Few would argue that 2020 was a stellar year, but some might argue that we learned many things from our “grand pause” during 2020, especially in the field of education. Modified face-to-face, hybrid, and virtual learning have all cast bright spotlights on our “classrooms” and practices, and have revealed strengths and weaknesses that require analysis, and, in some cases, new starts. In a way, the grand disruption of 2020 has forced us to examine and perhaps change the way things have always been done. We have a rare opportunity to use lessons learned to find better ways to serve all children. Where should we start? What things might be best to tackle first?
Over the years I have often wished we would change how we measure learning. Though the pandemic has brought this issue clearly into focus recently, I have long questioned the importance of grades, and how all of us (educators, kids, parents) view them. I have a myriad of questions. For example, what exactly do grades measure? Do they measure engagement and motivation (or lack of it)? Do they ultimately measure lasting learning? Why do grades motivate only some kids (and especially not some gifted kids)? What exactly does an “A” mean? Do kids earn grades for themselves or for others; do they earn them for the immediate present, or for the future? How do grades open or shut doors for some kids -- and is this fair? How do grades reflect the “need to know/want to know'' disposition that predicts lifelong learning? Why do some kids think of grades as the ultimate goal, and not value the learning along the way?
The more I taught gifted kids, the more I realized that many of them get good grades to please their parents or teachers, and some even confess that they get good grades to avoid punishment. Many put extreme pressure on themselves, and view themselves as failures when grades are not perfect. Some barely put forth any effort to get good grades, and may consider themselves imposters for getting those grades with so little effort. Some consider grades the be-all and end-all; when test scores or report cards are received, the learning is done. And...some kids do not care at all about grades. Those were the kids that puzzled me the most. If grades didn’t motivate them, what would?
So it was with great interest that I read this article in Edutopia, How to Help Kids Focus on What They're Learning, and Not the Grade. The author, Sarah Schroeder first requires us to examine why we give grades. She asserts that we historically have given grades to measure product, not process, and therefore we are implicitly teaching students that grades themselves are the goal. She includes these as examples of measures of product:
Schroeder, in her article, offers some remedies for students with this profile. She speaks eloquently about the need to reframe learning as driven by process, not product, and offers these reasons:
Many years ago, as a gifted and talented specialist (and untethered to traditional grading systems), I chose to exclusively use timely and specific feedback with my students in place of grades. We focused on problem/challenge-based learning, and we stopped often to examine the process of learning. In this way we could discuss things like the importance of making mistakes along the way, choosing excellence over perfection, setting goals, measuring progress, reflecting on what we’ve learned, and applying it to future learning. Over the years, I saw much more success in ALL of my gifted learners, those motivated by grades and those not. It often eliminated the questions, “Why are we learning this?,” or “When will we ever use this?” It also, incidentally, set the stage for job performance ratings in adult life.
Process-based learning also proved to be much more conducive to lifelong learning in my former students. Many of them (now adults) have contacted me to report on how this kind of learning poised them for success in their lives and careers. They remember reflecting on what they learned, how they learned, and how they grew as learners. They report that they continue to use reflection as they continue to grow in adulthood. How wonderful is this?
As we move into the future, I am hopeful that grading, along with many other educational practices, will be carefully examined. If you are interested in following one teacher’s journey into effecting personal change surrounding grading, you may want to read this article from Edutopia,
How to Make Sure Grades Are Meaningful to Students.
This article contains much food for thought, and consideration of steps to take along the way.
During the pandemic we’ve learned a lot about what motivates and engages students and improves their learning outcomes. We’ve seen some students do very well, and others struggle. I believe that the information gleaned can be used to transform learning. We have a unique opportunity to make some fresh starts as we move into the future; let’s take advantage of it!
As always, I welcome your thoughts and ideas; together we grow.
Jackie Drummer, Past President
WI Association for Talented and Gifted
(WATG would like to extend a huge thank you to Martha Lopez of Milwaukee Public Schools for translating this article into Spanish for our Spanish-speaking families and educators. The translation can also be found below.)
“Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.” This quote is attributed to President John F. Kennedy and sums up what many, many people believe to be true.
For this reason, it seems especially important to nurture young minds and to grow their unique gifts and talents. While talent development is important in people of all ages, it is especially important in the youngest of children. In the PBS series entitled, “The Brain with David Eagleman,” Dr. Eagleman explains that in the brain of a newborn baby, the neurons are only starting to connect, but by age 2, the brain may have developed well over 15,000 connections. Neurons in our brains connect at an especially rapid pace in early childhood. As we age, neurons are pruned as a result of what we are learning. As we grow and learn, we reduce the number of connections because our brains focus on a smaller number of reinforced connections. Our circuitry becomes specific. We “use it or lose it” with our brain cells. Brain circuitry is wired according to experiences and interactions with our environment.
