Thursday, July 10, 2008

Gifted Child as Victim

Miss Self-Important has an interesting post up today about the tendency to cast gifted students as victims. She writes about this in the context of a couple of other posts on public education in which (and please correct me if I'm mischaracterizing you, Miss S-I), she asserts that the point of public education has more to do with societal normalization than with learning per se. Those of you who've been reading me here and at spynotes will know that these are points on which I generally concur.

The casting of gifted students as victims is one of the reasons I started this blog in the first place, although I realize that by blogging about this topic at all, I've already probably played into the system that causes it. But in looking for information about ways to get my kid working in school at his own level, I got frustrated at the forcing of gifted students (and sometimes their parents and teachers) into the role of the victim. What I was looking for is a more practical approach.

I agree with what Miss Self-Important says about public schools. They are mostly about communicating social order and expectations and that is not necessarily a bad thing. But that doesn't mean that my kid should have to sit through curriculum that is several grade levels below what he should be working on. Just because the system seems geared towards accomplishing some specific goals doesn't mean other goals can't be accomplished as well.

When we were making decisions about AJ's schooling, we looked at public vs. private vs. private gifted only vs. homeschooling. The decision of where to send him turned out to be a lot more about socialization than about education. I am well qualified to educate him at home, at least for a while and the resources for homeschoolers in our area are abundant. But it turned out that it's important to me for AJ to not only be with other kids, but to be with other kids from a variety of backgrounds and experiences (or as much variety as our suburban district allows, which is significantly less than an urban district is likely to offer). And I had a very strong gut reaction against schools for the gifted that was only partially based on their exorbitant tuition prices. It took me a while to sort through that one, but it's similarly based: I want AJ to meet a variety of people, to not be in a hothouse environment. Of lesser importance was the fact that it's likely we won't be here terribly long and I want his school experience to be transferable to other areas.

So public school was the clear winner for us. As we got involved, I realized that there were other reasons we landed there. It is important to me to be part of our community and getting into the schools is one important way to do that. After more than four years living here, I didn't know most of my neighbors until AJ left his preschool and joined the public school for kindergarten. Also, the school is not too big and not too small and has teachers and administrators who want to make it the best it can be. They are not necessarily the best and brightest teachers and administrators (although I'd put AJ's teacher this past year in that category), but they are motivated and they listen. There are plenty of opportunities to help make a difference and plenty of opportunities to enact change as needed, as long as you're willing to put yourself on the front lines.

I have struggled with the gifted label for AJ which is, like any label, confining. AJ demonstrates the kind of skills that make him easy to identify as an advanced learner, namely they are the kind of skills that are easily measurable on standard tests. He read very early and was tested in his school this year as reading six grade levels above the norm. This measure was obtained on a test that everyone took, not on a special test for gifted students. (On those tests, he turns up about 3 grades ahead. This itself is interesting and suspicious, but the testing topic is one to leave for another day. ) His school doesn't take math standardized tests until the end of third grade, so they have not measured those skills, but the results are likely to be similar there too for different reasons. The tests do not measure lots of other things about AJ. They don't measure his ability to comprehend complicated strategies that I see when he trounces me in chess and Stratego and when he makes play decisions on the football field. They don't measure his artistic skills which are, at best, totally average. They don't measure his aural abilities, which would probably show he has a well-developed musical ear. This in turn would fail to show how he has not taken well to instrument lessons. He's certainly no musical prodigy. School testing doesn't measure his freakish ability to identify style, whether visual or musical, which enables him to identify musical and artistic works he's never seen before with astounding (at least to me) accuracy. It's harder for me to come up with things he does not do well, because I am his mother and I'm hopelessly biased. But basically, my point is that by gifted we mean "academically gifted." And I think we should call it such, because it is those kids who are caught in the No Child Left Behind bind that casts them as victims of their higher levels of skill. I am not a fan of the movement to identify multiple planes of giftedness in schools, not because I don't agree with it, but because I think it's beside the point when you're dealing with most schools, which are all about academic skills. In an academic setting, it comes across as one more "everybody is special" maneuver. If you want to include the multiple planes, then they need to be included across the board in the curriculum, and I don't see public schools interested in doing that. Whether or not they should is also a topic best left for another day. But public schools run on test scores and the kids that are gifted in a way that makes them get higher test scores are the only ones we're talking about here.

