Friday, February 25, 2011

Book Review: Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students

Many parents of “gifted” students opt to homeschool because it allows children to learn at what are, more often than not, asynchronous levels.  It’s rare to find a child who is “gifted” in all areas at the same rate.  Far more common is the 8 year old doing high school math, but 3rd grade writing or the 10 year old reading Dickens with ease, but struggling with science.  These are not students who will benefit from “skipping” a grade or two.  However, traditional schools will inevitably be tedious for a child who finds 3rd grade level “reading comprehension” questions difficult, but loves algebra.

Homeschooling makes it possible for parents to tailor curriculum to meet the specific needs of gifted children.  This though is not the only benefit of homeschooling the gifted child.  Most people don’t realize that gifted children are often also dealing with a number of issues that make traditional schooling difficult.  Too often people think of giftedness in its simplest form.  We all remember the over-achieving kid in school who became valedictorian and who seemingly glided through every difficult course with ease.  The stereotype of gifted kids is that they’re exceptionally smart and have an easy time with all things academic.  The reality though is that giftedness is often associated with sensitivities and explosive personalities.  These kids struggle in areas where others never have difficulties.  The intensities of gifted kids can create emotional and social issues that many parents find easier to address if they are homeschooling.

This is why I so appreciate the work of Christine Fonseca in her new book Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students: Helping Kids Cope with Explosive Feelings.  She addresses not just the cognitive abilities of gifted students, but also the problems created by their emotional intensity and asynchronicity.  Her book provides a detailed description of what she calls the “talents” and “troubles” of gifted kids and lays out the approaches that research has found to be most successful in helping kids and parents cope with both sides of the “gifted” coin.

No two kids experience exactly the same problems, but Fonseca creates a number of “example” kids she uses throughout the book to demonstrate how different approaches will elicit a variety of reactions.  She details real world situations any parent or teacher of a gifted child will recognize.  For example, many gifted students experience an unusually high level of perfectionism that will often make them “shut down” and stop trying when things don’t come easily the first time.  As a result, you get the frustrating problem of the extremely bright student failing classes.  This can happen because of perfectionism or boredom.  We’ve all heard the stories of Einstein’s abysmal school grades.  Fonseca provides clear guidelines for determining what may be at the root of the problem and effective strategies for helping that child.

Gifted children are also more likely to cope with a paralyzing existential angst that leaves them feeling hopeless and sometimes cripplingly anxious or depressed.  Too often this kind of “gifted” child turns to drugs or opts out in different ways.  Fonseca helps parents understand what’s going on with their child and explains different “coaching” techniques parents can use to help their child understand and effectively deal with this kind of anxiety.  She provides several “parent-child dialogue” samples and gives step by step advice for helping a child learn relaxation techniques that can really make a difference.  Fonseca explains that gifted kids are sometimes misdiagnosed with psychological illnesses (anxiety/panic disorder, OCD, manic depression, etc.) that in reality are better understood as part and parcel of being gifted.  Her practical approaches to helping these kids understand themselves and learn to cope with their environment are often far more effective in the long run than medications.

If you have a gifted child, this is definitely a book you’ll want to read.  Fonseca provides useful strategies to help both parents and teachers recognize issues related to giftedness and better guide these kids as they learn about themselves and their world.  I am particularly grateful for the practical advice she provides for helping kids deal with the internal and external stress that leads to extreme emotional intensity.  She reminds us that teaching should not and cannot be confined to academics.  Our job as parents, teachers and mentors is to help kids learn about all aspects of life.  The problems gifted students often experience can be bewildering, frustrating and heart-breaking.  Fonseca has made a great contribution to helping people understand the unique and too often unmet needs of gifted students.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Book Review Plus

I have created a website exclusively for Book Reviews called  So, if you're missing the book reviews here, take a moment and go explore the new site.  I hope eventually to fill it with a large variety of book reviews:  Fiction, Non Fiction, Children's Literature and Classic Literature and include such features as book club discussion questions, lesson plans and writing assignments to complement the reviews. It will take awhile to grow, but it's on its way...  Hope to see you there! J

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A New Way to Learn....

