Sunday, June 19, 2011

What are you capable of becoming?

An article (in Reaching New Horizons: Gifted and Talented Education for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students) I am reading for my very last Education class before I get my Preliminary Credential starts with a wonderful quote attributed to the German poet Goethe. I majored in German many years ago, and don't recall it (maybe its being in English, not German, makes it unfamiliar,) but it tells a lot about how I want to teach:
If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse;
however, if I treat you as though you are
what you are capable of becoming,
I help you become that.

Wenn wir, sagtest du, die Menschen nur nehmen, wie sie sind,
so machen wir sie schlechter.
Wenn wir sie behandeln, als wären sie, was sie sein sollten,
so bringen wir sie dahin, wohin sie zu bringen sind.

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre
There's a lot of talk in schools about giving students equal opportunity, which no one really knows what entails.
Does it mean equal teacher time, exactly the same books, problems, lectures, papers to write? Does it mean equal opportunity to succeed (or fail?)
On the other hand, what does Goethe mean by accepting "you as you are?" Can we teachers really know who our students are? Maybe he means "as you appear to me," instead.
My final class is about teaching students who are either gifted or have learning difficulties (which could be the same person.) Yesterday we talked out how students who are bilingual often have been tested to be more creative (and more "gifted?") than their mono-lingual peers. There can be many reasons for this, of course. A creative person may have left his country for another to be able to be creative, for example, so bilingualism is a result of his or her creativity. There have also been brain scans that show that bilinguals use their brain differently than others as well, which is one reason some middle class parents are enrolling their children in bilingual classes with students who are learning English as their second language, which appears to be advantageous for all of them.
An article we read yesterday compared the characteristics of creative people with those of bilinguals, which included:
  • Risk taking
  • Willingness to confront antagonism, ability to freely reject external limits and  rules, and propensity for self-organization.
  • Perseverance, total absorbtion, focus, discipline, commitment
  • Curiosity, inquisitiveness
  • Openness to new experiences, deep emotions and drowth
  • High intrinsic motivation
However, often we fail to recognize creativity in language learners, because it "doesn't come through" in their second language, which we are using to communicate with them.  We are treating them as they are, in Goethe's sense, instead of as they are capable of becoming. (You might be interested in the blog I wrote for another class on language learners a couple of years ago, Negotiated Identity.)
The same can be said for up to half of the gifted students in our classes (which is evidently statistically set at the 5% highest results on some test or other in a school.) Some of the most gifted live in another world, evidently, which does not include paying attention in class - because most of it they have already figured out with their own personal research and experiments. We don't see them as gifted, but rather, difficult.
On the other hand, there is a group of high achievers, who know well what they want to become, and let us know that, so we treat them as if they were actually gifted.
Personal experience, and a comment by a speaker yesterday, indicate that up to 50% of gifted students may drop out of high school and not achieve the potential they would have had if someone had treated them for what they were "capable of becoming."
In our class we are learning strategies that won't take too much of the stressed teacher's time, but can enable the creative and the gifted students not to have to waste time on what they already know, by "compacting the lessons," while challenge them with projects of their own choosing, so they learn the skills that "high achievers" learn - good study habits, the joys of learning, the satisfaction of working hard to do something.
As a high school student, I got easy A's, even in "honors" classes - we didn't have AP back then, but when I got to college I discovered that I didn't have a clue how to really study, so I saw those A's turn into B's and C's, my confidence turned into feelings of inferiority, I avoided some challenges because I was afraid of those C's, and stopped being a risk-taker, which has taken me years to recover.
I want all of my students to succeed, even the creative and gifted ones!

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