A pause to reflect

I’ve often said that by the time you finish a PhD, having spent at least 3 years immersed in a single, intense, drawn out project, all you can see is the flaws in that work. It doesn’t matter if you get glowing examiners’ reports and win awards for your work: all you know about by the end of that time is the hundreds of little ways you could have done better if you started it all again. The kind of obsessive personality who can actually finish a PhD (I’m pretty sure obsessiveness is the primary requirement for graduation) generally has a perfectionist streak approximately as wide as the infinitely expanding universe.

I’ve found that I have a similar tendency in real life. I’ve just finished a marathon year, and I’m both exhausted and a little nauseous at the thought of everything I want to achieve next year. The majority of my brain is sitting in the corner, rocking, and gibbering quietly at the thought of another year like the one just past.

Facebook puts together naff little photostreams of “the year that was” for you, collecting a moderately random set of your posts from the year into a summary of 2014. Mine seems to consist largely of animals and photos from the far distant past, for reasons I can’t quite fathom. It’s a bit pointless, except that it has prompted me to consider what my 2014 really looked like. Rather than hyperventilating at the thought of the progress I still want to make, maybe there’s something to be said for stopping to consider how far I’ve come.

For a teacher it can be hard to quantify your year, especially if you don’t have year 12s. Year 12 students provide some kind of objective measure of your teaching, because their assessment is primarily external, but even then you can say “Oh, well the students were amazing, they’d have done well whoever taught them.” Which is what I tend to do when my students achieve extraordinary things – because they are invariably extraordinary kids, and it is exceptionally difficult to measure your own impact on a class full of kids with any kind of objectivity.

So you get to the end of the year having given your job everything you’ve got, and with nothing concrete to show for it. Sure, there are the amazing things your students have done, but how much of that was your doing, and how much was theirs? It’s no wonder it’s easy to be overwhelmed by how much you still need to do, and feel ill at the thought of starting it all again next year.

But research shows that spending time writing down and contemplating the things you have to be grateful for can dramatically improve your emotional well being and resilience, and my suspicion is that writing down your achievements could be even more powerful.

So this evening we spent some time writing our own “year in review”. Rather than leave it to Facebook to pick a random selection of images from our 2014, we went through the year, month by month, and listed the things we remembered. It was very powerful doing this as a family, because we each remembered and prioritized different things, and we came up with a very full list of things to be grateful for, as well as things, like my heart problems, that we have survived and often learnt from.

I’m going to write that list in to our little book of thankful things, and maybe in the future we will look back at 2014 and smile, remembering the events and the people who made it remarkable. But even if we never look at it again, the act of pausing and reflecting on how far we have come this year is a potent and positive reminder of what we have achieved.

A friend of mine posted a beautiful message on Facebook this afternoon about how today is the solstice (winter for him in New York, summer for us in Melbourne), and that this is “the moment of stillness and change,” which I found a very powerful thought. We tend to rush through life without a moment to pause and reflect, and the solstice, together with the approach of Christmas and the New Year, provides a trigger to stop and think about where we are and how far we have come.

It was a hugely positive thing to do as a family. When was the last time you paused to reflect on your life?

Defined by a number

A recent heartfelt post about accelerating gifted kids up a grade caused a veritable tidal wave of responses. My innocuous little blog went crazy. In the first couple of days the post had around 600 views, and then it went really wild. In less than a week that post has had over two thousand two hundred views. Ten times my usual readership.

And not only were people reading it, but they were commenting, both on the blog and on facebook. Many of the comments were along the same lines: “Thank GOODNESS somebody finally said it!” “Thank you so much! This is why our son/daughter skipped a grade, and it was the best thing we ever did! But, Man! Everyone said we were crazy!”

The posts that receive the strongest reactions always seem to be the ones where people feel unheard and misunderstood. And heaven knows there are enough myths out there about gifted kids and their education to fertilize a million mushroom farms. But what interests me most is that the few negative responses I got were all along on the one theme:

“Yes, but accelerated kids will wind up socializing with kids who are up to two years older than them.”

