I choose to call my blog "Tall Poppy Teaching" because tall poppy syndrome describes a cultural phenomenon in which people who have achieved something beyond the typical are cut down, resented, or attacked. Tall poppies in a field are often cut off to ensure uniformity. The kids I serve fall under the "tall poppy" category and gifted education is often seen as elitist and unnecessary. But it is neither. I've chosen to work in a school that is designed for gifted and other out-of-the-box learners in the Rocky Mountain region, acting as a pseudo-admin in addition to doing a lot of other things that are being added to my job description daily. I get to innovate, problem-solve, and advocate for our tall poppies.
When I'm not working, I enjoy spending time with my boyfriend and furs, experiencing wonderful food and drink in the shadow of a tall mountain, yoga, fly-fishing, and reading books about characters who can solve the world's problems in the span of a few hundred pages.
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Human beings are vessels. We hold emotion, knowledge, opinions, ideas, intuition, empathy, and space in addition to all the physical stuff that our bodies house that keep us going. There is, however, a point at which the vessel becomes full.
There’s a story about rocks, pebbles, sand, and water being added to a big jar in front of a class. The point of the lesson was to be sure to keep sacred the big things, otherwise the little things will take over everything and there won’t be room for the big things, the things that are most important to you.
There’s another lesson in this though. Imagine the full jar sitting on the table with water all the way to the top, saturating the sand between the pebbles, the spaces between the pebbles and rocks. What happens when another bit of water is poured into the jar?
The water spills out over the top. It can hold no more. There is truly no additional room for one more drop. (I’m reminded of a scene from Monty Python, “Just one tiny wafer thin mint…”)
Something has to be removed in order for more water, or something else, to fit.
I remember talking with a friend whose child was in my class. The little one melted like ice cream in the car on the 45 minute drive home. Melted. Yelled and screamed and cried. Talked about how kids treated each other, how hard it was to concentrate, how difficult it was to keep up, how much they hated recess and lunch and PE, how no one ever shut up, how frustrating it was to not be able to keep up, to take so long, to feel like everyone was watching even though the teacher said to take their time. The injustice that was little kid friendships.
The child’s vessel broke open in the backseat of the car on the way home and left behind the remains of the day to be cleaned up by someone else later.
Everyone has a breaking point. A point at which nothing else fits. There is no more room in the vessel for a wafer thin mint or another drop of water or even another grain of sand.
Another friend said that right now, no one is living their best life. They’re right. No one is living their best life. We move through our days, masked, dodging other people, staying at home instead of going out, questioning every cough, sneeze, and headache, avoiding the news of more deaths as we’re able, becoming more resentful of the way the past several months have treated all of us. Reminding kids that you can’t hold their hand, or hug them the way you used to. Holding things together long enough to get back to our homes, classrooms, and offices to find a safe spot underneath a desk or in a dark corner of the room to have a good cry, letting tears cleanse the anxiety and overall crappiness of the day…the weeks…the months.
A wise woman told me that tears shouldn’t be held back–they have a purpose and can’t be held in forever. They carry with them all the emotions we can’t let out in the moment. They hold all the space we held for others. They hold all the words said in haste, out of frustration, in anger. They hold all the disappointment of what should have been, all the progress that should have been made, all the goals planned. Letting them out, is letting go. Cleansing.
So many of our vessels are on the brink of spilling…or exploding. None of us are living our best lives right now. The sand and water fills our jars and the big rocks get pulled out and set to the side, the pebbles emptied in a pile to make more room for sand and water because that’s what needs to happen right now.
We need to pause. Cry. Cleanse. And we need to let our kids do the same. So many of them are also not living their best lives with playdates and birthday parties, close whispers with friends and games of tag without masks. They’re stuck behind screens at home and at school, distanced from friends in a room, reminded a thousand times a day to put their mask up and stay a pool noodle away from their friends, not getting to see the family and friends who live beyond their homes. All of the connections we need to survive have been turned into Zoom meetings, online wine classes and happy hours, facetimed playdates and otherwise not-connectedness.
So pause. Cry. Cleanse. Let the jar overflow and make space for those things that are truly important: being human, connection, however you can get it safely.
And leave the melted bits and overflowed muck on the floor of the car for someone else to clean up later…or not. It’s ok to leave it.
One of my current “other duties as assigned” during the time of COVID, hybrid, hyflex, and whatever else we call this learning involves hanging out with kids in a virtual study hall. It’s honestly one of my favorite parts of the day. I don’t get much work done sometimes, but the time is still quite valuable because I get to reconnect with kids, build relationships, and remember how wonderful they are.
I listen to them talk. To me and to each other…about whatever is on their minds. Some of them have such deep worries that fall out before they can catch them and put them back. Worries about health of their family, their friends, their teachers. Worries about school and friendships. Feelings about online work and the few kids in the room. Sadness because their friend is a blue day kid and they’re a green day kid and they can’t see each other at lunch or recess. Others can’t sleep because they saw something scary on YouTube when they were watching with an older sibling. And some, some don’t really have words for what they’re feeling and they just need to sit with me a while and lean against me a little.
