I can’t believe I missed it. Twice. I twittered Rick Wormeli (keynote at our teachers’ convention) to make sure my friends weren’t pulling my leg. “Did you really say that when all the teachers in your district received gifted training, the instruction for all students improved?” He tweeted back a one word response. “Yes!”
I had the good fortune to do my practicum in a gifted program with one of the most brilliant teachers I have ever met. That early mentorship had a profound influence on how I teach, even when I wasn’t teaching in gifted programs. I guess it’s why sometimes as the gifted specialist I struggle with the question “how do I teach this gifted student?” Differentiated instruction, flexible pacing, room for extension and choice as well as acceleration must be embedded in our practice. To try to accommodate in that way for a single student is daunting. To do it for an entire class, strangely enough, is far simpler. But teaching gifted students is not simply about strategies. It is the gifted students themselves who have taught me the most about what it means to be an effective teacher.
One of the hallmarks of gifted students is their sensitivity. I often think of them as the frogs who because of their permeable skins, give us early signals to the toxicity in the environment. What makes their environment toxic? A lack of authenticity, caring and understanding.
1. Gifted students need passionate teachers who are experts in their disciplines. You can’t fake passion. If you’re not excited about what you’re teaching, if you can’t see the importance of it or why it is meaningful- they will know. Telling them they have to suffer through it like generations before them is not a good enough reason. While some of them will be polite and still do their best, others will call you out or simply tune out.
2. Gifted students need relationships to take the risks necessary for authentic learning. Being in the same room for 200 days a year does not constitute a relationship. They need to know that you care and that you see them as an individual. Many of them have tempered down their thoughts and ideas because they fear being misunderstood or standing out. If you want to see what they are capable of, you must cultivate a relationship with them. But you can’t force it. Sometimes it is just a matter of letting them know that you are there and are willing to listen when they are ready to share. I have waited months to earn the trust of students but it has always been worth the wait.
3. Gifted students need teachers who are not intimidated by people who are smarter than they are. I will never forget the math prodigy I taught years ago when he was in grade eight. He struggled with humanities because it was not his thing. His book responses and written work were adequate but not stellar. Then I asked the students to bring in a favorite book to share with me and he brought in Douglas Hofstadter’s book, Godel, Escher and Bach. I worked through the first few chapters, but from our discussions it was obvious he understood it far better than I did. Eventually we connected through poetry as he explored math in a pattern of words that left me in awe. I still keep a copy of the book on my nightstand and every once in a while I try it again. (He was also formidable at Scrabble…I didn’t have a hope and I’ve always considered myself pretty good at Scrabble.)
4. Gifted students need you to understand that they may develop asynchronously. I’ve worked with gifted kids who were completing university level courses yet still cried over getting a low mark in a different discipline area. I’ve seen students who could read Egyptian heiroglyphs throw temper tantrums if they couldn’t make their structure hold weight. I’ve known students who played with adults in professional jazz bands on weekends yet goofed off and never get anything done in class. Yet I still hear over and over that we should not accelerate students to meet their academic needs until they are socially ready when the truth is, they may never fit well into a classroom or social setting…until they find their passion or intellectual counterparts.
Passionate expertise makes differentiation easier. It allows you to see the many paths to a similar destination. Relationships are key to differentiation. How can you help students get where they need to go if you don’t know their starting point and what ignites their passion? When you don’t have all the answers, you get to model what it means to be a lifelong leaner and you give even your brightest students permission to not need to know everything. And when you understand that intellectual and social development vary from child to child you can understand the need to be flexible in how you think about students and plan for them.