No Less Than the Trees and the Stars

sakfergusonphd:

Finding “fit” in a society that frequently defines success by what we do rather than by who we are if often difficult. Author and advocate, Stephanie S. Tolan, describes this predicament with aplomb sharing vignettes from her personal history. Working with radically accelerated students, I witness firsthand the push-me/pull-me students sometimes encounter when the external expectations of the world at-large do not match their internal definitions of success.

Originally posted on The Deep End:

In the more than thirty years I have written and spoken about the needs of gifted children and adults, I have shared a lot of my personal life. But after the last piece I wrote for this blog (December 2012) that life began to disintegrate, as did my ability to turn it into anything that would seem helpful to other people. Between April and July of 2013 I lost my husband of 49 years and the oldest two of our four sons.

Shell-shocked, I withdrew from the world except for a few obligations: Yunasa, the Institute for Educational Advancement’s camp for highly gifted kids and speaking as a member of the Columbus Group about Asynchronous Development at the World Council’s Conference in Louisville.

At that conference the argument between those (like the Columbus Group) who focus on giftedness as a developmental process innate to out-of-the-ordinary individuals (the child-centered view) and…

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A Tribe Apart

Do you sometimes feel as if adolescence is in effect another culture, one to which you are not privy? Author Patricia Hersch followed a group of junior high and high school students for several years in Reston, Virginia to discover more about their culture and found that they really are A Tribe Apart!

Tribe

One of the primary developmental goals during adolescence is to find out about yourself, gaining a sense of who you are within the context of the larger society of which you are a part. Adolescents seek to answer the question “Who am I?” In her introduction to Tribe, Hersch identifies “aloneness” as a major theme of adolescence. She writes:

~ “The most stunning change for adolescents today is their aloneness (p.19)”
~ “In the twentieth century, not only are children alone, but everybody is alone (p.21).”
~ “Aloneness makes adolescents a tribe apart (p. 30).”

Jonathan, one of the teens Hersch interviews writes: “The teenager has been classified as a remote being…there is an unspeakable distance between youth and the grown-up world (p. 30).”

Hersch’s insight into the adolescent world is invaluable. Even though the book was published in 1998, many of her conclusions are still valid, if not more so today. With our society’s penchant for digital communication over face-to-face interaction, adolescents are more likely to chat online than in person. Hersch also identifies a lack of boundaries for adolescents. We need only to watch the first ten to fifteen minutes of any news broadcast to view a story that highlights the incredible lack of boundaries for teens in our society. She notes that in this era of relativistic morality, expectations for teens are not clear. Furthermore, Hersch purports that parents, in lieu of talking about tough topics, will allow their teens to talk about such topics, but then choose not to engage in meaningful conversation with them. This cycle of behavior leads to adolescents feeling as though their parents are really listening. Only by listening — sincerely, honestly listening — will parents (and concerned adults) be able to affect the aloneness about which the adolescents in Hersch’s book speak.

The author does not gloss over the darker side of adolescence. Instead, she presents the lives of the teens with whom she interacted in their words, in their logic, and in their time. She draws conclusions based upon the feelings and actions of those same teens. Is this book a fair representation of ALL teens? No. It is, however, a primer to begin to understand the dynamics of adolescent culture. It is an introduction to the issues that adolescents deem important and a glimpse into their world.

What Hersch does not provide is a recipe for a solution. She makes some suggestions as to how adults can begin to reconnect with adolescents, but the logistics of it all is left to the reader. But, knowledge is power…and by reading this book, I have become better informed and my awareness has been heightened. What I choose to do with my new-found knowledge is, of course, up to me.
Given my career in gifted education, I have no choice but to interact with adolescents every day in meaningful ways, so Hersch’s book is yet another tool in my proverbial toolbox. I choose to work with this age group and love the choice I have made (on most days). Adolescents keep me young while simultaneously giving me grey hair…it is an interesting mix that I wouldn’t trade for the world. I have used Tribe as a supplementary text when I teach adolescent psychology. It is interesting to discuss Hersch’s observations with students’ and compare their own perceptions of their adolescence with those adolescents described in the book.

