With the holidays approaching, it’s the perfect time to think about gifts that engage and encourage girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Research shows that girls feel more excited about pursuing STEM topics when adults highlight the place of collaboration, tinkering, role models, and meaningful objectives in STEM fields. We’ve compiled some suggestions of STEM gifts that incorporate these principles. Remember, it’s never too early to introduce girls to STEM toys and activities!
Research shows that girls prefer and persevere more in collaborative STEM work. Teachers promote collaborative STEM work by pairing girls with varied or complementary skill sets, using small groups (no more than 3-4 girls) and mixing up groups and pairings often. To promote collaboration in free play, consider toys that lend themselves easily to playing together with a friend or two.
Girls are less likely than boys to tinker with building materials, mechanical objects and computers. By tinkering less, girls miss out on opportunities to practice important skills such as spatial awareness, mechanical reasoning and critical thinking. Tinkering toys abound for girls of all ages.
A dearth of female STEM role models may limit girls’ engagement in STEM activities. When girls lack exposure to female STEM role models, it reinforces negative stereotypes that some girls hold about STEM fields. New researchshows that having girls write and reflect about their own female STEM role models increases their “sense of fit” in STEM. Consider some of the resources below to increase girls’ connection to female STEM role models.
LCRG recommends: Rosie Revere, Engineer, Women in Science Rule!, Black Stars: African American Women Scientists and Inventors, Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions, LCRG’s Famous Women of STEM Playing Cards
Girls value STEM work that holds clear and purposeful ties to everyday life. Female college students report a stronger desire than male college students to use their technical skills to help others. Toymakers have recently started incorporating this idea into STEM toys; here are some to consider:
For more fantastic gifts for girls, check out these sites:
For more information on girls and STEM, check out LCRG’s research briefs on the topic:
Now that we have endured more than a dozen long years of No Child Left Behind and five fruitless, punitive years of Race to the Top, it is clear that they both failed. They relied on carrots and sticks and ignored intrinsic motivation. They crushed children’s curiosity instead of cultivating it.* They demoralized schools. They disrupted schools and communities without improving children’s education.
We did not leave no child behind. The same children who were left behind in 2001-02 are still left behind. Similarly, Race to the Top is a flop. The Common Core tests are failing most students, and we are nowhere near whatever the “Top” is. If a teacher gave a test, and 70% of the students failed, we would say she was not competent, tested what was not taught, didn’t know her students. The Race turns out to be NCLB with a mask. NCLB on steroids. NCLB 2.0.
Whatever you call it, RTTT has hurt children, demoralized teachers, closed community schools, fragmented communities, increased privatization, and doubled down on testing.
I have an idea for a new accountability system that relies on different metrics. We begin by dropping standardized test scores as measures of quality or effectiveness. We stop labeling, ranking, and rating children, teachers, and schools. We use tests only when needed for diagnostic purposes, not for comparing children to their peers, not to find winners and losers. We rely on teachers to test their students, not corporations.
The new accountability system would be called No Child Left Out. The measures would be these:
How many children had the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument?
How many children had the chance to play in the school band or orchestra?
How many children participated in singing, either individually or in the chorus or a glee club or other group?
How many public performances did the school offer?
How many children participated in dramatics?
How many children produced documentaries or videos?
How many children engaged in science experiments? How many started a project in science and completed it?
How many children learned robotics?
How many children wrote stories of more than five pages, whether fiction or nonfiction?
How often did children have the chance to draw, paint, make videos, or sculpt?
How many children wrote poetry? Short stories? Novels? History research papers?
How many children performed service in their community to help others?
How many children were encouraged to design an invention or to redesign a common item?
How many students wrote research papers on historical topics?
Can you imagine an accountability system whose purpose is to encourage and recognize creativity, imagination, originality, and innovation? Isn’t this what we need more of?
Well, you can make up your own metrics, but you get the idea. Setting expectations in the arts, in literature, in science, in history, and in civics can change the nature of schooling. It would require far more work and self-discipline than test prep for a test that is soon forgotten.
My paradigm would dramatically change schools from Gradgrind academies to halls of joy and inspiration, where creativity, self-discipline, and inspiration are nurtured, honored, and valued.
This is only a start. Add your own ideas. The sky is the limit. Surely we can do better than this era of soul-crushing standardized testing.
*Kudos to Southold Elementary School in Long Island, where these ideas were hatched as I watched the children’s band playing a piece they had practiced.
Learning to sing or play a musical instrument can improve language and reading skills of disadvantaged children, according to a new study released Friday.
Nina Kraus, PhD, a neurobiologist at Northwestern University, found that musical training has an impact in strengthening neural functions as well as a connection with sound and reading of children in impoverished areas.
Her previous research focused on the impact of music lessons on children of the middle or upper class. This study, which is being presented to the American Psychological Association, included hundreds of students in Los Angeles and Chicago public schools with about 50 percent dropout rates.
“Research has shown that there are differences in the brains of children raised in impoverished environments that affect their ability to learn,” Kraus said in a press release from the APA. “While more affluent students do better in school than children from lower income backgrounds, we are finding that musical training can alter the nervous system to create a better learner and help offset this academic gap.”
In the study, half the subjects received regular group music lessons for five or more hours a week, while the other half had no musical training.
According to researchers, the reading skills of children with formal music training remained the same over a year long period, while the other students’ reading scores declined.
Another group of students, part of the Harmony Project, a music program for inner city kids, took part in band or choir practice every day after schools.
After two years, researchers found that students with musical training were faster and more precise in hearing speech in background noise, which Kraus connects to students having the ability to concentrate on a teacher’s voice in a noisy classroom.
Children in both groups had comparable IQs and reading ability at the start of the study.
Kraus conducted the study with Margaret Martin, founder of The Harmony Project, who was featured on the PBS NewsHour earlier this year talking about the benefits of musical training on young brains.
“We’re spending millions of dollars on drugs to help kids focus and here we have a non-pharmacologic intervention that thousands of disadvantaged kids devote themselves to in their non-school hours — that works,” Martin said.
IT BOTHERS MATTHEW LAHUE and it surely bothers you: enter a public restroom and the stall lock is broken. Fortunately, Mr. Lahue has a solution. It’s called the Bathroom Bodyguard. Standing before his Buffalo State College classmates and professor, Cyndi Burnett, Mr. Lahue displayed a device he concocted from a large washer, metal ring, wall hook, rubber bands and Lincoln Log. Slide the ring in the crack and twist. The door stays shut. Plus, the device fits in a jacket pocket.
The world may be full of problems, but students presenting projects for Introduction to Creative Studies have uncovered a bunch you probably haven’t thought of. Elie Fortune, a freshman, revealed his Sneaks ’n Geeks app to identify the brand of killer sneakers you spot on the street. Jason Cathcart, a senior, sported a bulky martial arts uniform with sparring pads he had sewn in. No more forgetting them at home.
“I don’t expect them to be the next Steve Jobs or invent the flying car,” Dr. Burnett says. “But I do want them to be more effective and resourceful problem solvers.” Her hope, she says, is that her course has made them more creative.
Once considered the product of genius or divine inspiration, creativity — the ability to spot problems and devise smart solutions — is being recast as a prized and teachable skill. Pin it on pushback against standardized tests and standardized thinking, or on the need for ingenuity in a fluid landscape.
“The reality is that to survive in a fast-changing world you need to be creative,” says Gerard J. Puccio, chairman of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College, which has the nation’s oldest creative studies program, having offered courses in it since 1967.
“That is why you are seeing more attention to creativity at universities,” he says. “The marketplace is demanding it.”
