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How I Got to Where I'm Going

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I just spent a little time looking back over my old posts and it occurred to me that I never got around telling all of you more about myself (beyond the tiny bio above) and how I came to be in the position of writing books and blogs about Gifted Education. So, for anyone who may be curious about the path that led me to all of you, this is the story of how I came to be where I am.

My initial involvement in Gifted Education goes back to when I was a kid and participated in a gifted program at my elementary school. Then in high school I took a lot of Honors, advanced, and AP courses, graduating valedictorian in 1990-something. More notably, though, is my involvement from “the other side of the desk,” which began when I was in college. I was a member of my university’s Honors Program and was, at the time, the only UHP member who was an Education major. (SAD.) The Director of our Honors Program had children who were a part of the local school district’s gifted program, but funding for that gifted program had been almost entirely eliminated during what was my freshman year. Letters were sent home to parents of the district’s gifted kids, explaining to them how services would be changing or disappearing.

I can still clearly remember the UHP Director approaching me in the foyer, holding in his hands the letter he had received as a parent. He passed it on to me and said, “Tamara, here’s a problem. See what you can do about it.” He was such a believer in empowering us as students and although I didn’t realize it at the time, I think he saw it as an opportunity for me do something significant beyond the scope of my current education. It has turned out to be a powerful moment in my life, not only because it propelled me into Gifted Education, but also because it helped to shape some of the philosophy I follow with my own students now.

I took the letter and contacted the local district’s Gifted Coordinator (who now had seventeen schools and no budget), and together she and I created a mentor program that matched up university Honors students with gifted children in the local schools. For example, a college gifted student who was a Math major would be matched with a local 3rd grader who was doing Math on a 6th grade level. The volunteer mentors had to meet with their little charges at least once a week for at least one semester. That first semester of the program we had eleven volunteers, including me, and it only grew from there. (Interestingly, three of the other ten first volunteers later changed their majors to Education, due directly to their experiences volunteering in the schools through this program.) I was a volunteer for “Mentor GATE” for three years and, while still in college, presented about the program at the National Collegiate Honors Council conference as well as at our state gifted association’s annual spring conference. (Little did I know then that in just over a decade I would be organizing and running that conference! Such interesting turns our lives take…)

I ended up writing a university course proposal so that the volunteers could earn credit for their service. The number and variety of volunteers expanded, and now, fifteen years later, the program is still in existence, averaging thirty or forty volunteers a semester. (The local district has also since re-established a gifted program, of which Mentor GATE is one piece.) A few years ago, one of my students who had just graduated from high school headed off to college at that same university, joined the Honors Program, and became a volunteer for Mentor GATE. He emailed me, saying, “Hey, Ms. Fish, I thought you’d be interested in knowing about this cool mentor program I’m volunteering for where I get to work with gifted kids in the local schools…” It was a fun full-circle moment for me :o)

When it came time for me to look for a teaching job, I found myself most attracted to opportunities like the job I currently have as a K-12 Gifted Education Specialist. I’m in a relatively small district and in rural locations like this one we tend to wear a lot of hats, so I am both the GT teacher and program coordinator for all four of our district’s schools (PK-1, 2-4, 5-8, and 9-12). In most locations those roles (gifted teacher and gifted coordinator) are split between two or more people, but I enjoy the challenge of taking on both roles as well as the powerful consistency that comes from working with the same students for multiple consecutive years. In a way, it’s the ultimate form of looping. (My first GT group of Kindergartners graduates from high school next year. That will be my first complete loop. I guess I am getting older after all…)

Four years ago I earned a Masters degree in Gifted Education from the University of Connecticut, a process which has helped me connect with hundreds of people around the country who also work with gifted students. I attended UConn’s Three Summers Program, and although an online version of the program now exists (among other changes), I’m so happy that “back then” my only option was the summer-on-site version – because there’s nothing like learning face-to-face from the likes of Joe Renzulli, Sally Reis, Del Siegle, Jann Leppien, Susan Baum, and Sally Dobyns. It’s not required by the state of Montana that I have any sort of special endorsement or degree to be a Gifted Education Specialist here, but I quickly discovered after beginning my job just how much more I needed to know. My undergrad teacher-preparation program did a decent job of preparing me for a regular classroom job, but – like most of you – I had been given all of fifteen minutes of class time devoted to information about gifted students. It was my experiences in the University Honors Program, not the Education Department, that initially prepared me for my job. Doing things like creating and volunteering for Mentor GATE proved to be a big help. Hanging out with gifted college kids whose idea of a fun weekend was playing with liquid nitrogen (purchased from the Physics Department, $5 for a cooler full) helped to give me a broader understanding of these quirky individuals. But it was the Three Summers Program that gave me what I most needed: a marathon of information, insight, in-depth access, and individualized preparation for teaching, understanding, and challenging gifted kids.

