Gifted Child Today
This article by Kathryn Kearney features interviews with two families homeschooling extremely gifted children. The article explores the families' reasons for making this choice. The discussion also covers day-to-day practices and strategies employed by the families.
When the yellow school buses roll by in the early morning hours of a typical school day, Tom Kane, age 13, of rural Farmington, Maine is not aboard. Halfway across the state, in Maine's second-largest metropolitan area, Linda Johnson*, age 8, is not aboard the school bus either. Tom and Linda share two things in common--they are both exceptionally gifted children, and they are both taught at home by their parents, joining a burgeoning homeschooling movement in the United States.
The homeschooling phenomenon certainly is not a new one. No less a gifted inventor than Thomas Edison was taught at home by his mother, after she removed him from school when his teacher said he was "addled." And though we tend to think of our large consolidated school districts as the norm, we must remember that it was not too many years ago--less than fifty, in fact--when most children lived, worked, grew up, and were schooled within the context of a close-knit home and community, where often only a few families provided the population for a one- or two-room schoolhouse.
Educational critic John Holt has been the most outspoken contemporary supporter of home education, sponsoring a bi-monthly newsletter entitled Growing Without Schooling. The newsletter is composed mainly of shared problems, successes, and information from homeschooling families worldwide. Why would a man who has spent the better part of his professional life challenging educators to improve the schools find himself at the forefront of the home education movement? Holt explains it this way, in his 1981 book, Teach Your Own:
While the question "Can the schools be reformed?" kept turning up "No" for an answer, I found myself asking a much deeper question. Were schools, however organized, however run, necessary at all? Were they the best place for learning? Were they even a good place? Except for people learning a few specialized skills, I began to doubt that they were. Most of what I knew, I had not learned in school, or in any other such school like "learning environments" or "learning experiences" as meetings, workshops, and seminars. I suspected this was true of most people.
His comments, however jarring, have deep implications for those of us charged with the responsibility of teaching gifted children. And they are perhaps not so very different from some of the curricular modifications suggested by voices within the field of gifted and talented education.
The enthusiasm and excitement that the scholars displayed when talking about the methods they used for investigating a topic led me to the realization that an ideal model for the education of gifted students should be the "turned on professional" or "first hand inquirer" in any and all areas of study…I feel one of the easiest ways that we can escalate the level of the gifted person's learning environment is to escalate the ways in which he or she goes about selectively retrieving, managing, and using various types of information in the process of first-hand discovery and creativity. (Renzulli, 1977)
The definition of education as something that happens only in the confines of certain buildings and that is provided by certain fulltime paid staff of the public school system has inhibited many possibly useful efforts for the gifted. (Gallagher, 1964, 1975)
Why would parents choose to educate a child, especially a gifted child, at home? For both the Johnsons and the Kanes, the decision came only after trying the public school situation.
Both Tom and Linda found their intellectual abilities so far beyond that of the normal age-in-grade placement that they experienced a great deal of frustration. An attempt to circumvent Linda's boredom resulted in two grade skips; it was simply not enough. Tom's family was advised against acceleration even though first-grade testing placed Tom's reading ability at college level and mathematics skills beyond the fifth grade. Tom's first-grade experience became intolerable, with the teacher forcing him to arrive at correct answers in math by counting toothpicks and insisting he place his finger under each word as he read. He began stuttering, and often came home from school crying and upset. Tom says he cried "because the teacher told me I was behind, and too low even for the low group. I had heard about special classes for retarded children, and about mental institutions, and I didn't want to go to one, so I just kept quiet in school and didn't give any answers at all." After the third grade, Tom attended a small alternative school for two years, and then his parents decided to try teaching him at home.
Both families designed an extensive, individualized curriculum for their children, taking into account special abilities and interests. Linda's formal reading program at age six included the seven books of the Chronicles of Narnia; at age seven she studied Charles Dickens' Great Expectations and Thornton Wilder's Our Town. In addition, books the family read aloud together have included The Hobbit, Pilgrim's Progress, C.S. Lewis' space trilogy, and classic literature. Linda also studies Latin and biology. She completed the equivalent of third and fourth grades at home last year, and at age eight is now enrolled in the fifth grade curriculum in the Calvert School home study program.
