Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What does "Gifted" mean?

This blog is the epicenter of my writing at the moment. It is where my non-fiction lives and breathes. I have a poetry blog, and I just launched an interior design blog, which will mostly be pictures. This blog, in essence, is my literal take on the world. That does mean, unfortunately, when my life is stunted, my writing will be as well. I have spent close to two months thinking about and researching this topic, not to mention the other topics that will follow. This particular topic has been the bane of my existence since the age of four, and it will continue to plague me until I just get it out of my head.

Before I get to the nitty-gritty, I want to address some personal issues I have with this topic. I have been asking myself for years: What does "Gifted" mean? When I was in Kindergarten, which is usually when a person's IQ and abilities are first tested, I went to a parochial school in a tiny suburb of Northern Philadelphia. The district had little funding, and suffice it to say, little resources to do such tests. Our district was over-looked. Shortly after my third year, my father would receive a raise from the pharmaceutical company he worked for, and my family would move further Northwest. My family moved to a more suburbanite district, one with lots of funding, programs, and progressive thinking.

Not entirely progressive, however. When my family moved to this district, I was, at most, a year younger than all of my classmates. At age four (almost five), I was accepted into my last school's first grade program with no problem. This school, however, insisted that I "test-in" . Surely I wasn't "mentally-equipped" enough to handle the third grade, despite papers showing that I had successfully completed first, and second. I remember these tests vividly. I was tested on reading comprehension mostly. I spent hours reading snippets of text, dissecting them, and then answering probing questions. (Lord knows why I became an English major.) Assuming only the worst for a would-be third grader, I panicked. Then I began the questioning. From your reading did Susan: a)walk her dog, b)wash her dog c)feed her dog, or d)name her dog? Needless to say, I passed. Because of my elevated understanding of "reading comp" I was a seven year old in the third grade. (My eighth birthday would be in October). Even having proved my "intellectual prowess", my life would continue to be difficult. The difficulty started in the second grade, unfortunately. I had been pulling straight A's in every subject, but my "GPA" was lacking.

As I mentioned previously I attended a parochial school, and so, the emphasis was not on math and the sciences. The emphasis was on personal disciplines such as: Handwriting. I had awful handwriting, which was extremely "unlady-like" for a cute little chipmunk face like me. Even at an early age, and with the threat of the ruler, I had a sense of humor about it. I used to tell my teachers that I would one day become a successful doctor, and that poor handwriting was something I noted was true of most successful doctors. They were not amused. I consistently received C's and bruised knuckles. In fact it is a wonder I can write or type at all. After my transfer to a more "enlightened" district, and attending public school, I was no longer bothered with such things. Though I do remember being sent to the principal for "criticizing a fellow student's hand-writing". Some things just can not be helped.

This new district was obviously consumed with such things as IQ and ability. As a "prodigy" who squeaked herself into a higher grade than average, you would think I fit right in. Not so. Despite my "intelligence" I was often "placed" into classes in which there was no distinction. And I was totally fine with that. The teachers didn't carry rulers, and with the lack of writing we did the callous on my middle finger was beginning to whither away. Being a whopping 3'8" I was completely unaware of anything except social survival. I was small. Most of my peers played sports, and were often a foot taller than I. I was the new kid. The tiny, new kid. The tiny, new GIRL, with a big mouth. I didn't think I was a genius, but I did the math. I decided my best bet was to clam up and keep my head down. But it didn't last long.

A couple years passed, and my social distinction became one of a "trouble-maker". In the third grade I had a notebook sent home with me everyday, regaling in red ink how I managed to get myself in trouble that day. "Today, Amy asked to borrow a PENCIL from me during an IMPORTANT lesson. I was appalled. I spoke with Amy about how she ought to be more prepared, as to not be consistently DISRUPTIVE. She agreed, but I decided she should stay in from recess as a precautionary measure." I missed recess a lot. Well I missed it, and missed it. I mean I missed it, because I missed it. OK, you get the point. I hadn't missed recess since Kindergarten, when one of my "teachers" kept me in to show me the "correct" way to draw a star. I drew mine bottom to top and she drew hers top to bottom. I wanted to agree to disagree, but it was easier to just relearn how.

Now this is where it gets sticky for me. Was I over-looked for gifted testing in those few years because everyone was already tested? Was I over-looked because I was a trouble-maker? Was I simply not given the test because I was already biting off more than I could chew as an eight year old in the fourth grade? I remember the day I realized that almost everyone I knew had the gifted distinction. I was sitting in class looking at the clock, as most people often do, when almost half of the class got up and left the room. I asked my teacher where everyone went. She responded, excitedly, "Oh, the Resource Room, they're in the Gifted Program" Morbidly curious as ever, I asked the life-ending question: What does "Gifted" mean?

