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Complicate

Simplify, the books and news articles say.

The “Easy” button doesn’t exist for some of us. Between the stories running rampant in our heads to the irrefutable barrage of public voices saying that what we’re doing isn’t enough, focused on banning that which we aren’t doing at all (I see you, CRT.) and books that might give kids an opportunity to consider the reality that life isn’t all daffodils and sunshine and that people, as a whole, have been awful to one another for millennia, the “Easy” button gets buried rather quickly.

I have so many things running around in my head, much like squirrels collecting nuts before a snowstorm. I could make a list for you to help you see what I mean but I suspect that there’s a character limit even here. Some are things like cleaning the catbox–mundane and not all that easy to complicate, but others are along the lines of creating a SWOT analysis for something at work (which I could easily complicate the hell out of) or analyzing testing data for trends across levels and within same level courses…or even a blog post.

The need to overcomplicate stems from perfectionism I think. The perfectionist wants to ensure that whatever they are doing is thorough and complete, leaving nothing open to criticism or discussion. The perfectionist wants to be sure that they’ve covered all the bases, thought of all the counter positions, and addressed any potential questions, whether they be about the content or the process or the inclusion or exclusion of information.

I spent seven hours a few weeks ago complicating up an email that, even as I wrote it, I knew was too long, too wordy, and just…too much. The tl;dr version would have simply said, “Quit griping. This is what we do.” I had to send it to a friend to “un-word” it for me because I’d overcomplicated and overthought it all to the point that there were so many rabbit trails the whole thing was hard to follow.

I’ve complicated simple things like mopping the floor and I blame TikTok and YouTube and Instagram and Pinterest completely. Flylady says that done is better than perfect, but the ladies on those social media channels say that if you have this mop and that bucket and use this combination of cleaning stuff that your house will smell like eucalyptus and the 35-year-old linoleum will magically look like luxury vinyl tile.

Our gifted kids do the same thing. I can’t start working until my seat is just right, my paper is just at the right angle, and I have a freshly sharpened, brand new Ticonderoga pencil. I can’t get started on the project because I don’t have the fancy cotton balls that exist only in the craft room at my grandmother’s house in Maine. Mom, I can’t go to school today because my socks and shoes are not the same color of purple as my hair elastic. I’m not done with my paper yet–I’ve only revised and edited four times and it still isn’t right.

I’ve started and stopped this blog post 15 times in two days because…oh wait. That’s me. Questions about who my audience is, what my purpose for writing is, why anyone will care, WILL anyone care are on constant repeat.

It’s difficult to use the “Easy” button when one has such a fine ability to complicate without much effort.

Bamboo…

During acupuncture once, my therapist told me about bamboo and how it rarely breaks because it just bends when it’s blown. She said I need to be more like bamboo and find flexibility in tough situations so that I don’t break.

At what point DOES bamboo crack, though? At what windspeed does a bamboo forest get taken down by forces it can’t control? What forces will break it, leaving it in disconnected (or barely connected) piles, unusable by anyone?

This is education right now.

Educators and administrators were hit hard in March of 2020. We were asked to go above and beyond our job descriptions, transitioning suddenly to online learning, something we’d never done before, in order to keep ourselves and our students safe from a virus that had already killed thousands. We took the summer to learn how to do what we’d done for 3 months better while still in crisis mode. We were tasked with learning new systems on the fly (some of which were being created on the fly too), creating learning opportunities out of lessons we’d only ever done in person, all while keeping contact with students and families and colleagues all while taking care of our own families and their needs.

And then cases began to drop. And we could transition again from fully virtual to cohorted hybrid, which was yet another system to learn and it was expected that we do it well, that we still show that kids made a year or more of growth despite everything we’d just been through. Gradually, most of us came back in person completely, with precautions in place.

Politics got involved throughout, telling us that we were harming the children we so willingly serve by asking them to wear masks, stay a distance away from each other, wash their hands more often, and be more careful with who they spend time with and how they spent that time. We were told to “follow the science” (which varies depending on who you are) so that everyone’s preference would be honored at the same time and that we were stoking fear in our kids and our families by supporting vaccines, mask wearing, and continuing the precautions we’d taken early on for the sake of consistency in working within a situation that is anything but.

And someone thought that throwing Critical Race Theory into the mix was a fine idea, creating yet another thing for educators to be criticized for. Few had ever heard of Critical Race Theory unless they’d gone to law school, but somehow it was “found out” that teachers were inserting it into everyday lessons–lessons about math, in the books they read with kids, science experiments, and of course, discourse about history.

Except we weren’t. None of us were teaching it. None of us were mentioning it. None of us were secretly weaving it into our lessons. Hell, few, if not none, had any background in it until we had to research it in order to defend what we were teaching. From a purely logical standpoint, does anyone really thing that a teacher would add SOMETHING ELSE into their units of instruction when we can barely manage to touch on the standards and skills that we’ve been asked to teach?

