Officially, the Gifted classes at Westmount are available to “students who are identified as gifted,” but if there is room available, it is open to other students. As one teacher said to me during a Grade 8 information night, “The gifted class is for students that are more competitive. Only [a small percentage] of students in the gifted class are actually gifted.” Score, I was in.
Westmount says that their “students find it beneficial for the opportunity to accelerate the pace of their course completion, to pursue areas of interest in more detail, and to cover the subject areas in greater depth and breadth.” Yet, when I started talking to children in the Academic stream, a stream that what was supposed to be a step below in terms of difficulty, I discovered that the “enhanced curriculum” of the Gifted program was not really that “enhanced.”
The workload wasn’t any heavier, but at times it was different. In English, we read Twelfth Night while the Academic class read A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We still had to read one Shakespearean play, write one essay and do one dramatization – the same as the Academic class. When asked by Academic and Applied students how the gifted kids could handle the harder workload, I caught many of them saying, “It’s not more work. It’s actually a little easier.”
Despite there not being a very noticeable evolution from the Academic classes, the students tended to err on the side of arrogance. There have been two occasions in my life that someone has proudly announced their IQ to a group of people and both of those instances took place in gifted classes at Westmount.
As one frustrated teacher remarked offhandedly when the class refused to buckle down and get any work done, “The problem is that all your life you’ve had people telling you you’re special. Now you think you’re special.” It took me a long time to realize how astute that observation was.
The difficulty of each course depended largely on the teacher that was teaching it. I finally found the challenge I had been seeking in Paul Paterson’s Grade 10 Gifted History class.
Mr. Paterson was one of the few teachers in that school that truly invested in his students. He broke the mould by writing his own curriculums and breathed life into the class with in-depth assignments, the likes of which I had never seen before. He appreciated every eccentric thought that students put forth and honestly believed in both their apparent and undeveloped capabilities. He gave me what I had been expecting from the Gifted classes: a challenge.
The most labour-intensive project assigned to us in that class was a documentary about an immigrant group in Hamilton. As part of the project we had to set up and conduct interviews with members of the ethnic background of our choosing in order to get add a personal touch. We actually had to pick up the phone and call people, then go outside and meet with them in person – something that terrified me to no end.
We were allowed to check out video cameras and tripods to film our interviews. We were also each lent a Mac laptop, complete with iMovie and Garageband, to edit the footage. Mr Paterson and the Media Arts teacher, Bonar Bulger, were available throughout school hours if we needed any help at all.
In the four years I attended Westmount that Grade 10 Gifted History class was the hardest class I took, and by far the most fulfilling. I was infinitely proud of how much effort I had put forth, and how much my teacher expected from me. Two years after graduation, I still occasionally migrate back to Westmount to stay in touch with Mr. Paterson. I consider him a mentor.
I was disappointed to learn that the Grade 10 Gifted History class I had taken has since been drastically cut down in terms of difficulty. Parents were unhappy with the amount of pressure their students were facing – and that “amount of pressure” can be translated into “any pressure at all.” The reason they wouldn’t place their children in an easier environment, like the Academic History class, was because of that test. That damn test. According to that test, their child was gifted, and therefore belonged in the Gifted class.
If special resources are going to be allocated to the Gifted program, than those opportunities to excel need to be deserved. The extra work should not end with one test taken in middle school. We shouldn’t be rewarding our youth simply for being born with increased potential. It instills in them a subtle sense of entitlement and superiority over the rest of the population – which, in the long run, will only be destructive to their work and social lives.
Imagine a classroom where the curriculum is tailored to bring out a student’s range of abilities. Imagine a teacher that motivates, inspires and challenges his students. Imagine a student who is making the most out of what they were gifted with. Westmount itself has been gifted with a vision like this; all it needs is to reach out and grab it.