Reflections of a Teacher of 2e Students

By L. Dennis Higgins, Ed.D.

March, 2012

On the first day of July, 2010, I retired from teaching. Specifically, I retired from teaching twice-exceptional dennis higginsstudents. After 30 years in education as both a classroom teacher and a former administrator, I decided to make a life change. I did not grow tired of teaching; I did not grow tired of children; I did not grow tired at all. It was just time to change. I can’t explain it any better than that.

For the last 15 years of my career, I was a teacher in a self-contained classroom for 2e children within the Albuquerque Public School District, located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Although I was a “seasoned” teacher when I walked into my new classroom the fall of 1995, it felt like it was my first day of teaching. I was not prepared for what I was about to experience.

Before accepting this teaching position, I was the district coordinator of two federal grants funded by the Jacob Javits Educational Act of 1988 and awarded to Dr. Elizabeth Nielsen of the University of New Mexico. The objectives of each grant were to identify and provide direct services for twice-exceptional children, and to establish a national training program for teachers of twice-exceptional children. The impact of these grants was felt nationwide. Across the United States, hundreds of students were identified as twice-exceptional, programs for them were established, and several summers of national training seminars concerning the education of the twice-exceptional child were hosted at the University of New Mexico.

Through the Javits Grants we learned much about how to best serve these students within the school setting. By 1994, the Albuquerque Public School District was daily serving 2e children in 16 separate programs. Most were self-contained programs that served students from elementary to high school. An administrative committee was established to help identify children who demonstrated a need for a twice-exceptional program, and graduate-level classes were developed by Elizabeth Nielsen at the University of New Mexico to teach about the nature and needs of this population. When these grants expired, I decided to accept a teaching position in a classroom for 2e students. I was in love with the population.

As an educator, I could rely on years of teaching experience as well as a rich family history in education. My father, a career Naval officer who witnessed the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, retired and used the GI Bill to become a 6th-grade teacher in Kansas. My mother, a former Navy nurse and registered dietician, dedicated her professional life to public schools and state colleges. I am married to a university professor. My two daughters are public school educators. And for 12 years I had taught a self-contained program for gifted children with IQs three standard deviations above the norm. In short, public school education was and is in my blood. But that did not ease my entry into the world of the twice-exceptional student.

Back to Basics

I had to re-learn the “basics” of teaching. That meant I had to learn how to “be in charge” of a small but powerful group of twice-exceptional children. I had to learn how to enrich content for children who viewed the world from a very unique perspective. I had to discover how these children processed the information presented to them.

Furthermore, I had to learn how to evaluate their limited products. I had to learn how to provide an enriching, warm classroom atmosphere. Most importantly, I had to learn how to meet the intense emotional, social, and cognitive needs brought to the table by these children and yet keep my own emotions in check. I had to face reality; I was starting from scratch.

I did my homework, pulling from what I had learned during my years of work with the Javits projects. I studied the current literature in the field of twice-exceptional children to gain a better grasp of what worked for them in the classroom. I attended educational conferences seeking other educators who might also be doing what I was just beginning to do. And I connected with teachers whom I knew were providing services. I studied the phone-book-thick personal files that came with each of my students from their home schools to try to understand who they were and what they needed. I talked to my new principal and to my district administrators about my goals for the program. I often sat and wondered, “Where do I go from here?”

Soon, students were assigned to my new classroom through the intense identification process that I had helped set up within the district only a few years before. Since I had a “district” program, bus routes were established to deliver these students from their old schools to their new school. As the “new kid on the block,” I sought help from other teachers within my building, hoping they would help me help my students feel that they were a part of a school they had never seen before. I met with the parents of the children who would be in my class in order to set up a strong parent-teacher bond. I took great care of myself, exercising, eating well, and sleeping well; but I still had a long way to go before I would grasp the charge in front of me. I knew it would take time before I could label my classroom a safe harbor, a true refuge for twice-exceptional children. I felt alone.

