“Am I talking too much? People are always telling me that I do and it seems to cause no end of aggravation.”
— Anne Shirley
Anne is a 13 year-old orphan from Nova Scotia who comes to small-town Avonlea on Prince Edward Island, hoping to be adopted by Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. It’s the late 1800s, a time when “children must be seen and not heard.” Anne, however, can’t be quiet. Anne’s a relentless inquisitor and conversationalist.
“Why do you suppose…?” she keeps asking.
“It’s none of our business,” Marilla snaps.
“But,” Anne implores her, “I’m bursting with curiosity!”
And, indeed she is: she uses 50 words when five would do. She loves telling stories and dives headlong into big, thick books.
As you might suspect, few people in the town of Avonlea are fans. Everyone to the train conductor, to her new family, to most locals consider her a “strange snippet” who’s “got a tongue of her own, that’s for certain!” Head shaking, critiques, ultimatums, and punishment ensue. This is an experience not unfamiliar to our chatty students today.
What’s it like being Anne in real life?
If a kid always needs to know why, or holds forth with verbal commentary, or discuss things in minute detail, stat, what happens if others won’t play along? Sometimes kids like Anne persist and perseverate to no one’s benefit or appreciation. Often they have to go off alone and daydream. They’re lucky if they find a “kindred spirit,” as Anne calls the few who truly get her. It’s only a few, like, Matthew, who immediately accept Anne and her verbosity. She’s grateful and relieved for the rare chance to prattle on without any judgement.
I know how Anne feels. I was that loquacious kid. I once held my eighth grade class hostage for 45 minutes with an oral presentation on Australopithecus africanus. The teacher enjoyed the break, but my classmates? Not so much. I recall being mocked for using the word “espy” in my fable when the teacher read it aloud. My friends and I were definitely not the cool kids when we staged musicals at recess and sang lyrics verbatim from Broadway hits, and then wrote and produced modern remakes of fairy tales. When I felt my peers’ disdain, it didn’t matter if I’d gotten a good grade on a story or helped my team win the spelling bee… I was, at the end of the day, that “strange snippet.”
“Don’t you just love poetry that gives you a crinkly feeling up and down your back?”
You’d think our culture of spelling bees, Battle of the Books, and Nanowrimo already celebrates this talent and passion. But not always. One of my teaching colleagues put it this way: “Walk into most places in America and say, ‘Wow, I just read War and Peace for the second time!’ and see how many people hop on board that conversation. But if you say, ‘How about the game last night?’ you’ll get plenty of takers.”
The same thing, essentially, happened to Anne. Anne’s memorized quotation upon quotation and finds, when repeating them, that they give her a kind of thrill, but not so much everyone else. “I love Jane Eyre, don’t you?” she asks Ms. Spencer, her chaperone. “I never met her,” Mrs. Spencer replies, and cuts the conversation short.
That discomfort with seeming “nerdy” or engaging in intellectual discourse can make life tough for gifted kids. In a culture where 140-character missives are not always the right words for the job, those who care deeply about words’ impacts may feel like not just outliers but also aliens. 2017 America and 1908 Avonlea, maybe not so different?
“If you have big ideas, you have to use big words to express them, don’t you?”
Anne may not be celebrated for her large vocabulary, or for her love of varied meanings and nuances, but she’s a true wordsmith. Maybe you know this kind of student who adores the sounds, shapes, and order of words? It’s not just any spelling of her name that will do, it’s Anne with an “e” because it “looks so much nicer.” But she’s really not a fan of that name, and floats Penelope or Cordelia by Marilla, who quickly puts the kibosh on any new christenings.
Besides good-looking, big words, Anne adores just-right words. She asks Matthew what a cherry tree makes him think of. He has no idea. “A bride,” she says immediately: because it’s “lacy,” “white” and “misty.” Anne sees the world in metaphor and simile, conveying ideas and images with grace and precision.
Will You PLEASE Be Quiet?
One of the hardest lessons growing up is figuring out how to be yourself in the world without, as some Southerners where I live say, “living all over everybody else.” Some highly-verbal youth need to cultivate restraint and moderation. Anne does need to be quiet — sometimes she can talk for ten minutes straight without interruption— and she needs to learn to read social cues. She also needs to use her gift of gab for good, not ill. When a busybody neighbor criticizes her, Anne not only loses her temper, but she berates the person in such specific detail that it’s a cruel insult. Anne can wield her words as weapons. When she’s forced to apologize, she invents such an elaborate, sentimental speech, that it’s clear to Marilla that somebody’s missed the point; in fact, Anne takes too much pride in her verbal display of “repentance.”
One of my favorite memories of challenges you must navigate when you are coaching verbal youth stems from the time I took some tenth graders on a meditative walk through a trail through the woods near school. We were reading Into the Wild.
“15 minutes of quiet,” I told the class. “Walk. Breathe. Think.”
