Ruth’s Truths – Ruth Morris

T.HeritageGrad.15.060912.af_r620x349I remember high school to be an intense time of life where, from the moment you set foot in the place, you were focused on what you needed to do to get into college. Most of my friends and I reminisce to this day about how we enjoyed our junior high years more. It occurs to me, as I write this, that maybe it only seemed like “ALL” of us were going on to four year colleges. In high school, you do end up gravitating toward groups of friends with similar goals. In hindsight, and with knowledge of current-day high schools, I realize now that NOT everyone went or goes on to four-year colleges, or maybe even to college at all.

When I attended my older son’s high school graduation three years ago, I noticed lots of families in the bleachers going hog-wild with cheers and gifts and celebration. I had the epiphany at the moment that for many, perhaps most, that might have been the last graduation they would attend of their child’s. The percentage of students going on to a four-year college from most of our public high schools in California was not even at fifty percent last time I checked. I see our public high schools being more focused on ensuring that students merely graduate high school, rather than being dedicated to preparing students to enter four-year colleges.

I have even heard discourse within the educational community about why or if college is so important at all. Some people choose to go into the family business, some choose the military, and some choose to contribute to our economy with unskilled and/or non-intellectually based labor, the types of jobs that don’t need further education. And we do need all kinds of people and their various contributions to society. What we can’t afford, however, is to allow our brightest thinkers to go under-challenged and, in the worst case scenario, not be held liable for enriching our society with their gifts.

In this environment, college-bound high school students sometimes have to rise above; they must, and often do, end up advocating for themselves. Once our students reach high school, it is perceived that they can make their own way through “open access” to the honors and AP classes offered, they can assume leadership positions through the traditional ASB route, and they will (optionally) take and earn college credit for AP tests. They can take advantage of available after-school arts or sports activities at will, and they can participate in, or even lead, any lunchtime clubs they choose. But if all of these things are and absolutely should be accessible to all students, in what way are we differentiating for our best and brightest students?

Such college-bound students may have parents who will help them at home. For those whose parents did not attend college themselves, there remains the vaunted “AVID” program, where first generation college hopefuls can obtain assistance with college preparation. Counselors do hold college fairs and are there for various student needs, such as choosing classes and changing schedules. I believe, however, that GATE students actually need special counseling and advocacy at the high school level, in order for society to be able to make maximum use of their intellect and ensure that this population is admitted to the best universities possible. WASC (Western Association of School and Colleges) reports for various schools can be reviewed online. Before entering the maze of high school, it might be valuable to check whether a school categorizes itself as “college preparatory” or prioritizes that as one of its goals.

Too often, our gifted and talented population are told not to overtax their schedule with too many honors or AP courses, or that if they take on both a sports and arts program, they might “burn out.” However, if you don’t push your envelope of intellect while living at home on your parents’ dime, and commuting to your neighborhood school while taking on the necessarily limited number of challenges there, how are you going to be successful at an out-of-town university, living in the dorms, with maybe even a part-time job? Taking it easy in high school should be outlawed for GATE students. High school is a place where GATE students who have sailed through the more confining K-8 years can finally flourish, challenge themselves, and actually find their level. They need to be capable of such in order to make appropriate decisions about what kind of college to target. You can always reduce your activities if you need to, but if you don’t try as much as you can, you’ll never know how much you could have done.

This need to focus more on college in high school is just one of many reasons why I’d push 9th grade back down to middle school. Colleges are mostly looking at 10th-12th grade accomplishments anyway, and the intensity required should be confined to just three years, as it was when I was in school. I have attempted to research online the justifications, gradually between the 70’s and 90’s, for the shift to the so-called “middle school” of 6th to 8th grade, instead of the traditional K-6 elementary, 7-9 junior high and 10-12 high school. Maybe it was something like the utterly senseless shift of starting the school year at whatever random date in August a school district chooses. Years from now, we’ll never be able to understand why all schools do not start the day after Labor Day and end on a mid-June Friday, as they had historically. In case we’re already forgetting, that initiative came from beliefs surrounding the honoring of state and other (mid-terms, finals, etc) testing. While assessments do provide valuable information about our students, in many ways, schools have become slaves to testing.

Our local high school sent one student to Stanford this year, and sent one to Harvard last year. I was not able to obtain the statistics of how many students we’d sent to Ivy League schools over the past ten years, although I think we are now doing a better job of tracking which colleges our students are accepted. In my perfect world, I’d want our administrators and counselors to know the numbers of Ivy League, UC, USC and other noteworthy college acceptances by heart and tout them with pride.

