Rainforest Minds in Academia

Image from: https://pixabay.com/photos/academic-ancient-architecture-2769/

I’ve been working in academia for 12 years now – longer, if you count my four years as a graduate student. My goal in this post is to explore whether rainforest minds flourish in academia – and why or why not. I’ll begin by providing context for my own journey in this space.

As an undergraduate majoring in literature, I got good enough at theorizing and writing academic papers that I was told I should/could consider a career in academia. However, writing detailed analyses of novels, plays, and poetry – while satisfying as an abstract skill-set – didn’t strike me as particularly useful for the world. I was eager to get out and make things better, by teaching kids.

With that said, as I wrote about in a previous post, teaching elementary school only lasted so long as a novel learning sphere to explore. Earning my doctorate degree and taking my education studies to the “next level” felt like a logical next step once I had a few years of practical teaching experience under my belt.

I was naive enough to only apply to one institution: the local public R1 university in the major metropolitan city where I lived and worked. I crossed my fingers that things would work out okay (not knowing the slightest thing about how fickle graduate school admissions really are), and was lucky enough to be accepted for both a masters and a doctoral degree in one fell swoop. Whew.

I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted out of academia other than the ability to “teach teachers”, but I was surprisingly clear in my focus on the end goal of earning a Ph.D.  (This bears mentioning because of how often I’ve read about other RFMs starting degrees and not finishing them; for whatever reason, this wasn’t an issue for me. I’m actually a pretty hardcore “completist” about certain projects or goals in life, and this gets me through.)

I did worry, however, about how a career in academia would mesh with my goals of having a family. I wasn’t getting any younger (I was 29 when I started my four-year program), and knew I would need to make some high-stakes decisions pretty soon. I decided not to worry about it for the time being, and simply finish up – which I did.

When I got pregnant during my first year after graduation, I still wondered how it was all going to work out – but went ahead and applied for tenure line positions anyway. And, I got one. I gave birth to my daughter C. a couple of weeks before the start of the fall quarter at my new institution.

The position I accepted was at a local liberal arts college, with high expectations for teaching and community service, and low expectations for research output. This seemed in alignment with my goal of simultaneously being a new parent, but it meant I suddenly shifted into a radically different type of academic space than the one I’d been studying in for four years.  It was a stark difference, to say the least – and while I adored being back “on the ground” with teachers, I missed the intellectual stimulation of being around so many top-notch researchers.

Within a few years, my husband and I decided we wanted to relocate to another state where raising our growing family would be both easier and cheaper – so, I bid adieu to my tenure-line position and sank into existential depression over what would come next for me work-wise. Thankfully, an inquiry email led to a meeting with someone at the major R1 university in my new city, who happened to be looking for a qualified instructor for a specific course, which turned into a part-time directorship of a masters program, then a full-time directorship, and eventually back to part-time once I realized I couldn’t actually stay healthy and parent my three kids effectively while working that much.

I’ve been on a 0.6 lecturer contract in academia for quite a few years now, and it’s been a nearly perfect balance in terms of workload and flexibility. I don’t really conduct much research of my own anymore; instead, I work with masters students on their “action research” projects, teach and construct plenty of classes, serve on doctoral committees, and generally stay immersed in academia without the pressures of “publish or perish” (though also without any of the job security or prestige associated with tenure-line work).

I mention all this as a backdrop to, and context for, the original topic of my post: rainforest minds in academia. Would one expect to find lots of rainforest minded-folks at the highest levels of study, or not – and why?

At first, the answer seems like an intuitive – yes, of course. Wouldn’t the world’s smartest, most curious people end up getting the most rigorous degrees possible and spending their lives surrounded by learning?

Well, yes and no. It’s likely that most people who’ve gotten doctorate degrees and landed jobs in academia were designated “gifted” as kids – meaning, they had “the capability to perform at higher levels compared to others of the same age, experience, and environment in one or more domains.” 

But are they now rainforest minded adults? Not necessarily. Professors are not all “excessively curious, creative, smart and sensitive.”

Rather, many are single-mindedly focused on a specific area of inquiry, working long hours plugging away at incremental work that takes years of dedication. Conducting research, writing academic papers, submitting and resubmitting papers for publication, and seeking grant money can be grueling work that isn’t for the faint of heart – or for the fickle of interests.

Indeed, I’ve struggled over the years to stay sufficiently interested in any specific facet of my work (research-wise) for long enough to really make a dent in “the literature”, or make a name for myself. Each time I think I have an inkling of what I want to say, I find there’s more to explore and reflect on, and I’m off on another tangent. I just don’t quite have the type of relentless focus on singular projects required of highly productive academics.

However, there are some exceptions to the trope of what “highly productive” means in academia. The type of academics who can (and do) write articles and books for the broader public tend to take a more holistic approach to their work, looking not only deeply but broadly at any given problem. They make unusual connections, seek out new perspectives, and aren’t afraid to admit that their thinking has changed on a topic when provided with new evidence.

I believe these are rainforest minded academics.

Sadly, they’re all too rare. Most academics I’ve either known or know of tend to “stay in their lane” for the good of their own careers. There’s a fear of speaking with any semblance of authority (or even curiosity) about something one isn’t sufficiently grounded in with deep expertise as a scholar – which means oh-so-many potential “a ha” moments are lost in the noise of safety and specialization.

Speaking of safety, academia is a notoriously unsafe space to speak up about challenging topics. This is ironic, since you’d think scholars would be the first to throw out new and innovative ideas – but there’s an in-group tendency that can quite literally be stifling.

This primarily has to do with the peer-driven structure of academia, as colleagues rate your work and determine whether your contributions are sufficient to merit a promotion (and eventually tenure). It also has to do with what “counts” as useful contributions to one’s field. Community service at R1 institutions is lauded through lip service, but not given anything close to the same weight as publishing yet another paper in a peer-reviewed journal (which leads to plenty of “dead weight” recycling of similar ideas in slightly different guises).

It’s a tricky, sticky situation – one that’s ultimately led me to determine that academia isn’t really the ideal space for me. I’m far too interested in making a direct difference in the world, and speaking “the truth” as I know it. I don’t want to follow the “rules of the game” simply to get ahead. What would be the point of that?

So, I follow my conscience and my passions rather than a prescribed set of “guidelines for success”. While I managed to make it through the strictures of a doctoral degree and four years on the tenure line, apparently that was it for me.

And here I am with my rainforest mind, formally anchored to a specific field for the purposes of my job, but feeling like a permanent imposter (because if you don’t buckle down and focus in academia, you’re not really “the best”).

However, I’m not sure I have any other choice, given the way my brain works – and I’m also not sure I would necessarily be happier (or more content, or less questioning) if I were wired differently.

Life itself – huge, messy, complicated, untethered by institutional mandates –  continues to beckon to me as a much more intriguing option.

Coming Out as an RFM

Image from: https://pixabay.com/photos/turtle-landscape-nature-3340266/

Ever since starting this blog, I’ve wanted to talk about what it’s like to “come out” as a Rainforest Mind (a.k.a. “gifted adult”).

I’ve thought quite a bit (naturally – RFMs are “overthinkers”!) about using the term “coming out”, and it continues to feel like the right one to me.

My giftedness as a child was a source of isolation, frustration, and bullying. As an adult, my giftedness has been a source of – well, isolation, frustration, and social loneliness. It’s certainly not something I ever talk about openly with other adults, who tend to get uncomfortable at the mere mention of the G word, especially related to adults.

Hence: “coming out”. Attempting to normalize. Attempting to feel publicly okay about “being a certain way”. I’m on the road, but not there yet.

