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Elementary gifted ed made easy

Two weeks ago I explored the possibility that high schools could challenge all students, gifted or otherwise, without having gifted programs. Quaker Valley High School outside of Pittsburgh, for instance, seemed able to create new opportunities for a variety of kids by ignoring standard procedures that had outlived their usefulness, such as homework requirements or rules against taking more than one course in the same period.

One wise reader said, in effect: Yeah, but that will never work in elementary schools.

As if by fate, I received an email shortly after from Susan Ohanian, a delightful teacher, speaker, author and blogger whose work I love, even when she is portraying me as a test-addled idiot. We may disagree on policy issues, but we have shared tastes about what good teaching looks and sounds like. In her email, she described how she brought a free-form gifted non-program to an elementary school in Troy, N.Y.

Here is what she said. Don't forget to take a look at her blog at susanohanian.org.

By Susan Ohanian

Eons ago, I persuaded my principal, who was starting a new school that had a state mandate and funds to be innovative, to do away with remedial reading (I was the remedial reading teacher). We called my room Resource and I announced I was an adjunct of the media center.

I'd recently become a disciple of philosopher of science David Hawkins, and we bought all the Elementary Science Study units. In those days the ESS teacher guide was minimalist. It did not tell a teacher what to do, but emphasized what Hawkins called "messing around in science." The teacher observed children closely and followed their lead. Years later, when the Education Development Center redid the guides into ugly little prescriptive manuals, I phoned to protest. I was transferred and transferred until finally someone listened to my anguish about the deformation of Hawkins' idea. She said, "Oh, you're one of those."

Indeed.

I was more prescriptive than Hawkins, setting up an underlying structure for the investigations. There were lots of topics, each with certain experiments a kid had to do sometime during his investigations, but 'messing around' remained the key. No time constraints. I remember the first-grader who took two days to make the exciting discovery that 32 bottle caps on one side of a balance equaled 32 bottle caps on the other side. He tested and retested this theory until finally he was convinced. And then he wrote up the result: 32 = 32.

Mind you, I was still the remedial reading teacher--but we kept this secret from the kids. Teachers had a list of students who had to come to the room x times a week to fulfill our obligation to the state. For everyone else (K-6), it was student initiated: A child came when he could persuade his teacher to let him. There was no schedule and there were no bells. If the room got too crowded, as in 35+, I put a sign on the door: "Come back later." Engineering students from a local university volunteered as on-site helpers, as did two neighborhood moms.

Over time, I found that the kids released from regular class most often were the really bright and those with great difficulties. And they worked well together.

One 2nd-grader was truly the most gifted kid I've ever encountered and he just about lived in Resource. I could go on and on abut his projects, most self-initiated. I did have one worry, and so at one point I asked my physicist husband to come in and work with him. "My goal," I said, "is for Darryl to sit on the floor and wrinkle his pants, maybe even get dirty." They made slide rules, played with a wind up train, figuring out load, velocity, and god-knows-what. On his own, Darryl made cottage cheese, wrote a letter from Queen Isabella to Columbus and investigated Fibonacci numbers. He also directed a play fifth-graders wanted to stage.

In the spring, state Education Department officials came to see why the reading scores for the identified remedial readers soared. As expected, they were mystified. Building bridges, making musical instruments, discovering the law of gravity in Remedial Reading? (One day my principal came into the room sputtering, "You mean to tell me that this heavy box and this ball fall at the same rate?" A student team dropping objects in the stairwell had been explaining their experiment to him.)

Working class parents were enthusiastic. They asked me to bring the movie their kids talked about so much (and could explain) about the collapse of the Tacoma bridge (a movie I'd borrowed from the Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute physics department) to the PTA meeting. They also wanted experiments they could try...because their kids just went on and on so much about this stuff.

I'm not trying to say what a good teacher am I. I'm just trying to say "yes" to your point about flexibility being the key. Different kids have different needs, and providing choices allows all children to soar at different things.

Not surprisingly, in the beginning, making a choice was very difficult for children who were used to being told what to do every minute of the day. Once kids made a choice, they were required to complete x number of projects before moving on to another topic. But because all the projects were going on at the same time, a kid doing "sound" experiments would join in for a while with a kid doing "structures," and so on.

