Saturday, May 31, 2014

Gifted Adults at Play - 2

In addition to music, I also have a number of other things that I play at.  One is a MeetUp group for board game players.  I would guess that a rather high percentage of the people who belong to this group are gifted.  What is it about board games, or gaming in general, that is so appealing for gifted people?

First of all, my guess is that it is the overall challenge level of the games that are most frequently played at these sessions.  Unlike the board games I was familiar with as a child, Monopoly, Life, and even Scrabble, these games are generally much more complex.  It often takes almost a quarter hour just to explain/teach many of the games to new players.

Secondly, the best of the games require flexibility with strategies.  There is usually either an element of chance in the game or a factor of randomness that insures that the strategy used for one time play of the game may have to be completely changed for the next time the game is played.

One of my favorite "board" games is Dominion.  It probably shouldn't be called a board game, because it is really a deck-building game, but it is a frequently played game at these MeetUps.  The general structure of the game is that, on your turn, you first perform any actions that your cards allow you to perform (A), then you buy any new card(s) you are able to buy with the cards in your hand (B), and then you clean up your play area and draw a new hand from your accumulated cards (C).  Some of the cards you can buy add actions you can perform, some give you more money to spend, some only win you victory points at the end.  The action cards are where the vast differences in games come in.  There are around 30 cards in one particular version of the game.  Of those 30, only 10 are selected each time for play.  This makes for a huge number of combinations. 

Play also depends on the personalities and strategies of your opponents in the game.  Some of the action cards are attack cards, which have a huge affect on how the game plays out.  Aggressive players can wield them to great advantage; more peaceful players (like me) can get taken by them.  Some cards have cumulative effects - one card allows you to play another, which may allow you to play yet another.  Clever use of these cards can be very effective. 

An Aussie, SH, introduced me to role-playing games, a Harry Potter one, about 4 years ago and it was great fun. RPG games add another dimension to gaming, akin to acting.  The emphasis here shifts to solving a problem with other players (or against other players), as the character you are playing would.  The MeetUp group I go to also occasionally plays a semi-role-playing game called Werewolf.  Roles are secret and you must discover who is a Werewolf, before everyone in the village is killed.  It is more constrained than regular RPGs and follows a similar format every time, but the complexity comes from the interactions with others in the game. 

What is the appeal of gaming?  It requires personal engagement with the game and with other people.  There are rules to the games, but there are many different winning strategies.  There are a lot of other types of play that gifted people like as well, but I think the active involvement with challenging and varying games is a big plus for gaming. I came to this kind of gaming quite late in life - I am usually the oldest person in the room for these games - but I have enjoyed learning them. 

Gifted Adults at Play - 1

When I was in my upper 50s, I decided to attend the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, which was (and is) held each summer in Fairbanks, Alaska, the last two weeks in July.  I had long been a member of various choruses, so I signed up for the mixed chorus and the women's chorus.

But, I also decided, for some strange reason, to sign up for Cabaret.  At the FSAF, Cabaret is a class where participants choose a song or songs, from a wide range of genres, to sing solo before an audience.  The class consisted of a 3 hour daily lesson for 2 weeks (not weekends) and performances at the end of each week.  Singers were coached in song interpretation, connecting to the audience, microphone use, and overcoming nerves.  The latter was my biggest hurdle, especially that first year.  I am a teacher, so I didn't expect that singing for an audience would be SO MUCH different from teaching - but it was.  The first time I sang my song in class, I was crying with nerves.  The first time I performed for an audience, my legs were shaking so badly, I wasn't sure I could remain standing.

I don't think that my first experience was too much different from other people's experiences, but one thing that held me back then and still now is that I am extremely analytical (just ask my kids) and judgmental.  The instructors of the class were VERY supportive and the other students in the class were, too.  My worst enemy was me.  People often say that you shouldn't compare your performance to that of others, that you should just relax and enjoy the process, that people are rooting FOR you, not judging you.  But I had a hard time turning that off with myself.  First of all, the idea is that you are learning something.  You have to do a certain amount of evaluation and judging, in order to know how to improve. 

So, how do you keep the judgmentalism and the analysis from paralyzing you and preventing you from trying something new?  Some people do so through family support systems.  But my husband knows very little about music or musical performance and my children are grown and far away.  Family support wasn't enough.  Luckily the instructors and fellow students helped, but it took a lot of courage for me to get through that first year. 

