How My “Unschooling Guinea Pig” Was Wooed for TV and Learned a Life Lesson We All Could Use

16 07 2009

Like John and Abigail Adams’ letters to each other, this is a true story told in real time without narrative, yet with narrative power for all Thinking Parents and Citizens imo:


Re: “America’s Brightest”
Date: 04/03/2000
From: JJ Ross, Ed.D.

In a message dated 03/30/2000 3:55:46 PM PST, sandrac writes:


Dear Sandra:

Having no clue what an academic bio on a barely-10-year-old unschooled Mensan would look like, I will improvise and hope for the best!

Meredith has been entirely “home-educated,” which to us means the family guides her learning instead of any public or private institution. Meredith is widely read and keenly interested in the arts. She dislikes arithmetic calculation but is intrigued by mathematics and computer graphics (it is solving puzzles, after all!) She enjoys word play like oxymorons and puns, and she appreciates sophisticated analogies and parables.

When her 4-year-old brother (who also is a Mensan, by the way) asked, “Hey, who made the first man, if nobody was here yet?” Meredith replied, “Do you want the Biblical answer or the scientific answer?” and proceeded to give him both, complete with the Big Bang theory and why Adam and Eve wouldn’t have had any belly buttons, “unless God was being artistic that day.”

She began last fall to spend one day each week at a resource center for academically gifted students attached to our local community college, where small groups explore themes such as the magic of chemistry or the history of shoes or everything you ever wanted to know about chocolate. The program is based on sound principles for teaching bright, self-motivated students, and the children are not tested or graded.

She studies with private dance, voice and piano teachers, and also played first violin last year with the local Youth Orchestra. She knows most Broadway musicals and has seen many live touring company productions. She has discovered opera (Florida State University has an outstanding program) and so she is teaching ME about it. We saw “Falstaff” together yesterday afternoon. She wants to be an Newberry award-winning author like E.L. Konigsburg.

Having said all this, I am reluctant to put her forward as an example of “America’s Brightest,” especially if the structure of the showcase (or rules of engagement, if you will) does violence to the very concept of intelligence by emphasizing rapid recall of simple facts rather than the higher orders of knowledge such as analysis, synthesis, original thinking — or my own favorite marker of intelligence, a well-developed sense of humor! This of course is the same problem most standardizing testing inflicts upon the national psyche.

Far from being trick ponies or nerdy automatons, America’s True Brightest are delightful and complex individuals; what they have or have not memorized to date, is simply irrelevant to their intelligence or future contributions.

Adult Mensans as a population, for example, tend not to have excelled at traditional trivia-type contests or linear career paths. They are interested in too many different areas to spend all their time mastering one or two. Could it be that the choice to eschew competition is more indicative of true intelligence than speed and rote memorization?

In any case, I appreciate the interest your production is taking in the intelligence of children, and I hope that you are successful, both in this immediate endeavor and also in contributing to America’s understanding of intelligence. The tight timeline for your upcoming production may not allow consideration of such issues, but it is my hope that something I have said will spark your company’s interest in pursuing the nature of intelligence in children and in creating telegenic ways to portray it more accurately, in all its wonder. Please feel free to contact me at any time if ever more pontificating is thought to be desirable!

My sincere thanks,

JJ Ross, Ed.D.

May 11, 2000 |
Fox crowns the smartest kid in America
By Joyce Millman

. . . on Tuesday, there was the two-hour, Dick Clark-produced “Challenge of the Child Geniuses: Who Is the Smartest Kid in America?” and it garnered the highest Tuesday rating for Fox since “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” aired Feb. 15.

In “Challenge of the Child Geniuses,” 50 overachievers between the ages of 10 and 12 competed in a grueling test of high school- and college-level math, science, geography, history and literature, and at the end, there was but one little brain warrior left standing, and he was crowned the Smartest Kid in America. (Although the on-screen credits gave the show’s name as “Challenge of the Child Geniuses,” Fox juicily retitled it “Battle of the Child Geniuses” for promos and TV listings.)

As a parent, it’s hard not to get caught up in that “my kid is smarter than yours” crap. And, as a parent, it was hard not to be both fascinated and repelled by the show. It opened, “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” style, with a parade of kid geniuses, each one taking the microphone to state his or her name, hometown and crowning intellectual achievement, all of which put your kid’s mastery of Pokemon Snap to shame:

“I’m taking molecular biology at the University of Denver”;
“Out of 85,000 participants, I got a perfect score in the Math Olympiad”;
“I read 900 books before I was 6 years old”;
“I’ve never made less than an A in my entire life”;
“I have an I.Q. of 189.”

