Ruth’s Truths – Ruth Morris

scienceclass1   Every individual has special gifts. A person may be a gifted cook, handy-person or visual artist. A person might even be gifted in areas not acceptable by society at large. For example, a gifted criminal might be successful in carrying out what is referred to as “the perfect crime;” a crime that committed, and goes unpunished during, at least, their lifetime. Breaking Bad’s main character (can we call him a “protagonist”?) exemplified the worst that can happen when “gifted” means more than just academic smarts.

In the school scenario, we attempt to honor all types of gifts, when and if we are afforded the opportunity to take a holistic look at each of our students. Generally, however, we must concern ourselves with academic giftedness, because a school’s main, if not only, role is that of ensuring that we’ve educated our populace. In my eleven years in the teaching field, I have carved out a niche of expertise as an advocate for our academically gifted students. In the early days, I even went to a couple of training sessions here and there for “teaching the gifted” and it came up in my teacher prep masters courses occasionally, but I didn’t learn a thing from all that. I knew from my earliest days in this “business” that teaching to the gifted is the one form of differentiation that most educators have difficulty mastering.
I believe that the best way to work with gifted students is to take a backseat, and learn from them. This goes against the grain of some of our most qualified teachers; those who like things orderly, who can serve up a competent enough lesson, even differentiate and, when necessary, remediate when some students aren’t learning. Adults might have trouble acknowledging people brighter or more skilled in a workplace, but it is triple-hard for teachers and administrators, who feel that they’ve spent a lifetime preparing to teach and/or lead, to turn themselves into support providers for our best and brightest. I’ve learned how to do this, but I often find myself rebuked, criticized, opposed, contradicted, and marginalized for doing so.

In the K-12 teaching arena, in a so-called “regular education” (as opposed to a “special education, English as a second language, or even honors) classroom, you’ll always have a handful of students who are encountering some kind of severe trouble with the schoolwork, and about double that number of high achievers. The majority of students will understand most of the concepts, and be able to complete most of the work. This used to be called a “curve,” before the term became politically incorrect.

Among the high achievers, a very small number of the students are actually gifted. Not “A” students, not just good test takers, but possessing logical reasoning skills far beyond the age that often binds them to a particular grade level. These students sit in a classroom already knowing the standards that an instructor is about to teach. This is a problem; we are for the most part wasting their time. One might question, why aren’t they sent to a special gifted school? And the answer is the same as for every type of learner: they have a right to a free education, and public schools are required to meet the needs of all students.

Teachers may sometimes not even realize that these types of learners are sitting in their classes. One of my first accomplishments for gifted students was to utilize the (then new) automated grading and data system to mark each GATE student with a “G,” as is done for other students with special needs. The idea would be that once teachers saw the “G,” they could differentiate their instruction appropriately for the student. The problem remained, however, that most teachers do not know where to begin to differentiate for students who already understand the material. The usual answer is to give them more work, although recent teacher prep has dissuaded teachers from this inequitable practice.

The second most frequently tried method is to have “the smarter kids” tutor the students who are not mastering the standards. Some gifted students can and do earn money or service learning credit by tutoring outside of normal school hours, and some do enjoy working with younger or less capable students. If done as a knee-jerk response, however, we must be mindful that it can be cruel and unusual punishment to ask people who never needed to go through the steps of learning to attempt to teach their fellow students how to arrive at an answer. One of the main attributes of gifted students are that they are often socially awkward for their age. They are characterized by not relating to peers, let alone struggling peers. The peer tutoring thing must therefore be done with great care and planning, if at all, lest it cause stratification, not to mention a waste of invaluable time for both parties.

In any case, we must be prepared for creative thinking on behalf of these students because most basically, their needs come up the quickest in the classroom. They either have entered the room with mastery already, or will master the material the fastest.

Take reading, for example, and this might be shocking to think about: in most cases, our gifted students were not actually taught to read in school. They were already figuring it out at home, in many cases unaided by an adult, and they started reading early. An average 7th grader who is truly gifted is reading at upper high school or college level. When we go to teach a novel to an entire class, we find that accelerated readers may have already read the book, or could read and comprehend the entire book in a weekend, on their own, without our “teaching” of it. We need to have plenty of reading choices up our sleeves for the many levels of readers, and their varied interests and experiences. The idea of a one-size-fits-all book, for a grade level of students, may not actually be a fit at all.

