06 September 2017

Who Are the Gifted?

A couple of notes before we begin that deserve their own posts, but I'll never get ANYTHING written if I don't just jump ahead and just throw all of the background info at you.

1. I changed schools over the summer! I've moved from teaching high school math at McCluer North High School in the Ferguson-Florissant School District, so teaching middle school at our district's new "STEAM and Gifted Academy." It wasn't really a change I planned to make, but I was drawn to the task of highlighting the exceptional things that kids from North St. Louis County could accomplish, and with having free reign to play in the project-based learning sandbox. So, new setting, with slightly different kids. I've been teaching mostly remedial math students the last few years - all of my students at the STEAM Academy have been labeled as "gifted".

2. As part of my hiring at the STEAM Academy, I had to be willing to go back to school and get a special GIFTED certification added to my educator certificate. Since I'm going to be writing and reflecting for my courses anyway, I plan on posting most of that here. Tonight's post is the first in that series


Who Are the Gifted?

I've said to friends before, and perhaps even on this blog, that I believe all children are gifted. I've said it with the best of intentions, meaning that all children can find talents and activities in which they are exceptionally skilled beyond their peers. In my definition, kids might be artistically gifted, athletically gifted, mechanically gifted, musically gifted, or even emotionally gifted (leaving room for down syndromed adults that might struggle in other areas, but man, will they love you to death!) The educator's role in this definition of giftedness was to expose students to anything and everything possible, to make sure that each and every teenager in my care had a chance to discover things in which they were gifted, and then grab that interest with all their might, using a newfound passion to exhibit how brilliant, talented, interesting, and worthy they were to society. A kid's giftedness was their path to contributing to society. 

That being said, the reading from Tracy Cross’ On the Social and Emotional Lives of Gifted Children this week was revelatory because it took aim to take my holistic approach to giftedness for all and shoot a keen arrow through the center. As I prepped for the new school year this summer, my perception of working with gifted children was that the “hard” work of getting kids to buy into learning and education was over for me, and many of my colleagues across the district also expressed that my move to the gifted school was effectively a move to a school where all of the problems of educators dealings with children and families would largely be absent.

Cross makes an explicit warning in the first chapter of Social and Emotional… that lumping “gifted” kids into categories, whether by positive attributes or negative neuroses has a detrimental effect on each individual child, and limits the child from reaching their full potential. “...we should be cautious not to impose on dominant perspective on our efforts to identify the social and emotional needs of this widely diverse group.” (Cross, 1) Later on in the chapter, Cross introduces a framework of social and emotional issues from the work of Thomas Buescher (1985) that guides the narrative beyond a rosy, all-the-gifted-kids-are-fine lens, or an all-the-gifted-kids-are-weird-and-need-socialization, to a more nuanced, fluid perspective on the needs of gifted children that are always in flux between dichotomous views about themselves and their place in the world.

The gifted are not just kids who get good grades and have been proficiently trained at school and home with the necessary skills to win the school game. They could be in that group, but they just as likely may have developed coping strategies to get through a doldrum school day that makes them appear the least likely to succeed and engage in school (Cross, 18).

Then again, who are the gifted? Cross stands firmly on a stance that in academic research and experimentation, every child is not and can not be by definition “gifted”. (Cross, 21) The most challenging section to my own definition and identification of who are “gifted” was in the chapter about myths about giftedness, and it spoke directly to my claim that “all children are gifted.” According to Cross, educators, parents, and psychologists are quick to make the statement that “all children are gifted,” because they are attaching value and worth to the label. “Giftedness is not an anointment of value. Someone who shows extraordinary ability for high levels of performance when young and has been provided appropriate opportunities to demonstrate talent development that exceeds normal levels of performance is gifted.” (Cross, 19) The error and danger that educators often fall into is assigning worth, privileges, and opportunities to gifted kids just because they are. In reaction to those first educators, well-meaning educators such as myself say in a sense, “Well, so and so deserves to feel special, too,” in a spirit of inclusiveness.

