Since my last post on this topic I've met with Andrea, a friend of a friend who is an expert on special education and works at the TDSB. She very kindly allowed me to pick her brain, and I learned plenty. Apart from lots of advice and insight on how gifted education is handled in the TDSB, she had two concrete suggestions: to seriously consider the TDSB gifted program, and to ask Delphine’s teacher specifically how he is differentiating for her.
(Differentiated education is something they ask teachers to do these days, where basically every child gets their own special curriculum. It’s how they justify combining ages and abilities within one classroom: the teacher is supposed to assess the ability of each child in their class and provide each and every one of them with assignments and materials that suit their level. You might infer that I am skeptical as to the practicality of this system.)
We had every intention of getting Delphine assessed for giftedness, because you basically can’t ask for anything without having that rubber stamp. But from talking to other parents I got the impression that the gifted program, which is at a school a few neighbourhoods away, would not be suitable for Delphine. So we had written off the possibility of the gifted program and hoped that the rubber stamp could be put to use some other way. But Andrea urged me to be open-minded and check out the program ourselves. And she’s absolutely right; neither Delphine nor I know what the program is really like nor whether it will suit her in ways that she can’t even articulate. So we’re going to, at least, go and visit.
We met with Delphine’s teacher in November as part of the regular parent-teacher interviews, and I did ask him how he’s differentiating the program for her. He said something like, “I’m not going to offer her anything different until I’ve seen that she can do the assigned work to a better standard.” He doesn’t like the quality of her work — it’s messy and she doesn’t go the extra mile to produce really great work. She meets the requirement of the assignments without adding flair.
Of course this decision on the part of the teacher is deeply unsatisfying to me. An education that is suited to your ability is a not a carrot to be dangled in front of you as a reward for jumping through arbitrary hoops of the teacher's devising: tidy handwriting, sitting still, completing assignments to a level beyond that asked.
I guess it does make a certain, superficial sense; I've mentioned this to a few people and they've said it seems fair. But it isn't really, when you think about it. There's no real connection between being tidy, or putting a great deal of effort into an arbitrary tast, and needing (or deserving) to be challenged intellectually. Both of those are useful skills to have (the first probably more than the second) but neither of them have to do with being smart, and it doesn't make sense to connect one to the other. Just because she's not particularly strong in these areas is no reason to deprive her of stimulation in other areas.
And besides, an education suited to the student’s level is a legal entitlement in Ontario.
(We haven't even considered that she might not be completing the assignments to the teacher's standard because she's not really very interested in them — because they're too easy or because they're on a topic that doesn't interest her, or because she wants to save her limited energy for an endeavor that's of more interest to her. Of course the question of whether she can apply focus and determination and effort to a project which is important to her is another matter, and one which doesn't seem to be resolved within the traditional school system.)
This is one of the reasons we are interested in an IEP; because it's a document which requires that teachers offer her an education that suits her ability level, without having to adhere to the teacher's idea of what's suitable for a gifted child, or what should be required of a child before they get the education that they need. Of course this leads to the question of whether we want to establish an adversarial relationship with our teachers before we've even established any other kind of relationship.
The story continues but this post has been sitting on my hard drive for a while. More to come...