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What Does 'Gifted' Look Like?

Madlon Laster, Ph.D., a retired teacher and reader of this blog, is today's guest blogger. Madlon taught in the United States, Tehren and Beirut during her career. This blog is Part I in a series of II.

Would you call a woman gifted, thinking, "A Gucci purse? She's brilliant -- has a high-paying job!" (She could have a wealthy admirer.) You pass a street musician: "Now there is God-given talent," unless he's all thumbs and tone-deaf. Violinist Joshua Bell played in a subway once; few stopped to listen. Most rushed onward. Can we judge "gifted" by observing?

Parents, of a new infant, keep parenting books close by. Observing babies involves watching for progressive stages and when they appear: sitting, crawling, standing, walking, talking. If delayed, parents worry. If early -- early teething is related to boys' reading achievement -- they're raising a genius! Really? Einstein's parents thought him mentally disabled because he didn't speak until he was four.

An early sense of humor is a sign of giftedness. A former student gave a direction to her almost-four-year-old son, who quipped, "It's not in my contract." Preschoolers' brains grow so fast (and thanks to an amino acid in mothers' milk, six months longer if they've been nursed) that they are like sponges. Is this little boy parroting what he heard? If so, he would go around reciting it for his own amusement, use it in wrong circumstances, for confusing results. Watch for "Humor."

Wise parents provide experiences for their children, but not "European Tours" young gentlemen of the 19th century were wont to take. Walk around the park pond, feed the ducks, put out bird feeders, go camping, visit museums and historic sites. A colleague called this "exposure." Providing varied background experiences is crucial for growing children. What persists is indicative.

Often experiences interest children: a lady bug fascinates a girl, she collects lightning bugs in a jar, she wants to plant a "butterfly" bush to attract them, even breaks off a twig with a cocoon, bringing it into the kitchen where it opens overnight. By morning 70-80 tiny green grasshoppers are all over the counter! This girl might become an entomologist. Our son became an expert on the names and habits of dinosaurs in the Little Golden Book of Dinosaurs he received on his third birthday. He didn't become a Paleontologist. A Mobile gas station billboard had a winged horse displayed. A horse with wings? I related the story of Pegasus. He asked, "Is there a book of those stories in the library?" He chose a Classics major. Another youth might watch Grandpa repair something, become fascinated by how things worked, start taking things apart to put them back together, and bingo! A future inventor problem-solver is born.

When young children show strong interests, that's fine. Something else comes along; off they go and investigate. Other children develop early interests into hobbies, pursuits. If parents encourage interests, children can discover themselves and possible careers. The more they dabble, the better. Smithsonian Magazine described an amazing teenager, involved in a cancer research finding. He might have an important discovery on the horizon (Dec. '12, p. 69). He's a teenager -- not our standard picture of an adolescent. What if he hadn't had opportunities to pursue this?

Classroom Behavior
Let's peer into classrooms. For generations, classrooms contained children in a close age range: 11-12 (sixth grade), for example. Teachers knew the top students who made the best grades, and the poor students. My mother-in-law remarked, top students would always get it no matter what; slow students would never get it; so teach to the middle. Extremes of any class range stand out.

Linguistic clues hint at what students do, and accomplish. We use brilliant for students whose ideas shed new light, a spotlight, on topics, or give unexpected solutions to challenges, something no one else had. If students do this regularly, they stand out. We use the adjective, outstanding. Exceptional is like outstanding. Ex- means "out" and -cept- is a Latin root for "take." Students are the "exception to the rule," and we mentally take them out of the group because they think differently. Actually they need something to challenge them. I like the word extraordinary. Extra- means "beyond," and ordinary is the usual, average, normal person. Extraordinary students don't just stand out, or appear to be outside the main group, they are "beyond" the main group. [A1980's Virginia mother had a second grade son who invented his own negative numbers system.]

If students stand out enough, we can't miss them. But on the first day you meet any new class, you scan the students, look down at your seating chart to connect a face and name, and start noticing behaviors, reactions. Gifted students blend in at first, often for quite a while if they are quiet, shy, even passive. You'll find about the passive later. Some are verbally shy, but answer when called upon. Others are active, take part in discussions, jump up to raise a hand, offering what they think is important, wriggle in their seats. Observe content of what students say: are they questioning, disagreeing, offering another slant? Is their language more mature than others?

Once the active learning begins, observe how they work." Which students are constructive: invent and make things, build and organize? When projects offer choices, does the student choose one of arts: graphic, dramatic, music, and literature? Is innate ability displayed? By observing his or her actions, we develop a profile of a gifted student. You'll notice I haven't mentioned testing and grades. They filter the picture; observing builds it.

How can we serve these obviously widely varied abilities in gifted students while government and state mandates peer over our shoulders?

Learn more about Madlon here.

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