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Hersch, P. (1998). A tribe apart: A journey into the heart of American adolescence. New York, NY: Ballantine. ISBN: 978-0345435941 $14.95

I am always eager to engage in new conversations. Feel free to leave a comment on any of my blog posts or pages or send me an email at sakfergusonphd@gmail.com. All the best!
~Stephanie

Finding Place

I have spent my career working with gifted students, their teachers, and their parents. In that time, I have had many discussions concerning the world as is it should be, the world as it is, and finding one’s place. When I have this dialogue with a gifted student, the disillusionment of what ought to be versus the real-world circumstances of what is all too often ends up with a conversation about what it means to “play the game” and how to keep your ideals without “selling out.” When I have this chat with teachers of the gifted, the focus often shifts to student versus teacher power struggles followed by brainstorming sessions on strategies for addressing negative coping mechanisms in the classroom. This exchange with parents of gifted students frequently dances around the subject of depression and emotions. I recently read a book that addresses the concerns of each of these populations while assuring me that there is hope for these students to whom I have dedicated so much of my life.

Searching-FINAL-cover

In his most recent book, Search for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope, Dr. James T. Webb brings his considerable experience as a clinical psychologist, professor, author, and founder of Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) together to shed light on topics which have hidden in dark corners for far too long. Dr. Webb addresses the subjects with a style that is at once both welcoming and reassuring while at the same time being thought-provoking and inspirational. The entire book is well worth a thorough read, but I would recommend specific chapters for the specific groups of individuals I work with on a daily basis.

For students, I would suggest a focused read of Chapter 1 – Searching for Meaning and Chapter 2 – Idealism: Do You Get It from Your Parents, or Does It Just Come Naturally? In these chapters Dr. Webb highlights the characteristics of bright individuals (e.g., heightened sense of justice, intensity, sensitivity) which often contribute to children and young adults having an idealistic world view. This idealism may lead to frustration; “As bright, curious, and observant children grow up, they become aware that so mat of the things that parents, teachers, and community leaders claim about the world are false, or at least highly colored. The result is that they are disappointed, hurt, angry, disillusioned, and even depressed” (p. 12). Dr. Webb continues by explaining the cycle that may occur when that disillusionment manifests into existential depression. I recommend Chapter 6 – Awareness and Acceptance for students as well. In it, Dr. Webb suggests activities to help “manage your existential anxiety and depression” (p. 107).

I believe teachers will be most interested in Chapter 7 – Some Not-So-Healthy Coping Styles that Feed Illusions and Chapter 8 – Healthier Coping Styles that Go Beyond Illusions in order to address their immediate concerns regarding classroom management and teaching strategies. In Chapter 7, Dr. Webb chronicles a litany of maladaptive coping methods that many bright students who are dealing with issues involving disillusionment and/or existential depression employ such as, black and white thinking, control, overscheduling, distraction, clinging, narcissism, not caring, numbing the mind, seeking novelty, camouflaging, withdrawal, and anger. Do any of these sound familiar to you? While Dr. Webb does not discuss how to counteract these behaviors, as an educator, being able to identify the behavior and understanding the possible motivation behind it is a starting point – a place to begin a discussion. Chapter 8 is a compilation of 13 suggested positive coping skills intended to help individuals successfully manage the emotions that typically accompany disillusionment. Several of these activities with some creativity and adaptation could easily be incorporated into the classroom.

Many of the parents with whom I have spoken would be inclined to start with Chapter 3 – Bright and Inquiring Minds Want to Know!, Chapter 4 – Gloom and Misery and Despair: So Much Depression Everywhere, and Chapter 5 – Life Meaning and Existential Concerns. These three chapters combined provide an excellent overview of the characteristics of gifted students which may increase their propensity for existential angst at an early age and how that angst can manifest into depression. One take away that I believe many parents will find comforting is that their child is not alone in what he or she is experiencing.

