A FEW YEARS AGO, I spent time at Eagle Rock, a school in Colorado for at-risk kids from all over the country that is quietly funded by the American Honda Education Corp.
Many of the best students at this effective school were highly gifted with extraordinary leadership, presentation and communication skills. Many had been in and out of two or three high schools before Eagle Rock, in some cases voluntarily.
Talking with these students, I became aware that each one of them could be described as creative dissident intellectuals, students with high intellectual and creative abilities who were difficult for teachers to handle. The trouble they caused was not criminal, but disruptive. This usually took one of two forms. One was active, such as sabotaging a class with wise-ass comments, or by talking back continually to the teacher. Some, however, did it through relatively passive means, via sullen non-participation and/or other forms of quiet defiance. Frequently these students also were a challenge to their parents.
I am not talking about kids who had psychological problems. I experienced most of these students as delightful, perceptive, articulate, self-aware and positively provocative in their thoughts and feelings about society. If they had lacked anything, it was a supportive environment that engaged, encouraged and rewarded their spirits and their minds and the skills to know how to effectively assert themselves. They didn’t know how to respond in an effective way to improve their situation.
Our schools are relatively effective at identifying gifted children, but they fall short in understanding, reaching and strengthening some of our most gifted kids, and none more so than those we experience as defiant and/or unreachable. In failing these kids, we greatly short-change our society. Many of these students are leaders at Eagle Rock, with the potential to play similar roles as adults. In their former environments they were often lost and angry.
There are awards for those who comply. High-achieving studious kids usually conform to the norms of the school, do well and get rewarded. Our social leaders also usually do well, even when their academic work isn’t quite up to par. Gifted, creative kids who are compliant also get by even though their test scores are frequently higher than their grades. They don’t do well in classes that are boring and often hate rote learning, but their relative disengagement isn’t coupled with defiance.
We generally don’t do well with kids who talk back or sullenly withdraw. Many times I have heard, “I dread my kids reaching adolescence.” Teachers and parents who play strong authority roles have particular problems with these kids.
The formerly defiant adolescents I spoke with had found school incredibly boring, were highly self-directed and were angry that they were forced to be in schools and, sometimes, homes that provided them little outlet to be who they were.
At Eagle Rock and similar schools, the answer is a curriculum that challenges the kids to think and create. They learn to effectively channel their frustration with the world into effective ways of changing it. And it’s also tough love, an environment that is high on support but sets strict limits. At Eagle Rock, it’s “break one rule and you’re out of here.” But importantly, there is patience and compassion for them even when they are angry or withdrawn.
I think of the ancient stories of dragons that turn into princesses when met with courage and care. I think too of the comment of Robert Burkhardt, the head of school at Eagle Rock: “Patience and understanding are always useful. I frequently think about the egg in gestation. We look at its hard, indecipherable exterior and are sometimes beguiled into thinking nothing is going on. Under the right conditions, in which we as parents and teachers have a big say, one day, as we near the edge of our patience a beak will poke through, and we’ll realize that much was going on behind that blank white wall, even if we couldn’t see it.”
Mark Phillips of Woodacre is a professor of secondary education at San Francisco State University.