Our high school does have an electric sign in the front of campus that flashes the names and colleges of its graduating students each year. I love driving past, recognizing the names, and knowing that I had a part in that student’s successful entry to the university. With all due respect, graduating college IS important! Knowledge acquired aside, the life experiences gained from a 4-year college degree are myriad, but, simply put, a bachelor’s degree is required to be competitive in today’s workforce. You can argue that Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard and Steve Jobs didn’t have a degree either, but I will argue that their giftedness was such that even our country’s best colleges could not serve them well enough.
Public schools tend to keep students in order of age and/or grade instead of by subject mastery level. But if we are setting out to educate students on a particular set of standards, we should be able to utilize assessments so that when mastery is achieved, a student is able to move on. For academically gifted students possessing the logical thinking abilities to excel at test-taking, less, if any, time should be spent on content test preparation, although they still need familiarizations with AP, SAT and other achievement tests. On-campus AP and SAT prep coursework would be a great GATE activity for a high school, whereas any time spent preparing and/or practicing for the (prior) CST or (current) Common Core is, literally, an anti-GATE initiative.

Some examples of the kind of giftedness I have seen are: a 10-year old (about to enter 5th grade in the fall) writing a short story by hand in an hour or so, with vocabulary usage, character development, and use of theme and literary devices at high school level. I have seen another student who, going into 11th grade, has already fulfilled all K-12 foreign language, math, PE and science requirements. The only reason to be at the high school for 12th grade will be to fulfill the “4-years of English” rule. I see native speakers of foreign languages who should be able to test into higher levels of the language, in order to meet requirements earlier and possibly even take a third language. Math acceleration has always been possible, although the transition to Common Core is said to be impeding some students from the required acceleration to reach Calculus while still in high school.

Many educators I know are against the need for acceleration; they believe that they still have something to teach these students. Maybe they actually do, but it is a challenge to familiarize yourself with higher level standards and depth. And it is imperative to tailor-make enrichment to the interests of the particular student. I have found, as have like-minded teachers, that allowing the students themselves to have wide autonomy in this area is best. In order to do this, you must trust the students and understand that their intellectual age may actually be closer to our own, than to peers of their own age.

A popular way to have dealt with gifted students in the past was to give them more work. However, my answer has usually been the opposite. Streamlined work is the way to go, and the students themselves tend to be experts at telling us how to cut corners and achieve the same outcomes. For example, I teach the skill of annotating, and many of my former (non-GATE) students will tell you that my teaching of this skill changed their reading lives! In contrast, GATE students and high-level readers often hate the process of “annotating” that has become de rigueur in recent years as a way to assist the reading process and assess whether a student has read a particular required book. Why? Because it impedes their speed and reading enjoyment. There are other ways for the reader of a book to demonstrate completion and comprehension of it.

My solution is to come up with an extensive list of fiction, non-fiction, classic and contemporary titles that enhance a student’s cultural literacy. Students can choose ten titles, one per school month, and report out on the books in a creative format of their choice. Think of adults who do not need help with literacy; they may join a book group, or see the film version of a book they read, perhaps vice versa. Literate adults read for enjoyment or to learn something. If we enjoy and/or learn from a book, the logical next step is to share about it, through discourse, writing or the arts. Similarly, high-level student readers should be able to report out in these same ways.

The examples and ideas I have are too numerous to publish right here and now; I can go on forever. Friends and colleagues can corroborate that I am up nights thinking of new ways and means to support GATE students, and I am sometimes accused of GATE being “my thing,” which i don’t like if it is used as an excuse to try to silence me. After ten years at this, I no longer want to be silenced. I see this ten-year mark as a time to take stock of what I’ve done for GATE students.

My original responsibilities included: planning and executing two overnight field trips for GATE 7th and 8th graders, leading one parent meeting a year at Back-to-School-Night, and there was a component of rubber-stamp “identifying” GATE students that eventually went away when the district definition of “GATE” was simplified.

The GATE I created, however, includes accomplishments such as: establishing a way to use our district’s database for teachers to identify and differentiate for GATE students, arranging 6th grade after school field trips (2006-2009), instituting GATE lunch programs (2007-2011), and the biggest “gift:” creating, implementing and managing a within-school-hours GATE enrichment program (2011-2013), which was expanded and rolled out school-wide to become the now ubiquitous “AEIOU” program (2013-present).

I also wrote copy for GATE literature, and wrote articles about GATE in local and school publications. I communicated with parents, advocated for students, supported fellow teachers and represented GATE in site and district meetings, including the preparation and delivery of two CCUSD Board “Spotlight” presentations (2013, 2014).

I am grateful for having had the opportunity to do amazing things for and with our gifted and talented population. After raising my two sons, I believe it to be my second most significant contribution to society. But, I have often had to struggle against popular opinion to accomplish goals I’ve set, to make my vision a reality. Please join me in embracing, nurturing and celebrating our gifted and talented population.

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