Sunday, March 6, 2016

The "G" word

I heard it again just this week. "I don't believe in gifted education. I believe all children are gifted."

Of course, all children have gifts. All children are capable of learning new things at school and showing growth in a variety of ways each day. But this statement makes me bristle because I also know that not all children have the same gifts. To treat them if as if they do, denies them the chance to be the unique individuals they are.

Many of us who specialize in gifted education are uncomfortable being saddled with the term “gifted” for the children we are passionate about serving. There is often an assumption that the label "gifted" is an honor or achievement, and programs for gifted kids can be accused of being elitist for that reason. But, for better or worse, it is the term applied to the students that we serve, first by the field of psychology and then by education. It's important that we understand what it means when we use it – also what it does NOT mean.

This is how the Federal Government defines gifted students. 
“The term ‘gifted and talented' … means students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities."

At Seabury, we particularly like this definition of giftedness by the great Annemarie Roeper, a pioneer in gifted education.

“Giftedness is a greater awareness, a greater sensitivity, and a greater ability to understand and transform perceptions into intellectual and emotional experiences."

Society has no trouble recognizing gifts such as athletic ability or musical talent. It is generally agreed that that children who show exceptional ability in these areas need different kinds of training and experiences if they are to fully develop their gifts. Children as young as 4 or 5 who show advanced skill in sports are offered opportunities for more challenging play and different coaching than peers who are still learning the basics. Early music education is a no-brainer for a child who begins picking out tunes on the piano at age 3. Anyone would agree these children need an appropriate level of challenge to continue to grow. But something else seems to come into play when we are talking about intellectual ability.

When a child is speaking in sentences at 12 months old, or forming complex patterns with blocks at 2, or counting to 1,000 at 5, many people assume that the parents are pushing her. When a 3-year-old who is obsessed with learning everything there is to know about planets points out errors in nonfiction books on astronomy and can name the moons of Jupiter, his parents feel alone because talking to friends about their child’s intellectual prowess is seen as boasting. And where will they find teachers who understand him?

Parents and educators often struggle with the idea that these are indicators that children like this need something different than the one-size-fits-all-education program we increasingly have in our schools.

Why does our society struggle with the fact that not all kids learn in the same way – that some kids need more time to learn basic skills, while others the same age learn quickly and need opportunities to think deeply and to ask more complicated questions? This doesn't make one child better than the other, just different, each with their own set of talents and areas for growth.

I have a passion for gifted education because I believe strongly that ALL children deserve to learn something new at school every day. I cannot bear to tell our gifted children that their job in school is to read a book and wait for the others to "catch up." Of course the other children have their own gifts, but they are no more likely to "catch up" to those extraordinary minds than I am to catch up to Felix Hernandez in my pitching ability. Does that make Felix better than me? Better at baseball – yes. Better as a person – no. Just different.

Gifted kids are not the "good kids" or the "easy kids" as many teaching colleagues over the years have told me. In fact, gifted kids often have challenges that are unrecognized. The ability to conceive of things that your body and hands are not yet ready to make or do is frustrating when you are little. Having questions that are often unanswerable – like "What is the meaning of life?" – can be difficult and is the reason many gifted young people experience existential depression. The strong sense of justice and fairness, and high degree of sensitivity that many gifted children carry can make them targets or can cause stress as they worry over the suffering of others. There can be a profound sense of aloneness when a child is seeing things and asking questions that other kids their age aren't ready for yet.

Gifted education is not perfect. We struggle to find all the students who would benefit from the services we offer. We hurt our own cause when we are too rigid with assessments or when the label "gifted" becomes a burden or is treated like an achievement. But when we are at our best, we can provide a safe space for highly capable children to be themselves at school.

Gifted students are not better than other children. But, they, like all children, deserve the chance to learn joyfully, to grow at their own pace, and to be understood and appreciated. That is why Seabury exists. That is why gifted education is my passion. That is why we need to continue to work to make sure ALL students, gifted or not, get to learn something new at school every day.

- Sandi Wollum
Head of school



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