In previous years, as I sought out therapy for ongoing challenges and depression (ever-present, though thankfully managed well these days), my last two counselors both pointed out that being a “gifted adult” was something I might want to consider as an integral and exploration-worthy part of my identity. I pushed back by saying I wasn’t interested in joining Mensa (I have very little interest in IQ per se), and that I really wasn’t quite sure how this related to much of anything.

My first “formal” introduction (on my own) to the idea of giftedness in adulthood was stumbling upon Marylou Kelly Streznewski’s  (1999) Gifted grownups: The mixed blessings of extraordinary potential. (If a book has been written about something, then surely it’s a “thing” – right?) I knew all about being designated “gifted” as a child and navigating those schooling waters – but what did it mean, exactly, to use this term later in life? As Streznewski writes in her Preface:

“If you think that gifted children are a misunderstood minority in American society, try looking up ‘gifted adult’ in a good library; but do so only if you enjoy watching librarians twirl” (p. v).

In discussing her motivation for writing this book (which involved first conducting in-depth interviews with 100 participants), she describes being a high school Advanced Placement English teacher seeing students who “needed special help”:

“Year after year, a significant number of them arrived in my class at the end of a long road fogged with what they called boredom. They complained of inability to concentrate, lack of motivation, feelings of failure, and were obviously wasting a great deal of talent” (p. vi).

I haven’t written yet about my experiences as a gifted teenager (that’s a whole other set of blog posts), but the brief story is – I didn’t cope well; I dropped out of middle school, then out of high school, then out of college (the first time around).

In other words, I am yet another example of Streznewski’s findings that “managing a high-powered brain/mind can create difficulties in school, work, and society, and can make finding friends and partners a challenge” – and that “the problems and pleasures of being gifted do not change, only the context in which they are experienced as one grows older” (p. viii).

Looking back at the notes I took while reading Streznewski’s book, I see so many sections underlined, circled, check-marked, and/or annotated with “me” in the margins. Here are just a few from various chapters:

Chapter 3 (In Hiding): “I’m careful so my girlfriends won’t think I’m showing off. I guess I just don’t want to make other people feel bad” … “I have to be careful about dates. The last person was angry with me for using big words” (p. 42).

Chapter 4 (The Gifted Family):“You get so tired of trying, looking, hoping, every party you go to, every new house you move into, that you will find someone who is compatible” (p. 60).

Chapter 6 (Young Adults: The Extra Mile): “I hate Tupperware parties! I’d rather stay home and read” (p. 117).

Chapter 7 (Bored, Bored, Bored: The Quest for Challenging Work): “What may be viewed by others as restlessness or discontent is the norm for a gifted person” (p. 135).

Chapter 8 (Finding the Others: Friends and Lovers): “I can create unusual responses to situations which are interesting and catch me by surprise. When I am emotionally threatened, I become hyper-intellectual” (p. 192).

Okay – all of this (and much, much more) really resonated with me. So, I would say that reading Streznewski’s book was part of my “coming out” – though once again, there weren’t many people I could converse with about it. I did try recommending it to one friend/colleague who never responded, then gave up.

The next time I intentionally brought up giftedness was when I joined a SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) parent support group. I couldn’t help reading our parenting textbook through the lens of my own experiences, and continually said to my group of parent-peers: “It’s super-hard to separate the parenting of my own kids from what I went through myself as a gifted kid, not receiving adequate support. I think I need to process that first.” Indeed, parenting my own “designated-gifted” kids has given me permission to talk more openly about “the G word” – and to think more deeply about what it means.

Attending a SENG conference also brought me face-to-face with a fellow gifted-adult traveler, Aurora Remember Holtzman, who told me about her podcast, Embracing Intensity. Aurora was one of the first people I spoke with personally (albeit briefly) about accepting, exploring, and embracing adult giftedness – with all its intensities. (I will return to more ideas from her podcast interviews in future blog posts.) 

Meanwhile, Paula Prober’s more recent work around Rainforest Minds (a more palatable phrase than “gifted adult”) has also gained a bit of a following. With her books and blog, Prober seems to be intentionally cultivating a sense of community and “normalcy” around rainforest mindedness (a.k.a. adult giftedness).

I hope the stigma of giftedness will lessen with time. I really do believe that diversity of all types is critical to human flourishing (and indeed, that we can’t avoid it). Now we “just” need to overcome avoidance of discussions around intellectual diversity.

I hope that for me, “coming out” as gifted can eventually shift to “reaching out” to like-minded souls instead.

References: 

Streznewski, M.K. (1999). Gifted grownups: The mixed blessings of extraordinary potential. John Wiley & Sons.

 

Schooling Choices for Gifted Kids

Now that I’ve talked a bit about my own schooling experiences growing up as a gifted kid, I thought I would jump into a brief overview of where I’ve landed as a parent.

I’ll start by stating that despite knowing how much “being gifted” impacted my own experiences as a child in school, I was very happily in denial about needing to address this concern once I had kids of my own.

Giftedness is a complicated, messy, contentious topic to deal with – especially as someone who’s dedicated my professional career to promoting educational equity and inclusion in schools.

How could I reconcile the reality of giftedness as a designation with the fact that all kids need individualized attention and care? In my ideal world, every child would have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) outlining their strengths and areas for growth, with plenty of ongoing support. (In fact, as I’m writing this, I realize I need to write a separate post about “My Ideal Schooling World.” Coming soon, hopefully.) 

It was easy enough for me to avoid thinking about parenting gifted kids when mine were super-young. Early parenting literature doesn’t tend to use this term; there’s way too much else to focus on and learn. The biggest concerns I had (other than survival!) were tracking my kids’ developmental milestones; ensuring they felt loved and validated; and providing “good-enough” spaces for their growth and positive socialization. Thankfully, my kids got all that from their community of caregivers, which included parents, grandparents, nannies, daycare providers, and preschool teachers.

After a big move from one state to another, my older daughter C. and her younger two siblings all eventually ended up attending a nearby Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool that we were very happy to call a second home. My kids were well cared for by their fabulous teachers, given plenty of space for creativity and expression, and encouraged to explore reading and writing at their own pace. I was able to continue my own career path while knowing my kids were in good hands and making lifelong friends.

However, when C. started Kindergarten in 2013, the situation became a little trickier. We considered sending her to a private school that seemed like an awesome continuation of her hands-on preschool experience, but we decided against it for the following reasons: 1) the cost; 2) concern about C. attending school exclusively with kids from more privileged socio-economic spaces; 3) wanting to support our neighborhood public school, which I’ll refer to here as “NE” for “Neighborhood Elementary”.

Thankfully, C.’s Kindergarten experience at NE went fine. My primary concerns were with C.’s overall happiness and sense of well-being, rather than academics, and she seemed to be on a good path. At that time, testing for the “advanced placement” program (gifted services) in our school district occurred on a select Saturday in the fall, which you had to sign up for ahead of time and drive your own kid to (not exactly egalitarian). I was inclined to ignore it and not go, but my husband made the effort and took C.

From what I recall, she did well but not quite well-enough to make the cut for gifted services, which suited me just fine: one less decision to make. She happily stayed at NE, went through gifted testing once again in 1st grade (with the same results – she qualified in math, but not in reading), and was still there when my son D. started Kindergarten in 2015.

D.’s Kindergarten experience at NE was also – fine. He had a lovely and understanding teacher who tried her best to differentiate for all kids, balancing academics with plenty of socio-emotional support and play. D.’s best friend from preschool happened to be in his classroom, which made life even better.