I totally agree that if a public school's job is to prepare students for good citizenship, then the public schools should be teaching to the basics and trying to bring those falling behind up to speed. There is no obligation in such a system to deal with those performing above and beyond. But as a parent, I know that is just plain wrong. As a parent, it is my job to question the system when it isn't working for my child. After all, I help pay for the system. It is my obligation to help make it do what I think it needs to be doing. My reasons for lobbying hard for resources at my school are entirely selfish. I want my kid to do well and to get what I think he needs. I don't think my kid should have to spend 7 hours a day sitting in a classroom "learning" something he's known how to do for years. If I didn't have a kid in this position, I probably wouldn't be involved in our school in this particular way.

But just because my motivation is primarily selfish doesn't mean my actions don't have a broader reach (much as the school's primary function as a citizenizer doesn't mean the school isn't having other functions as well). And as an educator, my motives are more altruistic. As an educator, I am more interested in helping the school figure out how to better address individual needs in general, not just for gifted kids or kids with learning disabilities. It's something I think about a lot in my own teaching, although by the time I get them, in classrooms at an elite university, they've largely been sorted out into groups of similar skills. Any necessary individuation usually revolves around whether or not the student's first language is English and whether he or she has a learning disability of some sort. And in the music classroom, I also run into students who are so visually oriented that they struggle with learning something aurally. I try to adapt materials and methods for them too. But compared to the spectrum of skills and abilities in a public school classroom, I've got it easy.

So back to the gifted child as victim. This is a rhetorical ploy. In the current system, the kids who get help are victims. Therefore, to get help, we think we have to be victims. This is the logic behind the victimization, flawed as it may be. But before you decry the flaws, let me point out that it is the public school system that is aligning gifted students with disabled students, not just the parents. This happens because in many if not most public school systems, the only way to get individualized curriculum is to be disabled. Disabled is defined loosely as being outside the norm. It was recommended to us to get an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), which is required for LD students. And really, in terms of the way the classroom works, gifted students ARE disabled -- they don't fit the plan. But not, of course, in terms of test scores or achievement.

Also, as any teacher who has dealt with gifted kids in a mainstream classroom (at least at the elementary level) will probably tell you, it's not just about speed of learning but about the way they learn. There are a whole other host of tendencies that gifted kids have that make it harder for them to function in a traditional classroom setting and some of them are disruptive. This comes into play with the giftedness-as-pathology stance as well, but it also suggests that different methodologies are required for these kids in much the same way that kids who are more visually oriented need different techniques than those who are more aurally oriented.

And here's the other reason it happens: if there is no intervention for gifted students, a lot of the time their test scores end up suffering too. They shut down or refuse to perform. It's in a school's best interest -- and certainly in a student's best interest -- to prevent this from happening rather than to try to clean it up after it has happened.

My problem with the victim stance is that it defines the student by his or her lack of agency. In some cases, I'm sure, it is harder to act than others. But being gifted doesn't mean there are no options. Gifted students need advocates and action. If they are victims, it is because someone is allowing it to happen. And, in fact, ANY kid would benefit from this. The more someone's paying attention, the less they get lost in the shuffle.