A fifth grade girl doing a "sound" experiment by having countless classmates shout into a hole cut in an oats container that had rice sitting on tissue paper stretched across the top figured out the mystery confounding kids working on Structures--why the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapsed. She did not qualify as gifted, just a regular kid doing an experiment over and over and over (she carried that oats container around the neighborhood getting people to shout into it) until a lightbulb went off when she saw the movie of a buckling bridge.

I would add that my physicist husband, appalled to find out he was married to someone who had never taken calculus, gave me a big ugly calculus book the first Christmas we were married. The second Christmas, I gave him a notebook with all the answers to the problems.

I came across that notebook a while back. It might as well have been Greek. I could grind out the answers but didn't have a clue--then or now. But I think doing calculus for love is a far better reason than we give kids these days.

Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

Follow all the Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page, http://washingtonpost.com/education.

By Jay Mathews  | January 22, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  David Hawkins, Susan Ohanian, elementary school gifted education, free-form gifted ed, gifted education  
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Comments

I LOVED this entry today Jay. What wonderful anecdotal experience from a gal who really loves her job and kids and cares about finding real solutions for learning. Think what our schools could do if they weren't spending all their time on SOL test prep like we do in Fairfax County! Thank you for sharing Susan's story and insight!

Posted by: abcxyz2 | January 22, 2010 6:57 AM | Report abuse

This entry affirms my decision to keep my children in a Montessori school at least during their elementary years. Our public elementary - due to NCLB (but should be NSLB - no school left behind) - tossed flexibility out the window to meet contrived testing standards.

Posted by: slackermom | January 22, 2010 8:16 AM | Report abuse

I have a child who needs a classroom like this. In fact, all children need a classroom like this.

Posted by: thosewilsongirls | January 22, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse

This concept of 'gifted for all' has been around since the 80's when Levin created the Accelerated Schools model. Essentially, those students who have been systemically shut-out of gifted programs, e.g., minority, low-income, and those with disabilities, are provided with the same rigorous curriculum as their more affluent, White/Asian peers.

Here's the problem: Gifted programs have been very 'selective' in terms of who gets in. Each state suggests that districts use more culturally sensitive assessments, but the ultimate decision lies with the district. Gifted programs serve roughly 10% of a district's population. In our community, nearly 60% of those in the Gifted Program are White, while African Americans and Latinos account for almost 60% of the Special Education population.

Bottom line: If districts start using a model similar to Levin's, a few things could happen:

1. Marginalized students could actually start performing as well as affluent, White students;

2. Parents and policy makers would (and should) start asking why this wasn't done years ago, meaning district officials would have some serious explaning to do, and;

3. This would prove, once and for all, that people cannot blame the achievement gap on one's race or ecocnomic status. The full responsibility for equitable education would, again, rest with district officials.

I would venture to say that no one is ready to admit to systemic tracking of minority students, even though anyone with half a brain knows that it is alive and well in our K-12 schools.

Posted by: EducationCEO | January 22, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

This is a wonderful anecdote, but I think that the main thing it may tell us about children improving their reading has to do with getting them more enthusiastic about school rather than the success of any particular instructional method or about flexibility per se. I'd sure love Ohanian to connect the dots a little more for us.

Posted by: jane100000 | January 22, 2010 8:53 AM | Report abuse

Yes. Yes yes yes yes yes.

People really think this kind of flexible approach would NOT work for elementary school. ??? Seriously? Kids are designed to learn by playing, not by being treated like little automatons expected to sit still and study all the time. This is fundamentally the Montessori approach -- which is why I kept my girl in Montessori until that school switched to the "drill and kill" approach. I would be thrilled to have her in a class like this, instead of in her current G&T program, which works on the theory that G&T = more of the same, just faster.

Posted by: laura33 | January 22, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

Jay: How about using your Washington connections to arrange for Ohanian and a few of her like-minded friends to have a one-hour meeting with Duncan, the non-educator in charge of education? He'd learn a lot.

And in two-hours, he'd learn twice as much. He needs to.

Posted by: pondoora | January 22, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

And it should be mentioned that Ohanian also writes for the Huffington Post. Read her work. She knows what she's talking about.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/susan-ohanian

Posted by: pondoora | January 22, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

This concept of 'gifted for all' has been around since the 80's when Levin created the Accelerated Schools model. Essentially, those students who have been systemically shut-out of gifted programs, e.g., minority, low-income, and those with disabilities, are provided with the same rigorous curriculum as their more affluent, White/Asian peers.

