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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Special Kids: Discovering a Student's Hidden Talent

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

As a classroom teacher, I spent lots of time supporting special-needs students. I modified lessons, provided extra support, attended meetings, and otherwise did all I could to support those children, as I did every child, in thinking, learning, and becoming better prepared for that day and for their future.

Every now and then, my colleague Gayle and I would find that we had a student in our classrooms who needed special support because of extraordinary strengths and not because of challenges. It might have been a level of innate understanding, natural compassion, humor, a command of language, mathematical reasoning, artistic ability, charismatic personality, mechanical capability, or some combination of the above that convinced us that this kid was going to go far.

For each of them, probably their greatest strength was their own motivation, their desire to accomplish things without being asked to do them, their insistence on contributing in a professional way. I used to half-jokingly say to Gayle that such a child might be "our ticket out of here." They were just that powerful, just that special, that I knew they were stars it would pay to be connected to.

Annie was a perfect example. I still remember seeing a piece of writing she had done as a third grader and thinking to myself, "Oh, my goodness, this is so nicely done. It has voice. This is so different from the rest." I remember encouraging her writing and thinking, and enjoying discovering and supporting a young girl with a mind that seemed so much older, a child with a capacity and desire to learn that made working with her a blast.

I had heard from my wife that Annie, now a college graduate, was working in the diplomatic arena, and, wanting to get my facts right, I called her mom. It turns out Annie was awarded a Fulbright grant last year, during which she did research and writing abroad, an experience she parlayed into work as cultural attaché in an embassy in Washington, DC. Who knows what will come next for her, but as I indicated above, she was a special kid. She has always held her own ticket, I believe, to wherever she wants to go.

Today, I met another such child, this one an eighth grader named Marie. I have seen some of the digital animations she has done, both stick-figure drawings and claymations, and they are very, very good. Not only do they demonstrate technical capabilities and perseverance, they also tell stories, and it is that combination of master of the medium and storyteller that makes me see this young lady as another special kid.

I spoke with her about her work, and she conversed with me with a clarity and interest I do not see in many kids -- or many adults, for that matter. As one of her teachers said to me when I mentioned how impressed I was, "I think Marie has an 'old soul,' as if she really is old beyond her years."

And then there was Philip, a seventh-grade boy I met one time in a classroom before the first bell. This was in a laptop school, and many of the kids were doing various things on their devices as they awaited the official start of the day. Of all the things being done, it was the animations Philip was creating, on his own and not in response to any assignment by a teacher, that impressed me the most. Like Marie's work, they showed a level of technical capability, a perseverance, and a maturity of vision unmatched by any others in the class. He stood out above all the others. He was a special kid.

What about your experience? Who are the kids you have worked with like Annie, Marie, Philip, or some combination thereof? How did you identify their special strengths and needs, and how did you support them? Who did you connect them to, and how did you leverage their strengths to benefit the entire class or school? Did a project you undertook give them a chance to utilize their skills in the real world? I look forward to hearing about your special kids.

