Friday, May 08, 2009


Did I ever tell you I was flagged as gifted in elementary school? I was thinking about that again this morning as my mystery rash and I sat in the waiting room at the Family Health Centre, reading a several months old McLeans article on cutbacks to gifted education programs.

Tested early and often, my IQ scores varied between the 130s and 150s. Whatever. I was reading aloud to my sister by the time I turned four, and reading fluently in French by the time I hit kindergarten. Everything was soooo easy: language, math, memorization of facts, abstract reasoning. God, I loved our spelling tests--that's 'dictée' in French. I loved tests of all kinds because it seemed like that was what being smart was good for. The only academic challenge I ever remember facing finally bonked me on the head in grade 13 calculus. Where I eventually got the second highest grade in my class. That was the first time I ever had to try.

Being gifted didn't seem to be much of a blessing in the 70s and 80s. Basically, the strategy in my school board seemed to be to 'skip' us ahead grades, but in my case they seemed to always talk about it (all my classmates and I knew about it) but then not to do it, for fear it would stunt me socially. Um yeah, the constant rumours of skipping didn't help, either. Neither did the 'enrichment' activities of having me grade everyone's tests. Nor did me always being bored and arrogant in class. Or always having people bug me to copy my homework. Or being teased by teachers for using words they didn't understand ('ethereal' in a ghost story assignment. Grade 7. I am never ever going to forget the humiliation of that.)

I understand that educational enrichment for gifted kids is a low priority for boards faced with a huge explosion in students manifesting behavioural problems, learning disabilities, and physical, emotional, and cognitive impairments. Nevertheless, I'm angry that the gifted kids are left to fend for themselves. When you're a little kid, smarter than pretty much everybody but learning that it's a good idea not to show it, when you live in a shit-hole tiny town where the library doesn't have a copy of Jane Eyre, where there's no bookstore, where the main extracurricular activities are figure skating, hockey, and Brownies, you kind of fester and stew until you get to leave at 18 or 19.

That's a real shame.

I wonder why it is that I'm still bitter about it. Still bitter that my first enrichment classes came in grade five and consisted of a once-every-eight-days trip to home ec, to sew Cabbage Patch Dolls. Still bitter that my one and only real enrichment class, in grade 7, where I built a radio receiver and an electrical generator and marvelled at logic puzzles that weren't easy to do, was cancelled after one semester. Maybe I wouldn't have alienated myself from everyone so badly if I'd had a productive outlet for my smarts. If my smarts had been productively acknowledged or nurtured. I know I felt ripped off and bored at school, and was kind of an eye-rolling wiseass because of it. Not productive, and I'm not proud of it, but I was cheesed off to be surrounded by dummies all the time and to be told to take up knitting to fill all those dull-as-erasers hours of work-time when everyone else struggled with assignments I finished in a snap. I knit two sweaters over the course of grade four. In class.

Now, of course, I'm a university professor. I have a job that requires me to be the smartest person in rooms full of smart people. I have a peer group that shares a similar past, a similar mindset. My talents were not irredeemably squandered in my youth. It all turned out okay in the end, I guess.

But I'm still mad. And I worry for Munchkin, who is already distinguishing herself in preschool, smarter than a lot of her peers, making her teachers gasp. I guess what makes me so angry is that when you single a kid out in that way--make her the freak--but then don't take pains or make an effort to prize that special quality, or direct it somewhere useful, all you do, well, is make that kid a freak and we all know how well peer groups of 30 little kids deal with freaks.


Your opinions on this issue are welcome. I would like to know what you think of the idea of giftedness (yes, I've read the Stuff White People Like sendup of this) or my sense of entitlement or the education system generally.


hoppytoddle said...

Yet another reason we have become blogger friends. I was skipped ahead, too. I graduated at 16 & my mom wouldn't let me go to the school of my choice because it was too far away.

I have lots to say on this. So much it's going to be a post.

Mimi said...

Hoppytoddle, can you pop us a link in the comments when your post is up?

btw, I never actually got skipped. Just threatened to be skipped.

Beck said...

As the parent of kids in Ontario public schools, let me assure you that the current curriculum is so ridiculously difficult that even the gifted kids we know have trouble keeping up.

Yeah, I was identified as gifted early on - I was reading at a grade eight level in grade one, and the school just had no idea what to do with me. Small rural schools had no funding for any perks, so I was given a book and sat alone in a corner. That did - as you know - wonders for my social life.