And here we are again, coming off of a longer break into the last stretch of the school year and all the state testing that will be required, with two new versions of the virus to deal with, politics being thrown at us left and right, being criticized for not doing “the one thing,” teach, that we’re asked to do while trying to juggle contact tracing, distancing, planning, arranging for coverage for classes when teachers are out, working with families to care for kids who have symptoms (or not) and may test positive who got sent to school, creating alternative work or making learning opportunities available offline for those who are at home for a variety of reasons, making sure that there’s nothing in our lessons that could offend someone, keeping kids distanced and safe and engaged, and trying to practice the elusive “self care” that the internet is so focused on while also caring for our own families.

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Embracing the idea of bamboo and its inherent strength is especially difficult right now. The winds are sustained a eleventybillion miles per hour, with constant streams of hail, rain, snow, locusts, frogs, and apparently fish too. New things join the party every day it seems, everything from racial tensions, school boards and politicians focusing on the wrong things, loss of people from childhood, deaths and sickness of friends and family, and more innovative political swipes at everything education is from people who aren’t educators.

Last night over a frosty adult beverage it hit me why I am so irritated all the time lately; why I am exhausted, continually sad, peeved that I have to keep bending over backwards, and trying so hard to live my word of the year without much success, carrying an overall feeling of not doing well enough for anyone. I think many of us feel this way.

Bamboo can’t bend and flex forever. At some point it will break or bend to the point that it can’t become upright again. All of this seems like it will never end and a breaking point is near. We thought we saw a light at the end of the tunnel, but like the false summit at the Manitou Incline, we were wrong and there is more. Self-care won’t fix it though it does help for a few minutes. There will never be “back to normal,” and while I know that crises like this are often catalysts for good change, the crises can stop piling on so we can work through one at a time with intention, rather than playing whack-a-mole and having no success.

There is no sage advice today. There is a request though.

Please, above everything else, be kind.

Be kind when they’re rude.

Be kind when they’re frustrated.

Be kind when they’re upset.

Be kind when they’re argumentative.

Be kind and don’t let the nasty words out of your mouth.

Be kind and set the criticism aside.

Be kind and do the right thing because it’s the right thing.

Bamboo can only bend for so long before it breaks.

Begin again…

When I click on “write” in the top left of my WordPress account, I get a dropdown of 10 or more posts that I began and either never finished, never posted, or thought I’d tweak later to publish. So much of writing like this is done in the moment, with feelings still raw, with thoughts still jumbled. Friends share their blogs and note how universal their feelings still are–what applied two or three years ago still applies now.

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The new year began yesterday with a flurry of memes about 2022 being “2020, too” and the like. I want desperately for this last half of the school year to be better, be different than the past two years have been.

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There were hopes that we’d see an improvement in COVID, which continues to rage virtually unchecked so that we could begin to focus on something else. Plans for NYE get-togethers were canceled out of an abundance of caution, just in case someone came who was positive (with or without symptoms…it doesn’t matter anymore) or unvaccinated and we might bring it home to those we love who can’t get sick. I’m still pretty angry about that, to be honest. The level of selfishness going around the past several years is unbelievable. It’s likely that because of continued rising infections, regardless of severity, there will be additional impact to what school looks like for a longer time than we thought and will bring additional arguments and pushback from those who think we can just go right back to what normal looked like in 2019.

There were hopes that with a new administration would come calmer heads, kinder words, and instead, we’re seeing more violence (now for things that are completely unrelated to political views), more nastiness, and more harsh words and actions stemming from everything from wearing/not wearing masks to backing out of a parking spot or stopping at a light. In the span of winter break, more than one person in my world has had altercations with others that began with unkindness seemingly out of the blue and ended in physical altercations. I can’t wrap my head around it. It’s as though everything we learned in kindergarten about hitting and biting other people has gone out the window.

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There were hopes that 2021 would leave quietly, and instead, it chose to leave and take 1000 homes in the Boulder area with it in a fire that leapt “football fields in seconds” over the span of several hours, leaving people without homes, lost pets, lost lives possible lost family members, and likely lost employment too once everything gets looked at. Friends who had moved from our area to that one did so on the assumption that fire wouldn’t be a thing to fear again once they moved. We watched from afar scenes we had seen before of lone trees and homes left standing while everything around them was completely obliterated leaving only the outline of a home.

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And then 2021 had to take one last dig, with Death coming for Betty White who was weeks away from turning 100 and whom we had promised to keep in bubble wrap after losing so many others. It’s reported that she died peacefully in her sleep, so that’s a comfort at least.

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But we have an opportunity to begin again, with 2022 bringing a small layer of fresh, white snow to our area, providing just enough for my dog to remember how to play in it, how to roll around in it, and how to avoid going potting in it with her cute antics. I went outside yesterday in the single-digit weather with her multiple times, praising whoever made my marshmallow coat and there was a silence and calm out there each time that hadn’t existed in the days prior.

It was as though Mother Nature was asking us to pause, breathe in deeply, and begin again as one would when calming a sobbing child.

