The Wheel Still Turns
The availability of appropriate academic accommodations for gifted students in our country is rather hit and miss. While it is true that the situation varies on a grand scale between states (diverse policies, laws, etc. – or even non-existent policies/laws), the nuts and bolts reality is that even within a state, community, district, or school with a uniform policy, differences range wildly. In any school anywhere, a gifted child could be receiving excellent accommodations within one classroom and a gifted child in the classroom next door could be re-“learning” the same material for the fifth year in a row – yet she had it mastered the first time.
My goal today is to offer some hope and some strategies. Wherever you are, and no matter the laws and policies that may govern your state/locale, there are little things we can each do that can add up to make a big difference.
I have no quick and easy solutions. Like many of you, I desire them myself, but typically they are delicate, unduly complex, and emotional to pull off. Though they are possible, today I am going to focus on the little things we can each do in our own situations to add to the tide.
When I first began my job a dozen years ago, I kept hearing from many of my students that they were frustrated with having to re-learn the same material for the fifth year in a row in a particular segment of our district (I will not identify grade levels in this public format. Besides, the essence applies to any grade level. Additionally, things have now mostly changed.) Trying to be the diplomatic messenger - as well as to advocate for the students I was hired to advocate for - I met with the teachers involved, gently (or so I thought) passed on the message, and offered to collaborate, brainstorm, think outside the box with them to generate some possible ideas/solutions/alternatives.
The response? Essentially: “We’ve been teaching since you were in diapers. Why are you here?”
Needless to say, I was devastated.
Thus began my struggle to find ways to effectively advocate for my charges, gain appropriate accommodations for them, and do so all without rocking the boat and sinking it again. (It was a couple years before some of those teachers would even talk to me again.) While I do take some pleasure in rocking the boat a little bit, I learned the hard way that sinking it doesn’t do anyone involved any good – and the goal gets lost in the depths.
So I stepped back – waaay back – went about the business I could do, and observed intently.
Suggested strategy #1: Observe. Rather than pound down the front door and force your way in, sneak in the back door and simply sit and observe for awhile. In the meantime, your presence will become part of the fabric, part of the scenery, part of the norm.
Observe the culture - not just the “school culture,” but also the broader culture of the community, county, state. For example, we Montanans are fiercely independent. The landscape demands it of us. To survive here means knowing how to make it on your own. Therefore, we don’t take kindly to outsiders telling us what to do and how to do it (y’all might remember our experiment with no posted speed limits, an idea that somewhat illustrates this point). We’re used to figuring a way out ourselves – out of necessity. My fatal flaws that day with those teachers? I was still an outsider (2nd year teacher, 1st year in this District) and I left an opening for them to perceive that I was telling them what to do. I hadn’t observed enough yet and consequently got myself in deep early on.
As you observe the culture, search for answers to questions such as these: How does change happen here? What philosophies drive the people to do what they do, think what they think, and resist what they resist? Who is really in charge? Where do you see glimmers of hope? Which little piece can you change easily? And then go from there.
For example, one glimmer (rather, a radiant beam) of hope that I observed when I first came here was the process our elementary schools employed to teach Reading. I can’t really call it a “program” per se because it’s actually a combination of pieces from a few different programs. In a nut shell, each student progresses at his or her own pace, with the struggling readers receiving loads of additional help and with the advanced readers not being held back and instead being encouraged to soar as far as they can go. When I came to understand how our Reading “program” worked here, I realized it manifested an already-present philosophy (albeit somewhat isolated) that I could build upon into other areas. It gave me hope.
In which piece of your own situation, however big or small, can you find that glimmer?
Suggested strategy #2: Subtle blitz. I couldn’t observe forever, and knew I needed to begin by at least doing something, so I began a “food for thought" campaign. About every three weeks, I put a little something into everyone’s mailboxes to gently encourage some reflection or thinking about gifted students. Typically, it is a thought-provoking quotation (examples below) or a short article about a topic in gifted education. (Everyone gets one, from the custodians to the Superintendent.) When I began this strategy years ago, one of my first items for them was a half-page article from Gifted Child Today about grouping practices and why it's important to place gifted students together at least part of the time. The reaction from one teacher: "Hey, that was interesting. I think I may try some of the suggestions." The reaction I got from another person: "So, are you the one putting all this gifted propaganda in our mailboxes?" Yep… sweet, innocent, little ol’ me: a subversive ;o)
I type up the quotations about six on a page, copy them, and cut them into strips that I then distribute to mailboxes. A few quotes you could begin with: "Every child deserves an equal opportunity to struggle." (Mary Slade); "Expecting all children the same age to learn from the same materials is like expecting all children the same age to wear the same size clothing." (Madeline Hunter); "One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar!" (Helen Keller); "You can never hold a person down without staying down with him." (Booker T. Washington); "Give me rigor or give me mortis!" (Michael Clay Thompson); "Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master." (Leonardo da Vinci); "There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals." (Justice Felix Frankfurter); "The pupil who is never required to do what he cannot do, never does what he can do." (John Stuart Mill). Use one of those every few weeks and that should give you a good start.
