Finding a Place Where We Belong
Creating a Haven for "Nerds"
Making a Place for “Nerds”: Being Gifted in an Anti-Intellectual World
By Elly Gilbert
“I have a great affection for people who are intellectually engaged with the world, and who don’t treat everything superficially. And I think, when people talk about nerdiness, what they’re really talking about is smart people who are trying to think hard about the world. And I don’t think that’s an insult, I think that’s a great thing.”
― John Green
Despite that declaration from John Green, reigning King of All Things Nerdy, being called an intellectual, smart, or nerd is absolutely, unequivocally an insult. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the most grueling of all artificial social ecosystems: middle school. Though school is devoted to educating these wild and wooly adolescents, it's still no safe place to be a "nerd."
As a teacher of gifted and high achieving middle schoolers, this is a reality and pain point for my students. I am part of a wonderful professional learning cohort called CTEPS (Classroom Teachers Enacting Positive Solutions- pronounced “steps”) that asked me to think of a problem in my classroom or school that needed to be solved. Before I made any moves, I asked my students for their input. Their opinions were, as gifted students' opinions tend to be, quite firm. They were almost violent in their response. “All our school cares about is getting kids to proficiency. We’re already there, so we just get shoved to the back burner. No one cares about us.”
Neither my students nor I say this in an accusatory or judgemental manner. It's just how we see the world. When teachers vocalize complaints about having to differentiate for gifted kids, when peers fail to applaud their successes in public, or when gifted students are expected to sit and tutor a classmate rather than dive deeper or push further in the content, the low priority on intellectual pursuits is clear. Perhaps this attitude is born out of personal insecurity. Perhaps it is just a symptom of the national anti-nerd culture. Either way, gifted/high-achieving kids feel devalued by it.
In response to this concern, I decided to start small, combatting this first in my classroom. I began asking students to write regularly about their experiences. Sometimes I gave them a question or prompt to respond to, other times I let them rant. I gathered their writings and published them to a blog. Simply creating a safe space where students could use their voice seemed to help tremendously, even though the blog doesn’t have a wide audience. As a result of this, my students have become more comfortable with advocating for their needs in other classes. Students began writing articles for our school newspaper about the needs of gifted students. Students were asked to give TED Talk style speeches and several of them chose to speak about this topic. One of my students has even initiated a project with the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team to improve gifted policy at the state level. I believe that offering a chance for them to be heard gave them the power to use their voices for good.
If you are struggling with this in your school, you can help your students by doing a few simple things. First, ask them for their thoughts and genuinely listen to them. Second, keep recognizing and celebrating their excellence, even when it seems like no one else is interested. Finally, help them connect to others who share their same struggle and who can relate. I started doing a bit of this when I paired my 7th and 8th grade gifted students with a 4th grader to mentor once a week. I gave them philosophical questions to discuss and brainteasers to complete together. It made my “big kids” feel like someone looked up to them and appreciated their intelligence, and it gave my younger students a role model that showed them nerdiness was actually pretty cool.
My Research and Major Influences
"10 Social and Emotional Needs of the Gifted" by Ian Byrd
Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown
Excellence Gaps in Education by Jonathan Plucker and Scott Peters
"Myth 17: Gifted and Talented Individuals Do Not Have Unique Social and Emotional Needs" by Jean Sunde Peterson
"The New Anti-Intellectualism" by Nel Noddings
"A Note on Nerdfighters" by Michelle Dean
"The Psychosocial Concerns and Needs of Gifted Students" by Linda Brody
"Why Did 'Nerd' Become a Dirty Word?" by Jamie Chamberlin
"Why School's Not Fair to Gifted Kids" by Lisa VanGemert
A Glimpse Inside My Classroom
Take a Chance Board
I created a spot in my classroom where I can post contests, camps, and other news of interest for my students. Sometimes I post brainteasers, writing prompts, or puzzles, too.
ATLAS (7/8 Grade)
Advanced Topics in Language Arts Studies is a class for 7th and 8th grade students. We explore a different thematic topic each quarter through reading, writing, speaking, and viewing/listening.
Giving TED Talks
Students gave TED style talks about topics that mattered to them personally.
Take a Chance Board
ATLAS (7/8 Grade)
The Frankfort Tribune
Learning and succeeding outside of school
About Mrs. Gilbert
As a little girl at West Liberty Elementary School in eastern Kentucky, I was identified as a gifted learner who was pretty curious and loved to read. My experiences in the gifted program and participating on our school's academic team were the highlights of school for me. School wasn't always very challenging and I often felt like an outsider because I craved more of everything academic. I, in short, was a nerd. After graduating from Morgan County High School, I attended Morehead State University and majored in English, history, and secondary education. I earned my MA in Education at Georgetown College in gifted education and reading/writing.
I’m in my 19th year of teaching and my experience has been quite varied. While my current role is that of Gifted and Talented Specialist and Coordinator for Frankfort Independent Schools and I'm based at Second Street School, I still think of myself as an English Language Arts teacher, because that is what I have spent most of my career doing. I have taught every grade of ELA from 6th through AP Seniors in schools across central and eastern Kentucky, both private and public. At my current school, I teach an advanced 7th and 8th ELA class, pull Primary Talent Pool students for an hour a week, teach extension (enrichment/related arts) classes for 5-8, and I sponsor the academic team, Kentucky Youth Assembly, Kentucky United Nations Assembly, and the school newspaper, all efforts to open doors for the students I serve.
I met my husband, John, who is an architect, on a blind date, and we were married in 2000. We have a daughter, Audrey, who is 14, and twin boys, Jack and Sam, who are 12. They are all middle schoolers at Second Street and were big influences on my project choice. We attend Frankfort First United Methodist Church. In my spare time, I love to read, write, crochet, cook, and watch movies. I am obsessed with Broadway musicals and Parks and Recreation reruns on Netflix. My top five favorite books of all time are, in no particular order, Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume, Southernmost by Silas House, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. I also love a good murder mystery!