Lastly, I have been on the Executive Board (currently President-Elect) of Montana’s gifted association (AGATE) for about the past seven years. Through AGATE, I do a lot of state-level work and consulting for Gifted Education, as well as help with conferences, lobbying, and advocacy. It’s a great group! I highly recommend getting involved with your own state’s gifted organization. It’s one of the best ways to stay informed and to connect with others who are in the same boat as you.

I haven’t quite worked up the guts to post what I was originally going to put up here for all of you today. I’ll keep polishing that one… In the meantime, I’m curious to learn how each of you became interested in or involved in Gifted Education. What is the story of how you came to be here?

15 Comments

Thank you so much for sharing your story. I just came across this blog a few weeks ago. My story is sort of similar to yours in that I was involved with GT in my K-12 education. Now I have the opportunity to do research as an undergrad, and I just wanted to "keep it real" by doing something that matters to me and gives back to where I came from. Rural gifted education is my specific interest.

Thanks for keeping this blog! You're helping people like me stay focused on lengthening our own "how I got to where I'm going" stories.

Thanks. That was a great "full circle" story.

I'm a lurker here, an author who's interested in gifted children as portrayed in fiction.

At the risk of sounding like I'm tooting my own horn, one reason I'm interested is because my book found its way onto the Hoagies Gifted Education page, and I also received this lovely
feedback from a former GT-er about the portrayal of child giftedness in my book: http://www.pixiepalace.com/2007/09/16/book-letters-from-rapunzel/

Would you be at all interested in being interviewed about that topic? Maybe about how such books do (or don't) help kids "get to where they're going." I feel an obligation to "keep it real" in my writing, too.

Hmm... On re-reading, I see that I left out the last couple of connecting dots... It was at a Montana AGATE conference (about five or six years ago) that I met my co-author, Karen Isaacson. At that time, she had recently published her first book, "Raisin' Brains," a humorous look at parenting gifted kids, and she was beginning a new book - a humorous look at teaching gifted kids - and was in search of a teacher to collaborate with on the project. Ah, fate... :o) That is how our book "Intelligent Life in the Classroom" came about. (It was one of those opportunities I knew I couldn't pass up...!) EdWeek (home to Teacher Magazine) contacted Karen and me last year for one of the online chats that they do, and I loved the experience! They might even have the transcript of our chat still online... I'll hunt for it for ya... Anyway, not long after that, Teacher Mag asked me to write this blog for them, and voila :o) I'm really loving it here, even though my inconsistent presence might indicate otherwise.

Amber and Sara - Thanks for commenting! I didn't expect any comments on this post, but I'm glad you did. I'm fascinated by the unusual ways people come to this field.

Amber - Rural gifted ed is of great interest to me, too. It seems so much focus is on strategies that work in big cities, well-populated states, and places with access to resources that are frankly out of reach for most rural gifted kids. It's one of the topics I like to present on because there's always someone in the audience who exclaims, "Finally someone's talking about my situation!" If you just came across my blog a few weeks ago, I would encourage you to go back to the beginning if you haven't already. And welcome! :o)

Sara - I'm adding your book to my recommended reading list for my students! It looks wonderful and I know I have students who would really connect with it. Making the Hoagies list is quite something, too ;o) I would certainly be interested in an interview. I'll email you at the email address you included when you posted.

Thank you for sharing your story. I was a GT resource teacher for 2 short years and have been doing a variety of other things including education director at a children's museum and am now getting ready to go back to school for a ph.d. I love reading your post, not matter how inconsistent, both as a teacher and as the parent of a gifted child. I LOVE the idea for the mentoring program with college students. We live in a small town with a struggling student population. We have a fabulous college and already have a variety of mentoring programs in place. I know the coordinator well and will definitely be having a conversation with her soon about establishing a component for GT kids. Thank you again!

