Category Archives: Message from the Director

Message from the Director: The Lifelong Process of Becoming

What do you want to be when you grow up?

This was the question asked of my granddaughter on her first day of kindergarten (firefighter and teacher were her responses).  Likely most of us have considered this question at various points throughout our lives.   I certainly have.

Although I have been an educator for four decades (1977-2017), I am grateful that the years have not jaded me.  Each first day of a new school year offers a sense of wonder, anticipation, and optimism, perhaps because I recognize that it is not really about what my granddaughter – or any student or colleague — will be when they grow up; rather, it is about the lifelong process of becoming.   With a new kindergartner in the family, I thought that it would be appropriate to share with you my wishes for her as she engages in the process of becoming. I wish that she would:

  • Find challenge in learning both in and out of school. Learners, and those who teach them, know that challenge represents the optimal learning environment.  There is just enough prior knowledge to build upon in acquiring new knowledge.  The appropriately challenged learner is neither bored nor frustrated, but rather empowered to seek new knowledge and develop further the sense of curiosity with which we are all born.
  • Build resilience to become an empowered learner. Without ever having set foot in a formal school setting, my granddaughter confidently states that her favorite subjects are math, science, and reading. If she wants to be a firefighter and a teacher, those are good subjects to master; however, she will need to recognize that there will be favorite subjects and those that are not favorites.  As well, there will be good days and days that are not as good.  The latter are important so that she can bounce back to enjoy the good days and revel in great days!
  • Develop leadership skills so that she can experience a meaningful life and make a positive impact on society. Sure, that is a tall order for a kindergartner, but it is an important aspect of learning and becoming.  When she enters her fifth decade of a profession, whether it be teaching and/or firefighting or a profession yet unknown, I hope that she will be able to look back and see how her leadership contributed positively to society.
  • Hone a sense of humility so that she will always approach the multitude of opportunities and gifts already bestowed upon her with gratitude, as well as develop an awareness that others do not always have these same opportunities or abilities.

My granddaughter started her formal education this week just as I was commencing my 5th decade as an educator.  I have never lost that sense of excitement on the first day of a new school year, and I hope she – and all of us – never lose it.  Keeping in mind the ideas of challenge, resilience, leadership, and humility may help her – and each of us –in the process of becoming.  Have a great year!

Message from the Director: Summertime is Talent Development Time

Welcome to the Belin-Blank Center’s 29th summer of programs for teachers and students!  While in the midst of serving hundreds of elementary, middle, and high school students, we will deliver TAG courses and workshops to teachers, evaluate clients in the Assessment and Counseling Clinic, and prepare for 2017-2018 fall and spring opportunities.  Dozens of short-term faculty and staff, including program coordinators, teaching assistants, instructors, and residential advisors, assist our permanent staff members in accomplishing our goals for Summer on the Brain.  While many students come from Iowa, we will also welcome students from 28 other states, plus Canada, Hong Kong, China, South Korea, and Turkey!

Saying good-bye at the end of each program is always difficult.  However, everyone can stay connected to the Belin-Blank Center through our newsletter and The Window, a new podcast hosted by Director Emeritus, Dr. Nicholas Colangelo.  As described in the article published in The Gazette, The Window aims to make a meaningful difference in the lives of the listeners and break new ground in our thinking about talent development and our educational systems vis-à-vis the talent development process.

Speaking of talent development, we are thrilled to share that the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has introduced a new grant program, the Rural Talent Initiative, and the Belin-Blank Center is one of the six grantees.  In 2014, the Center received a $500,000 Talent Development Award from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation for its STEM Excellence and Literacy (SEAL) program for students in grades 5 to 7.  It will use its new grant to expand the program to students in grades 8 and 9 in the 10 rural Iowa school districts currently implementing SEAL. More than 1,000 students and their teachers in these districts will receive direct benefits over a two-year period due to this grant.

One thing we’ve found in nearly thirty years of summer programs is that there is always more to learn.  Even on the sleepiest summer days, students of all ages are at the Center learning exciting new things!

Message From the Director: Expression As A High Calling

“To learn to express is probably as high a calling as one can do; because as one expresses, one can bring people together and that’s the great challenge of all of us.”

Interim Director of the University of Iowa Museum of Art and Former U.S Representative James Leach (R-IA)

Indeed. Mr. Leach’s words, shared on March 11th at the Belin-Blank Center’s annual Scholastic Art and Writing Awards Ceremony, ring true for the Center’s administrators whether they’re creating programs for students or teachers, or hosting special events such as the Scholastic Awards Ceremony, the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, or Invent Iowa. Striving to meet that challenge of “expression” on both a personal and professional level is not only a component of our special events; it is also an important aspect of the Center’s day-to-day operation.  Building community by bringing together talented learners is the common thread in the upcoming summer opportunities.  The programming goals for student and instructor are to attain a higher level of expression relative to the content of the class and the experience of being part of a community of like-minded learners.

