I could use the education article on the front page of today’s Post –”Elementary Math Grows Exponentially Tougher“– as a jumping off point to talk about the math curriculum in MCPS. And believe me, that picture of the student using her fingers surely touched a nerve here. But I’ll save that for another post. Instead, I feel compelled to comment on the role of elementary school teachers in identifying exceptionally verbally gifted students.
You’re saying “huh?” But bear with me. Here’s the quote that got me going:
” [Kenneth I.] Gross [a University of Vermont mathematics and education professor] and others say many elementary and middle school teachers — generalists relied on to teach reading, science and social studies and even to make sure a child’s coat is zipped — are drawn to teaching by a love of children and literacy. Most had little exposure to high-level math in college and are more at home with words than numbers.
“Many of them fear math,” said Vickie Inge, math outreach director with the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. “Many of them had trouble with math themselves.”
Now a person would think that these child-loving, literacy-loving teachers would be just the people to identify and support the highly verbally gifted student. But nothing could be farther from the truth.
People who are drawn to elementary teaching are helpers and nurturers. They are driven by the desire to make a difference, to reach and raise up those who are least able. They tend to be deeply egalitarian. As a result a child who is already a precocious reader, an articulate speaker with advanced vocabulary is not going to get a lot of sympathy or support. (Especially if the child is active, highly creative, asks a lot of questions and is not always perfectly compliant, as are many highly gifted kids. In short, highly gifted kids can be a bother.) That child already is where the teacher expects to take all the other children and therefore the fact that the gifted child already is there isn’t quite that impressive. If anything, it enables the teacher to spend more time with those who “really need it.”
Have you run across the saying “All children are gifted, they just open their presents at different times?” Well I have, and it seems to be the attitude of many elementary teachers. (It goes hand in glove with “They’ll all even out by third grade.”) In addition, elementary teachers are *all* about literacy. This is what they *know*, what they studied in college after all. So there’s always some other little fillip that a child hasn’t mastered. There’s always the “but” as in, “yes Sally is reading several grades above level, but… I’m concerned about her…fill in the blank.” Trying to advocate for a gifted verbal child in the early elementary years is an invitation to being pegged one of “those” parents.
By contrast math is — as noted in the above quote — not something that most teachers are comfortable with. When a mathematically gifted child reveals his or her talent the response is different: “OMG, Sally is already doing long division, how am I going to deal with this!?” Mathematical talent is the very stereotype of what is considered gifted. It’s what teachers “expect” gifted to look like–especially when the average teacher gets zero training in giftedness and meeting the needs of highly gifted students. So most often the answer is to move Sally up, accelerate her in math, pass her up the chain and out of the class. And frankly it’s relatively easier to meet the needs of a mathematically gifted child. Math is a linear subject, with each skill building on the next. The curriculum has a more or less neat progression.
Meeting the needs of the verbally gifted child–if the child is even recognized as having special educational needs — is seen as much more difficult. There is no neat progression in a single subject; verbal ability pervades the entire school curriculum. If we acknowledge the child is verbally advanced, then — gasp — we might need to advance him or her in reading, and social studies and science and art… Where does it end? We might — gasp — need to grade skip them. But then there’s the “problem” that the child will be reading and thinking about and discussing topics that we think he or she isn’t ready for. Or those (sarcasm alert) dreaded social impacts. So better just to offer assurances that students are regrouped for reading, or point up those areas of relative weakness.
Finally, I hate to say it, but some people in the classroom aren’t exactly intellectual giants. The Post article makes that point as well:
“Judy Schneider, a 25-year teacher who is a math specialist at Widewater Elementary School in Stafford County, is midway through the Virginia program. She helps teachers understand math and reach students through dynamic lessons. Recently, she helped a fifth-grade teacher who was preparing to teach a lesson on fractions but didn’t understand the material.
Math wasn’t always Schneider’s strong suit, but after taking courses in algebra, geometry and statistics, she is able to help colleagues improve.
‘I was such a bad math student as a child, all the way through high school and even into college,’ she said. ‘Math was something I struggled with, and all of a sudden algebra makes sense to me. I want it to make sense for the kids.’”
Not exactly the profile of a person primed to foster precocious mathematical talent, eh? Unfortunately many teachers come from a place of academic struggle rather than academic boredom. So it’s not surprising that they often do a poor job of identifying and supporting highly gifted students.
(Here’s the link for a good article on the distinct cognitive profiles of verbally versus mathematically gifted students.)