INVESTIGATING SENSITIVITIES

Brian Barratt

This is simply a collection of anecdotes and observations arising from working with different types of students over many years. Although these yarns are not specifically about talent or giftedness, they draw attention in an informal way to what I believe we can describe as gifts. They are offered to teachers for reflection rather than analysis.

Into the unseen

In 1995, I ran a workshop for a few gifted upper primary school children. One or our activites was the old party game where they had to identify a number of objects hidden in a bag. These objects included such things as a carved wooden tortoise, a metal garlic squeezer, a serviette ring, and a glass lid from an instant coffee jar. In other words, they were either complex or ambiguous.

Most of the children were able to identify or make informed guesses about a few of the items. One boy, however, could not describe in words what he had handled in that closed bag. Instead, he drew a sketch of each item. He drew every item. His drawings were quite remarkable in their accuracy.

Off the mainstream

In 1984, I interviewed 115 upper primary children in some informal research to guide editorial and publishing decisions. There were an approximately equal number of boys and girls in a cross-section of government, state and independent schools in and around Melbourne. As I was neither their teacher nor their parent, they were frank in their responses — they did not know what I expected to hear. In a few cases, I had to gently discourage them from telling me too much about their family problems in response to the question, “What worries you?”. The favourite television programmes nominated by girls were “Diff’rent Strokes” and “Webster”, while boys nominated “The Goodies” and “The A-Team”. One of the questions was, “What are your hobbies or interests?” I was particularly interested in these figures:

Team sports         8 girls, 17 boys

Individual sports 19 girls, 23 boys

Horses               11 girls, 1 boys

Reading              7 girls, 6 boys

Making models     1 girl, 7 boys

Writing               2 girls, 1 boy

Drawing              3 girls, 3 boys

Music                  4 girls, 0 boys

Collecting           2 girls, 14 boys

Further analysis of the “collectors” revealed:

Girls                 1 collected        stamps

                        1                      stickers

Boys                  5                      stamps

                        2                      stickers

                        2                      coins

                        1                      buttons

                        1                      badges

                        1                      shells

                        1                      anything that other people don’t want, such as watches and watch-cases

                        1                      old bones from the bush and the beach

The boy who collected anything that other people don’t want nominated “things about Art” as his favourite TV programme. The boy who collected “old bones” nominated Channel 10 News. The boy who collected “badges” liked watching “nature programmes, Earthwatch”. In our brief encounter, I detected that he was a noncomformist; a teacher told me afterwards that other boys called him a “poof”.

It seemed to me that, among 115 children, I had met at least three who did not function in the mainstream. Their interests and their responses were quite different from those of the majority. Whereas this was not directly relevant to my editorial research, it highlighted the fact that just a few children have nonconforming interests which perhaps reflect their inner sensitivity.

Not of this world

During 1997 I included an imaginative activity, based on one of my fantasy drawings, in a manuscript I was preparing for a publisher. Both the editor and the publisher questioned its inclusion, telling me they did not understand it and nobody would know what to do with it. They wanted to delete it. A few days later, I gave copies of the picture, with three questions, to a small group of Year 6 & 7 children in a Writing Extension Group I was running at the time. I did not explain anything, but simply asked them to “do this activity”.

Here are the students’ responses to my questions.

Question 1: This picture shows an impossible situation. What does your imagination tell you about it?

They are sitting on a stick that is above the sky and there is a giant bird with magical powers. It can speak and it can fly at the speed of light. There is a little girl who is chosen to be the next angle [sic].

The girl is a midget (Thumbelina) or the bird is a giant but since it is impossible to grow or shrink in size, it is impossible to do this.

It is impossible in reality but not impossible in fantasy. I see a fantasy picture.

There is a big bird or there’s a small girl. It could really be either or they can both be the same size. It also shows that this could not happen but it might be able to but in a book it can happen all the time.