Listening to the chatter was how I learned that kids’ families were in crisis, divorces and separations happened, distant family members moved in, that a big sister was taking care of a little sister because both parents were out of town working. It’s how I learned that there were seven people living in a house intended for four, and it was loud, and the introvert didn’t ever get time to recharge and that was why they liked study hall–it was quiet…and the child we see at school is very much not the one that is at home. The chatter is how I learned that kids hate that they can’t play together like they used to and had plans to create sleds out of cardboard they found in the dumpster to be recycled so they could still play in the snow together at least. The chatter is how I learned that young gifted children often put incredible pressure on themselves to be perfect, to move at a rapid pace in absolutely everything they do, and refuse to acknowledge the idea of practice for the sake of improvement because some things just come so easy. Chatter is how I learn about the passing of beloved family pets, cancellation of vacations and get togethers, and excitement about special “dates” with their parent.
Teachers so often tell kids to be quiet, not talk, not blurt out, and otherwise not talk about what they’re thinking and feeling in the moment. I suspect we do it more so right now because kids on the screen talking + kids in the room talking = a thousand times worse than when they’re all just in the classroom talking. But it’s so important that we give kids the opportunity to share their ideas, their worries, their goals, their frustrations with us…rather than asking someone to come and get them out of class so we can keep teaching. They’re trying to teach US in those moments. They’re trying to teach us what’s important…and often it’s not the content we planned.
My challenge to you going forward this school year is to listen. Give lots of opportunity for the kids to talk to each other and to you, even if it means something doesn’t quite get done or you give up a few minutes of your time to just chat…kids shouldn’t feel that they’re in trouble when they have big emotions that they aren’t sure what to do with. Everything is so messed up right now that we are hyper-focused on what we need to get done (because the grading, online or otherwise, still seems to replicate during recess, lunch, and overnight), what we haven’t gotten through that we planned for, and what the kids are missing. The fact is, the goal posts have to move for kids because, to use a word I loathe, the past 10 months have been unprecedented.
And some days, they need US more than they need to memorize math facts or that William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 or that there are seven (or fifteen depending on where you look) states of matter or that a predicate nominative is always a noun. While all these things are important, right now, some things are a little more important in the moment.
And sometimes, they just need to lean against us a little…
When I had my own classroom, I ate lunch with my kids. Initially, it was because we wanted to build relationships and norms, then it turned out that we didn’t have enough staff to cover everyone’s lunch. I had a plan period afterwards so me being with my kids for a half hour for their lunch wasn’t a big deal. When I moved into my current position, I covered lunches for teachers too, because again, we didn’t have enough staff to cover everyone’s lunch. When we did have enough staff for coverage, I still had lunches with kids–kids who asked to have lunch with me, kids who needed somewhere quiet to be, kids who just needed to be anywhere else for a little while.
Some people would have been irritated that they had to be with kids during “their” lunch, but I found it afforded me the opportunity to see kids in their “natural habitat.” I got to watch kids and listen to their conversations, finding out what they enjoyed, what they were into, what they were doing after school. I got to see friendships blossom, conflict be worked through (sometimes with help), and connections created.
It was fascinating to watch the kids grow in their understanding of one another, their empathy for one another, and their acceptance of one another. It was also a great chance for me to see areas of strength that wouldn’t be captured on a test or in class. I learned who was a gymnast, who wanted to be a doctor, who loved theater, who was in clown school, who was obsessed with Minecraft, who skied competitively, who was a budding environmentalist, conservationist, or scientist, and who was a natural leader.
Today, prior to the chaos that ensued at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., I had 45 minutes of a “Lunch Bunch” with first and second graders in a video chat. They are precious little souls, but today in particular, it was a glorious period of my day where I saw hope. It was evident who could be a leader, who was still getting to know others, who wanted to connect. Yes, they talked over one another (because six and seven year olds do that), but they were kind and polite to one another. They talked about songs, stuffed friends, their dogs, their siblings, video games, and plotted play dates from their carseats using their mother’s phones.
The part of my role that I love most is when teachers are able to see the things that I do in kids…and things that I miss because I don’t get to be with kids in the same way anymore. When they notice that the reluctant reader is a wonderful artist. When they see how one who fails miserably to learn multiplication facts can bring people together and plan a performance or a rally or a party. When they see the emotional intensity and sense of justice in one who is quiet in class but writes with passion. When they recognize the real connections a child makes with characters in a book and feel all the feels so very deeply. When they can see the advanced thinking and problem solving skills at work when a child is creating a project that requires spatial vision despite their inability to write a report to explain what they’ve created and why it was important during the Crusades. When teachers can make the effort to give choice, accommodation, options, and the opportunity to do things a bit differently to make things a bit more equitable and to see what a kid can do without constraints. When they can see past the academic challenges, the meltdowns, the tantrums and work avoidance to truly see a child for the gifted human being they are. That’s the thing I love most.
