Illustration: Charlotte Agell
A Field Guide to Gifted Students
Charlotte Agell's new book offers an intro to teachers and parents
There’s Louis, the fifth-grader who can talk about concepts like the inner workings of a computer and the language of music. Haley, the perfectionist who stays up until 1 a.m. rewriting an already perfect paper and has meltdowns. And Pam, a shy third-grader who checked out a dozen books from the school library just before winter break and can talk about blimps and batting averages in depth. These are just three of the 12 fictional neurodivergent students that Charlotte Agell, Ed.M.’86, profiles with Molly Kellogg in her new book, A Field Guild to Gifted Students — her 15th book overall. Agell, a teacher at an elementary school and middle school in Yarmouth, Maine, talked to Ed. about writing for teachers, common characteristics, and who gets missed.
What exactly is a gifted student? It's more than just the smartest kid in the grade, right?
This answer could go on for pages. What we put on our gifted and talented instructional support site in my district is, for starters, the following: There are many definitions of giftedness, ranging from the very narrow (the top 1% of the population based on IQ) to the very broad (the top 20% based on the School-wide Enrichment Model). The state of Maine defines gifted children as those in grades K–12 who excel, or have the potential to excel, beyond their age peers, in the regular school program, to the extent that they need and can benefit from programming for the gifted and talented. One of the ways I look at it is that gifted students are quite likely to take an unusual route to an unexpected destination. Rubrics are not often their natural habitats. And — importantly — they are learners who are often at risk. High achievement is very possible for them, but not guaranteed at all. That's one of the reasons we wrote this book.
And you wrote it for teachers?
This book is an illustrated introductory workbook designed primarily for teachers. School can feel like the wrong fit for many gifted learners. This book aims to help educators identify and begin to support their gifted learners. Parents may also find it useful. I know that when I first “met” my daughter, and as I watched her grow up, I didn’t have much vocabulary for what was going on, nor much understanding. She and I both wish I’d known the term “deviance fatigue,” for example, back then!
This field guide, as you call it, seems very usable.
We ask the world of teachers. They must consider the needs of such a diverse array of learners, often in several subjects. Gifted students are rare birds, truly neurodivergent. What should a teacher do when one or more alights in the classroom? This field guide will begin to help answer that question.
This book started as material in workshops you were running for other teachers. Why did it become a book?
My co-author, Molly Kellogg, and I developed this book after a workshop we presented in various northern New England settings kept being particularly well met. Participants often asked for our materials. After offering several versions of not-that-great (euphemism!) websites, we had a sort of Eureka moment: Why not make a book?
Why 12 profiles of fictional students?
When my colleague and I taught together, we came across numerous helpful screening checklists. One of them presented 12 common characteristics, including both positive and negative manifestations. This approach was very helpful to us, and to the classroom teachers with whom we worked. For example, a superior abstract reasoner may resist rote learning and refuse, or be unable to, explain their thinking. Gifted and talented students can be so complex. They are not to be confused with the “bright hard worker.” The positive AND negative aspects on the checklist brought it all home. In our workshops, the characteristics came together in the form of 12 hypothetical students, whom we employed as discussion starters. I had such fun drawing them. (My other work life is one of picture book author/illustrator.)
How did you get involved in the gifted student field to begin with?
When I was at HGSE, in the mid '80s, I was deeply involved with second language acquisition. I had come from the ELL field, and would return to it. My favorite classes were with Catherine Snow. My students were ESL, as we called it back then, and so, in a sense, was I. I remember learning English at a young age, Swedish being my first language. A bunch of years later, I ended up transitioning to gifted and talented education. It was a new and fascinating field. It also gave me a better understanding of my eldest, who came downstairs one day at the age of three, reading.
Of the 12 learners in your book, who typically gets "overlooked" the most?
Twice exceptional learners are at high risk for being supported in school only for their deficits, not their amazing strengths. That would be one answer. Another would be students of color, who have traditionally been overlooked. During this pandemic time, the “missed that kid” gap may well be further expanded. Who will notice our gifted homeless children? I worry that, in too many districts, gifted and talented programs serve the bright children of the loudest parents, ones of privilege for whom schooling worked well. We need to widen our net everywhere.
What would be the next step for someone after using this book?
Assuming that the teacher or parent ordered the book due to a professional or personal need to understand a gifted and talented child, the next step would be to explore the profiles in the book and to find the one that most relates. Take a look at the tips for working with such a student. Think of small ways in which you can adapt the environment for them. This book might be summed up by our hope that the readers will be able to notice their gifted and talented children and begin to meet their needs. There are many other resources that will further pedagogical practice. Ours is just a start.