06 September 2017

Who Are the Gifted?

A couple of notes before we begin that deserve their own posts, but I'll never get ANYTHING written if I don't just jump ahead and just throw all of the background info at you.

1. I changed schools over the summer! I've moved from teaching high school math at McCluer North High School in the Ferguson-Florissant School District, so teaching middle school at our district's new "STEAM and Gifted Academy." It wasn't really a change I planned to make, but I was drawn to the task of highlighting the exceptional things that kids from North St. Louis County could accomplish, and with having free reign to play in the project-based learning sandbox. So, new setting, with slightly different kids. I've been teaching mostly remedial math students the last few years - all of my students at the STEAM Academy have been labeled as "gifted".

2. As part of my hiring at the STEAM Academy, I had to be willing to go back to school and get a special GIFTED certification added to my educator certificate. Since I'm going to be writing and reflecting for my courses anyway, I plan on posting most of that here. Tonight's post is the first in that series

Who Are the Gifted?

I've said to friends before, and perhaps even on this blog, that I believe all children are gifted. I've said it with the best of intentions, meaning that all children can find talents and activities in which they are exceptionally skilled beyond their peers. In my definition, kids might be artistically gifted, athletically gifted, mechanically gifted, musically gifted, or even emotionally gifted (leaving room for down syndromed adults that might struggle in other areas, but man, will they love you to death!) The educator's role in this definition of giftedness was to expose students to anything and everything possible, to make sure that each and every teenager in my care had a chance to discover things in which they were gifted, and then grab that interest with all their might, using a newfound passion to exhibit how brilliant, talented, interesting, and worthy they were to society. A kid's giftedness was their path to contributing to society. 

That being said, the reading from Tracy Cross’ On the Social and Emotional Lives of Gifted Children this week was revelatory because it took aim to take my holistic approach to giftedness for all and shoot a keen arrow through the center. As I prepped for the new school year this summer, my perception of working with gifted children was that the “hard” work of getting kids to buy into learning and education was over for me, and many of my colleagues across the district also expressed that my move to the gifted school was effectively a move to a school where all of the problems of educators dealings with children and families would largely be absent.

Cross makes an explicit warning in the first chapter of Social and Emotional… that lumping “gifted” kids into categories, whether by positive attributes or negative neuroses has a detrimental effect on each individual child, and limits the child from reaching their full potential. “...we should be cautious not to impose on dominant perspective on our efforts to identify the social and emotional needs of this widely diverse group.” (Cross, 1) Later on in the chapter, Cross introduces a framework of social and emotional issues from the work of Thomas Buescher (1985) that guides the narrative beyond a rosy, all-the-gifted-kids-are-fine lens, or an all-the-gifted-kids-are-weird-and-need-socialization, to a more nuanced, fluid perspective on the needs of gifted children that are always in flux between dichotomous views about themselves and their place in the world.

The gifted are not just kids who get good grades and have been proficiently trained at school and home with the necessary skills to win the school game. They could be in that group, but they just as likely may have developed coping strategies to get through a doldrum school day that makes them appear the least likely to succeed and engage in school (Cross, 18).

Then again, who are the gifted? Cross stands firmly on a stance that in academic research and experimentation, every child is not and can not be by definition “gifted”. (Cross, 21) The most challenging section to my own definition and identification of who are “gifted” was in the chapter about myths about giftedness, and it spoke directly to my claim that “all children are gifted.” According to Cross, educators, parents, and psychologists are quick to make the statement that “all children are gifted,” because they are attaching value and worth to the label. “Giftedness is not an anointment of value. Someone who shows extraordinary ability for high levels of performance when young and has been provided appropriate opportunities to demonstrate talent development that exceeds normal levels of performance is gifted.” (Cross, 19) The error and danger that educators often fall into is assigning worth, privileges, and opportunities to gifted kids just because they are. In reaction to those first educators, well-meaning educators such as myself say in a sense, “Well, so and so deserves to feel special, too,” in a spirit of inclusiveness.

Who are the gifted? The gifted are data points are a normal curve, according to Lawrence J. Coleman (Cross, 52). They are individuals who, at a given snapshot in time had surpassed a given benchmark for knowledge in a given subject area that was higher than the average child their age. The gifted need special attention to keep them developing at their own, individual “normal,” rate, because that’s what is “normal” for that individual child. Gifted education, therefore, becomes a moral, justice-related concern because a gifted child only because “abnormal” once we try to remove them from their point along the normal curve and regress them to the mean.

In education, we teach the child where they are, when they are. The gifted are children with similar anxieties and emotional needs to others who perform at average, or below average abilities, so in that sense, we teach them with the same concern and care as all other children. To use Lawrence J. Coleman’s language, “everyone falls under this [normal] umbrella.”