Bringing their gifted selves to every class
Odds are 100% that the gifted child who sits in English class and math class is also a gifted child in gym, and recess, and music, and science, and art. Generally, this phenomenon (which, to be fair, is most of their school day!) goes unremarked-upon, but it is reflective of an important principle: gifted children are gifted all the time; they bring their giftedness to every subject, every day, all year. They may not be high achievers in every subject — and indeed, most are not — but a holistic understanding of giftedness describes children who experience the world differently, and feel, behave, and think differently as a result. The characteristic intensity with which parents and teachers of gifted children are so familiar does not exist in a silo, focused on one discipline. A school specifically designed for gifted children, then, must invest tremendous effort to re-imagine the way all subjects are taught, across the board, at all levels.
Crucially, this endeavor demands that many members of the faculty be subject-matter experts rather than generalists. These specialists know their domains both deeply and from a high-altitude perspective, and are thus capable of shifting their teaching to reflect both of these seemingly-opposite points of view.
Ars gratia artis
Art instructors teach children across multiple grades and must provide challenge to a truly staggeringly wide range of skill levels, from “I drew a scary monster” (read: I did this amazing scribble) to students whose artistic passion and skill are obvious and whose works reflect a great deal of talent. This goal is a difficult undertaking before you throw giftedness into the mix. Trying to teach a classroom full of neurodivergent children is exponentially more complex — and drives a teacher to altogether reengineer the way they teach the subject.
“None of them are interested in copying what I’m doing,” explains Art instructor Stacey Angelillo. “And I don’t blame them! Their own creativity is much more interesting — to me and to them — so none of their work looks like typical elementary school ‘everyone will paint a snowman’ projects.”
Rather than directing all students precisely how to use identical materials in pursuit of the same endproduct, Ms. Angelillo has a completely different paradigm for teaching, even with our very youngest learners. “Every lesson has a non-negotiable,” she explains. “Sometimes it’s the medium — for example, we can only use colored pencils, or oil pastels. Sometimes it’s the style, like our unit on graffiti art or the painted stained-glass windows the Middle School students did. Or they must include a particular element of design or principle of art that is the focus of the lesson. I pick one thing that they must do… and then the rest of it is up to them.”
The result is maximal differentiation — a truly individualized art environment. The students are learning together in that they have a shared set of parameters, but they are also able to tackle a project that genuinely interests them rather than generating a pre-determined end-product.
Creativity and originality are not at issue when lessons are this way, she says, laughing: “Trust me, not a single one of them ever has fewer than ten thousand ideas.”
When students aren’t asked to get to a specific endpoint — and when students know that they will not be judged by how much their piece looks like the teacher’s example — then what they are doing is expressing themselves and wielding their own creativity to generate something that truly reflects who they are and what interests them. They cannot help but create art that expresses something original, that only they could create.
Not only does this approach sound like more like play and less like factory work, but it also reflects what we know about best practices to generate engagement and motivation: students who have the opportunity to choose what they work on are intrinsically motivated, meaning that they put in effort for the sake of doing the work, not for the sake of completing it. While this principle holds true across all of education, its appeal and value is all the more obvious in art class: students who are personally invested in their work tend to put forth more effort and push themselves, resulting in more audacious work that reflects the student’s ideas rather than the teacher’s.
“Not another parrot!”
Parents anticipating projects for refrigerator display may be confused or even frustrated by this approach to art, which differs tremendously from many Lower School art programs, and even many Middle and Upper School courses; after all, if my child brings home a parrot and your child brings home a turtle, how are they learning the same thing?
(And, frankly, if I can’t walk down the hallway and see twenty-four paper collage dragons on the wall, how can I tell how well my child is doing in art class? And where is my annual handprint turkey, anyway?)
These examples may seem silly, but they’re absolutely realistic. Some students might fixate on a particular subject — a parrot, for example, or a turtle — and no matter what the medium or style under study, that is what they reliably produce: a paper collage parrot; an oil pastel parrot; a cubist parrot; a sculpture of a parrot, etc., etc. Ms. Angelillo insists that the turtle lover and the parrot-o-phile alike be protected from helpful parental “suggestions” such as “please do something different next time. No. More. Turtles!” (Luckily, the middle school student who created this perspective on pandas will never hear this at home.)
