Sunflower Seeds and Endangered Gifted/Advanced Learning Programs: Choose Your Own Adventure

unnamedIn Seattle and New York City, some education and political leaders favor eliminating gifted programming because of the lack of diverse students in those programs.  Unequal access to gifted and advanced programming is a critical problem that needs addressing — but eliminating gifted programs is not the answer.

For gifted learners from all cultures and backgrounds with advanced learning needs, there is little magic in a solution that eliminates programs. For these children, it means lack of opportunity and barriers to achievement and growth. We need to consider other choices…

Considering choices is at the heart of the Choose Your Own Adventure books in which the reader becomes the main character, selecting possible choices throughout the story to determine the outcome. Before making the real, far-reaching choice to eliminate gifted programs, maybe it would be worthwhile to practice an imaginary choice or two with my own version of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” tale…

The Sunflower Garden

You are a wizard.  A brilliant one.

Once upon a time as you wander, you arrive in Giftedville, a well-heeled neighborhood of sunflower seeds.  Each year, young seeds from Giftedville who are preparing to sprout climb the hill behind their homes to a sunny, sunflower garden surrounded by a brick wall.  The garden has an old, wooden door, and to enter the garden the seeds need to use a key.

When sunflower seeds enter the garden, they bask in the bright sunlight which is necessary for them to grow. These seeds are planted and nurtured by a dedicated gardener, who knows just the mix of nutrients in the soil — just the right amount of water – and just the perfect place to plant each seed so that it quickly grows into a tall sunflower, as sunflowers optimally do.

The Giftedville sunflower seeds know that it is important for them to enter the garden so that they can grow — and so do their parents. In fact, many parents give their young sunflower seeds keys to the door.  Other Giftedville sunflowers stand by the door and borrow keys from other seeds to get in. And still others manage to pile up large rocks and stand on these to reach the keyhole. 

A few miles away from Giftedville is another neighborhood of sunflower seeds called Also-Giftedville.  In Also-Giftedville, few sunflower seeds know of the sunflower garden on the hill. So, the young seeds plant themselves in the sunniest spots they can find.  There, with the occasional rain and sunlight, some manage to grow a little bit and a few grow a lot. But often, their stems and roots struggle, so the wind blows them down. Too often, they are broken. Sadly, they are not aware of any help was available for sunflower seeds without keys. They have no parents or friends with keys…

As a brilliant wizard, you notice that the Giftedville sunflower seeds are flourishing and growing tall on the hill, nurtured by the dedicated gardener. But you are saddened that the Also-Giftedville seeds unjustly struggle to grow, lacking access to the garden on the hill.  You think for a moment and you decide to…

(Choose Option #1, #2, or #3. You determine how this story ends, so choose carefully!)

Option # 1. Wave your wand, shout “Abracadabra,” and destroy the garden…

You know that it is time to destroy this garden. It is not fair that some seeds can get in, and others cannot.  With a wave of your wand, the keys float away and the gardener vanishes.

“This is equitable,” you explain. “Now all of the Sunflower Seeds are free to fend for themselves, looking for a sunny spot.  Problem solved!” (Upon hearing of your plan, the wealthiest families in Giftedville are inconvenienced, for now they must purchase sunny land and hire master gardeners of their own. However, the families in Also-Giftedville do not notice the loss of what they never had access to in the first place. Overall, more sunflower seeds just look for the sunniest spots they can find and hope for the best.)  The sunflower crop decreases signficantly.

Option # 2. Wave your wand, shout, “Abracadabra!,” and make the garden wall disappear…

With a wave of your wand, the brick wall topples down so that  every seed can enter and be tended by the master gardener. The seeds pour into the garden.  

The gardener looks at you in confusion. “What about the Bleeding Hearts and the ferns?” she asks. “They need shade to grow, and this is a sunny spot. What about the cactuses?  They cannot grow in this soil—they need sand.  And if I have to haul in sand, how will I have time to water?” We need to match sunlight and growing plan to the needs of the seeds! 

You try to explain to the gardener that with only four more hours of work each day, differentiation, and professional development she can make the sunny garden work for shade plants, cactuses, and sunflowers. But it is too late.  The gardener decides to leave sunflower gardening and take up a more lucrative career.

Option # 3. Put down your wand and get to work.

You put down your wand and visit Also-Giftedville, providing maps and informing Also-Giftedville sunflower seeds about opportunities in the garden. You find town leaders who provide funding to purchase land and hire and train additional gardeners in the science and art of nurturing sunflower seeds.  You replace the keyholes and the keys to the garden with doorknobs so that there are many ways to reach the garden and enter. You reach out to all the communities around the garden, finding sunflower seeds of many diverse cultures and languages, and show them welcoming paths and spots in the sunflower garden. Soon, the number of sunflowers multiplies into fields and fields of tall sunflowers. Each one is unique, healthy, and strong…

If you chose Option # 1 or # 2 in this adventure story and the outcome disappoints you, do not worry.  It is only an imaginary story with imaginary choices where it is easy to go back and try again.

But whether to keep gifted and advanced programming is a more serious “Choose Your Own Adventure.” The garden is the gifted/advanced learning program.  Sunflower seeds are all children with advanced learning needs and potential who would benefit and grow in advanced and gifted programs. The gardener is the teacher who needs training and support for meeting the needs of advanced learners. And we educators, government leaders, and communities who understand that all children deserve to grow in school are the wizards.

Unlike as in “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories, if we wave our wands and get rid of gifted and advanced programming,  or if we fail to develop programs that match programming to need, the consequences are real.  If we really want to see magic and help all children achieve great things, we need to recognize the unique strengths in all our children, identify learning needs, and provide programming to develop talent.

We need to put our wands down and get to work.



For further reading, download and read:

Is There a Gifted Gap? Gifted Education in High Poverty Schools (2018) by Christopher Yaluma and Adam Tyner.

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