Category Archives: Stories

The Gift of Stories and The Gift of Listening To Them

Every day I learn so much from children. It can be very humbling to get down on the floor beside them and get a small glimpse into their worlds. This week, in a kindergarten classroom, a young five year old reminded me of the many stories that children bring to our classrooms that impact their ability to demonstrate their learning.

They were working on learning to write the number of the day, the number seven. “Across the sky and down from heaven, that is how you make a seven,” the teacher chanted as she demonstrated it for the class. As I walked around the classroom seeing how they were doing, I noticed one little boy refusing to make the number. When he saw me watching him, his brow furrowed in defiance.

“Do you need help?” I asked. He frowned at me again before saying, “I hate seven!” I was surprised. “You hate seven?” I said, “I thought seven was everybody’s lucky number.”

“I hate it! My sister is seven and she gets everything and I am only five and I get nothing!” At this point the tears started to form.

“What do you mean?” I asked, “Does she get all the toys?” He nodded. “Does she get to do things that you don’t get to?” He nodded again. “I was the youngest child too,” I told him, “and sometimes I hated waiting to do all the things that my older siblings got to do. Do you think when you turn seven that it will be your turn?”

“It won’t,” he shouted, “because she will always be two years older than me. When I am six she will be eight and when I am eight, she will be ten!” He slid under his chair in frustration.

“Can I tell you a secret?” I asked. He nodded as he peeked out at me from under the chair. “Now that I am so old, it’s kind of nice to be the youngest. All of my siblings wish they were young like me.” I finally saw the shadow of a smile. “I have an idea,” I said, “what if you went home tonight and showed her that even though she’s seven and you’re five, you know how to make a seven?”

“I can’t,” he said, tearing up again. “She doesn’t live with me anymore.” It was a heartbreaking moment.

Brene Brown (2017) in her book Braving the Wilderness writes that “pain will only subside when we acknowledge it and care for it” (p.66) and if left unattended has the potential to become anger and over time, rage. As I sat on the floor of that classroom, surrounded by young children, each bearing their own stories and worries, I wondered about acts of defiance, their connections to deeper stories and how easy it can be to make assumptions each step of the way as we try to figure it out. Because on the other side of the defiance are those looming agendas, things that need to get done, like learning how to write a number.

Later in the book, Brene Brown interviews actor Viola Davis who tells her “There’s an unspoken message that the only stories worth telling are the stories that end up in history books” (p. 86). I know that I am swimming in stories and I don’t always take the time or have the opportunity to listen and truly pay attention. Viola goes on to say, “We are all worthy of telling our stories and having them heard. We all need to be seen and honored in the same way that we all need to breathe.” I am drawn back to thinking about acts of defiance, the stories behind them, and wonder how they would look differently if we saw them as fighting for breath? Am I listening now?

One of my all time favorite books is The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative written by Thomas King. In it he wonders whether Sir Isaac Newton’s quote “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction” might have been better scribed as “To every action there is a story” (pp. 28-29). I know I will hold the story of the number seven in my heart for many reasons, one of which is the need to share it. If you’ve taken the time to read it, thank-you for that gift. I would like to leave you with my favorite quote from King’s book, one that shows up in various forms at the end of each chapter.

Take [this] story for instance. It’s yours. Do with it what you will. Tell it to friends. Turn it into a television movie. Forget it. But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story.      You’ve heard it now. (King, p. 29).

I hope you have many opportunities to share and listen to stories this holiday season.

Brown, B. (2017). Braving the wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. New York: Random House.

King, T. (2003). The truth about stories. Toronto, ON: Anansi.


A Message from The Little Prince

This year I read the same book more than 10 times. I read it a chapter at a time with students ranging in ages from 8-14 and after each chapter we would take some time to reflect on what we had just read. Now the book, The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery lives in me like few other books ever have, not just because of the extraordinary story it contains, but also because of the incredible observations and insights that my students shared with me as we explored the provocative world of The Little Prince. I will admit as we drew near the end of the book I had some concerns about how they would interpret and respond to his return to his home on his star  , but I needn’t have worried. Antoine De Saint-Exupery was masterful in those closing chapters of his book about a boy who was often confused by our world but discovered and shared the secret to what is really important before taking his leave from it.

