G/T Awareness Week

It’s G/T Awareness Week in Texas (April 5-9, 2021). You can learn more about it from Texas Association for Gifted and Talented here. They are asking people to share our stories about why G/T matters to us, and I thought I would write a bit about that today.

In the nearly 30 years that I spent in education in Texas, I saw a lot of progress being made. Students who would have been written off as impossible to teach in 1990 have many safeguards and supports in place now that didn’t exist my first years in the classroom. (Though some of us may debate whether these were improvements), achievement expectations were raised and accountability measures were established.

But while our state has struggled to raise up students who struggle academically, it has, in many ways, exiled those who are ready to learn more. Systemic issues, and the emphasis on helping some groups of students has led to neglect of others. There are those who would argue that these “others,” ones who begin school years already at or above grade level, will do fine. Some do. They learn to tune out repetitive lessons, do practice work they don’t need, and ace tests that require little study. Others become “behavior problems.” In the meantime, as they grow older, they become less enthusiastic about attending school and less likely to seek out challenges or independent learning because they rarely had the opportunity to learn something new or the need to learn how to solve difficult problems.

Ideally, all students would be able to learn at their own pace with just enough support to keep them from getting frustrated and plenty of motivation to continue their studies. But the reality of a system that prioritizes grades and test scores over new learning, overloads teachers with too many students and extraneous responsibilities, and rarely offers pre-service or in-service training aimed toward serving students who are academically gifted, makes it more important than ever that we continue to raise the bar for students who exceed expectations instead of bombarding them with the message that they’ve gone as far as they need to go.

G/T matters because every student matters. And we need to put just as much effort into providing new learning to students who are ahead of many of their peers as we hope the academically gifted will put into learning and achieving throughout their lives.

The Desire to Learn

I teach students who have been identified as “gifted.”  Yet I know that there are many kinds of giftedness that may not be measured by the tests we give.  I also know that there are students who qualify for my program who sometimes have difficulty in school – and in life.  Being labeled “gifted” does not guarantee success; not being “gifted” does not doom one to failure.

When my daughter entered school, we had the choice of whether or not to have her take a test that might qualify her to skip kindergarten.  One of the people I asked for advice said, “Well, it depends.  Many of the students who skip a grade don’t end up qualifying for the gifted program.  How important is it for your child to be ‘gifted?’  At this point, she may always be at the top of her class, but if she skips kindergarten she may not stand out so much.”

We let her take the test.  It was more important for me to make sure she would be at a level appropriate to her ability most of the time than for her to receive a label that would only guarantee a couple of hours a week of advanced curriculum.

She passed the test and moved to 1st grade her second week of school.  When she was tested for Gifted and Talented later that year, she did not qualify.

I’ll admit that it stung a bit.  I teach gifted and talented students and, like many parents, I was pretty proud of my own child’s intelligence.  But she had an incredible first grade teacher (thanks, Mrs. Whitworth!) and it was clear that my daughter was well-suited for the academics she encountered.  The only time I’ve regretted the decision for her to skip kindergarten is when I realized that it meant I had one less year to save for college – and to prepare for an empty nest.

My daughter eventually qualified for the Gifted and Talented program.  I was happy because I knew she would learn even more great things from the teacher, Mrs. Balbert.  I was even fortunate to have my daughter in my own GT class her last year of elementary school.

But I would have been fine if she had not ever been identified as gifted.  Because what I admire most about my daughter is not her grades or her label.  It is her desire to learn.  She is intrinsically motivated and willing to try new things. She chooses activities and classes that interest her, and works hard because they were her choices.

This is what I tell parents of students who do not qualify for our program – just as GT does not equal accomplishment, not being in a GT program does not condemn a student to an average life.  In fact, according to the Fullerton Longitudinal Study, which you can read about here, it is the “motivationally gifted” who seem to reap the most benefits when it comes to advanced academic degrees and leadership potential.  And, as you’ve probably guessed, not many GT programs test for intrinsic motivation.

The good news – and the bad news – is that the desire to learn can be fostered in any child when parents and educators shift the focus of learning to encouraging curiosity and the development of strengths and away from the emphasis on grade point averages.

Parents, do your child a favor by disregarding class rank, and work with the school to find courses that interest him or her.  Model your own enjoyment of learning new things and taking calculated risks.  Help your child to understand what it feels like to pursue a difficult challenge because it is interesting instead of because it will look good on a transcript.

Educators, think about what you can do to contribute to providing environments that nurture the desire to learn.  (Shift This, by Joy Kirr, is a great book to help you get started.) Cultivate student interests and strengths whenever you have the opportunity.

GT, Honors, AP, straight A’s, should not be badges of honor – or shame.  I was devastated when I wasn’t first in my class in high school, but it hasn’t made a speck of difference in my success or lack of it.  Fortunately, I never lost my desire to learn. Just a few months ago, I learned how to change my own flat tire, and it felt pretty good.  Until my daughter clocked me in the head with the car door.  “Car-ma” for being a little too proud of my own accomplishment.  Is it possible to be overly intrinsically motivated?  Maybe that should be the follow-up study…

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It’s a Nerd’s World

photo credit: Domain Barnyard via photopin cc

“It’s a Nerd’s World” is a fabulous article to which many GT students will relate.  The mother/author, Miranda Gargasz, recounts a time when her son was stung by being called a “nerd” by one of his friends.  The mother’s reaction, and her son’s subsequent response to his friend, will warm your heart.  My class of GT 5th graders actually stood up and cheered at the end of the story!  I think that this is a great follow-up to the “Bias Against Creativity” article that I referenced in yesterday’s post.