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.
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.
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.
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.
Most of us, even as adults, can remember times when things didn’t go the way we’d hoped. He didn’t call, a test went badly, we didn’t get the job or the promotion, Santa didn’t bring the gift we’d asked for, our stimulus check had to pay for something un-fun and adult-y.
We’ve all had our bubbles burst in one way or another.
The same happens to our kids. The teacher’s reaction isn’t what we hoped (think that scene in A Christmas Story when Ralphie gets a C on his “What I Want for Christmas” theme paper). Our peers aren’t as interested in something we’re passionate about. We’re taught to advocate for ourselves and able to talk with one teacher, and the next nixes any discussion of our ideas and requires that we simply comply, telling our parents we’re disrespectful.
So how are we teaching our kids to cope when the burst bubbles come in waves, one after another and seem to never end? Do we tell them to suck it up, Buttercup? Do we tell them that everyone encounters setbacks and to get over it? Or do we help them talk it through to get at the meat of what the burst bubble really IS?
My hope is that it’s the latter. It’s not the lost opportunity, the disappointment, or the impact of someone else’s disregard that is bothering our kids, it’s what the things they hoped for represent:
Someone seeing them as special…or just SEEING them at all.
Someone latching on to the “fish” for connection.
Someone noticing that they tried and did the hard things even if it didn’t go well.
Someone respecting them enough to see their side of things and at least consider their ideas.
All kids want to be noticed, seen, and respected. For gifted kids though, their school experience is often one of being either overlooked by adults and peers or criticized for moving too fast, talking too much, being too sensitive, not being good at everything, or not doing the things they’re asked because they don’t see the point or need more direction or support. Getting at the heart of a burst bubble situation is an area of growth for many of our tall poppies because so often what’s on the surface isn’t the problem at all…it’s just a symptom.
For those who work with, parent, or support gifted kids in any way, start asking questions when a child comes to you upset that something didn’t go the way they hoped. Why was that thing important? Ask them to name the feelings around it–would they have felt accomplished, happy, worthy if it had gone well? Would it have changed a relationship? Would it have proven something to themselves?
The burst bubbles for gifted kids are often multi-dimensional and full of nooks and crannies that are worth exploring.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most days, I feel as though I’m floundering from task to task on my to-do list, knowing each is important somewhere in the grand scheme of things, but still feeling unfulfilled and unsettled because despite knowing that all of it matters somewhere, it doesn’t feel like any of it is worthwhile and I find myself feeling resentful of everything. It’s like a never-ending game of “Wipeout” in which there is no winner.
This whole pandemic has been incredibly difficult because so much of it has simply been survival, jumping through obstacles to get through each day, each week, each month, and ending each day, week, and month deflated because goals and ideas have to be tabled in order to make room for the support of survival. So much of it has been taking on tasks and projects to ease burdens, fixing problems, figuring out how to overcome the seemingly endless roadblocks that get in the way, listening to others share their thoughts on all kinds of topics, all of it sounding like criticism even when it isn’t meant to.
And some days, despite the ever expanding to-do list of little tasks and checkboxes without checks in them, feelings of resentment and hopelessness, my bucket is filled by people who share the things that bring me joy, hope, and purpose and who share a piece of what I want my career to look like because it does make up a huge part who I am and my place in the world.
When I became a teacher, I was certain that I would remain in the classroom and had mixed feelings when I found that I wanted to do more and “more” would require me to give up my safe space where I had some semblance of control and felt confident (most of the time). I found that the “more” I sought would require being uncomfortable and unsure of myself, my knowledge, and my abilities.
I cannot afford another Master’s degree or a Ph.D. and I don’t know that either one would provide the growth I seek–the first Master’s degree certainly didn’t. I don’t enjoy formal research, nor am I eager to get bogged down in the endless stream of district level meetings, paperwork, school law, or waivers. I don’t want to be a principal when I grow up. This is as close to “admin” as I want to get, to be quite honest. And while I worry as I see so many friends who began their teaching careers around the same time as I did working toward administrator licensure that I am somehow behind and not heading in the right direction, I know that I would not be happy in a fully administrative position.
