Over the last couple of days, I’ve had an interesting email correspondence with Jackie Winch. It turns out she discovered the blog post in which I quoted her, and felt obligated to add more to the story. In the process, I’ve found that behind the celebrity we see on Ace of Cakes is a fascinating story that I think perfectly highlights the importance of gifted education and differentiated instruction.

What she shared struck me as very typical of the kinds of things I have seen in gifted students I have worked with:

There is a lot to say about Duff.

I do remember in McLean, VA where Duff went to the school for the gifted and talented for grades 3-6 that many of his classmates were “unique”. Many of them were socially different, “weird”, troubled misfits. I questioned my wisdom for putting him in the program because I didn’t want him to be like them. Some had an elitist sense of entitlement and some were just oddballs. Luckily Duff kept his cool and did rather well despite the rather ugly family life he was experiencing at the time with our divorce.

Often I have heard teachers describe their students as “weird” or “different” or “troubled,” and they were often right. But these same teachers, at least the best ones, still saw them as human beings and realized there was great possibility in each one of them.
In third grade, Duff wrote a paper on “The Body”. I was otherwise occupied with more serious matters and didn’t even know about the assignment, much less have time to help him with it. I received a call from his teacher to come to the school. This paper was…[a] masterpiece. It was all in his own words, and [when we read] the section entitled “Private Parts” we nearly laughed our heads off. The teacher gave him an A. I asked why the A, because of all the lack of attention to capitalization, grammar and spelling, etc. He said the school didn’t want to bog him down with “details” wanting to foster the creativity. The details would come. Later. I’m still waiting…
What is most enlightening about this to me is looking at it in reverse: knowing about the successful adult first, and then looking back at the child. It’s easy now to look at Duff, the creative chef and highly successful businessman, and see his childhood behavior as just quirky, even necessary to his development and creative expression. But it would have been easy at the time to lump him into the “troubled” category and to write him off as a lost cause. If we could look at a child and see the adult he would become, we would almost certainly treat him differently.

I believe that’s an essential part of our job as educators, and one that often gets lost in the day-to-day minutiae of teaching. We must learn to see the potential—the real potential—in every child, and figure out ways to help him realize it. We must learn to help him imagine the possibilities and, like Duff’s third grade teacher, do whatever we can to inspire him to realize those possibilities.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t have standards or expectations or that we ignore the “details.” But the relative importance of those details will not be the same for every child:

There’s another thing which comes to mind: Duff’s older brother made very nice grades in school and worked for them. All Duff had to do was show up and he’d make similar grades. When he asked me why I didn’t get as excited over his grades I said that he was given a gift of “easy learning” and that I was only going to be impressed with what he did with it—it was up to him. I didn’t push for grades as much as his father did, but I know he understood exactly what I was telling him. What kept him balanced as opposed to some of his classmates, is that he never lost sight of the importance he felt by pleasing others. I think that’s the lesson sometimes not addressed in the schools—the balance of pleasing oneself coupled with the importance of social acceptance.
Step back and look at the big picture. Let’s see the children our classrooms from the perspective of their futures, not our present, and design their learning experiences accordingly.