Gifted-Ed Guru

How to cultivate and teach talented kids.

All AP? Not for Me! Why Gifted Students Shouldn't Take the Highest Level Classes

Bill can get an A in calculus, but that doesn't mean he should take the class.

Once again, I am sitting down with a parent to discuss her child's performance in school, specifically my English class. It's a parent-teacher conference day and I have, at this point in my career, sat through literally hundreds of such meetings. Like all such conferences, I began this one a few minutes ago by thanking her for coming and asking, first, if she had any questions or concerns she wanted to address before I took my turn. Immediately, it was clear that she did have something to discuss.

"I guess I'm just wondering what we should do next year. I mean, Bill's doing fine in your English class, right? But he really complains about all the work it requires, all the time it takes. It's not that he hates school in general; it's just he'd rather be spending time on his computer writing code for his comp sci teacher than writing an essay for you."

I nod my head, not in the least surprised, nor offended. Bill is, I know, a gifted high school junior who could probably write an app for my smart phone in the amount of time it takes me to grade one of his essays. He is certainly capable of tackling the course material and challenges I offer him in the AP English class; he has a high B that could probably turn into an A if he fine tuned his efforts just a bit more; but it's also clear to me that, really, he's just not that into it. His love is not English, not critical analysis of literature, and it is certainly not writing about that literature. He is a polite student, he never complains out loud, but his body language is enough to show me that the English class I offer is not his cup of tea.

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I know what the mother is asking me because I've had this conversation dozens of times, but I confirm it anyway. "So I think you're wondering whether he should take the AP English class as a senior, or if he should be allowed to step down to the college-bound level. Is that right?"

She nods her head. "Yes. I think I'm struggling with this decision because it looks like stepping down is just an easy way out. I mean, if he can do it, if he's capable of it, why shouldn't he do it?"

It's a good question--and one I am certainly willing to address.

But I suspect my answer will surprise her.

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As a teacher who has worked with gifted students for nearly 15 years now in a wide array of grade levels and equally diverse educational settings, I must say that this concern is one I can recall discussing with parents since Year One: striking that balance of pushing a gifted child "too hard" versus "enough." This is an issue that parents of any child face, of course. But when the child is a gifted learner, the issue sometimes becomes more complex and therefore the struggle is more layered. There are many reasons for this.

Gifted students, for one, are often able to take advantage of more opportunities offered in schools. There are AP (Advanced Placement) and IB (International Baccalaureate) level classes for nearly all core subject areas. From French to chemistry to calculus to British literature, the level and rigor of classes available to gifted students is abundant. Many schools offer an extended school day with classes that often appeal especially to gifted students. (Our own division, for example, offers a "zero period"--a class about, say, engineering that starts a full one hour before the first school bus ever rolls in.) Furthermore, there are science and math oriented "Governor schools," specialty centers, and other similar facilities that gifted students are often attracted to and for which they must apply and be accepted before gaining entry.

Couple this menu of academic choices with a characteristic common to many gifted students: many of them are driven. A gifted student, not atypically, is intrinsically motivated to tackle the hardest, most rigorous option of, well nearly anything! This is the child who always selects the hardest route up the rec center's rock wall; she is disappointed when she places third in a track meet, even though she ran her fastest time yet that season. This student, yeah, she's also willing to take all AP classes and be in a school theatrical production every season. After all, she reasons, she wants to get into an Ivy league school and study medicine so these are the classes she has to take anyhow, right?

 It may not help that the gifted student also, perhaps, feels some pressure at home too. They see potential in their child that they are determined not to squander. Perhaps, some of those parents are living vicariously through their child's school life. They look back on their own school careers and realize they were a bit lazy. They wonder if this caused them to miss or forego opportunities. They want only the best future for their child and so they push her to work up to standards that they themselves wished they'd held for themselves a dozen years ago.

The truth is none of the issues listed in bold above (the opportunities available, the driven personality of the gifted student, the parent who pushes her child to accept challenges) is a "bad" thing, per se. In fact, taken individually, each is probably even "good." But combined, they make the question that the parent has posed a tough one to answer. Should her gifted child be required to take the highest level classes simply because he can?

My answer is no. For all the reasons that gifted students might typically be drawn to take the highest level classes offered, I would argue this: Just because he can, doesn't necessarily he should.

Just as gifted students might often be highly academically motivated, they might just as often be like anyone else in the world: they might have an area of interest outside of what is offered in the typical AP-level class curriculum. Academically speaking, Bill loves computer science and is talented enough to take AP English; Sara loves Spanish and has the chops to take the highest level calculus class. But Bill, I know, also really enjoys playing guitar with his friends after school and, given his druthers, would love to spend more time working on a playlist with them than revising his essay for me one more time. Similarly, Sara would rather spend more time practicing for her solo in the upcoming musical than working the extra fifteen problems her math teacher requires in preparation for that impending AP test. For Bill and Sara, computer science/guitar, Spanish/acting are much more akin to a passion than AP English or calculus ever could be. And therein lies the rub.

The fact is these students are stuck in a situation that most adults, frankly, would avoid: they are denying themselves something that brings them genuine, wholesome joy in exchange for drudgery.

Some parents might see this as temporary, that the grind the child experiences now will all be worth it in the longer run. There may be some merit to this line of thinking but to me it also feels unnecessarily limiting. A passion for something is a gift. If Bill has found that passion (academically in computer science and extracurricularly in guitar) where's the harm in freeing him up to do a bit more of the latter by stepping down to the college-bound level English class next year? After all, the title of that English class says it all. Chances are likely that this college-bound class will be just fine for someone like him who, once he enters a university, will more than likely pursue higher level studies in computer science and eschew British literature. By allowing him to take one fewer AP class, Bill gets the best of both worlds: sufficient academic challenge where it matters and the chance to be, well, happier.

                                                               ***
It's a question of what benefits the whole child--mind, body and soul--that needs to be considered at times like this. I try to articulate all of this to the mother across the table from me and by the time I am done, I think she seems somewhat relieved. There's little fun in watching one's child be miserable all the time-or in arguing with him about doing the homework for a class that he dislikes. And for my sake, I reassure her, I am no more offended by Bill's lack of enthusiasm for my class than I would be if he and I were to sit down and discuss Java coding.

English is my thing; it needn't be his.

Christopher Taibbi specializes in gifted education. He has coauthored several books on teaching.

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