During the first nine weeks of Tom's homeschooling experience, he completed algebra I and trigonometry. He is anxious to complete his mathematics program through calculus as quickly as possible; a major interest is astrophysics, and Tom has original problems designed which require advanced mathematics. He has already completed an extensive study of Shakespeare, and finished eighth out of 700 entrants in a national playwriting contest for young people. He has a number of ongoing research projects, receives special tutoring in science and computers at a local college, and studies French and Latin. He is active in the Children's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and has had a letter published by Time magazine.
What has it been like to try to educate two such extraordinary children at home? Why did their parents choose this option, out of all the choices they might have made? An interview with Linda and her parents. Sally and Roger Johnson, and with Tom and his mother, Jean Kane, lends some insight.
Interviewer: Why did you choose homeschooling instead of working with the public school classroom or a private school?
Sally: Roger and I feel we're the ones primarily responsible to educate our kids--they have to be with you if you're going to train them. They are developing as individuals, and we need to give them the base they need when they need it.
Roger: Pragmatically, it was a matter of public school not working out. Linda was experiencing a lot of frustration. Private school was out because of the cost.
Jean: We tried both public and private school. We took Tom out of the private school because we wanted to provide more time for independent study in subjects the other children weren't interested in, and more time for his original and creative projects, such as writing short stories and building his own radio telescope. We found the private school to be excellent for group activities, but concluded that learning is essentially a private undertaking.
Sally: Some people have felt that I'm "wasting time" on these two kids. But I chose and planned to do it. It's my job right now, and my primary concern and responsibility.
Roger: As things have progressed, some stronger philosophical objections to the way we educate children in this country have begun to assert themselves. For instance, our society seems to believe, in practice anyway, that learning is something kids have to be forced to do, and that only certain people can educate other people. We also, as a society, seem to feel that the state has the right to decide who shall teach, and how and what shall be taught. The matter of control is critical. Who has the final say? The state, the school, the superintendent, or the parent?
Jean: My husband and I both wish we'd taken Tom out much sooner.
Interviewer: Probably the major concern people have about educating children at home is the issue of socialization. Aren't homeschooled children missing out on the interaction with other children that school provides?
Roger: That view of socialization implies that up until the institution of compulsory education no one was properly socialized. Homeschooling allows our children to cope with society in general, not just their own peers in a controlled environment. It's real-life socialization rather than an institutionalized program.
Tom: I do not miss school socialization at all. I go to the private school one day a week, and on their trips, and attend more days if I want. I go to the spa to swim, and meet with friends and we plan visits back and forth.
Linda: There's not much time in public school to socialize anyway.
Sally: I asked the school officials what they meant by socialization, as there was very little interaction between children within the classroom. Our kids now are out in the world--we don't shelter them in the house, and they interact with many different age groups. It provides a more realistic picture of what life is about, and it is a community based program and part of our curriculum. Linda attends ballet class, Pioneer Girls, and a biology class. She's been in a 4-H Club and was trained to be a library aide at the public library where she met many children after school. We also have neighborhood friends and people of all ages at our house a lot. How many times are adults exposed to large groups of people all the same age, in the same room and building for seven to eight hours a day? Almost never.
Interviewer: What is a typical home-schooling day like?
Tom: First we have breakfast, then get prepared until 9 AM. We usually have math first, and then I watch an American History course on television from the college in Orono, and we discuss it. The rest of the morning we work on French, and on English grammar and punctuation. I'm most interested in astronomy--my best subject--and professors at the local university help with biology, geology, and computers.
Sally: Right now, we're using the Calvert School home study curriculum, but Linda completes it very rapidly, so we actually have a combination of a structured and non-structured program. Our structured time usually takes about three weeks to complete and we use the following schedule:
Math - ½ hour to 45 minutes
History - 1 hour
Language Arts - until lunch
Family eats lunch together
Science, Latin, and social studies - 1 ½ hours
Children come to play after school, and this is also a time for creative projects, chess, and dramatics
After supper - informal work on projects, reading, and piano
Then we have two weeks of unstructured time when all the stops are pulled out! Linda usually jumps out of bed at 7:30 AM, wildly enthusiastic. We make a contract for an independent project--she can do anything. She's done projects such as memorizing the words and music to Fiddler on the Roof; a project about Holland; art history; and a family history project where she traced our genealogy. She's generally up until midnight, and the energy level is very intense. She can also read for hours, and spends a lot of time playing--I feel it's very important for her to play.