According to the Gifted distinction is based solely on IQ. I have, however, read other sources that say it is not. breaks it down as follows:

High IQ:

Mildly Gifted -- 115 to 129

Moderately Gifted -- 130 to 144

Highly Gifted -- 145 to 159

Exceptionally Gifted -- 160 to 179

Profoundly Gifted -- 180

"These ranges are based on a standard bell curve. Most people fall in the range between 85 and 115, with 100 the absolute norm. This range is considered normal."

Granted, I had no idea HOW gifted my classmates were, in fact, I'm not quite sure how "exceptionally" gifted any of them could be if there were so many. I know now that my IQ was not as low as ..."normal" or "100", but I didn't know that as a fifth grader, and unfortunately I would not find out.

The only question I remember my counselor asking me was: "Who was Thomas Edison?", I told him that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. He asked me to "give him more"
I froze up, having not been an expert on Edison and I couldn't, and I failed the oral portion of the "Gifted" test. Thus, sentencing myself to a life of normalcy. I would continue on through school, doing moderately well academically. I had little encouragement to do much else. I was in the Youth Author's program in the fifth grade and took a special Physics class in sixth, but I believe these were just incentive programs. I was in Marching Band, and various choirs, I did community theater, and was in dance troupes. I was highly motivated to learn, but the term gifted was never used to describe my motivation.

School-Based Definitions
Schools may use a definition of gifted based on relative ability. Students are identified by how well they perform compared to other students in the school. Students in the top 5 or 10 (or some other number) percent are those singled out as needing a curriculum more challenging than the regular curriculum. Gifted in this definition is relative because a student who is identified as gifted in one school may not be identified as gifted in another school, leaving parents confused.

I would continue, until my senior year of high school, to be in programs, and classes with gifted peers. Some excelled far beyond what I felt I was capable of, others I felt like I was (at a year younger) neck and neck with. I shared similar tastes, personality traits, and interests with my Gifted peers. I ached to be in their "special" programs, and do their "special projects". I was bored with worksheets, and memorization, and multiple choice. I wanted to write essays, and paint, and draw, and express myself in World Affairs club, Art club, and Music club. I did all of these things, but my efforts were completely over-looked.

Here are some qualities supposedly unique to Gifted children:

Cognitive Traits

Very Observant
Extremely Curious
Intense interests
Excellent memory
Long attention span
Excellent reasoning skills
Well-developed powers of abstraction, conceptualization, and synthesis
Quickly and easily sees relationships in ideas, objects, or facts
Fluent and flexible thinking
Elaborate and original thinking
Excellent problem solving skills
Learns quickly and with less practice and repetition
Unusual and/or vivid imagination

Social and Emotional Traits (see “Supersensitivities” in Gifted Children)

Interested in philosophical and social issues
Very sensitive, emotionally and even physically
Concerned about fairness and injustice
Well-Developed Sense of Humor
Usually intrinsically motivated
Relates well to parents, teachers and other adults

Language Traits (See Language Development in Gifted Children)

Extensive Vocabulary
May Read Early
Reads Rapidly and Widely
Asks questions

Additional Traits

Enjoys learning new things
Enjoys intellectual activity
Displays intellectual playfulness
Prefers books and magazines meant for older children
Skeptical, critical, and evaluative

In this economy, one would believe that a higher IQ, and creative ability, would be paramount in an individual's job search. To deny a person of their true potential at an early age can be staggering. These teachers took the futures of children into their own hands, by difficult to determine distinctions. Because of this travesty, I like to be viewed as an individual, and not label myself. Looking back, I realize that the Gifted program had a sort of club-mentality, and that it was no longer what it once claimed to be. It was simply a distinction of an individual's intelligence. What is it now? Intelligence is relative, and it shows up in unique ways. Not everyone with a high IQ can play the violin. Not everyone is a brilliant pianist. Not everyone who is gifted can play chess. That does not make them less intelligent.

Excerpt from a letter to the Chesterfield Observer:

I am writing in response to your Jan. 6 article, “Chesterfield NAACP sees disparities in gifted education,” and Ms. St. Pierre’s response [letters to the editor, Feb. 3] to it. I am a former Chesterfield County teacher who happens to have served on gifted selection teams. I am also a parent of four former Chesterfield County students who had various experiences with the gifted or advanced designations. I can assure you that NAACP Education Chairman Arthur Almore is most certainly correct (in fact we have talked about this in years past) that African-American, Latino and low-income students in general are being left out of Chesterfield school gifted education programs. In fact, in one case I learned of, a Latino child was being left out of the regular education programs and being tracked into an ESL (English as a second language) program when she didn’t need it (I suspect to fill needed slots to keep ESL people and programs on the payroll). The Latino child’s mistake was divulging that she spoke Spanish.