So, what kind of experiences and environment do we want to provide for our children? How do we, as parents and educators create these experiences and environments? And how do we grow gifts and talents in our children, and develop their brains?
While so many toys and gadgets and learning materials and books try to sell us things that will grow our children intellectually, the scientific research is actually geared toward much simpler (and less costly) options.
In this June 20, 2020 article in Edutopia, Why Ages 2-7 Matter So Much in Brain Development, author Rishi Sriram asserts that experiences during early childhood provide lasting effects on their development. Sriram states, “This first critical period of brain development begins around age 2 and concludes around age 7. It provides a prime opportunity to lay the foundation for a holistic education for children.”
The first way to maximize this critical period, according to Sriram, is to encourage a love of learning. Learning for young children encompasses so many things. It can be a love of nature, a love of cooking or trying new foods, a love of building things, creating things, destroying things, questioning things, reading about things, and simply experiencing life to the fullest. The possibilities are endless. Encourage exploration! Celebrate curiosity! Provide opportunities! Additionally, this is the time when children make many mistakes, and encouraging a willingness to accept mistakes as a natural part of learning is crucial. By honoring the process of learning, and not just the outcome, children learn to embrace a growth mindset which will serve them well in their lives.
A second way to maximize this critical period is to focus on breadth of learning instead of depth. “Well-roundedness” is an especially important way to learn for young children. Their minds are essentially wide-open, connections are forming, and interests are being piqued and developed. In his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized WorldDavid Epstein argues that breadth of experience is often overlooked and underappreciated. He asserts that “the people who thrive in our rapidly changing world are those who first learn how to draw from multiple fields and think creatively and abstractly. In other words, our society needs well-rounded individuals.” There will be many years for children to begin focusing on fields of study, but during this crucial time, being a minds-open generalist is preferred.
A third way to maximize this critical period is to pay attention to emotional intelligence and social and emotional learning. Parents and educators can help by teaching children to recognize, regulate, and communicate their emotions. They can teach successful strategies to manage emotions and create healthy lifestyles. For example, helping children understand the importance of kindness, empathy, and teamwork will be necessary skills for success in their lives. Again, the window of opportunity is wide open during these critical years.
Finally, educators and parents must honor this time period in their children’s lives not as a precursor to “real learning,” but as “real learning” itself. It is common, at least in the USA, to hear of classes for children three and four years old described as “preschool,” when in fact it is real learning, just as later school years provide real learning experiences. Learning during this period is setting the stage for years to come. During this time, children learn how to learn, how to manage time, energy, frustration, tools, and a myriad of other things. “Back in the day” :) children were considered integral parts of the work of the family. They worked and learned alongside their parents and siblings beginning at very early ages, and engaged in “real learning” and real-life skill building. Nowadays we can use family chores and routines as ways to encourage children to value every day, boots-on-the-ground practical skills which will enhance the book learning to come.
During this holiday season, our social media feeds and television commercials are filled with things to buy for our children. While it is tempting to think that some of these items will somehow make our children smarter or give them a competitive advantage, perhaps it is the simple things that will make the difference in the lives of our children. None of these things cost a lot of money; they do, however require an investment of time and love. It’s worth considering.
As always, I welcome your thoughts and ideas. Together we grow.
Jackie Drummer, Past President
WI Association for Talented and Gifted
(Thank you to German Diaz of Milwaukee Public Schools for translating this article into Spanish for parents and educators.)
As an organization, WATG is committed to finding and serving children and families from diverse cultures. In June of 2020, our Board of Directors crafted a social justice and equity statement that begins with this quote by Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Our statement reads,
As our nation faces the grave consequences of long standing and systemic racism, the Wisconsin Association for Talented and Gifted remains committed to equity and justice for all. As an organization, we are cognizant of the inequities in identification and educational programming for gifted students of color. We remain committed to examining these inequities, and rectifying these inequities. We pledge to do our part to dismantle structural and institutional racism. We invite partnerships with other institutions, groups, and individuals to share conversations about the impacts of race, and will work to listen, learn, and support each other in this critical process of changing our world.