One of my children is obviously gifted. One of my kids is pretty normal. One of my kids has learning difficulties. And you know, I think that the priorites in spending are pretty accurate - my gifted kid and MOST gifted kids I know come from homes quite capable of giving them extra enrichment, while a lot of kids with learning difficulties are not going to get extra anything from anyone.

But this is all pretty irrelevant - the days of any extra school spending are long over. My kids' school has ONE teacher's aide for the entire school, almost no speech therapy, and any funding for anything extra comes out of teacher's already-stretched pockets. Kids with severe behavioural issues get dumped in public schools because of the current difficulties in expelling them (a teacher I know has a boy in his class who has a history of raping 2 classmates at another school. This in a grade five class.) If you can afford to, I strongly suggest not putting Munckin in a public school.

Mimi said...

Beck: excellent comment. Lots to consider. I'm sad about feeling like I should take Munchkin out of the public system, because I really believe in it ... I figure it will be a kind of enrichment that she'll be going to a francophone school, at least.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Your job is not to be the smartest person in a room. Your job is to be the most knowledgeable person in a room in a particular subject, and to impart that knowledge to your students.

While I agree that your experience was awful -- I was also bored, though not ostracized -- I do not agree that the school system has an obligation to teach smart kids more than they're teaching other kids. What makes me bitter in your story is that you got to build a radio receiver. You know, you don't have to be gifted to build a radio receiver. You just have to be taught how to do it. I can think of a lot of kids (hello! me over here!) who would have learned certain scientific principles a lot better & more quickly by building a radio than by being lectured at.

Finally: I disagree with Beck on public schools. My son is in a public elementary school and it is fantastic. They let all the kids build radios (figuratively speaking).

Beck said...

Jennifer, I'm glad that your kids are in a good public school. I'm talking specifically about public schools in Ontario, which are suffering from SEVERE budget cuts to almost all services for children. I am a fan of public school education, but the teachers I know in Ontario are despairing over the state of the system right now.

Mimi, my brother-the-teacher says that French immersion is gifted education by default, since only gifted kids can do well in it.

Mamalooper said...

I was in a gifted program the first three years and then switched schools to one where there was no such program. Never accelerated grades but my older sister did and it was difficult socially.

I was the kid who went from reading Dick & Jane directly to Arthur Hailey's Airport. And like you, never really had to study til calculus in grade 12. Also was a smartass in grade 8 because I was bored.

Grade 1 I was moved to sit beside the teacher for talking too much - I was happy because she was more interesting to talk to than some of my classmates.

I remember thinking as each year ended that "next year it'll be more interesting".

So my point is? I do agree with you - smarts isn't only a "circus trick" for others to marvel at. Treating a gifted kid almost like a trained seal without having gifted programs is just as egregious as ignoring someone with a learning challenge.

Mimi said...

Jen P: "Your job is not to be the smartest person in a room. Your job is to be the most knowledgeable person in a room in a particular subject, and to impart that knowledge to your students."

Ouch, but good point. I was just trying to find a way to stop feeling like a loser for being smart. I expressed myself a little arrogantly there, perhaps.

As for what I want from education: I was trying to make the point not that gifted kids get MORE education, but rather that they get the kinds of intervention other beyond-the-bell-curve students get.

Mimi said...

Mamalooper: yeah, I was the one always wanting to hang out with the teacher. That didn't much help me fit in. I totally forgot that til you wrote it!

Cloud said...

Hmmm. I was tracked "gifted" starting in 4th grade. I had a far better experience than you did. We "gifted" kids went to a special class one day a week. We were pulled from all the schools in an area and went to a class taught at one of the elementary schools. It was really good. Once we got into junior high school, we were placed in different English and Social Studies classes than the others, and had to test into the appropriate math class. Then in high school, the Advanced Placement classes started.

Despite all of this, college came as an extreme shock to me, and I almost transferred out of my fancy college because I was so overwhelmed by how behind I was- the kids from the really good prep schools already knew so much, and I was struggling and didn't know how to study. Thankfully, I figured out how to study and stuck it out, and ended up doing well.

When I look back on my schooling, I am actually glad my parents left me in the mediocre public schools despite the pains it caused both at the time (I certainly wasn't one of the cool kids) and when I got to college. I learned a lot of things that I'll call "life skills" for lack of a better word. Things like: smart isn't always all you need to be; you have to do all the assignments to succeed, even the ones that you think are "too easy"; not everyone has the same advantages and that can make a big difference in life; everyone has something to contribute and it is not always the "smart kids" who have the most to contribute in a given situation.

