Observing three-year old children in free play as part of my first teaching job opened the magic of their imaginations to me. I noticed they
- Choose what interests them
- Use what’s available to create (including the teacher and other kids)
- Take risks to figure things out
After using all their vitality and resources, they need a nap.
Four years later, the principal of my new school, Hunter College Elementary School, suggested I devise my own way of teaching my gifted four-year olds to read.
What interests four year olds most?
Self/family/home. Five year olds? Machines, snakes, caterpillars, boats, kites. What better way to learn to read than to make a book? The kids started with a word like me. They wrote out the word and drew a picture of me above it. Next, Mom, Dad, brother Joe, sister Kate. Pretty soon, they had a bunch of pages, which became their first homemade book and…they could read it! Book two was another self-made book about what interested them the most. From there to picture books.
Lesson 1: Spend your creative energy on things that fascinate you.
I put this plan for creativity to use myself when, two years later I sat down with a legal pad and a pencil at my desk facing the Delaware River ten months after my son was born and wrote the words: gifted, or just your average weirdo? These last six words became a book. The question I was trying to answer was: Do gifted children learn differently from other children? My observations had taught me that if gifted children are forced to conform in their learning, the result could be disastrous. Some children go overboard and take on the identity of a troublemaker becoming a behavior problem.
According to psychologist and educator of gifted and talented children, Joseph Renzulli, the highest level of learning is when “the learner assumes the role of the first hand inquirer, the student thinking, feeling and acting like a practicing professional.” This is why writing a book to learn to read worked.
“I am an author and artist. I can write, draw,” the gifted four-year olds at Hunter said to themselves. “I want to know the words I’ve written. If I know them, I’ll be able to read my very own book!”
Lesson 2: Design something that gives you a product.
The word DESIGN fascinates me. Like the Kindergartener building a fort, the designer joins his imagination and knowledge to create something for himself, but that others can see and use. “I designed an energy efficient city,” an eighth grader said. I designed the set for a play,” a ninth grader said. How can the designers ever forget how they have used their minds, if the process to get to product was so energizing, so thrilling? The designers also had to deal with ideas that did not work, before they came up with the ones that did. They learned to handle frustration because they were invested in “seeing” their product, and having others “see” it. Have you ever watched a kid build a structure from blocks only to knock it down, and start all over again?
Lesson 3: Understand your failures build your success.
After using all your energy and resources, take a break.