So let’s begin again. Tomorrow begins the second half of our school year, the new beginning to a fresh calendar year, the freshness of a new quarterly planner whose pages are blank with the anticipation of what is to come.

A friend gives others words to think about during the course of the coming year. “Let what serves you take root, and what doesn’t take flight,” she says. This year the word that she came back to over and over for me was:

Patience

She said she wasn’t sure why she kept coming back to that word for me, but it was pretty insistent that it be my word.

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So this year, I am going to practice patience.

Patience with others as they learn and grow. Not everything needs to happen immediately even if someone else sees it as an emergency.

Patience with others as they navigate new constraints, new roles, and new opportunities.

Patience with the world around me. Everyone has a different word that was chosen for them and sometimes it’s a complicated relationship.

Patience with myself. Like the lotus, I cannot grow without having to deal with a little mud. I cannot fix all the things, be all the things to all the people all the time, or do all the things to ensure they get done.

It’s said that the universe continues to provide lessons in what we need to learn. And so I enter 2022 being offered lessons in patience and taking them with gratitude.

Tents Expanding

I want you to imagine for a moment that you are surrounded by people who understand your passion. Picture being enveloped by people who feel all the things that you do so very strongly. Visualize sitting 3 feet apart or across a room from someone else who has the same values, worries, and hopes for the kids you serve. It’s a good place, isn’t it?

I attended the National Association for Gifted Children convention in beautiful Denver, Colorado (at a VERY spendy “resort,” where wine is $10 a glass and “spaghettini” is $24…both worth every penny). They talked about “expanding our tents” to be more aware of the giftedness of children of color, children who are labeled “behavior kids,” and others who need something different than neurotypical kids both academically and emotionally.

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In one of the pre-convention sessions, the speakers talked about the idea of expanding our tent. Giving more space within gifted education for those who get overlooked and passed over…because of their skin color, ethnicity, gender identity or orientation, socio-economic status, and language. The “Gifted Tent” should encompass more than just high-achieving, compliant, white students. Everyone should be welcome…and sought out.

My head hurts.

But my heart is happy.

This is the first year that I didn’t have a session of my own to stress out about, worry over, edit continuously while at a conference like this in a long time. I was in the exhibition hall and overheard others who were breathing sighs of relief that their session was over. We commiserated over the love of sharing with others against the anxiety over it on a hundred levels. It was nice to not have to prepare anything…just show up and be there to take it all in.

I suspect that the women I sat with at the bar, and the group who sat over near the windows, and the people at the bar, are all here for the same reason. We want to improve and get better at what we do. We want to learn and understand. We want to support others, find support for ourselves, and be among people who get it.

A good friend said a long time ago that there is a place for everyone in the world. Everyone has a purpose regardless of ability, intelligence, or schooling. Some of us choose to work with specific populations of kids for a reason. For some, we want to give back to the system that provided us with our own education. Others, we want to support those who deserve and need strong teachers and role models. And still others, we hope to help others SEE the kids that others don’t…the ones that people overlook, think will be just fine, and don’t see a purpose in serving beyond what’s expected for the “middle.:

[squirrel] I have probably 15 unfinished posts right now…all around essentially the same thing. Someday I’ll finish them.

I spent some time reflecting on the sessions I attended. Some were inspiring. A few made me want to apologize to kids I’ve had in my class for not knowing or understanding better. All of them made me think.

What do we want gifted education to look like? What’s the ideal? What’s ideal AND sustainable?

Who do we SEE? Who are we missing? (Yes, I made multiple lists…)

What do they need? What do they want their education to feel like?

What do their families, their teachers, their peers need from us?

The tent is expanding. If we work intentionally together, we can fill it with those who need us to SEE and support them…all of them.

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Just Call.

Tonight my heart is in pieces, my eyes are bloodshot, and my fabulous mascara is definitely not waterproof. This may ramble, so tl:dr Just make the damn phone call.

When I began teaching, still in teacher school and working full time, my first “field experience” placement was in a second grade classroom. I could only come in the afternoon, but that was fine with the teacher. We met to chat before my time with her began and she was amazing. It was so clear that she adored her job…loved her work with kids. And then I met her kids.

They were sweet and kind. They were curious and asked a ton of questions. Her routines and procedures had been well-practiced and kids knew where the boundaries were. Their classroom ran beautifully, with everything kids needed to be successful where they could get at it.

One afternoon when the kids were studying weather, we went outside and talked about the different kinds of clouds and then created them with cotton balls and glue on pieces of sky blue construction paper. The kids labeled each type, and wondered which they hadn’t gotten to see, so we talked about that too.

I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect introduction to teaching. She was encouraging as I gradually got comfortable working with the kids. She gave pointers, ideas, and feedback with kindness and understanding that this was all new to me… She expected only growth, not perfection…because teachers are never perfect and always growing.

She and I remained good friends after my placement in her classroom, sharing our day to day stuff when we met on Sundays for lunch. We talked like we’d known each other our whole lives.