Some lessons I learned quickly, some took time to sink in. Some I only really appreciated looking back. They have all served me very, very well in life, though- better than many of the academic lessons I later struggled so hard to catch up on. Now, in the corporate world, it is not so important whether I can solve the Particle in the Box problem, but it sure helps to have learned how to work with people of all different abilities.

I am the mother to a toddler who is already causing people to say "she's so smart!" Time will tell if she's "gifted". Of course, I worry for her and wish I could protect her from the bad parts of my experience. However, Hubby (who had a similar schooling experience, in a different country) and I both want to send her to our local public schools, and we didn't even pick our neighborhood based on "school quality". I'm open to changing the plan if I think my daughter is at risk, but I want her to have the same chance I had, to learn to make her way in a mixed society that is similar to what she'll face when she leaves school.

I also think that schools should spend a little money on gifted programs. They need to keep the gifted kids. For one thing, these kids are, for a variety of reasons, disproportionately from wealthier families that are more likely to have the time and confidence to advocate for the public schools. Of course, not all gifted kids come from advantaged families, so keeping the gifted programs in the schools also gives society a chance to recognize and grow those kids whose families don't have the resources to provide much extra enrichment at home. Also, gifted kids will be part of that mixed society that all kids are going to graduate into. For some reason I can't figure out how to articulate, it seems important to me that our public schools mirror our society. Separate is rarely equal.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Sorry Mimi. I didn't mean to be harsh. This post touched a nerve with me & I think I probably need therapy to find out why.

At my son's school -- which is the only one I'm familiar with -- they have a really interesting way of tiering the kids so that no one feels either stupid or too smart. The kids have a primary teacher which is determined by some unknown method (unknown to me), but for reading (and I think math but I'm not sure) they're split according to ability. Four first grades are combined and split. So my son has Mrs. J for his main teacher but for reading he has Mrs. P -- with some of the kids from Mrs. J's class and some from the other first grade classes. And THEN within the reading class the kids are sorted again into amall groups. My son really can't measure himself against the others because he only works with the 4 kids in his group. --- In his main class, which is a hodgepodge of ability, there are kids reading below grade level and kids who are reading chapter books, but it's not called out or even mentioned much, so the kids don't think about it.

Kyla said...

We are pondering this now, actually. BubTar is in an excellent private school that is just about killing us financially, that plus changes they are making in the administration and the siren song of having both children on one campus has us contemplating putting him in public. However, he has already completed most of what they learn in the second grade (he is a first grader this year), so we are worried about putting him in a school where he won't be challenged. They have a dedicated gifted/high achiever classroom in each grade level, so we are hoping that will keep him challenged. We have a meeting with the teacher next week to get a feel for things.

I was gifted and I loved the dedicated GT class in 3rd fourth it turned into a pull out program which I didn't get as much out of. I loved being in a class where all my peers were smart like me!

Omaha Mama said...

Wow. I guess my opinion's not so strong on this one.
When we moved from a bigger town to a smaller town in third grade, they handled me being ahead of my class by making me work ahead in the math chapters. There were three of us who had to do that. So while others got to get instruction and drills and went up to work problems on the board...we sat in our seats, confused, and trying to work ahead. Needless to say, math never was my favorite in school after that and it did not further my knowledge on the subject.
I've said to my husband more than once that I hope are kids are average in school. I don't mean it rudely, I just think kids in the big part of the bell curve have an easy time with school. Outliers struggle on both ends. I want my kids to be eager students, well-behaved, cheerful, and bright. Asking too much? Probably. It is what it is.
I think Smarty Pants professors are so cool and have often daydreamed about living out my golden years of teaching on a campus somewhere. I heart college. Only problem being I have zero desire to write publishable work.
This is about as random a string of comments as I can string together right now.
Maybe I'll go have a beverage and come back with a drunken rant later. :-)
In closing (FINALLY! you say), I'm sad that the education you received couldn't give you what you needed as a student. If only you had grown up in the time of the internets, you could've had an angry teenage blog about it. I would've come and given you lots of angsty teenage feedback.

naomicatgirl said...

Interesting topic, and interesting comments!

I was identified gifted in school. I actually went to a gifted preschool (and, apparently had to take a test on a computer! In 1974!), and read quite early, certainly by 3.

I actually WAS skipped - was in grade 1 until winter break, and then moved ahead to grade 2. Let me tell you what THAT does to a kids self esteem!

I was finally put in a dedicated gifted program when I was in high school (grade 10). It was a wonderful experience. I really did get a private school education in a public school setting. But there was still a fair share of problems, there really are no perfect solutions.