According to the mouths of our babes, GATE students often feel underestimated by many of their teachers. They are often told, especially by counselors in high school scenarios, not to “overload themselves” with too many AP classes, or not to undertake both an arts program AND a sports program, for fear of “taking on too much.” We actually need our gifted and talented population TO challenge themselves, TO push the envelope. My philosophy is: bring it on, take it on…if it’s too much, make adjustments later. If you don’t try to do as much as you can, you’ll never know if you could have actually done it all. The Stanfords and the Harvards, and even the UC’s, want to see an enriched, intra- and extra- curricular pantheon of accomplishments.

One gifted student recently told me, “I wish my teacher hadn’t spent a quarter teaching us about commas before FANBOYS (the conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). I understood it the first time I read it in the textbook.” If that is the case, what could you do for this student during the grammar portion of class? You might offer some form of assessment that demonstrates mastery of this skill, and then you let the student choose their own course of study for standards of the grade not yet mastered, standards above the grade not yet mastered, or topics that are outside of the proscribed laundry list of requirements, like, for example, the use of emoticons in modern communication.

Another student complained of weekly vocabulary packets, popular for purchase in elementary and middle schools. They claimed to already know all the words. Could we not find a way to assess up front whether particular students know the words already, and then offer them a chance to instead increase their vocabulary in an area of their own interest? Instead of ten of the pre-packaged words each week, perhaps they could identify ten words they did not know from web sites they had surfed throughout the week.

Departing from school kids for a moment, I witness gifted adults at play in my dance community all the time. They may either be talented dancers, already possessed with grade and rhythm, or they may have the gift of the mental acuity that enables a person to learn things quickly, and without much repetition (another attribute of the true GATE students: not requiring practice for mastery). The dancing I do involves following choreographed steps; it is not improvisational, like salsa, swing or disco dancing. We all learn particular dances at different paces, of course, but I notice many of my dance mates (I feel this way, too) chafing at walk-through lessons that review steps over and over. They can be heard calling for “music!” meaning, “okay, I got it; put the music on already and let’s dance.” Our dance sessions are just that, “sessions,” not “lessons.” It always amazes me to see people who feel they need to attend dance lessons before they can even go dancing; I wonder how often they progress to actually learning how to dance. At least they are keeping themselves busy, and keeping dance schools in business, which can never be bad. They won’t like the type of dancing I do, which is low on the teach, but high on the opportunity to get out on the floor and…dance.

Public schools are increasingly figuring out that interventions for struggling students who have not mastered various standards should be meted out during school hours. There is fluff time within every school’s bell schedule. Schools have “nutrition,” “homeroom,” extra passing periods, and the biggest waste of instructional minutes, so-called “SSR” (silent sustained reading), which grew from the erroneous belief that forcing students to sit and read silently for 20 minutes would have the same effect on literacy as 20 minutes of aerobic exercise might do for a cardio or weight loss program. A few teachers actually took SSR seriously, and read to the students (everybody likes to be read to), or created literature circles or other learning activities, which might fairly enough be called “book clubs,” and would qualify as enrichment. For the most part, however, SSR is/was an extra break during the day for teachers to check email or whatever; you had students in your room with you, but your job was to make them sit still and keep quiet.

And what DO the top students, the GATE students, specifically need? I maintain that they actually need to share their gifts with society, and I don’t just mean peer tutoring. I personally feel that our role as educators should be to offer a platform from which our gifted and talented students could alight, to create and contribute to our society as a whole, starting with the school campus itself. I have written before at length about the feats and accomplishments students of ours have achieved given the kind of latitude I recommend. We need them to create and help us new frontiers, and perhaps even change the way that learning happens, for all of us.

I will save for next time my formula for how ANY school can create an intervention and enrichment program WITHIN a regular school bell schedule. The question now remains: WILL schools actually go ahead and follow my “recipe” in a public school setting, where bureaucratic decisions are regularly made in favor of compliance, perceived equity and traditional educational practices? As educators, we actually may be able to change this.

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