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.