Looking Back on Growing Up As a Gifted Kid: The Open Classroom

This the continuing story of my experiences growing up with the “gifted” label. My first installment can be found here.

In 1973, my family and I moved to a different area and a different school district. I was put into an “Open Classroom” which was a mix of 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students, and two teachers.

This school district’s gifted program was called HAPP. (High Academic Performance Program).  Unlike the Mentally Gifted Minors program that I was involved with in 2nd grade, students didn’t go into HAPP until 4th grade.  I remember feeling as though I had been treated unjustly when I would watch some of the 4th and 5th graders from my class getting called away to do their HAPP activities. I asked my older classmates how I could get in the program, since I had already been in a gifted program at my old school. When they explained I had to wait till 4th grade, I wasn’t having any of it. I went to my teacher. Surely, she would listen to reason. I explained that I had already been in the gifted program at my old school and this was 2nd grade, so of course, I should be put in the gifted program here, now that I am a grade older.  My teacher explained that the HAPP program was for 4th – 6th grade. I tried to explain that even though I was technically in the 3rd grade, I should still get to go since I had already been tested and qualified for that program.  She said I would still have to wait till 4th grade. I walked away deciding adults were just stupid. I was seven-years-old.

I was sure my “giftedness” would wither away and die like an unused muscle if I didn’t get into that program somehow. I expressed my concerns to my mom. She said that when she was registering me for school, she explained that I had been in the gifted program at my old school, and that was why I was put in this open classroom. I was one of several third graders in a class also populated by fourth and fifth graders. The classroom environment was intended to give me the mental stimulation I might have otherwise missed out on in a traditional classroom.

In addition to the classroom being the size of two classrooms, and the students varying in ages from seven-years-old (at the beginning of the school year) to eleven-years-old. Instead of desks, there were tables and chairs, and couches and recliners. There were clipboards available if we needed a hard surface to do our assignments.  Every couple of months, we would split into groups of our choosing and make “Centers.” These were  little educational centers around the classroom that we would decorate with colorful butcher paper, construction paper,  corrugated trim and our own artwork. We had to display at least one book from the library that had to do with our subject (chosen by us, approved by a teacher). We had to have several educational activities available for the other students to do. Once we all finished building our centers, we would go around the classroom to each center and we had to complete a certain number of activities from a certain number of centers by the end of the week (or end of the month?)

As I am writing this, I am starting to remember the checklists. We still had to do regular classwork for math, reading, spelling, etc. Sometimes we would meet around a table at a scheduled time in a small group with a teacher. For other assignments, we could choose which ones to do first as long as they were all done and checked off the list by the end of the week.

I also remember Suzy, who was one of my best friends and a fourth grader in the same classroom. Sometime during the school year, her mother, who happened to be a 4th grade teacher, had her moved to a traditional classroom because she didn’t think Suzy was being taught what she needed to learn for 4th grade (this was Suzy’s explanation. I didn’t bother to question her mother at the time. I doubted she would feel the need to explain her decision to a 3rd grader). I felt sorry for Suzy because I thought her life was going to quickly become very boring. the next year, when I entered 4th grade in a traditional classroom, I somehow managed to be in all the highest math, spelling and reading groups, so I must’ve learned something in that open classroom environment!

Looking back on this now as an adult, I would have to agree 100%. I remember the 3rd grade as being the most creatively stimulating year of my school career I think it was a shame that most schools ended their “Open Classroom” programs just a few years later.

I will continue with my experiences about how being labeled “gifted” affected me later in school, in adulthood, and finally with raising three very different children, all who have been labeled as “gifted.”

Donna Leonard

You can read my regular blog at Manic Meanderings

13 thoughts on “Looking Back on Growing Up As a Gifted Kid: The Open Classroom

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. Two of my kids are in multi-age classrooms and they worked better when my kids were the youngest kids on class. Now, I see a lot of art work from one kid and boredom from the other.

    Reading your story makes me want to write my own to see what I learn.

    Kate

  2. Christine Fonseca

    Its so interesting hearing about your experiences. I was part of a pilot program in a local school district; one in which all of the MGM students were put together (homogeneous grouping). The idea was great, but the teachers did not always agree. One year I had a fabulous teacher who redeveloped his curriculum just for us. But another year, we had a teacher who refused to do that. I can honestly say we were horrible to her (I am pretty certain she retired after us). The shock came in 8th grade when the program no longer existed. My GT class were integrated with everyone else. I distinctly remember a math teacher refusing to believe that an 8th grader had mastered algebra (which we had). We were all “forced” to do it again.
    Interestingly I switched districts the following year. When I followed up with a few of my GT classmates from those years, I was shocked to discover that the majority of them were NOT in honors programs in HS – they had decided that school was not for them and had taken the path of least resistance. Sad, really…

  3. Cristine,

    Your story reminds me of a woman I was friends with in college. She had been in a fabulous program for gifted students in middle school. After three years, the program was scrapped by the administration and the kids were all put back into mainstream classes without accelaration.

    By the time I met her, she was a mature student in an undergraduate art program. She was the only person she knew from that middle school program who had made it to college, and she had gone through a really rough ride to get there. Everybody else had dropped out, committed suicide, developed serious drug and alcohol problems, etc. It was horrific.

    Never providing gifted students with support is bad, but the stories of what happens to gifted students who are supported and then have that taken away from them are worse.

    Kate

    1. Christine Fonseca

      I totally agree. I have only followed up with a few people from those days in late elementary and middle school – and most have not gone on to graduate school or more. Sad, really. Tragic.

      1. Siggi

        Do you mean that they didn’t finish high school, or that they didn’t attend graduate school? One would be tragic, but the other could just show the choice of an alternate path to happiness and fulfillment.

        Either way, a longitudinal study of the impacts of program termination on GT students would be a really important piece of work.

        That said, it could also be a really sticky wicket: districts that might be willing to try a program would have the possible effects of terminating it (for whatever reason) hanging over their heads. :/

      2. Christine Fonseca

        Agreed on all counts Siggy – and both, some of my old friends didn’t finish HS, some didn’t finish any form of college. And not necessarily in pursuit of alternative paths to happiness, sadly.

  4. The description of the classroom here sounds a lot like my own experiences growing up in Montessori schools. I was lucky – my school was a public school – but where I live now, you have to go private for that kind of educational experience. There are so many options out there for gifted children, but sadly, they aren’t available to the majority of people.

    It is so sad that children are being denied the support they need to flourish and thrive. It is so wrong.

  5. I remember the “open classrooms” in our GT summer programs. Absolutely loved them. It was the first time I felt the teachers thought I was smart and trusted me to create my own learning. It was very empowering.

    Because it was a summer program the classroom was an old home converted into a biology lab which was located in a wooded area near a stream. Oh, the happy memories of spending the days roaming for samples to bring back and analyze on my own in that lab. I loved the freedom to explore, the time to do it and the natural environment that they provided.

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