Hi Tamara,
Thanks for sharing your story. I always enjoy reading your posts! Keep them coming. My own background in gifted started with marrying my husband (who is probably the poster-child for the creatively gifted of the 1970's). His quirky behavior and that of my two now grown children and their friends are my 'real' education in gifted. My formal education in gifted studies came when I took all the classes I could during my undergraduate and graduate students at SELU in Hammond, LA. I've taught gifted students for four years now, figuring out that I have much more to learn! That's why I read your posts!

I'm not a GT teacher, though I have run an afterschool tech class at my son's school.

I read a fair number of blogs and chatboards on gifted ed, to get ideas for educating my son.

My son is perhaps more intelligent than me, and we ended up sending him to a private school for the gifted for 4th through 6th grade, rather than struggling to get any sort of gifted education at the public school (our local community is anti-elitist, which means there are no funds for gifted ed).

I went to a small grade school in the 60s and hadn't ever heard of gifted programs, but my high school had a program that essentially accelerated about 30 kids by one year (subject accelerations in several subjects, but it ended up being mostly the same kids). It seems that the easy subject acceleration of the late 60s and early 70s is much rarer in high schools now (or maybe it was rare even then).

Hi,

I look forward to reading your posts. I became interested in gifted education with my son this year. He is in the county's gifted program, which is great, but I feel the program is not highly regarded by the regular teachers or administration. I am finding out that no one wants to hear that your gifted child isn't challenged. My son's own teacher told me that as long as I work with him at home, I will always have this "problem!" I am currently pursuing my masters in education and posted an article from The New York Times regarding elimination of many gifted programs. My class was a Special Populations class and we were discussing equity. My professor went off stating that I do not need to create trouble for myself and other students by posting articles unrelated to course content. She also accused me of violating copyright law by posting this article. I am so tired of facing this type of attitude. The country's lack of interest in the high achieving students makes me want to home school!!! We are currently trying to organize a local chapter of the Association for Gifted Students, but support is weak.

I just came across your site a few days ago. I am the parent of 2 gifted children. One is entering the performing arts program at our local high school. He was accepted into the IB program but decided against. The other is in the MST program and gifted program.

While I believe our school district has a good gifted program, I feel it is kept hidden from most parents. My oldest was in 5th grade before i even realized he was eligible. I wonder how many other parents miss out on opportunities because they are not informed?

Anyway, I want to help my children get the most out of their education and your posts certainly help me there.

I came to your blog through Teacher Magazine(I teach high school English), but was interested because I have a daughter who is very clever. I am always looking for ways to challenge her and to be sure that I am getting her the best education she can get. I have used ideas and tactics you have talked about. Thanks!

Hello,
Unfortunately, I have my happiest and most horrific memories of gifted education. As a student in gifted classrooms, the other kids in school either wouldn't play with us or they picked on us. If any of us ever stepped out of line, you know, doing regular growing up stuff, people always said to us, "I thought you were supposed to be gifted." On the flip side, we were the only classes with computers (that was a big deal in the 70's!) and we got more hands on activities, foreign language, and trips abroad.
In college, I was surprised at how many college faculty not only were not interested in gifted learners, but who seemed to speak of "them" with disdain - "We don't need to cover those chapters on gifted kids. They'll get what they need anyway." I had to enroll in a master's program before I consistently heard that gifted learners needed qualitatively different experiences (Imagine me, trying to actually meet the needs of all of my students in my classroom). As I read about the profiles and characteristics of gifted learners, I finally felt like someone understood me. It was too bad that I was grown with five children before I received such an affirmation.
I have 3 children in gifted programs for 3 different reasons. I have to take all kinds of flack from people who don't understand why I don't treat my children "fairly" because they are not treated equally. I have to remind myself that I am parenting according to their needs, not according to society's definition of fairness. I want to make sure that no child, gifted or otherwise, feels like a freak, like something is wrong with him or her when the education that is offered is not meeting his or her needs.

