Tears in the Garden

Tears in the Garden

I cried today while I was at work. Very unprofessional of me, I know.

Today was planting day at the school where I am the new garden club advisor.  Recently, I’ve spent 10-12 hours prepping the garden beds for planting. Over the weekend, I purchased the plants. I made sign up sheets for the teachers and today about 150 students were scheduled, class by class, to come outside and plant an annual in the school garden. Two nights ago, my husband helped me till it up. Last night I went to put out plant markers for a search and find with some of the more unusual named plants, count shovels to make sure I had enough, and generally check to see if we were ready. By the time I sat down last night it was 9:30. I had 16,000 steps on my FitBit. I had worked. Hard.

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By 6 a.m. this morning, my husband was taking the plants over to the school, about 20 minutes away, to drop them off for me. I arrived at 8:30 a.m. and left at 3:15 p.m.. I was in the garden all day and it wasn’t all rosy, believe me.

My problem started before today. The “old” garden manager is still very much involved with the garden beds I was hired to care for last fall. She’s said I am doing a good job but then adds many suggestions about what or how things should be done, as well as telling me that I should ask permission if I need to replace a plant.  Until late last week, I was able to ignore these suggestions.  But, as the planting dates loomed closer, I could feel my annoyance building. I let a couple of  emails from her go unanswered, hoping to give off the impression that I knew what I was doing and did not need guidance. After all, for each of the last 14 month’s of May, I planted with 30 or more school aged children in a school garden close to my house – at the school my boys had attended as elementary students.

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Intensity builds

But since the end of last week, I felt my intensity grow. I was super focused on doing a good job and doing it right, but a couple of thoughts kept floating to the surface. The  predominate theme was that this job entails too much gardening and not enough teaching for me. I am a teacher first and gardener second – the garden is the vehicle in which my lessons ride.

So, when I planned today’s planting session, I gave a mini-lesson on annual plant life cycles, seeds, and a how-to demo. This took 10 minutes. Planting took 10 minutes (each child only planted one plant). And, I also constructed a search and find for the students to do after their planting was done to introduce them to the plants in the garden bed. One of my educational goals for this garden is to connect the students to it. They see it, walk by it, or even through it, but do not know about it. It is part of their “place”, their school, where they spend a majority of their waking hours. They should know about it.  This was a simple exercise to learn plant names and where they are in the school gardens.  One of my strengths is being super organized, so fortunately, this plan worked well all day today.

Back Up…

But, shortly after I arrived, the old garden manager came outside. I am not sure what she was doing there. Perhaps volunteering in her grandson’s classroom. I do not know.  I was still prepping for the first class which involved moving plants around, marking spots to dig, placing shovels near the plants, etc.. I was busy. I had gotten the water spigot key from the custodian and needed to fill water buckets. She complimented me on my plant choices. Then, she asked if they were going in the main garden bed, I said that they were. Well, then I was told that “for future reference” that is the “seed” bed because second grade studies seeds.  They always just “seeded” that bed in the past. Well, I said, this year will be different. We’ll have some instant color and each student will get to put a plant in the ground. This conversation and others like it was what I was afraid of because it is pretty much how the emails have gone. A compliment is followed by a zinger. The recognition of this pattern had caused me to stress about planting at school this week.

Truly, I was not looking forward to it for this very reason. I knew I would be told, “it wasn’t they way it had been done in the past.” You know, I was hired to do a job. No one told me it had to be done the way it had been done in the past. My emotions were close to the surface; I could feel it. I had been close to “spilling” over for a few days now. My family knew it. I knew it.

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Well, the first class came out. I gave my mini-lesson. The old garden manager stayed and watched. I asked her to help and fill up some water buckets. I gave her the water key I had the forethought to get from the custodian. Our prior conversation had interrupted my prep time so I did not get the buckets filled.  She asked if I had brought a hose over to the spigot. No, just the cans and the key, I replied.

In return, I got, “Well, that doesn’t work well here. You need a hose.”