Critical thinking has long been regarded as the essential skill for success, but it’s not enough, says Dr. Puccio. Creativity moves beyond mere synthesis and evaluation and is, he says, “the higher order skill.” This has not been a sudden development. Nearly 20 years ago “creating” replaced “evaluation” at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning objectives. In 2010 “creativity” was the factor most crucial for success found in an I.B.M. survey of 1,500 chief executives in 33 industries. These days “creative” is the most used buzzword in LinkedIn profiles two years running.
Traditional academic disciplines still matter, but as content knowledge evolves at lightning speed, educators are talking more and more about “process skills,” strategies to reframe challenges and extrapolate and transform information, and to accept and deal with ambiguity.
Creative studies is popping up on course lists and as a credential. Buffalo State, part of the State University of New York, plans a Ph.D. and already offers a master’s degree and undergraduate minor. Saybrook University in San Francisco has a master’s and certificate, and added a specialization to its psychology Ph.D. in 2011. Drexel University in Philadelphia has a three-year-old online master’s. St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, N.C., has added a minor. And creative studies offerings, sometimes with a transdisciplinary bent, are new options in business, education, digital media, humanities, arts, science and engineering programs across the country.
Suddenly, says Russell G. Carpenter, program coordinator for a new minor in applied creative thinking at Eastern Kentucky University, “there is a larger conversation happening on campus: ‘Where does creativity fit into the E.K.U. student experience?’ ” Dr. Carpenter says 40 students from a broad array of fields, including nursing and justice and safety, have enrolled in the minor — a number he expects to double as more sections are added to introductory classes. Justice and safety? Students want tools to help them solve public safety problems and deal with community issues, Dr. Carpenter explains, and a credential to take to market.
The credential’s worth is apparent to Mr. Lahue, a communication major who believes that a minor in the field carries a message. “It says: ‘This person is not a drone. They can use this skill set and apply themselves in other parts of the job.’ ”
On-demand inventiveness is not as outrageous as it sounds. Sure, some people are naturally more imaginative than others. What’s igniting campuses, though, is the conviction that everyone is creative, and can learn to be more so.
Just about every pedagogical toolbox taps similar strategies, employing divergent thinking (generating multiple ideas) and convergent thinking (finding what works).The real genius, of course, is in the how.
Dr. Puccio developed an approach that he and partners market as FourSight and sell to schools, businesses and individuals. The method, which is used in Buffalo State classrooms, has four steps: clarifying, ideating, developing and implementing. People tend to gravitate to particular steps, suggesting their primary thinking style. Clarifying — asking the right question — is critical because people often misstate or misperceive a problem. “If you don’t have the right frame for the situation, it’s difficult to come up with a breakthrough,” Dr. Puccio says. Ideating is brainstorming and calls for getting rid of your inner naysayer to let your imagination fly. Developing is building out a solution, and maybe finding that it doesn’t work and having to start over. Implementing calls for convincing others that your idea has value.
Jack V. Matson, an environmental engineer and a lead instructor of “Creativity, Innovation and Change,” a MOOC that drew 120,000 in September, teaches a freshman seminar course at Penn State that he calls “Failure 101.” That’s because, he says, “the frequency and intensity of failures is an implicit principle of the course. Getting into a creative mind-set involves a lot of trial and error.”
His favorite assignments? Construct a résumé based on things that didn’t work out and find the meaning and influence these have had on your choices. Or build the tallest structure you can with 20 Popsicle sticks. The secret to the assignment is to destroy the sticks and reimagine their use. “As soon as someone in the class starts breaking the sticks,” he says, “it changes everything.”
Dr. Matson also asks students to “find some cultural norms to break,” like doing cartwheels while entering the library. The point: “Examine what in the culture is preventing you from creating something new or different. And what is it like to look like a fool because a lot of things won’t work out and you will look foolish? So how do you handle that?”
It’s a lesson that has been basic to the ventures of Brad Keywell, a Groupon founder and a student of Dr. Matson’s at the University of Michigan. “I am an absolute evangelist about the value of failure as part of creativity,” says Mr. Keywell, noting that Groupon took off after the failure of ThePoint.com, where people were to organize for collective action but instead organized discount group purchases. Dr. Matson taught him not just to be willing to fail but that failure is a critical avenue to a successful end. Because academics run from failure, Mr. Keywell says, universities are “way too often shapers of formulaic minds,” and encourage students to repeat and internalize fail-safe ideas.
Bonnie Cramond, director of the Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development at the University of Georgia, is another believer in taking bold risks, which she calls a competitive necessity. Her center added an interdisciplinary graduate certificate in creativity and innovation this year. “The new people who will be creative will sit at the juxtaposition of two or more fields,” she says. When ideas from different fields collide, Dr. Cramond says, fresh ones are generated. She cites an undergraduate class that teams engineering and art students to, say, reimagine the use of public spaces. Basic creativity tools used at the Torrance Center include thinking by analogy, looking for and making patterns, playing, literally, to encourage ideas, and learning to abstract problems to their essence.
In Dr. Burnett’s Introduction to Creative Studies survey course, students explore definitions of creativity, characteristics of creative people and strategies to enhance their own creativity.These include rephrasing problems as questions, learning not to instinctively shoot down a new idea (first find three positives), and categorizing problems as needing a solution that requires either action, planning or invention. A key objective is to get students to look around with fresh eyes and be curious. The inventive process, she says, starts with “How might you…”
Dr. Burnett is an energetic instructor with a sense of humor — she tested Mr. Cathcart’s martial arts padding with kung fu whacks. Near the end of last semester, she dumped Post-it pads (the department uses 400 a semester) onto a classroom desk with instructions: On pale yellow ones, jot down what you learned; on rainbow colored pads, share how you will use this learning. She then sent students off in groups with orders that were a litany of brainstorming basics: “Defer judgment! Strive for quantity! Wild and unusual! Build on others’ ideas!”
As students scribbled and stuck, the takeaways were more than academic. “I will be optimistic,” read one. “I will look at tasks differently,” said another. And, “I can generate more ideas.”
Asked to elaborate, students talked about confidence and adaptability. “A lot of people can’t deal with things they don’t know and they panic. I can deal with that more now,” said Rony Parmar, a computer information systems major with Dr. Dre’s Beats headphones circling his neck.
Mr. Cathcart added that, given tasks, “you think of other ways of solving the problem.” For example, he streamlined the check-in and reshelving of DVDs at the library branch where he works.
The view of creativity as a practical skill that can be learned and applied in daily life is a 180-degree flip from the thinking that it requires a little magic: Throw yourself into a challenge, step back — pause — wait for brilliance to spout.
The point of creative studies, says Roger L. Firestien, a Buffalo State professor and author of several books on creativity, is to learn techniques “to make creativity happen instead of waiting for it to bubble up. A muse doesn’t have to hit you.”
By JOANNE LIPMAN
Published: October 12, 2013
CONDOLEEZZA RICE trained to be a concert pianist. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, was a professional clarinet and saxophone player. The hedge fund billionaire Bruce Kovner is a pianist who took classes at Juilliard.
Multiple studies link music study to academic achievement. But what is it about serious music training that seems to correlate with outsize success in other fields?
The connection isn’t a coincidence. I know because I asked. I put the question to top-flight professionals in industries from tech to finance to media, all of whom had serious (if often little-known) past lives as musicians. Almost all made a connection between their music training and their professional achievements.
The phenomenon extends beyond the math-music association. Strikingly, many high achievers told me music opened up the pathways to creative thinking. And their experiences suggest that music training sharpens other qualities: Collaboration. The ability to listen. A way of thinking that weaves together disparate ideas. The power to focus on the present and the future simultaneously.