Routine became my constant companion. The students I met each day required routine, though they would not admit it and often resisted it. Nevertheless, routine was paramount to success. As I reflect back on those early years, routine became the second teacher in my classroom.

I knew that I had to gain the trust of these students and address their giftedness before I could begin to communicate with them in any other way. I had to find a way to tap into their interests and into their way of thinking, to make room for their learning styles and think like they thought. I had to provide a program that offered what each child needed on an individual basis. I had to create a “Twice-Exceptional Child Program” in real time. I felt like I was in the test tube with the subjects I was studying.

Relying on Innovation

Out of necessity, I relied on innovation in order to appropriately provide services for my students. Expanding the information learned during the years of the Javits grants and gathering inspiration from my students, I developed what I titled the “guiding principles for providing an appropriate education to twice-exceptional students.” These principles state that 2e students need and must have:

  • Time with twice-exceptional peers
  • Appropriate emotional, social, and cognitive activities
  • Advanced organizers
  • Qualitatively-differentiated and interdisciplinary curricula
  • Strategies of inquiry and discovery
  • Individualized instruction in core subjects
  • Research opportunities
  • Autonomous learning
  • Opportunities in futures studies
  • Ancillary services and support.

I designed a curriculum that featured a three-year cycle that would soon become my guide. I retooled the academic week to start on Thursday morning. Thursday was the day I introduced new material to my class, making each Monday a stress-reduced, non-traditional day for continued work and progress. The parents of my students often told me how much that change helped them and their children have a weekend without overwhelming loads of homework and without tears.

I designed what I called “folder-work” that allowed me to individualize assignments for each of my students according to their Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). The IEP was required since I was a special educational unit that operated under the laws of 94-142 (the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act). I was also a gifted education unit that operated under the umbrella of special education in the state of New Mexico.

I strived to provide a safe physical and psychological environment in hopes that it would inspire learning. With my help, the students developed a “community code of conduct,” which included rules for the head and rules for the heart. In addition, I changed the lighting in the classroom and provided both a “hard” and a “soft” area for the class. I became an advocate for the children in my program and found myself attending more meetings than there were minutes in the day. I told my students I cared for them every chance I could, and I communicated with their parents daily.

Discovering the Key

Enriching the curricula was a challenge; but I soon discovered that inductive thinking was a door, maybe the door into their world. If that were true, then the Hilda Taba teaching strategies (aimed at helping student learn how to think) were the key to that door. I asked my students big, open-ended questions and gathered their thoughts and responses as though I was gathering pearls of wisdom. Slowly but deliberately, I started to make inroads into the disorganized but uniquely gifted world of the twice-exceptional student. I started to see the brilliance beyond the resistance. I found gems among the emotional outbursts.

These children shine. They dance to their own music. They possess a perspective of the world from a vantage point that remains invisible to others. Their vocabulary, actions, and language expose a world only they know and understand. They have a resilience that most will never grasp. They have a desire to learn and to express themselves. They have a need to express their thoughts from their own wilderness.

Following their need, I incorporated commercially developed and beautifully constructed curricula from a variety of disciplines. We watched, discussed, dissected, and tied our learning to state standards using programs such as these:

  • Cosmos by Carl Sagan
  • The PBS series The Shape of Life
  • The Voyage of the Mimi, published by the Bank Street College of Education.

In addition, I also used:

  • Jerome Bruner’s Man: A Course of Study to examine what it is that makes humans human
  • The work of Michelle Garcia-Winner to establish appropriate social thinking rules
  • Techniques learned from the Alert Program, published by Therapy Works, to help my students understand that their bodies run like an engine
  • Classic computer programs such as School House Rock and Oregon Trail to teach the most basic of academics.