Here's an interesting development in the world of academia and one I imagine we'll see a good bit more of at all levels of education in the future.  A Media Studies professor at Pitzer college has published her most recent work of scholarship through MIT Press as a free "Video Book" on YouTube.  The "book" consists of a combination of text and videos and stems from a class she taught on YouTube.  Back in 2007, when she first taught the class, she was ridiculed for teaching a subject many considered absurd.  I can testify though that as a graduate student at USC, I was lucky enough to take a class on MTV taught by the amazing Nancy Vickers, who went on to serve as president of Bryn Mawr College.  That class too was thought "ridiculous" by some, but it was probably the best and most memorable class I took in my graduate years.  Some might think it an odd choice for both a literature professor and student, but I learned more about detailed, perceptive analytical work in that class than in any other.  Now, much of this certainly was the teacher, but I would nevertheless argue that "reading" technology can be quite illuminating.  And yes, in the hands of the right teacher -- any subject becomes fascinating.  I was lucky enough to work with Nancy on several occasions and she was one of my dissertation advisors.  She was brilliant and my time spent in her classes was invaluable.

This new concept is one I'm sure will be used in the future.  It's much more than just a videotaped lecture.  It's a truly interactive book where one can click on icons in the text and watch a video demonstration of the concept.  It's ideal for media studies of course, but will likely seep into film/drama studies and many other areas before long.  I can imagine it being invaluable to science courses, where viewing an experiment from start to finish could bring life to otherwise dry descriptions of difficult operations.

I've included one of her "textios" (a page with a combination of text and video) below to give you an idea of how this free on-line textbook looks.  Enjoy!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Online Writing Courses

Since I wrote my post on Writing Skills for Homeschoolers, I've had numerous emails asking if I offer on-line writing courses in addition to the writing courses I teach for homeschoolers in the Los Angeles area.  I'm currently working on ideas for creating a variety of online classes targeting different age groups, but in the meantime am starting an on-line consulting service to help parents interested in having their child's writing professionally evaluated.  I will provide specific feedback designed to help your child improve in many areas, including:  structure and organization, unity and coherence, content, grammar and syntax and overall argumentative effectiveness.  Using the "review" function in MS Word, I'll insert comments and suggestions and return the the writing sample to you with a complete evaluation and recommendations for areas that need further study.

I have over a decade of experience teaching freshman writing at local universities, such as the University of Southern California (USC), Pepperdine University, California State University Northridge (CSUN) and California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) and have been teaching writing to homeschoolers for the last three years at the Huckleberry Learning Center, located just north of Los Angeles.

My rates are listed below on a "price per essay" basis and all include a 2-part review.  Revision is essential to strong writing, so each essay evaluation will include follow-up comments if the student wishes to revise an essay and re-submit for further comments within 2 weeks of the original evaluation.

Price per Essay (2-Part Review - see above)
      1-500 words = $30
 500-1000 words = $38
1000-1500 words = $46
1500-2000 words = $54
2000-2500 words = $64
Each additional 1-500 words = +$10           

For more information or to submit an essay for review, please email me at
I look forward to working with you to improve your child's writing skills!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Blackthorn DPNS!

Hearing about Blackthorn DPNS on another knitterly blog, I decided to try a set for myself.  What could be cooler than knitting with the same material they use to make the outer skin of the Blackbird Stealth Jet?  Well, as it turns out, my old standards, Signature Needle Arts' DPNS, still reign supreme.  To me, the "stickiness" of the carbon fiber composite slows down my knitting a good bit.  I tried them out with some sock wool and found it hard to move the yarn along the needle.  I decided to switch to a cotton and am having better luck with the Cascade Fixation you see in the picture.  The needles LOOK really nifty though :)

Civilized Discourse on the Internet.... Wishful Thinking? :)

I received a comment (a number of them actually, from the same anonymous source) that I deleted today.  Deleting comments is not something I do happily, so I want to explain why and add my own comments on what I think is a vital issue for people to be discussing about writing and the internet.  

Both comments in question began with obnoxious name calling.  I won't have needlessly inappropriate remarks like that on my blog for many reasons, but most importantly because my students read this blog.  Not only do I not want them to have to read such nonsense, I don't want them learning from me that such things are to be tolerated simply because one opens a discussion about a topic that may be controversial.  I welcome opinions that may disagree with my own and blog as a way of opening a forum for discussion.  I learn a lot from such discussions.  But stating an opposing position and childish name calling are not the same thing.

My post earlier today was on homeschooling and socialization and I've received a number of useful comments and emails expressing many different viewpoints, but it was clear that this particular individual hadn't even read the whole post and simply had an ax to grind against homeschooling.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of cowards on the internet who are happy to spend their time leaving rude comments on blogs, so long as they can hide under the cover of anonymity.  I suppose it's the price we must pay for the sorts of open discussions blogs and the internet allow.  I'm sure if this individual returns, I'll get more of the same in response to this post.  This isn't the first ugly and pointless comment I've received and I'm quite sure it won't be the last.  Still, I refuse to provide a forum for just plain nastiness on my blog and though I greatly value thoughtful disagreement, will always delete pointless insults.  So now I've switched to comment moderation... sad, but necessary.