I get the opportunity to work on some level with several education-based organizations whose missions I truly believe in. Sadly, none of this work will pay a mortgage or buy food for furs who refuse to get jobs. Much of this work is far outside my comfort zone and challenges me to learn and grow in my knowledge of all that is Gifted.
I don’t claim to be an expert in gifted education and I never have–there’s so much to learn, I probably never will be an expert. Statistics and research studies don’t roll off my tongue in conversation about gifted education, but after serving and working alongside these kids for the past 15 years, I can tell you that they need advocates. They need someone who will stand next to them with guiding questions and encouragement while they try the things that make them uncomfortable, the things that aren’t typical, the things that don’t fit neatly into a Google form. They need someone who will go head to head with a colleague and say, “THIS is what she needs.” They need people who will “go to the mattresses” and fight for outside-the-box thinking to help a floundering gifted student. They need people who will provide support to educators serving them and preach challenging the process rather than quiet compliance from the rooftops. Gifted kids need something *different*in their educational experience, and doing the same thing as everyone else isn’t different enough.
Gifted kids need advocates who will focus on what’s most important, learning and growth, not checkboxes, to-do lists, and activities to prove they can regurgitate information. They need a cheering section when they take a risk and then hit an obstacle and wipeout, encouraging them to get out of the water and try again because that’s when the learning happens. And that is where I need to be, with others who will be their advocates and cheering section.
We are experiencing a unique time in education due to this pandemic. It’s a great time for us to rethink what education can look like and determine what’s most important. So many of us are trying to fit square pegs (traditional in-person learning) into round holes (distance/hybrid/hyflex/on-demand learning).
How’s it working for you all?
I’m seeing incredibly dedicated and amazing educators exhausting themselves trying to replicate in-person instruction online with the same high level of expectation that they have for themselves during a regular year. They are spending hours before and after school planning elaborate lessons with multiple tech components intended to engage students, and then creating another set entirely for those who have to work at different hours. They’re working long hours, isolated from one another, and frustrated that kids aren’t engaging in class.
I’m seeing children spending hours online in a number of meetings/classes that is commensurate with what would be expected of someone earning executive’s salary because that’s where the learning is put. Being stuck in front of a screen is becoming the norm…and I know how I feel about the multitude of meetings *I* attend in a week… I imagine kids are over it even more than I am.
I’m seeing parents and kids upset and overwhelmed because there’s just SO MUCH and it’s really difficult to determine what’s most critical, what’s a quick check, and what’s a big project that needs to get broken down. Small tasks become a never-ending to-to list that parents wouldn’t see if kids were in school because teachers are now collecting information through “assignments” that they’d typically get via conversation or over-the-shoulder observation…that damn to-do list and all its tasks are right there in the “missing work” emails that generate weekly showing all the ways their kids are failing…and all the ways they’re failing as parents.
I’m seeing families frustrated because things keep changing–going from in person to hybrid to distance and back again. There’s little any of us can do about this except wear masks when we’re out and limit time with people who aren’t in our bubble…
And I’m seeing gifted kids checking out and saying, “Screw it. Why should I bother?”
A friend says that while in a gradebook, this might look like a “lost” year in terms of learning, but it really isn’t lost. We have an opportunity to change what we’re doing. Now, that doesn’t mean we work feverishly over Thanksgiving break to recreate everything in our “classroom” and redo all the plans we’d put together. (I say this on purpose because *I* am that sort of teacher…and I know some of you are too.)
Think about how we could create an environment in which kids are engaged and learning and incorporate accountability as well as self-advocacy and ownership while minimizing screen time and OUR workload in terms of grading things and creating new learning opportunities? Here are some thoughts:
Limit the number of assignments in a week to 3 or fewer and be intentional in their assignment. Give kids options–if there are five items on a worksheet, they must do three. All of those assigned will correlate to the primary standard/s you’re targeting, so there’s no need for them to do all three. There are courses for which there will HAVE to be more, or more steps to complete a full assignment, but there is no reason that kids should be spending hours after class working on assignments that are repeats of each other all week, often one assignment can encompass multiple pieces of learning.
Set limits around the time kids spend working. If the work can’t be done in the 20 minutes of class that’s remaining, it’s too much. Ask the kids to help you gauge time they should be spending working. Get their feedback about what made it take so long or why an assignment was quick to complete.
