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Varsity Academics


Hello from the Ice Cream Capital of the World!

On the morning of July 7, I had my TV on in the other room while I was getting ready for the day. I overheard an interview on the Today Show that Matt Lauer did with swimmer Dara Torres. The day before, she had managed to qualify for her fifth Olympics at the age of 41, even breaking an American record (for the ninth time in that event!) in the qualifying process.

Near the end of the interview, Matt asked Dara how she did it, noting his age and noting hers. (They know each other off-camera, it might be important to mention.) “When I turned 40,” he said, “I had trouble going up stairs. I was winded more easily.”

After describing her workout regimen and then outlining how she was proactively being regularly blood-tested to prove that she was doing all this cleanly, she said to Matt, good-naturedly and with a twinkle in her eye,

“And besides, you know, maybe I’m a little more athletically gifted than you are.”

It was funny! She pulled it off really well and I know she got a chuckle out of both Matt and me. And besides – it was true. She’s clearly far more athletically gifted than nearly all of us.

But then I got to thinking…

It’s never funny when someone – even good naturedly and with a twinkle in their eye – says,

“And besides, you know, maybe I’m a little more intellectually gifted than you are.”

Nope. That’s pretty much a party stopper. We feel offended. We can’t believe someone would have the gall to say something so arrogant. We lose respect for someone with such an “inflated ego.”

Not that I would advocate anyone go around actually saying that! I was just struck by how okay it felt to hear Dara say that – and how not okay it would feel to hear it the other way.

But we have different standards, dare I say a double standard, when it comes to athletics.

Before I go any further, I want to be clear that I’m not knocking athletics. They’re important, valuable, worthwhile, and a model means of developing talent. My own sister was a high school varsity athlete, and there was nothing like the thrill of watching her team win back-to-back state championships (my vantage point was from the Pep Band section ;o)

It’s just that I’m baffled by our double standard when it comes to varsity academics.

When it comes to sports, we don’t have any trouble supporting an individual’s pursuit of greater levels of achievement. We cheer them on, we donate to the Booster Club, we raise a fuss if the football team goes on the school district’s chopping block. (It never does, but you know what I mean.) And we should do all of that. Those students have talent that most of the rest of us don’t. It’s okay to celebrate the development of their athletic talent! And it should remain so.

And yet our students who excel intellectually are – sometimes, often times? – made fun of in school, teased for being bookworms and “walking encyclopedias,” not allowed to move ahead in the curriculum because they might begin to “think too highly of themselves” (or because it’s inconvenient for the teacher), and believed to be “okay as they are” – no need to push them any further in their talent areas.

So it’s okay to develop athletic talent, but try starting a gifted program in your school to develop intellectual talent and there’s bound to be someone (or many someones) who will be opposed on grounds that it’s “elitist” or “unnecessary” (they’re “already where they need to be,” after all). How can we justify putting money into kids who are already “succeeding” when we have so many other kids who – I agree – deserve our every effort to help them learn?

*sigh* Shouldn’t EVERY child be able to LEARN to their capacity in school of all places‽‽‽ Aren’t schools for learning?

Maybe we can use the vocabulary of talent development to help ourselves explain why it’s necessary to put effort into kids who have already met (or more typically far surpassed) grade-level expectations. The Olympics don’t inspire us because the bar is set at an average level. They inspire us because the bar is set quite high and each individual is stretched to his or her capacity, often amazing us and themselves in the process! Olympic athletes don’t achieve all that they do because they stayed with the crowd and learned how to swim in the same way average a-few-times-a-summer swimmers learned. They break records and accomplish what hadn’t been accomplished before (breaking a record nine times, for example), because they and their coaches focused effort on developing the talent that was already there. Good enough isn’t anywhere near good enough for them.

There are some of us out here who recognize that gifted children tend to have natural talent in one or more areas and we want to let them develop those talents to their fullest potential. We want them to be able to GROW. Do we expect gifted athletes like Dara to learn their skills in a heterogeneous group taught at an average pace? Of course not. At some point, in order to pursue what she was capable of, she had to break away from that and follow a far more challenging course.

