Living the Dream
Yesterday I was enjoying my time with my class when I had a teacher panic moment. Right now, teachers are under a microscope with laser-like focus on teacher-accountability/teacher-quality/data-driven lessons and curriculum manufactured to drive student learning as measured by higher performance on high-stakes exams. It was the last ten minutes of the hour and my principal came in with some new equipment (yay!) for my classroom. Honestly, I was happy because the gifted classroom is usually not at the top of the purchasing list - but I digress. Anyway, the panic hit me when he left the room. To someone who does not know what goes on in a gifted classroom, particularly MY gifted classroom, it may have looked like, well...recess - free time - social hour - you get the idea.
I immediately began thinking of reasons why my class looked the way it did - after all, they weren't all silently reading at their tables. They weren't all silently tapping away on keyboards doing research. I was not at the forefront of the classroom at my lectern lecturing on critical thinking in forensic science. There was a lot going on - I mean a lot!
We had just finished listening to a thirty-minute career and research presentation on Aerospace Engineering from a student who barely spoke ten sentences together all year long - and it was AMAZING! Who knew he had so much to say? He even had an interview with a NASA aerospace engineer as one of his sources!
We were also loud - thank goodness I don't have classrooms on either side of me because there always seems to be heated and passionate discussions or raucous laughter going on. I do, on occasion, get the SRO, whose office is above my classroom, to come down and get onto my students about their volume - sorry Deputy Neupert!
But as I go back to the snapshot in my memory of what was going on at the moment when my principal walked in, it became clear to me that my dream was coming true. True, he may have seen students scattered across the four corners of my classroom - two students on the floor under a table, a group of students gathered at a table on laptops and iPads using a backchannel to communicate and laugh, students digging through and playing with Legos, another coloring a picture, and a group of students gathered around my desk laughing while I was sitting with my feet up on my desk. Damning evidence? Nope. Not in my classroom.
What I saw was two gifted students who alone, isolate themselves from others in school because of their abstract views on life and everything adolescent, yet they found each other in my classroom and were under the table privately talking, socializing, and building a relationship. The group of students using technology to communicate are known in their challenge classes as the quiet and reserved ones, yet are extremely hard to stifle in my classroom. Ideas, creativity, and laughter come from their table on a daily basis. They look forward to gathering in my class and collaborating about the daily topic.
My student coloring at a table was coloring a logo he designed himself and was putting the finishing touches on it for his research presentation on college football vs. the NFL for next week. I saw my students using Legos to build a robot and problem solve a programming glitch that kept it from propelling a ball at the speed they desired and were running some trials, and the students gathered around my desk? They were telling me about how hard it was that I was their third - yes, third - gifted education teacher in one year, and it was this time last year when they were told they would be getting a new teacher (me). They needed reassurance in knowing I would be there for them. They were telling me of their "trust issues" and how some teachers didn't understand them. They listened to me prattle on about how I live with my idiosyncrasies and were relieved and amused because many of them have similar eccentricities and mannerisms. They know I can relate and help.
No, my classroom is not recess or free-time for the gifted students, nor do I stand at the front of the room commanding attention. It is a delicate blend of harmony, dysfunctional opportunities, teachable moments, and student-led learning. All in all, it is the beginning of the ultimate vision I have for my students; a place where they feel safe to be themselves until they are comfortable to own it outside my classroom doors. A place where they enjoy learning and the learning does not look like what goes on in a traditional classroom A place where I facilitate the process of learning, not dictate the content to be learned.
Yes, the regular education teacher of fourteen years in me panicked, but I realize through reflection and deep breaths that my students are doing just fine - and so am I.
It is now fourth quarter here, and my teacher mind starts to think, brainstorm, and plan for next year. What great units can I create? How can I challenge my already-gifted students? Since my middle school gifted-education class (it is called SPECTRA in my district) is merely an elective (insert sarcasm here), I talk to my students about how they would like their SPECTRA class to look in the upcoming year. Many tell me to omit the seriously crazy and in-depth independent research project - sorry kids, not going to happen. Others tell me they need more puzzles and projects that let them work and create with their hands and not use sooooooo much technology - that, I can adapt into my units as a student choice, though the technology isn't going anywhere. Some want more time to work in teams and others want to do more work themselves. I run the entire spectrum of gifted personalities in my classes, and I am sure to meet many more amazing personalities in the coming years!
What really got under my skin this week, and hurt my sensitive feelings, was when one of my students was talking about next year and said, "You know Mrs. Wittmus, your class is really just a blow-off class. That's why I take it." I guess I must have looked shocked and hurt (and I was definitely feeling those things), because he quickly backtracked and said he liked me as a teacher because I am super-nice, and he liked my class because it was fun and really easy - therefore, a "Blow-Off" class. He was just being honest, ya know.
His words felt like a slap across the face - I have spent so much time and energy painfully choreographing every unit, every lesson, every goal and objective to not only align with NAGC standards, but to provide challenges to a population of students who don't regularly see challenge in their general education classes. I painstakingly designed my assignments and projects to give my gifted students what they needed - a learning experience, dammit!!!
Now, I am an internalizer and I mull over daily details and conversations that don't sit right with me - sometimes wondering what I could have done differently. I replay them over and over in my head and try to find solutions to give me peace - and maybe a good night's sleep. As I processed our conversation and his words, I began to reflect - because in the fourth quarter of the school year (or at any time, for that matter), you can't plan for the next year unless you reflect on what you have already done.
Reflecting on my first year as the gifted education specialist at my middle school, I had to reflect less on the big picture of the year as a whole this time, and clearly play and focus on the highlight reel of this particular student's journey in my class.
He came to me as a quiet student who liked to fly below the radar. He didn't seek attention for himself - just wanted to be left alone so he could play games on his phone. Some of his teachers were surprised he was gifted and came to me for verification of this fact - to which I whole-heartedly assured them he was and to not to let him fool them! Anything I asked of him, he'd shrug his shoulders and say, "I don't know," hoping to get out of answering questions or even making eye contact with me.. However, thinking through the passing months, I have seen him race others to my class to be the first one there and jump into whatever project he was working on at the time, help and mentor younger gifted students in his class (I have split 7th/8th & 6th/7th grade classes - SIGH - I know, but that is for another blog post). When he earns a great grade, he is loud and shows everyone, "BOOM! In your face!" - we are also working on humility and graciousness. This student may underachieve, but turned in crazy great work on projects where he got to choose the topic and he comes to me for clarification and guidance on many of the projects we do.
More than anything, he is one of the wittiest and silliest students I have - giving me great joy and laughter on a daily basis.
Now, I am not touting that he has done a "one-eighty" or has "come full-circle" or that I am some sort of teacher extraordinaire - I am so very, very far from that! We still have days where I have to sit with him almost the full period to keep him from disengaging. There are still assignments that are returned to him to be redone because he just did the bare minimum and wanted to get it over with. I will not accept less than his best - and he is learning that.. He still tests his limits with me and my expectations of him, but we do have such a good time together! As I plan for next year, he is one student I am especially looking forward to working with even more.
My class is a "Blow-Off" class? If all blow-off classes can make gifted kids think, try, ask questions, get frustrated, open up, and excited to be there, then yes. My SPECTRA class definitely IS a "Blow-Off" class and all gifted students should take it.
I am a former gifted child/student and currently a gifted adult and Gifted Education Specialist in the best middle school in the world!