It is hard to describe what makes the book so brilliant. The complicated relationship between the little Prince and his rose. The all too familiar caricatures floating about on their own planets that he meets on his way to earth. The lesson the fox delivers about the beauty and heartache of being tamed. The people on trains going nowhere very quickly or the salesclerks and their frightening “water” pills. But I believe what touched me the most about this book was the relationship between adults and children and the lessons and truths we share with one another consciously and unconsciously on a daily basis. If there is an argument to be made for mindfulness and deep reflection in a time of great uncertainty, this is it.

In a year of many departures, this book is also a source of comfort. I first found it here in an exchange between he Little Prince, with hair the colour of wheat, and the fox.

“So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near–

Ah,” said the fox, “I shall cry.”

It is your own fault,” said the little prince. “I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you . . .”

Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.

Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

Then it has done you no good at all!”

It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.”

The Little Prince reminds us that every hello is accompanied by a goodbye, and when they happen too soon, especially in tragic circumstances, it is devastating. But to never have been tamed is equally or even more devastating so we take the risk over and over until our world is filled with reminders of both love and loss, each made more beautiful and painful by the presence of the other.

Earlier this year I was asked to write a song of healing when two young men made their departure too soon and I called upon Antoine De St. Exupery and The Little Prince for help. I didn’t know that before the end of the year I would need to listen to it again…more than once. So I thought I would post it here, in case anyone else is looking to the heavens for its newest star. May you find it with your heart.

The Science of Summer

In my heart, I am still a farm kid. As a result, science in the summer is as much about family traditions as it is about learning and knowing the important science behind feeding your family. Much of my early scientific learning didn’t feel like science at all, it was about daily life-like eating and getting your chores done. There was a lot of “science” that happened in the summer without conscious intention that has become part of my family’s summer learning (fun).

  1. Gardening: from preparing the ground, seeding to weeding and then finally eating, there is no end to the learning in even the smallest of gardens. My garden teaches me new things every year from knowing when to plant even though spring came very early, to which plants require more “food” if you want them to produce. My family has developed a very sophisticated palate with respect to fresh food!
  2. Berry Picking: while we love having food right in our garden, finding a berry patch out in the forest is the ultimate treasure hunt. We have foraged for wild strawberries, blueberries, saskatoons, cranberries and rosehips. For some reason, these treasures taste far better than anything we can find in our garden. Recognizing leaf patterns and ideal growing conditions has made this search a little easier over the years. It doesn’t hurt to know a few “old timers”!
  3. Food Preservation: even in the city, our yard produces an amazing amount of food: raspberries, apples, saskatoons, chokecherries, tomatoes, basil, rhubarb and numerous other crops. From jamming, canning, juicing to freezing, there is so much to learn about keeping food safe and fresh tasting as you process it for future use.
  4. Farm visits: if you’re lucky like we are, grandma still lives on the farm. If not, there are many farms that you can visit. One of our favorite things to do in the summer to find and visit farm friends…especially gardeners. Each summer we find out who is growing and selling food in our region and we make a point of visiting at key times to add to the treasure chest of food in our freezer and storage room. These excursions have become family traditions!
  5. Fishing: from figuring out where to go, what kind of fish to catch, to the best time of day to fish, to what kind of lure to use, to how to cast your rod and if you’re really lucky, filleting and cooking your fish, this activity is full of all kinds of science learning. It is also a sobering look at the impact of industrialization on our lake and river ecosystems when you discover how many fish you could/should eat. If you thought the fish game at the carnival was fun, catching a fish is so much better.
  6. Canoeing: everyone needs to schedule some time to just play! Whether you are in the back or the front of the canoe, on a lake or a river, trying to get the canoe going where you want it to is a great lesson in Newton’s third law of motion.

In some ways these explorations are as much about history as it is about science: food security is and continues to be the single most influential factor in how our civilization has and will continue to evolve over time. Having parents and grandparents who experienced the war and depression and lack of access to food, knowing how to “procure” food, was impressed upon me from an early age and it is something that I continue to share with my children despite the abundance of food that is available. It has become the perfect mix of learning, fun, tradition and preparing them for the future!