At our October virtual fall conference, “Hands On - Minds On: Now More Than Ever,” we featured a number of speakers who reminded us that we in Wisconsin have much work left to do to identify and program for gifted students of color in our state. Our data was humbling, and serves as a clarion call for action.
As an educator, a parent, and now a grandparent, I have always believed that working with children provides us with impetus, direction, and hope for the future. In our homes and in our classrooms we can make small differences that lead to big change, and children can help us see the why, the what, and the how to do this.
One of the ways that we can effect change is to utilize books, movies, videoclips, and other resource materials in our homes and classrooms to begin discussions with children about diversity and celebrating the diverse gifts and talents that all children possess. Experience has taught me that children provide powerful insight into what people need to cultivate their gifts and talents. First we must listen carefully to them, and then act on their wisdom.
Early on in this journey to celebrate diversity, teachers and parents were advised to share books and materials which portrayed children and families of color; they were advised to let children see themselves in the text. While this was a great first step, I believe it did not go far enough. Recent research is bearing this out.
This October 16, 2020 article by Jaren Maynard in Edutopia, Going Beyond a Diverse Classroom Library, affirms my beliefs. Maynard states, “Classroom libraries (and family libraries) should include culturally inclusive texts. More important, though, teachers (and parents) should be using these texts to affirm and challenge students in real and intentional ways.”
Maynard also states that most classrooms (and I would add many families) use read-alouds to share books with children of all ages. During these precious reading times, we need to deliberately include diverse texts. Then we need to give children time to discuss, to relate to characters, to analyze problems and issues in the story, and to evaluate and synthesize solutions. We need to allow children time to ask “why,” or “why not,” to express emotions and explore incongruities. We need to encourage them to compare situations in their lives to situations in the lives of characters. These are courageous conversations, and must be handled with care. They may venture into discussions of current events, social justice, equity, and the dignity of all human lives. These are authentic learning experiences, and pave the way for concrete action, for without concrete action, children can be left hopeless. Gifted children are often especially drawn to these kinds of discussions, and have many excellent ideas to contribute. Let’s listen to the children, and let’s let them help us formulate action plans!
John Hattie, a highly respected meta-analyst and director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, offers another reason to infuse well-crafted student discussion into our work with children. He writes in his book, Visible Learning for Teachers, that student discussion has a considerable effect on student achievement. When students are highly engaged in their learning, when it is personal and relevant, rigorous, and built on relationships, student achievement soars. Deep discussion then, connected to real-life experiences, provides extra bonuses for children -- in their moral development and their academic achievement.
But we cannot stop with the children. Adults must also have these courageous conversations, policy makers must embrace change and act, and all of us must assume personal responsibility for change and growth. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he delivered the Baccalaureate sermon at the commencement exercises for Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Let’s all take steps to bending the arc, one step at a time.
By now, most of us are settled into the 2020-2021 school year. Some of you are in face-to-face learning environments, some are in virtual, and some are in a hybrid environment. All of these environments are fraught with challenges, and with, no doubt, some fears. Over the past months, I have had the opportunity to think about the best way to support our families, our educators, and especially our children during these uncertain times.
In following social media, reading countless articles such as this one:
This is Our Season of Coaching Our Children Through Disappointment in the Washington Post, and speaking with many parents and educators, it has become increasingly clear to me that attitude matters. Attitude matters for our own mental health, and attitude matters for the mental health of our children -- because they are watching us. Attitude coupled with modeling problem solving skills, decision making skills, creative and critical thinking skills, and fortitude will help us make the best of these unusual times, and show our children how to press through adversity.
As this school year approached, I saw many fabulous examples of families with great attitudes. They chose to roll with the uncertainty, and think of ways to make the best of it. They planned for various scenarios, and encouraged their children to join in on the plans. I read about families creating quiet study spaces, checking home bandwidth, going “pretend” school-supply shopping in their basements, and picking out “first day of school” outfits, even though their children were starting the school year virtually. I saw families of means choosing to purchase their own chromebooks, allowing scarce school resources to be spent on families in need. I saw families discussing the importance of following school policies regarding masks and social distancing to prepare their children for a face-to-face beginning of the year. I watched them practice routines, and heard of patient and calm family conversations to allay fears. I heard of families having meetings to discuss how all community children would be able to access learning, and what plans communities would be making to accommodate everyone. Most of all, families were talking about the importance of flexibility should things change, as inevitably they would. And in these families, I saw resilience and resolve, and willingness to make the best of things. I saw that attitude matters.