But somehow, the fact is that I did manage to do it and I've gone back for more - at least 6 years now.  And, two years ago, I took another big step.  At the age of 59, I signed up for the FSAF song-writing class.  I had always wanted to write a musical for children, but I started out just writing one song for me.  This class was only one week, but I did manage to write a song that wasn't too bad.  The class wasn't offered the next year and in the meantime, I had decided that writing songs required more talent than I had.

But then, I moved from Alaska to Colorado.  I decided to find a music outlet in Colorado.  I tried singing in a chorus, but I discovered that I really didn't like classical music quite as well as I thought I did.  And I especially didn't like memorizing the music, which the choir director encouraged.  It was time to branch out a bit.  I tried vocal music lessons and eventually, I decided to try writing music again.  This time, my goal was two-fold:  I wanted to write music that was ME (which is NOT especially popular right now) and I wanted to eventually write a musical for kids.

Since then, I have written dozens of songs and I did write the musical, which is now mostly finished - at least the part I envisioned writing.  I chose a book that I wanted to adapt and wrote the script.  Then, I wrote songs to go with various parts of the script.  I learned to write music on the computer, using Finale Songwriter.  It has been immensely fun.  My idea was to write the tune and the words, but lately, I have worried that I should have some sort of accompaniment - piano likely.  And now, I am stuck.  I know enough music theoretically to write an accompaniment, but each time I try to write one, I dislike the result. 

I am not good at dealing with adversity.  I didn't learn persistence as a child - why should I when everything came so easily to me?  It wasn't until college that I found out that people actually had to study and work at learning things.  To some extent, I have overcome that with this venture into writing music, but it is still an emotional challenge for me.

The other emotional challenge is trying to decide if the music I have written is any good.  I have now sung three of my songs for Cabaret.  Two of them were funny pieces - crowd-pleasers.  But the music itself wasn't very good.  I have written some other songs that are similar - funny, but unsophisticated music.  And now my analytical self kicks in again.  A lot of popular music isn't structurally sophisticated.  My music doesn't belong to any of the popular genres.  So is it any good?  I don't know.  I have gotten good feedback from my music teacher and a couple of my friends, but very few others. How important is affirmation?  More important than I care to admit. 

So, what does all this have to do with Gifted People at Play?  For me, this has been a kind of mania.  Now that the musical is at the stage where I would like someone else to do the final part, I am wondering if I should continue writing music.  How do people have the creative confidence to keep going when there is little confirmation of the work?  Why do I feel the need for outside affirmation?  What if only my music teacher and my friends think it is good?  Should I do it anyway?  What if there is no audience for the work?  Is it worthwhile to write something, even if no-one else cares about it? 

Is all of this questioning normal to the creative process?  Is it worse for gifted people?  I would love to see the musical performed somewhere, but the process of finding a group that is willing to try it seems overwhelming to me - and outside of my interest areas.

Is this play or not? 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Creativity through Structure

I taught in a school district where the art teachers at individual elementary schools were cut back. Instead, they had 4 art specialists who developed self-contained art lessons and put them in poster-board sized zip bags. Any time a new lesson was added to the range of available lessons, the art specialist would go around to the teachers who taught that grade level and teach them how to teach the lesson.  

I was initially a bit skeptical about these lessons.  In many ways, they were quite structured.  For example, one of the lessons commemorates a bridge that was built in the town.  I believe the bridge was built for the 100th anniversary of something relating to the town's history.  The zip bag included laminated posters talking about the history of the bridge.  There were also directions for the students to follow to make their own "bridges".  They had to use black construction paper for the background and they were to cut out a certain number of 3 different shapes - I think the number was 30 small pieces of each shape, but I don't remember exactly.  Then, they were to develop a repeating pattern to span the paper as a bridge.  

The results of this admittedly structured activity surprised me every time I saw them.  Since the lesson was part of their state history study (probably 4th grade), most of the 4th grades throughout the district would do this project at some time during the year.  As a sub, I would frequently see the results of the lesson in various buildings and with various 4th grades.  The results were anything but mundane and I must admit surprised me every time. The strict structure of the lesson and the materials actually seemed to bring out MORE creativity in the students than the freedom to "paint/draw whatever you want".

