The gifted student dilemma

Between giving thanks and dishing up Thanksgiving dinner, I haven’t followed through on a promise to share my own epiphany about how schools — and teachers — often fail gifted students. Well, the turkey carcass has now given its all for the turkey soup, and I’m out of excuses, so . . .

I remember the afternoon vividly. I’d begun teaching Advanced Placement European History for the first time just a few weeks earlier, and had just that morning inflicted my first test on the class.

My previous AP (Government) students had all been seniors; this course was offered to sophomores as an alternative to the required “Western Civ”. Five of these sophomores walked into my classroom that afternoon and stood silently around my desk.

Although I’d only known this group of students for a few weeks, I already — I thought — had their measure. These were bright, eager, hard-working young people: among the best students in an already strong class. Moreover, I had already graded the multiple choice portion of their test, and knew that all five had done quite well. Sure, each had missed several questions, but since I mostly used actual AP test questions I expected this, especially from sophomores and especially on the first test. I curved accordingly.

Before I could utter reassuring noises, however, one of the students — the group’s spokesman — cleared his throat and announced, “Mrs. McConnell, we just wanted you to know that next time we’re really going to study hard for your test.”

Then he added the sentence that floored me. “None of us has ever really had to study for a history test before.”

After fighting back a blast of self-righteous anger at their previous history teachers, I thought more soberly about the dilemma these particular five students posed to my predecessors. Any middle school teacher who gave a history test hard enough to make this group break a sweat was going to be fielding calls from angry parents for a week. Reading assignments that would challenge and intrigue the gang of five would fly over the heads of many of their peers,frustrating rather than educating, and further reinforcing an already strong conviction that history was BORING. Yes, I think their earlier history classes — especially “honors” classes – should have stretched these students more. I also recognize that by funneling these students into a single class with their most talented and/or dedicated peers, the Advanced Placement option enabled me to raise the bar in a way, or at least to a height, that their earlier teachers probably could not.

But the dilemma remains — and I use the word dilemma quite deliberately. Dictionary.com defines the word this way: “a situation requiring a choice between equally undesirable alternatives.”

I don’t buy the “equally” part, since I strongly believe that we need to offer more demanding options for students who are willing and able to work at higher levels. Still, by removing the gang of five and their ilk from regular history classes — or, more accurately, by allowing them to remove themselves — we also removed an intellectual spark that might have ignited a fire for learning in students who did not perceive themselves as “AP material.”

And if we are going to offer gifted alternatives, how early do we begin?

My husband entered a gifted program in the second grade, and he still stays in close touch with many of the extraordinary people who met as seven-year-olds and graduated from high school as a tight-knit group of friends. When they get together after all these years my husband’s classmates still reminisce about the philosophical disputes that roiled their fourth grade classroom, and the theological disputes that erupted in sixth grade. It doesn’t sound like elementary school as I experienced it . . . or, as a parent, observed it.

My mother, on the other hand, taught the “regular” sixth grade class in a school that also offered a gifted classroom. She lamented the loss of peers who could encourage, tutor, and even goad their classmates to a higher level of performance . . . and she worried about labeling kids as winners and losers before they even reached puberty.

So what do you think? I don’t have any links this time, but I linked to some relevant studies in an earlier post.

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