The Great Gatsby Game

Got some time to waste?  Are you of a literary bent? Here's a simple laugh for you...  Try the "Great Gatsby" game.  It's an old-school Nintendo style game I found listed on NPR's site.  In the game you are Nick Carraway searching for Gatsby in his mansion and on his grounds.  The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg greet you as you begin and eerily watch your progress.  You have to heartlessly destroy innumerable innocent butlers along the way, but there are lots of martinis to help numb any objections your guilty conscience might make and give you the impression that you actually can hide from "the EYES."

I guarantee it's an hour you'll never get back, but it's a silly sort of fun nevertheless.

Home Schooling and Socialization

By Holly Van Houten

New research out this month provides documentation for what anyone who has ever been in school already instinctively knows -- bullying can and does happen to anyone and often it's linked to popularity.  It's easy to assume as most research on bullying up to this point has, that bullies are just individual, maladjusted, overly-aggressive kids, but in reality the popular kids are just as guilty -- though often, more subtle.

The New York Times article (linked above) reports on studies conducted on social "webs" in middle and high school.  The kids at the very top of the pyramid didn't "bully" others much, but those at the 98% mark were the worst offenders.  Experience shows us that clawing your way to the top of the heap is likely to draw blood, especially for girls.  This kind of bullying is more difficult to detect though because the bleeding is internal and caused by small, sharp jabs that may cut to the bone, even though they often go unnoticed by parents and teachers.

I homeschool my daughters for a large variety of reasons.  At the top of the list would be academics.  I know I can and do provide them with a far more meaningful, interesting and often more rigorous academic experience than they would get at a school.

Yet, the most common question I get about homeschooling is:  What about socialization?  This question always puzzles me.  My first instinct is always to answer sarcastically (but honestly), "Yes, it's a huge problem -- it's so hard to find enough time to study."  The ridiculous stereotype of homeschoolers as isolated, lonely and socially inept kids is amazingly persistent.  But in reality, homeschooling happens only in small amounts in the home.  Our learning experiences take us far afield more often than not.  Kids stuck in a classroom all day, seem to me to be far more isolated from real life.  My kids are out and about all the time, interacting with both adults and kids from all walks of life, in a variety of situations.  They also have many friends -- more in fact, than I can usually manage.  My biggest problem is that I have to find a balance between visits with friends and school work.  The big difference though, is that my kids have friends from multiple arenas.  They have friends from choir, friends from theater, friends from their homeschool co-op classes, friends from homeschool park groups, friends from church, friends from gymnastics, friends from the neighborhood, and I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

The one thing they don't have is a place where they are required to encounter (5 days a week) the same large group of kids (some of whom are friends), all interacting together with relatively little supervision.  They don't go to school.

And lets face it -- the "Lord of the Flies" social scene in most schoolyards never occurs anywhere else in life.  I never encountered anything remotely resembling it in college, grad school or the work place.  Women in groups may at times verge on being a bit "catty," but maturity has deadened the sharper edges of the claws they may have had as schoolgirls.  And besides, maturity works both ways -- women have thicker skin than young girls.

No, the social cliques of the schoolyard are uniquely difficult.  Yet people still insist that I'm "sheltering" my kids by not making them learn to fend for themselves in such situations.  To them, I must say -- yes, I AM sheltering my children from that -- just as I shelter them from wind and rain and every other hardship -- until they're old enough and mature enough to fend for themselves.  I teach them the survival skills they'll need for life, but I don't think learning to defend themselves against the subtle and manipulative bullying instigated by the "popular" kids in a school is a skill they'll have much use for in their lives.  Besides, as the recent studies show -- most kids defend themselves by becoming bullies themselves on the road toward "popularity."  That's NOT a lesson I want my kids to learn.

No, "socialization" is something I rarely need to worry about for my kids at all -- BECAUSE I Homeschool.

Monday, February 14, 2011


I knit these cozy, fingerless mitts for my stepmother - "Nanny," hoping they'd keep her hands warm and her fingers free while she teaches my daughters their piano.  They're called "Fetching," as the cables that enclose the wrists and the very top, twist "fetchingly" toward the thumbs.  I finished these over a week ago, but couldn't post pictures until after her birthday.  She reports that indeed they keep her hands comfy and warm and that she even wears them to sleep sometimes.  I figure adding a little warmth to those hands is the very least I can do as they are frequently employed in loving care of my father, myself and my girls.  I chose the softest yarn I could find -- a blend of alpaca and silk in natural colors... the perfect fit for someone so naturally loving and beautiful!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Rest for the Weary....

