A San Francisco film crew is reporting around the country exploring what it means to be a gifted child in 21st century America, from the U.S-Mexico border to the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation, and everywhere in between.
Marc Smolowitz, director of the documentary currently in production called "The G Word," wants the film to disrupt myths about gifted and talented children: gifted children will be just fine; they're smart; they don't need as much support; they'll figure it out. And that's just not true, Smolowitz said.
So he and his crew have set out to document what people are doing to provide these children with the support they need to truly uncover their gifts. One of those stops was the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School in Cloquet.
"Giftedness in this century resides in places and spaces that we don't often expect it to," Smolowitz said. "It's in part because we're not looking for it. If you don't go there to look for it, how will you ever find it? That's why when I heard about gifted and talented programs residing in Native American reservations, that became really important for me to explore."
In November, the San Francisco-based film crew spent a few days filming and interviewing staff and students with the program for the gifted and talented at Fond du Lac Ojibwe School. Smolowitz expects to complete the film sometime in the middle of 2020.
Sharon Belanger, the coordinator for the gifted and talented program at the school since 2012, said the school views the talents of children through a holistic lens, as opposed to using a narrow idea of what it means to be gifted, like having a high IQ score.
The school takes note if the kids are artistic, creative, into the performing arts, gifted with leadership or achieve academically, Belanger said.
This sort of approach is what allows for students with a learning difference to also be realized as gifted, Smolowitz said. In the 20th century, intelligence was largely tied to IQ, but moving into the 21st century, giftedness has become understood as a corollary of neurodiversity - the idea that neurological differences are natural variations in the brain.
"We realized that people who are living with autism, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), dyslexia or other forms of what we call learning differences, when you support them and get them in the right environment, very often they are successful," Smolowitz said. "What we're seeing is there are many more (gifted) students than we ever realized."
Traditional classroom settings don't always work well for these students, Smolowitz said, so when they go undiscovered, that lack of support they require can manifest into social and emotional difficulties. Often, these gifted teens deal with suicide, drug addiction, self-harm and other challenges.
Involving students in a gifted and talented program can not only help mitigate these challenges, but keep them coming to school, Belanger said, which is especially important in communities of color or poverty where the graduation rate is less than the dominant culture.
Gifted students of marginalized identities, or belonging to ancestry laced with generational traumas, need that support even more, Belanger said. But like students with learning differences, they might not pass as "bright" and go unrealized, she said, often due to discriminatory tests made to identify a certain kind of potential.
"It's hard sometimes for them because they don't have some of those more westernized experiences, or some of the experiences that a white, middle class, urban child might have before coming to school," Belanger said of her students at Fond du Lac Ojibwe School.
Slomowitz found this sort of awareness of a student's experience and needs at the school so important and vital to a child's success.
"It's a way of thinking about the school and home and family as kind of being one system that works together to help the child be successful, and I think that's really, really special," he said. "What's really neat about the Ojibwe school is that their agenda is to serve Native American children."
Because forms of the Ojibwe experience are woven into how the school is run, Smolowitz said that students are much more likely to be recognized as gifted.
"When someone is in a culturally appropriate environment, they're going to be seen for who they are and they're going to have a sense of self-agency and self-efficacy and self-esteem that they might not have in other environments," Smolowitz said.
A variety of factors can come into play when deciding if a student would benefit from joining the program, Belanger said. Teachers can nominate students or an score on the Northwest Evaluation Association test could indicate a promising student.
Then Belanger will give them an individualized test to give her a better view of where they're at. If they score above the 85th percentile, compared to the academic skills of other students their age, they qualify for the program.
Currently Belanger has about 45 kids in the program and works with five coaches - one each for creativity, visual arts, performing arts, leadership and academics. Each coach works with a group of eight students to organize activities and trips of their interest, whether it's a museum in the Twin Cities, creating ceramics, or attending the theater.
"I think gifted services and exposing these kids to these wide range of enriching experiences is so important to help them reach their full potential," Belanger said. "We have many neat, great kids and they just need a little TLC (tender love and care) to help them reach that potential."