When I was up for my actual student teaching placement, she was my advisor and placed me with a friend of hers in a first grade classroom. Again, another fabulous experience, and while that teacher and I didn’t grow as close as we had, I loved every second of my time with her and her kids. I have a picture in my office of Field Day with her kids and running, holding hands with a sweet little dude who over that summer had his brother look me up on the internet and called me… “You are never gonna guess who this is!!” from a little voice was the sweetest thing I had ever heard and I will never forget that little guy… She loved that he called me and we talked about kids from her time teaching who she was able to keep in touch with…

As my time student teaching turned into “Oh crap I need to get a real job!” she was there to offer advice, interviewing tips, debriefs after the interviews, and she gave the best advice when I was offered a position: Take the job. You need to begin this work. Take the job.

So I took the job. And it was hard. I cried a lot. And I called her in tears often when I just didn’t know what to do anymore and was out of ideas. When we met for lunch on Sundays, she encouraged me to keep at it–I was a good teacher and still learning because there’s a ton you don’t learn in teacher school that the kids have to teach you. And when I was exhausted, we went to lunch anyway because a life outside of school was important to have. She shared stories of her nephews’ time with her to visit and how they were growing up so well…she adored those boys. Her brother was getting married and she got to help his bride choose her dress…it was such a sweet experience. She loved her family and friends, and her eyes sparkled when she talked about her husband…that’s how love and marriage should be.

And when my world imploded, she was the first person I called. Again, in tears and heartbroken while I drove home. She said, “Well, there’s this charter school that’s starting up–I work with someone who is part of it…it sounds like it’d be perfect for you!”

So I looked into it. And stalked because she was right. And 12 years later, I get to go there every day. I get to be with my people. Because of her.

There have been so many times where I thought, hey I wonder what she’s doing–we should go to lunch or chat… We talked a few times over the next few years, and she endured not only the diabetes she’d had since childhood, but also gastroparesis and eventually MS. Soon, she couldn’t drive and our lunches together became phone calls, like that scene in When Harry Met Sally and they’re watching the same movie while on the phone. And those faded away too as I got busier and she got involved in other things.

And still I thought, I should call her. And something else would come up and I’d push the phone call back to make room for the something else. That was stupid. Something else is never more important.

The last time we talked was probably three years ago. She called out of the blue and we picked up where we’d left off and swore we wouldn’t let time pass like that again.

It passed.

She died in February. I found out today because one of my memories on social media from 11 years ago mentioned her and the “Friday Night Blues” that happen when the week has taken everything out of you and sleep and mindless television is the only thing that can cure what the week brought. When I saw the post, I went to her profile and I knew she hadn’t been on social media for a while, but there were birthday wishes for her a few weeks ago in August… And as I scrolled down, her sister had posted about their father passing away. She said that she hoped her dad and sister were together in heaven.

Her sister? But she only has one sister…my friend. And so I looked more. Google found a gofundme that her sister had set up for her husband to help him with all of the medical bills and such that had piled up while she was so sick.

She died on February 4. And I just found out today.

Fitting that I found out on a Friday, I guess. Friday Night Blues will mean something a bit different now.

Make the damn phone call. Send the text. Send the email. Make the damn phone call.

Don’t lose track of the people you love who helped you become who you are.

My heart is broken and I am gutted. I am sad that she was so sick and her body gave up. I’m sad that our friendship fell by the wayside for a really stupid reason–“busy” is an incredibly stupid reason. I’m sad for her husband who absolutely adored her, and her nephews and family who surely miss her every single day. And I’m sad I didn’t just make the damn phone call…and never got to say goodbye.

She was such a beautiful person. She was kind and funny and loved life, despite the illnesses and the difficulty they caused. She was the BEST teacher on earth. I can’t imagine that any child from her 13 years in the classroom left in the summer feeling anything but love from her.

I can’t imagine that anyone she ever met left her feeling anything but love, honestly.

I have missed you, Shan…and wanted to call you so often. I’m sorry I didn’t just make the damn phone call. I love you with all my heart, dear friend, and I will miss you forever.

Begin Again…

Toward the end of each July, I look back on summer break, wondering where it went because just yesterday it was the end of May, and look toward the new year with renewed hope. Schools have been getting questions since March of 2020 about the upcoming school year. Will we be in person? Will we have online options if we prefer to not be in person? Will masks be required or optional? Will there be a list of staff members and their vaccination status released to the community? Will vaccines be required for adults and kids? Will there be community supplies or will my child be toting around eleventybillion pounds of supplies to and from the car and around the school building as they travel from class to class? What’s the plan for quarantines? Will we even bother? What if I want my child to wear a mask? What if I don’t? What if I want to keep my child home if another child makes them feel unsafe because they’re wearing or not wearing a mask? How will you handle bullying for masking or not masking?

I want to begin again. I want to focus on the most important things: the things we know in our hearts are good for kids and have nothing to do with viruses or vaccines or masking protocols. I want to focus on coaching teachers in gifted best practice, relationship building with kids who have been away from their tribe for 17 months, getting to know new members of our tribe, and how to let go of the things that aren’t critical. I want to walk into classrooms that are ready for kids in small groups with options for seating and working not prepared for 3+ feet of distance or more with a stash of pool noodles next to the door and yardsticks between desks.