Will your school music program turn your kid into a Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft (guitar)? Or a Woody Allen (clarinet)? Probably not. These are singular achievers. But the way these and other visionaries I spoke to process music is intriguing. As is the way many of them apply music’s lessons of focus and discipline into new ways of thinking and communicating — even problem solving.
Look carefully and you’ll find musicians at the top of almost any industry. Woody Allen performs weekly with a jazz band. The television broadcaster Paula Zahn (cello) and the NBC chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd (French horn) attended college on music scholarships; NBC’s Andrea Mitchell trained to become a professional violinist. Both Microsoft’s Mr. Allen and the venture capitalist Roger McNamee have rock bands. Larry Page, a co-founder of Google, played saxophone in high school. Steven Spielberg is a clarinetist and son of a pianist. The former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn has played cello at Carnegie Hall.
“It’s not a coincidence,” says Mr. Greenspan, who gave up jazz clarinet but still dabbles at the baby grand in his living room. “I can tell you as a statistician, the probability that that is mere chance is extremely small.” The cautious former Fed chief adds, “That’s all that you can judge about the facts. The crucial question is: why does that connection exist?”
Paul Allen offers an answer. He says music “reinforces your confidence in the ability to create.” Mr. Allen began playing the violin at age 7 and switched to the guitar as a teenager. Even in the early days of Microsoft, he would pick up his guitar at the end of marathon days of programming. The music was the emotional analog to his day job, with each channeling a different type of creative impulse. In both, he says, “something is pushing you to look beyond what currently exists and express yourself in a new way.”
Mr. Todd says there is a connection between years of practice and competition and what he calls the “drive for perfection.” The veteran advertising executive Steve Hayden credits his background as a cellist for his most famous work, the Apple “1984” commercial depicting rebellion against a dictator. “I was thinking of Stravinsky when I came up with that idea,” he says. He adds that his cello performance background helps him work collaboratively: “Ensemble playing trains you, quite literally, to play well with others, to know when to solo and when to follow.”
For many of the high achievers I spoke with, music functions as a “hidden language,” as Mr. Wolfensohn calls it, one that enhances the ability to connect disparate or even contradictory ideas. When he ran the World Bank, Mr. Wolfensohn traveled to more than 100 countries, often taking in local performances (and occasionally joining in on a borrowed cello), which helped him understand “the culture of people, as distinct from their balance sheet.”
It’s in that context that the much-discussed connection between math and music resonates most. Both are at heart modes of expression. Bruce Kovner, the founder of the hedge fund Caxton Associates and chairman of the board of Juilliard, says he sees similarities between his piano playing and investing strategy; as he says, both “relate to pattern recognition, and some people extend these paradigms across different senses.”
Mr. Kovner and the concert pianist Robert Taub both describe a sort of synesthesia — they perceive patterns in a three-dimensional way. Mr. Taub, who gained fame for his Beethoven recordings and has since founded a music software company, MuseAmi, says that when he performs, he can “visualize all of the notes and their interrelationships,” a skill that translates intellectually into making “multiple connections in multiple spheres.”
For others I spoke to, their passion for music is more notable than their talent. Woody Allen told me bluntly, “I’m not an accomplished musician. I get total traction from the fact that I’m in movies.”
Mr. Allen sees music as a diversion, unconnected to his day job. He likens himself to “a weekend tennis player who comes in once a week to play. I don’t have a particularly good ear at all or a particularly good sense of timing. In comedy, I’ve got a good instinct for rhythm. In music, I don’t, really.”
Still, he practices the clarinet at least half an hour every day, because wind players will lose their embouchure (mouth position) if they don’t: “If you want to play at all you have to practice. I have to practice every single day to be as bad as I am.” He performs regularly, even touring internationally with his New Orleans jazz band. “I never thought I would be playing in concert halls of the world to 5,000, 6,000 people,” he says. “I will say, quite unexpectedly, it enriched my life tremendously.”
Music provides balance, explains Mr. Wolfensohn, who began cello lessons as an adult. “You aren’t trying to win any races or be the leader of this or the leader of that. You’re enjoying it because of the satisfaction and joy you get out of music, which is totally unrelated to your professional status.”
For Roger McNamee, whose Elevation Partners is perhaps best known for its early investment in Facebook, “music and technology have converged,” he says. He became expert on Facebook by using it to promote his band, Moonalice, and now is focusing on video by live-streaming its concerts. He says musicians and top professionals share “the almost desperate need to dive deep.” This capacity to obsess seems to unite top performers in music and other fields.
Ms. Zahn remembers spending up to four hours a day “holed up in cramped practice rooms trying to master a phrase” on her cello. Mr. Todd, now 41, recounted in detail the solo audition at age 17 when he got the second-highest mark rather than the highest mark — though he still was principal horn in Florida’s All-State Orchestra.
“I’ve always believed the reason I’ve gotten ahead is by outworking other people,” he says. It’s a skill learned by “playing that solo one more time, working on that one little section one more time,” and it translates into “working on something over and over again, or double-checking or triple-checking.” He adds, “There’s nothing like music to teach you that eventually if you work hard enough, it does get better. You see the results.”
That’s an observation worth remembering at a time when music as a serious pursuit — and music education — is in decline in this country.
Consider the qualities these high achievers say music has sharpened: collaboration, creativity, discipline and the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideas. All are qualities notably absent from public life. Music may not make you a genius, or rich, or even a better person. But it helps train you to think differently, to process different points of view — and most important, to take pleasure in listening.
Joanne Lipman is a co-author, with Melanie Kupchynsky, of the book “Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations.”
By Gina Cairney on January 25, 2013
Parents looking for worthwhile activities for their children may want to consider dance classes, especially for daughters who don’t seem interested in sports that come off as “too physical,” or may be experiencing low self-esteem or lack confidence.
Researchers found that dance intervention had a positive influence on self-rated health for adolescent girls in Sweden, which lasted up to a year after the program ended.
Some 140 girls, ages 13 to 18 years, participated in the study, published in JAMA Pediatrics. The girls selected for the study had visited the school nurse with complaints often associated with stress or low self-esteem, symptoms not serious enough to warrant a mental health referral. About half of the girls were randomly assigned to the intervention group, where they were given dance classes twice a week for 8 months. Each class lasted 75 minutes with an emphasis on the joy of movement, rather than performance, the study says, with various themes like African dance and jazz.
By the end of the program, 48 girls remained and were surveyed on their experience, with 43 of the girls rating it as a positive experience, three girls rating it neutral, and only one girl who found it to be a negative experience.
Adolescence is the time of life where everything seems awkward, and all that can go wrong, seems to go wrong. This and other stressors have an effect on how young people perceive themselves, and according to Statistics Sweden, girls are three times more likely than boysto rate themselves to have poor health.
This study’s suggestion to use dance as a preventative health measure is also supported by another study which looked at the prevalence of dance participation in the United States, and its contribution to total moderate-to-vigorous physical exercise in adolescents.
The Swedish study does acknowledge some limitations to its research however, noting that evaluating self-rated health is very subjective and the participants may have reported higher values to please their instructors.
Regardless, the potential influence dance has on young girls who are experiencing emotional problems appears to be significant. It’s also important to consider the factors that make dance an appealing physical activity to girls.
Based on survey responses, the study found three possible key factors explaining why the girls reported feeling better:
• The dance intervention was enjoyable and undemanding,
• There were opportunities for girls to offer input in music selection and dance choreography, and
• The opportunity allowed them to make new friends who had similar interests, which may be the most critical factor in maintaining interest in the program or activity.
