Learning curve

A new approach to gifted education

In Lianne Erosa’s 1st-grade class at PS 72, students work to design a bridge thaJonathan FickiesIn Lianne Erosa’s 1st-grade class at PS 72, students work to design a bridge that will help hypothetical stranded mountain lions cross the Grand Canyon.  

Each grade at PS 72 adopts a landmark bridge to study throughout the year. It’s Jonathan FickiesEach grade at PS 72 adopts a landmark bridge to study throughout the year. It’s a reminder that the school’s philosophy is to bridge the gap between students of varying needs. What does it mean to be gifted?

The first American educational psychologists who endeavored to answer that question did so by using intelligence tests to identify and label gifted learners. Fittingly, the first gifted education class in New York City, which was founded in 1922 at PS 165 on the Upper West Side, was called the “Special Opportunity Class” — because it granted special opportunities to students with IQs that measured over 160.

But it’s no secret that traditional intelligence tests often fail to capture the true essence of a student’s capabilities. Educational psychologist Joseph Renzulli, who has spent more than 40 years studying gifted education, notes, “The Achilles heel of gifted education has been its inability to adequately include children who do not fall into the nice, neat stereotype of good test-takers and lesson-learners — ethnic minorities, underachievers, children who live in poverty and young people who show their potential in nontraditional ways.” As a New York City public school teacher, you probably know a dozen students who fall into those categories.

Now, educators in the Bronx’s District 8 are embracing a new approach to gifted education based on Renzulli’s research. Known as the “schoolwide enrichment model,” it focuses not on classifying gifted individuals but rather on developing and nurturing gifted behaviors in all students.

What’s meant by “gifted behavior”? Renzulli defines it as a three-ring cluster of traits: creativity, above-average ability in a particular area and strong commitment to a task in that area. It’s his belief that all students can exhibit gifted behaviors in certain circumstances. As the parent of a kindergartner who sometimes struggles to stay focused on his math homework but who can concentrate for hours while designing complex Lego structures, I can certainly attest to Renzulli’s theory.

One way that educators in schools implementing Renzulli’s schoolwide enrichment model seek to foster gifted behaviors is through the use of enrichment clusters, where students get to choose a topic of interest to focus on outside of their classroom. The idea is based on the distinction Renzulli’s research makes between “academic” giftedness — that is, giftedness as defined by traditional measures like intelligence tests — and what he calls “creative-productive” giftedness.

“History tells us it has been the creative and productive people of the world, the producers rather than the consumers of knowledge, who have been recognized in history as ‘truly gifted’ individuals,” he says.

At PS 72 in the Bronx, for example, students take a survey about their strengths and interests — everything from basketball to Lego robotics — and spend Friday afternoons developing their talent with their cluster.

“It’s a common misconception that kids who have a certain talent will be OK on their own,” says Lianne Erosa, a 1st-grade teacher at the school. “But for students to have an opportunity to gain a mentor in that talent, refine it and work hard — that can be a light bulb moment for a kid.”

Renzulli’s model also emphasizes the importance of classifying gifted services as opposed to gifted individuals, so that students who show gifted behaviors in certain subjects can be provided with the kind of instruction that meets their needs. In other words, gifted education can look a lot like the kind of differentiation many educators already practice.

Erosa’s class is the first in the school to be part of the Department of Education’s traditional Gifted & Talented program, which is scarce in the district. To keep up with what she calls her students’ “energy and zeal for learning,” she develops her own project-based curriculum, which can then be adopted by other teachers in the school on an as-needed basis as part of the schoolwide enrichment model.

But perhaps most compelling about the philosophy of gifted education at PS 72 is the idea that all children should have access to experiences and opportunities that might once have only been reserved for “gifted” students. Accordingly, all students at PS 72 participate in music, theater, dance and art.

Each grade adopts a landmark bridge — from the Tappan Zee to the Golden Gate — to study throughout the year in a project that spans all areas of the curriculum. It’s a metaphor for the school’s mission: to “bridge the gap” between all students in the school, from those in the traditional Gifted & Talented program to those in the Academic, Career and Essential Skills (ACES) program for students with intellectual disabilities.

“I was a disadvantaged child growing up in the South Bronx,” says PS 72 Principal Margarita Colón. “Every opportunity that was out there was only offered to me through a New York City public school.”

So it stands to reason that the schoolwide modifications Renzulli suggests in his model — like differentiation, small-group advisories and enrichment opportunities — would benefit all students.

“Everyone’s talents are shown in different avenues,” says PS 72 Chapter Leader Elizabeth Ramos. “But the important thing is they all leave at the end of the week feeling successful.”

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