We send all children to Physical Education classes because we want all children to learn about and develop their physical fitness. It’s important for all on some level. However, some children have greater levels of athletic talent, and they are selected for our athletic teams so that they can further develop their talent to its fullest potential. We don’t expect them to magically develop that talent further on their own or solely through P.E. classes. We recognize that they need advanced training to polish what they begin with and to stretch them to where they are capable of going. It is (or should be) the same for our intellectually gifted children who have greater levels of thinking ability and academic talent. We can’t expect them to magically develop those talents further solely through regular education classes. We must recognize that they need advanced training to polish what they begin with and to stretch them to their fullest potential.

It’s the same philosophy! Development of talent – any kind of talent – doesn’t happen magically or on its own!

Developing the talents of our advanced learners means releasing the constraints on our teachers, too. They’re up against some tough walls! Some of them are only allowed to teach a certain page on a certain day saying only the script from the book (whether the kids are ready for it, or not, or far past that point), making differentiation near impossible – or even, in essence, “against the rules.” Most teachers have a huge range of student abilities to accommodate within their classrooms. And nearly all of them have received little or no training on the needs of gifted students. When it comes to understanding and reaching gifted learners, the deck is stacked against our teachers.

“Confine plant forms to a container and you will know exactly the dimensions they shall reach. Confine your teachers to your restricting curricula and your paperwork and you will know exactly the dimensions they shall reach. And each budding branch and each extending child shall not extend far beyond the perimeters of their confinement. Space determines the shape of all living things.” ~ Bob Stanish ~

My challenge for you this school year: find a crack in the container and start chipping away! Otherwise we will know the only dimensions that we and our varsity learners shall ever reach.


One of the hardest things to deal with, in my opinion, as the parent of a gifted child is the need to teach them to not "flaunt their talent" in front of others. Obviously, I don't want my children running around saying, "I'm better than you because I'm gifted!" But the need to teach them to not say, "I skipped 1st grade because I am gifted" is tough. Why shouldn't they be proud that they were able to move ahead? If my son were a star athlete in our school district, he would be allowed to say, "I made all the touchdowns in the last game", but being able to ace every spelling test since he started school has to be kept to himself. No wonder so many gifted children have emotional issues!
Thanks for giving wonderful perspectives on these extraordinary kids!

This comparison has been made over and over, to no avail. I'm not knocking it, but without recognizing what's behind the two different reactions to ordinary talents and intellectual giftedness, people will keep being frustrated. An athletic talent, or any other, is partly based on a natural aptitude, sometimes even on a particular set of physical traits, and on hard work over a long period of time. No matter the talent, though, everyone recognizes that the person is not merely their talent.

The intellectually gifted have something that very often does represent who they are, and that often seems to have been handed to them without the requirement for any real effort.

But most important, our mind is who we are, regardless of talent or lack of it. For people to have to compare themselves with someone brilliant, demeans who they are at their very core. If your brain is inferior to someone else's, then you, by implication, are also inferior. Never being able to meet the standards of good athletes, musicians, etc., is not a measure of who we are. Not being able to meet mental standards is a judgment, and it's usually resented.

I remember my gifted son's Odyssey of the Mind team made it to World. The school district didn't have money to send them. They did have money for the track team to go to state but not for an achedemic team to go to World. Sad really.

There are some schools with varsity academics. My high school, Omaha Central, actually hands out letters for academics just like for varsity sports. A "Purple Feather Letter" (school mascot is an eagle, colors are purple and white) is earned for keeping a 3.5 GPA all year and you can letter every year.

Each spring, we were mysteriously pulled out of class for a reception with balloons and snacks on the terrace on Purple Feather Day. It really meant a lot to me as a student that my school valued academics as much as I did and was willing to show it. I still have my letter jacket, 24 years later, and the closest I got to a school sport was the fall musical.

Hi...someone just sent our local gifted group a link to your blog today. Very nice to know you're writing on this topic!! Thank you!!

