Steak. When you spend some time in Nebraska and Texas, you know what a good steak looks like and tastes like. I and two other gifted specialists, two first grade teachers and a fourth grade teacher sat down at a great steak restaurant in the famous Stockyards after a long day at the Texas Association for Gifted and Talented (TAGT) conference in Fort Worth. We were not disappointed (actually the first grade teacher was because she ordered catfish.)
I could go on about how we each are different and we each ordered different things from the menu selection and prove my point about how important differentiation is in our classrooms but most of you already know this.
Rather, I would like to delve into the message of how important it is for us to ‘stick’ with our profession of advocating and teaching our gifted learners. This message was thoroughly conveyed beginning with the opening session by Dr. Robyn Jackson with Mindsteps, Inc. keynote address to Dr. Jim Delisle’s closing address at the 2010 TAGT Conference in Fort Worth, TX.
Dr. Robyn Jackson’s message focused on how teachers can fall into three types of myths when it comes to working with students. She began with, “We think we know what a gifted student looks like.” She discussed the Standards Myth reminding us that standards are just that – standards. If we expect a student to clear the bar then we are expecting too little from our gifted students. As teachers, we also know that the things we most value are the things we expect from our children which is part of the Attribution Myth. I expected a tender, flavorful steak because of my experiences of living and eating beef in Texas and Nebraska. Others at the table may have had different expectations. Dr. Jackson made the point that if we are to raise our expectations, we need to first raise our values and beliefs. We may also need to realize that our values could be based on false assumptions. Hmmm, chew on that for awhile.
The last myth she expanded upon was the Pygmalion Myth. This is exemplified by the statement, “If you love something enough, they will flower; I can take anybody and make them anything.” How many teachers out there try to live this out everyday? This is very honorable but the cold hard facts are that we only work with our children 180 days of their lives (unless we get lucky and see the children more than one year.) Additionally, our expectations are focused on the object: the student. We can make a difference in the lives of the students we work with but we must face the facts that some of them come from impoverished homes or a different culture. Our effectiveness is the result of our beliefs and values. We are the object that we need to focus on. If we understand and value where are students are coming from we can be ten times more effective.
As teachers, we need to face the “brutal facts” that our students deal with every day, our less than desirable job situation, and our nation’s misplaced priorities. Period. Then we need to have “unwavering faith that no matter what we will succeed.” Those in the field of gifted research and education know that obstacles are a part of their work. All of us understand how important it is to be there for our gifted learners. In my short six years of educating and 20 some years of parenting gifted children, I get the most satisfaction when a former student says or writes to me on Facebook, “The best times I had in 4th grade was being in your class” or “you let me talk about.”
Dr. Jackson pointed out that “we must hold on to our principles but we can change our strategies and techniques.” That statement was the springboard into all the break out sessions of the conference. I attended sessions on techniques ranging from the IIM Research method, using depth & complexity icons, Texas Performance Standards projects, using technology tools and social media with my students. All very good strategies and techniques for opening up the ceiling of learning and publishing options for the work our students create.
The closing keynote by Dr. Delisle was also inspiring. He never fails to deliver thought provoking messages which always include writings from the students he has worked with over the years. He said, “gifted students cannot be identified by using simplistic tools” because the definition of a gifted student is too complex and varied. Just look to the hundreds of definitions of giftedness around the world! Settling upon one definition may be what the field of gifted education needs in order to speed up its growth but it may be akin to setting a standard. We’ve already discussed the dangers of having a standard when it comes to a gifted learner. However, Dr. Delisle did point out that the definition that has had the most longevity is the one written 65 years ago by Annemarie Roeper: “Giftedness is a greater awareness, a greater sensitivity, and a greater ability to understand and transform perceptions into intellectual and emotional experiences.”
When the steak is given to a chef who understands its flavors, textures, and processes a wonderful meal is born. When a gifted student is in the masterful hands of a well-trained teacher of the gifted, students succeed beyond all invisibly set boundaries. “Gifted students are not harmed in the on-level classroom, they simply don’t grow.” “Gifted students must be grouped together in order to learn.” Personally, I feel that our gifted students need both time with their age peers, time with their academic peers and time with an understanding adult. Striking that balance is the fine art of knowing the needs of the student (…and raising your beliefs and values which in turn raise your expectations). It’s time for many teachers to “be brave and look at the other side of the desk.” (All quotations are Jim Delisle’s.)
I know that our world appreciates the inventions and ingenuity from our gifted children who grow into gifted adults just like some people appreciate when a steak is cooked to perfection. Our call as educators is to look at each student that crosses our path and determine, “What’s best for the child?” It’s time to recognize that each student comes to us with a variety of needs and skills. We must work to provide for those needs, regardless of their intellectual ability. We must provide the best learning situations that will bring out the best in each student. It could mean putting a 9 year old with a 12 year old based on his/her intellectual skill or putting the 12 year old with the 9 year old but always putting them with a highly skilled teacher.
I hope I have encouraged you to order or cook up a good steak tonight and mull over how you can advocate for our gifted learners. If not you, then who?