In a previous post, I expressed my philosophy concerning transformational leadership and indicated that one of the most important roles we can serve as professionals is to give voice to those who are not in a position to express their voices or have their voices heard.  Two recent articles in peer-reviewed journals represent our efforts to give voice to talented students who are at risk due to economic vulnerability or twice-exceptionality.

The first article, “The effects of a social and talent development intervention for high ability youth with social skill difficulties,” authored by Associate Professor Megan Foley Nicpon and colleagues and published in the High Ability Studies (2017), present the findings of an intervention study with twice-exceptional students (high ability with social skill difficulties).  The social skills intervention itself, video modeling, is quite progressive in terms of interventions.  In addition, the intervention was conducted in a “naturalistic” setting, i.e., during a Belin-Blank Center two-week summer program, which is oriented towards students’ talent development.  Researchers found positive changes in several of the measured variables, including friendship companionship and security. The students in the social skills group, who experienced the video-modeling intervention, increased their willingness to seek help within their friendships compared to the non-intervention comparison group.  To our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate this group intervention with twice-exceptional students, and the preliminary findings support continuing to offer the intervention during our summer programs.

The second article, “Closing the excellence gap: Investigation of an expanded talent search model for student selection into an extracurricular STEM program in rural middle schools,” authored by Susan Assouline, Lori Ihrig, and Duhita Mahatmya and published in Gifted Child Quarterly (2017), reported on an expansion of the traditional Talent Search Model.  The expansion effectively broadened the talent pool of high-achieving students from the typical 3-to-5% to 13%.  The students participated in an extracurricular STEM program that was designed to increase the aspirations and achievements of high-potential students attending under-resourced rural schools.

An op-ed that I co-authored with Harold O. Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, highlighted the importance of providing these types of educational opportunities for rural students. One sentence in the op-ed captures the intersection of expression and voice:

The education gap dividing Americans by income and location is not just profoundly unfair, but a tremendous waste of talent. It means that we fail to benefit from the brainpower of millions of young people who could grow up to be doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors, teachers and fill other important roles. We simply can’t afford this unfairness.

For 29 years, the administrative team at the Belin-Blank Center has worked to develop the talents of students and their teachers.  We strive to form a community of like-minded individuals and close gaps due to disability or economic vulnerability.  It’s all possible when we aren’t afraid to speak up.

Transformational Leadership Matters: One Student, One Teacher at a Time

Individuals in leadership positions, especially those who aspire to transformational leadership, bear much responsibility in their professional and personal lives.  Indeed, to a certain extent, this responsibility transcends the boundaries of personal or professional life.  Entire volumes about leadership exist; however, daily actions require a shorthand for the guiding principles around transformational leadership.  Here are five words that serve as my guiding principles for transformational leadership in the field of gifted and talented education: voice, doors, affirmation, trust, tension.

Voice:  First, we must give voice to those who – for whatever reason – cannot speak for themselves or who are not in a position to have their voices heard.   For example, the psychologist who assesses a child and determines the child has both exceptional intellectual ability and an autism spectrum disorder gives voice to that child through the psychoeducational report and the associated recommendations.  The teachers and counselors who enact those recommendations also give voice to that child.

Above-level testing through the talent search process gives voice to individual children who are high achievers as well as groups of high achieving students.   Having information about a child can be the key to opportunity.

Researchers who seek to better understand the talent development process and the role of education in ensuring the development of talent give voice to professionals and colleagues through their research findings.  The voice is strongest when research is used to develop policy.  This is the only way to promote transformation in education.

Doors:  Professionals, parents, and volunteers have the capacity to open doors.  This capacity is greater than they may think, and the rewards are far-reaching.  New opportunities are a sign of affirmation and trust, and it is our responsibility to find doors for students and colleagues.

Affirmation:  Leadership implies that there is one person who is “leading.”  That has not been my experience.  You cannot lead if you do not have a team of people with whom to collaborate.  Every action of each team member, no matter how small, requires support from the team.

Trust:  Affirmation and trust go hand in hand.  Among the many synonyms for trust are reliance and confidence.  A member of the team has to know that the leader has confidence in the individual and collective creativity of the team.  Likewise, the team members should know that the leader relies on them to put forth their strongest effort.

