School for the Gifted: Looking for Extra Challenge


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Parents of gifted kids often struggle with how to make school work for their kids. This is doubly so for parents of twice-exceptional kids or kids who are highly or profoundly gifted. Support groups for parents of challenging gifted children are full of stories of changing schools to improve things for students after advocacy efforts have failed.

Most of us, and I count myself among this number, have two very simple goals:

  1. to make sure our kids continue to learn and develop
  2. to make sure our kids are not emotionally damaged by the school environment

These are not unusual goals for parents to have for their children, but they can be hard to meet with atypical children. Educational experiences designed for a group never meet the needs of all individuals. Good teachers teach in ways that reach most kids most of the time. If kids are atypical, less of the programming works for them. If the mismatch between the kids and the program are too great, the kids suffer. At the same time, atypical kids can suffer at the hands of their peers – not having enough in common with the kids at school can lead to isolation, self-doubt, and bullying.

Like many school districts that do have programming for gifted children, our local school district identifies gifted children in grade 3, for placement in a program that begins in grade 4. The school district interprets the provincial curriculum in a way that prevents acceleration even once students have been identified as gifted. Within those limitations, the gifted program is excellent: the teachers have learned how to extend the material in ways that make the school board happy and challenge the students, and the administration has excellent tools for working handling twice-exceptional students.

But, keeping bright kids engaged in school until they get to grade 4 isn’t always easy.

Many of my friends with gifted kids have kept them in private schools with more flexible curricula (mostly Montessori) until they were identified for the public gifted program or home-schooled for a few years of early elementary school.

Canada is a bilingual country. We have two national languages: French and English. Many school districts in English-speaking Canada offer French Immersion schools. In these schools, native-English speakers learn in French.

Parents send their children to French Immersion schools for many reasons. The extra challenge of doing school in a foreign language appeals to many parents of bright students.

Language immersion works best when it starts early. This is true for all children due to the way humans learn languages. However, it is especially true for bright kids. Young kids are learning how the world works, searching for knowledge, stretching their comprehension as fast as their language develops and they have new experiences to learn from. Learning a second language requires spending time using simple language, unable to express or read as much in the second language as one can in the first.

Where we are, French Immersion starts in grade 1. My eldest was in the program for just over a year. It was not a success. Spending the entire school day focused on basic vocabulary was intensely frustrating for him. His brain was craving complex content but he could not manage the language to support that. In his few hours after school, he read books written for children 4-5 years older than his mere 6 years, but it was not enough. His frustration grew as the year went on. Early in the second year, it was clear that a new solution was in order and he changed schools twice more before the end of that year.

In September, my triplets enter grade 1 and will all be starting in French Immersion. I have no idea how it will go. They all read between 1 and 4 years above grade-level. They all enjoy complex thinking. They have all enjoyed their experiences with French in the past. If they enjoy the language learning and make friends, this school could be fantastic. If they hate the language learning and don’t make friends, it will be a disaster. The daily reality will probably be somewhere in between.

I am not expecting any two of them to have the same reaction. I am prepared for one or more of them to return to the school they were at last year if things don’t work out.

I will be watching carefully.

I don’t expect any school environment to be perfect. As long as they are learning and reasonably happy, I will be satisfied.

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Kate is the founder of ImprovLiving: Improve Your Life with the Power of Improv and writes about creativity and story-telling as tools for making sense of the world at www.katearmsroberts.com.

Do You Rest?


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Many exceptionally gifted children have trouble sleeping at night because their minds do not shut off enough for sleep to come.

D.V. Lovecky, “Hidden gifted learner: The exceptionally gifted child”

Parents of gifted kids often realize in retrospect that the sleep challenges their kids faced as infants and toddlers were the earliest signs of their children’s’ giftedness. From birth, the constant need for stimulation, the craving for novelty, and the drive to learn interfere with a child’s ability to rest. Parents of gifted kids whose willingness or ability to take a nap never existed or withered at 18-months look with jealous bewilderment at children who must be weaned off afternoon naps before starting full-day kindergarten programs at 5 years old.