While all physical activity of some kind is important for the overall well-being of a child, dance programs may be the ideal ticket for some parents who have children—daughters and sons—who want to participate in a social activity without the overbearing competitive nature of sports like soccer and basketball.
A New York Times article about the importance of arts in schools.
The artist Chuck Close giving a private tour of his show to students from Bridgeport, Conn.
Stationed in front of one of his large self-portraits, the artist Chuck Close raised his customized wheelchair to balance on two wheels, seeming to defy the laws of gravity. The chair’s unlikely gymnastics underlined the points that Mr. Close was making to his audience, 40 seventh and eighth graders from Bridgeport, Conn.: Break the rules and use limitations to your advantage.
The message had particular resonance for these students, and a few educators and parents, who had come by bus on Monday from Roosevelt School to the Pace Gallery in Chelsea for a private tour of Mr. Close’s show. Roosevelt, located in a community with high unemployment and crushing poverty, recently had one of the worst records of any school in the state, with 80 percent of its seventh graders testing below grade level in reading and math.
Saved from closure by a committed band of parents, the school was one of eight around the country chosen last year to participate in Turnaround Arts, a new federally sponsored public-and-private experiment that puts the arts at the center of the curriculum. Arranging for extra funds for supplies and instruments, teacher training, partnerships with cultural organizations and high-profile mentors like Mr. Close, Turnaround is trying to use the arts to raise academic performance across the board. “Art saved my life,” Mr. Close told the children. And he believes it can save the lives of others, too.
So now he was giving a pizza party and answering a question about why he started to paint.
“I wanted people to notice me, not that I couldn’t remember their faces or add or subtract,” he said, referring to the learning and neurological disabilities that set him apart from his classmates when he was growing up in Monroe, Wash.
A terrible writer and test-taker, Mr. Close used art to make it through school. Instead of handing in a paper, he told the children, “I made a 20-foot-long mural of the Lewis and Clark trail.”
Starting in Pace’s large central gallery, where his giant portraits of other artists like Philip Glass, Paul Simon and Laurie Anderson looked on, Mr. Close told the group that “everything about my work is driven by my learning disabilities.”
Born with prosopagnosia, a condition that prevents him from recognizing faces, Mr. Close explained that the only way he can remember a face is by breaking it down into small “bite-sized” pieces, like the tiny squares or circles of color that make up his paintings and prints.
“I figured out what I had left and I tried to make it work for me,” he said. “Limitations are important.”
With Mr. Close were a few other members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, which helped develop the Turnaround program. One of them, Damian Woetzel, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet who is a mentor to two other Turnaround schools, picked up on his theme.
“In dance we limit ourselves, as well,” he said. “There are five positions and everything comes from that,” he added, quickly demonstrating the basic ballet poses.
Filling out the cultural spectrum were the Broadway producer Margo Lion, a chairwoman of the committee, and the musicians Cristina Pato, Shane Shanahan and Kojiro Umezaki, all members of the Silk Road Ensemble, an international collaboration founded by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who is also a committee member and a mentor. One by one, they entered from different doors, startling the students with an impromptu concert featuring a tambourine, a gaita (a Spanish bagpipe) and a Chinese flute.
Clapping and stamping in time to the music, Mr. Woetzel soon turned the gallery’s open space into a dance floor. A couple of students whipped out phones to record the proceedings, while others raced across the room to avoid getting pulled in as participants. One reluctant dancer, captured by Rachel Goslins, a filmmaker and the executive director of the president’s committee, rolled his eyes and mouthed “Oh my God” as she circled him around the floor. Other students joined hands and began dancing as Ms. Lion and the school principal, Tania Kelley, her head flung back, swung each other around.
Mr. Close swerved through the crowd in his wheelchair.
“I never danced before,” Carolyn Smith, 13, said excitedly when the music stopped. “Usually I sing.” Carolyn was the lead in the school’s production of “The Wiz” last year. A brain tumor had caused her to miss so much school that her literacy teacher initially wanted her to turn down the part and focus on catching up, Ms. Goslins said. But being in the play — and reading and memorizing the script — helped her reading skills so much, Ms. Goslins said, that the literacy coach later told her, “I’m a believer.”
The afternoon offered a series of firsts for many of the students. Most had never seen such instruments, heard of Mr. Simon or Mr. Glass, or even visited Manhattan.
“It’s pretty cool to be in New York,” said David Morales, 14, who later asked Mr. Close about his technique, explaining, “I like how he makes it, how it comes all together.”
David, like the other Roosevelt students, had studied Mr. Close’s work in class and met him when he visited the school last month. So Mr. Close patiently answered questions.
“Is it easy to make these pictures?” (Well, it can take a while, Mr. Close replied.)
“How do you know what colors to use?” (Trial and error.)
“Can you draw? (Yes.)
“There is no artist who enjoys what he does every day more than I do,” Mr. Close told the group, setting off applause from the students. Repeating advice he often gives to young artists, he said: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up for work.”
When the bus arrived for the return trip, Ms. Pato and Mr. Shanahan again took up their instruments, this time to lead a parade of clapping students and teachers out the door.
Carolyn Smith, a pink rose in her hair, paused at the doorway and turned to Mr. Close. “I had a blast,” she called out. “Bye, Chuck. See you later.”
From The New York Times
By WILL CARLESS
ENCINITAS, Calif. — By 9:30 a.m. at Paul Ecke Central Elementary School, tiny feet were shifting from downward dog pose to chair pose to warrior pose in surprisingly swift, accurate movements. A circle of 6- and 7-year-olds contorted their frames, making monkey noises and repeating confidence-boosting mantras.
Jackie Bergeron’s first-grade yoga class was in full swing. “Inhale. Exhale. Peekaboo!” Ms. Bergeron said from the front of the class. “Now, warrior pose. I am strong! I am brave!”
Though the yoga class had a notably calming effect on the children, things were far from placid outside the gymnasium.
A small but vocal group of parents, spurred on by the head of a local conservative advocacy group, has likened these 30-minute yoga classes to religious indoctrination. They say the classes — part of a comprehensive program offered to all public school students in this affluent suburb north of San Diego — represent a violation of the First Amendment.
After the classes prompted discussion in local evangelical churches, parents said they were concerned that the exercises might nudge their children closer to ancient Hindu beliefs.
Mary Eady, the parent of a first grader, said the classes were rooted in the deeply religious practice of Ashtanga yoga, in which physical actions are inextricable from the spiritual beliefs underlying them.
“They’re not just teaching physical poses, they’re teaching children how to think and how to make decisions,” Ms. Eady said. “They’re teaching children how to meditate and how to look within for peace and for comfort. They’re using this as a tool for many things beyond just stretching.”
Ms. Eady and a few dozen other parents say a public school system should not be leading students down any particular religious path. Teaching children how to engage in spiritual exercises like meditation familiarizes young minds with certain religious viewpoints and practices, they say, and a public classroom is no place for that.
Underlying the controversy is the source of the program’s financing. The pilot project is supported by the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in memory of Krishna Pattabhi Jois, who is considered the father of Ashtanga yoga.
Dean Broyles, the president and chief counsel of the National Center for Law and Policy, a nonprofit law firm that champions religious freedom and traditional marriage, according to its Web site, has dug up quotes from Jois Foundation leaders, who talk about the inseparability of the physical act of yoga from a broader spiritual quest. Mr. Broyles argued that such quotes betrayed the group’s broader evangelistic purpose.
“There is a transparent promotion of Hindu religious beliefs and practices in the public schools through this Ashtanga yoga program,” he said.