Loosing it

You know, I lost it. I thought for a minute and then said, well – it will have to do. I am trying to do a good job and I am not you or the person that helped you in the garden.  The garden will not be the same was it was when you managed it because we are different people. I never had a hose before and it always worked. UGH! This was in front of the kids!

We finished planting and she came over to apologize. Then, she went inside for a while but came back as I had a break for an hour. Despite saying I didn’t want to “get it to it” we did. I ended  up crying. This is embarrassing. There was not anyone to hear us but still I didn’t want to cry. Damn! I knew it was going to happen. So, I cried. I cried as I told her this has not been an easy transition. I am a teacher first and a gardener second.  There is too much gardening and not enough teaching with this role. The gardens are huge. They really need a full-time, dedicated GARDENER!  That person is not me. I am a teacher! If there was any ever doubt in my mind before today, there is not now.

As I proceeded with my day, my intensity lessened and I was able to relax and enjoy the students. In part, this is because this person did not return to “help” – even though we parted amlicablly.  I enthusiastically taught each group, enjoyed planting with them, enjoyed getting to know the teachers, and having both teachers and students get to know me.  I was fine with the next group, 37 second graders, their teachers, and me.  We did fine. My lesson plan and organization of the planting  worked.

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So, what happened here? Well, first off, my emotions have been close to the surface for a while.   Since last month, I have been fighting for my garden club group again – just at a different school. I’m tired of fighting for my groups. Tired. I am only trying to enrich  students and yet, I have to fight for the opportunity to do this. Paid or volunteer, I have to fight. It isn’t right and it is exhausting!  Secondly, in part, I am grieving for my previous garden club group; this was a group of students I led for 13 years. I miss them. I miss the familiarity of the school, the teachers I know who appreciated me (and the few that didn’t), I miss it all.  Planting with new students, however great they were, made me miss my old students. There is no denying that.  Thirdly, May has been extremely busy.  I have a senior in high school, a looming graduation  (9 days), visiting family – some who have not been here in 5 years, finishing of two graduate school classes, and organizing the planting all the while I was working on cleaning up the garden. Not to mention things to do in my own yard!

I always try to look at things from another perspective. I told the person that brought me to tears earlier that I live down the road from the garden I used to manage and if I saw someone working in it, I would never stop and tell they what they should do or what I used to do. I resigned, much like this person resigned. I have no right to tell the person that takes over what to do.  Yet, I was being told.

What do I do?  Well, I can tell you what I think I should do. I can tell you what my husband wants me to do. But, that can wait. The other thing  I have been thinking about is how I need to get my intensity under control. Not everyone understands intense people. I get that. But, I am one. I do not necessarily like that about myself. It has its advantages, but probably more disadvantages. I will tell you this, I am thinking of ways I can enjoy life more, be LESS intense, and more relaxed.  And, yet, I will also tell you that having students who just met me today and left school waving, calling me by name, and telling me planting was fun was the highlight of my day.

But, I also know that life is much too short to be crying in a school garden at ten o’clock in the morning, with a person I barely know.  It just isn’t something that needs to happen. And, I’m not quite sure a hug from a kindergartener or even a whole line of them makes up for that.

 

 

 

 

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Procrastination Fueled by Inefficiency, Disorganization, and Devaluing

Procrastination Fueled by Inefficiency, Disorganization, and Devaluing

Procrastination is not usually something that affects me personally. Character traits such as being highly organized, efficient,  motivated, and goal orientated are more likely terms you might hear to describe me and my work ethic.

However, here I am procrastinating! I should be working on my graduate course work this morning.  Still left to do are two more weeks of assignments, a final project, and more progress on analyzing my study data with a move towards writing up my findings. But, here is what I’ve noticed.

Our assignment this week was finally posted yesterday (Thursday evening). It was supposed to be posted last Sunday. Our course weeks run Sunday to Sunday. This Master’s degree is entirely online and after this semester, I will only have five credits left. I am ready to be done! And, I don’t feel that way because I am tired of learning or tired of the subject matter – Environmental Education. Just the opposite, I am finding more and more opportunities to share what I know and encourage others to work to conserve our natural resources, provide habitat for declining species, and act as stewards. But, I am ready to be done with the system of higher education – at least the system I find myself in at the current time.