By 1st grade, however, D. was struggling at NE. He had already mastered the basics (and beyond) of reading, science, and math, and was clearly bored. His well-meaning teacher didn’t seem to understand that he craved more advanced curriculum, and in addition to ongoing toileting accidents, he began taking out his frustration on kids who he perceived to be “not following the rules”. (This was before we had a clear understanding about his neurodiversity.) When he lashed out physically (actually hitting other kids), we knew things weren’t okay, and immediately found him a counselor – which was a helpful supplement, but not enough.

D.’s scores on the district’s gifted placement testing (by this point administered district-wide to all kids, during the school day) were really high but not quite high enough – once again allowing us to simply decide to stay at NE (where I was meanwhile getting more and more actively involved in PTA governance). C. still qualified for “single subject” gifted services in math – meant to be delivered in her regular classroom (though since there was no accountability around this actually happening, it didn’t most of the time).

We got word late in the summer of 2015 that D.’s gifted testing scores had been re-calibrated, and he was suddenly offered a spot in an advanced placement classroom for 2nd grade at a different (nearby) school. We had to say yes to this opportunity: D. needed something different, and this was the next logical thing to try.

So – despite the fact that I was continuing to serve as NE’s PTA Co-President for a second year, and C. was very happily starting 4th grade at NE with an amazing teacher who met her needs on every level – including finally differentiating with more advanced math – D. went off to OE (“Other Elementary”). With my youngest still in preschool, we had an interesting year of juggling three different schools (not totally uncommon, I know, but still – it’s a lot).

Thankfully, D. adjusted reasonably well to his new advanced placement classroom, and we knew we’d made the best decision for him. (I say “reasonably” because it turns out he was still struggling with the other challenges I’ve written about on this blog.)

However, even more changes were afoot. We decided to buy a house in a more rural part of town (though still in the same district), which meant our kids had to adjust to new schools yet again. C. had finally passed the reading/writing portion of the “gifted test” with sufficiently high scores to qualify for a spot in the advanced placement program, which meant all three of our kids – now in Kindergarten, 3rd grade, and 5th grade – could actually attend the same school – for one year.

And now, as I continue to explore and embrace what giftedness means for my kids, I wonder: how will being in classes designed specifically for kids who’ve qualified for more advanced math and reading (one grade level above) impact their experiences? Have they (and will they) feel less isolated than I was as a kid, when I was sent off (metaphorically) to work my own way through different textbooks?

And what does it mean for me – as an equity-minded educator, parent, RFM adult, former-gifted-kid, and citizen – that I’ve chosen to send my kids to “tracked” classrooms? This is far from ideal on so many levels (and I’ll continue to talk about this).

However, all of life is a series of trade-offs. While I haven’t fully come to terms with my choices in this sphere, for the time being I can say with confidence that having my kids in more academically challenging classrooms seems to have been a net-positive – and for that, as well as the opportunity simply to choose at all – I’m grateful.

Getting Real About Giftedness

Me with my stamp collection in 5th (?) grade

Talking about gifted kids – and giftedness more broadly – is challenging; I’ve already explored that tension a bit on this blog, and will continue to do so.

With that said, as much as I love Paula Prober’s alternative phrase rainforest mind to describe myself as an “excessively curious, creative, smart and sensitive adult,”  gifted remains a specific and useful diagnostic term for kids who need differentiated attention and instruction in order to be successful in school.

I’m actually a fan of placing giftedness within the sphere of “learning differences”, as addressed by Special Education mandates in schools – meaning, teachers need to understand that a designation of gifted doesn’t simply mean the child is capable of more advanced work, but rather has a unique set of needs, dispositions, and potential challenges to address and work with. And that’s not even factoring in twice-exceptionality (i.e., other confounding challenges, including neurodiversity, anxiety, ADHD, etc.).

In this post, I’ll be sharing a bit about my own journey as a gifted kid navigating through a public school system in the United States. Hopefully, the chronological progression I’ve chosen here will make it clear how, despite best efforts by many, formal schooling eventually grew less and less tolerable for me.

As a younger child, I attended a local community preschool a couple of days a week and otherwise explored learning on my own and with my three siblings, with daily support from “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”. I don’t precisely recall learning to read, but it happened early and without effort. On the other hand, I DO remember the moment I knew I HAD to learn how to put my thoughts into writing: my mom was eager to get out the door to run an errand, but I wouldn’t stop bugging her with questions about how to spell various words. Eventually I learned how to navigate this on my own, and took off with emergent writing as well.

Kindergarten was basically a joy. I adored being in a bilingual (English-Spanish) classroom which emphasized play, music, art, friendship, and imagination. I don’t recall any sense of competition between kids at this point, other than an adult commenting once on how precisely I drew a tiny circle during an art project (without tracing). I got to practice the alphabet in both languages, and learn some basic terms in Spanish. (To this day, Spanish is my most fluent non-native language, despite never having lived in a Spanish-speaking country.)

First grade is when schooling challenges began to surface. Kids were suddenly expected to sit at their desks and listen quietly, and we were collectively punished for the misbehavior of a few naughty kids. Meanwhile, differences between our varying academic abilities were made stark: since I already knew how to read, write, and do basic math, I was given “next-grade-up” textbooks in each of these topics and asked to simply work on my own. Occasionally I was sent to other (older) classrooms to hang out for a while, but I mostly recall an increasing sense of isolation and separatism from my peers during core subject times. Thankfully, I had good friends in first grade and wasn’t socially anxious, so recess time allowed for plenty of connecting and play.

By second grade, I had tested into the district’s gifted program – but since this didn’t officially start until fourth grade, I distinctly recall teachers not being exactly sure what to do with me. I continued to be given separate textbooks and projects in core subjects, and was expected to simply learn and practice math, reading, and writing on my own, since I’d demonstrated proficiency using this “method” until then. On an emotional level, I unfortunately experienced relentless bullying that year, both from boys and from my supposed best girl-friends, and my anxiety skyrocketed. (Bullying of gifted kids merits its own post, so I’ll leave it at that for now.)

My parents met with my teacher to discuss having me skip third grade, but they collectively decided against it since they deemed me too “socially immature”. (One other child my age at my school was also offered the possibility of “grade promotion” – skipping third grade – which his parents said yes to. I can’t speak to J.’s emotional well-being, of course, but he’s a married professor with two kids at a prestigious university, so from outer appearances, things seem to have worked well for him.) 

In third grade I had a lovely teacher (more of a friend than a teacher) and an awesome best friend, and my “bully friends” were placed in a different class – so, life was good. My teacher assumed I would understand everything easily (which I did), so I was simply allowed to read books, have fun, and enjoy existence. Because life at school was so stress-free, I actually looked happy in my school photo that year. On the down side, I wasn’t challenged academically at all, and was continuing to internalize the notion that learning “should” simply be easy and natural for me, as the “smartest kid in the class”.

Fourth grade was when the “upper grades” started at my school – as well as the formal gifted-and-talented education (GATE) program. For one full day a week, the district’s GATE kids were bused over to my school (we had the most available classrooms) and we would rotate through a series of highly enjoyable, hands-on classes with committed teachers. I was no longer “the smartest kid in the room” and I LOVED this. In retrospect, I’m embarrassed and frustrated that not all kids were given the privilege of such a refreshing break from “school as usual”. However, at the time, I was simply happy about the opportunity for myself.

In terms of regular academics, I recall trying to get everything done in school (including homework) so I could have the afternoon and evening free – in other words, schoolwork was for “getting done”, not for actually learning from or engaging with meaningfully.

