Books

Ungifted by Gordon Korman

Last night/early this morning, I finished another book by Gordon Korman.  Korman is fast becoming a new favorite author, and I am contemplating running to get another of his books today.  This was another book that I could not put down until I finished it.  I picked it up yesterday, because I liked The Unteachables (by the same author) so much.

Ungifted is about a young man named Donovan who is a troublemaker who seems to have impulse control problems.  At the start of the book, Donovan gets sent to detention while the rest of the school is at the big basketball game.  The teacher supervising detention steps away, and Donovan sneaks out of detention with his two friends.  As they are walking across campus, they come across the big statue of Atlas holding up the world.  Donovan whacks the statue with a stick, and the globe breaks off and goes running down the hill – straight for the packed gym and the basketball game with the school’s biggest rival.

The school superintendent takes Donovan to his office and writes his name down to deal with him later.  His secretary calls him away to deal with the aftermath, and on his way out the door he tells her to send letters to the newly selected gifted and talented kids for the G&T academy.  She instead picks up the paper with Donovan’s information.  A few days later his parents receive the congratulatory email with instructions to enroll him in the gifted and talented academy.

Donovan figures that going to the academy is the easiest way to avoid the superintendent figuring out who he is, so he doesn’t correct the mistake.  He wasn’t even tested for the G&T academy.  There, he meets new friends – kids he would not have dreamed of being friends with at his old school – and discovers that the kids that they already know are “smart” are treated much better than normal kids.  Several of the gifted kids, on the other hand, just want to be normal and have normal experiences.  There are several messages here.

Friendship is an important theme in this book.  We see this in the new friendships that Donovan develops at his new school.  He also is put in the position of confronting his old, troublemaking friends when with his new friends and has to contend with where his loyalties are now placed.  Can he remain friends with both groups in the end?

Family is also an important theme in the book.  Donovan grows closer to his sister throughout the book, and their journey is also an interesting subplot in the book.  He takes care of her deployed husband’s dog.  The dog is sick, grumpy, and only seems to like Donovan.

The most important theme in the book relates to the value of children and the value of educating ALL children regardless of IQ, standardized test scores, or ability.  The author is careful to point out that the kids at the G&T academy have access to things that mainstream kids don’t and are treated much better than the “normal” kids in their learning environments.  The schools are very different.  The G&T kids have access to robotics classes, computers, tablets, etc.  They are encouraged to use their phones to look things up.  They have bigger lockers where they can charge their devices and store experiments.  They receive individualized instruction that takes a holistic view of the kids.  Even the cafeteria food choices are better.

This reinforces the idea that all kids should have access to opportunities for advanced education, creative education, and encouragement.  This should happen regardless of standardized test scores, academic performance, and so on.  There are multiple forms of intelligence, and not all of them will show up in the normal classroom or on a standardized test.  Indeed, not all children are even allowed to take the test to enter the academy.  Donovan’s grades improve, and he becomes more dedicated to studying as a result of his exposure to the creative and exploratory learning environment of the academy.

The use of standardized tests and other metrics to label children is damaging.  This book highlights the dangers of this.  Kids that might belong in a gifted and talented environment are missed when we leave it to adults to label and track them.  In fact, there is research that demonstrates that tracking has an iatrogenic effect on kids’ education (and on a multitude of other outcomes).  What would happen if we immersed all kids in creative and exploratory environments from the first day of their educational journey?  What if we looked for their talents and gifts – wherever those may be – and worked to develop those?  What if we used talents and gifts as a mechanism to help kids improve in areas of weakness?  Our educational system is failing our kids.

I was labeled as a G&T kid from a young age.  I was given extra assignments, extra projects, and other similar things to do.  As I got into middle school, my grades started to fall.  At first, it was because I needed glasses and could not see the board.  Once that was fixed, my grades should have improved.  Frankly, I was bored.  I never really told my parents this.  Even in high school, I could get A’s in classes without ever opening my textbooks.  I stopped really trying in a lot of my classes.  The teachers did nothing to get my attention.  There were a couple of exceptions to this, but for the most part teachers just wanted to focus on the kids who worked really hard.  I didn’t really care.  I still graduated pretty high in my class.  It was not until I was in college that I started getting the encouragement to apply myself.  I think most of the learning I have done in life has been on my own with a library card or a trip to the bookstore.  At least my parents encouraged a love of learning and reading.  That had more influence than anything else in my life.

My daughter had the opposite experience.  When she was in grade school she tested into a special academy.  I did everything I could and worked three jobs to send her there (it was very expensive).  She got incredibly high scores on the admissions tests and received scholarships, so that helped.  Once we moved from that city to a small, rural community, that all changed.  The principal refused to look at the past scores and academic performance.  Indeed, in one meeting in her office, she commented that my kid didn’t belong in the G&T program and hinted (not even hinted really – bluntly stated) that maybe if I’d stayed with my ex-husband my kid would have qualified.  She spent the rest of her 2 years at that school being judged by the principal because her mother was a single mom.  I was appalled, but I did not know what I could do about it in that small town.

As a result, when we moved back to a big city and bigger opportunities for her high school years, she struggled.  She had not received the education at levels that challenged her, and she was behind her peers.  She spent a year and a half/two years recovering and catching back up.  In the end, she recovered and excelled, but that one prejudiced view really hurt her – all because of something that was not even her fault.  She had no control over me getting divorced.  And guess what!  That divorce was one of the smartest decisions of my life.

My point is that we should be cultivating the talents and gifts of all children.  We are missing out by tracking kids into different groups – nurturing some and ignoring others.  This is unfair, and it is detrimental to society.  It needs to change.  I hope that I can do something to change it.  I am not sure what, but I will find a way.  Maybe my kids will find a way.

Until next time, Happy Reading!

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