I found Chapter 9 – Hope, Happiness, and Contentment to be my personal favorite and one that students, teachers, and parents would benefit from reading. In it Dr. Webb weaves the topical threads of the book together to form a very personal tapestry – the texture and pattern of which is unique to the individual reading and internalizing the information Dr. Webb provides. For me, the take away, appropriately enough, was an aspect of finding fit, interestingly enough…specifically finding my sense of place in the world and the fact is…I probably won’t ever “find” it, but I do have all the tools I need to “create” it. Or, as George Bernard Shaw so aptly stated, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

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Webb, J. T. (2013). Searching for meaning: Idealism, bright minds, disillusionment, and hope. Tuscon, AZ: Great Potential Press. ISBN: 978-1-935067-22-1 224 pages 6” x 9” $24.95

For more information about the author of Searching for Meaning, please visit his author page at Great Potential Press.

Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) is an organization that seeks to inform gifted individuals, their families, and the professionals who work with them, about the unique social and emotional needs of gifted persons. For more information, please visit their website.

I am always eager to engage in new conversations. Feel free to leave a comment on any of my blog posts or pages or send me an email at sakfergusonphd@gmail.com. All the best!
~Stephanie

Always Through

I have been thinking quite a bit about happiness lately. What is happiness? What is it that makes me happy? Is being happy the same as being content? All heady questions…yes? They are questions that have led me back to one of the favorite authors from my dissertation days – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi suggests that in order to find enjoyment or flow our activities should have the following elements:
~ experience challenge involving our particular skill sets;
~ the merging of action and awareness so that our attention is completely absorbed;
~ clear goals and immediate feedback;
~ concentration that focuses completely upon the task at hand;
~ lack of a sense of worry about losing control;
~ loss of self-consciousness; and
~ the slowing down or speeding up of time while engaged in the activity.
I have experienced flow as Csikszentmihalyi describes it. I experienced it quite often in my teaching career while working with gifted students in the classroom and working with pre-service and in-service teachers. I admit…it has been quite some time since I have felt the convergence of flow in my life. I miss it. I want it back. According to Csikszentmihalyi, “There are two main strategies we can adopt to improve our quality of life. The first is to try making external conditions match our goals. The second is to change how we experience external conditions to make them fit our goals better” (p. 43).

With Csikszentmihalyi’s advice beside me, I turn to the words of Robert Frost in his poem A Servant to Servants
robertfrostthebestwayout

Yes, the best way out is always through. And, as such, I will leave you with the following words as reminders that happiness is not the absence of problems, but the ability to deal with them. Marc Chernoff provides these eight things to remember when everything goes wrong:

1. Pain is a part of growing. Sometimes life closes doors because it is time to move forward. That can be a good thing because we often won’t move unless circumstances force us to do so.
2. Everything in life is temporary. Every time it rains; the rain will stop. Every time you get hurt; you will eventually heal. Nothing lasts forever. You get a second chance, every second.
3. Worrying and complaining changes nothing. Those who complain the most accomplish the least. It is always better to attempt to do something great and fail than to attempt to do nothing and succeed.
4. Your scars are symbols of your strength. Don’t ever be ashamed of the scars life has left you with. A scar means the hurt is over and the wound is closed. It means you conquered the pain, learned a lesson, grew stronger, and moved forward. A scar is the tattoo of a triumph to be proud of. Don’t allow your scars to hold you hostage. You cannot make the scars in your life disappear, but you can change the way you see them. You can start seeing your scars as a sign of strength and not pain.
5. Every little struggle is a step forward. In life, patience is not about waiting; it’s about the ability to keep a good attitude while working hard on your dreams, knowing that the work is worth it. So, if you are going to try, put in the time and go all the way. Otherwise, there is no point in starting.
6. Other people’s negativity is not your problem. Be positive when negativity surrounds you. You can’t take things too personally, even if it seems personal. Rarely do people do things because of you. They do things because of them. Remember that you don’t need many people in your life, just a few great ones, so don’t lower yourself to have more ‘friends.’
7. What’s meant to be will eventually be. True strength comes when you have so much to cry and complain about, but you prefer to smile and appreciate your life instead. There are blessings hidden in every struggle you face, but have to be willing to open your heart and mind to see them. You can’t force things to happen.
8. The best thing you can do is to keep going.