But Jeremy couldn’t stop talking.
“Jeremy!” I called gently. “Please, be quiet!”
“Okay.” Yet he kept talking.
“Jeremy! I mean it!”
Quiet for five seconds. Then: more chatter.
“Jeremy! Close. Your. Mouth!!!”
“But Ms. Fairchild!” he called back. “I just have so much to say!”
That really made me laugh. It took a while for everyone to settle back into the meditative space. But had Jeremy not quieted down, I d have had to go another new round with him, and the walk would have been ruined for others. There are times and places to let fly with the chatter and highly verbal students need to learn to gauge the situation.
By the way, Jeremy is a musician now. Meditative hikes aside, I’m glad I couldn’t shut him up.
“I don’t know, I don’t want to talk as much… It’s nicer to think dear, pretty thoughts and keep them in one’s heart, like treasures. I don’t like to have them laughed at or wondered over.”
There are also highly verbal youth who are introverted, and prefer not to share. They may generate tons of verbiage in secret locations no one’s yet seen. Or they might have a robust life in online spaces where fanfiction and story and peer review thrive in these writer communities. They may — or may not — have found effective ways to communicate with others on those platforms, or they might be dying to share their stories and hear someone celebrate them.
How to ensure “Earthly Bliss” instead of “Lifelong Sorrow”
With Anne’s knack for capturing these opposites, let’s ponder: How do we brighten the light of this skill and lessen the darkness? Besides surrounding our verbal youth with books, films, and other treasure troves of expression, here are a few suggestions we, as their parents and teachers, can offer them as a way to channel and enhance their gifts:
- Find Their People. Find social groups that honor and celebrate wordsmithery. A book club, a writers’ group, an online magazine or storytelling community, or a performing troupe/improv class can give a student a chance to be challenged with peers at their ability level.
- Talk Less, Say More. Discuss the challenge of meaningful conversation versus small talk. How can we have more in-depth dialogue? This Wall Street Journal article provides some food for thought to help a highly-verbal person take conversation to the next level.
- Transform a Cliché. When the story opens, Anne who’s not attended school regularly, is so eager to learn that she’s grabbed any book she can find in the orphanage, including histrionic romances. She’s an avid repeater of clichés and hyperbolic phrases. Expressions like “I’m in the depths of despair” rush from her tongue. Clichés are actually a great stepping stone to more unique phrasing, since they were once originals meriting repetition. Have a student study cliché, idiom, and other “trite” phrases and reinvent their own phrase for the same job, using figurative language to create something memorable.
- Start a Journal. Whether purchased or made, a space for all those extra words is an excellent release, idea generator, and prequel to great projects.
- Write Something Big. Challenge the student to write a novel, or a wiki on a specific area of expertise, or a serial fiction work for a certain purpose and audience. An independent project, with key sharing points and feedback from peers and/or a mentor, can be music to a highly verbal child’s ears if she loves projects. This student who loves politics now has 28,000 subscribers to his political digest that sums up big events.
- Recite Something. Famous speeches, poems, and monologues deserve to be heard and practiced till they fall “trippingly off the tongue.”
- Find the Root. Wordsmiths need to know the whys and wherefores of words, so give them some etymology sources, let them dig, and let them hold forth on word roots, connections, permutations, and slang.
- Heighten Awareness. Does the student hold forth too long, too often? Discuss ways of being a more effective communicator by asking a student to compose thoughts first and search for the “just right” word — not out of perfectionism, but for pithiness’ sake. Use a timer for speeches, a talking stick for discussions, or other ways of tracking and developing awareness of number of times spoken.
- Talk Smooth Sailing and Rough Seas. Discuss the gift in terms of this metaphor of the ocean. The characteristic itself is neutral. Ask: Where and when do you find people struggle to understand what you are saying?
- Challenge with Revision. Ask them to revise what the world can’t seem to say well. Challenge them to take a politician’s, celebrity’s, or some other person’s verbal mistake out in the world and reword–not just kinder, gentler words, but also more succinct, insightful, and impactful.
Anne is a gifted child misunderstood by many but soon appreciated by those who come to know her. This, we hope, would be the journey of our talented students who have so much to say.
Need more resources?
Check out Duke TIP’s video on Cognitive Characteristics of Gifted Youth or take a look at some of the courses Duke TIP offers to inspire gifted students to express themselves:
- Duke TIP’s Independent Learning self-study online course, Creative Writing: Adventures Through Time
- Duke TIP’s Independent Learning self-study workbook, Word Power
- Duke TIP’s Independent Learning self-study online course, The Writer’s Journey, Volume 1
- Duke TIP’s Independent Learning self-study online course, The Writer’s Journey, Volume 2
- Duke TIP’s Independent Learning self-study online course, Growing Up Heroic: Adventures in Greek Mythology