Roger: My involvement is more structured and restricted because of my work. I usually teach math after breakfast and history on alternate days.
Interviewer: How do you incorporate major theories of gifted education into your program?
Sally: I don't, not consciously at least. I'm not sure if there's any such thing as "gifted education" per se. I see there's a lot of nifty gifty things on the market that are nothing but glorified dittos. We're interested in giving our kids a classical education, and in teaching them how to think. Bloom, Taylor, and Guilford can be helpful, but parents need not have a background in this to teach gifted and talented kids at home. You know them better than anyone else. Trust your basic instinct, and read widely.
Jean: I don't use the theories consciously either. At first, I just asked Tom, "What would we like to do?" He chose physics and writing plays. He also completed algebra I and trigonometry in nine weeks.
Tom: I've been reading John Holt. I would say we do use some of Holt's techniques.
Interviewer: Did your religion, values, or personal beliefs influence your decision to teach your children at home?
Roger: Not initially. Pragmatically, public school was not working out. Later, I became aware of the value differences. The question is ultimately, "Who is responsible for the education of my children?" For me it is a part of my Christian commitment but it wouldn't necessarily be that for other people. Practically, though, Linda didn't fit into regular schooling and this has been so much more satisfactory.
Interviewer: Through the homeschooling experience, have you developed a philosophy of education?
Jean: I don't recall ever in my whole lifetime learning things like this before. In teaching Tom, we've learned. I now have a genuine interest in learning such things as history and physics--not just in passing a course but in actually learning. Your whole day is bright. It is an experience that is entirely new to me.
Sally: I agree with John Holt, that kids are natural born learners.
Roger: Children are able to do more than they are ordinarily given credit for. Yet there is a need for structure and discipline that may not always be easy for a child. For us that area is math.
Sally: Hands-on learning is important.
Roger: Education is not some kind of mystical thing that only a certain priesthood can work on, but some thing we're all involved in all the time. Sometimes we need to discipline it, organize it, or think through it.
Interviewer: What have been the hardest things about teaching your children at home?
Sally and Roger: Keeping up with Linda!
Roger: Finding a system or structure that seemed right without bringing the traditional classroom back into the home, and setting realistic expectations. It's difficult not to blur the distinctions between Linda's intellectual age and her emotional maturity.
Tom: For awhile, people who did not agree with homeschooling made things difficult for us. Society isn't geared for homeschooling and sometimes seems to resent it.
Sally: The responsibility weighs heavily upon us both. And it's sometimes hard to find encouragement when you've done something so radically different.
Interviewer: What are the best things about homeschooling?
Linda: I can work on real things.
Sally: Linda is now learning in a way that really fits her. And learning doesn't have to stop when the bell rings.
Roger: It's been enriching for us as a family. Our family ties have been strengthened. We know and enjoy each other.
Sally: There's no sibling rivalry. Linda and Cathy are best friends, and live and learn together. There are no threats to their relationship because they are not in competition for our attention.
Jean: We enjoy Tom's being home. And I wouldn't be studying any of this without Tom. Our family ties are closer.
Tom: In home school, I have what I call "freedom of politics." I can look into all angles of a problem. I also have what I call "freedom from fallacies"--I don't have to accept a wrong answer just because it's in a textbook and the teacher wants that answer on a test.
Interviewer: Do you have any recommendations for other families who might want to teach their gifted children at home?
Jean: Go ahead! And when you find out what they really like to do, do that most of all. Let them lead you instead of you leading them.
Sally: Make sure you are really able to give the commitment. It's a commitment to be totally responsible for your children. Husband and wife need to be in complete agreement, and it's something one person cannot do alone. Find a support group of other parents, and find someone who can give you an objective viewpoint from time to time.
Interviewer: What has the experience of teaching your own children meant to you?
Jean: Homeschooling establishes a bond that's extremely strong. It is almost like the bonding that takes place when a child is born at home. When both of you realize truth at the same time it is almost a physical bond--a closeness you'd never have otherwise.
Sally and Roger: It's the best thing we've ever done.
Gallagher, J.J. Teaching the gifted child. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1975, 1964, p.278.
Holt, J. Teach your own. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1981, p. 8-9.
Renzuili, J.S. The enrichment triad model: A guide for developing defensible programs for the gifted and talented. Mansfield Center, Conn.: Creative Learning Press, Inc., 1977, P. 9, 11.