Yes, there was some serious geekdom on display here.

The 50 contestants then answered first-round questions so complicated, host Clark had trouble reading them off his cue cards.

Sample first-round question: “The product of which of the following when squared gives the age of our Declaration of Independence in 2001?” (Sample “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” first-round question: “In the children’s nursery rhyme, the three little kittens lost their what?”)

The pool was eventually narrowed down to 10 top scorers — nine boys, one girl — and then to five, and then to two finalists. Eleven-year-old Michael Jezierny (“I scored in the top 2 percent of all college-bound high school seniors when I recently took the ACTs”) was a scarily competitive blond boy who looked as if he might reach into his chest and rip out his own heart with his bare hands when he got a question wrong. Twelve-year-old John Hawksley (“I mastered algebra by the age of 6”) was a dark-haired boy with a nervously blinking eye.

Just as Darva Conger shone with the light of the chosen upon her even before Rick Rockwell got down on his knees to propose, you knew that blond kid had it sewn up. When he answered the winning question (“What the Romans called the country now known as France,” a comparative gimme), his family — Mom, Dad, Sis — all bounded out and jumped all over him, while his devastated-looking opponent and his mom were quickly ushered off the stage.

Oh, I suppose it’s refreshing for TV to applaud kids for their mental prowess for a change; this wasn’t the usual freak show of eerie child actors and nymphet songstresses.

But, still, isn’t there something depressing about seeing a bunch of highly competitive kids blinking back tears on national TV, thrust into yet another competition at their fragile ages? Isn’t it sad that their wondrous, innate gifts were reduced to sport, all for network ratings and our voyeuristic pleasure? On second thought, nah, it’s good for them to learn you can’t always get straight A’s.

Teach ’em how to be losers like the rest of us.


Published: June 21, 2000
The Smartest Kid in America
By James R. Delisle

Recently, the Fox Television Network, in a bold and misbegotten attempt to garner high ratings during the “sweeps month” of May, decided to locate the smartest kid in America. Call it a pint-sized version of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?,” for the questions dealt with the kinds of trivia important only on game shows or their educational equivalent, those silly state competency tests that inflict pain on students and teachers nationwide.

So, the smartest-kid nominees paraded onto the stage; a beauty pageant of the mind, with the contestants wearing just a tad less makeup than JonBenet Ramsey often wore to events like these. Each spoke about academic accomplishments that would make viewers go “Wow!” and, like their Miss America equivalents, some of the kids spoke of their future goals and ambitions as scientists or technicians or doctors.

The competition began, the questions were asked, and child after child fell victim to one of the most common maladies of being human: They made errors. When it got down to the last two contestants, the tension was as high as the stakes. Face it, in the world of competitive TV, there lies a big gulf between being named “The Smartest Kid in America” and being…

[the rest of the story is for subscribers only, but Thinking Parents won’t need to pay to finish it in their own minds]


National Home Education Network legislative email list
Date: May 23, 2003
From: JJ Ross Ed.D.
Re: National Geography Bee, Spelling Bee and other showcases at which homeschooled children excel

We have two gifted children at home.
Perhaps not prodigies, but I do have a story about one of them related to the academic competition discussion:

T[hree] springs ago, my elder child, then 10, the age of the new Geography Bee winner, was invited through American Mensa to screen-test for the Dick Clark’s national “Who’s the Smartest Kid in America” Fox television special. The show’s production staff was coming to our state (one day in Miami, one day in Tallahassee) to test only a handful of children.

I was reluctant, but my daughter, who has never been schooled, never taken an achievement test, never even used workbooks, thought it might be fun to try.

She is a dazzling thinker and communicator, deliberate one moment and spontaneous the next, a self-motivated student of philosophy, politics, opera and performing arts from stage to screen, literature, dance, etc. Her interest in the world is of languages, cultures and ideas, not land formations and atlas statistics. Her interest in mathematics is in puzzling out solutions over time, IF and only because they intrigue her, not racing to see who can emulate a human calculator to win an award. Her sense of humor is of course delicious, which is a typical gifted characteristic. She imagined this would be like
her gifted resource-center classes to date — free-ranging, creative and stimulating.

So, like many homeschool parents before me, I decided to help her experience it for herself rather than imposing my judgment on her.

Of course it was nothing like she had imagined. What a soul-sucking experience to see her try to figure out why the tests were fill-in-the-blank, definition-type, almost all math and science factoids. She had thought the show was interested in “smart” kids, and yet here was an alternate universe in which she apparently was not smart at all. Her marvelous brain couldn’t stop processing this surprising new evidence and trying to make sense of it.

