Tamara Fisher is a K-12 gifted education specialist for a school district located on an Indian reservation in northwestern Montana and President of the Montana Association of Gifted and Talented Education. With Karen Isaacson, she is also co-author of Intelligent Life in the Classroom: Smart Kids and Their Teachers. Her hobbies include drawing, hiking, fourwheeling, and building houses. (She lives in a house she built herself.)
In the September 2007 issue of “Parenting for High Potential,” the National Association for Gifted Children published its newly created “Gifted Children’s Bill of Rights” written by NAGC President Del Siegle. Those of us who attended the NAGC convention in Minneapolis a couple weeks ago were also treated to a free poster of the list, printed by Prufrock Press. I shared the list with my 7th & 8th graders this week and I want to share it with all of you as well. Included beneath each item are some of my thoughts on it along with comments that my students had about each one.
1. You have a right to know about your giftedness. Gifted children typically instinctively know that there’s something “different” about themselves, but they sometimes can’t quite put a finger on just what it is. Learning about anything that affects oneself is always a powerful and enlightening process. Knowing that you are gifted is no different. One of my boys commented yesterday what a help it was to him when he was identified for the program because he said he then finally had a lens through which to explore his quirks and talents. Giftedness often comes with a host of trials, challenges, blessings, and paradoxes, and being able to frame them with some insight and knowledge makes for a healthier human. These kids ARE different, and we do them a disservice if we deny them the opportunity to develop an understanding of just how and why they are different.
2. You have a right to learn something new every day.
“Yes!” was the resounding response from my students. Too often, gifted kids are placed into learning situations where the content and/or pace are nowhere near their readiness levels. They view the resulting environment as drudgery. Some will go through the motions. Others rebel (in various ways). As I’ve said here many times, school should be about LEARNING. When a child isn’t learning because the content is too complex or the pace is too fast, we make accommodations and do everything we can to assure that the child still has an opportunity to learn at his or her own readiness level. But if the content is not complex enough or if the pace is not fast enough, we conversely expect the child to put on the brakes and re-hash old material or learn new material at a pace that feels to them like crawling. This dichotomy needs to be abolished! A gifted child has just as much right to learn as any other child does. It may be (perceived as) inconvenient to reach them where they are, but it’s still unethical to not do so.
3. You have a right to be passionate about your talent area without apologies.
Gifted children are so passionate about their talents and interest areas! They eat, breathe, drink, dream, and live what they love. Yet those around them (parents, age-peers, teachers) don’t always understand how a child can want to spend a sunny day indoors reading about bacterial conjugation, or why it matters what the difference is between mauve and lavender. But to a gifted child who holds those passions, it is a big deal. Mom & Dad and Teacher don’t have to share an interest in the topic. They just need to be understanding of the fact that the child loves it so much. Telling them they’re “too into it” or “only keen on weird topics” or “too excited about that new book” only succeeds in shutting them down. Our world doesn’t need to be shutting these kids down. Because our world has a place for people who get excited about bacterial conjugation or the minute differences between colors. We need them. Let them be.
4. You have a right to have an identity beyond your talent area. “He’s the Math geek.” “She’s the science genius.” “He’s the one who published a book at age 14.” “She’s the one who skipped two grades.” It’s an easy trap to fall into, really – pigeonholing gifted kids by their talents or accomplishments. But they are so much more than what they’re good at or what they’ve done well. Just like everyone else, they are human in all its glory: complex, emotional, diverse, and precious for just being. To distill them down to a single talent or accomplishment is to ignore the rest of who they are, is to disparage their humanness, is to overlook their weaknesses and other strengths, is to forget that they are still just a child who is still developing an identity. Help them come to know ALL of who they are by seeing them for who they are instead of seeing them for what they can do.
