Beyond Labels, Gifts and Talents Are Found

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 Although the terms gifted and talented (GT) and honors have become passe, they have been replaced by the even glossier Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB).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?

I thought about this when the IB program was brought to our school. IB promises rigorous, in-depth study, frequent essay writing and challenging oral assignments. Aren't those the elements all teachers should be incorporating into all classes?

It was extremely expensive to bring IB to our high school. In the first year alone, $80,000 was spent, mostly on airfare and hotel rooms for teachers attending training sessions. That same year, I requested funding to take three regular English 10 classes (two school bus loads) on a field trip to the Newseum in Arlington. The field trip would complement the course emphasis on clear, concise, coherent writing. And my students, generally, came from homes where that kind of enrichment was rare.

I was told that the trip was approved but that I would have to find the money to fund it. That involved $20 an hour for each driver for the five hours involved, along with a fee for mileage. I had to ask my students to pay to be enriched. After all, they were only in regular English.

I think back with great fondness to the "average" kids I taught. Many were highly intelligent and extremely creative. Often they came from families that, for many reasons, did not emphasize the importance of education or instill in them a competitive drive.

But, like the teenagers who enroll in advanced classes, my regular students had amazing gifts and talents. The regular students, and the teachers who work so skillfully with them, deserve our respect.

Bernie Nakamura

Fairfax County

I thought your comments were so important and well expressed when they first appeared that I put them in this column for all Washington Post readers to see. I would love to hear from others who share your feelings about average kids in regular classes, along with their teachers, not getting the respect and support they deserve.

My only qualm about what you said is that we have left the fate of such students mostly in the hands of great teachers such as you, some of whom don't have the patience and persistence you have shown in your long career.

For many teachers -- as well as principals, parents and students -- the average or below-average label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even the best educators find it hard to push against the notion that such students cannot handle very challenging lessons.

I don't think we should slap labels on AP and IB either, as glossy luxuries for the fastest kids, because in more and more schools they are proving to be quite the opposite.

Average kids can do very well in AP and IB, if given the extra time and encouragement you gave your students. The structure of AP and IB, with tough final exams no one can dumb down, protects those students from well-meaning folks who think such kids are just not up to it and don't give them the full college-level experience.

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