Professional Learning

Special Kids: Discovering a Student’s Hidden Talent

April 19, 2007

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.

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