August 28, 2009

Severely and Profoundly…

Filed under: gifted,learning,musing,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 3:59 pm

In honor of the first week of school, I am rewinding to the days when I worked to meet the needs of individual kids instead of masses of teachers. Scott McLeod posted yesterday about a teacher desperately seeking a reading “program” for what I call a “severely and profoundly gifted” fifth grade boy. It’s good for me to play my old role again, and maybe it will provide some further ideas beyond those already offered in the generous comments from several kind teachers. So pretend I am just another teacher of gifted trying to help out here.

To the teacher of this young man, here are what I consider (based on 27 years teaching kids like this) to be vital aspects of what he needs in his “program” :

This boy needs to converse about what he is reading with people he respects. These people may or may not be students. They could easily be students 4-5 years older, if those students have a genuine interest in talking (not so likely among 16 year olds) . They could also be adults. I suggest using one web-based community where he can build trust and also be responsible for his comments and behavior. If he says something silly, he will be labeling himself within the community. I have not looked at them deeply, but I would suggest checking out groups on sites like: or or  even by searching Google for “online book club gifted.”  I found this post:     Maybe even throw a Tweet out there to find other teachers of gifted looking to START a reading discussion group for HIGHLY gifted kiddos. Warning, though: Don’t intermingle with the run-of-the-mill gifteds.  He will simply slide along and get in trouble. Scare him with some intellectual peers. Most likely, adults will work better, as long as someone is watching over his virtual shoulder so he does not fall into dangerous company (see Support).

He should be involved in designing the “program” and revising it along the way. Talk at length about what he will do, what it can look like, when he will do what. A student this bright enjoys testing limits and experimenting with human behavior. Some might simply say he is “manipulative.”  He needs to be involved in designing his own program and being accountable to it.  Most likely, he will set the bar low for himself, so that’s where the “support” comes in. Someone needs to call his bluff yet help him get started in whichever community and tasks you decide to use. The accountability should include evaluating whether the program is doing what it should for him and whether he is doing what he should for the agreed-upon program, That conversation needs to happen weekly, F2F. He can tell when you are making things up, so be honest. If you haven’t read the same book, admit it. When you design the program, design in what the logical consequence is if he does not meet his own goals.

Most likely, he has never had such freedom to fail and to work on his own. Ask him what he is afraid he might not get done or might not know how to do. Then do it together the first time – or 1/2 of the first time. He’ll get it quickly and need to be on his own when he can be.  For safety reasons, his online activities should be random-sampled. He may not be able to tell when someone is manipulating him online. Talk openly about what happens there, and expect him to do the same. This is not the time to “respect his privacy” in his online conversations!

He should have some choices and some things about which he has no choice. As you plan products and reading choices, use some of the terrific booklists available and make sure he finds things he likes AND genres he might never try alone.  Use the “pick two from column B” approach to increase exposure to new things. He may get fixated on one genre or author until he exhausts it if he has the choice to do so. Build in variety of  genre, culture, fiction/non, biography, etc. Look at  some of the classics and more offered by Stanford grad students at

What he reads should challenge him and allow him to experience new depths of understanding, but perhaps not be so socially mature that he cannot handle it yet. That is a tough call at age 11, because his emotional maturity may not be ready for sexuality, etc. that appears in books he is capable of “reading,” i.e decoding.  The “classics” are often  safer because people never said things outright in “those” days. Schmoop options and those on “classic book” lists might be good places to go until you can assess the maturity and how his parents feel about it, too.

The most important part of the agreed-upon program is a product.  I think Id ask him to help you design a reading program for highly gifted students. He is the designer, the guinea pig, and the publisher. If the product is good enough, you may take him to a conference and present it together or use it in future years when you have other students like him. As he reads he can create product samples that are meaningful, not just hoops. He should write and create in response to everything he reads. Use all the terrific web 2.0 tools. See Tikatok, Voicethread, Mapskip, Wordle, Google Maps, and similar tools reviewed here.  As he works his way through different books and discussions, he will create different products that others in the future can see as samples for THEIR reading projects. He can also share his projects with others in his online discussion group for feedback. Maybe have him choose a different tool each week/month. Use the SAME email, password and username on EVERY tool so you can monitor, and have him embed or link all his samples into a wiki page so they are accessible from one place.

