Young, Gifted, and… Well, Just Young and Gifted

[This one is going to be about me for a while. It’ll get to Dante eventually.]

When I was in the third grade, I was given an IQ test. I didn’t know it was an IQ test at the time, and I still don’t know what my score was. What I do know is that based on the results of that test, I was invited to join a new program that our school district was running. The program was called AGATE, which stood for Aurora Gifted And Talented Education. (I grew up in Aurora, Colo. before it became famous as The Place Where That One Horrible Mass Murder Happened.)

The idea was that gifted or “high potential” kids would be pulled out of their regular classes for a half-day each week, and given a different kind of school experience — one focused on critical thinking, independent projects, creativity, and media literacy. In the process they’d get concentrated time with kids who were their intellectual peers, in the hopes that the experience would facilitate social/emotional development.

It is no exaggeration to say this program changed my life. I don’t have many strong memories of my elementary school years, but I have many memories of AGATE, and they are exceptionally vivid. I won’t turn this into a catalog memoir, but just to give you a sense of the flavor and variety:

  • We were given a framework for analyzing and categorizing advertisements based on the approach they used to hook viewers, such as Snob Appeal, Sex Sells, Humor, and Fear. Then we were turned loose on a pile of magazines to pull out the ads, sort them into the various categories, and talk about the ones that weren’t easily categorized. I still think of these categories from time to time today when I see ads.
  • Each semester, we were required to put together a project delving into a topic of our choice. ANY TOPIC. We had to identify what we would research, what we would create, and what we needed to succeed. Our plans would be vetted (and occasionally modified) by the teacher, then monitored throughout the term for progress. At the end of the semester, we’d present our results to the other kids. I remember doing projects on Norse mythology and drug abuse. Other kids did projects on things like Dr. Demento & novelty music, or Mexican restaurants in the Denver metro area. This is where I learned how to follow a passion in a structured way that produces tangible results.
  • One project I did was based on hearing various adults say that a 4-way-stop intersection near the school was far too busy and dangerous at some times of day, and that it should really have a traffic light instead. So, using a Super-8 camera my dad dug up from somewhere, I filmed various near-misses between kids and cars at that intersection, and wrote up my pro-traffic-light arguments. Then, with grownup help, I made an appointment with a city planning official and presented my filmed evidence and my argument. 4th grade civil activism! (Failed activism — there’s still no traffic light there — but still.)
  • We did a unit on analyzing song lyrics as poetry. The teacher played several different songs and talked through the lyrics with us, asking questions like, “How do you think the narrator feels about this character in the song?” She also listed out the artists and asked us if we could match the artist with the song. I remember misidentifying the artist of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Save The Life Of My Child”, because I associated S&G with sweet and light tunes, and couldn’t believe they’d ever produce such a hard-edged and unsettling portrait of suicide in the big city. I rushed home that afternoon, pulled out my parents’ copy of Bookends, and started listening with headphones on. I can say without hyperbole that this was an epochal moment for me. It is exactly when I became the passionate music lover I am today.

Most of all, I remember the teacher, Dr. Suzanne Perry. She was, and is, an utter inspiration to me. The very first day I met her, she gathered our little AGATE group together and talked about what we were going to do. I remember her saying, “You’re going to become experts on the things you study. Some people say that you have to be an adult to be an expert on something, but I think that’s nonsense. Anybody who can learn can become an expert.” This news rocked me — I’ve always been susceptible to the belief that based on my age I’m not eligible for certain categories. Dr. Perry made it her mission to break those preconceptions open. I remember the feeling like it just happened. I guess in a way it’s never left me.

Intellectually, I was enthralled. Emotionally, I was engaged. And socially, I started to feel just a tiny bit like maybe I’d have a shot at making friends with kids around whom I could be more like myself, instead of trying to be more like them. Even by third grade, I was well familiar with being called a “know-it-all” or a “nerd” (wayyyyy before that term acquired any cachet.) Let’s face it: I probably was a know-it-all, possibly even an insufferable one from other kids’ point of view. Part of what a good gifted program will do is demonstrate that being academically or intellectually advanced does not in any way make you a better person than anybody else, and reminds you that while you may be highly developed in some areas compared to some other kids, they’re likely ahead of you in others. (The term “gifted” is problematic in this arena, but it’s been around so long at this point that we’re probably stuck with it.) All I knew is that I felt less of a misfit and outcast in my half-day at AGATE than I did at any other point in the school week. I cemented friendships in that room that have lasted to this day.

I’ve had various other encounters with gifted education. I found myself in various other incarnations of AGATE as I progressed through school, some more successful than others. For five consecutive summers I attended a summer camp at the University of Northern Colorado, created and run by George Betts, a heavy hitter in the field of gifted education. I came back for three consecutive summers during college to be a counselor for that camp. Some of this stuff was amazing, but it all began with those first two years in AGATE. They changed me forever, for the better.

As Dante (remember him?) started to do various amazing things in toddlerhood, I began to feel strongly that we’d need to find him a school with a strong gifted education component. We found a preschool that, though it didn’t have a gifted program, had such a great student-to-teacher ratio (4:1) that he was able to get a lot of individual attention while learning social skills. The search for a kindergarten, though, had more options. It was incredible, the amount of time and angst we put into that process. It felt like getting him into college!

There turned out to be three primary options for gifted students in our school district — two charter schools and a magnet school, each of which had something about “gifted and talented” as its focus. Laura and I ended up with kind of a Three Bears feeling from our research. One school was way too focused on rigor and achievement. (The principal sounded like a drill sergeant as she talked about the school. “We will make your kids SWEAT academically! Vacations during school times will not be tolerated!”) Another school had just started that year, and while I was really drawn to its philosophy and many of the people there, there were also quite a few signs of disorganization and growing pains. We worried that it might be a little too unstructured for Dante.

