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Lowering the Bar

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I have radar for kids that read a lot. Kids who read while walking down the hall—noses buried in The Odyssey or The Warrior Heir, kids who pester our librarian daily for the latest sequel in a beloved series, kids who lug books to the principal’s office, the bus line, or the lunchroom— I see avid readers everywhere. Perhaps I recognize kindred spirits, readers for whom books are a natural extension of themselves and who cannot spend a day without reading. I was this kind of reader in school. You might recognize readers like this in your own classrooms. Just look for the kids whose heads are bowed covertly reading a book propped open inside their desks, even when you are teaching. I imagine many of you are gifted readers just like me—finding true self-actualization in a career path that feeds your need to read.

I often wonder how teachers meet the needs of gifted readers and writers in our current high-stakes testing world. The research (hey, it’s all about the research these days) indicates that offering appropriate educational opportunities for the most capable students in our schools is not a priority. According to the June 2008 report, High-Achieving Students in the Era of NCLB, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that while our country’s lowest-performing students have made academic gains since the introduction of accountability systems, the performance of our country’s highest achieving students has remained static (in both reading and math). When researchers polled teachers about the instructional attention given to students at their schools, 60 percent of respondents admitted that low-performing students were a “top priority” at their schools, while only 23 percent believed that academically advanced students were given much attention. It seems that while raising the academic bar for struggling students, we lowered it for many gifted ones.

Whole class novel units that last two months, endless test-preparation drill, and grade-level vocabulary and spelling lists are common instructional practices in many reading classrooms. This lack of challenge for gifted language arts students prevents them from achieving their potential and denies the reading experiences and interests of students who mastered class material long ago.

The fact is—if you don’t use it, you lose it. I see advanced readers cart around books that are too easy for them. Left without any support for making more appropriate reading choices, they don’t know how to select reading material. Shockingly, some gifted readers lose their interest in reading altogether. Why read if the only books you have to choose from are babyish and predictable? Why endure another book report?

Many gifted readers self-educate themselves through books. Power reading is the only way these kids can still feed their brains. These kids are hungry to learn, yet receive so little real challenge from their coursework in school. Books become their university.

Some gifted readers survive years of meaningless reading instruction by developing split-personalities (I call them underground readers.) with one reading identity for school and one for the rest of their lives. Consider these kids the Clark Kents of the reading world—mild-mannered and compliant in our classes—these students breeze through assignments and pull their own books out of their desks when they finish. Too bad these gifted readers cannot fly until the school day ends.

Last week, I attended our state's gifted and talented conference, eagerly searching for some fresh ideas to keep my gifted readers challenged and engaged. The program sessions disappointed me. Although the math and science offerings embraced concepts like compacting and acceleration, so many of the sessions for gifted readers were simply enrichment and fun activities—more language arts and crafts. My gifted readers would rather read and discuss Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf than make another diorama.

While strong national support exists for fostering the talents of gifted math and science students, it seems we need an educational movement that develops the talents of verbally-gifted people. Look no farther than the oratory power of our present-elect and see the amazing potential of one who possesses a talent for words.

There are students in our classes right now who read a book a day (and comprehend it), invent their own words, debate better than adults, or write books in their free time. How will we advance their educations tomorrow morning?

14 Comments

I agree with your assessment of how our culture deals with gifted readers. As a librarian, I try to offer suggestions and stretches for these children so that they can be challenged while still having age-appropriate material. (I had to steer a 3rd grader away from Twilight, but got her to try Susan Cooper, now that she has made her way through Harry Potter.)

Anyway, thank you for providing attention to this topic. And if you run across any brilliant ideas to help these children, please share. I (luckily) work at a small private school where helping to challenge the gifted student is encouraged. I'd love to have more ideas!

I think that's something that always made me really sad when I was at my first school. Our library was separated into sections based on grades. So even though I was interested in and mature enough to handle information that was discussed in high school level novels, I was discouraged from reading them because I was supposedly in the 2nd grade reading level.

It's one of the reasons I'm such an avid reader now though. Because I wasn't getting to read all the stuff I wanted to, I devoured dictionaries and encyclopedias. And then when I could read those books (usually checked out from my local library) it made them even sweeter, like some kind of succulent forbidden fruit. And it made me an addict.

