Jim Delisle

JIM DELISLE

Yes, I’m Jim Delisle. I’m a professor at Kent State University working in gifted education as well as with under graduates in their initial training program and I teach 7th and 8th grade gifted kids one day a week. Best day of my week.

You are we talking about with the gifted and talented. Actually, I’m glad we use two words because gifted and talented to me are two very different things. Talented is what you can see as evidence of a child’s ability to an adult. It could be musical talent, athletic talent, uh an ability to write, things along that line. We’ve mistakenly called those intelligences and I don’t believe that intelligences necessarily always shows up in a talent that you can—you can see and evaluate. Giftedness to me is more of an inner quality, something that allows you to see things at a deeper and richer level, something that does not allow you not to think deeply because that’s just who you are. And with that comes a level of emotionality, maybe even a distancing from people your own age who don’t share that. So I see giftedness as not something you do but someone you are. I think the hardest thing I have to do is try to define the term gifted because as soon as I do I leave out people who I think would fit that—wouldn’t fit that definition but nonetheless would be gifted uh in the way they lead their lives. So I think coming up with the definition is probably the hardest thing I’ve had to contend with.

I think Gardner’s idea of multiple intelligences is a mixed blessing for our field. The positive is that it’s allowed teachers to see that children need to show what they know in a lot of different ways, whether through mathematics, through language arts, through movement, whatever. And that’s good but to be honest we’ve known that for centuries. He’s just reminded us of that. What he’s talking about are expressed talents and in some cases learning styles or preferences. He is not talking about intelligence and I think that’s a misnomer. His book should have been called “Multiple Talents” instead of the uh—what he named it on—on the—the multiple intelligences idea. And it’s unfortunate that its been misinterpreted by educators and, I think, has demeaned the whole concept of intelligence and removed it from a psychological realm and put it in the educational one. And that’s not where it belongs.

Well the revolving door identification model is one that Joseph Resuli came out with in the early 80’s. What it was intended to do was allow more children to participate in gifted program services by basically saying if you’re interested in working on a project outside of the classroom, you can revolve into the gifted program, usually a resource pull-out program. Work on that and when they—when you’re done you revolve out and you go back to your regular classroom. That is based on a conception of giftedness with which I disagree, which again is a production-oriented model, that you’re not gifted until you prove it. And under that conception of giftedness, there can be no such thing as a gifted underachiever because the terms would be contradictory. And I just don’t buy into that because I’ve worked with very—very many adolescents, especially my 7th and 8th graders now who over the course of time may not do well in school for a variety of reasons. But that doesn’t mean they’re any less gifted because they’re not producing something. And I think when you have giftedness being an on and off switch, which is what the revolving door model does in my opinion, you’re really, again, denigrate the whole concept of giftedness being an inner trait and making nothing more then an outward manifestation of behaviors.

The whole idea of counseling the gifted has come and gone really since the whole field of gifted began. There are some people who believe that gifted children are so bright that they can handle themselves in virtually any life dilemma or social dilemma and then there are the opposite who think that these kids are a bunch of social deviates and misfits. And, of course, neither is true as the truth is often times right in the middle. What I find is that gifted kids and adults don’t have different counseling needs or emotional and social needs, but they may feel them at a more intense level, at an earlier age perhaps then others. They may question why the world can be such a bad place when they’re 6 years old. They may talk about problems that others don’t even see and so when they try to converse with people their own age the other kids go, “Huh?” Uh, one example of this was just a few years ago—now quite a few years ago. A 6-year-old boy who came into school all upset because a leader in the Middle East had been assassinated and this was a man who was working toward peace. And this boy just wanted to talk about it during 1st grade circle time. Well, you know, most 6th gr—6-year-olds don’t know and if they did they couldn’t conceptualize what concerned this boy so much. But it was really heart rendering to see him not have a—a peer in an emotional sense or an intellectual one in that classroom. So he used the teacher and it was a very good teacher who eventually linked him up with a boy who was a few years older who understood the depth of his pain. And that’s really what it is with counseling gifted kids, is they—they need to know that some of the things they’re feeling and seeing at an age way before most people do does not make them wrong or bad or sick. It’s just an ability they have that others at this point may not have and in some cases don’t understand. Which leads, obviously, to the whole idea of suicide and—and the—its prevention. There’s no evidence that I’ve ever found that gifted children—teenagers are more likely to commit suicide—more likely—more likely to attempt it then other kids. However, the reasons that they attempt to take their own lives do differ. It is more of a—what’s come to be called an existential depression where a lot of teenagers who are not as gifted might say, “I’m going to get even with my girlfriend for breaking up with me” or “I’m disappointing my parents because I’m not living up to their expectations.” Those are very real concerns. I’m not down playing those, but often times with the gifted adolescent, it may be that but it goes deeper. That with all of the things going on in the world that I have no control over even if I were to be able to help, it would still not matter much. So there’s that kind of uh loneliness, if you will, in an existential sense. And even sometimes loneliness in a social sense because if you’re operating as a—as an 18-year-old in your mind yet your—your body is 12 or 13 and you’re looking for somebody to connect with, it may not work and you might feel like, again, you’re bad, you’re evil, you’re wrong, you just don’t deserve to be here. So the whole issue of suicide among gifted adolescents needs to be addressed as it does with—with any other area of adolescents we’d rather ignore, which is uh anything from drug preventions, sex education, all the things that we rather would not have to touch with teenagers but nonetheless we do. If we ignore the idea or the possibility of teenage depression and suicide, we actually are—are shutting ourselves off from the possibility of saving some lives.