A Way to Talk About It
When he is not in “regular” reading class one of two things will happen (or both) : he will either brag about it until his peers hate him or he won’t know how to explain what he is doing, and they will think he is goofing off. Either way, his peer relationships, likely already poor, will suffer more.  Help him develop a way to explain what he is doing for reading to his peers, other teachers, and other adults so it is factual and neither bragging nor condescending in tone.Throughout his life he will have to find ways to explain himself to those who don’t get it. This is a life skill he needs for survival and happiness.

I have written far too much. I hope–if you read this– that you will comment back to me or have the young man read it and do so himself.  You are in for an interesting year.

May 4, 2009

What Brooks Left Out: Vaults and Caves

Filed under: gifted,learning,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:38 am

David Brooks column on genius leaves me gesticulating and arguing aloud at my computer screen. Once again someone has attempted to quantify a magnificent phenomenon into something measurable and, in the process, created a well-organized data set that, at best, partially describes the topic at hand. Just as “Advanced” and “Proficient” on state tests define academic success, so does  Brooks’ description of “genius” as a function of repeated and highly-focused practice.  There are enough points unplotted on his graph to generate an entirely separate curve.

My argument draws on years of  learning as the “teacher” of gifted kids. While many of my students had very talented minds and exactly the drive and perfectionism  Brooks describes to “develop a deliberate, strenuous and boring practice routine,” a series of intriguing others showed entirely different patterns of genius. Some vaulted over practice routine to perfection on the first attempt. Others dove into disconnected ventures inside diverse idea-caves. Brooks’ description (with all due credit to his sources,  Colvin and Coyle) ignores both the Intuiting Vaulter and an Intellectual Spelunker model of genius. Yet both have sat in my classroom, dropped by my house after college, or emailed me a generation later to tell me what they have wrought. Their genius moves like spring white-water, making it far more difficult to describe or quantify. The only point on which I can agree with Brooks about their genius is that it was only remotely measured by I.Q.

The Intuiting Vaulter just KNOWS how things work without hearing it, seeing it, or watching YouTube explain it. She does not need practice. After only slight exposure to the venue and powered by a run-up of her own ideas and the grace of exceptional understanding, her vault takes her high over the bar in a parabolic leap past those practicing hard to achieve lower measurements of genius. Her ideas simply hit the mark the first time, though she cannot tell you why. She rarely boasts of the heights she reaches.

The Intellectual Spelunker  explores and tries out too many ideas, including those far from the main stream. She hears about and explores a never-ending series of new idea caves with no apparent pattern or map. She practices within none for more than a moment before she moves on to another twisted passage into murky, wet thinking. Occasionally she plays in the mud at the bottom of the cave, then leaves her finger marks for the water to wash away. One day she emerges with a book of poems or a concert that only hints at  connections between the caves  at some level far below the ground. But before she finishes reading the poems or singing the songs, she leaves at  intermission, lured by another cave. We stay behind, marveling at the words and music she leaves. The only things  she “practices” are changing direction and asking questions.

Brooks, Colvin, and Coyle, your vision of genius robs the world of  immeasurable wonders. In today’s connected world of user-generated information and understanding, the Intuiting Vaulter can land in soft cushions after a soaring blog post that stuns the rest of us. The Intellectual Spelunker has many more caves to explore, places to “play,”  and tools to express unmapped connections beyond our understanding, thanks to the web. This is an age to unleash and appreciate genius, not quantify it.

March 31, 2009

Old sticker adhesive

Filed under: about me,gifted,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 8:52 am

stickers.jpgParents enjoy seeing their kids grow up and then reacquainting with them as adults. What about teachers? After 27 years of teaching, I can honestly say that I still enjoy reading what former students are doing and what became of them as adults. I don’t know if this is true for all teachers, but it is an important part of me and how I view my worth on this earth.