Miss Self-Important, though, questions whether it's really that bad for gifted students to be bored. In the general scheme of things, it's probably not that bad and I definitely think kids need a certain amount of boredom to figure out how to make things interesting for themselves. But when your kid is forced to read "Hop on Pop" in school when he's reading The Lightning Thief or Harry Potter at home, that just doesn't make any sense. It's not mere boredom. Memorizing times tables is boring. Reading multiple grade levels below your ability is excruciating. And yes, I do think that gifted students need to be held to a different standard, especially in the early grades, because it's in the early grades that they are most learning how to act in school. Here's an example. For the first several grading periods this year, AJ was getting low scores in something called "reading fluidity," which has to do with the way they read out loud. At home, AJ is reading incredibly fluidly and with great expression and has been since he was 3 or 4. He loves to read out loud. But it turned out that in school, he was reading very slowly and with a lot of breaks between words. This is because he was trying to sound like the way the other kids in his class read. He didn't get that they read that way because they didn't know the words. He processed it as "the way you read in school." No, it's not the worst thing in the world to try to fit in, but what he got out of this was that he needed to regress. I don't think this is the message anyone wanted him to get. Another example: in the beginning of the year, he was given the option of alternative math work at his level and he usually chose not to take it because he wanted to do what everyone else was doing and because he felt like he was being punished with extra work. By giving him an out, by not holding him to his own standards, he felt embarrassed about what he could do and he pretended not to know the things he knows. At home, however, he would complain bitterly about how boring the math was and how much he hated it. Again, there is a social adaptation skill that is learned here, but from an educational standpoint, letting it go at that doesn't make any sense. At our request, an alternate program was instituted without asking for his choice and AJ was happier and more relaxed and his attitude towards school and particularly towards math was much improved.

And here's another reason I think such individuation is necessary (and I reiterate, although I don't argue it much here, that I think individuation is beneficial for ALL students, not just for the gifted or learning disabled. The practicality of such widespread individuation, however, is questionable.) I may be a Yuppie parent, at least by origin, I do not think a child needs to be intellectually stimulated at all times. Quite the opposite -- I think a kid needs free time to figure out what to do with him/herself. But this belief does not extend to school. In school, I think he should expect to be intellectually stimulated, at least some of the time (he should also expect some things will not interest him and some rote learning will be required) because purportedly (if not in practice), that is what school is for. You may disagree with me, but that is what schools say they are for (even if they may be operating on other principles, even if it's impractical) and if AJ is to learn to be a good citizen, he needs to get through the educational system. While elementary school may not be intellectually stimulating, it is likely that somewhere down the educational line, something will be. And it shouldn't come as a total shock.

Miss Self-Important also brings up the touchy issue of grade skipping. I'm on the fence about this one and I don't think it's a decision that can be made globally. AJ could probably do just fine in 5th grade intellectually in the fall. But he would be the only seven-year-old in a school of fifth and sixth graders. He's not ready for that socially -- he's too much of a joiner and I'm pretty sure he'd be unhappy. He's still seven and I don't think hanging out with tweens is going to do him any favors at this point. If I thought a single grade jump would help him significantly, I'd lobby for it. But one grade isn't going to help him much and it would likely be social suicide. I know plenty of people who feel otherwise. I have no real objection to grade skipping in principal, but more people would need to be doing it for AJ to feel comfortable. I do, however, think it's a little odd that many schools have a hard and fast policy against grade skipping. Just because it's not right for my kid doesn't mean it's not right for somebody.

And finally, Miss Self-Important questions the value of gifted programs. I think there's too much variability to have an opinion on this. Some work, some don't. I was involved in gifted programs from kindergarten through eighth grade in multiple school districts, all of which were what they call "pull-out" programs, where I was pulled out of my classroom once or twice a week for a special class. Some of them were good, some not so much. I always loved getting out of my class -- change is good. And the activities were more creative and fun. But I didn't really understand why they were for gifted kids only -- most of the activities seemed to me suitable for anyone. Why couldn't we just do this kind of thing in our regular classes? I'm still not sure I know the answer. We haven't hit the gifted program with AJ yet, but our school district does things a little differently. In 3rd and 4th grade, they cluster kids in their classrooms as well as offer them pull-out programs, some individual, some as a group. In 5th and 6th grade, at which point the kids of that age in the district are consolidated at a single school, they have their own class. In 7th and 8th grade, when they start changing classes, they are tracked within their classes (this sounds like a logistical nightmare and I can't believe they actually do it this way, but this is what I've been told). And in high school, as in most places, they are on their own.

