For two years now I have taught a gifted and talented (GT) fifth grade class. Prior to that I taught fourth and fifth grade classes with a significant number of second language learners and students with learning disabilities. (I should note that I still have many second language learners in my class.) Moving to the GT classroom was an interesting change.
My school started this program several years ago in order to keep our GT students from leaving to attend a center program at another school. The GT classes include students who qualify for the center program, the highest level of services, as well as students who qualify for school-based GT services and young scholars (talented students from underrepresented populations who show great potential). As a result, there is still a wide range of abilities and needs among my students.
That said, I have found that teaching this class has been eye opening for me. I believe that prior to this experience I held high expectations for my students and pushed them academically. And yet, these students have shown me how much more they are capable of doing.
In schools like mine, with lots of students living in poverty, lots of students who are learning English, lots of students who do not have much support at home, it is easy to focus on those students who are struggling and the effort to help them reach grade level expectations. It is easy to focus on the weaknesses and miss the strengths. Sadly, I think the emphasis on standardized testing has only increased this trend.
Teaching the GT class has shown me opportunities I missed with my students in the past. I have been willing to take risks with these two groups that intimidated me before. I have given them more freedom as learners and have been amazed. They have stretched themselves and pushed me as a teacher.
For years now I have been frustrated by hearing comments like, “My kids couldn’t possibly do that,” or “That’s way beyond my students.” Our students can’t do anything we don’t allow them the opportunity to try. We’ll never know how talented they might be if we continue to focus on what they can’t do.
I don’t want to suggest that we should ignore their needs. It is important that we continue to work as hard as possible to help all our students reach, and possibly exceed, grade level benchmarks. But the fact that they are performing below grade level in one or more areas shouldn’t mean that we restrict their access to higher level thinking activities, technology, collaboration, and other activities or tools we would want our own children to have.