I suspect that my interest is in proportion to the number of years I shared learning with a student. In my case, I had students for multiple years as their teacher of gifted or as a middle school media center teacher during that magical(?!) span through puberty and growing taller than my five foot three. In other words, I witnessed them as they grew up — for more than the usual nine or ten months. In some cases, I witnessed and participated for as many as seven years from grades 2-8. As many continued in high school, I had continued contact as a technology person team-teaching with their teachers.

As a child of two teachers in boarding schools, I grew up believing that students become lifelong members of a teacher’s extended family. I am sure that this assumption cements my feeling of connection to former students. My network of “siblings” came back to our house at the oddest times, and my parents welcomed them just as they did me when I arrived unannounced from college with a carload of hungry friends and laundry.

Enter Facebook into the world of former teachers, and an interesting phenomenon occurs. If  I see former students among friends of friends, do I “friend” them? Is this unprofessional on my part, an invasion of their world by someone from childhood, or a sign of respect for them as an intriguing adult? As I click “add as friend,” I worry that they will think it odd to hear from this lady who made them build inventions or peristently asked them, “what to YOU think?” I am a blur from life before high school, a name that sounds familiar, gummy with old sticker-adhesive on a “log book” they threw away years ago. I am cursed and blessed by an exceedingly good memory for their projects, panics, and even parents. Now I simply would like to meet them again as adults. Should I risk the click to “add as friend”?

I am probably taking this decision far too seriously. Facebook sticks people together with as much adhesive as old stickers. Not a big deal. Except to the former teacher who saw them grow up.

November 21, 2008

To Donna Benson: I have an idea!

Filed under: about me,education,gifted,learning,musing,personal learning network,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 3:23 pm

Northern lights by Senior Airman Joshua Strang via FlickrThis is an open letter blog entry to a valued colleague because she is someone who aways responds,”Why not?” when I hatch some hare-brained scheme…and she adds her own hare-brain!


Six years ago we were in the midst of doing something no one else had done (as far as we knew and still know now). We were about to take six very bright kids to Alaska in winter and have them teach their peers via the web using what they had taught themselves through the web and real-life contacts in Alaska. Sounds old hat now. Except  that in 2002-03, there were no wikis. There were no photo and video sharing sites. We did it all by figuring out solutions using available tools and begging for freebies. If we’d had wikis and Youtube… goodness!

Roll the clock six years. Read what the MacArthur Foundation says this week about time spent online and how kids learn today — really about how all of us should consider re-visioning what education is, based on how kids are learning. My electronic “quote wall” pulled from the summary:

change the dynamics of youth-adult negotiations over literacy, learning, and authoritative knowledge?

“interest-driven” networks

Self-Directed, Peer-Based Learning

“geek out”

specialized knowledge groups of both teens and adults

gaining reputation among expert peers

erases the traditional markers of status and authority

outcome emerges through exploration, in contrast to classroom learning that is oriented toward set, predefined goals.

skills that youth value are highly variable depending on what kinds of social groups they associate with. This diversity in forms of literacy means that it is problematic to develop a standardized set of benchmarks to measure levels of new media and technical literacy.

New role for education? ….What would it mean to really exploit the potential of the learning opportunities available through online resources and networks?

So, Donna, if kids really learn by poking around online themselves — and we know they do– and have entirely separate networks of experts (and ways to define “expert”) on topics we, as the “adults,” do not even know about…why not invite a dozen or so of them to redesign their education and see how well they could meet two masters: the legal one that says they have to meet certain “standards” and the personal master within themselves. I would hypothesize that given the right environment, the right tools, some no-B.S. adult  mentors, and the motivation that they might actually be able to affect change, you  and I could guide a group of HS kids to redesign learning into something meaningful to them. Here is the beginning of a framework of sorts:

To start, give the kids the standards, explaining that this is the part over which we have no control-yet. Tell them to find the “expert network” to learn about it themselves (and prove it). 