“The analog would be if we substituted for this program a charismatic Christian praise and worship physical education program,” he said.
The battle over yoga in schools has been raging for years across the country but has typically focused on charter schools, which receive public financing but set their own curriculums.
The move by the Encinitas Union School District to mandate yoga classes for all students who do not opt out has elevated the discussion. And it has split an already divided community.
The district serves the liberal beach neighborhoods of Encinitas, including Leucadia, where Paul Ecke Central Elementary is, as well as more conservative inland communities. On the coast, bumper stickers reading “Keep Leucadia Funky” are borne proudly. Farther inland, cars are more likely to feature the Christian fish symbol, and large evangelical congregations play an important role in shaping local philosophy.
Opponents of the yoga classes have started an online petition to remove the course from the district’s curriculum. They have shown up at school board meetings to denounce the program, and Mr. Broyles has threatened to sue if the board does not address their concerns.
The district has stood firm. Tim Baird, the schools superintendent, has defended the yoga classes as merely another element of a broader program designed to promote children’s physical and mental well-being. The notion that yoga teachers have designs on converting tender young minds to Hinduism is incorrect, he said.
“That’s why we have an opt-out clause,” Mr. Baird said. “If your faith is such that you believe that simply by doing the gorilla pose, you’re invoking the Hindu gods, then by all means your child can be doing something else.”
Ms. Eady is not convinced.
“Yoga poses are representative of Hindu deities and Hindu stories about the actions and interactions of those deities with humans,” she said. “There’s content even in the movement, just as with baptism there’s content in the movement.”
Russell Case, a representative of the Jois Foundation, said the parents’ fears were misguided.
“They’re concerned that we’re putting our God before their God,” Mr. Case said. “They’re worried about competition. But we’re much closer to them than they think. We’re good Christians that just like to do yoga because it helps us to be better people.”
Daniel Borris for The New York Times
- Sister Kathy Sherman, with the Congregation of St. Joseph, writes popular and folk songs and sees music as part of her ministry.
Published: December 1, 2012, The New York Times
LA GRANGE PARK, Ill. — When Kathy Sherman was in college during the final years of the Vietnam War, she played the guitar with friends in her dorm room and sang folk and protest songs over bowls of popcorn. They sang Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez, and some friends said her voice reminded them of Judy Collins.
Ms. Sherman graduated and joined an order of Roman Catholic nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph of La Grange, but she never stopped making music. Last spring, when the Vatican issued a harsh assessment of the group representing a majority of American nuns accusing them of “serious doctrinal problems,” Sister Sherman, 60, said she responded the way she always does when she feels something deeply. She wrote a song.
The words popped into her head two days after the Vatican’s condemnation, as she was walking down the hallway in her order’s ministry center, feeling hurt and angry: “Love cannot be silenced,” she thought. “It never has. It never will.” She went into the center’s dining room and tried out the lyrics on some of her sisters. They liked the message.
“Love Cannot be Silenced” became an anthem, not just for the nuns but also for laypeople who turned out for vigils in front of churches and cathedrals across the country this year to support them. In a voice sweet and resolute, Sister Sherman sang, “We are faithful, loving and wise, dancing along side by side, with a Gospel vision to lead us and Holy Fire in our eyes” — a lyric that evokes the nuns’ novel forging of spirit with steel.
“I see it more as a song of affirmation than a protest song,” Sister Sherman, her gray-green eyes sparkling, said in an interview in October at her religious community’s ministry center here outside Chicago. “I wasn’t protesting anything. I was saying, ‘This is our story.’ ”
Sister Sherman’s story reflects the journey of so many nuns of her generation. She grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s, when Catholic women’s and men’s orders were booming and it was natural for a Catholic girl to consider a life as a nun. After college, she became a teacher at a girls’ school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of La Grange, and was attracted to the order’s community life and its ideals of unity and inclusiveness. But by the time she entered the order in 1980, at age 28, the boom was over.
At the time, the sisters were in the midst of a major evolution. The Second Vatican Council, from 1962 to 1965, had decreed that religious orders should re-examine the writings of their founders in order to reconsider their particular mission and character, or “charism.” The U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph sent a delegation to France to study the documents written by their founders — six women and a Jesuit priest. They concluded that their charism was far more expansive than just teaching and nursing.
“There it was, right in print,” said Sister Pat Bergen, who joined the order in 1963 and now serves on the congregation’s leadership team, recalling the excitement. “We can do anything women are capable of doing, as long as what we do enables unity to happen. So the sisters became prison ministers and artists and began following their gifts.”
Sister Bergen and Sister Sherman spoke over breakfast in the community’s sunny dining room, where women were preparing to set off for work dressed in everything from sweatsuits to tailored blazers and skirts.
Sister Chris March headed upstairs to her massage and healing practice. Sister Janet Bolger boarded a bus called the “School on Wheels,” a mobile classroom run by her order, where she and others teach immigrant adults English one-on-one. Sister Mary Southard went to her studio upstairs to paint. Sister Marianne Race, wearing a denim shirt stitched with the St. Joseph logo, descended to the basement where she manages St. Joseph Press, which produces calendars, notecards and wall hangings sold through the congregation’s “Ministry of the Arts.”
The Congregation of St. Joseph, with 650 sisters, was formed when seven independent groups of Sisters of St. Joseph merged in 2007. One member is Sister Helen Prejean, whose work with convicts on death row was the subject of the film “Dead Man Walking.”
Sister Sherman’s ministry evolved too. She composes popular and folk songs — she has recorded 21 CDs — as well as music for liturgies. She also leads spiritual retreats across the country, coordinates her community’s environmental sustainability effort and is helping to produce a curriculum on nonviolence for schoolchildren in the Chicago Archdiocese.
She used to live in the ministry center, but she now lives with two other sisters and a novice in a house nearby where she can garden and cook. She rises at 5:40 a.m., prays in her room for about 45 minutes and then joins the others in the living room for communal prayers. Many days she goes to work in her studio on the sixth floor of the ministry center, a complex that also houses an “eco-spirituality library,” rooms for low-income women and a modern sanctuary with stained glass windows designed by Sister Southard.
“I don’t just pray and go to work,” Sister Sherman said. “My work is my prayer. They’re not separate. It’s a wholeness. The contemplative life nurtures my ministry, and my ministry nurtures my contemplative life.”
Her studio is a refuge, a long room dominated by a black Young Chang piano (a Steinway was out of reach). There is a prayer plant, a picture of her mother, who taught piano, and a plaque that says “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Her long fingers on the keys, she played pieces she wrote at pivotal moments: the start of the Iraq war; the murder of a nun, by an ex-convict, in a Buffalo halfway house she ran; the height of the political vitriol in the last presidential election, in a song she titled “This Is the America I Believe In.”
“A lot of the music I write is not religious, per se,” she said. “It’s got religious values, it’s got spiritual values. The songs may not name God, but they may name the hope, the peace, the love. For me, they are all names for God.”
That evening she met in the sanctuary with a women’s singing group she started recently out of the belief that people do not sing together enough anymore. There were four nuns and 11 laywomen, including one who had asked Sister Sherman over during a storm, around midnight, to sing to her dying mother.
Bouncing on her toes, Sister Sherman conducted as if the women were an orchestra. “Good! Pretty!” she shouted as they navigated unfamiliar lines in Xhosa in a South African piece. “Keep the rhythm going.” They ended with “Love Cannot Be Silenced.”
“It’s an anthem,” Sister Sherman told them. “Go ahead, stand up! Rise up!”