As though this statement is enough. Because heaven knows we wouldn’t want our children to associate with anyone who wasn’t precisely their own age. But the more I think about it, the more absurd it seems that we seem to have swallowed this assumption – hook, line, and toxic sinker.

As adults, when we meet someone we instinctively like and relate to, we don’t conduct a background check and verify their year of birth before we can allow ourselves to be friends. One of my all time closest friends was 40 years older than me. I have others who are 10, 20, even 25 years younger, and some whose age I could honestly not even begin to guess at. Because I choose my friends based on shared interests, gut feeling, and most importantly whether we get each other or not. Not based on close inspection of their birth certificates.

And it’s not just an adult thing, explained away because we have all crossed the magical 18 line. My 11 year old’s best friend is 9, and she has a close friend who is 18. When we were at a party a couple of weeks ago with a host of other families, my 7 year old bonded fast and firmly with a girl who is 10, and my 11 year old spent most of the time with a 7 year old. They did not pause to check the age of their new friends before deciding to hang out with them.

Our schools, though, are rigidly structured by age. Especially our government schools. Thou shalt not start school before 5 years of age, nor after 6. Thou shalt progress unto the next year regardless of academic readiness. Thou shalt do year 8 maths at 13 years of age, regardless of whether even year 10 work is already too easy.

Sure, kids are developing fast, and a year can make an enormous difference to social and emotional development. But in our reverence for the data that shows what the average 10 year old can do, we forget that no 10 year old is actually average. We ignore the 10 year olds who have the average maturity of an 8 year old, and likewise those with the average maturity of a teenager. We rule out the outliers, the statistical anomalies, and the kids who are more developed in one area, but less in another. We bury differences under the rug and pretend that kids relate best to other kids the same age, rather than to other kids who have shared interests and similar abilities. And we pretend that kids progress in all areas at the same rate.

People often write about the fact that schooling hasn’t changed radically in a hundred years, and pose various changes that might bring us “up to date”, but I have never yet seen a proposal that suggests kids could go in to classes according to readiness. Imagine a school where a single child could be in a year 8 English class, year 11 Maths, year 10 Science, and year 6 Music. Because that’s where she’s up to. Because that’s the level of instruction she needs. Where a boy could be doing year 12 English, year 10 German, and year 9 Maths. Where the level of work a child was given was pitched according to that child’s readiness and ability in each subject, not according to the date on her birth certificate.

As to the horror some people express about kids socialising with others who are 2 years older than them, I find that deeply puzzling. School, where kids are sorted by age, is a highly artificial construct. Out in the real world kids will be hanging out with a wide range of ages: cousins, neighbours, members of clubs. Almost no other environment is so rigidly age segregated as schools, yet we seem deeply wedded to the idea that this segregation is both normal and vital to our children’s well being.

Segregation is almost universally condemned now, in all areas but age. Perhaps it’s time to condemn it for that, too.

Why I WILL accelerate my daughter, but won’t tell you what to do with yours

Recently I read an article by Kerri Sackville entitled “Why you shouldn’t accelerate your child“. Now, to be fair, Kerri may not have chosen the headline for the article. But the article basically followed the headline pretty closely. And it was an anecdotal “It didn’t work for us, so you shouldn’t do it” style of piece. Which is fine, as far as it goes. But it disappointed me intensely, as a teacher of many gifted students, and the parent of two gifted kids, that it did not examine the research, nor consider the reasons why acceleration might be crucial in some cases.

Because here’s the thing: Bright kids, such as Kerri describes, may indeed not be well served by acceleration. But there is a world of difference between bright and gifted. And the consequences for gifted kids of never receiving the level of work they need in order to be truly challenged and extended can be dire. Truly. Dire. Not just “a bit bored”, but clinically depressed, even suicidal level of dire.

They’re not always dire. Some gifted kids will seek out their own challenges, and possess their own miraculous internal resilience such that they will cheerfully survive being bored to bits in class. I’ve taught these kids.

But other kids will find that they can’t talk to the kids around them – in fact they are frequently bullied for being weird. And they never learn what it is to try and fail to master some challenging topic, so they learn that everything comes easily to them. This makes the eventual appearance of challenge desperately threatening and unmanageable. I’ve taught these kids, too. And I’ve parented them.

