Embrace the Nonconformity

I spend my days with normal three, four and five year olds, but their normal is different.

I’m the Education Director at a non-profit preschool for highly capable children.  If you visit my preschool you might catch the kids acting neurotypical:  sharing toys reasonably well, asking a teacher for help with the tape dispenser, talking about Star Wars.  But catch them at other moments and you will see and hear things that reveal they are not like other preschoolers.

Daily GraphOur children complete a graph each morning on their way into the building.  I tend to keep the questions simple:  “Do you have a dog?”  Before morning sing-along I tally the answers with the kids and we talk about what the numbers mean.  That’s all pretty normal for an early childhood classroom (except for their frequent references to infinity).

Our preschoolers don’t like simple answers.  They are full of reasons why they really do have a dog:  it’s stuffed, it’s in their heart, it’s a “pre-dog” that their family is planning to get someday.  Lots of our kids like to put their name magnets on the line between Yes and No – we call it “being on the fence.”  If they’re on the fence they have to tell me a serious reason why.  (“Pre-dog” was ruled an acceptable answer.)

I try to stump the fence-lovers with solidly binary questions.  One morning the Daily Graph asked, “Have you ever been on an airplane?”  As the kids entered class they moved their magnets to Yes or No – except E, who read the question with her daddy and quickly put her magnet on the fence.

“Hey, sweetie pie,” I called to her, “The question is, ‘Have you ever been on an airplane?’  Tell me how you can be on the fence.”

“Well,” E said, squirming her body around to help herself concentrate, “I have … and I have not.”

“But if you have ever been on an airplane,” I reasoned with the four year old, “then you have been on an airplane.”

“Yes,” she agreed, contorting her body, “But if I have ever not been on an airplane that’s all the times I wasn’t ever on an airplane.  So I’ve been both.”

That logic was good enough to keep E’s magnet on the fence.

I like it when kids are on the fence, when their normal is different.  Some teachers have a hard time with it.  My son’s preschool teacher was appalled when, on rainbow-painting day, my kiddo covered his paper with black paint.  At pick-up time the teacher (who was lovely in many ways) confronted me, saying she couldn’t put my child’s artwork up on the wall.  “Hey, Kiddo,” I called to my three year old, “what’s with the black paint?”  “You know, Mama, black contains all the colors of the rainbow and I wanted to paint it quick so I could go to blocks.  You have to be one of the first four kids.”

There’s a saying in gifted education:

We have to teach gifted children to conform just enough to not incur the wrath of society.

Being different can be messy and challenging; it can cause upheaval to well-laid classroom plans.  But when I encounter a child innovating it fills me with joy – it is why I love teaching.

The world increasingly will be divided between high imagination-enabling countries, which encourage and enable the imagination and extras of their people, and low imagination-enabling countries, which suppress or simply fail to develop their people’s creative capacities and abilities to spark new ideas …  (Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum in That Used to be Us)

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