A randomly selected day from this past school year:
The day starts early, a little after 7:30 a.m. It’s just me and our District’s 11 administrators in an Admin Team meeting. We’ve been regularly discussing features of, and their questions about, the gifted program: identification, programming options, outreach to parents. Only one member of the Admin team has ever attended a conference on Gifted Education, and very few have attended workshops or related professional development in or near our district. Yet they’re making decisions about what will or won’t be happening for these kids (within and outside of the GT program). So I take advantage of the fleeting moments I get with them and try to provide some quick, “back door” professional development in the process. They have so many other topics on the agenda, that I get mere minutes each time we meet. I leave wondering how many of these busy individuals will find the time to read the handout I left with them. I ponder whether or not my explanations were heard and understood. As I drive to our primary school, I strategize how to best utilize the 10 minutes I will get with them again in two weeks.
Arriving at our primary school, I get ready for a thinking skills lesson for a Kindergarten class. I do at least a dozen thinking-skills-based lessons in each of our Kindergarten classes throughout the year. This process serves two main purposes. One, it exposes all of our students, whatever their background and ability, to higher order thinking and teaches them specific strategies for those thinking skills. Now, even the ones who’ve never experienced advanced thinking opportunities will have a chance to learn thinking strategies and show what they can do with them. Two, this process serves as the beginning of, and one piece of, our identification process. I keep tallies of which students I see gifted traits and behaviors in, and by the end of the year when I graph the results it will (likely) look like a bell curve, as it has every previous year. On this day, I am teaching the kids about (picture) analogies, which I describe to them as a special kind of pattern that shows a relationship. We do some examples together on the whiteboard, and then they solve some by themselves on paper. When our time is up, I gather their papers and then look them over in the teacher’s lounge (because I have no office or classroom at this school - just a locking cabinet in the hallway). As always, I’m looking for which kids have best understood the concept. I’m not worried that *everyone* get it; rather, I’m looking for what is truly and naturally in the child. Bright kids from all backgrounds click with this process, which minimizes whatever advantages or disadvantages they bring into the classroom from home and highlights whatever their innate and learned capacities are.
Next I drive the half mile to our intermediate school. There, I touch base with a 4th grade student who has started taking Math at our middle school. We talk about what’s working and what’s not working with the arrangement. He says he’s loving the challenge and that it seems to be a good fit thus far. He mentions a couple of kids he’s beginning to connect with there. The novelty of his presence in 6th grade is gradually wearing off. He seems less stressed and anxious now that we have found a good fit for meeting his needs in Math.
Next I stop into a classroom to meet with a teacher who has concerns about one of my students who is in her class. The student has been exhibiting odd behaviors, is precocious in more than one sense of the word, and a pattern has re-emerged that we hadn’t seen for awhile. We brainstorm ideas, and then I swing by to talk with the school counselor regarding this and yet another student.
Recess is over, so I wait outside a classroom for my 3rd graders to come join me for our group time. One of my boys comes in from recess in tears. I set a hand on his shoulder and quietly tell him if he wants to talk about it after we get to our space and the other kids are working, we can. I have no classroom at this school; instead, I meet with my students on an old cafeteria table set up in the lobby of the gym. Other than noise from the P.E. classes, it’s actually a peaceful place. No one bothers us way down there. On this day, I teach the students about logical thinking and we share and discuss ideas for solving logical thinking problems. Additionally, the kids work on building up their tolerance for frustration as they think their way through some of the challenging problems in Logix. Jorey says he wants to talk about what happened at recess, so we move to the little table the ticket-takers use during basketball games. He explains how some of the other kids weren’t following the rules while playing wall-ball. He says he was trying to get them to “do it right” and be fair, but they just ignored him. When he tried again, they made fun of him for being such a stickler, which triggered his tears to start, which led to even more teasing, and then more tears. I explain to him that sensitivity and a keen sense of justice are common traits in gifted kids like him. I explain to him that being gifted often means being extra in-tune to the world, plus it gives him the capacity to be more aware of and concerned with things like justice and fairness - long before other kids his age will be. I tell him that even though his sensitivity and keen sense of justice might magnify situations like what happened at recess, in the long run being sensitive and striving for justice will be amazing strengths for him. I encourage him that even though his age-peers might not appreciate that about him now, the people who truly matter DO appreciate that about him, and as he gets older those characteristics will help to make him an honorable man. He smiles and feels ready to work now.
After the 3rd graders pack up, I drive to our middle school and enjoy lunch with colleagues as we discuss topics from the School Board meeting the night before.