The literature is full of stories of kids who went on to be miserable, and even delinquent, because they learnt that to be them, and to achieve praise, was to do things effortlessly. That became their defining characteristic. They learnt what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”, and never learnt how to tackle things that they didn’t yet know how to do.

Sooner or later we all meet something that we don’t understand (yet). For under-extended gifted kids, this can be a huge threat, and trigger a massive panic reaction. The research shows very clearly that gifted kids have high rates of anxiety, depression, and even suicide. This doesn’t surprise me, because the other thing I know about gifted kids is that their unchallenged brains have to find something else to do. And for a highly analytical child, this can quickly turn into a spiral of “Nobody understands me, nobody gets me, I am a failure, I am worthless” that can fast become catastrophic.

This may sound extreme to those of you who have not had close contact with gifted kids, but the research clearly shows that gifted kids are emotionally intense, and consequently prone to depression. Kerri Sackville tosses off the casual comment that a good teacher will be able to extend every child in her class, and “they will no doubt achieve academically no matter what year they are in” so acceleration should not be necessary. But this is garbage. I have seen that from the teacher side. I have 25 kids in my year 11 class, and knowing exactly what every one of them needs at any point in time is a constant struggle.

When you are dealing with a huge spread of abilities at primary school level, or even at high school not every child is going to get what they need. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about a highly resourced, well funded private school or the local state school desperately struggling for enough money to buy a computer that actually works, there are going to be lots of times when the whole class is doing the same worksheet – because there is a physical limit to how much effort a teacher can put in, and in my experience most teachers, especially the good ones, are at the edge of that limit every single day, and still not doing things the way they think they should be done.

The point of acceleration for a gifted child is that it narrows the gap between the average classroom activity, and the work that child needs in order to be challenged. A gifted education conference I attended last year made what, for me, was a profoundly compelling point: Every child deserves to make a year’s progress for a year’s schooling.

All too often gifted kids are making progress in becoming depressed, but not much else.

Sackville also claims that teenage kids are so different socially that a 14 year old going to parties with 16 year olds is a world of horror, and here I have to argue that EVERY CHILD IS DIFFERENT. I’d tattoo that on my forehead if I thought it would help. Some 14 year olds will be fine at 16 year old parties. Some 16 year olds won’t. And 16 year old parties might be slumber parties with harmless videos or wild drunken sex fests. Every child, and every party, is different. But what I do know is that gifted kids frequently relate much better, and more easily, to older children, than they do to their chronological peer group. Place a gifted kid in his or her own year level and it quickly becomes clear that nobody gets them, which can lead to a demoralizing isolation. But if you shift them up a little, you narrow the gap between them and their peers. They are more likely to be reading the same books, playing the same games, and speaking the same language.

I’ve had my students tell me they spent their first few years of high school playing games, reading the following years’ textbook in the back of the classroom, or wreaking havoc, because they simply couldn’t see the point of school. These kids are beyond bright. They are gifted, and they have particular needs.

So I won’t place myself in opposition to Sackville’s article and say “You MUST accelerate bright kids.” Some kids need acceleration, some don’t. But I will declare that what you must do, beyond all doubt, is what you believe is right for your child. Not what a random, unqualified writer says didn’t work for her and therefore will not work for you. Not what a teacher, or a psychologist says is right, when you believe it’s wrong for your child. And certainly not what I believe is right for my kids. But what you, after careful research and deep consideration of all the available options, believe is right for your child.

(Interesting further reading, including reports on outcomes for gifted kids who were accelerated vs those who weren’t: http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/04/what-do-we-risk-losing-by-not-challenging-gifted-kids/)

Why we are all feminists

Sadly, I’ve been reading a lot about feminism of late. And the reason that makes me sad is that there have been so many powerfully disturbing reasons why feminism has needed to be written about. From Gamergate to our “single sex party”, as the Chaser crew so aptly described the Australian Federal cabinet recently, and the astonishingly ignorant responses to No Gender December, you could be forgiven for thinking that we have regressed to the 1950s, when women were expected to be content with their place at the kitchen sink, with occasional forays as far as the laundry and the supermarket.