Whew!  I've been on a crazy jag of work and personal life busy-ness for the last couple of months, but since (finally) things seem to be calming down, I thought I'd catch you up on why the daily blog posts have slowed to a trickle and nearly disappeared.  November was a haul.... wrote the 50,000 word Nanowrimo novel, hosted Thanksgiving for 30 or so of my nearest and dearest and then launched into Christmas preparations -- all the usual, plus heaps of knitting and new design projects.  New Year's included a week long trip to see my sister and her family in Grass Valley -- and more knitting -- and then January launched me right into editing (which involved multiple student conferences) and publishing the 12 novels for my Creative Writing Class.  That was a fantastic, but exhausting experience.  Now that I know the routine, I'm hoping it will be more efficient next semester.  This first experience though was definitely challenging.

As soon as the novels were published and our signing party/exhibition over, my kids (and I, as volunteer Mom) had production week for Peter Pan.  Daily rehearsals in the big theater (an hour away) were fun, but kept us hopping and during that same week I had to prepare all 6 of my new classes for Huck's spring semester.  The final performance of Peter Pan ended this last Sunday night -- we made it home by 11pm and headed out bright and early the next morning for a full day of new classes at Huck.

During this same basic time period, the kids performed in 3 holiday concerts (see here, here, and here), broke a finger, stepped on a gi-normous piece of glass, bled from the ear (that was actually last night -- more on that below), had a birthday, caught colds, including a nasty sinus infection and kept on track with all their homeschooling work.  I suspect you're starting to see why I'm about to fall over.  My primary way of de-stressing during this period was to read -- and read I did -- as evidenced by the multiple book reviews I've posted here.  Reading really is my favorite way to relax -- well, that and knitting.  It would be awfully hard to choose one over the other -- mood is an important determining factor.  Best of all is when I'm able to combine both -- knitting, while listening to a book on tape.  But, this isn't always possible -- some patterns are just too persnickety (complicated charts and vast amounts of counting) and apparently listening and keeping careful count are just not skills I'm able to combine.  And of course, given the thousands of books that line my shelves, not all my books are on tape.

Some nights, after the kids were in bed, I'd just sit on the couch with a good book and a cup of tea and spend a peaceful hour trying to re-establish my sanity.  I'm extremely introverted by nature (teaching aside) and desperately need time alone to re-charge the old batteries.  And this is what I was doing last night when my older daughter, unable to get to sleep, came downstairs for a drink of water and one last good night hug.  It was nearly 11pm and she'd been trying for over an hour to get to sleep and was frustrated.  As she bent down to me on the couch for a hug, our heads banged together (and yes, if you're sensing this is where the ear bleeding comes in -- you called it).  This was really frighteningly disturbing.  Our heads hadn't banged all THAT hard -- it definitely hurt, but I didn't think we'd hit hard enough to give my daughter a concussion.  She was actually crying from our "head-bang" and I thought she was over-reacting a bit, right up until the moment she looked up and I saw blood dripping from her ear.  She was understandably rather distraught at seeing this -- to say I was too would be the understatement of the year, though I tried to stay calm and calm her too.  The bleeding stopped within a couple of minutes and I had her lie on her side to drain any blood still in the ear.  I called her doctor who thought it was bizarre, but said that since the bleeding had stopped we should sleep and come see her first thing in the morning.

I was slightly soothed by the doctor's calm attitude, but wasn't about to go right to sleep after a head injury (especially one that caused bleeding FROM THE EAR!!!! -- yes, I'm shouting now, but I really did strive to stay calm at the time for my poor kiddo).  Anyway, I did calm her down and we watched a little show on DVD.  I planned to have her sleep in my bed (not that I thought I'd actually sleep) and we were about to go upstairs when I thought I'd just take another look at the ear with a flashlight.  Once I did, it became quite clear what had happened.  While it was bleeding, it was impossible to see, but now that it had stopped I could see a little nick, just inside her ear, that had scabbed over in the intervening hour.  It was obvious that the bleeding had been caused by a scratch from her earring.  Because she was leaning down to hug me, when we collided her earlobe (with the wicked little earring) had bent upwards causing the stone in her post earrings to nick the inside of her ear.  Whew!!  Can't begin to describe the relief.  Bleeding from the brain wasn't a prospect I'd enjoyed contemplating.