Similarly, I saw educators, as they usually do, working tirelessly to “make it work” in a myriad of situations. Many spent countless hours working during the summer to perfect plans for a yet to be determined scenario; many watched in anguish as school boards struggled with making difficult decisions. Many experienced plans upended as circumstances changed in communities. Many worked through fears about online learning, or F2F learning, or juggling the increased demands of hybrid learning. Many worried about kids in unsafe situations, or kids who might not be able to access quality education. Many of them struggled with fears about health and safety. And many of them dug into deep reserves of creativity and persistence to triumph.
In a marvelous example of true educator awesome-ness and ingenuity, I watched incredulously as a well-known internet service provider chose to do a full-on upgrade on “third-Friday-count-day” in September, shutting down all virtual learning services in parts of southeastern Wisconsin. What did teachers and families do? They reimagined it as a “virtual snow day,” and proceeded with alternate plans on the spot. They rose above their frustration, put their creative talents to use, and carried on. Attitude matters!
Attitude matters, too, in how we support all of us making difficult decisions daily. Attitudes of gratitude must be shared with school boards and administrators. Though we may not always agree with their decisions, we must be cognizant of the difficulty of their jobs, and the great weight of responsibility that rests on their shoulders. We must have an attitude of gratitude for our educators who are relentlessly putting kids above their personal fears and their fatigue. We need to thank them privately, publicly, and often.
Finally, we must be kind to each other, and to ourselves. Families have made difficult decisions about how to school their children, based on their unique family values and circumstances. We must extend grace and kindness to all -- because attitude matters. We must extend grace and forgiveness to ourselves, too, because we are doing our best. Our children are watching and learning from us. How we handle adversity will influence how they handle adversity. Gifted kids in particular often have built-in intuition -- a kind of radar -- that causes them to finely examine and thoughtfully question adults. Now is the time to choose our best attitudes for them to examine and question! Attitude matters!
As you are reading this blog, many of you have already begun the school year. Some of you may still be waiting to commence, but all are learning to adjust and adapt to many new realities.
The first reality was that change and decision-making is undoubtedly difficult, especially with so much pervasive uncertainty. Some of you may have had decisions made for you by municipalities or other governing boards, with or without your input. Some of you have been given options, and have had to navigate the waters of change by yourselves. And many of you have had to explain/defend your choice or situation to children, other family members, friends, or acquaintances. Undoubtedly some of you may continue to question your decisions, or continue to wish that things were different.
One thing seems certain, however, and that is that we are all grieving. We are grieving the world as it was. We are grieving relationships, and proximity, and freedom to be out and about without anxiety. We are grieving school as it was. We are grieving teaching as it was. We are grieving learning as it was.
In a recent coaching conversation with an outstanding administrator, she and I began to examine the stages of grief as they apply to helping educators, parents, and children process their emotions surrounding the change in learning during the COVID era. We talked about the five stages of grief as posed by Swiss American psychiatrist Kübler-Ross. Though most of Kübler-Ross-Ross’ work was in the field of death and dying, I think it applies equally well to the death of education as we once knew it. Kübler-Ross defines the non-linear stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Thinking back on the last months, many of us, adults and children alike, can probably identify with moving through these stages of grief. Countless articles, blog posts, Facebook posts, tweets, talk shows, and news sources have confirmed that we were/are not alone. And yet, what I’d like to focus on is the stage of acceptance, of finding ways to make the best of the new paradigm -- learning in the COVID era.
In a recent article in the New York Times, How to Handle Anxiety Over Back to School Decisions, author Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, suggests some coping skills to help us during these uncertain times. Her suggestions include learning to cope with uncertainty, distinguishing between productive and unproductive worries, stopping the fight with our feelings, cultivating compassion, paying attention to our grief, practicing flexible thinking and acting, and focusing on our values and our sources of meaning. While all of these strategies will help us and our children navigate the stages of grief, many of us find ourselves already in our “new normal.”
So, what now?
In another recent article from the NAGC, Distance Learning Round Two - We're in This Together there is some timely advice for parents of gifted children who are immersed once again in distance learning. Tips from parents to parents include these:
For those of you who have re-entered or are re-entering face-to-face learning, the changes and challenges are also daunting. As we work on acceptance of these changes and challenges, we need to examine them and provide context, clarity, and time for discussion. In a recent article from Grown and Flown, pediatrician and mom Dr. Cara Natterson speaks about what teens can expect as school starts this fall, and how important it is to discuss the expectations and emotions associated with them.
