What To Do With a Smart Kid

I worked with lots of smart students in my decades of teaching. I found them in middle school classes, in prison classrooms, and in the gifted pull-out program where I taught.

Some of these students were school smart. They pulled A’s on every test, wrote essays in correct form, and produced blue-ribbon science fair projects. But sometimes I worried about these school-smart kids. They invested so much time writing correct answers and competing for class standings that they lacked time and energy and courage for creative work.

But other students didn’t do any of this. They focused on outside-the-box thinking. They felt no compulsion to please teachers or establish a stellar academic career. Jumping through scholastic hoops held no appeal for them.

High I.Q.s, I learned early in my career, do not always result in gifted behavior.

“What can we do?” parents often asked—sometimes because they could sense their children were stifled under academia, sometimes because their children were failing. Both sets of parents worried because they felt their children weren’t reaching full potential.

My best tool for talking with these parents was Renzulli’s Three-Ring Concept of Giftedness.Three-Ring ModelRenzulli interlocks three traits: above-average ability, creativity, and task commitment. Gifted students, of course, have above-average ability. But they often have developed only one of the other traits. To be highly productive people, according to Renzulli, these students need to learn to bring each of the three traits into play.

School-smart gifted students—the ones with all A’s—are found in the overlap between above-average ability and task commitment. But they haven’t developed their creativity. They need to be encouraged to take risks in thinking, to be curious and adventuresome and mentally playful.

The outside-the-box gifted students—the original thinkers—are located in the overlap between above-average ability and creativity. But they haven’t developed task-commitment. They need to be encouraged to persevere and endure, to work with determination and dedicated practice.

The goal of parents and teachers is to help gifted students move toward the center—to help them use their intelligent minds to think in creative and in disciplined ways.


If I Hadn’t Given Up

When I left the prison to teach at a middle school, my inmate students gave me a charge.

“Mrs. Swartz,” they said to me. “Don’t give up on the bad kids in your class.”

This was a burdensome charge, I found. And one that became heavier by the decade, as more of my students appeared in the police reports of The Madison Press, the local paper that always found its spot on the teachers’ lounge lunch table.

We’d dine teacher-style, eating a sandwich with one hand, correcting papers with the other, and drinking caffeine, lots of it. Someone would riffle through the newspaper and then read the police reports to the rest of us

We were rarely surprised. These were our bad kids—the kids who had been without friends, some of them eerily quiet, some of them always in trouble. Some names appeared in the paper every few years. Each time I heard the name of one of my students, I felt I had failed the charge.

Todd Easton was one of these students. He sat in the back of my fifth period class and made no trouble. He didn’t do anything else, either—no homework, no classwork, no comments in class discussion. I tried with Todd for a while. Nothing worked.

One day after school, Todd came back to my room and gave me a gift, The Complete Works of Shakespeare. He handed it to me with two hands and looked right at me. Then he left. Inside he had written a short note with misspelled words.

I stood there, holding the book and feeling alarmed. If I had been teaching at the prison, I would have reported the gift. Inmates sometimes gifted prison employees they liked just before an uprising. But I wasn’t at a prison. This was a middle school.

I was back at my desk when I heard the sirens. On the street outside the school, Todd had attacked someone with a knife. A few years later, back from the detention center, he was in the paper again. And again. And then Todd killed himself.

I must have done few things right with Todd. After all, I have the Shakespeare book, still on my shelf. But I didn’t do everything I could have done for Todd. He was quiet there in the back of my class, and I had louder kids demanding attention. I didn’t meet with Todd’s parents. I didn’t ask Todd to eat lunch with me. I didn’t pair him with another student. I was too busy, too harassed with the urgent.

What haunts me is that Todd must have felt some connection with me. I might have had a chance—if I hadn’t given up.

After every knifing, every shooting, every police report, the charge is crushing. So, I’m grateful for grace. And I’m grateful for a new generation of teachers who keeps going back into their classrooms every day.


