Rising to the Challenge

Local school district program meets the needs of gifted young learners

The Grade 4-6 students who take part in the Challenge program, <a href=

migraine under the leadership of District Gifted Education Teacher Jocelyn Bystrom (third from left). Students were asked to choose one item that represents what they value in their learning environment to hold in the picture. ” src=”×436.jpg” width=”602″ height=”436″ /> The Grade 4-6 students who take part in the Challenge program, visit under the leadership of District Gifted Education Teacher Jocelyn Bystrom (third from left). Students were asked to choose one item that represents what they value in their learning environment to hold in the picture. Photo by Lisa Graham


Say the words “gifted education” and you’ll likely be met with a range of questions, web some of them curious, some skeptical, a few downright suspicious.

“What’s that?”  “Why do we need this?”  “Can’t they simply give the smart kids more work or let them skip a grade?”  “Why should we give extra help to kids who already have an advantage?”

Jocelyn Bystrom has responses to these sorts of comments and questions—and she gets plenty of opportunity to share them. Bystrom is the District Gifted Education Teacher, which means she delivers a special program—one day per week—for approximately 60 kids each year, from Grades 4 through 6, who, via referral and specialized testing, have been designated “gifted learners.”

These students leave their regular school programs once a week to spend a day with other gifted learners at Courtenay Elementary. Known as Challenge, this program has been offered by the Comox Valley School District for more than 25 years, and is currently one of the longest-standing gifted programs in BC.

“The Challenge program is a lighthouse beacon in the province,” says Bystrom. “There are very few districts left that are providing this. It’s on the chopping block everywhere. I am one of just a few full time gifted educators.”

Bystrom is a tall, articulate woman with a steady gaze who, when she talks about her work, radiates both passion and competence. Sentences pour out of her rapidly, one after the other, peppered with words that aren’t in most people’s daily vocabulary—differentiation, asynchronous. She’d be intimidating if she wasn’t so quick to smile and laugh, and so genuinely enthusiastic.

In answer to the most basic question about gifted education— “What’s that?”—Bystrom explains that there are many ways to define gifted. She cites the definition used by the local School District: “Giftedness is asynchronous development…” Here she pauses to explain: this means that a gifted child’s intellectual, emotional and physical maturity levels can progress at dramatically varying levels.

“So they may have intellectual and/or creative capacities they aren’t able to handle,” she says. “It’s like a five year old with the vision to be a great painter, but the five-year-old fingers can’t manipulate the brush well enough to keep up. This can cause all kinds of confusion and frustration.”

She continues with the definition: “… in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different than the norm.”

Giftedness is not purely about IQ, she says. “All the kids [in the Challenge Program] have the common core that they are cognitively gifted, but it’s much more dynamic than that. There’s a big difference between gifted and bright or talented kids.”

She pulls a handout from a folder while energetically quoting its contents: “A bright learner has good ideas; a gifted learner has wild and silly ideas. A bright learner knows the answers; a gifted learner asks the questions. A bright learner enjoys sequential presentation; a gifted learner thrives on complexity. A bright learner is receptive; a gifted learner is intense…” and more.

It is very hard to meet the needs of these kids in a regular classroom. Giving them extra work or getting them to help other kids can separate them from their peers, which can lead to social problems, or will encourage them to hide their abilities. Skipping a grade generally doesn’t provide all they need either.

“Acceleration is not the only way to help kids who need to go to a deeper level of synthesis and analysis. Research shows that clustering with like-minded peers is best. That way they have others to share in the complexity and intensity,” says Bystrom.

“You can see this dynamic with gifted kids at play. They’ll take an imaginary game into deeper and deeper levels of complexity, and the other kids won’t be able to follow and will get annoyed or drift away, leaving them isolated.” For such kids, the Challenge Program can be a huge relief.

“These kids already have an inkling that they are different. They feel it. When they come here and work with other kids like them, they feel, ‘Wow, there are people from my planet.’”

This dynamic reflects some of the tensions inherent in the use of the word “gifted.” The truth is, “giftedness” doesn’t always feel like a gift. These students face a particular set of challenges and handicaps. Some of these come from within—inner intensity, awareness of complexity, relentless perfectionism—and some from without, as they deal with others’ jealousy and with being singled out, and they try to fit into systems that aren’t designed for people like them.

Bystrom sees her job as helping them negotiate this terrain. Her strategy—address it, literally, head-on.

In the first week of Challenge this September, Bystrom put a sticky note with the word “gifted” on each student’s forehead, and invited them to mill around the room, talking to each other about what that meant. When the bell rang for recess, she gathered them together and asked, “What are you going to do with that label when you go out into the schoolyard with the rest of the kids? You can’t get rid of it—it has to stay with you.”

The students chose to conceal the label in a pocket or in their shoe, says Bystrom. This wasn’t necessarily out of shame, but instead suggested a pragmatic, and perhaps appropriate, social sensitivity.

