Today I gave my students an assignment. It was a rather loose assignment having to do with putting their hopes and dreams on paper, and they froze.
I saw this last year and knew what the problem was: These students are in a self-contained gifted classroom for the first time and they don’t trust that they can be themselves.
One of the things I hated about being in a general ed class was that I had to spell everything out. Do this, and then that, and then the other, and when you’re done… I know that the majority of my gen ed students needed that hand holding, but it was mind-numbingly boring, and soul crushing. I just wanted to say, “Show me you know X in any way of your choosing and we’ll be good to go.”
I stopped my new crop of third graders and looked at their panicked faces. “Look,” I said, “I know that you have learned how to be students. Most of you have learned that you have to do what the teachers say. You might even have thought, ‘I wish I could do this my way, but if I do, I’ll get in trouble and the teacher will call my mom and then my parents will be upset, so I guess I’ll just do it her way…” Some of the students looked at me in surprise and nodded. “I am not the kind of teacher who says you have to do things one way. I am being strict on three things: have three to five goals, write your name, make the shape you cut out appropriate. But otherwise, you can do what you want. This is not a trick. I promise.”
It was like the class exhaled all at once, and then my kids went nuts and I got to see some creativity. The whole room buzzed with energy and I walked around the room, watching the kids cut out construction paper, watching them write down their hopes and dreams on shapes of their choosing.
“Ms S! I drew a brain!” one student said, pointing to a pink blob with a spinal cord poking out of it.
“What’s this?” I asked another, pointing to a red torpedo.
“A ketchup squeeze bottle.”
I smiled, “Why?”
“I really like ketchup.”
“Me, too,” I said, “But I hate raw tomatoes.”
Another student drew a very detailed lab complete with carrots, baking soda, and vinegar. He wants to do lots of science experiments.
I wandered around the room, smiling. I love teaching the gifted class. The special education teachers at my school? They have a gift I don’t have—patience. One teacher in our school is amazing at building classroom relationships and self-esteem. That is not my gift. The reading specialists are able to get struggling readers to read, but I want to work with students who are past the learning to read stage, and into the reading to learn stage.
I don’t have the talents those teachers have. But I am good at teaching gifted kids. I gel with them, and I am easy-going enough to let them do their thing, but strict enough to keep guiding them as they figure out what they want to do. I’m also weird, just like they are.
“Ms,” one student said, “Are we going to have lots of assignments where we get to decide what to do?”
“Yes. I am weird. I am a weird teacher. It will take you time to get used to me. I know that, and it’s OK, but really, this is not a trick.”
“Nooooooo! You’re not weird!” one student said.
I knew the class was listening. I put my hands on my hips. “I don’t own a television and I keep a box of worms as pets in my kitchen. I am weird.”
“OK, maybe a little,” the student conceded.