A Conversation with Sally Krisel

Interview conducted on June 15, 2016, edited by David Lynn Gould

Dr. Sally Krisel is the President-elect for the National Association of Gifted Children, and a member of the Board of Directors. She is also the Director of Innovative and Advanced Programs for Hall County Schools in Gainesville, Georgia, and leads innovative programming initiatives designed to help teachers recognize and develop the creative and cognitive abilities of children from culturally and linguistically diverse groups. A former State Director of Gifted Education and part-time faculty at the University of Georgia, Dr. Krisel is dedicated to raising academic standards for all students, including those who are gifted and talented, by expanding rigorous curriculum offerings and integrating the know-how from programs for the gifted to develop students’ academic potential through engaging, joyful learning experiences. She has helped Hall County Schools develop 25 charter schools, magnet schools and innovative programs of choice, all with roots in gifted education.

In what ways have gifted education strategies influenced your breaking away from remediation models?

More than anything else, what characterizes gifted education is its focus on individual strengths. How can we build upon what a student is already good at? By comparison, traditional education all too often employs a deficit view. We look at what children don’t do well, and respond with a more prescriptive, didactic approach. In the United States, forty years of educational reform has largely been built on remediation models. I think we all have to ask ourselves the question: How’s this working out for us? I think we have to admit that, with the exception a few shining lights, the answer is, “Not very well.” How enthusiastically would you go to school if you were made to feel like a failure?

There is a growing body of research that shows that even when children need remedial instruction, it is most effective when it takes an interest-based, strengths-based form. We need to be more skillful as educators to tie the things students already love to the things we’ve been charged with teaching them.

You have spoken about the need to focus on what students do well. How can an integrated curriculum help facilitate that?

My son is an Air Force pilot, and he has been an Air Force pilot since he was five years old. I look back at his little blue journals from kindergarten and they are filled with complex drawings of military aircraft. I remember when he was in middle school and played soccer. One day, my son was in the backseat of the car with his friends, and they were talking about who was going to take the corner kicks in their soccer game. The other kids agreed it would be Daniel because Daniel could “bend the ball,” in effect making it curve towards the goal. With that my son piped up and said, “Big deal. That is nothing more than Bernoulli’s principle.” Watching from the rearview mirror, I sort of scowled and thought, “What in the world are you talking about?” I had to look it up. Simply put, Bernoulli’s principle states that as air moves faster and faster along a surface, the air pressure will decrease. The opposite is also true. When the soccer ball has spin, it is pushed towards the side with less pressure, causing the curve of the ball. My son knew that because the same principle explains the aerodynamic lift on the wing of an airplane. And then it hit me. My son was very bright, but a reluctant scholar. He always had things to build, and in turn, not a whole lot of time for school. If his teachers had only recognized how passionate he was about this subject, they could have taught him nearly anything by tying it to this interest. I imagine he could have learned calculus in middle school if someone had shown him how it is used to determine aircraft lift coefficients. I know it is a big stretch to ask our teachers to have that sort of personalization. But even if they could have found books in my son’s areas of intense interest, he would have loved to read. His teachers could have facilitated additional learning with relative ease. When we intentionally integrate the curriculum, we increase the likelihood of finding just the right “hook” for individual students.

 Can you describe a moment that has inspired you to continue your approach to education?

One of the programs I’ve had the pleasure of helping develop in Hall County is the Da Vinci Academy. It’s a middle school program for kids who love art, science, or technology. It is application based, and very competitive, but we work hard to make sure we select a diverse group of learners.

A number of years ago, we accepted a young man who had significant learning and social-emotional challenges. His name was Matthew, and he had been unsuccessful in his traditional middle school, but, recognizing his strengths and interests, his teachers advocated for him strongly. Matthew had an Individualized Education Program, and I was concerned that he wouldn’t succeed at Da Vinci. In fact, for six months I thought we had made a terrible mistake. Matthew cried almost every day. He was a big boy for his age, overweight and socially awkward. He would eat lunch in the teacher’s room, and didn’t connect with any of the other children. But we worked very hard to emphasize his intellectual gifts. And then one day, I went to a museum exhibit Matthew and another student created. They had built a replica of a dam in China and were discussing how many kilowatts it produced when suddenly this voice I barely knew spoke up. “Excuse me,” Matthew said to his classmate, “but that’s not quite right.” As Matthew went on to explain, I cried. Here was this young man, whose entire education up to that point had been guided by his problems, now shining in his area of strength. Not to be overdramatic, but I suspect that moment changed Matthew’s life. He had another two years with us, and to watch him grow in confidence was so affirming.