As an educator, I do agree with the commenter who says that french immersion is a good substitute. Any sort of "special program" will certainly challenge students. In Toronto, at least, there are some alternative programs that also cater to students who are different.

That being said, I have 2 boys, older one who clearly is smart, and the other who I suspect is gifted. I have opted to send the older one to private school (SK next year!) to see how it goes - he's younge and a bit immature, so hopefully the environment will help bring out his natural abilities, and help us ascertain where he is at ability wise!

Mandy said...

I was in a private school, switching to the public school in grade 7 where I did "gifted" education -- I was pulled out of class once a cycle to do enrichment activities. The "classroom" was a converted broom closet I think. The whole thing was a bit of a joke. By grade 8 funding was obviously gone.

That being said, I think that there is a lot of confusion over the definition of gifted... or at least, how it is defined at any given time. I think that, in general, students who are good at the school/education/academic system are labelled as gifted. Are they? For example, lots of gifted students in school programs have (near) photographic memory. This skill helps them excel in a system (often) obsessed with the regurgitation of facts (or spelling lists, or dictées).

So, a lot of people in academia are very good at the skills of academia. Does that make them gifted? Perhaps. I don't know. Depends on what you think gifted means I guess. Is a person who goes into law because s/he's excellent at twisting words and creating passionate oratory gifted? Perhaps.

And, as a former high school teacher, can I say that it's really hard to reach those students outside the bell curve, whether in front or behind. Hard and heartbreaking. There are many things that are broken about our education system. I hope your daughter does well too, in her happiness, growth and comfort.

Bea said...

Ah, yes, grade thirteen calculus. I got a mere 94% in it, and it still rankles.

The gifted program at my school started after I left, but my best friend's younger sister was in it, and I always considered it to be kind of silly. That was probably because there was always one other person in my class who could give me a run for my money (my BFF to this day), and since we were very competitive we kept each other on our toes and saved each other from social isolation.

A definition of "gifted" I heard a long time ago is that it refers to students who are failing in the regular system. They're getting D's and F's, but it's because of their exceptionally high intelligence, nor low ability or learning difficulties. Students like that absolutely require intervention, but it's never seemed obvious to me that the students who are performing at the top of the curve require added resources that students in the middle don't get.

kittenpie said...

-Right now a lot of the gifted programmes in larger boards, at least, are actually gifted bahaviourals, places to put the mostly boys who are so bored as to be really disruptive. This isn't a place I'd want my kid, and the socials on that are way worse than the situation a kid like you would find in a regular class, I think.

- I do think that french does pick up some of the slack, just being an extra challenge, but schools with it sometimes complain that it streams the kids into gifted or not, and sucks resources away from the english classes. Demand in our school here is so great that not everyone gets in, which sort of prevents that problem to some degree, at least.

- Most gifted kids do, as someone said above, have family situations where they could get some enrichment opportunities, which certainly helps, but I think also working with the school to help find a teacher that is best suited to her and who could give you some guidance or work with you to come up with some projects for her would be a great solution. A teacher who is experienced but not burnt out will likely be able to scale some work up a notch or two for her, keeping her on curriculum with the others, but adding some more meat to keep her challenged, as well as maybe some other things she could work on in class that were not as obviously apart as knitting a sweater. (What is that enriching? Manual dexterity?)

- Teachers can also use kids to help out with extra things in the school, reading with lower kids, learning about the care of a class pet and take more responsibility for it, learning how to do something related to school performances such as lights/sound or doing background art, so that they can contribute to school events, which can make that kid feel pretty good, too, and make them special without making them into a weirdo who is apart from school, instead having them contribute more to the school community.

Just a few ideas about that. As to the whole background of giftedness, my position is that as long as the child is not bored to where they will be disruptive or cease to view school as fun and learning as interesting, regular school is fine. The fact is that once you've gotten into university, no one cares what school programme you were in or what your marks were or how old you were when you started to read. So as long as Pumpkinpie keeps being interested and we can keep her a touch challenged, hopefully enough that she can't just coast and not develop any study skillz, I will consider her education a good foundation, because I really do think that's much of the point of those first 14 years.

Assertagirl said...

I could have written some of your post! Although I never knitted in school, I did the testing stuff, too, and I was fortunate enough in the public school I went to until grade three, to have an enrichment group to attend with kids of all ages where we did cool learning stuff. Spelling dictations? Pfft. LOVED them. I still love spelling (I'm an editor, for crying out loud). And, like you, calculus was the hardest thing I ever did in high school, except I'm pretty sure I received the second LOWEST grade in the class. :)

Mamalooper said...

