Category Archives: Gifted Best Practice

See Me.

Behavior is a message. When a child is being disrespectful, disruptive, rude, or otherwise not the typical kid you know, they’re telling you something. In this environment, in which we have been crisis schooling, remote, hybrid, physically distanced, masked, barriered, pool noodle-spaced, and disconnected, behavior is a big Vegas style sign with neon flashing lights.

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See me.

Gifted kids, particularly the young ones, who have all the feels and not the vocabulary to express it, need to be seen by us all now more than ever.

Seen doesn’t mean called out publicly in class or in a zoom room for chatting inappropriately.

Seen doesn’t mean reprimanded in front of the class (and probably classmate’s parents and siblings) for not turning in work or for doing an assignment incorrectly.

Seen doesn’t mean calling out scores or missing work and asking where assignments are or what’s the plan for improvement.

Negativity bias is real…and every one of us have done both of these things at one time or another…especially when we’re tired, stressed out, worried, and have an eighth of an nerve left.

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Seen doesn’t mean praised publicly either. So many kids absolutely HATE being called out for just doing what they’re supposed to…because that’s not why they do it.

To SEE a child is a very different thing. It’s more than simply being noticed for your work, work ethic, grades, or talents. It’s more than happy notes home. It’s more than praising good behavior, kind words to others, improved effort, or hard work.

To see a child is to look beyond the surface, deep below the water of all their behaviors, from acting out in class to twisting their hair to chewing their shirt (or mask…because that’s a thing now.). To see a child is to dive deep and see that the raised hand is meaningful: “I want to show you what I know and share what I want to know.” To see a child is be willing to be vulnerable ourselves and go beyond the jellyfish to find what’s hiding below.

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What seems like a spoiled brat temper tantrum is often just not that at all with our gifted kids.

It’s frustration because I haven’t seen my best friend smile in 300+ days.

It’s sadness because I can’t hug my teacher, my friends, my grandparents.

It’s loneliness because my family brings me to school and takes me home and we never go anywhere anymore.

It’s anger because I do what I’m told in class and wait patiently and the only one who ever gets your attention is the kid who says dumb things in the chat.

It’s fear because I see that you gave us an assignment, but have absolutely no idea what to do with it or how to get it to you so you can see what I know…and I’m afraid to ask you to clarify it because you’ll get frustrated because you explained it 45 times, wrote out directions, made a video, shared it with my parents, and yet I still don’t get it.

It’s a request. See me.

When a child asks you to not use a particular term of endearment because it makes them feel “insignificant”….that’s powerful. That’s a child feeling safe enough with you to make a request.

See that I am barely holding it together. See that my brow is furrowed and I’m looking at you from underneath it. See that I’m clenching my hands so I don’t smack the child sitting six feet away who will. not. stop. making. noise. See that I have something valuable to contribute and ask me to share. See that I am having a hard time with friends–they all know each other already and I’m STILL the new kid and it’s February. See that I am a social butterfly who wants nothing more to make everyone I encounter happy by making them butterflies and snowflakes while you teach–I can listen and create at the same time, I promise. I miss my friends–please see that I’m just trying to connect. See that I haven’t learned how to handle conflict with peers and teach me how…I really do just want to be friends. See that I know things the books all say I shouldn’t yet…because when you’re X years old, kids typically only know this, that, and the other thing.

See my hurt. See my effort. See my love of learning–it’s there, I promise. See that I’m trying. See that all I want is for you to see me so I can know you and you can know me….the real me, not the one who gets angry and kicks chairs or sobs uncontrollably under my table covered in my coat. Believe my parents when they tell you they are at a loss too…I didn’t come with a manual.

See them. Please.

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Wipeout

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.

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Who, Not What

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.

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Stephanie is an observer. She notices details and sees the importance of the little things.

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Matty is an artist, seeing connections between ideas through the images he creates. This child sees the world differently.

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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

Trust

A friend asked me to think about what the word “trust” really means. I’m presenting at CAGT on Monday (Please register here! It’ll be fabulous and virtual and you’ll get to see ALL the sessions because you’ll have access for a while after!) and really thought I was mostly done with the presentation itself, but the more I got to thinking about it, the more I realized that the work we do with our gifted kids hinges on trust and I needed to go back and revise my presentation a bit.

I am a huge proponent of teaching self-advocacy to kids, particularly gifted ones, because their whole lives their parents have been the ones to fight the good fight on their behalf. They need more challenge, not more work. They need to be in the higher level Bible class because they already learned everything taught in the one for their age. They want more time on the field to get experience vs. riding the bench every game. They’re not being bossy, but want to be heard and understood by peers and teachers. They may need to approach a project or other work differently, and need to be given space to do that without repercussions.

