By Wenda Sheard.
SENG’s mission is to empower families and communities to guide gifted and talented individuals to reach their goals: intellectually, physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.
Perhaps because I am an attorney as well as a political scientist, I equate empowerment with advocacy. I think of advocacy as making change by persuading others to change their beliefs, their practices, their policies, their regulations, and sometimes, their laws. Because I strongly believe in making change, I presented a recent SENGinar titled Bootcamp for Determined Advocates.
In this article, I share my favorite advocacy hints from Bootcamp for Determined Advocates. Although I thought that my SENGinar would be a departure for SENG—a hard-core legal and political presentation rather than one about social and emotional topics —to my surprise I discovered that my favorite advocacy hints involve relationships and emotions. I will call these advocacy tips “heart hints.” Calling them “heart hints” emphasizes a basic truth: that the most effective advocacy comes from the heart.
Heart Hint #1: Share Your Child’s Typical Day at School
If you want others to feel your child’s school experience, I recommend that you record details from one school day. Follow your child around for that day. Take notes, and perhaps film part of the day. Specify the age at which your child learned lessons taught in the classroom. Demonstrate the number of repetitions needed by your child to learn new material. Ask your child to share feelings and emotions about school. Calculate how much of your child’s day is spent sitting quietly while pretending to learn material mastered years earlier. Recording and sharing details helps others understand what happens in your child’s mind during the school day.
Heart Hint #2: Just Love My Child
When my children were young, I loved using this technique. I kindly asked the teacher why she (or he) went into teaching. I listened with care. I understood that the teacher spends long hours trying to meet the needs of all children in the classroom. I gently shared that my child manages to learn a great deal outside of school just by reading books and otherwise satisfying his or her natural curiosity.
Next, I released the teacher from having to teach my child anything at school. Radical? Yes. But this technique worked wonders because it allowed me to gain the teacher’s trust to the point where the teacher was willing to accept (1) that my child can learn quite well without a teacher, and (2) that the teacher should not require my child to spend time sitting in the classroom pretending to learn.
Heart Hint #3: Let My Child Learn
Once a teacher is willing to admit (1) that creating lessons to address the learning needs of all children in a typical classroom is impossible, and (2) that children suffer when forced to sit still in chairs and pretend to learn, the teacher will be more willing to allow children with advanced knowledge to read books, to visit the library, or to learn via the Internet during school hours.
I recommend that parents suggest to the teacher that their children might be willing to find resources for whatever unit the teacher plans to teach next. I also recommend that parents suggest that their children might be willing to share information with other students. The “go to the library, find resources, and share” strategy, if used voluntarily, cheerfully, and with gratitude all around, can be a win-win scenario for everyone.
Heart Hint #4: Run Contests for Students
I recommend that parents volunteer to run contests for children in their schools. Why? Because running contests helps build relationships and appreciation among adults, and helps students, too. When my children were young, I coached Odyssey of the Mind and Destination Imagination teams. Hoagies Gifted Education Page keeps a long list of contests and awards involving a myriad of academic and nonacademic areas. I recommend that parents choose an activity that best matches their children’s interests and offer to run that activity for the benefit of their children and others.
Speaking of contests, I also recommend that parents watch TED videos by Dr. Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University. Dr. Mitra recently won $1 million from TED to continue his research into self-organized learning environments. As part of his research, Dr. Mitra hopes to “engage communities, parents, schools and afterschool programs worldwide, to transform the way kids learn, by sharing the Self Organized Learning Environment’s (SOLE) toolkit, how-to videos, and educational resources.”
Heart Hint #5: School as Extracurricular
Because some gifted children learn a great deal outside of school, and because some parents lack good schooling options for their children, I sometimes recommend that parents consider their child’s school experiences as an extracurricular activity. I suggest that parents create “home learning” transcripts to illustrate their children’s learning at home. Parents can then compare the two flavors of transcripts—school learning and home learning. Brave parents might then compare the two transcripts, side-by-side, at school board meetings or legislative hearings. When I think of how much more many gifted children learn at home than they learn at school, I remember what Margaret Mead said, “My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school.”
Heart Hint #6: Science and Newborn Babies
If parents encounter educators who believe that giftedness is a social construct, with no basis in reality, I suggest those parents melt the hearts of those educators by sharing work done by two scientists in Louisville, Kentucky on newborn infants. Molfese and Molfese measured the responses of 96 newborns to the synthesized speech syllable /gi/. The researchers discovered, “Auditory ERPs recorded within 36 hours after birth can be used to successfully discriminate, at well above chance levels, the reading performance of children eight years later.” See, Molfese, D. L., & Molfese, V. J. (1997). “Discrimination of language skills at five years of age using event-related potentials recorded at birth.” Developmental Neuropsychology, 13(2): 135-156.
Heart Hint #7: People are Politics
Politics, at its core, is relationships between people. Politicians, political scientists, and school officials know that the majority of their work involves relationships between people. The extent to which a given law, regulation, or policy is applied rigidly or flexibly depends in large part on the circumstances of a particular situation, including one very important circumstance: how much the people involved like each other.
Parents who project care and concern for all children and a willingness to trust educators as individuals who try to do their best for children succeed in building good relationships with school board members, with school administrators, and with teachers. Negative attitudes tear down, rather than build up, relationships.
Heart Hint #8: Sunshine Laws
Some sunshine laws require most government meetings and deliberations to be conducted in public view (open meetings laws), and others require most public records to be available to the public (freedom of information laws). The laws typically include provisions about agendas, minutes, records, enforcement, and attorney fees incurred in challenging a public body’s compliance with sunshine laws. In most states, the state’s attorney general is charged with explaining the state’s sunshine laws to elected officials and members of the public. Many states have free online information explaining the laws, and some (including Ohio, for instance) offer free training sessions not only to elected officials, but also to members of the public.
After studying a state’s sunshine laws for just a few hours, most parents can acquire a great deal of information and become better advocates. I recommend that parents refrain from using sunshine law knowledge to “zing” school board officials when they run afoul of the laws, but rather use sunshine law knowledge to build good relationships with school board members by gently reminding them of their sunshine law responsibilities. Good relationships build trust and cooperation.
Heart Hint #9: Rules for Radicals
In his book Rules for Radicals (1971), Saul Alinsky tells the truth about people. Because people are comforted by the familiar and shocked by the unfamiliar, Alinsky advises advocates to comfort allies and surprise opponents. Alinsky teaches us to embrace the duality inherent in all arguments, and to understand, anticipate, and respond to counterarguments in advance. He emphasizes that we must see the entire picture, not just our small corner. Each time I have read Rules for Radicals over the years, I have been impressed by Alinsky’s respect for people and his advice that making change requires changing minds and hearts.
Please let me know if my heart hints end up helping you or your child. If you want to listen to the entire Bootcamp for Determined Advocates SENGinar, including all the slides, the audio, and the questions and answers, I encourage you to support SENG by purchasing a copy from the SENG Store.
Wenda Sheard, J.D., Ph.D. is an emeritus board member and past president of SENG. She currently serves as a trustee on the Council of Management of the UK’s National Association for Gifted Children. Before moving to England in 2009 to teach at an international school, Dr. Sheard taught in the United States and China, practiced law in Ohio, and worked in Connecticut as a disability policy researcher exploring the educational and workforce lives of people with disabilities. She has won advocacy awards, published articles, taught teachers, and presented at numerous conferences on three continents.