Why – when professors expect your work to be submitted on time do they not expect the same of themselves? Our course runs Sunday to Sunday – our assignment should have been posted Sunday, not Thursday! For an organized person, such as myself, and I expect many of my class cohort, this is intolerable!  Most likely, we have all planned out our weeks, and given ourselves adequate time to do the readings and then, the assignments. When the assignments are not posted in a timely and organized fashion, we suffer!

Then, when the assignment was posted it was accompanied by a disclaimer that because we are “virtual” students, and not stopping by our professors “office” to remind her of our class, we have been sent to the bottom of her priority list! What?! I pay tuition too! This is not right, and it certainly isn’t right to devalue our student status just because we are not “bothering” her left and right with knocks on her office door!

You know, I taught years ago at the college level in a different discipline, and this would never have been tolerated. The devaluing of your students, the lack of organization in posting assignments, the inefficiency of grading (none of our previous work had been graded until the end of week eleven!)

In sum, it is all affecting my level of motivation and leads me – a non-procrastinator – to procrastinate! I have lost all interest in doing a good job on my work because I do not see a good job being done in return! I know my professor is busy – it is her job to be busy! But, despite being virtual students and maybe, in part what causes us to be virtual students, is that we are busy, too!

And, to further my own ire, I am working on a research study with her as my mentor! Let me just say that it is a good thing that I can chalk up her lack of involvement with this to the fact that I took on research as independent study credits.  It’s been truly independent – without even a syllabus or set of objectives to guide me through this semester or last. My sister, who is an assistant professor at another university, tells me this is very abnormal! I guess, I don’t need to be told; I know!

I have long fought for educational reform at the K-12 level. We still need to fight for changes within that system. But, what I am seeing and experiencing now, is a lack of teaching standards at the college level. With three boys either finishing their secondary education, or entering into the second phase of their educational lives – at the college level, it truly concerns me.

As educators, we cannot expect our students to perform at their highest level, adhering to rules and standards, when we – as their teachers, mentors, professors, and guides – fail to do so ourselves!  I firmly believe that those that teach CAN and DO – and those that don’t – SHOULD NOT!  I am counting the days until I am done with these courses.

 

 

 

Lessons from a Home Maker Space

Lessons from a Home Maker Space

Just over a year ago, my husband bought a 3D printer for our house. Really, it was bought for my 18-year-old who will graduate from HS in a few months. He’s our inventor, our experimenter, our dreamer.  Over the course of the last year, he’s put the 3D printer to good use.  He played with it enough to learn how to use it well. He’s read tutorials, been on forums, and even fixed it a time or two when one of the axis’ seemed off or the thermostat was not functioning. He’s patient. He is persistent and he perseveres. He’s self-taught. And, he’s great at using the printer, the software that goes with it, and our CNC machine – another “toy” out in my  husband’s shop.

 

Miniature versions of Groot have been made, some to keep and some to give away.  Car parts have been made as a custom order from a referral made by a friend at the high school. A vacuum table accessory has been developed and more, just by learning and persisting with a new tool, new knowledge, and practicing new skills.

 

He did not give up when things got hard. Instead, he tried to figure out the problem – and fix it – whether it was software or hardware based. It’s been fun watching him learn with enthusiasm.

 

And, this experience says a lot about learning. None of the skills he is using are measured at school. There is nowhere to apply them there with the exception of the art class with a very flexible teacher who let him carve a notebook cover of a wolf instead of sketching one for his notebook.  That was so cool!  Even the computer science course being taken now and the AP physics course of last year did not allow application of these skills.  But, he learned them anyway – because he wanted to.  Free of grades, free of judgment, free of the demand to be “right” with his answers every single time.  It seems he has been able to go beyond the walls and narrow tunnel traversing that traditional teaching and learning environment. Instead, he has become able to direct his own engagement in absorbing new material and the manner in which that is done.  The 3D printer and our home maker space has allowed my son to feel accomplished and have pride in what he has learned and produced.