Some things that will change (undoubtedly for kids and teachers in any age/grade group returning face-to-face) are:
My biggest takeaway from all of my reading, discussion, observation, and pondering how to accept these daunting changes is that, now, more than ever, we must pay attention to the social and emotional needs of our educators and learners. Absorbing and accepting tremendous amounts of change requires tremendous amounts of time, energy, and understanding. While the academic needs of our gifted learners are very important, their emotional health must also be safeguarded. We need to give everyone the gifts of patience, flexibility, and grace.
My heart goes out to all of you as you navigate these new waters, and I sincerely hope that you will find a safe harbor in a place of acceptance, at least for now. We can then contemplate the challenges of moving forward. Sail forth!
As always, I welcome your ideas. Together we grow.
Past President, WATG
There is no doubt that many thoughtful and intense conversations have been happening lately, and many of them center on the pandemic. These conversations are happening at so many levels in the world -- internationally, nationally, at the state, county, city, and local level, in school districts and school buildings, with administrators, teachers, and other school personnel, within families, between friends, and among those with diverse opinions. Our children are listening, even though we may not be aware of it. They are paying close attention to the conversations, mulling them over, perhaps worrying, thinking of solutions, and yearning to be included in the conversations. Because they are gifted kids, they may be experiencing a heightened sensitivity to the nuances of conversations, and yet they are seldom asked to join in on the discussion. Some children may have trusted adults to talk to, some children may not. Some children may be forthright in opening the discussion, some might be reticent. Some of us may feel comfortable and competent to have these discussions, some of us may not. Nonetheless, our children are pondering.
For the past few weeks, I have been keeping a record of questions and comments that I’ve heard coming from children, or read about, or that parents have shared with me. It’s convinced me that our children are full of great questions. Here are some of them:
“Why does the news keep changing?” “Why can’t scientists make up their minds?” “Are the numbers real?” “What is fake news?” “How do you know what to believe?” “How would sitting in the same desk all day, wearing a mask, not being able to hang out with my friends, having to eat a cold boxed lunch be better than sitting on my bed eating and drinking what I want when I want and having an actual conversation with my teachers and friends on Zoom?” “Will dad lose his job?” “Why did our neighbor get sick? Will the whole family get sick?” “Why can’t I go back to school if kids don’t get sick like adults do?” “Why do people with no children get to make the rules?” “My throat hurts. Am I going to die?” “What if grandma dies?” “Why do we have to go to virtual school anyway? It’s not helping me.” “What if we start school, and then school closes?” “I’m worried about my friend. She’s really depressed. What should I do?” “Even if we go back to school, it won’t be the same...and that makes me sad. Is it okay to be sad?” “How will we keep our classroom clean and safe?” “What if my teacher gets sick? Will we all have to stay home?” “I don’t want to miss school. It’s my whole life.” “Will we really ever get to do things again like we used to, or will it always be like this?”
Whether children pose these questions out loud, or fret about them internally and silently, the need to open the discussion remains. So how do we do this?
First of all, physical and emotional space must be made available. For our younger children, bedtime is often a time when worries and wonderings surface. The quietness, the comfort of one’s bedroom, and the let-down from the day often invite introspective conversations. For older children and adolescents, many parents report that “car time” is when many deep discussions emerge. The physical act of being enclosed, the fact that the grownup is generally focused on the road and not looking at the teen, and the fact that the conversation is totally private all seem to invite deep discussions. And for all children, deep conversations require deep listening skills, unimpeded by phones, TV, or other interruptions.
Some great conversation starters include: “So, what do you think about…” “I’m interested in your opinion about…” “What kinds of things do you think kids are wondering about…” ”You seem worried. Do you want to talk about it?” “What do you think will be the best thing about…?” “What do you think will happen?” What do you think should happen?” “What’s the worst that could happen?” “How likely is that to be true?” “What have you noticed?” “What do you wish would happen?” “Who could you talk to about this?” (To kick up the level of conversation, you may want to probe deeper by asking “why” often).
In addition to asking the questions and opening the discussions, we need to think about our next steps. We need to validate our children’s answers and feelings, and we need to regulate our own emotions while listening. Finally, we need to find ways to help our children (and ourselves) cope positively and move forward.
Some valuable ideas for these next steps include:
Above all, we need to be gentle with our children and with ourselves while we learn, and as we navigate constant change. Though it is important to open the discussion, where the discussion leads will require intuition, patience, skill, and practice. The process may not be perfect, but it is worth it. Our children are counting on us. We can do this. And if we need help, we can lean on others...now more than ever.
