Sunday, 18 November 2012

Must Be Nice - Teaching Talented and Gifted Students

"Must be nice" I am often told "to work with a class of such talented children".  I do have the good fortune to teach English to a secondary class of 32 talented, gifted or honours students. The class can be extremely rewarding, but also enormously challenging. Far from being a homogeneous group of quiet overachievers, this class is as diverse and different as any I've ever met.

 Many people believe that talented and gifted students should be a dream to work with. They envision a group of diligent, well behaved over achievers who meet all deadlines, and exceed all expectations. That description might fit a few students in my class, but the majority are very complex young people of wide ranging abilities.  They include students with attendance and motivation issues and others who are obsessively anxious about their work and grades. There are those that will happily do whatever the teacher asks and others who will challenge every assignment for relevance, necessity or interest. We have our introverts, our extroverts, the class comedians and the students who would love to be anywhere else but at school. The class includes 3 different grade levels, 11 students on individualized education plans (IEPs), and 6 students preparing for required provincial exams. Outside of class many are balancing heavy academic loads, active commitments to jobs, sports teams, fine arts pursuits and busy personal social lives. In short, there is very little about working with such students that is straight forward or easy. Congregated as they are, they are as challenging as any special needs group. Their needs are just different.

The CNN Education blog Schools of Thought recently ran an excellent piece on gifted education. Written by Carol Coll, the entry is entitled My view: Ten myths about gifted students and programs for gifted. After noting how educators have struggled for decades to properly even define giftedness, Coll outlines ten common misconceptions about gifted students. She accurately harpoons stereotypic beliefs about how gifted students look, how they interact with teachers and other students, how they work and how they behave. She also takes on the critics who alternately suggest that either all students are gifted or that gifted students really don't require any specialized assistance. (My personal favorite is myth #7 -that  teaching gifted students is easy).

For a gifted class to function well there can be no coasting, either by the students or the teachers! These kids very much represent the individualized 21st century learners described in the BCEd Plan! Different students have respectfully challenged nearly every aspect of my instruction and assessment practices. When things are going well, such students produce amazing results. However, these same students are very quick to speak up or act out when they find lessons less than stimulating or to challenge assessment practices they don't like or completely understand. I'm fortunate to be assisted and supported by two other talented instructors. Our district principal of student learning, and the district itinerant for gifted education are also actively engaged with the class. Through collaborative efforts, we generate and design lessons that work to student strengths and interests, analyze our practice for what works and what doesn't,  and generally act as a support network for each other. In addition to noting those practices unique to gifted instruction, we also look for techniques that might be used to advantage by all teachers and students. 

So what do I say when I'm told "It must be nice?" It is,but working with gifted students has challenges, just like every other class. Really, its just nice to be working as a teacher, helping students and helping to ensure their education matters.

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