School used to be the way kids obtained these feelings about their skill sets. Maybe it still is the path for “in the box” thinkers or traditional learners. But, the ability to think critically. learn from one’s mistakes without fear of a poor grade or drop in GPA, and continue forward, are traits we want all our children to have by the time they are adults. Where they acquire them should be secondary.  The home maker space, 3-D printer, CNC machine (on which he is also self-taught and produced products), and table saw have been essential for learning and making our son not only college ready,  but life ready.  I am glad we could provide these tools. He’s used them well with only the guidance of his own intelligence, drive, and dreams.

Now we have in-depth conversations about the synthetic production of body part replacement or web-based companies for products made on these machines that he has continued to master.  He is inspirational.  He is a new breed of learner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photos on phone

 

Starting to Sprout: The Growth of a New Garden Club

Starting to Sprout: The Growth of a New Garden Club

In October, I accepted a position as a Garden Club Advisor for an internationally themed elementary school in our area. It is a well-known, well-respected school of choice, locally. I do not want to say I was a shoe-in for the position, but I interviewed offering 13 years of experience of leading a garden club for an elementary school in my resident school district. Not only did I lead the club, I founded it in the fall of 2004 after completing my Master Gardener Volunteer Level One Training. What was supposed to be a way for me to obtain my volunteer hours, actually turned out to be my calling!  I am meant to teach children, this I know.  I have come to learn that I want most to teach them about our environment. Environmental education allows interdisciplinary lessons to be woven through all subject areas. It is a great fit for me, and hopefully, a new set of students, too!

After serving over 500 youth in my resident district, including my own three boys, and countless others that I developed relationships with during the last decade, I ended the group. Why, is not important for this post. Essentially, I needed to, so I did. It took a long time – actually years – to arrive at that decision. But, finally I was ready to leave. But, I knew I cold not go back to this school to visit, to hold my other group – a writer’s circle, or even to maintain the butterfly garden that I so lovingly created and maintained with students since 2006. I had to make a clean break.

Unexpectedly, this fall,  I saw an advertised position, a paid position for a Garden Club Advisor at a neighboring school district. A larger school system with a larger garden. A new school with new students! I did not need long to think it over.  I applied and was hired the day I interviewed.

Tonight, I held our fourth garden club meeting.  I had four students. We planted bulbs – not the bulbs I used with my previous group – but different kinds. Not one bulb per student – but six. Forcing bulbs and teaching young children about bulbs as plant structures is one of my favorite lessons.  I can firmly say that by the time we were done today, I think it was one of their favorite lessons, too!

Our group is jelling, I am happy to say! Yes, it is a small group. It is about 1/6th the size of my first garden club group at my previous school. Still, the students are engaged, good listeners, and curious about what we are learning. In addition, I am being paid! PAID! And, I am still love what I am doing!

I won’t lie. It is different. A new building. A New staff. The fourth administrator with whom I have worked. But, relationships take time. I have the time to build another club. It seemed this month was a turning point. I met with the principal on Monday to discuss my vision of the club for her school.  Mostly, I want to share with the staff, parents, and students what my vision is – not only beautiful gardens but the gardens used to educate, instill pride, and a collaborative effort. We put some plans into place to help me communicate the vision.  I want to get rid of any preconceived notions that might exist about my role. While the gardens are beautiful and will need maintaining, I am there for the students, first and foremost.

Our club meeting had a new comfort level. The students arrive knowing who I am, my expectations, and how the club meeting goes. I have gotten to know them, with the need for name tags long gone.  They are a great bunch. We talked about flower bulbs.  I was seated at a table with the students. We learned. We laughed. We planted some bulbs. We cleaned up as a group! Together. And then we played Garden Club Hangman which just means that our vocabulary words from the day’s lesson were used. New rules of play were accepted without question.  Everyone was picked up on time at dismissal. It was a very satisfying meeting.