To sum up this long ramble, I guess I basically agree with Miss Self-Important that victimhood is not a position I recommend and that boredom is not necessarily so bad. But I temper these opinions with their practical implications. There is a limit to how much boredom a student should have to take. In the working world, I may be plenty bored with the job I accept, but I have choices about what jobs to take. Kids don't have any choice -- they have to go to school somewhere and they have to spend a lot of time doing it. I see no reason why gifted kids should have to suffer a system that does not acknowledge their existence when they don't have any alternatives.


My Kids' Mom said...

We have a new principal, vice p., and gifted teacher all starting this fall, so I haven't been over or phoned this summer, giving them a chance to settle in. But I've just heard a rumor that they're planning to put all the gifted (pull-out) kids into one 2nd grade classroom. I assume they'd still work with the gifted teacher, but all be together all day too.

I'm not sure what I think of this. It might be good for Pook's education- spelling and math at a more challenging level, etc., but there wouldn't be the variety of kids anymore- and slow learners CAN teach gifted kids some good skills (like perseverance). I also feel badly for the other teachers- the variety makes teaching more fun in my opinion. So I need to find out more, to see if it's true first, and to look into their planned approach. Stay tuned.

lemming said...

Like you, I could go on and on about this subject... but in the interests of being concise, I would point out that there's something called need-based scholarships and ability-considered scholarship. Were there plenty of trust-fund kids at my private school? of course. Were there quite a few of us whose parents made sacrifices to send us there, had portions of our tuition paid by the school and studied extra hard as a result? Yes.

I notice that, yea these many years later, we're the ones more likely to contribute to the annual fund...

Jeanne said...

Boredom on the monumental scale that gifted kids are expected to endure it in school is my main concern with both my kids.

I continually talk to teachers and administrators to ensure that kids who work faster than others (as we've said, one of the main symptoms of academic giftedness) are allowed to read a book or move around when they're finished. And still both my kids have teachers who demand that they sit there for an hour and "check their work." An hour! Can you imagine successfully amusing yourself inside your own mind--in public--for that long? It is a cruel but not unusual punishment.

Ben Collins-Sussman said...

I skipped a grade myself, and I'm thankful for that... but a word of warning: my parents messed up the execution. Like you, they were also hesitant to let me skip a grade, even though teachers started suggesting it when I was 7 years old. They hemmed and hawed, worrying about 'social suicide', and then finally decided to go for it in the *middle* of my 4th grade year.

So I skipped from the middle of 4th to the middle of 5th. And guess what? 5th grade is the very first year when cliques begin to develop. Puberty starts for some kids, everyone gets paranoid, social hierarchy locks in, and cliques are the universal defense mechanism. The next 2 years were the most depressing years of my life -- 5th and 6th grades were far more horrible for me than the typical 7th/8th grade slump people talk about.

Conversely, a buddy of mine skipped from 1st to 3rd, and he had no social problems whatsover. So the lesson here is to skip *early*, not late in the game. :-)

harriet M. Welsch said...

MKM, I'll be really interested to see how that plays out for you. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the whole class thing, because I do think that variety is good for teachers and students alike for some of the reasons you stated. Lemming, I think that's true about scholarship students a lot of the time. I've certainly the same trend in my volunteer work for the development office of my alma mater. Jeanne, that is exactly it. There is the boredom that comes from doing something that doesn't interest you but may be good to do. There is boredom that comes from running out of activities and having to think for yourself after being programmed. Those both have merits in my book, largely because they can lead to a sense of personal responsibility. But the boredom that comes from teachers and schools not paying attention or taking the time to fix a problem is something I won't tolerate. It's boredom of a whole different order. And I would laugh at your example if I weren't so sure it's true. I know it is because I have been there myself. I spent most of 6th grade playing battleship in the back of my classroom because I'd finished all of the math books in the school and it never occurred to anyone to find me something more constructive to do. Ben, I do think earlier is often better for skipping, although if multiple grade skips are needed, that can be a big problem. The social differences between, for example, a five and an eight year old are far greater than between an 8 and an 11 year old. I do, however, think mid-year grade skips are usually ill-advised, even early on. I was skipped midyear in kindergarten and I was pretty miserable too. With AJ, though, we'll have other opportunities, I think, if it's necessary, as we are likely to be moving in the next year or two. Changing schools should be a fairly smooth way to accomplish a change in grade if deemed necessary. Currently, though, grade skipping is the one thing our school is really not interested in doing, although I bet I could get a skip if I thought it would be productive. But for the moment, since the school has been so cooperative, I'm inclined to work with them rather than fight for something they are not keen on. It's working for us so far.