Gifted kids aren’t always the easy kids. They’re not kids who fit neatly together like tinker toys. They’re puzzles with millions of pieces and several pieces under the cat, the couch, and the pillow, hidden until someone takes the time to move things around to locate them. For some of these puzzles, the pieces are hidden so well that it takes a special sort of teacher to find them. They are why I do what I do, and why I choose to be where I am. They are what is behind my “Why.”
Don’t get so wrapped up in being a teacher, a parent, an administrator that you forget to watch kids being kids. You might miss a glimpse of who they really are.
I had my hairs did the other night, properly PPE’d and precautioned as one can be in the hairdresser’s chair. I adore my hairdresser. I love that she remembers what I said I wanted five weeks ago. I love that I can let her have her way with color and cuts without a lot of input. Do we want highlights? Sure. What do we want to do with color? I dunno, whatever you decide is great. She did an amazing job, and my hair looked fabulous when I picked up my pizza next door and headed home for the last Zoom meeting of the night.
Did you know that we are hardwired to see the negative before we acknowledge the positive? I think that gifted kids (and adults) tend toward this more than most–perfectionism is a thing, people…and it’s so easy to see what’s imperfect…
I focused on my hair that night in her chair–it did look amazing and for a minute or two, I felt pretty.
But I heard my inner critic note that I looked so tired even behind my mask, and my face had gained weight (the mask wasn’t helping), and the cape made me look fat, and oh dear God, that wasn’t the cape making look fat–I AM fat. When did my knees get so big? I don’t remember this sweater being that tight. Where is my waist? I had one once. And the list went on in my head as I walked into the little pizza place next door to get my small veggie pizza (without olives) and cheesy bread (because cheese)…and continued most of the night. The negativity going on in my head almost had me in tears by the time I headed to bed.
This morning, I was in a meeting and we shared our bright spots. Our staff has been reading and working through Elena Aguilera’s book Onward for a couple of years to help build emotional resiliency in our staff to better be able to support each other and the kids we serve. I couldn’t get past the idea that negativity bias is really a thing. And then I started listening differently to teachers.
Initially, I’d ask at the beginning of a coaching session, “Tell me, how it’s going?” to get the ball rolling and to get an idea of how they were doing and then could guide the conversation from there. I thought this was a great intro, not realizing the can of worms I was opening up by asking such an open ended question.
The session often began with the name of whatever child was driving a teacher nuts that day.
“Oh my gosh I’ve had it! Joey isn’t doing any work–nothing gets turned in! Parents don’t respond to emails, and I’m bending over backwards to try to get them to work and nothing is happening! What’s our policy on suspension for lack of work production?”
Sometimes, the answer to my question was simply “Fine.” You and I both know what “Fine” with no additional elaboration really means.
Asking probing questions opened more worm cans full of issues, problems, and negativity. Rhetorical questions about procedures and asks that seem like one. more. thing.
It was a rare day when the initial response was something positive. I felt drained afterwards, sometimes cried if there was time, and the sense of defeat was heavy to carry around.
Because of my study of Aguilera’s work, I changed my question the last couple of years to “What’s going well?” to force teachers to think about the glows before we get into the grows. Wait time is important here, as often teachers need time to set aside the problem they brought with them to find something good. Sometimes it was personal, sometimes it had to do with a student or colleague. But it was always genuine, and from there, the conversation could become more reflective and problem-solving in nature vs. venting
My bright spots this week weren’t big ones. I found out that my fellowship is offering a stipend. It’s always nice to get unexpected money. My favorite jeans fit. I found a book on Audible that I need to read but can’t settle in and touch pages…it’s one I just need to listen to a couple times.
Teachers I’ve connected with this week saw their own good things…kids are happy, despite COVID, and looking forward to Winter Break. Some are growing as writers and beginning to enjoy it, others are enjoying getting to share their work with peers, and some are looking forward to units coming after the break.
Despite COVID, and all the BS that has come with it, there ARE bright spots. Help your colleagues and staff and kids find theirs before they do anything else this week…like Santa, bright spots do exist.
Most days, I feel as though I’m floundering from task to task on my to-do list, knowing each is important somewhere in the grand scheme of things, but still feeling unfulfilled and unsettled because despite knowing that all of it matters somewhere, it doesn’t feel like any of it is worthwhile and I find myself feeling resentful of everything. It’s like a never-ending game of “Wipeout” in which there is no winner.
This whole pandemic has been incredibly difficult because so much of it has simply been survival, jumping through obstacles to get through each day, each week, each month, and ending each day, week, and month deflated because goals and ideas have to be tabled in order to make room for the support of survival. So much of it has been taking on tasks and projects to ease burdens, fixing problems, figuring out how to overcome the seemingly endless roadblocks that get in the way, listening to others share their thoughts on all kinds of topics, all of it sounding like criticism even when it isn’t meant to.
