Helping ourselves as we help gifted, talented youngsters

The following column first appeared in various APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during December, 2018

Helping ourselves as we help gifted, talented youngsters

“Feeling like you are sitting in a long, slow and often completely stopped traffic jam, going nowhere.” That’s the kind of frustration Dr. Julia Roberts, a Kentucky university professor, recently cited to help explain what many gifted and talented students feel as they sit in class.

At a Nov. 15 national conference for educators of gifted talented students, held in Minneapolis, I learned a great deal that families and educators may find useful. Speakers also emphasized the value for all of us in helping to develop youngsters’ gifts and talents.

Jonathan Plucker, a Johns Hopkins University professor and president-elect of the National Association for Gifted Children board of directors, noted some young people whose gifts and talents are being developed will create wonderful new products, services and solutions for our country and the world.

Professor Roberts also pointed out that gifted youngsters need “idea-mates” and challenges. She urged educators and parents to provide both.

April Wells, an Elgin, Illinois, educator, provided some of the most valuable information. Wells explained that she had grown up in a low-income family, living in an Elgin housing project. As an African-American, low-income youngster with some speech delays, she was fortunate to have adult friends who were “the first black people I knew to earn advanced college degrees.” Wells’ talents didn’t show up on standardized tests, but her friends “saw something in me; they encouraged me.”

Wells was one of the first in her family to graduate from college. This year the National Council for Gifted and Talented recognized her as one of two best “district gifted coordinators of the year.”

Wells urged educators to recognize that not all students who are gifted and talented demonstrate this in elementary and middle school. She believes (and other speakers agreed) that gifts and talents can be developed with a challenging curriculum and opportunities for enrichment. So, Wells emphasized, it’s vital to make this available to all students — don’t make assumptions early on about which students are talented.

Wells and other speakers recommend what they call “talent development.” This should be an array of experiences, not just a single event. It recognizes that many learners can do much more than we expect. Wells also urged providing support for all children, which is “something like training wheels on a bike” that enable many more youngsters to learn to ride.

She also explained that developing talents means having more flexible learning environments. She pointed out that “all children, including gifted children, don’t learn in the same way.”

Mary Kreger, ISD 196 (Rosemount, Apple Valley, Eagan) superintendent, was one of many who praised Wells. Kreger told me, “I really like the idea of talent development.” Kreger and I agreed that because students learn in different ways, different kinds of experience are valuable.

For example, ISD 196 offers a variety of classes to help youngsters develop their talents and gifts. It also offers the “Zoo School” – the School of Environmental Studies on the campus of the Minnesota Zoo. Its students not only take classes, but also do internships with zoo staff. This allows them to help create zoo exhibits, among other things. Two of Kreger’s own children attended the Zoo School.

Not every youngster can or should attend that school. However, I’d urge every family to get a free copy of the “Reach for the Stars” catalog, published by the Synergy and Leadership Exchange in North Mankato. Their catalog describes more than 100 “academic enrichment programs, challenges, events and opportunities” for Minnesota youngsters, in a vast array of fields. It’s found here:

Wendy Behrens, Minnesota Department of Education, who convened the conference session I attended, provides information about helping gifted youngsters at

Carol Malueg, of Burnsville, this year’s president of the Minnesota Council for the Gifted and Talented, also attended the conference. She told me she hoped that participating educators leave with “more curiosity, energy and openness to the needs of gifted kids.”

Minnesota does a good job of helping youngsters with athletic gifts. We can learn from the kind of talent development, starting in the elementary years, that many communities do with young athletes. Speakers at the Nov. 15 conference reminded me that there are huge, widespread benefits when we also help develop students’ academic and artistic gifts.

Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher, parent and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at or @JoeNathan9249.