This exercise may not sound like “education” but it links directly to one of the Challenge curriculum goals—developing social-emotional intelligence.

“I offer them a tool kit of strategies to handle themselves socially and emotionally. Also, because often a gifted learner can be highly perfectionist, they can learn to make mistakes in a supportive atmosphere. We talk about taking risks, about being able to fail as part of the learning experience.”

Like the kids, some adults also need help coming to terms with the implications of the “gifted” designation.

“It’s so important that we demystify giftedness,” says Bystrom.

A common complaint is that the gifted program is elitist. In reality, gifted education is not about status at all. Gifted learners are found in all cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and socio-economic groups. Having a district-wide gifted program creates a level playing field for all gifted students.

“Also, people say it’s a frill, a perk for smart kids. But these students, potentially, are at-risk learners. They need mentors, people who understand their intensities and sensitivities.”

It’s not unusual for a gifted learner to be chronically unmotivated, to get low grades, and exhibit behaviour challenges, because their educational needs aren’t met. As well, some gifted students also have learning disabilities. These “twice-exceptional” students often go undetected in regular classrooms because their disability and gifts mask each other.

The bottom line, she says, is that every child deserves to have their unique learning needs met. And if gifted students get their needs met, they will then be able to share their gifts with their communities. If they’re shut down, their gifts get shut down too—a loss for everyone.

Bystrom started out as a regular classroom teacher. “I’ve taught every grade from one to nine,” she says. “I saw how some kids reached benchmarks much more quickly that I’d imagined. So I got curious. I saw there was this exceptional learning need. I started asking questions of other educators—how are you meeting these needs?”

At the same time, Bystrom and her husband had begun to notice that their children were reaching learning milestones ahead of their peers. The school had contacted them asking them to meet to consider various educational options for their eldest child. All this fueled Bystrom’s thirst to learn more about the needs of the gifted.

In 2007 she enrolled in a Masters Program in Education and Leadership at the University of Victoria, specializing in teaching emotional and social intelligence to gifted learners. She was in her element. “Some people like to go for coffee—I learn for fun! I love to be in situations where people are into inquiry!”

At the same time, she had what you might call an ulterior motive. It seemed likely that the Challenge teacher of the time would be retiring in a few years. “I had my eye on that job. I knew I had the thirst and the desire, so I put the fundamental pieces in place to be well-prepared. It worked! I sure did the big happy dance when I got this job.”

She hasn’t been disappointed. “I LOVE my job!” she says.

“I believe this program can be a life-changer. Because when you have opportunities to be in a community in a safe place, it’s an ideal learning experience. My job is to create an atmosphere that is conducive to this group. I’m not really the teacher; I’m the facilitator of the learning.”

No two days are exactly the same in the Challenge Program. Activities include logic puzzles, group check-ins, improv games, math challenges, plenty of field trips, hands-on science projects, and half an hour of SPA (Silent Passion Activity, when students work on whatever ignites their passion) daily.

This curriculum, Bystrom explains, is not based on content. “It’s not enriched in terms of subject. Instead, it’s about critical thinking, teamwork, listening skills, divergent and convergent thinking, goal-setting, and logic. And there’s the social-emotional piece, too.”

As a way to contribute to this article, third year Challenge students were invited to answer some questions about the program, and about being gifted. As our society explores, ever more deeply, what it means to embrace diversity, the term “gifted” will continue to bring up questions, some curious, some suspicious. Voices such as these provide authentic answers, straight from the source.

Here’s a sample of their responses:

“Some kids in our classroom are gifted mathematicians, some can solve Rubik’s cubes, some are very good at making friends and holding those friends close to them, some are charismatic. All of us are creative. Me too. But also I’m just a normal person. I do the same things as normal people; I laugh like normal people, but apparently I’m gifted, and I like to be gifted. And then again everyone is gifted, but only a few get into Challenge,” writes one student.

“The Challenge Program made my life turn around because when I was in the regular class I was discouraged by my teacher and that made me feel really bad about myself, but when I got into Challenge it all changed and I feel really good about myself,” writes another.

“What I love about Challenge is that Mrs. Bystrom pushes us to the limits and it’s a really fun, creative place. Everyone can be their selves and celebrate their differences. I really like SPA. It’s that break you need from all that craziness… I’m a bit confused about the term “gifted” because I believe everyone is gifted in their own way, but being in Challenge is great,” notes another student.

“The Challenge Program is a beautiful, beautiful place, a warm welcoming environment, a small pool of learning in a chaotic school system, a small ray of sunshine in the dark,” says another student. “Challenge opened up a new world for me. I could blog my poems and receive constructive criticism from more than just three people. The activity I cherish above the rest is called “Mind Benders,” a series of complex puzzles that are constantly frustrating me.

“In a regular classroom, when I would excel at things, people would look at me like I was weird, and call me the teacher’s pet, which I wasn’t.  I was just doing my best, which is what we’re supposed to do. In Challenge, you can be yourself and no one will hate you for what you are.”


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