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I am always eager to engage in new conversations. Feel free to leave a comment on any of my blog posts or pages or send me an email at sakfergusonphd@gmail.com. All the best!
~Stephanie

This I Reslove…

It is 2014. A new year…and with it that inevitable resolutions that we make in order to mark a fresh start each year, to turn over a proverbial new leaf. Did you make a resolution this year as the clock struck midnight? Have you broken your resolution already?

Resolution

Let’s start by examining the etymology of the word resolution. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, resolution is a noun, which first appeared in the late 14th century Old French meaning “a breaking into parts,” or directly from the Latin resolutionem (nominative resolutio) “process of reducing thing into simpler forms.” The concept of analyzing a complex notion into an easier form resonates with me. Simplifying. Who’s life doesn’t need some simplification right about now? In the 18th century, the Puritans spent the first month of the year reflecting upon the past year and contemplating the year to come. According to Bill Petro, in this way the Puritans adopted the custom of making resolutions in the new year.

While the Puritans were encouraged to make better use of their talents, treat others with charity, and avoid habitual sins, the top ten resolutions for 2014 were
1. Lose weight
2. Get organized
3. Spend less, save more
4. Enjoy life to the fullest
5. Stay fit and healthy
6. Learn something exciting
7. Quite smoking
8. Help others in their dreams
9. Fall in love
10. Spend more time with family (www.statisticbrain.com).
Having such goals is great…but keeping them for any extended period of time in order to realize them in any meaningful way is much more difficult according to John C. Norcross, the author of Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions.

Norcross provides the following suggestions for those of us who have made resolutions and desire to keep them.

~Modify your behavior. Doing the same thing and expecting different results is generally not helpful. Changing your routine may be a catalyst for change.

~Define SMART goals. Use the acronym – SMART, when setting targets for your goals: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-specific. The goals you set must be concrete and realistic!

~Track your progress. In essence, this is personal responsibility. Norcross calls it self-monitoring. Use a calendar or calendar app as a tool to track your progress.

~Reward small achievements. All too often we become fixated on the end-game and neglect to recognize the important milestones we reach along the way. Don’t forget to reward the intermediate accomplishments while you continue to pursue your ultimate goal. Doing so will help keep you focused, excited, and on-track.

~Make it public. This introduces a measure of accountability to your goal. The upside is the support you will gain from those closest to you. The downside is the potential embarrassment is you slip. So, you need to do a bit of soul searching here to understand your own needs and how much you are will to disclose.

~You are human. Thus, you are fallible. Chances are, you will slip up once or twice. The key is not to beat yourself up. Recognize your failure for what it was, identify any triggers, and get back on track. Learn whatever lessons you can and keep moving!

And so, as I venture into 2014 I have yet another list of resolutions, and I am moving forward…moving toward simplification, but I am not quite Puritan in my intentions (this I typed with a smile).

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I am always eager to engage in new conversations. Feel free to leave a comment on any of my blog posts or pages or send me an email at sakfergusonphd@gmail.com. All the best!
~Stephanie

The Intersection of Life and Literature

During Banned Books Week (September 22-28, 2013), I blogged about my love of reading and my passion for young adult (YA) literature. I shared the number of frequently challenged/banned titles on the YA shelf across from my office shelf and that one of the reasons I enjoy reading those titles is the connection doing so allows me to maintain a connection with my students. You see, I work with a rarified population of gifted girls, some as young as 13, who choose to skip high school and attend college early.

I don’t know if you remember what you read while you were an adolescent, but my teenage years were often dark and existential. Perhaps I never really grew out of that phase…who knows? Several years ago, a student of mine, named Monroe, introduced me to Crank by Ellen Hopkins. Monroe explained that she thought I would really appreciate Hopkins’ work because it was written in verse and the content, though coarse, is real and poignant. Well, how could I refuse after such a recommendation? I immediately ordered the book and read it in one night. I now own every one of Ellen Hopkins’ novels and frequently discuss them with my students and staff members who share similar reading interests.

