Posted by Tricia Ebner on Tuesday, 07/05/2016
It was one of those experiences that really should and could be common in education; instead, it’s rare. In fact, it’s the only time in my 25-year career where someone asked me this.
My program coordinator asked me, “If you could change anything or add anything to our programming for gifted, what would it be? The principal is asking if there are any changes we’d like to make because he’s open to ideas.” The question took me off guard. Our services for gifted children crossed two subjects: I taught reading and writing classes to our sixth graders, writing classes to our seventh and eighth graders, and I worked with small clusters of students in sixth and seventh grade math. In the grand scheme of gifted child education, it was a pretty good setup and seemed to be working. Why change things up?
Still, the open-ended nature of the question got me thinking, and I began reflecting on my students and their strengths and needs. What if . . . I could do something more to stretch those students of mine who seemed to crave even more challenge than I was providing? What if . . . we found a way to get those kids into the same space, regardless of grade level, so they could collaborate, challenge, and grow together? What if . . . we could accelerate their learning somehow? I’ve always had dreams about the ideal classroom, curriculum, and class. To have the opportunity to actually voice it because we might actually make a change was empowering. I went back to my coordinator and principal and shared one of those “what if” ideas that sometimes pops into the brain at odd times: What if we offered a looped course, where the curriculum and content is on a two-year loop, and our seventh and eighth grade gifted children most in need of challenge could participate in this course and get one high school English credit?
The idea interested my coordinator and principal. Both asked me for some more information about how it would look. They asked me to verify the curriculum I was proposing would address our state’s language arts standards, to make sure we weren’t going to create gaps for these students. I worked on the analysis while my principal asked the guidance department to look at the master schedule to see if we could make it happen. It took a surprisingly short period of time for the answer to come back: yes, this course could happen next year. I had to ensure at least a couple of “non-negotiables” were still part of our work, such as teaching A Christmas Carol at some point; it is an expectation that every student in eighth grade has read and studied this. My principal and assistant principal asked me to generate the criteria for entry into the course, so we were crystal clear on requirements and could easily address any parent questions or concerns. I shared the thought process and plans with the language arts department chair. My coordinator and I set about reading and purchasing the materials the students needed for the course. When I came across texts that raised some concerns for our particular community, I discussed them with the building administrators. Our library media specialist helped me track down harder-to-find books and resources. Colleagues in seventh and eighth grade language arts offered support and encouragement.
In the span of about four months, we had gone from dream to plan. A year later, the students in this new class artfully presented their advertising campaigns for the Pied Piper Extermination Company, a performance task tied in with our study of persuasion. Building and district administrators came to serve on our “Apprentice” panel and decide which of the teams’ ads were best and which team would be “fired.” At the beginning of the second year, I silently cheered as the new-to-the-course seventh graders stepped into the room, fired up to show the wizened, experienced eighth graders that they, too, could read, write, speak, and think at the high levels expected in the course. During those first two years, the class didn’t just challenge itself to stretch, learn, and grow. They formed a community that genuinely cared about each individual as a person as well as a learner. That sense of security encouraged academic risk-taking, a willingness to stretch beyond what one might normally do in a middle school language arts course. At the end of the second year, one of the seventh graders in the class submitted his major 1940s impact research paper, a study of how the U.S. impacted the economies of those countries we supported after conflict, ranging from West Germany and Japan to Iraq. It was a twenty-page paper; my principal read through a portion of it and said, “This is the kind of work people do for their master’s degrees.” The kinds of thinking, writing, and speaking my students were engaged in as a result of our studies amazed me. It was growth and insight beyond anything we had envisioned.
What if we hadn’t pursued this dream? What if my principal had never asked my coordinator and me to consider our vision or dream for our gifted students? What if the team had written off the changes to the master schedule as too difficult? Sometimes in education it’s easy to push the dreams to the side. The day-to-day work is challenging enough by itself. But we need to dream, and dream big. How might learning improve for our students if we pursue those dreams? What kind of world will schools and education be then? Don’t wait to be asked. Share those ideas and dreams with colleagues and administration. Our students are counting on us.