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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Let the Great Excel

In modern education, we spend ninety percent of our time and energy on those who aren't quite up to the mark. Granted, we have far too many such students. Still, those at the top of the class are often ignored, used as peer helpers, or simply given "busy work". This is not because teachers do not care about them; trust me, we appreciate them with every fiber of our being. It's simply that in these days of accountability and standardized exams, we aren't given the sort of academic freedom that would allow us to cater to these students as we'd like to do.

I'm one of the lucky few who has been able to teach a class full of gifted students. I'll never forget it; it was a teacher's dream. My seventh graders were introduced to Poe on day one, as we began reading The Murders in the Rue Morgue. I was able to see them grow from shock and fear at the unexpected complexity of the material (they'd never been challenged in this way before) to appreciation for the nuances and depth of the text. We shifted from Poe to Aristotle, reading from several of his tomes and exploring the basis of Western thought, the ideas we all take for granted but which, at that time, were fresh and new to the world. During the 2004 election cycle, we held debates after examining what makes a rational argument. Students were encouraged to call students out for using ad hominem attacks, straw man arguments, or engaging in other fallacies.

We began the year with one student testing at a college reading level, and ended with over ten. The growth was phenomenal. Every student completed a research paper complete with footnotes and a bibliography done in MLA style. I was able to do all of this while also teaching the same grammar and social studies standards that every other seventh grader was receiving. Why? All of my students were above average. Grouping them into an environment in which all were expected to excel encouraged them. Even those who were previously shy flowered not only academically but also socially, as who in this class could make fun of them for being smart?

This is what happens when we allow our best to shine. I'm sad to report that the experiment only lasted two years. Still, the students who were part of it describe it as something they will never forget.

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