The Day I Snapped

With state mandates, district regulations, and high-stakes tests, it’s easy to forget the power of teachers. But teachers hold a frightening sway over the lives of students. One glance, one statement, or one act at a critical moment can shape a life—either diminish it or enlarge it.

One afternoon I ran out of patience with Challon. I had explained to the class how to write a thesis statement, but I knew Challon hadn’t been listening. She was too busy brooding. Her eyes were on the ceiling, her face was in a scowl, and her fingers drummed the desk.

I knew life at home was tough for Challon. So after the class was at work, I pulled my stool up to her desk. Challon, I decided, needed a personal orientation to thesis statements. But still Challon didn’t put forth the effort to track with me.

This was the last period of a fraught day: a fight in the hall, a new student, an interrupted lunch, and a general restlessness. And my head ached.

“Challon,” I snapped, “you exhaust me.”

I said those words with my eyes flashing and an edge to my tone. I said those words to relieve my stress, not to help Challon.

And this time, Challon tracked with me. Her face looked so reduced, like I had stripped her dignity. In four words I had undercut the relationship I had so deliberately been building with her.

The bell rang, and Challon escaped, leaving me in defeat. After teaching this long, I knew better. I knew that a hasty rebuke can sear the soul of a struggling student. And I could see by Challon’s face that I had misused the power of my words.

I graded several essays, fighting my guilt. But I knew exactly what I needed to do. Tomorrow I would say sorry to Challon—and say it humbly.


Small Gifts

In A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy, Thomas Buergenthal tells a story about a loaf of bread thrown to him on the Auschwitz Death Transport. As the open train moved slowly through Czechoslovakia stopping at town after town, Buergenthal weakened from hunger. Then he saw people standing on a bridge, waving and shouting. As the train was about to pass under the bridge, they threw loaves of bread down into the train.

I can imagine people on the bridges thinking that, in the context of Holocaust horror, throwing loaves of bread wasn’t much. But the loaf that ten-year-old Buergenthal caught probably saved his life.

As I read this story, I thought of how often I walked into schools where I taught tempted to stop trying. I’d see students who were high on drugs, angry because of racism, and hungry because food stamps hadn’t lasted the month. I’d see signs of neglect and abuse. I’d see depression and anger and fear. In the face of this need, my efforts seemed undersized.

What helped me most, was to think of bilateral approaches. For the long term, I tried to battle the causes of pain. Why, for example, were a disproportionate number of black students in our detentions? What culture in our school was facilitating the bully of special needs students in the hallway? Why were students hungry in the middle of an agricultural county? What could we do, I asked other teachers and administrators, to change the systems that caused all this? And in the classroom with students, I tried to teach with a social justice lens. But I couldn’t tackle all these big issues every day.

So, in the short term, in the daily rush, I learned that scattering the small helps. I learned that, if I didn’t have time for a fifteen minute talk, I could squeeze a shoulder. Smiles, compliments, and thumbs up signs are small gifts to toss through the air. But even paltry offerings can help students hold to hope.

Remember Deanna

It was four-year old Deanna who made me gasp for fresh air when she clung to me and who gave me my teaching mantra. Deanna smelled of cat litter and mice and unwashed clothes and filled-up potty chairs. And she, more than all her siblings, bore the angst of her mother who was nineteen years old, single, struggling with alcohol, overwhelmed by four preschoolers, and already disillusioned with life.

I came to see Deanna’s mother each week as a home visitor for Head Start. My job was to help her get Deanna ready for school. Deanna, by all counts, was already at academic risk.

“Don’t leave me here, teacher,” Deanna would beg at the end of every visit. I’d pry her hands from around my neck and set her down. She’d stand there, tiny and cute behind the grime, with her hair in ringlets about her face and her eyes deep and knowing.

And I’d leave her there.

But one day, Deanna and her family disappeared. Children’s Services had been coming around too often, asking too many questions.

