My husband Richard has few fond memories of public school. After being a model student in kindergarten and first grade, the most polite boy his teachers had ever met, his behavior began to change. Eventually he became bored and his teachers exasperated. He would stare out the window or with fascination at the ceiling as the teacher presented new material. Soon the other children would follow suit, craning to see what was so interesting. The dilemma was that Richard would then be able to do the work that was handed out, but most of the other students would have no idea what the teacher had just said and needed the instructions repeated. This went on until sixth grade when he took his Iowa Basic Skills test. When that teacher discovered that his scores were at the college level, he told Richard that he had nothing to teach him that year and that if he worked quietly at the back of the room, he could pursue whatever educational projects or read any books he chose. Interestingly, Richard felt a slight deficiency in spelling and chose to join the class each week for spelling lessons and tests.
My husband still remembers some of the areas he explored and the discussions he had with this teacher when the other students were busy working on assignments. He even has some of those projects carefully stored in our attic.
Unfortunately, his new found joy in learning was short-lived. His teacher left mid-year and my husband was required to rejoin all classroom activities. Richard says he felt like a dog on a very long leash who was running free only to come to the end of the chain suddenly and be jerked back into captivity. Mr. Sweet, who had offered him this wonderful freedom and chance to explore, is the only elementary school teacher whose name my husband can still remember.
As a teacher I saw too many bright students who had become bored. I often wondered if they would ever reach their potential once out of school or if they would simply lose heart and settle for ordinary lives. Like my husband, they were more difficult to teach. I noticed, though, that if I gave these children center stage by involving them in presentations and soliciting their responses in discussions, they became enthusiastic contributors to the class.
Unfortunately, not all teachers identify these children as gifted. Because of their lack of focus and concentration they are sometimes identified as having Attention Deficit Disorder and put on drugs that dull the creative energy which is such an integral part of their personalities. In other cases they may simply be considered discipline problems in need of a firm hand. My husband has plenty of stories about being paddled. It occasionally kept him in line, but certainly never helped him reach his potential.
So what’s a mother to do? I chose to homeschool. Teaching the gifted does take both time and energy. It’s not just a matter of sending them off to teach themselves. These children demand to be mentored. They ask endless questions, want to be shown how to do things, and want and need help to achieve their goals. I felt rather breathless keeping up with my son Christopher. Frequently, it became my job to set limits because he wanted to know and do everything “right now.”
I also looked for people with expertise in my son’s areas of interest. He begged for a violin at three. I taught him the piano and incorporated a great deal of music into our days, but put off violin lessons until he turned six. Then I chose a school with teachers trained in the Suzuki method. This allowed him to succeed quickly since he had an ear for music. The teacher placed his fingers properly and he imitated the song he heard her play. Then he practiced after listening to a tape of that same song. Gradually he learned to read music as well. Since he was an auditory learner that hated pencil/paper work, this approach helped him maintain enthusiasm for the violin as he practiced daily.
In planning lessons I thought about what projects would appeal to him, frequently tying them into science or history. As he worked, I would help him painlessly develop many basic skills. When he wanted to find out the secret of silk, for example, I showed him how to use indexes and the table of contents in books we had on hand. He learned his way around a card catalog because he wanted to find out about tigers. Always trying to get us to laugh, I directed him to joke and riddle books. These didn’t just give him more material, they increased his facility with words and reasoning.
Some skills, though, required an approach that I knew he would dislike. So, I tried to find ways to make that one task cover several objectives, stayed with him to help him focus, and kept the periods short, sandwiching them between more interesting tasks. For example, he found reading directions especially difficult. I looked for practice pages with appealing content but a grade or two below his reading level. When he completed one page, we would move on to something active, such as art, music, or physical education. As my son matured, he was more able to stay focused on the tedious because he recognized that learning the required concept or skill would ultimately prove helpful.
I noticed early that my son, like his father, didn’t seem to have an inner clock. When focused on what interests them, they can work (or talk) for hours and remain oblivious to the world around them. When they are not interested in the task at hand, it seems as if it’s only the adrenaline rush of waiting until the last minute that helps them get through it. Instead of telling him to work on something for 30 minutes, I gave Christopher specific, small goals to accomplish, followed by another goal either in the same subject or in another subject. By the time he was in high school, he readily studied for understanding and mastery.
Since deadlines, too, are part of life, I also found ways to help him to work within them. I gave him specific assignments (including chores) easy to complete before the timer buzzed. He hated this, but, eventually became more able to handle the pressure of time. During his first year of college we would get compositions via email with messages such as “this is due in two hours, is it okay?” Eventually, he became better at pacing himself just because he hated that last-minute panic.
I’ve shared all this only to find that I’ve once again returned to the simple theme, teach to your child’s needs. I prayed daily for direction in teaching each of my children and God always answered. After all, he created them and always has their best interests at heart. Now that they’re grown I can look back and recall that my daughter used to play detective and lawyer. She is now completing her law doctorate. My son dressed up in costume at every opportunity. He will have his BA in Cinema-Television Production next spring. I remember playing house and school, the perfect practice for being a homeschooling mom. So, maybe my advice should be to watch your children at play for an idea of what to help prepare them for. At the very least, you’ll be entertained.