Beyond Labels, Gifts and Talents Are Found

(By Julie Zhu -- Montgomery Blair High School)
Thursday, June 12, 2008

Editor's note: This first appeared as a guest column in Fairfax Extra. Extra Credit wanted to comment on it.

One segment of the school population is being overlooked, especially in Fairfax County: Students who enroll in the "regular" classes and the teachers who teach them. Although the terms gifted and talented (GT) and honors have become passe, they have been replaced by the even glossier Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB).

Such exalted status is awarded to those courses that students and teachers who opt out get little respect. But many wonderful educational opportunities exist in regular classes for students and teachers alike. I know this firsthand.

I retired in 2000 after more than 25 years in the high school classroom, the last 17 in Fairfax County public schools. I was awarded the rank of Career Level II educator during the merit-pay evaluations of the early '90s. Even so, I never sought to work with the advanced classes. I felt that there was much greater need for my skills and experience with teenagers who had little opportunity for enrichment at home.

The students responded. My greatest thrill came during the fourth quarter of each year when my English classes tackled Shakespeare. Instead of merely assigning a play to be read, we always dug in deeply. After watching a film version, reading the play in the original, discussing the language and writing about the themes, the students selected a favorite scene to enact in small groups. They memorized lines, made costumes and built scenery. It was exciting, and they were excited. I was always amazed by the creative, accurate portrayals they gave.

This was true of all my students, including those in transitional English, a special class for English as a second language students preparing to mainstream but not quite comfortable with native speakers. I gave them a challenge along with adequate preparation, and they achieved wonders. My standards were high, and there were no free rides.

The experience our daughter had in a Fairfax County school buttresses my point. In her freshman year, she took the accelerated English 9 course, which at that time was labeled GT. She absolutely hated it. The teacher did not motivate, and the material was far above her maturity level. She refused to even consider a GT class again.

In 10th grade, she had a fabulous teacher and worked eagerly on all assignments. She requested the same "regular" teacher the following year and continued to blossom. That episode proved to me, if I needed proof, that the individual classroom teacher makes all the difference. The course title is incidental.

Some years ago, my family attended a baseball game at the old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. I was taken aback when, during the seventh-inning stretch, an announcement was made welcoming the "sixth-grade GT class" from an elementary school. Why include the GT designation? Would a "regular" class of baseball fans have been less welcome?

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