions as more important than intelligence, they are more willing to listen to our concerns.
Together, let’s remove the taboo that suppresses honest discussions of giftedness, let’s douse the fire of intelligence worship, and let’s reach common ground by agreeing that although we affirm the worth and dignity of all children, no two children are exactly alike.
Brain Research References:
Brans, R.G.H. (2010). Brain plasticity and intellectual ability are influenced by shared genes. The Journal of Neuroscience, 21 April 2010, 30(16): 5519-5524; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5841-09.2010.
Cole, M.W., Yarkoni, T., Repovs, G, Anticevic, A., and Braver, T.S. (2012). Global connectivity of prefrontal cortex predicts cognitive control and intelligence. The Journal of Neuroscience, 27 June 2012, 32(26): 8988-8999; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0536-12.201.
Haier, R. J., White, N. S., & Alkire, M. T. (2003). Individual differences in general intelligence correlate with brain function during nonreasoning tasks. Intelligence 31, 429–441.
Shaw, P., et al. (2006), Cortex matures faster in youth with highest IQ. Nature 440, 676-679 (30 March 2006) doi:10.1038/nature04513.
Singh, H. & O’Boyle, M. W. (2004). Interhemispheric interaction during global-local processing in mathematically gifted adolescents, average-ability youth, and college students. Neuropsychology, 18(2), 671-677.
I took all the photographs in this article.
I thank my friends at Gifted Homeschoolers Forum for their inspiration and support, both online and in person. Although my children are all grown, I’ve written this article as part of the February 2015 Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop. Clicking on the graphic below will lead you to the titles, blog names, and links of other Blog Hop participants. Thank you for supporting my fellow blog hoppers by visiting their blogs.
Long ago, partly due to the high cost of attending conferences, including hotel bills, travel expenses, and registration fees, I decided I would attend only those conferences that included me as a speaker.
Why? Because when I’m a speaker, I have extra motivation to learn more about a topic and to prepare the best conference presentation possible. When I’m a speaker, I hear valuable feedback from audience members. When I’m a speaker, I contribute to the organization’s mission.
Today I share what I have learned over the years about conference proposal writing. If you follow my advice, you’ll soon be wearing one of those snazzy speaker nametags and adding lines to your curriculum vitae.
1. Bull’s Eye Aim
The perfect presentation proposal is aimed exactly, like a bull’s-eye, towards the theme of the conference and towards the subdivision of the conference that might be responsible for reviewing the proposal. Some conferences have strands, others have divisions, still others have departments or networks. A large organization always breaks itself down into bits, and parcels out the proposal review responsibilities to committees.
You need to know exactly what group of people will be reviewing your proposal, and how that committee will be reviewing your proposal. If you cozy up to one of the members of the committee (or someone who served on the committee in the past) and ask for a rubric, so much the better. If the organization is transparent enough to post the rubric on their website, for goodness sakes follow it to perfection.
2. Catchy Title with Promise
Make sure your presentation proposal has a catchy title that includes a promise to participants of what they will learn, and a promise that attending the session will be a valuable use of their time.
3. Flawless Grammar
The perfect presentation proposal has flawless grammar to ensure that even if a grammar police officer sits on the proposal review committee, you’ll get as many points as possible towards winning one of the coveted presentation spots.
The perfect presentation proposal promises that participants will leave the session with useful tools, strategies, or whatever synonym you can find at the time to promise usefulness. The perfect presentation proposal lists enough of those tools, strategies, or whatnots to entice not only the reviewing committee to choose your proposal, but also to entice conference attendees to choose your session.
5. Strength in Numbers
To ensure success, submit as many proposals for the conference as the organizers allow. If the conference allows people to submit only two proposals as a lead presenter, collaborate with other people in the field to submit joint proposals. If you know enough people in your field, dream up the perfect panel, which includes a variety of viewpoints on a controversy facing members of the organization.
If you think the organization wants novelty heading in a particular direction, go in that direction. Find out what controversies are currently facing the organization. Determine what fields outside the organization might help resolve those controversies. Learn as much as you can from those outside fields, and come up with a proposal that promises to teach conference goers new information that might help resolve a controversy.
7. Share Early and Often
Of course, submit your proposals on time. Aim to finish them at least a week in advance, and use that last week to send them around to friends for careful editing, proofreading, and suggestions. Don’t be shy about sharing your work with others. Think of it this way: if you don’t share your work with others before you submit your work, whatever embarrassing errors your friends may catch will be the downfall of your proposal, or if your proposal is accepted, may be your own downfall if no one takes pity on you and edits your proposal before it’s published. Always, always, get as much editing and proofreading help as you can. (Get more help than I’ve gotten as I’m rushing to publish this article ahead of a major proposal deadline facing many of my friends.)
8. The Thumb Game
If your advance planning goes belly up and you need to do your own proofreading on deadline, play the thumb game. I learned the thumb game from Matthew Bagley, a well-loved teaching colleague of mine in England. He taught his sixth grade students to take the thumb on their right hand and place it upside down on top of the first word in the paper to be proofread. The thumb must then be moved from word to word as the mind stops and savors each word, its spelling, and its relationship to the words around it.
The thumb game had other details designed to catch punctuation and capitalization errors, but I’ll spare you that level of detail. The important thing is to remember that your mind plays tricks on you. You may think that you have read every word in your proposal, but as you were reading, your mind likely filled in the gaps with what you had hoped to see on the paper. You simply cannot proofread and edit your own work. Trust me, I’m a mistake-making champion. As an example, I’m giving you this blog article before it’s 100% ready.
9. Beware of Your Success
Try to learn the usual success rate of proposals submitted to the organization. Once you master the art of writing perfect presentation proposals, expect a higher than average success rate.
How high? Expect your chances of success to double, or even triple. During my years of reviewing conference proposals, I found few that met my high standards for rubric-following, grammar-perfecting, novelty-offering, research-citing, and strategy-giving. You can do better. Much better.
Be careful, though. Trust me…you do not want to spend your entire conference time polishing and delivering presentations rather than enjoying the presentations of others. Pay attention to whether the organization makes you promise to present in the event your proposal is accepted, or whether the organization has a process whereby after your proposal is accepted, you are given a chance to accept or reject an invitation to present.
If the organization does not have a process for opting out after you submit your proposal, be prepared for all of your proposals for a certain conference to be accepted. In that case you’re going to be one busy beaver during that particular conference and in the weeks leading up to that conference. Make sure you’re prepared to present all those sessions. If you can’t act like a super hero, don’t submit so many perfect presentation proposals, ok?