Every time a teacher says that all the kids have to do the same thing otherwise their work can’t be graded, my heart breaks a little more.

We really need to think about the purpose of the work we’re assigning. I’m sure that none of us assign it to give ourselves something to do at night with a glass of wine or bourbon. We should look at the work we ask kids to do not as an assignment, but as a measure of progress…and progress looks very different from one child to the next. Why does everything have to look the same? And why does it all have to be evaluated exactly the same way?

Amy McInerney got an award every quarter for her perfect penmanship when we were in grade school because she was able to form her letters to look EXACTLY like the ones in the workbook. Mine weren’t any less neat, but they looked a little different than the ones in the book. I made my T different in cursive. My Q looks like a Q and not a swirly 2. My D looks like a D without a combover. But mine didn’t look exactly the same as the book’s, so I never get the award and got a lower grade in penmanship than she did.

Because I make my capital letters a little different doesn’t mean I didn’t make progress…it just looked different. But teachers often feel that if anything looks different than the model or the example, it shows that the child should a) have to do it over b) take a lower grade because it’s not what the teacher was looking for or c) have to “let all the other kids do whatever THEY want too.”

The cry for conformity is loud…and frankly, I’m tired of hearing it. Now is an excellent time for change…since we’re revisiting what school can look like anyway.

When I talk to kids about self-advocacy, the first thing I ask them is how they feel about the adult or peer they need to talk with about something. Some are afraid, because their parents always took care of it and here I was asking that they do it themselves. They are afraid of the teacher or person saying “No” and then being humiliated. Some are excited, because they have a lot to say and would love the chance to do something the way they envision it for once. It does come down to trust though. Do they feel they can trust that other person to listen to them first of all, and do they trust them to at least consider what they’re requesting?

I had a student once who was brilliant and could talk about anything we were learning. The kid loved to be the center of attention and was incredibly creative and dramatic. The thought of hand writing an essay, or even typing one, created anxiety and the child shut down altogether. Some teachers would see this as refusal to work and give consequences like “You can’t go to recess until this is complete” or “You will have to do it for homework.”

I sat with this student one day and said, “Tell me more about how you would show what you know about the work we have done together if I hadn’t assigned an essay.” The things the child came up with! So creative and unique (and so much more fun than writing an essay)! Finally, we settled on a newscast, which would have to have a written script (which wouldn’t be graded for neatness, spelling, or anything other than content) and be recorded using a program we had on the computer. We created a rubric and specific “must-haves” for the work. And it was brilliant.

We created trust that day. And from then on, I began giving kids the option to do things I came up with or determine what would best suit their way of showing what they knew. We worked together to talk about what the most important things we needed to evaluate to show progress. Those things were the same regardless of the end result. Doing this gave them the opportunity to problem solve, back pedal, collaborate, or fail forward and reflect on the successes and what didn’t go as well as they thought. They always knew that sometimes I’d need them to do something specific because I needed something in particular and I’d be honest with them about what I needed and why (like an actual essay to measure their progress in writing an essay), but having that freedom most of the time helped them grow in their confidence and self-advocacy skills.

I think what hurt the most were the times where they were confident that other teachers would do the same as I had, only to be shot down with no discussion or support for their learning self-advocacy. More than once I watched confident and creative kids come back to my room after asking for what they needed saying that another teacher had never even let them explain their idea. I hurt for them. And I hurt for the teacher, too

Think about what that did to the student. Think about what that did to their relationship with that teacher. Think about what opportunities were missed.

Our work with these tall poppies is so incredibly rewarding, adding this layer of trust makes it that much better.

Curiosity…gave the cat another reason to nap.

We are doing a book study. We’re using Onward by Elena Aguilar and the accompanying workbook. I bought it on Audible when we started and the downside to doing so is that you lose a part of the intentional reflection. It’s something about the feeling of the pages between your fingers and seeing the actual words on the page and the ability to go back and skim for information that makes for more meaningful reflection.