I sat in the car outside Deanna’s empty house that day wondering what would happen with Deanna. And hoping with a deep yearning that when Deanna was a teenager, perhaps unruly and disruptive, when she was an adult, perhaps flailing and perturbing people around her—that someone would intuit her backstory and appreciate her struggle.

I never saw Deanna again.

But later I found swaggering John in my middle school classroom. John sapped my energy and elevated my stress. And I said to myself, “Remember Deanna.”

I taught the bullies of a girl who committed suicide. And I said to myself, “Remember Deanna.”

“Remember Deanna,” I reminded myself when I stood before rapists in my prison classroom.

I kept looking for Deanna. And I kept finding her. Only not in in a four-year-old body with ringlets around her face.

Steering; Not Braking

Every fall I learned to know new students by layers. And the intense kids were first. I couldn’t miss them. They emoted passionately, moved incessantly, argued vehemently, reacted powerfully, and imagined vividly.

For too many years, I tried to put the brakes on these kids. But if I was pushing the brake, they were pressing the accelerator. And this combination overloads an engine.

Dabrowski, a Polish psychologist, helped me to appreciate these standout students, to concentrate on directing their energies instead of stifling them. The more I read Dabrowski, the more easily I could spot in my students the five intensities he describes:

  • Emotional—I never knew if Jennifer would bring storm or sun into my classroom. She could pour sympathy on her classmates or spew disgust. People who share this emotional intensity with Jennifer often show a strong sense of justice and associate robust feelings with their memories.
  • Psychomotor—You can spot a psychomotor intensity by the high levels of energy. People with this intensity speak fast, sleep little, and act impulsively. Cory’s parents wondered if he had ADHD. But Cory could focus—when he cared about a concept. It was when he needed stimulation that he twitched, tapped, and ticced.
  • Intellectual—Jessie couldn’t stop thinking. Desperate to know something new, she read herself to sleep, questioned teachers, and carried thinking puzzles everywhere, in case she got bored. People with an intellectual intensity can’t help but think—deeply, critically, and theoretically—even when they wish they could stop.
  • Sensory—A bad smell, a crooked sock seam, a hot or chilly classroom, or a fire alarm can all hijack the learning of a student with a sensory intensity. These students sometimes walk the school halls wearing earphones to muffle the jarring sounds. This super awareness of the senses grates, but it also heightens beauty when it is found.
  • Imaginational—People with vivid imaginations enrich others with their products—dramas and paintings and symphonies—but often at great cost to themselves. Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote, for example, Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, had such severe nightmares that he was often afraid to sleep.

Dabrowski helped me see that the best gift I could give intense students was to help them find outlets for their intensities, to spend more time steering and less time braking.

A Contract with Students

I skimmed right by Locke’s theory of social contract in college. I didn’t know it would follow me so doggedly through my career. Students have to agree to learn, Locke writes, before a teacher can teach. Most teachers feel the pressure.

“Five years into retirement,” my friend told me, “I still have the dream each fall, the dream where I’m standing in front of a class and no one hears a word I say.”

So what happens when the social contract fails? Nightmares, for sure. And if it continues to fail, teachers drop out or lose their jobs.

But when the contract is in place, students join the teacher to ensure learning.

In one of my first years of teaching, I saw social contract play out in my classroom, though not in a way I approved. Still uncertain about teaching in the prison, I was leading a discussion with thirty inmates when one of them disrespected me.

I can’t remember what he said, nor do I recall my response, only that I was relieved the bell was about to ring.

That night I tossed in my bed, sorting my options.

But the inmate wasn’t in my class the next day, or the next.

I discovered why. An inmate stopped by my desk after class on the third day.

“You won’t need to worry about Inmate Smith, Mrs. Swartz,” he told me. “We all took care of him for you. He’ll be laid up in the infirmary until the end of the term.”

I’m grateful I never again received such brutal support for a social contract with my students.

But I appreciate students who cast their lots toward learning, who led out in class discussions and frowned at misbehavior and swayed the attitudes of students on the margins.