Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Do we need gifted education?

Another very valid question I am asked is do we need gifted education. It seems as if all of a sudden, parents of gifted children are asking for a different type of education for their children. The answer is, it isn't gifted children that has changed, its the schools.
My husband's grandfather - an amazingly gifted man in his 90's tells us often about his growing up in rural, poor, and segregated Alabama. At that time of turmoil and strife, he was education in a one room schoolhouse. One story he likes to tell is how he started school in the 1st grade. By the end of the week, he had finished 3rd grade. Back in the days of the one room school house, students were allowed to work at their own pace and ability level. Once you successfully read the primers (which would put many books in the schools today to shame), once you completed the math lessons - you were allowed to move on to the next grade. No waiting for age mates, no fear or "running out of work", no fear of getting too smart too fast.
The argument of whether or not he was "properly educated" is thrown out the window when you sit down to have a conversation with him. He is brilliant. He also has a career history that proves his intelligence and wit. He is credited with saving the power company he worked for (and retired from) millions of dollars. He was able to solve problems by taking a minute to examine the situation and utilize deductive reasoning. One story in particular is a stand out where the company brought it a group of engineers to solve a problem on a machine that had gone down. They spent days trying to figure it out. Grandpa Moss decided he had enough of sitting around waiting on someone else to solve the problem. He asked the highly skilled, highly educated engineers to step aside while he looked at the equipment. Figuring out a very nonstandard solution, he asked the men to help him adjust a part. They were hesitant (remember, this was rural Alabama and this Black man with only a high school diploma was claiming to have found the solution well educated engineers were baffled with). His boss assured the men to listen to Grandpa Moss, they made the adjustment together and the machine started up - working perfectly.
See, his intellect, his ability to solve problems, his ability to think outside the box was never educated out of him. The one room school house was filled with self directed, self paced, no holds barred learning. No one had to wait to be taught. If you needed help from the teacher, she would help you. However, you were under no obligation to wait for the class, not work ahead, or leave your eagerness to learn behind. As long as there was a primer and a math book waiting for you, you could advance ahead. When there were no more books, no more primers, when you had completed the entire curriculum - you were done. You graduated. No waiting for a special birthday, no filling in the time with busywork - go ahead and start your life.
Grandpa Moss isn't just good at fixing mechanical machine problems - he built the house he is currently living in with his own hands - brick by brick. He designed it, he piped it, he wired it. No, he didn't learn that from reading primers - another thing the one room school house gave gifted kids was time. No eight hour days in the classroom, no hours of homework at night. There was enough time left at the end of the day for exploring independent self study, even becoming an apprentice. You had time to tend to the garden, milk the cow, and still learn how to build a house.
As I watch my own children building with wooden blocks and Lego's, I mourn just a little. Even though we have tried to turn our home into the one room school house - there is still something missing. Something Grandpa Moss (well, Great Grandpa Moss to them) had that they won't. I often try to put my finger on it and I just can't quite do it. The closes I can come is normalcy. Grandpa Moss is most likely profoundly gifted, just like his great grandchildren, but he wasn't entirely unique in his day. Yes, he was probably the "smartest" person in that one room schoolhouse - but everyone in that school was a self teacher. Everyone finished their primers and their math and moved at their own pace. And while not everyone ended up at the power plant, being one of the few machine leads without a college education - no one starved. They all left with more than just a primer education. They were able to farm their own land, process their own meat, build their own houses, and read books in elementary grades that would stomp most college students today (Moby Dick was considered an elementary school text). While not everyone was gifted, there wasn't even a need to identify gifted. Everyone got what they needed. It wasn't unusual to start college at 13. Not everyone did it (Grandpa Moss didn't go to college), but there was no need for special permission to enroll. I am by no means trying to romanticize the past - life was hard, often times unfair, and hardship and pain were mainstays. It just makes me sad that as we worked to correct the past, to improve upon our yesterday - we managed to throw the baby out with the bath water. I truly hope we can find our way back - we need more Grandpa Moss'.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Why diagnose giftedness?