This month’s focus in the book is “Be a Learner.” It’s pretty timely because February is traditionally the month in which educators across the country are seriously considering whether or not being a barista would be a better career move than remaining in teaching. We are frustrated. We are angry. We are quick to snark. And we are once again, tired. Naps shortly after arriving home are the norm, and sometimes the couch = bed because we’re so drained. February is a reminder that yes, we still have miles to go before we sleep (in June…)

Aguilar asks the reader to consider his or her experiences through the lens of curiosity and makes a challenge, of sorts, to see coaching and colleague feedback as an opportunity to learn and grow. She posted this video on the website for the book and I thought it was a good tie-in:

http://www.onwardthebook.com/yes-even-you-need-a-coach/

This time of year, much of the feedback we get is viewed as criticism and because our own criticality is high, both about our practice AND about the behaviors we’re seeing in the kids we serve, we take offense, looking for all the ways our coaches, administrators, colleagues, parents, and kids are failing us…how WE are failing ourselves and our own expectations.

She also challenges the reader to revisit the idea of time management. For many of us, Sunday is the worst day of the week. We drag through the day, putting off planning and prepping, and tackling the most mundane tasks in order to further procrastinate doing the things we need to get done to ensure we’re ready for the upcoming week, practically as well as emotionally and mentally. No other profession really has this issue. Lots of people don’t look forward to going back to work on Monday, but I think that teachers during February dread it with a special level of apprehension. Some of this stems from the eternal search for more time in the day…it’s like the Holy Grail and impossible to find. Between planning and prepping, making copies, sending reminder emails and updates to families, as well as checking in with teammates, finding more time to do the rest of it seems overwhelming.

Sometimes it seems that we begin focusing on the wrong things this time of year. We focus on “they ought to know by now,” the behaviors that drive us nuts that we are pretty sure we’ve addressed eleventy-billion times a day since August, the eternal search for more time in the day, and all the ways we feel like we’re failing when we meet with our coach or team. Why not reframe these feelings in ways that are more productive and focus on learning from them?

Instead of “they ought to know by now,” why not ask the question “What have I missed–it’s evident they DON’T know, so how can I support their learning so they can know and apply it?

Instead of focusing on the behaviors that drive us nuts, why not remember that behavior sends a message and be curious about it. Why does Joey continue to make that noise when he works? Does he even know he does it? Why is Serena avoiding a particular type of work? What is Mia getting out of the snarky comments back when I ask her to do something? Why is Jeremy incapable of keeping his hands to himself in any situation? What is it that he’s trying to get by touching other kids and things? What is this behavior telling me?

Instead of listing all the things we have to get done, why not take a hard look at how our time IS being spent? Am I putting out fires when I should be letting someone else handle it? Am I allowing (and even encouraging) interruptions in my day without thinking? Am I tackling the things that need doing in an order that makes the most sense? Am I procrastinating? I find that I have to reassess my time particularly when I feel overwhelmed and determine where I am losing time so that I can refocus my priorities, reblock time, and reschedule my day so that the most important things still get done–it might not be in the timeframe I planned, but it can get done. I have to remember too that my priorities have to change because the needs of the people I serve change. I’m still very much learning how to do my job…it’s not static and that’s part of why I enjoy it.

Instead of focusing on feelings of failure, how can we take feedback and learn from it? What questions do I have that need clarification after I’ve had a chance to think? How can feedback help me grow in my practice? What IS my Why and if I’ve lost it, how can I find it again?

I really enjoyed this particular chapter–there are lots of other good nuggets in it, but these are the ones I really wanted to reflect upon. I get to lead a conversation with our staff tomorrow about it, and I thought it was pretty important that I take time to do my own reflection…much like I would think about a lesson before I planned it out.

Some food for thought before I close. What thoughts do you have on generalizations about a big idea? I loved sharing these with kids as we begin a new unit or as we’re working through one, coming back to them to see if what we said at the beginning was still true now that we’ve learned more about a concept or topic. It made for very rich discussion and a way to come back to a guidepost as we learned together. As I think about this particular time of year, I agree with Aguilar’s big idea of “learning.” The thing about generalizations is that they are true or applicable in multiple situations. So if the big idea for this month is “learning,” do you think that these generalizations work?

  1. Learning generates both additional learning and additional questions.
  2. Learning can be either positive or negative.
  3. Learning is necessary for growth.
  4. Learning occurs over time.
  5. Learning can take many forms.

How will you reframe your challenges this month to be more curious and see yourself as a learner? Are the generalizations I proposed above true for you?

The Morning After

“We presented at Comic Con!”

There is a bit of child-like glee in that statement, and I’m fairly sure we said it a thousand times driving home from Comic Con last night.  Yeah, it’ll look nice on a CV, but the feeling of accomplishment alone is pretty awesome.  We got to speak to our tribe.