Tension:  Finally, any action that aims to transform will require effort and energy, which automatically means that there is some level of tension involved.  Effort involves  stress, output, and strength.  One of the most important jobs of a leader is keeping in mind the tensions associated with giving voice, opening doors, offering affirmation, and demonstrating trust.

Leadership means asking challenging questions of others and ourselves.  Who gives voice to your students? Who opens the doors for them?  Do your students know that you trust that they can meet a challenge?  These questions correspond to one of the most pressing issues in our field: finding students with academic talent – especially those who are vulnerable due to disability, culture, or economics – and keeping them engaged in the talent development process.

I hope that you enjoy the current issue of our newsletter, where you will learn about the many ways the Belin-Blank Center staff are opening doors and giving voice to students and educators.

Excerpted from remarks made on February 8, 2017, as part of the Denver University Transformation Leadership Gifted Education Conference.   Professor Norma Lu Hafenstein, Daniel L. Ritchie Endowed Chair in Gifted Education, led the panel that included Dr. Del Siegle, Dr. Dorinda Carter Andrews, and Ms. Jacquelin Medina.  In addition to responding to the question asking panelists to interpret the phrase, “transformational leadership matters,” we also responded to a question about the most pressing issues in our field today. 

Message From the Director: It’s Cold Outside

The radio and The Weather Channel are constant reminders that “It’s cold outside.”  However, my colleagues and I are warm inside the Blank Honors Center thanks in large part to the work of the Center conducted on behalf of the students, educators, and families we serve.

The cold weather in Iowa coincides with the end of the calendar year, when it’s typical to reflect upon the previous 12 months.  The dedication of the Belin-Blank Center faculty and staff resulted in several new initiatives, including a board report.  See the colorful and informative 2014-2016 report for a full accounting of the initiatives.

As an added bonus, online readers of the report can meet 12 of the members of the Belin-Blank Center administrative staff through an individual 1-2-minute presentation.  Go to page 14 of the report and click on an administrator’s name to view their video.

Planning for 2017 was also a major aspect of 2016.  This next calendar year will feature several new endeavors in addition to ongoing services and opportunities for students and educators.  Here’s a peek at what we’ve been up to:

  • Extending our reach through a series of podcasts hosted by Belin-Blank Center Director Emeritus Nicholas Colangelo. The first episode of The Window, a podcast about talent development that asks the unanswered questions, will be released in mid-spring.  Keep an eye on our social media for more details.
  • New programming for pre-college students: thanks to generous funding from the Perry Foundation, we established the Perry Research Scholars Institute, a two-week summer program for students in grade eight through ten.
  • Our research agenda continues to grow, and we will be reporting on major findings over the next year.
  • We’re in the midst of creating a new design for our main website.  Look for a cleaner, easier-to-use Belin-Blank Center website in early 2017.
  • We recently opened registration for our 2017 summer programs.

My best wishes to all of you for a happy and healthy 2017, and happy holidays from all of us at the Belin-Blank Center.

Message from the Director: Words Matter

Words matter. No, it’s not the current political discourse that prompts this understated opening to my message; rather the publicity around a recent presentation here on the University of Iowa campus by a newly-minted sociologist invited to guest lecture for a seminar on inequality.

The publicity promoted the following topics: “the nature-nurture debate, social inequality in gifted education programs and experiences of the — so called — gifted students.”

Ironically, the presenter claimed to “not challenge the concept of giftedness in general”; rather, to “disprove key ideas of gifted education scholars…[and] discuss the theoretical frameworks which [sic] question the social category of giftedness.”

The two words that concern me most are “so-called.” Unfortunately, I could not attend this seminar due to a conflict, i.e., work.  Nevertheless, I felt it important to contribute to the dialogue, even if not in that particular forum, because, as a “gifted education scholar,” my work, and that of dozens of colleagues, is being targeted.  I have three points:

First, qualifying the term “gifted” implicitly judges individuals who, through no fault of their own, have academic and social-emotional needs that are not typically met in the regular classroom.  The psychological concept of individual differences forms the theoretical foundation underlying the vast range of research and programs for gifted students.  The Belin-Blank Center is but one of several gifted education centers that address research and programming for gifted students as well as professional development for their teachers.  Formative evaluation of these programs (not judgment) is ongoing and necessary for program improvement.  All university-based centers engage in this evaluation.  Research conducted throughout the world is available in peer-reviewed journals and supports these efforts.

Second, professionals and parents who advocate for gifted students should always search for ways to eliminate geographic and psychological barriers.  Ironically, the very students who are likely to be overlooked for needed accommodations are the ones who would most likely be disadvantaged if the concept of giftedness were questioned and associated programming were eliminated.