The kids proceed to: (with the side-by-side participation of “teachers,” as needed and specified by law)

  • Find the source/community of experts 
  • Verify the knowledge level of the source Who else links to him/her? How can you tell he/she is good? Do you find this source referenced over and over again? Can you find out anything about him/her?  Would you trust him to fix/use your computer? etc.
  • Engage and question
  • Participate and interact with their own questions and exploration
  • Show learning—turn in the URL from the online community where their learning “shows”—along with a list of the questions they still want to know. 
  • Show where this fits into the “standards”- the kids do the alignment
  • Maybe keep a personal RSS Reader organized by academic topics? 

They end up as content experts in their own right, with a vast network of places to return and learn more…including through their peers who are also engaged at various stages in the same process. Most importantly, the kids are involved in actually defining and evaluating this very cyclical process: Does it work? What should we change? What is B.S.? What is cool?

So, Donna, looking back on 2002-03, isn’t this what the better participants in CV/AK did? As they found connections to prescribed curriculum, they went off into their own expert networks to learn what “fit” for them—and what they thought would fit for their peers.

We won’t talk about the “management issues” of watching over 150 kids instead of 12…that’s another day on Think Like A Teacher. That’s an outdated concept, too…

Not bad for something hatched on a Friday. After all, CV/AK came out of a breakfast at (now defunct) George’s.

Why not?

April 12, 2008

Teachers as General Contractors

Filed under: about me,edtech,education,gifted,learning,TeachersFirst,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 11:07 am

I was away at a conference for several days over last weekend and early this week(LONG hours in the exhibit hall). But for the last two days I have been mulling over my plans for a pre-conference workshop for teachers at Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education’s (PAGE) annual conference. Back in the days when I taught gifted (for over a dozen years), our group of teachers often talked about our role as “guide on the side” and on gifted ed’s propensity to try out new ideas before general ed and teacher ed picked them up. We were, many  times, a proving ground, and we pretty much exclusively taught using constructivist, project-based models. I was a “general contractor” on site as my classes built learning. The students did the heavy lifting, crafting everything from the actual foundations to the cabinetry trim of learning. I planned the schedule, made sure the materials were there, and gently but firmly redirected the process when it appeared that the structures might fail.

This week brings me a new chance to promote the model of teachers as general building learning?contractors: both at the PAGE workshop and in the announcement of a FREE cooperative pilot project from TeachersFirst and TRIntuition’s workBench: The Building Learners Project. (Actually, the logo image for this project was what got me started on the contractor analogy.) I could not be more pleased to see such opportunities for teachers to act as general contractors for the learning in their classrooms– even some learning of their own. Learning new tech toys/tools is part of being a good contractor, and it’s OK to figure them out along with the craftspeople on the job site. I am looking forward to getting my hands a little dirty, as well.

January 15, 2008

Forward Process

Filed under: education,gifted,learning,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:20 am

“..not enough time on process, or collective human judgment”

These two ideas ring in my head  from Nancy Flanagan’s pointed (and sad) account of attending the National Academy of Sciences “Committee on Incentives and Test-Based Accountability.” She set me thinking about parallels between elusive definitions of “proficiency” and the struggles my schools had defining “gifted” during my many years teaching gifted students. The challenge was for the team that “identified” gifted kids — under a forced application of special ed laws applied to gifted (good idea to mandate gifted services, though). The irony was that an experienced TOG (teacher of gifted) could “sniff out” these kids by simply spending some time in their presence. But we sought the elusive perfect screening and identification procedure, the numerical formula, constantly swinging between IDing every high achiever and IDing no one, often missing desperate, unabomber-type  geniuses. What were we discounting? Collective human judgment (in this case judgment by those acquainted with the array of ways true giftedness presents itself). Everyone was so afraid to use a human definition that we missed some really needy kids.

…not enough time on process..

Process is what our gifted classroom was all about. Listen and watch it to “sniff out” gifted kids. The gifted kids just “intuit” what they can do and develop their own process. Gifted kids thrive on forward process (intentional hitchhike on the football term). Other students may need more help seeing and feeling process.  It’s like “feeling the water” for very talented swimmers. Some need help to feel it, at first. Some teachers will certainly need to learn the feeling, too. But ultimately, that is where all learners need to be: making forward process. So can we please use our collective human judgment to measure proficiency and just get on with building forward process?