Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Let's Celebrate Gifted Kids

By Pam Kenney

Sean* is ten and a gifted child. He reads voraciously, thinks way outside the box, and is on a personal quest to understand the world around him by learning as much as he can about everything he can as fast as he can. Like many other bright kids, his social skills aren't as well-developed as those of some of his peers, and he finds many of his classroom assignments needlessly repetitive and not particularly challenging (and says so, of course); he can be a know-it-all.

I know Sean well, and I imagine he can be a handful for his teacher and often irritating to his classmates. His school, though, thinks he may have a "problem". Maybe he needs a social skills class or would benefit from some other type of intervention... After all, the kids in his grade have complained about him because he brags sometimes, and he thinks he's so-o-o smart, and he's quite touchy, reacting verbally when they tease him.

Sean does not need a social skills class. He doesn't have a problem---he's smart. And it's time educators started celebrating the uniqueness of academically gifted students instead of labeling their eccentricities as problems that need to be fixed. Yes, Sean should learn that tooting his own horn isn't the way to make friends, but his classmates need to be taught that their behavior toward him, manifested solely to bring him down a peg or two, is equally inappropriate.

Classrooms are composed of children of every stripe and are ideal environments for teachers to initiate discussions with their students about differences among people, including intellectual and personality-related ones. Kids already know that some of us are more athletic or musical than others; some are good with their hands while others are more awkward. They've been told since they were toddlers that we're all different, and that that's a good thing. Yes, it is a good thing, but schools today are so intent on bolstering children's self-esteem and reassuring them that they are up to every challenge, that they have shied away from celebrating the gifts of unusually smart kids.

Gifted children can be hard to deal with; but so can star athletes, and reluctant readers, and good math students, and introverts, and computer geeks, and kids who sit and stare into space. The personalities and attendant behaviors of all of them are affected by their strengths and weaknesses. They don't need special classes or therapy; they need committed teachers and parents who will take the time to discuss all the ways people differ from one another and how those differences affect how they act. Through example and lots of practice at home and at school, I believe kids are perfectly capable of understanding and accepting each other's idiosyncrasies, not with scorn and ridicule, but with grace and pride.

*name changed to protect the child's identity


This comment has been removed by the author.

This is a fine piece of writing, yet there are some things that stir up a difference of opinions.
I think it would be more appropriate to celebrate all kids, uniqueness of every child, and not to say gifted, unless it applies to all.
A little perspective: in this country, anyone can take a skating lesson. Or a skiing lesson. And in school sports programs anyone with interest can play - may not make it to the competition level, but still. In other countries, you can't. You can't make it in gymnastics, unless you have shown considerable talent at the age of 2 or 3. You aren't accepted to a hockey program unless you show talent on the ice, when you are 4. Coaches' time is too valuable to "waste" on all kids. Do we celebrate the gifted this way?
It's also been common practice to first diagnose a learning disability in a child, before anyone realizes that there is also a gift present in him/her. A lot of times, the gifted part isn't as striking at first glance as the learning disability identified. Does a child with an LD needs a special class? Not always, most often not. Diversity in the classroom needs to be acknowledged and celebrated. This can't be ignored, and the only way to let diversity thrive is to reduce the lecture-type, direct instruction time and importance. I like the way Sugata Mitra approaches learning - learning is an emergent phenomenon, and all we need to do is have the right setting for it.
I have never been identified as gifted. I didn't play music, figure skate, and my paintings were good but not outstanding. However, I know what it felt like to be the "know-it-all" at school. Sometimes, socially, there were issues. Fortunately, there were opportunities where others could dominate; unfortunately, the diversity was rarely acknowledged in a formal way, by the teachers.
Good teaching is being responsive to the hand you have been dealt (just like good parenting is). [Ross Greene, Lost at school]
Diversity and community are important to let everyone show their best. Let's take time to celebrate talents of all.

Pam Kenney said...

I don't think our viewpoints differ substantively, Olga. I agree that we should celebrate diversity in all its forms in our classrooms. My salient point is that the very climate that recognizes and fosters diversity also engenders the fear that if the very bright are recognized for their achievements other students will look bad or have their self-esteem harmed. What rubbish! I'd very much like us, instead, to celebrate academic giftedness as just one of the innumerable differences among people.

Speaking of gifts, perhaps my favorite quote on the subject is: "All children have gifts; some just haven't opened theirs yet."

Anonymous said...

Your blog is dead on, Pam... except that I'd also add that, along with not celebrating intelligence, too many schools seem intent on reigning it in altogether.

I pulled my profoundly gifted kid from "the system" because after only one year I saw my child who learns as naturally as breathing losing himself.

Now in our fifth year of homeschooling, my ten year old is starting Algebra, is a two year qualifier in the state National Geography Bee, stays up late to watch the night sky through his telescope... but that's not what I'm most proud of... I'm most proud that he has found great friends who love him for who he is. He is a great kid who sees so much in the world that others forget to notice. Oh... and he and Sean are good friends... and when they are together, Sean doesn't end up having to toot his own horn because my son is actually loves that Sean has interesting things to talk about and vice versa. Sean is a great kid... growing pains and all.

Actual Tests said...

I would just say that you are doing a terrific job!