As always, I look forward to your ideas. Together we grow.
Past President, WI Association for Talented and Gifted
Even as we are basking in the warmth of the summer sun, many of us are wondering and perhaps worried about the fall. What will school look like? How will things be the same? How will things be different? What have we learned from our months of virtual learning? What do we want to keep? What do we want to do differently? How will our new learning make education more effective for all students? How will my child fare? How will I adapt as an educator? How can I support my child’s learning in any scenario?
At this writing, many states and districts are beginning to share their plans for the fall, as Wisconsin has recently done. Some are proposing in-person classes with additional safety precautions, some are continuing virtual education, and some are offering hybrid models, combining in-person and virtual learning. Many states and districts are adopting a wait-and-see stance until more information is available, and of course, things are still changing as new information becomes available, and as the scenario changes.
However schools resume -- one thing is certain. Students returning to schooling will arrive with an increasing variance in their readiness for new content. Some children will be arriving fresh and eager to learn. They will not have lost educational ground, and may, in fact, have made terrific progress. They may have had the good fortune of a stable learning environment, support, and the resources and materials necessary to learn well during the pandemic. They may have discovered passions, followed their imaginations, and enjoyed the guidance of supportive adults. They may have actually been freed from the constraints of the regular classroom. Other students, unfortunately, may not have had these advantages for a wide variety of reasons. All of this will definitely exacerbate the already difficult task of teaching a wide variety of learners in traditional regular classrooms, whether face-to-face or online.
In this recent article, New Research Predicts Steep COVID Learning Losses will Widen Already Dramatic Achievement Gaps Within Classrooms, the research by Rambo-Hernandez, Makel, Peters & Plucker (2020)examines assessment data on incoming fifth-graders in 10 states, and shows that, on average, student achievement spans seven grade levels (in a given classroom during a typical school year). Additionally, every year many students experience a certain amount of “summer slide,” or a deterioration of learning while away from school during the summer. Citing research from NWEA’s Collaborative for Student Growth Research Center, Rambo-Hernandez noted that this year’s “COVID-slide” may be even more severe than the typical “summer slide”. She stated that “on average, students next fall are likely to retain about 70 percent of this year’s gains in reading and less than 50 percent in math. Losses are likely to be more pronounced in the early grades, when students normally acquire many basic skills, and among those already facing steep inequities.” Yet, the authors of the article hypothesized this as well, “However, we estimate that losing ground during the COVID-19 school closures would not be universal, with the top third of students potentially making gains in reading.” Thus, they concluded, in preparing for fall 2020, educators will likely need to consider ways to support students who are academically behind, and further differentiate instruction for students who have maintained or accelerated their learning.
Digging more deeply into the effects on COVID-19 on learning, researchers at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University made further predictions in this EdWorking paper, Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement. They asserted that the effects of “COVID-19 Slide” will impact future learning outcomes. A first assertion was that, “We show that students will likely (a) not have grown as much during the truncated 2019-2020 academic year and (b) will likely lose more of those gains due to extended time out of school. However, they added that, “We found that losing ground over the summer was not universal, with the top third of students in reading making gains during a typical summer. As a result of this variability, we project that the range of students’ academic achievement will be more spread out in the fall of 2020 relative to a normal fall term, particularly in reading.” But they also offered this hopeful prediction, “Finally, we show that, although our projections are dire, our models also suggest that students who lose the most while out of school tend to gain the most the following year (at least under typical summer loss conditions). Thus, there is hope that students most impacted by the additional average achievement losses under COVID-19 may also be the ones who rebound the most by the end of the 2020-21 academic school year.”
While this news is encouraging, many of us are also concerned about future learning for our advanced learners. If they have not experienced a “COVID Slide,” then how can schools prepare for their return so that they do not waste valuable learning time? How do we further their trajectories?
First of all, teachers across grade levels must communicate. Now more than ever, teachers must be knowledgeable about the curriculum that comes both before and after their grade levels. Vertical teaming will be essential in preparing for the vast differences in learning. And then, equipped with vertical teaming knowledge, and with learner profiles, teachers must differentiate. This will require renewed professional development on how to meet the needs of gifted learners, as well as all learners. Whether teaching in-person or online, teachers must pre-test, compact or telescope already-mastered curriculum, flexibly group or cluster-group learners by readiness for content, and deliver tiered content. This could be done in a variety of ways. Students could be grouped by readiness, rather than by age or grade levels. Different teachers could teach different groups, and the groups would be flexible, targeting students’ readiness. These things could be done face-to-face, or in a virtual environment using breakout rooms, such as those in Zoom. Using “repeated rhythms” of whole group presentations, and then small group work in rooms, teaching could be more targeted to learners’ needs.