In fifth grade, I was placed in a combination 4th/5th bilingual classroom, with the result that everything about our class was differentiated, so I don’t recall feeling like a sore thumb – plus, I got to make good new friends who were in the 4th grade, and listen to my teacher repeat instructions in Spanish (yahoo!). A notable exception to not feeling “different” was during spelling bees, when I would ruin the experience for the entire class by never getting a word wrong.

Sixth grade, the final year at my elementary school, was when everything fell apart. My teacher – Mr. F., a notoriously strict taskmaster – required all the “GATE kids” to make up the work we’d missed during the day when we were “gone”. Meanwhile, acceleration for gifted kids in Mr. F.’s class meant doing boring research projects (not of our own choosing) and writing lengthy reports about what we’d learned. I was mercifully allowed to sit in one of the “corral” desks and simply read all day, unless Mr. F. was yelling at me for not paying attention. Mr. F.’s teaching fell squarely into inexcusable territory when he randomly assigned all girls and boys in the class a “romantic partner”, and started a “fat club” for all the “overweight” kids, who would receive free McDonald’s lunches from him once a week. Clearly, my sixth grade experience was a disaster on all counts.

This is when my true depression began, and eventually I descended into a challenging path that derailed me from “traditional school” for years. However, since this post is lengthy enough for now, I’ll end by noting the biggest takeaways I can glean from my own overview of what “worked”(or not) for me as a gifted kid:

  • Teachers obviously mattered – a lot.  Other than Mr. F., I had a range of teachers who helped me feel comfortable and welcome to varying degrees in class. Some were friendlier than others, but what the best ones all had in common was not making me feel awkward, “different”, or penalized because of my giftedness. Socially-speaking, I was simply a member of the class.
  • Friends also mattered, of course. Most of my best friends as a child weren’t designed “gifted”; rather, they were kind and fun girls who I bonded with and enjoyed spending time with.
  • Being asked to work ahead in next-grade textbooks in math, reading, and spelling was better than being forced to sit and listen to material I already knew – but it also reinforced two challenging “truths”: 1) I was expected to simply learn things on my own (from books), and 2) I was positioned as an outlier needing to be “dealt with”.
  • The weekly GATE program was an amazing life-saver for me personally – but ultimately a band-aid serving (mostly) privileged kids from more socio-economically advantaged homes; it almost certainly promoted many feelings of inequity and exclusion in the rest of the school.
  • Speaking of pull-out programs, being forced to make up work that you’ve “missed” while attending a gifted class is obviously cruel and pointless – as is requiring gifted kids to do boring research reports “just because they can”, without bothering to inquire about authentic interests.

I’ve only briefly touched on the socio-emotional aspects of growing up gifted, which I’ll turn to in another post – and of course there were so many other factors, both positive and negative, that played a part in my experiences. For now, this overview at least provides a historical glimpse of what schooling looked like for me as a gifted kid who eventually dropped out of school time and again, and rejected formal schooling for years on end.

Thankfully, I’ve emerged as a rainforest-minded adult with a rich life, and all’s well that ends well – but I can only image the possibilities if my first years of schooling had been better tailored to meet my needs.

Solfege and Chisanbop

Image from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Solfege_hand_sign_la.jpg

In my last post, I talked about the challenges associated with keeping my rainforest mind sufficiently busy as a child.  I shared that one thing I would do if I didn’t have a book or other form of writing around me to read was to hum a tune in solfege – defined by MusicTheoryTutor.org as:

… a system where every note of a scale is given its own unique syllable, which is used to sing that note every time it appears. A major or a minor scale (the most common scales in Western classical music) has seven notes, and so the solfege system has seven basic syllables: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti.

Americans will probably be most familiar with solfege from Maria von Trapp (a.k.a. Julie Andrews) singing “Do-Re-Mi” around the streets of Salzburg with her wards in The Sound of Music (1965) (one of my all-time favorite movies). The song teaches solfege through the following homophones:

Doe, a deer, a female deer

Ray, a drop of golden sun

Me, a name I call myself

Fa, a long long way to go

Sew, a needle pulling thread

La, a note that follows Sol

Tea, a drink with jam and bread

That will bring us back to Doe

Once the solfege “alphabet” is acquired and rehearsed, it serves as a magical key to the musical universe. Every single melody (at least in Western music – other scales and systems have their own unique entryways) can be “solfeged” – and since I was also studying piano as a child (my choice – I insisted on lessons), I would often combine solfege with moving my fingers in the air or on my legs as though playing over a keyboard.

In addition to solfege, I engaged my fingers and mind with chisanbop, a Korean-developed method of counting to one hundred on one’s two hands (right hand = ones, left hand = tens). Chisanbop came to America at just the right time for me to learn it as a first grader, at which point I very quickly become ultra-proficient, spending my recess time experimenting with ways to multiply by various numbers. (Sadly, none of my friends seemed particularly interested in watching or participating, so I recall simply doing this on my own.) 

Chisanbop went out of style in schools shortly after this, for reasons I’ve never understood – but I never lost it, and have continued to use my hands to count (and subtract, multiply, and divide) to this day.

As a fun side-story, I ended up being given the nickname “Chisanbop” during a volunteer teaching gig a couple of years ago at a minimum security men’s prison. My co-instructor and I were offering a series of modules on learning and leadership, and I used chisanbop as a literally hands-on example of how one might learn and teach something new. The guys were super-intrigued, and many took to it quickly – though one in particular, D., struggled quite a bit. Each time D. came to follow-up classes, he greeted me with a smile, said, “Hey, Chisanbop”, and gave me an update on how he was proceeding with his practice – which included trying to teach it to other men in the prison to get better at it himself.

I mention both solfege and chisanbop together in this post to highlight just two of the ways I kept my brain creatively engaged as a sensory-minded, twice-exceptional kiddo – without realizing at the time that this was what I was doing (or why). In hindsight, I can see how integrally connected these both were with embodied cognition: that is, I was desperate to make a connection between what my brain was cycling through (knowing/learning math and music), and how this might manifest bodily in the world (through my fingers).

I use the term “desperate” because as fun as these activities were, they sometimes felt almost like addictive and/or compulsive tendencies. I consider them a form of “coping OCD” that eventually went away. (I’ll write more about this in another post, since there’s a lot more to say about OCD and gifted kids.)

But most of the time, solfege and chisanbop served me well. Chisanbop gave me an always-available way to quickly count points during games, for instance, while solfege became the foundation for a much more extensive understanding of musical theory – which proved surprisingly useful in college.

As I wrote about in a previous post, I went to college because I knew I needed a bachelor’s degree of some kind to go on and get a teaching credential – but I wasn’t clear on what to study, or why. I ended up majoring in literature and minoring in music simply because I liked them both, despite not really understanding (at first) what either of these specializations entailed.

It turns out that studying music at the college level meant not just performing but really getting into the weeds of how music is constructed – i.e., the  nuts and bolts of its existence, which includes taking solfege to a whole other level. In one of my beginning music theory classes, we had an infamous “64 Intervals Test” that was conducted orally in front of everybody. One at a time, we were given 64 different intervals, both ascending and descending, and asked to name each one. I completed my test perfectly on the first try – probably in no small part because I’d spent my childhood solfegging non-stop inside my brain. In future quarters of more advanced music theory, we were given portions of simple Bach  chorales and asked to dictate the chords we heard; this was harder, but I still did well.

Since I was minoring rather than majoring in music, I wasn’t required to give a performance in the “big concert hall” – a good thing, since I was just barely getting myself up to performance-speed and didn’t feel nearly confident enough to pull something like this off. While I’d spent years loving music in the abstract, I knew I wasn’t cut out for a career in performance.

