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Not It

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Remember running after kids on the playground, tapping them under the slide with an unequivocal, “You’re it!”? Back when tag was a game, the rules were simple. Now that it’s an acronym for “talented and gifted” in my son’s school, things aren’t so clear cut.

I found myself at a PTA meeting last week, learning the ins and outs and acting, inadvertently, like the parents I dread when addressing a group as Dean. A bright-faced first year teacher was blithely describing the entrance requirements and curriculum for the “pull out programs” in language arts and math that my son might be eligible for as he moves into fourth grade at our local public school. And suddenly, it felt personal.

I was the product of gifted and talented programs growing up, as I’ve shared. Fairfax County’s model was and still is different than Alexandria’s, where I now live. FCPS has “centers,” self-contained schools where the selected kids enjoy “GT” classes all day long, a school within a school model that stands in stark contrast to the rationed “pull outs” of Alexandria. In this model, kids leave their base classroom for an hour or two a day to get special lessons only in areas in which they are deemed gifted (due to budget constraints, science and social studies aren’t offered).

How do you get the stamp of approval? Each district has its own screening criteria, which begs some obvious questions about what it means to be gifted in the first place. In our school, a committee determines if a student scores in the “superior” range in four of five categories: an ability test (“Naglieri’s Nonverbal,” if you’re wondering); an achievement test; teacher rating based on a checklist of observed behaviors; student work samples, produced under controlled conditions (a writing sample or math quiz in the guidance counselor’s office, I think); and grades.

There is an alternative if currently underused path to admission, apparently, called the “Differentiated Education Plan,” or DEP. It was my sense that the school was hoping to diversify the mostly middle class population in the program through more aggressive use of this, but as a newcomer to the scene I can’t speak to that with authority.

What does running this gauntlet get your kid? I was heartened when reading a handout that listed qualities of the “bright child” versus those of the “gifted learner.” The first column included “knows the answers, copies accurately, good memorizer, enjoys sequential presentation…”. My son’s resistance to learning his 7’s time tables flashed across my mind as I read.

The “gifted” column sounded much better: “has wild silly ideas, creates a new design, initiates projects…”. Images of the lego-strewn basement and backyard games with Jack organizing the neighborhood kids into stations for cowboy training seemed suddenly signs of intense academic promise.

My bubble burst when I heard the newly minted teacher describe the sorts of activities that occurred in her class: “In math, we start in Chapter 4 and by fifth grade we get as far as we can through the sixth grade book.” She looked pleased as punch at this point, adding, “The children are expected to keep up.”

In language arts, there were daybooks of critical skills and vocabulary books and five paragraph essays. And, lots and lots of sentence diagramming. Here, the young teacher smiled again, as broad as a Cheshire cat: “It’s very intense.” My hand went up of its own accord at this point in the presentation.

“How do you teach writing?” I asked, hoping for a ray of, well, anything from the “gifted” list rather than the “bright” list. I didn’t get it. Writing prompts, five paragraph essays, reports with footnotes. Footnotes for fourth graders? I could picture my son withering under the regimen. Did I mention the two C’s rule? Not keeping up gets you “exited” (repetition of the phrase “expected to keep up” here, still with a smile but lips primly pursed.)

The meeting went on, and my hand popped up a few more times. It really wasn’t my intent to put the young teacher on the spot, or the guidance counselor who sat mutely by her side. No one else among the couple dozen parents seemed to have as many doubts as I did. The accelerated traditional program I’d heard described was not what I wanted for my son.

But I also know that in this context, it is the only way to get out of a classroom next year where he likely won’t be pushed. Grapevine reviews of next year’s teachers make it pretty clear that he won’t be having the fantastic time he’s enjoying now with a still energetic thirty-year vet under whom he’s thrived.

Which, all in all, leaves me feeling like the last kid on the playground, looking for someone to play tag with after all the others have gone home for dinner. I honestly don’t know what we’ll do with my son next year. But I’m pretty sure I know what we won’t.


11 Comments

The concerns you have with the gifted program made me think of all the 'successful' programs for minority/underachieving students. These programs seem to focus on drilling facts and skills without even a nod to the thinking processes behind it all.

I guess it isn't too surprising that we face the same concerns on both ends of the spectrum.

As an elementary Montessori teacher in training, so far I'm not really sure yet how I will teach writing to my children. Perhaps we haven't gotten to that part of the training. But I'm curious - what would you like to see elementary teachers doing to teach writing?

The gifted program at my son's school was similar to your experience- with the added bonus feature that since level kids were also in the classroom, the gifted kids had to do the level work and then they would be allowed to do the gifted work (which was just another worksheet with "harder" problems- not even a pullout).

Gifted kids had to do a special research project (starting in 3rd grade) from which they are supposed to make a "professional quality product" (what does that even mean to a 9 year old?) with only parental supervision and no teacher instruction. So the only aspect of the gifted program that did allow for some individuality and maybe some creativity, the kids were basically on their own.

As Jenny related, many of our schools have taken the joy out of teaching and learning at all ends of the spectrum (as our teachers readily admit). The solution for all kids is more drill and worksheets and expectations that are not developmentally appropriate.