On the way home, I found myself smiling. Our club is starting to sprout! Roots have been established. The building is warm. We are growing. Together, our garden will grow.

Advice on Choosing an Elementary School

Advice on Choosing an Elementary School

Every once in a great while, I will be asked an odd question….

…..”how did your son complete all his high school math in middle school” was one of the more classic examples of the odd questions posed to me in the past.

But, last week I was asked by someone I know only through emails, if I could tell them about the elementary school at which I told them I was working as a newly hired Garden Club Advisor. I had to back up quite a ways in my emailed response explaining that I actually knew very little about this new school at which I was trying to claim as my home base. This was much different that the intense loyalty, dedication, and yes – even defensiveness, I felt towards the elementary school I had just left this past June after being an involved parent and volunteer for the past seventeen years!

I took this person’s question seriously, as I would hope anyone else would take a similar question from me. This acquaintance had revealed that she and her husband had two toddlers and even though their school years’ seemed far away, she was trying to learn as much as possible about the elementary schools in our area. I like a prepared person, and I also did some research (nineteen years ago) on the schools in this area. Although, it has been five years since I had a student in elementary school, I felt qualified to answer, having spent a great deal of time, in multiple different roles, at one of our local elementary schools.

So, I decided to try to help her out. Firstly, I congratulated her on looking into the upcoming event of her children starting school. Then, I reiterated that I knew next to nothing about the school I now found myself in as the Garden Club Advisor. The job was posted; I had just left a similar volunteer position. I applied, and was hired.  I told her what I knew. The school was an “international” elementary school – a school of choice in a larger district that neighbors my resident district. Their international theme means that students and their families can choose from two tracks, a Spanish language and cultural immersion track, and a global track that focuses on multiple cultures the world over. The gardens, of which I now find myself in charge, also have an international theme – matching the school’s mission. I have my work cut out for me this spring, as there are many plants and connections to the various cultures that I do not recognize.

But, she essentially was asking me how to go about picking an elementary school or school district. Many families do not have the ability to choose. I know that.  However, that particular social justice issue is beyond the scope of this post. But, she was telling me their family did have a choice. And, her question was logical, as the school I am now at receives many families from all over the area through open enrollment, as a school of choice.  It is not a neighborhood school (although, it is in an upper-middle class neighborhood).

I suggested she should check out the various websites of the schools her family was considering. There is a plethora of information available now on district websites, as well as the websites of the individual schools in a given district. She can peruse, at her leisure, the mission/vision of the districts, the qualifications of the teachers, the courses offered, class sizes, and even extra curricular activities such as the garden club I offer at the elementary school.

When we researched schools, prior to moving from New York to Wisconsin, I used a service/website called SchoolChoice.com. Finding a high quality school district was important to our young family during the relocation process. On this website, I was able to select the area school districts I was interested in and for a small fee per school, get information on 25 or so different factors, including the number of tax dollars spent on each student. We found it revealing and it helped us narrow our housing search down to two districts.  After that initial search narrowing, I did contact each of the districts regarding specific requests for information that was essential for our decision-making. The specifics of what I asked are not really as important as knowing you have the ability to ask! I remember telephoning one district, and being able to talk with both the superintendent and an elementary principal. Both were welcoming and helpful in providing information.

After some digging, while writing this blog piece, I could not find this service or website under the name SchoolChoice.com. Obviously, the term “school choice” has come to be a hot topic in recent years. However, I was able to find a similar service called School Digger.com that looks like it provides similar information. The point is that if you want information, do not be afraid to look for it or ask for it.

Other than directly asking school districts for information, which admittedly might be self-serving, and politically correct in the answers received, I advised my acquaintance to seek out parents with students who attend the schools they are considering.  Many parents are happy to tell you of their experience with their child’s school. Be careful, however, to get more than one opinion.  But, all in all, other parents are a great source of information.