Daniel Borris for The New York Times
Sister Sherman’s studio is in the congregation’s ministry center in La Grange Park, outside Chicago.
Daniel Borris for The New York Times
Her song “Love Cannot Be Silenced” became an anthem after the Vatican’s rebuke of the group representing the majority of American nuns.
Daniel Borris for The New York Times
Sister Sherman has recorded 21 CDs and recently started a women’s singing group, concerned that people do not sing together enough anymore.
Daniel Borris for The New York Times
Other sisters in the congregation paint, work in prisons and teach English to adult immigrants.
Daniel Borris for The New York Times
“I don’t just pray and go to work,” Sister Sherman said. “My work is my prayer. They’re not separate. It’s a wholeness.”
The New York Times
How Do You Raise a Prodigy?
By ANDREW SOLOMON
Drew Petersen didn’t speak until he was 3½, but his mother, Sue, never believed he was slow. When he was 18 months old, in 1994, she was reading to him and skipped a word, whereupon Drew reached over and pointed to the missing word on the page. Drew didn’t produce much sound at that stage, but he already cared about it deeply. “Church bells would elicit a big response,” Sue told me. “Birdsong would stop him in his tracks.”
Kit Armstrong at 5; he graduated from high school at 9.
Drew Petersen began lessons at 5 and was playing Carnegie Hall within a year.
Natasha Paremski at 12, rehearsing Ravel.
When Marc Yu was 8, he was flying from California to China for lessons.
Readers shared their thoughts on this article.
Sue, who learned piano as a child, taught Drew the basics on an old upright, and he became fascinated by sheet music. “He needed to decode it,” Sue said. “So I had to recall what little I remembered, which was the treble clef.” As Drew told me, “It was like learning 13 letters of the alphabet and then trying to read books.” He figured out the bass clef on his own, and when he began formal lessons at 5, his teacher said he could skip the first six months’ worth of material. Within the year, Drew was performing Beethoven sonatas at the recital hall at Carnegie Hall. “I thought it was delightful,” Sue said, “but I also thought we shouldn’t take it too seriously. He was just a little boy.”
On his way to kindergarten one day, Drew asked his mother, “Can I just stay home so I can learn something?” Sue was at a loss. “He was reading textbooks this big, and they’re in class holding up a blowup M,” she said. Drew, who is now 18, said: “At first, it felt lonely. Then you accept that, yes, you’re different from everyone else, but people will be your friends anyway.” Drew’s parents moved him to a private school. They bought him a new piano, because he announced at 7 that their upright lacked dynamic contrast. “It cost more money than we’d ever paid for anything except a down payment on a house,” Sue said. When Drew was 14, he discovered a home-school program created by Harvard; when I met him two years ago, he was 16, studying at the Manhattan School of Music and halfway to a Harvard bachelor’s degree.
Prodigies are able to function at an advanced adult level in some domain before age 12. “Prodigy” derives from the Latin “prodigium,” a monster that violates the natural order. These children have differences so evident as to resemble a birth defect, and it was in that context that I came to investigate them. Having spent 10 years researching a book about children whose experiences differ radically from those of their parents and the world around them, I found that stigmatized differences — having Down syndrome, autism or deafness; being a dwarf or being transgender — are often clouds with silver linings. Families grappling with these apparent problems may find profound meaning, even beauty, in them. Prodigiousness, conversely, looks from a distance like silver, but it comes with banks of clouds; genius can be as bewildering and hazardous as a disability. Despite the past century’s breakthroughs in psychology and neuroscience, prodigiousness and genius are as little understood as autism. “Genius is an abnormality, and can signal other abnormalities,” says Veda Kaplinsky of Juilliard, perhaps the world’s pre-eminent teacher of young pianists. “Many gifted kids have A.D.D. or O.C.D. or Asperger’s. When the parents are confronted with two sides of a kid, they’re so quick to acknowledge the positive, the talented, the exceptional; they are often in denial over everything else.”
We live in ambitious times. You need only to go through the New York preschool application process, as I recently did for my son, to witness the hysteria attached to early achievement, the widespread presumption that a child’s destiny hinges on getting a baby foot on a tall ladder. Parental obsessiveness on this front reflects the hegemony of developmental psychiatry, with its insistence that first experience is formative. We now know that brain plasticity diminishes over time; it is easier to mold a child than to reform an adult. What are we to do with this information? I would hate for my children to feel that their worth is contingent on sustaining competitive advantage, but I’d also hate for them to fall short of their potential. Tiger mothers who browbeat their children into submission overemphasize a narrow category of achievement over psychic health. Attachment parenting, conversely, often sacrifices accomplishment to an ideal of unboundaried acceptance that can be equally pernicious. It’s tempting to propose some universal answer, but spending time with families of remarkably talented children showed me that what works for one child can be disastrous for another.
Children who are pushed toward success and succeed have a very different trajectory from that of children who are pushed toward success and fail. I once told Lang Lang, a prodigy par excellence and now perhaps the most famous pianist in the world, that by American standards, his father’s brutal methods — which included telling him to commit suicide, refusing any praise, browbeating him into abject submission — would count as child abuse. “If my father had pressured me like this and I had not done well, it would have been child abuse, and I would be traumatized, maybe destroyed,” Lang responded. “He could have been less extreme, and we probably would have made it to the same place; you don’t have to sacrifice everything to be a musician. But we had the same goal. So since all the pressure helped me become a world-famous star musician, which I love being, I would say that, for me, it was in the end a wonderful way to grow up.”
While it is true that some parents push their kids too hard and give them breakdowns, others fail to support a child’s passion for his own gift and deprive him of the only life that he would have enjoyed. You can err in either direction. Given that there is no consensus about how to raise ordinary children, it is not surprising that there is none about how to raise remarkable children. Like parents of children who are severely challenged, parents of exceptionally talented children are custodians of young people beyond their comprehension.
Spending time with the Petersens, I was struck not only by their mutual devotion but also by the easy way they avoided the snobberies that tend to cling to classical music. Sue is a school nurse; her husband, Joe, works in the engineering department of Volkswagen. They never expected the life into which Drew has led them, but they have neither been intimidated by it nor brash in pursuing it; it remains both a diligence and an art. “How do you describe a normal family?” Joe said. “The only way I can describe a normal one is a happy one. What my kids do brings a lot of joy into this household.” When I asked Sue how Drew’s talent had affected how they reared his younger brother, Erik, she said: “It’s distracting and different. It would be similar if Erik’s brother had a disability or a wooden leg.”
Prodigiousness manifests most often in athletics, mathematics, chess and music. A child may have a brain that processes chess moves or mathematical equations like some dream computer, which is its own mystery, but how can the mature emotional insight that is necessary to musicianship emerge from someone who is immature? “Young people like romance stories and war stories and good-and-evil stories and old movies because their emotional life mostly is and should be fantasy,” says Ken Noda, a great piano prodigy in his day who gave up public performance and now works at the Metropolitan Opera. “They put that fantasized emotion into their playing, and it is very convincing. I had an amazing capacity for imagining these feelings, and that’s part of what talent is. But it dries up, in everyone. That’s why so many prodigies have midlife crises in their late teens or early 20s. If our imagination is not replenished with experience, the ability to reproduce these feelings in one’s playing gradually diminishes.”
Musicians often talked to me about whether you achieve brilliance on the violin by practicing for hours every day or by reading Shakespeare, learning physics and falling in love. “Maturity, in music and in life, has to be earned by living,” the violinist Yehudi Menuhin once said. Who opens up or blocks access to such living? A musical prodigy’s development hinges on parental collaboration. Without that support, the child would never gain access to an instrument, the technical training that even the most devout genius requires or the emotional nurturance that enables a musician to achieve mature expression. As David Henry Feldman and Lynn T. Goldsmith, scholars in the field, have said, “A prodigy is a group enterprise.”