Third, discourse around these topics, especially social inequality and conceptualization of giftedness, are welcome and necessary – especially with professionals outside of the fields of education and psychology.  However, honest inquiry is difficult when conclusions have been predetermined and fundamental respect for the needs of the individual are ignored.

Those two words created ire; however, they also forced me to reevaluate my own values.  I concluded that the Center’s commitment to programs and services for gifted and talented students and their educators is unwavering. Therefore, we will continue to look for ways to address the needs of our most vulnerable students (e.g., economically vulnerable or twice-exceptional students).  Furthermore, we always will champion the interventions that promote the development of talent in students and their teachers.   Because how else can we “nurture potential and inspire excellence” so that we make this world a better place?

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Message from the Director: Who Are the Gatekeepers for Talent Development?

That was the question roaming through my thoughts with each opening and closing session of our summer pre-college student programs.  For the nearly 1,000 students who attended one or more of our summer programs, each opening session exudes anticipation as the staff and faculty describe the amazing classes and opportunities awaiting the students.  The closings are similarly fulfilling, yet also different, because students, faculty, and summer program staff have spent an intensive week engaged in learning.  The closing sessions are bursting with energy as the students, teachers, and residential staff share their week-long experiences with each other as well as with parents.  The bonds that are formed during the student programs in the summer are unique.  One of the high school students captured the sentiment:

THANK YOU! I have spent 6 of the last 8 summers at Belin-Blank camps and I am so going to miss them. Thank you for all the opportunities, friends, and experiences you have provided me with. I will forever treasure these summers. Thanks again for everything. I love your programs and what you do here.

I never tire of the thrill of being part of a team of professionals that open the talent development gates to young, highly capable students eagerly seeking ways to develop their talents. I also can’t help but wonder about the bright students whose families and schools don’t know about programs like this and thus miss out on the “opportunities, friends, and experiences … [to] forever treasure.”  How can we make programming accessible to them?  Who are the gatekeepers for these students?

Similarly rewarding is the annual experience of opening the talent development gates to educators pursuing professional development.  Over the summer, 183 teachers enrolled in 249 credit hours.  The Center’s concluding on-campus professional development opportunity, the Belin-Blank Advanced Leadership Institute (B-BALI), was truly an opportunity for all attendees to reflect on their role as gatekeepers for talent development in their respective schools, districts, and states.

B-BALI featured expert presentations by several of the A Nation Empowered authors and all of four of the editors (S. Assouline, N. Colangelo, J. VanTassel-Baska, & A. Lupkowski-Shoplik).  Professor Emerita Joyce VanTassel-Baska’s final keynote presentation, “The Individual and Societal Value of Acceleration:  Research, Practice, and Policy,” was as engaging as it was comprehensive.  Professor VanTassel-Baska wove the three strands of the title into an elegant finale that referred to Julian Stanley’s Talent Search Model as the genesis for the various types of accelerative practices that should be available to high-potential students who are ready to learn more advanced material at a faster pace and at a younger age than typically-developing students.

As Professor VanTassel-Baska’s keynote concluded, I realized that the question about gate-keepers really needs to be not “who are the gatekeepers,” but rather, “Are you a gatekeeper for talent development?”  This is a perfect question for the beginning of a new school year.  Educators, now is your chance to open those talent development gates for your students and to support them walking through the gates to the myriad opportunities for developing their talents.

Although developing the talents of our young people is a lifelong journey, the starting point – the gateway activity – for many who are talented in academics starts with participating in the Belin-Blank Exceptional Student Talent Search (BESTS).  BESTS incorporates the Talent Search Model.  As models go, the Talent Search Model is elegant in its simplicity.  BESTS is a system of above-level testing that produces results designed to inform high-potential students and their parents and teachers how much acceleration and enrichment students need.

Despite its potency, the Talent Search Model is not widely used in schools.  There are multiple reasons for this, not the least of which is that traditionally the process occurred outside of the school setting.  Although this is still true for 7th – 9th graders, the Belin-Blank Center is expanding the model for 4th – 6th graders.  Now, teachers and parents of high-potential 4th – 6th graders can access  above-level testing through BESTS in their schools, which we call BESTS In-School.

Educators, especially the teachers of 4th – 6th graders in gifted and talented programs, can become the champions of talent development by opening the gates through appropriate acceleration and enrichment opportunities in subject-specific areas (math, science, English/language arts).  It can start with BESTS In-School.

We hope this year is the year that educators and parents will partner with us to open the gates and support high-potential students though this robust model of talent development and/or through one of the myriad opportunities offered by the Belin-Blank Center.