Teaching gifted youth is rocket science. And sometimes it’s best if we just get out of their way so they can get where they need to go.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing my former students as grown-ups. Their adult selves blow me away–and remind me how much they taught me when they were younger. As we welcome you to Teachers Workshop in its inaugural week, what better place to begin than why we’re here? We’re here because of the gifted youth we serve.
What have gifted youth taught you? (Please don’t use full names to protect the privacy of your students.)
There’s Amanda, who makes writing a legal brief or a short story look easy (though she’ll assure you it is NOT). She still teases that the first B she ever got came from me. Then and now she teaches me about luminous prose, how the right words in the right order can stop your heart. She’s a risk taker in the arts, the embodiment of continuous learner, and a traveler to fascinating locales. She’ll leave no stone unturned in the search for answers. She’s taught me what persistence is.
There’s Teresa, whose stunning photographs transform people’s understanding of themselves. Whose humor reminded me to lighten up back in the day. Whose passion and servant heart brought seeking and grieving students together on 9/11, and whose leadership turned a group into something bigger and better than a bunch of individuals. The girl can give a TED Talk. She’s taught me what resilience is.
There’s Jocelyn, who’s now an award-winning independent journalist, whose writing in The Washington Post and so many other publications inspires me. When I sought students to help me start a summer program for underrepresented gifted youth, Jocelyn was a core member of the team, a teacher leader before she’d graduated high school. Jocelyn’s questions were always incisive and investigative; her slow smile, incandescent. She’s taught me what compassion is.
There’s Vince, whose passion for social justice has recently found its focus in teaching high school. Before this moment, where I know he’s in his element, he’s brought his boundless creativity to college teaching, to writing, and to entrepreneurship. As a tenth grader he taught me about speaking out, asking why, demanding integrity in systems that are often built, knowingly or unknowingly, to control and repress. He’s taught me what honesty is.
I have more stories of students. Right now, these four are fresh in mind thanks to recent news or encounters sharing their wonderful successes.
I look back and think of the risks we took together–in the arts or other extracurriculars, in new programs, and in classes. Many times I had a loose and open-ended project, prompt, or structure that allowed them to take the wheel. They built a fast and furious ride, equipped with engine and all the extras. Simply put, the art of my instruction those particular days was to give them space to create something new or teach me something I didn’t know.
Instruction, if it is truly rocket science, needs open space to let those rockets soar. This is not to dismiss the physics and calculus and fine-tuned analyses needed to craft an excellent lesson plan and all its components to ensure gifted youth make meaningful products, follow a substantive process, and meet high standards. If you’ll let my metaphor stretch to its outer limits of known space here, I’m trying to say this: sometimes, not knowing the limits or the size or the future of a thing, keeping it loose and broad can be exactly what’s needed for some. The openness of the project–Hey, we’re starting a club! Class! Program! Play!--lets the other creative actors, the gifted youth, just do their thing.
I celebrate these gifted souls I’ve been blessed to meet. Thanks, y’all, for making me a better human being.