It isn’t just gifted children who have trouble with turning their brains off. Gifted adults struggle with this as well.

As we get older, we find ways to get enough sleep – maybe not enough sleep to be truly rested, but enough to get by. But many of us continue to struggle with rest.

Far too often, the cultural story we hear that reinforces rest as an important part of enjoying a fulfilling life goes something like this.

I worked all the time through my kids’ childhood, missing the first words, the early walking, the sports games and dance recitals because I thought my work was more important. When I was diagnosed with cancer and my doctor told me that with aggressive treatment, I might make it another 5 years, but the likelihood was that I had a year, I stopped. I just stopped. I quit work. I gave up my networking and client meetings. I connected with my family and made sure I was with them for all the time I had left. I was transformed by connecting with them. Cancer has been the greatest gift life has ever given me because it forced me to slow down and become present.

But, it shouldn’t have to be that way. We need to find ways of resting, slowing down, and connecting with the important things in life without dying or nearly dying.

Many of us need permission to rest. We place our value on what we have done or what we are doing and worry that we will cease to be valuable if we cease to produce. We fear that rest will somehow translate into a deep failure from which we can never recover.

For many gifted adults, work is a cover for existential questions. Being too busy to think means being too busy to face the underlying questions that plague many gifted people – in the face of all we know from science and history, what is the point of being;? Humans are a drop in the cosmic bucket with destructive tendencies that lead to war and strife through all of known history; why should we go on? How can our lives have meaning or purpose? If we never rest, we never have to face those questions.

For me, my fear of resting manifests in my use of social media. Now that I carry a computer in my pocket, I can always fill my time by being active on Facebook. I have many other bright friends on Facebook who also fill their time sharing fascinating things, so I delude myself into thinking I am thinking about important and interesting things, but in reality I am thinking for the sake of thinking.

I have challenged myself this summer to put the smart phone down and find real ways to rest more deeply and more often. And, I am discovering that when I do, I play more, smile more, and connect with my family with more joy.

I need to honour my body’s need for rest to live fully. It isn’t always easy. As I protect sleep for my kids for their growth and well-being, I must protect rest for myself.

This summer, are you finding ways to rest?

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Kate is the founder of ImprovLiving: Improve Your Life with the Power of Improv and writes about creativity and story-telling as tools for making sense of the world at www.katearmsroberts.com.

That One Time at Band Camp….


1-MP900432787For some people, thinking about summer fun triggers images of sitting quietly, absorbing warmth, watching the world go by, resting, and contemplating. For others, splashing by the water’s edge, swimming, and skipping stones.

For me, summer is a chance to go outside and explore the world. Swimming and barbecues are secondary pleasures.

Many of my best memories of summer as a kid come from travelling with my parents and the specialist camps I went to: a computer camp and a theatre camp. The more I talk to gifted adults, the more I realize this is not unusual. For kids who are not challenged sufficiently in school, the summer provides an opportunity to stretch and grow without the restrictions of curriculum. For me, summer gave me time and freedom to engage my brain fully rather than sitting in class waiting for the other kids to catch up.

Travel, whether it is to a nearby national park or a foreign country, provides a level of stimulation that staying at home is hard pressed to match. For people who crave new information, getting into a new environment is a gift.

A new environment plus the opportunity to pursue a passion with other kids who share that passion is an even better gift. A camp that is focused on specific interests is good for all kids, but especially for kids with unusual interests.

There were not a lot of kids in my high school who were as serious about theatre as I was. To spend 3 weeks putting on shows with other kids who shared my obsessions was heaven. And, during the rest of the year, letters from my camp friends alleviated the loneliness I felt at home.

Many of my adult friends had experiences that matched mine. The camp in question may have been band camp, art camp, theatre camp, or science and engineering camp, but the experiences of finding deep friendships and places they felt they belonged were similar.

I craved contact with other actors and directors. My kids crave contact with inventors and builders. Part of my job as a mom involves finding opportunities for them to connect with like-minded kids and summer camps focused on engineering play are an annual part of our lives.

