catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 48, Num 1 :: 2008.10.01 — 2008.12.15


The giftedness of the Magi

Or a glaze that will live in infamy

“…And I just know I am going to get stuck talking to that Cooper woman for half an hour,” said Bedlam Christian’s art teacher, Gregg Mortiss. He was one of six or seven Bedlam teachers who had been spending half an hour before school started in Bedlam’s staff room nearly every day.

“Are you talking about Arthur and Emily’s mom? Why? What’s the matter with her?” asked visiting Bible teacher John Cloudmaker. Parent-teacher conferences began that night, and he was looking for any information that might prepare him.

Jane VanderAsch cut in to the conversation from the counter where she was pouring herself a cup of coffee.  “Well, John, the problem is, she thinks that her precious twins are gifted, and so she always wants to know what we are doing to challenge them further.”

Cloudmaker chuckled.  “That doesn’t sound like that big of a problem – a parent who wants her kids to work harder.”

“Yeah, you’d think so.” Gregg Mortiss had sat forward in his chair and was focusing on Cloudmaker with an intensity Cloudmaker could not recall ever having seen in him before. "But you’d be wrong. Here, let me give you an example. So last year, when Arthur and Emily were sophomores, they were taking my introduction to ceramics class. I started out the year with a couple of weeks of watching Bill Freshler’s “You Gotta Be The Clay” series, you know, so they would kind of have an orientation to the field and techniques. Then I have them work on their first assignment. All they had to do was make a pinch pot. Arthur told me that he had already done pinch pots and thrown pots, and that what he wanted to do was take his pots from home and work on some advanced glazing techniques." Mortiss nodded as if that had explained his problem entirely, but Cloudmaker seemed confused.

“So, what’s the problem?” Cloudmaker asked. “Why not let him work on his glazing skills if he already knows how to do the pots?”

“Because the Bill Freshler video series doesn’t cover glazing until video four,” Mortiss replied.  “You have to do things in the right order. And besides, we don’t learn about more sophisticated glazing techniques until Advanced Ceramics class.”

“Why didn’t you move Arthur into your Advanced Ceramics class then?”

“No can do,” Mortiss said.  “Intro. to Ceramics is a pre-requisite.”

Cloudmaker chuckled. As a visiting teacher on a one-year contract, he had more freedom to say the truth.  “So he had to take the class he didn’t need to finally get a chance to learn something new in a different class, and you wonder why Mrs. Cooper was upset?”

Mortiss turned red. “Well sure, when you put it like that, I sound unreasonable, but that’s not fair because … because….”

Jane VanderAsch came to his defense. "I can see where you’re going with all of this, Cloudmaker, but come down from your ivory tower to the real world. I had Emily Cooper in Honors Algebra II last year, and that girl’s mother was impossible. I was pushing that whole class as hard as I could. I had kids, smart kids, struggling to keep up, but no matter what I did, how fast we went or how much I covered, it was never enough for Mrs. Cooper. How many times did I have to hear, “Emily’s bored. Emily’s not challenged in your class. Can’t you do something more for Emily? I’ll tell you what, I did everything I could for that girl.”

“Except challenge her,” Cloudmaker said. 

Jane pursed her lips and stared daggers at the Bible teacher. Finally she spoke: “And what do you suggest I should have done differently?”

“To be gifted, if Emily and Arthur really are, is almost tantamount to a disability in a way. Think about it.  A student with a learning disability is one who learns differently from everyone else, and so we have to make changes in our teaching (which we usually call accommodations or concessions) so that they can learn. If we don’t make those changes, hyperactive kids have trouble focusing, kids with mild autism cannot understand what we are trying to say and so on. A truly gifted kid thinks differently, approaches problems from fresh new angles. If we don’t modify our teaching, the kids don’t learn as much as they should because they don’t develop their God-given abilities. They may still get straight A’s in class, but they never realize their full potential. Does that make sense?”

Mortiss looked somehow both offended and perplexed. He spoke through clenched teeth. “So you want me to start with the third video? Then answer me this. When am I supposed to show the first one? Or should I just pick an order at random and keep everyone on their toes?”

Cloudmaker smiled good-naturedly. “Gregg, I wouldn’t presume to tell you how to teach art. You seem to have quite a, um, system worked out already. But what if you just let Arthur try to figure it out on his own, then have him rejoin the class when you reach the video that contains new content for him.”

VanderAsch jumped back into the conversation. “You know what? If I only had one gifted kid in my class, and somehow that kid would wear a label or something, so I could tell who was genuinely gifted from who just has pushy parents, then maybe what you suggest would work. But I teach in the real world, buster! It is complicated in my class. I can’t have thirty kids all at different points in their studies. Maybe you can do that in Bible class, since everyone seems to get A’s in Bible anyway, but I have a responsibility to my curriculum.”

Mortiss looked expectant, thinking that now he would see Cloudmaker show some teeth. But the older teacher just smiled again. It was infuriating. Cloudmaker spoke. “Actually, Jane, I think you make a good point. We test kids for learning disabilities, but we don’t have a testing program for gifted kids.”

S. Brian O’Braihgnar, one of Bedlam’s science teachers, came in halfway through Cloudmaker’s remark. He set down the pile of papers he was carrying and said, “The last thing we need is more tests!”

“And besides,” said VanderAsch, “I thought that all of the children God created were gifted.” She crossed her arms as a cold smile of triumph spread across her wan and wrinkled face. “I’m surprised that you, a Bible teacher, would want to single some out with that moniker. I for one believe all children are gifted by God.”

O’Brainhgnar, who had missed the earlier conversation, whistled in surprise at her tone. “Easy there, slugger. We’re all on the same team.”

Cloudmaker smiled sadly. "It’s all right, Brian. Actually, I think Jane is highlighting a problem with gifted education, even if her intent is to make me appear hypocritical. The label ‘gifted’ is unfortunate, because it does suggest that other students are not gifted. That, of course, is patently untrue from any Christian’s point of view. Having said that, we must recognize that some students have exceptional abilities that, if they go unrecognized and undeveloped, can hinder their learning and keep them from developing their full potential. Could Mozart have become who he did without the skilled training provided at a very young age by his father and other professional musicians? "

“Not all gifts are academic, though,” put in O’Braihgnar. “Some kids are really good at car repair or woodworking or, you know, like skateboarding or something.”

“Good point,” said Cloudmaker. “And remember that Albert Einstein struggled to learn to read, write, and talk. When he was four years old, many of his teachers thought he was mentally retarded. Here was one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, but such an unconventional mind demanded more unconventional teaching methods. May I suggest you read the book My Name is Asher Lev to try to get an insider’s view of what it is like to be gifted?”

VanderAsch snorted. “So the Coopers are Einsteins now? I’m sure you’ll get along fine with Mrs. Cooper in your conference, John, but I teach in the real world. Besides, Einstein turned out all right in the end despite not having gifted education. So I guess the Coopers will too, despite sloughs like Mortiss and me.”

Jane pushed back from the table and huffed out of the room. Feeling defeated, Cloudmaker sighed heavily and got up to leave. He had just reached the door when Mortiss’s voice rose from the table behind him.

The art teacher sat pen in hand with a small notebook.  He smiled what he hoped was a reassuring look at Cloudmaker.  “What was the name of that book, John?”

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