Student Well-Being Opinion

A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Reaching ‘School Skeptics’ Through High-Challenge Interventions

By Contributing Blogger — November 08, 2018 7 min read

This post is by Romey Pittman, the gifted and advanced-learning coordinator at Southwest Baltimore Charter School in Baltimore.

In my first year teaching high school, 11 students in my school were either murdered or locked up for murder. It was a place full of young potential, some fully realized and way too much tragically wasted. I was always amazed where I found the brightest students. It wasn’t a surprise to find several in my Advanced Placement class. These students had been offered positive feedback, extra support, and interesting challenges. They had the confidence and skills to get access to college and have successful lives, despite being born to humble circumstances. But the rest of the really talented minds were found, not in the second-highest level of our elaborate tracking system, but in my “level 4-7" class--the class for students on the very bottom academic rung. They were bright enough to see through the work-for-grades exchange--and for complex reasons, didn’t believe school success was for them. I was able to coax one very talented “4-7" student, Dontrell, who had a solid 0.5 GPA, to stay in school to take AP U.S. History. He got a 4 on the AP exam, just before he vanished from school, landing in prison only a month before he would have gotten his diploma.

Spotting the Spark Despite Disengagement

More recently, I’ve been working at Southwest Baltimore Charter School (SBCS), a P-8 school in the EL Education network. In this low-income, urban community, you can see clearly the roots of this academic sorting machine, where the brightest kids either rise to the top or sink to the bottom. One of my favorite 1st graders, Antoine, came to us already able to do 3rd grade math and read just about anything. How did I know? Not from his test scores. They were abysmal. But he spent many hours in my office, sent out of class for foul language, ripped textbook pages, work refusal, and generally making steam come out of his teacher’s ears. From our long office conversations and informal blackboard challenges, I knew he could read parent-newsletter articles perfectly and solve multiplication and fraction problems without much hesitation.

Antoine was already, at age 7, unimpressed by teacher threats and poor grades. He had good reasons for acting the way he did in class. He was bored out of his mind in a class where little would be taught that year that he couldn’t already do; he was angry that both his parents had been taken from him and incarcerated and that his grandmother’s drug use left him mostly unsupervised; he was impressed by his teen uncle’s cool factor and the outrageous things he could access on the internet. Stuck in school, he could get attention, alleviate his boredom, and let off some steam by pushing his teacher’s buttons and shocking his classmates. His teacher started the year committed to his success, but soon enough, just wanted to be rid of him. He was labeled a troublemaker and frequently suspended. He would likely follow Dontrell’s path to the bottom rung in high school, despite his mighty intellectual talents—already, at 7, a candidate for the school-to-prison pipeline.

A Gifted Program for School Skeptics

When my principal approached me about starting a program at our school for “Gifted and Advanced Learners,” I was a bit resistant. My passion for equity made me recoil at the idea of a special program for those who were already talented, already successful, and likely headed toward competitive high schools and colleges. But then I remembered Dontrell and Antoine and the many others like them—students I’ve come to call “school skeptics.” Perhaps we could create a program that identified “advanced” students in less conventional ways, that challenged them to push themselves as problem solvers and independent researchers, and even addressed their social-emotional needs in a way that would allow them to re-engage with school and start to see themselves as successful, strengthening their investment in school before their resistance hardened.

We set out to identify students for our program using a combination of the Naglieri Non-Verbal Ability Test (one of the least culturally biased ability tests), benchmark achievement tests (looking especially for gaps between school grades and test performance), and teacher recommendations. We looked, in particular, for really bright students that testing might have missed because of obstacles like disruptive behavior, lack of academic buy-in, trauma, home language, learning differences, or family educational background.

Our program roster was made up of about one-third students who met the district requirements for the “gifted” or “advanced” designation, one-third students who didn’t meet those (nationally normed) cutoffs but were already highly motivated to take on and benefit from an extra challenge, and one-third “school skeptics,” the kids we hoped might be able to do exceptional work if they were able to reframe the way they saw school.

We chose to include about three hours a week of multiage pullout programming, engaging grade 1-5 students with:

  • Challenging, real-world-math problem-solving focused less on correct answers and more on raw ingenuity and innovative application of skills across math topics. EL Education’s Chief Academic Officer Ron Berger calls this “time on the mat.” (NRich Maths is one great starting point.)
  • Solo research projects that students could “own,” developing pride in their individual expertise and learning how to question, classify, research, and communicate their findings (modeled on Kieran Egan’s Learning in Depth program and EL Education’s project design work).
  • Game-based cognitive workouts to build the “muscles” of logical sequencing, deductive and inductive reasoning, analogy, etc,. using games like Mastermind, Set, or simple pencil and paper games likes these from Byrdseed.
  • High-level discussion of complex texts and math problems—pushing students to infer, challenge, and build on each other’s thinking. EL Education has strong examples of discussion structures and protocols.
  • Mentoring and fieldwork to imagine themselves using their intellectual capacities in exciting ways beyond school.

3rd and 4th graders experiment with subtraction.

Does It Work? Short-Term Results, Long-Term Promises

Less than two years into the program, it is too soon to see definite progress. Some days I see remarkable engagement from Antoine, now in 3rd grade. He has gotten much more serious about showing what he can do—working fiercely to convert numbers to Base 3 or learn about “powerful thinkers” like Leonardo Da Vinci. He is hungry for the challenges and independence that the program allows for, continuing his work on his research topic of “Time” outside of school even though it doesn’t count toward a grade. Most of our school skeptics have shown similar promising shifts in engagement.

But some days Antoine is disruptive enough that he temporarily loses the privilege of program participation and must earn it back. Sixth grader Deonte’s classroom grades are still so low that teachers are reluctant to allow him to miss more class time to participate in an “enrichment” program. And some days, Kiara just rolls her eyes at having to “think so much.”

Beyond these mixed outcomes, we are seeing some unexpected side benefits. Deonte and Antoine, along with other school skeptics, are definitely responding positively to feeling “seen,” being recognized as intellectually talented, just by being invited into the program. They carry themselves a little differently, in class and out. The program has allowed unexpected friendships to blossom between school skeptics and the most successful students in the school. Mohamed, a gifted, responsible school leader in 4th grade, is Antoine’s new idol. Most kids in the program seem to benefit from just getting out of the classroom—a new, stimulating environment can reframe their attitude for the whole day. Students and classroom teachers are taking advantage of having a set of resources for engaging themselves constructively in their home classroom—reading independently on their research topic, chipping away at a mathematical puzzle, or playing a strategy-rich game with another early finisher instead of disrupting the class.

This adventure into “Gifted and Advanced Learner” programming has changed me, too. I no longer believe that equity is just about helping those who struggle with learning the basics. The need to reach the Dontrells and Antoines in our urban classrooms is every bit as important as helping those who aren’t reading by 3rd grade, or don’t yet have the number sense to understand place value or fractions. Perhaps it’s even more important. The investment we make to reach disengaged, but talented young people, make their school experience intellectually worthwhile and provide the social and emotional support they need to overcome steep challenges will be returned many times over when Deonte, or Kiara, or Antoine discovers a solution to carbon sequestration or becomes the wise and compassionate Supreme Court justice we need more than ever. Enabling them to show their talent and avoid the school-to-prison pipeline begins by building an education program that honors their capacity for deeper learning.

Photo Credit: Romey Pittman

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