Some prodigies seem to trade on a splinter skill — an ability in music that occupies their whole consciousness, leaving them virtually incompetent in all other areas. Others have a dazzling capacity for achievement in general and select music from among multitudinous gifts. Mikhail and Natalie Paremski held comfortable positions within the Soviet system: Mikhail with the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Agency; Natalie with the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute. Their daughter, Natasha, born in 1987, showed a precocious interest in the piano. “I was in the kitchen, and I thought, Who is playing?” Natalie recalls. “Then I saw: it’s the baby, picking out nursery songs.” By the time she was 4, Natasha had played a Chopin mazurka in a children’s concert.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Mikhail emigrated to California; the family followed in 1995. Natasha entered fourth grade, two years younger than her classmates. Within months, she was speaking English without an accent and coming in first on every school test. The family couldn’t afford a good piano; they finally found a cheap one that “sounded like cabbage,” Natasha recalls, and she began performing Haydn concertos, Beethoven sonatas and Chopin études. “Everyone would say, ‘You must be so proud of your daughter,’ ” Natalie told me. “I used to say that it’s not for me to be proud; it’s Natasha who does this herself — but I learned that this is not the polite American way. So now I always say, ‘I am so proud of my daughter,’ and then maybe we can have a conversation.” Natasha agreed. “What did they do to make me practice?” she asked when I first interviewed her, at 16. “What did they do to make me eat or sleep?”
Natasha graduated with top honors from high school at 14 and was offered a full scholarship by Mannes College the New School for Music in New York. Her mother worried about a deficit of soul in New York. “There is no time for vision! People are just struggling to survive, like in Moscow,” Natalie said — to which her daughter replied, “Vision is how I survive.” In those early New York days, Natasha and her mother spoke by phone constantly. Nonetheless, Natalie said, “that was my present to her: I gave her her own life.”
In 2004, when Natasha was 16, I went to her Carnegie Hall debut, for which she played Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. She’s a beautiful young woman, with cascades of hair and a sylphlike figure, and she wore a sleeveless, black velvet dress, so her arms would feel free, and a pair of insanely high heels that she said gave her better leverage on the pedals. Her parents were not there. “They’re too supportive to come,” Natasha told me just before the concert. Afterward, Natalie explained, “If I am there, I am so worried about every single note that I can’t even sit still. It’s not helpful to Natasha.”
Natasha later said she saw nothing strange in a musician’s ability to express emotions she has not experienced. “Had I experienced them, that wouldn’t necessarily help me to express them better in my music. I’m an actress, not a character; my job is to represent something, not to live it. Chopin wrote a mazurka, Person X in the audience wants to hear the mazurka and so I have to decipher the score and make it apprehensible to Person X, and it’s really hard to do. But it has nothing to do with my life experience.”
After the English lawyer Daines Barrington examined the 8-year-old Mozart in 1764, he wrote: “He had a thorough knowledge of the fundamental principles of composition. He was also a great master of modulation, and his transitions from one key to another were excessively natural and judicious.” Yet, Mozart was also clearly a child. “Whilst he was playing to me, a favorite cat came in, upon which he immediately left his harpsichord, nor could we bring him back for a considerable time. He would also sometimes run about the room with a stick between his legs by way of horse.”
Every prodigy is a chimera of such mastery and childishness, and the contrast between musical sophistication and personal immaturity can be striking. One prodigy I interviewed switched from the violin to the piano when she was 7. She offered to tell me why if I didn’t tell her mother. “I wanted to sit down,” she said.
Chloe Yu was born in Macao and came to the United States to study when she was 17. She married at 25, and her son, Marc, was born a year later, in Pasadena, Calif. While she was pregnant, Chloe played the piano to him. When Marc was almost 3, he picked out a few tunes on the piano with two fingers; within a few months, Chloe had found him a teacher advanced enough to respond to his emerging talent. At 5, he added the cello to his regimen. “Soon he asked for more instruments,” Chloe told me. “I said: ‘That’s it, Marc. Be realistic. Two is enough.’ ”
Chloe gave up on the master’s degree she was working on. She had divorced Marc’s father, but because she had no money, she and Marc ended up living with her ex-in-laws, in a room over the garage. Marc’s grandparents did not approve of his “excessive” devotion to the piano. “His grandmother loves him a lot,” Chloe said. “But she just wanted him to be a normal 5-year-old.” When Marc was in preschool, Chloe felt he was ready to perform, and she contacted local retirement facilities and hospitals to offer free recitals. Soon the papers were writing about this young genius. “When I began to understand how talented he is, I was so excited!” Chloe said. “And also so afraid!”
At 6, Marc won a fellowship for gifted youth that covered the down payment on a Steinway. By the time Marc was 8, he and Chloe were flying to China frequently for lessons; Chloe explained that whereas her son’s American teachers gave him broad interpretive ideas to explore freely, his Chinese teacher taught measure by measure. I asked Marc whether he found it difficult traveling so far. “Well, fortunately, I don’t have vestigial somnolence,” he said. I raised an eyebrow. “You know — jet lag,” he apologized.
Marc was being home-schooled to accommodate his performance and practice schedule. At the age of a third-grader, he was taking an SAT class. Chloe serves as his manager and reviews concert invitations with him. “In America, every kid has to be well rounded,” Chloe said. “They have 10 different activities, and they never excel at any of them. Americans want everyone to have the same life; it’s a cult of the average. This is wonderful for disabled children, who get things they would never have otherwise, but it’s a disaster for gifted children. Why should Marc spend his life learning sports he’s not interested in when he has this superb gift that gives him so much joy?”
At their home in California, I asked Marc what he thought of a normal childhood. “I already have a normal childhood,” he said. “Do you want to see my room? It’s messy, but you can come anyway.” Upstairs, he showed me a yellow remote-controlled helicopter that his father had sent from China. The bookshelves were crammed with Dr. Seuss, “Jumanji” and “The Wind in the Willows” but also “Moby-Dick”; with “Sesame Street” videos and also a series of DVDs on the music of Prague, Vienna and so on. We sat on the floor, and he showed me his favorite Gary Larson cartoons, and then we played the board game Mouse Trap.
Then we went downstairs, and Marc sat on a phone book on the piano bench so his hands would be high enough to play comfortably and launched into Chopin’s “Fantasie-Impromptu,” which he imbued with a quality of nuanced yearning that seemed almost inconceivable in someone with a shelf of Cookie Monster videos. “You see?” Chloe said to me. “He’s not a normal child. Why should he have a normal childhood?”
A parent is the progenitor of much of a child’s behavior, telling that child repeatedly who he has been, is and could be, reconciling accomplishment and naïveté. In constructing this narrative, parents often confuse the anomaly of developing fast with the objective of developing profoundly. There is no clear delineation between supporting and pressuring a child, between believing in your child and forcing your child to conform to what you imagine for him. If society’s expectations for most children with profound differences are too low, expectations for prodigies are often perilously high. “When you have a child whose gift is so overshadowing, it is possible for parents to be distracted and lose track of the child himself,” says Karen Monroe, a psychiatrist at Boston’s McLean Hospital who works with prodigious children.
If you dream of having a genius for a child, you will spot brilliance in your child, sometimes even when it isn’t there. Such children, despite being the subjects of obsessive attention, can suffer from not being seen; their sorrow is organized not so much around the rigor of practicing as around invisibility. And yet, accomplishment entails giving up the pleasures of the present moment in favor of anticipated triumphs, and that is an impulse that must be learned. Left to their own devices, children do not become world-class instrumentalists before they turn 10.
