Elric of Melnibone’s Fireside Chai Symposium

Gifted children learn hard lessons quickly in a traditional school setting. I did. One of the first ones I learned was the ‘river of worksheets’ paradox. Finish my work early, and I was simply given more work; I might have only needed to see that particular cycle once or twice at the most before I learned to keep pace with my classmates. But that, in turn, created disappointment among my teachers, and by extension, my parents; I seemed capable of so much more, but tended to work no more quickly than anyone else in the class. That made me lazy. So which was I to pick? Scylla or Charybdis? Down one path lay an endless stream of ‘enrichment,’ really no more than rearranged versions of the work I’d already done; down the other lay a label, and an endless stream of parental disappointment.

There is something to be said for the relationship between telling a child that he or she is special before asking them to be special. They go together hand in glove. Feeding a gifted child that endless stream of worksheets is not communicating anything other than the outlines of a game to be played out, Cold War-style, among the desks and chairs of mainstream education. Why, then, are we surprised that – when we ask a child to be special – the response is underwhelming? Should we perhaps not first tell a child that he or she is capable of more, and to bring that child into the discussion of how best to match motivations, capabilities, and content? Conversely, beginning with a statement of fact – “your capacity for thought changes some of the rules of the game, and that should not mean simply asking more of you” – can be valuable in motivating a child. The end goal, for us, is to encourage our children to use all of their gifts without fear of being loaded down with make-work or expected to be ‘gifted on demand.’ And that begins, not with a request, but with a discussion.

We can begin that discussion anywhere; in some areas, it merits a discussion of tools and technologies to be made available. There’s a fantastic movement going on in mathematics, for instance, to acknowledge the existence of calculators and computers and iPads and such and to, essentially, elevate the discussion; to determine, once and for all, that tools exist to perform calculation tasks, and to raise the stakes, so to speak. Given the existence of a calculator, the logic goes, I can – as an educator – simply give you a more difficult problem, and assume your use of a calculator. Instead of grinding a child into the ground with times tables, we can acknowledge that technology has moved us forward by some certain distance, and begin to focus the conversation in mathematics on the human capacity for creativity in problem-solving. That happened with us; E learned the basics of algebra through a fantastic iPad program called Algebra Touch, which is – as the name suggests – a solving environment that enables students to drag mathematical terms about an equation, cancel with the slash of a finger, and re-arrange a problem haptically to suit the plan of evaluation. She loves it, to the point that she’ll occasionally just fire it up and create some large algebraic equalities for the sheer Zen of dragging them to their base mathematical elegance, fingerstroke by fingerstroke. It makes algebra an organic, graceful dance of numbers for her, and I love it. Am I letting her use it to work her algebra homework? You bet I am; she’s a nine-year-old girl, and whatever I can do to make the subject get up off the page and move and breathe for her, I’m going to do. She’s nine and doing algebra; rules have already been broken. Why not break some more on her behalf? I’m telling her that she’s special before asking her to be so.

In other subjects, telling before asking can be as simple as enabling the child to place some environmental variables under his or her control. Critical thinking is an area I tackled this past fall with E. My plan was to do a month or so on the works of Michael Moorcock, discussing the relationship between the Eternal Champion (as Moorcock sets him forth) and other mythological constructs, as The Hero With a Thousand Faces discusses. I also wanted to get into a bit of the nature of law and chaos, which Moorcock handles fantastically, and I wanted to tie it all together under the banner of a genre that E reads well (science fiction and fantasy). And, in my pre-Get Out of the Way mindset, I was going to do it all in very traditional didactic fashion.

The first day of this was an utter disaster.

Deeply school-ingrained E showed up ready with all of the plot basics in hand, ready to write a dreaded five-paragraph essay on Elric at the drop of a hat, but I realized quickly that school had done nothing to build her literary critical thinking skills yet. Worse yet, I’d done nothing to bring her into the discussion as to how we were going to work on this. I’d committed by own cardinal error; I’d asked her to be special before I told her she was special – or, in this case, even prepared her to succeed! So back to the drawing board I went, and we did a week’s worth of crash-course discussion on reading a book critically, using books she knew inside and out as examples. I let her pick the books, and even let her turn the tables here and there and come up with the discussion questions (and she greatly enjoyed that). It was hard for her to learn that it’s not enough to understand the plot; that’s table stakes, like calculation in 21st-century math. What I was going to be asking of her was to think about the book. But, I told her – in tell-then-ask fashion – we could do that in any setting E liked. As it turned out, that involved a lot of whiteboarding on her part (she loves to draw out concepts and connections), and she made it clear that she’d very much like a cup of chai before launching into this, and would it be possible to have a fire while we talked?

Yes and yes, I replied; and in so doing, I communicated clearly to her that I was not going to be weighing her down with elementary-school trappings, nor asking for the sort of plot-centric descriptions fourth-graders are asked to do. But the counterweight to that, to the fireside whiteboarding with chai in hand, was that I was going to ask more of her again. And she delivered – beautifully – over the course of the next month. I made a lot of chai, and cleaned a lot of whiteboard territory, and in the end, telling E that she was special before asking her to be so won out again.

Going forward, I made it a point in homeschooling E that I would never ask of her with one hand without offering with the other.

One response to this post.

  1. […] think I’d have learned from last year’s experience, wouldn’t […]


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