Tagged: gifted narrative

Personal Vanishing Point

I apologize for my last entry, in which I sat down to write a blog entry on the impetus that I hadn’t written a blog entry in a while, instead of the impetus of having something to say.

I have something to say, this time!

I’m about to finish the book Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, which is a fantastic memoir based around her discovering she had cancer in the jaw at 10 years old, and the subsequent experience with operations, chemo, and radiation.  (Side note here, one day I want to teach a class entirely around the illness memoir.  This book, Reynolds Price’s A Whole New Life, and William Loizeaux’s Anna are just so, so good.  Also, Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story might be one of my favorite books ever, if you wanted to go that route.)  One of the big parts of this book is her beginning to identify herself as her illness, as her ugliness, as her disfigurement.

“This singularity of meaning–I was my face, I was ugliness–though sometimes unbearable, also offered a possible point of escape.  It became the launching pad from which to lift off, the one immediately recognizable place to point to when asked what was wrong with my life.  Everything led to it, everything receded from it–my face as personal vanishing point.”

One of the things that makes a memoir remarkable is the ability to take the foreign experience and distill it into a universal.  In this case, the foreign is having this cancer, specifically at such a young age.  The universal is that most, if not all, of us have had something in our life that has become our own “personal vanishing point.”  That could be something as mundane as acne, as reflective as children, or as capitalist as our jobs.  Some small aspect of our identity, of who we are as people that actually becomes our entire idea of self.

For me, in middle and high school, my identity felt dangerously intertwined with being “the smart kid”.  A lot of times I felt like that was the only thing people associated with “Graham”.  I pushed back against this, sometimes in self-destructive ways, but ultimately one of the best things for the problem was summer camp.  At the time, I wrote (paraphrasing) that gifted summer programming gave me an environment where everyone was “the smart kid” so I could be known for something more.  (Quick note, as I mentioned last entry, NSGT has some scholarships available for summer camp.  I went to ones through the Center for Gifted Studies out of WKU, but you can find similar programs across the country.  Duke TIP is probably one of the best places to look for info.)

A dozen years and a lot of life experience later, I no longer have that same level of identification.  Sometimes there’s still echoes of it though, and yesterday in class was one of those days.  We were discussing what should be taught in college freshman composition classrooms, and we were being critical of the current practice of basing performance metrics entirely on the academic, majority culture discourse.  Basically, we define success in the classroom largely based on standards made by old white men.  I agree, this is a bad thing, but I think we have to be very careful about how we go about solving this problem.  As an example, another student in the class responded to the proposal of having an optional, concurrent remedial course by saying that if a large group of students need a review of the topic sentence, it should be just be taught during the normal classroom.

I got emotional at this, and I tried to respond, but I did a bad job because I wasn’t able to articulate the thoughts that this idea raises in me.  What this idea suggests, to me, is the basic philosophy that can be used to justify policies like NCLB.  The idea that because we don’t want to do tracking, because all tracking is inherently bad, we should therefore teach everything to everyone.  In a perfect world, this makes sense, because in a perfect world the instructor works on the individual level, and the overall coursework is not as important as the growth of each student.  As we all know, though, no teacher has the time to realistically do that, so by shifting the content downward, we are simply excluding a different group of students.  (Two side notes:  This is essentially why I dropped out of high school, and raising expectations typically leads to improved results.)

Now, the typical rebuttal to this idea is to again question the standards we are attempting to “raise the bar” on, and whose standards and values those reflect.  And I agree, we do need to question those values and standards.  But in the process of questioning them, we need to keep in mind this question:  What do we seek to accomplish by teaching a class?  By the educational process?  Unless you want to work off the assumption that it’s realistic to envision a world without grades, and therefore without some sort of graduation process, then I’m going to assume that we, as educators, seek to accomplish eliciting growth and effort within and from our students.  If that’s the case, we need to keep that in relation to how we are going to measure that growth, that effort.  By necessity, that’s going to require some kind of goals, standards, objectives, whatever you want to call them.  Now, universal standards are not the right answer–most people can agree with that.  But in the process of you, personally, figuring out what those standards should be–whether it be for your classroom, your children, or whatever–beware of rejecting the current model without having a well thought-out one to replace it.

For your external content, I highly recommend checking out this Youtube video which does a great job visualizing some math concepts in a way that makes them insanely interesting, even for little old English major me.  If you check out the creator’s channel, there’s a lot more in the same vein.

A Gifted Counternarrative

A few posts back, I was worried about what to write on for my final paper in a course on using narratives in academic writing.  My first two papers had been on gifted education, so I knew my last one would as well, but I didn’t have a solid direction on it.

My final product ended up being a piece on why academically gifted students need a counternarrative.  A counternarrative is a story that goes against what is common knowledge.  In this case, the “official” narrative (which has also been expressed as myths about gifted students – see here and here) that I addressed was that academically gifted students will be fine without extra services because of their abilities, with some attention paid to the related narrative, that gifted education services are elitist.

I would like to say up front that of course, some gifted education services are elitist, and some are unneeded, but that’s due to flaws within the system, not due to the concept of gifted education.  At my high school, classes aimed at the academically advanced (Honors/AP classes) appeared to serve primarily as a racially/class segregating tool, not to implement any kind of meaningful curriculum differentiation.  I also believe that the label itself, “gifted,” serves to further reinforce the narrative that the programs are elitist/extra, but that’s not a battle I’m up for fighting.