Going to a PTO, or parent-teacher organization meeting, even before your child starts school is a great way to scope out what is important to other parents and staff at the school you are considering. We did this for a full year before our oldest started kindergarten, making games for the Spring Fling (now a Fall Festival) and helping out at the annual Chicken-Q.  By the time he was in kindergarten, I knew other families and became a PTO officer, and class-mom, myself.

Here’s the tough part however, there are only about six people left at the elementary school we chose to have our boys attend that know this history.  Principals and staff change. Districts are re-districted. New families come in, established families move on. Contributions are made and then, forgotten, along with the changing families and personnel. We were so involved in our boys’ elementary years that by the time they were no longer there (a timeframe which spanned 13 years), few of the staff knew why I was still walking the halls with book club students, writer’s club students, and holding garden club once a month.

With the research I did, we made a great choice. Our boys’ elementary years were among their best years of schooling! The staff was caring, attentive, and accommodating. The three administrators who served this elementary school over the span of seventeen years of our involvement all grew to know and appreciate our family contributions to the classrooms, and eventually, entire student body.  But, boy, has it been tough to say good-bye to that school!

In essence though, is that not what you want? Don’t  you want a place so nurturing and enriching that it becomes part of your family? This mom is on the right track by looking for that school – ahead of the time they will need to make a choice.  Lastly, I would advise my acquaintance to look for teachers who invest in their students, who get to know them as people, and want to educate those students from the point they are at, not some arbitrary pre-set classroom curriculum or standard.

Caring, Investment, Individualization, Enrichment, and Belonging. These characteristics are things I would look for when choosing an elementary school for my children if I had to do it again today. The above characteristics are as important as those of safety, growth, convenience, communication, test scores, and funding.  The former are the intangibles of a successful school choice. And, if you are lucky enough to find a place that offers your child a place to grow happily amongst their peers, with the full support of staff and administration, allowing them to be the best version of their very young selves, it will be a wise choice, indeed. Perhaps, you will also find it hard to say good-bye after a very long, but satisfying stay.

 

 

Poinsettias: An Enrichment Post

Poinsettias: An Enrichment Post

Between yesterday and today I taught five classrooms of students about poinsettias.  They ranged from second to fifth grade. What follows is some of what I shared with them.

The poinsettia is named after Dr. Joel Poinsett, the first American ambassador to Mexico. Dr. Poinsett, whose hobby was botany, saw the plant while on a trip to Mexico in the 1820’s.  It was probably growing alongside the road, as poinsettias do in tropical climates.  He was impressed with the flame red color of the plant and took some cuttings.  As I told the students, Dr. Poinsett must have been a man of some means, as he owned green houses! Upon return to his home in South Carolina, he rooted the cuttings of the poinsettia and produced more plants. Like anything beautiful, the poinsettia soon gained in popularity in the United States.

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Besides the brief history lesson, we talked about what it means when a plant is considered to be”tropical”. It is probably the last thing we are thinking about poinsettias when we see them in such prevalence at holiday time in the northern reaches of our country, such as Wisconsin. Truly, the poinsettia is ubiquitous from late October through December. It can be seen and bought almost anywhere. And, likewise is displayed similarly. Most of the students easily understood that a tropical plant would have needs other than what we have here in the mid-west in December. They knew tropical meant that the poinsettia would grow in areas of the world closer to the equator, with more warmth, bright sunshine, adequate rainfall, and humidity. As purchasers of these plants we need to imitate these conditions in our homes. We talked about how to do that as well.

The very basic part of our discussion centered around plant parts but with a poinsettia, determining the basic parts are trickier than you think.  And, I intended to trick the students!  We reviewed that most, if not all, plants have roots, stems, leaves, and flowers. In every single class, the flowers were the very last part to be mentioned! When we finally got around to establishing that flowers were indeed a very important part of a plant, I asked them where they thought the flowers were on the poinsettia plant.

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Well, students in every single class responded, the flowers red leaves of course! This was the response I got and also the one I expected. Wait a minute, the red leaves are leaves….could they be the flowers, too? No. The red leaves on poinsettias are actually modified leaves called bracts. Bracts are leaves that cluster around flowers. Ahhhh, there is a clue! The flowers on a poinsettia are in the very center of each swirl of red leaves (bracts). They are small yellowish-green nubs, not remarkable at all.  And the purpose of the red leaves (bracts), to bring attention to the flower – where pollen is found, of course!

