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Reflections on the past and hopes for the future of gifted children.

3 gifted children, now adults and nurturing the gifted were asked: 

What do you remember from your early years surrounding your education? What were your experiences in classrooms of mixed ability learners?

Lee - At age 4 my mother took me to NYU where I did Rorschach and other testing.  She told me it was “to establish why I didn’t play well with others...”

In elementary school, I traveled in the IGC, intellectually gifted classes, that’s what they called it back then, maybe 20-25 kids. Since I often finished first and I was bored and clowned around, and I had parents who talked to my teachers, I was given other tasks tailored to my interests:  a plant table that I managed or another science project. In high school a scheduling conflict landed me in a non-honors Social Studies class where kids didn’t even know where Vietnam was on a map - during the Vietnam War. Outnumbered and unique in that class, I kept my mouth shut. Withdrawal has always been preferred to fighting.  It was always easier to be weird and avoided... than to fight. 

Julie – When my first grade teacher asked if anyone could spell the word “off,” I raised my hand and tried, “o-o-f.” The answer was wrong but the teacher was sparked, and that told me I was close. Did this tacit encouragement speed my ability to read? I know she worked with me individually after that, I felt comfortable with her and I was reading within a week. In third grade, I was admitted to our district’s unique Elementary Acceleration Program, three years condensed into two, allowing us to be with peers who didn’t hold us back. Non-EAP kids called us Educated Apes and Pigs.

Caitlin - I was in a mainstream classroom for Pre-K through 8th grade. I was the fastest, most voracious reader; the quickest at picking up math concepts; the first to complete assignments and tests and with the highest scores. With a few notable exceptions, the teachers couldn't find a way to challenge me and still meet everyone else's needs. It was also socially challenging. It might have been different if there had been a handful of kids who stood out the way that I did, but there was only me. On the other hand, that school encouraged my interest in the arts and raised my social awareness, which I consider invaluable.

For high school, I switched to a "gifted and talented" school. I no longer felt uncomfortable about my cognitive abilities, I no longer had to hide them, and I no longer felt socially isolated because of them. I was exposed to a panoply of ideas, opinions, and viewpoints, and I made life-long friends. I welcomed the change in academic rigor, but I hadn't been prepared for the change in pedagogy and expectations. I feared not doing enough, so I always did the maximum that I could envision, which led to an unsustainable workload. It took me several months to find my balance. 

Are talented and gifted education programs necessary? Are they exclusionary?

Lee – As a health educator, I have to say, that stopping all for the benefit of the slower learners, shortchanges the smarter kids... I would love to be able to tailor my lessons to each learner...In the one room schoolhouse there was not even age separation... While in graduate school, I read Howard Gardner’s theory on 9 types of learning styles. Do we stratify for those who learn through dance and movement, or those who are auditory vs. visual learners?

I think that any time you are able to focus on the individual child to facilitate learning – that’s the way to go.

Julie - As a parent, I had no benchmark against which to evaluate my son’s intelligence, and the word “gifted” seemed hyperbolic to me, but I discerned keen observational abilities in him, an exceptional vocabulary and a beautiful singing voice, able to follow a tune after one listen... In second grade, he was tapped for “Workshop,” his school district’s Gifted & Talented. It amounted to nothing more than one session a week through eighth grade. To me, the program’s projects didn’t seem rigorous, disciplined, or focused but this was the one place in school that he didn’t have to hold back his intelligence, dumb down his vocabulary or feel resented for being bright. My son was supported not just by teachers but also by his peers, for thinking differently. Unfortunately so much of the funding went to remedial programs that the enrichment programs were continually threatened.

Caitlin - Differentiated learning for all students, regardless of labels, is the ideal. Unfortunately, it is rarely the reality. As a result, schools implement programs that are, by definition, exclusionary. Are students excluded from a "G&T" program that has an entrance exam if they don't attain a high enough score? Absolutely. Are students excluded from support services if they don't have an IEP or assessment? Absolutely. The question that we have to ask is this: If we agree that children who are cognitively atypical need specific programming, even if it excludes others, how can we turn around and say, "Oh, but your kind of atypical doesn't count"? We're talking about the same idea: children whose learning needs aren't met by the programming that meets the needs of the majority. Atypically advanced learners struggle because they aren't engaged in a mainstream classroom, and that can lead to a host of social, behavioral, and academic consequences for them.

As a parent, what is most important to you for the happiness of your child?

Julie - As parents, we all want the same things for our kids – whatever label - happiness, confidence and security. My son continues to embrace myriad, demanding pursuits simultaneously. He is happiest when challenged. Working through the stress and accomplishing his goals, builds his confidence. The last thing I hope for is financial security... He’s a smart guy; he’ll figure it out.

Caitlin  - I want my son to be resilient. I want him to have the internal strength and motivation to keep trying no matter how many times life challenges him. Research shows that resilience and grit offer more benefit than being "gifted." In fact, children who accomplish easily are often less resilient than their peers who try and fail and try again but ultimately do achieve success. We can relate this idea back to the question about G&T programming. If we don't ever give cognitively advanced learners material that is appropriately challenging for them, they'll never get to experience the try-fail-try again-succeed journey that will allow them to develop the resilience and grit that will lead them to success in life.

Lee Robbins MD MA Ed – Artist, physician, teacher, herpetologist, horticulturalist, farmer, flutist... is a true polymath.

Julie Badion – Artistic Director/Advertising, Editor, Math Wiz. Mother of 1.

Caitlin Meister - Founder and Director of The Greer Meister Group, a private educational consulting and tutoring practice. She speaks and writes on a variety of education topics. Mother of 1.

Paula Zindler
RN IBCLC

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