A Gifted Student that Changed My Life

I want to share about a gifted student who made a difference in my life and/or teaching practices. I encourage you to send me your favorite stories as well to share on this blog. My goal is to help blog readers understand the many and varied ways in which gifted abilities are demonstrated in the young people we teach and parent.

James was in my 6th grade class, housed in an elementary school in a K-12 district in the Midwest.  The first week of school, I asked the students to write about something that had happened to them, or someone they knew well, that they thought would stay in their memory for a long time. I also stated that I would give them credit for any elements in their writing which clearly demonstrated mastery of grade level standards.  This meant that they would be excused from the direct instruction and required assignments related to those mastered standards.

As I read the essays over the weekend, I came upon James’ product which had the content and style of a masterpiece. He had chosen to write about a conflict that had the entire school community abuzz. The piece was brilliantly written; the issue clearly described, the sentence structure fascinating, and the vocabulary unique and perfectly descriptive. As an added bonus, his humor was rampant throughout the essay.

Although I would have preferred to use these first essays as entry level samples for a year-long portfolio, I was unable to do this because my principal had certain expectations all teachers were responsible for demonstrating.  We had learned over time that if we did not follow all his expectations or principles, there was a god chance he would no longer be our principal!  One of his principles was, “If you assign it, you grade it.”  So I graded it, based on what I was expecting from incoming 6th graders.  Since James’ story was so unique and wonderful, his grade was A+!!!.

I remember feeling excited about handing it back to him – expecting him to be very pleased about the grade.  I was perplexed by his extremely blasé reaction.  I guess I was expecting him to show great pleasure, and yes, even gratitude for the wonderful grade I had “given” him.  My uneasiness about his muted reaction stayed with me for a long time – until I received a written request from his mother a few weeks later, for an emergency conference for that same day, right after school.

I was extremely frustrated that she had not given me any hint about her agenda.  To tell the truth, the rest of my day was “shot” as I worried about what she might want to talk about. I was not reassured when she began our meeting by saying, “First of all, my husband and I want you to know we think you are a lovely person!”

Of course the next sentence started with the dreaded word “but……..”  Now please pay attention to what she DIDN’T say. Not , “Our son is bored,….what are you going to do about it?”  Not, “Our son is gifted… what are you going to do about it?”  No, the words she spoke were very descriptive about the problem, but my inference was that she was threatening to remove him from my class and even from our school to attend a newly formed magnet school for gifted kids in the city center area.

She said, “We fear James will not be challenged in your class this year, especially in writing”. When I expressed surprise at her concern, and asked her to be more specific, she described how James’ first essay had actually been written, which was actually the reason for the concern she and her husband now had.

She explained it, “James eats his daily breakfast watching the Today Show.  That first Friday of the school year, he became agitated as an announcer declared the day to be Friday.  “Hey, Mom”, James said, ‘The announcer just made a mistake.  She said it was Friday, but it’s really Thursday, right?”

“No, son,” Mom explained. “Today is actually Friday!”

“Oh, no!  I can’t believe this!” James exclaimed as he pushed back from the table, pounded down the hall to his room, and slammed the door, muttering ‘Dumb teacher!  Stupid story!”

You have probably guessed what he was doing in there! He was writing the story that would soon throw me into paroxysm of useless praise.  Why, useless?  Because when you become aware of Carol Dweck’s research titled “Mindset”, it clearly describes what happens to kids for whom no serious effort is ever required in order to get those high grades they and their parents cherish.  The longer this continues for them in school, the less likely they are to develop the resilience they need to survive their first brush with a situation in which they are no longer able to automatic excellent feedback for their work.

James’ first and only draft took him slightly more than 12 minutes to write.  When he returned to the table, he still had enough time to finish his breakfast, gather his belongings, and get to school right on time.

That very morning, at breakfast, his mom had asked James if I had returned his essay to him.  “Yes”, he answered. “Well,” Mom asked, ‘What did your teacher think of it?”  He shocked her with his answer.  “Mom, it actually doesn’t matter what she thought of it.”

“Explain, please,” Mom requested.  James replied, “Well, now I have Mrs. Winebrenner pegged!  In writing, she’s a “12 minute A!”

I can actually hear your gasp!  And I can also imagine your wondering if any of your students think you are a “12 Minute (or less) A” in some subject area.

After I recovered from my shock, I asked the mom. ”What do YOU think I should be doing with James in writing this year?”

“I’m so glad you asked,” she replied.  “You are the first teacher to do so.  I think James should be allowed to do his‘real writing’ at school instead of the writing tasks required by the curriculum, once he can prove he has already mastered certain grade level standards”

“And what is his ‘real’ writing?” I wondered aloud.

“It’s his book!  James is writing a book at home and we think he should be allowed to work on it at school.”

“I can certainly investigate that possibility,” I acknowledged.  “Please ask him to bring it to school so I can see it.”

And so he did.  The book he was writing was designed to instruct kids in how the human body worked, in ways they could understand. It was titled, The Anatomy, Physiology, And Cetera of the Human Body. It was printed in two columns of text to simulate the style of many textbooks. The illustrations were by the author, and they were done with colored pencils. Some looked like the drawings in an Anatomy textbook.  Others were done in the manner of Rube Goldberg cartoons. For example to explain how a single cell worked, James had drawn a cut-away view of his version of a cell. Inside we could see little men running around shouting orders to each other through green megaphones in a manner that suggested a redundant cycle of repetitive perpetual specific activities.

His delightful humor was rampant throughout.  For example, each chapter of the book was designed to describe one system of the human body, but the last sentence of that chapter ended in the middle of a sentence – since the first sentence of the next chapter began with the ending of that incomplete sentence to demonstrate how both systems were inter-related!

One obvious conclusion that occurred to me was that James probably didn’t care for my writing prompts! But he would never have complained – he wasn’t brought up that way.  So if his mother had not approached me and ‘motivated’ me to do whatever was necessary to keep James in my class, how wouldI ever have known about this situation?

In the two weeks between his mother’s first and second visit, I pre-tested James’ current instructional level in all the subjects I taught.  I used the end of the YEAR assessments in reading vocabulary, all reading and language arts skills, all 6th grade math standards, and discovered he had already mastered more than 80% of what he was supposed to be “learning” all year!  I devised a plan, using strategies from Chapter Two in my book, Teaching Gifted Kids in Today’s Classroom, to record mastery grades he earned in pre-tests, and let him work on his book in school, rather than trying to find other extension activities for him.  The parents were pleased with the outcome of my investigation, and agreed to allow James to spend the rest of the school year in my class.

Today, James is a professor of linguistics at an Asian university, and we continue to stay in touch.

The morals of this story??????

  1. Parents have highly valuable information about their children which can help us modify the students’ work at school to make it more relevant and satisfying.
  2. Sometimes the students themselves will not complain to their teachers because they don’t know exactly what to say.  Neither do parents, for that matter.
  3. If we want all our students to be making consistent forward progress in their learning, we must be willing to give them full credit for standards they have already mastered and allow them to use their school time to work on whatever is their “real work!”  We are not actually required, in any state, to teach the required standards to all our students. We are only requiredto document that all our students have mastered all the grade level standards.  And there is no legislation that required all teachers to document mastery of all standards at the same time as they are documented for other students.

This awareness gives us the opportunity to provide consistent opportunities for all students to be able to document previous mastery of required standards so they can have significant flexibility in selecting topics of great interest to them for which they will happily do valid research and produce amazing products.