With that said, my interest in unusual music intrigued my piano instructor, who had never before worked with someone fascinated by early twentieth century American composers like Samuel Barber and George Antheil. My instructor encouraged me to put on a “Fridays at Four” concert in the music building, which was much lower-stakes, and allowed me to share the stage with a fellow student.

I performed part of Antheil’s “Airplane Sonata” and several of Barber’s “Excursions”, practicing just enough to  prove I could put on a reasonable show, but knowing this would be my “last hurrah” with both piano concerts and getting anywhere close to “perfection” – which it was. A handful of my good friends came to watch me and took me out to lunch afterwards. I still remember this fondly, and regret not having a recording of it to watch. (This was a different era in technology.) 

I spent a good many years after this wondering why, exactly, I’d chosen to study music, since I never planned on making a career of it. Many moons later – after lengthy deliberation and reading about the value of liberal arts degrees more broadly –  I’ve come to realize that there was nothing at all “wrong” about choosing to study music for awhile, as opposed to anything else. Something about its innate structure and beauty struck me as worthwhile – and that hasn’t gone away. Music continues to be almost like magic to me: it’s so powerful I almost can’t bear it at times. I actually have to stay away unless or until I’m ready to engage and get lost in it. (I need to write another post about music, since there’s so clearly so much more here to process and explore.)  

As for chisanbop – while I love having 100 digits available to manipulate on just two hands, I didn’t end up pursing mathematics beyond Pre-Calculus. I spent one hour in a college-level calculus class, found it less intuitive than I wanted, and gave up, never to return. I went in a liberal arts direction instead, and figured if I ever needed or wanted calculus in my life for some reason, I could come back to it.

As a parent now, I watch my three kids with deep curiosity, checking to see how math and music are playing out in their lives. They all take lessons on various instruments, but I don’t push anything too far, and they don’t seem driven. Meanwhile, none have taken up chisanbop, either, so I guess that really does remain my own unique bailiwick.

Obsessions take on different forms, and my kids’ interests are so clearly different from my own. They code and world-create like nobody’s business, making my mind spin with the quickness and intensity of it all – and so it goes with generational evolution; life (and parenting) are never not fascinating and ever-shifting.

 

Having To Do… Absolutely Nothing

Image from: https://pixabay.com/vectors/yin-yang-harmony-balance-silhouette-4401011/

Seeing this humorous (but real) article a couple of weeks ago – in which the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg, Germany is “offering scholarships to three people who would have to do… ‘absolutely nothing'” – made me grin AND reflect on my own tendency as an RFM to always want to do “too much”.

Questions on the application form for this very-unique scholarship include:

What do you want not to do? How long do you want not to do it for? Why is it important not to do this particular thing? Why are you the right person not to do it?

According to Dr. Friedrich von Borries (the project’s creator – born the same year as me, I might add – though I have no idea why this fact is on his professional website), this experiment is driven by a desire to understand more about how our current societal “belief in success, in growth, in money” has led us “into the ecological crisis – and social injustice – we are living in”.

Von Borries adds:

“I think that doing nothing is not that easy. You can fail. Your surroundings can become aggressive… And we would love to learn from the experience of those who will receive the grant.”

Years ago, when I shared with one of my beloved aunts how much I had going on – my work, my hobbies, the books I was reading, the writing I was doing, and all my other plans – she listened, paused, then asked me, out of genuine curiosity (and likely concern):

“Do you ever just stop and … do nothing? Perhaps, look around for a little bit?”

I had to admit that I didn’t, really. There was simply too much to do: too many interesting things to explore, too many books to read, too many languages to learn…

I sincerely feared (and still fear) the abyss of “nothingness”. My idea of hell – one of them, anyway is intellectual boredom. As a child, I ALWAYS had a book with me wherever I went (smart phones have now obviated that need, though they bring other challenges to the table). In college, while sitting and listening to lengthy lectures, I either took voracious notes and/or experimented with things like trying to write with my left hand (not easy, and not really possible – I’m a rightie, not an ambidextrie). 

For as long as I can remember, as soon as I’m in a space without any writing in it, I start to mildly panic. I’ve been driven to interrogating my (analog) watch for signs of any letters at all to read (there are some tiny ones engraved on the back…), or checking the backs of bottles or other items in (for instance) a public bathroom for words. If absolutely no writing is available, and I can’t talk to someone else, I’ll turn to humming or tapping tunes on my fingers and engaging in solfege – musical language – to keep my mind engaged in some way. (I’ll write more about solfege in another post.)  

Back to the “Not Doing” project: almost certainly, von Borries won’t select people already experienced in mindful meditation and living peacefully with “not doing”. Individuals who are lucky – and skilled, and persistent – enough to engage with that kind of practice regularly already have a leg up on the rest of us too-busy, overly-doing folks. And speaking of luck, to a certain extent this project is inextricably bound in class privileges as well; only those who can afford to “do nothing” for the sum of $1900 will apply.

(Then again, that amount would actually go a really long way for people in certain contexts… But which individuals will be likely to read this call for participation, anyway?)

Regardless, I agree with von Borries that we need to interrogate our compulsions – to slow down and consider how our actions impact the world around us, and whether doing LESS of whatever it is we’re doing would be beneficial (and in what way, and for whom).

Yuval Noah Harari reflects on this tension in his fascinating book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015). In Chapter 5, entitled “History’s Biggest Fraud”, Harari talks about how humans were “conned” about 10,000 years ago into the Agricultural Revolution, which has led to greater human flourishing overall, but worse outcomes for individuals. He writes:

“Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites” (p. 79).

He goes on to describe how our desire to domesticate animals for our own use led to their extreme and unnatural suffering – just one among many reasons to slow down and consider what we’re doing (and why). (I’m not a vegetarian, though I do believe that the world needs to shift towards a form of conscious omnivory or carnivory. And yes, this is absolutely a topic for another post.)   

In closing, I’m curious to hear about von Borries’ culminating art installation once it occurs. Who will he pick for this project, and why? What, exactly, will he learn from them about intentionally “NOT doing” things? How can a sample size of just three yield meaningful results? Ultimately, however,  it’s the impulse to explore this corner of existence that has me most intrigued. And as always, I’ll stay tuned.

Neurodiversity: Embracing Cognitive Differences

Image retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Neurodiversity_Crowd_1.png

Neurodiversity is a term not yet widely used by society.

Broadly defined, it’s a stance providing “a viewpoint that brain differences are normal, rather than deficits” – but it tends to be used most often when referring to individuals on the autism spectrum, like my 10-year-old son D.

While not nearly as loaded, in some ways neurodiversity is just as iffy and tenuous a term as giftedness. Just as “we’re all gifted in our own way”, surely we all “view the world in a different way” – isn’t that the very nature of epistemology and subjectivity?

But the terms gifted and neurodiverse become much more useful when you consider that kids with these diagnoses, especially in combination, really do need extra, different support in order to be successful in school. An assignment that could appear straightforward and meaningful to 95% of the class, for instance, might legitimately strike the other 5% (i.e., the one twice-exceptional, neurodiverse kid out of 20) as nonsensical or pointless.

To that end, my gifted, neurodiverse son was asked to complete a poem called “Where I’m From” last week, as a creative way to express his origins and let his new 5th grade teacher get to know him a little better. Here is part of the template:

“I am from [specific ordinary item]

From [product name] and [product name]

I am from the [home description]

[adjective], [adjective], [sensory detail]”

etc.