I have more frequently seen the results of lack of structure in writing.  It is very common for teachers to give subs what they consider to be an "easy" day.  Students are told that the students are to have a "free writing" day.  They can write whatever they want.  This is paralyzing for many students, and actually often difficult for subs.  Many students have NO idea at all what to write and the sub doesn't know the children well enough to make appropriate suggestions.   

For me, it works better if, like in the art lesson above, there is quite a bit of structure, but an element of choice within that structure.  One of the better writing lessons I was given to do was to have the students write a persuasive essay (structure) on one of 5 possible topics (limited choice).  Another lesson that worked well was to have the students write a friendly letter (structure and form) to a teacher they had had in that school (limited choice) for teacher appreciation day (structured topic).  To that basic outline, I added that, if they could remember an especially outstanding incident or specific interaction, that would really bring a smile to the teacher.    

For me, it seems that you actually see more creativity and even higher quality creativity when there is structure, but some choice within the basics of the structure.

Sub Pay

As I said in a previous post, I am giving up trying to find a permanent full time job in teaching.  I am too old and it is difficult for me to keep up with the physical demands of the job.  I am also too expensive - too many degrees, too much experience.  But I am also pretty discouraged about subbing.  Sometimes it is the behavior of the kids, sometimes it is the behavior of the adults, and sometimes it is just the fact that, with subbing, you get to see very little of your influence.  You feel like a placeholder and not someone who is important.  There is another reason why I tend to not feel important: sub pay.  It is actually insulting.

I have subbed in three different school districts near where I live.  They pay around $95 per day.  I was working part time at a school a couple of years ago on a 7 hour a week job. The problem was that the 7 hours had to be divided between two days, because that is the way the students' schedules worked out. When I told the principal that I couldn't do that job any more and that I was going back to subbing, she gushed to me, "Oh, and subs get $100 per day!!!" I pointed out to her that $100 * (max) 160 days == $16,000. She was flabbergasted. She had never thought of it that way.  After 30 days for one of the school districts I work for, I get a pay raise to $114 per day. Hm... $114 * (max) 160 == $18,240.  Do you think you could live on that here?  It isn't even close to the poverty level.

I was talking about this with a couple of people I know in Australia.  There, substitute or "supply teacher" pay is actually very near to the hourly rate for regular teachers.  Given the median salary for teachers in Denver $52,881, (, for a 180 day contract, that would mean a daily salary of about $294.  $294 * 160 == $47,000.  Livable.  One woman even mentioned that temporary workers, like substitute teachers, often get a bit MORE than the regular employees, to compensate for the fact that their work is temporary and not assured.  

The reasoning in the United States is that substitute teachers could get another job during non-school times.  But in my experience, that argument has fallen completely flat.  Companies don't want to hire me, because I am overqualified for nearly every part time job that is available.  They don't want to go through the training and then have me leave for something better.  Physically, I can't work in the fast food or restaurant businesses and no one else has a job for someone with two masters' degrees, but little experience in their specific business.  

I am lucky, I have a husband who makes enough money to support us.  What I do is almost equivalent to doing volunteer work.  Maybe, I should leave the job to young graduates who are still hopeful of finding permanent positions and retired teachers, who at least have a pension.  

But it is sad for me.  I find the job - even with all of its challenges - interesting.  I like to see what is REALLY going on in the schools, compared to the rhetoric of what people think is going on.  I like to compare classes, classrooms, teachers, schools, school personnel, and school districts.  I am fascinated by differences in curricula, class atmosphere, school atmosphere, and above all differences in the children.  I am not a teacher who gushes that she just LOVES children.  But I do find them fascinating.  Endlessly fascinating.  For that reason, I am not quite ready to stop subbing, but I must admit, I am discouraged.  Maybe summer vacation will bring things back in focus for me again. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Is This Fifth Grade Handwriting?

So, recently, I posted a diatribe about handwriting.  This is a picture of one student's paper: 
So, the question is, has students' handwriting gotten much worse lately, or is this normal for a 5th grade boy.  This was not the only paper that was written this (il)legibly. 

Not Job Seeking Any More

So, I have finally made the decision that I am not going to look for a full time teaching job any more.  I am too old and my knees are not up to a full time job.  So, healthwise, it is probably a good decision.