Instead, what I wrote about was my belief that gifted education would be best served by showing specific cases of how a lack of gifted education hurts via storytelling, as the research is already on “our” side and it hasn’t done much for us.  I gave my own high school experience as an example–I dropped out of high school at sixteen due to a lack of options–and used it to springboard to an argument I’m still wrestling with: gifted education should be treated like special education and/or academically gifted students should have access to the same types of resources as the athletically gifted.  I especially like the athletic metaphor because academically gifted students vary as much in what they’re skilled in as athletes vary between sports, but the special education comparison is also valid, as academically gifted students vary as much from the norm in terms of IQ scores as students in need of special education do.  (Big note, not advocating IQ as a meaningful measurement here, just as a quantifiable example).

What writing this paper (and continuing this blog) showed me is that I’m constantly learning more, and even my interpretation of what I’ve read/experienced has changed from the first paper I wrote in this class to the most recent one.  Probably the most significant shift would be giving up on meaningful differentiated education within a mainstreamed classroom, but that’s a topic for another entry.

I think it all comes back to Dr. Kettler’s talk at the TAGT conference – the most important strategy in gifted education and in education at large is to be flexible.  Both mainstream education and gifted education have to fight against the notion that a one-size-fits-all solution exists, and we do a disservice by trying to make that nonexistent solution appear.

Your link of the day – Radio has emerged as an awesome vehicle for storytelling as advocacy, here’s just one example of some powerful stories that can shift public opinion on crucial issues.

Choices, Choices

As I mentioned last entry, I was lucky enough to have a memoir-essay accepted for publication about my experience as a gifted student that ended up dropping out of high school to attend college early.  It’s not a happy story; I didn’t do well in college and the problems that led to that decision were fairly severe.  However, it’s one of the first things I’ve written where I felt I had a lot more to say on the subject, and that it was within my ability to continue saying it.

This semester, as part of my graduate program in Rhetoric and Composition, I’m taking a course entitled “Narrative Ways of Knowing”.  The assignments in that class have allowed me to continue following this strand of work.

For the first assignment, which asked us to think critically about a teaching, learning, or writing experience, I elaborated on a bit of cognitive dissonance in my own thinking.  As a student of education and the liberal arts in general, I nod my head vigorously in class when we talk about the dominant culture imposing its will subconsciously via culturally biased testing and evaluations.  I know that it’s very common for students to be labeled as needing special education because they are English language learners, or because their learning style doesn’t match up with the classroom setting, or because of home life factors outside of their control.  I know that tracking is often used as a modern-day segregation, and that it typically uses outdated methodology, and that there’s little accountability for revisiting these categorizations later in the child’s career.  I know that these biased actions hurt the child and the system overall, and that this casts doubt on any program, aimed at top or bottom, that doesn’t promote mainstreaming and least restrictive environments.

Despite “knowing” all of this, I look back on my own education and feel that the parts I benefited from the most, and the parts that I advocate strongest for to others, are the parts that were as far from mainstreaming as you can get.  Primarily, summer camps that required standardized testing scores for access, and pullout GT classes.

My conclusion for the paper was that in theory, mainstreaming is the way.  But, once you consider how poorly teachers are paid, how little training the average teacher has in gifted OR special education, how large the class sizes are, and how fast school budgets are shrinking, it’s hard to imagine mainstreaming as being a realistic possibility.  It’s because of that, that I fall back on well thought out pull-out programs (including super cool initiatives like college early entrance academies – see TAMS in Texas, the Gatton School in Kentucky, as well as a slew of others).  Ultimately, I believe that we need to keep as many options on the table as possible, from grade-skipping to dual-credit high school classes, as every student’s needs are different.  But, at the same time, we need to be pragmatic about the availability of the resources for such services.

In our second assignment, we were asked to interview someone else and reflect critically on a particular experience they shared in the interview.  I ended up interviewing Tracy Weinberg, Associate Director of the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented.  We had a wonderful talk and spoke very broadly about gifted education, and I ended up writing a paper delving into a few of his anecdotes and comparing them to the experiences I went through, as well as those of my friends.

For our final paper, we need to extend these lines of thoughts and incorporate scholarly sources into the fold.  I have a few ideas, but am unsure of how to proceed:

  • Identification sucking the air out of the room.  Discussion of gifted education is often so dominated by the identification topic that little attention gets paid to the fact that services for those that do get identified are lacking or nonexistent.  Con: Unsure of good way to weave scholarly sources in.
  • Dissonance in how we treat students gifted athletically versus students gifted academically.  Tons of scholarly material depicting both processes, and at least one article looking at this discrepancy in particular.  Con:  Difficult to make coherent connection to my first two papers.  (As an example, imagine reshaping this article to be about an academically gifted student.)
  • Same as second idea, but comparing approaches to special versus gifted education in a similar way.  Same con.
  • Something else riffing on the debate over mainstreaming or not.

Your help would be appreciated!  What topics that are related to our culture’s treatment of gifted education interest you?

For your outside perusal today, a recent article on the lack of meaningful, widely available gifted education – Young, Gifted, and Neglected