What if We Treated Every Student as “Gifted”?

I’m a proud product of public school, but I was also luckier than most public-school kids. I was in the Gifted Program, which back in the 80s, was really just where all the kids with really busy brains were gifted a priceless education. The Gifted Program utilized the most incredible teachers in the school who propelled us by creating unique and challenging experiences for us in their classrooms.

The collective success of my group of equally lucky friends from those years is testament to what can be achieved when you’re raised in classrooms that place just as much emphasis on how to learn as how to roll with failure. I was always aware that the Gifted program was special, but I was never really aware that it was part of the school’s Special Education department. We weren’t the typical ESE kids, but we did have IEPs and 504s and all of the documentation that declared us eligible for the golden tickets our incredibly special education afforded us.

I remember just about everything we learned in my Gifted classes because we were learning with our hands, our bodies and through our failures. We were encouraged to try out big ideas and to cultivate creativity collaboratively. In 3rd grade, Miss Williams taught our small group of 7 or 8 learning lottery winners to run a Think Tank meeting and implement the rules of Brainstorming. This was the unit that taught me almost everything I needed to know to run my business today.

I was always acutely aware, even as a young student headed to Miss Williams’ classroom for half the day in elementary school, that this type of learning was exceptional. And important. In 9th grade, I understood that it was also vital to cultivating my love of learning when I got into a disagreement with my Gifted social studies teacher and switched out of her class to an honors level. However, learning with rigidity, memorization and a one-dimensional sensory experience was not for me. I was on my way to earning a D and more importantly, to losing my love for history. So, I tucked my tail between my legs, gained another vital lesson in leadership (asking for what I needed) and requested my teacher allow me to return to my Gifted class. Luckily again for me, she did. It was another lesson that failure is not forever.

The Gifted curriculum was project-based, and through it, I loved learning, worked harder and thought bigger. Looking back, what also made this such a safe learning environment was the fact that there was time – and space – within our experiential curriculum to instill within us the life skills that were vital to our success outside of the classroom – as friends, family members, and now, as professionals. We were taught about ourselves through the learning we did. We were safe feeling vulnerable around each other because a creative environment instills that. We imagined our future places in the world and made big plans early because we were taught early on how to plan.

It’s no coincidence that the kids I grew up with in that program and I are all doing incredible things today. Our schooling prepared us to change the world by teaching us the same skills that highly sought after professionals in top industries use every day: organization, collaboration, design thinking, creative expression, communication, self-confidence, healthy debate and asking for help.

I have always felt incredibly guilty that not all of my school friends were able to experience the gift of the Gifted program. Listening to the incredible podcast, Nice White Parents, also shed some light on other reasons to feel guilty, but that’s a blog post for another day. For today, I say only this: Until every school, community and family embraces creativity and experiential learning, we will struggle to fully embrace our stressed-out society’s full potential. In a world where everything feels like it’s life-or-death, we need to move from a right-or-wrong approach to education to a more intuitive and exploratory model that values the creative process, encourages healthy mental wellness and fosters cooperation.

Sadly today, busy brained kids are diagnosed inattentive, anxious and defiant (and yes, I can be all of those, too). The Gifted program has also become more about assigning harder work than expanding more horizons, and creativity is no longer at the root of its mission; college admission is. My friends and I were truly gifted with the golden era of educators, who were given leeway to imagine classroom activities that broadened our highly tuned imaginations. Teachers now don’t get to plan lessons with wild abandon. Curriculum is scripted and paced to the group, not personalized to the student. It’s no mystery why learning isn’t happening with wild abandon then. We took all the fun right out of it!

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