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Profiling the Gifted in Popular Culture

One of my favorite tools in helping parents and teachers understand giftedness are the six profiles outlined by Betts and Neihart as they go a long way in describing how differently giftedness can manifest itself in individuals. While there are times that reading through the profiles and discussing our observations can result in an “aha” moment there are just as many where we will note how the child we are speaking of doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories. Despite the moniker, “giftedness” does not show up in a neatly wrapped package that is easily identifiable or predictable, but having the profiles is a great starting point for conversations about behaviors, needs and supports both at home and at school.   Interestingly enough, characters and individuals from popular culture often become part of our conversations as well, but to what extent to they help or hinder in educating us about giftedness?

From Sheldon to Rachel, Matilda to Ender, we are enthralled with gifted characters. We are fascinated by the complexity of their thoughts, their unique and amazing abilities, their unusual reactions to situations, their character flaws and how they overcome difficulties. Do they serve us well as we seek to understand more and educate about giftedness? As with any caricature as characters often tend to be, storylines can highlight some qualities of the gifted experience but ultimately fail in capturing the unique qualities of many of the gifted students that I work with everyday. Thinking Sheldon (who is by far and away the gifted “character”  who is referenced most often when people are looking for examples of gifted behavior),  as representative of giftedness would leave one with a very limited understanding.

We are no less fascinated by gifted individuals whose lives in the spotlight have given us yet another glimpse into giftedness. From Elon Musk to Oprah Winfrey, Joni Mitchell to Michael Jackson we are not without our iconic examples of giftedness. That their giftedness is tied to astronomical levels achievement carries no small burden for many gifted students whose talents and abilities can sometimes become the focus of who they are. But having said that, there is a benefit to reading biographies of gifted individuals and gaining some insight into their journey. As a songwriter myself, Joni Mitchell’s biography In Her Own Words  by Malka Marom is a favorite. I have learned so much from her struggles, not only with how she saw herself as an artist in contrast to the expectations of the musical community, but also to what she was trying to achieve with her lyrics and music. All this on a landscape of considerable social change helped me to understand the inner world contributing to the music that I love.

But despite some of the drawbacks  to how gifted individuals are represented and/or celebrated in popular culture, I will admit to being very drawn in by how one of my favorite literary characters is being served up in a very modern rendition of a popular mystery series. Benedict Cumberbatch as the enigmatic Sherlock Holmes rates as my favorite series with the major drawback of not airing often enough. If you haven’t seen in yet, watch this short clip Sherlock and John’s First Meeting. A very different portrayal of the gifted detective, I really enjoy the pace with all the twists and turns in the plot. Cumberbatch is a no slouch either!

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Let the Season be the Gift

Last year in my December blog post ‘Tis the Season to be…Anxious? I wrote: “I have learned to…submit myself to the comfort and joy of the traditions and make a firm budget to govern all forms of giving.”  As the holiday season approaches I can honestly say that I am looking forward to it because I know what is coming. From decorating to baking, family gatherings to which Christmas movies we’ll watch, there is a certain order to it all that is familiar yet flexible. Keeping it all within a reasonable budget (time and money) alleviates the stress which allows me to be reflective about what the season means to me as well as consider what is coming in the year ahead.

And there are so many things to consider. The new challenges that adolescent children bring and face. A community that is feeling the pressures of an economic downturn. The political, environmental, and economic state of the world. And in just a few short sentences I can feel some of the anxiety slip back. But I know what to do because I believe that on some level all the music, food, fellowship and Christmas “messages” are part of the preparation we will need to face whatever is coming. And with that I would like to share an original Christmas song that has been playing in my heart for many years. It’s for my children, your children and the child within us all.

