I should probably preface this by stating that yes, all children learn differently, and my viewpoint is slightly skewed to start with.
I realized today as I taught art class just how much I expect out of my students. They’re all elementary age kids ranging from ages 5 to 11. Today was our class about Yayoi Kusama. She’s a famous Japanese artist who has gone viral because of her infinity room installations. Celebrities take selfies in them, and people line up for hours to get 15 seconds inside one. As artists go, she’s pretty cool.
But, she’s also an eccentric personality. That’s partially because of her life-long battle with mental illness. And today, as I talked about how her hallucinations influenced her infinity rooms, it hit me that “hey! This isn’t a normal elementary art lesson here!”
I don’t really think about what’s normal when we’re doing art class. To be honest, I choose what I think is interesting and share with the kids. I’ll pick out 4-5 key points that I think are important about the artist or technique, and that’s what we focus on. We’re not just learning about art, we’re learning about life!
Gifted doesn’t matter in this situation
I don’t sit down to do a lesson “just” for gifted kids. All kids are capable of understanding deep, complex things if it’s conveyed in a way that makes sense to them. I give the kids the respect I wanted as a child. I always thought to myself “I’m not stupid!” when people talked down to me. I lacked some world experience and knowledge, yes, but I wasn’t dumb. So don’t dumb things down for me.
Simplify, not dumb down
I do simplify things, of course. It’s more about removing the distractions and cutting to the heart of the subject. I don’t use big words the kids don’t know without discussing them first. I don’t assume the kids know the concepts and nuance of the background information. If I’m teaching a subject, I sit down and think about the core of it. The very definition. Then I try to find a way to explain that in words and concepts the kids already know or can grasp.
We’ve talked about mental illness, suspension of disbelief, surface tension, and how metal transfers heat, among other things. In each case, I had a concrete example for the kids to relate to. They understand surface tension when they see the pepper floating on the water. They understand the basics of chemistry when we discussed how the surfactant changed the tension and dropped the pepper into the bottom. They get it. Not because they’re super smart, genius level kids, but because I taught in a way that made sense to them. All kids can do that. All kids can understand complex things, even at a young age.
It’s not about me
I’m not saying that I’m a super awesome teacher, of course. All I’m saying is that I deliberately take difficult concepts and make them accessible for students who aren’t considered old enough to understand them. To do that, I have to understand it. That means a lot of study for me when we’re covering something I’m not familiar with or have completely forgot about. I don’t shy away from explaining something hard or complex – because complex topics are really interesting!
Sometimes I wonder how we can accurately place children in academic grades and expect certain things from them at those specific grades. Children learn so organically and differently that it’s almost impossible to pigeon-hole them into a box and think that box is normal.
Speaking of boxes, that’s what we made today. We made our own mirror rooms in a shoe box. Along the way was a little science (light reflects off smooth foil better than crumpled foil) safety rules (no, you may NOT use the box cutter, son!) and social studies (Japan plus mental illness topics.) That’s the kind of box my kids fit in: the art kind!