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Gifts

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I was gifted when gifted wasn't cool, or at least before it became de rigueur for every middle class kid with a parent on the PTA. My mom was a committed advocate of special programs for kids identified as "gifted and talented" when I was in elementary school in the late '70s and early '80s, to the point where she moved my twin brother and I to three different schools over the course of our primary career in order to follow Fairfax County's local full day program.

We developed the social skills of army brats, and got what I recall as a good education along the way. I remember doing a budget in Mrs. Canny's class, looking up ads for cars and apartments and pricing groceries to meet salaries according to professions picked from a hat. (Little did I suspect that later in life I'd draw "teacher" and struggle to do as an adult what we had done with enthusiastic ease as sixth graders.)

I reminisce upon noting a recent story in the Washington Post's Metro section, "Montgomery Erasing Gifted Label" (Tuesday, December 16, 2008). Two fifths of the students in the affluent and perennially high achieving school system are classified as gifted under the current sorting system, the article reports, including a Bethesda school with three quarters so labeled versus another school from a lower-income area at 13%.

Montgomery's move begs the question: Has the label lost its meaning? Statistics seem to support the practical reality that sharp-elbowed middle class parents can game special services for their kids at the expense of less savvy, lower income public education consumers.

Maybe the real question is: Can all kids be taught with "gifted" methods? If one defines this as a student-centered pedagogy based on differentiation, project-based learning, and cooperative problem-solving, I would say yes. (If that's too jargony, think of Mrs. Canny's budget unit).

My own third-grader is in a "regular" class in an Alexandria public school this year, which happens to be anything but regular because he finally got The Great Teacher and absolutely loves it. After a couple years of not loving it, this is really all I could ask for as a parent.

Which brings me to the truth that it isn't the label that matters so much as the teacher in the room. Chemistry can change from group to group, but what parents know through the grapevine and what statistics demonstrably confirm is that year after year, certain teachers do better than their peers.

What makes some teachers really good? Rather than focusing on whether or not children are gifted, maybe this is the question we need to ask. Because regardless of what kids get or don't get under the tree this time of year, every one of them should go back to class after winter break with the same sense of anticipation.

3 Comments

I think those budget assignments are kind of a rite of passage. My 5th grade teacher to the assignment to the extreme; we actually created a miniature country, complete with a bicameral legislature, weekly market places, and a corrupt banking system. Good times.

I don't think that everyone can be taught using gifted methods; at the very least, there is some inherent benefit in 'isolating' students who are more intellectually mature than their peers. I recognize that my experience in G&T is not one that applies to all students, but I found my four years of G&T schooling prior to entering TJ some of the best of my life, and a key component of that experience was that my classmates on the same page as me. What makes students enjoy a class is not just the teacher, but also their classmates--a fantastic teacher won't provide much benefit to a child if the child is surrounded by others who either have less desire or capacity to learn.

Leave it to a whip smart former TJ student to point out the obvious: it's the kids, silly. Not just parents, or even their navel-gazing teachers, but students themselves have a stake in the debate over GT or not GT. I appreciate Hannah's desire to be with other nerds (or at least avoid an anti-intellectual or discipline-driven climate). It's one I share, after years in various trenches.

The question with which I ended my post is not unrelated, however. With the segregation of smart kids generally comes a preferred teacher, one who has risen to the plum position of working with the best, most willing students. This is not to say that all good teachers are GT teachers, of course. But a lot of GT teachers are good, and we can fruitfully ask what makes them so.

New thoughts about teacher quality have been knocking about in my head since reading a recent Malcolm Gladwell article in the New Yorker ("Most Likely to Succeed," Dec 15, 2008), in which he draws an analogy between good teachers and good NFL quarterbacks (both, it turns out, are hard to "predict"). More on that soon.

Someone once told me that the population with the highest percentage of gifted members is our prison system. I wonder if that's true....?
For the record, there were no gifted children in my Montgomery County schools from 1960-1970. No such labels. We did have a bluebird reading group though.

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