I just wanted to say that I think some the double-standard is cultural. Look at what we value in our culture: celebrity, money, power, etc. We do not value, as a larger culture, education. If we did, we would compensate our teachers at the same rate as our professional sports stars (who are compensated based upon the amount of money they can make for a team...!)

You do see some elevation of "smart" people, for example, everyone knows who Bill Gates is, however, he is mostly known as a billionaire, and not necessarily as the nerdy kid who developed DOS.

I think the best chance we have to influence the situation is on a personal level, as you are doing, teacher-to-students.

In response to Lori, I feel your pain. My university is trying to begin construction of a new football stadium for our losing team, while my research program sits in a non-ADA friendly building with a severely lopsided foundation and rusty pipes (literally, rust colored water). Somehow, we get our valuable work done there, but our football team will never be good if we don't have a shiny new stadium to attract better players. It's a tough to make a change though. People who oppose the stadium are labeled as athletics-haters, when really, I love school spirit and watching sports. I'm not supposed to value academics on an equal, let alone higher, level.

I, too, use varsity athletics as an example of how we've gotten talent development right. If we did academics like we do athletics, our gifted kids would have access to great programs. I'm right with you, Tamara.

I disagree with Catana on the differences. I don't think athletic abilities/talents are that much different than intellectual abilities/talents. To develop to the Olympic level in either takes hard work. As an athlete in my youth, there were a couple of girls on my team that made everything look effortless, while I felt like I had to work my tail off to make tiny improvements.

I think the issue is more like what Michele posted. Our culture is anti-intellectual and pro-athletics. I'm not sure how to help my community see this without offending people. There are so many emotional mine-fields when talking to parents about intellectual ability!

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Love the quote by Bob Stanish. This is so applicable to many of our Title 1 "Reading First" schools who are constricted by the limitations of scripted teaching.

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The following was published in a state gifted organization newsletter. They did not know the author.

No Child Left Behind: The Football Version

1. All teams must make the state playoffs, and all will win the championship. If a team does not win the championship, they will be on probation until they are the champions, and caoches will be held accountable.

2. All kids will be expected to have the same football skills at the same time in the same conditions. No exceptions will be made for interest in football, a desire to perform athletically, or genetic abilities or disabiliites. ALL KIDS WILL PLAY FOOTBALL AT A PROFICIENT LEVEL.

3. Talented players will be asked to work out on their own without instruction. This is because the coaches will be using all their instructional time with the athletes who are not interested in football, have limited athletic ability, or whose parents don't like football.

4. Games will be played year round, but statistics will only be kept in the 4th, 8th, and 11th games.

5. This will create a New Age of sports where school is expected to have the same level of talent and all teams will reach the same minimal goals.

On what basis are schools (read: principals) evaluated? Graduation rates and average test scores. Well, you get what you pay for. Principals can do the math. If you want to increase a school's average test scores, do you put resources into the students who already scores in the 90s? Hell no. There's no return on the investment. But the kids earning 30s can come up to 60s and then you're a hero.

Businesses know: what gets tracked, gets done. Every school knows its failure rate and its drop-out rate. Does anyone know the rate of A's earned? The rate of Ivy League admissions? The rate of graduates who go on to grad school?

The media has a share in this. High failure rates are page one. Scholarships earned are barely news.

Politicians have a share in this. Failure rates are low-hanging fruit. They are (perceived to be) quick fixes - stump speech filler for the next election. Raising the next generation of thinkers isn't nearly so easy to sell.

Neither the media nor politicians are going to change their stripes. It is up to us, the educators to stand firm against short-sightedness, and insist on sense.

I understand your point, but I think you're off base. All your doing is really advocating yet another elitist system in schools. The analogy of Olympic athletes, while entertaining, is naive. The Olympic athlete system has done more harm for athletics than good.

That may sound preposterous, but funneling energy, funding, and attention to Olympics has created an elitist system that has left more kids out of athletics and ruined the fun and enjoyment for most young people. Just ask those girls who weren't good swimmers or couldn't run very fast, or were embarassed to be in PE during certain times of the month.