School district personnel should also agree to accelerate students who demonstrate the need. This would require assessment, but research confirms that both ability grouping and acceleration, among other strategies, can benefit advanced learners. See these articles from the Fordham Institute, Do Programs for Advanced Learners Work? and Ability Grouping and Acceleration Can Help Teachers and School Leaders for more information. If students have mastered curriculum, they must be allowed to move on.
A percentage of high ability students may also need dual enrollment options to further their learning. In this article, College Classes for HS Students Have Been Growing in Popularity. But With K-12 Schools Shuttered, COVID Is Fueling a Dual-Enrollment Boom, the 74million.org shared their findings. They asserted that, “Traditionally, high school students have turned to dual enrollment to access advanced academic classes, embark on a career path or save money on college by accumulating credits at lower cost. Research shows that earning credits in high school increases the chances that students will graduate, go on to college and attain an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. But this year, with many districts still struggling to figure out how to deliver either online or in-person education, and with camp and many summer jobs largely off the table, dual enrollment also offers a welcome degree of certainty about students’ educational experience.”
Another way to meet the needs of high end learners as school resumes is with personalized or individualized learning. Though many districts and schools have been experimenting with this, now is the time to scale it up. Students can and should have more voice and choice in their learning. Students and teachers can craft learning contracts, rubrics, and performance goals. Students can follow passions and interests. Mini-lessons can be taught as students need instruction on content or skills as their research progresses. Authentic audiences can be captured, either online or in-person. Mentors can be engaged. Many gifted learners have already used the last quarter of the 19-20 school year to experiment with this kind of personalized learning. We have a lot to learn from them, so let’s include them in crafting new ways of learning.
Finally, I believe it is imperative that teachers, students, and parents collaborate to help students continually set learning goals that will stretch them. Armed with data and plentiful communication, the most meaningful learning occurs when all stakeholders share their hopes and dreams, and then roll up their sleeves to do the difficult, yet enjoyable work. We have a unique chance to redefine, refine, and recreate learning for our advanced learners. Let’s use this incredible opportunity this fall!
As always, I welcome your ideas. Together we grow.
Past President, WI Association for Talented and Gifted
As some of you may know, I have been a SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of Gifted) national trainer and facilitator for many years. In this role, I have had the great honor of training facilitators, and working with parent groups and individual parents and educators regarding the social and emotional needs (as well as the academic needs) of gifted individuals. My training and interest has provided many opportunities to confer and coach, and, as you might imagine, there has been an uptick in concerns about the emotional health of all of us during this pandemic.
As a result, I have been researching, reading widely, listening to podcasts, and conferring with other experts regarding how to help our children (and ourselves) manage big emotions during these trying times. I hope that some of these ideas, others’ and my own, will be helpful to you.
Recently I listened to a podcast by Dr. Matt Zakreski, Clinical Psychologist, speaking for the Minnesota Council for Gifted and Talented(MCGT) that helped frame my thinking about the pandemic and gifted children. Dr. Zakreski used Polish psychologist, psychiatrist, and physician Kazimierz Dabrowski’s Theory of Overexcitabilities and his own personal experience as a psychologist to help explain how to best interpret and manage the big emotions that many of us and our children are experiencing. You can read more about Dabrowski's Theory of Overexcitabilities in Gifted Children here.
One of the overexcitabilities that Dabrowski researched was intellectual overexcitability. Signs of this overexcitability often include a high level of curiosity, deep concentration, the capacity for sustained intellectual effort, and a wide variety of interests. Children and adults with this overexcitability tend to be avid readers. They also may consume news and media frequently in their insatiable quest for knowledge. They may ask deep and probing questions, and may be preoccupied with issues that are troubling, such as issues of morality and ethics. During this pandemic, gifted individuals are often walking the tightrope of quantity of information -- too much or too little. Care must be taken to limit informational exposure, to examine quality resources, and to provide opportunities to process, question, and discuss the news and events with safe and trusted friends and family.