I think it is extremely unlikely that I would get hired anyway.  I have been applying for four years now in Colorado and have had fewer than a dozen interviews.  I have two masters' degrees, one in elementary education with a science and math focus, and one in computer science, with applications to biology.  I have 199 additional hours toward a Ph.D. in biochemistry.  I have many years of teaching experience, with students from pre-school through grad school.  I am simply too expensive.  No one wants to hire someone like me full time.  I cost too much for the questionable benefit.  I can still sub, since all they really want for that job is a warm body with a teaching certificate.

In addition, I am too outspoken.  I read a while back that many principals and other human resources people google potential candidates for jobs.  I have googled myself and it is not hard to find things that I have written that potential bosses would see as red flags.  For instance, I have frequently made statements against differentiation as a program option for gifted students (too difficult for teachers to consistently do at the right level and pace).  But differentiation is the current mantra for educators.  You are supposed to say that you can differentiate for all the kids in the class.  As a sub, I just don't see this at all, but I guess potential teachers are supposed to gush about how they developed this differentiated unit for kids and it was fabulous.  Maybe.  As I said, I don't see it in real classrooms.  Good units, yes; differentiated for gifted and learning disabled kids, not really.

So, I have a LOT of teaching materials that I would like to re-home.  Any ideas on where they could go?  I have a lovely set of Dienes blocks, made of wood.  I suppose I can just put them in garage sales, but it seems like a sad end to such high quality materials. 

And, a bit of a sad end to a teaching career. 


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Down Memory Lane - 2

One of my students was an adorable black boy, who had a bit of a stutter.  But more bothersome than that was his penchant to use inappropriate words in school.  I tried to correct him, telling him dutifully every time that, "We don't use those words in school."  Finally, I decided I needed to talk to his parents about the problem at parent/teacher conferences.

Me:  M****** has a bit of a problem with using inappropriate words in school.
M's Mom:  Well, I am just going to have to get the little f***er!

Ah, yes!  Now I see.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Down Memory Lane - 1

I finally had a classroom of my own, after being an assistant teacher for 1 1/2 years.  It was a 6th grade, which, at the time, was still in the elementary school.  One of the subjects we were to teach was sex education.  The curriculum was set out, but we were told that, at the end of each lesson, it would be good to have an open question and answer time.  So, I bravely followed the first lesson and, at the end of the lesson asked for any questions.

One girl raised her hand and said she had a question.  It was, "Was my mama a whore?"

I was completely unprepared for that kind of question.  The particulars of the reproductive system I could address, but I wasn't even sure if I was allowed to use the word "whore" in school.  But, it was obvious, also, that this was an extremely brave and urgent question, so it needed an answer.  Thinking as quickly as I could, I said that the first thing we needed to know was the definition of a whore.  I said that it usually meant that a woman was having sex for pay. 

She said that her mother was 13 years old when she was born.

Again, completely taken aback, I tried to put a neutral (and not shocked) face on.  I told her that, at that age, she was so young that she almost certainly wasn't having sex for pay, so that she almost certainly wasn't a "whore".

What I should have said, but didn't, since it wasn't part of the nomenclature then, was that at the age of 12, when she got pregnant, her mother would not have been able to give informed consent to sex.  If the boy who fathered her was much older, he should not have had sex with her.  If the boy was about her age, both of them should have had better supervision and information about sexual activities.

All in all, I think I handled the question OK and the girl seemed VERY relieved to think that her mother wasn't actually a "whore".  My guess is that kids were teasing her about her mother and perhaps also about her "bastard" status.

Now, back to the current day.  This question has informed my opinion that we need full and complete sex education, beginning even before children start puberty.  Sex education needs to include not just the nuts and bolts of the reproductive system, but also the emotional and social aspects of sex.  Perhaps 5th and 6th graders don't need explicit instruction in contraception, but they should at least be told that there are ways to prevent pregnancy and if they think they might need it, they should ask the school nurse. 

Line Designs

The assignment for a 4th/5th grade class the other day was to teach the students in small groups how to make line designs. The students were skeptical at first.  They didn't want to try anything that might be "hard".  But I started them out with a very easy line design - similar to this one, only just the top right quadrant.  I was surprised at the enthusiasm, once they understood how to do the designs.