When I could neither find nor afford commercially developed programs, I developed my own. I designed and taught a social studies curriculum I titled Uniquely Human? with hopes my students would compare and contrast their behavior to lower animal behavior as it related to Maslow’s Hierarchy. As a musician, I wrote and recorded 42 children’s songs in hopes my students would use the music, lyrics, and activities to reflect upon their own emotions, challenges, and gifts. I co-developed a 20-page curriculum designed to help my class explore the mysteries of Chaco Canyon while studying New Mexico history. Using Betts’ Autonomous Learner Model, I took the class on multiple adventure trips to Chaco Canyon for a three-day study experience. The students also became involved in science activities that I labeled Social Grammar, with lessons that provided them an opportunity to examine their own social behaviors as they related to science concepts.

From my work with the Javits grants, I knew that many of these students held a poor “future view” of themselves. So I developed many activities from the discipline of educational futures with a hope that my students would develop a positive “future self” and an understanding that they do have a certain amount of control over their own future. From this experience, I developed the Future ME Program© that encourages students to use trend analysis and trend extrapolation to develop a “future world.” I introduced to them my Future Explorers Program with the goal of placing them as an explorer in an unknown future where they could make valuable contributions to self and society by completing acts of moral courage.

Spreading the Word

It took 15 years for these classroom components to materialize. Most of the work remained within the classroom confines, but some became well documented within the literature and publications regarding twice-exceptional education. As I look back, I am amazed at the level of interest and recognition my program generated. School districts from across the nation would send representatives and literally spend days observing activities and interactions within my classroom. Elizabeth Nielsen and I were often invited to share our experiences with school districts within and outside of New Mexico.

Reading Rockets, a syndicated program affiliated with WETA public television of Washington, DC, documented my classroom atmosphere in 2007 with their segment “A Chance To Read.” NEA and NAGC invited me to Washington, DC, to help with the creation of the Twice-Exceptional Dilemma, a booklet that belongs on the desk of every school superintendent in America. The Golden Apple Foundation of New Mexico shined a light on twice-exceptional students and presented the New Mexico Golden Apple Award to me largely because of my work with this population. The New Mexico House of Representatives brought attention to this population on the floor of the Capital building in Santa Fe when they celebrated my educational service to New Mexico’s twice-exceptional population upon my retirement.

Documentation and stories about twice-exceptional students are now part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and Story Corps and NPR’s Morning Edition through stories I told during my recent interview with Katie Stone, the host of NPR’s and KUNM’s The Children’s Hour. When a former student recently graduated from high school, he received an award for academic excellence. He invited me to his award ceremony where, to my surprise, he honored my classroom during his acceptance speech. He stated that the twice-exceptional program he was part of during his elementary school experience was the reason he held a 4.0 average throughout all four years of his high school career.

Still Active in Retirement

Although retired, I still contribute to education at least 20 hours a week. I now serve as the Golden Apple coordinator for an after-school program supported by Elev8, a national endeavor that brings together schools, families, and the community in underserved neighborhoods to ensure that students succeed in school and in life. I recognize some of the children who attend this program as potential twice-exceptional students, and I know how to provide service for them.

Routinely, I record more original music for 2e students and am developing activities for these songs. In addition, I am revising the activities for the original 42 songs I created for my students all those years ago with a goal of publishing the entire collection. Slowly I am revising the curricula that I developed for my classroom and am getting them ready for publication.

I retired in July of 2010, but, I still live my life around a routine. Every day I work on the many projects I’ve been describing, and every day I work with Elizabeth Nielsen co-authoring a book that focuses on the methods of educating the twice-exceptional child. We hope this will one day become a part of and will contribute to the existing literature of the education of these students.

It’s true! On the first of July of 2010 I retired from teaching — but not from education.

For more information on Higgins, Elizabeth Nielsen, or the Javits Program, see the following articles from 2e: Twice-Exceptional Newsletter posted in the subscriber-only area of the website:

  • “A Conversation with Drs. Dennis Higgins and Elizabeth Nielsen,” December, 2004
  • “Federal Funding for 2e Research,” March, 2009
  • “Interview with Golden Apple Award Winner Dennis Higgins,” March, 2008.

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