Additionally, gifted children’s intellectual curiosity may be adversely affected by our necessary rapid transition into virtual learning. While traditional schooling may not have fully met the needs of gifted learners, many students and parents report that much of the virtual learning currently being offered is relatively “one size fits all,” and is not challenging enough for their learners. Many parents are realizing what their kids have been saying all along about school in general for their gifted learners. To help ameliorate this, many gifted educators recommend using this virtual school time in a way that is both stimulating and effective. They suggest having students quickly complete regular schoolwork, and then allow them to work on “genius hour” or “passion” projects. There are many fabulous examples of kids doing just that. It is great to hear about kids creating COVID-19 tracking devices, writing their first symphony, experimenting with various art forms, tracking the stock market, pursuing a hobby, taking on service projects, or creating virtual theater and musical experiences. The possibilities are endless.
Similar to intellectual overexcitabilities, Dabrowski postulated that many gifted individuals display emotional overexcitabilities. Some characteristics could include extreme emotions, including anxiety, guilt, timidity or shyness, loneliness, feelings of inadequacy or inferiority, heightened sense of injustice or hypocrisy, and deep concern for others, Other characteristics could include problems adjusting to change, depression, and physical responses to emotions (stomach aches caused by anxiety, for example). Psychologist Dr. Matt Zakreski suggests these ideas to help deal with intense emotions: “Don’t fight this overexcitability; instead, go with the flow. Kids (and you) are allowed to be freaked out by the way things are. You and your children are allowed to feel what you feel, but we need to figure out what to do with this emotional energy. You may want to use the phrase “that sucks” to be approachably empathetic, and to show your children that you “get it”. Help your children name troubling feelings, encourage them to tell you more about the feelings, and figure out how to use this emotional energy positively.” Dr. Zakreski also recommends that we adults learn to assess our emotions too – our frustration, fear and fatigue can allow us to be sucked into kids’ emotions, and may be non-productive for all.
Dabrowski also postulated that gifted individuals may possess sensory overexcitabilities. The primary sign of this intensity is a heightened awareness of all five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. During this period of social isolation, many people report that our worlds seem to have gotten so much smaller, and we may see an uptick in manifestation of sensory needs not being met, both in adults and children. (As an aside, I am wondering if the sudden craze of stress-baking is related to this need for sensory stimulation… Just think how many sensory needs are being met while baking or cooking). So what can we do? We can try to deliberately build in sensory experiences -- through cooking, through baking, with mud, and clay, and puddles, and playdough, to name a few. We can encourage kids to take a warm bath or shower. We can give back rubs while watching a movie. We can deliberately choose clothing that comforts. We can be cognizant of the different needs of different family members...who needs a quiet space, who needs a sensory-filled, noisy space? Who needs to go outside -- NOW!? Who needs a quiet cuddle on the couch? We need to remember that sensory needs unmet create anxious (and sometimes annoying) people.
Psychomotor overexcitability is also common in many gifted children and adults. It is characterized primarily by high levels of energy. Children with this overexcitability seem to constantly be on the move, and are sometimes misdiagnosed as having ADHD (attention deficit with hyperactivity). For more information on this, you may want to check out Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults. Even as infants, parents report that these children needed less sleep than other children. So, during this time of much confinement, how can we help these children? Experts recommend “steering into the overexcitability,” with scavenger hunts, runs, walks, exercises, running up and down stairs, bike rides, yoga, Nintendo Wii, online dance, youtube classes (martial arts, etc.). As the weather improves, simply getting outside will probably help all of us immensely.
Finally, imaginational overexcitability may be at play with you or your gifted children during this pandemic. The primary sign of this intensity is the free play of the imagination. Vivid imaginations can cause us to visualize the worst possibility in any situation.This can keep us from taking chances or getting involved in new situations. There are so many things we currently can’t control, and we all are acutely aware of this. Dr. Zakreski recommends that we don’t fight these fears. Instead, we need to admit to ourselves and to our children that grownups can’t always fix things. We need to acknowledge the worries, and move conversations into productive avenues by using statements such as these: “Tell me more, let’s problem-solve together.” We may need to teach about “catastrophizing.” and ask questions such as “How realistic is this worry? How likely is this to happen?” We may need to separate content (the things we say and hear) from the process (truly listening to the feelings behind the content). And we need to remember that our imaginations are also powerful gifts. They allow us to express our fears… and they may also help us imagine some of the best possible outcomes of our current situation. Our imaginations may be our best tool to help us plan for the future.
I hope this article has been helpful. As always, I welcome your ideas. Together we grow.
Past President, WI Association for Talented and Gifted
Gifted in Perspective
A column designed to link the gifted perspective to other perspectives, and to make you think