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Advocating for your gifted child

I once heard someone remark, "Advocating for gifted kids is like taking up a collection for the Kennedys. Why would anyone who already has so much need any more?" I find it ironic that many people who are not parenting gifted kids themselves think it's some kind of picnic to do so. And as most of you readers know all too well, parents of gifted kids are not always welcome at school, especially if the child does not demonstrate her giftedness in that environment. All too frequently, dialogue between parents of gifted kids and their teachers turns into a thinly veiled power struggle regarding whether or not the child is "truly" gifted or is just perceived as such by over involved parents.

The time has come to change the dynamics of these interchanges. When advocating for curriculum or program changes for gifted students, we should not even use the term "gifted." We should talk instead of whether or not the existing school program is providing for the most highly capable students what it is promising for all students. We should ask to see the school's "mission statement" and consider its promises as they relate to highly capable students. Most educators have beliefs, often articulated in a mission statement, similar to those I discuss in this article. When we dialogue with our children's teachers, we should ask the following questions and know how to respond to the answers we receive.

1. Do you believe that all students should be able to learn something new each day at school?
Almost all educators will answer "yes." However, in a mixed-ability classroom, the students who are most likely to learn the least, if learning is defined as the acquisition of knowledge you didn't already have, are the most capable learners. Educators often confuse the meaning of two five-letter English words, which are too often perceived to be synonyms but are not. These are "teach" and "learn." Most teachers believe they are obligated to "teach" the required curriculum to all their students, when in fact, they are only obligated to be able to demonstrate that all their students have "learned" that curriculum.

Nowhere is this misunderstanding more apparent than at the times teachers are "preparing" their students for the state or national standardized tests. Many gifted students can score above the 95th percentile on those tests at the beginning of the school year. We should ask teachers to provide pre-assessment opportunities for those who wish to take them. Students who demonstrate mastery of any upcoming content should not be wasting learning time in review. Instead, their time should be spent working on alternate activities while they wait for their classmates to benefit from the review. Parents have the right to ask their children's teachers to provide these pre-assessments and alternate activities during standardized test preparation time, as well as with the "regular curriculum" taught during the rest of the school year.

All students have a right to be learning at their own personal challenge levels. Therefore, advocates would ask for evidence that youngsters are experiencing that challenge, regardless of the level that seems appropriate for most members of the class. In Oregon, the state mandate for gifted education charges teachers to be able to prove that all students, not just the gifted, are being taught at the appropriate "rate and level." When we talk in those terms, instead of trying to prove whether or not a child is "gifted," we are on much safer ground.

2. How do you feel when you are in a situation in which you perceive your time is being wasted?
No one enjoys being in a situation in which his or her time is being wasted. At every seminar I present, I talk about this with the teachers in the audience. I tell them that I know they have been hoping that this day will be beneficial for them and that they would not be happy if they perceived their workshop time was going to be wasted. Everyone nods, murmuring assent. Then I make the analogy regarding how some students' learning time is wasted regularly because they must spend precious learning time working on things long since mastered. Teachers realize that if they don't want someone like me to waste their time, they should probably not expect their students to be happy about "doing all the regular work first," before being able to go on to something new or more challenging.

We also consider the concept of doing more of the same for "extra credit." Just as adults would not consider this much of an incentive for doing more than others, we should not expect students to happily agree to it either. Teachers need to have "alternate activities" available for students to work on instead of the age-appropriate curriculum.

3. Do you believe that all students should enjoy high self-esteem from their academic experiences?
Of course, we all believe this statement. Unfortunately, this concept has been misunderstood and misapplied in school situations. Self-esteem is not something a teacher "gives" to a student; it is something the student derives from a situation. As Sylvia Rimm has suggested, achievement of high self-esteem comes with success in accomplishing something one believed would be difficult; to disallow academic struggle is to disallow opportunity for esteem building.

Most gifted kids breeze through elementary school, getting positive feedback and high grades from work they know was easy and which took little or no effort to produce. The longer kids experience this "struggle theft," the more they are likely to conclude that "smart" must mean "easy" and will soon come to resist experiences they perceive as difficult. This leads predictably to intense resistance to challenging work and learning opportunities as they move into the upper grades, because they have concluded that it's dangerous to let anyone know they're struggling. Many have concluded from personal experience that if you have to struggle to learn something, you are not so smart after all!

Therefore, we must encourage our children's teachers to provide work at each student's challenge level, regardless of where that child's abilities lie on a learning continuum. However, if we do that, we also have to be prepared to accept conditions gracefully in which our kids are no longer getting "straight As." We should actually be gravely concerned about kids with perfect report cards in elementary and middle school unless we have evidence that those grades represent learning at a challenge level. The good news is that there are no college application forms that ask for the transcripts from the elementary or middle school years! Those are the years in which it is "safe" for kids to learn that even very smart people can make mistakes, learn from those mistakes and still be considered very smart.

In conclusion, I am suggesting that to advocate for what gifted kids want and need in school, one should find out what the school and/or district philosophy is and insist that highly capable learners experience what that philosophy promises. In that way, we are not asking for anything "special" for gifted kids. We are merely expecting what all students in the district can and should expect-daily opportunities to learn at one's personal challenge level.

Susan Winebrenner, from Michigan, presents workshops on a variety of topics, but her first love is teaching gifted children. She is the author of Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom and Teaching Gifted Kids with Learning Disabilities in the Regular Classroom.
Understanding Our Gifted, Spring 1998. Reprinted with Permission, Open Space Communications. www.openspacecomm.com.

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