Better Than a Fairy Tale
The students in a Seminar classroom in San Diego City Schools are expected to vary in their skill and achievement levels and in their abilities, interests, and ways of thinking. According to the booklet, instruction should be tailored to those differences.
If you ask Alma Gonzales why she’s so happy with the Seminar program, she’ll tell you it’s because this promise has been kept, and Sammy is getting the support she needs to live up to her potential.
Though Sammy started the third grade at least a year behind in her reading level, she caught up two years and was “right where she needed to be” by the end of third grade.
Her third-grade teacher, Mr. Nguyen, says Sammy began the year as a “shy and reserved” girl with low self-esteem and low skill levels in math and reading. Despite her insecurities, she “never once showed any lack of interest or motivation.” And while it was tough at first to draw her into group discussions, by the end of the school year, Sammy “was putting in her two cents like anyone else.”
Nguyen’s gentle approach with Sammy was one of the things Alma liked best about him. She also appreciated the things he helped her to understand about her daughter.
Sammy’s time in the Seminar classes has resulted in what Alma describes as something akin to “a flower blooming. She was shy and quiet and, like I said, a little insecure. Now she’s more outgoing, and she’s always telling jokes.”
Then there’s Sammy’s new, expansive vocabulary. Alma tells a story of one day last year when the family was teasing Sammy, how she turned to them and said, “Thanks for being facetious.” Alma didn’t know what it meant.
“The way she talks…I love it. Every day and night, she’s always reading. She tells me what she likes, what’s sad, what’s nice, and what’s not so nice in the stories she reads.”
Does that mean the program really is the fairy tale Alma saw in the booklet?
“Oh, my God.” She nods, her face flushed with sincerity. “And even beyond.”
They Haven’t Learned to Sweat
If you ask Ellis Hensley what went wrong during Shawn’s first year in the Seminar program, he’ll say, “It’s just not what he needed.”
When Shawn entered Ms. Emmett’s Seminar class (before budget cuts necessitated a change in procedure), Open Gate students at Oak Park stayed with the same teacher from third through fifth grade. Although the students in Shawn’s new class were more of a match for him intellectually than those in his previous class, he had a hard time fitting in as the newest student in a group that had been together every day, with the same teacher, for two years.
But Shawn was accustomed to being the new kid and he adapted. For the most part.
Ellis appreciated the creativity of Ms. Emmett’s lesson plans, which enabled Shawn to produce some impressive work, including a Picasso-inspired self-portrait, an oral report that Shawn gave while dressed as John F. Kennedy, and a poem about sitting on a roof and contemplating the idea “that every person, animal, insect has a whole life just as real and complex as yours.”
Ellis also received regular reports from Ms. Emmett claiming that while Shawn was perceptive, insightful, and witty in one-on-one conversations, his disruptive, “attention-seeking behaviors” interrupted the lessons. These were the same challenges Shawn had always had in school: talking out of turn, disrespecting the authority of his teachers, and not following directions. Ellis felt that some of these issues might have been exacerbated by the loose, get-up-and-do-as-you-please management style of his son’s teacher.
“I don’t know if it was so much ‘attention-seeking’ behavior,” Ellis says, “but I do think he honestly believes he’s smarter than everyone, including the teacher, so that if he has something to say, it’s of dramatic importance that everyone hear it.”
Ellis holds Shawn, not his teachers, accountable for his behavior, but he also believes that Shawn does “tend to do better in a more structured environment.”
After Shawn’s year in Ms. Emmett’s class, Ellis hoped that middle school would provide more structure. He filled out the magnet-school application, put San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts as the first choice, because some of Shawn’s friends would be there and because Shawn’s one great love was art. Ellis thought maybe art school would be the place where Shawn would learn discipline, through drawing or whatever medium he chose to work in.
Shawn would’ve been automatically placed in the Seminar program at the art school, except that there wasn’t one for sixth-graders. It wouldn’t be available again until seventh grade. The gap was of no concern to Shawn’s father. By that point, Ellis believed that gifted education was more “frou-frou” than what Shawn needed. He felt that gifted classes encouraged debate and other activities that emphasize thoughts and ideas and that Shawn didn’t need more help in that area.
“What Shawn needs is to learn to stay on task and work to the best of his ability,” Ellis says. “In math, for example, he’s above average, but he’s not gifted in it. The problem is that when it challenges him, he just gives up. He thinks it should be easy because he’s smart. And when it’s not, he throws up his hands.”
Ellis says that children like Shawn (and yes, himself) who don’t have to work as hard as others to understand concepts or ideas, or to get good grades on tests, end up missing out on the importance of effort. “These kids know how to think, but they haven’t learned how to sweat.”
You Have to Conform to What They Want You to Do
Ms. Emmett (who taught Shawn’s fifth-grade class and Sammy’s fourth-grade class the following year) questions the San Diego Unified School District’s use of the Raven as its sole assessment of giftedness.
“They do it because they don’t want to discriminate by language,” she tells me over the phone one day in August. “But in other districts, you don’t get into the GATE program if you’re not a strong reader. If you’re taking in their verbal abilities, and their reading scores are high, well, of course, it’s a whole other thing. I had a couple of kids — [one in particular] was one of the lowest, in terms of basic skills, kids I taught in 20 years. And he was Seminar. Like, what? I think he cheated on the test.” She laughs. “He was really good at cheating.”