I remember writing this type of poem about myself back in one of the first teacher education courses I took in college, and finding it a profoundly rewarding and insightful experience. I loved getting to think back viscerally to my upbringing,  sharing some of the unique sights and sounds and smells that infused my first-generation Norwegian-American household.

For my neurodiverse son, however, this assignment was perceived as painful and intrusive. He didn’t understand the point of simply filling in the blanks of “specific ordinary item” or “description of family tendency”. It could be that he’s too young to engage with this kind of metaphorical literary activity (I’m curious what his classmates came up with), but it’s more likely he was simply befuddled by the point of it all.

I should add that my son – as I pointed out in my last entryloves language and words. He wants to know the origin of phrases, adores puns, and notices things about words (in terms of roots and spelling) that others might easily miss. He admires and enjoys the silly poetry of Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky.

So, how could I help D. make sense of the “Where I’m From” poetry assignment?

Or, perhaps more appropriately – how could I help his new teacher understand why this kind of activity is so challenging for him?

In a blog post for Scientific American entitled “Clearing Up Some Misconceptions About Neurodiversity” (2019), Aiyana Bailin reminds us that:

Autism and other neurological variations (learning disabilities, ADHD, etc.) may be disabilities, but they are not flaws. People with neurological differences are not broken or incomplete versions of normal people… Neurological variations are a vital part of humanity, as much as variations in size, shape, skin color and personality.

She adds:

When we talk about “not pathologizing autism,” we don’t mean “pretending autistic people don’t have impairments.” But we also don’t assume that neurological and behavioral differences are always problems. For example, there’s nothing inherently wrong with disliking social activities. Not wanting to socialize is different from wanting to participate and being unable to. Both are possibilities for autistic people. One requires acceptance, the other requires assistance.

So – does my son need assistance with writing a poem like “Where I’m From”, or acceptance from his teacher that this simply isn’t something that makes sense to him?

And can I – should I – teach him how to self-advocate on behalf of submitting work that meets the requirements in a different way? 

We got through that particular assignment by doing it together – or rather, I basically fed him ideas for each blank and “we” submitted it.

But – that’s not sustainable or appropriate. And when he was asked the next day to complete another writing assignment about his personal experiences in school (specifically related to online learning during the shutdown in spring), he flat-out refused.

I left him to do the work, and came back to see that he had written something along the lines of, “These questions are too personal. I don’t want to answer them. This is three sentences.” And that was it. (He had been asked to respond to five different sets of prompts, in 3-4 sentences each.)  

I tried engaging with him to see if I could figure out what was bothering him; I reminded him that his teacher was simply trying to learn more about him to help him have a better time with online schooling this year.

He wouldn’t budge.

He finally said to me, with a touch of emotion in his voice, “Mommy, you’re just asking me the same question in different ways. Those questions on the slides are too personal, and I don’t feel safe answering them.”

At that point, something in me shifted. He was right: I was asking him the same question again and again, in an attempt to help him build empathy for his teacher’s perspective. But D.’s perspective was important, too.

Neurodiverse kids can sometimes be perceived as “unemotional”, given how linear and factual they come across. However, this is far from true. My son feels very strong emotions – ones that sometimes bubble to the surface at surprising moments, demonstrating how he truly does see the world in unique, multi-faceted, and deeply felt ways.

Yesterday, for instance, while at my parents’ house, we were playing the game Apples to Apples, sitting at the edge of their garage to social-distance and trying to stay shaded in the fresh air.

(Apples to Apples, for those who haven’t played it, is a card game where players try to select a word-card from their hand that MOST matches a descriptor provided by the person who’s “on” for that round.)

The word at the center of the table during one particular round was hurt, and my son chose to put forth the card “deer hunting”. He then explained to me, “It HURTS the deer who’s being shot – but it also HURTS the person who’s doing the shooting.”

Yes, indeed. It often does. 

Another recent example:

Last night I was reading aloud to D. from our newest night-time novelHoles (1996) by Louis Sachar. A central feature of this complex, back-and-forth narrative (primarily taking place in current times at a juvenile detention facility) involves a white female schoolteacher in the 1880s falling in love with a black male onion seller, who is then nearly lynched (and does die) for the “crime” of kissing her. As I read this part aloud to D., he said with exasperation and frustration:

Racism… slavery! Fighting… war!

Then he contemplated what he’d just said (which is common for D. – he often provides an instant meta-commentary on his own speech). He said:

I just put one word and then a more extreme but related word after it. I’m not sure why…

I helped him understand that he was making analogies, and that they were entirely apt: one of the worst, most extreme outcomes of racism is slavery; one of the worst, most extreme outcomes of fighting is war.

He doesn’t understand the “point” of any of these existing, by the way. Why in the world do we fight? Why do we go to war? Why is stupid racism even a thing – at all? And how in the world could slavery have ever taken place?

The fact that neurodiverse individuals may be more inclined to voice such views openly and without hesitation is, in my opinion, ultimately a gift – but not one without problems. D. is very blunt, and doesn’t always understand when it’s “appropriate” to voice his opinion (or not). Sometimes he’s convinced he knows the “truth”, and is not able to see beyond his own definition.

Regarding complex issues such as systemic racism and violence, he’ll need to learn about the many factors that play into the existence of these realities – to help combat them, rather than simply dismissing them as ridiculously wrong.

With that said, I sense D. will bring an invaluable, pragmatic approach to the table. He is sensitive, caring, intelligent, and insightful – and if he can’t express those qualities in the “traditional” format of his assignments, we’ll have to work with him to find alternative means of expression.

Because he does have a lot to say, and many important contributions to make to the world. He just needs plenty of support in doing it well.

Labor Day “Mini-Lesson”

Still from “PBS Learning Media: Labor Day”

Yesterday was Labor Day in the United States, which means a three-day weekend for families and kids.

When one of my kids asked me a few days ago, “What’s Labor Day?”, I found myself unable to provide a better answer than: “It’s a break for people who work.”

That was pretty lame, and I knew it.

Traditionally, I’ve let schools take care of explaining holidays, figuring they would cover it in some fashion, and I would simply enjoy getting to spend the time off with my kids.

These days, however, everything around learning and understanding the world feels different. Since I’m with my kids all the time – well, not right next to them, but in proximity to – I find myself looking more often for “teachable moments”, a phrase used by teachers for taking advantage of authentic topics that crop up in life and can be the starting point for an interesting conversation and/or investigation.

The truth is, life is filled with “teachable moments” – in fact, you could argue it’s nothing but teachable moments, on some level, both positive and negative.

But in this case, I’m talking more specifically about a designated topic which you (i.e., the teacher or parent) want your child to deliberately consider and explore for at least a little while.

For instance: we saw an adorable baby frog near our lake shore last week, swimming around with its polliwog-ish legs, and landing repeatedly within ripples of the mild current before finally swimming off and out of sight. We talked about how amphibians need to have access to both land and water, and can’t ever become completely dry. We talked about whether it was appropriate to pick the frog up (we did, briefly), and then how long we should hold him before putting him back and resisting touching him again – and why this was important.

If my husband had been out there with us, he would have been able to provide quite a bit more information, since he tends to be a storehouse of facts about the natural world. And, if I’d been more intentional about turning this into an official “homeschooling” or “unschooling” moment, I could have required or encouraged my kids to do additional research back inside, and/or make some kind of report or poster or drawing.

I didn’t do anything of those things. Instead, I simply mentioned meeting the frog as a definite “high” of the day during dinner, when we all share our “highs and lows” – and the kids all agreed with me on that one. Since then, each time we’ve been out at the lake we’ve skimmed the shore for evidence of another frog. (We saw a cluster of eggs the other day, so we know there are more somewhere.) But otherwise, my approach has been hands off and relaxed.

