The best gift that classes offer gifted students may not be more topics or more difficult classes, but a way to quiet a mind that is racing in many directions.
Gifted students need to learn to think of one element of an idea, says Kyle Walz, a 14-year English/Odyssey/anger management teacher who recently was tapped to head the Meramec Valley School District Odyssey program for gifted students.
A gifted student’s mind can be bombarded with thoughts that shoot out from the single theme of a class project. They want to go in all directions, says Walz, who was a gifted student and attended Odyssey classes in the district from kindergarten through eighth grade.
“At that time, Odyssey only went to the eighth grade,” he said.
Although Odyssey classes exposed him to a variety of topics and themes, the thing he took away from it was the ability to corral his myriad of thoughts.
“Maybe not completely corral thoughts,” he said. “Corralling thoughts is a lifelong process, but students can learn to get a handle on it.”
Walz recalled a middle school gifted student who was so gifted with words that he answered every question with what amounted to a seminar or litany on the topic.
Encouraging the talkative student — who always knew his stuff — to provide a shorter answer was the goal.
In high school, the student decided to enter JROTC, where, the Odyssey teacher explained, enlightening the instructor with additional information was not the route to success.
“And he was able to do it,” Walz said. “I ran into him in the hallway at the high school and he said, ‘Guess what? I’m not talking too much and not having to do a thousand pushups every week.’ ”
In another anecdote that demonstrated students developing control of their topic, Walz recounted an Odyssey project where eighth-grade Riverbend School students created a virtual tour of the school library for incoming seventh-graders.
Using a video camera, the students went through each step in a visit to the library, from locating books to check-out.
When they looked at their own video, they realized that the constant camera movement made it appear that the room was moving and created a hint of seasickness.
“They went back and reshot it so the viewer could see the action without movement,” Walz said. “They figured it out themselves.”
Walz and two other teachers provide instruction to 129 gifted district students this year, but a referral and evaluation process for potential students may increase those numbers.
Debbie Hunkins has taught the elementary Odyssey program for 20 years.
Dawn Bristo started this year to teach the eighth-grade Odyssey students at Riverbend School.
For the past five years, Walz was the Riverbend Odyssey teacher. He has been with the district for 14 years.
In his Aug. 21 report to the school board, Walz noted that in Hunkins’ elementary school Odyssey classes, second-graders completed a unit on the economy, while third-, fourth- and fifth-graders created their own society with students developing companies. The students participated in the annual Extempore competition, which this year centered around technology and was titled “What’s APP’ning.” The girls’ team took first place in the competition.
Middle school Odyssey students formed architectural firms and designed houses to fit individual families.
Eighth-grade Odyssey students at Riverbend School conducted indepth research on a person of interest, created unique performances based on movies, and created their own math formula to compute value from data.
“The idea for eighth-grade Odyssey projects,” Walz noted, “is to stir students’ interest in various programs at the high school.”
In 2012-13, PHS Odyssey students completed scores of classes and programs, took field trips and wrote essays, all designed to help them learn about their giftedness, learn about their community and the world, demonstrate ability to locate, gather and present information, explore career fields of interest and develop a personal portfolio.
The 129 students enrolled in Odyssey this past year included 56 elementary students, 18 at the middle school, 10 at Riverbend and 45 high school students.
To maintain the program, the district is required to maintain a certain number of students in the gifted classes.
Walz said referrals and evaluations are currently under way to locate more gifted students and bring them into the program.
Teaching gifted students, Walz said, is an awesome thing to do.
“Limitations are dissolved,” he said. “You have to teach everything from abstract thinking to algebra, psychology, music, history, speech, technology and writing.”
The goal of the program, he said, is to engage gifted students in a way that keeps them active in school.
“Effective development,” best describes the goal, Walz said.
Learning can include social skills, like the JROTC student who needed to listen more in order to be more effective.
Odyssey teachers also have to listen intently to grasp the thinking and skills of each student.
Walz mentioned a high school freshman who sees the entire world through a camera.
“Actually, he brought these ideas to the eighth grade,” Walz said. “Whatever the topic was, he’d say, ‘Could I make a video of that?’ and he understood how it would work. He has a high level of concentration.”
Odyssey teachers strive to instill in gifted students that their giftedness is OK — that it’s OK to have many thoughts on one topic. The goal is to select those thoughts that drive the topic of the day.
“The ultimate goal is for gifted students to use all aspects of life,” Walz said. “As teachers our job is to help them manage that.”