As a teacher, a guide, and a mentor to gifted children, I know that my role in their lives goes beyond academics. Developing competence in “soft skills” that support their academic and technical proficiencies are critical for their success in life and their future career pursuits. I am fortunate to teach in a project-based learning environment where interpersonal, leadership, and executive function skills are modeled and integrated with academics. Here are a few things I find my gifted students are most in need of developing — a bit of polish you might say — to let their brilliance shine.
- Precision: Kids aren’t used to having to work precisely. Especially with gifted students, who are quick to “know the answer” or can easily make connections between disparate topics; they may also have experienced that approximation is normally rewarded. In my classes, there is little room for approximation when working in three dimensions, with works that have specific functions and parameters set by materials and tools. Fortunately, precision is largely trainable, like drawing.
- Tenacity: Where there is passion and ability, a gifted child may deeply explore a project or subject, but they may also become frustrated and disinterested if a new skill does not come as easy to them as they expect. Learning to stay motivated beyond a specific task, throughout the scope of a project is an essential skill.
- Resilience: Failure must be encouraged in order to facilitate progress, but progress must be steered toward precision (see above!). A new way of seeing needs to be taught, and many mistakes made; staying engaged with a project, exploring options that were not initially intended can be difficult for some. My students know that inaction is unacceptable — for it leads to zero progress. Many times I will force failure into a project, so that students may learn to recover, correct course and keep moving forward.
- The importance of a Plan B: Always assume your first plan, attempt, hypothesis, or trial may fail. Failure is the norm, not the exception, so planning for a glitch also helps to build resilience and maintain motivation.
- How to lose gracefully: A lot of our kids play video games in total isolation and don’t know how to comport themselves in contentious situations. Need I say more about failure?
- Anticipating others’ needs: This is critical for high functioning teamwork (as well as being a pretty cool human). I tell my students, “If your parents are throwing a party, take it upon yourself to take care of guests’ coats and purses, and ask them if they’d like a refreshment,” or “don’t wait for grandmom to ask you to start bringing dishes to the kitchen after Thanksgiving dinner.” If you’re helping assemble something, be ready with the next part and tool at hand because you’ve read the directions ahead of time.
- Active listening: To understand the objective, to be clear on instructions and guidelines, to hear input and ideas from your peers. Convey understanding by repeating back what you’ve heard — message received!
- The critique process: The formal critiquing process used in art and design schools is something that I employ in my projects classes. Students must learn to take criticism maturely and without becoming defensive. They also need to be able to offer constructive criticism that focuses on how well a project solves the objective or the problem it attempts to solve.
- Eliminating killer words/phrases from their lexicon: “I know.” “Actually…” “Yes, but…” “That’s not right.” Nobody likes a know-it-all. Use words like these, and you’ve automatically labeled yourself as one.
- The art of persuasion: When you have an idea or a possible solution, you must effectively bring others along to contribute to the process.
- Knowing how to read (and write) instruction manuals: And that means actually reading them, not just looking at the pictures. The ability to understand and follow specific directions as well as to provide this level of precision in writing their own instructions and processes.
- How to set-up and clean-up: We can all relate to our children wanting to just dive right in to the actual work, foregoing the preparation and clean-up stages that are an integral part of any project. The French culinary term of mise en place or “putting in place” allows us to be ready to get to work safely and efficiently. On the back end, clean-up is just as important. I find myself reminding my students of the concept of gravity: clean top down!; how to make small piles of trash near their origin — avoid dragging dirt across the room. If you’re willing to wipe that paintbrush on your face, it’s clean. They are learning that it really doesn’t take a lot of effort if you do it right, and saves you much effort when time to access tools, equipment and a clean workspace the next day.
- Knowing when to follow: You are not always the best leader. Know when to step down and take directions to get the problem solved.
- Getting out of the weeds: Look at the bigger picture. Manage your time, your effort, and the relative value and importance of the task at hand in reaching your goal.
- Moving with urgency! You will be amazed at how much you accomplish.
- That your head can swivel for a reason: Be aware of your surroundings. Our students are working with and around expensive tools and delicate materials. Classmates spent a lot of time making that project. Show respect and care by being aware of what is happening around you: watch where you’re walking, when you are talking and how you are doing your work.
Mac McDermott is a Projects and History teacher at The Grayson School. He is happiest when designing and building a project in his home workshop. When asked why he loves teaching, Mac shared, “I’m always interested in doing creative things I’ve never tried before. I teach because I want to learn. If you tell me I probably won’t be able to pull something off, that just spurs me on. I’m not precious about the things I create. I can destroy — in an instant — things I expended lots of time and effort creating because I always need to be on to the next thing. I’m grateful for having the ability to get completely engrossed in work and filter out everything else while I’m engaged. I would love my students to know what that feels like and how stress-eliminating that power can be.” Here’s how one of his students described Mr. McDermott in nominating him for a teacher award last year. We actually liked the title of this post — Beyond Academics — to describe Mac’s classes.