An Interview With the Smart Kids Authors

Rick Weinfeld, Linda Barnes-Robinson, Sue Jeweler, & Betty Roffman-Shevitz
Rich Weinfeld, Linda Barnes-Robinson, Sue Jeweler, and Betty Roffman Shevitz By Lacy Elwood

Why did you choose a career in education? Was there a particular turning point that caused you to want to be involved in education?

Rich:In high school I did volunteer work at a local elementary school, mentoring one particular student and felt that I had something special I could offer. I went to college in the early 1970s and wanted to work at something where I felt I could change the world for the better. Becoming a teacher provided that vehicle. I wanted to help children keep alive the curiosity and desire to learn with which they all started school.

Betty:I have always loved working with children. When faced with what I wanted to do with my life, I knew that I wanted to be involved in something meaningful—and to me, that was teaching. I believed that a good teacher could have a major impact on a child—I wanted to be that teacher.

Was there a certain experience (or a certain student) in your career, personal life, or schooling that made you want to work with gifted and learning-disabled (GT/LD) students?

Linda:Around the same time I completed my postgraduate program, my son was diagnosed with both a learning disability and a speech and language disability. My professional experiences and my parent responsibilities were now at the crossroads that was to shape my professional career for the next 20 years. I knew all too well the importance of education and advocacy as I learned to work with the school system for my son. I was in the system, and it was still hard. My challenge was to take my parent experiences, coupled with my professional expertise in education and conflict resolution, and transform them into programs and interventions to benefit GT/LD students.

Rich:As an elementary school teacher, before I even knew of such a thing as twice-exceptional or GT/LD, I gravitated towards the “smart kids with learning difficulties.” These were the kids who I felt had so much to offer, who had often experienced failure and frustration before coming to my classroom, and with whom I knew I could make a difference. My job was to make a difference for these kids who had so much potential but were falling by the wayside.

You’ve all had a lot of experiences in the classroom. What’s one classroom experience that really challenged you?

Sue:As a young teacher, I had a sixth-grade student who was a “Renaissance child”; he was brilliant and extraordinarily talented. One day we went to art class, where the teacher was teaching a lesson on perspective. She explained about the horizon and vanishing point, and showed how railroad tracks and telephone poles illustrated perspective. My student, a wonderful artist, painted a brown wash beneath the horizon line for sand on a beach. He painted the sky with the pinks, reds, and yellows of the sunset. The footprints in the sand went from the foreground to the vanishing point, and each footprint reflected the colors of the sky in the puddles that had gathered within each footprint. The teacher went around the room giving praise to the students and their railroad ties and telephone pole pictures. When she got to my student she said, “I told you to do a perspective painting!” and tore his paper up into small pieces. For many days, his pictures got smaller and smaller and it took a long time to rebuild his confidence. A few years ago, I watched on TV as my “Renaissance man” sat in the audience waiting to hear if his documentary film had won an Academy Award. This incident had a profound effect on me. It challenged me to provide opportunities for varied modes of expression and alternative product options. It also underlined how powerful teachers are and how imperative it is to value creative thinking.

Linda:The experience of putting together a student panel for a teacher in-service training for all the middle schools and high schools in the district left an imprint on me that I carry to this day. The impact that these students had on teachers, administrators, and their parents was profound. They were respected and listened to; they were challenged with difficult questions and observations; and they responded with forthrightness and eloquence. I learned that we sometimes underestimate the skill and power of a young person to change people, and I learned that if you give kids the skills and a safe environment there’s no stopping them.

Betty:It was my third year of teaching, just when one begins to really feel comfortable with what one is doing, when I had a student that I could not figure out. He was so bright and seemed engaged in learning, yet when asked to put pen to paper, would produce the barest minimum. I held conference after conference with his parents and tried all the best teacher tricks. This was in the 1970s when no one was speaking of GT/LD. I visited the school the next year to find his very experienced fifth-grade teacher beaming as she showed me a project that he had done. Looking back, I realize that he was probably GT/LD. If only I had known then what I know now! I learned from this that one is never finished learning—and sometimes the most important lessons are learned from your students.

Rich:In my first year of teaching, my idealism was quickly replaced by a feeling of being overwhelmed. I had 35 students in a fourth- and fifth-grade classroom and it was my job to teach them every subject and to differentiate so that I challenged and supported each of them appropriately. I quickly realized that being a nice guy with some creative ideas was not enough to motivate many of the students. I realized that I needed to have the knowledge and tools that would allow me to systematically analyze the strengths and needs of my students and to provide the interventions that would allow them to succeed.

How have the students you work with changed since you first began your career in education? How has the face of education changed, particularly for learning-disabled students?

Sue:Students have not changed much over the years. What has changed over the last few years is that education is not so much about kids, but is instead about politics. There are people who support accountability to such a degree that they have lost sight of what is important for children. Life skills, creativity, and self-esteem may not be quantifiable on tests like reading and math scores can be, but they are often more important. In a “paper-and-pencil” educational system, it is the bright child with learning difficulties who does not fit in that box and who may be lost.

