Educating the Gifted and Talented

“People should be free to find or make for themselves the kinds of educational experience they want their children to have.” -John Holt-

Friday, August 04, 2006

“The Phoenix Rises” Profile of a gifted student

How was it possible that Ava, a highly gifted and excellent student, would ultimately fail and drop out of high school? Aren’t gifted kids supposed to sail through school on their own? Shouldn’t they be happy with “easy A’s” and the satisfaction of scoring at the top level of standardized tests? Ava’s story is one of disillusionment and despair; hope and resurrection.

As a toddler Ava seemed bright and eager to learn. At two she knew colors and shapes and quickly memorized the whole alphabet simply because some big letters on a magazine caught her interest. She began to draw real shapes and even people when her age peers were happily scribbling. Even still her parents didn’t know that Ava was “gifted.” She seemed “bright” and a little precocious. “Gifted” children were prodigies who created sophisticated works of art or solved difficult math problems—or so they thought. Ava wasn’t like that!

Many myths prevail in our society about who is Gifted and what the signs of giftedness are. Parents of highly gifted pre-school children often marvel at their child’s early timetable without realizing that their little one is “gifted”. They lovingly accept their child as she is and delight in her new skills and the amazing questions or observations she makes as well as in her incredible sensitivity and ability to empathize. It is usually in hindsight that we recognize “the signs”. Ava was identified in the second grade as a G.A.T.E. (Gifted and Talented Education) student, but even then no one explained the acronym or what “that” meant to her parents. A strong and positive home-to-school partnership is essential in the development and support of gifted and especially highly gifted students. This didn’t happen in Ava’s case.

Until high school Ava was a straight-A student excelling in everything she did. She was gifted across the spectrum; intellectually and creatively, in art, music, math, and language use. As a child she never complained about being bored. Her mother believes that Ava “probably sensed that school was about conformity and compliance” and that she towed the line. Years later Ava now remembers, “In 4th grade, staring at the clock and willing the hands to turn more swiftly towards 15:00, it occurred to me and it was crushing to think that as bored as I already was on a daily basis, it was mandatory that this torture would last for another eight years!” It was in high school that Ava finally gave up.

It started with a “B” in eighth grade math. What a HUGE blow to Ava’s self esteem! She had become a “selective consumer” according to When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All the Answers by Jim Delisle. Ava stopped doing homework that just seemed useless and repetitive. Why bother when she could pass the tests with high scores without the boring work? School felt meaningless and empty of challenge. Depression set in and this caused great pain and a feeling of helplessness for all in her family. Her mother felt that, “Without hope, joy, or self-worth left, Ava’s once bright spirit was reduced to a faint ember!”

Ava’s depression was clinically diagnosed and yet no real academic intervention was offered. She was expected to “do the work”—the exact same work that all the other students were required to do. Her mother learned that students with depression qualify for Special Education services and she advocated through the “proper channels”, going from teacher to administrator to school board with no avail. Appropriate services for Twice Exceptional students were simply not in place. No one knew what to do or how to even sympathize—after all, wasn’t she a “highly” gifted student? In the few short years that have passed much more information has been brought to light by the efforts of the NAGC (National Association for Gifted Children), 2e sessions at our annual CAGT conference, and by internet newsletters such as 2e: Twice-Exceptional Newsletter ( There is hope for students such as Ava, their families who love them, and the educators who want to make a difference.

The struggle for Ava to stay engaged with school and life in general worsened before it got better. In the 9th grade she failed several classes. Severely depressed, she simply could not force herself to do repetitious “drill and kill” work. “Differentiation” or ability-based work that would explore content at a deeper level was not yet the buzz in education. Ava’s pain and humiliation were real and debilitating. She now says that she has become a “cynical misanthrope.” She knows how people should ethically act toward each other but through her negative experiences is now distrustful.

Ava explains: “I suppose a high I.Q. is something to be proud of, but it’s brought me more grief than advantage in a world dominated by conformity and mediocrity. The effects of greater intelligence are deeper than most realize or are even natively capable of realizing due to their limited abilities to empathize. [The effects] include heightened senses (and thus a greater tendency towards distraction), a keen and painful awareness of injustice, a greater capacity for emotional agony and psychological torment, a constant whirlwind of thoughts, and truly being one’s own greatest enemy.”

Depleted of academic self-confidence and self-esteem, Ava left school at age 15 feeling like a total failure. Four months later a slot opened up for the Weld County High School Diploma Program at Aims Community College. A last resort for many failing students and in Ava’s case a true life saver, the self-paced program teaches students the basic skills needed for a job. Ava graduated from the program early, in December 2000. She was sixteen, but it would take four years for her to fully recuperate from her depression and to conquer her fears of academic inadequacy.

Now, like the mythical Phoenix rising from the ashes, Ava is nearly 22 years old with two full, successful years of college behind her. She has received two awards for scholarship based on her excellent work and insightful writing. The first was awarded by Aims Community College and the second by the University of Northern Colorado to which she transferred last fall. Ava is majoring in Philosophy with a minor in Environmental Studies. At last her education offers her mind the intellectual stimulation it craves and a match with her deep sense of compassion and commitment to wildlife and the environment. Ava says that Philosophy and especially Logic should be mandatory subjects in schools. She firmly believes this kind of education would make the world a better and more tolerant place for all.

“What I learned of the world even so young pained me greatly. I was instilled with a respect for life by my mother, and she saw to the nurturing of my love of animals and nature. Today my love of the environment is so strong that the destruction of little else will bring me to tears so fast or so hard. I mourn its loss as others might mourn their parents, and I revere it as one might revere their god(s). It is everything to me, but so should it be to others. I will not say as I normally do that that is what I think; I know it is true, and it is an ethical standard and moral judgment I absolutely refuse to dance around and weaken with subjectivity. All else rests on it.”

There is hope. “I have not figured out what precisely I wish to accomplish in such a large, complex world,” says Ava, “but my personal path is relatively clear; I must strive to seek and accept the truth as well as help others to see it.”

Written by Conny Jensen, Greeley Eagles CAGT Affiliate President. Edited by Anne Dunlevie, President of the Gifted Education Team of Eagle County. Our thanks to Ava for sharing her story.