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out-of-schooling

August 28, 2010 8 comments

I wrote the notes for this post this while hanging out at the Middlesex County 4-H Fair this past weekend. Little Bird has been active in 4-H for several years, and Laughing Boy has been an enthusiastic hanger-on and will be a Cloverbud this coming year. I have to say, I really like 4-H (or at least its local instantiation) as a program for gifted kids… Hence the topic of this post. Not all extracurriculars (cocurriculars?  paracurriculars?  intracurriculars? activities?  afterschooling?  outofschooling?  homeschooling?) are created equal, so it’s worth thinking about what would characterize good ones.  There’s a lot that I see being done well here.

Why care specifically about this topic for gifted and twice-exceptional kids? Certainly, all kids benefit from high-quality activities. But it’s particularly important for GT and 2E kids, because they all too often don’t get enough of the self-efficacy and empathic mirroring / accreditation experiences that most kids get in school. (Yes, I’ll explain that more at some point. Short version: it’s a normal and important human need to accomplish tasks you perceive to be difficult, and to experience people you look up to seeing you do it.) So the activities aren’t just for fun and games — we’re creating the opportunity for a developmental need to be met.

4-H is a very flexible program, which can definitely be bewildering at times, but the flexibility is great for gifted and 2E kids.

  • There are clubs focused on a broad range of topics — kids choose a club (or multiple clubs) based on shared interests.
  • Age doesn’t restrict what you can do, how you can do it, or who you can do it with.  A single club might have kids from ages 5 to 18.
  • The club (or other voluntary subgrouping) might do things together, but kids do lots of things on their own.  That’s normal and accepted.  Groups, when they exist for a specific purpose, are formed by mutual consensus.
  • Kids choose projects they’re interested in, rather than being told what they have to work on or being provided with a narrow menu of acceptable choices.  Almost any topic is fair game for the projects they work on during the year (it’s not just chickens and zucchini!) and their Visual Presentations (more on those below).  For the fair itself, there’s quite a range of things kids can make and exhibit, and there are departments at our local fair which permit written or display entries on virtually any topic (our county had a passionate GT kid and supportive parent who established a Writing department about a decade ago).
  • They can approach the projects at any level of sophistication they like.  This is a perfect example of what I call “silent differentiation,” which will be the topic of another post.

(Note that for some kids with Asperger’s or ADHD, programs which have more structure are sometimes a better fit.  Or else, they need more adult direction.  But the fact is, all kids need some adult direction early in any process, and that direction needs to be faded gradually over time.  Don’t back off all at once, or they will have no idea where to go or what they could or should expect from themselves.  Again, a topic for another post.)

Another thing that 4-H does very well is to encourage kids to improve over time and meet meaningful quality standards.

  • They are encouraged to try new things (the official slogan is “Learn by doing.“).  They don’t have to show any particular talent for anything; in general, any time someone says, “I’m interested in maybe doing X,” the response will be, “That’s cool!  Here, let me  show you / hook you up with the following person / resource / class / book / website so you can learn how.”
  • At the same time, they are also constantly encouraged to “Make the best better.” (that’s the official motto, not to be confused with the official slogan).  They get real feedback that is supportive but honest and specific.  None of that false feel-good “self-esteem” nonsense that pervades a lot of kids’ activities these days, where, as the Dodo Bird says, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”  Judges in all events are explicitly told to give clear and understandable feedback on which aspects of the entry were done well and how the entry could be improved, and to measure kids against developmentally-appropriate but meaningfully high standards.  (Even the judges for the Cloverbuds (kids ages 5-7) are told not to just say, “Nice job!”)  If you’re not there yet, that’s fine, no one will sneer at you, but they also won’t tell you it’s good when it’s not.  If what you do is terrific, they’ll tell you, but they’ll still tell you how to make it even better.
  • I’m sure there are many different flavors of how this is done in many different places, but what I see around here is a nice balance between competition against the self and competition against others.  In the fair, first, everything is judged on an arbitrary standard.  If everything is blue-ribbon quality, everything can get a blue ribbon.  If nothing is, then nothing gets a blue ribbon and no prizes are awarded, as per previous bullet.  (This really does happen.  Judges are not pressured to make anyone “not feel bad.”)  The blue-ribbon items then compete against each other for first, second, and third place.  So it matters who else shows up, but there’s a way for you to realize that someone else’s work having been better doesn’t mean that what you did stinks.
  • The culture of the group honestly celebrates hard work and achievement, regardless of the personal characteristics of the achiever.  I’m pretty tuned in to such things (having had a fairly typical GT-kid childhood, I’m actually more like “hypervigilant about such things”), and I haven’t heard any of the typical “catty” comments about how someone is too young, or taking too many prizes, or making other kids feel bad, or should let someone else have a turn at winning, or must have gotten inappropriate help from a grownup, or whatever.  People certainly notice a particular person earning a lot of awards, but it’s generally with a sense of frank admiration for the effort and skill they know the kid put in.