Following lunch, my 7th and 8th graders filter into my classroom (yes, I said, “my classroom” this time!) for Advanced Studies. This is my independent learning project class, the one where the students pursue a topic or challenge that they’ve always wanted to do or learn about but never before had a chance to. Gifted kids often have highly unique intellectual and/or creative interests, and I believe schools should do what they can to give the kids a chance to explore them. This particular semester, the students are doing the following projects: three are writing books that they will then self-publish at Blurb (with copies donated for cataloging into our school library), one is designing and making toys for infants, one is composing duets for harmonica and saxophone, another is writing a book of poetry, two boys are collaborating on ventriloquism (one is learning it and the other is building the dummy - which is a far more complex task than any of us expected!), five are learning foreign languages (Arabic, Swedish, Italian, and two learning French), one is deep into his first extensive wood-working project, two are experimenting with various forms of air-pressure-powered cannons and studying trajectory differences, one is making a promotional video of our little town that will later be posted on our city’s Chamber of Commerce website, a high school student who comes down three days a week is designing and building a battle bot, and Binary (who studied electromagnetism last semester) is fully immersed in an exploration of both space gear and the gold market. On this day, a handful of the other students have realized just how knowledgeable Binary is about the gold and silver markets. They are peppering him with questions about how much gold is worth, why it’s value changes and what factors influence those changes, where all that gold is stored, who you talk to if you want to invest in gold, and more. They are gathered around him at the computer as he shows them official websites, charts and graphs, investment options, etc. I assist the other students as they troubleshoot obstacles along the way. It’s a tiny classroom - our haven, really - with eighteen students all doing something different. As you can perhaps imagine, I hand-select my substitutes because not everyone is willing and able to flexibly manage all of this!
As the 7th & 8th graders leave, my 6th grade class enters. On this day, I teach them about The Marshmallow Test, an experiment that showed children who exhibited self-control at age four were more likely to have persisted through life’s challenges, less likely to have dropped out of school, scored better on the SAT’s, and were generally more “successful” in school and in life. Prior to beginning the day’s lesson, I give each of the students a mini box of Nerds candy and some Smarties (appropriate, eh? ;o) telling them not to eat it yet and they will soon understand what’s up with the candy. I do this lesson with the kids because I want them to know that even though they may have been blessed with supreme smarts in life, that doesn’t mean they will therefore be magically successful in whatever endeavors they choose to pursue. I want them to know that in addition to persistence, which I cover with them, they will also need self-control. Success is more than smarts and more than hard work. It’s also about self-control and self-discipline, and watching a few YouTube videos of cute kids taking on The Marshmallow Test is a fun way to open the conversation on the issue. Gifted kids often find themselves “successful” in school with little effort, unfortunately then developing a belief that they will always be successful that easily. But in the long run (for some the shorter run), they’re in for a rude awakening if we let them maintain that belief. The real world doesn’t function that way. We have a great conversation in which they talk about life experiences that have helped them to develop self-control/self-discipline, as well as factors in their lives that they think may have contributed to their believing everything would always be easy. At the end of our conversation, I tell the students that if they bring their Nerds and Smarties back unopened after the weekend, they will get another one. All but one of them return on Monday having met the challenge. That one, I now know, may need to be the recipient of some additional (subtle?) reinforcement of the lesson.
Next is my only regular break (I do get irregular ones), twenty minutes with the Spanish class in my room. I check my email and reply to a query from a school counselor in another Montana district who has questions about twice exceptional students.
Half-way through the Spanish class, I say an “adios” and swing by to pick up Binary to walk up the hill to our high school. He’s taking Earth Science at our high school the last period of the day (and Algebra I in the morning). I am headed up for my high school Advanced Studies class.
Students in the high school Advanced Studies class are tackling the following independent learning projects: three are learning computer programming languages (jQuery, Java, html5, XHTML, C++, others) and then making websites (in one case, for a local lawyer) using those languages, one is learning how to cook “Foods of the World” and putting together a cookbook (that will also be published through Blurb) - we love to sample his treats about three times a week! - one is learning Latin, another is creating a wide array of digital art, one is learning about corporate law and doing an internship at a local law firm, a new student is learning beginning programming, and one is carving/building a four-player chess board. As the kids get to work, I talk for a few minutes with the teacher whose classroom I use about Advanced Placement offerings at our high school. Soon I hear a knock on the window and send a student to go let in five of my middle school students who come up to do their Advanced Studies class at this time of the day. I had so many of my middle school students wanting to take the class this semester that they wouldn’t all fit in my tiny middle school classroom, but I did have space for them during my high school class. Being the same class taught by the same teacher, just in a different (“just up the hill”) school, it made sense to solve the crowding by simply having a few come up. When I talked with the middle and high school principals about the possibility, they had no qualms, saying, “Go for it.” Thankfully. These five students are learning photography, composing & recording, learning Algebra I (to hopefully test into Geometry as an 8th grader), learning sign language (to be able to communicate with a recently-deaf sibling), and organizing fundraisers for local charities.
After school, a former student stops by and updates me on her progress in college, summer plans, and next life steps. I ask her to bring back for me a decal or bumper sticker from her college that I can add to the growing display in my middle school classroom of all the post-high-school journeys my former students have pursued.
I walk back down to the middle school (because that’s where I’m parked) and cross paths along the way with one of our Math teachers. We talk about recent developments in the sometimes growing, sometimes shrinking menu of options and alternatives we offer for our advanced math learners.
Reaching my middle school classroom (i.e. my main “office”), I gather up some items to reference this evening for the recommendation letter I’ll be writing at home for one of my seniors. Over the course of a school year, I end up writing reference letters for about five to eight of my seniors, three to five of my younger students (who are applying to summer camps and other opportunities), and about two or three former students who are applying to graduate school. It takes a lot of work to do it well, but having been on the “reading and selecting” end of that process, I know first-hand how helpful (or not!) recommendation letters can be. I head home marveling at some of my students, worried about others, and grateful to have a challenging and fulfilling job.
Whew! And that was just one day!
The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.