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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, and author of Meditation in the College Classroom: A Pedagogical Tool to Help Students De-Stress, Focus,...
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Developing "Social Capital" in Our Kiddos

I just had to e-mail this childs parents.

Have you ever had a student do something that blew your mind~ and you just had to tell his or her parents?

Im not talking about bad behavior (we could dedicate a series of posts to that~ I know) but rather~ when a child acts in an exceptional way~ a way that makes your entire day~ week or month.

I recently had such an experience.

Ill call the student~ Bella. Shes in the fourth-grade. The kind of student that teachers dream aboutsmart~ good sense of humor~ polite~ kind~ and thoughtful. Just how thoughtful~ I soon would find out.

While discussing her project for the next school year (Bella qualifies for the schools gifted program where I work)~ Bella and I decided her talentsand enrichment time-- would best be served through a writing project. We decided upon the idea of her writing a graphic novel. What she did next amazed meand as a teachermade me feel like teaching for free (I know some of us already feel like we teach for nothing~ but lets move on).

Bella asked me if it was okay if she had another student in class illustrate her graphic novel~ since she was a gifted writer but not-so-skilled artist. Before giving an answer~ I asked who she was thinking about recruiting for the project. She told me the name of a classmate~ who was not in her gifted group. She said she wanted to recruit him because he was really good at drawing; she also thought of him because he was picked on by classmates because he was different~ and she thought the project would earn him credibility among his peers and make him feel better about himself.


Can you repeat that?

It took me a few minutes to process what she had said. Its not that I have never observed a student~ gifted or otherwise~ say a kind word or help other student. Ive had students collect supplies for charities and complete other service learning projects~ but usually~ I have to initiate this kind of thinking.

Where did this mindset come from? Why did Bella think like that~ and many of my other students in the gifted program have never shown that kind of empathy for others?

There has been research into why gifted individuals use their talents to helps others. Researchers at the University of Connecticut~ for instance~ under a study named Operation Houndstooth~ have analyzed the traits in people who make contributions to social capital. Experts generally believe that children can be taught to be empathetic and charitable~ though there is disagreement over how to best teach these lessons.

Personally~ I was curious about the conditions that brought Bella to this place. I e-mailed her father~ told him what happened~ and asked a series of questions.

From conversations with the student~ I knew Bellas parents had brought her on church missions to other countries~ where she had seen firsthand how impoverished children lived. Bellas father explained that Bella had always been socially conscious~ but that as parents~ he and his wife tried to provide examples and instill these positive traits in her.

Recently~ I had an online debate with a fellow educator and blogger~ who disagreed that all children~ including highly gifted and talented ones~ should be exposed to curriculum that shows them how to use their talents and gifts to better society. The argument is that students should not feel the pressure of having to use their gifts toward social capital. My stance is that ones gifts~ unless developed and used to help others~ are wasted~ and that the more gifted you are~ the more responsibility you have toward making the world a better place.

Imagine a gifted surgeon deciding not to save lives or gifted musician preferring to perform only in her basement~ though her music uplifts the souls of others. Its hard to imagine that we would be hardwired to possess gifts and abilities only to use them for self-serving purposes.
I believe it is important to continue studying Bella and other students~ who exhibit the drive to help others and to continue research in this area.

In light of the worlds increasing challenges~ I think we owe this to ourselves and future generations.

Thank you~