I haven’t been in the classroom for two years, and that knowledge is hard to swallow some days because I just figured I’d always be in the classroom.  I often forget what it feels like after a lesson goes incredibly well…there’s a legitimate high from it, and you roll over every moment, over and over again.  The nodding heads, the whispers of understanding, the thinking faces, and the ones incredibly difficult to read–those are the ones you’re trying to get something resembling a reaction from and the moment you see a tiny flicker of understanding, a slight softening of the furrowed brow…success.

Adults aren’t that different from kids.  They come in with an agenda of what they want to learn from a session like this.  These people waited HOURS for our session and while surely they were off enjoying the rest of the con, they stayed to see US.  We had the last presentation slot at 6pm.  This is the slot reserved for the newest presenters or those that the organizers aren’t sure will pull an audience.  It’s the pity slot.  “Well, you’re new, and this sounds like it could be interesting, so we’ll see…and even if no one shows up, the experience will be good for you.”  And in the world of education conferences, you take the slot they give you until you have built a name for yourself and can request something different.  And that takes a minute.

But people came.  I worried all day that no one would come and I tried to sell our session to everyone I sat next to in another session, everyone I stood with in line, and even those people waiting impatiently for their phones to charge while they people watched.  I worried as our session time neared and people dressed as characters I couldn’t identify began making the mass exodus to the exit…who would be left to come to our sessions?  Any Wookies and Daleks had left hours ago, and only a few Hufflepuff remained.

Educators often tend to go to those sessions for which they can justify having gone to their administrators.  At Comic Con, sessions tend to lean toward the use of comics and graphic novels in the classroom, cosplay, a tiny bit of STEM.  More than one audience member in other sessions I attended questioned how one could possibly incorporate comics and graphic novels into a very structured classroom environment, one in which what you teach and how you do it is dictated from on high and there is a price to pay when you deviate from that structure and insert anything from outside.  It makes me so sad to hear that at any conference, but moreso at this one…innovation is a huge piece of Pop Culture Classroom and Comic Con…  So teachers end up in sessions that they can tie directly to how they are told to teach.  Sessions that stick strictly to their content area.  Sessions that don’t challenge them to think outside the box for fear that they’ll bring back an idea and infect other teachers with the concept of innovation.  Or they aren’t allowed to go to any conferences at all…no learning for you.  Administrators often forget that their teachers are students too.

Alohomora.

In the Harry Potter books, this was a spell used to unlock doors, windows, or other objects.  It’s a real word actually, and it means “friendly to thieves.” As I worked through the slides the last few weeks it dawned on me that teachers invite others to borrow and steal their ideas, transforming them into something they can use to benefit kids.

Our hope was that our presentation might unlock some minds to the ideas we presented, the most important of which is that gifted kids need support beyond what typical learners do and creating connections to the things they enjoy is what reels them in and makes learning fun.  I think our spell worked.

I was exhausted when we finally got home.  I am still exhausted, but today, instead of being the presenter, I get to simply be at Comic Con, people watching, listening to authors talk about their books and projects, meeting a movie star, looking at the art I love that connects feeling to color and backstory.

I won’t dress up.  My inner perfectionist won’t let me yet until my hair is longer, I am thinner, and I can create a perfect cosplay.  I don’t want to insult the character by doing it wrong.

I’m still a bit on cloud nine about our presentation (hence the stream of consciousness) and the number of minds we might have unlocked…and exhausted or not, I’ll just let that carry me for a while.

 

Connections

Have you ever read an article or watched the news and wondered what precipitated an event or issue?

Why did Columbine happen?  How did the standoff with David Koresh begin?  The Oklahoma City bombing?  Why is violence so prevalent in our society? What’s with all the protocols for the British Royal family? The lack of funding in education, how did that happen?  The pro-life or pro-choice movements–what values brought about that split in thinking? Why did the city choose to put in a road a particular way that drives you nuts?  A book you really got into–what made the author choose to write it?

You’re looking for connections.  And for gifted learners, connections are everything.

Over dinner last night, my boyfriend and I got into a conversation about “sage on the stage” educators and how effective that style of teaching is.  Our teachers at the high school level and in some college classes used a lecture format infused with some discussion to disseminate information to us, expecting that we would memorize information and be able to regurgitate it on tests.

I remember vividly taking notes, frantically writing down names and dates and events during lecture in my high school American History class.  I remember making piles and piles of notecards to help me memorize who did what when and where because that was what had been communicated as important: the names, the dates, and the events.  We didn’t discuss much that I recall (though others might remember it differently), but I know that this style of teaching, without an opportunity to process those names and dates and events in a way that created some sort of hook or story I could follow, some connection for me, created a loathing and disinterest of American History (and later American Literature because it was taught much the same way by a college professor) that still impacts me.