Again, keep in mind that not everyone may appreciate it at first. But over time you may notice teachers taping the quotes to the walls behind their desks, which I began to see, - a subtle sign that they're getting it :o)
Suggested strategy #3: Take advantage of good opportunities when they come along. Our district “failed” when NCLB was first enacted (if I remember correctly, we only had 94% of our students take the test instead of the required minimum of 95%, and one sub-group didn’t quite make it in Reading while another sub-group didn’t quite make it in Math). So the next year we had to implement some new ideas for better reaching our non-proficient kids. [Opinionated side note: Why must it take “failing” some federal litmus test for schools to implement aggressive strategies to reach non-proficient students? Shouldn’t schools just DO that because it’s the right thing to do? It shouldn’t have to take something like NCLB to get us to do what’s right by our learners.] Anyway, our middle school began looking at implementing a mandatory Reading class for all 7th and 8th graders (squeezing a new 8th class period into the day so that they could each still have two electives instead of reducing it down to just one), as well as separate Math classes for the kids who weren’t yet proficient in Math.
By this point in time, I had thankfully already laid some groundwork with my ‘subversive’ efforts, and I knew that at least half of the teachers would be on board. I stepped in and talked with the principal: “Ya know, these kids were all placed into readiness-level small groups when they were learning how to read in elementary school. If, philosophically, we recognize the need to group the non-proficient readers together to target appropriate accommodations for them, then we need to also group the advanced readers together for the same reason.” I added, “If we’re going to group the non-proficient Math kids together, then we need to also put the kids who are ready for an advanced curriculum together. We have plenty of kids who are capable of more than we are requiring of them.” His response (essentially): “Good point. We’ll work it in.”
It didn’t magically happen, and it wasn’t instantaneous, but we did implement relatively leveled classes in Reading and Math that year. And since that time, we have gotten closer to polishing the way it all works together.
What did we discover? Those struggling Math learners suddenly loved Math – because they finally felt like they were actually learning something (instead of always being left in the dust). And the advanced Math learners - they ALSO finally felt like they were actually learning something (instead of always being held behind, waiting for the other kids to catch up). And isn’t LEARNING what it’s all about? :o)
Is an opportunity knocking on your door? Then go for it!
Suggested strategy #4: Teach the gifted child(ren) in your life how to self-advocate.
The child speaking up and asking for challenging accommodations is much more powerful than a GT specialist or a parent doing it. And over time, the more kids who speak up to the teachers about a need for more challenging curriculum, the more likely the teacher begins to realize that it's a real need (rather than it just being the GT specialist or parent bugging them yet again.) I tell my kids that if they are going to self-advocate, they need to follow the Four P's: 1) Be polite (don't say "this is boring.") 2) Do it in private (not in front of the rest of the class.) 3) Provide proof (that they've actually mastered the content.) And 4) Propose an alternative (a challenging accommodation that the child and teacher can agree upon). For some kids, it is a good idea to role-play the process ahead of time. Usually the kids meet with success (i.e. a receptive teacher and accommodations). Teachers can appreciate the feedback from the kids because otherwise it is sometimes hard for them to tell to what degree they're actually meeting their needs. Additionally, when a child self-advocates, not only does the teacher gain a deeper understanding of the child’s learning needs, but the child develops the same deeper understanding.
So, I offer for you today these pearls of relative wisdom from my own experience – in the hopes that you can avoid some of the pitfalls I fell into early on, and in the hopes that at least one of these ideas can prove helpful for you in your situation. The wheel may turn slowly, but it DOES still turn. A dozen years ago, I don’t know that we had any students here accelerated in any subjects (besides Reading, of course). Now, there are so many that it is a challenge for me to keep track of all of them. We still have plenty of room for improvement, but at least we’ve made some progress. The pieces almost become dominoes at some un-definable point: one piece falling necessitates that others do the same. The last couple of weeks, I have been marveling at the changes over these years, including the fact that some changes have happened without my needing to nudge for them. Instead, they happen because the teachers involved know that it’s simply the right thing to do for our learners.