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Seeing the Light

As someone who has pretty much always understood the need for and value of gifted education for our brightest little whippersnappers, I continue to be fascinated by people who have undergone a transition in their thinking and teaching regarding these students. I'm intrigued by teachers who once thought gifted students could do it all on their own, but now understand they need to be stretched and educated just like any other student.

Most of our society (especially - ironically! - in education circles) seems to think these kids will be just fine on their own, that they don't need anything "extra" because they were born with something extra. But every child should be encouraged and allowed to LEARN, and for our most advanced students learning often isn't happening. Frankly, our gifted students typically experience educational negligence because very little effort is put into actually teaching them. It isn't anything "extra" at all to do what we should be doing in the first place: educating every student to the best of his or her abilities.

What is it, then, that triggers a transition of thought in those who once believed these students essentially didn't need teaching? I suppose in a way I've hoped that if only I could find the answer to that question, then I could find the secret magic bullet that would help thousands of teachers and schools "see the light" and subsequently do better by these students.

At Edufest last week, I crossed paths with four women who fit this scenario. They happily agreed to offer their insights about their transition of thinking for all of us to ponder. (Names are pseudonyms.)

Kali: What did you used to think and believe about gifted students and gifted education? I used to believe that gifted ed starts in 3rd grade and that students who are gifted always do well academically unless they are lazy.

Describe the experience, person, book, moment, connection, or insight that triggered your "seeing the light" transition. My good friend and colleague brought me to Edufest in 2010. I was introduced to the concept of "twice exceptional" students and had a huge "A-HA!"

What is an analogy you would use to describe this transition? Even though a wrench is great at tightening a bolt, it doesn't mean it works well as a hammer. I need to use all the tools in my kit and add more when needed.

How are you different now? How is your teaching different now? How is your thinking different now? I think I'm better at recognizing "hidden giftedness". I work harder now to present lessons in multiple ways to teach all of my students. I want each one to learn and love learning.

Could you or would you ever go back? Not a chance.

Melissa: What did you used to think and believe about gifted students and gifted education? My previous attitude was that gifted students would not need any of the teacher's help. I believed it was up to their parents to supplement and enrich at home. I thought the gifted child should do the same work as the rest of the class - no excuses.

Describe the experience, person, book, moment, connection, or insight that triggered your "seeing the light" transition. A parent encouraged me to look at students individually because her son was gifted. She became a teacher to help more children like her son. Finally being the teacher of gifted students in the regular ed room, I began teaching more "individually" and after becoming educated through Edufest and a college course, I'll never go back to my previous thought pattern.

How are you different now? How is your teaching different now? How is your thinking different now? I am personally eager to provide for the more advanced/gifted children now. I do feel that more can be expected of the average and gifted children. I am not afraid now to allow children to go above and beyond my knowledge, skills, and expectations. I think gifted students are being underserved in today's schools. I want to do more to help.

Could you or would you ever go back? Absolutely not.

Karen: What did you used to think and believe about gifted students and gifted education? I used to think "gifted" only meant academic smarts. I thought "smart" kids could and would thrive and challenge themselves regardless of teacher interaction or lack thereof.

Describe the experience, person, book, moment, connection, or insight that triggered your "seeing the light" transition. My son, who was in a pull-out program for gifted students, was failing his high school general education classes. The GT teacher brought me to Edufest (as a parent - I'm also a teacher) to help me understand my son. As the week at Edufest went on, I realized that my son actually THINKS in a non-traditional fashion. Therefore, traditional education did NOT meet his needs.

What is an analogy you would use to describe this transition? Regular (traditional) education for my son was like planting and nurturing a plant hoping it would be corn and reach to the sky, when he was actually a potato hiding and growing in the dirt (dark).

How are you different now? How is your teaching or parenting different now? How is your thinking different now? I realized that my job was to love my son and allow him to be who he is. What he did with his education was up to him. I've been coming to Edufest for about 10 years now. As a teacher, I am more aware of the different abilities and learning styles in my classroom. I enlist the help of the GT teacher to differentiate my instruction. I also encourage other general ed teachers to attend Edufest. Also, this year I joined ITAG so I could advocate for gifted students and their education and have a voice in the Legislature. I strongly believe regular ed teachers need to learn how to reach and teach our gifted students to ensure a bright future.

Could you or would you ever go back? He11 NO!

MaryAnn: What did you used to think and believe about gifted students and gifted education? With budget cuts, I had made up my mind that if I had to choose between gifted ed and special ed that I would choose to keep the special ed.

Describe the experience, person, book, moment, connection, or insight that triggered your "seeing the light" transition. It wasn't any one thing. The keynote and Special Topics speakers, the Strands, and the other teachers at Edufest that I talked with all influenced me in my thinking.

What is an analogy you would use to describe this transition? It's like always making sure my dog has food and water but never checking on the cat, which seems independent but actually depends on me as equally as the dog. The dog will stay nourished and grow, but what will happen to the cat? She will eventually lose weight and decline in health if I don't feed her, too.

How are you different now? How is your teaching or parenting different now? How is your thinking different now? I now feel that my gifted son deserves an education that is at his own level. He deserves to be challenged as much as my special needs son is. I'm not sure my parenting will change, however my thinking now is to be sure that I advocate for my gifted son as much as I do for my special needs son.

Could you or would you ever go back? I do not believe so. Knowing how much my gifted son craves information, where would he be without specialists that are trained to work with him? Just think of the possibilities for gifted students. Who knows where their limits are? Why should they be stifled to fit into the regular classroom? Gifted students' needs are just like those of special ed students, except on the other end of the spectrum. Let's give gifted students what they need, just like we do for special needs and average students.

I don't know if it's a secret magic bullet, but the common theme I pick up on in reading their insights is that (again ironically) education was a transitional trigger for them (e.g. attending Edufest or taking a college course about gifted students). As I have mentioned here before, we typically learn shockingly little in teacher preparation courses about gifted students and how to best reach and stretch them. It's no wonder, then, that teachers struggle to see the light about why these students need education, too. Until broad changes are made at the college level, this awareness and knowledge will continue to have to come after-the-fact. So what can we do? Give a teacher a book about gifted students or differentiation. Sponsor a teacher's (or pre-service teacher's!) way to a gifted education conference. Provide gifted ed professional development for your school or district. Contact the college where you got your education degree and let them know how much you wish you had learned about gifted students BEFORE you got into the classroom. Advocate, advocate, advocate. Educate, educate, educate.

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