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Cinematherapy for Gifted Children (or adults) using Disney’s Encanto

As a teacher/mother of gifted children and a professional developer for teachers providing gifted services, I am always on the lookout for great movies (or TV shows) that help gifted individuals examine their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. My personal favorites are Good Will Hunting, Little Man Tate, Gifted, and episodes of Modern Family. Both my sons have used Good Will Hunting as a learning experience, cautionary tale, and motivation to explore, rather than hide from, their particular gifts. I have found that watching movies like these provide hours and hours of great conversations and deep personal reflection. The problem, of course, about most of the movies I love is that they are NOT appropriate to show in a school setting. I do use a lot of smaller clips of movies like Meet the Robinsons (failure scene), but I think that some really great lessons and conversations are hard to come by in 3-5 minute clips…

All that changed when I recently watched the Disney animated feature, Encanto. [Be warned that there are some spoilers ahead if you have not seen the movie] I didn’t really view it from a gifted lens until close to the end, but now that I have that perspective, I can’t help seeing some great opportunities for classroom social-emotional instruction. The movie centers around an extended family who live together and at a particular age a source of magic bestows a gift upon them which they then use to benefit their family and entire village. The main conflict of the movie is that the central character, Mirabel, is the only family member not given a gift and she has to live with the others and figure out her life purpose. She isn’t jealous of her family, but she is unsure of what to do with herself and her life. Through circumstances throughout the movie, the magic surrounding the family has the potential to disappear and Mirabel works to save it and find herself. What is so interesting about the movie is the examination of some of the characters and how they struggle with their gifts. One character, Luisa, is terrified of losing her gift of strength and consequently feels that she will be useless without it. Another character, Isabela, secretly despises her gift of creating flowers (roses mostly) in reds, pinks, and purples because she feels extreme pressure to be perfect. A mysterious character, Bruno, renounces his gift of predicting the future because he doesn’t like terrifying people, which can be a stepping stone to discussing underachievement. Every family member with a gift shows their struggle with their management of their individual gift. Even the Abuela that holds the magic is scared that if she doesn’t have it, then the people of the village will be angry with her.

All of these moments throughout the film can unearth powerful talking points with students and opportunities to learn about common personality challenges with being gifted. For example: perfectionism. Isabel, the girl that can make beautiful flowers has to struggle with dealing with the pressure of being perfect. Imposter Syndrome – feeling like people are going to find out that you really aren’t gifted or that your gift is going away. The movie also sets things up nicely to discuss – who are you if you aren’t defined by your gift? Will you lose your gift? Did they make a mistake in labeling you gifted? How do you feel about the pressure of being gifted? Another great point to explore can also be the discussion about the main character Mirabel – what if you don’t see yourself as being gifted? We have a tendency to only recognize obvious and culturally recognized gifts – athletics & academics, but what about the gift of leadership or interpersonal gifts?

A great character to discuss with gifted people is the character Camilo, because he is a shape-shifter. Gifted children can struggle to figure out how to survive in the world with other gifted people and non-gifted people. Do they emulate whoever they are closest to? Should they? How do they know who they truly are? These are tough questions to explore and think about together. This may bring up lessons on mindset and social dynamics with expectations – real or perceived. There is the character of Dolores that can hear anything from far away. This leads her to say or tell things that she really shouldn’t say or tell. I have noticed that gifted students are very observant and as soon as they have a thought they quickly voice it without thinking of of the consequences. I liken it to speaking without a filter or even blurting out in class. This character can lead to lessons on listening rather than hearing and blurting or even speaking over others.