Here’s an easy one. Instead of assigning a Google Form quiz, see what resources you have available for self-driven learning. Do you have subscriptions to online programs like ALEKs or others that kids can utilize for a certain number of minutes each day to show progress on specific standards you’re working on as formative assessment in lieu of a quiz on top of it?
Another easy one. If you’re reading a novel or series of articles or chapters, can you create questions that allows kids to read on their own during class (staying available for questions but allowing them to disconnect) and create free-form responses and not multiple choice options for a way for them to show what they know? Yes, online quizzes are easier to grade, with either right or wrong responses, but does it tell you what they LEARNED? No–it tells you they can guess well and that there is one right answer. Why not give five comprehension questions and have kids make a FlipGrid for two of their choosing and one that you choose that requires them to connect the text to a big idea or concept that was at the center of the reading. Have them include vocabulary critical to the reading in their answers–two birds with one stone, and you spend a half hour or so a week reviewing their videos.
Innovate and Let Go
Think independent study projects that are developmentally appropriate instead of fully teacher-led lessons. “Kids, you’re going to teach class today. I’ve attached an article I want you to read and a 2 minute video to watch to our classroom stream, and I want you to review them and determine the three most important things we need to know about this topic. Let’s meet back together at 9:45 and talk about it.” Then send them off to do it. hey all might have a different part of the topic to review and some may be finished, and others might not be–there’s your opportunity for flexibility–does Josh want to look more into his part? Does Donna need more time? You might have them make a sign using words or pictures to show what they thought was the most important for other (writers, scientists, historians, mathematicians, engineers) to know and share it at the beginning of class tomorrow. Encourage kids to connect what they’re learning to the things THEY see as important…for many, YouTube, MineCraft, Roblox, and RPGs are their jam. Tie in history, science, engineering, art, language, culture, drama, music, sport, movement…
Have kids who work through content at different times and don’t attend class when it meets? Provide the recording of your lesson and the time when the kids show their responses or talk about what they learned (no…this isn’t GIVING them the material or encouraging them to cheat–it’s simply providing guidance since you aren’t there to help)…and provide them the same assignment to do and have them “turn in” a photo of their contribution, making sure you share it with the class.
Collaborate with colleagues and communicate with families and get them on board with assignments like cooking together as a family or doing chores together and writing a reflection on the experience, perhaps inviting them to share stories of family members or friends past or memories of their own childhoods. Ask them video chat Grandma CJ or Uncle Jed and interview them about their favorite recipes from childhood and then try to make them together. Report back to the classes via video or written piece to share with everyone. What’d the kids learn? More than one teacher can be in on this kind of assignment, evaluating progress for their individual standards. Math, history, interview skills, clarity in thought, cultural relevance, writing (informational, opinion, and narrative can be contained in the same piece of writing), and tech if they choose to make a cooking video, as well as perhaps a new appreciation for the people they’re sharing their bubble with, which is immeasurable. And you get to learn about your kids…and build relationships with them at the same time
There will be challenges to this, of course. Some buildings are very locked down and inflexible about what class should look like, but if you have the opportunity to innovate somewhere within that, give it a shot. Be flexible with those who are struggling with access–communicate consistently with parents about how you can help support their child and be creative with solutions. Remember too that learning isn’t concrete–it’s a process. For our little ones, some things may still need to be teacher led for a while, but giving them the opportunity to go off on their own and work is still valuable and teaches self-reliance. Quizzes and assignments often tell us very little about what kids have learned even if they can regurgitate information, but when you give them the opportunity to show it, demonstrate understanding, and think about it in different ways, you’re shown more of what they actually LEARNED.
We have a unique opportunity to change the way we look at learning right now, particularly with our gifted students. Providing opportunities for choice in process and product leads to engagement, self-advocacy, self-motivation, and reflection. There is no right way to do this, friends, but if we have to build the plane as we fly it, why not innovate a little–kids will tell us how it’s going before we crash and burn if we ask. Their feedback matters…this isn’t about us.
I have thoughts on social-emotional needs too…but that’s another post.