The third school, though, seemed just right. They were well-established in the community, and their presentation convinced me that they really get what gifted kids are about, and would provide a good balance between academic challenge and social/emotional support. After quite a lot of tension and agita, Dante got in, and we enrolled him there for kindergarten. That school is called Stargate. (The “star” is from the name of our school district, and the “gate” is for Gifted And Talented Education.)

I was overjoyed that such a place existed. The best I’d ever gotten was a gifted program for a half-day each week — Dante’s entire school would be like AGATE!

It didn’t turn out to be quite so.

Stargate is a wonderful place in lots of ways. They have received Dante with an enormous amount of love and nurturing, and they have always been very responsive to us anytime we’d bring up concerns about the way one thing or another was going. The school also provides Dante with a good peer group, the way AGATE did for me. Like AGATE, Stargate selects its population via an IQ test screening process. And they certainly have tried to match their classwork with Dante’s abilities, so that he’s not stuck in a room with a bunch of kids learning their ABCs. They place a lot of emphasis on field trips, which is great. (Though this approach has been curtailed somewhat since the economy crashed.) I’m deeply grateful for the good things we’ve gotten from Stargate.

That said, I am aware that I’ve been feeling emotional pain and disappointment about where Stargate falls short. In terms of curriculum, Stargate seems to me to be just like “ordinary school” with the volume turned up. He’s got homework pretty much every night, and has since kindergarten. He’s assessed early in the year, and placed in a classroom that is accelerated to match his ability level. I think the little guy finds it pretty intense, which is certainly not a feeling I ever got from school.

The material taught divides roughly into literacy (aka reading & writing), math, and “theme” (more or less science + social studies), with rotation among 6 “special” subjects: Spanish, computers, instrumental music, general music, art, and phys. ed. (He’s got two of these “specials” per trimester.) I’ve got no problem with any of these things per se. I recognize that they are valuable and necessary. But what I don’t see is anything that matches what AGATE allowed me to do: create a structure in which I was encouraged to independently follow my own passions and share the results with my peers. He’s got projects within his classes, but they are all circumscribed to fit a specific concept or assignment, and very often explicitly defined even within that topic — i.e. not “make a building for our class’s town” but “make a post office.” I wonder: will he ever get to follow his own muse to delve deeply into his passions, regardless of whether any other kid in the class shares them, and regardless of whether the teacher, or the district, or the state, has predigested them?

I also don’t see much of an emphasis on critical thinking or media literacy. His schoolwork is about multiplication, and adjectives, and maps — again, all important and useful topics, but he’s doing repetition, not analysis. He’s learning how to deal with the abstracts of schoolwork, but not about how to process the world around him. He’s got lots and lots of work to do, and that’s how he sees it: as work. There are opportunities for creativity, but it feels to me almost as if it’s a bonus that sometimes occurs, rather than a central guiding principle around which the curriculum is built.

He’s also learning a lot about something else: failure. Like I said, I grew up feeling like I was good at school, that it was easy. The few times I ran up against something I couldn’t master easily were very traumatic, but they were the exception. I don’t think Dante feels like he’s good at school. He feels like he’s constantly falling short. (Laura recently asked him why he prefers home to school, and he answered, “Well, just think about it. Wouldn’t you rather be at home where you could play games and have fun instead of at school where you get 3 out of 10 on a math test and feel like ARGH! I’M! SO! BAD?” Mind you, anytime he takes a state or national standardized test, he’s invariably in the 99th percentile.) My experience with gifted education made me feel more capable, and more excited about school. Why is Dante’s making him feel less capable, and more like staying home?

It turns out that there’s a tension in gifted education and the parents who seek it for their kids, a tension that was incarnated by our Three Bears school search. On one side is the concept of acceleration and achievement. I see parents desire this for its own sake, Tiger Parents (of all cultural backgrounds) trying to grind out high-achieving kids as an end in itself. On the other side, there’s creativity and emotional support. You can probably tell where my bias lies, and as I watch Dante go through his Stargate experience, I’m beginning to second-guess our decision to steer him towards the middle rather than towards the creative end. (Also a huge contributor to this feeling is the fact that Stargate’s politics are incredibly dysfunctional, and have led to a shocking amount of turnover in the leadership position — something like 12 heads of school in 15 years. We just went through one of these and it was so, so painful. A board of parents and “community members”, none of whom had any credentials whatsoever in gifted ed., fired an excellent administrator over what was more or less a power struggle about micromanagement. That’s a post in itself, if I can ever stand to relive it by writing it down.)

Laura and I are going to a conference tomorrow about gifted ed. It’s an incredible opportunity, and just to make me feel like an ungrateful jerk it was made possible by Stargate — Laura won a raffle held by the school for parent tickets to the conference. I’m hoping to find some inspiration and answers there, so that I’m better equipped to help Stargate (or wherever we go) give Dante what Suzie Perry gave me.

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3 thoughts on “Young, Gifted, and… Well, Just Young and Gifted

  1. Oh Paul, how I wished I had AGATE growing up! When I moved to Aurora and everyone was talking about it, I was so jealous! I think your concerns about the institutionalization or “schooliness” of Stargate are very valid–that sort of rigor, the kind imposed from the outside, doesn’t really work well for the gifted, imo

  2. Thanks Rachel. Laura and I are talking to Stargate’s Gifted Coordinator tomorrow morning. We’ll see how it goes. BTW, based on some encouragement from a guy I spoke to at the NAGC conference, I’m submitting an edited version of this post to Education Week. So we’ll also see how THAT goes. Maybe this message will get out to a larger audience than I expected.

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