Some students wanted to try the much harder designs right away, but I told them to keep working on the simpler ones for a bit.  One girl tried a hard one, anyway, and got stuck about halfway through.  The halfway point was pretty by itself, though, so she was satisfied.

It was interesting to me to see the various ways the students tackled different designs once they understood the concept.  Some students seemed to need the numbering system (1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15 on the x-axis; 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, starting at the TOP of the y-axis in this drawing).  Others seemed to not need the numbers at all - just the idea that they needed the same number of points on each line; and they needed to connect points sequentially, starting at the beginning of one line and the end of the other line that was closest to the end of the first line.  

The teacher also left some sample of line designs that students had done with yarn on cardboard.  That was also inspiring for the kids. 

It was a fun lesson. 

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Another Surprise

Today, the writing assignment was to have the fifth grade class I was in write teacher appreciation letters to a teacher they had had at that school.  The teacher said to use the letter form in the Writer's Express Handbook, so prior to letting them get to work, we went over the form in detail - where each part of the letter should be placed, where the commas would go, what would be indented and how much. 

Then the kids got started.  I was not particularly surprised that many of them didn't follow the form exactly.  They were to write a rough draft, I was to edit it, and then they were to write a final copy.  What did surprise me is that so many of the students, remember these are fifth graders, didn't know THEIR OWN ADDRESSES.  A lot of them wanted to use the school's address, but I told them to use their own.  Fortunately, one of the students knew that there was a school directory next to the telephone and quite a few of the students subsequently looked up their own addresses in the directory.  There were even a few who couldn't tell me which city they lived in.  To be fair, the school does draw students from at least two different cities/towns in the area, but I was completely baffled that students wouldn't know their own addresses. 

Monday, May 05, 2014

Classroom Physical Arrangements

Mark Phillips' post A Place for Learning: the Physical Environment of Classrooms has prompted me to write out some of my thoughts as a sub about different classrooms.  He relates the story of one of his mentors taking the job of custodian, so that he get a firsthand look at the physical environments of classrooms.  Well, I can do his mentor one better: take the job of substitute teaching.  Then you can get a sense of the physical environments of not only multiple classrooms in one school, but also of the vast differences between schools and the differences between elementary, middle school, and high schools. 

I do most of my subbing nowadays in elementary schools, especially third through fifth grades.  From what I can see of most elementary schools, the physical environment is very busy and almost overwhelming.  Walls are COVERED with posters, student work, number lines, job charts, attendance/leave-the-room boards, reminder lists, even decorations on the windows, etc., in addition to the white boards, the Smart boards, and the cupboards. 

I have often wondered how much of this is really necessary.  Do students actually USE the information on those posters?  In most cases, the print on the poster is too small for students to see, unless they are close to the poster.  Displaying student writing projects may be motivating, but no one can actually read the essays posted on the walls.  To me, it is visually distracting.  It doesn't seem so to the kids, who seem used to it, but I wonder how much it contributes to too much visual stimulation. 

Personally, if I were to decide on the classroom decorations, I would remove most of the posters and charts with small print.  They are useless and distracting.  I like a display for student art work, but the student written work would be better in a three ring binder in the library.  And replace some of the posters with beautiful pictures and professional art work.  One school district I worked in was in a state where public buildings were to spend one percent of their construction budget on professional art work.  Some of the art work thus added to the buildings was amazing.  And, to me, it seemed as though, surrounded by this gorgeous art, the students actually produced better art of their own.  The buildings themselves seemed to say, we value art and creative expression.  

Unlike Mr. Phillips' mentor, though, I don't feel that the classroom desk layouts are designed for the custodians.  In most cases now, the classrooms I go to seem set up for the ubiquitous group work.  "Table groups" of 3 to 6 or more desks are arranged throughout the classroom and are often numbered/named for ease of reference:  "Table 4" or the "Purple Ninja Unicorns".  Some classrooms are so crowded that it is difficult to walk to be next to each student's desk.  Other classrooms have sufficient space, so that the teacher can also set up a library corner, a meeting area, and a (largely unused) computer area. 