Linda:I don’t know that they [students] have changed. The faces have surely changed, but the endearing qualities, the things that are special and make them unique, are still there waiting to be discovered. I do think though, that we are finding more girls now [for GT/LD programs]; and I wish we were finding more minority students. We need to do more to bring services for GT/LD kids to the underserved populations in our communities, especially in our inner cities.

The Montgomery County Public Schools’ GT/LD Centers are innovative, original ways of approaching the education of students who are gifted and learning disabled. As a result of the program, many students have found success in school that they hadn’t imagined before. Can you tell us about one success story you’ve seen as a result of this program?

Betty:I can best speak to the successes that I have seen within the Wings Mentor Program. In this program, most students are truly meeting success for the first time. At Show-Off Night, a culminating activity, both parents and students tell me stories of how this has been the highlight of their year and parents often tell me it is the first time they have seen their child smile in school. At the end of one presentation, a father came up with tears in his eyes to tell me that I had no idea what his daughter had just accomplished. He continued by saying that the fact that she could stand up and speak with such confidence to her class about her subject was incredible because she had a processing problem and had never done anything like that before. Schools spend a lot of time and energy providing remediation for students, focusing on what they are unable to do and trying to “fix the problem.” If I can share any lesson, it would be to encourage teachers to look for their students’ strengths and gifts first. They all have them. Once the students realize their strengths, they can better deal with their areas of need.

Sue:Students in the GT/LD program in my school were mainstreamed into my general education class. The strategies and skills taught in the GT/LD program in my school prepared kids to be successful when mainstreamed. One very, very bright child had learning disabilities and was autistic. With nurturing, extraordinary teaching, and support, this child went from a self-contained class to my mainstreamed class. The GT/LD teacher, the child, and I communicated regularly to ensure that his experience was successful. He used the skills he learned and practiced them. By working to his strengths and overcoming his learning obstacles, he was not only able to succeed academically, he also became a School Safety Patrol and Student Government representative.

Although the education of gifted and learning-disabled students has progressed greatly in recent years, there are still many issues that need to be addressed that affect this population. What do you believe is the most important issue affecting gifted and learning-disabled students today?

Rich:To put it as simply as possible I see two major issues: the appropriate identification of these students and a focus on strength-based instruction. Too often, the student’s gift and disability mask one another and we only see an average student who seems lazy or unmotivated. At other times we focus on the disability and try to fix what is wrong while paying little or no attention to the gifts. We must increase our efforts to identify these kids and their strengths and then make sure we, as their teachers and parents, provide opportunities to develop and utilize those strengths.

Linda:There is too much focus on what’s wrong, or what doesn’t work, rather than on what’s right, and what does work. Maybe we need a new term to talk about these students to help create the kind of a paradigm shift that would see the positive. GT/LD students must work longer and harder than those without learning disabilities. I think the biggest challenge is to help teachers, parents, and students to work “smarter.” By this I mean that they must first accept the duality as normal, and fun and exciting and challenging. Then they must create effective and respectful partnerships to promote student success.

Why do you feel it is important for parents of smart kids with learning disabilities to take an active role in their child’s education? How can this book help them do so?

Betty:Dealing with a school system sometimes can be intimidating, even for the parent who is an educator, as I am. As a parent, you believe that the teacher and school know what is best for your child, but that is not always true. Teachers and parents are able to see the student in different situations and both teachers and parents bring expertise to the table. When you work together, the child wins. This book has been written to provide a resource to both teachers and parents and hopefully will provide information that will be valuable in meeting the needs of the student, helping them reach their potential.

Sue:Parents are their child’s first teachers. Parents are also their child’s advocates. Parents need to understand their child’s strengths and difficulties; communicate with the teacher in order to understand the appropriate instruction, program, and services needed; and support the child in his or her quest for success in school. This book will provide parents with the tools to do all of this.

About the Authors

With more than 20 years of experience as leaders in the nationally recognized gifted/learning-disabled program in Montgomery County, MD, Rich Weinfeld, Linda Barnes-Robinson, Sue Jeweler, and Betty Roffman Shevitz pool their experiences teaching, advocating for, and serving smart kids with learning difficulties in this comprehensive book. Pioneers in the service of these students in the public classroom, they continue to provide advocacy, training, and consultation for parents, teachers, and school staff who work with twice-exceptional students.

About Smart Kids With Learning Difficulties

Smart Kids With Learning Difficulties: Overcoming Obstacles and Realizing Potentialis an engaging must-read for any parent, educator, or counselor of smart kids who face learning difficulties. The authors provide useful, practical advice for helping smart kids with learning challenges succeed in school. Topics covered in the book include identifying and recognizing gifted/learning-disabled students, what the law says about this population, planning and developing accommodations that empower these students, what works and doesn’t work in the classroom, building supportive learning environments, and the roles and responsibilities of parents, students, and school personnel.

To read more about Smart Kids With Learning Difficulties, or to order the book, click here.