After years of working with gifted children, I’ve come to the conclusion that they have two main things in common.
First, they are all different. And not just “every person is unique” different. In spite of the common characteristics they share as gifted people, they have huge variations in their interests, strengths, challenges, skills, social/emotional/physical development, and more. It’s what makes working with them (and parenting them) such an incredibly rich, and sometimes incredibly difficult, experience.
Second, they are intense. It may be intensely reflective or emotional or curious or funny or interested in quantum physics … The list goes on and on. But whenever I talk to parents about their gifted children, the word “intense” seems to resonate more than any other.
So how do we meet the wide ranging interests, abilities, needs and challenges we see when we bring a group of intense, unique gifted children together in one classroom?
One important strategy that plays a key role in Seabury’s classrooms is collaboration. It might seem counter-intuitive that one of the best ways to meet individual needs is through grouping for work and play, but we have seen, and research has supported, that gifted children who get to work, learn and play with other gifted children have better academic achievement, stronger social skills and more self confidence than those who work in isolation or those who don’t get to spend all or part of their day with their intellectual peers.
Our children thrive when they have people who “get them” that they can share ideas with, create with, and be challenged by. Their giftedness makes them different enough from typically developing kids their age that the gap between the way they think and they way typical kids think can be too wide to bridge – especially at a young age. A six-year-old who thinks like a 10-year-old but has the motor skills of a four-year-old doesn’t fit well with the six-year-olds or the 10-year-olds or the four-year-olds. When we put that six-year-old together with other gifted children, they find their “true peers.” However, even then, each of our children is still unique and has a wide range of abilities and interests. So at Seabury, we provide a variety of opportunities for collaboration so that they can find their true peers in a variety of situations.
This year, our prekindergarten, kindergarten and first grade teachers are using a common theme in their classes, and are bringing their children together from time to time during the week to share a story or activity that serves as a launching point for further study and discussion in their classrooms.
They are using Simms Taback’s book The House that Jack Built as the catalyst for classroom discussions and activities related to their theme, “Interconnections.” Last week, after reading the book and spending time with a page that showed lots of different houses with “classified ads” advertising them for sale, each of the students drew their own fantasy house and wrote their own ad. The students did this as part of a large, multiage group and had lots of conversation and sharing of ideas along the way – a collaborative activity. And yet because of the open-ended nature of the activity, each child approached it at his/her skill and developmental level. You will see the prekindergarten students with pictures and ads that are much more concrete in nature. First grade students were much more elaborate in their drawings and ads, and showed higher abstract thinking ability in their descriptions of things not shown in their pictures (like coffee makers or video games). As you look within each class, you will see evidence of each child’s advanced intellectual abilities for their age (vocabulary, level of detail, etc.) and you will also see evidence of their developmental level (dictated vs. written ads, detail in drawings, etc.). Within that activity, or the house building activity they participated in today, the children were able to laugh and talk and think with others who could stretch their imaginations and relate to their creative ideas, no matter what their age was.
Multiage, open-ended activities like this are incorporated into every classroom at Seabury. At the middle school, all students might be assigned the same project and essay, but expectations and results are typically much different for a sixth-grader than an eighth-grader, or for a student who is gifted in writing than a student whose gifts are in a different area. This allows for intellectual collaboration while still meeting individual academic needs.
Flexible grouping is another way we give children the opportunity to collaborate with those who can stimulate thought, creativity and growth.
Another example. At the beginning of the year, teachers spent time assessing students to see where they were in reading, writing, math, etc. These assessments were used to do initial groupings and placements. But unlike the way it was when I went to school, those placements were just a beginning point.
Day by day and week by week, placements, groupings, and expectations are reassessed and revised as needed. The use of flexible groupings within and between classrooms allows teachers to continually place students in an appropriate community of learners for a particular subject, unit or activity. Our children tend to absorb and retain everything they are exposed to, especially in their areas of giftedness. But they have not typically been exposed to all things equally. So a student who is gifted in math may have had a particular interest in or a great deal of exposure to a particular concept like computation, for example, but may have had little or no exposure to another concept like measuring angles or place value.
Flexible grouping for math allows teachers to regroup students as they start each new concept, and to tailor expectations within a group to the needs of individual students on any given day. So the students get the benefit both of individualized programming and working as part of a group.
Collaboration in the classroom and between classrooms also gives students the chance to learn to work with a variety of people: those who are easy to work with and those who are more challenging. As adults, we know that we don’t always get to work with those who are easy to get along with. And we need strategies for dealing with those challenging situations.
At Seabury, we believe it is our responsibility to provide children with the tools they need to develop those strategies when they are young and have supportive adults around to help them navigate.
As a parent of an eighth-grader, I remember times when my son was younger and when I was worried about him having to deal with a difficult child on the playground or in a group setting. I wanted him to be happy and to have fun. It was hard to see him frustrated or angry or hurt. But looking back, those were the times when he learned the most. And believe it or not, those are times I am now grateful for. He learned how to work with lots of different people. He learned that there are caring adults around to support him. He learned he has a lot of internal resources and strength. And he learned that life isn’t always easy or neat. What great lessons for him to begin to learn at a young age, so he can continue to grow in his ability to collaborate with others as he gets older.
Our children are wonderful. They are unique and they are intense. Our goal is to help them discover their passions and develop their gifts. To help them grow emotionally, physically, intellectually and socially. It is a complicated task. And ironically perhaps, it is in bringing these very unique children together that we give them the best opportunities to do just that.
If you have additional questions about this topic, or want to know more about how collaboration looks in your child’s classroom, please contact your child’s teacher or me.