I couldn't read in second grade. Not a word. The year was 1984, and Dyslexia was not yet on the school radar, especially in our small town where the entire school housed around sixty children, grades kindergarten through fifth. I remember my teacher asking me if I saw things upside down, and making me bookmarks with little squares cut out of the center so I could isolate words. It was useless to try to explain to her that even when framed in its little box, the word still appeared as incomprehensible as it did before. I would pretend to read, turning pages when everyone else did, staring at the ocean of letters in front of me, letters that I knew made sense to everyone else. The part that really confounded my mother was the fact that I could read music perfectly. That's not to say I was a musical genius; I played piano as well as any eight-year old, plunking my way through basic songs and scales. But the notes stayed put, they made sense in a way that letters would not for some time.
I was eventually tested and diagnosed with Dyslexia; however, an even more interesting prognosis came from the assessment. I was placed in OPTIC, our school's Gifted and Talented program, on the basis of my active imagination and creativity. From that point on, I would be pulled out of school one afternoon a week, put on a bus to the neighboring town, where I was walked to a spacious, second floor room and left to discover my interests. We were given free reign to explore whatever subjects interested us. At some point the letters formed into words and my Dyslexia, while far from gone (never, ever ask me to construct anything using written instructions or give you driving directions), became less troublesome. This was my routine clear until high school. One blissful afternoon a week, I had the chance just to explore things that were interesting to me. I studied poisons and antidotes, folk stories and mythology, religion. No one expected me to be a math genius or a brilliant writer; I was allowed the opportunity to be curious and given the tools with which to explore.
I was what would eventually term as 'Twice Exceptional', meaning that while I was academically gifted, I also had a learning disability. I'm not uncommon; many gifted kids also carry the label of Dyslexia, ADD, Autism to name but a few. In fact, labeling kids has become increasingly common in today's schools. My Dyslexia label never followed me out of elementary school. But if I were a second grader today, that tag would potentially stick with me until graduation.
My son is now in the second grade. He plays the drums, dreams of being a rock star, can identify whether a guitar lick is Deep Purple or Black Sabbath, obsessively reads books of bizarre facts and lists, loves Harry Potter and hates math. He was placed in an accelerated class this year. Recently his teacher tried to have him assessed for Resource (aka Special Education) due to his frustrations in math.
Here we enter the sticky world of today's GATE programming. In today's elementary accelerated classroom, a child is expected to be exceptional at everything: Reading, Spelling, Science, Math, and Organization. If that child falls behind on any one of these subjects, they risk being labeled as Special Needs.
If they can make it to middle and high school, the GATE program becomes a bit less cloudy. A Gifted high schooler can take Honors English and Remedial Math because the system then recognizes that being great at one thing doesn't necessarily mean great at all things. But how does the Twice Exceptional student navigate the system to get to that point? Is a student who excels in one subject but struggles in another worthy of a label such as Dyslexia, or ADD? What about the kids who truly fit those labels? The 2nd grader who can't read, the child for whom it is physically painful to sit still, how do we serve those students alongside the kid who is simply lousy at multiplication?
And above and beyond this debacle, how does today's Gifted and Talented program serve the needs of the child who is exceptionally creative but not particularly academic?
The Atlantic Monthly's 2013 report: 'Do Gifted Programs Improve Learning', examined the test results from two groups of elementary age students: one GATE class and one regular. There were marginal differences that pointed to the conclusion that being in an accelerated elementary class had little to no impact on learning. Education Next's 2015 'Poor Results for High Achievers' analyzed middle school students and garnered much the same results. The test results of gifted learners and regular students were essentially the same.
So what does it all mean? As much as my ego loves the fact that my son is in a GATE program, my heart tells me it might not be the right place for my quirky, creative child. How do we as parents counter our natural instinct to push our kids and brag about their accomplishments with the reality that, like us, they are fallibly human? In Walt Whitman's words: "I am large; I contain multitudes." For myself, I hope my son's exceptional and average multitudes combine to create a young man who can continue to confound me with his musical tastes and impress me with his Harry Potter trivia. Math? Maybe it will happen for him next year; maybe he will become one in a long line of genius thinkers who stunk at arithmetic. Whatever might come, it is not up to me to decide it for him, but rather to step aside and let him be a kid, multitudes and all.