Ordinary Gifted Children: The Power and Promise of Individual Attention
reviewed by Linda Jarvin - February 21, 2011
Title: Ordinary Gifted Children: The Power and Promise of Individual Attention
Author(s): Jessica Hoffmann Davis
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807750972, Pages: 194, Year: 2010
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The rich narrative of Jessica Hoffman Davis Ordinary Gifted Children: The Power and Promise of Individual Attention defies a quick characterization. Though the stated topic is a description of the Hoffman School for Individual Attention and a portrait of its principal, the authors mother, it is so much more than that. It is a moving, loving, and balanced maternal portrait by a daughter who was keenly aware as a young girl that she was not the only important child in her mothers life, and who grew up to be an educator like her. It is a warm and nostalgic account of a city of New York and its boroughs that is no longer. It is an invitation to join a personal journey of reliving a childhood and confronting ones own childhood memories to the memories of the other children, now all grown adults, with whom one shared that childhood. It is the biography of a family. It is a snapshot of life on the American East Coast in the second half of the twentieth century, with all the complexities of social and political change and its impact on different segments of the population. It is insights into the lives and destinies of former students, some heart wrenching, all retold with heart-warming respect. And the list could go on and on, as I suspect that each reader will pick up on a different aspect of the account that most strongly resonates with that reader. What this book is not, and could not possibly be, is a recipe for recreating a school for ordinary gifted children or a proposed new miracle solution to the educational challenges that we are facing in this second decade of the twenty-first century. And it is refreshing to read a book by a respected educational scholar that so readily acknowledges the complexities of teaching and the creation of learning environments that allow all children to thrive.
Having acknowledged that this review cannot possibly come close to capturing all that you will find once you open up the pages of this book, let me highlight a few of the larger themes that seem especially relevant given current educational debates, using ample quotes to give you a taste of Jessica Hoffman-Davis poetic prose.
The first theme is diversity and Ann Hoffmans strong belief in the importance of diversity and full acknowledgement of individual differences for ensuring rich educational experiences.
From a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, children at Hoffman came in all colors and sizes. All fitting Ann Hoffmans porous designation of bright, they had learning profiles that ranged from precocious to delayed and confronted physical challenges that included cerebral palsy, pica, brain injury, blindness, heart disease, epilepsy, childhood cancers, and accident-related paralysis. And they came from two-parent, single-parent, biracial, foster, and adoptive homes and saw psychologists and psychiatrists as frequently as pediatricians and dentists. (p. 21)
This diversity was also reflected in the faculty, and set the stage for a learning environment in which empathy and the respect of others were stated learning objectives. This is not a rose-tinted account however, and the author readily acknowledges that the school could not meet the needs of all children, and that some with specific learning disabilities or psychiatric illnesses ended up better served at other institutions. The concept of diversity remains as important as ever, at all levels of the educational system, but often we fail to make fully explicit how diversity enhances learning. Diversity is not important for diversitys sake, but rather because it is conducive to teaching such important skills as empathy, respect, and understanding of multiple points of view.
The second credo is Ann Hoffmans belief that all children in her school could not only learn but learn to love to learn.
That all children could learn to love learning: That was my mothers simple philosophy, a philosophy infused with joyfulnessdelightedness with learning this and that, but more with the accomplishment of fitting it all together into some meaningful vital whole: the joyful experience of being alive today. Such hopefulness and believing infused my mothers relationship with the deliberately diverse population of children she admitted to her school, as did her wish that school could make a difference in the happiness of a child. (p. 105)
This notion of happiness and pleasure in learning is cruelly absent from most of todays education debate, which focuses instead on achievement and quantifiable measures of learning. Imagine if the joy of lifelong learning were the new measuring stick by which we evaluated teachers and schools, instead of students test scores!
A third concept that infuses this book is the recognition that to be an extraordinary educator, like Ann Hoffman, you cannot view teaching as a profession to be exercised at given times, but rather espouse it as the mission that guides your life. (&) Even as a young mother, Ann Hoffman identifies herself as a teacher first (p. 15) her daughter notes, before declaring in a chapter subheading She was the school (page 126). It is interesting that Ms. Hofmans daughter, the author, has chosen arts education as her lifes work, since artist is often considered a life choice more than a profession, the same way her mother conceived of education as more than an occupation. In addition to her devotion to teaching all children, Ann Hoffmans personal gifts as an educator are apparent throughout the book as they were to her contemporaries. Is it because of those natural talents that she herself displayed that Hoffman seemed not to focus as much on the formal qualification of her faculty, and did not
require that her teachers had been trained as teachers. Serious scholars passionate about their subject excited children as truly as Teachers College graduates eager to put into action the theories theyd learned; adults who had learned to deal with their own learning challenges were well positioned to help children do the same. (p. 107)?
One wonders how she would have navigated todays New York school scene, with an increasing amount of federal, state, and city legal frameworks imposing limitations on what dedicated educators can do.
Finally, throughout the narrative we come back to Ann Hoffmans view of parenting, and the inevitable tension between parents and teachers views of the other partys duties and responsibilities. This tension is fuelled today by a perception in some media that education is a product like any other, and that parents have the right to know the quantifiable value of the education that they are purchasing for their children, whether it be through private tuition or taxes. This narrative, in contrast, reminds us just how complex education really is.
To close, let me quote the inscription in Ann Hoffmans wedding ring: Love lasts longer than life (p. 172). This book is the proof of that if you ever needed it.