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Posts Tagged 'elementary education'

Gifted education

Rod Dreher has a post about plans in Louisiana to cut the budget of their residential public high school for gifted and talented kids. Read the whole thing, but these bits stick out to me:

It’s distressing to me how gifted education is typically seen in this country. We tend to spare no expense to provide for the needs of students who are handicapped or challenged in particular ways by the normal classroom experience. But we don’t spend nearly the energy or the money on gifted education — this, even though many gifted kids face their own set of challenges that cannot be easily overcome in a standard classroom. When I was in college at LSU, I remember getting into an argument with a friend over this; he believed that gifted kids had natural advantages by virtue of their cognitive skills, and didn’t need or deserve any special consideration.

I don’t believe that’s true at all. Of course nobody feels sorry for gifted kids, and nobody’s asking them to. The point is that to the extent that it’s feasible, all kids should be in an educational environment in which they can flourish to the extent of their own talents. If a kid cannot do as well as he otherwise could because of a particular learning disability, then insofar as it is possible to accomodate that child’s needs, we should seek to do so. Similarly, though, there are reasons why many gifted kids struggle in standard classrooms, and their needs should not be dismissed simply because of their intelligence. In my case, my grades were good in my old public school, but I struggled with depression because I was such an outsider, and was constantly picked on by the in crowd. The great thing about LSMSA — and I think lots of kids from small-town schools like mine felt this way — was not so much the superlative academics as the great blessing of not having to bear the emotional burden of being bullied and socially marginalized because you got good grades and liked books. […]

[The Louisiana School] was a place where, for the first time, we could feel accepted and affirmed, not marginalized and bullied as nerds and outcasts because we liked books and ideas. We could hardly believe our luck to be living and studying in a place where we didn’t have to keep our heads down and our mouths shut to avoid crossing the dominant peer culture in our hometown schools. When I graduated, I took with me a powerful sense of confidence, of being at home in the world, one that I had not known before. That gift was, literally, priceless.

I’ve talked extensively about my (mis)adventures in higher education (starting here); I’ve not really talked about more, shall we say, elementary matters. I’ll start out by saying that while it’s great that Dreher and people like him have had this experience with gifted education, it is worlds away from what mine was like. Perhaps, like so many things, the best thing to say is that gifted education is one of those things to which you either have to commit fully and do it right, or don’t do it at all, because to to do it in a, uh, half-fast manner will be worse than doing nothing.

I started to learn to read when I was probably 3. My parents claim that nobody taught me how to read; they would read to me, I would memorize the books they were reading to me, and (so they say) I started instinctively linking sounds to text. I don’t know; I don’t remember. I do know that when I was four or five, I was reading, and memorizing passages from, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

When I started kindergarten, within two weeks somebody realized that things weren’t quite right. I was given a diagnostic reading test after school one day; a couple of days later, I was told I was being moved up to first grade. What I found out later was that I had scored at the twelfth grade level, and that they had wanted to move me up to fourth or fifth grade. My parents decided that was probably going too far, and agreed to the one-year bump.

First and second grade, to say the least, were a struggle. I had, really, two friends, and they were both two grades ahead of me. (Aaron Spencer and Jamie Metrokas, where are you guys, anyway?) I tended to get along with adults better than other kids. It was really tough for me to stay engaged in class, because I would just read and work ahead very quickly, which of course isn’t what my teachers or fellow students wanted me to do. I would bring other books to occupy myself when I was done with what was assigned in class, which also isn’t what anybody wanted me to do. I soaked up whatever anybody put in front of me, and I had a big imagination that would start transforming the information into other things, too. Numbers I wasn’t (and am not) so hot with, but what that meant (at least up until high school) is that I was done with assignments five minutes before everybody else rather than a half hour.

Also, being less than athletic, I was at once the Smart Kid and the Fat Kid.

Like I said, it was a struggle. I just wanted to read my books, write my stories, and get along with people, and I didn’t understand why it seemed so hard. My first grade teacher told my parents that, realistically, it wouldn’t be until college before I’d really “come into my own,” whatever that really meant.