I was in a number of GT programs when I was a kid, got no training for gifted when I got my BA in Elementary Ed. but thought I knew it all since I'd been there, right? Wrong! Along come my three "gifted and" (also called twice-exceptional or 2e) boys. It took me far too long to realize they needed more than the schools could give but once I figured it out, things started to improve.

I found a support group on the Bright Kids list, sponsored by American Mensa. My work there led to being asked to help moderate the list, join Mensa's Gifted Children's Program Team and now I've been appointed National Gifted Children's Outreach Coordinator.

I've become an online advocate for gifted children, gifted parents and virtual education for gifted kids. I feel most strongly about the cause of support for gifted parents, who are often dealing with their own feelings about being gifted and then find themselves caught between what they know their child needs in the classroom and what the district is willing to provide. Its a tremendously stressful situation and one with few outlets, since our culture doesn't applaud the achievements of the academically talented the way we laud our gifted athletes and artists. We have war stories that we need to share--much the way your presentation at the NAGC turned into a group therapy session! ;-)

Mensa is not an advocacy organization--our mission is to support and bring together gifted children and gifted families. Online, we provide Mensa4Kids.org and the Bright Kids e-list for help. I would urge anyone to contact me or contact your local Mensa group to find out about gifted children's activities in your area. Cheers, Lessa

I want to encourage ALL of the parents and teachers in any country to inspire the brightest and most talented children in their classroom or home by challenging them to think outside of the box. My favorite challenge to my brightest kids was to discuss current events and talk about what we currently know in the general field no matter what topic the children brought up.

THEN, as either the teacher, parent, 4H leader, or any interested adult just add the following comment, "When I am really old and really gray I am certain I will read about you and your accomplishment in this area. I will be able to proudly say that I knew you when you were short (or young)."

It has amazed me in my 40+ years of teaching how many of my students remember that comment more than any thing I taught. I gave the brightest students hope and inspiration.

Sometimes I have found that the brightest kids need inspiration, hope and belief in their thinking abilities. THAT is the real power of being the teacher, parent, or other interested adult in their life.

My twin daughters have the dreaded "fall birthday". If they had been born a month earlier, or if the birthday cutoff rollback had been phased in a year later, I would not have become involved with G/T education. When they were about to turn 4, they were being retained in a class for 2 - 3 year old children. After a few discussions with the teachers and the director, the girls were advanced to pre-K. The next year they were READY for Kindergarten, and they would have started K if they stayed at that school. But they were also ready for - or, rather, in desperate need of - separate classes. That school only had one K class, and no other school would even discuss "early" entry with us. The local public elementary school turned it into an issue of giftedness - READINESS had no place in the decision. The girl across the street is one month older and started Kindergarten that year ready or not, but my kids had to be "near genius" I was told. I was also told that children cannot start K "early" unless they are ready for first grade.

In an effort to comfort me, my mother told me something I had not known before that point. She told me that my K teacher recommended that I skip first grade, but I did not because the guidance counselor recommended I stay with my age peers. My mom's point was that I did just fine without skipping a grade, and my daughters will do just fine as well. But I didn't do just fine. 12 years of accumulated boredom led to an existential depression that I almost didn't survive. I can't begin to express how angry it makes me that the people who make these decisions do not understand the long term consequences of those decisions, do not give parental input more than lip-service in those decisions, and insist on doing the same to my daughters as they did to me.

p.s. - Tamara, your blog is amazing and I suspect you are also amazing. May you change our world.

Tamara, thanks so much for your insightful blog. I use many of your columns as converstaion starters in the GATE Certificate class I teach for our school district.

My two children participated in gifted programs, but own journey into gifted education came early in my teaching career. Although I was only a second year teacher, my principal selected me to replace the GATE teacher who was retiring. I was eager and excited, but discovered very early in the school year that I had some misconceptions about gifted kids. I had thought they would all love school and love learning and be quiet and studious (LOL...they were 7th graders!) But I had the good sense (and the good luck, considering how rare they are) to enroll in a class about gifted at the local university. That year was a wonderful adventure, and I was completely hooked. Now, 24 years later, I am the GATE Program Coordinator for my district and serve on the state Board of the California Association for the Gifted. Gifted education is my passion and I am eternally grateful to my principal so many years ago.

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