Ms. Angelillo is adamant on this point: “Even if it’s the same animal every single time, each of those projects is really quite different, and all of them reflect a student trying out something new. Gifted children can be risk-averse, so sometimes they choose to make one part of the project familiar, unthreatening territory — and that can help tamp down their perfectionism. Then they’re willing to step outside their comfort zone and really explore this new technique they’ve never tried before.” After all, even if the final product doesn’t live up to their own expectations, at least the subject matter is something they know they will like. Being gifted all the time does not equate to having incredible skill or potential in everything they do, but in how they might approach or process a task or project.
Bespoke, Baroque, Belle Epoque
At times, despite being deeply emotionally sensitive, gifted students need to tackle a new idea with their brain rather than their eyes or heart, but even this cerebral starting point can end in a unique piece for each student. When introducing a new style of art, immersion in myriad images can help students recognize the shared components that distinguish the style, so that might be where Ms. Angelillo starts, rather than creating an exemplar.
Sometimes, she begins a unit on a new style of art with a wide selection of images from art history, since some students have a natural analytical bent that can be unleashed if they are awash in examples.
That isn’t always what happens, though.
“When we were studying cubism, one student was frustrated, saying, ‘I can’t do that — I don’t understand it!’” she describes. “He was trying to absorb the whole style and have his brain discover the ‘rules,’ and that just was not working for him. By the end of class, though, he realized that cubist works don’t have to represent a specific subject; his could be composed just of lines and shapes, and I saw the light bulb go on. He went from being visibly confused to being eager and enthusiastic in about two seconds. His brain got a handle on it — he saw the principles behind the style, the underlying rules — and then he was ready to tackle it, himself.”
Gifted children, unsurprisingly, may be quite unfamiliar with the awful, sticky, itchy feeling of needing to work at an idea before grasping it completely. It is not a coincidence that creating art is an excellent solvent for that sort of impediment. This insistence on understanding the “big picture” before embarking on something is a familiar characteristic, but the centrality — if not the necessity — of intellectual comprehension in what otherwise seems to be an intuitive environment is uncommon outside of a classroom full of gifted children. In the end, this “entry point” was a requirement before the student could start his own work, but what he produced in the end was completely unique, reflecting his understanding of cubism.
Casting off gifted expectations
In the end, Ms. Angelillo’s students spend a great deal of time marinating in uncertainty: is this the right color to use here? Does this look straight? Is this shadow in the right place? Does this even look like a parrot at all? As we have previously described, gifted children are not always comfortable in such a space, much preferring rightness — or even wrongness! — over the squishy stuff in between.
Importantly, however, they cannot escape the art room without having experimented and without having failed, an experience we know to be crucial for gifted children, early and often. In offering students so much creative freedom, Ms. Angelillo creates opportunities for recovery, as well — because sometimes the “non-negotiable” is a technique that is impervious to efforts to control the results.
Wet-on-wet watercolor, for example, is inherently unpredictable; the liquid interacts with the paper in ways students cannot anticipate and often do not particularly love. In that case, she might walk through the classroom commenting aloud on the interesting surprises that appear in students’ work, so all the children hear that everyone is a bit unsettled by these uncontrolled results; the experience democratizes discomfort and demands flexibility in response.
Explicitly modeling this social-emotional lesson is key to instilling courage and resilience in art: “I intentionally make at least one mistake in every project I’m working on. They need to see me do that, and hear me say, ‘oh, no!’ and then ‘oh, wait — that’s cool!’ so that they can react that way, as well.” And, she confides, she has had to learn another form of art, herself: acting.
“Now that is something I’m not good at,” she confesses, “pretending to be just shocked after I put in a mistake. I’m pretty sure the older students aren’t fooled, but it’s pretty effective with the little ones.”
The more attempts she has to make, though, the more skilled she will become: that’s how the arts work, after all.
Gifted all the time
It should be a fairly obvious imperative. Experienced teachers of gifted children understand that they need to adjust the curriculum to meet their students’ need for challenge. While this philosophy is quite simple, somehow it is not yet universal practice.
What even very good teachers of the gifted often do not do is adjust every piece of the curriculum for those students. Statistics predict that there is about a 50% chance that every public school classroom includes a gifted child, yet it is exceedingly rare for a teacher (much less an entire school) to rethink how they teach every subject in those students’ schedules.
The more attempts we make as parents and educators, the more skilled we will become.
Thinking about giftedness in terms of potential and intrinsic intensity, not necessarily ability can also be helpful to educators and parents in dealing with might be unrecognized as giftedness, but only underachievement or defiance.
In The importance of teaching empathy and respect, our Social Studies teacher, Lindsay Andreas describes her experience teaching gifted students and addressing their potential uncertainty and natural inclination to right or wrong thinking.