My kids look forward to many things over the summer: no school, swimming, hiking, visiting grandparents, and camping. But nothing beats the anticipation with which they look forward to Camp Invention every year. Nothing.

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Kate writes about creativity and story-telling as tools for making sense of the world at www.katearmsroberts.com.

Resiliency: On Bouncing Back from Criticism


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Student: Do I have what it takes to be a professional?
Teacher: No.

Observer: Why crush the student’s spirits now?
Teacher: If the student believes me and gives up, then she doesn’t have what it takes. To be a pro in this business, you have to take a comment like that as a spur to work harder.

Being able to bounce after a failure, set-back, or critique is an important life skill. Set-backs, failures, and partial successes are the building blocks of experience. Without the ability to turn failure in to learning, people give up on dreams.

For example, I write stories. As a child, I wrote tall tales and fantasies: wild, wacky, and wonderful – but derivative and full of clichés. As a tween, I turned to more realistic work and starting exploring the effects I could achieve through more subtle use of language. These efforts were of mixed quality – often showing promise, but sometimes failing utterly. One piece that failed got a scathing critique from my English teacher and I stopped writing fiction except when explicitly required for class. I just stopped. I took the critique as a statement of failure and gave up. I was not resilient.

In my case, the need to tell stories and work with language continued. As a teen, I wrote poetry and starting directing plays. I failed to develop the courage to pursue theatre professionally, though I had enough skill to justify the attempt. But, I was not resilient enough. I took a few rejections too personally and gave up.

And then, in my mid-30s, I watched as my brother ran his first marathon and decided it was time to accomplish some of my big goals. And that meant developing grit and resiliency.

It is not an easy task, overcoming decades of training in giving up, but it is a necessary one. For the past few years, I have been consistently pushing myself, learning, and developing. And, I have submitted my work and been rejected. Each rejection hurts and each rejection gives me an opportunity to strengthen my ability to recover and keep going.

I find myself asking how I developed the habit of surrender. Somewhere along the line, I learned to value myself only when I was succeeding. At the same time, I had no practice in working through a challenge to achievement. I grew lazy and apathetic. Perfectionism and an awareness of how far my attempts at writing fell short of the ideals I set for myself combined to make me think it was impossible that I would ever be good. And I had no external guide or mentor to nurture, support, and push me.

Now, I know I need external goads, so I have put some external pressures in place, pressures so strong they scare me. I have asked people who are either better writers or more demanding readers than I am to read and critique my work. These are not only people I want to learn from, but people I want to respect me, people I want to impress. I don’t expect to impress them with my work now, but I hope I can at least demonstrate an admirable work ethic and growth curve. I expect to be kicked to the curb often as I strive to learn what they have to teach me.

In my youth, I would never have felt safe seeking out a challenge where I expect to fail at first. Now, I recognize that without the willingness to be a beginner and to risk failure and embarrassment, I will never develop the skills I desire.

I wish I had learned to be resilient earlier in my life, but I trust it is not too late for me.

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Kate writes about creativity and story-telling as tools for making sense of the world at www.katearmsroberts.com.

Dancing With Life’s Big Questions


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At dinner last night, one of my 5-year old sons asked why the world is like it is. He does not travel lightly on the earth as some of his age-mates do. Everything he sees or touches matters deeply to him. Everything he understands yields more questions. Always into a deeper excavation of the underlying why?

The never-ending Why? without hope of answer, the why that digs deep, into the most extreme understandings of the nature of the universe through scientific study; the most ancient and profound studies of the human predicament through  meditation and religious questioning; and the rigorous analysis of philosophy. This is the world the gifted soul touches.

In a rational, multi-cultural, secular world where the answers, “because my parents did it that way” and “because God made it so” are not accepted as definitive, we mortals are left to our own devices.

If we are not to sink into existential depression, we must choose to create meaning and purpose to sustain us despite the unanswerable questions that our human nature compels us to ask.