We’ve had a week or so of teacher PD and prep time for the year and while getting out of bed for work has been difficult (I really do like the ability to move slowly in the morning with no set timeline for anything), it’s getting easier and part of me is happy that we do begin this work so early.

I get to work with some amazing people with varied backgrounds. Some are just beginning their journey while others are coming to teaching from previous lives and still others began their journey eons ago, choosing to stay because education is where their heart is happiest. Last year was beyond difficult for all of us, no matter our roles, and all of us arrived this year battered, bruised, and in some cases just plain numb, but still hopeful that beginning again this year, we might get back to a semblance of normal. We’ve made promised to ourselves and each other to honor the idea of time: time with family, time for fun, time for ourselves, time to downshift, time to relax, time to work on things that bring us joy, and time to create.

Parts of our work together felt normal. Discussion of unit plans, books, strategies, get to know you activities, thinking of ways to create cohesion in classes to empower learning groups that are supportive of one another and self-managing, discussion of ideas and plans and the electricity that collaboration brings. Some parts hurt a little, missing those who will always be part of our tribe…no matter where they are.

Beginning again brings a layer of hope to the coming school year in spite of the continued dissonance over masking, distancing, and vaccines. That excitement of being together, sharing ideas, listening to new perspectives, and bringing new traditions to the table allowed us to focus again on what else this year could be, drawing on one another’s expertise, passion, and willingness to try new things. All of our intensities mirror those our students will bring in a week or so…we are grown up versions of them after all.

Beginning again isn’t necessarily starting over completely, but rather picking up where we left off 17 months ago and moving forward…together.

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Summer…and Inspiration

I have started this post so many times over the past several weeks. I get about halfway through, and decide that no…that’s not really what I want to say. So it sits as a draft here, waiting for something to put me back where I was when I began writing. That’s what writers do though…start some pieces, finish others, and tie a few together.

I toured a local university’s physics labs this evening with colleagues. When I attended there, the building housing the labs didn’t exist, 3/4 of the buildings on campus didn’t exist and those that did had no air conditioning or too much heat or none at all, and grassy areas were non-existent. As I sat outside waiting for the others, I thought about the classes and professors I loved, those I loathed, and those I wanted to be when I grew up. I don’t use Chaucer in my everyday life (English majors unite!), but it’s a great example of what college is for a lot of us…what school as a whole is for a lot of us. The things we learn in school aren’t really applicable to anything…until they are.

I have always believed that we go about education all wrong. We say we want to grow critical thinkers, writers, mathematicians, historians, scientists, artists, engineers…but then we talk about how we teach subject areas: math, language arts, science, history… We have the opportunity to change how we think–we teach children how to be thinkers, writers, artists, etc. We NAME blocks of time by subject area because it’s tradition. Every subject area should bleed into every other one because they are all connected. Kids should experience math in science, writing in history, reading and spelling in technology, math in art, technology in theater, and reading, writing, and communicating in language studies.

Here’s where the inspiration comes into play.

Let’s reset and reimagine what we want school to look like for our kids. We have endured the most difficult school year that many of us have ever experienced. The kids we serve deserve to experience school differently this coming year.

They deserve to experience physics and explore it, not simply listen to us talk about it or read a textbook or articles about it. They deserve to explore the insides of a worm and compare it to the insides of a human (even if it’s done in a virtual way to save both the worm and the human). They deserve to understand how and why playwrights write and how their work reflects the time they live in, how journalists research the connections between events and people, and the ways that scientists record and reflect on data. They deserve to experience math as a concept that has a practical purpose before an equation or a rule. They deserve to explore, to discover, and to experiment. Their classrooms shouldn’t be so rigid that there is always only one correct answer–sometimes the wrong answer leads to the right answer for a different question.

They deserve to know how what we’re asking them to do applies in real life.

“You’re going to create a diagram in your notebook of what you see today because scientists record their observations in particular ways, with diagrams and written descriptions, to ensure that other scientists can learn from it.”

“You’re going to write about an event, noting the who, what, why, where, when, and how of the event using this organizer to help keep those pieces straight, and then the article you’ll create once you’ve made your initial notes will include specific details to tell your reader the story of the event because that’s what journalists do.”

Let’s think about what and how we assess. If you’re asking a child to write a description of what they see in a microscope, focus on the content of what they write and not their handwriting. Notice their handwriting and make a mental note that you’ll need to address letter formation and appropriate size, but let that go when you’re assessing how well your scientists or journalists can describe what they see. There should never be one big assessment at the end of a unit without lots of smaller, formative, informal assessments beforehand. You should be able to predict how your students will do on the common assessments you and your colleagues give…and should have addressed issues early on with additional practice, changes in how you’re teaching, and clearing up misunderstandings to ensure that all your students do well. And those assessments should be authentic application of what the kids actually learned, not just paper and pencil tests or Google quizzes with multiple choice and matching sections.