Who are the gifted? The gifted are data points are a normal curve, according to Lawrence J. Coleman (Cross, 52). They are individuals who, at a given snapshot in time had surpassed a given benchmark for knowledge in a given subject area that was higher than the average child their age. The gifted need special attention to keep them developing at their own, individual “normal,” rate, because that’s what is “normal” for that individual child. Gifted education, therefore, becomes a moral, justice-related concern because a gifted child only because “abnormal” once we try to remove them from their point along the normal curve and regress them to the mean.

In education, we teach the child where they are, when they are. The gifted are children with similar anxieties and emotional needs to others who perform at average, or below average abilities, so in that sense, we teach them with the same concern and care as all other children. To use Lawrence J. Coleman’s language, “everyone falls under this [normal] umbrella.”

30 April 2017

When It's (Not Quite) the End of the Year

 music justin timberlake funny gif justin timberlake gif its gonna be may GIF
Yeah! The end of the school year is soon upon us! Which also means you feel frazzled, your kids are spent, it's just in time for state testing, and you and or a close friend is leaving school a couple times a week wondering how you'll get through tomorrow.
 done jerry seinfeld im done over it GIF
I take a lot of comfort on days like that by centering on a few things I know about God and I know about myself. Whether I have a great day or a wretched wreck, God has me right where he wants me. You may have seen Jeremiah 29:11 quoted on Instagram or someone's living room decor - 
and you may have thought, "Yeah! I'm gonna start winning!" Welfare, future, hope...these are all good things that we want, right? So true, but I also don't believe this is always a promise that tomorrow might be rosy. I read this, think about my own children, and sit on, "...I know the plans I have for you..." When I take toys from my boys at bedtime because they won't go to sleep, my 5-year-old sometimes tells me, "YOU JUST WANT TO BE THE TAKER!" Its funny, because its true, but only in the sense that I know its good to all the sleep you need, and I'll do what I need to in order to help my boys get there...to understand that I value it and that it is for their "welfare" (to quote Jer. 29:11 again). 
Besides remembering that whatever hardship I'm going through is God ordained, I also like to dwell in the Psalms that teach us how to ache to God without losing hope. Psalm 42 came up in my reading plan today, and I found myself wanting to highlight the whole thing... Check it out (emphasis my own):
As a deer pants for flowing streams,
    so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?[b]
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
    “Where is your God?”
These things I remember,
    as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
    and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
    a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation[c] and my God.
My soul is cast down within me;
    therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
    from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
    at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
    have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
    and at night his song is with me,
    a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God, my rock:
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
    because of the oppression of the enemy?”
10 As with a deadly wound in my bones,`
    my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me all the day long,
    “Where is your God?”
11 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God.

"I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God." I think the longer you're in education, the more realize that your "favorite" students, or the ones whose memory you hold dearest, or the ones you take most pride in were relationships that felt really difficult a lot of days. They're the relationships that take a constant renewal of forgiveness on your part. Countless counseling sessions with any of your friends who will listen.  I've found that I'm most consistently able to draw on hope for those relationsihps, or for a season of a difficult class because I know that (a) teaching is a marathon, not a sprint, and that (b) whatever the outcome with that student or class, I know God's at work in me, and that eventually "I shall again praise him." 
"ALL THAT BEING SAID....HOW AM I GOING TO GET THROUGH TOMORROW, CHUCK?"
You know what, that's a good question. Here are some things that I try to keep myself interested in class as that gas gauge nears E and it's not quite time to review for finals. 
  • Throw in a new project. Maybe you've gotten into a routine of lecture/practice/lecture/practice and your kids are showing diminishing returns. Throw in a wrench and change things up
  • Change your seating arrangement. Seating totally shifts perspective, right! This might solve some other classroom environment problems that were cropping up, too. 
  • Change YOUR routine. Do you usually get to school early? Stay with the late crowd after-school and prepare for the next day then, instead. (or come in extra early if you're usually walking in with the kids). Go for a walk around the building during your plan time. 
  • Try a new website or teaching strategy for that lesson that you've done a billion times. 
  • Spend a day talking with your students. Maybe you just need a class-wide relationship building reset. 
  • Have 2 more units/chapters left for your curriculum but really only time for one of them? Have your students do a little previewing and then let them choose how they finish out the year. 
  • Go ahead, start reviewing for your final now! (And still introduce the new content you've yet to do). We all know that a spiral style review is going to be more effective than a week-long cram at the end, anyway! 
You can do it - finish strong, educators!!