Why? is a hugely valuable question in the practical world. By examining how things came to be and why things are as they are, we can more effectively predict what other things will occur or how things will behave. But, the ability to look beyond the surface can take us too close to the abyss.

To create a sense of meaning and purpose is to choose in the moment that this moment will have meaning. Sources of meaning are personal but often involve beauty, justice, joy, human connections, or service to others or to a principle.

Because we can choose the sources of meaning in our lives, we may also find ourselves doubting our choices, wondering if there was sufficient reason for that choice over the myriad of other options that we had.

Back and forth, we dance, connecting to sources of meaning that fulfill and satisfy us and then falling back into the questions.

I assume that I am not alone in sometimes wishing I could accept an easy answer, but it is not in my nature to do so. The inner Why? that haunts me is too powerful, too consistent.

But, as long as I can hold the question lightly and show up to hug my family and connect to the activities that hold meaning for me: making art and helping others find their own truest stories, I can dance.

And that is enough.

It has to be.

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Kate writes about creativity and story-telling as tools for making sense of the world at www.katearmsroberts.com.

Never Throw Away a Cardboard Box


This is a Wii for those "no-screen-time" times when you just have to play.

This is a Wii for those “no-screen-time” times when you just have to play.

I read somewhere that the only enrichment that gifted kids truly need is paper and implements to write or draw with. I don’t really believe that, but it is a great beginning.

At my house, we have lots of toys, too many toys: computers, video game systems, Legos, blocks, dolls, costumes, and more.

If given the choice, they will almost always pick some form of screen time. But, when told that screen time is not an option, they discover creative resources within themselves.

Books and CDs are sometimes popular, but most of the time, the kids are pulling out cardboard, paper, scissors, tape, string, glue, markers, etc. and making things.

Often, they make books. Comic books are particularly popular with the younger boys, my daughter likes to make activity books, and my eldest has started writing a chapter book. But cardboard is what they really love.

Not long ago, they turned three cardboard boxes into space ships. Of course, space ships are flown by astronauts who need space suits, so one child set out to make space suits out of plain white paper. The most interesting space ships fly to the moon or planets, so another child drew planets and moons and taped them up all over the house. The other children decorated the ships, cut them to fit their pilots, and made sure they were comfortable for passengers (small, stuffed animals).

After a day or three of flying their space ships to the celestial bodies, they tired of that game and the boxes were available for other uses. Before the boxes were ready for recycling, they became robots, helmets, masks, guns, wii controllers, laptops, tablets, phones, spy gear, and pieces of an invented board game before being cut apart to the point that the kids could no longer see possibilities in the remaining pieces.

Jonathan H. Liu wrote a column for GeekDad a couple of years ago called The 5 Best Toys of all Time featuring the classic toys: Stick, Box, String, Cardboard Tube, Dirt. At my house, Box is in a class by its own.

My husband and I know that we are simply not allowed to throw away a cardboard box until the kids have exhausted all its possibilities.
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Kate writes about creativity and story-telling as tools for making sense of the world at www.katearmsroberts.com.

Tender Hearts: The Gift of Emotional Sensitivity


The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this:
A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive.
To him… a touch is a blow,
a sound is a noise,
a misfortune is a tragedy,
a joy is an ecstasy,
a friend is a lover,
a lover is a god,
and failure is death.
Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create – – – so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.
Pearl S. Buck

This quote from Pearl S. Buck is one of my favourite descriptions of the emotional sensitivity I experience in my life and that I witness in my kids.

My children astound me with their emotional responses.

