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Elementary gifted ed made easy

Susan Notes: Jay's column a couple of weeks ago provoked a rush of good memories.

by Jay Mathews

Two weeks ago I explored the possibility that high schools could challenge all students, gifted or otherwise, without having gifted programs. Quaker Valley High School outside of Pittsburgh, for instance, seemed able to create new opportunities for a variety of kids by ignoring standard procedures that had outlived their usefulness, such as homework requirements or rules against taking more than one course in the same period.

One wise reader said, in effect: Yeah, but that will never work in elementary schools.

As if by fate, I received an email shortly after from Susan Ohanian, a delightful teacher, speaker, author and blogger whose work I love, even when she is portraying me as a test-addled idiot. We may disagree on policy issues, but we have shared tastes about what good teaching looks and sounds like. In her email, she described how she brought a free-form gifted non-program to an elementary school in Troy, N.Y.

Here is what she said. Don't forget to take a look at her blog at http://www.susanohanian.org.

Ohanian Comment: Clearly, the headline writer has never been a teacher. What I describe below was anything but "easy." Joyful, exhilarating, challenging, rewarding. Not easy.

By Susan Ohanian

Eons ago, I persuaded my principal, who was starting a new school that had a state mandate and funds to be innovative, to do away with remedial reading (I was the remedial reading teacher). We called my room Resource and I announced I was an adjunct of the media center.

I'd recently become a disciple of philosopher of science David Hawkins, and we bought all the Elementary Science Study units. In those days the ESS teacher guide was minimalist. It did not tell a teacher what to do, but emphasized what Hawkins called "messing around in science." The teacher observed children closely and followed their lead. Years later, when the Education Development Center redid the guides into ugly little prescriptive manuals, I phoned to protest. I was transferred and transferred until finally someone listened to my anguish about the deformation of Hawkins' idea. She said, "Oh, you're one of those."


I was more prescriptive than Hawkins, setting up an underlying structure for the investigations. There were lots of topics, each with certain experiments a kid had to do sometime during his investigations, but 'messing around' remained the key. No time constraints. I remember the first-grader who took two days to make the exciting discovery that 32 bottle caps on one side of a balance equaled 32 bottle caps on the other side. He tested and retested this theory until finally he was convinced. And then he wrote up the result: 32 = 32.

Mind you, I was still the remedial reading teacher--but we kept this secret from the kids. Teachers had a list of students who had to come to the room x times a week to fulfill our obligation to the state. For everyone else (K-6), it was student initiated: A child came when he could persuade his teacher to let him. There was no schedule and there were no bells. If the room got too crowded, as in 35+, I put a sign on the door: "Come back later." Engineering students from a local university volunteered as on-site helpers, as did two neighborhood moms.

Over time, I found that the kids released from regular class most often were the really bright and those with great difficulties. And they worked well together.

One 2nd-grader was truly the most gifted kid I've ever encountered and he just about lived in Resource. I could go on and on abut his projects, most self-initiated. I did have one worry, and so at one point I asked my physicist husband to come in and work with him. "My goal," I said, "is for Darryl to sit on the floor and wrinkle his pants, maybe even get dirty." They made slide rules, played with a wind up train, figuring out load, velocity, and god-knows-what. On his own, Darryl made cottage cheese, wrote a letter from Queen Isabella to Columbus and investigated Fibonacci numbers. He also directed a play fifth-graders wanted to stage.

In the spring, state Education Department officials came to see why the reading scores for the identified remedial readers soared. As expected, they were mystified. Building bridges, making musical instruments, discovering the law of gravity in Remedial Reading? (One day my principal came into the room sputtering, "You mean to tell me that this heavy box and this ball fall at the same rate?" A student team dropping objects in the stairwell had been explaining their experiment to him.)

Working class parents were enthusiastic. They asked me to bring the movie their kids talked about so much (and could explain) about the collapse of the Tacoma bridge (a movie I'd borrowed from the Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute physics department) to the PTA meeting. They also wanted experiments they could try...because their kids just went on and on so much about this stuff.

I'm not trying to say what a good teacher am I. I'm just trying to say "yes" to your point about flexibility being the key. Different kids have different needs, and providing choices allows all children to soar at different things.

Not surprisingly, in the beginning, making a choice was very difficult for children who were used to being told what to do every minute of the day. Once kids made a choice, they were required to complete x number of projects before moving on to another topic. But because all the projects were going on at the same time, a kid doing "sound" experiments would join in for a while with a kid doing "structures," and so on.

A fifth grade girl doing a "sound" experiment by having countless classmates shout into a hole cut in an oats container that had rice sitting on tissue paper stretched across the top figured out the mystery confounding kids working on Structures--why the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapsed. She did not qualify as gifted, just a regular kid doing an experiment over and over and over (she carried that oats container around the neighborhood getting people to shout into it) until a lightbulb went off when she saw the movie of a buckling bridge.

I would add that my physicist husband, appalled to find out he was married to someone who had never taken calculus, gave me a big ugly calculus book the first Christmas we were married. The second Christmas, I gave him a notebook with all the answers to the problems.

I came across that notebook a while back. It might as well have been Greek. I could grind out the answers but didn't have a clue--then or now. But I think doing calculus for love is a far better reason than we give kids these days.

— Jay Mathews and Susan Ohanian
Class Struggle, Washington Post



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