Let Them Be Llamas

Let Them Be Llamas

Every day on my way to work I drive by this farm that has a herd of sheep grazing in a giant field. And every time I see them, I notice the sheep are doing the same thing sheep do every day. Sure, they may move to another patch of grass or huddle in groups of five instead of four, but these creatures are following the same routine every single day. They are just being sheep.

Amongst these sheep there is a single llama. Why this sheep farm feels the need to have a llama I do not know. What I do know is that this llama stands out in stark contrast to the sheep. It does not take me more than a few seconds to locate my furry friend. And why can I find him so quickly? Yes he looks different than everyone else, but more importantly, he acts different than everyone else. While the sheep constantly have their head to the ground, chewing their grass, the llama is picking his head up and moving it in all sorts of interesting ways. He is unique. He stands out from all of the sheep.  

I sometimes feel the exact way about our educational system. When I walk into a classroom, more often than not, students are lined up in rows, being directed by the teacher to complete tasks as a whole, and shooed should they try and break away from the pack.

Tired of Smart Goals; Try Some DUMB Ones Instead

Tired of Smart Goals; Try Some DUMB Ones Instead

One idea that has permeated education for the past few years is that of data, and using it to drive and shape instruction. This is a great idea because you as the teacher find out what is working effectively in your classroom and what might not be getting students where you want them to be. In essence, it allows you to get the biggest bang for your buck. 

Schools have embraced this, turning to data teams to analyze all of the information we collect on students and figuring out how to teach them better. We make SMART goals to accomplish this:

S – Specific

M – Measurable 

A – Assignable 

R – Realistic 

T – Time-related

The basic premise of a SMART goal is that it is something that can be measured, either through an assessment, evaluation, or observation. Like many things in education, we seem to have taken this concept to the extreme where we are not letting anything into the classroom unless it can be measured. As a result, there are certain unmeasurable intangibles that have been left by the wayside…

Growth vs. Fixed Mindsets - the Reality is in the Middle

Growth vs. Fixed Mindsets - the Reality is in the Middle

In the past few years, the idea of growth mindset has gained a lot of traction in education. The general idea behind growth mindset, a concept put forth by psychologist Carol Dweck, is that everyone has the ability to grow their mind. This is counter to the fixed mindset theory that espouses that everyone is born at a certain IQ and just stays there the rest of their lives.

The problem with both of these theories is that they are at completely opposite ends of the spectrum. That means you either believe students do have the ability to grow their mindset or you do not. I would argue that like most things in life, the truth lies somewhere in between. On one end growth mindset, on the other fixed mindset: the truth lies in between with growth bands.

Growth mindset can run contrary to gifted education. Gifted does not necessarily believe in a fixed mindset, but in many states there is a “once gifted, always gifted,” attitude, meaning if a child were identified cognitively in 2nd grade, that is going to follow her all the way until the day she graduates. That means if the next time she is tested she falls from a 130 to a 100, she still is considered gifted. 

To be honest, in my experience in gifted education, a majority of the time I see at most a little movement of cognitive scores from one year to the next...

The Caring Factor

The Caring Factor

There are many factors that can lead to underachievement amongst gifted students, including:

  • home life,
  • boredom,
  • peers, and/or
  • not being challenged.

Even though there are many different causes of underachievement, they usually have one commonality: lack of care. If a student’s home life is tough, maybe a parent does not care. If a student is bored, his or her teachers may not care enough about their craft to make learning engaging or fulfilling. A student’s peers may not care about school. Or a school district may not care enough to provide services for its gifted population.

The good thing about underachievement is that it is a learned behavior. Because it is learned, it can be unlearned as well. And what is the best way to reverse this curse? The caring factor.

I observe a lot of classrooms, and what becomes very apparent is the correlation between how much a teacher cares and how much the students care. For example, I was recently in a calculus class. It was clear after 5 minutes that this teacher really cared about math. More importantly, when I looked around the room, the students seemed to care as well, asking thought-provoking questions. I could sense their rapport with the teacher and the level of engagement.

I went to another class with many of the same students, but almost immediately they pulled out their phones, put in earbuds, and were generally off-task. When this teacher taught a lesson, he went through the motions and was well-organized, but he did not seem to care as much about his topic.

The first teacher seemed to care more, not just about the subject area, but his students. Over by his desk were the pictures of hundreds of students. He did this activity called the “Student of the Day,” where he would read answers someone had provided at the beginning of the year about herself and then the class would guess who it was. He also seemed familiar with students' strengths and weaknesses in his interactions with them. I saw none of this in the other class.

When I studied famous people who had overcome their underachievement for my book When Smarts Kids Underachieve in School, there was one commonality: Someone cared. For instance, Albert Einstein, who was often bored in school...

Happy Accidents in the Classroom

Happy Accidents in the Classroom

When I am sitting and flipping through the television channels, there are a few things that cause me to pause. One is the movie A Few Good Men. I always stop when I come across a baseball game too. The third thing that will make me stop and pay attention is the show The Joy of Painting. And not only will I stop and watch for a few minutes, I will sit and watch transfixed until the painting is done a half hour later. My wife often times comes downstairs and finds me in a zombie-like state, staring at the screen. 