And some days, despite the ever expanding to-do list of little tasks and checkboxes without checks in them, feelings of resentment and hopelessness, my bucket is filled by people who share the things that bring me joy, hope, and purpose and who share a piece of what I want my career to look like because it does make up a huge part who I am and my place in the world.
When I became a teacher, I was certain that I would remain in the classroom and had mixed feelings when I found that I wanted to do more and “more” would require me to give up my safe space where I had some semblance of control and felt confident (most of the time). I found that the “more” I sought would require being uncomfortable and unsure of myself, my knowledge, and my abilities.
I cannot afford another Master’s degree or a Ph.D. and I don’t know that either one would provide the growth I seek–the first Master’s degree certainly didn’t. I don’t enjoy formal research, nor am I eager to get bogged down in the endless stream of district level meetings, paperwork, school law, or waivers. I don’t want to be a principal when I grow up. This is as close to “admin” as I want to get, to be quite honest. And while I worry as I see so many friends who began their teaching careers around the same time as I did working toward administrator licensure that I am somehow behind and not heading in the right direction, I know that I would not be happy in a fully administrative position.
I get the opportunity to work on some level with several education-based organizations whose missions I truly believe in. Sadly, none of this work will pay a mortgage or buy food for furs who refuse to get jobs. Much of this work is far outside my comfort zone and challenges me to learn and grow in my knowledge of all that is Gifted.
I don’t claim to be an expert in gifted education and I never have–there’s so much to learn, I probably never will be an expert. Statistics and research studies don’t roll off my tongue in conversation about gifted education, but after serving and working alongside these kids for the past 15 years, I can tell you that they need advocates. They need someone who will stand next to them with guiding questions and encouragement while they try the things that make them uncomfortable, the things that aren’t typical, the things that don’t fit neatly into a Google form. They need someone who will go head to head with a colleague and say, “THIS is what she needs.” They need people who will “go to the mattresses” and fight for outside-the-box thinking to help a floundering gifted student. They need people who will provide support to educators serving them and preach challenging the process rather than quiet compliance from the rooftops. Gifted kids need something *different*in their educational experience, and doing the same thing as everyone else isn’t different enough.
Gifted kids need advocates who will focus on what’s most important, learning and growth, not checkboxes, to-do lists, and activities to prove they can regurgitate information. They need a cheering section when they take a risk and then hit an obstacle and wipeout, encouraging them to get out of the water and try again because that’s when the learning happens. And that is where I need to be, with others who will be their advocates and cheering section.
We are experiencing a unique time in education due to this pandemic. It’s a great time for us to rethink what education can look like and determine what’s most important. So many of us are trying to fit square pegs (traditional in-person learning) into round holes (distance/hybrid/hyflex/on-demand learning).
How’s it working for you all?
I’m seeing incredibly dedicated and amazing educators exhausting themselves trying to replicate in-person instruction online with the same high level of expectation that they have for themselves during a regular year. They are spending hours before and after school planning elaborate lessons with multiple tech components intended to engage students, and then creating another set entirely for those who have to work at different hours. They’re working long hours, isolated from one another, and frustrated that kids aren’t engaging in class.
I’m seeing children spending hours online in a number of meetings/classes that is commensurate with what would be expected of someone earning executive’s salary because that’s where the learning is put. Being stuck in front of a screen is becoming the norm…and I know how I feel about the multitude of meetings *I* attend in a week… I imagine kids are over it even more than I am.
I’m seeing parents and kids upset and overwhelmed because there’s just SO MUCH and it’s really difficult to determine what’s most critical, what’s a quick check, and what’s a big project that needs to get broken down. Small tasks become a never-ending to-to list that parents wouldn’t see if kids were in school because teachers are now collecting information through “assignments” that they’d typically get via conversation or over-the-shoulder observation…that damn to-do list and all its tasks are right there in the “missing work” emails that generate weekly showing all the ways their kids are failing…and all the ways they’re failing as parents.
I’m seeing families frustrated because things keep changing–going from in person to hybrid to distance and back again. There’s little any of us can do about this except wear masks when we’re out and limit time with people who aren’t in our bubble…
And I’m seeing gifted kids checking out and saying, “Screw it. Why should I bother?”
A friend says that while in a gradebook, this might look like a “lost” year in terms of learning, but it really isn’t lost. We have an opportunity to change what we’re doing. Now, that doesn’t mean we work feverishly over Thanksgiving break to recreate everything in our “classroom” and redo all the plans we’d put together. (I say this on purpose because *I* am that sort of teacher…and I know some of you are too.)
Think about how we could create an environment in which kids are engaged and learning and incorporate accountability as well as self-advocacy and ownership while minimizing screen time and OUR workload in terms of grading things and creating new learning opportunities? Here are some thoughts:
Limit the number of assignments in a week to 3 or fewer and be intentional in their assignment. Give kids options–if there are five items on a worksheet, they must do three. All of those assigned will correlate to the primary standard/s you’re targeting, so there’s no need for them to do all three. There are courses for which there will HAVE to be more, or more steps to complete a full assignment, but there is no reason that kids should be spending hours after class working on assignments that are repeats of each other all week, often one assignment can encompass multiple pieces of learning.