My favorite character by far is Pepa whose gift is to create the weather around her that reflects her emotional state. How many students (or people for that matter) have we known that have the ability to change the climate of any classroom instantaneously by their moods. Will it be a good day or a bad day for all of us? Seeing it so hyperbolically represented in a fictional character can be a springboard for a discussion on how overdramatic representations of emotions can be incredibly disruptive to other people. So, you got a problem wrong. Does that really mean you have to throw yourself on the floor and scream and shout? If you are out of sorts, does everyone have to be out of sorts with you? Can you stop to realize that you are in control of the cloud of rain or the sunshine over your head and you can choose the weather pattern? I think that can be a great stimulus to lessons on stress management and sensory reaction.

There are so many opportunities to use the Disney movie Encanto to bridge social-emotional experiences. In my opinion, teaching gifted children is 1% content and 99% social-emotional instruction! If I were looking to create a general lesson plan surrounding the film, I would start with students answering some questions ahead of time to prime their thinking.

  1. What gift do you feel that you posess?
  2. Why do you feel that you were chosen to be in the gifted program?
  3. How do you feel about being gifted? Is there anything you wish you could change?
  4. How do your family and friends treat your gift? How does that make you feel?

After watching the movie, I would have the students discuss the questions, either from their own perspective or from the perspective of the characters (which can be easier if they don’t want to appear vulnerable). This movie could be a catalyst for an entire year theme of learning to understand the magic that we all possess (I love themes!). In reality, there is no magic to being gifted. If we pull the curtain away, we are all just people trying to survive this world and understand ourselves. Giving gifted children tools to understand perfectionism, mindset, stress management, underachievement, listening skills, and general characteristics of being gifted can be incredibly powerful and build a solid foundation (stealing a theme from the movie) for a lifetime of happiness.

Are we testing too much?

So, I have been having some deep thoughts about the new move in education to over-test our children.  For example, the new end of course (EOC) exams for Algebra and Geometry are slotted to be 4 hours long each.  Seriously???  What type of information is that going to give us in the long run.  The SAT and ACT test (probably the highest stakes tests given as they for college entrance) are 3.5 hours long and test 3+ content areas and have an entire writing portion.  Either a child knows Algebra and Geometry or they don’t.  I’m sure the teachers could save the state millions by letting you know who does and who doesn’t get it.  By the way, who even cares if all people know Algebra and Geometry anyway?  We keep saying we want our children to be college and career ready, but really we want all of our children to be prepared for an Engineering track at a 4 year college.  Are those the only jobs available in Nevada?  What gives those jobs more value over any other jobs?

I tell teachers all of the time:  remind yourself every day, you teach children, not tests!  You teach children, NOT tests!  Right now my son will take the SBAC for his grade level – 5 sessions for both math and ELA, MAPS testing for math and ELA (which takes 1.5 hours for each), EOC exams for both Algebra and Geometry (8 hours each) and then there is science and ELA for EOC exams (no word on the time there).  Here is a question:  when does he get a chance to get to actually learn the material??

I spend my time training teachers on the educational research behind good assessment.  We know that assessment should promote learning, not just measure it.  This means there needs to be a balance between formative (assessment for learning) and summative (assessment of learning).  Right now, everything is summative and it is robbing children of the ability to actually enjoy education and learn.  Spoiler alert:  the same children that have done well on tests in the past will continue to do well, and the students who struggle in school will do poorly.  You can collect as much data as you want, put as many stars behind it that you can, and test these children to the brink of insanity; however, this is not going to change our educational system.   To quote my brilliant friend Carol, “We don’t want to have students fail because of us, and learn in spite of us.”

Here is something revolutionary, let’s quit spending money on testing (and believe me, it is big money), and put money where it will actually do some good – instruction.  Let’s spend money on training and supporting teachers in the classroom.  Let’s lower class sizes, and pay teachers for the time involved in planning lessons.  Let’s spend serious money on students and teachers in grades pre-K through 2nd grade so a sound foundation is built.  Let’s stop doing what is convenient for adults and transportation and do what is right for students.  I wish I were in charge of this very important world of education, but unfortunately, I am not.   I guess for now, I will just have to remind my child to ignore all the test data that he is bombarded with and go outside and have fun at recess!