Plant names were also discussed with the poinsettia very obviously being named for Dr. Poinsett. But, plants have scientific names as well as their common or lay names. The scientific name for the Poinsettia is Euphorbia pulcherrima It means very beautiful flower. The Mexican name for the flower is The Flower of the Holy Night or Flores de Noche Buena. We talked about families and how just like they share characteristics with others in their family – plants also belong to families and all those that belong to the Euphorbias ooze a milky sap. The poinsettia’s sap can be irritating to the skin.

Irritating is not poisonous, however. Poinsettias are not poisonous to people! Many years ago, in the 1970’s, Ohio State University studied this very idea and found that a 50 pound child would have to eat 500-600 poinsettia bracts to just get an upset stomach! That’s a lot of leaves!  No, poinsettias are not poisonous. It is must a myth that continues to be told….and told….and told – that’s how myths get spread, right!  The students definitely understood.  Still, not poisonous is not synonymous with edible. I was sure to make that point. And, we talked about how pets are different than people and might get sick (or poisoned by much smaller amounts of poinsettia leaves). So, it is best to keep this plant away from pets.

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I love poinsettias. I am confident that came across in my presentations in the last two days. Twice in the last eight weeks since being at this new school the staff have verbally recognized my passion for these subjects. I am glad they can see it. The last thing I did before leaving each room was to contribute a book to their  class library –   Poinsettias : Myth and Legend – History and Botanical Fact by Christine Anderson  and to recommend The Legend of the Poinsettia book by Tomie de Paola. I recommend those to you as well.

Still Broken: Talented & Gifted Education

Still Broken: Talented & Gifted Education

A number of recent things have got me thinking about Talented and Gifted (TAG) Education services in our school district again.

These thoughts started when we learned at the recent senior meeting that one of the high school counselors was now being called a career counselor and would be the contact person for TAG students, Advanced Placement (AP) classes, Acceleration, Youth Options, and Course Options. Students can visit him to get help with registration for the above opportunities. It sounds like he is popular since his other counseling responsibilities were alleviated by the hiring of an additional student services school counselor. I came home excited for our talented and gifted student population, taking this as a “win” for the students a group of us had advocated for some years ago.

But, my excitement did not last too long, perhaps a few days to a week.  Within a very brief time, I found myself instead thinking about who was being serviced by this counselor and exactly what services were being offered.

A number of years ago, our high school (HS) went to a self-selection process for AP classes, instead of referral or need for registration approval by an assigned faculty member.  Our family found this former system faulty,  and within the leadership of the TAG Parent Group, a group I co-founded with other parents, we pushed for self-selection and deleting the need for the so-called “approval”.  This action was far removed from helping my oldest son, who ended up leaving our resident district shortly after being denied the ability to take three AP classes as a junior (he had taken AP Calculus as a freshman and AP US History as a sophomore). He was ranked number one at the time with a 4.33 G.P.A..  There was no need to deny him the opportunity of three AP classes except to weld administrative power over our student.  Subsequently, the district lost its claim to our National Merit Scholarship winner, who ended up being valedictorian at his adopted, virtual high school, as well as a Phi Beta Kappa inductee as a sophomore at his University, and a national Goldwater Scholarship Honorable Mention winner for student research who has already presented at an international level science conference and published a paper.  They were short-sighted, then. And, I am afraid that their sight has not improved.

I have had two more students qualify for TAG services at both the elementary and middle school levels as they progressed in school. Yet, neither have received anything in terms of service from our HS.  My second oldest son, now a senior, received a letter as a sophomore from the counselor at the HS who was going to service TAG students as part of a newly expanded position, two years ago.  This is the same counselor who was now  servicing only TAG students and enrichment opportunities. Unfortunately, it then happened that our student went on to have some difficulties caused in part by an overloaded schedule (which, admittedly, we allowed) and more so, because of insensitive teaching practices such as being called stupid in front of his peers.  Unfortunately, the TAG counselor did nothing to help rectify the insensitive and unhelpful instructional situation our son found himself in.  We learned, through self-examination and reflection, but with no help from the school’s administration or guidance office,  that our senior learns “differently” than most.  That, and only that, is what he is guilty of.  Stupidity does not come into play.  At all.