Set limits around the time kids spend working. If the work can’t be done in the 20 minutes of class that’s remaining, it’s too much. Ask the kids to help you gauge time they should be spending working. Get their feedback about what made it take so long or why an assignment was quick to complete.
Here’s an easy one. Instead of assigning a Google Form quiz, see what resources you have available for self-driven learning. Do you have subscriptions to online programs like ALEKs or others that kids can utilize for a certain number of minutes each day to show progress on specific standards you’re working on as formative assessment in lieu of a quiz on top of it?
Another easy one. If you’re reading a novel or series of articles or chapters, can you create questions that allows kids to read on their own during class (staying available for questions but allowing them to disconnect) and create free-form responses and not multiple choice options for a way for them to show what they know? Yes, online quizzes are easier to grade, with either right or wrong responses, but does it tell you what they LEARNED? No–it tells you they can guess well and that there is one right answer. Why not give five comprehension questions and have kids make a FlipGrid for two of their choosing and one that you choose that requires them to connect the text to a big idea or concept that was at the center of the reading. Have them include vocabulary critical to the reading in their answers–two birds with one stone, and you spend a half hour or so a week reviewing their videos.
Innovate and Let Go
Think independent study projects that are developmentally appropriate instead of fully teacher-led lessons. “Kids, you’re going to teach class today. I’ve attached an article I want you to read and a 2 minute video to watch to our classroom stream, and I want you to review them and determine the three most important things we need to know about this topic. Let’s meet back together at 9:45 and talk about it.” Then send them off to do it. hey all might have a different part of the topic to review and some may be finished, and others might not be–there’s your opportunity for flexibility–does Josh want to look more into his part? Does Donna need more time? You might have them make a sign using words or pictures to show what they thought was the most important for other (writers, scientists, historians, mathematicians, engineers) to know and share it at the beginning of class tomorrow. Encourage kids to connect what they’re learning to the things THEY see as important…for many, YouTube, MineCraft, Roblox, and RPGs are their jam. Tie in history, science, engineering, art, language, culture, drama, music, sport, movement…
Have kids who work through content at different times and don’t attend class when it meets? Provide the recording of your lesson and the time when the kids show their responses or talk about what they learned (no…this isn’t GIVING them the material or encouraging them to cheat–it’s simply providing guidance since you aren’t there to help)…and provide them the same assignment to do and have them “turn in” a photo of their contribution, making sure you share it with the class.
Collaborate with colleagues and communicate with families and get them on board with assignments like cooking together as a family or doing chores together and writing a reflection on the experience, perhaps inviting them to share stories of family members or friends past or memories of their own childhoods. Ask them video chat Grandma CJ or Uncle Jed and interview them about their favorite recipes from childhood and then try to make them together. Report back to the classes via video or written piece to share with everyone. What’d the kids learn? More than one teacher can be in on this kind of assignment, evaluating progress for their individual standards. Math, history, interview skills, clarity in thought, cultural relevance, writing (informational, opinion, and narrative can be contained in the same piece of writing), and tech if they choose to make a cooking video, as well as perhaps a new appreciation for the people they’re sharing their bubble with, which is immeasurable. And you get to learn about your kids…and build relationships with them at the same time
There will be challenges to this, of course. Some buildings are very locked down and inflexible about what class should look like, but if you have the opportunity to innovate somewhere within that, give it a shot. Be flexible with those who are struggling with access–communicate consistently with parents about how you can help support their child and be creative with solutions. Remember too that learning isn’t concrete–it’s a process. For our little ones, some things may still need to be teacher led for a while, but giving them the opportunity to go off on their own and work is still valuable and teaches self-reliance. Quizzes and assignments often tell us very little about what kids have learned even if they can regurgitate information, but when you give them the opportunity to show it, demonstrate understanding, and think about it in different ways, you’re shown more of what they actually LEARNED.
We have a unique opportunity to change the way we look at learning right now, particularly with our gifted students. Providing opportunities for choice in process and product leads to engagement, self-advocacy, self-motivation, and reflection. There is no right way to do this, friends, but if we have to build the plane as we fly it, why not innovate a little–kids will tell us how it’s going before we crash and burn if we ask. Their feedback matters…this isn’t about us.
I have thoughts on social-emotional needs too…but that’s another post.
Gifted is who they are, not what they produce. ~Linda Silverman
Every year for the past 15 years, I have attended a variety of conferences, classes, trainings, and other professional development. Most have shared sessions about strategies to work with struggling learners, ways to ensure accountability and engagement, and often, the social-emotional needs of kids whether it be trauma informed, multi-generational home lives, kids in poverty, or a mixture of everything, including current situations, such as existing with distance learning to hybrid to in-person and back again through all of them.
All of these things are important to learn, and you don’t learn it all in teacher school. Teacher school shares generalities, theory, and lets you dip your toes into a variety of things, not focusing on any one in particular because every school, district, state, and population has their own way of doing things.