Think about how we present information to our students and support their learning. Do we rely on PowerPoints and slides to teach or do we allow kids to explore and discover and discuss before we clarify or explain? Distributed practice works. Inquiry works. Worksheets don’t grow dendrites. (Some famous researcher wrote a book about that…so I know it’s true.) Vocabulary should be explored and sprinkled throughout lessons and discussions. A list of words and definitions never inspired critical thought or wonderings.

Think about how we give feedback. Do we tell kids what they’ve done wrong, or do we ask them questions to better understand their thinking and help them see where the mistakes are or where revisions should be (and WHY they should be)? Is feedback clear and kind? Or is feedback insulting and punitive? Does our feedback encourage learning?

For our youngest learners, there are some things that simply have to be taught in a specific way. Reading is one of them. But there isn’t any reason for kids to miss out on exploring words and sounds and letters while they’re learning.

We have the opportunity to advocate for the kids we serve this coming year through our own actions. How will you reimagine your practice to benefit your kids?

Considering Assessment

Gifted kids like to know why they’re doing things. Why am I learning this? Why am I taking this test? What’s the point of this activity? Why do we have to follow a social contract? Why do I have to show my work? So often, we use some form of “because I said so.” Really though, we assess through student work and discussion, and what kids learn (or don’t learn) sometimes eludes us until we think about assessment differently.

In coaching teachers of gifted students, I know that they work incredibly hard to make whatever assessment they give to kids, whether it be formative (what do we know so far?) or summative (what did we learn altogether?), meaningful and one that will give useful information going forward. The idea of an open-ended assessment is scary, because what do teachers do when the students respond in unexpected ways? Many have moved to technology to create Google quizzes and exit tickets to try to capture what it is that they hoped students learned in a lesson and throughout a unit. And that’s fine…this year.

In my first two years focusing on teaching gifted learners, I tried to do what I was taught in teacher school: Create a pre-assessment and post-assessment that was exactly the same, one that used a variety of question types such as fill in the blank, matching, multiple choice, short answer, long answer, and perhaps a task of some sort to see whether or not the kids could use the information they’d learned to do something specific.

The kids taught me some things.

First, I found that kids can guess the correct answer on a multiple choice test because adults are dumb and we make the right answer obvious.

Why did William the Conqueror invade England in 1066?

A) He liked the view better from England than from France.

B) Harold II unfollowed him on Instagram and he was peeved about it.

C) William, a distant cousin of Edward the Confessor, said that Edward had promised him the throne of England during a visit to France. When Edward died, he came to claim what he felt was rightfully his.

D) William had been taunted by a French knight from a castle down the road and wanted to prove that his mother was not a hamster nor did his father smell of elderberries. Street cred, bruh.

I learned not to use multiple choice questions very often unless it was for an intentional purpose.

Second, I learned that giving kids questions in which they had to regurgitate information was only so useful. Yes, it told me that they remember that William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, but the questions requiring the regurgitation of facts didn’t show me that they understood the significance of that event, or why that person was important in the history of England, or why people invaded anywhere anyway. (Invasion is such a huge effort. Putting together an army, all the travel, uncomfortable lodging…is it really worth it?)

Third, tests of domain-specific vocabulary are not useful if the kids are not using the vocabulary in conversation about a topic, concept, or idea. Kids should certainly know what a variable is and explain its significance in a science experiment. However, knowing what it is and using it when speaking about their science experiment in a way that demonstrates understanding is more important. Helping children understand what an unfamiliar word in literature or poetry means is important–testing them later to see if they know the definition is not unless it is one that is necessary to understand texts going forward.

Lastly, when we create assessments, they often don’t get at the essential questions of a lesson or unit, focusing instead on facts, dates, events. The essential questions we plan for when creating a unit get lost somewhere…and we don’t always go back to them at the end of a lesson or unit to revisit them and make sure that the learning opportunities we provided actually helped students answer those questions.

Needless to say, I changed what my assessments looked like. I began offering more open-ended work throughout, asking students to explain thinking when a what-if questions was posed, or to elaborate on an idea or generate additional questions about a topic. My end of unit assessments were often hands on projects that provided kids an opportunity to show what they know in more creative ways, and there was always an element of explanation whether it was to share with the class the thinking behind what they did, share it with just me, or rate themselves on their understanding of the essential questions.

Did it take longer to grade? Yes. It was worth it though, because what the kids created often gave me more information about how I needed to tie ideas together in later units or how I might provide information differently in future teaching when I had to backtrack to clarify something or reteach it altogether. The clarifying questions that the other students or that I asked were helpful too–the kids then knew what other information they should have added or addressed.

