Development & Education

Spotting giftedness in her students becomes a lesson in inclusion for this teacher

This story is a part of

Global Nation

This story is a part of

Global Nation


A visiting artist shares her love of painting with a multi-age gifted class at Caneview Elementary School in New Iberia, Louisiana, on Dec. 15, 2015. Spotting giftedness can be tricky, and some teachers are using math, art and gardening to catch the signs.


Courtesy of Margaret Simon

When I became a teacher for gifted children in Maine, I had to look up the definition of gifted education.

It turns out that, even for insiders, “gifted education” is vaguely understood and interpreted. Many people, including other teachers, think I have it easy because I teach all the smart kids who want to work. The truth is that being gifted often comes with quirks and eccentricities from having a lot of information passing through your brain at one time.

I’ve become good at spotting “giftedness” through these quirks. I look for kids who need to talk through everything, kids who have a lot of anxieties and kids whose ability and performance don’t match up. But these are cultural markers that, honestly, are easiest for me to spot for students who are white and middle class. Those are the demographics of my school district in Hampden, Maine.

But the demographics in Maine are changing and I’ve been seeing more students pass through the halls who are not white and middle class. The economy has changed in Maine. Mills are closing and factory workers are moving any place they can find work. In addition, Maine is often a state for resettlement of refugee families from Somalia and Sudan. It’s been a challenge for me to see through the cultural differences and spot “giftedness” in these new students. The markers I am used to seeing don’t always exist in people from other cultures.

Also: What if one culture shares multiple languages? That’s a challenge Oregon is taking up with its Somali students.

US law says “high achieving students in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity need services not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.” This means that sometimes kids think so differently that the traditional curriculum is not going to be appropriate for them. It might go too slowly. It might not allow them enough time to dig as deep as gifted children like to dig. In these cases, a teacher of the gifted looks at the typical curriculum and chooses a few lessons to teach these gifted kids who learn more quickly. Then, the teacher creates higher order thinking activities to keep those students engaged and learning.

According to the National Association for Gifted Children, federally defined gifted children make up approximately 7 percent of US students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Because gifted children are born gifted, that 7 percent should be representative of the diversity throughout the community. When looking at the demographics of a school, gifted children should represent the same diversity as the student body. Gifted students who are learning English, though, are rarely identified because the identification process is not appropriate for them.

The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented found in 2004 that students whose families are in the top income bracket are five times more likely to be in gifted programs than students whose parents’ income is in the bottom income bracket.

From my experience, the simple reason for this is that identification for gifted students tends to use English-heavy logic tests and achievement test scores for admission. The children in families with high incomes are comfortable with these tests and the tests tend to reflect the kind of opportunities and vocabulary these students have grown up around.

We need to identify culturally and linguistically diverse gifted students early on, because the earlier gifted students are identified, the better likelihood that their gifts will be developed into talents. However, there are no tools developed that help teachers identify gifted students who don’t speak English. Additionally, students who speak English as a second language often reside in poorly funded districts with large-sized classes where alternative, informal assessment is difficult to accomplish.

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Despite the federal definition, there is no federal funding for gifted programming in the US. This means there is no standard for programming; schools figure out how to identify and serve these students on their own, which means that some places provide great instruction while others provide none at all. Teachers and administrators must figure out how to identify and teach these students on their own.

In my classroom, I use common tests like the CogAT, which measures logical thinking skills, and the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) achievement tests, which tell school staff how much knowledge a student retains. Occasionally, but not often, we also use observations of students in their classroom and parent feedback about what they see at home. When put together, this data can show a child in need of differentiated programming.

One of my colleagues, Sheri Oliva, teaches English Language Learners (ELL) in the affluent community of Yarmouth, Maine. Oliva says that one of her students, Adrian, wouldn’t talk to anyone in his second grade classroom. He shook his head at the teachers who asked him questions and faced the wall for much of the day. Adrian spent a lot of his days yelling words in Polish at children who didn’t understand him. At this stage in his transition to school, his gifts were masked. The school considered asking the special education teachers to evaluate him, but Oliva requested she first be allowed to work with him.

Second-grader Adrian measures the perimeter of his school in Maine. His teacher realized he is gifted because of his love for measuring and drawing blueprints, though he did not speak in English very much.


Courtesy of Sheri Oliva

When Oliva came on board at the school, she added a new component to the ELL program — a garden. Oliva says that as Adrian planted seeds and harvested crops, he began to talk with her. It was during this garden time — not during a battery of identification tests — when she noticed he was staring at the school building. Then he got up and began measuring the perimeter of the building using pieces of paper as his non-standard unit of measurement.

“He was like a boy possessed,” Oliva says. “We couldn’t stop him from measuring and recording. After he measured, he drew blueprints — to scale — of the building, the grounds and the garden.”

Oliva asked that Adrian be tested for the gifted program and her instincts were correct. But Adrian was lucky. His school district had the money to develop a gifted program and offer non-traditional methods for the identification of gifted students.

Halfway across the country from Maine in New Iberia, Louisiana, is 16-year-old Tanya Castaneda. Tanya’s parents moved to Louisiana from Mexico before she was born. They started and still run a Mexican restaurant.

“They speak very little English,” Tanya says. “Just enough to get what they need for the restaurant and to serve the customers.”

Tanya was tested for the gifted program using the CogAT test in fourth grade because her school work came so easily to her and the teachers noticed that she could do higher grade level work regardless of her proficiency in English. She remembers the testing process vividly: “There were three different tests that I remember. There was math, reading and then this memory one where you had to match shapes. I knew I was doing well on them, but I was also very nervous.”

By the end of the year, Tanya was in the gifted program for math.

“The first year we did math. I got Mrs. Simon, who was really good at pushing me and getting me to like school. The next year, everything changed and no one taught me gifted math anymore,” she says.

This is typical of gifted programs because they are usually the first to get cut in a budget since they are not required by law. Likely, the shift was made because the teacher who took over the program was more comfortable with language arts or the group of gifted children liked reading more than math.

“Instead it was English,” she laughs. “Can you imagine?”

“My parents involvement in school wasn’t great, but they would come if they had to be there. I feel like being identified as gifted gave me a boost of confidence. The best thing that ever happened to me was when the district invited all the gifted kids in eighth grade to meet each other. It was at that meeting where I met the kids I will be friends with forever. They know me, they get me.”

They know her, they get her. They are her tribe. It may be difficult to identify ELL students for gifted and talented programs, but if we don’t, these kids may never find their people.

My identification strategies have shifted as a result of the changes in student population. We still use the CogAT and the NWEA for standardized testing scores identifying possible gifted children, but now I ask for more observation notes and portfolio pieces. I’m also doing more research into how gifted children in other cultures show their gifts. Like most good educational strategies, I’m learning that working with gifted children requires relationship building with children and their families.

More: If things keep going as they are, in 100 years teachers still won't be as diverse as their students