Interestingly enough, Hopkins made the most frequently challenged authors of the 21st century list in both 2010 and 2012. The content of her novels speaks to today’s youth – not in a cajoling manner attempting to ensnare the reader, but rather as an example of one possible reality based on a set of specific choices. Crank was written loosely based upon the details of Hopkins’ own daughter’s experience with crystal meth addiction. The story was so engaging that I could not tear myself away from the pages (and had bags under my eyes for three days afterwards to show for it). Since Crank, Hopkins has written several other novels in free verse covering dark issues in young people’s lives, including prostitution, abuse, suicide, drugs, and neglect.

photo credit: ellenhopkins.com/YoungAdult/

photo credit: ellenhopkins.com/YoungAdult/

Most people wonder whether art imitates life or vice versa. For Ellen Hopkins, it is not about imitation. It is about intersection. In 2012, Ellen Hopkins founded Ventana Sierra as a way of helping young people in need, many of whom had aged out of foster care and had no resources. Hopkins and her daughter created a non-profit organization to get young people off the street and into housing and college. According to Hopkins, this is her way of “paying it forward” to her readers as well as creating a better future for those who have the desire, motivation, and drive to succeed…to help others. Participants receive independent living, tuition and books, vocational training, transportation, medical care, and life skills classes for a minimum of two years. It’s the reaching out and giving back to the very young people who could have experienced the issues she writes about that proves the intersection…not imitation.

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For more information about Ellen Hopkins, her books, or to read some of the amazing dedications written by those who have been touched by what she has written, please visit her Young Adult web page.

For more information about Ventana Sierra, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization providing independent living, vocational training, and resources to allow disadvantaged youth to further their education toward career goals and become productive members of society…click here to visit their web site.

For more information about the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted (PEG) at Mary Baldwin College, feel free to contact peg@mbc.edu.

I am always eager to engage in new conversations. Feel free to leave a comment on any of my blog posts or pages or send me an email at sakfergusonphd@gmail.com. All the best!
~Stephanie

Doogie Howser in the Classroom

OK…I am really going to date myself with this blog post by admitting to one of my favorite shows – Doogie Howser, M.D. Starring a very young Neil Patrick Harris, this show ran for four seasons from 1989 through 1993. The main character, Doogie, graduated from Princeton at the age of 10 and from medical school at 14. He is the youngest licensed doctor in the country. The series storyline begins with Doogie at age 16 as a resident at Eastman Medical Center. Of course, the plot of the show is somewhat stereotypical, but there are some truths revealed in the show that cause those of us who (a) work with or know gifted students or (b) are gifted ourselves to smile knowingly upon watching certain episodes.

On October 4, 2013, The Chronicle of Higher Education published blog post titled, The Doogie Howser Problem, by Eliana Osborn. Naturally, I was curious given my affinity for the aforementioned television show! So, I gave it a read. In her post, Ms. Osborn shares how she had a 14-year-old student, who was dually enrolled in high school and her community college English course. She describes the student with adjectives like “smart, charming, interesting, and dream student.” Ms. Osborn even goes so far as to write, “She wanted to be there and did everything assigned.” Apparently, there was no problem at all with the student’s writing. The problem, according to Ms. Osborn, was that the 14-year-old student did not have enough “life experience”, and Ms. Osborn equated that lack of experience to a deficiency in critical thinking ability.

At this point in reading Ms. Osborn’s blog, I found myself having to roll my chair back from my desk so that I could take a deep breath and not do irreparable damage to my computer. I for one, working with 74 13- to 17-year-old early entrance college students, do not equate “life experience” with critical thinking skills. I know plenty of adults (my age and older with lots of life experience) who lack critical thinking skills! So, the idea that there is a magic age when critical thinking will develop in the classroom bothers me. The converse is also true, I have met many young students in my career who have had a wealth of life experiences (both positive and negative) packed into their relatively short lives. This, as my PEG students would say, appears to be age-ism at its finest…something Doogie Howser experienced frequently.

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If you would like to read Eliana Osborn’s blog post in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “The Doogie Howser Problem”. Click here for the full text.

The first season of Doogie Howser, M.D. is available for your viewing pleasure on Hulu.com. Enjoy! I know I did!

I am always eager to engage in new conversations. Feel free to leave a comment on any of my blog posts or pages or send me an e-mail at sakfergusonphd@gmail.com. All the best! ~Stephanie