Unwrapping giftedness in American education

Mar 19, 2019

It wasn’t cartoons.

Not a Disney film.

It was Nightline.

Yes, that's what independent filmmaker Marc Smolowitz begged his parents to watch past his bedtime as a child in the 1970s. During the Iran Hostage Crisis, the news show began the first-ever nightly late-night newscast, and Marc had to strike up a deal.

“I negotiated with my mom and dad to let me stay up late to watch Nightline because it was a learning opportunity. Now, what kind of eight-year-old, nine-year-old does that, right?”

Before knowing that Marc has his own background as a gifted child, it might be difficult to see the connection between Marc’s latest project The G Word, and his other films, which certain largely around social justice issues like race, gender, and sexuality.

The film, subtitled “a new documentary about giftedness, intelligence, and neurodiverse learners in the 21st century,” takes a careful look at a big question: who gets to be gifted in America? And the answer is not as easy as the results of an IQ test.

Moderately gifted children are those who score between 130 and 144 on an IQ test, depending on which test is used. But these children often face social-emotional challenges, and their families face their own sets of challenges as they seek to accommodate and cultivate their children's special abilities.

Marc first came to the idea of a project about gifted children when one of his producers brought to his attention the experience of the producer’s children at a Silicon Valley School for children called Helios. Despite intellectual gifts and relative prosperity, the children and their families had their own sets of challenges.

“So these are highly-resourced families, and their kids are still having so much trouble. I start asking the question which really fits in with the gestalt of all the movies you've seen me having been involved in: ‘What happens when you take out those resources?’

But for many families in America from different ethnic, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds, it’s less clear how giftedness can be fairly accommodated and cultivated.

"What became clear was that those social-emotional challenges were not reserved for any one kind of school. Whether it was public, or private, or micro, or innovation, or homeschool...You have gifted and talented children with troubles."

While not all gifted and talented learners have social-emotional issues, Marc noticed a high number of “noticeable, darker narratives” amongst the gifted kids that he met during his research.

While public schools are often well-equipped to manage the needs of special education children, the same is not the case for gifted children. This becomes especially true in this case of twice-exceptional children, who have both above average intellectual capabilities and one or more disabilities such as autism, specific learning disabilities, or ADHD.

“Our public schools cannot deal with this population,” Marc said. “They are failing tremendously at dealing with these neurodiverse children.”

Marc says that the population of twice exceptional children is growing, though it’s unclear whether this is because they are being born at higher rates or if the public is more aware of the concept.

This is when new educational options for children begin to come into play.

“The parents are being activated, especially the mothers, and there's a real journey there that has drama and sort of interesting nuances for a filmmaker, whereby when a mother decides to homeschool her twice-exceptional kids, then she has a number of light bulbs that go off,” Marc said.

“Epiphanies go off, where she becomes not just an advocate for her own children, but for the children of others, and creates a micro-school that is a safe space for these kids who really were being crushed by the system could actually come to school, feel safe, feel supported, and actually be successful, or find some version of success for themselves.”

Just as parents of learning disabled children began to advocate in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, leading to changes in policy to ensure that their children receive a fair and appropriate public education. Marc believes that the parents of twice-exceptional children will continue to advocate in growing numbers.

Marc has observed that the growing number of vocal families with twice exceptional children coincides with families deciding to take their children’s education into their own hands.

“So many families at every level of economic strata are opting out of traditional school entirely and curating their way through a personalized education solution for their children,” Marc said.

Marc mentions that new options offering families a more flexible, customizable approach, are perfectly matched to today’s educational landscape.

Outschool is servicing a very dynamic sector of the gifted and talented communities, which is those that are homeschooling, or those parents of advanced learners who want to give their children more advanced learning opportunities where they're not being met in school,” Marc said.

The G Word, from Marc’s company 13th Gen is currently in production. Learn more about the film on The G Word website. You can also check out the Kickstarter campaign for the film here.