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Forgiveness and other “Songlines” for 2015

I feel overwhelmed. Often. As a person who loves new information and learning, there has never been a time where information and opportunities to learn have been more accessible. This morning alone, searching through my twitter feed, I saw at least 10 Ted Talks that look amazing! That’s not counting any of the other posts I see that look intriguing to explore. Add to that the SENG Webinars, the short courses at Schumacher College and the new offerings from Coursera…Wow! Time to set some goals, make a plan, resolve to…

Did I mention that I get overwhelmed? Often? So I put away the iPad and snuck down into my basement studio where I am working on a song. It’s about forgiveness and entitled “Still Somewhere To Go”. Songwriting is ESSENTIAL practice for me. It’s not about writing a hit song or even whether people like them or not. (Though there is some joy in finding resonance with others!) It’s about tapping into and creating songlines to navigate my way through the familiar, yet “cluttered” places I find myself in. (I have borrowed the word/idea of “songlines” from an indigenous Australian tradition. Please read about how indigenous Australians use music to mark geography…it’s quite fascinating.) Songwriting guides me and I feel as exhilarated as I imagine all cartographers must as I map out where all the thoughts and ideas in my head are taking me.

So why a song about forgiveness as 2015 looms? Many students and friends have told me that of all the virtues, this is the one that is the most difficult. My own experiences are mixed…sometimes it comes easy, sometimes it takes time but to date, for the most part, I have been able to get there and I say that with gratitude; I have been fortunate in the degree of the grievances I have experienced.

But in the past few months I have realized that as an idealist, there are many things that I have not been able to forgive that can make things difficult. Rene Descartes for the fragmentarity of scientific method and its impact in application. Sacred texts for their endless interpretability. Systems and their impossible task of defining themselves in a changing world. Entrepreneurial evangelical-like changemakers who believe they have found the key to… The inability of words to adequately express complexity. In essence, all the things that take me away from seeing the beauty in all the things as they are. We are all in the process of becoming. Being angry or discouraged by the things (or people) that are not as we believe they should be isn’t really helpful. Seeing them as part of or in the middle of an astonishing journey…can be incredibly agonizing and breathtaking at the same time. Forgiving the “world” for not living up to my expectations- a pretty humbling experience. Yet now I feel less overwhelmed than when I feel it is up to me to constantly “make things happen”. Things are happening. Maybe not always the way I think they should…and that’s why the next song will need to be about humility.

And that is why for me songwriting is essential. It’s not easy to get to the final chorus without finding a bridge to get you there and that can take a lot of contemplation. But once you’ve written the song, you have something to sing when you are back stumbling through a place that you thought you’d already explored.

If I ever finish my song “Still Somewhere To Go” I will try to find a songline for humility. There are many virtues to explore in the journey of becoming. It’s one of the reasons why The Virtues Project has become such an important part of my practice. Another map of sorts, it is connected to many cultural and sacred traditions from around the world and ergo rife with songlines that have been guiding us through many terrains for many years. All the best to you as you journey through 2015!

Are You “In” or “Out” of the Box?

This past week I was working with my Destination ImagiNation teams as they were at the beginning stages of planning their solutions for their team challenges. One of the activities we were doing called “Number Boxes” involved placing 12 numbers in 9 different boxes in a way that accumulated points  based on the number of “rules” that you could satisfy through the placement of your numbers. A highly engaging activity, it led into a discussion afterwards around divergent and convergent thinking, and how different kinds of thinking come into play when we are being creative and attempting to solve problems.

Inevitably the discussions with each team circled around to what it means to “think outside of the box” an expression that most of them know quite well. As we explored what may actually constitute “the box” one young man put up his hand and asked, “Don’t you think most people are outside the box trying to find a way in?” I smiled as I remembered the first time he was on one of my teams. He was a walking talking calculator in a story about bugs.

In the RSA version of Sir Ken Robinson’s viral TedTalk on How School’s Kill Creativity, there is this image of a graduating class coming out in a big box that resembles one you would use to ship wine in with a label that says “Class of 2010”. And as much as that image is provocative regarding the impact of standardization, there is always the reality of surviving in a world with sufficient “executive functions” that allow us to successfully co-exist and find a place where we can make our contribution. Was it a yearning I heard in this young man’s  question about being on the outside looking in? Is it any less of a yearning than I hear in voices of his team mates as they struggle with how to create something that has never existed before for their challenge?