"The fact is that once you've gotten into university, no one cares what school programme you were in or what your marks were or how old you were when you started to read."

Amen Kittenpie! I want the girl to be happy with strong emotional intelligence/social skills as well as be grounded in the academics too. There's so much pressure/competition to drill them at such an early age. And I think a lot of kids go along with it to please their parents...

Mad said...

Oy. I've not been commenting on this b/c I will end up sounding like that clichéd version of my grouchy internet persona: that is, to be all grr, grr, urban/rural split; have vs have-not...

The thing about any kind of comprehensive public system is that it by must flatten out the edges in order to serve the majority adequately. Is this situation ideal? Hell no. Is it avoidable? I don't think so.

Where I live, the province has a population about the size of the city of Edmonton and with that tax base, it must run three separate school systems: French, English and Immersion. The latter isn't even offered in most rural areas and the former isn't available to anyone who isn't already French. Our test scores are the worst in the nation. There are no longer school librarians and very, very few school libraries. There is no choice in education whatsoever.

I want my daughter to get the most from her educational experience but I know that there are parts of the system that are so broken, so very, very broken that only an optimist can believe in making things better. My inner socialist wants fixing for those things first.

And hell, private school isn't even an option for us b/c of where we live.

It is extremely tough to realize that when we give our children to society we almost inevitably compromise their potential.

Eva Robertson said...

Hey Mimi,

Came over here b/c I read your comment on Her Bad Mother and agreed!

I would suggest you take it as it comes. I have a gifted child and he's at the head of his class here at public K'garten in a small town in Virginia -- he's sometimes challenged, sometimes not so much, but I feel strongly that a lot of the important and lasting education comes from home. Stay really involved in Munchkin's schooling -- be a vocal, concerned parent, and make sure your kid gets the personalized attention she needs. And offer opportunities for enrichment at home. I should think you'll do fine.

Of course, if you have the money, you can do whatever you like in the education arena, but don't be any less vigilant about what is going on at school. I happen to think (judging from schools in my area) that a lot of private schools don't really have more to offer educationally -- they just attract folks in a higher socioeconomic bracket, so it makes parents feel more comfortable.

I went to public elementary school in St. Catherines, Ont., and skipped grade 3. Then I was put back again when I went to the National Ballet School in TO in grade 6. I was always academically ahead of my peers, but I don't think I lost anything by being ahead of the class. I had teachers and parents who responded to, and fostered, my curiosity, and that was the most important thing. It sounds like you'll do that for your kid, even if it wasn't done for you.

I really think school is, more than anything, an important place to learn broad life lessons -- how to function in groups, negotiate difficult relationships, and, in essence, excel despite an always potentially inhospitable environment. If your kid is smart, she's going to be fine wherever she's put (assuming she doesn't have or develop emotional handicaps).

ewe are here said...

Ugh. I tested as gifted when I was about 6 or 7 (the state testers came for a visit and did the testing; I actually remember it). My parents were more annoyed than anything, because they got a "Congratulations. Your daughter is gifted. And by the way, we don't offer any gifted programs in your school district." Fun fun fun. By the end of first grade, I was reading circles around everyone in my class and was 13 math work books ahead of the next student. I was bored silly. And the teachers basically said "That's it; there's nothing more we can afford to do." I was one of the lucky ones, though. My parents could afford to move me to private school the following year.

I agree that schools don't do enough for the truly gifted students (which term, btw, contrary to the belief of many parents, really only applies to roughly 5% of children). Most school resources appear to go to the lowest common denominator, and lots of the 'extra' funding that comes in gets thrown at in massive amounts at children with developmental needs, whether it will do much good or not. Such policies leave a lot of really bright but frustrated children just sitting there with nothing but busy work to do. Sad.

Mimi said...

All of my friends were gifted except me. While I was struggling through Algebra I they were taking geometry with the kids a year ahead of us. While there seems to be no shortage of programs where I grew up (a university town) for kids who were smart in math and science, the reader/writer types like me got left behind.

I spent most of my junior and high school life feeling stupid because I found math and science subjects really hard. I didn't feel smart until I went to college and studied what I was GOOD at for once.

hoppytoddle said...

The post turned more into what happened to me, what we're doing with MiniMe, but it's here:

Lisa b said...

I';m very late to this mimi and there are many things I could say but I will say this:
the most annoying people I know went to a gifted highschool, think they are really smart and can't be bothered to hold down jobs.
but of course I am struggling with what to do with my own bright girl. you never want to sell them short.