Just before I started third grade, we moved from Wenatchee to Woodinville, which back in 1984 was a reasonably-affluent almost-rural suburb of Seattle (as opposed to the nouveau riche extension of the Microsoft campus that it is now). The Northshore School District, as it worked out, had a (now much re-worked and re-titled) program for third through sixth grade called, prosaically enough, Talented and Gifted (TAG). My parents enrolled me, and hoped that it would mean better things for me.

Eh, not so much. Not really.

The trouble was multi-part. First of all, the program was a “magnet” (in other words, it was based at a particular school and you went there, rather than it being at your home school), and at least when I got started, it was floating magnet, having been at two or three different schools in the four or five years it had been in existence. So, we were among the “normal” kids, but we were sequestered from them somewhat because we were told we were “different”. That made for a weird, weird, weird dynamic, let me tell you.

For years four through six, we were at our own school, but it was the oldest and most rundown building in the district (built in the 1920s, had asbestos, fun stuff like that), and we were put there with the special education kids. This posed its own problems — we felt like freaks and afterthoughts, to a certain extent, and there was a certain amount of normal kid stuff which was expressly forbidden specifically because administrators were worried that the special education children might try to imitate us. We were “different”, we were “special”, but the way were treated, these terms did not appear to mean anything positive. It seemed to mean we were a problem best shoved aside and kept out of the view of everybody else.

As well, we were still kids, and kids will stratify themselves. It’s what they do. We were all theoretically “the smart kids,” so the smart kids separated themselves into “the popular smart kids,” “the not-popular smart kids,” “the smart smart kids,” the dumb smart kids,” and so on. Because we were smarter, part of what that meant is that we knew how to hurt each other more efficiently. Ever read Ender’s Game? It was sort of like that. Two of my fellow students absolutely brutalized me emotionally on a daily basis from third grade through fifth grade — and I mean they sought me out every free moment they had, and they were as intentionally merciless as they could manage. Their hobby was making me miserable, they were really good at it. My teachers told my parents on a regular basis that there was nothing they could do about it until it became physical.

Which, at some point, it did, when one morning I got spray cleaner blasted right in my eyes. Then somebody did something about it.

Another practical issue was transportation. We were bused to and from the school; that meant taking the bus on our normal route to what would have been our normal school, and then another bus picked us up there to take us to the host school. Getting home meant a special set of buses. I lived roughly five minutes from the school, but since they were trying to get everybody home from the host school on two or three buses, it took an hour to get home.

Since this program ceased after sixth grade, that meant that we were dumped back out among the “normal” kids in junior high. We had an Honors English and History program at that point, but that was it. In other words, we’d been kept separate from everybody for the last four years, and now were expected to “mainstream” ourselves. Since large groups of kids knew each other from the mainstream elementary schools, knew they didn’t know us, and knew why they didn’t know us, the 5-10 of us former TAG kids were instantly easy targets. Junior high was a long, agonizing three years — it was going to be anyway, of course, but this way it felt even longer.

A lot of us TAG kids wound up doing theatre in high school and thriving in that setting, interestingly enough. Make of that what you will.

All of this is to say, I’ve got really mixed feelings about so-called “gifted education”. I can’t lay all of this at the feet of TAG, necessarily; another issue was home life, which is its own long story. The relevant point I’ll share for the moment is that my parents, while not being stupid people by any means, are very practical people, and it was hard for them to relate to where I was. There were many times where I would tell them something I was excited about, and they would look at each other and say, “Are you sure this is our kid?” As a result, it was difficult for them to know what to cultivate in me or how to cultivate it, or to tell me how to deal with what I was going through.

Maybe the Louisiana School is a place that is able to do it right; maybe a residential high school, rather than a magnet elementary school, is a better way to go. If so, more power to it and to its students — but I’m not by any means going to cheerlead “gifted education” as an absolute.

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