One question I get a lot from other parents is why it is important to identify a child as gifted. This is a very valid question, what makes being labeled "gifted" so necessary? For many people, being labeled "gifted" is the equivalent if being labeled "pretty" - while its neat and cool - it really doesn't affect your life and serves only to make the "non-gifted" feel bad.
Giftedness is more than just being "smarter" than your classmates, in fact - the most gifted children would probably not even be recognized as "smart" in a traditional classroom. This is one of the most important reasons for identifying giftedness - misdiagnosis. Out of its proper context, a gifted child can present very closely to a child with ADD/ADHD and even Autism Spectrum. The book "The Mislabeled child" by Brock and Fernette Eide covers this very well. The intensive focus, extreme sensitivity, and even turning into themselves and not interacting with peers can get a gifted child diagnosed with ADD or placed on the Spectrum. Their emotional responses can be so intense its scary and their focus on a subject or topic and keep them engrossed for hours, even at a very early age. In our society, "weird" behavior (what really turns out to be non-age appropriate behavior) is seen as a problem to be "solved", not as a possible ability to be explored. Knowing if your child is indeed gifted will help you to put any future diagnosis (or mis-diagnosis) in perspective.
Another very important reason for identifying if your child is gifted is that the more gifted a child, the more they are likely to be able to mask a true learning disability. Without our great relationship with our children's psychologist (who specializes in working with gifted children), we never would have gotten a clear diagnosis for our eldest with dyslexia (and subsequently vision issues and auditory processing). He looked "fine" based on the standards of age normed children. When we approached his K teacher and the entire board at his private school about our concerns with his reading, they looked at us like we had three heads (one big reason we are homeschooling now). How could this child have a reading disability, he was the best reader in the class! This isn't uncommon for gifted children and possibly the norm for profoundly gifted children - they are so good on so many levels they can compensate for their disabilities - for a time anyway. It isn't until their compensation becomes inadequate that they are identified - oven times when it is much harder to remediate their issues. A gifted child with disabilities may very well be in the middle if not the top of traditional class achievement. Without a gifted diagnosis they may never be identified as needing intervention to allow them to work at their own personal best. And, as a side note - if they are identified as having a disability, they still may not qualify for state sponsored remediation (yet, another reason we are homeschooling). And I am by no means stating that homeschooling is the answer for every family with a gifted child, just that our children's giftedness and our state system not set up to handle such children helped lead us to this decision. I just think it necessary to inform parents of gifted children that if they do have a twice exception child - they may be forced to pay out of pocket for the remediation of any disabilities. It may not be fair, but it is the reality you may face.
The final reason it is important to identify if your child is gifted is so that you can find a community in which to network. It is estimated that roughly 10% of the population is gifted, around 3 - 5% of those highly gifted, and less than 2% of those profoundly gifted. Gifted children are not all the same, but many share similar characteristics. Being able to talk with others that have a family like your own is important. Having someone else to discuss the "sock issue" (many gifted children have sensibilities to clothing - they cannot stand tags on clothing or the seams around socks) can be liberating. Being able to discuss the conversations your child is having with you that would normally get you angry stares or looks of disbelieve is important. Having someone who understands you aren't "pushing" your child toward academics - you are simply holding on for dear life as they blast full speed head is liberating. And yes, having a place to vent and brag is important as well. Your gifted child is special, your gifted family unique (because gifted children aren't randomly born - there is giftedness inside of you as well) - it is important to find your "tribe", your community in which you feel safe and free to be you. I hope this blog becomes such a place, but even if you don't connect here - please connect somewhere. There are lots of online sites, listservs, and blogs. There are also real life communities (mostly in large metropolitan) areas where you can connect with other gifted families. I would also recommend at least one visit to a psychologist that specializes in working with gifted children. You may need a professional to help you advocate for your child in their school setting, or help you get a more proper diagnosis for your child when a label doesn't seem to fit quite right, or just someone to let you know you aren't crazy - your five year old really is ready for physics.