By Roberta Braverman

As educators, our responsibilities and to-do lists are endless. The students we see daily are as diverse as our world, each with strengths and weaknesses that we need to uncover and attend to. How then do we balance our time, fuel our students’ fires, fill the gaps, and create a safe and caring environment in which they can thrive?

Carefully and attentively, with knowledge and teamwork, we can step forward to make a difference.

At the end of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution and a peak in immigration crowded our cities. A factory model of education led us to group students chronologically, replacing the style of education developed in the one-room schoolhouse, which was a model system of differentiation. With the advent of standards-based curricula the art of teaching is lost or regulated out of our classrooms.

This shift has exacerbated challenges for a population of students that has been misunderstood and often ignored. Those with the highest potential in any subject need instruction at a level that challenges them. If they are achieving well, it is often too easy to ignore their special needs to assure their growth.

“Let them be; they can teach themselves at school,” is often an approach taken toward gifted students. Or worse yet, “They can help teach other students.”

Every child is entitled to learn something new at school every day, including those who achieve at the highest levels. Those students who are proficient excel when their teachers discover and play to their strengths and interests. Think of the possibilities if we abandoned the remedial model and nurtured talent instead.

Think of the possibilities if we abandoned the remedial model and nurtured talent instead.

Who are the gifted students and what do they need?

All students should have equal access to guest speakers, assemblies, field trips, distance learning, contests, competitive activities and more. Some of the rules of a contest such as a spelling bee allow everyone to try, but as the words get more difficult, only great spellers progress to win. These opportunities are open for everyone with the hope to spark interest in learning.

But we also need to find those students achieving at the highest levels and be willing to apply curricula that efficiently enables these students to “show what they know.” This often includes benchmark assessments that demonstrate what the student has either already mastered or new skills that they quickly acquired without repetitive practice.

An example would be a group of students who come into kindergarten and first grade already reading chapter books. They deserve time with a specialist to help instruct them at their challenge level. Instead of labeling the students as gifted, they have been recognized as students in need of modifications to the breadth and depth of the curriculum.

Finally, for those students achieving at the very top levels—as few as one to three percent of their grade-level peers in a specific subject—an appropriate education might include acceleration in a subject or grade, and perhaps specialized counseling and support for their sometimes quirky behaviors.

Gifted children come in all ages, sizes, colors, genders and socio-economic groups.

Gifted students do not necessarily fit the stereotype of a “Patti Perfect,” the student whose papers arrive on time, who is immaculately dressed, or as the one who delivers just what the teacher asks. Often the very creative students make their own rules, challenge authority, and find school “boring.” Educators with experience may recognize the gifted child who comes across as the absent-minded professor, the class clown, the perfectionist, the introvert, or as one who play down their “smarts” to be more popular. Many gifted students are not playing the “game” of school to win.

Gifted children come in all ages, sizes, colors, genders and socio-economic groups. We cannot be dependent on the snapshots of standardized tests in two subjects for data after third grade. English learners, students with individualized educational plans, 504 plans or behavioral issues are often “twice exceptional,” which means they may be gifted and have something that interferes with learning.

So, let’s add “talent scout” to our job description, as we develop each of our students to their fullest potential, and as we remember that the “gifted student” does not fit into a neat and predictable stereotype.

Roberta Braverman is an NJREA member, currently working as an educational consultant, and retired from the Mount Laurel Public Schools as a teacher of the gifted. She is the vice president for advocacy of the New Jersey Association for Gifted Children. She can be reached at advocacy@njagc.org.

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