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Indiana University Project Seeks To Unearth ‘Invisible’ Gifted Students

By Debra Viadero — December 09, 1992 7 min read

In the hills of southern Indiana, an area plagued by chronic unemployment, practical skills are much valued. Children learn early how to fish, raise farm animals, identify plants and flowers, and make their way through forests.

Growing up on her grandparents’ farm near Paoli, Ind., Lindsey Mosson was no different. She became adept at making things from scraps around the house and at pondering wilderness-survival skills.

But such talents do not serve as well in traditional classrooms. Although she liked to read and write, Lindsey scored unexceptionally on paper-and-pencil tests in school. And, for a time, it looked as though this quiet, bright 6th grader would be lost in the shuffle.

All that has changed, however. Through a three-year-old Indiana University study known as Project SPRING, Lindsey and dozens of other disadvantaged children from poor, rural areas are now being identified as “invisible’’ gifted children. They are getting new opportunities to nurture their intellectual potential and to hone their special skills.

And, as a result of the extra attention, teachers involved in the federally funded project say that Lindsey and many of these previously hidden, gifted children are beginning to blossom.

Lindsey, in fact, last month earned her school’s “Eagle’’ award, an honor given to students for academic achievement.

Hurt by ‘Urban Loading’

A central premise of Project SPRING--which stands for Special Populations Rural Information Network for the Gifted--is that traditional means of identifying gifted students, such as I.Q. tests and achievement tests, are biased in favor of middle-class children from urban areas.

“These rural kids could tell you a lot about different types of pigs and how much heat wood from different kinds of trees would put out,’' says Howard H. Spicker, the Indiana University education professor who directs the project. “But, when it comes to traditional, standardized tests, there’s a lot of urban loading.’'

Such “urban loading’'--for example, asking children to describe an escalator, which many rural children have never seen--costs rural students an average of 10 I.Q. points, Mr. Spicker says.

Poor students in this area are further hampered, he says, by the fact that they do not come from homes in which parents have purchased the latest educational toys, books, or magazines. They also have few opportunities to visit zoos or museums or other educational attractions.

In the classroom, Mr. Spicker says, these “invisible’’ gifted children also do not stand out, because they tend to be passive. Unused to being with others, as urban children are, they may speak very little or with a dialect. The content of their writing may be good, but their sentences may be ungrammatical and their words poorly spelled.

As a result, Mr. Spicker says, such children are underrepresented in traditional gifted programs. In the three rural Indiana schools Mr. Spicker studied, for example, between 20 percent and 40 percent of children come from families poor enough to qualify them for free or reduced-price lunches. But only 3 percent to 15 percent of the children enrolled in the schools’ gifted-and-talented programs were from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Talent Search

Through Project SPRING, Mr. Spicker and other Indiana University researchers began working with school officials and gifted-and-talented coordinators in three southern Indiana counties to find alternative means of unearthing hidden, gifted students.

They surveyed parents, classmates, arts and music teachers, Sunday-school teachers, and swimming and basketball coaches, among others. They collected writing samples from students, and sponsored contests in which students competed by undertaking a variety of hands-on projects that would demonstrate their creativity or problem-solving skills.

“Once they made a project, they could talk about it,’' says Martha Nice, the gifted-and-talented coordinator at Throop Elementary School in Paoli, where Lindsey Mosson is a student. “They could tell us what it was made of, whether it was logical, and whether it would last.’'

Lindsey’s talents became apparent through one such contest in 4th grade. Asked to describe how she would survive on a deserted island, she wrote a remarkably detailed, three-page composition in which she listed some of the items she would need for her stay on the island--four gallons of water, six gallons of milk, two life jackets, and rope--and described how she would use them. She also designed a new kind of flower for the contest.

Among some of the other children identified through the project were: a 5th grader who, his teacher says, knows more than anyone else about “what kind of firewood puts out the most heat’'; another boy, who, at age 4, assembled a wheelbarrow by himself; and a youngster who taught himself to play the piano at age 5. In all, Mr. Spicker says, more than 100 students were identified through the project.

New Learning Styles

Once talented students were found, educators had to decide how to meet their needs.

“It would do no good whatsoever to identify kids and put them in a program like we have now,’' Ms. Nice says. “We needed to do other things.’'

“We tried to retrain teachers for the kids we were able to target,’' she continues. “We said, ‘Here are some bright kids, but they’re not paper-and-pencil kids. They have different learning styles.’''

To accommodate these different styles, educators at Throop and the other elementary schools involved in the project worked with university researchers to devise a hands-on science project that would draw out the talents of the targeted students.

The 5th-grade classes at the schools, for example, adopted a nearby stream or pond and studied it from the perspective of one of 10 fields of scientific specialization. Experts from those fields were invited to speak to the classes, and students spent many hours wading through the streams, collecting samples, and taking measurements.

“When it came to doing hands-on,’' recalls Lindsey’s teacher at the time, Janice Apple, “Lindsey really excelled.’'

“She was always asking to do more, always volunteering to do more, and to work on the computer logs, to document changes with the tadpoles’ changing into frogs and the snails’ laying eggs,’' she says.

“It was amazing to watch certain students and how they just blossomed, and it tended to be the kids who don’t want to hand in assignments, who don’t always like to read,’' she adds.

In addition to the class, Lindsey and some of the students whose hidden talents were identified through Project SPRING have been attending two-week-long summer programs for gifted students at Indiana University. The project also provided the school with computers and modems to allow students and teachers to communicate with other schools in the network--a way of lessening the isolation that comes of their rural settings.

At Throop, there has not been much disagreement that the students identified through Project SPRING were indeed gifted. Throughout the three-year project, Mr. Spicker says, 80 percent of the students identified at all of the schools have remained in gifted programs.

Expanding to South and Southwest

Mr. Spicker says the same identification methods have also proved effective with disadvantaged, mostly white children from rural areas in New England, the Midwest, and the Northwest.

“What we don’t know about is the South and the Southwest, and some of the major ethnic groups in this country,’' he says.

To find out, the project has been awarded a $750,000 federal grant to expand the project and to continue tracking the students targeted in Indiana for three more years.

Beginning in January, the expanded project, known as SPRING II, will be launched at two other sites: one in rural New Mexico, where educators will work with researchers from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, and another in southern South Carolina, where the project will be conducted with Converse College in Spartanburg.

“In New Mexico, for example, what we will do is ask the tribal council what are the characteristics of their brightest kids,’' Mr. Spicker says. “They may say, ‘Oh, so-and-so knows all about folklore traditions or folk medicine'--whatever is valued in that community.’'

The project is funded by the U.S. Education Department’s Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Program, which sets aside about $6 million in grants a year to find new ways to identify gifted children from underrepresented populations.

“I think the field is pretty anxious to have methods for finding students from various populations that have some validity to them,’' says Patricia O’Connell Ross, who directs the federal program.

She says the Education Department this year plans to evaluate many of those projects for the first time.

“They could say maybe it’s the ‘halo effect,’'' she says. “Maybe just selecting the kids does something to their self-esteem.’'

Anecdotally, however, educators at Throop say they are reaping the benefits of their efforts. Schoolwide, science scores have risen on achievement tests--an improvement educators attribute to the science project they undertook. And the grades, if not the standardized-test scores, of students such as Lindsey have improved.

Lindsey’s grandmother, Norma Mosson, says the project has opened up educational vistas for her grandaughter that were not possible before.

“We try to do what we can to follow her schoolwork,’' she says, “but when you’re older it’s just hard to do.’'

A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 1992 edition of Education Week as Indiana University Project Seeks To Unearth ‘Invisible’ Gifted Students