How does this relate back to Labor Day? Well, in the case of explaining why we all had a day off of school and work, I knew I needed to do more than wait for a frog-like opportunity to appear on our shore.

So, I turned to the internet, and very quickly found this one-and-a-half minute PBS Kids video.  I gave it a watch and was impressed by how much it succinctly conveyed in just 96 seconds.

I set an alarm on my calendar to “show kids Labor Day video” in the morning on Monday, and then when that moment arrived, I asked them to pause what they were engaged with to come gather around me. There was mild resistance from my youngest (who claims she “doesn’t like” PBS Kids videos), but I shushed them and said, “It’s short – just watch.”

While viewing, I paused a couple of times to point something out (it was moving quickly), but otherwise simply showed it to them, then asked afterwards, “So, what did you learn about Labor Day from this video?”

“It’s about making sure we have breaks.”

“Yes, that’s true… It’s important to have breaks when you’re working. What else?”

“It’s about having vacations.”

“Yes, that’s also important, for sure.”

I kept probing until we finally named several of the key take-aways from the video. When it comes to work, we agreed it’s important that:

  • We don’t work too many hours each day or week.
  • We are allowed to take breaks to use the restroom, to eat, and to relax.
  • We get to take vacations.
  • We are paid a fair wage.
  • We work in safe conditions that won’t hurt us or kill us.
  • Kids don’t have to go to work.

There were other important topics mentioned in the video, too – for instance, the “fight” required to obtain better work conditions.

On that note, later in the day – as were driving back home from a socially-distanced visit with my elderly parents, and were about to meet up with friends in our backyard for water time – I mentioned how nice it was to have time off to do this (i.e., to achieve a balance of rest, family, and friends) but/and how this wasn’t always the case. We had to fight for these rights, as my son quickly reminded us.

“What did that fighting look like?” we asked him. “Was it ACTUAL fighting?”

“No… People carried posters and protested.”

“That’s right. And what else did they do?”

This led to a (very brief) conversation about boycotts, unions, and collective bargaining. I’m sure all this went straight over the head of our 7-year-old, but my older two kids have now been exposed to these concepts – so when we bring them up again in other contexts, we’ll have the cognitive “anchor” of this video and our conversations to ground them back into what we hope becomes an ongoing and evolving discussion.

As a close to this mini-conversation, I said:

“Work is much, much better for many of us these days, but not for everyone. For instance, there are still places in the world where kids have to go to work. Can any of you tell us what some more recent labor issues have been here in the United States?”

This led us to talking about COVID-19 and workplace safety.

“Can you imagine having to work someplace where you’re forced to be right next to other people coughing and breathing, and you don’t have a mask to wear to protect yourself?”

Or your employer forbids you from wearing a mask?” my husband chimed in.

There’s so much more to contemplate and discuss.

For now, I’m satisfied that my kids have a reasonable understanding of why we take the first Monday of each September off as a holiday, and why it’s important not to take workplace safety and fairness for granted.

I hope and assume they’ll continue to carry this “unschooling” learning moment with them throughout future months and years. The arc of learning is long, and happens whether we realize it or not. By bringing “teachable moments” to the surface, we can name and highlight these opportunities as key moments for powerful insights. And they don’t take long.

A silver lining of COVID-19 is that it’s made these opportunities more frequent – and I’ll take any silver linings I can get.*

* Even using the phrase “silver lining” with my kids so often during the pandemic has been a “teachable moment”. My language-loving son is fascinated by word origins, so we investigated how English-speakers came to use this phrase, and what it means. We didn’t actually find a satisfactory answer to this – it’s in a poem from the 1600s – so we had to brainstorm and hypothesize instead. Not all questions have satisfying answers… 

Anxiety, Stress, and Perfectionism – Oh My…

School has started and we’re very slowly getting into a new rhythm and routine around here.

Thankfully, my kids’ school district is prioritizing socio-emotional well-being and community building during these first few weeks of school, in addition to helping kids and their guardians become more familiarized with the online learning systems we’ll be using for the foreseeable future.

So far, I’m already seeing wonderful evidence of resilience, rigor, compassion, and flexibility on the part of everyone. (Thank you, teachers and administrators!)

… None of which takes away from the fact that we’re all a little bit more stressed these days here in our household. Our recent weeks of “uncamping” – that is, living life at a slower pace, exploring our interests, and (for me) getting this new blog started – have ended, though we’re still holding on to as much as we can.

Yesterday I had a lovely half-hour, one-on-one (online) conference with my 7-year-old’s teacher. We talked about I.’s strengths, challenges, sensitivities, dislike of online learning, passion for art, and much more. She listened, validated, took plenty of notes, and helped me feel like my daughter’s well-being really is one of her priorities amidst everything else going on.

In terms of academic content, I shared that I. may need some additional support in math, given that she’s shifting from an exclusively first-grade math curriculum (her first grade teacher didn’t differentiate for kids capable of more advanced content) to a fully third-grade math curriculum in her new accelerated-learning 2nd grade placement.

I.’s teacher mentioned (very non-judgmentally) that if we wanted to, we could work with I. on basic math facts and operations to help her feel more confident – which makes perfect sense, but put me into a mild panic nonetheless.

Her suggestion is not an un-doable feat by any means. I’m a former elementary school teacher and math coach, for goodness sake! I have a ton of resources available in our house to help my kids with whatever content areas they need support in, as well as access to a wealth of activities and games on the internet – not to mention our school district making math curriculum content from all grade levels available online to any student with a district ID.

So, why hadn’t I done anything all summer long to help I. get comfortable with the 2nd grade math she would be hopping over this year? This seems like such a no-brainer parenting checklist item, and yet… It ended up being a “no-brainer” of a different kind for me on terms of NOT ENTERING MY BRAIN ONCE I DISMISSED IT.

Memories of our relaxed summer suddenly rushed past me in backwards fast-motion as I reflected on the “controlled chaos” of spring quarter during COVID-19, when our kids were at home with us all the time, teachers everywhere were scrambling to adjust, and the entire world was reeling with stress over a global pandemic we were both terrified by and didn’t understand enough about. I was trying to oversee my three kids’ schoolwork while also doing my own teaching, and taking a daily Norwegian class I’d (foolishly?) signed up for.

As was the case for most parents, I’m sure, each day was differently exhausting – especially given that none of my kids were able to simply “sit and do their work” on their own. They all needed scaffolding of some kind – whether that related to making sense of rapidly shifting expectations, accessing online portals, learning how to set deadlines for themselves, or dealing with emotional meltdowns as they inevitably got kicked off of Zoom meetings, couldn’t be seen by their teachers, couldn’t use the chat box, couldn’t talk or communicate while their entire class was muted, etc., etc., etc.

When I thought back specifically to doing math work with I., I recalled how utterly tedious it was to sit with her and try to figure out whether her reluctance to do her worksheets was because she was unclear on what to do, didn’t feel like doing it at that particular moment in time, couldn’t figure out the solutions, and/or was “gaming” me in some way.

(Plus, I couldn’t personally relate to any of this. I was a “good” little worksheet-completer as a kid – I loved blasting through them!)

At any rate, we would sit on her floor and color math facts worksheets together (“Ooh, fun! A color-by-number worksheet!”), and I remember wondering why she was being so deliberate and slow rather than just getting the work done so she could get back to whatever else she wanted to do. She cared a lot more about color choices than the math. She also cared more about sitting and doing something “fun” with me than the math.