FreshHell said...

There's really too much for me to digest here. What does stick out is the boredom issue which I think has been addressed pretty succinctly. Yes, some things are boring but if it's boring because my child has "been there, done that" and there are no opportunities to challenge themselves and take things a step or two further, and nobody's paying attention, that's a problem. Luckily, since Dusty's been in the G&T program at her school, we don't hear the boredom complaint as much. I do wish more of her homework wasn't mimeographed worksheets. There are more active and imaginative assignments but the worksheet business.....

FreshHell said...

That first sentence didn't come out quite right. What I meant was - too much to digest and respond to in an intelligent way.

Harriet said...

That's how I took it, freshhell. Never fear! There is a lot here, definitely enough for several posts. But I dove in to respond to MSI. But sometimes it's interesting to figure out how all this stuff connects. I like trying to look at the whole picture once and a while, even if it's messy.

Maritza said...

In my radical blow-it-all-up and start over moments, I think the age/grade correspondence is the one thing I'd like to trash if I could remake school as we know it.

Hanging out with the kids at all different ages informally makes it much easier to interest them in books they might not be exposed to in a particular grade, or to go back to classics they might feel too old for if they were in a classroom.

Having worked in classrooms with a very wide range of where students were on the grade spectrum, I know it is hard to do, but I sure wish schools found creative ways to group students cross-age and let them work on problems and projects together. I think all ages and all abilities would learn a great deal from it, and it sure looks a lot more like the world beyond school than spending all day with exact- age peers.

Anonymous said...

The Montessori concept is a good one, even if it's mostly executed rather badly.

I was in an A/T program starting in first grade and it made a tremendous difference. A/T is expensive however,and I know from chatting with kids in the neighborhood that even then they are bored by the material.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, lost a phrase - A/T is expensive and starts later and later around here. By the time they get to A/T (fifth grade) they have already decided that school is boring.


Harriet said...

Lemming, I agree about Montessori. In principal, it is a great concept. In execution, it is uneven at best. A friend of mine who sometimes reads here recently pulled her daughter, who is AJ's age, out of a Montessori school, where she's been since preschool, and will be sending her to a school for gifted kids in the fall. If you're reading this, J, do you want to chime in on this? And lemming, could you explain what A/T stands for? I'm not familiar with that term. In any case, 5th grade seems terribly late for intervention. But like Montessori, gifted programs of any kind are only as good as their execution, not their principles.

readersguide said...

Harriet, there's really another point to be made here, too. There are also kids who are really not academically gifted. They're not even academically average. The goal at my kids' public high school is to send every child to college. But what about the kids who don't want to go to college? Who aren't good at school? Our school will not have vocational training, because they're worried that all the black kids, and only the black kids, will get shoved there whether they not to be or not. But I think they're doing a real disservice to kids who have no interest in academics, but would probably be pretty interested in getting a well paying job as an electrician or a plumber. Again, one size fits all fits just about nobody.

Harriet said...

Readersguide, that's an excellent point. There are some schools that do manage both academic vocational tracks, but they are usually very large and urban. The high school I graduated from in Indiana was one such school. But it was for all intensive purposes two schools. The vocational students were in a totally different building and there wasn't much mixing between the two tracks (although granted, I was in the honors track; it may be that there was more confluence in the regular track). And if that school was any evidence, the school is right to be concerned about racial segregation. That was certainly the case for us.