I have spent my life working with high-ability kids and trying to get to know them. We know a great deal about their ability to learn, but what I've really tried to do is get to know them as people. To get to know what's behind their thinking; that's the affective domain.
As background, let me begin by telling you a bit about myself. I was born in a very small town in the mountains of southern Italy, where there was no mandatory education. I was in first grade, minding my own business, and I was doing really poorly. I was doing so poorly that eventually the teacher came over to me, took me home, and told my mother "This kid is unteachable." She was upset, but I was convinced he was telling her was the truth. He went on to say to my mother, who was growing more and more upset, "he is such a pain." I don't really recall what I did to hurt his feelings, but he was pretty upset with me, and he said, "We are not going to take him back in school anymore." I'm listening in the comer, happy as a clam, because I just loved the thought that I didn't have to go back to school anymore. I mean, look at all the possibilities. No school? I could become a shepherd! But there was my mother, crying, wanting me to go back to school, and I felt bad because my mother was crying, not because of the teacher's "diagnosis." Anyway, my mother brought me to America for a second opinion, and the rest is history.
As you will recall, Hank Gradillas was speaking this morning about language immersion. In the early days after I came over, (to be precise, it was the exact same year--1954--that Abe Tannenbaum got involved in gifted education) I didn't know a word of English when I started school in the United States. I can't recall when it took hold; however, I knew I had to learn the language--otherwise, kids always make you play right field! (Little kids don't ever hit the ball to right field-not even the lefties.) Anyway, I knew from the beginning that somehow education in America was going to be different--teachers took the time to work with me. I'm going to conclude this story by telling about my return visit to Italy after I got my doctorate. I went back to my town--there were still just a few hundred people there, among them was my old teacher--the one who kicked me out of school in first grade! I wanted to see him. As a child I recalled him being a very tall man, around 6'6". When we met, I was surprised that he was actually only about 4'11"! I introduced myself to him and his reaction was, "Oh, dio mio!" He hugged me, and I said, "Do you remember when you kicked me out of school?" I continued, "I'm now Doctor Colangelo." And he said, "I knew it; I just knew you could." I have a photo of him and me from that meeting. It's a photo I treasure and always will--I have my arm around him--my teacher and me.
Another aspect of this story I'd like to share with you involves understanding how important environment and second chances are. I've worked with a good many students whom I believe are very, very bright but who needed a "second chance in life." When they've gotten that second chance, some of them have really grown and developed. I may not have the world's most precise definition of education, but I believe that it is not necessarily about learning or even the accumulation of knowledge. I believe that education is about getting a second chance in life.
I enjoy talking to academically talented kids. I'm not sure if they understand me, but once in a while I understand them. I know one young man (he just turned 15), who still stays in touch with me by e-mail. When I first met him, he was in elementary school. He was perhaps the most intelligent kid I have ever met--just a wonderful kid. He was studying AP calculus and AP physics in sixth grade! Granted, some of us didn't do that until we were in seventh grade, but Chris was doing it in sixth. Chris's parents wanted me to meet with him. As he was talking to me about his recent AP calculus exam, he said, "I know this is the right answer, and it's what the AP people said, but I'm going to show you how it really could be done differently, and then I want you to tell me what you think of it. Dr. Colangelo." Calculus was not my strong suit, but the one thing I believe I had on him was my 25 years of experience as a counselor. So I said, "Chris, how do you feel about the calculus?" The question threw him, and he stopped asking me about calculus.
I'm going to go back to something that Anders (Ericsson) spoke about yesterday--deliberate practice. I don't know if Chris did "deliberate practice," but he did a lot of math. He loved doing math. Some kids just do their math homework, but Chris loved doing math. I don't know if there's any substitute for what Anders talked about regarding "deliberate practice"--you have to have a special love for something to do that. Anders spoke about the 10-year requirement in "practice." I played the violin as a kid--I just cut out 9.8 years too early! Had I known about the 10-year requirement Anders referred to, I would have hung in there.
I've had time to contemplate "deliberate practice." After speaking with kids, I am convinced that there is a passion that seems to accompany a certain type of achievement. It's not magical, it's just wonderful, and a number of kids have that passion. What concerns me, though, is that there's something about the very nature of school that seems to work against some of those passionate students. Not totally, mind you, but I have seen passion in young kids dissipate as they go on in school. This concerns me greatly. Here I am, someone who says that, on the one hand, education gives a kid a second chance, but on the other hand, education can become a weight on kids. This is part of what I also wish to share with you.
The remainder of the keynote was a presentation of a number of overheads indicating various research results on how gifted students perceived themselves, schools, peers, and their families. What follows is a presentation of some of those overheads with main summary points made for each.
Attitudes about School and Academic Subjects
Overhead #2 ("I have a computer at home")
Overhead #3 ("I love school")
Overhead #4 ("I love math")
Overhead #5 ("I love science")
Overhead #6 ("I love reading")
Overhead #7 ("I love English/language arts")
Overhead #8 (Feelings about being smart in school)
Overhead #9 (Feeling happy about being smart in school)
Overhead #10 ("If you could be only one of these things, which would you be?")
Overhead #11 (Student perception of parental involvement in academic and social activities)
Overhead #12 (What academically talented students have to say)
This overhead included some direct quotes from students (grades 7-12) who attended Belin-Blank Center Summer programs. They are comments on what it is like to be in a select setting, such as summer precollege programs. The quotes speak for themselves.
So what do we take from this research? Parents are welcomed in the lives of their kids. We, as educators, should make that door as wide-open and as inviting as possible. The kids want it. The parents are fairly comfortable with it.
For the most part, kids have positive attitudes about school and academic subjects, but we have a pattern. There seems to be a loss of enthusiasm for school as you move on in elementary school. I don't think there's a good reason for the pattern. I refuse to accept that developmentally this is the way it is. There are many people sitting in the audience who probably saw their kids skip to the first grade. They stopped skipping some place along the line; of course, if he skips to seventh grade, a lot of people are going to talk about it. Most kids start off skipping to school. Where do we make the transition from that kind of enthusiasm to something else? I refuse to believe that the idea of learning complex material isn't exciting or isn't worthy of "skipping." I've seen enough kids who truly love learning. Something about the nature of school doesn't always nourish that love.
Peer group is an important issue. I can only speak most clearly about America's schools, although I've visited and heard about schools in other countries. In America's schools, the peer group is not very supportive of academically talented kids. Period. And it's something that these kids have to grapple with; we need to grapple with it. What does it mean for educators? I really believe that every time we apologize for kids who perform well, and for every time we hold back kids who seem ready for more, we are doing them a disservice. I think the best school is the school that doesn't teach kids what they already know. I'm convinced, not only after talking to Chris about calculus, but so many other very capable kids, that they thoroughly love challenge, that they thoroughly love learning something new. We have set up a system that in many ways misses that challenge. What kids think about is "growing," and we need schools that help them grow. I tell you, it is so great that we have kids who are out of step with the system. Thank you.
*The research presented here is part of a research program with Dr. Susan Assouline, Brian Sponcil, and a group of research assistants at the Belin-Blank Center.
Permission to reprint this chapter was granted by the publisher, Great Potential Press.
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