Monday, October 10, 2011

Writing for our Students

I recently got a new teaching position that puts me in contact with truly gifted students. I mean, they are scary smart. One student was able to detail for me the specific technological specs on Wednesday's iOS 5 down to how they rewrote the code (if this seems vague, it is because his discussion was over my head). At the same time, the student could not write a crisp and pithy sentence to save his life. I thought I was going to have to start charging gas money for traveling those convoluted, passive-voice-driven superhighways of syntax. The experience is part of a lesson I have been learning since I began this job: genius does not make one smart.

These gifted students suffer from one of the most heinous educational problems of our day: neglect based on ability, or conscientious neglect (I am not basing this term on any research, it is something I am trying to define). Conscientious neglect is the teacher who does not provide scaffolding or clearly-written instructions or criteria because his or her students are not low-performing.

I am struggling right now with figuring out how much direct instruction and scaffolding is needed to help my gifted students increase their ability to read. Yep, you read that. We received the results of our literacy test back from our coordinator and some of my students were below basic. Why? Well, let's detail some possibilities: it was a diagnostic, so they blew it off; the test was beneath them; the testing administrator and a data entry person may have entered some data incorrectly. Now, let me give you some reasons why the scores seem accurate: they are consistently low in nonfiction as opposed to fiction; they are struggling with finding main ideas in nonfiction, a fact mirrored in their writing; the curriculum provides for almost zero nonfiction in 4 years.

The curriculum is the biggest stumbling block. In four years, the extent of their nonfiction includes: works read for research (a.k.a. without teacher guidance), a handful of essays, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Slouching towards Bethlehem. The irony here is that most programs for struggling readers swear by nonfiction for engaging and training their pupils.

On top of this pile lie assignments whose clarity is akin to the expressions of the Rapa Nui statues. There is enough detail to recognize human faces in those stern stone carvings, but to get more requires feats of invention and imagination, two things that students trying to follow instructions don't need muddying the waters. I mean, writing research papers on literature is hard enough without being unclear about the criteria.

As the National Day on Writing approaches, I encourage all of us to look at what we have written for our students. Are we modeling the care necessary to help our students succeed in class? Or are we being conscientious neglecters, overestimating or unfairly burdening our students' abilities to see into our minds and figure out what we want? I know I have some ways to go before finding that balance for my gifted students, but it is a journey, an examination, worth taking.

4 comments:

Mr. Kenney said...

Ahhhh, the curse of the gifted student. That population is probably the least understood of all the variety of humans requiring special education attention. Smart? Not smart? These are not the questions we should ask. One characteristic is their ability to leap to correct answers without following a process. After 9 years of scholastic success without process, they are completely flummoxed when we ask them to follow a process--an absolutely deadly condition when it comes to learning to write reflectively. Is there an answer to this problem? Possibly. Perhaps gifted instruction might pursue process training earlier before they reach the secondary grades so the issue and the consequent problems are not so starkly dramatic.

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