Invenio 2011

A Gift for Education

Dorothy Sisk has a talent for teaching gifted students.

Dorothy SiskDorothy Sisk knows this and realizes that even gifted and talented students need help to believe in their abilities. As their advocate, the educator wants to empower them so they can become the future achievers and leaders who can make the world a better place.

If you could have any question answered, Sisk often asks a gifted student, what would it be? The reply: “Am I going to make a difference?”

A professor of professional pedagogy, Sisk holds the Conn Chair for Gifted Education inthe College of Education and Human Development. The former director of the Office of Gifted and Talented in the U.S. Department of Education has been awarded more than $10 million in funding from state and federal grants to support programs and research for students and teachers.

Sisk and James Westgate, a professor in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences, recently received $190,000 in funding from the Teacher Quality Grants Program of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Project Earth Science Explorations is a two-year project based on the rationale that teachers with advanced content and appropriate teaching strategies will have students who perform at higher levels. The team selected 20 middle-school teachers from Southeast Texas to participate in the project.

The teachers meet monthly, attend four Saturday sessions with some of their students and attend three-week summer institutes where they are involved in building greater confidence in the use of inquiry, critical thinking, problem solving, group projects, authentic assessment and the ability to teach from a real-world perspective. The project will enable the teacher participants to model safe practices in lab and field investigations; use scientific inquiry; use multiple supportive teaching strategies to motivate students; guide students to collect, analyze, and record information; encourage students to describe and predict interactions between natural events and human activities; and share with fellow teachers through online journals and mentoring. During the academic year, the teachers are involved in 45 hours of workshops and graduate-course study.

“Earth Science education is especially important here in Texas where our economy and daily lifestyle are based on the use of geologic resources,” Westgate said. “Most Texans don't realize how much we depend on Texas' own natural gas, oil, coal and wind for energy.” He also notes the cement that comes from Hill Country limestone that literally holds our infrastructure together, the groundwater that supplies half of our water needs and even the rock salt that is mined from a salt dome near Katy that keeps our pools clear and is used in making homemade ice cream. “We cannot efficiently use or discover future geologic resources unless we ensure that our upcoming generations are well schooled in Texas' amazing one-billion-year-old geologic history and the natural resources that were created here during that time,” he said.

Teachers are so caught up in teaching for the standardized tests, Sisk explained, that they have lost the excitement about what they are teaching. “We are once again trying to get the teachers to approach science with awe,” she said. If you inspire excitement in teachers again about hands-on experiments and field trips, she asserts, they will be more likely to go back to their classrooms and allow their students to do those activities.

Sisk is also Lamar’s director for the Texas Governor’s School, a program of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Four Texas public universities were awarded funding to provide programs in mathematics and science, fine arts, humanities, and leadership and public policy. Lamar was awarded $600,000 for a three-year period to host the Texas Governor’s School for Leadership Development. The student objectives include developing intrinsic motivation and leadership. The program objectives are to provide teacher training in gifted education and to serve as a model for secondary gifted education.

The tuition-free school provides a “taste of college” to l00 high-ability and high-achieving 11th-grade and 12th-grade students throughout Texas to encourage them to pursue a college degree. The students live in Cardinal Village Residence Hall for three weeks and enroll in one activity period and three classes—such as Chinese, simulation and gaming design, psychology of the criminal mind, international relations, global awareness and global issues, ornithology and group dynamics. For the three weeks, these students are surrounded by other high achievers like themselves. They can talk freely about science, politics and pressing world issues without fear. One gifted student told Sisk that every time he raises his hand in a class at his high school to ask a question or make a comment, his classmates groan. “They are absolutely elated to be able to talk about bigger issues here,” Sisk said. “They want to make a difference.”

Gifted Students

Definition of “Gifted” —Students, children or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic or leadership capacity or in specific academic fields and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.

There are approximately 3 million academically gifted children in grades kindergarten through 12 in the United States—approximately 6 percent of the student population.

Source: National Association for Gifted Children