These days I have been thinking about gifted students and their college entrance. I'm moved to this for two reasons. First, I recently had a wonderful visit with faculty, staff and students at Simon's Rock College, also known as Bard College at Simon's Rock. Simon's Rock is an early entrance school, admitting students after tenth grade. Secondly, I am working this year with two younger-than-classmates-aged students who are, as always, dazzling and quirky in their own lovely ways. So I revisited notes from a 2012 parent meeting I led at the Institute for Educational Advancement (IEA) in Pasadena, California. IEA is a magnificent resource for parents and children, and I encourage you to visit their website. Jennifer Kennedy, IEA's Marketing and Communications Director, helped me assemble these notes.
Gifted students and their families should begin to think about college preparation in middle school. This does NOT mean exploring colleges and their applications. No, not at all. Instead, it means thinking and talking about skills necessary for college. Nurturing positive self-perspectives, developing productive habits and constructing appropriate coursework sequence plans in middle school years will reap benefits in the future. These tasks can also be the most frustrating to attempt.
Personal development is very important for gifted children in middle school. They should begin to take ownership of their giftedness, and ask: What does my exceptionality mean? How can I nurture it positively? How could I use it destructively? Who can help me? Especially during high school, IEA encourages mentorships, connections to adults who themselves successfully navigated special challenges. This can come in many arrangements such as project work, jobs, activities with older students, and friend or family connections. Middle school students are beginning to build their adult self-concept, and we want them to enter college with a positive perspective.
Ownership of giftedness is fundamental at all ages. Really, all ages. One colleague shared a story once about a man in his nineties who visited her to talk about what giftedness had meant in his life--he was still putting it into perspective. Middle schoolers also need to put it into perspective. In particular, they need to identify some of the choices they will have to make: Do I hide this? Rebel? Embrace it? Am I closed out from a cool crowd if I do well in school? Can I use this to annoy people who annoy me? These questions run on and on.
Earlier this year I met with a gifted seventh grader and his family. He was driving his parents nuts because his academic promise was coupled with his academic disengagement. He was doing enough homework to satisfy the assignment, and not one bit more. After discussing a wide variety of issues, we landed at the heart of the matter: video games. Non-stop video games, in fact, which he could play because he could slide by on homework. And so we arrived at the question only he could answer: how do I stop playing video games so I can do my homework? He took this conversation quite seriously, talking through what sounded very much like a gradual withdrawal plan. His parents were very proud of him at the end of our meeting.
Middle school gifted students should develop productive habits. Like our video game player, some students do not develop good study skills because they can excel in class with little effort. This may cause problems when students take on college's heavier course load. Structuring study schedules, following directions and submitting work on time should become serious responsibilities.
Middle school also marks the beginning of sequential coursework. This is particularly true in math and foreign languages. Generally speaking, if mathematically able, gifted students should study Algebra in seventh or eighth grades so they can advance to Advanced Placement Calculus BC in their senior year. For students who want to move rapidly through a math sequence, early entry into beginning math allows them to move into college level math during high school. This said, not all students rely solely on schoolwork to satisfy curiosities, and many families use summer programs or dual enrollment (enrolled in high school and college simultaneously) to enrich their child's education.
Gifted middle schoolers are at a critical point in their development, a true fork in the road. Because decisions for a middle schooler's care and education are still very much in his or her parents' hands. Supporting a gifted child through the middle school years include not only making subject matter available, but guiding a student toward good habits to continue in life, even into age ninety.
Photo: "#__HIP3281 – Version 2,” courtesy University of Wolverhampton (England), July 29, 2014 FlickrCC