So, I'll stop today as I started, with that collective "Whew!!!" -- grateful to have made it through the last few months relatively unscathed and with promises to post more frequently now that life has slowed a bit.  After all, I must set a good example for my blogging students and in 2 weeks my 12 new authors will begin facing weekly word count deadlines for their novels and I plan to be right there in the trenches with them again (writing the 2nd half of the novel I began in November).  So... Whew!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Reading a strong and captivating work of non-fiction (like this one:  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) is my favorite way to learn.  It's one of the reasons I homeschool.  I never wanted my kids to think history or science was boring and dry simply because they were forced to learn it from some lame textbook, written by a committee of otherwise unemployable writers who are forced to cover every topic on a laundry list of state standards.  End rant.... and my apologies if you happen to be the author of a lame textbook -- but, admit it... I speak the truth.  This book is the antithesis of the typical lame textbook; it's a fascinating look at a part of science and medicine I knew very little about.  Considering how much the modern world has benefited from the cells of Ms. Lacks, its amazing more people don't know their history.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black woman struck down by cervical cancer at the age of 31.  The medical treatment she received at Johns Hopkins Hospital was appalling, though not unusual for that time.  What was unusual was that a doctor there happened to be collecting tissue samples in an attempt to grow cells in culture.  He'd had marginal success, but the samples always died out rather quickly.  Ms. Lacks' cancerous tissue cells were quite different -- they appeared to be immortal.  They could reproduce endlessly (doubling every 4 hours), making it possible for scientists to study and conduct tests on them.  These cells allowed scientists to develop treatments for diseases such as polio, cancer, AIDS, diabetes and innumerable others.  The field of virology began with the discovery of these cells, known as HeLa cells (named from the 1st letters of Ms. Lacks' first and last name).  Scientists infected HeLa cells with everything from mumps and measles to herpes and learned how cells react and change when exposed to disease.   In 1953 researchers discovered by accident that a certain staining agent could make cell chromosomes visible and genetic medicine was born.  Finally, doctors understood the chromosomal basis for Down's Syndrome and were able to develop genetic tests, such as amniocentesis.  Eventually, they were able to map the entire human genome thanks to HeLa cells and one can only guess the medical breakthroughs that are yet to be made as a result of that knowledge.  Gene therapies, cloning technology, in vitro fertilization, stem cells, all were reliant on HeLa cells.

It goes without saying that countless scientists and medical corporations have enjoyed immeasurable financial profit (easily billions if not trillions of dollars), from work that would have been impossible without the cells of Henrietta Lacks.  Many went into the business of simply distributing HeLa cells.  It's estimated that although you could fit 100 HeLa cells on the head of pin, over 50 million metric tons of her cells exist in labs all over the world.  Yet, her family has never seen any of that profit and were often so poor that they couldn't even afford the medical insurance necessary to utilize some of the medicines developed through their mother's cells.  This book delves into not only the history of how HeLa cells have impacted science and medicine, but also into the lives of her children after her death.  The author, Rebecca Skloot, humanizes these cells by providing the background information about Henrietta Lacks and how her 5 children were affected by what happened with their mother's cells.  It's a mostly sad and very unfortunate tale of a poverty stricken family and how they were manipulated and taken advantage of by those with greater power and education.

I was impressed by the vast amount of scientific and biographical material Skloot covers in this book (the info about HeLa as a contaminant was fascinating), but the ethical issues she discusses are equally gripping.  Medical ethics and patient privacy have come a long way since Henrietta Lacks died, but it's astonishing how much power doctors still have over our tissues.  There are billions of samples of human tissue stored in laboratories all over the world (and if you have ever had, say, a mole removed, one might be yours).  We all benefit from medical research and certainly nobody wants to halt that progress in any way, still there must be a way to improve consent laws and educate people in greater detail about these issues.  Medical ethics are often thorny and complicated and a balance between individual rights and the needs of medical progress will likely continue to be endlessly negotiated in both laboratories and the courts.

I really enjoyed Skloot's approach in this book.  It was a tremendous amount of information to organize, but she does an admirable job of keeping this story both informative and interesting.  The details could easily have been rendered dry and boring if they'd been placed in the hands of the textbook hacks mentioned above.  However, Skloot's skillful rendering had me up quite late several nights, unable to put it down even though I knew an early morning was waiting for me.  I definitely recommend it and will look for her next project.