Monday, March 24, 2014

Why Enrichment Matters for Everyone Starting Early On!

While I have said before that I did my graduate work in education at TC, I should probably preface this post by saying that it was in Gifted Education.  I actually did both student teaching positions at Gifted Magnet schools in NYC (Hunter & Bronx High School of Science).  I've been fascinated by how to teach the truly gifted for a long time.  I grew up in Princeton surrounded by friends and fellow students who came from exceptional families of students.  Many of my friends growing up were professors kids. Some started college early at the University.  My school growing up (Chapin) had enrichment starting in 1st grade and remediation come K back in the 1980's.  While they certainly were ahead of the time, we can go a step even further than this.

Despite my early experiences with students who were classified as gifted, I didn't thoroughly become infatuated with enrichment and its effect on a student until my junior year of high school.  It was then that I witnessed a fellow student in my math class and AP Art History course reading a book under the table on Linear Algebra.  I became curious as to how and why he was reading it.  Normally, in the 90's, if you were reading something under the desk, it was a magazine, a teen thriller, or something not of any particular educational value.  The student reading it was not someone I, as a junior, had up until then thought of as particularly bright.  In fact, he seemed pretty ordinary.  Yet, he was clearly bored in class and thirsting to learn something.  He was also clearly not being challenged enough in his math class.

How did I not immediately identify him before as highly intelligent?  It is not like I had a complete lack of  experience with the gifted before.  It was because I was defining intelligence in the classic sense any kid would- grades on tests, saying smart things in class, and hanging out with the "smart kids" in school.  He did none of those things.  Yet, when I questioned him after class about Linear Algebra, he spoke about what he read with passion and fluency.  He clearly understood the material and enjoyed what he was reading.

Wow.  I thought the school is really missing out.  Here is a kid that if groomed correctly could be the next major world's mathematician, engineer, scientists, or who knows what.  Here is a kid that could be getting so much more out of his high school experience then he is getting.  He wasn't first kid I ever knew who had a specific interest at an earlier age.  In fact, I knew a boy in elementary school who could literally rattle off baseball statistics and analyze the likelihood of a team's victory on a given day based on player states and other factors but got mediocre grades in math class.  He was bored as well.  The difference was, in every other aspect of his life, he excelled.  And, he got mediocre grades in an advanced math class.  Looking back on it, he too was a missed opportunity.  Had we as a school done a project learning how to read baseball statistics, working with a baseball manager to find out how they used math stats to figure out who should play in what game and when would have been an amazing experience for us all, especially him.  I bumped into him years later at Columbia.  He was in a PhD program for Architecture.  So, yes, he still because what he could have been perhaps without the enrichment, but imagine what he could have done with it.  Also, imagine how differently he could have felt in school and about school and himself with it both short and long term.  In addition, who elses life could have been changed?

Furthermore, imagine how many students we could inspire and reach by providing enrichment starting at a relatively young age to everyone?  At a young age, the mind is still literally developing and growing.  In Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, he outright dispute the notion that the people who really stand out in society did so simply because their innate intelligence.  He shows case after case of success stories that were largely dependent on a person also being given access to opportunities at crucial stages in their lives and being able to take advantage of them.  He makes the rather profound point that we just do not know at a young age how anyone will develop or what they will become, so providing everyone with opportunities will enable even more, "outliers."  I would take that a step further, regardless of what someone becomes, I think every child deserves the opportunity to have an enriched, meaningful, and challenging educational experience.  I think we owe it to the student, the community, and the world to nurture everyone and look at all with endless potential.  Enrichment for all does not mean watering down rigor to make everyone happy, it means lifting education up.

So, you might ask, what types of enrichment do I suggest?  Push in programs starting in elementary school.  Interests, personality, and the brain are all developing at this crucial stage in a child's life.  I would suggest making sure to give enrichment opportunities that are career and project based.  There is no reason students can't learn to be writers in 4th and 5th grade by meeting with a children's author and learning to craft emergent reader books.  There is no reason an architect can't come in to a 3rd grade class and ask the students to help him/her come up with the best way to build a snowman.  I can see having a lawyer come in and work with 2nd graders showing them how to argue persuasively for their favorite song, cartoon, or book and give a "mock trial."  The presence of expert adults in the classroom who introduce a project and provide an authentic audience to the students provide enrichment to the curriculum while working within the initial curriculum.  It enables students to start at a young age trying out things that can expose them to potential careers later on, more "complex" work, and engages the entire class in an unforgettable experience.  It does not need to be done weekly or even monthly, but once or twice a year could make a real difference in all students lives.  It also has the added and essential benefit of utilize the parent body as "the experts" further enhancing a crucial component in education- parental involvement.

Does this solve the problem of the truly gifted being bored in a typical classroom?  No.  Are there other solutions?  Yes.  That's for another post.