5. You have a right to feel good about your accomplishments. What a delicate balance these children are attempting to achieve: being humble about their abilities and accomplishments while also being proud of what they can do and what they have done. If they swing too much to the humble side, they may lose sight of their talent or miss the opportunities that may come along to pursue it. If they swing too much to the pride side, they may exhibit such cockiness that they forget other people have talents, too, or that even they have weaknesses. If they consistently downplay their talents and accomplishments, they are denying themselves one of Life’s joys: basking in the glory of success. Yet if they bask in too much glory, they risk alienating those around them. The students in my class said that they feel like they have to qualify every success they have or every compliment they receive with a “well, but…” As in: “well, but I screwed up on the last page,” or “well, but it doesn’t fit together right,” or “well, but I didn’t understand how to answer the third question.” Humility is important. Very important. But let’s not deny these kids that great feeling they get inside when they accomplish something. After all, it is pursuit of that great feeling (a satisfied curiosity, for example) that gets them rolling in the first place. If we shut down their right to access that feeling, we shut down their desire to pursue what they are capable of achieving. 6. You have a right to make mistakes. Ah, yes, those perfect little gifted children who score 100%’s on everything. At least, that’s what the kids perceive we think of them. And the comments teachers, parents, and age-peers make often only contribute to this perception. One of my girls gave a great example. She is a county Spelling Bee winner and she said that every time she spells a word incorrectly, she gets comments from people like “What do you mean you don’t know how to spell that word? Aren’t you the Spelling Bee champ?” The kids who have been accelerated in Math said that other kids seem to expect them to just magically know everything there is to know about Math. Yet these kids know they aren’t perfect. They know mistakes are a part of the learning process. They know that mucking around in a topic to truly learn it means accepting the mistakes that come along with the process. But the message they often pick up on from others is an expectation of perfection. For kids who often struggle with perfectionism to begin with, this can be a bad combination! We can help them have a healthier outlook by sending different messages. We can publicly own up to our own mistakes. We can accept that they will make mistakes, too. It is possible to maintain high expectations for learning goals while eliminating the expectation of perfection.
7. You have a right to seek guidance in the development of your talent.
Because these kids learn so well on their own, especially in the early years, they can grow accustomed to not needing someone else to help get them to where they’re going. Some even develop the belief that they should always be able to do it all on their own. Yet Olympic athletes don’t achieve their high level of performance without coaching. They seek out the best who can assist them in becoming the best. We can help our gifted children apply this same philosophy to themselves. Where do they want to go? Who can help them learn what they need to learn in order to get there? A mentoring relationship can be a life-transforming event, one that brings about the scaling of heights not otherwise reached. Anyone throughout history who has accomplished anything noteworthy had guidance at some point along the way. We need to help make it okay for these kids to raise a hand and ask for guidance.
8. You have a right to have multiple peer groups and a variety of friends.
Gifted children choose friends by common interests, not by common birth-years. This served me well in high school when I didn’t want to hang out with my age-peers, many of whom were, shall we say, involved in things I didn’t want to be involved in. So as a freshman, most of my friends were juniors and seniors. And as a senior, most of my friends were freshmen and sophomores. I was all of 20 when I met my friend Blanche (may she rest in peace), sixty years my senior. But it didn’t matter. She collected quotations just like I do. She researched topics on the side simply because they interested her. We connected by our common interests. My neighbor and dear friend Tracy is in her mid-eighties. Tracy was a Rosie the Riveter during WWII. Her job was to climb inside the ammunition canisters and weld the inside seams. She was also a pilot. She and her husband had a small plane and she used to take solo sunrise flights while her husband and kids slept in. Tracy has as many tools in her garage as I do in mine – and she knows how to use them, too. Even in this modern day, some people find it odd that I, a woman, can use so many tools. Imagine what it means to me, then, to have a friend like Tracy – someone who was like me in that way long before I was even around.
9. You have a right to choose which of your talent areas you wish to pursue.
The term “multipotentiality” is often applied to the gifted. They typically have many talents, many areas in which they excel. But that places them under no obligation to pursue each and every one of those talents to its fullest extent. I have talents I am not pursuing. At some point, I had to come to the realization that I would do myself in if I tried to pursue everything at once. Then I would only succeed in not doing any of them very well at all. So I made choices. Right now, these are the talents I am pursuing. Those others – maybe I’ll get to them at some point in the future, maybe I won’t. But either way, it’s my choice which ones I pursue and when. A child may have all the ability in the world to become a Nobel-Prize-winning research scientist, but if she chooses instead to pursue her talents in Law and vie for a seat on the Supreme Court, that is her prerogative! Mom & Dad may want Johnny to become a doctor because he always did well in his science classes, but Johnny may want instead to become a 3rd grade teacher and share his passion for science with hundreds of kids. Both options may be reasonable, but it is the individual’s choice which to pursue.
10. You have a right to not be gifted at everything.
“You mean you don’t know how to dance? Gee, I thought you were good at everything.” In a way, it almost snowballs for these kids. They excel at learning how to read, then they realize they excel at learning Math, learning science, running, playing an instrument, drawing, designing, filling leadership roles, and on and on. Pretty soon, they expect themselves to be able to do everything well (or at least someone around them expects that). What a heavy weight to carry! Cut them a break. Help them to understand that we all have our limitations. And that’s okay!