Friday, October 30, 2009

Gifted and Talented Girls

Remember those words that once tore through your heart and evoked unquenchable emotion? "But it's the same with all my friends, just fun and joking, nothing more. I can never bring myself to talk of anything outside the common round.... Hence, this diary.... I want this diary itself to be my friend." They were penned by a gifted young girl—Anne Frank. Once let in, those words ricochet through your soul, it seems, forever. The words transcend the boundaries of language, race, color, and creed. Is it right, may I respectfully ask, to pretend that such talent doesn't exist?

In his book, Alpha Girls, Dan Kindlon, a clinical and research psychologist at Harvard, quotes Simone de Beauvoir: "If a caste is kept in a sense of inferiority, no doubt it remains inferior; but liberty can break the cycle. Let the Negroes vote and they become worthy of having the vote; let woman be given responsibilities and she is able to assume them. The fact is that oppressors cannot be expected to make a move of gratuitous generosity; but at one time the revolt of the oppressed, at another time the very evolution of the privileged caste itself, creates new situations; thus men have been led, in their own interest, to give partial emancipation to women: it remains only for women to continue their ascent, and the successes they are obtaining are an encouragement for them to do so. It seems almost certain that sooner or later they will arrive at complete economic and social economic equality, which will bring about an inner metamorphosis."

If nothing else, recent events are a powerful indicator that the inner metamorphosis has occurred. The Baltimore Sun reported "Carol W. Greider, who on Monday became the 33rd person associated with the Johns Hopkins University to win the Nobel Prize, is a triathlete, a mother of two and a methodical and modest genetic researcher who colleagues say shuns publicity in favor of pursuing her passion: fundamental, curiosity-driven science." Sharing the prize was Elizabeth Blackburn, a professor of biochemistry at the University of California, San Francisco and Jack Szostak of Harvard. According to the paper, the Nobel Committee made history by awarding the prize to more than one woman.

The Chicago Tribune draws our attention to a little known fact: laureate Blackburn was an alumnus of Joe Gall's laboratory at Yale University, "which had gained a reputation as one of the few places where a female postdoctoral student could do more than wash the Petri dishes." Blackburn, in turn, mentored other women and a revolution continued. Ms. de Beauvoir was right.

That is not to minimize the unique difficulties gifted girls may face in classrooms across the nation. Joan Franklin Smutny, in Understanding Our Gifted, Winter 1999 Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 9-13, states "Gifted girls often face a range of social pressures in schools, causing them to shift priorities. In an accepting home environment, they may have felt free to be themselves, to pursue with energy and interest any subject that intrigued them. But in school, the desire for friends, a disinclination to stand out, fear of ridicule, along with the need for acceptance, often impel gifted girls to make their abilities appear ordinary or even nonexistent." Smutny continues, "Kerr (1994) observes: "A society that wastes female brilliance has made it the norm for gifted women to lead an average life, and gifted women have largely adapted to that norm" (p. 171). The subtle and not-so-subtle messages downplaying the value of female achievement often begin early and accumulate over time. By age 11, many gifted girls do not know they have talents. Others, who know, guard it as a well-kept secret. This means that the abilities they could use to develop their potential are instead wasted on adjusting others' expectations (Eby & Smutny, 1990)."

Others, like Linda Kreger Silverman, describe the exceptional moral sensitivity of gifted children: "Having observed the development of gifted children for over 35 years, I am continuously impressed by the moral sensitivity of this group."

Consequently, it is not a hypothetical argument to assert that by denying the existence of a gifted population, or insisting on preserving a label that has little association with being gifted and talented (GT), society may be doing irreparable harm to these talented and sensitive children—both emotionally and educationally.

I find Silverman to be especially apropos in stating that "In the substitution of a mosaic of talents for giftedness, we have lost the entire moral dimension of giftedness. Gifted individuals, because of their greater facility with abstract reasoning, have complex inner lives, early ethical concerns, and heightened awareness of the world. As we split our understanding of the interrelated intellectual/moral/emotional structure of giftedness into many fragmented talents, we risk creating more one-sided children. And as we place too much value on performance -- with competitions, media attention, external recognition and rewards -- we may be inadvertently teaching gifted children that they are valued only for what they do, instead of who they are in their totality." In the case of gifted girls, we may be denying them their total existence and being.

Remember in 2005, when the then president of a prestigious university, Lawrence H. Summers, famously "sparked an uproar at an academic conference Friday when he said that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers?" What is true in Summers' comments, as reported by PBS, is that
"we do see gender disparity in the representation of young people among the highest performers on math achievement tests, standardized math achievement tests." It would be an interesting scientific experiment to follow the evolution of that disparity as more and more women take the stage that men once hogged, unencumbered by the stereotypes of a preceding generation.

Do I believe that such comments, however well-intentioned, have a negative impact on gifted girls? Well, at a recent event, I asked few. One looked at me with puzzlement, insisting dismissively "He needs to come to math class with me!" These gifted and talented girls don't seem to care if they are called "gifted." They are a secure, self-assured generation of girls who seem to take little umbrage at such unfortunate pronouncements. Is it possible that in the decade since Smutny wrote her paper some things have changed? God, I hope so.

Smutny also insists: "Gifted girls crave freedom. They long for someone to see who they are, open the often closed door of their minds and say, "Go, fly!" Since they cannot give themselves permission to fly, they need the aid of a discerning adult. For gifted girls, a sensitive, caring teacher may be all that stands between quiet resignation and the beginning of fulfillment of their potential. "

M. Katherine Gavin and Sally M. Reis, write in the Gifted Child Today Reader Series, that "The implications of these research results indicate that teachers need to recognize that all females are not alike and have different learning styles. They need to observe the females in their class and be especially aware of the needs of the talented females, some of whom may break the mold. They should provide some competitive, some cooperative, and some individual learning situations and allow choice whenever possible so as to maximize student interest and learning."

Sylvia Rimm, co-author of the The Rimm Report on How 1,000 Girls Became Successful Women, insists that among successful women, "Twenty-five percent skipped subjects and fifteen skipped at least one grade. Physicians, musicians, and artists had the most grade skippers." [Note: on page 110, the book expresses these facts in a slightly different fashion]

Gifted girls from minorities face even greater hurdles in having to shatter stereotypes, both inside and outside their community. Did you know that "A larger proportion of immigrant black high school graduates attend selective colleges and universities than either native black or white students in America, according to a study by sociologists at Johns Hopkins and Syracuse universities?" Gifted girls from minority communities enter college early and thirst for rigorous curricular choices.

In 2002, Sally M. Reis, in a piece titled Social and emotional issues faced by gifted girls in elementary and secondary school, writes "Kissane (1986) found that teachers are less accurate in nominating girls who are likely to do well on the quantitative subtest of the SAT than they were in naming boys who were likely to achieve a high score. Research also indicates that teachers like smart girls less than other students." Reis continues, "… even though teachers did not tend to engage in sex-role stereotyping in general, they did stereotype their best students in the area of mathematics, attributing characteristics such as volunteering answers, enjoyment of mathematics, and independence to males. Recent research has indicated that some teachers seem to expect less from females than they do from males, especially in regard to achievement in mathematics and science. Girls may internalize these lowered expectations very early in life."

Despite all the research, in the debate around GT, we find little, if any, reference to the needs of gifted girls. They don't even seem to be an avatar on the GT radar. Don't let these exceptional girls, who possess an "academic fearlessness and intellectual ability that will benefit their entire generation, become the invisible, the ignored, the forgotten few.

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