  • One son cried in his sleep for 6 months after a fish died in his classroom aquarium.
  • One son fretted for days because characters in a picture book were cruel to another character.
  • Small consequences for minor rule infractions lead to massive melt-downs and shame spirals.
  • A drawing that doesn’t show what the artist intended gets torn up, and before resuming the project, the artist rages through the house slamming doors and knocking down furniture.
  • Hugs are so intense that they knock the recipient down.
  • The vagaries of playground friendships become epic betrayals and melodramatic reunions.
  • A sunset stops us all in our paths as we gaze in silence together.
  • A pine cone becomes a beloved friend.
  • A favourite book is read and re-read and re-read; the cover falls off and we buy a new copy.
  • We weep when Dumbledore and Charlotte and Eponine die.
  • We laugh so hard we miss the next three jokes.
  • We cry over lyrics and are stopped short by poetry.
  • Music invades our bodies and forces us to dance.
  • We love hard, falling fast and deep, breaking inconsolably, and recover to do it again.
  • Our hearts break and rejoice with the pain and joys of others, friends and strangers alike.

We are emotional sensitivities walking this earth in physical bodies. Finely tuned receivers, we resonate with the frequencies of the world, amplifying sorrow and joy as they pass through us.

If we defend ourselves from the pain, we shut off our capacity for happiness. We must learn to accept that the price of being capable of feeling such joy is that we must also feel the deepest sorrows.

And what tools do we have to manage these extreme emotions?

To my children, I offer a willingness to feel to the depth of my being and the depth of theirs, to let it be acceptable to feel. I offer them my experience, compassion and empathy, a large collection of art supplies, music and drama lessons, and hugs.

Lots and lots of hugs.
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Kate writes about creativity and story-telling as tools for making sense of the world at www.katearmsroberts.com, where she has made available a companion piece: Emotional Intensity and Creativity.

Begin With a Single Step


New beginnings. 2013 is full of them for me: new classes I am teaching; new writing commitments; new trainings to lead more workshops; and a new business. And all of them stem from big visions I have.

And the trouble with a big vision is that it can be hard to keep hold of the goal during the thousand and one baby steps it takes to implement it.

How many gifted people see a complex problem and a solution and get stuck between the vision and the reality? My guess is many. I certainly see it every day with my children.

Big visions are nothing new to me. What is new this year is my approach. So far, this year, I have been taking some time every day to remind myself that the only way to achieve grand things is to take steps in the right direction every day.

I invite those of you with grand goals to join me: one step at a time. And if we keep walking, we’ll get somewhere eventually.

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Kate can usually be found writing about writing at www.katearmsroberts.com.

The Joy of Completing a Challenge


Today, I accompanied my eldest child and his class of gifted 4th graders on a field trip to the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The Lightbox is the home of the Toronto International Film Festival. As part of their year-round programming, they offer opportunities for kids to learn how to make films. The gifted classes at my son’s school go for a day each year from 4th grade to 8th grade and get more advanced instruction each trip.

The day promised to be challenging, but I hoped it would be rewarding. My son loves visual storytelling, but struggles with group work. I knew that if he could find a spirit of collaboration, he would love the day – but, there was always the possibility of a complete disaster.

At the beginning of the day, the students got a crash course in storytelling and script formatting. They were then divided into groups of 5-6 students and told to write a 2-3 page screenplay for a story involving four kids their age sitting around a table.

My son struggles with rapid idea generation. He has an outrageous and vivid imagination, but is slow to get his first ideas. Somebody else at the table threw out an idea quickly that most of the group loved, but not my guy. We nearly had a melt-down, but with a combination of my coaching and generous suggestions from his group, the writing got underway. Once the group got going, the adults sat back and watched.

After writing for 45 minutes, the groups got up to read their scripts to each other. This served as a pitch session because after the readings, the students would vote on which script would be produced. Knowing the intensities of gifted kids, I worried about how the kids who didn’t have theirs chosen might react.

The leader had a good voting system: secret ballot and each person was to vote for two scripts. The kids had a sense that it was fair. It was nice that they got to vote for their own script even if they thought another script was better; they could feel good both about themselves and their classmates.

As expected, the writers of the winning script were thrilled. Screams and shouts and jumping up and down ensued.

The instructor let them enjoy a little celebration. But, not for long. There was work to be done.

Casting was by lottery, entered only by those who wanted to act. The rest of the class became the directors, assistant directors, sound engineers, camera operators, and slate, working in self-selected teams.