When I was a little girl, my report cards had letters. A, B, C, etc. I had one D ever (until college math for English Majors, when I took my D as a gift and ran) and I earned every point of that D and paid dearly for it. I was given a C in PE in the fourth grade because I still, to this day, cannot run a 12 minute mile unless it’s completely downhill and a bear is chasing me. Teachers wrote comments like, “Teri is a joy to have in class” or “Teri is very talkative (or “quiet and shy” after the 5th grade)” or “Teri reads too much in class, and should not be reading books above her grade level” and my personal favorite, “Teri should spend the summer memorizing her multiplication tables at Our Lady of the Broken Ruler summer school using flash cards.” Perhaps these weren’t the exact words the teachers used, but what’s important about them and why I remember them so clearly, is that none of them shared anything about who I was as a learner or otherwise. My parents looked at the letter next to the subject and assumed I was learning what I needed to and doing my work in class. They never met with my teachers (except that one time I got the D…poor Mrs. Morales, having to deal with my father who was a long way down the river of denial about his little girl’s science research skills) and rarely saw my work, tests, writing, or much of anything else.
I think about the comments on the report cards I received as a child and I realize that my parents had no idea, based on report card comments, what my strengths in school were, what I needed to learn, where I was excelling, or where I was drowning. My teachers didn’t really didn’t know who I was…they only knew what I produced and gave it a grade according to a point-based percentage-based scale.
Our kids’ families deserve to know that we see who their kids ARE…not what they produce. Yes, they should know that Joey is missing 23 assignments and that Janie needs to work on her math facts. And they need to know that Joan is kind to her classmates and they need to know that Jack is a wonderful helper who talks a lot in class. Those are separate conversations. Parents need to know that we really SEE their kids.
John connected with the main character of the novel. He noted in discussion that they both are passionate about skateboarding and have only one or two good friends despite knowing a lot of people. In addition, John saw himself in the main character when the character worked together with his close friends to organize a petition to get a skateboard park in the neighborhood near school.
Stephanie truly sees herself as a scientist, moving through experiments in class methodically, noting questions she has along the way, and being precise in her data collection. I notice that she does the same in her writing, developing her stories according to what she thinks a particular character might do if a situation presents itself (hypothesis) and changing things as she writes according to the data she collects about other characters.
Matty sees the world through his doodles during class. His notetaking demonstrates a high level of understanding of the content we discussed this quarter and he can explain his note-doodles in great detail, incorporating both what was discussed during that session as well as comments of others and his own thinking.
John, Stephanie, and Matty may not have turned in one assignment. They may have bombed every quiz, had their camera off during class, or typed “poop” 9,000 times in the chat just to see what would happen and who would get angry first. But the comments address who these kids are, not what they produced.
John is a leader and connector. He has a vision of what could be and brings people together for a purpose.
Stephanie is an observer. She notices details and sees the importance of the little things.
Matty is an artist, seeing connections between ideas through the images he creates. This child sees the world differently.
Perhaps comments like these aren’t things you can put into your report cards (space, required format, drop down comments). But parents need to know that you truly see their kids. That you know who they are. That you recognize that they are more than a series of ticked boxes and completed assignments.
I challenge you this week, before Thanksgiving Break, to reach out to as many of your students’ parents as you can and let them know that you really SEE their kids and recognize that gifted is who they are, not what they produce.
“As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has or ever will have something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.” -Mr. Rogers
I have had the opportunity to speak at CAGT (Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented) for a few years, and was given the chance to do so this year during their first virtual conference. Usually, I spend time networking, talking with other educators, other speakers, and overall being among my tribe who know and understand both me and the kids we all choose to serve. I miss out on things like the art contests, and don’t always pay close enough attention to the performances unless they’re part of a keynote I’m attending.
This year, because CAGT’s conference was virtual, I was able to really look at the work that students from around Colorado had submitted. I’m amazed. Kids from all over our state, from young ones to high school aged kids, took the idea of “A Wider Lens of Gifted” and ran with it, creating amazing pieces of art, music, and performance. Go here to check out some of the work from this year’s conference.
When we are looking at kids for identification, we see those who stand out academically so much easier. Those who are writing multi-chapter stories or reading Harry Potter in Kindergarten, working math problems well above grade level for fun, kids who are passionate about particular topics and know everything to know about whales, and kids who excel on assessments are easy to spot. It’s those kids who have talents beyond academics that we often don’t recognize as gifted.
Look at the kids you have with you over the next couple of weeks. Really see them.
Who plays an instrument?
Who sings in a choir at church?
Who goes to clown school after school?
Who plays club sport and excels?
Who is a scout and demonstrates leadership and service to the community?
Who plays outside and shows their ability to be incredibly bendy and flexible?
Who feels the music in their bones when it plays?
Who simply cannot stop moving when thinking? Who talks and interacts with their whole body?
Who builds and builds and sees things on a completely different spatial level? What “builds” are sitting on your desk, given as gifts, or taken from them because they were creating while you were teaching?
