Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Are Self-Contained Gifted Classrooms Elitist?

I’ve been so fortunate that both of my gifted teaching assignments (in two very different states) have been in districts with self-contained classrooms for gifted students.  From what I’ve seen, this is pretty rare, and can often be controversial.  Many think it’s elitist, and I must confess, I had some of those thoughts too, before my oldest entered a similar classroom situation when he was in second grade.   Through those experiences, and experiences of my own in the classroom, I’ve found that there are some valid reasons for these students to be together all day in the same classroom.

 The social benefit – being with academic peers - is reason enough for self-contained gifted classrooms.  I was not totally convinced of this until the second year I taught gifted kids.   It was January, and I discovered I was getting a new student, “J”.  I wondered at his mother’s insistence on moving him in the middle of the year.  It meant that he had to switch schools, abandon social bonds and friendships already made, and start over with a new teacher - and he was only a first grader.   “J” came in his first day crying and hanging on to his mother.  I thought, “Ho boy, here we go.”  After awhile he calmed down, and his mother left.  Our first subject was reading.  We were doing book clubs, and I had to guess a little as to where “J” might fit in best.  He did not seem in the mood to read one-on-one with me yet.
He came to the group a little teary again, and appeared to be angry that he was not in his usual classroom.  He slouched way down in his chair.  I passed him one of the books (this book group was just starting one). I believe it was one of the “Magic Tree House Series” books by Mary Pope Osborne.  I reasoned that even if “J” was at a reading level above these books, he would still enjoy them, and I knew it was important for him to feel successful that first day. 
We started reading and discussing the book, and what happened was amazing.  “J” began shifting in his seat – at each student’s reading and discussion; he sat up a little more.  Before long he was sitting up straight, and smiling.  His whole attitude said, “These kids are just like me!  I belong here!”  “J” was happy the rest of the day.  He never looked back, and soon became a class leader. 

Not Elitist – As Necessary as Breathing
Self-contained classrooms  aren’t elitist!  If they seem so, it’s because the adults make it seem so.  The kids are often in the same place on the “Bell Curve” as students with disabling learning needs – they’re just at the opposite end of the curve.
The transition isn’t always as easy as “J’s” was, but over the years I’ve seen it happen with my students again and again.  Often their previous teachers tell me I’m going to have my hands full with a student, and more often than not, I don’t.  They just fit.  They don’t have to act out to be noticed or get attention, or because the lesson is going too slowly for them.  Being in a room surrounded by intellectual equals is just what some kids need to let go of all that and focus on the task at hand - learning.  
To “J” and countless other students who have always wondered why they are different from others, being able to say, “I belong here” is epic.