Gas station without pumps

2012 February 3

Tamara Fisher’s “Walking a Tightrope”

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:51
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Tamara Fisher, in her Unwrapping the Gifted blog, had a nice post about the balancing act needed as a teacher and program coordinator for gifted education in a small district: Walking a Tightrope.

I was interested to see that most of her challenges were not in dealing with gifted kids, but in dealing with ungifted teachers and parents.

She ends with the question “Which fine lines do you walk for the gifted youth in your life?”

Most of her challenges do not resonate with me, as I have no need to educate administrators (a hopeless task—those who have a chance of understanding don’t need educating), correct teachers, choose who gets gifted services, and all the other challenges that come from working within a school system that barely admits that gifted students have a right to exist.

Some of her questions do resonate with me as a home-schooling parent of a gifted child though:

How do I teach my students about what it means to be gifted without also unintentionally “giving them the big head”?

We have been using advice based on Carol Dweck‘s work (though we’ve not read Mindset yet, just shorter summary articles) of praising effortful accomplishment rather than traits that may be innate, and encouraging a “growth” mindset.  We want to foster pride in accomplishment, rather than pride in ability.  We’ve not been as successful at getting him to try things he believes he is not good at  as I’d like, but he probably has a better balanced view of his capabilities than I had at his age.

How do I stay ahead of dozens of kids who are ahead of me?

I only have to stay ahead of one student, and then not in all subjects. Some things have required my brushing up on old skills (like integration by parts and trigonometric identities), some have required acquiring new skills (like calculus-based physics). It helps that in some of the subjects he is interested in (like linguistics), my wife is knowledgeable enough that I don’t have to be ahead of him—I just have to learn enough to follow the conversation.  There are a few topics he knows better than either of us (like HTML and Javascript), but he is capable of teaching himself when he reaches his limits in those areas.

How do I think outside the box to get their needs met within the box that is our current reality of School?

I finally gave up on this one, which is why we’re home schooling now.  We managed to squeeze all we could out of 10 years of public and private schools, but the “box that is our current reality of School” finally became too awkward a fit.  Getting his educational needs met is still a difficult problem, but removing the “within the box” constraints has simplified some things (by removing the need for accreditation and removing slow-paced pre-requisites, for example), while making others more complicated (like the 2-hour roundtrip to the community college for Spanish classes, and the difficulty of finding or making lab equipment at home).

How do I help my students to navigate the fine lines that they walk, too, because of being gifted?

I’m not sure which “fine lines” she is referring to here.  There are many challenges associated with being a gifted teen, but the challenges are not greater than those facing non-gifted teens.  Different perhaps, but a lot of the worst pressures on teens are from schools with unhealthy cultures, so simply by home-schooling and allowing him to form his own associations based on shared interests (with kids in his theater classes, for example) rather than the forced proximity of schools reduces the number of “fine lines” he has to walk.

How do I help the parents of my students find that balance between letting their children “run” and not pushing them?

This is indeed a challenge, though I am not opposed to a gentle push now and again, to get him over a barrier (see above about getting him to try things he believes he is not good at) or to help him manage his time more productively.  Like his mother and me, he generally has more things to do than he has time for, and suffers occasionally from being overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done. Deadlines help prioritize the tasks and a gentle push to get him started is sometimes needed.  (I need someone to help me that way sometimes.)


  1. I have a very advanced 11 year old son (I don’t use the word gifted, which just sounds ooky to me), whose needs have never been met by our incredibly tiny school district. Homeschooling isn’t an option because I am tenure track and my husband is in a very demanding job. Luckilly my son is a self starter when he is interested in something, so we keep him hopping with some programming in Scratch and Alice, weekend Chinese school, and music. I seem to recall you mentioning that your son is interested in invented languages. Much to my surprise, I looked in on my son last weekend, and what was he doing? Designing his own language.

    Anyway, one of my concerns is that he not acquire the “big head” syndrome. I am still trying to figure out how to do that.

    Comment by Bonnie — 2012 February 3 @ 12:25 | Reply

    • I’ve never liked the word “gifted” either. It used to be, if I needed a single adjective, I used “smart”, but that has shifted meanings in schools to mean “slightly above average”, and so is now useless as a descriptor.

      When talking about needed school placement and interventions, more detail is needed than one adjective can provide, as I need to talk about level, pace, and style of learning. “Advanced” refers only to the level, and not to the other important aspects.

      It is not enough to get just the level right, as we found out with a trig class that went too slowly and had too much repetitive drill (see Trig and Anal Geo).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 February 3 @ 13:08 | Reply

  2. We can’t talk about school placement with any adjectives, as our microdistrict has exactly one school at each level. Westchester County chooses to divide into microdistricts in order to segregate by economic class at a very fine level of granularity. Most of our districts are high performing and believe in the mantra “All of our students are gifted”.

    Comment by Bonnie — 2012 February 4 @ 08:55 | Reply

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