What advice do you have for gifted students who are unchallenged by their standardized education?

Paul Torrance, one of my professors at the University of Georgia, is generally considered to be the father of creativity research. He has had a great influence on my life. Dr. Torrance wrote a Manifesto for Children that hangs on my wall, and I’d like to share some of it with you:

  • Don’t be afraid to fall in love with something and pursue it with intensity.
  • Know, understand, take pride in, practice, develop, exploit, and enjoy your greatest strengths.
  • Learn to free yourself from the expectations of others and walk away from the games they impose on you. Free yourself to play your own game.
  • Find a great teacher or mentor who will help you.
  • Don’t waste energy trying to be well rounded.
  • Do what you love and can do well.
  • Learn the skills of interdependence.

I want these ideals playing in the ears of every gifted child.

What advice do you have for educators who teach these students?

I would also turn each one of Dr. Torrance’s guidelines into a challenge for today’s educators. In what ways can we as educators create that kind of environment for gifted learners? How can we consistently give them those messages?

Every semester I tell my graduate students that while I hope they retain much of the content of the course, if they remember nothing else, remember the power they hold every time they walk into a classroom. There’s a John Steinbeck essay where he calls teaching the most creative of all the arts because the medium is the human mind. I don’t know of any other profession that puts in the hands of an individual the power to make or break a young life in quite the same way.

How can gifted education also help students find their place in the world?

 Jaime Casap is the Chief Education Evangelist at Google, and his job is to show people how technology can engage kids and get them excited about learning. I recently heard Jaime speak, and he asked us to consider how much time we spend questioning young people on what they want to be when they grow up. This is not a particularly good question when the job of their future probably doesn’t exist yet! Jaime’s alternative question is, “What problems do you want to solve when you grow up?” That nuanced, but powerful change in the question, communicates to a young person that we believe they are capable of solving problems. It’s not just about what you are going to “be” or “do,” but what you are going to contribute. Again, drawing from Paul Torrance’s research, and more recently the work of Scott Barry Kaufman and others, one of the things that predicts adult success at a very high level is having a powerful future image. If we can provide these types of messages and experiences for kids, they’re much more likely to find a place in the world that is both satisfying and fulfilling.

As the President-elect for the National Association of Gifted Children, what is your vision for the future of the field?

 Education today is so difficult, so complex, and it operates on such limited resources that if something is seen as separate or an appendage, it is always in danger of being lopped off. We see that in gifted education. Our great challenge is to bring gifted education to the table as an integral, valuable part of what we do for young people in this country. We don’t want to have various educational or social agencies planning separately and then, almost as an after-thought, say, “Oh, yeah, what about those gifted kids?” We want to be a part of the conversation all along.

Further, I think gifted education is our secret weapon in overall school improvement. If we can take what we know about fulfilling the potential of high-ability learners, and apply it as appropriate to a larger group, then we can help everyone rise to a higher level.

And lastly, it gives us an opportunity to find the next peak for gifted education. It’s like the metaphor of Olympic coaching where everybody now uses techniques, nutrition and equipment that once shaved fractions of seconds off an elite athlete’s performance. It follows that elite coaches are then inspired to create a new level of training for the extraordinarily gifted athlete. I think we can do the same thing in the classroom. How can gifted education be part of the urgent need to improve schools for all kids, and in doing so, find the next mountaintop for our gifted learners?

This fall, the University of Iowa’s Belin Blank Center will be welcoming its first class of Bucksbaum Early Entrance Academy students. As we work to craft the experience, what advice can you offer us?

 I love that the Bucksbaum Early Entrance Academy’s objective is not to fast track one’s education, but rather remove the obstacles that impede gifted student learning. These students come already knowing what they love, and having many strengths. The Academy is a chance for them to learn more; to sit with a professor, talk about literature, and then leave with new things to read. Perhaps for the first time these students are not just being given a check plus because what they can do easily is superior in relation to the larger group, but they are being asked, “How are we going to take you to the next level?” That’s exactly what you and your colleagues will have the opportunity to do at the Academy: hold gifted kids to a standard they rarely experience, and, by doing so, genuinely honor their abilities.

Thank you.

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