P.S. My son is now homeschooled.

As an artist and art teacher, I'm always bemused by "gifted" programs that focus myopically on math or language skills, and--as you discovered--do little but drill the students more.

That's about as enlightened as the small-town schools where my sister and I grew up. Our IQs and grades easily would have slotted us into "gifted" programs if such had existed, but as it was, if we asked our teachers for anything beyond the standard fare, we were given extra math or English worksheets to do. Being bright, we quickly stopped asking, and just developed our own projects at home.

Really--how dare we waste any of the talents our children have? How is it not a criminal offense to fail to offer opportunities to all students for more creativity and thinking skills?

Emmet, your son deserves to be challenged and encouraged to think as creatively and intelligently as possible--whether some arbitrary guideline based on a pencil-and-paper test puts him in the "gifted" category or not. And so do everybody else's kids.

It irks me to think that when a school district actually can afford to spend a little money on enriching kids' education, they end up squandering it on unimaginative efforts to pile the work on "higher and deeper," but no more creatively.

Good for you for asking questions and for sticking up for the idea of creative teaching within the classroom setting, whether it be gifted or remedial. Unless we begin to speak out against the droll approach rammed down our throats in the name of test scores, we will never be able to capture the professionalism and magic that should be an important part of our work. After all, it is children that we deal with each and every day. If we don't speak on their behalf, who will?

Hey, Emmet.

What makes you think Jack won't be "pushed" in his regular classroom? That's the key question here.

I'm guessing Alexandria developed the program because of strongly expressed parent desire to publicly identify and separate gifted kids, and a strong need to defend pulling the "right" kids for acceleration (the testing battery employed is proof of that--holy smokes).

In Gifted Education, there are two streams of practice: acceleration and enrichment.

In acceleration, some kids will not be able to keep up. Why they're not keeping up is not something TAG defenders don't want to look too closely at--since it sometimes conflicts with the "my kid is bored" thing parents use to explain why their child must have access to restricted resources (or as a nation, we will fail economically and politically--or some such).

In enrichment, everyone can participate (like the Fairfax model). Some kids will go further, faster than others, because (guess what) they're more capable. And maybe they're a little wild and silly and creative.

I would look for the teacher who sees brilliance in wild and silly, rather than restricted accelerated programs. In the end, does it matter if a kid takes Algebra in the 7th grade or 8th grade? Only to competitive parents and policymakers reading international comparisons. Unless Jack is the next Doogie Howser, I think your concerns are valid.

BTW, I have a masters degree in G & T.

From my experience teaching pull-out programs, gifted kids often need both enrichment and acceleration.

Acceleration can work wonderfully, particularly if students are allowed to pace themselves. (For example, a student highly gifted in math may be frustrated with the pace of a "regular" algebra class whether he/she takes it in 5th grade or 8th grade.)

I've personally seen gifted kids thrive with acceleration that has been implemented appropriately.

Hi Emmet,

My daughter Lily enters first grade next year. We've had her in a Montessori school the past three years, but next year we are moving over to public. I have been agonizing over the decision, because these days we can choose the public school and there are so many variables to consider. Lily kind of lives in her imagination, so I wonder how she'll do just keeping up with the curriculum necessary to do well on Taks tests.. It is great to read your post, though I'm sorry to see I'm not the only one wringing my hands over how to proceed.

My 5-year old daughter was staffed into the Gifted program this fall at the beginning of her Kindergarten year. I have an older child that has been in the program for two years now and he has really enjoyed the creative problem solving and exciting thematic units the Gifted teachers develop. I think very highly of the Gifted program at our school and how they meet the students' needs for challenge and growth, not just extended drill on rote skills. However, the real eye-opener for me occurred at the staffing meeting for my daughter to enter the program. All of the school officials around the table took turns congratulating me and saying how wonderful it was going to be for my daughter to go to the pull-out Gifted program one day a week. When this discussion began to wind down, the Gifted teacher spoke up. "Now let's get down to what this meeting should really be addressing - what can we do to meet {her} needs the other four days of the week?". Wow! What an advocate for my child! Gifted students need a differentiated curriculum every day of the week, no matter whose classroom they happen to be in that day. They do not need to be helping the other students of the class understand today's lesson or complete today's worksheet. They need to be taught something new and exciting every day!

I grew up in a GT program in Fairfax County as well, and it was none of the things that you mentioned above. As I get old enough to have my own kids (and still live in FC) I hope that what you describe isn't true across the board, and that perhaps it is just a misguided teacher- not a trend. I can't imagine doing any of what you described for the advanced kids in my own classroom.

I may be a little late to leave a comment here, but I can't help dropping in this information when I see a chance.

We should always be asking how the gifted students are identified. The testing sounds fine, but does every student get to take the test? In the town of Davis, CA, the school system wondered why their gifted students were so disproportionately white and Asian. They had been relying on teachers and parents, I think, to recommend students to be screened and tested. Then, they decided at some point to test everyone - and the representation of Latino, African-American, and Native American students in the gifted program rose anywhere from 100-400% depending on the group.

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