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant
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Grace Mulei's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Dear Edutopia Editor, Firstly, I wish to appreciate the Edutopia,and all the organizations involved in collaborative education development and networking. This concept is the best tool to meet the needs of the future generation. The Social-Networking Technology, for Learning is somehow a utopia in most schools. They all have common issues culminating in work load, and lack of enough time. Yet, all schools all over the world have difficult children. They have over talented kids who need that extra time to utilize their extra energies and that uncertisfied concept. They require recognition of their potential for optimum development. It is crucial to uploud Social-Networking Technplogy for global knowledge share, and exchange programs. I know about a most malcontent teen, who never accepted the controlled school environment. His mother was a senoir school principal, but he would never entertain school admission procedures. As a result, he turned into drug abuse, and vuldulism, committing other insulting offences. His patient mother succeeded in finding international exchange placement for that boy. The international recognition and change of environment. transformed the boy. He is now a very reliable lad who has dropped drug abuse. Thanks to the edutopia magazine that promotes social-networking promoting technology for learning. Grace ED 1280341-735 Kenya
Elaine Palmer-Gillum's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I too, have had those students... My first year of teaching he came in as a 7th grader. His name was Jacob. While he confidently stated he had no talent for sports (I was a MAJOR sports mom with 2 all-star kids) he said to me with all the wisdom in the world: "My talent lies elsewhere". WOW...and did he have talent "elsewhere"! For extra credit he created my web page. (The long way with all the code). He wrote beautiful articles that he shared with me (his science teacher) because he knew how much I loved his writing. His goal, even back in 7th grade, was to be at CalTech by his junior year in high school. He finished calculus over the summer between his 8th grade and freshman year, and took AP Physics as a freshman. CalTech didn't have him his senior year of high school, but he did make it the very next year. An amazing young man who as a 7th grader made this rookie teacher believe that anything was possible!
Jim Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
What wonderful stories! Thanks so much for sharing. I will be back in Marie's school next week, and I look forward to talking to her about these other examples. How important it is to constantly be looking for the combination that will work for that child, the opportunity that will ignite that spirit, the thread that will best connect that young person to the civil society in such a way that they will be able to contribute to its success and care about the future. In each it is people caring for people, people validating people, that brings out our best. The benefit in all our stories is not only to the young people, it is to us as adults as well. I carry a black Jelco roller case loaded with a second laptop, projector, cameras, GPS, cables, probeware and other assorted technology in my travels. I never check it, but often, on the commuter flights, have to gate check it. because of this I have written on it, in white-out, "FRAGILE Thank you for being careful." It is not unusual for a road weary businessman (and yes, it has always been a man) to see what I have written as we stand in one line or another, and, with a patronizing smile, ask if I am, "...asking for that bag to be trashed?" I always enjoy the comment, as it gives me a chance to explain that I am an educator and a parent, and so I have to be an optimist. Have to be. Have no choice... "You see, "I say, " I have to believe that if asked, people will help me out." And you know what, it has worked. I have now carried that case around for some seven years, and I have yet to lose as much as a projector bulb. People have been good to me in part because I have believed in them and asked their help. Am I right? I don't know, but as a parent and an educator, I have to believe that I am.
Melinda Hlinak's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I wanted to comment on this post not because I have experienced this kind of child but because I will some day have the oppertunity to teach a child with extraordinary strengths. I am studying to be a teacher. Eventhough I have not taught anyone yet I still have encountered children like the ones everyone has talked about. I knew them as a child and as an adult I meed children that have extraordinary talents. I believe I was someone with extraordinary talents, at least for my age group. I remember being bord in class because I found the work too easy. It may be chalenging at first to figure out a way to keep the more creative and talented children interested in what you are teaching. I am glad that I found this topic because I believe it will come in handy once I start teaching. I have read all of the posts and I believe the ideas will come in handy down the line for me. What a wonderful place this is! I actually had to come here for an assignment for my education class and now I am so happy I did, and I'm sure I will be visiting here again.
Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I had the most delightful thing happen. I was helping a child who was supposed to be placed in special education due to a writing difficulty. He and I worked on learning the use of a computer, (more for his use than mine) and we entered the age of technology with a bang. He was a fourth grader and he won a major contest writing about environmental awareness, and in so doing he won a computer for me, for himself, and email addresses for everyone in the class. All I was doing was my job, and making sure that he was not railroaded into special education. He was angry, and vocal about it. Using the computer channeled his work, his anger, in a positive direction and it was the beginning of my path toward learning to use new media. There are children who do not fit the mold, and for whom we must take special care to be cognizant of who they really are. Sometimes we have no way of knowing a child if we do not connect as a human being to that child.
Amie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been teaching 16 years and I have especially enjoyed hearing about a past student and what they have accomplished. I have taught future veterinarians, businessmen, architects, and teachers. I love to see if they were able to achieve their goals. That is one of the many reasons I teach. I really like to see one of those students who struggled in a classroom setting find their place in the world. They may not be a doctor or lawyer, but they are successful in what they are gifted in doing.

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