Julie’s Take on "Giftedness"

A perfect world

When I was growing up I was labeled a smart kid.  I was labeled by my teachers and my peers.  Back in the dark ages of the 70s, we didn’t have gifted classes.  When I was in fifth grade, a retired accountant came in to school and took five (I was the only girl!) of us out of our homeroom class to ‘enrich’ us.  The only thing I remember from my enrichment was one of the boys, Bobby, blowing up a computer.  I remember the sparks flying out of the wall and the terror that filled all of our little heads.  Two years later, when my brother was in fifth grade, the school district started an official enrichment program for ‘gifted’ kids.  I think it involved more than hanging out in the computer lab.  I vaguely remember him doing something with a bunch of fruit flies.
As a child, I did not like my label because it became my identity and I had a hard time traversing the worlds of smart kids and popular kids.  But I kept my label throughout school, took all my AP classes and graduated in the top of my class.  I went to Notre Dame with all the other smart kids and quickly lost my label that had become my distinction.  During freshman orientation, they laid out the statistics for us.  They told us how many of us were valedictorians and salutatorians. They told us the average GPA of our class.  Basically, they told us our intelligence was not what made us special.  All of the sudden my identifying trait disappeared and I was forced to re-discover myself.
As a parent, I loathe labels.  I have one child who has been identified or labeled by the system as gifted.  I imagine his student file has a big blue GIFTED stamped across it.  I have one child who took the test and isn’t quite gifted yet but we’re hoping things will turn in her favor this year and she will get the big blue stamp on her folder too.  (She did fake a headache during one of the tests and had to come home so maybe this test wasn’t an accurate portrayal of her intelligence.)  Do you sense a little sarcasm?  There is more than a little.  And I will explain why in a minute.
As an educator (I have my Masters in Elementary Education, taught first and fourth grade and now teach preschool.), I see some value in labels as it helps a teacher and school identify children who may need special services.  But I am beginning to think the gifted label, as used by our schools, is unnecessary and not very helpful to anyone.  I believe when they are designating a child as gifted they are labeling their potential and therefore labeling a lesser amount of potential in others.
In fact, I believe in a perfect world we wouldn’t have any gifted education. We would be individuating our instruction for each child  in order to help them reach their potential.  But in our overcrowded and underfunded classrooms that’s not possible.   The state tests force our teachers to teach to the test instead of to the child.
I believe that every child is ‘gifted.’  Howard Gardner, a Harvard Psychology and Neuroscience professor, defines 9 different intelligences.  Interestingly, when I was getting my Masters, Gardner had  only identified 7 types of intelligence.    It begins to be apparent at a very young age which type of intelligence your child may have.  In a perfect world, teachers would be able to help their students find their area of giftedness and realize IQ is not the only determinant of a gifted child.
I also believe that children learn in different ways.  This also becomes apparent at a very young age.
But our schools only test or look at a child’s IQ and they only use one style to assess that IQ.  I think it would be near impossible to find every child’s area of intelligence.  Notice I have been saying in a perfect world we would be able to do just that.  But in this imperfect world, we need to stop labeling our children as gifted and therefore implying that they may be superior to other students in some way.
I know plenty of people who have their kids tutored for the big gifted test.   Tutoring for the test invalidates the test and the term gifted as used by our schools.  The term gifted is bandied about in my zip code.  Sometimes I feel like it is more of a status symbol for the parents and not an accurate portrayal of the child.
My son’s school has a separate parent organization for the gifted students and teachers.  The gifted teachers receive special support throughout the year with things like snacks during faculty meetings, extra gift cards during the year and of course a group of parents willing to help them at a moments notice.   I think all the teachers in the school – gifted or non gifted – are deserving of the extra rewards and support.  Why not give that to each teacher?  Gifted students take Math and English classes every other day while the rest of the school has Math and English everyday.  I do not see the reason behind this system as I know my son could benefit from having Algebra every single day even if it was for a shorter amount of time.
All that being said, my son’s program is top notch.  I truly believe the majority of students would thrive in the program. He is learning things in an engaging manner.  He is being challenged by teachers who are beyond passionate. I am constantly amazed by the enthusiasm his teachers exhibit.  They go above and beyond what they are required to do but I think they would do that no matter who they taught.  He is not being lectured.  There is a lot of choice involved in his work.  For many of his projects he has the option to create things like a video or a Powerpoint presentation or some sort of diorama or 3 D sculpture.  The choice is most always his.  And because of this, he is always interested in what he is doing.  Since material is being presented in so many different ways students with all different types of learning styles benefit.
I just want what he has for every child.  Although I believe all 4 of my children would thrive in the program, I am not sure they will do well enough on the gifted test to earn a spot.  It saddens me and has made me realize that I will need to help them find their area of giftedness. In some ways it makes me think I have to reduce the importance of school while I help them find other ways to learn, succeed and thrive.
I did my Masters thesis on an educational idea called The Project Approach.  In The Project Approach, the kids create the curriculum with the help of the teacher.  This approach is similar to the inquiry method and expeditionary learning.  All involve a student focused type of education.  With the Project Approach, at the beginning of the school year the teacher and students compile a list of topics the kids would like to study in greater detail.  In my first grade class in Chicago, the kids wanted to learn more about their city.  The teacher’s job is to come up with activities and ways to get the kids involved in the learning.  We took walks around the neighborhood and mapped it out in our classroom.  This taught the kids all about community specifically their community.   Community members and workers came into the class and told us about their jobs and life in the community.   For example, we had a city bus driver come in and talk about what he did.  We looked at pictures of the downtown area and for our final project created our own Chicago.  We used recycled items and built our own city in the room.  Then we acted like museum guides and other classes in the school toured our room.  My 28 inner city first graders were empowered and learned meaningful facts about communities.
That’s what I see my son getting from his ‘gifted’ classes – empowerment while he’s learning.  I’m not saying kids in other classes aren’t getting this.  I sure hope they are.  But I do know that his program is designed to give the kids just that and I think that should be a part of every classroom and will then allow us to get rid of the unnecessary and inaccurate GIFTED label.

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