But, even though it was good for me, it's not a good way for our school's books to be organized. They should be open for anyone to read anything they're interested in. I understand how some schools would be concerned about reading something they're not ready for yet (Like a 1st grader reading a detailed description of life and tortures in a World War 2 concentration camp) but sometimes these limits are a bit over the top.

I was that gifted reader walking down the hall with my head in a book, too, Donalyn. And this lowering of the bar for these kids disturbs me greatly. I was fortunate to have some excellent teachers who did challenge me as a kid (bless Miss Kinneen, who gave me David Copperfield in 7th grade, among other examples). It makes me sad that today's emphasis on testing makes this kind of thing harder for teachers to do.

I agree 100% that "we need an educational movement that develops the talents of verbally-gifted people." Not sure how that will happen exactly, but you may be sure that I'll support it.

Donalyn Miller you must have some wonderful students in your class this year. I am so glad you are passing on what you know and how you teach to other teachers. I know many avid readers that are reading books way below their bar. Thank you for passing your knowledge onto the future generation.

Dana Tiedemann
(a past student of yours)

Great Post! The Law of Unintentional Consequences; the dumbing down of American education. Unfortunately the most gifted of our students are suffering.

It's so true that if you don't use it, you'll lose it. After my son was born, I was so busy working full time and taking care of the baby I didn't have time to read much beyond the newspaper and TV Guide. When I got around to picking up a copy of Smithsonian, it made my brain hurt! I was astonished--it was only five years earlier I'd read Moby Dick at 100 pages a night without problem. Luckily some exercise of the reading muscles reversed the atrophy.

Literature circles are a great way to get students to read a variety of literature at their level. Unfortunately for me, my principal doesn't think this is a good use of instructional time.
We are so focused on getting our students to pas a test that we are failing to help our students become productive citizens that should know how to read and comprehend information, as well as how to interact with each other and communicate well with each other.

I agree, I agree, I agree.

Do you do speaking engagements? I'd love to have you speak to teachers in my district--were in the DFW metro. Can you send me contact info?

Thank you for being bold enough to state the obvious- doing extra projects such as dioramas is not gifted education nor does it promote creative thinking!

I'd like to point out that despite those sessions on acceleration in math that are available at gifted conferences, too often gifted learners are only allowed to move ahead one grade level at best and then are given math puzzles to keep them busy.

We need to do better for all gifted learners.

The image of the 'Clark Kent of the reading world' made me smile and sad all at the same time. The notion that the same teaching must suit all students seems helpful to no students....

In my children's school district, the gifted program uses testing that primarily looks for a math aptitude, then serves content that is exactly what you describe -- literary arts and crafts. I have said it's enrichment, it's fun, but it's not gifted education. I think it's doing damage because these kids are conditioned to think that putting on a medieval dinner is challenging. When they get into AP classes most actually underperform their "regular program" counterparts. Gifted ed needs a champion, but I think it impresses people as elitist.

I can't remember a time after grade 2 that I actually checked a book out of my school library. Once I had read everything that interested me there, I simply convinced my parents that I needed to go to the public library once a week. I'd pick up at least a half a dozen books each week, and although my parents were worried about some of the content I was devouring, they never censored me.

As long as your gifted readers have access to a decent selection of books, they will probably be fine. Book addicts tend to be self-medicating.

Incidentally, if you see an advanced reader with a piece of fluff fiction, it may not necessarily indicate that they need more support to make better reading choices. Sometimes fluff is a legitimate reading choice.

I recall all of my more advanced reading happened over the summers, when I'd grab more challenging books to tide me over the three weeks my family went on vacation. Digging through Dostoyevsky isn't easy when your reading is done in fifteen minute increments between classes and on the bus going to and from school.

Thank you. I find that there seems to be no interest in the gifted, or even the merely proficient. Everything is about bringing up the bottom, and while that is a lofty goal, the bottom is not the only important group. I'd like to see a groundswell of concern for the students that currently are expected to teach themselves in classrooms that are pitched to the lowest performers.

Oh goodness, I was a kid just like the ones you describe--in second grade I would think, "Ok. Time to read Dick and Jane Number 8." Five minutes. Reading at school wasn't reading. Reading was going home, to Elizabeth Goudge, and Black Beauty (the unabridged version), which I must have read a zillion times, and The Wind in the Willows...etc.

But in fifth grade, I had a teacher who by the end of the year let me sit in a corner and write stories as much as I wanted too...my math suffered.

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