Who doodles? Really LOOK at the doodles…what do you see? A sense of space? line? proportion?
Who is the performer in your group of kids? Who lives for the dramatic?
These are the kids we want to catch. It’s not just cool that they play violin or perform in the church choir… It’s that they have been playing violin by ear since age 3 and can see colors in the music they hear or sing and have perfect pitch. It’s not simply a neat thing that they enjoy drawing or color, but that they’re precise in their drawings and intricate in their detail and able to create a story with their use of color. It’s that child who choreographs as the music plays because their body feels and experiences every note distinctly. It’s that child who sees opportunity in challenge and makes a plan to address it.
These are the kids you can create bodies of evidence over time for formal identification in dance, performing arts, music, sport, visual arts, and leadership. Having a relationship with the kids you serve matters…you can play to these areas of strength and offer opportunities for them to use their strengths in their learning… Be open to alternative assignments and methods of learning.
When we truly SEE our gifted kids for who they are and not what they produce, we can create the learning environment that they will thrive in.
There’s a point at which you simply can’t hold things in anymore. Pandemic fatigue is a real thing, folks, and for many of us in education (and everywhere else), we’re over it.
We’re over the constant not knowing when a quarantine or isolation situation is going to crop up…and who will be impacted.
We’re overwhelmed with worry about our kids and their families when a little says that they don’t feel so good or doesn’t come to school.
We’re done with flexing, pivoting, and being polite when we’re told that this isn’t a big deal and it’s almost run its course or that it’s a hoax.
We’re over stripping down and throwing all our clothes from the day in the washing machine as we walk in the door after work. We’re also tired of choosing what to wear based on what’s easily washed and dried.
We’re over turning around halfway to work when we realized we left our mask sitting next to the coffee mug we walked out without as well.
We’re tired of telling kids they can’t hug each other when one is sad and using pool noodles to illustrate physical 6′ distance when kids just want to be close to one another and hang out or play more than shadow tag.
We’re exhausted from wearing masks, holing up in our classrooms and offices, having Google Meets and Zoom Meetings and turning off our camera so colleagues don’t see us cry or get angry about all. the. things, and muting and unmuting while trying not to talk over others.
And we’re tired of not being able to shake hands, hug, comfort, or just be close to the people we care about…
There’s an exhaustion about all of this, and for our gifted population of kids, parents, colleagues, multiply it by 100, because not only are we feeling our OWN feels, we’re feeling the feels of everyone else around us, listening to the criticism, the layers of problem solving, the sadness over loss and grief over deaths, the fear, and the overall weariness of everyone around us, all while trying to portray strength and leadership for those around us so that there is a familiar feeling…at least for a little while.
And meanwhile, we’re trying to celebrate little things like the early arrival of a friend’s baby, the progress of a friend’s child in reading, an award given by a state level organization for a beautiful painting, throwing parachutes made by kids to protect a coveted snack off the roof, a friend’s dog winning a championship or having a healthy litter of puppies, and finding the last bag of Smarties on the planet before Halloween (wish me luck, I’m stopping on the way home…)
But the feels hit at the most inopportune times. When we’re making dinner, or waiting in the coffee kiosk’s line int he morning. When we’re listening to a book that has nothing at all to do with the present time. When we’re walking the dog in the freezing cold on a snow day. When a friend brings us coffee and even with a mask on, they can tell something isn’t right. And suddenly just looking at one another, the tears flow like a waterfall, and minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months of holding it all in come flooding out with unintelligible words…and the only thing they can do is be there…from six feet away…sending healing energy because holding someone while they cry isn’t allowed.
A friend noted that we may be feeling all this now, but our kids and their kids will continue to experience this for generations to come…
How do we help one another and all of our kids through this?
We listen. We hold space for each other. We can’t solve it. We can’t fix it. But we can let the feelings happen and acknowledge they exist. Brené Brown (who is so very wise) says that that’s the only way to get through this…let the feels happen, acknowledge them…and then let them go because holding on to them isn’t helpful… That’s self-care, too.
Back in the pre-COVID days when I was in the classroom, I was fairly adept at determining what success looked like in my classroom. Sometimes I used rubrics (writing or projects), sometimes standards correlation tables (usually for math), but most of the time I watched and observed the kids while they were working. It wasn’t about the assignment necessarily, but how they went about getting it done. The process often mattered more than the product.
There were those who flew through, doing everything exactly the way I’d modeled, and they might be able to speak to one or two parts of the work and explain their thinking. And there were those who took very odd routes (that worked a lot of the time) to get what they needed to done or those who used “It’s in my head” and indeed it usually was. And still there were those who got stuck, not knowing what to do next, or lost altogether because the words were different this time, the numbers different, or the work itself wasn’t something they cared too much about or were struggling to connect with. All of these things told me whether or not we were being successful.
(I say “we” intentionally. My kids being successful and growing toward greater understanding meant that I was doing something right. It was incredibly evident when I had done something wrong, both to me and to them, and being the un-filtered sweet things they were, they also had no problem telling me that a particular lesson stunk…and I was ok with that feedback–as long as they could tell me WHY it stunk.)