The instructor sent the actors out of the room to memorize their lines and gave each production team a crash course in their responsibilities. He led them through a rehearsal and then they filmed the movie. They had two cameras and two mic booms. The director team took as many takes as they needed to get a good shot. The assistant directors coordinated everybody. Someone slated the takes. They used wide shots and close-ups, and a special point of view shot for an effect called for in the script. The kids worked hard, learning quickly and needing less coaching as the afternoon went on.

Until, they all got tired, seemingly at once.

They had absorbed a huge amount of information, and concentrated hard all day. They could see the finish line. But, the actors started making mistakes and one of the camera operators got a little sloppy. The first three shots each needed 3-5 takes. The fourth and final shot took 11 takes.

As the final shot was reshot and reshot, the energy in the room flagged. The group responded to the line flubs and sloppy camera work with a collective slump.

With the authority of experience, the instructor stepped in, rallied the troops, gave the actors some direction, and got the shot.

The whoops and hollers when the team of student directors called”Cut” were wild. They did another take for luck, but everybody knew they had the footage they needed for the entire film.

They had done it.

As a group, they had gone from knowing nothing about making a film to having shot a film in less than a day.

The footage will be turned over to an editor at the Lightbox who will edit the film, add a title, music, and credits. Within a couple of weeks, the class will be able to watch their two-minute movie on a DVD in their classroom. In expect the joy and celebration of that viewing will be spectacular. Perhaps for some of them, one of the best gifts they receive this year.

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Kate can usually be found writing about writing at www.katearmsroberts.com.

Grappling With Gratitude


I have always has trouble with gratitude as an abstract concept, and with gratitude journals as a practice.

My intellectual overexcitabilities often manifest as a need for tight linguistic precision. The word gratitude means a feeling of being grateful. Being grateful means an appreciation of a kindness or a benefit received. Receipt of a kindness or a benefit implies a source or giver, an agency. And the word gift indicates that something is offered without expectation of return. If the definition includes the lack of expectation, the implication is that a giver has the choice to expect a return or not. And so, the word gratitude implies receipt of a gift from a conscious, decision-making entity.

I have no trouble with the idea of gratitude with regard to a kindness a person has done me, but I am not thankful for a beautiful sunset, no matter how much I may appreciate it. A sunset is a natural phenomenon. No one created that sunset. Nobody gave it to me. It just is.

But, a beautiful sunset is a thing to appreciate and value.

For anyone who is uncomfortable with gratitude journals as a practice, I offer an alternative from InterPlay. InterPlay is a bodywisdom practice that helps people integrate all the elements of their experience into one playful, messy whole through improvisational forms derived from the performance arts. It is a tremendously useful set of tools for highly sensitive people.

One of the 8 basic principles of InterPlay is “Notice the good stuff.” I have written about this principle several times on my own blog. The basic principle is very simple. Keep your awareness open for the good stuff and acknowledge it. Like the discipline of a gratitude journal, this is a tool for focusing on the positive things in your life.

In every moment, there are good and bad things. Focusing on the good doesn’t make the bad go away, but it does make it easier to take.

A gentle practice for noticing the good stuff is as follows. Take a deep breath and let it out on a sigh. Repeat. Shake out one hand. Shake out the other. Shake out a leg. Shake out the other leg. Give your whole body a shake, gentle or vigorous as feels good to you. Soften your focus so that you become aware of your peripheral vision. Enter the next activity of your life with the intention of looking for the good. When you see a good thing, take a deep breath to acknowledge and savor it. For a more powerful experience, acknowledge it aloud to another person.

One thing I like about the practice I just described is that it brings you into awareness of the good stuff in the moment. Unlike a gratitude journal entry written before bed, it is not a reflective practice. It is a practice in present awareness. I invite you to try it and see how it feels in your body.

For more information about InterPlay, I recommend reading the following and then looking for a class or playgroup near you: The Power of Play, Sneaky-Deep: Easing Into Truth and A Few InterPlay Forms.

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Kate can usually be found writing about writing at www.katearmsroberts.com.