And yet it was not that long ago that I resisted describing myself as a feminist. I justified this with vague statements about “isms” being disturbing things, and how I was for equality, not for a particular fight on behalf of one sex or the other. And certainly that second statement remains true. But it has finally dawned on me what feminism is truly about. It’s about making it possible for everyone to find their vocation.

Whoa. What? Was that a huge non-sequitur, or the crunchiest of crunching gear changes? Actually no, if you’ll bear with me, I think I can explain. You see, I believe that everyone has a vocation. A career that they are good at, that they love, and that they can be passionate about. The problem is that not everybody finds that vocation. Because although some people seem to be born knowing what they want to do, others need to try a bunch of different things before they find their calling.

I was sure I was going to be a vet, but instead of animal hospitals, my science degree led me inexorably towards Computer Science, after a chance encounter with my cousin Chris’s commodore 64 when I was a kid. Chris encouraged me to program this bizarre device, and I was lucky enough to be ignorant of the fact that, as a girl, I wasn’t supposed to enjoy this kind of thing. This chance encounter led me to spend a lot of time in the library at school, toying with Apple IIc’s and, among other things, playing the Infocom Hitchhikers game, until eventually I chose Computer Science as a fill in subject in first year university.

When it turned out that I was good at it, I ran with it further and further, until I wound up, almost by accident, doing a PhD and becoming an academic. My academic career persuaded me that research, while fun, wasn’t my vocation, and a few startling twists and turns later I wound up where I really belong, teaching Computer Science in a high school.

All because Chris encouraged me to try programming his computer.

This is truly my vocation. When I talk about what I do, I light up from the inside. And I’m not about to reject it, as a newly minted feminist, because teaching is a “female” sort of thing to do. The whole point of feminism is the ability, and the opportunity to choose – not based on stereotypes, but on passion. To do what you want to do, wear what you want to wear, be who you want to be, because it works for you, rather than because it fits some notional checklist of who and what you are supposed to be.

How many girls are there who would be mad keen programmers, except that they have not been given the opportunity to even try, because that’s a boyish kind of thing to do? How many boys are there who would be the most amazing nurses, childcare workers, or primary teachers, except that it’s not manly, so they have been steered safely in the direction of something more… suitable? How many people are being robbed of the chance to discover their vocation because society is telling them they won’t like it, can’t do it, and are really not as masculine/feminine/predictable as they should be for even thinking about it?

Oh, but people aren’t put off that easily, you might say! They don’t believe all this guff about stereotypes. These outdated societal expectations don’t rule us, and they certainly don’t control our behaviour. It’s innate. Some things are girly, some are manly. That’s all there is to it.

But controlled we are. Manipulated, we are. Conditioned and boxed, we most certainly are. How else can you explain intelligent, well-educated women who believe that they can’t go out in public wearing shorts until they have shaved their legs? Shaved legs are not innate. I’m pretty confident I was not born with the fundamental belief that hairless legs are more feminine, and yet I’m damned if I can persuade myself that not shaving my legs is ok.

Hippy, greeny feminist I may be, but hairy legged I can’t quite bring myself to accept. And don’t even get me started about the impracticality of female clothing, or underwires in bras.

So if I can be so easily manipulated as to my clothes and my leg hair, what messages have I accepted about my career options? What things, moreover, will my daughters shy away from trying because they get mocked, or because they watch someone else get torn down for even thinking about it? How many girls resolved to stay the hell away from politics after watching what happened to Julia Gillard?

So here is what I want for my daughters, and my niece, and also for my nephews. In fact I want it for everyone: I want them to be able to try everything that looks interesting, until they find their vocation. I want them to know that no door will close to them, or indeed open to them, on the basis of gender.

Above all I want them to be happy pursuing the things that truly speak to them, that nourish their souls. The things that they are passionate about, and damned good at. Without pausing to wonder whether these things are boy things or girl things. Whether they are suitably feminine or appropriately manly.

This, to me, is what feminism is truly about – that boys and girls alike have the opportunity to be who they really are, and to do what they really love. Surely, in this, we are all feminists?