What makes gifted kids tick?

I had a bunch of my former students over for lunch the other day.   They’re familiar with my house.  As soon as they arrived, they ran outside to jump on my neighbor’s trampoline.   Kids—15 and younger—being kids.  But when they came in for lunch, they morphed into junior Einsteins.  “I think I’ll go for a PhD in Cultural Anthropology,” one remarked.  Another was thinking about Biophysics.   Still another wanted to study Elizabethan History.

What a mix!  Sometimes a teacher is dealing with young intellectuals.  Next thing he knows, students are downright silly.  There’s a place for all of that behavior in school.  I call it the Work Hard/Play Hard syndrome.

What motivates students to work hard?  What’s part of an engaging curriculum?  Gifted expert Sally Walker identified the following elements years ago at the Gifted Institute and they still hold true:

Novelty—Think about it.  People are drawn to something new or facts that shed new light on an issue.  When I’m teaching a unit and I want to give students novel material, I might think about what global connections can be made.  So, if second graders are studying U.S. presidents, why not have a gifted second grade student study a president in a different nation.  Francois Hollande? Bashar al-Assad?  Gifted and talented students would jump at the chance to enter and understand a new world!  Years ago, when one of my students studied Nelson Mandela, he became aware of apartheid.  As a second grader, he was shocked to see that “segregation” had also happened on the other side of the world.

Complexity—Easy is BORING.  Complexity sparks critical thinking.  Choose a meaty topic.  Something that’s interdisciplinary.  That way students can problem solve, extend their thinking, and make connections.   Perhaps your class is studying the Bill of Rights in Social Studies.  What are some of the concepts?  The First Amendment talks about separation between Church and State.  If that’s the case, why do we say the Pledge of Allegiance?  Try to extend student thinking by having them focus on multiple perspectives.  What do different religious groups think about students saying the Pledge of Allegiance?  Do students in other countries say a pledge?  Why? Why not?   How can we resolve any inconsistencies between the Pledge of Allegiance and the First Amendment?

Depth—A topic must have enough breadth so that students can analyze issues.  Remember Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.”  It was filled with literary allusions, including references to the Bible, the Emancipation Proclamation, George Wallace and Malcolm X.  It was also filled with metaphors (and other literary devices) such as “the lonely island of poverty.”  Students could analyze this speech for weeks. In fact, the speech and its surrounding history are so deep that they could be the springboard for additional research.

Acceleration—Pacing is critical.  If a student knows the material, give him new challenges.  Streamline objectives, but make sure students understand the new objectives.  If your school opposes acceleration, then delve wider and deeper into the curriculum.  But don’t have a child do extra work or read in class until his peers master the material.  He’s entitled to go to school and be challenged every day!

Now for the Play Hard…it can still be related to schoolwork.   After my students completed an in depth unit on climate change, they wrote and sang songs, such as this one:

Hey Dudes

Don’t be afraid

Take a bad Earth

And make it better!

(Name that tune….)

And if your creative juices aren’t flowing, throw a party.  Celebrate learning.  Times like these will reinvigorate your students.  They can let let loose and act their age!





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  • Nice redo of Hey Jude. I identify with what you have written here, though most (though not all given our early entrant program) of the students at Shimer College are a tad older. Yes, they are amazing.

    Susan Henking
    Shimer College

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