Sometimes, I’d notice others looking in my classroom while kids were working on their assessments and there was concern written on their faces–how could I possibly know that kids had learned what I intended when they’re doing a project of choice that doesn’t require answering specific questions or writing essays to address a question. I had specific answers I wanted addressed in my head. The kids knew what they were because we discussed them before we began the work. We created them together sometimes, and sometimes I created them as we went through a unit or lesson. Assessments were almost always open-resource, so it also evaluated how well they had made notes, kept track of information, and what I needed to teach them so that they could have more useful resources available (which was often more than I thought.)

My favorite add-on to assessments was a blank page that said “What do you know about this topic that we haven’t addressed or that I haven’t asked about?” And often, that told me who went nuts with additional learning, who had a lot of background knowledge, and who found what we were studying pointless in the grand scheme, but picked up the little nuances anyway.

This year, there’s little judgement from me about how teachers are assessing students unless it’s really ridiculous and serves no true purpose other than to check a box that says “Yup! There’s an assessment!” This is not a typical year. This is not a year in which we have all of our kids in the same place at the same time. This is not a year in which everyone has the same supplies available. And this is not a year where we can guide thinking during an assessment the way we would if we were with our kids in the same room.

Thinking ahead though, and using what we have learned this year about using technology and adapting assessments (because this is how teachers spend our summers), how might we change our thinking going forward? Sure, using a Google form is great for a quick check-in, but will it really get to the heart of what kids know and how they can use that knowledge in other contexts? How will we know that they can generalize or stretch what they learned?

Summer will be here soon, so tuck this away for mid-June, after you have had two weeks of solid naps, but don’t forget about it. How we assess our gifted kids is just as important as what and how we teach.

Intensities

Dabrowski, a Polish psychologist, explored overexcitabilities as a part of giftedness: intellectual, sensual, emotional, imaginational, and psychomotor.

As a teacher, I often saw these in the kids I taught–the child who can’t learn enough fast enough. The one who can’t handle the breeze from the windows or socks on their feet. The child who never. stops. moving and simply cannot sit still (ADHD is often misdiagnosed in gifted kids because of this one…). The one who tells fantastic stories to go along with games or whatever they’re learning and sees the movie in their head as they read in great detail. And the ones who get called “drama queen” who cries at the drop of a hat, gets angry or frustrated quickly, just can’t seem to get a handle on their feelings, or is anxiety ridden to the point that they can’t do anything. Some years, I had several of each in my classroom.

I learned to make agreements with kids that allowed them to do what they needed to learn. All kids had options for seating…the floor, the couch, tall tables, the counter, short tables, regular tables, different chairs, standing desks, wiggle seats… They had choices and once the novelty of each wore off, they all settled into whatever worked best for them on a given day.

The child who had an endless supply of energy sat at the side or in the rear of the room to let them move and not drive their classmates nuts. I never cared if they needed to stand, hop, pace…if they were participating and working and not bugging anyone else, it was fine. There were times that sitting was the only option, but I tried to make sure that they were able to expel SOME energy beforehand. GoNoodle, though it drove me insane, was a good outlet for many kids–brain breaks are the kid equivalent of AAWs (attitude adjustment walks) for adults. Errand running, like carrying a dictionary to the other end of the school to a teacher who needed it (wink, wink), was also a strategy I used.

The children who preferred a particular kind of pencil over another because of how it felt in their hands had access to them, though mechanical pencils were often temporarily banned for all the lead that ended up on the floor or shared with friends. Options for coloring were always available–some prefer crayons over markers. Types of paper, where they sat, lighting in their workspace, and whether or not they used noise canceling headphones or soft music were options too. I couldn’t fix the seams in their socks, but I was happy to cut a tag out of a t-shirt because they’re just annoying.

The kids who needed to learn everything and went down rabbit holes or needed create and do things differently got the chance to do that…with parameters. It was easier to encourage the use of their intensities than fight them. This made projects and ownership of work a pretty big deal because most, if not all, were able to do what they needed to learn and grow…

Those kids who got labeled “too dramatic” or “too emotional”…those were more complicated. It was one thing for them to sob while they read a book–I do that too. But when they’re little, it’s hard to regulate all the emotions all the time. And oh gosh if one was also an empath…they felt all their own feelings AND everyone else’s… It was simply a matter of talking them through it, honoring the fact that the big emotions were just going to happen and once they’d calmed down a bit we could come up with strategies to name them and work through them so they didn’t take over every time. The kids gradually learned how to articulate the feelings and ask for things like a quick bathroom trip, or a walk to another room, or even just a quiet moment or twelve.

Gifted kids are so often told that they are “too” everything–busy, fanciful, emotional, stubborn or rigid… Really though they aren’t “too” anything. This is a part of who they are. As they grow and learn, they develop ways to use those things as strengths.

The kid who couldn’t sit still does Ninja Warrior competitions and rock climbs and runs cross country. Another found gymnastics and dance…and those are their outlets.

The child who had to know everything about all the things does projects on their own and shares them with the class and others, making their invention something that everyone can take part in. And the ones with incredible imaginations create places and beings that fascinate their peers, drawing them in to their storylines. And often kids with these intensities go on to do lots of different things with their lives because there are SO many things to do when they grow up–why do just one thing forever?