When I spoke to the mother of one musical prodigy on the telephone to set up an interview, I invited her and her daughter to dinner, but she said, “We have a family of fussy eaters, so we’ll eat before we come.” The girl and her parents, whom I’ve granted anonymity for their own protection, arrived wearing coats, and I offered to hang them up. “That won’t be necessary,” the mother said, and they sat holding them through the interview. I offered them something to drink, but the woman said, “We are so used to our schedule, and it’s not time for a drink right now.” In three hours, none of them had a sip of water. I had put out homemade cookies, and the daughter kept glancing at them; every time she did, the mother shot her a look. Whenever I asked the daughter a question, her mother jumped in to answer on her behalf; when the daughter did reply, she did so with an anxious glance at her mother, as if worried that she delivered the wrong response.
The daughter was holding her instrument case, so I invited her to play. “I think I’ll play the Bach Chaconne,” she said. Her mother said, “How about the Rimsky-Korsakov?” She replied, “No, no, no, the Chaconne is better.” The daughter had told me that she chose her instrument for its resemblance to her voice; now it provided her only chance to be heard over her mother. She played the Chaconne. When she finished, her mother said, “Now you can play the Rimsky-Korsakov.” The daughter dutifully launched into “Flight of the Bumblebee,” the proof of every virtuoso. “Vivaldi?” her mother said, and she played “Summer” from “The Four Seasons.” She played with a clear, bright tone, although not with such brilliance as to resolve the question of why a childhood had been sacrificed for this art. I had hoped this child would light up when her bow met the strings, but instead she brought out her instrument’s searing melancholy.
Throughout much of history, prodigies were thought to be possessed; Aristotle believed that there could be no genius without madness. Paganini was accused of putting himself in the hands of the devil. The Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso said in 1891, “Genius is a true degenerative psychosis belonging to the group of moral insanity.” Recent neuroscience demonstrates that the processes of creativity and psychosis map similarly in the brain, each contingent on a reduced number of dopamine D2 receptors in the thalamus. A continuum runs between the two conditions; there is no sharp line.
The parents of children with disabilities must be educated to see the identity within a perceived illness, but the parents of prodigies are confronted with an identity and must be educated to recognize the prospect of illness within it. Even those without a sideline diagnosis like A.D.D. or Asperger’s need to mitigate the loneliness of being peerless and of having their primary emotional relationship with an inanimate object. “If you’re spending five hours a day practicing, and the other kids are out playing baseball, you’re not doing the same things,” Karen Monroe says. “Even if you love it and can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, that doesn’t mean you don’t feel lonely.”
If Chloe Yu scorned the idea of a normal childhood, May Armstrong simply had to bow to the reality that no such thing could be achieved with her only son, Kit. Born in 1992, Kit could count at 15 months; May taught him addition and subtraction at 2, and he worked out multiplication and division for himself. While digging in the garden, he explained the principle of leverage to his mother. By 5, he explained Einstein’s theory of time dilation to her. May, an economist, was frankly bemused: “By nature, every mother wants to be protective, but he didn’t need protection. I can’t say that was easy.”
May had left Taiwan at 22 to study in the United States and spent holidays by herself. “I knew what loneliness was all about, and I thought he needed a hobby he could enjoy on his own,” she says. So she started him on piano lessons when he was 5, even though she had no interest in music. After three weeks of lessons, Kit started composing without an instrument on staff paper: the written language of music had come to him whole.
When Kit was 3, a supervisor of his play group told May that he let other children push him around. “I went in one day and saw another child snatch a toy away from him,” May said. “I told him he should stand up for himself, and he said: ‘That kid will be bored in two minutes, and then I can play with it again. Why start a fight?’ So he was mature already. What did I have to teach this kid? But he always seemed happy, and that was what I wanted most for him. He used to look in the mirror and burst out laughing.” May enrolled him in school. “His teacher told me that she wanted her other kids to grow up in kindergarten,” she said. “She wanted mine to grow down.”
By age 9, he had graduated from high school and started college in Utah. “The other students often thought it was strange that he was there,” May says, “but Kit never did.” His piano skills, meanwhile, had advanced enough so that by the time he was 10, he appeared on David Letterman. Shortly after, Kit toured the physics research facility at Los Alamos. A physicist said that, unlike the postdoctoral physicists who usually visited, Kit was so bright that no one could “find the bottom of this boy’s knowledge.” A few years later, Kit attended a summer program at M.I.T., where he helped edit papers in physics, chemistry and mathematics. “He just understands things,” May said to me, almost resigned. “Someday, I want to work with parents of disabled children, because I know their bewilderment is like mine. I had no idea how to be a mother to Kit, and there was no place to find out.”
May moved them to London to pursue Kit’s musicianship, and he soon met the revered pianist Alfred Brendel; he took Kit on and refused payment for lessons. When he learned that Kit was practicing at a piano showroom, he had a Steinway delivered to their apartment.
“I have no ear to be any help to Kit,” May said. “All I can do is remind him that he is very lucky to have been born with those talents. I’d have preferred that he be a professor of mathematics. It’s an easier life.” Then she added, “But Kit has decided that mathematics is his hobby, and the piano is his work.” At 18, Kit was pursuing an M.A. in pure mathematics in Paris; he said he did it “to unwind.” I asked May if she ever worried that Kit, like many young people of remarkable ability, might have a nervous breakdown. She laughed. “If anyone’s going to have a nervous breakdown in this setup,” she said, “it’s me!”
There is no federal mandate for gifted education. But if we recognize the importance of special programs for students whose atypical brains encode less-accepted differences, we should extrapolate to create programs for those whose atypical brains encode remarkable abilities. Writing in Time magazine in 2007, the educator John Cloud faulted the “radically egalitarian” values underlying the No Child Left Behind Act, which provided little support for gifted students. Once again, it falls to parents to advocate for their children’s needs, often in the face of a hostile or indifferent educational system. Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, himself a conductor and a former wunderkind, remarked dryly, “If Beethoven were sent to nursery school today, they would medicate him, and he would be a postal clerk.”
Growing up gay in the 1970s, I encountered prejudice from the world at large that often crossed into disdain. My parents were never derisive, but they were uncomfortable with the ways I differed from them and encouraged me to try to be straight. I began researching children of difference in a quest to forgive my mother and father for pressing me to be untrue to myself. I wanted to look at the process through which parents reconcile themselves to children who throw up significant challenges. I found that many families come to celebrate children with characteristics they initially found incomprehensible — just as my parents did. Having seen how hard it was for other parents, I decided, with considerable relief, that mine had actually done a pretty good job and realized that I was ready to be a parent myself.
My research on prodigies echoed my study of children with other differences. Sue Petersen compared her experience to having a child with a wooden leg; May Armstrong saw common ground with parents of disabled children; and I realized that parenthood always entails perplexity and that the valence of that perplexity matters less than the spirit with which parents respond to it. Half the prodigies I studied seemed to be under pressure to be even more astonishing than they naturally were, and the other half, to be more ordinary than their talents. Studying their families, I gradually recognized that all parenting is guesswork, and that difference of any kind, positive or negative, makes the guessing harder. That insight has largely shaped me as a father. I don’t think I would love my children more if they could play Rachmaninoff’s Third, and I hope I wouldn’t love them less for having that consuming skill, any more than I would if they were affected with a chronic illness. But I am frankly relieved that so far, they show no such uncanny aptitude.