The teamwork for this group isn’t always easy. In instant challenges, our young questioner throws things into the mix that can upset the plan and derail their solution causing frustration. And then later in the day when they are researching and planning how they could build a robotic creature and making a list of the supplies they need, he walks around the room and scavenges through my junk box and office supplies instead of getting to work. But wait. The next thing we know, he has put together a grappling hook gun that he then uses to take their attention off their task when he shoots it at them. Suddenly, the team is excited. Their robotic creature could have a grappling hook gun…and somehow he has lured them out of the box and they have brought him in. For now…

Finding our place in the world can be a challenge. Whether we are struggling with  a way to forge our own destiny or struggling with how to fit in the boundaries we encounter, “this” is what learning is about. And just when we think we have it all figured out, the boundaries will shift once again. But in this moment…

We ought to be like elephants in the noontime sun in summer, when they
are tormented by heat and thirst and catch sight of a cool lake. They throw
themselves into the water with the greatest pleasure and without a moment’s
hesitation. In just the same way, for the sake of ourselves and others, we should give ourselves joyfully to the practice.
Kunzang Pelden (b.1862, Tibet) The Nectar of Manjushri’s Speech (2007, p. 255) taken from The Descartes Lecture by David Jardine in the Journal of Applied Hermeneutics, July 16, 2012.

Stop. Listen. Know when and how to advocate.

It is the second week of school and I am greeted at breakfast by a child with sad eyes. “Please don’t make me go to school Mom. My teacher is mean!” And with this she bursts into tears.

“Wow, this is the first I’ve heard about her being mean. What did she do that’s mean?” I ask.

“It’s hard to explain, she’s just mean. Please don’t make me go back!”

We move to the couch where where she can cuddle next to me. “Can you tell me what happened yesterday?”

“She said she was going to really push us hard this year and make us move out of our comfort zones! I don’t want to move out of my comfort zone!” There is another round of tears.

“And you’re already uncomfortable because you’ve had to change schools?” Her head nods inside my hug. “And you’re sad because you didn’t get the teacher that you already knew at school?” She nods again. “And you’re worried because none of your friends are in your class?” Another nod. My husband gives me a look clearly indicating that he doesn’t believe I’m improving the situation as the tears continue to flow. When the they slow down I try a few different approaches. “Have you thought about why your teacher might have said it?” I ask.

“Because she’s mean!”

I try a different approach, my teacher approach. “Did you know that learning is all about pushing yourself farther than you thought you could go and that’s not always comfortable but when you show yourself you can do it, it feels good?”

“Learning should be fun, not scary! And her face and voice was mean when she said it!”

“Can you show me how she said it? I want to hear her mean voice.” My daughter turns to me with a scowl on her face and  says “I’m going to push you hard this year and get you out of your comfort zone!”

“Whoa that is mean!” I say, “Let me try.” I put on my best scowl and with a bit of a growl in my voice I say, “I’m going to push you hard this year and get you out of your comfort zone!” She gives me a deprecating look, “That’s not it!” I try again, each time a little sillier doing my best Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck imitations. Before long we’re both laughing. “Did you know, when I was studying to be a teacher I was told not to smile before Christmas?”

“That’s dumb! Why would they tell you that?”

“I think it was because they thought that some kids wouldn’t take you seriously if you smiled too much and then they would ignore the classroom rules. It’s hard to get things done if students aren’t following rules.” She gives me a thoughtful look before wandering off to get ready for school.

If you look up the word advocate, it is all about speaking; speaking in favour or in support of something. But perhaps this is where we miss the mark. I could have gone to the teacher and shared with her extensive research on the importance of building trusting relationships in the classroom or conversely I could have told my daughter that life is about learning to work with many different kinds of people and asked her to give the teacher a chance. Both would have been advocating but both would have been far less successful than simply listening and hearing with my heart. On many days, this will be enough…but not always.

I can’t tell you the number of times in my role as coordinator for the Gifted Program that I have been told that my intense, highly sensitive students need to learn coping skills if they are going to survive in this world. We ache for these children as we work hard on strategies to help them cope and while these strategies can be important, we must not forget the listening.

Let’s imagine you speak up about something that is really frustrating or hurtful (and there are many ways you speak out, not just with words) and no one hears you.  You may be tempted to raise your voice and before long you are screaming and have created a major incident. So you are told that when you feel like screaming there are many things that you can do to keep yourself from screaming and thus avert future incident. Still no one knows what prompted you to speak in the first place. Maybe you just needed someone to listen and help you understand the intensity of feelings that you experience. Maybe there are things that you just don’t understand and it’s frustrating because you’ve always been told you’re smart. Maybe some of the things that happen in this world just don’t make sense and are you the only one who sees it?!? Wouldn’t you want at the very least, someone who listens? If we are the ones who take the time to listen, we will know if we need to take further steps.