Here's the problem: Gifted programs have been very 'selective' in terms of who gets in. Each state suggests that districts use more culturally sensitive assessments, but the ultimate decision lies with the district. Gifted programs serve roughly 10% of a district's population. In our community, nearly 60% of those in the Gifted Program are White, while African Americans and Latinos account for almost 60% of the Special Education population.

Bottom line: If districts start using a model similar to Levin's, a few things could happen:

1. Marginalized students could actually start performing as well as affluent, White students;

2. Parents and policy makers would (and should) start asking why this wasn't done years ago, meaning district officials would have some serious explaning to do, and;

3. This would prove, once and for all, that people cannot blame the achievement gap on one's race or ecocnomic status. The full responsibility for equitable education would, again, rest with district officials.

I would venture to say that no one is ready to admit to systemic tracking of minority students, even though anyone with half a brain knows that it is alive and well in our K-12 schools.

Posted by: EducationCEO | January 22, 2010 8:51 AM |
____________________

I vote this post the best of 2010 thus far.

I emphatically agree. IMHO, faster learners does not necessarily equate to gifted child because all children are gifts. When children are allowed same exposure levels as advanced & creative instruction environments they become excelled learners because enthusiasm in learning equates to higher absorbtion rates. While comprehensive classes focuses on "filling in bubbles" correctly for standardized test, gifted classrooms are geared toward "what creates a bubble".

Posted by: TwoSons | January 22, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

Be aware of how little support for science there is in the longstanding preference -- no make that INSISTENCE -- that reading is only about fiction (and biography and history; but because they are temporally inaccessible to readers, they may has well be fiction.)
Kids who would pore over science books have never had that reading credited toward quotas of "books read." No part of reading or language and literature instruction in most elementary school education respects writing about the natural world; few teachers ever assign it and few students ever hear their teachers exercising their own choice and reading from books of science.

So, who knows how many children don't get discovered for the gifts they may have? Their schooling never gives them the opportunity to explore and scant chance to develop them unless they arrive at school with them, or are suspected of having the gifts.

Posted by: incredulous | January 22, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

Jay,
Thanks for giving large space to an actual teacher, one of those in the trenches whose experience is authoritative.

Montessori is wonderful when done right. Too bad it's not affordable for most of us. One of my kids got two years of Montessori in Arlington Schools until we moved to Fairfax. I don't think he ever recovered from the shock of change.

Education in America has been taken away from those who do it every day by politicians, chambers of commerce and "think tanks", whether academic or topical. NCLB and Race - Top will carry on the killing of innovation by raising even further the demands of regimentaion of subjects, limiting of teaching styles and looming from above the test-scores-take-all.
Even Ohanian's own principal had trouble keeping up with her and the kids. Thanks goodness he let her run with it in the first place. I hope he is proud of the accomplishments in his school in spite of what some state officials may think about the methods.
Let more of those like Ms Ohanian continue to get space here.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | January 22, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Reading this post makes me sad because it highlights the disparity between how school should be taught and how it is currently being taught. Even here in my little corner of upper middle class Washington, DC suburbia, the public schools are so intensely focused on prepping for the standardized tests that there is little room left over to teach anything that might actually interest a student. Last year our 4th grade elementary school teacher even admitted to me that there was little room to cover any of the science subjects the 2nd half of the year because all their time was spent preparing the students for reading and math for the state tests. Too bad for the kids who are excited by science, or any other subject that may possibly interest them. Instead, they slog their way through the standardized curriculum to take standardized tests to prepare them to work in a standardized cubicle. Encouraging interest and creativity are apparently not part of the curriculum. This is especially important for young and impressionable elementary aged kids whether they are gifted or not.

Please have Ohanian and the opinions of real teachers like her, featured here more often. I am sick of reading about new ways to measure/test/standardize/rank teachers, students, and schools.