One 4th grade teacher I subbed for was there when I arrived for a part day job.  I was quite impressed with his arrangement.  He proceeded to demonstrate how his classroom could switch configurations at the snap of his fingers.  For one of his subjects he was going to have the students watch a video, where they all needed to be able to see the projection screen.  After that, they were going to work on a small group task related to the video.  In a different subject, they were scheduled to take a test individually.  Each of these arrangements had a number.  He would snap his fingers, call out a number and the students would rapidly change their desks around to match the needed configuration - less than a minute transition time. 

Middle schools and high schools seem to have fewer job charts and instructionally related charts and posters.  Many of the rooms are functional and plain.  This is especially true if the rooms are shared by multiple teachers.  No teacher seems to own the space, so it is left undecorated.  This too-little can be as stifling as the elementary school's too-much.  And, as Mr. Phillips noted, the classrooms are often arranged in rows.  Sometimes, this is necessitated by the size of the classroom.  I taught one calculus class with 40 students who were all crammed into a too small room with multiple tables.  In truth, it was a fire hazard.  There was no way for the teacher to get to students at the end of the rows which abutted the walls.  Middle school and high school science classes, on the other hand, usually have large tables for the students to work on, demonstrating that sometimes the arrangement of the classroom depends significantly not only on the teaching style of the teacher, but also on the necessities of the subject matter.  Math often works in rows, science at tables, and social studies, English, or world languages in semi-circles for discussions.  Unfortunately, with class sizes surging, the semi-circles for discussions are becoming rare.  There simply isn't enough room.  

I have long been interested in floor plans for schools and, for a while, I got publications from a professional society that gave awards to new school building designs.  One of the key factors in good design seems to be sufficient space for the activities.  Many of the elementary schools are very limited in this respect.  Even high schools sometimes are feeling the pinch, as in the example of the calculus class above.  That was in a building that was less that 10 years old, but some of the classrooms were simply too small for the numbers of students they needed to accommodate.  With school budgets stripped to the bone, many of the newer schools are being "underbuilt" - they are too small from the moment they open their doors.  Many of them rely on mobile trailers for their overflowing numbers.  These classrooms, in my experience, are very much less than ideal - no running water, no bathrooms, security problems, and feeling like an outcasts from the rest of the school.

The physical environment of the classroom can have a big effect on the students.  Crowding seems to lead to more interaction problems.  There is no place where the student can go to get away from it all.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

The Gifted Label, Part II

A friend of mine commented regarding the Gifted Label, saying that she doesn't like labeling people, but prefers to label needs.   

I wrote this in response to her comment:  I have been thinking about your comment and its implications.  While it may semantically make a difference, I don't see that, in practice it makes much difference. "Children with learning disabilities" and "learning disabled children" seem remarkably similar to me. In addition, in the case of gifted children, labeling their needs is actually restrictive. Gifted children don't simply need extended curriculum, they need social and emotional support that isn't generally offered in any curricula.

In a way, I see it as analogous to the movement in the autistic community. At first, many people welcomed the designation of "person with autism", which emphasized the person first and the autism as a qualifier. But then a significant number of autistic people decided that their autism was so central to them as people that they would actually prefer to be labeled "autistic people". Their whole being needs to be interpreted through the lens of their autism.

Sure, gifted people have needs that can be labelled, but, for me, at least, there is a lot more to it than just the needs. It is acceptance of the whole person where the giftedness cannot be separated out from the whole.


Further thoughts/comments:
For most services offered in schools, we do not label the service, but we DO label the child.  He is ELL; she is LD.  They are deaf; they are BD.  

How could we label the needs of gifted children without labeling the child?  "Children who need extended curriculum"? - true, but not the whole story.  "Children who need emotional support for their advanced learning differences"? - also true, but the same type of problem that the word "gifted" has. Would it make a difference to label the service and not the child? 

Friday, May 02, 2014


I was watching a group of 5th and 6th graders work on a writing piece the other day.  They had to use pencils and paper (not computers) for this assignment and I noticed, once again, that many of them hold the pencil strangely.  Many of them also have only marginally legible handwriting.  The two don't always correspond to each other, but I am wondering now, if part of the problem with kids and writing is simply that it is uncomfortable for them to write.

Background:  years ago, when I had a full time position, part of which involved teaching 6th and 7th grade social studies classes, I was frustrated that it was so difficult to get the students to write their answers to "short answer" questions in complete sentences.  [not to mention the fact that most of them thought that "Because blah blah blah." would be a complete sentence].  At any rate, it was even worse to try to get them to write a paragraph.  Usually the paragraphs were one sentence long (or one fragment long).  "Essays" might be as long as 3 sentences, but that was pushing it. 