And then, there is my youngest boy, who is a sophomore at the HS this year.  He has consistently tested in the 97-99th percentile in mathematics on standardized tests since being a young elementary student. He accelerated in math to the extent that he is now taking AP Calculus as a sophomore. He used to be a gifted writer, having published several times, and in at least one adjudicated compilation.  In addition, his artful origami creations, a former passion, were included in a national travelling library exhibit several years ago through Origami USA.  Yet, he has never heard from the so-called TAG counselor at the HS.  He did not even get the “letter” than my second son received.  It makes me wonder if he was even referred by the middle school personell for continued TAG service – something he had benefited from since second grade, which in, and of itself, is another story. My experience has shown me that gifted education is embroiled in the politics of education, with support of the these students and their needs being highly questioned by many – but, sadly, mostly by educators, themselves.

In the spring of his eighth grade year, my current sophomore student was provided an opportunity to “double up on English” credits during ninth grade which was mis-labeled and mis-billed as acceleration but was not.  After some consideration, we refused this course of action which really attracted many by casting a wide net, and by reports was not well tolerated by some of the students.  One of the reasons for our refusal was that he was already accelerated in mathematics and was only one of five students who took pre-calculus as a freshman.  Enough was enough. However, it does seem that we should have at least heard from this counselor at some point last year. We did not. It has made me wonder if the refusal of the “accelerated” English took him off the TAG list that was sent to the high school prior to his entering last year.  It would account for the TAG counselor not knowing of him.

Middle school TAG services were not favored by my boys, with one of them even opting out of them during his 8th grade year.  Content did not focus on their high interest areas and both were self-directed enough in their learning to continue to explore new subjects or deepen areas of learning on their own.  We did not make a big deal about it and let them drop the time spent with the TAG teacher.  Unfortunately, she was a friend at the time and this made for an uncomfortable situation.  But, we allowed it.   And, to give some credence to her effort, they were not the most willing students, shunning attempts she made at engaging them in the topics of her choice, like the law and philosophy.  Still, dropping the TAG course content did not change what they are capable of achieving – only, it seems, who might possibly know of their specific, and perhaps, niche capabilities.

So, can you understand my wondering about who is being serviced by the TAG counselor at our HS?  Of course, I could name a few students. I have a long history of advocacy in this area with local students. I have probably helped other students more than my own and that is something I somewhat regret.  Unfortunately, in addition, I do not see much improvement to our system of providing TAG services (beyond self-selection for AP, and other advanced curricular offerings) than we experienced when our oldest son was still a student at our resident district high school – that was seven years ago.  The players have changed but the scenarios have pretty much remained the same.  It is too bad we have not come farther in helping our most academically talented students to succeed. I wonder if they still feel as alone as my oldest son felt at times.  I hope, at least that aspect has improved.

What I have come to realize is that despite whether this counselor knows of my youngest son or not, he will be challenged and he will succeed.  He took an online math class over the summer through a highly regarded national university that specializes in offerings for talented youth.  We registered him for the course and set up his study schedule.  He finished on time and did well.  He is a talented artist.  He took care of setting up his own independent study in art this fall.  I am sure the experience will be enjoyable for both him and his teacher.  We really do not need the TAG counselor.  But, I still wonder …… if my son is not on the counselor’s list – a student who qualifies for service, without a doubt, by many definitions – who is on the list?  Or are they just not reaching out to students at all now?  I am not sure I want to know.  And, if he is not on the list – why not?  It is frustrating to realize that a system I knew was broken seven years ago, remains so.  It is also liberating to realize that I do not have choose to try to fix it again.