For the most part Olympic athletes, while very talented, miss the point of engaging in sport. All the can think about is winning, scoring, being the best, the strongest. I want my kids to love play, enjoy doing their best, not beating the other person or setting a record.

I disagree whole-heartedly with Cantana's comment:


Our society artificially inflates our youth to believe that they can be anything they want, and does not stress the work it takes to get there. Not everyone can be a nuclear physicist (no longer using the terms rocket scientist or brain surgeon, reference: watch the "Big Bang Theory")

Everyone has value. As parents and educators we should be finding each child's strength. But giftedness is not a gift to be ignored or hidden. The ability must be cultivated and trained, as Tamara suggests. I think you missed the point of this blog post.

I highly recommend to those of you working with gifted programs that you become involved with "Odyssey of the Mind" (used to be called Olympics of the Mind). Not everyone excels in competitive athletics and those who don't still have a chance to "compete" using the "problems" of Odyssey. It takes a "village" to help teams of Odyssey and speaking as a teacher, chaperone, parent nothing can be more rewarding for these students than to go through the rigorous trials and tribulations of Odyssey problems. There were years when our teams went to "international competition" and years when we just didn't quite make the grade but we never felt like we hadn't tried our best and we couldn't wait for the next year's problems to come out so we could, again, put our collective minds together to solve more problems. Those interested contact:Odysseyofthemind.com

Another fantastic problem solving program to investigate is DI, Destination Imagination (www.idodi.org). Similar to OM, students work as a team to create and problem solve. They weave together what they have learned in school with new skills and interests all along learning and demonstrating teamwork and collaboration. Over the past 25 years that I have managed OM and DI teams,students have consistently chosen OM/DI as one of their most significant experiences in elementary school. But in order for them to have this experience it does take team managers willing to work extra hours after school and on weekends, usually with no pay except for the satisfaction they get when they see the students learn, grow and thrive. How can we incorporate some of the energy, enthusiasm and love of learning that DI promotes back into the regular school day?

I loved this article and appreciate it. As the mother of a gifted child I have always been encouraged to "keep her grounded" so as not to offend others who are not gifted. My husband nor I are gifted, nor our older daughter. We have always tried to encourage both daughters to be proud of their individual accomplishments whether academic or athletic. However, I have always felt the stress when telling other people about them. It always seems natural to tell that my older daughter made all the sports teams in 7th grade, but not about my gifted daughter passing 8th grade math in 5th grade with 100%, or scoring a perfect 100% on the state proficiency exam. Thanks to this article I am changing my tune and going to be loud and proud about my gifted daughter's accomplishments, as well as continuing for my older daughters athletic achievements.

Thanks so much!!!

While I do think there is a double standard, I don't think that it is necessarily as stark as the one being drawn here.

First, we all try to teach our kids to be "good winners" as well as "good losers." A good winner acknowledges the help he received in order to succeed, recognizes the abilities of others, and does not boast about his abilities. Is that not what we are trying to teach our intellectually gifted kids to do as well?

Second, we need to define what we mean by "intellectually gifted." There are some students who are walking encyclopedias, but who don't know how to put the data they know together in a way that can provide a novel and winning strategy. The celebrities, athletes, and leaders we admire most (ultimately?) tend to be those who point the way to the future or, at least, who come up with new ways to have fun.

Third, and I think most importantly, this very sensitivity to intellectual differences speaks to our culture's recognition of just how important intellectual ability is. I simply don't care if someone is more gifted than I at spacial perception. I do care if their intellectual ability dwarfs mine.

As a gifted ed teacher, I agree with the author on this topic. Many school districts pour thousands of dollars into athletic programs and music programs. While those are important parts of a district, they can seem like too much of a focus at times.

I would like to see a school environment that celebrates academic successes, and spurs students on to excel in those areas. I also think that it is sad when gifted students (particularly middle school girls) will act "dumb" to fit in, and to not be made fun of for being smart. Gifts and talents should be nurtured, so that students may develop to their full potential.

Any country that does not provide the resources for its most talented children to reach their potential will decline because it will not have the scientists, engineers, mathematicians and other such people that are necessary for its engine of innovation.


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