Tuesday, 19 May 2009

LOL = Love Of Learning: Helping Gifted Children Succeed

Our school needs to figure out how to celebrate each child's abilities--at every level.

Oh, they talk a good game about differentiation in the classroom. But when it comes to day-to-day instruction, reality is far removed from this ideal. True, children struggling to keep up with grade-level materials are given extra help to even out the classroom ability level. But children who are well beyond grade-level materials are forced to suffer through "reinforcement" instruction, no matter how boring, in order to maintain status quo.

It's been my experience that students forced to stay with the group when they are well beyond the material let their grades slip. This may sound backward--how can a bright student fail a course they could run circles around? But let me ask you this: Have you ever had to sit through a meeting or a talk that centered around subjects you knew well, perhaps even better than the speaker? Were you bored to pieces? What did you do? Doodle in your notebook and make it look like you were taking notes? Did you text your best friend under the table about the snore-worthy performance at hand? Did you give a damn about any of it? I'm willing to bet you mentally checked out. I would. I did.

When I was high school, I wanted to take a theater arts class. But the timing conflicted with the advanced history class I was slated to take. So I took theater arts and signed up for the remedial history class that fit my schedule, instead. After two months, I was so bored I stopped taking notes. I stopped paying attention. I wrote poetry instead. And I started failing my exams.

Thankfully, I had a teacher who paid attention and called me on the carpet. You're too smart to fail this class, he said, so what's really going on, here?

Instead of admonishment, he gave me responsibilities. I was to help him grade exams and keep his record book up-to-date. He gave me a research project and discussed details of each day's lectures with me after class. And guess what? I started asking questions in class again--the kinds of questions that made the other students turn around to stare at me. But I didn't care any more. I'd tuned back in to KLOL, "Love Of Learning Radio".

It sounds stupid, but I'm watching it happen, even now. At mid-semester, my first-grade daughter's behavior marks started to drop. She's not being "a good listener" and her "citizenship" needs improvement. She tells me she lays on the floor during morning circle time, when the children gather for the beginning of the day's instruction. I ask her about the high points and low points of her day and they almost always involve recess.

Before she even started Kindergarten, I met with her principal to discuss how the school's philosophy and academic planning would help my child to succeed--and what we could do, as parents, to partner with her teachers. "We can't keep her from getting bored," he said. (Yes, that was a direct quote.) Can't keep her from getting bored? Then why are we here?

No, we can't afford a school like Nueva, where Kindergarten costs $24K. Even if I could send her there, I'd still object to the elitism that implies. Only the rich smart kids get help? Hm. Besides, we thought the Palo Alto School District, which is lauded by more than just local parents, would have the high-quality teachers who would know how to help our daughter. Surely they've dealt with children like ours, before. Surely they'd have a plan in place to help. GATE programs were on the books, which we were excited about. But in reality, these don't start until 4th grade. We have to hope her love of learning isn't crushed before then.

Honestly, I went through some of the same things. My parents had me tested before I'd even started school. And Hemlock Elementary in Vacaville, California was willing to work out a deal. My reading was the most accelerated part of my learning, so they pulled me out each day during reading time and put me with the highest reading group of the next grade up. I was analyzing Madline L'Engle's "A Wind In The Door" in third grade. And it made all the difference in the world.

I understand the need to keep children from becoming stigmatized or having their egos overly-inflated by "special" treatment. But won't they become more so by staying in the classroom with their peers, who copy off of their papers and worry that they're not good readers because one classmate is powering past them like a blur? Will the advanced math student get so bored with simple addition and subtraction that he starts acting out to call attention to his boredom and try to change a situation that he otherwise has no control over?

These are not just rhetorical questions. I've been that advanced kid. In secondary school, I was surrounded by others like me in some of my classes--and many of us had dealt with the same social and academic pressures growing up. I had a soul-crushing experience with a pissed-off girl in a Junior High math class who was under the impression I thought she was stupid (I didn't), and ostracized me because of it. The worst part was, I really admired the girl.

Don't get me wrong. I think it's important for children to learn how to work in groups of mixed abilities. When they have the emotional maturity to understand why it's important. But to do so day in and day out, with no hope of mentally flying free is frustrating. I fear my child, and other children like her, will end up using their intellects in destructive ways just to exercise them, or turn to other, physically-damaging escapes. These bright children have the capacity to do amazing things in and for this world. To say that they are doing so well we don't need to worry about them is doing them--and ourselves--a disservice.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and share what may be an unpopular opinion. I believe children who are academically gifted are special needs children, just as fully as students traditionally identified as such. Their needs are different. But in both cases, we ignore them at our peril.


  1. Gifted children definitely have "special needs" in that they require motivation and challenges to excel, just as you've indicated. Many kids these days are "twice exceptional" - those who think outside the box but are also pegged with various learning differences because of their unconventional thought. And so, many of these 2E kids are completely left behind because they are bored in some subjects and require reinforcement in other subjects -- eek!

    Anyway - I'm the one who took the photo of your girls w/ Bill Nye -- I'm about to put up photos at Flickr (I'm "Karianna") - but you can also email me at karianna at karianna dot us (yes .us) and I'd be happy to send you a bigger photo than what you can grab on Flickr.

  2. Thanks again for the photo, Karianna. You might also find this article from The Economist magazine interesting:

    It deals with the very subject you describe. I found almost every one of the comments as enlightening as the article itself. It's a topic more parents have experience with than I imagined, and one that all parents should be aware of. For most parents (though, sadly, not all) part of raising children is teaching them to recognize and accept the many kinds of difference around them. Children can be cruel, but only if the adults in their lives allow them to remain so do we do our societies a disservice by harming the individuals within them.

    Thank you for your comments!


Comments are welcome, within the limits of social decency.