19 February 2017

If You Don't Love Our Students, Please, Just Leave

Like most of St. Louis school districts (and the US?), my district had professional development this past Friday, giving the kids a 4 day weekend and everyone else 3 days off. 
For the most part, I always enjoy these days because they give me a chance to present things I love (or at least like LOL), see my equally-passionate colleagues from other buildings in the district, AND go out to lunch like “normal” jobs. 
All was going well Friday – we didn’t get through all of my activities in the 1st session, but we were productive, Bethany won the “Bubblesheet Champion” trophy in the ACT math session, and I was somewhat interested in the session I’d signed up to attend about using our online textbooks with close reading. I’ve come to the opinion that my students generally need a screen BREAK most days, so I purposefully do my readings on paper, but I’m always of the mindset that you might convince me otherwise.
Whatever is best for the kids.
It was in this setting that I wound up overhearing a teacher from one of our other schools go on for what felt like 15 minutes about how his horrible kids will never read anything, and that they’re all a bunch of gang wanna-bes, who play out the pecking order of the streets by making kids sharpen their pencils and get them pieces of paper.
I have some tough kids this semester, too. I get the frustration of coming to work most days and just praying that today, just maybe, will be one of those days they cut you some slack and you don’t have to feel like you’re throwing the toolbox of tricks at them to get anything back.
I, too, know that frustration of kids just staring at me while I’m waiting for more than 1 or 2 kids to engage in my class discussion. “LET ME TEACH YOU!” is what I  passionately internalize (and sometimes that sneaks out audibly).

BUT.

Most days, as I’m reflecting on the day’s lesson, I might be frustrated that so and so did this and that, but at the end of the day, this is my job, and these are my kids. You might call it “fate,” or “destiny,” or “your department chair’s wrath upon you,” – I would call it God’s will – but ultimately, something put you and those kids together, so it’s your job as the teacher to figure that out. 
(Yes, it would also be terribly kind and helpful if the students did their “job” and exhibited their good “student” behaviors, but as I tell my own children and kids at school, YOU control what YOU can do.)
I thought I was just going to leave the session feeling sad for those students that this man with years of classroom experience could only blame his gang wanna-bes, but as he left the room at the end of the day and several of us found a typo on a website, he left his final impression upon us with, “must’ve been a grad from our district.” 
If you don’t love our students, please, just leave. 
Was there anything objectively wrong with that statement? Maybe not – it’s no secret that our state test and ACT scores are in the bottom of the barrel, but it was the way, he said it. In a “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” kind of way. 
Perhaps this gentleman just had a particularly tough week, and if I were to see him again next August he would be filled with wonder and excitement for the coming school year, like the vast majority of teachers. Some years we just get more beat down than others. So if he or someone he knows has figured this out and tracked him down, please understand that I know I may be dangerously generalizing his attitudes.
It speaks to the larger discussion coming upon our struggling schools every year about this time, though. “I heard so and so is leaving to go to _______. They didn’t want to deal with ______ anymore.” Sometimes ______ is administration. Sometimes ______ is bureaucratic paperwork stuff we have to do to prove that we are actually teaching (or attempting as much). Those blanks disappoint me, because those are leadership failures, in my opinion. But sometimes ______ is the students we serve. If you are a teacher who needs to leave for greener pastures because of the kids, please know that I love you, but I’m not going to bemoan your decision. 
If you don’t love our students anymore, please, just leave. 
I would much rather be in the trenches with someone who (still) has their heart in the fight. We can cry together. Together we can try plan B, C, D, E, F, G, etc, because our love for these God-ordained students is too much to have tried “everything.”
Our students can be troubling, they can be apathetic, but they can also be inspiring, and passionate, and brilliant, if you know where to look and never stop seeking that out.