Which brings us to the students who have stopped screaming. The students who have learned strategies to cope while trying to deal with the frustrations and hurt on their own. The ones who may take a long time before they trust that you are actually interested in what they have to say and willing to listen. The ones who may need us to begin speaking on their behalf because when listening won’t be enough. Now we must learn the hard work of advocacy, the work of changing the environment (when necessary) that prompted  and perhaps ended the screaming in the first place.

Advocating. When we believe we are right, we tend to like the sound of our own voice and yet here is a time we must listen once again. Until we can understand the mindset of the individual or organization that we believe is failing to meet the needs of our children, it will be difficult to advocate for change. Dr. Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, established a online community called The Society for Organizational learning where you can find protocols for balancing inquiry and advocacy. As I read through the conversation templates I realize that I still have much to learn about advocacy, especially in a time when it feels like so many of our conversations have become restricted by time and utilize abbreviated forms of communication.

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Teaching All Children Like They Are Gifted

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.

Is Inclusion Working?

This past week I received an email from the Special Education Council of the ATA inviting me to participate in the Blue Ribbon Panel on Inclusive Education. They are asking for stories from teachers around the province about how inclusion is working in their schools and classrooms.

I have spent several days pondering how I could respond to that question. After all, is a pull-in program inclusive? Given the highly diverse population that I am working with, trying to find ways to support all of their needs even in a congregated setting has its challenges. Am I meeting their learning needs? The programming that I provide has been designed with the needs of gifted learners in mind, it offers considerable choice, challenges and opportunities to explore their strengths as well as addressing the social/emotional piece. Am I meeting their learning needs? I see them eight days a year and during that time I work to build relationships. I help them grow the virtues like flexibility, cooperation, self-discipline, tact, trust, trustworthiness, orderliness, courtesy, perseverance, unity and more as I guide them through creative problem solving exercises. I try to get to know them as unique individuals with something to offer. Am I meeting their learning needs? After all the work that I’ve done researching, planning and trying to get to know and respond to each learner, I have to trust that I am. But still, every year, a few students drop out of the program.

I have also had the opportunity to work with many teachers in the district in developing IPP (Individual Program Plan) goals and strategies for working with their gifted students in their classrooms. The tension between creating specific (SMART) goals and creating learning environments in which gifted students don’t feel singled out has been an interesting one to navigate for all of us. The challenge of accelerating and allowing for flexible pacing in a classroom where some students are struggling to keep up can feel daunting. The struggle to enrich in a meaningful way when students are feeling disenchanted or disengaged can feel futile. Are we meeting their learning needs? We put strategies and goals in place and trust that we are making a difference. Last week I got four high fives and two calls for help.

Beyond curricular outcomes, learning strategies and measuring outcomes, there is a much bigger question than “Is Inclusion Working?” I think it sounds something like this: “Is it possible to create an educational system that works for all students?” I could add up the numbers each year, like how many students dropped out of the pull-in program vs how many stayed in? Or how many IPP goals did we meet successfully? I could work out the percentages to prove my case one way or the other. But I sense that there are going to be a lot of variables that will change each year and cause us to re-evaluate how we are approaching inclusion, notwithstanding the number and variety of coded students who arrive on our doorstep each year.

So how do I answer the question, is inclusion working? I guess I have to look at how I have changed as a teacher. What I’ve learned from this diverse group of students who come to me with all their unique needs. What it’s made me learn about teaching, curriculum and learning. How it has changed my practice. If John Hattie is correct and that 30% of student success is based on who I am as a teacher, then that is definitely the place that I’m going to need to start.

John Hattie’s seminal work in the meta-analysis, Visible Learning, pulled together what we have learned about learning through educational research over the past few decades.  His article Teachers Make a Difference is a great read and provides some excellent food for thought as we move forward with inclusion. And the good news? We will have the opportunity to learn more from him when he visits our district this coming August.