I have had the opportunity to speak at CAGT (Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented) for a few years, and was given the chance to do so this year during their first virtual conference. Usually, I spend time networking, talking with other educators, other speakers, and overall being among my tribe who know and understand both me and the kids we all choose to serve. I miss out on things like the art contests, and don’t always pay close enough attention to the performances unless they’re part of a keynote I’m attending.
This year, because CAGT’s conference was virtual, I was able to really look at the work that students from around Colorado had submitted. I’m amazed. Kids from all over our state, from young ones to high school aged kids, took the idea of “A Wider Lens of Gifted” and ran with it, creating amazing pieces of art, music, and performance. Go here to check out some of the work from this year’s conference.
When we are looking at kids for identification, we see those who stand out academically so much easier. Those who are writing multi-chapter stories or reading Harry Potter in Kindergarten, working math problems well above grade level for fun, kids who are passionate about particular topics and know everything to know about whales, and kids who excel on assessments are easy to spot. It’s those kids who have talents beyond academics that we often don’t recognize as gifted.
Look at the kids you have with you over the next couple of weeks. Really see them.
Who plays an instrument?
Who sings in a choir at church?
Who goes to clown school after school?
Who plays club sport and excels?
Who is a scout and demonstrates leadership and service to the community?
Who plays outside and shows their ability to be incredibly bendy and flexible?
Who feels the music in their bones when it plays?
Who simply cannot stop moving when thinking? Who talks and interacts with their whole body?
Who builds and builds and sees things on a completely different spatial level? What “builds” are sitting on your desk, given as gifts, or taken from them because they were creating while you were teaching?
Who doodles? Really LOOK at the doodles…what do you see? A sense of space? line? proportion?
Who is the performer in your group of kids? Who lives for the dramatic?
These are the kids we want to catch. It’s not just cool that they play violin or perform in the church choir… It’s that they have been playing violin by ear since age 3 and can see colors in the music they hear or sing and have perfect pitch. It’s not simply a neat thing that they enjoy drawing or color, but that they’re precise in their drawings and intricate in their detail and able to create a story with their use of color. It’s that child who choreographs as the music plays because their body feels and experiences every note distinctly. It’s that child who sees opportunity in challenge and makes a plan to address it.
These are the kids you can create bodies of evidence over time for formal identification in dance, performing arts, music, sport, visual arts, and leadership. Having a relationship with the kids you serve matters…you can play to these areas of strength and offer opportunities for them to use their strengths in their learning… Be open to alternative assignments and methods of learning.
When we truly SEE our gifted kids for who they are and not what they produce, we can create the learning environment that they will thrive in.
Back in the pre-COVID days when I was in the classroom, I was fairly adept at determining what success looked like in my classroom. Sometimes I used rubrics (writing or projects), sometimes standards correlation tables (usually for math), but most of the time I watched and observed the kids while they were working. It wasn’t about the assignment necessarily, but how they went about getting it done. The process often mattered more than the product.
There were those who flew through, doing everything exactly the way I’d modeled, and they might be able to speak to one or two parts of the work and explain their thinking. And there were those who took very odd routes (that worked a lot of the time) to get what they needed to done or those who used “It’s in my head” and indeed it usually was. And still there were those who got stuck, not knowing what to do next, or lost altogether because the words were different this time, the numbers different, or the work itself wasn’t something they cared too much about or were struggling to connect with. All of these things told me whether or not we were being successful.
(I say “we” intentionally. My kids being successful and growing toward greater understanding meant that I was doing something right. It was incredibly evident when I had done something wrong, both to me and to them, and being the un-filtered sweet things they were, they also had no problem telling me that a particular lesson stunk…and I was ok with that feedback–as long as they could tell me WHY it stunk.)
Because I had the opportunity to see the kids working, asking and answering questions, pushing back on strategies, reminding of format or necessary pieces, teaching in the moment with “Hey kids, let’s stop for a minute…” I was able to know in my gut, even before they finished, whether or not they’d gotten what I’d intended them to get out of the lesson. And when it was evident that they hadn’t, sometimes I’d have them finish regardless because the process of doing the work was important too, and I’d go back and re-strategize ways I could help them understand or do what would show growth toward mastery.
