Gifted Ed is Special Ed: Why “Nerd Camp” Matters



Originally Posted on March 20, 2012

(All opinions expressed in this post are those of the author, not Vanderbilt University or Programs for Talented Youth.)

Before I was a doctor, I started out my career teaching kids with “special needs.” I have watched a boy with Asperger’s run out of my classroom, out the building, and down the street. I have seen a dyslexic girl’s eyes light up when she finally understood a sentence. Working with special needs kids is very challenging and very rewarding work.

I still teach kids with special needs.

I consider myself an “independent scholar” (a euphemism for “underemployed academic”), but writing and research alone don’t pay the bills. So I recently began working with Vanderbilt Summer Academy (where I have taught for the past five years). VSA provides a service to students with special needs. You know? Gifted kids! That’s why our students affectionately call VSA, “Nerd Camp.”

Most people don’t think of gifted education as special ed. “Nerd Camp” sounds like a possibly elitist luxury – a $3,000 vacation for future academics. If that’s what you think, I refer you to the following e-mail I recently received from one of the first “nerds” I taught.

Over the summer of 2007, I attended a class you held called “The Western Canon” at Vanderbilt. My final paper compared the “Qur’an” to “Oedipus Rex” in order to quantify the similarity between free will and destiny in the vein of Behaviorist philosophy. I just wanted you to know that to this day, I am still learning from your VSA class in a way that no teacher before has been able to comprehend. I keep my VSA notebook closer to me than any textbook on my bookshelf; reading through it, I realized that, somehow, you were able to teach us a year’s work of information in a matter of weeks. Every day, my teachers attempt to teach me Plato, Dante, and Socrates, but I seem to already know everything they have to offer. The other day, my assignment was to juxtapose the “Qur’an”, “City of God”, and “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. I dug up the letter that you sent my parents, and it was very kind. And I realized I may have never been able to thank you for it.

I get e-mails like that with some regularity (I file them next to my negative course evals). I am not an especially talented teacher, but I do understand that the experience my students have matters. I think that is what they respond to. I know that, for them, “Nerd Camp” is not a luxury. They are as necessary as specialized instruction is for kids we typically think of as having “special needs.” Here’s why:

• Neither class of student is “normal.” Mainstream education teaches to the middle. This means students with low I.Q.s get left behind, while students with high I.Q.s get bored out of their minds! Gifted kids who are not challenged “check out.” They ace tests without even trying, so they leave high school unprepared for the kinds of personal and intellectual challenges they will have in college and later in life.

• Neither class of student is properly served by public education. In the era of No Child Left Behind, it can be easy to forget that the purpose of education is not to pass a test. Teaching is about helping kids realize their full potential. We fail to teach when we do not challenged gifted kids with the kinds of accelerated curriculum and classroom rigor they need to thrive.

• Both kinds of student are exceptional! Students with learning disabilities often think in unique ways, becoming highly creative artists, authors, and scientists. The same is true of gifted students. They are naturally “out-of-the-box” thinkers. They can intuitively pass from Point A to Point C with ease, peering into problems the rest of us mortals miss because we are still trying to slog through Point B.

(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Imagine a world without these kids. How many Einsteins, Bohrs, Bachs, or Mozarts have fallen through the cracks of an educational system that does not serve them because it thinks they will be “just fine?” (After all, they passed the test, didn’t they?)

There is a lot I hope to accomplish in my life. A lot of independent scholarship is yet to be done! But I have always thought of myself as a teacher first. Always a teacher! So if I never publish another article, if this book proposal never gets a contract, and if I never speak at another conference or event again, I think I can still die content in the knowledge that I have made the world I leave my children a little better by helping exceptional students experience the joy, power, and possibilities that lie within their own beautiful and amazing minds!

Oh, and if you think I’m exaggerating, check out the footage at 0:55! Best version of “Crazy Train,” ever!

2 thoughts on “Gifted Ed is Special Ed: Why “Nerd Camp” Matters”

  1. I facilitated an out-patient therapy group on a Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Unit of a large military hospital – patient-labeled the “Freaks & Geeks” – for special needs kids who were brilliant, sensitive, and frequently shunned & bullied in public schools. Several were Asperger, others Autism Spectrum, many learning disabled, almost all were either musical or artistic or both.

    The main tasks were to teach them to be social, appropriate, and to have boundaries in order to develop friends and to lessen the likelihood of being targets. They became protective and concerned for one another, and even were overjoyed to become “mentors” for young children in our “children of divorce” and ADHD groups when we went to the park, etc.

    When the school year was finished, I got each of them a small gift (“transitional object”), very personal, to remember me & the “lessons” we had learned. They were particularly comfortable with “emotions,” but they said they would miss coming to group. The last boy to leave, 12-year old Asperger’s, grabbed me around the waist and said, “You’re my best friend,” and ran out of the room. I, of course, cried for half an hour. An awesome experience & thanks to the US Navy!


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