Posted by: deeno | January 22, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Susan eloquently illustrates that children CAN learn without mandates and scripted programs and that educators are quite capable of teaching without them. The experiences in her classroom created a high likelihood that students would CHOOSE to read and learn outside of the classroom. Nothing I've seen in the LEARN Act or Race to the Top will do the same for current or future U.S. students. Both of these mandates will merely propagate the pseudo-accountability of "So long as we look good on paper reality is irrelevant." The standardized tests that have become the hallmark of educational rigor and accountability focus on what is easy to measure and not necessarily what is important to learn. In turn, the curriculum continues to narrow thereby depriving public school students of the opportunity to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills. Moreover, knowing and learning are not the same thing. The knowledge that E=MC squared is not the same as understanding the equation and being able to apply it. Standardized testing by its nature is more or less limited to quickly assessing the knowledge level of learning. And the high stakes attached to them in the guise of accountability stifle the chances for the type of classroom that Susan provided for her students. From where I sit, the only Race to the Top involves corporate politicos climbing over teacher and student bodies in their own race to the top of the power and profit heap...

Posted by: PGutierrez1 | January 23, 2010 1:07 AM | Report abuse

Once again, Ohanian nails it.
I wonder if Jay Mathews or any of those who claim "scientifically based" for their predilection with standardized testing understand that there is no scientific basis for such oppression via testing. All of the reputable, independent research shows that the standardized tests are not only worthless in terms of student learning, but also dangerous and harmful to kids.
The only numbers that are useful in this debate are the ones that show how much public money is being taken by the makers of the tests and concomitant textbooks and materials.
As a parent and as a teacher, I want to know when those with power will DO THEIR HOMEWORK in order to truly know what they're talking about. A good start would be to listen to Ohanian.

Posted by: clutenbacher | January 23, 2010 7:19 AM | Report abuse

Susan, thank you for bringing excitement and enjoyment into the classroom. Today's teachers need to know that forcing the Duncan prescribed robot thinking strategy of an "explicit, systematic, direct" manuctory eduction model on their students is neither good nor sound education.

Follow Susan Ohanian's writing, read her books. Read Dr. Stepehn Krashen's research on what works.
Susan Ohanian should be given space on billboards over the land-shouting her message to all. In fact, Susan Ohanian should be secretary of education. She's done her research and she listens to teachers.

Posted by: LeeBenz | January 23, 2010 9:16 AM | Report abuse

This article highlights several of the 800lb gorillas that menace most American classrooms. The two main gorillas would be:

1) High stakes testing – too many of America’s teachers are forced to walk around on egg shells about test scores. A lot of schools are walking on the edge of a cliff when it feels like the next year’s test scores will get your school “restructured” by bringing in a management company and busting up the union. I’d encourage any interested party to read a heavy dose of the works of Gerald Bracey when it comes to the damage done to schools by high stakes testing. How are teachers supposed to confidently try the methods in this article when we all must teach in an NCLB era of education?
2) Class sizes – “In those days the ESS teacher guide was minimalist. It did not tell a teacher what to do, but emphasized what Hawkins called "messing around in science." The teacher observed children closely and followed their lead.” This quote from the article speaks directly to class sizes. How is an educator supposed to follow the lead of any one student or group of students if there are excessive numbers of students in the room? The STAR study in Tennessee should have put to bed any of the tired arguments against reducing class sizes as a valuable educational tool. Trying to teach in the ways mentioned in the article with a large class is the educational equivalent of trying to cut down a tree with a steak knife.

Posted by: Mostel26 | January 23, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Learning is expansive in nature. Testing merely waits for learning's results upon which to base its dead exams. Ohanian gets it and gets our vote for the nation's best education expert. She's the best antidote for the government's latest destructive scheme to hijack public education for its corporate thieves. Aim her 360 degrees and join in the fun that was once learning as it takes root again.

Posted by: mywizardofis | January 23, 2010 5:01 PM | Report abuse

OMG! A real teacher is allowed to speak out on how a real teaching situation should be, could be, and once upon a time, was! I grab my 70 year old retired heart and hope I keep on living!!!

What a joy to read! I loved the suggestion of putting Susan Ohanian in the same place, space, to debate Arne Duncan! What a moment that would be. Truth would eek out into time and space and Duncan would wither away.

I would give my arm, leg, and any other duplicate appendage I can spare to science to see and hear that. I honestly would.

Posted by: saraw1 | January 24, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

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