Was she not smart after all, or was the rest of the world wrong about what matters?

Anyway, we watched the show as a family when it aired a few weeks later. Maybe you saw it? As a professional educator, as a mom, as a human being, it appalled me. Even worse than I had feared. Buzzers and bells, summary dismissal even for a right answer that comes a split second too late (just like the Geography Bee, I read) almost like a sideshow at the carnival
— horrid fascination.

Please understand — we neither envied nor pitied those particular children. More power to them. The concern in my home was about the societal message being broadcast to children and parents and legislators across America, that THESE are the bright children, our hope for tomorrow, that the
smartest kids in the country are the ones who succeed at a competition like this.

In my opinion, whether we are thinking only of our own children or of society as a whole, competitive test-taking isn’t necessarily “smart.” Sometimes, as in the movie War Games, the only winning move is not to play.

JJ Ross, Ed.D.

May 3, 2009
Hardest Lesson Is Top Secret, Best Learned Out of School:

Talk about competitive, wow. And I don’t mean the child. [shudder]

Just for some different perspective –

When Young Son was barely four, he was something of a chess whiz and a real Russian chess mistress living on campus here with her doctoral student husband, took a big interest in him, wanted to put him in tournaments because she said he had unusual raw talent etc.

His stunned but proud dad actually started researching ivy league chess scholarships (we were both overachieving firstborns in school infused with the win-or-lose world view . . .)

The problem was, he couldn’t physically write a lick! To enter tournaments of the kind she wanted him in, you have to write down your moves in chess notation. He learned the notation mentally very quickly but the actual graphic production with pencil and paper, no way.

Fine motor skills stood between him and chess glory! 🙂

But it was all for the best that his writing was delayed as it turned out, because by the time he COULD (theoretically — we’re radical unschoolers so we never tested this) write neatly under time pressure, his chess tutoring had ended and with it, the focus on competition for ranking rather than each game for its own sake, all the little interlocking puzzles within it that so fascinated him. He’s 13 now and the clock still means almost nothing to him, he runs on Young Son Time — so tournament time pressure on each move probably would have ruined chess as he enjoys it.

Marathons and music are the same not-training and not-competition for him. He takes long solitary walks most days but only because he chooses to and enjoys it in his own way, not for speed, fitness, training for competition, imposed virtue, nor because I throw him out of the house the way adults threw us outside when I was a kid!

Sorry to be long-winded but just to finish up, now he plays a musical instrument that can be played in competition solo or in a band and he practices his head off, absolutely loves it but not because he wants to enter or win any competition, or get better than other pipers. . . he loves the music and loves making it, period.

It’s really a whole different perspective from how I was brought up and schooled, so I haven’t taught it to my kids at all; they’ve taught me.

You can’t know when they are four or seven, what life lessons THEY will teach YOU if you’re still able to learn. Seems to me great home education parenting is not a competitive sport, ideally combining the best of chess and music, as a marathon we finish triumphantly despite not training for it!



14 responses

16 07 2009
Crimson Wife

We have a family history of being very good at trivia contests like the Academic Decathlon, but I wouldn’t put my kid in a televised contest at age 10-12. High school aged, sure, if it was really what he/she wanted. There needs to be a level of emotional maturity that the kid knows at the end of the day it’s just a game and not a true judgment of his/her self-worth.

16 07 2009

What do you think about the social message, CW, that this is what matters, what should be taught and tested and rewarded, for the future of America and the world?

16 07 2009
Crimson Wife

I’m less concerned about what’s on TV than the obsession with standardized tests by politicians, school administrators, and many parents.

16 07 2009

Exactly! Why do you think it gets on tv in the first place??

And why do you think the dyslexic firefighter in the Ricci case — who I just watched on C-Span reading his Sotomayor testimony LITERALLY with his finger tracing every line, on TV for the world to see — nevertheless really believes that studying for months to take a pencil-and-paper promotion test is the “hard work” and “merit” we need in public service, and he finally somehow managed to conquer by practically abandoning his wife and children? And that he was being cheated unless the test results counted — when ironically, he’d be less disadvantaged by having less emphasis on written testing and more on things that really matter in leadership (not to mention firefighting.)

Talk about empathy, I felt so, so badly for that poor man who’s doubtless good-hearted and brave and looked strong, all because he’s been taught his whole life to think the artificial trivia and schoolish testing are what count, instead of his other real-life qualities and contributions to his community and family and career. . .so sad, for us all.