Gifted kids survival—that came—a book I wrote with Judy Galbriath uh a number of years ago, actually, we’ve had two additions of it. It’s called, “The Gifted Kids Survival Guide.” And what it is, is it’s a book that tells kids that it’s OK to be smart because in this era of Americana, if you will, uh brawn is valued over brains. You know, it’s all right to say you’re a gifted athlete, but if you say you’re a gifted scholar you don’t get the same kind of accolade generally. And so what “The Gifted Kids Survival Guide” does is basically do a few things. It explains what giftedness is and what isn’t. It doesn’t mean straight A’s, it doesn’t mean you’re perfect and all those other myths that people have about gifted kids. It talks about socialization and the fact that some of your friends might be older or younger then you. In fact, that’s as common with gifted people as not. That they might be in 3rd grade but their—their best friend is a 5th grader or maybe sometimes even a 1st grader. So we explain that to the children and talk about socialization. We also look at things like careers. When people tell you from the time you’re a little kid you can be anything you want when you grow up and that’s the extent of your career guidance. You know, it’s like, “Well, just pick the one with the highest salary.” Well that doesn’t fulfill you from the innermost parts of who you are. And so we try to go and we—we also get into the whole idea of education and if you say to a teacher, “I’m bored,” then you’re not doing your job as a student. I never would accept that from my students or if they say—a parent says, “I’m not—your not challenging my child,” I say, “No. That doesn’t stop there. I need more information. What am I doing wrong? What could I do better?” And unless you can tell me that, I don’t except bored or not challenged. That puts the responsibility of how school could be better not only on me, but also on the student saying, “If I had my option, here’s what I’d like to do.” So it gives the kids some tools for taking charge of their own education.

Yeah, sure. The career education and guidance of gifted kids is something that’s been neglected because of an assumption that if you’re smart you know what you want to be when you grow up and you just choose the one with the highest salary or most prestige or whatever. The problem is many gifted adolescents have what’s called “Multi-potential.” The ability to do so many things and the high interest level in those areas that if you say, “Well, I’d like to be a doctor,” then that eliminates you from becoming a lawyer, an artist, a teacher, or anything else. And yet you don’t want to lock yourself in because the interests are just so pervasive. So that’s one of the main issues with career guidance that we don’t address and we should. And we can do that through mentorships. We can do that through having kids getting out into the community. For example, last week I had my 7th graders on an all-day seminar where we discovered architecture. I live in Ohio; we did the architecture of Cleveland, which is a magnificent city for architecture. And we went downtown with an architect and he was showing us all of the old—old stone church and the—the Key Bank and how it’s architecturally balanced, the old and the new, just a wonderful tour. But with him was a sophomore from high school. A girl who wanted to be an architect, she thought, but she wasn’t sure yet. So one day a week she spends her entire day in an architectural firm. Where else to find out better if that’s the—the career for you? And those kinds of things don’t cost anything and at the same time they can be so beneficial for kids. That’s just one small segment of what we could do. And career guidance doesn’t start in high school. It starts when you’re little and you just start to explore a lot of different things that might be interesting to you. You go to museums, do visits to places that—just sound kind of fun and just see what comes out of it.