It could be truthful because you might be a dwarf and the bird might be a huge eagle.

A little girl was playing with a book of magic spells and accidentally made herself shrink. Now the only safe place away from the household cat is in her pet budgie’s cage.

A pixie (a pixie is a small person living in the forest in this case) has a friend known as Big Bird and she is sitting with him having a chat. On the branch in the forest the darkness down the bottom is actually bright vibrant colours that the fairies spread as they fly around the canopy of the dark forest!

Perhaps the girl has been shrunk. Or maybe the bird has been blown up. Maybe they are in a magical world.

Question 2: What is the purpose of this activity?   

To see how far your imagination can go just looking at the picture.

To see whether we think it’s a giant bird and a normal sized girl or if the bird is normal size and the girl is tiny.

To see where our imagination takes us.

To figure out how our imagination runs wild.

    To get your brain thinking about all the possibilities of this picture and if it can be possible.

To use your imagination using pictures to give you ideas.

To let your imagination run FREE!

To let our imagination run wild.

Question 3: What will you learn from this acvity?

bulletYou learn how much you can see just from a picture and how different you think.
bulletThat it is a two way situation.
bulletI won’t learn anything.
bulletHow to imagine things.
bulletThat everything that seems impossible is not always impossible.
bulletIf you are stuck for ideas to use pictures and objects around you.
bulletDon’t know.
bulletImaginational skills.

When I showed the results to my editor, without further explanation, he changed his mind about deleting the activity. The point had been made — when we are working with creative children we should be sensitive to their abilities and interests, which might encompass much that adults are not aware of or have forgotten.

Behind the words

It is difficult to deal with sensitivity in students’ writing unless we happen to know each student personally. The words could be a genuine expression of thoughts and feelings, but they might be a well-polished means of presenting ideas for an occasion. I dealt with some of the challenges of assessing writing in “Subjective objectivity” (Vision, Vol. 9, No. 3, 1999) and “Can quality be quantified?” (TalentEd, Vol. 19, No. 2, 2001). For the present context, I have selected two pieces of students’ writing which seem to me to demonstrate various sensitivities. They are reproduced here for educational purposes and fair review in terms of the Copyright Act.

A novelist/journalist once said to me that nothing is ordinary — there is something of interest in everything we see and experience. This comes out strongly in a piece of writing by a Year 8 student who describes the different ways people start their day:

...above the shop, Mary stirred. Slinging her leg over the side of the bed, she gingerly placed her feet on the ground. She rose quickly, the coolness of the bare floor-boards hurriedly dispelling any trace of sleepiness. She made her way into the kitchen and put some bread in the toaster. Unfurling a newspaper, she spread it across the newly polished table top, and began to read. A few seconds later, the toast popped and she slathered it with yellow butter.

If we look at this extract objectively, we can see that the young writer has chosen her verbs carefully: slinging, dispelling, unfurling, popped, slathered. She has not succumbed to the teenage temptation of over-use of adjectives and adverbs. Subjectively, she has described perfectly ordinary events, with an eye for detail, and made “the ordinary” interesting for the reader.

Over a period, a teacher discussed reflective writing with a group of students, and asked me to read their eventual responses. They varied widely in content and style. I took particular note of a Year 7 student who wrote about “Fear”. She went beyond the obvious to explore the unknown, raising a series of questions which lead to a succinct metaphor and then start all over again. Here is an extract:

...Why run, when you will be caught anyway?

Why run, there’s nothing to hide from?

But is this only in the mind?

Is there a reason for fear?

Is the fear only in your head, penetrating your whole body until you believe, overwhelmed by this realisation?

But what do you realise?

That you’re blind and not knowing — on a merry-go-round that never stops,

Falling in and out of reality.

But what is reality?...

 

Body text © Copyright 2001, 2005  Brian Barratt. May not be reproduced in any form without the writer’s permission and an appropriate acknowledgement. Please respect copyright on intellectual property.

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