By Dr. Stacy Hawthorne, Davidson Academy Online’s Director of Online Learning
I recently bought a fun t-shirt on Etsy. It says “I never dreamed I’d end up marrying a super talented engineer, but here I am living the dream.” There is some debate around the family as to whether or not my future son-in-law is going to love the shirt as much as I do.
As the parent of two gifted daughters who are now successful scientists, I’m often asked what my husband and I did as parents that helped them to achieve their dreams. It’s hard to point to one specific incident and say that was the moment, that was “the thing” that propelled them to excel. After all, aren’t we all where we are at today as the culmination of a lifetime of experiences, both easy and hard lessons, that were equally as transformative? Unfortunately, this type of philosophical answer rarely satisfies the inquirer.
What I can definitely say is that finding opportunities that were truly academically challenging was a key component for my children. There is a whole body of research that shows gifted students underachieve and aren’t able to reach their full potential when they are placed in classes and learning situations that don’t provide them with the appropriate level of rigor. There is literally no value in earning easy A’s, and too often that’s what happens to our brightest students in most classrooms today.
My daughters attended their local high school and were often “bored” and not pushed to learn. One daughter, frustrated with her Honors Freshman English class, complained, “All I have to do to earn an A in this class is breathe in and breathe out.” As a gifted teacher in the district, I thought I’d be able to work with the teacher and help her design better lessons to challenge the gifted students in her classes. Instead, I was met with resentment and confusion. She couldn’t understand why anyone would be concerned about a student earning an A. Now, this isn’t to say that all teachers at this school were clueless about how to properly challenge all of the students in their class. In fact, there were some amazing teachers who truly got it and were profound influences on my daughters. But this negative experience in 9th grade helped me to understand that they were going to need more.
We sat down as a family and listened to our daughters to understand what piqued their intellectual interest. One was interested in microbiology and the other was interested in math and space. We looked for authentically challenging opportunities for them to study these areas, because their high school had depressingly few courses in these domains. Yes, they offered math, but it stopped at AP Calculus AB, which for a large number of profoundly gifted students is an early high school course. We were able to find amazing summer programs at Brown University and from Purdue’s GERI program that were perfect for my daughters. They were barely 14 and spent weeks away from home over the summer truly being challenged. One daughter returned and said she knew what it felt like to finally fit in and how powerful it was to understand that she wasn’t alone in wanting to learn more and grow academically. These experiences propelled us to several more years of helping our daughters to find “their tribe” and continue to push themselves. I also believe that these experiences played pivotal roles in getting them to where they are today.
The Davidson Institute believes in helping students achieve their potential. That’s why they developed Davidson Academy and Davidson Academy Online. These are schools where students are placed in classes by ability, not by age or grade. In the case of my daughter’s English class, for whatever reason it violated school policy at the time to place a freshman in a sophomore English class. That’s not how schools should operate. While I personally love Davidson Academy and Davidson Academy Online, I understand that they may not be right for every profoundly gifted student, and that is okay. But what I encourage you to do as a parent (or a teacher) is to find those truly challenging academic situations for the student(s) in your life at every turn. Yes, there will be frustration (for you and them), but more importantly, you will be helping them to understand what they can do and empowering them to forge a life where they will make a difference.
Remember that t-shirt I mentioned at the start of this post? I actually got to buy two of them. One for my future son-in-law and one for my daughter, soon to be his bride. Not only am I the mom of an aerospace engineer, I’m about to be the mother-in-law of one, too. I’m so happy for the two of them and excited about all the nerdy t-shirts that I will get to buy them for years to come. I also managed to find a T-shirt for my other daughter, the microbiologist who loves her cats. It says “Meowcrobiology” and has the cutest illustrations of cats as microorganisms. It’s fun to gift t-shirts that are the right fit for our loved ones, and it is important to help them find the school or educational opportunity that is the best fit for them as well. There’s something out there that will be a perfect fit for everyone. You just have to be willing to look and be open to the challenge.
Here’s to hoping you get to buy some fun T-shirts for your amazing children when they are adults, too!