Because I had the opportunity to see the kids working, asking and answering questions, pushing back on strategies, reminding of format or necessary pieces, teaching in the moment with “Hey kids, let’s stop for a minute…” I was able to know in my gut, even before they finished, whether or not they’d gotten what I’d intended them to get out of the lesson. And when it was evident that they hadn’t, sometimes I’d have them finish regardless because the process of doing the work was important too, and I’d go back and re-strategize ways I could help them understand or do what would show growth toward mastery.
COVID and hybrid/online learning has changed that and now teachers are struggling to determine what success looks like in this alien world we’re living in. Teachers have had to strategize ways to measure progress differently, and they’re moving away from conversation, conferencing, and over-the-shoulder formative assessment, to Google form based quizzes, JamBoards, PearDecks, and photos of completed assignments (that may or may not have been completed by the kids on their own). Teachers can’t observe the process of kid-work from a Google Meet or Zoom Room. It’s just not possible and they are replacing observation with concrete types of evaluation to save their own sanity and lose some of the cognitive load that all of this has caused.
Parents mean well, particularly with their little ones just beginning school, when they offer to help or write for their child for an assignment, but part of a teacher’s measure of progress will always be the child’s own handwriting, coloring, words, and ideas. Part of learning involves the struggle. That’s so difficult for parents and kids to wrap their heads around–particularly the gifted ones who are working with perfectionism… watching kids struggle is so difficult, especially when you know you could make it easier for them.
One doesn’t learn to tie one’s own shoes by watching someone else tie them or switching to velcro or slid-in shoes. We don’t learn to make ramen (because we’re the only one who wants it on soup night) by watching mom or dad do it for us. No one learns to play hockey by watching Miracle on Ice. And we don’t learn to replace bathroom vanities, sinks, and faucets by watching reruns of This Old House on their own. In order to learn how to do it (and when to ask for help or call a professional) we have to actually give it a shot by ourselves.
The most beautiful words a child can utter are “I can do it myself!!” and even if the buttons are all wrong, the outfit is horrific (but would surely inspire some nut at New York Fashion Week), the shoes are on the wrong feet, or the writing is totally illegible to anyone but the child…it’s a win because the child advocated for their right to fail forward and make progress toward being self-sufficient.
The struggle is a valuable piece of learning…and teaching. Some say that writers, artists, and musicians are the most creative people on earth, but I know for a fact that it’s teachers. Teachers right now are doing several things at once: helping the kids in the room learn and observing their work in real time, helping kids online learn and trying to evaluate their work when it shows up in their inbox, and help kids who are trying to learn at odd hours because family work schedules and virtual learning aren’t compatible with no ability to observe or discuss much in the moment. And they’re trying a hundred different ways to do all of those things every day, and sharing what they learn with the other teachers in their world
So our measures of success have to change. It doesn’t mean working harder, longer hours, or putting together multiple sets of slideshows or finding more engaging videos for specific students. It doesn’t mean evaluating all the kids using a google form assessment for which there are definite correct answers. It doesn’t mean working yourself to death providing 47 different learning opportunities in one day and trying to grade them all, agonizing over holding Georgie accountable because they only did 30 of the 47 opportunities you worked so hard to provide.
Measures of success right now might be that you are able to identify the most important thing you want the kids to understand and grow toward mastery of in that lesson. It might be that you notice you have to change something in your presentation format because you forgot to teach how to use it…or really aren’t sure how to use it yourself but it sure sounded good in the moment. Measures of success might include that James is showing up to class and is fully present…that he’s healthy and happy and has something good to share during class. Success is that when you talk with Mary, she can tell you her story and show you with pictures (that may or may not look anything like what she’s telling you) how it goes…when before she didn’t know about beginning, middle, or end. Might be that Ciaran whispers to his mom who is off camera that he can do it himself during class and finally turns in a writing assignment in his six-year-old scrawl written at a diagonal despite lines on the page. Perhaps success is that LeDarius asked for a book about dogs to read for fun, when before he wasn’t willing to read at all, but because you gave him tools like audio books or LearningAlly, he feels comfortable asking for more…he is a reader now.
And sometimes, measuring success is simply a note from a parent acknowledging that they see what a teacher is doing and is thrilled that their child is happy at the end of each day, excited to go to school (whatever that looks like for them), and takes over dinner conversation talking about what they learned that day, or a sincere thank you from a teammate for an idea you mentioned in passing that worked really well for their kids.
Sometimes the measure of success isn’t something you can add to the gradebook that ties directly to a standard, but the little things that keep you going…the tiny bits of progress you get to see every day and the encouragement to try something else tomorrow.
Look for the little things. A flower doesn’t magically appear out of the ground one day…it takes time and noticing the little things like a bump in the earth or something green poking through is what shows growth is happening. The process of growth matters more than checking off boxes. Seeing the process play out ought to be your measure of success.