Why this is of interest is I do not like painting nor do I partake in it. Then why do I so intently watch someone showing people how to paint when I don’t like painting myself? The answer is Bob Ross. Bob Ross was the host of The Joy of Painting during its ten-year run. He looked like my Uncle Tom with his beard and his outdated perm that formed a perfect curly halo around his head. He had a soothing, sweet natured voice that was always reassuring. I think the most important aspect of Bob Ross’ style was that he welcomed mistakes. If he were to misplace a brushstroke, he would simply say “we don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents.” 

He didn’t always seem to have an exact plan when he was painting. Sure, he knew he was doing a landscape of a mountain or a sunset, but he always allowed himself some wiggle room should he make a mistake. He would say “we don’t really know where this goes and I’m not sure we care.” I would be amazed by the fact that he would make an askew paint line, a blotch, or a discoloration, and turn it into something beautiful like a mountain, a cloud, or his favorite, a tree. He actually revelled in mistakes because they were just an opportunity to create something else. He once said “ever make mistakes in life? Let’s make them birds. Yeah, they’re birds now.” He encouraged these happy accidents because that was where most of the best work was done. He would tell the audience “don’t be afraid to go out on a limb because that’s where the fruit is.” 

This is what we need to create in our classroom for our students. We need to create an environment where students are comfortable going out on a limb. Where their mistakes do not count against them but instead...

Nurturing the Gifted All the Way from K-12

Nurturing the Gifted All the Way from K-12

The way many gifted services work across the nation is that if a school or district has gifted programming, it is focused in the younger grades. Very rarely is there gifted-specific programming at the high school level. Instead, we rely on nationally recognized programs such as Advanced Placement (AP) and College Credit Plus (CCP) to fill the need for rigor and challenge. While these courses are certainly more rigorous than your typical high school class, they are not specific to the needs of gifted students. Even if they were, they would only be meeting the academic needs of the students. What of their social/emotional needs?

The other impediment for gifted learners in high schools is that many high school teachers have a traditional style in the classroom, standing in front of the students and talking at them. They are the disseminators of information, the sage from the stage, the content expert. If you don’t believe me, go into most any high school and see how the desks are situated in the classroom. I would bet a majority are lined up in symmetrical rows, all pointed toward the front of the classroom where the teacher’s desk sits. This drill and kill style of teaching has been proven to not be the most effective method of reaching students, especially gifted ones, and yet it continues. 

The problem with solely using AP and CCP as band-aids for the needs of gifted students is that they typically are using this traditional method of teaching where a lot of material needs to be covered in what seems like a short period of time. As a result, there is a lot of focus on surface level learning such as rote memorization and traditional methods of assessment. Unfortunately, these methods do prepare students for many of the AP exams and college entrance exams students must take in order to advance in their education. They do not prepare students...

"Rigor" and "Hard" Are Not the Same Thing

"Rigor" and "Hard" Are Not the Same Thing

I have had a lot of conversations in my career where it is offered that the solution to the problem of challenging students is simply to add more rigor. It is as though a teacher could go to the spice rank and hunt amongst the dill and the Cayenne pepper to find a bottle of rigor that can simply be shaken on the class and the problem will be solved. 

The major problem of simply adding rigor to the classroom is that there are a fair share of teachers who do not know what rigor actually is. They equate rigor with being harder. And how do you make the class harder? The easiest way is by giving students more things to do and less time to do them. This, my friend, is not rigor.1 In fact, many students resent just being given more, especially if it is the same work. The idea of rigor is to provide different work that is going to challenge students. And where is the best place to challenge a student? With their thinking.

This narrative follows into the assessment of students. How do you have rigorous assessments? By asking harder questions. But again, this is not rigor. You could ask a student to provide the name of the US Ambassador to China. It is not common knowledge that this would be Terry Branstad, but it is still just knowledge. There lies the problem. Just like giving more of the same work, asking questions that are all knowledge-based questions are not going to challenge students’ thinking no matter...

Advocating for the Gifted

Advocating for the Gifted

As a gifted coordinator, I get asked a lot of questions. Curiously, the question I probably get asked the most is not what great things are you doing, how can I be involved, or what way do we best reach our gifted students? The question I get asked the most is what does a gifted coordinator do? Even by adults. When I was a teacher, it was easy. Someone asked what I did, I stated I was a teacher, and they just nodded their head like they knew what that meant. Now when I say I am a gifted coordinator, I get a look that indicates befuddlement. 

Explaining it to students is the greatest challenge. They will ask, “are you a teacher?” When I inform them I am actually the district gifted coordinator; they ask “what is that?” My initial response is always “I coordinate gifted” as though the title bespoke the duties involved. This only causes more confusion though. The challenge is explaining the many things a gifted coordinator might do so that a person who knows nothing about it can understand the basics. 

So, that leads me to the question, “what does a gifted coordinator do?” To steal a phrase my educational law professor always used; it depends. Much like gifted itself which is defined differently from state to state, district to district, so too is the idea of...