16 07 2009

Sadly, that case was NOT about whether or not they should do away with tests. It was all about the town not wanting to be sued. And, sadly, it was an extremely race related case.

16 07 2009

Not to this lifelong and academic educator, but yes, to the white male conservatives (senators and radio pontificators) who didn’t pass any written test to get where THEY are!

I think their opposition to everything about this administration is about racial and other discriminatory privilege (their own), yes. Maybe it’s the times and we just have to decide where we stand. I remember the day I declared I was voting for Obama — it was because of his speech on race. I see he gave another barn-burner to the NAACP today, hmmm . . .and his closing theme was, “Your Destiny Is In Your Hands… No Excuses” —

“No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands – and don’t you forget that.

“No excuses. No excuses,” Obama added, verging off his prepared remarks. “You get that education. All those hardships will just make you stronger, better able to compete. Yes, we can!”

16 07 2009

But this might explain what they’re so worried about . . .

18 07 2009

Today we got a comment from someone who knew our beloved teacher Damien Middleton, and had just learned of his untimely death in late 2006.

As I approved her comment for publication, I noticed anew how the power of story we shared then, relates to so many concerns about schooling, alternative education and academic competition. (Favorite Daughter was already a student of Damien’s at the time Dick Clark’s tv program came hunting for her.)

Damien was a full-time employee of Walt Disney World Entertainment in Orlando. He was a performer in the Magic Kingdom Christmas show performed in front of Cinderella’s Castle. He also served as their Dance Captain, a position that he held for a number of years at Disney. His schedule was flexible enough to allow him to maintain his close ties to our studio, where he served as my “right arm and leg” as well as instructor and choreographer.

He dearly loved his family at the studio. Although he traveled the world, he felt that our little school was his favorite place to be on earth. . .
As Damien and I always agreed, our school is so much more about life than dance. . .

Damien himself had been alternatively schooled using the same principles we’ve always valued in unschooling, a small-town southern boy growing up in a close-knit family, given the chance to shine and giving it back to us all, with interest!:

Here’s a research article about his public magnet school, which is for grades 5-12. I know Damien believed and lived these principles, especially the last one starting with “most of all” —

So what’s unique about Davidson? Three factors stand out:

1. A school built on student interests.
. . .Davidson admissions staff looks for students who genuinely want to be involved in the arts. They want to weed out the kids who are being pushed to perform by overachieving parents. . . If Davidson can build a cohort of students who want to come to school because they get to do what they love, then the school’s administrators believe that academic success will follow.

2. Davidson is not interested in “art stars.” This school wants students who enjoy engaging in the arts—and who enjoy being around similar students. The emphasis is on helping everyone get better, not singling out an elite as “the best.” . . . Davidson values its culture of cooperation as highly as excellence in performance. Yes, products matter, and striving for excellence is important. However, the pursuit of excellence cannot become a system that focuses on winners and losers.

3. Nurturing a caring environment.

Most of all, they learned that school was fun. They engaged in learning, because they loved it. This is perhaps the most powerful outcome of the Davidson experience. It provides a guiding principle in how teachers should approach content.

18 07 2009

We need education that fosters Damiens rather than Frank Riccis, not by race but through the real-life lessons kids learn about winning and losing.

Might makes right is wrong, whether it’s brute force or political power, even when it’s academic might and test score aristocracy. When we stop teaching human life as a zero-sum game, then we call ourselves worthy of American ideals like justice for all, and claim we’re on the side of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Not until.

18 07 2009

From my “Great Tennis Takes Great Education Too” essay a few years back:

Do you know what words of advice inspire the greatest players in the world as they enter Centre Court for Wimbledon, to show what they know and can do?

“If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same. . .”
— by Rudyard Kipling.

IF we inscribed this on every standardized test booklet for every child our Congressional Coaches promise never to leave behind languishing in the locker room, IF we took it to heart ourselves, then we still might not win ’em all but maybe we could stop feeling like such losers?

I’ve long called test score mania (in both triumph and disaster) the two-edged sword, but “two-edged imposter” could work even better, might at least shut up the most rigid standard skunks — clever fellow Kipling. . .

19 10 2009
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[…] How my unschooling guinea pig was wooed for TV and learned a life lesson we all could use […]

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[…] spheres, wondering whether it’s gotten all out of whack and what those experiences can do TO kids rather than FOR them. We’ve even looked at killer-instinct gameplay about chess specifically, the power of this […]

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