Friday, January 14, 2011

Thinking Differently

When people ask me how a person can tell if a child is gifted, I often find myself telling them, “They think differently. They see the world from a unique perspective. Once you’ve known gifted kids and spent time with them, you kind of just…know…” There are lists of characteristics, such as Dr. Linda Silverman’s Characteristics of Giftedness checklist , and descriptions of various types of giftedness such as Betts’ Profiles of the Gifted. They are helpful tools to use when identifying gifted children, but after working with these students for many years, I still am always challenged to describe that special quality of thinking that makes gifted people so interesting, and makes it hard for gifted children, sometimes, to find their place in classrooms of students who just don’t think like they do.

Earlier this week, Seabury’s first grade teacher came into my office with a great story about a lesson she had just taught that, for me, gives at least a glimpse of the difference our students bring to their thinking and learning. And speaks to what a gift we give them when we give them the chance to learn with other gifted children.

The first graders have been learning about maps – what they are used for, elements of maps, common symbols, map keys, etc. Relatively simple, but still more complex than you would find in most first grade classrooms because our students crave more details and are ready for greater depth of study. To reinforce what they have been learning, the teacher divided students into groups and asked each group to work together to create their own map. The teacher purposely left the activity open ended – something that is very important in working with bright children – so that students could take the lesson in whatever direction made sense to them. The directions were to create a map that had labels and a map key – their own version of the maps they had been studying in class. She expected students to draw maps of neighborhoods – with houses and schools and businesses in various forms, since those are the kinds of maps they had focused on. She expected that each group would have their own unique map, but that the maps would look like maps we typically use to find our way around.

But these are gifted first graders. Their minds and imaginations often take them out of the box and to places we were not expecting. As students began working, the teacher began checking in with each of the groups. The first pair were having a vigorous debate about whether their map should be a map of Kansas or a map of a different state. They were very worried about how they could get their map to be exactly, factually accurate. The teacher reminded them that their map could be of a real place if that’s what they wanted, but it didn’t have to be a real place. The boys stopped, and then huge grins broke out on their faces as, at the same time, they shouted, “Harry Potter!!!” They then went to work on a detailed map of the wizarding world of Harry Potter, including a detailed discussion about Hogwarts and Harry and his adventures.

Another group was deeply involved in their creation of an intricate, magical fairy world. It wasn’t just streets and parks. It was a whole world with mountains and rivers and villages on the map and even more detail in the children’s discussion about what they were creating.

A third group declared, “We’ll make the human body!” Another student in the group said, “I think for it to be a map, it has to show someone going somewhere.” All agreed – maps were about moving from one place to another. So the group set about creating not a picture of the human body, but a map of the human body, showing how an imaginary person could move through its systems.

It’s hard to describe, even through this story, what it is like to be in a room full of 6 and 7 year olds having complex discussions that are far beyond their years in some ways, and yet full of childish wonder. This is what gifted kids are like. And when gifted kids get to share a classroom with other gifted students, magic happens. Ideas spark other ideas. Creative minds go places together that they wouldn’t go on their own.

Giving gifted children the chance to work and play and learn with other gifted children is a gift that allows them to explore their own creativity, expand their horizons and challenge themselves in ways that is difficult with others their age who don’t think like they do. It’s an amazing thing. And a privilege I get to witness each and every day in each and every classroom!

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