Speaking of the culture of the group, this is one that tends to attract a crowd marked by curiosity and passion, highly enriched for bright-to-gifted folks.  And everyone is encouraged to get into the game.

  • It’s not designed as a place you drop your kids off and go do the shopping.  Club leaders are told to encourage parents (even dads!) and siblings (even annoying little ones!) to stick around and participate.  It’s a whole-family intergenerational activity.
  • That makes it possible for adults to model their own process as lifelong learners.  Gifted kids tend to have gifted parents, which can be really tough for them.  They see us being wonderful at everything, and then try to hold themselves to those impossibly high standards.  But the culture here encourages parents to learn new things and be klutzy beginners (and to get corrective feedback and survive the experience!) together with their kids.  Asking for and receiving help are seen as good things.
  • I mentioned above that people love to teach what they know.  People who are passionate and geeky about things tend to love to share with others.  The openness of the structure allows for more of that to happen.  Because this structure doesn’t have a lot of rules around age or status, anyone who knows something can be a valid teacher.

Although some bumbling is inevitable in any volunteer effort, this doesn’t have to create a blind-leading-the-blind race to the bottom.  In any domain, there are likely to be quite a lot of skills which can be meaningfully taught at an appropriate level by someone who is further along the path, such that both teacher and learner are able to meaningfully increase their understanding and skill, and to derive self-efficacy from doing so.  (That’s very different from an overwhelmed teacher assigning a GT kid to tutor a struggling student in school, which has all sorts of rotten social and emotional consequences and is not educationally all that useful for either kid, and which probably should be the topic of another post.)

Another thing I think 4-H does really well is, tied in with the high-standards thing, encouraging kids to build transferable life skills.  Although the program in MA goes way beyond its agricultural roots, it is still fundamentally a program to train young people to run small businesses.

  • Kids are encouraged to keep careful records of their projects, tracking time, costs, income, and suchlike.  They are also encouraged to track people helped and lessons learned, and to include personal-development things that aren’t necessarily officially part of a project.  Kids whose records are clear, understandable, and comprehensive get recognized for those efforts, even if the projects were not all that elaborate or impressive.  Similarly, kids who enter a lot of exhibits in the fair (and many kids enter several dozen items) have to handle the organizational overhead (paperwork, entry slips, explanatory cards, etc) themselves.  (Yeah, I know, I hate paperwork, too.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s worth being good at it.  There are times when the person the paperwork is helping is yourself, especially when you’re running a small business.)  As the kids get older, the records start to look very much like resumes.  (Yes, the recordkeeping requirements can be difficult for dysgraphic kids… but at least in my state, they’re voluntary, there’s a long time to get things done, and because of that “silent differentiation” effect, they can actually serve as a forum for the kids to build skills over time.)
  • There is a strong emphasis on public speaking, both formal and informal.  There is a nice public speaking program — kids prepare 3-10-minute talks on any topic they like, with posters and 3-D objects, kind of like Show and Tell on steroids.  It’s highly competitive.  Plus, kids are encouraged to do various forms of demonstration for the public.  I have to say that every time I talk with a 4-H kid, even those 5-7-year-old Cloverbuds, I am astounded at how well they can have those conversations with an unfamiliar kid, older kid, or adult.  Almost without fail, I see kids who speak politely and intelligently, with appropriate social pragmatics, responding thoroughly to questions, and showing their enthusiasm for their work.  (Another nice thing about that, by the way, is that when they get random-people-from-the-public to see how well they’ve done and how well they can present themselves, it becomes another opportunity for them to see that others respect their work.)
  • Parents are encouraged to participate, but they are expected to keep their own hands off the kids’ work.  Better to let it be unfinished or imperfect and to create a learning opportunity for the kid.  When I’ve had those lovely conversations with quite young kids, their parents are typically not hovering around.  The focus is on building independence.
  • Kids are also encouraged to participate in leadership and community service projects, again often taking on organizational roles that one might assume are only for older kids.  (Little Bird was helping run kids’ activities for a community group that needed supervision for their own kids while parents were in a seminar… when she was 8 years old.)  Kids who show promise in these areas get noticed and encouraged to take on more responsibility.

This all reads practically like a recipe for “how to design an out-of-school activity that helps kids develop real skills and real self-esteem.”  Since our GT and 2E kids are so often not well-matched to the in-school activities, and because there are so many choices for out-of-school stuff, many of which simply replicate the problems with the typical in-school activities, it becomes crucial for us to think about how we can recognize the subtexts in an activity that will support the kids’ growth.

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