It’s hard to argue against collaborating and—and uh education endeavors for kids. I think our downfall has been a lot that everyone has isolated themselves. The gifted camp has been apart from the special ed camp has been apart from the middle school camp as one good example of that. And that’s kind of silly because if you look at what the middle school folks want and being a middle school teacher, even only one day a week, I know that the—the concern for their emotional development is there. I know that they want these kids involved in high-level, hands on projects. They don’t want to give them worksheets, worksheets, worksheets. And I think it downplays the effect we have as a team and the kids see that. When they see teachers just either not collaborating or in some cases being outwardly hostile towards various programs, that sends a message the kids don’t need to hear. Uh, the one thing that has come about recently in the field that concerns me is the cry for differentiation for all students. Again, that’s not a knew concept. It’s finding where the child is and exploring where they can learn from there. My background is as a special ed teacher working with children who are—at the time were mentally retarded, and learning disabled, developmentally handicapped. Any label that existed I had to have in my classroom. I was the only special ed teacher in the town. And I had to take the curriculum and say, “How do I adjust it? How do I make it fit this child? How do I take a textbook that is not appropriate and do something else?” Well that’s differentiation. We’ve done it for kids all along. It’s not a new concept; it’s just a new buzzword right now. My concern is, though, that people are thinking in the field of gifted that if they differentiate, thus serving the needs of gifted kids. And my answer to that is yes, but you’re serving some of the intellectual and academic needs but those emotional and social needs might still not be met. Which is paramount for me to get gifted kids together with each other at least at some time during the school week. Not so much for the academic challenge or that—that will be there, but for the ability to use big words and nobody goes, “Huh?” when you say ‘neanthal’ instead of cavemen. Those are the kinds of things that only come about when you’re with your intellectual peers and differentiation is missing the boat by not saying that it’s a good process but it’s not a complete process for educating gifted kids.

There’s—there are a couple of issues in gifted that I think we need to address better, more fully then we have recently. One of them is the underachieving gifted child. For years we’ve talked about him—and I say him because 80 percent of the kids who get identified as underachievers are male—but we talk about them and then we don’t serve them. We—or we put them in the same kind of academically focused program that other achieving gifted students are in, which is almost a prerequisite to failure because these children need something or sometimes its more of a counseling component that’s not in there. They need to connect with one teacher who trusts them and believes in them. And we have paid lip service over the years to serving gifted underachieving kids. Part of that might be because our definitions of gifted over the past generation have been very focused on achievement and accomplishment so the gifted underachiever has kind of been pushed back. Uh, I think it’s—it’s a crime when you have a—a child who is pulled from a gifted program because their grades drop, for example. I had three 8th grade boys last year who failed 8th grade and they were in my gifted class. And I have the best principle in the world because he said those kids are not being pulled out because they’re not achieving in language arts and math. They were achieving in my class. They also were there because of a need they had that was inside of them not because of a grade they got in a different class, or didn’t get. We need more principals who are that brave to say that and more teachers who realize that if a child is not succeeding, don’t pull him or her from some place they are as a punishment to do that. It just wipes out the only passion they may have. So I think the underachievement idea is probably the one focal point that I think we need to address a whole lot better then we are right now.

Uh, the accountability issue in terms—often comes up in terms of state achievement tests or proficiency tests, or competency tests, whatever they’re called. I have no trouble with accountability. Who could? Uh, who—who could say, “No, I’m not in favor of it.” It just wouldn’t happen. However, a lot of times in most states if there are competency or accountability tests given with—to kids, they’re given closer to the end of the year then the beginning of the year. Where the fearest student who is very bright, you may know the content of those tests in September. Why not just give the tests then and if they do well at the level of competency required by whoever is asking them to be accountable, that opens up a whole lot of time for them to do other stuff. And the other stuff is what you remember when you get out of school. So that’s what I would say is in terms of accountability regarding all the high stakes testing going on. Uh, the other piece of that is the whole mania we’ve had recently with rubrics and how we grade children’s work and evaluate it and—you know, they can’t just grade anymore. It’s evaluated. When you evaluate children’s work on a 4 or 5-point scale, it sounded like a good idea in theory, but in practice I find it is just making a cookie cutter approach to what writing should look like. There was even an article recently in a well respective magazine called “Educational Leadership” where kindergarten children were taught how to use a—a rubric for their artwork so that unless you made the trees green and the trunk brown and the sky blue, you were not going to get a 4. And that’s pretty sad. If I’m 4-years-old, 5-years-old, I want to be able to make the sky orange and the leaves purple. If you can’t do it then, when can you do it? So we can be eliminating some of the creativity in kids in lives in educations if we stress the accountability and the rubric factor too strenuously.

