Tag Archives: gifted students

“Gifted Students Have Special Needs Too”

I’ve never heard anyone say this ever except for my mom. That is until I recently read an op-ed with exactly that title which got me reflecting on my experiences as a “GATE student” in California’s public schools. I’m writing this post specifically for teachers and principals and parents as food for thought – this is my story, draw your own conclusions. Hopefully something I’ve written here reminds you of some of the kids at your school and could be applied right now to feed that student’s life-long love of learning and to better set him or her up for both academic and personal success down the road.

I could easily be negative and whiny about some of my experiences as a K-12 student, but that is like complaining about everything I hate about horse-drawn buggies when they’ve already been replaced by cars. That is how much technology has changed since I was in kindergarten. I constantly look at what is happening in some of California’s most innovative schools and say, “Gee, I wish they had THAT when I was a kid!”

A Tale of Two Teachers

I want to start with a tale of two teachers that illustrates pretty darn well what needs to end and what can be. First off, I’m no genius. I’m a very curious person and I love learning. School always came easily to me, so in a class of 30 kids, if the lesson was at the exact right level for 20 kids and five were completely lost, I was one of the five who were bored. My point? There are lots and lots of kids out there just like me – enough that I ask you not to say or think things like: “Liza is bright, so she’ll be fine no matter what we do,” and just leave it at that.

As a sixth-grader, I was in a unique school within a school at our big, overcrowded middle school. We had traditional English and math classes, then every afternoon, we had a block period for project-based learning integrating science and social studies with a mix of 6th, 7th and 8th graders. We would work on a project for six weeks, then start a new one. For every assignment, we had seven options for completing it based on the seven multiple intelligences, and a lot of the projects were group work where they would put together a strong student, a struggling student and two average students (Teachers: don’t think we weren’t on to you!).

My math teacher hated me. I was always bored out of my mind in her class because she went super slow through the material, most of which I already knew, then if she gave us an in-class assignment, I’d finish quickly and ask her what to do next. She would snap at me and tell me to just sit there for the remaining 20 minutes of class or, another favorite approach of teachers, make me help other students. I have more sympathy now – after all, she had 35 kids with widely varying abilities and she was supposed to get all of us ready for algebra the following year. However, at the time, I was so bored at school that I was actually getting depressed and, being a goody two-shoes, I was distressed that my teacher hated me.

Fortunately, I had an amazing teacher for our project-based class in the afternoon. He made me feel special – I felt like he took all of us seriously and listened patiently to our concerns. In response to my complaints of boredom, he devised a special project for me – rather than just writing an essay or whatever else we were supposed to do – he had me create a Hypercard presentation. He showed me a little bit, then basically set me off on my own to figure out the program. I’d work away at the one classroom computer while he worked with the rest of the class. Most importantly, he didn’t give me an A based on how my work compared to that of my classmates. He compared me only to myself and pushed me to the edge of my abilities. Now THAT’S differentiated instruction!

I had many, many teachers like these two during my years in school – those who found me annoying and those who saw me as an opportunity to try out something new. In high school, I was much happier than I was in middle school for a couple of reasons:

  1. They tracked us. There is a lot of rightful criticism around tracking and I am still bothered by the few Latino and low-income students in honors classes at my old high school. However, I personally thrived by having challenging material and being surrounded by bright students who loved learning.
  2. My mom. I was one lucky kid because my mom is a fighter. She was an advocate for me – she worked with my teachers to make sure I was challenged. She found opportunities outside of school for me to develop myself.  And through a combination of volunteering for everything at the school and cajoling/harassing the principal, she would ensure I was always assigned to the toughest teachers for any given subject and the ones that loved teaching kids like me. Unfortunately, most kids aren’t as lucky as I was.

The op-ed that sparked this post  summarizes very well why gifted students often don’t get much attention – not from the principals and teachers entrusted with educating them nor from policymakers or education reformers. This includes worries about elitism, the idea that equity only matters for income, minority status and handicapping conditions, the belief that high-ability students will do just fine no matter what….not to mention there’s no clear definition for “gifted” nor clear research on what works. I went through school before No Child Left Behind, so I’m guessing if anything, there’s now even less focus on gifted students.

To me, it’s very simple – all students have special needs and that absolutely includes gifted students. In the same way that you take it upon yourself to help a struggling student – “intervention”, take it upon yourself to reach a student who is bored or who is coasting, not pushing herself to the best of her abilities. Every student needs more than a mom and dad – they need a whole community of diverse adults who care about them.

Coming next week: My Dream School and reflections on how we can truly have awesome 21st century schools…

And a plug for the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance – mentor a kid!

This post is dedicated to my mom, Bobbie Jenkins.

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