At the time, I didn't think to look at pencil grips, but now I am wondering how much that might contribute to the overall problem with written work.  The 5th grader I was watching the other day had a grip that resulted in his first two fingers hooking around the pencil, counter-balanced with the thumb, and pointing the pencil directly away from him.  And his handwriting was very close to being completely illegible. 

I am not a stickler for beautiful handwriting, although I am always glad to see it.  But we need to make sure that writing isn't actually painful for the students - and it needs to happen well before 5th grade.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

The Gifted Label

I didn't commit to writing a post about this topic, because I am still not sure where I stand in relation to it. 

On the one hand, I acknowledge that the term "gifted" is misunderstood, misused, and considered slightly offensive by some people.  On the other hand, I don't think it is necessarily the word itself that is at fault. 

I have been teaching since 1971.  Before that, my mother was a teacher, and her mother as well.  So, we have a long history of being involved in education.  My father was also a school board member and both my parents were involved in the establishment of the Iowa TAG subgroup of the Council on Exceptional Children.  In those many years, the term for slow learners has changed over and over again.  The earliest term I can remember is "retarded".  It was intended as a simple descriptor.  These children learn more slowly in relation to the other children.  But it acquired a negative connotation, so other terms were substituted, MR, EMR, learning disabled, and more.  In some cases, the terms became more descriptive and more definitive; in others, it was hoped that they would be perceived as less undesirable. 

Over the years, I think teachers, school personnel, and the general public have all gotten to be more understanding of slow learners, but I am not sure that it is due to more descriptive or more well-defined designations for them.  I would like to think that it is more due to improved knowledge about their capabilities and methods to help them achieve more and be integrated into the regular lives of school children. 

It is thus with some reservation that I look at whether "gifted" should be changed to something else.  Are we trying to better describe the concept of giftedness and look differently at the capabilities of gifted children (and adults) or is it because of a negative connotation?  In my experience, the negative perception of the term "gifted" is partly due to the reality of giftedness, not the term itself.  Examples:  a) I was in the teachers' lounge eating lunch.  I said something in response to the general conversation.  I was told, "You're too smart for us."  b) I was speculating about some phenomena - its causes and consequences.  My children said (with great exasperation), "Do you have to analyze EVERYTHING?"  In neither of these cases was the word "gifted" even close to being mentioned.  The negative perception was for me - a gifted adult.  Both examples were rejections of ME for being who I am.  In the case of my children, I will forgive them because of their youth and their teenage critical natures at the time.  But the first example has happened under slightly different circumstances over and over again.  I am sorry I can't appear to be not gifted at times.  I have tried "code switching" - changing my speech to match the types of conversations I am a part of.  It works, most of the time - or at least I used to think it did.  Now, I am not so sure.  Eventually, I get "outed" - by something I say, usually. 

Thus, I feel that part of the problem with the word "gifted" is not the word itself, but the person to whom the label is applied.  We represent some things that people find uncomfortable.  As with the terms for slow learners, it makes many people uncomfortable to acknowledge the people, so the term keeps changing in an attempt to show that we really don't want to make people feel bad. 

On the other hand, "gifted" isn't exactly a descriptive term.  It doesn't say anything about how the process of learning or being is different for that person.  "Retarded" and all of its replacements can at least be credited with that.  "Learning disabled", though vague, at least indicates that there is some learning process that, for that particular student, is more difficult than normal.

The problem, as MANY people have said, is that there is no good alternative.  "Smart" could be a catch-all descriptor, except that it, too, isn't very descriptive.  "Fast learner" only describes a portion of gifted people.  Some learn fast; others learn deeply; still others think broadly and creatively.  Should all these acquire different designations?  "Persons with high intelligence", as suggested by Dr. Wenda Sheard, is a bit cumbersome and is only a bit more descriptive than "gifted". 

I don't know.  Like Shaun Hately, I think labeling is actually helpful.  It gives people an entry into a way of thinking about that individual.  Most people understand that the label is only a beginning, and that it just points to some things that might need to be considered.  Just like "learning disabled", it signals that there is something specific here that needs to be looked at. 

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