The kid who refused to wear socks and had their shoes off as often as possible because they felt confined learned the beauty of Birkenstocks and lives in them. They wear soft shirts and pants or wear dresses that are flowy. They use music to drown out the noise in their space so they can work and has a nail file nearby to futz with while they’re thinking… Perhaps they become a chef later in life with a focus on creating meals with the RIGHT textures and smells and none of the wrong ones.

And those who feel all the feels…they go on to lots of different things. Writing, being an ear for those who need it, and the arts–because the arts bring joy to others…and makes them think too.

This is living Gifted.

None of these intensities go away, but kids learn (with our help) to direct them into productive work, thinking, and activity, rather than focusing on how different they are from their same age peers who don’t feel the same way. These aren’t things you can lock away in a box until the end of the school day, or work day. Educators and parents need to know how to help kids learn to use these “superpowers” for good as they grow older, and learn to advocate for what they need to help them manage whichever combination of intensities they happen to have–it’s rare to just have one.

These intensities are a part of who our gifted kids are, no different than the color and texture of their hair or the color of their skin. They’re not bad, just different.

Living Gifted is Living Different. And that’s a good thing. It keeps the world interesting.

Testing Season

It pains me that we have a testing SEASON in education. It physically hurts my heart to know that we have to give children assessments created by someone who is not their teacher, that is designed to evaluate their skills and knowledge on things they may have not yet had the opportunity to learn, much less master, because no state teaches the same things the same way at the same time. (Freedom, ya’ll…) This year, because of the pandemic, our state was granted a waiver. Normally every grade level has at least two subject area tests with three sessions each, and certain grade levels are given the opportunity to take one or more additional subject area test, also with three sessions. This year, every grade level took one test in one subject area with three sessions, except the older kids, who took an additional test with three sessions. Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? It was a nightmare, and it killed me knowing that kids who understand and can use Algebra II were working on sixth-grade math tests…

Last school year, all testing was suspended because we were all “safer at home” and none of these tests could be done remotely. While I’m grateful for the waiver being granted in our state, I wonder if the Department of Education wouldn’t be better informed every year if they simply asked teachers to tell them about the students they serve. Here’s an example:

Ramona is eight years old, curious about everything, and reads chapter books like they’re going out of style. Her favorite author is Beverly Cleary, and she can read all of those books over and over again, finding something new in them each time. She enjoys writing and can write reasonable-length paragraphs that are on topic, but when she writes longer pieces, things go off the rails a bit and she ends up down rabbit holes. Her spelling is improving, and she is beginning to spot patterns in words to help her spell others follow the same pattern. Math is not her favorite subject, but she is learning to do multi-step problems, and because she is a strong reader, she is able to pull out what information is needed, what isn’t, and what the question is actually asking fairly well. She’s learning multiplication facts as well, using strategies of pattern-finding like she does for spelling. When she grows up, she wants to be a scientist, a doctor, a zookeeper, and a marine biologist. She’s fascinated with cells and viruses (and how they change and adapt), animals of all kinds and the habitats they live in as well as how they have changed over time, and helping others stay healthy. She has crowned herself Queen of Handwashing and reminds everyone to do their part so that no one gets sick. She is curious about history, particularly why people treat others the way they do. When we studied exploration, she felt awful for the people already living on land “discovered” by the Spanish and struggles to understand how one can discover a place another already lives. She’s active, climbs trees, and loves the outdoors. If her curiosity about the world around her is fostered, she will learn quickly and generate more questions and connections between ideas. She enjoys getting to know people and is kind to everyone, intrigued by their cultures and histories, and embraces both similarities and differences between them and herself.

This is what we want for future generations, isn’t it? Something like that presented to those higher up that shows her family and teacher are raising a good kid who will go on to do good things. Even when children are struggling, one could write something like this about them because teachers are able to see ALL the parts of a child–how his writing is slow going but he can tell you everything you would ever want to know about dinosaurs and loves building intricate architecture with paper and how she struggles to read but can compute complex problems in her head and creates art and music that is beautiful and moving. It can show how poverty impacts a child’s ability to progress as quickly as another and what happens when a child is seen for their strengths first, rather than their deficits.

Perhaps instead of testing season, we should spend those three weeks in the spring allowing kids to explore more of what they love, what brings their heart joy. Perhaps those three weeks would be better spent helping them learn to be a driving force in the world through their actions and service toward others. Perhaps those weeks would be better spent really SEEING our children, our students, the kids we serve as humans and acknowledge that we can shape the incredible future that they will create, rather than simply crank out a percentile or level of growth or achievement that may or may not determine our own employment going forward.

Educators, please remember that you don’t teach math, history, or a foreign language. You support children while they learn to navigate life and gather the skills necessary to make the world they live in better and make change happen so that the world THEIR children grow up in is better than this one. And you do all that while giving them opportunities to learn about slope and integers, William the Conqueror, and to understand another culture and language…all of which they’ll use to build, lead, and connect as they grow.