But her facility with the actual math facts? Well, that was trickier. Whenever I tried doing quick drills, she would instantly get overwhelmed and stressed. (“Mom! I don’t want to do this right now!”)

I tried tapping into her love of manipulating numbers in creative ways to show her how easy it is to, for instance, quickly calculate 13 minus 5. (“Well, if you take 3 away from 13, you have 10, and then you only have 2 more to take away, and that gets you down to 8.”) This made complete sense to her, and she definitely understood it – yet she still froze up at the idea of spitting out the answers, especially when timed.

“I can’t do it! I’m getting them wrong!”

I.’s anxiety and perfectionism seemed to be preventing her from practicing and learning from mistakes. Her older sister, who also deals with anxiety, was the same way at her age (and continues to struggle with that while doing higher-level math). Their brother – not so much. He’s a “facts geek” and takes great delight in spewing off answers. They’re all different (who knew?).

(As an anecdotal aside, my husband – a software engineer with a major in electrical engineering and an informal minor in economics – has told me he was the absolute LAST person in his third grade class to memorize his times tables. So strange – AND useful to my understanding of, and compassion for, I.) 

Back to last night and her teacher’s suggestion – I talked it all over with my husband (normally I leave him out of schooling issues – that’s a topic for another blog post), then decided to see what would happen if I did a quick review with I. of some core 2nd grade math ideas, just to see where she was at after the summer months.

The first question I asked her – “How many ones are there in 78?” – got a silly response:

“500!”.

“No, for real. How many ones are there in 78?”

“78!”

Umm…. Okay. Yes.

That’s actually true. There are 78 individual “ones” in 78.

I quickly reminded her about place value (“What’s place value? Oh, right, okay.”), messing up briefly myself as I explained there were 70 tens in 78.

(“Seven, not seventy!” my husband chimed in. “Whoops – yes, 7.”).

Then I revisited a similar question with I.: “How many ones are there in 68?”

No problem – there are 8 ones.

How many tens are there in 68?

“Sixty!”

Grin. This was the mistake I’d made, so she made it too.

“No really – how many?”

“Six.”

“Now, if I add a 5 here to the left, in the hundreds column, how many hundreds are there in 568?”

“Five.”

Etc. We kept going, and she seemed to have no problem going with the flow, up through a million.

“How about a billion?!?!?!?!” she asked at that point – so, we went that far.

Great. Fun. Place value seemed to be fine. I told her we would be doing more work the next day to review second grade math, and she seemed relieved to simply escape back to her room.

Meanwhile, in our bedroom (which is right next door to I.’s), my husband and I continued talking about core second grade math concepts, and what we needed to do to help I. quickly catch up. We may have sounded a little agitated, since we were in problem-solving mode – and like I said, I don’t normally involve my husband in detailed conversations around schooling (we both agree that’s my bailiwick), so I was treading in slightly uncomfortable water.

All of a sudden, in the midst of our “heated” conversation, I heard a troubling and loud thump next door.

I dropped the paper I was holding (a print out of core ideas from second grade math) and ran into her room to see what had happened. I. was lying on the floor on her back, with her eyes closed.

“I FELL OFF MY BUNK BED!” she screamed.

I quickly checked to make sure she seemed physically okay – which she was – but that was certainly an unpleasant surprise and jolt for her.

In the year+ she’s owned a bunk bed – always sleeping on the top – she has NEVER fallen off. Ever. Despite repeated warnings and concerns from us, and plenty of athletic gymnastics skirting close to and over the edge, she’s stayed focused and safe.

But last night, her equilibrium was apparently off – and it’s impossible not to associate this with the discussion she was hearing (and probably really distressed by) right next door.

To bring this story full circle, I reassured I. that everything was okay, that she could have some extra online gaming time that evening to get back into her virtual world and self-regulate (no, I didn’t explicitly use that term with her), and that she was going to be just fine with math during second grade. No worries.

For my part, I was reminded that kids ALWAYS pick up on our “panic” and concerns – or at least, mine do. I may think I’m hiding it, but I’m not. If I worry, they worry. If I’m stressed, they’re stressed.

I deliberately chose for us to have an “uncamping” summer because I wanted to maximize joy and peaceful vibes throughout the house.  My goal now is to gradually bring “formal schooling” back in without upsetting everyone’s  well-being.

Naturally, I’ll be reporting back.

 

Burning Out Too Soon: The Dark Side of RFMs

Photo attribute: https://pixabay.com/photos/moon-crescent-lunar-craters-933675/

While recently watching and reviewing a documentary about Janis Joplin, I learned she’s a member of the infamous “27 Club” – that is, artists and musicians who died at the age of 27.

The existence of this “group” was sad but not surprising to me, given that so many gifted artists have died incredibly young – whether at 27 or somewhere in that range.

British filmmaker Michael Reeves, for instance, made his first feature-length movie at the age of 23, his second at the age of 24, and his third (and final) movie – the brilliant Witchfinder General (1968) – at 25. He died of a drug overdose.

I bring this up not to be morbid, but instead to highlight once again that being gifted (with all the intensities this inevitably brings) can be just as challenging as it is rewarding. Many RFMs deal with existential angst that leads to tremendous psychological pain, anguish, and occasionally early death. (SENG was founded because of this).

I personally nearly died at age 12 from an eating disorder, dropped out of school countless times, and have struggled my entire life to varying degrees with depression and anxiety in one form or another (now thankfully being managed quite well). 

RFMs may be so eager from such a young age to make a difference, to utilize our talents, to “do the right thing” – and so intolerant of a world that doesn’t generally live up to our expectations – that we get mired in the hopelessness of it all. Indeed, the third chapter of Prober’s (2016) Your Rainforest Mind is entitled “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Saving the World?”

Not knowing other people who share our feelings and passions can make thing even lonelier. As Prober (2016) writes:

“Loneliness may be the number one challenge for the RFM. And it often starts early” (p. 105).

RFMs may reach out time and again, hoping desperately for a connection that shows us we’re not crazy for wanting MORE – and mostly being disappointed. Before meeting my RFM husband, the only people I dated (not many, and not for long; I was mostly single and lonely) were musicians. Their passion for their craft resembled what I felt about the world more broadly – and being an (amateur) musician myself, we had this love in common.  However, the challenge inevitably became that they were SO invested in their music, they didn’t really have space for a long-term partner – or kids, which I wanted.

Meanwhile, my list of “good friends” has always been small and selective. I search for people who understand and accept my complexity and gifts rather than judging them.

To that end, I remain immensely grateful for Prober’s proffering of the alternative term “rainforest mind”, given how super-loaded “gifted” still is – for good reason, due to ongoing societal inequities and injustices which lead to under-representation of kids of color and other marginalized groups in formal programs for gifted children. Indeed, gifted individuals are often highly attuned to these unacceptable facts – and I will be writing more about them. 

As Prober reminds us again and again, our troubled world actually needs RFMs more than ever – “overthinkers” who dwell on society’s challenges and strive for justice at every turn. After all, we don’t settle for good enough – ever – unless forced to.

All that being said, as hard as it may be, we have to get comfortable talking about ourselves:

  • We need to talk about what it’s like have uniquely wired brains, heightened emotions, and a kind of intensity that can be “too much” for many (including sometimes ourselves).
  • We need to share what it’s like to experience the world at a different pace, often with differently calibrated senses.
  • We need acknowledgement that our gifts cause us both great joy AND tremendous suffering.

I’m committed to keeping myself – and like-minded RFMS – healthy and well-tended so we can turn right back around and use our gifts for others. There’s too much at stake otherwise.