For a gifted learner, connections are how sense is made of things in the world.  They want to know why about everything…and one question leads to others, often seemingly unrelated:

  • Why do Peeps swordfight when you stick toothpicks in them and put them in the microwave?
  • Why does the moon seem bigger or closer at certain times of the year if its orbit doesn’t change?
  • Why does daylight savings time exist at all?
  • Why are the Palestinians and Jews fighting?
  • Why were some against slavery and some wanted it to continue?  Why did Americans think it was okay to begin with?
  • Why does a particular type of person become a beloved president by some and reviled by others?
  • Why is race still such a big deal in the US?  In other countries?
  • Why does the economy going to hell in one country matter to any other?
  • Why do people keep bringing up Ayn Rand and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when talking about what’s happening in our country?

I love teaching language arts, in part because I love words, but also because it touches every subject area.  When I taught a novel, I often looked into what was going on at the time it was written or the time period in which it was set and encouraged my students to do the same to have a better understanding of the story.  One can learn an awful lot about history through literature.  We’d talk about the social structures within a book and the values of the characters and discuss why or how they said or did particular things.  We made conjectures about upbringing, societal norms, and compared and contrasted those with what we know or do today or those in other novels or short stories we read. The fantasy books kids devoured were fascinating to pull connections out of because so much of the story was rooted in real life.  When we discussed poetry, we talked about meter and rhyme and the math and science behind it, why some words change their pronunciation to meet the needs of a particular line, how the words are arranged to serve a variety of purposes, and why the poet might have written it at all.  I pulled non-fiction pieces that tied to subjects discussed in books or poems for us to review, and students researched important events, places, and people to write about while they proposed their own connections between ideas.

I did many of the same things when I presented history, sharing it with kids as a story so that they could build connections between dates, people, and events and geography, politics, religion, economics, scientific thinking, and mathematical practice.  We tied lifeskills lessons into history: how did the big idea of power impact society during the middle ages or Colorado’s early history and how does it impact our classroom community now?  Very little of my time in any class was spent lecturing and requiring kids to take notes.  I tried to provide opportunities for kids to experience the content, discuss it, tear it apart, question it, and understand it so that they could apply it to the next level of study.

Science and math were more difficult for me because neither is my area of passion or expertise, but there’s a way to create connection there too, though hands-on explorations, research of theories and ideas, and talking to people who use the skills kids are learning in their everyday jobs.  We skyped with engineers, talked with people from the city utility company, and took a mock mission to space.  We studied the evolution of scientific thinking and how particular algorithms were developed and what they’re used for.  There’s a place for paper and pencil practice of math as well as documentation of experiments and notetaking with memorization, of course, but that can’t be all a child experiences in math and science classes.  If I were in the classroom now, I’d be doing quite a bit of refining in how my science and math classes were organized to allow for more opportunities for kids to go beyond the steps of the experiment or algorithm to explore connections in these areas.

Some would say that the way I taught and the informal assessments I used weren’t best practice because they aren’t rooted in hard data: the number of questions that addressed particular pieces of information answered correctly vs. those answered incorrectly.  Hard data has a place in tracking progress, of course, but learning is a process, not a regurgitation of information.  It’s cyclical: how a child accesses the information they’ve been introduced to and uses that knowledge to communicate their understanding over time is far more valuable data than hard numbers in a color-coded spreadsheet that tracks progress on daily quizzes over yesterday’s material.  My experience is that they take that understanding with them and use it in other situations…and that’s what we want, isn’t it?

It breaks my heart when I hear middle and high school teachers talk about how great their lecture went but they can’t understand why so many bombed the quiz or gripe about how kids aren’t learning what they so carefully presented through a powerpoint and complaining about how notetaking skills suck because it doesn’t follow the format they want used (even if the notes totally make sense to the child). Their kids, particularly the gifted ones, are being denied a tremendous opportunity to understand content by experiencing it…not just having it presented.  Thankfully, many of the teachers I know who teach at these levels have further developed their practice and now incorporate more research opportunities, discussion with complex questioning, role play, debate, and Socratic seminars, and active learning experiences to facilitate the understanding of their content area, not simply learning the information.  Their assessments require the demonstration of understanding and connections between ideas, not the simple regurgitation of bits of information.

When we choose to become teachers, for most of us, it’s not about simply sharing what we, as adults, have already learned.  It’s about facilitating the understanding of the world around us so that kids can go on to improve it.