COVID and hybrid/online learning has changed that and now teachers are struggling to determine what success looks like in this alien world we’re living in. Teachers have had to strategize ways to measure progress differently, and they’re moving away from conversation, conferencing, and over-the-shoulder formative assessment, to Google form based quizzes, JamBoards, PearDecks, and photos of completed assignments (that may or may not have been completed by the kids on their own). Teachers can’t observe the process of kid-work from a Google Meet or Zoom Room. It’s just not possible and they are replacing observation with concrete types of evaluation to save their own sanity and lose some of the cognitive load that all of this has caused.
Parents mean well, particularly with their little ones just beginning school, when they offer to help or write for their child for an assignment, but part of a teacher’s measure of progress will always be the child’s own handwriting, coloring, words, and ideas. Part of learning involves the struggle. That’s so difficult for parents and kids to wrap their heads around–particularly the gifted ones who are working with perfectionism… watching kids struggle is so difficult, especially when you know you could make it easier for them.
One doesn’t learn to tie one’s own shoes by watching someone else tie them or switching to velcro or slid-in shoes. We don’t learn to make ramen (because we’re the only one who wants it on soup night) by watching mom or dad do it for us. No one learns to play hockey by watching Miracle on Ice. And we don’t learn to replace bathroom vanities, sinks, and faucets by watching reruns of This Old House on their own. In order to learn how to do it (and when to ask for help or call a professional) we have to actually give it a shot by ourselves.
The most beautiful words a child can utter are “I can do it myself!!” and even if the buttons are all wrong, the outfit is horrific (but would surely inspire some nut at New York Fashion Week), the shoes are on the wrong feet, or the writing is totally illegible to anyone but the child…it’s a win because the child advocated for their right to fail forward and make progress toward being self-sufficient.
The struggle is a valuable piece of learning…and teaching. Some say that writers, artists, and musicians are the most creative people on earth, but I know for a fact that it’s teachers. Teachers right now are doing several things at once: helping the kids in the room learn and observing their work in real time, helping kids online learn and trying to evaluate their work when it shows up in their inbox, and help kids who are trying to learn at odd hours because family work schedules and virtual learning aren’t compatible with no ability to observe or discuss much in the moment. And they’re trying a hundred different ways to do all of those things every day, and sharing what they learn with the other teachers in their world
So our measures of success have to change. It doesn’t mean working harder, longer hours, or putting together multiple sets of slideshows or finding more engaging videos for specific students. It doesn’t mean evaluating all the kids using a google form assessment for which there are definite correct answers. It doesn’t mean working yourself to death providing 47 different learning opportunities in one day and trying to grade them all, agonizing over holding Georgie accountable because they only did 30 of the 47 opportunities you worked so hard to provide.
Measures of success right now might be that you are able to identify the most important thing you want the kids to understand and grow toward mastery of in that lesson. It might be that you notice you have to change something in your presentation format because you forgot to teach how to use it…or really aren’t sure how to use it yourself but it sure sounded good in the moment. Measures of success might include that James is showing up to class and is fully present…that he’s healthy and happy and has something good to share during class. Success is that when you talk with Mary, she can tell you her story and show you with pictures (that may or may not look anything like what she’s telling you) how it goes…when before she didn’t know about beginning, middle, or end. Might be that Ciaran whispers to his mom who is off camera that he can do it himself during class and finally turns in a writing assignment in his six-year-old scrawl written at a diagonal despite lines on the page. Perhaps success is that LeDarius asked for a book about dogs to read for fun, when before he wasn’t willing to read at all, but because you gave him tools like audio books or LearningAlly, he feels comfortable asking for more…he is a reader now.
And sometimes, measuring success is simply a note from a parent acknowledging that they see what a teacher is doing and is thrilled that their child is happy at the end of each day, excited to go to school (whatever that looks like for them), and takes over dinner conversation talking about what they learned that day, or a sincere thank you from a teammate for an idea you mentioned in passing that worked really well for their kids.
Sometimes the measure of success isn’t something you can add to the gradebook that ties directly to a standard, but the little things that keep you going…the tiny bits of progress you get to see every day and the encouragement to try something else tomorrow.
Look for the little things. A flower doesn’t magically appear out of the ground one day…it takes time and noticing the little things like a bump in the earth or something green poking through is what shows growth is happening. The process of growth matters more than checking off boxes. Seeing the process play out ought to be your measure of success.
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.