The whole policy issue and legislative action related to gifted goes back to a—a quote—I don’t even know who said it, but it was obviously a politician and the quote was all polit—politics as local. And I still believe that’s the case, that the Federal government has never played a major role in education in general and certainly not in gifted education. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be in favor of legislation because often times what happens there then drizzles down to the states and the states say, “Well, if the Feds are willing to give money we’ll give some too.” That’s a good part of it. But in terms of where the money is going to come from overall and where the impact will be made, it is at the local level. Which means it’s—it’s paramount that parents get on the same page regarding what they feel they need for their gifted chi—not just the gifted child, but the gifted children in the community. I would like to see advocates—be advocates even after the kids leave high school because often times parents are advocates as long as their kids are in the public school system and then they disappear yet they can be some of the better folks to have involved over time because they’ve had that experience, the ups and the downs of the political process. So the advocacy needs to be at the local level and it can’t be somebody leading a group differently every year. Uh, it—it just doesn’t have a positive affect that way.

The topic that I wished we’d addressed more is how we have—I think we’ve lost a generation in the field of gifted over the past, you know, generation—20, 25 years, by focusing so much on the child as a doer rather then just as a being. The psychology of gifted children is how our field was founded back in the early 1900’s. If we look back at that work now, the work of Louis Turnman, the work of Leeda Hollingworth, some of it is dated, some of it is racist, but much of it is good and we have almost eliminated that from our understanding of who gifted kids are. Yet if you go back and take out the sexist language and you—you take out the illusions to the things that no longer exist, you will still find the heart and soul of gifted children are the same then—same now as they were then. We need to get back on track in looking at the gifted child from the inside out because for too long we’ve been looking at him as a producer of stuff that can benefit us and that’s just the wrong direction we’ve taken.

The—the—it’s always harder to give advice to parents being one myself with a grownup gifted kid because it doesn’t seem to apply at home as much as it does at school. The first thing I’d say is relax and enjoy. I think there are a lot of parents who unknowingly are pressuring not only their kids but themselves to excel at everything they do. We need to look inward at ourselves as parents and say, “Do I ever do things where I don’t succeed and I still do them anyway?” If we don’t, then our child will only want to do things that he or she can do perfectly. I—we need to take a look inward. I think that will give us the best sense of direction. Take our cues from our children. If we say to them, “You know, I want to expose you to as much as I can but when it gets to be too much you need to let me know,” and to be mature enough as a dad or as a mom when the child says, “Enough is enough,” to lay back a little bit. But I think relax and enjoy. These are kids for us who happen to be real smart rather then real smart kids who happen to be 6. We need to remember that so that we don’t tip the balance too far toward the intellect and away from just the beauty of being a child.

That’s a—the answer to the question of what’s benefited me the most in the whole—I’ve been in the field now for 25 years, is honestly going back and teaching into the regular classroom. Uh, I’d been a university professor for about 15 years and I was getting very stale because the stories I was telling were very old and the kids I was talking about were now parents. So I decided it was time to go back and I taught 4th grade for a year and that was in the early 90’s and now have continued on teaching one day a week as a middle school teacher. And every sabbatical that I have, I do take off another year to teach in a different setting then I’ve been in. And that has not only kept me focused on the—on the children and what their needs are, I think it has really balanced me to take a look at research that comes out and say, “Well, how does it fit this child? How does it—what sense does it make?” You can make numbers say anything you want but unless you’re out there with the kids and their teachers every week, I think it’s easy to forget what it’s like to be in today’s schools with kids who know a whole lot of different things then I knew when I was growing up. So I would say the biggest benefit that I had is staying in the classroom. It was funny, when I—when I took my first year off, I would tell people I—from my university position, I would say, “I’m taking a year off to go back to the classroom.” Well one of my colleagues, Nancy Johnson, said that I had made two mistakes with that statement. She said, “First, it’s not going to be year off” and she was right. And secondly she said, “You didn’t go back to the classroom, you went up to the classroom.” And she was right there too. So I thank Nancy for reminding me of what I should have known all along.