First of all, minority children are missing the gifted and advanced programs because of the lack of knowledge of these programs. My husband and I considered ourselves to be pretty supportive of our children’s education. We belonged to the PTSA and always attended Back-to-School Night and conferences. Nevertheless, we didn’t know selections had been made for advanced classes for math until my non-minority neighbor asked me why my very bright son was not in the class with her child in third grade. Had I been a working mom at the time and not at the bus stop, I probably wouldn’t have found out then. Information about these classes needs to be widely publicized and not kept secret.

Ms. St. Pierre asks, “Since when did educators have to replace the parents’ responsibilities?” As a teacher, I more than sympathize with teachers that have enough on their plates. I don’t think Mr. Almore is suggesting that teachers replace parents. That would be impossible. However, it is the duty of administrators in a public, tax-supported school system to develop programs that support the education of all students in the system. Just as administrators and teachers are required by law to support the needs of students that they suspect to be undernourished or abused, or students that come with a mental or physical disability, they need to also be concerned and involved in the best placement of all students, whether or not those students’ parents are astute enough to look out for their children’s best interests. That actually works to the school system’s benefit. When more of the students who are capable of doing advanced work, in fact, get to do it, improved ratings and test scores are the result. These are welcome rewards for superintendents and principals.

Many of the parents whose children are missing out on advanced and gifted placement are not low income. They just are not aware. If people were more aware of the possibilities, they could better plan to prepare their children for the necessary screening tests. I know of one Asian child whose parents were prepping her for the governor’s school admission test starting in the sixth grade. Also, many parents do not know that when your child is not rated as an honors or gifted honors student, you don’t have to accept the teachers’ assessment. As far as I know, you still have the option to say, “I don’t agree.” Your child can be given a “provisional placement.” If your child makes the grade, they can stay. If they don’t, they’ll be placed back in a lower track. These are all things I had to learn by trial and error. So, does that mean that the children of the parents who are too busy working to find out this stuff just lose out? It should not be that way.

Ms. St. Pierre says, “…we need to look more at the children who will undoubtedly be left behind, instead of the statistics of what races are in the gifted program or not. Whether a student gets included in a gifted program or not may actually determine whether they get bored with school and ultimately drop out (or get left behind). It can also determine whether they are in a classroom with a lot of students who are not motivated to learn and disruptive, which may cause their interest and achievement to wane. Whether or not a child gets into an advanced or gifted class can determine what specialized resources the teacher has at their disposal and whether the child gets a leg up in preparation for and admission to college. Most importantly, gifted education is about letting each child be the best that they can be. Gifted education or tracking in general, to me, was not about the label. It was about my children receiving the best placement for their abilities and to learn at a pace they are comfortable with. All children may not be gifted in every subject, but they may be gifted in one...”

One final note. Many of the most highly intelligent and successful people in the world were once considered much less than gifted. Some were considered stupid.
Even Mr. Thomas Edison.

...In his early years, teachers told Edison he was "too stupid to learn anything." Work was no better, as he was fired from his first two jobs for not being productive enough. Even as an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. Of course, all those unsuccessful attempts finally resulted in the design that worked.


  1. According to those "Gifted" traits, I should have been in the gifted program from kindergarten on up. I know I was overlooked as well because I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was five.

    I would like to see an overhaul of these supposed gifted programs. An overhaul of the whole educational system, actually. There are far too many students who "slip through the cracks" than should be, in my opinion. It's very sad.

  2. Would you like to contribute! Viva La Revolucion~

  3. Interesting! In Australia, back in my day, there were no such 'gifted' programs. I believe I was considered highly intelligent, as I got in the top rank of marks in most subjects (glaring exception: maths!). Those cognitive traits fit.

    I'm also a creative person, as you are, and a lateral thinker, as I expect you are. I'm sorry you didn't get the opportunities others did, when you clearly deserved them. But there may have been a downside too. 'I like to be viewed as an individual,' you say, and 'Intelligence ... shows up in unique ways'. Yes. Personally one of my greatest dreads has always been conformity and the pressure to conform. Perhaps the 'club mentality' would not have served you.

  4. how insightful you are Rosemary.


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