Gifted and Talented? Deeper Learning Is for All Students
This post is by Melissa Daniels, the Director of High Tech Middle Chula Vista in California.
When I was in fifth grade, I was in a gifted and talented program in a small town in south Georgia. Each Friday, we were pulled from our regular classroom and bused to another school where we explored subjects like botany, engaged in interesting art projects, and went on special field trips. At least one of those experiences had an impact on my future; a fascinating field trip to a museum exhibit on Ramses the Great sparked my life-long interest in history and laid the groundwork for two years of teaching in Cairo, Egypt.
As a ten-year-old enjoying these engaging learning experiences, I remember wondering why all my classmates didn't get to have these opportunities. I remember thinking, surely my classmates would love getting to look through microscopes, create art, and explore Egyptian treasures at the museum! Why didn't they get to do all this cool stuff? The answer, of course, was that I had been identified as "gifted and talented" and therefore afforded these special opportunities while my classmates were back at my home school, doing worksheets and plodding through textbooks.
Yet, as I walk through the halls of High Tech Middle Chula Vista, I see our students engaged in the rich learning opportunities that are usually reserved for gifted and talented students. I see a sixth grader learning about gears and computer coding so that he can program robotic mechanisms. I see seventh graders creating a documentary that will examine GMOs and promote healthy eating. I see eighth graders researching civil rights leaders and creating modern-day superheroes who fight for social justice. Though the students I see are all gifted and talented in their own ways, few of them would qualify for this program in a neighboring school. Yet they are all afforded what we believe to be the rich learning opportunities typically reserved for "gifted and talented" students, and as a result, they are engaged in meaningful work, challenged to develop 21st century skills, and fully included in a community of learners.
Over half of the students at our school qualify for free and reduced lunch. Over 80 percent are students of color. In a state where only about 8 percent of public school students are identified as gifted and talented, most of our students would not qualify as such. Yet, we aim to engage all of them in deeper learning.
And when we say all students, we mean it; our students with special learning needs are also fully included in our classrooms and have the same access to deeper learning as their peers. One of our most charismatic eighth graders came to us having been in a "special day class" for all of elementary school. In these classes, he was isolated from regular classrooms and grouped with other special needs kids to work on basic skills. Since coming to our school in the sixth grade, he has explored the rise and fall of ancient civilizations and created a scale replica of an ancient Egyptian temple on our 3D printer. He has designed and built raised garden beds for local kindergarten students to promote healthy eating. He has used his knowledge of physics to build bridges on which he received feedback from real architects on his work. Because of these rich experiences, he is fully engaged in his learning and is valued as an important member of our school community. Not only is this full inclusion model good for students with special needs; it is absolutely essential for their peers, who get the invaluable opportunity to learn alongside a diverse group of classmates, reflecting the diversity that they will experience outside of school.
Each year, when I speak to prospective families, inevitably one or more parents ask if we have a gifted and talented program. I share the story above as a way of explaining that we believe that ALL students should have the rich learning opportunities that I had on those special Fridays in fifth grade. We do not identify certain students as gifted and talented; instead we believe that all students have their own gifts and talents. We do not track our students; instead we embrace the challenges of differentiation and personalization so that all students engage in deeper learning.
In Jal Mehta's post entitled "Deeper Learning Has a Race Problem" in this forum, he argues that "it's on deeper learning proponents to argue the civil rights case for deeper learning." I'm willing to take that charge and assert that this is, in fact, a civil rights issue. We must make sure that all of our students have opportunities for deeper learning--not just a handful of kids defined as "gifted and talented." We must make sure that students aren't prevented from engaging in deeper learning because of their zip code, their socio-economic status, their skin color, or their perceived academic deficits.
I have fond memories of those rich learning experiences I had through my gifted and talented program in fifth grade. If I hadn't gone on that exciting field trip to the Ramses exhibit, would I have been as interested in living and teaching in Egypt as an adult? Maybe, maybe not. But what I do know is that all of my classmates should have gone on that field trip. They should have been able study plants like real scientists, examine history like real historians, and create art like real artists. It should not have just been the handful of identified "gifted and talented" students; it should have been all of us, engaging in deeper learning together.
Photo by Melissa Daniels